July 14, 2006
"Why would a journalist describe prevailing wisdom in his own business as way dumber than it really is? Because it's the cheapest way there is to sound smart: defy the conventional wisdom that you just spent $0.0 and zero man hours compiling."
As soon as I read Romenesko’s description, “Justin Fox says the soap opera at Wendy McCaw’s Santa Barbara News-Press shows that independent, local ownership isn’t necessarily the salvation of the ailing newspaper industry,” I knew one thing about the story it was pointing to: There won’t be any quotes for “the salvation of…” part.
There never are. And definitely no links. “Isn’t necessarily the salvation” was the sound of a professional journalist giving himself a free pass. Had to be. So I clicked on the link. There it was: an especially clear example of taking a freebie. In Why being publicly-held is best Fortune’s editor-at-large, Justin Fox, wrote:
Now that Wendy McCaw has driven away most of the editors from the newspaper she owns, the Santa Barbara News-Press, a lot of people in journalism are beginning to question what had become accepted wisdom in the past year or so - that independent, local ownership is the salvation of the ailing newspaper industry.
Fox told me something I didn’t know, but don’t for a moment believe. No one believes it. Newspaper people, known to be struggling with big problems for a long time, have at last found The Answer? Fox says so. It’s conventional wisdom, he says, that local independent ownership is their salvation.
The statement is bull. What conventional wisdom says (maybe) is that local independent ownership is worth a try again, and might work out better than corporate chains have. Why would a journalist describe prevailing wisdom in his own business as way dumber than it really is? Because it’s the cheapest way there is to sound smart: defy the conventional wisdom that you just spent $0.0 and zero man hours compiling.
Now a Fortune columnist has to deliver some sort of “payoff,” a point ‘o column. (Which is often the point where the author will put up his arms in a mock “shield” position to indicate all the terrible flak he is going to get for the counter-conventional thought he is duty bound to deliver.) In this case, point ‘o column was… and I know this is hard to believe, but I figured you might accept it if someone with the credibility of a Fortune editor-at-large had the courage to say so… Anyway, it turns out… (cue thundercrack) there actually is no “perfect” answer for newspaper ownership! That’s right. Justin Fox of Fortune found out about it and told the whole world. What’s more, there is no panacea, either. And guess what else? No magic bullet, people. Nuh-uh. Every solution has its pros and cons, guys.
Doesn’t that floor you? So counter-intuitive! But when the pros at Fortune start digging into this stuff… bang, the magic happens.
Justin “Free Pass” Fox therefore writes:
There are also conflicts when employees own a paper (is it there to serve readers, or to provide safe jobs?), and even more when government does. Simply put, there are no large organizations immune from being tugged in several different directions at once.
And here’s the thing: If you had to pick the one governance model best equipped to reconcile the conflicting priorities of owners, employees and customers over time, it is that of the publicly traded corporation.
No, here’s the thing, newspaper journalists. If someone tells you that you are better off with the Gannett Company over, say, the Poynter Institute (see this article) there’s an ideology for sale, for sure. Fox: “Denouncing the American corporate model of rule by Wall Street has become a national pastime.” He’s here to balance the ledger.
That’s because, at a publicly traded company, legions of sharp-eyed, independent observers (a.k.a. investors and potential investors) are constantly investigating the business, weighing short-term against long-term rewards, comparing performance with that of similar companies. They don’t always do a good job of it, and can be maddeningly fickle slaves to fashion. It’s a good thing that there are alternatives to the public-corporation model, so there’s a place to turn when market values are particularly out of whack. But it’s not clear that any of those alternatives really work out better over the long run.
JUSTIN FOX DEFIES CONVENTIONAL WISDOM. We get it. What Fox doesn’t get, I think, is how bald an action his free pass and distortion-of-debate are. The conventional wisdom he was trying to subvert doesn’t exist. Most people who are aware of the newspaper industry’s plight think what Fox thinks: it’s not clear that alternatives to the big media corporation work out better over the long run. Still might be worth a try.
Now you might say: Wait, he just flashed his “gimme, I’m a columnist” card and the people in his organization waved him through into print with a lame and inaccurate characterization based on zero reporting? That’s not quite how I imagined it, no…
Gomer Fortune calls out over the cubicle: Do we accept no examples, no quotes, no names, no links for documenting trends and widely-accepted beliefs in a Fortune article?
Barney Fortune answers back: Column or a news story?
Gomer Fortune: Column by our editor-at-large.
Barney Fortune: Nah, he doesn’t need examples, quotes, names— what else did you say, links?
Gomer: Yeah, links. He doesn’t have any.
Barney: What’s his assertion?
Gomer (looking down at screen): He’s saying that the newspaper industry has found its salvation, and everyone agrees, its local ownership.
Barney: Oh, for something like that I just give him a free pass on what everyone believes. This is a standard de-bunk column, right?
Gomer: Right, a de-bunk. “No panacea.”
Barney: Hey, that’s basic, everything-you-know-is-wrong journalism, Gomer. He needs the free pass to get to the payoff at the end. He’s got a counter-intuitive thingie in there somewhere, doesn’t he?
Gomer (looking at screen again): Sure does. Publicly traded is the way to go for newspapers.
Barney: Bingo. Value added. That’s how we do a Fortune de-bunk.
Gomer: Got it. One more question, just to be sure. If the free pass is in the first paragraph and frames the whole column, it’s still okay, right? Because at another desk I worked at—
Barney: Let me look at that…
Gomer: —they had this thing: shoe leather reporting they called it. Even for columnists!
Barney (reading): “… People in journalism are beginning to question what had become accepted wisdom in the past year or so - that independent, local ownership is the salvation of the ailing newspaper industry.” That’s a perfectly-played senior-columnist prevailing-wisdom free pass. I don’t know what your problem is.
Gomer: Just making sure. And in the online version, we don’t normally add links do we?
Barney: Add links? Then we’d have to find them… The writer should do that— it’s his column.
Gomer: Right. But…
Barney: And the answer to your question is, yes, Gomer, we accept no examples, no quotes, no names, no links for a standard debunker. By a senior columnist.
Barney: If it’s crucial to the columnist’s point.
Dear Free Pass Fox: The actual conversation that real people in your industry are having about local ownership in the newspaper business is nothing like the fact-free observation you tried to peddle in Fortune. Here, let me show you…
Recently the Philadelphia newspapers were sold to local owners. (See PressThink, A Prayer for the Philly Papers.) I reviewed almost all the commentary on the deal, and I found no “salvation” talk. I did find Dick Polman, head political writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, writing cautiously at his blog about it:
It would be foolish to think that the new PMH, helmed by marketing/advertising executive Brian Tierney, will suddenly rain down money on the Inquirer newsroom, restore foreign bureaus, bring back the Sunday magazine, and hire scores of young and hungry reporters. That’s not how the world works.
So nirvana will not dawn tomorrow; nor will we know, in the short term, whether the various special interests that comprise PMH will adhere to their signed pledge to keep their mitts off the newsroom.
Did you hear that, Free Pass? “Nirvana will not dawn tomorrow.” That’s the opposite of “this is our salvation.” Dick Polman is just one voice, of course. But it’s one more than you’ve got in that lazy-ass column you wrote!
“Are there legitimate reasons to have concerns?” asked Chris Hepp, city editor of The Inquirer, shorly after the sale was announced. “Absolutely. The fact that they signed an agreement was an acknowledgment that they know this model holds out the possibility for some pitfalls. But it’s only fair for us to be aware of the potential for a negative, but not to presume a negative. I’m willing to believe the best.”
Be aware that it could go wrong, but don’t presume it will. That doesn’t sound like “salvation is at hand…” It’s through linking and quoting—you know basic, what’s everybody sayin’ journalism—that we learn how wrong you are, Free Pass.
Like Joe Nocera of the New York Times:
Local owners have sacred cows, but they are also far more likely to have real passion for the city the newspaper is charged with covering. In the case of the new owners of the Philadelphia papers, they also seem to have lots of new ideas they want to try. And because the papers will no longer be part of a publicly traded corporation — with no need to feed the Wall Street beast — the cost cutting might finally ease up.
Maybe we should start thinking about newspapers as more like professional sports franchises. Sure, the owners want to make money, but they also have other priorities, so “maximizing profits” is not the only goal. Newspapers and sports franchises are important local institutions. If more local folks start buying newspapers, I think it might be a trend worth applauding.
Compare your characterization—“salvation of the ailing newspaper industry”—to what actual people actually said: “might be a trend worth applauding.” You’re the hysteric here, Free Pass, posing as Mister Cool. You’re not debunking. You’re bunking.
Comes journalism professor Phil Meyer at PressThink: “There’s good and bad local ownership. Katherine Graham turned out to be good. Walter Annenberg turned out to be bad. But you have to give the benefit of the doubt to the new owners in Philaldelphia.”
And here’s Frank Ahrens, Washington Post, scooping you on your phony scoop:
But lest a generation of newspaper journalists — who have watched corporate parents slash costs through layoffs, budget cuts, bureau closings and the like — gets dewy-eyed over the prospect of local, private ownership, [Dean] Singleton warned: “I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between performing well to please your shareholder or performing well to please your bankers.”
Lest a generation of newspaper journalists get dewy-eyed over the prospect… Is that the sound of salvation at hand? I don’t think so, Free Pass. Former editor of the Baltimore Sun and Los Angeles Times John Carroll at Nieman Watchdog:
With the shrinking of the newspaper’s social purpose, we have seen a shrinking of the newspaper journalist. It has happened slowly and subtly, but, if you stand back, as I have lately, it’s all too clear.
The old, local owners were far from perfect. Some of them were good, most were mediocre, and some were downright evil. But, forty years later, local ownership is looking better every day. Someday, I suspect, when we look back on these forty years, we will wonder how we allowed the public good to be so deeply subordinated to private gain.
It is tempting to find a goat here, to single out some individual and heap blame on him or her for the decline of our business. That might be cathartic, but the problem is bigger than that. It is structural. Most of the people in the corporations, and most of the people in the funds, are doing their jobs by the book. Restoring a balance between financial performance and public duty is probably impossible under this form of ownership.
“The old, local owners were far from perfect” is typical of what I hear when people conversant with the newspaper industry discuss new local owners like the ones in Philadelphia.
This last one is from Laura M. Holson of the New York Times business desk.
Local newspapers remain trophies that confer power, prestige and influence on their owners. And some business leaders profess more idealistic goals: to make their community a better place, using the power that comes with owning a powerful institution.
Of course, there can be a downside to local ownership, because buyers may not know much about journalism. And they may also have personal or business agendas that could surface in the newspaper and damage its credibility.
There’s an upside, there’s a downside to local ownership. Reasons to be hopeful, reasons to be wary. Where did you get the idea that your peers don’t know this? (After all, it’s common sense.) I’ll tell you where, Free Pass: you made it up so that your column would be easier to write. But the day when you could get by with that standard is over. Gone. The bar has been raised on opinion journalism. The Web did it, especially the magic of linking and the powers of Google. Where have you been?
: Notes, reactions & links…
“Thanks, Jay, for all the loving attention!” Justin Fox replies in the comments: “Of all the many straw men I’ve attempted to bat down over the years, that was one of the least flimsy.”
Now that is an interesting way of putting it. I thought this was one of my sturdier stick figures.
And here’s my answer. “Your original statement was bull, this is bull with rising steam.”
In the comments, he also corrects a misimpression I had. His column was online-only. It did not run in Forbes magazine. That would have changed things slightly. Like Gomer saying, “In the online version, we don’t normally add links do we?” Frankly, I should have checked that. It would have affected Gomer Fortune’s lines.
On the other hand, the system worked. Fox fact checked me.
This post is part of a genre originated by Berkeley economist and blogger Brad Delong, the Why oh Why Can’t We Have a Better Press Corps series, specializing in “cries of frustration, with details and links.” His newest is Where Are the Heirs of Walter Lippman?
Suppose your mother owned a Florida condo that she rented out during the spring and summer. And suppose your siblings asked you how the agent she hired to rent out the condo was doing. How you would report to them—that’s how the press should report on government. In the case of Judd Gregg, the proper report is analogous to, “Well, he’s worked really hard and he’s said he’s saved a lot on maintenance, but actually the savings are really small.” In the case of George Bush, the proper report is, “Well, he said that cutting the rent would mean that we’d get more money because we’d be able to rent the condo more weeks, but it turns out he’s completely disconnected from reality.”
But that’s not a task that it seems that our daily newspaper press can carry out. Reporters describe themselves as under pressure to do “hard news” rather than “analytical” pieces, and “hard news” seems to mean a “he said, she said” story which opens “the President said X” and goes on to say “experts differ” leaving readers with absolutely no clue and no way to judge whether the guys whom we hired last election to do the public-finance equivalent of the family-finance job of managing our mother’s Florida rental property are in fact doing a good job.
Note that my examples are budget examples. I’m one of the budget people. But I have peers in other issue areas. They see the same deficiencies. Whether they are bombs-and-bullets people, striped-pants-diplomacy people, welfare-and-social-policy people, science-and-technology-policy people—they all see the same patterns.
Justin Fox’s blog, where he says about Why being publicly held is best.
It was certainly not my best work, but because it was at least tangentially about the media, Jim Romenesko linked to it yesterday on his much-read site. And because of that, I got an e-mail today from the people at the NPR show On the Media.
He’ll be on this week’s show. Smashing myths, I guess.
Update, July 15: Here’s the show. And here’s the no-one-else-has-the-courage, super counter-intuitive conclusion from Fox: “Private ownership is a mish mosh. Sometimes its great, sometimes its horrible. It doesn’t solve all the problems that newspapers are having.”
Howard Owens responds at his blog with some examples of what he regards as “salvation” thinking. “The fact is, there has been a good deal of talk in journalistic circles about how advantageous it would be for newspapers to get away from public ownership. ‘Conventional wisdom’ may be an overstatement, but it’s still a train of thought worth addressing before we all rush headlong into this new utopia.”
This part from Owens I could agree with: “What is happening in Santa Barbara is far from the norm. But this whole debate sprung up because of the alleged antics of Wendy McCaw. Those events should give journalists pause. That’s all.”
Matt Welch, now of the opinion section of the Los Angeles Times, also of the Santa Barbara discussion, in the comments:
A life preserver or piece of ratty driftwood does not need to be desirable in the least to nevertheless act as “salvation” to a drowning man. I have seen the local-non-Wall-Street-ownership concept used frequently in such a context … save us, Obi-Won! You’re our only hope! Steve Lopez at the L.A. Times, most prominently in my world.
In this case “salvation” would maybe be hyperbole, but only just. Do not underestimate the desperation of the modern newspaper employee.
Perhaps the most curious thing of all, vis-a-vis ownership models and the Santa Barbara News-Press, is that the journalists there haven’t yet figured out (at least as far as I’ve been able to tell) that it’s pretty damned cheap to start a daily newspaper nowadays. Tomorrow’s salvation could be today’s gumption. If the entire staff quit, then raised money from outraged locals to start a competing daily, McCaw would have a husk of a paper, expensive outdated equipment, and a drastic depreciation on her hands, perhaps precipitating a firesale.
And see this interview with Welch.
Speaking of the Santa Barbara newspaper discussion, Doc Searls, who lives there, has been all over it; and he’s got the links. Most recently here, but also here and here. I learned how to link from Searls (and Dave Winer). Free Pass Fox should take notes from those two.
Richard Brenneman, a reporter for the family-owned Berkeley Daily Planet, at Romenesko’s letters: “I’ve worked for both privately and shareholder-owned papers during my 42 years in this bizarre business, and I have to say that — despite the travails that come with nutty owners (and I’ve seen a few) — give me private ownership any day.”
Posted by Jay Rosen at July 14, 2006 12:03 AM
Thanks, Jay, for all the loving attention!
I've got a few responses. The first has already been mostly covered by Matt Welch and Howard Owens above, but really: Of all the many straw men I've attempted to bat down over the years, that was one of the least flimsy. I'll go with Matt's verdict: "maybe hyperbole, but only just." And all the examples you cite pretty much back that up. Yes, my 12 words are less nuanced than Joe Nocera's two paragraphs, but I was just trying to get on to the next point.
Now as to what the next point was, there I think you're on to something. I was writing for the CNNMoney readership--people interested in business news, not debates among journalists--and I was trying to very briefly explore the larger debate over corporate ownership and governance that has been going on at least since the early 1930s. My comments about publicly traded being the best among many flawed options applied to corporate America as a whole. But by starting with the Santa Barbara example I certainly implied that publicly traded newspaper companies are best. And the more I thought about that after the fact (especially when Bob Garfield started asking me about it for 'On the Media') the less certain I was of what exactly I was trying to say. There are just too many great, innovative newspapers governed by unconventional means (the Guardian and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, both run by foundations set up by previous owners, are two that I spent some time yesterday learning about), to say that a stock market listing is best for a media company. Although I definitely still think it's better than being owned by Wendy McCaw.
Finally, as to all the self-righteous hooey about the bar having been raised on opinion journalism: I write my opinion pieces for CNNMoney (this one did not appear in the pages of the magazine) with the intention of starting a discussion. I don't mean for them to be the final word, I want to start a discussion with readers, etc. The site isn't really set up for that at this point, I admit, but it will get there. What you seem to be saying, though, is that it's impermissible for professional journalists put up such not-yet-fully-developed musings on the Web. Is that what you're saying?
As for Steve Lovelady's comment about Fortune. He's worked here at Time Inc., so he's more than entitled to his views about the place, but the main reason Fortune went through a "bloodbath" in the early part of this decade was not because it's part of a soulless, publicly traded corporation, but because it's a business publication and business-to-business advertising totally collapsed. Times weren't exactly great at the WSJ, Business Week, or Forbes, either. And maybe I'm wrong here, but I think Joe left because he was offered a sweet gig at the New York Times.
Thanks for stopping by, Justin. Good luck on "On the Media," too.
Here are some replies to your replies.
Of all the many straw men I've attempted to bat down over the years, that was one of the least flimsy.
Groan. Your original statement was bull, this is bull with rising steam. That local ownership is widely seen as the salvation of the newspaper industry is not hyperbole-- basically accurate but exaggerated for effect. It is an untrue statement. Untrue, unsupported, and I believe unsupportable. Right now there is no agreement whatsoever on what the solution to the daily newspaper's problems are.
That Matt Welch thinks Steve Lopez is up a tree because Lopez believes local owners will "save" the LA Times is evidence that it was great to bring the iconoclastic Welch on board in Los Angeles. It helps you not all. You had no links or quotes then to support your made-up generalization (when you were trying to be brief for an audience of non-specialists, you tell us) and you have no links or quotes now, where you have all the space you need and a very interested readership.
And all the examples you cite pretty much back that up.
Back you up? @#*%$#@#!@&&*+$! What is the international symbol for disbelief? Justin, I don't know you, or a thing about your native capacities, but on this point you are just thick-headed. I chose examples of people who are, yes, enthusiastic about local ownership, but that doesn't back you up. For these observers go out of their way to avoid the very claim you say is now accepted everywhere. Local ownership is not a perfect solution. That's what they say. That's what you say.
And I would say to Howard Owens: Go ahead, Howard, show me some samples of all the talk going around claiming that "private ownership will save newspaper journalism" that doesn't acknowledge "private has its pitfalls" too. I don't believe you can.
I was just trying to get on to the next point.
Now you are making sense. You just wanted to get to the next point and you didn't care whether your statement was true, because it had truthiness enough for the extremely low standards you accepted for your column. (I guess because it was "just online.")
And the more I thought about that after the fact (especially when Bob Garfield started asking me about it for 'On the Media') the less certain I was of what exactly I was trying to say.
Exactly. Because you didn't do your homework the first time. And if you had gone into what people are actually saying about local ownership vs. other models--which is a lot more complicated than "salvation is at hand, folks"--you would have gotten to some of the complications you now realize are at the core of the question. That's why when you think you know "what everyone is saying" you go and get examples. You have to test your belief. The testing takes you places.
Finally, as to all the self-righteous hooey about the bar having been raised on opinion journalism...
Justin, Justin. You can't be this clueless. Of all things journalists do, writing opinion columns about things that have been in the news is the activity most transformed by the Web. It is the one area where barriers to entry have truly fallen and there are many more competitors. Of course the bar has been raised. If you truly don't realize that I would advise you not to write any more columns online. It will be bad for your career.
What you seem to be saying, though, is that it's impermissible for professional journalists put up such not-yet-fully-developed musings on the Web. Is that what you're saying?
Hell no, Justin. The Web is great for that. But if you are putting up not-yet-fully-developed musings, then you do it in a far more humble way than "Justin smashes conventional wisdom to bits" (and later realizes his bold counter-intuitive statement is wrong.) Second, if you can't learn to link like a pro, then don't venture into online debate. Your skills are behind the curve. Cheers.
Matt, what is the largest circulation of new dailies?
Not sure; these would be among the top 10:
325,000 New York Metro
318,000 AM New York
260,000 DC Examiner
250,000 Baltimore Examiner
170,000 Boston Metro
143,000 Philadelphia Metro
I don't think it's as easy as renegade editors starting up their own papers, and I'm not sure what you mean by "cheap."
In Santa Barbara, it is as easy as that. Renegade editors starting up their own paper = competition. And by "cheap" I mean an annual budget of around $10 million, maybe less for SB. Nashville's got a decent little daily with tons of local reporting; started for a fraction of that.
The problem is that competition is being systematically eliminated from the media marketplace.
Really? Twenty years ago there were three networks, very little cable news, no satellite radio, no blogs, little (compared to now) AM talk radio, and certainly not a clutch of new daily newspapers launched for less than $15 million each.
Are there any cases in recent history of editors/reporters quitting to start a competing publication? It'd be nice if we could sink our teeth into some real data here.
It'd be nice if editors/reporters had the gumption & awareness to notice a low-hanging business model dangling in front of their faces.
Yes, Fox's article starts with a straw-man. Very few are seriously claiming that private ownership is the magic potion to what ails the newspaper industry.
His mistake was in writing a weak lede. Big deal. It is not the crux of his argument.
The crux of his argument lies at the nexus of the virtues and problems of corporate governance and the role of the newspaper in a democracy. Furthermore, he is reasserting some concepts already familiar to most regular readers of FORTUNE, and probably to most regular readers of CNN/Money - specifically, a variant of the efficient market hypothesis, which is EXTREMELY well-established and widely accepted among investors:
And here's the thing: If you had to pick the one governance model best equipped to reconcile the conflicting priorities of owners, employees and customers over time, it is that of the publicly traded corporation.
That's because, at a publicly traded company, legions of sharp-eyed, independent observers (a.k.a. investors and potential investors) are constantly investigating the business, weighing short-term against long-term rewards, comparing performance with that of similar companies. They don't always do a good job of it, and can be maddeningly fickle slaves to fashion. It's a good thing that there are alternatives to the public-corporation model, so there's a place to turn when market values are particularly out of whack. But it's not clear that any of those alternatives really work out better over the long run.
This probably doesn't make sense to an audience of non-financial journalists. But it makes perfect sense to an audience of investors and capitalists, which is who Fox was writing for.
Yeah, If I were the editor, I would have sent it back for another go-round with the lede. But the lede is just the garnish.
Jay, I think you're making a mountain out of a molehill.
Thanks, plukasiak, for illustrating my point beautifully.
1) The DC Examiner & Baltimore Examiner do not very much resemble the Metro papers; they provide much more coverage, and pretty lively opinion sections.
2) This may be really, really hard to grasp, but the existence of a good *business model* -- cheaply printed dailies handed out for free using smaller staffs -- does not preclude different *editorial strategies* from being grafted onto them. For instance, the Metro papers (and big-paper attempts, like the Red Eye) are often criticized for just regurgitating wire & syndicated copy, yet in Nashville, a local daily (started by a software executive, not a journalist, natch), refrained from using syndication & wire for the first 18 months, focusing instead on flooding the zone with local coverage.
3) Let's follow this thread of conversation above:
Matt: It's pretty damned cheap to start a newspaper these days.
Mark: I don't think it's as easy as renegade editors starting up their own papers, and I'm not sure what you mean by "cheap."
Matt: an annual budget of around $10 million, maybe less for SB.
Anna: Are there any cases in recent history of editors/reporters quitting to start a competing publication? It'd be nice if we could sink our teeth into some real data here.
Matt: Just because newspaper reporters don't know about a viable business model in their own industry, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
Hugh: What is the largest circulation of new dailies?
Matt: (Provides list of six with 143,000-plus.)
plukasiak: If this is your "evidence" of how there are lots of new daily newspapers being created, you need to go back and read the definitions of "relevance" and "evidence."
Phenomenal work, people. If I'm following the logic right, the existence of a new newspaper business model that has led to the creation of scores of newspapers this century is irrelevant to the discussion of maybe having disgruntled News-Press staffers start their own paper, because we haven't heard about a newsroom doing that before, and those Metro papers aren't very good. Now *that's* a recipe for action!
There is a Perpetual Disappointment Machine at work here. When you only allow for roughly one *type* of acceptable daily newspaper, with (roughly) one *type* of acceptable comportment from the publisher (namely, keeping their hands off unless you agree with what their hands are doing; and otherwise maintaining current staffing & bureau levels, etc.), then you are going to wake up every morning feeling let down, while sitting on your own hands in the name of artistic cleanliness rather than attempt explore something new.
Brad Delong, Where Are the Heirs of Walter Lippman?
Attention must be paid to this one...
Suppose your mother owned a Florida condo that she rented out during the spring and summer. And suppose your siblings asked you how the agent she hired to rent out the condo was doing. How you would report to them--that's how the press should report on government. In the case of Judd Gregg, the proper report is analogous to, "Well, he's worked really hard and he's said he's saved a lot on maintenance, but actually the savings are really small." In the case of George Bush, the proper report is, "Well, he said that cutting the rent would mean that we'd get more money because we'd be able to rent the condo more weeks, but it turns out he's completely disconnected from reality."
But that's not a task that it seems that our daily newspaper press can carry out. Reporters describe themselves as under pressure to do "hard news" rather than "analytical" pieces, and "hard news" seems to mean a "he said, she said" story which opens "the President said X" and goes on to say "experts differ" leaving readers with absolutely no clue and no way to judge whether the guys whom we hired last election to do the public-finance equivalent of the family-finance job of managing our mother's Florida rental property are in fact doing a good job.
Note that my examples are budget examples. I'm one of the budget people. But I have peers in other issue areas. They see the same deficiencies. Whether they are bombs-and-bullets people, striped-pants-diplomacy people, welfare-and-social-policy people, science-and-technology-policy people--they all see the same patterns.
Jason: If Jay wants to wage Jihad to improve journalism in order to better serve the readers and this great Republic, then I'll be manning the barricades with him.
I want no association with Jihad thanks, but as for trying to improve journalism in order to better serve the readers and this great Republic of ours, yeah, that's why we're trying to do here.
My book, What Are Journalists For? tells you how I went about this 1989-99. The archives of PressThink do the same for 2003-06.
I am not attacking Fox personally, or telling you what a rotten character he is, or even suggesting he cannot be trusted. I'm showing readers how thin his writing is. It's not a jihad, it's just criticism.
What's the larger point? "The day when you could get by with that standard is over... The bar has been raised on opinion journalism. The Web did it, especially the magic of linking and the powers of Google." Aggregation, linking, archives and search, along with the rise of bloggers and sources who can publish (like Brad Delong) have changed the game on writers like Fox.
That you would point to and jump up and down about other examples of thinness is beyond dispute. Also, no one's asking you to be excited, Jason.
Professor Kim Pearson is right. If that Fortune column came to me in an opinion writing class I was teaching, I wouldn't grade it; I would send it back to be re-written. "In your next draft, show me you know this debate--the virtues and vices of local owners--inside out," I would have said to the student who submitted it.
You really think that all I am saying to Fox is put in some links? Print very bad, web so very great? Good grief.
Not at all, Jay. You've been very clear that is NOT what you're saying.
But there are enough triumphalist voices out there saying pretty much that, so I felt the need to seek definition and detail of precisely what is being said here.
I'm saying that wherever Fox's piece appeared - indeed, it appeared on cnn.com - it would be a bad piece of opinion writing had he provided links for his assertions. What is the transition point, then, for quality, in this news-reporting revolution?
Daniel addressed some of my concerns. A key part will be the creation of that system for moving the best stuff into a real-time consideration. How that's to be accomplished is a mighty big "if."
I'm a little more sanguine than Daniel about what will diminish traditional media's institutional advantage. If traditional media continues its half-assed and panicky approach to diving into the web pool, it will take care of the institutinal advantage all by itself.
My big fear is that the audience for news will continue to fragment and fracture, that we as a society will focus more on what separates us, not what binds us together. It's not just that we need more voices. We also need more ears.
Trad journalism's sense of proprietorship of the news is rightly under attack. I'm all for meritocracy. And though I appreciate Jason's idea about better use of people like Roggio, I think he unnecessarily devalues the Dexter Filkins of news world.
So, Jay, no, I'm not saying you're being simplistic. I'm saying that you raise more questions than you answer. And that's a good thing.
Sorry if I'm slowing down the process. I fully realize I'm not the fastest kid in class. But I've spent three decades doing this stuff and I see great adventure and frightening possibilites for journalism in the future. I'd just hate to see the good stuff disappear with the bad.
No, I don't put Roggio in the same league as those guys, because he's not even playing the same sport.
Filkins and Burns do a pretty good job of describing what they see with their own eyes.
They just don't understand it, from an operations viewpoint.
They're great at picking up a piece, and describing it. But they don't have any sense about what that piece is, or how it fits in with the operational or logistic picture as a whole.
As an ops guy, it's pretty easy for me to see that Roggio "gets it." He's able to see the logic of operations at brigade level and above, and understand how the pieces fit together.
We need good people doing both of them.
Roggio did a series of flash demonstrations a while back that were just superb, and illustrated the clear and hold operations and handover work in Western Iraq when no one else could. Why couldn't our high-gloss media, with all their resources, have done the same thing?
Answer: When it comes to the Iraq war, our media is simply a team of blind men trying to describe an elephant.
Filkins and Burns are two of the most eloquent of our blind men. But they're blind men, nevertheless. Or, to cut these guys some deserved slack, they are micrologists. Roggio's a macrologist.
We need both. And the newspapers need a lot more Roggios.
They're getting them to an extent, on television, because they're getting retired officers on TV for guest commentary. But those guys aren't making an obsession over following the operations picture like Roggio and it shows.
Roggio's a better military analyst than some of the military analysts they bring in on TV.
Wow. I hadn't heard of them either. 500,000 journalists and nobody's a member.
I'm surprised you aren't discerning the difference between a free and independent media and a communications asset in the literal employ of an armed and hostile force? I mean, you really think The Hezbollah Television Network is the same as, say, "every working journalist" for NBC News?
Al Manar itself proclaims itself part of Hezbollah. And the U.S., via an executive order signed in September of 2001, formally categorizes al Manar as a terrorist organization. Al Manar is banned from accessing US airwaves. It's not like we're acting unilaterally - several European countries have similar sanctions against al Manar.
You know, these are the guys responsible for planting the rumor that 4,000 Jews were playing hookie from work at the WTC on Sept 11, 2001.
They serve as Hassan Nasrallah's principal means of mass communication. It's also one of Hezbollah's principal tools for fundraising. Yes, they have telethons, just like NPR. Except their fundraiser buy bombs for school busses and Pizzarias.
One of al Manar's senior officers publicly declared its purpose as "to help people on the way to what you in the West call a 'suicide mission.'
It calls for and incites the killing of US soldiers in Iraq. It has called for the murder of Israelis many times. Its children's shows pay homage to suicide bombers.
And you're going to try to draw parallels between al Manar and, say, Fox News?
Al Manar is no independent or inconvenient media outlet. Al Manar is, in effect, the Ministry of Communications for a brutal and murderous quasi regime.
And they made themselves a target when the first dime they raised went to Hezbollah.
Brad Delong made a post out of this comment I left at his blog:
From Brad's Where Are the Heirs of Walter Lippman?: "Note that my examples are budget examples. I'm one of the budget people. But I have peers in other issue areas. They see the same deficiencies. Whether they are bombs-and-bullets people, striped-pants-diplomacy people, welfare-and-social-policy people, science-and-technology-policy people--they all see the same patterns."
Brad: Those "patterns" begin to find some explanation when you realize that categories like "hard news" rather than "analytical piece" are simultaneously serving as a reality-reporting system, and a risk-reduction method. Hard news is supposed to be lowest risk, not necessarily harder information. It's lower risk to just say what happened ("Rove said...") without saying what's true. An "analysis" piece means you can speculate about motives and what might happen from here. Slightly higher risk, but not necessarily more "analytical."
Or let's take the classic in press watcher frustration... He said this happened, she said that happened. It tries to inform you in a half-hearted way, but it secures protection from being wrong in a full-throated way. "I'm just telling you what they said." It's not truthtelling but innocence-establishing behavior-- see? no agenda.
Here's the catch: officially, journalists only engage in truthtelling. That they would the choose the more innocent account over the more truthful one contradicts the professional self-image. So it doesn't happen, even though it does. When what journalists are doing makes no sense at all to you on the reality-reporting scale, switch yourself over to the risk-reduction (or "refuge") scale and measure it there.
Why don't journalists work together and coordinate their assaults to get a better answer from the President? Might make sense on the reality-reporting front, but fry the circuits on risk reduction. They'd open themselves to "cabal" charges, or so they think. Why didn't Leonard Downie join with Bill Keller and Dean Baquet in their joint op-ed explaining the need to report on classified programs sometimes? (He was asked.) He didn't want to risk the impression that news organizations act together to "get" something.
For we are dealing not only with the risk of being wrong, but of coming under effective attack in the culture war's politicized theatre of news. Outside actors can influence the news by raising the perception of risk.