Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Journalism

How to build a bigger, more engaged audience online

Last week I gave a presentation to the young journalists in Poynter Institute‘s fellowship for college students — a program that I was part of in 2007.

I was asked to talk about how we use metrics to track traffic on Poynter.org, but I didn’t want to just talk about metrics. Tracking traffic is important, but I think it’s easy to get caught up in numbers rather than looking at what those numbers mean and what strategies we can develop to ultimately increase those numbers.

I talked about Chartbeat and Google Analtycis during my presentation but focused primarily on strategies for building an audience. To build an audience, you have to start a conversation about your stories and get them in front of the right people. This takes time and patience, but the more you make it part of your routine, the easier it gets.

There are a few steps you can take to make it easier and that can help drive more traffic to your site. Drawing on my presentation, I wrote about these steps in a Poynter.org story and interviewed NPR’s Matt Thompson, The Huffington Post’s Mandy Jenkins, Facebook’s Vadim Lavrusik and the Associated Press’ Oskar Garcia for related tips.

Here are my five steps:

  • Let sources know about your story, ask them to share it.
  • Include names of sources in tweets and Facebook updates.
  • If other news sites have reported on the topic you’ve covered, link to their work and let them know you’ve done so in a tweet.
  • Comment on stories that have been written about the topic, and include a link to your story.
  • Tweet follow-ups that help advance the discussion about your story.

You can read the piece in its entirety here. Feel free to share your own tips in the comments section of the piece.

My new favorite beat: Writing about women’s issues in the media

Throughout the past year, I’ve started writing a lot more about women’s issues, particularly as they relate to the media world. Part of this has to do with my editor, who has prompted me to write about these issues and given me a newfound appreciation for them. I’ve always been interested in writing about diversity in the media, so this is an extension of that.

In recent months, I’ve written about why we need female journalists with technical expertise, why women don’t contribute to opinion pages as often as men, and the difficulties female journalists have faced while sexually assaulted on the job.

Today, I wrote about what news sites are doing to attract more female readers. I interviewed folks from a few of the eight top news sites that attract more female readers than male readers and found that two of the sites — Yahoo News and msnbc.com — have developed strategies that have led them to attract more women. You can read the story here to find out what these sites have learned about what women want.

Lara Logan’s 60 Minutes interview renews attention to journalists sexually assaulted on the job

Osama bin Laden’s death dominated headlines in the media world Sunday night and Monday, and rightfully so. But there was other media news that was overshadowed as a result.

I’m thinking in particular of Lara Logan’s courageous 60 Minutes interview, in which she recounted what happened to her while covering the protests in Egypt. A mob of 200 to 300 men surrounded her, she said. They ripped her pants to shreds and tried to tear off chunks of her scalp. They beat her with flag poles and sticks and raped her.

“There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the process of dying,” Logan told 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley. “I thought not only am I going to die, but it’s going to be just a torturous death that’s going to go on forever.”

Logan has chosen to break what she calls "the code of silence."

Logan is one of many journalists who have been sexually assaulted while on the job, but she’s one of the few who have spoken out about it. Many women remain silent about their attacks, sometimes fearing that they’ll be told they can no longer report in conflict areas if they step forward.

“Women never complain about incidents of sexual violence because you don’t want someone to say, ‘Well, women shouldn’t be out there,’ ” Logan told Pelley. “But I think there are a lot of women who experience these kinds of things as journalists and they don’t want it to stop their job, because they do it for the same reasons as me — they are committed to what they do. They are not adrenaline junkies you know, they’re not glory hounds, they do it because they believe in being journalists.”

Lauren Wolfe, senior editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists, is hoping that Logan’s decision to break the silence will inspire others to do the same. Wolfe is working on a lengthy piece about journalists who are assaulted while on the job, and hopes to find out more about the stigma around reporting assaults.

Wolfe, who plans to finish the piece in the next couple of weeks, has interviewed journalists in the Middle East, Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan and South Africa.

“I talked to women who experienced constant groping. I spoke to women who were raped in the course of their reporting or in retribution for their reporting,” Wolfe said in a phone interview. “It’s been really interesting, for me at least, to see how many people want to tell me their stories — how many people say they think it’s important that we get a picture of this issue.”

You can read more about this issue in a related Poynter.org story I wrote on Sunday. I care deeply about this issue and plan to continue writing more about it as news develops.

Catching up with John Quinn & Chips Quinn scholars in Cocoa Beach

Me and Mr. Quinn in back of his house on the water.

Last weekend I got to catch up with one of my great mentors, John Quinn, at his winter home in Cocoa Beach. My boyfriend Troy and I went there for a Chips Quinn reunion — a yearly event for those who have gone through the Chips Quinn program.

The program, which is aimed at diversifying newsrooms nationwide, offers training to young minority journalists and sets them up with journalism internships.

While I’m not a Chips Quinn scholar, I’m an “honorary Chipster” as Mr. Quinn likes to say. Quinn, who co-founded USA Today, went to my alma mater, Providence College, and took me under his wing after I got a journalism scholarship in his name there. Ever since I got the scholarship, he has invited me to the Chips Quinn reunions in Carolina, R.I., where he lives during the summer, and in Cocoa Beach.

Mr. Quinn, who lives smack in the middle of Al Neuharth‘s house and Frank Vega‘s house, always likes to point out that he and I were both editors of Providence College’s student newspaper, The Cowl, and that we graduated 62 years apart from each other. He shares stories about how the college had to stop printing The Cowl during the war, and I share stories about how much has changed since then.

Me, my crazy beach hair, and Troy.

I’m grateful to have had so many mentors who helped me get to where I am today and who, over the years, have become not just role models but good friends. I wrote a story about this last year for Providence College’s alumni magazine, which you can read here. (See pages 27 and 28.)

Why journalists misspell names & why it matters to get them right

Throughout the years I’ve gotten used to people misspelling my name. My late aunt seemed to spell it differently every time she wrote me a Christmas or birthday card, and teachers used to misspell it, too. In the third grade I started to write “Mal” on top of my papers to avoid confusion, but my mom didn’t approve.

“Mallary, stop that,” I remember her saying. “Write your full name and be proud of it.”

I love the unusual spelling of my name, but I’m continuously surprised by how many people misspell it. Several editors recently spelled it wrong, prompting my editor to suggest that I write about the experience. To find out more about misspelled names, I got in touch with Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman, who said they’re the sixth most common newspaper error. The error is so common, Silverman said, because journalists forget to ask for the right spelling, they do it from memory, they assume the name is spelled the “normal way,” or they’re misled by incorrect sources online.

When it comes to misspelled names, sources may assume that if a reporter got a name wrong, he or she may have gotten other more significant facts wrong, too. And if you’re the source whose name was misspelled, you can’t help but wonder just how much the journalist who interviewed you really cared. Names are a part of who we are, so we feel disrespected when journalists don’t take the time to spell them right.  You can read more about this in my story

The story generated a lot of discussion — I think because so many people can relate to having their first and last names misspelled. Here are just some of the misspellings readers shared with me on Twitter and Facebook:

Steve Buttry — Steve Butry, Buttery, Buttrey

Macy Koch — Mary Koch

Mark Follman — Mark Fullman

Meghan Welsh — Megan Welch

Mai Phoang — Mia, May, Moi, Mya, Maya, Maia. Mi Hong, Wong, Hwong, Hang

Sue Llewellyn — Sue Looellin

David Folkenflik & Eric Deggans — Both had their names misspelled by their own publications.

I was surprised when a couple of readers said that my parents are to blame for spelling Mallary “the wrong way.” One reader, for instance, tweeted: “Good story, will use it in my journalism classes. But, I’m sorry, your mother spelled your name wrong, you pay the price.” (He since removed the tweet but made a similar comment on my story.) I responded by saying that Mallary with an “A” isn’t wrong; it’s just different from the norm.

Several journalists weighed in on Facebook and shared related thoughts on journalists’ obligation to spell names right:

How has your name been misspelled?

In aftermath of Giffords shooting, news orgs look for ways to correct tweets

One of the lessons that journalism pioneer John Quinn taught me a while back has stuck with me throughout the years: “Get it first,” he used to say, “but first get it right.” I was reminded of his words while watching conflicting media reports unfold shortly after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. (See my related Poynter.org story here.)

NPR first reported that Giffords had died, and soon after CNN, Fox News and The New York Times did the same. But they then retracted the information, saying she wasn’t in fact dead. NPR, which heard the information from two sources — the local sheriff’s office and a congressman’s office — apologized for the mistake and called it an unintentional error of judgment.

The errors played out on Twitter, too. Andy Carvin, who is responsible for NPR’s tweets, said that instead of deleting the tweet he wrote about Giffords being dead, he posted another tweet saying, “Update: there are conflicting reports about whether she was killed.” Carvin didn’t retract the original tweet, he said, because he wanted to be transparent about NPR’s mistake. His handling of the situation made me think about how news organizations should best handle corrections on Twitter.

In an e-mail interview, Kathryn Schulz, author of “Being Wrong,” shared an interesting insight with me along these lines. “Why not have a ‘correct’ function (like the ‘reply’ and ‘retweet’ functions) that would automatically send a correction to everyone who had retweeted something that contained an error?” she asked. “That’s not beyond the limits of technology.”

Intrigued by her question,  I decided to tap into my Twitter followers for their thoughts. “Especially interested in @wrongologist’s ques: Why not have a “correct” function on @Twitter to help w real-time verification?” I tweeted. Others joined the conversation, saying you can’t unring the bell when it comes to Twitter, but you can make it easier to make and find corrections.

My colleague Damon Kiesow used Storify to pull together a related conversation that Poynter started when it asked: “If MT=modified tweet then could CT=corrected tweet? What think you @lavrusik @acarvin @craigsilverman @pilhofer @robinsloan? Others vote y/n.” Based on journalists’ responses, it seems as though we really need to find a way to allow for real-time verification, but how?

How do you think news organizations should go about correcting errors made in tweets?

Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Providence College’s Student Newspaper, The Cowl

Saadia Ahmad/Providence College

Last weekend I spoke at the 75th anniversary of my alma mater’s student newspaper, The Cowl. The coordinators of the event asked me to write about how my experience as editor-in-chief of the paper helped prepare me for my job as a journalist. I talked about this, but I also wanted to explain why it’s still worth going into journalism even despite all the turmoil the industry has faced. Not many students from Providence College go into journalism, but I wanted to encourage current Cowl staff members to give the profession a try and to be open-minded about nontraditional forms of storytelling.

I felt grateful to have the opportunity to speak at the event and meet current and former Cowl staffers, and enjoyed spending time with them. About two dozen of us went into The Cowl office after the event and took part in what amounted to a journalism geek fest. We all crowded around old issues of The Cowl and reminisced about the stories we had written or the pages we had designed, getting overly excited about our time on the paper. The experience reminded me of the sense of community I felt whenever I put the paper to bed in that tiny Cowl office with others who cared about journalism. All those late nights were well worth it.

As a follow-up to my speech (which I’ve copied and pasted below), my boss asked if I wanted to write a personal essay that would tie together the 75th anniversary of The Cowl and the 35th anniversary of The Poynter Institute, which both took place this month. I was having trouble finding a link between the two, so I started to write about my mom. Whenever I write personal essays, I find it easiest to start off writing about my mom, in part because doing so feels both comforting and familiar. I ended up writing an essay that tied together my mom, both anniversaries and my opposition (and eventual affinity for) the Web. I’ve gotten a lot of thoughtful e-mails this weekend from people who have said they related to the essay, which you can read here.

And here’s my speech …

Let me start off by saying that one of the best, and worst, parts about being editor of The Cowl was pulling all-nighters every Wednesday. The other staffers and I would edit and lay out stories until the wee hours of the morning, energized by the rush of working on deadline. The journalism nerd in us would come out in full force as we debated whether to use a four-column or five-column layout, or whether the serial comma was really necessary or just wasted space.

Most Wednesdays, the associate editor and I would stay in that tiny, sometimes smelly, Cowl office — which was nicknamed the “windowless hovel” — until 4 or 5 a.m. every Wednesday.

We’d read over headlines and captions one last time before putting the paper to bed, knowing how important it was to catch the pesky typos that would slip through spell-check. When editing, I’d often think back to my freshman year when Cowl Advisor Richy Kless showed me a Providence Journal article about Donald Rumsfeld. The headline read in big bold letters: “Rumsfeld’s Pubic Role is Shrinking.” By “pubic,” of course, the ProJo meant “public.”

The importance of paying attention to detail is one of the many valuable lessons I learned while on The Cowl. Being editor also made me realize how rewarding — and challenging — it can be to lead your peers. Effective leaders, I learned, assess what needs to be improved and then set reasonable goals to see that these improvements are made. They reward staff members who are doing especially good work, and they take the time to train others who need their help. Perhaps most importantly, good leaders are never too proud to learn from others; they see their role as both a teacher and an avid learner.

Being editor of The Cowl helped me gain confidence in myself as a leader and made me realize the power that student journalists have to give voice to the voiceless, hold the powerful accountable and reveal the truth. So often we hear about the importance of “veritas” at Providence College. The term couldn’t be more applicable to journalists, who help create a more informed society by seeking truth and sharing it with others. As St. John’s gospel notes, the truth will set you free.

And so will change.

Having a willingness to change will keep you from getting trapped by antiquated conventions. Now more than ever, accepting change has become crucial to surviving — and thriving — in journalism. I realized the importance of change in journalism during my freshman year on The Cowl. At the time, Frank Caliva and other editors helped launch TheCowl.com. They created big promotional posters that said, “‘IT’S COMING!!:, hoping to stir up some excitement among those in the college community.

Going online was a huge step for The Cowl because it showed that the paper was ready and willing to start experimenting with the Web. Campus newspaper websites provide student journalists with the opportunity to develop online skills, and they’re especially beneficial to alumni who want to stay connected to the paper from afar. But interestingly enough, for as plugged in as college students are, many prefer the print version of their student newspaper to the online version.

We recently reported on this at The Poynter Institute and found that there are a few different reasons why this is the case: student newspapers are free, they’re easy to get a hold of, and they’re a tangible conversation starter.

A spring 2010 study conducted by Student Monitor, a New Jersey company that surveys college students nationally twice a year about their reading habits, found that 56 percent of students surveyed say they don’t even know if their campus newspaper is available online. Interest in the print edition, though, remains high, with 63 percent of students classifying themselves as light or frequent readers of the print edition of the campus newspaper.

For as happy as I am about the success of the print product on college campuses, I think it in many ways reflects the “bubble” of college life. In the journalism industry at large, the print product is suffering. This reality makes that little thing called change all the more important.

When I was in college, I tried to avoid the changes in the industry. I was convinced that newspapers would always be people’s primary source of news and information. I was convinced that the Web was threatening the medium that I had wanted to work in all my life.

I was so resistant to the changes in journalism that I wrote an editorial for my local paper suggesting as much. Newspapers, I wrote, are “the wave of the future.” “The need to tell stories,” I went on to say, “is about as necessary as having a newspaper in hand while drinking your morning coffee.”

This was coming from a girl who, for a while, preferred her Smith Corona typewriter to a computer, and who thought the Web was just a “passing phase.” Now, ironically, I work full-time on the Web as a writer and editor at The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. I work with author Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the institute, who graduated from PC in 1970 and was an editor on The Cowl. (He often talks about his crusade to change the newspaper from “the creepy Cowl, with all its cultish connotations, to the spirited Owl, that wise and reliable sentry in the darkness.”)

Anyhow, at The Poynter Institute, I cover the media industry and regularly report on emerging trends and the intersection of journalism and technology. Reporting on this intersection meant I had to start using the tools I was writing about, and it forced me to start peeking over the wall I had built between myself and the Web.

In writing about the media, I’ve found that the journalists who are succeeding are the ones who won’t settle for the argument, “Well, this is how it’s always been done.” Journalism is always changing and evolving; there’s no time to be afraid of experimenting with new ways of telling stories.

Social networking sites and mobile technology have provided us with new and exciting opportunities to find story ideas, share content and reach new audiences. Newspapers have caught on to this, but they still struggle to remain relevant in a 24-hour news cycle.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think newspapers will ever get back to the place where they once were — relevance wise or revenue wise. In recent years, newspapers have had to lay off staffs, consolidate their print product and close bureaus. Some newspapers have shuttered entirely.

But there are plenty of signs of hope. News outlets are starting to hire again. Journalists are seizing these new opportunities, and in some cases, they’re leaving their full-time jobs at traditional news outlets to work for online news startups. They’re doing this, they’ve told me, because they believe these sites are integral to the future of journalism and they want to be part of that future.  I can see their logic.

Sites such as Politico, TBD, Salon, Slate and ProPublica (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009) have all emerged as credible news sources that rely on traditional values — truth seeking, ethics and a commitment to accuracy — but aren’t afraid to use social media and new tools to cover and share news. These sites, as well as some legacy print and broadcast outlets, are hiring younger people for newly crafted positions such as social media editor, community engagement director, and mobile manager. They see experimentation and risk-taking as an inevitable part of the job.

The success of these new startups brings to mind a Semisonic lyric that Father Shanley quoted during his 2007 commencement speech: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” he said. (As a side note, I have to say I thought it was pretty cool that Father Shanley knew that song!) Right now, young journalists in particular have a chance to be part of something new in journalism. Even though parts of the industry are struggling, there are more opportunities than ever for all of you to help guide the future of the profession — online, on air and even still in print.

As a young journalist, I’m optimistic about the future and am excited to be working in an industry whose fight for survival has paved the way for change and innovation. Embrace these changes, take the lessons you learned from all those late nights on The Cowl, and ask, “What have we been doing forever and how can we start doing it differently?” You might just be surprised by what you come up with.

Comic Strip Depicts ’10 Reasons Why You Should Hire a Journalist’

"Journalists are critical thinkers who dig deep."

Patrick Garvin, a graphic artist at the Florida Times-Union, sent me an e-mail earlier this week with a link to a comic strip he just created. The comic is based off of one of Jill Geisler’s popular Poynter Online columns from last year, “10 Reasons You Should Hire a Journalist.” Garvin said he created it in honor of a colleague who was recently laid off. It’s a good visual representation of Jill’s column and a reminder of all the marketable skills journalists have. (And of how awesome they are!)

The image you see above is just one part of the comic strip. You can see the whole strip here.

Talking with Jack Shafer about Bogus Trend Stories

Last Friday I talked with Slate’s Jack Shafer about how he finds the bogus trend stories he writes about and what he considers to be some of the main characteristics of them. I got the story idea after seeing a few journalists tweet about Shafer’s latest criticism of The New York Times’ trend story about criminals wearing Yankees caps.

Shafer said that in the eight years that he’s reported on fake trend stories, only one reporter has contacted him in response — two years after the fact. Journalists don’t like owning up to having written fake trend stories, in some cases because they don’t think the “trends” they’ve written about are fake. As an experiment, I sent a tweet via Poynter’s Twitter account saying that we would give a free travel mug or T-shirt to the first journalist who owned up to writing a fake trend story. Not surprisingly, no one responded!

You can read my story here.

What it Was Like Interviewing Dan Rather at Poynter

Me and Dan.

Last week I got to meet legendary journalist Dan Rather. I wasn’t nervous in the days leading up to the interview, but then an hour or so beforehand, I could feel my stomach start to turn. At the same time I felt as excited as a little kid on Christmas morning, and was reminded of why I love my job so much.

I had spent a good deal of time researching Rather’s career as a journalist, and I had gone over the questions I planned to ask him with my editor, so I felt prepared. But I still couldn’t help but think: Rather has interviewed some of the world’s most powerful figures. He knows what a good interview entails, so you better make this a good one!

By all accounts, I think the interview turned out well. Rather was late, (through no fault of his own), but I still got to talk with him for about a half-hour. When he saw me, he gave me a warm handshake and smile and apologized for being late. He started off asking me if I worked full-time at the institute — a question that lots of people ask me, I think because I look young enough to be an intern. After I quickly told him about my job, Rather said, “OK, let’s get to work!”

I only had time to ask him five of the questions I had prepared, in part because he offered such detailed responses to each of them. Toward the end of the fourth question, Rather was called to the dinner that was being held at Poynter to honor him. Instead of rushing out of the interview, though, he said: “I’m going to let this young lady ask one more question because she was so patient while waiting for me.” So I asked him about social media — something he’s started to gain an appreciation for but doesn’t regularly use as a journalist.

Me and Ted Koppel, who spoke at Poynter in September 2009.

Not surprisingly, Rather shared many traditional views of journalism, but also seemed to see the promise in emerging technologies. His responses helped show just how much the industry has changed — and in some ways how it’s remained the same — since he began his career as a journalist in 1950.

It was a real treat and honor to talk to Rather, and I’m so glad I was given the opportunity to do so. Rather is one of a few well-known broadcasters I’ve been lucky enough to meet throughout the years. (See pictures for more details.)

Here’s a link to the story I wrote about the interview, and here’s a link to the full transcript. For those who are interested, I’m also including a list of the questions I planned to ask Rather, knowing I’d probably only have time to answer about a quarter of them:

State of the news industry

–Last year, you called upon President Obama to form a commission to help save journalism jobs and create new business models to keep news organizations alive. You’ve been vocal in recent years about the “perilous state of America’s news industry,” saying “American journalism is in need of a spine transplant.” What do you think is most at risk in today’s news industry?

–If you could, how would you change evening network news?

–You’ve criticized news ownership, pointing out that many news organizations are now run by large, corporate entities that have interests and agendas that run contrary to the interests of the public. Along these lines, you’ve said “the news stops with making bucks.” What do you think needs to be done to change this problem? And hasn’t news always, at least in part, been about ratings and money?

The Internet

Met Bob Schieffer at a 2008 book signing in Dallas when I was interning at The Dallas Morning News.

–You said in a Huffington Post story that until recently, you had no idea what Twitter was. “Much of what we tweet, or post, or chat away at under the guise of news, are distractions,” you wrote. Lots of journalists nowadays, though, use Twitter to report and disseminate stories. How important do you think social media is to today’s journalism?

–In a Washington Post column last year, you wrote that newspapers are the foundation on which hard news rests. More specifically, you said: “The old news model is crumbling, while the Internet, for all its immense promise, is not yet ready to rise in its place and won’t be until it can provide the nuts and bolts reporting that most people so take for granted that it escapes their notice.” Can you say more about why you think the Internet isn’t ready to rise up to the old news model? What will it take for it to rise up, and do you think it ever will?


–At the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you said the news is now filled with “so-called political debates, where the one thing assured not to happen is genuine debates and where the questions the public really cares about seldom seem to get asked.” What do you think needs to be done to improve political coverage?

–Along these lines, how effective do you think PolitiFact, and other efforts to fact-check political news, are?

Me and Tom Brokaw, who was the Providence College commencement speaker in 2006, the year before I graduated.

–You were a correspondent during the Civil Rights movement and have said that your desire to report on these injustices was one of the reasons you decided to become a journalist. What’s missing in today’s diversity coverage?

–You’ve gone from anchoring a nightly news broadcast to managing a more niche show, “Dan Rather Reports,” on HDNet. On the show, you focus on international coverage and investigative stories. How do the stories you cover now differ from, or compare with, the stories you covered for CBS?

–When major news stories break today, what are your first instincts?

Killian documents

–What did you learn from the controversy over the Killian documents?

–You said in a UC Berkeley interivew last year that you didn’t realize the power of bloggers until a group of conservative bloggers questioned whether the Killian documents were falsified. What role do you think bloggers play in today’s news media industry?

Craft of journalism

–You’ve talked a lot about courage, saying “courage is being afraid but going on anyhow.” What makes a courageous reporter in today’s world?

–What do you think would be a healthy “news diet” for consumers? What sources and resources should they turn to?

–You’re known for some of your classic expressions, which I remember from the 2004 elections. (ie “George Bush is sweeping through the South like a big wheel through a delta cotton field”; “There’s no question now that Kerry’s rapidly reaching the point where he has his back to the wall, his shirttail’s on fire and the bill collector’s at the door”; “This presidential race has been crackling like a hickory fire for at least two hours”;  and “John Kerry’s lead is as thin as turnip soup.”)… Your voice really comes through in those expressions. How important is it to have a voice as an “objective” journalist?

Additional questions

–You recently traveled to Iraq to interview General Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in the region. How is covering this war different from the other wars you’ve covered?

–If you could interview one person, who would it be? What would you ask?

–What’s been your most challenging story to report?