Tell great stories

As a journalist, I was often told to be quick to report the news. Get the facts straight. Ask the right questions. Get them out quickly. That was how I was trained in the university and later in newsrooms by my tough editors.

However, as I got used to doing reports and news, I felt I was missing the point of doing journalism. While I was still out to expose the truth and to inform the public, I wanted to tell great stories. Thus, I remember one colleague telling me about what’s missing in the 5Ws and 1H. It was the SW–So What?

Today, I was reading this little yellow book called “Show Your Work” by Austin Kleon who also wrote an earlier bestseller titled, “Steal Like an Artist.” I’m not big in self-help books nor do I endorse them, but sometimes I feel that we all need to be reminded about some universal truths about the universe.

Kleon–I believe–reads a lot of books, and one of the books that he came across was Significant Objects by Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker. He quoted from the book this line: “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.”

Kleon went on to narrate an experiment done by the duo where they picked insignificant objects from a thrift shop and got good writers to tell a story about them. They sold these objects on eBay along with invented stories about them. It turned out, people connected to stories behind these objects. Both sold about $100-worth of trinkets for $3K!

Telling good stories have always been my oft-repeated point when I talk about publishing in my class. What makes a news story better than the other? It’s great story telling–and with today’s technology, the means of telling that great story can help reach more people (think social media). But it’s the essence of a great narrative that takes people through a journey. Stories about paintings bring or even add more value to a piece of art. People value stories behind objects. As Kleon pointed out in his little yellow book: Work doesn’t speak for itself.

We need words! We want to know the story behind everything and anything. That’s human nature. We’re just too curious to know.

My top 5 favorite resource for digital publishing

There’s so much information out there. I’m drowning in it everyday. But there are at least five sites that I keep going back to because  of (1) compelling content and insightful writers; (2) variety and practicality stories; (3) useful insights and information you can take with you after reading. Of course, it’s up to you if you act on these information.

NiemanLab: According to this website, “The Nieman Journalism Lab is an attempt to help journalism figure out its future in an Internet age.” Stories here are quite long, but mostly worth the read. TL;DR be damned. “We want to find good ideas for others to steal. We want to help reporters and editors adjust to their online labors; we want to help traditional news organizations find a way to survive; we want to help the new crop of startups that will complement — or supplant — them. We are fundamentally optimistic.” My daily diet for stories about technology, the industry, arts, culture, science, money, television, or whatnot. It’s just a treasure trove of good writing in long or short-form. What’s good about Medium is that you can *follow* people and topics, and you can annotate articles via a unique system of commenting. Finally, Medium allows you to become part of this growing community if you pass their standards of writing. From a content consumer, you can become a content producer here. I stumbled upon this site just last year as I was researching on publishing topics. This website is fairly a newcomer. But it features a lot of insights, interviews, and features on brands, publishing, agencies, and digital platforms. The writing is short, some are even in bullet-point style. Lots to bookmark from this site. So, go.

PBS MediaShift:  As the site’s kicker says, this is “Your Guide to the Digital Media Revolution.” There’s so much information here, including your usual “must-reads” on digital publishing, journalism education, links to more resources, etc. Call me traditional, but this academic website that is produced by the world’s top journalism school remains a daily dose for those wanting to understand the context of media. Insights, commentaries, and news analysis are provided here. Also, they offer fresh and basic perspectives on digital media.

Its mission:

Columbia Journalism Review’s mission is to encourage excellence in journalism in the service of a free society. Founded in 1961 under the auspices of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, CJR monitors and supports the press as it works across all platforms, and also tracks the ongoing evolution of the media business. The magazine, offering a mix of reporting, analysis, and commentary, is published six times a year; weighs in daily, hosting a conversation that is open to all who share a commitment to high journalistic standards in the US and around the world.

There you go. If you have your own list of top sites to go to for digital publishing, please do share with me or leave a comment below. Thanks!

Why digital media is like two people chatting over coffee

78556382I have this image of two people chatting over coffee whenever I try to explain the communication model behind digital media. So the Sender is also the Receiver. And they both engage in a conversation, providing each other messages that are sent back and forth, producing feedback. Sometimes, there’s interference (e.g. someone good looking walks by and distracts you for a second).

I also have this other image of digital media. It’s like that old-school stock market. It’s noisy, people are screaming, but there seems to be order in this chaos. The people use gestures or visual aids, and certain codes to transmit their message.

Defining media in the age of social and the Internet is becoming more difficult as the lines between sender/receiver, message/noise– are blurred. There’s this other image, which Eli Pariser has proposed: imagine big bubbles that contain smaller bubbles. Each bubble is a “filter” that contains the message within that space. And there exists millions of these so-called filter bubbles.

Social media networks like Facebook are considered filter bubbles that are powered by algorithm. This algo learns from your behavior. From that, it now predicts stories that you may want to read, and it pushes it into your feeds. Eventually, you’ll end up reading things that you only like, limiting your exposure to perspectives that you disagree with.

Today, I gave my students readings, which others may label, TL;DR. Yes, they were too long; didn’t read-types of readings.

There was this work by Dan Gillmor, called the We The Media, which introduced the idea of citizen or grassroots journalism. It was a seminal work, which captured the significant developments in digital media.

When this book (We the Media) was in its earliest stages, the author, a respected Silicon Valley journalist, posted an initial outline on his weblog, asking for comments. He was besieged with emails offering suggestions and advice. More, in fact, than he could handle. Later, he posted draft chapters as they were finished. One reader, the publisher of a small newspaper in upstate New York, whom he had never met, sent back a draft chapter dripping with digital red ink, commenting: “The time is right; the subject is right. But your book deserves to be better than this.”

I also shared a recent lecture by Emily Bells delivered during the 2015 Hugh Cudlipp lecture. She described the “tabloidization” of today’s journalism, thanks to the boom of “listacles” (list-articles) and click-baits, which combined screaming, exaggerated headlines that jumped out and grabbed you by the neck, making you click. But once you’re in, there was nothing but fluff and a gallery of gifs added to keep you staring at the screen longer.

Tonight I want to talk to you about the ‘Digital Tabloid’.

What is happening to popular journalism on the web. Tabloids always had the biggest reach, the largest impact, the most flexible standards. On the web, however, we are seeing the tabloidisation of everything. I don’t mean this as a negative. Far from it. All news outlets need numbers in the web economy that are vastly greater than they had in an analogue world firstly to make the economics work and secondly to have an impact. The demands of web scale economics have torpedoed the local news model; they have also driven great invention and a new set of entrepreneurial skills into journalism.

Then, I provided my students an interesting white paper and video clip about BBC, which is now trying to figure out its future. It talked about the evolving mediums, and changing media habits. It collected opinions and insights from experts, including one that said that having your newspaper delivered in your doorstep is a practice that has disappeared. BBC is traditional media that we all associate to mass media. BBC is one of the old giants in the UK that is hoping to catch on with the smaller and nimbler players that don’t carry extra baggage.

As I went on to explain why do we need to understand where media was coming from by looking at its definition, I was hoping to make them think about other means to effectively attract and address the need of end-users through the technology that we have today.

There’s this concept of “shovelware,” where traditional media extracts what it has on its traditional medium and brings it to the newer medium. Many news websites still look like the newspapers. Before breaking news, liveblogs, and live tweets were a norm, online news websites took what it had on print, and just put everything online. That’s shovelware. It’s content that is only transformed to digital without adding any value to it; it’s almost static.

Our concept of media today has changed dramatically. Even the players have. I went around the room asking each student about their main source of news these days. The top two sources were Facebook & Twitter. No surprise there. Tell this to traditional news editors of newspapers or TV, and they would cringe at the idea that no one bothers to go to their website to check the news.

It is also becoming more evident that WE THE PEOPLE, are increasingly consuming news the way we consume snacks. We snack on news everyday, thanks to our mobile phones, which are replacing our desktops, tablets, and of course traditional media. There were a few students still reading newspapers and listening to radio. Their reasons: their parents listen to it, specially in the case of radio.

So I go back to the main point of this article, which starts with an image of two people chatting over a cup of coffee. That’s my idea of digital media, and the way I define it hangs on that metaphor. But is that enough to explain what is happening to our digital universe? What about the NOISE?

In the BBC video, Jeff Jarvis talks about journalism addressing the needs of its audience. It is a concept that he espouses. He argues that journalism should understand the needs of a community, first. Once that’s done, then we look to technology as tools to address those needs. In that way, you establish a better relationship with your audience. It’s no longer about producing clicks, page views, and time-spent on videos that feature cats & cute babies.

Listening is also important in digital media–and that’ the next topic of a series of lectures in class. For now, enjoy this video done in 2004. It’s fiction, but it speculates on the future–that is 2015.

‘Nobody said this job is f&^%$ easy’

It was with great interest, but also skepticism, that led me to read Marc Andressesen’s take on the Future of the News Business. Having been part of this business for more than a decade until I decided to shift to something else, I read, and re-read his thoughts about News being run as a business.

I’m expecting a lot of heads shaking from the world that weaned me into who I am today. The world of journalism, with the capital J, is not too accepting of the mere idea of having “business” mixed with “journalism.”  There are so many situations and stories about the bad marriage of business and journalism. As Marc puts it, it is indeed a Great Wall separating these two areas in news outfits. Why? Money, while it is important to keeping the lights on, it is often used to influence or even dictate the news agenda. Who do you think owns media today? Media as we know it is an expensive endeavor, given how it was built and organized.

But, Marc disagrees and he listed down companies breaking out of THE mold. His list includes the traditional outfits that have “successfully” transitioned to being a digital powerhouse. Their business models, however, are not too disruptive if we compare them to how Apple changed the music, mobile, and computing industry. Perhaps I’m looking for more radical ideas out there–Vice would be one of them, or even Red Bull–yes, the power drink that is creating its own branded content by focusing on depth and a niche of extreme sports coverage.

I agree that news is more widespread today than, say, 10 years ago. News is now a commodity because distribution is so pervasive. And for any commodity, the value goes down. So in order to make profits out of a commodity, you have to have reach–and scale. This is the main motivation that runs today’s BIG media.

Let’s go to the money aspect of news. Unfortunately, advertising is a big motivation for BIG media. Subscription, premium content, and other more creative business models have yet to take off in countries outside of the US. Internet portals like Yahoo!, Facebook, and Google all thrive because of their immensity–and they will continue to grow bigger. They need to shoot for the stars and create huge demand in order to make profit. Each, however, has different means and motivation to get there. What about the traditional BIG media that is dependent on advertising. Now, that’s where all this fear of news being seen as a business arises. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for most journalists trained to be objective to even think how advertisers have greater influence on News. Without advertising money, how can BIG media get by?

Marc’s take on News as a Business is a step in the right direction, but as to the industry he wants to focus on, he may have a blindspot. Media, as we know it, has changed. It’s no longer the domain of the J-School-trained professionals. In fact, I should digress on the issue of why J-Schools should include a mix of “News as a Business” in its subjects/courses. And why entrepreneurship should me a must-have in their curriculum. Journalists should start thinking like entrepreneurs.  But this is a discussion that will take another posting.

I go back to Red Bull, and why I think it is on to something. Take out the brand behind this venture, and we see how media and journalism can be a profitable business. Media has always been a generalist, and thus wants to spend all of its time covering the widest topics as much as possible. Thus, we’ve seen beats created in newspapers, which allows these news organizations to dip its finger on vertical topics of interest. But as we’ve seen how Cable companies have evolved–there’s money to be made in niche. And that’s where Red Bull Media is making a killing. Why? They practically own extreme sports coverage today–and by the way–their brand is all over the place. Isn’t that how advertising should be? Subtle and yet valuable?

I’ve seen this happen when I was still with an Internet portal. Digital ad spending is increasing two-to-three-fold. Big Media has seen this–and thus we’ve seen efforts shift to digital. Those who are stuck in their old ways will soon realize they’re at a tipping point where the curve is headed south.

I don’t claim to have all the answers at this point. But having seen what BIG Media has been doing all these years–trying to deliver the same s%^&* to its audience, in the guise of journalism, it pains me how it has forgotten the very essence of why we need to informed, and educated about things around us. Its motivations have changed. And so are the people running it.

Marc is right in picking out some lessons, but I totally agree with him on the idea of ingraining entrepreneurship to incoming journalists. Why? It pushes them not to accept status quo–and that’s where good, creative ideas start flowing.


Four weeks after, I finally got certified. The journey was worth it.


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