Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Future of Journalism is Agile. Small. Lethal.

Brave New(s) World, a conference held Thursday May 28, 2009 at Centennial College in Toronto gathered together some of the more forward thinking journalists, students, and educators to try to make some sense of the turmoil now bringing about many changes in the news business around the world.

The conference had a keynote speech via Skype by the author of "What Would Google Do?" Jeff Jarvis, from New York, and then 4 breakout sessions where the thinkers and experts tried to make sense of the changes affecting journalism, and where they saw the industry in the future.

I had the pleasure of moderating one of the afternoon panels, entitled "The New Journalism Toolbox" together with my industry expert, Jesse Hirsh.

Our job was to get the delegates to think about what "tools" a new journalist/cub reporter coming out of j-school will need to survive in the Brave New(s) World. But also, where we think the new journalist will go in the future.

Several weeks ago, preparing for my moderator job, I came up with my top 10 list of tools which I thought journalism students needed to have to succeed. 
My list included crowdsourcing (getting stories from ordinary "citizen" journalists), use of Twitter, Audioboo,, Audacity, RSS feeds, mindcasting (from Jay Rosen), photoskills and how to do slideshows and photogalleries, how to live blog using CoveritLive, etc.

I thought I needed to focus literally on the new tools and platforms which the modern journalist needs to be able to be familiar with, in order to tell their stories in the digital age of online journalism.

What a reassuring surprise for me to discover during the summit that the people who participated in my breakout session The New Journalism Toolbox, are convinced that the tools which young journalists need now are actually the same tried and true ones I learned are the most important when I began my career 27 years ago:

1) love journalism
2) see it as a public service/be a shit disturber/(Tim Knight/TV Trainer)
3) tell stories in a clear language
4) be ethical
5) use the new tools/technology to look for stories outside of the box, from ordinary people (Kris Reyes, Citytv)
6) Know your audience and what tools to use to tell the story. 
7) develop a BRAND (become an expert in something) Intrapreneurship (Rahul Gupta, NewsFIX, and  Michael Brooke of Concrete Wave)
8) use technology to be FASTEST to tell the story. Be NIMBLE (Steve Humphrey, NewsFix)
9) Be able to cut through the clutter  of live chats, Tweets and blogs to find the story and tell it to your audience
10) Be Small, Agile. Lethal. (Jesse Hirsh)

All the basic things which make up a well rounded journalist of the old-school type. The twist is, they are able to harness the "new-fangled" technology to tell stories without having to rely soley on the mainstream news media outlets, or authority, as the limiting "box". Thanks to the power of the Internet, journalists can tell stories directly to an audience through blogs, Tweets, etc. This is a good thing. 

It makes me feel better about the future, and less panic stricken about the possible demise of mainstream news operations (closures of venerable newsprint papers, trimming of local TV supper hour news shows, layoffs at the CBC News organization). 

According to the discussions at Brave New(s) World, news and journalism will still be happening, just perhaps in a different form then we have grown up with. 

And the summit argues there is still a need for trained news journalists who -- unlike citizen journalists so in vogue these days -- do the critical thinking, the analysis, the digging for hidden stories, and who continue to carry out the honourable tradition of "afflicting the comfortable while comforting the afflicted. "

To see some of the blogs and thoughts of people who attended the summit, please check out Melissa Feeney's rendition here: 
and the live blog by Lara Willis here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

More on When Journalists Become News

The last blog entry I published concerned the conflict which journalists sometimes have to face – when to be a journalist, and when to not be. 

 The blog sparked a debate among some readers and I am pleased to report on some of the issues that came out of this discussion.

 But first, some clarification is in order.  The point of the blog was not to chastise current students for choosing to act in a certain way during this recent Victoria George Pazzano incident. This situation is, indeed, different then an event with another class of students, some time ago, involving a knife-carrying teen walking through the halls of the campus, and the apathy shown by some of those students to covering breaking news right under their noses.

 What I wanted the blog to explain was that I understood the conflict. And  I tried to show how I did what they did, when I was in a similar situation to the Victoria George Pazzano event (when I was working at CBC Halifax –covering the murder of a woman who turned out to be my friend’s sister.) 

 During that incident in the 1980s, I decided to remove myself from covering the story anymore, despite my ties to the family.  I knew I could not be objective. I chose friendship over journalism, and I too decided their privacy was worth more then me getting a scoop. I let someone else cover the story.

 I was never intending to do any reporting about the Victoria George Pazzano story myself using our ties to her family and Centennial College; i.e. interview our student who is her sister, for my own professional purposes.

 The blog was simply to point out that it's a tough call sometimes, and the public needs to understand this struggle between wanting to answer the professional requirements of a journalist's training and balancing that with good taste and someone's privacy.  That it's a struggle sometimes for a journalist NOT to tell a story, when we are trained to always try our best to tell the story, because that is our calling and our public trust.

 Another example.

 Years ago, when a close relative was doing a big legal contract in New Brunswick, and told me about it, and I was working for CBC in New Brunswick at the time, it would have been a big scoop for me to report it. Hundreds of new jobs were about to be announced in a depressed community. But this person’s career could have been destroyed if I reported it (same last names, d-uh).

 I realized that, and promised this person I would keep the tip private, and I never reported it. It wasn't worth ruining this person's life/or my relationship with this person. 

  This is still true.  Few stories ever are, except health hazards, nuclear war, and perhaps imminent destruction or terrorism. But those are rare events in a journalist's life.

  Did I want to report it with every fibre of my soul? Yes! It was killing me. But it wasn't worth it, so after some thought, I chose to stay silent.

 Did my journalism students now do right by not reporting and exploiting their friendship with Victoria George’s sister? Of course. Did their instincts as journalists make them WANT to write about the story? I hope so.

 And as a teacher, I hope this serves as a talking point in an ethics lesson. If someone has an "in" with a newsmaker, but is too close to this newsmaker to feel comfortable/ethical being the journalist, what are the steps that can be taken as an alternative?

 1) Wait and do it later?

2) Get someone not related or involved to do the story?

3) Not do the story?

 Feedback, as always, is welcome.



Thursday, May 7, 2009

When Journalists become the news: Victoria George Pazzano

I went to the visitation for Victoria George-Pazzano yesterday, the young Toronto mother who died after suffering an asthma attack while on vacation in Mexico. The one who's family had so much trouble bringing her back to Toronto because of the swine flu fears.
Victoria's sister Caroline George is one of my students in the post-graduate journalism program at Centennial College in Toronto.
I wasn't aware of the connection right away between my own small world and the woman making headlines on the front page of the newspapers; it took about a week until my colleague Lindy Oughtred figured it out after learning about the flurry of emails from our students who are in Caroline's class. 
But once we discovered Victoria was our student's older sister, two things happened: I felt terrible for Caroline and the ordeal her family was going through. But I also wanted our students to be reporters, and use their connection to Caroline to tell another part of the big news story, from a perspective no one in the mainstream media could have possibly known about.
When I suggested this be done, some of the students looked uncomfortable. They were more concerned with sending flowers, organizing trips to the funeral home, and supporting Caroline.
I think even my colleague felt my suggestion of "Write a story about it" seemed a bit awkward and perhaps, even, in poor taste.
In the end, I don't think anyone has done a story yet about Caroline, despite our campus having a student newspaper, an online newspaper called the Toronto Observer, a radio station Observer Radio news, and many Twitter accounts and blogs.
This reminded me of an incident in the fall that happened at school: a young man was caught by the security guard with a 7 in long hunting knife. He'd been carrying it while casually walking through the halls of our campus, at the Centre for Creative Communications, where the Journalism school is located, at 951 Carlaw Avenue, in Toronto. I found out about it because I saw the knife at the front security desk, and asked what had happened, and found out the incident was still underway. The suspect had just been apprehended and was being escorted off campus.
So I ran back to the Observer Newsroom, and urged someone to get out to the lobby and cover the story. No one moved. They were working on other assignments, they had other things to do.
Finally, Paula Barreiros grabbed her notebook and tape recorder and went out to see what was going on.
Eventually, she got some quotes, and wrote the story for our online Observer edition.
The real story was that the mild-mannered security guard who we all see and love ever day, Ravi, had acted like a hero and saved the day.
It infuriated me that when the Journalism school became the centre of a news story right under its nose, all but one of the students (who I already consider journalists), showed they were really just students first, journalists second.
Which brings me to the point of this blog. 
For some reason, our journalism program has been privileged to have taught several students in the last two years who's personal lives have been played out on the front pages of Canada's newspapers: 
1) Caroline George, sister of Victoria George Pazzano.
2) Andrew Serba, brother of the late Michael Serba, a university student on a visit home who was killed by a drug addict in a laneway. Andrew kept up with his studies last fall all while the trial of the accused was before the courts, and in the newspapers. He's working at Inside Toronto.
3) Lera Thomas, who's brother was killed last fall, although I don't have many details.
She's now working at House and Home.

There is one more to tell you about: the murder happened more than 20 years ago, in Toronto, to a woman who was stabbed to death by a man who escaped from a half way house.
I first became personally connected to this story, and to the victim's family, while I was working for CBC in Halifax in the mid 1980s. The victim was Tema Conter, but she originally came from Halifax. I was assigned to cover the story, but because I was friends with her brother Howard, a physician, and his wife Karen, I decided it was too hard to remain objective. At the time, I remember choosing instead to throw away my mantle of journalistic objectivity, and I helped my friends field telephone calls from the media, and acted as a kind of gatekeeper for them, while the investigation was underway. Ironically, Howard and Karen's daughter Jenna is now studying for her post-graduate Journalism diploma with me, here at Centennial, and is a classmate of Caroline George.

Did I do right with the Conter murder? No one at work back then at the CBC penalized me or suspended me for my actions. At the time, I felt it was the right thing to do. Friendship over journalism.

But journalistic instincts will always kick in first, for me anyway. 

They did even yesterday at the visitation for Victoria George. 

I had a long chat with Victoria's mother, who is an incredibly gracious and spellbinding woman, mother of four, who shared with me her anxieties about her oldest daughter's life long battle with asthma (My oldest son is an asthmatic who has also been hospitalized many times and has come "close" twice so I understood her constant vigilance with Victoria and her sleepless nights and listening to her child breathe).

I asked Mrs. George if any politicians from Ontario had turned up, especially from the Health Ministry, which has some serious explaining to do about why there were no beds available for her dying oldest daughter Victoria.  She said that no one from the Health ministry had sent a card or flowers, but then she pointed to the front of the room at the Ogden Funeral Home. 

"Jack Layton sent those," she said.

And indeed, there was a delicate bouquet of white roses and about to bloom white tulips with a card from Jack Layton on the table.

So now with this blog about the visitation,  I've done it again. I've shared what I saw and heard, of someone's private life. I do it, because not only does it help me make sense of a tragic event, but perhaps it will shed some light for other people about the headlines they read but may not feel connected to.
And I hope it will reveal an example of the conflict which journalists often face as they live their lives: their struggle to balance what for me have always been roaring journalistic instincts, with the quest many people have for personal privacy. 

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Blue Rodeo and Michael Kaeshammer and chewing gum

At a concert at the Glenn Gould Theatre in Toronto last night, my friend introduced me to the talents of an amazing young Canadian jazz musician named Michael Kaeshammer. It was a belated birthday present to me: she treated me to the show. 
For those of you in the know, I won't tell you how he used to open for Sophie Millman and Anne Murray, but now is big enough and famous enough to fill what MC Jaymz Bee called "soft seat" concert halls across Canada. 
So what does this have to do with Blue Rodeo and journalism?Interviewing?
Kaeshammer told the audience he was planning to come to the lobby after the show to sign autographs for World Vision, and to mingle, and that he even hoped to finagle an invitation to a party, since he said he wasn't doing anything after the show ended!
And it got me to thinking about what I would ask him, if I accidentally happened to bump into him while he was "schmoozing."
It reminded me of the time I was in this same predicament a couple of summers ago, while on vacation with my family in Prince Edward Island.
My husband and I had bought tickets to see Blue Rodeo play at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. The event was going to be even more enticing because some friends of ours from Toronto knew the band, and had scored a backstage pass for us to meet the band after the show.
I remember spending the whole concert half listening to the music, and mostly wracking my brain for some inspiration about what I would ask Jim Cuddy so I wouldn't sound like a groupie or a bumbling awestruck fan.
And then it came to me while I was watching Cuddy and Greg Keelor chomping on chewing gum while they were performing. It struck me as odd, rude even, that such a big name band would be so disrespectful of their audience, that they wouldn't even spit out their gum before taking the stage.
So when the time came for us to crowd by the stage door, and jostle for photographs, I have to admit I was nervous. What if Cuddy thought I was an idiot for asking such a question?
When they came out, and the introductions were made, I went ahead and asked him about the gum issue. And I got a really interesting answer: he told me that at his age, he had to chew gum to keep his throat lubricated, so he doesn't lose his voice while he sings. 
A few months later, back home in Toronto, the Star and Globe both ran stories about Cuddy having problems with his vocal chords, even having to stop singing for a while to have surgery. 
So my question was bang on. Too bad I wasn't writing a story for CTV at the time. I didn't even have a blog then.
Nevertheless as far as I was concerned, gum or no gum, he still had -- and has-- a sweet voice.
I should've asked him what kind of gum works best-- and what his favourite flavour was, and how long did one piece last during a concert?
As for Kaeshammer, we left before I got myself into trouble. And I'd be glad to hear any suggestions on what you would have asked him.