The Diary I Never Kept: Old School Reporter Becomes Online Editor (Blogger…? not so much)

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….)

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Nieman Lab post #5

HERE is the 5th installment of my monthly posts for the Nieman Lab on the future of journalism. More on partnerships…

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One Hack’s Response to ‘ProtoBlogger’ Dave Winer: The War is Over…And You Won (but we’re still here)

One of the things I love about Twitter is that it has finally connected me with some of the best blog posts out there…different topics, voices, lengths, frequencies. The atomized output of these one-man, one-woman information/expression machines are dropped into the stream alongside links to MSM articles, news flashes, op-ed pieces, and other, er, branded stuff…and of course the breakfast updates and bad jokes.

Within the confines of the magic 140 characters and hierarchylessness of the platform, there’s often no way of knowing which type of content source we will be routed to by that hyperlink. For various reasons, this is a good thing. But to start with, Twitter’s flat stream is simply an accurate expression of the times, that the passing flash of information is ever more its own marquee. Before I quickly get too far ahead of myself: let’s just say this is both the central point of this post…and an introduction to its subject.

Dave Winer is one of those digital names-in-light I’ve discovered via Twitter. He has a way of explaining our coming world of connectivity that is true to his visionary hacker origins…and written in the kind of stripped-away fashion that allows even us old world luddites to absorb (if not always full comprehend) it all. Indeed he may be most useful for those who get paid to communicate because of the form itself of his communication. He is both prolific and concise. He shares what is on his mind now with rounded thoughts that manage to seem both off-the-cuff and thoroughly reasoned. Typically circa 500 words, they are like prose screen grabs of whatever happens to be sizzling in his brain at the moment. For all that, and because he’s been doing it since 1997, the NYT tagged Winer the “protoblogger.”

As I already feel myself failing at the blogger’s need for both spontaneity and brevity (and the reporter’s vow to cozy up to no one)…let me just say Winer’s musings last week on why he doesn’t give interviews to reporters pissed me off in a major way. And that is the subject of this post.

Of course Winer has no obligation to speak to anyone, or give any professional category a free pass. He is free to share and even shout his opinions about what is broken in the ways the news has traditionally been gathered and spread. There’s plenty to say on these fronts. But this piece wasn’t really about that, was it? It was instead your basic roundhouse slap at those (and the numbers are indeed dwindling) who make a living reporting and writing traditional news stories.

From his experience, reporters are “almost always” misquoting, manipulating, unprepared wannabe Woodward-and-Bernsteins, as self-important as we are perpetually misinformed. This time that state-of-mind screen grab of his looked both filled with animus and rather intellectually lazy, with the air of score settling from some distant past. This is rebooting the  news in the sense of another Timberland to the groin. But this post is not about protecting/defending myself and my colleagues, and the work we’ve done in the past, but rather it’s about the future.

Of course when he writes of how having a blog liberated him from the need to spread his ideas/products through interviews, he is reminding us of a very basic shift in how access to the means of production of information is being forever transformed by the internet. But we already knew that. There has been a basic shift over the past few years even inside the deepest caverns of the MSM that, taken as a whole, this revolution will wind up a net win for the cause of democracy, economic development and creativity. And most of all, ain’t nothin’ gonna stop it…

So when Winer lumps “almost all” reporters into the same shit pile he is simply resuscitating what even a newbie to the digital space like me had considered a moot point, dusting off a dichotomy between bloggers and reporters –between blogging and journalism — that is yesterday’s news indeed.

Sure, large media companies — and even a few of my colleagues still holding on to their jobs — will do everything they can to sit on as much of playground kickball as they can. But all of us know that the game has changed forever. Or put another way: the real message to our esteemed Protoblogger is “Please come out from behind your screen: the war is over…and you won!” The sniping that continues — bloggers calling journos lazy shill=masters, journos taking cracks at bloggers’ for their pajamas and lack of gumshoe reporting — is usually just the by now rusty artillery to fight the same old personal feuds and battles that opinionated people have been and will always be fighting.

The real news that the Dave Weigel affair reminds us of is that smart young reporters who claw for access to the influential and ache for a wide audience, see blogs as the obvious fastest path to, eh, journalistic success.

The fight over terrain and resources is friendly fire, folks. We all seem to agree that being more informed, more accurate, faster, freer is the best formula for both better solo bloggers and newspaper staffers. The differences in the approaches and objectives of the different forms can only help to improve the work on one, and the other platform–and indeed, they are often the same person.

In general, we might say that the blogger benefits/suffers from the lack of a built-in structure looking over her, the journo benefits/suffers from having it. How can knowing that help them both? Instead, the real problem is that the brass upstairs is convinced by a wrongheaded conventional wisdom that calls for meat cleaver costs cuts…and more meat cleaver cost cuts…as the only short or long term solution for economic viability of whatever information is being produced. (And who can really blame them…until an alternative emerges?)

It’s telling that all the hemming and hawing from the fallout of Rolling Stone’s McChrystal article misses the fact that the article itself was the result of a major investment of time and money by the publication, and some damn good reporting by the reporter. And yes Mr. Winer, for all the breakdowns from McChrystal and his entourage, and debates about whether beat reporters shield their sources, producing that revealing an article required that Hastings ask lots of questions. (I don’t think McChrystal was sharing his thoughts on a blog…even if he had one, eh?) Is it the exception that proves the rule? Maybe. But how about some reflection on the exception to help improve the coverage by all.

Ok..if you are still with me, it is clear that I suck at this platform: too long, long-winded, meandering in my thoughts. And not quite opinionated enough. I needed to write it the minute after I read Winer’s original post last Tuesday. I was pissed off then, thinking about the good faith, if necessarily flawed, attempts I’d made over the years trying to figure something out on the fly by asking smarter, better informed people about it. Press interviews can take any number of forms, but they are also one of the fundamental tools out there to keep information flowing in a democracy. Even the face time (as we saw in McChrystal story) is often necessary, not Kabuki theater, as David Carr, a great reporter (who relies on sources all the time) chimed in on Twitter. Did he read the post?

But I waited, and my initial anger faded…even more so after I heard Winer talking about his post with Jay Rosen on Rebooting the News. On radio, Winer was less absolutist, less bitter, and I remembered as I listened that the written blog platform….and maybe my beloved Twitter too…have inherited from the news business a tendency toward sensationalism. “Some journalists” become “Almost all journalists…” Or maybe, he just needs an editor? Or maybe the point is the provocation? It is the right time, place, and platform to shake things up.

And indeed, the final revealing tidbit in all this is how, in the end, I wound up writing this post. I saw this Jay Rosen tweet last night, saying it was time to put a fork in the journos v bloggers debate, as referenced to a Joe Klein-Glenn Greenwald spat. (actually they are both both…). I responded with a dig at his “buddy” Winer. Two tweets later the protoblogger was encouraging this distracted hack to blog about it. That was last night. Maybe I ought to call him now….to ask out about the programming parameters necessary to keep my thoughts below 500 words/24 hours…or at least to drop this far-too-heavy hyperlink in his Twitter stream.

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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.

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My Nieman Lab Post: Why ‘CONTENT’ shouldn’t replace the J word

Here’s the June 3, 2010 piece from Nieman…

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Pardon the Disruption: What My News Startup Does NOT Aim To Disrupt

The go-for-the-jugular ambition of the good folk at Publish2 is inspiring. It is also a bit scary to see a 10-person startup try to take on/take DOWN the Associated Press… for what it says about how broken the news business is, how hard it will be to fix it and…what happens in the meantime. As a former AP correspondent in Rome, who stills follows the Vatican beat, I have watched my wire service colleagues’ outstanding work on the current Catholic priest sex abuse saga, breaking stories (here, here, here) in the past couple of months that bloggers or freelancers simply don’t have the resources or wherewithal to pull off in the kind of ongoing way as a crucial, far-flung story like this requires.

But none of that means that the AP is not vulnerable to assault. And if it vanishes, no one knows if/how Publish2 or anyone else will be able to substitute the work it does, and cover the ground it covers. For the second time in this space I refer to Clay Shirky’s ominous dictum about the prevalence of failure on both sides of the disruption divide in remaking the world of information/communication in our digital age.

But if the prospect of potential (or even likely) failure were ever to clip our ambitions, there would be no success worth achieving. So upward/onward for us all: hungry beat reporters and upstart news entrepreneurs alike. No one at Publish2 should scale back their goals, or somehow soften their direct, name-your-prey approach. Aiming high, and aiming straight is good for rallying the troops, making some waves, and of course, er…WORLD DOMINATION!

My question is about the fixation with the conception of disruption that often drives the New Media discussion. Though my sights are set pretty damn high as well…what I hope to create does not aim to actually disrupt any fundamental component of the news business. Indeed, it is conceived of as a boost to those currently hanging for dear life on around the world. This doesn’t mean that it’s not new, or innovative, or might even change the way people think about and consume foreign news. Moreover, if it works, some people might lose their jobs, and others might find new ones. It’s also worth confirming that both in my old and new lives, I have run into resistance from established forces of the news business, and so I know that there is indeed much that needs disruption…and in some cases, outright destruction.

But perhaps part of the what the news business needs now are ideas, mechanisms, products that help what has long existed better do its work and spread its product….and repair the bottom line. I am well aware that I say this, because this it what my product would do. But I also believe it is true– even a full year after having sipped the New Media Kool-aid. (DISCLAIMER/APOLOGY: I am still a couple of months from taking the details of my project public, and my decision to hold off on saying just what it is has slowed down this blog a bit, as a result. Despite the urgings of my astronaut soon-to-be brother-in-law “Go live, man. Go live!” I’m still holding off, lining up those ducks.  Soon…I promise!)

As we move toward what is coming, there will be some essential disruptions. There will also be stalling the inevitable, crutches and life support pulled out, sucking up resources. But there is also room for bridges, new networks for old players. This may be a failure of imagination on my part to grasp how much will change, but I am convinced that filters, brands, organizations…and yes, reporters and editors…are as important as ever in helping consumers of news get what they need.

I have a friend who is a successful airline industry consultant whose business booms when his clients are struggling. Indeed he once told me that a true, sustainable business model for air travel may not really exist. But that doesn’t stand in the way of lots of people and companies all along the food chain getting paid. In the meantime, the people get transported in a more or less sufficient manner.

Might we carry that analogy over to the news business? At least for the next 20-50 years!? Be just disruptive enough to make a decent living by continuing to do what we love doing. Spend as little time/energy navigating those burdened by salvaging what ought to be abandoned. And maybe have a small seat at the big table where the world of information is changing forever. This is my ambition.

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TIME Casualties, Newsweek Funerals & New Startup Biz Models. Revenue Before Branding

The dire straits of Newsweek is a grim, though hardly surprising, development. Neither as a longtime Time magazine guy nor current New Media wannabe dude does the prospect that this historic brand might vanish offer me any satisfaction whatsoever. Those dancing on graves reveal more about themselves than they do about either the deceased or the reasons for the demise. That a chunk of the old stuff is bound to fail/disappear is by now a given, and all the victory shouts and schadenfreude is just the shit talking of middle school playgrounds. Indeed as Clay Shirky has pointed out, failure is one basic fact that unites the MSM with the would-be new stuff.

So what do the current predicaments of Time and Newsweek tell me — downsized Time foreign staffer, current Time (and Time.com) contributor — about getting my startup up and started? It is clear that both these weekly print/digital brands and potential real-time vessels still carry weight with the general public. It is also clear that the management no longer sees the value in staffing the world like they once did. On good days, you can see that the Brand + the DNA of the institution + the network of collaborators can still turn out some pretty great and sellable stuff ….on bad days, they’re running on fumes.

There is a fine line where a quick dot.com piece  can start to look like a mediocre blog post, where a decent dot.com piece is “repackaged” for print, and doesn’t quite cut it. And then, with a mix of insight, pavement-pounding and a nose for the zeitgeist, a colleague can tell us who we are as a society — and it both sparkles as the print cover and finds weeks-long legs on the web.

But we are still left wondering what the future will ultimately be of a “respected global news brand” that is not committed to investing in the production of first-hand, on-the-ground reporting. These are innately national/international publications that don’t have the option like the LA Times or Chicago Tribune to retrench geographically and focus on local news for its local reader base.

Still, as always, we’re talkin’ about a revolution, and I have (by choice/necessity) thrown myself into it, unburdening my brain matter with trying to hold on to the past. It helps to imagine old brands in new ways. And in turn, imagine my own project in new ways, with new models, almost every day. Both Time and Newsweek could potentially evolve into content-distribution vessels, portals, brands that acquire their content from others. And I’m not talking just single freelancers, but companies in the business of offering a consistent, tailored stream of content to those who have the brand/audience that can sustain it.

Maybe there’s terrain to be exploited on the continuum between the Ny Times and Yahoo news? And without staffs, but WITH coming paywalls/iPads, etc, there will be a need for quality content. And that’s where lately I’ve begun to see the business model for the launch of my own project. That may be what globalpost may be pivoting toward, with a series of partnerships at least as impressive as its unique viewers growth.

The urgency to discover business models in itself will help drive the evolution of the way news is produced. That of course goes for Demand News consciously downgraded quantity-over-quality, but should also be the case for those of us who want to offer something better to readers. Frédéric Filloux, as always, boils it down nicely in his most recent Monday Note. A believer in new technology, an incisive (and entertaining) critic of the serial mistakes of legacy news, the former editor of the French daily Liberation still believes that “professionalism” matters…and has value.

Two conversations I have had in the past two weeks: one with another MSM dude breaking off and doing his own thing, the other with a European internet executive (hopefully I will have more to tell about her in coming weeks…) have convinced me that the business model must begin with what is generically called ‘B2B’, that is, selling our product directly to other businesses, in our case, other major brands or web portals. In France, they call it an agence, which is an all-encompassing term that includes the wires (AFP), but also smaller content providers. In the new digital world, it can mean many things.

If we do pursue this course, it would mean a shift of focus from mass branding to targeted selling. I have no preconception of what the business must look like: I just want it to work, survive, thrive…If content is King, selling it is the crown (the power), and brand is the castle. Nice to have all the elements, but maybe it is no longer necessary? And here in Europe, we know that some castles without kings are nice to look at, others simply disappear into history…

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