My Take

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

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


Friday, Mar. 07, 2008

Reinvent Yourself after a Buyout

So they bought you out, and now you’re out of work. Wrong. You’re not unemployed; you have a new job: reinventing yourself.

Here’s how.

First of all, it’s not your fault that your newspaper’s owners did not figure out early enough that when readers change their reading habits, the paper has to change with them. And then they failed to figure out that cutting the newsroom staff lowers the quality of the product they’re trying to sell.

Next, convince yourself that the buyout probably had nothing to do with deficiencies in your skills or performance. Newspaper managers generally buy out people with high salaries. You probably earned that salary by years of solid work. Ironically, a buyout may be a compliment.

Now inventory your skills. Never say things like, “I’m just a journalist.” Your skills are not confined to your former beats, such as writing game stories and occasional columns about the Tampa Bay Bucs. You can read, write, think, talk, sort out what’s important, remain ethical without crippling yourself, train people, inspire beginners and detect liars. Good list, and that’s just the top of it. The world needs all those skills, and business leaders constantly pressure universities to turn out people who can do all that.

Next question: What business were you in? You were not in the printing business, or filling space between the ads, or feeding the beast, all the cynical, self-destructive clichés of your former profession. You were in the business of explaining things, the most valuable thing in the world. People who can help ordinary citizens understand their world are rare, and you’re one of them.

The next set of question works better if someone else asks them and then uses tough interview techniques to help you arrive at honest answers. What do you want to do now? Get another newspaper job? Forget it, ancient history. Work online? Better, that’s the future of journalism.

New question: What have you always wanted to do? Write a thriller. Teach investigative reporting. Open a snazzy restaurant. Build teak furniture. Paint San Diego seascapes. The question is what do you want to do, not what can you do.

New question, and the hardest and best one: What do you really want to do? Your interrogator should take no prisoners on the follow-up questions. This magic question moved me from working as a writing coach to becoming a sculptor, my lifelong dream.

You may already have the skills and training and credentials to achieve your new ambition, but you may not. If you want to work as an online magazine editor, for example, you may not know how to handle video and sound. Almost any new career involving information will require abilities in digital gathering and presentation. So get yourself some training. Graduate degree programs are slow — useful mostly if you need credentials. Reading, short courses and apprenticeships may get you there faster. Work for free if necessary to gain the skills and contacts you need.

Some changes, such as becoming a novelist, require a transition period without pay. Rather than delay your real future with interim work, award yourself a development grant. Depending on the settlement, your buyout may sustain you for as long as a year. Your savings might keep you afloat for a while longer. If you have a working spouse, preferably with health insurance, you can regard his or her salary and benefits as a grant for your retraining and getting up to speed. Warning: approach this topic gingerly, perhaps offering to return the favor.

All this will prove easier with a support circle, such as the “Orphans’ Group” founded by staffers who were bought out by the San Diego Union-Tribune, meeting monthly in upbeat and positive sessions. Such groups must not turn into organized mourning for a lost past.

Now what? Stop feeling sorry for yourself, and go invent the new you.

Don Fry, an independent writing coach affiliated with The Poynter Institute, can be reached at
     Read more


Monday, Jan. 07, 2008

What Does Age Have to do With It?

Now that the flap over Boston University professor Chris
Daly’s blog
about The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr., 27, has disappeared
into blogging purgatory, or wherever blogs go when they are blogged out, let’s
visit again about this issue of age in the newsroom.

Why? Because it has always been one of my pet gripes about
our business. We have had a distinct tendency, or should I say stinking
tendency, to stamp red letters on journalists’ foreheads that read “Too Young” or “Too Old.” And too many
editors have uttered the words, “Come back when you have five years
experience,” as if that represents some kind of magical day when we shed our
not so talented skin and are miraculously converted into the next David Remnick
or Katherine Boo.

Thank goodness that one of my many mentors, Furman Bisher,
who in his late eighties still writes graceful columns for the Atlanta
, didn’t adhere to that kind of warped thinking. It was a
half century ago and I was 22 years old with a couple of years of daily sports
department experience and a lot of days and nights spent on what had been my
family’s weekly.

Furman hired me and named me assistant sports editor of what
was the most aggressive and best sports staff in the South. Age was never
discussed. Performance expectations were. He gave me a chance, and I swore to
myself that I would always do the same for others. And I have never regretted
that decision.

Jim Fain, another wonderful mentor and then the editor of
the Dayton Daily News, treated me the same way. Assistant managing editor, then
managing editor in my early thirties. And then came my chance to be an editor
at the Palm Beach Post.

My first hire: A brilliant sub-editor from The Washington
, David Lawrence, age 27, as managing editor. David went on to an amazing
newspaper career, eventually becoming publisher of the Detroit Free Press and
the Miami Herald. Together, we essentially hired a new staff at the Post,
including five right out of the University of Tennessee. The average age across the newsroom was 26.
The paper won a Pulitzer and dozens of other regional and national awards for
quality journalism.

Several years later, I found myself as editor of the Corpus
Christi Caller-Times
and again searching for a managing editor. And luck was my
date once again. There was a 26-year-old editor in Ypisilanti, Michigan, named
Tim McGuire, who brought a load of intelligence and talent with him to Texas, and
later would become editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Youngsters such as Peter Applebome, who now writes a column
for The New York Times, and Steve Blow, a columnist for the Dallas Morning
, joined us for this adventure.

And then my journey took me to Chicago and the Daily News
and the Sun-Times, and finally, the Sacramento Bee. And I never forgot that
lesson I learned from Furman all those long days ago.

How could anyone pass up a S.L. Price and a Damon Hack, both
now writing like the angels sing for Sports Illustrated, simply because they
were “too young” or lacked experience?
Or Diana Sugg, who later would win a Pulitzer at the Baltimore Sun? Or
Terry Kay and Pete Dexter, who would go on to write critically-acclaimed
novels? Or so many others?

Or how could anyone question the wisdom of my boss in
Chicago, Jim Hoge, for naming Roger Ebert the Sun-Times’ movie critic when he was in his early
twenties, or making Bob Greene and Roger Simon columnists when they were not
much older?

How young is too young? How old is too old? Two of the
finest journalists I had the honor to work with, M.W. Newman in Chicago and
Bill Glackin in Sacramento, continued to commit superb journalism well beyond
retirement age. And Mike Royko and Irv Kupcinet thrilled Chicago readers decade
after decade.

Professor Daly said later that he really wasn’t raising the
age question. After all, he does teach women and men younger than Perry Bacon,
and I am sure some have hopes and dreams of one day having a front page byline
in a major newspaper or in the New Yorker or covering a campaign for a network.

grant him his clarification, but I am extremely grateful that 50 years ago
Furman didn’t share his mindset. And I hope that most of today’s editors
won’t…if, by the grace of Wall Street, they have the opportunity to hire
anyone. Read more


Monday, Dec. 03, 2007

Roberts: Can’t Lose Sight of Journalistic Obligations

It is an honor for me to deliver
the Neal Shine lecture on ethics. Neal
was one of my favorite people. He
brightened the Detroit Free Press newsroom for decades with his wit and wisdom. He cared deeply about Detroit
and his newspaper. He worked tirelessly
to cover the news.

His enthusiasm and leadership could
be amazing. Once, when a huge fire was
raging in the middle of the night, he called staff member after staff member to
roust them from their beds. “Don’t comb
your hair,” he told one reporter. “Don’t wash your face. Just jump into your
pants. Then jump into your car. And get here.
Do not fool around.”

The reporter did just as Neal
directed. He jumped into his pants. He jumped into his car. He did not fool
around — even to open the garage door. He shattered the door and knocked the
garage off its foundations. But he got there.

The next Saturday, Neal borrowed
house jacks, recruited a gang of reporters and editors and put the garage back
on its foundations. He was ready for the next emergency.

For all his sense of fun, Neal was
serious about the news. He thought, as I do, that that companies that supply
our country with news have obligations to readers and viewers that set them
apart from other American corporations.

When we talk about ethics in
journalism, all too often the result is something like the Ten Commandments — a
listing of “thou shalt nots” rather than a discussion of our obligations in a
democratic society. It is, of course,
highly important to avoid conflicts of interest, misrepresentations and
untruths and to never print accusations against anyone without giving the
accused an opportunity to reply. But it
is possible to avoid all of these journalistic sins and, nevertheless, fail our
readers and our communities by not giving them the information they need
to be informed citizens in a democracy.
Any meaningful discussion of ethics has to start with our obligations,
duties and responsibilities to society.
Everything else flows from the basic premise that, yes, we do have

And “discussions” as well as “obligations” are the operative words.
You cannot simply hand down a code of ethics in an organization or
newsroom and expect that you will have created an ethical climate. Those of us who have visited newsrooms with
ethical codes know that often you can find staff members who have never read

Having high ethical standards is
an ongoing quest. It is creating a
climate in which journalists are constantly asking: What are we doing, who are we helping, who
are we hurting? That kind of
consciousness is difficult to instill at any time but especially in today’s
world of highly stressed news organizations.

Many newspapers, television stations and networks are operating in
what seems to be a permanent state of trauma.
Revenue is falling. And editors
and business executives are reeling. It
is hard to find time to talk about our responsibilities and our future — and the
long range interests of our news organizations and our communities — in what
seems a steadily downward economic spiral. And yet if we are ever to break out
of that spiral, talk of the future and our obligations and duties is not a
luxury or an indulgence. It is a

Journalism schools, I am proud to
say, are giving more attention these days to ethics and standards. Today’s Neal Shine Lecture on Ethics here at Michigan
State University is just one manifestation of the trend. Many schools require students to take an
ethics course. And some of our best
schools infuse ethics into a variety of courses.

And codes of ethics are the norm
for most organizations of journalistic practitioners, such as the American
Society of Newspaper Editors
, The Society of Professional Journalists, The
Radio and Television News Directors
and the Associated Press Managing
. The National Association of
Black Journalists
and the National Press Photographers also have codes, as do
many other organizations of journalists.

You might argue that the
discussions journalists have in these organizations and in their newsrooms are
insufficient. But they are significantly
more than what occurs on the business side of newspapers and television and
within the professional organizations that represent these business
executives. And having journalists
discuss ethics and standards without the participation of business executives
is like tangoing without a partner. No
matter how expert, no matter how serious, half of the act is missing.

Business executives, of course, control the
money, and without firm commitments from these executives, journalists cannot
set meaningful standards on what they cover in a community and what they pass
on the readers in the news columns. And
there is also the question of treating readers fairly and without confusion by
clearly delineating news from advertising.
Again, it takes two to tango.

It is more important today than in
the past for key players on the business side to get exposure to discussions on
ethics and professional standards. Why?
The hierarchy of newspapers has changed dramatically in just a generation or
so. As recently as the 1950s and 60s, most daily newspapers were family-owned local institutions. There were good owners and bad owners in
terms of feeling a sense of public responsibility; but they were in overall
charge of both the newsroom and the business-side and usually had to give at
least some thought to the problems of each side. Usually, the owner had an editor to run the
newsroom and a general manager to head up the business operations. The owners could be absolute monarchs, but
found it in their interest to have a separation of church and state. Today, more than 80 percent of America’s
approximately l,500 dailies are owned by groups and chains. And the chief executives of these
organizations appoint publishers to run each local newspaper.

Increasingly, as profit pressures mount, these publishers
are far more likely to come out of accounting departments or advertising than
out of newsrooms, as was the case with Neal Shine when he became publisher of
the Detroit Free Press. And usually they
have authority over the editor, but without having nearly as much exposure
to the overall quandaries of publishing as the old local owners had.

As newspaper revenues fall, the
business executives cope with one financial emergency after another and make
little time, if any, for discussions about publishing ethics and standards. Almost no one seems to be grappling with the
fundamental questions of publishing and broadcast in a democratic society. What are a newspaper’s, or television
station’s, obligations to their community?
Does a newspaper have a societal duty to cover local government, state
government, schools, courts and the major social and political issues of the
day? What about foreign news and
national news?

For well over two decades
now, the overall trend line at newspapers is down in newsroom staff and in the
space devoted to news coverage. Obviously this has an impact on a newspaper’s
ability to collect the news and pass it on to the readers. Is there some point beyond which a publisher
will not cut? Is there any public
obligation at all, other than to public stockholders? Newspapers operate under unique
constitutional protections. Do these
protections obligate newspapers to make any sort of minimal commitments to news
coverage? None that America’s
publishers are willing to acknowledge through their professional

Neither the Newspaper
Association of America
, which represents most dailies in the United States, or
the National Newspaper Association, which represents most weeklies and some family-owned
dailies, have ethical codes or any sort of written standards of professional
obligations. The National Funeral
Directors Association has a code of ethics.
So do airline pilots. And
interior designers. And
booksellers. And professional
organists. And professional hypnotists.
And wedding professionals. The fabric of
civilized society is not likely to unravel if a wedding is mishandled or if an
interior designer botches an apartment makeover. But if a newspaper fails to
properly cover local government or the public schools …?

A few years ago The Poynter
Institute tried four or five seminars on newspaper and television “values,”
believing that this word might have more appeal than “ethics” to business
executives. The seminars ranged from l2
to l6 participants, with half being key editors and the other half being
business executives. What was the

“They talked the talk about serving their communities,” said James
, former president of the Institute, “but they didn’t walk the walk.” He said the Institute found it difficult to
find executives willing to take part in the seminars and not much evidence that
the sessions were changing the executives’ behavior as policy makers. In the final analysis, he said, newspaper
executives believed media companies exist to make money and not to serve their
communities’ information needs if they get in the way of profit goals.
Naughton believes the failure of publishing executives to recognize a societal
obligation along with a profit obligation is the paramount ethical problem in

Bill Kovach, chairman of the
Committee of Concerned Journalists, said his organization also tried a few
years ago to get newspaper business executives involved in discussions on
journalism standards and had limited success for a while. “But as pressure to
shore advertising revenue increases, business people have trouble getting their
heads around other problems,” Kovach said. “That’s understandable but
regrettable. The business they’re in is to supply information to a democratic
society. They’re selling the credibility
and value of what the newsroom produces.”

Regrettable to be sure. The pressures on newspapers today make the
publishing business a potential tinder box for ethical problems. The financial underpinnings of the business are
being shaken. Competitors are siphoning
off revenue that traditionally have gone to the newspapers. Executives lurch from one emergency meeting
to another, trying to stanch the revenue losses. Not only is there a dearth of discussions
about the need to supply democracy with information, but traditional barriers
between news and advertising are falling.
One paper allows an advertiser to sponsor a business column; another doesn’t label
advertising as prominently as it once did, increasing the chances that it will be
confused with news; and there is an increasing presence of advertorial — advertising consciously trying to pose as
news. Editors who once might have
objected now go along. They fear more
staff layoffs and budget reductions if advertising volume continues to fall.

But all of this pales in comparison
to what is happening on electronic news sites that are produced by
traditional newspaper and television companies.
You sometimes hit a key word that you think will lead to a news story,
and instead it leads you into advertising — sometimes without a clear
label. Some electronic news sites, in an
effort to increase Web viewers, invite open and often unedited participation, heedless
of all the ethical and legal problems this could cause.

“The idea that we should open up electronic
newspapers to anyone about anything is ludicrous,” says Bob
, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter institute. But yet it is
happening — out of fear that competing bloggers will siphon off viewers; or
because editing increases costs. “It is
the wild west out there,” Butch Ward, distinguished fellow at Poynter, said
of some of the newspaper Web sites.

All of this flies in the face of
more than 200 years of experience in print newspapers. Editors and publishers learned that allowing
readers to speak out in letters to the editor is a wonderful thing for both
readership and democracy. But they also
learned that unedited letters might well smear personal reputations or ethnic
groups with unproven charges.

This can
be legally, as well as ethically, dangerous to newspapers. And there certainly is no legal or ethical
immunity for Web sites. We are responsible for what we publish, whether in
print or on the Internet. The situation
cries out for ethical codes and professional standards. And while newsrooms sometimes have them, they
are rare among business and advertising executives.

We need codes. We need standards. But above all we need a sober assessment of
our obligations to supply the news and enough of it to ensure that our readers
can be knowledgeable participants in our democracies.
Our responsibilities to our readers and our communities should not go
into suspension each time newspaper companies fear that a current quarter’s
earning will fall below that of a year ago.

Yes, newspapers are having a bad year, the worst since the 2001
recession. Yes, Wall Street has hammered down the price of newspaper stocks.
Yes, it’s possible that newspaper profit margins may never return to their
heyday levels of 25 percent or more.
But some perspective is badly needed.
Profits in the first nine months of this bad year came in at l5.4 percent for publicly traded newspaper companies. And that is double the profit
average for Standard and Poor’s list of 500 companies. As recently as 2005, newspaper companies,
when measured by profit margins (l9 percent that year), were America’s
third-most profitable industry behind only banks and pharmaceuticals. Yet staff cutting is escalating in American

You could put together a
sobering list of newspapers that have slashed their staffs by 10 or 20 percent
or more in the last three years. And for
some papers, the cuts are staggering when looked at cumulatively over a span of
years. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s staff is about half of what it was in 1990;
and the staff of The (San Jose, Calif.) Mercury News is half of what it was in 2000. The staff
cuts are even more demoralizing when you consider that many reporters are doing
double duty, filing for Web sites in addition to their print papers. This means they have less time to gather the
news. This means some news is going

Newsroom cuts have been severe
enough to be alarming in many cases, but some news organizations have strained
their credibility and ethical standing by saying they are actually making their
papers better — saying, in effect, that less is more. Steven A. Smith, editor of the
Spokesman Review in Spokane,
Wash., decided he wouldn’t play that game when he announced recently in his blog that
the newspaper’s staff would go down by eight to 12 positions next year. “None of us should hold any illusions
here,” he said to readers and his
newsroom. “A smaller staff means a
lesser paper. Doing more with less is corporate-speak BS and you will not hear
it from me.”

Of course, staff reductions reduce
a paper’s ability to cover the news. And
they raise the question of a paper’s obligations to its community. And this, in my strongly held view, is not
simply a rhetorical question. It is an
ethical question. It is a question of
standards. It should be discussed now — in
our newsrooms, in our business offices and with the public in public
forums. I thank you. Read more


Tuesday, Sep. 04, 2007

The Disappearance of Diversity

“Diversity has been marginalized, stalled and stagnated.”

Those words came from ASNE president Gilbert Bailon in a recent interview about what he is learning as he interacts with colleagues across the country. And it has been hard to shake them from my mind.

There is no one thing working against diversity, Gilbert added. But the reality of all of the other pressures showering down on editors and publishers and other news leaders have caused it to essentially disappear from the agenda. And this bleak situation arrives at the same time the latest census figures show a minority population of more than 100 million. The trend forecasts a nation without a majority sometime in the middle of this century.

So what does this shift in demographics, coupled with our inability, or lack of effort, to make our newsrooms reflective of our communities mean? Are we studying the diversity numbers before we launch layoffs or buyouts? What are the diversity recruiters and trainers and human resources folks saying, if anything? Or how about editors and publishers and company CEO’s?

Some of those same questions were posed at a meeting of Lutherans I attended recently to discuss what the mother church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and more specifically the Northern California Synod, can do about bringing more diversity into the pews.

What does diversity mean to you? That was one of the first questions the moderator asked. The answers flowed quickly: Different ways of expressing ourselves; understanding our sameness and our differences; accepting all people as they are; honoring individual needs; learning from each other; the ability to communicate without knowing the other’s language; connections.

My beliefs, as I have expressed before, are that diversity is about inclusiveness, about tolerance, about giving people a chance, about helping to build a community and discovering all of its dimensions, about the fundamentals of democracy.

It is recognizing all of our backgrounds and lifestyles, all of our physical and psychological contrasts, recognizing that we become better when we exchange ideas and experiences and build a bridge across our differences.

It’s honoring the thoughts and points of view and values that mark us as individuals. It’s about creating a common community language so that people can listen to each other and so that all voices can be heard. It’s understanding that to achieve balance we must give weight to many different perspectives and not think there are only two sides to every issue. It’s caring for the hopes and needs and dreams of others and embracing new ideas and new initiatives.

I left the meeting with mixed emotions: Pleased that we were having the conversation and yet unsure that it was going to make any real difference. But at least we are talking and seeking solutions.

Can we say the same for the news media? Mark Trahant, editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a longtime champion for diversity, told me recently, “Many diverse groups have opted out, creating their own space on the Internet that is rather exclusive. What are the implications of that? What are the implications for democracy?”

And as Mark pointed out, the Hutchins Commission Report 60 years ago talked of its fear that isolated groups of Americans wouldn’t have a communication bridge to other isolated groups. Sounds as if that could happen.

Yes, technology has changed our world, flipping it upside down. Thousands of media jobs have been lost. The search is on for economic formulas that work and can satisfy shareholders. And concerns about survival consume us on a daily basis.

But does it make sense to marginalize, stall and stagnate diversity when the faces of our cities are changing so rapidly? Absolutely not. Read more


Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007

About Anniversary Stories: Katrina Two Years Later

How long should newspapers continue to cover the anniversaries and milestones related to major events that occurred outside their geographic areas?

That was the question asked by a talented young journalist who also happens to be the daughter of a high school classmate.

The event that triggered her inquiry: Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans and the Mississippi coast. The reason? Her hometown, like mine in Mississippi, was crushed under the surge, leaving behind an image of the Gulf Coast that is printed so indelibly in the minds of those who lived through it that two years or 20 years could not make the pictures disappear.

Certainly this is true for people such as her father and mother and her sister, who lost their homes, as well as other relatives who suffered the same fate. Or my sister and two brothers and many nieces and nephews and cousins who returned when the winds died and the water receded to find a slab where their houses used to be, or simply a skeleton of what was once a place of happy times.

She was writing because, as she put it, “my newsroom has been discussing plans for coverage of the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I’ve heard several reporters and editors say they don’t think the second anniversary warrants coverage.”

I’m withholding the name of this young journalist to avoid causing her grief in her newsroom, which is located in the Midwest.  

Obviously, she and I come to this question with deep personal involvements. We are talking about the place where our roots were planted, where family and friends can trace their histories for generations, where as children we learned to love the smell of the sea breeze and the taste of blue point crabs and fresh oysters and all kinds of gumbo.

But let’s look beyond those recollections for a moment.

Katrina was the largest and most costly natural disaster in our history. And the scars she left will be with us for years and years. The rebuilding of cities, including one of America’s most unique — New Orleans — will be a work in progress long, long after people have forgotten the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s follies and “Good Job” Brownie. The deaths of loved ones and the scattering across the country of thousands of others will never be forgotten by those who were left to mourn.

How can we not provide readers with a look at what has happened during these two years?

Anniversaries such as Katrina’s give us the opportunity to not just look back, but to look ahead, to tell the stories of those whose lives have been in limbo waiting for resolutions that seem to never arrive, those who have stayed and those who were forced to start anew in a strange city.

It’s about journalism written in the language of the heart. How can we ever forget those hundreds of short “Profiles in Grief” that The New York Times ran day after day following Sept. 11? We can re-examine our own vulnerabilities when it comes to natural disasters, or we can help others understand how casino gambling has emerged as the economic savior for a devastated area.

The best stories often begin with questions.

What lessons can we teach our readers about insurance and about their own policies? What has happened to the churches that were destroyed or damaged, and what role has religion played in the recovery process? 

What are the new building codes like? Are we seeing new communities created out of architects’ dreams? Why do people stay knowing that someday another hurricane will find its way into the Gulf? What is that connection, and why is it so strong?

What have we learned from the mistakes that were made, nationally and locally? Who are some of the heroes, post-Katrina, and why? Have businesses, including the media, lost employees because they do not want to ever go through this again? And how are they recruiting new people? The list of questions is nearly endless.

Every editor, sometime in his or her career, has heard from readers on the day after the anniversary of historic events, either offering thanks for the coverage, or lashing out because the paper didn’t do anything or didn’t run the stories on the front page.

Readers everywhere cling to those moments in their past. If they weren’t there, they shared the pain and the losses and the fears, or in some cases celebrated, with all those who were.

We witnessed this so vividly after Katrina when thousands of people came from across the land to help, and thousands of others donated money.

We witnessed it after Sept. 11 when we all became New Yorkers and Washingtonians and, certainly, Americans with a newly awakened sense of patriotism.

How long should we continue to mark such events? For those whose souls have been badly bruised by what they have experienced or seen, the answer is easy: A whole lot longer than two years.

And I believe readers everywhere would agree. Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 01, 2007

Murdoch Moves Recalled: Will Dow Jones Fare Better?

I know the feeling.

What feeling, you ask?

That sickening ache in your belly
when you hear the news: Rupert Murdoch has bought your newspaper.

Been there, felt that, choked down
the sadness and, as dozens of others did at that time, moved on to a new job.

It all happened about 23 years ago
when the Field brothers, Marshall and Ted, sold the Chicago Sun-Times to
Murdoch. This marked the first step in the decline of what was an excellent newspaper, even
though many wonderful journalists stayed on and a number are still there. (A
sidebar: Later in its history, the Sun-Times was owned by Conrad Black. Murdoch
and Black — now that’s an exacta with 1,000 to one odds on the journalism values
tote board).

I am sure many in the newsrooms at The Wall Street Journal and Barrons and the Ottaway papers are feeling the same
pain that so many of us felt back then. Chicago
was an incredible place to practice journalism. It was as competitive, if not more
so, than any market in the country. A truly great news town. And
the Sun-Times, a serious tabloid, was crawling closer and closer to the the Chicago Tribune
in circulation. But it hasn’t been like that since.

I remember the first visit Murdoch
made to the Sun-Times newsroom after the announcement. A few of us met with him
for a little Q and A. I asked: How are we going to attract the high-end advertisers,
as we have started doing, if you go low-end with the paper? He answered that
was not a concern, that when the circulation figures rose, the cash register
would ring. I thought then, he doesn’t understand Chicago readers.

Then later I met with him at his
office in the New York Post. I was managing editor of the Sun-Times, and
he wanted to talk with me about staying on as executive editor. It was a long
meeting, but we exchanged very few words. He spent most of the time on the
phone with one of his investment people, buying stock in some company he had

No thanks, was my reply to the
offer. I agreed to stay for three weeks to help in the transition. But to be
honest, I spent most of the time helping people to find other
jobs. Then one Saturday when I was in my office and Murdoch and his new
publisher, Robert Page, were in the office next door, my phone rang and
it was Page. “We think it best if you left now. You can come back tomorrow
morning and pick up your personal stuff,” he told me. I must say, I really couldn’t blame

And as it turns out, I ended up with
the best owner I ever worked for: C.K. McClatchy in Sacramento. Maybe I owe Murdoch thanks.

So what happens now? How many
Journal staffers will leave? My former Sun-Times colleague Alan Mutter wrote in
his blog, Newsosaur, that 60 of us left the Sun-Times. I thought it was 70 or
more. I do know that everyone who chose to leave got a job at another
newspaper. Several, including the biggest catch of all, Mike Royko, walked across
the street to the previously hated Tribune.

Mutter, my Poynter colleague Rick
and others predict that Murdoch will behave himself and won’t wreak
havoc at the Journal, suggesting that he can’t afford to trash it and that we
can expect more investment and more innovation.

I hope they are right. The Journal — with the exception of the editorial pages — ranks with the best newspapers
anywhere. It would be a sin if it didn’t maintain that excellence.

The Bancroft family obviously
struggled internally before enough of them decided to sell. I don’t know how
much the Field brothers struggled when they sold the Sun-Times to Murdoch. Not
much, I suspect. But I do know that Ted took his money and stayed in Hollywood to produce
movies, which he still does.

His first hit after the sale was “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Not even Murdoch could have written
a better headline than that one.

Let’s pray the journalists win this

Read more


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What’s in a Name?

It was a funny segment. Mike and MikeGreenberg and Golic — were calling the National Spelling Bee for ABC; so why not do a Sports Center Bee on ESPN with competition between the two Mikes?

They would have to spell the names of sports figures, which in the end explained why they do radio and TV.

Anchor Brian Kenny was the moderator. Golic was first up. Spell Brett Favre’s last name was the charge from Kenny, who pronounced Favre as all sportscasters do, Farve, the “r” before the “v.” That version rhymes with carve.

“Is there any other pronunciation?” Golic asked.

“No,” Kenny answered.

Whoa there, Brian. That’s a foul.

Yes, there is another pronunciation. The right one. Favre, the “v” before the “r.” This version rhymes with suave.

How do I know? I have been saying my name from the time I could first talk until now, and I have passed my 72nd birthday.

But Golic ignored the Kenny error and got it right. After all, it is only five letters and he did graduate from Notre Dame.

And I really can’t blame Kenny. People were struggling with Favre long before Brett turned it into a household name, including many in the family. As a kid you learned to answer to almost any way it was pronounced. I will always remember our son, Jeff, calling with glee the day Brett was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons. “Dad,” he exclaimed, “at long last, everyone will know how to pronounce our name.” Little did we know. And surely you remember that scene in There’s Something About Mary” when Brett appeared and our last name became the joke.

Brett is a distant cousin. In fact, according to the genealogy report, he is a cousin six different ways. Down South, cousins have been known to marry every once in a while, which makes for some interesting family trees. What? You haven’t read or seen “Deliverance”?
Almost all of the Favres who hail from Mississippi originally (both pronunciations) are related.  And if they have the same experience I have had for the past decade or more, they get the same question wherever they go: “Any kin to the quarterback?” It could be from a ticket seller on Broadway, flight attendants on airliners, waiters in restaurants, it’s almost universal. As soon as people see the name and give me that look, I automatically answer, “Yes.”

On the flip side, it really does wonderful things for making reservations when I am in Wisconsin, even if they do butcher my name. It’s good to be kin to their football god.

I knew Brett’s grandfather, and his mom attended high school with my younger sister. But I left home long before he was born, and I’ve never met him. Nevertheless, I have been a great admirer of his talent and the fact that he always answers the opening whistle. He inspires others, as a great leader should. And he has never forgotten where he came from or the friends he grew up with.

I just wish he would tell everyone it’s the “v” before the “r.”

Perhaps we all should do as some, not all, of our Native American cousins in Oklahoma did. They officially changed the spelling to Farve. Why fight it?

Old habits are hard to break. And I have grown accustomed to the right way to say Favre. The “v” before the “r.”

Oh, by the way, Golic won the Sports Center Spelling Bee. Well, he didn’t lose it. Read more


Monday, Apr. 16, 2007

The Voice of a Lion, Echoes of an Old Fight

My first ASNE convention was 37 years ago in San Francisco. Take a moment and attempt to get your mind around the changes we have seen in our industry since then.

Quite a challenge, isn’t it? Looking back will leave you breathless.  Looking ahead may leave you a little shaken – not by new uses of technology, but by old issues of trust.    
In 1970, I was editor of the Palm Beach Post, one of the first computerized newspapers in the country, if not the very first. We typed stories on IBM electric typewriters, ran the copy through massive computer mainframes housed in an overly air-conditioned room, took the tape it produced and turned it into paper type. Revolutionary, indeed.

Today the system seems as ancient as my old Royal standard and the linotypes that sit as pieces of artwork in the lobbies of some newspapers.

Yet not everything has changed. In those faraway days, we were talking about and were concerned about issues surrounding the First Amendment. After all, those were the days of Richard Nixon and his White House partner, Spiro Agnew, who was the designated slugger against the press. And much of this year’s convention dealt with those same 45 words.

Freedom of the Press was a major part of the theme selected by ASNE president David Zeeck for his year, and he spoke powerfully about it in his address. Then Ken Paulson, editor of USA Today, eloquently and elegantly, led us through a session titled “From Superman to Subpoenas.” Why Superman? Because, Ken confessed, as a child he wanted to be Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, and Kent’s hidden half, the hero in tights and cape. Many in Ken’s age group and those of us older shared the same fantasy. Or at least we dreamed of being Humphrey Bogart in “Deadline USA.”

Ken talked to Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the BALCO boys of the San Francisco Chronicle, to their lawyer Eve Burton, to Gene Policinski, president of the First Amendment Center, and to Mark Goodman of the Student Law Center.

The editors gave Fainaru-Wada and Williams a standing ovation, but it was Policinski who delivered some sobering news about the latest First Amendment Center survey. Here are just a few bites: Forty percent of those polled think the press has too much freedom; just 39 percent think we are without bias; a large percentage of respondents think we make up the news; 36 percent of high school students think we shouldn’t be allowed to publish without government control. Need you ask why we have to be more aggressive in letting readers know why and what we do and how we do it, why we need to be consistently more transparent day in and day out?

Then Ken introduced John Seigenthaler, a distinguished former editor and publisher, founder of the First Amendment Center, a fighter for civil rights, a journalist who has witnessed 10 presidencies, a former ASNE president, a friend to many of us.

In just a few moments, John, who told us he is in his 80th year and that everyone in the audience looked so young, spoke of press freedoms and of what we do as journalists, striking a chord that reminded us why we got into this business in the first place and why the fight to protect press freedoms is so vital.

John spoke about the “cloak of secrecy” that has been present for so many years, a cloak that has hindered the press from keeping the American people informed. Just a few of his examples: the McCarthy era, Vietnam, Iran-Contra.

“You would be hard-pressed,” he said, “to find a time when the cloak was more tightly wound than it is now. The challenge for us is stronger that ever before.”

Then he quoted Alexander Hamilton, who said that the security of a free press depends on public opinion and on the spirit of the people and of the government.

The challenge, as John said, and as many surveys emphasize, is that the people aren’t exactly on our side. We have a lot of work left to do.

And we need all of the John Seigenthalers we can gather to help us in this struggle.

Our friend may be a lion in winter, but his roar cuts across all generations. And he can still deliver punch lines.

“Hell, you don’t look so young,” he said as I went to offer thanks and praise.

Right again, John. And come back soon. Read more


Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007

Fighting for the First Amendment

What follows are Favre’s opening remarks to
a First Amendment summit held
earlier this month in Washington, D.C., by the American Society of Newspaper

First Amendment, it has been said, is a Constitutional minefield. And today we
may step on a few of those mines, but in the end, perhaps we can leave with a
better understanding and a greater clarity about not only defending the rights
embedded in the amendment but in helping to educate the public about them.

The First
, 45 words long, written by James Madison, 45 words with
extraordinarily powerful meaning, 45 words that have been challenged time and
time again.

First Amendment is easy to understand,” the late Jim Carey, a wonderful
journalism professor at Columbia University and a friend, often explained to
his students. “It says that the government can’t tell you how to worship. It
says that if you have something to say you can say it. If you want to, you can
write it down and publish it. If you want to talk about it with others, you can
assemble. And if you have a grievance, you can let the government know about
it, and nobody can stop you.”

a survey conducted by the First Amendment Center based in Nashville, Tenn., found that
only 56 percent of the people knew about the guarantee of freedom of speech, 17
percent freedom of religion, 13 percent freedom of press, 11 percent the right
of assembly, and 3 percent the right to petition. We have a lot of work to do.

Those who adopted the First
Amendment were not journalistic innocents, nor were they lovers of newspapers.
The journalism of their day made no pretense to political objectivity or
fairness. It was pointed and partisan, in bad taste and filled with
distortions. And Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton used the newspapers to
attack their opposition in words that would make much of what is written today
sound like a Sunday school lesson. And remember that some of the same delegates
who sat in the first Congress later passed the first Alien and Sedition Acts,
suggesting that implications of free speech and free press were still obscure.

But, as the Supreme Court has said, a free press
isn’t an angelic press, a nice press. But the alternative of having no press is
much worse. The answer to correcting wrong speech is more speech, not less

Of course, I recognize that not everyone agrees with
that opinion.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “A nation that is afraid to let its people
judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.” But,
yet, President Kennedy was deeply opposed to the Freedom of Information Act.

President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the FOI Act 40
years ago, also didn’t like it or want it, according to Bill Moyers. “He had to be dragged screaming to that
signing ceremony,” Moyers has said.

Thirty-five years ago, the government tried to stop The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers.
But the publishers stood their ground and the Supreme Court ruled in their
favor. Justice Hugo Black wrote, “The government’s power to censor the press
was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the
government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the
government and inform the people.”

And now moving forward to today and to the issues of
reporting on national security, on forcing disclosure of sources, and other
events in a politically charged and deeply divided environment.

String together some of what has happened in the
past year or so and the debate tree begins to light up like a Christmas tree.

The New York
on secret domestic eavesdropping and received a Pulitzer
. Vice President Cheney called the
Pulitzer a disgrace. Sen. Jim Bunning accused the Times of treason. And a San
Francisco radio talk show host and Ann Coulter debated
whether the Times
executive editor Bill Keller should go to the gas chamber or before a firing
squad if found guilty of treason. Now the administration said it will
discontinue its warrantless wiretapping of calls between the United States and

The Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street
, and the Los Angeles Times exposed the secret monitoring of
international banking transactions. The House voted to condemn the publication
of classified information. And a bill was introduced to criminalize the
unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

The TimesJudith Miller was jailed for refusing to
identify a source in the Valerie Plame case, other journalists were called
before a federal grand jury, and some have been called as witnesses in the
Libby trial. The administration asked that it be allowed to keep secret records
of visitors to the vice president’s residence and office. A former National
Security Council official said
the White House tried to silence his criticism
of its Middle East policies by ordering the CIA to censor an op-ed column he
wrote. A federal court ruled that issue-advocacy ads could run during an election.

After demanding that the American Civil Liberties Union turn over a classified
document, the government agreed to make the document public. A federal judge
said that the detainee pictures taken at Guantanamo are not subject to the FOI
Act. The flag burning amendment failed by one vote. The Washington Post wrote
of the secret overseas CIA prisons. Two Indiana Republicans, Sen. Richard Lugar
and Rep. Mike Pence, pushed for a federal shield law. “It’s one of those things
that is a little counterintuitive for a cheerful right-winger to be involved
in,” Pence said.

But the action wasn’t reserved for Washington only.
Two San Francisco Chronicle reporters face jail time because they won’t reveal
their grand jury source in the Barry Bonds-BALCO case. A San Francisco freelance photographer went to jail because he wouldn’t turn over unaired video in
an investigation of arson on a police car. A settlement with Hewlett-Packard provided
civil penalties for its role in the boardroom leak investigation that led to
obtaining reporters’ phone records through a ruse.

Media outlets were even battling with each other. The
publishers of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press sued a reporter for the American
Journalism Review
for defamation and a San Francisco alternative weekly asked a
judge to unseal documents
involving Media News and the San Francisco Chronicle.

We have a
lot to talk about, and the minefield waits — a minefield that gets seeded with
additional controversy almost every day as the administration and more
prosecutors seem emboldened to pursue sources, as more civil suits seek sources,
as more courts allow less protection. That’s why this conference couldn’t come
at a more crucial time, a time for new approaches and for civil dialogue and for
a deeper understanding by all parties, a time to seek some harmony out of

Let me
close with some words from a few Supreme Court Justices, past and present:

Justice Anthony Kennedy: “The
First Amendment is often inconvenient. But that is besides the point.
Inconvenience does not absolve the government of its obligation to tolerate

Justice Louis D.
: “The constitutional right of free speech has been declared
to be the same in peace and war. In peace, too, men may differ widely as to
what loyalty to our country demands, and an intolerant majority, swayed by
passion or by fear, may be prone in the future, as it has been in the past, to
stamp as disloyal opinions with which it disagrees.”

finally, for those of us on all sides of
this discussion, from Justice William O. Douglas: “Those in power
need checks and restraints lest they come to identify the common good for their
own tastes and desires, and their continuation in office as essential to the
preservation of the nation.” Read more


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