–The NYTimes’s redoubtable foreign correspondent John F. Burns is retiring. In an unusual note about personnel matters published in today’s paper, the Times gives Burns a fond salute.
With this article, John F. Burns concludes a distinguished career spanning 40 years with The New York Times, 39 of them with the international desk. Beginning with South Africa in 1976, Mr. Burns reported from 10 foreign bureaus and was chief of the Baghdad bureau during the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Along the way, he wrote more than 3,300 articles and collected two Pulitzer Prizes for International Reporting, one in Afghanistan and the other in Bosnia. His portrait of a cellist playing on Sarajevo’s main pedestrian concourse while artillery shells exploded nearby is considered a classic of modern journalism. He will continue to contribute to the international and sports desks, among others.
Also not to be missed: Burns’ last story was a colorful account of the re-burial of English King Richard III. At the end of his final piece, Burns closes with a “kicker” in the form of a quote — “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Not original, of course, but a nice touch.
–The Times flooded the zone in the East Village yesterday to cover the gas explosion and building collapse. By my count, there were 18 reporters and photographers involved (judging by bylines and photo credit lines), not to mention all the nameless
Victor J. Blue/NYT
editors. Among the team of metro reporters was Tatiana Schlossberg, whose role is featured in the Times’ “City Room” blog. Which is fitting, since she is the daughter of one prominent New Yorker (U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy) and the granddaughter of another prominent New Yorker (Jackie O).
–The gang at Vice Media, the unshaven new news organization, has found a big new platform for distributing its news reports: HBO. Plans call for a daily newscast from Shane Smith and his band of disruptors.
Raising the question: who is NOT a journalist these days?
Looking at the NYTimes Business section this morning, I cannot help but noticing how the Media beat has been hollowed out at the Times since the departure of Brian Stelter and the death of David Carr. I don’t know how to recover from those two losses, but it appears that, so far at least, the Times is not even trying. Today’s effort is very meh.
Speaking of the Times, here are a few odds and ends:
–The Public Editor agonized over the story about HIllary Clinton’s emails (which the Times broke last week). All of which makes me wonder: Who among us who toil away in big bureaucracies hasn’t tried to engineer a work-around to get out of the clutches of the IT Dept? If’s everyone’s nemesis.
I don’t use my university-issued desktop computer, because I assume they are recording everything and because I do not control what software goes on it or when to update. I do all my work on my personal laptop and my own cellphone. Besides, I’d like to know: did a Republican Secretary of State like Jim Baker use an official email account? Did Thomas Jefferson ever use backchannels? Hmmm… context please!
–The Times’ Bits blog has an item at the intersection of journalism and history — about the reaction to the 1934 Communication Act, which created the FCC. Turns out, Republicans didn’t like it much. One even saw it as an attempt to “Hitlerize” America’s media.
–What’s up with the full-page ad in the print version of the Times today by Al-Jazeera? A full-page, color ad can easily cost more than $100,000, so they must have a reason.
Elsewhere . . .
On the O’Reilly beat, don’t miss Brian Stelter’s latest Reliable Sources show.
Plus, there’s this item from TPM by O’Reilly’s biographer.
Then there is the mammoth takeout by Gabriel Sherman in New York mag about Brian Williams and the multiple car wrecks inside NBC.
Finally, let me wish good luck to Jim Braude, who takes over tonight on the Greater Boston show on WGBH-TV. Keep it real, Jim.
I’m still missing my friend and colleague David Carr, whose Media Equation column was usually my first citation in these blogposts. (I wonder what he’d be saying about Bill O’Reilly — and how much of that could get past the NYT copy desk.)
In my mind, one of the worst things O’Reilly has ever done was to say the following (which he has not disputed) to a NYTimes reporter who called him to get his side of the controversy, which is a fundamental principle of journalism:
‘I am coming after you with everything I have,’ Mr. O’Reilly said. ‘You can take it as a threat.’
Elsewhere in the NYTimes:
–Frank Bruni had a penetrating piece Sunday on the faults of the political press corps, especially the band of reporters who cover the presidential primaries. Having done a bit of that myself in 1987-88, 1992, and 1996, I can affirm that it’s not a pretty picture.
I agree with Bruni that the political press corps would do us all a favor if they would just stop covering Iowa and New Hampshire. That alone would elevate our national political life.
I would add this: most political reporters spend far too much time covering candidates and far too little time covering voters. Turn the lens around!
–Today’s Times brings news that the News Corp. is considering re-hiring Rebekah Brooks, the disgraced (but not convicted) former boss of Rupert Murdoch’s British empire. Raising the question (see O’Reilly above): If they like you, what does it take to get fired by the Murdoch/Ailes crew?
–On CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Brian Stelter continues to pull away from his predecessor by doing more reporting, by avoiding Washington-style bickering, and by providing a demonstration of good journalism in practice. To his credit, he has continued to report the O’Reilly story, not just milk it.
—The New Yorker is observing its 90th birthday, as only the brainchild of Harold Ross could. From the magazine’s troubled first year, here’s a piece titled “Why We Go to Cabarets: — an article that, according to a digressive story in the current issue by Sandy Frazier, saved the New Yorker‘s bacon by attracting the kind of young, fashionable readers that Ross was seeking. Fun fact: the 1925 Cabarets piece was written by Ellin Mackay, better known as Mrs. Irving Berlin.
Next up: I want to read the magazine’s story by A.J. Liebling about D-Day.
Much has been written about David Carr — as a writer, memoirist, editor, friend, mentor, reporter, and critic — and rightly so. He was a man of many parts.
I come to praise him for his last new venture: Professor.
When David died, he was the holder of an endowed chair in the Journalism Department at Boston University. There he was, inventing himself all over again. Far from the places in Washington and New York where he had made his bones, David was putting himself on the line to try something new.
And he was not just dabbling. He took it seriously, and from what he revealed, he was dead-serious about teaching. He saw teaching as another way to do most of the things he cared about — writing, thinking, criticizing, and nurturing this thing that we all care about so much.
David came to our attention early. Back in 2012, we were given a new chair in Journalism by a generous graduate of BU — Andrew Lack, a veteran news executive at NBC and Bloomberg. Andy wanted to use his donation to let us hire a professor who would be engaged in the big, noisy debate over the future of quality journalism. Specifically, he wanted to pay for a professor who thought a lot about the evolving economics of news.
Tom Fiedler, the dean who oversees BU’s Journalism Department, asked me to chair a committee to search for someone to fill the Lack Chair in Journalism and the Business of Media. (The others were profs. Bill McKeen, Anne Donohue, and Marshall Van Alstyne, along with Charlie Kravitz, general manager of BU’s NPR affiliate, WBUR.)
Almost from the get-go, David was on everyone’s wish list of people we hoped to attract. In fact, in an early meeting, Andy Lack, said he envisioned the position as one where the professor would be on David Carr’s speed dial for comment about the news business. It was a short step to think: why not David Carr himself?
A little while later, good news: Andy Lack had bumped into David Carr and mentioned the position to him, and he didn’t say no.
We were all very excited. He was at the top of our field, and he had more than 400,000 Twitter followers. What else could we want? But in academia, we have procedures that we must follow, and searches for new faculty come with more rules than the NFL. (Going back through my email, I can see 304 entries in a folder called “Lack Search”). We advertised for the spot, and we got in the low hundreds of inquiries.
But one got our attention: David Carr actually applied.
He wrote an amazing letter of intent (dated July 31, 2013). Here’s some of it:
Beyond my professional and educational experience, I’d like to suggest that my steady history of outperforming expectations in every job I have had makes me worthy of consideration. I’m a thinker, a journalist and a writer but I am also a worker, an earner, and a good colleague. I am reflexively loyal and ferociously represent the interests of the people and institutions with whom I affiliate.
While my teaching experience has been episodic, I have consistently given freely of what has been given to me by others who have shown me the way. I was taught that truth matters, fairness matters, excellence matters. Those values are relevant even as the skills required to prosecute journalism morph to meet a changing media landscape. . .
My intent is to establish a line of academic inquiry in class that is both participatory and observational. Whenever I spend time with students, I emphasize that they have to make things. The employment marketplace is far less interested in a prospect’s grade point average than what he or she has created, which historically been a clip from the college newspaper, but now takes many other forms. Since the students and I would be spending three hours together each week, I’d like to establish a parallel track of media creation and distribution. Apart from providing object lessons in using tools at hand to make things, the production and execution would give me criteria to evaluate and grade students’ understanding of the subject matter. . . .
In spite of my lack of a steady teaching position, I believe I have some relevant skills from my time as an editor and reporter. I took the liberty of attaching some letters of recommendation that I solicited and am proud of the fact that many mention a consistent history of finding and mentoring exceptional young minds.
Should you and the committee decide that I meet the expectations for the position, please know that I would work with the students, faculty and leadership to ensure that the college’s reputation for academic rigor and practical excellence only grows during what I hope would be a long and fruitful association. . .
I asked him: why teach?
He explained that in recent years, he had been asked many, many times to appear as a guest speaker in college classes. He accepted as many as he could, but it had begun to wear on him. He said there was a lot of travel time involved for a 45-minute appearance, and he wanted to improve the ratio of schlepping to speaking. Not only that, but he felt he was spreading himself too thin. He’d like to try his hand at developing a whole course and find out if he really had anything to say.
Besides, he said, he had worked as kind of a professor for much of his career — as an editor, he was famous as a spotter and developer of talent — and he had a genuine stake in the success of younger people he had brought along. David also submitted more than a dozen of the most amazing letters of recommendation I have ever seen — from colleagues, from younger journalists he had mentored — all over the moon.
Of course, we hired him.
As far as I know, he only presented one real demand: He insisted on keeping his column at the Times, which suited us just fine. He would commute to Boston on Mondays, teach that afternoon, then stay overnight and be on-campus for most of each Tuesday as well.
As soon as he was on board, I invited him to do a turn as a guest speaker in my beat-reporting class. It so happened that a student in that very class had just posted an item online that took off. He and a friend created a graphic that they called “Journalist guest speaker cliché bingo.” Each square had a cliché about journalism that they were already sick of. It was going to be a tough room for David. He never flinched. He went right at it:
And, of course, the students loved it.
David brought much to the classroom, but still he was nervous about his own first course. I offered him some practical advice and lots of encouragement, but he really invented himself as a professor. After a period in a cocoon, out popped this amazing, brightly colored new species. His firstsyllabus became an instant classic.
To begin with, we will look at the current media ecosystem: how content is conceived, made, made better, distributed, and paid for. We will discuss finding a story, research and reporting, content management systems, voice, multimedia packaging, along with distribution and marketing of work. If that sounds ambitious, keep in mind that in addition to picking this professor and grad assistant, we picked you. We already know you are smart, and we just want you to demonstrate that on the (web) page.
I grade based on where you start and where you end. Don’t work on me for a better grade — work on your work and making the work of those around you better. Show industriousness and seriousness and produce surpassing work if you want an exceptional grade.
This is an intense, once-a-week immersion on the waterfront of modern media-making. If you don’t show up for class, you will flounder. If you show up late or unprepared, you will stick out in unpleasant ways. If you aren’t putting effort into your work, I will suggest that you might be more comfortable elsewhere.
If you text or email during class, I will ignore you as you ignore me. It won’t go well.
I expect you to behave as an adult and will treat you like one. I don’t want to parent you — I want to teach you. . .
Students spend hours scrutinizing their professors, and they are pretty shrewd judges. David’s students came away knowing that they were lucky. They got the privilege of spending a whole semester with a brilliant man who really cared about them.
One of them, Claire Giangrave, wrote this in his memory:
He walked into the class shyly, his head bowed as it always was. He had prepared what he was going to say, as he would for every class, his fingers scrolling his notes on his red I Pad. I had waited to meet him for years and could not believe that he was teaching me. At first he wasn’t a great teacher, dispersive and chaotic. But he got better, he taught himself to be better, and when needed he asked his students for advice.
He wanted us to learn and to be good reporters. When the scandal regarding Bill Cosby and the alleged rapes emerged, David wrote a piece denouncing himself as one of the many enablers in the media that had kept it a secret for so long. He showed us how to be brave, how to speak our minds and keep our integrity as journalists.
Two more of Carr’s students, Megan Turchi and Justine Hofherr, also wrote about him this week. :
Carr took the time to meticulously edit our work, whether he did it from a plane, train, or his bed in New Jersey, which he described as surrounded by stacks of oldNew Yorkers and books authored by friends he meant to get around to reading. He just loved TV so much, he said. Carr always seemed honest to a fault.
It’s scary to be a young journalist. Many people tell you it’s a terrible field to get into. Carr always touted its importance and gave us hope, holding us to high standards and championing hard work. Carr’s professionalism in the field, eagerness to learn, and love for the Times were all reasons for us to do better.
David impressed his colleagues as well. I knew from the search process that there was a certain amount of skepticism on campus. In fact, David was a worker. He made it to classes, and he even made it to faculty meetings — a duty that a lot of veteran professors routinely blow off.
For anyone who knew David, none of this would come as any surprise. All his life, he outperformed. He understood in a deep way the essence of the internet: you get by giving.
Last time I heard from him was last weekend. He wanted to chat because he had pneumonia, and he was worried about having to miss class. He felt terrible about that, and he wanted to explore options: could he get a sub? Could he make it up later? What do professors do?
I tried to reassure him, and then he shot me an email the next day: he was feeling better, so never mind. He was going to soldier on.
Thanks to the New York Times for (finally) recognizing one of the truly great winter sports — pond hockey. Not the professional kind, played in a rink with endless body-checking and regular fistfights. I am talking about hockey played on a frozen pond, with no refs, no boards, no checking, and no fighting. To my way of thinking, playing on a pond distills the essence of hockey — a game of flow that emphasizes skating, stick-handling, and teamwork.
Here’s an essay I wrote a while back celebrating the joys of skating on New England’s ponds.
Let us note the passing of one of those people you never hear about who work behind the scenes to make sure the news keeps coming to you. Today’s Times brings news of the death of Sandy Socolow, the longtime CBS News exec who produced many of Walter Cronkite’s shining moments.
Mr. Socolow worked for CBS almost without interruption from the mid-1950s until 1988. He arrived as a writer for the morning news and shortly thereafter began working with Cronkite, first on a midday news program and later on “Eyewitness to History,” a series of news specials that evolved into a weekly prime-time half-hour that lasted until the “CBS Evening News,” with Cronkite in the anchor seat, expanded to 30 minutes, from 15, in 1963.
For several years Mr. Socolow was a co-producer of the “Evening News,” in charge of, among other things, Vietnam coverage; according to CBS, he was the New York segment producer of the shocking 1965 report by Morley Safer that showed American Marines setting fire to Cam Ne, a village near Da Nang, and that helped awaken Americans to the escalating calamity of the war. Mr. Socolow produced Cronkite’s coverage of the moon landing in 1969. In 1971 he hired the program’s first female producer, Linda Mason.
He became vice president, deputy news director and executive editor of CBS News in New York, and in 1972 was involved in one of the news division’s most controversial episodes. Less than two weeks before the presidential election, the “Evening News” broadcast Cronkite’s two-part summation of the unfolding Watergate story, largely following the reporting in The Washington Post by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
Sandy Socolow, second from left, with Walter Cronkite, left, in 1970. The two later worked together on coverage of the Watergate scandal. Credit Dan J. McCoy, Walter Cronkite Papers, UT Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History
From today’s business pages, more good news (if you hunt for it) for the country’s most important institution of journalism. In a report on its own financial performance, tucked demurely inside the Business report, the New York Times reveals two key fact:
1. Digital advertising revenue is up!
2. Paid digital subscribers are up!
In today’s story, you have to hunt to find the good news, buried under the usual gloomy headline about the NYTCo’s overall performance. The main headline is — as usual — that profits slipped a tiny bit, mainly because of the continuinginevitable endless decline in print advertising and a small downturn in the money coming in from people who pay for the print edition. So what?
If you read the details of the company’s 4th-quarter results, you can find lots of good news:
–Online advertising rose 19 percent in the 4th quarter. (Yes, that includes some gain from “native advertising,” but if that’s what it takes to float the Times‘ boat, so be it.)
–The number of people who pay to subscribe to the Times online rose soared from 760,000 a year earlier to 910,000 at the end of 2014. That’s an increase of 150,000 new, paying customers, or 20 percent!
When you look at that part of the business — which is, after all, the future — the Times looks very much like a going concern. In fact, the Times‘ executive in charge of the business side, Mark Thompson, stuck his neck out and predicted that the Times will reach the 1 million milestone in paid online readers sometime in 2015. Care to wager on what day that will happen?
I’ll put my money on Sept. 18. That’s the date in 1851 when the New-York Daily Times was first published, saying about itself:
“. . . we intend to issue it every morning . . . for an indefinite number of years to come.”
And, for perspective, here is the 10-year chart of the NYTCO’s stock performance. Two things strike me. It’s hard not to notice that the stock plummeted in the Great Recession and that the Times is now up off the mat and fighting back. I now wish I had had the courage to buy some in 2009 — I could have doubled my money!
[P.S. IMHO, the existential goal of the Times should be this: find enough digital revenue to pay for the cost of running the newsroom. Everything else is a distraction.]