journalism


Oh, what a night! Osama bin Laden is dead!

I’m not going to spend a lot of time typing this post because, frankly, I want to concentrate on watching news coverage of the al-Qaida leader’s death. But I’d like to point out that the news broke and spread quickly on Twitter, before the television anchors told us (particularly CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who metaphorically seemed to be the last person to arrive at the party). Yesterday I wrote about the news value of Twitter and its varied acceptance level by print reporters (you can read that post by clicking here), and the way so many people learned about bin Laden’s death is a perfect example of why all reporters should be on board with the use of social media.

As I tweeted earlier tonight, “I hope all the print journalists who don’t buy into the news value of Twitter are paying attention to how the bin Laden news broke/spread.”

Finally, I’ll end this post with the sentence I tweeted immediately after President Obama finished his speech tonight: “If I could type the sound of America clapping, I would.”

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It’s my observation that there are three types of newspaper reporters when it comes to Internet use beyond searching for information: those who “get” it and totally embrace its use as a way to report news; those who don’t understand the Internet’s value as a media source and, as a result, resist its use as much as possible; and those who fall somewhere in the middle (they essentially understand or accept the value of online media methods but don’t use them quite right).

The first type is self-explanatory. If you understand the power of online reporting and the use of social media to further the reach of a reporter’s words, you know a reporter who “gets” it when you see his or her work.

The second type is still too common. A great example of this type can be found locally. There are two smaller daily newspapers that primarily cover La Salle County — The Times and the NewsTribune — and they both have reporters who “get” it and reporters who resist having to do anything beyond writing and occasionally shooting a photo for the print product. Reporters at both newspapers obviously were directed to create and use Twitter accounts, and as best I can tell, all the NewsTribune reporters embrace this to varying degrees, but there are still some Times reporters who don’t use Twitter at all — one reporter even locked his account so you can’t follow him unless he approves you doing so! They obviously don’t understand the value of reaching out to a wider audience through such newfangled means.

An example of the third type works for the Chicago Sun-Times. Lynn Sweet, a columnist and Washington bureau chief for the newspaper, uses Twitter and blogs, but she doesn’t do it quite right. Earlier today, she tweeted a reminder that the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner is tonight, and that people can follow her at @lynnsweet for notes and photos from it. That is a good use of Twitter. But when I clicked on the link she included in her tweet, I found her accompanying blog post, which began as follows:

WASHINGTON–The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner is tonight, with Saturday Night Live headwriter and comic Seth Meyers the headliner. Meyers–I locked eyes with him for a mini-moment at the New Yorker party Friday night–speaks after President Obama, always a hard act to follow.

That is an example of Sweet trying too hard to impress and not quite “getting” it, which she tends to do on her blog. Believe me, nobody cares that Lynn Sweet locked eyes with Seth Meyers for “a mini-moment.” Another example of her trying too hard on her blog is the many instances of her writing “as I reported earlier” or a similar phrase. Newspapers have a long tradition of patting themselves on the back for reporting something first — and I have no problem with that — but when it’s done often by the same reporter in the first person, the writer can come across less favorably.

With that said, at least Sweet is using social media, and she gets credit for that. Too many reporters still resist using social media, and that’s a real problem in the journalism industry.

If you are someone who cares about such things, you probably already know that Donald Rumsfeld’s new memoir, “Known and Unknown,” has created some controversy thanks to the former defense secretary’s expectedly self-serving justification of the Iraq war. The Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward, who wrote several behind-the-scenes books about the Bush administration, took particular exception to Rumsfeld’s version of events and wrote about the subject here.

In addition to the financial cost and the loss of lives, our country’s reputation was tarnished on the world stage thanks to Rumsfeld and company’s unnecessary war. Consider that context as you read the following quote from NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel in a report on the protests in Libya.

“People here have been told by Gadhafi that the United States wants to invade and make Libya into another Iraq. They seem to believe it,” Engel said while in Tripoli, the capital of Libya.

I wish President Obama’s detractors would keep that in mind when they criticize him for allegedly “apologizing for America.” That’s not exactly what Obama has done; he essentially has said that the reckless line of thinking that led to the Iraq war was not the way America normally conducts itself on the world stage. Perhaps Obama’s critics will accept this fact someday, though I am not hopeful on that front; regardless, Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush administration who led our country into the Iraq war need to accept that they were wrong to do so.

One of the blogs I keep tabs on is Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn’s “Change of Subject.” Sometimes I agree with Zorn’s opinions and sometimes I don’t, but I always respect them, and that’s really all any decent columnist asks of his or her readers.

Anyway, “Change of Subject” is a Web-first column of opinions, observations and news bits, with its weekly contents distilled into a print column published in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. This past week, Zorn briefly touched on the topic of capital punishment in Illinois, noting that Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently wrote a letter to Gov. Pat Quinn urging him not to sign a bill that would abolish the death penalty here.

While Zorn and I basically are on the same side of the subject — he believes the death penalty should be abolished and I agree because there have been so many wrongful convictions resulting in death penalties being doled out in Illinois — I disagree with Zorn’s comment that many of Madigan’s Democratic and liberal supporters were surprised by the attorney general’s letter. After all, anyone who has a basic understanding of the cogs of our court system should not be surprised that an attorney general would be in favor of keeping in place something that is intended to be a deterrent to crime.

Pete Miller III, president of Miller Group Media, died this morning. He was 50.

Unfortunately, if you looked for information about Miller’s death on the NewsTribune or Ottawa Delivered‘s websites tonight, you didn’t learn anything more than what I wrote in the first paragraph of this post — even though Miller Group Media owns the NewsTribune and Ottawa Delivered.

Since being laid off by The Times in November 2008, I have never been quick to praise the Ottawa daily newspaper. But tonight I commend it for being the only local newspaper with any significant information about Miller’s death posted on its website. I understand that Miller Group Media is probably wrestling with exactly how to deal with Miller’s death publicly — especially because of how he died — but I guarantee it is the talk of the Illinois Valley tonight, and the media group owes it to its readers to give them, minimally, a little more information than it has so far. (Can you imagine the Chicago Tribune and WGN withholding information about Sam Zell if he died? I can’t. And Miller Group Media arguably is the smaller-scale equivalent of the Chicago Tribune/WGN media group in the Princeton-Spring Valley-Peru-La Salle-Ottawa area because it also owns three radio stations and another newspaper.)

I have no doubt the NewsTribune will publish a wonderful, moving tribute to Miller in its print edition tomorrow. But that just shows the backward thinking of the people who actually run the NewsTribune. From what I was told when I worked at Ottawa Delivered, Miller was the main (perhaps only) reason Miller Group Media invested heavily in Ottawa Delivered, a startup newspaper and website that embraced a Web-first mentality. The approach seemed to work as a template for using social media in particular and the Internet in general to help grow readership for a community publication — at least before the editorial staff lost two reporters in January. Holding back news in the era of 24-hour news cycles and instant gratification just doesn’t make sense anymore, and newspapers that continue to do so will lose in the end.

With that said, I will remember Miller as a friendly, charitable man who genuinely cared for his community and gave back to it in many ways, mainly through sizable donations to places like Illinois Valley Animal Rescue and the Illinois Valley YMCA in Peru, and to various local charity events. Last year when I auctioned off my goatee to raise more funds for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation (after already getting my head buzzed for the cause), Pete was quick to come up with a $50 donation on the spot. When I thanked him afterward, he told me I was the brave one for losing my hair — and he meant it. That moment was a perfect example why no matter what you thought of Miller as a media mogul, you can’t deny the loss of his charitable soul.

Rest in peace, Pete.

If you’re a regular reader of The Bread Line, you’ve noticed that I haven’t posted often during the past two weeks. I appreciate your patience as I’ve been quite busy lately doing my part to help mold the future of journalism in Ottawa, Ill.

Thursday we’re launching the online version of Ottawa Delivered, a hyperlocal Web site that does more than report the news in traditional story form. The Web site will incorporate various elements of new media, including audio, video, blogs and social networking — something no other local media outlet offers. There also will be a weekly newspaper featuring longer magazine-style articles and some smaller stories from the Web site.

I’m the senior staff reporter/content generator and am covering politics (and occasionally other stories) for Ottawa Delivered. In addition to reporting, my duties include writing a political column for the newspaper and a political blog for the Web site. If you enjoy reading my political writings here at The Bread Line, I think you’ll enjoy reading what I write for Ottawa Delivered, too — especially if you live in the Ottawa area. Please check it out and let me know what you think about the Web site, both good and bad. This project in journalism is about delivering the news to readers the way they want it in the 21st century — and feedback is the best way for us to know whether we’re getting it right.

I had two experiences Sunday that I believe reflect a couple of problems facing newspapers today:

1) The Dollar Tree store near my home sells the early edition of the Sunday Chicago Tribune on Saturdays — for only $1. For the past decade, I’ve lived in a county the Chicago newspapers define as “elsewhere” (in other words, not in the city or the suburbs), so the Sunday Tribune otherwise costs $3 around here. The dollar deal is great, though the newspapers often sell out fast and I end up buying the Sunday paper for regular price at a gas station or supermarket. And no, I never consider giving up my Sunday Tribune when I miss out on the dollar deal.

Anyway, I was at the Dollar Tree in another nearby community Sunday when a woman came in the store and asked a clerk if the Sunday Tribune was available there for a dollar. (It is, but the newspapers were all sold out.) After the woman left the store, a second clerk asked the first clerk what the woman wanted.

Clerk 1: “She wanted the Sun-Trib, or whatever it’s called.”

Clerk 2: “The Tribune? Do they have a Sunday paper?”

Clerk 1: “Yeah. It’s got all the coupons in it.”

I looked at my wife and rolled my eyes. Obviously neither clerk reads newspapers. One of them doesn’t even know what the newspaper is called, combining the names of the Tribune and its competitor, the Chicago Sun-Times. The other clerk didn’t even know there is a Sunday edition of the Chicago newspapers, apparently assuming they don’t publish that day just as the smaller, local daily newspapers don’t.

2) On our way home from the Dollar Tree, we stopped at a gas station so I could buy the newspaper. I usually buy just the Tribune, but an interesting cover story convinced me to buy the Sun-Times, too. So I grabbed the two newspapers and proceeded to the checkout counter. The clerk was shocked that two newspapers combined cost $5.75. I told her the price is ridiculous, especially as sections continue to get cut from the newspapers, but I enjoy reading the Sunday newspaper, so I continue to pay the price.

The gas station clerk obviously doesn’t buy newspapers, either. And her reaction to the rising cost of purchasing newspapers isn’t surprising or unwarranted. I rarely buy newspapers any other day of the week because I think 75 cents or $1 is too much money for something I can read for free on the Internet. I justify purchasing the Sunday newspaper because all the content cannot be found online, or at least it can’t be found easily.

As someone who worked as a newspaper reporter for 12 years before becoming a layoff statistic last fall, this is a subject of great concern to me. So here is my three-pronged question for you: Do you regularly buy one or more newspapers? How often? If you buy newspapers, why do you do so when most content can be read online for free?

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