Three questions still to be answered about the meltdown of the MIT Media Lab

Joi Ito. Photo (cc) 2017 by the MIT Media Lab.

An ethical breakdown at one of our great universities. A media maelstrom involving secret emails and possible conflicts of interest. And hints that there may be more to come.

The weeks-long drama over former MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito’s financial entanglements with the late financier Jeffrey Epstein, who recently committed suicide while facing charges that he had sexually abused underage girls, came to a sickening head over the weekend. Ito resigned after Ronan Farrow reported in The New Yorker that Ito and the Media Lab had taken more money from Epstein than he had previously admitted to, and had gone to great lengths to conceal the source of that money — with lab employees referring to Epstein in emails as “Voldemort” and “he who must not be named.”

Despite Ito’s departure, we may be still closer to the beginning of this story than the end. Many unanswered questions remain. Here, then, are three lines of inquiry that I hope will be pursued in the days and weeks ahead.

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Dwarfism activist John Young gets an apology from Zac Brown

My friend John Young educates Zac Brown about people with dwarfism — and gets an apology for Brown’s degrading skit at Fenway Park last weekend. WCVB-TV (Channel 5) reports.

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The Boston Globe makes an unconventional hire to run its opinion pages

Bina Venkataraman (via LinkedIn)

The Boston Globe’s next editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, is an unconventional hire for some interesting reasons. She’s young (39), a person of color, an outsider (notwithstanding a brief stint at the Globe some years ago), an academic associated with MIT and Harvard, and a woman (as were her two predecessors, though it’s still unusual enough to be worth noting).

More than anything, though, her intellectual orientation is very different from the politics-and-powerbrokers style that is typical of editorial-page editors generally. She’s a science journalist who’s worked for The New York Times. She was also a senior adviser for climate-change innovation in the Obama administration and is the author of a new book, “The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age.”

This is an enormously important hire. The editorial-page editor, like editor Brian McGrory, reports directly to publisher John Henry and managing director Linda Henry. I’d be very surprised if Linda Henry, in particular, was not a driving force in bringing Venkataraman back to the Globe.

Opinion journalism is everywhere these days, though much of it can’t really be considered journalism. In an interview with the Globe, Venkataraman showed that she gets it, saying, “There are a lot of opinions in our media environment right now, and a lot of people are able to offer their opinions, so it raises the bar for what we produce.”

Venkataraman’s predecessor, Ellen Clegg, who retired a little more than a year ago (disclosure: we are research partners on a project we’re not ready to announce), oversaw a vibrant redesign of the print pages, innovative and controversial projects on gun violence and a fake front page about a possible Trump presidency, and the expansion of digital-only content. After Clegg left, business columnist Shirley Leung filled in for a few months as interim editorial-page editor but didn’t really have time to leave her mark.

I would expect to see Venkataraman lead the Globe opinion pages in a more science-based direction, especially with regard to solutions-oriented journalism about climate change. I’d also like to see further expansion of digital-only content — two print pages with lots of white space really isn’t enough.

One big question is the future of the Ideas section, which will be part of Venkataraman’s portfolio. Earlier this year a sharp-eyed observer found a job ad suggesting that the Globe was going to morph it into more of a traditional Sunday week-in-review section — perhaps similar to the old Focus section that Ideas replaced, though it would need considerable updating.

Whether Ideas stays or goes, I think it needs to be made more relevant and rooted in the news. As it stands, many of the pieces strike me as too obscure. That may be a reflection of my own pedestrian tastes, although I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment. We’ll see what Venkataraman does.

Venkataraman begins in November. You can find out more about her in this online bio.

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Bernie Sanders proves you don’t have to like journalists in order to love journalism

Bernie Sanders campaigning in Phoenix. Photo (cc) 2015 by Gage Skidmore.

Bernie Sanders is an unlikely savior of journalism.

But apparently you don’t have to love the media to appreciate its vital role in a democracy. Because last week Sanders, an independent socialist who is once again seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, outlined a solid media-reform proposal in an essay for the Columbia Journalism Review.

“Real journalism requires significant resources,” he wrote. “One reason we do not have enough real journalism in America right now is because many outlets are being gutted by the same forces of greed that are pillaging our economy.”

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Only the best people

Madeleine Westerhout

The story of Madeleine Westerhout, the 28-year-old aide to President Trump who was fired for sharing nasty gossip about the Trump family after having a few drinks with reporters, is fascinating (the original Politico story is here; some background from The New York Times is here).

Westerhout reportedly despised Trump so much that she burst into tears the night he was elected. Yet she went to work for him, brought into the White House by former chief of staff Reince Priebus despite an exceedingly thin résumé. She grasped for more power. And she showed no loyalty to the president whatsoever.

These are the kinds of people Trump surrounds himself with, because no one with integrity will have anything to do with him.

It would be interesting to learn how her off-the-record remarks became public. Daniel Lippman of Politico, who broke the story, wasn’t there, so he’s in the clear. Trump ally Arthur Schwartz, he of the media attack squad, has pointed the finger at Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, who was there. His editor issued a statement vouching for Rucker’s integrity without quite denying that Rucker was the source. Rucker has not written about the incident.

Most likely we’re not going to get to the bottom of this.

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Outrage fades quickly over Trump fanboy’s campaign to embarrass the media

Meet the press. 2019 White House photo.

We’ve become accustomed to Trump outrages that seem OMG in the moment only to fade quickly into obscurity — replaced, as such things inevitably are, by the next insult, outburst or tweet. But even by those standards, a New York Times story reporting that Republican operatives with White House ties were seeking to embarrass President Trump’s adversaries in the media had an unusually short half-life.

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The Guild’s response to Boston Globe management

Management’s statement.

And here is the NewsGuild’s response to Boston Globe management. I have redacted the names.

Dear members

You may have seen the company’s email regarding the status of our contraction negotiations.

Here’s what’s really been happening:

The Guild asked the company to start negotiations in Sept. 2018. Company officials did not make themselves available until December 6.

On that day the company, represented by Trish Dunn of Jones Day, presented us with a proposal that would, among many, many problematic things:

  1. Give the company the ability to outsource our jobs.
  2. Eliminate overtime for most members.
  3. Strip us of seniority in layoffs.
  4. Remove wage steps that guarantee annual pay increases for employees who otherwise would receive no raises unless their managers agreed to them.
  5. Take away our ability to defend ourselves against abuses.
  6. Take away our ability to fight back if the company denies an employee’s claim of harassment against a supervisor.
  7. Remove the clause in our current contract that would require any future owner from honoring the bargaining agreement.
  8. Weaken, if not cut entirely, language in our contract that calls on the Globe to recruit and promote women and minorities.
  9. Slash our severance.

What would we get in return? Two percent annual wage increases for two years and a 401k match increase of 3 percent that came with a huge draw-back.

The company proposed language that would allow it to reduce and even eliminate the match without having to negotiate with the Guild, which it must do under our current contract.

Yes, the company has proposed changes to healthcare that would reduce costs for some members. But according to the Guild’s calculations, the changes would significantly increase healthcare costs for many of our other members, a fact we have reminded the company of repeatedly at the table.

The company wanted us to agree to this lopsided deal within two months. Then, when their deadline passed, the Globe withdrew its previous proposal and replaced it with one that would still cut our rights under the current contract but without any increases to our wages or 401k match.

As for the ten-week family leave we now have, the company seems to have forgotten that it was Guild members who proposed this to management in 2017 and had to prod the company for 18 months before it would join the ranks of other news organizations and provide a decent family leave package. This finally happened at the negotiation table after the Guild agreed to give up some of its sick days.

Since December, the Guild has continued to meet and schedule new dates for negotiations at a steady pace. The Guild has made proposals and movement, while the company has barely budged off of any of the major concessions it has demanded. These actions are in large part why the Guild has been compelled to file a bad faith bargaining charge against the Globe for violating the National Labor Relations Act.

In its email, the company accused us of failing to schedule enough meetings and abruptly canceling on Tuesday.

This requires some context. The company was unable to meet for a three-week stretch in July because one person on its seven-member team was on vacation. And at the most recent negotiating meeting, the company did not make a single proposal, saying it had nothing for us, even though the company owed us responses on several proposals.

The Guild did cancel one bargaining session, the first such cancellation during eight months of negotiations, because the Guild’s president, Scott Steeves, a critical member of our bargaining team, had to fill in for his manager, who has recently left the company and  has yet to be replaced.

The Guild’s negotiating team did meet on its own this week to draft more proposals and responses that will be provided to the company at the next bargaining session in September. The company knows this.

We’ve asked the company repeatedly to explain how provisions in the current contract are an impediment — financial or otherwise — to the Globe’s sustainability and growth. We are repeatedly met with the same vague response: “We want to be more flexible and nimble.”

Well, that’s not good enough. It’s not good enough for employees who have tirelessly worked for this company even as it made monumental mistakes that threatened the health and future of the Globe. We were there for the company when its short-sighted decision to switch newspaper delivery vendors failed spectacularly and we were there for the company when the faulty printing machines it purchased led to delays in putting out the paper.

And we were there for the company even when our lives were threatened by a heavily armed man in California.

We’re not asking for much in return. But the company is demanding too much of people who have still not recovered from the drastic wage cuts the New York Times imposed in 2009.

We hope this helps set the record straight. We invite you to approach our team with questions or comments. Your feedback is critical to us.

And if you’d like to share your thoughts with the company’s negotiating team, here are their names and contact information:

In Solidarity,

The Guild Bargaining Committee

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Globe management’s latest statement on negotiations with the NewsGuild

The Guild’s response.

Boston Globe executives sent a memo of more than 1,300 words to the staff last Friday giving them their side of the ongoing negotiations between the paper and the NewsGuild, formerly known as the Newspaper Guild. A trusted source sent it along earlier this morning, and I’m posting the full text below.

The email comes several weeks after the Guild filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming unfair labor practices “given the slow pace of contract negotiations and the insulting strong-arm tactics used by the company’s lawyers.” The union staged a brief walkout as well. Interestingly, management now claims that it’s the union that’s dragging its feet.

Given that the Globe claims to have achieved profitability at the end of 2018, it strikes me as fair to ask why staff members, who’ve sacrificed in order to improve the Globe’s bottom line, shouldn’t share in that success. In the memo, management replies that those profits will disappear if costs aren’t kept under control.

“As we communicated in our 2018 year-end note to staff,” the email says, “we ended the year in the black precisely because we aggressively targeted savings across many facets of our business and carefully managed expenses to stay ahead of the structural declines we continue to see in our industry, including continued circulation and revenue declines. Most of that expense reduction has come from our production side, and it is not sustainable to continue significant cuts to the operations and staff that print, assemble and distribute the Globe every day. Rather, we must continue our vigilance in looking for efficiencies and identifying areas of real and sustainable growth in our editorial and commercial departments as well, just as all media companies are doing in today’s world to remain viable and relevant.”

The full text of the memo follows:

Dear Colleagues,

In an effort to keep you apprised of our negotiations with the Guild, we want to share an update on the current status of the negotiations after 19 bargaining sessions over eight months.

As we noted back in January, we provided the Guild’s bargaining committee with two complete contract proposals for consideration on December 6, 2018 — our first bargaining session. The first was a traditional proposal without any economics embedded, but with important operational and cleanup changes. The other was called a conditional alternative proposal, which included the same important operational and cleanup changes, but also included guaranteed annual wage increases of 2% for everyone, a 3% increase in the current 2% 401k company match, and 10 weeks of paid parental leave. The alternative proposal would have added up to 5% annually to employees’ compensation through wage increases and an increased 401k match. This alternative proposal was contingent on getting the contract settled quickly in early 2019.

The proposed 2% annual wage increases in the alternative proposal were in line with, or exceeded, annual increases at other major newspaper companies. The proposed 5% 401k match exceeded the match that most other major newspaper companies offer. The Guild rejected both, ending the possibility of an early 2019 contract settlement. At that time, we made it clear to the Guild that the Globe would not be willing to make any wage and benefit increases later agreed upon retroactive to January 1.

The one exception to that was paid parental leave. In its December 2018 proposals, the Globe offered, and the Guild accepted, 10 weeks of paid parental leave on the same terms as non-represented employees. In January, the Globe moved ahead with providing all of its employees with up to 10 weeks of paid parental leave.

The Globe has also put forth proposals to:

  • Continue providing employees with generous paid time off for vacations, sick leave and holidays — up to 47 paid days off a year, in excess of most other large city newspaper companies. Those 47 days are in addition to paid bereavement leave or short-term disability benefits, which the Globe also provides.
  • Provide the same health insurance benefits that it provides to its managers and other non-union employees, with a progressive premium cost-sharing arrangement that would allow lower paid employees to pay just 17% of the premiums and higher paid employees to pay 25%-30% of the premiums. The Globe’s proposed premium shares are, in most instances, lower than what other major newspaper companies require employees to contribute to their premiums. And, they compare favorably to national averages where employees pay about 29% of the premiums for family coverage and 18% of the premiums for single coverage (according to the Kaiser Family Foundation Survey of Employer Health Benefits).

Together, the Globe and the Guild have made progress in negotiations. We achieved tentative agreements on four full articles within the contract — including union security and dues check off that protect the Guild — and more than fifty tentative agreements on subsections, including those relating to:

  • Grievance rights
  • Grievance procedures
  • Protection of grievants
  • Parental leave
  • Sick leave
  • Union security
  • Union leave
  • Anti-discrimination
  • Diversity commitment
  • Career development and training
  • Labor Management Committee
  • Joint Committee on Workplace Equity and Diversity
  • Work week
  • Vacation pay
  • Reduced work week policy
  • Part-time employees’ sick leave
  • Part-time employees’ vacation
  • Dangerous conditions policy

The Globe has consistently tried to schedule regular meetings to bargain the contract. On Tuesday, the Guild committee cancelled this week’s bargaining session — a session that had been on the books since June 6. Moreover, they have been refusing to book regular bargaining dates through the rest of the year and has made its committee available only one or two dates each month, even though the Globe’s negotiators have requested to meet weekly. In fact, in our August 9th session, the Guild’s chief negotiator told us at the table that the Guild committee has only one single date available in October and has “nothing else to offer” for bargaining in October. The result: the Guild committee is available just three days for on-the-record bargaining between now and the end of October, after cancelling this week’s session.

We all share the common big picture goal of strengthening our newsroom and company for the challenges and opportunities we face in an ever-changing media industry. In the past few years we have undertaken a lot of new initiatives, made big investments for the long term sustainability, and went through all of our costs to be as efficient and focused as possible on fulfilling our mission. This hard work and patient endurance of a lot of change by each of us worked, with the company having revenues exceed expenses for the first time in 2018 after many, many years of operating at a loss. This is a major step towards the long-term sustainability of this institution that we are all striving for. However, we are not fully there. This step was a result of cost control, not revenue growth. We are working on new revenue generation opportunities and we need to be creative, nimble, and efficient to get there. No small part of the work we need to do is to ensure our collective bargaining contracts are structured in a way that both allows us to operate in this kind of a nimble, flexible way and provides the kinds of protections and security that the Guild is seeking.

To that end, as we have told the Guild leadership, our primary goal has not changed: modernizing our labor contract to match the realities of our business and to more closely mirror the terms of our peers in the media industry so that we can remain operationally flexible and competitive. The changes sought by the company have been accepted by unions, including the Guild, in other newsrooms in Boston and across the country. In addition, we continue to seek in negotiations to eliminate provisions in the contract that impede our commitment to diversity as the use of seniority in layoffs does; to treat our professional staff as professionals by providing strong total compensation packages, classifying employees appropriately and in alignment with others in our industry; and to have policies in place that reflect our support of working parents at BGMP [Boston Globe Media Partners, the Globe’s owner of record]. We’ve made concrete proposals to address the Guild’s concerns about our proposal to eliminate overtime for creative professionals. Keeping in perspective that most unit employees work no overtime, our proposals provide for comp time and premium pay when employees are required to work on their days off and make a commitment to adjust the salaries of some staff members who are consistently called upon to work longer hours.

To achieve these goals, Globe management is committed to continuing to bargain in good faith to reach an agreement that will allow the company to remain focused on the important work with which our community and region have entrusted us. We have and will always respect all bargaining units across our organization as we continue to drive the kind of transformation required to be a dynamic media company with a sustainable future for all our employees.

As we communicated in our 2018 year-end note to staff, we ended the year in the black precisely because we aggressively targeted savings across many facets of our business and carefully managed expenses to stay ahead of the structural declines we continue to see in our industry, including continued circulation and revenue declines. Most of that expense reduction has come from our production side, and it is not sustainable to continue significant cuts to the operations and staff that print, assemble and distribute the Globe every day. Rather, we must continue our vigilance in looking for efficiencies and identifying areas of real and sustainable growth in our editorial and commercial departments as well, just as all media companies are doing in today’s world to remain viable and relevant.

We will continue to be transparent as we proceed, just as we will continue to push for the ability to be nimble and flexible as an organization given the pace of change in our industry. We look forward to continuing to discuss these important proposals with the Guild.

Thank you,

The Globe’s Bargaining Committee

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Thunder on the left: The New York Times gets an earful from its most loyal readers

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

It has been an extraordinary few weeks for The New York Times.

From an outcry over a headline that blandly reported President Trump’s denunciation of racism in El Paso without acknowledging his own history of racist comments, to the demotion of an editor for several racially clueless tweets, to a fraught meeting with the staff called by executive editor Dean Baquet, the Times has found itself in an unaccustomed position: under fire from its core audience of liberal readers.

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Now more than ever: Walter Lippmann and the need for reliable journalism

Walter Lippmann. Photo via the Library of Congress.

The crisis we are living through is, among other things, a crisis of journalism. Never before have we had such ready access to high-quality sources of news and information (at least at the national level; local journalism, sadly, is in freefall). At the same time, those sources have been under constant attack since Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech of 1969, culminating in President Trump’s denigration of journalists as “Enemies of the People” and their work product as “fake news.”

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