What is a journalist these days?

The first dance. Did a journalist take this photo?

The first dance. Did a journalist take this photo?

Here’s a thought experiment: What is a journalist?

It used to be a pretty simple question. To be a journalist, you had to work for, well, a journal. A newspaper or magazine, certainly. Print people might grudgingly concede that television and radio journalists qualified. Everyone else? Not journalists. Well, maybe a freelancer or two. But that was it.

But now, in the Internet era, we know that definition has changed. But to what? If Facebook, Twitter and Instagram count as megaphones, and they do, does that mean anyone Facebooking, Tweeting or Instagramming is a journalist? At least maybe a “citzen-journalist” (whatever that means, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Here’s what brings this to mind. Over the weekend, I attended my nephew’s wedding. Lovely affair.

It’s also the sort of affair where the minister advises people at the beginning of the ceremony to silence their cellphones.

But as soon as the vows were said, the phones were back out and pictures were being taken. Naturally, I took my share through the evening (and it was a long evening — dinner, dancing, the works). At one point, a colleague asked me via Facebook: “Does your nephew know you’ve been facebooking his wedding? You have wall to wall coverage recorded for all time.”

To which I replied: “Observation: There were eight people at our table. At one point seven of them were on their phones. During the dancing, some people were shooting video from their phones and posting that. I may have actually been showing restraint by comparison.”

All of which was true. Each one of us was pumping out news and photos to our respective social media channels, from the middle-school girl across the table to the nearly 60-year-old woman at my right. So were we all journalists?

I think in many ways we all were. So if that’s case . . . where does that lead us? What are the opportunities?

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Now you can be your own sportscaster

The scorekeeper for the Carolina Pirates updates her live stream from the game for the fans back home in Raleigh, N.C.

The scorekeeper for the Carolina Pirates updates her live stream from the game for the fans back home in Raleigh, N.C.

First, let’s state the obvious: You can now be your own news media.

Got a blog? A Twitter account? Then you’re the media. You may not have as big a megaphone as, say, the daily newspaper or the local television station but you’re still playing the same game.

And speaking of games . . . My son plays college baseball. This summer, he’s suiting up for the Roanoke Rails, a summer league team of college players in the Carolina Virginia Collegiate League. Their first game of the season was a doubleheader at home against the Carolina Pirates from Raleigh, N.C.

I had two big takeaways from the game. One, my son went 2-for-3 with two doubles, an RBI and a run, and accounted for half the Rails’ runs in their 4-3 win in the second game.

But more to the point for this site: I saw what might be called citizen-journalism sportscasting for the first time.

I was camped out on the front row of Kiwanis Field in Salem, Virginia. About midway through the second game, a woman affiliated with the other game came by and plugged in her tablet to the electrical socket on the light pole just inside the fence. I also heard her husband mention the curious phrase “live stream.”

When I inquired, it turns out she was using some software called “Gamechanger.” She was keeping score online, using a graphical display (see the photo below) — and fans back home in Carolina could follow along online. It looks very similar to the graphical displays that EPSN and Major League Baseball use on their sites; different look, but same concept. At one point, the woman asked one of the Pirates who was on deck if his parents were following the game online and he said something to the effect of “of course.”

So let’s think about this a moment. Here’s something that flies below the radar of most traditional news media. Case in point: The Rails have only gotten three very brief mentions in The Roanoke Times in their entire six-year history; when they played for the league championship last summer, it rated just all of three sentences. Still, these teams have players and those players have family and friends . . . and now they don’t have to rely on traditional media for coverage of the game. They have their own media — a fan with a tablet and an Internet connection is all it takes. (OK, a back-up power supply might help, too; apparently the first game drained most of the juice which is why she had to plug into the municipal grid.)

True, this is a labor of love, not one where the fan is trying to monetize the event (though the makers of the Gamechanger software are surely pocketing some money somewhere.) But . . . think about the potential here. A dedicated fan could do this for other games, too. There are surely restrictions you start running into if you try to do this at a professional game or a big-time college sports event. A fan tweeting play-by-play is one thing, but this takes things up to a different level. Hey, buddy, you in Row Six with the tablet, you’re outta here; we got contracts we have to uphold.

Anyway, the point is the technology now exists where an ordinary fan could essentially become their own sportscaster. How could someone monetize this, even if it’s just a low level? Think of a high school with a rabid sports following; some radio stations cover those in some markets. What happens if an entrepreneurial fan sets up his or her own website and rounds up some advertising sponsors to foot the bill to do this?

Here's a close-up of what fans saw back home.

Here’s a close-up of what fans saw back home.

Why don’t newspapers hire meteorologists?

Should should TV stations corner the market on weather coverage in a digital age?

Should should TV stations corner the market on weather coverage in a digital age?

If you drive through downtown of my city on the interstate, you’ll see a big billboard for one of the local television stations touting its weather coverage.

Many TV stations make weather the cornerstone of their coverage, and why not? It drives ratings, especially during bad weather. Here in Roanoke, the name of WDBJ’s chief meteorologist “Robin Reed” is better known that that of the station’s anchor, I’m sure. (OK, the anchor’s fairly new, so that’s not quite a fair comparison, but you get the idea.)

Still, I have to wonder: Why don’t newspapers hire meteorologists? Or, at least someone able to report knowledgeably and authoritatively on the weather?

At one time, weather coverage was a clear advantage that TV stations had over print. But that was the dead tree era. Now that we’re in a digital age, why can’t newspapers compete with TV stations on weather coverage? If viewers/readers are getting the information on their smartphone, what’s the difference if that news is coming from a TV station or a newspaper?

I submit there is none — and that this represents an opportunity for newspapers. Weather coverage can drive online traffic; it can also be monetized. Why should newspapers simply cede that whole subject matter, and the revenue it represents, to a competitor?

At The Roanoke Times, we’re lucky to have our own weather columnist, who has shown just how a newspaper can compete with real-time weather coverage. Kevin Myatt is one of our copy editors, with a keen interest in weather — and the ability to write about it in a way people can understand. He’s not a formal meteorologist, although he has studied the subject enough that he has edited a book on hurricanes and helps lead the annual storm-chasing trip that Virginia Tech’s meteorology students make to the Midwest each each summer. In 2003, he started writing a regular weather column for the paper. By 2006, that had expanded into the Weather Journal blog.

I’m probably not at liberty to disclose the exact traffic it generates, but it’s safe to say that it’s one of the most popular parts of our website. Each week we publish in print our top five blogs; during the winter, when we Southerners freak out at the prospect of snow, Kevin’s blog is usually the No. 1 blog. Even during the summer, it gets an impressive amount of traffic. There’s a reason why, when we redesigned our website, we put the Weather Journal on the gateway as a standing presence.

When we were doing a news daily webcast, Kevin often made an appearance. As I noted in an earlier post, our webcast was never intended as a business venture. Still, we got a glimpse of what could be done and that is this: There seems absolutely no reason why a newspaper can’t have a weather journalist who can be marketed just like sports columnists or other newspaper features are marketed.

Just as I’m surprised other papers haven’t followed our lead in having some journalists work out of coffeeshops to keep them more closely connected to the communities they serve, I’m surprised other papers haven’t followed our lead on weather coverage.

Does anyone else know of any?

Arizona Republic goes mobile — and you should, too

Cathy Benson at her "bureau" for The Botetourt View -- in a coffeeshop in Daleville, Virginia.

Cathy Benson at her “bureau” for The Botetourt View — in a coffeeshop in Daleville, Virginia.

The Arizona Republic caused a stir this week when it told reporters with three community sections that they were getting laptops — and henceforth needed to work out public wi-fi centers instead of a formal newsroom.

The Phoenix Business Journal reports that the journalists were told to seek out Starbucks and McDonald’s as work locations.

Judging from the journal’s report, and the comments the story generated, the response from journalists has been pretty negative.

I hate to tell my fellow journalists they’re wrong but . . . they’re wrong.

This is a great thing, and they should have been the ones pushing for this all along.

Now, I will confess I don’t know the work climate these days at the Arizona Republic. I know there have been lay-offs, so I suspect the environment probably isn’t the best. How could it be? And perhaps this order from above was not handled well. How many orders from above ever are?

However, setting all that aside (which I realize some in Phoenix may have a hard time doing), the essential move here is a shrewd one.

More journalists OUGHT to be working out of coffee shops, and not barricaded in downtown fortresses, walled off from the communities we’re trying to serve. That’s especially true of community news sections, which these are.

In fact, just two days ago I posted about our experience in Roanoke, Va. with coffeeshop bureaus. In 2008, we at The Roanoke Times shuttered a money-losing community news tab and in its place created three new community tabs (each aimed at a more specific community than the old Roanoke Valley-wide product). A key part of our business model for those three publications — The Botetourt View in Botetourt County, So Salem in Salem and SWoCo in Southwest Roanoke County — was that the journalists would work out in the community, not in downtown Roanoke.

Specifically, they’d be true mobile journalists — armed with a laptop, a cellphone, and access to wi-fi. For the past five years, our community journalists with those publications have worked out of coffee shops (and sometimes other locations, such as libraries.) We even advertise regular office hours for them. Cathy Benson, our community journalist in Botetourt, often has people lined up to see her when she sets up shop on Wednesday mornings at the Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea in Daleville.

She and her colleagues might only venture into the downtown office once a week, and then just for a short period of time to do things you can’t do remotely — meet face-to-face with an editor, for instance, or fill out the obligatory paperwork.

Our coffee shop bureaus have been a key part of our success in each locality. They put us closer to the community. I can’t tell you how many times our journalists have come across stories simply because they’re out there and visible. I guarantee those story tips wouldn’t have happened if they were sitting in downtown, behind a security guard and three stories of a corporate facade.

Yes, this saves the Arizona Republic some money, to be sure — but journalists who want to keep their jobs ought to be celebrating that fact, not complaining. Furthermore, reporters — especially community news reporters — are supposed to be out amongst the public. If they want to sit in an office most of the time, well, they’re in the wrong profession.

I almost wrote, with tongue only partly in cheek, that if they wanted to be in an office, they should become editors. Except . . . I’m an editor and I had my own experience with working out in public. About two years ago, my wife had surgery and I had to spend part of the day at home with her while she recuperated. Rather than burn up time driving to downtown, I decided to work a half-day each day out of the public library near my home. I found it an invigorating experience. True, there were certain key computer functions I couldn’t do remotely than I really needed to be in the office for. Still, just being out in public like that for several hours a day gave me a fresher perspective on the community I’m paid to serve.

I don’t know why more papers don’t embrace this coffeeshop bureau model. Yes, I completely understand you don’t want to be making sensitive investigative journalism phone calls from a public space. But for community journalism — and some shades of even “regular” journalism — this is how the world ought to be working. And I’m happy to see that the Arizona Republic has now followed The Roanoke Times on this cutting edge, even if it came to this decision for the wrong reasons.

If anybody doubts this concept, then stop by to see us sometime. We’ll even buy you a cup of coffee (although I’m a strict tea-drinker, myself.)

Were we the first to put journalists in coffeeshops?

Cathy Benson of The Botetourt View sets up shop at the Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea in Daleville, Virginia.

Cathy Benson of The Botetourt View sets up shop at the Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea in Daleville, Virginia.

Over the years, I’ve seen chatter in the industry from time to time about the idea of stationing journalists in coffee shops.

David Cohn, aka “digidave,” wrote about this concept in this 2009 blog post which envisions a newspaper that operates a coffee shop. The idea is to take journalists out from behind their downtown fortress and put them out among the people.

The Huffingon Post also reported in 2009 about a small Czech newspaper that was operating out of a coffee shop.

The Asbury Park Press got some buzz from American Journalism Review in 2010 when its Freehold hyperlocal site stationed its community reporter in a coffee shop.

I’m surprised, though, that no one has written about The Roanoke Times — whose journalists-in-coffee shops business model predates all those above.

In 2008, we closed a money-losing community news tab and in its place created three new community news publications — each with a strong web presence. Each was in outlying growth area — The Botetourt View in Botetourt County, So Salem in Salem, SWoCo in Southwest Roanoke County. And a key part of the business model was that the the community journalists for each of them would not be working out of the main newspaper building in downtown Roanoke, but would be out in the community.

Every day.

How “out in the community”?

Well, from day one, we have advertised that the community journalists hold office hours — in a coffee shop. Each Wednesday morning, the community journalist in each publication sets up shop in the Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea location in their respective zones. Sometimes people come to see them to offer stories, sometimes they don’t. But when they don’t, well, that’s where the journalists work. We don’t need a bricks-and-mortar building, just a laptop and wi-fi.

We’ve found the idea to be very successful, especially in Botetourt County. On some Wednesdays, community journalist Cathy Benson of The Botetourt View has a line of people waiting to see her at her coffeeshop bureau.

In fact, she’s found the concept so useful that she now holds regular office hours at other public locations on other days around the county, making her a true mobile journalist.

I remain surprised other papers haven’t embraced this concept, because it does two things at once — it puts journalists in closer contact with their community and . . . it saves money. Who needs bricks-and-mortar anymore?

Why you should cover homecomings and proms

The cover of our Sept. 27 edition of So Salem, our hyperlocal publication for Salem, Virginia.

The cover of our Sept. 27 edition of So Salem, our hyperlocal publication for Salem, Virginia.

One of the signature things we do with our community publications in Roanoke is cover high school homecomings and proms.

Our target audience isn’t the kids; it’s their moms. Our community publications focus very tightly on women with kids in the home — i.e., soccer moms. That means lots of schools coverage, lots of coverage of youth sports, from high schools down to rec leagues, and yes, it means we send photographers to high school homecomings and proms.

We have a “paparazzi” photo crew — a freelance operation — that shows up with an actual red carpet, and a backdrop with our logo. Over the years, these have become so popular that now, the schools often call us to schedule us before we get around to contacting them.

Better yet, these are some of our biggest traffic-drivers of the year online.

Here’s some examples of that coverage.

Here's the Sept. 27 cover of SWoCo, our hyperlocal publication for Southwest Roanoke County, Virginia.

Here’s the Sept. 27 cover of SWoCo, our hyperlocal publication for Southwest Roanoke County, Virginia.

 Here's what the inside looks like. Prom coverage looks just the same, only with fancier dresses.

Here’s what the inside looks like. Prom coverage looks just the same, only with fancier dresses.

Yes, we always do at least four pages worth of coverage. More if we can. With still more online.

Yes, we always do at least four pages worth of coverage. More if we can. With still more online.