Editor’s note: Sarah Harper is an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota. Last November, she shadowed me for a couple of days and researched the Twin Cities Daily Planet—our arts coverage in particular—for a class paper. With her permission, we present these extended excerpts from that paper. – Jay Gabler
It would be difficult to find someone who disagrees with the notion that the journalism industry is constantly growing and evolving. After all, media practitioners hold job titles that did not exist when they graduated from college and the sources from which we get our news are constantly becoming more technologically innovative. Jay Gabler, the associate editor and arts editor of the Twin Cities Daily Planet, is a living, working example of journalism’s progressing form. He uses social media to promote an exclusively online publication and is constantly on the lookout for ways to increase the interactivity of the website it operates from. I had the opportunity to observe him while he worked on a few different occasions. From my interviews with Gabler, my observations, and my experiences, I have gained a greater understanding of both the Daily Planet and the online journalism industry as a whole.
The first article Gabler wrote for the Daily Planet was published on September 22, 2007, but he had his journalistic start writing for the school newspaper at St. Agnes High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. After graduating high school, he ventured out east to complete his undergraduate education at Boston University, where he majored in education. Gabler then earned graduate degrees in education and sociology from Harvard University. His sociology background continues to influence his work; to supplement the income he earns writing for the Daily Planet, Gabler teaches sociology at Rasmussen College. Gabler did not begin his career in journalism until he returned to the Twin Cities. With the help of the Harvard alumni network, Gabler was hired by Mary Turck to be the Associate Editor at the Daily Planet in January of 2007. His job title eventually grew to include Arts Editor.
As the Arts Editor of the Daily Planet, Gabler covers, or assigns others to cover, a wide variety of topics, including books, design, movies, music, theater, visual art, and dining. Most of the articles written are previews or reviews of an event. Gabler receives countless emails and press releases [….] However, Gabler expressed that he would like to start producing more articles with entirely original premises, rather than checking an arts event out because a public relations professional reached out to him.
On Wednesday, October 20th, I accompanied him to a production of Waiting For Godot at the Lowry Lab Theater. Gabler did not take notes during the performance, and there was no program given out prior to its start. I wondered how he would approach writing about the performance. After the actors’ final bow, we discussed what his process was for writing a critique of a play. It does not take him long to crank out a review: he normally forms an idea of what to write about quickly. On the way out of the theatre, Gabler told me a general outline of what the article he planned to write. It was based on his perception of the space the play was performed in, the actors’ individual performances, whether or not he thinks readers will be interested in seeing the play, and which type of readers would be interested. He also wanted to include his overall feeling on the entire experience of seeing the performance. His arts coverage fits in with the rest of the Daily Planet’s editorial content in that is concerned with local events.
The Twin Cities Media Alliance is a group of media professionals who work with engaged, compassionate citizens in an attempt to create high-quality, community-based journalism. The TCMA professionals hold regular community forums and teach courses designed to increase media literacy. The alliance created the Twin Cities Daily Planet to meet its goals.
The Daily Planet’s headquarters are attached to a Wells Fargo bank in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. […] The walls are painted a warm, burnt orange and the whole office is dotted with plants. In this comfortably small but open office space, I joined Gabler at a conference table, along with the other two members of the editorial staff, Mary Turck and Jeremy Iggers. Jeremy Iggers, the TCMA’s executive director and cofounder, plays a large role in the success of the Daily Planet. This group meets every Monday morning to discuss the content of the Daily Planet, the articles that are going to be published in that week, different features of the website, and goals for the publication.
Gabler assesses the success of the Daily Planet by how the website is being used by members of the Twin Cities community. On the morning I visited, five original articles were being published. This was a point of pride for the editorial staffers. The number of original features published is joined by high traffic rates, feedback from users through commenting features, and increasing interaction between readers as Gabler’s units of measurement for success. His goal for the publication is not necessarily to put forth a certain agenda for the community, but to benefit society by connecting community members through technology.
Gabler does not practice what George Rodman, author of Mass Media in a Changing World, would define as public journalism, or reporting that becomes involved in community issues. Rather, the Daily Planet is an example of citizen journalism. Writers are not necessarily professional, and they are not necessarily paid. As its website claims, the Daily Planet is “people-powered journalism!” The publications’ professional editors control the quality of this citizen journalism; Turck and Gabler work directly with volunteer writers and discuss how to make a piece more interesting and comprehensive. In this way, editors are gatekeepers who fight to keep the quality of the Daily Planet’s editorial content high. All writers who work for the Daily Planet use the peg of proximity. They write about local events and happenings that affect the community directly in the hopes that other community members will become more informed and engaged.
There are a few key differences between the Daily Planet’s ethics and those of more traditional publications. Journalists who work for the New York Times adhere to a strict code, outlined on the company website, that concerns conflicts of interest and a myriad of other ethical issues. The expectation that journalists “may not furnish, prepare or supervise news content about relatives, spouses or others with whom they have close personal relationships” is explicitly clear. The Daily Planet’s policy on conflicts of interest is much more lax. Its editorial guidelines simply ask for “fairness and transparency.”
Gabler […] expects that writers clearly state their relationships to the subject of the story within the article. Gabler sees the relaxed conflict of interest rules as a positive aspect of the publication. He has the freedom to socialize with the subjects of his arts coverage and more closely engage with the creative communities he covers. As an arts critic giving artists constructive feedback, he often sees himself as part of the creative process.
Officially, Gabler is an editorial employee. However, […] after the weekly editorial meeting, he meets once again with Turck and Iggers for their weekly administrative meeting. Because of the significant role he plays in the maintenance of the Daily Planet’s website, Gabler is essentially an administrative employee as well. […] Constrained by a budget of $2,000 per month for stories, the Daily Planet gives out many assignments to volunteers. The citizen-based model saves the Daily Planet money: writers are never compensated for blogging and writing opinion pieces. For some people, writing the review of a local rock concert is a small price to pay for the free ticket they receive from the Daily Planet. For beginners who want to break into the professional journalism field, writing for the Daily Planet provides them with an opportunity to do so.
The online nature of the Daily Planet presents a host of benefits and challenges for both users of the website and its creators. For the creators of the website, the fact that the Daily Planet is Internet-based means that publishing and editing are done on computers. Publicity can be done through email and social media. At the editorial meeting, my notebook looked out of place at a table full of MacBooks.
A challenge for the website’s creators is the lack of “face time” that the Internet allows. To make sure that the editing process remains personal and organic, Turck and Gabler host biweekly writers’ meetings. During these meetings, writers from the community share stories and discuss how to improve them, face to face. At the writers’ meeting I attended, a recent University of Minnesota graduate brought in a story. Gabler printed out a copy of the article for everyone present, and ideas and opinions were freely exchanged. Gabler had suggestions along the lines of highlighting different aspects of the story, including information that was originally ignored, and adding photographs, subheadings, and textboxes.
In order to plan and organize editorial content, Gabler uses the web application, Google Docs. On one constantly changing document that can be accessed by the editors, articles are organized under three categories: articles that will be published this week, articles that are currently undergoing the editing process, and articles that are due from writers within the week. The Daily Planet’s publication process is fast and simple. Gabler formats the article on the web site, coordinates images, and sets up links within the article. After the story is published to the website, Gabler alerts followers of the Daily Planet through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and an emailed newsletter.
Although quick and convenient, this publication process is not necessarily cheap. On the Monday I visited, the staff members were preparing for a meeting with their web developer. They were planning to revisit the service and structure of the site. The major challenge in working with web developers is the push and pull between trying to keep fees low but service high. The editorial side of the publication is often restricted by technical problems, but the Daily Planet strives to expand functionality and add interactive features to the web site.
Gabler’s overall feeling on the future of mass communications is reflected in his work. He feels that, in the future, media will be a more seamless feature of human interaction that occupies more facets of daily life. Journalism, then, is on its way to becoming even more streamlined and interactive. Gabler seems excited about the changing form of mass communication as he puts the futuristic ideal of connection through technology into practice at the forward-facing, progressive Daily Planet. The Daily Planet is not simply meant to be a news source; it is meant to serve as a tool for connecting community members. It allows them to read, interact with, and create high-quality, local journalism.
Photo by Sarah Harper