The war on the news media

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People sure hate the news media these days, non sequitur and all.

Gov. Pat McCrory has blamed the news media for confusing people on HB2. “I frankly think some of the media has failed miserably in communicating the clear facts,” he said, specifically naming national publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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But my favorite is the “ignorance-is-bliss” idea espoused by a state senator from South Carolina who said that she thinks the media may be the biggest problem facing the country. “Our biggest problem could very possibly (most likely) be the Media!!! If we could shut down all media for one month except for weather reports and let everyone else do their job I bet we would see a change. The media sensationalizes everything that happens stirring the pot, fueling an already blazing fire.”

Check her Facebook page. You can see where she’s coming from, and the polarized tug of war among commenters. (My favorite comment on her post came from Mimi Johnson:  “If only we could get reporters to stop shooting people!”)

It’s enough to make a journalist trying her damnedest to make sense of a complicated, confounding world throw up her hands.

But I get it. CNN’s decision to hire Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who treated reporters with disrespect to the point of being arrested for battery, baffled me. Then the network put former congressman Joe Walsh on the air after he hate-tweeted that “Real America” would be coming after President Obama and Black Lives Matter marchers. Like, why? What constructive did he have to add? As it turned out, nothing.

When Gretchen Carlson sued Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, I thought, it’s about damn time. I don’t know anything about their relationship, but I watched “Fox & Friends” off and on when she was a cohost and the creepy sexual innuendo of her male cohosts oozed out of that set like slime.

Those incidents made me hate the media CNN & Fox right then.

Look, blaming the media is a time-honored tradition.

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Imagine what Jefferson would say if Twitter, TMZ and Facebook were around then.

But blaming the news media is the refuge of those who don’t want to take responsibility. Donald Trump’s views are well-known; he is rarely misinterpreted even when he takes multiple positions on the same issue. He simply doesn’t like CNN for reporting the contradictions in his words and actions. In the same way, the media didn’t misconstrue HB2; it reported sides of the issue Gov. McCrory didn’t like. Politicians are people whose words and actions — or inactions — can make a difference. Whining and blaming others are the responses of children. Yet, that’s what we’ve come to.

It’s easy to blame “the news media;” everyone does it. But the “news media” as a singular noun has more arms than Trump has supporters. (Yes,  everyone can publish.) The fact is, millions of us in the U.S. are “the news media” because we share news on social networks. And much of that which we share is personal and, often, politically biased and possibly wrong.

I’m not going to defend the traditional news media. I did that for 35 years. (In the good old days, the mantra was “They may hate us, but they read us.” Sadly, the first clause is truer than the second.) It doesn’t need me, and frankly, I think, the trust battle has been lost. We seem to be a society that doesn’t trust much of anything except our own opinions. People will get their news from wherever they wish, and they will make their own determination of whether they believe it. I don’t have any great idea to fix that, if it even needs fixing. It is partly the result of having so many choices and having so many outlets in which to publish, both of which I applaud. The best thing traditional news outlets can do is be open, transparent and fair. Newspapers and TV continue to do good, strong news reporting and investigative work, despite their occasional missteps.

I admit that I’m worried about the country full of people who distrust information that clashes with their worldviews, of people who won’t listen when their attitudes are challenged. (Yes, I’m guilty of that sometimes.) But I’m also confident that with so many voices making themselves heard the truth will out. It’s the optimist in me.

Sunday sampler

Many of the front pages were dominated by wire stories and local reaction stories in the aftermath of a week of race-related shootings.

Greensboro goes a step further, with a long, detailed story about officer-involved shootings in North Carolina and how transparent law enforcement is about them. It is pegged to the death of a Rockingham County man last month in which the sheriff has been as transparent as a bullet-proof vest. But given the events of the past week, it’s timely and telling.

Raleigh: Awaiting Gov. McCrory’s signature is a law that fixes tuition at UNC schools over the life of a four-year student’s education. The idea is to make college costs more predictable and affordable. It may make them predictable, but the evidence argues against affordable. “Delaney studied the effects of similar legislation in Illinois, the Truth-in-Tuition law, that went into effect in fall 2004. She found that, on average, since the law went into effect, the state’s 12 public institutions had increased annual tuition by approximately 26 percent to 30 percent more than schools not subject to the law.”

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article88708572.html#storylink=cpy

 

 

Sunday sampler

Asheville: Given the General Assembly’s practice of shoving unwanted policies down the throats of local government, you know I’m interested in how Asheville got out from under the bullying legislators’ thumb. The Citizen-Times explains how the local delegation beat back an effort by GOP leaders to change the way Asheville City Council members are elected. “But the death blow for the Asheville bill came when opponents turned the debate into a question of ethics and honor.” I wish Greensboro had been so fortunate. Unfortunately, many of our legislators didn’t have the backbone to break with the leadership.

Winston-Salem: Just yesterday a friend of mine wondered aloud why police body cameras videos aren’t automatically public. “If my tax money paid for them, I should be able to see them.” He was referring to this case. The General Assembly disagrees. So do some of the public officials in Winston. The Journal reports on a bill awaiting the governor’s signature. “The bill specifies that police video and audio recordings are not public records and sets limits on who may view or listen to them. To get a recording released to the public, someone would have to file an action in Superior Court asking for the release of the recording.”

Charlotte: The Observer tells the story of the largest mass killing in Charlotte’s history. It involved motorcycle gangs and the 40-year investigation that finally ended last year. I lived in Monroe and often visited Charlotte in the 1970s. I had forgotten about the motorcycle gang wars there. Mark Washburn’s compelling story reminded me. (I don’t know if this story is on the front page because I haven’t seen the front. But if it isn’t, it should have been.

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: The News & Record takes a familiar topic to political readers — the Trump effect on down-ballot races — and makes it new. The paper explains how the possible addition of three state constitutional amendments might turn out GOP voters (I doubt it.) and why the Clinton campaign is pouring money into the state.

And the paper returns to a topic that has always enraged readers: pets at the animal shelter. Enraged is probably the wrong word. Provoked is better. Animal lovers hate seeing prospective and former pets put to death or mistreated. Last year, the state revoked the license of the group running the shelter because of cases of animal cruelty. Now the shelter is run by the county government, which is trying to figure out how to do it.

Raleigh: Like clean water? Yeah, me, too. And that’s why the GOP legislature’s march to deregulate the environment should alarm you. They are trying to repeal rules to clean Jordan Lake and Falls Lake, which provide drinking water, and stream buffer protections. “This without a doubt will have a very large negative impact on water quality,” said Matt Starr, the Upper Neuse riverkeeper. “We are in the rare situation of being able to see the future. We know what will happen if we roll back these nutrient management strategies.”

The N&O also describes how you’re being duped if you think the state seafood festivals use locally caught seafood. (Mostly it’s our fault, too, because we like our seafood quick and cheap.)

Burlington: The problems of the VA are a local issue, affecting many veterans across the state. The Times-News tells the story of one Gulf War vet who is being screwed by the system. In a version of Catch-22, he can’t even get access to his own medical records. As a presidential candidate would say, “Sad!”

Sunday sampler

Happy Father’s Day. That message is recognition that many N.C. newspapers have stories about dad’s doing great things…you know, the things mom’s do every day. Go to the Newseum front pages site if you want to read those. Otherwise:

Asheville: The Citizen-Times is one of the best newspapers in the state, I think, and much of the credit goes to its editor, Josh Awtry. He’s been promoted, and Katie Wadington takes his place. Best of luck to her, and here’s to her continuing the hard-hitting news coverage.

Greensboro: How important is N.C. in the presidential election? Despite the efforts of those people we all sent to represent us in Raleigh, it’s still a purple state. The News & Record tracks the history and looks forward. “North Carolina is a make-or-break state, Bitzer said. ‘In the way that I read the electoral college map, there is no way that a Republican can win the White House without winning (North Carolina),’ he said. ‘If a Democrat wins, it’s merely icing on the cake.’”

Because Father’s Day stories dominate many front pages, there aren’t more stories listed here. Another reason is that fewer N.C. newspapers are posting their front pages on the Newseum site. No Gaston, Burlington, Shelby or Wilmington, for instance. When I visit their websites, it’s impossible to tell what stories their editors consider front page worthy.

 

Journalists, please break the mold

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I didn’t go to the Trump rally in my hometown last night. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to hear the Republican nominee in person; I did. But I didn’t want to be in the crowd. I didn’t want to hear my fellow citizens yell in all the wrong places and applaud at all the wrong things. I was a journalist for most of my life. Ilve had my fill of how mean and ugly people can be.

Some samples from last night’s rally:

You can read them all on Twitter here or, Storified here or Sexton’s piece in the New Republic here.

Devastating stuff.

Last week, I was thinking about writing a piece about the dangerous effect of self-publishing platforms like Twitter and Facebook. I was thinking specifically about Donald Trump’s Twitter presence and that he is the personification of the quote, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

Trump is running for president. His words have impact. They matter. With all the retweets — he has 9.09 followers — his tweets have circled the globe before Politifact and Snopes have turned on their laptops.

But I didn’t write that because I decided I was wrong. This is the cost of free speech. The ability to self-publish allows everyone to counter such bullshit.

That leads me to this question: Why did I read this tweet stream from a guy who isn’t from N.C. and isn’t a journalist, per se? His tweet stream was sure more compelling and told me more than anyone else’s I read. (Update: I should have made clear that were I still with the paper, I wouldn’t have tweeted all of what he did. Some were confusing, others were well into the area of political advocacy. But many seemed to be straightforward factual reporting. It is possible to report factually with a point of view.)

The rally in Greensboro was covered by dozens of professional journalists. I followed many of them on Twitter. But I didn’t get any sense of the atmosphere of the crowd and definitely didn’t read about the ugliness.

Oh, I know why. Trump is the story. Not everyone in the crowd acts that way. It’s too close to taking a position. People aren’t identified and we believe in IDing people. Sexton had a specific viewpoint he was going after; we don’t do that.

Got it. Been there, done that.

Here’s what I think. Do the Donald Trump speech story. Write it and tweet it. He has given a version of the speech he gave last night dozens of times in dozens of towns. He’ll do it again tomorrow. I won’t read it because I’ve read it before, but many people will.

But understand what’s happening to your media and your audience. Sexton delivered value because he told me what was happening in the crowd. He showed me the dark side of the Trump crowd that I occasionally see on TV, but he showed it in my hometown. In. My. Hometown. Someone else could have

And look, it’s an understatement to say I’m not a Trump supporter. But if a reporter had tweeted out mini-stories of people in the crowd not acting the fool, I’d have liked that, too.

You can be traditional and objective in the morning paper and evening broadcast, if you want. That’s probably what your older, dwindling audience wants. But if you want to be relevant live on social media, give people the new and the hard, uncensored truth. Deliver relevant, insightful news and commentary people haven’t seen or read before.

Opinion in tweets is more than OK; it is authentic. And it’s accepted — expected even — on social networks. Break the traditional mold. You’ve got nothing to lose.

Sunday sampler

Fayetteville: The Observer has a good story about the Army Reserve major accused of assault and threats in connection with the Hoke County mosque. It’s scary, really, how people with access to weapons and hate in their hearts and heads can terrorize innocents. The opening anecdote between Mohammed Khan, a retired Army chaplain, and the accused, Russ Langford: “During that time late Thursday afternoon in the parking lot of the Masjid Al-Madina, Khan listened to Russ Langford besmirch the Muslim people living in the United States and abroad. Langford brandished a handgun and told Khan he would kill him and bury him, pointing to a grassy area outside the Hoke County mosque.”

Greensboro: It’s hard to imagine why legislators are against alternative energy sources, but it seems that many in the General Assembly are, given their track record. The News & Record outlines yet another solar energy business being hurt by the lack of support in the legislature. As you might guess, it appears as if the big power companies are obstacles.

Raleigh: I hadn’t paid much attention to NC New Schools, and I’m glad the News & Observer has. NC New Schools provided college-level classes for high school students and got lots of money to do it. After great acclaim and expansion, it suddenly shut down in April and filed for bankruptcy. The leadership knew it was in financial trouble and continued spending anyway. “The bankruptcy filing shows that New Schools owes more than $950,000 to school districts and schools across the state, most of them rural and poor. Some of the owed money is for training the schools never received and some of it is to reimburse schools for positions that were paid for in advance.”

Why news websites suck

Update: Great discussion about this post on my Facebook page.

This was the home screen of the News & Record — my hometown newspaper — Sunday morning.

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For good measure, it includes a rollover ad that takes over the entire screen.

So, quick: What’s the big story of the day? I said, quick!

This is the second page of the home screen.

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It’s a mess. Who was served by this? A real estate company and the ad salesperson, of course. Anyone else?

The News & Record isn’t alone. Here is the Wilmington Star News Sunday home  page.

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I’ll grant you this makes money for the newspapers. Not a whole lot, but it is revenue. I used to work at the News & Record, and I still have friends there. I pray for the newspaper’s future for their sakes and for Greensboro’s. But this ain’t it. Selling your site to one advertiser, overwhelming and obscuring your news content, doesn’t serve your readership, your community or your credibility.

Rich media, flashing banners, pop-ups and rollovers all grab your attention the same way a carnival barker does, trying to get you into a peep show. But that’s not why most people go to a news site. People want pages that load quickly, are easy to navigate and help you find what you’re looking for. How do these do?

There are reasons that people have moved to social media to get their news, to using apps rather than web pages, to avoiding home pages altogether.

On Sunday, I posted a screen shot of the News & Record’s page on Twitter. Some of the responses:

I understand that building websites like these tend to be corporate decisions. In the case of the News & Record, BH Media Group owns the paper. Here is what its chairman and CEO, Warren Buffett, thinks, according to a column last month in USA Today.

“Warren Buffett is hardly a naif, and he bought up his newspapers with his eyes open. The ‘code’ that he likes to allude to involves figuring out how to make much more digital revenue, ‘blending the digital and print model,’ as Buffett puts it. What concerns Buffett is that ‘it’s three years later and we’re still figuring out a solution.’

“He adds, ‘I’ve got to see the answer. Wishful thinking won’t do a thing.'”

I agree with him about wishful thinking. Wishful thinking has contributed mightily to the downward slide newspapers are riding. Now, websites like the News & Record’s and the Star News’ are purposely ignoring what its users want. Newspapers have been down that road before, and they are still reaping the dire results.

In fairness, by Monday, the home page was cleaned up a bit…which simply means that Tate didn’t buy the entire page.

Here is this morning’s screen shot.

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For reference, here are the Sunday home pages of a few of the news sites that won 2015 Webby Awards.

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Sunday sampler

Raleigh: The N&O has two interesting stories on its front page. The first is a traditional piece marking Memorial Day. Traditional, because it tells the story of a Raleigh man who fought at Iwo Jima. Interesting, because his story is well-told and worth remembering this weekend.

The second story is also, sadly, traditional because it shows our inhumanity to people we incarcerate. In this case, the state’s practice of putting prisoners — particularly those suffering from mental illness — in solitary confinement is held up to the light. “Prolonged isolation is as clinically distressing as physical torture, according to one of the nation’s leading experts on the psychological effects of solitary confinement. ‘Psychological effects can include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia and psychosis,’ Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, wrote in 2010 in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.”

Winston-Salem: The Journal tells the story of proposed legislation that will likely – my opinion and others – hurt five state universities by requiring them to lower tuition. The bill’s sponsor says it is intended to make tuition affordable — at four historically black institutions — which it would do. But there is no guarantee that the money that runs the schools would be replaced after the first year. And given this legislature’s four-year attack on public education, it’s hard to believe this is a good bill.

Make way for the new journalists

Margaret Sullivan wrote her first column for the Washington Post the other day, and I agree with it. Take a moment to read it. She encourages college students to go into journalism because it’s fun and important, and they need to save it.

“I’m especially drawn to the need for journalism that is transparent, honest, aggressive and deep, using all the new tools and with a great sense of openness on how to present the work to an ever-more-digital audience.

“As for the question of just how imprudent you need to be to get into this radically transformed business, I’ll say this much: Given the challenges, what’s needed most are journalists — of every age — who are willing to help figure out the future with passion, smarts and integrity.”

Yet, among the obstacles in their path are owners, publishers and editors who persist on milking everything they can out of the old models without investing any of it toward figuring out the future.

Is your daily newspaper better today than it was five or 10 years ago? Is it spending any money developing new ways to serve customers in ways the customers want or need? Or are the managers holding on to the idea that people will come back or that paywalls are the answer?

If the purpose of journalism is “to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments,” then many newspapers – and their bosses – are failing.

Today, Poynter published what it suggests is a blueprint for reinventing legacy newsrooms. It’s a good list based on actions taken by a few innovative newspapers. The items on the list aren’t new, however. Most have been around for years in one form or another. I’m glad it’s out there, and I hope that newspaper leaders will embrace the learning others are doing.

What keeps newspapers from making more progress? People have too much to do with too many competing priorities, of course. But too often people within the organizations don’t want to change, even now after a decade of declining readership and revenue. You’ll note in the Poynter story, editors talk about journalists being uncomfortable with change and of “letting go” of old routines. And these are at cool places that are creating the future. Imagine what’s happening where essentially no effort is being made to do anything more than produce a newspaper delivered to people’s driveways.

Want to help invent journalism for tomorrow? Hire the smart, passionate journalists with integrity to take the places of those who are comfortable with today.