Newspapers’ big problem: failure to distinguish meaningful from meaningless

Warren Buffett, the newspaper-loving Oracle of Omaha, isn’t loving newspapers quite as much these days. Speaking of the industry’s attempts to create a viable business plan, he told USA Today’s Rem Rieder, “We haven’t cracked the code yet.”

Said Buffett:

Circulation continues to decline at a significant pace, advertising at an even faster pace. The easy cutting has taken place. There’s no indication that anyone besides the national papers has found a way.

JournalismWell, duh, Mr. Buffett. We’ve known about your first two sentences for a decade. And the third? The New York Times is the only “national paper” I pay to read, as a digital subscriber. But I routinely read stories in The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal — as I’m doing this morning over breakfast. The Times gets a ten spot from me every month. Everyone else gets squat.

Unlike millennials, for whom all information must be free, I’m willing to pay. That’s because at my age, I have a long history of paying for news. That’s how newspapers operated: Pay us and read our ads, and we’ll provide you the news you want and need. That was the fair exchange under the previous, and now failed, business model newspapers rode to riches (well, at least their owners) for more than a century.

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Newspapers founder in habit-driven cultures — so the habits need changing

One morning a few weeks ago, I sat at the end of the counter in my favorite diner, Robbins Nest. Lisa brought tea, Jessica asked, “The usual?” and owner Crystal badgered chef Anthony (as usual).

CATEGORY: JournalismI set up my iPad mini to read. I noticed, however, the house copy of the metro daily from the big city two hours north. I picked it up and leafed through the 10-page front section. You know, the section with meaningful news for someone who lives two hours away.

I looked at story after story, page after page. I saw the metro had 11 — that’s 11 — stories from The New York Times in those 10 pages. That’s not unusual: Newspapers subscribe to wire services. Such services act as consortiums to provide newspapers with material they could not afford to report, write, and edit on their own. My own paper subscribed to The Times’ wire service back in the day. So seeing 11 Times stories in the local metro daily wasn’t a surprise.

But I had read each of those Times stories 12 hours before on my little iPad mini — because I’m one of The Times’ million-plus digital-only subscribers.

How does this metro daily — and others — fare financially if it prints stories many of its readers may have read online the day before?

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Eight seconds — why the NYT caves, and Facebook wins

An impatient audience wielding smartphones says, ‘We want it NOW.’

Eight seconds.

Count with me, please: one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thousand five, one thousand six, one thousand seven, one thousand eight.

Eight seconds. That snippet of time, about 1/300,000,000 of an actuarial life, has driven The New York Times (among others) into the inviting arms of a Facebook lusting for revenue. Eight seconds. That’s the time Facebook says a user endures after she clicks on a Facebook link to a third-party site like nytimes.com.

About 15 percent of The Times’ digital traffic arrives via Facebook. Continue reading

You, too, can be a journalist (or a corporate message control specialist)

I asked my students as the semester ended: “How many of you do not want to be journalists?”

Most raised a hand, albeit timidly. (I am, after all, a professor of journalism.)

“How many of you wish to work in PR or advertising?”

Several raised their hands. I smiled – in the evil way they say I do when I’m setting them up for the kill.

“If you plan to work in PR and advertising, then I’ll bet you’re going to be working as a journalist,” I said.

Confused looks ensued.

Suppose they take jobs with a mattress company, thinking they’ll be pushing sleep products — writing ads, doing media buys, all the sorts of things PR and advertising flacks do.

But at Casper, a start-up company, they’ll likely be working as journalists. Continue reading

Rolling Stone brass to undergrads: ‘Feel free to fuck up badly; you won’t get fired’

Rolling Stone’s flawed story and its reaction to a critical report make teaching journalism to the ‘instant gratification’ generation even more difficult

When Rolling Stone’s editorial apparatus published Sabrina Erdely’s story alleging a gang rape at the University of Virginia, it sent this message to journalism students everywhere:

• It’s okay to write 9,000 words and base the principal thrust of the story on only one source.
• It’s okay to take instructions from your one source to not speak to those who might undermine the source’s claims.
• It’s okay to shop for the best circumstances to write a story based on your own biased, preconceived narrative.
• It’s okay, because when the story blows up as dead wrong and leads to national and international condemnation, don’t worry: You won’t get fired, and your publication will feel no need to address the gaping holes in its “editorial apparatus.”
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The LeBron James story is the future of sports journalism

“Journalism-as-process” is here, for good or for bad, and whether you like it or not

SANDOMIR-master675It’s going on nearly two weeks now since LeBron James announced he was returning to Cleveland.

So who broke the story?

Well, Chris Sheridan was the first journalist to report that James was going back to Cleveland, reporting it on his website. But Lee Jenkins and Sports Illustrated had the actual story, “written” by James and posted online. Continue reading

Nate Silver: Geek? Yes. Thoughtful journalist? Bigger yes.

FiveThirtyEight post on disputed climate change story signals commitment to transparency

Yesterday, after reading criticisms of Nate Silver’s revamped FiveThirtyEight, I thought: Denny, find out for yourself. After all, I am, at least historically, a geek. And, I thought, years of reading his New York Times blog showed me Nate is King Geek and FiveThirtyEight at ESPN would, no doubt, reflect that.

So I read “The Messy Truth Behind GDP Data.” Not bad. Classic FiveThirtyEight geeky on an important topic. But, even through so many pundits and politicos base analyses on flawed understandings of GDP, reading the post was akin to watching paint dry. I tried Harry Enten’s story about Hillary and polling. Egads: So. Many. Numbers. Unfamiliar terms. Headache ensues.

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Building my own news machine, whether I like it or not

I didn’t realize it until this morning. I have not watched CNN in more than five weeks. Since Ted Turner set loose the Chicken Noodle Network in June 1980, I have watched it daily — in the morning as I stumble through waking up, at the office, and in the evening when I return home. It has been a staple in how I gathered information I need for more than three decades.

But no more. It’s not CNN’s wall-to-wall Zimmerman coverage or the Zuckerization of the network that turned me away. Maybe it was the departure of Howard Kurtz from Reliable Sources. CNN has simply failed to help me address the two questions that matter most to me: How does the world work? Why does it work that way?

It’s not just CNN, either. As I reflect on how I used to gather news (instead of the content proferred today), I realized that as little as a few years ago, I still heavily depended on mainstream staples I grew up with — The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe (I’m a native New Englander). Add in the local newspaper in the places I’ve lived.

Like many people, I have come to look askance at the ability of these long-time sources of news to tell me what I need to know. As their ability to generate reliable profit sufficient to sustain credible news gathering has declined, I am left with a diet of what they believe I want to know.

And they are so wrong: I do not want false equivalence or false balance in reporting, or one-source stories, or anonymous-source stories, or government or corporate flack-based stories. I do not want geographically limited stories, either: Bring me the floods in Bangladesh, the difficulties facing Greece and Spain in managing their debt, the urgency of fighting malaria in Africa. And I do not want happy talk, celebrity journalism, or shoutfests on air or in print.

I grew up in a media world in which each day what I needed to know was decided for me in New York City at the budget meeting at The Times. Those decision informed the national and international news budgets of The Associated Press. In my newsroom days, that’s the slate of meaningful information from which I selected a diet for the readers of my hometown paper.

No more. First, the nation’s roughly 1,400 daily newspapers — down more than a sixth from just 20 years ago — no longer deliver what they once did reliably. The loss of thousands of newsroom editorial posts have deprived the industry of the ability to produce well-considered news stories in reliable quantity and quality. (Yet every corporate press release following the layoffs of journalists promises “the quality of our journalism, so very important to us, will not suffer.”)

That has a democratic cost: The moral imperative of newspapers to hold government accountable has been terribly weakened. In the coverage of government, access to “official” sources has trumped penetrating reporting. In the coverage of large, multinational corporations — which have become governments unto themselves — business reporting falters before the weight of corporate lobbying, advertising, and image-management budgets.

And now, two of my mainstays of information have been sold to corporate titans: The Post to billionaire Jeff Bezos of Amazon and The Globe to the billionaire owner of the Boston Red Sox, John Henry.

Billionaires now own two of America’s once-great newspapers. Billionaires now routinely represent the money that best elects candidates to national office. How can we not view such developments as worrisome?

How are we to assess, now, how the world works and why it works that way? How can we do this, given that the newspapers of the past have morphed into “content providers” owned by entities that, frankly, I’ve always wanted news organizations to empower their journalists to probe at much greater depth?

I can only reflect on what I’ve done: I have evolved into my own wire editor. I still read The Times; I still read The Post; I still read The Globe. But so much less. Now, like many of you, I read Twitter, and, to a lesser extent, Facebook. I follow certain YouTube channels.

We’ve all been on these social media sites for years now. We have pruned our friends and followers to those we find useful.

We have constructed a web of people who routinely post either news they themselves have reported or links to information that we, over time, have come to find credible. Among the people I follow are former reporters and editors now running foundation-supported or non-profit journalism startups; brilliant people (like the “Newsosaur,” Alan Mutter) who assess the news industry; people who write books about subjects that interest me; people who travel and write blogs about places I’ve never been; students and former students who blog about the nature of being young today and the challenges they face; and, yes, politicians and lobbyists (you learn to sort the wheat from the chaff).

Most of this I do on my phone, usually in the morning and evening. Virtually all my “content consumption” is on my phone. CNN won’t be getting me back on a routine basis. Neither will these three major newspapers. As much as I like the smell of newsprint in the morning at a diner, those days are finito for me. My Kindle has breakfast with me.

I do not like this. It takes time to recreate a viable information system for myself. But the industry I toiled in for 20 years, and that I have now taught undergraduates about for nearly another 20 years, has lost its ability to reliably perform for me as needed.

Now, if I could only do something about my tendency toward confirmation bias …That’s the real problem in building your own news budget: You tend to lean toward intellectual agreement rather than challenge.

A final but important note: Only The Times gets money from me for a digital subscription. Frankly, we’re all screwed in terms of getting good journalism unless the “content provision” industry figures out how to get money out of me and you — so it can pay journalists sufficiently well and in sufficient numbers to do their jobs well on our behalf.

The incompleteness of the soul: an insider's non-review of Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star

I’ve been thinking about Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star, the third novel from my friend and fellow scrogue Jim Booth. I finished reading it a few days ago, but for me it’s been a slightly disjointed experience because I’ve seen most of it in its pieces before: chapters like “Fins” and “The Balcony Scene” have been previously published as standalone short stories and there are sections (the “Rock Star Handbook”) that Jim originally developed as an offering for an SMS entertainment company in which I was a  partner. So I’ve been familiar for years with the component elements, but this was my first encounter with the unified book in context.

After several days of reflection, I find myself musing on things that many readers and reviewers might not have twigged on. Continue reading

The 7th Sign: David Brooks in the Times, telling the truth about Romney

This is just remarkable. And it may be the 7th Sign.

I try not to read David Brooks any more than I have to because every time I do I wind up wanting to throw things. Through the years he has established himself as one of the most reliably disingenuous, dishonest propagandists on the GOP payroll, a fork-tongued weasel who can’t say hello without lying. And BAM! Here, without warning or precedent, he smacks us in the lips us with the truest thing I’ve read in days.

The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor. Continue reading

The real #NBCFail

by Brian Moritz

If you’ve spent any time on Twitter this weekend, you know about #nbcfail.

NBC has been so roundly and soundly (and rightfully) criticized for its coverage of the London Olympics – primarily its decision to run the marquee events on tape-delay rather than live.

In previous Olympics, tape delay was less of a big deal. I can sort of understand tape delay if the time difference is so great that running events live would put them on in the middle of the night. But London is just five hours ahead of the east coast. There’s no excuse except for greed (and if NBC continues to pull strong ratings like it did over the weekend, what incentive does it have to change?). Continue reading

Horror in Aurora: Common decency vs. the media's death paparazzi

CandleLike millions of other Americans I first heard about the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado Friday morning. It was a sobering moment in the middle of my morning at work. Without more facts at my disposal, all I could do was think about the survivors and their families, even the family of the suspect in custody. I thought of the witnesses. I thought of the witnesses’ confidants. I thought of the employees. I thought of the first responders. I thought of people I know who may have been in the area. I thought of people that people I know may know who may have been there. When something horrible like this happens, the list of people to think of seems nearly infinite. This is the kind of event that leaves permanent scars on so many in so many ways. A survivor of my own traumas and intimate of other survivors, I could even then only guess at the pain and suffering felt by all involved. Work being work, however, I didn’t have the first-world luxury of distant rubbernecking and so didn’t hear any more of the massacre until later in the day.
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Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow: forecast calls for a deluge of teabagger human kindness. Or not.

By Patrick Vecchio

I am waiting to see if—no, make it how—the Tea party and other way-right-leaning Republicans react to this week’s barely-qualifies-as-news that TV journalist/personality Anderson Cooper admitted he is gay. (Details here)

Another story from this week also has me worried about the backlash, but first, Cooper:

I have no idea how much courage it takes for a public figure like Cooper to come out. Nor do I have any idea about the extent and tone of the flak that will be fired at him and how he’ll deal with it. Continue reading

The Good, the Bad and the Butt-Ugly: NYU names its 100 outstanding journalists in the US in the last century

You know how every so often somebody will publish a list of the greatest rock bands in history? Those usually make for interesting reading. Beatles, check. Rolling Stones, check. Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix Experience, U2, The Who, Nirvana, Celine Dion, REM… Wait, what? Back up.

Always happens. You have your obvious picks, you have some fresh blood that may be just controversial enough to spark conversation (and site traffic), and then you have your moments of pure barking idiocy that completely annihilate the credibility of the whole enterprise. As it turns out, the same thing happens when prestigious university faculties go about honoring the greatest journalists of the past century. Continue reading

Limbaugh brays on: louder, emptier, closer to the end

By Robert Becker

The smoldering ruin of Rush Limbaugh dramatizes one political truism: seemingly impregnable fortresses are most vulnerable to suicidal implosions. Despite decades of volcanic vitriol, no outside force had yet penetrated Rush’s propaganda bubble chamber, full of pretend entertainment. No doubt, the fall of the Dittohead Dynasty reflects both the gratuity of Limbaugh’s latest abuse and the wholesomeness of the victim. For the record, Sandra Fluke’s noble decency stared down a serial miscreant. After all, other fringe charlatans haven’t suddenly lost 140 sponsors, nor did some new-found Democratic charge deter Rush’s grotesque buffoonery.

Though the bully pulpit resides in the White House, shifty, snarling bullies still sneer their way to fame and fortune. Continue reading

Stuart O'Steen is not a crook

But he is Richard Nixon.

Stuart, longtime friend to S&R, is a veteran stage actor who portrays the former president in the Longmont (Colorado) Theatre Company‘s ambitious take on Frost/Nixon.

I had the great pleasure of recently seeing the production. As a politics junkie and student of American political history, particularly of the Watergate debacle, I couldn’t pass it up. And I anticipated from having seen Stuart’s remarkable performance as Robert Scott in 2009’s Terra Nova that he would surely immerse himself in this unique role as well.

My high expectations were Continue reading

Nota Bene #122: OWStanding

“When I lie on the beach there naked, which I do sometimes, and I feel the wind coming over me and I see the stars up above and I am looking into this very deep, indescribable night, it is something that escapes my vocabulary to describe. Then I think: ‘God, I have no importance. Whatever I do or don’t do, or what anybody does, is not more important than the grains of sand that I am lying on, or the coconut that I am using for my pillow.'” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #120: Crazy Ivan

“If you can make a woman laugh, you’re seeing the most beautiful thing on God’s earth.” Who said it? Continue reading