Tag Archives: Joan Shorenstein Center

Journalism in the age of “facts optional” politics

Image (1) B_Kirtz.jpg for post 10773By Bill Kirtz

Three prominent journalists Wednesday criticized traditional “he said/she said” reporting that gives equal weight to truth and falsehood.

Their comments came at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

New York Times White House correspondent Jackie Calmes noted her frustration when interviewing politicians who misstate facts. “It’s not my place to tell them they’re wrong,” she said.

Lee Aitken, who helped direct Thomson Reuters’ coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign, expanded on that remark. She criticized the “false equivalence ” of giving equal space to correct and incorrect assertions and taking refuge by saying, “We reported both sides.”

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts said that nowadays, it’s OK to be “facts optional.” As a example, he mentioned Arizona Republican Sen. John Kyl’s  false claim in 2011 that well over 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s activity was devoted to performing abortions. Soon after being challenged about that assertion, one of his staffers said it was “not intended to be a factual statement.”

Former senator Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, joined the journalists in deploring the presentation of wild misstatements as truth. He cited the frequent assertion that the United States spends 30 to 40 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid, when the real figure is two-thirds of one percent.

He said the media are interested in only three things — conflict, confusion and controversy — and has forgotten the vital need for clarity.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Four takeaways from new owner John Henry’s message to readers of The Boston Globe

John Henry at celebration of the Red Sox' 2007 World Series victory.

John Henry in October 2007

This article was published earlier in the Nieman Journalism Lab and The Huffington Post.

John Henry’s nearly 2,900-word message to readers of The Boston Globe could have been little more than an exercise in public relations, standing up for what is good and deploring what is bad.

There’s a lot of that, of course. We’re only into the second paragraph before he dutifully informs us that the Globe “is the eyes and ears of the region in some ways, the heartbeat in many others.” But Henry, a billionaire financier who is the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, is also unexpectedly revealing about himself and how he intends to run the Globe. (Henry purchased the Globe, its BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com websites, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and several smaller properties from the New York Times Co. for $70 million. The sale, announced in August, closed last week following a brief delay over a labor dispute at the T&G. Henry also made a bit of news when folks at the T&G noticed that his message omitted Worcester entirely.)

Henry’s piece, headlined “Why I bought the Globe,” takes up a full page in the Opinion section of Sunday’s paper. It’s teased on the front page as well. He writes about his life, the Red Sox, the financially struggling news business and what he thinks needs to be done to set it on a sustainable path. Here are what I think are the most important takeaways.

1. He plans to be an activist owner. Just the atmospherics of the essay itself are a pretty strong indication that Henry does not see this as a passive investment. He wants to be the face of the Globe.

To counter his image as a reserved, slightly eccentric rich guy who dabbles in sports, Henry goes into some detail about his involvement in the civil-rights movement and his subsequent retreat “into what most of my friends thought was my primary talent at the time — writing and performing rock music.”

Somewhere along the way he made a lot of money, but he writes about that only briefly. Instead, he describes his stewardship of the Red Sox as a possible model for what he intends to do with the Globe:

When we acquired the Red Sox, profit was literally at the bottom of our list of goals. We were determined to do whatever it took to win.

Now I see The Boston Globe and all that it represents as another great Boston institution that is worth fighting for.

Here’s another intriguing example of what sort of profile Henry intends for himself as the Globe’s owner: Recently the Boston Business Journal reported that toxic waste at the Globe’s Dorchester property could complicate any plans Henry might have to develop the site and move the paper to a cheaper location. Henry used his Twitter feed to dispute the BBJ’s story and slam an earlier piece about the Globe’s break-up with a classified-ad site called Cars.com:

A feisty newspaper owner who fights back in public? Bring it on. That’s certainly an improvement over the gray management style of the Times Co.

2. He’s looking for advice in all the right places. If the Globe and other large regional dailies are going to survive and prosper, they need to develop new ways of doing business. So it’s encouraging that Henry mentions alliances the paper already has with Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, the MIT Media Lab and the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Henry also gives a shout-out to Clay Shirky, which I take as a signal that Henry is reading and talking to the right people. It doesn’t sound like he intends to take the approach adopted by Aaron Kushner, a one-time Globe suitor who’s winning plaudits for trying to revive the Orange County Register by focusing on the print edition. The Globe has been a leader in digital journalism. So it’s good news that Henry sounds like he’s going to double down on innovation.

3. He has some retro ideas about paid content. Near the top of his commentary, Henry repeats an old trope, writing that newspapers have been losing money because “Readers were flocking from the papers to the Internet, consuming expensive journalism for free.”

Now, I’ve got nothing against charging for digital subscriptions, and the Globe has had some success with that — 39,000 at last count. But it’s important to keep in mind what newspaper owners are up against in asking readers to pay for online access.

As has often been said, newspaper readers never paid for the news — they paid for the expense of printing and delivering the paper, with advertisers picking up the rest. These days, readers are paying — a lot — for their own printing presses (computers, tablets and smartphones) and their own delivery (broadband and cellular access). It’s perfectly understandable that they don’t want to pay more.

What went wrong was not that newspapers started giving away their content but, rather, that the advertising model collapsed, especially from classifieds. Henry understands this, writing, “I feel strongly that newspapers and their news sites are going to rely upon the support of subscribers to a large extent in order to provide what readers want.”

I wish any newspaper owner well in persuading readers to pay for journalism. But we have to understand that we are asking them to do something they’ve never done before: pay for news in addition to paying for printing and delivery. We need to be humble about how much we’re asking of our audience.

4. He wants the Globe to act as a guide to the larger conversation. One of the most important roles professional journalism can play is to aggregate and curate the torrent of information — not just when big news breaks, but on a daily basis.

The New York Times does this with The Lede; the Globe does it from time to time, as it did following the Boston Marathon bombing. The idea is to become the go-to place for trustworthy links to other news sources, blogs and citizen media. Henry clearly gets that, writing:

We will provide what we will call the Globe Standard when it comes to curated links that will ensure our readers do not waste their time when they click on news, reviews, writers, columnists, ecommerce, events, opportunities, and social engagement from any of our platforms.

One thing Henry gets absolutely right is that the newspaper business is not now and never was compatible with ownership by publicly traded corporations and the quarterly demands of Wall Street. For more than a generation, corporate chains slashed newsrooms, first to drive up profit margins, later to stave off mounting losses. The debt they took on to build their chains is one of the prime reasons for their inability to set themselves on a new path. Henry understands that.

“I soon realized that one of the key things the paper needed in order to prosper was private, local ownership, passionate about its mission,” Henry writes. Farther down, he adds: “But this investment isn’t about profit at all. It’s about sustainability. Any great paper, the Globe included, must generate enough revenue to support its vital mission.”

Leaving aside the obvious fact that profit is a key to sustainability, Henry articulates a vision in which journalism comes first — which is another way of saying the customer comes first. Too many newspaper owners have forgotten that.

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

Floyd Abrams throws a curveball

Legendary First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams delivered the Richard S. Salant Lecture on Freedom of the Press on Thursday evening at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. And it was something of a surprise.

Rather than railing against the evils of government censorship, Abrams instead chose to focus on situations in which he believes the media have abused their freedoms. He was especially criticial of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks — not a new stance for him, but nevertheless counterintuitive given Abrams’ fierce defense of the First Amendment.

I put together a Storify about Abrams’ talk, which you can view by clicking here.

Marty Baron on the rise of specialized communities

Marty Baron at The Washington Post. Click on image to watch interview.

Marty Baron at The Washington Post. Click on image to watch interview.

Based on recent statements they’ve made, I’m wondering if Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron may have a more sophisticated view of what the Internet has done to newspapers than the Post’s incoming owner, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos, who visited the Post’s newsroom earlier this month, seemed to endorse a classic paywall model, arguing that he was convinced people were willing to pay for the “daily ritual bundle” that The Washington Post represents. That brought a retort from Post blogger Timothy B. Lee, who wrote:

That daily ritual got blown up for good reason. Trying to recreate the “bundle” experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today. In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.

Indeed, many news observers have been arguing for years that one of the Internet’s most profound effects on journalism is “disaggregation” — that in a post-industrial environment, with news no longer tied to the enormous costs of printing and distribution, it makes no sense for international and local news, obituaries and comics, grocery store coupons and the crossword puzzle all to appear in the same place.

Baron, the editor of The Boston Globe until late last year, comes up with another metaphor, not original to him but nevertheless key to understanding what has happened — the decline of geographic communities and the rise of communities built around shared interests. In an interview with fellows from the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Baron talks about the difficulty of putting together (to cite one example) a newspaper sports section for Red Sox fans when there are speciality media devoted to nothing but sports.

This development, Baron says, was furthered by the rise of Twitter and other social media, which bring readers in to a news site to read just one article. How can news organizations make money from that? Baron puts it this way:

My sense is that people are going to their passions. Their passions aren’t always based on geography. Newspapers have traditionally been based on geography. We have a community here. We have a community in Miami, a community in Boston, a community in Los Angeles. The assumption was that people were members of that community actually would want to have a product that covered the full range of things in that community. What I observed over time was that, in fact, the sense of community wasn’t nearly as strong as the other passions that people had. In fact, community wasn’t necessarily such a strong passion. It was much more important to them that they were an aficionado of a particular type of music, or that they were a member of a particular religious denomination or that they were obsessed with a particular sports team, than the fact that they lived in Los Angeles.

Unlike some journalists, Baron thinks it was perfectly logical to give away news for free in the early years of the Internet, both because of the need to get big online in a hurry and because there was every reason to believe that advertising would pay the bills. It was only after ad revenues failed to materialize (and even began to drop because of the ubiquity of online ads), he says, that news organizations reluctantly moved to paywalls.

The transcript of Baron’s full interview is here, and it is well worth reading — or watching, as there is a video version of the interview as well.

Baron was one of 61 people interviewed for “Riptide,” a project carried out by Shorenstein fellows John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan. (The site was designed by the Nieman Journalism Lab, which also hosts it — but which played no role in the editorial content, as Lab director Joshua Benton explains.) “Riptide” is a comprehensive, valuable resource — but it has proved to be controversial since its release because it’s not comprehensive enough.

As Kira Goldenberg writes for the Columbia Journalism Review, all but five of the 61 interview subjects are men, and only two of the subjects are non-white. Goldenberg says that efforts have begun to produce a counter-report that will be more diverse. In offering a few nominations of her own, Northeastern University graduate student Meg Heckman adds:

It’s unfortunate that, in telling the latest chapter of journalism history in a fresh, narrative format, the authors of Riptide make an old mistake by continuing to devalue the contributions of women.

My own view is that “Riptide” represents a good start — but that there’s no reason for Huey, Nisenholtz and Sagan not to keep going so that it eventually grows into a truly comprehensive, diverse history of how the Internet disrupted journalism.

(Disclosures, of which there are several: I am an unpaid contributing writer for the Nieman Journalism Lab. I have long had a friendly relationship with folks at the Nieman Foundation and at the Shorenstein Center. Heckman is a student of mine, and I am a student of hers.)

Goldsmith investigative award goes to the Chicago Tribune

Now it can be told. The Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting was awarded on Tuesday evening to the Chicago Tribune for its “Playing with Fire” series, on an unholy alliance between the chemical and tobacco industries. As the Tribune puts it:

The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world. The toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home, packed into couches, chairs and many other products. Two powerful industries — Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers — waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of these chemicals, which don’t even work as promised.

If you are interested in learning more about the Goldsmith event, please click here for a Storify put together by the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School, which administers the awards. (A few of the tweets are mine.) It includes coverage of the keynote address by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who received the Goldsmith career award.

Goldsmith awards reflect the changing media landscape

I recently had the privilege of helping to judge more than 100 entries for the 2013 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, which is administered by Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center. We chose six finalists, which were announced immediately, and a winner, which will be honored on Tuesday evening.

At a time when news organizations are struggling to survive, it was heartening to see so much good work. But the finalists also show how the world of investigative journalism is changing.

For instance, two of the newspapers that made it to the finalists’ circle, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, are owned by the troubled Tribune Co., which recently came out of bankruptcy and is now up for sale. If Tribune Co. ends up with the wrong owner, investigative excellence at its newspapers could become a thing of the past.

On the other hand, another finalist was produced by a collabortion among nonprofit news organizations: the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, Public Radio International and the Investigative News Network. This is no longer surprising. Rather, it is further evidence that nonprofits are essential to carrying out public-service journalism.

Further evidence of the way things are in 2013: two of the finalists were produced by the New York Times, which, despite financial problems of its own, is more firmly established today as our leading news organization than perhaps at any other time in our history.

The sixth finalist is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Cox paper that has been experiencing something of a revival in recent years.

The finalists’ entries themselves run the gamut, from sexual abuse in Boy Scout troops, to Walmart’s corporate misbehavior in Mexico, to how the chemical and tobacco industries conspired to foist toxic flame retardants upon the public.

In addition to the investigative reporting award, also to be presented on Tuesday will be the Career Award for Excellence in Journalism, which will go to keynote speaker Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times. The Goldsmith Book Prize will go to Jonathan M. Ladd for “Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters” and Rebecca MacKinnon for “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.”

The event, which is open to the public, will begin at 6 p.m. in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at 79 JFK St. near Harvard Square.

David Brooks, 140 characters at a time

David Brooks speaking at the Kennedy School. Photo by Lauren Schaad. Original in the Storify referenced below.

New York Times columnist David Brooks ripped into the Republican Party for failing to come to grips with a country whose diversity is on the rise. The Republicans, he said Thursday evening at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, were “a lagging indicator” in the demographic changes that have taken place over the past several decades, and that helped shape the election results last week.

Brooks delivered the Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics, an annual program presented by the Kennedy Schools’ Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. His talk was precededed by the presentation of the David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism to Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker.

A lot of people were live-tweeting the event, and the Shorenstein Center put together a Storify that you can read by clicking here. My own tweets follow.

Rory O’Connor to read from his new book

Backscratching Day festivities continue with my interview at thephoenix.com with old friend Rory O’Connor. The occasion is O’Connor’s excellent new book, “Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands and Killing Traditional Media,” published by City Lights.

O’Connor will appear on Tuesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at the Brookline Booksmith to talk about his book and sign. His book grew out of a semester he spent a few years ago at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center after stepping down as editorial director of NewsTrust. The idea behind NewsTrust was that an online community could identify and evaluate journalism with respect to sourcing, fairness and the like. Unfortunately, O’Connor discovered that too many of the people who joined NewsTrust were pushing a political agenda.

Among the more provocative ideas that O’Connor discusses in “Friends, Followers and the Future” is that Facebook is actually a fairly effective platform for sharing diverse sources of information, since members tend to cultivate a lot of “weak ties” with acquaintances whose political views and life experiences may be quite different from their own.

The larger issue, in O’Connor’s view, is trust. We no longer fully trust legacy media, whether it’s the New York Times or Fox News. Facebook, Google and other online services present their own trust issues. “But I’m optimistic,” he concludes, “that ultimately the ongoing digital information revolution will help us not only to trust, but also to verify.”

An entertaining look at the New York Times

David Carr torments a flack at Tribune Co.

At long last, I got to see “Page One: Inside the New York Times” at a screening last night at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. It’s a terrifically entertaining look at the culture inside the Times newsroom, focusing on the media desk’s coverage of the newspaper meltdown of 2009 and ’10. I brought a couple of students with me, and they were pretty enthusiastic about it as we were driving back to Northeastern.

As you have no doubt heard, the stars are columnist David Carr and reporter Brian Stelter, two people whose talents, though formidable, pale in comparison to their inhuman productivity. Carr easily slips into the role of Carr, a late-middle-aged reformed drug addict who genially F-bombs his way through interviews and public appearances, building up to his monumental takedown of Tribune Co. and its abusive owner, Sam Zell. Stelter, young and earnest, is the perfect counterpoint. (I know both of them slightly, Carr better than Stelter.)

Director Andrew Rossi and Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones kicked it around afterwards.

An obsessive media junkie probably won’t learn much, but I really enjoyed being immersed in Timesland for 90 minutes. Quibbles? As a friend observed, the documentary was heavily tilted toward men, which seems odd given that before it ends, we see the executive editor’s baton being passed from Bill Keller to Jill Abramson.

And though it was unavoidable, the sense of panic that pervaded the business when the film was being shot has abated to at least some degree. We’re hardly out of the woods. It seems that every day, we hear about cost-cutting and layoffs. But the notion that was prevalent a year or two ago, that the entire newspaper business was in its death throes, now appears to have been exaggerated. If “Page One” were shot today, I suspect it would be more optimistic.

Waterboarding and the T-word

A recent study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School, shows that our largest newspapers invariably referred to waterboarding as torture before the Bush-Cheney administration began using it on terrorism suspects — and almost never thereafter.

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that the media’s failure to call waterboarding by its proper name helped contribute to a dishonest conversation about what was done in our name during the darkest years of the Bush presidency.