Marty Baron on Jeff Bezos, The Washington Post and the soul of American journalism

Photo (cc) 2013 by Esther Vargas

Previously published at GBH News.

Sunday was Marty Baron’s last day as executive editor of The Washington Post. The legendary editor, along with the Post’s deep-pockets owner, Jeff Bezos, is widely credited with reviving the paper and restoring its status as one of the pre-eminent American newspapers. Five years ago GBH News contributor Dan Kennedy interviewed Baron for his book “The Return Of The Moguls: How Jeff Bezos And John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers For The Twenty-First Century.” An excerpt from the book follows.

When I interviewed Marty Baron in March 2016, his office at The Washington Post’s new headquarters was smaller than I had expected. We sat at a conference table next to a human-sized cardboard cutout of an Oscar statuette, which he said was waiting for him after he returned from the Academy Awards gala in Hollywood.

The Oscar was for “Spotlight,” based on The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning investigation into the pedophile-priest crisis within the Catholic Church — the story that defined Baron’s years as editor of the Globe. He also showed me a small chocolate Oscar he’d brought home. Soft-spoken and businesslike, with graying reddish hair and a closely trimmed beard, Baron talked for an hour about life at the Post under Jeff Bezos.

“I was completely shocked, obviously,” Baron said when I asked him about his reaction to the news that Bezos would buy the Post. “I told people when I came here that while the Times would probably like to sell the Globe, it was highly unlikely that Don Graham would be selling The Washington Post. So I was kind of stunned when I heard about it. But I thought that it could have some real advantages for us” — a reference to Bezos’s preference for growth over cutting and his deep understanding of technology and consumer behavior.

“I did not know if it would be a good thing for me personally,” Baron added, “because obviously when a new owner comes in he has the absolute right to pick who he wants to run the organization that he has acquired. He said positive things at the beginning, but my sense was that it would be a year of figuring out the place and deciding what he wanted to do.”

Even though Bezos bought a $23 million mansion in Washington, D.C., in late 2016, he spends most of his time on the West Coast. For the most part he manages his newspaper from afar, presiding over an hour-long conference call with the Post’s top executives every other week.

“It starts on time, ends on time; it’s very disciplined,” Baron said. “He gets all of the material in advance. We don’t use it to go through presentations. We use it to review any questions that he might have or to embark on any broader discussions. But typically all of the material is sent to him in advance in a narrative style, not PowerPoints. He doesn’t like PowerPoints, thankfully. He typically has some questions, and those questions become a springboard to discussion of whatever we need to talk about.” The Post’s leadership also travels to Seattle twice a year for a day of meetings. Baron said those meetings run from around noon to 6 p.m., followed by dinner.

I also asked Baron how the Post had been able to amass as large a digital audience as The New York Times — between 80 and 100 million monthly unique visitors at that time — despite a staff that was about half the size. His answer was two-fold. First, he said that the Post was not competing with the Times so much as it was competing for people’s attention, whether it be against The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico or Vox. Second, he said the Post is “doing things that are much more attuned to the digital environment” by “treating the web as a distinct medium.”

Among the examples Baron cited: hiring young digital-native journalists who write with a distinctive voice and who are unconcerned as to whether their stories appear in print or are only posted online; embracing multimedia tools such as video, the publication of original documents and annotation — debate transcripts, for instance, have been marked up with highlighted comments by Post journalists, adding context and occasional snark; and writing engaging headlines that are not constrained by the artificial confines of column width, as are print headlines.

“I mean, look, radio is different from newspapers, television is different from radio,” Baron said. “Here comes the web. We should be different, and mobile might be different, too.”

Now, I would argue that the Times’ approach to digital, although different from the Post’s, is every bit as engaging and innovative. But in discussing the Post’s rapidly growing digital audience, there’s an additional topic that can’t be avoided: its reliance on a presentation for some types of material that are aimed at maximizing shares and eyeballs.

Baron doesn’t like the term “clickbait,” and I agree with him that that’s not quite the right word. After all, “clickbait” suggests that the underlying story does not live up to the promise of the headline, and that’s rarely the case with Post journalism. But the Washington Post experience can vary quite a bit depending on how you access that journalism. The print paper mixes heavy and light fare, the serious and the entertaining, in a way that isn’t much different from what news consumers are used to. The website and the apps, though, often take a more viral approach.

That’s especially true with the national digital edition — the magazine-like app for mobile and tablet that debuted on Amazon’s Kindle Fire and later migrated to other platforms. For one thing, it omits local news so that its low cost won’t lure Washington-area readers into switching from their more expensive print or digital subscription. For another, the story mix and the presentation often have a viral feel to them. For instance, as I perused the national app on my iPhone on a Wednesday afternoon in April 2016, I saw stories like “O Cannabis! Canada Moves To Legalize Marijuana in 2017,” illustrated with a pot-festooned Canadian flag; “What Your First Name Says About Your Politics”; and “Diet Coke Is Getting A New Look.”

To be fair, these stories were well-reported and were interspersed amid more serious news. If I were riding on the subway and looking for something to read, I would have clicked on any of them. And there is nothing wrong with lightening things up as long as the core mission remains in place.

Longtime media critic and Post-watcher Jack Shafer, now with Politico, told me that he’s an admirer of Baron’s Post.

“It’s as good as it’s ever been,” he said. “In terms of accuracy, accountability, imagination, Marty Baron is a genius and an inspirational editor.” As for what Shafer forthrightly called “click-baitery,” he said it was no different from the days when newspaper editors would drop in a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” brief to fill a hole on a page. The idea, he said, is to make the Post a “habit.”

“You’re sitting there, you’re bored, or you’re angry at your editor, and you just want a media moment,” Shafer said. “It turns out that there’s a much larger market for that than we ever imagined.”

Baron put it this way: “Being viral doesn’t mean clickbait, and writing a headline and using a photo that would cause somebody to share something on a serious subject doesn’t make it clickbait. We do write headlines that we think will lead to sharing, and in many ways they get to the point a lot better. They actually explain the story better than traditional newspaper headlines. I mean newspaper headlines are terrible, right? They all have to be constrained within column sizes, so if you have a one-column head it’s all headline-ese. People don’t speak in headline-ese. The web and our apps allow us to write in a way that people speak.”

Post media blogger Erik Wemple, a veteran print journalist — among other career stops, he was the editor and media columnist at the alt-weekly Washington City Paper — told me that he was untroubled to be a newspaper columnist whose work rarely appeared in the newspaper. “All of the messaging and the emphasis seems to be on digital,” he said, adding that when he looked at the print paper, he often found it stale, as he saw stories that had appeared online a day or two earlier. “There’s a clear focus on digital work here,” he said. “That’s what the feedback loop bears, and that’s what drives conversation.”

***

One subject that often arises when asking about Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post is whether it can cover Amazon independently and impartially. Of course, it’s not unusual for a news organization to have an owner with outside interests that deserve coverage, with John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and the Red Sox being a prime example. But Amazon represents a particular challenge given its size, influence and cultural impact. Amazon, after all, is largely responsible for disrupting the book industry. Amazon Web Services does business with the CIA.

When Bezos met with Post staff members a month after he announced he would buy the paper, he told them that they should “feel free to cover Amazon anyway you want, feel free to cover Jeff Bezos any way you want.” By the spring of 2017, there were no reports that Bezos had tried to interfere with the Post’s news coverage.

Indeed, within days of the announcement that he would buy the paper, the Post published an in-depth examination of Bezos and Amazon that could fairly be described as warts and all — he was described as “ruthless” and a “bully” in his dealings with competitors and a boss who was known for launching “tirades” that “humiliated colleagues.”

As is his custom, Bezos refused to cooperate with the team of reporters who worked on that story. But national investigative editor Kimberly Kindy, who was among those journalists, told me there were no repercussions from Bezos after publication. “I don’t think that we have shied away from covering him. And he certainly has invited us to,” she said. Kindy’s Post career thrived under Bezos’s ownership. Among other things, she was deeply involved in a massive effort to document fatal shootings of civilians by police officers — a project that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

Yet it was The New York Times, and not The Washington Post, that produced a lengthy, highly critical investigative story about Amazon’s workplace culture — a story that created a sensation when it was published in the summer of 2015. For anyone who had read Brad Stone’s 2013 book about Amazon, “The Everything Store,” there was little new information. Indeed, it struck me that the Times, unlike Stone, missed some crucial context in its implication that Amazon was uniquely awful rather than merely awful in the manner that’s typical of hard-charging technology companies. As the technology writer Mathew Ingram put it in criticizing the Times’ reporting, “To take just one example, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ treatment of his staff makes anything that Amazon has done (or likely ever will do) seem like a day at the beach.”

Regardless of the merits of the Times’ story, though, it may be too much to expect that the Post, of all media outlets, would take the lead on in-depth enterprise reporting about the dark side of Amazon. “To expect a newspaper to be a fifth column against itself and its owners is naive and probably without precedent,” Jack Shafer said.

Erik Wemple, on the other hand, said he hoped the Post could engage in such reporting if it was warranted. “It would be incredibly awkward to commission a big investigative story. And I hope we do endure that awkwardness,” Wemple said. “Bezos’s dream of a paper of record necessitates tough coverage of Amazon.” He added: “The difficulty is always one of self-censorship. That’s a serious concern of any news organization that has a mogul running it.”

Baron, for his part, said he had no intention of letting Bezos’s ownership of the Post interfere with the way his journalists covered Amazon. “Jeff said at his first town hall here, ‘You should cover me and cover Amazon the way you would cover any other company and any other chief executive, and I’m fine with that,’” Baron said. “On multiple occasions since then he has repeated that. He said the same thing to me personally. And I said, ‘Good, because that’s what I’m planning to do.’ And I have never heard from him about a single story about Amazon.”

***

In his early days at The Boston Globe, Baron kept an exceedingly low profile. As the news business shrank, Baron slowly began to emerge as a voice for embracing change while at the same time maintaining high journalistic standards. In 2012, when he was still at the Globe, he gave a speech in which he urged journalists to fight against the “fear” that had overcome them — fear of being accused of bias, of losing customers or offending advertisers: “Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.”

Baron’s public persona has only become more prominent since the release of the movie “Spotlight.” After the stunning victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign, marked by unprecedented attacks by Trump on the media, and especially on Jeff Bezos and the Post, Baron made use of his public platform to call for tough, independent coverage of the incoming president.

“If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly — because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular, or because powerful interests (including the White House and the Congress) will assail us, or because we worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions — the public will not forgive us,” Baron said in accepting an award named for the late iconoclastic journalist Christopher Hitchens. “Nor, in my view, should they.”

Some months earlier, sitting in his office on a Wednesday afternoon, I had asked Baron about his emerging role as a voice of conscience in the news business. It was a moment that I found surprisingly poignant. Nearly 15 years earlier, I had interviewed him at the Globe for the first time. In those days he was virtually unknown outside the newspaper business. Now he was the most famous editor in the country by virtue of “Spotlight” as well as a respected advocate for excellence at a time when many newspapers were just a shadow of what they had once been.

“We could use more leadership in the industry,” he replied. A few moments later he added: “I think that people are searching for how to survive and succeed in the current environment while not abandoning our core principles. To the extent that I have helped shape the thinking in our profession about how one might do that, I feel pleased by that.”

Adapted from “The Return Of The Moguls: How Jeff Bezos And John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers For The Twenty-First Century,” by Dan Kennedy. Published in 2018 by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England: www.upne.com/1611685947.html.

‘Mogul Roulette,’ or the totally random destruction of local news

Previously published at GBH News.

In response to the rampaging vulture capitalism that was threatening to destroy their newspaper, union employees at the Hartford Courant last year launched a campaign to find a nonprofit organization that would save their jobs and the journalism their community depends on.

Not only did they fail, but the situation at the Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in America, just got infinitely worse.

Meanwhile, 300 miles to the south, a similar effort was under way to save The Baltimore Sun. It paid off big-time, as the Sun and several sister papers are now on the verge of being acquired by a nonprofit foundation that will operate them in the public interest.

No doubt you’ve read a lot here and elsewhere about the local news crisis, and about the role of hedge funds and corporate chain owners in hollowing out once-great newspapers that were already struggling.

Yet what we don’t talk about often enough is the sheer random nature of it all — and why we assume there’s nothing that can be done about a hedge fund destroying a paper here or a nonprofit or benevolent billionaire saving a paper there. We have been so conditioned to thinking that the untrammeled forces of the market must be allowed to play out that we’ve lost sight of what we’re losing. It shouldn’t be this way.

Last week was a particularly fraught moment in the collapse of local journalism.

First we learned that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the most avaricious newspaper owner in the country (don’t just take my word for it; as Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post puts it, “Being bought by Alden is the worst possible fate for the newspapers and the communities involved”), was making a $630 million bid to increase its share of Tribune Publishing — whose holdings include the Courant — from 32% to 100%.

The announcement came with at least a little bit of good news: Alden would spin off The Baltimore Sun to a nonprofit. Even better, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, was in a position to block Alden if he so chose.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter speculated that wouldn’t happen. But hope springs eternal — or at least until last Friday. That’s when Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong himself might be looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he got in. Worse, Soon-Shiong was said to be looking at offloading his papers to a larger media group. Though neither Alpert nor his soures said so, Alden would be the most likely buyer.

Soon-Shiong, fortunately, denied he’d lost interest in newspapers. But Alpert is a good reporter, so it’s hard to believe that there isn’t something to it.

Call it Mogul Roulette.

So let’s survey the landscape, shall we? Tribune’s papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Courant and others, will be gutted if the Alden deal goes through. In fact, the Courant is already operating with neither a printing press nor a newsroom.

On the other hand, The Baltimore Sun has been granted a new lease on life. We don’t know what’s going to happen in L.A. or San Diego. And, here and there, large regional papers with either strong private ownership (The Boston Globe, the Portland Press Herald, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, The Seattle Times) or nonprofit control (The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Salt Lake Tribune, the Tampa Bay Times and, soon, the Sun) are providing their communities with the news and information they need, even if they still face challenges.

This situation is unacceptable. Reliable news is vital to democracy, and though we don’t necessarily need legacy newspapers to deliver it, they remain the most widespread and efficient means for doing so. As the media scholar Alex Jones has written, newspapers continue to produce the overwhelming share of accountability journalism that we need to govern ourselves — what Jones calls the “iron core.” We shouldn’t be dependent on whether the newspaper in our community is owned by someone who believes in journalism’s civic mission or who simply sees it as a piggy bank to be depleted before moving on to the next victim.

Several years ago I had a conversation about newspaper ownership with Victor Pickard, a scholar at Penn’s Annenberg School; he would later go on to write “Democracy without Journalism?,” a call for (among other things) greatly increased funding for public media. Why, I asked him, should communities have so little control over who owns their local newspaper?

We didn’t come up with any answers that day, although Pickard did suggest that antitrust laws be used more aggressively. These days, unfortunately, we are dealing with the antitrust legacy of Robert Bork, who developed a theory that any amount of monopolization is just fine as long as it doesn’t drive up prices.

The Bork doctrine makes no sense in the shrinking newspaper business. At one time Tribune Publishing, then known as tronc, proposed uniting the L.A. Times, the Union-Tribune and, in the middle, the Orange County Register, whose previous owner, Aaron Kushner, had steered into bankruptcy. Soon-Shiong could have been the savior of all three papers instead of just the two he bought from tronc. Instead, a federal judge ruled that such a combination would violate antitrust laws because it might drive up the price of ads. (Your honor, we need to drive up the price of ads.) Yet, paradoxically, Bork’s theories say nothing about giant chains stretching across the country and destroying local newspapers.

What comes next? Maybe Soon-Shiong will step forward and outbid Alden for the rest of Tribune, placing the entire chain in much better hands. Or maybe he’ll sell to Alden. In any case, it’s unacceptable for the fate of local journalism to be left to the whims of unbridled capitalism. We need to start thinking about what alternatives to that model might look like.

Phillip Martin reflects on the fight against racism in Boston

Phillip Martin. Photo by Meredith Nierman / GBH News.

The Boston Globe Magazine has published a tremendous personal essay by my GBH News colleague Phillip Martin on coming to Boston in the 1970s to fight racism. He was so bruised and battered by the experience that he returned home to Detroit — only to come back a year later and stay. He writes:

Boston was a 1970s version of 1960s Birmingham, Alabama, in my view, with white grievance over desegregation and voting rights updated as white protests over school desegregation through court-ordered busing. That history was precisely why I enlisted, somewhat naively, to go to Boston in the summer of 1975: to fight against racism.

We’ve come a long way, though we still have a long way to go. Please read what Phillip has to say.

Biden is trying to move on from Trump. Will the media let him?

Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore

Previously published at GBH News.

President Joe Biden spoke for many of us about 30 minutes into his town hall event on CNN Tuesday night.

“I’m tired of Donald Trump,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”

This week marks the true beginning of Biden’s presidency. Trump is gone, holed up in Mar-a-Lago. We’ve put impeachment behind us, if not the insurrection that sparked it. Surely it’s time to get on with the business of vaccinating the country, dealing with Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill and debating issues such as the reopening of schools.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the media can move past their lucrative obsession with Trump. For instance, a little after 4 a.m. today, the lead political story on The Washington Post’s home page was about Biden’s swing through Wisconsin — and immediately below it was the headline “Trump attacks McConnell as ‘political hack,’ says he will back pro-Trump candidates.” At The New York Times, a story headlined “In Milwaukee, Biden Offers Reassurance and Optimism” actually appeared below an account of Michigan Republicans’ ongoing love for the former president.

Breaking up is hard to do.

Biden’s hour-plus appearance before a socially distanced audience of about 50, moderated by Anderson Cooper, felt weirdly normal after four years of belligerence, bluster and boasting. The president frequently got bogged down by details — so much so that he apologized several times for his meandering answers. But he projected decency and compassion, which was no small thing for a nation staggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic disaster.

Like many viewers, I was especially struck by his exchange with a mother who said her young children frequently talk about their fear of catching COVID and dying. Her daughter stood with her.

“Kids don’t get COVID very often. It’s unusual for that to happen,” Biden answered before taking a more personal approach, telling the girl she was unlikely to spread COVID to “Mommy and Daddy,” nor them to her. “I wouldn’t worry about it, baby, I promise you,” he said. “Don’t be scared, honey. Don’t be scared. You’re going to be fine. And Mommy is going to be fine, too.” A little cringe-worthy? Sure. But also a demonstration of empathy that resonated with the crowd, which applauded Biden’s answer.

Biden the retail politician was on display in other ways as well. He asked the mother of a 19-year-old who hasn’t been able to get vaccinated despite severe pulmonary problems to meet with him after the event. He told the owner of a microbrewery that he would send him a breakdown of his relief plan for small business if he’d provide his address.

And he made some news, saying there would be enough vaccines for everyone in the U.S. by the end of July, and that he hoped the country would be more or less back to normal by Christmas. He also addressed the threat posed by white supremacists and made a couple of statements sure to displease the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, although he merely repeated what he’s said in the past: he opposes defunding the police, and in fact supports more funds for better screening and training; and he will not go along with calls for massive student-debt cancellation.

That latter issue was the subject of an unusually blunt exchange with a young woman who asked Biden about proposals to eliminate $50,000 worth of student debt. “What will you do to make that happen?” she asked.

“I will not make that happen,” Biden responded, countering with proposals for free tuition for community college and state universities, debt cancellation of up to $10,000 and opportunities for students to work off their debt through public-service jobs.

So far, Biden and his proposals seem to be resonating. His popularity rating at FiveThirtyEight is 54.8% approve and 37.4% disapprove. Yes, it’s early, but that’s essentially the opposite of Trump’s ratings from the day he took office until he left. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 68% support Biden’s economic relief package, and 61% support his call for a $15 minimum wage. There may be something to Biden’s statement that the nation is “not nearly as divided as we make it out to be.”

But for Biden to succeed, the media need to move on from Trump. I don’t mean they should stand back and applaud Biden’s every move. Skeptical coverage and tough scrutiny are warranted, as with any president. Biden doesn’t deserve a free ride.

What he does deserve, though, is a political press that covers his agenda as the top story of the day, and the Republican Party’s ongoing meltdown as a sideshow — worthy of attention, but hardly worth the massive energy and resources that are being devoted to it at the moment.

“For four years, all the news has been about Trump,” Biden said Tuesday night. “For the next four years, I want the news to be about the American people.”

The media are going to have to change their ingrained habits for that to happen. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s crucial if we’re to have any hope of getting back to some semblance of normal.

Google and Facebook have decimated newspaper ad revenues. A lawsuit aims to change that.

GBH News illustration by Brendan Lynch

Previously published at GBH News.

One afternoon in early 2016, I arrived at The Boston Globe’s former headquarters in Dorchester to talk with John Henry about the state of his newspaper. Before we could begin, though, he wanted to talk about something that was bugging him.

Google, it seemed, had started slapping the word “subscription” on Globe content when it came up in searches, even though few people were likely to run into what was then a relatively porous paywall. It took months to straighten out, he complained — costing the Globe readers and, therefore, advertising revenue.

Henry’s lament illustrates the complicated relationship publishers have long had with Google. On the one hand, they complain bitterly that the dominant search engine is repurposing their journalism without paying for it. On the other hand, they depend on the clicks that Google sends their way.

Now matters may be coming to a head.

Under pressure from the Australian government, Google and Facebook have agreed to start paying for the content they repackage, MediaPost reports.

In the U.S., the News Media Alliance, which represents newspaper publishers, has long sought an exemption from antitrust law so that they could attempt to negotiate a compensation package with the two companies. There are signs that Congress may finally pass legislation to let them try.

And now, a chain of newspapers in West Virginia has filed a lawsuit charging that Google and Facebook violated antitrust laws by forming an alliance aimed at perpetuating their monopoly on digital advertising.

In order to understand exactly what the two companies — especially Google — have done to harm the news business, you need to consider two different but related practices.

First there is the matter of grabbing content, which, as Henry’s complaint shows, is convoluted: Publishers can’t live with Google and can’t live without it. Years ago, before the Google-Facebook lockdown on ad revenue was even on the horizon, publishers would argue that Google should pay them. Google would counter that it was driving traffic to news sites, thus increasing the value of advertising on those sites. There was some logic to Google’s argument, though somehow it never worked out in favor of the publishers.

The problem in recent years is that Google acquired a number of advertising businesses and now controls not just search but also the advertising associated with search. Through the use of an automated auction system, the price of digital ads is being driven ever lower, making it all but worthless. As Nicco Mele, a former deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, explained several years ago, a full-page weekday ad in the paper that cost $50,000 had given way to Google ads on its website that brought in less than $20 to reach the same number of readers.

“To a large extent, Facebook and Google are sucking up revenue that publishers of content should be receiving,” Mele told an audience at Harvard.

It’s the ever-shrinking value of digital advertising that’s being targeted in the West Virginia lawsuit, brought by HD Media. The small chain owns seven newspapers, most notably the Charleston Gazette-Mail and The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington. Paul Farrell, the lawyer who represents the papers, told the trade magazine Editor & Publisher that Google is leveraging its control of two entirely different businesses in order to monopolize ad revenues and squeeze out anyone else.

“They have completely monetized and commercialized their search engine, and what they’ve also done is create an advertising marketplace in which they represent and profit from the buyers and the sellers, while also owning the exchange,” Farrell was quoted as saying. “Google is the broker for the buyer and gets a commission. Google is the broker for the seller and gets a commission. Google owns, operates and sets the rules for the ad exchange. And they are also in the market themselves.”

So where does Facebook fit in? According to a lawsuit filed by several state attorneys general that was reported by The Wall Street Journal, Google and Facebook are colluding through an agreement that Google has code-named Jedi Blue. The AGs contend that Google provides Facebook with special considerations so that Facebook won’t set up a competing ad network. (Google and Facebook have denied any wrongdoing, and, in the E&P story, Google reiterated that stance with regard to the HD Media suit.)

For Google, it’s a perfect closed environment: It holds a near-monopoly on search and the programmatic advertising system through which most ads show up on news websites. And it has an agreement with Facebook aimed at staving off competition.

As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan observed, the collapse of advertising is what has led to the closure of more than 2,000 newspapers over the past 16 years — as well as the shrinkage of surviving papers like the Gazette-Mail, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the opioid crisis in 2017.

Back when newspapers were manufactured out of dead trees, advertising was responsible for about 80% of revenue. Once they started moving online, that revenue stream was decimated, first by Craigslist, a mostly free service that scooped up nearly all the classified ads, and then by Google and Facebook.

Ironically, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark today directs much of his considerable philanthropy to the news business, and Google and Facebook spend quite a bit on various journalism initiatives as well. But whereas Newmark’s only sin was to build a better mousetrap, Google and Facebook’s dominance has more in common with the robber barons of the Gilded Age. It’s time that someone brought them to heel.

At least some newspapers have come up with a formula for overcoming the digital-advertising debacle. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and, yes, John Henry’s Boston Globe have all reinvented themselves as successful enterprises by reducing their reliance on ads in favor of digital subscriptions.

But it’s far from clear whether that will work for local and most regional papers, and even those that are doing well run the risk of becoming overreliant on one source. A reliable stream of ad revenue, freed from the depredations of Big Tech, would go a long way toward revitalizing journalism.

Twitter reportedly bans Mass. political gadfly Shiva Ayyadurai

Shiva Ayyadurai, in white hat. Photo (cc) 2019 by Marc Nozell.

Massachusetts Republican gadfly Shiva Ayyadurai has been banned from Twitter, most likely for claiming that he’d lost his most recent race for the U.S. Senate only because Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office destroyed a million electronic ballots. Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub has the details.

In 2018, I gave the City of Cambridge a GBH News New England Muzzle Award for ordering Ayyadurai to dismantle an wildly offensive sign on his company’s Cambridge property that criticized Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. City officials told him that the sign, which read “Only a REAL INDIAN Can Defeat the Fake Indian,” violated the city’s building code.

Ayyadurai threatened to sue, which led the city to back off.

Spotlighting undercovered news: Northeastern students reach beyond the headlines

COVID infections are down both nationally and in Massachusetts. Photo (cc) 2020 by
Daniele Marzocchi.

Previously published at GBH News.

In a time of national crisis — make that crises — there’s plenty of important news that gets overlooked. Vaccine delays, President Joe Biden’s economic-rescue package and, of course, Impeachment: The Sequel have overshadowed other topics to which we ought to be paying attention.

Every semester, I ask my journalism ethics students at Northeastern University to come up with a list of undercovered stories. Their answers are always intriguing. Invariably they find Washington, D.C., politics to be less compelling than what’s going on internationally and locally.

From a farmers’ strike in India to Australia’s crackdown on Google and Facebook, from good news about the coronavirus to still more good news about struggling Massachusetts cities like Chelsea and Brockton, my students have come through with stories we all ought to know more about. Even better, they’ve pretty much written my column for me this week.

Here are some highlights. The ranking is mine, but the ideas are all theirs.

7. Pandemic puppies. The isolation created by COVID-19 has led to an enormous upsurge in pet adoption — which, in turn, has fueled demand for purebred puppies, a problematic development for anyone who cares about animal welfare.

“During lockdown, puppies appealed both to single people facing months without human contact and to desperate parents seeking playmates for their lonely, screen-addicted children,” according to the Robb Report.

But as Robb and The Guardian reported, this demand has kept so-called puppy mills in business and has given rise to dogs that are genetically predisposed to health issues such as epilepsy and immune-system disorders.

6. Chelsea morning. During the pandemic, the news out of low-income cities in the Boston area such as Chelsea and Brockton has usually been bad — people of color working in service jobs and living in cramped quarters have had some of the highest rates of disease in the state.

This challenge, though, has also created an opportunity for activists to improve life in the state’s gateway communities. The Boston Globe’s “On The Street” series has documented some of those efforts. In Chelsea, for instance, Roseann Bongiovanni, the executive director of GreenRoots, told the Globe that the pandemic has led to new levels of cooperation among the city’s social-service providers.

“We’ve really broken down the silos,” Bongiovanni was quoted as saying. “I think post-pandemic you’re going to see a lot of collaboration, and this might give us an opportunity to think about the larger structural issues. Like why are so many people in Chelsea food insecure? Why is it that Chelsea was so sick?”

5. A revolution in sports viewing. In some parts of the mediasphere this is very big news indeed: The New York Times reports that NBCUniversal is shutting down the NBC Sports Network, moving some of its programming to the USA Network and — of more relevance — some of it to Peacock, its internet streaming service.

As more and more viewers are cutting cable and moving to streaming, media companies are attempting to move with them. The result is a dizzying array of options that, when you add them up, start to look like the same high price tag that viewers were paying for cable for so many years.

Media executives in charge of sports programming have been slow to embrace streaming because their viewers tend to be older and more likely to stick with cable. Yet the revolution is coming. GeekWire observes that some NFL games are already being shown exclusively on Amazon Prime.

4. Down under with Big Tech. In a case that ought to be watched closely in the United States, Australian regulators are waging war against the American technology giants Google and Facebook. At issue: The Aussies are insisting that the platforms pay for the news content that they use. Google and Facebook say they’ll delete news from what they publish before they let that happen.

The BBC reported that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government has the right to set its own rules for how the internet is governed within its borders. “Let me be clear: Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia,” Morrison said. “That’s done in our parliament.”

At a time when disgust with Big Tech has led to calls for regulation in the U.S., the standoff in Australia is well worth keeping an eye on. Local news is in crisis. If Google and Facebook can be persuaded — or pressured — into helping to fund community journalism, it could make an enormous difference to news organizations’ bottom lines.

3. The feminization of unemployment. The pandemic-related economic collapse has hit different communities and groups of people in different ways. Some have hardly been affected. Others are really suffering. What few news organizations point out, though, is that the burden of lost jobs has been disproportionately borne by women.

In December, according to the National Women’s Law Center, 156,000 jobs were lost in sectors that traditionally employ women, while male-dominated jobs actually increased by 16,000. Overall, since February of last year, women have lost more than 5.4 million jobs, amounting to 55% of net job losses since the beginning of the pandemic. The situation is even worse among Black and Latina women, the center reports.

This trend, though, has not broken through in media reports. A recent article in The New York Times made little mention of the disproportionate effect of pandemic-related unemployment on women, and a Washington Post story made no mention of it at all.

2. Farmers’ strike in India. One of the biggest stories on the planet right now is getting scant attention from the American media. Tens of thousands of farmers in India, the world’s largest democracy, are on strike, protesting attempts by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to impose new laws that they say will make it harder for them to sell their crops at a fair price.

According to The New York Times, one of the few U.S. outlets to cover the strike in any detail, the farmers’ action represents a significant challenge to Modi. Hartosh Singh Bal of The Caravan, a New Delhi-based magazine, wrote in a Times op-ed: “For the first time in six years, Mr. Modi is encountering opposition that he has not been able to stifle or tar with his extensive propaganda machinery.”

Modi is one of a number of authoritarian-minded rulers who have dominated the international stage in recent years. But now Russia’s Vladimir Putin faces massive protests. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is losing popularity over his handling of the pandemic and corruption. And, of course, former President Donald Trump is gone after encouraging an inept but deadly assault on Congress. Seen in that context, the challenges facing Modi may be further evidence that the autocratic wave has crested.

1. Good news on COVID-19. Despite the shimmering promise of highly effective vaccines that, so far, not nearly enough people have been able to get, the day-to-day news about the pandemic remains grim. Hospitals in some parts of the country are full, dangerous new variants are spreading across the globe and the U.S. death toll will likely hit an unimaginable 500,000 in a few weeks.

Yet the curve of new cases nationwide is trending sharply downward, The New York Times reports. In Massachusetts, too, the most recent surge is easing, from a seven-day average of more than 6,000 new daily cases in mid-January to around 3,400 today, as this Boston Globe chart shows. Maybe it’s because enough people have now been vaccinated to make a difference. Maybe it’s because admonitions about masking and social-distancing are being taken more seriously. Or maybe it’s just a lull before the next storm.

Regardless, fewer cases and fewer deaths are good news for all of us — and a reminder that, just like pandemics of decades past, this one, too, will end.

Philly Inquirer kills comments

The Philadelphia Inquirer is getting rid of most of its comments. Why?

Commenting on Inquirer.com was long ago hijacked by a small group of trolls who traffic in racism, misogyny, and homophobia. This group comprises a tiny fraction of the Inquirer.com audience. But its impact is disproportionate and enduring.

A few years ago, after a content-management system upgrade, GBH News killed its comment sections. If anyone complained, I’m not aware of it. Every news organization should consider emulating the Inquirer — including The Boston Globe.

For five years, Trump outrage has fueled media profits. So now what?

Trump supporter in North Carolina last September. Photo (cc) 2020 by Anthony Crider.

Previously published at GBH News.

Last Friday, The New York Times published the sort of story we’ve become quite familiar with — a blockbuster about Donald Trump. Times reporter Katie Benner revealed that, during Trump’s final days as president, he’d considered removing the acting attorney general as part of a plot to overturn the election results in Georgia.

For the past five years, such reporting has been very, very good for national news organizations. Trump outrage has provided elite newspapers, cable news stations and other prominent outlets with a jolt they hadn’t seen since the internet began eating away at their audience and revenue several decades earlier. But now it’s coming to an end.

The question is whether the Trump-era boost can outlast Trump.

In an interview with the public radio program “On The Media” over the weekend, co-host Brooke Gladstone asked McKay Coppins of The Atlantic — a news organization that has done especially well during the Trump years — if “Trump was good for the journalism business or bad?”

Coppins’ answer: “Well, from a bottom-line perspective, almost certainly good.”

The numbers tell quite a story. Consider The Times and The Washington Post, the two national newspapers that became most closely associated with covering the chaos and corruption of the Trump presidency. Between early 2017 and November 2020, The Times’ digital circulation grew from about 2 million to more than 7 million; 4.7 million are paying for the core news product, with the rest signed up for cheaper extras such as the crossword puzzle and the cooking app.

Growth has been equally impressive at The Post — from perhaps 100,000 to 200,000 in early 2016, according to an estimate by the newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor, to 1 million at the end of 2017, to 3 million in November 2020, Axios reported.

Or consider cable news, which has experienced an enormous upsurge in audience throughout the Trump years. Figures compiled by Heidi Legg, a journalist and a research fellow at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, show that the combined prime-time audience of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News rose from about 3.1 million in 2015 to nearly 7.2 million in 2020, with the Trump-friendly Fox far ahead of the pack for most of that period.

In a similar vein, it’s instructive to look at what happened last February after NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly conducted a contentious interview with Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who falsely claimed that Kelly had broken ground rules and angrily brought the proceedings to an abrupt end. The Post’s Erik Wemple reported that donations to NPR and member stations soared immediately afterward, though no numbers were available.

With Trump giving way to President Joe Biden, a far more low-key and disciplined politician, many journalists are breathing a massive sigh of relief as they contemplate returning to something like a normal life. But will audience and revenue resume the downward track they had been on for years before Trump demanded everyone’s unwavering attention?

There are reasons for hope. Following the November election, CNN — the highest quality of the three cable outlets, flawed though it is by the same talk-show mentality as its competitors — moved solidly into first place following years of ratings dominance by Fox News. And there are signs that it may stay there.

As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter wrote in his “Reliable Sources” newsletter, only a portion of the Fox audience has gravitated to the even Trumpier outlets Newsmax and OANN. More have given up on cable news altogether, most likely shifting to entertainment programming. If a larger share of the viewing public is watching CNN and its liberal counterpart, MSNBC, then that’s a boost for factual information.

Moreover, when Trump was running for president in 2015 and 2016, the public was still getting used to the idea that everything on the internet wasn’t free. Five years later, we are becoming accustomed to paying not just for news but for video services like Netflix and music apps like Spotify. Even with Biden slowing down the metabolism of the news cycle, media habits developed during the Trump years may be ingrained at this point. And it’s not as though there’s a shortage of crises to stay informed about, from COVID-19 and the economy to racial justice and the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Trumpist insurrection.

One last point: The Trump era may have been good for the business of journalism, at least on the national level (the local news crisis grows worse and worse). But it may not have been so good for the practice of journalism. In his interview with Brooke Gladstone, McKay Coppins spoke ruefully about how easy it was for reporters like him to gain a national following simply by trashing Trump.

“How do we move forward when you don’t have a president who’s shattering norms and breaking precedent and doing outlandish things every day?,” he asked, adding: “It’s really important that we not have our business models depend on that being the case. Because if they are, all of us are going to be pushed to insert artificial drama into every story we do, and that’s not good for anyone.”

The real story in Washington is dramatic enough. A Democratic president with razor-thin margins in Congress will attempt to govern while many of the most prominent members of the Republican opposition appear to favor authoritarianism over democracy — and who, like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., continue to spout lies about election fraud. Trump aside, we may be moving through the country’s most dangerous moment since the Civil War.

That ought to be enough to hold anyone’s interest — and to keep the revenues flowing so that we can pay for the journalism that we need.

Cruel and unusual: Trump’s death penalty rampage demeans us all

Lisa Montgomery

Previously published at GBH News.

Donald Trump’s presidency has been defined by shocking cruelty. Sometimes it’s been deliberate, as with his practice of taking children from the families of undocumented immigrants. Sometimes it’s the result of wanton neglect and cynical blame-shifting, as with his deadly handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s been such a never-ending torrent or horrors for the past four years that some of his misdeeds are in danger of being overlooked. One that we should be focused on, though, is the spree of federal executions he’s ordered during his final months in office.

Starting last July, 13 people were executed — six of them since the election, when Trump was defeated by Joe Biden, who has said he will not use the death penalty once he becomes president. By contrast, there had been only three federal executions since the presidency of John F. Kennedy, all presided over by George W. Bush.

Trump was in such a rush to kill that the final execution, of Dustin John Higgs, was carried out just a few days before Biden’s inauguration. And in a textbook illustration of how inequitably the ultimate punishment is used, Higgs was put to death for killing three women even though it was an associate, Willis Haynes, who shot them to death. Haynes received a 45-year sentence.

Capital punishment is a relic of the past — a barbaric measure not worthy of a decent society. Western Europe, Canada, Australia, South Africa and all of South America have either abolished it or no longer use it. Our peers are repressive regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and a handful of others (including, oddly enough, Japan).

And despite our ignominious status as a country that still executes people, capital punishment has been waning even in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“At the end of the year,” the center said in a recent report, “more states had abolished the death penalty or gone ten years without an execution, more counties had elected reform prosecutors who pledged never to seek the death penalty or to use it more sparingly; fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any prior year since the Supreme Court struck down U.S. death penalty laws in 1972; and despite a six-month spree of federal executions without parallel in the 20th or 21st centuries, fewer executions were carried out than in any year in nearly three decades.”

Trump, lest you forget, called for New York to reinstate the death penalty following the conviction of five young men in a violent assault against a female jogger in Central Park a generation ago; they were later exonerated. Not much has changed. Trump’s current spate of executions, according to ProPublica, has been marked by stunning breaches of protocol and procedure.

“Officials gave public explanations for their choice of which prisoners should die that misstated key facts from the cases,” ProPublica reported. “They moved ahead with executions in the middle of the night. They left one prisoner strapped to the gurney while lawyers worked to remove a court order. They executed a second prisoner while an appeal was still pending, leaving the court to then dismiss the appeal as ‘moot’ because the man was already dead. They bought drugs from a secret pharmacy that failed a quality test. They hired private executioners and paid them in cash.”

Those who are sentenced to die for their crimes have generally done terrible things. They tend not to inspire much sympathy even from those who oppose capital punishment in the abstract. Yet, occasionally, innocent people are put to death. And even those who are guilty often have complicated backstories.

The New York Times opinion section recently wrote about two especially harrowing cases. One was that of Lisa Montgomery, who was executed on Jan. 13, becoming the first woman to die at the hands of the federal government in 70 years. In 2004, Montgomery cut a baby out of the belly of a pregnant woman who was left to die. It was a horrific murder, the sort of act for which the death penalty would seem to be designed. (Incredibly, the baby lived.)

Yet Rachel Louise Snyder of American University, writing in The Times, painted a picture of Montgomery that was itself so horrendous that it’s hard to accept that justice required her execution. Repeatedly abused sexually by her father and his friends, brain-damaged by repeated blows to the head, Montgomery was a profoundly damaged woman who should have been allowed to live out her life in the custody of federal authorities.

The other case was more typical. Alfred Bourgeois was a Black man, as are a disproportionate share of those who are put to death. He was the subject of a long profile by The Times’ Elizabeth Bruenig, who witnessed his execution on Dec. 11. Bourgeois, too, had done something unimaginably awful — he slammed his 2-year-old daughter’s head repeatedly into the cab of his truck in 2002, killing her.

Yet, according to Bruenig, the reason Bourgeois was sentenced to death rather than life in prison was that he was also accused of having sexually abused his daughter. “Mr. Bourgeois’s lawyers — and there were many over time — were ultimately unable to overcome the lurid accusation,” Bruenig wrote. “Media reports inevitably focused on the appalling notion of a father raping his own toddler.” But according to Bruenig, there was good reason to believe that it never happened.

The Trump nightmare is nearly over. But it didn’t end soon enough for Lisa Montgomery, Dustin John Higgs, Alfred Bourgeois and the 10 other victims of Trump’s bloodlust. Few will mourn them. Yet their deaths in our name are an indelible stain on all of us. Let’s hope the Biden presidency represents real progress toward decency and justice — and not merely a four-year interregnum before we embrace our darker natures once again.