And the best internships are at….

As part of a project I’m working on, I have interviewed more than two dozen journalists in the past two weeks. It’s an invigorating, exciting experience, talking to so many smart, creative, passionate people who love what they — and I — do.

One of the most interesting threads coming out of those interviews is what the younger journalists says about their summer internships. I asked those who had multiple internships, which was the best. Their answers were counter-intuitive and consistent; the smallest news organization was the best.

Here’s why:

* Smaller organizations provide journalists wider opportunities to do different things. Smaller orgs need versatile general assignment reporters to plug into their operations. The interns help solve manpower shortages caused by summer vacations. And the interns loved the range of experiences.

* Interns cover “real” stories at smaller places. Some of those working at large organizations ended up compiling lists, rewriting news releases and, figuratively speaking, moving a pile of paper from the in-basket to the out-basket.

* Smaller organizations have less bureaucracy, so that there are fewer hoops to jump through to do something…anything, really. Turf battles are either lessen or easier to resolve. Often, editors welcome experiments from interns.

* Interns at smaller organizations got plenty of feedback from editors and friendship from the fulltime journalists. They felt as if they were treated as equals, which was both important.

The lesson for college students? Bigger isn’t always better. The New York Times or USA Today or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution may have more cache, but you could easily get a more valuable learning experience at the smaller places.

The lesson for media organizations? Interns are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside …. Oh, wait. That’s Whitney Houston. Pay attention to them and make their experience the best you can. It repays you.

Support for the N&O’s Dan Kane: Keep at it

I have admired Dan Kane’s work in the N&O on the UNC athletic-now-academic scandal for a while. It has shown the N&O’s typical aggressiveness, tenacity and fearlessness. Not surprisingly, others aren’t so kind. Or, rather, Julius Peppers’ agent, Carl Carey Jr., isn’t.

Steve Riley, Dan’s editor at the N&O, explains the background. Basically, it has to do with linking a negative site to Dan’s name when someone does a Google search. Classy. On the other hand, most journalists don’t mind being trashed by a news subject; it often means their reporting has hit home.

Steve: I’m Dan’s editor, and I can tell you that I’ve never seen a more dogged and determined reporter. But I’ve also not seen one any more dedicated to being fair and placing things in their proper context. He will keep reporting this story, regardless of the web site assembled in his honor.

Plain talk, redacted

One of the earliest and most fundamental lessons I learned in journalism was that no one outside of the newsroom gets prior approval or restraint of anything we published. Period.

A corollary was that sources didn’t get to approve or change their quotes. You might read quotes back to them to make sure that you got them right. You might read a section of your own writing to a source to make sure you characterized a technical issue clearly. But any changes made to a quote or a story were made by the writer not by the source. You never gave away that power or responsibility.

So what are we to make of this New York Times story that says the Times, the Washington Post, Bloomberg and Reuters have agreed to allow campaigns to approve the quotes of their aides before publication? I don’t know. Hell, I had to read the story twice because it was so hard for me to believe.

Oddly, the story doesn’t actually say why the news organizations agree to such restrictions. This is the closest reference: Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree.

Campaign strategists wouldn’t talk to the New York Times or the Washington Post? Do you really believe that? They wouldn’t talk to the two most powerful political media outlets in the nation? I don’t, but for fun, let’s play it out. If campaign stategists won’t talk to you, what that really means is that you will get beat on a story because the strategist will talk to your competition. And no news organization wants to get beat. (This, despite the fact that no one really ever remembers who had what scoop because news becomes a commodity in about two seconds these days.)

They could say what every editor I’ve known would have said: “Hell, no, we won’t give you prior approval over your quotes. We’re going to tape it. If you say it, it’s on the record. Be responsible for your words, don’t say something stupid and you’ve got no problem.” The source could say no interview and that’d be that. But if your competitor gives in, well, you lose the story.

Would we worry about that? Probably. Would that cause us to compromise a principle? No. We’d just try to get another story.

Most media organizations have ethics policies. I would love to see the wording on an item that explains when, why and which sources get the authority to review, approve or strike through their quotes before publication. Bet no self-respecting media organization would put that in writing.

Much of the public doesn’t trust what newspapers print. The public thinks reporters are biased. This is a step in the wrong direction.

Revisiting the View from Nowhere

Back in the day, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was known as the “most trusted man in America.” It was the highest praise a journalist could get because, at its core, the relationship between a journalist and his or her audience is nothing without trust.

A friend of mine in the TV news business told me the other day that the emphasis has shifted. Now it is more important for viewers to like the announcer than to trust him or her. That’s one reason that anchors in local news seem so darned friendly and nice. (Another reason is that they are friendly and nice.)

Aren’t the trust and likability two sides of the same coin? If you like someone, doesn’t that lead to trusting him? No. I like Bill Clinton but don’t trust him. I like Bill O’Reilly, but don’t trust him, either. When I was in college, I liked a lot of people who were entertaining and fun to be around. But I only trusted a few.

For most of the time I was editor of a newspaper, we emphasized trustworthiness. We asked questions about it on annual surveys. We created action plans to improve our trust ratings. It was a big deal. Being liked? Being liked wasn’t important. When you’re writing about topics that made some readers uncomfortable — same-sex marriage, to take a recent example — likability wasn’t in the cards. Did Woodward and Bernstein worry about being liked when the Republic was at stake? (Remember the look on Bernstein’s face in the movie “All the President’s Men” when Woodward told a source that he was a Republican?) Anyway, how can you worry about being liked when you take it as a creed to afflict the comfortable?

That’s one reason why I clung to the “View from Nowhere.” My thought, along with many traditionalists, was that if we’re straight down the middle, then readers couldn’t fault us for being unfair. (That didn’t work, of course. Many readers did accuse us of being biased.) It was easier, too, in many ways.

But if you believe that viewers — and presumably readers — prefer journalists they like, then perhaps it’s time to drop the View from Nowhere. Perhaps it’s time for the journalists to establish their authority in a different way. Letting people know where you stand may well make them like you and, eventually, trust you. From Jay Rosen, the NYU professor who champions challenging the journalistic View from Nowhere:  “If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.”

It is too late for me, dammit, to challenge the View from Nowhere in a newsroom. But it’s not too late for you to experiment with it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either.

Jay, again: “Let some in the press continue on with the mask of impartiality, which has advantages for cultivating sources and soothing advertisers. Let others experiment with transparency as the basis for trust. When you click on their by-line it takes you to a disclosure page where there is a bio, a kind of mission statement, and a creative attempt to say: here’s where I’m coming from (one example) along with campaign contributions, any affiliations or memberships, and–I’m just speculating now–a list of heroes and villains, or major influences, along with an archive of the work, plus anything else that might assist the user in placing this person on the user’s mattering map.”

Lex Alexander proposed this approach years ago, and I didn’t pay him much attention. (Sorry, Lex, for my short-sightedness.) But you can be smarter than I was. Besides, given the media’s low trust rating and newspapers’ declining circulation nunbers, what do you have to lose?

Am I making too much of a leap that crashing the View from Nowhere will improve likability and then lead to increased trust? I don’t think so. Try this experiment: Google “most trusted man in America.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.

If your filter bubble is like mine, Cronkite’s name comes up on five of the first 10 links. Jon Stewart, a funny, likable faux newsman, a guy who explodes the View from Nowhere, comes up with four.

And that’s the way it is.

Where the reporters have gone

When I left the News & Record last December, we had fewer reporters than anytime since at least the 1970s. Maybe earlier than that.

Madison Taylor, editor of the Times-News in Burlington, accurately describes what has happened to reporters in his post, “Where have the reporters gone.”

You could see it Tuesday at the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office when a press conference scheduled a day in advance to discuss new evidence in a cold case drew one print reporter — us. Only one TV station sent one of its reporters. The rest simply sent videographers who would supply B-roll for a quick voiceover taken from a press release. Not very long ago the Times-News would’ve been joined at such a press conference by the Greensboro News and Record the Durham Herald and possibly the Raleigh News and Observer. And every TV station would have a camera crew and a reporter. Might’ve even done a live satellite feed on site in Graham.

I, too, mourn the loss of reporters covering a community. Still, these days, the value of reporters from Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh covering a news conference in Burlington is dubious. As a Greensboro resident and News & Record reader, I don’t feel any loss not reading about that new evidence in my paper.

But I understand his point. The more reporters covering a community, the better. Yet, I must sadly note that, despite the decline in reporting strength, the collective news media has enough reporters to staff the Edwards trial as the jury deliberates. I don’t know how many reporters and photojournalists are twiddling their thumbs waiting. I am sure, though, that many of their readers and viewers would just as soon see their talents used in some other enterprising way.

(Photo credit: Charlotte Huffman, NBC-17)

 

Bidding Don Patterson adieu

TV promotes itself and its people so much better than newspapers. You can watch WFMY anchor Frank Mickens sing the National Anthem. You can help celebrate WGHP reporter Chad Tucker’s marriage. News? Not on your life, but TV is about personality as much as it is about news, and they know how to sell personality.

So, I’ll take a moment to recognize Donald W. Patterson, who has been a reporter for the News & Record since, like, the Civil War. Don announced his iimpending retirement yesterday. I’m guessing 7,000 is a conservative estimate of the number of times his byline has appeared in the paper, usually on the front page, including this morning.

As soon as I heard the news yesterday, I posted it on Facebook. So far, it has been “liked” by 37 people, near and far. (Sorry, Jeff, if I was the one who spoiled your announcement later, but you should know that newspaper news travels fast in Greensboro.)

Don is a good man. Oh, we would fight over the length of his stories and how long it took him to write them. I once banned him from writing history pieces and stories about gas prices, which lasted about two months. He would lecture me on journalism and I’d lecture him back. For the 27 years I was at the paper, he had one cardinal request: Let reporters work on the very best stories and put them in the paper. It was something I tried to do, although I never acknowledged to Don.

In my mind, he rivals Jim Schlosser among the longtime N&R reporters who had a true impact on the paper and the community. He has a style and personality that is recognizable in the paper and in the newsroom. When he leaves on July 3, he’ll be happy and the readers will miss him.

My guess is that Jeri Rowe will write a column about him. Maybe Jeff will, too. His departure is one in which the readers should be allowed to celebrate and say goodbye.

Greensboro and the national media

To me, it’s unseemly when journalists complain to the public about how they’re being mistreated. The public — many of whom have much tougher jobs — has little sympathy for reporters. And, of course, people have even less sympathy for reporters who think they should get more special treatment that members of the public.

Case in point from Politico at the John Edwards trial: If reporters were expecting Greensboro’s federal court to roll out the welcome mat and perhaps even offer a little Southern hospitality, they came away disappointed Monday. Save for some safety measures taken outside around the TV trucks and the entrance, there appeared to have been no arrangements at all made for the media covering the high-profile case.

They had no assurance they’d get a seat in the courtroom. They couldn’t trade places with someone in line. They couldn’t have people “hold” their place in line so they could go to the bathroom. And the jurors got better treatment than they did!

At the end of his story in the News & Record, Robert Lopez tells of two national reporters who had trouble with the rules in the Greensboro courtroom.

During the morning session (Judge Catherine) Eagles said a reporter had tried to come in wearing “a wire” (cameras and transmitting devices are prohibited). ABC’s Bob Woodruff  stood and said it was him but that he didn’t know it was there.

OK. At least, I hope the visiting journalists are enjoying Elm Streets bars and restaurants.

How reporters and sources talk to each other

Journalists tend to know how to curse. So do cops. When the two come together as reporter and source, profanity can ensue. Are male-to-male conversations different from female-to-male? This is from Joe Killian’s Facebook page. He is a reporter at the News & Record, and I reprint this with his permission:

“So I was talking to a city cop the other day while on a story. First time I’ve met the guy. We’re talking on background or off the record about what cops think of a certain area of the city. Our conversation meanders on to places to eat in the city. I mention my wife and I live near this little taqueria we haven’t gotten to try yet. ‘Oh, I know the place you’re talking about,’ he says. ‘It’s so g……ood it’ll make your dick hard.’

“When I told my wife this story later she was appalled. ‘What is it about you that makes people think they can say things like that to you?’ she asked.

“But here’s the thing: male cops talk to male reporters like that all the time. There’s this strange male thing where the casual use of profanity or sexual talk is used as a signal that we like each other, that we’re not going to be too formal, that we’re comfortable. And it’s not just cops — it’s happened to me with lawyers, politicians, political operatives, even people in education when I covered that.

“But it occurs to me that female reporters don’t often experience this — and probably wouldn’t want to. Does that mean male sources can’t find a way to express the same thing to female reporters? Of course not. It does probably mean there are things like this on which I’m missing out with female sources and about which I know nothing, though.”

Several people weigh in with comments. Joe continues:

“When you’re reporting professionally day in and day out, there’s this strange little dance you do with sources. You want them to trust you, you want to develop relationships with them. Mostly, you do that by earning their trust and impressing them with your writing and reporting. But you also decide, on a case by case basis, just how familiar you’re going to be with each of them.

“I’ve found that in that professional atmosphere, where it’s understood I’m doing my job and they’re doing theirs, men are far more likely to go outside the bounds of conventionally understood good taste in conversation with me in order to subtly (or not so subtly) communicate to me that we’re close enough for them to talk that way in front of me and they aren’t afraid I’m going to be offended or I’m going to put it in the paper.”

“I very rarely have women do this to me, for some reason. Not that it’s never happened — a prominent female politician I was covering at the time once told me a dirty joke that literally struck me dumb for a moment. But it’s the exception. I think this is because, for some reason, there’s a tendency among men to talk to one another this way to form some sort of bond or as a sort of shibboleth between one another.

“The idea is expressed crudely (because it’s broad, not just because it’s crude) in this clip from Clint Eastwood’s ‘Gran Torino.’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXD8yOxIPB0 ‘You see, kid — that’s how guys talk to each other.’ Which isn’t true — not anymore, anyway. But — perhaps because there might be consequences for it in a professional context — I’d have a hard time imagining that cop or any other source saying something similar to (my wife) in a similar chat. I guess she had a hard time imagining it, too.”

Then two women comment, one a reporter, one not. First, the reporter.

“I’m most successful talking to male cops by acting cutely unaware. Something really changes when a female reporter gets aggressive when gathering information. But strange things happen when female reporters and male law enforcement officers have a longstanding relationship. At one of my jobs, I became close to the county sheriff. He had a daughter about my age, and he occasionally gave me advice that a father might give his child. He knew I didn’t get along with my editor, and I knew everyone else liked him because he never made waves. During a conversation one day, I wished aloud that the paper had different leadership. ‘Him? Ah, he’s a pussy,’ the sheriff said. ‘He doesn’t have the balls to say anything that might piss anyone off and he if he thinks he has offended someone, he’ll shit his in his pink panties.'”

And now the civilian:

“I think the reason a male source wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) say that exact phrase to a female reporter is because it’s a gendered sexual reference. Lots of ‘male bonding’ talk is gendered and sexualized that way – it’s a way of, as you say, acknowledging that they’re comfortable and saying, ‘We’re just a couple of guys on equal footing here.’ And I won’t say it’s wrong, but it does emphasize gender divisions in society and the way we accept that ‘This is how men talk to each other, that’s how women talk to each other.’

 

A different kind of sports reporting at the News & Record

The past few years, when it was time to create the budget for the news department at the paper, I would slash expenses with all the surgical precision of Freddy Krueger. (At least that’s the way it felt.) Sending reporters and photographers with UNC and Duke through the NCAA tournament? Whack!. (It never occurred to me that N.C. State would make it. My bad.)

My thinking was that scores of journalists are there, all reporting basically the same story. Why add a few more to the mix? The paper subscribes to wire services that are sending dispatches from the games. Besides, perhaps staying away from the madding crowd might inspire our reporters to write something different.

It wasn’t a popular choice among the staff.

So, I was surprised and delighted when I read the story by Jeff Mills of the UNC-Ohio game in Saturday’s paper. The only way I knew he wasn’t sitting courtside was that the story didn’t have a dateline. I had watched the game on television and listened to the post-game interviews on the radio, as, apparently, had he. Unlike me, he had taken his experience of covering ACC basketball this season and written an on-the-mark expert analysis of why Carolina won, complete with player and coach quotes.

It was, as sports editor Eddie Wooten later told me, as if Jeff were the News & Record’s version of Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis sitting back in the studio commenting on the game. We had always assumed that 99 percent of the readers who cared about a basketball game watched the game on television. The value of the reporter wasn’t recapping the game itself, it was in using their knowledge of the players and coaches to tell people why and how a team won or lost. Jeff did that from 750 miles away. I asked Eddie to elaborate.

We like to offer readers analysis of the big ACC games. What is the big takeaway from this game? The only way to get that out of the NCAA regionals, without being there ourselves, was for our writers to produce that content from home. We could have printed stories from the wire services, but those stories are more often game rehash with a few quotes.

Yes, we miss things when we’re not there. We miss things the camera won’t pick up during a live broadcast: Discussion between coach and player, or official and coach, or among players. It’s hard to get the feel for the game from the den. We have access to quotes from locker room, but we don’t see the body language or sense the emotion.

So it’s not perfect. But just as a suit in a studio can deliver analysis on a game played far away, so can we. And at this point in the season, our writers know our teams better than the writers assigned to cover NCAA tournament games.

It was a smart and creative use of Jeff’s skills.

 

Your tax dollars at work

Mark Binker, capital reporter for the News & Record, tells of a visit to his home by the FBI.

She explained that she was doing outreach, particularly in advance of the big national convention coming here.

She said I should feel free to let her know about anything that concerned me.

I asked what sort of thing would concern me that I would call her about.

“That would be your determination, not mine,” she said.

Mark is a conscientious, law-abiding citizen. He’s also a journalist, which means he’s an independent-minded cuss. My guess is that the FBI will learn what Mark knows when they read it on his blog or in the paper.

P.S. I am one of the friends Mark consulted on the normalcy of an FBI visit.