Times To Pay The Price

March 28, 2011 § 3 Comments

Updated: March 28, 2011 8:12 p.m.
And so the experiment begins, with traditional print journalists heaving a sigh of relief and online folks raising an eyebrow or two while posting away jauntily on their blogs with the words “failure” and “mistake.”

Today, the NYTimes website unveiled a small box in the upper right corner entitled “Digital Subscriptions” that has the potential to re-energize what some have referred to as  a sinking paper ship known as the newspaper.  But will people go for it?

That question alone has been the subject of  intense conversation between professional, amateur and even journalists in training (such as myself) at some point or another, touching upon the industry’s ability to charge an audience for what it’s been able to get for free.

But whether the move spells out success or doom for the media giant is yet to be seen.

What we do know is this: it wouldn’t be the first time that a newspaper has evoked a pay wall onto its online twin (The Wall Street Journal claims the prize for largest newspaper to initiate and sustain a pay wall), nor is  it even the first attempt by the Times itself.

Indeed, the Times briefly flirted with the idea of monetizing their online content with TimesSelect only to ditch the plan two years later in 2007. Up until today,  readers were given unbridled access to any of the Times articles written post 1980.  The site’s general manager at the time had this to say on the decision to eliminate what had brought in $10 million a year for the company:

“We now believe by opening up all our content and unleashing what will be millions and millions of new documents, combined with phenomenal growth, that that will create a revenue stream that will more than exceed the subscription revenue.” (Vivian Schiller)

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case as the Times continues to bleed red and viewers  have much more to choose from now than they did back in ’07 –both for free and online.

The wall has already dominated the blogosphere with some supporters like  The Onion who called  it a “bold business move” and  readers of Business Insider affirming the wall’s future success. But the web also hosts the paper’s ‘fare’ share of wall naysayers like The Street who call it “the dumbest of this week’s dumbest.”

Unsurprisingly,  sites such as this one take a stronger stance on the inadequacies of the wall with instructions on how to evade it entirely. (If anyone tries it, do tell me how it goes. I am very interested in seeing if the web gods really are all powerful–even in the likes of the Sulzbergers). PCWorld does a great job at breaking the terms of the pay wall down for size with their post here.

But while many are anxious to see just how porous or impervious this pay wall is, I for one am dreading the day that I see the pay wall in all it’s digital brick-ish glory upon hitting my 21st article (something that will occur in probably less than a week’s time).

As a broke (journalism) college student, paying that extra $7.40 a week just isn’t an option.

So, food for thought: how many of you are opening your wallets for an online subscription and how many of you are not ready just yet to throw in the proverbial towel?


Multimedia Monday: Another Case of East Coast-West Coast Rivalry

March 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

My multimedia fascination with the Los Angeles Times continues with their latest installment, “Pop.u.LA.tion,” a compilation of audio slideshows by Mel Melcon and Liz O. Baylen that feature colorful LA characters from Burbank to Culver City.

The LA Times capitalizing on its West Coast flair.

The project is a little more than reminiscent of the New York Times‘ Emmy-award-winning “One in 8 Million–“ in fact, it would be safe to say that the LA Times was effectively ‘scooped’ by its East Coast counterpart (if indeed there are such things as “scoops” in the multimedia world).

NY Times captures the grit of the city in true East Coast fashion.

What makes this particular project definitely worth watching is the signature LA twist that the LA Times’ multimedia department puts on their pieces, which consistently put them at the top of the ranks overall when it comes to all things online. They’ve managed to take an idea that was already done (and done expertly, no less) and inject the carefree spirit of the West Coast.

Shot in delicious, dripping color, the LA version of this ‘slice-of-life’ project is decidedly more upbeat than the gritty black and white of the original NYT compilation.

The downside? Both are flash-heavy, which tested my patience as a Mac user, and both are very addicting. Watching just one won’t suffice.

So what say ye, fellow web journerds? Are you a Biggie or a Tupac?

Coming Soon To A Google Near You: Larry Page

January 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’m not an admirer, more like a user. But then again, who isn’t?

Personally I’ve always found delight in Google doodles, which exemplifies Google’s quirky web nerd roots.

With a multitude of products available for your computer, your smartphone, your iPad/tablet, and now even your tv, Google is taking over–one free download at a time.

It’s hard not to notice when something changes in the Google stratosphere, whether it’s ‘instantizing’ the already instant with Google’s live search mode, or taking on another web giant at its own game (ahem, Skype) with Google Voice.

Indeed, the one blip on Google’s radar (besides China) would probably be social media. The multimedia giant has yet to stake its claim on the lucrative business of making the internet social.

Where Google Buzz failed to attract, well, buzz, Facebook and other socializing empires continue to rake in users, and revenue.

Cue the management change.

Media reports have it that Google, not wanting to be outdone by the likes of such Harvard snobbery (after all, both co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin met in Stanford), is gearing up for a change in strategy that has co-founder Page stepping in for long-time CEO Eric Schmidt, who held the post since 2001.

While I think the reaction to the personnel change has been rather disproportional, I’ll admit that it appears that the decision is more than a game of musical chairs.

By appointing Page, (who is set to debut in his new role this coming April 4th) Google hopes to better marry its technological and business side. At first glance that doesn’t seem to point to social media, but then consider one of the most valuable (by speculation anyway) internet companies today, Facebook, and then the most popular cross-media ‘technology’ to emerge in years, Twitter, and you get one thing in common: social media.

And it’s important to point out that Schmidt hasn’t really been demoted, he will still serve as executive chairman, which seems to suggest more of a change in direction versus poor job performance.

So in closing, I leave you with the best headline I’ve found related to the Google change thus far, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal: “Google Turns the Page on Schmidt.”

Day #4: What Next?

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: After wrapping up the last of the sessions of the Campus Coverage Project on Sunday, it was back to Sky Harbor International and a flight to JFK where yet another major snowfall awaited me. And yet, this time the 5-hour flight back to New York was different.

Falling down the rabbit hole of investigative journalism: The loud thud means you've hit it big!

Four intense days had flown by and I suddenly found myself overwhelmed for the first time in a week, but not by the usual things that make student journalists scratch their heads in frustration.

I kept wondering to myself, what next? Story ideas, which have been and will probably continue to be one of my greatest journalistic weaknesses, were suddenly clawing at me from several directions like a mob of hungry vultures.

My mind continues to race with questions. Which stories do I pursue? What happens after the FOIA request? What happens if my university is perfect? Where do I even start?

Luckily for me, my university is probably as perfect as most other massive institutions with little to no oversight. Just to clarify: I’m not hoping for some kind of scandal or inconsistency in my university, it’s just that something is bound to go amiss in a community of over 20,000 people and an institution in command of millions in funding. And that’s not cynicism talking, it’s just logic.

I like to think of journalists as flashlights that shine on the obscure or darker areas of life that remain unseen from the general public in addition to covering the obvious and the breaking, though I know of plenty other people who continue to think that journalists both start the fire and pull the alarm.

For now, I’m content with simply gathering the most I can about my university until the beginning of the semester at the end of the month. Story ideas are great, but research and reporting are even better.

Day #3: “Becoming a Student of the Interview”

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: By Day #3 of the Campus Coverage Project, we students had already found that we had more than a few things in common despite our varied geography and backgrounds.

For one thing, stonewalling administrators are very much the norm and not the exception. And for another, we were all in general agreement when it came to the comfort of the Phoenix Sheraton’s lofty beds and the eccentric likability of Eric Nalder.

Nalder, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter formerly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times, gave us his take on the art of the interview, or as he called it, “honest manipulation.”

According to Nalder, an interview should feel at once conversational and hypnotic, basically “a scientific penetration of the brain.” He explained to students that while the goal of any interview is to “penetrate levels of privacy,” he also stressed that reporters should not misrepresent themselves or deceive others in the process of procuring information.

“We’re in the truth business,” Nalder said. “This isn’t a business for people who are cynical, it’s for people who are skeptical.”

For someone who has cracked some of the most interesting cases in investigative journalism simply by interviewing people (often more than once and for longer than the typical lunch date), Nalder’s tactic of getting people to talk by first taking a simple chronology of their lives is much harder than it sounds.

The process involves a sort of finesse that can only be obtained by “silencing the ego.” But whose ego exactly? Well, as it turns out, yours.

It’s very much in the vein of ‘you’re your own worst enemy,’ which I can personally attest to.  I can’t remember my last interview that went “as planned,” let alone one where the person I was interviewing divulged more than I had expected—though apparently Nalder can, which is why he is the master and I am but a mere apprentice.

But as he pointed out several times over the course of his lecture, it took many years and many interviews before he “became a student of the interview.” But luckily for us, he did and the next time I have an interview you can bet that I’ll be trying out a few of his methods—albeit with varying levels of success. After all, Nalder also taught me that a little bit of serendipity is built into life, even journalism.

Day #2.5: Budgets, Databases and FOIA! Oh, My!

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: After an exhausting first full day that included seven sessions over the course of 12 hours, today’s set of six sessions over 12 hours was a welcome change–or perhaps I’m just beginning to build a resistance to investigative conferences!

Pretty soon, I'll look like this!

No matter how you slice it, my brain is beginning to feel like a well-toned body of gray matter. This investigative boot camp is doing wonders for my journalistic sensibilities, as well as my general physical endurance.

Yesterday’s sessions focused on the watchdog trifecta: budgets, databases and FOIA.

Sessions like “Minding the Money” took a systematic look at higher ed institutions with a look at the cold hard cash, making use of the old Watergate adage; ‘follow the money.’

And follow it we did! All the way to federal audit clearinghouses and court record databases, most of which are available at various sites online or are a simple FOIA request away. We learned about how to avoid getting FERPA‘d and the fallacies (okay, maybe ‘fallacies’ isn’t the right word) of open records laws.

At the end of the day, I walked (more like crawled) back to my hotel feeling tired, but nevertheless, empowered! Though, empowered in a purely appropriate, non-power-hungry, journalism kind of way.

After always being told what we couldn’t do, or being constantly reminded of how low on the totem pole we are as ‘just students,’ it was nice to finally see a solution or be taken seriously by older people. Not once did any of the speakers at the conference tell us that we should drop a story because it might be too difficult or that it didn’t matter in the large scope of things.

I felt like a real journalist, learning real skills, pursuing real stories that really mattered. And you can bet that I’ll be taking back a couple things or two with me to campus next semester.

Follow me as I tweet happenings from the annual Campus Coverage Project (#ccp11) @jiejennyzou.

Day #2: “A Document State of Mind”

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: Day two of investigative journalism boot camp started off with a quick talk with veteran reporter Jim Steele over a bagel and some orange juice in ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.

Jim Steele, pictured right, has worked with fellow reporter Donald Barlett, to form one of the most impactful investigative duos in American history that continues on to this day.

Does the name Steele sound familiar? Because it should.

Think Steele, as in one half of the legendary Barlett and Steele investigative duo that broke and continue to break some of the most important Pulitzer, and IRE, award winning journalism work since 1971.

Steele delivered a short, but cardinal rule for 75 budding student journalists: “Never assume.”

Steele began his journalism career as a cub reporter working for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

That is, never assume that someone will never speak to you, and never assume which document will ‘break’ the case for you. “The best governments do not want you to know things,” Steele said. And more often than not, reporters will mistakenly spend their time waiting for a “blockbuster” of information when they should be spending their time piecing together a usually “blotchy” narrative, he said.

Even in a digital age that is unparalleled by its ability to break news and provide immediacy to millions in the blink of an eye, it’s nice to know that good ole’ shoe-leather reporting will never go out of style.

So what’s the secret to success for one of the industry’s rare long-standing collaborations? A love for reporting, vigorous peer editing and a scientific approach to investigations. “We test the hypothesis,” Steele said. “Is this true or is that not true?”

Steele and Barlett made a splash in the journalism industry back in the 70s when they broke the norms of investigative journalism and went beyond simply monitoring illegal activity. It was their work on ethics breaches and broken systems that resulted in “a huge tidal shift” in the investigative genre.

For the first time, it was all about “finding a root cause,” whether it involved illegal activity or perfectly legal activity that proved to be anything but clean.

But in an industry that has routinely sold itself short by making everyone an expert on something, it’s too easy to lose credibility and lose viewers at the same time.

Which is where the documents come in.

For Steele, it’s all about maintaining “a document state of mind.”

“The heart of great journalists is curiosity,” Steele said. And with those words, I couldn’t think of a better way to jump down the rabbit hole that is the world of investigative reporting.

Follow my feed on the Campus Coverage Project (#ccp11) on twitter @jiejennyzou.