Monday, June 19, 2017

Today's interviewing insight -- and it works for all media, in most situations

An excerpt from a Poynter post of podcaster Jesse Thorn. The link to the entire Q&A is here.
If you had to pick one interviewing technique that you’ve learned that all journalists should be using, but aren’t, what would that be?
There is a question that you can ask that I learned from This American Life’s comic book, which came out many years ago. And in it, Ira refers to one of those old public radio dudes who’s perfect at their job and has been doing it forever, that there is one question that you can ask in any situation. I am embarrassed to say this, but I probably use it every two weeks on average, so that would be one in three interviews, let’s say. And it is, essentially, ‘What did you think it was going to be like, what did it turn out to be, and how do they compare?’ And you can ask that about anything.
Ira explains that very insightfully. I mean, Ira is the first episode of The Turnaround because he is the person I know who has thought the most about his craft and why he makes every move that he makes. He’s a guy who worked at NPR for 20 years before he started This American Life, and I think that whole time he was plotting This American Life.
Ira is a genius with this. Ira says, ‘That is a perfect question because it automatically inspires reflection.' It inspires a compare and contrast that fundamentally asks, ‘What does this mean?’ And that is the work of most interviews, is to try and hear the story that contains the information and then hear the meaning of that. And people don’t usually offer both of those at the same time, but this question sort of automatically demands them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Would they miss us if we were gone?

Below is today's Seth Godin post, and this should be part of our summer reading. We perhaps worry a lot about numbers and likes and assorted SMART goals. Godin reminded me of why those stats never leave me very satisfied.

Tough to measure, but the real reason we became educators, is how we have developed student voices, insights and passions.

Just one guy's view here, but my impression is that student media nationally is becoming more and more generic (and that means, BTW, that the overall quality is pretty good... maybe better at some level than ever before).

I value a student press that produces media you can recognize immediately, even without a nameplate or logo. The take on the news is unique. The voices of the writers are localized and authentic (warts and all). Strong doses of passionate rhetoric, along with a clear sense of fun, and an idealism that makes an education veteran wince.

Godin asks the ultimate question in today's post: "Would people miss us if we were gone?" Now that's a sobering question for student journalists and advisers alike.

Summer is precisely the time to reflect on what we do and why we do it, and finding ways to synthesize ideas from varied sources (like Mr. Godin), seems worth an hour or two.

Seth's Blog - 6-18-2014
In search of meaningful

From the individual who needs to get her idea in front of the right people, to the New York Times, which faces a ticking clock to figure out the digital landscape, all of us are in the media business. There's a gold rush for attention going on, and, given how much the media likes to cover the media, we hear about winners and losers, those doing it right and wrong, and most of all, the template for what we ought to be doing if we want to succeed.
I fear that right now, many are laboring under Buzzfeed Envy.
Since 1989, when I first started doing online media, people have been transfixed by scale, by numbers, by rankings. "How many eyeballs, how big is the audience, what's the passalong, how many likes, friends, followers, how many hits?" 
You cannot win this game and I want to persuade you (and Dean Baquet at the Times) to stop trying.
1. Are you generic? Over the last few years, the Times has lost Lisa Belkin, Nate Silver, David Pogue and other big name writers, not to mention the opportunity to do more with Michael Lewis and the Freakonomics guys. Here's the thing: when you read what these singular voices create, you know where it came from, and you have an opinion about it. 
Buzzfeed doesn't focus on who is speaking, they focus on writing something clickable and shareable and urgent in the moment. Those that want to own a valuable 'brand' like the fact that it belongs to them, unlike the demanding star writer, who might leave at any time. The value all goes to the system, not to the individual contributor.
(Buzzfeed is well on its way to becoming a dominant media company. But the Times isn't Buzzfeed, and neither are you.)
The problem with generic is that it's easy go as well as easy come. The Onion just launched their own sharable silliness and to those that spread it, it doesn't matter at all if the person writing it works for one brand in the genre or the other one. Staying ahead and gaining scale gets more difficult, not less for those in this segment.
Kasey Casem is remembered precisely because he refused to become generic. When he left his show and started a new one, so many people followed him that he was able to buy back the original show and run both of them at the same time. We were connected to him, not the idea of a radio show.
2. Is it for the reader or the search engine? Here's an excerpt from how editors are deciding things at the Times now: "There was praise for headlines that had contained the right words ... to maximize online search results." 
The most important thing any individual or corporate media entity needs to learn is this: One subscriber is worth 1,000 surfers. Newspapers learned this a century ago. The Philadelphia Inquirer created one of the richest families in America on the basis of a focus on subscriptions. And Time magazine has turned into a nearly valueless relic because they forgot to focus on subscribers and pandered to the newsstand and to the listicle instead.
[A subscriber, by my definition, doesn't have to pay with money. Sometimes, it's sufficient to pay with attention.]
3. Would I miss it if it were gone? And here's the key question, the one that gets to the heart of meaningful. When we deliver meaningful content, it means we show up, invited, with words and images that matter. It means that we are trusted enough to be permitted to speak the first few words, and talented enough to keep the attention we've worked so hard to earn. Most of all, meaningful can't possibly work for everyone with a smart phone, for everyone in every potential audience, because there are so many ways to be seen as meaningful, so many different tribes of people thirsting for different kinds of connection.
Here's the key flaw in the bigger-is-better reasoning: It's entirely possible to become an important voice merely because everyone is listening. (Walter Cronkite, or the front page of Yahoo in 1999). When everyone is listening, anyone who wants to be part of everyone also has to listen. That's certainly why the most viral viral videos get so many views--the second half of their views are people who don't watch viral videos, but need to get clued in.
There are still some advertisers who want the biggest mass they can find, who will pay extra to reach more people who care less, but those advertisers are going to find someone bigger than you to advertise with.
It's no longer possible to become important to everyone, not in a reliable, scalable way, not in a way that connects us to people who will read ads or take action, not to people who aren't already clicking away to the next thing by the time they get to the second or third sentence.
But it is possible to become important to a very-small everyone, to a connected tribe that cares about this voice or that story or this particular point of view. It's still possible to become meaningful, meaningful if you don't get short-term greedy about any particular moment of mass, betting on the long run instead. And we need institutions that can reach many of these tribes, that can bind together focused audiences and useful content creators.
Newspapers used to work because they were local, delivered and urgent, with few competitors.
Today, all four components have changed dramatically. Craigslist and others have stolen a lot of the revenue that came from local, anyone with email can be delivered, and the news cycle has bypassed the daily rhythm of the newspaper. And few competitors has become infinity competitors.
The future of newspapers (and for anyone making content) is to act more like a magazine, like Fast Company and Wired and The New Yorker of fifteen years ago. The center, the urgent center, of a smaller everyone.
My advice to the Times starts with this: Every reporter (and probably every editor) ought to have a blog (or be part of a focusedgroup blog), and post every single day. That's perhaps 600 blogs, every single day, each charged with finding a group of people who care enough about that voice and that topic to hear about it daily. If a reporter can't write cogently and passionately enough about his topic to gain a following, he probably needs to work somewhere else. And if the paper can organize to hire and train and reward people who can do work like this, if they can figure out how to get out of the 48-page paper mindset, if it can create stars and pockets of true connection, it's inconceivable to me that they won't be able to turn a profit.
Of course, one straightforward act isn't going to change the future of the Times, but it represents a symptom, a visible sign that the focus is changing from making an above-average (or even excellent) newspaper for the masses into creating circles of expertise, organizing tribes, building subscriptions based on attention and publishing outside of the finite world of paper... (And I firmly believe that this applies even more to individuals and smaller organizations than it does to legacy newspapers).
The future of media can't possibly only lie in random mass viral entertainments, generated with the aid of computers and aimed at the lowest-clicking denominator. For most organizations, that can't lead to useful ads, it doesn't lead to subscriptions, and most of all, it doesn't lead to impact. Entertaining the people who click on 50 things a day will get you numbers, but it won't make a difference.
If it's not worth subscribing to a particular voice or feature or idea, if it's not worth looking forward to and not worth trusting, I'm not sure it's worth writing, not if your goal is to become meaningful.
The three questions to ask, then, at every editorial meeting:
Who is this for?
Will we be able to reach them?
Is it meaningful?
And here's the rhetorical question I'd ask the publisher of every media company, from the sole practitioner to the Times: If you had the loyal attention of the powerful, connected, concerned and intelligent people in any given (valuable) tribe or sector, and you regularly showed up with anticipated, personal and relevant content for those people, could you make it into a business?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Is there potential peril when school newspapers go online only?

My gut tells me the answer is YES.

I can picture mornings at City High in Iowa City or at Rock Canyon HS in Highlands Ranch, when the school newsmagazine "hit the halls."

Hundreds of students, often just sitting in hallways, poring over the pages of the paper. Sometimes pointing something out to a neighbor. More often just immersed in a particular story.

It was a shared experience that simply can't be replicated by even the most sophisticated student media websites or social media. In a world increasingly lacking the sorts of shared experiences that communities thrive upon (hundreds of TV choices, DVRs, segmented news outlets online, etc.), there is something to be said for the somewhat old-fashioned printed newspaper.

I like the model of combining a strong print publication with strong journalism on a website and reaching readers through various social media. But perhaps that's just me being a bit afraid to commit to new technologies, to the new truth of students being "digital natives."

There is a lot of pressure on high schools to abandon the print publication (due to expense, mostly, but also due to people in power knowing just how much influence a shared experience can have, and seeing the benefit in more diffuse experiences). In schools large and small, urban and rural, the yearbook is the last print publication remaining.

So I worry. Then, for some reason, I come upon two online sources (yes, I understand the irony here) that support my angst.

The first is at and it summarizes the results of a study on how Seattle and Denver losing a daily print newspaper lowered civic engagement in those communities. I have a daughter who works for the Seattle Times (the surviving print paper there), and a daughter who was an editor at the Rocky Mountain News when it was shuttered, so I was doubly engaged in this report. I was not surprised to find that the news for both cities was not good, at least in the short term.

The second item I came across was a Ted Talk, recommended by a speaker I heard who did a lunch talk for marketing professionals, which I attended almost accidentally. Well, it's a related Ted Talk to the one she recommended, but you know how things are on the web: one click lead to another...

Anyway, I checked out the video and found myself wondering how I had never run into this idea before, at least stated this way. Part of the speaker's premise was that we humans have a need, rooted in our very biology and brain structure, to connect with one another in person.

I made the leap to: if our communities get too big to have personal contact with everyone, perhaps at least reading the same text, sharing the same experience, might be the next best thing.

Bottom line: keep that newspaper, newsmagazine, magazine... whatever it is you call that printed publication that seems increasingly out of step with the rush of technology, the eye-popping videos on a phone or tablet.

That shared experience is worth keeping.

Media classes pioneered 'flipped classrooms'

Something I first posted on my LinkedIn profile, as an experiment.
At all levels of education one of the current hot topics is the flipped classroom. This interest grows out of the increasingly accessible technology most students have in their pocket or purse, I would imagine. But the more I read about this idea, the more I think "everything old is new again."
Student media classes have functioned using the "flipped" model for many years. Class time is normally devoted to "doing": brainstorming, developing coverage lines, editing, writing (if computers are available), designing, adjusting photographs, etc.
Much of the education for media classes takes place online or in professional newspapers, magazines and websites... with students reading and evaluating. There is so much material available online that a student media adviser can best be defined as a curator. The job of the adviser is to sort through the volumes of materials and recommend the best to students.
The reporting (whether verbal or visual) in student media is done primarily outside class. After all, the news isn't happening inside the media class. It's out in the school, or in the community, on athletic fields and in auditoriums. Reporters, by definition, need to "get out there" and report.
A smoothly functioning student media class becomes a place to bring all the reading and planning and thinking and reporting together, with the goal of sharing information with the community. One student may ultimately publish news in the school newsmagazine, the yearbook, the website, social media, and video broadcast.
The teacher/adviser spends her time consulting, prodding, suggesting, praising and questioning. A media adviser in this sort of situation rarely spends time developing structured lesson plans or writing tests. The information and other help student journalists need is always "just in time." And the tests? We would call that publishing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dear parents... your child is invited to join our team

As with any elective course these days, the numbers won't stay up simply because student media advisers know that journalism classes are the best way to improve skills, build citizenship, incorporate technology and critical thinking, and so much more.

Sometimes we just wonder HOW other people can't see how terrific student media programs are!

When advisers get together with one another, at a conference or online, there can be a lot of angst over how difficult it is to convince students to choose a media course. We bemoan the lack of support we get from counselors or even fellow teachers. We despair about how to counter the rising tide of STEM classes and the pressure for kids to focus on them. We see traditional journalism struggling to find its way in the new century. 

We feel helpless, at the mercy of societal forces that seem to be set against us. What can we do?

My modest proposal: appeal to a population that cares more about the students than the educational institution, and that wields extraordinary influence over the academic lives of students. That population is parents (and guardians, of course). I know it is fashionable to think of parents as disconnected from their children, too busy to really communicate with their children, too focused on grade point and test scores to worry much about much else. 

Baloney. They want their kids to learn to deal with adversity, to learn to work well with others, to have fun yet make good decisions. They know their children are more than numbers, more than test scores and more than bodies being prepared for careers. 

So after identifying a group of promising freshmen or sophomores (or even some of the academic hotshots in your AP Lang course), how can we get those students to take the next step, and actually enroll in a journalism class?

As people in sales know, sometimes the most important part of the pitch is "the ask." 

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Kenerski,

Please consider encouraging your son (daughter) to enroll in our student media course in the coming school year. I am writing to you, specifically, because your son is a good thinker, a good writer and a good citizen. The evidence is in the recommendations I have received from other faculty and staff, and from my own observation.

But I assume that "good" is not enough, for your son or for you as parents.

You want your son to part of something real, something that demonstrates his talents and passion. You want your son to be part of a supportive team, with goals that rise about individual glory. You want your son to be challenged, but with the support he needs to have the best chance to succeed.

Our student media course provides what you want.

We offer genuine leadership opportunities. We offer authentic publishing experiences, where your son can test his ideas beyond a single classroom or beyond a single teacher. We offer a chance for your son to actually practice being a citizen of a free nation, going beyond theory.

I don't want to deluge you with statistics about the growing popularly of college journalism and mass communications classes. I assume you understand the importance of being a smart consumer of media, which now comes at us relentlessly and without much of a filter.

Yes, our media course will help prepare your son for dealing with an increasingly complex and challenging world. Few of our students will become journalists, but all will consume journalism, all will need to be clear and persuasive communicators, comfortable working in groups, adept at sorting through the blizzard of information we all encounter each day. Those are exactly the skills we develop in our media classes.

But you already know that.

And here's what I know: in this hurried, often chaotic world, there are voices that children will listen to: yours. Your influence, quite rightly, outweighs that of the school, of educators and legislators, and even of friends.

When you sit down with your son to choose next year's schedule, please consider how his working on a Pleasantville publication can benefit him. A word from you can make all the difference.

You want the best for your son. I do, as well.



Monday, December 9, 2013

What's the right percentage of opinion pieces?

Here is a response I sent to an adviser wondering about the right balance of opinion pieces in the student newspaper. He was responding to a complaint from a faculty member about how negative the student commentaries were, about them constantly "whining."


I am a cheerleader for MORE student voices in the high school press, and informal essays (we like to call them commentaries and/or columns) are a prime method of "hearing" those voices.

Perhaps our toughest job is to encourage our writers to move to "higher" levels of criticism, rather than focusing on pet peeves and on low level concerns (building temperatures being all over the place, the relative crispness of the tater tots at lunch, etc.).

Higher level concerns, such as the quality of education students are getting in a school, or the rising inequalities in American life (and maybe in our own schools), now THOSE are "grumblings" I am eager to read.

Insisting on two pages each issue, when sometimes you have three pages of good thinking and other times you really only have one page... well, that's just slavish devotion to a non-existent rule.

Deirdre's point about encouraging real reporting to accompany opinion is a good one. By way of example, I just finished reading this morning's New York Times front page in-depth on homeless children in New York. It's part one of a series, and it illustrates perfectly a version of Ernie Pyle's advice: If you want to tell the story of a war, tell the story of one soldier. 

Our version: If you want to tell the story of a school, tell the story of one student.

Sometimes you need to tell it in third person, with at least a thin veneer of objectivity, as in

[The reporting is so compelling that no reader can come away from this piece unaffected. I read elsewhere this morning that 20 percent of American children are living below the poverty line, placing the U.S. just above Romania among developed nations. There are no countries below Romania in this ranking.]

Other times our students just need to bust out first person and share on the page.

You (and the complaining faculty friend) and your students don't have a problem. You have an opportunity. 

Kids who don't care, don't grumble. Your kids care. The question for you and your students is more about how to get OTHERS to care.

All the best!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Storytelling from family snapshots reminds us that we all love narratives

Last year's New York Times feature on "The Lives They Lived" was masterful, as always, but the addition of the "crowdsourced" snapshots and short accompanying captions really made this a link to share with media students:

I contend that we can teach journalistic writing using almost any photo, even the posed, the slightly out-of-focus, the poorly composed.

The key is to have a chance to interview someone who was involved in the photograph. Questions like "What were you thinking when this was taken?" or "What does this remind you of?" end up opening the gates to great stories, full of emotion and humanity and even love.

And isn't telling stories like that what we got into journalism to do?