Today at USA Today

We picked a somewhat awkward time yesterday to arrive at the McLean, Virginia headquarters of USA TodayThe five Back in the Newsroom fellows and I all agreed that the campus sure looked nice. But it seemed quiet and a bit somber, and that might have been because this was the final day for some recently laid-off employees.

But we were met by an upbeat Brent Jones, the standards and ethics editor at the company, and quickly led to an impressive-looking newsroom that was buzzing with activity. It’s clear that the company is truly a digital operation. Top editors were seated in a circle for a morning meeting that included the social media and engagement team, who were intently monitoring their audience numbers on Chartbeat. A few feet away was Andrew Scott, deputy director of multimedia for USA Today, who was turning on lights to prepare the three-camera television set for a later broadcast.

“We call it the USA Today Network, because the closest thing it is to something is a television network,” said David Callaway, USA Today’s Editor in Chief.

USA Today editor's meeting with Back in the Newsroom Fellows
Back in the Newsroom Fellows sit in with USA Today editors at a morning meeting at the company’s McLean, Virginia headquarters. The broadcast set is visible off to the right.

The staff was coming off a recent coup. They had just completed an investigative piece on security concerns surrounding bio labs in the United States and had the story and its digital components ready to go when news broke that live anthrax specimens had been mistakenly shipped to two dozen labs in the U.S. Executive Editor Beryl Love said that as many as 40 outlets in the USA Today network participated in the reporting and localized the content when the story broke Thursday.

“In the past that story would have dropped like a thud in the local markets and they may or may not have picked it up,” Love said. “And by the way, it’s digitally optimized, interactive and lets you search by state and find out where the closest bio lab is to your house.”

Editor in Chief David Callaway with print paper of bio lab story
USA Today Editor in Chief David Callaway and other editors talked about the widespread participation of many company outlets in the bio lab investigative story

We completed our day with tours of NPR and later The Washington Post. NPR didn’t allow many photos inside and also didn’t want our meeting with producers on the record, a strange philosophy for a media organization with “public” in its name. Oh well.

At the Post we met with top social media editors Michael Gold and Jessica Stahl, who gave us a concise view of how content at the company is optimized for digital platforms. While they lead the way, reporters are being asked to do a lot of their own engagement, such as posting regularly on Twitter and coming up with clickable headlines for all their digital content. They emphasized that the company’s social media strategy is to be as forward-thinking as they can, so they are looking not to where the audience is today, but anticipating where it might be down the road. Currently generating excitement among Post editors and reporters is Twitch and Periscope.

I know where we will be in the future: Heading off to our respective fellowships. We parted ways Friday evening to travel to different cities in anticipation of our fellowships that begin on Monday, when the real fun begins.

The Back in the Newsroom Fellows visiting USA Today. That's USA Today's Brent Jones, second from left.
The Back in the Newsroom Fellows visiting USA Today. From left to right: Russell Motley, Brent Jones (USA Today’s standards and ethics editor), Saul Rubin, Michael Fairwell, Milbert Brown, Marie Villa and Milton Kent.

Here is where we are going:

Milbert Brown: ProPublica, BuzzFeed and WNYC
Michael Fairwell: The Wall Street Journal
Milton Kent: The Washington Post
Russell Motley: USA Today
Saul Rubin: Los Angeles Times
Marie Villa: Univision

Stay tuned!

No summer break for us teachers

Summer is usually a time for teachers to kick back, take up a hobby, and spend leisurely time tweaking lesson plans while getting a much-needed break from the stress of the classroom and the stifling world of academia.

But not for us.

We are the six participants in the 2015 Back in the Newsroom Fellowship. We all met in Washington, D.C. today to open a jam-packed, two-day orientation to prepare us for the busy weeks ahead.  Starting Monday we will plunge into newsrooms around the country, from The Wall Street Journal to BuzzFeed, to begin a two-month assignment where we will be something between an intern and a visiting scholar.

One of the first things we learned is that we will have to give up our cushy teaching schedules that include Fridays off to enter the real working world. We will be expected to put in a 40-hour week or more just like other hard-working  journalists. Collective groan.

Elisa Tinsley, Deputy Vice President of Programs for the fellowship sponsor, The International Center for Journalists, said one of the main goals of the program is for us to immerse ourselves in cutting edge newsrooms to experience what they are doing and then to take those lessons back to our classrooms.

This experience can be valuable even if some of us have only been out of a newsroom for a few years as so much has changed in recent years, and so quickly. While we were encouraged throughout the day to roll up our sleeves and go to work as journalists during the fellowship, Tinsley cautioned against us being used as “hired help.”

“You need to be able to step back and see how this is helping you, your students and your teaching,” she said.

Guest speakers during the day included such veteran journalists as John Hatch, senior editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Amy Eisman, former USA Today editor and now director of Interactive Journalism at American University, and Larry Roberts, a senior editor at ProPublica. Eisman inspired us with examples of group projects her students have done with local media organizations, and she also suggested we assign students to cover a story using Twitter. I added these to my to-do list for fall semester.

Hatch suggested giving students assignments involving content that excites them as a way for them to engage more in emerging technology.

“A general technical proficiency is important in the newsroom culture,” he said. Prospective newsroom hires don’t have to be experts in technology, he said,  but at least be conversant in its capabilities for story-telling.

We were also visited by two of last year’s inaugural fellows, Yolanda McCutchen and DaVida Plummer, who offered sage tips on how to best take advantage of this opportunity.

“Be proactive,” Plummer said. “You are not doing a research project. You have to act like a news person.” She also advised moving around our respective newsrooms to observe many different work flows. “You want to see the entire process from quite a few different angles.”

Past and Future Back in the Newsroom Fellows meeting for the first time.

One of the main goals of this orientation was for the current fellows to meet and initiate a bond before we head off to our respective newsrooms. Although we will be in different cities, we will all stay in touch through a group Facebook page. But as we discussed, Facebook is no longer cutting edge, so perhaps this is a poor choice for social media if we are hoping to be at the forefront of what’s next in the digital landscape.
I outlined my main goals for my fellowship at the Los Angeles Times as exploring the ways the Times implements a digital first philosophy, and to speak with workers at many different jobs to learn about career pathways for journalists today.

Now it’s off to dinner. Tomorrow, tours of USA Today, NPR and The Washington Post.

The Robot as Reporter

I look forward to meeting many staff members at the Los Angeles Times when I begin my fellowship on June 1. But one reporter is going to be especially hard to get to know, or invite to lunch. It’s actually not a person but a programmed algorithm known as Quakebot.

Quakebot was developed at the Times by Ken Schwencke, a real person. It utilizes information from the U.S. Geological Survey to quickly create stories about earthquakes, a common enough occurrence in California to where such a program would be useful. I experienced Quakebot’s handiwork this past weekend following a brief jolting that occurred Saturday morning. The L.A. Now section of the Times published Quakebot’s story about 20 minutes after the shaking had stopped.

image of automated reporting example by Quakebot
An example of Quakebot’s reporting skills. Nice work!

Quakebot obviously aspires to a no-nonsense school of reporting. The posting offered a nothing-but-the facts type of lede that gave readers, in a 20-word paragraph, the “what” and “when” of the story, and an attribution. Bravo!

Schwencke has also developed a similar automated reporting program for the Times’ Homicide Report.

These types of programs are gaining traction in journalism circles, especially in the world of sports reporting. The Associated Press announced this spring that it would use Wordsmith to generate sports game stories. Wordsmith, on its website, promises to turn “big data into narrative reports” by spotting patterns in the information. If this sounds a lot like what the human variety of sports reporter does, that’s right. Automated reporting programs can craft a decent sports game story in the time it takes a human sports writer to fetch a post-game donut. And these computer programs don’t require costly health care, or submit expense reports.

When I first heard of these types of automated reporting programs about a decade ago, I laughed at the idea than robots could replace people as reporters. As I read the serviceable report by Quakebot of last weekend’s earthquake, the idea is not so easily dismissed. Artificial intelligence has made great strides in recent years. The computer Watson killed on “Jeopardy!” not too long ago. And the folks at Wordsmith have added some sophisticated stylings to their program so that its reports don’t sound so, well, robotic.

With reporter jobs already threatened in many newsrooms, now comes news of another  potential risk: losing your job to a machine. This is one trend I will watch closely when I take my turn at L.A. Now, where the goal is to generate concise breaking news stories and upload them quickly to the Times website.  If robots are going to begin a takeover of the modern newsroom, the breaking news department will be the first line of assault.

The Interns and Me

I spoke this week with Tracy Boucher, Director of New Development at the Los Angeles Times, to map out goals and assignments for my Back in the Newsroom Fellowship that begins June 1. Boucher wears many hats at the Times, including handling their award submissions. She is also in charge of their internship program.  I’m being grouped along with this summer’s Times interns, a supercharged, impressive group of students from some distinguished U.S. colleges, including Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and Columbia. I’ll be the oldest guy in the group, by far, so this aspect of the program should provide some lighthearted moments for me and them. And a great learning experience too, I imagine.

This alignment with the interns also brings me full circle, as I was a Berkeley journalism student with an internship in the Times’ San Francisco bureau in the mid-1980’s. I had a grand time and wrote many stories, including this one about the escape of two patas monkeys from the San Francisco Zoo. I also stayed on in the bureau for several months after the internship ended in a full-time, non-permanent reporting role before taking a staff writer job at the now defunct Santa Monica Outlook. Yes, I’ve closed a few papers in my time.

I found the list of this summer’s interns illuminating as it shows the breadth of newsroom opportunities for digital age journalists. While some students are assigned to traditional sections such as news, business, and arts and entertainment, others will be interning at more exotic-sounding desks such as “visual journalism” and “visualization and data.”

L.A. Now is really California Now.
L.A. Now is really California Now.

I’ve been assigned to L.A. Now, an online section with breaking news about California. I’m excited about the placement. The blog reinforces the digital-first mentality that I’d like to instill in my Corsair students. Boucher explained that items on L.A. Now are sometimes online only, as they lose their news value by the time the print edition goes to press. Or if L.A. Now items are presented in print, such as this week’s oil spill in Santa Barbara, it will be written about in a more thoughtful way in the print product. The Times assumes that readers already know the basic news from digital sources and are looking for more analysis in the newspaper.

Is The Right to be Forgotten All Wrong?

As the faculty adviser to the Corsair newspaper at Santa Monica College, I received a request this weekend from a woman who sounded pretty desperate. An article published online at the Corsair four years ago included background information about her that she no longer wanted public. “This issue has recently affected me in a profound way and I want to remove this once and for all,” she wrote.

On a human level, I felt her pain. Who wouldn’t mind erasing some untidy bits of personal history?

But then the journalism professor took center stage and I was outraged. The story was accurate and the information hardly offensive. The story was already published.  To remove it now to suit someone’s whim went against all my journalism training and beliefs.

The Corsair staff explored the issue during class today. It made for a lively ethical discussion of a growing controversy in digital publishing: The Right to be Forgotten. This emerging digital era right was legitimized by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2014 that gave European Union citizens the right to wave a wand over their digital pasts and make them go away. That shoplifting conviction from five years ago reported on by your local online news site? Delisted by Google, as in it never happened. Since the ruling, Google has fielded up to 750,000 requests for specific items to be delisted from its search database.

No such right to be forgotten exists in the U.S. because, well, we are of tougher moral fiber, and believe we need to confront our sordid past lives and carry their weight around forever.

It’s a common belief that your past lives forever on the Internet, a warning to those who post unflattering images and Tweets that often come back to bite them. Doh! The truth is that the digital past endures because of Google alone. Almost all internet searches start with Google.

Digital archives are more ephemeral than people realize. The Internet is littered with dead links and missing pages. And unlike printed media, which exists in a tangible form, publishers can make digital content disappear when they want, such as the revelation last year that BuzzFeed removed more than 4,000 posts from its early existence that weren’t up to its current editorial standards. A great New Yorker article detailed just how much digital publishing is disappearing, highlighting the efforts of  Brewster Kahle and San Francisco’s Wayback Machine to preserve it before those bytes of information flitter away.

The Wayback Machine is a valuable resource, but it’s not nearly as handy as researching information using Google. Which means that the future of digital archives lies with Google, not publishers.  If Google cuts off links to content, it’s as good as dead to the world.

The woman who contacted me about a past online article in the Corsair really had a beef with Google. She said that every time she entered her name in Google, the Corsair article was the first thing that came up. And she didn’t like it.

Corsair editors agreed to remove the tag of her name from the article attributes but to leave the article intact. But if Google decides to break a link to the article, it’s as good as having the article de-published, and that seems like a lot of power to put in the hands of a search engine.

The Journey Begins

The last time I worked full-time in a newsroom, Bill Clinton was in the White House, everyone was terrified of Y2K, and The Blair Witch Project was the hot movie. The height of technology was the dial-up modem that allowed you to connect, after several frightful minutes and not always with success, to the mysterious informational realm of the world wide web.

Ancient dial up moden
Cue Squawking Sounds Now

I left full-time journalism when I was hired in 1999 to a tenure track position teaching journalism at Santa Monica College. Since then I’ve taught hundreds of journalism students at SMC while watching the field of journalism churn through monumental changes. I’ve kept up with these shifts, of course, and adapted curriculum changes as needed. But reading journalism-related blogs, attending journalism conferences and holding annual advisory board meetings with local professionals just wasn’t enough to keep up with the rapid pace of change.

That’s when I heard about a very special program offered by the International Center for Journalists called the Back in the Newsroom Fellowship. ICFJ’s fellowship program takes educators at colleges with large Latino populations and places them in cutting-edge digital newsroom in the United States. The goal is to give them a close-up view to how media companies are creating and distributing their content so that educators could take these practices back into the classroom. The overall goal is to increase diversity in the newsroom.

I was accepted into this program in mid-May, 2015. I’m preparing to spend nine weeks inside the Los Angeles Times beginning June 1.  Before that I will travel to ICFJ’s Washington D.C. office for two days in late May for program orientation and a chance to meet the five other journalism teachers selected to the program.

With this blog I hope to share my experiences as I step back into a newsroom for the first time since dial-up modems were all the rage.