November 28, 2004

Your Most Important Audience: Your Staff

Here is the beginning of my latest column for Tomorrow's Workforce, focusing on how newsroom newsletters are a easy and effective tool to communicate standards, single out good work, offer ongoing training and focus the entire staff on a newspaper's primary goal: Doing good journalism. It begins:

“The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

– George Bernard Shaw

Any newspaper managers who don’t provide regular feedback and guidance to their staffs with an internal newsletter are ignoring an easy opportunity to address one of the most persistent and bemoaned bugaboos afflicting our newsrooms – lack of communication.

Lamentations abound of the lousy communications skills of people paid to communicate, as do exhortations urging newspaper managers to do a better job or risk losing the hearts and minds of the newsroom to naysayers.

(Read the rest of the column here.)

Posted by Tim Porter at 04:12 PM | Comments (1)

November 10, 2004

Liberty and Security: Jay Rosen

On Day 4 of the long march of the Institute for Justice and Journalism’s conference for its 9/11 Security and Liberty fellows, Jay Rosen made public what many of the readers of his blog, Pressthink, have long suspected:

“I live a very strange life,” Rosen told the roomful of mainstream reporters and editors munching on deli platter sandwiches. “I do the same thing every day.”

And what is that thing? In the 18 years since he’s gotten his Ph.D., Rosen says he tries “to repeat the same sentence every day: Journalism is dot dot dot.” Rosen spends the day thinking about how to complete that sentence, gets as far as he can, then does it again the next day.

Rosen previewed his message to the fellows here on Pressthink, in an essay entitled “Not Up to It, which begins:

"Not mainstream journalism the practice, but the contraption it has for explaining, situating and defending itself has in 2004 finally broken down, given out after 40 years of heavy, reliable use."

The “contraption” is the framework of objectivity, which came into widespread fashion in the American press after World War II and then was elevated to canonical level during Richard Nixon’s tarnished presidency.

Ex-New York Timesman Doug Mcgill has written in depth on Pressthink about the collapse of objectivity, and you can read it yourself and decide if the logic works for you. Rosen’s version of the argument is that objectivity framework doesn’t provide journalists with the intellectual or emotional tools to handle the complexities of modern society.

It’s not up to the challenges,” he said. “It’s not up to what the Bush White House is doing to the press. It’s not up to the political situation. It’s not up to covering the war on terror. … Objectivity is not going to answer this for you. It’s not going to tell you how to respond.”

Journalists don’t have the resources to deal with the profound philosophical questions “because they wear an anti-intellectual crown,” said Rosen.

Objectivity "worked for a long time” and “its main job was to limit liability against attack” and criticism for being unfair.

“Wake up!’ Rosen said. “You’re getting attacked anyway. Wake up!”

As you might expect, this type of thinking intrigued some in the room, mostly experienced reporters with backgrounds in investigative reporter, and confounded others.

The answer, said one reporter, is better journalism and more investigative work. That’s not a bad thing, said Rosen, but that’s not the answer because in this society of political spin and concerted disregard by politicians for the value of a free press (“Lots of people in ascendance in power in this country think the press is past tense,” says Rosen.), the truth has lost its value.

“The Bush administration has taken a very radical step toward the press,” says Rosen. “It does not accept the value of the Fourth Estate. … This is by far the most confused, chaotic and threatening moment for this institution” since the red-baiting days of the McCarthy era. The administration, by saying “we won’t give out information and we won’t submit ourselves to questioning” is signaling that it “doesn’t accept the legitimacy” of the press as an institution.

Attacks on the press have diluted the impact of the journalism traditional watchdog role, says Rosen. “It seems to make no difference when you hold people accountable,” he said, adding that terrorism, and the climate of fear now hanging over the nation, “weakens people’s tolerance for the truth-telling. ... Truth-telling might seem dangerous to the average citizen.”

There was plenty more, much of which is mixed in with Rosen’s essay on Pressthink. Read that. I’m off to another day of the conference and will wend with this:

So what’s the answer? How does Rosen answer the question: What should journalism be … ?

He doesn’t. “I’m at the point,” he says, “where I’m waiting for to see who will acknowledge this.”

Journalists, he says, should begin by admitting that the system of objectivity is “overloaded” and then addressing the question of “how can people in the press preserve their power.”

“I don’t think the answer is a partisan press,” says Rosen. The “recovery starts” with the redefining the “role of journalistic storytelling.”

“Storytelling is more important than ever, more potent than ever,” he says, because the narrative can take the public behind the policy into the hearts and minds of the people creating it.

Ultimately, says Rosen, journalists need to answer the question: “How can you be useful again?”

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:58 AM | Comments (2)

November 09, 2004

Liberty and Security: Making Decisions

Some more highlights from the Institute for Justice and Journalism’s conference for its 9/11 Security and Liberty Fellowships:

Liberty in the Balance, a four-day series by the Sacramento Bee examining the liberty-security concerns in post-9/11 America, was the most ambitious effort by a regional newspaper on the topic when it was written 14 months ago. It still is. Sam Stanton and Emily Bazar, reporters for the Bee, and Rick Rodriguez, the paper’s executive editor, talked about how the project came together.

The idea was born at the beginning of 2003 when Rodriguez decided he didn’t want to send a reporter to be embedded with the U.S. military during its invasion of Iraq. He not only thought embedding wouldn’t produce the type of journalism he wanted but that “the real story would be in this country and in Iraq after the war.” The decision not to send to Iraq was a controversial one in the Bee newsroom and produced a significant amount of grumbling that the Bee, as Rodriguez put it, was “not a big league newspaper.”

Rodriguez, of course, turned out to be prescient.

Stanton and Bazar worked on the series for eight months in a manner that should be a model for serious, long-term reporting: They started with a kernel of an idea and let the project define itself through the reporting.

“We didn’t have a thesis,” says Stanton about how they began. “We didn’t know what we were going to write about. We didn’t have a preconceived idea.”

Stanton and Bazar, traveled across the U.S. and Canada for their reporting, an unlikely team at first: Stanton the skeptic who, at first, saw the deportation of Muslim immigrants as a fitting recourse for their visa violations; Bazar the daughter of Iranian immigrants who was passionate in her belief that a “selective enforcement” of the immigration law was targeting Muslims.

The reporters benefited from Rodriguez’s generous allocation of newsroom money (dollars not being spent in Iraq) and his certitude that a big story was developing in the United States that was not being covered by the press – a shift in the liberty-security balance that might be costing Americans some of their rights.

“I didn’t want to look back 10, 20 years from now and say we didn’t do all that should have done,” he says. “… I didn’t want to be looking back at my own career and say we didn’t do what we should have."

When I heard Rodriguez say that yesterday morning, I immediately thought of a comment made by Jim Willse, editor of the Newark Star-Ledger, during a recent discussion on the need for more press overage. “Did we do all we could have if we look back at the coverage 10 years from now?” Willse said.

Rodriguez is also the incoming president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and I asked him what ASNE is doing to compel editors who don’t share his passion or possess his initiative to answer Willse’s question.

“Investigative reporting,” says Rodriguez, is what is going separate us (newspapers) from the rest of the media crunch.”

ASNE is sponsoring, with Poynter, a gathering of newspaper editors after it spring convention that Rodriguez hopes will create a cadre of evangelists who will carry his commitment to “unleashing the watchdog” to the rest of the ink-stained profession.

This is good news, but I am not sure it goes far enough.

Too often – and I’ve heard it mentioned here at the IJJ conference several times in just two days – lack of in-depth reporting is attributed to lack of resources. Sure, newsrooms could use more money and more reporters, but the best stories begin with a commitment and passion that, when allowed to develop, can overcome resource issues.

The not-enough-people-not-enough-time excuse is a tedious copout. Reporting is all about decisions – what to cover, how often, with who and for how long. Rodriguez’s decision to eschew the Iraqi desert in favor of California’s Central Valley produced an excellent piece of journalism instead of the predictable tales of ride-a-longs with U.S. troops. In a broader sense, it was a call to not do what everyone else was doing and take a chance on something unique.

That type of thinking needs to be applied to newsroom resources as a whole. Why are beats structured they way there are? Why do more reporters cover cops than health? Why do stories about institutions and processes dominate news coverage? The answer is simple: Because this is how we have always done things. These are our traditions – and real change in newspaper reporting won’t come until these traditions are challenged, dissected and discarded in favor of a rebuilt system of reporting that emphasizes ideas, values and people over processes, institutions and government.

That’s an ASNE seminar I’d like to see.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:00 AM

November 08, 2004

Media Bloggers Association

A motley group of press pundits and media malcontents of all stripes have been pulled together by Robert Cox to form the Media Bloggers Association. I'm one of them. You can see the logo on the bottom of this page.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:15 AM

News Coverage of Liberty and Security

I am in Los Angeles for a few days at a meeting of the 9/11 Security and Liberty Fellowships sponsored by the Institute for Justice and Journalism. I presented an examination of security coverage by newspapers. Here is the nut of my contribution (I’ll post the entire speech and slides later when time permits)

The vast majority of stories are short, off the news, told from an institutional or bureaucratic perspective, and soporific in their “fairness.” The exceptions are, for the most part, found in the largest papers, but only 2.5 percent of the newspapers in the United States have circulations of more than 250,000, meaning that the millions of other newspaper readers rely on routine wire stories or condensed versions of Times or Post or Tribune stories to learn about national security issues. Stories about how these issues affect the local communities of mid-sized and smaller papers are all but nonexistent. Even readers of the 38 newspapers with more than 250,000 circulation are more likely to see stories that are reactive and routine rather than enterprising and exceptional.

Here are some notes from later in the day when Tom Goldstein, former dean of the Columbia University journalism, talked about why some stories are not covered in the mainstream press:

 “Contemporary journalism has too narrow an idea of what’s important.”

 Goldstein quoting former New York Times editor Max Frankel: “The number of reporters and editors who are actually adding to the national knowledge is pitifully small.”

 Goldstein on reasons why what Gene Roberts, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer called “news that oozes” – the slow developing issues in our world – doesn’t get covered:

 “The press is crisis oriented.”
 The NIH – not invented here – syndrome – that causes news organizations, especially large ones, to not report good stories broken by competitors.
 Competition homogenizes news coverage; fast-thinking, not thoughtfulness is rewarded.
 The press has a “bias toward the middle” so emerging ideas from the edges are undercovered.
 Lack of transparency with news consumers, who have no idea how newspapers are organized or why, or why some beats are staffed and others are not.

Other themes that emerged during the day:

 Post 9/11 America is covered in slices. The big picture – how the country has changed, or how our local communities have changed – remains blurred because the press concentrates on incremental movements by institutions or public figures. One fellow, who said: “I want to quit covering the (terrorism) beat like an apartment fire.”

 Security coverage is “episodic” and there needs to be more emphasis on the broader question asked by another fellow: “Is the war on terrorism good policy?”

 Seth Rosenfeld, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, suggested reporters to explore further the “inherent dangers” that exist in the “combination of great secrecy and great power.”

 David Corn of the Nation: Most security coverage is shaped by “deference to the official agenda.”

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:49 AM