Category Archives: Journalist

Could you recognize Brian Williams?

Could you recognize Brian Williams?

I’m sure that if I’d been asked to identify Brian Williams, the nation’s top news anchor, I’d be among the 53 percent of Americans who didn’t know him.

A recent Pew poll showed folks pictures of Williams and 27 percent identified him correctly. The plurality of those polled, 53 percent, couldn’t identify him. Another 18 percent guessed incorrectly and 3 percent knew he was an anchor or reporter.

I saw the indignation of everybody on my feed who tweeted that. But I don’t think this is necessarily a negative.

Not many people my age watch the nightly news. I have a TV hooked up at my house now, but didn’t for the two years prior.

I’ll sometimes catch a newscast at the gym. But for me (and I suspect many my age) the internet has allowed me to curate my news. I don’t have to tie myself to a specific time to sit down and learn whatever a network wants me to learn.

Obviously I’m a huge proponent and consumer of news. I’m getting news on my smartphone between interviews, via links on Twitter, in Google News alerts and through a carefully culled Feedly.

This is about efficiency. I was watching the news at the gym this week and had to sit (well, run, actually) through a good three or four minute segment on some B-list celebrity who had a baby at 49. I’d much rather have spent those minutes consuming news on a political or international event.

This aligns a little bit with how I was taught to learn. Traditional education used to put a lot of emphasis on memorization. I’ve been reading a lot about early presidents (see this post) and many of them memorized long passages of classical text or poetry so that they could draw upon them in conversation or speeches. By the time I was going through school, we had Google for that.

A big emphasis in my education wasn’t necessarily knowing everything, but knowing what you need and how to find it. Back again to efficiency.

It’s nothing personal, Brian Williams, but for me your medium is outmoded.

Exploring The Media Lanscape In Germany

Exploring The Media Lanscape In Germany

I wish I could bottle up the German appetite for news.

I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Berlin through the German American Fulbright Commission, where a group of participants interviewed members of the media as well as political folks.

Program participants setting up for an interview at news magazine Der Spiegel.

Program participants setting up for an interview at news magazine Der Spiegel.

One thing that struck me throughout our conversations with people was the amount and quality of news that the German audience consumes and demands. There is a strong public media in Germany, and one statistic we heard is that the average person listens to more than 100 minutes of radio per day. In addition, there are multiple newspapers in major cities, and generally at least one paper in smaller cities.

Even young people read newspapers or online newspapers at decently high rates.

As far as quality goes, here are two telling things: 1) Huffington Post launched in Germany recently and hasn’t taken off and 2) we talked with at least one publication that generated more readers by investing in investigative coverage.

It seems like in the U.S., investigative departments are the first go be cut (a shame).

But even with this strong appetite, it seems like German media is making the same mistakes that U.S. media made with digitizing content.

Many German publications started putting content online for free, and circulation has decreased. I remember U.S. media outlets making this same mistake.

But I think that Germany may be in a better position to have their existing newspapers recapture revenue because they haven’t lost their young audience. They may have lost their young audience’s subscriptions, but they’re still looking at content online.

Another innovative thing a lot of media brands do in Germany is cultivate their younger readers. Der Spiegel, for instance, has a children’s magazine and one geared toward university students. Those readers are more likely to transfer to their flagship publication.

In any case, I had a great learning about the media culture in Germany, and still have to contact some of the amazing people I connected with.

For me the temporary paradigm shift — thinking about an entirely different political system being covered by a totally different media system — was a healthy one.

Standing inside the dome at the Reichstag building.

Standing inside the dome at the Reichstag building.

My Senate Switch

My Senate Switch

After two years of covering the administration and public policy for MIRS, I’ve officially taken over the Senate beat.

While I’ll miss some of the leeway to spend a lot of time on enterprise stories and delving into public policy, there are a few things I can tell I’m already going to love about the Senate.

First, I see a lot more of my media colleagues. It’s kind of a nice perspective to know that there are a handful of people who care just as much as you do about getting the story and getting it right. Before I was working pretty independently most of the time.

Then there’s the schedule. Knowing what I’m going to do a day ahead of time is completely new to me. Often in my prior position I had ideas of what I’d like to accomplish, but they’d get pushed toward the end of the week as breaking news, events and other things I covered would pop up.

And I can’t overlook the most important difference: the senators. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the senators I’ve met so far, and how passionate they are about some of the issues they’ve taken up. Of course, I’ve got a learning curve here, but I can’t wait to learn more about the men and women who represent Michiganders in the chamber.

Of course, I’ve got some transitional issues, like coming up with story ideas and things to write about on non-session days. But overall, I’m really enjoying the job two weeks in, and if prior experience serves well I know that soon I’ll be busting at the seams with more story ideas than time.

Scandal, hold the “gate”

Scandal, hold the “gate”

I’ve long thought that slapping a “gate” on everything mildly scandalous demonstrates a lack of creativity. It long ago branched into the realm of ridiculousness, but it’s officially come full circle: I give you watergate.

No, not that one. The one that describes a series of scandals and crimes in the early 1970’s which eventually forced a sitting president to resign. Which is a big deal.

You know what’s not a big deal? Somebody pausing to take a drink of water.

The “gate” suffix has gone from describing the biggest political scandal in a century or so to describing the mundane.

But between the truly scandalous and the mundane, there’s been a smattering of ridiculous. I give you:

1) Bountygate

2) Tigergate

3) Skategate

4) Seatgate

5) Nipplegate

These are, for the most part, society page items. No presidents lied to the American people. The leader of the free world didn’t resign. The whole world didn’t suddenly learn there was a Vice President (hat tip, Spiro Agnew, for making that office worth more than the proverbial “bucket of warm piss“).

I’m not the first one to notice this. But I’m a young reporter interested in the future of my profession, and we need to start getting more creative. C’mon, newsroom up-and-comings, let’s tell the world there’s a new suffix in town. If there’s a “gate,” let’s make sure it at least involves a hint of political scandal.

Former Congressman Peppersprayed: The Story Behind The Story

Former Congressman Peppersprayed: The Story Behind The Story

I was the first to report that former Democratic Congressman Mark Schauer had been pepper sprayed, which I found out while I was covering the state’s Right To Work protest for MIRS News. It was by accident.

I was getting footage in the fray outside the House Chamber when the House of Representatives was voting around noon. From the ground level, the scene was getting chaotic. There were both regular and mounted police at the scene, and everybody was on edge. I couldn’t really tell if the police were pushing in on the protestors or if the horses were getting spooked, but here’s the raw video:

Union protestors weren’t reacting well to the horses, and I turned around to interview one of them. It was while that was going on that pepper spray was deployed, so I didn’t actually see it. But, again in raw video, you can see the reaction of the person I was talking to:

After the pepper spray happened, the scene got chaotic. I had retreated a couple feet to interview protestor Sabrina Bailey, and I was reluctant to get back into the front. I had inhaled some of the pepper spray despite being I think pretty far away from its use. You can see the people in the video covering their mouths.

I was probably 50 feet away from the capitol at this point, but I could see that all the chants and organization had ceased — in a minute or so, the crowd had gone from a cohesive group to rouge individuals. Everybody was yelling something different, and the anger was at a maximum as people learned the House had passed the first of the Right To Work bills.

Then, all of a sudden, the crowd shut up. Everybody stopped talking and was straining to hear. “Who’s talking?” I asked protestors, pushing through the crowd. “What’s he saying?”

Nobody had an answer, but I eventually got to the man in the middle: Mark Schauer. He had a megaphone, he was standing on an orange bucket, and he’d somehow reinstated order — people were chanting and displaying less raw anger by the time I got to him. I didn’t get what he was saying when he was speaking, but here is him turning the speech into a chant (you can see him at the very beginning — look for the megaphone in the center of the shot).

He stepped down, I asked for an interview, and I led him out of the crowd so my camera could pick up his voice.

I shot the video asking him what happened because I wanted to know how he’d managed to diffuse what was looking like a bad situation. What I got was pepper spray, and I tweeted it because at that point I was tweeting everything.

My initial tweetIt got quite a few re-tweets, and when Peter Spadafore (@pjspadafore) asked for verification I knew it was a bigger deal than I’d realized. Pete is one of the smarter people I know, and him wanting confirmation from more than one journalist to me meant I’d underestimated this.

I knew Schauer’s was a name that got floated for future elected positions, but I didn’t really put enough together to realize that he was a prospective gubernatorial candidate and this made him look like a RTW martyr.

I got inside and posted raw video kneeling on a couple square feet of real estate on the floor of the Capitol press room.

That video was then picked up by folks like Huffington Post and Daily Kos, and other outlets did follow-up stories with confirmation or after-the-fact interviews with Schauer. Fine by me: word getting out about my outlet’s outstanding coverage doesn’t bother anybody.

To be clear I don’t have an agenda, I’m a truly neutral reporter, and I’ve had little interaction with Schauer (in recent memory, I covered him at one Proposal 2 event). I wasn’t working for MIRS when he was in Congress. In fact, my first question to him was along the lines of “You’re Mark Schauer, right?”

I didn’t directly see Schauer get sprayed. But what I did see happen was a very volatile situation get tamed by one man. To me, that’s the story here.

NOTE: This is not my best video work. Much was taken while getting jostled by folks and/or worming my way through a giant crowd with a tripod I didn’t have room to set down. I’ve posted raw video here because this is the raw story — for edited video of some of these events you can see my MIRS video re-cap of the protests here.

Crowdsourcing campaign finance?

Crowdsourcing campaign finance?

This story’s not over yet, but ProPublica’s Free The Files project is getting it right when it comes to ethically compiling campaign finance records.

The latest in ProPublica’s financial disclosure efforts takes advantage of a recent FCC ruling that compelled broadcasters in Top 50 markets to put their political ad buy information online. It’s a rule that’s been freshly deployed and will evolve a little over time — for now it’s just the largest 4 broadcasters in each Top 50 market that are compelled. But it’s a huge step forward for campaign finance reporting.

Previously, station files had been accessible but not readily available — you’d have to drive all over the country and crunch numbers for probably years to get a clear national picture of political ad spending. Now, they’re available but not aggregated. Although they’re on the web, they’re not searchable. Want to know how much money Obama’s spent on top 50 markets in Ohio? Have fun looking through the 1,568 available files in that state.

Enter ProPublica, the investigative, independent, non-profit newsroom. The publication has created what I think is a very good system that unlocks these files with public help, but without jeopardizing the integrity of sometimes-delicate campaign finance reporting.

The system is that you can “free a file” from any market you choose or randomly assigned. You look through the file and enter four bits of information you glean from it: which candidate or committee has purchased the ad, which advertising agency purchased it for them, what the order number was and the gross total of money spent. This process involves no training, but there is an example document highlighted.

Once you’ve done that, the information doesn’t go live. It takes another randomized document-reviewer typing in the exact same information for the results of that file to be aggregated. There’s a login process, so the same person isn’t allowed to type in the information for the same file twice.

That’s an important issue for me, because it prevents anybody from gaming the system. In other words, no one individual can try and convince people Joe Candidate has spend $7 million on one ad buy in Detroit unless it’s verified by another person. And even if the other person is in cahoots with the ill-intentioned party, since the files are randomized he or she may have to go through the 300+ files in Detroit to get to that one and incorrectly influence it.

Of course, the double-review system also prevents mistakes. If I accidentally type the order number in where the dollar amount is supposed to go, it’s not going to be reflected inaccurately unless somebody makes the same mistake. In addition, I’m pretty sure the order number and ad agency information isn’t for display, it’s just another check on accuracy.

Anyway, I’ve got an addictive personality and an active interest in accessing the compiled information for the two Michigan markets on the list, so I’m on the leaderboard here.

I’m sure this is the same, probably slightly pathetic reason I’m in the top 5 percent of BeJeweled players worldwide.

Even so, I’m glad there’s a lot of people like me out there who want a clear picture of what’s going on.

The caveat is that the information we’re getting is limited in a lot of ways: swing states, Top 50 markets, top 4 broadcasters. But this is an important step toward more full disclosure — it’s easier now to imagine the day when this information is available online for every market.

Note: it appears The Sunlight Foundation has its own effort going on to try to unlock these files. As it involves training and a sign-up, I’ll have to take some time to check into their system and report back.

Reporters shouldn’t rush to volunteer on campaigns

Reporters shouldn’t rush to volunteer on campaigns

While I deeply believe that a reporter should have an understanding of what he or she is reporting on before investing a single keystroke, I take deep issue with Sasha Issenberg’s recent idea of having journalists volunteer on campaigns to get a working knowledge of what goes on inside one.

Here’s my basic premise:

It’s a reporter’s job to accurately depict processes and scenarios they haven’t necessarily been a part of.

One of the things I enjoy most about being a reporter is talking to new people and learning new things all the time. I’ve reported on topics ranging from union contract negotiations to regulatory rules cramping swine ranchers. If anybody reading my stories expects me to have actually been at the bargaining table or have scooped pig poop to really understand these subjects, they’re nuts.

What I excel at is talking to the people who have been a part of these activities, knowing who I can talk to on and off the record on both sides of the issue, asking the right questions, and putting together a comprehensive story based on the information I receive and verify. I’m fully capable of educating my readers on these issues without having been a part of them personally.

I understand the political landscape is a different beast. It’s complex, it’s divisive, it’s an onion, it’s got layers (though for the record, I’m sure the insiders would say that about most any field). I do believe it’s the highest and best civic duty reporters have, and it’s got to be accurate. Issenberg brings up some interesting points where reporters are falling short — poll spin, for instance.

But the logistics behind this don’t work. Issenberg suggests reporters should volunteer on a political campaign to better understand internal goings-on such as voter targeting efforts and statistic calculations.

You know what entry level volunteers do for political campaigns? Stuff envelopes. Knock on doors. Make calls. And my guess is they’re not getting a full run-down of how each door they knock on was arrived at statistically.

That means to gain the knowledge Issenberg is aiming for with this whole idea, reporters would either have to receive special treatment from campaign staff or spend a lot of time working themselves up in a campaign. Both of these prospects leave me a little queasy in terms of non-bias, and that’s without considering the question of which party they’d even volunteer for.

Issenberg gets around this by saying he volunteered with Democratic campaigns since age 12, but stopped when he started reporting. Fine, ok. Not everybody’s done that. Is there a way to rewind? Take a hiatus from reporting? Should we just disqualify everybody whose parents didn’t push them into campaigning on the playground?

The most integral part of the accuracy we value in political reporting is non-bias, and I’d rather not have reporters stewing in what I understand is sometimes the all-encompassing, insulated atmosphere of a campaign office. That’s a in-kind donation, in a sense. You cross the line from outsider to insider, and frankly the insiders are often full of shit, which is why media exist (in an ideal world) as watchdog outsiders.

I think accurately reporting on any given subject without actually being a part of it is part of any reporter’s job.

Knowing vs. Naming Your Sources

Knowing vs. Naming Your Sources

Good news: a reporter during the Olympics scored and interview with Evander Holyfield, the only five-time heavyweight champion of the world. Bad news: the reporter had no idea.

It’s a quicky mash-up of people talking about how great the queen was in the opening ceremony, which I understand The Today Show isn’t holding up as the holy grail of journalism or anything. But I’m a little disturbed by the fact that this videographer may not have gotten these people’s names.

As a reporter,  it’s important legally and ethically for me to have the names and contact information for everybody I’ve ever interviewed, as well as a rough transcript of our conversation. I organize this in a complicated system of business cards, files, e-mail folders and an address book. It’s a lot of work, but I consider it part of my job. Because if anybody ever challenges me on anything, I’d like a dated piece of material to reference in my defense.

I understand that these people didn’t need to be identified in the story. They’re man on the street style interviews, and the mash-up format makes it impossible to fit a name readably on the lower third. But I know I’m not the only reporter who at least has the names of everybody I interview.

Every TV reporter I’ve seen on a first contact has started their interview, camera rolling, in this manner:

Could you say your name and spell it please?

I’d hope that if a reporter got Evander Holyfield’s name, they’d recognize it. I’m not saying know all his stats and ask him on the spot how his ear is doing, but it’s not a common name. I think it should set off a “where have I heard that name? I’ll Google it” alert in most people’s heads.

I’m not sure whether the case is that somebody just didn’t have that bell go off, or they weren’t taking names. But I think that the latter is a disheartening possibility.

On the plus side, I completely loved the aftermath. Holyfield was very good-natured about the incident on Twitter.

And from  his latter tweets, it appears he may even have gotten an appearence on The Today Show for this gaffe. That would be a good move on NBC’s part (is this compliment enough to keep them from banning my Twitter account? Heh heh heh.)

How Public Figures Shouldn’t Use Twitter

How Public Figures Shouldn’t Use Twitter

Note: I myself (@emilyjanelawler) am far from a perfect tweeter. However, I have time to perfect that before I’m a hugely public figure, and I’m a quick study.

I’m a Twitter participant and a Twitter observer, and lately some social media strategies (or lack thereof) have caught my attention. And I’m not just talking about the perfectly-named former Rep. Anthony Weiner, either.

Here’s a blanket statement: It’s not a good thing to see your Twitter activity in the media. If your Twitter feed is newsworthy, it’s standing out from a crowd of some really lewd, witty, ridiculous people. Think about your competition here. Chances are you’re not meeting any threshold of professionalism.

A recent example was a favorite public figure of mine, Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh. Mind you, Detroit City Council is notoriously ridiculous (see: last chairperson resigning amidst federal charges). But the City Council president picking an ego-fueled, public fight on social media with a 19-year-old Automotive News intern made several publications.

I say ego-fueled because @joshsidorowicz started with a tweet linking to an article that was critical of @Charles_Pugh’s timing in releasing a video of weight loss secrets. What started as Pugh trying to make the point that reporters shouldn’t be focusing on his abs (never mind that they’re the centerpiece of his weight loss secrets, which he’s been urging the press to cover) dissolved into Pugh trying to use his political influence to have Sidorowicz punished by his employer.

If you really have that kind of influence I’d have to believe that 1) you’d be successful (Automotive News kept Sidorowicz on) and 2) you’d do it behind the scenes. As much as I love Twitter, it isn’t a place where you take your grievances if you’ve actually got clout. And just from a public relations standpoint, it’s a terrible idea to engage this deeply.

I’d argue that the other extreme is being too upbeat. Like that character in some movies that’s so happy it makes people uncomfortable. I’d argue that the executives of the three big counties in Southeast Michigan go in that direction. There’s nothing distinguishing their tweets from, say, a corporation’s upbeat tweets about how awesome their products are. Only in this case, the products are counties.

The most confusing in his optimism is Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, who oversees an administration under investigation by the FBI. There’s hardly a week that goes by where a story of overgenerous benefits, bribes, a whistleblower lawsuit or worse doesn’t hit the newsstands. But apparently he pays somebody $73,000 to keep his tweets cheery and never address any of those issues.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson (@BrooksPatterson), famous for his witty strikes, is perhaps the most disappointing in the lack of personality in his tweets. His Twitter description of himself bills him as “I’m the Oakland County Executive, known for telling it like it is.” But as far as his account reads, he only tells the happy, fluffy stuff like it is.

I realize not everybody is tweeting with the media in mind. But as some of the earliest adopters and most dedicated users of Twitter, you better believe we’re CRAWLING that business. Lists, alerts, constant refresh, apps — if you’re a public figure, you’re being watched 24/7.

And yet, even the media isn’t immune to tweeting petty things that don’t make us look any better. I leave you with a completely public and unnecessary exchange between two local reporters in #lovelansing:

Classy is as classy does, people.

What will come out of newspaper idea lab?

What will come out of newspaper idea lab?

When Heritage Newspapers announced plans to launch what amounts to a news incubator in a few months, I was leery that what came out of the experiment may be a flop of Patch-like proportions.

From their article on the subject:

Our goal is to teach the community to gather and report news on a variety of platforms, from creating video and podcasts to photo slideshows and sound slideshows to timelines, locator maps, info graphics, live tweeting, creating Storified compilations and databases, and become collaborators with, bringing the outside in and creating a transparent community newsroom.

A noble cause, but I think the journalism world can look to AOL’s Patch venture for why a lot of times hyper-local content doesn’t work. It’s not that important, not actually that local and most importantly not that interesting. I spent five minutes browsing some Michigan Patch posts and found the following stories I can’t imagine more than 10 people care about:

– a 1,168-word “Tribute To Twinkies

– a crime blotter that leads with a stolen bike helmet

– a blog simply entitled Gossip!

That said, I think the Heritage Newspapers project could address the problem of untrained community journalists. I’ve left “community” articles with grammatical hangovers and headaches from shaky cell phone video, so as a consumer I appreciate any attempts to clean it up.

But I think the issue is going to be what kind of talent pool the incubator has to work with. Heritage has established themselves in a college town, which may be good. Eastern Michigan University offers a journalism major, though it’s not accredited. That probably menas students are looking for opportunities to establish a good portfolio. Heritage also mentions that they want to recruit high school students, which sounds like a great idea.

But I have a different prediction for who will end up being interested: community activists.

I’ve sat through enough public comment sessions in state and local government to know that there are a lot of people that care deeply about issues but at the end of the day just aren’t informed on them. If Heritage is going to help them translate the half they do understand into a video or slideshow package and then distribute it as straight news, it’s a problem.

I think the challenge on this front will be aligning people’s interests and passions with journalistic and ethical standards. Because when it changes from “I want to cover this because these city council changes are bullshit and people ought to know about it” to “I’m covering this for Heritage Newspapers, let’s get both sides,” it’s work. Which is why newspapers have traditionally paid reporters. And hey, as a paid journalist I’m all for continuing that tradition.

But I’m also interested to see what (and who) comes out of this new venture in community journalism.

Note: I’m not clear on whether this content will have its own site or be featured on the websites of Heritage Newspapers. Also note:  I browse many of the state’s papers every day, and think Heritage does a great job with local coverage.