Category Archives: Master’s Class

While media changes, the goal remains the same

Despite changing landscape, outlets must still cater to target audiences to remain relevant

Ten years ago, Andrea Courtois was just starting her career as an assignment editor in Providence, Rhode Island. Ten years ago, Rafat Ali was in the throes of his first startup, paidContent. Ten years ago, Justin Ellis was a reporter and columnist for the Portland Press Herald of Maine.

Ten years may not seem like a long time to anyone over the age of 30, but in the world of journalism, ten years has meant significant changes and adaptation. Though the three journalists just mentioned came from different media within the same industry, and had very different ways of conducting their jobs ten years ago, now how they research stories, cultivate sources, and follow leads is nearly identical. Nearly all of it is done online.

Courtois is now an assignment editor in Boston; Ali has sold his first startup to Guardian Media Group and launched a second, Skift; and Ellis is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

All three of them are quite aware of the changing dynamics of digital journalism. “Print and magazines have their place,” said Ali via Skype. “But daily newspapers in the U.S. do not make sense economically.”

Ali created his first startup, paidContent, in 2002 as an online news outlet that focused on aspects of digital media including business dealings, moves, and general news. In 2008, he sold this startup to Guardian Media Group. He took some time off, and in 2012 launched his new startup, Skift. Skift’s business model is providing news, information, data, and services to all sectors of travel.

In order to be sustainable, outlets need to diversify and think about other ways to brand themselves, suggested Ali. In addition to writing articles, sharing data, and engaging with readers via social media channels, Skift also hosts conferences and events. “There is a creative renaissance in conferences and events,” said Ali. “I think TED changed how we look at things, that we can build events around a certain subject manner. The Atlantic, Quartz, (The) New York Times, they’re all building revenues around events.”

PHOTOS: 15 minutes as a television assignment editor

Inviting audiences to events can help readership and loyalty. And so can engaging them online. Courtois tries to do that every day as an assignment editor at WBZ-TV. During a recent interview, Courtois said there’s a wide variance of acceptance of digital journalism throughout television newsrooms. She indicated that the level to which these newer platforms are used to enhance the traditional one depends on direction from news directors, producers, and ownership.

For her own growth and knowledge, Courtois said she takes the lead in many cases. “I try to check out whatever everyone is talking about,” she said. “Whether it’s Instagram or Snapchat or anything else, I usually sign up for an account to at least check it out.”

Whereas ten years ago Courtois would spend her time reading newspapers online or in print, these days she spends most of her time using TweetDeck cultivating stories for her crews.

“I set up (a reporter’s) entire story yesterday using Twitter,” she said, while sitting at her desk. “And people will tweet me tips all the time.”

As she said this, she stopped mid-sentence to turn up the volume on the police scanner to listen to a dispatcher talk about a reported attempted abduction. Courtois still uses more traditional means to get stories – whether it be a police scanner, email, or a simple phone call – but she said social media and digital journalism are what get most of her attention these days.

She even remembers when she signed up for Facebook in April 2007. “It was the day of the Virginia Tech shooting,” she recalled. “I had an intern tell me about Facebook, and I signed up to try to find students from Rhode Island who were there.”

“I also work to get permission from people to use their photos,” Courtois said. “Once I get that, I email it to everyone from reporters to producers to graphic designers, to let them know the information and the appropriate credit.”

The pictures and videos she finds online travel fast, much faster than when there was just one evening newscast and a morning paper.

Justin Ellis spends a lot of his time at Nieman Journalism Lab evaluating from where journalism has come and where it’s headed.

“Newspapers are not dead,” he said decisively during an interview at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. “But they need to figure out different ways to be more effective in how they’re distributed.”

Ellis went on to say that The Washington Post and The Boston Globe have recently been able to lean on wealthy owners to evaluate their next steps, including how to reach and serve audiences, which includes a heavy focus on mobile devices.

“A news website now has more than 50 percent of its traffic from mobile,” he said. “Places need to pay attention to creating custom experiences on mobile.”

Ellis doesn’t necessarily see it as a dire time in the news industry, but every outlet needs to figure out what its audience wants and needs. He said those outlets then need to be able to service that need.

“When you’re not consumed by scale, it lets you hold on and thrive,” he said. He pointed out that niche organizations, like Ali’s Skift, don’t need to be all things to all people, but they do need to do what they’re doing well. “These small- to medium-size websites with a dedicated audience can do really well,” explained Ellis.

But if editors and owners want their outlet to reach the largest possible audience without being true to a dedicated audience, it may not do as well. Ellis added that niche doesn’t need to be as specific as a media outlet that solely focuses on small businesses; it can be local television stations or newspapers. “The news in Boston is different than in Lowell than in Springfield than in Portland,” he said. “But readers of The Boston Globe aren’t going to the site just for Patriots news; they want to know about news in their community.”

Ellis said in order for news organizations to continue building community they need to focus on their social media presence and the comment sections of their websites. Ellis said Twitter has become an accepted source and not a fringe tool, and fewer people are skeptical of it. But the audience there is still small, and the reach is far smaller than on Facebook. “The people on Twitter are generally people in media or tech or work in entertainment. Electronic media for them is already the norm,” he said. Instead, organizations need to be active on Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, and pay attention to their comments.

“We’ve reached a point with comments where in order to make them effective, they [news organizations] need to know what their goal is,” Ellis explained. Additionally, outlets need to spend time moderating them, putting effort into watching them, and laying down the law on what is acceptable and what is not early and often.

Recently Kara Swisher’s latest venture, Re/code, decided to go the way of Reuters and eliminate comments on articles. The time spent monitoring comments on their own site wasn’t worth it, Ellis said. Instead, Swisher and the site’s co-founder, Walt Mossberg, wrote to readers that the conversations would continue on social media platforms. “In effect, we believe that social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old onsite approach that dates back many years,” they wrote.

“In an ideal world, investors would be discussing things (in the comments section), but they don’t have the time to put into that,” Ellis said. “Frankly, the conversation takes place on Twitter.” But that conversation is segmented, there’s no community, and it’s limited to 140 characters at a time, he added, which doesn’t necessarily help to build brand.

While it’s unclear where journalism is headed, all three seem to agree there is an expected focus on community, digital footprint, and mobile. But how news organizations, big and small, get there isn’t clearly outlined. For now, as Ali explained, organizations will need to focus on making themselves and their product so important to their customers that if that product went away tomorrow it would be missed.

15 minutes as a television assignment editor

I had the opportunity recently to visit Andrea Courtois at WBZ-TV in Boston. Courtois is an assignment editor for the television side of the operations, though she works closely with the folks at WBZ NewsRadio 1030.

As an assignment editor, Courtois is responsible for gathering elements for the newscasts including interviews, information, and now, in the age of digital journalism, tweets, updates from Facebook, and photos from Instagram.

In the ten years that Courtois has been an assignment editor, she says her job has changed tremendously. She says she tries to stay up-to-date with whatever new social media platform there is, where people are talking, and how to use social media in news gathering.

Her job is incredibly busy. In the 15 minutes I took these photos, Courtois had numerous phone conversations, often on two phones at the same time; she was writing emails while talking on the phone; she monitored Twitter; she booked satellite time for her crews in the field; and she was listening to the police scanner, at one point stopping mid-sentence, turning up the scanner, and listening to a description of a reported attempted abduction.

A data visualization of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Infogr.am 1
Infogr.am 2
Infogr.am 3

Editor’s note: this was an assignment for my master’s class. The entire visualization can be seen here.

“Hidden Gem” – Temptations

temptations 1Every time I walk into Temptations Café, I am tempted to try something new. Whether it be a falafel wrap or chicken panini or maybe a special, there is always something that sounds good. And to this point, I have not been let down.

When our master’s class decided to map our hidden gems, I knew nearly immediately that mine would be Temptations at 313 Huntington Avenue. It’s not often I go out for lunch, but there are very few places I go to when I do, and Temptations is at the top.

temptations 2The waiting area is not large, nor is the seating area, so I generally get mine to go, but the few times I have stayed to eat in the restaurant, it’s been enjoyable. There’s a lot going on, many faces to watch and foods to think about getting next time.

On a recent trip in I spoke with Lutfi “Lou” Lutfi, a manager in the restaurant. He said that the clientele is mostly students and professionals who work nearby. He mentioned that there are regulars who work at the nearby YMCA, in real estate, and for small businesses, who often come in for lunch. He also said that although the restaurant is open until 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, lunch is the busiest time, followed by breakfast, then the evening. (The full hours are Monday-Thursday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.)

“Most people aren’t thinking ‘sandwiches and coffee’ at 8 o’clock at night,” said Lutfi.

temptations 3Because of the amount of foot traffic, including nearby students at Northeastern University and The Boston Conservatory, Lutfi said they do minimal advertising. They are, however, on Twitter and Facebook, and he said they use those avenues to advertise specials.

In addition to the location on Huntington Avenue, close to the Northeastern MBTA stop, there are Temptations Café locations on Beacon Street in Brookline near the Coolidge Corner T stop and the St. Mary’s T stop.

On this particular time in I ordered a chicken and hummus wrap. Everything is made to order, and you can always ask them to take out or add items. The service is fast, and the transactions done on an iPad. I was once again not let down by the sandwich.

There is a caveat I feel I need to add. I have been to Temptations twice for coffee, once with a group of friends and once with one other individual. Both times my company was disappointed. The pumpkin latte tasted like what you would think a candle tastes like. And the espresso was not made the way it was ordered.

That said, I have been there many other times and always left full and happy.

temptations 5

Talking about the “Future of Journalism”

There has been a lot said about the “future of journalism.” What will it look like? Who is part of the conversation? Which outlets will survive?

The changes that this industry has seen in the past 10 years are significant. Much like the invention of the printing press or radio or television, the shift to online news impacts delivery and consumption of news in direct ways. It changes the advertising dollars, which changes the budgets, which causes adjustments in staffing. And that’s just a start.

For my final project in for Fundamentals of Digital Journalism class in which I am currently enrolled, I intend to talk with people who are part of this moving target, as well as some who are watching and analyzing it. I want to answer the question, “What is the future of journalism, and how is digital impacting traditional media?”

Justin Ellis, an editor at The Nieman Lab, writes about and gives lectures this topic often. I have already been in touch with Ellis, and he has agreed to talk with me about this.

Additionally, I spoke briefly with Rafat Ali, CEO of Skift. Ali has never been one to mute his mouth regarding media, and he has recently posted a few articles about his current thoughts on the future of journalism. As someone who has started two niche media companies, paidContent before Skift, Ali has personal experience in how this industry is changing and moving online.

I would like to bring Hilary Sargent of Boston.com into the conversation, as well as Andrea Courtois of WBZ-TV. It would be great if I could also get interviews with Brian Stelter and David Folkenflik, but I’m not going to hold my breath on those.

From now until the day it’s due, I will likely be asking anyone and everyone I know in journalism what their thoughts are, and I will plan to include as many of those thoughts as possible.

What journalist doesn’t love doughnuts?

Recently I went to Portland, Oregon for a conference. While there, I had a class assignment I needed to complete, and I wanted to do some sightseeing. I decided to combine the two and take a walk to Old Town and check out Voodoo Doughnut.

Voodoo Doughnut is known worldwide for its fare. There are dozens of types of doughnuts, and often the line stretches out the door and around the corner.

I was disappointed in audio; the crew that was working at this particular time was into heavy rock, and it was loud. I used both a Canon T2i and an iPhone 4S. Let me know what you think. And if you have been there, what kind of doughnut did you order?

Transforming dining hall food into gourmet meals

Priya Krishna graduated from Dartmouth College in 2013 with degrees in French and International Relations and Affairs. While she says being able to translate things from French to English is helpful, and IR fascinates her, it’s what else she did at Dartmouth that’s getting her attention these days.

Krishna wrote the book “Dining Hall Hacks” and is currently on a book tour taking her to dining halls across the country showing students they can create their own meals using the ingredients available in dining halls.

She was at Northeastern University’s Xhibition Kitchen on Wednesday, October 8 to share her tricks and tips. “This dining hall is amazing,” she said of Stetson West, home of the XK and one of several dining halls on campus. “I’ve been to more than 50 dining halls across the country, and this is the best.” She took ingredients offered in the dining hall and made some unique salads.