Your take on the news and how it’s made. What’s your take?

no talking

Enough with the manifestos about the future of news, let your product do the talking

Nikki Usher had a great Columbia Journalism Review article “Startup site manifestos are press criticism” where she notes that startup news orgs like PandoDaily, Vox, FiveThirtyEight and more have gotten into the habit of writing manifestos (much like the New York Times did when it launched in 1851). These manifestos are essentially their critique of the press in action.

The implication is that traditional journalism simply doesn’t offer readers this kind of news in the existing environment—that it’s not doing enough to give us what we need to know, and these sites are going to offer an alternative way to give us the public information that is the perceived obligation of journalism.

I think Nikki is right in her observation. These manifestos feel like the result of an organization sitting down on a psychologist’s couch, talking about its metaphorical parents and writing how it intends to deal with feelings of abandonment. “I WILL BE BETTER THAN THEM” the news organization shouts. Catharsis!

I found out about the post because of a tweet from my colleague Anthony DeRosa.

My response:

I’ve worked on several projects and endeavors over the years. Some of them are now shut down, some of them like Circa are currently kicking butt. But all of them were manifestos. They were all applied critiques of the news process. Emphasis on “applied.” and Broowaha were critiques on the closed process of data collection/reporting
Spot.Us was a critique on the flow of money in journalism and sought to make it more transparent and participatory.
NewsTrust was a critique of accountability
Circa is a critique of the “article” as the most common/base unit of information (among other critiques).
Manifesto writing is important and helpful, and each of these projects spilled plenty of digital ink describing their goals, but it was the product that spoke loudest. It was the product-in-action that defined what these projects said to the larger industry.

Vox’s stacks are more poignant than the video where Ezra Klein talks about how the web can change things. Pando’s use of comics scream louder than Sarah Lacy’s about page. FiveThirtyEight’s drop-down menu tab says more about its values than any interview about it could. First Look’s future products will say more than any blog post explaining those products.

At the heart of the New York Times innovation report I don’t think the conclusion was the NYT needs to write a new manifesto. Instead, NYT recognized it needs to re-think product(s). That’s how you critique the press today. That’s how one shows what you offer that no other news organizations can.

Writing a long article is how you critique a specific act of journalism (think Ombudsmen) and is incredibly valuable. Just look at the wonderful work of Margaret Sullivan for some of the best examples of recent memory. But a long manifesto won’t re-imagine what we do. Creating a news product is how you critique the press today at an institutional level. That’s how you make a statement on what you think the future will feel like.

lets-do-this-250There is so much talk about entrepreneurial journalism, it’s important to see the forest for the trees. Why is this a golden age of exploration in media? Why is it important to discuss the “future of journalism”? If you want to work on a new project or product ask yourself why. Is it because you can? Because you want to make money? Or because you have something to say and the best way to articulate it is by showing how things can work. Read more


Friday, Aug. 01, 2014


NPR One app potential is huge

Public radio and podcasts have taken on an increasing role in my life. I listen while running, cleaning, cooking, driving long distances or taking public transportation, mostly times when I can afford to multitask, but can’t be looking at video or don’t want the added work of reading text.

I downloaded the NPR One app this week and listened to it twice during long morning jogs, and while I was riding public transportation and hanging out in airports. I’ll stop short of calling it a game-changer. But it’s clear that this app, or one like it, has the potential to become a content platform for news and culture audio, the way Amazon is for shopping or Netflix is for movies.

NPR One is like Pandora for public radio content. Because I already have an NPR account, even though I was in New York, it immediately knew that my local station was really WUSF in Tampa Bay.

NPR One began with a Guy Raz welcome and a request for access to my microphone (I’m not sure why). It then gave me the latest three-to-four-minute top-of-the-hour news update. Then it bounced through radio news, first from the last 24 hours of daily NPR shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Soon I started getting a mix of more evergreen content, blended in with the day’s news. I got a heavy dose of WNYC content, presumably because that’s where I was, but also because there is no content from my local market currently available.

The app draws from a big pool of NPR-owned products including podcasts, Joel Sucherman, NPR senior director of digital products said. The algorithm blends machine learning and editorial curation to ensure users don’t end up in a filter bubble, he said.

When you like something, you can tag it interesting. When you don’t like something, you click the forward triangle, and it skips to the next story in the queue. Soon, the app was delivering Planet Money reports, Scott Simon interviews with interesting musicians and stories about books and authors. I clicked past a Terry Gross interview once, because it was really long, and I never heard from her again, even though I wouldn’t mind the occasional film director interview. Some of the most pleasurable stories came from something called Vintage NPR, a collection of ‘driveway moments’ that manage to stand up over time.

NPR staff currently tags all NPR content as it goes into their management system, Sucherman said. A second level of NPR One editors then determine what “buckets” that content should go in. Those buckets determine how long the content will be available on NPR One and how and when the app will match it to customers.

NPR One was publicly available Monday for Android and IOS. They won’t say how many people downloaded it, but it was in the top three free apps in Apple’s App Store all week. Jeremy Pennycook, NPR One product manager, described the debut as more of a preview than a launch. Developers perfected the software enough so that users could open it up and press play. Many additions and improvements are in the works, he said. Eventually it will learn what time of day or days of the week users prefer shorter, newsy content to longer feature content.

The developers specified that all the audio listeners hear on the app will have “that NPR sound.” But they didn’t say how that will happen. Content like This American Life, that is heard on NPR stations but not owned by the NPR network, isn’t currently available on NPR One. There will be interesting negotiations about the pricing and licensing, considering that This American Life has recently gone out on its own. NPR One’s success is contingent on it being the go-to mobile platform, at least for public radio stories and shows, but maybe for an even broader array of audio content. How or even if independent content that seems as natural fit, as well as the good stuff from Public Radio International and American Public Media, isn’t clear.

“It’s a big ecosystem and the edges are very fuzzy,” Pennycook conceded.

(Disclosure: I have weekly media segment on WUSF and also a side podcast; neither are available on NPR One.)

NPR worked closely with six big local stations in the initial development and then later brought in a broader working group of large, midsize and smaller stations Sucherman said. While the app was smart enough to know what my local station was, it couldn’t recognize that I was already a donor. Thus the occasional instructions to press the “donate” button seemed annoying in a way that doesn’t bother me when I hear the same plea on the radio. When I did press that button, I got an email with “give now” button that sent me to my local station’s pledge page.

In order to capitalize on the opportunity, staff at local stations will have to load their “segmented audio” into the NPR One content system. That should be an incentive to the notoriously thinly staffed mid-size and small stations to create such content and produce it in a way that in conforms with the technical requirements of the app. Local stations will be rewarded with data about public radio listeners who may not be donors, including who their listeners are, where they go, when they listen and what they are most interested in. That kind of data will be a goldmine for local stations.

Sucherman and Pennycook pointed out that NPR was conscientious to connect users to their local station, which by design are crucial to NPR’s revenue model. With money from their pledge drives, local stations pay their own bills as well as pay the fees to license NPR shows.

“We had the best interests of the network and local stations in mind,” Pennycook said. “We are disrupting ourselves so someone else does not come in and eat our lunch.”

For me, the user experience was slightly addicting. Unlike the Public Radio app, NPR One can run in the background, so you can text and surf while you listen. It downloaded enough ahead of time that even in New York City, on the notoriously spotty AT&T connection, it didn’t drop as I ran through the streets. On an airplane I was able to listen to four or five stories after my phone lost its connection.

The most notable glitch was repetition, which Guy Raz promised in his introduction wouldn’t happen. The app delivers two quick sponsor messages in a row, which often repeated one right after the other as I continued to listen. I heard a few of the same stories the second time I used the app as well. Also, it drained my battery quickly.

Whether NPR One becomes a true platform, as opposed to just an app, will depend on the mix of content, transparency and sophistication of the algorithm. The reason Amazon works is because consumers can get to the variety of what they want, in a environment where Amazon controls for quality. That ‘NPR sound’ that both Sucherman and Pennycook mentioned can be a bit like Starbucks: It’s consistent and reliable, but sometimes you want a local vibe that is completely different.

Of course, there’s a natural evolution for all platforms.

Facebook had three distinct phases for me. First there was novelty. Then, as more and more people that I cared about joined, I felt a true connection to the platform because it enhanced my life by giving me information I wasn’t getting anywhere else. Lately, as it has become harder to find the content that actually enhances my life, that connection to Facebook has waned such that it’s more an indulgence than a necessity.

Maybe that’s natural evolution for all platforms. At first cable TV was so cool, then it was so pointless, but eventually it brought me unique content from MTV’s “Real World” to “Mad Men.” At first Netflix saved me time, then I couldn’t find anything I wanted to watch, and now I have “Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards.”

It’s obvious that there is an audience for this type of news and culture audio and I think a need for a platform, outside of terrestrial radio, to deliver it. If NPR One doesn’t grow into that platform, something else will. Before Facebook there was MySpace.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Guy Raz’s last name and Terry Gross’ first name. Read more


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Newspaper group CEO: We need to embrace all media including print

A longtime newspaper man who recently turned academic, Mr. David Boardman posted an essay sharing his personal lamentations about the state of the newspaper business and how the NAA chose to present its industry outlook at the 2014 World Newspaper Congress.

Mr. Boardman’s focus on print publications doesn’t adequately show the changes and growth that are taking place. The reality is that the newspaper business is comprised of multiple platforms, reaching many audiences. Read more


Monday, July 14, 2014

Walter Cronkite

Accept praise for something great in your story – even if you didn’t mean it

We writers say we want more praise for our work, but, when it comes, we are often not ready to accept it. We are better at absorbing the blows of negative criticism, perhaps because we suffer from the impostor syndrome, that fear that this is the day that we will be found out, exposed as frauds, banished to law school.

If you are one of those writers who fend off criticism, this essay is for you. As I learned years ago, praise can come at some surprising moments, and for surprising reasons. When it arrives, let it wash over you like a waterfall.

My career in journalism was launched by a short essay I wrote for the New York Times in 1974. It was called “Infectious Cronkitis,” and an editor at the Times by the name of Howard Goldberg told me later that while he liked the essay, he really liked that title.

I was raised in New York, but in 1974 I taught at a small college in Alabama. As I watched local news programs in the South, I was puzzled that all the anchors sounded like they were from the Midwest. I later discovered that most of these news men and women grew up in the South but had been trained or coaxed to abandoned Southern dialects for the “cracked twig” standard. It was as if they all wanted to sound like Cronkite.

This seemed to me like an illness, a form of self-loathing, a prejudice against even educated forms of Southern speech. I remember so clearly writing my essay in a makeshift office in a rented apartment, sitting on a metal chair, banging on a Remington portable typewriter, my baby daughter Alison toddling nearby.

I paused for some inspiration. I needed a name for this conceptual scoop. I was using words like “disease,” “illness,” and “syndrome.” My hands rested on the keyboard, and I looked toward the ceiling, as if in prayer. I needed a name. Suddenly, I thought of a college teacher whose nickname was “The Disease,” not because of the state of his health or his teaching style, but because of his last name: Jurgalitis.

Then came the list of associations: Jurgalitis…Appendicitis…Bronchitis…

I fell back in my chair and hit my head on the floor, a blow cushioned by a pea-green shag carpet.


That word changed everything. The column was reprinted in papers across the nation. I got miffed mail from Dan Rather and Uncle Walter himself. I was invited by Edwin Newman to appear on the Today show to talk about language prejudice. Word got to Gene Patterson, then president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who hired me to lead a writing improvement effort for newspapers. I became a writing coach at the St. Petersburg Times and then the first faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a school that now influences the work of journalists across the globe. I’ve taught there 35 years and have my name as editor or author on 17 books.

Credit Cronkitis, or the Muse who gave that word to me.

I wrote more op-ed columns for the Times about the emerging culture of the New South. During a visit to New York City I was invited to the Times to meet the editors who had been promoting my work, especially Charlotte Curtis and her deputy Howard Goldberg. They were generous in their praise, and I was flattered and grateful.

Then came that comment from Goldberg about “Infectious Cronkitis.” He liked the content of that column, but he loved the title.  “Cronkitis, a great pun in TWO languages,” is the way I remember it.

Two languages? Goldberg explained to someone else in the room: “You know, the German word for disease is krankheit – pronounced Cronkite. In vaudeville, the crazy doctor was always called Dr. Krankheit — Dr. Disease.”

I knew not a single word of German, and my only brush with vaudeville was through sketches by Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. But I sat in that room like the young genius I was not — aglow with misdirected praise.

Who among you – especially you writers — get praised too much? I didn’t think so.

I learned a lesson as a writer that day that I pass on to all of you: Never fend off praise. Just accept it. By all means, take credit for things you did not mean. Why? Because you will be blamed for lots and lots of stuff you also didn’t intend.

So repeat after me, scribes: “Yes. I meant it all along. Cronkitis. A pun in TWO languages. Actually THREE if you add krankhayt from the Yiddish.”

Read the letter Walter Cronkite wrote to Roy Peter Clark after the Infectious Cronkitis article came out. Read more


Friday, Oct. 17, 2008

How Change Looks in America

Back in March of 2007, I was sitting on my bedroom floor making robots out of Legos with my 6-year-old when Barack Obama took the podium at the Brown Chapel AME church in Selma, Ala. It was a significant moment in the making of the Democratic contender and, depending upon what happens on November 4th, possibly the making of a president.

I told Noah, my youngest child, that we’d have to take a break from the construction project to listen to the speech.

“We wanted to watch this because that man is running for president,” I explained.

“Cool,” Noah said, hardly looking up.

“Do you think he can win?” I asked.

He shrugged.

My little test was over. I thought, for a moment, that he’d see the profound significance of my question –- a black man running to become the 44th president of the United States; the first time it’s even looked remotely possible. I thought his answer would tell me whether our country had changed.

Instead, he shrugged.

I knew how big it was that Obama was at Brown AME, a modest little church that’s a few blocks from the Voting Rights Museum and practically around the corner from the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where 44 years ago marchers were clubbed by state troopers on horseback; a day they call Bloody Sunday. This church, not far from the start of the mile-long city, was where civil rights greats preached. It was the womb of change.

And yet, Noah shrugged. In his nonchalance, I thought, was hope as much as innocence. That he saw no great consequence in the moment gave the moment its profundity. How far must we have come that a black child was totally unimpressed that a black man had the audacity to think he could be president? How much change, in fact, must we already have achieved that he would merely shrug?

I’d been in Brown AME with my oldest children more than a decade before, when the distance was barely 30 years between our visit and the successful march across the bridge led by Martin Luther King Jr. There were plenty of reasons to think we hadn’t traveled all that far since, were we to judge by the O.J. fallout and the riots after Rodney King.

And yet a mere decade later, we see reporter John King on CNN explaining that the electoral numbers favor Obama. By a lot.

The Democratic candidate runs under the mantra “Change you can believe in,” and the Republican has adjusted the line to say, “Change is coming.” I believe the truth of it is that the change has already happened.

Change never waits its turn. It does not ask permission. It needs no electoral votes to prevail.We should dispense, especially in my profession, with the question of whether America is ready for a black president. Let me put aside for now my revulsion that the question is asked at all. The fact is that America spoke on the matter months and months ago, long before the Democratic primaries were done, when there were only two Democrats standing –- a black man and a white woman. America has been speaking on the subject over and over again, in senatorial and congressional and gubernatorial races. In sports and culture and education and in our communities.

America has said, “Challenge me, demand of me, aspire –- yes, even hope –- and I will show you who I can be.” The change has already happened, the one that says we are, in fact, ready, and all those who would try to stop it by exploiting petty bigotry with race-baiting and all these xenophobic allusions to terrorism will fail, because it is as though they are trying to stop the sunrise and it is already high noon.

Let me say this, though. Just because we have changed does not mean that racism is dead. Congressman John Murtha had to apologize not long ago for calling a part of western Pennsylvania racist, and it may be that by his painting with too broad a brush, then backing down, this latest racial dustup during the campaign will only serve to obscure the whole truth of America.

There are racists in western Pennsylvania. Maybe lots of them. But they no more totally define the region or the state or this country than does the multicultural Kumbaya surrounding Obama.

We are a complex nation, and we change our ideas, our aspirations, our visions of our noblest selves sometimes long before we defeat our innermost demons.

Change never waits its turn. It does not ask permission. It needs no electoral votes to prevail. It arrives as a viral notion that spreads on the winds in search of a host who can look in the mirror and see an image of possibility. We’ve slowed and sabotaged change in this country, but never stopped it, by limiting the image in that mirror to only one gender, only a few shades of white, only one, gilded road of privilege. So we often look in the mirror and see who we’d like to become long before we get there.

That is how we change in America. We see what is possible. And then we make it happen.

So when I asked my 6-year-old what he thought of Obama’s chances; when I asked him, in fact, if he thought he, Noah, could be president. He shrugged. And then, he said this:

“Well, I do like him.”

“Really,” I said. “Why?”

“Because,” Noah said, “he looks just like me.”

A version of this essay was delivered as a speech to the “Greater Pinellas Democratic Club.” Read more


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Crossing Paths with Journalists and Pundits

The first (and only) time I met NBC’s Brian Williams, he threatened to send sharks with laser beams attached to their heads after me if I didn’t return his copy of The New York Times.

I needed the newspaper to make a graphic for that night’s edition of “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” Somehow, it seemed that Brian Williams was the only person at MSNBC who still subscribed to a print edition of the newspaper. And, of course, the interns who came before me on “Hardball” during the summer of 2001 had borrowed the newspaper and neglected to return it.

Eventually I was allowed to borrow the newspaper. I learned that no one could beat a news anchor’s ability to deadpan.

Since then, I’ve had the chance to meet a surprising number of high-profile pundits and journalists. Many of them probably don’t remember me. Some I can only hope have forgotten me.

Pat Buchanan falls into the latter category.

Buchanan was in a surly mood when he arrived at Ripon College in 2002 for a speech. Hours before, he had abruptly terminated a live interview with the campus radio station after taking umbrage at one of the questions. The stunned silence was quickly filled with Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge.”

It seemed not unrelated that I was relegated to interviewing Buchanan for the campus newspaper while he signed copies of his book after the speech. The problem was that Buchanan didn’t have a marker to sign the books. His constant complaints about not having a marker kept interrupting the flow of the interview.

Finally, I handed him a dry-erase marker that I had used earlier that day in the newspaper office. When he removed the cap, ink shot out of the battered marker and seeped into the sleeve of what looked like a very expensive shirt.

I learned not to become part of the story.

When I crossed paths with James Carville at an empty gate at Palm Springs International Airport, Carville checked his voicemail and pretended to talk on his cell phone rather than speak to me. Maybe Buchanan had warned him.

When Tim Russert arrived at my alma mater in February 2006 to give a speech on media ethics, I’d conducted enough interviews to make the memories of Pat Buchanan fade. Still, I went into the interview feeling a bit queasy. How exactly does one interview one of the toughest journalists in Washington, D.C.?

Because the speech took place during the Scooter Libby trial, I didn’t have high expectations. Like many journalists who were tarred by the Valerie Plame investigation, Russert seemed neither saint nor sinner. He had said little publicly about the case outside of “Meet the Press,” and since the trial was still raging, I didn’t expect that to change.

I sat down in a conference room among a small group of journalists hoping that he would be willing to talk about whether he thought there should be a federal shield law.

“I don’t take positions on the issues,” Russert said in response to my first question. For a moment I thought the 90-minute winter drive from Milwaukee had been in vain.

He continued:

“I do not think it’s healthy or good for our country, our society and for our media that we are in a situation now that we seem to be being subpoenaed on a regular basis. Because I really do believe that will have a chilling effect on what we can do.”

Arianna Huffington had accused Russert of reporting on the Plame story while not explaining his involvement. “Maybe (the speech) will lead to a spin-off panel on the journalistic value of showing disdain for your audience,” she wrote days before his speech.

When asked, it was clear Russert was aware of the criticism. And that he found it unwarranted.

“It’s almost amusing to read the things that have been written, because in terms of transparency, there has been no organization that has been more transparent,” said Russert, who then opened a folder and began reading, “Meet the Press” style, from transcripts of previous NBC broadcasts to prove his point. When finished, he offered me a copy.

Others had accused Russert of having political motivations for trying to avoid testifying in the Plame case. Russert noted that The New York Times and Time magazine had fought subpoenas in the Plame case, and that other news organizations were also fighting subpoenas related to a lawsuit brought by Wen Ho Lee.

“If you don’t fight subpoenas, what you’re saying is, why should anyone talk to us?” Russert said. “Because what’s going to happen is, we’re going to go to court and just spill the beans about everyone who talked to us and what they said.”

I couldn’t resist asking Russert to put on his pundit hat before he left. I wondered: Would President Bush ever sign a bill to create a federal shield law?

“That’s a great question,” he said. “I do not know. I do not know. Mike Pence of Indiana, a very conservative Republican, and Richard Lugar have introduced one. My sense is when things get to his desk it’s a difficult bill to veto, politically. That’s my judgment as a political analyst.”
Before he left for the speech, Russert wanted our take as Wisconsinites: Would Brett Favre return? Had Aaron Rodgers’ unenviable day finally come to take the place of an icon?

I’ve never met Tom Brokaw. But after six years of meeting people I never expected to, I’ve learned not to discount the possibility. (Maybe we’ll cross paths in an airport.)

When NBC announced that Brokaw would become interim host of “Meet the Press” until after the election, it seemed a sensible choice.

Anyone else could have become the journalistic equivalent of Aaron Rodgers.

Brandon Lorenz is senior editor for Building Operating Management, a national magazine that covers buildings and real estate. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Read more


Hold Still, Little Catfish

A long time ago a friend related the story of a little boy and a catfish.

“Catfish, as you know,” my friend wrote, “are extremely lively and can be dangerous. Well, this little boy one day was attempting to clean this catfish and the catfish finned the little boy.

” ‘Hold still, little catfish,’ the boy yelled. ‘I ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.’ “

It’s that story that comes to mind almost every day when I read the newest release from a newspaper telling about the latest cuts in staff and in space.

Hold still, little newspaper, we ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.

It’s also the story that comes to mind every time I read a column by an editor or a statement by a publisher telling readers that we are slicing and dicing staff and space, but we are going to give you a better newspaper.

Hold still, little newspaper, we ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.

The new design is going to thrill you. Of course, we are cutting inches off the web size. The shorter stories are going to give you more time to do other things. Of course, there will be less watchdog and public service journalism because that takes a lot more resources to do. And the combined sections are the right way to go in the rush of today’s world. Of course, we will have to eliminate some of your favorite features to make it work.

Hold still, little newspaper, we ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.

I understand the need to reassure readers that you are going to do your best to give them the best you can given the fact that double digit, and sometimes triple digit, job reduction announcements have become commonplace in our industry.

I understand the stomach-wrenching stress editors are dealing with these days, more stress than perhaps ever before. I spent 47 years in daily newsrooms and experienced many roller coaster economic rides, but none like this one. So I don’t envy any editor today, or publisher. It’s not surprising to see some of the best say enough is enough.

I understand what is happening to the economic model with which we have operated all these years, and the perfect storm which has hit us — a recession, home sales in the dumpster, classifieds fleeing to the Craiglists of the world, trading the dollars of print advertising for the pennies of online advertising, the pressure from Wall Street, and a lot of other thunder and lightning.

What I don’t understand is this business of not leveling with readers. You can’t eliminate 30, 40, 100 jobs and produce the same quality of journalism, in print or online, that you were producing before the avalanche of cutbacks overwhelmed the newsroom.

The reader is not dumb. It doesn’t take an advanced degree to recognize that less is not more. It’s simply less. You can pretty it up with a new design, but that’s like telling the little catfish that he will look better dressed in cornmeal.

If you do that, you deserve to be finned. Read more


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Honoring Jim McKay

Jim McKay is dead.

But what he brought to the world of journalism, not just sports television journalism but the world of journalism, will live on and be taught in classrooms and newsrooms for years to come.

And I hope his legacy will also be talked about in living rooms as families gather to watch this year’s Olympics from China or when anyone next hears the words, “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports” and “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

My memories of Jim McKay are not just tied to his magnificent work, especially those long hours during the tragedy at the Munich Olympics when his voice was the central thread that tied us together, but also of a little personal moment at Churchill Downs.

Jim McKay’s wife, Margaret, a talented writer in her own right and a person whose generous and adventurous spirit matched that of her husband, became a free-lancer for us when I was managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, and through her I met Jim.

One year when ABC was telecasting the Kentucky Derby Jim invited me and our then 11-year-old son, Jeff, to a party at Churchill Downs the night before the Derby. And, as always, he was an extraordinarily gracious host.

“Who do you want to meet?” he asked Jeff.

“Howard Cosell and Jimmy the Greek,” Jeff answered. And Jim almost immediately made the introductions, making a young boy quite happy and adding a page to his book of memories.

Visiting with Margaret and Jim in their New York apartment was like visiting old friends, even though our relationship was not at that level. But they made it feel that way, just as we all felt we had a friend when Jim McKay spoke to us as a reporter trotting across the globe.

There are still some sportscasters with Jim McKay’s eloquence and style and class, such as Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Vin Scully, Keith Jackson and a handful of others. But in today’s universe of so many mean-spirited and silly talk shows, the dignity and care and the love of the language that McKay brought to his work is much too often a missing ingredient.

His line at Munich about the athletes who were killed, a line that still rings so clearly in our heads: “They’re all gone.”

Now, he is gone. And will be deeply missed, but not forgotten. Read more


Thursday, May 01, 2008

When Competition Isn’t Healthy: Time for APME and ASNE to Merge

We all know that the Newspaper Association of America represents our country’s publishers and lots of other business-side people just below them. But imagine that there’s a competing organization, the National Newspaper General Managers Association, representing GMs and some publishers.

Editors would be the first to skewer both groups for diluting their power and adding to costs during the most precarious time in the history of the American newspaper business.

Of course, the National Newspaper General Managers Association doesn’t exist—because there’s no need for it. In fact, NAA 16 years ago brought together the work of seven business-side organizations to avoid duplication and produce a stronger voice for that part of the industry.

Such clarity of thought doesn’t exist on the news side of the business, though. I know. In about 1999, it occurred to me (I’m not sure why it took so long) that the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Managing Editors dilute their power by competing.

That observation began a process that led from my fairly private dream of a merger of ASNE and APME . . . to a simple last-ditch effort at cooperation between the two groups . . . . to the failure of both ideas because of organizational rivalries, among other reasons.

Maybe my ideas came too early. Maybe I was a bad politician. But everything has changed (except for my political skills), and it’s clear that now is the time to merge to produce one blockbuster group rather than two diluted ones–if it’s not already too late.

Exhibit 1: The meager attendance at this month’s ASNE convention. This appeared to be the smallest of the 25 or so ASNE conventions that I’ve attended.

The problem was slightly disguised because editors met this year with publishers, and the combined crowd filled a fair number of chairs. As a result of the combination, it’s tough to figure out just how many people attended for ASNE programs; the number may have been as high as 350. Regardless, earlier recent conventions have drawn from the low 500s to the low 600s. Even those numbers pale when compared to the late ’90s, when attendance ranged from about 700 to about 900. The trend is clear.

But plummeting convention attendance, while important, isn’t the only reason for the two groups to merge. Here are the others:

  • Today’s newspaper economy just can’t support two organizations. Travel budgets and charitable contributions are way, way down. Long gone is the day when many editors attended both conventions; more common now, I’m guessing, is that most top editors attend neither convention. But lots of convention and office costs are fixed, whether one person belongs to APME or ASNE or hundreds do.

  • Look at precisely how different these organizations are:

    APME describes itself as “the key source of information and support for editors who produce vital, interesting newspapers and multimedia sites day in and day out.”

    ASNE calls itself  “the main organization of daily newspaper editors. Through its committees, it also carries on a variety of programs, projects and initiatives for the good of journalism.”

    If Mercedes and Rolls-Royce differentiated themselves that way, they’d both be out of business. But those almost-identical descriptions happen to be accurate. For example, both groups brag about their diversity and First Amendment committees–yes, their committees’ titles are exactly the same. Both also share often-identical concerns about ethics and other issues.

  • Because of those other sexier subjects, APME doesn’t focus entirely on The Associated Press. Maybe it never did—and, anyway, maybe an organization divorced from the AP would find it easier to criticize the news service.
  • The distinctions between executive editors and managing editors have faded at many newspapers. (In fact, an alarming number of newspapers have abandoned the m.e. title.) ASNE no longer is exclusively the organization of top editors, if it ever was, and APME isn’t the province solely of managing editors. That’s why both groups do the same things.
  • David Ledford, the president of APME and executive editor of the Wilmington News Journal, disagrees. He cites APME’s practical work, its relationship with the AP and “the pluck and stamina” of his organization.

    “My question,” Ledford wrote in an e-mail: “Would the can-do spirit and culture of APME be lost if we merged with ASNE?” He particularly asked me to remember the success of APME’s NewsTrain, “which has now trained over 3,000 editors from all 50 states.”

    Valid points, but here’s my own question: Could a combined organization, without two conventions and two sets of officers working to solve many of the same problems, accomplish just as much? Without duplication, might a combined group accomplish even more, at less cost and with a stronger voice?

    In an e-mail message, Charlotte Hall, the new ASNE president and editor of the Orlando Sentinel, said: “ASNE is interested in partnerships that would benefit newspapers and their editors. That could mean collaboration with journalistic groups on a range of activities including joint projects, committee work or convention programming.  My own view is that changing times call for exploration of possibilities.” 

    She also says that a merger with any organization “would take a lot of discussion.”

    Fair enough. But members of APME and ASNE should remember that we’ve been talking about this problem as long as we’ve been talking about the threat of the Internet to newspapers. If we’re as slow to act as we were on the Internet, neither organization will be strong enough to represent American journalism in the powerful way that we need in these dangerous times. Read more


    Thursday, Mar. 20, 2008

    Let the Sunshine In(Without Charging $209,990)

    *See Update at the end of this article.

    Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once remarked that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” As the storm clouds cleared from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, that sunlight illuminated many aspects of the failed federal government response to the storms and levee breaks.

    • A Freedom of Information Act request by CBS News uncovered the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s prior knowledge of toxic levels of formaldehyde in trailers provided to nearly 150,000 hurricane-affected families.
    • An earlier FOIA request revealed how the Bush Administration turned away nearly a billion dollars of international assistance.
    • Thousands of e-mails illustrating the federal bureaucracy’s incompetence in the days following the catastrophe came to light only after journalists engaged FOIA’s requirements.

    But such FOIA requests are met far too infrequently. Flawed decision-making is too often shrouded by an apparent philosophy that “what the public doesn’t know can’t hurt us.”
    On October 5, 2005, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune filed a FOIA request with FEMA regarding its disaster response operations and planning. After a year of no response, the agency contacted him to ask if he was still interested. He replied with an emphatic “YES.” 

    Another year went by. Then, like a character in a monster movie asking “is it gone yet?” FEMA asked again whether the paper was still interested, and again it still was. That was in January. It is now late March, and FEMA has yet to act.
    Mark is not alone in facing these delays. FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were due to give Congress a Disaster Housing Plan last July. Now they’ve promised April. The Army Corps of Engineers was to deliver a Category 5 hurricane protection plan in December. An interim document arrived this month, still without specific guidance on how the Corps intends to protect the coastal communities of Louisiana. The list of statutorily mandated reports either delayed or not delivered at all goes on and on.
    In another journalism example, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported this week that it had filed a FOIA request in 2006 seeking documentation on FEMA’s contracting procedures and the decisions behind deploying travel trailers across the Gulf Coast. FEMA says they will release the information — for a fee. The going price for the truth is apparently $209,990, principally to defray copying costs. The agency said the documents are not available electronically and that the only hard copies are stored in its New Orleans field office. Meanwhile, on its Website, FEMA itself advises that, “If you plan ahead and copy what you have onto compact disks, you can be secure in knowing that they will not be lost in the future.”
    As we mark national “Sunshine Week,” I am proud to report that Congress is making headway in attempts to assure greater government openness and transparency. 

    On New Year’s Eve, the President signed into law the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which I co-sponsored with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The bill restores meaningful deadlines for agencies to respond to FOIA requests, and among other key reforms, sets up hot lines and an ombudsman’s office to aid requesters.

    In addition, we are working to pass legislation to shield journalists from undue prosecution for protecting whistle-blowers, and I have introduced a bill to ensure that local officials determine media credentialing in a disaster — not Washington bureaucrats.
    Open government is a tenet of our democracy, and accountability is never more important than in times of crisis. Only by shining the light of public scrutiny on the government’s mistakes can we take steps to prevent them from repeating.
    Today, after its hefty price tag was exposed on the Advocate’s front page, FEMA now appears to have opened the door a crack to cooperation. Let’s hope it swings wide — for the Advocate, for Mark Schleifstein and for others in pursuit of the truth. The catastrophic hurricanes and levee failures of 2005 left a lot of unanswered questions and lessons yet to be learned as we prepare for future disasters. These lessons are far too important to leave in the shadows.

    Update, March 21:

    CBS News was not the only news organization following the formaldehyde story. MSNBC reported the chemical’s unhealthy effect on Gulf Coast families living in FEMA trailers in July 2006, and the issue had been covered in local media as well.

    This column highlights CBS News’ use of the FOIA process in May 2007 to uncover internal documents in which FEMA warned its own employees of the formaldehyde hazards prior to any public acknowledgment.

    My gratitude goes to both news organizations and to all journalists who remain focused on holding FEMA, HUD and other agencies accountable for their response to this and future disasters. Read more