Why is The Washington Post holding a live event in Boston?

WP Live

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

In a well-appointed banquet hall at the Westin Boston Waterfront, a balding, disturbingly energetic man in a red bow tie is holding forth on baby boomers, technology and aging.

“We are not young, but we are youthful,” enthuses Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab. A bit later: “And by the way, we never talk about the F-word when it comes to aging: fun!” Well, I suppose.

I had come to the Westin last Thursday for a program called “Booming Tech,” presented by The Washington Post as part of its Washington Post Live video series. I was less interested in the subject matter — how boomers getting along in years are enhancing their lives with digital technology — than I was in finding out what the Post was up to.

At a time when newspapers are scrambling to make money any way they can, Washington Post Live struck me as unusual and innovative. The two-hour-plus event, moderated by Washington Post Live editor Mary Jordan (with an assist from Sacha Pfeiffer of Boston public radio station WBUR), featured panels on tech and entrepreneurship, a conversation with health-care expert (and Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate) Don Berwick and a closing one-on-one between Jordan and humorist/curmudgeon P.J. O’Rourke, who was on hand to flog a new book. (Jordan: “Do you like your cell phone at least?” O’Rourke: “No.”)

So how does all this fit with the Post’s business strategy? I snagged Tim Condon, the Post’s director of new ventures and interim general manager of Washington Post Live, for some insight. (Earlier in the week, the Post had announced that former Bloomberg executive Robert Bierman would be taking over as the permanent general manager.)

Washington Post Live launched in 2011, well before Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos acquired the Post. The idea, Condon said, is to reach an “influential audience,” usually in Washington but occasionally outside the Beltway. He described the venture as both journalism and business, and said the Post hosts between 20 and 30 such events each year.

“The content that comes from these discussions are our journalism,” Condon said. And though the events are free, they are paid for by underwriters — in this case, the AARP, which was holding a national conference called Life@50+ next door at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Washington Post Live events are free and open to the public, and other news organizations are invited to cover them as well. The compare-and-contrast that comes to mind is the Post’s ill-conceived plan in 2009 to host $25,000 off-the-record salons with the paper’s journalists in publisher Katharine Weymouth’s home (a fiasco I wrote about at the time for The Guardian).

The Booming Tech event at the Westin featured, inevitably, its own hashtag (#techboomers). About 100 people were on hand, but many of them seemed younger than I — and I’ve been fending off AARP mailers for the better part of the past decade.

The proceedings were webcast live, and video highlights have been posted. A publication of some sort will follow, Jordan told the audience, after a second Booming Tech is held in San Diego on Sept. 4. The idea of the Post holding events far outside its circulation area would seem to line up well with its recent move to give subscribers of some other newspapers digital access to the Post; both aim to extend the power of Post content outside its traditional boundaries.

In his conversation with Jordan, P.J. O’Rourke insisted that he is “not a Luddite,” explaining: “A Luddite wants to destroy tech … I just want to point out that there will be tears before bedtime for a long time.”

As with so many news organizations, technology has led to a lot of tears at The Washington Post, transforming the paper from a highly profitable enterprise into a money-loser hoping that some of Bezos’ Amazon fairy dust will somehow rub off.

Washington Post Live is certainly not the answer to the Post’s woes, or to those of the news business in general. But it’s nevertheless an interesting idea that at least partly answers the question: “Where do we go from here?”

Designing for human-centered journalism

Last night I attended a terrific panel discussion at the GlobeLab sponsored by the Boston chapter of the Online News Association and Hacks/Hackers Boston.

Titled “Human-Centered Journalism: Designing for Engagement,” the discussion focused on the idea that the right design for a news project can bring the community into the conversation.

There was, for instance, quite a bit of talk about The Boston Globe’s “68 Blocks” series, which included multimedia elements such as Instagrams and self-shot videos by teenagers in Bowdoin-Geneva, a poor, mostly African-American neighborhood that was the subject of the series.

Despite those interactive touches, “68 Blocks” was controversial within some elements of the community. I can’t speak for them, but the general complaint seemed to be that they resented outsiders coming in and observing them as though they were exotic specimens.

One of the panelists, Kenneth Bailey of the Design Studio for Social Innovation, put his finger on a possible problem when he said that too many journalists see themselves as “literary types” rather than fostering relationships with the communities they cover.

Another, Alvin Chang, a data journalist who was involved in “68 Blocks,” said, “The people we are covering are not necessarily the people who read the Globe.”

The third panelist was Laura Amico, co-founder of Homicide Watch and a colleague of mine at Northeastern. The moderator was Adrienne Debigare, the “new media catalyst” at the GlobeLab.

Tiffany Campbell of WBUR put together a Storify that does a good job of summarizing the discussion. Please have a look.

Talking about data, journalism and the future

Brent Benson has written a thoughtful piece about Tuesday’s panel discussion on “Big Data and the Future of Journalism.”

I had the privilege of moderating a great panel comprising Laura Amico of Homicide Watch and WBUR Radio’s Learning Lab (she also teaches a journalism course at Northeastern); John Bracken of the Knight Foundation; Charles Kravetz, general manager of WBUR; and Paul McMorrow of CommonWealth Magazine and The Boston Globe.

The quote I’ll remember:

If you’d like to get a feel for how the discussion played out on Twitter, just click here.

Update: Catherine D’Ignazio of the MIT Center for Civic Media has posted a comprehensive live blog of the panel discussion.

The return of Christopher Lydon

Christopher Lydon
Christopher Lydon

There’s big news in the Boston public radio world, as Christopher Lydon returns to the airwaves tonight at 9 with “Radio Open Source,” the radio/podcast interview program he’s been doing for some years now. He’ll be on for an hour every Thursday, with weekend rebroadcasts.

And in a sign that times change, he’ll be doing it on WBUR (90.9 FM), from which he and producer Mary McGrath — who still works with Lydon — memorably departed in 2001. Lydon and McGrath got into a dispute with then-general manager Jane Christo over the ownership of “The Connection,” the show they helmed at the time.

Lydon officially announced his return on Monday. The Boston Globe’s Joe Kahn reports on it today, the morning of Lydon’s debut.

Technically this is more of a ramp-up than a return: Lydon had been appearing regularly on Jim Braude and Margery Eagan’s show, “Boston Public Radio,” on WGBH (89.7 FM). I’m a paid contributor at WGBH, but I think it’s self-evident that the rivalry between the two public radio powerhouses has led to better local programming at both stations.

Here is what I reported for The Boston Phoenix in 2005 as “Open Source” was about to launch at UMass Lowell. (Lydon and company eventually affiliated with the Watson Institute at Brown University.)

Lydon is an on-air legend and McGrath knows how to do terrific radio. Best of luck to both of them.

Photo (cc) 2012 by Mark Fonseca Rendeiro and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Hitting the road for “The Wired City”

I’ll be doing three events for “The Wired City” during the next week.

All three are free and open to the public.

Celebrating 25 years of Cambridge Community TV

kennedy & young

Old friend Robin Young of WBUR and NPR’s “Here & Now” and I were named honorary board members of Cambridge Community Television on Wednesday evening. The occasion was CCTV’s annual barbecue, held in the back lot at the Central Square facility. There’s more here (pdf).

The highlight of the evening came when Susan Fleischmann was honored for her 25 years at the helm of CCTV, which itself was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Local access cable operations are a key part of the independent media ecosystem.

I don’t live in Cambridge, so I don’t get to see CCTV. But it strikes me as an unusually rich and sophisticated operation, with three channels, lots of local programming and training sessions for youth and adults.

Many thanks to the folks at CCTV for their hospitality and their good work.

Photo by Wilder Bunke.

Local public radio rivalry heats up

Best wishes to my old friend Robin Young and to Jeremy Hobson, whose revamped, two-hour “Here & Now” program debuted on Monday. Based at public radio station WBUR (90.9 FM), the program is national in scope, and is intended as a partial replacement for “Talk of the Nation,” which departed the airwaves last week.

Both “Here & Now” and “Boston Public Radio,” on rival WGBH (89.7 FM), are broadcast from noon to 2 p.m., setting up an intriguing dynamic: a nationally focused news magazine on ’BUR alongside local news and talk, hosted by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, on ’GBH.

I hope and expect that both programs will succeed. (Disclosure: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH.)

WTKK and the ongoing collapse of corporate radio

Screen Shot 2013-01-03 at 3.02.51 PM

This commentary was previously published by the Huffington Post.

Update: I’ll be on New England Cable News on Friday at 7:15 a.m. to talk about WTKK and the future of radio.

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan signed off for the last time from the morning talk show they had hosted on Boston’s WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). A few minutes later, the station reemerged as Power 96.9, a faceless entity blasting out robo-music of some sort. And Boston found itself with just one full-time talk radio station. (The station was quickly redubbed Nova 96.9, apparently because of this.)

The demise of WTKK has been portrayed as another nail in the coffin of right-wing talk radio. The estimable D.R. Tucker calls it part of “a downward spiral for a key element of the conservative entertainment complex.” And, yes, that’s surely part of it.

But what we are really seeing is the demise of commercial radio in general, as corporate owners (Greater Media in WTKK’s case) attempt to squeeze the last few nickels of profit out of a medium that may be in its final stage of collapse.

By the end, WTKK wasn’t even a right-wing talk station. Braude, a liberal, and Eagan, a moderate, hosted a civil show that was more about entertainment than politics. Moderate politics and humor were the rule during midday. The only right-winger was afternoon host Michael Graham, whose idea of a good time was to make fun of people with dwarfism.

It was a far cry from the days when WTKK’s signature host, Jay Severin, would call Al Gore “Al Whore” and refer to Hillary Clinton as “a socialist” and “a pig.” Then again, Severin himself was long gone, having made the mistake of joking about sex with interns at a moment when his ratings were falling.

During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Boston was a terrific town for talk radio, the home of pioneers such as David Brudnoy, Jerry Williams and Gene Burns, among others. Yes, they leaned right, but their approach was intelligent and respectful (OK, Williams often wasn’t respectful), and they were immersed in the local scene in a way that few talk-show hosts are these days.

So now we are left with one full-time talk station, WRKO (AM 680), home to right-wingers Rush Limbaugh and Howie Carr, a local legend whose shtick descended into bitter self-parody years ago. (Limbaugh’s syndicated show recently moved back to WRKO from a weak AM station owned by Clear Channel.) It certainly hasn’t helped either WTKK or WRKO that their ratings pale in comparison to two full-time sports stations — a phenomenon that didn’t exist during the heyday of local talk.

The only bright light is Dan Rea, who helms a very conservative evening program on all-news station WBZ (AM 1030). Rea, a former television reporter, eschews the shouting and demeaning putdowns in favor of smart conversation.

What happened to talk radio in Boston? I would point to three factors. And I would suggest that none of these are unique to our part of the country. Boston may be on the leading edge, but these same trends could sweep away talk elsewhere, too.

Corporate consolidation. Since the passage of the lamentable Telecommunications Act of 1996, corporations have been buying up radio stations in market after market, transforming what was once a strictly local affair into a bottom-line-obsessed business.

As far back as 1997 I wrote in the Boston Phoenix that the rise of chain ownership would eventually kill local talk. We are now seeing that come to fruition. The automated music stations that are on the rise may not garner many listeners. But they are cheap, which means that their owners can bleed some profits out of them regardless.

“In our current media environment, corporate owners seem to have less tolerance for the station that is unusual, the station with the niche audience,” media scholar and radio consultant Donna Halper wrote for Media Nation earlier this year. “Part of what makes radio unique as a mass medium is its ability to befriend the listener. So losing a favorite station is much like losing a friend.”

The rise of public radio. Boston is home to an exceptionally vibrant public radio scene. Two stations with strong signals — WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) — broadcast news, public-affairs programming and (yes) talk all day and night, and enjoy some of the largest audiences in the Boston area. (Disclosure #1: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH’s television station, Channel 2.) Other, smaller public stations broadcast far more eclectic musical offerings than anything on commercial radio.

This trend is related to corporate consolidation, as it was the slide in quality on the for-profit side that sent many listeners fleeing to nonprofit radio. If anything, that trend will accelerate.

Technological change. Earlier this year The Phoenix sold the FM signal for its independent rock station, WFNX, to Clear Channel — but kept streaming online. The Boston Globe, meanwhile, hired a few of the people who were laid off when WFNX left the air and now streams its own indie rock station, RadioBDC. All of a sudden, we’ve got a war between two local music stations, neither one of which can be heard over the air. (Disclosure #2: I’m an occasional contributor to The Phoenix.)

These days it’s not difficult to stream Internet radio in your car, which is where most radio listening takes place. Pandora, Spotify and out-of-town music stations (WWOZ of New Orleans is a favorite of mine) are powerful draws, which gives the local flavor of online stations like RadioBDC and WFNX a considerable edge over computer-programmed corporate radio — or, for that matter, subscription-based satellite radio.

It is this last development that gives me reason for optimism. Radio has always been held back by the physical limits of the broadcast spectrum. In a world in which those limits don’t exist, “radio” stations must compete on the strength of their programming rather than their stranglehold on the AM and FM dials.

Seen in that light, the end of WTKK is just another step on the road toward what may be a brighter, more diverse radio future.

Poynter weighs in on the Globe’s lifted editorial

Craig Silverman of Poynter Online weighs in with a smart take on the Boston Globe’s decision not to release the name of the staff member who wrote an unsigned editorial that was lifted almost word for word from WBUR.org.

The original piece, which criticized Vice President Joe Biden’s “put y’all back in chains” comment, was written by Republican political consultant and WBUR contributor Todd Domke. The Globe editorial was the subject of a recent “editor’s note” (which you’ll find at the bottom) in which the paper expressed its “regrets.”

As I wrote on Aug. 24, the editor’s note raised as many questions as it answered, since it did not reveal the identity of the person who wrote it or whether he or she had been disciplined.

Last week, as you may have heard, Boston Herald columnist and WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk-show host Howie Carr sent a dispatch to subscribers to his email list claiming he had learned the culprit was Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, and that she had been suspended for two weeks. The email ended up being posted to the Free Republic, a right-wing website.

Oddly, though, that information has not appeared in the Herald, which instead ran a story on the Globe’s decision not to name names. The Herald also criticized Emerson College journalism professor Mark Leccese for not addressing the issue in the unpaid blog that he writes for the Globe’s Boston.com site.

Also writing about this have been Jim Romenesko and iMediaEthics.

Silverman’s piece is the fullest treatment so far. He quotes editorial-page editor Peter Canellos as saying:

Our policy is not to discuss internal disciplinary actions. But our editor’s note should speak for itself. There were similarities in structure and phrasing that shouldn’t have been used without attribution. We take these matters very seriously.

Silverman also expresses frustration at the Globe’s response, writing that “the paper won’t name the writer, won’t detail any related discipline, won’t say if they’re reviewing previous work, and won’t call it plagiarism.”

It strikes me that this would have been a one-day story if the Globe had simply announced who did it, whether that person had been disciplined and, if so, what the punishment was. The borrowing from Domke’s piece looks to me more like extreme sloppiness than classic plagiarism.

And yes, I understand that such matters are confidential at most companies. But if this had been a signed column rather than an anonymous editorial, naming the person would have been unavoidable. I don’t see why it should be handled differently simply because the piece did not carry a byline.

Globe acknowledges lifting material from WBUR

The Boston Globe today admitted to “the use of material without attribution” in a recent editorial criticizing Vice President Joe Biden. The Aug. 17 editorial, which took Biden to task for his “put y’all back in chains” comment, tracks closely — very closely — with a commentary by Republican political consultant Todd Domke that was published two days earlier on the website of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM).

An editor’s note published by the Globe reads as follows:

An Aug. 17 editorial on Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on bank regulations contained some similarities in phrasing and structure to an opinion piece by Todd Domke on WBUR.org. The use of the material without attribution was inconsistent with Globe policies, and the Globe regrets the error.

WBUR reports on the editor’s note here.

Domke’s commentary is longer and better written than the Globe editorial. The problem is that the editorial tracks with Domke virtually paragraph by paragraph, with similar and at times identical language, while offering nothing that Domke didn’t come up with first. Even if it’s not actual plagiarism, Globe editors obviously believed it was close enough to warrant a mea culpa.

Which raises a few questions:

If this were a signed column rather than an unsigned editorial, wouldn’t this be a bigger deal? Wouldn’t we be wondering whether the writer had been or should be disciplined? Does the anonymity of editorial-writing mean less scrutiny than this would otherwise warrant?

And, more important, what are we to make of a partisan political argument written by a Republican contributor to WBUR becoming the official position of the region’s paper of record? The Globe editorial accepted the view that Biden’s comment was somehow racial in nature, even though Biden’s reference to “chains” was arguably a response to House Speaker John Boehner’s promise to “unshackle Wall Street.”*

As former conservative Charles Johnson wrote: “The right wing media are still shrieking about Joe Biden’s ‘chains’ comment, even though not a single one of these demagogues honestly believes there was a racial intent to it.”

Not to beat a dead horse. The Globe acknowledged its misstep. But really.

*Note: What Biden actually said was, “Romney wants to let the — he said in the first hundred days, he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules, unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put ya’ll back in chains.” It was Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs who later cited Boehner’s remarks.