New on ‘Beat the Press’: The media and the mass shooting dilemma

Photo (cc) 2013 by Maryland GovPics

The new “Beat the Press” podcast is up, and this week we have a single-theme program: the mass murders in Uvalde, Texas, and what role the media play — and should play — in covering what has become a long string of such incidents.

Also on tap are our panel’s Rants & Raves. Mine is on the social media meltdown at The Washington Post, recorded after reporter David Weigel was suspended for retweeting a homophobic, sexist joke but before Felicia Sonmez was fired for continuing to criticize the Post after she’d been asked not to.

Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, along with Lylah Alphonse of The Boston Globe, Joanna Weiss of Experience magazine and me. You can listen here and subscribe in your podcast app.

A good overview of the mess at The Washington Post

If you’ve only caught bits and pieces and you’re wondering what the hell is going on at The Washington Post, Tom Jones has an excellent overview at Poynter Online. It’s broad and deep, exploring Post reporter Felicia Sonmez’s tortured relationship with management over the past few years and how that figures into the current drama over fellow reporter David Weigel’s retweet of a pretty horrendous sexist and homophobic joke. That poor decision by Weigel led to a month-long suspension without pay. Jones writes:

And so here we are this week with the paper known for the kind of dogged reporting that uncovered the Watergate scandal swept up in a quagmire that has included a suspension, two memos from the executive editor, countless contentious and accusatory tweets and a narrative that the Post has a hostile and toxic work environment.

What a mess.

Earlier:

A Washington Post reporter is suspended after his sexist retweet blows up

Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2022 by the World Economic Forum.

The use and misuse of social media platforms — especially Twitter — continue to torment newsrooms. The latest news organization to have a mess on its hands is The Washington Post, which is no stranger to past Twitter controversies.

Let’s start at the end: political reporter David Weigel was suspended for a month without pay after retweeting a horrendously sexist joke for which he had already apologized. The joke — and yes, God Almighty, Weigel should have known better: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy has a good overview of the entire controversy, which included pointed criticism of Weigel by a fellow Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez (on Twitter, naturally) and criticism of Sonmez by reporter Jose Del Real, who was upset that Sonmez had unleashed the Twitter mob on Weigel.

Post executive editor Sally Buzbee weighed in on Sunday, writing an internal memo calling on Post journalists “to treat each other with respect and kindness both in the newsroom and online.” That might have been the end of it, but obviously Buzbee thought she needed to make a statement about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

We are all tempted to push the envelope on Twitter to get attention, measured by like and retweets. But at this late date, you’d think a reporter for a respected news organization would have figured it out. We don’t always know where the lines are, but it was pretty obvious in this case.

Twitter has its uses in journalism — mainly to follow people and organizations who are useful for your beat. If you read 10 times more frequently than you post, you’re probably doing it right. I’d say that journalists ought to restrict their Twitter activities to posting links to their work and that of their news organization; sharing other work they think is worthwhile; and engaging in light banter, because we’re all human. But if light banter is what Weigel thought he was doing, maybe he needs to take a long, long break from Twitter.

Weigel, by the way, lost an earlier gig at the Post back in 2010 after it was revealed that he’d been disparaging conservatives on a private forum called Journolist. And Sonmez was suspended after she took to Twitter in the immediate aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death to remind everyone of his past sexual assaults.

As they say: Never tweet.

The New York Times is about to kill off its Today’s Paper web app

Some will mourn. Most probably didn’t even know it existed.

The New York Times is sunsetting its Today’s Paper web app on May 16. A simple listing of every story in that day’s Times, with a minimum of distractions, the app — which works on computers and tablets, but not on phones — has been a solid platform for readers who like to view the paper as it was published that day without a steady stream of updates and extra, non-print content.

I use it occasionally, but it’s been obvious for a while that no development resources were being put into it. The app looks pretty much the same (OK, exactly the same) as it did when it was unveiled in late 2013. The photos are muddy, too. There are better ways to access a listing of today’s Times — here’s one way, and there’s a section in the tablet and mobile apps as well. (There’s also a really bad replica edition that’s almost impossible to access.)

Here’s part of what Dante D’Orazio wrote at The Verge when the Today’s Paper app made its debut:

The web app seems designed for readers who appreciate the benefits offered by digital but miss the experience of reading a definitive daily edition. By limiting itself to content that’s selected to go into the paper each day, Today’s Paper should appeal to those who feel a bit overwhelmed by the full breadth of The New York Times‘ reporting. And for purists of the print edition, the app brings the Times‘ true sections, like the once-weekly “Sunday Styles” and “Science Times,” to the fore (the paper’s website and traditional apps are split into many generic sections). As a nice touch, users are presented with an image of each day’s print edition when they open the app, and select one to download for offline reading. Each section, meanwhile, offers a small glimpse at what the print layout looks like.

I believe there’s great value in offering that day’s paper, fixed in time. The Boston Globe offers two — count ’em! — replica editions, one accessible from the website and one as a standalone app. I’d give both of them a B-plus; they’d get a higher grade if you got a better view when you tapped on a story to read it. The Globe’s got a Today’s Paper listing on its website as well, but I never use it because it’s always missing things, like corrections.

The best Today’s Paper replica edition is offered by The Washington Post on its mobile and tablet apps — it’s smooth, and when you tap on a story, it opens up into a beautifully rendered article with photos. I wish every paper would do something like it.

An odd and very remote encounter with racism. Or was it? To be continued.

I’ve got a ton of good stuff to blog about, and I hope to get to some items over the next few days. Right now, though, I’ve got to say something about a weird experience I had yesterday.

I was on the train back to Boston, cleaning up the transcript of an interview I’d done in New Jersey, where I was reporting on a nonprofit news organization called NJ Spotlight News. I paid more than I usually do so that there would be a human set of eyes looking it over before sending it back. The quality was excellent — but there was a section in which my subject and I were talking about race. Every reference to “White” was uppercase and every reference to “black” was lowercase.

If you’ve been following changes in news style over the past few years, you know that some pretty significant shifts have been implemented. The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Boston Globe all decided to start uppercasing Black but not white. Here’s how Globe editor Brian McGrory explained the paper’s reasoning in January 2020:

Effective immediately, we’re updating the Globe stylebook to put the word Black in uppercase when it is used to describe a person’s race. After consulting with leaders in the Black community, we’re making this change to recognize that the word has evolved from a description of a person’s skin color to signify a race and culture, and as such, deserves uppercase treatment in the same way that other races — Latino being one example — are capitalized. Unless otherwise requested by a person we’re writing about, we’ll use Black, which is considered to be more inclusive, rather than African-American.

Why not “white”? As the AP described it, “white people in general have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

The Washington Post took a different position, uppercasing both “Black” and “White,” explaining, “Stories involving race show that White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” That’s fine, and I suspect that at some point others may follow suit.

But referring to uppercase White people and lowercase black people is something you’d expect from the racist dark reaches of the internet. I was kind of startled to see it come from a reputable transcription service — and no, I’m not going to name them, so don’t ask. I might let them know (now I’ll have this blog post to send them), and if I get a response, I’ll tell you what they said.

The Washington Post is phasing out its once-revolutionary blue app

Forgotten but not quite gone

I was surprised — but not shocked — to discover recently that The Washington Post is phasing out its blue app, which at one time it called the “National Digital Edition.”

The app, which debuted in 2015, was an important part of the Post’s strategy during the early years of Jeff Bezos’ ownership. I wrote about it in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” Available on phones and tablets, it provided readers with a colorful, magazine-like experience. The National Digital Edition was also cheaper than the Post’s other digital products; it was marketed to a national audience and omitted all news from the Washington area. That way, Washingtonians couldn’t save money by choosing the blue app unless they were willing to do without any local news.

The blue app had a lot to do with the Post’s meteoric growth in digital subscriptions, especially after the paper offered it to Amazon Prime members for free for six months, earning hosannas from a wide cross-section of media observers. Media analyst Ken Doctor, a recent guest on our “What Works” podcast, called it “potentially game-changing.”

Even as the Post was marketing the National Digital Edition, though, it continued to evolve its black app and, of course, its website. Those provided readers with a more traditional experience, including a home page, which the blue app lacked, as well as local and regional news. At some point, too, the Post abandoned its different pricing schemes. The blue app, despite its attractiveness, always seemed a bit lite, and eventually most people just moved away from it.

I hadn’t checked the blue app in ages until the past week. When I did, I got a message that said “this app soon will no longer be available” and pushing me toward the black app instead.

The National Digital Edition served its purpose, boosting paid circulation at a time when Bezos was trying to catch up quickly with The New York Times. As of last October, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Post’s circulation was around 2.7 million. That’s well behind the Times’ 10 million (which, to be fair, includes subscriptions to non-news products such as its cooking app and crossword puzzle), but it’s impressive nevertheless.

The latest bad idea for chain newspapers: Robot reporting on real estate

Tom Breen of the New Haven Independent covers real-estate transactions the old-fashioned way. Photos (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

At least two New England newspaper publishers have begun using artificial intelligence rather than carbon-based life forms to report on real-estate transactions.

The Republican of Springfield, online as MassLive, and Hearst Connecticut Media, comprising the New Haven Register and seven other daily newspapers, are running stories put together by an outfit called United Robots. MassLive’s stories are behind a hard paywall, but here’s a taste from the Register of what such articles look like.

United Robots, a Swedish company, touts itself as offering “news automation at massive scale using AI and data science.”

Last year I wrote about artificial intelligence and journalism for GBH News. I’m skeptical, but it depends on how you use it. In some ways AI has made our lives easier by, for instance, enhancing online search and powering the inexpensive transcription of audio interviews. But using it to write stories? Not good. As I wrote last year:

Such a system has been in use at The Washington Post for several years to produce reports about high school football. Input a box score and out comes a story that looks more or less like an actual person wrote it. Some news organizations are doing the same with financial data. It sounds innocuous enough given that much of this work would probably go undone if it couldn’t be automated. But let’s curb our enthusiasm.

Using AI to produce stories about real-estate transactions may seem fairly harmless. But let me give you an example of why it’s anything but.

In November, I accompanied Tom Breen, the managing editor of the New Haven Independent, as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on recently. The Independent is a digital nonprofit news site.

A note Breen left behind asking the resident to call him. (Phone number removed.)

Breen has spent a considerable amount of time and effort in housing court and poring through online real-estate transactions. From doing that, he could see patterns that had emerged. Like Boston and many other cities, New Haven has experienced an explosion in real-estate prices, and a lot of owners are flipping their properties to cash in. In too many cases there are victims — low-income renters whose new landlords, often absentee, jack up the rents. Breen takes the data he’s gathered and rides his bike into the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking with residents. It’s difficult, occasionally dangerous work. Once he was attacked by a pit bull.

We didn’t have much luck on our excursion. No one was home at either of the two houses we visited, so Breen left notes behind asking the residents to call him.

“If investors are swapping properties at $100,000, $200,000 above the appraised value and tens of thousands of dollars above what they bought it for two days prior,” Breen told me, “all that can do is drive up costs that are passed down to the renters — to the people actually living in the building.”

The result of Breen’s enterprise has been a series of stories like this one. The lead:

Tenants of a three-family ​lemon” of a house on Liberty Street are wondering how two landlords managed to walk away with $180,000 by double-selling a property that they say remains a dump.

You’re not going to get that kind of reporting from artificial intelligence.

Now, of course, you might argue — and some have, as I noted in my GBH News piece — that AI saves journalists from drudge work, freeing them up to do exactly the kind of enterprise reporting that Breen does. But story ideas often arise from immersion in boring data and sitting through lengthy proceedings; outsource the data collection to a robot, and it’s likely that will be the end of it.

Bad sign: Here’s how Breen and I were greeted at one foreclosed-upon property. (Names removed.)

At the corporate chains that own so many of our newspapers, there’s little doubt that AI will be used as just another opportunity to cut. Hearst and Advance, the national chain that owns The Republican, are not the worst or most greedy newspapers chains by any means. But both of them have engaged in more than their share of cost-cutting over the years.

And it’s spreading. United Robots’ U.S. clients include the McClatchy newspaper chain and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, part of the Cox chain. No doubt the Big Two — Gannett and the groups owned by Alden Global Capital — won’t be far behind.

Trump’s semi-departure fuels decline in news consumption

Photo (cc) by Seth Anderson

It was obvious to just about everyone that the media were going to face a challenging year after losing the artificial stimulant provided by the Trump presidency. “Will audience and revenue resume the downward track they had been on for years before Trump demanded everyone’s unwavering attention?” I asked last January.

The answer: Yes, indeed.

David Bauder of The Associated Press has pulled together the numbers. The situation is especially grim on cable news, where weekday prime-time viewership was down 38% at CNN, 34% at Fox News and 25% at MSNBC. (Fox still has by far the largest audience of the three.)

I’m not shedding any tears, crocodile or otherwise. Cable news is bad for you. The formula at all three consists of keeping you riled up and angry so that you don’t change the channel. Fox adds weaponized right-wing propaganda about COVID, the Jan. 6 insurrection, critical race theory and more. So please, touch that dial.

Then again, everything’s down, not just cable news. Viewership of the three network evening newscasts — higher quality than their cable brethren — declined 12% to 14%. Unique monthly visitors to the websites of The New York Times and The Washington Post dropped — although paid digital subscriptions to the Times are up, and that’s the metric that really matters. The Post, on the other hand, reportedly dropped from about 3 million to 2.7 million digital subscriptions toward the end of the year.

None of these numbers is inherently bad. We were glued to the news to an unhealthy extent during Trump’s presidency, as we all wondered what demented action he was going to take next. Then, in 2020, we had COVID to deal with as well.

There is still plenty of news taking place. COVID remains with us, the Republican Party has gone full-bore authoritarian and Trump has never really gone away. But things are a bit calmer, if not necessarily calm.

With national news commanding fewer eyeballs, will some of that attention be diverted to local journalism? I’d like to hope so. But with hedge funds and corporate chains hollowing out hundreds of community newspapers, in a lot of places there just isn’t enough to command attention.

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Can The Washington Post differentiate itself from The New York Times?

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2017 by TEDxColumbiaUniversity.

The Washington Post, on an upward trajectory for most of the time since Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013, has stalled out. At least that’s the gist of a story in The Wall Street Journal by Benjamin Mullin and Alexandra Bruell, who report that the Post is struggling to find its footing now that Donald Trump has left the White House (if not the scene) and interest in political news is on the decline. They write:

The Post, like most major publications, experienced an audience surge during the Trump years, when readers flocked to stories about the controversial Republican administration. Now, the Post is facing a slump that has triggered some soul-searching at the paper, including over the need to invest more in coverage areas outside of politics, according to people familiar with the news outlet’s operations and internal documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The fate of the Post is of particular interest to me since much of my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” is devoted to the Post under Bezos. When I was reporting for the book, the Post was going great guns, beating the Times on significant stories — especially Trump’s 2016 campaign — and growing so quickly that it seemed possible that it might even shoot past its New York rival.

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Since around the middle of the Trump presidency, though, I’ve had a sense — not confirmed by data, so don’t take this too seriously — that the Post had plateaued. To put it in simple terms, the Post and the Times competed fiercely for several years after Bezos’ arrival, and the Times won.

You can see it in their paid digital subscriptions. The Times now has about 7.6 million, including about 5.6 million subscribers to its core digital news product (the rest subscribe only to a special service like the Times’ cooking app, the crossword puzzle or whatever). And the Times’ numbers keep growing. The Post, by contrast, is at 2.7 million digital-only subscribers, according to the Journal, down from about 3 million at the beginning of the year.

Now, it would be easy to make too much of this difference. Just about every publisher in the country would love to have The Washington Post’s problems. It’s still one of the largest news operations in the U.S., with a deep, talented newsroom. But the numbers do raise some questions about what the Post’s leaders see as their mission.

We have three great national newspapers — the Times, the Post and the Journal. The Times is our biggest and most capable general-interest newspaper. The Journal has a business focus and a right-wing opinion page, which offers an alternative (to be polite) to what you see in most newspaper opinion sections. The Journal, like the Post, has about 2.7 million paid digital subscribers. Unlike the Post, though, the Journal’s total is rising; in 2020, it was less than 2.3 million.

It seems to me that the Post finds itself in a difficult position — competing directly with the Times for exactly the same national audience and falling behind, and not able to differentiate itself from the Times the way the Journal has. The Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, who succeeded Marty Baron earlier this year after serving as The Associated Press’ top editor, hasn’t really said how she’s going to address that. Indeed, in a recent appearance on Kara Swisher’s New York Times podcast, she showed a remarkable ability not to be pinned down on much of anything.

The Times is far from perfect, of course. Its political coverage, in particular, drives me crazy with its frequent embrace of false equivalence at a time when one of our two major political parties has devolved into an authoritarian, antidemocratic force. The Post is better at avoiding that trap. Its technology is superior to the Times’, too. Overall, though, the Times offers a better, more comprehensive report, especially in areas like international news, business and culture.

It’s good for democracy to have two large, general-interest national papers battling it out. The Post isn’t going away. But you have to wonder what the future of the Times-Post rivalry is going to look like. Back in the 1970s, when the rivalry was especially pitched, the Times’ and Post’s readership bases were pretty much restricted to their geographic areas. Now they are both available nationally and internationally, making it easy to choose one over the other.

In effect, the Times and the Post are now competing in a winner-take-all economy. I hope there continues to be room for both.

Fred Hiatt’s death ends a remarkable period of stability at The Washington Post

Fred Hiatt. Photo (cc) 2014 by CSIS.

The death of Fred Hiatt ends a period of remarkable stability at the top of The Washington Post’s masthead. Hiatt, the editorial-page editor, had served in that position since 1999. Marty Baron, who was hired as executive editor in 2012, retired earlier this year. Hiatt and Baron predated Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Post in 2013, and their continuation in those roles was a signal that Amazon’s founder was determined not to interfere with either the newsroom or the opinion operation.

Baron was replaced by Sally Buzbee, previously the top editor at The Associated Press. It will be interesting to see who replaces Hiatt — though I suspect it could be a while given that his sudden death at 66 was unanticipated. When Buzbee was interviewed recently by Kara Swisher on her New York Times podcast, she gave the impression that publisher Fred Ryan was more involved in her hiring than Bezos was. We’ll see if Bezos follows the same pattern in hiring a new opinion editor. Not that he has to — the ethical standard good news organizations follow is that the owner should stay out of the newsroom but is free to meddle with the editorial pages.

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I didn’t realize that Hiatt had Boston-area roots until I read the tributes this morning. He grew up in Brookline and graduated from Harvard, where his father was dean of the School of Public Health.

In my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote this about Hiatt’s editorial pages:

Hiatt’s retention was noteworthy, as new owners often want to exert their influence on the opinion pages. But even though Bezos’ politics were thought to be generally libertarian, the Post’s editorial stance — which could be described as moderately liberal with a taste for foreign intervention — did not change under Bezos’ ownership.

Looking back over the course of Hiatt’s career, I’d say that observation has held up. The Post is, indeed, moderately liberal. But his unsigned editorials called for war following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and — more controversially — against Iraq, which then-President George W. Bush wrongly claimed had weapons of mass destruction. The Post, of course, was hardly the only newspaper to endorse what proved to be a horrendous foreign-policy blunder. But it’s the job of a great newspaper to take unpopular stands when warranted. In fact, the Times came out against going to war in Iraq, if rather grudgingly.

The Post’s opinion section diverged from the Times’ during the Donald Trump era as well. Though Hiatt was staunchly anti-Trump and published many anti-Trump columnists — including conservatives like Max Boot, Michael Gerson and George Will — he also employed pro-Trump pundits like Marc Thiessen (“Three cheers for ‘Let’s Go Brandon'”) and Gary Abernathy (“A Trump candidacy in 2024 would threaten his own legacy”).

I’m not sure what Hiatt thought such drivel added to his section. Maybe he just wanted his readers to see what the pro-Trump argument was without having to seek it out on Fox News. In any case, the Times took a different approach, restricting its in-house conservatives to Never Trumpers like Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens. (I’d mention David Brooks, too, except that he really isn’t much a conservative these days.)

Hiatt was a strong supporter of human rights around the world and spoke out forthrightly against the Saudi regime following the murder of one of his columnists, Jamal Khashoggi. By all accounts, he was also a very nice guy, which counts for a lot. A Post editorial put it this way: “Mr. Hiatt made it possible for The Post’s opinion writers and the content they produce to encompass a wide range of views on virtually every subject of public debate, without the rancor, personal enmity and bad faith that have become so prevalent elsewhere in Washington and the nation. Our respect for and loyalty to Mr. Hiatt, and his for us, held this staff together.”

Hiatt served long enough in his position to watch the Post shrink under Graham family ownership from a viable competitor with the Times to a regional paper forced to cut its staff year after year; and then to preside over its rebirth and growth under Bezos. He was an honorable servant of the Washington establishment, which I mean in both a positive and a negative sense. Given the fractures that are now tearing the country apart, we may not see the likes of him again.