What’s in a byline? If you’re the AP, not the word “writer” anymore

October 16, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Posted in Business Models, Communications strategy, Journalism, Media business, Multimedia, Social media, Storytelling, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I have to admit, I was a bit troubled by word that the Associated Press was dropping the term “writer” in bylines noting by whom many of its dispatches are “written.” At first, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Then, I realized that this seemingly small and, to many I’m sure, totally innocuous change, raised some much bigger issues, at least for me.

The report from mediabistro cited a memo by AP Deputy Managing Editor Tom Kent saying “that the term ‘Associated Press writer’ would be retired in favor of ‘Associated Press” in order to allow for the fact that, increasingly, articles may be written by photographers, videographers and radio reporters in addition to those working primarily in print.” The change, Kent noted, would not affect bylines for AP’s “special” writers — sports, political, business and so on — and that when several AP staffers contribute to a piece, an end note can identify them individually.

No big deal, right? Kent is just acknowledging what we already know — the “old world” journalism lines between writers, reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists, producers and so on are now very fuzzy. Add in “commentators” (anyone, prophet or fool, with a position and a platform) and the growing numbers of “citizen journalists” (anyone with a cell phone and a nose for “news”), and the boundaries break down entirely.

Not necessarily a bad thing, right? I mean, what’s so special about traditional journalism and its trappings anyway? (Full disclosure: I was a reporter, editor and bureau chief for UPI — remember UPI, the AP’s arch rival? — for seven years and an editorial manager for professional/trade media for 12 more). Isn’t more news, information and perspective better for society than less? Doesn’t more reporting make it easier for citizens to decide?

Here’s the rub, for me at least, in the move to eliminate the word “writer” in favor of mushing together AP dispatch contributors in more generic bylines.

For all of the wonderful new communications tools and technology we have at our disposal, and for all of their truly transformative potential, I can’t help but think that something basic continues to erode in all channels of public discourse. I fear that all media, fueled by fast-moving technological change, are converging to a lowest common denominator,  where anyone is a “journalist” or a “publisher.” I worry that this not only panders to but accelerates the fleeting attention spans we seem to have for talking about anything that really matters. This is not only ironic but tragic given that the critical issues we face are bigger and scarier than ever.

Let me be clear. I’m not taking about evocative narrative, lush  prose or, for that matter, titles for their own sakes. I like to think that I’ve let go of print as a mindset, not just a medium, and practice what I preach in that regard.

I’m talking about the ability to write (and speak) clearly, think critically, analyze appropriately, act accordingly (and, one hopes, intelligently), and be accountable for those actions.

Am I being overly sensitive? Overly analytical? Overly romantic about or nostalgic for my UPI days? An elitist?Just a cranky old fuddy-duddy? I hope not. If so, please tell me.

Perhaps there’s nothing to be done. Maybe I’m just a Luddite when it comes to this stuff. Maybe I overly value what it means to be a good, clear “writer” and to wear that badge proudly.

I guess Joni Mitchell was right — “Something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day.” Hopefully the equation balances out eventually.

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The big picture on “non-profit journalism” (well, some of it anyway)

November 24, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Posted in Business Models, Communications strategy, Journalism, Media business, Philanthropy 2.0, Professional ethics, Social media | Leave a comment

Are you as fascinated as I am by the non-profit journalism trend, how foundations and NGOs (broadly defined) are supporting and even becoming journalism operations, and the implications for strategic communications?

Then take a look at NGOs and the News: Exploring a Changing Communications Landscape, a series of essays that Penn’s Annenberg School and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab have put together exploring some of the big-picture issues that such initiatives raise.

The latest essay in the series, by Natalie Fenton of Goldmiths, University of London, was just published and looks at how the internet has changed how NGOs work with established media (her take: “not enough”).

Previous pieces in the series, which began earlier this month and came to my attention through a Big Think post, include:

This series is a useful complement and offers important context for the seemingly daily reports on the fast-evolving non-profit journalism landscape (see Bruce Trachtenberg’s October 20 post on the Communications Network blog for a very helpful oveview).

And added bonus from the Nieman Journalism Lab site —  Jim Barnett weighs in on a planned Dec. 1-2 Federal Trade Commission workshop on how journalism will survive in the Internet age. The bigger question: is two days enough to figure it out? Stay tuned.

Focus, focus, focus

November 1, 2009 at 8:17 pm | Posted in Business Models, Digital strategy, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

The Harvard Business Review recently offered an interesting review of the challenges that philanthropic organizations face in critically analyzing what their strategic goals, how well they’re meeting them, and how to adjust priorities to improve their performance.

The article, entitled “Galvanizing Philanthropy,” is especially timely given the varying degree of organizational review and program juggling that’s been going on at many foundations as a result of the squeeze the recession has put on endowments and portfolios. Note, an HRB subscription is required to see more than an article summary.

Interestingly, say authors Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Susan J. Colby of the non-profit consultants The Bridgespan Group, the challenge to focus based on objective analysis is one that philanthropies face regardless of the economic climate. It’s just that hard times bring things into much sharper relief.

How to best assess foundation performance is something a number of visionary philanthropies and their executives have talked about for a while. When I was running the communications and publishing group at The Commonwealth Fund, for example, this was a favorite topic of EVP/COO John Craig, who spoke and wrote about it extensively. One good example is John’s 2006 essay on assessing a foundation’s performance. He also wrote earlier this year about private foundations’ response to the “new financial realities” the recession rained down upon them.

Philanthropies are in this delicate spot because of the double-edged sword that is the essence of nonprofit, mission-driven organizations, the Harvard Business Review piece notes. These entities, “exempt from the accountability imposed on business by markets or on government by voters, are free to experiment and take risks,” it says. “But they have little experience in objectively evaluating their own performance or figuring out how to improve it.”

To give a sense of how to attack this issue, the authors look at how the James Irvine, Bill & Melinda Gates, Annie E. Casey, David and Lucile Packard, and Edna McConnell Clark Foundations worked to “get real” by focusing on key strategic “anchors” to optimize their resources and outcomes.

Obviously, the more focused a foundation’s overarching strategy, the more focused and potentially high-impact its communications strategy will be.

Thanks to my good friend and former Medscape colleague Mike Squires, now a top-drawer health IT consultant, for drawing my attention to this HBR article.

RIP Stanford Professional Publishing Course

October 13, 2009 at 10:29 pm | Posted in Business Models, Journalism, Media business | Leave a comment

Say a little prayer for the Stanford Professional Publishing Course, officially shut down at the end of September. It was 31. Cause of death was acute financial stress due to general economic upheaval and the acute insufficiencies affecting publishing in particular.

As a course alum, as both a student and lecturer, I join many colleagues and friends in mourning the demise of the SPPC.  I was lucky enough to attend in an era (not so long ago, really) when my employer not only was willing to allow me but actually encouraged me to take a little time to think strategically and come back to my desk refreshed and full of ideas. A few actually came to pass — like some of the web projects I helped to initiate at JAMA in the 1990s — and others had more appeal as ideas than as real-world businesses. No matter. There was a sweet appeal in being able to brainstorm with some of the great minds in publishing and be treated as their equals, if even for only a few days at a time.

The SPPC was where many of us first heard in any detail about the web; learned about an experimental venture called HighWire Press; listened to a largely unknown Jeff Bezos talk about a crazy little company he called “amazom.com” (and complained years later about having not bought stock the next day); dictated headlines to the founding editor of People magazine; shared a beer with Brendan Gill as he talked about his days at the New Yorker and a half-dozen of the greats of American literature; and got to hear John F. Kennedy Jr. charmingly admit that he wouldn’t have been George‘s publisher but for his celebrity.

Marty Levin, one of SPPC’s deans, provides more details here.

Will a new SPPC rise up to serve today’s generation of media professionals?

Stay tuned.

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