Category Archives: journalism history

Inside the meme factory: The Clintons figured this out long ago

By Christopher B. Daly

When Hilary Clinton complained back in 1995 of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” trying to bring down her husband, she was not wrong. In fact, she and her husband’s political advisers were onto something: the interlocking network of conservative institutions set up since WWII to American politics to the right. As the Clintons realized, the right-wing think tanks and the right-wing media were mutually supportive in their campaign to concoct conservative political themes and inject them into the mainstream media. (Whether this system qualifies as a “consipracy” is a fine point, but Hilary was right to be paranoid: people were out to get her.)

A new batch of disclosures from the Clinton presidential library lay out the Clintons’ grasp of this phenomenon, circa 1995. They rightly identified Richard Mellon Scaife as a major source of funding for both conservative think tanks and media.

Scroll down past the heading sheets for a fascinating glimpse inside this usually hidden world.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 9.01.39 AM

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NY Times tiptoes closer to the F-word. Oh, my!

By Christopher B. Daly 

The New York Times has a very uncharacteristic Op-Ed column today by lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower arguing that the Times should get in step with the rest of society and start printing a word we all know that begins with “f” and ends with “uck” (and it’s not firetruck!).

O tempora, o mores!

When Adolph Ochs bought the New York Times in 1896, he had high aims. The patriarch of the family that still owns the newspaper — and still sets its editorial direction — wanted above all else to appeal to an

A young Adolph Ochs is noted in the trade press.

A young Adolph Ochs is noted in the trade press.

elite audience. His business model was predicated on the idea that he could survive in the crowded New York City market with a smaller audience than the vast audience of workers, tradesmen, and immigrants that Pulitzer and Hearst were catering to, provided that the Times’s readers were wealthier, which would make them more attractive to advertisers. So, he set out to distinguish his paper from the popular “yellow press” papers of Hearst and Pulitzer, which dripped gore and sex. They were read by chambermaids and stevedores, and Ochs wanted no part of them. He was aiming for the upper classes, and he presumed that they preferred a more-decorous approach.

So, in addition to his famous motto “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” he also spelled out his credo in a statement to his readers. He promised that the Times would not “soil the breakfast cloth” — meaning that families could bring his paper to the breakfast table (which would have a table cloth, because Times readers could afford them) and not have to worry that it would besmirch the conversation or corrupt the children. In fact, Ochs declared his intention that the Times would deliver the news “in language that is parliamentary in good society.”

Thus, it would appear that proper language is part of the paper’s DNA, and the Times has certainly been culturally conservative in the sense that it has been reluctant to depart from the late-Victorian standards of propriety and vulgarity laid down by the current publisher’s great-grandfather.

Of course, it is a fair question to ask how many families gather around the breakfast table sharing the print edition of the Times and how many families are succeeding in preventing their children from learning the f-word.

Pretty fucking few, I’d bet.

 

 

 

 

 

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What if traffic metrics had been used throughout journalism’s history?

By Christopher B. Daly 

That’s a question that came to mind today while reading David Carr’s latest. In his column, Carr identifies a trend (at least, a trend by journalism standards) of news organizations paying their contributors based on how much traffic their individual “stories” garner. If an item is really popular and brings a lot of eyeballs to the site, the “writer” of the piece earns more money. Conversely, if you write pieces that hardly anyone look at, you get paid less — or nothing.

It all sounds simple and fair and transparent and populist. (This approach puts the “piece” in piecework with a vengeance.)

Only it’s not. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account that journalism has other values besides popularity. Yes, we want readers/viewers, and we want as many as we can get. But we also want to serve our society by occasionally embarking on stories that are so expensive to investigate that they will never pay back any return on the investment of resources put into them. Or, we sometimes work on stories that matter intensely to a small group of people. And, from time to time, we run stories that turn just about everyone off but still make the world a slightly better place.

Let’s consider how a “metrics model” would have served journalism (and the world) over the last couple of centuries.

–The first story about sexual abuse by Catholic priests was hardly a candidate for “most-read” and yet it began a tidal wave of reporting that ultimately rocked the Vatican.

–The first Watergate story (the one with Al Lewis’ byline, on June 18, 1972) had only a tiny fraction of wapo-front_18june1972the readership that the “last” Watergate story 26 months later (the one with the headline “Nixon Resigns” on Aug. 9, 1974)

–Then there was Sy Hersh’s original story about Lt. William Calley and the massacre at My Lai.

One takeaway from those historical cases: some stories need time to build.

–Or what about the columnist Westbrook Pegler? Incredibly popular, but a crackpot who was wrong about everything. His metrics would have crushed the likes of Walter Lippmann (in terms of actual readers, not just people who said they read Lippmann.)

–The first-day stories about the Gettysburg Address barely mentioned Lincoln’s little speech, because (by the lights of the day) it was considered dull and inconsequential compared to the stem-winder of a speech given by the day’s main speaker, Edward Everett. (Who?)

–For a few weeks in 1835, the New York Sun had a wildly popular (and exclusive) story about life on the moon. The paper really racked up eyeballs — until the story was revealed as a hoax. Oh, well. It sure sold papers.

–Or, how about the summer and early fall of 2001? The media were in full cry to “prove” that

Egregious illustration of Chandra Levy.

Egregious illustration of Chandra Levy.

the disappearance of a missing Washington intern, Chandra Levy, was somehow connected to married congressman Gary Condit. (Who remembers them now?) You could look it up: this was a huge story for months in 2001, right up until 9/11. Anyone want to go back there?

Just as some stories need time to develop, some writers need time to develop.

What was Samuel Clemens’ first story, for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada? If he had not been given time to develop as a writer, he would have ended up as the funniest steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, but there’d be no Innocents Abroad (his first big success), not to mention no Huckleberry Finn. What about the first news stories ever written by Ernest Hemingway? Is there a new Martha Gellhorn or Joan Didion chasing clicks today at Gawker?

If we only work on stories that are popular, we might soon become so popular that we won’t matter any more.

The original moonbats.  New York Sun, 1835

The original moonbats.
New York Sun, 1835

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Time Life magazines move downtown

By Christopher B. Daly

I guess the party’s really over. Time Inc., the once phenomenally profitable publishing empire founded by Henry Luce (and Briton Hadden) in 1923, is considering a move out of its landmark skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. According to today’s NYTimes, Time Inc., the company that publishes TIME, SI, People and many other magazines, is heading downtown — way downtown, to 225 Liberty St., a building just west of the site of the new Liberty Tower and the memorials to the fallen Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

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In its heyday, of course, Time Inc. was a powerhouse of profit, prestige, and political heft, as I wrote about in my book Covering America. After outgrowing its space in the original Rockefeller Center, Time Inc. was offered its own building across 6th Avenue. In 1959, Rockefeller Center expanded to the west side of the avenue with a building erected just for Time Inc., known as the Time & Life Building, at 1271 6th Ave. Here’s a version by Dan Okrent, from his book Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. (Fun Fact: Dan was hired by Time Inc. in the 1990s to bring the company’s portfolio of magazines online, but that’s another story.)

What [architect Wallace Harrison] did deserve credit for was what Vincent Scully called the “incoherent splatter of skyscrapers” marching down the west side of Sixth Avenue. This western expansion of Rockefeller Center began with Harrison’s new Time & Life Building in 1959 and degenerated from there, a row of marble megaliths that seemed informed less by the doctrines of the International Style than by some for of totalitarian nightmare. . .(427)

One of Time Inc.’s neighbors in recent years has been News Corp, which occupies its own totalitarian megalith just south of the Time & Life Building. Other neighbors: NBC, CBS, CNN, and (until a few years ago) The AP.

I wonder who will be next to bail out from midtown?

Time & Life Building Photo by Richard Drew/AP

Time & Life Building
Photo by Richard Drew/AP

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Bloomberg News in China: Pulling punches?

By Christopher B. Daly 

The company known as Bloomberg — founded by Medford native and, oh, yeah, former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg — is really several companies. The one that made Mr. Bloomberg a billionaire is one that makes and sells proprietary terminals that big-time investors use to trade stocks. Mr. Bloomberg also runs a news service that originally just covered business but in recent years has ventured further and further afield until it has emerged as something like a full-service news agency along the lines of the AP or Reuters.

Trouble is, Bloomberg News is a comparatively small part of Bloomberg’s overall business. And when covering news jeopardizes the company’s other interests — by, for example, pissing off the leaders of China — then Bloomberg corporate executives will step in and protect the core business, at the expense of the journalism.

That appears to be just what happened this week, when Bloomberg corporate chairman, Peter T. Grauer, discussed China.

“We have about 50 journalists in the market, primarily writing stories about the local business and economic environment,” Mr. Grauer said in response to questions after a speech at the Asia Society. “You’re all aware that every once in a while we wander a little bit away from that and write stories that we probably may have kind of rethought — should have rethought.”

Translation from corporate-speak: We are not a real news organization that wants to tell the truth no matter what and let the chips fall where they may. Bloomberg wants the chips to fall in his pocket. It’s his company, and he can do as he likes. But no one should be under any illusions.

If a story is true and interesting and you withhold it, you are engaging in self-censorship. If you really are in the news business, that approach, over the long run, is bad for business.

 

 

 

 

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez: What he learned from journalism

By Christopher B. Daly 

Happy birthday to Gabriel Jose de la Concordia Garcia Marquez!images

The Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist turns 87 today.

Here’s a quotation that puts his career in perspective:

“I’ve always been convinced that my true profession is that of journalist.”

“I learned a lot from James Joyce and Erskine Caldwell and of course from Hemingway … [but the] tricks you need to transform something which appears fantastic, unbelievable, into something plausible, credible, those I learned from journalism. The key is to tell it straight. It is done by reporters and by country folk.”

He worked for a newspaper in Bogotá for many years, writing at least three stories a week, as well as movie reviews and several editorial notes each week. Then, when everyone had gone home for the day, he would stay in the newsroom and write his fiction.

“I liked the noise of the Linotype machines, which sounded like rain. If they stopped, and I was left in silence, I wouldn’t be able to work.”

Who hears the rainy clatter of a Linotype machine any more?

 September 1942. "Linotype operators in composing room of the New York Times newspaper." These machines cast lines of type (Linotype) from molten lead prior to their assembly by compositors into the printing plates that go on the presses. Photo by Marjory Collins for the Office of War Information.

September 1942. “Linotype operators in composing room of the New York Times newspaper.” These machines cast lines of type (Linotype) from molten lead prior to their assembly by compositors into the printing plates that go on the presses. Photo by Marjory Collins for the Office of War Information.

 

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Globe owner John Henry: A man of few words?

By Christopher B. Daly

Former commodities trader and current pro-sports franchise owner John Henry has also owned the Boston Globe newspaper since last summer, when he bought it for a mere $70 million. Since then, he has said little about his plans, his political views, or his philosophy of journalism. That’s his prerogative, of course, but all the readers of the Globe around New England and beyond, may start to tire of his taciturn approach.

Boston-Globe-and-Henry

 

Last October, Henry published a 3,000-word op ed in his own newspaper under the headline “Why I Bought the Globe.” Among other high-minded points he made was this passage:

 

This much is clear: The overriding mission of The Boston Globe will be to ensure that its readers are getting news they can trust. The Globe will place its emphasis on hard-hitting, investigative accountability that readers can rely on. Not only will the Globe seek to hold people and institutions accountable for their actions, we will hold ourselves accountable for fairness, balance, and fact-checking.

Today, reliable information has never been more valuable. A newspaper needs to provide the breadth of perspective and diligent analysis that gets to the heart of what is going on in our world. The Globe will never be the prisoner of any ideology or political agenda.

Our enterprise reporting will shed new light on important issues of the day, with intellectual honesty and discipline. We will provide our readers with the assurance that if they read the Globe, they will know that time, effort, and thought were put into each and every report.

In this way, Henry sounds like many other American publishers who have issued similar declarations upon taking over newspapers: political independence, a commitment to service, a sense of public trust, etc. His statement was similar in spirit and tone to that of Adolph Ochs when he took over the New York Times in 1896. Here’s the heart of Ochs’ declaration:

It will be my earnest aim that The New-York Times give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it as early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved; to make of the columns of The New-York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.

Since his op-ed last fall, Henry has said little, other than a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last month. He has removed the Globe’s publisher, Chris Mayer, and given himself that job. Now comes a bit more insight, in an article from Boston magazine, written by senior editor Jason Schwartz. In the piece, Schwartz reveals that Henry would not grant him an interview, but “instead agreed to exchange emails” — without saying how many. The piece includes interviews from other key players (including Globe editor Brian McGrory) but adds little to our understanding of Henry and his intentions.

One reveal: Henry confirmed that he plans to sell most of the Globe’s property in Dorchester and move the newsroom into a prominent place closer to downtown — a good idea that I have thought the Globe should have done years ago. The sale of all that land should reap at least $70 million, which would mean that Henry got the newspaper as such for free.

Still, questions persist. Here are some I have:

–How can the Globe return to profitability?

–How long will the Globe continue in print?

–When you start to make money from the Globe, what will you do with it?

–Is it important to even try maintaining a separation between the paper’s editorial page and its news pages?

–If you have money to invest in the Globe, what are your top priorities for expanded coverage?

–Is there a comparable news operation anywhere in the world that you admire?

–If you had to choose between watching the Red Sox in the World Series or the Liverpool Football Club in a championship game, which would it be?

BONUS: My estimable colleague Dan Kennedy has written about this same topic today, including a warning about the possible return of Mike Barnicle. Well worth a read.

 

 

 

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The history of journalism lives on in Worcester, Mass.

By Christopher B. Daly

Here’s a recent article in Worcester magazine introducing readers to the incomparable American Antiquarian Society. It sounds like a museum of antiques, but it is actually the most extensive collection of American newspapers, pamphlets, lithographs, sheet music, and ephemera from the 17th century through the late 19th century.

From the article:

A few of the Society’s most valued materials include a first-edition copy of Lewis and Clark’s journals, printed in the early 1800s; the first printed Bible in British North America, released in 1663; the only known copy of the famous English book “Pamela,” which was the first book printed

COVER_philosophic-cockin the United States, published and sold by Benjamin Franklin; and the only known original copy of the political cartoon “The Philosophic Cock,” which was an early slam of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, depicting Jefferson as a rooster and Hemings as one of his hens. At the end of last year, one of the few remaining copies of the first book ever written and printed in British North America, in 1640, the Bay Psalm Book, sold at auction for $14.2 million – the American Antiquarian Society just so happens to also have an original copy of the book.

 

 

The AAS attracts scholars from around the world, including Ken Burns and Jill Lepore, and it is  open to the public.

Here’s a note on the AAS’s history from Wikipedia.

AAS was founded by Isaiah Thomas on October 24, 1812 by an act of the Massachusetts General Court. It is the third oldest historical society and the first to be national in scope.[4]Isaiah Thomas started the collection with approximately 8,000 books from his personal library. The first library building was erected in 1820 in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts. This building was later abandoned and a new building was constructed. It was completed in 1910 and stands on the corner of Park Avenue and Salisbury Street. There have been several additions to this building to accommodate the growing collection, the most recent of which was completed in 2003.

There’s also a story as to why Isaiah Thomas was in Worcester. He was the editor of a Boston newspaper on the patriot side in the American Revolution called The Massachusetts Spy. On April 16, 1775, when the rebels were coming under increasing scrutiny by the British forces occupying Massachusetts, Thomas began to fear that

Isaiah Thomas, rebel printer, by Ethan Alan Greenwood.  Courtesy, AAS

Isaiah Thomas, rebel printer, by Ethan Alan Greenwood.
Courtesy, AAS

the redcoats would soon descend on his Boston print shop and put him out of business. So, under cover of darkness, he loaded his presses onto wagons and piled on as many back copies of his own paper as possible, along with any other newspapers or other printed material that would fit. He moved the whole operation to Worcester, safely remote from the coastal bases of the British forces, and prospered there. He later wrote the landmark book, History of Printing in America.

 

So, a hat-tip to Isaiah Thomas.

 

 

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Boston Globe owner begins making his moves

By Christopher B. Daly 

It’s no great surprise that John Henry, the wealthy former investor who bought the Boston Globe late last October for less than $70 million, has named a new publisher: himself. This is a step that has many precedents in the history of American journalism. And it makes sense: why spend the money to buy a whole newspaper if you don’t plan to run it?

The more interesting development announced by the Globe is that the paper will have a new CEO: veteran ad man Mike Sheehan. A longtime executive with the Boston advertising powerhouse Hill Holliday, Sheehan now takes on the responsibility for making enough money to rebuild the Globe’s reporting strength to the point where it can fulfill its goal of being a robust regional news organization.

Personally, I wish them all the luck. Get cracking, do good work, and start hiring more journalists.

Here's the Globe's caption on this double portrait: John Henry (left) and Mike Sheehan hope to boost ad revenue at the Globe.

Here’s the Globe’s caption on this double portrait: John Henry (left) and Mike Sheehan hope to boost ad revenue at the Globe.

 

 

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MEDIA: David Carr has seen the future

By Christopher B. Daly 

And the future for journalism is . . .

  DIGITAL. . .

                                           PROFITABLE . . .

                                                                 AND HERE NOW!

Focusing on the recent decision by Ezra Klein to decamp from the old-school Washington Post

Ezra Klein, pointing to his major asset.  AP photo

Ezra Klein, pointing to his major asset.
AP photo

when the legacy medium could not accommodate his demands, Carr sees an array of “digital natives” who are managing to do good (or at least decent) journalism and make money at the same time.

 

If true, three cheers for those on-line winners!

 

Here’s Carr’s take:

In making the switch, Mr. Klein is part of a movement of big-name journalists who are migrating from newspaper companies to digital start-ups. Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher left Dow Jones to form Re/code with NBC. David Pogue left The New York Times for Yahoo and Nate Silver for ESPN. At the same time, independent news sites like Business Insider, BuzzFeed and Vox have all received abundant new funding, while traffic on viral sites like Upworthy and ViralNova has exploded.

All the frothy news has led to speculation that a bubble is forming in the content business, but something more real is underway. I was part of the first bubble as a journalist at Inside.com in 2001 — an idea a decade ahead of its time — and this feels very different.

The web was more like a set of tin cans and a thin wire back then, so news media upstarts had trouble being heard. With high broadband penetration, the web has become a fully realized consumer medium where pages load in a flash and video plays without stuttering. With those pipes now built, we are in a time very similar to the early 1980s, when big cities were finally wired for cable. What followed was an explosion of new channels, many of which have become big businesses today.

Still, some things don’t change all that much. As Carr points out, it still takes some serious money (about $25 million, he says) to launch a big site, and it takes time (5+ years, he estimates) to work out the kinks, find your audience, build a staff, and earn a reputation for being worth a visit.

[FULL DISCLOSURE: David Carr is no longer just the most influential columnist writing about media and the web, but he is also a new colleague of mine on the Journalism faculty at Boston University, where is the new, inaugural Andrew Lack Professor in the economics of journalism.]

 

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