Students, Denver and the Fifth Estate

I’m in Denver today with a group of University of Nevada, Las Vegas students who are kind enough to call me their teacher. Fellow-learner is more like it.

Once again, we’re experimenting with the future of journalism — using the latest tools in different ways to help people get news and better connect with information, events and newsmakers.

The students are using Nokia N95 cellphones to stream video live from Denver and the Democratic National Convention straight to the Web. But that’s not all. The video is being broadcast on our Web channel at Kyte.tv that lets anyone with a computer or smart phone chat via text with the students and their video subjects live, in real time.

So if you have a question, you can type it in, and the student journalist can see the question on the phone, and pass it along to the delegate, protester, elected official or whomever. You can even ask them to change the camera angle. It’s transparent, so anyone watching can also see the question and comment on it or type in a follow up.

You can also subscribe to our Twitter feed here, where you’ll get notified every time the video stream goes live>

Historically, the Fourth Estate — the press — has been in charge of deciding what questions to ask. But this week on our channel, the Fifth Estate — the people – will have a voice and access to power.

That means the people in the East Paradise neighborhood next to UNLV — a remarkably diverse and historically underserved area — will have just as much access to their elected officials and delegates as reporters do.

I was 28 when I first got to cover a convention, and it was the utterly scripted 1984 re-coronation of Ronald Reagan in Dallas. I covered the feds — the FBI, DEA, ATF, IRS, Secret Service — and I remember trying to worm some information out of one of the agents about people being arrested. “Robert Ludlum will have it in print before you do,” he glowered.

Having been double-dog-dared, I worked as hard and as fast as I could, and just two days later, Jerry Needham and I had a double-byline story stripped across page one of the Dallas Times Herald about the supposed plot to attack the convention center via hang gliders.

For today’s reporters, news is just a nanosecond away from worldwide broadcast on the Web. And instead of talking to people, we can have a conversation about the news even as it is happening. That’s a great advantage, because as we know, the Fourth Estate commonly asks pretty clueless questions and could use all the help they can get from the Fifth Estate.

I cannot imagine a more fabulous time to be a journalist!

The students and I have many people to thank for this extraordinary opportunity, most importantly, Ardyth Sohn, Director of the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies, who lured me to Vegas, sight unseen, to teach convergence, new media, digital journalism, multiplatform reporting and Web publishing and design, even though I could barely pronounce the word syllabus and had never written one in my life.

And we couldn’t have done this without a generous grant to support civic journalism from LasVegasNow.com, KLAS-TV Channel 8. That provided students with reporters’ backpacks, MacBooks and cameras to explore and document the neighborhood. The money also supported the student-developed Website, East Paradise, and it paid the four students’ way to Denver.

I am tremendously grateful to Nokia, where some good-hearted folks had the technical chops and the vision to imagine what kinds of remarkable things can be done with the powerful N95 cellphones that only recently became available in the U.S. They loaned the students (and their lucky teacher) phones to experiment with this summer for this project.

Over at the San Francisco startup, Kyte, people went way, way far out of their way to help us load beta software and launch a classy-looking channel for the video and chats. You can make my day by embedding our Kyte.tv channel in your Website or blog and spreading the word.

And thank you to my fellow learners, Reid Geary, Ariel Gove, Sandra Herandez and Denitsa Yotova. You truly are the ATeam!

I hope you will watch, participate and tell us what you think.

One of my friends named Kim


What’s Happening Cover

Originally uploaded by Something To See
Thanks to Facebook and LinkedIn, I’ve been stumbling across a bunch of not-so-old friends, people I haven’t seen in many, many moons.

Many of them have gone on to do wonderful things while I was in another time zone, doing something else.

That’s the case with my friend Kim Carney, who I worked with at the late, great, Dallas Times Herald way back in the 1980s.
Kim’s an illustrator, photographer and designer up there in that Redmond, Washington place, working with MSNBC.

She has a lovely blog here, which has great links to a lot of neato stuff, including this illustration that just reached out and said “blog me.”
And so I did.

Telling the truth, not just the facts

Note: I was asked to be on Nevada Public Radio’s KNPR State of Nevada program on Oct. 2 with host Dave Berns and Marvin Kitman discuss Kitman’s piece in The Nation Magazine proposing that CBS Evening News hire Keith Olbermann, the opinionated host of Countdown on MSNBC. Here’s a link to the audio from the show. which also included a lively discussion of whether the notion of “objectivity” in journalism is still valid. Below is what I wrote about in advance of the conversation:

In a corner of my jewelry box, tucked inside a fold of pink velvet fabric, lies a small, gold-colored pin in the shape of a motorcycle.

Motorcycle pin

Someone on Texas Governor Ann Richards’ staff handed me that pin during a particularly broiling day on the campaign trail in the summer of 1994.

I was a business reporter for the Dallas Morning News and had flown that morning to the Texas border town of McAllen to watch her speak and to wait in the wings until I could interview her on the flight back to Austin.

It was well past dark, but her trademark bouffant was still impeccable when she finally climbed into the small plane, slid wearily into a bench seat, and then used her toes to push her shoes off under the table between us.

Looking back, it’s clear that was a pivotal moment in history. Richards’ race for re-election against challenger George W. Bush marked the first statewide election since the 1991 demise of the Dallas Times Herald, where many of us worked in the 1980s. Over on the Gulf Coast, the once powerful Houston Post was taking its final gasps on life support, thanks to the blood-sucking ways of Billie Dean Singleton. In the spring of 1995, Hearst Corp. would buy the Post’s corpse and eliminate any competition for the legendarily lethargic Houston Chronicle. In South Texas, Hearst had already bought the San Antonio Express-News from Rupert Murdoch in 1992 and then extinguished its own paper across the street, the Light.

It was the end of the great Texas newspaper wars, a 20-year run that began when Los Angeles-based Times Mirror bought the Times Herald and lit a fire under the newsroom, releasing an energy that produced some dazzlingly superb journalism there, across the street and across the state. Snuffing that spirit marked the beginning of the overthinking, overcautious, underdelivering, arrogantly boring era of newspapers. The survivors embarked on a death march to become the least offensive to the powers-that-be and the most irrelevant to their readers.

The motorcycle pin, a trinket for Richards’ donors, was a souvenir of the irreverence and the spunk that had pervaded Texas journalism. It was a nod to the July 1992 Texas Monthly magazine cover that depicted Richards in a fringed white leather outfit, astride a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, framed by the headline, “White Hot Mama.”

She’d gotten a motorcycle license for her 60th birthday (here’s a picture) and the Monthly immortalized (and romanticized ) the moment.

Richards was tougher than leather. She could wield words like a stiletto, and never lose her smile. “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth,” she famously said of George W.’s father during her keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention.

But that night on the plane, she was the opposite of a sound bite. Asked about “bidness,” as some called it in Texas, she talked about education. She couldn’t say enough about the importance of investing in children’s education today to ensure the economy’s health tomorrow. The former schoolteacher didn’t lecture, she just talked.

I remember being struck by how much “there” there was beneath the silver hair. While the engines droned on through the dark Texas sky, Richards the philosopher spoke clearly, thoughtfully, and in long, articulate sentences that showed her deep appreciation for the complexity of people, the economy, the state of Texas and life.

That didn’t interest my editors in the least.

My first draft, which quoted her extensively, was, in their view, not properly critical. To rectify that, the story went through the food processor of a committee-edit. What emerged included one paraphrase of one sentence from Richards, lots of remarks from her “critics” and a statement in her defense from an aide. The editors were then satisfied that the story was suitably fair and balanced.

The story that was published did many things, but it didn’t tell the truth.

Ann Richards lost the election. She was replaced in the governor’s mansion by a swaggering young man who pretends to this day to be a Texan.

In March of 1995, the New York Times Magazine published a lengthy question and answer article on some newly private citizens, including Richards with New York’s Mario Coumo and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut.

My husband read that piece at the time and pointed it out to me as something worth reading.

“I had no idea she was so philosophical,” he said. I winced, wishing for a do-over.

In the years since then, the little motorcycle pin hasn’t tarnished.

But newspapers have continued to shed their luster and their verve, going out of their way to avoid the kind of smart, fearless journalism practiced almost to her dying day by my onetime colleague, Times Herald alum and loyal friend of Ann Richards, Molly Ivins.

Without the truth serum of competition, the ideal at newspapers seems to be toothlessness and truthlessness.

Stories are recitations of “he-said, she-said,” while a sanctimonious cloak of objectivity is supposed to somehow justify the lack of context, perspective or real meaning. Any article that dares suggest straightforwardly that the president is lying is tucked into an inside page.

If the truth gets out, perhaps that is because the reporter slipped the essence of the story in the graphic next to the article to “sneak” it into the paper, as a friend of mine once did at the Dallas Morning News.

Instead of flailing against the Internet, television, talk radio, bloggers or the external demon du jour, perhaps newspaper editors should give up the shallow facade of objectivity and reinject some old fashioned truth-seeking and truth-telling. (Here at PolitiFact, for instance, they’re even brave enough to call things true or false!)

Because thanks to the moveable type of publishing technology, the competition’s back in town. And they will win readers away with the simple siren song of truth.