How Fox News is helping to destroy the planet

Photo (cc) 2015 by Johnny Silvercloud

Want to fight climate change? Tell your elderly relatives to turn off Fox News.

new survey about global warming by the Pew Research Center provides reasons for optimism. A majority of Americans favors more federal action on environmental issues, including climate change. Most respondents said we should put more emphasis on developing alternative energy sources than on expanding our use of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.

But there is one huge caveat: older, conservative respondents aren’t inclined to do much of anything — and many of them continue to believe the fiction that climate change has more to do with natural causes than with human activities.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Mystic-ism

Upper Mystic Lake from the Winchester Boat Club, 7:35 a.m. today. Click here for a bigger, sharper image.

Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by greed

Illustration by Thomas Nast

There are two elephants in the room that are threatening to destroy local news.

One, technological disruption, is widely understood: the internet has undermined the value of advertising and driven it to Craigslist, Facebook and Google, thus eliminating most of the revenues that used to pay for journalism.

But the other, corporate greed, is too often regarded as an effect rather than as a cause. The standard argument is that chain owners moved in to suck the last few drops of blood out of local newspapers because no one else wanted them. In fact, the opposite is the case. Ownership by hedge funds and publicly traded corporations has squeezed newspapers that might otherwise be holding their own and deprived them of the runway they need to invest in the future.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

A reinterpretation of Title IX threatens student journalism about sexual assault

Photo (cc) 2016 via Wikimedia Commons

My Northeastern colleagues Laurel Leff and Meg Heckman report on a new, serious threat to freedom of the press on college campuses: a federal reinterpretation of Title IX that puts faculty members at risk if they advise students who are reporting on sexual assault. They write at The Conversation:

At issue are increasingly common policies that require virtually every university employee to alert school officials if they hear even the slightest rumor of sexual misconduct — on or off campus — involving students or employees.

On most campuses, clergy members, mental health counselors and health care providers are exempt from such mandatory reporting requirements. University-affiliated journalists are not despite the fact that they also often need confidentiality to do their jobs effectively.

Yet, journalism professors routinely learn of possible sexual misconduct in their roles as advisors to student newspapers, or in critiquing students’ classroom work. (It’s also increasingly common for journalism educators to serve as editors in charge of school-sponsored news organizations designed to fill gaps in the local media ecosystem.)

I heard about this for the first time last week. I immediately went through a mental checklist as I tried to remember whether any of my students was working on a story about sexual misconduct. They weren’t. But I’ve dealt with such stories in the past, and apparently I will not be dealing with them in the future.

This is an outrageous attack on the First Amendment. It even pertains to NPR affiliates associated with colleges and universities, which is to say most of them. What’s needed, as Leff and Heckman write, is a state law “exempting university-affiliated journalists and journalism educators from mandatory reporting requirements when they are advising student journalists.”

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A Northeastern study takes the measure of our controversy-driven political coverage

Illustration by Emily Judem for WGBH News

For observers of the media, there are few spectacles more dispiriting than the way the press covers presidential campaigns. Rather than digging into what really matters, such as the candidates’ experience, leadership ability and positions on important issues, reporters focus on controversies, attacks on one another, gotcha moments and, of course, polls, polls and more polls.

Now a study conducted by the School of Journalism at Northeastern University has quantified just how bad things are. Looking at about 10,000 news articles from 28 ideologically diverse news outlets published between March and October, my colleagues Aleszu Bajak, John Wihbey and I found that coverage of the Democratic candidates “tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items.”

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Two pioneering women editors take on gender inequity in the newsroom

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Where are all the women? For those of us who’ve spent much of our lives working in newsrooms, it’s a question that has no good answer. As far back as the 1970s, when I was in journalism school, women outnumbered men in the classroom by a substantial margin — a phenomenon that, if anything, has become even more pronounced. Yet at news organizations everywhere, men predominate. And that is especially true in leadership positions.

Now two longtime journalists have written a book aimed at explaining that imbalance and, more important, offering case studies and advice for young women seeking to survive and thrive. “There’s No Crying in Newsrooms: What Women Have Learned about What It Takes to Lead,” by Kristin Grady Gilger and Julia Wallace (Rowman & Littlefield, 216 pages, $32), ought to be required reading for journalism students (as it is for my ethics class at Northeastern) — and not just for women but also for men, who need to understand the obstacles that women face.

Gilger and Wallace are colleagues in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. More to the point, they both helped blaze a trail for women who seek to move up into the highest ranks of journalism. Wallace was the first woman to serve as editor-in-chief of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Gilger worked in top editing positions at The Arizona Republic, The Statesman Journal of Salem, Oregon, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.

“There’s No Crying in Newsrooms” comprises a series of chapters on the challenges that women must deal with, from proving their worth to pay equity, from sexual harassment to finding the right balance between work and life — something that ought to be taken as a given for journalists of any gender, but whose burden still falls more heavily on women. Each chapter ends with a personal essay and advice from one of the two authors, giving it the feel of a how-to book.

How bad can it get? According to Gilger and Wallace, “When one female reporter who covered health asked for a raise, the metro editor replied, ‘Your husband is a dentist. What are you worried about?’”

Among the many fascinating case studies (Gilger and Wallace interviewed more than 100 women) are those of Marcy McGinnis, who rose from working as a secretary at CBS News to senior vice president of news, and Wanda Lloyd, an African American journalist who was raised in the South during segregation and served for more than eight years in Alabama as executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser.

Lloyd’s story is especially poignant. In an effort to make the Advertiser more welcoming to African American readers, Lloyd banished front-page mug shots of black men and ended the annual practice of photographing a birthday cake for Robert E. Lee Those initiatives were not always supported by the paper’s white readers — and Gilger and Wallace write about a moment after one of those readers complained that the Advertiser was giving too much coverage to African Americans.

“I had never in my life lost it like that before,” Lloyd is quoted as saying. “I sobbed uncontrollably for at least five minutes. My whole body was shaking. I just had never encountered anything like that. I had encountered racism all my life, but this racism was directed directly at me as an employee, as a journalist, as a person. Later, I was surprised they didn’t call an ambulance for me; that’s how bad it was.”

The Advertiser is a Gannett paper, and Gilger and Wallace go out of their way to praise the company’s late chief executive Al Neuharth for his commitment to diversity; both authors worked for Gannett at various times. Neuharth believed that appointing more women and people of color to leadership positions would broaden his papers’ audience.

Which leads to my only complaint about “There’s No Crying in Newsrooms.” The Neuharth years were profitable ones for Gannett — very profitable. As the late Ben Bagidikian documented in his oft-updated book “The Media Monopoly,” Gannett’s papers regularly ran up profits of 30% to 50%, margins that are wildly incompatible with quality journalism. When the bad times came, Gannett, like other chain owners, failed to invest in the future.

Today, Gannett is about to merge with GateHouse Media, another cost-slashing chain, while its Newseum is on the verge of closing. I don’t doubt Neuharth’s sincerity with regard to diversity. I just wish Gilger and Wallace had at least made a mention of Gannett’s role in the decline of the newspaper business — brought about by larger forces, to be sure, but worsened by corporate greed.

The authors devote a chapter to Jill Abramson, the first executive editor of The New York Times, who was fired by then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. under circumstances that have never been adequately explained. Gilger and Wallace come to roughly the same conclusion that Abramson herself did in her book “Merchants of Truth” — that is, it was a combination of sexism and her own shortcomings as a manager and a leader.

They also offer this choice tidbit about Abramson: “During one meeting, she pointed out that the headline on a story posted on the Times’ website was incorrect. When the editor responsible for the page didn’t get up immediately to fix it, Abramson asked him what he was still doing in the room.” If I were Sulzberger, I’d have been tempted to make her editor for life just for that.

The book ends on something of a down note, as the authors observe that, as of 2018, “women in media held fewer positions of power, were promoted more slowly, and made less money than their male counterparts.” Women in the news media also continue to deal with bad behavior in the workplace, ranging from disrespect to sexual harassment and assault.

Ultimately, though, Gilger and Wallace argue that the fight is worth it — that journalism and democracy are better served if newsrooms more closely reflect the broader culture. I hope this book is read not just by aspiring journalists but by newsroom leaders as well. A problem can’t be solved unless it’s first understood, and “There’s No Crying in Newsrooms” explains it well.

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How the media are setting the 2020 agenda: Chasing daily controversies, burying policy

By Aleszu Bajak, Dan Kennedy and John Wihbey

It’s a paradox of examining political coverage. Are news media just reporting what the political candidates are talking about? Or does political journalism really set the agenda by selecting stories around specific news items, scandals and issues du jour?

Our topic analysis of ~10,000 news articles on the 2020 Democratic candidates, published between March and October in an ideological diverse range of 28 news outlets, reveals that political coverage, at least this cycle, tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items, from accusations of Joe Biden’s inappropriate behavior towards women to President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine.

Read the rest at Storybench, a media innovation vertical published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Here are three new reasons to be optimistic about local news

Note: Make that four reasons. See update below.

The crisis in local news won’t be solved all at once. Rather, it will be solved community by community as entrepreneurial-minded journalists seek to fill the gaps left behind by corporate-owned chain newspapers. Here are three new reasons to be optimistic.

In Maine, the Portland Phoenix, the last of the great Phoenix alternative weeklies, is scheduled to relaunch this coming Wednesday under new ownership after ceasing publication earlier this year. The free paper and website are part of New Portland Publishing Co., headed by Marian McCue and Karen Wood.

The relaunch was announced Oct. 22 by Marian McCue and Karen Wood, principals of New Portland Publishing Co. McCue will serve as the editor and Mo Mehlsak, most recently executive editor of The Forecaster, American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly newspapers, will be managing editor.

“While we always admired the energy of the Phoenix, and the strong entertainment coverage, our focus will be more on news and analysis, and in-depth investigative stories that explore the challenges facing this area,” McCue said in a press release announcing the new venture.

Added Wood: “We’ve had a very positive response from early conversations with advertisers and people in the community. We are convinced that a free distribution newspaper will be successful, and provide an effective forum for our advertisers.”

The new Portland Phoenix has a stiff challenge ahead of it in the form of the daily Portland Press Herald, the flagship of a Maine-based chain. The Press Herald is considerably more robust than papers owned by the national chains, and the publisher — Lisa DeSisto — is an alumnus of The Boston Phoenix who knows how to put out a paper oriented toward arts and entertainment. (Note: I worked with Lisa at the Phoenix for several years.)

Still, it’s fantastic news that someone is going to try to revive the Phoenix in Portland, which is the sort of smaller city that ought to be able to support an alt-weekly.

***

Bill Wasserman is one of Eastern Massachusetts’ legendary local newspaper owners. Founder of the Ipswich Chronicle, he built that into a chain of about a dozen North Shore papers and sold them in 1986. Those papers eventually were acquired by GateHouse Media, and Wasserman has been grousing about what happened to them ever since. Earlier this year, GateHouse got rid of the Ipswich Chronicle as a standalone title, merging it with two other papers.

In an interview for CommonWealth Magazine in 2008, Wasserman told me the main problem with corporate ownership was a failure to understand that, even in the best of times, community journalism is little more than a break-even proposition. “I was paid a salary, which was modest,” said Wasserman. “The reward was not in the profit. The reward was having a lot of fun putting out a community paper.”

Now Wasserman has gone back to the future, lending his expertise as a consultant and ad salesman to a start-up called Ipswich Local News — a free paper and website that is seeking nonprofit status. The editor and publisher is John Muldoon.

***

Jenn Lord Paluzzi holds the distinction of being laid off by two national chains — GateHouse (at The MetroWest Daily News) and MediaNews Group (at The Sun of Lowell). Now she’s launched a community news site in her hometown of Grafton called Grafton Common that is loaded with local news.

Some years back, Lord Paluzzi was involved in a startup called Greater Grafton. But that venture ended up getting sold to a chain of local websites that ended up going out of business. Best of luck to her as she goes off on her own once again.

Update: And a fourth — how could I forget the recently launched Provincetown Independent?

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Political ads on Facebook can be fixed. Is Mark Zuckerberg willing to try?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

If nothing else, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey proved himself to be a master of timing when he announced last week that his social network will ban all political ads.

Anger was still raging over Mark Zuckerberg’s recent statement that Facebook would not attempt to fact-check political advertising, thus opening the door to a flood of falsehoods. Taking direct aim at Zuckerberg, Dorsey tweeted: “It‘s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want!’”

Not surprisingly, Twitter’s ad ban won widespread praise.

“This is a good call,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who had only recently tormented Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing. “Technology — and social media especially — has a powerful responsibility in preserving the integrity of our elections. Not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make.”

Added Hillary Clinton: “This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world. What say you, @Facebook?”

Oh, but if only it were that simple. Advertising on social media is a cheap and effective way for underfunded candidates seeking less prominent offices to reach prospective voters. No, it’s not good for democracy if we are overwhelmed with lies. But, with some controls in place, Facebook and Twitter can be crucial for political candidates who can’t afford television ads. To get rid of all political advertising would be to favor incumbents over outsiders and longshots.

“Twitter’s ban on political ads disadvantages challengers and political newcomers,” wrote University of Utah communications researcher Shannon C. MacGregor in The Guardian. “Digital ads are much cheaper than television ads, drawing in a wider scope of candidates, especially for down-ballot races.”

And let’s be clear: Facebook, not Twitter, is what really matters. Journalists pay a lot of attention to Twitter because other journalists use it — as do politicians, bots and sociopaths. Facebook, with more than 2 billion active users around the world, is exponentially larger and much richer. For instance, the 2020 presidential candidates so far have spent an estimated $46 million on political ads on Facebook, compared to less than $3 million spent by all candidates on Twitter ads during the 2018 midterms.

But is political advertising on Facebook worth saving given the falsehoods, the attempts to deceive, that go way beyond anything you’re likely to see on TV?

In fact, there are some common-sense steps that might help fix Facebook ads.

Writing in The Boston Globe, technology journalist Josh Bernoff suggested that Facebook ban all targeting for political ads except for geography. In other words, candidates for statewide office ought to be able to target their ads so they’re not paying to reach Facebook users in other states. But they shouldn’t be able to target certain slices of the electorate, like liberals or conservatives, homeowners or renters, white people or African Americans (or “Jew haters,” as ProPublica discovered was possible in a nauseating exposé a couple of years ago.)

Bernoff also suggested that politicians be required to provide documentation to back up the facts in their ads. It’s a good idea, though it may prove impractical.

“Facebook is incapable of vetting political ads effectively and consistently at the global scale. And political ads are essential to maintaining the company’s presence in countries around the world,” wrote Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” in The New York Times.

But we may not have to go that far. The reason ads spreading disinformation are so effective on Facebook is that they fly under the radar, seen by tiny slices of the electorate and thus evading broader scrutiny. In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Ellen L. Weintraub, chair of the Federal Election Commission, argued that the elimination of microtargeting could result in more truthful, less toxic advertising.

“Ads that are more widely available will contribute to the robust and wide-open debate that is central to our First Amendment values,” Weintraub wrote. “Political advertisers will have greater incentives to be truthful in ads when they can more easily and publicly be called to account for them.”

Calling for political ads to be banned on Facebook is futile. We live our lives on the internet these days, and Facebook has become (God help us) our most important distributor of news and information.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Nonprofit news update

Earlier this week The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the IRS had approved its application to become a nonprofit organization, making it the first daily newspaper to take that step. Unlike The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times, for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations, the Tribune will be fully nonprofit, making it eligible for tax-deductible donations.

Nonprofit news isn’t exactly a novelty. Public media organizations like PBS, NPR and, yes, WGBH are nonprofit organizations. So are a number of pioneering community websites such as the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego. And if the Tribune succeeds, it could pave the way for other legacy newspapers.

Last May I wrote about what nonprofit status in Salt Lake could mean for the struggling newspaper business. This week’s announcement is a huge step forward.

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North Shore bike ride

Near the Danvers-Peabody line. The sign in the middle says “God Bless America.”
Near Danvers Center
Salem Beverly Waterway Canal