The good, the bad and the ugly of the new news ecosystem

Is this a new golden age of journalism? It all depends on who’s getting the gold.

For consumers of news, these are the best of times. Thanks to the Internet, we are awash in quality journalism, from longstanding bastions of excellence such as The New York Times and The Guardian to start-ups that are rising above their disreputable roots such as BuzzFeed and Vice News.

For producers of news, though, the challenge is to find new ways of paying for journalism at a time when advertising appears to be in terminal decline.

The optimistic and pessimistic views got an airing recently in a pair of point/counterpoint posts. Writing in Wired, Frank Rose gave the new smartphone-driven media ecosystem a thumbs up, arguing that mobile — rather than leading to shorter attention spans — has actually helped foster long-form journalism and more minutes spent reading in-depth articles. Rose continued:

Little wonder that for every fledgling enterprise like Circa, which generates slick digests of other people’s journalism on the theory that that’s what mobile readers want, you have formerly short-attention-span sites like BuzzFeed and Politico retooling themselves to offer serious, in-depth reporting.

That Rose-colored assessment brought a withering retort from Andrew Leonard of Salon, who complained that Rose never even mentioned the difficulties of paying for all that wonderful journalism.

“The strangest thing about Rose’s piece is that there isn’t a single sentence that discusses the economics of the journalism business,” Leonard wrote, adding: “If you are lucky, you might be able to command a freelance pay rate that hasn’t budged in 30 years. But more people than ever work for nothing.”

To support his argument, Leonard linked to a recent essay on the self-publishing platform Medium by Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who writes about Internet culture. Shirky, author of the influential 2009 blog post “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” as well as books such as “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus,” predicted that advertising in print newspapers is about to enter its final death spiral. That’s because Sunday inserts are about to follow classified ads and many types of display ads into the digital-only world, where retailers will be able to reach their customers in a cheaper, more targeted way. Here’s how Shirky put it:

It’s tempting to try to find a moral dimension to newspapers’ collapse, but there isn’t one. All that’s happened is advertisers are leaving, classifieds first, inserts last. Business is business; the advertisers never had a stake in keeping the newsroom open in the first place.

There’s no question that print will eventually go away, though it may survive for a few more years as a high-priced specialty product for people who are willing to pay for it. The dilemma of how to pay for journalism, though, is not going away.

Free online news supported solely by advertising has not proven to be a reliable business model, although there are exceptions, including a few well-managed hyperlocals, like The Batavian in western New York, and sites that draw enormous audiences while employing very few people, like The Huffington Post.

Digital paywalls that require users to pay up after reading a certain number of articles have helped bolster the bottom lines of many newspapers, including The Boston Globe. But very few have been able to generate a significant amount of revenue from paywalls, with The New York Times being a notable exception.

It may turn out that the most reliable path for journalism in the digital age is the nonprofit model, with foundations, wealthy individuals and small donors picking up the tab. It’s a model that has worked well for public television and radio, and that is currently supporting online news organizations both large (ProPublica) and small (the New Haven Independent). But nonprofits are hardly a panacea. The pool of nonprofit money available for journalism is finite, and in any case the IRS has made it difficult for news organizations to take advantage of nonprofit status, as I wrote for The Huffington Post in 2013.

Journalism has never been free. Someone has always paid for it, whether it was department stores taking out ads in the Sunday paper or employers buying up pages and pages of help-wanted ads in the classifieds. Today, the most pressing question for journalists isn’t whether we are living in another golden age. Rather it’s something much blunter: Who will pay?

Salon gets it wrong on Barnicle and Whitey

Mike Barnicle

It was a sensational accusation, and it appeared to be backed up with the man’s own words. On Thursday, Salon posted a piece claiming that Mike Barnicle wrote a column in the Boston Globe in 1991 defending the notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger against charges that he’d made a $14 million lottery winner an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The article, by Steve Kornacki, has gotten wide distribution, and is seemingly irrefutable. And Barnicle’s track record of plagiarism, fabrication and toadying to the old Irish-American political order in Boston make him an easy target. (Note: Kornacki has written a retraction. See below.)

But this particular allegation isn’t true. I looked it up.

What’s given the Salon piece such legs is that Barnicle’s column, published on Aug. 1, 1991, is not on the open Web — rather, it’s in the Globe’s paid archives. (You can find it here. It’s $4.95 unless you’re a Globe customer.) What made me want to look it up were the excerpts Kornacki quoted, which struck me as florid and over-the-top even for a hack like Barnicle. I’m not going to requote what Kornacki found — you can do that yourself. But I do want to quote some of the stuff that Kornacki left out. Here’s a lengthy section in which Barnicle writes about the organized-crime wars in which Bulger was involved:

The myth took root decades ago after Jimmy returned home from away games in Atlanta, Alcatraz and Leavenworth, where he earned his federal letter sweater. Then, Southie was sort of dominated by nickel and dime hoodlums claiming to be part of the Mullen Gang. This was the only gang in America that took its name from a street sign. They were supposed to be bad but, bottom line, they were stupid and Whitey is not.

He aligned himself with a larger outfit, many of whose members were of Mediterranean extraction and thus easily tricked by glib Irish wit. His associates loved to talk with their mouths full of linguine and clam sauce and, in between twirling noodles onto spoons, they talked themselves into jail or the trunks of Lincoln Town cars.

Some Irish were wounded, too. Among them was a Bulger acquaintance, Buddy Roache, the police commissioner’s brother, who got shot in the spine and must now rely on a wheelchair for movement. Then, there was the commissioner’s former brother-in-law, Mickey Dwyer, who got in a fight with the late Donald Killeen, one of Whitey’s executive vice presidents before they changed the title to executed vice president. Donny bit Mickey’s nose off in a fight but, out of friendship, called a cab after the beef and had the nose sent to the hospital. The cabbie got a tip, but the surgical procedure failed and to this day Mickey sounds like a cold front out of Canada.

There was Billy O’Sullivan of Savin Hill, who did not know enough to stay within his own zip code. Billy had more hits to his credit than Elvis but he got greedy. They found his car in Charlestown with Billy’s shoes alongside the spare tire. And that’s all they ever found.

Louie Litoff was another part-time member of Jimmy Bulger’s cabinet, a bookmaker with a hundred different jogging outfits. On his last run around the block, Louie stepped on Red Assad’s foot outside the Waltham Street Cafe. It’s the little things that are important and soon Louie had a new nickname and a new address. He went out being called, “Bowling Ball Head” due to the three bullet holes in the back of his skull, and he now gets his mail at Mt. Calvary Cemetery.

Believe me, it’s not all ice cream and sweet dreams for Jimmy Bulger. Someone is always after his behind or his job. He’s always the object of some hostile takeover.

This is pure satire — really bad satire, as only Barnicle could write it. But you can clearly see that Barnicle was acknowledging Bulger’s involvement in murder and mayhem. Does Kornacki really think Barnicle would condone such actions?

Now, there is no question that Barnicle was and is close to Bill Bulger, the former Massachusetts Senate president, and has been an unconscionable apologist for former FBI agent John Connolly, now serving a prison term for his corrupt dealings with Bulger. In fact, here’s an excerpt of an article I wrote for the Boston Phoenix in 1998, a week before the Globe got rid of Barnicle for fabrication and plagiarism:

[W]hen it comes to the other Bulger, Whitey, Barnicle crosses the line from irresponsibility into journalistic corruption. Barnicle has consistently, and against all reason, defended the deal FBI agent John Connolly made with Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, letting them sell drugs, terrorize their enemies, and even kill in return for intelligence on La Cosa Nostra.

Barnicle’s August 4 effort … was quintessential Barnicle. He went after John Martorano, a killer who’s decided to cooperate with the FBI in its quest to track down the elusive Bulger. Barnicle quoted Eddie Walsh, “an honest cop,” as saying Martorano “killed an awful lot of black people,” including three women at a Roxbury club in the 1960s. “If he gets immunity,” Walsh, who’s now retired, told Barnicle, “they ought to put the judge in jail.”

The column caused an immediate uproar, because sources inside the Globe — not to mention Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis — questioned how there could have been an unsolved triple murder that no one could remember. As it turned out, the murder had occurred, though Barnicle had some of the genders wrong (it was two men and one woman). But as Gelzinis reported in a devastating column on August 6, Barnicle failed to mention that “honest cop” Walsh is one of Connolly’s closest friends. And that Connolly had shared with Walsh information that could have saved the life of a bookie who was prepared to rat out Bulger, had Walsh chosen to do anything with said information. Leaving out such facts is not just bias on Barnicle’s part; it’s gross malpractice, and it’s inexplicable that the same Globe that could produce a Pulitzer-caliber Spotlight series on the FBI’s Bulger connection could at the same time tolerate such sleaze.

I suppose that, to some extent, satire is in the eye of the beholder. Any writer who attempts satire will be misunderstood by some of his readers. And yes, feel free to be offended that Barnicle, in the column cited by Salon, attempted to write a humorous piece about Whitey Bulger’s crimes and life of violence.

But don’t believe that Barnicle defended Whitey Bulger on that day. It’s just not true.

Update: If you follow the link to Kornacki’s piece now, you’ll see that he’s written a very gracious and thorough retraction. He’s a stand-up guy, and I’ll try to remember his example the next time I screw something up.

Steamed Brauchli

Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli emerged from the salon debacle unscathed. But now that he’s admitted he knew all along that the salons were intended as off-the-record fundraisers, it’s time to demand that he and publisher Katharine Weymouth come clean on what they knew and when they knew it.

Or so I argue in the Guardian.

Blumenthal defends Rather

Earlier this week, Sidney Blumenthal wrote a long piece for Salon headlined “Dan Rather stands by his story,” based on the false premise that it’s somehow necessary to rehabilitate Rather in order to believe George W. Bush did not fulfill his National Guard service in the early 1970s.

Several Media Nation readers are using Blumenthal’s piece to attack my Guardian column on Rather. I have posted a response here.