Sprouts from the ashes

Our house was already on fire; COVID threw gunpowder on the flames. In this piece for Tortoise, I surveyed the damage to our field. Now I will look at some hopeful sprouts rising from the ashes.

First, to be clear: There is no messiah that will save us overnight; our messiahs have all been false. We will not — and should not — return to journalism as it was; we must not lose this opportunity to rethink what journalism can be. Though I want to give them the benefit of hope, I fear the innovation required will not often come from incumbents as they are overwhelmed trying to save the business that was; but I still wish they’d try. The new journalism will not arrive big and fully birthed; it will grow from many small seedlings, many experiments, thus many failures. Patience is required.

Here I’d like to report on conversations I’ve had with three local examples I’m impressed with: Canada’s Village Media, Innocode’s transparency app, and a German paper’s experiment with delivery for stores.


Talk with Google’s senior VP for news, Richard Gingras, about local news (as I will be on June 10) and he will tell you that Jeff Elgie has the answer. I agree. He has a very good answer.

Elgie’s Village Media has the model of simple local reporting for three dozen towns of 50,000 to 150,000, some of its outlets owned by the Sault St. Marie-based company, some franchised to partners (including a few experiments underwritten by Google with McClatchy in Youngstown, Ohio, and with Archant in the UK). In Elgie’s model, the ideal town is a bit isolated, the kind of place where people are born, live, and work without commuting to the big city. Village Media isn’t perfect for tiny, uh, villages (though it has a town of 10,000 as a satellite to a neighboring market) or suburbs or big cities, at least not yet. Elgie says in his best markets residents have a local news habit; it’s easier to start a Village Media site in a town with competition or in which the paper just died, rather in one that has been a news desert.

Village Media sites provide just the value you’d expect from a local newspaper a few decades ago: town council doings, schools, crime, new businesses; it’s comforting in its familiarity. Each site has a handful of reporters covering what matters and Elgie firmly believes they should not waste time rewriting press releases; their sites post them, properly labeled. Village media provides the model and the technology.

Village Media sites are supported by — get ready for it — local advertising. It has not died. Elgie has creative offerings for local merchants beyond standard ad units, video, and sponsored content. There is directory advertising that is self-published by the local merchants, and “sponsored journalism.” That’s not as fearsome as it sounds. It’s underwriting as engaged in by public-radio stations: A sponsor is able to take credit for making it possible to offer coverage of, say, volunteerism or high-school sports or local arts. Village Media also has some programmatic advertising and — like McClatchy, Advance, and Stat — has instituted voluntary payment (read: contributions) in this crisis.

Now hold onto your hat: Even in the COVID crisis, Village Media’s revenue is *up* this April over last by more than a third, not counting growth in franchise fees.

Yes, Village Media sites lost advertisers in the shutdown. But it worked hard (like the German site I’ll mention below) to help them get customers. A major auto dealer that was ready to cancel has ended up spending more. Cities are advertising.

There are other, similar models out there. Patch in the U.S. spread like kudzu into 900 towns, blew up, and rose again from its own ashes, smaller. My area in New Jersey has TAPinto sites as well as independent blogs. In Geeks Bearing Gifts I extolled the hyperlocal blog as a building block of a new news ecosystem and then I confessed my over-enthusiasm, though there are still lots of great single-proprietor blogs serving towns. Every commentator about local news — and there are more commentators about it than reporters in it these days — is quick to complain that any model I propose doesn’t scale. Well, nothing will scale in an instant; that was Patch’s problem: thinking it could. Local is going to be spotty. For Village Media, the challenge is identifying and training the perfect local publishers; as a school, I’m drawn to help.

I’ve long taught our entrepreneurial students the C-A-R rule of media businesses: They must first build a critical mass of content before they can attract a critical mass of audience before they can get a critical mass of revenue. This meansan enterprise of the size of Village Media’s requires a low six-figure investment to get to break-even. Given that the model is proven and the revenue and margins are enviable, I see no reason that capital cannot be raised as loans to build new outlets all over the map. Think of it as a burger franchise and it makes financial sense.


What about tiny burgs that don’t fit the Village Media model? On my last trip outside New York, I got to sit down with Richard Anderson, the founder of Village Soup (no relation) in Maine and a great pioneer in online local journalism. He had thriving local digital sites and then unfortunately bought the local newspapers just before the crash and ended up selling the business. But he remains an innovator, working on how to serve towns’ needs for local government transparency and accountability without wasting time and resources on distractions. Anderson is working on an exciting idea I’ll tell you about another day, when he’s ready.

Anderson and I are inspired by a 2018 paper by Pengjie Gao, et al, that contends: “Following a newspaper closure, we find municipal borrowing costs increase by 5 to 11 basis points in the long run…. The loss of monitoring that results from newspaper closures is associated with increased government inefficiencies.” That is, transparency is good for local towns, schools, businesses, and taxpayers. In my state we have something called Sustainable Jersey, which certifies towns on a number of criteria — including public information and engagement — and they compete to improve.

This inspired another thought: call it transparency-as-a-service. What if transparency services offered a start — just a start — on the way to a healthier local information ecosystem? What if that could be a business? What if the client is the town? Is that a conflict of interest? Sure. So is advertising. Bear in mind that Benjamin Franklin was not only the publisher of a newspaper in Philadelphia but also the official printer of Pennsylvania and the postmaster at the same time. If Ben could manage it, we can.

I was sharing this thought with a Scandinavian media executive I respect and he told me I had to talk with Morten Holst of Innocode, which provides technology for many media companies. I mentioned my thoughts on transparency-as-a-service to Holst and he showed me the Sandefjord Citizen app they’ve already built. The client is the local government. The users are a third of the population of the town. The product is local data. With the app, users can sign up for alerts when building permits are filed (the town would rather people raise objections before v. after it is issued), get data on water temperature and snow plowing (it’s Norway), and send out messages on behalf of their local clubs and organizations.

No one would say such data transparency is sufficient to assure local government accountability. Journalism is needed atop this data. The Citizen app is just one piece of an impressive, larger local strategy Innocode has. In any case, why waste journalists’ time rewriting press releases about snow plowing? Why not, too, follow the lead of Chicago’s City Bureau and make citizens collaborators in covering meetings and gathering data? The journalists should devote their time to true accountability journalism, not just filling space. The more informed and engaged citizens are in their local government, the better for journalism, the better for the town.

My point here is that we need to cut journalism up into component parts so we can start smaller. As I said in this post, one of my students argued that when faced with building from ground up, one must choose whether to build transparency or service journalism and I would add community. You want to end up with all three, but you need to start somewhere. The Citizen app is an example.


Finally a note on local business and community. This headline in Germany’s Die Zeit struck me:

Translated: “The newspaper now brings beer. Many local papers are fighting to survive. But in the middle of the pandemic, the Mindener Tageblatt had an idea.”

I emailed the publisher, Carsten Lohmann, to learn more. What impressed me is that he empathized with the needs of his local advertisers and their customers and brought to bear what he could: his own newspaper delivery staff. The company had already decided to take a cost center — delivery — and turn it into a revenue stream. Then came COVID. Lohmann told me:

With our daily newspaper we reach about 45% of all households in the distribution area and pass through about 70% of all mailboxes. So it made sense to take other products with us on this route.

Since we have to collect business mail from our customers during the day and also deliver it for our printing plant and office supplier (a local Staples), we decided to offer this service to external customers as well.

In this respect, our logistics department is certainly already experienced. Nevertheless the project is a challenge. For example, we have invested in a new logistics software.

They have been delivering beer (it’s Germany), plus about 80 pair of shoes so far, and office supplies. Will this make him rich? Is it the elusive messiah? Of course not.

It’s not gonna make us a fortune. But it should and does help us to share our own costs with external customers and to intensify contacts with local retailers on several levels — or even to establish them for the first time. At kauflokal-minden.de(buy local — Minden) companies have registered with which we have had no business contacts so far.

This is not the only line extension the paper has developed. In 2003, it founded MR-Biketours and is now the largest provider of guided motorcycle tours to the U.S. By the way, when I told students in our News Innovation and Leadership program at Newmark about the Minden paper, my colleague Anita Zielina said the paper she once worked for in Austria, Der Standard, bought a local bread company and offered daily delivery of papers and rolls. Who wouldn’t want a nice Zimtschnecke with the news?

Many years ago, when I was still consulting, I set up a meeting with eBay and PalPal (they were still together) to investigate whether local newspapers could help local businesses sell online and deliver locally to compete with Amazon. The eBay executive said the problem was that local stores did not generally have inventory digitized, so it could not be presented for sale online. I wrote a business plan for a stores’ equivalent of OpenTable, which had to build a system for restaurants to manage reservations so those reservations could be offered online. It almost got investment and a team but then didn’t. More recently, at the Newmark J-School, we started a professional community of practice for ecommerce with a not-so-hidden agenda to convince and help publishers to open online stores (à la Wirecutter) to build a new revenue stream and a new set of skills around individualized user data. The group convinced one company to do this and it gained a new revenue stream of a few million dollars.


My point is that we need to build new journalistic enterprises, new models, new services, and new revenue in small ways. This is why I like the dialog-driven journalism of Spaceship Media, the collaborative journalism of Chicago’s City Bureau, the answers and advocacy that come from Detroit’s Outlier, the listening inherent in Tortoise’s Thinkins, the power-sharing of The City’s open newsrooms, as well as innovation from the incumbents: Advance’s texting platform Subtext; McClatchy’s and Archants experiments above, and service journalism from the Arizona Daily Star’s This is Tucson. They build a piece at a time.

At Newmark, we just announced that we are also thinking small to train individual, resilient journalists in our new Entrepreneurial Journalism program. It will prepare journalists to serve passionate communities by making email newsletters, videos, events, sites, texting services, books, and more — and to support their work by making money via Medium, YouTube, Patreon, book publishers, events, and so on. My colleague Jeremy Caplan will head the program.

None of these journalists is likely to get venture-capital funding and return 100x. None of them will instantly serve every town in America. None of them will solve all of journalism’s woes overnight. None of them is a messiah. But any of them could serve a town’s transparency needs or bring together a community to share with each other or find creative ways to earn money by serving local merchants. Any of them could rebuild journalism from the ashes as small sprouts. That’s what it’s going to take, when the fire is out.

A conversation with Steak-umm’s Twitter voice, Nathan Allebach

I just had a delightful conversation with the voice behind Steak-umm’s Twitter, Nathan Allebach, who — from the platform of a frozen meat brand — has brought sanity, rationality, and empathy to the discussion online in the midst of this pandemic.

I did this mainly for journalism students and journalists, for there is much to learn from Nathan about listening, about bringing value to conversation, about community, about empathy, and about authenticity and transparency. In the end, when I ask him whether he would think of being a journalist, he said he might be too radical in his view of journalism and marketing; I told him he’s made for our Social Journalism program at the Newmark J-School.

Nathan talks about how he approaches communities on Twitter, how he built trust between himself and his client and their brand and the public, how he has to navigate the delicate line between being himself and being the voice of a brand, and a little about himself as an autodidact nerd and musician.

The open information ecosystem

Media are no longer the deliverers of information. The information has already been delivered. So the question now for journalists is how — and whether — we add value to that stream of information.

In this matter, as in our current crisis, we have much to learn from medicine.

In microcosm, the impact of the new, open information ecosystem is evident in the COVID-19 pandemic as scientists grapple with an avalanche of brand new research papers, which appear — prior to peer review and publication — on so-called preprint servers, followed by much expert discussion on social media. Note that the servers carry the important caveat that their contents “should not be reported in news media as established information.”

Almost to a scientist, the experts I’ve been following on my COVID Twitter list welcome this new availability of open information, for it gives them more data more quickly with more opportunity to discuss the quality and importance of researchers’ findings with their colleagues — and often to provide explanation and context for the public. So far, I’ve seen only one scientist suggest putting preprints behind a wall — and then I saw other scientists argue the point.

Clearly, low-quality information presents a problem. There is the case of the hydroxychloroquine paper with a tiny number of patients and no controls that got into the head and out of the mouth of Donald Trump. But many, many scientists objected to and pointed to the problems with that paper, as they should. The weakness in that chain, as in many, is Trump.

A better example of what’s occurring today is the reaction to a SARS-CoV2 antibody study in Santa Clara County, California — which matters because we still do not know how reliable our counts of infected patients is. I am not nearly qualified to understand it. But as soon as the paper was posted, I saw a string of thoughtful, informed threads from scientists in the field pointing out issues with the study: See Drs. Natalie Dean, Howard Forman, Trevor Bedford, John Cherian, and grateful reaction to all of them from a scientist all the others respect, Dr. Marc Lipsitch. All of them responded within one day. That is peer review at the speed of the internet.

The tone of their criticism is respectful and backed up with reasoning and citations. Because science. One example, about the paper’s conclusion regarding the infection fatality rate (IFR):

To make this open, rapid system of information functional, scientists are, with admirable dispatch, adapting new methods and models, which brings many requirements:

First: The information needs to be open, of course, and that is happening as SARS-CoV2 papers are being published by journals outside their high and pricey paywalls. Preprint servers are free. Note also that the EU just announced the establishment of a Europe-wide platform for open sharing of both papers and data on the pandemic. #OpenScience is a movement.

Second: There needs to be some means to sort and discover all this work. Seeing that need, up popped this index to preprints that clusters and maps them around topics; and the Covid Open Research Dataset, which tries to provide organization; and a writer who summarizes 87 pieces of original research published in a week. The volume is heaven-sent but crushing. As a delightfully wry medical blogger named Richard Lehman writes: “Five weeks ago, when I began writing these reviews, everyone was aghast at the challenge of covid-19 and thrilled how it was dynamizing all the usual slow processes of medical knowledge exchange. In the intervening century, we have become more weary and circumspect.”

Third: Of course, there need to be mechanisms to review and monitor quality of the papers. That’s happening almost instantaneously through medical social media, as illustrated above. And there are papers about the papers, cited by Dr. Gaetan Burgio in the thread above. One analyzes the 239 papers on COVID-19 released in the first 30 days of the crisis, separating research science, basic science, and clinical reports. “It is very much like everyone would like to have a go at #COVID19 & we end up with a massive ‘publication pollution,’” Burgio tweets. Some are good, he says, some atrocious; some come from relevant researchers, some not. That is why the swift and clear peer review and some level of vetting is important. And that leads to…

Fourth: There needs to be a means for experts to judge experts, for credentialing and review of those rendering judgment of the research. That, too, is happening in the public conversation. In the process of maintaining my own COVID Twitter list of epidemiologists, virologists, infectious-disease physicians, and researchers, it becomes clear by their citations and comments whom they respect. It also becomes clear whom many respect less. This is the question: Whom do you trust? On what basis? For which questions?

But when the question moves from science to personality, things can get uneasy. One case: Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding has been getting much Twitter traffic and TV airtime for his tweets. Some scientists made a point of telling me that he does not have credentials and experience as relevant as others’. Then followed a deftly critical Chronicle of Higher Education piece about him, which he in a DM to me called a hit piece. I’ll leave this to others, more qualified than I am, to judge.

True, there is an ever-present risk of credentialed disciplines endorsing only the members of their tribe. But that credentialing is an institution that has long been central to the academe and science, necessary to certify credibility in an educated and enlightened society. The granting of degrees and appointments is the best system we have for determining expertise. Especially in these anti-intellectual, science-denying, cognition-impaired times, it is vital that we maintain and support it.

I have been arguing to editors, producers, bookers, and reporters that they should be doing a better job asking the right questions of the most relevant and experienced experts — not, for example, asking a spine surgeon about virology, not giving op-ed space to armchair epidemiologists. This means that journalists — and internet platforms, too — need to make judgments about who to quote and promote and who not to. To quote my friend Siva Vaidhyanathan: “I wish journalists were more discriminating when assessing expertise worthy of informing the public. Knowing academic ranks, positions, journals would help. More scientific expertise in the newsroom would be best.” This gets us to:

Fifth: Both scientists and journalists must do a better job explaining science. I’m working with Connie Moon Sehat in our NewsQ project (funded — full disclosure — by Facebook) to formulate definitions of quality in news, starting with science news, so those definitions can be used by platforms to make better judgments in their promotion of content. This will end up with measurable standards — for example, whether reporting on a preprint includes views from multiple scientists who are not its authors and what the credentials of the quoted experts are.

I hear scientists worry about how well they communicate with the public. That’s why they are sent to take training in science communication (“scicomm”). But I tell them it’s not the scientists who should change, but the journalists, who must learn how to grapple with open information themselves.

Before I explore some of the lessons for journalism and media, let me make clear that — as ever — none of this is new. In science, says a paper by Mark Hooper, the accepted historical narrative has been that peer review began with the first science journals in 1665. Or when the Royal Society “published a collection of refereed medical articles for the first time” in 1731. Or when the Royal Society formalized the process of using independent referees in 1832. Or during the Cold War when peer review became “a requirement for scientific legitimacy.” The term “peer review” was not used until the 1960s and 1970s.

But Hooper contends that the practice of peer review — which he defines as “1) organized systems for facilitating review by peers; 2) in the context of publishing practices; 3) to improve academic works; 4) to provide quality control for academic works” — began much, much earlier. Cicero received editorial review from Atticus, his publisher and editor, in the first century B.C. (A lovely full circle, as Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters to Atticus is marked as a foundational moment of the Renaissance.) Scholia — “comments inscribed in the margins of ancient and medieval works” — were so valuable that scribes made margins larger to accommodate them. Pre-publication censorship in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries was also a form of academic review, Hooper says.

All of which is to say that every form of media is an adaptation of another. Peer review by experts has been a need long fulfilled by different, available means. As I wrote the other day, news was poetry, song, official decrees, cheap broadsides, single-subject pamphlets, and handwritten newsletters before it became newspapers.

So what does this open information ecosystem portend for news? Well, again, we don’t deliver news or information anymore. It is delivered already: via blogs, social media, direct connection from officialdom and companies to the public, scientific papers, open databases, and means yet unimagined in the vast public conversation opened up by the net. Nobody depends on us to bring them information. We are no longer the deliverer or the gatekeeper.

But this open information ecosystem does bring many demands — just as that in medicine — and therein lie many opportunities.

First: How do we help make information open, breaking the seals of governments and companies and other information sources to the public? How do we aid transparency? Maybe that’s one of our new jobs: transparency-as-a-service (more on that idea another day). And we must ask: Can we function in an open information ecosystem when our information is ever-more frequently closed behind paywalls?

Second: How do we make information more discoverable and organized? Google, of course, did that with search, but that’s only a beginning, as I’m sure Google itself would agree: a miraculous but still-crude layer of automated organization it is constantly improving. Who will master the challenge of sorting wheat?

Third: How do we create mechanisms to review the credibility and quality of information and disinformation? Note how Medium is, to its credit, grappling with making judgments on the credibility of COVID-19 content while other platforms all but throw up their hands at the impossibility of judgment at scale. Ultimately, this task will depend upon:

Fourth: How do we judge the expertise of those we call upon for judgment?

Fifth: How do we amplify their expertise, adding context, explanation, verification, and perspective in the public conversation?

Expertise is key. The problem here is that experts are much easier to find, certify, and judge in medicine than in other fields. Because science. Is there such a thing as an expert in politics? Half the world thinks it’s them. Another problem is that academically certified experts are becoming scarcer — and less heed is paid to them — in this era than elevates idiocy. One more problem is the methodology of journalism, which is built to regurgitate events and opinions around those already in power without accountability for outcomes. Imagine — as one of my former students, Elisabetta Tola, is— journalism in the scientific method, beginning with a hypothesis, seeking data to test it, calling on experts to challenge it, and recognizing — as scientists do and journalists do not — that knowledge does not come in the form of a final word but instead as a process, a conversation.

It is no longer our job to tell finished stories. In the economic aftermath of this crisis, that is a legacy luxury that will die along with the old business models that supported it. Get over it. Adapt. Survive by adding value to the free flow of information in the open ecosystem that is our new normal. Or die.


UPDATE: The day after writing this came an all-too-perfect example of what I’m trying to warn against in this post. The New York Times gave space to a controversial and contrarian preprint without getting differing views from scientists, without providing the context that this scientist’s views have been used by the it’s-just-flu, open-up-now COVID deniers. Shameful editing. In my thread, see also the last link to an example of good reporting from the San Jose Mercury News.


I want to thank Drs. Gregg Gonsalves, Krutika Kuppalli, Angela Rasmussen, and Emma Hodcroft for talking with me about their experience with their new information ecosystem — preprints and social media — when I interviewed them for their guidance on how journalism should over the crisis. You can watch those interviews here.

COVID Journalism: Episodes 1-4

UPDATE: Here is a fourth episode of my series of interviews with the experts of COVID.

I spoke with the amazing Dr. Emma Hodcroft, a phylogeneticist (which she will explain) at the University of Basel, who co-developed the Nextstrain project, a herculean effort to track, so far, 5,000 strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as it travels across the world. We talked about lessons from that project; about good and bad journalism about the pandemic; about how journalists should responsibly report on debate and discussion in the medical community that occurs in preprint papers and Twitter; about about her own role in this extraordinary event. She is an excellent explainer on social media, and here:

EARLIER EPISODES: I have been interviewing experts in COVID-19 to give journalists advice about how to cover the crisis.

In our Social Journalism program at the Newmark Journalism School, we believe community journalism must start with listening to the community. Well, science journalism must start with listening to the scientists. This is why I have been maintaining a COVID Twitter list of more than 500 credentialed, relevant experts.

So I have spoken so far with an epidemiologist, an infectious disease expert, and a virologist. I will continue with other experts in more disciplines. Here are the first three interviews:

Episode 1: Yale epidemiologist Dr. Gregg Gonsalves

I start with epidemiologist Dr. Gregg Gonsalves of Yale, who has been a trenchant critic of coverage, especially of armchair epidemiology from the op-ed pages of The New York Times. He is also a strong voice in my COVID Twitter list of more than 500 experts.

Dr. Gonsalves dissects what was wrong with a contrarian Times op-ed arguing that the cure might be worse than the disease — something we’ve heard since from Trump and company. The Times’ mistake was in giving space to a contrarian rather than an expert, succumbing to our professional weakness for false balance and controversy, even if manufactured. We discuss the challenges of journalists covering modeling and the politicization of research. Importantly, he gives journalists advice about what they should be covering: not only the medical scandal of the century in the Trump administration’s failures in this epidemic, but also what will come next. He says much of the work to come will fall on local journalists (at a time when local journalism is suffering and years past the departure of most local science reporters).

Episode 2: Infectious diseases expert and ebola veteran Dr. Krutika Kuppalli

Dr. Krutika Kuppalli is an expert in infectious diseases with experience in HIV and Ebola. She is vice chair of the Global Health Committee at the Infectious Diseases Society of America and a Biosecurity Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. She supervised treatment at an Ebola unit in Sierra Leone in the 2014 outbreak and has also worked in Ethiopia, India, Uganda, and Haiti.

I asked her advice on how to cover the transmission of the virus; what to look for and when to look for it in news about the development of therapeutics and vaccines; and — importantly — how bring attention to what I believe is the great uncovered story of this crisis: inequality and its impact on poor and vulnerable communities in the U.S. and worldwide. Dr. Kuppalli emphasized both her concern for the impact the pandemic will have on poor nations — and what we can learn from them, considering that nations like Sierra Leone faced Ebola without the money we in America can throw at problems. We also spoke about the psychological toll treating the disease has to be having on our health care workers. Finally, she urges reporters, editors, and bookers to check the credentials of the sources you call to make sure they are experts with experience, not people from other fields with opinions. Now more than ever, expertise matters. We must amplify it.

Episode 3: Columbia virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen

Now I interview a virologist, Dr. Angela Rasmussen of Columbia’s School of Public Health, to get her help for journalists covering the COVID-19 crisis. She and I talk about what media are doing right and wrong; about the need for journalists — reporters, editors, bookers — to find the appropriate, relevant, credentialed experts and to take advantage of the tremendous diversity among them; about how she works in this new age of open information and conversation among scientists and between scientists and the public; and, yes, masks. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. I hope you — especially journalists — find it useful.

9/11-19

I didn’t realize how affected I have been by the trauma of COVID-19 until today, when the death toll in America passed that of 9/11, when the cumulative stress of seeing medical workers suffer and scientists wonder and politicians bungle piled too high, when I found myself snapping for no good reason, when the pain of uncertainty returned.

On 9/11, I was at the World Trade Center, feeling the heat of the jets’ impact, seeing lives lost, overcome by the debris of the towers’ fall, barely surviving — because I didn’t step two feet this way or that — and witnessing my mortality in the moment, the result of my bad decision to stay and report … for what? for a story.

Now that moment of mortality is every day, fearing the wrong moment in a grocery story or touching a surface or rubbing a nose will do any of us in, jeopardizing ourselves, our families, our communities. It is 9/11 in slow-motion, repeated every day for everyone: a morning that will last a year or two; evil groundhog day.

One of my last trips into Manhattan before the shutdown was to Bellevue Hospital, to the World Trade Center Health Program, where I finally went after many years of denial to have them prod my body and memory. I thought it would be therapeutic. It was more bureaucratic, to certify me for treatment that doesn’t really exist for my two cancers (both lite: prostate and thyroid, each on the List), for my heart condition (atrial fibrillation, not on the List), for respiratory issues (sleep apnea; I’ll get a machine), and — here was my surprise — for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Me? I’m fine. Just fine. I have been for 19 years, not just coping but always cognizant of my privilege, having survived the day and prospered since, lucky to have my family and home and work.

And then, 19 years later, comes COVID-19 (as if numbers were self-aware of their irony) to remind me again of my fragility, my mortality.

I am still fortunate and know that well. I live out in the country with much social distance around me. I have a wonderful family and thanks to my wife am safe at home. I have a rewarding job working with dedicated deans and teachers who want nothing more than to help our students not just weather this crisis but learn from it and become wiser and more resilient for it. Thanks to the internet, I can keep my job and income and my connection with the world. I am privileged still.

I look at the numbers on charts, deaths and death rates daily, and think we are not doing a good job of seeing the humanity in them. The so-called president acts as if losing 100,000 or 200,000 people is a job well-done and deserving of credit. His flags are not at half-staff; never. The news is just beginning to fill with the names of the lost, the stories of their lives buried under slopes on charts. So many of the first we lose are selfless medical workers, gone for no reason, gone because of our feckless government’s denials. God knows how the doctors and nurses do this, facing the mortality of so many, including themselves, every moment. God bless them.

I am not them. We do not have to be among them. We do not have to be if we pay attention and stay inside and don’t breathe the wrong air and touch the wrong thing and scratch our eyes at the wrong moment and hang on until science — blessed science — gives us a vaccine. I bury myself in science. That is where I find hope.

But we are vulnerable. We always are, always have been, always will be. It’s just that most of the time, we manage to ignore that fact.

Especially us New Yorkers. Our city is so strong: The center of the fucking universe, as I delight in telling students and visitors, a fortress of spirit and will, intelligence and effort. But here it is again, under attack, brought down and brought silent this time by a mere virus for which we — the nation — were criminally unprepared.

And so my anger does me in. I cannot bear watching him on television every fucking night, that tower of ego and unself-aware fragility exploiting the vulnerability and suffering and his citizens and spewing falsity and hate and ignorance to his cult. That is too much to bear. I am ashamed of my own life’s field, media, for giving him this platform, for not calling his lies until they are spread like a virus across the land, for failing to diagnose the disease that he is. This depresses me.

But writing this is its own form of self-indulgence, I must confess. I haven’t shared emotions like this since some long-gone anniversary of 9/11. For I was healing or healed, I thought. But now I see my weakness again. The emotions are bare.

I told the psychiatrist at Bellevue (a phrase I use with no irony) that I saw few lasting effects of 9/11 on my psyche. I became phobic about bridges and there are many I will not cross. I find my emotions can well up at the most idiotic moments, when a manipulative twist in a TV show or even a goddamned commercial can peel me back and reveal my gooey center. But all that’s not so hard to control. I just find the nearest tunnel or a shorter bridge and shake my head to wave off the storytellers’ manipulation of my heart.

Yet today that is harder. The emotions are rising again. I wouldn’t name them fear. I’d name them apprehension and worry and anger and stress and empathy for the numberless and nameless who go before us, too soon.

So there. Nineteen years ago, when I started blogging after that day, I found it helpful to share so I could connect with others and learn I was far from alone. That act itself — linking with people here, online — changed my perspective of my career, of journalism, of media, of society. It taught me that properly considered my life and profession should not have been about writing stories but about listening and conversing; that is what I believe now. That gave me a new career as a teacher.

Now I don’t tell my story so much as I confess my weakness in case someone reading this feels the same: vulnerable but fortunate, worried but wishing, just uncertain yet not alone.

This post has been translated into Spanish here and Italian here