Silence of the Lambs

Newsrooms, especially the ones I know best  — newspaper newsrooms — are a lot quieter these days.

Outside them, we have a sea of talking heads, like me, wagging fingers and pontificating about the news biz. But we hear little from the workaday folk who inhabit newsrooms, which are at very center of this wordstorm. Like the eye of a hurricane, they are eerily quiet.

There could be lots of reasons for that, such as, they’re too busy DOING the work to talk about it all that much. Or maybe it’s simply that most newsrooms have fewer bodies in them and all those ghost desks cast a pall, a grim reminder that you might be next on the layoff list. Or if you’re lucky (?) maybe another buyout.

A newsroom I used to work in, in fact several that I have worked in or knew, used to be full of piss ‘n’ vinegar folks who were hard to manage, smart, feisty and happy to deal in ground truths, whether it was about the local public officials or the editor they weren’t especially fond of.

Now? While there’s still, remarkably, a dedication to readers, to telling truth to power outside the newsroom, you don’t see much of the piss or the vinegar INSIDE those newsrooms.

Can you blame them?

No one in charge seems to be listening.

Once the lead editor in a newsroom was hired — by the publisher — to be the champion of that newsroom to other managers — including that very same publisher — and to the world at large. It was a commonplace of newspapers that the relationship between publisher and editor was respectful, but often contentious.

Over the past 10 years a subtle but profound shift in that role has taken place. Now editors are routinely expected to be the enforcers and representatives of the newspaper’s management or even the newspaper’s corporate owners, to the newsroom as well as to the world at large.

Of course there are exceptions, but these exceptions prove the rule. And most of those exceptions survive by flying under the radar.

To be blunt, senior newsroom managers are rewarded for talking budget, not story.

Yes, I know the blunt facts of circulation decline, and more importantly for the bottom line, the decline in advertising. I know when business is bad, you’ve got to tighten your belt.

But while these problems are real enough, they are recent. Go back even a decade and you’ll see profit figures for many newspapers in the double digits. Topping 20 and even 30 percent.

We already knew about the web back then. We already suspected it had the power to bring legacy news organizations to their knees.

But there was no money invested to fund the battle ahead.

From the very first time I had to handle a newsroom budget, I saw a line item for training. For the first few years it was repeatedly cut in one round or other of budget preparations. Then it was zeroed out.

The budget line lingered — like those ghostly desks — a reminder of opportunities lost.

Where once there were conference calls among editors to share bright ideas, now the conference call is likely to be a stultifying lecture from one of the corporate overlords  explaining in horrific detail how to process payments to a new vendor.

Corporate overlords are not turning to newsrooms to explore better ways of telling the news. They are turning to newsrooms only to find more bodies to cut, more desks to empty.

The Tweets that came this past week from a handful of Tribune employees all re-tweeted the story that Tribune, just emerged from bankruptcy, is handing over the sale of its properties to bankers.

Each one of those Tweets was unaccompanied by any comment. As if no comment were necessary, as if it had all been said.

That silence from such passionate folk seemed the saddest of all.

As though they are lost, and they know no one is looking out for them. They are  floating, as an editor I know said, “like bits of seaweed on a sea of mergers and acquisitions.”

“Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.” from The Education of Henry Adams

Before I talk turkey, let’s talk ketchup.

On Feb. 14th (Valentine’s Day, sweet day for a merger) the acquisition of Heinz by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway was announced.

Not many days before,  Dell company founder Michael Dell, Microsoft, and the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners announced their deal to take computer maker Dell private.

Are these good ideas?

Beats me. I haven’t a clue. Remember, I’m a journalist, and, God help me, a poet. The making of money is a gene or a genius I do not have.

Here’s the way Heinz CEO William Johnson summed up the advantages of the acquisition, which meant the public company was going private offers (NPR All Things Considered on Feb 14, 2013):

“The deal provides Heinz with more flexibility, and as a private company we can be even more focused, more competitive, more nimble and benefit from much faster decision making.”

Nimble is good. So is faster decision making.

The NPR reportage on the Dell deal highlighted a behind-the-scenes dynamic. As a private company Dell can pay less attention to the quarterly returns and more to the innovation that often spells success for the long term — though it can play havoc with the short term.

H’mmm.

If investment, and ignoring the hollering from Wall Street analysts are good ideas for a ketchup company as well as for a innovation-starved computer company, might they not also benefit a communications company? Especially a news communication company?

Newspapers, particularly, but most media outlets, get short shrift from Wall Street analysts who have predicted the imminent demise of newspapers and their media cousins, for more than a decade now. Oddly, those media institutions haven’t disappeared yet. I’ll grant you they are getting weaker.

Here’s another oddity: While circulation has fallen — cataclysmically — the number of eyeballs has risen. By that I mean, folks who still pay for their news, dead-tree variety, are getting more scarce. But the on-line readership of newspapers and many news-gathering companies has SKYROCKETED!

We have MORE people reading MORE news now than ever.

The problem lies not in ourselves, but in our stars, is how I might reverse Shakespeare’s phrase.

The problem is not that there aren’t readers for the news that journalists of all stripes are producing, it’s that no one has figured out how to make money off those readers.

And no one, for lo these many years, has considered newspapers, especially, a good investment. Yet there ARE all those readers… perhaps there needs to be some time and money spent in connecting those dots.

I’d hazard a guess the lack of investment is because too many people with money to invest have been listening to those doomsayer analysts who live in big cities, where multiple news outlets offer news in 57 varieties. And most analysts probably want their news ASAP or sooner, and they’re likely to be living on their smart phones and digesting news tidbits like a hungry dog chowing down on dinner… in the bowl or from the garbage can.

They prize fast and first. What is true takes a back seat when whiffs of a hint of a rumor can tank a stock or send it soaring.

The reality outside those media-saturated markets is entirely different.

There are many places where if there’s even ONE media presence it’s likely to be a newspaper, perhaps even a weekly newspaper. And the scarcer the outlets, the more the individual brands are recognized. Which should mean — shouldn’t it? — that those outlets are worth something?

Even in the big cities, where you get your news matters. It matters if you’ve heard/read about that court decision on NBC or Joe’s blog, even if Joe is a lawyer. Or the city’s union dispute, or the teachers’ contracts.

When there are enough media to create a media scrum, you’ll still turn to someone you recognize as a reliable source.

Brand recognition and credibility. Wow. That’s something to bank on.

News companies’ producers and publishers, from the corner office to the ad department to the newsroom have been starved of money for years and years. This is why they are not nimble, not innovative.

Analysts seem to relish hitting news companies when they’re down. Those analysts have developed the habit of blaming them for their lack of nimbleness, as if those on the ship would wish to sink it.

Many innovative ideas these days come from outside news organizations, from think tanks of various kinds, from university-based projects as well as those outfits stating right from the get-go that they they are not in the profit-making business, like ProPublica.

I applaud the increasing involvement of smart people from all sorts of places in the various news businesses. However, I still detect that the best thinking coming from all of them is straining to make itself felt at most news organizations, little or large. The purse strings are too tightly held for fear of that dreaded quarterly report.

I’m not going into the ins and outs of the benefits and risks of a leveraged buy-out for Dell, but I think it’s striking that Dell’s founder — who might know a thing or two — is joined by Microsoft, in walking this particular plank.

Why?

In the coverage given to the story on NPR’s All Things Considered on Feb. 5th, the conversation circled around some statistics on new patents gathered and studied by Josh Lerner, a professor from Harvard, who is also author of the book The Architecture of Innovation.

“When one spends money on R&D,” he said, “it’s expensed immediately, and it drags down your earnings, yet the benefits from doing it aren’t seen for years to come.”

Trying to figure out if this notion of increased innovation does indeed come from less emphasis on quick returns, he explored the number of patents granted to companies and compared the numbers between public companies and ones that went private.

He found little difference in the numbers. He did find, however, that the quality of the innovations was substantially higher in the patents for those newly private companies.

As summed up by NPR’s technology correspondent, Steve Henn: “These patents were cited by other inventors more often, and they had a bigger impact on these companies’ bottom lines…when managers are freed from chasing quarterly profits, they seem to make smarter long-term investment decisions.”

Let’s go back to Warren Buffet. Before he bought Heinz, he bought The Buffalo News. In 1977. He has had for quite a while a sizable share of the Washington Post. In 2011, when no one was buying, the oracle of Omaha bought the Omaha World Herald.

Last year, he bought 60-plus newspapers from Media General.

Two weeks before the ketchup deal was announced, he bought the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record.

“In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper, “ he said after the Media General purchase.

I recognize that his company, Berkshire Hathaway, is itself a publicly traded company, and that it could be sensitive to investors and analysts. But his track record shields him from that noise. He, in turn, shields the senior managers of his companies.

If it works for ketchup, why not newspapers?

Urgent Valentine

IMG_0033

Urgent Valentine

The sun comes from behind me and I am shadowed, sheltered by our house.

Looking out, the trees still barricade the
far-away, even shorn of leaves.

The road that I can see is nearly black
again, its edges hemmed with snow,

the doubled back seam from plow or  shovel.
The rest – snow spotted, winter worn.

The sun streams shadow trees away from me,
and they fall immensely, soft from

the great spaces those beams have traveled to
this tiny spot of blue and green

that beckoned those rays, beguiling despite
distance and the dark. Born in a

maelstrom of energy and glow — constant
and happenstance — a flood of light.

From that sea, what few conquer night and cloud
to achieve the tree, the release

of long grey fingers to caress the earth.

From our own vortex of what is and what
is not, comes us. I want us to

be as intended as the sun, the sky.
As if we were meant to be — not

just another happy accident of
ray and tree. Not shadows. There is

a sun, and always will be for as far
as human mind can stretch. But its

yield is each day, each day’s passing. There is
sky, but its blue yield is only

a sometime thing, I am and so are you.
But us? That is the bluest sky,

rays that become shadows as they find home.

Greetings, Cactus Wren

Of all the days, this is the one I send you.

Scrubbed by the ice storm Monday, drenched by the rains of Tuesday,
this Wednesday I send.

I send the intermittent sun, our winter sun, almost warm,
tired from its journey through the dark. Still strong enough:
For awe of him, the trees fell themselves

and lay their shadows across the white.

Of course, I send the shadows, too, formed from such
immensity of scattered light that they can dance in the teasing wind,
which, too, I send.

See how the bright bluster of the sun puts that hemming grey to shame,
and blue seems for a few sweet moments to have the upper hand
in the battle for the sky.

And loses again. The snow falls.
The wind whispers of the blizzard to come.

We are winter, welcome us. From us comes the spring.

“Ain’t no room for cowards in journalism at this moment in time.”

Nor dreamers.

Over the past 10+ grim years in journalism — the traditional world of newspapers, TV and radio — there has been LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of bad news. Sometimes I get the feeling that journalists get the blame for the problems of traditional journalism. That if journalism  — and journalists — were better, there would be no problem.

Not true.

NOTTRUENOTTRUENOTTRUENOTTRUENOTTRUENOTTRUENOTTRUE

Creativity and yearning for connection lies dormant in most newsrooms, just anesthetized — or drowned — by the financial mess that has engulfed the world of most journalists still lucky (?) enough to have a job.

The first quote comes at the end of a short interview that Joe Sexton, the former New York Times sports editor had with New York magazine. He left with a raft of other editors in the NYT’s January downsizing.  Don’t even ask how many there have been. Either editors or downsizings. There or elsewhere.

A good way to keep track is to check in at jimromenesko.com, which is where I found out about the item that sparked my second sentence at the top of this entry.

The Record, one of New Jersey’s largest newspapers, is also offering buyouts and closing a special section – called Signature – it had bravely started as a way to showcase its best.

This is a quote from the paper’s editor, from his memo on the subject featured on the Romenesko site.

“Signature allowed so many of us to think about what we would do if we went a step further in our reporting, design, photographs and graphics,” writes Martin Gottlieb… “It makes sense to me to take the best of Signature… and feature them in the regular sections of the daily paper. As we do, there will be a measurable savings in newsprint costs.”

Hear that dreaming? Ain’t it just lovely? Hear the creak-crack-thud of the failing bottom line?

There has always been a passion to connect with readers and to create vivid stories about our world in the best journalists from Mark Twain to Edward R. Murrow to Joe Sexton (who was the guiding genius behind the NYT’s great multi-media effort “Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek”) to the many brave souls in New Jersey who brought Signature to life.

Sexton brought the whole new-media toolbox into play to create the multi-layered story of one avalanche. He showed, as many have already done, that the will to use the host of new story-telling devices is alive in “traditional” newsrooms, as is the skill to use them well.

The sad truth is that folks doing these brave, smart things aren’t being rewarded by the companies that employ them.

And yes, I know, there are lots of smart folks working hard who aren’t being rewarded in these difficult days the way they should be. But very few of them are being blamed for those difficulties.

We need to frame our discussions of journalism differently, so that the desperately needed art and craft of journalism survives and thrives in the new universe.

A big first step would be to acknowledge the bravery of the crazy people who still populate our newsrooms and applaud those who struggle in colleges to earn the designation of journalist, despite all the bad news.

“If you are not asking yourself every couple of years how to once more scare yourself to death, then you are living something of the coward’s life,” Sexton says. “Ain’t no room for cowards in journalism at this moment in time.”

The Novice

I lift the blind and
there it is —  as silent as a forgotten
dream — the snow.

This, perhaps, the millionth time I lift my pen to see,
and hunt the words.

The land lifts behind our house as though
a bowl:
    wooded, tooth-picked with slim gray trees.
A mystery of whites,
    here, the ground, there the sky,
    but where they have their assignation, is lost
    in trees, and snow.
Each new fall is like a marriage: commonplace and extraordinary.

Nothing moves. Even the topmost branches hold still, with
their white shadows hugged close.

Forgive me, snow and sky and trees, that I must nail
down this moment. Scratching, always scratching
this itch that will not cease.

Forgive me, too, ancient priesthood, wordsmiths who have and will
bless our language with your arts.
In them, through them, with them is rekindled the love of the creator
for the work.

Forgive me, an old novice. You will know I have no choice
but to claim the itch — and these words —
as the wonder right of all who stand in awe,
and parse perfection with a pen.

Journalists and the messy search for truth

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Sandy Hook, CT., we have plenty of evidence that many reports of that day’s events were wrong.

First of all, let me say how proud I am that news organizations — some of them, anyway — will attempt to investigate the hows and whys of the mis-reporting. Let me also note that our collective hand-wringing helps to fuel the commonly held belief that we get “everything” wrong and are not to be trusted.

Sigh. It seems the more transparent we attempt to be, the more fuel it is for those who wish to paint what I might call the traditional media as bias-driven, and blind to any facts that don’t support the bias du jour.

Yet it is mostly in that traditional media — especially in newspapers — that the public corrections are made, and ownership taken. More on this later…

On Friday Dec. 21st, the WNYC media program On the Media carried a thoughtful and thought-provoking segment “How Myths Form After a School Shooting.”

The opening line of the link to the report by Bob Garfield reads “The press has misreported a lot about the Newtown shooting, and if history is any guide, much of that misreporting will inform our memory of the event.”

Two elements can be unpacked from that sentence. First the “misreporting,” and second how our memories of the day’s events solidify before all the facts are known.

Yes. There was misreporting. Was some of that irresponsible? Yes. Um .. maybe? Look at some examples pointed out by The New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan:

  …on the first day, The Times reported on its Web site that the gunman was Ryan Lanza, attributing that information to other news organizations. It was actually his brother, Adam Lanza. Mistakes don’t get much worse.The next day, in its lead front-page article, The Times got several major facts wrong, stating without attribution that Mr. Lanza was “buzzed in” to the Sandy Hook Elementary  School building by its principal, who “recognized him as the son of a colleague.”
Not so. He forced his way into the school, dressed in combat gear and carrying guns. There is still no confirmation that his mother, Nancy Lanza, ever worked at the school.

There are scores of other examples, but this will surely suffice. The Times, bless ‘em, will be in the forefront of the public mea culpas offered.  Many other news and what I might call near-news organizations are not so forthcoming.

But my point here is not further excoriation, but simply to ask: What do you expect?

In the tumult of a breaking-news nightmare, many things are mis-reported because many things are misunderstood. Many of the sources for these mis-reportings are police officials, who will, also, of course, get many things wrong as they figure out what happened.

Why is that a surprise?

Many folks blame the 24-hour news cycle and the voracious appetite of the web for these errors, the rush to be first since many think that being first IS being credible.

But if you look back, you’ll find that these sorts of errors have plagued the “live” news coverage of many major news events.

Jack Shafer has kindly written up many of the most significant ones in his Reuters column  from 12.17.12: “Newtown teaches us, once again, to discount early reports.”

    It’s inevitable that some first reports will be wrong,” Dan Rather warned viewers on Sept. 11, 2001, as he and his colleagues at CBS covered terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in real time.

Rather was prescient in his prediction, and CBS and others proved his point that day. But Shafer’s important point in resurrecting these examples is to show us that errors in reporting have been with us as long as we’ve had “live” coverage of breaking news. He proves it’s a canard to blame all these problems on the demands of the web. We, as journalists of varied media, are only now being introduced to the nightmares that TV and radio journalists have been living for some 50 years, and more.

If the event is big enough — JFK’s assassination; the attack on President Ronald Reagan;  the Mumbai bombings — we want to know NOW. We turn to any site that can tell us NOW.

And they will all, in varying degrees, be wrong. At first.

I applaud all efforts to get the story right the first time, though I don’t think the “Be first” is a good rule to follow. Conversely, striving to be as “right” as possible can also be putting a huge drag on timeliness of the report, as one of the comments on the Times’ Public Editor’s column noted:  (from Robert Garrett of Napanoch, NY)

    My understanding is that the Times, in reporting details about the shooting, relied on many statements made by police and other investigative officials, albeit anonymously.  Yes, some of those official assertions turned out to be inaccurate. But what was the choice? A story saying “Something terrible happened at a school, but we don’t know for absolutely sure exactly what it was”? Should the Times not report there were dead children all over the place, unless a Times reporter independently witnessed the carnage? It seems to me the Times did a dramatically better job than almost any other news  organization, in impossible circumstances, all while being kept completely away from the scene itself.

Where there has been much less inquiry into is the second half of On the Media’s report that I quoted earlier: “.. if history is any guide, much of that misreporting will inform our memory of the event.”

In a nutshell, what Garfield was getting at is that our knowledge of a significant event is shaped by the immediate coverage of it. We know it intimately for a few days, then other things happen in our lives, or in the news cycle and we move on. Yet the story is still unfolding.

Garfield interviewed Dave Cullen, who spent 10 years researching the Columbine shootings and is the author of a definitive book (Columbine) on the shootings there. Cullen speaks of many misconceptions we hold as the “truth” of that event, which is simply a residue from the reporting of that day.

The work of verification and untangling goes on and on. Often crimes result in trials where much of the information that has been verified is brought to light. But there are these other tragedies, like Sandy Hook and Columbine, where there are no trials to publicize the truths that take days, weeks and years to uncover.

And look at some of the time when we do have a trial — like the OJ Simpson case — which leaves us all wondering what the “other” side saw that “we” didn’t. The not-guilty verdict there made most of the African-American community rejoice. The white community was predominately dunderstruck.

What I’m getting at is that truth is squirrelly. And we need to look a  little more closely at ourselves and our assumptions rather than use the media as a fig leaf for our prejudices. After most significant news events we start off with a shared pile of information, some right and some wrong. Over time, we each start to cherry pick our way through the coverage. Some will be drawn to stories that “prove” some point they want to make: about gun rights or mental health issues. Others will be drawn to the human interest stories that focus on one family’s truth.

In this way, without being criminal or evil, we see the world through well-earned biases. Events unfold against the context supplied by our own predispositions. It’s why it’s important to have a sturdy press (in whatever form its news is delivered) that actively seeks unbiased truths, despite sometimes tripping over facts.