Sunday, July 31, 2011

Boots on the ground

One of the oddly refreshing outcomes of the downturn in newspaper profits over the past decades has been, in some cases, the separation of the true believers from the poseurs.

While companies like Gannett strip their newspapers almost mercilessly to maintain profits (and as Gannett executives get paid big bonuses to do it), the family that controls the New York Times has stopped paying itself dividends and this year introduced a subscription model for its web sites.

The move was belated (the Wall Street Journal did it 10 years ago, as did the Post Register), it was still bold in a business that has eschewed paywalls.

How’s that working for them? The New York Times now has 400,000 paying online subscribers, plus another 756,000 print subscribers who have requested and received an online password at no additional cost. More important, the Times is repaying its debt quicker than expected and appears to be on the financial mend. But there’s more

Here’s writer Seth Mnookin in New York Magazine:

“The bottom line for the paywall is more than the bottom line: The Times has taken a do-or-die stand for hard-core, boots-on-the-ground journalism, for earnest civic purpose, for the primacy of content creators over aggregators, and has brought itself back from the precipice.”

The battle may be look promising, but the war is not over, of course. It never is. The Internet is remaking the newspaper business, and it’s a grinding process. The high -- some would say obscene -- newspaper profit margins of the latter half of the 20th Century are gone forever. But there’s good reason to believe that enough Americans still care about “boots-on-the-ground journalism” to keep it a sustainable business.

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the Times’ often-maligned publisher and chairman, is the first to admit that there’s much left to do.

“Let’s be clear—we’re three months into this,” he told Mnookin. “It proves that we’re on a good track, better than we had imagined, but we’ve got to continue to invest. We’ve got to continue to change and adapt and grow from this experience. And we will.”

There are still a lot of naysayers when it comes to the future of newspapers generally and online subscriptions specifically. But so far, all of those naysayers have been wrong about nearly everything. They expected newspapers to disappear (there are 1,450 daily newspapers in the U.S., but the news about them seems to focus on the very few that have failed).

The truth is that the Internet’s wrecking of the tried-and-true newspaper business model was then exacerbated by the worst recession in four generations. In some ways, it’s remarkable that newspapers still have so many boots on the ground.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A week in the life of Post Talk

Followers of this column (thanks, sweetie) know that from time to time I provide an update on Post Talk, the Post Register’s ugly online stepchild where readers make comments on the issues of the day.

More correctly, they mostly make comments about each other. Despite our attempts to either enforce a civility standard or cajole participants into playing nice, it hasn’t worked. Lately, Corey Taule and I -- Post Talk’s sole monitors -- have more or less thrown in the towel and stopped trying to require good behavior.

We’d like to try a new tack -- let’s see, we thought, if we can broaden the participation in Post Talk in the hopes that it creates a more diverse and thoughtful debate.

One morning last week I decided to draw some statistical data from a week in the life of Post Talk to get an idea of where we are today so we have a better idea of what we’d like PT to look like. Here are some of my findings:

--Thirty different people posted at least once on PT.

--There were 306 posts in seven days, for an average of 44 per day.

--One person (PT regulars will know of whom I write) accounted for 26 percent of all posts. Another (also known to other participants) accounted for another 17 percent, and a third accounted for 10 percent. So, three posters made more than half the posts. A relative handful accounts for 90 percent of the total.

We require that Post Talk participants identify themselves by name and place of residence, and this has dramatically reduced the number of people willing to participate. We’re not going to change that -- being willing to stand behind what you say is a fundamental part of participatory democracy.

The quality and diversity of the posts are simply not very good. The same people tend to say the same things over and over again in one way or another, and nearly every thread eventually devolves into name-calling. I could look at most posts with the author’s name redacted and guess with very high accuracy who wrote it.

My point is that we’d like to see more people participate to get a wider set of views on the message board. I understand the reluctance -- it takes time, and you open yourself up to all sorts of nasty responses from people who aren’t interested in having a civil discussion.

However, our traffic counters tell us that Post Talk is populated mostly by “lurkers” -- people who want to watch train wreck but don’t want to be inside the train when it happens. That’s completely understandable.

We ask -- participate anyway.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Non-profit is no panacea

As staffing in real news organizations has declined over the past decade (and entertainment TV disguised as news has proliferated), some serious-minded people have considered non-profit efforts as one way to maintain real journalism in the U.S.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, directed by the Pew Research Center, has released a study of non-profit journalism, which arrived at two general conclusions:

1. The journalism done by groups like ProPublica.com and the Texas Tribune is generally pretty good, but the combined resources of these groups are not enough to replace good, local investigative journalism.

2. A good share of these organizations (44 percent, to be exact) “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature.” In other words, it’s not really journalism at all, but information designed to support a specific agenda.

Some have suggested that non-profits are inherently superior to commercial journalism operations because they are not beholden to advertisers or subscribers. In fact, non-profits can be more beholden to people and organizations with an agenda, since it’s the rare major donor who doesn’t want to have some say in how his or her money is used.

The takeaway from the Pew report is that there is no single solution to improving American journalism. People need to understand that they must get their information from a variety of sources, how that information is being prepared and by whom, and to keep an open mind as they attempt to interpret often wildly conflicting stories.

Fortunately, beyond just providing raw data from its study, Pew researchers suggest four steps for consumers to follow when determining the veracity of information from non-profit sources (most of which are found on the Internet):

1. Examine the website. Find and read through the "About" section. Look at what it says about its mission, the background of the staff and the source of funding. A site that explains these items in detail, provides links to its funders, lists its individual donors and reports its financials is more transparent.

2: Range of Viewpoints. While reading a story, readers can check how much effort a story makes to include relevant and competing viewpoints. The story theme can help consumers get a sense of whether the site has a particular point of view underlying its reporting and story selection. Evaluating this also involves reading through a number of stories.

3: Story Theme. The story theme can help consumers get a sense of whether the site has a particular point of view underlying its reporting and story selection. Evaluating this also involves reading through a number of stories.

4: Reporting Capacity. This study suggests that the non-profit news outlets that have the most robust news operations tend also to offer more balanced and diverse reporting. Information on the news staff can usually be found in the "About" section of the site. Look for the number of listed staff and contributors.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The demand for scandal

"Sorry, sorry..." Rupert Murdoch's view of his media empire's role in society. (As only Monty Python can tell it.)

Oh, the horror; the horror, we all say, as the details continue to emerge from Rupert Murdoch’s journalism scandal in the United Kingdom.

Yes, the acts apparently committed by “journalists,” were heinous. Among the worst were hacking into private e-mail accounts, including that of a 13-year-old kidnapped girl later found dead. Already, one “red-top” tabloid, Murdoch’s 168-year-old News of the World, has closed over the scandal, and one of its former reporters and a whistle-blower has died, likely by his own hand in one way or another.

But the deeper issue is that the U.K.’s red-tops thrive because enough of the public demands scandal and sleaze. It’s equally true in the U.S., of course. Fortunately, there are still committed journalists who slog away at their craft, even when the trail is obstructed and incessantly uphill.

The Guardian newspaper’s Nick Davies is such a reporter. From his garage in a village in southern England, Davies has been unleashing scoop after scoop on the News of the Worlds’ misdeeds, often to the sound of silence. Instead of an English uprising against the scandal sheets, there was a collective yawn. There were payoffs by the newspaper to keep people quiet.

“ … the public seemed indifferent,” reports National Public Radio’s David Folkenflik. “Its hunger for gossip and scandal made News of the World the nation's top-selling paper.”

That finally changed just days ago when Davies revealed the News of the World had hacked into and erased the voice mail of a 13-year-old kidnapping victim, who was eventually found dead. At last, the outrage came and within days the News of the World announced it would be closing.

For Davies, however, it’s been a lonely and occasionally bitter years-long process during which he was often pilloried as someone who couldn’t move on.

“People kept on saying that I was obsessive, and maybe that's true,” he told NPR.

Without that obsession, however, News of the World likely would have continued its illegal, immoral and unethical practices and people would have continued buying and reading it.

News, like most other things in business, operates on supply and demand. Where there’s a demand for gossip, innuendo, skewed reporting, and misleading or downright false information, there will be a supply. Other tabloids will fill the vacuum left by News of the World.

Dwight Allman, a high school friend of mine, now a professor of political science at Baylor, put it better than I ever could:

“A free press presumes a polity which takes the office of the informed citizen seriously; recognizes and values honest reporting on issues that have real merit; and casts scorn on all who prostitute journalism to the prurient tastes, or the narrow self-interest, of those elements in society which have yet to rise to the level of a genuine citizenry.”

The journalism we deserve

“The day of the 24-hour news cycle causes one to ponder and wonder ‘what is journalism anymore?’ … At some point in this nation we’re going to have to decide what is journalism – what is real journalism.” -- Judge Belvin Perry, Casey Anthony trial judge.
Judge Perry is right – we, the people, decide what journalism is. Put another way, we get the journalism we deserve.

At this stage of the Age of Entertainment, we’re not doing so great. Based on ratings and readership, we prefer outrageous commentary to thoughtful dialog, sound bites to thoroughly vetted and contextual information.

Don’t blame cable TV, the radio networks, tabloids or gossip magazines – this is all on us. Businesses provide what people consume, and people clearly want to consume this informational equivalent of fried food – it’s tasty, but ultimately bad for us. And we seem not to care.

The solution to the schlock that poses as news these days is simple, but requires a little effort. It can be laid out in two simple steps:

1. Consider the source. This gets us 90 percent of the way there. What is the track record of our information source? Does it espouse and adhere to a published code of ethics or conduct? Does it employ real journalists and make them accountable?

2. Rely on multiple sources, all of which meet the qualifications of No. 1. No single news source is going provide everything you need to be an informed citizen.

Here’s a simple example of how one small piece of information can get twisted beyond all recognition. We recently printed a letter to the editor that quoted a line from an interview with Michelle Obama that has the right-wing Internet and talk shows all frothed up. She said: “Fortunately, we have help from the media. I have to say this: I'm very grateful for the support and kindness that we've gotten.”

Outrageous, right? The smoking-gun evidence that the “mainstream media” is in the bag for the Obamas, right? Until you read the whole quote:

CNN reporter: "How's the family ready for this [the election]? It's going to be quite vicious, isn't it? How do you prepare for that?"

Michelle Obama: "You know, it's … we're ready, you know. Our children, you know, could care less about what we're doing. We work hard to do that. Fortunately, we have help from the media. I have to say this: I'm very grateful for the support and kindness that we've gotten. People have respected their privacy and in that way, I think, you know, no matter what people may feel about my husband's policies or what have you, they care about children and that's been good to see."

Oops.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Casey Anthony through the fun house

Revised and updated July 7, 2011
"The day of the 24-hour news cycle causes people to ponder and wonder, 'what is journalism anymore?’” – Judge Belvin Perry of the Casey Anthony trial
Calling yourself a journalist doesn’t make you one. You have to walk the talk.

Coverage of the already infamous Casey Anthony trial is the latest case in point. While there were, indeed, journalists covering the trial, the major attention-getters were people like Nancy Grace, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Dr. Drew Pinskey and Greta Van Susteren. Eventually, nearly every major TV personality got in on the act including, yes, Geraldo Rivera.

In case you’ve been holed up in a bunker the past month, Anthony is the mother of two-and-a-half-year-old Caylee Anthony, whose body was found in an Orlando-area swamp three years ago. There is widespread shock and chagrin that Casey Anthony “got away with it.” The trial was a circus of Shakespearean proportions that included allegations of incest, lying, partying, weird Google searches and precious little direct evidence.

If folks covering major trials like this want to refer to themselves as journalists, they should be willing to abide by the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics. Two tenets of that code particularly come to mind:

Journalists should: 1) Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. 2) Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

Anyone paying any attention at all to the coverage of this trial will know that most reporting and opining on the case ignored these principles, among many others.
Every day, bad people are tried, convicted and put away for hurting or killing children. There is an arrest, a thorough investigation, a trial and a judgment.

These are not followed by shouting heads and irresponsible nightly commentary. Of course, these cases don't generate millions in ad revenue dollars, so they are ignored by national media, but covered quietly and routinely by local media – mostly newspapers.

Our justice system isn't broken -- the Anthony prosecutors didn't have the goods. You can't judge a system based on a handful of high-profile cases. What's broken is our journalism in the Age of Entertainment.

People on HLN, CNN, Fox, and elsewhere have embarrassed themselves for the three years since the baby’s body was found, and it got worse during the trial. And yet, people watch, unable to look away – the Age of Entertainment in all its horrible glory.

Coverage of this case created a set of fun house mirrors by which the process was distorted beyond recognition. Had there been cameras and microphones only, that would have been one thing. But at every possible opportunity, “experts” of every sort filled momentary gaps in the action with all manner of speculation and theorizing, most of it relatively mindless sound bites.

That’s not journalism. It’s garish entertainment.