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Steve Buttry interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev

An interview with Mikhail Gorbachev was one of many memorable stories for the Omaha World-Herald. Photo by Kent Sievers.

I left the Omaha World-Herald for the second time 10 years ago. After sharing some lessons earlier this year from my much shorter time at the Cedar Rapids Gazette, I started reflecting on my time at the World-Herald and what I learned there.

I spent longer at the World-Herald than anywhere else in my career, 10 years, four months in two hitches of roughly five years each, 1993 to 1998, and 2000 to 2005. I was a reporter the whole time, though I was also a writing coach the second time around.

Here are some lessons I learned in my two tenures in Omaha (or lessons I had already learned that were underscored or relearned):

Get back to work

This was my World-Herald file staffer mug. I  think Jim Burnett shot it. I was much younger then.

This was my World-Herald file staffer mug. I think Jim Burnett shot it. I was much younger then.

As I’ve noted before, I was fired as editor of the Minot Daily News in 1992. In terms of getting my career back on track, it didn’t matter a lot whether I was fired because I screwed up (I didn’t) or fired because the company was cutting costs to prepare for a sale (it was). I was without a job and without a paycheck and the newspaper job market was tight (newspapers were in much better shape than today, but closings of afternoon newspapers had resulted in lost jobs and it felt like a bleak time). Even though I was willing to take a step back to resume working, many employers were reluctant to hire me for a downward move. And no one was interested in me for a step forward. In my late 30s, my career was in jeopardy, and I was exploring jobs outside journalism as well as some newspaper jobs. Continue Reading »

Glamann Award for Steve ButtryFriday evening was an incredible time for me.

After waiting most of the day to work out details of how I would receive intravenous antibiotics at home, I finally left the hospital about 7:15, ending an eight-day stay to treat an infection that arose because chemotherapy had damaged my immune system. It was great to get home.

As I started opening packages that arrived in my absence, Mimi said I needed to open my laptop. We were going to Skype with our granddaughters before they went to bed. Sounded like a nice welcome-home. I had no idea.

The Skype callers were not my granddaughters, but Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society, and the 500 copy editors gathered for the ACES conference in Pittsburgh. Teresa and Mimi had conspired to Skype me into the conference, so ACES could give me the Glamann Award. Mimi had the plaque and Teresa said some kind words about my contributions to journalism. Continue Reading »

Facebook logo copyI blame Facebook’s crappy iPad app for this blog post.

I actually thought of the topic for this post before falling asleep around 11 p.m. That’s when I read the New York Times story about the Times and other news organizations considering and negotiating a deal to publish content on Facebook rather than on their own sites.

I have a busy day planned today (even if I am stuck in the hospital, I’m working and I have class today, plus many other chores awaiting me). So that post might have gone unwritten.

But something woke me up around 2 a.m. If you’ve spent much time in the hospital, you understand. And before trying to get back to sleep, I tried to answer a question on my iPad in a Facebook discussion. And Facebook’s iPad sucks so bad that I had to abandon the iPad, then redo and finish my answer on the laptop. And then, I had to blog about Facebook. Piss me off in the middle of the night when I’d rather be sleeping, and I will blog about you, even if I have to finish grumpy in the daylight.

Part of my initial response to skepticism about the wisdom of getting into bed with Facebook would have been to note that newspapers have been dependent on (at the mercy of?) other businesses my whole career. Other media are dependent, too, but I will focus here mostly on newspapers. Part of my argument would have noted that the dependency on Facebook was likely to cause problems (as it has before), but I was probably going to come down on the side of saying I might be exploring or testing such a relationship myself if I were the New York Times, BuzzFeed or National Geographic, the companies apparently in such discussions with Facebook.

But then I got pissed off at the Facebook app in the middle of the night, and thought of how dependence on external carriers was a bad decision for the Kansas City Star and Times decades ago, and I had to start blogging in the middle of the night about why publishers should be cautious about increasing their dependence on Facebook. Continue Reading »

People who think journalism ethics principles are timeless have short memories. Or no knowledge of journalism history.

When I failed last year to persuade the Society of Professional Journalists to address linking in the update of its Code of Ethics, some ethics committee members didn’t want the code to refer to specific technology (such as hyperlinks) because they wanted a code of “timeless” journalism principles.

Never mind that the code had been updated before as society and journalism changed. They thought ethics were based on timeless principles and ethics codes should stand as a rock during changing times, rather than being updated to reflect the times.

In a speech at an ethics symposium last year, I noted how values change in other areas of life, and said journalism values change, too.

If you think the ethical principle of journalism independence is timeless, read Sunday’s column by Sid Hartman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Hartman has been a journalist for 70 years, and he’s reminiscing as the Star Tribune prepares to move out of its longtime downtown headquarters. I’m not going to question his ethics. In fact, he notes in the column that some of the practices he recalls wouldn’t be acceptable today. But you can’t read his column and then defend the notion that journalism ethics are timeless.

Here’s an excerpt:

In those days most every member of the small 10-man staff — compared with about 40 now — was allowed to earn some extra cash by doing public relations for the different sports teams in town. That’s why I was allowed to be involved with the Lakers.

No metro newspaper would allow that sort of dual relationship today. But we’ve kind of come full circle, with leagues and teams hiring journalists to cover themselves on their own websites, and other companies, government agencies and non-profit organizations creating elaborate operations to produce journalism that is anything but independent.

When the Star Tribune’s former longtime owner and Minneapolis civic leader John Cowles was trying to bring more major league sports teams to the Twin Cities, it was perfectly fine for his sports editor and columnist to be part of the campaign, as Hartman recounts:

The Star and Tribune had its own airplane then, and Cowles allowed (Sports Editor Charles) Johnson and myself to travel any place that was needed to lure any of the major league teams here. …

When it came to the Vikings, Cowles sent then Chamber of Commerce President Gerald Moore and me to Chicago to try to lure the Chicago Cardinals, who were not doing well, to play in Bloomington. And when we made a deal with Cardinals President Walter Wolfner to pay him $125,000 per game to play two regular-season games here in 1959, Cowles guaranteed the check. The two games sold out and helped get the NFL here soon after.

That sort of collaboration with community movers and shakers would be unacceptable in journalism today.

Journalism changes. Organizations that lead us in ethical thought should strive to stay current, not pretend we can cling to timeless principles.

If reports are correct, my former company, Digital First Media, is going to sell to Apollo Global Management for about $400 million.

I’m not going to pretend I can analyze what that means for DFM, my many former colleagues there or for the news business. I hope for the sake of my many friends remaining in the company’s newsrooms across the country that the Apollo’s management will find a path to prosperity that doesn’t involve endlessly cutting staff. I hope the company will genuinely pursue the kind of digital creativity that the future demands and will have the staying power to let good ideas flourish.

Since seeing initial reports about the pending deal, I’ve wondered about the meaning of the $400 million sale price, reached in a long “auction” process that sought the best deal(s) to sell the company as a whole or in pieces.

The reported price tag is a breathtaking fall from what newspapers used to be worth, even in the past few years. I hope this means Apollo’s strategy isn’t to keep cutting staff to maintain profits. DFM doesn’t have much left to cut, and values have dropped as newspapers have been cutting. The best way to maximize this $400 million investment will be to build value by developing new revenue streams.

Comparisons of sales prices of media companies can be misleading. One sale might include more real estate, while another might include more debt or pension obligations. Successful subsidiaries can add value to a company. In a sale such as the DFM deal, which is essentially between two private equity companies, full terms may never be disclosed. You might not be comparing apples and oranges, but apples and lawn mowers.

I was not involved in the sale at all, other than losing my job last year as the company was preparing for the sale. But I understood DFM enough to know this was an extraordinarily complicated deal, with an array of factors that make it unique: Continue Reading »

I’m pleased that my recent posts about interviews have spurred some discussion.

This comment and the responses seemed worthy of another post:

Others weighed in:

Those are all good points, but I’ll conclude with some thoughts beyond Twitter’s 140-character limit:

  • Humility is always good in an interview. When you are interviewing experts, acknowledging that they know more than you and inviting them to educate you is usually effective.
  • Arrogance in an interview can be bad for many reasons, but arrogance combined with stupidity may be the worst interview combination possible.
  • I oversimplify in tweets, so I’m not faulting anyone’s use of the word “stupid” above, but I want to make clear: Stupidity is not the same as ignorance. If a source truly thinks you’re stupid, she might not have confidence that you’ll be able to understand and explain the complicated issues we sometimes cover. The ideal perception you want a source to have is that you’re smart enough to understand the issue, but you’re not an expert, so you’re going to need her help.
  • You need to learn, if you haven’t yet, when to show your knowledge and when to confess your ignorance. Sometimes a display of your knowledge will build confidence in a source. Other times, a confession of ignorance will prompt someone to try to school you on a topic. I covered agriculture back in the 1990s and sometimes got great interviews by asking a farmer or agriculture official to explain something to me like I was a 6-year-old (like Denzel Washington’s “Joe Miller” character in “Philadelphia“). Lots of farmers love to educate people about ag, and confessing my ignorance frequently helped. Other times, if I understood an issue, asking knowledgeable questions showed that I had done my homework and built confidence that people could trust me to understand and explain more complicated matters.
  • Fit your approach to your knowledge. Faking stupidity or ignorance is not a good approach, but faking knowledge is worse. The best approach is to do some research so you can ask smart questions. But sometimes you just don’t know, and this interview is part of how you learn so you can ask smart questions later. That’s the time to confess your ignorance and ask someone to educate you.
  • One of the tweets above repeats what many of our mothers and teachers told us about the only stupid question being the one you don’t ask. I do agree that it’s better to ask a stupid question than fail to get it answered. But I have annoyed sources with stupid questions, so I want to avoid oversimplifying here just because our moms gave us simple advice. If you know you’re asking a stupid question, keep it as direct as possible, with a confession, such as, “Here’s what I need help figuring out …” Sometimes the premise might be stupid, rather than the question itself, so keep your stupid question simple and direct, rather than loading it up with premises, explanations and conditions.

What are your tips and experiences on handling your stupidity (or ignorance) in interviews?

Charlie Meyerson

Charlie Meyerson

One of my interviewing tips drew some criticism from veteran journalist and teacher Charlie Meyerson.

Charlie, news chief at Rivet News Radio, and I disagree a bit about whether using “uh-huh” in interviews is good or bad.

Here’s what I said in Thursday’s post, an updated version of an old handout for a workshop on interviewing:

Uh-huh. Move the interview along with responsive questions and statements that basically tell the character to keep talking: ‘Uh-huh.’ ‘Really?’ ‘What happened next?’ ‘How did you react?’

I think I was using “uh-huh” and other short verbal cues to keep talking back in the 1980s (or possibly 1970s), long before I first connected with Don Fry, one of the best writing coaches in journalism. But Don says, “The most powerful interview technique is nodding your head and saying, ‘Uh-huh.'” So, if I didn’t learn the technique from Don, he at least reinforced my belief that it’s an effective way to keep someone talking in an interview.

But Charlie has a lot more radio experience than Don or I have, and he sent me this note, disagreeing with my advice:

‘Uh-huh’ is a bad habit I’m still trying to kill among my students and staff. It ruins a lot of audio and video (makes excerpts unusable — a bad thing in this era when multimedia is an invaluable asset for digital journalism). It also makes the reporter seem sympathetic to an interviewee, compromising a sense of objectivity. My counsel: Ask good questions and get the hell out of the way, nodding (silently!) once in a while if needed to encourage someone to keep going.

Charlie sent along a link to his guide to interview techniques, which I heartily endorse. But I wasn’t going to give up right away on “uh-huh.” My response (Charlie got to the point more succinctly than I did): Continue Reading »

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