Tuesday, August 21, 2012

And Now, A Penny for My Thoughts

[Originally Posted on November 30, 2008 | Reposted with Edits & Updates on August 21, 2012] 
Maureen Dowd’s column about me and my outsourcing concepts was published in this Sunday’s New York Times (“A Penny for My Thoughts?“).  I only wish her column’s format permitted greater detail. Its brevity bred misunderstanding.

The most important point not included in her column is that I simply do not believe in or practice uncontrolled, long-distance news reporting – a concept which is patently flawed.

What I do promote is a modern-day twist on the “legman/rewrite man” news reporting system pioneered by Charles Chapin (“the greatest city editor who ever lived”) around the turn of the last century, shortly after the introduction of the telephone.

The reporting system refined in those days has current applications. When coupled with process engineering and today’s technology -- and outsourcing -- the resulting “collaborative journalism” can result in a lower-cost editorial product which retains the nature, mission and value of local reporting.

At its core my system recognizes that the heart, mind and soul of a newspaper (or a web “newspaperless”) must exist in the community which is being covered.  I completely agree with the multitude of comments I received which point out that nobody thousands of miles away can possibly understand the nuances of local issues (or for that matter, even the basics of local issues).  Really, isn’t this completely obvious?

The outsourced writing staff must be as immersed as possible in the affairs of the local community. (It is not possible to use a pool of distant, transient freelancers to write high-quality hyperlocal content.)

Your outsourced crew must read your community's newspapers and blogs, witness your community's live streamed local events, and watch locally produced web television. You must educate the outsourced staff about your community.

But make no mistake. This "education" of offshore staff can never be used to replace the knowledge or judgement of your local staff. Only local staff should originate story ideas, only local staff should conduct interviews, only local staff should issue writing assignments, and only local staff should perform final edits, fact-checking and publication.

My system recognizes that the best way to gather information about a news event is always to actually be there. “Boots on the ground” is the only way to go.

To accomplish this efficiently, my system borrows from yesteryear’s “legmen” – that is, field observers – to witness local news and events. These observers are not reporters in the modern day sense because they don’t write. They observe.  Unlike their counterparts in the last century, these observers don’t just use telephones to call in facts afterward.

My system uses live video streamed by field observers back to the newsroom. Editors assign these observers to cover breaking news or budgeted pre-scheduled events, and these editors or reporters monitor and direct the observers working in the field.

In this manner, a few editors and reporters can direct and monitor a team of photographers/observers to blanket an entire city’s events with a very efficient allocation of resources.

At a small news organization, editors may end up being assignment editors/rewriters/beat reporters rolled up into one – all without leaving their desk.

This division of labor fields inexpensive “eyes” and “ears” on the street, directed by the veteran “brains” back in the news room. It is more akin to local television news than the traditional print newsroom.

The field observers’ job is to gather information through photography, through video (and its embedded audio), and through any published documentation or other physical objects available for the media at the scene. The observers are in two-way communication with their editor and are directed by the editor at crucial moments as to what aspect of the event must be covered.

Editors and reporters can even conduct what television refers to as “live remotes,” and in this manner the knowledgeable editor can, for example, directly interview a government official after a speech, or a police official at a crime scene.

Everything I have described above is designed to occur within the actual community being covered. Please notice that outsourcing has, to this point, not even entered the process.

So far, my concept has simply reconfigured newsgathering to become more cost-effective. It has redefined the job of reporters and segregates the assignment, field observing, writing, and editing functions. It introduces video technology into traditional newsrooms so that editors or reporters can virtually “be” at news scenes.

It is at the conclusion of this newsgathering process that outsourcing kicks in.

By that point, the editor or reporter in the newsroom will have directed the field observer to gather all on-scene facts and interviews deemed necessary. The raw video feed of the news event will have been transmitted by the field observer, and the resulting video will be available for the writer to watch. In fact, the editor or reporter will have watched the unfolding developments live while researching background issues and conducting supplemental telephone interviews.

When the editor or reporter has an information package (video and audio from the news scene, still photography, supplemental interviews, and online background research) which is sufficient for the first report and has prepared the writing assignment, the actual writing can begin – you guessed it – by the offshore writing staff.

(Of course, the offshore writing staff is already prepped. They already “attended” the local event virtually, online.)

Not only is this entire process seamless, it's easy to manage with today's technology. Using it, a reporter can virtually "attend" a number of events in her city daily, and can follow up with stakeholders by telephone and email to nail down unanswered questions and angles.

Once the story is ready to write, the reporter tasks the writer with the storyline, points to the most important quotes and facts, and then moves on to covering the next story as the writer works.

This combination of job deconstruction, technology, and outsourcing ends up feeling a lot more like a local TV news process than a print reporting process. But with these techniques, a small number of reporters can "be" all over their community, and can witness events and research and write and assign in-depth stories in real time.

In sum, these techniques can empower a small staff to be reconfigured to produce much more community coverage, responsibly and accurately, and to do so at much lower cost.

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