My Register Experience

Helen Thomas: What has changed in the digital press corps

Posted in Preparation Week by Michael Bugeja on November 5, 2009

helenthomasIn preparing the post, “Deadline Every Login,” I also received a reply from my former colleague and role model at United Press International, Helen Thomas.

She wrote in the staccato of the teletype machine, in bursts that read like poetry–so much so, that I reprint her message as a “found poem” (all I did was cast her e-mail into lines and stanzas) in response to my question about what has changed in the digital press corps.


The changes are immense, no noise of clicking
teletypes and typewriters, obsolete technology,
little real editing unfortunately, instantaneous
communication and more superficiality,

competition based on personality
instead of content in depth, insecurity
about where newspapers are headed,
money a big factor in all things

and reduction in size of papers, stories
and number of days a paper publishes even
in a big city, dwindling readership, advertising,
dominance of entertainment, Dance with the Stars!,

talk show hosts peddling disinformation,
lack of transparency by even Obama
administration, blocking torture photos,
calling reporters the night before

presidential news conferences to tell them
they will be called on, hand picked reporters
and only five news conferences so far
at the White House under O. administration:

Hope all is not lost in our great business.


Deadline Every Login: What has and hasn’t changed in newsrooms

Posted in Preparation Week by Michael Bugeja on November 5, 2009


A famous statesman asked, ‘When is your–what do you newspapermen call it? Your deadline.’ The reporter sighed. ‘I’m from the United Press,’ he replied. ‘Our deadline is now. Someplace around the world at this instant a newspaper is going to press. We’ve got a deadline every minute.’

When I worked at United Press International in the 1970s, we’d often remark how we wished we had the schedule of the typical newspaper reporter who had time to develop stories as well as relationships with his sources.

Our motto, borrowed from International News Service, which merged with United Press in 1958, was, “Get it first, but get it right.”

Our mantra then is chanted now in the typical digital newsroom.

Indeed, many working reporters and editors responding to this blog noted the quicker pace as being the biggest change in today’s newsroom since Dennis Chamberlin and I worked in one decades ago.

There’s even a texting-like rule to symbolize that pace–4/5, 24/7–or four paragraphs online within five minutes of knowing something, around the clock.

Typewriter_CosmicIn the wire service, we called this “A Deadline Every Minute,” the title of the 1957 book by Unipresser Joe Alex Morris who, like Chamberlin, worked at the Denver Post before joining the wire service in 1928.

A colleague of Walter Chronkite, Morris was foreign editor during World War II for United Press.

The quicker pace hardly will be new for me as a former UPI bureau chief (or as director of a bustling school of journalism and communication).

In preparing for our Register experience, I emailed several working reporters and editors, asking what Chamberlin and I should anticipate after our long absence from daily journalism.

The replies were illuminating.

Chuck Raasch, national correspondent and columnist for Gannett, noted that news is “‘content,’ there are no deadlines, and you will be amazed at the amount of work heaped on a much smaller workforce.

“Once, you revved up all day until you hit deadline somewhere mid- to late-evening, and then rolled through various edition deadlines through the rest of the night,” Raasch observed. “Now, with Internet Web sites, the pressure is always on to publish and post.”

What hasn’t changed are the people and personalities. “I still believe journalism is a calling and that certain people are cut out for this business. Energetic, creative, curious people, who believe in the essential function of an independent media in civil society.

“I see an awful lot of me at 25 in the young women and men who talk to me about going into the business.”

I knew Raasch when he was 20, writing and editing for The Collegian, our alma mater’s student newspaper at South Dakota State University.

Mike Tobin, assistant metro editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and a former student of mine, has that same passion.

“I started working in newsrooms in 1996 at States News Service and here at the Plain Dealer in 1999,” Tobin stated. “Far and away the biggest change has been the online component ( for us) and the constant push to get everything online.

“When I started as a police reporter, you’d find out about a murder from the homicide unit, pull the dead guy and suspect’s records, assuming there was one, go out and talk to relatives, go back and talk to detectives, grab a sandwich and think about it some and hash out how you were going to write this story, what your lede would be, what the appropriate length was, etc.

“This is the way it was done until about three years ago.”

This is the way that Watergate-era reporters did it, too.

“Now,” Tombin states, “the way you do it is put up a post immediately after finding out about what happened (the 4/5 rule). Then, for every step I detailed above, the reporter is either updating the post with info or calling their editors to do the same.

“So the story is very much a work in progress.”

This is precisely what we did and still do in the wire service.

It is also why we made horrendous goofs, the most infamous being Scripps Howard namesake Roy Howard filing this unfortunate flash on Nov. 7, 1918:

The war is over. Germany and the Allies signed an armistice at 11 a.m. today, hostilities ceasing three hours later.

Problem was, the armistice officially ended five days later. But Howard got it first.

Unlike the Web, where errors can be fixed in a snap, celebrations in 1918 continued in the false light of a erroneous flash.

Tobin notes the same type of mistakes happen on the Internet, such as the erroneous online reporting by several news agencies in 2008 that U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones was dead before she was. “That would not have happened in the old system.”

Computer-assisted reporting is necessary in the environment of “deadline every login.”

“Any story about anyone now includes googling them and often checking their facebook page,” Tobin says. “The good part is that it often makes information more easily available. You can find their friends online instead of banging on doors.

“The downside? We have many many many reporters reluctant to leave the newsroom, who far too rarely explore the city and bang on doors and talk to actual real live human beings (which to me was always the best part of the job.)

“To many reporters, sending emails is their version of shoe-leather journalism.”

Allen Breed, national writer for The Associated Press, also believes the biggest change has been the ability to access documents without ever leaving your desk.

Fax“When I started,” he recalls, “the fax was a new tool, and still employed that awkward thermal paper. Now I can go into PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) and pull up entire case files that before required a trip to a faraway district court clerk’s office. The bad thing about this is that it’s easy to become spoiled and to look for ways not to leave the office.”

“What hasn’t changed are the fundamentals of the job,” Breed emphasized. “You still have to run down leads and check facts, whether you do that by phone, through a chat room or in person.”

Breed added that you still have to track down people whose stories “will suck readers in. And you still have to GO there. You can let people describe their surroundings for you all day, but if you’re not there in person, you’re not using your reporter’s eye to determine what details SHOULD be going into a story.

“And while there’s a place for cell phone photos from breaking news events, you still can’t beat a professionally shot picture that’s in focus, beautifully composed and perfectly exposed.”

Like these from Pulitzer Prize winner Dennis Chamberlin.

Joe Mahr, one of my former students and another Pulitzer Prize winner, is an investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He predicted “a lot of people will talk about the production end of it” as the biggest change. For Mahr, the change has been in fact gathering.

“I joined the industry in 1994, so that’s my vantage point. Back then, CAR (computer-assisted reporting) was in its infancy. The Internet was barely in newsrooms, and maybe just a terminal stuck somewhere in the middle of the room.

“So the techniques back in the mid-90s, I assume, were largely the same from the past 30 years–call or visit people, and get paper records,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Now, Google has become the newsroom librarian.”

What hasn’t changed between then and now? “Editors still want stories soon. Reporters still want to take longer. Government still ties to stonewall reporters. Good people still help reporters find stuff. Good stories still win out, even if they’re packaged differently.

James Hill, managing editor of the Washington Post Writer’s Group, echoed that sentiment. Accuracy is emphasized now more than ever.

“If anything, reporters and editors are now under a constant microscope, where one error, if big enough, can produce a professional embarrassment of epic proportions. But the need to expend shoeleather to get a story, to get it right, to get it edited, and to get it before the eyes of readers is the same as it always has been, Thank God.”

The transparency of Internet also has resulted in more professionalism, Hill believes.

The sheer number of digital tools, from blogs to video, has allowed editors to place reporters in slots that amplify their strengths. Writers use Web 2.0 effectively. Creative layout editors are now creative page designers.

Downside? “No printers to shmooze — or argue — with.”

Several national reporters working for bigname outlets asked for anonymity in answering what has and has not changed in the digital newsroom since the Watergate era.

One reporter for a nationally known metro lamented that too many veteran reporters resist learning the new technology and too many newbies “don’t embrace old-fashioned reporting – checking in on people, chats, your basic shoe-leather.”

A 35-year veteran reporting for a worldwide news outlet noted, “News decisions are no longer being driven by any sort of thoughtful, deliberative process, but by television, and to a lesser extent, the Internet. And they in their turn are being driven by what they have film of, or what they can get hits for.

“This means that more resources are going to chase blip-on-the-radar news, celebrity news and entertaining television ‘news’ like dramatic but esentially so-what car chases.”

What hasn’t changed between then and now?

“Journalists want to do a good job,” she said, “and are way underpaid.”

The Serendipitous Nature of Daily Journalism

Posted in Preparation Week by Michael Bugeja on November 3, 2009

By Dennis Chamberlin

chamberlin_thmbWhen I first heard about the opportunity to participate in this project there was no hesitation on my part. I spend most of my time in the classroom these days and, to be honest, I miss the serendipitous nature of daily journalism.

What I miss, in particular, are the days when you head out with an idea in mind and experience changes along the way. The story might become difficult to complete, or an even better story might fall in your lap. It is all about observing what happens around you and knowing when to pause and ask a few questions.

Last week I made a visit to a local organization that helps people with housing problems. I showed up unannounced and left a couple hours later with a few story ideas that excite me.  Stories to be told in my community that are better than what I might have conjured had I been a novelist.


For the past couple of semesters I’ve assigned my photojournalism and multimedia students topics about the economy. I was surprised how the first round of stories turned out. Despite my prodding and feedback, students mostly gravitated toward stories showing people doing just fine. If you analyzed the complete class output you might think all is splendid in our small Midwestern town (despite having the second highest poverty level in Iowa).

I couldn’t fathom why students were not going deeper into the story. The answer turned out to be that they were afraid to talk to people from a different demographic–a telling characteristic, which prompted me to reflect.

My first four years as  journalist at The Denver Post were far more instructive than I ever could have imagined as a student. I have just completed four years as a professor on the tenure track at Iowa State University, providing me with an opportunity to observe our society through the eyes of my students–an  experience no less instructive than my years at The Post. In Denver I learned lessons from the people I met on assignment. In Ames I’m learning from the students in my classroom.

My photojournalism students submit their entire material to me so I can see how they approached the assignment. One of the unexpected elements of this requirement is that I can see how the photographer interacts and relates to the subject.

My students, like ones who came before them,  mirror the concerns of their peers but are also products of our society, reflecting values within all of us. Looking at the out-takes from their assignments I see that we prefer to take refuge in our immediate circle of friends, family and self than wander in diverse or uncertain surroundings.

The world out there is full of unknowns.  It can be scary. It requires us to interact with people who may be different in lifestyle, social class, ethnicity or culture. That can unsettle newcomers, especially if we send them on street assignments in unexplored locales.  But this experience is perhaps the single most important thing we as journalists do to uncover stories everyone needs to hear.

Beginning journalists have a responsibility to get out of the confines of the classroom and even the comfort of the newsroom and learn about the world first hand. They cannot do it vicariously through YouTube videos or Google searches.

By being journalists, students have an alibi to walk into the lives of others in ways that most of us are afraid to do.

That is why I’m looking forward to next week at The Des Moines Register. I want to get beneath the surface of my community and tell stories with my camera and audio recorder (my new tool) reflecting what is happening in these uncertain economic times.

Even now I’ve noticed how I have begun to come out of the cocoon I unconsciously built during the past few years, preoccupied with work and family responsibilities. I now have a reason to strike up conversations with people whom I see everyday, but never took the time to know, listening to and documenting their stories.

Good journalism demands that we become engaged members of society. You can learn to understand others, and as a bonus you can learn more about yourself.

Street Reporting: Can it work in the digital newsroom?

Posted in Preparation Week by Michael Bugeja on November 1, 2009

watergateWatergate-era reporters and photographers were energized by the street reporting of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Alfred E. Lewis at the Washington Post–so much so, in fact, that we typically embraced a romantic vision of journalism that may be at odds with the digital newsroom.

Dennis Chamberlin and I belong to that generation of journalists. We admit that we may have glorified those times with the questionable belief that any person, employee or official on the spot of a story–from crime scene to courtroom–was placed there serendipitously for the sole purpose of our assignment.

That is why we called it “spot news.”

The googlization of news is hardly romantic. Often it is the chief tipster in the digital newsroom, providing databanks and open sources that kill as many ideas as the search engine spawns.

Case in point: In researching crimes associated with the new poverty, we theorized that domestic violence statistics in Iowa would have spiked in the past, difficult year of recession. Financial hardship is often the cause of divorce and abuse. But the state Department of Public Safety reports that such abuse actually declined by 3.2 percent between 2007 and 2008.

To be sure, latter months of 2008 might yield more abuse instances on closer inspection because the subprime scandal and market collapse happened then. But that is not the point; such theorizing is a vivid example of computerized thinking.

Watergate-era journalists would search out domestic abuse data in person, meeting with and interviewing state officials after visiting shelters for victims and other venues and learning anonymously or on record about their plight or situation.

By doing so, we will not have googled a false but a telling lead, recording personal narratives, perhaps that of a white-collar spouse hiding from an otherwise prominent person furloughed under the budget-cutting directive of Gov. Chet Culver. We’ll be looking for that spouse and that official not only at shelters and unemployment or public safety offices but also at Des Moines parks, bars and lonelier places whose visual backdrop provides the theme to make memorable powerful enterprise.

And even if we didn’t locate such a spouse or official, street journalism would all but ensure we’d still come away with anecdotes from shelters and other venues as well as interviews and photos at 215 East 7th Street, Des Moines, with the public safety official who compiles, stores and/or has an opinion about the data or our anecdotes.

The googlization of news suggests that state officials providing online data are only good for that data. Street journalism believes those officials have something to confide that nobody took the trouble to ask. By the mere act of showing up to gather statistics, a reporter might earn the story of a lifetime.

If that sounds romantized, read my account “Flu Deja Vu” in the online Washington Post of how I broke the 1976 story out of Pierre, S.D., of all places, concerning the swine flu vaccine causing Guillain-Barre syndrome. I showed up at the state Office of Communicable Diseases to get the latest data on the number of South Dakotans immunized and was approached by an employee who gave me the scoop off the record, all of which eventually checked out.

Had Google existed back then, and I thought about reporting as many of our high-tech student journalists do, I’d have accessed the data without the visit and overlooked what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had kept hidden.

I can hear the demurs already about how new media journalists using e-mail, blogs, Web sites, Twitter, Facebook and iPhones are accessible 24/7 to the news-tipping public. Yeah? Try contacting a reporter managing all those marketing applications and gadgets in addition to processing leads via Google and then compiling, interviewing and composing stories in a productivity model that rewards the number rather than quality of reports.

That said, mobile technology would have made reporting much easier in my era. Dennis Chamberlin and I hope to use it in our enterprise about “The New Poverty,” or how this recession has decimated the ranks of white-collar workers, as much as blue, and employees with seniority as well as new.

Terry Anderson, former hostage and Iowa State University journalism alumnus, teaches at the University of Kentucky and plans to bring digital natives to Lebanon to show them how to street report more accurately than is being done now in the typical newsroom. See this article about that in The Huffington Post

Anderson, one of my best friends, wished he had cell phones when he served as the Middle East bureau chief for the Associated Press in the 1970s. Often he remarks how he had to run back and forth from the bureau to the scene of spot news. Doing so he missed some aspects of the story. Had he a cell phone, or the visual components of an iPhone, he would have been even more accurate in documenting news.

(Anderson and I were brought together by the poetry of journalism, which you can view in my interviews with him on YouTube.)

What puzzles me in this tweeting age is how we waste time in what passes now for spot news, informing others where we are and what we are doing, moment by moment, play by play, rather than dictating stories to the desk (assuming, of course, the editor there hasn’t been furloughed).

Bill Elsen, an editor at the Washington Post for 33 years, now retired,  once told me that good reporters “see stuff that wouldn’t have happened if they stayed in the newsroom.” He often recalls Alfred E. Lewis, the Post police reporter known as “Uncle Al,” who helped break the Watergate story.

“Some reporters never wrote stories,” Elsen said in our interview. “They just dictated them. ‘Uncle Al’ probably never wrote a story in the Washington Post, and yet you’d find hundreds of his bylines. He would say, ‘Get me rewrite.’ He’d wear a police sweater and wander around police headquarters, and everyone thought he was a cop. So during Watergate, when everyone was being briefed about the break-in, Al wanders into the Watergate building — right past the cops and the crime-scene tape — and calls in with more details than anybody except the cops.”

The online era has its own romantic features. You can read Uncle Al’s notes compliments of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas-Austin, documenting what he found sidling into the Watergate hotel, including “6 mace guns (pocket pencil variety) … one set of blank keys plus a number of other keys … 15 lock picks … key wrench tools … a lock, rubber gloves, batteries, flashlight, bugging devices.”

Lewis’ also got a quote from an FBI source about how the arrests unfolded, thanks to the unsung hero of the break-in, 24-year-old security guard Frank Willis, who contacted police. I’m sure that Uncle Al, as well as Elsen at the copydesk, believed Willis was the source placed serendipitously at the scene so that the Washington Post could scoop The New York Times. 

Dennis Chamberlin and I don’t know if “the digital street” contains such magic anymore. We’re about to learn that lesson next week at The Des Moines Register.

Old Tech More Complex Than New

Posted in AEJMC, Preparation Week by Michael Bugeja on October 31, 2009

In preparing for our stint at The Des Moines Register, I offered to help copy-edit at The Iowa State Daily, one of the most innovative newspapers of its type as well as SPJ’s 2008 winner of the best such student publication in the country.

As director of the Greenlee School, I also wanted to observe the transition some of our students make in going from the Daily to a metro newspaper for internships or employment.

I was given a 5-minute tutorial in InCopy by Kim Norvell, managing editor, whose terse instructions were reminiscent of my 5-minute introduction to a newsroom version of the IBM 5100 computer by UPI staffer Fred Albers in the Pierre, S.D., bureau in 1975.

The so-called portable computer weighed 55 pounds and its WordStar-like application required even more hieroglyphic code to type, save and file stories. WORDSTAR

The worst thing about the $20,000 computer was how it froze every few hours because of faulty fans or, perhaps, because of faulty bureaus. (The Pierre bureau was situated in a windowless upper-floor closet in the statehouse, a hothouse in the summer and an icebox in the winter.) The best thing about the computer was the ease with which we fixed it, using pencil erasers to clean contacts and chewing gum to stablize fans.

True story: On election eve, 1978, hauling my heavyweight portable computer to a room we rented with buffet for 24-hour, round-the-clock coverage–a new concept then–I dropped the unit on concrete taking it out of a pickup truck, and its back cover fell open and bent the fan. As I cursed, Albers took out wads of Bazooka bubble gum and began chewing. We set up the computer inside, left the cover off, bent the fan back into place and used gum-wads to cement it in a cooling position.

The dang thing not only worked, it hummed through what turned out to be 48-hours of continuous coverage as Leo K. Thorsness defeated Tom Daschle by 75 votes (only to be overturned on recount, with Daschle winning by 139 votes out of 129,000 cast). I was calling elections that night, and after 35 hours, dubbed this one a draw–the only news outlet to get the call right, thanks to that tank of a computer.

The Apple iPhone’s 3.5-inch wide screen display is about the size of the CRT screen of my era, and its 4.8 ounces is a far cry from the 880 ounces of my IBM model, or 0.54 percent; but I assure if you drop it on concrete and its back cover cracks, it won’t hum for two days’ running on election night.Telcon_Zorba_front

Eventually, UPI changed over to a Zorba Gemini like system, similar in functions to the IBM 5100. Here’s a screenshot of what we had to cope with by way of copy. 

But I digress.

Back in the Daily’s newsroom, I was surprised at the ease I adapted to InCopy with its Word-like dropdown boxes and simplicity of use. In fact, inserting notes for other editors was more convenient than Word or similar popular applications. The most difficult aspect was learning shortcut keys and the Daily’s coding system denoting the level of editing before layout.

The Register uses InCopy.

After 1 1/2 hours editing, I returned to my office. Associate Director Jane Peterson asked, “So how did it go?”

“The system took me about 20 minutes to learn,” I announced.

“Let’s schedule a course on it,” Peterson quipped. Like me, she’s skeptical of the hoopla of convergence in academic circles, with some schools of journalism creating courses on the latest newsroom application. See my take on that in this article from “Hot Topics.”

To us, convergence has always meant adding mass communication across platforms in shared elective courses. To some of our counterparts, though, it has meant adding courses across the curriculum to share mass communcation one app at a time.

In part, that is why Assistant Professor and Pulitzer Prize-winner Dennis Chamberlin and I are spending a week at the Register. Not only will learn whether we can handle the technology; we also plan to cover “The New Poverty” in Watergate-era fashion, heading to locales from shelters to parks unannounced and documenting what we find there.

Perhaps Chamberlin will grace this blog next week with a post about the camera he used to document the 1982 flood in Fort Wayne, taking photos like this magnificently lighted one.

AEJMC to carry this blog on “Hot Topics”

Posted in AEJMC by Michael Bugeja on October 26, 2009

My Register ExperienceThe Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication will host “My Register Experience” blog on its popular site “Hot Topics” during the week of Nov. 1, chronicling the return of two veteran journalism professors to the digital newsroom of the Des Moines Register.

Dennis Chamberlin, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Michael Bugeja, former bureau chief for United Press International, will test their journalism skills during the week of Nov. 8. They are planning an enterprise piece on “The New Poverty,” documenting how the failing economy in Iowa is affecting all strata of society.

AEJMC will begin carrying the blog as Chamberlin and Bugeja prepare for their stint in Des Moines. “Hot Topics” will feature their impressions during the Register experience and also one week later, when Bugeja and Chamberlin will reflect on whether their skills are viable today.

Bugeja directs the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University where Chamberlin teaches visual communication.