Monthly Archives: April 2012

Mapping digital media in New England


Please have a look at my students’ final projects in Reinventing the News. Students wrote about a digital-media project of his or her choosing, took photos, shot video and plotted the location of their story on a Google map. It’s always great to see what they’ll come up with for stories and what approach they’ll take.

Maneuvering around the embedded map is difficult, so click here for an easier-to-navigate version.

In Bridgewater, a dispute over free press and privacy

I had wanted to talk about this yesterday on “Beat the Press,” but was unable to verify the facts in time. Today, the Boston Globe’s Peter Schworm reports on a controversy that has enveloped The Comment, the student newspaper at Bridgewater State University, which is under fire for reporting the name of an alleged rape victim who spoke at a public rally.

University officials are insisting that [see below] pressuring The Comment to remove the woman’s name from the online version of its story. But on Friday, The Comment’s editor, Mary Polleys, told me that the woman had been identified by name in an announcement sent before the rally to about 400 people via Facebook. The outdoor rally was attended by about 200 people. And, Polleys said, the woman was introduced by name and then proceeded to address the crowd through a bullhorn. Indeed, the story, by Leah Astore, is accompanied by a photo of the woman holding the bullhorn and standing before a large crowd.

I am not identifying the woman here only because I don’t wish to become a player in this controversy. But I see nothing wrong in what The Comment did, and I think Polleys has taken exactly the right stand in refusing to unpublish key details. Essentially The Comment is in trouble for committing journalism.

The one decision The Comment made that I might question is identifying the woman’s previous college on the basis of information that it found online. Under the ethical guidelines that are followed by virtually all news organizations, victims and alleged victims of sexual assault are not identified by name without their consent. It’s clear that the speaker at the rally had given her consent to be identified publicly, only to have second thoughts once she saw her name and photo in The Comment. But I’m uncomfortable with the paper’s decision to add details that the woman herself did not offer.

Another interesting aspect is the unintended consequences of what happens to news in the online era. If this story had appeared only in print, then it wouldn’t have circulated beyond campus, and it’s unlikely that it would have sparked much of an uproar. Certainly no one would be calling for the unpublishing of the woman’s name. (We recently talked about unpublishing on “Beat the Press.”) Indeed, this entire story strikes me as an example of the increasing confusion we’re all experiencing over what’s public and what’s private in the age of social media.

The Brockton Enterprise has been covering this story, and it appears to have a worthwhile follow-up today. I can’t get GateHouse stories to load today, but perhaps it will pop up later.

My friend Harvey Silverglate’s organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has gotten involved as well.

And the story has now gone national at JimRomenesko.com.

Note: Polleys informs me by email that though the administration is pressuring The Comment to remove the speaker’s name, it has not insisted on it. It’s a fine line, but it’s worth making the distinction. Needless to say, the administration is welcome to weigh in here as well.

Hockey, race and the ghosts of Boston’s past

Joel Ward in 2011

No rational person thinks the racist tweets that followed the Bruins’ loss at the hands of Joel Ward on Wednesday represented any more than a tiny, ignorant minority of hockey fans (see this, this and this).

But there’s still something uncomfortable about hockey and race, especially in a city whose racial history is as troubled as ours. (And no, we don’t know how many of those offensive tweets came from Boston.)

The fact is that there has always been a certain subset — subspecies? — of hockey fan who likes the sport in part because nearly all the players are white. I grew up here, and I heard plenty to that effect when I was a teenager, and even in my 20s.

It’s no accident that the Bruins of Bobby Orr (two championships) were far more popular than the Celtics of Bill Russell (11). Or that the Celtics finally became the toast of the town after the face of the franchise turned white, first with Dave Cowens and later with Larry Bird.

Of course, Boston is not the same city today that it was in the 1970s and ’80s. The Celtics of recent years, led by three star African-American players and a black coach, have been as loved as any team in Boston. Even the Red Sox have put their ugly past behind them.

But there’s a context for hockey that doesn’t exist in other, more integrated sports. Among other things, Boston Herald writer Ron Borges couldn’t have made his non-racist but stupid observation about Tim Thomas with any other sport because getting beat by a black player would have been entirely unremarkable.

And the mouth-breathing racist fans who tweeted the “N”-word would have long since come to terms with minority athletes (or stopped watching) if we were talking about any sport other than hockey.

It’s not the NHL’s fault that there are so few black hockey players — it’s a function of geography and culture. Indeed, Major League Baseball itself has very few African-American players today, a demise that has been masked in part by the rise of Latino players of color.

Nor does this have anything to do with the vast majority of hockey fans. I don’t like hockey, but I know plenty of people who do. And they are good, decent people who follow the Celtics, the Patriots and the Red Sox just as avidly as they do the Bruins.

But race is an issue in hockey in ways that it just isn’t in other sports. And when you combine that volatility with Boston’s reputation, what happened this week was perhaps inevitable.

Photo (cc) by clydeorama and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Journalism that deepens our understanding

Walmart in Merida, Mexico

I’d like to call your attention to three stories that stood out for me yesterday as examples of high-quality journalism that tells you something important that you didn’t already know, that places isolated facts within a broader perspective, or both.

• First up is David Barstow’s remarkable New York Times story on Wal-Mart’s Mexican bribery scandal — a scandal that was known to few outside Wal-Mart before this weekend. Clocking in at a New Yorker-like 7,600 words, Barstow’s article documents corruption at every level of the company, from active bribery in Mexico to passive acceptance at Wal-Mart’s U.S. headquarters.

Given the complexity of the story, I thought the “Guide to People in This Article” was a nice touch. So was the inclusion of Wal-Mart’s full response as a stand-alone document.

The story is a tour de force with implications that will be playing out for some time to come. It’s also a reminder that there are certain types of public-interest journalism that can be carried out only by a high-profile, well-funded news organization with its own army of lawyers.

• Next is Meghan Irons and Beth Healy’s Boston Globe article on the financial crisis that threatens the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, a leading institution in Boston’s African-American community that is in big trouble over an ill-advised expansion project.

The church’s primary lender is another African-American institution, OneUnited Bank, which brought down the hammer in part as a reaction to its own problems related to the national mortgage crisis.

The story has been in the news for some time now, but Irons and Healy are the first to pull all the strands together in a way that makes sense, even though no one from OneUnited would talk with them on the record. It’s fleshed out with photos and a video of a recent protest by African-American leaders in front of OneUnited headquarters.

• Finally, I was driving home from work on Sunday when I heard a long (11:29) piece on NPR’s “All Things Considered” called “Poverty in America: Defining the New Poor,” which explained how Clinton-era welfare reform has resulted in a shift toward food stamps as the primary means by which the government provides assistance to poor families.

During the recession of the past several years, the number of Americans on food stamps has risen from about 30 million to about 46 million.

Particularly riveting was NPR’s interview with Vicki Jones, who recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Sun-Times on what it’s like to live on $60 a week in food stamps while going to chiropractic school full-time and supporting her 7-year-old son.

Although the clear message of the story, reported by Guy Raz, is that we are not doing enough for the poor, the piece also functions as an outstanding explainer, bringing into focus a number of issues that are poorly defined when used as debating points by partisans.

Thanks to the Times, the Globe and NPR, I know more today than I did 24 hours ago.

Photo (cc) by ruffin_ready and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Sox talk

Mrs. Media Nation and I were in a bar along with two other couples on Saturday, pleased to be parked near a screen that had the Red Sox-Yankees game on rather than the Bruins. Once it got to 9-0, I figured even the Sox’ bullpen couldn’t blow it.

By the time we left, it was 9-8. I caught the rest of the disaster after we walked home.

I don’t have much to say about the Red Sox’ start except for a few obvious observations. It’s not Bobby Valentine’s fault. I’d like to see Daniel Bard make it as a starter, but the bullpen implosion might negate that. The injuries have been devastating, but there’s more than enough high-priced talent on the field that they should be playing a lot better. As for the small sample size, I’m inclined to combine their miserable start this year with their miserable finish in 2011. That’s not a small sample.

Anyway — have at it. And I hope the Celtics go on a run.

Scott Brown’s flexible New Year’s resolution

Click on image for Boston Herald story and video

Argh. I see Politico beat me to it. But I do want to take note of a rather remarkable statement that U.S. Sen. Scott Brown made Friday on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) — that he had not touched alcohol since Jan. 1, and wouldn’t until the polls close on Election Day. According to the Associated Press, “Brown called the decision ‘one of those New Year’s things’ that he did ‘on a stupid bet.'”

Well, as Politico puts it, “It depends on what the definition of ‘drinking’ is for Brown.” Because just a week earlier, he allowed Boston Herald reporter Hillary Chabot to accompany him on a day of campaigning. And one of his stops was the Blue Hills Brewery in Canton. “He likes the Red IPA, by the way,” Chabot says in the John Wilcox video that accompanies her story.

In the video, Brown can be seen sampling the brewery’s wares, but if he took more than a sip, the camera didn’t capture it. Chabot’s story resulted in a brief flurry on Twitter among those who thought Brown was setting a bad example by drinking and driving (his truck, of course).

That criticism struck me as overwrought, and it still does. Chabot wrote only that Brown “tasted one of the lighter brews,” although she quoted him as saying of the Red IPA: “You can pound those pretty good.” Sounds like he may need a designated driver in the wee hours of Nov. 7.

But I guess he needs to revise his New Year’s resolution to “No Drinking until Election Day Except with Hillary Chabot.”

E-books and the privatization of the village square

This commentary has also been published at the Huffington Post.

Tomorrow I’ll be part of a panel on e-books being organized in Boston by the Association of College and Research Libraries. We’re supposed to talk about what we like and don’t like about them, and I can do that. But what I really hope to discuss is the place of e-books in a world in which what we used to think of as public space is increasingly being turned over to private, profit-making entities.

Let me explain what I mean with a couple of non-book examples.

In 2003 I bestowed a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award on Crossgates Mall, in the Albany, N.Y., suburb of Colonie, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing a mildly worded T-shirt in protest of the war in Iraq. The protester — actually, he was just having a bite to eat in the food court after picking up his purchase from the mall’s T-shirt store — was quickly released.

But there’s almost no chance he would have been arrested if he’d been hanging out in the village square rather than a mall. The trouble is that in too many cities and towns, we no longer have a village square except in the form of enclosed spaces owned by profit-seeking corporations. What happened to that protester said a lot more about our privatized idea of community than it does about that one particular incident.

In 2008 the Beverly Citizen, a weekly newspaper on Boston’s North Shore owned by GateHouse Media, discovered what can happen when you turn over some of your publishing operations to Google. The Citizen had posted a video of the annual Fourth of July “Horribles” parade, which included an offensive float that featured a giant, water-squirting penis. The float mocked an alleged “pregnancy pact” involving girls at Gloucester High School, a much-hyped story that turned out to be not quite true.

Although the Citizen’s judgment in posting the video could be questioned, there was no doubt that the float was newsworthy, as it had been seen by hundreds of people attending the parade. Yet Google-owned YouTube, which GateHouse was using as a video-publishing platform, took it down without any explanation. It would be as though a printing company refused to publish a particular edition of newspaper on the grounds that it didn’t like the content. YouTube is an incredibly flexible tool for video journalism. But Google has its own agenda, and hosting content that might offend someone is bad for business.

What’s that got to do with e-books? A physical book, once printed, enters a public sphere of a sort, especially if it’s purchased by a library. But an e-book remains largely under the control of the corporation that distributed it — most likely Amazon, Apple or Barnes & Noble.

We all remember those horror stories from a few years ago when some books people had purchased suddenly disappeared from their Kindles because Amazon was involved in a rights dispute. (Ironically, the books included George Orwell’s “1984.”) In some cases, students lost books they needed for school, along with their notes.

More recently, Apple refused to carry in its iTunes store an e-book by Seth Godin called “Stop Stealing Dreams.” The reason: Godin included favorable mentions of — and links to — other e-books that were available only through Amazon. “We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores … and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing,” Godin wrote.

And I’m not even getting into the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of alleged price-fixing by Apple and several leading book publishers.

Another concern I have involves the rights of authors. Several years ago Rodale, the publisher of my first book, “Little People,” reassigned all rights to me after the book had reached the end of its natural life. I published the full text on the Web, which led to my hometown high school’s adopting it as its summer read — which in turn pushed me to create a self-published paperback edition with the help of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. “Little People” has had a pretty nice second life for an out-of-print book. (I wrote about the experience recently for Nieman Reports.)

But now that e-books and e-readers have become ubiquitous, I’m worried that publishers will simply have no incentive to let authors benefit from the full rights to their own work. If a publisher can make a little bit of money by selling a few e-copies each year, then it might just decide to keep those rights to itself. This is long-tail economics for the benefit of corporations, not authors.

And have you ever tried to lend an e-book to someone?

There is a lot to like about e-books. As someone with terrible eyesight, I like being able to adjust the type to my own preference and use my laptop’s or iPhone’s backlighting rather than depend on iffy room lighting. And my iPhone, unlike whatever book I might be reading, is always with me.

But when unaccountable corporate interests maintain control over what shall take place in the village square, what content shall be deemed suitable for public consumption and what rights the authors and even the purchasers of books shall have, we have put our culture at risk in ways we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago.

Thanks to Twitter followers @jcstearns, @JimandMargery and @BostonGuyinNC, who responded quickly to my pleas for help with research.

The Globe’s recent Pulitzers and the city’s cultural life

Wesley Morris

Boston is a city where culture matters. So Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris’ Pulitzer Prize for criticism makes an important statement about the paper’s place in the cultural life of the city.

Morris’ Pulitzer comes just a year after Sebastian Smee won for his visual-arts criticism. Three years before that, Mark Feeney was honored for his criticism of photography, art and film. That is an impressive record. It also marks the Globe’s sixth Pulitzer since Marty Baron became editor in the summer of 2001.

I will confess that I do not usually read film criticism. But after Morris won, I went back and re-read the appreciation he wrote of Steve Jobs’ legacy shortly after the Apple chief executive died. It was smart in all the right ways, expressing the mixed feelings we all have about the overarching place in our lives that we have devoted to our digital devices.

Though I haven’t seen “The Help,” I was interested to see what Morris, an African-American, would make of a film that seems to have sparked ambivalence, especially among black movie-goers. Morris’ review is a meditation on well-meaning whites and the sting of liberal condescension. And the last sentence is a killer.

Boston, fortunately, is still a place where intelligent, literate criticism is read and appreciated. My former professional home, the Boston Phoenix, has long thrived on the strength of its outstanding arts commentary. It matters here, which is one of the reasons that this is such a great place to live and work.

As we all know, professional, informed criticism has ceded substantial ground to bloggers, commenters on Amazon and Yelp, and other unpaid reviewers. There’s a place for such amateur voices, and some of them are quite good. But gifted, deeply informed critics like Morris, Smee and Feeney show why crowdsourced reviews are a valuable supplement — not a substitute.

BostonGlobe.com wins major design award

Except for the Pulitzers (which are being announced next week), I try to stay away writing about journalism awards. There are so many that this could become little more than an awards blog if I opened the door.

This, though, seems worth an exception: BostonGlobe.com has just been named the “World’s Best Designed website” by the Society for News Design. Here is some of what the judges had to say:

The re-launch of BostonGlobe.com decisively raised the bar for digital news design. The Globe’s intrepid embrace of responsive design rewrote the equation of our industry’s expectations and ambitions and defined state-of-the-art across the Web. Most importantly, the site embraces the increasingly chaotic ecosystem of devices without sacrificing thoughtfulness or splintering user experience.

“Responsive design” refers to the fact that the Globe’s website senses whether you are using a computer, a tablet, a smartphone or some other device and automatically adjusts its appearance accordingly. I wrote about that last fall for the Nieman Journalism Lab a few weeks before the site made its debut.

Coincidentally, last night my Reinventing the News students at Northeastern visited the Globe Lab, where they heard from several members of the Globe’s technology team, including Miranda Mulligan, design director for BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com.

BostonGlobe.com is at the heart of the Globe’s efforts to persuade readers to pay for online content. The paper is off to something of a slow start in that regard — about 16,000 digital-only subscribers at last count. But its technology is innovative and excellent. It’s nice to see that being recognized.

Howard Ziff on the varieties of local journalism

Howard Ziff

Last summer I was interviewing New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen for my book about the New Haven Independent and other community news sites. He told me I had to read an essay by Howard Ziff on the difference between the “provincial” and “cosmopolitan” styles of journalism. So I did. It was brilliant, and I ended up quoting from it in my book.

More on that in a moment. Ziff, who founded the UMass Amherst journalism department, died on Tuesday at the age of 81. This obituary, by Nick Grabbe of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, is particularly good, and is well worth your time. Also recommended: the obit in the school paper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. I’m sad to say that though I know a number of people in the UMass journalism department, I never had the pleasure of meeting Ziff.

To get back to “provincial” and “cosmopolitan” journalism — in the 1980s, Ziff wrote an essay called “Practicing Responsible Journalism: Cosmopolitan Versus Provincial Models.” After talking with Jay, I managed to find Ziff’s essay in a hard-to-locate book called “Responsible Journalism,” edited by Deni Elliott.

Ziff helped me understand my own experience in journalism. I spent the first part of my career as a community journalist — as a Northeastern co-op student at the Woonsocket Call in the 1970s, and as a staff reporter and editor for the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn in the 1980s.

In Ziff’s view, community journalism — provincial journalism — was more about being part of the community than it was standing apart as objective, disengaged observers. Some of the people I worked with, especially in Woonsocket, were folks who had grown up there, who didn’t go to college, but who had the wit to find a job that kept them out of the mills.

They were good reporters. But they were not plotting a career path that would take them, say, from the Call to the Providence Journal and then to the Washington Post. If they were going to leave the Call at all, it would be to work for the local chamber of commerce, or for a Rhode Island elected official.

Ziff’s idea was that this was “provincial” journalism, and that it was neither better nor worse than “cosmopolitan” journalism — it was just different. And the practices that cosmopolitans sneered at — accepting junkets, being slow and cautious in covering stories that embarrassed the community — actually made a great deal of sense for a provincial institution like the local newspaper. Ziff wrote:

When we turn, however, to principles and responsibilities that are more specific to the vocation of journalism, we find that those that apply to the cosmopolitan, professional model do not necessarily apply to the provincial model. In the first instance we are concerned with responsibilities and ethical considerations that can act as moral regulators of the autonomy upon which we insist for journalism as a profession, and not surprisingly we come up with principals such as objectivity and disinterestedness. In the latter, we set as our goal service to the community and province, and will often find that our moral obligation is to be subjective and compassionate.

Ziff lamented the transition of even smaller, community-based newspapers from the provincial to the cosmopolitan — a change he attributed to the rise of corporate chains that bought up locally owned dailies and staffed them with careerist young people with no ties to the community:

It is a great sadness of American journalism today that however diverse their geographic background and polished their skills, so many journalists are valued because they are interchangeable; they put themselves behind the word processor in whatever city to which they are called by corporate employers. The unique value of each person and each region is thus endangered by a system of replaceable parts, and we are in danger of losing sight of the simple truth that the fact that you cannot move a Mike Royko from Chicago or a Jimmy Breslin from New York is a sign of their towering strengths as journalists.

And, in fact, professionalism — that is, cosmopolitanism — may have something to do with why the newspaper business is struggling so much these days. I know that Howard Owens, the publisher and editor of The Batavian, a small, for-profit news site near Buffalo, holds that view. I don’t discount it either, though I think the business pressures that are harming the news business have more to do with corporate debt, technology and cultural change than they do with professionalization.

I brought up the essay on Twitter the other day after learning that Ziff had died. Jay asked me to send him a copy of it, and I realized I couldn’t find it. But I know where I can make another one, and I’m going to do it as soon as I’m able.

Howard Ziff’s work will live on in many ways. For me, it’s through an essay he wrote a quarter-century ago that observed how the news business was changing, and what was worth preserving about a time-honored model that was just then beginning to pass from the scene.