Goldsmith Award winner, finalists talk about their craft

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Top investigative journalists used databases, graphics, video, and good old-fashioned shoe leather to reveal slave labor, expose unfair arbitration practices, and detail police shootings and school funding flaws.

Winners and finalists discussed their reporting challenges during last week’s Goldsmith Awards ceremonies at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The awards are administered by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The Associated Press series uncovering the use of slave labor in the Thai seafood industry won the top $25,000 award. Robin McDowell, a member of the four-member team that spent 18 months exposing abusive practices in the AP’s “Seafood from Slaves,” faced the problem of getting victims to talk on the record. “We had to honor them but not to use their names, or they’d be killed,” she said. “How do we hold on to the power of the story with anonymous sources?”

The Guardian US in “The Counted” and The Washington Post in “Fatal Shooting by Police” tackled a similar subject: underreported fatal shootings by police.

The Post’s Kimberly Kindy called the job “ugly and messy”—and unprecedented. “Nobody had done it before,” she said. “There was no model. Going into this, we had no notion of how hard it was going to be to cover every fatal shooting in real time.… The information didn’t rush out. We had to keep going back to get more details.”

She said The Guardian’s competitive efforts helped the Post because “it made it harder for authorities to look the other way.”

Jon Swaine, part of the five-member Guardian team whose findings—along with the Post’s—led the FBI and the Department of Justice to revise their system for counting killings by police, said his biggest challenge was the small staff. Like the Post reporters, they worked nights and weekends keeping up with the constant flow of reports. The Guardian will combine reporting and verified crowd-sourced information to continue building a database of the killings.

Lisa Song, one of the four-member InsideClimate News team that disclosed that Exxon documented but buried climate change research in “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” said they initially thought it would be impossible to prove the cover-up.

“The main challenge was finding people willing to talk,” she said, but with a lot of “shoe leather reporting,” including door-to-door visits, they induced ex-employees to tell their stories. And finally, they unearthed thousands of internal memos that revealed what and when Exxon knew.

Michael LaForgia said the three-person Tampa Bay Times team that produced “Failure Factories” had to overcome editors’ and educators’ mindset that student underachievement was “inevitable, ignoring the basic question—why does this condition exist?”

The Times’s 18-month investigation used an extensive database along with graphics and video—as well as traditional storytelling methods—to show how resegregation transformed five once-average schools into the state’s worst.

For “Beware the Fine Print,” Jessica Silver-Greenberg and her two New York Times colleagues faced the challenge of knowing the arcane subject of arbitration clauses as well as the high-priced lawyers who used them to prevent people from suing credit card companies and retailers.

“A huge challenge was [detailing] ‘How did they do it?’” she said. To gain corporate lawyers’ trust, she added, the reporters needed to know the law. Then, she said, they could flatter attorneys by saying, “‘I understand the genius of what you did.’ That helped us gain their respect One lawyer was thrilled to talk about it.

“It wasn’t drama on the high seas or the battlefield, but in Park Avenue boardrooms.”

Bill Kirtz is a retired Northeastern University journalism professor and a Media Nation contributor.

They’re letting me in to Harvard

I’m very pleased to announce that this spring I’ll be a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Of course, now I’ll have to write the damn book.

Polls, pols and the obsession with horse-race journalism

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Does polling drive or mirror public opinion?

Three prominent political figures offered different answers during a spirited discussion Friday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. They agreed that that there are too many context-less statistics and too few ways to winnow the precise survey from the sloppy.

“We’ve stopped listening to the voices of the people — everything is numbers,” said Peter D. Hart, whose company polls for NBC and The Wall Street Journal and who has worked with more than 40 senators and 30 governors. “All the media care about is the latest head-to-head” competition between candidates.

He said the polls have no “bandwagon” effect of driving more support to the favorite, saying he’s never seen the “undecided” vote break toward the winner. “We’re takers, not makers. We reflect public opinion,” he said.

Without a sense of public opinion, he said, Richard Nixon wouldn’t have been impeached. He added that “the public was way ahead of the politicians on opposition to the Vietnam War.”

Hart said he’s never seen public opinion change as rapidly as on the issue of approving gay marriage, saying public opinion helped shape politicians’ growing support.

Hart and former CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley agreed that the media don’t know how to report and analyze a poll. “The problem isn’t the polls. It’s the use of them,” she said. “‘Horse race’ numbers are catnip to reporters.”

Differing with Hart, she contended that polls influence elections because “Americans love to be on the winners’ side.”

Crowley said polls are like tweets, and there’s nothing like talking to people to get nuanced views, as Hart said he was able to do at the start of his career.

Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore said, “In the world of [financially] starved journalism, polls are cheap journalism.” She asserted that pollsters directed opinion in support for the Iraq War.

Thursday night, she had told the Harvard audience, “We’re drowning in a sea of polls. Polls raise the pulse of democracy — they don’t take it. A fast pulse is not a sign of health but of distress.”

She added, “Polls drive polls,” causing a “bandwagon effect.”

Lepore and the other speakers deplored the plummeting response rate to pollsters. In the 1950s, she noted, there was a 90 percent response rate while now it’s in single digits.

Friday, she said Internet polling over-represents left-leaning young, white males.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Snapchat news targets the young and the underinformed

snapchat

Previously published at WGBHNews.org and republished in The Huffington Post.

Two years ago, then-CNN reporter Peter Hamby lamented the negative effect he believed Twitter and other social media were having on presidential campaign coverage. In a 95-page research paper (pdf) he wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Hamby put it this way:

With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them.

On Tuesday, Hamby was back at the Shorenstein Center, this time to tout the journalistic virtues of an even more ephemeral media platform: Snapchat, built on 10-second videos that disappear as soon as you view them. Hamby, who is barely older than the 18- to 34-year-old users he’s trying to reach, told a friendly but skeptical crowd of about two dozen that Snapchat is bringing news to an audience that is otherwise tuned out.

“Because our audience is so young, I view our mission as educational,” he said. “I think it’s OK that our mission is to illuminate the issues for young people. That’s not to say we won’t get into more serious, complicated things.”

My personal philosophy about new media platforms is to watch them from afar and to more or less ignore them until it’s no longer possible to do so. That served me well with networks like Foursquare and Ello, which seem to have faded away without my ever having to partake. On the other hand, I’ve been tweeting since mid-2008, which is about the time that Twitter’s emerging importance as a news source was becoming undeniable.

Snapchat, it would appear, has reached that turning point. It already has about 100 million daily users, the vast majority of them between 18 and 34, as Michael Andor Brodeur notes in The Boston Globe. And it is starting to branch out beyond those 10-second disintegrating videos.

The newsiest part of Snapchat is called Discover — channels from media organizations such as CNN, ESPN, Vice, BuzzFeed and National Geographic that provide short graphics- and music-heavy stories aimed at providing a little information to a low-information audience.

CNN’s fare of the moment comprises such material as the fight between Afghan and Taliban forces in the city of Kunduz; an FBI report that crime rates are dropping (a story consisting of nothing more than a video clip of a police cruiser with flashing lights, a headline and a brief paragraph); and the re-emergence of the Facebook copyright hoax.

Perhaps the most ambitious news project Snapchat has taken on — and the one in which Peter Hamby is most closely involved — is called Live Stories. Snapchat editors look for snaps being posted from a given location and, with the consent of those users, weave together a brief story. They disappear after 24 hours; the only one playing at the moment is “Farm Life: Worldwide,” which is as exciting as it sounds. But Hamby mentioned stories from presidential campaign announcements, the Iran nuclear deal, music festivals and the like that he said drew tens of millions of viewers. (If you want to get an idea of what a well-executed Live Story looks like, Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab found a four-and-a-half-minute piece on the hajj that someone had saved and posted to YouTube.)

“At CNN we would cover an event with one or two cameras,” Hamby said. “With Snapchat we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”

For me, at least, the most frustrating part of my brief experience with Snapchat (I only signed up Tuesday morning) has been finding worthwhile — or any — content that’s not part of the Discover channels or the Live Story of the moment. The search function is not especially useful. I did manage to friend several news organizations and presidential campaigns.

Any user can create a story that will stay up for 24 hours. So far, though, I’ve only managed to see relatively useless clips from Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Hamby gives points to former candidate Scott Walker and current candidate John Kasich for their imaginative use of Snapchat. But as best as I can tell, Kasich hasn’t posted a story in the past day. His campaign website — like those of a few other candidates I looked up — does not include his Snapchat username, even though it includes buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Snapchat is mobile to a fault — you can install it on an iOS or Android device, but not a laptop or desktop computer. That makes it fine if you’re on the go. But for an old fogey like me, it complicates the process of finding worthwhile material. And vertical video! Yikes!

In listening to Hamby on Tuesday, I was struck by his animus toward Twitter. “I think Twitter has made the tone of the coverage more negative,” he said. “Twitter is a uniquely toxic, negative space.” And though you might dismiss that as simply putting down a competitor, he said much the same thing in his 2013 report, citing a Pew Research Center study to back him up. Hamby quoted John Dickerson, now host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” as saying of Twitter:

It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less.

Will Snapchat prove to be the antidote to Twitter? Count me as skeptical. Five to eight years ago, when Twitter pioneers were using the nascent platform to cover anti-government protests in Iran and earthquakes in California, Haiti and elsewhere, we had no way of knowing it would devolve into one of our leading sources of snark, poisoning the public discourse 140 characters at a time. (And I’m not sure I agree that that’s what it’s become. I mean, come on, just unfollow the worst offenders.)

But to the extent that we have to bring news to where the audience is rather than waiting for people to come to us, then yes, Snapchat may prove to be a valuable home for journalism. I just hope it whets users’ appetites for something more substantial.

Newly named Globe M.E. Skok discusses digital strategy

IMG_1779
David Skok

David Skok sees his mission at The Boston Globe as helping to define the organization’s RPP — “resources, priorities and processes,” in the words of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.

“Clay’s theory would argue that that’s what forms the culture,” Skok says.

Skok discussed the Globe’s digital strategy at an appearance earlier today at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Before he began, Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones announced that Skok, the Globe’s digital adviser, had just been named managing editor for digital — an announcement that was reported by Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin a few hours later. Skok has also been appointed general manager of BostonGlobe.com.

Christensen is the godfather of disruption theory — the idea that successful companies are vulnerable to competitors using low-cost technologies and ideas. Think of the way that personal computers brought down minicomputers and mainframes — or that once-lucrative classified ads were pretty much destroyed by Craigslist.

Skok told the Shorenstein crowd that he became attracted to disruption theory when he audited one of Christensen’s classes as a Nieman Fellow. He and Christensen later collaborated on a report about disruption and journalism called “Breaking News.” Last year I analyzed Christensen’s theories following a tough critique (flawed in my view) by Harvard historian Jill Lepore in The New Yorker.

“I sat in on Clay’s class and was immediately transfixed by some of the ideas and theories he put forward,” Skok said.

He added that though he largely agreed with the pessimism that pervaded the news business from a few years ago, since working with Christensen he has come to believe that “journalism will survive and thrive.”

Baron joins McGrory in thinking digital thoughts

It’s interesting that during the same week Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory exhorted his journalists to keep pushing ahead on the digital side, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron gave a speech on the same subject at the University of California Riverside.

Baron, who was McGrory’s predecessor as Globe editor, talked quite a bit about a discussion led by Clay Shirky at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center in 2009. As it turns out, I was there, and wrote about it at the time.

As with McGrory’s memo, Baron’s speech is worth reading in full. But here’s a taste:

If this pace of change unnerves you, there is no consolation. Things will only get faster. And for those who resist the change rather than embrace it, there will be no forbearance or forgiveness. Their destiny is to be pushed aside and forgotten. That is the brutal truth.

So journalism’s Big Move from print to digital comes with discomfort for those, like me, who grew up in this field well before the 21st Century. We just have to get over it.

We are moving from one habitat to another, from one world to another. We are leaving a home where we felt settled. Now we encounter behaviors that are unfamiliar. Our new neighbors are younger, more agile. They suffer none of our anxieties. They often speak a different language. They regard with disinterest, or disdain, where we came from, what we did before. We’re the immigrants. They’re the natives. They know this new place of ours well. We’re just learning it.

Welcome to the neighborhood!

McGrory and Baron may be the two luckiest big-city newspaper editors in the country. Both work for deep-pocketed owners who are willing to invest and take the long view. As always, it will be fascinating to see what they make of that opportunity.

Alex Jones to depart Harvard’s Shorenstein Center

Alex Jones
Alex Jones

Best wishes to Alex Jones, who’s leaving as director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy after 15 years at the helm. The center, part of the Kennedy School, is one of Harvard’s two major journalistic endeavors, the other being the Nieman Foundation.

Alex has enjoyed a long and accomplishment-filled career. He may be best known for co-writing with his wife, the late Susan Tifft, “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times” (1999), the definitive biography of the Ochs-Sulzberger family.

Under Jones’ leadership, Shorenstein has been an important part of the conversation about journalism both locally and nationally. He’ll be missed — but I hope he’s planning on being around often enough that he won’t be missed too much.

A few quibbles with Clay Shirky’s ‘Nostalgia and Newspapers’

printing1_large
Gutenberg-era printing press

Published previously at WGBH News.

Five years ago Clay Shirky wrote an eloquent blog post titled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” His essential argument was that we were only at the very beginning of trying to figure out new models for journalism following the cataclysmic changes wrought by the Internet — like Europeans in the decades immediately following the invention of Gutenberg’s press. Along with a subsequent talk he gave at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Shirky helped me frame the ideas that form the foundation of “The Wired City,” my book about online community journalism.

Now Shirky has written a rant. In “Nostalgia and Newspapers,” posted on Tuesday, the New York University professor and author wants us to know that we’re not getting it fast enough — that print is dead, and anything that diverts us from the hard work of figuring out what’s next is a dangerous distraction. His targets range from Aaron Kushner and his alleged apologists to journalism-school professors who are supposedly letting their students get away with thinking that print can somehow be saved.

As always, Shirky offers a lot to think about, as he did at a recent panel discussion at WGBH. I don’t take issue with the overarching arguments he makes in “Nostalgia and Newspapers.” But I do want to offer a countervailing view on some of the particulars.

1. Good journalism schools are not print-centric: Shirky writes that he “exploded” when he was recently asked by an NYU student, in front of the class, “So how do we save print?” I assume Shirky is exaggerating his reaction for effect. It wasn’t a terrible question, and in any case there was no reason for him to embarrass a student in front of her classmates. I’m sure he didn’t.

More important, Shirky takes the view that students haven’t given up on print because no one had given it to them straight until he came along to tell them otherwise. He writes that he told the students that “print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.” And he attributed their nostalgic views to “Adults lying to them.”

Now, I find it hard to believe that Shirky’s take on the decline of print was novel to journalism students at a progressive institution like NYU. And from what I’ve seen from my own small perch within academia, all of us are looking well beyond print. In the new issue of Nieman Reports, Jon Marcus surveys changes in journalism education (including the media innovation program for graduate students headed by my Northeastern colleague Jeff Howe that will begin this fall). Citing a recent survey by Poynter, Marcus writes that, in many cases, j-schools are actually ahead of professional newsrooms in pushing for digital change:

A recent Poynter survey — which some argue demonstrates that educators are outpacing editors in their approaches to digital innovation — underlines the divide between j-schools and newsrooms. Educators are more likely than professional journalists to believe it’s important for journalism graduates to have multimedia skills, for instance, according to the survey Poynter released in April. They are more likely to think it’s crucial for j-school grads to understand HTML and other computer languages, and how to shoot and edit video and photos, record audio, tell stories with visuals, and write for different platforms.

Could we be doing better? No doubt. But we’re already doing a lot.

2. Aaron Kushner might have been on to something. OK, I’m pushing it here. There’s no doubt that Kushner’s moves after he bought the Orange County Register in 2012 have blown up in his face — the hiring spree, the launching of new daily newspapers in Long Beach and Los Angeles, the emphasis on print. Earlier this month, it all seemed to be coming to a very bad end, though Kushner himself says he simply needs time to retrench.

But Kushner’s ideas may not have been entirely beyond the realm of reality. Over the past several decades, great newspapers have been laid low by debt-addled chains trying to squeeze every last drop of profit out of them. This long-term disinvestment has had at least as harmful an effect on the news business as the Internet-driven loss of advertising revenues. Yes, Kushner’s love of print seems — well, odd, although it’s also true that newspapers continue to derive most of their shrinking advertising revenues from print. But investing in growth, even without a clear plan (or, rather, even with an ever-changing plan), strikes me as exactly what we ought to hope news(paper) companies will do. After all, that’s what Jeff Bezos is doing at The Washington Post and John Henry at The Boston Globe. And that’s not to say there won’t be layoffs and downsizing along the way.

Shirky also mocks Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review and Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst and blogger who writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab, writing that they “wrote puff pieces for Kushner, because they couldn’t bear to treat him like the snake-oil salesman he is.” (Shirky does concede that Chittum offered some qualifications.)

Chittum recently disagreed with me merely for writing that he had “hailed their [Kushner’s and his business partner Eric Spitz’s] print-centric approach.” It will be interesting to see whether and how he and Doctor respond to Shirky. I’ll be watching. Chittum has already posted this.

In any case, I hardly think it was “terrible” (Shirky’s description) for Chittum and Doctor to play down their doubts given that Kushner, a smart, seemingly well-funded outsider, claimed to have a better way.

Post-publication updates. After this commentary was published at WGBH News on Wednesday, the reactions, as expected, started rolling in. First up: Chittum, who apologized for his F-bomb, though not the sentiment behind it.

Shirky responded to Chittum’s first tweet, though his blog seems to be down at the moment. (It’s now back, and here is the direct link.)

Finally, Ken Doctor wrote a long, thoughtful retort to Shirky at the Nieman Journalism Lab. (And now Shirky has posted a comment.)

Even more finally: Chittum has responded at some length in the CJR. The end?

Brian McGrory on the future of The Boston Globe (II)

Eric Convey of the Boston Business Journal has transcribed much of Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory’s talk at the Shorenstein Center on Tuesday. Good stuff.

Brian McGrory on the future of The Boston Globe

The day job prevented me from covering Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory’s appearance on Tuesday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Shorenstein’s Janell Sims reports that McGrory said he has “absolutely no idea” of what the future of newspapers will be, and that “anyone who tells you they know is either lying to themselves or lying to you.” She adds:

In finding a business model that works, McGrory warned against running “from one end of spectrum to other” between digital and print. “We need a balance,” he said, and added that while digital models are an important part of the future, “more than three-quarters of our revenue still comes from print.”

Note: This item has been updated, as I cannot vouch for the accuracy of one of the accounts I linked to earlier.