Ditching “The View From Nowhere”

Jay Rosen has another valuable rumination on his aptly named PressThink site. This time, he’s taking on what we called for years “objectivity,” but which he posits should be thought of as “The View From Nowhere,” a just-the-facts approach that attempts to bleed (unsuccessfully) any hint of opinion from reporting.

Shifting about in these language games, journalists have kept objectivity more or less the same over the years: a system of signs meant to persuade us to accept an account of what happened because it appears to contain only what happened and not what the composer of the account feels about it. That’s why you should trust it: because it appears unadorned. The way we capture this in popular culture is by reference to Joe Friday: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

That’s not to say that an account presented this way actually is pure fact. No way. There is no act of journalism that is not saturated with judgment. Even a photograph is framed by the picture taker. When I refer to “Just the facts” I simply mean: that is how the story asks to be understood, not… “that is all there is to it.” There is always more to it.

In other words, the very act of reporting is an endless series of choices and value judgments. So, what to do? Rosen has five numbered idea bombs, meant to spark discussion, each considered and provocative. This is my favorite of the moment:

4. The View from Nowhere may be harder to trust than “here’s where I’m coming from.” Objectivity is often seen as safer by self-styled traditionalists in the mainstream press. But I like to put the accent on what’s tendentious about it. So I make use of my own term, the View from Nowhere, to describe the ritualized uses of objectivity and to suggest that there is something strained about them. Easing that strain is not impossible. It means shifting to a different rhetoric: “Here’s where I’m coming from,” sometimes called transparency. This is a different bid for trust. Instead of viewlessness, “You know where I stand; judge accordingly.”

As the right-leaning law professor, Knoxville homeowner and photo enthusiast Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit likes to say, you should read the whole thing.

A quick question for copy editors

If you’re line-editing the story about the tourist “duck boat” collision in Philadelphia today, do you really leave this in?

Witness Talmadge Robinson said the duck boat was stopped in the river when the collision occurred. A nurse’s assistant, Robinson said he was sitting ashore when he saw the barge approaching the immobile vehicle. “There was a really loud bang. The thing was a sitting duck.” Robinson said he helped pull three children in life jackets out of the water.

To me, that’s just too on-the-nose to keep. Either it’s an unintentional slip, or the witness thought he was being Mister Clever. Either way, I’d strike it. You?

Do ink-stained undergrads have an advantage?

Producing the Cornell Daily Sun. Flickr photo, cc by foreverdigital

Producing the Cornell Daily Sun. Flickr photo, cc by foreverdigital

I’d missed this last week when it was first posted, so thanks to Towson University’s Stacey Spaulding for pointing out a short but convincing essay on why it makes a lot of sense for a college student to work on the university newspaper, even if a career in journalism is the furthest thing from her mind.

No other extra-curricular activity on campus is better for your career — no matter what that is — than the newspaper.

That’s because nothing else … is as complex and deadline-driven.

A Homecoming Committee chairwoman once protested to me, “We host a whole week of awesome and fun activities!”

“Yeah, but you have a whole year to organize it,” I replied. “The newspaper staff publishes a paper every week and updates a website every day — which is much more impressive to a potential employer than taking 11 months to organize a parade and a dance.”

As long as we’re defining “newspapers” as the paper and its digital editions, I think this is good advice.

Declaring independence from proprietary systems

I like what they’re doing at the Journal Register company this weekend: Producing their online and print editions using only free tools. They dubbed it internally the Ben Franklin project, chronicling the project through, what else, a blog.

Here’s a video of one editor as the print edition comes off the (still-proprietary) press:

It’s still very much an experiment. For instance, there’s the “Ben Franklin” edition of the Daily Saratogian’s web site, made in WordPress, and the “regular” edition, presumably built with an expensive, proprietary system. (Personally, I like the temporary version better – it’s much more readable without the usual newspaper-online blast of dozens of headlines on the home page.)

I gather that this will not immediately become business-as-usual at Journal Register, but I hope it informs some longer-term changes. Even better, I hope it strikes fear into the hearts of the sales staffs of the multi-million dollar publishing software suites that have been soaking a gullible less-than-opensource-savvy industry for years.

(Edited because “gullible” was a tad harsh.)

As American as, well, community news


Photo by flickr user are you my rik?

Here we are in the great weekend marking the beginning of the 235th year since we gave notice to old King George. We celebrate July 4th — the instant of the camel’s back breaking, our collective Popeye moment —  but we neglect to mention the many years to come where the British, unsurprisingly, did not simply wish us well and hop onto the nearest eastward-sailing clipper ship.

We also tend to forget amid the fireworks and Bedding Barn sales that, 15 years after our first wobbly steps toward nationhood, we finally adopted a rulebook — the Constitution and its Amendments — the first of which guaranteed, famously, freedom of religion, freedom of gathering and petition, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.

Without those, this would be a very different place.

I’m thinking about this because of the calendar, of course, but also because I’m very close to returning to something I care about very much — journalism.

This time, though, I won’t be barking through a two-way radio at television news crews or working to convince newspapers that they’re no longer in the newspaper business. This time I’ll be joining a team at Aol’s Patch.com that has the simultaneously simple and audacious goal of helping towns and communities throughout the United States to learn more about themselves through the shared creation of local, community-driven news and information sites.

To transmogrify Professor Jay Rosen’s quote, this is the news formerly known as hyperlocal.

I say that because the news in my community isn’t weirdly small or odd or quirky. It’s not hyperlocal, despite what a hundred newsroom improvement committees said in the past five years. It’s just news. It’s what happened here, and it matters to me. It’s the topic that everybody’s talking about that somehow never makes it into The Sun. It’s the bike shop that opened and the restaurant that closed. It’s our elaborate system for shoveling the blizzard’s snow-heaps long before a city plow is rumored and it’s the kids cartoons projected through the shadows of lightning bugs onto a garage door on a steamy June evening.

Most of us live here, in a community. Whether it’s a town or a neighborhood or just a couple of blocks that don’t fit into the greater scope of the county’s Master Plan, this place is where we begin and end most of our days. We celebrate and we lament, festoon our homes with cardboard storks and greet out-of-state aunts at the door, come to mourn and remember with a folder of photos, a lasagna and a bottle of red wine.

Major metro newspapers have tried to get at this, with spotty success, as have weeklies (many owned by those same daily newspapers). Independent individual efforts have sprung up as well, many capturing the rhythms and news of a community with an attention to detail that the dailies and community weeklies miss.

But there’s never been an effort like Patch. On the network’s about page, the manifesto is clear: “We’re a community-specific news and information platform dedicated to providing comprehensive and trusted local coverage for individual towns and communities.” There’s a full-time editor for each of the dozens of sites that have already launched, as well as a budget for freelancers. These sites are not merely aggregators of existing content, or blogs commenting on the comings and goings of their town. Each Patch site generates original reporting about its community every day. Each Patch site is a reliable source of news and information for a community about itself, and, increasingly, an online gathering point for ongoing discussion and community-created content, including news stories, announcements, photos and videos.

For years, when I worked in newspapers, I hoped that we could get there. In just a few weeks, I get to join the team at Patch and throw my shoulder into the best hope yet for unlocking the potential of true community journalism.

More news, as it happens.

Local TV news: Waiting for the other shoe to drop

Photo: CC from flickr user Lachlan Hardy

Photo: CC from flickr user Lachlan Hardy

Remember recently how Alan Mutter warned that the business of local TV news — supported primarily by expensive advertising on its flagship news programs — was about to be newspapered? That is, to have its very business model rendered, eventually, moot?

Well, here are two more signs that the other shoe is dangling by the merest nanometer of fingernail for local TV news. The first sign is about as concrete as you can get and the other is informed speculation about what Apple (and to a lesser extent, Google) may be up to in the TV space, as soon as this coming Monday.

First, the news, which, here in Baltimore at least, is not good for the news. David Zurawik reports in The Sun that viewership for 11 p.m. newscasts at the ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates has plunged over the past five years in the key demographic of viewers 25 to 54 years of age:

  • WBAL (NBC) down 62%
  • WMAR (ABC) down 56%
  • WJZ (CBS) down 52%

That’s right: The winner of that horserace lost only about half of its 11 p.m. audience.

The usual suspects are cited in the article: The Internet (correct – how much of the late news is actually news for people who are interested in the news?); Our Changing Lifestyles (if this is another word for choosing how to spend a half hour and finding the local tv news wanting, then correct); The arrival of the dreaded Nielsen People Meter (whining and misdirection — if the more accurate and precise tool shows a drop in audience, what does that say about those figures you reported for years using the less precise tool of a hand-completed diary?).

But, to me, the key here is that all of this plunge happened before the onslaught of hyperlocal competition from Aol’s Patch, Yahoo, Fwix and others just now threatening to wash away the footing from under local tv and newspapers. If the past five years have been interesting, the next five are starting to look, well, Biblical.

. . .

And now, the speculation, comma, informed division.

Remember Steve Jobs “hobby,” Apple TV? It was a set-top box released in 2006 and, largely, un-updated in any compelling sense since then. You can rent movies through it, watch video podcasts, show off your photos and watch YouTube videos. Not bad, but you can do a whole lot more with a Boxee box.

There’s currently a growing groundswell of informed speculation (which, in the Apple community, is often 2/5 wish-fulfillment and 3/5 tea-reading) that as soon as this coming week’s World Wide Developer Conference, Apple will reveal a new approach to Apple TV that could very well shift the paradigm for how we “watch tv” in the same way that they changed how we listen to music when iTunes went from a hobby to a full-blown business.

And no one has done a better job of channeling that combination of dreamy-thinking and clue-sifting than Adam Lisagor, in his post titled iPad TV:

I’ve owned and used an Apple TV box for two years. When I found out it could be “opened up” to allow for additional media, it started to overtake my usage of my DVD player and my cable box. So if Apple TV has been, up to now, a hobby, I have been right there with it, a tinkering geek.

But would Steve keep a hobby around for so long without any real plans for it? … Now I’m not one to get all drooley over rumors (yes I am) but when Engadget broke news last week about the next version of the Apple TV box being 1) cheap ($99), 2) run on iPhone OS and 3) streaming-only, without internal storage, I got excited. There are pieces of this hobby that are starting to fit together, and once they do, the hobby will have matured into something important.

For one, what of the massive $1 billion data center Apple’s building in North Carolina? I’ll just echo what others have speculated: this will be where our video originates when we pluck it out of the sky and siphon it through all our devices (including the cheap, tiny new box that sits by the TV).

… It could even be that the Apple TV is the lynchpin of the whole operation, the way that iTunes started as a “hobby” that organized our music collection, and revealed itself to be a hub upon which more than one industry was redefined.

It could be argued that this could be actually good for local stations — allowing them to get their news video in front of even more people in non-traditional channels — but if they don’t think of a way to monetize that video, it’s not. Would you pay 99 cents for access to a video of aftermath of a car crash or a house fire? I’m guessing no.

The reason local television stations (and, under the same model, newspapers) could previously rake in all that advertising cash isn’t so much about the content, but about the content-aggregation. For one discrete half-hour a day, they could guarantee advertisers that a sizable percentage of the local population would tune in for the news/sports/weather bundle and, likely, see the ad in the bargain.

See above for why that’s already no longer working. If Apple and Google get serious about TV, it probably just adds to the pain for local TV stations.