Posts about journalism

It’s about trust

Judy Miller makes one lousy poster girl. So why does she keep ending up on posters? And what does this say about the poster makers? Don’t they care about her credibility and their trust?

: The Society of Professional Journalists chose to give Miller its First Amendment Award and also chose not to criticize her ethical lapses. Jenny DeMonte writes a great report on this for Pressthink; more on that in a minute.

: Pajamas Media chose to have Miller keynote their grand opening. I stated my puzzlement at this here, provoking a personal attack from one of their number and a phone call from PJ founder Roger L. Simon, who was amazed at my amazement. We couldn’t hear each other well on my cell phone (‘can you understand me now?’) but I told Roger that I said what I thought on my blog and I went to look for what he’d said on his blog or at Pajamas Media, though he hasn’t written about it. He praised her writing and reporting and said she’d be worth hearing on shield laws. I just repeated, “Judy Miller? Judy Miller?”, as I did with another of PJ’s number the night before. His reply, one word with a shrug: “Californians.”

: The California First Amendment Coalition invited her to give its First Amendment Award to Mark “Deep Throat” Felt.

: And, of course, The Times made her the poster girl for the First Amendment, a federal shield law, The Times itself, and even journalism. Nevermind.

I don’t understand how these players can separate her credibility and ethical behavior (as defined by such thing as SPJ’s code of ethics) from their own credibility and trust. Like it or not, we in journalism are judged by our worst work and what we do about it. When we circle the wagons to defend fellow journalists instead of defending the truth, we lose trust. I tell editorial organizations trying to improve quality that it’s more important to raise the bar at the low end than the high end because of this. I’m not even saying whether Miller should be fired or treated as a pariah — I said she should do the profession a favor and quit — but I certainly don’t think she should be held up as a paragon of anything. She messed up her reporting and didn’t fess up and still blames her unnamed sources and broke rules and, from what I can tell, made herself the center of a cause more for self-promotion or bullheadedness than for the cause itself. And we should trust her? And others should trust us for trusting her? Why?

I’m not writing this from a political perspective. I’ll piss off both sides here: I supported the war in Iraq, not on the basis of Miller’s and Bush’s WMDs but instead on our obligation to bring democracy and freedom to the people of Iraq, a goal I’m afraid we’re going to fail because of the incompetence of the party in power and the lack of humanitarian will of the opposition party. My issues with Miller are not political. They are journalistic. She is no longer credible. So why is she selected as a standard bearer for the First Amendment, shield laws, journalism, or any newspaper?

: At Pressthink, outgoing SPJ head Irwin Gratz explained his group’s award to Miller for Jay Rosen:

Judy Miller received a near standing ovation at her appearance before our attendees Tuesday. And our voting delegates, in a spirited debate, removed paragraphs critical of Miller from the resolution that spoke to our more general criticism of anonymous sourcing.

And that’s something to brag about? Jenny provides the details of what the SPJ voted for and against and what the organization stands for in journalistic ethics and how that compares with Miller’s behavior.
Jenny concludes:

This is another part of the slow rot that’s eating at the work of newsgathering and reporting and writing and producing. Journalism has, as its core, the trust between reporters and editors, and reporters and the public. As that erodes, the whole enterprise starts to crumble. People turn away from news and reporting. Other forms can rise and steal the hearts and minds of citizens.

I am quite disappointed that a professional organization, representing work I love, would have celebrated someone who appears to have stomped all over the highest values of the practice. If Stevenson and Keller are right about the “contract between the paper and its reporters,” where’s the contract between journalists and the public? That’s what the rules and codes are supposed to be. They tell us what journalists do to retain our trust without us having to witness every act of newsgathering.

: See also the Record of New Jersey’s editorial backing away from Miller: “We’ve been had.”

And see The Guardian’s report on Miller’s negotiations with The Times, which incredibly are said to include a non-disparagement clause. Oh, the disparagement’s not over yet.

: Unrelated to Miller but related to Pajamas Media: See PJ Media Unfiltered, an automated aggregation of blog posts from the PJers. Because: “When Pajamas Media goes live — under its new name — on November 16th, the front-page posts will be selected and possibly edited by its global team of editors. The purpose of this site is to show a complete selection of the PJ Media opinions from which the portal content will be derived.”

(Just for the record and to be clear: I have nothing against the PJ folks; some are friends, some I read. I have criticized their choice of keynoters for all the reasons here. And for the sake of full disclosure: I also did not hear what I thought was a sensible business model when they started and I told both Roger Simon and Mark Danziger that long ago. I chose not to participate.)

How quaint

Two quotables on this thing we call a newspaper. This one from ArtDodger in the comments on my post below on imploding newspaper circulation:

This business of pureeing trees and wringing cuttlefish to make the day’s transient news permanent seems positively archaic, doesn’t it?

This one from a comment on Attytood [via Porter]

It’s a product you have to go and get in the rain, snow or wind and pull out of the hedge, the leaves or a coin-eating box on a dirty street corner. It’s heavy. It’s big. You’re not interested in 90% of its content. And when you’re done with it, you — literally — have to wash your hands and figure out how to properly dispose of the thing.

: More newspaper quotes here, here, and here. Among them:

Half the American population no longer reads newspapers: plainly, they are the clever half. — Gore Vidal

People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news. — A.J. Liebling

It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper. — Jerry Seinfeld

Saving journalism isn’t about saving jobs

Every time we hear about another cutback in newspapers — and there are plenty of them these days — we automatically hear the notion that journalism jobs must be saved to save journalism. I’m afraid it’s time to challenge that assumption.

Saving journalism isn’t about saving jobs or even newspapers. In fact, the goal shouldn’t be just to save journalism but to grow it, expand it, explode it, taking advantage of all the amazing new means to gather and share news we have today.

Start with the real goals, which are informing society, keeping power in check, improving people’s lives, making connections (right?) and then ask what the best ways are to do that today. After that, you can ask what the role of journalists and newspapers should be.

Maybe we need fewer people in newsrooms and need to take money to hire a lot more people outside newsrooms to gather more news. Maybe we need to put resources into training those people or vetting their work. Maybe we simply need to recognize that news is no longer a monopoly business that can operate at monopoly margins and we need to prioritize where we put our resources. Maybe we need to look at online as a primary source of current news and at newspapers as a source of analysis and perspective and unique reporting. Maybe we can’t support daily newspapers everywhere. Maybe some of those journalists will become independent publishers (see: Debbie Galant at Baristanet) and newspaper companies will run ad networks.

: There’s a great discussion going on in Philadelphia about saving the Daily News and that’s why I’m asking these questions: What does it mean to save it?

It started with Will Bunch writing on the Daily News blog Attytood. Philly blog king Karl Martino picked this up and sent email to folks he knows — bloggers, journalists, educators — suggesting that we get together to help explore this with Bunch. And the Philadelphia Inquirer’s blog prince, Dan Rubin, weighed in just as cutbacks were going on in his newsroom. Bunch’s opener was wonderful. Yes, he starts lamenting the loss of journalists’ jobs — of course; they are his friends and his colleagues and the people who produce his paper — but then he goes on to see the necessity of a different, a bigger future:

As I write this, the Daily News – where even before this fall the newsroom, with its depopulated desks, looked like a neutron bomb had struck, and where management chose to not even replace three staffers who died in 2004 – is nevertheless losing another 25 journalists, or 19 percent of the total….

It’s human nature, I guess, but the first inclination is to blame somebody, and there’s plenty of blame to go around….

But assigning blame won’t save the Philadelphia Daily News. Besides, much of the blame really lies with us, as journalists. We have, for the most part, allowed our product to become humorless and dull. In an era when it seems most people truly will be famous for 15 minutes, newspapers have stubbornly avoided creating personalities…or having a personality, for that matter. In a pathologically obsessive quest for two false goddesses – named Objectivity and Balance – we have completely ceded the great American political debate to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, where people have learned that politics is actually interesting and even fun when people are allowed to take sides.

We prefer to talk down to the public rather than talk to them. Even at our very best – and there are many, many talented newspaper journalists in America – we are more likely to aim at wooing contest judges than at wooing new readers. And we have a knee-jerk tendency to defend our narrow world of messy ink printed on dead trees, when instead the time is here to redefine who we are and what we do.

We are, and can continue to be, the front-line warriors of information — serving up the most valuable commodity in a media-driven era. But that means we must be the message, not the medium, and so we must adjust to give consumers news in the high-tech ways that they are asking for, not the old-tech way that we are confortable with.

If we don’t change, we will die – and it will be our fault.

It defies all the conventional wisdom, but I believe that the Philadelphia Daily News can be an agent of that change – and not a victim. In fact, in seeking to destroy the Daily News in a death of a thousand cuts, our corporate masters in San Jose have, unintentionally, liberated us – because having nothing left to lose is another term for freedom.

Because with a staff that is now too small to cover every news story, we can learn how to cover just the stories that truly matter to people, and cover the heck out of them….

Hence, the “norg.” “Norg” because we need to lose our old identity with one dying medium, newspapers, and stress our most valuable commodity, the one that we truly own, and that is news…without the paper. Thus, we must now be news organizations, or “norgs.” …

Everybody up off your feet and give Bunch a standing O. That is exactly the kind of attitude and imagination and determination that will, indeed, save journalism.

This is what the Online News Association meeting should have been about. This is what journalism school must be about.

This isn’t about circling wagons defensively anymore. Nor is it about cutbacks. Nor denial. Nor resenting the new guys. This is about invention.

: Meanwhile the shock therapy goes on.

A major stockholder wants Knight Ridder to put itself up for sale.

Goldman Sachs says it’s a crappy year for newspapers:

I’s official: 2005 will be the newspaper industry’s worst year since the last ad industry recession. And things aren’t looking much better for next year either, according to a top Wall Street firm’s report on newspaper publishing. “Sadly, 2005 is shaping up as the industry’s worst year from a revenue growth perspective since the recession impacted 2001-2002 period,” says the report from Goldman Sachs, adding a warning that meaningful growth in 2006 is “very unlikely.”

The Wall Street Journal says the failing newspaper industry will see consolidation (free link):

Along with steel, autos and airlines, daily newspapers would seem to be yet another mature U.S. industry that is prime for consolidation. Analysts are increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for growth as advertising revenue continues to move online. Stocks of many newspaper companies now trade near multiyear lows….

Newspapers still dominate local news and advertising in many markets. That could attract a company such as Yahoo, which has moved increasingly into original content and would like to develop its local reach. Meanwhile, Google Inc. has expressed interest in entering the classified-ad market, where newspapers have deep relationships and continue to play a dominant role. Knight Ridder is part-owner of CareerBuilder Inc., the online classified Web site that competes with….

But Knight Ridder’s larger papers are the ones buyers are most likely to balk at. These papers, like those at many newspaper companies, are dragging down the company. Big-city papers have taken it on the chin as urban advertisers and readers have defected to the Internet. Knight Ridder has distressed papers in Philadelphia, Miami and San Jose, Calif. Circulation in those markets is falling, and big advertisers such as department stores are consolidating.

Lately, some of the most successful newspaper companies have stayed in the newspaper business by getting out of it. Washington Post Co. and E.W. Scripps Co., for instance, have both diversified into other industries….

If I owned a newspaper, I’d sell it, wouldn’t you? If I were Yahoo, would I buy it? Maybe only Yahoo and Google could consolidate the advertising marketplace to make big media work still.

I’m not going to complain about media consolidation when all this happens (though I know plenty of others will). What we’re seeing, I’ll say again, is just the dinosaurs huddling against the cold of the internet ice age. The poor, old, lumbering beasts have to stick together.

For the growth isn’t going to be on the big side. The growth is going to be on the small side, in new, ad hoc networks of content, promotion, advertising, and trust…. networks that could spring out of the one that is swarming around Bunch’s post, networks that care about news.

The goal is to save daily news, whether or not you save the Daily News.


Here’s a transcript of the NewsHour segment on shield laws, leaks, and all that.

Privilege for whom?

I am confused about shield laws. That alone is heresy for a journalist; we’re all supposed to be all for them, right? But I come at this from the perspective of those outside the castle — bloggers and just citizens — and so I don’t think it’s as simple as it seems. And that’s what I told the producer at Newshour when she called to ask my stand. They’re having me on anyway, as a heretic.

I don’t want to see an official definition of who is a journalist, not only because this is likely to exclude bloggers but also because official status can be given and can be taken away. Danger lurks there.

So why don’t we define journalism, for this purpose, as I usually do: as an act? Perhaps. But there, too, we risk excluding the person who commits a major act of journalism but once.

The third possibility is to define, instead, the quality of the whistle blown: this is so important to society that it’s worth protecting the source so we could get it. Of course, this puts the power to decide what’s important in the wrong — that is to say, official — hands.

So I don’t know where I end up. I confess my confusion.

The added problem is that there has been abuse of the system — or rather, the code, I suppose — on many sides. Journalists have overused unnamed and confidential sources. We should be in the business of revealing, not keeping secrets. In some cases, we don’t reveal sources just because we’re too lazy to get the named source or because we’re buddy-buddy with the source (that’s the way the tit-for-tat system works); in other cases, the disclosure is not worth the breaking of the compact that really matters, the compact we hold with our public: It is our job to tell what we know when we know it. It is not a privilege to hold secrets. It is a curse.

The sources use this as well, of course, hiding behind their own anonymity so they can spin spin, float balloons, hit and run. And we let them. We allow ourselves to be used.

The Newshour producer asked me whether I was uncomfortable with reporters, like Russert, testifying at trials, like Libby’s. I hesitated. I hate lawyers and lawsuits so much, I react with reflexive discomfort. But I suppose what makes me legitimately uncomfortable is that this becomes yet another way for reporters to be used: If you report something critical of someone with power or lawyers, you can end up sitting in court. That’s particularly uncomfortable for citizen journalists who don’t have a million dollars of The Times’ to blow on legal fees. The Plame prosecutor has said that reporters should be called as witnesses only sparingly. But, once more, we have the problem of an official defining what sparing means. And besides, reporters may find themselves in the odd position of not wanting to know something because it puts them in personal peril: We turn into a profession of Sgt. Schultzes. We know nossing!

On the other hand, it can’t make me uncomfortable to see journalists in the same role as any citizen. Didn’t an editor at the Online News Association almost tearfully plea that we shouldn’t call bloggers “citizen journalists” because journalists are citizens, too? Indeed. Journalists are citizens and need to stop living apart from the community but be again a part of it.

At the end of the day, transparency is still the best policy. The less we find ourselves in the position of keeping secrets, the better we serve our public. Do some disclosures, some scandals, some whistles blown merit getting into this mess of keeping confidentiality? Yes. Do we still need investigative reporting that traffics in such secrets? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a confusing and perilous mire.

: See also my Guardian column on the changing nature of secrets online.