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Citizen Journalism 101: Creating content people want to read

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      Quality content is the difference between success and failure in an increasingly media-savvy world. This week, the New York Times announced its website would become a pay-only site, but the only way it can succeed is if:

1)     it provides content that can only be found on its website;

2)     it provides content that is of better quality that can be found elsewhere for free; and

3)     it provides value to its readers/listeners/viewers that is far greater than the price they will pay for access to the website.

      Obviously, the folks in charge at the Old Gray Lady have evaluated their product and determined it was worth the risk to put up The Iron Curtain — the pay wall. They’re not alone in this assessment, either. Many newspapers have gone forward with various forms of pay-for-play content.

      Regardless of the type of pay wall in place, however, the key factor for success is content.

      Major daily newspapers all across the United States are losing readership at an alarming rate, but that’s not necessarily the story for all newspapers. Some are actually growing their readership faster than the big dailies are losing.

      Why? In a word, content. Or better stated, local content with impact.

      You can’t develop good editorial content for your media outlet without knowing how to “commit journalism.” We briefly scratched the surface on this topic a few weeks ago, but now we’re going to go into far more detail.

Step One: Your Topic

      Every form of writing, whether you’re writing a single, basic sentence, or a lengthy book, boils down to identifying a topic and writing about it. In journalism, the topic needs to have a laser-sharp focus.

      So, you start with a rather general topic, such as population loss in the rural Midwest. As you refine the topic, you narrow it down to population loss in your area, and, ultimately, population loss in your county or community.

      As you continue to focus the topic even further, perhaps you decide to focus on what the impacts on population loss are to city and/or county government, local schools, and businesses. Or, perhaps you look at what your community is doing to counteract population loss.

      What you’ve done, perhaps without realizing it, is to focus your topic by using the journalist’s most important question: “What does it mean to me (the reader)?

      This is the question every journalist should be asking long before he or she writes every story. If you can’t answer this question with your article, you have failed to commit journalism in every regard.

Step Two: Report before you report

      Reporting isn’t merely conveying the story. Anyone can spread “news” by simply turning to the person next to him or her and repeating what he or she just heard or saw. Reporting is researching your topic from every possible angle.

      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a reporter tell me he or she got confused while writing about his or her story because he or she didn’t understand a key piece of subject matter. Especially now, in the Information Age, how could you possibly not understand something?

      And, if you don’t understand it, how can you possibly hope that your audience will understand?

      So, you must research the topic first to understand it better. And, it’s imperative that you do this step before you interview your sources. That way, if they provide information that is potentially incorrect, or contradicts your understanding of the subject matter, you can delve deeper.

      There are many different sources of information that can be useful for various reports, particularly on the Internet. We’ll delve into that topic next week.

Step Three: Interview your sources

      Getting a firm understanding of the basics of your general topic is important, but to truly report with impact, you need to have multiple quoted sources. The more local and informative these sources are, the better the overall article will be.

      So, be sure to seek out professionals in your local area who understand the topic you’re writing about. They will know what they’re talking about — or at least they should know what they’re talking about — and they should be reasonably familiar to your audience, as well.

      A good interview should never take more than 15-20 minutes. You’re not asking about the secrets of the universe — your source is knowledgeable — and your topic is focused to a laser-sharp focus. So, keep the questions simple and focused, and the interview will be quick and simple.

      Always record your interviews by writing notes, and with an electronic form of recording. There are several different ways to do that, and we’ll delve into that topic in a couple of weeks.

      And, as you conduct your interview, always remember to ask questions that start with the “Five W’s and H”: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. By asking questions this way you avoid asking questions that are “Yes or No” in nature, and you’re more likely to keep the interview itself focused on your topic.

Step Four: Crafting your masterpiece

      Some journalists can set their information and interviews aside and write them at a later date.

      But, for most, setting to writing immediately is the better course. Write from your memories of the interview first, and then refer to your notes, both from the interview and from the pre-interview reporting you have already conducted.

      Once your first draft is written, arrange it in a manner that is easier for the reader to understand. If you’re writing a feature story about a person or place, you might opt for prose — the kind of writing you find in a novel.

      But, for hard news stories, you will want to write your article in another format that is more focused and succinct. There are many different formats that can be useful in journalism — and we’ll delve into that topic in a few weeks’ time — but for most articles, the long-form “inverted pyramid” is preferred.

      In the inverted pyramid format, the most important information is conveyed first, followed by varying degrees of information of lesser importance. This method of reporting was first developed during the Civil War, and has been used by American media ever since.

      As the old saying goes, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

You have to follow the link to see this video: click here.

Step Five: Tidying up

      The final step of every writing process is the editing process. Even the most prolific and famous of fiction writers submit their writing for editing. The same is true for journalists, and it should also be true for those who are maintaining their own media outlets.

      Thankfully, today’s technology makes it easier than ever to write with proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar. But, it’s not foolproof. To avoid embarrassing errors, and to ensure you’ve written an article that leaves no unanswered questions, you need to have a second set of eyes checking over your work.

      If you’re working for an established news outlet, the editing process is already established. But, if you’re attempting to “do-it-yourself,” you should find someone you trust who is also somewhat knowledgeable about English grammar.

      Have a thick skin. Sometimes, the editor sees faults in our writing and/or reporting we don’t necessarily like to have exposed. Just remember that it’s better to have it pointed out by the editor before it’s published than by a few hundred members of your audience afterward.

Written by bfranklinjournalism

March 16, 2011 at 10:00 am

Citizen Journalism 101: Building Your Own Media Outlet

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   So, you’ve tried to engage your local media outlet about becoming more connected with its community, and your concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Or, your community doesn’t have a media outlet to call its own.

   What do you do?

   Well, if you have the time, you can establish your own media outlet to cover your community. And, depending upon several factors, including the amount of time you can devote to the project and what monetary resources you have at your disposal, you can put together a pretty extensive little media empire all on your own.

   The 21st Century has certainly opened the door for citizens to become more involved. And, the goal of this installment is to show you just how easily it can be accomplished.

Step One: Choose your medium/media

   There are several ways you can convey your message to the world: print, audio, video, or Internet. Which one you choose will dictate: 1) the type of platform you will need, 2) the type of equipment you need to purchase, and 3) the way in which you need to promote your outlet to get the community to embrace your efforts.

Step Two-A: If you choose print media…

   Although very large daily newspapers have taken a hit in recent years — largely because of their lack of engagement with their communities — the small, weekly, community newspaper has been relatively unscathed by the supposed “demise” of the newspaper. In fact, the only thing that seems to be getting in the way of newspapers at all is the government’s interference in small, main street businesses, which constitute the bulk of the advertising revenue for smaller papers.

   If you decide to launch a newspaper, there are several other factors to keep in mind: 1) do you have a solid advertising support network available? 2) who will print your product, and have you factored that cost into your business plan? 3) do you have the resources to pull together a team of citizen journalists to provide a wealth of news copy?

   If, after considering these questions, you still proceed with the print medium, there are a number of free resources available to aid in the production of the newspaper. We’ll cover that next week. But, you will still need to purchase a few pieces of equipment, including: 1) a laptop computer with plenty of memory and wifi capability, 2) a digital SLR camera with video capture capability and high-speed lenses, and 3) a digital audio recorder.

How To Make a Radio Station from Free Radio on Vimeo.

Step Two-B: If you choose radio…

   It’s still possible to start up your own radio station. Low-power FM radio stations were authorized by Congress almost a decade ago, much to the chagrin of major radio conglomerates that said authorizing the use of these stations by non-profit local groups would somehow damage the airwaves.

   The FCC was asked to investigate these claims, and found LPFM stations were actually good for the public. So, last December, Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act — and President Obama signed it into law about a month later — so, it appears commercial-free radio over the airwaves is here to stay.

   To be honest, radio is not my area of expertise, but you can go here for some good ideas on getting your own LPFM station going. The Prometheus Project is a little political in its ambitions, but that’s not to say it doesn’t provide good ideas for starting a local media outlet.

http://www.hulu.com/embed/3zL65Gw1SUpEvF1APMKEeg
Step Two-C: If you choose television…

   Developing your own local access television station is perhaps the most difficult medium to get started in, largely because television is the most regulated medium in the United States due to FCC licensing. Low-power television stations do remain an option, though.

   With a good business plan and a well thought-out niche audience, as well as a solid network of advertising supporters, it’s very much possible to get a station off the ground. Again, television is not an area of expertise for me, but again, this website will provide you with the information you need to get a good start.

Step Two-D: The Internet platform and convergence

   Personally, I believe the best option is the Internet, if you’re going to launch from Square One. It allows the best of all the other media — print, audio, and video — in one platform. Professional journalists call this “convergence.”

   Citizen journalists should call it common sense.

   Best of all, it takes very little financial investment to build a full-fledged media conglomerate. The software and platforms are available largely for free, and the only equipment you need are the laptop and digital SLR camera you would purchase if launching a print product (see above).

   The best way to start is with a blog, which allows you to report on local news, and to comment on the national and international news of the day. Over time, a blog can be augmented to include audio and video posting, live broadcasting, and distribution and circulation of e-edition print products.

   The best platform for blogging, by far, is WordPress. And, I don’t recommend it because it’s the platform I’m using for this material. Rather, I’m distributing this information on a WordPress site because I recommend it.

   Use of the publishing functions on WordPress is well documented, which makes it a great way for first-time bloggers to get started. It also is very easily augmented with other forms of media, like YouTube for video, Flikr for photo galleries, and UStream and CoverItLive for live blogging (print, audio, and video).

   Linking via RSS (Really Simple Syndication), you can quickly establish a mobile presence with Facebook and Twitter without creating a unique mobile platform. And, using Issuu, you can create “e-edition” versions of print publications for your audience to share with others, without transmitting electronically.

Step Three: Develop your content

   Referring back to our previous lessons on the topic of citizen journalism, it’s important to have content on your news outlet that will engage your community, your readership (or viewership, or listenership). The content you write needs to meet the community’s need to know: “What does it mean to me?”

   The first duty of any journalism outlet is to serve as the eyes and ears of its people, to stand in their stead at public meetings to ensure the people’s business is done in accordance with the law. We will delve into that area in future installments.

Step Four: Build your audience

   The goal, ultimately, of any media outlet is to reach the largest audience possible. For-profit media outlets use their audiences to attract advertisers, which pay the bulk of their expenses. Non-profit or hobby media outlets still want to reach the largest possible audience for the purpose of advancing their messages.

   In general terms, quality content will attract a strong audience. This is done by adhering to the core principles of journalism — or, better stated, the Cowboy Code we previously mentioned — to establish that the media outlet will not cut corners and is interested mainly in serving its community.

   Engaging in social media as a means to connect with your community works, as does getting out into the community and meeting people face-to-face. When you have built a personal rapport with your community, it will engage with your media outlet far more easily and effectively.

   It is important to be fully engaged as you look to expand your media outlet through convergence. This is something else we will tackle in the coming weeks.

Written by bfranklinjournalism

March 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

Citizen Journalism 101: Has your local media outlet engaged its citizenry?

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Just how open to citizen journalism is your local media outlet (i.e. newspaper, or radio or television station)? It’s not as easy a question as it sounds. There are several questions you have to ask yourself.

And, the answers to those questions not only answer our first question this week, but may lead to other, far more important, questions.

Question 1: Are you able to comment?

Sure, we can all write letters to the editor, but space on the opinion page oftentimes is at a premium. And, it’s not out of the ordinary for editors to cherry-pick letters based on their content or length.

When you see a story on the media outlet’s website, are you able to comment on its stories? Are you able to comment openly and aggressively? Better still, are you able to comment on ALL content on the website (e.g. community calendar entries, obituaries, classified ads)?

This blog not only allows, but welcomes, comments. And, on my newspaper’s website, we also allow comments.

Commenting on content allows the audience to add one more level of reporting into everything the media outlet provides online. For instance, a reader may find something a reporter left out of a story. Or, a reader may comment that a classified ad is, in fact, an attempt to defraud customers.

Yes, someone will always abuse their rights to speak freely. But with a minimum amount of policing, a news outlet can control the negative impact these individuals would otherwise have.

Question 2: Does it feature citizen sidebars?

The community itself can provide a number of invaluable resources to a story, if the news outlet has 1) the time, and 2) the patience to seek out its expertise. Much like citizen comments, directly asking the community to provide additional information adds another layer to the information gathering process.

Providing a sidebar in which the “experts” in the community expound upon a particular story allows for more relevant information to come through. It also opens the doorway for readers to feel free to comment on the article and the information contained therein.

Obviously, there isn’t enough space in a newspaper or broadcast for this type of reporting on every story, but when it’s used effectively, it can be of great benefit both to the media outlet and the community it serves.

Question 3: Are there any community bloggers/columnists?

Blogging started out as non-professional form of online journalism. But, over time, it went from being a fad of technogeekdom to something almost everyone was doing; even professional journalists.

Blogs can provide an entirely new forum for communication with one’s community, so it has become a useful tool for journalists. However, it can also be a useful tool for the journalist’s community to communicate back.

Some media outlets have gotten very serious about citizen journalism by hosting a community “blog house.” The best ones recruit “experts” in various professionals and areas of interest, and ask them to write on a regular basis.

This brings a lot of traffic to their websites, which can be profitable, but it further opens the doorway to full-on citizen journalism.

Question 4:  Where’s the transparency?

Media outlets demand transparency and accountability from those they routinely report upon. But, do they provide that same kind of transparency and accountability back to their readers and the community at-large?

Some organizations have developed reader ombudsmen, who become the go-to source for information, or to lay down a beef about how the outlet covered a particular story. Others have developed editor’s blogs to convey the same information to a wider audience.

In both cases, you will find the give-and-take between the media outlet and its community that is necessary for effective communication. It also leads to a more open and informative forum whereby ideas and discussions can be conveyed back and forth between members of the community itself.

Question 5: Do they employ the use of citizen journalists in their products?

Several television stations have begun offering ways for the community to become active contributors to the overall news product. Most are using the same platform, but a few are branching out to use their own.

In most cases, readers and viewers can upload their own videos and photos, adding more layers of coverage to a particular news story that media outlets with dwindling resources most often are incapable of providing on their own. This is called “crowd sourcing,” and it will become even more popular in the years to come.

But, beyond that, a media outlet that has completely bought into the notion of citizen journalism will actually employ members of the community to report upon news stories from time to time, as opposed to using only professional journalists. This type of reporting requires a little more work on the editor’s end, but can provide a layer of trust in the community as a whole.

Better still, it fully and completely opens the doorway to citizen involvement in the total news product. The community is more likely to read, comment, and appreciate a news product with citizen journalists involved.

Summary

So, if this is what your local media outlet is doing, first off, thank them. Then, get involved. Volunteer to provide content that is both relevant and useful to your community. Make the outlet’s investment in citizen journalism worthwhile.

But, if you’re not sure, or it doesn’t appear that the media outlet has embraced citizen journalism, become engaged. Ask why. Maybe the management mistakenly thought the community wouldn’t embrace it.

And, if they refuse to engage, find another media outlet that will. It might even require you to start your own. And, we’ll get to that next week.

Written by bfranklinjournalism

March 2, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Citizen Journalism 101: Meeting Your Community’s Needs

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Many journalists make the incorrect assumption that only the smallest newspapers engage in community journalism. I can only guess they make this assumption based on the notion that “community” refers only to a small town, suburb, or neighborhood.

In reality, there are many different forms of community. If a group of people share a particular interest, hobby, or profession, they are just as much a community as a small, rural Iowa town with a population of less than 10,000 people.

And, journalists should be meeting the needs of their community — their audience — every day.

What is a community?

The textbook definition of “community” is: a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage. It also can mean: a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.

The word is derived from the Latin word “communio,” which means “to share in common.” The Greek version of the word means “fellowship.” So, as you can see, although the word “community” could certainly refer to a small municipality, it can just as easily refer to a group without a distinct locality.

This is an important distinction to keep in mind as we move forward.

What is a community journalist?

A community journalist is, first and foremost, a member of said community. It’s difficult to report upon something if you don’t have a basis from which to report. I would humbly suggest this is why mainstream media outlets have such a hard time covering Middle America.

For the most part, they’ve never lived there. They’ve never experienced life there. And, given the chance, they would avoid doing so with every ounce of their being. With that kind of disconnect, it’s easy to see why they can’t possibly report upon it effectively.

So, if we’re talking about a community in its most common application — a small municipality — a good community journalist would be an active member of the community. He would be a part of local civic organizations, a member of a local church, and would attend local school activities, both curricular and extracurricular.

But, this also applies to the less-common definitions of the word community. For instance, if you were a member of the plumbing community, writing and reporting about said community, you would not only have to be a plumber, but you would have to be an active plumber, engaged in the profession, and a member of the profession’s guiding society.

This can also apply to politically motivated organizations, groups, and communities. For instance, I once was hired to be the editor of a conservative news magazine in Wisconsin. I was led to believe the owners were conservatives themselves, but in reality, they were merely looking for a profitable niche to explore.

The project ultimately failed, for a good number of reasons. But, the primary cause of its failure was because the publishers were not members of the community. They didn’t have a stake in its success and viability, therefore, they had no idea when they were treading in dangerous waters and should turn back.

Ten rules to live by

I have often been asked about my newsroom philosophy. That is, what are the guiding principles by which I lead any news organization? To answer the question simply, I refer to Gene Autry’s “Cowboy Code,” replacing the word “cowboy” with “journalist.”

Here’s a rundown of the 10 points of the code, with a little explanation after each:

1. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage, even of an enemy. Trained journalists know the rules by which they operate, but the general public does not. They have no idea there is no such thing as “no comment.” It’s easier to operate by the rules as your source/subject understands them than it is to operate strictly according to the unwritten rules of journalism.

2. A cowboy never betrays a trust. He never goes back on his word. This is key. If someone confides in you with the expectation you will not divulge the information without their permission, you must keep that trust, even under penalty of prosecution.

3. A cowboy always tells the truth. This is another vital point for community journalists. Even one small white lie, if discovered, will destroy your credibility with your readers. You must always be honest, both with yourself, and with your readership/community.

4. A cowboy is kind and gentle to small children, old folks, and animals. As the old saying goes, ‘You get more flies with honey than vinegar.’ If you have a reputation of being easy to work with, it is far easier to find sources/subjects to interview and write about.

5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious intolerances. Keep in mind, this only goes as far as No. 3 will allow. I place heavy emphasis on the first part. In the case of the second part, I believe the truth is well established, and I will not compromise in that area… but I also believe No. 4 requires you to address differences of opinion with love and compassion in your heart.

6. A cowboy is always helpful when someone is in trouble. Render aid, then get the story… it should never, ever, be the other way around.

7. A cowboy is always a good worker. Your work ethic speaks almost as loudly about yourself as No. 3 or No. 4 will. The best stories require a lot of hard work to dig beyond surface appearances. No story is what it seems to be on the surface.

8. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents and his nation’s laws. The first two are pretty much no-brainers, so I always focus on the third. Many “professional journalists” want to pattern themselves after Woodward and Bernstein, not realizing how many laws were broken in the effort to get “the dirt” on Richard Nixon. The story needed to get out, but always remember that two wrongs never make a right.

9. A cowboy is clean about his person in thought, word, and deed. This one works well in tandem with Nos. 3, 4, and 7. If you show up for an interview in torn-up blue jeans and a Metallica T-shirt, don’t expect your source/subject to take you seriously. The same is true if you’re cussing it up like a sailor, or you have half of your lunch smeared all over your clothes.

10. A cowboy is a Patriot. While this is the last entry on Gene Autry’s list, I often tell young journalists this is the most important rule. A patriot is one who loves his country and works diligently to ensure it maintains its greatness. He understands his role and responsibilities as a citizen, and actively works to ensure others do, as well.

Summary

So, in summary, I would like you to take from this class that communities aren’t just small towns and cities, and that every journalist should aspire to serve his community to the best of his ability. A good community journalist is engaged with his community, and highly involved and invested in its future success.

Community journalists need to operate on a simple set of principles that emphasize truthfulness, trustworthiness, service to others, and respect for those around him, especially those who might disagree with him. Moreover, a community journalist must be a good citizen and a patriot.

Written by bfranklinjournalism

February 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Citizen Journalism 101: What is Journalism?

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Some people have it their heads that there’s something unsavory about the world’s oldest profession. No… I’m not talking about that world’s oldest profession; I’m talking about journalism.

Think I’m lying? Just hold old do you think journalism is? Would you believe it’s older than the written word itself?

Ancient man passed the stories of its history down to future generations by word-of-mouth for centuries. Eventually, we graduated to cave drawings, then the first languages were developed.

Once the written word was developed, however, it was only a matter of time before we were making scrolls and parchments. And, with the advent of books, the art of conveying the stories of “what happened” truly took off.

Journalism, in a nutshell, is the art/craft/profession of telling stories about people, places, and events in order to provide a lasting record of fact for current and future generations. Those who perform journalistic functions are called journalists, and can be found in newspapers, books, magazines, radio and television stations, and websites.

What makes a good journalist

From its earliest days, there was little training required to become a journalist, aside from an ability to convey information factually, and a curiosity for the world around one’s self. These same traits are just as important today, even with the influx of new technology and media forms.

In more recent years, as journalism has become a far more refined profession, there has been an emphasis on highly specialized training, and the supposed need for a college education. That the push for college education in journalism has closely paralleled the downfall of print journalism in the United States probably isn’t mere irony.

Case in point: Benjamin Franklin was publisher of America’s first financially successful newspaper, and he was a staunch advocate for having a newspaper in every home. Through his Pennsylvania Gazette, he postulated much of his societal analysis, which led to his becoming one of the leading intellectuals in colonial America.

He did it without a single day of structured education.

Benjamin apprenticed under his brother, James, who was publisher of the New England Courant newspaper. After sitting in on a meeting of his brother’s Hell-Fire Club, Benjamin began writing satirical letters to the editor under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood” — doing so until he had a falling out with his brother.

Using the skills he picked up from the Courant, Franklin wielded his own paper as a tool for political and philosophical influence. Filled with advertisements, satire, wit, journals of his science experiments and propaganda, the Gazette was a publication that a large amount of the population enjoyed reading.

And that was the legacy of the American newspaper, and the American journalist, for more than 200 years.

Outlets for good journalism

There are many different means of practicing the craft of journalism. While print journalism — in books, magazines, and newspapers — is certainly still the most prolific format/media, it also is widely available over the radio and television airwaves.

Even more recently, it has become prevalent through the Internet.

Let’s be perfectly frank. While print journalism has taken quite a beating with the advent of online news resources, it is far from dead. Many small community newspapers continue to thrive while much larger daily newspapers continue to shed readership and revenue at alarming rates.

They’re both print newspapers. They’re both challenged by online news resources. So, why aren’t both of them struggling equally?

The answer to that question is, quite simply, that small, community newspapers have not lost touch with what makes them great: community. We’ll get into that more in Session 2. But for now, keep in mind what makes good journalism great is an emphasis on a caring relationship for one’s audience over profit motives.

How journalism is committed

There are a lot of books out there that promise to teach how to commit/perform good journalism. The process of journalism is nearly the same for almost every journalist, even those who aren’t working for a newspaper, radio station, television station, newspaper office.

Step One: Define the topic, and narrow it down to a fine focus.

Step Two: Pre-report on the topic by doing your own research.

Step Three: Interview your sources, using questions that begin with the following words:

Who?

What?

Where?

When?

Why?

How?

Step Four: Gather your information and begin crafting your first draft of the story. Present to the editor for final review.

Step five: Make final corrections to the article and submit it for final approval by the editor.

Summary

So, in summary, I would like you to take from this class that journalism is something you can do, even without a college degree. Benjamin Franklin, one of nation’s Founding Fathers, is a perfect example of this.

There are many outlets for journalism, including print—newspapers, magazines, and books—radio, Internet, and television. But, all of them can benefit from good, solid journalism that emphasizes community over profits.

Written by bfranklinjournalism

February 16, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized