Working with police as a journalist

In the past 10 years as a journalist, I’ve dealt with various police departments. Some are unfailingly polite. Some are even more difficult to contact than the President of the United States. Some require you to pay for police reports while some won’t even let you look at those reports without a Freedom of Information Act request.

A friend who has retired from the journalism business tells me it’s very difficult to build a successful working relationship with the police and very easy, with even one bad article, to tear down a relationship that took years to build.

Twice in my life (I won’t say exactly when), I’ve written stories about sensitive matters and have been asked by my police source to keep a few items off the record. I complied, but another newspaper did not. When a newspaper publishes sensitive information that can compromise a police case, it can be devastating for the police and can result in them never wanting to work with you again.

More recently, I had a disagreement with an officer about his procedures for dealing with the media. However, since then I’ve worked with this officer on one case. He told me there was no update on the case, and when I guessed why there was no update, he told me I was probably correct but asked that I not publish that. I complied.

You know you’re making progress on the police beat when your source tells you, when you’re talking to him or her in private, to call them by their first name.

Richard Zowie tries to stay busy in his writing life and believes it’s far better to be busy than unemployed. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

 

Are websites and blogs the future of journalism?

My gut response would be yes.

When I began my career as a writer back in 2000, we did our writing on PCs and our layout on Macs. We took photos which then had to be processed at a local lab. The pictures would then be scanned and laid out. Once we published the print edition, a gentleman would put out the website edition. Sure, there were lots of websites in 2000, but it seemed amazing for me that our newspaper could also be read online. After all, isn’t it called a newspaper? To me, it seemed a little like science fiction.

My, how things change.

These days, more advanced computer programs are used for writing and laying out a newspaper. Photos are taken with digital cameras, meaning the photos can be instantly viewed and downloaded instead of waiting an hour or so for the lab to have them. After the print edition is completed, then the web edition is put out.

Some newspapers that have websites are extremely reluctant about putting their news online while some newspapers (such as the one where my sister works) don’t have a website at all. Here’s the concern of many newspaper owners: if we put the news online and let people read it for free, what motivation will they have to buy the print edition?

Can a publication have both a newspaper and a website? Yes. I think the best way to do the website is to make it accessible by username and password for subscribers only (perhaps two types of subscriptions: one for those who want a subscription to the print edition but access also to the web edition and another for those who want access to the web edition only). Everyone else can read a teaser of each story but then is prompted to become a paid subscriber to read the rest of the story. Whether or not this business model will actually work remains to be seen.

Having a news publication online is especially convenient for people who live hundreds or thousands of miles from home and would like to find out what’s going on in their hometown. True, they can always wait for the print edition to be mailed to them, but some don’t like having to wait for the paper arrived and see that it was what happened two weeks ago. They want to know what’s going on right now.

Some news publications are choosing to go more towards web editions and less on print. The Christian Science Monitor is online only while some daily metros, like the San Antonio Express-News, are available in print form inside the city only. This past summer, the Flint Journal dwindled down to become published only a few times a week in print. That is only bound to increase with newspapers finding it more and more difficult to make money off their print versions.

More recently, while getting photos at a high school basketball game, I encountered a man sitting and observing the game while typing at a laptop. He told me he was with the Saginaw News and was doing doing live blogging of the game. Others who don’t even work at newspapers (such as Matt Drudge) have their own websites where they can write about things going on and upload links where people can read about a story posted in another paper.

I suspect that in about 50 years there will be few, if any, print-edition newspapers around. Perhaps they’ll cease from being called newspaper and will instead be called newsblog or newssite or newsnet. With the cell phones that now have internet access, this is becoming more and more likely. It’s easier to access a website than it is to go out and buy a paper and sort through a bunch of sections to get to where you want.

A colleague (more like a mentor) tells me he hopes that blogs don’t become the future of journalism since they are merely opinion gathering and not journalism. For some, blogs are popular because they have on faith that when they read in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, Miami Herald, Kansas City Star or other mainstream newspaper is really accurate, fair or balanced. They figure someone who’s a decent writer but not a professional reporter couldn’t do any worse. Sometimes that might be true, other times it is not.

Besides that, some argue that with blogs there’s no way to really regulate what they post. The day could very well come where laws will be passed stating that any news website must pay some sort of fee and be licensed in a way where they are expected to follow rules for fairness and accuracy, and where they can be held liable for publishing libelous comments or stories.

That’s a great point, but these days it’s far easier to start a web news site than it is a newspaper. To start up a newspaper requires a huge investment of capital, followed by securing advertising and hiring the right people. Most recently, the Detroit Daily Press tried this and failed miserably; some former workers allege they were never paid for their work. To start up a website costs only the fee to buy the domain name and to hire someone to make it look nice online while you have the task of uploading news. Blogs, such as the ones here at WordPress, cost nothing unless you want to upgrade. It’s far easier to run web-based news than it is print.

It’s 2010, and it’ll be fascinating to observe this decade whether or not newspapers will make a comeback. My guess is that as the older generation passes on and the computer generation becomes more rampant, we may very well see the day where printed newspapers become as archaic as typewriters.

Richard Zowie has been a professional writer for almost 10 years and has been published in the San Antonio Express-News, Recreation Management magazine, Flint Journal’s Flint Community Newspapers and various web-only sites. His opinions are not necessarily reflected by his past and current clients. Post comments or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.

Still looking for a journalism job but keeping my options open

I’m looking at brochures for area colleges for different programs, some of which are in the medical field. There’s one I really like. One plan is to take the basic classes and then go from there.

No, I don’t necessarily plan on being the next Michael Crichton (who, by the way, was a genius at taking complicated scientific concepts and making them readable). And if someone needs a full-time reporter, columnist, copy writer, web content writer, public affairs specialist, I’m still very much available. I see this possible jaunt into a medical career as a backup, an insurance policy to protect me against an unstable industry.

Truth is, the journalism industry is drying up. There are great newspapers, magazines and websites out there, but the industry also has management who wouldn’t know a news story from an editorial. Some might not even be able to distinguish straight news from satire. Instead of addressing the issues at hand and getting to the bottom, they’re getting rid of the great workers, keeping the clueless ones and trying silly concepts like citizen journalism.

Call me frustrated, call me bitter, but to me citizen journalism a ridiculous copout. I know some newspapers do it to save money by having people write for free, but why stop at journalism? Why shouldn’t hospitals trim their budgets by having citizen surgeons? How about auto shops employing citizen mechanics to replace blown head gaskets? How much money could we save on AIDS research by employing citizen scientists to do free research?

Look, writing’s not the world’s toughest job, but it’s definitely not the easiest, either. I’ve seen far too many abysmal attempts at writing to believe that citizen journalism will be a smashing success. In the end, these newspapers will get what they pay for.

Currently, my only outlet for writing may be the blogs I maintain, simply because there are no openings in my industry.