by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VIII, No. XVII

This Week's Clue: Online Journalism 101 (Special Journalism Issue)

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This Week's Clue: Online Journalism 101 (Special Journalism Issue)
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
SP (Shameless Promotion)
Sears Kills Magazines
Credibility Is The Coin Of The Realm
We Don't Believe You
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of April 26, 2004

Educators are talking up a course on online journalism. They're arguing about how much of the work should be devoted to technical subjects, like HTML codes, and how much to actually creating something.

No one asked me about it, and I've been doing online journalism for nearly 20 years (dating back to my days with Newsbytes on The Source). You would think someone might ask the voice of experience, but so it goes.

Still, the question exists. What's my curriculum?

  • Computer skills change. Thus they are over-rated. Back when I started, in the days of the 300 baud modem, text was the only possible output and all my stories carried phone numbers as references to sources. Then, a decade later, came the Web, and I had to do a lot of HTML coding. Now that I've finally learned how to code we have blogging, and most of my coding knowledge is useless. Unless you're going to work in computer production, in other words, it's your ability to learn computer skills, not the skills themselves, that counts.
  • Search is a key skill. The ability to pull stuff from Google, or Yahoo, or any other online database isn't the key skill you want to teach. As it was 30 years ago, you want to teach them where to look. This means going over, not just the obvious sources, but the non-obvious ones (like Dun & Bradstreet and other paid databases). I could see a course on how databases are created and how to manipulate them, but for journalists that course had best concentrate on identifying where the data is and what each database contains.
  • It's journalism. Even if you're working in TV, the chief skill is still writing. What you say, the quotes that you pick up from your interviews, it's all a script in the end. Online journalism is just journalism that goes online.
  • The business is still a-borning. The online journalism business is still being born. If you do what Medill did in my day - teach people the skills they need to hold a job - you are doing a disservice. Teach people what they need to create a job, to build an online business, instead.
  • Create Entrepreneurs, Not Employees. This is the most important lesson of all. It means that you need to teach the "ethics" of business, not just the ethics of The New York Times (whatever they are). You need to talk to people like me, not the "online editor" at the local newspaper. It's more likely I'll have a job five years from now than she will.
  • Just Do It. This is something from the old days that still applies. You learn journalism the same way you learn cooking, by doing it. So jump into it, 40 hours each week, and work the lessons around it.
  • Those wonderful toys. A course on new tools should not just emphasize what's out there, but emphasize what to look for in what comes next. In other words, don't teach someone how to use a PDA. Give them a PDA for a while, let them try and use it, and let them come out with an understanding of the device's weaknesses they can use in searching for something better.

Like I said at the top I've been doing online journalism for 20 years, which is twice as long as just about anyone else you could name. I don't play academic politics, though, and I've never been one for climbing corporate ladders. Which is why the only way you'll really get my lessons is to read this newsletter or become my intern.


Shameless Self-Promotion

I work as a business analyst with Progressive Strategies, a New York research firm that has the ear of the world's top technology companies.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Shameless Promotion

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Takes on the News

Sears Kills Magazines

The magazine business is circling the bowl.

A recent AdAge article on "product placement" in magazine editorial doesn't tell you this fact, but the fact is there. The magazine business has fallen and it can't get up. It's the latest victim of the Web, the competition for time with online is being lost.

As a result you have literally hundreds of titles desperate for cash, and marketers like Sears willing to take advantage. Make your stories into stories about us, about what we sell, about how great we are, they say, and we'll back you. Want our money? Give us your soul.

But once the link between the reader and the publication is broken, there is no need at all for the magazine. This is what the "computer press" learned, to its horror, in the late 1990s, and now the lesson has become general. A Clued-in reader now knows that, if they come across a big ad for Sears in a magazine, sending in a subscription check is a bad idea because the book won't be around that long.

That's different from the latest practice of putting virtual IntelliTXT ads inside your online text. These look like links but when you mouse over them you get a text pop-up with advertising zingers. Those don't break the line of credibility - they're just annoying as hell.

The most important link in any publication, online or print, is the one between the reader and the writer. When advertisers get in the middle of that they destroy the link, and thus the publication's reason for being. There are publications without advertising that prosper - Cooks Illustrated and Consumer Reports are just two. And there are many publications without editorial, like Auto Trader . But when you pretend to serve the reader and then only serve the advertiser you're going to have no friends at all when times get tough.


Credibility Is The Coin Of The Realm

I've always attributed this saying to George Schultz, a Reagan-era Secretary of State. He meant it in a diplomatic context, the idea that your word needs to be good in order to be meaningful.

But this is a basic truth in journalism. Credibility is vital, on both sides of the business.

Advertisers are learning this to their horror. We're in an era where any claim can be made in any ad, and as a result no one believes anything. We're in an age when anything can be portrayed on a screen, so people don't believe what they see. A generation of cynics can't be sold, and those who pushed us toward this stance are now paying a price for it. Good.

There is a solution for it, you know. That is, under-sell. Get rid of the flash, and the glitz, and the fast-talking. Under-promise and over-deliver. Yes, actually deliver on what you promise, and exceed the customer's expectations. That would work. It's as simple as the old handyman story told by Rob Frankel . The handyman would personally come by new accounts, and perform small jobs carefully, perfectly, charging for them but delivering extremely high value. This fairness would encourage the client to offer other work, and work from friends, work the handyman would be encouraged to profit from because the client wanted to keep him in business. Under-promise and every time.

We Don't Believe You

The journalism business is reaping what it has sown.

A half-decade of scandal-mongering, followed by a half-decade of slavishness toward officials in the name of the industry's self-interest, has finally broken the bonds of credibility between the media and its audience.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism released a wide-ranging study -- "The State of the News Media 2004" -- that put this plainly. There is "a disconnection between the public and the news media over motive."

In other words, the public has figured out that journalism is an industry, that it is interested only in its own power and prerogatives, not the reader, and that it will pass any lie in the name of increasing that power and control.

This is the best news I've read in a long, long time. Politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, and athletes have all been lieing right to our faces for years, and not just about sex, either (although that's the story that sells best). We have a generation of vipers, and no muckrakers empowered by the public to get to the bottom of it.

Sounds like an opportunity to me. Imagine how much money you could make if you launched an online publication that was truly devoted to the public interest, without fear or favor, that used the Web's connections to distribute its work widely, across all audience lines, and that clearly separated any advertising from its editorial mission. Imagine if there were a publication with an editorial "mission" in the real sense of that term.

Why, they could make a fortune.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is Google going back to selling adwords against trademarks . When the ads are clearly marked, there's no confusion, and no jury should buy a lawyer's argument that there is.

Clueless is News Corp.'s decision to re-list in the U.S. and get out of Australia. Murdoch will learn in time that the trouble with American politicians is they just don't stay bought.


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