The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Something is brewing in journalism

I am up to my digital derriere in a project to write a “definitive” paper on cititizen journalism. The problem with “definitive” is that, well, it’s not very definitive. My mind has raced back and forth over the various aspects of this phenomenon that have either pleasantly surprised me, met my expectations or sideswiped both me and the journalism world.

clyde-tea.jpgLast week I had the good fortune to get the journalist’s traditional source of inspiration: A new and very short deadline. The Donald W. Reynolds Institute at Mizzou asked me to knock out a quick look at citizen journalism for its Web site. Isn’t it amazing how much better you can write with an editor breathing down your throat?

So here it is, right out of the microwave: A nice cuppa CJ:

It’s difficult to imagine two words that have caused more anxiety among news media professionals than “citizen journalism.” There have been endless arguments over what the term means, who it includes and whether it will kill or save the American new industry.

For the past four years, a team at the Missouri School of Journalism has studied citizen journalism from the closest of quarters. Although we were all traditional journalists and all professional skeptics, we followed the “do it to learn” philosophy of the world’s oldest journalism school and launched on Oct. 1, 2004. Aimed at the community around the University of Missouri rather than the school itself, MyMissourian features content written by non-journalists but lightly edited by the staff. We then insert a selection of the content in the free-circulation Saturday print edition of the Columbia Missourian.

Four years later, I’m very comfortable with both the citizen journalism concept and the phrase, but I’m still frustrated that my colleagues have such difficulty with it.
Citizen journalism is no more a replacement for traditional journalism than teabags are a replacement for water. Both can stand alone comfortably, but when combined they produce something quite wonderful.

The “citizen” in the term is a continual irritant to news people, who complain that it implies they are excluded from citizenship. Wrong definition of citizen. The better analogy is “citizen soldiers” — the militia and National Guard that serve our country “part time.” As my chief warrant officer father explained, Guard members want to help shoulder the responsibility of defending the nation – they just don’t want make a career of it.

Similarly, citizen journalists don’t want newsroom jobs – they just have something to say. And often they want to say it because those of us on the professional side are too busy with the big stories to see the little items that mean so much to people. It’s unlikely citizen journalists will ever effectively cover Congress, but they sure get their neighbors’ attention with tales of pets, kids and community activities.

Our research continues to show that citizen journalism expands the range of topics available in the mass media as it expands the range of voices. And the team – now known as the Cyberbrains – is confident that the recipe for the future of news is to drop that citizen journalism teabag right into that boiling pot of newsroom water. The resulting brew, as Thomas Lipton said, is more than good. It’s “brisk.”


April 8, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | 1 Comment

Light my fire

A bunch of fellows with calloused hands, tattooed arms and ability I envy recently taught me an important lesson about the new era of journalism.

Clyde the welderFor the past four years, I’ve talked, research and cajoled my colleagues in an effort to get them over their fear and loathing of citizen journalism. But when I look back at it, my efforts were pointed primarily at the loathing part of the equation. My assumption was that once they overcame their biases about news-like content from untrained non-journalists, the fear would vanish also.

What a mistake. I learned that in spades by donning a heavy leather apron, pulling on a Darth Vader-ish mask and trying to burn up the world.
My son Garrett, who is soon to graduate from engineering school, has a knack for picking the right presents. Even as a little one shopping Dad’s money, he could point to just the right piece of jewelry or clothing to light up Mom’s eyes.

Last Christmas he surprised me beyond words. His gift to me was a four-week class in welding at the Columbia Area Career Center – our local vocational training facility.

Keep in mind that the qualities I’m often known for are a lack of coordination, the dexterity of rhino and a touch of impatience. OK, more than a touch. But I also subscribe to the mantra of doing what you fear most – at least once. I know computers, I know writing and I can even hammer nails. But sparks, flames and glowing metal were out of my league.

But there I sat in a room full of guys with hot-rod T-shirts and gimme caps as a gravel-voiced instructor showed us how to turn on an oxy-acetylene torch without blowing up the building. I’m sure I looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

Somewhere near the end of that introductory demonstration, I realized my panic was the same as I had seen on the faces of dozens of students, friends and fellow journalists when I tried to explain the wonders of online citizen journalism.

It’s not the loathing, dummy. It’s the fear.

My failing as an evangelist for citizen journalism is the paucity of reassurance I offered to those who see their jobs, their passion, their worlds at risk by the new twist on the word that defines their lives. I’m a change junkie, so “new and improved” makes me happy.

Unless I’m faced with something as alien as a welding torch.

I eventually took my own advice, checked that there were plenty of fire extinguishers around and just did it. By the end of the four weeks, I could shower the floor with sparks, adjust a torch flame to a needle point and fuse two chunks of steel together into something that was more-or less-recognizable.

Just like me, citizen journalism won’t burn down the world. It may singe a few hairs and it will undoubtedly produce journalism only “more-or less-recognizable,” but the concept, need and utility of news will survive. Just as I learned that using a cutting torch employs some of the same skills I learned with an X-acto Knife, we need to enjoy finding how our traditional journalism skills apply to citizen journalism.

Now if we could just find an excuse to wear one of those helmets …

April 3, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | Leave a comment

It’s the puppies and babies, stupid.

I may have learned more in the past three weeks about the challenges of journalism than I have in the past three years. All by not paying attention to it.

The winter break is wrapping up here in academia. It is a blessed perk that almost makes up for the mediocre pay and bureaucratic rubbish. Professors and their students get nearly a month without classes to reacquaint themselves with family, Granddaughter Evelynmind and humanity.

I decided to give up writing in this blog for the break and to try not to think about the nightmare decisions facing the media in the coming years. For a few short weeks, I would not utter “citizen journalism.”

And by not trying to analyze it, now I get it. The quirk in the information world that brings joy to the hearts of millions of Americans is very little like what most of us in the industry think of “citizen journalism.”

The high points of my break were a Christmas trip to Virginia with my family and the addition of a bright-eyed puppy to our household. Pretty ordinary stuff, really. The fact that I got to bounce my cherubic granddaughter on my knee, talk late into the night with my adult children and have my face licked by a tiny puppy hardly qualified as breaking news.

But they were the sole focus in the ordinary life of Clyde Bentley. I could not wait to share my joy with the small cluster of souls I call my friends.

It wasn’t until after I put several dozen photos from Christmas on Flickr, until after I made the new dog my avatar on Facebook and after I had bubbled in excitement on a hobby blog that I realized what citizen journalism is really about.

It’s not covering news. It’s not making the world a safer place for democracy. And it’s not edging out the professionals who inhabit our newsrooms.

My “journalism” for the past three weeks has been about me, not about “citizen.” I really didn’t care if anyone else delighted as my grandson unwrappedManchmalVariationen von poker spielen. bieten spielautomat die ber?hmteBeruhmte casino. Blackjack,Craps. his presents or that my little dog looks at me with eyes like Greta Garbo. I just wanted to tell my world that one person was overwhelmingly excited – me.

Civic life is complex, often confusing and very serious. The journalists who keep tabs on it for us must be equally serious if our way of life is to continue,

But in the deluge of meeting agendas, crime reports and official verbiage we in journalism lost track of the little girls, Christmas ribbons and puppy dogs. There just wasn’t room in the paper and time in the day.Greta the little whippet

Recently a hospital here in Columbia announced it would not issue birth announcements. That may be the last straw in the dehumanization of the public sphere. We once said everyone was guaranteed to be in the paper at least twice – a birth announcement and an obituary. Many papers started charging for obituaries a few years ago. Now people may not even get to know you were born.

But sharing good news is a pan-humanity joy that no editor, lawyer or bureaucrat can deny. The new technology of Web site, e-mail and blog has not replaced traditional journalism that serves society. It has instead allowed “citizens” to add to the news for the masses with the information that dominates a single person’s life for a short time.

I have no doubt that babies will be announced. And pictures of grandkids will be shared.

And puppies? Who could ever resist.

Clyde Bentley

January 17, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | 1 Comment

Lessons hard learned — and lost

We don’t need another techo-gadget this Christmas. Just leave Nelson Poynter under online journalism’s tree.Clyde Bentley

Last week many of us read two more online journalism sob stories. Steve Outing told us how his Enthusiast Group nose-dived despite his optimistic reading of media-use trends. And K. Paul Mallasch posted a hat-in-hand grovel for donations to keep the Muncie Free Press alive.

It’s an all-too-familiar plotline: Talented journalist has idea for award-winning publication. Said publication may indeed win a few awards and gain a following, but goes broke for lack of advertising support. It wouldn’t be so bad if that was the plot to a movie. But it’s a long-running series.

Nelson Poynter knew the script by heart in the 1940s when he was building the St. Petersburg Times. While he made a fortune with his business savvy, he recognized that most journalists are terrible business people. He set up the Modern Media Institute in part to give great reporters and editors the other skills they would need to keep out of bankruptcy court.

God bless him. I was a fellow to the Media Management and Entrepreneurial Program at what is now the Poynter Institute in 1989. Billed as a “mini-MBA” for journalists, it took the wind out of roomful of cocksure journalists by showing them there was a whole world of knowledge they had missed in their master’s degree programs. My 10 weeks at Poynter made my career.

I found that one need not be a media whore to make money in journalism. Certain audiences need certain information. And certain merchants want those audiences. The trick is to assemble the equation in a way that both conforms with one’s professional mores and pays the bills.

I don’t really know what happened to Nelson Poynter’s dream of training journalists to keep their own profession solvent. The institute bearing his name wandered of to the feel-good topics of writing style, design and leadership. All very necessary, of course. But dozens of institutions taught them even in Nelson Poynter’s day without denting our reputation as fiscal incompetents.

Despite our best intentions, online journalism will not flourish until we bring Nelson Poynter’s lessons into the 21st century. By nature, we journalists launch our ventures with our vision of a story – then hope someone will pay us for it. Unfortunately, Americans have never been willing to pay directly for news – though they are quite willing to pay indirectly by adding the cost of advertising to the goods they purchase.

The path to success I learned at the Poynter Institute was to first find a group of merchants unable to reach the customers they need. Then find out what type of journalism those customers want. It’s not rocket science, just directionality.

So I’m sorry for your losses, Steve, K. Paul, etc. But I won’t be donating and I will shed few tears. It’s time for a tough love in our profession. And old Nelson was one tough bird.La sua parte positiva e’ che il casino di due di tre o di quattro verra’ pagato 40 unita’ per una unita’ giocata, e un poker creato da quattro Assi verra’ pagato 80 unita per una sola unita’ puntata.

November 27, 2007 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | 1 Comment

Is it news fit to print — or post?

The greatest challenge for news folk may be that title itself.

I cashed in on one of the great benefits of being a Missouri School of Journalism professor this week by spending several wonderful hours with arguably the most powerful editor in the Internet world. Steve Herrmann is the editor of BBC Online, a complex global system staffed by hundreds Clyde and Steveof journalists.

BBC’s Web site consistently rates among the top in the news world and is often held up as a model of what we could all do with the resources and flexibility of the British non-commercial system. All that is in play, of course, with the massive reorganization announced last week. Whatever shape radical BBC’s reforms take, Steve will be in the thick of it.

He, I and our wives struck up an acquaintance when I taught in London in 2006. I’ve since enjoyed talking family, hobbies and our professions with him leisurely in both of our homes.

A continuing discussion during his special teaching visit here this was the definition of “news.”

As a citizen journalism advocate, I’ve taken the word to extremes. I find audiences hungry for stories about neighbors’ dogs, tributes to dead relatives and explanations of faith. Especially when the audience itself tells those stories.

The BBC has embraced citizen journalism in a very big way, but only in the context of traditional news. When normal reporting methods broke down in the Burma uprising, Steve focused his news staff on sifting, excerpting and sourcing the thousands of emails and text messages sent to the BBC by the Burmese themselves.

The result was truly astounding coverage of a truly horrific situation. It was news.

Steve takes issue with me, however, that the soft information that once was the fodder of country weekly inside pages is really appropriate for a modern news operation. My example was the reader appeal of a legislative story versus a story about school children’s art project.

The kid story is interesting, but not news. That’s not just the BBC Online chief’s verdict, but that of most traditional journalists.

I don’t know what to call this non-critical information. But unlink many others in my profession, I believe with all my heart and mind that we must find a place for it in the news stream.

The reason is two-fold. First, the readers love it (even Steve’s wife Vera sided with me on that). But critically for our survival, we cannot let others take the genre away from us.

We are in a crisis of eyeballs. If more people continue to find their information interest elsewhere, the economic foundations of journalism as we know it will collapse.

If I knew the secret of journalism success in the 21st century, I would be basking in the Caribbean sun rather than haunting the halls of academia. But I know that we must use every technological, managerial and journalistic device we can conjure to expand what we offer to the public.

And it has to include the dogs, the dead uncles and those crayon-wielding kids.

October 25, 2007 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | 2 Comments

Please, let’s not hear it for Groundhog Journalism

How do you spot an online journalist? This week it was easy – the likely suspect was staring off into the distance in obvious pain. If they snapped to life only to dash to the nearest keyboard to fire a retort to Roy Peter Clark, you had them.Extension Clyde

Clark, the Poynter Institute’s guru of writing and style, wrote an eloquent call to eyeballs on the Institute’s online journalism discussion board. He reminded us that print products still pay for most journalism and that reading a print newspaper each day was our “duty.”

I don’t recall ever seeing so much activity from my online peers. The original Poynter list blossomed, but the discussion spilled over to scores of blogs and other discussion boards.

It was a fascinating conversation for a newsie-turned-academic to observe, as it moved from shock to outrage to pontification to heart-felt question. But while posters often quoted each other, there was precious little research cited in the discussion.

We are a bizarre breed of professionals. Lawyers, physicians and engineers look to the their scholars as both the guardians of truth and the trailblazers knew knowledge. By and large, the move from newsroom to classroom is a step down. Despite your battle scars, even students doubt you are a “real” journalist anymore.

But while that can be personally troubling, the lack of recognition given to all that research that leads to that “professor” title is maddening. Our profession’s mascot is surely the groundhog, as we relive and reargue each day as if there was no past.

And that gives us no future.

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October 18, 2007 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | Leave a comment

Journalism in a heartbeat

I’ve admired Oh Yeonho since the day I heard his credo: “Every citizen is a reporter.” But today he gave me a new mantra I think better describes the type of journalist I most admire:

“Your heart must beat.”

Oh, founder of OhMyNews and arguably the modern citizen journalism movement, was at the Missouri School of Journalism this week to receive a Missouri Honor Medal for his distinguished work in our field.With the Master

I was very happy to see him and not just to return the hospitality he offered me when I spoke at the OhMyNews International Citizen Reporters Forum in 2005. I also teach the first and maybe still the only university citizen journalism course that staffs and viable community Web site. This was a very rare chance for my students to meet with the man who literally wrote the book.

Oh lectured to several classes but met with my students informally. They had the chance to discuss with him the challenges all of us who work in citizen journalism face.

We went through all the expected topics from credibility to economics to logistics. But the key comment came at the end of our discussion when I asked him what advice he would give to someone hoping for a 21st century career in journalism.

“Your heart must beat.”

The roughness of his English produced pure poetry. Oh wanted us to know that journalism requires much more than skills in spelling, grammar and note-taking. It requires passion. Your heart must beat with the excitement of life, the excitement of humanity.

I spent the bulk of my career learning and then teaching journalists to stifle their heartbeat. Unbiased journalism requires dispassionate reporting. We try to be Spock in a world full of mercurial Kirks.

But the man from Korea asked us to shed our pointed ears. He also knows that trick is no easier metaphorically than it is physically. As he proudly pointed out, OhMyNews did not get its title from the founder’s name. It is instead an exclamation – like “Oh my God!”  It speaks volumes about the new role of everyday people in the world of information.

And it makes my heart beat.

Clyde Bentley

October 9, 2007 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | 1 Comment

A united blogosphere: Amusing or abusing?

I’m watching with both interest and concern an effort today to “unite” the blogosphere.
Oct. 27 is Blog Against Abuse Day, an effort by Bloggers Unite to use the voices of the 50 million-plus “amateClyde Bentley bloggingur” writers in the virtual world to wake up the real world. Bloggers Unite asked people like me to write their thoughts about abuse – any abuse.

I did. I wrote about the abuse of blogging for my MOJo Prof blog on MyFoxSTL – a huge hosted network in St. Louis. I also read pleas to end cultural abuse, child abuse, parental abuse and lots of other A words.

So will it make a difference at all? It seems a crap shoot at this point. I haven’t seen the effort mentioned by mainstream media and the publicity was so week I cannot imagine that more than a small percentage of bloggers will participate.
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September 27, 2007 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | Leave a comment

If I say I blog, am I really a “blogger?”

I didn’t see this coming, but I’ve begun to feel a bit guilty about blogging.

Clyde BentleyI blog in several locations, but perhaps my favorite is the massive MyFoxSTL system in St. Louis. It is populated by some 13,000 registered bloggers – very few of whom are erudite and even fewer of whom are media types.

Writing as MOJo Prof is my touchstone with the subculture that puts blogging in the headlines. These are everyday people who are suspicious of the power structure, of anything “elite” and especially of the traditional mass media. And they let me know it every time I write.

It took me several months to recognize the underlying theme in those comments: I’m tentatively welcomed as a visitor, but I will never be “one of them.”

This community of screen names and avatars seems to enjoy my comments about the mass media and the fact that a professor is paying attention to them. But the bloggers often hint that I may be making too great an assumption when I equate the “bloggers” on newspaper and television staffs to people like them.

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September 16, 2007 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | Leave a comment

The Nokia N95 test drive

Last weekend I broke the best piece of technology I have ever used. I don’t know whether to cry for the loss of this glimpse into the future or to lament that it did not quite get to Tomorrowland.Bentley

For the past two months, I have tested the Nokia N95 cell phone. Make that pocket computer. Or perhaps the technology that cannot be named.

In the shadow of the glitz and celebration of the iPhone, the N95 quietly provided feature after feature that put the Apple to shame. The iPhone is the belated state of American art. The Nokia is just the latest waystop in the decade-long European/Asian cell phone juggernaught.

And the N95 proves that cell phones are almost ready to replace the laptop computers we journalist carry like security blankets. Almost.

This is my second test of a Nokia superphone. Last fall, I talked the UK division of Nokia (called Nock-e-ah there), into lending me an N92 while I taught in London. The N92 is a beefy chunk of high-tech gadgetry that looks much more like a pocket video camera than a cell phone. It has a large lens with optical zoom and a flip-out screen that can be rotated in several directions. I loved it.

But when I wanted to demonstrate what I call “pocket journalism” to my peers at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, Nokia USA suggested I try their new flagship, the N95.

If the N92 is the Hummer of cell phones and the iPhone is the Chevy Corvette, the Nokia N95 is the Porshe Boxster. Its design is sleek yet unpretentious. It reeks of the northern European love for intricate engineering. And compared to my family-car Motorola, it goes like a bat out of hell.

But I wish would do more. My Motorola is a clunker, but it’s still running.

My test of the N95 was not based on what the normal consumer would want. I promised to treat it like a field reporter and evaluate it as a tool for journalism. Continue reading

September 4, 2007 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | Leave a comment