Navigating Journalism Online: An Interview with George Kelly

As newspapers and other traditional print media outlets make their way through the online atmosphere, it’s important to take time out to navigate the landscape and learn how to bridge the gap between your online and offline audiences. No one knows this better than George Kelly, online coordinator at the Contra Costa Times (a Bay Area News Group daily newspaper) in Walnut Creek, CA. Recently, I had the chance to talk with George about these topics and learn more about his storied history in journalism as a digital jack-of-all-trades.

Maurice Cherry: Tell our 10,000 Words audience a little about what you do.

George Kelly: I’m the online coordinator at the Contra Costa Times, a Bay Area News Group daily newspaper, in Walnut Creek, California. Originally, I was supposed to moderate forums and photo albums, train and coach co-workers on blogging, create polls, initiate and host live chats, offer print teasers to online content, update some site elements, work with editors on reverse publishing, and consult on special projects. I still do a lot of that, along with some other tasks, such as advice on daily-buzz stories and trends at daily budget meetings, and compiling weekday evening news summaries.
I was born in Washington, D.C., so I started out in journalism as a fan of the comic pages in the Washington Star. When I got older, I had a Washington Post paper route in Silver Spring, MD. Editing the Spectrum,  the student newspaper at Bowie State University, helped me land a Chips Quinn Scholar internship at the Oakland Tribune in the summer of 1994. I’ve lived and worked in the Bay Area since then as a reporter, copy editor and page designer.

MC: How do you think the current digital landscape affects how journalism and reporting works?

GK: The current digital landscape gives journalism and reporting unprecedented reach and impact. We’ve got cheap, powerful databases that let us sift and sort and display information in amazing ways. We’ve got tools and services to curate real-time information from anywhere on the planet. Now, we need to figure out when, and where, and how to use those tools to give people the information they need to make decisions about their lives and communities.

MC: What are some of your biggest challenges in working with journalism and technology/new media today?

GK: The biggest challenges involve getting everybody into the pool. You say “new media,” and some journalists think don’t think you mean them. “I’m not a ‘mojo,’ I’m an old Joe.” Some suffer from novelty fatigue; some resent change. Some get stuck somewhere on the KĂĽbler-Ross stage of grief for the old days and old ways. Some have legitimate anger with organizations that communicate poorly about the need to change.

When I say “everybody into the pool,” I also mean we also need more diversity — not just race and ethnicity, not just gender and sexual orientation. I mean platforms: Online journalism isn’t just for smartphones and iPads. I mean location: Online journalism’s not just for big cities or huge audiences. There are lessons and examples everywhere worth emulating and tweaking.

MC: What advice would you give to any up-and-coming or early-career journalist?

GK: Buy a domain name. Start a blog. Learn to code. Teach someone how to code. Get in the habit of making things. Sign up for new services as often as you wash your hands, brush your teeth or change your clothes. Remind yourself every day that you belong, that what is happening here is still unformed enough and unfixed enough that you can still make a mark — your own mark — with something worth doing and sharing with others.

MC: Is there anything else you would like to share, such as any upcoming projects we should keep our eyes on?

GK: I’m enjoying Negrophile, a public social bookmarking account and a photo community. I’ve begun cartooning over at No There There. And, as East Bay chair for the local chapter of The Newspaper Guild, I’m helping co-workers shore up management responses to the industry’s ongoing economic-model shifts.

A few months ago, a friend asked me why I do what I do. I told him because it lets me practice my beliefs, proselytize for my values and play with technology to test out ideas about the power of journalism and the possibilities of real-time engagement within and across communities.