August 30, 2004

Movin' On ...

My wife and I moved over the weekend. Marriage, email and cat survived intact, but an already bum left knee didn't, so I'm hobbling amid a forest of boxes before I leave tonight to spend a few days at a newspaper in Washington that is part of the Tomorrow's Workforce project, meaning my light blogging likely will get even lighter.

Here are a few things that escaped my attention the last couple of days:

 Critical Mass: Jeff Jarvis, after taking measure of Jack Shafer's screech at Jay Rosen and Rosen's reply on Romenesko, offers this populist response: "We don't need a single one-size-critiques-all press critic anymore because we have thousands of press critics: Everybody can be a press critic today. That yields both better criticism and better press."

 Don't Ask, Don't Learn: J.D. Lasica points to a telling exchange between an Upstate New York newspaper reporter and Mike Masnick, publisher of Tech Dirt, over the nature of a wiki that, while neither proving nor disproving the self-correcting wiki concept, reveals the obdurance of many mainstream journalists in the face of things they don't understand.

 Wiki Endorsement: Coincidentally, the same RSS feed that brought me the wiki-bashing item above also carried Bob Stepno's unrelated reference to this Poynter Institute column by Columbia University professor Sree Sreenivasan about his growing positive impression of wikis. He writes:

I was always wary of trusting Wikipedia, a giant, free, collaborative encyclopedia that's getting lots of attention. But, slowly, I found myself impressed by some of the entries I came across."

Unlike the close-minded Syracuse reporter mentioned above, Sreenivasan, a longtime advocate of the Internet as a journalistic tool, used his open mind to evaluate the emerging technology before forming an opinion.

 Cards on the Table: The Daytona Beach News-Journal tells its readers that, as part of its commitment to credibility it will begin "randomly fact-checking articles that appear in all sections of the newspaper. News-Journal Managing Editor/Operations Bruce Kuehn will mail a simple four-question form to all people quoted in a randomly selected article each week, asking them if the article was accurate and fair." Good idea. Magazines fact-check articles before they are printed, some quite rigorously. It forces writers to justify every fact-based assertion or verify every quote in the story. (Thanks to The Media Drop.)

Posted by Tim Porter at 06:21 AM

August 24, 2004

Quick Shots: Sorry-ism, plagiarism, humility, diversity

 Mea culpa mania: The publishing power of the Internet, which provides a technology-enabled platform for media critics, is partly responsible for the recent wave of newspaper confessions about poor coverage, says Geneva Overholser. "Each of these criticisms is far more powerful than it used to be," she tells the Christian Science Monitor, "and in turn causes newspapers to feel more compelled to be transparent. That is a good thing." Indeed, it is.

 Another one down, another one gone: Stephen Dunphy, Seattle Times business columnist, "took careless shortcuts that in the end constituted plagiarism" and is off the paper after 37 years. He had his wrist slapped for a similar rip-and-write a few years ago. I'm for zero tolerance - one theft and you're gone. (Thanks, Media Drop.)

 Eye-level journalism: Jeff Jarvis argues that "we must bring journalism down to a human level, down from the tower it built to separate itself from the public, down to eye level." He points to the Hodding Carter speech I wrote about last week and concludes that "the journalist is a member of the community, not apart from it. The journalist is a citizen equal to every other citizen. The journalist is human."

 Measuring diversity: "How much diversity in the journalism ranks is enough?" asks Dawn Garcia. She point to the Bill Dedman and Stephen Doig study of newsroom diversity as a starting place to look for an answer. She doesn't, though, consider diversity in other than ethnic terms.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:33 AM | Comments (2)

August 18, 2004

Congress shall make no law …

There is an "ominous trend for journalists" afoot in the land, reports the New York Times - a systematic attack on the "fundamental protections for the gathering and publishing of news that had been generally viewed as settled since the Watergate era."

This is dangerous business for journalists because the First Amendment, and its various court-supported extensions such as shield laws and prohibitions on prior restraint, is not as beloved outside of the news industry as it is within.

Barely one in six Americans understands that the First Amendment explicitly guarantees freedom of the press (see this First Amendment Center survey) and a third agrees with the statements that "the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees" and "that Americans have too much press freedom." What's too much?

"According to 41% of respondents, newspapers should not be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military about its strategy and performance." - "Freedom takes strong stomachs," Charles C. Haynes, First Amendment Center. (Emphasis added)

No doubt this viewpoint derives partly from the inherent lack of civic introspection in the American character, which values individual liberties (I speak) more than institutional or societal ones (You cannot speak).

In an essay accompanying the above survey, Paul McMasters writes of public antipathy toward the First Amendment:

"Americans in significant numbers appear willing to regulate the speech of those they don't like, don't agree with or find offensive. Many would too casually breach the wall between church and state. There is, in these surveys, solid evidence of confusion about, if not outright hostility toward, core First Amendment rights and values." (Emphasis added.)

The relentless bludgeoning of the press from both liberals and conservatives has those in the middle - the average American - thinking the press is more of a public nuisance than a civic asset.

"More than 60% believe making up stories is a widespread problem, and just 39% think news organizations try to report without bias." - "Public: low marks for nation's press," First Amendment Center/American Journalism Review. (Emphasis added)

Add to this politically motivated press bashing a systematic effort by the Bush administration to erode or erase such journalistic tools as the Freedom of Information Act, a campaign often obscured in the cloak national security concerns, and freedom of the press in America has never been more endangered in modern times.

It's time for journalists to fight back - especially those who work for newspapers, which are the traditional guardians of open government.

First, use the editorial pages to stir public opinion, put the heat on lawmakers and challenge restrictions - especially local ones - on release of government information. Follow the lead of Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of the Detroit News, who warned that "a rapid and unprecedented growth of government secrecy is undermining the founding principles of American democracy." Those words were part of a series of editorials entitled "Losing Liberty."

Second, educate yourself and get involved. Join, support and employ the tactics of such free press groups as the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and the First Amendment Center. Here are a couple of other organizations working for government transparency and press freedoms:

 Open the Government.
 Investigative Reporters and Editors.
 National Security Archive.
 Federation of American Scientists (Project on Government Secrecy).
Third, combat government secrecy through strong reporting. Push back with FOIA requests and court challenges when public officials declare information to be private. Conduct FOIA audits in your community. Do good work based on hard-to-get data.

Finally, practice what you preach. Open the pages of your newspapers to voices of all political persuasion. Orient the paper more toward people than toward institutions. Give the public a chance to feel that the newspaper values them as more than just digits in a circulation database so that the next time a pollster asks if the First Amendment should be junked they will see no difference between a newspaper's rights and their own.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:20 AM

August 17, 2004

Don't Reflect the Community, Be the Community

When the newsroom diversity debate is in full foment and charges of indifferent white managers or recalcitrant minority journalists arc in the air, it can be easy to forget the underlying goal of diversity is not just numbers but content.

There is much talk about parity and about having newspapers reflect the communities they serve and while these goals are necessary because they compel action in an industry in which inertia is a core characteristic they are not only ultimately unrealistic for many newspapers, particularly those small publications in heavily minority communities that cannot compete in salary or location for minority journalists and are therefore the least diverse, but they also obscure their basic purpose, which is to turn their newspaper's coverage away from its traditional focus on the predominantly white institutional power structure and toward coverage of the whole community, the total community.

Newsroom diversity is not an end in itself. It is a means, but not the only means. Minority communities are under-covered not just because most newsrooms are still mostly white, but also because newspaper managers don't make coverage of the of these communities a priority, just as they don't make it a priority to increase coverage of health, home, food, travel, obituaries and the much disdained "chicken dinner" category of community announcements - all topics identified by the Readership Institute as high in reader interest.

Wait, you're saying, we have a health reporter, a travel writer and we do obituaries. Yes, I'm sure you do, but what percentage of your newsroom resources are devoted to these areas? How many editors and reporters are assigned to the health beat? How many write obits every day? By comparison, how many reporters cover cops and courts? How many of your page one or local front stories are about crime or politics or other institution-heavy topics?

A new content audit of 52 newspapers done by the Readership Institute found that:

"Two topics dominate news content - Politics / Government and Sports. Politics / Government and Sports make up nearly half of all stories in the newspapers. Stories about Ordinary People, Obituaries and Community Announcements combined comprise less than 5%. On Page 1, almost half the stories (about 45%) are about Politics / Government alone."

Horrible. With all the industry's emphasis on reflecting the community - newspapers appear to have forgotten how to cover the community. Don't interpret this as anti-diversity. [ Read: What is Diversity in Journalism? ] Diversity is necessary, but it alone doesn't insure coverage of the total community. Only decisive, continual commitment by newspapers to rearrange their priorities and abandon dysfunctional beat structures based on institutions in favor of coverage focused on the needs of the people in the community can do that.

Hodding Carter, president of the Knight Foundation, talked about newspapers and community in a terrific speech to a group of journalism educators at their recent convention in Toronto.

Journalism - and journalism education - has distanced itself from the community, created a barrier between those that cover and those who are covered, and by doing so "ducked its obligation as citizen."

"We in journalism and in the academy have been playing the wrong game, the game of separation from our own society, " says Carter. "We complain because 'they' don't read what we write, appreciate what we teach, understand the fundamentals of our trade and our society - but we complain at arms' length, from on high, from the sidelines." (Emphasis added)

This division harms newspapers in several ways. It deflates passion. How can a reporter be impassioned about covering a community he or she is not part of, geographically or intellectually? It breeds mistrust: We in the media vs. them in the public. It fosters false arguments of objectivity: A newspaper cannot be a good civic citizen because it must remain neutral.

Carter recalls a time in his youth when he worked for the newspaper in Greenville, Miss.:

"We practiced journalism with zeal and, occasionally, foolhardy abandon. We took up the implicit demands - the implicit responsibility inherent in the First Amendment - and let people know our editorial mind when most of them would have happily been spared that opportunity. We covered our region, warts and all. "And we participated in the life and civic causes of our town - Greenville, Mississippi - with avocational fervor. We saw ourselves as citizens as well as journalists. We saw ourselves not simply as a mirror reflecting what was happening in the community, or as its critics, but as indivisible from it, a piece of the community's fabric.

"We did not believe freedom of the press could be healthy in our time and place unless our time and place were healthy. We did not see our newspaper as isolated and apart from the larger society, but as integral to and dependent upon that society.

"We practiced civic journalism, public journalism, regularly and routinely, without ever having heard the term. God knows we did so with no anticipation of the intensely vapid and frequently demagogic controversy that was to surround its articulation or of the overt attempt by certain of the journalistic elites to suffocate its resurrection three and more decades later.

"For us, the journalist as citizen was not a doctrine or a debating point - it was the whole point of the enterprise." (All emphasis added.)

There it is, a definition of civic journalism so simple that it seems no journalist, no matter how hidebound, could reject it. Why shouldn't a newspaper be more than a "mirror reflecting" the community? Shouldn't a newspaper, in its roles of chronicler, watchdog, thought-leader and forum be part of the community, be institution made up of people who care about, and therefore report on, the needs of the community, and, when necessary, provide the leadership to fulfill those needs?

"We must be about the business of encouraging and supporting citizenship education, beginning in grammar schools and progressing straight through secondary and higher education," says Carter, and we, as journalists, must proclaim "the old time First Amendment gospel without sophisticated reticence or foot-dragging embarrassment. As believers, not stuttering apologists."(Emphasis added.)

Carter is correct. The debate about civic journalism should be put to rest. What other kind of journalism is there? Un-civic journalism? Given the arrival of technologies that enable all citizens - not just the newspaper - to participate in coverage of the community, the concept of public journalism is more relevant today than ever.

Journalism is embracing total community coverage with or without the help of newspapers. They have everything to gain by continuing their march toward diversity and accelerating (or in many cases, simply initiating) innovations in coverage. If they don't, and if they maintain their isolationism and their belief that community coverage depends on the color of the newsroom, they are in danger of their most valuable commodity - relevance to the community.

 Hodding Carter Giving new life to a free society

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:43 AM

August 12, 2004

Diversifying Unity

Jay Rosen is turning Pressthink into an op-ed page. Continuing the debate over what is diversity that arose from the Unity convention, Unity president Juan Gonzalez, outgoing president of the National Asssociation of Hispanic Journalists and a columnist for the New York Daily News, writes on Pressthink that the time has come for Unity to be more inclusive.

"It has always been open to participation by white journalists and executives, though I will be the first to admit there are significant numbers of members within each of the minority organizations who are not comfortable with inviting more white journalists, straight and gay, to attend our conventions. Those members, in my opinion, are wrong, and I have always told them.

It is a thoughtful, provocative piece that not only addresses diversity, but also the other lingering illnesses of the newspaper industry -- lack of training, lousy communication and slipping standards. Read it all.

Posted by Tim Porter at 11:57 AM

Transparency & Trust

J.D. Lasica makes the case in an article for the Online Journalism Review that people are placing an increasing amount of trust in blogs as a source of news and credible information.

J.D. points to a new"attention index" compiled by Dave Sifry, founder of the blog-tracking siteTechnorati, that shows a number of blogs out-linking many mainstream news sites. "The more people who link to you, the greater your authority," says Lasica.

The list is led by the New York Times, CNN, BBC News and the Washington Post. Then, as Lasica says, "things start to get interesting." Blogs such as Slashdot, Plastic, Instapundit and Boing Boing are among the top 20, meaning as many bloggers or more are linking to them as to the sites of the San Francisco Chronicle, CNET and Salon magazine.

Much of the trust readers place in these blogs lies in their transparency, which technologist Mary Hodder defines this way:

 Transparency in motives. Bloggers are upfront about their biases and subjective approach, and they have greater freedom to speak from the heart and use a personal voice. Most journalists are constrained by an institutional objectivity. "I often read a reporter's story and wonder, what's their experience? Where are they coming from? What's the context? What do they really think?" Hodder says.

 Transparency in process. Bloggers link to documents, sources and supporting evidence to buttress their own authority. "The top-down press articles I see are written as if they're not connected to anything, as if they just came out of a vacuum," she says.

Jeff Jarvis argues in the article that "bloggers are more trusted, I think, because they are human and too often news organizations are not. ... News organizations are big and often monolithic and are reluctant to admit let alone share perspective or agendas."

I don't agree with Jarvis' argument that mainstream journalists should reveal their personal biases so the public can have a context in which to interpret their professional work. The journalism should speak for itself. But, he and Hodder are correct in pushing for more transparency.

Newspaper reporters, for example, regularly have far more information in their notebooks than ends up in their printed stories. Why not add that information to the online version of the story -- the full interview, links to source documents, phone numbers and email addresses of the public officials interviewed?

Some newspapers have made efforts to remove the mystery from their editorial processes. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, put lengthy videos of its editorial board interviews with mayoral candidates Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez online in order to, as editorial page editor John Diaz wrote at the time, "give readers a window into our endorsement process, as well as to give voters a chance to view the candidates answering questions at greater length than they typically see at debates."

Newspapers are trying hard to regain public credibility and efforts like reader networks and community conversations are laudable but they don't go far enough.

The most important lesson mainstream journalists can learn from bloggers is that to gain trust from their readers they must put trust in their readers. Open up the journalistic process. Share the sources. Give the public more space in the paper (or, as the Bakersfield Californiann is doing with the Northwest Voice, let them write part of the paper themselves.)

Journalists saying, "Trust me, I'm a pro," doesn't work any longer. Saying, "I'm a pro so I'm going to trust you," just might.

Posted by Tim Porter at 11:05 AM | Comments (1)

August 11, 2004

What is Diversity in Journalism?

Are attempts to diversify America's newsrooms, where the average age, in newspapers, is 41, being scuttled because news managers don't know how to develop young journalists, especially minority ones, into anything else other than carbon copies of themselves? Is being youthful more of a handicap even than race?

That's an idea is suggested by a reader of Jay Rosen's Pressthink, which continues to explore the issues raised at the Unity convention (and the reaction to them) through a series of thoughtful posts and responses from readers, including an assertive essay from Ernest Sotomayor, the Newsday editor who is president of Unity. Sotomayor makes the case for being an "activist":

"We advocate for fair, representative, accurate journalism, by changing the complexion of newsrooms, not just racially and ethnically, but through the natural diversity of thought that occurs when you bring in people with different backgrounds," says Sotomayor.

In partial response, Terry Heaton, a former TV news director who blogs here, argues that, at least in broadcast newsrooms, minority journalists have had little affect on the nature of news coverage, in part because they don't want to be "typecast" as minorities. Heaton writes:

"The drumbeat for bringing diverse thoughts and stories to the newsroom, where they'll influence the overall editorial judgment of the station, is barely audible. In theory, it makes sense: bring under-represented groups in, and they will represent. In practice, I've found, it's just another occasion for divisiveness in the newsroom."

This is a familiar complaint among news managers that has some validity, but does the fault lie in the minority journalists or the managers (presumably non-minority) running the newsrooms? Heaton deserves some credit for raising an controversial issue, but he too easily dismisses in statements like this one the concerns minority reporters have with being typecast : "Stories are commonplace in the industry about black reporters who actually refuse to go into the black community."

Inherent in that thinking is the belief that, in this instance, being black is a skill, like speaking Spanish or understanding financial statements, and therefore better prepares a black reporter for talking with other black citizens. It fails to account for the diversity among blacks themselves. What makes a Columbia or Missouri or Berkeley educated, middle-class African American reporter more equipped to communicate with a member of the black under-class than his white counterpart other than his skin color?

Not all minorities want to cover race or, as Heaton puts it, "their stories." Not all whites want to to be political reporters or sports reporters or whatever. Here, Heaton's argument, no matter how heartfelt, collapses.

He also claims to pinpoint a contradiction in the diversity argument, which he frames this way: "In theory, it makes sense: bring under-represented groups in, and they will represent. In practice, I've found, it's just another occasion for divisiveness in the newsroom. I've actually turned to minority reporters during discussion of an issue pertaining to their race, only to be told, "Why are you looking at me?"

Heaton's experience may be true for him, but mine is quite different. I found that most of the minority reporters and editors I worked with -- in predominantly white newsrooms -- were not shy about "representing" nor were they afraid to confront managers, including myself, when they thought poor decisions were being made or viewpoints not being included.

Race is an uncomfortable subject and at times I, as a editor and as a person, felt discomfort being reminded of my own limited perceptions, but it challenged me and forced my way of thinking, that of my peers and that of those minority journalists to undergo scrutiny and debate. From that consideration came better decisions and, at times, better journalism.

To return to the original question (which I buried up there in the lede), one reader of Heaton's essay suggested in the comments that some of the tension between minorities and managers is based on the age. This is an intriguing idea and on the mark:

"Inside the newsroom (minority or not) ... young people and the ideas they can bring are stifled. This is extremely harmful to someone's creative powers. ... People want to be hired because they are capable talented individuals, not because if they are young, black or whatever else, then they are able to cover that group. The minorities who are being hired are also usually young. ... It is also the idea of novelty and change that scares newsrooms. Minorities and young people represent that.

Now we're talking about something that really makes news managers, especially in the defensive culture of newspapers, nervous: Change.

Young people are treated like incoming cattle to the slaughterhouse at most newspapers. They receive no training, are given little feedback, have no career path and are taught that the best way to get ahead is do things the way the boss did them back in the day. Is it any surprise that "lack of professional challenge and limited opportunities for advancement" are the top reasons minority journalists are leaving newspapers almost as fast as they can be hired. [Read: ASNE's Diversity Study: Looking for Answers ]

Newspapers need more minorities. Period. End of argument. But the concept of "minority" needs to be redefined: Color is a minority, but so is youth, creativity, political viewpoint, bilingualism and, much too often these days, idiosyncrasy.

I sympathize with Heaton's experiences, but I fear he is criticizing a sympton and not the condition.

Posted by Tim Porter at 05:02 PM | Comments (1)

August 09, 2004

More is Fine, but Better is Better

Jack Rosenthal, sitting in for Daniel Okrent on the New York Times' public editor desk, bemoans the compression of the news cycle, the subsequent diminishment of both the public's and the news media's attention span, and the opportunity these conditions create for serious journalism.

Says Rosenthal:

"With such saturation coverage, news gets used up faster, decaying rapidly … Public curiosity, let alone the public interest, is exhausted, and the mass media are quick to look for some new sensation even if that means leaving important issues unresolved. News grows old before its time."

"Saturation coverage now seems inevitably to exhaust the public and leave the media eager to move on. But that means the spotlight goes dark even when the wrongs endure. That, in turn, suggests that this all-news environment is creating a new responsibility for The Times and other serious media: systematically to look back, recall and remind."

Jeff Jarvis interprets Rosenthal's observations as wistful yearnings for the "the allegedly good old days when The Times and the big media outlets controlled the news cycle. … More news is good. Choice is good. Citizens controlling their media is good. Fragmentation is good. "

More news is better than less, and the transference of publishing power from the few to the many is also better, but I don't see Rosenthal arguing against either of those. To me, he is correctly identifying a critical weakness of modern mainstream journalism: The inability to complete the job, to finish telling the story before moving on to next piece of breaking news.

Newspapers, with their complex production and distribution processes, and are particularly unsuited to this inattentive form of journalism, which favors the ephemeral level of "reality" news typified the elevation of the ordinary to the extraordinary, such as the slayings of a "Lori" or a "Laci." Despite the ability to report first to the web, the hard-copy newspaper must by its nature arrive at in the hands of readers after they've had the opportunity to get the latest news from the tube or the Net.

As I've said before, what can separate newspapers - and other news organizations that choose to devote themselves to depth over breadth - from the "the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention" is quality. [ Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism. ]

When fragmentation is commonplace, focus is a differentiator. When stories are abandoned in favor of whatever breaks next, follow-through becomes a selling point.

Back in those heady dot-com days, those of us who were webbies all talked about stickiness, getting those eyeballs to stay on the pages. Newspaper readers want stickiness, too. Hit-and-run journalism won't work for newspapers any more.

Once again, it's time to emphasize the difference between "media" and "journalism." The first is a delivery method, one that is continually changing and producing not only the "widespread attention deficit disorder" Rosenthal laments, but also the capacity for citizen publishing Jarvis extols. The latter is a set of standards for conveying information.

These journalistic standards are not inflexible (nor should they be) and neither are they limited in use by only "professional" journalists, but they can be employed, especially by newspapers, which have more newsroom resources than all other news organizations, to create a concentrated level of reporting that is becoming increasingly uncommon.

Watchdog reporting, explanatory reporting, narrative reporting - all these are opportunities for newspapers. When Jarvis says more is good, I agree, but more alone is not enough. Quality matters. Depth counts. In the end, better is better.

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:50 AM

August 08, 2004

Discussing Diss-Unity

Jay Rosen makes some strong arguments against the criticism leved at those Unity conventioneers who gave John Kerry a partisan, cheering welcome.

He points out, correctly, that a version of "groupthink" jerked the knees of all involved (myself included, I presume) -- among traditional journalists, ethicists, conservatives, minority journalists, editors and J-school educators.

Here's is my response to Jay:

Jay ...

I self-thought my way into Steele's groupthink by agreeing with him that the standing O for Kerry was inappropriate. Transparency of bias is one thing -- and it is granting a lot to the conventioneers, I believe, to attribute their applause to a desire to display to the public readers their political prejudices -- but overt cheerleading is another.

I am a fan of Unity (I said so here.) because I believe the more diversity, racial and otherwise, in our newsrooms, the better the journalism (based on the principle that good ideas improve in an environment where they can be challenged.) That said, Unity, coalition and the convention, is not known for challenging the issue of diversity and the ready and ongoing acceptance of diversity racially defined (gays and lesbian organizations are not part of the Unity coalition).

Similarly, the convention accepted Kerry as its candidate and rejected Bush as not one of them with equal lack of challenge to the idea. That's what bothers me -- not that they cheered Kerry but that they didn't challenge him journalistically, which, of course, is their job.

I asked, somewhat rhetorically, on First Draft: What is the obsession journalists have with inviting politicians to speak to their conventions? ASNE, for example, regularly extends invitations, as it did this year, to the sitting president or Cabinet members. Given all the challenges facing journalism today, including the very definition of the profession, why invite politicians who had nothing to the conversation and typically stray beyond their stump speeches or talking points.

One reader left this answer in my comments:

"Because it's wise for the politician to accept the invite(fear);

"Because the journalists will enjoy being addressed directly by the powerful (validation);

"Because those organizing the convention chose to ask - either because this choice is, well, conventional, or because they believe that politicians-as-speakers will boost attendance (commercial success) - in which case they presumably believe that the journalists would rather (or more easily?) be validated than informed."

I'll add this: Because it's easier for the convention to be conventional than take a risk. And that's what the Kerry thing was: conventional.



Posted by Tim Porter at 03:43 PM

August 06, 2004


Journalism has enough crediblity problems without a group of conventioneering editors and reporters responding to a political speech like a bunch of yahoo-ing insurance salesman at the annual Rotary meeting.

The journalists at Unity became Rotarians yesterday when they gave a standing O to John Kerry and interrupted his speech more than 50 times with applause.

What were they thinking?

Both Karen Dunlap, president of Poynter, and her colleague Bob Steele, an ethics instructor, slapped the Unitarians for, as Steele put it, being "unprofessional and unethical."

Here is Steele's most important point: "We should not be activists, we should not behave as partisans. Not only do such roles diminish our standing as professionals, but they fuel the challenges of those critics who already believe that many journalists are biased and incapable of fair reporting on political issues and candidates."

What I want to know is what is the obsession journalists have with inviting politicians to speak to their conventions. ASNE, at its joint convention with NAA in April, heard from President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Neither said anything noteworthy and, in fact, Bush joked about how insubstantial his speech was going to be. From the convention newspaper:

Bush opened his speech by saying he wanted to outline ways to promote prosperity and secure America.

“Then I’ll be glad to duck some questions,” Bush said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “Just like my mother told me to do.”

Does it have something to do with validation? We're important because the president -- or a presidential candidate -- speaks to us? Is it an arrogant display of power? You must speak to us because we are your conduit to public opinion (or, at least, we think we are).

When the politicians hold their conventions they don't ask the journalists to share the podium and we shouldn't ask them to stand on ours. Besides, when was the last time a political speech was actually newsworthy? At Unity, the newsmaker said nothing and the journalists became the news.

Spanking the Cheerleader: Also on Unity, Jack Shafer of Slate calls the Washington Post's coverage of the convention "credulous, pandering copy only one step removed from a press release."

Hmmm. That's harsh. A certain amount of positive coverage of the convention is to be expected given the longtime desire -- and concomitant failure -- of the news industry to diversify. As I said the other day, applause is need for the effort.

Still, there is some truth to Shafer's assertion that the Post has taken bland to new limits in its coverage of the convention.

As Shafer asks: "Since when is the testimony of convention-goers that they're happy and comfortable to be among their legion considered news? Will Roberts (ed. note: a Post reporter) return to the Washington Convention Center for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (Feb. 25-26, 2005) to collect similarly affirming quotations?"

UPDATE: Andrew Cline at Rhetorica asks the same question I did: What were they thinking? He adds that he finds "the collective behavior of these journalists quite troubling" and then examines, with the academic disclipline I lack, the Unity event in the context of the "philosophical ideal of objectivity."

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:42 AM | Comments (4)

August 05, 2004

D.C. Press Corps: We Don't Cover Reality

The American Journalism Review follows up yesterday's release of a study at the Unity convention showing that the Washington press corps is almost as white as 1700 Pennslyvania Ave. with a story looking for reasons why that is the case.

Other than what what I mentioned yesterday -- mostly white newsrooms are going to produce mostly white national correspondents -- a couple of other causes surface, including the perceptions by some editors that minorities are not interested in the government bear and, tellingly, the fading allure among all journalists of covering Washington.

Doyle McManus, the Los Angeles Times' bureau chief, elaborates:

"There are a lot of reporters who, for perfectly good reasons, would rather be writing features for a style section, would rather be doing first-class street reporting off a city desk, would rather be a foreign correspondent, would rather be a lot of other things than Washington correspondents. Foreign correspondents cover reality. Washington correspondents cover policy. Sometimes those two intersect, but rarely. We don't cover real people. We cover what bureaucrats say and think and what they say they think, but hardly anybody ever throws a punch. We cover words on paper and words on background. And not everybody wants to do that."

I suppose I could argue that it is the job of journalists, should they wish to engage readers, to convert policy into reality.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:33 AM

August 04, 2004

Big Study, Little Findings

Why do organizations spend money to determine something that is already known?

Case in point: The Poynter Institute, which offers some of the best professional development opportunities for journalists, surveyed more than 2,500 journalists and found - surprise! - that "82 percent of them … would personally benefit 'very much' from additional training."

Don't get me wrong. More training is needed. The newspaper industry spends less training its professionals - newsroom and otherwise - than most other major U.S. industries, devoting only about 0.7 percent of payroll to employee development vs. the national average of 2 percent. ( See Lessons from industry: Training for change, a piece I did for Tomorrow's Workforce.)

The lack of training and the desire by journalists for more of it is well documented. The Knight Foundation two years ago underwrote a survey of nearly 2,000 journalists that found their "No. 1 source of job dissatisfaction, ahead of pay and benefits," was "lack of training."

The study was a well-deserved indictment of an industry that has failed to invest in its most important resource - the people who produce the journalism. It also found:

 "More than two-thirds of them receive no regular skills training."
 "News companies overall have not increased their training budgets in the past decade."

Although the Poynter study provided some detail on specific types of training journalists want - leadership, management, ethics and skills - it did not advance the core findings of the Knight study. Moreover, an industrywide survey what type of training journalists want is only mildly useful in any given newsroom, where specific needs must be determined on site.

I wish Poynter had connected the needs of individual journalists and the larger strategic needs of the news industry and delved deeper into findings (see Page 6 of the PDF version of the report) that showed 92 percent of journalists wanting training to "improve performance in your current job," but only about half that number (54 percent) citing "applicability of the training to your organization's needs" as a goal.

In other words, the disconnect between individual and institutional need remains. All good trainers know that training without a strategic goal does not advance the news organization. Shouldn't we be doing studies that explore that gap and how to close it?

I don't want this sound like a Poynter bash. It's not. But, to me, this survey doesn't measure up to its usual excellent level of work. Besides, Bob Andelman, who wrote the story about the survey on the Poynter web site, buried the lede.

The last graf was a comment from Deborah Potter, executive director of the Radio & Television News Directors Foundation, that if newsroom managers want to pry more training money loose from tight-fisted publishers they need to make a convincing case that better journalists mean better business.

"We have to make the bottom-line case that there's value beyond the intrinsic," Potter says. "I don't think there is a radical difference between print and broadcast groups. The argument has to be made to managers and owners that there is a business case for additional training." (See the Aspen Institute's report on "Journalism and Commercial Success: Expanding the Business Case for Quality News and Information.")

A note of disclosure: The Poynter survey also examines the appeal of training delivered by e-learning techniques, which Poynter offers through NewsU. The Knight Foundation funds NewsU as well as Tomorrow's Workforce, which pays part of my bills.

Posted by Tim Porter at 06:13 PM | Comments (1)

Unity, Then and Now

Unity, the quinquennial conference of America's minority journalists, opened today in Washington and the convention newspaper led with a story reporting that only 10.5 percent of the Capitol press corps is not white.

This is not surprising news. Why should the reporters who comprise D.C. press corps - still an aspiration of many reporters despite its primarily stenographic function - be any different than the newsrooms from whence they came, which remain stubbornly uni-toned despite years of effort by the industry and by advocates to diversify them.

When the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported this year in its annual newsroom employment survey that the percentage of minority journalists had crept upward a few tenths of a percentage point, I pointed out that despite an educational pipeline stuffed with promising young journalists of color, a confluence of factors - primarily fast-food level salaries and lack of advancement opportunities - were spinning a revolving door that was driving minorities out of newsrooms almost as fast as they could enter.

In the years 2000, 2001, 2002, for example, the ASNE survey found that the base number of minorities in newsrooms decreased or remained. Their newsroom percentage rose only because the industry recession was reducing the overall number of journalists. In fact, between 1996 and 2002, the number of newsroom minorities only rose by 500 people.

Longer term, the newspaper industry has fallen far short of its goal of parity - having newsroom employment reflect that of the nation, which would put minority journalists at about 30 percent of the staff. It now stands at 12.9 percent.

The first Unity conference was held in 1994 during a sweltering summer week in Atlanta (isn't that redundant?). I spent several days there interview journalists at the job fair with the hope of enticing them to San Francisco. I came home with something I expected - a briefcase of resumes - and something I didn't - a different view of my profession, a perspective that was decidedly different, and somewhat disconcerting, from my own.

Until that conference, I never understood at a gut-level the separation minorities must have felt then - and still do - in most newsrooms. For several years I had been working - without much success - to hire more minorities at my newspaper, but it was an intellectual effort, not an emotional one. I didn't truly appreciate the difficulty a minority journalist, especially a young person who hadn't developed the newsroom scar tissue that experience brings, faces in an almost all-white newsroom where, at that time, many reporters and editors viewed "minority hires" with suspicion.

At that first Unity, I felt the emotions of those minority journalists - anger at the discrimination, frustration with the system, impatience with promises not kept and faith in their peers, of whom I was not one. For the first time in a career in which I had always been a member of inner circle - a white, male, aging group - I was an outsider.

That convention changed me. It reinforced my desire to be a better journalist and reawakened my belief that community coverage was at the core of that. It also planted the seeds of frustration with the lack of change in my own newsroom (as well as my inability in how to effect that change).

In the 10 years since the first Unity, the number of minority newspapers journalists has increased 25 percent, to 7,000. The conference itself has grown, from 6000 attendees in 1994 to and estimated 8,000 this year. The agenda reflects some progress - with numerous sessions devoted to management techniques and business-side knowledge, indicating the rise of more minorities into roles of influence within their organizations, but other workshops, "Surviving the Cross-Cultural Newsroom" and "Retention: A Super-Focus Group," demonstrates how little some or the basic challenges minority journalists face have changed.

Some journalists, namely those dinosaurs who think newspapering is all about covering cops and courts and believe that minorities need to "fit in," will dismiss Unity as a self-reinforcing gathering of the diversity choir - but that is not a bad thing. The choir needs to get together. It's called practice. It's about keeping the voice in good form. Unity represents a set of values that are needed in every newsroom - diversity of voice and viewpoint, reflection of community, inclusiveness, elevation of craft - but are often buried in the daily avalanche of news and production. These values need daily reinforcement and minority journalists, often lacking that support in their own newsrooms, have this opportunity to seek that out.

Posted by Tim Porter at 11:42 AM | Comments (1)

August 03, 2004

Citizen Journos

UPDATE: Detailed play-by-play of the conference here. Soundbite, Jay Rosen: "When I got involved in public journalism, it started with an observation of mine that was shared by a number of others: it's summed up with the word 'disconnect' -- there's a perception of disconnect between the press and the public."

EARLIER: Jeff Jarvis is reporting from Len Witt's conference in Toronto on participatory journalism.

There's some blogger bashing by Jan Schaffer of J-Lab that is certainly ironic because her group hands out awards for innovations in journalism.

More interesting, is Mary Lou Fulton telling folks how the Bakersfield Californian let the people publish their own paper online. Check it out.

Posted by Tim Porter at 03:43 PM

August 01, 2004

Orville Schell Gives Good Quote

The New York Times wrote yet another story reprising the tiring blogging vs. journalism debate in the wake of the Democratic convention. I had barely gotten to the jump and was about to bail on the following 20 inches when I found this gem of a quote from Orville Schell, dean of the UC-Berkeley's graduate school of journalism:

"Obviously, the official media don't quite know how to deport themselves in relation to the blogs. If they adopt them, it's like having a spastic arm - they can't control it. But if they don't adopt it, they're missing out on the newest, edgiest trend in the media."

Spastic arm! What a great image and what a typical Orville Schell quote - colorful, metaphoric, on point and just jarring enough to stand out from the usual blather of official quotes.

I interviewed Schell a couple of years ago about low-paying jobs for journalists and he delivered one quotable punch line after another, so many that I kept adding them into the story like exotic spices that I just had to use only to have the editor later declare the piece overly seasoned and remove most of them.

Schell wove a theme of journalistic piety with these kind of statements:

"It's very warping for undergraduates to go to journalism school and then become men and women of the cloth. They miss a whole range of study. They should be out reading good novels as undergraduates."

And: "You can only abuse people so much. They have families, children and student loans and lives to lead. We are not monks."

After seeing Schell quoted in today's Times, I ran a quick Lexis/Nexis search looking for more good quote from him. Here's a sample:

> "Getting coverage from embedded reporters is like looking into a microscope," The Hotline March 17, 2004.

> "There is a giant bald place in the media, and there are not a lot of people who are being fed" good information, San Francisco Chronicle, May 5, 2004.

> "But the question is: 'Can editors really be captains of a ship and know everything that's going on in the minds of their sailors?' ," Los Angeles Times April 23, 2004.

> CBS "has gone from one humiliating event to another in recent years. But it's particularly demeaning to compromise your integrity so fundamentally over something as worthless as Michael Jackson. I suppose you could make a case for getting a story that laid bare the terrorist networks operating inside Iraq by paying for it. But to lose your reputation, as CBS now has done, to get more Michael Jackson?", Los Angeles Times December 31, 2003.

> "One would have to say there's getting to be something of a tradition of trouble caused by young journalists with unbridled ambitions and hyperventilated notions of careerism," as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, May 21, 2003.

Finally, here's Schell himself, writing:

> "We have instead a new, almost gravityless, world of conflict in which the American military can kill journalists without causing great alarm and "the enemy" can blow up U.N. aid missions and other "soft" civilian targets without remorse. All that journalists have to steady them in this bad dream is grit and a stubborn refusal to serve any of the contending masters," New York Times essay, September 7, 2003.
Posted by Tim Porter at 06:57 PM