Scouring the Media

After working at the St. Petersburg Times for several years, former editorial assistant Rita Farlow decided that she wanted more.

CLEARWATER—Rita Farlow worked for the St. Petersburg Times since 1997, but didn’t realize that she wanted to work the beat as a reporter until the late 2000s.
Farlow, who began her career with the St. Pete Times as an editorial assistant, said she worked hard to succeed in the company before becoming a reporter.
“I started as an editorial assistant writing obituaries, because I did have writing skills,” said Farlow. “And really, over a number of years, worked myself up within the company.”
“I was dedicated. If there was an extra shift, I worked it,” Farlow added.
As Farlow worked towards succeeding in the highly popular local newspaper by writing obituaries and doing layout design work, she started to realize in the early 2000s that she wanted to be a reporter. Although she wanted to write, Farlow confessed that she had no background in journalism.
“I actually have an English degree from Virginia Tech, but I had never written for a school newspaper and I’d never been involved in journalism at all,“ she said. “I’ve always been a news junkie and I’ve always read newspapers.”
With only a Bachelor’s degree in English and no professional training, Farlow followed through with her idea by going back to school to get the education she needed.
“Probably by the early 2000s I knew that I wanted to [be a reporter],” Farlow said. “When I realized that I really wanted to be a reporter I went back and got my master’s at USF in St. Pete, because I needed some actual training and I needed the skills.”
While Farlow worked toward her Master’s degree in Journalism, a professional connection gave her the opportunity to start her first beat as a journalist.
“When I was about half-way done with [the degree], an opportunity opened up in St. Pete for a community news reporter covering education, and the woman had been covering that beat, she and I knew each other and she recommended me for the job, and [the Times] gave it to me on a trial basis, and I did okay with that and so they gave me the job.”
Since her first job as a reporter in 2005, Farlow’s beat has changed to something she finds more interesting. Now, as an experienced reporter, Farlow keeps a steady finger on North Pinellas’ cop beat.
“I cover all of the public safety agencies from Largo north to Tarpon Springs,” Farlow said. “So I cover cops, fire, sheriff’s office, I cover murders, accidents, I do some criminal court reporting and occasionally some civil court reporting.”


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Journalists have started to use Facebook as a valuable resource, and they’re right in doing so. Because millions of people using the social networking site, millions of personal statuses and great amounts of information are available for the public’s digestion. For journalists, the idea of someone in the news having a Facebook is exciting. Facebook measured 500 active users in July of 2010, so chances are, if there’s a suspect in any journalist’s story, they have a Facebook. This public diary of statuses and moods is often put on display by journalists to give audiences an idea of who the suspect was and what he or she was interested in.

Not only is Facebook invaluable for leads, but it’s also a great place for networking. Groups like Help a Reporter, or HARO, have made the process of finding sources easier said Mashable’s Leah Betancourt, who described the Facebook group in her article “The Journalist’s Guide to Facebook.” According to the group’s Facebook page, its is “[to] heal the rift between journalists and publicists, to allow journalists to find the sources they need, while allowing sources to reach journalists in a SPAM-free, socially connected way.”

Help a Reporter, or HARO, started on Facebook in 2008.

Jane E. Kirtley, Professor of Media Ethics and Law and director of the Silha Center at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota offered some advice through an email interview with Betancourt.

“Verify, verify, verify. Facebook is a great source for story ideas, but no news story should be solely-sourced through social media,” Kirtley wrote to Betancourt. “Seek corroboration. And if at all possible, interview the person either by phone or face-to-face. It is so easy to lie on the Internet, and to misrepresent oneself. No journalist wants to spread falsehoods or be taken in by a hoax.”

Elizabeth Losh, a director of academic programs at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in her blog about the trouble with using Facebook as a source of information for articles, “in which newspapers cobble together accounts, particularly involving crime stories, from data contained on the parties’ profiles on social networking sites,” she wrote.

“My own Los Angeles Times, to which I have a strong sentimental attachment as a local, has become increasingly reliant on this practice, perhaps as a response to cost-cutting measures or perhaps as a salacious tactic to seem to be sharing hidden knowledge with nonmembers from exclusive communities involved with new digital practices. Many of these articles are the journalistic equivalent of the papers I see from unmotivated students that are mostly made up of Wikipedia entries. ”

Facebook is still gaining popularity, and while it may be an ethical issue for journalists to go combing through the social site for leads, it’s each journalist’s choice to make. Facebook is a powerful tool that offers some story leads as well as other opportunities to personally network with other professionals in the industry. But with the potential of fake accounts, falsehoods or hoaxes, journalists take a risk in using Facebook as a reliable source.

Writing for an online audience may not come naturally to some journalists, especially those who have grown complacent after years of successful stories using the same newspaper story format. writer Jonathan Dube published a list of tips for online writing.

Although there are 12 tips, some tips are more important than others. The first tip recommended that journalists remain familiar with their audience.

“Think about your target audience. Because your readers are getting their news online, chances are they are more interested in Internet-related stories than TV viewers or newspaper readers, so it may make sense to put greater emphasis on such stories,” wrote Dube. “Also, your site potentially has a global reach, so consider whether you want to make it understandable to a local, national or international audience, and write and edit with that in mind.”

Tip four? Write lively and tight.

“Writing for the Web should be a cross between broadcast and print; tighter and punchier than print, but more literate and detailed than broadcast writing,” wrote Dube. “Write actively, not passively.”

Dube continued on and explained how “piles” of story developments should not drown any news story’s webpage, no matter how many breaking developments there are.

“A common problem with online writing occurs in breaking news stories. In an effort to seem as current as possible, sites will often put the latest development in a story at the top no matter how incremental the development. Then, they’ll pile the next development on the top, and then the next, creating an ugly mish-mash of a story that makes sense only to someone who has been following the story closely all day,” Dube wrote. “Unfortunately, the only people who are usually doing so are the journalists. Few readers visit a site more than once a day. Remember this when updating stories, and always keep the most important news in the lead.”

Joe Marren from suggested more on how the internet medium could be used effectively in one of his articles.

“Have informative subheads. Use bold type on proper nouns or important points,” Marren wrote. “Use bulleted lists. Keep paragraphs short (one idea). Have pictures or graphics.”

He also suggested interactive photos, surveys and slideshows for to add muscle to any content.

The internet is different from newspapers. When it comes to getting creative, the internet is much more user-friendly. The internet also offers more space for journalists to get creative. Although newspapers are still successful, when people want the whole story–photos, audio, video and text–the internet is the most important tool a journalist could learn to master.

The newspaper industry has been the target of a lot of pressure.

More and more people are openly commenting on how newspapers are going out of date, and how blogs, web columns and web sites are quickly growing to be the most rapid ways to share information. While it is easier to make information accessible by posting it online where anyone can see it at any time of the day, newspapers are still important to our country.

The most important thing for the staff of every newspaper to do is to pinpoint the reason why they feel that they are in such a bad position. Is it because they’re not advertising their paper well enough, or because they are not covering the stories people want covered? Newspapers are reliable and accepted sources of information; the internet is full of falsehoods and news channels often carry a significant political bias. Since there are only a handful of national news stations, it is not easy to find a story without some form of spin. Unlike television’s large media outlets, newspapers are known for generally unbiased reporting. Many people prefer to read newspapers because reporters cover all sides of the story. Unlike a standard two-minute television report, it’s a journalist’s duty to research a story thoroughly and present it as it stands without any commercial interruptions or time limits.

The idea that newspapers have been slowly drowning in the last decade may be a legitimate concern. The rise of mobile journalism has not gone without a toll on the newspaper industry. Clayton Christensen of wrote that newspapers are still worthy of attention.

“Newspaper companies do, however, have real assets to bring to the table,” said Christensen. “Despite declining circulation, the daily paper still produces cash flow that many other industries eye with envy. The core content produced by newspapers is the basis for many of the industry’s disruptors. Without newspaper content, there isn’t much news for television to report, bloggers would have less to blog about, and Yahoo! News and Google News would be blank pages. Furthermore, newspapers have strong brands and highly skilled employees.”

What matters now is how newspapers react. Will newspaper staffs accept the challenge or will they struggle and fail? Unfortunately many newspapers may fear any change, even if that change would ultimately keep papers afloat. As Michael Kinsley of Time Magazine put it,
“Some [newspaper staffs] are going to find the answers. And some are going to fritter away the years quarreling about staff cuts.”