Sunday, August 7, 2011

Real World Media: The Reinvention of Journalism

By Susan Older, Founder of Displaced Journalists and Real World Media
I refuse to give up on good journalism. I refuse to give up on displaced journalists, either. Not just the members of our Displaced Journalists community on the Web, on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but all journalists who can’t find a place where they belong anymore.
We need to reinvent our profession to keep good journalism alive.
Our society depends upon a free and vigilant press. It is a fundamental building block of our democracy.
  • It provides citizens with the news and information they need to make their lives safer, easier, happier and more fulfilling.
  • It gives citizens the comfort of knowing someone is out there looking after their interests.
  • It provides the fundamental role of ensuring an informed electorate.
  • It holds accountable the officials citizens elect at the polls.

Why is journalism broken? We all know the answer: It's money. It's not the Internet. It's the lack of revenue models for both print and online news and information operations.
Only Steve Jobs has hit on a real revenue model. The App Store is brilliant, but it appears publishers who try to sell their content as apps will get only a small bite of the Apple – too little for sustenance. We need to think about how we could emulate that model without giving our product away.
We need to determine who will pay for quality content. I believe the demand still exists.
We need to restore citizens’ trust in the news they read and the journalists who report it. We can do this. The solution lies in getting the best and the brightest back to work and in a position to mentor young journalists, to pass on the mojo, the dedication, the ethical standards and the devotion to excellence that once defined our profession.
I propose a revolutionary solution to save journalism and journalists.
Real World Media.
It is a big idea and it will require serious funding. Can it be done? Absolutely. Can I do it alone? Of course not. We need help and we need funding. I do believe, though, that it is a start.
We must pose the question of how to find buyers for quality content. Let’s give it a shot. Let’s come together to devise a plan that will improve as it evolves. We need solutions that address the concerns of citizens of local, state, national and global communities. Let’s be realistic: globalization has changed the rules of the game. Almost all of the things we cover are playing out to some degree on a global scale.
So what is the future of journalism? How can we address these issues.
Real World Media: What is it? Why participate?
Real World Media is designed to be the first location-based (think FourSquare), mobile-device-driven global news web. It will provide tailored news and information coverage by top-notch, vetted reporters, photojournalists and news videographers who are already at or near the scene – and top notch editors who interact with these journalists and fine-tune their work.
Real World Media will provide journalists with the work they haven’t been able to find and the respect they deserve. Journalists will be paid fairly and immediately (think PayPal) – a rare occurrence for freelancers in the wake of our industry’s massive job losses.
Journalists will be associated with the best and the brightest colleagues – reporters, editors, photojournalists and news videographers – all of them drawn to Real World Media because it’s a prestigious, trusted network and it’s their best chance of getting fair compensation for a job well done.
The editorial board of Real World Media will screen journalists who seek to be part of its global network. Journalists who have the right stuff will start receiving assignments once it’s up and running. Journalists who don’t make the cut right away will be referred to customized training and performance-improvement solutions to help them qualify at a later date.
The first step in any new venture is to look at it from the point of view of the customer. Of course, this has always been the case for journalists. We’ve been trained to make coverage decisions based on what our readers want. I have always referred to this as the “what does it mean to me” factor. Readers didn't subscribe to newspapers unless they delivered news and information that directly affected their lives. How can we make our coverage so good that readers or users will pay for it online? It's a tough question, but we must come with a solution. We can't just give up.
What about coverage of “what they need to know”? Yes, we’ve always done that, too, because the great thing about newspapers was that readers stumbled upon things they couldn’t have predicted they would want to read. It was serendipity. That’s something we’ve lost to varying degrees as news and information migrated to online sites. Now users tend to go to the sites that reflect their specific interests or views. Real World Media will offer engaging enterprise stories, photos and video designed to put the serendipity back into news sites.
What keeps Real World Media customers up at night?
Entrepreneurs in every field look for the “pain point.” They ask the question: “What keeps our potential customers up at night?” If they can't answer that question, they need to go back to square one and figure it out.
Let’s look at our potential customers’ needs and address them as if we were speaking directly to them.
This is a sample scenario:
You are a managing editor at a news and information operation – either print or online. You have dismissed more of your staff than you knew was wise. You did it because, financially, you believed you had no choice. You or your publisher felt it was necessary to trim the budget to stay in business. Unfortunately, you got rid of the best and the most experienced journalists because their salaries were the highest.
Now you’re looking at a decimated newsroom and a big story breaks – one that directly affects your readers and your community. It could be floods, drought, and forest fires. It could be corruption in your local police department or city hall. It could be a scandal, playing out in Washington, one that involves local or state officials. It could be a story about a local military man or woman engaged in battle half way around the world. You want to cover these things, and you want the local angle, probably with photos and video, but you don’t have a staffer to spare.
What do you do?
  • Do you send a journalist, possibly insufficiently experienced, to deal with a difficult assignment, bagging the important story he or she was working on before you had to shift gears?
  • Do you resign yourself to using a wire service story, knowing that they are extremely unlikely to give you the local angle and that the same story will appear everywhere else?
  • Do you call a freelancer whom you may not know? Are you confident he or she will get to the scene on time? Are they any good? Do you need to find a photojournalist or news videographer, as well?
  • How much time can you afford to spend setting this coverage in motion?
You get the point. No matter what you do, you rob your readers of one thing to give them another. That hurts. You never had to make this tradeoff in the past. You once had a good and sizable staff that was capable of doing it all and doing it all well. Your newsroom ran smoothly – okay, as smoothly as possible. You could afford to take time lining up freelancers around the world for a big story, and once you did that you had a big enough staff to assign your own reporters to get the local angle.
Readers were loyal because you gave them news and information that truly affected their lives – their children, healthcare, family budgets, safety, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, housing, etc. When it came to investigative reporting or breaking news coverage that affected your readers anywhere around the globe, you gave readers your best. Can you do this now, with sparse resources?
Real World Media clients: what we give you
So you decide to become a Real World Media client. Real World Media will provide a simple and affordable solution to the many problems brought about by staff shortages. You will get full coverage without breaking the bank. You, your publisher, your readers and great journalists can all sleep at night.
Real World Media takes your requests and uses cutting edge technology to locate journalists, photographers and videographers around the world to cover the story to your specifications. Maybe it’s a story breaking halfway around the globe, but it affects people from your town, city or state. Real World Media will cover the global and the local angles of the story.
You will pay Real World Media and its journalists well because you know they are worth it and you get what you need from them. Just think about what you once paid your most valuable staff members, the ones you had to dismiss as advertising dwindled and news and information took off into uncharted digital territory.
Real World Media is not designed to take jobs away from working journalists. We’re happy to see journalists working at all. As for jobless journalists, we genuinely hope they will find great jobs again. For now, though, why not tap into their talent and experience through a system you can trust. But let me be clear: Real World Media is not a content mill.
It’s a win-win for everyone. You will save on salary, benefits, travel expenses, and expensive equipment by using the services of Real World Media. Journalists will get what they need by joining the Real World Media network, which ensures that they will be paid fairly and rapidly. As our network grows, we hope to negotiate group rates on benefits such as health care.
Your readers will get what they want, whether it is international or domestic coverage with a community angle or an investigative reporting project right down the road that you cannot begin to staff. It might even be a feature story you just know your readers would enjoy, one that would enrich their lives.
As a client of Real World Media you  will have at least three options:
  • You may make a special request for a local angle on any given story. Real World Media journalists will report it for you. This will serve your needs regardless of whether the story is happening inside or outside of your geographic community. It doesn't matter. You will have the option of informing readers of more than what's happening. You will tell them exactly what it means to them, with quotes from local citizens and local officials.
  • You may request an exclusive story that will not be available or even visible to other clients on the Real World Media site. This will serve your needs if you want an exclusive on a breaking story or if you want a highly qualified team to handle an investigative project or local story that you don’t have the staff to handle.
  • You may buy a story that appeals to your audience straight off the Real World Media site. This will serve your needs if you simply want the best possible coverage on an important story. This would serve your needs if you don’t need a local angle and aren’t concerned with exclusivity, but don’t want to run a wire service story identical to the one your competition carries.
Real World Media will run the network. We will find, evaluate and direct the reporters, editors, photographers and videographers. We will have layers of editors – all highly experienced, respected and trustworthy. We will maintain a website featuring synopses of all the stories available for purchase, the price, and the option to negotiate exclusive stories or big stories with local angles.
You will tell us what you need and we will find the best journalists for you. We will use cutting-edge, location-based, mobile technology to stay in touch with journalists (reporters, editors, photographers or videographers) who are at or near the scene and prepared to take the assignment. If another journalist is required to interview people in your community for a local angle, we will provide that service, too.
You will pay a fair price for stories produced by Real World Media’s global network of journalists because you know they are worth it. They will fill the void created when you laid off your best staffers.
Real World Media will charge for the story, the photos or the video you commission from our network of journalists. You will be obligated by contract to buy the assigned story, photos or video, regardless of whether you use it. You will pay more if you decide to alter your original request. Of course, good reporters, photographers and videographers think for themselves and are highly likely to deliver more than you asked for, simply because of the situation they find on the ground when they are in the process of reporting or shooting photos or video.
Real World Media will have a multi-layered network of highly experienced and vetted editors to ensure that customers receive professionally edited products.
None of this is carved in stone. In fact, this is just a jumping off point.

Please join the discussion and add you thoughts on this concept. I am working on the website and marketing materials now. I could use some help if any of you have the skills and the time. I'm in a tough spot, because refusal to work for nothing is part of the Displaced Journalist credo. I would love to hear what you think, here on the Displaced Journalists site, on the Real World Media Facebook page, or privately at If you have other networking ideas, let's find a way to implement them.
Let the reinvention begin.
Editor's note: You may be wondering why I chose to speak to the customer rather than directly to journalists about this idea I've been hatching for the past year. The answer is this: You, my fellow journalists, can see your role as you read this. We need to draw attention to the concept and get customers and funding sources interested. All of the information I've come up with thus far is in this piece, except for how we will price stories and how much Real World Media journalists will be able to earn. At this point, I don't know how much you will earn if we do get funding and this becomes a reality. However, I am devoted to ensuring that journalists are paid fairly. You will be part of the process as we begin to determine rates. In no way will this resemble a content mill. If any of you can offer your programming, design or marketing skills for the cause, I can certainly use them. I have no funding at this point, and, of course, Displaced Journalists has never been about making money. On the other hand, it goes against our very credo to work for nothing, so I'm in somewhat of a bind. It's been interesting learning web development of, but I'm certainly not going to learn design and programming fast enough to get this off the ground when we need it most – now. 
– Susan Older

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Readers Can't Trust News Sites that Publish Sloppy Copy

By Susan Older

A former colleague from UPI posted a comment here on my Real World Media blog yesterday jokingly lamenting the fact that it took him a year to respond to my commentary of March 14, 2010, regarding sloppy copy.

I responded that the issue is still relevant. As we all know, it seems to be getting worse. I can honestly say that it’s rare to find a story on the website of a major publication, one I once respected, that is free of grammatical or spelling errors.

As we all know, readers who see errors in spelling and grammar are likely to wonder whether there are also errors in reporting, quotes, and in the substance of the story.

There is another comment on the same blog post, also from a former colleague, a guy I worked with back at USA Today.

The original commentary, “The World Needs a Good Editor,” appeared on this Real World Media blog and on Displaced Journalists.

Both comments are from journalists I respect. They both hit the nail on the head.

I think there are far too few seasoned editors in newsrooms these days; they've all been laid off, bought out, fired or otherwise cast adrift.

This leaves a few exceedingly busy seasoned reporters (if you’re lucky) to show young journalists the ropes, to mentor them, to teach them why perfection is not optional, to help them resolve ethical dilemmas, to teach them how to file an FOI request and why you would want to, and to help them learn to craft their stories well, keeping the readers’ needs in mind.

Gone are the pros, the journalists who’ve been around, the ones who held us accountable because we still had a lot to learn.

Remember how much passion there was in newsrooms in the old days? People cared, so much so that they were willing to fight over matters of principle.

Remember the gut-wrenching sound of a pica pole whacked on your desk just inches from your quivering hand? That's what learning from the newsroom culture feels like.

Remember when you woke up in a cold sweat at 4 a.m. because your brain finally got around to telling you that you made a huge, embarrassing error on Page 1? That’s what learning from your own mistakes feels like.

These were the checks and balances that made our profession so great. I know plenty of young people are going to J-school these days, so there must be something about the profession that draws new recruits. I don’t mean to knock these students or recent graduates, either. I think it’s fantastic that people want to be journalists, and I think the new grads are just as smart as we were. I just don’t believe there are enough dyed-in-the-wool pros left in newsrooms to teach them well.

If you are a displaced journalist, you have probably been replaced – usually by someone who has less experience and is willing to work for far less money than you earned. However, too many of these replacements lack the education, the on-the-job training and the mentoring we received. I realize I'm generalizing, but I think this is largely accurate.

I think we all feel that it's especially painful to see stories riddled with errors on the websites of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, CNN, USA Today, etc.

The really sad thing is that many of us love our profession so much that we would probably work for the same wages younger journalists make if it meant a once-trusted publication could turn out perfect copy again. But they won't hire us.

I know why our cover letters and resumes get deleted without a response. Those at the top of news organizations see us as trouble. We know too much. We have opinions and we’re not afraid to express them. We might cause trouble. We might want to take their jobs or incite discontent. We might shake things up. They can't have that, now, can they? Working in the newsroom of a financial site for just a year in the past decade taught me that.

In many ways, I like the new era. I love the Internet and I love digital media. I think with some proper guidance, it will all shake out to be good – different but good, much the same as we once progressed from radio to television.

Standing up for what you know to be right? That era is largely gone, along with the insistence on perfection. That was our era. This is a new one.

That’s why I started Displaced Journalists. That’s why I seek funding to create an innovative news operation bearing my existing company name, Real World Media. It would need to embody all the old fervor, fair compensation and high standards, while working as a digital operation on a digital platform. I do believe it can be done.

But back to my point: Errors sap trust. Hire some copy editors.

Nobody wants to read sloppy copy.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The World Needs a Good Editor

By Susan Older

One of the things that irritates me most about the layoffs and firings at newspapers, magazines and major websites these days is the fact that the people in charge have chosen replacements who don’t seem to care about the quality of the product. 

Either that or they are uneducated. I don’t know which is worse. However, it doesn’t really matter; management hires (and fires) people and is responsible, ultimately, for quality control. 

I’ve spent much of my career as a news manager, but at heart I’m a word editor. So when I read this sentence online today, it made me sad and angry:

“Smartphones and e-readers are not like laptops, where each computer lets you interact the same Web.” 

How does one interact the Web? I wonder if the writer intended to say access the same Web or perhaps interact with the Web in the same manner.

In the next sentence, the story reads: “For example, Apple iPad won't support Flash software, which supports most online videos.” 

Wouldn’t you write “Apple’s iPad”? I would.

In the very next paragraph, the story reads: “If the last 10 years were a heyday for open content on the Web, the next ten years could be the age of platforms.” Now I don’t care which stylebook you follow, but for heaven’s sake, pick one and stick to it. Is it 10 or ten?

These errors would grate on me regardless of where they appeared. But some publications have the money to invest in great editors. They should hold themselves to higher standards, because they have more resources, they have great reputations to protect and plenty of readers that they are trying desperately to keep.

The sentences I’ve quoted above did not appear on someone’s blog or on an obscure Web site that might not have the resources to hire qualified editors.

These sentences appeared on the site of the once-revered publication, The Atlantic. I know it was revered because it was always present in the homes and offices of people I respected and I used to subscribe to it on paper.

Now that I’m reading a piece in The Atlantic online, should my expectations be different? Really, should they?

The Fall of the Internet and the Rise of the ‘Splinternet’” is the article in which these errors appear. Go read it. It’s a great piece. The writer makes excellent points that interest me enormously.

But I ask you: How can we trust a source when the editors are sloppy about spelling and grammar? It’s reasonable to assume that they might be just as sloppy about the facts.

I’m not writing this because The Atlantic stands alone here. I’m writing this because I’m tired of finding an error of some kind in nearly every story I read these days. I just happened to be reading this particular story when I came upon one too many errors. I read most things online, but I’m talking about big names, such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, you name it. I repeatedly find errors in stories on every one of their sites.

I certainly don’t mean to embarrass the writer. It’s not his fault that these errors slipped through. I’m irritated at the editors. Not one editor, but multiple editors, because no story should be published unless it has been read by more than one editor.

In the early days at USA Today, errors were few and far between. About 15 editors, up the line to Bob Dubill, John Quinn and Al Neuharth, read every word in the paper. Yes, a few things were slipped in at the last minute and, as a result, there were mistakes. But quality was everything to us. Gannett hired the best editors and paid them well in order to guard against errors of grammar, spelling or facts.

Is it possible that there was no editor reading the story in question? Is it possible that the writer hit “send” and it was published without a single read-through?

I know from experience that it’s possible, but only when management doesn’t care. When I took the job of editor-in-chief at United Press International in 1997, I went out to talk to the people in the Los Angeles bureau. They were completely frustrated. Apparently, each of them had to write, edit and publish (directly to the wire) every single story they wrote. Their stories did not go through a central copy desk, and they were so overworked that they didn’t even have time to read copy for one another.

These journalists honestly cared about errors, but they worked for management that might as well have been selling tires as protecting the brand of a nearly century-old, once-revered news wire. Management simply didn’t give a damn. And when you don’t care about quality, you don’t fund quality. I think we’ve seen evidence of that in the automotive industry lately. Just look at what Toyota is going through. 

Of course, we fixed the problem at UPI as well as possible, considering available funding, and everything went through a copy desk in Washington after that, but my point is that I know what can happen when people at the top don’t value quality. You get what you pay for when you hire anybody, editors included.

Quality wasn’t always the most important thing in publishing, even when many of us tried to make it so, but it has taken far too big a hit in the past decade. 

And don’t blame the Internet. That’s insane. A story is a story is a story. When it’s published, even if it’s on the palm of Sarah Palin’s hand, it should be perfect.

You know, I used to think my father was nuts when he looked at things that had changed in his lifetime and proclaimed, “The world’s going to hell.”

Well, now I see what he was talking about. The world may not have gone to hell, but the publishing business is certainly on its way.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

“Fear and Loathing” in the American Workplace

By Susan Older

Fear of being fired or laid off in this harsh economy is creating an environment that has all the trappings of what I would call, borrowing a phrase from the late Hunter S. Thompson, "fear and loathing" in the American workplace.

I just gave up my livelihood rather than work in a climate of fear and degradation. I feel for my co-workers who don’t have the financial means to do the same.

I wonder: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the rising unemployment rate in the United States? Most likely, it’s the sad plight of workers who’ve lost their incomes, health insurance, retirement accounts and, most likely, a big chunk of self-esteem.

And, there is no question about the fact that the unemployed grapple with these losses on a daily basis. Many rise early to jump on job boards, write cover letters, and perfect their resumes, only to be met with rejection. Many of them are anxious, depressed and suffering increasingly from related physical illness.

But what about the ranks of the still-employed who live in fear of being tapped for the next layoff or becoming the target of managers who can fire them – in most cases – at will?

A study at the University of Michigan shows that people who constantly worry about losing their jobs report poorer physical health and more symptoms of depression than those who have actually been laid off.

Researchers analyzed nationally representative samples of surveys from more than 1,700 adults over age 25 who were asked about their physical and mental health, as well as their feelings about the security of their job.

"The negative effect of being persistently insecure was more significant than the unemployment itself," said study author Sarah Burgard, a research assistant professor at the school's Institute for Social Research.

People are working overtime without being paid for the extra work. They’re putting up with lower or no increases in compensation as a reward for excellence. They’re scared to speak up to or against management. They’re undercutting one another in the belief that it’s better to see a former workmate fired than to be fired oneself.

"By no means am I trying to belittle the stress of job loss," Burgard said. "But the negative anticipation of an event can be more stressful than the event itself. People feel they have the sword of Damocles hanging over their head, but they can't exert any control over the situation."

And it’s not just the slackers who are worried. It’s been my observation that the most productive employees, those who show the most talent, are often targeted by managers whose own insecurity drives them to harass or oust top performers, people who could challenge them for positions in management – possibly for lower salaries, saving the company money.

It’s not just a battle between employees and their superiors. This rampant fear creates hostility between equals at all levels: manager on manager, worker on worker.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this climate of fear and hostility is that this is precisely the time when people at all levels in the workplace could be finding solace in a mutual dedication to survival of the best.

They could be banding together to ensure that the hard working among them will weather the economic storm. Instead, it’s every man for himself.

Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize win: Nobody said it better

I tried, without success, to write my feelings regarding the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama. I just couldn’t get it down – at least not to my satisfaction.

So, now, I'd just like to say:

What he said:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy" quote: That's not the news

I’ve been putting off starting my Real World Media blog, but I came across a news peg today that left me anything but speechless.

I watched "Meet the Press" this morning, as I do every Sunday. David Gregory led with a terrific segment from an interview he conducted Friday with former President Bill Clinton.

The piece covered a broad range of topics, and Clinton was, as usual, on point. He answered Gregory’s thought-provoking questions with characteristic eloquence, commenting on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Iran’s nuclear plant outing, Obama’s performance in his nine-month “honeymoon” period, health care, the economy, the Clinton Global Initiative and even a one-liner on whether he still has political ambitions.

Now, I’ve been a journalist for 35 years. I’m old school in the sense that I have ink flowing through my veins, Watergate and Vietnam still in mind, and Hunter Thompson in my heart. My grandfather’s uncle, Fremont Older, was a San Francisco institution as editor of the city newspaper that rivaled William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner.

I’ve been a founding editor of USA Today, managing editor of the Gannett New Media Group, founding editor of Inter@ctive Week (the tech magazine that's now called eWeek), editor-in-chief of United Press International, and chief content editor for quite a few online news operations.

I love the Internet. I love to read my news online. I don’t think online journalism is inherently bad. And I believe there are still some great journalists out there. NBC's Richard Engel, for example. I feel proud every time I watch him and listen to him, and I worry about his safety as he jumps from war zone to war zone to keep us informed. They don’t get any better.

So when I hit on CNN this afternoon and saw the lead story: "Bill Clinton: 'Vast right-wing conspiracy' as 'virulent' as ever," I thought to myself: OMG. I mean, really? If you haven’t seen the interview, go to MSNBC’s site and watch it for yourself.

Choosing that minute and relatively insignificant question and answer as the lead story is shoddy, lazy, and dirty journalism at best. And it was CNN. It wasn’t even Fox News.

(Wait, hold that thought while I check out the Fox news site.)

Okay, I’m back, and, yes, Fox has it, too. At first I didn’t see it. What I noticed first was a rather repulsive and large ad -- in the right-hand column in the "above-the-fold" position – for a tooth-bleaching product.

How could you not notice giant yellow teeth with braces on them in a place you used to read your news? I finally spotted it, though, below and to the left of the yellow teeth. The headline: “Bill Clinton: Obama Focus of Right-Wing Conspiracy.” Now NPR is running it on its site, having picked up an AP story titled, "Bill Clinton Speaks of Vast, Right-Wing Conspiracy."

This makes my blood boil. That interview was full of fascinating quotes from a highly respected former president. And although I did find it interesting to hear Clinton’s take on whether Obama has been the object of a right-wing conspiracy, I can tell you one thing: That most certainly was not the news story in the interview. In fact, I’ll bet the editors who edited those stories and wrote those headlines are too young to know the origin of the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy.” I seriously doubt they could discuss “Whitewater” or the death of Vince Foster off the top of their heads.

This isn’t the kind of "news" I signed up to report, write and edit in the 1970s. And I know there are plenty of good journalists – either still working or laid-off – who feel the same way. Journalism isn’t in trouble because we’re reading it online instead of on paper. It’s in trouble because of poor judgment on the part of sloppy, clueless, and often angry, people who handle carelessly the precious gem we used to call the "news."

There’s still reason for hope, though. Look at how NBC played the story on the network’s MSNBC website: “Clinton talks poverty, climate on "Meet the Press." David Gregory didn't even mention the "conspiracy" comments in his breakout box of highlights from today's show.

That’s how the late Tim Russert, veteran moderator of “Meet the Press,” would have played it, too.