H.L. Mencken: Semi-forgotten genius or a flawed but talented figure?

Photo (cc) 2013 by Paul Sableman

I recently attempted to fill one of the many gaps in my education by reading an anthology of work by H.L. Mencken, a Baltimore-based journalist of some renown during the first half of the 20th century (“The Vintage Mencken,” edited by Alistair Cooke). I came away disappointed.

Though I had already prepared myself for his well-advertised racism and antisemitism, I hadn’t realized that he was a misogynist as well. And, though he could certainly turn a phrase, many of his pieces do not hang together with any sort of coherence. For example, the longest — a critical essay about Theodore Dreiser — begins by mocking him, moves on to trashing him and then concludes with the observation that maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. I say this without any personal insight into Dreiser, as I don’t believe I’ve ever read him, not even his best-known novel, “Sister Carrie.” I just thought it was odd that Mencken couldn’t make up his mind.

Some of Mencken’s writing, of course, was satisfying. I particularly enjoyed this description of life as young reporter and how it had deteriorated into something approaching factory work:

Whether or not the young journalists of today live so spaciously is a question that I am not competent to answer, for my contacts with them, of late years, have been rather scanty. They undoubtedly get a great deal more money than we did in 1900, but their freedom is much less than ours was, and they somehow give me the impression, seen at a distance, of complacency rather than intrepidity. In my day a reporter who took an assignment was wholly on his own until he got back to the office, and even then he was little molested until his copy was turned in at the desk; today he tends to become only a homunculus at the end of a telephone wire, and the reduction of his observations to prose is commonly farmed out to literary castrati who never leave the office, and hence never feel the wind of the world in their faces or see anything with their own eyes.

Some of Mencken’s best pieces are obituaries of the famous and the infamous, and he especially rises to the occasion following the death of William Jennings Bryan. “He was, in fact,” Mencken writes, “a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses…. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the barnyard.”

Good stuff, even if it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Hunter S. Thompson’s monumental sendoff of Richard Nixon, which remains in a class of its own.

I enjoyed Mencken’s putdown of Woodrow Wilson, who has only gradually come to be regarded as one of our worst presidents. (“[H]e knew better than they did how to arrest and enchant the boobery with words that were simply words, and nothing else.”) Then again, Mencken disdained Franklin Roosevelt and even expressed some misgivings about Abraham Lincoln, offset by his grotesque nostalgia for the Confederacy.

I guess the best way to understand Mencken is not as a half-forgotten genius but, rather, as a flawed but talented writer who will probably continue to fade into obscurity.

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There they go again

Gannett has shut down another print newspaper — this one the Transcript Tab, itself representing the merger of the Parkway Transcript, which mainly covered Roslindale, and the Allston-Brighton Tab. Adam Gaffin has the details at Universal Hub.

Questions remain after the fall of the House of Cuomo

I’ve heard three questions come up since CNN suspended, then fired, Chris Cuomo for his inappropriate involvement in his brother Andrew’s defense against charges that he’d sexually harassed and assaulted women. I don’t know the answers to any of them. But they’re worth framing as we think about the extraordinary events of the past week.

1. Why did it take so long for CNN to act? The original bad actor in all of this was CNN head Jeff Zucker, who allowed Chris to host Andrew on his show when Andrew, as governor of New York, was winning widespread praise for how he had handled the early stages of the COVID pandemic.

It may have struck many people at the time as a harmless diversion during a very dark period. You may recall that Chris himself contracted the virus. But it was unethical, and in the months to come we learned just how unethical. Remember, Andrew ended up being accused not just of groping women but of grossly mismanaging the pandemic as well.

Then the drip, drip, drip started, as we learned that Chris had advised his brother and taken part in meetings as the sexual-misconduct scandal became increasingly serious. Zucker may have worried that suspending or firing one of his stars would have only called attention to his own role, so he let it go.

The revelations that were reported last week, though, weren’t just more but were also different. They showed that Chris had abused his position by, for instance, trying to find out what stories other journalists were working on. This went way beyond anything Zucker could have reasonably foreseen, and thus may have given him the freedom he needed to do what he should have done earlier.

No doubt Zucker’s hand was strengthened further when Chris Cuomo was hit during the past few days with a sexual misconduct allegation of his own — his second.

2. What about Sean Hannity? I’ve heard a number of people ask why Chris Cuomo has to go when Fox News did nothing about Hannity’s close relationship with Donald Trump. To which I can only respond that Fox, notwithstanding good work by a few of its journalists, is not really a news operation. It’s a propaganda outlet whose stock in trade is lies and ginned-up culture-war stories about issues such as race and the evils of vaccinations.

CNN is not what it used to be, and I’m not a fan of its prime-time line-up of opinionated talk shows. But it’s good to see that management still cares enough about the network’s reputation that it’s not going to stand for a host who breaks all journalistic boundaries — even if he didn’t do much journalism on the air. To imagine that Fox News would take similar action is to believe that Fox and CNN are in the same business. They’re not.

And wouldn’t it be great if CNN ultimately decides to replace Cuomo’s 9 p.m. talk show with an actual newscast? I’m not holding my breath.

3. What about Jeffrey Toobin? You may recall that CNN suspended Toobin as its legal analyst after he was caught pleasuring himself during a Zoom meeting. Many observers were surprised when the network took him back eight months later.

I’m not sure what that was about except to note that the incident took place during a New Yorker staff meeting, where Toobin was a writer. The New Yorker fired Toobin and shows no signs of being willing to take him back. CNN may have figured that it would be unfair to banish Toobin permanently for something he did for another employer. Still, it’s hard to watch Toobin without going “ewww.” And I say that as someone who liked his work both at The New Yorker and on CNN.

Finally: What an extraordinary downfall for the House of Cuomo. I revered their father, Mario; long before 2020, though, I was aware of Andrew’s thuggish reputation as governor. Chris struck me as an amiable lightweight. Scandals like this have a human dimension that can’t be overlooked. Andrew and Chris got what they deserved — but I feel bad for their mother, Matilda, who, at 90, is still very much with us.

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Your must-read for the weekend

Stephen Glass — yes, that Stephen Glass, of “Shattered Glass” infamy — has been touched by God. I don’t know how else to put it. No spoiler alerts, so just read this.

Sponsored content helps drive 10% boost in ad revenues at the Globe, says internal memo

A recent memo from Boston Globe Media’s chief commercial officer paints a rosy picture about advertising at the Globe. According to the memo, from Kayvan Salmanpour, ad revenue will increase by more than 10% in 2021 as compared to 2020. I’d like to see a comparison with 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, but growth is growth.

Much of Salmanpour’s message, provided to me by a trusted source, concerns sponsored content — that is, story-based advertising produced in collaboration with the Globe’s sales staff. Such ads send some media critics reaching for the smelling salts, but they don’t bother me as long as they’re properly labeled. The Globe’s sponsored content comes with multiple disclosures.

I also chuckled at Salmanpour’s reference to the Globe’s advertising partnership with the Red Sox. I’m pretty sure the paper has an in with the Sox; I’ll get back to you if I find out otherwise.

Still, this is good news for the Globe and, thus, good news for readers. Along with its success in digital subscriptions, the paper is growing and hiring. And it recently achieved labor peace as well.

The full text of Salmanpour’s memo follows.

Dear Colleagues,

I’m excited to share some of our year-end advertising highlights and achievements with all of you. Before I dive into the specifics, the most important and meaningful observation I can share is that Boston Globe Media is a truly special media brand. We have a unique ability to tell powerful stories in creative ways, and our clients value the deep connection we bring with the communities that we serve. More and more brands are noticing the work that we’re capable of producing and are proactively reaching out to engage us. Over the last 24 months, the advertising team has witnessed a remarkable turnaround, culminating in a pivotal feat: In 2021, the Globe will grow advertising revenue by more than 10 percent year over year.

Honestly, we’re not sure the last time this happened at the Globe — our memories don’t go back that far. But we do know this success is the product of a herculean effort from the sales team, and the result of a smart strategy that has brought the Globe’s advertising business much closer to top players in the media industry.

As we all know, the advertising marketplace has been radically disrupted.  Amazon, Google and Facebook together take up 64% of all digital advertising spending in the US. Many advertisers have shifted to programmatic buys — an automated auction of internet advertising inventory that’s sold at a steep discount. Add in more and more channels and constantly evolving technology like ad blockers,, and you can understand why advertising revenue has been declining.

The entrepreneurial team in the Globe Sales department found a way to adapt and thrive after doing some intense market analysis, innovative planning, investing in the team, and then deploying bold new strategies.

After a deep analytics audit of our advertising business, we calculated that 42% of our clients accounted for just 4% of revenue. On the other side of the spectrum, 65% of our revenue came from just 12% of our clients.  The lesson? We were spending too much time servicing small deals, and we were spending too little time building resources for larger deals. To tackle this, we reorganized our local, corporate, marketplaces sales teams to a system that is aligned with how much an advertiser was spending.  We invested in new technology and structured our advertising strategy around the following:

Tier 1 – Smaller advertising buys/high-volume: We are deploying an efficient, automated process to serve our smaller advertisers at scale and provide a great user experience at optimum pricing. We’re investing in a self-serve platform that will allow for a seamless transition for these advertisers.

Tier 2 – Mid-dollar advertising buys/mid-level volume: We’ve created compelling and complementary advertising opportunities for clients in danger of leaving their Globe mid-tier print spend for good. We are transitioning many of them to newsletter sponsorships, where revenue has increased by 77% over last year. We rolled out paid social posts as a new product and brought in direct sponsorships for newsroom projects. Our long-standing themed print sections have rebounded through clever print/digital combos.

We have created a system that has proved that we can grow revenue, not just sustain it.

Tier 3 – High-dollar amount/low volume: This is the pricing tier that will ultimately be a big factor in our future success. More media advertising departments are functioning like storytelling agencies with a guaranteed audience (they are serving fewer but larger clients and employ a more consultative approach with clients). Many of our deals in this tier are “bundled” multimedia products, so we’ve invested heavily in supporting the sales team with the resources to put these packages together.

Since implementing this structure and investment, the team has closed a number of impressive deals, including a multi-year deal with Harvard Pilgrim, in partnership with the Red Sox. This was the first of many collaborative deals with the Red Sox, as sponsors/advertisers want to be more than just sponsors,  they want to be mission-driven storytellers like us.

I have seen firsthand how impressed the Red Sox team has been with the work that comes out of the Globe’s creative ad dept, Studio B. Every day, we surprise people with our creative branded storytelling (a huge factor in our continued success); Studio B has grown branded content products  by more than 55% year over year, and is poised to grow even more next year. This will be a large factor in Globe.com sales success, as sponsored content makes up more than 63% of the revenue for that platform.

Finally, the ad department and the events team are in sync more than ever, as more of our deals become bundled multimedia packages that involve media, branded content, display, event sponsorships, and email. It has not only allowed us to increase our deal sizes, but also showed to the market how we can adapt to a client’s needs. Events has grown from a lower volume, smaller deal size enterprise to an operation in which the programming, sponsor collaboration and revenue has us playing with the majors.

Events revenue grew 81% over last year as previous clients returned to do more with us while 68% of event revenue this year is from new advertisers.

One of the best parts, however, is that 75% of this revenue came from events featuring our journalists — the heart of what we do as a news media company.

You may have noticed what’s not in this memo so far — any mention of the pandemic. Yes, the economic impact of Covid-19 dramatically impacted our print business, as it did across the industry. Our goal for 2022 is to hit our original budgeted number of 2020 (again, growing year over year), and yet the composition of that number will be so much healthier than it was back then.

Ultimately, I am most proud of this department’s mindset shift, especially under intense pressure of the revenue challenges of the local news industry. There are too many people to thank here, but a big credit to the sales executive team who are such exemplary leaders, the sellers who are such a great representation of our department and brand, and the sales support team who work so tirelessly everyday to make sure the train is running ahead of schedule.  

We are, without a doubt, a mission-driven team, and we are driven by the fact that we are contributing, through revenue, to the world-class journalism produced by the Globe newsroom.

Thank you to our editors and newsroom for keeping us inspired to do our work.

Best,
Kayvan

Kayvan Salmanpour
Chief Commercial Officer

GBH News’ just-announced political show conjures up ties with The Boston Phoenix

As an alumnus of “Beat the Press,” which was canceled over the summer, I’ve been curious about what GBH-TV (Channel 2) would do about filling the Friday 7 p.m. time slot.

The station ran a local politics show during the fall that was supposed to end on Election Day but was instead extended through the rest of the year. Now it looks like that show is being made permanent, with a new name — “Talking Politics.” The show will be focused on the suddenly hot Massachusetts gubernatorial race.

Although I don’t know whether it’s deliberate (I suspect it was), the name conjures up the connections between GBH News and the late, great Boston Phoenix. The host, Adam Reilly, used to be the Phoenix’s “Talking Politics” columnist. GBH News senior editor Peter Kadzis, who’ll be part of the new show, was the editor of the Phoenix for many years.

Other Phoenix alums associated with GBH News include former “Talking Politics” columnists Jon Keller and David Bernstein as well as civil-liberties columnist Harvey Silverglate. And, of course, yours truly. Might we consider renaming my GBH media column “Don’t Quote Me”?

The full press release follows.

BOSTON (December 2, 2021) – GBH News today announced the launch of Talking Politics, a new weekly show that will take a deep dive into local politics, with a special focus on the 2022 Massachusetts gubernatorial race. Hosted by GBH News politics reporter Adam Reilly, the panel-based series will feature conversations with local political newsmakers, influencers, analysts and activists. GBH News City Hall reporter Saraya Wintersmith, Statehouse Bureau reporter Mike Deehan and politics editor Peter Kadzis will also be key contributors. Talking Politics debuts on Friday, December 3 at 7:00 p.m. on GBH 2 and streaming on the GBH News YouTube Channel.

“Audiences throughout Massachusetts know that the issues being debated on Beacon Hill have the potential to directly impact their lives. And it’s not just the issues, but the individuals who are shaping these discussions,” said Pam Johnston, general manager of news at GBH. “With this week’s announcement from Governor Baker that he will not seek reelection, the race to lead Massachusetts is wide open. Talking Politics will bring audiences compelling conversations and deeply reported local journalism about political issues across the Commonwealth with the 2022 gubernatorial race at center stage.”

Talking Politics builds on the foundation created by Boston’s Race Into History, the pop-up television show integral to GBH News’ multi-platform initiative focused on the 2021 Boston Mayoral Race. In each week’s half-hour episode, Talking Politics will take a broader look at state and local politics and their impact on the issues that matter. The series will investigate a wide range of political developments across the Commonwealth including the unfolding gubernatorial race, the new leadership in place in key Massachusetts cities, and the administration of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.

The debut episode will look at Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to not seek reelection in 2022 after leading the Commonwealth for two terms. Host Adam Reilly and guests will also provide an update into the campaigns of the race’s declared candidates, Republican Geoff Diehl, and Democrats Danielle Allen, Ben Downing, and Sonia Chang-Díaz.

Audiences can stay up-to-date with local political coverage by subscribing to the GBH News politics newsletter. GBH News has been expanding its political coverage over the past year including a multi-platform journalism initiative focused on Boston’s mayoral race and regular appearances by elected officials on Boston Public Radio.

 

With Alden on the prowl again, it’s time to stop hedge funds from destroying newspapers

Photo (cc) 2007 by Mike

It’s rather late in the game to ask whether hedge funds can be stopped from buying up every last one of our local newspapers. After all, about half of us are already stuck with a paper that is owned by, or is in debt to, the likes of Alden Global Capital (Tribune Publishing and MediaNews Group), Apollo Global Management (Gannett) and Chatham Asset Management (McClatchy).

Still, with Alden having now set its sights on Lee Enterprises, a chain that owns 77 daily newspapers in 26 states, we need to take steps aimed at preventing what is already a debacle from devolving into a catastrophe.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Chris Cuomo has left the building

From Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter of CNN:

CNN said Tuesday that it has suspended Chris Cuomo “indefinitely” after new documents released this week indicated that the anchor was more intimately involved than previously known in helping his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, craft a defense amid a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations.

I can’t imagine Cuomo will be back, but who knows?

Earlier: CNN needs to punish Chris Cuomo severely — and to consider firing him

Talking local news with Michael Azevedo

On the podcast “Making Media Now,” host Michael Azevedo and I talk about the local news crisis and what to do about it. Please give it a listen.

CNN needs to punish Chris Cuomo severely — and to consider firing him

Chris Cuomo

I’ve been defending CNN’s Chris Cuomo ever since we learned that he had been advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, about how to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

It’s not that I like his program especially; I don’t. It’s that the misguided decision to let Chris host Andrew during the early days of the COVID pandemic was more a failing by management than it was something that could be blamed on Chris, and that it wasn’t fair to criticize him for acting like a brother.

No more. Monday’s revelations show that Chris Cuomo went beyond giving his brother advice, and even went beyond strategizing with other members of Andrew Cuomo’s team. According to the newly released documents, Chris Cuomo abused his position at CNN, and for that he needs to pay a steep price — maybe a long suspension, maybe termination.

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“How in the world does Chris Cuomo survive this?” asks Tom Jones of Poynter, taking note of the sordid details:

According to documents released Monday by the New York attorney general’s office, Chris used his media sources to seek out information about women who accused his brother of sexual misconduct. He then relayed some of that information to his brother’s top advisers.

Writing in The Atlantic, David A. Graham — who believes that Chris Cuomo should resign or be fired — offered this:

When Chris Cuomo simply offered advice to staff members, he failed to observe the rules CNN had set for his private behavior. But by gathering information from “sources” and passing it to his brother’s staff, Cuomo committed the more egregious step of directly mixing the journalistic work of calling sources and gathering information with his personal, familial commitments. He was wise not to go further into the realm of “oppo research” [something Chris told investigators he did not do], but he still went far beyond the bounds of propriety.

Chris Cuomo hosts an opinionated talk show that is only peripherally tied to journalism. But as Graham notes, he does, in fact, act as a journalist, and people are going to return his calls when he tells them that he’s working on a story. His behavior violated multiple rules of “The Elements of Journalism,” including reporting the truth, maintaining independence from those we cover and serving as an independent monitor of power.

I tuned in Cuomo’s show Monday at 9 p.m. to see whether he’d be on and if he’d address it. There he was, but he made no mention of the revelations — not at the beginning, not at the end.

I’ll give him this much — he seemed every bit his normal self, even though he had to know his career was hanging in the balance.

CNN seems to be taking the new allegations seriously. “The thousands of pages of additional transcripts and exhibits that were released today by the NY Attorney General deserve a thorough review and consideration,” CNN said in a statement. “We will be having conversations and seeking additional clarity about their significance as they relate to CNN over the next several days.”

The next step is to act. I doubt that we’ll see Chris Cuomo in the anchor chair tonight. The question is whether we’ll ever see him there again — or should.