An ugly week of cuts at The Washington Post, CNN and — of course — Gannett

It’s an ugly week for cuts in the media, including two news organizations that had been flying high in recent years and one that just keeps sinking lower and lower.

First up is The Washington Post, where executive editor Sally Buzbee announced Wednesday that its Sunday magazine will be shut down at the end of the year. Ten staff members will lose their jobs.

Now, you could make an argument that Sunday newspaper magazines have outlived their usefulness. The Boston Globe has kept its alive, but only because its lifestyle-oriented content appeals to advertisers. It seems like 40 times a year the cover is devoted to Your Home, Your Wedding, Your Home Wedding or whatever. But it is also an occasional outlet for serious long-form journalism. So, too, with the Post’s Sunday magazine. According to the Post’s Sarah Ellison:

Five of the 40 Washington Post stories that drew the most online readers over the past year were produced by the magazine. They include a profile of then-Senate candidate J.D. Vance, the tangled saga of several separated siblings reunited through DNA testing, and longtime staff writer David Montgomery’s portrait of the shifting political demographic in Wyoming, “the Trumpiest state in the nation,” as its voters turned on Rep. Liz Cheney.

In 2020, the magazine won a National Magazine Award in the single-issue category for the special issue “Prison.” The issue “was written, illustrated and photographed by people who have been — or are currently — incarcerated, allowing readers to hear from voices that are often invisible in the debate around prison and criminal justice,” The Post said at the time.

Can stories like these appear elsewhere in the Post? Sure, and I hope they will. But Buzbee is shutting down something that’s working. She described the cut as part of the Post’s ongoing “global and digital transformation,” and said some of the magazine’s content will move to “a revitalized Style section” that will be unveiled in a few months. But let’s not forget that this move comes not long after Buzbee got rid of the Post’s venerable Sunday Outlook section; at least that was accompanied by a return to a standalone Book World.

***

I want to think well of CNN’s newish chief executive, Chris Licht. His predecessor, Jeff Zucker, may have been beloved by the staff, but he left behind a profoundly broken institution.

Licht has made some moves that I really don’t like, such as getting rid of Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” media program and, for that matter, Brian Stelter. But Licht has also talked about returning CNN to less opinion and more reporting, which I’d love to see. I found much of what Licht told Kara Swisher on a recent podcast encouraging, although I don’t think he grasps the crisis of democracy in which we find ourselves when he talks about bringing on more Republican voices. Still, Licht isn’t Elon Musk; he seems like an earnest, well-meaning executive who wants to do well but who must also negotiate some treacherous terrain, such as keeping right-wing investor John Malone happy.

Now, in a move that had been telegraphed well in advance, CNN is implementing some pretty major cuts that will claim the jobs of possibly hundreds of staff members at a media company that employs about 4,000 people. Tom Jones of Poynter has the details.

CNN is one of our great news organizations — far better than what you see on prime time every night. As Licht told Swisher, one reason he got rid of CNN Plus, among the more ludicrous of Zucker’s debacles (along with the Chris and Andrew Cuomo Show, of course), is that the excellent CNN Digital is already the most trafficked news website in the U.S., and he didn’t want to shift attention away from that asset. But it’s hard to see how Licht can move ahead with a renewed emphasis on reporting if he’s working with a drastically downsized news division. Opinion is cheap; news is expensive. And Licht is going to be sorely tempted to take the path of least resistance.

One final note: The Boston Globe’s Mark Shanahan today interviews Randolph’s own Audie Cornish about her new CNN podcast. Cornish was lured away from NPR earlier this year as part of Zucker’s push to staff up CNN Plus and has been at loose ends every since the shutdown. But a podcast? Really? How about making her the anchor of a prime-time newscast, as I suggested earlier this year?

***

Today’s the day for yet another in an endless round of layoffs at Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds estimated that the body count could be around 200 of the chain’s 3,400 news employees.

Gannett publishes more than 200 daily newspapers around the country, including a number of titles in the Boston metro area. At one time it published dozens of weeklies as well, but many of those have been closed or merged, with virtually all of their reporters reassigned to regional beats.

Fortunately, Gannett’s withdrawal from community journalism in Eastern Massachusetts has led to a number of independent start-ups. Christopher Galvin had a good piece in Boston.com earlier this week about several of those projects. (He interviewed me.) And here is a link to a spreadsheet I maintain of independent local news organizations in Massachusetts. As you’ll see, the numbers are impressive.

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Three insights into Elon Musk’s brief, narcissism-fueled reign over Twitter

Photo (cc) 2013 by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

When we learned last spring that Elon Musk might buy Twitter and transform it into some sort of troll- and bot-infested right-wing hellhole, my first thought was: Bring it on. Although I’m a heavy user, I had no great affection for the service, which was already something of a mess. If Musk ran it into a ditch, well, what of it?

On second thought, I realized I would miss it — and so would a lot of other people. In particular, Twitter has become an important service in calling out injustice around the world as well as a forum that gives Black users a voice they might not have anywhere else. My friend Callie Crossley was talking about Black Twitter on the late, lamented “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney” ages ago. Black Twitter could go elsewhere, of course, but it would be hard to recreate on the same scale that it exists now.

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For now, I’m staying, but I’m also playing around. Mastodon meets a lot of my needs (I’m @dankennedy_nu@journa.host), mainly because a lot of media and political people I want to follow immediately made the move. But, so far, I see none of the non-Trump conservatives whose presence I value and very few Black users. That may be my fault, and it may change. I’m also skeptical of Mastodon’s extreme decentralization, with each server (called an instance) having its own rules of engagement. I’m also on Post News at @dankennedy_nu, but I really don’t like the micropayment scheme on which it’s staked its future, explained at Nieman Lab by Laura Hazard Owen.

Twitter really does matter. It may be the smallest of the social platforms, but it’s a place where people in media and politics have to be. I’m not sure it can be replicated. So much has been written and said about Twitter over the past few weeks, and no one could possible keep up with it all. Here, though, are three pieces that I think cut through the murk as well as any.

The first is from Dr. Meredith Clark, my colleague at Northeastern’s School of Journalism. Professor Clark is a leading authority on Black Twitter and the author of the forthcoming book “We Tried to Tell Y’all: Black Twitter and the Rise of Digital Counternarratives.” Meredith says she’s staying. In a recent interview with Michel Martin of NPR, she explained why:

We’re digging in our heels. We’ve been on this platform. We’ve contributed so much to it that we’ve made it valuable in the way that it is today. We’ve made it an asset, and so no, we’re not going anywhere. And then I see other people, honestly, who have more privilege, a number of academics who are saying, nope, we’re going somewhere else. We’re leaving for other platforms.

But I do really think that there are limits to those relationships because there aren’t many platforms that allow many speakers to talk to one another all at the same time in the same place. My use hasn’t changed all that much. I don’t plan to be one of those people who migrate. I just tweeted the other day that I’ll be the last one to turn the lights off if that’s what I need to be, because I’m certainly not going either.

By the way, Meredith was a guest earlier this year on “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a podcast hosted by Ellen Clegg and me. You can listen to our conversation here.

Taking the opposite approach is Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, who has suspended his Twitter account in favor of Mastodon — a step that he admits has cut him out of numerous conversations, but that he believed was necessary in order not to be a part of Musk’s transformation of Twitter into a reflection of his own obsessions and ego. Like Clark, Dr. Cobb is Black; unlike Clark, his reasoning makes no mention of Black Twitter per se, although he does note its value in bringing to light racial injustices. “Were it not for social media,” Cobb writes in The New Yorker, “George Floyd — along with Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — would likely have joined the long gallery of invisible dead Black people, citizens whose bureaucratized deaths were hidden and ignored.” But that, he emphasizes, was then:

Participating in Twitter — with its world-spanning reach, its potential to radically democratize our discourse along with its virtue mobs and trolls — always required a cost-benefit analysis. That analysis began to change, at least for me, immediately after Musk took over. His reinstatement of Donald Trump’s account made remaining completely untenable. Following an absurd Twitter poll about whether Trump should be allowed to return, Musk reinstated the former President. The implication was clear: if promoting the January 6, 2021, insurrection — which left at least seven people dead and more than a hundred police officers injured — doesn’t warrant suspension to Musk, then nothing else on the platform likely could.

My own view of Trump’s reinstatement is rather complicated. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s easy to justify banning a major presidential candidate, which Trump now surely is. On the other hand, he was banned for fomenting violence — and now that he’s been given another chance, he’s likely to do it again, which means he’ll have to be banned all over again. Except that he won’t be with Musk in charge. (So far, at least, Trump hasn’t tweeted since his reinstatement.) In any case, I respect Cobb’s decision, even if I’m still not quite there.

I’ll close with Josh Marshall, editor of the liberal website Talking Points Memo. Like me, Marshall is dipping his toe into Mastodon’s waters while maintaining his presence on Twitter. And, like me, he’s trying to figure out exactly what Musk is up to. The other day he offered a theory that doesn’t explain all of it, but may explain some of it — especially the part that plays into Musk’s emotions and sense of grievance, which may prove to be the most important in understanding what’s going on.

Marshall sees Musk as traveling a path previously taken by Donald Trump. Like Trump, Musk is a narcissist who can’t imagine a world that doesn’t revolve around his every need and want. Also like Trump in, say 2015, Musk was until recently someone with vague right-wing proclivities who has hardened his views and openly embraced white supremacy and antisemitism because we liberals hurt his feelings. Trump and Musk have both taken up with horrible people because they were offering support and friendship when no one else would. With Trump, it’s Nick Fuentes and Kanye West. With Musk, it’s, well, Trump and his sycophants. Marshall writes:

I doubt very much that in mid-2015 Trump had any real familiarity with the arcana of racist and radical right groups, their keywords or ideological touch-points. But they knew he was one of them, perhaps even more than he did. They pledged their undying devotion and his narcissism did the rest.

Elon Musk is on the same path. There are various theories purporting to explain Musk’s hard right turn: a childhood in apartheid South Africa, his connection with Peter Thiel, disappointments in his personal life. Whatever the truth of the matter, whatever right-leaning tendencies he may have had before a couple years ago appear to have been latent or unformed. Now the transformation is almost complete. He’s done with general “free speech” grievance and springing for alternative viewpoints. He’s routinely pushing all the far right storylines from woke groomers to Great Replacement.

If anything good can come of this it may be that we hit peak social media a few years ago. Facebook is shrinking, especially among anyone younger than 60. TikTok is huge, but as a number of observers have pointed out, it isn’t really a social platform — it’s a broadcaster with little in the way of user interaction. Now Twitter is splitting apart.

This may be temporary. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg or (most likely) someone else will be able to reassemble social media around the metaverse. For now, though, social media may be broken in a way we couldn’t have imagined in, say, 2020. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing — although I wouldn’t mind if someone put Twitter back together again, only this time minus the trolls, the bots and the personal abuse that defined the site long before Musk came along.

Catching up with Ken Burns’ ‘Baseball’ nearly three decades later

What could have been

After we got home from Cooperstown in early August, we decided to watch Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball.” Neither of us had seen a Burns film in its entirety since “The Civil War” (i.e., before kids), mainly because we don’t watch much television and we don’t like getting trapped into sitting through long series. But this seemed worth taking on, especially since the 2022 Red Sox weren’t doing anything that warranted investing time in.

On Saturday night, we finally finished with 11th and final episode — one of two post-production add-ons, this one largely about the Red Sox’ 2004 World Series triumph, which, based on the amount of airtime he got, the Sox apparently staged for the benefit of Mike Barnicle. The steroid-induced rise and fall of Barry Bonds got quite a bit of attention as well, and it warmed our hearts to see Roger Clemens administered a thorough thrashing.

The original nine “innings” were well worth the time we put into them. Running two to two and a half hours per episode, they started slowly, with an overdose of lyrical tributes to the quiet joys of the National Pastime. Once Babe Ruth arrives on the scene, though, the series really kicks into gear, with lots of great archival footage. The highlight is Jackie Robinson, whom we follow from his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 until his premature death in 1972.

Buck O’Neil signing autographs in 2005. Photo (cc) 2005 by kc congdon.

“Baseball” is done in Burns’ characteristic style, with a lot of talking heads, including Bob Costas, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Studs Terkel, George Will and — the best, in our view — Buck O’Neil, a Negro Leagues star who died in 2006 and who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022. O’Neil comes across as calm and wise, with a slight edge of hurt and anger occasionally flashing in his eyes. We had the sense that he knew more about baseball and life than the rest of Burns’ guests put together.

The unevenness of the two add-ons came as a surprise — Burns’ attention to detail was largely missing, maybe because he farmed out much of the work to underlings. The sound editing was terrible, with the music often drowning out what the guest commentators had to say. Still, how can you not love watching the Sox dismantle the Yankees in the 2004 league championship series all over again?

We watched it by signing up for a PBS Documentaries subscription for $3.99 a month and then tuning in through Amazon Prime Video. If you’ve never seen “Baseball” and you’ve got 20-plus hours to spare, we recommend it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

May your day be spent with family, friends and appreciation for all the good things in our lives.

North Reservoir, Middlesex Fells

Why some in the media are holding back on a motive in the Club Q shootings

Pride parade in Colorado Springs. Photo (cc) 2013 by Stephen Rees.

You may have noticed some reluctance on the part of the media to label the mass killings in Colorado Springs as a hate crime aimed at the LGBTQ community. Looking at the case from the outside, the shooter certainly appears to have been motivated by anti-LGBTQ animus. He burst into Club Q, an LGBTQ club, and started firing before he was taken down by a military veteran. The Colorado Sun, quoting an anonymous police source, reported as early as Sunday that “law enforcement has collected evidence suggesting the shooting was a hate crime.”

Despite all that, many commentators are holding back. For instance, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, even while decrying the right’s exploitation of anti-transgender and anti-drag show sentiment, felt compelled to write: “Perhaps we’ll learn something in the coming days that will put these murders, which took place on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance, into a new light, but right now, it seems hard to separate them from a nationwide campaign of anti-L.G.B.T.Q. incitement.”

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Why the caution? I suspect some of it stems from the aftermath of the mass killings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016. That horrifying incident claimed 49 lives. Like Club Q, the Pulse catered to the LGBTQ community, and the shootings were immediately labeled a crime motivated by hatred of LGBTQ people. And so we all believed it was — until evidence to the contrary emerged. As Jane Coaston explained in Vox in 2018, the shooter had originally intended to attack a shopping and entertainment complex but decided security was too tight. His wife told investigators that he chose the Pulse at random. Coaston wrote:

This evidence dramatically changes the mass shooting’s narrative; politicians and individuals across the political spectrum had positioned it as an anti-LGBTQ hate crime. Instead, the new evidence suggests, the Pulse nightclub shooting was intended as revenge for US anti-terror policies abroad.

The evidence emerged during the trial of the shooter’s wife, Noor Salman, whom the federal government charged with aiding and abetting and obstruction of justice. Federal prosecutors argued that Salman had helped her husband plan and orchestrate the attack.

What we later learned about the Pulse shootings is a good reminder that journalism needs to be grounded in evidence. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel put it in their classic book “The Elements of Journalism,” our work should be grounded in “a discipline of verification.” We all know what the Colorado Springs incident looks like, but until we know for sure, cautionary language such as Goldberg’s is the proper way to frame this.

Of course, there’s an additional challenge: Before can can arrive at an understanding of what happened, we’re already on to the next mass shooting. Colorado Springs came right after the killings of three University of Virginia football players. Then, on Tuesday night, a gunman killed six people at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia.

So no, we shouldn’t get ahead of the story. But what we can do at moments like this is call out politicians who try to turn us against each other because of race or sexual orientation, and whose only answer to the spread of gun-related violence is more guns. Those are universal values regardless of the details of any particular incident.

Ashley Parker wins the 2022 Both Sides Sweepstakes

Stop the competition. We have a winner of the 2022 Both Sides Sweepstakes: Ashley Parker, a high-profile political reporter for The Washington Post, who took to Twitter in order to share this with us:

I put it up as an image rather than an embedded tweet because who knows what’s going to happen to it over the next few days? Plus she might wake up and delete it. But click here, while you can, to see some of the replies.

I should note, too, that as far as I can tell, this is not an imposter who paid Elon Musk $8 for a blue check mark.

Amid COVID-19 and a failing MBTA, more and more people turn to biking

The rise of Bluebikes has helped fuel an increase in the number of people traveling on two wheels in the Boston area. Photo by Henry Shifrin.

My wonderful Northeastern intermediate reporting students have produced a terrific story on urban biking for The Scope, our School of Journalism’s digital publication covering issues related to social justice.

Here’s how we did it. Eleven of the 14 students interviewed experts, policymakers and ordinary cyclists, combining all of their notes onto one Google Doc. One student took photos. Two contributed research. Each of them wrote a story based on everyone’s notes. Finally, I pulled together an article from several of their stories.

I am pleased with the results and incredibly proud of my students. You can read their story right here.

Those updated TV dinners aren’t as terrible as you might think. Especially with wine.

My friend David Yamada, a Suffolk Law School professor whose Facebook posts about weird food nostalgia are wonderful and life-affirming, recently published one about Swanson TV dinners. We ate those occasionally when I was a kid, and I enjoyed them. The fried chicken glistened in grease. The dessert — sometimes a hot apple thingie, sometimes a brownie — beckoned in its little tray. I vowed to try one if I could find it and write about the experience.

Who knows what delights await?

Well, they don’t make them quite the same way anymore. Swanson was absorbed into Campbell some years ago. On a recent trip to Stop & Shop, I managed to find a few Campbell Hungry-Man boneless fried chicken dinners. They don’t call them TV dinners these days, probably because people eat them while staring at their phones. Anyway, I picked up three. My wife, daughter and I tried them Friday evening.

That’s a lot of ingredients.

There are 790 calories, which isn’t too bad, I suppose. But there are also 38 grams of fat and 1,400 milligrams of sodium; the latter is 61% of what is supposed to be your maximum for the entire day. If you’re concerned that you’re not getting enough salt in your diet, I would definitely recommend one of these. In addition to two boneless chicken patties you get corn, mashed potato (“savory,” which I guess is Campbell-speak for salty) and a brownie that looks very much like what I remember from my childhood.

Peel back the plastic over the brownie, cut a slit over the chicken, and it’s ready for the oven.

In deference to the microwave crowd, the tin trays are gone. But I went old-school, putting them in the oven for 50 minutes. The result was not terrible, which may not sound like much of a recommendation, but it was somewhere toward the high end of my expectations. The picture on the box showed everything moved to a plate, so I did the same, the better to separate the chicken from the mashed potatoes that were beneath it.

Nicely plated and ready to eat. Note: butter not included.

Sadly, the chicken tasted highly processed, which it was. Those old TV dinners might not have been anything great, but they included real chicken, with bones and everything. But who wants to deal with bones when you’re scrolling through Instagram? The corn and potatoes were tasteless, but the brownie was pretty good. I was alone in that opinion, which meant that I got to eat two and half of them.

Paired with a Cabernet Franc from the Finger Lakes and we had — well, some very good wine. I can’t recommend what we ate, but we survived, and it easily could have been worse.

Bird is the word

At the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield earlier today.

Black by God: How Crystal Good is providing a voice to Black West Virginians

Crystal Good (via LinkedIn)

On our latest podcast “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Crystal Good, the founder of Black by God, the West Virginian. She’s a sixth-generation West Virginian, and she’s a storyteller and poet. She has also been a model and an advocate. She describes Black by God as an “emerging news and storytelling organization centering Black voices from the Mountain State.” She wants to provide a more nuanced portrayal of Black residents in the Appalachian region.

Northeastern graduate student Dakotah Kennedy (no relation) and I first heard Good speak in September at the Radically Rural conference in Keene, New Hampshire — not from the stage but from the audience. We wished she had been onstage, so we invited her onto the podcast, and she graciously agreed. Black by God has a lively website and publishes periodic print editions — which Crystal sometimes delivers herself.

I’ve got a Quick Take on social media. It’s in free fall. Is that good for local news? Bad? Or does it just mean a changed environment that they’re all going to have to navigate? Ellen’s Quick Take is on a hyperlocal mogul named Mark Adams. He’s expanding his empire into Montana.

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