an open letter

I wrote this mainly to the people who maintain jschoolbuzz.com, and I still mean it that way, but I think it could be interpreted openly across the industry as well.

You want real talk?

I did not offer you any constructive criticism in my initial response to your website because the things I think you and your colleagues need to work on are so vast, so encompassing, so worthwhile that I could not — would not — cramp them into a tweet.

Do you understand that your website is an embarrassment to each student and alumnus of this institution? Do you? Not because of whatever “exposés” you are claiming result from your “investigations,” but because it stands as the perfect example of the stinking cancer eating our industry from within.

Yeah, journalism is in trouble. We know. No one has to tell us because we can feel it, feet on the ground, shouting into apathy’s deafening roar. But the way to combat that is not by creating navel-gazing, self-fellating websites and documentaries that ask the Big Questions about where journalism is going and look back on the way things were. Journalism is not about making a bar graph to better illustrate your piece whining about low J-school job placement rates. (What is job placement, by the way? Take the hour it took you to make that graph and teach yourself how to use Final Cut. You’ll get a job.)

It is the earnest, honest, important work. It is advocating for those who need it and keeping bodies of power in check just as much as it is sharing the feeling of a sticky July day spent at the Boone County Fair. Imagine someone in Afghanistan watching that shit on the Missourian’s YouTube channel.

If you believe in what you do, it will show. And that is what will keep us afloat. On a more selfish note, if you need it, that will also get you a job. Feel free to leave your entitled attitude about your diploma at the door.

My peers are people who understand that necessity and give everything they have to this. We stay awake at night to teach one another about toning video and spend weeks with subjects, chasing ghosts across the days with our lenses. On Feb. 24, you publicly examined your WEBSITE TRAFFIC. Come on.

A cursory examination of your website reveals no passion to me. The fact that you and your peers have chosen this as a real thing to spend your time on, and that someone actually approved this as a capstone with the expectation that you will learn something valuable, is incredible to me. What I see is a group of adult babies who have yet to sit down and think very seriously about the type of people they would like to grow up to be or the contributions they would like to make to this world.

So, here is my constructive suggestion: Do that. All of that. And then get back to me.

I met Philip Gourevitch at a reading in New York once. He signed my copy of his book about Rwanda with a thick black marker as I sheepishly told him I wanted to be a journalist just like him. He looked at me and wryly asked, “And what kind of journalist is that?” I thought about it for a minute. “The kind who does the right thing.” I’m trying.


assistant director of photography, columbia missourian
polina.yamshchikov@gmail.com

//

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29 thoughts on “an open letter

  1. Hey Polina,

    Thanks for showing this to me. This is a pretty vague diatribe, and I was wondering if you could offer specifics about what we are doing wrong and offer some tangible changes to fix your perceived problems. You make plenty of assertions in this blog post with little evidence or rationale to back them up. I really appreciate you taking the time to write your thoughts about our website, but I would like some more specificity.

    Here are the assertions I’m looking for more about:

    “Do you understand that your website is an embarrassment to each student and alumnus of this institution?”

    “What I see is a group of adult babies…”

    JSB is the “the perfect example of the stinking cancer eating our industry from within.”

    I have had my own issues with being too negative without the specifics to back up my attitude, and that’s what I see here in this blog post. I get that you don’t like JSB, but I just want to know a little more about why.

    Thanks,
    Teeg

  2. You can’t find specifics? Are you joking? I LINKED to one post and mentioned another specifically by content. As for specific issues, I mentioned an entitled attitude, navel-gazing, self-aggrandizing, and a lack of passion as things that bother me across the spectrum of all of your work. This isn’t a PowerPoint. Are you looking for bullet points here?

  3. Hey Polina,

    Great post, I could not agree with you more. It’s unfortunate that while those who maintain the site ask for suggestions on how to make it better, they either 1) argue with your criticisms and 2) ultimately ignore the calls for improvement. This garbage ends up reflecting poorly on all of us.

    Again, great post.

    -Alex Keckeisen

  4. David, you seem to respond to almost all criticism these days with a request for more specificity. Sometimes that’s warranted, but most of the time it just seems like a deflection device. It’s pretty easy to figure out the gist of what Polina is trying to say. And I have to agree with some of it.

    Journalists would do themselves a huge favor if they stopped wondering how journalism is going to save itself and stopped talking about & reporting on their craft so obsessively. The only people who care about any of that are journalists, and those aren’t the people we’re supposed to serve. If reporters put their heads down and found the good stories, things would be fine in the end. JSB is just the latest incarnation of a weird, self-obsessive trend in journalism.

  5. Polina and Sarah,

    Asking for specific examples of what to improve is not a deflection, because I know there are flaws with JSB. This is a new student publication, and has made plenty of mistakes in the learning process. I always ask for more specifics of their critiques and for people to back up their assertions because that’s what journalists do, and it’s easy to say “JSB suuuuuuucks” without much substance behind it. What I read here is a lot of bluster at JSB, but no explanation or qualification of your anger.

    Why is it a bad idea to post our traffic on our one month anniversary? Why are we “adult babies”? Why is JSB a cancer on our industry? I get that you’re mad about JSB, but as far as I can tell, you’re mad at our very existence, which I can’t really fix.

    You can mock bullet points, but yeah, I’d like specific examples of the problems you have and explanations for why they are problems that need to be fixed.

    Teeg

  6. Sarah,

    I wanted to address your second paragraph in another comment, because I’m definitely worried about JSB making journalism students look like they are more self-absorbed than other Mizzou students. The thing is, everyone on this campus is self-absorbed, and that’s not a bad thing. Business students care a lot more about what’s happening in the Business School than what’s going on in Education, and vice versa. Journalism students are no different, as we are just as self-absorbed as anyone else. The difference though is that our trained skill is to report and produce content for an audience, which in JSB’s case is journalism students.

    I get that JSB can be perceived as navel-gazing, and I agree with that assessment. But online journalism is all about feeding that self-absorbed beast: you find a niche and report on it obsessively. Old media was all about covering a broad swath of topics, but online media is very much about niche audiences. Student journalism (in particular at Mizzou) is a woefully underserved audience. That’s astounding, when you consider the proliferation of websites like Romenesko, Mediaite and Mediagazer that cater to media professionals. We could have chosen a different niche to start a website about, but we found one that we had a great deal of knowledge of, and saw was not being adequately reported: journalism students.

    If you know anyone that wants to start a B-School Buzz for the business school, let me know 🙂

    Teeg

  7. As a young alumni living far away from old and fair Missouri, I’ve enjoyed the launch of J-School Buzz, if for no other reason than to provide a prospective from inside the Missouri School of Journalism. In my opinion, it’s a site for J-School students (and alumni) by J-School students, not a tribute to the pillars of journalism. For the record, I don’t know any of its contributors, nor do I think I met a single one in my time on campus. Their work is far from perfect, but what do you expect from college students? Hell, drinking to KOMU nightly news flubs could prove deadlier than the FourLoko craze. All in all, it’s entertaining and I admire the effort.

    I don’t know how things are on the photo end of things, but in my line of work, website traffic is something that should’ve been talked about more in J-School classrooms; it’s good to see students who are at least aware of the value. It might stray from straight-and-narrow journalistic principles, but like it or not, web traffic and search engines keep the industry afloat. On that note, take Interactive Advertising (I & II, if possible) and you’ll get a job.

    The passion in your open letter is undeniable, commendable and arguably underrepresented in journalism today. But at some point, pragmatism has its place. Remember, these are college kids. They’re making mistakes and learning lessons, like How to Deal with Overly Harsh Criticism 101.

    Just my thoughts,
    Mike

  8. The post about your traffic is what ultimately turned me off of JSB for good.

    I don’t care how many hits a story got. Charlie Sheen got 1 million+ followers in under 24 hours. Idiots get attention too. Attention/hits mean_nothing_to me as a reader.

    Hits are a great way of stroking an ego, but shouldn’t be used a way to measure the impact or success of a publication.

    As Sarah said, “The only people who care about any of that are journalists, and those aren’t the people we’re supposed to serve.”

    I think for JSB to succeed more worry needs to be put on finding good stories that will actually make a difference rather than just putting content out to meet today’s pageview quota. If you go a week without a single pageview but put out a solid piece of journalism at the end of it, which do you think I’ll notice as a reader?

    The most investigative thing I’ve seen done by JSB, not counting posts that used studies where the info was already compiled, is figuring out why the Beatles were playing in RJI. I think the j-school probably has bigger problems than that to tackle.

    “Off site, we are distracting more people from productivity than ever before, thanks to our social media outlets.”

    That tells me you have basically served students as a distraction from productivity, which I don’t argue with. Sarcasm intended or not.

  9. Maybe I’m late to the party on reading comprehension, but this sounds like a pretty hefty red herring to me:
    “…everyone on this campus is self-absorbed, and that’s not a bad thing. Business students care a lot more about what’s happening in the Business School than what’s going on in Education, and vice versa.”

    Examples? I assume, to make that assertion, you’ve interviewed *everyone* on campus and have some evidence to back it up. Just like you requested of Polina and Sarah. Appeal to common practice is a pretty childish argumentative fallacy, especially since you’re generalizing an entire group of people as a deflection off of your own shortcomings that you only later admit to having as an attempt to qualify your lack of examples in your prior assertion. Asking for specific examples is not a deflection, but saying “well, since other people do it, it’s not a bad thing” is a deflection and it’s a bad method of deflection at that.

    Watchdogs are nice checks on power. But your proficiency in being a watchdog is riddled with inconsistencies and, again, more fallacies. I just read the reasoning for your using a reporter -directly involved- in the Futures Lab incident and it’s a circlejerk of inconsistent ethics. That your writer doesn’t seem to care about, since he states:

    Your writer admits a bias, but then goes on to use fallacies to justify that bias:

    “Not only was I a victim of physical assault, but I was also the only person in a position to immediately report on the incident for J-School Buzz.”

    Find another reporter to do research and who was not directly involved in the situation? It may take an extra hour to track down someone who wasn’t directly involved in the assault, but you’re a -journalist-. Have some ethics and boundary between yourselves and the situation your writers are are in.

    “If we couldn’t cover a physical assault in the Futures Lab on a professor, why bother publishing anything at all?”

    That’s a slope so slippery I busted my butt twice reading it. You can cover an assault, but you don’t have to *editorialize* the assault. Were all your writers in the Future’s Lab when this occurred? I sincerely doubt it. Don’t use a writer involved in the assault to write about it. Boom. No reason to have to write a “here’s our reasons” bit that just digs your grave deeper. Your website’s use of a person who will editorialize a story whether they mean to or not is part of the reason people can’t take you seriously as journalists.

    You claim to be reporting independently on the happenings at the J-School, but that’s a perfect example of how you fall short of that claim. If they can’t provide examples, I just helped you out with one. You editorialize events, and then back step and make fallacies about why it’s okay that you’re biased in your views on matters in the J-School. You and your writers use deflection to assert and prove claims, and then either hope no one calls you out on it, or you follow up with a fallacy-riddled reasoning for your bias.

  10. As a student in Missouri’s J School, the most disturbing (and downright annoying) quality I see in many of my colleagues is a desire to put their self before the content of their stories. Within the Broadcast sequence, especially, I tend to see a lot of reporting that comes off as pure ego-stroking, and J School Buzz has consistently emulated this same approach. It’s quite obvious that Buzz’s first priorities are pageviews and Twitter followers, not quality journalism or meaningful content.

    Also, I laugh at the idea of J School Buzz serving as a “watchdog” for the J School. Can you really say you’re serving as a watchdog for an institution that will hand you a grade for this “watchdog” service at the end of the semester?

    All in all, there are a lot of hard-working young journalists at Missouri’s J School who put in countless hours and work selflessly to do their jobs to tell great stories that make a difference. Sadly, the people behind Buzz have chosen to take a different approach.

  11. Hey Mike Z,

    Let me respond to this part:

    “If you go a week without a single pageview but put out a solid piece of journalism at the end of it, which do you think I’ll notice as a reader?”

    There is a balance to strike between those good “journalistic” blog posts and the ones we publish primarily for the page views. Most of the content we publish has some of both. There’s no point in publishing any content if people won’t notice. It’s that old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound?” Journalism without audience is worthless. We can do all self-congratulation we want on producing a solid piece of “Capital J Journalism,” but if only 8 people read it then it does no good.

    As an online publication, we don’t have the luxury to indulge in cognitive dissonance about what sort of content will get traffic. We have to pay attention to the fact that the Brad Pitt and Chris Spurlock posts got huge traffic. That doesn’t mean we are a slave to those numbers, that they are the only thing we consider, but we choose to publish lots of content that people want to discuss and read and sometimes criticize.

    We’ve done some solid journalism and will continue to do so, but we’re going to have fun while we are at it. I think too many J-Schoolers forget how much fun reporting can be when you’re doing it with voice and in your own writing style.

    Teeg

  12. Caitlin,

    It’s a matter of basic psychology to understand that everyone alive is self-absorbed to varying degrees. People care more about the news and people that directly affect their lives, rather than stuff that is outside their immediate circumstances. That’s just the way people work, and we have to accept that.

    I think you might be confusing “independently” with “objectively.” We are not and will never be objective journalists. That’s not the purpose of J-School Buzz. We are a place to start different conversations and publish reported commentary, since we know we are one loud voice among many in the J-School. Our content is not reviewed by any faculty members before we publish content, that’s why we are an independent publication.

    As for bias, I understand I was the worst person to write the story if I wanted to convey the story “objectively.” But I didn’t care about objectivity, I only concerned myself with accuracy and speed. I left the “objective” reporting to the Missourian and Tribune, which we’ve linked to on our website.

    Teeg

  13. Zach,

    You’re right, JSB absolutely makes itself part of the story too often. It’s one of those issues we are working to fix, so I’m glad you reiterated it here.

    As a new publication, we have to do more promotion than we’re comfortable with. Like many of the journalists and journalism students I’ve spoken to in my reporting for JSB, I’m not used to being asked the questions or doing the promotion. That should be someone else’s job, but when you’re working for a start-up, you realize you have to wear a lot of hats that you’d rather not wear. We might not like building the JSB hype, but to a limited extent it’s a necessary evil.

    The convergence professors who are in charge of our capstone have been enormously supportive of our work and know the educational value JSB serves. We have published several blog posts that were pretty critical of the journalism school without a peep from our professors. While some professors and administrators may not be a fan of our content, we could not be more grateful for the help and understanding of the convergence faculty.

    Teeg

    Teeg

  14. Polina,

    I just wanted to say in general that I really appreciate you fostering this discussion for all of us. I think it’s great that we can talk about this stuff out in the open.

    Seriously, thanks.

    Teeg

  15. David,

    Your audience was already there. It’s not like you were trying to put out another daily in Columbia. These are JOURNALISM students & alumni as your audience, the biggest consumers of news among any demographic. They were going to read it regardless of if Brad Pitt did or did not come to campus.

    That’s even more reason to strive for *only* quality reporting as you’ll be under harsher scrutiny (obviously), not these nonsense posts solely put out for pageviews that take away your credibility.

    I could maybe buy the argument to try and generate traffic, but in this case your audience was there and waiting, as you’ve said with it being an underserved audience. I have no problem with posting about Spurlock’s resume. I think that was an appropriate and well done post.

    I may be a bit old fashioned, but I have fun while reporting in general. It doesn’t need to include myself somehow in the article or be about the Beatles. That’s why I’m studying journalism. The passion for finding and telling the story, regardless of who or what it is. If that isn’t the same for you or other contributors, why are you a reporter?

    And thus ends my time and energy put into “constructive criticism.”

  16. Mike Z,

    Yes, the audience was there, but that doesn’t mean they will read anything we put in front of them. They may be news hounds, but they have discriminating tastes in news content on JSB. There’s a reason some posts get a lot more views than others, and that’s because some content is a lot more interesting to our audience than other posts.

    It’s been fun and exhausting to create journalism for people who would know and care the most about our content’s quality. That’s an extra factor in our desire to produce the best website possible.

    In many ways, this website has many me more cynical about what kind of content can do well online. I want to produce more Biotech U and Career Services posts, I really do. But I also want the traffic that our placement rate or Futures Lab assault blog posts can bring in. Like all journalism before us, we are trying to strike the best balance between traffic generation and Capital J Journalism possible. Maybe we’re not getting the balance right, but we are trying our hardest to find it.

    Teeg

  17. The “student” excuse is not a viable one and I do not want to hear it again. There is nothing in the way of students doing great work but their own folly. Students are capable of winning national, professional recognition. That excuse is convenient though, isn’t it? But it is lazy and quite frankly, offensive to those of us who have managed to get our shit together enough to leave the kid’s table.

    I would also like to point out that JSB is a capstone project. A capstone project. It’s a realistic expectation that the people behind it should not be so empty-handed and comically unprepared to find themselves at graduation’s doorstep.

  18. Maybe you are an expert at all types of journalistic content, but we’re not. We are constantly learning as students, and we will be learning every day on the job if we are journalists. We’ve gotten a fair deal of national attention and plaudits for our work so far, though we haven’t won any awards (kudos to those who have though).

    I would like to know what you mean when you say you have your shit together. JSB’s accomplishments are already impressive, and we are enormously proud of the work we have done so far and will continue to do. We think we have our shit together, in large part because of our experience with this website.

    You make the mistake of thinking only hard journalism is worth reporting or consuming. I get that, because I used to be one of those people that thought if journalism didn’t support democracy or whatever, it wasn’t worth my time. Obviously, my thoughts have changed. Much of our content is fun and not serious, but we also produce a lot of good innovative journalism.

  19. I specifically addressed that because I actually do not think that at all.

    “…just as much as it is sharing the feeling of a sticky July day spent at the Boone County Fair.”

    Reading critically is pretty fundamental stuff, David. Apparently I should have issued an outline.

    If you had bothered to look at the specific evidence I provided to you, you would have noticed my name among those listed under two of those national press awards. I have my shit together means that when I fuck up a photo assignment, which happens, it’s because I fucked it up. Never because I’m “just a student.”

  20. Teeghman, here’s the issue. Whether you think writing about the Jschool is a good idea or not, the fact is you’re making it entirely about yourself and the site itself. This would be fine if this were a column or if you were a likable person, but neither is true.

    If you’d like specific examples of how you’re failing, you’re in luck. I have a pie chart here of how your content is distributed. You’ll notice 25 of your 75 total posts are directly or indirectly about yourself or JSchool Buzz. Twenty more are about what I’d categorize as useless shit. Brad Pitt’s supposed presence on campus has nothing to do with being a watchdog for the Jschool. That means 30 posts — 40 percent — are useful to anyone. Not useful to me, but to anyone in your readership. That also means that only that minority of content comes close to adhering to what would be your mission statement if you had planned this intelligently and stuck to the worthwhile goal of watching the watchdogs. You’re an embarrassment to Jschool students not because you’re an asshole. You’re an embarrassment because everyone else working for a publication is providing useful news or service to the reader in nearly every story.

  21. Never mind, Polina. It’s no use discussing this with you. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed talking with the other commenters, but you are just *mean.* I have no idea what I or JSB did to you to warrant such anger and cruelty, but I was just trying to start a much-needed discussion, and you’ve shit all over it with your unnecessary vitriol.

  22. Well good, we’re even then, because you shit all over my degree every time someone clicks on your website and comes away with an impression of the standards and skills we are learning at this place.

    Aaron, that pie chart breaking down JSB posts is awesome!

  23. @Aaron

    Wow. Thanks for linking to your post about Chris’ resume in your name.

    Not that I’m at all surprised after reading it.

  24. I didn’t say that at all. In fact, I said the opposite.

    “…just as much as it is sharing the feeling of a sticky July day spent at the Boone County Fair.”

    I think journalism can encompass a lot! And stories like that are just as important. I have a photo story about rappers in my portfolio, and one about putting together tasting menus at a restaurant. I just hold any journalism to a high standard and think it should be ethically sound and of the best (production) quality possible.

  25. David,

    I’ll try to keep my own opinions regarding J-School Buzz to a minimum. I will not criticize any of the content on the site on the basis of its quality. Instead, I wish to try to make clear why you’re getting such virulent responses.

    To be brief, it essentially boils down to your labeling the site’s content “journalism.” When I browse through the site (which I was just introduced to this evening), I see very little reporting, very little investigation (despite your claims to the contrary), very little pretense of objectivity, very little effort to inform the citizenry. Plenty of effort to entertain, perhaps, but little to inform.

    I don’t mean for this to sound inherently negative. Some of my favorite sites to visit also lack the aforementioned qualities. Then again, they don’t label themselves journalists while writing for an audience of journalists.

    Should you choose to label your site a blog or an entertainment publication or a series of columns or any of a nearly infinite number of descriptors, I imagine you will meet with very little backlash. But when you invoke capital-J Journalism — and, on top of it, call yourself a watchdog — you better back that up with solid shoe-leather reporting to back it up … or prepare for the onslaught.

    I feel that I’ve pointed to some very basic qualities I expect out of journalism but that you, David, have spent several posts arguing over a term you have yet to define in that argument. If you’re still reading this thread, perhaps you could point your opponents in the direction of some examples on your site of what you feel is quality journalism. Rather than demand specificity on the part of others, provide a counterpoint.

    I wish you the best of luck.

  26. David and Polina,
    David’s asked me to address the stereotypes of Photojournalism majors – in a post for JSB. “Hipsters in it for the art” was one phrased used. A funny joke perhaps – but I’d equate such a statement to describing convergence students as “twitter addicts.” More on that later in the post, but I do feel a lot of disrespect has been shoved towards us, unfairly.

    David you need to take a deep breath and try to figure out what you want JSB to be. Hard News? Infotainment? Both? In depth reportage? All of these things are fine – but a few days to rest up and think it all over would be good for everyone.

  27. Hey, I get the whole backlash thing but there’s no reason to trash the attempt to bring the failings of our school’s career services dept to light. Be constructive, not indignant.

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