I’m currently posting on tumblr

June 12th, 2013

It’s been awhile since I have posted over here, huh?

At some point, this site will get re-designed. But in the name of being able to publish quicker and easier, I’ve been posting lots of stuff over on tumblr.

You can find those ramblings here:
curleyjayhawk.tumblr.com

I’m mostly posting about things that I’m lucky enough to be involved with at the Orange County Register.

Hope you’ll check it out!
rob

The gift: For news organizations, the holidays aren’t the only times we should give to our audience

January 4th, 2012

Back in December, I saw something on Google that made me remember one of my favorite all-time lessons in journalism. My mentor and good friend, Bill Snead, called it “the gift.”

And, yes, I saw at least the spirit of what Bill was talking about on Google.

I learned so much while working at the Lawrence Journal-World. And “the gift” was definitely one of the most-impactful things Bill taught me back in my J-W days.

Bill explained to me that newspaper readers — whether in print or online — knew exactly what to expect from us: breaking news, interesting photos, police news, government news, sports stories, a gallery of the new library and the great feature on the woman whose grandson now works at NASA.

He told me we had to meet those expectations. That was non-negotiable.

But more importantly, he explained that when we exceed those expectations, we begin to form a different sort of relationship with our audience.

That’s “the gift” — when you give your readers something they just aren’t expecting from you, something that moves them. Bill said the emotional reaction could range from laughter to sadness to anger to wonderment … but for “the gift” to work, it needed to affect them.

And be a surprise to them.

At the Las Vegas Sun, we’ve tried very hard to give our readers these sorts of gifts — things our audience wouldn’t normally expect from a newspaper.

The hard thing for some to understand is that “the gift” can manifest itself in many ways. At least for us at the Sun, there isn’t a checklist or a recipe. And the ideas for some of our best gifts often come from the editors and reporters who others might least expect those sorts of things from.

Sometimes, achieving this can be done in ways that at least appear fairly traditional, only with a twist of some sort. Think of that great water-cooler story or touching photo essay that no other media outlet has that goes way beyond what another news organization might even think of, let alone actually try.

But what if “the gift” isn’t a story at all? What it it’s tied to presentation? Or to delivery? Or what if it’s a special project that simply doesn’t feel like something another local news organization would dare do, yet your audience is completely in love with?

Here’s what I’m talking about:

* A huge history section. But this isn’t your father’s history book. It’s as colorful and interactive as Las Vegas’ history is.

LasVegasSun.com's history section header

Nearly everyone who helped build this wonderful section for the Sun’s site no longer works with us, but they all did such an amazing job that even though it’s almost four years old, I still look at it with a sense of awe. And so do our readers. We probably get an email or phone call thanking us for this section at least once a week.

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* Odds from a casino sports bookie on who might be UNLV’s next basketball coach, complete with custom odds sheet.

UNLV coaching odds

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* How to piece together a zoo in Las Vegas, when we don’t have a big accredited zoo in town.

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* Making the header of our site’s homepage get stampeded by shoppers on Black Friday. (If video doesn’t load, click here.)

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* Or answering the question if you really can give a gift certificate to a Nevada brothel. (Which is a whole other sort of gift altogether.)

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* Taking the amazing images from the Sun’s photographers and making them free, downloadable wallpapers.

photo wallpapers cropped

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* Re-building the Sun’s homepage whenever the UNLV basketball team plays so that Rebel fans know that the Sun is their home.

Sun Rebel Edition screenshot

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* Telling the story of two very famous local race-car drivers in comic-book form in the print edition of our newspaper and as an animated cartoon on our website.

Busch Brothers comic book LVSun front page

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* In the spirit of the holidays, building a section filled with practical guides, fun stories and wonderful photography to help get our readers in the spirit.

Sun's 2011 holiday section

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* Making it clear on Christmas morning that we understand this is a very different day.

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* Or giving our homepage a little pop on New Year’s Eve. (If video doesn’t load, click here.)

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“The gifts” don’t have to be big. They just have to be surprises. Even little ones.

Oftentimes, there is a playfulness with these sorts of things on the Sun’s website, but it’s more than just grins and giggles.

You do things like this when you actually feel a sort of affection toward your audience, and when it works well, it can even communicate that very point to your readers. They know you appreciate them. I don’t think there’s a real business purpose for doing things like this and I’m pretty sure there’s no “journalistic higher calling” in it.

The simple purpose behind gifts like these is to tell your readers that you adore them and appreciate it when they spend time with you. And because of all of that, we want to do something just to delight them.

For the editors at the Sun, it’s almost unsatisfying if we don’t deliver one of these gifts for certain projects. A project or a story doesn’t need to have 12 magic things. It just has to be one magic thing. Though 12 is nice.
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But what if “the gifts” are actually important to the mission of building a sustainable local news operation that fundamentally focuses on digital delivery?

In some ways, at least when it comes to a web audience, people almost expect to be surprised.

More than ever, when readers are only one click away from leaving your site, the promise of a possible gift to keep them around, to get them to go to the next story, might actually be a part of the recipe for not only surviving, but thriving.

In that respect, the idea of “the gift” may be even more important online than in print.

When this concept is a part of your DNA, it changes your approach to serving your audience. It also makes it so that when you’re developing a story or package, you know when it feels like something that’s typical and when it feels like cashmere.

I once explained this idea of “the gift” to a group of friends who worked at other news organizations. I told them that delighting our readers is delightful for us, probably for the exact reason why giving is so much more fun than receiving during the holidays.

And that takes me back to the beginning of this blog post.

That’s exactly how I felt about something Google recently did. Go to Google right now, search for “let it snow” and watch what happens. (At the time I posted this blog, this was still working on Google.)

This is what you will see (and the video is only 30 seconds long, so I hope you can watch it all):

I’d first read about this on Mashable. Before I had even seen it in action, I smiled. I expect Google to help me find things on the web. I don’t expect a defrost button.

Thank you, Google.

This little gift from you was delightful and was a reminder just how much fun it is to give an audience an unexpected treasure.

And thank you, Bill, for teaching me that there is more to being a local news organization than just delivering the latest news.

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I really do need to update how this site works. But until that time, if you would like to comment on this post, or possibly see other comments about this post, please go here. (Requires Facebook account.)

The Las Vegas Sun is now accepting internship applications

April 23rd, 2011

We are no longer accepting applications for these internships.

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We’re looking for a couple of talented interns to join our team in the Greenspun Media Group multimedia newsroom — home of the Pulitzer-winning Las Vegas Sun, extremely cool Las Vegas Weekly, a couple of very slick and high-profile tourist and luxury publications, and some of the most award-winning and critically acclaimed local news websites in the world.

The positions we’re filling will work primarily with the Las Vegas Sun. We’re looking for interns who want to get real-world, practical experience with highly converged coverage of local news, business and entertainment.

First and foremost, we’re looking for candidates who can write clean copy, and write it quickly. We’re also looking for candidates who love local news and think that covering a local parade or the opening of a new family-owned pancake joint is as important a news story to our readers as a ground-breaking series on healthcare. (Important in a different way, of course. But very important to our audience and to our company’s strategy in placing the Sun’s news at the center of our community.)

We also want candidates interested in learning the police beat in one of the craziest news towns in the country — giving you access to stories and high-profile situations your fellow collegiate journalists likely won’t see for years. If ever.

Writing and reporting are the main responsibilities for the candidate in this position, but you’d also be responsible for tasks like posting video on our website and working with our online listings and databases. Often, you’ll be asked to take photos to go along with your stories. You’ll likely also be asked to even shoot video on a smartphone.

We expect you to be comfortable with technology like Twitter and Facebook and to look at your mobile phone as an important reporting tool. Being on live TV to help report a story with our television partner, either from the cameras in our newsroom or from Skype on your computer or on your smartphone, is not out of the question. It’s even likely.

If you’re multimedia savvy, that’s great, and we encourage you to apply — but please don’t come here with expectations of shooting tons of video or putting together elaborate Flash projects. First and foremost, this is an internship for journalists who want to hone their writing and reporting skills in a fast-paced newsroom.

The start date is flexible, but we’d like you here sooner rather than later. And yes, if you’re still in school you can still apply, but this is probably a position better suited for a recent graduate. We’re asking candidates to commit to a minimum of six months and would prefer nine months. There is a possibility for the position to become full-time. And yes, this is a paying internship.

You absolutely need a car and must have a clean driving record.

In regard to actually committing journalism, solid grammar knowledge and writing skills are a must. The folks who work with us must be effective communicators on the phone and in person and be able to conduct interviews, research and write stories with minimal supervision. They must be receptive to editing and coaching and be able to take instruction when working in collaboration with full-time staff members.

Because much of what you will be writing will be breaking news, you must be able to handle pressure and stress with diplomacy, all while writing a lead that is concise, a story that is accurate and full of words that are all spelled correctly.

You also should know the correct pronunciation of Nevada. I will ask. And if you get it wrong, others will make fun of you.

Above all else, the students or recent graduates who become interns for the Sun will demonstrate maturity and critical-thinking skills, show exuberance toward the career of journalism, and embrace its values of accuracy and fairness. At the Las Vegas Sun, documenting the living history of our community and helping our audience to make the most-informed decisions possible are not viewed merely as the characteristics that embody the most honorable career choice a person can make, but almost as a calling.
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These are “fiber-cyber” internships, with focus on the analytical journalism featured in the Sun print edition, the breaking news featured on lasvegassun.com and the local-lifestyle journalism that makes up Las Vegas Weekly and lasvegasweekly.com.

To apply, send the following to internships(at)lasvegassun.com:

(As noted above, we are no longer accepting applications.)

* A copy of your resume.

* An informal email cover letter that tells us, for example, what classes you’ve taken that you feel might have prepared you for this internship, as well as what other experiences have you had that might have prepared you for this. Have you ever worked at another newspaper? Have you worked at your student radio station? Do you have a website or a blog? Etc.

* Links to published clips.

* Audio clip of you pronouncing Nevada. (Optional)

DEADLINE: MAY 7. NO APPLICATIONS WILL BE ACCEPTED AFTER THIS DATE.

Thoughts on Marimow: What being ‘not digital enough’ means (and shouldn’t mean) to traditional editors

October 10th, 2010

Each morning, often before I even crawl out of bed, I open Twitter on my iPhone and see what’s happened while I was asleep.

That’s how I learned Bill Marimow was out as The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editor.

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I try to tell as many journalists as I can to love the journalism, not the medium. Love the mission, not the medium. I say this at work so much that I must sound like a broken record.

I even say it at home and 4-year-old Zakki has no clue as to what the heck I am talking about. (Though the little dude does point out he wears an extra-small, not a medium.)



This basic premise behind why I constantly talk about the difference between dedication to medium and a dedication to journalism is what makes what happened in Philly with Marimow so interesting.

I get the difference between perception and reality. Hell, I live it.

The reality is that this man is a world-class journalist. That isn’t up for debate or question. The perception — whether real or not — is that he didn’t know what it means to be journalist when ink and paper and presses are taken out of the equation.

I only met Bill Marimow a few times. I don’t know what it was like to work with him or what his vision for informing folks in a multiplatform world was. I liked him and had (and still have) a tremendous amount of respect for him.

Maybe that’s why it all made me a little sad.

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MyTweet

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Respect and reality

In my mind, Bill Marimow has earned and deserves respect. Being an elder statesmen for the newspaper world doesn’t automatically make you irrelevant in this industry … though, it ain’t exactly going to calm down your newspaper’s new corporate owners.

One of the most forward-thinking and open-minded journalists I’ve ever met is Bill Snead, and Snead is no spring chicken.

In case you don’t know who Bill Snead is, he’s held important roles at newspapers across the country, UPI, National Geographic and The Washington Post. He means a ton to me on about a thousand levels. He’s also probably the most active 146-year-old you’ve ever met.

(Because Bill Snead knows I love him so much, he probably isn’t going to be too mad at me for adding 10-12 years to his actual age to help make a point in this blog post.) :)

Snead is fearless about trying new things, and the lessons he has taught me regarding the role of an editor years ago seem even more appropriate and relevant to me now than when he actually still was the editor of the Lawrence Journal-World.

Three or four years ago, I got to visit The Philadelphia Inquirer for an entire day. Getting to talk with Marimow while I was there felt a little like going to Dagobah to learn about the Force from Yoda.

I knew I was in the company of greatness and asked him tons of questions as fast as I could, just in case I quickly needed to jump in my X-wing fighter to unexpectedly help my friends. Or maybe make a train back to D.C. Or maybe take an important call from my wife. Or something like that.

On that day in Philadelphia, I sensed he honestly cared about the future of The Inquirer (regardless of how it was delivered), and that he didn’t think whatever he did in the print edition automatically was what should be on the newspaper’s website. He trusted the organization’s web editors to know what should be done to best serve the newspaper’s online audience.



I’ve said this a lot over the last three or four years, but some of the most close-minded journalists I’ve ever met are recent J-School graduates. 

Don’t let the youthful faces and iPhones fool you.

If you’re a newspaper editor, it’s been my experience that you’ll have better luck getting your newsroom’s 43-year-old political beat writer to blog or tweet about a candidate rally or have that veteran journalist post breaking news shortly after it happens than you will getting the same thing accomplished with the recent J-School grad with the pierced nose and the preprogrammed, misguided sense of elitism.

In my very limited time with Marimow, I never felt like he was close-minded. In some ways he actually seemed more perceptive than many of the 20-something newspaper journalists I meet in regard to what a news organization’s digital mission should be. It also felt like he had an honest grasp of what skills and vision he didn’t have when it came to web publishing.

Though I clearly don’t know the circumstances surrounding Marimow’s exit from The Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom’s glass office (other than it kind of makes me sad that he’s not going to be sitting behind that desk anymore), I also completely understand how things like pushing an old-school print editor out in the name of the digital future happens.

Sometimes, it’s absolutely appropriate. As an editor I respect very much told me this past weekend, oftentimes it doesn’t happen enough in the newspaper industry.



I get all of that. I really do.

I’ve read lots of blogs explaining how Marimow’s move from editor back to reporter signifies the beginning of a new (and, many argue, needed) trend in newspapers: the transition of newsrooms’ death-grip focus on print to the immediacy-based world of the web and mobile.

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The problems with some ‘traditional’ editors and newspaper websites

I have seen (and met) way too many newspaper editors who don’t understand — and in some cases, seemingly don’t even want to understand — what it is like to try to inform our audience in today’s multi-device world where few families begin their day at the kitchen table, eating breakfast together while Mom and Dad read the local newspaper.

It feels like too many newspaper editors don’t realize the narrative in most people’s lives now has changed so much that the morning paper exists in a much different place for most people than it did a generation ago (or even a decade ago). This is important to note because when these types of editors take over the newspaper’s digital operation (which many seem to lust to gain control of), the damage they do is overwhelming and possibly even insurmountable.

And under the leadership of these types of editors, it becomes painfully clear why so many local newspaper websites not only seem out of place within the Internet’s ecosystem, but also why their newspaper sites routinely get their asses handed to them by new local sites like espnchicago.com, not to mention national players such as the Huffington Post, Politico or the Daily Beast.

I have a few friends and acquaintances at The Inquirer. Those folks emphasized to me Marimow never was one of those print-raised editors who tried to wrestle away the newspaper’s online operation and then completely screw it. I’m told that if he did make any errors related to Philly.com, they were errors “of omission, not commission.”

Another journalist friend of mine who lives in Philadelphia — and who definitely pays attention to the Inquirer, but doesn’t work there — told me there hasn’t been much in the way of disagreement among those who typically can be disagreeable about almost everything in regard to Marimow’s role in helping to stabilize and rededicate that newspaper’s journalism.

Without going into a bunch of other details, it seems there were all sorts of things going on within the inner workings of The Inquirer that would make it hard for even the webbiest of print editors to help produce the newspaper (and local news website) of the future.

It’s this relative sorry state of most traditional newspaper sites that makes things like tbd.com, civilbeat.com and baycitizen.org (and even some of the Patch sites) so damn interesting to me right now.

TBD, Civil Beat and the Bay Citizen are flat-out, ass-kicking good — each for different reasons. And it seems to me that TBD could have added four more letters to its name and actually outlined what seems to be its unofficial mission: To Be Damn Relevant To Our Audience. Dot-com.

A friend of mine who is the editor of a very fine local news site has pointed out that if the folks behind TBD did want to do that, tbdrtoa.com is still available.



Though tbd.com is clearly catchier. And shorter.



The point is, I absolutely know how things like what happened to Bill Marimow can occur. Corporations that for some reason now own a local newspaper will talk to all sorts of pundits and analysts, then see very cool sites with a clear digital focus like tbd.com and then easily decide that they want “one of those.”

An extension of that kind of thinking can then lead to the idea that an old-school print editor can’t take them there.

I personally have no idea whether removing Marimow from the editor’s office was warranted or not. It very well may have been. The undeniable fact is it’s simply a much different media world than it was when he first joined the Inquirer newsroom practically before I was even born.

Thriving through all of that change, let alone just adapting to it — even when you’re Yoda — might not just be tough, but impossible.

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Understanding the past to better anticipate the future

When I was just a puppy working for Morris Communications more than a decade ago and our organization’s local news websites had just completed this remarkable, multi-year string of national and international awards and accolades, one of our company’s leaders equated it as the web-news-nerd version of that amazing string of Pulitzers won by the Philadelphia Inquirer in the late 1970s and 1980s, including the two won by Bill Marimow.



Then there were the multiple Pulitzers he had his hand in while he was the editor of The Baltimore Sun.



As you can tell, I am a bit of a Marimow fan.

I’m also a huge fan of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Back when I was still a cub reporter at The Topeka Capital-Journal, it was the Inquirer’s over-the-top amazing and creative-as-hell-for-that-era website for its Blackhawk Down series that convinced me to jump in to online journalism with both feet. I remember the first time I dug into that old site back in the ’90s. After obsessively going through every page and storytelling element, I felt like I had just seen full-color journalism for the first time after previously loving it with all of my heart in black-and-white.

(Wanna know just how influential the web elements of the Blackhawk Down sitelet were on me? First, look at all of the different things done in the left rail of this 1997 project page that helped Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden tell his story in such a unique manner and made much of the reporting behind it transparent to the audience. Then look at this 2010 multimedia-intensive, uber-deep investigation into our area’s hospitals from Las Vegas Sun health reporter extraordinaire Marshall Allen. Amazing how many of the core online elements are the same, huh?)

That’s what makes this interesting for me.

Marimow is someone whose journalism motivated me to work hard so that I would suck less in the profession I’ve wanted to be a part of since I was a snot-nosed third-grader. Then layer in that he was working at the very newspaper that inspired me to practice the journalism I love in a medium that doesn’t include ink on deadwood.

What if we’re focusing on one problem when many things are broken?

This has taken some time for me to digest. I even published a version of this blog entry for a few hours on Sunday, then “unpublished” it so I could think about it some more.

Now I understand why this has bothered me and why I can’t bring myself to do the “boy am I glad that an old school print editor got canned in the name of the digital future” dance.

It’s because I know how the daily news is produced at the Las Vegas Sun.

We’re far from having this figured out, but as our publisher Brian Greenspun has said many times, it feels like we’re closer to right than we are to wrong.

Similar to other local news operations, the Sun’s newsroom is broken into basically two groups. But unlike a whole lot of newspapers, those two groups aren’t “print” and “online.” Instead, they are “breaking” and “enterprise.” And there is a ton of overlap between those two groups.

(Yes, old habits die hard. Our newsroom just got out of a lunch meeting where our two groups of reporters were continually referred to as “print” and “online,” not “breaking” and “enterprise.” Still, the realization of what we really stand for is there, even we use the wrong words to describe it. Sorry, as I digest …)

The lead story in this morning’s Sun print edition was written by one of our “breaking news” reporters. Heck, three out of the last four days’ front pages of the ink-and-paper Sun had key stories written by the folks formerly known as the “online kids.” (Though I’m not going to lie, it still totally pisses me off when folks in our newsroom call them that.)

Each day we publish close to 45 local stories on LasVegasSun.com that never appear in our print edition, and many of those come from reporters on the “enterprise” team.

Some of the Sun’s editors understand analytical and investigative journalism, while another group of editors get immediacy, multimedia, mobile and databases. There’s cooperation. Everyone works together — which obviously is crucial — but each also understands what his/her medium brings to the table in regard to serving our audience in this multiplatform world.

With our unique JOA, I know the Sun doesn’t publish in the real world.

But maybe this should be the real world.

Just because our print edition doesn’t have big car ads or a shrinking classified section doesn’t mean that the editorial strategy guiding the Sun’s broadsheet pages couldn’t be exported to other daily newspapers.

This isn’t a “we are in a JOA” strategy. It might be a “what is the real role and strength of a morning print edition in a world where people already know things almost instantaneously” strategy.

The morning Las Vegas Sun newspaper that lands on your driveway doesn’t give you the stories you basically already knew before you went to bed last night. It tells you what those stories mean.

LasVegasSun.com focuses on local breaking news and other niches that are specific to our community’s interests. The Sun’s website probably is why you know all of those things before you went to sleep last night.

The first three letters in the word “newspaper” spell “new,” yet it doesn’t feel like many print editions focus on what is new. They still focus primarily on what happened yesterday. The Las Vegas Sun focuses on things we hope are new to our readers because we feel that in today’s information-overkill universe, you already know what happened yesterday.

We try to tell to our readers how yesterday’s news might affect them. Or we try to tell them something we’ve been working on for weeks, or months or even years that they simply didn’t know … and really should.

When we first implemented the strategy that the Sun’s print edition would act a little like a daily Newsweek for Sin City and that our website would tell the day’s local news in real-time, it went over about like a pregnant pole vaulter with some of the folks in our newsroom. Some felt our website should basically be the digital archive for our print edition.

Now most of the Sun’s journalists understand that what we did was a massively complementary strategy that uses each medium to its strength. Our newsroom’s mission became about producing the right journalism for the right medium and serving our readers throughout the day in all sorts of different circumstances and on all sorts of different devices.

And in that sort of daily newspaper world, Bill Marimow still would be the editor of the enterprise functions of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Then there would be this other editor who understands the role information plays in new media and focuses on all of the things that make the Internet so damn powerful and disruptive.

But, here’s the kicker (possibly even the key): Those editors are equals. They work together.

And when they don’t work together, well then it’s time for whoever isn’t playing nice to either retire or go find his/her success someplace else … likely at a newspaper that isn’t trying very hard to make it to the next decade and stay relevant in a world where CNN is 30 years old, the Internet is no longer “new” media and you can surf the web faster on your cell phone than you could on your computer back in college.

I’m not saying that in 2010 newspapers need two editors.

There are editors with print backgrounds who really get the Internet. John Temple comes to mind. And there are online editors who can run print operations. Jeff Light at the San Diego Union-Tribune comes to mind. Even the new editor for Las Vegas Weekly, Sarah Feldberg, is the former online editor for that publication and now she runs the whole dang shooting match.

However, at least right now, those people seem to be the exception, not the rule. As I said about 1,900 paragraphs ago, I don’t know what it’s like to work with Marimow and I don’t know how webby he really is.

I do know that for a strategy like ours at the Sun to work, you better have an online editor who gets not only the web, but also has the ability to adapt as media-consumption habits continue to evolve. Equally important, you need an editor who understands the new role the print edition of a daily newspaper needs to play when most of your audience already knows the news of the day long before you even put that sucker on the presses last night … let alone the next morning when folks actually get the newspaper.

And it seems like that’s exactly the type of journalism Marimow embodied.

(Not that I have to point out something so obvious, but just because you have gray hair and still own a pica pole doesn’t mean you automatically know how to run an enterprise-based news operation. There is Hertz. And then there is Not Exactly. Marimow was Hertz. I’ve met a whole lot of Not Exactlys.)

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Raising a toast and posting a tweet

I don’t drink alcohol, but later tonight I am going to pull out my finest two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and raise a toast to Marimow and the great journalism he not only represented, but committed. Even if maybe he didn’t know how to practice journalism online or on a mobile phone or via Twitter.

And that’s why that tweet from last week made me a little sad.

The strange coincidence — or is it irony? — is that The Philadelphia Inquirer first publicly announced Marimow’s move from editor back to reporter via Twitter.

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Maybe I’ll try to call Mr. Marimow later this week to ask him if I should have used “irony” or “coincidence” in that sentence above, because I’m guessing he’ll be able to tell me without even thinking.

Or maybe, if he has the time, we can just chat about journalism. Although he’s likely forgotten more about newspapering than I will ever know, my guess is that it’s the journalism he’s in love with, not the medium.

And if he ever needs my help with anything I might know how to do, I hope he’ll reach out to me.

Mr. Marimow probably doesn’t even know it, but the guy has taught me so much that I’d love to be able to pay back even just a little. 


So, here’s my tweet …

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Bottoming Out: A look back at our multimedia journalism package on gambling addiction

July 27th, 2010

UPDATE: I originally posted this blog entry months ago, yet it seems even more relevant today! It was announced this morning (Dec. 22, 2010) that the video portion of this project just won a prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, making the Las Vegas Sun the first newspaper to receive the award for multimedia storytelling.

I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of the Las Vegas Sun, its amazing journalists, and its commitment to powerful, creative and relevant online journalism! And a special congrats to Scott Den Herder, who was a powerful force in helping the Sun find and tell this story.

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For several months — and for several reasons — I quit speaking at conferences, universities, etc… Since I’ve gradually started to agree to speak again, I’ve noticed that one of the Sun’s projects from the last year that gets a ton of attention and even more questions is our big gambling project from November.

I only thought to mention this because I’ve never really posted anything about the project — and now is a good time to do so. On Monday, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors named “Bottoming Out” as the “best multimedia storytelling among newspapers” with circulation between 90,001 and 199,999 in the country in its annual contest.

Earlier this summer, “Bottoming Out” won the EPpy award for Best Web Special Feature - Enterprise. In March, the Sun’s gambling project placed second in the National Headliner Awards in the “Journalistic Innovation” category.

The series began with a pitch from then-Sun video journalist Scott Den Herder, who had found a local man who had been videotaping his life as a problem gambler. From there, we met with the Sun’s print editors and a few writers to go over the how and why of the story.

It ended up being a three-part series dealing with the prevalent, but somewhat hidden, social problems spawned by gambling — the very pillar of Las Vegas’ economy and tourist industry. And multimedia and audience interaction would be integral elements in our storytelling process.

The series revolved around one man’s personal tale of gambling addiction, made all the more interesting and rare in that he gave us access to a video diary of his journey to the depths of financial ruin and back. The series also explained the psychology of addiction and the technology that casinos use, which some say feeds the addiction.

Here were the major components of the project:

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MOVING PICTURES

The key Web component for this series was a video diary from Tony McDew, a local gambler who recognized he had a problem and thought he might be able to deal with it and help others by documenting his experiences. More than a year’s worth of struggling ends with Tony “bottoming out.”

It’s very dramatic and powerful to see this actually happen on video.

This video was a huge part of the project because we literally had hours upon hours of this man’s video diaries. Plus, Scott shot new interviews with Tony to help pull it together. But even once it had been edited, an initial cut was more than 30 minutes long. At that point, we had to decide just how long we could let the video go.

Ultimately, we decided the video would run just more than 15 minutes. But it was agonizing to get it that short. Interestingly enough, people watched it.


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THAT’S FLASHY, EVEN FOR VEGAS

We wanted to show folks why you are almost always going to lose once you sit down at a slot machine. It’s not about luck. It’s cold, hard math.

Regardless of whether you’ve put money into a Vegas slot machine, the project’s main interactive graphic from Tyson Anderson gave you a chance to see what it’s all about and how the math that powers these machines makes sure you go back to Boise with a lot less in your wallet.

It also became one of the most viewed pieces of Flash content our team has created since the Sun’s site was relaunched back in January 2008.

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NEW-MEDIA JOURNALISM IS A DIALOGUE, NOT A MONOLOGUE

Although I loved the storytelling techniques used in this project, this part of “Bottoming Out” was probably my favorite. We asked our readers to submit their own stories and comments about gambling addiction. And they did.

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YOU’VE GOT QUESTIONS…

We also hosted a live online chat with Problem Gambling Center Executive Director Krista Creelman, who answered questions about gambling addiction from Las Vegas Sun readers.

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GAMBLING ADDICTION RESOURCES

We also provided Gamblers Anonymous contact information, including a Google map of GA meeting spots and a 20-question self-test to decide if you might have a gambling problem.

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AND, OF COURSE, THERE WERE STORIES

The Las Vegas Sun’s newsroom wrote three longform stories that showed the dark side of gambling addiction when you live in Sin City and how recovery can occur.

* Part One: The pull of a drug, a push to the brink by J. Patrick Coolican
* Part Two: Illness theory gaining ground for gambling addiction by Liz Benston
* Part Three: Could the game be partly to blame for addiction? also by Liz Benston

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The first image I posted on this blog entry was for how the series looked in its Sunday newspaper debut. Here is how it looked in the print edition the other two days:

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What was interesting about this project to me was how it resonated with our audience. At one point, all three of the text stories from “Bottoming Out” were in our site’s top-10 most-read list, which was remarkable because they were spread out over a three-day period. As I mentioned above, the Flash slot machine is still one of the most-viewed pieces of Flash-based storytelling elements our team has created while at the Las Vegas Sun.

I’m often asked about what planning and coordination looked like for this project. Planning for “Bottoming Out” probably began three or four months before it was published and we knew after our very first meeting what the core elements would be: text stories, the video diary in some shape or form, a Flash slot machine, specially designed template/page for LasVegasSun.com (beautifully done by Danny DeBelius), and things like the chat, ability for readers to post stories and the Google map of Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

At first we met with nearly the full group: writers, editors (print and digital), photographers, videographers, designers (print and digital), everyone … But as we got further into the project, we met more with smaller groups based upon what we were focused on. I’d say for about a six-week period leading up to the project’s release, we’d meet for about an hour once a week or so.

Despite the large lead-up time, we were working on nearly all of the major elements — stories, the Flash graphic, the video and even the site’s design — right up until a few days before it was going to debut.

It was very coordinated, but still kind of casual. More importantly, it worked. This wasn’t just high-level journalism that other journalists appreciated, it was high-level journalism that our readers appreciated. And interacted with.

It represents exactly the type of enterprise and new-media journalism to which the Las Vegas Sun is committed.

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