Melanie Sill on Open Journalism

This site exists mainly to host my 2011 open journalism paper, reflecting my work in news leadership and as a visiting journalism executive at USC Annenberg. These ideas informed content innovation and excellence at Southern California Public Radio and continue to propel me in 2017 as I move home to North Carolina. I’ll be working with others who are seeking new models for journalism, especially at the state and local level, and doing journalism consulting, writing and editing.

Here’s a PDF of my December 2011 paper on open journalism, originally published by the Annenberg Innovation Lab.


Journalism needs you: A speech to college journalists

When I was invited to deliver a keynote during the National College Journalism Convention in Los Angeles Feb. 28, I wanted most of all to encourage young people not to listen to dumb arguments against choosing journalism. We need good people in journalism. And while it’s not an easy business, there are jobs. In fact, it’s hard to fill some jobs in my newsroom and I hear the same from other news leaders. Instead of telling young people not to go into journalism, we should be telling them how to excel. Here’s the text of the speech.

Hello and thanks for inviting me to speak. I’m delighted to be here with people who’ll be running the news business in the years ahead. I’ll say I knew you when.

I’m not doing a slide presentation – just talking. But if you’re inclined I’d love for you to tweet responses or reactions to anything I say – I’m @melaniesill.

Like many of you I found my first formative newsroom experience in college. Mine was at The Daily Tar Heel in North Carolina, where I did reporting and editing and even got assigned to cover the 1980 presidential election in Washington.

I went up there with a colleague and we divvied up the election night celebrations. I got Ronald Reagan and John Anderson, who was an independent candidate. He got Jimmy Carter, who was the incumbent.

Reagan won, of course. I had a fantastic time shuttling between the two celebrations and got back at 2:30 am to my friend’s grandmother’s apartment. I shared a cab with a famous reporter from the Washington Post, and felt very big-time.

I was elated. But my colleague had left me a note about how sad he was that Carter had lost. I knew then I was bound to be a journalist and not a political partisan.

So yes, I’ve been at this work awhile. You’re just getting going. Yet we’re on the same quest.

We think journalism matters — and we’re seeking the path forward.

The fact that you’re here tells me that you’re optimists. You have to be, to tolerate all the people telling you to get out of the business before you’ve even gotten into it.

I can’t give you the magic vision for how this is going to work out financially.

But I want to seize this moment to cheer for your careers in journalism.

Continue reading

Press protest: It’s a start

As a board member at ASNE I’m glad the news leadership organization, along with APME and many others sent this letter to the White House protesting the exclusion of news photographers from a string of events involving President Obama. It’s a start; what else might be done to challenge the less obvious but pervasive infusion of official spin into daily reporting? Over my career I’ve been part of many journalism discussions bemoaning the politics of access, the Washington culture of background and off-the-record on matters of mainstream public policy and so forth. Given our growing awareness of the government’s handling of information of all sorts, what’s next for the independent press?


Endeavour’s other mission: Advancing Open Journalism

The toughest and best question people ask me about the open journalism ideas I put forward months ago in an interactive paper for USC Annenberg: Can these ideas work in real life — i.e. in a newsroom doing journalism in live time?

I rejoined live journalism in April as executive editor at KPCC / Southern California Public Radio, attracted in part by the station’s mission and the newsroom’s advantages for open journalism. In radio, KPCC had a convention of inviting audience interaction (through call-in shows). The station’s expansion included an active slate of live events onsite, in a wonderful space called the Crawford Family Forum, and an increasing commitment to in-person engagement in other venues. And KPCC was employing formal methods (the Public Insight Network) and active social media presence to invite people into coverage.

Still, the challenges of daily journalism lend themselves to old formulas, and back in action I recognized the challenges of changing some of the fundamentals of the news paradigm – news comes from journalists, comment from others, etc.  As I wrote in my paper on open journalism, the true promise lies in connecting professional journalism with a broadly networked information universe — a two-way connection versus one-way news distribution— to improve the quality and accessibility of good public affairs reporting.

Open journalism thinking continues to percolate across the media landscape. Significantly, the role of the professional journalist continues to shift amid a torrent of information from all manner of sources. At KPCC, key players from CEO Bill Davis to web editors and radio reporters are vocal about the urgency they feel to help build new ways of doing public service journalism. Given my recent explorations, I’m delighted that open journalism thinking is figuring in more heavily all the time in KPCC’s work.

One recent example that showed the power of open exchange: KPCC’s coverage of the shuttle Endeavour being moved to Los Angeles, first by air and then by ground as it was literally inched along city streets to its permanent home at the California Science Center. For the flyover, photojournalist Mae Ryan wrote a blog post days ahead offering tips on how to photograph Endeavour. She and colleague Grant Slater curated user photos and shot their own. They offered similar guidance for the shuttle’s slow roll through South LA, and the KPCC Facebook, Twitter and Instagramaccounts crackled with posts on Endeavour.

Yet this coverage showed that traditional platforms, in this case radio, can powerfully translate open journalism thinking. This power came across most vividly as our weekend show Off-Ramp, led by its versatile and talented host John Rabe, produced a two-hour live special that combined reported and produced pieces with invitations to listeners to call in to tell their stories as the Shuttle made its snail’s-pace trip to the science center.

The broadcast has staying power (listen here). Rabe interspersed live hits and produced pieces from KPCC journalists with audio from listeners who called to share what they knew and what they had experienced. Imagine, exclaimed one, being able to reach out and touch a vehicle that had traveled through outer space! Another broke down in tears remembering her father’s work in the aviation industry — “he walked to work for 45 years!” and how big a part of the family’s life was the advance of US space exploration. Rabe shared the emotion, telling his audience “I have to admit I’m a softie…” and expressing the poignancy of seeing Los Angeles’ amazing diversity on display in the people who came together to witness the shuttle’s arrival.

Journalism like this turns the news into a shared experience instead of a transmission. While the shuttle’s arrival is a different kind of story from, for instance, covering a contested congressional race, the idea holds for covering public life: by drawing on professional journalists, amateur photographers, informed sources, eyewitnesses and expert guides, all toward the goal of accurate and accessible coverage.

Journalism art and craft, Pulitzer edition

Josh Stearns (@jcstearns) has been talking today with a few folks on Twitter about community needs and journalism, drawing me and others in. It got me thinking about that ongoing question of what defines successful journalism — quality — in 2012.

For too many journalists, still, quality is defined by peer recognition. This is the season of journalism prizes, of course, and it  bursts into full bloom on Monday with the Pulitzer Prize announcements, previewed here by Roy Harris Jr. for Poynter. The winners of these contests, especially the investigative efforts, always inspire me and remind me of the transient but glorious experience of being recognized, as my former newspaper The News & Observer of Raleigh was  in 1996 with the gold medal for public service. The Pulitzers shifted to online entries only this year and are gradually adapting to digital shift.

During my 11 months working outside a newsroom I puzzled a lot over how we define journalistic quality and impact today.  I’ve judged plenty of journalism contests, and in every case heard plenty of grumbling from other jurors about the length and format of entries. My own family reminds me regularly that they appreciate journalism but wish we’d all get to the point a little quicker and more succinctly. And almost no one outside journalism pays much attention to our contests — this is peer recognition, important, gratifying and inspiring but perhaps not definitive. (Pop quiz: How many of last year’s Pulitzer winners can you name? Bonus: How many non-journalism winners?)

I welcomed an antidote to insular thinking the other day at a gathering called TechRaking 2012, organized by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Google and held Thursday at the Googleplex in Mountain View. Brian Boyer, news applications editor at the Chicago Tribune, gave a short talk on art versus craft in journalism. Boyer works with clay and used an analogy of making coffee mugs with handles that were lovely but functionally deficient versus making cups that you could hold and drink from easily. Art is about beauty; craft, Boyer noted, produces utility. As a pottery lover and journalist, I loved this comparison. Journalism should be useful. I’m thinking about this as I dig into my new role as executive editor at Southern California Public Radio.

Colleague P. Kim Bui, social media and community for SCPR, tweeted on Boyer’s talk this way.

And Lauren Rabaino blogged Boyer’s presentation for 10,000 Words, focusing on Boyer’s three questions to ask and answer before building a news app: Who are your users, what are their needs and what can you do for them?

That seems as close to gospel as anything. Boyer added that journalists need to “fight your urges” — to make elaborate timelines and maps, for instance, when a simple address-based lookup might serve users better.

This isn’t to knock contest winners. Work that serves the public well often is recognized by journalism prizes. If we begin with Boyer’s starting points, journalists and our communities can come out winners.



Twitter vs. “the press”: Let’s not go there

Despite many attempts to put it to rest, the journalism discussion still hasn’t resolved “bloggers versus journalists,” a shorthand for cultural conflict over journalism’s past and future. Now we have a new iteration: Twitter versus the press, which comes up in nearly every major breaking news discussion. Today’s edition is a Mashable post by Samantha Murphy reporting that two Twitter users beat the Associated Press in putting out word of singer Whitney Houston’s death Saturday in Los Angeles.

The post explains that Big Chorizo (@chilemasgrande) tweeted news of Houston’s death from “his sources” to his 14 followers 27 minutes before the AP posted its confirmation and that, according to an update, a user named AjaDiorM. (@AjaDiorNavy) might have been 15 minutes ahead of that.

“Do you think Twitter is the future of breaking news?” Murphy asks. No, I’d say it’s a key part of the present of breaking news in a permanently transformed news environment — one in which eyewitnesses contribute directly to news flow and in which good journalism (verification, amplification, myth-busting) shifts its emphasis but not its values.

Twitter is a channel carrying news, not a person or organization originating it. Its users (not Twitter) break news, whether they are professionals or amateurs, and credibility ultimately rests on that information being accurate. Social media can improve journalism by opening up sourcing and moving information much faster from rumor to truth-checking.

For instance, consider a recent blog post from the editor of the Mercury in Pottstown, Pa., Nancy March, describing her staff’s reporting on a police standoff and the interplay of professionals and eyewitnesses using social media. This was a live-time demonstration of how journalism can work as an exchange and how news professionals add value today in connection with social media and Web outlets. These are not in opposition if you consider the public interest in timely, accurate and credible information.

This brings me back to bloggers versus journalists: Press critic and NYU associate professor Jay Rosen has written about this conflict for years and noted in a March speech and blog post that the friction persists because there’s clearly more to it than simple facts (i.e. for years some journalists have blogged and some bloggers have done journalism). His exploration considers what bloggers get out of the oppositional framework but mostly faults what he calls “the professional press” for  using bloggers-vs.-journalists  as “an elaborate way of staying the same, of refusing to change.”

Yet the fault line works both ways. The tendency to cling to 20th-century definitions of professional journalism is as evident in the refusal of what I call digital triumphalists to recognize change as it is in defensiveness among some veterans. I hear this in “Twitter beats mainstream press on X event” — a sense of triumph for the new in which Twitter users recognize their own empowerment. As much as I share some of that feeling as a Twitter user/addict, I also think it leans on some of the same false opposition as bloggers-vs.-journalists and risks the same missed opportunities for journalism to improve in the digital era.

The practice of journalism is amid transformation, both in who provides news and how professionals engage a networked digital information universe. This change shows up in big ways and small ones, from the Wall Street Journal’s use of Instagram in covering Fashion Week (as reported here by NiemanLab’s Andrew Phelps) to individual reporters using Twitter to ask questions and build sources. I’m a heavy digital user (and a big print reader, not a big TV watcher) and have argued many times that news companies and professional journalism have taken far too long to understand and respond to technology’s impact on how we live and communicate. That’s still true, but many smart newspeople (from old and new media) and some companies are moving now.

Changes in consumer technology and entrepreneurship (six months ago, who knew Pinterest?) continue to shift the news equation. It would be astonishing if news wasn’t broken (and it is, every day) by non-journalists using Twitter, Facebook, blog platforms, Google tools or other sources. Who doesn’t like being the one to share news? So the fact that people share news on Twitter is hardly news itself. What’s more interesting, and challenging, than “Twitter-versus-the-press” is “Twitter and the press” — how to recognize, attribute and amplify news shared by individuals as part of the larger common cause of a well-informed society.

Xavier Damman, the programmer who cofounded Storify with former AP journalist Burt Herman, described this eloquently in a presentation at the U.K. “News: Rewired” conference last October. Journalists, he said, can help amplify the voices of people who might not otherwise be heard.

If we can move past the digital triumphalism to a more rational framework for thinking about digital shift’s potential for informed communities, we might see that the jobs of journalism in verifying information, providing context and going beyond what’s said to what’s actually occurred are as important as ever — and perhaps more so.

Those acts are defined not by who does them but by how they’re done. A Twitter user identified only by a moniker might provide tantalizing information, but is it true?  Who stands behind it? So verification, whether by other users, professional journalists or fact-checking sites, is a key step. Remember the erroneous tweets on Gabrielle Giffords’ “death” just over a  year ago, reconsidered here by Craig Silverman for Poynter? How about the incorrect tweets prematurely reporting Joe Paterno’s death, which cost a couple of people their jobs (explored in Jeff Sonderman’s Poynter recap)? In both cases news organizations (NPR, the Huffington Post, CBS) were criticized heavily for failing to verify information they tweeted, and those responsible paid a price. Information tweeted by non-journalists isn’t held to as high a bar as news put out by professionals; that’s appropriate, yet unacknowledged in the “Twitter had it first” debate.

Last fall the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released a report on social news distribution from Nic Newman, who helped lead BBC web strategy and development for more than a decade. It showed, as most such studies show, that most links come from news sites and that individual journalists and organizations are using new ways to establish currency and credibility through social media.

They’re part of the picture, not all of it. So are @chilemasgrande and @AjaDiorNavy, who tweeted first (according to Mashable) about Houston’s death, and the users who added their tweets, spreading the news, their reactions, their soundtracks and more in a conversation that is still unfolding. As I write, the LA Times’ Ministry of Gossip blog is dissecting rumors on how Houston died and other details; the Storify social-media storytelling site features a number of compilations of celebrity reaction; people are sharing Houston soundtracks via Spotify on Facebook and other sharing sites; and many journalists are digging in for deeper reporting.

It’s not us versus them, it’s us and them. Twitter links the press to the street in ways that one-way media never could. What wonderful things can we all do together next?


(Updated to correct Samantha Murphy’s name from original)




Lost in translation (by web bots?)

I’m new to WordPress blogging and have been surprised (sorry, naive) by the level of spam in commenting. I’ve approved 15 comments or pingbacks to my last post but have three or four times as many spam responses. Fortunately, I’m moderating comments.

But one in particular was amusing — a “translation,” if you can call it that, of some of that post as quoted by KDMC’s Michele McLellan in her recent Leadership 3.0 blog entry responding to posts by me and former Greensboro News & Record editor John Robinson. A couple of bot-aggregation sites ripped down the post.

They did, however, alter the wording. Boy howdy, did they ever. And I quote (emphasis is all theirs):

Thoughtful posts by Melanie Sill and John Robinson could infer highly exegetic for editors who are still heading normal newsrooms by a digital transition.

Sill, former editor of The Sacramento Bee, intent a contention with “Take it from former editors: Newspapers need bolder change.

“The biggest threats to newspapers aren’t only their informed income problems and ever-proliferating competitors, though also a event costs of unwell to innovate some-more boldly—to be transformative, not incremental, in relocating forward,” Sill writes.

She continues:

I’ve oral with 8 or 10 former tip editors in a march of a final few months, some late and others operative in new jobs in media. From any we listened a chronicle of a same regrets: looking back, they wished they’d pushed harder, focused some-more on a universe outward newsrooms and responded some-more resolutely to a opportunities and hurdles of digital shift.

Thing is, there’s still copiousness of time. We’re not during a finish of change, we’re in a midst of it. Even for imitation newspapers, there’s copiousness of upside (and copiousness of audience)—not for a shrunken chronicle of a journal format of 1992 to be profitable in 2012, though for contemporary approaches to imitation to offer readers good as partial of a menu of options in a digital era.

Robinson, former editor of a News Record in Greensboro, N.C., picks adult a thread in “Newspapers: Looking behind to pierce forward

I’ll leave that last to John. One thing I’ll say about journalism these days: there’s so much more to learn and new ways to do it.

And, fortunately, copiousness of time.


Take it from former editors: Newspapers need bolder change

In a recent post to his Media, Disrupted blog,  John Robinson argued that newspapers should start doing some basic things differently — from having a real person answer telephones to punching up editorial commentary — to restore their communities’ sense of  ownership and trust in their local newsrooms. Then Robinson, who left his job as editor of the Greensboro News & Record recently, added a P.S.:

“I know some of my former staff are saying, ‘Where the hell has this guy been,’ ” he wrote. “I apologize for that. It’s amazing the clarity of purpose that comes with having time to think about things.”

I knew John for many years in North Carolina journalism (I worked at The News & Observer for 25 years, and John at the News & Record for 27) and we have something else in common: We both left top newspaper editing positions recently. (I left the Sacramento Bee in May 2011, John stepped down in Greensboro at the end of the year). And like John,  I’ve found great benefit in “having time to think about things” as I consider journalism’s future and my own place in it.

The biggest threats to newspapers aren’t just their familiar revenue problems and ever-proliferating competitors, but also the opportunity costs of failing to innovate more boldly — to be transformative, not incremental, in moving forward.

That’s why I was a bit disappointed when the new Tampa Bay Times landed on my doorstep, sent to me in Sacramento because of my role on the advisory board of Poynter, which owns the newspaper formerly called the St. Petersburg Times. The name change, announced last fall, took effect Jan. 1 in a handsome edition including extensive tribute to the 113-year history under the St. Pete name.

I thought the name change was a bold and smart step reflecting the Times’ role in its region, the market’s changes and the company’s ambitions. Looking at the new model, though, I wondered: Why didn’t they change more? Why not underscore the new name’s symbolism as a move to the future by leaving behind the 19th-century typography in the nameplate and bringing more 21st-century thinking to the print edition with some content and format shifts?

Turns out famed design leader Mario Garcia thought about this, or at least the nameplate, back in November after hearing about the planned name change for the Times, which is his local paper. Garcia even mocked up some different nameplates gratis on his blog, though he noted that the Times would probably stick with the Old English typeface used by the St. Petersburg Times  “and there is nothing wrong with that.”

As the Times changed its name it told readers it was moving affirmatively into the future — yet Editor Paul Tash reassured them that the paper wasn’t really changing. I’ve written  columns offering similar semi-contradictory messages about major format changes, so I understand the impulse and don’t mean to pick on Tash, a journalist I respect and like. Instead, I recognize a familiar struggle seen in most news organizations over how to keep loyal customers while moving forward in contemporary ways.

I thought about this culture struggle again the other day in reading a column by Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton, who argued that the paper might be doing too much innovating at the expense of — well, it was hard to say. The complaints were familiar, both the reader gripes and the staff concerns Pexton mentioned, yet they didn’t get at the core question: do the changes improve the Post’s coverage and relevance for contemporary readers?

Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels.

Amid legitimate struggle in newsrooms to make this outdated formula work with vastly reduced staffs and greatly increased production demands, there’s not enough attention on creative breakthroughs — the kind of conceptual innovation needed today. What should a print edition do in a 24/7 news world? How is it differentiated from other platforms in content, format and organization?

As someone who spent too much time reassuring readers that newspapers weren’t really changing, I wish now that I’d invested that energy instead in discussing the goals of change and enlisting readers as advisers with a stake in the paper’s future. I wish I’d done more of the things I argued for in my recent USC Annenberg paper on open journalism. The barriers often were were psychological as much as practical.

I’ve spoken with eight or 10 former top editors in the course of the last few months, some retired and others working in new jobs in media. From each I heard a version of the same regrets: looking back, they wished they’d pushed harder, focused more on the world outside newsrooms and responded more boldly to the opportunities and challenges of digital shift.

Thing is, there’s still plenty of time. We’re not at the end of change, we’re in the midst of it. Even for print newspapers, there’s plenty of upside (and plenty of audience) — not for a shrunken version of the newspaper format of 1992 to be valuable in 2012, but for contemporary approaches to print to serve readers well as part of a menu of options in the digital era.

One start for news companies might be giving their top editors and probably many other key people some working time away from their papers — the kind of thinking time I and others have embraced after stepping away — to consider the view from outside, gain that  “clarity of purpose” John described and return to the fight renewed.




My open journalism paper is out

The Annenberg Innovation Lab has published “The Case for Open Journalism Now: A new framework for informing communities,” my online discussion paper on the emerging idea of open journalism.

The web paper (which can be downloaded as  PDF) includes dozens of links to open journalism in action and draws on thinking, writing and actions by people across journalism, including bloggers and nonprofit newsrooms along with print, broadcast and online journalists. It resulted from my work during the fall semester as Journalism Executive in Residence at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism in Los Angeles. Along with Nikki B. Usher, assistant professor of journalism at George Washington University and a recent Annenberg Ph.d., I gave a talk at the National Press Club on Dec. 12 on open journalism and open source influence in journalism.

My biggest challenge has been extending the conversations that enriched the reporting for this paper into an online forum. I hope you’ll read and weigh in using the online response form or via email. There’s plenty to debate, and you might disagree with my conclusions, but certainly those who consider journalism a public good have reason to consider the arguments from me and others included in this paper.