Jay Rosen: The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism

22 02 2010

Jay Rosen of NYU poses an excellent question about the state of journalism, based on David Barstow’s reporting in The NYT last week about the Tea Party Movement: Is it enough to report the expressed beliefs of the movement without examining the reality of those beliefs?

Barstow notes that the binding narrative of the Tea Party is “impending tyranny.” Rosen, while generally complimentary of the Times’ investment of resources to take a deep look at the movement, complains that Barstow never points out that there is no basis in “reality” for the binding narrative, not one shred of evidence of stolen elections, a plan to eviscerate the Constitution, a takeover of the Internet, etc., etc. The media, he says, are so afraid of being identified with an ideology that they avoid the question of validity while instead reporting the horse race. The Tea Party is ascendant, period. (I particularly love Rosen’s extrapolation examining what the mainstream media coverage of the Afghan government would look like if it applied the same horse-race reportage.)

I found myself in full agreement with Rosen until, digging into the comments, I came upon Robert Morris’ illumination from a Southern perspective. Like Rosen, I often wondered, “Where are these people coming up with stuff? Doesn’t anyone besides Jon Stewart want to point out the absurdity of it all?”

Like Morris, however, I am a Southerner. What he points out is true: Some Americans, largely concentrated in the South, are expressing what for them IS a reality and not a paranoid fantasy. The feel an absolute right to use tobacco, fly the flag of the Confederacy, refuse to buy health insurance, keep unions out, pretend gays don’t exist in the military, and so on. That’s liberty for them, and it’s being assaulted on many sides, as they see it.

Rosen rails against  “perception is reality” as a cop-out. For him, there is an objective reality, and the news media have a duty to report departures from it. But Morris’ point is equally valid: For some of these folks, “impending tyranny” is reality, and their perceptions affirm it.

So, I think Barstow plays it nearly right, and Rosen, too. Rosen says he wishes Barstow’s piece were even longer. Me, too. I disagree that he should declare the Tea Party beliefs to be irrational and delusional. But I think he should have illuminated those beliefs in more detail, challenged their proponents to back up their charges, and let the readers decide for themselves.

Finally, I’m not sure the current state of the media represents a low point, as Rosen apparently believes. It can get better. Remember that most of the media reported only the horse-race aspects of Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities for four years before Edward R. Murrow finally had the guts to examine the facts of it, which shut McCarthy down in a matter of days.

Pole vault over the paywall?

25 01 2010

Turns out, there could well be a chink in the paywall of nytimesonline.com.

In fact, it may not be a wall at all, and may not address the  issue  of news aggregators linking to content generated by newspapers.

Of course, The Times wants to encourage links to its online content, perhaps particularly so once The Times asks us to pay for that content upon reaching a certain number of visits to its site. Naturally, those includes links from bloggers and on Facebook and Twitter and other social media. And if you follow such a link, it won’t count in your “metered” number of visits.

Q. What about posting articles to Facebook and other social media? Would friends without a subscription then not be able to view an article that I think is relevant for them? — Julie, Pinole CA
A. Yes, they could continue to view articles. If you are coming to NYTimes.com from another Web site and it brings you to our site to view an article, you will have access to that article and it will not count toward your allotment of free ones.
But as Jay Rosen points out,

Google News is surely “another Web site,” therefore all articles found that way will be free and accessible. … No matter how often Google News is used to get to the Times, if you come back by that route you will never be charged.

Which means that for those people who get their news from the web itself, using search, aggregators, social media and blogs to find the stuff they want, the stuff they find from the New York Times will always be available, free of charge.  That looks a lot less like a pay wall to me. It isn’t a metered system if I can access the Times via the link economy without limit.  This scrambles a lot of what’s been written on the subject.
This whole paid content issue gets more complicated the further one gets into it. That’s obviated by the fact that the big brains in the business have yet to solve it. But we’ve got to try something. If it turns out the NYT system fails to provide significant revenue for news gathering, let’s tinker some more. The decline of journalism is too urgent to cling to unproven hopes of an new model emerging or to stand on the sidelines naysaying all efforts to make the Fourth Estate viable again.

NYT appears close to move to paid content

18 01 2010

New York magazine reports that the decision is imminent. Unclear whether the Times would go with a metered model or a two-tiered scheme like the Wall Street Journal, in which some parts are free but others require a subscription. The Times tried and abandoned the latter course a few years ago, with its unsuccessful offer of paid “premium” content.

So what has changed? The timing now may have to do with technology, the magazine reports.

(Apple’s tablet computer is rumored to launch on January 27, and sources speculate that Sulzberger will strike a content partnership for the new device, which could dovetail with the paid strategy.)

More freelancers, more ethics problems

3 01 2010

The New York Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, reports that the newspaper’s increasing use of freelancers has given it ethics headaches.

These cases illustrate how hard it is for The Times to ensure that freelancers, who contribute a substantial portion of the paper’s content, abide by ethics guidelines that editors believe are self-evident and essential to the paper’s credibility but that writers sometimes don’t think about, or don’t think apply to their circumstances, or believe are unfair or unrealistic.

Hoyt quotes Virginia Postrel, a former Times columnist, as saying:

[She] thinks the paper’s rules are unfair to writers and are themselves “borderline unethical.” 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.

But Postrel, on her own blog, says that’s not all she told Clark. She includes an e-mail she sent him, which states:

I strongly believe that the Times is using its market power to freeload on the human capital–including both personal reputations and the expensive process of learning things–of its freelancers, which is one reason it is so happy to have so many professors on board, (something that will end if you seriously start enforcing the prohibition against earning any money from anybody who might conceivably be a source for any theoretical future article). But, hey, you can always dig up some more 24 year olds.

It’s just another band on the newspapers’ death spiral. Loss of readership causes cost cutting, which causes quality problems, including ethical issues, which causes credibility problem, which causes more loss of readership ….

NYT: Iran coverage bends journalism rules

29 06 2009

CNN IranAcknowledging that it’s a bitter pill to swallow, the New York Times notes that the traditional media’s embrace of feeds from Iran via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs “amounts to the biggest embrace yet of a collaborative new style of news gathering — one that combines the contributions of ordinary citizens with the reports and analysis of journalists.”

Many mainstream media sources, which have in the past been critical of the undifferentiated sources of information on the Web, had little choice but to throw open their doors in this case. As the protests against Mr. Ahmadinejad grew, the government sharply curtailed the foreign press. As visas expired, many journalists packed up, and the ones who stayed were barred from reporting on the streets.

In a news vacuum, amateur videos and eyewitness accounts became the de facto source for information.

The newspaper admits that in publishing this material first and asking questions later, the news media violates one of the first rules of journalism: “Know the source.” Often, the nature of the content relayed by tradtional media — as well as its context, and timing — are so vague as to add little understanding to what is going on. So far, there appears to be little mischief or deceit among the anonymous transmittals from Iran. The unusual circumstances in Iran, though, seem to have opened a few eyes among traditional media.

Bill Mitchell, a senior leader at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists, said the extent of user involvement shown in the Iran coverage seems to be a new way of thinking about journalism.

“Instead of limiting ourselves to full-blown articles to be written by a journalist (professional or otherwise), the idea is to look closely at stories as they unfold and ask: is there a piece of this story I’m in a particularly good position to enhance or advance?” he said in an e-mail message.

“And it’s not just a question for journalists,” he added.

I’ve got to admit I’ve been queasy about the use of so much unsupported and unverifiable information, particularly the highly emotional imagery. There is danger of inflaming a reaction that could lead, again, to rash intervention and unwise foreign entanglements. I’ve railed at broadcasters’ running and rerunning footage about which they know practically nothing, other than that it contains blood and violence. I suspect journalists and politicians of projecting their own agendas onto these vague images.

Still, I come back to thinking that some information is better than none. It’s better for us to have a glimpse, however obscure, into something obviously massive and possibly historic. Maybe later on we can know and understand what we are seeing today — if the media and audience attention span allow.

David Geffen looking to buy NYT, convert it to not-for-profit

18 05 2009

Newsweek is reporting this interesting tidbit. It could herald a new model for journalism.Geffen

So why is Geffen, having already sought unsuccessfully to acquire the Los Angeles Times and now reportedly eyeing The New York Times, so keen on stuffing his portfolio with an investment that seems dead on arrival—newspapers? Geffen declined to publicly comment on media reports that he recently tried to acquire a large stake in the financially distressed New York Times Co., parent of the storied newspaper. But two people familiar with Geffen’s thinking say the answer is simple: an acquisition of the Times wouldn’t be a financial investment. If Geffen were successful in landing The New York Times, said one of the confidantes, he’d convert it into a nonprofit institution. He would regard the newspaper, perhaps the world’s most influential journalistic enterprise, as a national treasure meriting preservation into perpetuity. His model would be the ownership structure of Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, which is controlled by a nonprofit educational institution, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “David would hope the newspaper makes a profit,” said the confidante. “But he believes that operating without the ultimate responsibility of paying dividends or necessarily having to be profitable is the best way to run an institution like The New York Times.” …

The New York Times Co. has been in virtual crisis mode for months, with precipitous declines in advertising and circulation and the burden with massive amounts of debt. The parent company has been so concerned about its plight that, independent of Geffen, it also recently considered converting to nonprofit status. “But the option is more complicated than it might seem at first blush,” Scott Heekin-Canedy, president and general manager, said last week in answer to a reader’s online query. “For a host of reasons we have ruled this out for the present.” Heekin-Canedy didn’t elaborate, however. “These were proprietary internal discussions,” a company spokeswoman subsequently told NEWSWEEK, declining further comment.

Watching Boston Globe developments with ambilvalence

4 05 2009

I can’t help rooting for a solution, however temporary, to keep the Globe on life support. It’s hard to imagine Boston without the Globe. But it’s become a shadow of itself, and the current concessions that the New York Times Co. is forcing on the Newspaper Guild can only accelerate the death spiral.

Note the lukewarm vote of confidence from the newspaper’s publisher:

While negotiations with the paper’s smaller unions have been relatively productive, the Guild, representing such a large and diverse group, has had to overcome deeper divisions. Still, most Guild members felt something would be worked out to avoid closure, according to Globe employees, and an email Thursday from Globe publisher Steven Ainsley lifted their hopes.

“By all accounts the talks have been substantive,” Mr. Ainsley wrote, adding that he thinks “we’ll emerge from this difficult period in better shape than when we entered it.”

On Sunday night, the Guild said that after “arduous deliberations” it had exceeded management’s demands for $10 million in cuts. “These tremendous sacrifices, across virtually all categories of compensation and benefits, are more than adequate to continue The Boston Globe’s mission of quality journalism,” the Guild said in its statement.

Viewing the situation as a “difficult period” from which we can emerge is part of the problem. It’s the end of the era for newspapers, and what will emerge for journalism has yet to take shape. But now is the time for creative evolution, not the prolonging of death throes.

I love newspapers and journalism, and I admire the commitment and courage of those still fighting the good fight. But you can’t cost-cut your way out of this problem. The work must be done on the revenue side and in building a viable business model.

Boston is the home of some of the world’s greatest minds in technology and business. I’ve got to believe that if there is a future for journalism, it can be born here.

Can the New York Times survive ad slump?

21 04 2009

From The Wall Street J0urnal:

New York Times Co. reported a wider loss in the first quarter, hampered by another steep decline in advertising revenue, costs related to job cuts and a write-down of leases associated with a newsstand-distribution subsidiary that closed during the quarter. …

As with other newspaper publishers, the evaporation of classified ad sales — the traditional lifeblood of the industry — was the most alarming aspect of the results. Revenue in the category plunged 45%. …

Digital businesses accounted for nearly 13% of New York Times Co.’s revenue in the first quarter, up from 11.1% in 2008’s first quarter. At About.com, the company’s online-information portal, revenue fell 5% to $27 million, reflecting a decline in display advertising.