Tag Archives: Washington Post

Tales of two newspapers, one rising, one falling

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 8.32.23 AMOn the East Coast, The Washington Post is in the midst of a revival that could return the storied newspaper to its former status as a serious competitor to The New York Times for national and international news. On the West Coast, the Orange County Register is rapidly sinking into the pit from which it had only recently crawled.

The two contrasting stories are told by the Columbia Journalism Review’s Michael Meyer, who writes about the Post in the early months of the Jeff Bezos era, and Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly, who’s been all over Aaron Kushner since his arrival as the Register’s principal owner in 2012.

First the Post, which has been the subject of considerable fascination since Amazon founder Bezos announced last August (just a few days after John Henry said he would buy The Boston Globe) that he would purchase the paper from the Graham family for $250 million.

Bezos’ vision, as best as Meyer could discern (Bezos, as is his wont, did not give him an interview), is to leave the journalists alone and work on ways to expand the Post’s digital audience across a variety of platforms. Meyer describes a meeting that Bezos held in Seattle with executive editor Marty Baron and other top managers:

Baron says he came away from the weekend in Seattle with a clear sense of what the Post’s mission would be in the coming year: It had to have “a more expansive national vision” in order to achieve the ultimate goal of substantially growing its digital audience. Baron brought this directive back to the newsroom, and the editors set about building a plan for 2014, a year managing editor Kevin Merida dubbed “the year of ambition.” At one point in the budgeting process, Bezos even admonished the leadership for not thinking big enough. “I think that we had been in the mode of sort of watching our pennies,” Baron told me. “We were just being more cautious at the beginning so he came back with an indication that we should be more ambitious.”

Among the more perplexing moves (to me at least) that the Post has made under Bezos has been to cut deals with more than 100 daily papers across the country so that paid subscribers to those papers would receive free digital access to the Post as well. Locally, the papers include the Portland Press Herald as well as Digital First Media’s papers, such as The Sun of Lowell, The Berkshire Eagle and the New Haven Register.

Journalistically, it’s a good deal for subscribers, since they get free access to a high-quality national news source. But no money changes hands. So how is it any better for the Post than simply offering a free advertiser-supported website, as it did until instituting a metered paywall last year? Meyer tells me by email that “the reason they are doing this is for customer data. A logged in, regular user is a lot more data rich than someone who just happens across your site from time to time.” He adds:

Data is the key difference between this program and just having a free website. And another key difference to my mind is psychological. The readers of partner newspapers feel like they’re being given something that would otherwise not be free. This adds value in terms of how they view their subscriptions to their home newspapers. And also adds value in terms of how they view the Post’s content. My guess is they will use the service more as a result.

And as Meyer writes in his story, “Anyone interested in seeing how consumer data might be used in the hands of Jeff Bezos can go to Amazon.com and watch the company’s algorithms try to predict their desires.”

aaron-kushner-orange-county-register-financial-crisis.9842609.87The story Gustavo Arellano tells about Aaron Kushner and the Orange County Register has become well-known in recent weeks, in large measure because of Arellano’s own coverage in the OC Weekly. Kushner has spent 2014 rapidly dismantling what he spent 2012 and 2013 building up.

As I wrote recently in The Huffington Post, it makes no sense to invest in growth unless you have enough money to wait and see how it plays out, which is clearly the case with Bezos at the Post and Henry at the Globe — and which now is clearly not the case with Kushner and the Register.

The Orange County meltdown was also the subject of an unusually nasty blog post earlier this month by Clay Shirky, who criticized Ryan Chittum of the CJR and Ken Doctor of Newsonomics and the Nieman Journalism Lab for overlooking the weaknesses in Kushner’s expansion. (Chittum and Doctor wrote detailed, thoughtful responses, and I’ve linked to both of them in the comments of a piece I wrote about the kerfuffle for WGBHNews.org.)

Arellano has gotten hold of some internal documents that make it clear that Kushner’s expansionary dreams were doomed from the start. He also paints a picture of a poisoned newsroom and offers lots of anonymous quotes to back it up.

“I wouldn’t say I got hoodwinked,” he quotes one former staff member as saying, “but it’s just another lesson of life: If it’s too good to be true, it is.”

I recently criticized Arellano for his overreliance on anonymous quotes, although I freely concede that I used them regularly when I was covering the media for The Boston Phoenix in the 1990s and the early ’00s. This time, he includes a clear explanation of why almost none of his sources would go on the record: fear of “reprisal or the endangerment of their buyout, which included a nondisclosure clause.” Given that, I think the story is stronger with the quotes than without.

Arellano writes:

In retrospect, it seems obvious Kushner set himself up for failure, like a Jenga tower depending on every precariously placed block. He installed himself as publisher despite having no previous newspaper experience. A hard paywall — his most controversial move — was erected to force readers to buy the print edition in an era when online content is king. To justify that, Kushner plunged into a hiring binge that saw the Register sign up hundreds of employees even though it didn’t have the revenue to pay them. To fund his vision, the sales department was tasked with selling all those points despite an industry-wide decline in print advertising during the past decade.

It’s a sad, ugly moment for a tale that began so optimistically. As for whether this will prove to be the end of the story — well, it sure looks that way, although Kushner insists he’s merely slowed down. After two years of hiring binges and layoffs, the launch and virtual folding of the Long Beach Register, and the inexplicably odd decision to start a Los Angeles Register to compete with the mighty Times, Kushner is clearly down to his last chance — if that.

A few quibbles with Clay Shirky’s ‘Nostalgia and Newspapers’

printing1_large

Gutenberg-era printing press

Published previously at WGBH News.

Five years ago Clay Shirky wrote an eloquent blog post titled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” His essential argument was that we were only at the very beginning of trying to figure out new models for journalism following the cataclysmic changes wrought by the Internet — like Europeans in the decades immediately following the invention of Gutenberg’s press. Along with a subsequent talk he gave at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Shirky helped me frame the ideas that form the foundation of “The Wired City,” my book about online community journalism.

Now Shirky has written a rant. In “Nostalgia and Newspapers,” posted on Tuesday, the New York University professor and author wants us to know that we’re not getting it fast enough — that print is dead, and anything that diverts us from the hard work of figuring out what’s next is a dangerous distraction. His targets range from Aaron Kushner and his alleged apologists to journalism-school professors who are supposedly letting their students get away with thinking that print can somehow be saved.

As always, Shirky offers a lot to think about, as he did at a recent panel discussion at WGBH. I don’t take issue with the overarching arguments he makes in “Nostalgia and Newspapers.” But I do want to offer a countervailing view on some of the particulars.

1. Good journalism schools are not print-centric: Shirky writes that he “exploded” when he was recently asked by an NYU student, in front of the class, “So how do we save print?” I assume Shirky is exaggerating his reaction for effect. It wasn’t a terrible question, and in any case there was no reason for him to embarrass a student in front of her classmates. I’m sure he didn’t.

More important, Shirky takes the view that students haven’t given up on print because no one had given it to them straight until he came along to tell them otherwise. He writes that he told the students that “print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.” And he attributed their nostalgic views to “Adults lying to them.”

Now, I find it hard to believe that Shirky’s take on the decline of print was novel to journalism students at a progressive institution like NYU. And from what I’ve seen from my own small perch within academia, all of us are looking well beyond print. In the new issue of Nieman Reports, Jon Marcus surveys changes in journalism education (including the media innovation program for graduate students headed by my Northeastern colleague Jeff Howe that will begin this fall). Citing a recent survey by Poynter, Marcus writes that, in many cases, j-schools are actually ahead of professional newsrooms in pushing for digital change:

A recent Poynter survey — which some argue demonstrates that educators are outpacing editors in their approaches to digital innovation — underlines the divide between j-schools and newsrooms. Educators are more likely than professional journalists to believe it’s important for journalism graduates to have multimedia skills, for instance, according to the survey Poynter released in April. They are more likely to think it’s crucial for j-school grads to understand HTML and other computer languages, and how to shoot and edit video and photos, record audio, tell stories with visuals, and write for different platforms.

Could we be doing better? No doubt. But we’re already doing a lot.

2. Aaron Kushner might have been on to something. OK, I’m pushing it here. There’s no doubt that Kushner’s moves after he bought the Orange County Register in 2012 have blown up in his face — the hiring spree, the launching of new daily newspapers in Long Beach and Los Angeles, the emphasis on print. Earlier this month, it all seemed to be coming to a very bad end, though Kushner himself says he simply needs time to retrench.

But Kushner’s ideas may not have been entirely beyond the realm of reality. Over the past several decades, great newspapers have been laid low by debt-addled chains trying to squeeze every last drop of profit out of them. This long-term disinvestment has had at least as harmful an effect on the news business as the Internet-driven loss of advertising revenues. Yes, Kushner’s love of print seems — well, odd, although it’s also true that newspapers continue to derive most of their shrinking advertising revenues from print. But investing in growth, even without a clear plan (or, rather, even with an ever-changing plan), strikes me as exactly what we ought to hope news(paper) companies will do. After all, that’s what Jeff Bezos is doing at The Washington Post and John Henry at The Boston Globe. And that’s not to say there won’t be layoffs and downsizing along the way.

Shirky also mocks Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review and Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst and blogger who writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab, writing that they “wrote puff pieces for Kushner, because they couldn’t bear to treat him like the snake-oil salesman he is.” (Shirky does concede that Chittum offered some qualifications.)

Chittum recently disagreed with me merely for writing that he had “hailed their [Kushner's and his business partner Eric Spitz's] print-centric approach.” It will be interesting to see whether and how he and Doctor respond to Shirky. I’ll be watching. Chittum has already posted this.

In any case, I hardly think it was “terrible” (Shirky’s description) for Chittum and Doctor to play down their doubts given that Kushner, a smart, seemingly well-funded outsider, claimed to have a better way.

Post-publication updates. After this commentary was published at WGBH News on Wednesday, the reactions, as expected, started rolling in. First up: Chittum, who apologized for his F-bomb, though not the sentiment behind it.

Shirky responded to Chittum’s first tweet, though his blog seems to be down at the moment. (It’s now back, and here is the direct link.)

Finally, Ken Doctor wrote a long, thoughtful retort to Shirky at the Nieman Journalism Lab. (And now Shirky has posted a comment.)

Even more finally: Chittum has responded at some length in the CJR. The end?

How the Post explained Cantor’s defeat before it happened

Robert Costa (left) and Ralph Hallow of The Washington Times at the CPAC 2013 conference.

Robert Costa (left) and Ralph Hallow of The Washington Times at the CPAC 2013 conference.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org.

The political press today is engorged with analysis that attempts to explain why House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost the Republican primary in his Virginia district to a Tea Party challenger on Tuesday. But given that the pundits were as surprised as everyone else, there is no particular reason to think they are capable of telling us why it happened.

Nearly a month ago, though, Jenna Portnoy and Robert Costa of The Washington Post saw it coming. In an article headlined “Eric Cantor’s tea party opponent in Va. primary may be picking up momentum,” the two wrote that Cantor’s opponent, David Brat, had energized the right-wing base of the party. Cantor, Brat’s supporters believed, had been insufficiently hardline on issues such as immigration reform, the debt ceiling and the Affordable Care Act.

Weeks before the voting, Portnoy and Costa also put their finger on a Cantor tactic that seems to have backfired: going after Brat so hard that he improved his unknown opponent’s name recognition and gave him legitimacy. They quote Brat as saying, “I’m a rookie, he’s never gone negative, and he’s putting my face and name on Fox News, which is unheard of. If they’re doing that, that means their internal polling shows that I’m not at zero. I’m a risk of some sort.”

Portnoy is a local reporter for the Post, having previously covered New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for The Star-Ledger of Newark. I’m sure she’s a fine reporter. What the Cantor story tells me, though, is that the Post’s move to poach Costa from National Review last November is paying off. As Joe Coscarelli wrote in New York magazine, Costa — who is not yet 30, and who rose to prominence during last year’s debt-ceiling debacle — is rare among conservative journalists in that he sees himself as a reporter first, trusted by and well-plugged-in among all factions.

If you want to know why Cantor lost, don’t bother with the Wednesday morning quarterbacking taking place elsewhere. Instead, go back and read what Portnoy and Costa wrote weeks ago.

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

The Boston Globe doubles down on political coverage

Capital section front

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The message last night was straightforward: The Boston Globe was launching a new weekly political section, Capital, in print and online.

It was the messaging, though, that really mattered. About a hundred invited guests mingled in the lobby of the historic Paramount Theatre, elegantly restored by Emerson College, helping themselves to free food and an open bar. Owner/publisher John Henry joined the minglers, working the room like one of the politicians his reporters might write about.

And if you didn’t quite get the messaging, chief executive officer Michael Sheehan and editor Brian McGrory were there helpfully to explain.

“You can’t cut your way to success. You can only grow you way to success,” Sheehan said while introducing a panel discussion. Added McGrory in his closing remarks: “We are investing in our political coverage at a time when virtually every other paper is retreating.”

If you’re a news junkie, a political junkie or both, enjoy it. The newspaper implosion that has defined the past decade may have slowed, but it hasn’t stopped.

Some 16,200 full-time newspaper jobs disappeared between 2003 and 2012, according to the American Society of News Editors. Just this week, about 20 employees — one-fourth of editorial staff members — were let go by the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, recently sold by Henry to Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida. Aaron Kushner, whose print-centric approach was hailed as the salvation of the newspaper business just a year ago, is now dismantling the Orange County Register and its affiliated Southern California properties as quickly as he built them up.

The only major papers bucking this trend are Henry’s Globe and Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post, both of which are adding staff and expanding their portfolios. (The New York Times remains relatively healthy, but in recent years the ruling Sulzberger family has tended to define success by keeping cuts to a minimum.)

So what is Capital? Simply put, it’s a Friday-only section comprising features, think pieces, polling, commentary and lots of graphics. The debut consists of 12 pages, including three full-page ads — two of them advocacy messages of the sort that might not have made their way into the paper otherwise — and a smaller bank ad on the front of the section.

The lead story, by Jim O’Sullivan and Matt Viser, looks at the implications of a presidential race that is not likely to have a Massachusetts candidate for the first time since 2000. A poll (and Capital is slated to have lots of polls) suggests that Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker is making some headway, trailing Democratic contender Martha Coakley by a few points and leading Coakley’s rival Steve Grossman by a similar margin.

Among the more intriguing pieces of content is a “social networks dashboard,” put together by SocialSphere of Cambridge, which tracks conversations and the “biggest influencers” on Twitter. The print version has the highlights; online, it goes into more depth. It could use some tweaking, though. For instance, it’s fine to know that Gov. Deval Patrick is +463, but I’d like to see an explanation of what that means.

And if the Globe is looking for suggestions, I’d like to see a more outward-looking orientation, at least in the online version. There are no few links to outside content. How about a curated reading list of the best political coverage appearing elsewhere? (Online, Capital does offer some outside links in an automated feature based on Twitter called “The Talk,” which combines mostly Globe content with a little bit of offsite stuff. I’m also told that a daily newsletter to be written by political reporter Joshua Miller will include non-Globe links.)

One challenge the Globe faces is to come up with compelling content that isn’t tied to the daily news cycle. Today, for instance, the paper’s two most important political stories appear not in Capital but, rather, on the front page: more questions about Scott Brown’s dubious dealings with a Florida firearms company and insider shenanigans involving Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration and the city’s largest construction company. Of necessity, Capital will have to focus on analysis and smart step-back pieces.

During the panel discussion, political editor Cynthia Needham said that a frequent topic of conversation in the newsroom is whether the Globe’s political coverage should appeal to “insiders” or to readers “who dip in every once in a while.” For Capital to work week after week, the answer needs to be both — and then some.

But seriously — how refreshing is it to be able to write about the Globe’s latest expansion instead of the cuts and layoffs that pervade the rest of the newspaper business? We’ll remember these times. Let’s hope they last.

Kushner’s latest cuts raise serious doubts about his strategy

Aaron Kushner

Aaron Kushner

Published earlier at The Huffington Post.

If you’re going to make an audacious bet on the future of newspapers, as Aaron Kushner did with the Orange County Register, then it stands to reason that you should have enough money in the bank to be able to wait and see how it plays out.

Kushner, unfortunately, is now slashing costs at his newspapers almost as quickly as he built them up. On Tuesday, Kushner announced that Register employees would be required to take unpaid two-week furloughs during June and July. Other cuts were announced as well. The most significant: buyouts for up to 100 employees; and one of Kushner’s startup dailies, the Long Beach Register, will more or less be folded into another, the Los Angeles Register.

Those cuts follow the elimination of some 70 jobs at the OC Register and the Press-Enterprise of Riverside in January — cuts that came not long after a year when Kushner’s papers, in a celebrated hiring spree, added 170 jobs.

Is it time to push the panic button? The estimable Ken Doctor, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, says yes, arguing that the latest round of cuts raise “new questions about its very viability in the year ahead.” Doctor may be right. But as I wrote at The Huffington Post earlier this year, I hope Doctor is wrong, given the promise of Kushner’s early moves.

In 2013 Kushner and his business partner, Eric Spitz, were the toast of the newspaper industry. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum hailed their print-centric approach and hypothesized that being able to scoop up the Register debt-free might enable them to succeed where others — including Tribune Co. and the Journal Register Co. — had failed. “Kushner,” Chittum wrote, “had the benefit of buying Register parent Freedom Communications out of bankruptcy — after newspaper valuations had already fallen 90 percent in some cases.”

Spitz, in a cocksure interview last October with Lauren Indvik of Mashable, mocked his competitors for giving their journalism away online, insisting that he and Kushner had a better idea.

“The key decisions they made — and they were the worst decisions anyone has made in my memory — they made 20 years or so ago. They took their core product, the news, and priced it at free,” Spitz told Indvik, adding: “I think 20 years later the amount of revenue you can derive from advertising is less than they thought. But the bigger problem they created is telling your customer that your product has no value.”

Unfortunately for Spitz and Kushner, there are few signs that their strategy of pumping up their print editions (even improving the paper stock) while walling off their digital content behind relatively inflexible paywalls has paid off.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media, paid circulation at the Orange County Register for the six months ending Sept. 30, 2011, before Kushner and Spitz took charge, averaged 283,997 on Sundays and 172,942 Monday through Saturday. The sale took place in July 2012. That September, paid circulation actually rose, to 301,576 on Sundays and 175,851 the rest of the week. But in September 2013 it dropped below pre-Kushner levels, to 274,737 on Sundays and 162,894 the other six days. (I am excluding what AAM refers to as “branded editions” — mainly regional weeklies published by the Register. The numbers combine print and paid digital circulation, which, in the case of the Register, is negligible.)

Kushner is a Boston-area native who made his money in the greeting-card business. Before his move to Southern California, he tried to buy The Boston Globe and, later, nearly closed a deal to purchase the Portland Press Herald of Maine. So it’s interesting to note that Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who eventually won the sweepstakes for the Globe, has taken a very different approach from Kushner, sinking money into an online-only vertical covering innovation and technology as well as repositioning the paper’s venerable free Boston.com site as a “younger, voicier, edgier” complement to the Globe. Soon the Globe is expected to unveil an ambitious website covering the Catholic Church in the hopes of attracting a national and international audience.

Perhaps the most important difference between Henry and Kushner, though, is the depth of their pockets. There are limits to Kushner’s wealth, and those limits are becoming apparent as he attempts to make his newspaper mini-empire profitable. Henry, a billionaire investor, can afford to take the long view. In that respect, he is more like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who announced that he would buy the Washington Post just days after Henry said he would acquire the Globe.

Ryan Chittum, in his CJR piece, called Kushner’s approach “the most interesting — and important — experiment in journalism right now.” It would be easy and facile to make too much of Kushner’s woes. He may simply have gotten ahead of himself, and is now buying the time he needs to make sense of what he is building. Then again, if Ken Doctor is right, the end of this particular newspaper story may be in sight.

Victim or villain? Times and Post analyze Bowe Bergdahl

Afghanistan Prisoner Swap

Bowe Bergdahl

Update: June 3. The Times and the Post change places today, with the Times running a story on Bergdahl’s dubious record in Afghanistan and the Post publishing an article on the problems Bergdahl may have re-integrating into his life in Idaho.

Is Bowe Bergdahl a victim or a villain? In their sidebars to the main story this morning, The New York Times and The Washington Post tell dramatically different tales about the Army sergeant, who was released by the Taliban in Afghanistan on Saturday after five years as a prisoner of war.

The Times’ story, headlined “Mentally, G.I. Has Long Path Back to Idaho,” by Mark Landler, is sympathetic to Bergdahl. Noting that the soldier was subjected to tremendous stress during his captivity, and possibly torture, Landler writes that Bergdahl will require a great deal of physical and psychological treatment in order for him to be able to reclaim his life. Landler:

It is not yet clear whether Sergeant Bergdahl was tortured by his captors, as were many prisoners of war in North Vietnam. But given the ruthless reputation of those who held him, experts said it was likely, at a minimum, that he faced unremitting fear.

Bergdahl may even have lost some of his ability to communicate in English after years of exposure to terrorists who spoke nothing but Pashto, former Times correspondent (and former captive) David Rohde is quoted as saying.

By contrast, the Post’s article, by Dan Lamothe and Kevin Sieff, focuses on the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009, questioning whether Bergdahl deserted his unit (touched on only briefly by the Times) and if the subsequent search may have placed U.S. forces in danger (mentioned not at all by the Times).

In print, the Post’s headline is relatively mild: “Among some peers, resentment lingers.” The online version is a scorcher: “Mixed reaction to Bergdahl’s recovery by service members who consider him a deserter.”

Particularly rough is a quote from Javier Ortiz, a former Army medic who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Ortiz tells the Post:

I had a responsibility while I was there to the guys I was with, and that’s why this hits the hardest. Regardless of what you learned while being there, we still have a responsibility to the men to our left and right. It’s terrible, what he did.

The Post also quotes from a long, pseudonymous comment posted below a profile of Bergdahl by the late Michael Hastings that was published in Rolling Stone in 2012.  The comment reads in part:

The Taliban knew that we were looking for him in high numbers and our movements were predictable. Because of Bergdahl, more men were out in danger, and more attacks on friendly camps and positions were conducted while we were out looking for him. His actions impacted the region more than anyone wants to admit.

The use of unverified comments on the Post’s part is extraordinary, as is its quoting from a series of tweets by @CodyFNfootball that went on in a similar vein following Bergdahl’s release. The Post justified it by saying:

The Washington Post contacted the individual running the Twitter account but received no reply. Like the Rolling Stone comment, however, the tweets included enough specifics about Bergdahl’s unit and location to be regarded as potentially credible by many discussing the case.

The comments, of course, were already widely available online, and they match up with other reporting by the Post. (They also match up with Hastings’ largely sympathetic profile of Bergdahl.) So I have no problem with the Post’s using them as long as everyone understands that they may not be what they seem to be.

As for which story we’ll be talking about more in the days to come, the edge has to go to the Post. The Obama administration was already facing criticism, as Jonathan Topaz reports in Politico, for cutting a deal with the Taliban to send five Guantánamo prisoners to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl.

At the very least, the Post’s reporting (and not just the Post’s — see this, by CNN’s Jake Tapper, for example) raises serious questions that demand answers.

On Greenwald, Kinsley is both right and wrong

Michael Kinsley

Michael Kinsley

A few thoughts about Michael Kinsley’s much-criticized New York Times review of Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide,” an account of his role in the Edward Snowden leaks.

Kinsley is technically correct in asserting that the government has — and should have — the final word when it comes to deciding whether secret information should be made public. Thus I part company with the likes of Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, who, in a post headlined “Michael Kinsley Comes Out Against Journalism,” fulminates: “Michael Kinsley does not believe that a free press should be allowed to [expose official secrets]. He believes that the decision to tell government secrets ‘must ultimately be made by the government.'”

It’s Nolan’s “should be allowed” that bears scrutiny. In fact, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the government may act to prevent secrets from being revealed if those revelations would cause a serious breach of national security. Here is how the Court put it in the 1931 case of Near v. Minnesota:

No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops.

The government may also prosecute both leakers and journalists post-publication, as a majority of the Court all but invited the Nixon administration to do in the Pentagon Papers case — and as Harvey Silverglate explains in this 2006 Boston Phoenix essay.

If you think about it, how could it be otherwise? It’s so easy to conjure up scenarios involving nuclear weapons, terrorism and the like under which censorship and prosecution would be justified that it’s not even worth the effort to spell them out (although Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes tried to do just that in Near).

But I emphatically part company with Kinsley over his sneering, dismissive tone, and his shocking failure to understand the role of a free press (or even a press that’s not quite as free as Hamilton Nolan imagines) in a democratic society. Because if the ultimate authority rests with the government, there are nevertheless times when leakers, individual journalists and the institutional press must stand up to the government and risk its wrath in order to serve the public interest. That’s what The New York Times and The Washington Post did in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War.

And I would argue that that’s what Snowden, Greenwald, Barton Gellman (curiously absent from Special Agent Kinsley’s arrest warrant), The Guardian and The Washington Post did in exposing the NSA’s practices.

I wrote more about the legal background for The Huffington Post last June.

Photo (cc) by the Aspen Institute and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The Globe’s John Henry disclosures are a work in progress

Previously published at WGBH News.

Q: Does The Boston Globe disclose that John Henry owns the paper whenever it reports on one of his other business interests? Or does it omit that information, leaving less-savvy readers in the dark?

A: Yes.

Tuesday was a case in point. On page one, the Globe’s Brian MacQuarrie reported that the Stop Handgun Violence billboard on Lansdowne Street facing the Massachusetts Turnpike may be coming down by next March. The new owner of the property — Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Red Sox — declined to comment, according to the story. Nowhere did we learn that Henry is Fenway’s lead investor.

On the front of the Metro section, though, Travis Andersen disclosed the connection in an update on an elevator accident at Fenway Park that left a woman seriously injured. Andersen wrote: “A spokeswoman for the Red Sox, whose principal owner, John Henry, also owns The Boston Globe, declined to comment Monday, citing the ongoing review.”

And so it goes — the most prominent recent example being the Globe’s reporting on Jared Remy, who has been charged with murdering his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel. Remy is the son of Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy, and the Globe has weighed in with some extremely tough stories on the entire family (original here; most recent follow-up here). Those articles, though, omitted the Henry connection, even as op-ed columnist Alex Beam included it when he wrote a piece arguing that Jerry Remy should be able to keep his job in the broadcast booth.

I asked Globe editor Brian McGrory whether he thought the Henry connection should have been made clear in the Remy coverage and the billboard story. “Our disclosure policy would apply to the stories that you mention,” McGrory replied by email, saying he would “renew our vigor in terms of letting readers know.”

I also asked Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg whether there was any specific policy she could cite. Her response, also by email:

Our policy is to disclose John Henry’s business interests when it’s relevant to the story.

By now, we assume the vast majority of Boston Globe readers are aware of Mr. Henry’s ownership of the Red Sox and therefore do not feel the need to disclose it in every story about the team.

There’s an additional factor in the case of Jerry Remy’s ongoing employment: he works for New England Sports Network, not the Red Sox. Eighty percent of NESN is owned by Fenway Sports Group, so Henry is essentially the top executive. When I asked Clegg if she thought most Globe readers were aware of that, she responded, “No, I don’t assume that most people know about NESN.”

Disclosure may be good for the soul, but when you think about some of the larger conflicts of interest that news organizations have to navigate, the Globe-Red Sox connection can seem trivial. To take just one example: Wouldn’t it have been nice to know that the media companies that own all of our network news divisions and cable news channels were lobbying the FCC for deregulatory goodies at the same time they were providing supine coverage of the run-up to the war in Iraq? So yes, the Globe should disclose, but some perspective is necessary as well.

Few would argue that the Globe should run a disclosure when it covers the Red Sox as a baseball team (although columnist Dan Shaughnessy did this morning, jokingly calling Henry the “greatest person ever”). The paper’s coverage of the boss’ other businesses has been tough and independent. We’re still in the early stages of Henry’s ownership of the Globe, and it’s going to take a while to get the disclosure thing right.

And it could be worse. After all, Amazon.com, founded by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, does business with the CIA.

Bezos’ bucks may re-ignite Post-Times competition

Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos

When Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post last year for the paltry sum (especially for him) of $250 million, newspaper observers hoped that it presaged a new era for the struggling daily. For now, at least, it looks like those hopes are becoming a reality.

The Post is ramping up. Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post reported recently that the paper has hired 50 full-time staff journalists so far in 2014, and that it is making at least a partial return to its status as a national newspaper — a status it had retreated from during the final years of Graham family ownership. Executive editor Marty Baron told Calderone:

We’ve talked a lot about the need to grow. We’ve said that in order to grow, we have to look outside our own immediate region and the only opportunity for growth is digital. We are looking at growth opportunities around the country.

Richard Byrne Reilly recently wrote in VentureBeat that Bezos isn’t quite the hands-off owner that he appears to be, taking a deep interest in the paper’s digital initiatives. According to Reilly:

With chief information officer and technology vice president Shailesh Prakash at the helm, Bezos is pumping cash into the once staid company’s IT infrastructure. Lots of it. The new leadership has put 25 computer engineers into the newsroom, helping reporters craft multifaceted digital stories for mobile devices.

The Post’s expansion is a heartening development, and it’s one we’re seeing unfold in Boston as well. Red Sox principal owner John Henry, whose $75 million purchase of The Boston Globe was announced just days before Bezos said he was buying the Post, has, like Bezos, shown a willingness to try to grow his news organization out of the doldrums into which it had fallen.

The Globe is making some interesting moves into video; has redesigned its nearly two-decade-old free Boston.com site while moving all Globe content behind a flexible paywall at BostonGlobe.com; has developed new verticals for innovation and technology (BetaBoston) and arts and entertainment (RadioBDC and BDCWire); and will soon unveil a standalone site covering the Catholic Church.

As for the Post, it’s notable that its comeback coincides with a serious misstep at The New York Times — the botched firing of executive editor Jill Abramson. Combined with the loss this week of the Times’ chief digital strategist, Aron Pilhofer, to The Guardian, and the release of an internal report criticizing the Times’ own digital strategy, it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that energy and momentum have swung from the Times to the Post. (To be sure, the Times’ new executive editor, Dean Baquet, enjoys an excellent reputation.)

From the Pentagon Papers and Watergate in the early 1970s until about a decade ago, the Times and the Post were often mentioned in the same breath as our two leading newspapers. Good as the Post was during the final years of the Graham era, budget-cutting allowed the Times to open up a lead and remain in a category of its own.

It would be great for journalism and for all of us if Bezos, Baron and company are able to level the playing field once again.

Photo (cc) by Steve Jurvetson and used under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Why is The Washington Post holding a live event in Boston?

WP Live

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

In a well-appointed banquet hall at the Westin Boston Waterfront, a balding, disturbingly energetic man in a red bow tie is holding forth on baby boomers, technology and aging.

“We are not young, but we are youthful,” enthuses Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab. A bit later: “And by the way, we never talk about the F-word when it comes to aging: fun!” Well, I suppose.

I had come to the Westin last Thursday for a program called “Booming Tech,” presented by The Washington Post as part of its Washington Post Live video series. I was less interested in the subject matter — how boomers getting along in years are enhancing their lives with digital technology — than I was in finding out what the Post was up to.

At a time when newspapers are scrambling to make money any way they can, Washington Post Live struck me as unusual and innovative. The two-hour-plus event, moderated by Washington Post Live editor Mary Jordan (with an assist from Sacha Pfeiffer of Boston public radio station WBUR), featured panels on tech and entrepreneurship, a conversation with health-care expert (and Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate) Don Berwick and a closing one-on-one between Jordan and humorist/curmudgeon P.J. O’Rourke, who was on hand to flog a new book. (Jordan: “Do you like your cell phone at least?” O’Rourke: “No.”)

So how does all this fit with the Post’s business strategy? I snagged Tim Condon, the Post’s director of new ventures and interim general manager of Washington Post Live, for some insight. (Earlier in the week, the Post had announced that former Bloomberg executive Robert Bierman would be taking over as the permanent general manager.)

Washington Post Live launched in 2011, well before Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos acquired the Post. The idea, Condon said, is to reach an “influential audience,” usually in Washington but occasionally outside the Beltway. He described the venture as both journalism and business, and said the Post hosts between 20 and 30 such events each year.

“The content that comes from these discussions are our journalism,” Condon said. And though the events are free, they are paid for by underwriters — in this case, the AARP, which was holding a national conference called Life@50+ next door at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Washington Post Live events are free and open to the public, and other news organizations are invited to cover them as well. The compare-and-contrast that comes to mind is the Post’s ill-conceived plan in 2009 to host $25,000 off-the-record salons with the paper’s journalists in publisher Katharine Weymouth’s home (a fiasco I wrote about at the time for The Guardian).

The Booming Tech event at the Westin featured, inevitably, its own hashtag (#techboomers). About 100 people were on hand, but many of them seemed younger than I — and I’ve been fending off AARP mailers for the better part of the past decade.

The proceedings were webcast live, and video highlights have been posted. A publication of some sort will follow, Jordan told the audience, after a second Booming Tech is held in San Diego on Sept. 4. The idea of the Post holding events far outside its circulation area would seem to line up well with its recent move to give subscribers of some other newspapers digital access to the Post; both aim to extend the power of Post content outside its traditional boundaries.

In his conversation with Jordan, P.J. O’Rourke insisted that he is “not a Luddite,” explaining: “A Luddite wants to destroy tech … I just want to point out that there will be tears before bedtime for a long time.”

As with so many news organizations, technology has led to a lot of tears at The Washington Post, transforming the paper from a highly profitable enterprise into a money-loser hoping that some of Bezos’ Amazon fairy dust will somehow rub off.

Washington Post Live is certainly not the answer to the Post’s woes, or to those of the news business in general. But it’s nevertheless an interesting idea that at least partly answers the question: “Where do we go from here?”