Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Journalism for people: consumer series

I was asked by someone yesterday how to go about putting together a five-part series of consumer stories. Since I was terribly sleep-deprived at that moment, I'm pretty certain I wasn't able to give a very cogent answer, but here are a few things that occurred to me a few hours later when my brain woke up:

The key to producing good journalism for people -- in general -- is to make it relevant to the reader. That's even more important with consumer stories. They should be about things that directly affect their lives in some way.

A consumer series should explore different aspects of a subject. It should start by familiarizing the readership or audience with the subject matter and explaining the pertinent facts. Then it should expand on the subject or add more in-depth aspects, looking at the kinds of things that are of concern to consumers and that factor into a buying decision -- prices, safety, ethics, etc. Once those aspects are covered, a final report can give the audience tips on making a purchase.

It should be apparent that any project will involve brainstorming, research, planning, production and delivery phases. The activities in each of these phases should also be self-evident.

So, let's assume a consumer series on professional hockey paraphernalia is what emerges out of the brainstorming phase. What are the possible story angles that one can focus on for each of the five parts?

First, you need to give the reader/viewer an understanding of what we're talking about and how the subject affects them. So, the first part might focus on how big an industry consumer goods like these -- team jerseys, hats, and other apparel, souvenirs and a whole range of other goods -- have become and give an overview or introduction of the remaining four parts. Then people have a context in which they can frame the story.

Part two could focus on the direct impact on the consumer. Why is hockey paraphernalia important and what does it mean to both the consumer and the company? One could examine the marketing aspects of this -- getting people to pay for what amounts to advertising -- and the creation of a lifestyle identity that reinforces itself the more that people get into it. Understanding how one is lured in is important consumer education. What is the psychological, social and financial impact when it goes too far and people become super-fans or develop some form of addiction to this material? That naturally leads to the question of the impact of the production and licensing of these goods on hockey ticket prices and beyond.

Part three could focus on the ethical aspects of this subindustry by looking at the actual production of these goods. This is increasingly a consideration for consumers -- especially those under the age of 35. Who makes these goods, where and how? What are the labour conditions in the factories? What certifications and checks are made to ensure that ethical -- and legal -- standards are being met? Producing goods in offshore factories where labour laws aren't as stringent as in North America is a common practice, so the question is whether your favourite team believes everyone is entitled to the same high standards for working conditions that we have in Canada or the U.S.A. This could make a good interactive feature comparing wages, work conditions, etc. for those who produce these types of goods.

Part four could look at counterfeiting -- the cost to the consumer and safety considerations, since counterfeit goods are likely made with cheap materials and construction that may pose a safety hazard. This would also be a good place to explore whether there is much -- or any -- difference between the officially sanctioned hockey goods and the counterfeits, and whether the official versions are worth the additional cost. This would be an ideal spot in which to explain how to spot a fake, which also lends itself to an interactive online feature.

Part five could wrap the series by providing tips and strategies for the individual to use -- or perhaps look at what some have already done, if there are examples out there -- to understand this industry and act on it. Knowing how to research and explore, choose wisely and keep control over buying decisions and their costs -- in all senses -- is useful information that the reader can use not only in the mundane pursuit and support of their favourite sports team, but more generally in other aspects of their lives.

That's good journalism for anyone, and especially for sports fans.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Shoot the messenger: U.S. security chair wants to prosecute journalists

The chairman of the U.S. House homeland security committee is urging the administration of President George W. Bush to prosecute journalists for revealing details of a secret government surveillance program that tracks finances allegedly linked to terrorism.

Peter King, a Republican congressman blasted the New York Times for publishing the story.

"We're at war, and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous," King, a Republican congressman, told Associated Press.

He also said he will write U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales a letter urging him to launch a probe and prosecute.

It makes one wonder whether freedom of the press is valued at all anymore.

Back in blog: Peter Darbyshire

Received a note from my old friend, desker, novelist extraordinaire and all-around decent guy Peter Darbyshire, that he has a new books blog: Read This -- part of his books section gig at one of CanWest's Vancouver dailies, The Province.

Peter stopped blogging books a few months ago. He is, of course, a founding editor of the popular books blog Bookninja.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

CAJ urges court to reconsider publication ban

The Canadian Association of Journalists is calling on the Ontario court to reconsider a complete publication ban in the case of 12 men and five youths charged in connection with an alleged terror plot.

"This trial is the single biggest test of Canada's new anti-terrorism
laws and a matter of vigorous public interest," said CAJ President Paul
Schneidereit. "Canadians care deeply about what's happening in the one forum
where these issues are being heard. The court should reconsider the ban in
light of these facts."


Sweeping applications that lock entire legal proceedings behind closed doors undermine the public's fundamental right to know. In this case, that right relates to a matter of vital national importance.

The CAJ's board of directors voted unanimously at its summer board meeting over the weekend to ask the court to reconsider the ban.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

CBC.ca: A closer look

After looking at the new CBC.ca site a little more, I have some more thoughts on it. Some of this was already covered in my initial reaction to CBC.ca's redesign.

Since this is a longish post, I've broken it up a little and structured this a little more formally than a typical post. I'll probably add screenshots when I get some time but for now I've linked to relevant pages where possible.

Executive summary

The redesign has improved the ease with which visitors can navigate CBC.ca but further adjustments and editorial changes are needed to improve coverage and better serve the site's audience.

Positive features

Areas to improve

While the updated CBC.ca site presents news and features in a more accessible way, more can be done to improve and more clearly convey the content. CBC should further delineate of content within the major news sections, increasing coverage of Canadian news and encourage greater interaction and a sense of ownership for CBC.ca users.

New sections needed
There is a clear need for sections of CBC.ca that focus on technology and consumer news and information, which is underscored by the current publication of this content between the Business and Health & Science sections, where the fit may not always be best. To correct this, a reorganization of content is necessary.

In particular, the Health & Science section" would benefit from further segmentation/categorization on its landing page to help readers find the content they are most interested in.

A greater focus on Canadian stories would add value for the CBC.ca visitor, who can get the major international stories for any category all over the Web and elsewhere. The value proposition that CBC.ca offers is greatest in Canadian content and Canadian perspectives. This is particularly true for technology. There is a wealth of activity in the Canadian technology sector that often goes unnoticed or is under-reported. This is an area in which CBC.ca can excel.

Increasing service journalism related to the subject areas is also an area to improve. Focus areas of coverage, analysis and reviews of consumer products, services, technology, video games and the "digital lifestyle" can be extended to multiple categories to cater to the CBC.ca visitor. All of this naturally would naturally fit into a consumer section of the site.

The consumer section's focus would emphasize daily news, but would also feature service pieces or "news you can use." This could take the form of stories and tools to assist visitors in their day-to-day lives, such as a guide on household budget management, to how to sell your house and get the best mortgage rate, to more "fun" features like the digital lifestyle items mentioned above.

CBC should take advantage of the expertise in its online unit by creating an interdisciplinary team that combines the abilities of each of the subgroups of staff within each of its editorial sections.

Part of their (presumably) daily story meetings should include a discussion of how they can combine their talents and expertise to enhance each of the sections beyond simply reporting the news of the day. For example, Business, and Health & Science staff could work together on a feature about how drug companies promote their products and persuade doctors to recommend one drug over another. This interdisciplinary approach would encourage creative and innovative approaches to stories.

Invite the audience in

One of the key criticisms of the news media -- especially large outlets -- is that they are virtually impenetrable to ordinary people and behave almost as if they are in an ivory tower.

Opening up to the audience and encouraging their participation is something the Web is uniquely capable of enabling and is something CBC.ca should pursue.

Experts in various subject areas should be solicited to provide insight on current news stories and subjects that may not otherwise appear on the editorial radar. For example, a wealth of expatriate Canadians work in industries that have an impact on Canadians, and can offer insider knowledge of issues and developments with implications for Canada.

CBC.ca should implement editorial blogs and/or podcasts to enhance coverage beyond a fully developed story and provide additional, background, or just interesting information that may not have a place elsewhere within the content. This would also improve interaction with the readers and encourage more direct communication between editorial staff and site visitors.

The site should also add a feed item of the most popular, most e-mailed, most blogged and most downloaded items to help drive traffic and showcase content.

The function of those items could be enhanced by adding site functionality that enables a form of social networking and bookmarking moderation by CBC.ca registered users. This would further enhance their sense of ownership and encourage non-registered users to sign up.

Finally, CBC.ca should make an API available to open source developers who can then use it to create applications and tools site visitors can use to obtain and consume CBC.ca content in more ways that the corporation itself may have time or resources to offer.

Friday, June 09, 2006

NY Times death of Zarqawi online feature

NYTimes.com has a posted slideshow narrative voiced by correspondent John F. Burns about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's slaying, "Death of a Terrorist".

In case you've been living under a rock for the last 24 hours, it covers the key points of his killing in a U.S. bombing and the reaction.

Despite all of the hoopla about media convergence 10 years ago and how it would overwork journalists and ruin journalism, that doesn't seem to have happened. In fact, I'm surprised there aren't more print reporters producing online reports that go beyond text and a photo.

Where's the innovation?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Toronto Star gets NY Times nod for arrests coverage

The New York Times acknowledged the Toronto Star caught its competitors asleep at the wheel when it came to coverage of the alleged terror plot arrests.

Some readers of The Globe and Mail awoke Saturday to find nothing about the raids while, at the other extreme, The Toronto Star published 3,000 words and several photos spread over three pages.


When asked how The Star managed to so outflank its competition, Stephen Meurice, the managing editor for news, replied, "I can't possibly tell you."

Congratulations to the Star team.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

CBC.ca relaunch thoughts

As previously mentioned, CBC.ca relaunched over the weekend.

Initial impressions:

But on the whole, the new design is an improvement. It just needs to keep pushing that boundary.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Media rush to judgement in 'terrorism' arrests?

News of the arrests of men police allege were involved in a terrorism plot in Canada is cause for concern -- but not just because of the gravity of the allegations.

Once again, the news media seems to be a touch too excited about the prospect of a big story like this one, and the language being used to describe the arrests unfortunately skews more toward the definitive than it does the cautious, fact-based tone that journalists ought to use in such a serious and sensitive matter.

The courts will decide whether these men and youths are innocent or guilty. Until then, for any news editors, producers or reporters reading this -- and anyone else, for that matter -- let's keep a level head, turn down the hyperbole and sensationalism and stick to the facts we know.