June 30, 2003

If Your Mother Says She Loves You …

… Check it out. And that seems to be the culprit behind many of today's journalism scandals - as a well the perception by the public that the press is not paying attention. They're not checking it out enough. Jayson Blair - check him out. George Bush - check him out. Weapons of mass destruction - check them out.

Gilbert Cranberg, a former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, examined "some 40" editorials in the wake of Colin Powell's Feb. 5 report to the Security Council in which he presented "evidence" that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Cranberg found that "that while some (papers) were less convinced than others by Powell's attempt to link Hussein to terrorism, there was unanimity as to Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction."

As we now know, the truth was a moving target at that Security Council meeting.

Cranberg writes in the Washington Post: "Journalists are supposed to be professional skeptics, but nowhere in the commentary was there a smidgen of skepticism about the quality of Powell's evidence. Powell cited almost no verifiable sources. Many of his assertions were unattributed. The speech had more than 40 vague references such as 'human sources,' 'an eyewitness,' 'detainees,' 'an al-Qaeda source,' 'a senior defector,' 'intelligence sources,' and the like."

Cranberg blames the rush to judgment by editorial writers for their lack of judgment. "The downside of instant analysis is the scant time it leaves for careful reporting and reflection," he says.

It doesn't matter whether it's expediency or mediocrity that converts watchdogs into lapdogs [ Read: Flogging a Dead Corpse ] the result is the same: Journalism suffers and the public perception of the press grows dimmer.

Gilbert Cranberg - check him out.

 Gilbert Cranberg . . . Bring Back the Skeptical Press

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:42 AM | Comments (2)

June 27, 2003

Today Porn, Tomorow News or Opinion

I can understand why the guardians of public morals don't want library patrons surfing teen bestiality sites while kids are Googling their book report at the next computer. Sheesh, I don't want to see that stuff either.

On a recent trip to Mexico, I stopped into an Internet shop (80 cents an hour, by the way, for DSL access) to check email and found the desktop littered with what appeared to be the remains of a Web orgy. I felt like I needed a shower just dragging those JPEGs to the trash folder.

Although I've never seen anyone - adult or teen - with a screenful of porn in my local library (where I sometime go to write during periods of prolonged blockage), I've no doubt they do. After all, people will, won't they?

But, like so many other journalists, I am not comforted by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on June 23 that could force libraries to filter Internet access.

Mark Glaser of the Online Journalism Review asks a question that should concern all journalists, especially newspapers because they are increasingly relying on electronic distribution: "Who polices these software controls? Anyone with an agenda."

It only takes a small dash of liberal paranoia to imagine certain small-town librarians bowing to pressure from conservative political or religious groups and moving beyond porn filtering to blocking news or opinion that is deemed distasteful or "not appropriate."

If you've been reading about this issue at home or at work, you may think the issue of public Internet access is one that is rapidly becoming nearly moot as home computer use grows, but according to the Commerce Department 10 percent of Internet users gain access through a public library, many of them poor.

There is a simpler solution to the dilemma of providing access while placing true porn (not, for example, sites that provide abortion information to teenage girls) off limits. Most libraries require computer users to log in with their library card numbers. If someone is caught looking at or downloading porn, boot them out of the library, take away their card and don't let them reregister. That's the penalty for someone who violates other library standards, such as stealing books.

The a new report done by the Electronic Freedom Foundation shows the how capricious and inaccurate Web filters can be. Here's one point from it: "Schools that implement Internet blocking software even with the least restrictive settings will block at a minimum tens of thousands of web pages inappropriately, either because the web pages are miscategorized or because the web pages, while correctly categorized, do not merit blocking."

Unless the news industry and other freedom of information advocates can prevent Congress from forcing libraries to install filtering software, someday a newspaper may find that its series on teen pregnancy or prostitution is deemed "inappropriate" for public consumption.

 Online Journalism Review Justices Put Access to Online Information in the Wrong Hands
 Electronic Freedom Foundation Internet Blocking in Public Schools

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:02 AM

June 25, 2003

Why the Web is so Important for Newspapers

In an interview with British-based dotJournalism, Martin Nisenholtz, CEO of the New York Times Digital, offers a few opinions about the future of news:

 New Media vs. Newspapers: "Electronic delivery will become more and more important both for commerce and for the consumer."

 The Next Big Platform: "Smart phones will … particularly change news delivery."

 Globalizing the First Amendment: "The web is the most important first amendment tool since the invention of language."

 Blogging: "The web log and Wiki movements will have a growing impact on the public dialogue … blogs complement more mainstream sources."

 The Web and the Future of News: "We are moving toward a much more distributed kind of news sourcing. This makes quality reporting and editing all the more important. In an atmosphere of information overload, editors make a great deal of sense."

Nisenholtz's last point is the most important for newspapers. When everyone can publish, when news media are omnipresent, when punditry carries the same weight as perspective, the value of quality journalism increases.

Newspapers are positioned, by virtue of their large newsgathering and distribution mechanisms, to best take advantage of this change, but they need to, as Nisenholtz put it, "embrace the web" and transition internally from defining their audience as mass instead of an emerging series of classes.

 dotJournalism Interview with Martin Nisenholtz

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:38 AM

June 24, 2003

Eat Your Parents

For the first time in the two years Belden Associates has been studying the effect of newspaper Web sites on print readership, the research company has found indications that, in some instances at least, the newer medium is eroding usage of the older one.

Cyberjournalist.net summarized Belden's newest study, which surveyed nearly 9,000 readers of five (unnamed) newspapers: "Readership levels dropped 14 percent, single-copy sales dropped 4 percent and subscriptions dropped 2 percent."

Belden's Greg Harmon explained: "Several factors may be in play here. In particular, sites are doing a better job of delivering the news over the web and visitors are doing a better job of getting what they want from newspaper sites. Here we may be seeing that visitors are coming to 'trust' that what they see on the web is what they will see in the newspaper."

A year ago, in a study conducted between May and July 2002, Belden found that "newspaper Web sites rarely affect delivery frequency of the print edition, but have a positive impact on single-copy purchases."

Editor & Publisher reported, however, that the 2002 study also found 14% of readers said news Web sites spurred them to read newspapers more and equal number said the Web caused them to read papers less.

Harmon predicted then that this "dead-wash" might eventually, as E&P put it, "swing in favor of online readership."

One blip in a behavioral pattern doesn't necessarily signify a lasting trend, but I suspect print readership will continue to erode in favor of electronic delivery, partly because of shifting demographics (the displacement of older readers by younger "viewers") and partly because of media fragmentation.

Newspapers are morphing from mass to class. The issue before them is how to define that class.

 Cyberjournalist.net Newspaper site cannibalize print readership
 Editor & Publisher Survey: Web Doesn't Affect Print Readership

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:09 AM

June 23, 2003

Newspapers and Unions

"I've been rich and I've been poor. Rich is better."
- Sophie Tucker, vaudevillian.

With apologies to Sophie, who besides being the Last of the Red Hot Mamas was at one time also president of an actors' union, I've worked in a union shop and I've worked in a non-union shop. Non-union is better.

Neither environment is perfect, but few employer-employee relationships are. Some companies, or their managers, are so onerously abusive that their laborers require organized protection. And some employees are so profligately intent on not delivering a day's work for a day's pay that they deserve to be shown the door without contest. On the whole, though, productivity and creativity thrive best in an environment that is open, flexible and collaborative - qualities that are antithetical to the rigidity, hierarchy and task segregation stipulated in most contracts arrived at via collective bargaining, a reactive, defensive process in which mutual mistrust is a core belief.

At newspapers, where newsrooms are already stratified and task oriented by nature and boardrooms consider a 25 percent margin a good starting place for revenue growth, the addition of a union further calcifies already hardened positions.

The Baltimore Sun, where unionized newsroom and business employees are engaged in collective brinkmanship with the Tribune Company over a new contract, is a good example.

The dispute seems to be easily defined - and classically demarcated.

The Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, which represents 600-plus Sun workers, wants guaranteed 3 percent annual raises for its members and preservation of seniority rules that define management's ability to transfer or layoff employees.

The Tribune Company, which also owns the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, eight other large newspapers and more than 25 TV stations, wants to "create(s) a performance-driven culture" that "tie(s) future salary increases for the most experienced reporters, photographers and advertising salespeople largely to their productivity and other barometers of performance."

Under the current contract, top-scale reporters now earn $1,093 a week, $56,836 a year, more than a similar reporter at the Washington Post and $6,000 a year more than the median income in Baltimore County.

Guild president M. William Salganik, a Sun health reporter, told the New York Times, "The Tribune proposals indicate that where they're starting from is the position that they have so many lazy and incompetent and unqualified workers that the way to deal with us is to deny us pay raises, deny us cost-of-living increases, transfer us to any other job or lay us off at random."

Yep. That's right. What company doesn't want to get rid of deadwood, especially a media company like the Tribune whose shareholders are accustomed to a fat bottom line? [See latest Tribune Company earnings.]

But, don't enterprising reporters, editors and photographers, those with initiative and passion for their work, deserve more money than their clock-punching co-workers?

Yep. They do. But "merit pay" is inherently anti-union, contrary to a union's base principal of negotiated egalitarianism.

I have been in unions and out of them. In my vanished youth, I worked in Rust Belt factories trying to organize workers. Later, I paid my Guild dues for years at a San Francisco newspaper. Later still, as a non-union member of senior management, I crossed picket lines when the Guild and Teamsters struck my paper, the most divisive and disillusioning experience of my newspaper career.

I left the newsroom for the unfettered frontier of the Internet, where, after more than a decade spent in a world so micro-managed by collectively bargained rules that people argued over who could write a caption or whether a copy editor should receive an extra $1.50 a shift for pushing a certain button, I was astounded by the rush of creativity collaborative effort could produce.

I am not anti-union, but I don't like rigidity and unionized newsrooms are beset by rules that both employees and managers employ for manipulation and self-protection.

The problem with unions and newspapers is that inherently creative people - writers, artists, photographers - are classified by task, paid equally whether they perform well or not and discouraged from experimenting with horizontal professional growth. Reporters need permission to edit. Editors need dispensation to write. Photographers are not word people. Reporters cannot take photographs or write captions.

Newspapers need more creativity, not less. Newsrooms need more individuality, not less. Newspaper readers deserve reporters' and editors' best efforts, nothing less. The Baltimore Sun staff should get a raise. And the paper's owners should decide who merits one and who doesn't.

UPDATE: Editor & Publisher reports today the tough economics for newspapers are creating labor talks that have degraded from "calculated chess matches to bitter war games." The story looks at negotiations at six papers, including the Sun. [ Read it ]

 New York Times Labor Standoff at Baltimore Sun Gets Serious

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:40 AM | Comments (1)

June 19, 2003

Raines, the Baby and the Bath Water

William Powers warns in the Atlantic that as newspapers "recoil from all things Rainesian," granting adjective status to the departed editor of the N.Y. Times, they should be wary of running full tilt toward "all things safe and moderate … perhaps even further into the slouching, zombified dullness that prevails at so many American newspapers and sends readers running in the other direction."

Good point. Newspapers are reactionary by nature and prone to herd-like response when an industry trend spooks the pack. In recent years, newspapers have zoned and de-zoned and zoned again; demanded shorter stories then praised the narrative; flattened newsroom hierarchies into pods and teams, then decried the lack of leadership.

Truth is suddenly trendy (as it always should have been) and Powers is right to be concerned that efforts to scrub the stain of dishonesty from newspapers might also bleach them of color.

He writes: "As we leave the Raines era behind and rightly condemn its errors, let's not lose the brightness and dash, the audacity, that came with it. The Times has a few big problems, but it's an audacious, ambitious, living, breathing newspaper. And there are way too few of those."

More audacity is needed, not less.

 The Atlantic The Counterswing

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:27 AM

Slackers and Swindlers

Columbia University journalism professor Steven Ross is fed up with laziness.

In what appears to be a cathartic jeremiad, Ross asserts on the Poynter Institute's Web site that Jayson Blair, as toxic as he was to the credibility of newspapers, was a mere tumorous manifestation of a more malignant newsroom infection - a system that encourages reporters to "take shortcuts and cross (their) fingers" and rewards editors who "value good writing over exhaustive reporting." Ross writes:

"Much of the nation's public relations industry depends on writers taking these shortcuts. Our editors don't complain. Our publishers cheer us on. We may penalize journalism students and reporters for getting facts wrong, but almost never find fault with perfectly reporting the wrong story, a story fed to them by public relations officers or government leakers."

Ross continues on to assemble a sadly familiar list of common journalistic shortcomings - errors written into stories then repeated ad infinitum from clips (and now from Googling); reporters who fail to read, and therefore understand, complex studies they report on; big city reporters papers ripping off stories from weeklies or other smaller papers; and, as mentioned above, reporters steadfast reliance on corporate or government sources for stories.

All this is true. Even Ross' conclusion that the Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass "are not as far from the norm as readers have been led to believe," which I don't fully agree with - there is a difference between a slacker and a swindler - has merit in the context of his larger point: That too much "journalism" is reported by rote, written by formula and edited by people who have neither the will, the talent nor the space to improve the story. The result is mediocrity, which, while not as infamous as Blair and Glass, is just as deadly to the profession.

Ross offers no solution.

I suggest this one: Zero tolerance.

Laziness is a drug. It is addicting and self-reinforcing. Journalists cannot be weaned from laziness by platitudes about excellence, canons of ethics or sermons from the ivory pulpits of our campuses. We need to speak to them in the one language they understand, the lingua franca of the newsroom: Spike poorly reported stories; kick back clichιd headlines; fact-check enterprise; seek feedback from sources; demand that editors edit.

Raise the bar, open the door, and kick some people out. Quality journalism, especially daily newspapering, requires hard work and the business is full of many reporters, editors and photographers who do just that every day. But there are also far too many slackers in the ranks, and likely a few more swindlers, too, and it's time we weeded them out.

 Poynter Online Beyond Blair: Shortcuts to Disaster

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:11 AM | Comments (1)

June 18, 2003

The News Parade

David Gelernter, technologist, Yale professor, Unabomber victim and columnist for the conservative bastion The Weekly Standard (and therefore disaffected reader of the New York Times), has conjured up a vision of "America's next great newspaper" that, focusing on the nut of the idea and not on the politics of the nut, is intriguing.

Befitting his role as futurist, Gelernter writes in exclamatory fashion:

"America's next great newspaper is a wonderful idea -- but it will have to be published on the web and not on paper, and as a new style web newspaper, not one of today's conventional web-based losers. It is coming -- and (in the nature of things) it will redefine the news story and the newspaper."

Gelernter pounds on several themes to support his idea. Some of them are familiar (the Web offers timeliness, virtuality and appeal to computer-nurtured younger generations) and others proffer solutions to current marketplace dilemmas (home computer users are not upgrading their machines because they have plenty of processing power and storage, therefore PC makers should get behind development of apps that push memory-sucking news content to desktops).

Of all Gelernter's perspectives, and he dishes out an all-you-can-ponder buffet of opining, the tastiest to me is his characterization of the difference between a print newspaper and a Web newspaper:

"Space is newsprint's domain; time is the web's. As an ordinary thing-in-space, the newsprint newspaper will always be the better. … "As an object-in-time the web-paper will be king, if we let it be -- but what kind of object is that? If a still photo is an object in space, a parade seen from a fixed location is an object in time -- its grand marshal two hours in the past, its rear end 20 minutes into the future. And (it just so happens) the news is a parade, it is a March of Time (Time-Life's famous newsreel series), a sequence of events -- and thus perfect for a (new style) web newspaper."

As viewing stand for the news parade, Gelernter outlines a "flowing stream" of rich-media news items fed to your PC, indexed, contextualized and riding aboard an "information beam" that is access agnostic (via keyboard or voice command). He argues the technology for this is "surprisingly easy." I'm not tech savvy enough to be a judge of that. You'll have to read his piece yourself.

What I like is his idea of redefining the construction and delivery of news. I agree with him that today's Web newspapers, while far advanced from their hand-tagged beginnings in the mid-90s, are still mostly electronic reproductions of their print parents. To truly take advantage of the Web as an "object in time" Gelernter argues for a reformatting of the news story into a "string of short pieces interspersed with photos, transcripts, statements, and whatnot as they emerge: It is an evolving chain; you can pick it up anywhere and follow it back into the past as far as you like."

Of course, technologists and futurists, as objects in space themselves, typically don't share the same portion of the real world as the rest of us, so I'm sure the hooey factor of Gelernter's idea is high. Nonetheless, I like the audacity of it, the leap from what-is to what-could-be. The newspaper industry needs that type of thinking.

Until Gelernter's news parade marches across our computer screens or PDAs, we'll have to be content with the inky original, which, incidentally, Gelernter writes of fondly:

"A newsprint paper is a slab of space … that is browsable and transparent. Browsability is what a newspaper is for: to offer readers a smorgasbord of stories, pictures, ads and let them choose what looks good. "Transparent" means you can always tell from a distance what you're getting into (Are there lots of pages here or not many? Important news today or nothing much?)--and you always know (as you read) where you are, how far you've come, and how much is left. The newsprint paper is an easy, comfortable, unfussy object. You can turn to the editorials, flip to the back page, or pull out the sports section without thinking. It's light and simple and cheap: Spread it on the breakfast table and spill coffee on it, read it standing in a subway or flat on your back on sofa or lawn, on the beach or in bed. You can write on it, cut it up, pull it apart, fold it open to an interesting story, and stick it (folded) in your pocket to show to someone later. These small details add up to brilliant design."

 The Weekly Standard The Next Great American Newspaper

Posted by Tim Porter at 11:13 AM

June 17, 2003

Pinch Me! The Times is Dreaming

Michael Wolff, in the current issue of New York magazine, maps the Jayson Blair iceberg and finds that the defining mass hidden beneath its plagiarizing tip and now-calved Raines-Boyd management duo is the cold ambition of publisher Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr.

Denied an interview by Sulzberger ("Because I hate New York Magazine."), Wolff crafts an intriguing argument that Young Arthur, determined to further move the Times company beyond print into broader media, nurtured the enabling environment that gave rise to Raines and Boyd and, through them, to Blair.

Wolff quotes Sulzberger saying that he is "agnostic about the method of distribution," meaning, of course, that the brand, not the medium, is the message. Writes Wolff: "It is the strategic view - market share, competitive positioning, franchise extension, category dominance - rather than the newsroom view, that more and more informs the direction of this international information franchise."

Wolff is drawing a dark picture of convergence, one in which, from a newspaper's perspective, good journalism is not a civic goal as much as it is a corporate tool.

The Timesmen and Timeswomen, says Wolff, perhaps deluded by the perp-walk departure of Raines and Boy or taken in by the stoicism of Sulzberger's stuffed moose, fail to understand the scope of Sulzberger's strategy - and the impact it could have on the Times as a journalistic enterprise. He writes:

"There's a denial mechanism among people in the Times newsroom that allows them to believe that while Arthur may be out to change the direction of the Times Company, that entity is somehow different and remote from the paper itself. …

"And yet such change, such redirection, such a kind of corporate shift in tone and emphasis and priorities and sense of the product itself, is, finally, what Raines and Boyd are being held to account for. …

"The sense in the newsroom now is that the good Times has prevailed over this other, bad Times. That this has been a heroic victory by the true owners of the newsroom to preserve what must be preserved. This is part of the frequent journalist delusion - that journalists themselves have power."

To me, the Jayson Blair incident exposes the battle over values now being fought in our nation's newsrooms and in their parent company boardrooms. The base tenets of journalism - honesty, pursuit of truth, responsibility to community (which, by the way, are also platform agnostic) - are under attack by a more flexible set of "principles" that allow degrees of honesty, shades of truth and moments of irresponsibility in pursuit of audience.

Wolff argues that Sulzberger, with his ambition to push the Times into a "larger, polymorphous media world," endorsed an atmosphere that valued a "certain … plasticity" of ethical standards.

"Where," Wolff writes, "it may, in fact, be more efficient if Rick Bragg, the star reporter, can have (like television news stars) assistants to do his work. Where a reporter who can do a quick TV hit is worth more than one who can't. Where you allow stylish writers stylish excesses. Where Jayson Blair, and his clever scene-making - if not necessarily his deceit - are to be encouraged."

 New York magazine Pinch, Power, and the Paper

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:46 AM | Comments (2)

June 16, 2003

Closing the Loop, Opening the Door

I've been in Oaxaca, Mexico, for almost two months and missed Hurricane Jayson and the flood tide of criticism, anger, blame and self-examination it sent surging through America's newsrooms.

Arriving now at the scene of the storm, seeing the breadth of the destruction and the piles of professional detritus, I feel like one of those South Florida homeowners we've seen photographed after some Caribbean tempest standing bewildered, saddened, amid the rubble of his home: Where to begin?

I once had an editor named Frank McCulloch, an ex-Marine who was Saigon bureau chief for Time during the Vietnam War and later became managing editor of the L.A. Times and other newspapers. Frank was old school all the way. To him journalism was a simple thing. Find the people. Ask the right questions. Write the story. "This ain't rocket science," he liked to say.

Frank tolerated management meetings with a thinly disguised distaste, especially those visited by consultants pitching complicated formulas for attracting readership or improving the newspaper.

After leaning back in his chair and listening to his junior editors debate the pros and cons of some reorganization plan designed to do more with less or some such thing, Frank would uncross his long legs, lean forward, plant his black cowboy boots on the floor and his elbows on the conference room table, and state in the emphatic manner in which he said almost everything: "There's only one way I know how to make a newspaper better. You do it one sentence at a time, one headline at a time, one caption at a time."

Sound advice. That's how to deal with the damage left by Hurricane Jayson: One issue at a time.

In the L.A. Times today, David Shaw writes about the practice some newspapers use to check the quality of their reporting - asking "the people who've been interviewed and written about," the sources of their stories, "if the stories were satisfactory and if there were any complaints or questions. Did the stories quote them accurately and in context? Were their names spelled right? Were the facts in the story correct? Were they related fairly?"

Shaw posits that had the New York Times posed such questions to the people portrayed in Jayson Blair's stories, his deception would have been unmasked much earlier.

Shaw interviews several editors who have begun sending letters to sources seeking feedback, suggesting that, in the short term at least, the tactic may become a commonplace, post-Jayson response.

The ever-voluble Steven Brill voices the most energetic support for the practice, which he correctly defines as "quality control" and laments the lethargic reaction he's received from newspaper editors when he's proposed such a thing in the past. "I've suggested this kind of quality control to editors for years, and the silence with which that suggestion is greeted is always deafening," Brill says.

The sound Brill couldn't hear is the arrogant silence in which too many newspapers live, the absence of an ongoing conversation that should be taking place between news sources, news producers and news consumers.

Newspapers fail to see themselves as a component in a data supply chain that obtains information from sources (vendors, if you will), processes it through writing, editing and packaging, and delivers it to a reader (customer).

Instead, newspapers have isolated themselves, defined themselves as institutions that by virtue of tradition and desire for importance deserve to live above the messy fray of public interaction. Isolation breeds mistrust - and that's something newspapers have in abundance these days.

Feedback letters to sources are a way for newspapers to reach out, to breach the barrier of isolation, to step further down a path that leads to more service, more context and more dialogue. [ Read: Service, Context, Dialogue ]

"Equally important," says Shaw, "every letter served as a statement of what the paper stood for and of how vigorously it wanted to enforce its standards. That's a good message for the news media to send to an increasingly skeptical citizenry."

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis picks up the write-it-once-check-it-again theme arguing that a blogging public, by being able to "publish to the world," will make "more of a difference than any commission or ombudsman" when it comes to watch-dogging the press. If another set of eyes always helps a story before its printed -- and it usually does (depending, of course, whose eyes they are) -- then a post-publish edit to the Nth power is all good. [ Read: BuzzMachine ]

 David Shaw Some papers ask, 'Has our work been up to snuff?'

Posted by Tim Porter at 11:58 AM