Category Archives: media

Remembering Ben Bradlee (1921-2014)

By Christopher B. Daly

Let us now praise Ben Bradlee. He has rightly been called the most courageous and consequential newspaper editor of the postwar period, and I would give him the whole 20th Century. During his 25+ years leading the Washington Post newsroom, Ben elevated the Post from the middle ranks of U.S. news institutions to the front ranks. He did it with nerve, imagination, and guts. If you think it’s easy to lead a couple hundred journalists, try it some time. Most days, you can’t get two or three to agree on anything, follow anyone, or admit that they couldn’t do any job better.

It should also be noted that Ben transformed the Post with Katharine Graham’s money. It takes nothing away from Ben to observe that he was lucky in the timing of his career. He said as much himself.

“I had a good seat,” he said to Alicia C. Shepard in a 1995 interview with The American Journalism Review. “I came along at the right time with the right job and I didn’t screw it up.”

 What made it the right time was that the Post was then gushing money, enjoying the heyday of all the big-city U.S. dailies that enjoyed a monopoly (or near monopoly). As I wrote in my book Covering America, the Post was poised for takeoff when Mrs. Graham took control of the Post in 1963.

Though terrified of what she was getting into and almost entirely unprepared to lead a large enterprise, Kay Graham became president of the Washington Post Company in late 1963 and set about making her mark. In 1965 she brought Ben Bradlee over from Newsweek and made him managing editor of the Post. She helped him become a great editor, not only by supporting him professionally but also by presiding over a business that was practically printing money. These were boom years in Washington. Under Johnson, the Great Society programs were staffing up, bringing thousands of middle-class, white-collar jobs to the city and its increasingly far-flung suburbs. This was the target audience for the Post, and for every advertiser in the region. Money came rolling in. During the three years after Bradlee took over, the budget for the Post newsroom more than tripled, leaping from $2.25 million a year to almost $7.3 million. Bradlee got to add fifty new slots in the newsroom, and he went on a hiring spree. In the process, he transformed the paper, creating a star system (known famously at the Post as “creative tension”) in which reporters had to jockey for space in the paper and for favor in Bradlee’s inner circle.

Imagine that: 50 new hires! And those were good jobs with good salaries and benefits. All those newbies were beholden to Ben, so he had most of them in his pocket. Plus, he managed to rid the newsroom of some holdovers who did not fit with his plans. In the end, he was able to build a giant new team of people who mainly loved him.

Could he have been a great editor in another period? How would he have managed decline, cutbacks, and the diminished clout of the last 15 years at the Post? We’ll never know, of course. It’s entirely possible that he would have prevailed with his charm and his bravado. But without the budget to back it up, I have my doubts that even Ben could have made newspapering fun in the dreadful years.

I did not know him well, but he was my boss for more than two years when I worked at the Washington Post near the end of Ben’s 25-year-run. (I say “Ben,” because that’s what everyone called him; we all called his boss “Mrs. Graham,” but he was always Ben.) I was a tiny asteroid in his universe, but I remember my few encounters with him vividly. You could not be around him and not want to be closer to him. You wanted to know that he knew your name, and you treasured his “attaboy”s and any kind of attention. For most of my career as a journalist, I wanted my editors to leave me alone. Not with Ben.

Everyone has been telling Ben stories since his death on Tuesday, and I have been spending hours soaking them in. One good place to start is his own memoir, A Good Life – which is, as he might put it, a goddamn good book. It has many of Ben’s virtues: it’s unpretentious, it’s full of fun, and it doesn’t spend a moment feeling sorry for its subject.

Among other remembrances that I’ve enjoyed:

Here is a piece by Martha Sherrill, one of the many voices Ben promoted in the Post Style section that he invented (and which may be his second-largest legacy to U.S. journalism).

Here is a tribute from David Remnick, who, as usual, is right on target.

Here is BU Prof. David Carr’s smart, funny recollection.

Here is Ben in his own wonderful voice talking with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” saying that journalists should be fair and honest and not back down (which just about sums it up). He also observes that anybody would have to have been “lobotomized” not to have pursued the Watergate story.

Finally, here’s one photo of Ben (among so many — the man was ungodly handsome and photogenic) that I particularly enjoy. It shows him in August 1974 in the Post’s composing room, looking pensively at a “chase” of metal letters that newspapers still used in those days to create a negative image from which newspaper pages could be printed. That particular page says (in reverse) NIXON RESIGNS. I like this photo because it reveals another side of Ben Bradlee, one that not everyone knew about. In that summer of 1974, when Ben knew that the end was near for Nixon after the Watergate scandals, he sent the word out through the newsroom: there was to be no gloating, no spiking the football, no champagne. He enjoyed a fight, and I believe he loved being in the arena, but he had the virtue and sense of decency that demanded good sportsmanship in the game of life.

Photo by David R. Legge (WaPo)

Photo by David R. Legge (WaPo)

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Former NYT Editor Jill Abramson: Getting back into journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Is former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson getting back into journalism?

Yes, according to hints she dropped Monday night during a talk at Boston University. Abramson said she has been exploring the possibility of launching a new journalism start-up with veteran publisher and investigative reporter Steven Brill.

The proposed new operation would focus on a few large stories, and it would employ professional journalists at decent salaries, Abramson told a packed hall during a conversation with Times media columnist and B.U. professor David Carr.

After Carr teased her about making some news and challenged her to “show a little leg,” Abramson said, “Well. . .” Then she divulged that she and Brill have been conducting talks with investors who might back their proposed venture.

But she revealed little else, offering no details on how her journalism start-up would work financially or how it would stand out
professionally.

Since her departure from the Times, Abramson has given a series of i

Jill Abramson ( L) and David Carr (R) discuss what David Carr describes as the “present future”, when the production and distribution of media is in constant flux. Photo by Ann Wang

Jill Abramson ( L) and David Carr (R) discuss what David Carr describes as the “present future”, when the production and distribution of media is in constant flux.
Photo by Ann Wang

nterviews (mostly to female journalists), and she has been teaching a course in narrative non-fiction in the English Department at Harvard.

When Carr brought up the subject of her separation from the Times and seemed to be groping for a euphemism, Abramson abruptly corrected him, saying “I was fired.” She added that she has spent her career seeking the truth and telling it, so she saw no reason to sugar-coat her dismissal from the newspaper in May at the hands of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Abramson, 60, began her career in journalism by reporting for and editing a student publication at Harvard, the Independent, then went on to jobs at the American Lawyer, Legal Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Times.

Her conversation with Carr was sponsored by Boston University’s NPR affiliate, WBUR-FM. It was to be broadcast Tuesday evening at 8 p.m..

[Full disclosure: Jill and I were classmates in college, and I have seen her sporadically since then. I enjoyed her book about her dog.]

Update: You can listen to the full conversation here on WBUR’s superb midday program “Here and Now.”

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Gail Sheehy: still pitching herself

Don’t miss today’s review in the Times of the new memoir by Gail Sheehy. Not that she needs any more exposure.

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New media outlet in New Hampshire

By Christopher B. Daly

Welcome to the news business to the latest wealthy businessman seeking to have a role in politics through the media. The newest member of the club is Bill Binnie, the founder of the media venture NH1, which is having its rollout this month in the state known as FITN for its “first in the nation” presidential primary, which is just around the corner in political terms.

Based on a quick search, it appears that Binnie is a Republican who made a fortune in plastics, which he converted into another fortune in the investing business. Born in Scotland, Binnie went to Harvard (on a scholarship, it should be noted) and to Harvard Business School, then did a stint at McKinsey as a consultant, telling other businesses how to run better. Eventually, he actually founded and ran several businesses of his own, including Carlisle Plastics, followed by a venture capital firm, Carlisle Capital Corp.

In 2010, he ran as a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat in New Hampshire and lost. He is a big donor to GOP causes and fund-raiser, and he has served as the chair of the finance committee for the N.H. GOP.

Now comes his latest venture: NH1, which debuts next week. Here is part of the Boston Globe‘s take, from today’s Capital section (which, BTW, is a welcome addition to the paper and potentially more meaningful to a lot of Globe readers than its much-heralded [if I may use that term!] new Catholic-watching section called Crux):

At a time when most newsrooms are shrinking, Binnie Media is doing the opposite, doubling staff to 120 in the past year and recruiting top journalists like former CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser and veteran political reporter Kevin Landrigan, who was laid off when The Telegraph of Nashua closed its New Hampshire State House bureau earlier this year. Binnie has also attracted a number of other seasoned journalists from cash-strapped local papers.

Hooray for hiring. It’s good to see someone taking up the slack from the diminished statehouse press corps. And Binnie could not have done better than to hire Kevin Landrigan — whose desk used to abut mine when we both worked in the Massachusetts Statehouse Press Gallery in the mid-1980s, he for the Lowell Sun and me for the AP. Kevin was simply the best reporter in the room (the Globe’s Frank Phillips was down the hall in a separate room, and John King didn’t stay long enough to build up Kevin’s cred). I learned a lot just from eavesdropping on Kevin’s phone conversations with his sources — not that I picked up any actual facts but I got to see his technique at work, which was relentless questioning, double-checking, and working his sources. He broke a lot of stories and always seemed to know what was about to happen next. I knew Kevin as decent, fair, straight-ahead, a total pro.

As for Binnie, he has actually been involved in TV and radio in New Hampshire for a few years, but he is taking another step forward in creating NH1, which is billed as a multimedia platform — which I guess means broadcast TV, plus a website (still under construction) but no print medium that I can see. The idea appears to be to capture some of the vast amounts of money spent in New Hampshire every four years on TV political ads.

Will NH1 survive through the lean off-years in politics?

Stay tuned.

Shiny! The Globe caption says: NH1 News anchor KeKe Vencill (left), reporter/anchor Paul Mueller (center), and chief meteorologist Clayton Stiver rehearsed a news broadcast. Photo by Boston Globe

Shiny!
The Globe caption says:
NH1 News anchor KeKe Vencill (left), reporter/anchor Paul Mueller (center), and chief meteorologist Clayton Stiver rehearsed a news broadcast.
Photo by Boston Globe

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Monday round-up

By Christopher B. Daly

As a public service, I am rounding up some recent reports and commentary about journalism and history.

Here is a new report from our friends at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, asking:

Where are the women in the executive ranks of the news media?

Good question.

Here’s the latest episode of NPR’s “On the Media.” This week’s show looks at the decline in “beat reporting.” Any thoughts from my JO310 alumni?

Here’s the latest episode of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” — much improved since Brian Stelter replaced Howie Kurtz. So, should news organizations censor ISIL’s propaganda videos? I say, yes.

And from the NYTimes. . .

Here is B.U. Prof. David Carr on TMZ’s sacking of the NFL.

Here is a confusing story about NPR doing “live” shows. (Isn’t all of NPR live?)

Here is a story about the sale of Digital First Media. Want to buy a newspaper? (I don’t mean one copy, I mean a whole paper!)

Here is an update on the Hachette-Amazon brawl. I am still not sure which side to join in this one.

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Who said what? A cautionary tale

By Christopher B. Daly 

Here is a cautionary tale for both historians and journalists. We all wrestle from time to time with trying to establish just what is “on the record” — that is, what did people actually say. For most of us, most of the time, the gold standard is a mechanical or digital recording. It seems so appealing: if you’re in doubt about handwritten notes, just “check the tape” (even though most recording devices no longer use tapes).

But what happens when the recording itself is murky, ambiguous, or just plain impossible to decipher?

Here’s one example, from Sheldon M. Stern — and he should know, as a historian and the former historian at the JFK presidential library in Boston, the source of many releases of presidential tapes and transcripts. He cites a single passage from the Nixon tapes that has appeared in several books, all with variations in the transcriptions. 

Here’s my takeaway from his recent article:

It is becoming increasingly clear that scholarly works rooted in the extraordinary and unique presidential recordings from the JFK, LBJ, and Nixon administrations actually constitute a new and distinct genre of historical investigation. Historians are familiar with books that utilize written primary sources, synthesize primary and secondary sources, or annotate the private papers of prominent historical figures. But, books based on audio recordings are clearly different because the historian takes on a unique responsibility in this new genre. He or she is obviously reaching conclusions about a primary source; but, in the process of transcribing a tape recording, the historian is also inevitably creating a subjective secondary source. As a result, the historian must demonstrate the most careful scholarship imaginable. No other task of historical analysis or interpretation is really quite the same.

Is there a “solution” to this “problem.” Not really, I suppose. All we can ask is that anyone who works in non-fiction should approach these issues in good faith and, wherever possible, preserve original materials and make them available to others.

Meanwhile, let the interpretations continue. . . 

156728-NTA

 

 

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Vice Media: extremism in the defense of liberty

By Christopher B. Daly

Two stories about the news media nicely frame a major dynamic that is remaking the practice of journalism. On the one hand, USA Today, the most expensive launch in the history of Old Media, announced the layoffs of 70 people, including about three dozen from the newsroom. When USA Today was launched in 1982, it was the disruptor, challenging theimgres staid, b+w, graphics-free traditional printed serious newspaper. The journalistic Establishment hated USA Today and mocked it, saying it was vulgar and represented a dumbing-down of Serious Journalism. Ten years and more than $1 billion later, founder Al Neuharth of Gannett proved that there was a market for shorter stories, punchier graphics, and color inks, and for a while USA Today flourished.

 

Fast-forward: the other big news of the last 24 hours is the announcement that upstart Vice Media has attracted half a billion dollars in investments recently, giving it instant heft and standing in the new media landscape. What is Vice up to? One insight comes from one of the co-founders, the Canadian Shane Smith. He has said Vice is engaged in a “relentless quest for total media domination.” Sounds just like Al Neuharth – or Joseph Pulitzer or William Randolph Hearst, for that matter.

[Update: here's a version from The Economist. Fun fact: it's "dated" Sept. 6, even though today is only the 4th, because of the magazine's traditional print schedule of publication in separate "editions." -- There's a quaint idea from another century.]

Along with stories about penis size and dog meat, Vice has ambitions to play in a bigger league and pursue higher-impact stories, financing expensive film expeditions to remote locations. More power to them! I hope they use most of the new $500 million to hire lots of young, smart, multimedia journalists (at least more than the dozens laid off at USA Today).

They’re ready for Vice; is Vice ready for them?

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