October 28, 2004

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.

 News Media vs. Journalism: It's time, once again, to make the distinction between the "news media" and journalism.

 Editorial Pages: Pizza vs. Finger Bowls: The nature of editorial pages and how newspapers use them to connect to readers.

 He Said, She Said, We Said …: Revelations about the mindset of traditional journalists, the power shift personal publishing technology has brought to media, and a common frustration shared equally by reporters and their subjects.

 Apologize? For What?: The Boston Herald, has apologized for publishing a photograph of the young woman shot to death by police during a street disturbance following the Red Sox's victory over the Yankees. That was a mistake.

 Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System: After meeting last week in Atlanta with a group of smart, committed journalists who gathered to brainstorm about ways to rescue what Carol Nunnelly of NewsTrain calls the "prisoners of the newsroom" - assignment editors and other mid-level managers - I've come to believe the traditional newsroom structure is obsolete and cannot respond to the challenges of changing readership, new journalistic forms and professional stagnation that threaten the relevancy of newspapers.

 The Power of One: Over and over again I hear journalists bemoan the falling numbers in their newsrooms or shrinking size of their news hole. And they are right to do so. They are also right to pursue efforts to link quality journalism to higher profits. But that is not enough. Individual journalists need to take personal responsibility for the quality of their work and get beyond the question someone asked yesterday at a conference on homeland security reporting: What can one person do?

 Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, A Guide: Philip Meyer, a University of North Carolina journalism professor, wrote "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," as "an attempt to isolate and describe the factors that made journalism work as a business in the past and that might also make it work with the changing technologies in the present and the future." I read the book and dissected it chapter by chapter.

 ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda: The American Society of Newspaper Editors convenes next week in its usual location (Washington, D.C.) with its usual line-up of predictable political keynoters (Bush, Rice) and its usual array of panels devoted to the industry's ongoing crises (declining readership, stagnant diversity, confused ethics, eroding credibility).

 New Values for a New Age of Journalism: Are some of the newsroom's most prized values contributing to journalism's continuing decline in credibility? What should replace these values to better reflect the complexities of modern media yet still embrace the core principles of journalism? What should be the standards of credible journalism in an age when all definitions of news are up for grabs?

 Readership: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis: Could the most ambitious readership experiment underway at an American newspaper provide clues to construction of a future in which newspapers survive by embracing the values of the very forces that are threatening their distinction?

 The Mood of the Newsroom: In the last 18 months I've interviewed several hundred journalists - reporters, photographers, copy editors, executive editors, designers, graphic artists. I've been in newspaper newsrooms of more than 500 people and in newsrooms of less than 50. It has been an immersion course in the mood of the press - and much of it hasn't been pretty.

 Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?: Can grassroots journalism bridge that gap between local information and local news? Is it even necessary to do so? Or is just having the public distribution of the information sufficient to fulfill the need of an informed citizenry?

 Newsweek Flushes Credibility Down the Toilet: When is this self-destructive obsession by the press with "scoops" and "exclusives" going to end? Newsweek is the latest self-inflicted victim of this misplaced priority, which values "sources" over facts and half-truths over transparency - and for what?

 The $34,000 Question: What Will You Give Up to Get More Local?: Change comes with a price. The more radical the shift, the higher the cost. For newspapers, the tariff to a different future must be the sacrifice of sacred cows, damage to some newsroom egos and even the loss of some of today's readers in the hopes of securing more of tomorrow's.

 Oh, Canada: An Innovation Presentation: I spoke yesterday at Canadian Newspaper Association's annual conference, held this year in Ottawa. I pulled together a number of the ideas you've seen on First Draft for a presentation on newsroom innovation.

 Working at Change: How One Newspaper Created a New ‘Compact’ with Readers: As I noted the other day when I wrote about John Robinson’s efforts to make his newspaper in Greensboro more local, change is hard work – and at a newspaper it can be dauntingly so.

 Blogging the Beat: I talked with several reporters who write blogs. Here's what they had to say about the advantages blogging brings to a beat reporter.

 Dawning of the Age of the Journalist: Could it be that as the age of the journalism business wanes under the weight of an obsolete business model and changing audience that potential power of the individual journalist is on the rise? Are we entering the age of the journalist?

 London Bombings: The Unread Newspaper: The first-day story no longer belongs to newspapers - and hasn't for a long time. It isn't even the property of professional journalists any longer.

 News Meets the Global Thought Bubble: How are traditional news organizations responding to citizen journalism and blogging? What interests do citizen journalism and mainstream news organizations share? Where are they at odds? founder responses (what will future audiences of news look like?)

 Building the Journalism of the Future, Intentionally: It's getting harder and harder to find a silver lining in the cloud of bad news that is enveloping the newspaper industry. But I'm going to try. My mantra that practicing quality journalism will help newspapers find a path to a sustainable future rings hollowly in light of the New York Times' announcement that will trim 4 percent of its workforce, including 45 positions in the newsroom.

 Journalism by Every Means Necessary: One reason I have been writing less these past few weeks on First Draft - aside from the temporal summer slump and yet another plunge into Mexican real estate - is that I have run out of patience.

 The Rise of the Norgs: In scraping the newsroom clouds for a silver lining, I could argue that this year of cutbacks and layoffs, as institutionally disruptive and personally damaging as they have been and will continue to be to so many journalists, can be seen as the catalyst so desperately needed to awaken a slumbering industry.

 Leadership: What Newsroom Leaders Need to Start - and Stop - Doing Now: If we are going to reinvent newspapers - and we are - we must reinvent the leadership of newspapers. The traditional top-down, opaque, defensive style of management found in most newsrooms cannot foster a new future. It only oppresses those who want change, giving them two choices: Flee or be frustrated.

What type of leadership do newspapers need? Or better put: What qualities do the newsroom leaders of today need in order to build the news organization of tomorrow?

 If Newspapers Are to Rise Again: An essay for Nieman Reports outlining a strategy for reinvention.

Posted by Tim Porter at 06:30 PM

Endorsement Media Blip

Because of the piece I did for American Journalism Review on the impact of newspaper endorsements ("What's the Point?", Oct-Nov. 2004), I've done a few interviews recently, filling the role of expert for reporters in search of one.

Here's a story done by BBC reporter Kevin Anderson on whether Kerry's lead in newspaper endorsements will translate into advantage at the polls next Tuesday. It states that I believe "in a time where readers are looking for any hint of bias, that endorsements might have outlasted their usefulness."

More accurately, I would say the endorsement process -- not necessarily the endorsement itself -- is outmoded. The top-done, black box recommendation issued by an often anonymous editorial board does indeed reinforce impressions of bias (in either direction), but, even worse, it fails to engage or involve readers in the process of arriving at the decisions. In other words, it excludes readers rather than engages them -- the exact opposite of what newspapers need to do in order to strengthen their connections to the community.

More transparency is need, not less. Why not open up the endorsement process, perhaps even hold interviews by the editorial board (who are they? what is their background? their previous endorsement votes?) in public in a town hall setting? Why not include members of the community on the editorial board?

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to be interview by Doug Fabrizio of KUER radio, an NPR station, in Salt Lake. I also had the misfortune to be paired with Jay Rosen, who is articulate enough to speak in complete chapters, thereby rendering others in the same conversation to appear as fumble-tongued as our current president on a bad day. An MP3 of the show is here.

Among Jay's comments:

* Endorsements that seem to arrive from on high -- as he put it, from Mount Olympus -- can alienate readers and cause a shift in perception of the newspaper from "our newspaper" to "the newspaper." The first is an institutional relative who may be forgiven for its occasional wrong-headed opinion; the latter is a faceless entity who muscles into the civic conversation with with a braying opinion on the right thing to do.

(An example: The Salt Lake City Tribune has begun endorsing candidates for the first time in decades, a change that followed purchase of the paper by Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group Inc. The paper's endorsement of George Bush produced a flash flood of letters from readers, so much that the Connie Coyne, the paper's reader advocate, responded to the renewal of endorsments after a 30-year hiatus with a defensive column citing the First Amendment and the paper scrapped its syndicated op-ed columns for a day to run more mail from readers. Nowhere in the paper was there an attempt to connect with readers by explaining the endorsement process or identifying the editorial board. A good question to ask is this: Why didn't the Tribune toss out the canned ramblings of the syndicated columnists weeks before its endorsement and open the space to readers so they could debate who the paper should endorse?)

* Newspapers tend to write endorsements with the politicians in mind rather than the community, placing more weight on the records or policies of the candidates than on the needs of the particular community. This type of pressthink (to borrow Jay's term) derives from the mindset that the processes of journalism -- or of newspapering -- have value in and of themselves, meaning editors and reporters can see themselves as doing public good by performing the journalistic rituals without regard for the eventual purpose, quality or impact of those actions.

Posted by Tim Porter at 12:05 PM

Comments Gone

I have turned off comments on all posts older than five days in an effort to cut down on the spam. Even with MT Blacklist, cleaning out the crap is time consuming, especially when I'm traveling. For the geek minded, I got the script here and it works very well. (There's another version here for MT blogs backing into a MySQL database.)

Please email me (tim you-know-what timporter.com) with any comments on older posts and I will add them to the text. Thanks.

Posted by Tim Porter at 11:53 AM

October 26, 2004

I Endorse This List

Adrian Holovaty posts a link on Romenesko to a handy, searchable list of presidential endorsements by newspaper. Even though I think endorsements are a waste of time (see my piece, What's the Point?, in American Journalism Review), this is the best online tool yet for those who are keeping score.

Also: BBC reporter Kevin Anderson worked around my usual inarticulateness and used me for kicker in this story on the value of endorsements.

Posted by Tim Porter at 10:30 AM

October 23, 2004

Serie-ess Front Pages

The World Series begins tonight, but won't be the same without the New York tabs shouting the news and singing the blues. Newsdesigner has compiled a collection of front pages marking the Yankees' collapse. My favorite: "The Choke's on us" from the Daily News.

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:03 AM

October 22, 2004

Apologize? For What?

Kenneth Chandler, editorial director of the Boston Herald, has apologized for publishing a photograph of the young woman shot to death by police during a street disturbance following the Red Sox's victory over the Yankees.

That was a mistake.

The photograph -- published on the tabloid's cover -- "angered and upset many in our community," said Chandler, referring to the outpouring of negative email the paper received, which expressed shock, revulsion and disgust (to sample from a few of the emails) at the paper's decision to print the photograph so prominently.

Bostonians should be upset, but their anger is misdirected. It was a Boston police officer who indiscriminately (apparently) fired a pepper spray pellet into a crowd of misbehaving fans, killing 22-year-old Victoria Snelgrove, an innocent bystander.

The ire of the citizenry should be aimed at the police officer who fired the gun and at a law enforcement agency that clearly was not prepared for a post-game celebration despite what news reports say was a pattern of increasing post-game drinky and rowdiness. The crowd got unruly, a cop lost control and a young woman died.

It seems heartless, I know, to say it is Herald's job, as well as that of all newspapers, to bring the community the truth in the most unvarnished version possible. When I read (in an earlier version of this story) about how Snelgrove's father met reporters outside his home with a photograph of his slain child and said, "I want you to meet my daughter," I nearly cried. What a terrible thing to have happen; what a human response by the father in front of a clamoring gaggle of reporters.

Victoria Snelgrove's death is outrageous, as are the killings of all the young men and women who die in the wanton inner city violence, as are the continuing toll of the innocents in Iraq and the unabated genocide in Darfur. Hiding from violence doesn't prevent it. Ignoring it doesn't reverse its impact. Not reporting doesn't help communities confront it.

I may be in the minority on this one -- and I don't particularly enjoy defending the Boston Herald, -- but I don't see a substantive difference between the photograph of Victoria Snelgrove lying dead on a Boston sidewalk and the one taken in 1970 by John Filo of Mary Vecchio tearfully kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller lying dead on the Kent State campus.

Would critics of the Herald's front page today have published the photo of Vecchio and Miller? Yes, the issues are different, but how does that diminish the death of one or the other?

Both are tragic. Both represent deaths of an innocent at the hands of authorities. Both are news. And both belong in the newspaper -- without an apology.

Posted by Tim Porter at 01:04 PM | Comments (7)

October 20, 2004

News from the Future

Doug Fisher, former AP editor, now author of Common Sense Journalism and J-school instructor at the University of South Carolina, has his students “chronicling a year in a modern American journalism school” on a blog called, appropriately, A J-School Year.

Let’s see what our replacements are thinking. Beneath some of the bad spelling (“persay” … “the current state of media affairs is a bit shotty”) and youthful expressions (“just the spitfire columnist you'd expect”), is some serious consideration of and telling observations about the state of journalism. Here are a few (all emphasis added):

 The glut of contradictory election polls convinces Graeme Moore that “it's time for journalists to return to what they are meant to do - sort fact from fiction.” Interesting note: When Moore refers to “victims” of “biased news,” he calls them “viewers,” not readers. In his mind, the audience watches.

 I suspect that if Jessica Ponder becomes a reporter she will know how to find a good editor because she has already identified the qualities an “effective teacher” possesses: “He puts you on the spot, he points his finger … he challenges and he forces learning to take place.”

 After meeting Helen Thomas, Allyson Bird felt compelled to read the reporting of the Washington press corps. She found that “a lot of the stories read like insider information -- leads loaded with political jargon and followed up with an obligatory quote. I found myself reading further and further into the stories just to figure out what all that stuff in the lead actually meant. Perhaps becoming a Washington insider is a disadvantage if you lose a perspective readers can connect to.”

 Observing Washington reporters at work led Bird to write this: “The journalists move around in a great network of press conferences and phone trees. They know one another, because they're at the same events. Sources know what to say to them, because they've already said it to plenty of their colleagues.”

 Tecla Markosky experienced the same shock many of us did as we moved from a small pond to a slightly bigger one: “I was the journalism hotshot in high school and college is a big shocker. All of a sudden, everyone knows all the big words I do and they can use them correctly. The editor who critiqued my work knew what she was talking about. And worst of all, she told me to “show, not tell.’”

 Tamika Cody has already learned some of the lessons in her senior semester that we try to teach newsroom managers in my work with Tomorrow’s Workforce: “Everyone has an ego, some larger than others. Communication, communication, communication. Teamwork.”

 Finally, even though Julia Sellers acknowledges that “journalists just leave a bad taste in many people's mouths” she still wants to fulfill her desire to be a reporter because “as a journalist it is your responsibility to report the truth to the public. You have the opportunity to shake things up, hold leaders accountable and make changes possible.”

What a good idea A J-School Year is. The blog gives these students the opportunity to learn something most journalists of my generation never did – self-reflection, a necessary step for evaluation and adaptation, things newspapers and the people who work for them don’t do too well. Institutions cannot change without the people who work for them understanding in an unvarnished manner who they are, what they do and how that fits into the community around them. Newspapers need more people like that.

I would like to see, as I’m sure Doug Fisher would, more of his students contributing to the A J-School Year more often. But the blog becomes a self-selecting experience. Those who feel compelled to write, will. And newspapers need more people like that as well.

Posted by Tim Porter at 06:16 PM | Comments (2)

First Draft Recommends …

First, read my story in the current American Journalism review about why presidential endorsements have little, if any, impact on voters. Here’s a quote from Gail Collins, editorial page editor of the New York Times:

"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 president when they see the Times editorial."

OK, now here are the usual news stories that appear every four years about newspaper endorsements:

 The endorsement horse race: Editor and Publisher is keeping score. Kerry’s got the lead.
 The paper that doesn’t endorse: Milwaukee paper makes news by doing nothing.
 The paper that does endorse, but changes its position: Tampa Tribune switches from Bush to None of the Above. (Here is Tampa’s editorial.)
 The one-hand-other-hand endorsement story: “Whether the endorsement has influence is another matter," said Scott Bosley, executive director of the Virginia-based American Society of Newspaper Editors.
 The endorsements-are-missing-the-real-point story: “Something's missing this election year from the presidential endorsements of newspapers: Any discussion about the issues most important to the work of newspapers.”
 Endorsements are hard, but worth it: The Freeport (Illinois) Journal Standard quotes my “compelling” AJR story.

I’d prefer that newspapers didn’t make endorsements. They confuse readers who don’t see the difference between the opinion and the news pages, and they presume a level of authoritativeness on the newspaper’s part that separates it from its readers.

For those papers who feel compelled to endorse, they should reconsider the format. The “we speak, you decide” construction of traditional editorial pages is out of date. At the least, endorsements should be accompanied by equal arguments for the opposing position.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, is endorsing Kerry, but doing so in a decidedly non-traditional manner. The paper is publishing 21 editorials, each on a different theme and each accompanied by a rebutting essay from a Bush supporter.

As for me, I’m taking my election cues from a different arena. If the lads from Boston finish off the Yankees tonight and earn a chance to reverse history in the World Series, I don’t see how that other underdog from Massachusetts can lose.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:46 AM | Comments (1)

October 18, 2004

The Debates: Media and Journalism

David Shaw writes in the Los Angeles Times that the “significant rise in John Kerry's fortunes” – political, not financial, which are already stratospheric – after the first debate illustrates “that the news media have done a pretty poor job of campaign coverage.”

While there are plenty of press critics around who would agree with Shaw, his wonderment at the post-debate public perception of Kerry pre-supposes a level news media playing field from which newspapers, television, radio and the Internet each distribute news and opinion that is weighed with equal gravity by the electoral audience.

This is not the case. Kerry’s positives got a boost after Debate 1 because:

 He got 90 minutes (in light-controlled intervals) to make his cause to a huge audience.
 Bush sniveled and scowled through his part of it.
 Television is the most powerful tool for public persuasion in the country.

I believe news coverage, i.e., journalism, is essential to a democracy. I also believe much political coverage is mundane and formulaic at best, and reactionary and repetitive at worst. Shaw is correct: we can do better. But I don’t believe news reports are any longer the primary basis for public opinion – and to believe that is to foolishly cling to the notion that “news media” and “journalism” are still synonymous concepts. [ Read: News Media vs. Journalism ]

Michael Moore, Swift Boat Vets for Truth, O’Reilly, Matthews, Instapundit, John Stewart – all influence voters as much if not more than daily journalism, even if only to drive the already decided further into their respective corners.

Newspapers – the symbols of traditional journalism – played a minor role in public perception of the first Bush-Kerry debate. A Pew study found that more than 75 percent of people surveyed named television as the primary source of debate news (not that surprising, given that it was a televised event). More than half of this same group of people interpreted the news coverage as focusing on personal qualities, twice the number that perceived issues as central to the coverage.

What does that mean? It means these viewers – not readers – formed their impression of the candidates more on what they saw of the Bush and Kerry than what they heard the candidates say. Personality over issues. Kerry behaved better in that debate and his numbers rose.

From the perspective of the political candidates, journalism is an irritating, but increasingly irrelevant necessity that they must endure during the election process. When it can be avoided, it is. Arnold Schwarzenegger set the standard for avoidance of traditional media in his race for California governor. He announced his candidacy on Leno, used Oprah as a platform and defied the non-endorsement of all the state’s major newspapers to win election.

Shaw is correct in this sense: We need better political journalism, including more truth-telling (see this Howard Kurtz column on that subject). But if good journalism is going have any meaning in forming public opinion, and countering the relentless tide of mendacity that passes for partisan rhetoric these days, the old conventions of journalism need to be discarded.

The truth stories need to be on page 1. Polling should be ignored. Every story needs to presented in tiered formats – bullets for the skimmer, graphics for the visual learner, narrative for the reader. Writers need to be given more leeway, not less, for interpretation, impression and genuine human reporting.

Yes, the political press can do better. But not if it does things the same old way.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:47 AM | Comments (1)

October 17, 2004

Free Press, Free Expression Under Attack

I’m catching up after a few days of computer crash hell. Here are some recent links to the government’s growing attack on freedom of speech and the free press:

 Frank Rich, writing in today’s New York Times: “ ‘The fundamental right of Americans, through our free press, to penetrate and criticize the workings of our government is under attack as never before,’ wrote William Safire last month. When an alumnus of the Nixon White House says our free press is being attacked as ‘never before,’ you listen.”

 Jay Rosen, writing about Sinclair Media: “In a commercial empire it makes no sense to invite a storm like ‘Stolen Honor.’ But imagine a firm built for that sort of storm. Is Sinclair Broadcasting a media company with a political interest, or a political interest that's gotten hold of a media company and intends to use it? There are plenty of signs that a different animal is emerging.” (Thanks, Marc Cooper.)

 Jeff Jarvis, on why bloggers should care about the government jailing Judith Miller: For you, my fellow bloggers, are journalists, too. You uphold the public's right to know and citizens' right to challenge authority. What happens to Miller and other journalists happens to you and me. In fact, without big media companies and their influence, attorneys, and industry pressure behind you, the frightening truth is that you are more vulnerable than Miller.

 Jarvis, again, on government and media: What is the proper relationship of government to media? None.

 First Amendment Center on anonymous sources: “Americans strongly support the right of journalists to use confidential sources in news reporting, according to a new First Amendment Center national survey released today… ” (Good, but the responsibility is on journalists to reduce use of anonymity in order to increase transparency and credibility.)

 Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on the Plame case: “Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper is held in contempt for a second time for refusing to disclose information about confidential sources in the investigation into the government leak of a CIA operative's identity.”

Posted by Tim Porter at 04:26 PM

October 13, 2004


I'll be missing for a few days while I rebuild my laptop. The hard drive clicked to a stop last night in a Chicago hotel. I've got some data backed up, but not all. Either a new drive or a new machine is coming, and either will take time to set up. (The old machine -- and HP -- was only 15 months old. This doesn't say much for its quality.)

Any advice (besides having a fully mirrored hard drive)?

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:27 PM | Comments (1)

October 10, 2004

Reading the Times: Okrent & Baghdad

Warning: This post may induce dyspepsia in critics of Mainstream Journalism.

Today's New York Times contains two pieces that reinforce my belief that whatever institutional imperfections are diminishing the quality and undercutting effectiveness of American newspapers the best of these papers continues to draw well-meaning journalists who are committed to doing the best they can in whatever circumstances they find themselves.

First, Times public editor Daniel Okrent proves once again he has redefined for the better the role of ombudsmen. His columns are personal and self-revelatory, focus on the meta instead of the minutiae and not only challenge the reflexive thinking of the paper's editors and reporters, but also confront, sometimes gently, other times forcefully, similar knee-jerk perceptions proposed by readers.

Questionable decisions and substandard journalism deserve criticism, and Okrent has delivered it. But good journalism must be defended. It is too often under attack these days by partisans who declare the journalism to be flawed when the reporting doesn't match their view of the world.

Okrent today rises to the defense of the Times' coverage of the Bush-Kerry contest, answering the question "is The Times systematically biased toward either candidate?" with the simple declarative: "No."

You can read Okrent's arguments yourself and draw your own conclusions, but what I liked were his observations that state elemental truths about journalism and human nature:

"Newspapers today and especially this newspaper are asking their reporters and editors to go deep into a story, and when and where you go deep is itself a matter of judgment. And every judgment, it appears, offends someone.

"It is axiomatic that the facts or characterizations a journalist chooses to include can tilt a reader's impression. So can the choice of articles, the prominence they're given, the immense weight of the entire, cumulative chronicle of a too-long campaign.

"But it is equally axiomatic that the reader who has already tilted toward a particular candidate or position will instinctively view the world and The Times - from his or her own personal angle." (Emphasis added.)

I am not interested in the false debate about journalistic bias - false, because every thought we think and every action we take reflects a lifetime of impressions, experiences, preconceptions, and interpretations of the world around us. What is more important to journalism is the ongoing examination of our work, a continual reflection on quality, on efforts to be inclusive in coverage and viewpoint and on our doggedness in pursuit of truth. Our results will always be imperfect; our effort doesn't have to be.

Okrent's hackles are raised by attacks on those intentions, which he sees as high-minded at the Times (and I agree, displaying my own biases). Challenge the work, if you like, he says, but allow some credit to the journalists and, certainly, don't threaten them simply because you disagree with what they like.

Is it a surprise, in these days of political nastiness between candidates, that displeasure with journalists descends, enabled or perhaps encouraged by the easy and anonymity of email, into personal debasement? Okrent writes:

"But before I turn over the podium," he says, referring to giving space in his next column to critics of the Times' political coverage, "I do want you to know just how debased the level of discourse has become. When a reporter receives an e-mail message that says, 'I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war,' a limit has been passed.

"That's what a coward named Steve Schwenk, from San Francisco, wrote to national political correspondent Adam Nagourney several days ago because Nagourney wrote something Schwenk considered (if such a person is capable of consideration) pro-Bush. Some women reporters regularly receive sexual insults and threats. As nasty as critics on the right can get (plenty nasty), the left seems to be winning the vileness derby this year. Maybe the bloggers who encourage their readers to send this sort of thing to The Times might want to ask them instead to say it in public. I don't think they'd dare." (Emphasis added.)

Strong stuff -- and rightly said (although Okrent is overly focused on bloggers. The mistrust and hatred runs much deeper the blogosphere).

Reading the Times II

Perhaps prompted by the telling email made public last week by Wall Street Journal Baghdad correspondent Farnaz Fassihi, Times reporter Dexter Filkins writes his own note from the Green Zone, detailing the danger there and the limitations it places on his role as a reporter.

Filkins echoes Fassihi's lament at being "house-bound," saying "even in areas of the capital still thought to be relatively safe, very few reporters are still brazen enough to get out of a car, walk around and stop people at random. It can be done, but you better move fast."

The journalistic implications are clear:

"The real consequence of the mayhem here is that we reporters can no longer do our jobs in the way we hope to. Reporters are nothing more than watchers and listeners, and if we can't leave the house, the picture from Iraq, even with the help of fearless Iraqi stringers, almost inevitably will be blurry and incomplete." (Emphasis added.)

Filkins' observations are less personal than Fassihi's, who expressed frustration at her inability to fulfill the "reasons that lured me to the job … :"

"… a chance to see the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in far away lands, discover their ways and tell stories that could make a difference." (Emphasis added.

But they are no less real - and therefore more valuable to readers looking to understand a conflict that is too often reported in incremental stages and written about in language frozen in the iciness of faux objectivity.

Fassihi's email - written to friends, then forwarded to the world - contained the intimacy and personal connection deliberately missing from news stories, and provided an alluring peek behind the curtain of journalistic process into the mind of a reporter. Wrote Jay Rosen of PressThink:

"It's really journalism, an eyewitness report, giving impressions and conclusions about the struggle to prevail in Iraq. Not intended for the public, but that's different from being unfit for public consumption.

"There are millions of e-mails from Iraq about conditions in country. No one would be talking about this one but for two things: it was the work of a correspondent for the Journal, and it was brilliantly expressive in its quiet, detailed way." (Emphasis added.)

Filkins offers a similar viewpoint on the resonance of the email:

"Part of the fascination with Ms. Fassihi's e-mail message may lie in its personal nature; it's one thing for a reporter to describe a country in anarchy, but quite another thing - far more immediate and tactile - for the same person to say she can't leave her hotel room for fear of being killed." (Emphasis added.)

American journalism needs more of this kind of reporting - personal, instinctive, emotional, connective.

Remember how Filkins sees himself: "Reporters are nothing more than watchers and listeners." I would add that reporters are also impressionable. Tell us what you see, tell us what you hear and, at times, tell us how those things makes you feel. Why? So that we, the readers, can see, hear and feel what you do - and perhaps, through those simple human actions, understand better. Perhaps with a little more understanding, angry readers may be less inclined to suggest that the proper penalty for imperfect journalism is the death of the reporter's child.

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:42 AM | Comments (5)

October 07, 2004

The Raw Material of News

Yesterday, I said newspapers could help their credibility problem by not just publishing stories, but by also using their web sites to publish the interviews behind the stories. It's win for everybody -- more information for readers, more context for the source, more transparency for the newspaper.

Today, Don Wycliff , the public editor for the Chicago Tribune, calls for newspapers to publish more verbatim material -- transcripts of speeches, hearings, debates, etc. He writes:

"All I have is the notion that we--and I mean not just the Tribune but all American newspapers--would help ourselves immensely if we honored our readers' intelligence by routinely laying before them some of the raw material of news." (Emphasis added.)

This is an important recognition that knowledge is more powerful when it is shared than when it is kept to oneself. Laying out source materials before readers moves newspapers from the limiting role of information provider to the more engaged role of partner with the reader in observing, understanding, critiquing and discussing the community in which it operates.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:57 AM | Comments (1)

October 06, 2004

He Said, She Said, We Said …

Mark Glaser's interview with billionaire blogger Mark Cuban in the Online Journalism Review contains revelations about the mindset of traditional journalists, the power shift personal publishing technology has brought to media, and a common frustration shared equally by reporters and their subjects.

Here's the background: Cuban and Kevin Blackistone, a Dallas Morning News sports columnist, exchanged emails in March about Cuban's basketball team, the Dallas Mavericks. Part of Cuban's response made it way into a column Blackistone wrote (sorry, it's in the DMN archives). Cuban felt Blackistone quoted him out of context, so Cuban published Blackistone's original email to him and his full response on his blog.

Let's see what Blackistone thought of Cuban's tactic. When contacted by Glaser, Blackstone said:

"I didn't think much of being surprised by having what I thought was a private exchange with Mark Cuban posted on a public Web site. That is a reason I stopped responding to readers years ago, because I discovered they started posting my personal responses to them on message boards." (Emphasis added.)

There are a couple of things wrong-headed about this response: First, Blackistone and Cuban's email conversation was not, as Blackistone characterizes it, a "private exchange" because he published Cuban's answer, which is a very public action. Second, even though Blackistone has a very non-traditional background for a sports columnist he still exhibits the classic old media flinch to interaction with readers (even though each of his columns contains his email address). Third, and most important in these days of morphing media, Blackistone clings to the notion that his answer to a reader's email is a "personal response," not understanding that the reader is writing to him as a public persona and, as such, everything he says to a reader is on-the-record. To demand transparency and accountability from our sources when they speak to us and not to apply those same standards to ourselves when we speak to the public is disingenuous.

Whether or not Blackistone used Cuban's comments out of context is not the issue (that's a separate debate), the point is that Cuban thought that was the case and blogging technology offered him a corrective recourse that up until recently was not available to news sources who, rightly or wrongly, thought they had been victimized by the press. He published the exchange and Blackistone's column under the heading: "The best thing about a blog … is that I get to respond to the media."

The arise of "we media" puts a publishing tool into the hands of anyone who wants to wield it. Gone forever is the one-way street on which journalism traveled for years. It has been replaced with a technology-enabled round-about in which credibility is given to those who can navigate the traffic without crashing.

Cuban refers to blogging as providing a system of "checks and balances" that will make media stronger." I agree with that, although I substitute the word "journalism" for "media" [ Read: News Media vs. Journalism ] and I prefer the concept of "counterbalances" to that of "checks and balances" since the latter implies the righting of some error while the former, to me, suggests a series of shifting forces that exert pressure on each other. Or course, journalism has always been influenced these forces. Politicians, PR people, peers and public opinion have shaped the nature of journalism. Blogs expand the concept of "peers" by allowing many more people to behave journalistically and give much more weight to "public opinion" because it can travel further, faster and garner more force through the Internet. They also, thankfully, uncloak this nexus of influence and enable anyone to contribute to the social and political debate that good journalism catalyzes.

Finally, Cuban puts his finger on a common frustration shared by sources and reporters alike - interview shrink. This happens when a lengthy interview is condensed into a few paragraphs in a story, causing the subject to feel, as Cuban did in this case, that his or her real point didn't survive the writing process and causing the reporter to feel he or she had to compromise the story for space or time constraints. Says Cuban to Glaser:

"Not that they weren't being fair. Fair isn't part of media's charter. Selling media is their charter. It was more that it wasn't unusual to find a two-hour visit abridged into a 500-word article. There is no way to convey two hours' worth of discussion in 500 words. As a result, more often than not, what was written wasn't what I thought was important." (Emphasis added.)

The key phrase here is "that is wasn't unusual." All reporters have notebooks or computer files full of unused pieces of interviews that may have been fascinating, may have said something deeper about the subject of a story, may have provided more insight into person being interviewed, or may have just made the story more human.

For example, my recent story for American Journalism Review on endorsements doesn't contain long sections of interviews I did with Gail Collins of the New York Times or Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal. One interview, with Rod Dreher, of the Dallas Morning News, was cut entirely. Don't misunderstand, these trims, suggested by AJRs editors, vastly improved the story, but I still wanted to publish what those folks had said because I found their comments interesting and I thought you might, too, so I put the out-takes on First Draft. [ Read: Editorial Pages: Pizza vs. Finger Bowls ]

Why can't newspapers do the same thing? Why shouldn't we share the breadth and depth of our interviews and our source materials with our readers online if we think we've got good stuff but couldn't cram it into the newspaper? Yes, doing so opens journalists to second-guessing by readers who will question why we chose this quote over another, but so what? We are already under attack from left, right and in-between, so we shouldn't be shy about justifying our decisions. After all, all of us have argued at some point with editors over what should or shouldn't be in a story. Why are we so reluctant to engage in the same conversation with readers? It's OK to say: These are our choices and here is why we made them.

When the San Francisco Chronicle used its website last year to publish the newspaper's lengthy endorsement interviews with mayoral candidates Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez, editorial page editor John Diaz said he wanted to "give readers a window into our endorsement process."

Why not do the same for our reporting process?

 Online Journalism Review: Mark Glaser Media Reports Are Fair Targets on Maverick Entrepreneur's Blog

Posted by Tim Porter at 10:09 AM | Comments (3)

October 04, 2004

What Matters ...

Jay Rosen contrasts Nick Coleman's disparagement of bloggers with the welcome mat put out by Chris Satullo, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It's well worth reading because (as always) Jay interprets Satullo's embrace of blogging as "enlarging the circle" of civic conversation, as (Satullo's word) "a dynamic expansion of things newspapers have long done to aid democratic dialogue."

Blogs are a platform, as is print and broadcast, and journalism is not defined by the medium but by the nature of the message.

Satullo puts this this way: "What matters is that journalism survive, that the craft of speaking truth to power with factual care not be snuffed out."

Adds Jay: "Which puts it beautifully."

And what I've said before in similar vein is this: "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"

Posted by Tim Porter at 06:04 PM

Secrecy and Sources

Lucy Dalglish, head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press connects the dots in this Newsweek interview between the Bush administration's secrecy policies and dangers to freedom of the press:

After 9/11, and I saw all these secrecy initiatives coming out, we’re exactly where I thought we’d be. Because when you have a secrecy regime set up, people in the government believe that the only way for the public to get information is through leaks. And the only way journalists can persuade their sources to talk is if they grant them confidentiality. When that happens, the government says, “We’ve gotta know who these leakers are.” And they make kind of a show of trying to figure out internally who the leakers might have been. [And when they can’t find the leakers], they say, “Your honor, the only way we can find out who broke the law by releasing this information is if the journalists tell us.” Ultimately the only folks who end up going to jail are the journalists. (Emphasis added.)

There are many good arguments to be made against the use of anonymous sources, particularly when they serve -- as they mostly do -- as nothing more than partisan baiters in meaningless political stories or dish out pablum on background. Still, journalists need, and the public deserves, access to information and the increasingly inclination by public officials is to withhold rather than release.

The New York Times is right to resist the Justice Department's attempts to pry loose telephone records of two Times' reporters and Dalglish is correct to be concerned about growing infringements on freedom of information.

Read this report -- Homefront Confidential -- by the Dalglish's organization. It examines the impact the government's war on terror has had on public access to information and argues that "one has demonstrated that an ignorant society is a safe society." It continues:

"We live in a nation built on the concept of balance. When the government, perhaps with the best of intentions, goes too far in its efforts to shield information from the public, it is up to the public and the media to push back." (Emphasis added.)

Journalists need sources -- insiders with access to information. If some of them have to be anonymous to get the job done, so be it. This doesn't, however, lighten the responsibility journalists have to ensure they aren't being played or had. One source -- on the record, off, on background or anonymous -- does not a story make.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:34 AM

October 03, 2004

Newsroom Joe

Jay Rosen tags blogophobe Nick Coleman with the moniker Newsroom Joe, which I now intend to use as often as possible, and categorizes the now-infamous Coleman column thusly:

" ... his column belongs to an era in newspaper opinion writing when it was possible to compose 972 words condemning a class of objects and never name a single one of those objects (let alone link to one). That's a low editorial standard routinely surpassed by bloggers, but the Star Tribune says no problem, we still do the zero examples hit piece here."

My earlier email to Coleman is here.

Posted by Tim Porter at 04:55 PM

October 01, 2004

Editorial Pages: Pizza vs. Finger Bowls

I ramble when I write, reflecting, no doubt, the cluttered mess that is my mind, so when I turned in my piece to the American Journalism Review on newspaper endorsements and presidential politics the good editors there helped me pare it into the much more readable shape you now see in the magazine.

A few of the trimmings addressed an issue that extends beyond endorsements: The nature of editorial pages and how newspapers use them to connect to readers.

Lynell Burkett, editorial page editor at the San Antonio Express-News and president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, summarized the dilemma confronting editorial page editors:

"Editorial pages have been fairly--I don't know if staid is the word--formatted, standard," she says. "What do we need to do to move forward? How do we attract new readers? How do we attract more diverse readers? How do we remain, in a world where there is opinion all over the place, talk radio and 24-hour news shows and all, a place of credible opinion."

Burkett's concerns about relevancy are valid. A 2003 Newspaper Association of America study on newspaper section readership shows that not even one in four readers younger than 25 bothers with the editorial pages. From age 35 and up, readership rises from one in three readers at the more youthful end of the range to nearly two in three for the sexagenarians upward.

Worse, says Mary Nesbitt, director of the Readership Institute at Northwestern University, those older readers are not happy. Nesbitt's latest research found that "for older people, editorials are highly important to them, but their satisfaction tends to be lower."

In other words, Baby Boomers-plus want to read engaging opinion, but what they find in the newspaper is leaving them hungry for more - more they are likely finding on the Internet or television.

There is hope. Several key reader reactions - what the Readership Institute calls "experiences" - associated with higher readership are directly applicable to editorial pages: "Reading this newspaper makes me feel like a better citizen," for instance, and "Even if I disagree with things in this newspaper, I feel like I have learned something valuable."

Most editorial pages are "homogenous," Nesbitt says. To intensify the "experiences" readers have with editorial pages - the Readership Institute's latest study urges newspapers to "take bold, noticeable, strongly marketed steps," advice that Nesbitt says can seem contradictory to editorial page editors who feel bound to traditional journalistic practices.

Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, where readership of the opinion pages is 50 percent higher than the national average, believes impassioned, sharp opinion, strongly written and substantively reported is the key to enticing and engaging readers.

"We are passionate about things," he says. "We try to keep readers awake. … We try to bring information to the editorials and to opinion in addition to that kind of personality because there's so much opinion now in the world, so much competition, on television, even papers on the web, that to just stick your thumb out like Nero and say up or down or any given issue gets a little tedious."

Increasingly, the type of crisp opinion journalism described by Gigot is found on the Internet - whether in web-based magazines, individual blogs or electronic offspring of print publications like OpinionJournal, the Wall Street Journal's free online offshoot.

"This is one of the things newspaper journalists do not understand," says Jay Rosen, head of the journalism department at NYU and author of the blog Pressthink, "that the basic standards of opinion writing off the news, which is what an op-ed page is or an editorial column in an editorial page is, is done better on the web."

If anyone symbolizes the bridge connecting old and new media, it is Rod Dreher, an assistant editorial page editor at the Dallas Morning News who migrated from print (New York Post) to the web (National Review Online) and back to print. At 37, with his bi-platform background, Dreher represents one possible future for editorial pages - one denoted by the lively writing, forceful ideological debate and reader interaction found on blogs.

"Younger readers who are interested in opinion, they can go to any number of blogs and get really pungent, well-informed, well-argued opinion about the issues of the day," he says, "and then you turn to most newspaper editorial pages and it's very, very solemn."

Too frequently, says Dreher, editorial page editors dismiss bloggers as bloviating nobodies or journalist wannabe's - thereby missing an opportunity to learn from them or even bring their writing into the newspaper, as the Dallas Morning News does on Sundays via a weekly column that draws commentary from bloggers.

"Just because they have strong opinions does not mean those opinions are ipso facto less responsible," Dreher says of bloggers. "I get so tired of the idea that, say, because a newspaper editorial is written with this stentorian, Olympian voice that it must therefore be more reasoned and more rational. I don't think that's true at all. You can write in that voice and be every bit as misguided as a crazy ranter on some blog that nobody reads."

Dreher hasn't abandoned blogging by moving to a newspaper. He and his colleagues on the Morning News editorial board contribute to DMN Daily, a blog the board began in January that is updated dozens of times a day with posts from editors and readers (who contribute through the editors). Dreher also continues to write for National Review's The Corner.

Both provide an outlet for a type of writing not found on the editorial page itself.

"I contribute to blogs because the kind of political writing and commentary you can do there is fun," says Dreher. "... I don't think a lot of formal writing that goes into newspaper is that much fun. You don't get the idea that people are having fun writing these pieces."

Editorial writing doesn't need to be Solomonic - what Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, calls "on the one hand, on the other hand, on the third hand, on the fourth hand" - to be taken seriously, says the Journal's Gigot.

"There are different ways than just 3 R's and cloud of ideology," Gigot says. "You can be a little funny, try to be witty, just be a fun read, an attractive read, more entertaining. Even if you're a liberal who says, 'Well, there they go again,' you might come back and say, 'Well, you may be crazy but you're fun crazy.'"

Gigot, like Dreher, who tempers his evangelistic enthusiasm for blogs with a reminder that editorial pages must be wary of alienating older readers "by seeming too flip," does demarcate the division between tradition and innovation.

"We do represent a paper that's been going for over a 100 years," Gigot says, "and there's got to be certain amount of seriousness to it. People expect that. They don't want a lot of crankiness for the sake of individuality. We'll put that in the blogs or in a column. There is a voice of the paper we have to have, but that doesn't mean it can't be a distinctive voice or a passionate voice or even a witty one."

Dreher delineates the difference with a culinary metaphor: "The blog is like a conversation. This is beer and pizza. … The editorial page is a formal dinner where you have to mind your manners. You have to use the finger bowl."

 American Journalism Review What's the Point? Few voters are swayed by newspaper endorsements of presidential candidates. So why do editorial pages keep publishing them?

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:09 AM | Comments (3)