Friday, November 15, 2013

The end is near. Maybe today

Did you hear the one about President Obama getting caught on an open mic saying really terrible things about our country?

No? I hadn’t either, until a helpful person dropped a photocopy of the Jefferson County Republican Party’s newsletter from last July here at the office. Among the nasty things Obama said was this morsel:

“You’d think we’d stop celebrating the birth of the worst imperial power in history –but nooooo…we have to do this flag-waving bullshit every year,” Obama muttered more as he made his way from the podium. “I can’t believe I have to miss a good day of golf for this crap!”

Now, that’s bad. What’s worse, “the media” haven’t covered this huge story because, as everyone knows, the media are in the bag for Obama. I’m appalled.

I’m appalled, because these comments come from a satirical web site called duhprogressive.com. Even when the comments were picked up by a conservative web site called thelibertypaper.org, the words “POLITICAL SATIRE” could be found at the end.

In other words – I’ll type very slowly here – the president never said any of it. It was all made up by people attempting to be funny. Want to read more? Go here.

“Satire: a way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, bad, etc. : humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc.” (That’s from Merriam Webster.)

For example, the newspaper The Onion (now just a web site) never publishes the truth. It makes stuff up, and sometimes it’s really funny. It’s called satire. But every so often, someone picks something up from the Onion and passes it off as the truth. Now, that’s funny.

I mean, it happens to the New York Times, which once reported that Obama had appeared on the cover of Teen Beat magazine before his first election. It was a fake, created by The Onion.

The scariest thing about the Jefferson County GOP and the Fourth of July fakery is that they clearly think so little of Obama that they actually believe he is capable of saying those things. It must be terrible to live in a world in which your own president hates the Fourth of July and wants to destroy your country by providing affordable health care.

I’ve often ranted on and on (and on) about the need to check things out before passing them along, though in this case I can’t really blame the person who brought this paper by our office. He’s clearly not the computer type and probably not a particularly sophisticated consumer of news. Sadly, it appears that even outwardly sophisticated people still get this stuff wrong, however.

Friday, October 25, 2013

First time for everything

I surmised that the man standing at our front desk was in his mid-sixties. He was balding, with remnants of white hair neatly combed, one eye swollen shut behind wire-rim glasses. He would explain that he had an infection. He exuded a warmness I hadn’t expected.

That very morning we had published a correction for a story the day before that had reported this man’s criminal sentence was to be four years. It was only four months. Somehow, our reporter had simply gotten it wrong in the original story. I’m accustomed to visits from angry people who have felt wronged by our reporting, even when it was accurate. This man, about whom we had published an obvious inaccuracy, seemed incapable of anger. I introduced myself, shook his hand, and pointed the way to my office.

When we arrived at the little, oddly placed hallway that leads to my office, I stopped – as I always do – and pointed toward my doorway.

“You’re taller than I expected,” he said as he walked on past and into the office. I’ve heard this before. Something about my picture in the newspaper must make me seem short. His remark appeared designed to relieve me of my anxiety.

He took a seat in my office and I sat behind my desk. I expected a tongue-lashing that never came.

“We were just talking about you,” I said, which was true. When Bonnie came to my office door to say who was asking to see me, I had been talking to the reporter who made the error. The reporter smiled awkwardly when he heard the name and headed back toward the newsroom.

Only 15 minutes before, an attorney I’ve known for nearly a quarter-century had called while on a business trip to say we’d made an error in our story the day before. I told him that we had already printed a correction. He was grateful and went on to say that the case was complicated and the man we’d wrongly sentenced to four years was a good man.

I’ve heard this before, of course. I don’t get calls from friends of people convicted of a crime who say the criminal is really far worse than we could imagine.

After the man spoke for a moment, I stopped him and apologized for our error.

“Apology accepted,” he said. I think he meant it. He then went on to talk in very general terms about the complex insurance-related financial crime to which he’d pleaded guilty, without anger or irony. He said he’d broken a law and would spend four months in prison for it. He said that no one had lost any money. We are hearing that this may be true.

His request was simple. Investigate the story further. Learn the details. I’ll talk to your reporter, he said. So will my attorney. I promised him we would, explaining that we had already arrived at that decision less than an hour earlier. The expected accusations of our sloppiness never came. He said he was a faithful reader of our paper. He didn’t mean it in the past tense. He didn’t stay long. We both stood and I walked around my desk and shook his hand again. He conducted himself with a kind of somber dignity.

He said something about how nice it must be to be tall and handsome with a full head of hair, again seeming sincere. I certainly have plenty of hair, but handsome isn't commonly attributed to me. Not having a ready a response, I said something about my nearly 80-year-old father having a full head of mostly black hair. He inquired about the origins of my last name, suggesting it might be Lithuanian. I told him that we were of eastern European descent, and he nodded. I walked him to our front door and he left.

The day before, our managing editor had received a couple of calls from friends of this man who weren’t so polite. They called him some pretty awful names. The man himself spoke gently but with conviction, tinged with melancholy. He said his grandson had peed himself when federal agents raided their business office, guns drawn.

If his was an act, it was natural genius. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m pretty good at spotting phonies. He was no phony. He had screwed up, but the consensus we’re hearing is that he probably would have been acquitted had he not pleaded guilty. We wrote a story about him that was wrong – a simple, sloppy error. In the larger scheme, that mistake won’t really make much of a difference. But I now fully understand why this man has so many loyal, passionate defenders. It was a nice moment in a business bathed in cynicism and unpleasantness. I wished we had done better.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Real journalists, please stand up



There’s a curious debate going on in various places about who can claim to be called a journalist.

Journalism isn’t like medicine or accounting – there are no tests to pass or formal credentials to earn. But that doesn’t mean there’s any mystery to who is a journalist and who isn’t.

It doesn’t necessarily have to do with where the person works, or whether she’s a blogger or he’s a network anchor. It comes down to four simple principles:

  1. Seek truth and report it.
  2. Minimize harm.
  3. Act independently.
  4. Be accountable.
These basic principles of journalism can be found on the Society of Professional Journalist’s web site. An expanded version can be found on the Post Register’s web site.

It’s pretty straightforward – people who have been properly trained and are committed to these four principles can be called journalists. Others cannot. It’s not really all that complicated.

This has become a pertinent issue lately because the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate is trying to create its own definition as it contemplates a federal shield law that would protect journalists who don’t want to be forced to divulge anonymous sources (which is another topic for another day).

The First Amendment makes it unconstitutional to formally enforce these or any other journalistic guidelines, but there should be no prohibition against using them to help determine whether someone claiming to be a journalist deserves the protection of a shield law. Beyond that, in the more generic debate over what journalism is, these principles are the starting point.

Because journalism can now be practiced using an increasing multitude of platforms, from old-fashioned print and broadcast to smart phones and blogs, some people seem to be having a hard time distinguishing journalism from blathering. As I’ve written in this space before, there’s no need for such confusion.

Perhaps it’s most helpful to identify who isn’t a journalist.

For example, if:

  • You collect content from around the Internet and post it on your site, you’re not necessarily a journalist.
  • You simply write your opinion on an issue without fact-checking, you’re not a journalist.
  • You point your smart phone at a traffic accident and get video, you’re not a journalist.
To be as helpful as possible, here’s a partial list of content sources not run under basic journalistic standards: Reddit, Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Drudge Report, WorldNetDaily, The Daily Show, MSNBC, Fox News, The Colbert Report … oh, I could go on and on. These, and other sources like them, may be entertaining or even informative. They may even experience the occasional journalistic spasm.

But they don’t reliably or consistently do journalism, so reader and viewer beware.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

If Fox and HLN had rules

Fox News, like most of its cable competitors, is populated mostly by pundits and talking heads, not journalists.

Chris Wallace is one of the very few exceptions. Why he stays with an organization that has such a poor track record for journalism is another matter. Generally speaking, though, Wallace seems to try to do a decent job.

He recently picked up a lifetime achievement award for excellence in journalism from the Radio Television Digital News Association. No, I didn’t know there was such an organization, either.

It might come as a surprise to some that during his acceptance speech he encouraged his fellow journalists to stop focusing on getting things first.

“Play the long game,” he said. “Tell your audience we won’t always have it first, not because we aren’t covering the story, but precisely because we are covering the story."

Too many news organizations are so fascinated with the technology that allows us to immediately communicate with the world that they forget the first rule: Get it right. Wallace warned against focusing on speed over accuracy, which is particularly dangerous today because errors rarely get corrected.

“The Internet will always be first — I’m not talking right now about legitimate digital news organizations,” Wallace said. “You cannot compete with twitters, and bloggers and people that are writing in their pajamas living in their parents’ basement.”

Sadly, some actual news organizations behave as if they’re operating out of their parents’ basement dressed in their pajamas. They put out information without verifying its accuracy or checking for context. That results in a world that is much more poorly informed than it ought to be.

As I’ve written before, journalism demands more than regurgitating information overheard on a police scanner or picked up from a press release.

No news organization is uniformly perfect. Too few, however, have established standards and rules to guide them. Wouldn’t it be fun to see the formal standards that result in the output of our cable news channels like HLN, CNN, Fox and MSCNBC? Some possible examples:

1. When hiring women, make absolutely certain they are attractive and willing to wear short skirts.
2. Don’t worry about fact-checking. No one takes us seriously anyway.
3. At the end of the day, it’s all about ratings. You will be forgiven nearly anything if enough people watch your program.
4. Whatever you do, don’t go into too much detail. Our viewers aren’t bright enough to take in a lot of information in one sitting. This rule can be broken if the news event is particularly enticing, such as the kidnapping of a young girl or similar atrocity.
5. If you don’t have something compelling to say, just speak louder.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Smashing idols

“A contrarian zigs when others zag, but an iconoclast, derived from Greek, ‘smashes idols.’ The newspaper industry has erected two idols that must be smashed. The first is the notion that digital information must be free. The second is that the newspaper business can only be saved by digital solutions. Both are false.” – Eric Spitz, co-owner of the Orange County Register
Eric Spitz is not a newspaper guy. He’s a beer guy.

Prior to becoming co-owner of the Orange County Register, the 14th-largest newspaper in the U.S., his claim to fame was to help revive the Narrangasett Brewing Company, the official beer of the Boston Red Sox. So, naturally, he bought a newspaper.

He and co-owner, Aaron Kushner, were trend-starters. Coming out of other industries (Kushner was once in the greeting card business), they bought Freedom Newspapers and its Anaheim-based flagship from a family no longer interested in newspapers. We’ve since seen Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos snap up newspapers for similar reasons.

Perhaps this is what it takes to slap newspaper people upside the head sufficiently to waken them from their digital fantasy.

In the same Wall Street Journal column in which he made the above statement, he wrote:

“In the past 12 months we hired 350 people, built 25 new sections, revamped all of our weekly community papers (even making two of them into dailies) and launched a weekly set of magazines. Beginning in the first quarter of 2013 we have seen year-over-year increases in both subscription revenue and in advertising revenue. In other words, it's time to stop chasing the digital ghost.”

Spitz, the outsider, is astonished at the stupidity of newspapers that gave their news away for free online.

“How can a newspaper charge for its content when other competitors choose to give away their work?” he writes. “The old-fashioned way – by differentiating the content, boosting its quality, and making it essential to the community it serves.”

There’s no guarantee that Spitz is right. Predictions regarding the “legacy media” of newspapers, broadcast television and radio over the past 15 years or so have been consistently wrong. But there are some basic ideas that have worked within capitalism for a long time that can be summarized thusly: Charge a fair price for a product that people want. Spend less than you bring in.

As Spitz clearly understands, the Internet didn’t suspend the rules. He recognizes that online advertising has its place, but it has limitations.

“Just for fun,” he writes, “walk into a Starbucks and ask the first 10 people you see, ‘When was the last time you clicked on or even paid attention to a digital ad?’ The overwhelming majority will say ‘never’ or ‘not on purpose.’ ”

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Jeff Bezos and WaPo

“Let us hope that this is what the sale signifies: The beginning of a phase in which this Gilded Age’s major beneficiaries reinvest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence.” --James Fallows

Yes, yes, here we have Roger and his cup half full in all its splendor. It seems to me, however, that the recent buying trends of newspapers are the best thing to happen in our business in at least five years -- buyers taking newspapers private with the main motivation being something other than the expectation of high, unsustainable profits.

Obviously, any business must be profitable to survive. The rather obscene profits of the 20th century that transformed our business into a handful of publicly held conglomerates with shareholders demanding unsustainable 30-plus percent margins are forever a thing of the past. Reasonable, sustainable profits, on the other hand, are entirely achievable, even as the fundamental model has been destroyed and must be rebuilt.

Flawed as they were, the newspaper owners of a hundred years ago had similar motivations. In the case of WaPo, whose circulation has fallen by nearly 50 percent in 10 years, Bezos overpaid by a big number, even though the total accounts for about 1 percent of his net worth.

The emergence of people who believe in "reinvesting in the infrastructure of our public intelligence" is a positive turn of events. Seen in its best light, we have the recognition that local journalism -- and, in the case of the Boston Globe and Washington Post, regional and even global journalism -- is a fundamental foundation of a free society is, at the very least, encouraging.

Thirty years ago many of us were loudly complaining about the "corporatization" of newspapers and its negative effects on journalism. Instead of seeing the emergence of billionaires snapping up newspaper at bargain-basement prices as a bad thing, we should see it as a return to the days of more localized ownership by people who actually care about quality reporting and bringing local shoppers and sellers together.

Local journalism isn't out of the woods. Innovation needs to continue. No, it needs to accelerate. But newspaper managers haven't been sitting on their hands, as some like to claim. Innovation is happening apace. But innovation that weakens local journalism isn't progress.

Print is not as profitable as it once was, but it still generates nearly all the profits for local newspapers. The trend away from print and toward digital will continue, though there's plenty of evidence that it's slowing. There's very little danger that printing presses will be grinding to a halt any time soon. Instead, newspapers are running essentially parallel businesses in print and digital, despite real efforts to blend them.

My former employer, what was then called Thomson Newspapers, saw the downturn coming and sold its newspaper holdings more than a decade ago at exaggerated values. That company has gone on to make a lot of money in other businesses, headed by my former boss, once a reporter at the Canton Repository. Good for him and his company.

Now we see rich people buying newspapers as "trophies." Good for them and good for us.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Age of Stalemate

The language Ron Nate used to open his recent column in the Post Register helps illustrate why Americans seem to be more polarized than ever.

“Truthful economists admit that minimum wages reduce work hours, restrict growth, impinge liberty and are never the stimulus they're thought to be,” he wrote.

Nate, a professor of economics at Brigham Young University-Idaho, essentially asserts that there is an obvious right answer when it comes to the minimum wage, that he knows what it is, and that anyone who disagrees with him is not being truthful. There is no room in those assertions for the possibility that highly educated, thoughtful and truth-seeking economists can honestly arrive at different conclusions.

Welcome to the Age of Stalemate.

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business recently polled a panel of 38 economists it considers among the country’s “elite.” It asked whether those polled agreed or disagreed with this statement: “Raising the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour would make it noticeably harder for low-skilled workers to find employment.”


The results weren’t exactly conclusive; 34 percent agreed, 24 percent were uncertain and 32 percent disagreed. Not a single respondent “strongly” agreed or disagreed. While the question isn’t precisely the issue argued by Nate, one must assume that he would have a strong position on the matter and would assert that any economist disagreeing with him is not truthful. In this case that would include all 38 elite economists surveyed because they all waffled.

The firmness of Nate’s position isn’t the issue. The issue is the assertion, which we should assume is what he teaches in his classroom, that any economist who disagrees with him (at least when it comes to the minimum wage) is not truthful instead of having honestly arrived at a different conclusion.

Today the arts of political compromise and honest intellectual debate are nearly lost, replaced by certitude often found in people who take positions based more on ideology than rigorous investigation. Ideologues are to the Age of Stalemate what intellectuals were to the Age of Enlightenment.

Imagine what would have happened if our Founders and Framers had adopted a similarly hard line. For starters, we’d all be speaking the King’s English, because the revolution could never have happened. We most certainly wouldn’t have come up with a Constitution.

In the Age of Stalemate, compromise is a dirty word, debate is merely an opportunity to grandstand and “crossing the aisle” is tantamount to consorting with the enemy. It would have been a simple matter for Nate to have suggested that his studies led him to a particular conclusion without calling anyone who disagrees with him a liar. But we don’t do that anymore.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Don't trust; verify

As I’ve not-so-subtly noted in this space on what must be a dozen or more occasions, one of the great dangers of the Internet is its capacity to spread lies, myths, and otherwise misleading or out-of-context information.

It takes well-honed skepticism, patience, effort and practice to sift through all of the nonsense that peppers us from every direction nowadays, but tools are finally being developed to assist the cause.


Introducing Verification Junkie, a new web site by Josh Stearns, a self-confessed “verification junkie” who, like me, has grown weary of so much that is bogus being accepted by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people as fact. Unlike me, Stearns has gone to great effort to do something about it beyond whining.

His effort focuses specifically on verifying claims made on social media when news is breaking, and his intended audience is journalists who might otherwise repeat wrong information, thereby giving it the credibility to become accepted as fact. He also writes a blog called Groundswell focusing on similar matters.

Among his compelling posts on Groundswell is a reverse engineering of the misinformation that proliferated after the Boston Marathon bombings. It’s worth a read: http://tinyurl.com/l5598vp.

More generally, Stearns’ Verification Junkie site compiles a list of places to go when news is breaking fast and furious and you want to separate fact from fiction. He’s compiled an impressive list of web sites, including the Report an Error Alliance, Media Bugs, TinEye and others. To visit his web site, use your mobile device to scan the QR code attached to this column, or just type verificationjunkie.tumblr.com into your web browser.

Stearns says he “fights for the future of journalism through media and technology policy.” It’s an important fight, long overdue and largely ignored by too many practicing journalists. There was a time, of course, when budding journalists were schooled in the “five Ws and one H”: who, what, when, where, why and how. Nowadays it seems only one thing matters: First.

So, we see police scanner calls reported as news, Twitter messages repeated as fact and the advent of “citizen journalism” in which anyone with a smart phone becomes a reporter.

For example, not long ago several local media outlets breathlessly reported that rescue vehicles were racing to the scene of a crash at the Pocatello airport. In truth, a small, private plane had tipped onto one wing, leaving the pilot, well, momentarily uncomfortable and probably a little embarrassed. This kind of “reporting” has become all too common.

Please, bookmark Verification Junkie and use it often (it’s most effective for national or worldwide news). It represents the “good” powers unleashed by the Internet, and none too soon.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Lazy journalism and reinforcing stereotypes

While looking for something else the other day I was reminded by Google that there are 17 known hate groups in Idaho.

The reference was in an otherwise delightful Forbes magazine profile of Idaho state Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, the first African-American to be elected to the Idaho Legislature.
          
High in the story are these sentences:

       At this time, there are 18 known hate groups in Idaho. Last year, white supremacists held protest signs in Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho with racist epitaphs (sic) such as ‘Honk if you want Idaho White’ and ‘Idaho for Whites. Mexico for Mexicans’.”

Idaho is an easy target, with its well-publicized history of open intolerance practiced by an ignorant few. However, here are a few statistics that these stories entirely left out:
  • According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 1,007 “active hate groups” in the United States.
  • The same organization produces of map showing the number of hate groups per state. Idaho ranks about in the middle, well behind some states like California (82), New York (38), Arizona (28) and nearly all of the Southern states.
  • And, yes, Idaho is home to more hate groups than any of its neighbors. (Wyoming has two and Utah has four – Washington is a close regional second with 16.)
My point? Too often journalists use statistics to reinforce a point they wish to make without providing relevant contextual data. It goes something like this: Idaho has a known history of hosting groups hostile to entire classes of people, therefore it is acceptable to use incomplete data if it supports the position that Idahoans are intolerant.
          
Clearly, one hate group is one too many and 17 hate groups are far too many. Idahoans should work tirelessly to stamp out intolerance and hate. But those facts don’t give lazy journalism a pass.
          
Of course, that information was important to the story. But a single additional sentence putting the data in context would have been good journalism. Instead, an Idaho stereotype is reinforced. (It should be noted that the story was published more than a year ago, and Idaho apparently now has one hate group fewer than it did at the time.)
          
The spunky Boise Weekly also ran a piece on the data, also leaving out any contextual information. To its credit, the newspaper did provide links to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s web site for the handful of people interested enough to pursue the details.

         
The Post Register is sometimes criticized for something similar – sacrificing context in the quest for brevity. The Forbes piece serves as a reminder to us that throwaway lines and incomplete data might make for compelling reading but they aren’t good journalism. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Goosegate: Life imitating art

Parks and Recreation is a clever, understated TV series based on the politics of a fictional small town in Indiana.

Goosegate is an actual and ongoing series of events happening here in Idaho Falls that would make for a good P and R episode.

Here's the plot:

The city of Idaho Falls, over many years and with the unyielding assistance of the local Rotary Club, has developed a spectacular greenbelt on either side of the Snake River where it passes through town. Included in this development are miles of lush, green grass. Green grass (a goose's favorite food). Water. People ignoring the signs imploring them to not feed the wildlife.

What you get, of course, is hundreds of geese. And hundreds of pounds -- probably tons -- of goose poop.

The city has a new Parks and Recreation director from Back East. He's a good guy -- enthusiastic, full of ideas, a real shot in the arm for our town. The director, however, doesn't like goose poop, at least at the level it is now being produced along the greenbelt. So, he meets with his citizen commission and tells them of a plan to relocate most of the geese to a wetland area well outside of town. This will be done during July, when the geese are molting and can't fly, thereby discouraging them from immediately returning to town, as it's simply too far to goose-step all the way back (sorry for that).

Alas, he hasn't informed the city council of his plan. A member of his citizen commission leaks the story to the press (that's us), including a tape recording of the meeting. We call the director, who politely answers our questions. After finishing the interview, he immediately sends an email to the city council decrying the "premature" release of information about the goose plan, declaring the commissioner's move as "unfortunate." One city councilor writes to our Deep Throat (the commissioner -- do I have to spell it out for you?) that the big problem here is that the city council had to learn about the goose move in the newspaper.

The newspaper then publishes a follow-up story with this unforgettable headline (I confess: I suggested using the term "goosegate"): "Goosegate at I.F. City Hall." It is, by far, the most popular story on our website today.

This is only the beginning, I think. Among other things, assuming the geese are relocated, what's to prevent new groups of gaggles from settling down on our greenbelt? You can almost hear them as they approach:

"What's that down there?"

"Looks like lush, green grass next to a lovely slow-moving river."

"And what are those people doing?"

"Hmmm, it looks like ... THEY"RE FEEDING GEESE BREAD AND STUFF!"

"Jim, our plans have changed. Let's stay."

"You got it, Martha. Come on gang (turning to those in the wider parts of the "V"), there's grass, bread and water down there!"


Monday, May 6, 2013

Do I really need to say anything?

Ah, HuffPo ...


Sunday, April 28, 2013

You'd rather be an actuary? Really?

It's getting a little infuriating. In the same week that some number crunchers (garbage in, garbage out, remember) determined that "newspaper reporter" is the worst job in American, Conan O'Brien used his bully pulpit at the White House Correspondents Dinner to give last rites to print journalism.

That really just pisses me off.

An organization called Career Cast.com has announced that of all the jobs in America - garbage collector, ditch digger, farm hand, whatever -- the very worst is newspaper reporter. It determined that America's best job is actuary. Really? 

Here's the deal: Evaluating the relative "goodness" of a job involves a lot more than weighing its job security, lack of stress and income. How many movies are made about actuaries?

To a point, I understand how a data-driven survey could arrive at such a conclusion. Newspaper reporters are embarrassingly underpaid, particularly considering the high level of skill and commitment required to do the job. They often write things that aren't particularly popular, if they're doing their job.

It's high stress, nonstop work that has absolutely no room for error. Yet, it's the best job I ever had.

For several precious years, I was a newspaper reporter. I loved every minute of it -- the challenge to produce one, two, sometimes three or four stories a day. The opportunity to meet and sometimes challenge important people like governors, senators, business leaders and otherwise interesting and influential people. It was heady stuff for a kid just out of college.

Unfortunately, with a growing family I needed to make more money and soon began to climb the career ladder -- city editor, business editor, managing editor, publisher. These are great jobs, too, but my favorite job will always be reporter.

Reporters are almost invariably interesting people. They are well-read, diverse, smart, inquisitive people who get a kick out of asking impertinent questions and prying information out of reluctant sources. It requires a unique set of skills that makes for a good reporter, though each one goes at the job a little differently. They are fun to be around, even though - or perhaps because -- they love to challenge authority, including their own bosses.

So, it smarts a little to read that some group has concluded that newspaper reporter is America's worst job. The analysis clearly doesn't include a lot of intangibles, like the satisfaction felt for important work well done.

Newspaper reporters have never been well paid. I made something like $11,000 my first year on the job in 1983, and I had a small and growing family. Adjusted for inflation, the pay is no better today at entry level, and we need to do better. That's my commitment -- to improve the pay for everyone at the Post Register as the economy improves and we continue to make the inevitable transition into the digital environment.

Meanwhile, though, allow me to tip my hat to newspaper reporters working at all five Post Company publications -- the Post Register, the Jefferson Star, the Shelley Pioneer, the Challis Messenger and Intermountain Farm & Ranch. They're some of the best, most interesting, most committed people you'll ever meet, and I guarantee you that they don't think they have America's worst job.

I'll also guarantee you they'd all like a raise and maybe a new computer.

Originally published in the Sunday, April 28, 2013 edition of the Post Register.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Everything all the time fails us again

You just had to know it couldn't last.

After a relatively responsible performance by the national "mainstream" media in the first 48 hours following the Boston Marathon bombings, it all came quickly unraveled on Wednesday when CNN, followed by a half-dozen other major outlets, breathlessly (John King was quite literally gasping for breath) announced that an arrest had been made. This, he said, had been confirmed by two sources.

Both of which, it turns out, were wrong. Within minutes, CNN, Fox, the Boston Globe -- even the generally steady and cautious Associated Press -- had to backtrack their reports of an arrest. In their rush to get it first, they forgot Rule No. 1: Get it right.

What is one to say? Journalists aren't perfect? Despite the best intentions, mistakes happen? Oops?

Here's a better approach -- stop patronizing media organizations that place a higher priority on anything other than accuracy. Stop believing everything you see on Facebook or Twitter (and, for heaven's sake, stop forwarding it down the line). But we don't do that. We are addicted to everything, all the time. It's not a trivial matter. It's serious.

King is not a sloppy journalist. He began his career with the Associated Press, where he won the wire service's top award for his work covering the war in Kuwait. I had the great pleasure of spending some time with King at CNN's headquarters one evening some years ago, and he came across as serious and thoughtful.

And yet, the pressure of being first got the best of him. While others followed King down the wrong fork in the road, some did not, including NBC, which was the first outlet to report that, in fact, no arrest had been made. That's not just luck -- somewhere, someone inside NBC decided that it didn't have sufficient confirmation of an arrest, even while nearly all its competitors were saying it had happened.

That's journalism.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Series of bubbles

“Although I can’t authenticate the above, I can believe it.”
--From a letter to the editor submitted to, but not published by, the Post Register
This is the best articulation I have seen on the way many Americans consume information. The specific topic to which the letter writer was referring is irrelevant. It’s the attitude, the approach to gathering information, that matters.

In fact, the information to which the writer referred was found to be blatantly inaccurate. It took about five minutes to uncover this. The writer essentially implies that he suspects the information to be inaccurate, but since it fits neatly within his world view, he is not going to look any farther.

This is called confirmation bias, and it’s not new. The Internet, however, has made it simpler to perform. The Internet isn’t a series of tubes, as someone once awkwardly described it. It’s a series of information bubbles.

If you want to confirm your belief that eating duck breast is bad for you, you’ll find it on the Internet. If, on the other hand, you want to confirm your belief that eating duck breast is good for you, you’ll find that, too.

What you’ll also find, if you’re willing to really look, is information that carefully considers the nutritional value of duck breast, since the Internet also contains the best of scientific research. But you have to sift through a lot of garbage to find the good stuff.

It’s not particularly difficult to sift the nonsense from the valid data, but it’s impossible if your goal is to confirm beliefs you already hold instead of conducting a legitimate search for accurate, fully vetted and contextual information.

As I’ve written before, former Post Register Managing Editor Dean Miller is now running the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York. He teaches his students a three-step process for finding reliable information on the Internet:

First, does the web site have a process for verifying its information before it publishes it? (Or, as most web sites, does it simply pass along information that confirms that particular web site’s institutional bias?)

Second, does the web site hold its reporters and other information sources to strict standards of independence?

Third, is the web site accountable for its work? Does it correct inaccuracies when they occur? Does it list who is behind the web site, where its funding comes from, what its purpose is, and how it goes about deciding what to post?

The truth is that nearly all web sites out there today fail one or more of these tests. Such web sites should be ignored as reliable sources of information, period.

But, that wouldn’t be any fun, would it?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Stop the ... well, never mind, but we've spotted Blue Ivy

Pity poor Arianna Huffington. She clearly, desperately wants to be taken seriously as a kingmaker (or, ahem, queenmaker, of course) and political polestar. And yet, on the day when the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on California's Proposition 8 (and, to its credit, HuffPo is leading its page all day with live coverage), here's a screen shot of HuffPo's most popular stories of the day.

There are two ways to look at this. The first, and more unlikely, is that the HuffPo folks find this disappointing and frustrating, so intent are they at being taken as serious journalists. The more likely scenario is that the HuffPo brain trust couldn't care less what people are reading, so long as it's on Huffington Post. Then, they can put the serious stuff at the top but make it easy to find the seamy or trivial stuff that people really want to read. That, dear reader, is a win-win deal.

The art of attracting readers in the Age of Entertainment is tricky, particularly if you want to maintain the illusion of practicing serious journalism while cranking out the sludge that most people seem to want to read.

It's not just HuffPo, of course. Serious journalism site wannabe Slate showed these most-read stories on March 26, the day of the Prop. 8 oral arguments: Live chat with a "cat lady"; Why Amanda Knox will never be extradited; The passion of Lew Wallace (civil war general and novelist); The Star Trek episodes you should watch for free this week; Live chat with woman worried about her boyfriend's weight loss; Your neighborhood needs more bars.

The Post Register has not found the magic formula. For the sake of comparison, I'm attaching the Most-Read section of the Post Register's home page today.

Oh, no. Kids in crisis. Woman dies after fire. A story about legislation that went nowhere. Another sex offender. Another animal abuse story.

We do give celebrity trivia a half-hearted try. There's a brief about Angelina Jolie visiting the Congo and another about the producers of a TV show apologizing about taking people to the site of a B-52 crash on the site today. Compared to HuffPo and other "global" sites, though, these are pretty slim pickings. Our headlines are dry and we have no photographs inside the box. In other words, we're booorrrrriiinnnngggggg by comparison. Our readers are too -- just look at what they chose to read.

In truth, the old saw "If it bleeds it leads" still holds true. It's very common for stories on crime and mayhem to lead our most-read statistics, even if we've had a particularly thoughtful piece of long-form journalism on the same day. There's probably not a lot new about that.

Some of you may read this and accuse me of living in my crumbling ivory tower, where serious journalism abides. You would not be the first. Try as I might, I simply can't conjure up any passion for where Beyonce and Blue Ivy (that must be the baby?) have been seen lately.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Pulitzer's seven deadly enemies

To Joseph Pulitzer society had seven deadly enemies: inaccurate information, injustice, special privilege, corruption, public plunder, demagoguery and inertia.

More than a century since his death, is Pulitzer’s list any less valid? If anything, it’s more so.

During some downtime on vacation I loitered in a used book store and came across the 1941 biography of Pulitzer, written by the last city editor of Pulitzer’s most beloved newspaper, The World of New York City. Pulitzer was a Hungarian immigrant who arrived penniless to the U.S. and did an unremarkable stint as a Union solder during the Civil War. He became wealthy enough to will money to Columbia University to fund its journalism program and what remains the most prestigious of American journalism awards – the Pulitzer Prizes.

I bought the book. I would brag that it’s a first edition, but I suspect it was the only printing. Others have written more scholarly works on Pulitzer than J.W. Barrett’s book, but it holds within it the style and attitude of a pre-war America that is as educational as the raw biographical story.

Like most journalists, Pulitzer was no saint. He brawled with fellow publishers and unabashedly pursued political agendas. He also could be considered the first modern American journalist, whose ideals are probably more important today than they were when he espoused them in the late 19th century.

The relationship between newspapers and those in power is no less contentious now than it was during Pulitzer’s day. As I’ve noted before, over the past five years alone, the Post Register has resorted to legal action several times to get information from public officials that was rightly in the public domain.

Pulitzer introduced a radical new twist to newspapers – graphics. Most early editions of The World included wood-cut engravings of important people of the day, and what some still consider to be one of the most influential political cartoons in American history: Belshazzar’s Feast, which helped turn the tide of the 1900 presidential election toward Grover Cleveland, who eventually was the narrow winner.

He would be intrigued by today’s Age of Entertainment, in which technology seemingly has usurped principles when it comes to journalism. I can only imagine what he would say: “How does technology make the basic enemies of society any less threatening?”

The answer, of course, is that technology has made these enemies all the more dangerous. Inaccurate information? It’s all around us. Special privilege, corruption, inertia? Worse than ever.

I am sometimes accused of naively clinging to basic journalistic principles when they seem little more than vestiges of a less sophisticated era. In truth, the passage of more than 100 hundreds since Pulitzer's death has only reaffirmed the rightness of his list.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Warren Buffett goes on a newspaper buying spree

Warren Buffett is, above all things, a capitalist. Lately, he’s been snapping up newspapers at a bargain rate, mostly to make money but partially because he “loves newspapers.”

In less than a year, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company has purchased 28 daily newspapers for a total of $344 million.

Buffett is wealthy not because he invented something like a snazzy high-tech product but because he simply recognizes value and invests in it. Then, instead of breaking companies apart to earn his investment back, he grows them. His particular genius is buying things other investors find undervalued and passé, like railroads. America’s freight rail system is the largest and most efficient in the world.

He’s recently written about his newspaper investments to explain to a skeptical world why those purchases make sense. Most telling is his simple and insightful definition of news: “News, to put it simply, is what people don’t know that they want to know.”

This implies that consumers ultimately aren’t going to be happy having news “pushed” to them one story at a time. Based on that view, he believes newspapers will be around for a good, long while.

“ … people will seek their news – what’s important to them – from whatever sources provide the best combination of immediacy, ease of access, reliability, comprehensiveness and low cost. The relative importance of these factors varies with the nature of the news and the person wanting it.
“Newspapers continue to reign supreme … in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town – whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football – there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.”
He considers the dubious decision by many newspapers more than a decade ago to give away their content for free online a practice in self-destruction.

“Even a valuable product, however, can self-destruct from a faulty business strategy,” he writes. “And that process has been underway during the past decade at almost all papers of size. Publishers – including Berkshire in Buffalo – have offered their paper free on the Internet while charging meaningful sums for the physical specimen. How could this lead to anything other than a sharp and steady drop in sales of the printed product?”

Of course, three of the first newspapers in the U.S. to charge for online content are in Idaho: The Lewiston Tribune, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and the Post Register. This has helped us avoid some of the most catastrophic losses encountered by some others in our business.

It’s been a pretty unnerving few years in the newspaper business, but we couldn’t ask for a better advocate that Warren Buffett. We think he’s right.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Jon Stewart gets it right, sort of

Jon Stewart spent a good share of a recent show poking well-deserved fun at CNN for its round-the-clock coverage of an icky but otherwise safe dead-in-the-water Carnival cruise ship while many more important things were going on around the world.

Watch the clip (then come back to me): Daily Show clip

Point taken. But there's a reason why Stewart is doing essentially a comedy show instead of a real news magazine -- we live in the Age of Entertainment, and he recognizes, as do CNN, Fox and the rest of the cable world, that Americans won't sit still for serious news any more. So, CNN sends helicopters out to stricken leisure vessels instead of following what's happening in the world's hot spots. CNN, like Stewart, has to pay the bills, and interviews with the secretary general of the United Nations won't do that.

It's really not CNN's fault, nor is it Stewart's. We want to be entertained, not informed. Stewart actually does pretty well at accomplishing both, but he's the first to admit that his goal is not to commit journalism. From his perch, he gets to poke fun at CNN while engaging in the very thing he derides. He gets a pass, though, because his stated goal is to be funny while CNN ostensibly wants to be seen as a serious news organization. Pity them for that.

You have to assume that Wolf Blitzer, who once ducked bombs in Baghdad, cringes every time he has to say, "And now, let's have an update on that Carnival cruise ship, where people are eating onion sandwiches and pooping into Baggies." He's a serious-minded news guy (perhaps to a fault), but there's no doubt that the beast that is the American appetite for entertainment must be fed. It also must piss him off more than a little to be the target of potty humor from Jon Stewart, who, as I've said, gets to do the very thing he is making fun of.

Stewart, in other words, is in a can't-lose situation while Blitzer (despite his awesome name) and CNN are in a can't-win deal. If they focus on hard news, they quickly lose viewers and become irrelevant. If they do goofy things like circle a stricken cruise ship in a helicopter "reuniting" loved ones who haven't seen each other for all of six days, they are not serious journalists.

One of the most telling things about Stewart's CNN monologue was that his funniest line went over the heads of his audience. His comparison to the Shackleton expedition drew only a polite giggle or two, largely, I suspect, because no one had heard of Shackleton. In case my better-informed readers need a refresher, the Shackleton expedition got caught in Antarctic sea ice in 1915. What followed was a harrowing yearlong marooning during which no one died. The people on the Carnival ship were made terribly uncomfortable, but, well, you see the point Stewart was trying to make.

Meanwhile, let's check in at HuffPo, which wants to be seen as a serious journalism-based web site. At least Arianna has eliminated the "Celebrity Skin" page, although it's not uncommon to see photos of "wardrobe malfunctions" leading the site's most popular links. Today, things are relatively substantive by comparison; the top three stories are a non-existent feud between Brian Williams and his network, some sassy questioning of bank regulators by Elizabeth Warren (HuffPo's favorite person for some time now, unless Kim Kardashian lets a nipple show), and breaking news that a hamburger joint once visited by President Obama is closed.

HuffPo is making an effort to be taken seriously, but Ms. Huffington understands that she has to feed the beast.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Say it isn't so, Suzi

It can, apparently, happen to anyone.

A Washington Post blog recently reported -- falsely -- that Sarah Palin planned to become a contributor to the Al Jazeera America network, which has recently purchased Al Gore's failing Current TV. The post was made by Suzi Parker, who is described by Politics Daily like this:

"Suzi Parker is an award-winning journalist and author, focusing extensively on politics, sex and Southern culture.

"She is a regular contributor to The Economist, US News’ Washington Whispers column, and The Christian Science Monitor. Her stories have also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, where she worked as Arkansas’ correspondent for seven years, Alternet.org., Salon.com, Nerve.com, The New York Times Magazine, The New Statesman, Penthouse, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Memphis Commercial Appeal, The Washingtonian and several other national and international magazines."

So, Suzi Parker is a legitimate journalist, published all over the interwebs and in print. Her scoop about Palin came from the web site Daily Currant, which wrote:
After leaving Fox News, Palin said she was hoping to reach a broader audience with her message. When contacted by phone, Palin said Al Jazeera - with its extensive international network - offered her the best opportunity to broadcast to millions of people.
“As you all know, I’m not a big fan of newspapers, journalists, news anchors and the liberal media in general,” Palin said. “But I met with the folks at Al-JaJizzraa (sic) and they told me they reach millions of devoutly religious people who don’t watch CBS or CNN. That tells me they don’t have a liberal bias.”
Here is how Daily Currant describes itself, on its own web site:
The Daily Currant is an English language online satirical newspaper that covers global politics, business, technology, entertainment, science, health and media. It is accessible from over 190 countries worldwide - now including South Sudan.
Our mission is to ridicule the timid ignorance which obstructs our progress, and promote intelligence - which presses forward.
The site even offers this Q and A:
Q. Are your news stories real?
A. No. Our stories are purely fictional. However they are meant to address real-world issues through satire and often refer and link to real events happening in the world.
And yet ... and yet, Suzi Parker took the news of Palin's imminent move to Al Jazeera seriously, including it as part of her apparently serious attempt to opine on Palin's current circumstances.

I have been pretty hard on people who pass along as fact the garbage often found on the Internet without checking it out first. Perhaps I should lighten up a bit. Suzi Parker is clearly no amateur, yet here she is, publishing a correction on a Washington Post blog because she hadn't bothered to make even a cursory attempt to verify something she found on a web site that is so obviously satirical that one of its headlines today is "Catholic Church Considering Jerry Sandusky as Next Pope."

How did this happen? It's simple. Suzi Parker so dearly wanted to believe the story about Palin that she didn't pursue its veracity. It happens millions of times a day across the information cesspool called the Internet, and experienced journalists are clearly not immune.

Parker has also written a book titled, "Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt." Perhaps she should stick to sex.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Another sneak peek from Yellow Light of Dusk

“Is your cigar tolerance sufficient for another?” Alex asked.

“It is, I regret to say,” I said, and Henry opened the box and brought it to me. I selected a Cohiba corona, small enough that it wouldn’t take all night to smoke. Henry closed the box and held out his hand. I placed the cigar in it and he clipped the end. I lit it is I had the first. It was milder than the first, generating gorgeous white smoke. We sat in contemplative silence as dusk turned to evening and a low mist seeped along the ground in the distance.

“I am duly impressed,” Alex said as I approached the halfway point of the stogie. “Most people would have turned green by now.”

“I’m a man of few talents, and the few I possess are considered vices by most people.”

“What about journalism?” Alex inquired.

“I rest my case,” I said.

Alex and Nicole laughed, and Alex closed her eyes. I knew a quotation was coming.

“Churchill once said, ‘I drink a good deal. I sleep a little, and I smoke cigar after cigar. That’s why I’m in two-hundred percent form,’” she said.

I tried to match her.

“A good cigar is like a beautiful chick who knows the box scores,” I said. “Klinger said something like that.”

Both Alex and Nicole turned their heads and stared at me.

“From the TV show, M*A*S*H,” I said, looking away after giving them a quick look of satisfaction with a quick raising of my eyebrows. I looked back as they simultaneously rolled their eyes. Then Alex closed her eyes again, signaling another quotation.

“Journalism is popular, but it is popular mainly as fiction. Life is one world, and life seen in newspapers is another,” she said. We waited. “That was G.K. Chesterton, I believe.”

“You win,” I said.

“She always does,” Nicole said.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

I unfriended Facebook

The Sandy Hook shootings were the last straw.

Sitting in my easy chair the next Saturday morning fooling around on Facebook, I could hear the repetitive coverage of the massacre on TV. On Facebook, friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends were commenting. Most were thoughtful, but some were stupid and a handful were outrageous. I flipped out.

First, I burst into tears. Yes, I know, that's helpful. Then, I turned off the TV. Finally, I looked into discontinuing my Facebook account. I realized that I had created the account for the Post Register and, besides, Facebook makes it damn near impossible to just cancel your account. So, I did the next best thing.

I unfriended everyone -- everyone -- except for my and Kathleen's kids. My personal experiment with the full menu that Facebook has to offer was over.

I had started before the election by reducing my Facebook friends to just my extended family, which included distant cousins in Brazil. The insanity and stupidity of political commentary on Facebook became too much to bear. Reducing it to a place where I can get updates on the grandkids was the next logical step.

My Facebook experience peaked -- or hit bottom, depending on how you look at it -- about a year and a half ago just before my 35th high school reunion, when I added a bunch of Facebook friends from my high school days. Many of these very nice people I knew little or not at all, but I got caught up in the spirit of the moment. At that point I had around 200 Facebook friends, which is still a pretty modest number in comparison to some

Suddenly, however, I was spending two hours or more a day on Facebook and engaging in conversations and debates with people I either had scarcely known once in the mid-70s or, through the Facebook friends of friends process, people I knew not at all. Some people find this exhilarating. I began to find it annoying, frustrating, occasionally entertaining, rarely enlightening, but nearly always a bad use of my time. There are 10 or so -- you all probably know who you are -- that I actually miss, and maybe I'll see if they'll take me back some day. And I did enjoy the antics of the Brazilian Plothows.

However, I spend my professional life at the center of the public discourse, which often means engaging with people who say ignorant or silly things. The last thing I need to do is continue engaging people like that at home, and the wider the Facebook circle the more likely it gets infiltrated with uninvited guests.

Yes, I could have more carefully managed my privacy settings and list of friends, but I decided to go all in, or, more correctly, all out. It was the right call.

I'm still on LinkedIn and my email address is known to thousands. It's not hard to get hold of me. Plus, I maintain Facebook pages for my first novel and its upcoming sequel, plus one on Yellowstone National Park. That keeps me in the game.

Most important is that I have now freed significant time for Angry Birds, and I'm nearly through the Star Wars version, three star complete destruction.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Journalism run amok

It's really no wonder why journalism is viewed so negatively by the public.

Twenty-four percent of people surveyed in a recent Gallup Poll rate journalists high in standards of honesty and ethics. That puts us right between bankers and business executives, but higher than lawyers, politicians and car salespeople. (Nurses rank at the top of the list. Congress is next to last at 10 percent.)

When a newspaper in New York State publishes the name and address of every gun owner in its readership, complete with an interactive map, it only serves to bolster the low opinion people have of our profession. It was stupid and, perhaps more to the point, served absolutely no purpose.

What did the newspaper hope to accomplish with this story? I can't come up with a reasonable answer, and I'm hardly alone.

“The Journal News, I personally think, should have rethought the idea as actually going so far to identify actual addresses,” said Steve Doig, a professor with an expertise in data journalism at Arizona State. “This particular database ought to remain a public record. Just because it’s available and public record doesn’t mean we have to make it so readily available.”

I have long understood that one reason journalists are viewed so negatively is that people who ply a trade that somewhat resembles journalism  -- entertainment reporters, political commentators, etc. -- are considered journalists by many in the general public, and this pulls our numbers down. That rationale doesn't work here, since the people behind the gun story are from the Journal News, a very mainstream local newspaper based in White Plains, New York. Presumably, the newspaper's publisher, editor and reporters are well trained and follow some sort of code of ethics. I have searched its web site and find no code of ethics published, which is too bad. I believe every newspaper should publish code of conduct so readers can hold the journalists accountable. 

This is unfair, but I suspect the Journal News' managers would like to re-think its decision at this point. The editor's explanation is weak:

“We knew publication of the database would be controversial but we felt sharing as much information as we could about gun ownership in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings,” said CynDee Royle, Editor and Vice President/News.

“People are concerned about who owns guns and how many of them there are in their neighborhoods. Our Freedom of Information request also sought specifics on how many and what types of weapons people owned. That portion of the request was denied.”

Now, a story indicating how many guns are owned in the newspaper's market, including the types, etc., has real relevance. Revealing who the gun owners are, including addresses, has no journalistic value I can think of.

I agree with one of the people who called the Journal News to complain about the story and map. As reported in the Journal News:
Scott F. Williams, 41, of Haddon Heights, N.J., near Philadelphia, who served in the Marines as a rifleman, was one of a very few callers who agreed to identify themselves and comment on why they called.
“This is what I see,” he said. “It’s all in the context of the shootings in Newtown ... it gets us all talking about gun control. That people are at a heightened concern makes sense to me. I am a gun owner and a pro-Second-Amendment (person). I try to be rational.”
He called the newspaper’s decision to link to the database “highly Orwellian. The implications are mind-boggling,” he said. “It’s as if gun owners are sex offenders (and) to own a handgun risks exposure as if one is a sex offender. It’s, in my mind, crazy.”

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Government we deserve

I can't nail down its original source, but it's become popular to suggest that we get the government we deserve.

That has been no truer than it is today. Do you doubt me? I offer for my only exhibits a handful of recent posts from Post Talk, the Post Register's message board and veritable sewer of free speech. I do not provide the names of the authors to protect the guilty.

Let's start with a doozy:

"Hitler never wanted war with Britain, only a dictatorship and absolute power in Germany. Much like our presidents today, he wanted to be a great German historical figure like Bismarck. He sought revenge from the treaty of Versailles Treaty. He wanted to restore German pride and enlarge the German empire to the east. He wanted to rid Germany of Jews and gays and destroy Bolshevism. He wanted Germany to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Whether these things were right or wrong is not the issue. Hitler never wanted war with Britain, and certainly not with the U.S. He never wanted a two-front war, let alone a world war. He wanted Germany to be a world power, not the ruler of the world. Today, the U.S. is guilty of the very same desires of Hitler. "

OK, that one's unfair, since the author is a known John Bircher and conspiracy monger. So, let's move a little closer to the mainstream.

"Once in a while the liberals pause to address the out-of-control spending ("investment" in liberal speak) but then simply blame it on GWB! Their indoctrination by the uber-liberal teachers/professors has worked well."

There's some classic anti-intellectualism for you. (Just this week the latest list of the world's top universities was released. Eight of the top 10 are American, and that proportion continues through the first several dozen. We are the envy of the world in many respects, and our colleges may be at the top of that list.)

From the left:

"Makes me wonder when the Republican Party will take responsibility for the economic mess we are in today. After all, Reagan started Class Warfare increasing the flow of wealth to the top and Bush capped it off with his unfunded tax cuts, Medicare D, and two wars; culminating in the crash of 2008. Republicans love to crush the hopes and dreams of the poor and middle class while preserving the wealth of a few."

I know a lot of Republicans but can't think of a single one who is bent on crushing hopes and dreams.

"Obama has shot another volley over the bow of the Republican-led House by promising he won't negotiate on raising the debt limit. This individual is determined to completely bankrupt this country - although it seems we have already achieved that "goal". Boehner and McConnell must hold firm and demand spending cuts that will more than equal any raising of the debt limit. Medicare and Medicaid are the drivers of our debt and congress knows this but seem too timid to make the difficult choices."

This writer used to refer to our president as BO until I put a stop to it. Now, she uses "this individual," and is quite certain he is "determined to bankrupt this country." Of course he is. Every president runs for office with a deep desire to screw things up or, worse, has a specific "destroy our country" agenda. No, wait. It's only Obama who came to power with that objective.

"No level of gun control will remove guns from most who should not have them. It would only keep law abiding citizens from owning them. I have a hard time understanding how owning an assault rifle somehow translates in it being used to kill people."

The last sentence is one of the more remarkable things I've ever read, anywhere. There's no point in debating with someone who would write such a sentence.

"I haven't been in a theatre since the early nineties - except for "2016: Obama's America", which I saw this past summer. I got tired of paying good money to watch poorly-written and poorly-acted ho-hum movies. Once in a while I will rent a DVD - but even then, it's sometimes a waste of my time and dollars. Give me a good book any day!"

Here we have a person who hasn't seen a movie for nearly two decades, except, of course, for a propaganda flick so full of lies and conspiracy innuendo that it's hard to imagine even hard-core Obama-haters can take it seriously. This person votes, presumably.

"Many of us who were in the military and in war zones saw firsthand what some folks with guns in their hands or bombs and rockets at their disposal could do to other human beings. We didn’t like that either. I don’t keep semi-automatic pistols and rifles with 30 round clips around for hunting nor did I buy them for that purpose. I will always have them, out of reach from the grandkids for sure, but ever present. I always strive to be at least as well armed as are the folks who would do me, or my family harm, be they thugs, thieves, rapists, murderers or government goons."

Yes, we need assault weapons to protect ourselves from "government goons." (Never mind that if "government goons" really wanted to take you out, they would have access to weapons that would make your assault rifle seem like a pea shooter.)

Let's end with a note from the populist left, a crusader for pro-union laws.

"Let's all thank the Right To Work law and all those who voted for it. Idahoans now have the right to work for less and qualify for Medicaid for their children and Food Stamps for the family."

The most instructive issue presented on this one is the depiction of our tendency to snatch up simplistic, one-size-fits-all causes for our various ills, which plays nicely into sound-bite politics.

I close with the lyrics from a classic Supertramp track, Crime of the Century:
Who are these men of lust, greed, and glory? 
Rip off the masks and let's see. 
But that's not right - oh no, what's the story? 
        There's you and there's me That can't be right


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Shooting for 'good enough'

For every “expert” on the business of journalism and the broader world of media there’s a strategy, a clear indication that everyone involved in the media world – from journalists to news consumers to advertisers – is still trying to figure out the next steps.

So it was interesting to find this nugget on Lost Remote, a blog devoted to television:

“A paid content revolution is under way at newspapers across America … It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize this is an unusual opportunity for (TV) stations to go after audiences frustrated with the new restrictions.”

Then comes this surprising admission:

“Newspaper folks will be quick to point out they produce a higher quality and frequency of online coverage. This is certainly the case in most markets, but local TV stations can attract a larger share by stepping up coverage a notch and marketing themselves as a free and everywhere alternative.”

The blog’s recommendation is for local TV stations to essentially become “newspaper lite,” including a suggestion to “… redesign your sites to be lighter, more responsive and a bit more ‘newspapery’ while still showcasing video.”

The goal, the blog writer suggests, is not to attempt to replicate newspapers but to become provide “good enough coverage across a broader array of content and platforms.”

Newspaper types should be flattered, I reckon.

Pay walls (an unfortunate term – I prefer “subscriber-based business model”) are nothing new, particularly in Idaho, where newspapers like the Post Register, Lewiston Tribune and Moscow-Pullman Daily News have charged for online access for a decade now. Other serious journalism organizations, however, are just now coming around to the realization that reporting that goes beyond “good enough” is expensive and can’t just be given away on a web site.

Ultimately, the alternatives boil down to a choice between “good enough” journalism provided to the consumer for free or journalism important enough to compel people to pay a little for it.

The truth is, there remains room in local markets for a variety of competing media. TV can be more immediate, is free (well, unless you’re watching on cable) and simple to consume. Newspapers go deeper and wider, containing as much local information in a single edition as a week’s worth of TV newscasts.

The Idaho Statesman recently announced it would be implementing a subscriber-based business model and some of the local TV stations went a little loopy, running commercials suggesting that the good people of southwestern Idaho should be offended at the very thought of having to pay for local news from a web site.

I don’t know how the Statesman has responded, but I have a suggestion – post a running tally of local information items appearing in the paper compared to the number on TV. The message would become crystal clear.