Beyond scale: Looking for hope amid the media’s ongoing meltdown

Recasting a media future. Photo (cc) 2007 by Goodwin Steel Castings.

Previously published at GBH News.

Bad news about the media business is nothing new. From the moment that the commercial web slipped into view in the mid-1990s, news organizations have been on the losing end of a long war over how — and even whether — journalism should be paid for.

Some recent developments, though, offer reasons for hope amid the gloom. Consider:

• BuzzFeed recently acquired HuffPost and immediately took an axe to it, laying off 47 employees, with the threat of more cuts to come. I will concede there’s nothing positive about that. But the debacle points to the limits of media funded by venture capital and could encourage more sustainable models.

• The notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital was on the verge of acquiring Tribune Publishing, whose nine large-market daily papers include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, locally, the Hartford Courant. But a group of billionaire investors led by Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum stepped forward to propose breaking up the chain and operating the papers locally, some of them on a nonprofit basis. And, at least at the moment, it looks like they might win.

• As media observers had long feared, the departure of former President Donald Trump from the White House led to an immediate decline in news consumption — not just at the cable news networks, but at national and regional newspapers too. Yet the post-Trump slump represents a chance to emphasize local news, which has more of an effect on readers’ actual lives and helps build community.

What a lot of this comes down to is the end of the idea that scale will save the digital news business. “Local doesn’t scale” has long been the motto of community-based entrepreneurs. But now it’s looking like scale doesn’t work at the national level, either, with a few notable exceptions like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Josh Marshall, founder of a small but successful political website called Talking Points Memo that depends mainly on reader revenue, described the dilemma in a recent essay for The Atlantic. For years, he wrote, venture capitalists kept pouring more and more money into digital news outlets hoping that they would someday become large enough to dominate their rivals, rake in a bounty of ad revenues and give the investors a chance to cash in.

Instead, the digital ad money went to Google and Facebook, leaving these outlets without any way forward.

“The whole digital news industry has been based on lies,” Marshall wrote, adding: “Investors realized that the tantalizing prospect of ad revenue lock-in that had always appeared just over the horizon was an illusion, so they shut off the investment spigot … In digital publishing, scale was the god that failed.”

If bigger isn’t necessarily better, that points to an opportunity for local news, whose tribulations have been the subject of considerable discussion over the past several years. Last November, I wrote that reviving community journalism could help overcome the angry polarization of the Trump era. Now three scholars have conducted a study showing there may be something to it.

According to an overview by Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the researchers — Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, Matthew Whitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M — conducted a survey of readers after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, decided to drop from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.

Darr, Whitt and Dunaway compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three wrote, the effect was notably salutary regardless of the actual numbers, since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.

“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”

It’s worth noting, too, that The Desert Sun — a Gannett paper — is small enough to be regarded as a truly local paper. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, the Sun’s combined digital and print weekday paid circulation is 15,862, and 16,993 on Sundays. But will the experiment have a lasting impact?

According to Julie Makinen, the paper’s executive editor, the answer is yes. Although the ban on national politics lasted only lasted for a month, she wrote approvingly about the study last week and added that it “is useful to us in that it helps point the way for further improving our opinion pages as we bring on a new editor for the section.”

Which brings me back to where I started. If scale is “the god that failed,” as Josh Marshall puts it, and if local news and opinions are an answer to rebuilding both journalism and civic engagement, what should come next?

Damon Kiesow of the Missouri School of Journalism, whose professional stops include a stint on the digital side at The Boston Globe, recently tweeted out a link to a piece he wrote more than a year ago that seems even more relevant now than it did then.

Because most local newspapers are owned by national chains, he wrote, those papers often end up getting caught in a strategy of pursuing scale even though it makes no sense for them. Journalistically, it means loading up on syndicated content. On the business side, it means chasing advertising dollars — or pennies — that are going to go to Google and Facebook in any case.

“To succeed,” he wrote, “local media have to abandon scale and refocus on community. Advertising remains part of the equation. But reader revenue, donations, foundation funding — yard sales if necessary — are all in the mix.” He concluded that “the internet is infinite; your community is not. Go small, or we are all going home.”

For a generation now, much of the news media have been seeking magical one-size-fits-all solutions to the economic destruction created by technology and out-of-control capitalism. The problem is that there are no easy answers, and scaling up has only made things worse. Those who have succeeded have done so through the hard work of figuring out what their communities need — and then going about the business of serving those needs.

McConnell’s hypocrisy shows why Democrats made the right call on witnesses

Mitch McConnell. Photo (cc) 2014 by Gage Skidmore.

And so it’s over. In the aftermath of Impeachment II, the main controversy is about whether the Democrats did the right thing in reversing themselves over calling witnesses. I think they made a wise judgment. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy shows why.

In a blistering speech, McConnell endorsed the entire factual basis of the Democrats’ case against Trump. “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” McConnell said. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.” And there was this:

Even after it was clear to any reasonable observer that Vice President Pence was in danger, even as the mob carrying Trump banners was beating cops and breaching perimeters, the president sent a further tweet attacking his vice president. Predictably and foreseeably under the circumstances, members of the mob seemed to interpret this as further inspiration to lawlessness and violence.

Yet McConnell still voted against conviction, relying on the bogus argument that a vote to convict was unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office.

At the end of all this, no reasonable person doubts that Trump incited the mob — not just on Jan. 6, but over the course of many months. No reasonable person doubts that he was reveling in the destruction, or that Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler was telling the truth about a toxic exchange between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump. Seven Republicans voted to convict Trump, making this the most bipartisan impeachment in history.

Given all that, it’s time for the Democrats to move on and let the center of gravity finally shift from Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.

Not everyone agrees, of course. The normally pragmatic Josh Marshall was apoplectic Saturday, writing in Talking Points Memo that the decision not to call witnesses was “inexplicable and maddening, to many or most Democrats outside the chamber because Democrats appeared to hold all the cards and all the votes and yet capitulated entirely.”

But I thought Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson made a better argument:

While it’s reasonable to imagine that witnesses would illustrate Trump’s depravity, it seems entirely likely that, as Trump’s lawyers continued simply to lie and their lies got spread through right-wing media as truth, Americans would have learned the opposite of what they should have.

Instead, the issue of Trump’s guilt on January 6 will play out in a courtroom, where there are actual rules about telling the truth.

We have lived through a terrible time, and it’s not over yet. The future direction of the Republican Party is far from certain, and it’s easy to imagine a thoroughly Trumpified party recapturing the House in 2022 as a result of gerrymandering and low voter turnout.

What we all need to concentrate on for the next two years is good governance — pushing for policies and programs that help people and, as best we can, putting the Trump era behind us. Biden is off to a good start, but a continuing obsession with Trump will hold him back. And that will hurt everyone.

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Georgia signals some hope, but Trump madness remains vigorous

The Proud Boys in Washington last month. Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston.

Previously published at GBH News.

And so today, at least for a few hours, we descend once again into the madness.

The past four days have been as dizzying as anything we’ve experienced as a nation, and would be seen as such if we hadn’t been dealing for the past four years with the terrible consequences of electing Donald Trump as president in 2016.

On Sunday, we learned that Trump had tried to muscle Georgia’s top election officials into awarding him the state in his ongoing efforts to overturn the results of the November election — surely an impeachable offense, and most likely a federal and state crime as well.

But life as we have come to know it during the Trump era rolled on. Republicans on Capitol Hill continued with their seditious plot to supersede the Electoral College, a tragicomedy upon which the curtain will rise later today. Thousands of MAGA protesters are arriving in Washington to urge them on. Meanwhile, the COVID pandemic is out of control, the economy remains in shambles and we learned once again that police officers can shoot a Black man in the back without much in the way of consequences.

And yet.

On Tuesday evening, not long after the polls had closed in Georgia, it started becoming clear that we may be in for a period of — what? Not normality. The radical right, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has properly suggested we label the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, won’t allow for that. But relative calm at least.

It may be no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the George Senate runoff elections was as crucial to our survival as a constitutional republic as the outcome of the presidential election two months ago. As of early this morning, the Rev. Raphael Warnock has defeated the Republican incumbent, Kelly Loeffler, for one of the seats, and the other Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff, appears likely to be declared the winner in his race against Sen. David Perdue.

With Warnock’s and Ossoff’s victories comes control (barely) of the Senate. Though each party will hold 50 seats, the incoming vice president, Kamala Harris, will be able to break tie votes. That would be a big deal in any case, but it looms even larger given the dangerous abyss into which the Republican Party has fallen.

At the liberal website Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes that “it allows Joe Biden to assemble a government. I think people have been underestimating the likelihood that a Republican senate would simply refuse to confirm major Biden appointees, forcing the President to try to wing stuff together with recess and vacancies act appointments that would themselves become tied up in the courts.”

We can’t underestimate what Biden will be up against once he’s sworn in. On Tuesday night I spent about an hour and a half watching Newsmax, which, along with OANN, has stolen a large chunk of the MAGA audience from Fox News because the journalists at Fox have remained at least somewhat tethered to reality.

Not long after the polls closed, Newsmax analyst Mark Halperin (remember him?) said that if the exit polls were “close to accurate,” then the Republicans would win. But an hour or so later, as it started to become clear that Republican turnout in Georgia wasn’t going to be enough to keep Perdue and Loeffler in office, the talking heads started to lay out the case that the results would be illegitimate.

For instance, Dick Morris (remember him?) took solace in figures that showed about 2 million early voters in Georgia had done so in person whereas just 1 million had voted by mail. “It’s a lot easier to fake mail-in voting than in-person voting,” he said, dumping a few buckets of poison into the well.

Another guest, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a leader of today’s rebellion against reality, actually called on the Senate not to seat Warnock and Ossoff even if they won. “It’s one thing for those ballots to be accurately counted; it’s another thing as to whether those ballots are legal,” he said, claiming without any evidence that there were “a massive number of illegal ballots in the system.”

Former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka (remember him?) tied the Senate race and the presidential election together by claiming “election fraud and quote unquote irregularities” and citing disproven allegations of votes being “pulled out from under tables.” Gorka also demonstrated a Trumpian facility for childish insults, calling Ossoff a “milquetoast Beto” and a “Justin Trudreau knockoff” and Warnock an “utter, utter radical.”

We can’t underestimate the effect of all this on the 40% of the public that remains in thrall to Trump and Trumpism. Whereas elite conservatives like Rich Lowry (“Republicans have likely lost control of the Senate, but will have the consolation prize of being able to marinate for hours tomorrow in delusional schemes”) and Tom Nichols (“the majority of the Republican Party and its apologists are advocating for the overthrow of an American election and the continued rule of a sociopathic autocrat”) rage against the president, Trump’s supporters have directed their own rage at the legitimately elected government of the United States.

Or as the pro-Trump conspiracy site Gateway Pundit puts it: “Pray for Vice President Pence to make the correct decision and save our nation from corrupt banana-republic elections that will undoubtedly be our future if this election is allowed to stand.”

Today’s attempted coup will end in failure. According to most reports, there will be more than enough Republican senators who’ll join with their Democratic colleagues to stop the madness. And if that doesn’t work, the Democratic House will put an end to it. But even with Republicans out of power in the House, the Senate and the presidency, we remain in a dangerous moment.

“America is in a precarious spot,” writes Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson. “But Americans have finally woken up. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and people are now speaking up, demanding that our leaders listen to us, and insisting that officials as well as ordinary Americans answer to the law.”

Crucial to navigating that future will be the role of the media. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen argues that much of the press would like nothing better than a return to the good old days — Democrats versus Republicans, balance and a retreat from the activism it embraced during the worst of the Trump presidency.

“Powerful forces favor a restoration,” Rosen writes. “It is by far the most likely outcome. After coping with an avalanche of news, an excess of controversy, and a hate campaign against them for five years, journalists would no doubt welcome a return to regular order, and a more human pace.” He adds: “Trump screwed with the ‘both sides’ system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back.”

In theory, I agree with Rosen that the media can’t go back to the way things were. In practice, I’m not sure what that looks like. Already, I’ve seen pushback against normal journalistic vetting such as Politico’s recent story about the millions of dollars in corporate speaking fees earned by Biden’s choice for treasury secretary, Janet Yellen. I’m sorry, but that’s a perfectly fine story as long as we don’t make too much of it.

What I’d like to see is a refusal to take the Republicans’ bait on phony Democratic scandals (Hunter Biden, anyone?); a willingness to cover the Republicans in good faith when they act in good faith, but an equal willingness to denounce radical measures not based in reality; and an unwavering defense of democracy.

Fourteen more days.

How Google and Facebook destroyed the value of digital advertising

To what extent have Google and Facebook destroyed the digital ad model for news organizations? I came across a telling data point the other day from Josh Marshall, the editor and founder of Talking Points Memo, a liberal political site that’s one of the oldest outposts on the web. In an email to subscribers explaining why he’s raising rates, Marshall wrote:

The high watermark of advertising revenue for TPM was in 2014. That year we had a little over $2.5 million in ad revenue and $165,000 in membership revenue. In 2020, we’re on pace for $538,000 in ad revenue and $2.1 million in membership revenue.

What Marshall describes is a successful business venture that has boosted reader revenue by a factor of 13 over the past six years — but that at the same time has seen its ad income plummet to about a fifth of what it was.

Google’s auction system has destroyed the value of digital ads. Meanwhile, more than 90% of all new spending on digital advertising goes to Google and Facebook, which works out nicely for them because of sheer volume and the fact that most of their operations are automated.

It’s great for TPM that it’s been able to induce so many readers to pay. But with more and more publishers asking for subscription money (including all those individual journalists who’ve decamped for Substack), the ceiling is going to be hit fairly soon.

We need a way to bring digital advertising back for news publishers.

Correction: Post updated to fix several math errors.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

Times spokeswoman disagrees on Dowd

Curious that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd would be out of the paper on Sunday and Wednesday of this week after having her knuckles rapped by public editor Clark Hoyt, I sent an e-mail to Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis asking whether Dowd was on vacation or had been suspended. Mathis’ reply, in full:

Maureen is on vacation. Since she didn’t do anything wrong, there would be no reason for a suspension.

That, of course, would be contrary to Hoyt’s view, who delivered a mild rebuke to Dowd last Sunday after she lifted a paragraph from Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo without attribution. In addressing Dowd’s claim that she had taken the e-mailed passage from a friend without realizing it had originally come from Marshall, Hoyt wrote:

I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.

Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, said journalists collaborate and take feeds from each other all the time. That is true with news articles, but readers have a right to expect that even if an opinion columnist like Dowd tosses around ideas with a friend, her column will be her own words. If the words are not hers, she must give credit.

No, Hoyt’s views are not those of Times management. Even so, I’m surprised Mathis would say something so definitive in defense of Dowd just days after Hoyt offered a different view. But there you go.

Last thoughts (probably) on Maureen Dowd

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt today largely absolves columnist Maureen Dowd, writing, “I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.”

Over the past week, I’ve thought a lot about plagiarism in the context of teaching journalism students. So it’s relevant to point out that, at Northeastern, we define plagiarism as “intentionally representing the words, ideas, or data of another as one’s own … without providing proper citation.” Based on what we now know, I sort of agree and sort of disagree that Dowd did not plagiarize. And I definitely agree that what she did wasn’t right.

When the news broke that Dowd had copied more than 40 words from Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo without quotation marks and without attribution, my first thought was that bloggers would pore over everything Dowd had written to see if they could find other examples. Well, it’s been a week, and the Marshall incident still stands alone. I don’t think it’s plausible that Dowd would suddenly start plagiarizing at the age of 57. So not only is this a first-time offense, but it speaks, I think, to a lack of malice aforethought on her part.

Earlier in the week, I and other commentators wrote that we had a hard time believing Dowd could be telling the truth when she said she had somehow managed to insert Marshall’s words, almost verbatim, based on a casual conversation she’d had with a friend. She has now clarified that, telling Hoyt she’d exchanged e-mails with a friend — still unnamed — and then copied and pasted his or her thoughts from the e-mail into her column.

That is a pretty lame way to write a column, and as Hoyt says, readers have a right to expect that a columnist, as opposed to a news reporter, will use her own words except when quoting others. Dowd’s editor, Andrew Rosenthal, disagrees.

Now, this may surprise readers who’ve never worked in a newsroom, but Rosenthal’s take is pretty much in sync with the way journalists work. As an editor, I have written whole paragraphs into opinion pieces by people with well-known bylines. As a writer, I’ve had editors do the same with me. But it’s one thing to acknowledge that journalism is a collaborative process; it’s another to have friends help you write your column, and then turn it in to your editors without telling them.

If intentional theft is at the heart of plagiarism, then Dowd didn’t plagiarize Marshall. But she did plagiarize her friend, even if she did it with that friend’s acquiescence. And though she may never have lifted someone’s published words before last week, it could well be that she frequently cobbles together e-mails from friends in the course of writing — assembling? — her column.

At Media Matters, Eric Boehlert calls on the Times to produce the e-mail. At Scripting News, Dave Winer offers a similar view. My own take at this point is that Dowd not only owes us a fuller explanation, but she also owes her readers an apology. A brief suspension wouldn’t be out of order, either. It’s not a matter of wrecking her career; it’s a matter of basic accountability.

By far the most logical explanation would be that Dowd copied and pasted the Marshall passage herself with the intention of crediting him, and then forgot to do so. We could all understand that. Because she has given us something so much less straightforward, and because we still don’t know everything, I wonder if something else is going on.

At the Nytpicker, Amy Alkon asks something I’ve been wondering myself. Is it possible that an assistant did most of the work, including grabbing the Marshall quote without attribution, and that Dowd is now covering for both the assistant and herself? Normally I don’t like engaging in such speculation. But given the lack of transparency on the part of Dowd and her editors, I see no reason why we can’t offer some educated guesses.

Unfortunately, Dowd had the day off today. She should be writing her next column for Wednesday’s paper. I’ll extend to her the same invitation she received from Slate’s Jack Shafer last week: She should use her column to tell us what happened, how it happened and what she’s learned from the experience.

The standards to which she is held ought to be at least as high as those expected of any college sophomore.

Photo of Maureen Dowd (cc) by Matthew and Peter Slutsky and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Maureen Dowd odds and ends

As the Maureen Dowd plagiarism story continues to wind down, a few stray pieces:

  • Despite Jack Shafer’s splendid suggestion that Dowd offer a full accounting of what happened in today’s column, she instead weighs in with an insipid imaginary conversation between Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Gah.
  • Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, whose words were appropriated without credit by Dowd in her Sunday column, says he “never thought it was intentional,” and “that’s pretty much the end of it.”
  • The New York Post has picked up my Guardian column on the matter. Sure, I’m getting a kick out of it. But I’m also less than thrilled to be drafted by Rupert Murdoch into his ongoing pissing match with the Sulzbergers.

Dowd was just talking with a friend

I don’t think New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd committed a hanging offense. But I continue to be troubled by her explanation of how she came to lift a paragraph from Josh Marshall’s megablog, Talking Points Memo.

OK, so Dowd was “talking” in a “spontaneous” manner with a friend, as she put it to the Huffington Post. Fine. I had decided to assume for the purpose of moving on that by “talking” she meant “e-mailing.” It would be completely believable if she had copied and pasted from a friend’s e-mail who had volunteered to help her write her column. Lame, but believable.

And yet here is what she told a blog called the Nytpicker, via e-mail:

no, we were going back and forth discussing the topic of the column and he made this point and i thought it was a good one and wanted to weave it in;
i just didn’t realize it was josh marshall’s point, and we’ve now given him credit
my friend didn’t want to be quoted; but of course i would have been happy to give credit to another writer, as i often do

I don’t see how you can possibly construe this as an e-mail exchange, especially when, as you will see, the Nytpicker had contacted her a second time trying to clarify exactly how Dowd had managed to reproduce Marshall’s rather lengthy graf almost word for word. Hey, she was just talking with a friend. Right.

(Via an e-mail to Media Nation citing National Review’s Media Blog, which in turn got it from DailyKos.)

Dowd’s modified limited hangout

Jack Shafer points out in Slate that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd deserves credit for not going into hiding, not whining and not claiming that what she did wasn’t plagiarism. I’ll give her that.

In an e-mail to Media Nation, Shafer also fingered an attribution I’d messed up in my Guardian column, which has now been corrected. I’d misattributed a Dowd e-mail to the wrong source. Thank you, Jack.

Maureen Dowd’s real sin

It’s not plagiarism, assuming Sunday’s column was an isolated incident. Rather, it’s phoning in a lazy, solipsistic column that is sometimes entertaining but rarely digs deeper than the conventional wisdom of the day.

Or so I argue in the Guardian.