Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A new decade in the digital age


"Change" was the mantra of 2009.

In 2008, Washington Window, the newspaper I edit, was a monthly publication. In 2009, after budget cuts, the paper began its transition to becoming bi-monthly in 2010. This raised all sorts of questions about what it could and should be to best serve its readers in the digital age.

There were various reasons for this change, among them:

  • the economy
  • the national church's decision to relaunch its monthly newspaper, Episcopal Life, as a quarterly, affecting dioceses who publish their news as a "wrapper" and sparking a church-wide trend away from monthly publications.
  • the new media explosion, which means people are seeking cheaper and faster ways to diseminate news and information
  • the rising cost of newsprint

I worried that unless I got a grip on new media, I would find myself in a backwater faster than I could say "legacy media."

But where to begin?

I've been experimenting more with "online extra" features, for the most part photo galleries like this one about a recent tour of historically black Episcopal churches in Washington, D.C.

I've been on Facebook for several years, but haven't really used it for work, though some readers have "friended" me. I'm planning to set up a fan page for the newspaper, but wanted to get pointers from the ICFJ class I'm taking so I could do it right the first time.

I wanted to explore Twitter, which until this class I had only read about. And I wanted a way to connect with readers more interactively. As the Window transitions to fewer printed issues, more news will need to be published online, and a blog is an easy way to do that.

Readers have asked about all these things, and some also have requested an RSS feed. And we all know that when readers ask for something, we need to find a way to deliver.

Embracing 2010

Thanks to the ICFJ I have an improved action plan and have had a chance to practice using the tools I'll need to take the Window into the new decade.

In the next print issue, I plan to invite people to become Facebook fans of the newspaper, follow us on Twitter and visit a new blog which will contain "extra" content and breaking news.

I also have some ideas about how to expand beyond slideshows to create audio-visual presentations, but will need to practice a bit more with some of those tools.

Better prepared next time

Headlines during the current crisis in Haiti -- at least in the United States -- often seek to contrast the response to the Jan. 12 earthquake to the haphazard and slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

I feel like Haiti was my Hurricane Katrina, in that I could have done so much better if I had been using these new media tools. For example, I could have:

  • Used Twitter to quickly send out the most pressing information -- how to help.
  • Posted updates to a blog.
  • Sent out a message through Facebook.
  • Included videos like the one below on the blog and on our homepage to give people a sense of how the Episcopal Church in Haiti was impacted and how it is responding.
  • Created and embedded a "pastoral message" from the Bishop of this diocese.

Sadly, there will always be a next time. And next time, my goal is to get the word out faster, across more platforms, to help more people do what they do best in times of trouble -- reach out a human hand to help a virtual stranger.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The pros and cons of commenting

I have to confess I have mixed feelings about online comments.

On the one hand, I believe people need to own their words, as journalism professor John Hatcher argues here, and that they will be more circumspect if their name is attached to them.

On the other, there's a case to be made that people can speak -- or will speak -- more honestly when they have a measure of anonymity.

Anonymity is not a good thing when it enables people to slur or insult the views or beliefs of others. But sometimes people have valuable contributions to make and do not feel comfortable attaching their name to their comments for a variety of legitimate reasons.

So I take the middle ground: I like the idea of having people register with a site, even though this might discourage one-time commenters, as this does offer some accountability. And I believe people should be able to use their own name, a screen name or choose to be anonymous.

Editorial policy should be clearly posted, and posts that violate that policy should be taken down, either by the site editor or after they are flagged by readers. This policy should closely mirror that of the letters to the editor policy used at most newspapers.

The letters policy at the newspaper I edit states that the paper "does not discriminate based on the views expressed in letters. The editor reserves the right to reject letters containing factual inaccuracies, unattributed quotes or insulting or libelous statements." I think this is a good policy for online comments as well.

While comments can enhance the reader experience and spark debate, there are many stories that will not benefit from comments. I agree with the Minneapolis Star Tribune's decision to turn off comments for hot-button issues that cause outpourings of venom from readers. If the objective is to give the reader a positive experience which includes the respectful exchange of opinions and ideas, that goal is not furthered by allowing people to engage in name-calling and mud slinging, which sadly has become all too common in the online world.

Comments are not and should not be the only way readers can respond to a story: In cases where comments are "turned off," the publication should offer readers other ways to respond, such as by e-mailing the editor.

There's an excellent German expression about dealing with certain kinds of people: "to be enjoyed with caution." This also applies to online comments.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Good intentions gone wrong

The top photo in this post is a snapshot taken of a deputation the Diocese of Washington sent to the Episcopal Church's General Convention.
The second photo is the one that was given to me to publish in the diocesan newspaper. Notice anything different? Yes, that's right -- the missing member of the deputation has been Photoshopped in by a helpful friend. I ran the original much to several people's chagrin, and tried to explain that pictures shouldn't lie -- especially not in church!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

When photographs lie

There's nothing new about fake photos. They have been around since the dawn of photography, when tricksters and entrepeneurs used images such as this one of the Brown Lady of Raynham (a double exposure) to shock and amaze or to achieve fame or fortune.

In addition to numerous doctored photos of ghostly apparitions, a whole catalogue of pictures of questionable veracity has been produced over the years, including images of the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot and modern-day dinosaurs, to name just a few (more of which can be seen in the Museum of Hoaxes's excellent photo archive). A more modern example of this type of overt photo hoax is this widely circulated image of the 9/11 "devil in the smoke".

New technology has made it easier than ever to alter and enhance images. Changes run the gamut from the sublime (making subjects look younger or thinner) to the ridiculous (as in popular applications like Elf Yourself ) to the deeply disturbing (as in the case of Time Magazine's June 1994 cover of OJ Simpson, in which Simpson was made to look darker-skinned and more menacing).

Today's editing software offers features that can truly enhance images, but the ethics of altering photos should always be foremost in every picture editor's mind. Why?

Because changing photos tampers with the truth.

Truth is the holy grail of the news industry, and to deliberately manipulate an image to show something other than what the photographer saw through his own lens is to tell a lie.

To be continued...