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Witness: a news column for this century

News doesn’t happen in newsrooms.  Funny, you’d never know that to look at one. Walk into your average newsroom today - even your ravaged, post-layoff and voluntary departure newsroom - and you’ll see an awful lot of reporters sitting at their desks and trying to sweet talk other people into doing their job for them.

  • Witness will not be done by phone - although it may be livestreamed by one.
  • Witness will be just that - a journalist giving witness to the things he saw and heard and said. The goal will be to come into the office only long enough to check in, pick up some new batteries, a laptop and camera, and then head out again. Because there are no shortage of stories, just of people willing to find them.

Our city is incredibly diverse - a post-industrial university town desperately struggling to reinvent itself and overcome a crushing poverty rate and a crumbling core. Yet it also houses a vital - if threatened - agricultural sector, an energetic and entrepreneurial artistic community, and world class medical research facilities.

  • Witness will cover that whole city, range across it daily, looking for stories - not just the comfortable ones, or the ones fed to us by self-serving sources.

The landmark Northwestern study of newspaper readership found something like 9 key reasons people bought and read newspapers regularly. People, real people, and their stories, was one of top reasons for reading. Another was getting the feeling that the paper, the writer, was “on my side”.

  • Witness will also bear witness, reflecting the heart of the community and telling stories for those whose voices have been silenced.

Trust is something to be earned, not assumed.

  • Witness will also practice transparency and openness and I’ll publish to the web my written notes, and unedited recorded interviews. I’ll provide links to every bit of research I do. When feasible, I’ll employ web technologies like Foursquare and Lattitude to let readers know precisely where I am in real time.

News is a conversation - which means shutting up sometimes and letting the other guy talk. And listening. I’ll listen.

  • Witness will publish to the web at 5 pm on the day before it appears in print. And every night we’ll cull the smartest, truest comments on the column from the web and publish them in the paper the next day right beside the column. News is a conversation.

The community conversations, story telling, takes place on many different platforms, using many different tools and on a near-continuous cycle.

  • Witness will also maintain and use Twitter and Facebook and photo and video sharing sites to ensure we are always open to and taking part in conversations with our community.
  • Witness will solicit reader/community ideas, stories, photos and will use them all.
  • Witness will publish to at a specific time on specific days, publish to print, publish full versions via RSS, and will also podcast each column for the commuter, the visually impaired, the auditory learner.
  • Witness will use a Posterous or Tumblr blog to post a continual photo record of the city and its people and to record thoughts, notes and observations for future columns while soliciting the same from our audience. The blog is the notebook for the column and the paper.

Although the columns will clearly and necessarily feature a strong and passionate voice, they are not to be a mere sounding board, or soap box for my opinions.

  • Witness will be about our city, her people and their stories. Not mine. Once a week, however, I will produce a very short (60-120 sec) self-produced video column which will offer a less restrained look at the week’s events - by way of commentary, exposition, satire, or hell, I don't know — stick figure animation. The vast majority of news video is either pretty pictures, self important or just plain boring. Video as a medium can do so much more and iWitness Video will do just that. (Below is a confection I put together yesterday, simply to demonstrate that I have at least a basic understanding of the grammar of video and sound and editing.)

Witness will stop talking about itself in the disembodied third person right now.

(This is an updated version of the draft pitch I posted last week. I'd to thank all the people who emailed me, offered comments on this blog, messaged me on Twitter, and talked to me in person - the feedback (and encouragement) was fabulous. A special thanks to Steve Buttry, (director of community engagement at the Washington DC internet news start-up, TBD) who took the time to respond to my draft pitch with a thoughtful,  full-blown blog entry.)

4 comments to Witness: a news column for this century

  • Hi Bill:

    I made the following observation to Steve Buttry on Jan. 27 via Twitter:

    “@stevebuttry A columnist is the guy at the bar who starts the conversation. Alt’ly, she’s the person who actually knows something.”

    That’s what I’m looking for in a columnist (along with the ability to tell a ripping good story). But in this day and age, I also value someone who talks with me as well as to me. You noted the importance of this in your first pitch, as did some commenters.

    However, I think it’s important to make it clear to one’s audience that a columnist can’t maintain a simultaneous one-to-one relationship with dozens, hundreds or thousands of people.

    Over-promising and under-delivering is a big problem in social journalism.

    In the rush to embrace the new, I’m also troubled by sentiments such as this, expressed by yourself in your Jan. 26 post:

    “… One of the things I learned when I stepped out of the newsroom is that reporters, despite how smart we all think we are, are — almost by definition — the dumbest, most ignorant person involved in any story; that’s why we have to ask so many questions.”

    To my mind, exaggerated modesty is almost as much of a journalistic sin as arrogance.

    If I look back to the time I was a beat reporter, I spent 45+ hours per week immersing myself in the courts and criminal justice system. I unquestionably didn’t know as much about law as a judge or lawyer, but I knew a lot more than the average person.

    But it’s still important to talk with one’s audience. You need that to get an understanding of what they didn’t know about important stories and to gain insight into what they consider to be important and/or interesting.

    To that end, one also has to anticipate the rhythms of what they want. I think deejaying and writing have some similarities in that regard — how to read the mood of the crowd and deciding how best to sway them.

    I’m glad to see you embracing some of the tenets of our times, but the process and engagement won’t matter if you aren’t telling stories that matter.

    That being said, I think you’ll do okay. :)

    Bill Doskoch

  • Good points Bill. I think (I hope) I’m well aware of the over-promising about conversations via social media and have some experiences in that regard from previous roles. It’s an excellent reminder, though. We are by definition broadcasting, one-to-many and platitudes won’t change that.
    As for being the dumbest person in the conversation, I think you may have misunderstood me (which means I could have been clearer). No false humilty here, this isn’t about our knowledge of a beat or an area of expertise – we do gain great expertise by focussing our attentions in a beat. What I was talking about was our ignorance of the specific details. WE are the outsiders, THEY are the people living and breathing that story.
    When I said “news is a conversation” that’s not a platitude (it’s a bit of a metaphor maybe). We are ALWAYS stepping into a story in mid-stream – there’s been a whole bunch of stuff that happened before we got there and there’ll be a whole bunch more after we leave. Everybody else is neck deep in the stuff, we’re wearing hipwaders. We’re at home drying off while they’re still struggling with the current.
    So who knows the waters better? Not us. That’s all I meant by that.
    Thanks for those thoughts – so much better than 140 characters!

  • Hi Bill:

    I, um, misunderstand lots of things. :) I’m actually writing this while on medical leave, and my head’s still a bit foggy.

    Thanks for the additional thoughts. I agree with most of what you are saying.

    “So who knows the waters better? Not us.”

    I would agree, but add that we’re in a unique position to collect stories from those being affected and weave them into a coherent whole.

    There’s lots of fragments of news and stories out there.

    Our outsider status should also allow us to ask sometimes-tough questions that a group might be avoiding.

    A lot of times, the best stories are about issues and events that some wish to keep hidden.

    But we can speak of this things in more detail at some other time. Other obligations pull me from the keyboard. :)

    Thanks for the chat outside the 140-char universe!

    Bill Doskoch

  • Exactly right about that benefit of our outsider status. (Never mind that we could all name newsroom neighbours who seem to crave nothing so much as “insider” status on whichever beat it is they’re covering.)
    And as for “.. the best stories are about issues and events that some wish to keep hidden” Too true – and one of my principal reasons for my addiction to this job!
    Take care of yourself….