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Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr calls for the return of the public editor

Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr calls for the return of the ombudsperson, sometimes known as the public editor — an in-house journalist who holds their own news organization to account. As she observes, at one time such positions were common at large media outlets such as The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

They were eliminated, for the most part, when financial pressures made such a position seem like an unaffordable luxury. But as Stohr argues, with the Times and the Globe once again profitable and growing, “They can easily bring them back as a signal that they value public trust.” (Note: Stohr interviewed me.)

I suggested the Globe bring back its ombudsperson last spring after the paper published an extensive correction about a story involving top executives at the MBTA who were reportedly working from distant locales. Instead, the Globe fired the lead reporter, Andrea Estes, and has never really offered an explanation as to what went wrong. Estes, a respected investigative journalist, is now working at the Plymouth Independent, a new nonprofit edited by Mark Pothier, himself a former top Globe editor.

As far as I know, the only major news organization that still has a public editor is NPR, where those duties are carried out by Kelly McBride, who’s also senior vice president at the Poynter Institute. Meanwhile, as Stohr writes, the Times is increasingly under fire on social media from liberal critics who complain that the paper normalizes Donald Trump by treating him like a typical presidential candidate rather than as someone facing 91 criminal charges who attempted to foment an insurrection. I largely share that critique, although I think some of it is overblown.

The presence of a public editor, Stohr writes, “can help journalists be more self-aware while not placing the burden of public criticism on individual reporters, who are usually not in a position to make the sort of organization-wide changes that are often necessary to restore public confidence.”

The public editor was not a perfect institution by any means. Partly it depends on the skill of the person doing it. The Times’ next-to-last public editor, Margaret Sullivan, was the best I can think of, and Stohr quotes a post Sullivan wrote on Twitter/X arguing that the Times needs to bring that position back. Partly it depends on how willing top editors are to provide access. (Sullivan, who still writes media criticism for The Guardian and her own newsletter, is now executive director at the Craig Newmark Center on Journalism Ethics & Security at the Columbia School of Journalism.)

But there are certain things an in-house critic can do that an outside commentator can’t. A public editor has the time to dig deeply and, if they have the cooperation and support of the top leadership, can make a real contribution in helping the public understand why certain decisions are made. And, sometimes, what the story was behind mistakes and misjudgments.

More: There is still an Organization of News Ombudsmen, though I don’t know how active it is. If you look at the U.S. members, you’ll see that most of them hold titles like “managing editor for standards.” I should have noted that PBS has a public editor, Ric Sandoval-Palos.

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Was James Bennet more involved in that Tom Cotton op-ed than he’s said?

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

For those of us who care about the byzantine internal politics of The New York Times, there is a tantalizing aside in Adam Rubenstein’s essay in The Atlantic about his stint as an editor in the opinion section. Rubenstein was involved in editing the infamous June 2020 op-ed by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (free link) calling for the use of the Insurrection Act to suppress violent demonstrators at Black Lives Matter protests. The op-ed led to an internal revolt at the Times and, ultimately, the firing of editorial-page editor James Bennet.

One of the principal charges against Bennet was that he admitted he hadn’t read Cotton’s screed before publishing it. Yet Rubenstein’s Atlantic essay, which is sympathetic to Bennet, includes this:

In addition to my own edits, I incorporated edits conveyed by Bennet, Dao, and the deputy op-ed editor, Clay Risen; then a copy editor went over the essay.

(Dao, by the way, is James Dao, now editorial-page editor at The Boston Globe.)

“Edits conveyed by Bennet”? What, precisely, is that supposed to mean? Did Bennet have a hand in editing the piece or didn’t he? It sure sounds like Rubenstein is telling us that Bennet read the op-ed before it was published — but that contradicts what’s on the public record. For instance, here’s an excerpt from the story (free link) that the Times itself wrote about the controversy just before Bennet was fired:

James Bennet, the editor in charge of the opinion section, said in a meeting with staff members late in the day that he had not read the essay before it was published. Shortly afterward, The Times issued a statement saying the essay fell short of the newspaper’s standards.

Last December, in a massively long essay revisiting the entire affair, Bennet himself reiterated in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, where he is a columnist, that he had not read the op-ed. He recounts an internal meeting at which he tried to defend himself and the decision to publish Cotton’s piece:

[A] pop-culture reporter asked if I had read the op-ed before it was published. I said I had not. He immediately put his head down and started typing, and I should have paid attention rather than moving on to the next question. He was evidently sharing the news with the company over Slack. If he had followed up, or I had, I might have explained that this was standard practice. Dao’s name was on the masthead of the New York Times because he was in charge of the op-ed section. If I insisted on reviewing every piece, I would have been doing his job for him – and been betraying a crippling lack of trust in one of the papers’ finest editors.

There is one other tidbit in Bennet’s piece that perhaps Rubenstein is referring to: “Rubenstein also told me that in one draft Cotton had linked disapprovingly to a tweet from a Times reporter that could be read as expressing support for the rioters. I told Rubenstein to make sure that this link was removed. I had prohibited criticising any work, including any social-media activity, from the newsroom, unless I ran the idea by a senior newsroom editor first.”

Is that the edit “conveyed by Bennet” that Rubenstein refers to in The Atlantic? If so, it’s a pretty thin reed. Rubenstein and his editors at The Atlantic should have realized that he was directly contradicting what Bennet had said about his involvement in Cotton’s op-ed and clarified that Bennet was merely responding to a routine question Rubenstein had asked him. And if Rubenstein is suggesting that Bennet was more involved than he has claimed, then that should have been highlighted, not buried in an aside.

***

Aside from the ambiguities about the degree to which Bennet was involved in editing Cotton’s op-ed, there is at least one other significant failure by Rubenstein and his editors. In attempting to prove that the Times newsroom is hermetically sealed in a left-wing bubble, he takes a shot at Times reporter Edward Wong, writing:

A diplomatic correspondent, Edward Wong, wrote in an email to colleagues that he typically chose not to quote Cotton in his own stories because his comments “often represent neither a widely held majority opinion nor a well-thought-out minority opinion.” This message was revealing. A Times reporter saying that he avoids quoting a U.S. senator? What if the senator is saying something important? What sorts of minority opinions met this correspondent’s standards for being well thought-out?

Wong responded on Twitter/X:

This passage in @TheAtlantic essay by Adam Rubenstein is wrong. The quote is from a paragraph in which I discussed only China policy. I named a GOP senator whom I think speaks with more substance on China than Cotton. Readers know I quote a wide range of knowledgeable analysis.

I respect @TheAtlantic. It should issue a correction. No one asked me for comment, or I would’ve pointed out the false context. The irony is that Rubenstein twisted a line to fit his ideological point — the very act he criticizes. And all serious journalists scrutinize opinions.

In other words, Rubenstein inflates Wong’s well-founded skepticism of Cotton’s expertise (or lack thereof) on one topic into what amounts to an ideologically based boycott of anything Cotton might tell him. This is sleazy and wrong, and The Atlantic needs to respect Wong’s request for a correction.

***

The Atlantic appears to be in the clear on one other controversy. Rubenstein opens with an anecdote aimed at making the Times look like a caricature of what the right might imagine to be wokeism gone wild:

On one of my first days at The New York Times, I went to an orientation with more than a dozen other new hires. We had to do an icebreaker: Pick a Starburst out of a jar and then answer a question. My Starburst was pink, I believe, and so I had to answer the pink prompt, which had me respond with my favorite sandwich. Russ & Daughters’ Super Heebster came to mind, but I figured mentioning a $19 sandwich wasn’t a great way to win new friends. So I blurted out, “The spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A,” and considered the ice broken.

The HR representative leading the orientation chided me: “We don’t do that here. They hate gay people.” People started snapping their fingers in acclamation. I hadn’t been thinking about the fact that Chick-fil-A was transgressive in liberal circles for its chairman’s opposition to gay marriage. “Not the politics, the chicken,” I quickly said, but it was too late. I sat down, ashamed.

Columbia Journalism School professor Bill Grueskin, who is not one to swing from the hips, wrote on Twitter that perhaps Rubenstein’s tale is just a little too good to be true: “I will swear on a stack of AP stylebooks that it is perfectly acceptable for editors, even at @TheAtlantic, to both fact-check first-person anecdotes and tell your readers you did that.” Times Magazine writer and Howard University professor Nikole Hannah-Jones went further, asserting, “Never happened.”

But evidence has emerged that the session Rubenstein describes actually did happen. Conservative commentator Jesse Singal wrote that he obtained a statement from The Atlantic confirming its accuracy, and former Times opinion writer Bari Weiss said that Rubenstein “told me and others that story when it happened.”

***

One final observation. “As painful as it was in my mid-20s to think that my journalistic career would end as a result of this episode,” Rubenstein writes of his decision to leave the Times, “it’s even more painful to think that newsrooms haven’t learned the right lessons from it.”

In his mid-20s? When you’re in your mid-20s, you should be covering city council meetings or, if you’re adventurous, a war. If Rubenstein really wants to explore what’s wrong with the culture of the Times newsroom, he might begin with an examination of how someone as young and inexperienced as he found himself holding an important editing job at our most influential news organization without having any relevant journalism experience beyond working at The Weekly Standard and interning at The Wall Street Journal.

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Print circulation drops again. But why are we still counting?

It has become a strange and perverse exercise. Every so often, Press Gazette, a U.K.-based website that tracks developments in the news business, rounds up the latest weekday print circulation figures reported by U.S. newspapers and informs us that, yes, they’re down once again. For instance: The Wall Street Journal, 555,200, a drop of 14% over the previous year; The New York Times, 267,600, down 13%; The Boston Globe, 56,900, down 11%.

These same news organizations, though, are succeeding in selling digital subscriptions. The Times has 9.7 million digital-only subscribers. The Journal is around 3.5 million. The Globe has about 250,000, and CEO Linda Henry has announced a push for 400,000.

Why does Press Gazette persist in tracking these print-only numbers? Because they’re there. Twice a year, the Alliance for Audited Media reports print circulation for every newspaper that’s a member. Reliable digital numbers are much harder to come by.

As the Press Gazette itself concedes: “While print remains an important revenue stream, data on digital subscriptions presents a more promising picture.” No kidding.

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We’ll be talking about ‘What Works’ at the Harvard Book Store on Monday, Feb. 26

If you’re in the Boston area, Ellen Clegg and I want to let you know about a book event we’ll be hosting on Monday, Feb. 26. We’ll be talking about “What Works in Community News” at the Harvard Book Store, right outside of Harvard Square, at 7 p.m. Our presentation will be followed by a book signing. The event is free, and registration is not required. More information here.

“[T]here are signs that things are looking up,” writes Serge Schmemann in The New York Times. “In their book, Ms. Clegg and Mr. Kennedy chronicle various ways in which local and regional news organizations — whether paper, digital or radio — are trying to restore local coverage. Most are nonprofits, often assisted by a number of foundations that assist news start-ups. It’s not a flood, but what is certain, they write, ‘is that the bottom-up growth of locally based news organizations has already provided communities with news that would otherwise go unreported.’”

We would love to see you there.

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How the NY Times over-interprets its reporting about billionaire media owners

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

The New York Times has published a story (free link) that calls into question the rise of billionaires who own news organizations, noting that The Washington Post under Jeff Bezos, the Los Angeles Times under Patrick Soon-Shiong and Time magazine under Marc Benioff are all losing money. True enough. My problem with the story is that reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson try too hard to impose an ubertake when in fact there’s important background with each of those examples. Mullin and Robertson write:

All three newsrooms greeted their new owners with cautious optimism that their business acumen and tech know-how would help figure out the perplexing question of how to make money as a digital publication.

But it increasingly appears that the billionaires are struggling just like nearly everyone else. Time, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times all lost millions of dollars last year, people with knowledge of the companies’ finances have said, after considerable investment from their owners and intensive efforts to drum up new revenue streams.

The role of wealthy newspaper owners is something of ongoing interest to me. My last book, “The Return of the Moguls” (2018), focused on the Post, The Boston Globe and the Orange County Register in Southern California, owned by a rich Boston-area businessman named Aaron Kushner. At the time the book came out, the Post was flying high, the Globe was muddling along and the Register was failing; it eventually fell into the hands of the slash-and-burn hedge fund Alden Globe Capital. The Post’s and the Globe’s fortunes have since moved in opposite directions.

Here are the particulars that get glossed over in Mullin and Robertson’s attempt to impose an overarching framework:

• Bezos, who bought the Post in 2013, made deep investments in technology and built up the staff. The result was years of growth and profits, which only came sputtering to a halt after Donald Trump left the White House. Former executive editor Marty Baron, in his book “Collision of Power,” suggests that, over time, a disciplined approach to hiring became more lax. In other words, the Post got ahead of itself and is now in the midst of a reset. A new publisher, William Lewis, begins work this month, and we’ll see if he can articulate a strategy that amounts to more than “just like the Times only not as comprehensive.”

• Benioff bought a dog and, predictably, it’s going “woof woof.” Time was the largest of the Big Three newsweeklies, along with Newsweek and U.S. World & News Report; it’s also the only one of the three that still exists in a somewhat recognizable form. Newsweeklies succeeded because, pre-internet, you couldn’t get great national papers like the Times, the Post and The Wall Street Journal delivered to your doorstep. Not only is there no discernible reason for them to exist anymore, but the leading newsweekly these days, at least in terms of cachet, is The Economist.

• Not all billionaire owners are in it for the right reasons, and Soon-Shiong has proven to be an uncertain leader. Does he care about the Los Angeles Times or not? He’s built it up; now he’s tearing it down. He recently pushed out his executive editor, Kevin Merida, the most prominent Black editor in the country, and he’s done some truly awful things such as delivering Tribune Publishing’s papers to Alden Global Capital and more recently selling The San Diego Union-Tribune to Alden.

So what does that tell us about billionaire owners? Not much. As Mullin and Robertson acknowledge, some are doing just fine, including The Boston Globe under John and Linda Henry and The Atlantic under Laurene Powell Jobs. They could have also mentioned the Star Tribune of Minneapolis under Glen Taylor or, for that matter, The New York Times, a publicly traded company that is nevertheless under the tight control of the Sulzberger family. I don’t think the Sulzbergers are billionaires, but they are not poor.

At the moment, it seems that the only two viable models for large regional dailies is individual ownership by wealthy people who are willing to invest in future profitability and nonprofit ownership, either in the form of a nonprofit organization owning a for-profit paper, as with The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times, or a paper that goes fully nonprofit, as with The Salt Lake Tribune and The Baltimore Banner. The Banner is a digital startup that nevertheless is attempting to position itself as a comprehensive replacement for The Baltimore Sun. The Sun, in turn, was one of the Tribune papers that Soon-Shiong helped gift-wrap for Alden, and just this past week was sold to right-wing television executive David Smith.

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Union members at New York Times and teachers unions push back at Gaza resolutions

New York Times journalists said to number in the “dozens” have formed an “Independence Caucus” within their union to push back on what they see as efforts by the leadership to take sides in the war between Israel and Hamas.

Alexandra Bruell of The Wall Street Journal reports that “some Times staffers chafed when the NewsGuild held a virtual meeting during which some members debated the merits of issuing a statement calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and an end to U.S. government aid to Israel, a move that they said would compromise their neutrality and put colleagues in war zones at risk.”

Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, comes across in the article as someone who is being whipsawed by various factions, telling the Journal: “We had hundreds of people write to us and call us on all sides. What we had was a listening session to hear from people directly.”

You might think that a union ought to restrict its purview to wages, benefits and protecting workers from capricious managers. But the NewsGuild, whose members include non-journalists, has in fact taken stances on broader issues over the years, including statements in favor of abortion rights.

Closer to home, the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s leadership recently voted to approve a resolution that calls for a cease-fire as well as “an end to our government’s complicity with Israel’s genocidal assault on the people of Gaza and the intent to take over their territory.” David Mancuso, in the newsletter Contrarian Boston, writes that the Anti-Defamation League has called the resolution “a perverse position,” and that the Newton Teachers Association demanded that the state union “retract its statement immediately.”

It strikes me as unnecessary and counterproductive for unions to take positions that have nothing to do with the important work of representing their members — all of their members, many of whom may not be on board with the political views of their leadership.

That’s even more important with the NewsGuild, whose members are called upon to cover the news — to borrow a phrase from the Times’ past — “without fear or favor.”

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Our book makes the Sunday Times’ print edition

Great to see Serge Schmemann’s recent New York Times opinion piece about local news (free link) pop up in today’s print edition. Schmemann interviewed Ellen Clegg and me and cites our forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News.”

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What The New York Times is saying about ‘What Works in Community News’

A little more than a month from now, “What Works in Community News” will be released by Beacon Press — and it’s already receiving significant advance buzz. In addition to pre-publication endorsements from the likes of Margaret Sullivan, Steven Waldman and Penelope Muse Abernathy, The New York Times on Sunday published an opinion essay about the local news crisis in which our book is prominently featured. Times editorial writer Serge Schmemann interviewed Ellen Clegg and me, writing (free link):

[T]here are signs that things are looking up. In their book, Ms. Clegg and Mr. Kennedy chronicle various ways in which local and regional news organizations — whether paper, digital or radio — are trying to restore local coverage. Most are nonprofits, often assisted by a number of foundations that assist news start-ups. It’s not a flood, but what is certain, they write, ‘is that the bottom-up growth of locally based news organizations has already provided communities with news that would otherwise go unreported.’”

In addition, Booklist, the publication of the American Library Association, recently gave our book a starred review. The reviewer, Alan Moores, said: “For readers who despair at the collapse of traditional media nationwide, this survey is a bolster; for journalists looking to create such viable news sources in their own communities, its a highly useful road map.”

Ellen and I are thrilled that our book is receiving such a strong reception. We hope it will serve as an inspiration to spark the rise of still more local and regional news projects across the country. In the meantime, you can keep up on developments in local news as well as our podcast at our website, What Works: The Future of Local News.

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The incorrigible New York Times

How did the editors not catch this? Or did they actually add it? Just gobsmackingly awful:

President Biden, perhaps Amtrak’s most famous advocate, announced $16.4 billion in funding for rail projects on Monday, exhibiting a business-as-usual approach as polls show him trailing former President Donald J. Trump one year before Election Day.

Speaking at a maintenance warehouse where Amtrak trains are serviced in Bear, Del., Mr. Biden made no mention of the polling from The New York Times and Siena College polls.

Instead, he offered familiar anecdotes about his days as a senator, when a conductor named Angelo would call him “Joey, baby!” and squeeze his cheeks as he made the 90-minute ride between Washington and his home in Wilmington, Del.

Mr. Biden also promoted the $1 trillion infrastructure law he signed into law two years ago, which included $66 billion for investments in rail systems.

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NYT journalists who pushed back on that botched hospital headline were overruled

A disturbing new development has emerged in The New York Times’ botched initial headline about the Gaza hospital explosion. Charlotte Klein of Vanity Fair obtained internal Slack messages that show there was internal pushback in the Times newsroom, but that those raising concerns were overruled by senior editors. I don’t have a log-in for Vanity Fair, but Tom Jones of Poynter Online has summarized her story:

Klein wrote, “… senior editors appear to have dismissed suggestions from an international editor, along with a junior reporter stationed in Israel who has been contributing to the paper’s coverage of the war, that the paper hedge in its framing of events.”…

[T]he international editor wrote, “I think we can’t just hang the attribution of something so big on one source without having tried to verify it. And then slap it across the top of the [homepage]. Putting the attribution at the end doesn’t give us cover, if we’ve been burned and we’re wrong.”

No kidding. Please read Jones’ item in full; trust me when I tell you that it gets worse.

As we know, the Times and a number of other media outlets claimed Oct. 17 that an Israeli missile had struck Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City and killed an estimated 500 people, attributing the news to the Hamas-led Palestinian government. It took the Times at least an hour and a half to add that Israeli officials were claiming that the explosion was the result of a failed missile launch by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a Hamas ally. The Times published an Editor’s Note on Monday acknowledging that it fell short of its own standards.

Based on the best available evidence, it now appears likely that Israeli officials were correct; that the Islamic Jihad missile did not actually strike the hospital but exploded nearby; and that the death toll, though still uncertain, is considerably lower than 500. This BBC News assessment, which points in that direction, is now six days old, but The Washington Post reports that U.S. intelligence now believes with “high confidence” that Israel was not responsible.

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