A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Journalism 101 class taught by Professor Scott Winter and the dean of the college, Gary Kebbel. Thinking it was just a simple come, talk, answer questions and leave, I was surprised to find that they had all come with questions and, while I was talking, were texting them to a single Google Voice account for me to answer. Holy Inbox Disaster, Batman. So it’s taken me a bit to dig out, but here’s my answers, for anyone who cares. I included their questions as written (texted) and lumped them together when they were all asking about the same thing.
Q: I was creepin on ur blog and i was wondering, what’s up with ur blog?? / Why is your resume not posted on your site? / Your bio on TampaBay.com says you’re a News Technologist
A: My personal website is a disaster of epic proportions. When you spend every day building websites, the last thing you want to do on your own time is build more websites. Maybe now that I’m doing something else I’ll clean the mess up. As for Tampabay.com, that’s an interesting problem on the web. As you build an online reputation and get involved in things, you leave a trail of biographies around that you lose control of when you leave a company or organization. I’m not the only one who no longer works at the St. Pete Times who has a bio that says otherwise, and I can do little about it (and News Technologist was my title when I was there).
Q: What’s a bogus piece of advice aspiring journalists think they should follow? / What is your best advice for students like us going into journalism, advertising, PR? / Is it at all possible to be a journalist apart from the digital world? (not making websites, constantly using twitter)
A: Bogus advice? Believe you can be a journalist apart from the digital world. Look at yourself. How often do you check email/Facebook/text messages/Twitter/Friendster/Orkut/MySpace/Pownce every hour, including when you’re in class. Think of how much of your life is spent on a computer or on a mobile device. And then realize you are the news consumer of the future. Is it even possible to be a journalist apart from the digital world? I suppose it arguably is — even the smallest town newspaper uses email, but may not have a website. But you would have to work — actively put out effort — into removing yourself from the digital world and be a journalist. That’s not a world you want to be a part of, and it’s willfully ignorant of every signpost we have of where life is going.
Best advice? Don’t. Waste. Your. Undergraduate. Education. Recognize this: Journalism — all forms — is going to be in turmoil for years. Traditional business models will be under assault if not outright destroyed. So, the future belongs to those who do, who think differently, who have new and unique skills. Take entrepreneurship classes. Better? Start a business. Take more statistics than are required. Take computer science classes. Do not major in journalism and minor in journalism and journalism, er, English and Sociology (like, ahem, someone). Take classes that will prepare you for an industry that is aching for people with an entrepreneurial spirit who can work with the web on a fundamental level and visualize how to make ideas into a part of a business.
Q: What would you say gave you your start? Did social networking play an important role?
A: The Daily Nebraskan gave me my start. And social networking at the time was called “talking to people.” I started college when dialing into AOL was voodoo devilry no one understood (1993). I would tell you that social networking plays an important role in my career now, and I’ve seen people who developed a name and a reputation on social networking sites get jobs because of it. So social networking is a great way to make a name for yourself, but it’s not always a path.
Q: Now that you have a Pulitzer, what motivates you? Was that motivation before?
A: I always dreamed about winning a Pulitzer, but I always thought it was just that — daydreaming. I never thought I’d be a part of something that would win one. Even after I learned PolitiFact had won, it still didn’t feel real. Still doesn’t in a lot of ways. My motivations have always been odd — I get bored easily, I read constantly, I can’t stand being mediocre at something I care about and I distrust well worn paths. So I find something new that few are doing and I figure out a way to do something interesting with it. I believe in journalism and it has given me license to tinker around with some really cool stuff in the name of moving the ball forward, so to speak. Being at a university is going to let me experiment with applying wildly different ideas to journalism to see what it reveals about our future.
Q: What made you want to come back to lincoln and teach? / Why would you come back to UNL as a professor? / What made you decide to start teaching after all you have done? / How do you like being a professor rather than a journalist? / Why did you decide UNL? / Why did you decide to come back to UNL when the other things you’ve done are so exciting compared to Nebraska? / What made you want to be a professor when you already had this great website that won the Pulitzer prize? / Why choose to teaching students to overcome your success than to keep building onto your success?
A: First, this is home for me and my wife (who is also an alumna of the college). We wanted our children to grow up near family in a place with great schools and in a state that values education. Florida has none of those things. So moving back to Lincoln was for family and personal reasons. Why come to UNL? It’s been obvious to me, traveling the country, working with all kinds of media organizations, that there is a giant chasm between what the industry needs to get to a digital future and the workforce that’s out there. To be blunt: There’s not enough people like me, who are journalists or passionate about journalism who can code, analyze data, build websites, think beyond a story and think product, think business model. So, I could sit back and complain about it, or I could do something about it. Around the time I was thinking of this, I met Dean Gary Kebbel for the first time. We had beers a few times and got to talking. He’s thinking along the same lines I am — or a least he said he was after I got a few beers in him — and so it seemed like a good fit.
Q: Is the issue with fact and truth due to people’s poor media literacy or just apathy? / Would you agree that todays society is not as concerned about hearing true facts - especially the political viewpoint - as they should be? / With the evolving media convergence - and the new voices appearing every day - do you fear that truth will get lost in the shuffle? / Do you find fact checking to be a weapon against cynicism about the media? / Do you feel that your fact checking has changed the political scene? / In your opinion, how do you think we can increase the awareness of citizens under 30 in current events and strengthen their participation?
Oh, you want more? I think you’re all right. Poor media literacy, a political climate created by leaders who want people to act on emotion instead of fact, an explosion of voices and streams of information — this is the world we live in. Is fact checking a weapon against cynicism in the media? Yes, but it feels like shooting a shotgun at a tsunami. Did you hit it? Yes. Did it do any good? Not hardly. Has PolitiFact/Factcheck etc. changed politics? In some ways yes, in the most visible ways no. And how do we increase awareness of those under 30? I think you have to do things differently. The traditional news broadcast and newspaper story aren’t working. Jon Stewart is one way, but I really want to believe there’s more ways to do this out there. And this is what I mean by the future belongs to those who do. Who says you can’t be the one to build something that reaches people and makes them better informed?
Q: Do you enjoy covering politics? / Were you always a political reporter or did this just kind of happen, and why? / How did you come up with Politifact.com and how do you regulate it?
In the newsroom of the St. Pete Times, there is a quote board. On that quote board is one from me, telling the world that “I would rather serve fries” than cover politics. I have not ever been nor ever will be a political reporter. I hate politics. Can’t stand politics. But that’s exactly why I was interested in building PolitiFact. If I could build a political website that would interest someone like me, who gets angry whenever a political talk show comes on, then I thought you’d have something.
Q: How do you decide what statements get attention on Politifact and which ones get left behind? / How big is your staff to keep politifact running and reputable? / Who does the research for politifact? / Where do you get the “truth” from? The source itself? / How did you create such an extensive network of data that you could insure that the facts you presented were facts? / Where do you check the facts that you post on the website?
A: Editors listen for things people are talking about, facts and talking points that rise into the national conversation, and have a verifiable fact in them. So long as there’s a verifiable fact in there — “Candidate X is ruining American values!” isn’t a verifiable fact — then they go after that. We’ve said from the beginning that it’s a subjective process, which is why you don’t see us producing “Who lies more” stories. We don’t know. You can’t know based on our numbers, because we don’t fact check everything someone says, or even a representative sample. It would be impossible to do that. So we have to pick and choose. There’s five people on the national staff, plus researchers and other people who help out from time to time. There’s a pattern to how they research an item, and it starts by asking the person who said it for their source. A reporter then checks out that source — often calling the source and asking if they were quoted accurately. Often, they check with official sources — government documents, records or reports. Where things lead from there varies widely. But we have to be careful to go to original sources instead of relying on think tanks and organizations that have an agenda.
Q: If you could alter one specific part of politifact right now what would it be?
A: I’ve been advocating for a redesign for some time. It’s time. I want it to get cleaner and leaner, with some parts better emphasized. No major surgery on the functionality, just look and feel stuff.
Q: Do people who you rate as not telling the truth ever contact the site trying to defend their statements? / Do you get criticized or questioned often about the accuracy of the information on politifact? / Why did you choose to focus so closely on Obama and judge him on his promises, and not follow those promises of others so closely? / Where do you get your research from to decide if the politics on your website are true or not? How do we know its reliable? / I’m fearful that politifact may not be a balanced website. There’s no shortage of corruption on both sides. Does the website reflect this? / Being the finder of falsehoods in the political world, did u find yourself leaning to one side after your research…?
A: All of these questions are hinting at or coming out and asking about bias. And whenever anyone says bias, I want you to think very hard about why someone would declare something biased. Did it confront their carefully cultivated narrative? Did it challenge a belief? Is it actually biased or is this person just unwilling to consider other viewpoints or do they have a vested interest in you believing a specific thing? That said, yes, people defend themselves all the time and we’ve indeed changed rulings because of new information. Do we get criticized? Daily. It’s part of the game now in modern politics. Why did we choose to focus on Obama? We didn’t. There’s a GOP promise tracker too, right next to Obama’s. That said, he is the president, so a brighter focus on him is warranted. “Balance” is too often interpreted as “we quoted the left and the right equally.” That is a false concept, and one PolitiFact has said from the beginning they were not going to fall prey too. If the national conversation is dominated by a person, idea or talking point, we’ll fact check that regardless of what the other side is saying because it’s not dominating the national conversation.
Q: What did you initially expect the outcome of politifact to be?
A: That at best we’d make it to the end of the 2008 presidential election and have to find something new to do. I honestly thought we’d turn it off after the Florida primaries. But once it took off the first week it was online, I knew we were going to make it past the primaries. But I did not expect to celebrate the site’s 4th birthday.
Q: What would you say to people who argue that journalism is a dying field?
A: I would tell them that they’re looking at it all wrong. Traditional journalism — newspapers, cable news, etc. — are in serious trouble because of the internet, how people are using it, changes that are coming about because of it, etc. But at the same time, journalism as a practice is flourishing. There’s more choice, more voices, more journalism now than there has been at any time in history. It’s easy to just blow off journalism as dying because the metro daily is in deep trouble, but journalism has been around for a very long time. We’ve been telling stories to each other since we were living in caves and painting on walls. So journalism isn’t going anywhere, but the business models that fund it as a business are going to see tremendous change, destruction, upheaval and rebirth for the near future.
Q: What was your favorite story to report on? Least? / What is the most interesting story you have ever covered? / What’s the most interesting story you’ve ever covered? / As an investigative reporter, what was your favorite story to write? / What is the most exciting story you have ever covered?
A: I’ve covered thousands of stories. Picking a few is tough. The guy thrown out of an all you can eat buffet for eating too much was fun. Covering a shuttle launch was amazing. Tornadoes are great fun and a horrible grind all at once. Covering corruption at a small city hall was great fun too. Looking at the moon through the eye of a hurricane is something I’ll never forget. Getting to do cutting edge investigative reporting with tools no one had ever used before was awesome. The great part about being a journalist is that there’s always another story.
Q: What is your theory on “quote” leads?
A: Theory? Fact, my friend. Fact. Either you are in my 202 reporting class or word is starting to get out. Quote leads, I told my students, are stupid, lazy and should never appear in a newspaper except for two circumstances: The quotes are “We’ve cured cancer” or “We’ve made contact with an alien life form.” Short of that, your quote lead sucks.
Q: What inspired you to create the website Tampa Bay Mug Shots? Can you make one for Nebraska? / How did you come up with the Tampa Bay,mug shots website? / Why did you create the Tampa Bay mug shots website and how is it ethical while keeping the families of the person in mind and their right to privacy? / What are the reactions that you’ve gotten from people about the mugshot website? Is the morality behind the website a consideration or a constraint?
A: Frankly, I wasn’t inspired to build it — I was asked to do it by my boss. So we set out to build it the best way possible, both from the standpoint of the user there to look at mugshots and from the point of the accused. We started with the premise of we’re going to do this, that these are public records that the public has the right to see, so how do we do it in such a way that’s fair as we can be. So we took great care to make sure names did not get indexed in Google. It wasn’t fair for someone’s first result in Google to be our site because we’re good at Search Engine Optimization and they aren’t. So we blocked Google, and because we couldn’t know the outcome of each case, we deleted everyone after 60 days, which is about the average for a misdemeanor case to make it’s way through the courts. So guilty or innocent, we delete the record. That leaves the argument on if we should have done this at all, and I’ve just agreed to disagree with people on that.
And no, I won’t build one for Nebraska. I’ve got too much other interesting work to go through that again.
Q: Why did you decide to cover the topic and write essays dedicated to Florida’s Wetlands? / What made you decide to write about Florida’s wetlands? / In ur paving paradise u showd the illusion of conservation tht didn’t actually heed destruction of wetlands. How prevalent do u think this illusion module is? / What do you propose we do about the disappearing wetlands?
A: How wetlands came about is kind of a theme of my career. I really had no interest in wetlands, and only a tangential interest in environmental journalism at all. But I walked into the Times office one day and was assaulted by a very excited Craig Pittman, the Times’ hugely talented environmental writer. He had this great story about wetlands that he needed some data help with that could take it from a good story to a really great one. So we sat down and started looking at what we could do, and the challenges just kept getting more and more interesting. We went from your basic “get records and analyze” story to me taking graduate courses in satellite imagery analysis and doing things journalists had never done in a newsroom. That’s what interested me more than anything — the challenge. I was going to get that story if it killed me.
How prevalent do I think the “illusion of protection” idea is? I think it’s far more common than we know. I think there is a ton of good investigative journalism to be done looking at the gap between the rhetoric and the actual execution of laws and regulations. I think you’ll find that there’s a significant gap between what the public hears about how government regulation works and how it actually works on the ground.
What do we do? Read Chapter 12 of the book Craig and I wrote: Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss. Available now on Amazon.com.
Q: What inspired you to be a founder of a company? / As an aspiring business owner, what advise would you give to get a company started? / Can you tell us more about hot type consulting llc? What responsibilities do u have as a co-founder?
A: A friend, Chase Davis, and I got to talking at a hotel bar during a conference about how we were picking up little freelance gigs here and there, so what if we put it together into a company. So, that’s what we did. We pretty much had work before we even got the paperwork together. Our first job was building the content management system for the Texas Tribune. We got so busy doing that I didn’t have time to get our paperwork done to incorporate us, so they couldn’t pay us until we did that. And that’s Hot Type in a nutshell. It’s Chase and I and all our friends in the business who want to make some extra money building custom web applications for media companies. We’ve worked with everyone from huge corporations to small startups. My responsibilities, apart from programming and getting work done are as the back office for the company. So I handle the accounting and legal work that comes up (contracts, etc.) as well as client development and anything else really. When you’re a company of two, every responsibility is your responsibility.
Advice for starting a business? Start. Get $1,000 together and hire an attorney and an accountant to handle the legal and financial startup paperwork and once that’s done, get to work. Get a website up, get some business cards and get out there and compete. Sitting around talking about doing it does no good.
Q: Do you think a Gatewing X100 will actually be used for journalism in the future? Do you think it can withstand flying through natural disasters?
A: I do think UAVs will be a part of journalism in the future, but only when they get cheap, plentiful and ultra brain-dead simple to use. Is the Gatewing that bird? No. It’s $65,000, as big as a large suitcase and more than your average reporter can handle. And, I think if you’re going to use it in disaster reporting, it has to be ultra portable (think backpack). So the Gatewing fails there too. But it’s so freaking cool I can’t help but be fascinated with it. And I think the applications for UAVs are all after the natural disaster is over, not during it. So after the hurricane has destroyed everything, use a UAV to assess the damage.
Q: Are we doomed?
A: Courage, my good man. Courage. Fortune favors the bold. Traditional models are in deep trouble, but innovative thinkers and hard workers will have a place in the future.