Warning: The following commentary contains spoilers.
As I was pondering “S-Town,” the podcast from “This American Life” that tells the story of a small Alabama town and one of its more colorful residents, an old line by the writer Janet Malcolm leapt into my head: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
Somehow I was not surprised that someone else had the same thought. But whereas Gay Alcorn, writing in The Guardian, uses Malcolm’s observation to condemn the makers of “S-Town,” I think it’s more complicated than that. Malcolm was writing nearly three decades ago about a convicted murderer, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who had no choice but to trust Joe McGinniss, the journalist-collaborator who betrayed him. Brian Reed, the host of “S-Town,” is operating in a far more egalitarian media environment, an age in which those who don’t like the way journalists tell their story will tell it themselves.
Three quick thoughts about the departure of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News thanks to his long, sordid history of sexual harassment finally catching up with him.
1. Although the Murdochs had apparently already decided that Bill-O had to go, a story in Wednesday’s New York Times about yet another accuser was a clear sign that if O’Reilly had stayed, it was never going to end. If you missed it, here is the most humiliating passage:
Ms. Bloom [Lisa Bloom, the accuser’s lawyer] said the woman, who is African-American, worked in a clerical position at the network but did not work directly for Mr. O’Reilly. The woman reported that in 2008, Mr. O’Reilly would stop by her desk and grunt like a “wild boar”; he would also stand back to allow her to exit the elevator first and then say, “Looking good, girl,” Ms. Bloom said. Mr. O’Reilly leered at the woman’s cleavage and legs and called her “hot chocolate,” Ms. Bloom said.
2. We are awash in accusations of fake news and conspiracy theories. O’Reilly himself continues to deny that he did anything wrong. For the sake of the public discourse (as if), the Murdochs should tell O’Reilly that there will be no pile of cash as he walks out the door unless he issues at least a vague statement taking responsibility for his loathsome actions.
3. The future of the Fox News Channel is very much in doubt. Though numerous observers have pointed out that Tucker Carlson — who’s been awarded O’Reilly’s coveted 8 p.m. time slot — has done better in the ratings than Megyn Kelly did previously, he has a long track record as a ratings loser. O’Reilly was the straw that stirred the drink. Roger Ailes, another lech now gone, was the genius who figured it all out. What are the odds on James and Lachlan Murdoch getting it right?
I’m teaching a course in May and June called The Media in the Age of Trump, and I’m trying to flesh out my reading list. I’ll be asking my students to subscribe to The Washington Post (because it’s free for anyone with an .edu email address), and I have a number of worthwhile readings already chosen. Although I probably won’t assign all of these, I am listing them below.
What else would you recommend? In a perfect world, I would have two or three in-depth, evidence-based pieces arguing that President Trump is getting a raw deal from the press.
It’s hard to imagine a less likely viral video sensation than Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. But there he was last week, all 73 years of him, wagging his finger at a constituent concerned about online privacy and telling her, “Nobody’s got to use the internet.”
Sensenbrenner’s lecture was a clarifying moment in the debate over the future of online privacy and digital democracy. After eight years of the Obama administration, whose telecommunications policies were more often than not in the public interest, President Trump and his Republican allies are rushing headlong into a future that is of, by and for the telecom companies. It’s a debate that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it should — and that could set the tone for how we communicate with one another for at least a generation.
Earlier today The Boston Globe published editor Brian McGrory’s latest update on the paper’s ongoing reinvention effort. For anyone who read his January memo, it shouldn’t contain too many surprises. Essentially it represents his and his staff’s latest thinking on how to build a digital-first news organization while not letting the print edition wither away. The idea, McGrory writes, is:
to once and for all break the stubborn rhythms of a print operation, allowing us to unabashedly pursue digital subscriptions even while honoring the many loyal readers who subscribe to the physical paper.
Key strategic point re: Boston Globe reinvention: "to unabashedly pursue digital subscriptions even while honoring" print readers. https://t.co/f9888Y4DgR
Managing editor for news Christine Chinlund, the newsroom veteran who’s overseeing the move to the paper’s new headquarters at 53 State St., may depart later this year, though McGrory writes that he’s trying to talk her out of it.
An “express desk” will push out “in-the-moment important, quirky and just plain fascinating stories that metrics show our readership craves.”
Much of the paper’s metro, business and lifestyle operations will be merged into what McGrory is calling a “super department” — an idea he says he first had when he was metro editor. “Admittedly, it was a failed power grab then, but now it’s just common sense,” he writes. The idea is that a big local story might cut across areas that have traditionally been divided by departmental lines. “Think the scourge of student debt, the era of political engagement, and a new consumer advocate, among many others,” McGrory writes. “Some beats are meant to last but a few months, others longer, but all will need to be constantly reassessed.”
Also of note: The Globe is looking to add a position to its Washington bureau, and may sell sports-only subscriptions outside New England in the near future. And, McGrory writes, “we are going to do whatever we can to put the 600-word incremental story out of its sad little end-state misery.” (Studies show that online readers prefer both shorter and longer stories, but that the medium-length story so beloved of newspapers because of the way they fit on a page no longer resonate.)
GateHouse Media, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit brought over the company’s practice of charging for “premium” publications that subscribers hadn’t asked for. The legal documents in the case are posted here.
The money was extracted by shortening the length of customers’ subscriptions. Most prominent among those premium publications was Lens, an advertising vehicle published several times a year that was delivered along with GateHouse papers. Lens carried a cover price of $3.95, though subscribers to the papers were assessed $2. A year ago I wrote about the Lens ploy here and here.
GateHouse, according to the proposed settlement, “denies any wrongdoing on its part” but agreed to the settlement based on “the risks and potential cost of the litigation” and “the benefits of the proposed Settlement.” Kirk Davis, GateHouse’s chief executive officer, declined to comment.
Under the agreement, subscribers may receive a refund or have their subscriptions extended if the proposed settlement is approved in Superior Court. According to court documents, the settlement is scheduled to be finalized on Aug. 1. The lawsuit, brought on behalf of two GateHouse newspaper subscribers by Kurtzman Carson Consultants, claimed that GateHouse violated Massachusetts law by failing to disclose its subscription policies adequately.
Although GateHouse, based in Pittsford, New York, has agreed to stop labeling Lens as a premium publication for which subscribers must pay extra, it would continue that practice with other publications, which would cost about $2 in the form of shortened subscriptions. GateHouse would also continue to charge a $4.95 “activation fee” for new subscribers. Disclosure would be clearer and more prominent than it had been previously.
If you visit many GateHouse papers online right now,* you’ll see a “Legal Notice” linking to the settlement documents, which include instructions on how to file a claim. The not-very-helpful text of the notice: “To learn more about the proposed class action settlement in the Steven Keenholtz, M.D., et al. v. GateHouse Media, LLC, et al. action, pleaes click here.” Keenholtz, of Marblehead, and Dorothy Guillicksen, of Hanover, are the plaintiffs named in the class-action suit.
Let’s be clear: This is a very, very small matter. From the time I learned about it, I was astounded that GateHouse would go to the trouble of hitting subscribers with an “activation” fee and charging them for publications they hadn’t asked for and didn’t want. Why not just raise the subscription price?
Meanwhile, David Harris recently reported in the Boston Business Journal that GateHouse was laying off 49 people at its Framingham facility as it consolidated print operations. And Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio writes that GateHouse continues to hack away at The Providence Journal, and that layoffs may be coming.
*Update: I have learned that the proposed settlement pertains to most but not all GateHouse Media papers in Eastern Massachusetts. The settlement is restricted to papers that carried Lens, and are concentrated in Greater Boston.
Boston Globe employees are getting closer to moving out of their Dorchester headquarters and into new downtown digs at 53 State St. According to a memo to the staff from managing editor for news Christine Chinlund, a copy of which magically arrived in my inbox, the move will take place in waves this June.
Not much news other than that unless you are personally affected. Still, Chinlund’s memo amused me, and it might amuse you as well. Here it is:
The pace picked up this week, with many more folks voluntarily tossing out unneeded stuff, and emptying cabinets and bookshelves for removal. Thanks for that. Downtown, construction folks are working back-to-back shifts. The rest of the carpet is down, and polishing concrete (for the portions not carpeted) is underway. The finish work is also pretty far along. Furniture is set to arrive on May 8.
Q: Is the whole building going to move at once?
A: No. We are looking at a six part move, starting in early June. First, HR and IT will go, followed two days later by the finance folks, and STAT. A couple of days later the ad/creative folks will follow. Then comes the newsroom, in three parts: Nearly half the newsroom will go in the first wave, followed two days later by almost everyone else except the copy desk, which will follow on the following Sunday, when news flow is relatively light. This plan is, of course, open to revision. But you get the general idea.
Q: At 53 State, may we have little fridges near desks, as we do now?
A: No, but there will be four or five big refrigerators in our kitchen/pantry, along with two monster microwaves. In the much smaller secondary pantry, which is at the corner of Sports and Metro/Business/Features, there will be another refrigerator and I think microwave.
Q: But will I still need to wash my salad bowl in the restroom?
A: Never again. Both kitchen areas have nice sinks.
Q: I need to start moving stuff out of here now, and taking stuff home. Where do I get boxes?
A: We do not have special boxes for hauling stuff home. But good boxes can be salvaged pretty much daily from the recycle hamper (bin) in the back hall of the cafeteria. Shop early for best selection. Or borrow one of the plastic post office boxes you see around, but you must return it the next day. We need every one of those that we have.
Q: When we move, do we have to get all our computer stuff in our two allotted bankers boxes?
A: No. There will be a separate box for whatever computer hardware we end up taking.
Q: If I need only one of my two boxes for moving day, can I “sell” my second one to someone else?
A: Nice try, but no.
Q: Seems like we should have some sort of party as we leave this venerable old building. Are we?
A: We certainly hope so, and are trying to make it happen. Think good beer and pizza, and invitations to anyone who ever worked here. Hold that thought….
Want to know more? Come view the fresh photos posted on my office window. Of special note: the big photo showing the rather amazing 12th floor roof deck at our disposal. You won’t believe the view.