Thursday, January 28, 2010

a good week for scu journalists

First this: I got two emails from Jack yesterday. The first was a link to this NYT story about the wiretap attempt at Sen. Mary Landrieu's office (D -La) in New Orleans. Jack took issue with the following quote, from the father of the kid who had been arrested for the alleged tampering:
“He is an outstanding young man doing investigative journalism,” Mr. O’Keefe said of his son. “He studies a different form of journalism, and he pushes the limits a bit. What they were up to, I have no idea.”
To which Jack responded:
The father's quote infuriates me. Apparently his "reporter" son has never heard of Food Lion v. ABC. Wiretapping a senator is no "investigative journalism" I'd ever practice.
And hooray for that. Jack also linked to the photo credit on a USA Today story on the same issue: Photo by Pat Semansky. (He also got a photo credit in the NYT piece.)

Which prompted Jack's second email:
Last night, Jeremy (Herb) and I were talking after dinner about TSC alums. And I got to thinking about three of us: Jeremy, roaming around the halls of the Capitol and chasing down Barney Frank about the financial crisis for the Boston Globe; Pat Semansky, racing to an impromptu press gathering with the ACORN pranksters for the AP; and me, frantically writing a page one story on deadline for USA Today. And it's only Wednesday!

Who says SCU doesn't teach you anything about journalism?

Finally, Jack's page one story. Apparently, he met his deadline. Here's the link. bk

Saturday, January 23, 2010

inquiring minds want to know... if a tab can win a Pulitzer

Gotta love it. WaPo's Howard Kurtz reports that the National Enquirer is going to enter its scoops on the John Edwards scandal for a Pulitzer. To which Kurtz poses the question: Should a tab be eligible for journalism's top prize?

From his column:

When the Enquirer first reported in 2007 that Edwards had had an affair with Hunter, the former North Carolina senator dismissed the account as tabloid trash. The rest of the media, having no independent proof, even as Edwards, aided by his cancer-stricken wife Elizabeth, was mounting an aggressive campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. In August 2008, after being knocked out of the campaign, Edwards admitted to ABC's "Nightline" that he had been lying about the affair. But he didn't come entirely clean. Asked about the Enquirer cover that showed him with the baby during a late-night visit to a Beverly Hills hotel, Edwards denied paternity, saying: "Published in a supermarket tabloid. That is absolutely not true. . . . I know that it's not possible that this child could be mine because of the timing of events." He claimed he wasn't sure if the man in the blurry photo was him.

Clearly, the tab was there first. But the big question is -- where were the other guys, and why didn't they check it out? Sure, it's all scandal, but just think what might have happened had he won the nomination before it all came out. bk

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Liz was here first!

Sunday's Merc featured a page one story on military women with PTSD. You'll find a link to the story itself, and my post about it here.

Just so you know: former capstoner Liz Weeker pursued this story three years ago -- back when no one else was paying attention. bk

Sunday, January 17, 2010

going behind the wall

New York Magazine recently reported that The New York Times is ready to pull the trigger on a pay-to-play model. (Lauren brought up a similar discussion in class on Wednesday. Prescient?) The final decision may be announced within days, once the powers-that-be decide on the appropriate model:

The Times has considered three types of pay strategies. One option was a more traditional pay wall along the lines of The Wall Street Journal, in which some parts of the site are free and some subscription-only. For example, editors and business-side executives discussed a premium version of Andrew Ross Sorkin's DealBook section. Another option was the metered system. The third choice, an NPR-style membership model, was abandoned last fall, two sources explained. The thinking was that it would be too expensive and cumbersome to maintain because subscribers would have to receive privileges (think WNYC tote bags and travel mugs, access to Times events and seminars).
While the pay model will bring in badly needed revenue, one issue is whether the pay model will result in a drop-off in readership in what has become a global journalism soure. Some years back, the paper experimented with a partial-pay system, where some content was free, while premium content was only available to subscribers. As happened when tried a similar strat, it didn't work:
What makes the decision so agonizing for Sulzberger is that it involves not just business considerations, but ultimately a self-assessment of just what Times journalism is worth to the world. This fall, Keller told the Observer that at some point, the decision is a “gut call about what we think the audience will accept.” Hanging over the deliberations is the fact that the Times’ last experience with pay walls, TimesSelect, was deeply unsatisfying and exposed a rift between Sulzberger and his roster of A-list columnists, particularly Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd, who grew frustrated at their dramatic fall-off in online readership. Not long before the Times ultimately pulled the plug on TimesSelect, Friedman wrote Sulzberger a long memo explaining that, while he was initially supportive of TimesSelect, he’d been alarmed that he had lost most of his readers in India and China and the Middle East. “As we got into it, it was clear to me I was getting cut off from a lot of my readers in India and China where 50 dollars per year would be equal to a quarter of college tuition,” Friedman recently told me by phone. “What was coming to me anecdotally from my travels was the five worst words that as a columnist you ever want to hear: ‘I used to read you before you went behind the wall.’”
Of course, as Lauren and others brought up on Wednesday, the most important issue is this: somebody has to figure out a way to pay the reporters to do the work. bk

Thursday, January 14, 2010

jack's back ...

... with a hard-hitting investigation of collegiate spending on sports in USA Today. The story (plus sidebars) was based on a detailed analysis of four years of financial information from university athletic departments.

Here's a taste:

More than $800 million in student fees and university subsidies are propping up athletic programs at the nation's top sports colleges, including hundreds of millions in the richest conferences, a USA TODAY analysis found.

The subsidies have reached that level amid a continuing crisis in higher education funding. At some of the schools where athletics is most heavily subsidized, faculty salaries have dipped, state-funded financial aid is drying up and students are bracing for tuition and fee increases.

Taken together, the subsidies for athletics at 99 public schools in the NCAA's 120-member Football Bowl Subdivision grew about 20% in four years, from $685 million in 2005 to $826 million in 2008, after adjusting for inflation. At more than a third of those schools, the percentage of athletic department revenue coming from subsidies grew during the four-year period studied.

Congrats to Jack: Disturbing story. Great work. Often the two go hand in hand. bk

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

how to save newspapers vs why to save newspapers

Two views on the future of newsapers: First, from the Nation, John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney reprise their argument for public support of journalism:

In moments of crisis, our wisest leaders have always recognized the indispensible role of journalism in democracy. We are in such a crisis now. It is the character of the crisis, and the urgency of the moment, that should make Americans impatient with blanket condemnations of subsidies. State support is vital to higher education; on rare occasions professors have been harassed by governors or legislators over the content of their research or lectures. But only an extreme libertarian or a nihilist would argue to end all public support of higher education to eliminate the threat of this kind of government abuse. Likewise, the government does not tax church property or income, which is in effect a massive subsidy of organized religion. Yet the government has not favored particular religions or required people to hold religious views.
And now, for the other side, an oldie but goodie by Slate's Jack Shafer, who took on the McChesney-Nichols argument almost a year ago. (As an aside, look what happened to government-subsidize entities such as NEA and PBS):

Big love for newspapers has also been flowing in from academy/activist circles, a very unlikely source. Many in this orbit blame the press for not spotting our current financial predicament early enough and also believe that every reporter outside of the old Knight Ridder Washington bureau was complicit in the criminal conspiracy that made George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq possible. Bill Moyers encapsulated their view two years ago when he argued against the notion "that the dominant institutions of the press are guardians of democracy. They actually work to keep reality from us, whether it's the truth of money in politics, the social costs of 'free trade,' growing inequality, the resegregation of our public schools, or the devastating onward march of environmental deregulation."

Yet now, as newspapers attrite and collapse, some scholars are telling us that newspapers are a necessary component of democracy. Princeton University scholars Samuel Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido recently linked the Dec. 31, 2007, closure of the Cincinnati Post (circulation 27,000) to a local decline in vote turnout and office seekers, even though the Cincinnati Enquirer (circulation 200,000) survives. Media consolidation critics Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, who asked "Who'll Unplug the Big Media?" in The Nation a year ago, are back this week lamenting the demise of big newspaper journalism. They're calling for "tax policies, credit policies and explicit subsidies to convert the remains of old media into independent, stable institutions." I can't wait to hear the duo's pitch for a government subsidy to keep Rupert Murdoch's New York Post alive.
Shafer ends his piece with this: "All this lovey-dovey about how essential newspapers are to civic life and the political process makes me nostalgic for the days, not all that long ago, when everybody hated them." For the record, McChesney was one of them. bk

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

write thin to win?

Want to improve journalism? Get out the scissors. Metaphorically, that is. Michael Kinsley rants about the excesses in daily journalism in this post from the Atlantic.

Pet peeve No. 1: long and cumbersome leads full of background that can only serve the reader who just woke up from a coma:

Take, for example, the lead story in The New York Times on Sunday, November 8, 2009, headlined “Sweeping Health Care Plan Passes House.” There is nothing special about this article. November 8 is just the day I happened to need an example for this column. And there it was. The 1,456-word report begins:

Handing President Obama a hard-fought victory, the House narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system on Saturday night, advancing legislation that Democrats said could stand as their defining social policy achievement.

Fewer than half the words in this opening sentence are devoted to saying what happened. If someone saw you reading the paper and asked, “So what’s going on?,” you would not likely begin by saying that President Obama had won a hard-fought victory. You would say, “The House passed health-care reform last night.” And maybe, “It was a close vote.” And just possibly, “There was a kerfuffle about abortion.” You would not likely refer to “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system,” as if your friend was unaware that health-care reform was going on. Nor would you feel the need to inform your friend first thing that unnamed Democrats were bragging about what a big deal this is—an unsurprising development if ever there was one.

And another: "well, duh" quotes that are not only self-evident, but are shorter than the identifiers. As in:
“Now is the chance to fix our health care system and improve the lives of millions of Americans,” Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, said as she opened the daylong proceedings.

(Quote: 18 words; identification: 21 words.)

Meanwhile, Republicans oppose the bill. Yes, they do. And if you haven’t surmised this from the duly reported fact that all but one of them voted against it, perhaps you will find another quote informative.

“More taxes, more spending and more government is not the plan for reform the people support,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina and one of the conservatives who relentlessly criticized the Democrats’ plan.

(Quote: 16 words; identification, 19 words.)

Finally, he rails at the wink-wink practice of reporters quoting random Joes to get across the reporter's own opinion -- and voila. Objective journalism it becomes. why not just cut out the middleman, Kinsey wonders, rather than dredging up quotes from the likes of Jesse M. Brill, who was quoted in an NYT story on the current financial crisis:

Those are 56 words spent allowing Jesse M. Brill to restate the author’s point. Yet I, for one, have never heard of Jesse M. Brill before. He may be a fine fellow. But I have no particular reason to trust him, and he has no particular reason to need my trust. The New York Times, on the other hand, does need my trust, or it is out of business. So it has a strong incentive to earn my trust every day (which it does, with rare and historic exceptions). But instead of asking me to trust it and its reporter about the thesis of this piece, The New York Times asks me to trust this person I have never heard of, Jesse M. Brill.

Of course this attempt to pass the hot potato to a total stranger doesn’t work, because before I can trust Jesse M. Brill about the thesis of the piece, I have to trust The New York Times that this Jesse M. Brill person is trustworthy, and the article under examination devotes many words to telling me who he is so that I will trust him. (By contrast, it tells me nothing about the reporter.) Why not cut out the middleman? The reason to trust this story, if you choose to do so, is that it is in The New York Times. What Jesse M. Brill may think adds nothing. Yet he is only one of several experts quoted throughout, basically telling the story all over again.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

a cheat sheet for good writing

William Zinsser, author of the million-seller "On Writing Well", lays out the fundamentals of writing good English in this piece in The American Scholar. The article was based on a speech he gave in August at the Columbia J-school to the incoming international students.

He starts off his rules for good writing by making a distinction between "good nouns" and "bad nouns", the latter being derivatives of the odious Latin:
The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.

How do those Latin words do their strangling and suffocating? In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion—like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!)—or that end in -ent—like development and fulfillment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture—somebody doing something. Here’s a typical sentence: “Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” That means “Before we fixed our money problems.”

The good nouns, he writes, are those good old Anglo-Saxon words that are strong and concrete and that refer to the stuff of everyday life. Later, he references Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Didion and Obama, among others, to show that the best and most evocative writing is clear, concrete and active. Here's an eg:

One of my favorite writers is Henry David Thoreau, who wrote one of the great American books, Walden, in 1854, about the two years he spent living—and thinking—in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s writing moves with simple strength because he uses one active verb after another to push his meaning along. At every point in his sentences you know what you need to know. Here’s a famous sentence from Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of nature, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Look at all those wonderful short, active verbs: went, wished, front, see, learn, die, discover. We understand exactly what Thoreau is saying. We also know a lot about him—about his curiosity and his vitality. How alive Thoreau is in that sentence! It’s an autobiography in 44 words—39 of which are words of one syllable. Think about that: only five words in that long, elegant sentence have more than one syllable. Short is always better than long.

Exactly. bk

Friday, January 8, 2010

the future of magazines?

Here's what some folks are predicting the new tablet computers can do for the magazine industry. Lots of glitz, lots of pix -- and actual reporting and writing, too. Can't say I'd use one, but if it will keep magazine writers in business, I'd buy one.

Here's the link to Sports Illustrated's prototype. (My apologies for the swimsuit segment.) Below is the video. Let us know what you think. bk

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

incivility in the internet age

An obituary for journalist Deborah Howell, who was killed in an accident in new Zealand, generated a slew of ugly comments from readers who didn't even know her. In this NPR interview, journalist Melinda Henneberger questions the incivility that results from the anonymity of the internet.

When do we say basta? Or should we? Should these kinds of comments be censored? Is doing so a violation of free speech? The internet has long been heralded as an instrument of democratization. But how do we -- or should we -- corral it?

You can read Henneberger's column on the subject on Politics Daily here. Here's a taste:

But there was also a shocking number of comments to the effect that since Howell was in the news business, she must have been a lefty, so how fabulous she'd been killed. There was joshing speculation about whether she'd been driving a hybrid, a joke about how liberals walking in lockstep really ought to be more careful, and a couple of cracks about how Republicans were sure to be blamed. "One less of those anti-US types to deal with," said one of several celebratory rejoinders from readers who by their own account had five minutes earlier never even heard of Deborah Howell.
We can't pretend this sort of thing is limited to one or other corner, either; Matt Lewis wrote here about how news of Rush Limbaugh's chest pains had similarly gladdened some tiny liberal hearts, and our obit of Irving Kristol provoked disquieting comments, too.

So, what to make of this? Assuming we are not becoming a nation of psychopaths, are we trading our humanity for a little negative attention? Do people just not think before they type? Or, even if they don't really mean such meanness, do they not worry that someone who reads it might?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

pay to play? nope

And we're back! New year, new decade, new ethics question, via Clark Hoyt's weekly column for the New York Times on journalism practice and ethics.

In Sunday's column, the paper's "public editor" writes of why the paper will no longer be working with three freelancers: Harvard professor Mary Tripsas who failed to disclose the fact that 3M, a company she wrote about in the business section, had paid her way to visit its plant; another freelancer who similarly failed to disclose that he had accepted an expense-paid junket to Jamaica for a story for an online publication; and lastly, a young and prolific writer who misrepresented himself as an NYT reporter when "asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project."

You gotta admire his chutzpah. But credible journalism practice it is not.

What was at stake, Hoyt writes, was not just the fact that the three had violated the language set out in the Times' freelance contract -- but they had essentially violated the reporter's covenant with the reader. While there may or may not have been a real conflict of interest in these cases -- the perception of bias is always there when reporters are paid to play. At least one freelancer, however, takes issue with the policy. Former Times columnist Virginia Postrel finds the rules unfair to writers and "borderline unethical" From Hoyt's piece:
The paper wants to treat freelancers like staffers without the same pay or benefits, and without paying for their research, Postrel said. She said The Times operates under “the false assumption” that companies pay fees to professors or authors to influence their writing rather than to learn from them. Postrel said Tripsas’ main job was to understand and improve business practices, so it did not matter who paid her way to 3M.
Times editors reject such arguments because, to them, the most important consideration is that everything in the newspaper, no matter who produces it, must be free of even the smallest hint of undue influence. “I think it is important for us to be clear and strict about our rules so readers have reason to trust our credibility,” [Standards editor Phillip] Corbett said.
Ultimately, that's what it's about. Transparency and credibility. Not only to please the editors or the mighty New York Times, but most importantly, at a time when the entire industry is tottering on a cliff, to live up to the expectations of the readers.

BTW, you can download a pdf of the NYT's ethical rulebook here (for some reason, the link won't work the way it should. Do not ask me why.): Ethical_Journalism_0904.pdf.

Meanwhile, I like the way True/Slant's Caitlin Kelly weighs in on the young freelancer who misrepresented himself as a Times reporter to cadge some free airline tickets. No equivocation in her post: you don't play fast and loose, not if you want any credibility as a reporter:

Get a grip, kid. Really. There are dozens, likely hundreds of freelance writers who produce copy for the Times who refrain from using the paper as an artificial crutch. Yes, it’s a nice clip and gives us street cred. But not because we lie about our relationship to the paper; we’re a “freelancer for the Times” or “a regular contributor”.

Using the word “reporter”, as anyone knows, implies something else, better and more prestigious. Very few journalists will ever get an interview at the Times, let alone a job offer. Those who do get hired — contrary to many fantasies — tend to keep their noses very, very clean. They like their job, the salary, the prestige and access it affords, their colleagues. Some are also still protective of the larger organization, loyal to larger notions of what a newspaper still is or should be or can be. Or just to the Times itself.