Archive for the ‘Media issues’ Category

I’ll use a shortened version of this for my Monday column in The Gazette:

Mixing the personal with the professional has always been uncomfortable territory for journalists and especially for journalists’ bosses. Voicing opinions is another touchy area.

The Wall Street Journal weighed in on both matters last week with a resounding “no” to staff members who might be tempted to do either in their use of social media.

“Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter,” a Dow Jones email guiding staff use of social media warned. The message also admonished staff: “Sharing your personal opinions, as well as expressing partisan political views … could open us to criticism that we have biases.”

The point of both rules seems to be to hide the person you are, as though reporting were a plastic Mardi Gras mask you could hold in front of your face and fool unsuspecting readers.

I was one of several bloggers and Twitterers during the past week who criticized the guidelines on various counts. I don’t want to re-plow that ground here, but I do want to address – and debunk – the notion that journalists can or should hide our humanity.

The fact is that the Wall Street Journal (as well as The Gazette and any journalism organization) already is open to criticism about biases. Readers attribute bias to us based on their own biases and based on their understanding of the fact that journalists are human and that all humans have biases.

Of course, we should maintain neutrality about topics we cover. But, as I have written here before, humanity actually helps us be better journalists. And I believe it can help build the credibility of our reporting. I will illustrate with three stories, one from the Wall Street Journal:

In the early 1990s, I was editor of the Minot Daily News (and wrote a weekly column) and my wife, Mimi, was a columnist for News. When she first started writing a column in Shawnee, Kan., before we moved to Minot, I advised Mimi that it was better to reveal occasional personal glimpses while writing about the community, and have the readers wanting to know you better, than to write frequently about yourself and have the readers feel they were getting too much personal information.

Mimi has never felt bound by my advice and pretty much ignored this counsel. She did write frequently about the community, but also dealt with our family life and her personal interests a lot (sometimes to the mild embarrassment of the husband and sons who became characters in her stories). My editor’s column did give occasional personal glimpses, but mostly wrote about lofty issues of journalism, the community or the world.

When I was fired, the publisher also dropped Mimi’s column. My firing drew some mild criticism from readers, but they were outraged to lose Mimi’s column. Four other North Dakota newspapers, whose editors were loyal readers, quickly picked up her column. Even as a columnist, I spent too much of my time behind that Mardi Gras mask, while Mimi was making a personal connection.

I covered religion for the Des Moines Register a decade ago. In addition to writing news stories, I wrote a column about faith, frequently expressing opinions or dealing with my own faith and experiences. People I interviewed frequently asked about my own faith and I answered candidly. I later learned from other religion writers that many are reluctant to discuss their own faith with people they cover and recoil at the thought of writing anything personal or opinionated.

I also wrote a lot about religion when I was at the Omaha World-Herald, but I didn’t write a column there. I’m quite sure I was accused more often of biased coverage (sometimes by people who inferred inaccurately about my own faith or opinions) in Omaha, where no one actually knew anything about my opinions or personal perspectives, than I was in Des Moines. When people knew we held different opinions or came from different faiths, I frequently heard appreciation for my fair and unbiased coverage.

Now for the Wall Street Journal example: In 2004, Farnaz Fassihi, a reporter in the Journal’s Baghdad bureau, sent an email to friends about her life in Baghdad. “Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest,” she started. What followed was detailed, well-written and candid, describing how difficult and dangerous work and life in Baghdad were then, one of the most chaotic times of the war in Iraq.

Someone posted the email online and it became an immediate sensation. Critics of the Journal questioned how she could continue reporting on the war. But others noted that the blunt assessment gave a more accurate account of life in Baghdad than the stories she wrote behind her mask for the Journal’s news columns.

Journalists are people. We can acknowledge our humanity and still uphold the principles of accuracy, independence and fairness. Sometimes showing our humanity helps build our credibility. People stop wondering who that is behind the mask.

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Just a quick post to share three links on the future and past of newspapers:

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First Amendment plaqueI was a panelist yesterday, Wednesday, April 15, at First Amendment Day at Iowa State University. Dr. Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State, opened with remarks that I recommend reading first. My response follows (I ad-libbed a few lines, but mostly followed this prepared text):

I’ll start with a couple requests. If you have a cell phone, please get it out and hold it up. Now, if you have used that phone today to send or receive written communication or images, whether by text message, email or web, please open or activate your phone so that the screen lights up. Now wave that phone and look around you. (Nearly everyone in the crowd, mostly students, waved a glowing phone.)

This is the future of freedom of the press. It is healthy, it is thriving and it will not be stopped, even if the companies that own printing presses can’t find their way to a prosperous future. The light of freedom shines as bright as those lights we see throughout this auditorium. (more…)

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I was a panelist for a First Amendment Day program at Iowa State University Wednesday, April 15. Dr. Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State, introduced the panel with these remarks, which he gave me permission to post to his blog (I added the links). My response to Dr. Bugeja is posted separately.

Thank you for coming tonight to our panel discussion … whose title, “Can there be freedom of the Press without a Press?” is not about journalism or the future of journalism education; it is about democracy and the future of democracy.

This is how we will proceed:

I will make an opening statement based on the title of our discussion, and each participant will have 10 minutes to respond to it with their own opening statements. Then the panel will respond to each other’s statements for an additional 15 minutes. Finally, we’ll ask each panelist to make a brief summary conclusion on the premise: “Can there be freedom of the press without a press?”

We have a telling array of evidence in the selection of our speakers. We had invited Nigel Duara of the Associated Press to be here tonight; but I advised him not to after his wire service expressed concern that he may exercise free speech and voice opinion. For instance, he might have mentioned that some newspapers here in Iowa are contemplating eliminating the AP because they can no longer afford it.

Nigel’s absence testifies to the title of this panel discussion: “Can there be freedom of the press without a press?”

Perhaps the AP should host its own panel discussion. I would title it: “Can there be an Associated Press as long as there is Google?” In 2004, I urged the AP to sue Google because it was distributing its content for free-an aspect of Internet that has destroyed journalism as we knew it.

Keep the word “free” in mind and see how, if at all, the Internet has changed the meaning of that word.

Internet is not the devil in this discussion. Google is. Internet is the hell where Google resides. Rather than sue the devil, as I have been advocating for years, the Associated Press has other plans for the dominant search engine, according to Business Week, which reports:

The AP plans to build an online destination where it hopes Web users can easily find and read its news stories and those of other content creators. When it comes to compiling online news, the AP wants to out-Google Google. The Web search giant “has a wacky algorithm” for collecting news stories, AP Chief Executive Tom Curley says in an interview. “It does not lead people to authoritative sources.”

Google does not lead people to authoritative sources? Here’s a flash for the AP: Your brainstorm happened five years too late.

Google so dominates distribution — we used to call that circulation, the lifeblood of news — that fewer readers are subscribing to print outlets, believing they can google (yes, Mephistopheles, I used your trademark as a verb) national and international news.

Two of our panelists present tonight are still employed because their audiences are local — Angie Hunt, a KCCI reporter and Greenlee School teacher, and Steve Buttry, editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette (Buttry note: apparently Dr. Bugeja was unaware of my title change). True, KCCI and the Gazette have an Internet presence, but their on-air and print reports mitigate against the Web’s tendency to … distract in a multitasking environment, to disrespect others in the cloak of anonymity, and to disorient in the obliteration of time and, more important, place.

“There is no ‘there’ there,” and that is the source of our woe.

That phrase is not mine. The avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein coined it 80 years ago about her urban childhood. The entire quote is worth noting: “The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there.” That appears in her book, Everybody’s Autobiography.

The Internet is writing everybody’s autobiography. The trouble is when you get there, there isn’t any there there.

Where do you want to go today?

Many remember that this was the motto of Microsoft, which is not the devil. Microsoft merely provides the Window through which we glimpse the devil while exploring hell.

In a 1997, C-Net News analyzed a Microsoft commercial. I’ll read from that report:

In advertising, there’s a long tradition of making products seem more elegant than they really are by playing classical music in the background. …Now, Microsoft’s image makers are following suit with a TV spot for Internet Explorer accompanied by the sweet sounds of the Confutatis Maledictis from Mozart’s Requiem. …

As the TV screen flashes Microsoft’s “Where do you want to go today?” slogan, Wolfgang’s lyrics sound off “confutatis maledictis, flammis acribus addictis.”

That phrase in Latin means “the damned and accused are convicted to flames of hell.”

Where would you like to go today? How about Des Moines?

Ken Fuson, one of the finest writers in the country, was bought out last year by The Register. Kelly Eagle, one of the best magazine journalists we at Greenlee ever trained, was let go this year by Meredith Corporation.

Fuson was doomed by Gannett’s dance with the devil. Eagle was let go because print is dead.

That phrase became popular in 1984. Some recall that year as the title of a dystopia by George Orwell. Others, as the year Apple released its Macintosh Computer. Neither had anything to do with “print is dead”-a line from the movie, Ghostbusters.

In that film, secretary Janine Melnitz is flirting with computer nerd Egon Spengler.

Melnitz: You’re very handy, I can tell. I bet you like to read a lot, too.
Print is dead.
Melnitz: Oh, that’s very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I’m too intellectual but I think it’s a fabulous way to spend your spare time. I also play racquetball. Do you have any hobbies?
Spengler: I collect spores, molds, and fungus.

Print is dead. Its obituary was prophesied in another 1980s movie, Broadcast News, about the demise of standards in television. Here is a quotation from that screenplay:

What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing-.

Google’s slogan, by the way, is “Do No Evil”

-he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen.

That was the feeling in 2007 at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. There was a lot of selling happening then, particularly by Gannett. Senior Vice President for News Phil Currie was touting the launch of the Gannett Information Center that has replaced the traditional news room.

As I have told many of my downsized friends at The Register, Internet doesn’t define “information” the way that newspapers do. I tried to explain that to Currie, but he had places to go.

In 2003, before Gannett fathomed the concept, I wrote about what information centers would do to journalism. This citation appears in “Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age” which was marketed at the height of convergence, by my publisher, Oxford University Press, as a subversive book:

Imagine traveling to a community and stopping at the visitors’ information center, asking about sites of interest. Instead of reliable data, you get gossip and conjecture. When you complain, you are told that “information” is not necessarily grounded in fact. “That doesn’t make sense,” you say. In virtual domains, it does.  According to historian Theodore Roszak, “In the past, the word (information) has always denoted a sensible statement that conveyed a recognizable, verbal meaning, usually what we would call a fact.” In the high-tech media age, information has lost its common-sense definition, Roszak notes, and has come to mean electronic messages that can be counted, catalogued, encoded, and decoded.  The depreciation of information not only impacts education as Internet use expands, especially in schools, but also the reliability of journalism, with the audience typically unable to cipher fact from factoid and factoid from fiction.  Worse, some do not recognize those distinctions. Many more do not care.

When I wrote that, Gannett’s stock price was $82 a share, with revenue increasing 23% over the previous year. In 2007, when Gannett promoted information centers at AEJMC, its stock price had fallen to $60 a share.

Last week Gannett’s stock was selling for $3.75, up from a low of $1.85.

In 2007, few in AEJMC were paying attention to my warnings. This year I was asked to expound on them to launch a new association Web site, aptly named, “Hot Tops,” and oraculate on the future of journalism.

Because I know the nature of Internet, I also know how to use it to generate revenue. That requires us to think more like Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, than Gannett’s Phil Currie, who recently retired.

In my post I explained that there are few, if any, successful business models for mass communication on the Web. It’s the nature of the platform. Internet does not charge for information that sells once. It gives that away for free. Internet vends information about information that sells more than once in a databank.

This is a devastating coincidence for print journalism more than other platforms. Newspapers believe that information has value. By the time information is printed, processed, distributed and read, it is old news on Internet. To counter that, consultants told publishers to invest heavily in online journalism and make the news interactive, palatable and pretty.

Those consultants forgot one fact: It really doesn’t matter how inviting or engaging your Web portal is if those who visit there don’t want to pay for anything.

We are coming to terms with that fact. It is in our interest to do so. Each newsroom is a storehouse of information about information-databanks full of records-appropriately called “the morgue”-court records, cop reports, murders, drunk drivers, sport statistics, births, deaths, financial data, housing starts, foreclosures, last wills and testimonies of all sorts. We’re learning how to vend that information, selling it more than once, and when we master that skill, the nature of newsgathering, not the technology, will change.

We will have created a successful business model. In the trade-off, we will create news that affirms opinions rather than informs the populace. We no longer will be defenders of the Constitution but generators of the e-conomy. Bit by little bit we will lower standards where they are important and coax along with flash over substance.  And we will talk about all of us really being salesmen-better that, than no journalism at all-monetizing new media via the concept of “free” as Google does when it does no evil.

To test that, google the word “free.” You’ll get “The Freesite.com” telling you how to get free stuff on the Internet. You’ll get free clickers, free cell phones, free credit card checks, free software, free magazines, an article titled “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business,” free spyware, free anti-virus ware, free shareware, free Web sites, free templates, free downloads, free download managers, free music, free games, free  email, free greeting cards, free hit counters, free icons, comics, dream trips and dates,  all for free, free, free!

And then you get by chance or serendipity, the Detroit Free Press, which happens to be a Gannett newspaper that recently limited home delivery and print editions, placing more emphasis on digital audio and video and mobile offerings. Journalism pundits are saying that freep.com is the future of journalism.

I’m not so sure. Does journalism have a future? Can there be freedom of the press without a press? Can there be a free press if we give away the press for free? Ah, there’s the rub. If information has no value, then what will become of our news values, from fact to follow-up, from prominence to proximity, from usefulness to timeliness?

Let’s hear what our panelists have to say.

I was the first panelist to speak. Now read my response.

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The best journalism comes from the heart. And sometimes it breaks your heart.

That’s why I want to tell you about Allan Thompson’s heart-wrenching story, “The father and daughter we let down,” published today in the Toronto Star (and called to my attention on Twiter in a simple but eloquent tweet by my friend Roger Gillespie).

I have written before about the myth of journalistic objectivity. Journalists are not objects; we’re people. We write for people and we connect with those people by learning and telling stories that matter to people. The best journalism does not just fill the human mind with facts. It touches the heart. It roils your gut. It moistens your eye. It kicks you in the nuts. Objects can’t do that, only people.

Yes, we should be absolutely vigilant and stubborn about getting the facts right. And we should maintain independence from special interests. But the truth is even more important than the facts. And sometimes a human heart is one of the best tools for telling the truth.

Any summary of Thompson’s brilliant work will not do it justice. He tells how he first failed to grasp the importance and horror of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, but later became haunted by a Nick Hughes video that depicts the murders of a man and his daughter as they prayed. He tells of his quest to identify them and tell their story. I have seldom been as moved in reading a story as I was by the account of his 2007 visit to Rwanda, when he not only identified them but met with their widow and mother and — at her insistence — showed her the video.

I won’t tell you any more about Thompson’s story. You should read that yourself and watch the video. But I will tell you what his story reminded me about journalism:

  • Too often, we keep the writer out of the story, following misguided notions about detachment and objectivity. We should not insert journalists into stories where we don’t belong, but sometimes we become characters or at least personal narrators. And we should recognize that. One of the best stories I wrote in my 10 years at the Des Moines Register was not published because of editors who were squeamish about using the first person. I’m not so squeamish. That’s why The Gazette has published first-person accounts by Lyle Muller, Adam Belz and myself about our involvement in stories we were covering.
  • We can’t let tight budgets and high newsprint costs keep us from telling great stories as they should be told. I haven’t seen how much space Thompson’s story took up in The Star, but I know lots of editors would have fretted over whether to publish it at that length. I couldn’t stop reading and I’m sure many readers of The Star felt the same way. When you get a great story, space should be no object.
  • Storytelling still matters. Often we write stories when all we have are sets of facts that could be presented in a variety of ways. But when you have a great story, employ your narrative skills and tell a great story. Thompson takes us right into the home of Rosalie Uzamukunda and you feel as if you are there, feeling every raw emotion as this woman finally learns how her husband and oldest daughter were killed.
  • Don’t let obstacles become excuses (a journalism rule I have written about before). Tracking down and identifying people in a grainy video shot 13 years earlier sounds impossible. Most journalists wouldn’t have tried. Thompson persevered and found the story of a lifetime.

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Newspapers need to move into the future and stop clinging to the past.

Two bloggers I respect greatly, Tim McGuire and Alan Mutter, blogged favorably this week about efforts to force Google to pay for linking to content from newspaper web sites. Because I respect both of these men and consider McGuire a friend, I read each blog again and considered what they had to say. Reluctantly, I say they both are mistaken.

I don’t claim that I or my company have the solutions for how to move forward into a prosperous future. But I am sure that the future lies in moving forward, not back. I’m glad our company is seeking solutions by looking forward. I think the business success equation that Chuck Peters has identified, Success = Attention x Trust x Convenience, is on the right track. And charging for content will harm each of the factors leading to success. (more…)

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Update: Ken Doctor’s blog Content Bridges notes one of the most intriguing aspects of the SeattlePI.com plan: Aggregating regional advertising opportunities for business.

Rest in peace, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

When I was in Des Moines in 1982 and in Kansas City in 1990, I saw the deaths of two newspapers, the Des Moines Tribune and the Kansas City Times. So when I was unemployed in 1992, I applied all over the country, except in cities that had two newspapers.

I love the mountains, so Denver and Seattle were two cities I would have enjoyed working in. But I didn’t apply at either, because I didn’t want to be around when one of the newspapers died. Both cities had joint-operating agreements that kept the second newspaper alive a lot longer than I anticipated back in 1992.

In both Des Moines and Kansas City, the two newspapers were operated by the same company, so JOA’s were not an issue. The companies could see the duplication involved in dual staffs and the efficiencies offered by killing the afternoon paper and merging the staffs.

Even anti-trust exemptions were not enough to keep the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News going in today’s economy. The Rocky died Feb. 27. I have the final edition displayed in my office, courtesy of Judi Whetstine, who was in Denver that day.

The P-I followed suit today, announcing that Tuesday’s paper would be the last print edition, Editor and Publisher Roger Oglesby announced. Seattlepi.com will continue as a news web site with a much smaller staff.  

Add the deaths of the Capital-Times in Madison, Wis., last year and the cutback at both Detroit newspapers to three days per week, and two-newspaper cities are becoming increasingly scarce. Even twin papers in twin cities, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul and Dallas-Fort Worth, are viewed as precarious.

Cedar Rapids is a one-newspaper city. The Gazette is far healthier than most newspapers. But the deaths of long-established newspapers in Denver and Seattle underscore the importance of innovation and developing new business models. We have to change dramatically and swiftly.

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In the first 37 years of my journalism career, the worst day was July 24, 1992. That was the day I was fired. The publisher of the Minot Daily News called me into her office and told me I was no longer the editor.

The proudest day of my journalism career was June 12, 2008. That was the day the flood surged through Cedar Rapids. Less than a month ago, I nominated our staff in several categories for the Pulitzer Prize for their outstanding journalism in covering the flood under difficult circumstances that day and in the months since.

Tuesday was worse than the day I got fired. It was the day I had to tell 13 colleagues they would no longer work at The Gazette (another got that unfortunate news Wednesday). These were many of the same colleagues responsible for my proudest day. Every one of them deserves a job with this company. Every one of them deserves a job somewhere in journalism or somewhere in this community. But Tuesday I had to tell them they no longer had jobs here.

I am not asking for sympathy, just stating facts. Save your sympathy for my colleagues and friends (I hope we’re still friends, but I understand if we’re not) who are worrying about how to pay their mortgages and feed their families. Save your sympathy for my colleagues and friends who wonder if they will ever work again in this profession they love. Save your sympathy for your colleagues and friends who have lost their jobs at so many other companies in our community.

The nation was starting to show signs of economic trouble when I came to work at The Gazette two days before the flood. The real estate market was already slumping so severely that my wife, Mimi, and I did not even bother trying to sell our condominium in Virginia (we’re thankful to have a renter).

The newspaper industry was slumping, too. Newspapers have succeeded in drawing large audiences as people move online for news and information. But advertising rates online are nowhere near as strong as in print and newspapers haven’t done a good job of developing other revenue streams from the digital marketplace.

I came to Gazette Communications because I saw this as a company that was committed to transforming to meet the challenges of the digital age. We are doing that and I believe we will succeed and prosper. My next post (coming later tonight) will explain some of those changes further, including my new role. I believe we will eventually grow and provide new jobs for journalists.

The events of the past nine months have deepened the challenges facing this company: The flood had a severe economic impact on our community and our advertisers; credit markets melted down, plunging the nation into our greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression; the newspaper industry’s decline accelerated, with two companies seeking bankruptcy protection in the past week; newsprint prices continued to soar.

The decisions we carried out Tuesday in the newsroom I lead and throughout Gazette Communications were inevitable and unavoidable. Employees own stock in this company and they knew the financial figures that forced this week’s decisions. They had, in fact, been expecting the cuts for weeks. Some departments were already cutting staff in smaller numbers as they reorganized, a few here, a few there. We have been, and after these cuts continue to be, larger than most comparable newspaper companies. Everyone knew that our current revenues couldn’t continue to support that workforce.

But knowing the cuts were coming and knowing they were necessary didn’t soften the blow.

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When I started in the newspaper business, “local news” often meant who was sick and who was visiting.

My first job as a journalist was at The Evening Sentinel, a daily newspaper of about 4,000 circulation in Shenandoah, Iowa, that went out of publication in the 1990s. I was a sports writer, covering the school teams in nearby towns even smaller than “Shen.”

Chuck Offenburger, the sports editor, and I filled some space in the back of the paper with game stories and features on local athletes. The front page reported big (for Shen) news such as the city council and school board actions and an occasional crime or court case. But the heart of the newspaper was what we called the “locals,” a string of one-paragraph tidbits giving updates on someone’s illness or telling whose kids were visiting from college or from the distant big cities where lots of Shen’s kids moved off to (and if you were in Shen, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City were big cities). (more…)

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One thing that hasn’t changed in the newspaper business is that we get annoyed when broadcast media, as they frequently do, rip off our stories without credit.

My friend Daniel P. Finney of the Des Moines Register, night cops reporter and author of one of the best beat-reporting Twitter feeds, DM_in_the_PM, expressed this annoyance Saturday, noting in a tweet that KCCI had ripped off a Register story.

Newspaper ethics tend to do better about direct ripping off the competition. Plagiarism is a career capital offense, so if we can’t advance a story or find the same sources to duplicate it, we reluctantly attribute. (more…)

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