Monday, September 25, 2006

Changes in Online Journalism: Big Media Can Learn from a Student Effort

A webzine developed by a journalism class at Arizona State University (ASU), with its fantastic splattering of issues pertinent to college life, hardly seems to have any direct correlation to a blog written about business journalism topics. While the dialogue between the practice of business journalism and changes to the news industry is a very topical discussion, it would seem that facilitating a similar conversation between business news and college undergraduates is nearly impossible. Those under that assumption would find it untrue after a visit to The Devil’s Tale, the fall 2005 version of the online Cronkite Zine. The webzine serves as an intriguing example of the direction journalism may be heading in terms of accessibility to readers. The online environment, news organizations have already witnessed, is becoming the public's preferred portal to receive news. Since readers of business journalism typically tend to demand their news more quickly than readers of other topics, they are even more likely to seek information from the internet. Business news organizations can look to The Devil’s Tale as a prototype of online journalism's future: the transition of a generalized scope in news to a finely-focused production catering to a small niche group. The webzine, operating without an enslaving profit motivation, has the ability to freely segment news seekers in providing stories topical only to ASU students. Though business news organizations will likely want to widen their target audience, the site provides a pliable model for personalizing the news.

Online versions of newspapers, including those specific to the financial community, closely resemble their paper counterparts. Their layout functions much like conventional publications, with news links divided in a fashion that corresponds to formalized newspaper sections. According to the Web Style Guide – an online tool, similar to a style guide in the traditional book form, that suggests design and style guidelines for websites – leading “news sites have largely adapted the existing design genres of print newspapers and magazines to the smaller format of the Web.” Indeed, most online news sites have not strayed from the paper news’ formula. Citing The New York Times’ website as an example, the style guide observes that the online designs are “well-established print precedents.”

The Devil’s Tale does not suffer from this unfortunate lack of java creativity. Its staff has met the challenge of reinterpreting news form to better fit the context of the online realm. The staff's efforts to bring the publication to online readers have been met with such success that the site was a nominee in the student category of the 2006 Webby Awards. In fact, the site has completely reorganized the entire structure of its news links, evoking categories more over-arching than the historic news section titles that other online news sites have adopted. The Web Style Guide directs site developers to “arrange the content to best meet [the] audience’s needs.” Arranging its website according to “issues,” “people," "photos," and so on, the site is successful in its presentation of a sampler of topics that focus on terms more accessible to students than the usual journalism constructs of "local," "state," "world," or "politics." This theme of accessibility continues with the hyper textual links that display a picture and an enticing “teaser” lead upon scrolling over each article headline. Students would certainly be drawn to read an article whose teaser proclaims the nail technicians around their campus talk about clients while performing services. Teasers and other conventions of the site’s design require users to download a flash player, but the experience atypical of a news website remains unmitigated.

Although specific figures of the number of hits and time duration readers spend on the webzine’s site are not available, it is reasonable to surmise that The Devil’s Tale has claimed a portion of ASU’s news audience for itself. Perhaps the genesis of the project, the webzine has created an alternative news outlet to The State Press, ASU’s daily newspaper (which also posts its articles online) for the university community. While the Press' main focus is to report headline news of the day, the webzine has made itself appealing by producing “featurized,” non-breaking news content. The layout of the site resembles an interactive art magazine more than a staid newspaper formatted line-by-line. Some reasons for adapting this design from a conventional journalism layout probably came from pressure to attract more of the escalating numbers of people that read news online. The Pew Internet & American Life Project has recorded statistics in its "Usage Over Time" section that show in January 2005, up to 75 percent of men and 71 percent of women polled have gone online for news content – significant growth from March 2000 figures where 66 percent of men and 53 percent of women were online news readers. The Webby Awards considers site structure and navigation as criteria in its judging process, qualifying a successful site as one that conceives "a mental model of the information provided."

The Devil's Tale wants to engage the online audience rather than simply inform it. Evidence of this intent is witnessed in the site's reliance on large, moving tabs that organize topics by splicing news into categories previously discussed in this blog. After reviewing the site's divisions, the reader is not forced to scroll to choose a destination. Instead, the articles float towards him. In a movement that is not unlike a turning page, he is aware that he has chosen to enter a specific section and understands the identiy of it with a pertinent graphic. Through the site's archives section, it is observed that four of the five past versions of the webzine utilized a design with flashing pictures and headlines. Though the designs were still distant resemblances from other websites, flashing content revealed that their goal was similar: convince visitors of news' immediacy. Previous versions of the site were in denial of the non-breaking quality of their news. The current version discontinues the almost offensive flashing graphics and allows readers more direct control of the content that appears on their screens, increasing the site's capacity for reader interaction. Although this outline structuring of the site is quite engaging, the secondary destination pages - the webzine's news content - are limited in interactivity opportunities. Not intended to be maintained after the initial post, the website engages its readership with maps and quizzes in place of adding new pictures and user comment functions.

The site's content is a driving factor for its existence as a news website. One of the most significant portions of the site is its copy. Journalist Kanupriya Vashisht's first person prose declares in the lead of her article, "I had this urge to dive into a soothing mantle of silver stars." Almost every piece of journalism of the zine - including radio sound bytes - is written with the use of first person lead. Rarely does that voice fade into third person lower in the article. This "I" convention results in a fresh, compelling writing style that makes little application of journalism's staple inverted pyramid. Even some of the site's copy is presented with complexities not usually seen in news articles. "Dying for the Story," a specially-formatted piece by a group of journalists has interactive copy that differs on each page.

Equally important in communicating the essence of staff writers' stories are photographs, which are used extensively for both their news value and asthetic context, and thus appear on every page. They are sometimes irrelevant to the piece and fuction in roles that do more to identify the author, such as where Marilyn Hawkes pictures herself with her son in her article, "My Own Worst Enemy." The role of Shana Hogan's photograph of the Jerome Grand Hotel, placed in an article titled, "Spooked in Jerome," is one that aligns better with traditional photojournalism. A "photos" section on the site devotes space to photojournalism essays. A stimulating piece, "Through Senior Eyes," by Cronkite photographers documents the activites in which senior citizens engage themselves. As a collective body, the site's feature content inherent in its photographs and copy will likely interest students in issues confronting groups other than their own. The appeal of the webzine's content is its capacity to function almost as conceptual art. Without an action element and the fact that it is cirucularly cropped, a photograph of a bowl in Lindsay Walker's article about artifacts prompts more interest than a photograph adherring to photojournalism rules would.

Considerations of disseminating the news in the online medium are addressed by the webzine fairly conscientiously. The site’s approach to meeting the challenge of satiating erratic readers includes making use of traditional elements in print journalism – copy and photographs – as well as incorporating broadcast journalism’s video content and radio’s sound bytes. Perhaps unwittingly experiencing it, web surfers of ASU’s community are exposed to the site’s appropriate fusion of elements from various journalism mediums together with web design and java script to create a multimedia convergence experience. The integration of these animated elements - another of the Webby Award's judging criterion - adds significant value to the site's experience. In the "interactivity" section of the criteria, Webby Awards stipulates that "good interactivity is more than a rollover or choosing what to click on next; it allows... a user to give and receive." What the team of journalism students failed to adhere to were the guidelines of good copy editing present in the journalism fields they drew from to create this project. Grammar and AP style mistakes combined with a penchant to misplace quote markers and forget spaces between sentences has left the student effort with sloppy copy.

Sarah J. Ellis' article, "Route 61: A Cultural Trip through Phoenix," describes a man as "Hispanic" instead of "Latino" as the AP dictates, while Marilyn Hawkes' leading character is a missed quoation mark. "Fab Frogs" by Rita Washko ends with a grammar error in a catchy sentence, "While this debates continue, nature’s canary is dying." Writer Anya Britzius' entire article, entitled "Home is Where the Mold is," is riddled with mistakes. She identifies the doctor she quotes throughout the article a total of four times. Britzius also commits another major print journalism mistake: each time she attributes a quote, she uses "says" instead of "said."

Comprehending that it is not excusable to publish improperly edited content, major news striving to break stories quickly also struggle to ensure their copy is properly edited before posting onto the internet. Working with softer deadlines than major media, The Devil's Tale staff should have corrected their errors, even if they were noticed after posting. While this issue needs attention, the webzine is plagued with a more serious violation of reporting procedures as some stories contain factual errors. In a piece by Kristin Curry entitled, “Drowning in Debt,” the student loan lender Sallie Mae is referred to as “Nellie Mae.” A major criticism of online news is its lack of authority. Content, the Webby Awards says, "communicates a site's body of knowledge." The copy mistakes the webzine's writers have made question this knowledge, an effect that hinders the progression of the site's credibility.

Other mistakes threaten to shed additional degrees of credibility the site won with its reportage and design. The website neglects to provide links to parent organizations that support it – the main university webpage or the school of journalism. By failing to thread these links into the site, the publication weakens itself in two key areas: it does not benefit from the established authority of these larger entities and places limitations on full inclusion in the online community. Fact boxes extraneous to individual articles are the only links that lend the zine any authority. Still, these links to recognized institutions substantiate the articles themselves. Their purpose is to ameliorate the use of first person in the articles, not provide definitive authority to the site. Even in trying to establish authority in this limited sense, the site struggles. The links the site does post are generalized and leave readers to peruse through them for applicable information. Some may argue that readers’ ability to conduct research themselves demonstrates one of the benefits of the online environment. Because the content of the news articles is based largely on personal accounts, this particular website would be stronger if it followed professional journalism’s lead and siphoned through the provided links to highlight specific information rather than generalizing sources.

While the webzine certainly does not aspire to position itself as a source for late-breaking news, it is difficult to glean exactly in what direction the publication wishes to journey. A visitor can understand that part of the site’s intent is to target a readership segment that is typically more or less unresponsive to the media through the use of a new technology form, but without a clear assertion of goals, the parameters of the project remain indistinct. An “About Us” page is the closest the project comes to explaining itself. The page’s link is included with every article on the site, but it functions as a temptress of readers’ curiosities. Interpreting the page’s title, one presumes that it would include an explanatory text about the group’s overall objectives and then might focus on individual reporters’ identities. This is not the case. Reporters are not featured on the site. Without the aid of job titles, one can only assume the students that appear are those occupying editorial positions. Even trying to find information about the site from external sources is not fruitful. An internet search for the webzine yields an article from The State Press entitled, “Journalism Class’ Site Nominated for Webby,” from an April 4, 2006 news article by ASU student Andrea Adams. Aside from reading the first few lines of the article the search engine provides, only those with an ASU user account may access it in full. To ensure a higher level of inclusion in the university online community, editors of the next edition of the webzine will certainly want to include an outline of the site’s intentions and lobby the school’s journalism department to link to the site.

Apart from a few criticisms, the site serves as an excellent experiment from which media organizations can model future versions of their own sites to better meet the needs of their readers. Some sites, such as the Wall Street Journal and Yahoo’s news service, partially attain this goal by allowing subscribers or registered users to customize the articles that appear with a personalized page. The Devil’s Tale is more successful in satisfying this directive; the entirety of the zine reflects a reorganization of a news site’s components, including writing style and the page's arrangement in an outline form. The webzine successfully targets its readership by meeting viewers' demands to provide information on topics highly relevant to them. Other sites would do well to follow the webzine’s initiative and maximize the internet’s capabilities to revamp news and the way it is delivered.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Media Conglomerates: Complicating the Journalism Business Model

The media market is plagued with conflicts of interest. As media outlets join together, conflicts tend to become enlarged rather than minimized. The intricacies of business ownerships and holdings often make it difficult for news organizations to even hope to deliver relatively un-biased news coverage to the public. Generally, the public thinks that private ownership of media outlets is better, as they offer more local coverage and seem to have a higher stake in local affairs according to Ian Walsh in his blog. In a September 14 blog post by Pastorius entitled, "Wealthy Muslims Urged to Buy Influence in the Media," the opposite interestingly is illustrated: an individual acts in a selfish fashion. In a response to this post, I have provided a comment questioning whether the public has considered that individuals also have hidden agendas, which may be linked to money or the distribution of their personal beliefs.

Regardless of the ownership group, a definitive business model prospers in the news world: ad-supported revenue. In order to maximize the profits collected from advertising, news sources strive to expose their product to the largest audience. To accomplish this, stories with the greatest popularity will be published. Many times, creating space for the most marketable news takes precedent over reporting on issues that arguably should be at the forefront of news coverage. Shailaja Neelakantan posted a blog entry entitled “The Third World Groove” where he essentially complains about the inaccurate portrayals of Indian culture found in the media. He also laments that only the most sensational Indian news story is reported by top U.S. media groups. I respond to his post, asking how the news media can in fact make a profit on international news when its American consumers do not care about the subject enough to watch or read about it? The ad-driven business model will probably remain in the media industry, as it has been successful for centuries. As corporations continue to grow by acquiring more media, it is unlikely that the media’s trend to withstand influences exerted by anything but profit margins will end.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Journalist-Source Relationships: Better Understanding is Needed

In order for the media’s dynamic as a trusted information source to succeed, it is imperative that the public have confidence in the information news organizations disseminate. According to findings published in the 2006 Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures public trust levels in companies and business sectors, American business media ranks high in confidence: sixty-six percent of the public finds information in business newspapers and magazines to be credible. Although the Barometer does not make a significant query into exploring why the public’s mindset warrants this statistic, business news organizations’ attempts to be transparent in disclosing various conflicts of interest certainly contribute to the public trust they enjoy.

In a recent speech given in June to the New York Financial Writers Association, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman Christopher Cox suggested that journalists’ jobs “would be a lot easier if lawmakers and regulators didn’t make things so needlessly complicated in the first place.” His statement, of course, is true: if financial journalists were not required to report conflicts of interest – whether those are their own, their employer’s or the company on which they are reporting – they would have an easier job. But would this forgone transparency benefit the public? No. In order to truly be informed and fully grasp a situation, the public relies on journalists to be faithful in communicating any underlying relationship. Journalists working in the business field have a heightened responsibility to accurately report these relationships as their articles influence a vast amount of market moves.

Effective business beat reporters need to cultivate relationships with sources closely connected to their stories. These almost obligatory relationships are often formed with company employees, employees of competitors and stock analysts. Each of these groups of sources has an underlying and often ulterior motive in providing information to journalists. Above all else, corporate employees, whether they are public relations spokespersons or the chairpersons of the board, seek positive coverage for their company. Analysts, removed a greater degree from the corporation, also must be scrutinized as their job depends on maintaining relationships with a firm. Seasoned journalists understand that analysts who issue very negative reports about a company may not be provided with non-public information anymore. Journalists also consult hedge fund managers as sources. CNN’s Lou Dobbs and Gene Marcial of Business Week, who have reported on the rumor-like status of stock takeovers and mergers in the past, have been accused of being baited by short-sellers. Once Dobbs or Marcial published a story about the stock and the general public enacted upon that information, short-sellers would sell off their stock and profit tremendously. While financial journalists on the whole are aware of the problematic partnerships they forge with sources, there are few alternative avenues to gather information needed for almost every breaking story.

The obvious violations of ethics and SEC mandates are easy to correct in business reporting. News organizations routinely will not allow a journalist with explicit conflicts to report on a certain company or business sector. These types of conflicts are usually those that the SEC rightly feels might encourage a journalist to report something that would directly affect a specific corporation’s stock, such as a spouse’s top position at a financial firm or involvement with a particular corporation as a stockholder. The more subtle journalist-source relationships are not as easily identified as potential conflicts of interest. It is the uncertain bounds of these relationships that the SEC and news organizations need to help journalists clarify.

The Edelman Trust Barometer’s findings indicate that the business media has been adequately performing in this area. Since thirty-three percent of Americans still do not trust the media category that generates most of the business news, business media can do better. News organizations are becoming more sensitive to consumers’ demands that they disclose information about their own business affiliations. SEC regulations imposed on journalists are being outlined and explained in a less difficult manner in recent years. Still, there is a need for more transparency. In business articles, the associations in numerous companies of the chairpersons of the board often go unreported. Connections between corporations are not always realized. The SEC is working to make it easier for journalists to track down this information by imposing more disclosure regulations on companies, but this does not eliminate journalists’ need to form source relationships. To understand what can be done to ensure off-the-record relationships do not permeate what is published, research must be conducted that examines the nature of journalist-source reltionships. The results of this research will help determine what can be done to monitor the practice without curbing it altogether.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Business Newswriting: Pre-Professionals Are Not Getting Adequate Training

While legions of tailored suits furiously threaded together to form America’s corporate world in the 1960s, the microphones, cameras and tape recorders of the media were not prepared to keep pace. Only after Watergate, when journalists were afforded new investigative freedoms, did news organizations begin to recognize the need for business coverage in their papers. Since then, there has been progression in business journalism: business reporters of such publications as The New York Times enjoyed the addition of their own sections in the late 1970s and editors across the country realized the importance of including business news on the front page.

Still, there is much lacking in business news.
Enron functions as a prime example. Reporter Bethany McLean of Fortune Magazine and author of The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, broke the Enron story after receiving a tip from an anonymous source who instructed her to review the balance sheets of this now infamous company. Since her undergraduate background was in math – not in journalism – McLean was able to discern that Enron’s accounting numbers did not work and went on to expose the company’s fraudulent practices from there. Had she not understood how a balance sheet worked, it is conceivable that Enron would have been able to continue deceiving investors for a prolonged period of time.

The great journalism institutions are not teaching what McLean learned. Of the country’s major journalism schools – Medill, Columbia, Annenberg and NYU – no school offers more than a few undergraduate courses in business writing. The David W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism has compiled an authoritative listing of courses and programs offered in business journalism from journalism schools across the country; its length illustrates the pitiful number of opportunities for students to engage in business writing. The page bemoans, “…the number of academic programs nationwide focusing on business journalism is few and far between....” With a lonesome two-unit course, USC’s Annenberg, which is committed to employing faculty with diverse academic and professional interests, can just count itself amongst this limited number of schools. Its rival counterpart, Medill, offers no undergraduate business journalism classes, but does boast three faculty members with professional business journalism experience.
Only at the graduate level do Medill and NYU offer a degree in business journalism. This garners applause. But wait – Medill reports that about twelve students a year elect to enroll in the program. This number, coupled with the fact that most professional journalists do not hold a graduate degree in the field, forces one to question how these schools can neglect to expose most of its student journalist population to business news?
Journalism schools are responding to the need for their students to have relevant training in the field in which they will report; some are adding courses in science reporting, including Annenberg and Columbia. An announcement about the addition of the Columbia science writing degree quotes a faculty member who says future graduates will be “bilingual in the language of earth sciences and the language of public debate."

Business journalists need a similar foundation to achieve success as liaisons in the field. Most business journalists are given their job title after having shifted from another journalism niche. Thus, they don’t often have the necessary business training needed to report on important players in the complex market. In the impossiby paced reality of the journalism world where one reporter must file in multiple media and do so with speed, even a basic understanding of business practice will undoubtedly aid in the elimination of some of the factual errors that unfortunately find themselves into news stories. Specific training in business practices will make journalists new to the business beat more than a simple reallocation.

Journalism programs at national universities, in their efforts to educate students across multiple media platforms, need to modify their curriculum to include programs in business writing and business practice. Universities will remember that journalists with ample background knowledge will be the most successful in informing the public of business issues. Poor business practices and the implications of market trends will not be interpreted by the public if journalists fail to recognize them correctly. Advances cannot be made in business journalism until its professionals are better equipped to adequately report on the field.