Sunday, December 26, 2010

Somebody smarter than I explains the fallacy of net neutrality...

Click and enjoy.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

What some people say about me ...

... sometimes right to my face!

When does a story become a story?

When the Blackfoot School District announced this week that it was putting Blackfoot High School basketball Coach Jonathon Packer on paid leave, it said it was doing so out of “an abundance of caution.”

That phrase also describes the Post Register’s approach to covering this story and ones like it.

Recent allegations of abuse disguised as “hazing”, most recently out of Bingham County but previously from Teton County and Shelley, create some difficult issues for journalists.

For example, the Post Register has a longstanding policy of not printing stories about the possibility of charges being filed in a criminal investigation or a suggestion that someone is considering filing a civil lawsuit. There have been very rare exceptions to this rule, but we nearly always wait until actual charges or lawsuits are filed before publishing a story.

Some other newspapers and news outlets don’t have such strict standards, often printing or broadcasting that charges “are being considered” or “might be filed.” This creates confusion – too many people assume that means that arrests have been made and people have actually been charged with a crime. In fact, one outlet mistakenly reported that additional charges had actually been filed in Blackfoot when they hadn’t.

So, while information about potential charges swirls, the Post Register waits. When someone is formally charged, we do the story. 

This isn’t a back-patting exercise. Journalists are free to operate under whatever standards they set. We’re simply explaining how we do it, and why. 

Beyond creating confusion, printing a story that “so and so says she will file a suit against such and such” opens the door to manipulation by people involved in legal disagreements. A public threat to sue can maneuver public opinion one way or another – we won’t do the story until the threatened lawsuit actually appears in a court file, thus complying with the requirements of the law.

This also illustrates why an open court system is so important. It’s tempting to want to seal any court proceedings that include embarrassing or otherwise dreadful material – like the hazing of high school students that potentially crosses the line to criminal behavior. The Post Register doesn’t print the names of juveniles (unless they eventually are charged as an adult) or victims in such cases. But court files need to stay open so the process can be observed once the legal process begins.

We still don’t know if anyone committed a crime, if those who are supposed to be overseeing sports programs were negligent, or how widespread the problem is. The Post Register and other local media will continue to cover the story as it unfolds, though we might go about it differently. We thought you should know why.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Open letter to AP staffers

Open letter to the AP staffers who are withholding their bylines to protest the latest contract offer to the Newspaper Guild, the union representing them:

Dear AP staffers:

You don’t get it. You really, really don’t.

You do great work. Your journalism is top-notch. You come out of one of the proudest traditions in journalism. But your union’s stand on current contract negotiations with the Associated Press is wrong-headed and more likely to result in a quicker demise of the AP than might otherwise occur.

Linda Deutsch, the AP’s most notable courts and crime writer, is a Facebook friend of my wife. I sent her this note via Facebook today:
Linda: I appreciate the frustration felt by AP staffers and their reaction to the latest contract proposal. It might be helpful for you to see it from the perspective of a member publisher.

I just sent the AP my two-year cancellation notice, the second I've sent in the past four years (the first resulted in a new, more acceptable contract). In the past three years, the Post Register has had to reduce its newsroom by 25 percent, cut pay, institute furloughs and increase the cost of benefits shared by employees. 

I have been a vocal and frequent critic of the AP in recent years as it has been slow to change to accommodate the needs of its members. One reason for the slowness of change, I fear, has been the Guild's reluctance to accept the reality of what's going on. If it doesn't become more flexible it risks killing the AP entirely.
You have a new competitor -- Thomson-Reuters. If the Guild doesn't think the Reuters threat is real, it is mistaken. What member newspapers need from the AP has changed drastically. The Guild and the AP's board and managers still don't get that.
Highest regards,
Roger Plothow
Editor and Publisher
Post Register
Idaho Falls, Idaho
An AP staffer called me after receiving my latest cancellation notice and among her questions was whether the quality of the AP’s work was a concern. I told her, “It’s too good. We need just good enough.”

We’re a local paper. We need the AP to fill in around the edges, to provide a sense of global happenings. I told AP managers eight years ago the same thing I tell them today: “I need 25 percent of the content you now give me for 50 percent of the cost.” That’s it.

It appears that Reuters is ready to do that. One of Thomson-Reuters' mucky-mucks is Jim Smith, a really good guy who was my boss for a time at Thomson. Jim is a former newspaper publisher. He gets it.

The AP, unfortunately, still does not.

Monday, December 13, 2010

All my work, and Dilbert does this ...

I don't really have anything new to say. I just happened to be looking through some old Dilberts and I found this one, which illustrates, yet again, why someone with a little talent can convey a message with art and humor, while a poor scribe like myself struggles mightily to convey the same message with great earnestness and too many words.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"JOA" for television

The announcement of a shared services agreement between KIFI and KIDK this week has a familiar ring to it – newspapers in some markets negotiated similar “joint operating agreements” with mixed success 25 or more years ago.

At this point only one thing is certain – in the long battle between KIDK and KIFI dating back nearly 50 years, KIFI is the winner.

The agreement essentially turns all of KIDK’s operations over to KIFI, while allowing KIDK to continue to broadcast CBS network programming plus, presumably, a lineup of syndicated programming separate from that offered by KIFI. All but a dozen or so of KIDK’s 50-plus employees will be laid off. Perhaps of greatest interest locally, KIFI will be providing the news for both stations beginning sometime in January. The exact financial arrangements have not been disclosed.

This is a huge coup for KIFI, which was the latecomer to Idaho Falls television, launching in 1961, eight years after KID (which became KIDK). KPVI, based in Pocatello, came along in the early 1970s. All three stations attempt to cover the entire eastern Idaho/western Wyoming region, but it’s long been clear that KIFI and KIDK have been seen as Idaho Falls stations and KPVI is considered the Pocatello station.

KIDK, owned by Fisher Communications based in Seattle, has been struggling for some time, both financially and in the local news ratings. KIFI, particularly by maintaining the longstanding anchor team of Jay Hildebrandt and Karole Honas, has dominated news ratings, which helped the station set and get higher advertising rates. The agreement will essentially leave Idaho Falls and Pocatello with one TV station each that produces any kind of original local news programming.

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida, believes there will be more such agreements between competing TV stations in the near future.

“I think that is part of a trend. I think the nature of the TV business is that there is a lot of financial logic to combining news operations,” he said. “To put it another way, it’s not in the cards for a lot of markets to support three or four news staffs.”

Edmonds compares the trend to what happened in newspapers 25 or more years ago when newspapers in large markets formed joint operating agreements. Many of those agreements have since failed with the closure of one or more newspapers, but they still exist in places like Salt Lake City and Detroit.

The combining of TV operations is more likely to be successful than the largely failed experiments of five or 10 years ago for newspapers and TV stations to combine newsgathering and, sometimes, sales resources, Edmonds believes.

“At the end of the day these (newspapers and television stations) are pretty different cultures, both in a sales way and in a news way. This sort of agreement stands a better chance of working then the cross-media attempts did between TV and newspapers.”

Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member for broadcast and online at Poynter, believes there will continue to be a washout of TV stations providing news.

“Not every market needs four news stations. It’s just a fire hose of information and in some places there’s a garden hose of interest,” he said.

With sources for news, information and advertising becoming increasing fragmented, a deal like this was only a matter of time. Eastern Idaho was probably never really a three-station market (let alone four, with the addition of Fox, or even more as the local affiliates roll out digital channels). In recent years, KIDK could never overcome the solid performance of the KIFI news team. Both organizations saw plenty of comings and goings, but Hildebrandt and Honas were the constants.

(In the interest of full disclosure, KIFI was owned by the Post Company – the same company that owns the Post Register – until 2005, when it was sold to News-Press and Gazette Company out of St. Joseph, Missouri.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is neither terrorist nor hero.

As in the case of the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago, members of the military and government are making exaggerated claims that Assange may have blood on his hands because information in the leaks – particularly earlier leaks about the war in Afghanistan – might lead to deaths there. Such claims by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates last July were never confirmed with any evidence.

With Wikileaks' latest release of diplomatic cables, some politicians are even calling Assange a terrorist. That’s nonsense, but the unfiltered publication of stolen government documents is irresponsible and unnecessary.

The New York Times has taken the extraordinary step of asking the U.S. State Department to review the documents it intends to publish and is redacting some of the most sensitive material. The government isn’t happy about what is being published, but this is a far more responsible approach than just pushing the material into the public domain.

There are areas where the Pentagon Papers and the current Wikileaks material diverge. The Pentagon Papers were historical – they dealt with earlier periods of the Vietnam War, providing important perspective on how decisions were made. The Wikileaks material is more current. However, claims then, just as claims now -- that release of the material would do the country irreparable harm --are overblown.

It’s likely that most people shouting the loudest about the need for government secrecy have not read the material in question. If they had, they would know that it’s a little like reading a thousand diaries from a thousand writers, each providing a small glimpse into a complex situation – sometimes the Afghanistan War, sometimes the intricacies of diplomacy.

Countries need their secrets, but not nearly as many as presidents, kings, prime ministers or dictators like to think. The number of innocent lives lost because of decisions made in secret must be magnitudes greater than the number lost because of unwanted disclosure. We’ll never know, of course, because most secrets stay secret.

The Post Register’s editors are in no position to know what of this material should be printed and what shouldn’t, but we have taken a conservative approach. We think the Associated Press has generally acted responsibly in covering the releases and we’ve followed that lead. It appears that the New York Times – far from irresponsibly publishing unedited material without journalistic consideration – has taken a careful approach; so much so that the stories on the information aren’t terribly compelling.

The debate over Wikileaks, like that over the Pentagon Papers, is an important one. Unfortunately, this debate is like so many before it – long on rhetoric, short on facts.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is there anybody out there?

The power implicit in the First Amendment freedoms of press and speech ultimately comes from the actions they evoke, not merely through exposing hidden deeds to the light.

Those words sounds a bit lofty, but the framers assumed that by guaranteeing a free press, freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances that Americans would actually use those rights instead of just arguing about them.

Freedom plus apathy equals status quo.

Over the past 20 years I’ve had the frequent opportunity to work with Idaho legislators in various attempts to improve Idaho’s “Sunshine Laws” -- those portions of state code protecting the peoples’ right to know by requiring the government to hold open meetings and maintain open records. The result has been a minor tweak here and there and occasional leaps forward, but Idaho remains well behind much of the rest of the country in requiring the government to be open.

It’s always struck me as odd that a state as politically conservative as Idaho seems to be so trusting of its government that its citizens allow weak Sunshine Laws to go unchallenged. When members of the journalism community meet with legislators to improve these laws, we often hear the same reply: “This is a newspaper bill. Why aren’t the people demanding this sort of change? You just want this information to help you sell papers.”

It’s a pretty compelling, if flawed, argument. The most obvious response is that the people elected these legislators to represent them and to see that their rights are protected. They shouldn’t have to show up en masse to every committee meeting or legislative session. But, in the absence of an obvious demand from citizens, legislators can be forgiven for taking the easy road and not demanding real openness in government.

Why? Oversimplified, it’s because two of the most powerful lobbies in Boise are the Idaho Association of Counties and the Association of Idaho Cities, which are organized and run by elected officials with whom our legislators feel a certain kindred spirit. Sunshine Laws create messy, inefficient government, and in the vacuum of citizen silence this argument often carries the day.

I have a few correspondents who argue that the Post Register ought to recognize the apathy of Idaho citizens and serve more as an advocate than an objective reporter on certain issues. I resist this, partially because it offends what I’ve come to accept as the ethics of journalism. But more practically speaking, in time advocacy erodes journalism’s credibility, and that’s too high a price to pay.

But I am often left to wonder: Is anybody listening? And if so, to what end?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Once more, with feeling

There are myriad, mostly mythological, explanations for why the American business model for journalism -- successful for generations -- is undergoing wrenching change.

The Internet, of course, is perceived as the main culprit. The problem with this is that technology by itself changes nothing -- how consumers and businesses respond to technology is what matters. But there are deeper, more systemic issues at play here.

In their recent book, The Changing Business of Journalism and Its Implications for Democracy, two Oxford University professor draw some conclusions that will be familiar to readers of this blog. The most striking is that the over-reliance on advertising revenue by U.S. media -- particularly newspapers and magazines -- has been as much to blame for current business troubles than the Internet.

In Europe, as both this book and previous studies I've noted before point out, only 50 percent of newspaper revenue comes from advertising, compared to 80 percent in the U.S. In many parts of Asia, the ratio is the reverse of the U.S. -- 20 percent of revenue comes from advertising and 80 percent from the sale of the produce to consumers.

Why is this important? First, a huge reliance on advertising sales in essentially monopolistic markets created enormous profit margins for newspapers -- often approaching or exceeding 40 percent. This sort of return eventually led to the creation of enormous newspaper chains that were less invested in the communities served by their newspapers than they were in ensuring increasing returns to shareholders.

But probably more important is that higher cover prices charged and received for newspapers and magazines in Asia and Europe made the news seem less like a commodity and more like something of real value. Of course, particularly in the U.S., the information-as-commodity trend really hit its stride when newspapers put their information online for free beginning 15 years ago.

Here's the book's "nut graph":
While the industry has certainly suffered severe declines in revenues in several countries in recent years, the latest downturns seem to be more closely connected with the relative degree of dependence on volatile revenue sources like advertising and on the differential impact of the global recession than with the spread of the internet.
To be sure, it's oh-so-tempting to reach for simple solutions to complex problems, and the evolution of journalism business models is enormously complex. As the authors note, European models tend to include a high public sector investment (tax subsidies, taxpayer-funded journalism of various sorts) that would never fly in the U.S. -- and rightly so. But, as earlier research has shown, most European and Asian newspapers adopted some sort of online subscription model years ago while U.S. newspapers continue to wring their hands and take baby steps.

As advertising platforms continue to fragment, there's one thing that is remaining constant -- 1,400 daily newspapers in the U.S. continue to provide the best journalism available, and most of those papers are so dominant in their local markets that there continues to be little real competition. What this suggests is that newspapers should ask for more, not less, from their subscribers and not expect the old 80/20 advertising-to-subscription revenue ratio to hold up. Total print circulation numbers may continue to fall, but combined print and online readership and total circulation revenue should continue to rise.

There are really only two things for certain: 1) Clinging to the old model won't work. 2) Giving valuable news and information away in the impossible hope to make up for the lost subscription revenue through increased ad revenue won't work, either.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fear-mongering, ignorance and the not-so-fine arts

Today Kathleen and I were shopping at the mall in Provo, Utah and came across a store that sold what appeared to be knock-offs of Thomas Kinkade-style paintings, many with Mormon themes. This being Sunday, the store was closed, the cage drawn down.

Dominating the entry area was a large painting of a crowd of men standing in front of the White House. On further inspection, it became clear that the men were the 44 presidents of the United States. There was a forlorn man sitting on a bench with four presidents appearing to comfort the fellow. All of the other presidents are paying the man no attention.

In the foreground is President Obama, who appears particularly disdainful. Under his right foot is -- a copy of the Constitution. Dollar bills litter the ground nearby. There are other papers, including the act that created Social Security, etc. Subtle it is not. "Fine art" it is not. It's title is "The Forgotten Man."

Who, you would ask, are the four presidents who are depicted favorably? They are Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and -- wait for it -- Ronald Reagan. Yes of the 44 American presidents, he is among the four who deserve particular credit for coming to the aid of the common man.

It turns out that this painting has become either famous or infamous in various circles. I'm surprised I'd not heard of it. The depiction is so despicable that I won't mention the artist's name, but he's copyrighted the image so I can't show it here. You can see it, complete with a detailed description of the symbolism (as if you'll need it) on the artist's web site.

The artist is quick to argue that his depiction isn't racist and that he deplores both parties. In other words, he's an equal-opportunity bigot and simpleton. He suggests that his purpose is to incite discussion. I beg to differ -- he's attempting to use his modest artistic talent to color over centuries of history, debate, compromise, sincere effort, progress and failure. In this way he's no different than the talk show hosts, bloggers and talking heads of our era who profess to wanting simply to engage the debate but who are clearly not sincere.

We've all seen lots of ugly art, but I don't recall seeing anything quite so disgusting as "The Forgotten Man." I was so appalled that I went to the men's room, took a piece of paper hand towel and wrote a brief note, which I jammed into a notch in the metal cage protecting the store. While I was in the men's room, a couple had walked up to the store and were standing at the opening looking at the painting.

"I'm surprised," said the woman to the man next to her, apparently her husband.

"Why?" I asked.

"I know these people," she said, apparently referring to the artist and his family. "I'm disappointed."

I showed her my note.

"Good for you," she said. Small comfort.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Click "Like" and change the world

Wildly simplified, Moore's law famously states that the capacity and speed of computing technology doubles every two years.

Here's another law that is equally accurate and would be remarkable were it not for the fact that it's based on 20 years of Internet history instead of the precise calculations of an ingenious mind: The implications of every advance on the Internet will be overstated.

A famous example from the Internet's infancy was the thought among some really, really smart people that the Internet would help the world resolve conflicts before countries and people resorted to guns and bombs, because we'd have the communications capacity to work things out. Of course, a version of the opposite has proven true -- the more we communicate in real time with each other, the more we disagree. And shooting wars certainly haven't diminished.

Advocates of social media (read: Facebook and its step-cousins) think this is a marvelous way to organize people into taking real action that will change the world. In other words, by clicking "Like," we can end racism, AIDS, and obesity.

I kid. But let's hear from a really, really smart person --Malcom Gladwell, author of Blink and Tipping Point, writing in the New Yorker:
The evangelists of social media ... seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend ... Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.
Why is this not painfully obvious to anyone observing the phenomenon? Perhaps it's because we desperately want to believe that the world really can change by our clicking "Like", because, wouldn't that be splendid and not require us to get our hands dirty?

The Post Register launched its very own Facebook page last spring and, as of today, 888 people have clicked "Like." We are very proud -- I confess that I check that number from time to time and enjoy watching it go up. We're going to have some kind of party when we hit 1,000. As a result of all of these Facebook friends, the Post Register is ... no more or less successful than it had been without them.

Facebook is a free and easy promotional tool, and we do occasionally get some interesting feedback on our page. Beyond that, it's a non-event.

But enough about my newspaper. What about, you know, changing the world? Here's more of that pesky data from Gladwell: The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece.

I know, and I know -- that's $115,410.51! That's nothing to sniff at, and it's a good deal more than zero. But change the world it will not, and it certainly is less successful in fund-raising than other, more traditional means.

Gladwell contrasts the early organizing efforts of the civil rights movement with similar efforts online. Would Jim Crow have been defeated by a million people clicking "Like?" Of course not, and we won't end hunger or breast cancer with a mouse click, either.

I like Facebook -- I'm on it every day that I'm not on vacation or otherwise engaged in productive human activity. It's allowed me to re-connect with some old friends, stay connected with my family and to post my really pretty pictures of sunsets. It's entirely possible, however, that if I had exchanged my time on Facebook with some other activity that the common cold would be history by now. Probably not, but you get my drift.

Now, click "Like," please.

Update: We're up to 890, just in the time it took to write this. (Like!)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Olbermann doesn't get it

I like to watch Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" show, mostly because he's smart and funny, and he has a terrific grasp of history, politics and the English language. But he doesn't understand journalism.

As I write this, he's still going on and on in his latest "special comment," attempting to refute (articulately but somewhat pathetically) Ted Koppel's recent assertion in the Washington Post that Olbermann and his right-wing counterparts are not journalists. Olbermann is unpersuasive.

Of course, I champion Koppel's position because I published a version of it four days prior to his Post column. Olbermann refers to journalists who practice the tradition of our better angels as "glorified stenographers" who he suggests are incapable of making a difference. Nonsense. He oversimplifies the role and work of real journalists to give himself more apparent gravitas.

I am gratified to note that Olbermann appears to have been speaking about TV journalism, which is often a contradiction in terms on the highest level. Still, he clearly wants to be seen as a journalist in the same sense that Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite were. Oh, please. If that weren't so presumptuous it would be comical. Yes, as Olbermann correctly pointed out, both Murrow and Cronkite -- plus countless other broadcast journalists of earlier eras -- occasionally lapsed into commentary. But it was not their stock-in-trade. It was precisely because they rarely engaged in commentary that they had the credibility to be persuasive when they did.

Olbermann clearly has the talent to portray umbrage, even outrage, and he may even actually feel it. But he just needs to give up the argument that he's a journalist. He's not, and he doesn't have the street cred to pull it off. He's a commentator, and a damned good one. That should be enough.

He claims that Koppel suggested that MSNBC and Fox News are essentially equivalent but opposite sides of the same coin. Koppel did not. He simply said that neither rises to the level of journalism. Whether one comes closer than the other is no more relevant than trying to figure out which woman is more pregnant.

Koppel gave voice to essentially the same point I had made in my column about MSNBC's silly reaction to the uncovering of Olbermann's contributions to Democratic candidates, though he was more eloquent:
The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we're now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers.
And yet Olbermann, with a straight, even stern, face, argued the opposite -- that the times require hacking down "the false god of objectivity." While achieving complete objectivity by human journalists may be out of our reach, we shouldn't stop striving for the ideal. It makes us better, even as we fall just short. To toss it out under the guise of a "more honest" exposition of personal editorializing is fine, so long as it's not called journalism doesn't pretend to be.

I will continue to watch Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, mostly because I find them intellectually stimulating in a way that Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly cannot possibly pull off. But when I want journalism I will turn to newspapers.

Monday, November 8, 2010

What was MSNBC thinking?

Neither MSNBC nor its commentator, Keith Olbermann, would be considered a bastion of good journalism.

Olbermann, a former ESPN host, is a bright, articulate and insightful guy who can be alternately funny and angry, sometimes on the same broadcast. He was suspended without pay by his network for two days recently when it was disclosed that he had contributed to the campaigns of several Democratic candidates.

We learned later that his suspension wasn’t so much for the contributions but because he hadn’t received permission from his higher-ups to do it. That’s nuts.

There’s nothing new about commentators contributing to political campaigns. Many on either side of the political spectrum have done it, and some commentators actually run for office while doing their commentating. At this point everyone pretty much knows that MSNBC, Fox News and, increasingly, CNN, are entertainment and opinion networks, not news organizations that pay a lot of attention to journalism ethics.

That’s entirely OK, but it makes Olbermann’s suspension even odder. He leans left – hard. Spend 15 minutes watching his show and it’s obvious. That he would contribute to Democrats is about as surprising as learning that potatoes come from Idaho.

Fox News still uses its “fair and balanced” slogan when it clearly has no intention of being either. Fox leans right – hard - and everybody knows it. That’s OK, too, but fair and balanced it certainly is not.

Legitimate news organizations adopt, enforce and make public their ethical standards. They are no mystery. For example, there is a clear separation between news and opinion. Reporters don’t make contributions to parties or candidates. They (I’m quoting now from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics):
o Seek truth and report it.
o Minimize harm.
o Act independently.
o Are accountable.
It sounds pompous or quaint in today’s cynical media environment, but the objective of the journalist can be summed up with this paraphrasing from SPJ: “The duty of the journalist is to further public enlightenment by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.”

Organizations that focus more on entertainment and opinion aren’t necessarily less honorable than those that focus on journalism, but they are decidedly different, just as they are likely to be more profitable. C-Span and the PBS News Hour don’t exactly rake in the viewers, and the evening news broadcasts of the major TV networks don’t get many more. We prefer, it seems, to listen to people who share our world view and who can both entertain and infuriate.

MSNBC managers should drop their journalistic pretensions and they should never have suspended Olbermann in the first place. It made them look bad.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

It's still about the content

Local affiliates for broadcast television are in a pickle.

Google TV wants to stream all of those network shows on the Internet for free, relying on ad revenue to cover the cost. Google says it'll share that revenue with the networks.

Not surprisingly, the networks aren't buying it. For one thing, the move would disrupt the networks' distribution vehicles -- the local affiliates. For another, Google ad revenue wouldn't generate enough money to support the level of programming now available.

If you're an affiliate, here's some news that should make you uneasy: Google and the networks are negotiating.

For now, the networks are blocking Google from streaming their programming. But the future of local network affiliates is uncertain, at best. Here's the view of Cory Bergman of
Of course, this is all very interesting from the perspective of local affiliates. If people can watch network shows a la carte on their TV sets, then the highest-rated daypart known as primetime risks becoming an artifact. And economically, that’s not good news. The urgency for local TV is simple: produce and aggressively distribute unique, compelling local content that you control. For the networks, well, we’ll see how this battle plays out. Remember, many of them have cable TV channels of their own, so they’re not inclined to make enemies with cable companies. (And in NBC’s case, Comcast will soon become its majority owner.)
Newspapers face the same challenge -- produce unique local content or die. The differences are, first, that newspapers have always been local news producers first and foremost; second, there's often just one newspaper in a market that may have three, four, or more network affiliates vying for viewership, and; third, producing news and information for print and online is a lot cheaper than doing it for TV.

Netflix is in this mix, too. We have all learned recently that the streaming of Netflix movies now accounts for the use of about 20 percent of U.S. bandwidth. Netflix has been smart -- it pays for the content up front and charges customers to view it, instead of attempting to make its money via advertising on the back end. This is potentially a much more attractive model to TV networks, but it circumvents the local affiliates.

Here's what Mark Cuban thinks:
All you internet pundits want the broadcast networks to give the content away for free. THAT IS STUPID. Get Netflix to pay you on a per subscriber basis on a par with what your other TV providers pay you. Netflix becomes a competitive TV provider. BRILLIANT. You get paid. You reach Google TV users and non Google TV users.
OK, Cuban is a goofball, but when it comes to the business of the Internet he's been pretty spot on.

Live streaming across the Internet isn't going to replace traditional TV distribution channels any time soon. For one thing, the current Internet infrastructure can't support that much data. But here's one thing that's all but certain -- if you don't produce your own high-value content (in the case of small markets, that's local news and information), you're eventually going to be in trouble.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Culture of scandal

Journalism and politics are in a sorry state -- there can be little debate there.

How we got here is a more open question. Any student of history will know that the days of civil public discourse, or universally good-faith practitioners of either journalism or politics, are mostly mythical. While many good people have labored in both vocations over our country’s history, there have been all too many villains.

Author Mark Feldstein has skillfully and carefully (his footnotes and bibliography run to more than 70 pages) laid a portion of this history out in his excellent new book, “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.”

In his prologue, Feldstein writes:
“In the modern era … predatory politics and merciless media returned with a vengeance. Policy differences effectively became criminalized as partisans used investigative machinery of government and the press to wage political battle. In the same way that war was diplomacy by other means, so attack journalism became politics by other means, and the news media became the crucial vehicle by which this guerrilla warfare was waged.”
And so it is. Journalism and politics are increasingly intertwined and the victims are truth and facts.

In my apparently na├»ve and outdated view, journalism’s aim should be to put information into the hands of the people with context, perspective, substance and, to the degree humans can provide it, objectivity. I’m not alone, of course.
America is blessed with thousands of journalists who have the same goals.

Likewise, our country is blessed with many thousands of elected officials whose main goal is to make their country, their state, their county, their city a better place. I’ve met many of them.

Unfortunately, power and greed are hard to resist for both journalists and politicians. Perhaps even more sinister is the tendency for people of either vocation to convince themselves that the ends justify the means, that so long as they sincerely believe they are striving for a good outcome they may pursue an unethical path.

While there’s no doubt that neither journalists nor politicians have uniformly upheld their highest ideals over the years, it’s equally clear that our circumstances today are more dire. Cynicism runs both deep and wide -- too many in our country either accept and embrace the scandal culture or have become so angered by it that they believe threats or pursuit of violence are the only options.

The solutions rest not with either journalists or politicians, but with the people. When you demand that your elected officials and providers of information clean up their act, it will begin to happen. Until then, smarmy politicians and purveyors of bad information will thrive.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Whither Associated Press

Every weekday at 3 p.m. the brain trust of the Post Register’s newsroom gathers around a desk and collectively decides what stories will appear on the next day’s front page.

The process usually involves a dart board and/or dice. Nah, just kidding.

In truth, we consider a number of factors when deciding what to put out front. First, there’s always a local story and photo package planned in advance. Barring any breaking news, that becomes the centerpiece of the front page. There’s usually a second local story and photo package planned for our West section front.

Almost always we have two or three more local stories in consideration for the front page and a similar number for the West section front. An editor also prepares a review of the day’s selection of stories from the Associated Press.

We are sometimes criticized for our selection, particularly when there has been a significant national or world story that doesn’t make the front page. Here’s how we approach the decision.

Remember that our presses start every morning at 12:30 for a newspaper that will be delivered to your home at around 7 a.m. The first papers off the press head to Salmon and Challis and the last ones are delivered to Idaho Falls. Since there’s a time lag, we often won’t put a breaking national or world story on A1 because that news will likely have changed by morning.

We also assume that if there’s a big story that has been all over TV, radio and the Internet during the day, most of our readers will be very much aware of it. Local newspapers are better than any other media at in-depth local news and providing context and perspective on national and world news. Other media are better at national and world breaking news -- an obvious example being the Chile mine rescue. The savvy news consumer will selectively use all media.

So, sometimes a big story gets inside play in the Post Register if we don’t think we have any significant to add to the story. That’s when we’ll get a few calls from people asking what we were thinking.

Some stories are so big that we put them on the front page anyway -- national elections, for example. As sources for news beyond eastern Idaho become increasingly ubiquitous, we are printing less information about what’s happening outside our coverage area.

Indeed, we have frequent discussions about whether there will come a time when we will no longer print any national and world news provided by the Associated Press. At least one daily newspaper, the 14,000-circulation Chronicle in Centralia, Washington -- has taken this step.

No, this isn’t an announcement. Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

America's imperfect journalism: Still better than the rest

The newspaper business model that has served news consumers reasonably well for about a century is rapidly evolving into something new.

When that sort of disruption takes place, a lot of people from both inside and outside want to find a single solution. It’s more likely that America’s journalism landscape will be populated by a variety of business models that will include both traditional and new revenue sources.

In the early years of our country most newspapers were sponsored by political parties instead of relying on advertising and subscriptions for their income. The resulting crossfire infuriated the leaders of the time, from Washington to Lincoln and beyond.

As the number of political parties diminished, many newspapers disappeared and the survivors turned to other means for revenue, eventually settling on the basic formula in use today -- advertising and subscriptions. In the United States the mix is about 70 percent advertising, 20 percent subscriptions and 10 percent “other” (events, printing, etc.). In Europe it’s more of a 50-50 split and in many Asian countries it’s precisely the opposite of the U.S. : 80 percent subscriptions, 20 percent advertising.

Why the history lesson? First, while relying on advertising isn’t a perfect solution, it’s a lot better than relying on a political party, with its obvious issues. All media must have sustainable business models to operate, and where there’s money there’s the concern that journalism can be influenced. In many countries outside the U.S., taxes pay for a lot of the journalism. The imperfect American model is better than that.

As media of every sort attempt to find their way on the Internet, some are toying with the idea of relying on donations to operate -- the National Public Radio model. While it might work for a handful of organizations, it’s not the panacea some are hoping for.

Last fall, Ellen Weiss, NPR’s vice president for news, spoke to the Media Technology Summit at the Google world headquarters in Mountain View, California. I was privileged to attend the conference. Weiss made it clear that non-profit journalism has its limitations. Here are some of my notes from her presentation:
The NPR non-profit model has taken 35 years to build up. Essentially, she's saying, it's not as easy at is looks. Contributors are "members," not just contributors of cash. "It's an inconceivable degree of loyalty," she adds.
Good journalism is expensive, requiring skilled and experienced people spending the necessary time to gather and verify information and put it into the appropriate context. There’s a major disruption in the system that has paid for that journalism over the past hundred-plus years, and it’s likely that there will ultimately be multiple solutions.

Friday, October 8, 2010

HuffPo turns a profit by both stealing and rejecting journalism

The much-celebrated Huffington Post declares that it is turning a profit after five years a red ink, and the formula seems to be something like this: Steal the journalism of others but otherwise ignore basic journalistic principles.

Even though it doesn't release its detailed financial statements, by all internal accounts Huffington Post turned profitable in 2010 after five years of bleeding the angel investor capital that Arianna Huffington wrested from wealthy friends and associates. By some estimates, HuffPo is worth $100 million.

There's really no reason to disbelieve these numbers. As Forbes magazine writes this month, Huffington is a force of nature, able to get herself onto just about every talk show imaginable, then uses her own web site to report on what she said on TV.

So, how does one create a free-access, profitable web site? Here's Huffington's model:

1. Use 6,000 free bloggers.
2. Self-promote.
3. Steal content from both legitimate and questionable sources (HuffPo calls it "aggregation", but it is what it is).
4. Self-promote.
5. Include on your site a mix of liberal opinion, R-rated content (even better if it's about a celebrity: "Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore Have An Open Marriage, Enjoy Threesomes") and a "slapdash" mix of content.
6. Did I mention the importance of self-promotion?
7. And, finally there's the subtle blending of "news" and advertising: "HuffPo ... (is) selling ... 'social marketing,' which allows brands to attach a logo or marketing copy to blog posts that are marked as 'sponsored.' Coleman describes a recent sell to GE that centered on a campaign called 'healthy imagination'."

Here's the nut graph of the Forbes piece:
Lots of HuffPo's news pages come from and link to third-party stories from traditional outlets. Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. slammed sites like HuffPo as "parasites living off journalism produced by others." He attributed HuffPo's success to its appeal to partisan political prejudices and headlines about "titillating gossip and sex." (One wag says it's more like a frat club than a debate club.) Downie may be right about gossip and sex. Recent headlines on HuffPo's entertainment page: "Watch Naked Heidi Klum in Seal's New Video" and "Bridget Moynahan Dating McG?"
HuffPo's apparent climb to profitability is important, mostly because of how they did it -- the site contains very little real news and almost no unique content, relying on cheap help, free bloggers and "the journalism produced by others."

HuffPo's apparent climb to profitability is important, mostly because of how they did it -- the site contains very little real news and almost no unique content, relying on cheap help, free bloggers and "the journalism produced by others." Dare I say it? One way to put a stop to the stealing is for producers of legitimate journalism to restrict access to their web sites and enforce copyrights.

Meanwhile, HuffPo by may have found one way to become profitable on the Web, but it's not the future of journalism.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

HuffPo update: A snapshot

Arianna Huffington thinks newspapers have no future but web sites like hers do. If this is true, pardon my coarse language, we're screwed.

Three of today's top five stories on Huffington Post feature the delightful Ms. Huffington on various TV shows. On the other hand, today's five most popular posts on HuffPo are (drum roll please):

1. Quran Burning Story: This Is How The Media Embarrass Themselves. OK, this one's legit and actually important. The media has overplayed the Quran burning story. However ...

2. Sheyla Hershey Has World's Biggest Breasts Removed (VIDEO). With video!

3. Teri Hatcher Shows Off Triathlon Prep (PHOTOS). I looked at this one myself, several times (because it has PHOTOS!). Teri Hatcher is TOTALLY cute and has big, um, well, breasts, and tiny little coltish legs. Busted (pun TOTALLY intended.)

4. Are You An Empath? (VIDEO). Apparently I'm not, because I haven't a clue what this one is about. I probably should read it to see if I am.

5. Claire Calzonetti The 11 Funniest Tweets By Dictators. I'm confused by this one, because everyone knows that dictators are a hoot ...

The people behind HuffPo are very clever. Most of the material is "aggregated" (stolen) from other places. There's no, repeat, no, original journalism. There is a big slate of celebrity bloggers who do it for the publicity (my take, not necessarily provable fact), plus some serious bloggers who Huffington proudly notes are unpaid. I go to HuffPo often because it's entertaining and slightly naughty.

Journalism it ain't.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Journalism and black helicopters

Sometimes a person with an opposing view from your own can unintentionally make your case for you.

I wrote in the Post Register (and on this blog) recently about the difference between journalism and most of the dreck posing as reliable information. To borrow from the Post Register’s editorial page editor Corey Taule, a good share of the stuff on the Internet is about as credible as the entertaining but completely loony information you’ll hear on early-morning a.m. radio.

After my column ran today, I received a courteous note from someone whom I won’t name, simply because there’s a small hope that someday he’ll be embarrassed by what he wrote. Here’s a snippet:
“For example, the 9/11 Twin Tower disaster has been proved conclusively to be an inside job. The evidence is overwhelming.Yet when has the mainstream news investigated or reported this rather than to say that it is just a conspiracy theory? If you doubt it, I have the evidence to prove it.”
I cling to the hope that this belief still falls under the category of black-helicopter conspiracy, but it’s hard to say any more. I wonder what percentage of Americans believe this? As many as think the sun revolves around the Earth (19 percent)? My writer went on:
“The mainstream news maintains that “President” Obama is a natural-born citizen. Then why has he spent over a million dollars to prevent the release of his original birth certificate instead of the certificate of birth that he has posted on his website ?Why have numerous legal cases been brought against Obama to demand proof of natural birth which the courts have refused to hear? Are we to assume that the lawyers who bring these cases against Obama are idiots?”
Not being one to miss an opportunity to shoot fish in a barrel, I must say of the last sentence: "No, I have never seen any attorney ever file a frivolous lawsuit in my life." But I digress -- back to my letter-writer. Of course, if one is a birther, then one also must reject Obama’s claim to be a Christian. To wit:
“The mainstream news maintains that Obama is a Christian, yet we know that this is absolutely false because Obama has lied numerous times, and if you tell a lie, you are definitely not a Christian.(The same goes for George Bush.)”
Finally, however, he gets to the crux of my case:
“For the past twelve years the government has been involved in a massive spraying operation over the United States and thirteen other countries of the world -- called “chemtrails.” The purpose of the operation seems to be to prevent global warming by spraying aluminum and barium into the air. Yet when has the mainstream news investigated this? (Do a search on “chemtrails” on the Internet.)”
In other words, if you can Google something, it has been verified. And now, dear members of the jury, I rest my case.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Net neutrality from a voice more articulate than mine

Here's a great explanation why net neutrality is silly.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Idaho State Police and the need to know

(Published in the Post Register Sept. 2, 2010)

The Post Register spent the better part of a year and thousands of dollars to gain access to police reports about an incident in which a suspect shot at four Idaho State Police officers (see the story on today's front page).

Why would we bother? The cynic might respond, "To sell papers." It would take a lot of papers at 75 cents apiece to recoup our investment of money and time on this one. No, there's a simpler and less sinister reason: We believe it is your right to know what is in those documents.

The details of this story are reported on today's front page by Joelyn Hansen, so I won't repeat them here. The ISP didn't say anything publicly about the incident until, acting on a tip we had received from elsewhere, a Post Register reporter inquired about it in April of 2009 -- three months after the incident. From that point, information began to dribble out -- some from the ISP, some from the Lemhi County Sheriff's Department, some from other law enforcement sources.

In July of 2009, then-Sheriff Sam Slavin provided some additional details, referring to the shooter as "a man of mystery." Six weeks later, the ISP released the name of the man it said owned the property where the shooting occurred -- Adrian John Hannaford.

Finally, in October of last year, the ISP released more details after the Post Register's request for copies of the written reports on the incident was denied by an ISP attorney. Shortly thereafter, the Post Register appealed that decision in District Court.

That court process took nearly nine months to play out, but in August, the judge ordered a slightly redacted version (some names were blacked out) of the reports to be made public, sealing the decision for 42 days to allow the state to appeal. That time expired last week with no appeal.

The newly released documents fill in some blanks but do not reveal any sort of scandalous behavior or add significantly to the information the ISP had provided late last year. In fact, they raised more questions than they answered, such as:
Why did ISP officers attempt to enter the building without a warrant?

Why, when a suspect fired more than a dozen shots at officers, wasn't this incident immediately made public? Did this inaction put the public at potential risk?

Why did the ISP and the Lemhi Sheriff's Department insist, as late as nearly six months after the incident, that they didn't know anything about the suspect -- including his name -- when the documents clearly indicate otherwise?

Were proper procedures followed, and were any procedural changes made as a result of this incident?

And finally, what is the status of the search for the suspect whose gunfire sent police ducking for cover?
The ISP has a long history of being open and cooperative with the public and the media. When that changes, it raises suspicions. Had the ISP gone public with details of the incident when it happened instead of waiting until the Post Register inquired three months later, this would have been a straightforward story and much time and effort could have been reserved for other pursuits.

Four ISP officers were fired at and at least one said the shooter "was firing at us to kill us." That deserved better handling by the ISP and shouldn't have required court intervention to get the information the public should have known from the start.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Journalism? What the heck is journalism?

What, you may ask, is the difference between journalism and other stuff that is printed, broadcast or otherwise disseminated via cable, radio and the Internet?
OK, odds are you haven’t asked that question. Nonetheless, I humbly submit, it’s a question worth pondering.

Modern journalism can actually be defined, and we at the Post Register have attempted to refine that definition in a very public way. On our web site, we even have a highfalutin code of ethics that we actually attempt to practice.
Here’s a snippet:
“We believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and a contributor to democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.”
This language is adapted from the Society of Professional Journalists and was honed by former Post Register Executive Editor Dean Miller. It goes on:
“We strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Working at the Post Register means sharing a dedication to ethical behavior and striving to follow this code and the connected standards of practice.”
I know. You’re thinking, “Journalists have a professional society?” We do. I confess that I’m not a current member. Nonetheless, we have shamelessly plagiarized and edited the society’s code of ethics to suit our purposes.
This code goes farther, listing four specific objectives. They are:

• Seek the truth and report it.
• Minimize harm.
• Act independently.
• Be accountable.

If you’d like the details of this code of ethics, go to this link on our web site.

OK, so these are all high-minded principles, but what do they mean? Most important, they provide a pole star -- a target. Being human, sometimes we fall short of these lofty goals. But when you’re deciding which information sources out there to trust, it’s helpful to know what standards guide the provider has set for itself.

Truthfully, if you were to quiz the journalists in our newsroom they probably couldn’t quote these principles to you. They wouldn’t need to, because they are part of a good newsroom’s culture, and the Post Register has a good newsroom. I write this not out of pride, but as a straightforward statement of fact.

In a way, journalism can best defined by what it’s not. It’s not a shouting match. It’s not just holding out a microphone. It’s not even just who, what, when, where, why and how. It’s the work of committed people who actually believe that what they do is important.

Here’s my offer: Hold us accountable to the principles of journalism and demand the same of other information sources.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Saying it with a straight face

Over the last decade and a half Fox News has become a cable powerhouse by following a simple but powerful strategy. It has four parts:
1. Exploit the belief among Americans -- particularly conservatives -- that the “mainstream media” are biased; owned, managed and staffed mostly by left-wingers.

2. Promise that you’ll be different, putting it right in your slogan: “fair and balanced.”

3. Without coming out and saying so, redefine “fair and balanced” to mean, “If other media do something we think is unfair, we’ll balance it out by being even more unfair on the other side.” In other words, provide the conservatives with the TV voice they’ve long sought.

4. Make sure all of your news readers and commentators continue to look the camera right in the lens when they repeat the claim -- often -- that Fox is “fair and balanced.”
Brilliant. Truly. Fox now dominates cable “news” (in truth, the “news” part of cable died, oh, about 2003 or so). There are imitators on the left -- MSNBC tries to provide a left-wing alternative but is short on superstars. CNN can’t decide whether it wants to do journalism or give in to the “Age of Entertainment.”

Fox’s approach is unabashed. While the content of its daily lineup -- there’s little, if any reporting -- is so obviously designed to support a conservative agenda, no one has been caught on camera bursting into laughter when repeating the “fair and balanced” slogan. Yes, it’s so obviously a lie that it’s become a joke line for anyone who attempts any sort of fair-minded analysis of what the network does.

Seth Ackerman provided one of the best reviews of Fox News nearly 10 years ago in his piece, “The Most Biased Name in News.” He quotes what has become one of my favorite tease lines from Bill O’Reilly:
"Coming next, drug addicted pregnant women no longer have anything to fear from the authorities thanks to the Supreme Court. Both sides on this in a moment."--Bill O'Reilly (O'Reilly Factor, 3/23/01)
Now, that’s genius, and O’Reilly repeats the approach every day. Since those early days, Fox has gathered the Holy Trinity of TV conservatives: O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. It’s the TV equivalent of the Miami Heat’s Big Three: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. It’s a powerful lineup, providing a steady stream of fair and balanced reporting, which in this case is a repetition of this sort of question that used to be a joke among journalists: “So, do you still beat your wife?”

To be sure, Fox is not alone. The aforementioned MSNBC and CNN are trying to learn the game, but Fox is much better at it. It has the better ratings and the better talent, and, apparently, a more willing and loyal audience.

When it’s said and done, the only thing wrong with Fox News is that it still purports to be “Fair and Balanced.” It quite clearly is neither, and it's unlikely any of its audience would care if its slogan became, “We Tell You What You Want to Hear.”

Sunday, August 22, 2010

An update on how to consume information

(Most of this post is a repeat of something I wrote about six months ago, but I'm adding a really funny cartoon by Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune and recent comments from other sources on the same issue.)

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 like 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 all 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 like 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.

"How is one to be judged as educated?" wrote Debu Majumdar in the Post Register recently.
"In the 19th century, knowledge of the classics and philosophy was the criteria. I propose in this century it should be the ability to decipher what is true in the midst of misinformation and disinformation. Information was power before, but now power is deciding what, or how much, is true."
Increasingly, 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 rule of thumb 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 Pres. 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: and, the latter being run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

Jack Shafer, blogger for Slate, takes a more prosaic approach to the issue in his post about the fact that nearly one in five Americans still believes that President Obama is Muslim.
I'd be more upset about the Pew poll if a Gallup Poll hadn't also reported that 18 percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth or that only 18 percent of Americans believe all or most of what is published in the New York Times. We can count on stupidity, willful ignorance, and intellectual sloth to plague us 100 percent of the time. All we can do is fight the darkness with light.
The bottom line is, not all “news” is created equal. It's the responsibility of the consumer to learn the skills necessary to differentiate fact from fiction, and it's the job of newspapers to differentiate themselves from other media by providing credible and reliable journalism.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Honest, I really do get it

Ever since I wrote about net neutrality a couple of weeks ago, some readers have suggested that if I only truly understood the concept I'd be in full support of it.

I appreciate the concern, but, honest, I think I've got this one. Boiled down, the idea behind net neutrality is that carriers (like, say Google or Verizon) must allow all content providers access to the Web. This is because the Internet, so the theory goes, is the new First Amendment, requiring that anyone who has something to say must have access to it distributive powers. Nonsense, I say.

An RFB (Roger's Favorite Bloggers), Patricia Hanschiegel has once again said it better than I:
The internet was not created for fun, it was not created by accident. It wasn't even necessarily created for you, the user. The government created it to track tanks in the battle field. The carriers put the money into it because it offered larger margins and a more stable infrastructure that cost less to run. How fitting that the giants let everybody else build up the platform only to step in and pull the cord! The walled garden. Sounds like lots of internet and technology companies we know.

I am not sure who sold all on the idea of it, but you must know: It was never an open platform. That was a lie.

It won't just be a case of more expensive innovation. The telcos have been generous in allowing it to date on what's been essentially their dime. The real battle will be whether or not all will be allowed to play at all. Carriers, like all big companies, do not ever truly play nice. I've written a lot about how the next phase of the Internet's disruption will be telecom, and that in the end the internet platform will likely shake the internet business the most. Here's why.

It'd be very important for all who do not own internet infrastructure to quickly learn how the platform works. Soon, all will need to know.
"It was never an open platform," she says. That'll tick some people off.

The Internet (remind me again why we capitalize it?) is not a magical, mysterious thing straight out of The Matrix. It is an ingenious and breathtakingly efficient way to distribute data. That's it. It doesn't defy gravity, end hunger, establish world peace (the folks at MIT actually once thought it would do just that), or create a flat world (sorry, Thomas Friedman).

The sooner we get used to the idea that the Internet is simply a tool, the better. Most of the data moving around it today is garbage -- fraudulent or downright dangerous (or illegal) Craigslist ads, sites for the latest Neos -- Nazis, Supremacists, general wackos. It has changed the world, but it doesn't deserve special government rules to ensure every nutjob, criminal or pervert has equal access to it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tilting at the Post Talk windmill

Post Talk -- the message board on the Post Register’s web site -- is the second-most popular part of our web site, attracting thousands of page views a month.

I can’t decide if that’s a good or a bad thing.

The vast majority -- probably 95 percent -- of people who visit Post Talk are “lurkers;” people who look but don’t participate. The posting is dominated by a dozen or so people divided roughly between political conservatives and liberals, in the loosest definitions of those terms. The two sides have developed a rather nasty disliking for each other, it seems.

Beginning last week, Post Talk is now fully moderated, meaning that a member of our news staff -- usually Editorial Page Editor Corey Taule or me -- reviews each post to determine whther it generally meets the guidelines we’ve set.

Those guidelines are:
“We encourage lively but civil discussions that won't get you or us sued. Please avoid offensive or distasteful language and attacking other posters personally. Please stay on topic. As much as possible, support your claims with facts. Please leave theological issues that don't involve public policy to other forums. As always, please end each post with your full name and city of residence.”
Not every post we’ve OK’d has met the spirit of those guidelines, but we’re trying to be generous without just approving everything. Going forward, we’re going to start tightening up a bit. Too many of the posts continue to be personal or unnecessarily harsh in tone. Too many make broad generalizations or accusations that lack precision or nuance. Too many writers exhibit a certitude that their claims don’t deserve.

As I wrote to a PT participant last week, Post Talk continues to be something of an experiment in online dialog, and so far it’s bearing an unfortunate resemblance to a Frankenstein monster. Despite encouragement among some at the Post Register to either drop Post Talk entirely or just let people verbally rip each other to shreds without moderation, I’m persevering in what we all agree is something of a Quixotic quest to develop a new model for online give and take.

Moderating a message board takes more time than it’s probably worth. Posting goes on day and night, but Corey and I check in several times a day. On weekends it becomes more haphazard still, as we don’t assign anyone to do it on a regular schedule. For now, it tends to be something I do between weekend chores.

Meanwhile, it remains an open question whether Post Talk can facilitate meaningful dialog or if it’ll just be a verbal jousting match

Monday, August 9, 2010

Thank you, Craigslist

Over the weekend my column for the Post Register on net neutrality (published on this site in an earlier version) caused a minor stir that resulted in a stimulating debate on the PR's web site. First thing this morning, The Guardian in the U.K. runs this story about the increasing scrutiny and legal troubles for Craigslist.

Think these are unrelated matters? Think again.

Yes, I despise Craigslist, and not just because it has stripped millions of dollars from newspaper classifieds over the last decade, though I'm not crazy about that. In a free market, a better mousetrap should attract the business.

The bigger issue is that Craigslist has become THE place to go to advertise prostitution, pornography, scams, and now, it seems. child sex and trafficking. Of course, it's also been used to lure murder victims, attract people who ransack houses of strangers, etc.

But none of this is Craigslist's fault. No, Craigslist's owners and managers are just providing a simple service on the new, open-architecture Internet and are not responsible for any of its content. They're just being good old-fashioned small "d" democrats.

This, of course, is so much nonsense. We don't get to create things that turn into monsters and then plead innocence. What does this have to do with net neutrality? Stay with me.

One of the fundamental ideas behind the principle of net neutrality is that all content should be treated equal, that everyone should have a right to create and post content on the World Wide Web. It's a romantic notion until you consider all of its implications. To make net neutrality work, the government would have to set and enforce rules requiring service providers and other Web players to carry essentially any content, regardless of its market value or its otherwise dubious nature.

Not all content is created equal. In fact, most content being created today is dross, nonsense, or, in the worst case, encourages or supports criminal behavior. It's not good enough for Craigslist's management to same, "We're trying." Not good enough at all.

It's time that content providers took responsibility for what they're putting on the Web, either directly or indirectly.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Don't fear the "end of the Internet as we know it"

To borrow a line from REM, it's the end of the Internet as we know it, and I feel fine.

The lead story on Huffington Post for the morning of August 5, 2010 is so breathlessly apocalyptic that it could be seen as satire if it weren’t so clearly intended to be serious.

“Don’t be evil*” proclaims the enormous headline, followed by “*unless it’s profitable,” it continues. Oh, please. This is just crazy.

The focus of this is a potential deal between Google and Verizon that would establish cable-style fee schedules to use the Internet. Josh Silver, an “information wants to be free” advocate, says “this could be the end of the Internet as we know it.”

My response: It’s about time. The Internet as we know it is full of garbage, a cesspool of bad information, lies, distortions, scams, falsehoods and just plain nonsense. A culling of this stuff has been a long time coming.

“Since its beginnings, the Net was a level playing field that allowed all content to move at the same speed, whether it's ABC News or your uncle's video blog,” Silver writes. “That's all about to change, and the result couldn't be more bleak for the future of the Internet, for television, radio and independent voices.”

He’s all worked up because the Federal Communications Commission is --at least for now -- allowing capitalism to do its thing. Instead of enforcing rules that wouldn’t allow companies to charge for certain types of Internet access, it is essentially allowing the market to set the rules. That’s how the marketplace works, but not in Silver’s Internet world.

Here’s one definition of net neutrality: Internet Service Providers and governments may not place any restrictions on content, sites, platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and no restrictions on the modes of communication allowed. One way to look at this is that it’s a special set of rules for doing business on the Internet because, well, “information wants to be free.”

Here are Huffington Post’s lead paragraphs on the story:
“Google Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. are close to finalizing a proposal for so-called "network neutrality" rules, which would dictate how broadband providers treat Internet traffic flowing over their lines, according to a person briefed on the negotiations.”

“Under the deal, ‘charges could be paid by companies, like YouTube, owned by Google, for example, to Verizon, one of the nation’s leading Internet service providers, to ensure that its content received priority as it made its way to consumers,’ the New York Times explains, noting that Internet users might eventually pay a higher price for service as a result.”
Of course, the truth is that “free” stuff is usually worth about what you pay for it. But to Silver, the idea of allowing Americans to vote with their wallets represents impending doom.

“Ending net neutrality would end the revolutionary potential that any website can act as a television or radio network. It would spell the end of our opportunity to wrest access and distribution of media content away from the handful of massive media corporations that currently control the television and radio dial.”

There are plenty of ways to address the potential issue of media monopolies (more a fear than a real issue), but enforcing “net neutrality” isn’t it.

UPDATE: Despite earlier denials, Google and Verizon went public with their plans to kill the Internet as we know it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Read this

I am not alone, again.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

New rules

“Jane, you ignorant slut.” Dan Akroyd.
“Dan, you pompous ass.” Jane Curtin.
Weekend Update, Saturday Night Live, 1977-78
Over at Post Talk, the message board for the Post Register’s web site, we’re engaged in a brave experiment.

The question: Can a message board survive – thrive, even – if it doesn’t allow personal insults, assertions of falsehoods and the use of timeworn but flawed rhetorical devices?

Of the latter, there are two particular favorites. One is known, in Latin, as argumentum ad ignorantiam, or “argument from ignorance.” Put simply, it’s the idea that something must be considered true until it is proven false.

This approach takes on many guises. For example, a popular debate on some web sites lately is the claim that the Obama Administration is creating a Gestapo-like security force designed to establish a dictatorship similar to that under, well, Adolph Hitler. No, really. Here’s an excerpt from an Associated Press article:
“A Republican congressman from Georgia said he fears that President-elect Obama will establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship.
"It may sound a bit crazy and off base, but the thing is, he's the one who proposed this national security force," Rep. Paul Broun said of Obama. "I'm just trying to bring attention to the fact that we may—may not, I hope not—but we may have a problem with that type of philosophy of radical socialism or Marxism."
Broun cited a July, 2008 speech by Obama that has circulated on the Internet in which the then-Democratic presidential candidate called for a civilian force to take some of the national security burden off the military. The speech has been widely taken out of context. A review of the entire speech makes it clear that Obama did not have designs on a dictatorship, but the conspiracy theory persists.

When challenged, proponents of this theory like so say some version of, “Well, prove us wrong.” That’s not how this works. It’s your theory, you prove it.

Of course, the long-time standby favorite in rhetorical circles is the ad hominen attack, in which a person’s arguments are cast into doubt by belittling or insulting the person making the argument. For example: “So and so went to Harvard, of course he’s going to be a liberal, and we all know that liberals are crazy.” There are a million versions of this one.

These, and other tactics, have long been used on Post Talk, the message blog on the Post Register’s web site. We’re now testing to see whether a message blog can be free from such blather by instituting what one participant calls “Draconian” measures. He’s probably right but, frankly, Post Talk had sunk to such depths that drastic measures were necessary.

I’ll keep you posted, or you can go to Post Talkand watch the fun yourself.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Making online journalism commercially viable

Now that the newspaper industry is starting to take online subscriptions (don’t call them “pay walls”) more seriously, there are many more questions than answers.

This is, of course, absolutely common among emerging business models and technology. We tend to embrace new technologies before we figure out how to incorporate them into our business models, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we held technology back until obvious commercial applications were developed, it would put the brakes on technological development in a real hurry.

But that’s the view from 40,000 feet. If you happen to be running a newspaper during this Age of the Internet, which has brought with it the Age of Entertainment, embracing every new technology can pretty soon put you out of business.

For example, most newspapers put online for free the very same unique content (call it “news and information”) that they charged people for if it was printed on dead trees. The thinking was that this would somehow magically generate “traffic” and ad sales and would somehow enhance the newspapers “brand” with some kind of magical business benefit. It turns out that all it really did was to erode paid circulation and it taught a whole generation of young people that “information wants to be free.”

OK, all of this I’ve written about before ad nauseum. The big question now is, “OK, smart guy, what’s next?” I’ve thought about that.

The Internet is a remarkably efficient information delivery vehicle. It costs essentially the same to distribute 100,000 copies of a newspaper as it does to distribute one. That is not true, of course, of printed newspapers, which have a fixed cost per copy for printing and delivering. That’s the upside.

The downside is that the online product is not supported by advertising revenue, which generates 70 to 80 percent of total revenue for today’s U.S. newspapers. (Newspapers claiming to earn 8 or 10 percent of their revenue from online advertising are doing it by allocating certain percentages of print revenue to the online category, by bundling online and print advertising into a single buy, or a combination of both.)

In other countries (Japan and other Asian countries in particular), the newspaper model is the other way around -- about 80 percent of the revenue comes from subscription revenue. This happens in countries where newspaper readership per capita is much higher than it is in the U.S. and where cover prices for a weekday edition can be $2 or more. While the U.S. market won’t accept that for printed newspapers, it will likely have to learn to live with that online.

In other words, to make journalism as a blended print/online effort work in the long run, not only will readers need to pay for the online product, but they’ll likely need to pay more than they would for the same thing in print. The reduced cost for distribution is more than offset by the lack of advertising sales to subsidize the cost of operating the journalistic enterprise necessary to create “content” compelling enough to demand a fee.

For example, the Post Register now charges $14.50 per month for home delivery of the print edition (one of the lowest monthly rates anywhere). With that, you can request a password to the online edition for no extra cost (about 6,000 subscribers have done so). We charge only $6 a month for an online-only subscription. We have about 600 online-only subscribers, a number that hasn’t changed in three years.

That’s probably upside down. Not that we should charge less for the print edition, but the rate for online-only should probably be more like $20 a month. But it’s a conundrum -- not only does the lack of online advertising make online journalism less profitable, but a lot of readers consider the ads important content. So, as an online-only reader, you’ll likely end up paying more and getting less, at least in advertising. The upside is that you’ll get the interactivity, immediacy, updates and mobility that come with online.

Coming next at the Post Register very likely will be a nice upgrade to our web site with some new features and a better design. But it’ll likely come with a higher price tag to the consumer as we begin heading for the day with online journalism is funded more by subscriptions than by advertisers.

By the way, another conclusion to draw from this view of online economics is that print newspapers, magazines and similar enterprises are going to be around for a long time. Sorry to be sold old-fashioned, but there it is. I'm willing to bet a buck I'm right.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Internet isn't killing journalism, journalists are

Sydney Schanberg gets it completely right.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

History's rough draft

American novelist George Helgesen Fitch once wrote that a reporter’s job is to prepare the “first draft of history every day.”

Nowadays, that process is becoming more and more like a rough draft. Much information gets sent into the ether of the World Wide Web without first being subjected to any sort of vetting for accuracy, perspective, fairness or even a modicum of detail.

Much to their credit, many local law enforcement agencies are providing updates on crime and vehicular accidents throughout the day via e-mail. All news organizations receive these updates, and many simply report them as they are received.

What could be wrong with that? Actually, a lot.

First, through no fault of the law enforcement agency, initial reports of this sort are, at best, incomplete. Sometimes they appear to be a larger or smaller story than they eventually turn out to be. Information is sketchy, often not subjected to verification procedures that will be applied later.

There’s one sort of law enforcement release that we find particularly difficult to handle -- adult missing persons when there is no sign of foul play. These cases are nearly always resolved within 24 hours; often, sadly, when the body of a suicide victim is found.

It is the Post Register’s general policy not to publish news about suicides, except in rare circumstances. So, we judge each missing person case on its own merits and make our best judgment.

Meanwhile, however, many other news organizations publish via web site or e-mail every update coming out of every local law enforcement agency or the basic material found in a morning check of police reports. These reports are notorious for containing all sorts of information that might later be found to be untrue or, at least incomplete -- it’s simply the nature of this sort of report.

We learned long ago to apply some simple standards of reporting to this sort of information instead of simply putting it out as written. This presents some interesting challenges to the Post Register. More often than not, our own news stories are anything but definitive -- we understand that each day’s print and online editions are truly a “rough draft” of history, and that we’re going to follow up to continue connecting the dots. We’re also a little more selective in which releases from law enforcement we put out there without first doing a little additional reporting.

There’s no simple formula, but just understanding that journalists have a role to play even in reporting the seemingly simplest information is an important starting point. Being first is important, but real journalism demands just a little more than simply being the medium through which raw information travels.

Information wants to be ... expensive. Really, really expensive

More than a quarter-century ago, Stewart Brand -- the guy who invented the Whole Earth Catalog and once participated in scientific research of LSD – attended the first Hackers Conference, which was memorable for this quotation:
“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."
Unfortunately, the only thing remembered about that statement is the “… information wants to be free” part, which really makes no sense until you put it into the context of the entire statement. Essentially, what he was saying is that the value of accurate of information will increase as the cost to spread it around decreases.

This, of course, makes perfect sense, and the intervening 26 years have proven Brand absolutely correct. After the failed experiment over the past nearly two decades of disseminating “free information” and looking for various ways to turn that into a sustainable business model, serious news organizations are returning to a simple premise: Journalism done well – compelling, relevant, accurate, and often, local – has a value that can be calculated in dollars and cents, and people who want to be engaged in their communities will pay a reasonable amount for it.
“If this trend succeeds, it could not only save newspapers and magazines, but usher in a new golden age for them,” writes Walter Isaacson in this month’s Atlantic magazine. “It could also be a boon for citizen journalism, which is now practiced largely by those who can afford to do it without pay. In a future where people pay for good content, bloggers who produce truly valuable information might actually be able to pay their mortgages and buy food for their families.”
But, wait, there’s more. He continues:
“For 300 years … there has been a system in which the creators of intellectual property … had a right to benefit when copies of them were made. This “copyright” system helped to encourage and sustain generations of creative people and hardworking hacks. From this grew an economy based on the creation of intellectual property, along with industrial organizations such as newspapers and publishing houses that trained and supported writers. If we want to have that for future generations, we may have to get used to the notion that some information wants to be paid for.”
Elsewhere in the same issue of The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn writes:
"Ironically, only the 'old' entertainment and media industries, it seems, took open and free literally, striving to prove that they were fit for the digital era's freewheeling information/entertainment bazaar by making their most expensively produced products available for free on the Internet. As a result, they undermined in little more than a decade a value proposition they had spent more than a decade building up."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Steve Outing is getting warmer

Steve Outing is a bright, passionate guy with a journalism background with whom I've crossed swords a few times.

Over his time as an Editor and Publisher columnist and an independent blogger, he's argued that newspapers should essentially give up on a subscription model since the "free" horse left the barn a long time ago. His more recent arguments are more nuanced:
"I am not against online users paying for journalism. Rather, I don’t believe that enough people will pay for general-interest news online from a single news brand, like The Times, to pay for a well-staffed newsroom, except in certain non-competitive markets."
While it's encouraging that Outing and others like him are "not against online users paying for journalism," it continues to be discouraging that he, and they, are fighting against their own straw men.

He says that not enough people will pay for "general-interest news" online. He's probably right about that. However, most newspapers aren't general interest. Except for a handful of American newspapers with a truly global and/or national reach, newspapers are intensely local news providers that really don't care a whit about what's happening outside their circulation areas. We have long understood that local news is our Great Differentiator.

Most of us do it well enough to get paid for our product, regardless of how we deliver it. We do more local news than our competitors by a wide margin -- a magnitude of five, 10, or perhaps 20. So, while a local TV web site can give you repeats of the 30-second sound-bite news they put on the air, newspapers still own local journalism.

"...most won’t pay when the free alternative is one click away," writes Outing. If his assumption were true, so would be his conclusion. But there really aren't free alternatives in most markets. Yes, if you want "general news" of the sort provided by CNN or the Associated Press, there are many free options. But what if, say, you want to know what's really happening where you live? Unless you're satisfied with 12 minutes of local news a day, newspapers still lead -- arguably by a wider margin than ever.

Outing and others like to use examples like the Guardian in the U.K. and the New York Times. Of course, the Guardian has a particularly difficult problem -- it competes with the BBC, which is funded by a tax on TV sets. Using only the largest newspapers to represent the industry ignores the fact that 90+ percent of American newspapers are local and regional papers focused with a passion on local news.

Yes, it once was true that one of the main obstacles for potential competitors to local newspapers was the high entry cost -- the multi-million-dollar press, the delivery infrastructure, etc. Today, the obstacle is perhaps even bigger -- newspapers have the experience, the skills, the commitment to journalism and the institutional memory to produce a superior product. It's up to us to convince readers of the difference, and I'm optimistic that we are and will. Outing has less confidence in the news consumer than I do.

Outing chides us for going after people who steal news product by putting it on their web sites without permission. This is, perhaps, the oddest argument of all. That content is what separates us from our competitors. Why in the world wouldn't we go after people who steal it?

Finally, Outing refers to newspapers in "certain non-competitive markets." Which markets would that be? I'm not aware of any. Competition is fierce, and newspapers have to be serious about staying ahead. I fail to see how giving away the very content that separates us from our competitors is a good thing.

To Outing and others who agree with him, I suggest taking a look at how you argue your case. Instead of suggesting that we should, as Outing recently wrote, "figure out how to make the inevitable into a profit center and brand enhancer," they should get on the bandwagon of people that know where future profit will come from -- by remaining the essential sources for local news and information and asking a fair fee for that product.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How Huffington Post represents what's wrong with Internet "news"

Arianna Huffington clearly wants to be taken seriously. She is a regular on the Sunday morning talk show circuit, writes and speaks articulately and convincingly as a liberal advocate, and clearly has worked tirelessly on developing a highly successful web site with millions of monthly visits.

And yet, Huffington Post is the best example of what's so wrong with "news" on the Internet. How? Oh, let me count the ways:

1. Despite a clear desire to engage the political agenda in behalf of the left, her site is populated by soft-porn, celebrity gossip, posts that turn out to be misleading or just plain wrong, the use of tabloid-style headlines and News-of-the-Weird style material that gives the site a sordid, illicit feel. Indeed, HuffPost has done more than just about any other site to popularize the now-famous warning, "NSFW," or, "Not Suitable for Work."

You doubt me? As I write this, the version of the site represented by the screen shot attached to my post includes the following material:
* "Beautiful lingerie model makes naked World Cup pledge."
* "Relationship secrets for highly empathic people."
* "Vienna calls Jake a fame whore."
* "George Clooney's girlfriend dons thong in Lake Como."
There is more, of course, including an entire section devoted to "Celebrity Skin," which, well, you can figure it out. HuffPost very helpfully shows its most popular posts on the right side of its home page. On this particular morning, these are: Kristen Stewart's Awkward Letterman Appearance; TAKEDOWN: Taibbi Unleashes on Lara Logan After Rolling Stone Interview; PHOTOS: Beautiful Lingerie Model Makes Naked World Cup Pledge; Brooke Smith: Hello, I'm a Mac and I'm a PC; Marcus Clown: 11 of the Craziest Things about the Universe.

2. There is nearly no original reporting on the site. The material is either ripped off from other places (often TMZ or People Magazine, but also from legitimate online political magazines or newspapers), or it's opinion stuff written by celebrities or people selling a book (because, after all, Arianna proudly notes that she pays nearly no one for their work).

3. The site's headlines are often misleading and sometimes, in their haste to get something out, they get it horribly wrong, such as the time a couple of weeks ago that the site breathlessly implied that the 16-year-old American girl attempting to sale around the world had died in a horrible accident. When it became clear they over-reached, no correction or apology was forthcoming.

There's really nothing wrong with any of this of course, except that Huffington wants us to take her seriously. She likes to tout the site's visitation numbers, which clearly must be boosted by the site's being one part political commentary, three parts celebrity gossip, and three parts "NSFW." There is glorious tradition behind all of this, of course -- many of Britain's tabloids have long featured "Page Three Girls": Photos of topless women featured prominently on, yes, Page Three. But, then, no one accuses those rags of attempting to set the UK's political agenda (or do they?).

I don't have any particular quarrel with Ms. Huffington, and it turns out my 26-year-old son has something of a crush on her. But this combination of information, entertainment and titillation is yet another symptom of our Age of Entertainment that threatens to trivialize the news at a time when it's the last thing we need. I suppose I'll be accused of being curmudgeonly, of not keeping up with these glorious new times.

Too bad. It is what it is. Real reporting is going on elsewhere, mostly -- dare I say it? -- at your local newspaper.