How to battle media addiction in the Age of Trump

Philadelphia newsboy  Michael McNelis, 8, was photographed by Lewis Hines in 1910.

The news cycle on Tuesday began in the frenetic manner we’ve become accustomed to in the Age of Trump. No sooner had I finished my snowbound perusal of newspaper websites than the president took to Twitter and announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was out. My phone began buzzing with breaking-news alerts. Twitter filled up with quick hits, some serious and some snarky, as to what it all meant. And, at least for a little while, our collective attention was diverted from Stormy Daniels, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, and the rest of the Trumpian mishegas that has preoccupied us for the past 14 months.

Many of us sense that we’ve become overwhelmed by the rush of news and that we don’t know what to do about it. The quantity if not the quality of news has been growing exponentially in the decades since we relied mainly on the morning newspapers and the evening newscasts. But we seem to have reached a tipping point with the endless obsession over Trump, especially on cable news and social media.

Which is why, I think, New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo struck such a chord last week.

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Dr. Vox explains how Trump has exposed the right as a collection of grievances

Important thread by David Roberts of Vox on how President Trump has exposed the right for what we knew in our hearts it was all along: an inchoate collection of grievances uninterested in policy or ideas. He’s also got some smart things to say about what’s wrong with The New York Times’ conservative columnists, who are monolithically anti-Trump. Start here:

Roberts’ views are somewhat related to my recent WGBH News column on the irrelevance of the anti-Trump right, although I hold them in higher regard than he does.

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Why paid digital is the only strategy left for our beleaguered newspapers

Photo (cc) 2008 by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at

There was a time not too many years ago when nearly every newspaper except The Wall Street Journal made its journalism freely available online. This was not entirely crazy. At the dawn of the commercial web, newspaper executives were optimistic that free news would prove lucrative thanks to multimedia advertising and the dramatically lower cost of digital distribution compared to print. As The New York Times naively put it in 1996 when announcing the debut of its website, “With its entry on the Web, The Times is hoping to become a primary information provider in the computer age and to cut costs for newsprint, delivery and labor.”

The limits of that strategy became apparent starting about 10 years ago. Because of its very ubiquity, digital advertising lost its value, bringing in pennies — at best — compared to print. Far worse, Google and Facebook, neither of which existed when newspaper websites first popped into existence, now scoop up more than 60 percent of digital ad revenues. In response, newspapers began charging for digital content. Today, the idea that reader revenue is the future has taken on the aura of received wisdom.

Yet there remain questions about how much news organizations can charge for their journalism as well as how many subscriptions a typical internet user is willing to pay for. Last week, Lucia Moses of Digiday explored the issue at some length. And though there have been some winners, with the Times and The Washington Post leading the way, they are likely to be outnumbered by the losers. Moses quoted Vivian Schiller, a former executive with the Times and NPR, who offered this pessimistic assessment:

A lot of people are going, “Reader revenue, it’s working for The New York Times, it’s working for specialty publications; that’s our path.” I’m afraid for most news publishers, it’s going to end in tears.

In 2013, I began working on my book “The Return of the Moguls,” which was published by ForeEdge this week. My original idea was that a new generation of wealthy newspaper owners — Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos at the Post, financier (and Red Sox principal owner) John Henry at The Boston Globe, and entrepreneur Aaron Kushner at the Orange County Register — might figure out innovative ways of running newspapers and thus chart a path for the rest of their beleaguered industry. Over time, though, an additional plot line came into focus: all of them faced the challenge of how to move forward at the very moment when the old idea of free, web-based journalism was coming to an end.

Each of the three moguls approached the problem differently. Bezos, by far the most successful, repositioned what had been a large regional newspaper as a national digital news organization, going head to head with the Times. Bezos bundled the Post with Amazon and pursued a massive online audience with the goal of converting some small percentage of all that drive-by traffic into paying customers. Today, the Post reports more than one million paid digital subscribers and claims it has been profitable for the past two years.

Henry has pursued a number of different ideas at the Globe, some of which have worked out better than others. But Henry’s most elemental idea — that readers should pay for news — has also been his most successful. Despite charging the unusually high fee of $30 a month for digital subscriptions, the Globe is on track to pass the 100,000 mark during the first half of this year. If Globe executives can figure out how to double that, then the paper will be on its way to financial sustainability.

Meanwhile, the Globe’s print edition is being repositioned as a niche luxury product. As Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal reported Tuesday, the non-discounted price of home delivery is being raised to $25.90 a week. For that kind of money, Henry had better hope that the paper’s well-publicized printing and delivery woes are a thing of the past. The Globe’s digital and print fees are now both the highest of any general-interest newspaper, national or regional. It will be fascinating to see if Henry’s gamble pays off. (Update, March 9: In a comment posted to the Globe’s subscribers-only Facebook group, the Globe denied that it was contemplating a price hike of that magnitude: “There are no plans to raise our prices by 80% as reported by the BBJ.” Seiffert defends his reporting here.)

The third mogul, Kushner, is long gone, having stepped down in early 2015, several months before the Register slid into bankruptcy. Unfortunately for his newspaper, he had two main ideas, one good, one disastrous. The good: improve the print edition and make sure people were paying full rate for the paper’s journalism. A print-first approach certainly wasn’t forward-looking, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have worked for at least a few years. The problem was that Kushner added about 150 full-time journalists to his newsroom of 180 and then set about buying and launching additional newspapers in the hopes that advertising and circulation revenues would somehow magically materialize. Today the Register is owned by Digital First Media, the cost-slashing corporate chain that recently won the right to buy the Boston Herald.

Not everyone is pursuing paid digital. A few megasites like BuzzFeed and HuffPost have succeeded by attracting huge amounts of traffic while keeping the size of their staffs to a minimum. Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed’s media editor, shared Moses’ Digiday article on Twitter while adding his own warning:

News organizations that rely on digital subscriptions must also compete with high-quality news sources, both national and local, that are free and are likely to remain that way — such as PBS, NPR, and their affiliates on television, radio and online.

Yet, for newspaper owners, there really isn’t much choice other than to ask readers to pay. The bright hopes that were expressed a quarter century ago have given way to realism. There is no one left to cover the costs of journalism except us. And if not enough of us are willing, then newspapers — still the most effective vehicle for holding government and other large institutions accountable — will continue to shrink and fade away.

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Barry Crimmins, 1953-2018

Barry Crimmins in “Call Me Lucky”

On Thursday came the sad news that the comedian and writer Barry Crimmins, who virtually invented Boston’s comedy scene, had died at the age of 64. Barry was a man of several careers. Among other things, he was an activist against child sexual abuse  and a towering figure at The Boston Phoenix, which is how I got to know him.

Barry was one of the most thoroughly decent human beings I have ever met. We were all hoping that Bobcat Goldthwait’s 2015 documentary “Call Me Lucky” would relaunch his career. Unfortunately, it never really happened. Barry announced in January that he had terminal cancer. His wife, Helen Crimmins, is also ill.

Jim Sullivan writes about Barry’s legacy for The Artery at At the time of its release I wrote about “Call Me Lucky” for WGBH News. Barry will be hugely missed. Wherever he is today, I hope he is given what he publicly asked for so many times: excommunication from the Catholic Church, whose leadership he detested for its role in covering up the crimes of pedophile priests.

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Behold the irrelevance of the #NeverTrump right

The conservative movement is now a subsidiary of Trump Inc. Photo (cc) 2015 by Michael Vadon.

Previously published at

Is it possible to be more politically irrelevant than #NeverTrump conservatives? From the moment that Donald Trump began his presidential campaign, the conservative establishment has been in a perpetual state of horrified gobsmackery. But that hasn’t stopped the Trumpist base from taking over the Republican Party.

And so it was that on Saturday the starboard-leaning pundit Mona Charen was booed at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for the apostasy of suggesting that, no, it’s not OK for conservatives to make excuses for the sexual predator in the White House. And no, it’s not OK for CPAC to invite a member of the neo-fascist, Holocaust-denying Le Pen family to address the gathering.

Nor was Charen merely booed. She actually had to be escorted out of the building by security guards lest some overly enthusiastic #MAGA types decided to place themselves between her and the door.

“I spoke to a hostile audience for the sake of every person who has watched this spectacle of mendacity in disbelief and misery for the past two years,” Charen wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times. “Just hearing the words you know are true can serve as ballast, steadying your mind when so much seems unreal.”

Charen was followed by her fellow anti-Trumper Max Boot, who recently joined The Washington Post’s opinion section — and who, on Sunday, went so far as to say that he could no longer call himself a conservative. “I prefer to think of myself as a classical liberal,” Boot wrote, “because ‘conservative’ has become practically synonymous with ‘Trump lackey.’”

Charen, Boot, and other anti-Trump conservatives find themselves in an unusual position. On the one hand, they get plenty of attention, especially on the editorial pages of the Times and the Post, where they provide satisfying entertainment for the papers’ mostly liberal readers. On the other hand, they have been virtually cast out of the Republican Party, which these days is in thrall to the racism, nationalism, and demagoguery that have been the hallmarks of the Trump era. At least Democrats can look forward to the next election.

The marginalization of traditional conservatives has been a long time coming. Back in January 2016, National Review — founded by William F. Buckley Jr. — published a special issue titled “Against Trump.” The list of conservative pundits who oppose Trump is impressive, and includes former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum (whose year-old Atlantic piece on how Trump could build an autocracy remains must reading), Weekly Standard founding editor Bill Kristol, Commentary’s John Podhoretz, the Post’s Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, and George Will, and the Times’ David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Bret Stephens. Even farther-right pundits who share some sympathies with Trump’s positions, like Rod Dreher of The American Conservative and Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire, always are careful to make it clear that they do not support the president himself.

In many ways, members of the non-Trumpist right have no one but themselves to blame. This moment did not come out of nowhere. Richard Nixon had his “Silent Majority.” Ronald Reagan exploited racial tensions and helped create the notion of the undeserving poor. Indeed, those members of the white working class who voted for Trump are direct descendants of the so-called Reagan Democrats. The conservative intelligentsia was only too happy to exploit these voters over issues of race, guns, and abortion so that they could pursue their real agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy, free trade, and endless war.

For traditional conservatism to be relevant again, it must first move beyond its current media platforms of liberal op-ed pages and tiny magazines. The Trumpists have their own media in the form of Fox News, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, and out-and-out conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones — and they reach tens of millions of people who believe their propaganda and falsehoods.

Still, nothing is forever. Although it is impossible to imagine the sequence of events that would result in the conservative establishment’s gaining ascendance over Trumpism, it was just as impossible several years ago to imagine that Trump would take over the Republican Party — and, of course, be elected president. If conservatives are going to make a comeback, though, they need to address their own rot from within.

In an essential Post article on the marginalized conservative press, National Review editor Rich Lowry sounded like he gets it. “One of the giant ironies of this whole phenomenon for us is that Trump represents a cartoonish, often exaggerated, version of the direction we wanted to see the party go in,” he was quoted as saying. “Trump was in a very different place on regulation and trade, but we had been widening the lens of mainstream conservatism and arguing that the party needed to be more populist.”

In other words, something like Trumpism — only without Trump, racism, or xenophobia. It would be a start.


Last week I wrote about my frustrations with Twitter after I locked myself out through a series of mishaps and couldn’t get back in. Thanks to some human intervention, I’m back. But Twitter and other internet services need to do a much better job of helping customers who lack the connections to get beyond automated customer service.

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Help! I’ve been locked out of Twitter. And the bots aren’t going to let me back in.

Previously published at

(Note: My Twitter account was restored several days after this column appeared thanks to some human intervention. Which is what Twitter and other internet businesses need to offer to everyone.)

I’ve been off Twitter since Feb. 12 — surely my longest sabbatical since joining in 2008. But it’s not by choice. First my account was attacked, apparently by Turkish hackers. Then I botched the process of resetting my password. Now I’m stuck in limbo, unable to revive my account on my own yet clueless about how to get an actual human being at Twitter to help.

If you think this is special pleading, you’re right. I confess to hoping that someone at Twitter (or someone who knows someone) sees this and contacts me. Yes, I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. Yes, I’ve been known to refer to its troll-infested backwaters as a cesspool. But as long as it exists, I need it to keep up on conversations that are important to me and to promote my work.

If you visit my Twitter page, you’ll see that everything is intact — my 16,000-plus followers, my cherished “verified” check mark, my 62,000 tweets (a record of which I am not proud), and my nine lists. But it might as well go in a scrapbook for all the good it’s doing me. I can look, but I can’t touch.

As a culture, we have become utterly dependent on the free tools and platforms that have come with the digital age. Yes, I’m well aware of what they say about free: If you’re not paying, then you’re the product. But Twitter, Facebook, and the rest offer the kind of convenient networking (too convenient, argues Tim Wu in The New York Times) that is now difficult to live without.

Never mind their considerable downside, including the way these platforms — especially Facebook — enabled the Russians to interfere in our political process. Social media is how we connect in these early decades of the 21st century, and if you’re shut out from those connections, you’re at a huge disadvantage. Unfortunately, the reason social-media platforms are profitable is that they require very few paid employees. I know of no way that you can contact a customer-service representative at Twitter or Facebook. You’ve got to rely on automated help. And I’ve gotten myself into such a mess that Twitter’s bot service just isn’t going to get the job done.

Would you like to know what happened? It’s not an especially gripping story, but I’m going to tell you anyway. You might learn from it.

At about 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 12 I logged onto Twitter on my phone and saw that I had received a direct message from a fairly prominent editor. His DM promised news and was accompanied by an odd-looking link. But because it seemed to be from someone I knew, and because I had heard there were cutbacks under way at his organization, I made the dangerous assumption that the link was legitimate. I clicked. Nothing happened. I clicked again. Still nothing. So I forgot about it.

Later that morning I received an email from a colleague at another university informing me that my direct messages appeared to have been hacked. The evidence: a DM he had received from me (or, should I say, “me”) that was identical to the one I’d gotten from the editor. At that point I stopped what I was doing and reset my password. I use 1Password, which generates long strings of gibberish that are essentially unbreakable. I saved the new password and tried to log in to Twitter again.

Except that I hadn’t saved it. My old password was dead and I had no idea what my new password was. So I followed Twitter’s instructions for resetting my password again. The options I was given were to supply my Twitter name, which only brought me back to the same menu; my cellphone number, which I had never turned over in the first place; or an email address associated with my account.

And this was the moment when I realized I was in over my head. Twitter recognized none of my email addresses. Why? I have no idea. Maybe they were wiped out by the hackers. Maybe I’m overlooking something obvious. The point is that I need someone at Twitter to perform an exorcism, and I don’t know how to make that happen. Maybe once or twice a day I try to log in using my old password, hoping something miraculous has occurred. The message I get: “We detected unusual activity on your account. To secure your account, please change your password before logging back in.” Gah.

Is all of this my fault? Of course. I shouldn’t have clicked on that link. I should have provided Twitter with my cellphone number ages ago. I should have pasted my new password into a Word document until I was absolutely sure that I had saved it. The thing is, people do stupid things. They shouldn’t be left without options.

So if anyone from Twitter is reading this, I want to say something from the bottom of my heart: Won’t you please help?

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Aggressive cost-cutter buys an already diminished Boston Herald

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There was a time not too many years ago when Digital First Media — the all-but-certain next owner of the Boston Herald — was the toast of the newspaper business. The chain was led by a brash, profane chief executive named John Paton, who espoused an aggressive post-print strategy built around free, advertiser-supported websites, community engagement, and high-profile initiatives such as Project Thunderdome, a national news and innovation center.

It all fell apart quickly. Alden Capital, the hedge fund that controls Digital First, grew impatient with Paton’s grandiosity. Project Thunderdome was dismantled in 2014. Paton left in 2015. And the chain embarked on a relentless strategy of cutting costs to the bone. “If you work for a company owned by a hedge fund, it’s like walking through a minefield,” Jim Brady, Digital First’s former editor-in-chief, told me in 2016. “Any step can be the one where you hit the mine. Any day it could end, and you know that.”

Brady has since turned entrepreneur, founding mobile-friendly local news sites in Philadelphia (Billy Penn) and Pittsburgh (The Incline). And the post-Paton Digital First has earned a reputation for brutal cost-cutting — which raises serious concerns about what its executives have in mind for the Herald.

Digital First, based in Denver, won the Herald sweepstakes on Tuesday by outbidding two rivals. When the Herald’s soon-to-be-former owner, Pat Purcell, took the Herald into bankruptcy in December, he said the paper would be acquired by GateHouse Media, another chain controlled by a hedge fund. But Digital First, a late entry, bid a reported $11.9 million, outdistancing GateHouse’s $4.5 million and a lesser-known contender, Revolution Capital Group.

In the short term, there might not be that much difference between GateHouse and Digital First. GateHouse would have cut the number of people employed by the Herald from 240 — about half of them editorial staff members — to 175. Digital First reportedly reached an agreement with the Newspaper Guild recently to offer jobs to about 175 people. Long-term, though, there is reason to believe the Herald might have been better off under GateHouse, despite the company’s own well-deserved reputation for obsessing over the bottom line.

Why? Consider the gap between the two bids. GateHouse’s much lower offer suggests that it would not have had to cut as much to earn back its investment. GateHouse also has a substantial infrastructure in Greater Boston, with more than 100 community newspapers, including dailies such as The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, and the Providence Journal. The Herald is currently printed by The Boston Globe, but GateHouse has considerable press capacity of its own. Finally, GateHouse officials appeared to have a plan, and had been talking with people both inside and outside the Herald for weeks. (Disclosure: including me.)

By contrast, Digital First’s intentions are a mystery. But recent news about the company has not been good. The company recently eliminated the editor’s job at the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, one of its two dailies in Massachusetts, and is now running the paper out of its other daily, The Sun of Lowell. Even more ominous, the Sentinel is getting rid of its newsroom, with journalists being told to work out of their homes. As a friend put it upon hearing the news that Digital First will soon own the Herald: “How long before the newsroom is relocated to a nearby Starbucks with free WiFi?”

In California, Digital First has gone on a rampage that rivals Sherman’s march through Georgia. According to the Los Angeles Times, the company’s Southern California News Group will soon eliminate at least 65 of the 315 newsroom positions at its 11 papers, which include such well-known titles as the Orange County Register and The Press-Enterprise of Riverside. That comes on the heels of 65 cuts last summer. Farther north, the once-great Mercury News of San Jose, which at its peak employed about 440 journalists, is down to just 39 union positions in the newsroom, with some non-union staff as well.

The newspaper business has been in trouble for more than two decades as technological and cultural changes have hollowed out its financial underpinnings. But greed should not be overlooked as a major contributing factor. Last fall I wrote about an investigation by The Nation into the hedge funds that own newspapers. Among other things, we learned from reporter Julie Reynolds that Randall Smith, the tycoon who controls Digital First, had purchased 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida, for $57 million, which he had amassed by “purchasing and then destroying newspapers.”

The one good-news story about Digital First involves the Berkshire Eagle — and that’s only because the chain sold the paper to local business leaders a couple of years ago. According to Shan Wang of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the Eagle and its affiliated newspapers in Vermont have been rebuilding their staff and their reputation since Digital First got out of town. Wang wrote:

Newly rid of Digital First Media and its cost-cutting ways, and now owned by people with real ties to the county, the Eagle newsroom was reinvigorated. The new owners laid out a guiding strategy — if you build it up, they will come back — and promised to stay in the business of local news for the long haul. Producing better, local-focused news, and more of it, they surmised, would be the straightest path to bringing back subscribers, raising more revenue — more to invest in digital products and, finally, sustainability.

What a concept. Of course, it’s a lot easier to go the independent route with small papers that enjoy local monopolies than with a large, money-losing number-two daily like the Herald, which has long labored in the shadow of the dominant Globe. If Purcell could have stayed in business, he would have.

Still, the optimist in me hopes that once Digital First has wrung whatever profits it can out of the Herald and is ready to move on, local investors will step forward who are willing to take a chance and return the paper to independent ownership. Unfortunately, the next few years are likely to be rocky — not just for Herald employees, but for their readers as well.

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No bang, just fizzle: Why Apple’s iPad flopped as a news platform

Photo (cc) 2011 by Global X.

Previously published at

Of all the good technological innovations that were supposedly going to rescue the news business from the bad technological innovations that had laid it low, perhaps none was more highly touted than Apple’s iPad.

Portable, beautiful, and cheaper than a laptop (though not cheap), the iPad would re-create the closed media environment that had prevailed before the rise of the internet. Instead of the web, you’d have apps. Instead of free access, you’d have subscriptions. Instead of frenetic multitasking, you’ve have the relative calm of one-task-at-a-time concentration. It was Steve Jobs’ final creation — the fulfillment of his dreams, according to Walter Isaacson, his biographer. Among those who let their enthusiasm get the better of them was David Carr, The New York Times’ late media columnist, who wrote several weeks before the device’s 2010 debut: “I haven’t been this excited about buying something since I was 8 years old and sent away for the tiny seahorses I saw advertised in the back of a comic book.”

Unfortunately, the iPad has proved to be a huge disappointment for news publishers. The reason, according to Shira Ovide of Bloomberg Businessweek, is that though people like their iPads, they love their smartphones. Sales of the iPad peaked at 71 million in 2013 and slid to about 44 million last year. Meanwhile, about 1.5 billion smartphones were sold in 2017. Against that backdrop, iPad sales are barely a rounding error.

Ovide attributes the iPad’s disappointing performance to the utter failure of Apple’s iBooks to challenge the Amazon Kindle and its library of electronic books. No doubt there’s something to that. I’m sure that the lack of real technological advancement has held back sales, too. I have a third-generation iPad from 2012. Although I’d like a newer, faster model, the improvement would probably not be worth the cost. New phones, on the other hand, generally offer real advances, and we’ve all gotten into the habit of upgrading every two or three years.

How has this affected the news business? We are, of course, consuming lots of news on our phones. But the iPad and other tablets were supposed to offer something different — a “lean back” experience that would mimic reading a newspaper or a magazine.

As Ovide notes, the early days of the iPad saw ambitious experiments like Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily. Moreover, our two leading national papers, the Times and The Washington Post, went all in. The Times offered an attractive iPad-only edition that was a pleasure to use. The Post several years ago unveiled a “national digital edition,” a low-cost, magazine-like product that was updated just twice a day — at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. — for people who wanted to sit down and read rather than bouncing around their phone looking for something to occupy themselves for a few minutes.

Unfortunately, the Times’ iPad edition is no more. Last year it released a universal iOS app for both the iPhone and the iPad that looks and works much better on a phone than on a tablet. The Post’s national digital edition still exists. These days, though, there is far more emphasis on mobile than on leaning back.

“In hindsight, it was a waste, and Jobs led them all on a costly detour,” Ovide writes. “The iPad is important, but it never became the ubiquitous, world-changing computer that Jobs pitched in 2010. Instead, the smartphone — including Apple’s own iPhone — changed the world.”

I should point out that there was skepticism at the time regarding the iPad’s world-changing properties. David Carr himself qualified his enthusiasm by appending this to his seahorse analogy: “Come to think of it, the purchase didn’t really meet my expectations, but with the whole new year thing, a boy can dream, right?” I also expressed reservations about the iPad ahead of its release, writing in The Guardian:

The problem is that the iSlate [as many of us thought the device would be called], rather than making our technological lives simpler, instead amounts to one more object — one more thing — that we have to lug around. It won’t replace our smartphone. And the virtual keyboard ensures that it won’t replace our laptop, either. Do we really need a third internet device to carry with us wherever we go?

Even though I later broke down and bought one, I think that assessment has held up rather well. So here’s another prediction: Technology will not save the news business. In fact, no one thing will save it — but many things might. The iPad is a fine platform on which to consume media. But it was always unrealistic to think that it would save us from the long, hard slog of developing new economic underpinnings for the journalism on which democracy depends.

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Zuckerman’s latest changes show why news needs to break the Facebook habit

1931 photo by George W. Ackerman via Wikipedia Commons.

Previously published at

Until recently I had thought my digital news-consumption habits were as archaic as heading down to Newspaper Row to peruse the headlines pasted in the window. Now, with Facebook moving toward a break-up with the news business, it appears that I may have been ahead of my time.

My morning ritual begins with the iPad and coffee. I read The Boston Globe or The Washington Post — I switch back and forth — and then read the other on my iPhone while taking the train and subway to work. I’m not just scanning headlines; I read both papers pretty thoroughly, the way we used to engage with print. Sometime during the day I’ll check in with The New York Times as well.

Now consider the strategy pursued until recently by many publishers. They would post many if not most of their stories to their Facebook page, with headlines aimed at enticing users to click and share. More clicks and more shares meant that more stories from that publisher would show up in your news feed. Finally, more clicks meant that more users visited the publisher’s website or app, where they would encounter advertising — and, as is the case with many quality news outlets these days, be asked to become paid digital subscribers.

Flimsy though that strategy may have been, publishers didn’t believe they had much choice. With more than 2 billion active users, Facebook has, for many people, essentially become the internet. Recently, though, Facebook upended everything by announcing that news posted directly by publishers would be all but eliminatedfrom the algorithmically determined news feed in favor of more social sharing by family and friends. If one of your family members shares a story from the Globe — or from Alex Jones, or from a fake-news content farm run by Macedonian teenagers— then you will still see it. But if you want to read a story posted directly by the Globe, you’ll have to visit the paper’s Facebook page. (You can change that by fiddling around with the settings, but my purpose is not to write a tutorial.)

“For publishers who have come to rely on traffic from Facebook — which for some still drives the majority of their traffic; for many others, 30 or 40 percent — this is awful news,” wrote Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Mother Jones senior editor Ben Dreyfuss told the Columbia Journalism Review’s Mathew Ingram that it could be “an extinction-level event” for some publishers.

What drove the change? In a message to users, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to “encourage meaningful social interactions with family and friends over passive consumption.” No doubt Facebook’s tortured relationship with news, fake news and Russian propaganda had something to do with it. On Monday the Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin reviewed the “tumultuous 18-month struggle by Facebook to come to grips with its dark side.” Roger McNamee, described as an investor and mentor of Zuckerberg’s, told her:  “The problem with Facebook’s whole position is that the algorithm exists to maximize attention, and the best way to do that is to make people angry and afraid.”

As news executives contemplate what it will be like to live in a post-Facebook world, they should be thinking about what it would take to revive the media habits that prevailed before Facebook became our most important news distributor. It won’t be easy. But consider the path that the Post has taken since Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013.

The Post has relied on Facebook as heavily as any newspaper, but always with an eye toward restoring the primacy of what Bezos called the “bundle” — that is, a digital version of the local, national and international news, sports, culture, business, entertainment, the crossword puzzle and everything else that made up the traditional print newspaper. It has worked spectacularly. Today the Post has more than a million paid digital subscribers and has been profitable in each of the past two years, according to publisher Frederick Ryan.

It could be that the effect of Facebook’s latest changes will not be as dire as the most apocalyptic predictions would have it, or that it could even be good news for some. In his message to users, Zuckerberg said that news would fall from 5 percent of the news feed to 4 percent. That’s a 20 percent drop, but it’s not a zeroing-out. Moreover, Zuckerberg said the company is taking steps to ensure that “the news you see, while less overall, is high quality.” That caused investors to boost the price of New York Times Co. stock by nearly 9 percent, according to Rani Molla of Recode. It also led Rupert Murdoch to demand that Facebook start paying for that quality content through “a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies.” I assume Murdoch is self-aware enough to have been suggesting his Wall Street Journal as a candidate for such quality-based payments rather than the Fox News Channel or the New York Post.

Facebook has always been a lousy partner for journalism. That’s not because Zuckerberg is especially evil. It’s because he’s in one business and news organizations are in another. News is good for Zuckerberg if it results in more users spending more time on Facebook and seeing more ads. It’s bad if it causes unneeded controversy and raises the specter of government regulation.

We’re not going back to the days when newspapers would paste headlines in the window or even when flipping through the pages of a print newspaper was mainstream behavior rather than a niche activity. What we can do is to come up with strategies aimed at encouraging readers to engage with journalism directly instead of through Facebook and other third-party distributors. Sharing on social media should be dessert, not the main course. Because, in the end, Zuckerberg is going to take all the ice cream for himself.

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In ‘The Post,’ Spielberg offers a hopeful message for our Trumpian times

Spielberg’s Nixon is the proto-Trump. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at

Movies about historical events are often meant to tell us more about the present than the past, especially in the hands of an overly earnest director like Steven Spielberg. His 2012 film “Lincoln,” for instance, depicted a president who didn’t let his high principles get in the way of some down-and-dirty dealmaking with recalcitrant members of Congress. You know, just like Obama should have been doing.

Spielberg’s latest, “The Post,” is more deft and subtle than “Lincoln.” Still, it serves as much as a commentary on current-day events as it does as a drama about the press and the Pentagon Papers. Then as now, The New York Times and The Washington Post were competing to expose high-level government wrongdoing. Then as now, their nemesis was a vindictive president who hated the press. The message, at least for the anti-Trump audience that is most likely to be enthralled by “The Post,” is that journalism will save us. Help is on the way.

The Pentagon Papers were the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. The documents showed that President Lyndon Johnson and other administration officials were aware that the war was going badly even as they publicly professed optimism — and thus allowed American soldiers to be killed for what they knew was a lost cause. This was especially galling to Richard Nixon, who was president in 1971, when the documents were leaked, and who was prosecuting the war with cruel gusto. The Times got and published the papers first, and Times partisans are grousing that Spielberg should have made a movie about that instead. For instance, Roy Harris wrote for Poynter that “the overall story of the Pentagon Papers as journalism seems somehow twisted by the Post-centric focus of the movie.”

Critics are missing the point. The Times gets its full due in “The Post” for breaking the story. But Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s fierce attempt to play catch-up, and publisher Katharine Graham’s courageous decision to publish the documents against the advice of her lawyers and advisers, was a signal moment in American journalism, establishing the Post as the near-equal of the mighty Times.

The script for “The Post” reads like it was ripped from the pages of Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History,” and from David Halberstam’s magnum opus about The Washington Post and several other media institutions, “The Powers That Be.” The Post of 1971 was a financially marginal regional paper with more in common with The Boston Globe or The Philadelphia Inquirer than with the Times. Graham decided to raise much-needed cash by reorganizing the paper as a publicly traded company. The crisis over the Pentagon Papers blew up at exactly the same moment, putting the Post in real danger: if it published the documents and was found to have broken the law, its initial public offering could go down the tubes and the company could go out of business.

Graham made her decision after being called away from a social event, a sequence that is depicted faithfully in the movie. “Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish,’” Graham wrote in “Personal History.” And she quotes Bradlee as saying later:

That was a key moment in the life of this paper. It was just sort of the graduation of the Post into the highest ranks. One of our unspoken goals was to get the world to refer to the Post and The New York Times in the same breath, which they previously hadn’t done. After the Pentagon Papers, they did.

The U.S. Supreme Court ended up vindicating both the Times and the Post by ruling, 6-3, that the Nixon administration’s attempts to prevent publication were an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment. As my WGBH News fellow contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote in The Boston Phoenix some years ago, that didn’t stop Nixon from attempting to prosecute the newspapers under the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I that is still with us. But Nixon’s efforts went nowhere.

“The Post” is not an eat-your-broccoli movie. It’s highly entertaining. Tom Hanks is terrific as Bradlee, and Meryl Streep turns in an accurate Graham, though it sometimes feels more like an elaborate impersonation than a fully realized role.

Streep’s Graham is the center of a subplot that, again, has as much to do with 2018 as it does with 1971. Although Graham had been leading the Post since 1963, when her husband, Phil Graham, shot himself in an apparent suicide, in “The Post” we see her grow and, finally, embrace her leadership role in a way that she hadn’t before. It’s a tale of female empowerment that is especially relevant right now. As my Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman wrote for USA Today:

In a refreshing departure from the shallow, oversexualized way Hollywood typically depicts women in journalism, Meryl Streep portrays Graham as a serious newspaperwoman navigating complex social and political challenges. Her role should be a blueprint for a new kind of popular culture, one that helps repair a climate where, as the #MeToo movement has revealed, media companies routinely get away with allowing sexual harassment and assault to fester.

One of my favorite characters in “The Post” is Nixon himself, whom we see back-to through a White House window, talking on the phone and threatening his enemies in the press. (We hear actual tapes of the Trickster.) And that brings me back to what “The Post” is really about.

In Donald Trump we have a president who hates the media and threatens his enemies like none since Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump is being investigated on multiple fronts — by House and Senate committees, by a special counsel, and by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Spielberg, in effect, is offering us a soothing message: Our institutions work. Look at what happened the last time.

But the past is not always prologue. The world of the 1970s was one without Fox, without alternative facts, and without a president who denounced press coverage he didn’t like as “fake news.” This time around, not only is it unclear whether the truth will be revealed — it’s even more unclear whether it will even matter.

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