En Words

A place to talk about words - whether from books, stories, magazines, brochures, or matchbook covers.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Great Online Journalism Lie

I enjoy online media: reading, watching, listening, and producing. Working on the web has immense potential. But there is a lot of foolishness playing itself out, often in the form of mindless cheerleading that brings little thought and no historical perspective. Apparently Henry Blodget is in that company.

This is the same guy who was a Wall Street analyst touting dot com businesses and one of the voices crying that the old models of business -- you know, the ones about needing revenue and a way to work toward a profit -- were dead. All you needed was a market willing to invest, also known as the greater fool theory. You invest money and wait for a bigger fool to pay you more for the shares.

And now, as an online journalist covering high tech, he's apparently found his latest cause: claiming that the old media are dead. And, in one sense, I'd agree that newspapers, certainly, are facing some major problems and many are not going to survive. And according to the report of a talk he recently gave at a conference, some of his points were good.

But in one area he makes a critical mistake, assuming that setting down words, and even finding facts, is the same as journalism:
Henry also pointed out that journalism isn't dying, it's just old-line newspapers which aren't adapting. In the new model, with 1 billion potential fact-checkers, if Watergate were to occur today, the underlying documents would have been posted to smokinggun.com. [Emphasis from the original.]
His argument is specious. The vast majority of information on Watergate didn't come from documents someone could find online or even in a physical public file. It came from investigative reporting, speaking with hundreds of sources and using relationships developed over years. Getting the story out took a frighteningly large number of hours by teams of reporters, and all the resources they needed, at a number of major dailies. Having fact checkers is nice, but someone has to go get the facts in the first place. If Watergate were to happen today, not only would the world of potential fact-checkers be useless, but most of the writers, including Blodget himself, wouldn't have a clue as to how they would even begin reporting this type of story.

Just look at what the Washington Post had going for it: a couple of tenacious reporters on staff, the resources to allow the reporters to concentrate on all the related stories for months on end, the money to hire any necessary legal help, and the prestige to help attract potential sources. You won't find that at most online sites, and no large collection of enthusiastic crowds that don't have the time and money to pursue such reporting can help.

The real pity is that by the time most people realize this, it will be too late. So much of online work depends on original news reporting that a good deal will fall away.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Sunday Papers Big for Coupons? Who Would Have Thought It?

This, from yesterday's New York Times: "Readers of Sunday newspapers are more likely than other Americans to use coupons, according to a survey released recently by Scarborough Research, which measures consumer shopping habits." Given that Sunday papers are probably the biggest source of daily coupons, is it any wonder that the readers of those papers are the biggest users of coupons? This to me is the equivalent of saying that people who drive into gas stations are more likely than others to purchase gasoline. The next biggest source of coupons is direct mail and, amazingly enough, people are probably less likely to use something they never asked for than something they paid for.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Reigning Snark Site Gawker Laments Reader Snark

I had to shake my head and wait for my eyes to come back to rest so I could be sure this was the same site. Yup, it was Gawker - with a comment piece on why newspapers should not allow reader comments. The view was so contempuous of letting the hoi polloi have a say that I was surprised, because Gawker is often one of the snidest and most condescending of sites when it comes to opinions of what others do, say, and write.

The line of argument, I felt, was poorly thought through, assumption filled, and lacking perception, understanding, and even a factual grasp on history. Referring to David Carr's piece in the New York Times Magazine about how bad he used to be and how he had changed brought out "Opening a deeply personal article up to the peanut gallery does these writers a great disservice—and yes, I include Emily Gould here, whose NYT Mag article was similarly pilloried in the comments section.

"The "offensive" comments listed were "If he wasn't a reporter for the New York Times, would we be reading this?" and "Monetizing your shameful past is disgusting. Haven't you harmed your loved ones enough for one lifetime?" and "Who cares. grow some guts. we all have problems. most of us don't blame drugs or alcohol... you want a medal for doing your job and being a father?" Sorry, but all three are perfectly respectible views, and far less harsh than things I've seen in Gawker. If a writer decides to open up his or her personal life, then that person should be smart enough, and thick-skinned enough, to know what will happen.

Certainly the single line of type "w-h-o-r-e" referring to another story is ridiculous. But to include that as if it is on the same level as the other comments is absurd.
You could argue that newspapers should rigorously vet and moderate their comments, or at least require them to use their full names. I'd argue that this is a silly misuse of their time; I'm not suggesting that newspapers should actively patrol their comments, like this and some other websites do. (We're a blog; comments are in our blood.) I'm suggesting they get rid of them altogether. (This doesn't include the blog sections of various papers, which the NYT and Washington Post are stuffed full of.)
The author, signed as Sheila, suggests that newspapers "have more important things to do" than to police comments or even spend time with them. Why? Are newspapers supposed to be sacrosanct when it comes to criticism? At least with comment sections, there is a way for someone to voice an opinion when the newspaper decides that it isn't important or interesting enough to publish a letter to the editor - even if the comment is informed and makes a point important for the newspaper to hear.

Ah, but I forgot, all comments in all newspapers are the same: shallow and not of the quality of real writers like Sheila. Perhaps she might look at some of the blogs at the Guardian's site; the discussion in the theatre section, for one, shows an erudition and level of experience that is laudable.

As for the postscript:
Also, nobody wants to hear the tired old "free speech" argument as a defense of comments. We've had free speech in this country for well over two hundred years, long before it was ever an option to comment on newspaper websites and blogs.
what hogwash. She means that she doesn't want to hear about free speech because, after all, that is for the intellectuals, not the common folk. Unfortunately, Sheila is apparently unfamiliar with the quality and thrust of newspapers at the time of the founding fathers, and how they would regularly attack politicians, public figures, and each other on a regular basis. There was no need for a comments section, because the entire newspapers were just that. But it's far more convenient to ignore fact when it gets in the way of opinion.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

History through the Times

Someone on a writers' site pointed this out, and so I pass on the tip. The archive of the Times of London - starting 1 January 1785 (yes, that is a 7) - is available for free online. You can choose any date, or there is a scrolling "timeline" listing historically and culturally interesting (or curious) events.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Journalists Outsourcing Their Own Work

There are days I end up scratching my head, wondering what could possibly happen next. And then I get my answer. Today, it's in the form of a newspaper columnist in Texas who has just resigned because the person who had been doing some ghostwriting for him finally asked the editor for a byline. Here's a bit form the story that ran in the Guardian:
On his own blog, Burr tried to write the scandal off as a case of his being "a little overzealous"- which is an interesting way of describing getting someone else to do your work for you.
This, to me, is like becoming a shoemaker, and then hiring someone else to make the shoes for you because you get tired of doing so. Why bother to keep doing it?

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

LA Times to Turn Sunday Magazine into Ad Shill

I read a story in the New York Times that made me sad
The Los Angeles Times has made plans to transfer control of its monthly magazine from its newsroom to its business operations and to replace the magazine’s entire editorial staff, according to two executives at the newspaper.
I've never written for the LA Times at all, let alone the magazine, but I do remember a conversation with a past editor, Martin Smith - a real gentleman who was praised by every writer I knew who worked for him and who, it was clear, had an understanding of how to focus articles for his audience.

But the LA Times has been a mess for a while, from what I've heard - and from what has appeared in the news. I'm sure this is all part of the roiling at the Tribune organization, which owns the paper. Sam Zell bought the company and is certain, I'm sure, that he knows what is best for the company. Unfortunately, many people who are primarily investors think they know how to make companies run well, and they often don't, particuarly when it comes to publishing. Some time back, I had a conversation with an editor I knew and wrote for. We were discussing the business magazine market and how badly so mny titles seemed to be doing. This highly experienced man was then editor in chief for a business magazine which had been started by someone with more money than sense, because Mr. Pockets kept second-guessing everything that the experienced editors were doing. The result was complete and total disaster.

A magazine or newspaper is an odd tye of business, because there are three communities to which it is responsible. One, absolutely, is the set of advertisers. They need to know that their financial support will translate into a return on their investment.

But that doesn't happen in a vacuum. To be useful, the publication needs a reading public. The money comes as a consequence of being well-read and well-regarded, and if owners keep under-cutting the editorial mission, they eliminate the ability to satisfy the public, and so the ability to attract advertisers.

A publication also has a responsibility to the community and to public discourse. It is by far the most hazy to accountants, but it is why many people care about a publication and why they are willing to buy it. Ignore the mission, and you might as well close shop and start the fire sale tomorrow.
The plan for the magazine was set in motion months ago. A new editor and others were hired, future issues were planned, and mock-up covers were made — all without the knowledge of anyone in the newsroom, including the top editor, Russ Stanton, the executives said. Mr. Stanton and other high-ranking editors learned of the plan last week, they said.

But the executives who described the plan cautioned that it might have changed since last week, after editors raised objections.

They said that Mr. Stanton, after hearing about the move, asked the publisher of The Times, David D. Hiller, and the president of the newspaper, Jack D. Klunder, to change the name of the publication, which is now called Los Angeles Times Magazine. He argued that to keep the name would lend the newsroom’s credibility to a product it did not control.
Can you imagine taking over a manufacturer and telling the factory workers and management that the marketing department would now run things? Just because someone can make money in real estate doesn't mean that he can necessarily do anything else. It's just that he has enough money to prove by example how bad his decisions can be. Then comes all the money trying to prove that it was the fault of everyone else. But when you're the CEO, you are responsbile. You cannot take the praise if you aren't willing to accept the blame.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Changes on the Wall Street Journal Front Page

A report from Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism quantitatively shows the changes in the front page of the Wall Street Journal since Rupert Murdoch bought its parent company, Dow Jones. The paper has significantly decreased its business coverage while increasing the number of political stories. This is pretty interesting, as people buy the Journal for news of business, not politics. There's a significant increase in foreign coverage, which might be good, and I suspect it's difficult to say whether the WSJ would have increased political news on the front page anyway, as the primaries were ongoing. It would have been interesting to see a comparison not to the four months before the purchase, but the equivalent four months of the previous year, or even of four years before, when there was another U.S. presidential election. It would also have been good not to measure just "news holes," but the number of column inches uses, as well as the content of the paper overall. However, these are at least some numbers showing the changes.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

New York Times Again in Copycat Dog House

TheArgentinePost.com provides compelling evidence that a writer at the New York Times, when writing about expatriate artists in Buenos Aires, made overly liberal use of a research resource: a January 15, 2007 Newsweek story on the same topic. I won't even try to start covering the ground, as the analysis that the Argentine Post did is long, thorough, and, in addition, reported. Sadly, even though there was significant prior evidence of the writer purloining the work of others, the NYT travel editor eventually claimed that there "was no plagiarism at work." No, just some pretty amazing coincidences, one after the other.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

(Still) Getting the Online WSJ for Free

The Machinist blog has a great tip on getting the online version of the Wall Street Journal for free. Remember Rupert Murdoch's talk about making the site free, and then saying that they were going to keep the subscriptions and probably increase them? Well, that much was true, but to drive attention - and advertising - to the site, they also need to show up on the search engines. So the engines have to get in, which means that people can, as well. The blog entry gives two different methods of getting to the articles you want without sending a cent to Murdoch.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Bush Aide Resigns After Admitting Plagiarism

An aide to President George W. Bush, "responsible for outreach to conservative and Christian groups," as the Washington Post noted, resigned after admitting that he had plagiarized the work of others in a newspaper column he wrote on a regular basis for his hometown newspaper, the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. According to the story:
On its Web site Friday, the newspaper said 20 of 38 Goeglein columns between 2000 and 2008 contained "portions copied from other sources without attribution." News-Sentinel Editor Kerry Hubartt said Goeglein had written 80 or 90 columns for the newspaper in a relationship that began more than 20 years ago.

On its Web site Friday, the newspaper said 20 of 38 Goeglein columns between 2000 and 2008 contained "portions copied from other sources without attribution." News-Sentinel Editor Kerry Hubartt said Goeglein had written 80 or 90 columns for the newspaper in a relationship that began more than 20 years ago.
What was finally noticed by blogger Nancy Nall was material he had lifted from former Dartmouth professor Jeffrey L. Hart. What gave him away to Nall was mentioning a Dartmouth professor, Eugene Rosenstock-Hussey, in a column about education:
Now, I’m sure Tim’s spare brain space isn’t cluttered, as mine is, with “American Idol,” the internet and what’s-for-dinner concerns. Certainly string quartets waft through his paneled study, where he reads and thinks under the mounted ibex head, far from the vulgar buzz of pop culture. Surely he can acquaint himself with notable professors of philosophy at Dartmouth while I watch the Oscars. But this name was so goofy, just for the hell of it, I Googled it. And look what I found.
She shows the evidence. According to the Post story:
Peter Wehner, a former Bush aide, said Goeglein was regarded as "a person of sterling character" who was Bush's "eyes and ears" in the conservative world. "It is an important job, and he really developed a bond of trust with the conservative world," Wehner said.
Ah, there's the problem - he focused on family values, not professional ethics.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

St. Pete Times Campaign Truth-O-Meter

Congratulations to the St. Petersburg Times and its "Truth-O-Meter" analysis of attacks in the presidential campaign. Instead of letting things slide into a metaphorical freeway pile-up, the paper is keeping a record of candidates accusing each other about this, that, or the other thing. The ratings of factual veracity go from True to Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

New York Times Reporter Claims NYT Book Review is Unfair

Sometimes you see the strangest things, like an employee of an organization vociferously attacking his own publication for offering an unfair and twisted review of his own book. Editor & Publisher, a trade magazine for the newspaper industry, has a story about David Clay Johnston, who says that an upcoming NYT review of his book Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves At Government Expense (And Stick You With The Bill) has a number of "egregious errors." Here's the letter that Johnston sent, and that is included in this article:
To the Editor:

Jonathan Chait's review of my book "Free Lunch" (Feb. 3) ignores its central thesis and neglects to disclose that he wrote a competing book.

He writes that I embrace litigiousness to solve societal problems. In fact, I describe litigation as "scary and nasty" and show ways to reduce lawsuits. My solution is for taxpayers to cover the full costs of Congress, ending legalized bribery.

Chait writes that I regard corporations as "inherently malevolent," which is ridiculous given that I am chairman of the board of a small corporation with big ambitions. He says I regard deregulation as "evil," when I wrote that deregulation is a fantasy and I show new regulations that thwart market capitalism, drive up prices and hinder competition. The only things I call "evil," citing the Bible, are policies that take from the many to give to the rich.

Chait twists words I use to describe the shared values of those Democrats and Republicans who favor people over corporations to make them appear as my views, not a description of theirs.

Chait misleadingly connects me to a faction of Democrats and calls me a left-wing populist, even though I am a registered Republican, a matter of public record that is posted all over the Internet, and without mentioning that classic conservative values drawn from Adam Smith, Andrew Mellon and the Bible are invoked throughout "Free Lunch."

"Free Lunch" is full of news, hard facts and plain English explanations of how market capitalism has been perverted. Chait did an excellent job of one thing -- hiding what "Free Lunch" actually says from readers of The New York Times Book Review.

David Cay Johnston

Ouch. E&P tried to reach Chait, who declined to talk.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Google as Publisher

I ran this on my business blog, BizBlast, but thought it might be of interest here - as I'm convinced that Google is out to become the world's largest publisher.

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