We are getting close to launch….And can’t wait to start describing just exactly what our site will be/do. Until then, this hopefully gives a flavor of what it’s like to try to make everything happen…AT ONCE!? Niemanlab
Category Archives: world news
“Yes, these are the best of times…” With a dash of sheepishness and a tablespoon or two of self-satisfaction, NYU J-school prof Jay Rosen confirmed the recent skyrocketing status of American journalism education that I had just described to Irene Toporkoff, the French co-founder of our soon-to-be world news startup. We were in the Latin quarter after Rosen’s inaugural lecture of the academic year Thursday at Paris’ prestigious Science Po University… his invitation itself a confirmation from abroad of the realignment of the US media biz star system in the internet age.
Of course in France, the entire humanities academy is already firmly planted both on a pedestal and within the chatter of daily life (and the daily press) in a way that some US profs would only dream of. As for the specific case of the métier of journalism, universities have long been the accepted training ground and certification process for a healthy tranche of the profession, paving the way for the status of card-carrying members of Europe’s intellectual class.
In the US instead, where we don’t like the ‘i’ word, journo types have tended to revel in our hackdom, boasting of bar stools and pounded pavements and gumshoe labors. At our most highfalutin’, we’ll describe our work as a craft or justify the obsessive nature of the job as a calling. But the ideal still remains the smart and resourceful small-town kid who rises from news clerk to beat reporter to foreign correspondent and bigtime editor, without ever becoming too, er, fancy. In this context, journalism education (both undergrad majors and master’s programs) has long been viewed within the news industry as a bit silver-spoonish and generally superfluous.
I for one went to J-school in 1992-93, and it gave me some real practical training and the tools to think critically about the profession I was stepping into. But it was also true that I learned more about being a reporter in the first few weeks on the cops beat at the local paper where I started than I’d learned that whole year in my branded grad program (though such a contrast is probably applicable to many kinds of career training, no?) Still, the point is that I would never advertise my master’s degree to colleagues (or sources) over the years, and would find myself justifying the choice as just about “helping me get that first job…”
In addition to veteran reporters and editors who could teach me the ropes, I had professors with more academic backgrounds like Rosen’s, who some grizzled colleagues would hold up as the best proof that j-school was worth neither the time nor money. Rosen describes himself this way: “I’m not really a member of the press…I’m more an anthropologist of the press tribe.” But by the time he was featured in Paris last week, he — like the journalism academy as a whole — had conquered a standing well beyond just detached researcher-scholar. In the full throes of the digital information revolution, and resulting economic/existential crisis in the news business, the most valued resource is R&D. And with neither media companies nor the government inclined to lead the way on such innovation, the laboratories of academia not only allow for foresight about the changes underway, but can provide active, practicable solutions. J-schools are no longer just churning out journalists, they are reinventing journalism.
Still, for his much anticipated lecture Thursday, the new media guru chose not to offer API crash courses or theories on the semantic web. It was in some ways, very much a traditional American academic lecture, rooted in a historical narrative (and geographical context) and some of the latest thinking from his field of study, from the French Revolution to the Paris Peace treaty of 1919 to a post-Internet reading of the “mad as hell” scene in Network….which led to his urging the would-be young French journalists that “the way you imagine the users of journalism will determine how useful a journalist you are..”
Of course, both his history lessons and survival tips for the digital media jungle are also useful for we veterans, both in trying to move the big ship of MSM companies (where Rosen and other profs are now busy consulting), and providing intellectual oxygen to those of us creating new journalistic experiments of our own. For Irene and me, and our global news project, one of the most relevant thoughts he shared was at the beginning, as he noted that Thursday was also the beginning of the academic year back home at NYU journalism school…a reminder that: “the struggle for the next press is an international thing…” Oui!! When history is unfolding, hearing about the past can only help imagine the future. And when you’re flat in the middle of a revolution, it will always be the best and worst of times.
My pace in this space is slowing down. My first three months: 24 posts. The last three months:…errrr…. 5. I am not here now to apologize, nor blame Hurricane Earl, nor vow more regular entries from this day forward.
I knew starting out that I wasn’t a natural blogger, in the traditional sense of this modern pasttime-cum-profession. My initial burst of posts can probably be explained by an odd mix of self-consciousness (validation for my decision to open my own digital soap box) and lack of self-consciousness (an editor-less, free form space where I could choose both topic and tone). I was also in search of an outlet for the energy of the actual web project I was chronicling, and the need to start spreading the word.
But the output rate, which is still paltry compared to some, wasn’t bound to last. The truth is that I’ve always had my doubts about whether I was even a natural writer, tout court. Sure, the turns of phrase sometimes come pouring out, and in terms of both organization of thoughts and occasional moments of eloquence, I’m light years ahead in writing than in speaking. Uhh..? And what should be the plainest proof of all: I’ve managed to actually make a living by cobbling together sentences for major print publications. That makes me a writer. Right? But even as I made my way in this line of work, I was never driven by some primordial pangs to put it all down on paper, never filled separate notebooks with my musings, never kept a diary or wrote short stories in the midnights of my youth.
Ultimately though, my doubts about my scribbler proclivities were tamed by the understanding that a beat reporter is both more and less than a writer. More, as in more hours on the horn begging some police clerk or political flak to cough up some access or information…and Less, well, you get the idea. In both its higher and lower guises, hackdom calls upon the actual production of words as the final step in a multi-faceted, often rushed and unpredictable process. And as I thankfully learned sooner rather than later, the writing should always err on the side of utilitarian rather than Joycean.
This all comes up in the wake of a bunch of revelatory hemming and hawing by some smart online writer folk about twitter (microblogging) killing blogging with death by a thousand tweets. The takeaway line comes when Leo Laporte realizes that no one noticed that his buzz/twitter updates weren’t being posted. I was shouting into a vast echo chamber where no one could hear me because they were too busy shouting themselves. Without getting into the useless question about who qualifies as a writer, and who just a shouter: these are the folk that were indeed jotting stuff down (or shouting it out) in the 3 a.m.’s of their youth…and beyond. Folk like Laporte and Paul Carr and Dave Winer are lucky to have found an audience, and their sizing up the various platforms is just figuring out how to get heard…not, as it were, how to get writing.
But alas, this is not a digital (and sporadic) diary about writing…it’s about a guy who has made his living in the news business… trying to figure out how to continue making his living in the news business, as the walls appear to crumble all around. And more than ever I realize that this moment…and this project…are as much a way for me to pivot from reporter to editor. For the past few years, I’d realized how much I like working with other writers to improve their copy, and I’d become convinced that “why not me?” on story selection, packaging, et al. I’m sure there is much to learn, but I’d also seen one of my colleagues who I most identified with do it with aplomb and enjoying it to the hilt.
And if all goes well, my project would allow me to step across the threshold without having to jump into the scrum of an MSM middle management that must respond to an upper management forced to chase its proverbial tail and run for proverbial cover amidst those proverbial crumbling walls!?
None of this–nor even my proverbial cliches!?–means that my writing and reporting career is dust. I hope that stuff that I have written, and have yet to write, will one day see the light of day. But my focus is now elsewhere. And if you’re reading this, you may be in a similar position as I was one year ago: XX years of staff experience under your belt, facing a backward step to freelancer status, eyeing a new way in the new media jungle. There are lots of ideas, lots of energy, real opportunity, new ways to tell and deliver stories. Yes, you must be ready and able to do everything. You cannot avoid working hard on the business side of the equation. But on some basic level, the same reporter/editor dividing line still exists. Which side are you on? Do you ache to write? To be heard? Or are you driven now by something else? The answer to that question may help you discover the right tree to plant in the proverbial digital media jungle. (Clearly, my writing needs an editor more than ever….)
HERE is the 5th installment of my monthly posts for the Nieman Lab on the future of journalism. More on partnerships…
Hungry Hacks & Eager Entrepreneurs: The Art of Knocking on Doors and Other Mild Forms of Harrassment
Being a reporter is life training, if by ‘life’ we mean testing the extremes of clinical Attention Deficit Disorder (versatility!?… horizontal knowledge??), learning the art of the linguistic bluff (write it with authority, son!), and harassing perfect strangers (that’s called: source building).
While I was born with more than enough of those first two traits, I’ve had to work over the years at acquiring the third. I gaze with envy at my hack colleagues who find real joy in the around-the-clock hounding of those with power and knowledge and potential skeletons-in-closets.
No, I am not the steamroller, take-no-prisoners, just pick-up-the-damn-phone type. Still, I figured out early that the fruit of that perennial chase is the basic currency in which the news business trades. And if I wanted to participate/succeed in any meaningful way, I would have to take up the hunt.
Just how to go about it is more art than science, and depends on the nature of the hunter. I’ve always looked at it as the search for the sweet spot between insistence and politeness, patience and impatience, creative thinking and single-minded stubbornness. Oh, and luck too. When it works, it can net some timely scoops, and exclusives that make up for all the humiliating phone calls and ignored emails; and yet there are just as many occasions when the best intentions and foresight are useless if the stars line up against you.
Now, 20 years later, trying to get my news startup off the ground, I am benefited by the acquired skills at knocking on all the right doors with all the right techniques. Who is THE person I must talk to? How do I get to him or her? And since plan A often fizzles, how do you maintain the momentum of the pursuit over the course of the day or week…or even months…when no one seems to be taking your calls?
Now, rather than sources or some prized VIP interview, the targets of my attention are colleagues, media executives, all-around smart people, possible funders and potential business partners. Whereas agreeing to talk to a reporter working on a story has a rather obvious up side or down side, often the people I have tried to track down over the past year face both less risk and less payoff in taking time out of their busy schedule to hear me out.
It’s very clear, in other words, that it’s me who needs them more than they need me. Hopefully the moment will arrive that both investors and partners — and employees — will see how I can help them too!?
But at the start of the startup, after 10 months of knocking on doors (and 20 years as a reporter), here’s a quick list of what I will politely call my hounding techniques…
1. Try to get an introduction, or at least a name you can cite as a reference.
2. Try to find out (or guess, if you have to) if the best first contact should be by email or phone. These days it’s almost always email. (Note: Facebook/Twitter/Skype Chat/Etc are not good alternatives.)
3. If it’s email, your first follow-up should be email. If it’s phone, your first follow-up should also be email.
4. Edit down. Be brief in all correspondences.
5. If you haven’t heard back in a while, and you are just dying to follow-up, it’s probably worth it to wait two more days. But no more than that.
6. Be friendly with assistants, secretaries, spouses to increase likelihood that your messages are put on top of the pile.
7. Once they do respond, be utterly flexible about when and where to meet or call.
8. Follow up with a brief thank-you email that finishes with the ball continuing to move forward — though not a new favor to ask or appointment to fix.
9. Don’t be afraid to show you have just a touch of humor/irony (if you do. do you…???). Nevermind. Keep it straight.
10. Know when it’s time to quit/Never Quit. If someone is simply not responding after four or five inquiries (even if they initially seemed interested) let it go. For now. And never sign off with nastiness or burn bridges… for they may yet come around.
Remember that any help you get is gravy. Be grateful for everything. And then some day, it’ll be your turn to do the helping. In life…In news…In business…. Karma counts.
On Tuesday, the Nieman Lab at Hahvahd published the second installment of my monthly wrapup/update on the progress of the project, and the musings in this space. Have a look here. It’s taken my a couple of days to remember to post it here, in large part because I’ve been consumed in reporting on the Vatican, and the evolving sex abuse crisis in Europe. The Pope will also be on the cover in the Europe edition of the print magazine coming out Friday. whew.
I will be back soon in this space to recount my old life/new life-old media/new media balancing act, and update some of what appears in the Nieman piece. Wish me luck!