140 Characters in Search of a Story

By Ashley Csanady | February 14, 2011

Social media are reshaping political coverage in Ottawa, for better and for worse. This is a re-post of Ashley Csanady’s piece from the winter issue of The Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Kady O’Malley needs a BlackBerry. Brow furrowed, she hurries into a large West Block room with rectangular windows and a view of a statue of Queen Victoria. She’s supposed to live-blog a government operations committee meeting, but a botched software update has thrown a wrench into the works. Fellow reporter David Akin gallantly offers his smartphone. O’Malley hesitates. She knows the sacrifice her colleague would be making if he surrendered such an essential means of communication in the middle of the news day. And so her live-blog — an innovation she brought to Parliament Hill at Maclean’s and now does for Inside Politics on CBC.ca — is on the verge of, in internet patois, epic fail.

A journalist who won’t be covering the committee comes to the rescue, much to Akin’s and O’Malley’s relief. The meeting begins and O’Malley’s face is stoney as her fingers fly over the tiny keys. It’s more than a phone for her; it’s a prosthesis. She’s so dedicated to the gadget that she’s been known to carry two of them at a time and even named her dog BlackBerry.

In an Ottawa where BlackBerrys are unholstered and placed on tables like guns in a spaghetti western, the ubiquity of smartphones has changed how the news is produced, consumed and digested. The handheld digital age established a new level of speed and interaction in the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery: today’s 140-character quip can evolve into tomorrow’s A1 story. The desire for constant updates has expanded as more and more Canadian readers ingest information in new ways, whether on their computers, tablets or phones. The rising Twitter culture on the Hill and the desire to break news on that platform, regardless of its relevance to average readers, has evolved the scoop. And this shift is either making journalism more integral to democracy than it’s ever been — or the animals have taken over the farm.

Granted, the Hill has always been obsessed with speed. Blogging and breaking news online were commonplace a few years ago, just as 24-hour cable news accelerated the cycle three decades ago. There is something different, however, about having instant internet access, everywhere, all the time, in the palm of everyone’s hand — reporters, politicians and flacks alike. For political junkies who get their fix online, the “news cycle” is no longer cyclical; it’s a constant stream of fact, rumour and opinion, slurried together and pumped out at high speed.

Criticisms of the press gallery haven’t changed much over the years: it’s a bubble full of cozy insiders; reporters chase scandals instead of digging into relevant issues; and journalists and politicians are constantly drinking each others’ bathwater. Some critics argue that the increased speed just amplifies the same old problems. Others fret that online coverage leaves Luddite readers out of the political loop, though their experience is changing too because Canadians don’t have to be on Twitter to have their news landscape radically reshaped by the media elite who are. There are also valid concerns about the consequences, such as the loss of verification, editing and analysis. But the new standard of always-on journalism has the potential to change the equation for the better, too. Social media throw a spotlight on previously obscure political happenings that never would have warranted an inch of newsprint, making reporters more accountable and how they do their job more transparent.

Viewers and readers can now hold reporters to account more easily than they ever could in the domesticated confines of the letters page. “I respectfully disagree with @RosieBarton‘s characterization of Canada’s Senate,” Joseph Uranowski, then a political science student from the University of Toronto, tweeted in May, during one of many discussions about Senate reform. Instead of ignoring the dissent, the CBC reporter replied: “Fair enough! But they are unelected!” Then, Brian G. Rice, president of a Liberal riding association in Mission, B.C., chimed in: “But the Senate is appointed by those who are elected. Having two systems to select the two houses is not a bad thing, IMHO.” With this exchange, Rosemary Barton was acting as something more than a broadcast journalist: she was one influential node in a network of commentary, connecting a student in Toronto and a party operative in a B.C. riverside community. It’s a phenomenon that Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has named the “mutualization” of journalism — a continuous collaboration between reporter and reader, who follow a story together as it evolves. The pace isn’t just faster; it’s dissolving the walls between the press gallery and the public. Like its print counterpart on crack, digital reporting is an odd mix of frivolity and policy. The public’s preference is for the chocolate journalism they love to loathe, not the spinach they claim to crave but often fail to digest. So readers will follow a scandal religiously, all the while bemoaning its existence. But this is nothing new. What the appetite for constant updates has bred is a new type of journalist: the perpetual reporter.

… Continue reading the rest of the piece here

Young journalists crossing over

By Rachel McHollister | January 27, 2011

Generation Y journalists are increasingly moving out of the newspaper industry and into corporations that not only pay more, but utilize their knowledge of the newly changed landscape in this era of multimedia.

“Being someone who has a background in journalism and able to utilize today’s form of technology is a rare commodity,” said Lauren O’Neil, a Toronto based professional blogger with a growing name recognition online. Graduating from the University of Western Ontario with a Masters in Journalism, she went the typical newspaper route, but then turned to the corporate world for its more lucrative opportunities. She isn’t the only journalist turned blogger/social media sensation, nor is this trend limited to young graduates.

As for me, I’m part of this young journalist cohort. I was recently offered a job running the entire editorial section of a newspaper. Guess how much they were going to pay me? A mere $14 an hour. I respectfully declined the position.

I have no gripe with the paper, nor the newspaper industry in the least; I have worked quite happily for various newspapers. But advancement is difficult, let alone finding that first job. At a newspaper you are basically waiting for someone to retire, assuming that position is going to be restaffed afterward. This conservatism in hiring is understandable considering the presence and direct competition from the free world online. The classified sections, which used to be a dependable source of revenue, have now often dwindled down to a one pager. Then there’s the obituary section, which can now take the form of a group on Facebook. Other than advertisements, these were the two significant money makers for print journalism. They’re now only barely still there.

I feel as though I’m letting down ‘journalism’ in a way because I’m moving to the corporate side of things, as did O’Neil. Furthermore, I’m wondering if, in this world, I’ll truly get to use the skills that got me interested in this career path in the first place!

O’Neil says she is still using the tools she learned in school, but is also applying self-taught skills. A self-proclaimed geek, Lauren O’Neil spent the better part of her high school years in front of her computer.

“I loved working for newspapers, it’s a good way to get to know a community, but, the corporate world is where the money is at. I feel like I’m selling out [with my journalism skills] but it’s where the money is.” This honest reality is at the heart of many difficult decisions. O’Neil didn’t get into this trade for the money, but, for right now, Toronto is where she wants to be. To live in the centre of a big city, an entry-level newspaper job salary is generally not going to cut it.

At the root of it, many budding journalists go to school because they are good with words. When it comes to mathematics, our eyes tend to glaze over. Basic statistics, however, is the journalist’s friend; they help to quantify a story. In that spirit, let’s look at some stats…

Using the data provided by Payscale.com, which tracks global compensation levels across all professions, we can observe that the journalism industry is female dominated and, on average, salaries are between $27,000 to $55,000 ($CAD). The data also reveals that the top cities for journalism jobs in Canada are Toronto and Vancouver.

The lower end of the salary range is barely enough for a person to get by on, especially in a major urban centre. Granted, journalists are a resourceful bunch and tend to find a way to live off even small amounts, but a lavish lifestyle it will never be. One wonders how single parents survive in this industry?

I wish the very best luck to journalism grads. Finding a job is going to be difficult; finding one that is able to pay the bills will be even more challenging. Perhaps crossover journalists like O’Neil are doing the smart thing: Getting some years in the corporate world and then, if she ever tired of the hustle and bustle of the big city, she could come back to traditional journalism. But will there still be a place for her?

As for me, I’ve gone to what journalists consider ‘the dark side’: Public relations.



Social Media vs. Print Journalism

By Rachel McHollister | November 4, 2010

We are all aware of the growing social media world, but have we thought about how it’s going to shape our newspapers?

“Technology and the pace of change in media is pushing us into an uncomfortable area. [...] The media have perhaps become more cavalier towards pushing confidential information,” warned television producer Jim Michaels, at a recent conference of online news gatherers and quoted in a summary article by Craig Silverman published in the The Canadian Journalism Project [j-source.ca]: “Treat Social Media like a tip line, not a reporter.

Social media has forever changed the face of print journalism, people no longer have to wait a day to read the latest news briefs, they no longer even have to sit — whether in front of a computer or a newspaper — to get an update. They simply unlock their iPhones, BlackBerrys, iPads, etc. and are instantly linked to the world via their social media feed. We no longer need to thumb through all the pages of the newspaper to get up-to-date coverage on whatever peaks our interest, we simply press ‘Refresh’ and we are instantly updated. Alternatively, using tools like Google or EYE.ca, we can selectively seek out news on only the topics or keywords we wish to read about.

As a journalist I would love to say that I am an avid newspaper reader, but I tend to get my updates via my Twitter stream, on a news web site or by word of mouth. I usually don’t have the time in the morning to sit with a nice cup of coffee and read an entire article in The Globe and Mail. But I generally don’t need to either. Almost seconds after a big story breaks, my Twitter feed is immediately inundated with coverage of whatever just broke. I no longer have to wait a day, I no longer have to even wait a minute!

Silverman’s article also quoted the National Public Radio CEO, Vivian Schiller, who’s comments I believe sheds some light on the supposed tug of war between social media vs. print journalism: “One thing that is wrongly hyped is social media. [...] For many media organizations, they think it of it as distribution, and yes it’s good for that. What’s missing is the power of social media for engagement with the audience and for news gathering.” She is quite right that social media is not yet being effectively used by most. One only needs to look at the Twitter feeds of most newspapers, often automatically and blindly retweeting the contents of their daily paper, flooding us with article titles and links.

However, if done right, SMS-like updates such as Twitter tweets can give us 140 characters of insight into a story, a true “brief”. Although only a tiny glimpse at the entire story, most people only have time for that and, in many cases, usually only want a short update anyhow. Indeed, as was quoted Jim Brady, former Washington Post editor: “The commodity that’s most restricted in people’s lives is time.”

It is hard to determine where print journalism is going to go in the next several years, and whether it is truly in competition with social media. I can make my own judgement, we all could. Canwest, BlackPress, from the local Winnipeg Free Press, up to the National Post, each are trying to figure out how to engage the reader in their own way. Will print newspapers become a thing of the past? In Canada, at least not for another 18 years, as recently pledged the Globe and Mail.

Only time will tell if Canadians are going to completely leave print newspapers behind, but the publicized fight between print vs. digital might be overblown. In the end, as journalists: “Our mission couldn’t be simpler, it is to provide news and information to more people in more ways [...] Our role is to make sure we are there where our audience is, and however they want to consume us.” (Vivian Schiller, quoted by Silverman)

Hello Canada!

By Ralph Baddour | October 25, 2010

In this new section, we will be soon featuring op-ed style pieces from thoughtful Canadian writers.

Disclaimer: All views expressed are those of the writer alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of EYE.ca.

ISSN 1925-1068