Welcome to the newsprof web site

Newsprof.org is the web site of Dr. Richard Hendrickson, a journalism instructor based in Los Angeles. This is a limited site with a few articles and a bio of the instructor.

Students enrolled in Dr. Hendrickson’s classes at John Carroll University in Cleveland, UCLA Extension in Los Angeles and California State University at Northridge will find most of the class material in their respective campus electronic environments of Blackboard or Moodle.

Notes on journalism

1. The audience rules: Celebrities make the news because the bosses at the newspapers, magazines and TV stations think that’s what the audience wants to see. I once worked for an editor who said news must be “interesting and significant,” but if he had to make a choice he would put the interesting stories on page one first.

2. Others’ solutions: Journalists should offer solutions with the news, but remember it is not their own ideas they are expressing, but the ideas suggested by others — experts and other people involved in a problem.

3. Not free to defame: Yes, we have freedom of the press, but there are exceptions: you cannot publish deliberate lies that damage someone’s reputation (see the material on defamation in Week 8); harmful material that will reach an audience of children (porn, for example), or material that invades privacy (revealing private facts about someone in a way that exposes them to ridicule). Celebrities often lose those lawsuits because they are presumed to have the ability to get the public’s attention and set the record straight, though sometimes filing a lawsuit is on way of accomplishing that objective.

4. Fair and balanced: I’ve noticed that over the last 10 or 15 years American broadcast media have been exhibiting a growing trend of bias. This takes us back to the colonial press, when publishers were often printers associated with one party or the other. It’s been like that for European newspapers for a long time. People in other nations (who are usually more constantly aware of political affairs and not simply irritated by the rhetoric every fourth year) know one media outlet is liberal and another conservative and make their reading choices on that basis. Now we can do the same with American broadcast TV, choosing the “fair and balanced” Fox news commentators if we are conservative, or something that seems to be on the other side (NPR, NBC or CNN?) if not. And we may not agree, but Al Jazeera seems to have a goal of objective reporting, though the audience it serves is obviously one interested in Middle Eastern perspective.

5. Now we know: In the “old days” of journalism, which I admit to remembering, we would work hard to gather and write news and then wonder whether anybody read it. Sure, there were occasional letters to the editor and once in awhile I’d get a call from a source, but usually it was just a matter of moving on to the next story and the next, never knowing if anybody cared. Today’s interactive media has turned that all around, and that’s a good thing.

6. Objective, to a point: I think a journalist can be trained to have the discipline to be objective. I had such training, which required me to keep my opinions to myself and report only the facts and what others said about them, then get out of the way and let the reader decide what is true. Of course a reporter or editor have to make judgments (or educated guesses) about what to include that might interest or affect the readers, so one could say that takes away some of the objectivity. I might not care whether Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum would win the primary, but I might think the readers would be a lot more interested in Newt’s behavior, because so many of them can relate to it, so if I had to do a campaign report I’d put that first. I have identified two articles you might find interesting for optional reading on this. In one, “The Creed of Objectivity Killed the News,” published Feb. 1, 2010, on Truthdig.com, former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges argues that objectivity obscures the truth. In the other, “My View: Is Objective Journalism Dead, and Does it Matter?” published July 11, 2010, on “lippmanwouldroll.com, blogger Matt Schafer says journalism still needs objective reporting.

7. New models of journalism: I think NPR is the best content model for journalism in the U.S. today. The reporters strive to offer balanced accounts of all sides of a question and the editors select a variety of subjects for stories and people for interviews. For example, KPCC in Pasadena, CA, offers a mix of depth reporting and public affairs interview programs. Another model, of the structure of a news organization, came to the fore this year when the Los Angeles News Group, a chain of nine dailies in Southern California, announced a restructuring to name group-level managing editors for enterprise/investigation, opinion, sports, digital news, digital operations and a “content center.” Another managing editor may be named later to oversee feature reporting, City editors in each of the nine newspapers will retain oversight of community journalism.

8. Third grade readers: You will hear some people say that journalists write for “third grade readers,” or something like that (maybe it’s sixth grade). That’s not true, but what is true is that journalists try to write in clear, concise language, using simple sentences. That isn’t because they think the readers are dumb but because they realize that the audience is very busy and easily distracted. For example, if you find yourself reading a sentence more than once because you didn’t understand it the first time, that’s a sign of bad writing. If it happens often enough in something you are reading, you will lose interest in that article and move on to another.

7. Put on a green eyeshade: I strongly recommend that when you finish an article or assignment for this class you should take off your “writer’s cap” and put on an “editor’s eyeshade.” (Yes, in the old days at least, even before my time, editors wore green eyeshades.) What I mean is you must take a fresh look at your story and you will see little mistakes that might have been overlooked.

8. Why weeklies thrive: When I think of weeklies I think of small-town papers like the Baldwinsville Messenger in the little Upstate New York village where I grew up. They are still successful because they have a local niche market. The advertising and the news are aimed precisely at a geographically specific audience. Metro and suburban papers don’t cover small town news (though some have found a way by using citizen journalists on their web sites) and small town merchants can’t afford to advertise in newspapers that target audiences out of their reach. A student observed that the success of weeklies is because they practice storytelling. I think I agree, though I think some dailies do that, too. Storytelling is good, whether in a daily or a weekly, or a magazine, as long as the stories are clear and concise, and have “flow.” (To see what I mean, read the first 50 pages or so of the little book I recommend for this class, William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.”

9. Print has its surprises: The stack of newspapers on the table beside me shows I get both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times delivered daily. When the unread editions are piled up like that the night before recycling day I am tempted to take them all out to the blue bin. I resist, however, because I know that when I go through the print editions I will be surprised by little stories that interest me but would not show up in a daily Google feed unless I had a hundred different topics defined. I’ll get to them, maybe later in the day, after I’ve caught up on the grading for my classes. Every morning my wife ignores the newspapers and looks at the L.A. Times on the web. Sadly, I think she represents the future audience for news and I worry that she is missing things she should want to read. Some experts announced the death of newspapers when the evening news came into its own decades ago. The latest Pew Research Center report said local TV news is shrinking just like local newspapers. Is there room for all three platforms today?

Why should you care about open records?

Why should every citizen want open records? Here are three reasons:

1.  It is a means of meeting personal needs. Citizens need information to protect themselves and their families and property. Examples of records that can help them do that include listings of sex offenders, reports on crimes and court action, assessments of teacher qualifications and performance, records of the enforcement of building and zoning laws, and reports on the monitoring of air and water quality and industrial waste discharges.

2.  It helps with the proper functioning of Democracy. Citizens must have information to make good choices, influence policy and keep up with the progress and problems of their communities. People cannot support what they do not see, and this should be especially significant for school officials, whose stewardship is repeatedly put to the test in balloting on tax levies.

3.  It prompts better behavior by public officials. The knowledge that citizens can see what they put in records, as well as what they do at meetings, tends to improve the quality of the work of public officials.