Monday, September 29, 2008

Is journalism failing again?

Howard Owens worries here about the lack of skepticism in reporting on the market bail-out legislation. His points ought to raise concerns and evoke some pondering amongst all of us who were discouraged by the wide-spread failure of accountability reporting in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Worth a read.

Here's the lead:

In the days prior today’s bailout vote, you could surf through Google news and find any number of stories that told us that the U.S. economy is in a crisis, and that spending $700 billion to bail out Wall Street bankers was unavoidable.

Or you could turn on the television and watch just about any news show and hear the same thing.

What you rarely found or heard was any serious questioning of whether the crisis was anywhere near the proportion George W. Bush said it was, or if the bailout was really necessary, or if the bailout would work, or if, maybe, the bailout might make things actually worse.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Congratulations to the Miami Herald for a splendid new design at, the site that has emerged as the leader in South Florida and for users all over the country and hemisphere. Already a cornicopia of news and information, it now joins sister site as one of the most attractive and user-friendly anywhere.

Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal credits Rick Hirsch, Raul Lopez, Suzanne Levinson, Paul Cheung and Alex Fuente with working the laboring oars in this effort. We're proud of them all.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A map of the future

While we argue whether it's the Baby Boomers' self-absorption or the irresponsibility of Gen Y slackers that ruins our newsrooms (see comments on posts below), the world of news and stories and audiences is changing irrevocably. The blaming debates – even the persistent discussion here about whether Gary and I ruined the whole economy, the newspaper industry, or just McClatchy – are already history, and no longer even very interesting history at that.

The people who will shape the future of news in the new order are already hard at work doing so – with their ideas, their arguments, their actions. The discussion plays out day by day on dozens of specialized blogs, moment-by-moment in Twitter streams of engaged journalists and thinkers. It plays out in newsrooms – newspaper newsrooms, unique new media like TPM, hybrids in-between – with every turn of the cycle. Grizzled veterans and over-confident rookies, categorical prophets and cynical pessimists all play a role.

You can either participate in that process, stand aside quietly and wait for a resolution, or get rolled.

When people ask "If you were my age, would you be in the news business?" I answer unequivocally, "Yes, and for the same reasons I got into it in the first place."
  • I always wanted to have a career that let me make a difference in my community, promote fairness, explain how things worked;
  • I wanted to work around smart, articulate, smart-ass people.
  • I wanted to have fun.
  • And I wanted to feel like my life's work had made a difference.

The future of news will be decided in this generation. If we manage to sustain the core principles of public service journalism, being part of that effort will be a worthy legacy for any of us. How cool would it be to look back one day and say, "At the point where it really mattered, when many others had left or moved on, I was on the field"?

The media sites on the blogroll down the right side of this page (slightly outdated, but then so am I) offer a good starting point for those who'd like to dive into the thinking and argument now going on about the future. At the moment I am particularly taken with Matt Thompson's, though I haven't got my brain completely around it yet.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Best magazine cover

I love nearly all the magazine covers in this competition for best of the year, but I think it's impossible for any to top this one from New York. Take a look at the entire line-up here and see what you think.

UPDATE: Bonus round – some 25 reader contributions have made the final round of a Penquin contest to design the cover of a new novel by Sam Taylor, The Island at the End of the World. Here's one of my favirotes. Click it or here to see them all.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Regaining the influence of the front page

Scott Karp at Publish2 thinks he's identified one big reason why newspapers are losing influence in setting the news agenda: the guiding/filtering role once played by the front page has been surplanted by news aggregators, a game we aren't playing very well.

His argument is well worth considering.

A taste:

The answer is that Drudge, along with Google, figured out that in the web media era, when all news content is accessible by anyone, anywhere in the world, and no news brands no longer have a monopoly over news distribution, the power of influence lies in the ability to FILTER the vast sea of news.

Newspapers were once THE most important filters for news. But they gave up this role on the web, because they didn’t see that the web analogue to what they did on the front page in print was NOT taking the same content and putting it on a website front page. In fact, you could argue that this is the single biggest mistake that newspapers have made on the web.

What they failed to see is that the web analogue to the newspaper front page is LINKS to where the news IS. That’s Drudge.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A painful path to a productive future

McClatchy has just announced the loss of still more jobs in newsrooms and newspapers across the company, only a few months after the first widespread layoffs in our history. Some announcements were made today and others will be finalized shortly. FTEs Employees representing about 1,150 full time jobs are involved.

We believed the painful cuts made earlier would see us through the sharp revenue declines we’re experiencing, but conditions continued to get worse.

It can be hard to keep the faith through times like these. Nobody suffers as much as people who lose their jobs, of course, but those who remain at work suffer too. Staffers are working harder, with fewer colleagues and less certainty. Pay has been frozen for a year. There are worries about whether the company has a plan to get through this transition and regain a stable footing. Are people making a mistake for sticking with us?

For those of us who love being in the news business – in other words, nearly all of us at McClatchy – such doubts are especially troubling. Will journalists be equipped to do the job our communities depend on us to do? Can we retain the critical core of talented employees upon whom success rests, and provide them the tools they need?

We can. As the national economic news plainly demonstrates, it's impossible to know when the economic tide will turn, but we know it will. We will keep the company safe until then, because despite these painful decisions, that is the foundation of security for all of us, and the only way to ensure we can sustain our mission.

Upon that foundation we are building a new structure that reflects the realities of today's media environment. A great deal of impressive change has already occurred, though it has been masked and obscured by the pall of the revenue declines. We truly are reinventing what kind of enterprise we are, transforming a newspaper company into a hybrid, multimedia information source. I want to outline some of the key components here, and to be as frank about our plans as I legally and prudently can be.

William Gibson observed, “The future has already arrived; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” If you look closely across the broad range of McClatchy papers, you can see the outlines of our restructured future already taking shape. We will be smaller, more efficient and more sophisticated. Like most other American companies, we will concentrate resources on our core functions – in our case, providing information and selling advertising. We can do so across a broader range of platforms than anybody else in our communities, and growing audiences attest to our success there.

Even something as traditional as printing papers can often be done cheaper and better outside the core newspaper. As you know, we will shortly be printing The Modesto Bee in Sacramento, and have contracted to print Boise and Bellingham at non-McClatchy printers in the Northwest.

In other regions, we are finding ways to cooperate with other newspapers to share costs and hold down expenses. The Miami Herald in now delivering the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Miami-Dade county, and that newspaper delivers the Herald to the north. Miami’s newsroom is testing a content sharing plan with former rivals in the region. Many other such opportunities are possible, and while we can't talk about them all in advance, you can be sure we are looking for them actively all over the country.

You will have noticed that we're selling real estate, our share of a newsprint company and other assets that aren't central to the mission. Knight Ridder sold a very valuable Miami parking lot, and we are working to close that deal. Smaller parcels elsewhere are being marketed; we sold the Knight Ridder jet a long time time ago, and have likewise sold our plane.

All of this helps pay down the debt we undertook in buying Knight Ridder. Reducing that burden – particularly some bank loans amounting to about a billion dollars – is the single most important thing we can do to ensure stability. Until revenues bottom out and begin to improve, the pressure to pay down debt is significant.

You can also see new ways of doing business emerging at various newspapers; as these new practices prove out, you can expect to see them adopted more widely. We know not every newspaper or market is the same, so we won't look for pure cookie-cutter solutions, but we will move emphatically to embrace operations that make sense. In Charlotte and Raleigh, several newsroom departments have been merged. When Raleigh gets the technology to do so around the first of the year, page and perhaps even section production duties can be shared, and we look to extend that as quickly as possible amongst our Carolina newspapers. These moves will allow the papers to devote more of their resources to unique local coverage while common jobs are done once instead of many times.

A small staff working with our new advertising vice president at corporate is expected to return many times its cost in new advertising revenue by leveraging our size and multiplatform reach with national customers. Advertising sales staffs at all papers are being trained and incentivized to sell digital products better. McClatchy Interactive is optimizing its operations, too, handling things like digital ad placements, our Yahoo partnership and social networking tools that build audience.

Pains from contraction and restructuring are being felt across the company, including the corporate offices. As you know, our corporate staff is much smaller than the Knight Ridder staff that handled about the same number of papers, and we have saved a lot of money by eliminating duplicate services and keeping tight rein on expansion. Pay freezes and other programs affect corporate employees like all others.

Some of you have questioned whether well-paid senior staff are sharing the pain. Our salaries were frozen a year earlier than other employees, and because a larger percentage of senior staff pay comes as bonus, stock appreciation rights and the like, total pay goes down dramatically when the company performs poorly. The average corporate vice president's compensation has been significantly reduced over the past two years, and will surely be lower still this year.

I have faith in our combined efforts to see us through to a profitable, stable future. There is no question of our ability to survive as a business, or to produce public service journalism that serves our communities. Both require some sacrifice and patience, but both are true.

Because we will be smaller, we need our smartest, most dedicated and most capable employees to move us forward. We intend to make sure you are well paid and well treated over the course of your career at McClatchy, and as revenue conditions improve, that will be a top priority.

Don’t give into pessimism. Times are tough, but they won’t be tough forever. We have important, essential work to do, and we need to be about it every day.

Understanding a new architecture of news

I hate arguing with my wife. Yes, for all the predictable reasons, but also because she so often turns out to be right. (BTW, today is my 30th wedding anniversary; there may be some connection between that and my admission in the previous sentence.)

From my perspective, our discussions typically involve about an hour of her being wildly wrong in multiple different dimensions, culminating when she lands on a final point so fundamentally true and correct that I can only agree. It's great for getting us to the right conclusion, but tough on my editorial-board-trained argumentative ego.

I sometimes feel that way about Jeff Jarvis (apologies to both Barb and Jeff for comparing them), the provocative professor and mediablogger at BuzzMachine. Not long ago, he landed on a conclusion that strikes me as one of those fundamentally correct concepts where the result trumps whatever process produced it. Though I continue to disagree with some of Jeff's conclusions (and, more frequently, with a process that sometimes seems hair-trigger and categorical) I've often credited him here with some of the most thoughtful and useful media analysis around. Add this to the list.

His notion of a "press-sphere" illustrates new relationships between producers and consumers of news (and much more) and offers a good snapshot of the fundamental changes our venerable industry is undergoing. Importantly, it doesn't dismiss the press or professionalism in the process, but does show how the once-linear relationship of producing and consuming has been irrevocably altered. If you want to understand how our role has changed and glimpse where our future lies, you ought to be considering this.

Please take a careful look. Let me (and Jeff) know what you think. It deserves our best thinking.

A taste:

When we put the public at the center of the universe — which is how these charts should be drawn and how the world should be seen, as each of us sees it — we see the choices we all call upon: the press still, yes, but also our peers, media that are not the press (e.g., Jon Stewart), search, links, original sources, companies, the government. It’s all information and we curate it and interact with it with the tools available. And, again, the press stands in a different relationship to the world around it.

(Edited to recognize Jeff's post was earlier than I thought: April 2008).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Politics, journalism and the internet (and more)

Some valuable ruminating about the impact of the internet on argument, journalism, facts, politics and persuasion at David Weinberger's JOHO the Blog. I recommend the whole post, which includes this:

We make the mistake of treating the Net as if it were a medium. But it’s more like a world than a medium. Everything humans can do and say is done and said there. Want to find hate-based OCD? Got it! Want to emphasize the way in which bloggers bring skeptical intelligence to stories promulgated by the worst of the MSM? Can do! Because the Net is an open world, no examples are typical .

Another look at Gary Pruitt

I presume you all found the Sacramento News & Review profile of Gary and the company through the link off Romenesko yesterday, so I didn't highlight it here. Apparently it sparked another blog comment at Reuters that somebody sent to me. You can find it here as Rolling stones with McClatchy's Pruitt:

A taste:

McClatchy Chief Executive Gary Pruitt is one of those newspaper executives a reporter can get along well with because of qualities that are not always common to your typical CEO:

He leaves the jargon behind at interviews.

He is honest about bad news, making it easier to believe him when he delivers good news.

He believes in the product — good journalism — as fervently as he does in his duty to please shareholders (which in McClatchy’s case includes the company’s namesake family and a bunch of other unhappy people).

Trouble is, there isn’t much good news to tell about the newspaper business.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

When the truth is just a 'little fact'

I'm so old I can remember a time when the truth or falsehood of most issues was broadly agreed upon by the electorate and political debate was mainly about what should be done about them.

A couple of years ago, a University of Maryland survey found something like 42% of adults in America still believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction long after acknowledgment by the president that we couldn't find any. How could we ever have a national debate about the war on that basis?

A story in today's Washington Post about how "falsehoods" quickly become imbedded truths in campaign rhetoric reawakens my fears. Have a look at this discussion of the truth (know here as "little facts") versus campaign claims and public images:

"The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent," [the GOP strategist] said. "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter."

AP-free zone

This from Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine:

New Jersey’s Star-Ledger today put out an entire edition without anything from the Associated Press within. The sharp-eyed reader will notice lots of local news by staff plus articles from other papers–Washington Post, LA Times, McClatchy, the Glouceseter County Times–and content from online services such as Sportsticker.

Saturday, September 06, 2008


These data from the Newspaper Assocation of America show that newspaper revenues have dropped $13.4 billion since 2003. Allen Mutter says they dropped $3 billion in the first six months of this year.

The aggregate data don't reflect McClatchy's performance precisely; for example, our online revenues are growing robustly, which apparently isn't true everywhere. But it's obvious that the whole industry is in recession, and we're hurting, too.

I mention this to suggest that you consider the scale of the problem before blaming it all on Gary (or, worse yet, me). We've made some mistakes and haven't done everything right, but the serious financial situation that mandates layoffs and expense reductions is way bigger than us.

Right now, the issue is ad revenue decline. We know we're never going back to the days I've referred to as Fat, Dumb & Happy, but we don't need to. Our company is already considerably more efficient than it was then and becoming more so, so our operating costs are falling. If revenue can stabilize, we'll be able to operate healthy news organizations without the continued threat of further cutbacks.

And when will they stabilize? Nobody knows, and signals are still mixed. But they will, and our job is to get from here to there, and then start building.

Friday, September 05, 2008


Well, that was fun. 

I wanted to allow unmoderated, anonymous comments on this blog to model the benefits of open, unfettered conversation. For nearly three years now, it's been wide open and generally worked well.

Now it's not. I have turned on the "moderate comments" feature, which means I'll need to see and approve comments before they appear. Anonymity is still okay, and I intend to approve liberally. I guess you'll be the judge of how well I do.

I'm not looking for more email or to make this clumsier, but I honestly think the degenerating flood of repetitive, often misinformed comments is a barrier to broader communication. This is my blog and I'd like to elevate the debate a little.

There are plenty of "hate McClatchy" blogs out there, and starting a blog is easy, so there's room all your name calling, ad hominem criticism and more. But not here.

I apologize for the inconvenience, which I will work to ensure is minor. Please continue to comment, to criticize and to contribute.

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.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sarah Palin: Wagging the dog in Dodge City

I believe I’d fire any reporter who wasted a chance to question Gov. Sarah Palin by asking a single question about pregnancies, DUIs or thuggish boyfriends.

An extraordinary two-month drama is now unfolding about her nomination as a vice presidential candidate, and its resolution will demonstrate a great deal about the ability and capacity of press to perform genuine public service journalism in an era of Dodge City bloggers and Wag the Dog manipulations. Much hangs in the balance.

Jay Rosen spins out an ominous and all-too-plausible scenario over at Huffington Post, examining how and why Republican strategists may be able to manipulate press performance and public reaction in the Palin drama. You ought to read the whole thing; I found these two points especially compelling in light of what I’ve been thinking about this:

Sarah Palin, under intense pressure ... gives a charismatic performance on Wednesday of convention week and wows much of America, outdrawing Obama in the ratings and sending a flood of cash to McCain and the GOP.
* Strategy: bingo, that's your big break. A wave effect is unleashed by a stunning televised performance. It is shock and awe in the theater of the post-modern presidency.

Journalists watching all this keep saying to themselves: wait until she gets out on the campaign trail. Wait until she sits for those interviews with experienced reporters and faces a real press conference.
* Strategy: double down on defiance by never letting her answer questions, except from friendly media figures who have joined your narrative; like Cheney with Fox. No meet the press at all. No interviews of Palin with the DC media elite-- at all. De-legitimate the ask. Break with all "access" expectations. Use surrogates and spokesman, let them get mauled, then whip up resentment at their mistreatment. Answer questions at town halls and call that adequate enough.

Let me say right away that I expect Sarah to wow the television audience today. She is indeed charismatic and telegenic and performs superbly on script. Alaskans know this, and won’t be at all surprised when America discovers what a likable and engaging person their governor is.

I think that’s a good thing. Leaders in a democracy ought to be likable and able to persuade people to follow them. In many ways, that’s one of Barack Obama’s main qualifications.

The danger is that the Palin narrative will get caught up for the remainder of this campaign in discussion of her daughter, her husband’s driving record, the brutish My Space comments of Bristol’s alleged boyfriend. Nobody will ask – or maybe even get a chance to ask – what she would do about the economy if she inherited the desk in the Oval Office. She won’t get quizzed about NATO’s role in the post-Soviet world. She won’t get questioned about why she never bothered to visit most of the states she’s campaigning in, much less any of the rest of the world.

That will be a huge loss for American voters. Selection of a vice presidential candidate is always about picking a president-in-waiting, perhaps never more so than for John McCain. He would be the eldest first-term president in history and he’s had recurrent bouts of cancer – the kind that killed my little brother. The notion of his vice president succeeding him is not theoretical.

I spent the long Labor Day weekend in Juneau, Alaska, at my god daughter’s wedding. (She’s smart and gorgeous and her beau is a champ, since you asked). I talked with dozens of politically connected, longtime Alaskans. Most had good things to say about Palin. Not one of them thought she was qualified to lead the free world.

That won’t be true of most Alaskans, a fiercely territorial breed who will rally around one of their own, but it’s reason enough to demonstrate why her qualifications need thorough, sober examination.

Anchorage Daily News Editor Pat Dougherty made many excellent points in describing the coverage scenario for Editor & Publisher magazine. Michael Kinsley was characteristically witty in his observations at Slate (see No Experience Necessary), where Jack Shafer was even more on point (Hurricane Palin). One sample:

Thanks to McCain's miscue, everything the press touches about Palin turns into a scoop: her earmark flip-flops, her political inexperience, her Alaska Independence Party connection, her views on teaching "creationism," her book-banning phase, plus the "troopergate" scandal, her husband's ancient DUI, and her pregnant teenage daughter. And the press rampage has only just begun.

Rosen’s description of this exercise as “the theater of the post-modern presidency” might just as aptly be “the theater of the post-modern press.” We’ve talked here before about the end of the gatekeeper era of journalism, and that’s manifestly on display today. Blogs with millions of readers feel free to charge Gov. Palin faked her pregnancy to cover up for her daughter, and then (as far as I can see) remove the offending post after it’s debunked. GOP media handlers get away with hiding a newly named vice presidential nominee away from any press contact at all for days.

The old order is gone, with all its faults and all its checks and balances. We’re in new territory today, and it’s a dangerous land. I don't pretend to know how this will turn out.

To paraphrase the benediction we hear so often at political conventions, “God bless the press, and God bless the United States of America.”

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Lessons on display in Biloxi

Executive Editor Stan Tiner sounds a bit like a proud papa (okay, a lot like a proud papa) when he talks about the performance of the Sun Herald staff during hurricane Gustav. And why wouldn't he?

There is also an important lesson here about our responsibility to present the news in all the ways our readers want and need it. I'll let Stan's words tell that story:

Hurricane Gustav was quite a learning experience for the Sun Herald, and one to which the newsroom team responded with an incredible and successful effort. What a testing ground for our flip video/sunherald tv reporting.

The proof is in the numbers. Of course, a hurricane always puts up big numbers on our website, but look at the results for our video – six the top ten hit parade. Think about that. A week ago most of us didn't know there was such a thing as flip video. We were lucky to post one or two videos a week before, if that.

Last Thursday the staff received training, and on Monday we went into action with nine cameras. What our web viewers got was a glimpse of the power of video by a staff of story tellers who used the cameras to tell the dynamic story of Hurricane Gustav far beyond the limits of any other news organization, since our staff doubtlessly exceeded all other news assets covering the storm in South Mississippi combined. We are learning about how web users WANT to receive information on the web, and we are delivering. Meanwhile our storytelling in words and photos represented some of the best real time reporting in the history of the paper as well as online. The photo gallery is the best I have seen and the numbers back this up. The Sun Herald photographers had the best day I have ever seen for a staff. I have never seen a better portfolio for shooters than our team took yesterday.

This experience also reminds me how the so-called “old media” aspects of our work – words in ink, and still photography – adapt so well into our interactive media world. We are evolving and growing in our skills and this is perhaps the true test of our ability to survive and prosper. I don't believe anyone will tell me I am wrong when I say our first day print edition represents the height of our powers as a newsroom team.

Awesome. That is all I can say. We learned some incredible lessons from Katrina, and yesterday's performance was so crisp and efficient and that this old editor is awed. Everyone performed at a high level and the result is platinum.

Off topic: Do you love music?

This is off topic for this blog, except for where it isn't.

I love music, in a personal, eclectic way. The last concert I saw was Van Morrison (Robert Earl Keen's show was canceled last week); the next will be Sigur Røs. If your relationship with music means something personal to you, too, you should give a read to Ethan Kaplan's post on the coming of music experience as the next phase in record-LP-themed album-CD-DVD progression.

Come to think of it, what we do is about experience, too – or ought to be.