Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

Spotlight” may become this generation’s “All the President’s Men,” a riveting movie based on real-life journalism that uncovered abuse of power.

The similarities, both in the journalistic stories and in the movies, are plentiful and probably not coincidental. The Washington Post’s investigation of the Watergate break-in and its cover-up has inspired investigative reporting ever since. The Globe editors and reporters who investigated the Catholic sexual abuse scandal walked in the footsteps of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Ben Bradlee and other Washington Post journalists of the Watergate era.

Parallels between the journalism stories and the movies abound (and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few):

  • Both films depicted interviews with people scared to talk about what they knew.
  • Both movies depicted successful working of powerful sources with inside information.
  • Both depicted the value of teamwork, including conflict and different personalities, in successful reporting, both at the reporter and editor levels.
  • Court records provided key information in both stories.
  • Each film includes a riveting scene of a fearful reporter running in the dark.
  • The two movies used similar cinematic techniques and scenes to depict the tedious use of directories and old newspaper stories to track down important details and make connections.
  • Both films effectively portrayed the difficulty of persuading reluctant sources to talk and the painstaking task of tracking down sources and getting turned down by those who won’t talk.
  • The movies both deal with the complicated personal connections that play into journalism, however much we strive for objectivity.
  • Both stories included a Ben Bradlee as a key character: Senior as the executive editor of the Washington Post, portrayed by Jason Robards in an Oscar-winning performance and Junior as deputy managing editor of the Globe, portrayed by John Slattery.
  • Both movies accurately portrayed the rumpled look of many journalists, the newsroom banter, the look of newsrooms of their times. (As much as we hate clichés in copy, we become easy clichés on the wide screen.)
  • Both films accurately portrayed the tension between editors and reporters, each pushing from different perspectives to perfect the story.

The most important parallel between “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” is that each portrays one of its generation’s best journalism investigations, each shining a light on shameful cover-ups of criminal activity, each succeeding in bringing down powerful figures.

Companion post: In a separate post, I share advice from my own experience covering sexual abuse by priests.

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Sarah Karp story

America needs skeptical, curious reporters reading through boring reports to find seeds of potential stories.

That’s how Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago dug up the Chicago Public Schools corruption story that produced a scandal and a guilty plea to criminal charges. I won’t detail the story here, but I encourage you to read the account by Sam Levine of Huffington Post.

I’ll just make a few points that concern me about the current and future state of journalism:

  • Metro daily newspapers, which for decades produced the best investigative reporting on local schools, government and corruption in cities across the country, missed this story. Including one that long proclaimed itself the “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” The Chicago Tribune (which dropped that boast in 1976) and Chicago Sun-Times have cut their reporting staffs so severely that, even when Karp flagged the story to their attention, they didn’t pounce.
  • Niche organizations such as Catalyst Chicago are doing important work to fill watchdog gaps as newsrooms shrink (and to shine lights in corners newsrooms traditionally missed).
  • Niche organizations face their own financial challenges. The Levine piece notes that Catalyst has cut back, too.
  • Governments at all levels continue trying to limit public access to the types of records that drive this kind of watchdog journalism. We need to be vigilant in defending sunshine laws.

Somehow watchdog reporting continues. My former Digital First Media colleagues at the Torrance Daily Breeze in California won a Pulitzer Prize this year for more investigative reporting on corruption in local schools. But one of the members of the winning team, Rob Kuznia, had left the newspaper for a public-relations job by the time the prizes were announced.

The supply of investigative journalism, especially at the local level, has never been able to keep up with the demand. And I’m pretty sure we are falling further behind.

But I have boundless admiration for the journalists who continue this important work in difficult circumstances and uncertain times. We need more reporters like Sarah Karp reading those boring reports.

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The Wright Brothers by David McCulloughDavid McCullough’s The Wright Brothers is, of course, about aviation, but a few passages made me think about journalism.

After the Dec. 17, 1903 maiden flight of the Wright Flyer, the news coverage was, at least looking back more than a century later, embarrassing. Newspapers either whiffed on the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s historic achievement entirely or got major facts wrong.

The Wrights, who made their first successful engine-powered flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., actually offered the story to their hometown papers back in Dayton, Ohio, where they operated a bicycle shop and had designed the plane. After his successful flight, Orville sent a telegraph home to his sister, Katharine, and older brother, Lorin:



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AJR home pageWhen I first became aware of the Washington Journalism Review, it was a local magazine aspiring to a national profile in the narrow niche of journalists writing about other journalists.

Before long, WJR became AJR, the American Journalism Review. It remained based at the University of Maryland, but it did achieve that national profile. Along with the Columbia Journalism Review, Editor & Publisher magazine and perhaps a few others, it was a key place where journalists turned to read investigative stories, analysis or other sorts of coverage about our own profession and the businesses that supported it.

As digital publishing presented opportunities for other voices in the business, the field of journalists-covering-journalists grew and the magazines became less important, even though they all developed strong websites and didn’t simply publish their stories weekly or monthly.

Poynter and Nieman Lab became institutional leaders in the field, and individual bloggers, such as Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, Margaret Sullivan (and earlier New York Times public editors, but Sullivan has been easily the strongest digital voice), Mathew Ingram and, I hope, yours truly, grew the field even further. Even late-night comedy became an important source of media commentary, with Jon Stewart’s regular mocking and commentary on journalism’s failings. (more…)

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NYT marriage front page

A photo that appeared in only one edition of the Des Moines Register in 2000.

A photo that appeared in only one edition of the Des Moines Register in 2000.

Fifteen years ago, a story I wrote about gays in the ministry was illustrated by a photograph of a former Lutheran pastor kissing his male partner.

It was the second installment of a three-part, page-one series, “Testing Faith,” so lots of editors read the stories and looked over the photos before publication. But when the first edition of the Monday paper rolled off the press Sunday night, an editor I won’t name here had a fit. We had a photo of two men kissing in the newspaper!

That apparently would be too much for Iowans to handle, in the view of this editor, and other editors had to tear up the front page, move a nice photograph from the front-page display (an excellent portrait of the former pastor) inside, place a standalone wire photo on the front page and kill the photo of men kissing, which had anchored the jump page. The before and after pages are below: (more…)

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An editor at a mid-sized newsroom asked me some questions about digital productivity expectations for reporters:

We are banging our heads against the wall about this: How much content should reporters be required to write each day online? … Some feel they produce way more than others. So how do you even the playing field?

My quick answers:

  1. Everything any reporter produces should be published first online.
  2. Content is not all equal. You don’t measure reporters’ productivity or performance by counting widgets or credits.
  3. Expectations for reporters vary by beat and over time. Reporters should meet the expectations of their jobs.
  4. Running a newsroom isn’t like parenting. Your expectations for different reporters vary according to beat, experience, skill, news flow and a variety of other factors. You don’t even the playing field and I have little patience with whining about reasonable facts of life.

I’ll elaborate on those points in order: (more…)

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Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen has a thoughtful take on “Good Old Fashioned Shoe Leather Reporting,” the “single source of virtue” in American journalism.

It feels like hyperbole when Jay writes about shoe-leather: “There can never be enough of it. Only good derives from it. Anything that eclipses it is bad. Anything that eludes it is suspect. Anything that permits more of it is holy.” But Jay documented the veneration of shoe-leather reporting with quotes from Tom Friedman and others. And I have to agree, too many in media have exaggerated or forgotten the role shoe leather used to play and should play in journalism.

I wore out many pairs of shoes in my reporting days, 10 years for the Omaha World-Herald, more than two years for the Des Moines Register, several months for the Kansas City Star and a few years (scattered around and during my college education) for the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel. And I’ve peppered in a little reporting here are there since then, including on this blog and others.

I spent at least as much time as an editor, and told many a reporter (long before the Internet was available) to get his or her ass out of the newsroom and go to the scene of the news we were covering or go knock on a door and ask someone the question we needed answered.

Nearly all the best stories of my career came in whole or part because I was out of the office, interviewing people face-to-face, digging through courthouse records, seeing disaster damage myself, showing empathy in a way that persuaded people to trust me with their intimate stories, seeing important details in the setting where the story took place.

I believe in the importance of shoe leather.

But I also know that shoe leather is just one of many paths to a good story. Smart, hard-working reporters also use: (more…)

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