Twitter chat on Storify

I had the honor of participating in a Twitter chat with some of the big names in newspaper journalism — Melanie Sill, Howard Weaver, Mike Fancher and Glenn Proctor. Well, actually, they were big names. We’ve all moved on to other things. Thus, the topic of the chat: Ex-editors on what they would do differently.

It was more fun than listening to an editor scream “Gimme the damn story!” at you when you’re 5 minutes past deadline. And now, it’s been Storified.

Sadly, my best line was one fed to me by GenlGreensboro that newspapers need more cowbell.

Seriously, the conversation was enlightening. I hope the journalists reading this will read the Storify link.

Newspaper stories that waste time and energy

Updated below

When I was a young editor, I used to roll my eyes at the older editor who restricted us to one photograph in October of pumpkins and who would promote stories about medical conditions affecting older people (like him), such as dementia and prostate cancer.

Naturally, when I became the older editor, I had my own quirky pet peeves. I don’t care for weather stories. Unless it is a heavy snow storm that keeps people in their homes or temperatures above 105 and people are dying, it is just weather. People know it. Besides, local TV, with their weather reports every few minutes, own weather anyway. Why waste staff time and space writing about it?

Another is marking the increase or decrease of gas prices with a story. If you drive, you know, generally, what the price of gas is. It’s gone up a nickel per gallon in the past seven days. OK. I got that when I gassed up yesterday. Use that staff time to tell me something useful..

A third are stories about the fluctuations in the stock market. Goes up 100 points or down 100 points, investors who care about that information on a day-to-day basis know it already. And while I’m wandering down this dark and ugly path, the release of the monthly unemployment figures don’t do much for me, either. Changes of .2 percent don’t help me understand what’s happening in the local economy.

Oh, we wrote those stories, partly out of habit, partly out of lack of imagination and partly to fill the paper. But I never kidded myself that they were of great use to the reader. It took me awhile to understand that that type of news had become a commodity — that the Weather Channel, gasbuddy.com, any of a zillion stock websites and cable channels could deliver specific bits of information people want better than the local newspaper.

It wasn’t a leap to understand that we could use our staff better telling people things they don’t know about.

What other stories are printed in papers or aired on television that aren’t immediately helpful to you?

(Hat tip to Teresa Prout and Ben Villarreal for reminding me of my often irritating news judgment.)

Update: Some good contributions from friends:

Angie Muhs — Most anniversary stories

Guy Lucas — Quarterly earnings stories

Luis Perez — Stories rating “the most stolen cars”

And I’ll add two more: Holiday shopping stories and holiday traffic stories.

 

Knowing your elected official

A reporter friend writes: Nothing like waking up to an email sent at 2 a.m. from an elected official who is so angry about my reporting of a fact that he states at least five times in an email sent from his government email address that he isn’t talking to me anymore and then includes quite a few adjectives to describe me.

Every news reporter worth a damn has gotten an email or a phone call or, sometimes, a face-to-face dressing anger-filled dressing down from a government official. Sometimes they are laced with profanity. I got them as a reporter and as an editor. When you write about issues they don’t want you to write about or fashion the issues in a way that bothers them, then you’re open.

Most journalists think it’s part of the job, listen, respond and then forget about it (assuming they didn’t make any mistakes). I know that’s what I did.

But what if you reported on the outburst? What if you let the taxpayers know a facet of the official’s personality that they probably rarely see? Or, posing the question more like an independent journalist, why wouldn’t you? Ah, the transparency of it all.

It’s hard to say the conversation is private, unless the official requested an off-the-record conversation, which isn’t usually the case. Besides, coming from a government email address, it’s a public record. Would reporting it ruin the person as a source? Maybe, but, really, who cares, especially if he’s promised not to talk to you again. Does it make the reporter appear as if he or she is at the center of the news, rather than an outside looking in? Perhaps, but again, so what? It’s about him, not you.

As everyone discusses and dissects the issue of whether a journalist should be a truth vigilante, I say publish the email in paper, online or on the air. Maybe the crowd at a South Carolina debate will applaud the public official, but again, so what? It reveals the character of someone elected to represent the people. They deserve to know.

Update: Shannan Bowen, reporter with the Wilmington Star-News, decided to write about it. She includes the email the official sent, complete with misspellings, grammatical convolutions, straight-out denials of information clearly in the public record and angry attacks.

Well done, Shannan and Star-News.

Get it first, but get it right

A few days ago, I declared the exclusive dead. It wasn’t a long post, but it was long enough. Now, in the wake of the at-the-time-false-declaration-that-Joe-Paterno-is-dead-story, I wish I had simply written this:

Is it just me, or does being first really only seem to matter when the story is wrong?
Fortunately, Bob Dalton did.
(Hat tip to Dan Conover.)

Sunday sampler

When I look at newspaper front pages, I’m seeking a surprise — something that tells me something I don’t know and that I want to know. So stories about the S.C. primary results, which I knew at dinnertime last night and which ran non-stop on news channels all night, aren’t going to catch my attention. (Stories about it dominate many of the state’s front pages.)

But these did:

From the News & Observer: A state prison doctor gets $201,000 a year treating patients, and then double dips with another state job, getting $50,000 more. And the reader is pretty much left with the idea that he can’t possibly do both jobs. He declines to comment and his boss at the state doesn’t address the issue. Your government at work. Sweet.

From the Statesville Record & Landmark: A piece about an Iredell County commissioner who would have been on the wrecked cruise ship off Italy except for a county commissioners meeting. He’d have been on the size that’s now underwater, too.

From the News & Record: A hero story about a guy who went to the aid of some people in a traffic accident and ended up getting hurt himself. The writing of the tale is as compelling as the act itself.

From the Burlington Times-News:  The paper updates the status of 637 registered voters who may or may not be citizens. Along the way, it gives some insight into how the investigation took place and whether voter fraud is truly a serious issue worth pursuing.

Learning from obituaries

Ann McIver passed away on Tuesday. Her obituary takes up nearly a column in today’s News & Record.

Bettye McKee died on Monday. Her obituary is almost as long.

I’ve lived in Greensboro for 27 years, and I have never heard of either woman. That troubles me because the paper — for many years under my watch — should have written about them. Perhaps it did write in the years before I moved to Greensboro in 1985. I hope so. McIver was president of the Junior League and was active in helping the city understand the importance of the civil rights movement. McKee was a teacher, most recently at Allen Jay Middle.

Still, it is not just these two women or just today. Almost every day the News & Record — and presumably every newspaper — has obituaries of people that their families think enough of to spend the money to write inches and inches of tribute. They are people who made a mark on the world and this community in their own special way. They have stories. They should be in the paper before their obituaries.

Many newspapers are realizing the importance of more intensely local content. But with staffs being cut, there are fewer opportunities to get the stories of interesting people before the eyes of readers. It is an opportunity that I wish I had seized when I had the power to make it happen. It’s still an opportunity for papers.

Does the newspaper drive web traffic?

Go Triad, the News & Record’s weekly entertainment magazine, has a cover story today titled “Top Tweets: Four Triad tweeters you should follow.” I wondered whether the four got a bump in followers as a result of the story.

They did, but it was nothing to write home about. The report from the four:

Jermaine Exum, manager of Acme Comics and who tweets mostly about comics, had seven new followers by noon. Eight is usual in a week. He said retweets drive new followers. One of his tweets today was RT’d by the Henson Company. He then got 10 new followers in 10 minutes.

Danielle Hatfield, a PR and social media expert, got 17 new followers by dinnertime. She averages five to eight new followers per day. “I think as more people read online & share – awareness could last weeks.”

Nikki Miller-Ka, who tweets about food, had 15 new followers, when she normally has just 2 or 3 a week.

Kit Rodenbough, owner of a shop downtown, only had 3, but at about 1 p.m., she noted that “the day is young.”

Here are possible interpretations those results:

1. The readers of the newspaper who are on Twitter already subscribe to those four. Unlikely.

2. Newspaper readers aren’t big Twitterers. Probably.

3. Their issues — comics, food, social media — aren’t so broad that “everyone” wants to sign up. Oprah and Ashton Kucher they aren’t, and I mean that as a positive.

4. People don’t follow the bread crumbs that newspaper stories leave leading to online sites. Most likely.

When I was at the paper, we never saw conclusive evidence that newspaper readers followed online promos from the paper. At least, directly. We often saw conclusive evidence that they did NOT. Don’t be surprised. Think about the number of online denizens who pick up a newspaper to read an article that they can’t get online.

In no way does that suggest that the story was a waste. If papers made editorial decisions based on how many people would act on it, they would hardly cover primary elections. I advocate journalism that exposes readers to something new. Readers don’t need to follow the link to learn about what 100 million people are members of.

Danielle says the viral nature of the web will come into play over the next several days. “Most who use twitter will read the article online and share web article over the next few days or so vs. purchasing paper.”

I think she’s right, but even if she’s not, the story introduced readers to four interesting people doing interesting things. Not bad.

*** Full disclosure: I know Danielle and Nikki personally. Nikki reported to me at the paper for a time. I also follow the article’s writer, Jennifer Bringle,on Twitter.

Friday update: It appears that scientific research bears Danielle out. The bottom line is simple: articles that many people tweeted about were 11 times more likely to be highly cited than those who few people tweeted about. Its implications are even more interesting. It generally takes months and years for papers to be cited by other scientific publications. Thus, on the day an article comes out, it would seem to be difficult to tell whether it will have a real impact on a given field.

Exclusive! Exclusives are dead!

What do you say we put the term “exclusive” in a coffin and nail it shut? It is dead. You just don’t know it. And the corpse is starting to smell.

First, I thought TV news programs were the main offender, but print and digital sites do it, too. Want an exclusive interview with Mitt Romney? ABC has one. So does Fox. As does KWQC. And the Wall Street Journal. He doesn’t say anything revealing or earth-shattering in these interviews, but he’s looking at your camera and your camera alone so it must be important. Exclusive!

That sound you hear are viewers and readers yawning.

When I was an editor of a newspaper, for a brief period, we announced our exclusives with a logo reading “Exclusive.” Clever, huh? We stopped after a few months when we realized that readers weren’t impressed.

Enough already. Here are three reasons that you should stop with the exclusive marketing.

1. An exclusive lasts about the length of time it takes someone to write 140 characters or fewer on on Twitter. Or an aggregator to sweep up the story on its own site. Or a wire service to pick it up, rewrite it and not give you any credit. After about 5 minutes of your wonderful exclusive, it’s gone. The exceptions are those stories that are truly memorable and make a difference. The News & Observer’s investigation into the SBI, for instance. It’s not tomorrow morning’s exclusive interview with Joran Van der Sloot’s prosecutor.

2. Announcing exclusives is just a gimmick, and a worn-out gimmick at that. People hear it so often that “in an exclusive interview” are just words that wash over you. People don’t remember who had what exclusive on which story anyway. Do a Google search of “Casey Anthony” exclusive. The first 10 results include ABC, Fox, TMZ, Hollywood Reporter, Nancy Grace, National Enquirer and Huffington Post. (Two are from the Daily Buzz and Funny or Die, which are video spoofs. Appropriate, huh?) Locally, TV stations are currently battling exclusives over the firing of four police officers in Candor, a town of less than 1,000 people 60 miles away from Greensboro. I would question whether the bulk of the audience is that interested in the story to be pushing the exclusive label, but that’s just me.

3. You look foolish. When you boast of an exclusive you know what it tells people? Everything else you have is commodity stuff I can get anywhere. And why would you want to tell me that? It hurts your credibility and devalues all media. We can’t afford it. Especially because much of your other stuff isn’t commodity. I worked in the newspaper business long enough to know that a lot of the stories in papers and on television are exclusives. They just aren’t sensational enough to SHOUT ABOUT THEM!

OK. I’ve said my peace. I don’t expect the Today Show not to have an exclusive tomorrow with one of the Kardashians on those pesky paternity rumors or Good Morning America to have Jay Z on to talk about the baby and the complaints about the hospital. But it would be nice not to hear about it.

Putting public interest second

Yesterday, I was puzzled that more newspapers didn’t see the late-night early morning session of the General Assembly as front-page news. (I know it happened past most deadlines, but the AP had a story available.)

More newspapers got on board this morning, thanks to strong statements by the governor and NCAE yesterday. Stories about the furtive session made the front pages of Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston, Fayetteville, Burlington, Asheville, Salisbury and Greenville, among others. Editorials in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and Wilmington condemned the action.

Good politics and good government are not contradictory. You just need legislators who put the public interest first.

 

The true meaning of Santa

Do you know that Santa is not real?

Of course, you do. No, not the spirit, but the actual person. Everyone over the age of about 8 knows.

But a pox upon your house if your newspaper or TV station suggests it, even inadvertently. And it seems to make its way into the paper, at least, somewhere every year.

Last year, the News & Record published stories from readers about their favorite memories of Christmas. Several of them alluded to finding out that Santa didn’t exist or that parents actually brought the gifts. We printed them but not without serious discussion. Tell readers at Christmas time that Santa may not be real? Are you nuts?

I received letters from people who didn’t believe in that sort of truth telling, that some beliefs shouldn’t be shattered by the grinch at the newspaper. I agreed with them. Some myths are sacred, particularly the ones that everyone knows is a myth that gives children joy. Why, papers print horoscopes every day and you know they’re bunk, right?

I did appreciate the readers who said they had to hide the newspaper less their 7-year-old read that story and discovered Santa’s true existence. I always said, “Yourchild reads the paper? Thank you, thank you, thank you!”