Thursday, September 04, 2008

Palin coverage: Must we chose broccoli or curly fries?

I got a good question in the comments to my “Wag the dog” post (below) that gives me a chance to clarify and expand on the original. I’m going to take advantage of the fact that this is my blog to elevate that question and answer it here, for wider visibility.

The (anonymous) comment/question was:

As one of your MNI reporters, I appreciate you clarifying way up above that you wouldn't actually fire reporters for asking questions, as you said you would in your lead. (A gentle writing reminder here: Exaggeration in the pursuit of making a point sometimes comes across better in person than in print. I'm just saying.)

In the welter of crap posts, some previous Anon made mention that if ADN had covered the Palin daughter's pregnancy months ago -- vetted it for the world, in effect -- then maybe it wouldn't be an issue now.

And as one poster pointed out, the prurient and sleazy (my words, not his) are what seems to drive readers' interest these days. Certainly not NATO treaties with the Soviets.

As responsible journalists, we're no longer the gatekeepers of information. But God knows we still need to attract readers and (let's say it together) drive Internet traffic.

So what are your thoughts on balancing all those things in a responsible way?

It’s a very good question. I had a discussion like this in Tacoma once, when I mentioned that it’s hard to make a living urging people to eat their broccoli when the guy in the next booth is selling curly fries. Editor Karen Peterson raised her hand to remind me, "Howard, they giving away the curly fries over there."

And so they are. But if all you eat is curly fries, you die young and fat, clutching your heart. We need to be sure we are selling not just broccoli but balance, nutrition, longer life. Many people want that. We can sustain our mass audiences by finding ways to serve that impulse, with time for dessert along the way.

I wish I had been clearer in my original post about that distinction. Of course I don’t propose firing people for asking questions, pertinent or impertinent. I have never done so one time in 40 years of journalism, so it’s a fair bet I won’t start now. I didn’t realize my attempt at emphasis would be interpreted as a genuine threat or a directive.

I promise to try to be more precise if you promise to cut me a little rhetorical slack.

I don’t apologize at all for my sentiments, which are genuine, important and – I think – right.

I had a helpful, productive email exchange last night with Mark Seibel and other editors at the bureau who were explaining whey their staffers took issue with my post. In thinking further about it, I decided this was what I intended to say: We are not likely to get many substantive chances to question this woman, and I don't want them squandered. Sex education policy opens the door to questions about her daughter, I guess, but much of the rest of the frenzy thus far as centered on far less meaningful questions. I don’t want us to play into that. There are plethora of infinitely more more important questions to ask and things to learn about Sarah Palin, matters of genuine national interest and security. Do you – or anybody you know complaining about this – question that prioritization?

I'm sorry I kicked up some dust with this. I'm not sorry about what I said.


  1. Anonymous9:51 AM

    "Anonyomous" really seems to rankle you. Is it that surprising that people fear for their jobs?

  2. Anonymous10:04 AM

    With McClatchy going into the tank financially, why don't you stop wasting time writing this blog and get to work trying to fix the problem your newspapers confront?

    If you've got time to lean, you've got time to work...

  3. Anonymous10:15 AM

    Yes, Howie, how is it that you still have a job? Who has time for all of this daily naval gazing? What do you do for McClatchy anyway? I'd like to know how your meeting with the "Bobs" went.

  4. Two thoughts, friends:

    1. If I'm as bad as you think, you should be glad to think I'm not doing more productive work;

    2. In my view, engaging with McClatchy journalists about the issues facing us all actually is a huge part of my job.

  5. Anonymous10:43 AM

    Just to register a different opinion than 10:15 an 10:04: I think this is a great blog and important to the company. It's worth whatever time you are putting into it, on its own merits.

    I have seen no reason to believe this blog is not *part of* fixing McClatchy's problem.

  6. Anonymous11:00 AM

    Dude. After 40 years in journalism, time to use a spellchecker.

  7. If you don't understand how seriously your remark would be taken by reporters worried for their jobs, it's a pretty sad indication of your lack of understanding. Be assured that reporters with any discretion will keep your attitude in mind.

    How would you like a publisher making a similar casual statement about firing editors? Really funny, ha?

  8. Anonymous3:03 PM

    Howard, yesterday my MNI paper - and yes, I feel a sense of ownership because I worked there long before you people bought it and sent it into the tank - announced buyouts were being offered to 320 more staffers, including every person in the newsroom. This is an honest question: how many executives, at corporate or in the papers, have been laid off or bought out? Management could revive its now-weak credibility with a full answer, or at least an honest answer as to why you won't tell us.
    People are hurting, Howard, and it would help to know we are not alone.

  9. Anonymous3:41 PM

    You still fail to understand the basic issue here: you are a newspaper executive dictating what reporters can follow or can't follow on the Palin matter. You want to declare off-limits what you call "less meaningful questions." But what if a reporter covering this nominee discovered proof the parents sought to persuade their daughter to get an abortion, an issue that would show some duplicity for pro-life Palin and McCain? Under the rules you set down for your reporters, we would never know because you have set these sort of questions off-limits simply because you as a newspaper executive of this company believe there are more important issues to be discussed: a good juicy stories about how Sarah Palin would save Social Security, how Sarah Palin would help Katrina-blighted people in New Orleans, or what her views are on Federal Aviation Administration modernization. Reporters need to be unleashed to follow news leads wherever they go, not told there are no-go areas they dare not explore.

  10. Anonymous4:04 PM

    Oh, for God's sake, lighten up, folks. Howard already backed off what he admitted was a bit of an overstatement in his previous post.

    Could we get a grip here? I understand the need to vent. Trust me, I do. And I don't think Howard always handles the venting on this blog with the greatest patience and tact.

    But in general, he's not the bad guy some of you want to make him out to be. And all your venting, it seems to me, stems as much from your understandable anxiety over your jobs, your MNI papers and this industry in general rather than from anything Howard said.

    I'm the commenter from the previous thread who asked the question Howard so graciously answered above.

    My preference is for crinkle cut fries, but I'm not going to bitch at Howard for not offering that as an option.

  11. Anonymous4:14 PM

    He didn't back off. He said above he's not sorry what he said. He is the man dictating the corporate policy McClatchy reporters are expected to follow in covering this campaign, and it is quite clear to me that he doesn't want any really deep personal questioning of Palin.

  12. Anonymous4:22 PM

    Then I hope you're not a MNI reporter or editor, 414, because you're not really good at assessing and digesting information.

  13. Anonymous4:28 PM

    What part of "I'm not sorry about what I said" do you not understand?

  14. Anonymous6:16 PM

    "Venting" disappeared in the rearview mirror a while back. More recently, we passed "overanalysis." Now we are going at about 10 mph through "navel-gazing pity party."

  15. Anonymous6:19 PM

    And what part of this do YOU not understand, 4:25:

    "In thinking further about it, I decided this was what I intended to say: We are not likely to get many substantive chances to question this woman, and I don't want them squandered. Sex education policy opens the door to questions about her daughter, I guess, but much of the rest of the frenzy thus far as centered on far less meaningful questions. I don’t want us to play into that. There are plethora of infinitely more more important questions to ask and things to learn about Sarah Palin, matters of genuine national interest and security."

    Ohhhhh, long paragraph. But stay with me here, 4:28. It's an explanation, and a good one.

    At some point, people understand what they want to understand. And if they want to wear their obtuseness like a badge, they go with that instead.

  16. Anonymous8:24 PM

    So big exec, sitting out there on your Calif. ranch tonight thinking about who you going to screw over, eh? Let's see how we can make life more miserable for those pushy reporters on the front lines out there dealing with a public convinced they are all partisan lefties? How about another blivet telling them you don't want to hear about the personal lives of politicians anymore. Raleigh spiked the Edwards denial of an affair last year, then was only dragged kicking and screaming to running a story on it after it became front-page news everywhere else. Let's lay off Palin, as the Anchorage paper did. What the newspaper readers want today is a good 50-inch story on the future of NATO, or an in depth thumb sucker on why the Palestinians and Israelis have not been able to find peace. Anything but messy politics. Anything to screw over the reporters.

  17. Anonymous7:43 AM

    Anon 4:04 has it right. This topic is a lightning rod for all of the anger and frustration out there.

    I'll give Howard credit for being willing to take a public beating like this, though less defensiveness would go a long way.

    And I think there's more here then just Howard being unwilling or unable to understand the frustration. The corporate attitude has always been "la la la, I can't hear you!" in response to employee dissatisfaction. Anybody else remember the employee surveys they used to do every other year? They'd solicit employee feedback, and then do nothing about it, sweeping negative comments under the rug. In the follow up meetings they'd always spin it so that this was the greatest place to work ever, and we should be lucky to work here. They still believe that....though many of us don't.

  18. Anon 7:43 is right - at least Howard opens himself up to criticism. I hope he takes it to heart. Before Howard posts, he should think about how his words could be interpreted or misinterpreted. As a top executive, he shouldn't have to be reminded this is a fundamental duty of good management.

    News companies need full input from *all* their people, from the CEOs down to the proles who are the public's main point of contact with journalists. Any attitude, practice or perception that has a chilling effect on a company tapping that talent needs to go.