My Register Experience

Transcript of live chat session hosted by AEJMC

Posted in Perspective Week by Michael Bugeja on November 19, 2009


Mich, AEJMC: WELCOME to AEJMC’s first-ever LIVE online chat!

Today’s TOPIC: Survival Tips, New Media Tools & the Changing Reporter

Two journalism professors — Dennis Chamberlin, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Michael Bugeja, former bureau chief for United Press International — tested their journalism skills during the week of November 8 with a return to the newsroom (The Des Moines Register).

Their assignment: To work on an enterprise piece on “The New Poverty,” documenting how the failing economy in Iowa is affecting all strata of society.

Chamberlin and Bugeja are here today to chat about that experience, and share their thoughts on what changes J-Schools need to make, which new media tools classes should incorporate and the differences between today’s reporter and yesterday’s.

11:55 [Introduction from Michael Bugeja: ]
First of all, thanks to Jennifer McGill and Mich Sineath for hosting our blog on “Hot Topics” and for producing this “Cover It Live” interactive session. To get things started, I wanted to provide some quick answers to questions that many AEJMC members are interested in knowing.

What changes do J-Schools need to make?

As an administrator as well as a journalist, I think we [in academe] have far too many stand-alone presentation courses in new media. Some programs have online sequences. We do need courses such as multimedia production or digital photojournalism and videography. Apart from those, if we haven’t already, we had best introduce new media into our mainstream courses. Dennis Chamberlin stands out as a colleague who has been successful at that in our visual communication classes.

What new media tools should classes incorporate?

It’s important not to emphasize specific tools and build pedagogy around them. That’s silly. That’s technological determinism at its worst. Instead, look at anticipated outcomes for each class. Then ask yourself, How can technology enhance these outcomes?

11:55 [Comment From Dennis Chamberlin: ] Last week’s experience at The Des Moines Register was a great opportunity to observe how professionals are using the available tools to create journalistic content under deadline. Our project didn’t push us as much as a breaking news story would have but I think that we were still able to learn about today’s high-speed news environment and venture a bit into the digital realm by creating material for the web. After last week I feel more confident about emphasizing traditional reporting skills in my classes. I’ve never liked using class time to teach technology and now I feel comfortable in keeping a balance between the latest technology and timeless reporting skills.

11:57 Jennifer, AEJMC: One question–how did you clear the time to actually be away from your normal workload for a week.

11:58 Michael Bugeja: Well, that’s the issue, isn’t it? I had good staff and backup administration, and I answered email from 9 p.m. to midnight every night.

12:00 Jennifer, AEJMC: Dennis — how did you handle your classes?

12:00 Dennis Chamberlin: Great question! I had the help of a colleague who covered one day of classes and on the other day I had prepared an online assignment. The result was that we worked at The Register until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. and then I did my professorial work until 2:00 a.m. I was exhausted by the end of the week.

12:01 Michael Bugeja: Also, Jennifer, I’m hoping to use this experiment to get a grant so that our professors can return to the newsroom or agency in summer when they don’t have to work around the clock.

12:01 Jennifer, AEJMC: Did it help to have two of you doing this?

12:02 Michael Bugeja: Actually, I could have handled the assignment by myself with a digital camera, but my photos could not be as sharp or professional as Dennis’. I also wanted to give the Register something in return for hosting us, and I hoped that would be an award-winning enterprise.

12:03 Jennifer, AEJMC: The Register did seem pleased by the end product–and it likely allowed them a couple of people to do things no one else on staff had time to do.

12:04 [Comment From Mark: ] Did the experience teach you anything new or was it a confirmation of already held ideas?

12:04 Michael Bugeja: There’s a reporter, Reid, who does what we did, and we may have inspired more street reporting in him. He’s an excellent writer. He does narrative work too.

12:05 [Comment From Tricia: ] Did you find any specific social media/new media tools that were essential to the newsroom that students should know?

12:06 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Mark: A newspaper reporter in the past had more time to think through news events more critically. What we now call “depth reporting” used to be just “reporting.” Content really is king in a 24/7 news cycle online. One of my former students at The Cleveland Plain Dealer has a rule that reporters there use as a guide, the 4/5 rule, or four paragraphs online within five minutes of knowing something.

It’s really a deadline every login. It’s the wire service on steroids. So I think we should emphasize speed and accuracy in basic reporting.

12:06 [Comment From Carol J. Pardun: ] A number of our faculty go back into the newsroom fairly regularly, but as far as I know, they do this by themselves (not with any faculty partners). What were the unique benefits of having the two of you at the paper at the same time?

12:06 Dennis Chamberlin: Mark, there is always the risk of walking into any situation and seeing only that which reinforces your established beliefs and I did my best to remain aware of that. I tried to observe and listen to people in order to learn about today’s newsroom from their perspective and I saw that most of those people are enthusiastic about the possibilities that the quickly changing technology brings. I hope I am able to use that perspective in the classroom.

12:07 Michael Bugeja:Reply to Tricia: I think the excitement that we created by our blog, “My Register Experience,” putting the focus on the news rather than on the reporter, is one aspect of the experiment that many folks have missed, with regard to interactive media.

12:08 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Carol: As an administrator, I had an agenda, Carol. I try to model the behavior I wish to see in others. So by taking Dennis, that act might have inspired some other colleagues to try it with me or by themselves. It broke the academic/professional ice, as it were.

12:10 Dennis Chamberlin: Tricia, I was told that Social Media skills is something that they would like to see in new hires and when I brought that up in class the other day my students all groaned. A number of them said that during their internships last summer their employers wanted them to use their Facebook friends to promote events and products. The students were annoyed and said that will be a good reason to stop using social media in the future.

12:12 Michael Bugeja: I want to add to Dennis’ comment to Tricia. This is why I am entirely against use of social media as a means to engage students in the classroom. Facebook is programmed for socialization, not education. Any number of popular consumer applications, including Second Life, are just not programmed to do what many tech advocates want them to, and students know that and groan.

12:12 [Comment From Carol J. Pardun: ] Dennis, that makes sense to me as well. I can tell you that I get annoyed when people use my facebook friends to attempt to market something to me or to others on my list.

12:14 Jennifer, AEJMC: Could something like this work as well for other industry areas — say broadcasting or public relations?

12:14 [Comment From Paul Parsons: ] Michael, when I’m reading the news, I pay attention to how often those in power or leadership roles are the news sources and how often those without power or leadership are the news sources. For your story on the new poverty, what would you say was your ratio?

12:15 Dennis Chamberlin: I’m not against social media but unless it enhances the quality of the content I’m not sure that I believe it will be a great addition to journalism. It is a marketing tool and we shouldn’t forget that and pretend that it is a great addition to modern life.

12:15 Michael Bugeja: Jennifer, you’re right on! I’m hoping in the future to work at an ad agency, broadcast outlet, etc., to get a sense of what students need to know.

12:16 Michael Bugeja: Paul, great question! We wanted to go into the streets and speak with people easily overlooked by reporters. We didn’t need social media to do this. We needed comfortable shoes. And then we took their comments and went to the power brokers.

12:17 [Comment From Alfred Hermida: ] Thinking of Facebook as simply a tool to promote events and products reflects the broadcast mentality that persists in newsrooms. I suggest that social media requires a shift in approach, from a one to many framework to a many to many framework, where the emphasis is on connectivity and participation, rather than content and control.

12:18 Michael Bugeja: Alfred is right. Many of these tools are designed for marketing. But if we analyze how to use them, we can achieve connectivity.

12:18 [Comment From Paul Parsons: ] Dennis, you wrote a blog entry on the serendipitous nature of daily journalism. What was the most serendipitous moment during your Register experience? Michael, was there one for you?

12:20 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Paul: Our story on “the New Poverty” is set to run on Monday. It is all about serendipity. It is narrative journalism. It chronicles almost hour by hour what Dennis and I encountered on the street.

12:20 [Comment From Donna D: ] Considering the student “groan” mentality of using social networking tools in the classroom, I think if you’re asking them to tap into their private friend networks for marketing, it’s like asking them to hit up all their friends for favors or they see something they like to use for social purposes turned into a “class gimmick.” It’s all in how it’s used and why, I think.

12:21 [Comment From Donna D: ] Reminds me of being a teenager and hearing my favorite Beatles tune played on my mother’s “easy listening” station.

12:22 Dennis Chamberlin: Paul, I learned about a few people’s experiences that had me really excited to tell their stories in audio and photos but I wasn’t able to convince them to go on the record. They were ashamed that they had fallen on hard times and didn’t want others in the community to know.

12:22 Michael Bugeja: You’re right, Donna. But social media was sold to traditional media as a marketing tool. And it was sold to education as an engagement tool. It’s a tool to make friends, to meet folks, to advocate for causes and the like. And it’s a databank for reporters to search out sources because they violate their privacy via social media, and you can track them down.

12:24 Jennifer, AEJMC: Do reporters really do that now?

12:24 [Comment From Donna D: ] I had a reporter in NYC read a high school message board and turned my private life into a headline, so yes, Jennifer.

12:24 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Jennifer: Use of Facebook to track down sources? You bet. Employers use it for different reasons. …

12:25 Dennis Chamberlin: I’ve seen the reporters in our campus paper use it to track down sources on a pretty regular basis.

12:25 [Comment From Paul Parsons: ] Dennis, do you find ways to tell some of their stories anyway, or without ID, are the stories simply not tell-able?

12:26 [Comment From Mark: ] If FB, etc. really are only tools, being put to different uses by different actors, doesn’t that increase the need to teach *about* them?

12:28 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Mark. [I’ll repeat what I said in the introduction, and expand on that] It’s important not to emphasize specific tools and build pedagogy around them. That’s silly. That’s technological determinism at its worst. Instead, look at anticipated outcomes for each class. Then ask yourself, How can technology enhance these outcomes? For example, I wouldn’t want an iPhone incorporated into a class whose main focus is writing across platforms. An iPhone might come in handy in some reporting classes on some assignments emphasizing spot news coverage. You can tweet, shoot pictures or video, and text to the newsroom. But that’s only one assignment in a class that may require other reporting skills for which an iPhone is ill-suited.

12:28 [Comment From Donna D: ] Seems social networking tools have the potential to be great research tools, as we learn how to use them in other ways.

12:29 Jennifer, AEJMC: Do professors talk about that in class?

12:29 Jennifer, AEJMC: Not just do it, but let students in on the thought process?

12:29 Michael Bugeja: Donna: Absolutely correct! But then we’ll be using them for research in a way that marketers do. But what you just noted is vital on how we should approach technology–as a concept, rather than as a tool.

12:30 [Comment From David: ] From what I read, it seems some faculty members readily embrace use of new media — while others steadfastly hold to the idea that colleges need to educate students about journalism, not train them to use specific technology. Where are you on this?

12:30 [Comment From Donna D: ] I agree totally with Michael

12:30 Dennis Chamberlin: Paul, I still haven’t given up on these stories. One woman will probably tell the story in her own words and I will make images ot go along with it. The other story is about a woman that might be recognizable if the situation was described and I have to respect her wishes. To be honest, I wish we were in the pre-internet era because I could probably do it for a European publication and she would be safe that no one in Iowa would see it. Last summer I taught a multimedia class in Italy and one team of students ran across a situation where the people agreed to be featured if it was for a print publication but they would not give permission for the story to run online. They said that you never know where it will end up or how it will be used.

12:31 [Comment From Eric: ] Is it your experience that students often are more interesting in learning technology for technology’s sake than they are in coming up with something to cover, then looking around to find what tools tell their story best?

12:32 [Comment From Chip: ] How do you feel about having more than one facebook account? Should reporters have one for friends, one for sources?

12:32 [Comment From Alfred Hermida: ] To David’s comment: Technology is a tool for journalism. The challenge in class is not whether to chose between teaching journalism or technology. It is to teach students how to harness the potential of new tools to produce high quality journalism.

12:32 Michael Bugeja: Reply to David: Dennis had a post on keeping an open mind. That’s essential with technology. Often because of my research I’m accused of being a Luddite. See

A person has to know technology to critique it in this manner. Actually, I have five Web sites, three blogs, a Twitter account and even have interviewed avatars in SL. But I see these applications for what they are, not what we want them to be.

12:34 Michael Bugeja: Reply to Eric: Students don’t want to learn about technology. They know it. They’ll learn about it if it can get them a job, such as portfolio class. But they use technology for different purposes. So we do have to critique applications, social media, and the like. And we do have to teach them how to use technology so that it doesn’t use them.

12:35 Michael Bugeja: Reporters have been fired for what they wrote on blogs. So yes, Chip. Keep a personal and professional Facebook account.

12:35 [Comment From Paul Parsons: ] Dennis, the concept of “proximity” in the internet age still remains important, doesn’t it?

12:35 [Comment From Tricia: ] You mentioned earlier that you created excitement about the project though blogging. Can you expand on that? Why did you decide to blog? What were your goals for the blog? Were you monitoring hits and feedback?

12:36 Michael Bugeja: Alfred: My biggest complaint, not only concerning technology in journalism, but in higher education, is how so few are willing to critique it. How can we use it if we cannot say anything against it?

12:37 Dennis Chamberlin: David, your description covers our department quite well. I like to see what we can do with all the tools but only to the degree that I still have time for covering reporting skills. I never got a job because I knew how to focus a camera and develop film. I got assignments because I knew how to sell the story idea to an editor and then pull it off under a tight deadline. I like to make sure students realize that tools are something that you need to feel comfortable with and know when to use.

12:38 Michael Bugeja: Tricia, I’ve seen reporter blogs speak about going fishing on the weekend, and what they caught. Nobody’s interested in that. If you check out our blog in “Hot Topics” or read the comments at our site,, you’ll see that we generated excitement about our story. Many folks emailed us. Comments helped us, too.

12:41 Michael Bugeja: Just a general observatioin about content: We need to teach students speed and accuracy now more than ever. They can text quickly, but do they know the databanks to access in providing a fact-base for their interviews?

12:42 [Comment From Alfred Hermida: ] Michael, I agree. A critical approach is necessary. At the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, we teach the students to understand the different forms of media and platforms, and be able to assess technology tools to tell a story.

12:43 [Comment From Carol J. Pardun: ] As far as speed and accuracy go, we are hosting a British journalist turned professor in the UK. Their school teaches short hand (as part of the accrediting process in the UK) for the very reasons of what you point to Michael: speed and accuracy. Short hand seems pretty old school, doesn’t it? Yet…..

12:44 Michael Bugeja: Alfred, your comment is so important. Think about this: How did McLuhan or even I in Interpersonal Divide write about technology so that the observations still spark debate? Because we wrote as you teach. That’s what we have to remember and reinforce, or our students will panic when they switch from QuarkXpress to InDesign.

12:45 Michael Bugeja: I regret not learning shorthand, Carol. Only I can decipher my notebook. On the otherhand, a district attorney couldn’t decipher it if I interviewed someone she or he wanted to prosecute, based on my notes.

12:46 [Comment From Paul Parsons: ] Michael and Dennis (and AEJMC)… Thanks for doing this live online chat. I now have to head to a live in-person group chat — called a meeting! I look forward to seeing what the Register does with your “The New Poverty” contributions.

12:47 Michael Bugeja: Thank you for your good questions, Paul. We appreciate everyone who participated with us live and online.

12:47 Jennifer, AEJMC: Thanks everyone.

12:48 Mich, AEJMC: Thanks to everyone for participating. If you haven’t had a chance to read Michael and Dennis’ series on “Returning to the Digital Newsroom” please do so. …


What our students need: speed, tools, an open mind

Posted in Perspective Week by Michael Bugeja on November 17, 2009

By Dennis Chamberlin

I returned to the classroom Monday and was surprised by the interest my students had about the week that Michael Bugeja and I spent in The Des Moines Register newsroom and on the streets of the city. Students were genuinely curious as to whether we passed the test. The staff at The Register will have to answer that.

To be honest, we didn’t spend much time in the newsroom because we were busy searching for subjects that would result in photographs or interviews to help tell the story of “The New Poverty.” This past week was similar to working on a freelance assignment where I am able to determine the situations to photograph as long as it complements the written text. Michael built the foundation of our piece with the text and I tried to add a layer of meaning with the photographs.

The traditional tools may have changed a bit–typewriters traded for computers and film cameras exchanged for digital cameras, as well as the introduction of new recording devices and means of electronic delivery; but the fundamental purpose of journalism has not changed over the past couple of decades. It still is concerned with informing readers and telling the stories that engage people in our society.

During the week I learned that it is dangerous to make too many generalizations about convergence and new media tools. Two years ago when I spent a week following photojournalists at The Register video was the new tool that was being emphasized. Today, it seems like there is more focus on choosing the right tool for the story.

On the first day I asked Managing Editor Randy Brubaker if I should be prepared to put together a video package in addition to an audio slideshow that I was planning. He made it clear that they don’t use the tools simply for the sake of presentation. He encouraged us to use whatever technology allowed us to tell the story best.

What do our students need? I asked this question a few times during the week and the general consensus is:

1. A familiarity with various technology that allows them to report on different platforms.
2. A traditional news skill such as news reporting, feature writing, visual story-telling, copyediting.

Michael says he agrees with that assessment. He adds that if teaching basic reporting, he would emphasize speed and accuracy–timed tests and expertise with computer assisted reporting–so as to generate content on demand.

I didn’t see any evidence that expertise is needed with several digital tools but rather with just one and a competent working level with others. There is still a strong need for reporting skills. If you know how to use the tools but don’t recognize a good story, a video camera or Twitter will not do you any good. If you know how to recognize a story, but give up when you encounter source or equipment difficulties, you won’t find a place in the metro newspaper.

Something else stood out during my Register experience: You have to be open to change and be ready to adapt as the medium evolves. Those who succeed in journalism today will always be open to change. Those who want to report, shoot, edit or design they way they used to in their comfort zone, won’t make it in the fast-paced newsroom.

Part of keeping an open mind also involves the story based on access to sources, interviews and luck. You still need that nose for news, persistence and courage.

As a photographer I learned how to deal with change prior to the digital age. Our work has always been tied to the available technology and the resulting images are defined by what cameras and lenses are in your bag. Look at award-winning images from the National Press Photographers Association archives over the years and you can see the influence that cameras, lenses and new emulsions had on the best work of the time.

Street photography did not come of age in the era of the Speed Graphic; it needed a smaller and quicker tool in the form of a 35mm camera. The visual records of the 70s and early 80s are defined by the possibilities of the fast telephoto and the 90s by the ultra wide angle.

What is today’s photojournalism going to be defined by? Camera phone images? Flip camera videos?

Only time will tell, but I am sure it will reflect our current technology.

Reflections on my Register Experience

Posted in Perspective Week by Michael Bugeja on November 16, 2009

I’ve had the weekend to reflect on my Register experience without necessarily thinking about “The New Poverty,” covered in my last post, and share with viewers today the chromatic scale of emotions that colored the week.

Dennis Chamberlin has just sent me a digital contact sheet of his photographs, which he will file today, and will post his thoughts about the week tomorrow. We’ve asked the Register’s managing editor, Randy Brubaker, to comment on our enterprise work, and anything else; we hope to post that on Wednesday. On Thursday, we’ll remind everyone about the national live chat session with Chamberlin and me, set for 11 a.m. central and noon eastern at this URL, hosted by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Chamberlin and I had something to learn and something to prove. We learned that digital journalism is part of everyday journalism, but not nearly as much as educators have made that out to be, as most of us, even me, are so accustomed to living technologically now via e-mail, blog, cell phone, camera-phone, text, tweet, html (or Website application software), Google, YouTube–you name it–that focusing on “new media” seems technostalgic.

Indeed, anyone still touting these tools as the means to secure employment in the digital newsroom should return to the newsroom to see why content is still king.

There are reasons. While advertisement sales may be down from previous highs in the print business, they still generate plenty of pages to fill, and most publishers want to fill them with local news. Also, we heard more than once in the Register newsroom about editors’ no longer relying on the Associated Press to generate local content to supplement the news budget, even in a city as large as Des Moines.

Increasingly, my wire service contacts affirm that the trend has been for them to disseminate local news generated by subscriber partners while their employees focus on all those other premiums that newspapers need, from sports scores to national and international news.

In fact, the Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, is dropping the AP for a week to see how much they actually need it. Read about that here.

During my Register week, I observed reporters creating as much content as possible. Sure, the digital news editor, Web site developers and designers, along with support personnel, focused on what we in academe still label “convergence”; but they would have little work to do without others filing stories, photos, opinion and more from dawn to midnight.

That is what I learned, and perhaps Chamberlin will affirm or refute that.

As for me, I was excited to be back in the newsroom and working with some of the most industrious, dedicated journalists in the business. Many of them, including political columnist Kathie Obradovich, are Iowa State University alumni (or appreciate our hardhat journalism approach). Obradovich captured how I felt most of the week in her blog.

What most didn’t see was how terrified I was that street reporting and narrative journalism would fail in today’s fast-paced news cycle. I was apprehensive accosting people for interviews at Gray’s Park Lake, Southridge Mall and other venues, especially since they assumed (perhaps because of too much television) that we were law enforcement, dressed in suit jackets and brandishing notepads and cameras.

teethBut time after time, our nose for news put us at a newsworthy spot. We interviewed an employed air traffic controlled about fewer flghts to Des Moines, and behind us was an unemployed nurse. We photographed an empty mall parking lot and saw a booming business at a pawn shop where a customer had just sold his gold teeth. Upon hearing about counterfeit notes and coins circulating in the city, I visited a coin shop and witnessed a man being told he had invested in replica brass rather than gold coins.fake_gold

You can read about that encounter in a prior post.

I went to the coin shop on my lunch break and didn’t bring a digital- or videocam; had I done so, I could have documented the reality of “The New Poverty.” It was my one big error of the week.

The biggest emotional toll was remembering the conflict of interest in who comes first with the First Amendment–the source or the audience. Several unemployed sources did not want to be named in our story for fear that such disclosure would prevent them from getting a job. One gave her identity and then reneged. In the end, we decided to honor the source’s request for anonymity because of the nature of our story.

In closing, I believe that the Knight Foundation and other journalism organizations promoting digital journalism should think about funding experiences for professors, such as Chamberlin and I enjoyed. Educators cannot serve the industry as completely as we might without returning to industry. Otherwise we create curricula through our various academic filters (re-accreditation, assessment, program competition, new course-prep anxiety and pedogogical territorialism, etc.).

I will be using this blog as a pilot study for a corporate or foundation endowment to allow professors in the Greenlee School at Iowa State University to return to the newsroom, agency or company for a summer salaried first-hand look at how we can better serve our constituents, chief among them, of course, being our students.