Tag Archives: Boston Globe

Talking about data, journalism and the future

Brent Benson has written a thoughtful piece about Tuesday’s panel discussion on “Big Data and the Future of Journalism.”

I had the privilege of moderating a great panel comprising Laura Amico of Homicide Watch and WBUR Radio’s Learning Lab (she also teaches a journalism course at Northeastern); John Bracken of the Knight Foundation; Charles Kravetz, general manager of WBUR; and Paul McMorrow of CommonWealth Magazine and The Boston Globe.

The quote I’ll remember:

If you’d like to get a feel for how the discussion played out on Twitter, just click here.

Update: Catherine D’Ignazio of the MIT Center for Civic Media has posted a comprehensive live blog of the panel discussion.

For John Allen, a smart, unconventional debut

Today marks the Boston Globe print debut of John Allen, the longtime Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter who was recently hired by the Globe to beef up its coverage of the Catholic Church.

The piece — a news analysis that was posted online Wednesday — examines a United Nations report on the church’s pedophile-clergy crisis and finds it wanting. The problem, Allen writes, is that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child threw in gratuitous criticism of the church’s stands on abortion rights, same-sex marriage and birth control. Allen explains:

Not only are those bits of advice most unlikely to be adopted, they may actually strengthen the hand of those still in denial in the church about the enormity of the abuse scandals by allowing them to style the UN report as an all-too-familiar secular criticism driven by politics.

That could overshadow the fact that there are, in truth, many child protection recommendations in the report that the church’s own reform wing has long championed.

Overall: smart, authoritative and unconventional. Like many, I am accustomed to reading (and agreeing with) criticism of the Catholic Church’s stands on cultural issues. So I found it refreshing and unusual to read a piece arguing that, sometimes, such criticism can be counterproductive.

Headlines distort CBO report on Obamacare

The reaction to a Congressional Budget Office report released Tuesday demonstrated how easily politicians are able to game the media system.

The CBO, a respected source of nonpartisan data, found that the Affordable Care Act would lead to the disappearance of more than 2 million jobs — nearly all of them because people will choose to stop working or cut back on their hours now that their health insurance is no longer dependent on their continued employment. CBO director Douglas Elmendorf put it this way:

I want to emphasize that that reduction doesn’t mean that that many people precisely will choose to leave the labor force. We think that some people will chose to work fewer hours. Other people will choose to leave the labor force.

Of course, that didn’t stop Republican opponents from claiming that the CBO report proves the ACA is a job-killer. And why not? The media are so quick to go along. Let’s consider that this is Elmendorf’s report, and he said at a news conference precisely what it meant. Yet the very NPR story in which his remarks are quoted is headlined “Is Obamacare A Job Killer? New Estimates Suggest It Might Be.” Gah.

This morning I looked at the front pages of four major dailies. Here’s how they stack up, in order of disingenuousness.

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1. The Boston Globe. “Health law projected to put a dent in workforce; GOP calls analysis proof of act’s failings.” The clear impression is that people are going to lose their jobs because of the ACA. If you would like to believe that, go right ahead — but it’s not what the CBO said. The Globe headline is slapped atop a New York Times story (below) that isn’t nearly that bad.

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2. The New York Times. “Health Care Law Projected to Cut the Labor Force; Choosing Not to Work; G.O.P. Seizes On Data — Drop May Equal 2.5 Million Jobs.” Whew! Try saying it all without taking a breath. The Times’ headlines is slightly better than the Globe’s: the second deck, “Choosing Not to Work,” gets at the gist of the CBO report. But the rest of it makes it sound like Tuesday was a very bad day for the ACA. You’ve got to read the story to find out what’s really going on.

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3. The Washington Post. “New fuel for the health-law fight; CBO: More will quit jobs, cut hours; Estimates revive debate over economic effects.” Not bad. The impression given by the headline is that the fight is over the economic effect of people quitting their jobs. Not quite right, but we’re getting closer. Here’s the story.

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4. The Wall Street Journal. “Health Law to Cut Into Labor Force; Report Forecasts More People Will Opt to Work Less as They Seek Coverage Through Affordable Care Act.” Folks, we have a winner — a headline that accurately reflects what the CBO actually said. Good story, too. (To get around the Journal’s paywall, enter the headline at Google News. Don’t worry. Rupert knows about it and says it’s OK.)

The problem with deceptive or incomplete headlines is that few people get past them or the partisan attacks they reflect. What House Speaker John Boehner (quoted in the Times story) said is simply flat-out wrong: “The middle class is getting squeezed in this economy, and this CBO report confirms that Obamacare is making it worse.”

As U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., put it in a conversation with reporters (also quoted in the Times): “You guys are going to politicize it no matter what happens.”

Journalists need to resist the urge.

Headline images via the Newseum’s “Today’s Front Pages.”

Globe editor McGrory gets vote of confidence

The Boston Business Journal has an interview with new Boston Globe chief executive Mike Sheehan, who tells Jon Chesto that he’s a fan of Globe editor Brian McGrory.

So it would appear that McGrory’s job is safe — as it should be. He’s done a terrific job in the year-plus he’s served since taking over for Marty Baron, now the top editor at The Washington Post.

Can Aaron Kushner go the distance?

Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.

Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.

This commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

Has Orange County Register owner Aaron Kushner run into nothing more than a bit of turbulence from which he can recover? Or do the layoffs he announced last week show that his plan to resuscitate the newspaper business by hiring more journalists and doubling down on print is fundamentally flawed?

I hope it’s the former — not just because I’d like to see him prove everybody wrong (including me) about the future of news, but because I’m planning to include him in a book about a new breed of media moguls who are using their personal wealth and smarts to innovate their way toward a brighter future. (News of the layoffs was broken by Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly, which has taken a jaundiced view of Kushner’s ownership.)

Trouble is, there have been hints previously that Kushner, 40, lacked the sheer financial firepower of Boston Globe owner John Henry or Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a little background on what’s unfolding in Southern California.

Kushner, who bought the Register in 2012 for $50 million, was the most celebrated new newspaper owner in the country before he was eclipsed in August of last year by Bezos and Henry. “Can Aaron Kushner save the Orange County Register — and the newspaper industry?” asked the Columbia Journalism Review last May. As CJR’s Ryan Chittum explained it, Kushner’s vision was based on:

  • Lavish attention to the print product, including more pages and an upgrade in the quality of paper.
  • A move away from free or even reduced-price content online, with Internet users paying exactly the same fees as print subscribers.
  • An increase in the size of the newsroom staff, as he added 140 journalists to the 180 who were there when he bought the paper.

Nor was Kushner content with pumping up the Orange County Register. Last August he started a new daily, the Long Beach Register. He bought The Press-Enterprise of Riverside. And in his most audacious move yet, he announced plans to start a Los Angeles Register to compete with the Los Angeles Times, once among the best newspapers in the country and still formidable. (LA is also home to a second paper, the Los Angeles Daily News.)

Then, last week, came a significant setback. Not everyone agrees on the figures, but Ken Bensinger of the LA Times reported that Kushner laid off about 35 people at the Orange County Register and 39 at The Press-Enterprise. Register editor Ken Brusic and other top editors left. Rob Curley, who had overseen digital initiatives at papers at the Washington Post and the Las Vegas Sun, was promoted to the top position.

“We are evaluating our cost structure for the next leg of our journey in terms of covering Orange County and LA County,” Kushner told New York Times media columnist David Carr, who noted that Kushner plans to plunge ahead with his idea for a Los Angeles paper without adding any staff. Carr wrote:

By amortizing the costs of all the journalists he hired over a bigger market, he can achieve savings in terms of production while adding marginal readers and advertising.

He clearly sees himself as a smart entrepreneur making bold bets. I see a man on a wire, with millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs at stake.

As for past hints that Kushner may not be well-heeled enough to play the long game, you may recall that, several years ago, he tried to buy The Boston Globe. (The Globe’s then-owner, the New York Times Co., apparently showed no interest, and Kushner later struck out on a bid to purchase Maine’s Portland Press Herald.)

Before Kushner gave up on his Globe dream, though, Katherine Ozment wrote an in-depth profile of him for Boston magazine. Among other things, Ozment attempted to show precisely how Kushner had made a fortune in the greeting-card business, his major claim to fame up to that time. What she found was a haze of acquisitions, layoffs and charges (which Kushner denied) that he was late in paying artists, sales reps and the like.

Eventually Kushner left his company after some sort of falling-out with the investors, though he told Ozment he remained part of ownership. “I had a vision for the business, and they had a very different vision, and they controlled the working capital, so we decided to move on,” he said.

Despite that possible warning sign, it has to be noted that the Orange County Register remains a much more richly staffed paper today than when Kushner bought it. In a memo to his staff published by the blog LA Observed after the layoffs were announced, Kushner wrote that he now has 370 journalists — uh, make that “content team members” — covering Orange County and Los Angeles County, up from 198 a year and a half ago.

An optimistic take would be that Kushner got ahead of himself and is now retrenching, but not retreating. No doubt we’ll know a lot more as 2014 unfolds.

Photo (cc) by CSUF Photos and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Conflicts of interest and the new media moguls

5790408612_8952178d3f_mWashington Post executive editor Martin Baron has rejected a demand by a group of left-leaning activists that the Post more fully disclose Amazon.com’s business dealings with the CIA.

Nearly 33,000 people have signed an online petition put together by RootsAction, headed by longtime media critic Norman Solomon, to call attention to Amazon’s $600 million contract to provide cloud services to the CIA. The Post’s owner is Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. Here is the text of the petition:

A basic principle of journalism is to acknowledge when the owner of a media outlet has a major financial relationship with the subject of coverage. We strongly urge the Washington Post to be fully candid with its readers about the fact that the newspaper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, is the founder and CEO of Amazon which recently landed a $600 million contract with the CIA. The Washington Post’s coverage of the CIA should include full disclosure that the sole owner of the Post is also the main owner of Amazon — and Amazon is now gaining huge profits directly from the CIA.

Baron, in his response, argues that the Post “has among the strictest ethics policies in the field of journalism, and we vigorously enforce it. We have routinely disclosed corporate conflicts when they were directly relevant to our coverage. We reported on Amazon’s pursuit of CIA contracts in our coverage of plans by Jeff Bezos to purchase The Washington Post.” Baron goes on to point out that the Post has been a leader in reporting on the National Security Agency and on the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian government’s fight against an insurgency, writing:

You can be sure neither the NSA nor the CIA has been pleased with publication of their secrets.

Neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos was involved, nor ever will be involved, in our coverage of the intelligence community.

(Note: I first learned about the petition from Greg Mitchell’s blog, Pressing Issues.)

The exchange between RootsAction and Baron highlights the conflicts of interest that can arise when wealthy individuals such as Bezos buy in to the newspaper business. It’s a situation that affects The Boston Globe as well, as its editors juggle the lower-stakes conflict between John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and his majority interest in the Red Sox.

Baron himself is not unfamiliar with the Red Sox conflict, as the New York Times Co., from whom Henry bought the Globe, owned a minority stake in the team and in New England Sports Network, which carries Red Sox games, during most of Baron’s years as Globe editor.

The way the Globe handled it during those years was just about right: don’t disclose in sports stories, but disclose whenever the paper covers the Red Sox as a business. Current Globe editor Brian McGrory has insisted that Henry will not interfere. Henry, in a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week, said he would not breech the wall of separation between the Globe’s news operations and its business interests.

Of course, it’s not as though the era in which news organizations were typically owned by publicly traded corporations was free of such conflicts. (The Times Co., after all, is a publicly traded corporation, though the Sulzberger family calls the shots.) Media critic Danny Schechter noted in his book “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception” that MSNBC — then in its pre-liberal phase — was a cheerleader for the war in Iraq even as its then-corporate parent, General Electric Co., was a leading military contractor.

But the rise of a new breed of media moguls such as Bezos, Henry and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register, who buy their way into the news business with their own personal wealth, seems likely to bring the issue of conflicts to the fore. The same is true of a media entrepreneur of a different sort — eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is launching an online venture called First Look Media with (among others) the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

It is the very fact that these individuals have been successful that makes them such intriguing players in the quest to reinvent the news business. But disclosure and non-interference need to be at the forefront of their ethical codes.

Chris Mayer to step down as Globe publisher

Chris Mayer

Chris Mayer

Boston Globe publisher Chris Mayer was his usual affable self when we exchanged New Year’s greetings this morning at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. He knew something very few others knew — that he would be announcing his departure before the end of the day. But no doubt he’d come to terms with that as early as last August, when Red Sox principal owner John Henry agreed to buy the paper from the New York Times Co. for $70 million.

Mayer, like me and several hundred other people, had turned out for a breakfast speech by Henry before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. The soft-spoken Henry didn’t make much news. He talked about his soccer and baseball teams for so long that I wondered if he would ever get around to his newspaper. When he did, it was to say he planned to apply the same formula to turning around the Globe that he did to reviving the Red Sox — hard work and smarts, leavened, he hoped, with good fortune.

“No one has a magic bullet for newspapers,” Henry said. “We have to get it right at the Globe, and we’ll work as hard as we need to do to do that.” And though he talked about boosting the paper’s coverage in areas in which it excels — particularly in local coverage — he conceded that it meant cutting back in some other, unspecified areas as well.

If it’s smarts that Henry is looking for, Mayer has plenty. A longtime Globe veteran who got the top job in 2010 following a string of Times Co. executives, Mayer was a popular choice both inside and outside 135 Morrissey Blvd. Moreover, he deserves much of the credit for some key business-side decisions made in recent years, such as raising the price of the print edition and introducing the paper’s two-website strategy — the subscription-based BostonGlobe.com and the free Boston.com.

Still, it’s hardly a surprise that the new owner would want to pick his own publisher. Last week came word that the Globe was hiring Hill Holliday chairman Mike Sheehan as an advertising consultant, a move that seemed more Henry than Mayer. And this morning Henry announced that he was seeking a chief operating officer to run the Globe — a person who, one might assume, could be handed the title of publisher as well. (Craig Douglas of the Boston Business Journal covers Mayer’s departure here and Henry’s talk here.)

With Mayer leaving, it’s time to start wondering how committed Henry is to keeping Brian McGrory as the Globe’s editor. Owners hire publishers; publishers hire editors. And Mayer’s successor may want to put his or her mark on the paper by choosing the Globe’s top news executive. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have done a better job than McGrory, who oversaw the paper’s Pulitzer-caliber coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings as well as important enterprise projects. But it’s hard to imagine how Mayer could have done a better job, either.

The message today, in case anyone had missed it before, is that Henry didn’t inherit the Globe — he bought it. And though he seems sincere in talking about the paper as a public trust, he’s making it clear that he intends to run it as he sees fit.

A big hire for the Globe — and an intriguing idea

This may not be an exact analogy, but it looks like The Boston Globe is thinking in terms of networks. The paper just announced a major hire — John Allen, who covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter. And the press release includes this intriguing quote from Globe editor Brian McGrory:

He will be a correspondent first and foremost. He will be an analyst on all things Catholic. He will also help us explore the very real possibility of launching a free-standing publication devoted to Catholicism, drawing in other correspondents and leading voices from near and far.

Allowing entrepreneurial journalists like Ezra Klein to operate semi-independently inside a traditional news operation like The Washington Post is one way to embrace the network. Another way is to do what the Globe is considering — treat the news organization as a hub, with various spokes feeding into it.

Swartz case leads Media Nation’s top 10 of 2013

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

Last January, not long after the young Internet genius Aaron Swartz committed suicide, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate wrote powerfully about the abusive prosecutorial tactics that may have led to his death.

Swartz faced a lengthy federal prison sentence for downloading academic articles at MIT without authorization. Even though the publisher, JSTOR, declined to press charges, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz brought a case agains Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Silverglate put it, the law is “a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.”

Silverglate’s article was republished in Media Nation with the permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where it originally appeared. And it was far and away the most viewed article in Media Nation in 2013.

Today we present Media Nation’s top 10 posts for 2013, based on statistics compiled by WordPress.com. They represent a range of topics — from the vicissitudes of talk radio to a media conflict of interest, from Rolling Stone’s controversial cover image of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the sad, sudden death of The Boston Phoenix.

The top 10 is by no means representative of the year in media. Certainly the biggest story about journalism in 2013 involved the National Security Agency secrets revealed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post — a story that did not make the cut at Media Nation.

Here, then, is our unrepresentative sample for the past 12 months.

1. Harvey Silverglate on the Aaron Swartz case (Jan. 24). Few people were more qualified to weigh in on U.S. Attorney Ortiz’s abusive tactics than Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator, who several years ago wrote “Three Felonies a Day,” a book on how the federal justice system has spun out of control. But Silverglate’s take wasn’t the only article about Swartz to generate interest in Media Nation. The aftermath of Swartz’s suicide also came in at No. 11 (“The Globe turns up the heat on Carmen Ortiz,” Jan. 11) and No. 13 (“Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice,” Jan. 14). In a bit of poetic justice, a project Swartz was working on at the time of his death — software that allows whistleblowers to submit documents without being identified — was unveiled by The New Yorker just several months after his suicide.

2. The New Republic’s new owner crosses a line (Jan. 28). A little more than a year ago, the venerable New Republic was saved by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who is using some of his fortune to restore the magazine to relevance and fiscal health. But he crossed an ethical line last January when he took part in an interview with President Obama, whose campaign he had worked on, and tossed a series of softball questions his way. At the time I wrote that Hughes was guilty of “no more than a minor misstep.” So how did it rise to No. 2? It turns out that a number of right-leaning websites picked up on it, bringing a considerable amount of traffic to Media Nation that I normally don’t receive.

3. Dailies go wild over sports controversies (Aug. 30). Four months after publishing this item, I find it hard to make heads or tails of what was going on. But essentially Globe-turned-Herald sportswriter Ron Borges contributed to a Rolling Stone article on the Aaron Hernandez murder case, which generated some tough criticism from both the Globe and the well-known blog Boston Sports Media Watch. That was followed almost immediately by a Globe article on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850), which brought yet more tough talk from, among others, ’EEI morning co-host Gerry Callahan, who also happens to write a column for the Herald. Yes, Boston is a small town.

4. Rolling Stone’s controversial cover (July 17). I thought it was brilliant. I still do. The accusion that Rolling Stone was trying to turn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into some sort of pop-culture hero is absurd and offensive — and not borne out by the well-reported article that the cover was designed to illustrate.

5. Glenn Ordway walks the ratings plank (Feb. 14). Ordway built sports talker WEEI into a ratings monster only to see its numbers crater in the face of competition from the Sports Hub (WBZ-FM, 98.5). Ordway was by no means the problem with WEEI. But station management decided it could no longer afford his $500,000 contract, and so that was it for the Big O.

6. A big moment for The Boston Globe (Dec. 17). It was actually a big year for the Globe, from its riveting coverage of the marathon bombing and the standoff that led to the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the paper’s acquisition by Red Sox principal owner John Henry. But two days in mid-December were emblematic of the paper’s continuing excellence and relevance — a long, detailed exposé of the Tsarnaev family that revealed Dzhokhar, rather than his older brother, Tamerlan, may have been the driving force behind the bombing; an investigation into a case of alleged “medical child abuse” that pitted a Connecticut family against Children’s Hospital; and a nationally celebrated series of tweets by staff reporter Billy Baker about a Boston teenager from a poor family who had been admitted to Yale.

7. The Boston Phoenix reaches the end of the road (March 14). A stalwart of the alternative-weekly scene and my professional home from 1991 to 2005, the Phoenix was a voice of incalculable importance. But with even the legendary Village Voice struggling to survive, the alt-weekly moment may have passed. At the time of its death, the Phoenix had more than 100,000 readers — but little revenue, as advertising had dried up and both the print edition and the website were free. I scribbled a few preliminary thoughts in this post, and later wrote something more coherent for PBS MediaShift.

8. The return of Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (Feb. 6). Eagan and Braude’s morning show was the one bright spot on WTKK Radio, an otherwise run-of-the-mill right-wing talk station that had been taken off the air a month earlier. So it was good news indeed when the pair was hired to host “Boston Public Radio” from noon to 2 p.m. on public station WGBH (89.7 FM). (Note: (I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” where Eagan is a frequent panelist.)

9. Joe Scarborough grapples with history — and loses (Feb. 17). Asking cable blowhard Scarborough to write a review for The New York Times Book Review about the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon could have been a smart, counterintuitive move. But it only works if the writer in question is, you know, smart.

10. The bell tolls for WTKK Radio (Jan. 3). As I already mentioned, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan were able to walk away from the rubble of WTKK, which was shut down by corporate owner Greater Media and turned into an urban music station. Just a few years earlier the station had been a ratings success with trash-talking hosts like Jay Severin and Michael Graham. But tastes change — sometimes for the better.

Photo (cc) by Maria Jesus V and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

More on those inflated digital circulation numbers

Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal takes on a subject that I tackled recently: trying to make sense of The Boston Globe’s paid circulation figures at a time when no one seems to know how to count print and digital sales.

As Chesto and a number of us have observed, the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), whose numbers are considered to be the industry standard, has gotten carried away with digital subscriptions, allowing the Globe and other newspapers to count some subscribers two or even three times. Chesto writes:

This potential for discrepancies and confusion is one reason why the AAM board, which oversees how newspaper circulations are reported to advertisers, is weighing whether to tighten its rules.

It’s hard these days to get a precise number for unique paying subscribers, a figure that AAM was generally able to provide, back when it was known as the Audit Bureau of Circulations, and readership was essentially measured by the number of copies sold.

There’s no question we need a standard that everyone can agree on and that makes sense. Paid digital has enabled the Globe to improve its circulation numbers, and that’s fine. But the AAM system is so out of whack that it’s in danger of not being taken seriously.