By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Michael Socolow

Why concerns about the Portland Press Herald’s funding are overblown

Photo (cc) 2018 by Molladams

Recently Max Tani of Semafor and Richard J. Tofel, who writes the newsletter Second Rough Draft, have raised questions about whether the folks involved in the purchase of the Portland Press Herald and its affiliated Maine papers from the retiring publisher, Reade Brower, have been sufficiently transparent in disclosing who the funders are.

The papers were bought during the summer by the National Trust for Local News, a nonprofit that has been involved in several acquisitions aimed at preventing legacy newspapers from falling into the hands of corporate chain ownership. In Maine, Tani and Tofel argue, the billionaire George Soros may have been more deeply involved than was previously known, while the involvement of another billionaire who was reportedly part of the purchase, Hansjörg Wyss, hasn’t been disclosed at all.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is essentially a non-issue. Tofel himself notes that the previous management of the papers remains in place and that “invocations of Soros as a sort of bogeyman have long since become a principal way to dog whistle anti-Semitism; it ranks right up there with ‘globalist’ in this rhetoric.”

More to the point, the Press Herald itself followed up on Tani’s reporting, and it sounds like the full story behind the purchase will be revealed soon. (I was interviewed for the piece, written by reporter Rachel Ohm.) Longtime Press Herald publisher Lisa DeSisto, now the CEO and publisher of the Maine Trust for Local News, the nonprofit that has been set up to own the papers, is quoted as saying, “We want to make more of a splash and have a more comprehensive introduction to the Maine Trust rather than just [putting things out in] pieces. We’re really waiting to announce a broader vision.”

Added Will Nelligan, who’s the Maine project lead for the National Trust: “We will announce that coalition of Maine funders when we announce the Maine Trust.”

No, the announcement didn’t come in September, as had been originally promised. But is that really a big deal as long as disclosure is on its way? The papers themselves, by the way, remain for-profit entities, so it seems unlikely that either the National Trust or the Maine Trust will be looking for ongoing support to prop them up.

If you take a look at the National Trust’s funders, you’ll see that, in addition to Soros’ Open Society Foundations, they include a number of respected journalism funders, including the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Lenfest Institute, which owns The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Gates Family Foundation, by the way, is a Colorado-based philanthropy that has nothing to do with Bill or Melinda Gates.

When I asked University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow to weigh in, he emailed me comments he had previously posted on X/Twitter, noting that Tani and Tofel had emphasized Soros’ and Wyss’ liberal politics but adding they had been unable to back up whether that was relevant. (To be fair, Tofel seemed less impressed with that angle than Tani.) Socolow said:

I’m not sure there’s a story here. Neither Tani nor Tofel specify the ways the new ownership has altered editorial content. They’re seemingly insinuating that the new ownership purchased the newspapers to shape news content for partisan political reasons. But how much disclosure and transparency about Reade Brower and his business interests did these publications publish before the sale? It’s not clear to me why there needs to be a new, and apparently higher, standard simply because the ownership is now non-profit versus commercial. If evidence emerges that the sort of meddling Tani and Tofel insinuate begins occurring, then I agree we have an important story. But we’re not there yet.

Let me end with a couple of disclosures: Ellen Clegg and I interviewed National Trust co-founder and CEO Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro on our podcast, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” and we wrote about the National Trust’s successful effort to save two dozen community newspapers in the Denver suburbs in our forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News.” I worked with DeSisto at The Boston Phoenix and Ellen later got to know her at The Boston Globe, and we both consider her to be a first-rate, ethical news executive.

The purchase of the Press Herald papers by the National Trust was unalloyed good news, and it sounds like the questions that Tani and Tofel have raised will be answered soon.

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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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