Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Internet, underpants, and everything

NOTE: This was originally written in 2005. I've updated it regularly with new thoughts, data, and quotations. The gist of the column remains unchanged. Should it eventually require a complete rewrite I'll re-post it as a new piece. Latest update: March, 2010.

The Internet is different, don't you see;
It's the place where information wants to be free!
-- Original rhyming couplet by Roger Plothow
A warped look at where newspapers and the Internet stand more than a decade after we met, staring awkwardly across the dance floor.

What the geniuses are saying
“At established media companies, the web sucks up a lot of staff, management interest and money with little to show for it. Skyrocketing eyeball numbers are great, but when there is no meaningful revenue attached to it, it's a parasite. As long as aggregators can take all that work for free and sell search ads - the only type that are working - the environment will not improve. Readers won't pay and advertisers won't pay. Hardly a business model.” -- Anonymous comment on the New York Observer web site

“You’re never going to get the traffic that really matters. So it’s a traffic thing, but also, how do you monetize the traffic that you have? It’s impossible.” --Publisher with Condé Nast

Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, says Barry Diller, the media and technology executive whose company runs the Ask.com search engine and the Match.com dating service. It’s “mythology” to view the Internet as a system of free communications. "It is not free, and it is not going to be," he said.

“Traffic growth simply doesn't matter. Period. What matters is revenue.” --Andrew Schmitt, Nyquist Capital
The answers remain elusive
There's a classic South Park episode starring the Underpants Gnomes in which the gnomes steal underpants and collect them in huge quantities, under the assumption that having a large quantity of anything somehow magically results in profits. This is how newspapers have treated the notion of web traffic. (Interestingly, some folks now think Twitter is following the same business model.)

There is no indication that the elusive sustainable online business model for newspapers of our size is ready to show itself. Newspapers and other local web sites are using no fewer than a dozen advertising alternatives, from horizontal and vertical banner ads to paid search contextual advertising to interstitial and video ads. Those same web sites are using nearly as many different ways to charge for advertising – pay-per-click, flat fees, etc.

Most ad managers for newspapers that have free access sites acknowledge that revenue growth either slowed or stopped altogether. In most cases, this includes an allocation of print classified revenue, and it doesn’t take into account (because it can’t be calculated) whether the newspaper has lost both circulation and print ad revenue by putting its news content online for free.

Many also have signed agreements with regional or national companies to vertically integrate their online advertising and/or news content. This is making big money for the aggregators (Google, Yahoo, Monster, etc.) but precious little for individual small newspapers. It makes a little more sense for larger newspaper companies that can aggregate the revenue. Only recently have the producers of this news -- the Associated Press, Rupert Murdoch, and others -- begun questioning whether Google is a good partner.

The Internet currently accounts for about 8 to 10 percent of total global advertising spending, or about $40 billion out of $450 billion. That percentage is growing every year, of course, but it remains a small fraction of the total and the growth rate is shrinking (theses numbers are aggregates of various studies). It’s likely that the percentage is smaller – much smaller – in isolated markets like ours where opportunities for aggregating revenue for contextual searches and banner ads on global sites are nearly non-existent.

Where we are

For starters, we’ve not been static and our web site isn’t inconsequential. We get 3,100 unique user sessions a weekday on postregister.com, which help account for more than 900,000 page views per month, when all of our various sites are combined (including classified, obituaries, real estate and Marketplace).

Before going on, allow me to note -- traffic numbers don't mean very much. They're notoriously unreliable and they don't translate directly into advertising dollars, particularly in small markets. In her blog "Daily Patricia," Patricia Handschiegel draws a smart distinction between traffic and audience:
"What a lot of companies are secretly finding out is that traffic does not mean there is an audience, and that at the end of the day, the audience is where the value is. Boasting giant page views and unique visitors means very little when those you are driving to the site are not sticking around, using it or returning."
Our continuing strategy, dating back to 1999, is predicated on the premise that by giving away their local news content online, newspapers are sacrificing the engine – paid circulation – that drives sustainable profitability. Only time will tell if that’s a sound position. If it’s not, the implication is that paid circulation ultimately will become a fond memory, no longer a component of the newspaper business model. Our secondary premise is that it’s much easier for us to go from paid to free than the other direction. If the time comes that free access is the clear business model, we can make the switch literally in 24 hours.

We are not entirely alone in our strategy. Only 50 or so American dailies use a pay wall today, but more than half our considering that strategy, many saying they will go to some sort of paid subscription within six months. More important, consumers are starting to warm to the idea of paying a reasonable fee for access to information they consider both unique and important, particularly from newspapers, according to fresh research by Boston Consulting Group.

Here's a particularly intriguing story out of Newport, Rhode Island, from Newsweek:
Spooky things began to happen this summer in the yachting mecca of Newport, R.I., shortly after the Newport Daily News hurled caution to the wind and began charging a $345 subscription fee for its online news—$200 more than for the print edition.

First, the phones stopped ringing in the paper's circulation department. Fewer subscribers were canceling home delivery of the paper, something they had been doing in droves when they knew they could get the same product for free at NewportDailyNews.com. "Those calls have stopped," William F. Lucey III, assistant publisher and general manager, told NEWSWEEK.

But something even stranger happened: after the Web site put up a pay wall for nearly all its content, readers would brave driving rainstorms to go out and buy the newspaper. Since then, newsstand sales of the Newport Daily News have jumped by 200 copies a day. For a paper with a daily circulation of 13,000, that's a significant gain, especially since, in an era in which most papers are seeing steep declines in readership, even holding steady is a success; an increase is a triumph. "The fact that weather hasn't been fantastic makes me believe that the pay wall has had an effect," Lucey says. "We think that more people are buying the paper now that they can't get it for free online."
In Western Europe 80 percent of newspapers charge for online access one way or another, and that was in late 2007 before the more recent trend toward pay walls picked up steam. This comes from a paper written by Valerie-Anne Bleyen and Leo Van Hove at Free University of Brussells (irony noted). They wrote:
"When analysing the strategies of the 82 Western European newspapers in our dataset, we find — on a first level — that 19.5 percent of the sites are completely free, while 80.5 percent of the newspapers try to monetise (part of) their online content in direct ways. Within this second category, 28.8 percent offer only a charged–for PDF version, while 71.2 percent try to generate revenue sources in other ways (too)."
And Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, concludes a great piece in a May, 2007 column for the Wall Street Journal with this summation:
“It is time for newspapers to reconsider the ultimate costs and consequences of free news.” He begins his piece by observing what we’ve been saying since 1999: “One has to wonder how many of the newspaper industry's current problems are self-inflicted. Take free news. News has become ubiquitous, free, and as a result, a commodity. Anytime you are trying to sell something that becomes a commodity, you have lost much of the value in providing that product or service.”
(Perhaps not coincidentally, Hussman runs a family-owned newspaper that defeated Gannett in a head-to-head battle for Little Rock.)

And, of course, back to my new favorite blogger, Daily Patricia, who continues to make too much sense to attract a lot of attention:
"Just because so many in business have been foolish enough to give away product that costs money to make does not mean that the monetization models that have existed, thrived and survived on platforms for decades are suddenly broken. There’s plenty of proof of this."

One need only look at Google News to understand the flip-side of this problem for us. Because so many newspapers provide their online news product for free, Google News is able to aggregate it, generate huge traffic numbers and turn contextual searches in to dollars. Meanwhile, it doesn’t generate a single piece of unique content. We’ve done all the work.

This notion seems to just now be dawning on our business’ top executives, despite the fact that not feeding the aggregators has been one of our stated reasons for having a pay wall since 2001. The bandwagon is getting a little crowded.

Advertising that has driven newspapers, radio and television for decades doesn’t seem to work online – Internet users resent the interruption far more than do newspaper readers. In fact, newspaper research still indicates that readers consider advertising content of equal value to the news – there is no other medium that can make that claim. There’s no newspaper equivalent of the DVR, but there is an online equivalent (my computer is like most – it has a program that blocks pop-up ads). So, while billions of dollars are being spent globally on Internet advertising, only the large aggregators are making real money. Local web sites have not settled on a workable advertising model.

Newspaper advertising is different than that for other media. The aforementioned Hussman agrees: “It turns out that a Web site is a very different medium from a newspaper. While consumers often find pop-up ads a distraction and banner ads as more clutter, readers often seek out the advertising in newspapers.”

For independent newspaper companies like ours in isolated but healthy markets, the Internet’s impact will evolve over a generation or more. In some ways this is trickier than dealing with a sudden shift – we must manage the process of change, gaining expertise in new media without reducing our expertise in print (the “fiber media”), particularly since print will likely provide the majority of our revenue and profit for the foreseeable future. Pick your metaphor – we’re walking a precarious path with one foot in the analog world and the other in the digital one.

Newspapers in large markets replete with free-access general news web sites are at the highest risk and are suffering the most from online competitors and shifts in readership habits. This isn’t to say it hasn’t affected us – it has and it will. But we’re in an enviable and strong position and must learn to adapt as the market demands it – not before and certainly not after.

Tim Rutten, media columnist for the Los Angeles Times, summarizes the likely future pretty well:
“Look, there are going to be newspapers around for a very long time, but the successful ones are going to be hybrid news organizations in which there's some sort of amalgam of print and online presentation of the news. It's clear that there are going to be some things we will continue to do best in print, some things we're going to do for our readers online on a 24-hour basis.”
What to do now?
One of the strategies that has not been pursued aggressively enough by our industry is differentiation. As unfiltered “information” expands online, we can offer added value by applying proven journalistic standards to how we operate on the Internet. Our value will be enhanced as we maintain our position as a credible source of information. We can’t be too local, but we must practice journalism.

There's no arguing that the Internet has removed a major obstacle to local newspaper competitors. But delivery was never our main ace in the hole -- it has been, and is more now than ever, journalism. Citizen journalism is an interesting idea but not the basis for a business model. Real, passionate, local, expertly practiced journalism differentiates us from our rivals, from TV web sites to those coming from someone's basement.

Differentiation is not just a journalistic issue. “We've had a lot of scams off of Craigslist,” said Detective Gretchen Ellis, Tacoma Police Department, talking about the recent infamous case in which a Craigslist ad led to the complete ransacking of a vacant house. “We've had prostitution things happen, rental scams, fraudulent activity. In this case, it appeared the items were going to be given away, but they were not.” This presents us with a tremendous advertising opportunity – there is still a place for trained human intervention. Of course, then there’s more tragic case of the Craigstlist killer.

There’s a growing theory that newspaper web sites aren’t necessarily about advertising revenue but should be used simply to draw younger readership to the newspa… um, the news thingy. This assumes that instead of cannibalizing the newspaper’s circulation, it enhances it. There is some data to suggest this is true, but it remains an unproven idea. Others promote an online-first strategy, which might make sense for newspapers and magazines seeking a national or global audience, but there's no evidence to support that approach for regional or local newspapers.

It’s telling that one of most intelligent recent comments about our business comes not from a publisher or journalist but investment banker Jonathon Knee:
“You have to focus on your competitive advantage, which is local. When the smoke clears, the local newspaper, which may not be the sexiest part of the newspaper industry but is overwhelmingly the largest and most profitable part of the industry, will be a smaller and more-focused enterprise whose activities will be directed to those areas where their local presence gives them competitive advantage and they will continue to generate as a result better profits than the supersexy businesses in the media industry asking for government or nonprofit help like movies and music.”

Why we should embrace online circulation

John Gottschalk recently retired as chairman and CEO of the Omaha World-Herald, a partially employee-owned newspaper (with some sister papers in the company) that enjoys one of the highest market penetrations in the country. His advice on the paid versus free issue:
“We are, de facto, the originators of most of the news in our region. Our franchise is unique. Regardless of distribution channel, relevant, timely and valuable content is the arbiter of the free or paid question.

“If a newspaper publishes a lot of easily available, non-exclusive material from other sources, and in general, a mediocre report for its readers; it will be difficult for readers to find sufficient value in that content to sustain their patronage. When they quit reading, the newspaper platform loses its power as the best medium for advertisers.

“Content is king in my book – regardless of distribution channel. It escapes me why anyone would allow the use of valuable, exclusive, costly, unique and presumably credible content by some other organization that will just beat you over the head with it as a free enhancement to its advertising platform.

“Giving content away is bound to shrink market dominance and ultimately lead to the loss of uniqueness that sustains the readership needed to stay in business. Our business is, after all, advertising distribution, and it requires the presence of a significant number of ‘consumers.’ It is the unique content and character of a newspaper’s report that enables the success of the advertising platform.”
A bold look at traffic
Most people still think it’s important to drive traffic and the money will eventually, magically follow, even though there’s no evidence to support that theory after a decade of online news experimentation. However, there’s increasing agreement that we’d like to turn back the clock 10 years and charge for access as part of an online business model. Alan Mutter has called the free online content model newspapers’ “original sin”.

As part of a value-added ad package bundled around print, online advertising for us and our clients potentially has some modest benefit. Otherwise, there may not be much. So, let’s maintain a web presence, reduce our investment of time and other resources, and put out a damn good paper that reaches the broadest possible market.

The key is this: If we don’t put out a “newspaper” regardless of the medium on which it ultimately gets “delivered” that contains compelling, necessary, unique information that local readers need to have, none of our strategies will matter. Content (news and information, including advertising), is, indeed, king.

And finally…
Industry pundits, all of whom have been at least partially wrong right from the start, need to begin each analysis with this acknowledgment: Newspapers of 100,000 circulation and smaller are almost always a different matter than the 100 or so (out of 1,400 total) that serve larger markets. Like most smaller newspapers, the Post Register produces more local content in a day than our broadcast and print competitors produce in a week. We have the largest newsroom in our half of the state. We are the best in the world at covering eastern Idaho, and we ought to act like it. That’s what sets us apart from any other medium and what sets 1,300 other local newspapers apart from their competitors. For heaven’s sake, apply a simple value principle to what you do.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

An ongoing crisis in confidence

A version of this was originally published in the Post Register.

Only about half of Americans have confidence in print and broadcast journalists. That compares to a historical high of 69 percent during the Watergate era.

There is, however, some good news for local newspapers. Three-quarters of Americans believe that newspapers provide "vital information about the community," which means that most Americans still view the local newspaper as the most credible source of news. One of the issues facing newspapers is to help information consumers differentiate between us and other, less credible media.

Of course, public confidence in other institutions vital to a healthy democracy are faring much worse. Fewer than one in four Americans has confidence in Congress, for example.

That’s cold comfort to journalists, whose stock-in-trade is their credibility. When less than half of news consumers find journalists in general credible, we have a crisis.

This tumble in confidence is almost entirely self-inflicted. Yes, some of it can be traced to media fragmentation or to bloggers, talk radio personalities and cable TV talking heads, who characterize the mainstream media as biased, liberal, and even conspiratorial. The real cause is less interesting – too many journalists have gotten sloppy, lazy, or both.

Too many editors don’t establish and enforce strict reporting standards. Too many reporters are willing to take shortcuts. Too many columnists are more interested in a compelling story than a truthful one. And, in this age of consolidated media ownership, there’s too little legitimate shoe-leather investigative journalism going on.

In a world full of Internet blogs, quasi-news television shows, vitriolic radio talk shows and a general public showing less and less interest in basic journalism, reporters and editors are under increasing pressure to spice up the coverage.

The result is a confused news consumer who has an increasingly difficult time determining what information is factual and what is not. When columnists take money from the government to espouse a particular point of view or reporters invent information to make a story more compelling, it just adds to the crisis in confidence.

What to do? Journalists should:

• Eliminate or severely restrict anonymous source reporting, particularly involving single sources. Sloppy sourcing is what got Newsweek in trouble recently with its story about abuse of the Koran, and there are myriad other examples. Compare that to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s meticulous use of both named and anonymous sources during Watergate and you can see how far we’ve fallen. Most stories can be verified using on-the-record sources if we’re willing to dig deep enough.

• Establish and enforce stronger fact-checking standards before stories are printed or aired. Too many newsrooms are not challenging their reporters, which results in stories that stretch the truth, borrow quotations from other media without verification, or contain outright fabrications. Tighter standards can put a stop to this.

• Create a greater sense of transparency between the news-gathering process and the news consumer. You deserve to know how we go about our work and what standards we adhere to. We need to remove the shroud of mystery from the process.

• Embrace good old-fashioned investigative journalism.

• Correct errors quickly and unambiguously. The news-gathering process involves human beings, which means errors will inevitably occur. When they do, we owe you a clear, clean, timely correction that sets the record straight.

These are the ideals to which journalists must aspire to differentiate ourselves from blogs and other information sources that are little more than the inventions of the writers' imagiation. You should demand no less.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

So you think you support free speech

Remarks at Utah State University
The Media and Society Lecture Series
Feb. 23, 2005

“I’m all for free speech. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”
--Tom Stoppard from his play, “Day and Night”
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

By a raise of hands, how many of you are in favor of free speech?

Now let’s test your tolerance for free speech. Consider these two statements:

Ward Churchill, University of Colorado professor:
“True enough (those in the World Trade Center) were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire – the ‘mighty engine of profit’ to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to ‘ignorance’ – a derivative, after all, of the word ‘ignore’ – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.”
Michael Savage, radio talk show host:
“When you hear ‘human rights,’ think gays. ... [T]hink only one thing: someone who wants to rape your son. When you hear ‘human rights,’ think only someone who wants to molest your son, and send you to jail if you defend him. Write that down, make a note of it.”
Are you outraged? I hope so. Do you believe that these statements deserve the protection of the First Amendment?

The scary truth is that Americans don’t know what to think about free speech. A recent survey by the First Amendment Center found:

• 30% of Americans agreed with the statement that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

• 42% of Americans said the press has too much freedom.

• 77% said it is important that the news media act as a watchdog on government.

• 44% disagreed with the statement that people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups.

• 63% disagreed with the statement that people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups.

• 45% said the U.S. Constitution should be amended to prohibit burning or desecrating the American flag.

• 56% said newspapers should be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military about its strategy and performance.

• 51% agreed that, as part of its war on terrorism, the government should be allowed to monitor certain religious groups even if that means infringing upon the religious freedom of those groups’ members.

In another survey of high school students by the Knight Foundation, more than a third said the First Amendment’s guarantees went too far. Only half said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories. Three in four said flag burning is illegal (which it is not). About half said the government can restrict any indecent material on the Internet. (It cannot.) About one in five students said people should not be allowed to express unpopular views.

That, folks, is very, very frightening.

Supporting the First Amendment, and specifically its guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, is easy when we agree with the speech in question. The real test is when we disagree with or fear what’s being expressed.

One of the most difficult issues confronting any community newspaper is reconciling its role as a protector and implementer of the First Amendment with its desire to facilitate a civil and respectful community discourse. What to one person may be a simple and frank exchange of ideas is offensive and outrageous to another. How far should a newspaper go in policing this exchange?

Here’s one view from someone whose name should be familiar to you:
“The First Amendment generally, and freedom of expression in particular, are not absolute concepts, and that is why they are at once so difficult to administer and so essential to a free society and an educated citizenry. Community interests and civility have always to be weighed in the balance.” (Kermit Hall, former president of Utah State University)
This is a compelling argument. Unfortunately, too often demands for civility mask a more troubling intent – to curtail speech with which we disagree. In other instances, the intent is good but the issue gives rise to many difficult questions. Who decides what’s offensive? Even if speech is nearly universally considered offensive, should it really be against the law? Which is a higher value, free expression or enforced civility? What exactly are we afraid of?

The mere existence of the Orwellian term “free speech zone” – demarcated plots for “free speech” in areas near where President Bush gives public speeches – should give us great pause. As 65-year-old retired steelworker Bill Neel commented after being arrested for speaking his mind outside one of the “free speech zones”: “I thought the entire country was a free speech zone.” By definition, what exists outside a free speech zone? It’s not just the Republicans, of course. The Democrats set up similar zones during their national convention in Boston.

But we fear that the speech may get out of hand, right? The trouble is, we shouldn’t censor speech out of a fear of what it might lead to. If protesters go beyond the First Amendment’s guarantee “peaceably to assemble,” arrest them, and good riddance. Until they reach that point, leave them alone.

Speech codes are all the rage on college campuses today – an ill-advised attempt to impose political correctness at the very venues where the First Amendment should be revered and upheld most generously. Consider these examples, taken from the web site for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, all of which I have personally confirmed. I should note that some of these have actually been enacted while others are just proposed:

• Brown University wants to ban "verbal behavior" that produces "feelings of impotence, anger, or disenfranchisement," whether "intentional or unintentional." What is “verbal behavior?” It’s either verbal, or it’s behavior. And if I say to someone, “you’re such a wuss,” have I produced “feelings of impotence” in that person making me subject to some kind of censure, or worse?

• The University of Connecticut requires that “all members must accept responsibility for creating an environment that promotes individual growth and builds community through the safe, respectful exchange of diverse thought, opinion, and feeling.” Guess what: A real exchange of diverse thought, opinion and feeling can never be safe. It’s risky, personal, difficult, messy stuff.

• Syracuse University’s handbook states that “Students have the right to express themselves freely on any subject provided they do so in a manner that does not violate the Code of Student Conduct.” I’d suggest that any free speech policy that includes the words “provided” or “so long as” is more likely a censorship policy. It further prohibits “harassment, whether physical or verbal, oral or written, which is beyond the bounds of protected free speech, directed at a specific individual(s), easily construed as ‘fighting words,’ and likely to cause an immediate breach of the peace.” By extension, one must assume that if I were to step on campus and shout the words, “the Orangemen suck,” I’d be breaking the student code. I don’t know any more provocative fighting words than those. Basketball games at Syracuse must be deathly quiet. Wouldn’t a cheer encouraging the team to “beat Notre Dame” be considered “fighting words?” More seriously, what if I said, “All overweight white 46-year-old men with facial hair should be imprisoned without delay?” That’s outrageous, inflammatory and just wrong. But it’s also Constitutionally protected speech. If someone actually takes steps to follow through on that suggestion, now we’ve likely got a violation of law.

• At one point West Virginia University enforced "free speech zones" that comprised only one percent of the public campus.

• The University of North Dakota’s student code prohibits “any action, activities, or situations intentionally created to produce unnecessary or undue mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, ridicule, excessive fatigue, interference with scholastic or personal lives, or exposure to situations wherein one’s physical or mental well-being may be in danger.” Intended to restrict hazing, this policy appears to me to put serious limits on football practice, too. Another part of the code states: “This section is not violated by actions that amount to expression protected by the state or federal constitutions or by related principles of academic freedom.” Good luck figuring out what that means.

You may ask how Utah State University fares. The answer is mixed. USU’s student code begins with this contradictory paragraph:
“As members of the academic community at Utah State University, students share responsibility for its growth and continued well being and for maintaining an environment which encourages free inquiry and expression.” So far, so good. “Students are expected to engage in reasonable and substantial preparation for their coursework and to follow course and class guidelines as set forth in syllabi and as enunciated by their instructors.”
No problem there. Now, however, here comes the politically correct censorship language.
"All interactions with faculty members, staff members, and other students shall be conducted with courtesy, civility, decency, and a concern for personal dignity.”
Oh, brother. Oops, sorry. I hope I haven’t injured anyone’s personal dignity with that uncivil remark.

There is a more positive clause later in the code, which guarantees “The right, subject to time, place, and manner restrictions, to express personal opinions on campus, to support or oppose causes, to arrange public assemblies, and to hold rallies, demonstrations, and pickets which do not materially and substantially interfere with normal university activities or the rights of others. Institutional control of facilities shall not be used as a censorship device. Any institutional regulation regarding time, place, and manner of expression must be content-neutral, must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant university interest, and must leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” That’s not bad, though still too restrictive in my book. It is interesting that one section of USU’s student code is called “Procedures for Freedom of Expression.” Hmmm. It’s not really freedom of expression if it involves procedures, is it?

Conservatives’ instinct is to legislate their version of morality. Liberals’ tendency is to legislate their type of civility. Either effort does violence to civil liberties. I like what former Chief Justice Warren Burger once wrote on the subject:
"A responsible press is an undoubtedly desirable goal, but press responsibility is not mandated by the Constitution and, like many other virtues, it cannot be legislated."
California will find itself confronting this issue after the passage last year of new hate crime legislation that targets certain types of speech. Here’s some of the language of that new law:

“Speech alone is not sufficient to support an action brought [under this law] except upon a showing that the speech itself threatens violence against a specific person or group of persons; and the person or group of persons against whom the threat is directed reasonably fears that, because of the speech, violence will be committed against them or their property and that the person threatening violence had the apparent ability to carry out the threat.”
This is a Pandora’s Box. Who gets to decide what constitutes speech that “threatens violence against a specific person or group of persons?” This, in my view, is a classic example of well-intentioned lawmaking gone horribly wrong. For example, if a street preacher proclaims, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” should he be thrown in jail? Perhaps so long as it’s the Lord threatening violence we can get away with it.

I beg your indulgence for a few moments while I review a little Supreme Court history. For starters, it should be noted that laws like the new hate speech law in California have generally been upheld by our Supreme Court. In a case going back to 1942, the court ruled that:
“(I)t is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words – those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”
It should also be noted, however, that the Court generally has been reluctant to uphold convictions of persons prosecuted under such laws, often finding that the language or administration of the law was too vague. One analysis puts it this way:
“(It is) not clear … whether only actual disorder or a clear and present danger of disorder will entitle the authorities to terminate the speech or other expressive conduct. Neither, in the absence of incitement to illegal action, may government punish mere expression or proscribe ideas, regardless of the trifling or annoying caliber of the expression.”
In other words, the courts are still trying to figure out what it means to not abridge freedom of speech, but at the very least annoying, obnoxious or objectionable speech is protected.

While I’m certainly no Constitutional scholar, it’s clear to me that the standards established by university speech codes and the new California law go well beyond the threshold set by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who coined the phrase “clear and present danger” to determine when speech should be regulated. The famous analogy he used was falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, which would present a clear and present danger to those in the building. Ironically, Holmes used this phrase in a dissenting opinion, but it eventually came to be accepted by the Supreme Court as the standard test for restricting free speech. The “clear and present danger” test certainly is a far higher standard than California’s threshold that an individual “reasonably fears” that violence will be committed against them as a result of someone’s speech.

Underlying all of this talk of free speech is a relatively simple but sublime concept: The marketplace of ideas. This, too, comes from a famous dissent by Oliver Wendell Holmes, in which he wrote:
“Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition ... But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.”
But, you say, haven’t our political campaigns gotten out of hand?

Take this exchange, for example:

Candidate A: My opponent represents "cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin."

Candidate B: My opponent has two mistresses from Europe and plans to nullify the Constitution and name his son King.

These claims were made by surrogates for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson during the campaign of 1800. And you thought taking the low road was a modern phenomenon. Hardly. The rhetoric used by our Founding Fathers makes the 2004 campaign look like a race for home room president. And it got worse.

Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful column by Tamim Ansary, author of the critically acclaimed memoir West of Kabul, East of New York and 38 nonfiction books for children.

In 1820, “Andrew Jackson was running against the incumbent president, John Quincy Adams. Jackson's people nicknamed Adams ‘The Pimp’ because he introduced the czar of Russia to a young woman, with whom the czar later had an affair. They also charged that Adams had installed ‘gambling furniture’ in the White House (he had bought a pool table).”

“From the president's followers came this mature rejoinder: ‘General Jackson's mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE brought to this country by British soldiers! She afterward married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, one of whom was Andrew Jackson!

“Moving along now to Abraham Lincoln, arguably our greatest president. His opponents made a campaign issue of his looks. To be blunt, they called him ugly. Remember the nickname Honest Abe? Democratic newspapers called him ‘Honest Ape’ and ran cartoons depicting the great man as a monkey! Racist innuendo? You bet--and unblushingly so! Lincoln's opponents calculated that more than a few people at the time regarded racism as respectable.

“The election of 1876 (if you believed the dueling campaign literature) came down to a choice between an alcoholic, syphilitic con artist (Samuel Tilden) and a man so venal he robbed corpses on the battlefield during the Civil War and once shot a gun at his own mother (Rutherford B. Hayes).

“In short, American politics was never an elegant debating club guided by the values of Miss Manners.”
Truly unfettered speech may be untidy, but we have no business regulating it unduly. We should demand civil discourse by supporting reasonable cultural standards, not by passing laws against bad language. Our well-meaning attempts to enforce civil and proper debate put in jeopardy a higher value – unrestricted expression. As our Founding Fathers expressly stated: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Could they have been any clearer?

But in this post-9/11 era, isn’t it worth giving up some freedom in exchange for safety? Here’s what Benjamin Franklin had to say on the subject: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” I couldn’t agree more.

Of course, the really dicey issues involve obscenity, pornography and violence. What is acceptable? The most famous view is that of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who wrote in a concurring opinion:
“It is possible to read the Court's opinion in Roth v. United States and Alberts v. California, 354 U.S. 476, in a variety of ways. In saying this, I imply no criticism of the Court, which in those cases was faced with the task of trying to define what may be indefinable. I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court's decisions since Roth and Alberts, that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
The “I know it when I see it” definition of obscenity is a dangerous one for what I think are obvious reasons. This definition depends on the cultural, religious, and intellectual prisms through which the viewer experiences the speech in question. For example, some years after the Potter opinion, a Utah Supreme Court Justice wrote the following in an opinion about a pornographic movie:
“A more sickening, disgusting, depraved showing cannot be imagined. However, certain justices of the Supreme Court of the United States have said that before a matter can be held to be obscene, it must be ‘... when taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.’

“Some state judges, acting the part of sycophants, echo that doctrine. It would appear that such an argument ought only to be advanced by depraved, mentally deficient, mind-warped queers. Judges who seek to find technical excuses to permit such pictures to be shown under the pretense of finding some intrinsic value to it are reminiscent of a dog that returns to his vomit in search of some morsel in the filth which may have some redeeming value to his own taste. If those judges have not the good sense and decency to resign from their positions as judges, they should be removed either by impeachment or by the vote of the decent people of their constituency.”
Well, now, there’s a calm, rational point of view!

In general, more speech is better than less. Even when I believe that a letter to the editor or comment in a guest column casts me or my newspaper in an unfair or unflattering light, my instinct and general practice is to print it. I believe that the readers of the Post Register in eastern Idaho, if given information clearly and in context, can arrive at their own conclusions regarding what is said. If the choice is between messy free speech and tidy muzzled speech, I will lean toward the former. I recognize that I draw a less restrictive line than some of our readers would like.

Before I close, please forgive a brief digression into a semi-related issue: confidential sources. Too many newspapers – the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times most recently – attempt to equate the use and protection of confidential sources with the First Amendment. This is nonsense. Guarantees of press freedom are not absolute, and they certainly don’t extend to protecting sources. Some states have shield laws, which protect reporters from prosecution if they don’t want to divulge their confidential sources. Unfortunately, this protection encourages reporters and their sources to play fast and loose with the facts, including the publication of grand jury testimony (in the case of the Chronicle) that wasn’t subject to cross-examination or other scrutiny. The First Amendment does not give us the right to use confidential sources, and it is a dangerous practice that threatens the credibility of journalists. It should be reserved for only the most extraordinary situations.

Finally, I recognize that this is more art than science. No one understood that more than Thomas Jefferson, who in 1823 wrote this to his friend Lafayette: "The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure." This is the same man who, as president, said on several occasions that “the advertisement is the most truthful part of a newspaper.”

Here’s my view: Except in the rarest of instances – those that constitute a “clear and present danger” – the government and its entities, including our public universities (or private universities receiving public funding), must let speech happen. Draw the line when someone acts in a way that deprives others of their safety or freedom. If the speech simply makes others uncomfortable, let it rip. That will sort itself out. Among other things, it’s how we sort out the kooks from the rational people.

I believe in the advice of that famous revolutionary pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, who wrote: “I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion may be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

The title of my remarks today comes from a semi-famous play by famous playwright Tom Stoppard. The play, “Night and Day,” takes place in a fictional African country locked in a civil war. At one point, one of the protagonists of Stoppard’s story says, “No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press, everything is correctable. Without it, everything is concealable.” And so it is.

---

And now, for something completely different... A scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.


ARTHUR: How do you do, good lady. I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Who's castle is that?

WOMAN: King of the who?

ARTHUR: The Britons.

WOMAN: Who are the Britons?

ARTHUR: Well, we all are. We are all Britons, and I am your king.

WOMAN: I didn't know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.

DENNIS: You're fooling yourself. We're living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes--

WOMAN: Oh, there you go, bringing class into it again.

DENNIS: That's what it's all about. If only people would hear of--

ARTHUR: Please, please good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?

WOMAN: No one lives there.

ARTHUR: Then who is your lord?

WOMAN: We don't have a lord.

ARTHUR: What?

DENNIS: I told you. We're an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.

ARTHUR: Yes.

DENNIS: But all the decision of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting--

ARTHUR: Yes, I see.

DENNIS: By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs,--

ARTHUR: Be quiet!

DENNIS: But by a two-thirds majority in the case of more major--

ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!

WOMAN: Order, eh? Who does he think he is? Heh.

ARTHUR: I am your king!

WOMAN: Well, I didn't vote for you.

ARTHUR: You don't vote for kings.

WOMAN: Well, how did you become king then?

ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake,...
[angels sing]
...her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.
[singing stops]
That is why I am your king!

DENNIS: Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from themasses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

ARTHUR: Be quiet!

DENNIS: Well, but you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

ARTHUR: Shut up!

DENNIS: I mean, if I went 'round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!

ARTHUR: Shut up, will you. Shut up!

DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.

ARTHUR: Shut up!

DENNIS: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help! I'm being repressed!

ARTHUR: Bloody peasant!

DENNIS: Oh, what a give-away. Did you hear that? Did you hear that, eh? That's what I'm on about. Did you see him repressing me? You saw it, didn't you?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Information consumers should beware, too

One of the great challenges for information consumers in the 21st century is figuring out whether to believe what they read, see or hear.

The first rule of thumb is that no information source is infallible. Usually reliable sources such as the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, the Economist or the nation's major magazines and newspapers miss the mark from time to time and publish a story that's either insufficiently researched or is too influenced by the writer's personal bias. Journalism involves human beings, which means it's subject to human error.

In the case of usually reliable and credible information sources, the best way to ensure that what you're reading is accurate is to check it against other usually reliable, credible information sources.

Perhaps understandably, we are all too eager to accept as gospel information or stories that conform to our personal politics or values, regardless of the veracity of the source. We tend to drift toward sources that skew toward our value set. Sources that want to be seen as credible but too often insert a particular political spin to their coverage include such TV networks and Web sites as MSNBC, Fox, Huffington Post and The Drudge Report.

Of course, all the national political magazines such as The Nation, New Republic, American Conservative and National Review, among many others, make no pretense of applying any standards of journalism to their work -- they are opinion, pure and simple. Take them for what they are.

Then there are the information sources that are filled with nothing but conjecture, innuendo, spin, blather and even hatred and lies. Many of the chain e-mails so popular nowadays fall into this category -- they come across as credible information when they are essentially complete fiction. But how to tell?

One good standard is the same one we apply to food that may have been in the refrigerator too long but looks OK -- when in doubt, throw it out. Unless an unsolicited e-mail provides sufficient sourcing and background information for a claim, it's probably bogus.

We've all received these -- debunked claims that President Barrack Obama isn't an American citizen, or that the New World Order is secretly controlling the global economy. While this is perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists, the information is almost always just plain wrong.

If you aren't willing to just hit "delete" on this sort of material, there are a number of Web sites that specialize in investigating urban myths and other nonsensical material floating around the Internet, including these two: Snopes.com and factcheck.org, the latter of which is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The bottom line is, not all "news" is created equal.

Journalism in the Age of Entertainment

Can journalism survive the Age of Entertainment?

Put another way, is journalism still relevant?

To understand what journalism is supposed to be, it might be helpful to talk first about what it isn't.

An Internet blog written by a left-wing or right-wing partisan that makes no pretense of fairness, balance, accuracy or integrity is not journalism. That's probably pretty obvious.

The increasingly popular practice of publishing information provided and paid for by an advertiser and pretending it's news is not journalism. (Don't get me wrong -- advertising is essential to a good newspaper, but ads are ads and news is news, and you should be able to tell the difference.)

What Keith Olbermann, Bill O'Reilly and Nancy Grace do is entertainment, not journalism.

Regurgitating something overheard on a police scanner just to be first with a story regardless of whether it's accurate isn't journalism.

Even traditional news outlets are less committed to journalism than they used to be. For example, coverage of the presidential campaign has once again devolved into sound bites over who's winning the public image war instead of a discussion of whose proposed policies might be best for our country.

There's a new idea floating around called "citizen journalism." This mostly involves regular folks with video-camera cell phones recording an incident or event and posting it on a Web site. This is not journalism, citizen or otherwise.

The blame is not entirely with the media. Americans increasingly seem to prefer the trivial to thoughtful, thorough reporting. While a taste for the tawdry and superficial has never been exactly uncommon, a lack of interest in "serious" journalism seems to be a growing national trend.

The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that is 759 words long. Summarized, SPJ defines the journalist's duty as "... seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues."

To some, this notion of journalism is quaint, even pass. We beg to differ. We argue that there's never been a greater need for real journalism.

Unfortunately, much of what passes for journalism nowadays makes a mockery of that standard.

The Post Register's aim is to set itself apart from the other options out there by practicing straightforward, unflinching journalism, whether we publish it as a text message, online bulletin, printed story and photo package, or multimedia Internet presentation.

That doesn't mean it's got to be stuffy -- we can be pithy and compelling and still provide good journalism. In other words, we can be journalists without filling page after page with gray text and big words. Good journalism needn't be humorless or colorless, nor must it exude self-importance. Journalism can be both interesting and good for you.

We want you to know that at a time when journalism seems to be disappearing, we remain committed to it, regardless of what medium we use to provide you the news. We're betting that, in the long run, there are enough people who will demand journalism over entertainment that local newspapers like the Post Register will be around for another 130 years.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The need for nuance

Originally published in the Post Register.

The need for a reasoned, sensible public debate has never been greater?

Public debate has almost always been as it is today -- unsophisticated, lacking nuance and perspective, shrill, destructive.

Keith Olbermann refers to "the dark, hateful place of Dick Cheney's own soul." Sean Hannity said "You have to be a moral fool" if you oppose water-boarding.

On and on it goes.

There have been exceptions over the years. The Federalist Papers, written to support ratification of the Constitution, were reasoned and focused on the issues at a time when the stakes couldn't have been higher. (One of the Federalist's chief authors, Alexander Hamilton, would later engage in despicable distortions during the presidential election of 1800.)

We look all the way back to the ancient Greeks for a preferred model.

But these are the exceptions, not the rule. The main difference between the ugliness of today's public discourse and that of 200 years ago is the shear immediacy and ubiquity of the media. There's no waiting for pamphlets to be written, printed and distributed. We debate in real time and suffer from the lack of opportunity for contemplation.

Add to that the need for commentators to draw viewers, readers and/or visitors to make money and you get a perfect recipe for a breathtakingly ill-mannered public discourse that generally serves to ratchet up anger and hatred, not to mention ignorance and misunderstanding. No political wing is exempt from this charge.

There is no time for or interest in nuance -- the simple recognition that most issues are complex and require the ability to differentiate their subtleties and shadings. In my experience, there are few issues, once they are fully explored, that can be simply explained. This does not mean that we shouldn't have an opinion or not be firm in its defense.

But we should embrace a process of developing opinions that requires one to be fully informed, to consider all responsible arguments and arrive at a reasoned and rational conclusion -- and when new evidence is brought forward, to be open to revisiting the process.

What would happen if, even just once, one of our political commentators -- the Post Register's editorial page, for example -- wrote something like this: "In taking a fresh look at this issue, we have concluded that we erred in our opinion and, after further study, wish to change our position." Or, if Hannity or Olbermann talked about solutions instead of people they don't like?

They do what they do because we the viewer, listener and reader encourage bombast. When the discussion is thoughtful and in-depth, we pay no attention. The commentators who entertain by denigrating win the ratings. We can change that if we have the will.

Do we?