Why the Kevin Merida announcement is good news for the Los Angeles Times

Patrick Soon-Shiong may be the most important newspaper owner in the country after Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post. So Monday’s announcement that the next executive editor of the Los Angeles Times will be Kevin Merida of ESPN was significant as much for what it says about Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the paper as it does about Merida’s own considerable abilities. Given the Times’ size, influence and unrealized potential, its fate is crucial to the journalistic ecosystem.

It was just a few months ago that Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who bought the Times in 2018, was looking to get out. Soon-Shiong denied it, but actions speak louder than words — and now he has acted. The fact that he could recruit someone who is regarded as the best free-agent editor out there suggests he was able to reassure Merida about stability in the owner’s suite. The Times itself, in a story by Meg James, puts it this way:

His hiring reaffirms the Soon-Shiong family’s commitment to the paper they purchased, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, for $500 million from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing in June 2018. The Soon-Shiong family has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars more to replenish the newsroom’s withered ranks, built a campus in El Segundo, upgraded the paper’s technology and covered financial losses that deepened last year when coronavirus shutdowns prompted a steep drop in advertising revenue.

Key to all this may be Soon-Shiong’s daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who, according to Katie Robertson’s report in The New York Times, “has become an active part of the newspaper’s management team.” In that regard, she may play a similar role to that of Linda Pizzuti Henry, who co-owns The Boston Globe along with her husband, John Henry. Linda Henry, named CEO of Boston Globe Media last year, is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the Globe, thus serving as a guarantor of sorts that Henry won’t sell.

Merida will be the LA Times’ second Black editor, which is also significant because of the paper’s diversity issues under former executive editor Norman Pearlstine. It also raises the question of why The Washington Post didn’t push harder to hire Merida as a replacement for Marty Baron, who retired recently. Merida was a highly regarded top editor at the Post before leaving for ESPN.

One possible explanation is that Merida is just two years younger than Baron. As Tom Jones of Poynter writes, “Maybe the Post is looking for a long-term editor — someone who could take over for 15 or so years, and, perhaps, Merida’s age (64) didn’t align with that plan.”

The Soon-Shiong ownership of the LA Times has been a mixed bag thus far. The newsroom has been bulked up in the hopes that the paper could emerge as a national force. But that hasn’t happened, and its digital subscription numbers have proved disappointing as well. It could be that there’s just no room for a fourth national newspaper along with The New York Times, the Post and the Journal. But the LA Times could dominate the West, serving as a much-needed counterbalance to the East Coast media.

All in all, the appointment of Merida was very good news, not just because he’s a first-rate choice but because it signals that Soon-Shiong is committed to the LA Times’ long-range future.

Correction. The original post described Merida as the LA Times first Black editor. In fact, he is the second; New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet served in that role from 2005 to ’06.

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A Washington Post correction adds to confusion over Rudy Giuliani and the FBI

Rudy Giuliani. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore

When you have to publish a correction, be forthcoming about it. The Washington Post failed to do that over the weekend, thus compounding the harm it had done to Donald Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani. Here is the Post’s correction, published on Saturday:

An earlier version of this story, published Thursday, incorrectly reported that One America News was warned by the FBI that it was the target of a Russian influence operation. That version also said the FBI had provided a similar warning to Rudolph W. Giuliani, which he has since disputed. This version has been corrected to remove assertions that OAN and Giuliani received the warnings.

The correction makes it appear that the Post was backing down solely on Giuliani’s say-so. That led to a tweet from Caroline Orr Bueno in which she asked: “Why retract it instead of just adding in a statement saying Giuliani disputes it?” To which I responded: “Marty Baron has left the building,” referring to the recent retirement of the Post’s executive editor.

But it turned out not to be so simple. Because The New York Times and NBC News had also run stories claiming that Giuliani had been warned, and they published corrections as well. Tom Jones of Poynter rounds them up. First, the Times:

An earlier version of this article misstated whether Rudolph W. Giuliani received a formal warning from the F.B.I. about Russian disinformation. Mr. Giuliani did not receive such a so-called defensive briefing.

Not much explanation there, but at least the Times isn’t attributing the reason for its correction to Giuliani. The clearest is from NBC News:

An earlier version of this article included an incorrect report that Rudolph Giuliani had received a defensive briefing from the FBI in 2019 warning him that he was being targeted by a Russian influence operation. The report was based on a source familiar with the matter, but a second source now says the briefing was only prepared for Giuliani and not delivered to him, in part over concerns it might complicate the criminal investigation of Giuliani. As a result, the premise and headline of the article below have been changed to reflect the corrected information.

That’s how you do a correction: explain exactly went wrong. Of the three, the Post’s is the worst, since the wording makes it appear as though the editors were responding solely to a complaint by Giuliani. The Times’ is OK, but its lack of clarity and falls into the “mistakes were made” category. So kudos to NBC News for doing it the right way.

Giuliani remains in a heap of trouble. His apartment and office were searched by the FBI last week as part of what appears to be a criminal investigation into his activities in Ukraine. There was no need for news organizations to pump it up with information that was unverified and, as it turns out, wrong.

And, as Oliver Darcy of CNN observes: “All the original reports were attributed to anonymous sources.”

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Why Jeff Bezos should rescue Tribune’s newspapers from Alden Global Capital

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

It’s going to take a miracle to save the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant, New York’s Daily News and six other large-market dailies from the greedy clutches of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that’s widely regarded as the worst newspaper owner in the country.

Read the rest at GBH News.

The Washington Post establishes a three-pronged international news hub

Sara Sorcher. Photo (cc) 2016 by New America.

The Washington Post has established breaking-news hubs in London and Seoul, South Korea, which gives the growing news operation 24-hour worldwide coverage.

The Press Gazette, which tracks media developments in the U.K., interviewed Sara Sorcher, the London hub editor, who says she hopes the move can help the Post expand its digital subscription base. Already, she said, about 10% of the paper’s 3 million or so digital subscribers are outside the U.S. Sorcher has also worked for USA Today and for the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor.

The hubs come as the Post is in the midst of hiring another 150 or so journalists, which will bring the number of full-timers to more than 1,000, the most in the paper’s history.

Here’s how Sorcher says the three-city breaking-news team will work:

The idea is for a fast and seamless, round-the-clock operation.

Breaking news responsibilities will be handed off every night from the Washington newsroom to Seoul and then to London and then back to Washington in their morning.

I call it a news relay. That’s the vision for it. As part of the newsroom’s 24-hour workflow, a London editor will take a turn each day as point for those global coverage decisions, and the hub will operate seven days a week.

This strikes me as a pretty smart strategy, and it suggests that the Post, which for a while seemed to have stalled in its rivalry with The New York Times (which has 7.5 million digital and print subscriptions), is intent on catching up again.

When you add The Wall Street Journal, we have three great daily newspapers in the U.S. All of them grew during the Trump era, and all of them now need to pivot to what’s next. A renewed focus on serious international news seems like a good direction to try — as long as the notoriously parochial American audience can be persuaded to engage.

An anonymous source steps forth and saves (most of) The Washington Post’s bacon

Photo (cc) 2005 by Shawn Zamechek

The danger in reporting a story based on anonymous sources — in this case, one anonymous source — is that if you later are proven wrong, you’re left twisting in the wind with no one to blame but yourself.

It is highly unusual for a source to emerge from hiding and deliver a semi-exoneration. So The Washington Post got lucky Tuesday when Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state in Georgia who was the anonymous source for a Post story that resulted in an embarrassing correction, went on the record and said the Post got the story more or less right after all.

In case you missed it, the Post had to correct a story by Amy Gardner reporting that Trump had called Georgia’s chief elections investigator, Frances Watson, and urged her to “find the fraud” and that she would be a “national hero” if she overturned the results of the presidential election in her state. A tape of the call emerged recently, and The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s quotes were somewhat less provocative than that. Wemple writes:

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Fuchs said, “I believe the story accurately reflected the investigator’s interpretation of the call. The only mistake here was in the direct quotes, and they should have been more of a summary.” Fuchs said that The Post disclosed her role in the story with her permission, and that she’d gotten the debriefing from the investigator — a direct report of hers — “shortly” after the call from Trump concluded.

“I think it’s pretty absurd for anybody to suggest that the president wasn’t urging the investigator to ‘find the fraud,’” Fuchs added, “These are quotes that [Watson] told me at the time.”

To be clear, what we’re talking about here is a secondary story — a follow-up to a more explosive report by Gardner about Trump’s call to Georgia Secretary of State Georgia Brad Raffensperger in which he demanded that Raffensperger find enough votes to reverse the results. There was audio of that call, published on the Post’s website.

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So, a close call for the Post — but lessons to be learned that really shouldn’t have to be stated. You don’t use quotes from a single anonymous source, especially when that source may have been second-hand. If you’re absolutely confident of your reporting, treat those quotes as a “summary,” as Fuchs suggested, rather than using quotation marks.

And understand that in this hypercharged political environment, you will be accused of making up fake news about Trump if you don’t get it 100% right. In this case, 95% isn’t good enough.

Amazon outrage of the week

From The Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler:

The tech giant … won’t sell downloadable versions of its more than 10,000 e-books or tens of thousands of audiobooks to libraries. That’s right, for a decade, the company that killed bookstores has been starving the reading institution that cares for kids, the needy and the curious. And that’s turned into a mission-critical problem during a pandemic that cut off physical access to libraries and left a lot of people unable to afford books on their own.

And good for the Post, which, as we all know, is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The template for the Bezos-Baron revival of the Post was set early on

Marty Baron, center. Photo (cc) 2017 by the Knight Foundation.

I was struck by how little new information there was in this New York Times overview of Marty Baron’s years as executive editor of The Washington Post. As described by Times reporter Marc Tracy, the Post succeeded under Baron and owner Jeff Bezos by switching its focus from regional to national, and from print to digital.

There’s more to it than just that, of course, and Tracy’s piece is worthwhile if you’re not familiar with the subject. The ground that Tracy covers is laid out in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” The Bezos-Baron template was set early on. In recent years, the Post has continued to grow (its digital subscriber base now exceeds 3 million, and more than 1,000 journalists work in the newsroom), but that’s simply a continuation of earlier trends.

Likewise, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been touting a comment Baron made to CNN’s Brian Stelter about what he learned from Bezos: “One thing that Jeff emphasized at the beginning is that we really should be paying attention to our customer more than our competitors.” As Rosen says, “Sounds simple, like banal business advice. It’s not.”

In 2016 I asked Baron about the Post’s competition with the Times, and he answered the question in a manner similar to what he told Stelter. I compressed Baron’s answer in my book, but here’s a fuller quote:

Well, we don’t obsess about The New York Times in that sense. We don’t see that as our only competition. We see other people as our competition and, frankly, we see all calls on people’s time and in terms of getting news and information as being a competition for us, not to mention all the other competition for people’s time.

One aspect of the Bezos-Baron era that Tracy leaves out is the role of technology in the Post’s revival. Under chief technologist Shailesh Prakash (like Baron, a holdover from the Graham era), the Post developed state-of-the-art digital products that are fast and a pleasure to use — better than the Times’ very good products, quite frankly.

Overall, the Bezos-Baron partnership has been good for the Post, good for journalism and good for the public. I hope the next editor can build on Baron’s legacy.

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Marty Baron, Walter Lippmann and the true meaning of objectivity

Walter Lippmann in 1905. Photo in the public domain.

Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker has a terrific interview with Marty Baron, who’s retiring as executive editor of The Washington Post. I’m amused at the way Baron treats The New Yorker with the same brusqueness as he does other media outlets. For instance:

Chotiner: Why do you think [Jeff] Bezos decided to buy the Post?

Baron: You can look at what he’s said about that. I assume that you have. He’s talked about it many times.

Baron also expresses the view that local newspapers are going to have to save themselves the same way that national papers did: by persuading their readers to pay for it.

I was struck by how similar much of what Baron said was to my 2016 interview with him for “The Return of the Moguls.” Baron has his lodestar, and he follows it. But how journalists should and shouldn’t use social media is a bigger issue today than it was in 2016, so he and Chotiner talk about that quite a bit. And Baron also defines objectivity in exactly the way that I try to get it across to my students:

I do think that people have been routinely mischaracterizing what objectivity means. It really dates back a hundred years. Walter Lippmann essentially was the originator of the idea. What was the idea? It was a recognition that all of us as journalists, all of us as human beings, have preconceptions. Those preconceptions arrived from our own backgrounds, our life experiences, the people we associate with, you name it. And it’s important as we go about our reporting that we try to set those preconceptions aside — and almost approach our work in as scientific a way as possible — and to be open-minded, to be honest, to be fair, to listen generously to people, to hear what they have to say, to take it seriously into account, to do a thorough job of reporting, to do a rigorous job of reporting.

The idea of objectivity — I should make clear — it’s not neutrality, it’s not both-sides-ism, it’s not so-called balance. It’s never been that. That’s not the idea of objectivity. But once we do our reporting, once we do a rigorous job and we’re satisfied that we’ve done the job in an appropriate way, we’re supposed to tell people what we’ve actually found. Not pretend that we didn’t learn anything definitive. Not meet all sides equally if we know that they’re not equal. It’s none of that. It’s to tell people in an unflinching way what we have learned, what we have discovered.

The entire interview is well worth your time.

The Washington Post’s top editor, Marty Baron, will retire next month

Marty Baron, right, in conversation with Alberto Ibarguen, president of the Knight Foundation. Photo (cc) 2017 by the Knight Foundation.

Republished at GBH News.

Not unexpected, but stunning nevertheless: Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron is retiring after eight years at the helm, according to Brian Stelter of CNN. Baron was widely regarded as the best newspaper editor of his generation, and his leadership — not just at the Post but as a voice for journalism and the First Amendment — will be hugely missed.

Under Baron, the Post was fearless, negotiating the bizarre media landscape dominated by Donald Trump with a sure-footedness that its larger competitor, The New York Times, never quite seemed to master. Before coming to the Post, Baron was the editor of The Boston Globe, where he led the paper’s reporting that showed Cardinal Bernard Law was deeply involved in the pedophile-priest crisis.

I interviewed Baron several times over the years, including in early 2016 for my book “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.” Here is an excerpt about Baron’s reaction when he learned in August 2013 that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was buying the Post:

“I was completely shocked, obviously,” Baron said when I asked him about his reaction to the news that Bezos would buy the Post. “I told people when I came here that while the Times would probably like to sell the Globe, it was highly unlikely that Don Graham would be selling the Washington Post. So I was kind of stunned when I heard about it. But I thought that it could have some real advantages for us”—a reference to Bezos’s preference for growth over cutting and his deep understanding of technology and consumer behavior. “I did not know if it would be a good thing for me personally,” Baron added, “because obviously when a new owner comes in he has the absolute right to pick who he wants to run the organization that he has acquired. He said positive things at the beginning, but my sense was that it would be a year of figuring out the place and deciding what he wanted to do.”

Bezos, to his credit, realized what he had inherited, kept Baron in place and by all accounts left him alone to do his job. The Post has built its paid digital subscription base from around 100,000 to 200,000 in early 2016 to 3 million today, and the newsroom has grown from 580 to more than 1,000 since Bezos bought the paper. It’s also been profitable for five years.

And the Post’s main selling point has been the excellence of its journalism. Baron is going to be incredibly difficult to replace.

Slavery, the Constitution and Frederick Douglass: What was The New York Times thinking?

Frederick Douglass

There is a bizarre omission in The New York Times’ review of James Oakes’ new book, “The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution.”

The question at the center of the book is whether the Constitution should be viewed as a pro-slavery or anti-slavery document. And the reviewer, the historian Gordon S. Wood, never mentions Frederick Douglass. Good Lord. If there was one central takeaway from David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (2018), it’s that Douglass embraced the Constitution as a weapon with which to fight slavery, breaking with William Lloyd Garrison, who thought the Constitution was irredeemable.

Curious, I decided to dig a little deeper. And I found a review in The Washington Post by Elizabeth R. Varon of the University of Virginia. It turns out that Oakes not only mentions Douglass, but is a scholar of his views about the Constitution. Varon writes:

This book represents a shift in Oakes’s own thinking. While his 2007 study of Frederick Douglass and Lincoln, “The Radical and the Republican,” juxtaposed Douglass the crusading reformer with Lincoln the cautious politician, this volume foregrounds the commonalities between the two men. Lincoln shared with Douglass, Oakes emphasizes, an abiding belief in the abolition movement’s core principle of fundamental human equality.

Much insight is to be gained by contrasting the antislavery constitutionalism of Douglass and Lincoln with the proslavery constitutionalism of Southern enslavers.

By leaving out Douglass, Wood manages the task of writing a nearly 1,300-word essay about slavery without mentioning a single Black person by name. What was he thinking? And does anyone at the Times edit these things?

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