Archive for December, 2013

Ethics and leadership were frequent themes on my blog this year.

I blogged a series of nearly 50 posts (including some guest posts) on advice for new leaders of Digital First newsrooms in 2013. I also blogged dozens of times about ethics, commenting on issues in journalism and on various efforts in the profession to uphold and update ethical standards.

Both trends on the blog reflected my work for the year: I helped in hiring new editors for Digital First newsrooms and made extended visits to their newsrooms when they got started. I also worked on various efforts in the profession to update, clarify and explain ethics standards.

As you’d expect with a series geared to a narrow audience, the advice for editors didn’t attract heavy traffic. But I appreciated the feedback from various editors in our company and elsewhere. The most-read post in the series, with more than 3,000 views, advised editors to check the digital profiles of job candidates. One of my favorite posts in the series addressed the importance of being a role model and discussed one of my important role models, Dave Witke.

The leadership and ethics themes came together in my posts calling on editors to stand for accuracy and lead discussions of ethics.

My most-read post published in 2013 (with nearly 6,000 views) was on verifying information from tweets. That was one of the last and best-read posts in my #twutorial series, which started last year. Another #twutorial post, on what to do if you hit Twitter’s follower limit, was my second most-read post written in 2013 with more than 4,000 views. Another #twutorial post took note of my first tweet ever and discussed how Twitter archives might be useful. (more…)


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Update: The Front Range newsrooms are the runaway winner, with 121 votes for their holiday lights project. Lights projects ruled this contest, with the Daily Freeman taking second with 44 votes and the Denver Post third with 23, both for holiday lights projects.

I’ll be shipping candy out today to the Front Range newsrooms (yikes! I’ll have to mail to four locations). Congratulations! (And everyone else should read how they did the project and emulate them next holiday season.)

It’s time to vote for the best winter engagement project from Digital First Media newsrooms.

I have lightly edited some of the nominations, changing tenses, combining multiple messages, etc. Several of our entries are maps featuring local holiday light displays. I’ll group those together at the end of the post, following the non-light entries.

The nominations are presented with those made by comments on the blog first, then nominations in the engagement Google group, then emails to me, in the order I received them. We had one nomination for a project pegged to New Year’s Day, but it encountered problems and was withdrawn. If I’ve overlooked a project that was submitted, please alert me and I’ll add it. (more…)

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Granting confidentiality to sources is one of the grayest areas of journalism ethics and one of the areas where we need extensive discussions of standards.

Nearly every journalist agrees that it’s better to name our sources than to withhold their identities. And nearly every journalist agrees that we sometimes have to agree not to name sources in order to tell some important stories. But we don’t all agree on when to grant confidentiality. And we’re not always consistent in deciding when to grant confidentiality and whether to publish information based on unnamed sources.

Since I blogged that we need more detailed advice on ethical issues, I’ve been planning to update the ethics handouts I developed for the two series of ethics seminars I presented for the American Press Institute from 2005 to 2009, under a pair of grants from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. I’ve gathered my detailed discussions of ethical issues into a category on the blog and will make them a series that will continue for a while.

I’m also posting my handout from those workshops on dealing with confidential sources, but here I’ll outline and discuss factors journalists should consider in whether to grant confidentiality to a source and whether to publish or broadcast stories based on confidential sources: (more…)

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Here’s my 2005 handout on dealing with confidential sources. I started updating it but decided I’d do an entirely new post, so this is mostly the handout I used for ethics seminars when I was at the American Press Institute, with some links added. I encourage you to read my 2013 post: Factors to consider in granting confidentiality to sources, and the case studies linked at the end of this post. If you read both, they will overlap, but they take different approaches. If you’re only going to read one, read the new one. (I originally got confused on the old headline for this handout and posted it as “You can quote me on that.” That was, of course, the headline for a handout on attribution.)

Few practices have dealt more blows to the credibility of American journalism than the use of confidential sources.

The fabrication scandals of Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley revolved largely around the use of unnamed sources. The New York Times’ faulty reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was based on unidentified sources. CBS News and Newsweek issued embarrassing retractions of reports based on confidential sources.

The jailing of Judith Miller underscored that the stakes for journalists go beyond credibility. The indictment and conviction of Scooter Libby based largely on the testimony of Miller and three other journalists demonstrated that journalists cannot always assure that a source will remain confidential.

The identification of Mark Felt as Deep Throat also has reminded us why we need confidential sources. The ideal standards and practices will allow the use of a modern-day Deep Throat, while pushing more sources onto the record to build reader credibility.

Proper use of confidential sources will protect journalists against the errors of recent scandals and protect news organizations against the use of bogus sources by fraudulent journalists.

This discussion will seek to clarify for the editors and reporters on your staff the standards for your newsroom: When do you grant confidentiality? How do you verify information from unnamed sources? How do you press sources to speak publicly? How do you identify these sources to your reader and explain why the reader should trust you and the source? How do you protect the source? (more…)

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Lawrence Phillips photo linked from Bleacher Report

Some sources won’t talk to you unless you grant them confidentiality because they fear for their safety. Journalists should grant those sources confidentiality. Sometimes you can use what they tell you to persuade other sources to go on the record.

This post is part of two series on my blog: updated lessons from old stories and detailed ethics discussions. I discuss the issue of confidential sources more broadly in an accompanying post.

This post is more of a case study, a story that shows good reasons to grant confidentiality to sources and a technique for using information from confidential sources to push reluctant sources into going on the record.

The story will be familiar to football fans. It’s the story of Lawrence Phillips‘ relationship with a woman he had been charged with assaulting. We named the victim in the 1995 story in the Omaha World-Herald. I will just use her initials now. Following the ethical principle of minimizing harm, I don’t see a need to pop a new story (that offers no new information) into Google searches for her name more than 18 years later. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with naming her at the time, but that’s another discussion and another tough ethical issue (I’ll discuss it at the end of this post). My story and other media coverage of that assault certainly deepened her trauma of being assaulted. You can find her name pretty quickly if you search for links about Phillips.

This was Phillips’ first criminal case after bursting onto the national scene as a star running back at the University of Nebraska. (He’s now serving a 31-year prison term for other crimes, including an attack on another girlfriend.) After a dominant sophomore season, he was a strong early contender for the Heisman Trophy after running for 206 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan State in the Cornhuskers’ second game of the season.

Tom Osborne photo linked from Husker Spot

But Phillips was arrested that Sunday for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. I covered the police and courts end of the story for the Omaha World-Herald, while colleagues in sports covered the coaches’ statements. Huskers football coach Tom Osborne said he had thrown Phillips off the team (he later reinstated Phillips). The team discipline was separate from the criminal case went, where Phillips was innocent until proven guilty, Osborne said. The coach said he had told Phillips to stay away from the ex-girlfriend, a Husker basketball player, and he was dismissed for disobeying the coach. (more…)

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Some people will talk for the record about private matters if you get a chance to earn their trust.

That was the big lesson for me from one of the most memorable stories of my career, telling the personal stories, on the record, of six women who experienced troubled pregnancies and their decisions of whether to have an abortion or give birth.

If I were doing this story today, I would certainly add crowdsourcing to the techniques I used to find women who would be sources for this story. Finding sources was the biggest challenge in doing the story and was, of course, the key to the story.

It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to do this story by itself. I had developed good relationships with people on both sides of the issue and they played intermediary by hooking me up with potential sources (and by vouching for me to those sources).

Of course, physicians and counselors who connected me with sources wouldn’t and shouldn’t (even before tougher federal health-privacy laws) give me names and phone numbers of patients or clients. They gave my name and phone number to women they thought might talk to me (or perhaps to women whose stories they thought would portray their own views sympathetically). I have no idea how many women got my name and phone number but never called, but eventually, I connected with enough women. (more…)

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This continues my series on advice for new Digital First editors.

Jack Warner, photo linked from Wikimedia

Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop.

When Mimi was reading Lauren Bacall’s autobiography, Lauren Bacall By Myself, she laughed and read the passage above aloud when the actor told about a telegram studio chief Jack Warner sent to the set of The African Queen with the message above. Warner sounded like too many editors I have known who embrace the serious side of the news business but forget about the value of fun.

A newsroom should be a fun place. The editor should be tolerant (even encouraging) of harmless fun and should sometimes be a leader of newsroom fun.

Some ways to foster fun in your newsroom (your mileage may vary; adapt your approach to your own sense of humor, your own creativity, and to your newsroom’s culture and needs):

Food is fun. No editor should overlook the role of food in newsroom morale. Whether you pop from the newsroom budget or your own pocket, occasionally pass the hat or organize a holiday potluck, your newsroom should enjoy food together. Buy pizza or sandwiches for election night (of course) and occasionally for a lunchtime workshop or a brownbag discussion of an important issue in journalism or whatever is on your staff’s minds. Buy farewell cakes for departing staff members. A measure of camaraderie in your newsroom will be the people who bring their own baking or other cooking into the newsroom, or those who stop on the way to work or over the lunch hour to buy a box of donuts or cookies. (more…)

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Sergei Yakupov, CEO and founder of the Russian web magazine MediaMedia, asked me 10 questions for his 10 FAQts feature.

You can see the exchange in Russian at the link above, but the Google translation isn’t perfect. So I’ll post his English questions and my responses here.

1. How did you start your career in media? What was the initial point?

I was a newspaper carrier in the 1960s for the Columbus Citizen-Journal. But my first job as a journalist was as a sports writer for the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa, in 1971, when I was in high school. I covered sports at small high schools in that rural area, and I immediately loved reporting, writing and interacting with the community.

2. If not in journalism, i would be in… (more…)

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WordPress just informed me that I published my 1,000th post on this blog today.

Some quick and mostly self-indulgent observations/summaries from the first thousand:

  • Twitter is my most-used category on the blog (no surprise), with more than 100 posts, 28 of them in my #twutorial series. I’ve done nearly 100 on ethics.
  • My most-viewed post is one that gets great search traffic but almost no engagement, The 5 W’s (and How) are even more important to business than journalism. It ranks high in Google searches for the 5 W’s and has more than 24,000 views, but I think that’s an oddity.
  • My most-viewed post that I think people actually read is about ideas for new revenue streams for newspapers. It has more than 15,000 views. My only other post with more than 10,000 views is on how a Digital First journalist works.
  • After changing the name frequently in my first couple years. This blog was Puttin’ on the Gaz (when I was editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette), then Transforming the Gaz, then Pursuing the Complete Community Connection (after a blog post that for a couple years was my most-read). I changed it to The Buttry Diary when TBD launched. Even though TBD is long since dead, I think I’ll stick with it. I changed names too frequently.
  • I’ve used a few different headers, but I think I’ll stick with the one designed for me last year by Tim Tamimi.
  • I’m not blogging as often (or getting as much traffic) as I did last year. I topped 25,000 views in five different months last year, twice topping 30,000. I’ve only topped 25K once this year and twice I dropped under 20K. I attribute my less-frequent blogging to my work load and to better fitness. I usually do my blogging in the morning. I have been taking morning walks most of this year (cold weather has slowed that lately), and that has cut into my blogging productivity.

Other blogs

I have no idea where I hit the 1,000 milestone in total blogging. I’ve had several blogs and contributed guest posts to several other blogs.

I started the Training Tracks blog in 2004 for the No Train, No Gain website and later continued it at the American Press Institute. Also at API, I had blogs called Leadership Tips and Writing Tips (blog versions of email newsletters where I aggregated links on those topics, sprinkling in some of my own links and tips). None of those blogs are still available online, except for the Training Tracks posts I’ve republished here (I should have saved the other archives).

I also have three other current blogs:

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Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002.  (Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002. (Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

This continues my series on updated lessons from old stories.

One of the most profound privileges of my career was to spend most of five weeks in late 2002 with 13 Afghan women teachers.

After 9/11, much of my reporting at the Omaha World-Herald focused on the work of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. It was the nation’s only academic center studying Afghanistan, so we suddenly found ourselves with some of the nation’s and the world’s leading experts on the distant country that suddenly mattered more to America than any other.

I proposed several times that my editors send me to Afghanistan to cover various UNO projects abroad in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That would have been expensive and it would have been difficult, but we absolutely should have done it. My editors’ failure/refusal to make that happen remains one of the deepest disappointments of my career. I connected by satellite phone and email with UNO officials when they were in Afghanistan on projects we should have been covering. I used similar means to reach Afghan officials, U.S. officials and leaders of other aid organizations in Afghanistan who were working with UNO. I did my best but it was all second-hand reporting, grossly inadequate.

My best shot at first-hand reporting came when UNO won a State Department grant to bring 13 Afghan women teachers to Nebraska for five weeks to teach them American culture and educational techniques. After years of Taliban bans on schooling for girls, these committed and courageous teachers were back on the job and UNO was going to help them be better teachers and teach their colleagues back home to be better teachers.

Finally, I would get to witness UNO working directly with Afghans. I sought and was granted full access to the visit, invited to virtually embed myself at times in the Afghan teaching project almost as if I were covering a U.S. combat unit over in Afghanistan. I traveled with them around the Midwest. I visited in the homes of host families where they lived. I followed them to classes in UNO and around Omaha schools.

Seldom have I been as touched and moved by the people I covered as I was by these Afghan women. Their courage, joy, perseverance and optimism amazed me day after day after day. I could see that these women had been changing the lives of Afghan girls and women for years (before and after the Taliban, Afghan schools were segregated by gender, so the women taught only girls and other women) and would do so again. (more…)

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This continues my series on advice for new Digital First editors.

A common challenge for new editors is leading staff members who are older and more experienced than you. Sometimes a lot older.

Digital First CEO John Paton has said we’re going to “put the digital people in charge.” Digital people aren’t always young and print people aren’t always old, but sometimes that means an editor will be leading people as old as his or her parents. Or older.

And that’s not strictly a phenomenon of digital journalism. I was 24 when I became an assistant city editor at the Des Moines Register, supervising veterans such as Nick Lamberto and Otto Knauth, both of whom were older than my parents. The young editor getting a leadership opportunity has always been tested and evaluated by veteran journalists.

The best ways for a young leader to earn respect from older journalists are to show respect and to do good work. But these specific tips can also help:

Make learning two-way. Your digital skills are an important part of why you are getting your leadership opportunity. You need to teach and coach colleagues in their use of digital tools and techniques. But recognize that you have much to learn from them. When their work impresses you, ask questions about what they did and how. This helps you in two ways: You show respect to them at the same time that you learn from them and become a better journalist. (more…)

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I used to start workshops by telling reporters the most important thing they could get from an interview was the “Walmart sack.” I carried a blue plastic Walmart sack loaded with my workshop handouts and dropped the sack with a thump onto a table, hoping to intrigue the reporters and grab their attention.

Finding a character’s Walmart sack should be the point of an interview, I said. You needed to learn what the character’s Walmart sack was and you needed to get the character to entrust the sack to you.

The Walmart sack was a metaphor in my workshops, but it was a real sack when I interviewed Vanessa Forsberg in 1995. I had a riveting, powerful interview with Vanessa, but the Walmart sack held papers that could tell part of her story even better than she could. (more…)

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