How did I miss the future?

Since I posted this one-year anniversary thought, several people have asked me why I wasn’t more aware of what I was missing, including Mindy McAdams, Bill Densmore and Anthony Moor, suggesting that my post was incomplete.

Quite so.

Here are some of the reasons I ended up working on the wrong things too often. (If you’re rushed, skip to the last one):

* Space must be filled. When staffs were larger, this wasn’t as pressing. But now that so many newspapers have half the number of reporters they did five years ago, editors have lowered the bar on what’s “news.”  You can — at least I did — get hypnotized by the need to come up with enough good story ideas to fill the paper. As every journalist knows, some days are better than other. And that’s why newspapers publish monthly unemployment number stories and weather stories and small-bore crime stories. You’ve got to fill the white space, and your imagination gets tired.

* As a corollary, I had less time to think. Mathematically, fewer reporters would mean fewer stories. Yet journalists tend to see stories and want to bring them to readers. We’re pesky that way. Consequently, reporters to juggle more stories and report them faster. They are working longer hours, doing more. Time is precious and spending it thinking, or chasing an in-depth investigative article was often tough to come by. When I became an editor I swore I would never comment on reporter productivity. In the last five years, I broke that vow more often that Lindsay Lohan’s been tabloid fodder.

* The beat structure encourages complacency. Beat reporters always have something to do — a meeting to cover, a story to follow, a news release to write. They often deal with the same sources day-in and day-out. We make fun of the inside-the-beltway journalism club — what Jay Rosen calls “the church of the savvy” — but many reporters outside the beltway have a similar membership in their own communities. I know. I was one as a reporter and continued as an editor. (I watched city council meetings on television!) It’s tough to break out.

* The bureaucracy sucks the life out of any good editor. It did me. You want to focus on doing great journalism, but you find yourself sinking into a morass of budgets, meetings, demands from publishers and other departments, technological problems and equipment that doesn’t work. Have you ever tried to tie your shoe when you were running? Too many days, I went home with the sense that I contributed nothing of value to journalism.

But here’s the biggest one: I was deluded. I thought I was doing it right — working on big ideas and compelling stories and listening to readers and planning for the future. And I was. But like the fable — and it’s just a fable — of the boiling frog, I was used to what I was used to. And I was moving at the speed of dial-up when the world was on  broadband. Even though I read the smart people, I fell behind and hardly even knew it.

There may be other reasons. Complacency, however, wasn’t one of them. I never felt as if we were in decent shape, that we could rest, that we had reached our destination. Instead, I was like a kid running around with my arms outstretched thinking I was an airplane.

I’m not unique among newsroom managers. Most newsrooms are led by creative, resourceful people. But when you’re running as fast as you can, it is easy to get into a rhythm — runners know this — and forget to pay attention to other things. The best thing editors can do is ask for help — from their staffs, from their publishers and from the public.

I am positive about one thing: Had I organized monthly meetings with the public to hear how we could serve them better, it would have improved our journalism, and I would have been a better steward of their newspaper.

P.S. As I reread this, it sounds like a hand-wringing mea culpa. It’s not intended that way, and were I a cleverer writer, I’d fix that. It’s intended simply to answer the question, “Why did it take you so long to figure out what you were missing?”

Revisiting the View from Nowhere

Back in the day, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was known as the “most trusted man in America.” It was the highest praise a journalist could get because, at its core, the relationship between a journalist and his or her audience is nothing without trust.

A friend of mine in the TV news business told me the other day that the emphasis has shifted. Now it is more important for viewers to like the announcer than to trust him or her. That’s one reason that anchors in local news seem so darned friendly and nice. (Another reason is that they are friendly and nice.)

Aren’t the trust and likability two sides of the same coin? If you like someone, doesn’t that lead to trusting him? No. I like Bill Clinton but don’t trust him. I like Bill O’Reilly, but don’t trust him, either. When I was in college, I liked a lot of people who were entertaining and fun to be around. But I only trusted a few.

For most of the time I was editor of a newspaper, we emphasized trustworthiness. We asked questions about it on annual surveys. We created action plans to improve our trust ratings. It was a big deal. Being liked? Being liked wasn’t important. When you’re writing about topics that made some readers uncomfortable — same-sex marriage, to take a recent example — likability wasn’t in the cards. Did Woodward and Bernstein worry about being liked when the Republic was at stake? (Remember the look on Bernstein’s face in the movie “All the President’s Men” when Woodward told a source that he was a Republican?) Anyway, how can you worry about being liked when you take it as a creed to afflict the comfortable?

That’s one reason why I clung to the “View from Nowhere.” My thought, along with many traditionalists, was that if we’re straight down the middle, then readers couldn’t fault us for being unfair. (That didn’t work, of course. Many readers did accuse us of being biased.) It was easier, too, in many ways.

But if you believe that viewers — and presumably readers — prefer journalists they like, then perhaps it’s time to drop the View from Nowhere. Perhaps it’s time for the journalists to establish their authority in a different way. Letting people know where you stand may well make them like you and, eventually, trust you. From Jay Rosen, the NYU professor who champions challenging the journalistic View from Nowhere:  “If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.”

It is too late for me, dammit, to challenge the View from Nowhere in a newsroom. But it’s not too late for you to experiment with it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either.

Jay, again: “Let some in the press continue on with the mask of impartiality, which has advantages for cultivating sources and soothing advertisers. Let others experiment with transparency as the basis for trust. When you click on their by-line it takes you to a disclosure page where there is a bio, a kind of mission statement, and a creative attempt to say: here’s where I’m coming from (one example) along with campaign contributions, any affiliations or memberships, and–I’m just speculating now–a list of heroes and villains, or major influences, along with an archive of the work, plus anything else that might assist the user in placing this person on the user’s mattering map.”

Lex Alexander proposed this approach years ago, and I didn’t pay him much attention. (Sorry, Lex, for my short-sightedness.) But you can be smarter than I was. Besides, given the media’s low trust rating and newspapers’ declining circulation nunbers, what do you have to lose?

Am I making too much of a leap that crashing the View from Nowhere will improve likability and then lead to increased trust? I don’t think so. Try this experiment: Google “most trusted man in America.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.

If your filter bubble is like mine, Cronkite’s name comes up on five of the first 10 links. Jon Stewart, a funny, likable faux newsman, a guy who explodes the View from Nowhere, comes up with four.

And that’s the way it is.

Quit screwing around; to regain trust, it’s time to change

Craig Newmark’s survey on the credibility of various news sources is simply the latest that shows the public doesn’t have much trust in mainstream media. Not much trust in any of the mainstreamers: newspapers, TV, radio or news websites. (Yep, news websites are mainstream now.)

The survey shows that only 22 percent of respondents say that newspapers are “very credible” in reporting on politics. And that’s the top rating. Cable and network news get 21 percent, and talk radio and Internet news sites each register 13 percent.

For years, traditional news organizations have marketed themselves as trustworthy. It’s time to acknowledge that most people aren’t buying it. That bond of trust may be irrevocably broken.

So, how about we try something different? What if mainstream media covered politics differently, focusing less on the horse race and more on the issues? What if television rambled on less about, say, the Catholic Church’s fight with the Obama administration over contraception insurance and delved deeper into health insurance, period? What if the time spent dissecting who made what gaffe after each GOP debate — and forcing viewers to listen to the candidate’s handler explain what he really meant — was actually spent talking about Romney’s time at Bain, Santorum’s voting record in the Senate or Paul’s record in the House?

What if the reporters actually had the freedom to call BS when candidates or campaigns parsed the truth? (Here’s an attempt.) What if they followed the Daily Show model in covering the hypocrisy of some political candidates and government policies (without the humor, presumably)? What if television actually gave more than a soundbite and didn’t let candidates off the hook? Watch the morning news programs and it’s either he-said, she-said journalism, or the reporter asks a question, the candidate doesn’t answer, and the reporter moves to another question that the candidate doesn’t answer. In the end, the viewer gets little sustenance.

One of the common assumptions is that the public doesn’t like the sausage-making process that hard-nosed reporting is. They think it’s intrusive and rude, and it often is. Good interviewing often makes people uncomfortable because the reporter is trying to pull the truth together and match facts with what’s being said. It does get ugly. But I think the general public wants to see reporters who are independent and boldly seeking to get answers to the questions the public has. (And that isn’t which GOP candidate is leading in the polls today or an embarrassing video of Romney singing “God Bless America.”)

It’s also transparent, and transparency builds trust. (Think it doesn’t? Think of how you feel when a news exec declines to talk about something going on at his shop? Or think about your reaction when you hear a news exec who has announced layoffs say, “it won’t impact our news coverage.”)

Case in point: Jay Rosen and NYU Studio 20 took a look at the questions posed to the GOP candidates at all of the 20 debates and asked if it reflected the “citizens agenda.” (113 questions were asked about campaign strategies and negative ads!) Rosen suggested that last night’s debate viewers pose their own questions on Twitter with the hashtag #unasked. As Jay tweeted afterward, “Number of questions tonight about science: zero. Technology: zero. Climate change: zero. Small business: zero.”

There is a reason that the trust bond is broken between the public and the news media. It’s us.

“Life is not an audition, and neither is our work”

In the comments of this post, Jay Rosen asked: A related factor is: what is the style of reporting you want to be doing if you are just passing through on your way to some place more cosmopolitan?  If you see your performance in Anytown, USA as an extended audition for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune or the Washington Post, then you will try to do Inquirer journalism in Greensboro. But maybe that’s not what Greensboro needs. In any case, you can see how this could lead to homogenization.

It interested me because I think it based on an outdated premise. Fifteen years ago, yes. Reporters — all journalists — who were ambitious and wanted to work at large papers set their sights high. But in the past five years, at least, most of the reporters leaving Greensboro — and I think the other medium-sized newspapers in North Carolina — are leaving the business entirely. You all know the reasons why.

One of them is that jobs at large papers have dried up. And in a real sense, it’s not safe to aspire to work at the largest papers in the country. The Chicago Tribune? The Philadelphia Inquirer? The L.A. Times? They’re all laying off people, or are taking dubious journalistic steps, or are struggling mightily. And if you do get on at one of the large papers, you’ve hung a big target on your back. Reporter FIFO.

Mid-size papers prize large J journalism and small j journalism. They want the same stories that the Washington Post wants, and the same ones that the community weekly wants. What they don’t want — or shouldn’t want, to be more precise — are the stories that everyone else is doing. In days gone by, reporters in Greensboro wanted to go on the presidential political campaign trail, wanted to go to Iraq during the war, wanted to go to the NCAA Final Four even if a local team wasn’t playing, and wanted to travel to Augusta during Masters week. We sent them, too. (Well, not to Iraq.) We sent them because it was fun to compete with the big dogs and it was a reward for the reporter. And no question, in some cases the reporters wanted to go because it made for good clips for their next career stop. I’m sure that some reporters who wanted to move to big-city papers did swing for the fences every time they came up when they should have been hitting singles, doubles and hit-and-runs.

But those were the old days when there were more reporters and more money. Did the readers care that a local reporter was in Augusta or Des Moines reporting a national story? Not that I’ve ever been told. But those were the days when we didn’t think we had to worry about “our” newspaper becoming “the” newspaper to readers. We were ignorant and prideful, no question.

But what do I know? I asked Jay’s question of a couple reporters at the News & Record who are top drawer, ambitious and certainly qualified to move to larger papers. Their answers are what you might expect them to say. But I know them well enough to know they aren’t blowing smoke.

From Mark Binker, who has covered the state capital for the News & Record for a long time:

So what Rosen is really asking is that if I, as someone who is entrusted with the job of covering state government and politics for the News & Record, would be doing something differently if my ultimate career ambition is to be at a bigger paper. 

The answer is no. The further answer is my editors should fire my ass posthaste if the answer were yes. Why would I want to be the kind of person (or employ the kind of person) who sacrifices the broader good for my personal goals?

I do the job I do because as far as I can figure it’s the right way to do it. Yeah, I do some goofy and lighthearted stuff. That’s my byline on a weather story in today’s paper….

But I also have been involved in helping to show the odd public official the way out of office. People in my readership, including some of those involved, learned about the state legislature redrawing county commissioner lines on the sly from my reporting. I’ve tracked down the governor to ask her what the heck she meant by “suspending elections.”

Further, who else other than my colleagues Joe (Killian) and Amanda (Lehmert) are watching the Guilford County and Greensboro City governments with a dogged an impartial eye? Are you telling me the work that Taft (Wireback) has done bird-dogging scandals and transportation issues isn’t of value to everyone in our community, not just those who happen to take the paper?

In short, our work here is an important and impactful as if it would be if I were doing it for a big city paper. In fact, the job of state house reporters in general and local newspapers like the N+R is all the more important because there are fewer of us doing it. Everybody is covering the presidential race and the machinations in Congress, but hardly anyone pays attention to the state political scene where decisions much closer to the quick are made.

So no, we do what we do because it’s important, because this is where we want to be, at least for the moment. Life is not an audition, and neither is our work.

Joe Killian, who covers county government:

I think a demonstrable ability to do really good news features may more marketable than really good beat reporting. To write a great news feature you have to get into the subjects’ lives, get things out of them they may never have said to other people (or anyone at all) and you have to be able to craft a good story with what you get.

Those are all things you have to be able to do as a beat reporter, too. But some of the work that it takes to be a good beat reporter – developing relationships with people who may never end up in your stories, but will still be invaluable to finding and getting your stories – is very hard to demonstrate to a potential employer through clips. If you’re a good beat reporter it should look like big stories – Mark Binker’s pieces about the ABC board, for instance, or my revelation that Guilford County paid $47,000 for a website that was never finished and getting the first interview with the guy they hired – just came out of nowhere and you were there to write them. No one sees – and it can be difficult to shine a light on – the hard work it takes to build a network of people who trust you and respect your work, and therefore will feed you information or have conversations with you in which they might not even knowthey’ve given you a killer story idea.

I asked Jeri Rowe what he thought about this, though. As a former beat reporter turned feature writer turned award winning columnist, he said he thinks demonstrating versatility is important. He said you need to have a grounding in beat reporting, demonstrate you can really write through good features and alsoshow them you can do multimedia/web journalism.

Couldn’t agree more with him on the multimedia thing — although as resources grow more slim most young reporters are probably going to have to do that on their own time and their own resources (including social media, which doesn’t cost their newsrooms anything).

Although he points out, and I agree, that going somewhere bigger isn’t necessarily the answer if your goal is to do stories about which you’re passionate and to make a difference in your community. That’s about finding the right fit, whatever the size of your publication or audience.

Personally, my advice to reporters looking to “move up” has been simple.

* Learn everything you can about digital. Make sure your digital footprint is large — blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. Show you have skills. Link out on your blog. Curate on Facebook. Be smart on Twitter.

* Write every type of story you can. No experience is a bad experience. Who knows what will catch another editor’s eye. I came to the News & Record to interview for a reporting job. It wasn’t until I got home that they called and offered an editing job.

* Attitude is vital. The HR people cringe when I said it, but my whole role in the interview process was to judge organizational fit. I wanted someone who could do every type of reporting and writing and would be happy doing it. I wanted someone who was a lifelong learner. And I wanted someone who was open-minded to try stuff, even if it didn’t make a lot of sense.

A death in the family: How “our newspaper” became “the newspaper”

We like it when you refer to the News & Record as “our newspaper.” We want the paper to represent you and reflect your values.

That was how I started a column back in 2009. But in my mind, I knew I was speaking to a lost generation. The idea of “our newspaper” — suggesting a sense of ownership, a partnership, endearment even — is mostly a relic. Oh, in the days of “Yes, Virginia” and the New York Sun — “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” — the local newspaper was a part of the family. In fact, the News & Record still gets letters referring to “my newspaper” and “our newspaper.” But now, more often, the personal pronoun is replaced with the article “the.” (And occasionally followed by “the” and an expletive.)

Yesterday, when I wrote of my continued personal connection with the newspaper, Jay Rosen suggested my next post: on: “Now if we could only figure out when (for the readers) “our newspaper” became “the” newspaper… When and how… Exactly how.”

It would be easy to say that the sense of community of Facebook and Twitter has displaced that of the daily newspaper, but the erosion of the paper’s stranglehold on “our” began long before that. It began with television news in the 60s and 70s. Newscasters were “real,” cute, and seemed nice and friendly. They chatted with you and their colleagues. You felt you knew them in the same way that you just know that, say, Sandra Bullock or Reese Witherspoon are nice based on their movie roles. People started having choices of where, how and when they got their news. They began abandoning their papers.

And newspapers began abandoning them. In the 80s, afternoon newspapers began dying. The sense of allegiance to the afternoon paper didn’t transfer to the morning paper. When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to L.A., did Dodger fans become Yankee fans? Not on your life. Where there was competition, there was now consolidation. Fewer papers were owned by someone who lived in town. Editors and publishers came from corporate. Reporters came from out of town.

The erosion continued.

It wasn’t all external forces. Newspapers hurt themselves. They began charging for obituaries. (The paper wants to make money from a death in my family? Who does that? Not a friend) Newspapers developed attitude. Snark was in; folksy was out. People called to do business with the paper and heard this: “Your call is very important to us. Please hold for the next customer service representative.” That’s not how you talk to family.

And even though circulation penetration was slipping, profits were higher than ever.  Newspapers got arrogant and couldn’t see or wouldn’t see what was going on around them. What, me worry?

Society became more transient. Fewer adults lived in the communities in which they were reared, and they didn’t have the same link with the local newspaper. Tie that in with the “bowling alone” phenomenon, and community connections were severing everywhere. At about the same time, the nation began dividing itself into Tim Russert’s red states and blue states. People became alienated by newspapers with strong editorial stances — liberal or conservative. (It wasn’t helped by FoxNews’ constant refrain that newspapers were liberally biased.) For instance, the News & Record’s editorial board tends to support Democrats. Voters in the city of Greensboro do, too. But outside of Greensboro, where the newspaper has sizable circulation, the populace is much more conservative. People were bound to feel as if the paper wasn’t theirs, wasn’t “of” them and certainly wasn’t “for” them. I believe that’s true of most newspapers that circulate in a large area. (I know it is of the four largest papers in North Carolina.)

Meanwhile, journalists, having helped take down a president, rediscovered their investigative gene, which was good and proper. Unfortunately, in many cases, the emphasis on watchdog journalism displaced the community content. Neighborhood  news — that feel-good steak-and-potatoes meal that newspapers lived on for much of their history — became the equivalent of brussels sprouts, relegated to inside pages and special zoned sections. Papers wrote about bad government, but weren’t telling me what my neighbors were doing or who had been promoted or what the house down the street sold for.

The internet sealed the deal. More choices of information, of connection and of community. It became “our newspaper.” My Facebook friends and Twitter followers are communities that feel as strong as my physical community. They are friends and they’re fun, and their engagement is safe. Compare comments on Facebook with those on the typical newspaper site.

Fifteen years ago, the News & Record hired a consultant to test people’s emotional response to the newspaper. He came back with this conclusion: The plurality of your readers is that they “love to hate you.” We were aghast. We tried a number of strategies to change that feeling. I don’t know that any worked — we never had the consultant back — but I doubt they did. The clock was not to be turned back.

But that’s OK. No sense in mourning something something that’s history anyway. Newspapers — new organizations, actually — can take many steps to make people feel a sense of ownership and partnership in their journalism. Some are already doing it. But that’s another post.

Tuesday update: Jack Lail joins in at his blog in Knoxville.

The view from nowhere on the obituary page

Most news obituaries are pretty straight forward. Person dies, what made him noteworthy, bio information, telling positive quotes from a friend or relative, more bio info, survivors and funeral information.

Negative information is downplayed, if mentioned at all. Editors prefer not to speak ill of the dead. It’s unseemly and unnecessary. I know because I said the same things to my staff. The dead can’t defend themselves and the living don’t need all the bad stuff rehashed.

This week’s news obituaries are a case in point.

The Associated Press obituary of Vaclav Havel is glowing, as it should be. In the Associated Press obituary of Kim Jong Il, it took 26 paragraphs before the writer addressed the dictator’s brutality. And the “axis of evil” reference didn’t appear until the 28th paragraph. “U.S. President George W. Bush, taking office in 2002, denounced North Korea as a member of an “axis of evil” that also included Iran and Iraq. He later described Kim as a “tyrant” who starved his people so he could build nuclear weapons.

Then there is the AP obit of Christopher Hitchens. It seems to sprinkle the good with the bad in a balanced way. Eloquent and intemperate, bawdy and urbane, he was an acknowledged contrarian and contradiction — half-Christian, half-Jewish and fully non-believing; a native of England who settled in America; a former Trotskyite who backed the Iraq war and supported George W. Bush. But his passions remained constant and enemies of his youth, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa, remained hated.

People said nice things about him, in the dispatch sent by the AP. His longtime co-worker Katha Pollitt wasn’t quoted. She takes him apart for his drinking, his bullying and his views on women and women’s issues, and his lack of self-examination. Compare it with Kathy Parker’s tribute. Could be two different people.

I suppose that’s normal. People are complicated, much more than straight-forward obituaries let on. That complication argues for writing with more texture and from a stronger point of view. Writing from a point of view makes newspaper editors — myself included — uncomfortable. It is what Jay Rosen calls “The view from nowhere.” It’s a knotty issue for traditional journalists like me to think through. And I’m still working on it.

But if we’re trying to get to the core of an issue or a person — as in the obits above — then the view from nowhere often gets in the way of the truth.