The job that I’ve spent the last year learning is not the one I’ll have

Being the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Tar Heel was an incredible learning experience. We made excellent strides with our reporting, we took big stands on important issues and we beautifully chronicled the best and the worst of this year.

The sad thing is that, for many people in our class, this post will probably be the first time they learn about some of our progress this year.

In some ways, it’s humbling to realize that this newspaper that I spend a lot of hours slaving over isn’t really beloved by my peers in the same way.

And that’s because we don’t read news the way our parents did. And we never will.

This class didn’t teach me that. Professors have been squawking that at me for many many years now.

Print is dying. It’s an expensive product to love. And general mangers, publishers and editors the world over must figure out a profitable way to get their news into readers’ heads.

What this class taught me is the intricacies of this problem.

1. My peers are interested in news, but they have no feelings whatsoever about where it comes from. You can be the greatest columnist in the world, but it will be tough to garner a strong following from millennials.

2. They want reporters to clearly state why a story matters to them. This is selfish, but it’s a good thing for reporters to understand in order to keep readers engaged for longer.

3. They don’t feel like picking up a newspaper. They’d rather scroll through their Twitter feed and get the day’s news from many different sources.

4. Local news is not dead. Rather, there’s a demand for hyper local news in real time, which is why Facebook pages like Overheard at UNC are incredibly popular. They’re a home for citizen journalists to curate and present content.

5. There is not a strong appreciation for opinion writing. My peers would rather be given the information and formulate an opinion on their own. They turn to their peers for help, not the local opinion editor.

As a caveat to that, the news industry’s efforts to keep opinion separate in the newsroom and in print is completely lost on readers close to my age. They don’t care if you have a special font that you only use for editorials. They can’t tell the difference. They don’t care if opinion is on the front page. That’s not how they organize the news in their mind.

But there are many questions we still don’t have answers to.

1. We didn’t come to a conclusion on the importance of accuracy. In our class discussions, people said they value it but then they also seemed to prioritize speed of delivery over everything else. And those two values aren’t always in sync.

It’s when journalists are tripping over each other to get a story out that everyone makes mistakes. And I’m not sure we fully unpacked that.

2. What triggers an international news cycle.

The tragedy of the Chapel Hill shooting was complex. But I don’t know if the overwhelming response to it came from the fact that three Muslim students in Chapel Hill were killed or from the fact that local media weren’t calling the killings a hate crime.

That distinction matters.

3. I still don’t know what the next big social network will be, but I’m confident one of my classmates will have a hand in developing it.

4. I still don’t know where this country will go with privacy. We put so much of ourselves out there on social media and I do worry that my peers don’t guard their personal details carefully enough.

This question really comes from the Ted Talk with Glen Greenwald we were required to watch earlier this semester:

Now, there’s a reason why privacy is so craved universally and instinctively. It isn’t just a reflexive movement like breathing air or drinking water. The reason is that when we’re in a state where we can be monitored, where we can be watched, our behavior changes dramatically … Human shame is a very powerful motivator,as is the desire to avoid it, and that’s the reason why people, when they’re in a state of being watched, make decisions not that are the byproduct of their own agency but that are about the expectations that others have of them or the mandates of societal orthodoxy.

5. And the big one. More than thirty of the journalism school’s best minds still couldn’t figure out a definitive way to make news profitable.

But this class sure did send me away with a lot of ideas for how to get there.

We unpacked so much and we were given the tools and the knowledge to tackle many other issues facing the journalism industry.

It was really a privilege to get to speak with some of the brightest minds from our field for a few hours each week.

And it’s kind of scary to think that I’ve spent the last year training for a job I’ll never have. But this is the first class I’ve taken that hasn’t made me feel terrified about that.

I feel empowered.


A closer look at post-consumption waste of consumer electronics

Digital media might not grow on trees, but its still destroying our forests.

As we continue our study of current issues in mass communication, it’s important to recognize the many possibilities digital media brings to our society. It’s equally important for us to take stock of how the technologies developed to support our growing appetite for digital media consumes vast amounts of energy and creates toxic waste.

That last point is what I’ve spent the last few weeks really exploring.

My journey technically started in December, when I shattered my iPhone 5. I spent many months talking to repairmen and my phone carrier in the hopes of repairing and keeping my phone. Ultimately, that wasn’t a viable option. I found I would have to replace it.

After I got a new iPhone 6, I was tasked with getting rid of the old iPhone 5. For a long time, my family and I have just kept our old cellular phones in a drawer in our kitchen — unsure of what to do with technology that we no longer want but can’t bear to get rid of.

But I was determined to do something useful with my iPhone. I was certain my phone couldn’t be refurbished. By the time I was through with it, it was beginning to leak some sort of internal liquid (note: no one at my local Apple or Sprint stores could account for what this liquid could be) and large glass pieces were missing from the cover.

So my main option was to recycle my phone. And I set out to figure out just what the industry around recycling iPhones looks like.

Media consumption fuels planned obsolescence

The reason my phone (a phone that was reinforced with heavy duty Gorilla Glass) likely broke after more than two years of use is because of a phenomenon called planned obsolescence, which is where companies intentionally limit a product’s lifespan.

In some ways, this is good. As mobile applications come out and new media debuts, we all want a phone that is technologically capable of supporting those new developments.

But in other ways, planned obsolescence creates unnecessary waste that costs consumers money and wastes resources. The different iPhone chargers, for instance, don’t represent any new innovation. They’re just an example of planned obsolescence that costs consumers money and waste resources.

For a long time, technology columnists have begged consumers to keep their phones longer or buy used technology. These experts fear an e-waste crisis — one in which the toxic elements in our precious consumer electronics pose grave consequences once they’ve sat in landfills for many decades.

But its those same critics who label the latest iPhone as uninteresting and boring, pressuring technology companies to debut newer, sleeker media to appease our tech-hungry appetites.

A look forward: the impending e-waste crisis

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 12.41.51 PM

So the massive consumer electronics industry is intentionally creating products that will likely stop working after two years. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency found that Americans dispose of more than 2.4 million tons of electronic devices and only recycle 27 percent of those devices.

What’s more, the recycling rate for mobile phones is much lower — just 11 percent of cell phones that are disposed of each year are recycled. That same report found that Americans were throwing away 416,000 mobile phones per day.

That’s terrifying. If we stay on this path, we are absolutely headed to a place where the media technologies we love will sit stagnating in waste lagoons releasing their toxic fumes into an environment already weakened by our longstanding reliance on coal.

In response, media and technology companies have to begin to develop their recycling arms. Apple’s current recycling initiative to provide customers with free options for recycling their outdated technology is admirable, but it doesn’t go far enough.

It’s not enough to offer consumers the option of recycling. It should be the expectation from the minute consumers purchase an Apple product. The packaging, which is often superfluous and wasteful anyways, should come with a label consumers could use to send their old electronics to a Sims Recycling Center, the company Apple uses for its recycling services.

It would be a win for the environment, which means it would be a win for Apple.

Companies should also develop the sale of their refurbished technological devices. The market for used electronics largely exists on websites like Amazon and Craigslist. If it were brought into the mainstream, then consumers would be more likely to opt into this more sustainable system. This is something that wouldn’t cost these companies any money. For the most part, many carriers and technology companies will take customer’s old devices. Therefore, this would be an opportunity for companies to make more money off products they’ve already sold once.

In other cases, companies will have to begin to choose to stop chasing profits in the name of environmental sustainability. Just as many companies have moved away from using tantalum in their products because of the dangers of mining the element, companies have to stop developing  products that don’t represent any new innovation and only waste resources and cost consumers money.

I’m hopeful that media and technology companies will realize the error of their ways before 2025 so we don’t have to make plans for how to deal with harmful consequences of e-waste lagoons. However, these are the same companies that largely trumpeted the benefits of the fact that digital media doesn’t grow on trees.

But none seem to realize quite yet that digital media is still destroying our forests

Today I’m teaching Journalism 101

Today I volunteered to be part of SPLASH UNC, an educational program that gives local high school students a chance to take classes taught by UNC students one Saturday a semester.

I signed up to teach Journalism 101 and I had a lesson plan filled with an introduction to news values, tips for doing interviews and information about how to write the first four paragraphs of a story.

The students I’ve taught so far have been fabulous. Each of them have come with hopes and dreams for getting into journalism. One student wanted to be a writer for an outdoors publication, while one young woman wanted to be a sports announcer.

It feels a little silly, though, to be teaching anything journalism related when I have no idea what it’s going to look like in 10 years. I’m hopeful that the basics are the same — avoid anonymous sourcing like the plague and be transparent about your reporting efforts — but I know so many things will change. Is it worth students’ time to learn about press conferences? Why should they learn about news values as they relate to creating a front page?

Here’s my problem with Alert Carolina

It’s not really a problem with Alert Carolina, I suppose. It’s a problem with the way all police departments describe their suspects. And the way many media outlets mindlessly regurgitate that information without really considering its effects on readers.

So here’s how I first found out about last night’s stabbing:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.51.36 AM

This email is actually far better than most. Normally, the Chapel Hill Police Department only issues statements that give a suspect’s race, height and build. Nothing about what he/she is wearing. Nothing about where he/she might be — even though police typically have a pretty good idea about that stuff.

It’s detrimental because it creates unnecessary fear for readers. If all a newspaper prints is that a six feet tall white man was suspected to have committed a crime, then, suddenly, every six foot tall white man becomes a suspect. That information isn’t helpful.

But we at least got a description of his clothing. And we know he fled toward Rosemary Street. Here’s what I got next from police early this morning:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.51.55 AM

This next email gives us a name. That means if people recognize this name, they’ll know to call CrimeStoppers and give any information they have.

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.52.10 AM

And Alert Carolina, always several hours behind, regurgitates the same information from the Chapel Hill Police Department.

I hadn’t really thought about this problem — and how I might be a part of it as someone who reported on crime a lot during my junior year as the city desk editor — until I read Inside Higher Ed’s story about the University of Minnesota’s decision to no longer include racial identifiers in some of their crime alerts.

Here‘s the story and here’s the most insightful (albeit disappointing) nugget I took from it:

Minnesota officials said they had analyzed 51 crime alerts since 2012 that included descriptions of suspects. In about 30 percent of those cases, there was so little detail that, under the new policy, racial and other characteristics would not be shared in the future. In the other cases, however, the university study found that there was legitimate reason to include the identifying characteristics.

First of all, props to the students who took over a building to effect such massive change. That’s awesome activism. But here’s their response to the University’s decision to exclude racial identifiers from only some of its crime alerts:

“Why does the administration think removing racial descriptors from only a third of crime alerts is sufficient, when racialized crime alerts feed a system that literally kills black people daily in this country? This is to say nothing of how constant threats to the safety of black students impact their studies, mental health and ability to graduate — racialized crime alerts have consequences far more pervasive and consequential than mere ‘feelings’ in the lives of students of color. Racialized crime alerts put the psychological, academic and physical survival of students of color on the line. It must be asked: How committed is the administration to truly ensuring that Black lives matter on this campus? On what side of history does the university administration want to be?”

I guess this whole story just taught me to be more aware of what I’m printing and the psychological effects it could have on my readers. I don’t want to print any information that’s unhelpful. I don’t want to be part of the problem.

Instead, I’ll be part of the solution. As a journalist, I’ll try to never include racial identifiers in stories unless it’s completely necessary or relevant to the subject matter — which right now, in my morning sleepiness, I can’t really think of a time when I would have to do that.

More on front page editorials

I followed a rather interesting Twitter discussion earlier this week about The Indianapolis Star‘s front page editorial that looked at how newspaper’s should treat their epic front page stories on their website’s home page.

So, like we talked about in class on Thursday, The Indy Star did it big this week:

Then Dan Sinker, a guy I don’t follow but was retweeted several times this week, tweeted this thought-provoking nugget:

I later learned he’s the leader of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project, which, according to its website, is “a joint project of Mozilla and the Knight Foundation that supports the growing community of news developers, designers and data reporters helping journalism thrive on the open web.” So that’s very cool.

Anyways, somehow I came across this tweet:

And I think it speaks volumes for the kind of journalism I’m hoping to be a part of going forward.

The homepage is obviously not getting it. Websites largely traffic in social now. Very few people wake up and head to first thing in the morning. The Daily Tar Heel’s online editor already had a lot to say about this.

But the reason I love the print product so much is because of the impact it has. It’s powerful when a newspaper’s editorial board, which is usually filled with people who know the most about the issues facing a community of people, stands behind something and plasters it on the front page. That’s a power that I have yet to see done well digitally.

It’s something The Daily Tar Heel has used its front page, albeit sparingly, to really send a message to its constituents. We like to believe it forces students, faculty and administrators to sit up, take notice and start talking about the serious issues facing our campus.

My sophomore year, we told students that rape is a violent crime that deserves a principled solution from administrators. This year, we said student-athletes carry an unfair burden and shouldn’t be expected to attend classes and compete.

But just because homepages are dying and hardly anyone is willing to pay to get the printed front page doesn’t mean editors and publishers can be let off the hook for doing big things and taking strong stances on issues. It’s about more than just content, which is a beast in and of itself. It’s also about packaging that content with visuals that set it apart, get readers’ attention and influence policies.

Publishers and editors have to start investing in the kind of news development teams that will make these dreams a reality.