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Timothy Hankins

Timothy Hankins

Assistant Managing Editor Online

Telling the easy story

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Tragedy. It’s the easy way to be sure, but there are so many stories to tell … wouldn’t it be better if we stretched out and told the difficult story, the one that’s less emotional, less heart-stringy. I think we might surprise ourselves.

But I’m having a problem with stories about sick people, people with cancer or leukemia, and addicted people (also a sickness) that just take us down a hole and leave us there. I also think that far too many stories by student photojournalists are focused on these subjects. I start to think, “Oh, no, not another sweet little child with cancer …” when the slideshow starts.Shouldn’t we be looking for other stories? What does anyone in the audience learn from seeing yet another child with a disease, and the grieving parents, the valiant fight? Effort be damned — what is the value to the public in these tragic tales? Is this what journalism is for? [From Sad and tragic stories, and photojournalism]

Written by timothy.hankins

April 29th, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Swimming with the clown fish: what do we do with all these barnacles?

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Here’s an interesting story from the New York Times that highlights exactly why we in the newspaper business have missed the boat when it comes to online content. It’s not really our fault, though. We’re still operating from a mindset that content is king, and that the most important part of our business is creating new content, beating our competitors to the punch in releasing that content and then making sure it’s exclusive to us. Forever.

It’s a strategy that works in the analog world to be sure; but we’ve missed something very important in the world of online content management. It’s less important who created the content than it is who makes it easiest to consume.

Neither Mr. Singleton nor a statement released by The A.P. mentioned any adversary by name. But many news executives, including some at The A.P., have voiced concern that their work has become a source of revenue for Google and other sites that can sell search terms or ads on pages that turn up articles.

The game has changed because companies like Google make it easy to find great content online. And, in a lot of cases, Google has monetized the content better than the content creator. By perfecting search technology and then selling ads and sponsored listings on results pages, Google is capitalizing on content without creating any significant new content on its own.

Sites like Digg and Reddit have a similar game plan for monetizing content they didn’t create — and those companies are upping the ante by adding social features the originating sites can’t duplicate.

News aggregators and search companies have long asserted that collecting snippets of articles — usually headlines and a sentence or two — is allowed under the legal doctrine of “fair use.” News organizations have been reluctant to test that idea in court, and it is still not clear whether The A.P. is willing to test the fair use doctrine.

“This is not about defining fair use,” said Sue A. Cross, a senior vice president of the group, who added several times during an interview that news organizations want to work with the aggregators, not against them. “There’s a bigger economic issue at stake here that we’re trying to tackle.”

Well, the stark reality is this: the “bigger economic issue”that faces the AP and most content creators is that we can’t survive without the aggregators and search engines. Yeah, these other sites are selling ads on pages full of links to our content, but, that’s life. Great content no one can find is practically useless.

What we have to do is ditch the idea that, because we create content, we’re entitled to profit from it. We still have to earn our money, even after we’ve created the content the public seems to be clammering for all over the Internet. We earn it by getting people to stay on our site once they get there via Digg or Google, and by giving them a reason to become invested in what we do because we give them a great user experience and a very high signal to noise ratio.

Just like we did wit h the old-fashioned morning and afternoon dead-tree editions, we have to build up trust in our digital product. That’s what will get people coming our way over and over again, maybe even without the help of a middle-feeder search engine or bottom-feeder aggregator.

The good news is we do create the content. And we have the power to present great content in an engaging way to our visitors. If we get that right, the search engines and aggregators become allies instead of nemeses.

Written by timothy.hankins

April 7th, 2009 at 11:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My talk at the Alcoa Rotary Club

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I was recently asked to speak to the Alcoa Rotary Club about the ways the newspaper industry is changing. Here is the text of my talk.

I work in an industry riddled with buzzwords. Maybe you do too … do any of these sound familiar?

Outsourcing, crowdsourcing, dynamic, online, offline, hyper-local, mission-critical, social, network, community …

Community. Stop and think about that for just a second or two.

When did a concept like community become a boardroom cliche? A buzzword. Especially in my particular niche in the newspaper business, we spend a lot of time talking about building online communities, creating social networks and leveraging user-generated content provided by citizen journalists.

But what we overlook, sometimes, is the very simple fact that, more than any other media, newspapers ARE the community.

The newspaper has been the clearinghouse for news, entertainment and opinion for small communities like Blount County for generations. The Daily Times has been a part of the lives of Blount Countians for 125 years. And that kind of history and commitment means the newspaper is not just a business, it’s a part of everyday life for many, many people. The newspaper is the most personal of all media; it’s the life-record of a community. It’s the family bible, recording births, marriages and deaths. It’s the town crier, reporting legal notices and encapsulating the important minutiae of political society that would otherwise fall through the cracks of a world overrun with noise.

In an age when everyone can have a voice it sometimes seems harder than ever to be heard. In a world full of social networking where is the ice cream social? If we’re going to enlist “citizen journalists” to report the news, don’t we need to remember what it means to be a citizen? A member of a community? Someone who has a stake in the well-being of all my neighbors?

Even though I work every day trying to make more information available in more ways to more people using Internet and multimedia technology, I can never forget the simple truth that there is nothing more powerful than the well-told story. And the newspaper, no matter what form it takes — printed, digital delivery, web site, podcast, video or text message, is, at its best, the story of a community.

We journalists often refer to our pieces as stories. It’s an odd name, when you think about it. But I still like it better than the other common name we give our work: article.

Articles are simply objects that may or may not matter. They’re means to other ends and have no intrinsic value. Articles can be anything and belong to anyone; there is no ownership of an article – things only get names when we make them our own.

No one every says “let me tell you my article” – no, it’s always a story when it belongs to someone.

And that’s why it’s such a heady thing to be a journalist. To be in the Newspaper Business.

We are responsible for telling everyone’s story. That’s an awesome responsibility; and a wonderful privilege. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to help many people tell their stories over the years. Every now and then, I go back and look at those stories; I often find I’m moved all over again – both by the story itself and the great honor to be asked to tell it.

When Marine Sgt. Micheal Ferschke gave the “last full measure of devotion” for his country, Blount County mourned the loss of a great hero. And The Daily Times mourned as a citizen of the community mourns. But our call of duty was loud and clear in the midst of the mourning: honor the hero. And we were there with camera and video recorder and pen to document the life, death and remembrance of a man called out of the world too soon. Our tribute to this man, his memory and his family was documented in print and video, saved on paper and online; every tool we had at our disposal was used to tell the story of a man whose life and heroic death would forever be part of the story of our country and this Blount County community.

As a writer and producer I’ve had the unique privilege of meeting and profiling the the faces of leadership in this community.

I met Doug Bochtler, owner of Cherokee Fitness and a retired Major League Baseball player. In his life here, he has found a fulfillment to a passion that developed during his stint in the Major Leagues.

He told me about how, toward the end of his career, he found himself playing double-A ball. His role as a player was changing, and he found himself beginning to act as a coach, even as he wound down his playing career. He discovered that he had been given the opportunity to help young, up and coming players reach their potential. That included the chance to teach future Cy Young Award winners, like Johan Santana. Doug taught Johan to throw a change-up and then sat back and watched him succeed with it. “I drew greater satisfaction watching him do well than if I’d done it myself,” Doug told me. He found that there was no greater satisfaction than watching those he’d mentored achieve their potential. And now he’s doing that for young players here in Blount County, through his atheletic facility and the workshops he is able to hold there.

I’ll never forget what Doug had to say during our interview session: “If everybody’s focus was everybody else, how would that change the world?”

Then there’s Joy Bishop. One of the highest ranking civilians in the Air Force and a lifelong public servant. I had the opportunity to interview Joy on a couple of occasions. “Leadership is love,” Joy told me. And her work in the community proves that she lives by those words. Since she retired here to Blount County she has worked tirelessly to help this community achieve its enormous potential. Her efforts on behalf of the Blount County Public Library, the Chamber of Commerce and many other community groups have changed the face of this community.

And her story is just a part of the story of our community. The story a newspaper tells.

Sometimes, the stories we tell are intimate. They may not seem to affect the whole community when viewed individually, but their impact is immeasurable when one steps back to see them as threads in the tapestry of our communal life.

Buddy the Painting Pony lives on a farm in Blount County. His human, Jessica Drake, an artist and photographer herself, taught Buddy to paint after he was diagnosed with Cushings Disease, an ailment that affects a horse’s ability to shed. Now his paintings sell to art lovers around the world; and a portion of the proceeds go to fund research for the disease he copes with daily.

Buc, a Labrador Retriever, volunteers his time at local schools, helping children learn to read. His calm demeanor and soothing presence help put kids at ease as they read to him. And they learn to read with less stress and more success because of Buc.

Tiffany Denyer started Wilderwood Service Dogs to use her love of animals and ability as a dog trainer to serve children with nuerological impairments. She and her team of volunteers train dogs, many of whom are rescued from shelters, to be companion animals for kids who are autistic or suffer from Ausbergers, brain injuries or other impairments. The lives of children from around the region are better because Blount County has a Wilderwood.

These are the stories your newspaper tells. These are the chapters in the story of Blount County.

The future of the newspaper business is a topic of debate these days. Furloughs and failure is too often the news of the day when newspapers are in the news. The giant newspaper chains seem to be toppling, maybe under thier own weight. Smaller papers struggle to compete against national competition that gains a foothold all too easily thanks to the power of technology.

But that same technology, in the hands of your local newspaper, gives all of us the power to document our history. To tell our stories.

I have no idea who KipsMammaw is, but I feel like I know her. KipsMammaw is a user on our photo sharing site, Spotted.thedailytimes.com. And she has shared photo after photo of her family. She’s used this forum to share, in pictures, the story of her family. I’ve seen Halloween costumes, snowmen, rough housing, and poingant family moments, all in the galleries this user, KipsMammaw, has chosen to share with her community. She’s used the technology her local paper makes available to invite all her neighbors into a deeper sharing in her family’s life.

KipsMammaw, along with hundreds of other users on Spotted, is helping to write the story of this community.

And that’s true citizen journalism. When people share what’s important to them from their everyday life, that’s what makes the story of a community. The local newspaper provides a framework for everyone in the community to document their history and become a part of a community’s life story.

The Daily Times is a rich source of information about what’s going on in our County. And it’s a meeting place for everyone in the area to share what’s going on closest to them.

In a small community, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking things are static. That the picture never changes and the tapestry of life is ancient and unyielding. But every moment in every life changes the picture. Though it seems still, the threads are always shifting and growing, and, when we step back for a moment,we see the moving pictures of the ever-unfolding story of our lives.

There is no story that isn’t worth telling. Every person in this room, and every person in our community has a story. The local newspaper isn’t a gatekeeper, it’s a gateway to the story of Blount County, your story, my story … the stories we tell.

The local newspaper is changing. There’s no doubt that struggles lie ahead as we in the business come up with new ways to understand and leverage the technology that presents us with so many challenges and opportunities. But the ethos of your local newspaper can never change. The local paper’s mission is to be a reliable resource, trusted friend and good neighbor.

Above all, the newspaper is a citizen of the community which it serves.

Written by timothy.hankins

April 3rd, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Getting citizen journalists to show up for work

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Via Mizzinformation:

The New York Times is launching a local blog network that will feature content from the paper’s editors but also rely on user-generated content from local readers. Jim Schachter, editor for digital initiatives at The New York Times, explained:

We expect to sell ads to local merchants using our telesales and self-serve ad solution. Our two pilot sites are staffed with full-time NYTimes reporters. That’s not cheap. Obviously, it’s also not a sustainable model.

But the thing is (via the same blog):

… wait a minute–most of these posts are by one person–Andy Newman. Citizen journalist? Hardly–he’s a NYT reporter. Yes, the local is supposed to be a mix of local bloggers overseen by a NYT reporter–but come on.

User generated content is all the rage, and it should be. Good content about things that matter, created by the people it matters to — GREAT idea. The problem is finding the citizen journalists in the first place. Chances are the people that you want citizen journal-ing on your site are already maintaining their own blogs and probably don’t want to do their work twice.

Aggregation seems a better solution. Of course, the big M word always comes up: how do you monetize other people’s content, especially when you aren’t paying them for it? It’s a question nobody has really figured out an answer for.

Written by timothy.hankins

March 23rd, 2009 at 11:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized