Live from Tehran, it’s Lester Holt, plus The Athletic’s finances and GateHouse’s law enforcement bylines

August 21, 2019
Category: Newsletters

Your Wednesday Poynter Report

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Good Wednesday to you. I had a chance to exchange emails with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt on Tuesday about his trip to Iran earlier this week. That’s where we’ll start.

Live from Tehran, it’s Lester Holt

Just back from an exclusive and rare report inside Iran, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt told me in an email Tuesday night that Iranian government officials feel they are losing the propaganda war when it comes to tensions with the United States.

Holt and a 13-person team on the ground in Iran gained rare access for an American news organization. They were able to film inside the Foreign Ministry, in popular marketplaces and coffee shops in Tehran, as well as inside the home of an Iranian couple.

Holt, who anchored Monday’s newscast live from Tehran, sat down with five senior Iranian government officials, including the first interview with Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, since he was sanctioned by the United States for what he alleges was rejecting a meeting with President Donald Trump.

Holt also interviewed Ali Shamkhani, head of Iran’s National Security Council, who rarely speaks to the Western press. Shamkhani told Holt that signing the 2015 nuclear pact was a mistake. He portrayed America as the aggressor and prime source of tension in the region and warned the United States to “act with wisdom.”

“The thing that struck me most is the belief among many Iranian officials that I spoke with is that they are losing the propaganda war, which is why I believe so many officials agreed to talk to NBC News,” Holt told me. “They believe that the nuclear deal was a bait and switch. As they see it, Iran agreed to and abided by the rules only to have the rug pulled out when the Trump administration withdrew from the deal to seek a new and broader agreement and then hit them with new sanctions. The Iranians are frustrated that American actions have not produced outrage.”

Just as interesting were Holt’s interviews with Iranian citizens. Holt spoke with a couple — Reza and Zahra Hatami — who welcomed Holt into their home to discuss life in Iran and fear of war between their country and the United States. Holt also spent time in a coffee shop with two young Iranian men who have lived their whole lives under sanctions.

“I found many people hesitant to talk on camera for fear of stumbling over a political trip-wire and causing trouble for themselves with authorities,” Holt said. “What I noticed was how curious they are about how average Americans view the tensions between our countries. A few seemed genuinely disappointed when I explained to them that the average American probably isn’t talking about or focusing on the situation in Iran on a daily basis. They are puzzled by our government’s positions but wanted me to know they like Americans.”

Kudos to NBC News. This took initiative and enormous planning. Sending Holt and a team to Iran was a major commitment to an important story that isn’t getting enough attention in this country, and NBC’s work there, led by Holt, was must-see TV. This is the kind of important work that still makes the evening news critical.

Signing up for success at The Athletic

There might not be a more interesting website launched over the past few years than The Athletic — the ad-free, subscription-based sports website that hired away many of the top newspaper writers in the country to fill out a staff of more than 400 that covers every one of the four major sports leagues in North America, as well as many colleges and English soccer. Maybe that’s why people keep writing about it. The latest, and perhaps the best piece so far, was published Tuesday by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Ira Boudway.

For those unfamiliar with The Athletic, Boudway’s story does a solid job telling the history of how it started in 2016, how it covers sports and how it got to where it is today. But those already versed in The Athletic can’t get enough of the other aspects, specifically one question: Is the site making money?

We have to take his word for it, but Athletic co-founder Alex Mather now claims the site has more than 600,000 subscribers and expects to be near a million by year’s end. Boudway reported that venture capital investors have put more than $90 million into the site and that the company is valued at about $500 million — a number The Athletic would not comment on.


But let’s get to the crux of what everyone wants to know. Here’s what Boudway wrote:

“The company is profitable in all but a few markets, according to Mather, who says it usually takes 6 to 12 months to break even. The money losers, he says, are the youngest cities, which include Phoenix and Washington, D.C.. He declined to comment on overall revenue and losses other than to say the site is still looking to grow by expanding coverage and adding writers.”

Again, we must take Mather’s word for all of this. Some are doing the math and finding it hard to understand how the site is profitable. The Athletic should be admired for its deep talent pool of writers, its commitment to coverage and its continuing expansion. But its long-term prospects, while seemingly promising at the moment, remain a mystery.

Was the sheriff excited about his byline?

Some odd bylines are showing up in a couple of North Carolina newspapers owned by GateHouse. Examples include a local sheriff’s department, a district attorney and even the U.S. Department of Justice. As newspapers try to figure out how to do more with less, these papers are turning to what amounts to press releases to cover some news.

On Saturday, the New Bern Sun Journal ran a front-page story written by the Craven County Sheriff’s Department. It was about a man charged with breaking and entering. Just a few days earlier, the Kinston Free Press had a story with a byline of the U.S. Department of Justice about a man indicted on child pornography charges.

Then on Sunday, the Sun Journal had a story written by the “Office of the District Attorney” about a woman who had pleaded guilty in killing an infant.

Several GateHouse employees reached out to me about this issue, with one saying, “It’s one way to deal with not having reporters, I guess.”

Chris Segal, executive editor at both papers, did not respond to a request for comment.

Fumble a quote? Just blame the reporter

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. (AP Photo/David Richard)

A controversial quote came out of Clay Skipper’s terrific and fun story in GQ on Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. In the piece, the brash Mayfield caught a glimpse of a rookie quarterback on another team — the New York Giants’ Daniel Jones — on a nearby TV screen in a restaurant and said, “I cannot believe the Giants took Daniel Jones. Blows my mind.”

The inference was that the Giants might have made a mistake. When the story was published online Tuesday, that quote blew up. Mayfield then took to Instagram to say:

“This is not what I said…. just so we’re clear. I also said I was surprised I got drafted number one. Then was talking about the flaws in evaluating QB’s. Where I brought up winning being important. Reporters and media will do anything to come up with a clickbait story. Heard nothing but good things and wish nothing but the best for Daniel.”

Skipper could not be reached for comment, but this almost assuredly will go down as a “he said/he said” controversy. If I had to take a guess at what happened, Mayfield likely said exactly what Skipper said he did, but Mayfield didn’t realize the comment was on the record. Now that the quote went viral, Mayfield is denying it — and calling the reporter into question — so as to not publicly embarrass or start a feud with a fellow NFL quarterback.

In the meantime, New York Post sports media columnist Andrew Marchand had an interesting take on Twitter about how these magazine sports pieces often are known for explosive quotes:

“In regards to Baker Mayfield, the nature of magazine profiles does generally lead to these type of big quotes because, in many cases, mag writers are one and done on topics and generally don’t care about relationships as reporters who cover someone regularly.

“I don’t know if the writer of the piece or Mayfield was right on the context, but I do think mag feature writers who are doing big, one-time features are more prone to this issue.”

Kevin Van Valkenburg, a senior writer at ESPN, responded by tweeting:

“So what is being said here is magazine writers generally don’t protect subjects from themselves and do our best to capture the closest version of who they really are instead of the version they’d like to use to build a brand? I agree.”

The Eagle will no longer land on Saturdays

Another McClatchy paper is cutting out a Saturday print edition. The Wichita (Kansas) Eagle will stop publishing on Saturdays this fall. It says it will have expanded newspapers on Fridays and Sundays, and still publish online on Saturdays.

The Eagle joins a list that already includes nine other McClatchy papers as six-day-a-week publications with Saturdays reserved exclusively for digital. When I asked Sara Glines, McClathcy’s Carolinas and East regions president and publisher, about this in June, she said there were no definite plans to make all McClatchy papers drop the Saturday print edition. But it is an experiment that is gaining momentum inside the chain and it would not be surprising to see that trend continue with more papers.

Hannity: ‘You have no place in this society’

Fox News host Sean Hannity earlier this month. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Credit to Mediaite for pointing out that Fox News’ Sean Hannity strongly condemned white supremacy on his show Monday night.

“This show will always condemn hatred on any side,” Hannity said. “White supremacy, bigotry, you have no place in this society. None whatsoever. People chanting, ‘What do we want? Dead cops. When you want ‘em? Now!’ You are radicals and you are hurting our country. You are putting men and women that protect and serve us at risk. If you are a Antifa extremist, the same goes to you. What do they have in common? They are all tied to sick, ugly, twisted ideologies.”

Hannity added that any conservative who supports white supremacy is not a conservative to him.

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