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.