(Screenshot from Stephen Babcock's Twitter timeline)
How do you create a COVID-era conference that doesn’t suck?
This year’s Klein News Innovation Camp, hosted over Zoom on Saturday, November 14, was a masterclass not only in journalism solutions, but in engaging in meaningful professional development online.
The conference, hosted annually by Technically Media and Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communications, fostered significant discussions about ethics, newsroom diversity and financials and the future of news between about 50 attendees sitting in front of their web cameras.
This was achieved by a conference staff that understood “Zoom fatigue,” or the boredom that comes with staring at a screen all day. The trick: constant audience involvement.
By encouraging attendees to ask questions through Zoom’s chat feature, the audience was able to guide panel conversations to topics that excited them. After each panel, attendees were put into smaller breakout groups with question prompts, but allowing them to chart their own conversational focus while networking.
The 2020 version of the camp, though nontraditional, was created in a way that kept the audience interested and excited and preserved the experience of networking, sharing and learning that an in-person conference provides.
So what was discussed?
Moral Clarity and Journalism
In this first panel, Vice News Reporter Alexis Johnson, CBS News Reporter Wesley Lowery and Executive Director of the American Press Institute Tom Rosenstiel spoke about what it means to be ‘objective’ while reporting.
“The term objectivity came into use in journalism in the early 20th century at a time not unlike the one we’re in now,” Rosenstiel explained. “What they meant by objectivity, is more transparency, more rigor, more discipline to show how you do your work. It did not mean neutrality.”
Johnson came to Vice News once she was removed from covering Black Lives Matter protests for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after posting a tweet comparing the damage done by looters to the trash left after a country concert.
“I got called into this national conversation about what objectivity means,” Johnson said. “What is bias when you’re talking about reporters? Are there two sides? Are there two sides to racism, especially if we’re talking about Black Lives Matter all summer? What side should we be on? Is it biased to say black lives matter, because that means supporting a political movement? Or are we talking about human rights?”
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Lowery concluded that journalists should accept their own biases and use that knowledge to ask more well-rounded questions and write more objective stories.
“If you just insist that you are a journalism robot with no bias, suddenly you have no cause to do those things,” he added. “I would argue that we end up seeing a lot of journalism that ends up biased by the author, the reporter, the correspondent, because of their own personal insistence that they have no bias.”
Chalkbeat Founder Elizabeth Green, Generocity Editor Sabrina Vourvoulias, and Technically Media CEO Christopher Wink, spoke about beat reporting — more specifically what the growing existence of niche publications means for journalism.
“We have to meet people where they are,” Green, who reports on education, said. “There could be multiple publishers producing content. But from the consumer point of view, sometimes you’re gonna want to read a lot about one topic, and you’re gonna be a really close member of that community.”
She and Wink spoke about multi-location beat-specific news organizations, as Chalkbeat reports from seven bureaus across the nation, while Technically Media’s Technical.ly, which is focused on economic growth and technology, reports from four East Coast locations.
Vourvoulias, who worked at a number of niche news organizations before coming to Generocity, said beat-focused organizations create more opportunities for in-depth understanding and quality community reporting than large scale publications.
“Community news organizations really are good at dissolving the idea of monoliths of any sort,” she added.
Uh, Wow 2020
In perhaps the most all-encompassing panel at the conference, Marsha Cooke, the senior vice president of IMPACT for Vice News, Sewell Chan, the editorial page editor for the Los Angeles Times, and Klein College of Media and Communications Dean David Boardman discussed the struggles journalists face in 2020.
The conversation spanned COVID-19, racial injustice and the impact of the phrase “fake news.”
“The real problem of this year is that we have to focus on journalists’ wellbeing and health,” Chan said. “PTSD is a real thing. Trauma is a real thing. We know it’s not going to end soon.”
Boardman touched upon Klein College’s efforts to support young journalists during a year in which journalism has confronted open hostility, while Cooke emphasized that COVID-19 has forced news organizations to reconsider how they operate.
“You’re ready for an earthquake, but no one’s thought about that kind of preparedness when thinking about an office for the pandemic,” she said. “What I think we are missing is that one-on-one contact, or that Monday morning family meeting. I think we lose a great deal by not having that ability to be in that room together. This is great, but it is isolating, and frankly, very lonely.”
News Organizations and Earned Income
As the economic fallout from COVID-19 exacerbates an already struggling financial outlook for media companies, Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, Solutions Journalism Network’s Liza Gross and Newsonomics’ Ken Doctor discussed ways to keep the industry stable.
“People will pay for sufficient, unique, knowledgeable content,” Doctor said. “So the question is, how do we apply this now? We have an opportunity to understand in 2020 that the audiences are much different. This is a purely digital decade. And the solutions are well within sight.”
Gross spoke about the variety of revenue-generating models in use at news organizations from the Texas Tribune to Spain’s El País.
Some of those revenue-generating forms, like paywalls, have been criticized for the way they limit which audiences have access to news, but Sullivan offered a different perspective.
“I posted my most recent column as I always do on Twitter and one of the replies was, ‘bummer, I hit a paywall,’” she said. “But I thought I might start saying yes, it’s called a paywall, because it’s how journalists get paid.”
More Diverse Newsrooms
The final panel of the conference was a discussion on how to add diverse staff to newsrooms between Klein College’s Lu Ann Cahn, WHYY’s Sandra Clark and Report for America’s Steven Waldman.
“I’m optimistic about diversity, because I feel like I’ve seen in the last few years employers wake up,” Cahn said. “I’m concerned, however, about this next generation and keeping some great talent in the field of journalism. I see a lot of fear about going into this business for a number of reasons.”
These fears, which the panelists said include financial stability, the lack of diverse support in newsrooms and an insufficient pipeline to journalism for people of color, still need to be solved before diversity will be achieved inside news organizations.
“[Newsrooms] are putting way too much burden on this reporter to solve all of their problems,” Waldman said. “There’s a lack of representation, or all these communities that have been covered horribly for 75 years, and you’re putting this reporter in there and expecting that reporter to regain the trust of that community.”
The panel concluded that newsroom training, more paid opportunities for aspiring reporters of color and hiring diverse journalists for their community understanding rather than the diversity box that they check are some steps to solutions news organizations can take.
“The whole diversity picture is much more than a person,” Clark said. “It’s really a mindset.”-30-
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