June 25, 2004

Traveling: Oaxaca

I'm heading south to Oaxaca, Mexico, where the food is great, the mezcal is better and DSL is only a dream (at least on my dirt road). Until I return after the Fourth, read about how I built a house there or wander the stacks of the Best of First Draft:

 The Quality Manifesto: What started it all.

 Journalists Overpaid? Nonsense: There are many reasons newsrooms have disconnected from the communities they cover, but overly fat paychecks is not one of them.

 No More Whining: He's wrong that penurious publishers are to blame for readership woes.

 Eliminating the Bimbo Factor: I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it - although I thought I did.

 Would You Pay a Nickel to Read This?: In the world of online newspapers (and other media), the debate over whether to charge for content (more revenue) or not (more readers) draws well-reasoned and emotional commentary from both sides.

 Newspapers Disrupted: "When you realize this newfangled thing is stealing your business, and you aren't sure how to get it back."

 How Journalism Went Bad: Reading writer Michael D'Antonio's thoughtful essay on the demise of traditional journalism (print and broadcast) in the L.A. Times reminded me of the Woody Allen line about death: "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."

 Time for a Leadership Tuneup: Newspapers are like cars. They are complex machines that require regular maintenance, occasional new parts and a certain amount of high-speed driving to keep the grit and road grime from dulling their engines.

 There's Nothing Left but the Journalism: Quality sells. Relevance matters. The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that's left is the journalism.

 The Journalism of Complacency: Tim Rutten, who was completely wrong about Daniel Okrent (see my comments here and here), noses about for the roots of journalistic evil and finds it to be money - that is, the relative affluence of reporters and editors, at least those in larger news organizations. He's half-wrong again - but inadvertently landed on a point worth making.

 ASNE's Diversity Study: Looking for Answers: Why do America's newspapers remain so white despite 25 years of effort to have them be more reflective of the communities they cover?

 Money, Money, Money: The salary gap widens between the boardroom and the newsroom

 New Readership Study: Culture Counts: A new study by the Readership Institute - released at the ASNE convention - focuses on attracting younger and more diverse readers to newspapers and on overcoming the internal cultural barriers that inhibit innovation.

 Applied Talent: Howell Raines was right about one thing (at least) -- what counts is how much talent is at work, not how much is in the building.

 According to This Reporter: Sources and Accountability: Is having no source in a news story better than citing an anonymous one?

 Goodness and Tyranny: The desire to do good work and the obstacles of tradition, convention and production connect all newspaper journalists.

Posted by Tim Porter at 05:33 AM

Reality Newspapering

Sixteen ordinary people enter a reality contest and the survivor -- after three months -- gets to be a ... newspaper columnist! The Pioneer Press combines the sports nut's enduring belief in the validity of his or her own opinion with the current craze for reality media into a clever idea built on reader interaction.

And, as Cyberjournalist.net points out, the paper did a great job integrating web and print.

Posted by Tim Porter at 05:31 AM

June 24, 2004

Blurb My Blog

It’s interesting that Rod Dreher, an editorial page writer and columnist for the Dallas Morning News, called blogs “the most exciting thing happening in journalism today” and “the most democratic form of journalism yet devised,” but it’s more exciting to me that the newspaper is going to regularly publish “the best of the blogosphere” in its Sunday Viewpoints section.

The acknowledgement by a major metro newspaper that its relationship with the public is no longer that of lecturer-audience, but is now that of one more voice (albeit one with resources and visibility and journalistic underpinnings) in an ongoing community conversation is a significant step forward toward making the newspaper something readers experience rather than just use.

The News, I believe, was the first daily paper to launch a blog for its editorial pages, and it may become the first to bring the voices of bloggers into its pages. (Are there others?)

Full disclosure: Dreher offered a sampling of blog snippets (bloggets?) and listed First Draft among them.

Posted by Tim Porter at 12:25 PM | Comments (2)

June 23, 2004

Goodness and Tyranny

In conversations over the last several weeks – for ongoing projects – with journalists around the country, some who do their scribbling for the nation’s most elite newspapers, others who work in national obscurity but local prominence in heartland communities, I was struck by two characteristics that connected these otherwise disparate members of our profession.

The first was goodness, the deep, abiding desire by these reporters and editors to do good journalistic work. They believed to a person that the purpose of journalism is to provide, at the least, information and, at its best, knowledge to their fellow citizens with the purpose of bettering society.

The second was tyranny, the oppressive troika of tradition, convention and production that combine to prevent most newspaper journalists from realizing these good intentions on a frequent basis.

The traditions of journalism, especially newspapering, discourage innovation and progress in many ways, but most importantly by creating a restricted mindset – what Jay Rosen calls Pressthink – that cannot imagine new definitions of news.

The conventions of journalism – the beat system, for example, that separates crime from social conditions or the quality of education from the politically driven budget process that determines it, or the story forms and the structural biases they impose on those who use them – force journalists to pour life around them into pre-molded containers: The profile, the meeting story, the political he-said-she-said report, the upside-down pyramid. Today’s world demands flexibility of media, of adapting the form to the function, so to speak, but these hardened conventions cannot change. They can only break.

The production of journalism forces creative people, many insecure and iconoclastic, an equal number driven and ambitious, and quite a few more both of those things, to punch the clock on the news factory floor and destroy, by mandating narrow chores – you write captions, you edit letters, you do cops, etc. – any chance of whole newsroom thinking. The room is thereby divided into various and competing silos of Us’s and Thems. The result is an undermining of institutional responsibility – the copy was late, the photographer screwed up, it was Jayson’s fault – and no sense of collective accountability (what did we do today to make journalism better?)

Much as been made about the the New York Times’ decision not to name names in its self-ablution about reporter Judith Miller’s pre-war coverage of weapons of mass destruction and Iraq. Aside from agreeing with those who say the note “From the Editors” should have run on Page 1 where so many of Miller’s stories did instead of on page A10, I think the Times got it right when it said:

“Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.”

The Times’ failure was institutional. As was Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley. As are the many more, and, frankly, more damaging to the future of newspaper journalism, daily transgressions of mediocrity that accept humdrum front pages filled with mundane stories as good enough to feed each morning to an ever decreasing number breakfast table readers.

We are all in this together – and we need to rethink how our newspapers are organized, what their role is in a disintermediated society that is inundated with “media” but hungry for understanding, what kind of people fill our newsrooms and how we make daily decisions about what ends up on the pages. If we don’t, we won’t be able to throw off the tyranny of journalism so we can get at the goodness of it.

Posted by Tim Porter at 05:27 PM

June 17, 2004

Information, Knowledge and Sources

Andrew Cline at Rhetorica examines the relationship between reporters and sources -- anonymous and otherwise -- and what that means to journalism as a process of verification. It's well worth reading to understood the deeper implications of anonymous sourcing. Here's a taste:

Information (statements about facts in the world) does not exist without a human intention. Every little bit of information relayed by the media everyday springs from some human intention to communicate it. And, I would further argue, that those intentions are rhetorical, i.e. to move hearts and minds. For information to become knowledge (information embedded in a context), news consumers must know something of its origin, context and purpose. Whether information is cited from anonymous sources or stated on the authority of the news organization, it is politically useless without trust, accuracy, and an understanding of its origin, context and purpose. To be good, journalism, whether it relies on anonymous sources or not, must meet these needs. (Emphasis added.)

I posted on the anonymous sources yesterday [Read: According to This Reporter: Sources and Accountability ]. Read the rest of Cline's essay here.

Posted by Tim Porter at 10:09 AM

On the Defensive

When I talk to other journalists about the defensive culture that shapes the thinking at many newspapers, I always try to offer concrete examples so the abstract becomes understandable in newsroom terms.

For example, when reporters ask for more editing so their stories will improve and their editor reflexively answers that he is already overworked, that's defensiveness - and the result is that the reporters feel disregarded, the editor feels either guilty for not being able to do the work or resentful for being asked, and the quality of the journalism suffers.

A different response, a more constructive one that might lead to a lower workload and more editing, would be for the editor to identify systemic or personnel issues that contribute to these conditions, to develop a roadmap for change and to act on that plan.

A few days ago, Jeff Jarvis related an exchange between Rafat Ali of PaidContent.org and an anonymous reporter from a self-described "professional publication" who accused Ali of breaking the embargo on a news story.

First, Ali pointed out that he reported the story by speaking "to about 20 people, just none of them the official sources. … I am known to spoil companies' PR plans by breaking stories through unofficial sources..its called reporting, Mr Reporter. Did you learn your journalism from a PR school?" (Emphasis added.)

Then, the reporter's defense mechanism kicked in. Among his (or her) additional comments:

 "By respecing (sic) the embargo, professional reporters were able to get all their details right, something Rafat didn't do. They also maintain good relationships with the companies they cover so that they can get good stories in the future. "

 "The simple fact is that blogs can do whatever they want, but professional reporters need to pick and choose their battles …"

 "Bloggers like Rafat provide an important service, but most of what they do is leeching off of what professional reporters do, either through links along with commentary or by 'breaking' news that we have to agree to embargo." (All emphasis added)

These are pathetic comments, each of which Jarvis, in his inimitable fashion, skewered. Here, for example, is his response to the reporter's first comment listed above: "You really are looking upon your job as that of a flack. Get this straight: The relationship that matters is with your audience, not with your sources!"

This is exactly right - and it calls the reporter on one of the core misunderstandings many journalists have. The obligation of journalism is to its readers, viewers or listeners. Their affinity should lie with the public not with the institutions they cover.

The defensiveness of the reporter is sad, particularly in arguing the validity of a journalistic form based on compliance between source and reporter. It betrays a dangerous, but all-too prevalent assumption among many mainstream journalists that "journalism" as an institution has an inherent authority that is only granted to those with certain credentials.

The protective constitutional shadow cast by First Amendment extends over "freedom of speech" and "the press," but does not define either of those concepts. Journalism is a form of freedom speech; the press is a delivery vehicle for journalism. What format "the press" takes as technology evolves and the public's taste for information changes doesn't matter as much as what is said and who has the right to say it.

Rafat Ali is part of the press. He practices journalism - and chooses to do so in way that is not only non-conventional but in fact subverts the some of the current conventions of traditional journalism, such as embargoes (which are created to serve the source and not the public). This subversion is threatening to mainstream journalists, so they react defensively instead of examining these new forms of journalism for lessons that might improve their own work.

If mainstream reporters and editors want to defend something, it should be the core principles of journalism and not the form in which they are embraced.

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:48 AM | Comments (1)

June 16, 2004

According to This Reporter: Sources and Accountability

Is having no source in a news story better than citing an anonymous one?

Daniel Okrent, the New York Times Public Editor, raised that question in his column over the weekend looking at the effect of the Times new anonymous sourcing policy, which mandates that "the use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy."

After reporting that the dictum has failed to meet, in its own words, the "obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation," Okrent wrote:

"It's worth reconsidering the entire nature of reportorial authority and responsibility. In other words, why quote anonymous sources at all? Do their words take on more credibility because they're flanked with quotation marks? If Waxman and Holson (Note: Okrent was referring to this story) written their article in their own voice, eschewing all blind quotes and meaningless attributions and making only the assertions they were confident were true, we could hold someone responsible for the accuracy: not the dubious sources, but the writers themselves. Isn't that the way it ought to be? (Insert, emphasis added.)

Hard on Okrent's heels, even yelping at his shanks, comes Jack Shafer, who observes (correctly) that journalists, especially those covering government, "have become so comfortable with anonymous sourcing that they're often the first ones to propose it and then points out in his Slate column today that:

The Wall Street Journal "hasn't eradicated anonymous sources, but it keeps their population under control by giving reporters latitude to assert the truth on their own authority."

At issue here is accountability - the obligation, to borrow the Times' word, of a journalist to be responsible for the information and assertions he puts before the public. Anonymous sources - or anonymice, to borrow a coinage from Shafer, who borrowed it from elsewhere - by nature lack accountability, making the stories based on their words and the journalists who resort to them equally bereft of responsibility.

After the post-Jayson Blair, post-Jack Kelley, post-Judith Miller public floggings and self-flagellations, the problem is not a dearth of awareness within the news industry about the credibility - and accuracy - pitfalls associated with anonymity. Sourcing policies abound. Enforcement does not. Both reporters and their editors are willing to march onward into an anonymously-sourced future because it's how the game is played, especially in official corridors, and so far there is little reward for changing the rules.

Here's Shafer again:

"Anonymous sources appeal to those reporters and readers who believe-perversely-that anonymity conveys truthfulness. In their minds, the further a source distances himself from the information, the more honest he'll be. This attitude dovetails perfectly with the widely held viewpoint-correct, I might add-that most official, on-the-record comments are bull." (Emphasis added.)

Dead on. So is Okrent's question the foundation for an answer? Would journalism be better served if reporters, when unable to verify information on the record, simply stated what they know to be true? Certainly, it's a radical jump over the river of truth from the bank of objectivity (… sources said) to the bank of assertion (the fact is … ) on the other side.

The Elements of Journalism states that the essence of journalism "is a discipline of verification." The purpose of putting sources in news stories is to make the verification process transparent, to show the reader the basis for all facts, assertions and opinions in the story. Anonymous sources, however, occlude not clarify.

Is it time to flip the accountability lever back from the sources and more toward the newspaper and to the individual reporters? If a reporter writes a story without anonymous sources, but instead fills with declarations in his own voice the places where "sources said" would appear, it is the reporter who will be proven correct or incorrect as history trudges onward and on-the-record sources eventually emerge from hiding, as they always do. Readers, then, will be able to judge the credibility of a newspaper or its individual reporters by what they know, not by who they can quote on background.

I'm warming to Okrent's idea.

UPDATE: Andrew Cline offers this view of the reporter-source relationship:

In the current journalistic epistemology, the reporter is not the knower; the source is the knower. This is clearly mistaken in this sense: If the source tells the reporter and the reporter understands, then the reporter can be said to know, too. So verification really is a hierarchy of knowing, in which the reporter bows to the source and sells the source to the audience as the greater among knowers. (Emphasis added)

Here is my response to Andrew's thoughts:

Much of this goes to the issue of "authority." Is the newspaper the authority? Is it a vehicle upon which the citizens can rely for authoritative, i.e., accurate, sound, truthful, information?

Reporters strive, as their careers advance, to write with more authority, meaning to report and write stories that convey solidity, depth and knowledge in contrast to the "according to" convention taught in basic reporting classes. Yet, even though good reporters become more knowledgeable in their fields, the forms of journalism discourage overt expression of that knowledge.

The slippery slope -- and there always is on -- is that encouraging reporters to state rather than attribute opens the door (every slippery slope has a door leading to it) for mediocre journalists, those who either think they know but don't or want to mimic the better reporters, to also state rather than attribute. In their cases, though, often they will get it wrong. In an ideal world of self-correcting journalism, the public would turn away and not read those reporters known to be inaccurate or insubstantial. As we know, though, that's not the case.

I do think the issue returns eventually to the the idea of responsibility, of ownership of and accountability for what is printed -- at least those things written by the newspaper's own staff. Shafer is right that quoting official press releases and other self-serving statements by public officials and others is a waste of time. Their only value lies in the ability of the newspaper to put them in context, to measure them against some yardstick of truth -- which, again, doesn't happen frequently.

I like your point -- which I tried to express in another way -- that the process of verification does not necessarily need to take place publicly, but I also think that newspapers need to become more transparent to the public. In that sense, any movement away from public verification needs to be accompanied by an equal embrace of openness: Explain why there is no source for something; point readers toward public information that supports conclusions; offer public education as well reporting. In other words, a redefinition of "verified information" needs to partner with a redefinition of how newspapers do journalism and their self-perception of their relationship with the public.

 Daniel Okrent An Electrician From the Ukrainian Town of Lutsk
 Jack Shafer Ratting Out the Anonymice

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:56 AM

June 07, 2004

Invisible Management

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, in an interview with David Shaw of the L.A. Times, makes a good point about newsroom management: It should be invisible to readers. Writes Shaw:

He says he's "more of a delegator by nature and I don't want to step on the department heads' toes." Still, he knows that "everyday details are important, and you have to know enough of the details so that everyone realizes you're really involved in the process."

For him, that process began with replacing several department heads and beginning an overhaul of several sections in the paper.

"We've now gotten to the point where we can stop focusing on how the place is run and start focusing on what we're supposed to do — cover the news," he says. "Readers don't care whether the paper is run in a less authoritarian manner or if people are happier here now. They care whether the paper is doing a better job."

In other words, the internal workings of the paper -- the struggle between competition and collaboration, the production issues, the budget balancing, etc. -- mean nothing to the readers. Their interest is in the end result, and good management creates an environment and a process that focuses on that result in spite of the natural obstacles that arise in making a daily newspaper.

No one -- except for other butchers -- wants to see the sausage being made.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:56 AM

June 03, 2004

News Media Fights Back for Openness

The news media -- I should say the traditional news media -- is finally awakening to the realization that the current powers that be in Washington are intent on closing government to journalists.

Editor and Publisher reports that "press efforts to thwart government secrecy are moving forward on two fronts."

The first is an effort by the newspaper and wire bureau chiefs in Washington growing to unite their opposition to non-disclosure policies. Reports E&P:

For Tom DeFrank, who began covering Washington as a Newsweek correspondent 36 years ago and now heads the New York Daily News bureau, the need for prying open government doors has never been greater. "This administration is the most aggressively unhelpful that I have ever covered, and that goes back to Nixon," he says. "This White House and administration are far more secretive than the Nixon crowd." (Emphsis added)

At issue is not just press freedom, but also the resulting level of information received by the public. "The real issue is telling our readers what it is they are not getting," says Vickie Walton-James, Chicago Tribune Washington bureau chief.

To get a sense of how Bush administration legislation and policies have affected journalism for the worse since 9/11, read "The Lost Stories," a report by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. Here's a piece of the introduction:

The past two decades of journalism in the United States generated a collection of important stories that made significant changes to benefit the public interest. But reporting many of those stories would be difficult or impossible today because of greater restrictions on access to institutions, events and information. Whether by acts of Congress, new rules by federal agencies, decisions by courts, or even overreactions by administrators and bureaucrats, restrictions on access have led to a host of "lost stories" that are no longer informing the public about how its government works. (Emphasis added)

Tom Curley, president and CEO of the Associated Press, last month announced plans to create an "advocacy center for open government" in Washington that would lobby against restrictions on public information.

In the same speech, Curley said the AP also would make the following efforts:

 Conduct state FOI audits.
 Direct bureau chiefs to provide a status report on access for still and video cameras to state and federal courtrooms.
 Review procedures for responding when access to information or proceedings is blocked.
 Be sure that any news story that benefits from an FOI request or suffers from lack of public information that was refused by a government source says so clearly.

Newspapers at all levels should follow suit, especially in smaller communities. As an small-town journalist knows, local government and law enforcment is often the most recalcitrant in releasing information even when the law states clearly it should. The public has a right to know what it the government says it doesn't have a right to know.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:45 AM