Poynter has rounded up some of the highest impact local stories of 2020 — and among them is “The Color of Public Money,” a series produced by my friends at GBH. Paul Singer, investigations editor for the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting, recounts his work revealing that the state had failed to live up to its promises in helping minority-owned businesses. Singer writes:
We first established that the value of state spending with minority-owned businesses has DECLINED over the past 20 years (adjusted for inflation). We then established that during Baker’s administration, the state began padding those numbers, taking credit for a bunch of stuff that is not actually “spending” by state agencies.
Other stories in the Poynter roundup include secrecy over inmate deaths in Montana, a foundation in Miami that provides bloodhounds to law-enforcement agencies, a motorcycle gang that incited violence at a Black Lives Matter rally in Ohio, child hunger in West Virginia, and fake news about a bus in Columbus, Ohio, that was falsely claimed to have been used by rioters.
The Poynter roundup underscores the importance of local and regional journlism. National news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are doing well, but community news is shrinking. During these final two days of 2020, I hope you’ll consider a donation to NewsMatch, which will double what you give to support nonprofit news. I gave earlier this week.
This year, NewsMatch added a new feature — rather than trying to figure out which nonprofits you want to support, you can just give to NewsMatch and let them figure out where your dollars can be put to the best use.
We’re all familiar with newspaper endorsements. But what about individual journalists whose job descriptions include expressing their opinions about politics and politicians?
Is the old rule that opinion journalists shouldn’t reveal whom they’re voting for still relevant?
I’m referring to columnists for newspaper op-ed pages, certain types of magazine writers, journalists for websites that combine news and opinion, and the like. I’m not referring to partisan commentators whose loyalties are explicitly with a political party or candidate. That would apply to cable talking heads such as David Axelrod or Rick Santorum. They can do as they like.
But opinion journalism, properly understood, is bound by the same ethical considerations as straight news reporting. You don’t make political contributions, you don’t put bumper stickers on your car or signs on your lawn, and you certainly don’t take part in a campaign in any way.
I’ve been working the opinion side of the street since the early 1990s, first as a writer for the alt-weekly Boston Phoenix, now as a panelist on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press” and as a columnist for the WGBH News website. I’ve always tried to take the ethics of my craft seriously.
Though bound by the same ethical considerations, there are some differences between opinion journalism and straight news reporting. The most relevant difference is this: I am free to write (for example) that I think Elizabeth Warren is the best-qualified candidate for president by virtue of her policy positions, her experience and her temperament. What I’m not free to do is to take the next logical step and say I’m voting for Warren.
Unfortunately, as with so many customs, President Donald Trump has broken the mold. Four years ago I made it clear that I would vote for the Democratic nominee against Trump regardless of whether it was Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. I considered Trump a threat to journalism and the First Amendment, and I thought it was important for journalists to take a stand in defense of both. And I’m repeating that in 2020: I will vote for the Democratic nominee.
I’ve seen others make the same assertion. I’ve even seen a few mainstream opinion journalists come very close to disclosing their preferred candidate. Some find themselves in conflicted positions, including two New York Times columnists: Michelle Goldberg, who has disclosed that her husband is a consultant for Warren, and Thomas Friedman, whose every effusion on behalf of Michael Bloomberg is accompanied by a statement that Bloomberg gave money to a literacy museum Friedman’s wife is building.
As with any custom, it makes sense to revisit this one from time to time and ask if it still matters.
The argument in favor of disclosing your vote is that traditional notions of objectivity are obsolete (although I would argue that Walter Lippmann’s original conception of objectivity as the dispassionate pursuit of truth is as relevant as ever), and that journalists should aim to be as transparent as possible.
The argument against disclosure, which I’ve always accepted, is that not only does disclosing your vote change your audience’s perception of you, it also changes the way you write and comment on the candidates.
Some years back, I wrote a commentary for The Huffington Post arguing that President Barack Obama’s crackdown on leaks within his administration was a threat to the First Amendment. His Justice Department at the time was threatening to jail journalists if they refused to reveal their sources. The headline: “Obama’s War on Journalism.”
I admired Obama then and admire him more today. I wrote all kinds of laudatory things about him as a candidate and as president. But I never wrote that I would or had voted for him. If I had, I think it would have changed the calculation, not just for readers but in the way I would have approached writing such a commentary. I don’t need those kinds of entanglements, and readers have a right not to have to wade through them.
I put the question up on Twitter and Facebook earlier this week. A few thought disclosure was acceptable, but most believed that the old rules should still apply.
“Wouldn’t go there,” said Mike Pride, editor emeritus of New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor and retired administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. “Makes future commentary too easily dismissible. Readers/listeners may figure out where you stand from what you write/say, but keep your vote to yourself.”
Added liberal columnist Michael Cohen of The Boston Globe: “If you take sides, particularly in the primary, it makes it harder to be an effective analyst.”
The other side was perhaps best expressed by Joshua Benton, editor of Nieman Lab, who also used the occasion to snark at The New York Times for its dual endorsement of Democrats Warren and Amy Klobuchar:
“I don’t see why someone paid to have public opinions should be prevented from having this particular one,” Benton said. “I think it’s a useful clarity. In the same way I wouldn’t want an editorial board to interview all the candidates, have clear strong opinions, and then not pick one.”
So is there still a meaningful difference between expressing your opinions about politics and saying whom you’re voting for? I think there is, and I come down on the side of withholding that last piece of information — with just a few obvious exceptions, such as my “anyone but Trump” assertion. (I may have let my 2020 choice slip once or twice on Facebook, and I shouldn’t have.)
“I am a champion of old rules in a new world,” is the way Pride puts it.
I’ll be away on a reporting trip next week, so I’m going to take advantage of early voting by casting my ballot in the Massachusetts Democratic primary this Friday.
Last week a years-long ownership crisis at the Los Angeles Times may have come to an end. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon and entrepreneur, purchased the Times from tronc for a reported $500 million.
Drawing on the lessons I write about in my new book, “The Return of the Moguls,” I e-talked with Dave Beard about what lessons Soon-Shiong could learn from Jeff Bezos’ vision for The Washington Post, and why other billionaire owners both good (John Henry of The Boston Globe) and bad (Sam Zell, who ran the former Tribune newspapers into the ground) have had a rougher go of it.
The Boston Globe is joining other news organizations, including The New York Times, in pursuing native advertising — content that consists of editorial-like material but is bought and paid for. And the executive who’ll be in charge of it is Andrew Gully, a former longtime Boston Herald staffer who rose to managing editor for news in the late 1990s. He left the Herald and went into public relations about a dozen years ago.
Romenesko has the memo from Boston Globe Media Partners chief executive Mike Sheehan, who writes that his goal was to hire “someone trained as a journalist who at some point sold his or her soul and made the glorious leap over to The Dark Side — marketing communications.”
Gully, whose title will be director of sponsored content, is a smart guy who during his Herald days was an aggressive newsman. Sheehan says such content “will play a very important part of our growth” and will appear across “all our properties.”
Some native advertising already appears at Globe Media sites — such as the one below, currently on Boston.com. In addition to the tagline reading “SPONSORED BY REAL Estate Talk Boston,” you can click on the little question mark in the upper right and get a fuller disclosure.
Native advertising has become a growth industry because digital advertising has proved disappointing for news organizations. Standard online ads — especially those served up by off-site servers such as Google — are so ubiquitous that their value keeps dropping.
At the same time, native ads are controversial because, when they’re not presented or labeled properly, they can be confused with editorial content. But though they’re often talked about as the mutant spawn of the Internet, there’s nothing new about them. People my age can remember special sections in Time magazine on the glories of various third-world hellholes; you’d do a double-take, then see the disclaimer that the section was paid for by said hellhole.
For many years, so-called advertorials by Mobil were published on the op-ed page of The New York Times — more than 800 of them between 1985 and 2000, according to this analysis.
Ironically, on the same day that Sheehan announced Gully’s appointment, the American Society of Magazine Editors released a set of guidelines for native advertising. Benjamin Mullin reports at Poynter Online that the guidelines call for such content to be “clearly labeled as advertising by the use of terms such as ‘Sponsor Content’ or ‘Paid Post’ and visually distinguished from editorial content and that collections of sponsored links should be clearly labeled as advertising and visually separated from editorial content.”
That seems like solid advice. And it’s a standard we can all use as a measuring stick once native advertising starts to become more visible on the Globe’s various websites.
Tighter editing standards at Boston.com, improved online comments at the Boston Herald and well-deserved recognition for some first-rate political reporters. There’s so much good news on the local media front on this day-after-the-blizzard morning that it’s hard to know where to begin.
• Boston.com strives for civility. After a miserable stretch in which it falsely accused a Harvard Business School professor (and, gulp, lawyer) of sending a racist email to one of the owners of a Chinese restaurant and then mocked House Speaker John Boehner’s alleged drinking problem following an assassination threat, the folks at Boston.com sound determined to get it right.
We’ve made a pretty strong point about the fact that it’s OK to slow down. That we’d much rather not be first but get something right and be really thoughtful about it than rush to publish and bypass the discretion that should be required of any good content producer like ours.
The worst thing the Boston Globe-affiliated site could do is chase clicks. December turned out to be a boffo month for Boston.com, driven by its reporting on the Harvard professor’s harassment of the Chinese restaurant over a $4 overcharge — a righteous hit before it went off the rails. (T-shirts were involved, too.) According to Compete.com, Boston.com received nearly 3.7 million unique visits in December, way up from November’s 2.8 million. Compete’s numbers aren’t perfect by any means, but it’s safe to say Boston.com’s numbers were up a lot.
Yet quality matters. And according to Compete, BostonGlobe.com actually attracted more traffic than its free cousin in December, receiving more than 3.8 million unique visits — even though you have to pay a digital subscription fee to receive full access to the site (granted, free social sharing at BostonGlobe.com is pretty generous these days).
No doubt Gottlieb and company are going to stick with their plan to build a buzzy site with lots of viral content (here’s my alternative idea). But I’m glad to see that they understand what’s gone wrong and that they’re determined to do something about it.
One of Boston.com’s biggest problems is that it’s been flying without an editor (except for a few weeks last fall) since its relaunch last spring. That should be rectified as soon as possible.
• The Herald embraces Facebook. Online newspaper comments in general can make you despair for humanity. Over the years the Herald’s have been particularly loathsome. So kudos to publisher Pat Purcell and editor Joe Sciacca for switching to a Facebook-based commenting system.
Facebook isn’t perfect. Certainly there are issues with a news organization turning over its community platform to a giant corporation with its own agenda and priorities. But people are generally more civil and constructive when they’re on Facebook, in large measure because Facebook requires real names — and most people comply.
Check out the comments beneath Howie Carr’s ridiculous column on climate change today. Not bad at all. Only one of the first eight is pseudonymous. And if they’re not all exactly civil, they are less toxic than I’m accustomed to seeing at BostonHerald.com.
Can a real-names policy at BostonGlobe.com be far behind?
• Massachusetts’ best political reporters. Chris Cillizza, who runs a political blog for The Washington Post called The Fix, has named nine Massachusetts political reporters as among the best in the country. (Disclosure: The list was based in part on a reader poll, and I voted for friend of Media Nation Jon Keller, who’s among the winners — but every one of these is worthy.)
It’s especially nice to see a couple of reporters outside the Greater Boston orbit win recognition — Jim Hand of Attleboro’s Sun Chronicle and Shira Schoenberg of The Republican in Springfield. Congratulations to all.
Jim Romenesko has written an understated but emphatic post on his new site about what really happened between him and Poynter Online editor Julie Moos. It’s painful to read, but it’s ameliorated by the fact that he emerged with his good name intact.
I think it’s safe to say that Poynter is going to have to respond. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Moos bungled a legitimate issue over Romenesko’s sometimes-hazy use of quotation marks, conflating his method of aggregating into an absurd accusation that he was unethical.
A few quick updates on the exceedingly unpleasant divorce between media blogger Jim Romensko and the Poynter Institute:
• It now appears that Poynter Online editor Julie Moos didn’t merely overreact to an inquiry from the Columbia Journalism Review’s Erika Fry. Instead, she completely misunderstood her. Fry writes that the main thrust of her questions to Moos concerned Poynter’s move toward running longer excerpts on its Romenesko+ blog (now renamed MediaWire). Says Fry:
I raised the questions because I was coming to believe that recent changes in Poynter’s practices, taken together, are not good for journalists, and run counter to the intended spirit of Romenesko’s blog, which was originally designed to give credit and traffic to journalists, not to steal those things from them. I thought these were issues worth discussing, ones that could be easily — and, needless to say, without anyone’s resignation — fixed.
• At Boston.com, old friend Mark Leccese takes a more by-the-books approach than I do to Romenesko’s indifferent use of quotation marks. Mark provokes another thought. Until the last few years, the Romenesko blog did not include bylines for each individual item. Indeed, in this archived example from 2010, you could argue that the attribution was to the originating news organization. Then Poynter redesigned the site, and suddenly every item Romenesko posted included his name and mugshot.
Did that somehow make it seem worse when Moos brought the hammer down last week? I’d argue yes. Romenesko never claimed that anything he posted was original, but including his byline on items may have changed the expectations, at least in Moos’ mind.
• The one issue I keep going back to is Moos’ claim that no one at Poynter knew what Romenesko was up to until she received Fry’s inquiry — several weeks before Romenesko was to retire, and on the verge of his launching his own advertiser-supported blog. That claim is simply not credible, and I continue to hope that we’ll learn more.
There are a lot of good people at Poynter, and the institute is a valuable resource for journalists. I wish them well. But I don’t think Poynter is going to be able to move on until we learn all the details about why they whacked their most valuable employee at a moment when he already had one foot out the door.
Something very strange and unjust happened yesterday in the little world of media criticism: Jim Romenesko, who’s been blogging about media news since the late 1990s, and who was just several weeks away from retirement, was accused by his employer, the Poynter Institute, of plagiarism-like offenses. Romenesko resigned.
If you read between the lines, it seems that this was not a typical case of resigning rather than being fired. Rather, I think he resigned rather than continue to work for people who claim they didn’t understand his methodology until this week — a claim that, frankly, I find pretty dubious.
What’s important to keep in mind about Romenesko is that his media-news site functioned as an aggregator, not as a source of original content. I’ve been reading him almost from the start, when he began writing a blog (we didn’t call them blogs back then) called MediaGossip.com while holding down a job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I never really considered what he did to be “writing.” Rather, he found interesting stuff, copied, aggregated and linked out. It was one-stop shopping for people who wanted to know what was going on in journalism.
Jeremy Peters of the New York Times, who labels yesterday’s events “bizarre,” observes that Romenesko was called to task for “his failure to use quotation marks when summarizing articles” even though he “never claimed credit for [those summaries] as his original work.” That’s exactly right. I always considered Romenesko to be among the most ethical and transparent of journalists, and I still do.
The details, from Poynter’s perspective, are laid out in this post (link now fixed) by Julie Moos, the director of Poynter Online. I found her post to be thoughtful and serious; she doesn’t deserve the abuse she’s taking over this. Nevertheless, I believe she and other Poynter executives made a serious error of judgment in writing about Romenesko’s methodology as though it raised some sort of ethical issue. It didn’t. It appears that Poynter acted rashly after hearing from Erika Fry, an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, who had discovered that Romenesko was indifferent about using quotation marks when excerpting material he was linking to.
Why NPR wanted to overturn the law banning animal cruelty images NPR.org NPR believes that the law, as it stood, could have been misused to criminalize speech about the use and abuse of animals. In NPR’s view, says a lawyer for the network, “the statute could allow the federal government and courts presiding over cases brought under the law, to substitute their own news judgment in place of the judgment of an NPR editor.”
The headline is linked to a column by Alicia Shepard, then-ombudsman for NPR. When you click through to her column, you find that the first sentence of Romenesko’s summary is actually something Shepard wrote. Is that deceptive? We know we are reading a summary of an NPR item, and we are invited to click to read the whole thing. It certainly doesn’t look to me like Romenesko was trying to deceive anyone.
I think Moos’ claim that Poynter didn’t know how Romenesko went about his business until this week is problematic. Those of us who have read his blog over the years have always known. Especially in the early years, he updated maniacally. You could email him a tip, and, if it was hot enough for him, he’d have it up within minutes. Copy and link. Copy and link. That’s what he did. And he was (and is) exceptionally skilled at finding the heart of your story, which of course led to more clicks for your site.
Let me give the folks at Poynter this much. Early on in their relationship with Romenesko, they could have sat down with him and told him to be more careful about using quotation marks — that material being quoted directly had to be labeled as such, even if he was not deceiving anyone. Just from the point of view of craft, I think the blog would have been better if he’d done that. But to hang him out to dry now, and to claim they didn’t know, is cold.
Erik Wemple has a must-read post on Romenesko at WashingtonPost.com. He reinforces my sense that Romenesko’s offense, such as it was, was not completely inconsequential. But I wish he had dealt with the absurdity of Poynter now claiming it never knew what its most valuable employee was up to.
Romenesko’s resignation prompted a firestorm of criticism, nearly all of it directed at Poynter, on Twitter (some from me) and on the Poynter website. A lot of it was from media critics. So let me acknowledge that we all have a conflict of interest. Especially during my years as the Boston Phoenix’s media columnist, but even today, I have shamelessly plugged my work in emails to him, asking for links and recognition. I benefitted hugely from Romenesko’s attention. It was because of his blog that a local media critic like me was able to develop a small national following. So yes, I suppose I am defending him as vociferously as I am out of a sense of loyalty and gratitude. But I’ll repeat: Though I think he could have been more careful about quoting, he did nothing unethical, and was completely transparent and open about what he was doing. All you had to do was click and check his work.
What will be the fallout for Poynter? It’s hard to say. Romenesko was leaving in a few weeks anyway to start a new, independent blog, JimRomenekso.com. But I’m pretty sure he was expecting to contribute to Poynter from time to time. And he has said his new blog would be devoted to longer, reported items. But what if he’s now angry enough to use his new blog to compete directly with Poynter? That could be interesting.
Some years ago, I recall reading a story about how brilliant Poynter had been to sign up Romenesko and make him the centerpiece of its online efforts. It was mainly because of him that Poynter Online became the first stop for people interested in journalism, leapfrogging such venerable outlets as the CJR and the American Journalism Association.
If you poke around Compete.com, which tracks Web traffic, you’ll find that Poynter.org has an exponentially larger audience than other journalism sites, including some really good ones such as the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Journalism.org. I don’t consider Compete’s numbers to be all that reliable, but I think they’re a good guide for getting a rough idea of who’s more popular than whom.
Which is to say that the Romenesko matter could be devastating to Poynter depending on how it plays out.
There’s so much going on this morning that I can barely keep up. And I really need to return to (shhh!) the Book. So here’s a quick roundup, to be followed by a more important matter, and then (I tell myself sternly) that’s it for today.
Don’t miss Michael Levenson’s splendid Boston Globe article on the millions of dollars being spent on Beacon Hill by developers looking to build casinos in Massachusetts. Levinson wins extra bonus points for referring to “gambling interests” rather than the PR-ish “gaming interests” so beloved by those trying to improve the image of their miserable industry. As Dick Hirsch says of “gaming”: “They are trying to wrap a noxious substance in an elegant package in order to conceal its toxicity, deodorize it and tell us what a benefit it will be.”
Very sad news about Steve Jobs’ decision to step down as Apple’s chief executive. Forgive me if I’ve said this before: he may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard, always keeping his focus on what users want – and even on what they don’t know they want. He is a visionary and quite possibly a genius. The must-read is this essay by Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. Don’t skip the video. Though it is universally believed that Jobs is gravely ill, I hope he can contribute to Apple in a reduced capacity for a long time to come.
Best wishes to Jim Romenesko, the indefatigable media blogger who announced his semi-retirement yesterday. Starting in the 1990s, Romenekso – first at his own site, later for the Poynter Institute – has been linking to (and offering short, intelligent commentary on) every bit of media news and gossip he can find. Especially in the early days of the Internet, he gave alt-weekly types like me a small national readership. Here’s a piece I wrote about him for the Boston Phoenix in 1999, when he announced the move to Poynter. And here’s a Phoenix article written by Mark Jurkowitz in 2005 on the dread “Romenesko effect.” Good luck to Jim, the best friend obscure media columnists like me ever had.