Who will save the Times now?

The New York Times’ firing of Executive Editor Jill Abramson last week let to much commentary about the implications for the paper’s future. Amid the speculation, the paper’s assistant ME for digital strategy, Aron Pilhofer, announced he was leaving for the Guardian. Quartz saw this as an ominous sign:

Compared to the firing of the New York Times’ top editor, Jill Abramson, last week, Pilhofer’s departure may not seem that noteworthy. But it’s interesting for what he was supposedly doing at the New York Times: trying to “save” it, according to a 2009 feature in New York Magazine.

The feature ran under the the headline “The New Journalism: Goosing the Gray Lady” and discussed five “renegade cybergeeks” who were doing some of the most innovative work at a publication that some, at the time, thought was doomed. The five were Pilhofer, Andrew DeVigal, Steve Duenes, Matthew Ericson, and Gabriel Dance.

Five years later, The Times is on a more solid financial footing, but with the departure of Pilhofer, three of those people are now gone.

Most of the reactions I saw echoed Quartz’s frame that this portended hard times ahead for the NYT. The keys to its future are leaving! And so on.

Not so fast:

Ten years ago a newsroom recruiter told me that the Times was a final destination: People hired there would stay till retirement, because there was no better place to be. This was certainly the case in the 20th century and was still true early in the 21st. But today, Deuze has it right: Moving around is becoming the norm. Organizations big and small are starting up and innovating all over the place, and anyone bright and creative enough to stand out at the Times will attract the attention of its rivals and other ventures. The Times can get poached, too. Horizontal mobility is on the increase as challenges besides pulling a nice paycheck at a big legacy news org beckon to all the competent folks.

QZ doesn’t say whether the members of the team that would save the Times who left got replaced. Considering that they were midlevel employees with mostly fungible skills, I’d say they were. The story here isn’t good people fleeing the Times, it’s the danger of prizing personality over organization. These aren’t the only people who can do what they do, and the Times isn’t the only place they can do it.

Nate Silver left the Times. Ezra Klein left the WaPo. The Guardian’s Janine Turner was wooed by the Times but decided to stick it out where she was. Even with the office politics involved in her courting, it sholudn’t be a shock that a talented editor might decide she already has a gig as sweet as any the Times can offer.

Maybe it would be a more ominous sign if all five of those guys were still there.

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Too good to check, episode 5 zillion

Today some activists surrounded a Google shuttle in San Francisco and kept it from moving away from a stop where it was picking up well-to-do techies to take them to work in Silicon Valley. The immediate target was the bus itself, but the actual issue was gentrification; highly paid employees of Google, Facebook, and other tech companies have been moving into SF and pushing rents above what many longtime residents can pay. The tech shuttles use public bus stops without paying for the privilege, which rankles more than a few of the locals.

During the action, someone got off the bus and shouted at the protesters, arguing for the entitlement of wealth. "Why don't you go to a city that can afford it?” he yelled. “This is a city for the right people who can afford it. You can't afford it? You can leave. I'm sorry, get a better job."

It was a pitch-perfect exemplar of how distressed San Franciscans view their new neighbors, fitting right into the class-warfare narrative. In fact it was too perfect: The shouter was actually a union activist, apparently trying to stir up anti-elitist sentiment. But the San Francisco Bay Guardian initially went ahead and ID’d him as a Google employee before “various tips … streamed in” that the shouter was a plant. (The notion was far-fetched to begin with: Google has a notoriously strict policy against employees talking to the media or anywhere they might be seen as representing the company. That display would likely be a career-ending move.)

Economic disparity is a real problem in the Bay Area as elsewhere, but still, as journalists it’s our responsibility to check the facts before we publish. Make it so Susie Cagle never has to say this again:

Though Ryan Sholin pointed out one silver lining:

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Science journalism and the lure of the trope

So a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (paywall) says that men’s and women’s brains are hardwired differently: Men are better at connecting perception to action, women are more intuitive. It draws this conclusion from men’s brains having, on average, more neural interconnections within hemispheres and women’s having more across hemispheres.

Naturally, news organizations have been breathlessly reporting implications of the study here and here and here and elsewhere. But as with most science, it’s not that straightforward. Women and men grow up in a gendered society, and different experiences produce different neurological patterns within the brain. The study does not account for this, so the possible effects of gendered experience go unexplored. The study has gotten some much-needed pushback from scientists such as Cordelia Fine, a professor at the University of Melbourne:

Returning to the popular representations, we can now see a striking disconnect with the actual data. The research provides strong evidence for behavioural similarities between the sexes. It provides no evidence that those modest behavioural sex differences are associated with brain connectivity differences. And, it offers no information about the developmental origins of either behavioural or brain differences.

Yet, the popular press presents it as evidence that “hardwired” sex differences explain why men are from Mars and women are from Venus. While this is tediously predictable, what is more surprising is for a study author to push along such misinterpretations, claiming to have found evidence for “hardwired” sex differences, and suggesting that this might explain behavioural sex differences not actually measured in the study, such as in “intuition” skills “linked with being good mothers”.

Overworked journalists too often have to rely on fitting the news into common tropes in order to make sense of it. In this case, the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” narrative is too tempting to resist. At a superficial glance, the study seems to slide right into the frame, so in it goes.

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Getting clues from Gawker on getting the word out

People are talking about the WSJ’s profile of Gawker’s star viral-content collector, and what the page-view numbers involved may mean for journalism (being a subset of “media”) in its continuing effort to both stay relevant and keep people’s attention. Ezra Klein isn’t worried:

It's important to avoid getting overly impressed by these page view numbers. There's a reason that founder Nick Denton hasn't asked every writer at Gawker to mimic Zimmerman's output. Advertising CPMs are plummeting because there's so much more supply on which to advertise on. Moreover, advertisers who want page views on social networks can get them by advertising directly on Facebook or Twitter, and those channels are much better at targeting ads than any media company.

The result is that brand matters quite a bit, as does the underlying type of content. That's one reason both Gawker and Buzzfeed are expanding aggressively into longform articles. Sacrificing your brand for more social page views often isn't a good business play.

Journalists and news organizations, Klein says, are still doing what they’ve always done: Producing good reads and good stories and then marketing them with headlines and news releases. The social Web gets ignored. Clearly there’s a lot of untapped potential there.

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Keeping the Secret of the Iran Talks

If you found out about secret meetings between U.S. and Iranian diplomats about restricting and inspecting Iran’s nuclear program, would you tell everyone, or keep it hush-hush?

It turns out that the Associated Press heard about the meetings, announced on Sunday, shortly after they began, last March, and Al-Monitor also knew about them at some point ahead of time. Al-Monitor says the Obama administration asked it to hold the story until the talks ended, and it did so; AP is saying less about the process.

Whether and when to reveal sensitive information is a recurring theme in journalism ethics. We like to think of ourselves as people who reveal information, not conceal it, but every real-life decision involves weighing pros and cons. The canonical example is troop movements in wartime: If you knew the U.S. military was going to attack a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan tomorrow, you’d have a hard time finding anyone to agree that you should write about it ahead of time.

(On the other hand, prominent codes of ethics don’t deal with the topic of sensitive government information directly; see the SPJ’s code and Poynter’s Guiding Principles, which speak in general terms about “minimizing harm.”)

Journalists have lately been revealing lots of classified government information (most prominently via Wikileaks and Edward Snowden) when they believed it would serve the greater good by exposing bad actors and bad policy. This comes from a broad calculation about the value of sunlight on public actors.

But the specific case of the Iran talks is about a specific piece of public business with foreseeable and far-reaching consequences. These discussions were extremely sensitive (see the Atlantic for a history of this highly fraught relationship), and early disclosure would certainly have scuttled the whole initiative.

The fact of private diplomacy is not controversial; journalists understand that running a foreign policy requires some closed-door negotiations as a matter of course. Blowing the whistle on the Iran talks would not be a principled stance regarding transparency, it would mean ending the initative either deliberately, which is going beyond journalism into participating in foreign policy, or without regard for the consequences, which is malfeasance of the clueless variety.

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NBC: We Don't Report Other People's Stories, Except When We Do

This is just weird. Over at Romenesko, we see a memo from NBCNews.com executive editor Gregory Gittrich warning NBC staffers not to mention or report on a WaPo story about the FBI trying to find out who was behind allegations that Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., was using prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.

NBC was one of the most credulous news outlets pushing the allegations, which have since been discredited, back in February.

Gittrich claims that the edict is "Standard internal guidance on stories where we don't have our own sourcing."

Right. A few seconds with Google turned up this story, which is based on a WaPo story and contains, at most, one bit of "our own sourcing": An unremarkable official statement from Menendez's office. The main difference appears to be that the thrust of that story is not favorable to Menendez.

If suddenly this sort of thing has become taboo at NBC News, it would be nice to know why.

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J-Schools Need to Teach Coding

Some smart people were tweeting yesterday about teaching coding to aspiring journalists, and whether journalism schools should do it in-house or let the computer science department handle it. I was late to the party as usual, so I put my thoughts here. First, a few excerpts.


I always appreciate Jonathan Stray's perspective, but this last tweet got me thinking oppositionally: We j-educators teach our own writing instead of leaving it to the English department, and we teach our own photography instead of leaving it to the art school. (Don't get me started on who teaches statistics.) Coding for journalism is evolving into its own subfield, and we ought to teach it ourselves, or (perhaps even better) co-teach with CS the way UT's News App Design class did it this past semester.

At the very least, we'll get fewer students who apply to j-school because they don't like math.

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Kochs' Tribune Play Aims to Install a New Normal

I was going to write a post about the Koch brothers’ possible purchase of the Chicago Tribune and sister papers, but Ken Doctor wrote it for me. Thanks, Ken!

The Koch brothers are oil-and-gas billionaires from my hometown, Wichita KS, who finance political activites on the extreme right wing of U.S. politics. They’ve provided a lot of the financing that’s kept the tea-party movement running in the past several years.

This wouldn’t be the first foray into daily newspapering by right-wingers. Robert McCormick, who considered Franklin Roosevelt a Communist, ownedCC BY-NC-SA by Flickr user 3ammo the Tribune itself for many years. Elsewhere, the Washington Times is a creation of Sun Myung Moon; Richard Mellon Scaife owns the suburban Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and controlling interest in a news radio station in Pittsburgh; Rupert Murdoch has the New York Post and Wall Street Journal in addition to his British holdings; and as Doctor details, Doug Manchester bought the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2011. The results are a mixed bag: Scaife uses his paper for political crusading but also takes it seriously as a newspaper; the Washington Times is more heavily ideological.

Under McCormick’s stewardship, the Chicago Tribune supported rightist politicians, but its owner took it seriously as a civic institution apart from all that. It’s not clear that the Kochs would do the same.  It’s “the agenda-setting, what-we-think-of-ourselves value of a daily newspaper,” as Doctor put it, that I’m sure the Kochs are after. San Diego provides a possible view.

But that doesn’t mean traditional journalistic lines aren’t being crossed. Take U-T TV, for instance. As the service launched, the paper greeted it with a special section, seemingly editorial and written as news, touting “a new frontier in news.” That’s just one example of many, of how the paper has tried use its influence to support Manchester’s political beliefs and his own business interests, well-covered in this Media Matters rundown.

Last fall, the U-T bought Lee’s North County Times, its main competitor, and largely shut it down. “The second newspaper in San Diego County is just gone,” says Lewis.

… It’s hard to imagine the Kochs respecting the traditional division between news reporting and the opinion pages. They’re using to having their way — a way paved by wealth — but the San Diego experience shows how that can be problematic. There are always those pesky journalists and paying readers that may get in the way.

Doctor hold out hope that the professional, civic-oriented journalists working at the Times and Tribune would be an effective counterweight to the Kochs’ political ambitions, as has apparently happened at the U-T. I’m not so sanguine. A Timesman informally surveyed his colleagues and found most of them ready to leave rather than work for the Kochs. (UPDATE: HuffPo says about half the staff at an internal meeting raised their hands when asked who would quit if the Kochs took over.)

This suggests that the Kochs might get a freer ride than Manchester has. And the real danger isn’t just that the new owners will cover more conservative and fewer liberal issues. It’s that the Koch/tea-party/neo-Bircher ideology, which is generally agreed to be on the fringe of American politics, will get normalized by being represented in highly visible media outlets, sort of a Fox News chain for print. It’s not hard for most people to avoid the hammering of right-wing ideology on Fox, but when it stares at the citizens of America’s second and third cities from every newsbox, it works its way into the collective subconscious. That’s a dire situation.

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It's Academic, but It Costs

I had a bit of a "duh" moment reading Derek Willis' excellent post on the persistent gap between what journalism schools teach and what their students need to learn. (The discussion starts here with Katie Zhu.) Willis says a lot of good and right things, and I hope to say more in a future post. But this penetrated my thick skull:

I don’t read many academic journals, nor do I attend AEJMC – go ahead, Google it – or other journalism education conferences, and I don’t know many professionals who do. Far worse is the fact that I would find it hard to read those papers anyway, since most of them are unavailable online without a subscription of some kind. Sure, we’ve been ignorant of scholarship. But I’m not sure that scholars have done what is truly necessary to improve the relationship between trade and education.

We academics are rightly pleased with the research we do and wish it were better known outside academia, BUT we tend to forget how much it costs in subscription fees to stay current with the research if you're not at a university yourself. A conscientious editor trying to ensure she stays current would have to spend thousands of dollars each year to subscribe to at least a half-dozen refereed journals.It's hard to justify that budget line when you're laying people off every few months. Yes, that's short-term thinking, but it's how struggling industries operate. We need a lot more impetus coming from the gown side of the equation.

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Frontiers in Working for Free, New York Review of Books Edition

New York magazine interviews Robert Silvers, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, about how it all started 50 years ago. It's a long, fascinating read; this little bit bears on recent debates here. The NYT Book Review had gone stagnant, and then a newspaper strike put it on hiatus for more than three months, so some editors at Harper's decided to start their own. They called on some writers they knew to provide the content:

The first issue appeared dated February 1, 1963. It has been called the best first issue of a magazine ever published. Looking at these names glittering on the cover, it’s astonishing how many, from W. H. Auden to Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy to Norman Mailer to William Styron, John Berryman to Robert Lowell to Robert Penn Warren, and on and on, are still recognizable.
I remember Jason called his friend Wystan Auden. Lizzie called Fred Dupee—Lizzie and Barbara both. Lizzie called Mary McCarthy, and so did I. Barbara called Gore Vidal. I called Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Norman Mailer. In the next two days I talked with Jonathan Miller, who wrote on Updike, and then with Philip Rahv, and Dwight MacDonald, who wrote on Arthur Schlesinger.

What did you say?
I said, we’re starting a new book review, and would they write on the book I was sending? They had three weeks. There was no question of payment. No one asked about it. Sometimes they said, “I’d rather do another book.” They all just assumed a new book review was needed.

Read the whole thing.

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