Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Internship report 2/4

Week Two (May 17 to 21)  I had my act together more often, I would say. I borrowed a cell phone: a key reportorial instrument. I was promoted temporarily to a desk. I ate better, and at more body-appropriate intervals.
     Tuesday and Wednesday were my busiest days so far. As a result, and surprisingly at times, they were quite fun.
     On Tuesday, I woke up to see the story I was going to be working on that day on the cover of the GTA section of the Toronto Star.
     “Damn,” I thought. 
     One aspect of OpenFile that is constantly pointed out by the skeptics as a possible weakness of the model is the open pitching process. Story ideas aren’t secret. They are public, advertised as “open files” in a prominent banner on the front page. The openness is designed to collect public input on whether a story is worth assigning to a reporter. But even after they are assigned, the files stay in the top banner, continuing to tempt readers from other news outlets to take the story idea and develop it for their own pages. This was the pitch to OpenFile:
“Years ago, I wrote a blog post about the Joy Oil Station building restoration efforts. Fast-forward several years, and while appearing to be fully restored, they remain unused and inaccessible to the public. What is the official plan for these restored architectural relics at Lake Shore & Windermere? When will they open?”
   The last time the Star covered the Joy station story was in 2007, around the same time the blog post referred to in the pitch was published. Although the Toronto Star knew the story of the relocation and restoration of the Joy Oil building, I didn’t see why they would cover it now, a week after it appeared as a pitch on OpenFile, unless the open pitch prompted them to do a follow-up. When I saw that Star headline, I thought they’d scooped my news out from under me the day I was getting ready to publish it.
     Fortunately for me, they didn’t do much other than re-visit their old story (which far from answered the question posed in the pitch on OpenFile). The restored building façade featured prominently in the Star story art, but their source at the city didn’t know much about the future of the building. I had different sources, and they were able to tell me a little more. When I published later that day, what I was able to write had more information about how the Joy Oil building was included in development plans for the lakeshore area. My story is here
     But I don’t think the fact that I had better sources made mine a better story. I actually think that the open pitch process made the OpenFile version a better story. The background narrative was richer. Somebody (Jerrold Litwinenko, former blogTO editor) was publicly interested in this building. His curiosity germinated in other readers’ minds, while they, too, waited to see what the pitch would produce. Jerrold publicized his curiosity about this building on his personal Twitter feed and in other online and non-online areas of his life, I’m sure. His curiosity was mirrored. A week after his query, both the Toronto Star and OpenFile had answers to his question, and the questions of other people interested in his pitch. It all added up, and on OpenFile, it added up more completely. The Toronto Star article that day did not have a comments section. It did not have links to complete the narrative. It didn’t even have all the information a reporter could have gathered. But OpenFile linked to the Toronto Star, and to Jerrold’s old blog post, and to other relevant pages.
     So, it was a good day. The next day, my assignment was very different. I didn’t expect to break any news, that day. I covered the grand opening of the newest public washroom in Toronto. It was a media circus. Mayor David Miller cut the ribbon. In days leading up to the high-tech washroom inauguration, city PR people had been very tight-lipped about the details, and their strategy worked. The Mayor said later he hadn’t seen so many media people at one of his press conferences since he announced a budget surplus in March.
    Although the amount of press people there did not encourage me (why bother duplicating all this effort?), it was good experience in terms of observing some Toronto reporters in their natural environment. I tried to calculate how much money was being spent on these people’s salaries for the two hours I was standing there. It seemed like a waste of money. One camera crew, one print reporter, one photographer and one radio reporter could have done the job that needed doing: getting the information and putting it out there. I wish that with these types of spoon-fed stories, we could get away with that, and spend our society's journalistic resources on investigative work. But I digress. 
(though, to further this digression, I share a link my editor tweeted yesterday, containing an argument that small scale, collaborative news projects ARE the future of investigative journalism. So maybe it's all connected)
     My coverage of the loo story didn’t originate with a pitch. Because OpenFile is still in beta, the influx of pitches from regular users doesn’t yet sustain the story-producing capacity of the site. So, reporters and editors create story ideas too, like in a traditional newsroom. This story idea came from my editor, Kathy.
    The timing worked in our favour on this one. Kathy had the idea a week before the press conference, while the PR people were being tight lipped. But we were able to write something that drew on earlier stories from several similar interviews Toronto’s street furniture manager gave in early May to a variety of outlets. So, we had a story the day before the grand opening, hinting that the next day (May 19) would probably be the big day.
     And so, on Wednesday, when I went to the press conference, we already had a file started on the site. By the time I got back to the office after the event, all I had to do was plug in some new info, use the old story as a nut graph, add the photos I took, and the file was ready, and updated, way before many of the other print/online stories were.
    The TV stations had been broadcasting live, even before the first flush, but when TV viewers went to the internet to find more info, OpenFile was best prepared to capture those clicks. Kathy pushed this story on Twitter quite a bit, and it ended up getting three times as many page views as the Joy Oil story.
     So, even though I’m doing the same kind of reporting I would do if I were interning for a newspaper or a radio station, I’m learning different ways to use the internet to build and acknowledge the existing community around a single story.
     I’m also learning about Toronto, as a side-effect. Torontonians are starved for good public washrooms. Torontonians are proud of their neighbourhoods. Torontonian transit drivers won’t stop the streetcar unless you pull the yellow lead, even if you’ve made it abundantly clear you want to get off at this corner, through other cues. I have two more weeks to go. (edit: one and a half) 
     So far, so good. 

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