By dropping the phrase ‘op-ed,’ The New York Times strikes a blow for clarity

Putting together the first New York Times op-ed page

I’m all in favor of getting rid of jargon that separates journalists from the public. A few years ago I stopped spelling “lead” as “lede,” and I explain to my students that it was a conscious decision rather than a sign that I’d just fallen off the turnip truck. (Some background from Willamette Week. About leads, not turnips.)

So I was intrigued that The New York Times has decided to use “guest essays” to describe what we’ve come to know as op-ed pieces. Times opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury (and by the way, her title is itself a move away from the archaic: the person holding her job used to be called the “editorial page editor”) explains it this way:

Terms like “Op-Ed” are, by their nature, clubby newspaper jargon; we are striving to be far more inclusive in explaining how and why we do our work. In an era of distrust in the media and confusion over what journalism is, I believe institutions — even ones with a lot of esteemed traditions — better serve their audiences with direct, clear language. We don’t like jargon in our articles; we don’t want it above them, either.

A bit of history: The Times’ op-ed page is only 50 years old, and it literally means “opposite the editorial page.” With print becoming less and less relevant, the term “op-ed” wasn’t just jargony; it was nonsensical as well. The original idea was to expand the editorial page, with its unsigned editorials, cartoons (but not in the Times!), letters and staff-written opinion columns, by adding a second page devoted to contributions from community leaders, elected officials and the like.

Of course, it also led to the hiring of more staff columnists. But the basic idea survived, and calling something a “guest essay” is clear in a way that “op-ed piece” never was. And yes, someone has written a history of the Times’ op-ed page: University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow, whose work was summarized by Jack Shafer, then of Slate, in 2010.

Not long after the Times added its op-ed page, many other daily papers followed suit. It will be interesting to see whether any of them similarly follow the Times’ lead in renaming op-eds. (The Boston Globe doesn’t seem to have a label for outside contributions other than the same generic “opinion” that it also slaps on staff-written columns.)

I’m sure many of us will continue to use “op-ed” for a long time to come. But kudos to Kingsbury and the Times for this sensible step.

Update: Socolow has written an elegy to the op-ed page for Reason, lamenting that the original vision for provocative outside commentary has degenerated into groupthink. “Publishing offensive commentary these days is not simply seen as inflammatory in the old sense; many people consider it intentionally malicious, if not felonious,” he writes. “Any denial to the contrary — any defense of the old-fashioned marketplace of ideas, or calls for widening diversity of opinion — is widely viewed as little more than disingenuous subterfuge.”

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Would you like some extra meat in your beer?

I doubt former Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow knew what he was talking about when he suggested that beer is made out of meat. “You can throw back a plant-based beer with your grilled Brussels sprouts and wave your American flag,” Kudlow sneered on the Fox Business Channel. “Call it July 4th Green.”

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Kudlow’s falsehood-filled claims that President Biden is targeting meat were lampooned this morning by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. In fact, though, there is at least some basis for Kudlow’s take on beermaking, if not for his critique of Biden’s climate plans. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Beer is often made from barley malt, water, hops and yeast and so is often suitable for vegans and vegetarians. Some beer brewers add finings to clarify the beer when racking into a barrel. Finings can include plant-derived products, like Irish moss, or animal-derived products, like isinglass and gelatin.

Most breweries do not reveal if they do or do not use animal products in the processing of their beers; some exceptions are Samuel Smith, Heineken, Harp Lager, Anheuser-Busch, the Marble Brewery in Manchester, the Black Isle Brewery, and Black Sheep Brewery, all of whom have declared they make vegetarian and/or vegan beer.

Isinglass, by the way, is “a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish.” Yum!

In addition, Dr. Google turns up all kinds of articles about beer that uses meat. So even though Krugman is generally right in asserting that there is no meat in beer, there are some exceptions. Kudlow was not entirely wrong.

 

Why I’m boycotting Home Depot — and why you should, too

Photo (cc) 2018 by AnnetteWho

I’m generally not a huge supporter of boycotts. They tend to be ineffective, and for every business you walk away from, there are others whose practices are equally worthy of condemnation. Walmart is the only place I won’t shop, yet I order from Amazon all the time. I’m well aware that makes no sense.

Now, though, I’m adding a second: Home Depot. I’m doing so at the urging of Georgia ministers who say the company has been taking a pass on protesting the state’s restrictive new voting laws aimed at disenfranchising Black Georgians. According to NBC News:

Standing outside of a Home Depot in Decatur, the religious leaders blasted Home Depot both for not speaking out against the legislation before it was passed into law and for refusing to meet with activists in the weeks since. They contrasted Home Depot’s actions to companies like Delta and Coca-Cola, which they said have been more willing to hear their concerns and attend roundtables to discuss issues like voting rights.

Your local hardware store has what you need.

Regional news projects are no substitute for local coverage

For reasons that I can’t quite grasp, there seems to be an irresistible urge on the part of news entrepreneurs to think regionally rather than locally. Maybe a regional focus makes fundraising easier. Maybe folks think it makes little sense to build out a digital infrastructure for a project that serves just one community.

There’s no doubt that some of the best journalism start-ups are regional or statewide, with The Texas Tribune leading the way. Yet truly local projects such as the New Haven Independent, The Batavian, The Mendocino Voice and, closer to home, The Bedford Citizen, The Provincetown Independent and Ipswich Local News provide a service that just can’t be replicated by a regional project that might be focused on, say, state politics and policy.

The latest to argue for a regional approach is Christopher Baxter, the executive director and editor-in-chief of Spotlight PA, which produces investigative reporting in Pennsylvania. Writing in Nieman Reports, Baxter says his site uses a “hub-and-spoke” model to provide statewide stories to local news organizations, which in turn feed local stories back to the hub. He writes:

This “hub-and-spoke” model using statewide entities like Spotlight PA, VTDigger, Mississippi Today, Mountain State Spotlight, and many others provides a ready pathway to scale coverage to local cities and towns without building new organizations in every location. The hub provides the organizational support and wide distribution platform, maintaining a focus on Capitol and statewide stories, while the spokes focus on local stories, always with an eye toward what might be of interest to a statewide audience.

So far, so good. But then he adds: “To be clear, this approach won’t replace the heyday of local journalism, when every town council meeting, zoning meeting, and school board meeting was covered.” And yet that’s what’s desperately needed — and it’s exactly what’s being provided by the local projects I mention above.

Back in 2015, I interviewed Anne Galloway, the founder of VT Digger, a statewide site based in Vermont’s capital, Montpelier. At that time Digger was just beginning to expand into local coverage in Chittenden County, where Burlington is located, and Windham County, in the southern part of the state.

Digger has been grown considerably since then. But in perusing the site, it seems clear that it’s stuck mainly to its original mission of providing first-rate investigative coverage of statewide issues, while occasionally branching out into local stories like the recent newspaper battle in Charlotte.

That’s as it should be. But real local journalism of the sort that covers “every town council meeting, zoning meeting and school board meeting,” as Baxter puts it, is perhaps the greatest unmet need today. Let’s let the regionals do what they do best — and keep pushing for local coverage of community life.

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Why the golden age of podcasts may be coming to an end

You might look at it as the arrival of podcasts as a big business. My fear about what it really means is that the golden age of podcasts is coming to an end.

Anne Steele of The Wall Street Journal (one of our great Northeastern journalism graduates, by the way) reports on the looming podcast war between Apple, Spotify and a few smaller players. It sounds like it’s going to be just like video streaming services — if you subscribe to Spotify, as I do, you won’t be able to listen to podcasts that are exclusively on Apple, and vice-versa.

Steele quotes a business analyst named Daniel Ives as saying this about Apple:

Even though they have the keys to the kingdom in terms of overall customer base and the App Store and broader content, what’s going to differentiate them is not just aggregation, it’s exclusive content.

Just what we need — another walled garden. And look, I’m glad that this will enable podcasters to make some money beyond the ad revenue they get from the likes of MailChimp and Dollar Shave. But it also represents the end of something special — just as the rise of paywalls about a dozen years ago ended the open web.

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I’m shocked, shocked to find that pension shenanigans are going on in here

From The Washington Post:

Hedge fund Alden Global Capital probably violated federal pension protections by putting $294 million of its newspaper employees’ pension savings into its own funds, according to a Labor Department investigation.

Fun with numbers, media trust edition

Earlier this week, I wrote for GBH News about a study showing little support for the core principles of journalism. Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab has done an exceptionally deep dive into the numbers and has concluded that they don’t say what the study’s authors claim.

Benton’s explanation is that the Media Insight Project took unambiguous support for certain journalistic verities and watered it down by pairing it with findings that showed a more dubious view of the press. Benton writes:

Its top-line finding — summarized by a [Washington] Post headline writer as “Bad news for journalists: The public doesn’t share our values” — is bogus. Or, at a minimum, unsupported by the methodology in use here. There is no reason to believe, based on this data, that Americans have somehow abandoned the basic values of democratic governance, or that we noble journalists are left to fight the lonely fight for accountability.

But Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, one of the organizations that sponsored the study, replies at the Columbia Journalism Review that Benton’s methodology is itself flawed:

Researchers caution against trying to draw conclusions from any one individual item without considering the full set.

We fear this is the mistake Josh has made.

My quick takeaway is that Benton gets the better of the dispute. But read both pieces and see what you think.

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Bay Windows and the South End News are put up for sale

Well, this is sad news, but not exactly shocking. Sue O’Connell and Jeff Coakley are putting Bay Windows and the South End News up for sale after 18 years of ownership. Sue and Jeff were both colleagues of mine at The Boston Phoenix. They’ve had a great run, and of course Sue has gone on to considerable success as a host at NBC 10 and NECN as well as at GBH News. Here’s the announcement.

BAY WINDOWS AND SOUTH END NEWS ARE UP FOR SALE!

What a time to be alive.

It doesn’t matter if you read this phrase as a meme or think we’re quoting Drake, this really is an amazing time to be alive.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing will become clear, if it hasn’t already: we’re living in a new world. This means new ways of doing business and accessing health care and education. Innovations in art, cultural, and culinary spaces. Wholesale reimaginings of community life and work space.

Nothing will ever return to “normal.” Nor would we want it to. Over the past year, movements for social justice based on race have accelerated. Our schools, businesses, nonprofit institutions, government agencies, elected officials, and community-based organizations are incorporating demands for change. In many cases, they are leading it.

In these times of change, we invite one more. After publishing Bay Windows and South End News for 18 years, we are putting both publications up for sale.

The business of local news has changed in the two decades we’ve owned both papers. But the news and its importance to the community has not. That is why we are inviting community leaders, business owners, nonprofits, educational institutions and others to consider purchasing Bay Windows and South End News, either separately or together. We are committed to thinking creatively and working with potential buyers to provide an equitable path to ownership.

Models to consider including nonprofit conversion, government support, a public and/or digital media merger, and community ownership.

When we purchased Bay Windows and South End News in 2003, we’d like to tell you that we did it out of a high-minded commitment to the vital role that community newspapers play in our communities. But that would not be true.

We bought these papers because we thought it would be fun.

Was it? Absolutely.

Almost immediately after purchasing the papers, Bay Windows became the primary source of news and information related to the political, legal, and public opinion battles being waged to bring marriage equality to Massachusetts. This role was similar to the one the paper had played in its early years as a source of information about AIDS that could not be found anywhere else. Since its founding, the paper has been home to information about political, arts, entertainment, and cultural news relevant to the LGBTQ community.

South End News has played the same role in the life of the South End, a neighborhood that has shaped the city of Boston’s nonprofit sector, biomedical research, culinary scene, and arts and cultural offerings. It has also been home to groups and individuals who have played influential roles in Puerto Rican, Black, and LGBTQ activism in the city of Boston.

Over the past two decades, we have met business owners, nonprofit leaders, artists, activists, chefs, politicians, city employees and community members. It has been the experience of a lifetime.

Now it is someone else’s turn.

We can promise you three things: It will take a lot of work to make it work. You will exercise great influence in the South End and the state’s LGBTQ community. And you will have fun.

Want more information? Email Jeff at jcoakley@baywindows.com or jcoakley@southendnews.com.

Taking dictation from the police is no longer good enough. In fact, it never was.

Photo (cc) 2013 by Victoria Pickering

As you may have read elsewhere, the original police account of George Floyd’s death was mostly accurate yet completely false. It read in part:

Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.

Floyd’s murder at the hands — or, rather, at the knee — of Derek Chauvin is likely to have long-lasting repercussions. One of those repercussions should be a rethinking of how journalists report routine police news. It has long been the custom for reporters at small community news organizations to visit the police station every morning, flip through the publicly available log, and report what’s there. If something seems interesting, the journalist might ask to see the incident report written up by an officer. And then this gets regurgitated, the ultimate in one-source reporting.

That’s how I did it in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s how we were all taught to do it. And in a large city like Minneapolis, a man who, according to police, died from medical issues while being arrested for forgery would probably not warrant a follow-up. You’d report it, and then you’d be on your way.

Interestingly enough, one of the papers I worked for in the early part of my career would not publish the names of people who’d been arrested and charged with a crime unless it was fairly big news. We younger reporters thought it was ridiculous, and we chafed at not being able to tell the whole story. But the editor, who was also one of the owners, explained that since our coverage of the court system was spotty at best, we’d likely never know if the person had been convicted or acquitted — and if it were the latter, we’d have smeared their reputation without cause. My editor was right, and ahead of his time. We were wrong.

Earlier this week The Washington Post reported on a case in Loveland, Colorado, where police last year arrested a 73-year-old woman who’d walked out of a Walmart with $13.88 worth of stuff without paying. It turns out that she had dementia and, as is clear from the police video, presented no threat to anyone. Yet she was thrown to the ground and handcuffed, with an officer twisting her arm in such a way that she suffered from a broken bone and a dislocated shoulder.

Can you imagine what the police log item might have looked like? No big deal, right?

The problems presented by taking the police at their word was the subject of an exchange the other day involving my GBH News colleague Saraya Wintersmith, South End News and Bay Windows publisher Sue O’Connell and me. (Note: Within the last few minutes I received a press release saying that O’Connell’s papers are up for sale. More to come.)

That, in turn, drew a comment from Julie Manganis, who covers the courts for The Salem News and its sister papers.

Manganis is right, but the News is unusual in its ongoing dedication to court reporting — and even then, most routine police news doesn’t rise to that level.

An additional complication is that many police departments now post their logs online. Under the state’s public records law, police departments must keep daily records of incidents and, in the case of arrests, the name, address and charge against the person who was detained. Members of the public, including journalists, are entitled to see this information. But now these items don’t even get the light vetting that might take place when a reporter asks an officer to explain something. It’s right out there for everyone to see.

Indeed, as I’m writing this, I’m looking at a report from one of the larger cities in the Boston area about a woman who was arrested and charged with trespassing. It’s a pretty thorough entry, and yes, it includes her name, age and address. It is probably accurate. I have no idea if it’s also true — that is, if it offers all the context we need to know to understand what happened.

Major crimes will always receive journalistic scrutiny. Official sources may have the upper hand early on, but as reporters keep digging, they’ll generally ferret out the truth. But we need a serious rethink of how we cover routine police news. And we need to do it at a time when local news resources are stretched to the limit.

One rule we might follow is that if an incident is so minor that it’s not worth devoting the resources to getting all sides, then it’s probably not worth reporting in the first place. But this is just the beginning of a conversation about how to practice ethical journalism at a time when the old ways of doing things are no longer good enough. And never were.

More: I’m pasting Paul Bass’ comment here because I think it adds some important information on how to do it the right way. Bass is the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit digital news organization.

We have always felt strongly at the Independent that media should not print names of arrestees unless we have their side, we have seen independent evidence corroborating the charges, an immediate threat exists to public safety requiring divulging the name, or a court has adjudicated the charge. I have personally gotten flak over the years from mainstream corporate journalists who felt outraged that we were being so “elitist.” The policy began after noticing that many Black people in new Haven were charged with crimes they didn’t commit. (See this Nieman Journalism Lab story.)