September 30, 2004

Carry My Notebook, Please

In another big media, small perspective moment, Nick Coleman, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, does the blogger bash thing, asking: "Do bloggers have the credentials of real journalists?" And answering: "No." And concluding: "Most bloggers are not fit to carry a reporter's notebook."

I emailed Nick some "facts" to help the journalist in him see things another way. Here's my email:

Hi Nick ...

When I started in reporting, about the same time as you, I think, I was told to never assume, don't turn a few facts into a sweepign generalization and don't be afraid to ask a stupid question. Journalism and the "news media" have change much since then, but those three things pretty much still hold up. You should keep them in mind the next time you write something as encompassing as "Do bloggers have the credentials of real journalists? No." and "Most bloggers are not fit to carry a reporter's notebook."

Many of us did carry one and some of us still do. For your follow-up column, you might want to talk to one of these folks about why they blog AND write for traditional media.

 Kevin Roderick, LA Observed: Former Los Angeles Times reporter and senior projects editor.
 Tom Brown, Seattle Times reporter and editor: Daily blog on the Iraq war.
 Dan Weintraub, Sacramento Bee political reporter and columnist: California Insider.
 Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune columnist, a daily blog.
 Jeff Jarvis, former reporter San Francisco Examiner: Buzzmachine.
 Ed Kemmick, columnist for the Billings Gazette: City Lights.
 Chuck Darrow, features writer, South Jersey Courier-Post: Phillies blog.
 James Lileks, Minneapolis Strib, columnist: The Bleat.
 Dallas Morning News, editorial page staff: Opinion blog.
 Dan Gillmor, tech columnist, San Jose Mercury News: Ejournal.
 NBC News, political reporters: First Read.
 ABC News, political reporters: The Note.
 Amy Cannata, transportation reporter, Spokane Spokesman-Review: Getting There.
 Al Mascitti, columnist, Delaware News Journal: First Statements.
 Joshua Micah Marshal, Talking Points Memo; from his bio: His articles on politics, culture and foreign affairs have also appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic Monthly, The Boston Globe, The Financial Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Post, The New York Times, Salon, Slate, and other publications.
 Chris Cobler, editor, Greeley Tribune: Virtual Greality.
 Geitner Simmons, editorial writer, Omaha World-Herald: Regions of My Mind.
 Nicole Stockdale, copy editor, Dallas Morning News: A Capital Idea.
 Todd Bishop, reporter, Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Microsoft blog.
 James Taranto, Wall Street Journal: Best of the Web.
 Dan Froomkin, Washington Post, Nieman Fellows watchdog project: White House Briefing.
 Joanne Jacobs, former San Jose Mercury News education writer and columnist: Education blog.
 Mark M. Hancock, photographer, Dallas Morning News: Photojournalism.
 And, of course, me, former AME at the San Francisco Examiner: First Draft.

Hope this helps, Nick.


Tim Porter

James Lileks, another columnist at the Star-Tribune, responded to Coleman on his own blog.

(Thanks to for many of the pointers.)

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:37 AM | Comments (2)

Endorsements: What's the Point?

American Journalism Review has posted my piece examining the relevance of presidential endorsements by newspapers. Romenesko blogged it yesterday with this teaser:

Why do editorial boards bother with endorsements?
American Journalism Review
New York Times editorial page editor Gail Collins tells Tim Porter: "I don't think anybody who has a job like mine is deluded that many people change their opinion about who they're going to vote for for president when they see the Times editorial." Porter writes: "Why, then, beyond engaging in intellectual exercise, write such strong arguments knowing they fall mostly on deaf ears? Editorial writers explain endorsements with words like 'conversation,' 'values' and 'credible.'"

Read the whole article.

Posted by Tim Porter at 06:32 AM

September 29, 2004

News Media vs. Journalism

It's time, once again, to make the distinction between the "news media" and journalism.

The "news media," singular, is an ever-growing, ill-defined collection of broadcasters, scribblers, shouters, saints and sinners, many operating purely out of self-interest, that, collectively, demands public attention and, individually, competes amongst itself for it, but is increasingly distrusted despite - or perhaps because of - all efforts to win public confidence.

Journalism is a subset of that clamor, something committed more or less intentionally and falling at various times on all points of the scale that extends from rubbish (some) to mediocrity (a lot) to excellence (a few).

We need less "news media" and more journalism - and only the journalists can make that happen by holding firm against the temptation to discard the elements of good journalism, the first of Jay Rosen and Bill Kovach define an obligation to the truth, in favor of self-aggrandizement, sloppiness in haste to beat out the competition, outright fraud or, more commonly, acceptance of standards that say this story, this headline, this photograph is "good enough" when it simply isn't.

Let's apply this thinking to newspapers.

Public trust will return to newspaper journalism when newspaper journalists return to their core purposes, pursue them relentlessly and abandon the obsolete notion of competing against television, the Internet, etc. for the people's time. This fight is not about time. It's about credibility and commitment to community.

One of these core purposes is to encourage understanding of and participation in the democratic process, which I'll define in the least partisan way possible: Data, discourse, debate and decision about the common good of society.

I began thinking along these lines this morning when I read Leonard Witt's interview with Buzz Merritt, aka the "godfather of civic journalism."

At one point Merritt says journalism is "impeding" the solution of society's most fundamental problems: "whether our cities get better; whether democracy fulfills its promise." He explains further:

"We have an obligation to do more than render important issues as bipolar conflict between extreme viewpoints, our reflexive method. A fundamental problem cannot be solved until people understand not only their stake in the issue but also the stakes of others all across the spectrum. In a democracy, resolution almost always comes in some middle ground and too much of our political journalism fails to illuminate the middle ground, so people do not see or appreciate the possibilities of resolution and stay out of the process." ( Emphasis added.)

Journalism, and newspapers in particular, have made a fundamental mistake. As the society fragmented and new media bloomed to serve the disparate sections, newspapers weaned themselves from their belief in mass media and attempted to woo each demographic slice differently. As a result, today we have columns for seniors, sections for teens and weeklies in Spanish - and a typical newspaper news report dominated by mundane institutional coverage that stenographically records incremental movements in government, but, like the blind man touching the elephant's trunk and deeming it a snake, fails to see the larger beast.

Coverage for the old, the young or the bilingual is not a bad thing, but newspapers cannot succeed - and are not succeeding - by offering a unsatisfying tasting menu of news, a small bite for every taste. The money, the time and the talent devoted to creating this daily buffet (to serve out this metaphor to the final course) has diverted the kitchen's attention from the classic dishes: Ongoing commitment to quality, watchdog reporting, contextual, explanatory analysis, lively, fun writing. Give me a platter of those; hold the column on financing my retirement and the extra serving of planning commission stories.

I am not arguing for a resurrection - or continuation in most cases - of old forms of journalism. Society has changed. Technology has changed. Journalism must change to reflect both. A good place to start is, to borrow from Hodding Carter, to relinquish the idea of reflecting the community and instead be the community, meaning that journalists should stop wondering what people want from their newspapers and instead concentrate on what they need for their communities.

"News media" is everywhere and I don't bemoan it. The very diversity of "news media," coupled with the explosion of "personal media" (another subset) fuels an increasing public interest in news of all sorts - much as the arrival of the VCR increased rather than diminished, as some Hollywood worrywarts predicted, interest in the movies -- presents a unique historical opportunity to display the differences between journalism and media.

A year-and-a-half ago I wrote:

"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."

I believe that's even truer today. [Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism ]

 PJNet Buzz Merritt: News Media Must Regain Vigor, Courage

Posted by Tim Porter at 10:25 AM

September 27, 2004

Freeing the Prisoners of the Newsroom

This is my column for Tomorrow's Workforce. It looks at one program that is trying to reduce the deficit of newsroom staff development by bringing training "within driving distance of every editor in the country.”

Here's the beginning:

If some day you happen to be talking on the phone with both Carol Nunnelley and Lil Swanson, and perhaps are discussing their latest project, NewsTrain, do not be concerned about telling their voices apart.

Nunnelley’s words arrive one at a time, slowed to such an orderly cadence by the weight of her Alabama diction. They don’t fall on the ear so much as they brush by it. Swanson, by contrast, declares herself holder of a Philadelphia accent (Is there one? I ask. “It’s in your face,” she says.) She packages her thoughts in complete paragraphs, delivered so articulately and grammatically that no matter how hard I listen for remnants of Rocky in her voice, I hear more Main Line than South Philly.

Geographic inflections aside, when Nunnelley and Swanson speak about NewsTrain and the need to rescue “front-line editors, middle managers, the people who are usually prisoners of the newsroom,” they speak in unison.

Read the rest here.

Posted by Tim Porter at 10:21 AM

September 20, 2004

Bill Moyers on Journalism

I love journalism and I love curmudgeons, and I love it best when the qualities of both combine as they do in Bill Moyers. He spoke to the Society of Professional Journalists last week and Tom printed the speech. Here are some sections I liked (all emphasis added):

 On the essence of journalism: "To gather, weigh, organize, analyze and present information people need to know in order to make sense of the world."

 On journalistic ethics: "Good newsrooms “'re marinated in ethical conversations…What should this lead say? What I should I tell that source?' (Moyer is quoting journalism professor Ed Wasserman.) We practice this craft inside 'concentric rings of duty and obligations: Obligations to sources, our colleagues, our bosses, our readers, our profession, and our community”—and we function under a system of values “in which we try to understand and reconcile strong competing claims.' Our obligation is to sift patiently and fairly through untidy realities, measure the claims of affected people, and present honestly the best available approximation of the truth."

 On reporting on religious fundamentalism: "You think Ann Coulter is right to aim her bony knee at my groin and that O’Reilly should get a Peabody for barfing all over me for saying there’s more to American politics than meets the Foxy eye. But this is just the point: Journalists who try to tell these stories, connect these dots, and examine these links are demeaned, disparaged and dismissed."

 On freedom of information: There is a " 'zeal for secrecy' pulsating through government at every level, shutting off the flow of information from sources such as routine hospital reports to what one United States senator calls the 'single greatest rollback of the Freedom of Information Act in history.' "

 On defining news: "I am reminded of the answer the veteran journalist Richard Reeves gave when asked by a college student to define 'real news.' 'Real news,' said Richard Reeves 'is the news you and I need to keep our freedoms.'"

 On penurious publishers: "In Cumberland, Md., the police reporter had so many duties piled upon him that he no longer had time to go to the police station for the daily reports. But management had a cost-saving solution: Put a fax machine in the police station and let the cops send over the news they thought the paper should have. ('Any police brutality today, officer?' 'No, if there is, we’ll fax a report of it over to you.')"

 On blogging: "In one sense we are discovering all over again the feisty spirit of our earliest days as a nation when the republic and a free press were growing up together."

 On journalism as a human endeavor: "I don’t want to claim too much for our craft; because we journalists are human, our work is shot through with the stain of fallibility that taints the species. "

 On the "contract" between journalists and the public: Moyers quotes Martha Gellhorn: "Serious, careful, honest journalism is essential, not because it is a guiding light but because it is a form of honorable behavior, involving the reporter and the reader.”

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:04 AM | Comments (2)

September 16, 2004

Arrogance, Mafia and Journalism

As has been said more often and more passionately by others, the Dan Rather-CBS stonewall on the Bush National Guard documents demonstrates how the arrogance of many mainstream journalists doesn't permit them to admit mistakes or, more importantly, examine the validity of the top-down approach to news reporting.

Seth Finkelstein, who blogs at Infothought, says this lack of openness and self-reflection explains the some of the clubbiness and knee-jerk antipathy journalists feel toward bloggers, media critics and others who the journalists believe are attempting to ursurp their throne of professionalism. Writes Finkelstein:

Journalism, as a profession, is a very arrogant and abusive institution. ... Organizationally, when covering stories, there's a very small number of covered people who are generally granted the minimum of fairness - these are, e.g. people in political power. They aren't granted this respect out of the kindness of the journalist's heart. But rather, because those people have the power to fight back. ...

"It's like being a "made member" of the Mafia. That wiseguy status doesn't mean you can't be killed. It just means there's some due process, some consultation, before the decision can be undertaken within the organization to kill you.

"Part of the 'standards' argument between journalists and non-journalists, is actually about who belongs in this magic circle of respect. Journalists are passionately concerned about this topic, since their professional lives depend on it. Who is prey, and who is a pack-member? ... "

Remember, if you're not at least connected, and a journalist does a hit-job on you, then what you hear (if you are so lucky to even get a reply) is generally just:

1) "We stand by our story"

2) A variant of: we're the journalists and you're not (and you're not objective)

Sound familiar?"(All emphasis added)

I don't agree that journalism is an "abusive institution" because I know too many reporters and editors dedicated to the higher values of journalism, but many journalists are arrogant and most news organizations are dysfunctional as institutional members of society. They don't interact well with the community, they don't see themselves as part of the community and they welcome input from the community about as much as Dan Rather would like to hear from another typography expert right about now.

This separation into us and them -- we the journalists and you the people we cover -- inevitably causes arrogance, defensiveness and a reluctance to accept redefinition in an age when the traditional, hierarchical news media pyramid has been flattened, for both the better and the worse, by newer technologies.

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

September 15, 2004

Distributed Journalism

Jesse Walker, managing editor of Reason, uses the Dan Rather dust-up as a basis to compare and contrast legacy news media with its younger, more boisterous cousins, the bloggers of the Internet. He concludes they are all part of a new news-gathering form, distributed journalism.

I like that concept. It bridges the hierarchy of traditional top-down journalism with the burgeoning abilities of the citizen-based"we media," but in an inclusive manner that recognizes both as part of what Walker calls the same ecosystem. He puts the failings of both in this context:

"Cyberspace offers many rewards, but it's also filled with partisan robots and knuckle-dragging bullies, with would-be reporters who don't understand the concept of evidence and would-be analysts who can't be bothered to comprehend the views they're critiquing, with would-be stylists who rely on clichés and would-be satirists without a trace of wit. Worse yet, it's filled with disinformation and fog, especially during a presidential campaign and a war. It's tempting to recoil from all the contradictory claims and to despair of ever learning the truth.

"But that disinformation and fog were there in the old days as well. They're just more obvious in this more transparent age, when the voice of Dan Rather is no longer enough to soothe a viewer's doubts. You're worried you'll never learn the whole truth? Welcome to the human condition, my friend." (Emphasis added.)

Welcome to journalism, my friends.

Posted by Tim Porter at 11:45 AM

September 14, 2004

Editors at the Turnstile

Here's a great line from Susan Q. Stranahan in a Campaign Desk piece looking at how various Knight Ridder newspapers used a Washington Bureau story examing the Bush-Kerry health plans:

"... editors are mortal too; some of them are possessed of wisdom and judgment and some couldn't direct a two-car funeral." (Emphasis added.)

Public criticism of journalists is often directed at reporters or at a newspaper's top editor. In between -- manning, as Campaign Desk puts it, "a large turnstile," are layers of editors who sort wire copy and trim it to fit the daily newshole. On all but the largest papers, those with their own national reporters, these editors determine the scope and size of campaign coverage.

When it comes to news judgment, departure from the norm is rare among mid-level editors, who must appear knowledgeable about a vast array of national and international stories, read the minds of their bosses about the importance of these stories and suffer the inevitable second guessing when a perceive competitor has a different angle on an issue. This is a formula for safe decision-making, choosing a tried-and-true, he-said-she-said story over something more analytic.

In the post below, Mike Jenner, editor of the Bakersfield paper, acknowledges "that some of the smartest editors on our staff believe" it is "risky" for him to demand less coverage of the Bush-Kerry Vietnam redux and more coverage of issues.

Change begins from the edges, but it doesn't take hold until the middle shifts.

Posted by Tim Porter at 03:19 PM

Bravo to Bakersfield

Mike Jenner, executive editor of the Bakersfield Californian tells his readers that he's had enough with the Bush-Kerry-who-did-what-when-during-Vietnam brouhahas and that henceforth his paper will seek out campaign news that "look(s) at the future, reporting not only candidate promises, but also examining how realistic those promises are. "

Good for him. Jenner joins a backlash of sorts against this form of hollow rear-view mirror reporting:

 Howard Kurtz lamented the news media's obsession with "excavating the down-and-dirty past" and argued that "if journalists devoted the same investigative energy to the candidates' efforts to bolster Medicare and Social Security or deal with the mess in Iraq -- as opposed to precisely what happened on the Bay Hap River in 1969 -- perhaps more people might find campaign coverage compelling."

 Jeff Jarvis predicts that "a year from now, we'll see some commission wonder why we as a nation didn't pay attention to terrorism... or the health-care crisis... or education.... or the economy.... It's because we couldn't see through the mud on our glasses."

 The Wall Street Journal believes "the personal questions are certain to intensify" because both Bush and Kerry are using the military service records as character proxies.

Aside from the usual casualties of this type of media war -- truth among them -- the credibility of journalists, already severely wounded, suffers further. Reactive, stenographic reporting that provides ink and airtime to contested and unprovable partisan charges is poor substitute for enterprising reporting that provides readers with campaign intelligence rathe than ongoing insult.

Jenner says he's told his wire editors to downplay "the latest accusations and counterattacks" and look for whatever more substantive pieces might be available.

"I don't know what news tomorrow will bring," says Jenner, "but one thing is clear: It's time to leave Vietnam. "

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:09 AM

September 13, 2004

Circulation Circus

Amid all the big circulation scandals at Newsday, the Chicago Sun Times and the Dallas Morning News, here's a personal illustration of why newspapers are still clueless about basic marketing practices and customer service.

At the end of August my wife and I moved from one part of Mill Valley, Calif., to another.
We subscribe to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle. When I called the latter with our change of address, the helpful young man who answered the phone informed me that because I live in an area where the Chronicle is trying to increase circulation he could offer me a special subscription rate.

Great, I said, how much?

$24.99 for 52 weeks, he said, if I was willing to take the paper just five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday.

Wait, I told him. I already subscribe to the Chronicle seven days a week and pay more than $225 a year and you're offering me a deal that not only brings the company less money but encourages me to read the paper less often?

Yep, he said. It's a good deal.

It was and I took it. So, in one phone call from a current subscriber the Chronicle succeeded in reducing revenue by $200 a year, cutting my readership of the paper by 28 percent and increasing the amount of time I spend on Mondays and Tuesdays with its competitors (the Times sells more than 55,000 Sunday papers in San Francisco).

With this kind of sales pitch, it's no wonder circulation managers are cooking the books.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:18 AM | Comments (1)