December 20, 2019

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Good morning and welcome to a special edition of the Poynter Report. Today, I look back at the year in media — from the best to the worst to the odd to the inspiring and everything in between.

This will be the last Poynter Report of 2019. But I will return on Jan. 6 to give you, as always, the latest in media news and analysis each and every weekday.

Now to the media stories and personalities of 2019.

Media personality of the year

Political news dominates the news cycle these days. Turn on your TV looking for news out of Washington and chances are, he’s there. It’s NBC’s Chuck Todd. He hosts the shouldn’t-be-missed “Meet the Press,” still the gold standard of Sunday morning news shows. He also hosts a daily version of “MTP.” He is front and center on NBC’s debate and impeachment coverage. And whenever there’s breaking political news, he’s the network’s go-to voice on the “NBC Nightly News.” His excellent interview skills of the top newsmakers and his accessible delivery make him THE voice when it comes to news in these politically divided times.

Most polarizing media figure

Love him or loathe him, you cannot ignore the force that is Fox News’ Sean Hannity. There’s no denying the numbers. He has the most-watched show on the most-watched cable network on TV. There’s no question that his words carry weight among his viewers. Just Thursday, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that Hannity has signed a book deal that will pay him an advance between $5 million and $10 million. And whenever that book comes out, it will be at the top of the bestseller’s list.

Worst number

3,160. That’s the number, according to the Columbia Journalism Review as of Thursday, of journalists who lost their jobs in 2019 — one of the worst years in an industry that is struggling to stay above water.

Best newspaper feature writer

If the Washington Post’s Jessica Contrera writes it, you should read it. Incredibly gifted, she can write about anything — from the heartbreaking Parkland school shootings to the troubling case of four high school kids accused of hate crimes to the injustice involving a sex trafficker’s murder to the hilarious absurdity of a dog park controversy.

Best fictional TV show about media

The cast of HBO’s “Succession. ” (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Based loosely on the Rupert Murdoch empire, HBO’s “Succession” is wickedly funny, dark and totally delicious. Actors Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin and Sarah Snook get well-deserved praise, but there might not have been a finer performance on TV this year that the one turned in by Jeremy Strong. If you haven’t seen this show, binge it during the holidays.

Biggest (and most depressing) merger

Gannett and GateHouse merged to form the largest newspaper chain in the country. But instead of celebration, the merger caused (and continues to cause) stress over layoffs to save costs. Who knows what the final numbers will be, but hundreds of journalists will end up losing their jobs because of the merger.

Biggest resignation

Fox News’ Shep Smith stunned the media world with a sudden resignation, due in part because of disagreements with the direction of the network and feuds with Fox News’ primetime pundits over honest reporting.

Book of the year

The New York Times’ Megan Twohey, left, and Jodi Kantor, center, next to Ronan Farrow. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times give a masterclass in investigative journalism with their book, “She Said,” about the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault and harassment story that inspired the #MeToo movement. The book, and the work of these two reporters, is an “All the President’s Men” of this generation. In a year of powerful journalism, “She Said” stands at the top. Also, a nod to Ronan Farrow’s book “Catch and Kill,” also about the same topic.

Most disappointing book

Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s book “Merchants of Truth” was a much-anticipated look at how the news is gathered at big institutions, as well as how the digital age is impacting the field. Instead, the book’s insight (and there was insight) was lost under allegations of plagiarism and insufficient citing of source material.

Biggest comeback

MSNBC’s Brian Williams might not be back on NBC and maybe he never will be. But he has overcome one of journalism’s biggest taboos (embellishing a story) to once again be a leading voice on TV. He has become MSNBC’s go-to anchor when it comes to the biggest news stories, such as impeachment and debate coverage. And he most certainly will have a huge role in the 2020 election.

Most depressing disappearance

Deadspin. The irreverent, snarky and keen not-just-sports sports website has gone mute. The staff walked out after being told to stick to sports, and now the internet is missing what had become a site that had completely figured out how to deftly walk the fine line of taking sports seriously and not seriously at the same time.

Biggest change

CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell. (Photo by Jason Mendez/Invision/AP)

The “CBS Evening News” made two major changes. It named Norah O’Donnell as its anchor and managing editor and then it moved the newscast from New York City to Washington, D.C. But so far, it hasn’t resulted in the ratings bump to get CBS out of the cellar. It’s not for lack of trying, however, as O’Donnell has pumped new life into the broadcast with her obvious reporting chops and enthusiasm.

Most underrated news show

CBS’s “Face the Nation” is a classy, nuanced Sunday news show that always delivers thanks to the understated, yet extremely competent hosting of Margaret Brennan.

Best project

The New York Times’ “1619” project is elite journalism and one of the most important projects in recent years. It recognized the 400th anniversary of slavery in what would become the United States and how it has impacted our nation. Simply put, it’s required reading.

Best project, part 2

The Washington Post’s “The Opioid Files” was a brilliant use of data to show how this crisis has impacted every single person out there — right down to everyone’s local drugstore.

Best TV news show

After conquering print journalism and the podcast world with “The Daily,” The New York Times set its sight on television and delivered a must-see TV show that is as good as anything on the air. “The Weekly,” aired on FX and streamed on Hulu and the Times’ website, takes one story each week and transports viewers. The show takes viewers behind the scenes with reporters and how they do their jobs, and manages to tell amazing and important stories at the same time.

Best news show (runner-up)

A special nod to “Axios on HBO,” which delivers some of the best interviews in the business. I just wish it was on every week.

Most viral TV show

The New York Times called ABC’s “The View” the most important political TV show in America. That’s debatable. But at least once a week, a clip from the show goes viral. Hmm, maybe the Times was right.

Most impactful journalist

NBC News’ Cynthia McFadden reporting on immigrants in New Mexico. (Photo courtesy of NBC News)

NBC News’ Cynthia McFadden traveled to the Central African Republic to report on what might be the worst place in the world to be a child. Her reporting led to UNICEF raising nearly $2 million in aid. Later in 2019, McFadden’s report from Madagascar showed the dangers for women and children mining mica, raising awareness to all of us who use products containing mica — that’s pretty much all of us. She also reported on a crisis of migrants seeking asylum in New Mexico. Her year was full of important stories.

Most disturbing (but critically important) story

Children sexually abused and tortured with more than 45 million videos and images on the internet. How does this gross behavior exist? Michael H. Keller and Gabriel J.X. Dance of The New York Times with one of the most horrific stories of the year. Keller told me, “So much of this is disturbing and depraved, but our goal was to channel that horrible information into a constructive purpose by exposing a broken system and drawing attention to the people it had failed.”

Biggest retirement

Legendary ESPN announcer Bob Ley — the conscience of ESPN and sports journalism — stepped away from the network even though he seemed to have plenty of fastball left in his arm.

Best story about the media

I don’t know that there was anything new or even shocking about Jane Mayer’s “The Making of Fox News” for The New Yorker. But her collection of stories into one giant narrative of how Fox News became in step with President Trump and the Republican Party perfectly captured the network becoming what some say is propaganda.

Best debate moderators

2019 has been the year of the debate as the Democrats have gone about the process of finding someone to run against Donald Trump in 2020. (More debates are on the way.) As I wrote last month, just like the Golden Globes are best when hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the debates would be best if always moderated by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell and Kristen Welker and the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker. Not only did they have solid women-centric questions, all of their questions produced the type of conversation most helpful when trying to determine who might (and who might not) make a good presidential candidate.

Best podcast

Come on, this isn’t even a debate, is it? “The Daily” from The New York Times is appointment listening.

Best podcast not named ‘The Daily’

“Dolly Parton’s America” is a WNYC production that examines not only the country music legend, but how Parton and her music can be used to learn more about our country.

Three local stories of special note

  1. The Tampa Bay Times with 400 buried people who have gone missing. What happened to Zion Cemetery?

  2. The Greenville (South Carolina) News and the 11-part series looking into police shootings.

  3. Decades of greed, neglect, corruption and bad politics led to the worst wildfire in California history. And it will happen again, writes California Sunday Magazine’s Mark Arax.

Best transition

Jemele Hill. (Photo by Donald Traill/Invision/AP)

Jemele Hill left ESPN for The Atlantic last year and the transition in 2019 not only has been smooth, but exceptional. Besides writing thought-provoking columns, Hill now hosts the “Jemele Hill is Unbothered” podcast.

Three journalists who deserve special mention

  1. The Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown for her dogged reporting on the Jeffrey Epstein case.

  2. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman for her insightful coverage of President Trump.

  3. The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock for his major scoop “The Afghanistan Papers.”

Best newspaper

A tie between The New York Times and The Washington Post. Both papers get beat up from all sides, mostly for either being too hard or too soft (in readers’ opinions) on President Trump. But the work done on a daily basis is beyond consistently good. It’s consistently excellent. I’ll make the claim that neither paper has been better in its reporting, presentation and commitment.

Scariest moment

Dallas Morning News photographer Tom Fox was on his way to take photos of a routine court hearing. He ended up feet away from an active shooter.

Best above-and-beyond moment

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold saves lives covering baseball. Literally. The former lifeguard and Eagle Scout, who covers the St. Louis Cardinals, performed CPR on a video journalist who was having a heart attack at the ballpark. Goold’s efforts kept the man alive until medical personnel arrived.

Worst correction

The Washington Post had one of the worst corrections of the year. I’d list it here, but it is easier to link to it because the correction actually included 15 parts. You read that right: 15.

Best editorial

After President Trump said the city of Baltimore was “rat and rodent infested” and that no one wanted to live there, the Baltimore Sun fired back with a scathing editorial defending its city. “Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one,” the paper wrote.

Final thoughts on the 2019 year in media

  1. Journalism has never been under more attack, but it continues to be a noble and necessary vocation. And it has never been more important.

  2. What I want to see more of next year: official White House press briefings, a concerted effort by TheMaven to keep Sports Illustrated a meaningful part of American journalism, and even more collaboration between media organizations to cover important topics such as climate, education, homelessness and government wrongdoing.

  3. What I want to see less of next year: journalism layoffs and cliched but damaging attacks on the media as the producers of “fake news” or the “enemy of the people.”

Editor’s note: The Poynter Report is taking a break until Jan. 6. Thank you for reading and enjoy the holidays!

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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