The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

Sliding away

My brother Randy is a craftsman.

Randy Youngman

The younger Youngman

Randy started in the newspaper business the same way I did, as a high school sportswriter in Ashtabula, Ohio. “High school” in this case means a high school student writing about high school sports for a daily newspaper, the Ashtabula Star-Beacon. When I left for North Park College in 1971, Randy took over the job I had filled since 1969 and stayed at until he came to North Park in 1973.

Recently, what had been a brand-new printing press at the Star-Beacon – it was installed just months before I started working there – stopped running for the last time. It was halted by the current economics of the news business; the Star-Beacon is still publishing, but the current owners determined it would be more efficient to outsource their printing to a newspaper in nearby Warren. (The elegiac story about the last call for this particular piece of big iron is heartwarming and sad at once, and quotes people I know who were still working there. Those people, too, are craftsmen.)

For more than 25 years, the younger Youngman, as I am wont to call him, has been writing a sports column for the Orange County Register, where his career as a baseball writer had taken him in 1984. Along the way, he covered sports for the St. Petersburg Times, the Orlando Sentinel, the (late lamented) Baltimore News American, and the (late lamented) Dallas Times Herald. He has been in the business for 40 years.

Would have been. Like the aforementioned press in Ashtabula, the current economics of the news business caught up to him yesterday. The Register is still publishing, but the current owners determined he was among around 10 employees whose services it no longer required.

Mark Whicker on Facebook

What he said. Click image to see comments, if you are on FB.

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More sizzle, with plenty at stake

Some four days on, the back-and-forth-and-back-again about how and whether 21st Century journalists should be putting effort into “personal branding” appears to abating. Evidently reporters’ attention has turned to Rod Blagojevich’s corruption conviction, or maybe David Carr’s NYT piece on the TMZ newsroom, “A Newsroom that Doesn’t Need News.”

Admittedly, there may be a brief resurgence, because Gene Weingarten – whose Washington Post column addressed to one of my Medill grad students started the “foofaraw,” as he and I independently began to label it – addressed it today in the preamble to his monthly live chat on washingtonpost.com. Among other things, in it he answers Steve Buttry’s implied charge that he is “something of a mischievous hypocrite” (see Buttry’s Storify curation, “Gene Weingarten has a powerful personal brand“).

(I note with interest that an early synonym for “mischievous hypocrite” – “designing villain” – would itself seem to be a brand-in-waiting, though in this case it has been waiting since 1822 according to Google Books. I digress.)

After reading the chat transcript, I guess that at the end of the foofaraw, @geneweingarten and @youngowen (in my previous blog post) are going to wind up disagreeing about whether we might be even in fractional agreement, short of our appealing to Lamont Cranston for a ruling.

I further guess that I am kind of sad that his response correlates the issue with a timeline that stretches from an era when “if you were a journalist, you swaggered. You felt invincible” to one when “We no longer were the smartest people in the room, telling people what we knew they needed to know . . . We were supplicants, salesmen, trying to interest a customer in our wares.” Not that this is even the most powerful or persuasive part of his response, which despite his best efforts often avoids being smug and dismissive. It’s just the one that makes me sad, because it swerves around the point.

I want the same things for my students that I think Gene wants for the young journalists he mentors. Where we disagree is that I think that if their good work helps them make “branding” a weapon in their personal arsenals, they won’t wind up being salesclerks; he implies that by so doing, taking the concept “straight from the evil, cynical world of marketing,” they already have become salesclerks. I guess we’ll need to compare notes at the checkout counter.

Let’s not fail to mention two other good links on the topic, among many that are floating around. Mindy McAdams, who holds the Knight chair in journalism at the University of Florida, used her blog to ask and answer, “Branding: Should journalists build a personal brand?” And Steve Buttry has followed up his “well-executed curation of the entire foofaraw” (Weingarten) with “Confessions (strategies) of a branded journalist,” structured as a set of imperatives that might be viewed as a menu, a map, or even a mandate.

So thanks, Gene and Steve (and Mindy and Leslie). I’m thinking the odds are good that, the next time I teach “How 21st Century Media Work,” this closing assignment will be better framed, more tightly constructed, and even more focused on launching my students back into the lands beyond Medill. Because that’s what at stake: important journalism from skilled journalists that actually reaches its intended audience, in a fragmented media world where swagger cannot provide a shortcut to impact.

Local Fourth sees a hyperlocal future: Part I

Back in the fall of 1996, I was immersed in publishing hyperlocal news on the Internet. I just didn’t know it.

Digital City Evanston logo

That was then (1996). Click to see the whole home page.

As you might suspect, a principal reason I didn’t know is that, inside Chicago Tribune Digital Publishing, we were calling Digital City Arlington Heights and Digital City Evanston something else: “virtual communities.” (Why? Because our 1995 strategic planning documents had called them that.) In fact, the word “hyperlocal” had yet to appear in either the Tribune or the New York Times . . . and when it did, each paper first used it in a story about television news (NYT, 7/14/97; CT, 12/24/98).

Well, that was then. By now, across this great land of ours, tens of thousands of Web sites and blogs focusing on news and information at the neighborhood, community, or suburban level have arrived (and in many cases departed), fully embracing their hyperlocalness. (Hmm. “Blogs.” Another coinage that hadn’t made the Tribune yet by then, although in researching this post I found an amazingly prescient piece about them by Julia Keller in September of 1999 that’s worth a detour.) Tens of millions of dollars have been expended to build these hyperlocal sites; some fraction of that amount has even been recouped in advertising.

And still the impetus to build new ones, operate them, and change the course of hyperlocal history has never been stronger, if we are to judge by the Patches and Triblocals of this world. So this quarter’s Community Media / Interactive Innovation Project course at Medill, with financial support from the Chicago Community Trust, took as its charge to research, understand, and propose new paths for hyperlocal news, technology, content, and advertising.  Medill Professor Rich Gordon has led the effort; now, as the quarter is nearing an end, the results and the recommendations are starting to roll in.

This is now (2010).

Not that I’m going to give away (yet) the innovations that these 15 graduate journalism students have created and are in the process of promulgating.  I will, however, tell you that

  • The blog they’ve been writing all quarter, localfourth.com, is already full of insights, ideas, and epiphanies.
  • The business and revenue team that I have been advising has published its “cookbook” of ideas for hyperlocal publishers interested in seeing their sites become financially sustainable.  You can read it on Scribd, read about it on localfourth, or download it through their webform.
  • You can watch the site for their full final report, coming soon.
  • You can get ready to put their ideas for a hyperlocal Web site to the test when it reaches public beta, soon.
  • And finally, if you are intrigued enough by any of the above, you can hear their final presentation at 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

(Oh, why “Local Fourth”? As the site’s “About” page puts it, “Our name, Local Fourth, is an attempt to localize the ‘fourth estate’ — a reference to newspapers and community members serving a watchdog role.”)

I realized as I was getting ready for this quarter that I have been involved in some form of hyperlocal news in the Chicago area for nearly 30 years now, going back to a stint overseeing prep sports at the Suburban Trib at the beginning of the 1980s, continuing through a tour of duty as suburban editor of the Tribune, launching 17 suburb-level Digital City sites in the mid- to late 1990s, and finally overseeing the launch of Triblocal and Triblocal.com before I departed Trib Tower for the ivory tower in 2008. That makes me especially excited by the work that has been done this quarter.

Or should I have said it makes me especially hyper?

Gee, Brain, what are we going to do tonight?

The topics and books that were the focus of my principal panel at this year’s Printers Row Lit Fest continue to compel the attention of writers, reviewers and journals.

Technology Panel, Printers Row Lit Fest, 6/13/2010
BookTV.org video of Printers Row technology panel

Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, for instance, held a highly complimentary review of Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.” In the Business section, Steven Johnson took mild exception to some of the premises in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” in a piece called “Yes, People Still Read, but Now It’s Social.” And Carr’s busy blog, Rough Type, pointed me to the online version of the latest Nieman Reports, where Jack Fuller shares part of what he learned in researching and writing “What Is Happening to News” in a piece entitled “Feeling the Heat: The Brain Holds Clues for Journalism.” (Nieman also includes a link to Chapter 6 of the book, one of those I’ve been teaching at Medill this past academic year.)

In short, we’re long on discussion of the impact of technology on our cognitive abilities; of the continuing evolution of narrative; and of the changes wrought in and on our culture by the various media revolutions of the past 20 years. You can get a flavor by watching (all or some of) C-SPAN’s 47-minute video from Printers Row, available by clicking on the photo at right.

I can’t end this particular linkfest without doubling back yet again to the NYT and its magazine cover story Sunday about a computer system that has been built to play “Jeopardy!” The interactive simulation that accompanies the online version was nearly as compelling as the article … enough so that I didn’t get distracted while playing it (nor, come to think of it, was I distracted while reading. This is a good sign). Watching “Jeopardy!” today after having read the piece was to be reminded of just how tricky those clues really are, and what a feat of programming it is to “teach” a machine to parse them out.

The Brain

"The same thing we do every night, Pinky: Try to take over the world."

If I were so inclined, I suppose I could worry that by the time an IBM system is ready to have a real conversation with a human being, all the available humans will have, in Carr’s memorable construction, outsourced their memories to Google. For another day.