Remembering Elizabeth “Bricks” House

I am saddened to hear of the death of Elizabeth House, a former colleague at the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Elizabeth and I worked together in Greensboro from 1989-1991. My job on the copy desk there was my first full-time gig in newspapers. Elizabeth was always kind and helpful to newcomers like me, eager to show us the ropes.

Bricks, as she was known, did everything in Greensboro: reporter, sportswriter and columnist, copy editor and page designer. She was similarly versatile after moving to Hawaii, where she worked from 1993 to 2010.

In 2013, Elizabeth organized a reunion of News & Record journalists. I was able to attend and catch up with friends and colleagues from more than 20 years ago. The gathering took place on a perfect September afternoon in downtown Greensboro, and it wouldn’t have happened without Elizabeth.

Farewell, Bricks. You will be missed.

A story that’s set in agate and unfolds in a box

This weekend, I plan to attend a baseball-themed “block party” in Durham, North Carolina. The event is pegged to the upcoming all-star game between the International League and the Pacific League.

One of the bands performing at the event is The Baseball Project, which includes two members of R.E.M. Their latest album includes an ode to the box score, as printed in the sports sections of newspapers. Some sample lyrics:

  • “For a half hour every day, let the box scores have their way.”
  • “I don’t need a website recap or highlights on ESPN.”
  • “The box score tells the whole truth. That’s the way it was designed.”
  • “And when the last newspaper goes, we’ll just read ‘em on our phones.”

I too have been a reader of box scores since I was a child. The story of a game is in there as much as it is in traditional story text. That goes for sports besides baseball.

So I figure I will sing along to “Box Scores” on Saturday, assuming The Baseball Project performs it at the party. If you cannot be there, you can read the lyrics to the song and listen to it on YouTube.

 

A lesson above the fold

Worrying about what’s “above the fold” on a newspaper page seems antiquated in an age of digital media. But it still matters sometimes. Here’s an example.

The Sunday edition of The News & Observer included a section of news about the Raleigh area and the state as a whole. The story at the top of the page is about a job fair aimed at luring N.C. teachers to come to Houston, where they would be better paid. The story below that one is about a street festival in Cary.

Here’s how the full page appeared:

teachers-fullpage

My brunch companion, however, saw only the top half of the page, like so:

teachers-fold

Her reaction: “I thought those were the teachers in the picture. They sure seem happy with the idea of moving to Houston.”

That confusion is understandable — and easy to avoid. The page designer could put a kicker or even the main headline above the photo. That would create a more obvious visual divide between the stories. A thin line, as used on the N&O page, is too subtle to do that.

“Being John Malkovich” then and now

malkovich-ad

Returning recently from a visit to Hong Kong, I had 15 hours on a plane to read, to sleep and to watch in-flight movies on a tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of me.

One of the viewing options was “Being John Malkovich,” in which a sad-sack puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack) discovers a mysterious portal into the head of the titular character. Craig teams up with his office crush, Maxine (Catherine Keener), to turn journeys into Malkovich’s mind into a business venture. But there are unexpected consequences.

Released in 1999, “Being John Malkovich” holds up very well as an examination of identity. But some scenes seemed outdated in the era of an increasingly digital media. Here are some parts of the movie that struck me as in need of an update:

  • Then: Craig and Maxine place an advertisement in a print newspaper, inviting people to be John Malkovich for 15 minutes for $200. Now: Craig and Maxine post the ad on Craigslist (natch).
  • Then: Craig calls his wife from a pay phone to say he will be late home from work. Now: Craig texts his wife to say he will be late home from work.
  • Then: Craig takes a surreptitious phone call in his bedroom from Maxine. Now: Craig texts Maxine while hiding in his bathroom.
  • Then: In the first scene in which we see the world through the eyes of Malkovich, he reads a print edition of The Wall Street Journal. Now: We first see Malkovich scrolling through his Facebook feed.
  • Then: Malkovich looks at a print catalog and orders towels over the phone, questioning the customer service representative about differences between products. Now: Malkovich orders towels on Amazon, reviewing customer feedback to guide his decision.
  • Then: People line up to be Malkovich, bringing in big money to Craig and Maxine. Now: People find ways around the Malkovich paywall, denying Craig and Maxine the profits that they expected. Their startup is a bust.

Student guest post: Newsweek’s revival — a comeback or setback for print media?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Sydney Leonard is a senior journalism major specializing in editing and graphic design with a second major in art history. She is an intern for UNC Global and at Algonquin Books.

After ceasing print publication in 2012, Newsweek is finally coming back in hard copy to a newsstand near you, expected Friday, March 7. Break out the champagne and party hats: Print media isn’t dead!

For those of us in the journalism industry, it is no secret that over the past decade, print publications have taken a major hit in advertising revenue due to our increasingly digital media landscape. Influential print publications have been forced to lay off staff and cut entire desks to cut back on costs. The New York Times had to institute a paywall on its online content.

These days, there is an ever-present conversation about the possible death of our beloved newspaper and print media. So what exactly does the Newsweek revival mean for our industry?

Looking at the root of this revival is vital to properly understanding the depth of meaning for the future of print media. After several failed attempts to keep the newsweekly magazine afloat, a small digital publishing company, IBT Media came into the picture, buying Newsweek last summer.

IBT Media believed they could resuscitate Newsweek into an animated and lucrative web-exclusive magazine. And they did just that. Tripling Newsweek’s online traffic, IBT Media now believes it can revive the hard-copy publication as well.

According to The New York Times, Newsweek plans to print 70,000 copies as opposed to the peak circulation of 3.3 million copies two decades ago, with each copy costing a reader $7.99. The print publication will be much different from the old hard copy, serving more as prop to promote online content.

IBT Media has cited shifting the culture of its content to serve a different demand and working to tailor its content to what readers want as the reasons for revival of Newsweek.

While we should celebrate the return of hard-copy of a once-failed print publication, it is imperative to realize this isn’t the same past model of American print journalism. That model is dead. The model Newsweek is aiming to operate runs a dangerous line feeding readership what they want in order to boost sales, or at least this is what it sounds to be. Only time will truly tell.

The issue we must face is that American journalism is dangling in a dangerous moment of balancing our image of the special public institution disseminating the truth to the citizens while also striving to operate as a profitable business.

Stories covering mundane or unpleasant topics are important to be covered, but nobody wants to read them. So how is the journalism industry meant to deal with this problematic equation?

Our industry needs innovative institutions that have the ability financially and culturally to bring news to the people in order for our industry to sustain itself in the future. Time will tell if IBT Media is this for Newsweek.

Q&A with Josh Awtry, editor of Gannett Carolina region

Josh Awtry is the incoming editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times in North Carolina and The Greenville News in South Carolina. Both newspapers are owned by Gannett. He comes to this job from Fort Collins, Colo., where he was executive editor at The Coloradoan. Awtry started his journalism career as a copy editor at The Independent in Grand Isle, Neb., and he has worked in various roles at newspapers in Utah, Idaho and Myrtle Beach, S.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Awtry talks about his return to the Carolinas and what’s in store at the Citizen-Times and the News.

Q. You’ve spent much of the past 10 years in newspapers in the West. Why the move to the South to lead the Asheville and Greenville newspapers?

A. Great question! I love the West — a lot of who I am was forged in that unique culture of independence and larger-than-life landscape that permeates every aspect of that part of the country.

But, ultimately, I’m a sucker for a fresh challenge. While it’d be presumptuous to string a “mission accomplished” banner up in Fort Collins, we did so many of the things we set out to do a little more than 2 years ago: Readership trends are going phenomenally, revenue is the highest it’s been in years, digital subscriptions are way up, and the community is a true media partner with the Coloradoan. We’ve had civic forums, great engagement and turned the relationship between a community and its news team around. It’s time for someone with fresh ideas to come in and figure out the exciting things that come next.

At the same time, I look at Asheville and Greenville — two communities who are incredibly different, but they share an equally engaged populace — and I can’t help but be excited about the possibilities. I think that there’s a great chance to blend some of what we pioneered in community journalism in Fort Collins with an all-new playbook we’ll invent as we go along.

When my wife and I lived in Myrtle Beach, S.C., we would often vacation up in the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains (my doughy pastiness lends itself much more to the mountains than the beach). Western North Carolina and the upstate are beautiful, lush parts of the country, and I can’t wait to get my hiking boots muddy this spring.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 9.41.46 AMQ. Asheville and Greenville are about 60 miles apart. How does that affect your day-to-day work activity?

A. I’m a horrible workaholic and have a hard time disconnecting from the endless stream of social feeds and notifications that can detract from deep thinking. That drive between the two communities has given me something I hadn’t expected: a quiet space to formulate strategies and plot courses around obstacles.

Leading two newsrooms across state lines, though, is a unique challenge that’s new to me. Even though the communities are close, the state line bifurcates everything from press associations and politics to sports allegiance.

While there’ll be a chance for the two newsrooms to partner up on regional coverage that doesn’t follow boundaries, I see more opportunities in strategic development. In some ways, the two newsrooms can be the real-world equivalent of A/B testing. Come up with similar ideas, but deploy them in different ways. If one starts succeeding more than the other, roll both news teams over to that approach.

Q. What changes can readers expect in their newspapers?

A. How much space do we have?

If we’re just talking newspapers, I think the changes will be significant, but readers will still recognize their familiar brands. The biggest shift print readers will see is in the caliber of stories we tackle.

Too many papers are reactionary, and they still cover incremental stories without setting up context and depth. They’ve become “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They rarely dig into an underlying issue, and never really explain the community’s big narrative arcs.

Print readers will see a definite shift to daily, dot-connecting enterprise on the front page. Those stories will need to be based around a local issue and involve the synthesis of multiple data points and community voices. They’re “why” stories, and a top priority is having them every day of the week.

Shooting for that every day is admittedly a big check to write. We’ll help give journalists the time to do this by getting off the hamster wheel. We still have a paper to fill, but the focus is going to be on big cover stories coupled with shorter items. Some of the routine “dailies” will be truncated or avoided to give folks the time for the important stuff.

Bigger and more exciting changes will happen outside of the paper, though.

The biggest revolves around service. Engagement is a buzzword, but, somewhere along the line, papers abandoned the notion that they truly serve at the behest of a community. Journalists need to be shoe-leather experts, connecting readers with answers. Our goal will be to answer every question that comes our way. That’s how you turn readers into loyal fans, and that, in turn, helps engender digital subscriptions, which lets us hire more journalists.

That will manifest on social media, of course, but readers will be able to expect “real world” events, too. Community forums that bring noted experts in for Q&A sessions on big community issues should happen frequently. Gatherings of members to speak to the journalists they support could easily follow.

Why be water cooler conversation when you can be the water cooler?

Ultimately — thinking far out, here — my goal is to make people feel a personal connection to the news team they support. Anyone can circumvent a paywall should they desire; my goal is to make sure they don’t pay a monthly fee because they have to, but because they want to. That’s the difference between a subscriber and member, or reader and fan.

It’s exciting stuff, and once you start thinking down that road, you start seeing a clear path out of the malaise in which we’ve put ourselves.

It’s a work in progress, though. That level of civic engagement is the fun part, but we can’t get there until our core journalism skills are strong. Getting journalists to return to an embrace of deeper, investigative stories often requires us to build muscle in many of the classic skills of open records requests, data crunching and narrative technique.

Q. We’re seeing tremendous change in journalism. How do you recommend students prepare themselves for a field in transition?

A. It’s likely nothing students haven’t heard, but I can’t say it enough: Be a journalist equally proficient in all tools.

TV journalists have to be better narrative writers than ever before, print journalists have to be able to think visually. Master all the tools. Increasingly, we don’t send a reporter and photographer out to a breaking news scene — we send a journalist. Be as quick and comfortable with a notepad as you are with pinning a microphone on a source.

But, above any learned skill, be sure you’re curious about the world around you. That’s something you’ll not learn in any classroom setting. The best journalists are those whose inquisitive nature drives them to seek answers without being prompted.

And remember that journalists serve via the patronage of their community. Modern journalism isn’t just about telling the story that you want to tell — it’s about going to bat for your readership, answering their questions and being a resource.

It’s a cliche, but I do really believe it: This is a great time to get into journalism. 40 years ago, there was no reason for disruption; 40 years from now, smart folks will have this all figured out. But right here — right now — we get to make a difference in charting the future of information. And that’s heady stuff.

Making a case for Ukraine on the front page

Earlier today, I posted this on Twitter: “Wondering what it will take to get Ukraine on the front page of US newspapers.”

That Tweet generated several responses:

  • “A visit from Miley.”
  • “Put a celebrity on a plane.”
  • “For it to be moved to Florida or somehow incorporate sports?”
  • “A time machine back, to say, 1975.”

That last response was from John Robinson, a friend and former colleague from my days at the Greensboro News & Record. He went on to say that American readers would be unlikely to read stories about unrest in a faraway country. Besides, coverage of international news is available on TV and online. Seeing those stories on the front page is a thing of the past.

I agree with Robinson to an extent. I do not believe that readers want to read inverted-pyramid stories about Ukraine’s protests and politics, and I am not suggesting that U.S. newspapers publish those stories on their front pages. But I do think that many people have a curiosity and concern about the world, not just their communities. I saw that this morning when I noticed that “Ukraine” was a trending topic on Twitter in Raleigh, N.C.

The situation in Ukraine appears to be at a boiling point today, with dozens of people killed on the streets of Kiev. But why?

That’s where newspapers (in print, but also on their websites and apps) can step up to provide context and background. How about we use today’s events as a news peg to publish a deeper explanation of what’s happening there? Write and edit an alternative story form (like this one from the BBC) to provide context and background to the images that people may be seeing on TV and in slideshows. Include a map and other visual elements. Give readers the big picture, like Charles Apple does with his focus pages in the Orange County Register.

It will take more than a standalone photo or an Associated Press wire story to adequately tell the Ukraine story on the front page. It will require a thoughtful approach that explains the situation there and goes beyond the daily developments. I hope some U.S. newspapers will rise to the occasion.

UPDATE: Apple joins this conversation on his blog: “Once a reader’s curiosity has been sparked, there’s no telling what can happen.”