May. 16, 2008  

Newsroom of the Future: Notes on the SPJ Region 3 Spring Conference 2008

Notes on the Society of Professional Journalists Region 3 Spring Conference 2008

Beth Anne Carr

The theme of building the newsroom of the future, starting today, dominated the presentations of the Society of Professional Journalists Region 3 Spring conference held in March at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The future was the topic in more than one way – the vast majority of those who attended the conference were journalism students.

Our chapter will be hosting next year’s Region 3 Spring Conference. The 2010 conference will be hosted by the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Here are some highlights from this year’s event.

Exploring the Newsroom of the Future
IFRA Newsplex Director Randy Covington showed off the “newsroom of the future” with a hands-on convergence journalism workshop for about 20 attendees. IFRA ( ), which is headquartered in Germany, is an international trade organization for the worldwide research for the news publishing industry, and the Newsplex is run as a joint venture with the university. Covington, a former TV news director, now spends much of his time coaching newspapers on how they can leverage video and multimedia in their online publishing. He noted that newspapers are, in general, adapting better to journalism convergence – perhaps out of desperation, given that newspaper readership is down 18 percent from 1994 to 2006.

While most news organizations will never spend the more than $100,000 per seat the Newsplex cost to build, Covington conducts seminars for journalists around the world in a high-tech, modern newsroom. He explains how concentrating on how to best tell a story, more than worrying about production, produces results that make media consumers take notice.

As an example, he shared a story of how an arrest was made in a case more than 40 years old because newspaper reporters used a video of old newspaper articles and grainy family photographs with a telephone voice over of the murder victim’s sister. In fact, the reporters had developed this video almost by accident – they had originally shot a “normal” interview, but it could not be used. The patched-together replacement with the emotional, crackling interview captured the moment better than a traditional story could.

This technology does not need to be expensive. With only 18 journalists on staff, Shelby Star ( ), of Shelby, North Carolina put together a newspaper equivalent of a television broadcast truck (an investment of $400,000 or more) for about $60,000. The Star Car is equipped with cameras, a wireless network hub, laptops for video editing (as well as writing), and has a high-power cell antenna on roof, which lets the reporter transmit from virtually any remote location.

Related story:
Are Newspapers Better at Online Video than TV Stations?

New Media Challenges
University of South Carolina Associate Professor Dr. August Grant states that by 2009, each person will be exposed to 10 hours a day of media, but that media is increasingly divergent – internet, text messages, photos, videos, email, RSS and more.

He suggests that new forms of media are quickly replacing the post-broadcast “package.” On the Web, people are free to choose from raw video and clips – in other words, disassembled parts of the video package – interacting with it how they choose to do so. Interactivity is key – use of polls and creating places where users submit their own photos and videos can boost viewership.

Grant stresses that in the future, the focus will be the story and the journalist will manage the content for multiple media to best tell the story. The reader will control the content by choosing where to look.

Grant publishes a free newsletter on convergent journalism available at

University of South Carolina Instructor Doug Fisher focused on what it takes to moderate a message board, which is a way that news organizations can involve the greater community in their web site and keep them coming back.

What are the legal ramifications for out-of-control posters on your news site? The good news for news organization liability purposes is that courts have held that comments made in news organization message boards are not held to be the responsibility of the news organization (Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act). That being said, how does a news organization start a community and manage it?

A good online community shares these characteristics:
• Contributors feel ownership of the community
• Good to newcomers
• Build “social capital”
• Conversation is authentic
• Interactive, not passive
• Respect

A good moderator:
• Focuses on building the community, not just creating it
• Gently enforces rules
• Recruits
• Emulates behavior of posters
• Knows that civility and nastiness are contagious

If you are thinking of removing a message from the site, Fisher encourages caution. He said that this can create suspicion among posters. A good host knows that the contributors run the site – the owner’s power is to shut down the site.

Fisher expects new jobs in this field – or at least that this will be a component of other newsroom positions. To perform message board moderation, you need similar skills to a copy editor: attention to detail (but not obsessed with detail), people skills, and being tuned into legal requirements.

David Carr, a South Florida chapter member, explained the importance of getting your reports into the search engine rankings at a time when newspaper and magazine revenues are moving from print to online. Even though online revenue remains a fraction of a publication’s total advertising income, the rapid pace of growth tends to get the attention from publishers when overall ad revenue tends to be shrinking. David, a freelance writer, editor, and web developer, formerly served as technology editor of Internet World magazine and Baseline magazine and has studied large Internet operations including Google, Yahoo, and MySpace. In addition to placing increasing emphasis on the web traffic attracted by each publication, his last employer (Ziff Davis Enterprise) had begun tracking the traffic generated by each writer as part of performance evaluations. Professional bloggers are typically paid at least partly based on the traffic their work attracts.

Journalists operating in this environment must think about how to attract the interest of web readers, and one aspect of that is understanding how articles are ranked by search engines. Descriptive, keyword-rich headlines can help. So even reporters who are used to telling everyone “I don’t write the headlines” may want to suggest search-engine-friendly headlines when they submit their stories, if they want them to be ranked better. You also want bloggers (and everyone else with a website) to post links to your concept. Google was founded partly on the concept of PageRank, an algorithm at the heart of the search engine software that essentially ranks any given web page based on how many other web pages point to it. Although Google has had to modify this formula to filter out deceptive techniques, links from other websites that are considered credible remain an important element in search engine rankings. Just by letting sources know when you’ve published an article that includes material from your interview, you may get some of them to post links from their blogs or websites. Writing a compelling story helps, too.

Preparing for Tomorrow’s Newsrooms
Do you have, or can you develop, the critical skills to carry you into journalism’s next phase? Joe Grimm, recruiter of the Detroit Free Press showed us how. He explained that the world is expecting more for free, and the media is left to figure out how to deliver the content for this “price.” Journalists must be able to separate the word newspaper into its components – news does not need to come on paper.

He suggests learning a new skill every year. For example, he views Microsoft Excel as important as Microsoft Word as a skill for a reporter to have. Excel lets you organize data into forms other than paragraphs.

Another technology to be aware of is you, too, can be a publisher. The site lets you publish your own book printed on demand or published electronically – you even set the price. This technology lets you establish yourself as an authority in your field. For example, Grimm has published his own book, Breaking In: The Guide to Newspaper Internships, which was designed to be an electronic and free document, on this site. He was surprised that although the content was available free, people were willing to pay for a convenient format.

In addition to his work at the Free Press, Grimm write the recruiting column for The Poynter Institute:

Freelancing in a New Media Age
Leslie Haynsworth is a freelance writer, but don’t try to peg her down. She says she’ll write anything. That’s her advice to journalists who might want to try their hand and working for themselves. She advises that there are many opportunities for independent journalists outside journalism including teaching, technical writing, public relations writing, and ghost writing. She has done it all – some for pure enjoyment. For example, she received pay for reviewing books, but she loves to read, so she enjoyed it.

Some advantages are flexible schedule and potentially more income than working for someone else. However, boom-and-bust periods and lack of self-discipline can hold you back.

To work as a freelancer, you must meet deadlines, be a quick study, understand the genre, and produce polished work. It is helpful to specialize in a field.

She recommends finding work first in ad and PR agencies because they often hire freelancers because they are on a boom-and-bust cycle themselves. Also, magazines are largely written by freelancers. Once you get a foot in the door of a large corporation or university, you can often broaden the work by getting recommendations from one department to another.

Networking is critical to finding freelance opportunities. Joining professional organizations, such as SPJ or PRSA and attending their events, can really help.

Haynsworth’s Web site

Foundation Provides Newspapers for Low-Income Families
One University of South Carolina alumnus, Jeff Romig, is convinced that reading newspapers on a daily basis can change the lives of people who read them. One problem is the cost of a newspaper subscription. It all started when he covered former President Jimmy Carter and his wife working on a Habitat for Humanity Project in Benton Harbor, MI. Romig envisioned the community with the new homes AND the local news that they would need to become involved with the community.

As a result, he started INC: Involvement through Newspapers and Civics, based in Atlanta, Georgia ( The pilot project has 18 families reading the newspaper every day in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and coming together with the journalists who cover the community in family forums held regularly. The organization also provides educational scholarships for children who write for their publication.

Journalists have learned from the family forums as well. Spartanburg journalists were chagrined when the forum’s community members pointed out that the only coverage of their community in the newspaper was for crime – or for their kids pictures playing in the park (as a counterbalance for the negative coverage).

Lessons from Jena
When stories of protests regarding the “Jena Six,” local reporter Abbey Brown was just as confused as to how to pronounce the town’s name – after all, she had just started her position at the Alexandria, Louisiana Town Talk herself ( On the way to cover the town, she was corrected by the photographer that the name of the town was pronounced like the name “Gina” not “Jenna”. More than 125 stories later, she has learned quite a bit about herself and the town she covers.

“Jena Six” refers to six African-American teenagers charged with the beating of a white teen at Jena High School in December 2006. This had followed a previous incident where someone had hung a noose on the perceived “white only” teen hangout tree on campus. Protesters believed that charges in the beating such as attempted murder were excessive and racially discriminatory while white Jena youths involved in the other incident were treated leniently.

During the time of the story, Brown was threatened, her house was burglarized and vandalized and she was forced to move. She briefed all national media as they came to town.

Brown’s reporting is regarded as the best on the subject by The Poynter Institute. She talked to more than 30 people to get 5 on the record in the story. To get the mayor’s side she had to literally stick her foot in the slamming door, but she did get the story. To this day, she is the only reporter who requested the official documents and police reports of the incidents, even though she recommended that tactic to all media she advised.

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