Tracking independent political spending harder since Citizens United

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision — striking down bans on independent spending by unions, corporations, and individuals — continues to ripple through American politics, especially at the state level.

A new blog — The Money Tale — at the National Institute on Money in State Politics makes this abundantly clear. Writes researcher Anne Bauer:

Prior to the ruling, 24 states banned independent expenditures by unions, corporations, or both. Since the ruling, all 24 have dropped their bans following court challenges, rulings by attorneys general, or through legislation.

That means it’s even harder to find publicly accessible data on independent political spending in state races.

Campaign cash for federal races — the presidency and members of Congress — has been tracked for a decade by the Center for Responsive Politics (recently named to the inaugural list of institutions comprising a new journalism ecosystem). But the interpretation has often been done by people like me — using the CRP’s site. Similarly, I’ve used reports at as background for commentary on state elections and referenda.

But that was before Citizens United. Now, at either the state or federal level, can we calculate which is larger: The total of publicly accessible, legally required reports of contributions to candidates — or the the total of anonymous, unreported, publicly unaccessible spending legitimized by the Supreme Court?
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Hedge funds, sensing profit opportunities, buying distressed newspapers

And now, newspapers’ newest problem: The vultures have descended.

Newspapers continue to lose money and advertising – the New York Times Co. reported print ads would decline 5 percent in the third quarter across all its media. But investors are actually buying newspaper properties, often through bankruptcy sales.

What gives? Are they vultures just picking over already tattered carcasses for spare change? Or do these investors expect to make significant money – somehow?

The New York TimesJulie Creswell reports that

A handful of hedge funds, as well as some big banks, are vying for ownership or have already gained controlling interests in newspapers across the country, including The Los Angeles Times, The Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Chicago Tribune.

And it’s not just newspapers or newspaper companies. They’re buying supermarket tabs, television properties, radio and big publishers. Creswell’s story identifies who’s buying what. But a secretive investor is the most active.

Creswell calls Randall D. Smith a pioneer of vulture investing. Continue reading

Why science journalism is suffering

There are a number of problems with science journalism today, and they tend to feed on each other. Decades ago, when the newspaper industry had advertising-driven profit margins in the 10-25% range, newspaper companies were bought by conglomerates that wanted those sky-high profits. Advertising revenues have since plummeted largely as a result of web advertising, especially sites like Craig’s List. But those same conglomerates continue to expect sky high margins even though revenues have fallen. Because the conglomerates are unwilling to accept lower short-term profits, corporate managers instead force editors to lay off journalists.

In every business, the first people laid off are those who just plain suck at their job, cost the most, and are the least flexible. In the case of newspapers, the most expensive and least flexible people tend to be the oldest journalists and editors with the highest salaries, the specialists who produce little day-to-day volume but cost a lot, and those who are unwilling or unable to transition from one beat to another. Continue reading

Amusing ourselves to death, circa 2010

This is the future – people, translated as data. – Bryce, Network 23

The future has always interested me, even when it scares me to death. I wrote a doctoral dissertation that spent a good deal of time examining our culture’s ideologies of technology and development, for instance (and built some discussion of William Gibson and cyberpunk into the mix). I once taught a two-semester sequence at the University of Colorado in Humanities and the Electronic Media, where I introduced the concept of the “Posthumanities” to my students. A few years back I talked about the future of retail and described the smartest shopping cart that ever lived. Continue reading

The Money-Mad Move to Mobile™: It will cost us dearly

Got an iPad? iPhone? Blackberry? Any mobile device? Content, formerly known as news, is coming to you at lightspeed. McPaper wants to lead the way — or at least catch up to others.

The migration of content from print to online is hardly news. Neither is the intent of content conglomerates, formerly known as newspaper companies, to send content directly to mobile devices. Got an iPad? Gannett’s corporate site trumpets the 800,000 — and climbing — downloads of the free USA Today app.

Other content providers, formerly known as newspapers and cable news sites, are already parked on your Blackberry, iPhone, Droid, and iPad and have been for a while: I routinely read The New York Times, The Washington Post and on my Blackberry. Get my weather on it, too.

There’s a corporate rush to get content, presumably reported and written by content providers (formerly known as journalists), to you wherever you are right now — and have it return to corporations the revenue that their newspapers, now known as content vehicles, have been losing by the bucket loads for a decade. They want that money back. And in the course of dumbing us down, they’re going to get it.
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Facebook sues Teachbook for trademark infringement

File this one under WTF?!

According to a CNNMoney article, Facebook is suing Teachbook for “a slew of crimes including federal trademark dilution, trademark infringement and unfair competition.” And this isn’t the first time that Facebook, presently the second most visited website in the world according to Alexa, has sued a startup for trademark infringement over the use of “book.” According to the article, travel site TripTrace used to be called “PlaceBook” until Facebook threatened them with a lawsuit.

This has been done before, with Apple recently losing a lawsuit in Australia that the DOPi (iPod spelled backward) laptop bag didn’t infringe on Apple’s iPod trademark. And if you ever needed evidence that Apple has made overreaching a habit, The Onion claimed in 2006 that Apple had planned to trademark the pronoun “I” – and it still sounds plausible. Facebook seems to have copied Apple’s playbook.

Maybe the woman’s magazine Redbook should sue Facebook for trademark infringement. Continue reading

For a political rookie, a devolution to abhor and avoid

A young Afghan war veteran, whose family has lived in my district for eight generations, wishes to be my next representative in Congress. He would succeed the imploded former Rep. Eric Massa, whom I supported, and who taught me the bittersweet consequences of commingling voter naїvete with false hope, as did candidate-turned-President Obama.

This young Democratic candidate has sent me three letters (I’m sure thousands of other District 29 voters received them, too), saying, in effect, this: “I need your help.”

All across America, as savvy political incumbents and their often hapless, outspent challengers belly up to the fundraising trough, they reach out to folks like you and me – the so-called little guys — asking for $10, $25, $50, whatever we can spare to set this country back on the right path. They’re all saying, with false modesty: “I need your help.” (They want our little donations for less than $200, the amount at which candidates must report them to the Federal Election Commission, so they can say they’re supported by real people, real voters, not PACs and pass-downs from the national parties.)

This young man from my district fought in a war with real bullets, bombs, and IEDs. He faced menacing threats each day in theater. Now that he’s home, he’s filed for entry into another war. For that, I commend him – and feel sorry for him. I don’t know if, despite a pair of master’s degrees, he’s sufficiently trained for this kind of warfare.
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Forget Spitzer's errant penis: Think more about CNN's blunders

You remember this tableau, don’t you? It’s Monday, March 10, 2008, and the governor of New York state is standing in front of reporters and beside his stoic wife. In a story, Eliot Spitzer, the reporter wrote, “confess[ed] to an undisclosed personal indiscretion, saying he had acted ‘in a way that violates my obligations to my family, that violates my or any sense of right and wrong.'”

On that day, a story on posed this question: Is scandal enough to sink Spitzer for good?

We learned that, on Feb. 13, 2008, Spitzer spent three hours and $4,300 on a prostitute. She was “Kristen”; he was “Client 9.” On March 12, in a story, we learned Spitzer had spent $15,000 on prostitutes. Continue reading

The new news: lean, multiplatform, creative? Is less now more?

Editor & Publisher reported this today:

The San Diego Union-Tribune laid off more than 30 staffers on Thursday in what Editor Jeff Light called in an editor’s note an effort to build “a lean, creative, multi-platform team that can lead the industry.” [emphasis added]

E&P reports that this is the U-T’s seventh round of staff cuts since 2006.

In April 2008, when The Seattle Times cut 200 people, its publisher said: “Strategic and thoughtful changes to the way we do business will allow us to be positioned for the future.” [emphasis added]

When The New York Times cut 100 jobs in 2009 (after whacking 100 jobs in 2008), its executive editor said:

These latest cuts will still leave us with the largest, strongest and most ambitious editorial staff of any newsroom in the country, if not the world. … I believe we can weather these cuts without seriously compromising our commitment to coverage of the region, the country and the world. We will remain the single best news organization on earth. [emphasis added]

Why is that the MBA-driven leadership of the newspaper industry, after cutting 35,000 mostly newsroom jobs between October 2007 and June 2010, continues to insist that the future (for whom?) is bright, and news (about what?) will multimedia its way to us day after day, quantity and quality unaffected?

There are words for that kind of image-driven happy talk: Reality challenged. Misrepresentation. Delusion. Outright lies. And, of course, bullshit.
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Bloggers will be 'reimagined' in the future of news. We'll be rich!

So, you’re a blogger. You gettin’ paid for what you write?

Nada? Thought so. Me, too. Nada. But don’t worry: Corporate types who run content businesses have big plans for us. They’re gonna make us stars of online local news.

Here’s an example: In the latest edition of American Journalism Review, writer Karen Carmichael outlines the plan for Albritton Communications’ strategy for local online news in Washington, D.C. She writes:

[T]he new operation is determined to figure out how to make local online news a profitable venture and to reimagine the relationship among reader, blogger and news organization, with heavy aggregation and partnerships with area bloggers key parts of his strategy. [emphasis added]

Damn. We’re going to be reimagined. (Say, how much does that pay?)
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If objectivity is dead, then replace it with subjectivity done well

Be objective.

That’s the credo my newsroom presented to me, the young cub, four decades ago. But it did not require much time for me to realize that objectivity was merely an ideal, a sales pitch that proclaimed “we are professional and unbiased; thus believe us.” As the Grey Lady claims, it does its job “without fear or favor”: no bias affects the content of stories – or the selection of the stories themselves.

Well, as we see now, that’s bullshit. Journalism is entirely a subjective enterprise. Editors assign stories. Reporters select sources. Reporters select the questions for the sources. Reporters decide on the structure of the story: Does one point of view make the lede, or does the other? Editors edit the stories. Changes in structure are made, altering the reporter’s judgment. Journalism is judgment, and that involves heavy doses of subjectivity.

Yet I and hundreds of journalism professors continue to stride about our classrooms explaining and demanding objectivity from our students (who are living online quite subjectively and for the most part not doing it very well).

Well, that total obeisance to objectivity ought to end. We must ask: Do journalism faculty have a limited view of what journalism is — or how it has mutated in the age of the Internet?
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Climate scientists still besieged

S&R interviewed Martin Vermeer, first author of a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper on sea level rise, about how much context the published CRU emails contained. In addition to answering questions about the emails’ context, Vermeer pointed out that some of the context “bears the mark of a scientific community under a politically-motivated siege.” Gavin Schmidt, climate researcher at the Goddard Institute for Space Sciences, agreed with Vermeer when asked. As a result, S&R examined interviews conducted with climate scientists and critics for evidence that climate scientists and climate research were besieged at present. Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of evidence that climate scientists remain besieged today. Evidence includes false claims made against scientists for work done on the IPCC Third Assessment Report, erroneous and/or unsupported claims made against several scientists involved in the writing of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, and unreasonable claims of bias against the CRU email inquiries performed to date. Continue reading

We need better news stories, but how will we get them?

The media-reform activist organization, Free Press, has set up a press-bashing site called mediaFail, offering minimal instruction about what constitutes a bad news story versus a good news story. Thus we must assume those all-knowing Internet media critics who nominate bad news stories at mediaFail have a disciplined, instructive sense of what’s good and what’s bad.

So what is a good (meaning well done) news story? My answer revolves around three important concepts: useful information people don’t know, adversarial purpose, and appropriate, meaningful context.

Eight years ago, my university’s journalism school gave an award to Tom Wicker of The New York Times. Wicker’s “In The Nation” column ran in The Times from 1966 through 1992, and his columns were sufficiently critical of Richard Nixon to earn Wicker a place on Nixon’s enemies list.

In accepting our modest award, Wicker said, “Find out what you can and tell the people what you know.” Continue reading

Free Press' mediaFail site a bad idea from a good organization

Read a news story you didn’t like? See a news story you think really sucked? See any news product you believe represents a failure of the American news media (no matter what your standards are and whether they’re valid)?

Well, get your dander up and head on over to mediaFail and vote against that mediocrity. There, the site says, you can “Expose the Worst of American Media. Find It. Post It. Fail It.”

This site, a project of the highly respected media reform group Free Press, allows irritated readers and viewers to log in, post a link, give the story a failing grade and, lo, let the nasty comments flow.

Free Press bills this site as a route to a better media system. I disagree. Vehemently.
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In the future, online news will make us all feel fine …

The Newspaper Association of America is crowing of late over the growth of audiences at online news websites.

Newspaper companies drove record traffic to their websites in the first quarter of 2010, attracting an unprecedented 74.4 million unique visitors per month on average – more than one-third (37 percent) of all Internet users. This new record follows the strong audience newspapers delivered in last year’s fourth quarter, with newspaper websites drawing an average of 72 million unique visitors per month during that period. [emphasis added]

Editor & Publisher points out that these numbers demonstrate continued online growth carried over from the fourth quarter of 2009. The first quarter numbers apparently show visitors showing up and staying on site a while, averaging 44 pages per person during a visit of just more than a half hour.

The NAA is happily tossing confetti and joyfully dropping balloons over this booming Internet traffic. The business model of the future is nigh! Should anyone else celebrate?
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Snow job: sick nasty shreddin' at The Times' website? Huh?

“OMG!” I thought. There, on the website of the Gray Lady — a moniker attached to The New York Times for its past penchant for words over photographs — was a headline I never expected to see:

Snowboard Videos: Send Us Your Tricks

“How dare The Times stoop to such pandering to an unseemly demographic,” I harrumphed. Snowboard tricks? In The Times? How could my principal source of serious news by serious people about serious issues and events sink to pandering to the fans of fakie? This is unthinkable.

Beginning Feb. 12, The Times will open a website to host these videos. But why on earth (or snow) would The Times want snowboard videos? I mean, gee whiz, this could amount to amateur night among the heathens. The Times does things right — you know, professionally done photography, video, graphics and other illustrations. What gives with wanting videos likely to be of goofy-footers eatin’ snow?
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Three of four misconduct allegations against Michael Mann found to be without merit (updated)

Update: I’ve added a few more examples of spin and accusations of bias against PSU as well as some good reporting examples that were not posted as of last night.

After the CRU emails were released in November, 2009, there was widespread accusations of misconduct against most of the scientists mentioned in the emails. Today, the Penn State University (PSU) inquiry committee investigating accusations made against Dr. Michael Mann publicly released its findings. The committee found that, with respect to the most serious three accusations out of four, “there exists no credible evidence” that Mann had committed research misconduct. The inquiry committee empaneled an investigation committee to look into the last accusation – that Mann had “seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community” – because they could make a determination about this and because

Only with such a review will the academic community and other interested parties likely feel that Penn State has discharged its responsibility on this matter.

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Oh Noes!!11! Glacirs not meltin. Mak IPCC bad!

In case you haven’t heard, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is dead, done in by the nefarious failure to check a single reference in a 3000 page report. Or rather, that’s what climate disruption deniers want you to think. Here’s what’s really going on.

Back in 2007, Working Group 2 (WG2) of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) put together a large list of what climate disruption was likely to impact around the world. One of the impacts was reduced availability of fresh water due to rapidly melting glaciers around the world, and especially in the Himalayas. One of the specific claims was that all Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035, an amazingly and likely unrealistically fast rate of melting. After an Indian government minister questioned this claim, scientists looked into it and found that the date was incorrect and that internal procedures for vetting references weren’t followed in this particular case. As as result, the IPCC has issued a formal statement of apology for the error.

And if this were about any other topic except climate disruption, that would be the end of it. Continue reading