Bill Kirtz


write on media topics for trade and general circulation magazines; teach varity of print journalism courses.

Sinking platform, rising truth: Highlights from Shorenstein Center’s 25th anniversary

While a distinguished veteran reporter voiced concern about the erosion of traditional journalism values in the Internet age, two prominent new media thinkers said the Web provides more and richer information than conventional news outlets.

Their comments — amid much discussion of whether and how “truth” emerges from the welter of Internet information — came during this past weekend’s conference marking the 25th anniversary of Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Sinking platform, rising truth

Marvin Kalb, the Center’s founding director and award-winning CBS News and NBC News correspondent, wondered how you connect new technology with core journalism values. Now, he said, he feels as if he’s standing on the news platform watching emerging technologies speed by.

Your platform is sinking,” replied MIT’s new Media Lab director Joichi Ito.

Ito, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who helped finance Twitter and Flickr, sees more young people “diving into data themselves” to determine their own truth. By evaluating all sources, he said they get a much broader view than they would from a single newspaper article.

He said journalism schools and other arbiters of news standards “don’t have a monopoly on values. It’s easier to teach technical people to become journalists” than vice versa. “We need people who know data and programming in newsrooms. Journalists have to learn statistics as well as computers, just as they need to know how to type.”

Ito said the newsroom of the future will reach out to experts — not traditional sources. He said that by consulting experts, he learned more about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in a day than from all the media.

Ito’s Internet version of the truth: “If one million people attack it and it survives.”

New York Times media columnist David Carr acknowledged that “You can find your own ‘truth’ on the Web.” And he illustrated social networking’s  “real time impulse” and value by example of a tweet by an aide to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death.

But as Web audiences make their own news “assembly kits” into “verticals of (special) interest, ” he worries that there’ll be little “civic conversation.” He likes” codification” — the newspaper front page message that “Here are the six or seven most important stories in the world today.”

Danah Boyd, Microsoft Research senior researcher, said, “There’s not one set of facts.” For example, she cited Wikipedia’s entry on the American Revolution as offering alternative versions of received wisdom.

Boyd said the Web “stitches together knowledge. Put it up and (then) fix it if you need to” is the new philosophy because “a story is never finished.”

She and other speakers decried increasing international efforts to identify and restrict Internet communicators.

Boyd noted the federal government’s secret court order to Google and to turn over data from e-mail accounts of a WikiLeaks volunteer. “In investigative reporting we’re always short of whistle-blowers,” Carr said.

This is a dangerous moment for free speech,” said Clay Shirky, a New York University professor and expert on the Internet’s effects on society. “We don’t know how things will work out” as democracies such as Italy propose curbs on multi-national media.

Seeing no clear distinction between traditional and new media, he said “any legitimate rationale for going after WikiLeaks is a rationale for going after The New York Times.” So he said established media outlets must defend the “lowliest blogger” from government prosecution.

Building brands, revenue

While advertising erosion triggers still further newsroom cuts, two editors said their elite audiences draw significant ad revenues.

New York Magazine editor Adam Moss said columnist Frank Rich is a “brand” whose readers are people who control advertising dollars. So Rich’s move from The New York Times to his magazine drew ads like “The Book of Mormon” and MSNBC – offerings that would appeal to Rich fans.

He said his printed magazine is fact-checked as rigorously as the Atlantic but that there’s “zero editing” of its online postings. But he and other conference speakers said online readers quickly spot and challenge false information.

Politico executive editor and co-founder Jim VandeHei also said he’s getting more advertising dollars — from issue advocacy groups who want to reach his influential audience.

“I’m a total optimist about journalism in the middle of a great upheaval,” he said. “There’s a very bright future for content for niche sites.”

To boost revenues, Politico has launched subscription-based products providing exclusive information in areas like technology and health care. As others compete with Politico, he said, “We have to be in a constant state of reinvention. We have to completely evolve with readers’ needs.”

Though “We definitely obsess about speed,” VandeHei said that had nothing to do with a Politico reporter’s plagiarism.

To the remark that his enterprise might have hurt traditional media, the former Washington Post White House correspondent responded, “Politico didn’t contribute to the demise of newspapers. Newspapers contributed to the demise of newspapers by being shockingly slow to adapt to new technology and by giving away their content for free.” Read more

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NY Times’ Abramson: ‘Long-form narrative is not only alive but dancing to new music’

Forget the digital doomsayers, said Jill Abramson. “Long-form narrative is not only alive but dancing to new music.”

Other prominent journalists echoed The New York Times managing editor’s optimism about thriving in a Twitter age at Boston University’s annual narrative journalism conference last weekend.

Abramson said devices like tablets and iPads give long-form narrative new ways to reach new audiences. She said her paper focuses on integrated storytelling in series like “A Year At War,” with multimedia “freshening” the story by letting readers “see, feel and almost taste” soldiers’ and families’ experiences.

She added that new tools can’t trump journalism basics. Wary of “narrow specialists,” she worries that journalism schools’ new technology training may detract from traditional shoe leather reporting values.

Abramson, a former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, said she hires “passionate storytellers who go the extra reporting mile.” Her mantra: “report and report some more.” Her favorite example: Gay Talese’s classic 1966 Esquire story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”

The 15,000-word profile includes a short scene in which the singer hassles a young writer whose footwear offends him. For details of that minor event, Talese tracked down the unfortunate scribe.

That dedication sparked Abramson’s three-word reminder for aspiring narrative writers: “Harlan Ellison’s boots.”

Two prominent New Yorker writers — Ken Auletta and Susan Orlean — see great narrative opportunity in the new media world.

Drop the “woe is me” attitude to new technology and use blogs to get attention for your work, Auletta advised. When researching his latest book, “Googled,” he was struck by the founders’ “why not?” attitude. Writers should do the same, he said. Instead of whining, nonfiction writers should adapt. As an example, he said, multimedia can enliven –  not threaten — printed books.

Auletta said engineering and traditional journalism worlds are coming together, with techies discovering the value of quality content and writers learning how to use new techniques to enhance their work.

Orlean sees a thriving narrative scene because, “There’s never been a better time to be a teller of stories.” New technology trends might be disturbing, she said, but writers should remember that those just affect the packaging. She said basic content isn’t threatened as the delivery system changes and that the difference between an e-book and a bound volume is the difference between white and manila envelopes.

The author herself is using new technology to promote her eighth book, on canine film star Rin Tin Tin. As part of her talk, she read an excerpt about the four-legged performer in advance of the book’s October publication. Orlean has even come to like tweets, enjoying their informality and comparing their 140-character limit to haiku.

Worrying about nonfiction’s problems “gets us nowhere,” she said, noting that a strong narrative voice can cut through the “clutter” of Internet information.

How to develop that voice? Like Abramson, Orlean said every good piece springs from good reporting. To spin a routine story into something richer, Orlean said, “be a storyteller, make it a yarn, lead people through the emotional experience of learning. You’ve got to be the best, most excited learner you can possibly be, tug on the public’s coat sleeves and say ‘this is really interesting.’ ”

Talese, one of narrative journalism’s godfathers, has been making the mundane interesting for six decades. At 79, he said he does the same thing he’s always done. “I just hang around. Anyone can do it.”

But, he said, not everyone knows how “to get the unstated permission of people to hang around them. It’s a courtship.”

To Talese, that courtship begins with knowing how to behave. “Journalism classes don’t teach politeness and traditional good manners,” said the famously stylish writer. Meticulous attire shows respect. “You have to dress up for the story.” Read more

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How award-winning investigative reporters earn readers’ attention, impress advertisers

Have people tell their own stories with interactive tools. Maneuver around cost-conscious editors. Consider cooperating with other media groups and journalism schools.

Investigative reporting award winners and finalists offered those tips Tuesday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

The Las Vegas Sun’s Marshall Allen and Alex Richards won the $25,000 Goldsmith Award by finding multimedia ways to dramatize the excessive number of preventable hospital injuries and infection. They combed through 2.9 million records to find thousands of such cases.

The series’ sophisticated Web presence let patients use video to relate their experiences.

Allen said the Sun, an eight-page insert into the rival Las Vegas Review-Journal, takes advantage of its small size.

“There’s great freedom in not being the paper of record; we don’t cover car crashes. We can be more nimble; our goal is all enterprise stories.”

Allen stressed the need to “earn readers’ attention” by writing from patients’ point of view. The result: a topic which he first thought couldn’t be more boring got an overwhelming community response.

Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones called the Sun an “incubator for other news organizations.”

Allen is an example; he’s leaving the Sun to join ProPublica, the independent, non-profit newsroom focusing on public interest reporting.

ProPublica’s Jake Bernstein and Jesse Eisinger, with National Public Radio’s Adam Davidson and Chicago Public Radio’s Ira Glass and Alex Blumberg, used a comic strip — among other tools — to simplify the arcane details of hedge fund maneuvering. The result helped trigger moves for reform.

ProPublica offers news organizations added resources, including databases they can use for their own projects. Bernstein said that every partnership is different. For this series, he said NPR did a great initial job and came to ProPublica to “ferret out” the firms who took advantage of the 2008 recession.

When the San Jose Mercury News’s Karen de Sá uncovered the fact that lobbyists wrote 37 percent of legislator-sponsored bills, “our readers felt they had a chance to see a friend they’d taken for granted.”

De Sá said her fresh eye — she’d just come off the child welfare beat — helped her identify “outrageous practices” in the State House. She spent months of “mind-numbing data entry” to find dramatic examples of bills that caused serious harm to the public, such as not protecting against lead paint poison.

As one of her newsroom’s few projects reporters, she sees cooperation between academic institutions and newspapers a key to sustaining in-depth journalism.

Meanwhile, she said awards like the Goldsmith “strengthen our resolve” and remind publishers that “without this stuff we have nothing to show for why we continue to exist.”

The Los Angeles Times’s Jeff Gottlieb, who with Ruben Vives uncovered massive salaries for part-time city officials, said two major advertisers renewed their contracts because they wanted to be associated with the paper that did such reporting.

Before the series ran, he said, “I can’t describe how bad morale was, it was like walking into a morgue. We helped the paper get its mojo back,” adding that the Times will do more investigative projects, especially in the 88 cities in Los Angeles County.

NPR’s Laura Sullivan, who with Steven Drummond produced an exposé that may help institute multi-state reforms, was frank about her organization’s fiscal  problems. Despite 36 million listeners, she said NPR is “in the fight of our lives.” Budget cuts “will be devastating to our newsroom (but) we’re preparing for that. We’ve been lucky because so far NPR is putting its money where its mouth is.”

She shared tips for dealing with pesky PR people — and with editors.

With her biggest problem getting prisoners to talk freely, she said she “waited out the flacks” who wanted to sit in on interviews by “boring them to tears” with inane questions until they went away and let her “wander around” jails.

Sullivan’s policy when launching a long-term project sure to raise editors’ financial concerns: “Reel them in slowly until they get hooked.”

That’s Dana Priest’s strategy too. With colleague William Arkin, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter conducted a two-year probe revealing that 850,000 in the U.S. have top-secret clearances in a $ 9 billion security industry.

“You have to figure out how to manage your editors,” she advised. “Reporters should start and work around editors. Too many reporters ask editors questions instead of just doing it, and then figure out how to sell it.”

So for all her projects, she puts editors off for as along as she can until she can show them some initial results.

Because the Post wanted the series to be “digital at birth,” 12  Web staffers worked for on it for four months. The result: three million page views in three days.

How did they penetrate a top-secret world? Arkin noted that “everyone lives somewhere. There’s a building for every agency.”

So he combed advertisements for jobs for people with top-secret clearances.

“In a way it was simple to figure it out,” he said. “Almost everything we did was not classified. The place where the secret meets the regular world is the place to get peoples’ addresses and names.”

It’s also no secret that a great quote adds spark to any story. When Gottlieb asked a pastor why he got $ 700,000 a year for a part-time council job he got this response: “It was a gift from God.”

“No,” Gottlieb remembers thinking. “The gift from God was that quote.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to remove a quote incorrectly attributed to Jake Bernstein. Read more

Frank Rich, right, accepted the annual Goldsmith Career Award from Alex S. Jones, left, Director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, which sponsors the awards. (Heather McKinnon/Shorenstein Center)

Frank Rich: ‘I wanted to hang it up at The Times while I still enjoyed it’

New York Times veteran Frank Rich acknowledges journalism’s current dilemma: “How to make money when information wants to be free.”

But Rich, accepting the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism at Harvard Monday night, said, “The news business will eventually flourish in forms we haven’t yet imagined.”

Frank Rich, right, accepted the annual Goldsmith Career Award from Alex S. Jones, left, Director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, which sponsors the awards. (Heather McKinnon/Shorenstein Center)

He called the current news landscape more diverse than ever, with entries like Talking Points Memo, Bloomberg News and the Huffington Post.

Rich, who will join New York Magazine in June as an essayist and editor, is “heartened by the smart, brave and determined young people who want to go into journalism. They want to rethink journalism for a new age — and they should.”

The long-time theatre critic and op-ed columnist said he’s leaving the paper because “I wanted to be pushed again” — to write more longer pieces less often.

“I’ve never been interested in so-called ‘power.’ Opinions are cheap. I’m interested in constructing an essay and connecting the dots.”

“I wanted to hang it up at The Times while I still enjoyed it and could still have another act,” Rich said. Read more

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Zucker: NBC tried to buy Huffington Post for 18 months, couldn’t agree on price

Just-ousted NBC Universal president and chief executive Jeff Zucker today praised AOL’s $315 million acquisition of The Huffington Post. He said NBC had tried for 18 months to buy the popular blog but “could never agree on price.”

At a talk sponsored by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Zucker called the purchase “a very good day if you believe in news. It helps The Huffington Post monetize its investment and gives AOL a bigger platform.”

Zucker, who lost his job when Comcast acquired the network, has in the past described broadcast television’s financial problems as trading “digital dimes for analog dollars.” But now he sees progress, and puts those numbers as 25 cents for digital and 50 cents for analog.

Calling the DVR the biggest threat to networks, he said, “We have to monetize eyeballs in different ways.”

He advises patience as traditional networks navigate the new media universe. “We want an immediate business model in place but it doesn’t work like that. Business models will evolve for news online.”

Zucker said good journalism will always matter. You’re not a journalist just because you have a blog and a fliptop camera, he said.

” ‘Branded’ journalism [like The New York Times] will be more important than ever. In a world of a thousand voices you have to know who to trust.”

“By and large information wants to be free,” he said. “The problem is that content is expensive. You have to juggle those two things.”

Zucker called it “way too simplistic to say that Fox and MSNBC’s loud-voiced political shows are what’s wrong with this country,” although he said he wished their tone was “less nasty and polarizing.”

He said that Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news network, should be more available in the U.S. but that distributors would be attacked as “unpatriotic” for airing it.

He called last year’s Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien “Tonight” show brouhaha a low point in his 24 years at the network, “very painful for me personally.”

NBC gave O’Brien the 11:35 p.m. slot and moved Leno to 10 p.m. Seven months later, Leno reclaimed his original time. Zucker said O’Brien, whom he’s known since their Harvard undergraduate days, believed that he was “owed” the 11:35 p.m. slot “but nobody’s owed anything in television.”

Zucker acknowledged that both shows failed but said he wouldn’t apologize for “taking a shot” at trying Leno at 10 p.m.

He said, “Our mistake was that we let Conan continue for two weeks [after he was removed from the 11:35 p.m. slot] and the whole thing became a national soap opera.” Read more


Carroll: AP a guardian of openness, with 1,500 FOIA requests in 2010

WikiLeaks’ lauded and condemned release of 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables doesn’t change responsible news outlets’ responsibility to weigh national security concerns against the public’s right to know and to verify information and put it in context. And whatever the technology, government and press priorities will continue to clash.

Leading journalists stressed those points Thursday at a Secrecy and Journalism conference sponsored by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation.

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller called government attacks on the disclosures nothing new. He said officials want it both ways: to keep secrets while trumpeting successes. “One man’s security breach is another man’s publicity campaign –  and sometimes they’re the same man.” Read more


Maddow: ‘The Country Hates the Press’

Rachel Maddow’s contention that conflict, not calm reflection, attracts audiences drew little disagreement from a Harvard audience she spoke to Sunday. But some held out the hope that new technology will let more responsible voices be heard.

Maddow, host of MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” told an audience Sunday night gathered at the University’s Institute of Politics Forum and convened by The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, “The country hates the press — not some of it. All of it.”

She said the nuts and bolts journalism of truth telling and reporting facts in context doesn’t work commercially. What does, she said, are comments that can be portrayed as a “clash” or a  “smackdown.” She said that her ratings spike when she trashes conservative journalists.

She called this nothing new. “Exclamation points sell” and always have.

“Now it’s websites and it used to be broadsheets.” She said it’s futile to lament this. “The press has changed and is still changing, it doesn’t disappear.” And she said that a variety of websites have replaced the “voice of God” of the mainstream media and that the best, most journalistic of these are the most read.

In a Monday panel discussion, former ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, said people don’t hate the press but “are hungry for information they can trust.” He said that although the business model for over-the-air networks is unsustainable, “people aren’t rushing to cable.”

Predicting that the half-life of cable is very short, Gibson predicted that there will be “an infinite number of voices through the computer. The question is whether they’ll be more responsible voices or more narrowcasting — where you have to yell the loudest.”

William Greider, national affairs correspondent for The Nation and a former Washington Post correspondent and editor, said the mainstream media doesn’t exist as a business model.

“I don’t know what will follow but I say, ‘Hurrah.’ We’re at the apex of the technological revolution.” He said digital media would reinvent how Americans communicate with each other.

Susan Milligan, a veteran New York Daily News and Boston Globe political reporter, said journalists shouldn’t “pander to the hyper-political element. The country is less partisan than it seems.” But when “everybody has a [media] voice people have to shout more loudly.”

Milligan said politicians’ and journalists’ pettiness are equally damaging to democracy. The media enables this by focusing constantly on the battle, on the 2012 campaign. There’s no pressure on lawmakers to actually govern.”

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Mindy Finn, an online political consultant who helped run Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and Scott Brown’s senatorial campaign, said people out of the “Industrial Age” don’t understand the new information technology.

Noting the perennial question of how to attract audiences with verified news, she said, “We’ll get there.”
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Goodman: Avoid ‘food fight journalism’

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman advised serious reporters to embrace, not avoid, complexity.

At Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism on May 4, Goodman said winners and finalists for J. Anthony Lukas book prizes “work against the very strong tide of the times, against food fight journalism. We live in an era of opinion hurling, where there are villains and heroes. Everything is required to be far more simplistic than the problems we face.”

But she said these books are built on “pilings of reporting. They’re complex when complexity is out of fashion. Against the trend to oversimplify, they follow the story wherever it leads.”

Goodman said, “Complexity respects the subtlety of people,” and urged reporters to “avoid the slick and quick in favor of the real.”

Jonathan Schuppe, who won a $30,000 work-in-progress award for “Ghetto Ball,” echoed that theme. After immersing himself in the lives of ghetto families he said, “the conclusion won’t be tidy.” The former Newark, N.J. Star Ledger reporter called his book a story of a city and of an ex-drug dealer seeking redemption.

The awards, administered by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, honor work that exemplifies Lukas’s literary grace and commitment to social concern.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter David Finkel won the $10,000 book award for “The Good Soldiers,” which follows an American battalion in the Iraqi war. After detailing his efforts to gain young troops’ trust, he recalled agonizing over whether to cut a gory detail about a soldier’s death. Finally, he kept it in, because “the obligation is to the story.” Read more


Goldsmith Honorees Offer Tips on Investigative Journalism

Top journalists detailed how they turned tips into groundbreaking series Wednesday at Harvard. During a panel discussion, finalists for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting and the winner stressed the need for long-term commitment to produce memorable stories that lead to change.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge, winner of the $25,000 prize, began her yearlong project exposing fraud and criminality in Wisconsin’s child-care program with a tip from a concerned state worker, who told her about a boy left in a hot van to die.

Papers provided by the worker, who was risking her career, gave Rutledge a road map, which the investigation followed with stakeouts of no-show child-care workers. The first story in her “Cashing in On Kids” series ran four months after the initial tip; Rutledge’s reporting led to investigations, indictments and new laws.

KHOU-TV Houston’s “Under Fire” series on abuses of power and cover-ups in the Texas National Guard started with a call from a soldier’s mother, who said her daughter had been sexually humiliated.

KHOU investigative reporter Mark Greenblatt first had to establish that this was not an isolated event. To break through what he called the “don’t rat out a fellow soldier” military code, he and colleagues talked with the woman on background. They approached her not as intimidating investigative reporters but as people who wanted to help. This, he said, gained her trust and willingness to provide a “treasure trove” of other victims.

Greenblatt identified something “common to all of us” on the Goldsmith panel: “one story leading to the next. That’s the key to substantial, memorable journalism that leads to action.” The action in this case: criminal investigations and laws requiring better oversight of the Guard.

A friend’s tip triggered the cooperative effort of ProPublica, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune and PBS’s “Frontline” reporters to expose a pattern of vigilante violence and police use of deadly force in “Law and Disorder.”

“You often stumble into something,” said ProPublica’s A.C. Thompson. In this case, an author writing a book about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina told him she’d heard that white groups had fired at blacks seeking safety during the 2005 disaster.

Skeptical at first, Thompson was convinced by home videos showing people bragging openly about shooting blacks. With his efforts underwritten by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, Thompson sued the New Orleans coroner’s office for autopsy reports and obtained hospital records to verify victims’ claims.

Brendan McCarthy was one of the three Times-Picayune reporters who shared information with Thompson. They found that it sometimes helped to be “the local guy” with sources instead of an unknown out-of-towner.

McCarthy said the investigation is still “a work in progress” and that “we’re still plugging along on the tip of the iceberg.” Already, he said the series has triggered an FBI investigation and several indictments, and McCarthy predicts more will come because the stories have “a snowball effect.”

To penetrate the maze of favoritism between a former governor and his cronies, The (Raleigh) News & Observer’s J. Andrew Curliss depended on memos written by low-level state employees to “cover themselves.”

With the state delaying record requests, Curliss obtained a private memo in which a developer bragged about how fast he could get building permits. That, plus stakeouts and a three-hour confrontation with a participant in the schemes, were key parts of a yearlong investigation. The series, “The Perks of Power,” resulted in criminal investigations, firings and government reforms.

Steve Riley, the paper’s senior editor for investigations, said the paper’s investigative team fields a lot of tips but that the system needs improvement. “I want to get a more systematic approach to making sure of follow-up, but there’s no replacing a reporter who will take [an idea] and run with it.”

One suggestion advanced during the discussion: comb through “news tip” lines for comments about alleged misdeeds. It’s a challenge to glean these out but they can provide ideas for investigations into, for example, real estate fraud.

For “Death on the Rails,” Washington Post investigative reporter Joe Stephens and transportation reporter Lena H. Sun “started with stark disbelief” that the District’s supposedly fail-safe Metro system didn’t prevent a two-train crash that killed nine and injured 80.

Four months of FOIA requests to D.C officials produced nothing, but meanwhile the Post contacted other cities with which the Washington transit officials might have been in contact. They finally hit pay dirt with records from Virginia. “It was a long, convoluted process to get documents,” said Stevens, but it uncovered “an accident waiting to happen”: repeated safety and oversight lapses. After the series ran, the federal government moved to take over subway and light rail systems around the country.

Boston Globe reporter Sean P. Murphy finds adding his e-mail address to stories and being “proactive” pays off. Stalled on his probe (“Gaming the System“) of how state officials used loopholes to enhance their retirement benefits, he started cold calling boards across the state. Told that there was a case “north of Boston,” he eventually tracked down a retired state senator who had used his volunteer job as a library trustee to double his pension. Spacer Spacer

Murphy and other speakers stressed the value of just showing up to get a comment from a reluctant source. “When they’re ducking you, go to their office to flush them out.” For his series, which has led to new pension laws, he once waited three hours to see a suddenly wealthy retiree. Read more


Does Political Journalism Focus on the Trivial?

Trivia or legitimate front-page news? Journalists and political commentators sparred over the difference Friday in a discussion of presidential coverage at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

One example of trivia trumping vital subjects, said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, is the “silly” New York Times Page One story about President Barack Obama’s all-male basketball games.

But Boston Globe columnist Renee Loth and Elaine Kamarck, who served in the Clinton White House and was a senior policy advisor to Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, said the hoops story illuminated important gender equity issues.

Branch, a former magazine editor who compiled his latest book from interviews and conversations with President Bill Clinton, criticized what he called the press’ “pattern of cynicism.” He charged that the media has contributed to the “corrosion” of attitudes about politics as a profession. “Journalism has lost its balance about politics itself,” he said, and this has gone “beyond skepticism.” 

Loth made a similar contention. “In the 60s journalism was a craft, not a profession, and more identified with ordinary people. Now, we’ve lost some of our idealism,” she said. “The media and politicians are going down together in terms of cynicism.”

Veteran Washington Post political correspondent Dan Balz said the press now puts “even more emphasis on process than policy” with more discussion of smaller things. And “with a news continuum in place of the news cycle, nothing sticks. The public and the press have a much, much shorter attention span.” He nonetheless sees a “tremendous amount of good journalism” such as coverage of the health care debate.

Daniel Okrent, The New York Times’ first “public editor,” attacked the “insane idea” of the scoop. “We have an atavistic attachment to being first,” he said, worrying more about whether we’re online at 3 p.m. or 3:05 than whether the story is right.

“In defense of trivia,” Okrent mentioned what he called Times’ “dull” front-page stories from decades past. “It was good journalism, but tedious.”
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