Quit screwing around; to regain trust, it’s time to change

Craig Newmark’s survey on the credibility of various news sources is simply the latest that shows the public doesn’t have much trust in mainstream media. Not much trust in any of the mainstreamers: newspapers, TV, radio or news websites. (Yep, news websites are mainstream now.)

The survey shows that only 22 percent of respondents say that newspapers are “very credible” in reporting on politics. And that’s the top rating. Cable and network news get 21 percent, and talk radio and Internet news sites each register 13 percent.

For years, traditional news organizations have marketed themselves as trustworthy. It’s time to acknowledge that most people aren’t buying it. That bond of trust may be irrevocably broken.

So, how about we try something different? What if mainstream media covered politics differently, focusing less on the horse race and more on the issues? What if television rambled on less about, say, the Catholic Church’s fight with the Obama administration over contraception insurance and delved deeper into health insurance, period? What if the time spent dissecting who made what gaffe after each GOP debate — and forcing viewers to listen to the candidate’s handler explain what he really meant — was actually spent talking about Romney’s time at Bain, Santorum’s voting record in the Senate or Paul’s record in the House?

What if the reporters actually had the freedom to call BS when candidates or campaigns parsed the truth? (Here’s an attempt.) What if they followed the Daily Show model in covering the hypocrisy of some political candidates and government policies (without the humor, presumably)? What if television actually gave more than a soundbite and didn’t let candidates off the hook? Watch the morning news programs and it’s either he-said, she-said journalism, or the reporter asks a question, the candidate doesn’t answer, and the reporter moves to another question that the candidate doesn’t answer. In the end, the viewer gets little sustenance.

One of the common assumptions is that the public doesn’t like the sausage-making process that hard-nosed reporting is. They think it’s intrusive and rude, and it often is. Good interviewing often makes people uncomfortable because the reporter is trying to pull the truth together and match facts with what’s being said. It does get ugly. But I think the general public wants to see reporters who are independent and boldly seeking to get answers to the questions the public has. (And that isn’t which GOP candidate is leading in the polls today or an embarrassing video of Romney singing “God Bless America.”)

It’s also transparent, and transparency builds trust. (Think it doesn’t? Think of how you feel when a news exec declines to talk about something going on at his shop? Or think about your reaction when you hear a news exec who has announced layoffs say, “it won’t impact our news coverage.”)

Case in point: Jay Rosen and NYU Studio 20 took a look at the questions posed to the GOP candidates at all of the 20 debates and asked if it reflected the “citizens agenda.” (113 questions were asked about campaign strategies and negative ads!) Rosen suggested that last night’s debate viewers pose their own questions on Twitter with the hashtag #unasked. As Jay tweeted afterward, “Number of questions tonight about science: zero. Technology: zero. Climate change: zero. Small business: zero.”

There is a reason that the trust bond is broken between the public and the news media. It’s us.

Plenty of hope for journalism grads

I was lucky. When I abandoned the idea of going to law school and instead went to work as a reporter at a 10,000-circulation newspaper for $100 a week, my parents didn’t say a word.

Everyone seems to think that journalism is a profession without hope, that jobs are few and far between and that the future is dark. A new study by Georgetown University puts the lie to that.

Students who graduate with a journalism degree make about $32,000 a year and face a 7.7% unemployment rate. The starting salary is higher than students with majors in biology, psychology, social work, anthropology, archeology and philosophy. It’s equal to the salary for history and chemistry. The unemployment for new journalism grads is about in the middle of the pack.

Not surprisingly, the major to have is business, computer science, nursing, economics and engineering. Of course, it helps if that’s what you love. I took my first job in journalism as a time-killer until the law school commitment deadline rolled around. When it came time to make that decision, it was easy. Printer’s ink was flowing through my veins. Never looked back.

That said I was an English major, where the starting salary is $32,000 but the unemployment rate is a sickening 9.2%.

As a footnote, photojournalist is listed as 9th as the most stressful job this year.


Welcome Wilt Browning to the Hall of Fame

I’m glad to read that former sports reporter, columnist, editor and author Wilt Browning is among the 2012 inductees into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.

Wilt was an already-established columnist by the time I got to the News & Record in 1985. And he was an ace. He won the state Sportswriter of the Year award in 1982 and 1985 — on his way to winning the award five times. He left the News & Record in 1996 after 18 years with the paper.

Amid all the sports and teams and superstars he covered, he knew where his bread was buttered — the reader. From his last column:

“I don’t even know how to tell somebody what I do except that when you and I sit down to do what we do, we want somebody out there to care. Don’t you get the feeling that that happens – maybe not as often as we’d like, but it happens? There is nothing as wonderful as picking up the ringing phone and on the other end of the line is a reader who cried when we cried, who laughed when we laughed, who got angry with us and sometimes because of us, who got the point we were trying to make about how unimportant winning and losing at sports really is. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“And when that last column is written, I hope I still have my fastball, and that out there somewhere, some other door is about to open for a lucky old sportswriter.”

That door opened and Wilt became the sports editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times. And he wrote books. (Before he came to the N&R, he worked for the Charlotte Observer and the Atlanta Constitution.)

He joins many other notable members of the sports press in the Hall of Fame. It is a well-deserved honor.

“Life is not an audition, and neither is our work”

In the comments of this post, Jay Rosen asked: A related factor is: what is the style of reporting you want to be doing if you are just passing through on your way to some place more cosmopolitan?  If you see your performance in Anytown, USA as an extended audition for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune or the Washington Post, then you will try to do Inquirer journalism in Greensboro. But maybe that’s not what Greensboro needs. In any case, you can see how this could lead to homogenization.

It interested me because I think it based on an outdated premise. Fifteen years ago, yes. Reporters — all journalists — who were ambitious and wanted to work at large papers set their sights high. But in the past five years, at least, most of the reporters leaving Greensboro — and I think the other medium-sized newspapers in North Carolina — are leaving the business entirely. You all know the reasons why.

One of them is that jobs at large papers have dried up. And in a real sense, it’s not safe to aspire to work at the largest papers in the country. The Chicago Tribune? The Philadelphia Inquirer? The L.A. Times? They’re all laying off people, or are taking dubious journalistic steps, or are struggling mightily. And if you do get on at one of the large papers, you’ve hung a big target on your back. Reporter FIFO.

Mid-size papers prize large J journalism and small j journalism. They want the same stories that the Washington Post wants, and the same ones that the community weekly wants. What they don’t want — or shouldn’t want, to be more precise — are the stories that everyone else is doing. In days gone by, reporters in Greensboro wanted to go on the presidential political campaign trail, wanted to go to Iraq during the war, wanted to go to the NCAA Final Four even if a local team wasn’t playing, and wanted to travel to Augusta during Masters week. We sent them, too. (Well, not to Iraq.) We sent them because it was fun to compete with the big dogs and it was a reward for the reporter. And no question, in some cases the reporters wanted to go because it made for good clips for their next career stop. I’m sure that some reporters who wanted to move to big-city papers did swing for the fences every time they came up when they should have been hitting singles, doubles and hit-and-runs.

But those were the old days when there were more reporters and more money. Did the readers care that a local reporter was in Augusta or Des Moines reporting a national story? Not that I’ve ever been told. But those were the days when we didn’t think we had to worry about “our” newspaper becoming “the” newspaper to readers. We were ignorant and prideful, no question.

But what do I know? I asked Jay’s question of a couple reporters at the News & Record who are top drawer, ambitious and certainly qualified to move to larger papers. Their answers are what you might expect them to say. But I know them well enough to know they aren’t blowing smoke.

From Mark Binker, who has covered the state capital for the News & Record for a long time:

So what Rosen is really asking is that if I, as someone who is entrusted with the job of covering state government and politics for the News & Record, would be doing something differently if my ultimate career ambition is to be at a bigger paper. 

The answer is no. The further answer is my editors should fire my ass posthaste if the answer were yes. Why would I want to be the kind of person (or employ the kind of person) who sacrifices the broader good for my personal goals?

I do the job I do because as far as I can figure it’s the right way to do it. Yeah, I do some goofy and lighthearted stuff. That’s my byline on a weather story in today’s paper….

But I also have been involved in helping to show the odd public official the way out of office. People in my readership, including some of those involved, learned about the state legislature redrawing county commissioner lines on the sly from my reporting. I’ve tracked down the governor to ask her what the heck she meant by “suspending elections.”

Further, who else other than my colleagues Joe (Killian) and Amanda (Lehmert) are watching the Guilford County and Greensboro City governments with a dogged an impartial eye? Are you telling me the work that Taft (Wireback) has done bird-dogging scandals and transportation issues isn’t of value to everyone in our community, not just those who happen to take the paper?

In short, our work here is an important and impactful as if it would be if I were doing it for a big city paper. In fact, the job of state house reporters in general and local newspapers like the N+R is all the more important because there are fewer of us doing it. Everybody is covering the presidential race and the machinations in Congress, but hardly anyone pays attention to the state political scene where decisions much closer to the quick are made.

So no, we do what we do because it’s important, because this is where we want to be, at least for the moment. Life is not an audition, and neither is our work.

Joe Killian, who covers county government:

I think a demonstrable ability to do really good news features may more marketable than really good beat reporting. To write a great news feature you have to get into the subjects’ lives, get things out of them they may never have said to other people (or anyone at all) and you have to be able to craft a good story with what you get.

Those are all things you have to be able to do as a beat reporter, too. But some of the work that it takes to be a good beat reporter – developing relationships with people who may never end up in your stories, but will still be invaluable to finding and getting your stories – is very hard to demonstrate to a potential employer through clips. If you’re a good beat reporter it should look like big stories – Mark Binker’s pieces about the ABC board, for instance, or my revelation that Guilford County paid $47,000 for a website that was never finished and getting the first interview with the guy they hired – just came out of nowhere and you were there to write them. No one sees – and it can be difficult to shine a light on – the hard work it takes to build a network of people who trust you and respect your work, and therefore will feed you information or have conversations with you in which they might not even knowthey’ve given you a killer story idea.

I asked Jeri Rowe what he thought about this, though. As a former beat reporter turned feature writer turned award winning columnist, he said he thinks demonstrating versatility is important. He said you need to have a grounding in beat reporting, demonstrate you can really write through good features and alsoshow them you can do multimedia/web journalism.

Couldn’t agree more with him on the multimedia thing — although as resources grow more slim most young reporters are probably going to have to do that on their own time and their own resources (including social media, which doesn’t cost their newsrooms anything).

Although he points out, and I agree, that going somewhere bigger isn’t necessarily the answer if your goal is to do stories about which you’re passionate and to make a difference in your community. That’s about finding the right fit, whatever the size of your publication or audience.

Personally, my advice to reporters looking to “move up” has been simple.

* Learn everything you can about digital. Make sure your digital footprint is large — blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. Show you have skills. Link out on your blog. Curate on Facebook. Be smart on Twitter.

* Write every type of story you can. No experience is a bad experience. Who knows what will catch another editor’s eye. I came to the News & Record to interview for a reporting job. It wasn’t until I got home that they called and offered an editing job.

* Attitude is vital. The HR people cringe when I said it, but my whole role in the interview process was to judge organizational fit. I wanted someone who could do every type of reporting and writing and would be happy doing it. I wanted someone who was a lifelong learner. And I wanted someone who was open-minded to try stuff, even if it didn’t make a lot of sense.

The no comment comment

Lines from three big stories in today’s News & Record:

A shopping center is considered: “The homeowners have either declined to comment or not returned calls seeking a response.”

The state Attorney General is sued. “A spokeswoman for Cooper said the Department of Justice was unaware of the lawsuit until asked about it by a reporter. She said Cooper had no comment.”

UNCG gets a new basketball coach. “Repeated attempts to reach Dement and  Miller were unsuccessful Tuesday night.”

When I was a reporter, no comments and no callbacks were frustrating. They prevented me from getting the best, fairest and most complete story. As an editor, I kind of liked them. They allowed me the opportunity to speculate — internally — on why the source didn’t want to answer questions.

Certainly, there are times when silence is golden. (See Sandusky.) But In many cases, the silence speaks volumes. Let’s look at each:

* Homeowners aren’t talking about the possible location of a shopping center on their property? I suspect the developer told them not to, that it could screw the deal, which it might. Or might not. The no-comment policy does ensure that reporters will continue to dog the story and the homeowners.

* I’m not surprised that Attorney General Cooper doesn’t want to comment on a lawsuit filed against him and the state. It’s early. Besides, lawyers never want to argue a case in the media except when they want to. If he was truly unaware of the suit, who can blame him? But if the AGs office hadn’t prepared for a lawsuit involved in this case, they’ve fallen down on the job.

* The UNCG story is the most interesting. A school announces a new basketball coach and he’s not available to the media? What’s up with that? Even though the school let Coach Dement go, it still had a strong message to trumpet — new coach, new direction, new energy, commitment to win, moving forward, etc. But they didn’t want to make that case yesterday.Obviously something is wrong. Why would UNCG want to leave that impression in the minds of students, alumni, donors and fans?

* Let’s add one more: The Greensboro Police Department’s explanation of how it handled the extradition of a man who is accused of killing a New York City police officer. The Greensboro police released a statement, which is great, but no one was available yesterday to speak with the media, and according to WFMY’s 6 p.m. report, GPD didn’t respond to interview requests today.

I suspect that most readers know what a no comment means, and readers are pretty smart. To a reporter, no comment means continued work on the story, that there is something there worth pursuing, and if the reporter can’t get it today, he’ll try to get it tomorrow. Or the next day. Rick Amme, a crisis manager and former TV news anchor, tweeted yesterday, “If a reporter’s on your heels it’s your goal to get your best reasonable information in the first story.”

I asked him why sources resisted that advice. His response: “I think they’re often frightened, defensive, talking to non-crisis attorneys, and in a kind of denial.”  He expands in this post.

For many stories, a no comment or no callback means that the story lives on for another day. How that is good for UNCG or the GPD or Roy Cooper is beyond me.