Learning to Like Change – Again
Regina McCombs '80
Until very recently, I've been a big fan of change.
In my first job in journalism, at a Minneapolis TV station, I started as a video editor, became a photographer, filled in on the assignment desk occasionally, and started writing and producing. When I left 13 years later to go to the Star Tribune, it was because I thought the station wasn't moving to the Internet fast enough.
For many years at StarTribune.com, we embraced change. It was an exciting place to be. The technology couldn't change fast enough for us. We loved to find new ways to use audio, video and graphics to tell stories. We worked hard to figure out cool stuff we had never done before.
Then the financial crisis hit the news business. Hard. Media companies had been buying more news operations than they could afford. When the value of those properties dropped, debt crippled the chains. Consolidation and mergers changed the ownership of both Twin Cities newspapers.
My relationship with change got ugly.
Two sets of buyouts and several rounds of layoffs at the Strib dimmed my past love. With former co-workers' responsibilities spread among fewer people, and their empty desks serving as grim reminders of our losses, change became the enemy. Change meant frustration, overwork, loss. I decided something had to go.
So I did.
After living most of my life in the Twin Cities (not counting those four years at Concordia), I left the newsroom and moved to become a member of the faculty at the nonprofit Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. Well-known, well-respected and historically well-funded (due to its ownership of the St. Petersburg Times) the Institute still has two out of three going for it. It is a training organization for working journalists, with a strong emphasis on teaching ethics and diversity.
It is undergoing change.
With training budgets slashed, fewer journalists from traditional newsrooms attend our seminars in Florida. More and more of those who do attend are unemployed journalists looking to polish their skills or to start a news-related small business. More are people who in the past we might not have considered journalists at all, people who write about a community or a topic they care deeply about, but are not attached to a newspaper or television station.
We're finding new ways to teach, especially through online training.
We're finding new ways to make money, writing grants and (gasp) asking for donations. It's new, and it's not easy, but it is exciting. I find I can once again appreciate change.
I'm concerned that newsrooms have been so diminished the last few years that we will never cover our communities like we used to; we will slip in holding the powerful accountable and in giving a voice to the weak. I'm hopeful that some of the new, small organizations will help fill the gaps, but I'm skeptical (I am a journalist, after all). We're working to do our part to help train this new Fifth Estate and I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
I suspect I will never again have that all-out love for change that I used to have. Change has been cruel, and I don't trust it like I used to. But it's good to be comfortable together again, even if our relationship is altered.
I'm OK with admitting that I've changed, too.
Hanging on to Viewers in a Web World
Charley Johnson '72
For years we've heard that the nightly newscasts on NBC, ABC and CBS are dying. It's true their audiences have shrunk, but so have the number of viewers for virtually every other show on television. And the combined audience for the three national newscasts (honestly, aren't they really the same show?) still rivals that of "American Idol."
Local news is more personal to viewers and it shows in the numbers. But how do broadcasters navigate the rapidly evolving media landscape to find the best way to bring more people to the TV, or at least hang on to the ones they still have?
The biggest challenge has been the advent of the "24-hour news cycle" and the migration of audiences from scheduled newscasts to cyberspace. So, the first thing newsrooms learned is they can no longer wait and plan for the scheduled newscasts. They have to publish first to the Web. Driving this lesson home to broadcast news veterans has been tougher than you might expect. The resistance becomes strongest when reporters sense they have a scoop on their hands, early in the day.
The "aha" moment in our newsroom was the 2009 flood in the Red River Valley. Everyone was hungry for information and the broadcast news team reminded people that "valleynewslive.com" was constantly updated. We invited viewers to post their own flood videos on our site. In March of that year, the number of page views on the site jumped more than 130 percent.
Of course, traditional media outlets are not the only ones populating the Web, which has further diluted audiences. Broadcast newsrooms all over the country shrunk during 2007 and 2008. We all know how hard it is to get those bodies back, even when things start to improve.
One bright spot: Broadcasters benefit from the fact that video remains vital in the new age. The over-the-air revenue stream has remained fairly robust as stations look for revenue for websites.
If I have a journalistic concern, it's this – as print and broadcast newsroom staffs shrink, where will the good reporters who get squeezed out go? Where will all the solid, fact-based reporting end up? I'm talking about real journalists who see it as a calling to act as our surrogates. Will they be able to find homes in evolving cyber newsrooms, and will consumers be able to find them if they do? Cable news outlets could be alternatives, but the people who run those operations seem to think their viewers mostly want to see other people with strong, unflinching opinions yelling at each other. Is that what their research tells them we want?
In my less optimistic moments, I think we get the kind of news coverage we deserve. For years, audience research has said viewers want television newscasts with more features, with more "news you can use." So that's what we've been giving them. But we haven't given up on good, old-fashioned hard news and I still believe audiences will find the outlets that provide the proper mix of information. They may not all watch it during the traditional time periods, but they'll track it down on the Web and on their phones.
Our challenge is to stay viable through the transition.
Satisfying an Appetite for News
Sophia Tareen '02
The first time anyone hears about the short life of Mark Anthony Barmore, they're appalled. The 23-year-old black man, who spent nearly his entire troubled life in Rockford, Ill., was fatally shot last summer by two white police officers inside a church-run daycare filled with children. As a journalist writing for an international audience in the world of the 24-hour news cycle, I got 922 words to tell it.
Coming back from a day of reporting in Rockford – a once-thriving manufacturing town that now has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country – I felt compelled. It was a story that had everything: life and death, the economy, conflicting witness statements, despair, hope, race, mistrust of authorities and many stakeholders. State police were dispatched to investigate. The Rev. Jesse Jackson came to call attention to the economic disparities. The president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People showed up to talk race and police standards. Even Department of Justice mediators had been sent to quell community unrest.
But, over the past several years, I've been conditioned to believe the "national appetite" for a story is generally under 1,000 words. That's less than the dedication some authors write at the beginning of novels, shorter than most political speeches, even fewer words than some recipes.
When did we arrive at what our "appetite" is?
It would be easy to repeat the refrain of journalists who bemoan a loss of industry standards, of untrained bloggers having power, about newspapers' struggles in keeping up online, or even expecting more with less in an industry rife with cutbacks.
But what troubles me is what all those factors add up to; what does it mean for the daily foot soldier of journalism whose main tools are still the notebook and pen? Instead of feeling reassured, I grapple with more questions. In an era where stories come to us in headlines and single screens on an iPhone, do we, as journalists and readers, really want to devote time on complex and difficult issues?
Or do we want to simply know that a black man died at the hands of two white men, let a wave of frustration pass and move on?
In Barmore's case, it was much more complicated.
His life quickly became a flashpoint. His was the story of a broken family, a failed education, a community where the river divides the good and bad parts of town, a life of crime and attempts at redemption, of an aspiring rapper, fatherhood, faith and countless others that I'll never know.
After the 922 words ran, I had to move on to the next story. The opportunities to go back and pique the national appetite were few. And again I was left with questions.
Why did this young man die? Who was responsible? Could it have been prevented? Do we value his life differently than others?
Nearly a year after Barmore's death, I still don't have answers. I am haunted by the sadness in his father's eyes, the palpable anger at rallies following his death, and vile comments posted online in reaction. I'm not sure how we arrive at what exact number of words satisfies our appetites, but I believe we need to stay hungry.
Sticking to the Basics
Darrell Ehrlick '98
Newspapers are going to die.
I hear that a lot lately.
But I first heard it from a Concordia professor more than 15 years ago. He was either visionary, or as hopelessly wrong as I believe the people are who continue to prattle about our imminent demise.
It's true: I have seen more change in the past year than I've seen in the other 14 combined. Easily. Not all of that change has been positive and very little of it has been easy.
When I started at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, we still did our research by utilizing giant clip files full of yellowing articles. Now, I can update a breaking story online in a rural community from the keyboard of my phone. That's not my lament. As much as I love crawling around the musty stacks of old newspapers, mobile apps are just as fun.
I also can't gaze into the crystal ball and say for certain where this industry is going. The only truthful answer is: I don't know for sure. But what I don't know has helped shape what I do.
What journalism students and the industry need more of is exactly what's in danger of becoming passé. We need the next generation of writers to be more engaging writers and thinkers. That takes more of what a liberal arts education does so well.
What I'd advocate for is the kind of journalist training that relies on literature as well as accounting with a healthy dose of art history and physics. Sometimes it's about seeing the connections when you're breaking a story on deadline.
I'll never forget working on a story about a murder case thinking it was odd the victim had such a bad relationship with his ex-wife. As soon as I pulled up a seemingly unrelated divorce case, I quickly stumbled on an attorney who was only too happy to talk about his dead client's attempts to have the ex-wife cease taking out insurance policies on him.
I reported this. Two days later, the police announced it was a murder-for-money motive by the ex-wife and our story was a breakthrough in the case.
As websites become more prolific, readers will rely more on the ones they trust and have a relationship with; those, I'd argue, are the ones that provide clear, relevant, trustworthy content that makes connections. There's nothing magical about this. It can only be done one solid story at a time. It takes journalists willing to make that extra phone call, and editors to push them.
This cannot happen by accident.
Computer applications, tweets and reader comment forums can come and mostly go. They're quick and easy – and sometimes mindless.
Yet the future of newspapers will continue to rest on the reputations of those it brings into the newsroom. The much harder lessons will create quality journalists: the critical thinking, the laborious and thankless task of writing, then drafting, then editing and editing again.
So if newspapers die, it won't be for lack of interest; it'll be because we forgot about the basics.
Regina McCombs '80 is a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, St. Petersburg, Fla. She teaches multimedia and helps develop distance-learning programs. She previously served as the senior producer for multimedia at StarTribune.com in Minneapolis.
McCombs has 13 years of experience as a television producer and photographer at KARE-TV and is the winner of numerous Best of Photojournalism and Pictures of the Year International awards for multimedia storytelling, as well as an Emmy for her video work. She is a regular speaker around the country, talking about finding new ways to tell stories on the Web, especially with video.
Charley Johnson '72 has reported news in the Red River Valley since 1972, when he graduated from Concordia College. He anchored nightly television newscasts in the Fargo-Valley City (N.D.) market from 1975 until early November 2007.
Johnson recently resigned from his job as general manager of KVLY and KXJB-TV, the NBC and CBS affiliates for eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, and is pursuing other interests. He received Concordia's Alumni Achievement Award in 2008.
He and his wife, Mary (Moe) '73, live in Moorhead. She is an R.N. in the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Department at Sanford Health-MeritCare. They have three grown children and twin granddaughters.
Sophia Tareen, '02, is a general assignment reporter for The Associated Press in Chicago, where she focuses on communities of color, immigration and religion.
She was recently among a group of AP reporters who won the Scripps Howard Foundation's National Journalism Award for breaking news for coverage of the shooting in Fort Hood, Texas. Tareen covered soldiers' funerals and reactions among Muslims who feared backlash. In 2008 she was among AP's Chicago reporters assigned to chip in on coverage of Barack Obama's campaign, his Election Night rally and his first day as president-elect.
Before the AP, Tareen covered suburban education and health at The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, Ore. She is a 2004 graduate of the School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
Darrell Ehrlick '98 is the editor of the Winona (Minn.) Daily News and the associate editor of the River Valley Newspaper Group, which includes the La Crosse Tribune and eight other weekly publications. He did graduate work at Bennington College and Emory University. He teaches journalism at Winona State University, and has written a book of Minnesota history called "It Happened in Minnesota." He also edited a book of Cache County (Utah) history titled
"In God's Lap."
During his tenure as editor, the Winona Daily News has won two Lee Enterprises President's Awards for news coverage; he's won more than a dozen AP awards for news and investigative writing and the Winona Daily News has taken the Minnesota Newspaper Association's General Excellence Award two out of the previous three years. He is married to Dr. Angela (Wagenaar) Ehrlick '98 and they have one daughter, Mollie, who is 9 months old.