Tag Archives: UPI

Will Web Metrics Kill Professional Journalism?

The crumbling of mainstream journalism worries me. But am I just being nostalgic? Was it really that good in the past?

newspapers, Journalism, mainstream journalism, trends in journalism

The Portland Oregonian, one of the grand old daily newspapers they used to use an example when I was in J-school in 1971, and is still printing big paper newspapers every day, is changing the game for its reporters. They’re going to be paid for traffic. They have to post often on the live website. The should “stir up conversations among reader.” (More on that below)

David Carr followed the announcement with a thoughtful New York Times post on the underlying trend. Old-guard journalism seeking new-world eyeballs. (more on that below). 

Paying journalists for traffic, and eyeballs? Carr suggests ironically:

Gee, it’s almost like news is supposed to be a business or something.

I’m worried too. I’ve posted about my worries for journalism occasionally on this blog for years. I’m most worried about who pays for local coverage and investigative journalism as advertising fades out of journalism and into other media. 

But, trends aside, in respect for truth, when I was mainstream journalist, foreign correspondent in Mexico, during the 1970s …

  • In the wire services agencies, Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), we got scores for every major story. Literally. While I was a foreign correspondent for United Press (1971-1974) my workday began with metrics. They tracked how many newspapers used our story against how many newspapers used the AP story for every major story. The scores looked like football scores, 15-10, 7-3, and like that. 
  • When I was a foreign correspondent for McGraw-Hill, writing for Business Week and other McGraw-Hill magazines, I got paid by the column inch. The more inches published, the higher the monthly check. 

Was it the same thing then, like now? No. There was a conceptual firewall back then. Although we all knew our salaries depended on our employers’ revenue, but we didn’t connect that to the quality, content, length, or frequency of the stories we submitted. By “we” I mean me, my colleagues at UPI, competitors at AP, friends in the correspondents’ club who worked for major newspapers, magazines, and television networks. 

And back then we believed in Journalism as a profession. We cared about the quality of the news and being objective, and — yes — having facts and attribution. Those of us who didn’t get that like I did, in grad school, got it from their peers. I mentioned the foreign correspondents’ club in Mexico City. We met once a month. We also played squash, and chess. And when there was a big story, we’d see each other at the scene, and share stories. 

Here’s more detail on the new trend: 

Here’s what Willamette Week (a competitor) reported

The new policy, shown to the editorial staff in a PowerPoint presentation in late February, provides that as much as 75 percent of reporters’ job performance will be based on measurable web-based metrics, including how often they post to Oregonlive.com.

Beat reporters will be expected to post at least three times a day, and all reporters are expected to increase their average number of posts by 40 percent over the next year.
In addition, reporters have been told to stir up online conversations among readers.

“On any post of substance, reporter will post the first comment,” the policy says. “Beat reporters [are to] solicit ideas and feedback through posts, polls and comments on a daily basis.”

The Oregonian will hand out yearly bonuses—if the finances of the company allows it—to reporters who exceed these goals. The policy says “final performance ratings will determine merit pay.”

David Carr’s post was this one: Risks Abound as Reporters Play in Traffic – NYTimes.com. He identified a trend, and cited multiple indications of it. He said: 

The availability of ready metrics on content is not only changing the way news organizations compensate their employees, but will have a significant effect on the news itself.

And this:

And journalism’s status as a profession is up for grabs. A viral hit is no longer defined by the credentials of an individual or organization. The media ecosystem is increasingly a pro-am affair, where the wisdom — or prurient interest — of the crowd decides what is important and worthy of sharing.

Good News, Bad News, And True Story on Blogging and Editors

The good news and bad news about blogging is editing and editors.

Good news: anybody can blog without going through an editor as a gatekeeper. Back in the old days we used to strive to “get published.” Now we just publish. Hooray, we’re free.

Bad news: nobody is so good that good professional editing doesn’t make them better. I consider myself a good writer and I’ve been doing it professionally for several decades. But everybody makes mistakes. Everybody who cares benefits from having somebody on their own side, reading, suggesting, commenting, and correcting. It’s just a fact of life. If you think you’re too good for editing, you’ve never had the pleasure of dealing with a good editor. Consider that an extra pair of watchful eyes.

True Story: By the time I was in my middle 20s I thought I was pretty hot stuff with journalism and writing. At that point I had honors degrees in Literature and Journalism. But I learned to write simple English (I hope) from the overnight editor at United Press International (“Berry, you write like a god-damned literature major“) named Norberto Swarzman. And I learned about structure (I hope) from a foreign editor at Business Week named Hugh Menzies, who rewrote every story into nine paragraphs with subheadings after the third and sixth paragraphs, and topic sentences for every paragraph.

And, while I’m on the subject, I have the luxury of editors for this blog, a team at Palo Alto Software, who catch errors and suggest changes.

Suggestion: If you’re out there on your own, with no editing whatsoever, maybe you could find a freelance editor as an ally. Think of innovative compensation, and maybe you can afford the help. I’m just suggesting, so don’t be offended.

Editing is a luxury, not a problem. Who wouldn’t like an extra pair of eyes?

Journalism and Blogging: Both Sides Now

Jolie O’Dell is a journalist who blogs. She cares about journalism, I gather, because of the way she writes about it in posts like How to Tell a journalist from a Blogger and Not all bloggers are journalists and not all journalists are jerks on her own blog. Most of the time, though, she’s a very prolific tech writer for Mashable. Blog PageAnd what she does for Mashable, one of the top techie blogs in the world, is technology journalism.

I really like her vision of what makes a journalist, as opposed to “just” a blogger. In that journalist or blogger post she says journalists are trained in journalism (and she means they have a degree in it), they aim for objectivity and truth, they care about form, they’re skeptical, and they serve the people. She makes it sound like a profession; like the quality matters.

I loved this down-home real-world description of a critical difference between journalists and bloggers. I’m quoting her here, journalists, she says, get used to editing, which she calls “having your work get ripped to shreds.” This is good writing. I’ve been there myself:

As a result, you do not get offended when your editor tells you, and I quote, “Jolie, this sentence fell off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.” (Marshall Kirkpatrick, ReadWriteWeb) You begin to look at your writing the way a stranger would. You see the errors, the ugliness, the factual haziness, the sloppy turn of phrase. And you or your editor make repairs as needed without much fuss.

These words aren’t your limbs, your children, your masterpieces. They’re simply another grouping of column inches or another few hundred words to fill up the “news hole.” You’re not married to them, because you’ll be on to a new collection of words within an hour or two. With any effort, the next article will be better written than the last as you quickly learn from your mistakes.

The blogger is an autonomous creature, not accustomed to being under the scrutiny of a professional editor. He hasn’t had his work and soul trampled quite as mercilessly — although commenters can be cruel bitches, it’s true — so he’s a bit more attached to his words. Also, his words are more frequently tied to his personal ideas. More on that in a bit.

This brings back my own fond memory of UPI overnight editor Norberto Swarzman, who managed the New York Latin America desk for United Press International (UPI) when I was on the night desk in Mexico City, back in the early 1970s. I was very young, and he wasn’t. He was a frequent caller.

“Berry,” he said, more than once, “you write like a god-damned literature major.”

I’d finished class work for an MA in Journalism to add to the lit degree by then, but the only way to soften the abuse, long term, was to write better. In his terms, not mine. Later, when I finished a thesis and actually got that MA in Journalism officially, the Dean of the J-school at University of Oregon told me his only complaint with my thesis was:

“Your writing style is not academic enough. You write like a wire-service journalist.”

You might guess, if you knew my background, that I was going to like Jolie O’Dell’s respect for journalism. I do have the degree, and I did spend nine years as foreign correspondent in Mexico before quitting to get the MBA. And I’m delighted to see a 20-something professional journalist come up with the same kind of respectful view of why journalism matters that I’d learned 40 years ago.

I’ve come full circle, from journalism to entrepreneurship and lately to blogging. And I have no problem at all with her saying blogging is easier. Her kind of journalist researches and interviews to generate actual information, not just good writing. And then cites sources and quotes people with their actual words. I used to do that. Back then, as a journalist, I couldn’t write anything ever just because I knew it was true. That was really hard. I couldn’t just write what was true, back then; I had to quote somebody.  And we didn’t have the Web, not even cell phones, so I actually had to get that somebody on the phone, at least, and talk to them, I have no problem recognizing that blogging, which is basically me writing to you about whatever I can come up with as long as I don’t bore you, is a whole lot easier. Today, as a blogger, I get to be me. I can have opinions.

As you probably guessed, controversy followed Jolie O’Dell’s journalist vs. blogger piece. A lot of bloggers don’t like to be told they’re not journalists. And journalists without degrees don’t like to be told they need a degree. There’s a reference to “English-degree journalists” who don’t like to be told they’re not journalists unless they have a degree. And a lot of people think any hack getting paid to fill news space between ads is a journalist. I followed the controversy from the original post to some heated words (and a lot of praise) on Twitter, and a thoughtful follow-up post by journalism professor and journalist Kirk LaPointe, punctuated by some surprisingly emotional comments.

The “trained in journalism” mention is galling to many. and O’Dell distinguishes journalists from writers, casts some doubt on “English-degree journalists,” and accurately predicts the objections that followed. I loved her best-defense-is-a-good-offense conclusion:

If you’re a blogger and you’ve been offended somehow by my piece, ask yourself why — I highly suspect it’s because I called some behavior of yours out as not being “journalist-y” enough. While it’s true that we all hold ourselves to different professional standards, the above are pretty basic. If you feel threatened or attacked by what I’ve written, I suggest you get back at me by taking a couple journalism classes at a community college and doing an internship at a local newspaper; it’ll change your writing and your life.

So why do I care? Why does anybody care?  It’s because we still need journalism and we’re starting to confuse blogging with journalism. But then it gets confusing when we have excellent journalism showing up on so-called blogs like Mashable, or the mix at Huffington Post, which gathers the news – including with its own reporters – but also indulges in lots of blogging opinion. Mashable is a blog. Jolie O’Dell, writing on Mashable, is a journalist. If you have any doubt, look at her work on Mashable.

There has always been an awkward gap between journalism as trade and journalism as profession. Doctors need med school and exams, CPAs have their boards of standards, and dentists, vets, psychologists, and other so-called professionals have their licensing and standards. And we do have schools of journalism and professors and degrees and journals and standards. But still, give any hack a few dollars for writing anything that gets published as news, and then we call that hack a journalist.

And then you add in the ease of entry in blogging – sign up at WordPress or Blogger or TypePad and start publishing – and I for one am glad to see the occasional reminder of what journalism is supposed to be.

On the other hand, do you know who H.L Mencken was? One of the best journalists ever, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, as famous a journalist as any in his time. Google “H.L. Mencken quotes.” He first wrote “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” And he didn’t have a degree in journalism.

Confessions of a Hypocritical Business Planner

Irony: I’m a business planner, and I have been for 30 years now; but the biggest decisions of my real life have been remarkably unplanned.

I could rewrite my own history backwards to make it all seem like it had been planned, but it wasn’t. Going from hippy to business planner to entrepreneur, I tripped over the most important right decisions, accidentally. It was a lot like a shiny metal ball bouncing around in a pinball machine, hitting obstacles and changing directions. Sometimes I made the wrong decisions and got the right results. Go figure.


For example, in college I studied what interested me: Literature. I wasn’t making a career choice, I was taking the path of least resistance. It was an easy step from Literature to Journalism, and — after 10 years with UPI and McGraw-Hill and others — from there to the MBA. And in 30-some years of business I keep meeting people whose careers seem to reconfirm the basic wisdom of studying what interests you. These are people who followed that path of interest and found, later, that it led to the right place.

All of which could end up as dangerously bad advice, I suppose: if taking the downhill path leads only downhill. Sometimes you have to buckle down and work; but at least, if you’re doing something that interests you, the work feels better. That was certainly my case.  I got my first job in journalism in Mexico City, by mail plus a plane trip from Oregon, because I was happy to work cheap and they guessed that since my wife is Mexican I probably spoke Spanish (which wasn’t true until a few months later). There was no planning there; it was a job, in 1971, when jobs were scarce (as they are now). It seemed to prove the wisdom of taking that pinball-like  change of direction.

The next time I changed direction it was for the money.  I switched to business writing from regular wire-service news journalism after three years of it because my wife and I had two kids by then and with kids, money became an issue. Before that, neither one of us cared that much. Journalism had enjoyed an aura of save the world for a while, but that gets old. That change doubled my income (from very little to a little bit more). I waded slowly and fearfully into business writing with about as much enthusiasm as an ophidiophobe (fear of snakes) wading into a jungle swamp. At first, it was just a sellout; but then it got interesting. I took business classes at night school. I really wanted to know what was going on underneath the press releases, in the numbers, where the truth hides.

So it took me 10 years to get from undergrad studies to business school, but that wasn’t a bad thing. By the time I got there I was — notice the theme here — once again interested in what I was supposed to be studying. I’d had enough of business journalism to want to actually know what I had been writing about (novel idea) and that made business school fascinating. And my years as journalist helped me get through business school while working full-time in consulting. I could write fast, and that’s a good thing in school.

I made some very bad decisions that created very good outcomes. In some circles, we call that luck. Later I quit a good job to go on my own writing computer books, but with the help of my wife and my favorite former client, that became business plan consulting. And that — again with the help of my wife and some clients — became business plan software. It seemed like a natural progression. Just as it was critical to write for readers in Journalism, it was even more critical to write for users in software. And all of this changing directions meant that it wasn’t until 1994, 20 years after switching to business writing, 11 years after leaving that good job, that Business Plan Pro was first released.

And, while we’re on the general subject of unanalyzed decisions with good outcomes, doing what you want, in 1969 I asked a girl to marry me after knowing her about two weeks. Next January we’ll have a 40th anniversary. (And we both agree we were lucky. Don’t try this at home. Wait longer.) And at every key moment from literature to journalism to business to entrepreneurship, it was always two of us, never just me. When things were really dicey — like when we realized we had three mortgages and $65K credit card debt in developing Palo Alto Software — it was never “you idiot, what have you done,” but rather “we’ll take the risk together, and if we fail, we’ll fail together.” Knowing that you’re not going to lose a marriage over it makes it a lot easier to change directions.

Pinball metaphor notwithstanding.

(Photo credit: GTibbetts/Shutterstock)

Want to Write Well? Cut Mercilessly

Back in my distant past I had to learn to live with editing. I was in my twenties. It made me mad. Why change my stuff? But it also made my stuff better.

“Berry, you write like a God-damned literature major.” (Norberto Schwarzman)

So said the overnight editor at UPI back in 1972.  He did me a great favor. “Write for the reader,” he would say, way more often than I would have liked. 

By the late 70s I was writing for a Business Week editor (Hugh Menzies) who consistently cut the shreds out of my writing, and, dammit, every time he did he made it better. I sent my stories to him for about four years. And I learned that cutting was good.

I’ve been writing professionally for 30-some years now, and I’ve never written anything that wasn’t better after cutting. So I’ve come to love cutting.

If you want to read some really good advice about this, read Editing for Tighter Copy: How to Write with a Knife on Copyblogger yesterday. And if you want to write better, print it and paste it on your wall.

True Story: ‘A Reason Why Not’ Isn’t Good Enough

I can't say I liked my first boss. But I learned a lot from him. Some of it worth sharing.

He was bureau manager of United Press International in Mexico City in 1971. He was about 45 years old, just beginning to turn gray, an ex-Navy man with a butch haircut.

When he sent me out on my first reporting assignment, he first took me aside, and said:

"Look, one thing you have to understand. You come back with the story. Don't come back with a reason why you don't have it. If all you have is a reason why not, don't come back at all."

I didn't like that much that day, but I like it now. It was a good lesson to learn. How often do we think a reason why not is as good as the deliverable?

About Words I Won’t Put in the Title of This Piece Despite the Temptation

"Tim," Matt said, beer in hand, in a bar in Mexico City, "you have to learn about 50 words that will almost guarantee you play in the papers." He swallowed. He looked at me and frowned. "But you’re so young," he said, shaking his head, "you’re probably not going to like it."

He swallowed again, then started listing the words: "naked, violent, brutal, cruel, vicious, rape, clash, showdown, face-off, fists, bare, nude, stripped, fight … " I can’t remember them all.

This was in 1974.  Matt Kenny, 50-something, gray hair, glasses, and quick to smile, was day editor for United Press International in Mexico City.  I was night editor. Matt had been with UPI longer than I’d been alive. That’s me in the picture, taken in 1974, in the UPI bureau in Mexico City.

I was unhappy because he had rewritten my lead about a Kon-Tiki-like raft trip arriving on Mexico’s Caribbean coast in 1974. I covered the story live, Matt handled it on the desk. It was a scientific expedition, a social science experiment, or so said the adventurous organizer. Matt rewrote the lead to emphasize "suntanned bikini-clad" women and the co-ed journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a raft.

Ironic, 33 years later, he was right: I was very young.

United Press International, alias UPI, was a wire service with generations of history as the "other wire service," the competition to Associated Press, AP, which still lives today. Mexico City was an outpost. We filed stories from Mexico City to the New York editors using a 1940s teletype system (the clackety clackety of old movies and old newsrooms) until my last year there, in 1974, when they got one of the first word processing systems, which we called, with fear and dread, "the computer." (For you computer historians, it was an early Atex system).

What’s most interesting about that whole system, and strangely relevant in the blog world of today, was that the system gave the editors in New York our first sentence only, as they scanned new stories coming in from the boonies (and another rambling historical note, BTW, was that Mexico City was considered the boonies to UPI New York editors in 1974, although it was already one of the largest cities in the world).

Repeat, for emphasis: they saw the first sentence only, and from that decided whether or not they wanted to see the first paragraph. Bloggers, consider that for writing pressure.

Matt Kenny was not unhappy or bitter or cynical or even hard-boiled. He was a pro. He did his job well. Matt’s 50 words don’t tell us that much about him — I liked him a lot, was proud to work with him — but they tell us a lot about us, the news business, and readership.

(Image: that’s me in the picture, in 1972, in the UPI Mexico City Bureau, photo by David Navarro)