The Washington Post chooses its first female executive editor

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2015 by the Knight Foundation.

The Washington Post has a new executive editor — Sally Buzbee, currently the executive editor and senior vice president at The Associated Press. Of note: Post owner Jeff Bezos got involved in making the choice, and Paul Farhi writes that Buzbee was chosen at least in part because of her international experience.

Bezos and the Post’s top executives see world coverage as the next step in their competition with The New York Times, recently setting up news hubs in London and Seoul, South Korea, in order to give the paper 24-hour coverage.

Buzbee is the Post’s first female executive editor. Here’s the first question that springs to my mind: The AP is well-known as our most buttoned-down straight-news organization. The Post’s recently retired editor, Marty Baron, succeeded in straddling those old-school values with newer forms of journalism characterized by voice, attitude and “swagger,” to use a word that Bezos himself likes. Will Buzbee be able to adapt?

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Some truth-telling from Paul Krugman about those April jobless numbers

Paul Krugman. Photo (cc) 2011 by 00Joshi.

No doubt you’re aware that the media have been mindless repeating the phony Republican talking point that the April job numbers fell short because the unemployment benefits in President Biden’s rescue package are too generous.

“The disappointing jobs report makes it clear that paying people not to work is dampening what should be a stronger jobs market,” according to chamber’s chief policy officer, Neal Bradley, who was quoted by Business Insider.

So it was bracing to encounter some reality in today’s New York Times column by Paul Krugman, surely the only full-time pundit with a Nobel Prize in economics. Here are some facts:

  • The economy actually added more than 1 million jobs in April, not the 266,000 officially reported. What explains the discrepancy? The number was “seasonally adjusted,” with the true number revised downward “because the economy normally adds a lot of jobs in the spring.” That’s standard practice, so it is in fact true that the April numbers were disappointing. But we are only just now coming out of the pandemic. Let’s see what happens in the following months.
  • “The expiration of the $600-a week-benefit introduced in March 2020,” Krugman says, “didn’t lead to any visible rise in overall employment; in particular, states with low wages, for whom the benefit should have created a big incentive to turn down job offers, didn’t see more employment than higher-wage states when it was removed.”
  • “If unemployment benefits were holding job growth back,” Krugman adds, “you’d expect the worst performance in low-wage industries, where benefits are large relative to wages. The actual pattern was the reverse: big job gains in low-wage sectors like leisure and hospitality, job losses in high-wage sectors like professional services.”

The Republicans are tearing themselves apart, trying to pump up their white rural base by attacking transgender kids and preparing to toss Liz Cheney off the House leadership team for having the temerity to tell the truth about Donald Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Meanwhile, Biden’s approval rating has hit 63%.

Biden has made a big bet that he can build a winning Democratic coalition by proving that government can work again. Republican criticism of his economic policies less than four months into his presidency is a sign that they fear he might succeed.

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Gannett needs to invest if it wants to meet its digital subscription goal

The Gannett newspaper chain, like nearly all publishers, is staking its future on reader revenue. Which raises a question: What is the company prepared to do to make that happen?

In its most recent quarterly report, the country’s largest newspaper chain said that its total number of digital subscribers is now 1.2 million — an increase of 37% over the previous year, but not especially impressive for a company that owns about 250 daily papers, including USA Today, and hundreds more weeklies. Gannett CEO Mike Reed said he’s aiming for 10 million in five years.

At least the subscription total is heading in the right direction. Overall, the company lost $142 million, largely due to pandemic-related declines in print and digital advertising.

The focus on digital subscriptions isn’t smart so much as it is the only option available. Newspaper advertising has been tanking for years as ad spending has moved to Craigslist, Google and Facebook. National papers and a few big regionals, including The Boston Globe, have succeeded in making the shift to reader revenue. But if Gannett wants to emulate them, it’s going to have to overcome its reluctance to invest in journalism and technology.

For years, Gannett and the chain that essentially took it over, GateHouse Media, have been decimating their newsrooms in order to squeeze out enough revenues to keep their creditors at bay. (Reed claims a recently completed loan restructuring should help.) As I’ve written before, our local Gannett weekly, serving a city of nearly 60,000 people, hasn’t had a full-time staff reporter since the pre-pandemic days of late 2019. Yet it is also the only print paper I subscribe to because reading it online is such a dismal experience.

Lately I’ve noticed an increase in stories from something called “the USA Today Network,” which is to say they’re not local. Some are from one or two towns over. Some are from afar. They are nothing but space-fillers.

Gannett announced several other moves as well, including a paywall for USA Today, sports betting and even an attempt to sell non-fungible tokens (NFTs). I’ve been trying to grasp exactly what that last means, but I’m still confused even after reading this New York Times story.

Gannett owns nearly all of the community papers in Eastern Massachusetts and environs, and in very few cases are they meeting the information needs of their communities. If the company is determined to offer a better product, with more local coverage and a better user experience, then it will deserve to sell more digital subscriptions.

But I can’t imagine that the chain will be able to build its digital subscriber base significantly with what it’s offering now.

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Go Huskies!

I had a weirdly news-free weekend, as I volunteered as a marshal at four of Northeastern’s commencement ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday. I’ll be catching up today and tomorrow. Meanwhile, here are some scenes from Fenway.

A deal in Denver’s suburbs points the way toward a solution for local news

This is one of the most exciting developments I’ve seen in local news in a long time — certainly more exciting than the news that Substack and Facebook were going to toss some spare change in a tin cup in the hopes of enticing community journalists to set up shop on their platforms.

Earliest this week David Folkenflik of NPR reported that The Colorado Sun, a digital startup that arose from the ashes of The Denver Post, would acquire a chain of 24 small newspapers in the Denver suburbs in partnership with a new nonprofit organization called the National Trust for Local News. As Sun editor and co-founder Larry Ryckman told Folkenflik:

These are the folks who are covering school boards, city councils, county commissions that no one else is covering. They provide unique local coverage. And we’re doing this so that we can preserve those voices.

Denver is the best-known example of the damage inflicted on newspapers by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Three years ago, journalists at The Denver Post rebelled at Alden’s brutal budget cuts. But guess who won? That led Ryckman and others to leave and launch the Sun. Ryckman described what happened last fall at the Radically Rural conference sponsored by the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel, which I covered for the Nieman Journalism Lab:

We endured cut after cut after cut. I had to lay people off. We were under assault, really, from our own owners, and nothing that we did — not being faster, smarter, more digital — none of those things really matter when a hedge fund doesn’t really care about the community or the journalism that the newspaper it owns produces. It’s really about this quarter’s return.

At one time, Denver’s newspapers employed about 600 journalists, Ryckman said. But the Rocky Mountain News shut down in 2009, and, as of last fall, Ryckman estimated the head count at the Post as being somewhere around 60. The Sun employs 10 people. But as a public benefit corporation, it can reinvest whatever money it makes in improving its journalism.

Could such a model work elsewhere? I don’t see why not. Take Eastern Massachusetts, whose weekly and daily community newspapers are nearly all owned by Alden’s rival in cost-cutting, Gannett. Could some sort of nonprofit entity be formed that would attempt to buy back Gannett’s properties in the Boston area? Gannett does sell papers from time to time. Maybe it’s possible to make them an offer they wouldn’t refuse.

The situation is dire. And what’s taking place in Denver suggests a possible way forward.

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There he goes again: Why DeSantis’ Fox News stunt may be unconstitutional

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to give Fox News an exclusive as he signed his state’s new voter-suppression law was a sleazy piece of political gamesmanship. But was it unconstitutional? Maybe. A 1974 court ruling established the principle that government officials may not ban members of the press from events that are customarily open to the media. I wrote about it a year ago in a case involving — yes — DeSantis.

What makes this unusual is that the law envisions an official who singles out a specific reporter or news outlet for exclusion. DeSantis’ stunt involves the granting of special privileges to one news outlet. That’s generally allowed, as with agreeing to an interview. But a bill-signing is the sort of public event that is almost always open to the press, so it’s possible that DeSantis may have stepped in it again. Anyway, here’s my earlier item.

Florida governor’s ban on reporter violates the First Amendment

March 30, 2020

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to bar a reporter for the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times from a news conference that was otherwise open to the press was a flat-out violation of the First Amendment.

Although the question of whether public officials can ban specific journalists from media events has never been taken up by the Supreme Court, a 1974 federal district court ruling is generally regarded as good law. I wrote about it a few years ago when a similar situation arose in New Hampshire.

Several decades ago, a similar situation unfolded in Hawaii, where an aggressive reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin named Richard Borreca butted heads with the mayor, Frank Fasi. Fasi decided to ban Borreca from regularly scheduled news conferences at his City Hall office. The Star-Bulletin went to court. And in the 1974 case of Borreca v. Fasi, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel King ruled that Fasi had to open his news conferences to all reporters. King wrote:

A free press is not necessarily an angelic press. Newspapers take sides, especially in political contests. Newspaper reporters are not always accurate and objective. They are subject to criticism, and the right of a governmental official to criticize is within First Amendment guarantees.

But when criticism transforms into an attempt to use the powers of governmental office to intimidate or to discipline the press or one of its members because of what appears in print, a compelling governmental interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means must be shown for such use to meet Constitutional standards. No compelling governmental interest has been shown or even claimed here.

Judge King made it clear that no member of the press was entitled to special privileges. If the mayor wanted to grant interviews to some reporters but not others, that was his prerogative. If he refused to answer a reporter’s questions, that was within his rights as well. But he could not discriminate against some members of the press when scheduling a formal, official event such as a news conference.

Local news is in crisis. What can we do to save it?

As noted yesterday, I spoke last night at a Zoom event sponsored by the Waltham Public Library on the crisis in local news. You can watch it here.

Please join me for a conversation about the local news crisis today at 7 p.m.

Photo via Pillar to Post

I’ll be talking about the crisis in local news today at 7 p.m. in a conversation sponsored by the Waltham Public Library. You’ll be able to watch here.

The news about COVID is good and getting better. It’s time to celebrate.

Photo (cc) 2020 by Province of British Columbia

The end of the pandemic in the United States isn’t going to be marked by a solemn announcement or a celebrity-studded fundraising event on TV. There are too many uncertainties.

Even as the situation improves in Massachusetts, the numbers are much higher — though dropping — in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and elsewhere. And, of course, the virus is causing unimaginable suffering right now in India and South America. We need to do all we can to help.

But even though there won’t be a clearly defined endpoint, I’m declaring an end to COVID-19 this week. Just about every adult in the U.S. who wants to be vaccinated has now done so or will be able to soon. Masks are coming off outdoors. Schools are filling up again — safely. Indoor restaurant dining is coming back. Our long national nightmare isn’t over, but we’re slowly beginning to wake up.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Why the Kevin Merida announcement is good news for the Los Angeles Times

Patrick Soon-Shiong may be the most important newspaper owner in the country after Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post. So Monday’s announcement that the next executive editor of the Los Angeles Times will be Kevin Merida of ESPN was significant as much for what it says about Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the paper as it does about Merida’s own considerable abilities. Given the Times’ size, influence and unrealized potential, its fate is crucial to the journalistic ecosystem.

It was just a few months ago that Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who bought the Times in 2018, was looking to get out. Soon-Shiong denied it, but actions speak louder than words — and now he has acted. The fact that he could recruit someone who is regarded as the best free-agent editor out there suggests he was able to reassure Merida about stability in the owner’s suite. The Times itself, in a story by Meg James, puts it this way:

His hiring reaffirms the Soon-Shiong family’s commitment to the paper they purchased, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, for $500 million from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing in June 2018. The Soon-Shiong family has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars more to replenish the newsroom’s withered ranks, built a campus in El Segundo, upgraded the paper’s technology and covered financial losses that deepened last year when coronavirus shutdowns prompted a steep drop in advertising revenue.

Key to all this may be Soon-Shiong’s daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who, according to Katie Robertson’s report in The New York Times, “has become an active part of the newspaper’s management team.” In that regard, she may play a similar role to that of Linda Pizzuti Henry, who co-owns The Boston Globe along with her husband, John Henry. Linda Henry, named CEO of Boston Globe Media last year, is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the Globe, thus serving as a guarantor of sorts that Henry won’t sell.

Merida will be the LA Times’ second Black editor, which is also significant because of the paper’s diversity issues under former executive editor Norman Pearlstine. It also raises the question of why The Washington Post didn’t push harder to hire Merida as a replacement for Marty Baron, who retired recently. Merida was a highly regarded top editor at the Post before leaving for ESPN.

One possible explanation is that Merida is just two years younger than Baron. As Tom Jones of Poynter writes, “Maybe the Post is looking for a long-term editor — someone who could take over for 15 or so years, and, perhaps, Merida’s age (64) didn’t align with that plan.”

The Soon-Shiong ownership of the LA Times has been a mixed bag thus far. The newsroom has been bulked up in the hopes that the paper could emerge as a national force. But that hasn’t happened, and its digital subscription numbers have proved disappointing as well. It could be that there’s just no room for a fourth national newspaper along with The New York Times, the Post and the Journal. But the LA Times could dominate the West, serving as a much-needed counterbalance to the East Coast media.

All in all, the appointment of Merida was very good news, not just because he’s a first-rate choice but because it signals that Soon-Shiong is committed to the LA Times’ long-range future.

Correction. The original post described Merida as the LA Times first Black editor. In fact, he is the second; New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet served in that role from 2005 to ’06.

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