Media Nation

By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr calls for the return of the public editor

Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr calls for the return of the ombudsperson, sometimes known as the public editor — an in-house journalist who holds their own news organization to account. As she observes, at one time such positions were common at large media outlets such as The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

They were eliminated, for the most part, when financial pressures made such a position seem like an unaffordable luxury. But as Stohr argues, with the Times and the Globe once again profitable and growing, “They can easily bring them back as a signal that they value public trust.” (Note: Stohr interviewed me.)

I suggested the Globe bring back its ombudsperson last spring after the paper published an extensive correction about a story involving top executives at the MBTA who were reportedly working from distant locales. Instead, the Globe fired the lead reporter, Andrea Estes, and has never really offered an explanation as to what went wrong. Estes, a respected investigative journalist, is now working at the Plymouth Independent, a new nonprofit edited by Mark Pothier, himself a former top Globe editor.

As far as I know, the only major news organization that still has a public editor is NPR, where those duties are carried out by Kelly McBride, who’s also senior vice president at the Poynter Institute. Meanwhile, as Stohr writes, the Times is increasingly under fire on social media from liberal critics who complain that the paper normalizes Donald Trump by treating him like a typical presidential candidate rather than as someone facing 91 criminal charges who attempted to foment an insurrection. I largely share that critique, although I think some of it is overblown.

The presence of a public editor, Stohr writes, “can help journalists be more self-aware while not placing the burden of public criticism on individual reporters, who are usually not in a position to make the sort of organization-wide changes that are often necessary to restore public confidence.”

The public editor was not a perfect institution by any means. Partly it depends on the skill of the person doing it. The Times’ next-to-last public editor, Margaret Sullivan, was the best I can think of, and Stohr quotes a post Sullivan wrote on Twitter/X arguing that the Times needs to bring that position back. Partly it depends on how willing top editors are to provide access. (Sullivan, who still writes media criticism for The Guardian and her own newsletter, is now executive director at the Craig Newmark Center on Journalism Ethics & Security at the Columbia School of Journalism.)

But there are certain things an in-house critic can do that an outside commentator can’t. A public editor has the time to dig deeply and, if they have the cooperation and support of the top leadership, can make a real contribution in helping the public understand why certain decisions are made. And, sometimes, what the story was behind mistakes and misjudgments.

More: There is still an Organization of News Ombudsmen, though I don’t know how active it is. If you look at the U.S. members, you’ll see that most of them hold titles like “managing editor for standards.” I should have noted that PBS has a public editor, Ric Sandoval-Palos.

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Our next book event is this Friday evening in Acton

If you’re north of Boston, I hope you’ll drop in at the Silver Unicorn Bookstore in Acton this Friday, March 1, at 7 p.m., when Ellen Clegg and I will be hosting an event for our book, “What Works in Community News.” Please click here for more information.

Was James Bennet more involved in that Tom Cotton op-ed than he’s said?

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

For those of us who care about the byzantine internal politics of The New York Times, there is a tantalizing aside in Adam Rubenstein’s essay in The Atlantic about his stint as an editor in the opinion section. Rubenstein was involved in editing the infamous June 2020 op-ed by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (free link) calling for the use of the Insurrection Act to suppress violent demonstrators at Black Lives Matter protests. The op-ed led to an internal revolt at the Times and, ultimately, the firing of editorial-page editor James Bennet.

One of the principal charges against Bennet was that he admitted he hadn’t read Cotton’s screed before publishing it. Yet Rubenstein’s Atlantic essay, which is sympathetic to Bennet, includes this:

In addition to my own edits, I incorporated edits conveyed by Bennet, Dao, and the deputy op-ed editor, Clay Risen; then a copy editor went over the essay.

(Dao, by the way, is James Dao, now editorial-page editor at The Boston Globe.)

“Edits conveyed by Bennet”? What, precisely, is that supposed to mean? Did Bennet have a hand in editing the piece or didn’t he? It sure sounds like Rubenstein is telling us that Bennet read the op-ed before it was published — but that contradicts what’s on the public record. For instance, here’s an excerpt from the story (free link) that the Times itself wrote about the controversy just before Bennet was fired:

James Bennet, the editor in charge of the opinion section, said in a meeting with staff members late in the day that he had not read the essay before it was published. Shortly afterward, The Times issued a statement saying the essay fell short of the newspaper’s standards.

Last December, in a massively long essay revisiting the entire affair, Bennet himself reiterated in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, where he is a columnist, that he had not read the op-ed. He recounts an internal meeting at which he tried to defend himself and the decision to publish Cotton’s piece:

[A] pop-culture reporter asked if I had read the op-ed before it was published. I said I had not. He immediately put his head down and started typing, and I should have paid attention rather than moving on to the next question. He was evidently sharing the news with the company over Slack. If he had followed up, or I had, I might have explained that this was standard practice. Dao’s name was on the masthead of the New York Times because he was in charge of the op-ed section. If I insisted on reviewing every piece, I would have been doing his job for him – and been betraying a crippling lack of trust in one of the papers’ finest editors.

There is one other tidbit in Bennet’s piece that perhaps Rubenstein is referring to: “Rubenstein also told me that in one draft Cotton had linked disapprovingly to a tweet from a Times reporter that could be read as expressing support for the rioters. I told Rubenstein to make sure that this link was removed. I had prohibited criticising any work, including any social-media activity, from the newsroom, unless I ran the idea by a senior newsroom editor first.”

Is that the edit “conveyed by Bennet” that Rubenstein refers to in The Atlantic? If so, it’s a pretty thin reed. Rubenstein and his editors at The Atlantic should have realized that he was directly contradicting what Bennet had said about his involvement in Cotton’s op-ed and clarified that Bennet was merely responding to a routine question Rubenstein had asked him. And if Rubenstein is suggesting that Bennet was more involved than he has claimed, then that should have been highlighted, not buried in an aside.

***

Aside from the ambiguities about the degree to which Bennet was involved in editing Cotton’s op-ed, there is at least one other significant failure by Rubenstein and his editors. In attempting to prove that the Times newsroom is hermetically sealed in a left-wing bubble, he takes a shot at Times reporter Edward Wong, writing:

A diplomatic correspondent, Edward Wong, wrote in an email to colleagues that he typically chose not to quote Cotton in his own stories because his comments “often represent neither a widely held majority opinion nor a well-thought-out minority opinion.” This message was revealing. A Times reporter saying that he avoids quoting a U.S. senator? What if the senator is saying something important? What sorts of minority opinions met this correspondent’s standards for being well thought-out?

Wong responded on Twitter/X:

This passage in @TheAtlantic essay by Adam Rubenstein is wrong. The quote is from a paragraph in which I discussed only China policy. I named a GOP senator whom I think speaks with more substance on China than Cotton. Readers know I quote a wide range of knowledgeable analysis.

I respect @TheAtlantic. It should issue a correction. No one asked me for comment, or I would’ve pointed out the false context. The irony is that Rubenstein twisted a line to fit his ideological point — the very act he criticizes. And all serious journalists scrutinize opinions.

In other words, Rubenstein inflates Wong’s well-founded skepticism of Cotton’s expertise (or lack thereof) on one topic into what amounts to an ideologically based boycott of anything Cotton might tell him. This is sleazy and wrong, and The Atlantic needs to respect Wong’s request for a correction.

***

The Atlantic appears to be in the clear on one other controversy. Rubenstein opens with an anecdote aimed at making the Times look like a caricature of what the right might imagine to be wokeism gone wild:

On one of my first days at The New York Times, I went to an orientation with more than a dozen other new hires. We had to do an icebreaker: Pick a Starburst out of a jar and then answer a question. My Starburst was pink, I believe, and so I had to answer the pink prompt, which had me respond with my favorite sandwich. Russ & Daughters’ Super Heebster came to mind, but I figured mentioning a $19 sandwich wasn’t a great way to win new friends. So I blurted out, “The spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A,” and considered the ice broken.

The HR representative leading the orientation chided me: “We don’t do that here. They hate gay people.” People started snapping their fingers in acclamation. I hadn’t been thinking about the fact that Chick-fil-A was transgressive in liberal circles for its chairman’s opposition to gay marriage. “Not the politics, the chicken,” I quickly said, but it was too late. I sat down, ashamed.

Columbia Journalism School professor Bill Grueskin, who is not one to swing from the hips, wrote on Twitter that perhaps Rubenstein’s tale is just a little too good to be true: “I will swear on a stack of AP stylebooks that it is perfectly acceptable for editors, even at @TheAtlantic, to both fact-check first-person anecdotes and tell your readers you did that.” Times Magazine writer and Howard University professor Nikole Hannah-Jones went further, asserting, “Never happened.”

But evidence has emerged that the session Rubenstein describes actually did happen. Conservative commentator Jesse Singal wrote that he obtained a statement from The Atlantic confirming its accuracy, and former Times opinion writer Bari Weiss said that Rubenstein “told me and others that story when it happened.”

***

One final observation. “As painful as it was in my mid-20s to think that my journalistic career would end as a result of this episode,” Rubenstein writes of his decision to leave the Times, “it’s even more painful to think that newsrooms haven’t learned the right lessons from it.”

In his mid-20s? When you’re in your mid-20s, you should be covering city council meetings or, if you’re adventurous, a war. If Rubenstein really wants to explore what’s wrong with the culture of the Times newsroom, he might begin with an examination of how someone as young and inexperienced as he found himself holding an important editing job at our most influential news organization without having any relevant journalism experience beyond working at The Weekly Standard and interning at The Wall Street Journal.

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How a former Iowa newspaper’s name was hijacked to produce AI-generated clickbait

Clayton County, Iowa. Photo (cc) 2011 by Jsayre64.

The Clayton County Register was a respected Iowa newspaper. Founded in 1926, it lives on, having merged with The North Iowa Times in 2020. The new paper was named the Times-Register.

But that’s not the only way that the paper lives on. Kate Knibbs reports in Wired that the domain name, claytoncountyregister.com, is being repurposed to generate investment-oriented clickbait using artificial intelligence. Indeed, if you look at the Register’s homepage right now, you’ll find a gigantic headline, “New York Community Bancorp Faces Uphill Battle Amid Regional Banking Crisis,” accompanied by what is almost certainly an AI-generated image and a byline attributed to Emmanuel Ellerbee.

Ellerbee, Knibbs tells us, has some 30,845 articles to his credit, which is a level of output that even the greediest corporate newspaper owner would respect.

Although Knibbs doesn’t use the term “pink slime,” what she found would appear to fit: it’s garbage content, written under apparently fake bylines, taking advantage of a legacy newspaper’s brand and reputation in order to suck people in. Not that whoever is behind the faux Clayton County Register much cares about trying to lure the locals.

Knibbs begins her story by telling us about an investor named Tony Eastin who stumbled upon the Register while researching a pharmaceutical stock. Much of the story is devoted to how Eastin and his friend Sandeep Abraham tried to get to the bottom of this weird tale. They weren’t entirely successful, but they did find that a Linux server in Germany and a Polish website appeared to be involved. So, too, was a Chinese operation called “the Propaganda Department of the Party Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” Knibbs writes:

Although Eastin and Abraham suspect that the network which the Register’s old site is now part of was created with straightforward moneymaking goals, they fear that more malicious actors could use the same sort of tactics to push misinformation and propaganda into search results. “This is massively threatening,” Abraham says. “We want to raise some alarm bells.”

One of the dangers of the local news crisis is that bad actors can move in and create what appears to be local content that is really anything but. There’s Pink Slime 1.0, going back about a dozen years, which employed low-wage workers in far-off locations like the Philippines to write stories for zombie newspapers. There’s Pink Slime 2.0, in which mostly right-wing websites are given semi-plausible-sounding names like the North Boston News (!) to spread political propaganda. And now, increasingly, we’re seeing examples of Pink Slime 3.0, which adds AI to the mix.

Although these sites don’t represent much of a threat at the moment, that could change. After all, the infrastructure is being put into place.

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A local news activist lashes out at big funders: ‘Psst! Look under your seat!’

An actual news desert. Photo (cc) 2008 by Stefano Brivio.

As nonprofit news becomes an increasingly important part of community journalism, there’s a rift developing between large foundations and small publishers who say that they’re being left behind. Sophie Culpepper wrote about this recently for Nieman Lab, and a new organization called the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets has been founded to represent those overlooked media outlets.

The most recent development on this front is a scorching piece at Local News Blues by Alice Dreger, an author, historian and a founder and former publisher of East Lansing Info. Dreger takes note of the recent Knight Media Forum, whose organizers she describes as being more interested in developing software tools of dubious merit than in providing operating funds to hyperlocal publishers. She writes:

The KMF has always been a towel-slapping, country club locker room with waiters coming by to offer bacon-wrapped shrimp, but this year was particularly troubling. As local news publishers are desperately trying to keep from laying off staff and closing up shop, representatives of the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and their joint Press Forward venture got up on stage to assure the world they’re going to save us.

“We are in it with you, and together we will crack the code of sustainability,” said Maribel Pérez Wadsworth, the president of the Knight Foundation. You know, the Knight Foundation — the behemoth sitting comfortably on a multi-billion-dollar endowment.

Psst, Maribel! Look under your seat!

She also quotes Nancy West of InDepthNH as saying that Knight seems more interested in artificial intelligence than in paying for news. West, a past guest on our podcast, “What Works,” promptly republished Dreger’s piece. That led to a response from John Palfrey, the president of the MacArthur Foundation, which is the lead foundation in Press Forward. “Thanks for the tag and the feedback,” he wrote on Twitter/X. “I know the team will bear these critiques in mind as grantmaking ramps up.”

The bottom line is that there isn’t enough national money for everyone. Dreger notes that Press Forward has decided to make a priority of funding projects that serve communities of color, which I think makes a lot of sense, even if that leaves other projects behind. Ultimately, nonprofit news outlets have to educate philanthropic organizations in their own backyards that quality journalism is as worthy of funding as youth programs and the arts. And yes, I realize that’s easier to do in some places than in others.

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Some good news from Rhode Island on the local news front

Ted Nesi of WPRI-TV (Channel 12) in Providence reports some good news from Rhode Island on the local news front. In his weekly “Nesi’s Notes” column (item 10), he writes that the seven local newspapers and other properties that comprise the East Bay Media Group are thriving, and that The Valley Breeze in northern Rhode Island is also doing well. East Bay publisher Matt Hayes tells Nesi that his properties now have 145,000 weekly readers, while Breeze publisher James Quinn says he’s now distributing 50,000 copies each week and is expanding.

The East Bay papers are paid and the Breeze is free, a sign that different types of for-profit business models can work. As Nesi observers, this comes at a time when even relatively healthy national papers such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post are cutting their newsrooms.

It may be too soon to declare a trend, but with even Gannett in hiring mode after years of devastating cuts, it could be that people are rediscovering the importance of local news.

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Print circulation drops again. But why are we still counting?

It has become a strange and perverse exercise. Every so often, Press Gazette, a U.K.-based website that tracks developments in the news business, rounds up the latest weekday print circulation figures reported by U.S. newspapers and informs us that, yes, they’re down once again. For instance: The Wall Street Journal, 555,200, a drop of 14% over the previous year; The New York Times, 267,600, down 13%; The Boston Globe, 56,900, down 11%.

These same news organizations, though, are succeeding in selling digital subscriptions. The Times has 9.7 million digital-only subscribers. The Journal is around 3.5 million. The Globe has about 250,000, and CEO Linda Henry has announced a push for 400,000.

Why does Press Gazette persist in tracking these print-only numbers? Because they’re there. Twice a year, the Alliance for Audited Media reports print circulation for every newspaper that’s a member. Reliable digital numbers are much harder to come by.

As the Press Gazette itself concedes: “While print remains an important revenue stream, data on digital subscriptions presents a more promising picture.” No kidding.

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The Globe names a new Spotlight Team editor

The Boston Globe has named Brendan McCarthy as the editor of the Spotlight Team, its investigative unit. According to an announcement by executive editor Nancy Barnes and senior deputy managing editor Mark Morrow that sent to me by several newsroom sources:

Brendan will oversee an expanded investigative unit that will eventually include a deputy editor, five or six reporters with specialized skills, three quick strike reporters, and an engagement reporter/producer. Our goal is to tackle more significant investigations, while maintaining the ability to move quickly off the news. As the Spotlight editor, he will have full authority to work across the room as needed, especially when a big story breaks that demands deeper investigative work.

McCarthy replaces Patricia Wen, who is now the staff writer for the Globe’s Sunday magazine following seven years of running Spotlight.

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Teri Morrow and Wayne Braverman track the future of The Bedford Citizen

Teri Morrow

On our latest podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Teri Morrow and Wayne Braverman of The Bedford Citizen in the Boston suburb of Bedford, Massachusetts. Wayne is a longtime journalist who is now serving as the managing editor of the Citizen. Teri, the executive director, has lived in Bedford since 1996 and has been active in local government.

I wrote the chapter on this homegrown, grass-roots news site in “What Works in Community News.” In the book, I tell the story about how the free digital site grew out of what three members of the League of Women Voters — Julie McCay Turner, Meredith McCulloch and Kim Siebert — saw as a need to provide their community with reliable news. Julie stepped down as managing editor in 2022, and Meredith is still involved as a volunteer.

Wayne Braverman

I’ve got a Quick Take on an unlikely good news story. The media industry is in the midst of another painful downturn, with news organizations from The Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times to CNN cutting their newsrooms and with The Messenger, a high-profile national startup that never seemed to make sense, shutting down after less than a year. But there’s one news organization that’s hiring journalists and that says it’s succeeding at the very tough job of selling ads. You won’t believe who I’m talking about, so stay tuned.

Ellen talks about the robots that may come to steal our jobs — or at least help us compile real estate listings and police blotters. It’s all part of an initiative undertaken by that venerable journalistic organization The Associated Press.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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The Boston Globe interviews Ellen Clegg and me about our local news book

Many thanks to Kate Tuttle for her Boston Globe interview with Ellen Clegg and me about our book, “What Works in Community News.” We’ll be hosting two book events in the Boston area next week. On Monday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m., we’ll be at the Harvard Book Store, right outside of Harvard Square, and on Friday, March 1, we’ll be at the Silver Unicorn Bookstore, also at 7 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.

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