A few thoughts on the SuperReporter…

Over at local politico-blog 4&20 Blackbirds, a recent post by contributor Pete Talbot questioned a number of aspects of Michael Moore’s column in Sunday’s Missoulian, in which Michael sketched out the ground rules of WesternMontana360, a blog he runs in the Missoulian newsroom. Pete ran through a number of interesting questions about the changes happening in the Missoulian newsroom, but the gist of his post was a statement:

Show me someone who can write, record video and audio, edit and polish a piece, and do it well, and I’ll show you a god.

Pete’s got a point there, although I think it’s considerably overstated. The skills involved in creating great documentary video are quite different from those involved in writing a great news story.

He certainly is right, though, that reporters in the newsrooms of today — not just at the Missoulian, but pretty much everywhere — are being asked to do new things, often with little formal training, in an effort to buttress our products (and our companies….heck, who cares about those things? We’re fighting for our very JOBS) against the onslaught of new forms of news-gathering and reporting, not to mention new habits of news consumption and new expectations from readers.

Do newspaper reporters have any business doing video and blogs and other media that are already the province of other professionals? Well, there’s no clear answer as of yet, I don’t think.

On the one hand, TV newsrooms have years of experience under their belts doing what we’re starting to do in the Missoulian newsroom. And like the rest of the newspapers in the country, we’re not exactly in a hiring frenzy; so — as Pete astutely speculates — this is work that those of us already laboring in the newsroom have to learn and absorb.

On the other hand, I think Pete’s comments about the substantive difference between TV news and print news are, in most cases (certainly locally), correct:

One of the reasons I rarely watch local television news is that I want more than a cliché-ridden, two-minute version of the news, sprinkled with a few ten-second sound bites….television news stories are often assigned on their visual potential: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

There are definitely important differences between print journalism and television journalism. There are big differences between blogging and reporting. Some people are better than others at each of these.

I’ll just say this: The attitude (which I sense behind what Pete is saying) that untrained amateurs with little time or resources on their hands can’t possibly do a better job than the educated pros is the single, central reason why newspapers and other established media are struggling to survive today in the first place.

Blogs and Digg and YouTube have replaced traditional media as the primary news source for many people today — and for the most part, those are all the province of untrained amateurs. Newspapers and television networks across the country missed the boat on this fundamental shift in our culture, and are now working to catch up and be real players in this new reality.

As someone who never took a journalism class in his life, I don’t think it takes professional credentials or formal training to be a good reporter — a source of valuable information for the community. In the same light, I don’t think it takes formal training to be a good videographer or audio technician or…whatever.

It takes creativity and ingenuity and energy and talent. I can only hope we’ve got enough of all that in the Missoulian newsroom to sustain us in the crazy times ahead. I’d like to keep my job.

Pete asks:

Will newspaper content be driven by how cool a video can be produced out of that day’s news events?

It’s another good question, and I think the answer will be different at every paper. So far, from what I’ve seen at the Missoulian, it doesn’t affect what gets covered; but it affects what gets covered HOW.

That, to me, makes great sense. I have always bought into the idea that different ideas are best expressed in different media. At risk of exposing too much about my past, I point you to Life Following the Dead, a multi-part story I did in mixed media (video, audio, text, and photos) for NUVO Newsweekly in 1995, back before most of you Interweb-lovers were even freakin’ born. (I also co-produce the longest-running and first television series broadcast on the Internet: Rox, which at this point looks less like a TV show than a multimedia Web archive of my life).

Finally, the first comment on Pete’s post comes from one “JC,” who notes:

Blogging by traditional media reporters and producers is hobbled by editorial, advertorial, and contractual leg-holds.

Just for some perspective, I have never in my days as a Missoulian reporter been told what I could and couldn’t write about, with the exception of instances where I simply didn’t know we’d ALREADY written about something. “Contractual leg-holds”? Meaning advertiser concerns? I’ve never heard any of that in my time at the paper (and someone recently referred to me as an “old-timer” in the newsroom, an epithet that made me want to quit my job just out of principle!!). The idea that advertisers determine what gets covered in the newspaper is a myth, plain and simple — at least locally.

So far, the same is true with the blog: I’ve not heard a peep about anything I’ve written, I don’t ask for permission to write, and nobody edits this (cant u tel?).

My only imposed restrictions are about time: I’ve been told to make certain that it doesn’t take up more time “on the clock” than the column I’ve been writing for years (and that, now, is basically drawn from the blog, or provides content to the blog).

Speaking of which, It’s 11:57 on Sunday night. Shouldn’t I be in bed? G’nite.

2 comments to A few thoughts on the SuperReporter…

  • JC

    Joe, I think that my statements were a reaction to having just read Chez Pazienza’s piece on how he got canned from CNN by writing in blogs unsanctioned by his bosses. They drug out the employee handbook, which he had never looked at, and pointed out the small print about having to run outside projects (blogs in his case) through the home office. Thus the “contractual leg-hold” comment.

    I think I was referring to a distinction between writing for the newspaper, and writing in a blog affiliated with the newspaper, where you could expand your horizons, but not necessarily outside of the print’s editorial guidelines.

    Another way to look at it, if you had a hankering to blog under a pseudonym, would doing so put your job at risk? Either by just doing it, or because the content might reflect poorly on your day job?

    So says “JC.” ;-)

    Jim

  • They’re certainly good questions, Jim. I guess my overarching point is that so far, one of two things seems to be true from what I’ve seen of the Missoulian and parent Lee: Either I’m such a company man that I wouldn’t think of doing something outside their boundaries; or Lee is much more hands-off than most media companies when it comes to our personal lives. I’d like to think it’s the latter. :^)

    Oh, I’m not allowed to put political signs in my yard (but I hate those anyway!), I can’t freelance for direct competitors (but none of them pay enough anyway!), and strong four-letter words are verbotten except in quotes from someone else. But those seem to me small issues compared to the kind of stuff you’re pointing out that Chez Pazienza suffered from. I freelance for other magazines and newspapers outside the Missoula market without hindrance, I play in a band, I still co-produce the aforementioned TV series, Rox, and I co-author another blog that has nothing to do with the Missoulian or Lee, Flyover.

    So long as I still show up on time and do my work by deadline at the Missoulian, my sense is that they understand and support the fact that we have lives outside this building.

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