Category Archives: publishing

Plagiarism is back (Did it ever really go away?)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Jeez, I hope that headline’s original. (I have this haunting feeling that it seems familiar — I better google myself to make sure. Phew. No direct hits. Now, where was I?)

Amidst this recent outbreak of plagiarism charges (the Montana senator, the Times arts writer, some guy at BuzzFeed, and others), it’s worth reviewing what plagiarism is and why it plagues us.

Plagiarism is at once easier to do and easier to catch. Thanks to computers and the internet, it’s very easy to copy things — even things that a journalist, a speechwriter, or any other sincere person intends to use as source material or as quoted matter. On the other hand, thanks to those same computers and the internet, it’s also very easy to catch someone who plagiarizes — whether deliberately or inadvertently.

That’s why I welcome today’s comment by Margaret Sullivan, the NYTimes‘ public editor. Here’s the nub of her (presumably original) comment:

Write your own stuff; when you can’t or won’t, make sure you attribute and link.

Use multiple sources; compare, contrast, verify.

 

That could go up on the walls of every classroom at Boston University, where I teach basic reporting classes in our Journalism program. In fact, I may do just that this fall — with proper attribution, of course.

Personally, I think the heart of the matter is in those first four words: WRITE YOUR OWN STUFF. If you are any kind of a writer who cares about words, you will know instantly whether a phrase or sentence or paragraph in some chunk of prose that has your name at the top was written by you or by somebody else. If you didn’t write it, give credit where it’s due. Any questions?

Class dismissed.

 

 

 

 

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News comes from far away. . .

By Christopher B. Daly

Do we get too much information about distant conflicts, or too little?

The New York Times offers two very different answers.

One comes from Anjan Sundaram, a former stringer for The Associated Press in Congo. So, he should know. He laments the withdrawal of American correspondents from many countries, the shuttering of overseas bureaus, and a general decline in the coverage of wars, violence, and the politics of many nations.

News organizations need to work more closely with stringers. Make no mistake: Life as a stringer, even for those eager to report from abroad, is daunting. It’s dangerous, the pay is low and there is little support. For years after I left Congo, my position with The A.P. remained — as it is now — vacant. The news from Congo suffers as a result, as does our understanding of that country, and ultimately ourselves.

The other view comes from my Boston University colleague David Carr, the Times‘ media columnist. In his Media Equation piece today, Carr describes the sensation of information-overload that he has been experiencing lately as social media bring him a flood of data about a rocket war in Gaza, plane crashes, and the other disasters.

Geopolitics and the ubiquity of social media have made the world a smaller, seemingly gorier place. If Vietnam brought war into the living room, the last few weeks have put it at our fingertips. On our phones, news alerts full of body counts bubble into our inbox, Facebook feeds are populated by appeals for help or action on behalf of victims, while Twitter boils with up-to-the-second reporting, some by professionals and some by citizens, from scenes of disaster and chaos.

In my view, they are both right, at least to a degree. Sundaram is correct that many U.S. news organizations have retreated (usually for economic reasons) from their commitment to covering international news. In particular, they have lost the budgets to pay for keeping full-time staffers in locations around the world that are not boiling over. I’m talking here about trained journalists who have the time to become multi-lingual, to learn about other cultures and societies, to develop good sources, and to roam about developing a good first-hand sense of the place they are covering. These are the kind of people you want to be able to in a crisis, to explain a self-immolation in Tibet, or a riot in Indonesia, or a drug war in Central America. And, yes, there are too few of those.

But that’s not the same issue David Carr was identifying. He is describing the flood of images, information, and opinions that come streaming at Americans from the hotspot of the week. And yes, he’s right about. In a country or region that America is paying attention to, the flow of news is usually pretty abundant. That doesn’t mean that it’s always very useful, only that there is a lot of it.

This general problem was identified almost a century ago by Walter Lippmann — journalist, author, and media theorist — in his landmark book about journalism, propaganda, and politics, Public Opinion.

News comes from a distance; it comes helter-skelter, in inconceivable imgresconfusion; it deals with matters that are not easily understood; it arrives and is assimilated by busy and tired people who must take what is given to them.

That is, for passive news consumers, the picture of the rest of the world is fragmentary, random, and often blurred or blacked out. I dare say that I am not the only avid consumer of U.S. news reporting who could not tell you a single meaningful thing about Indonesia (the fourth most populous country on Earth and the largest Muslim-majority nation). I don’t know anything about it, because no U.S. news organization has a single full-time correspondent there. I cannot say I am bombarded by social media (or any other kind) about Indonesia. But if something should happen there that draws the attention of the United States, we can be sure the firehose will be turned on, and we will start to absorb a torrent of images, facts, and opinions. Until our attention shifts.

Thurber-Lippmann screenshot

by James Thurber

 

 

 

 

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The dinosaurs of old media still shake the earth

By Christopher B. Daly

Is all the coverage of Rupert Murdoch’s play for Time Warner a bit of an over-reaction?

The NYTimes, for example, cleared the decks and went all-in, devoting nearly a double truck of today’s Business section to coverage of an 83-year-old business mogul who wants to take over a 91-year-old media company.

Here’s a column/story by Boston University professor David Carr and more stories here, here, and here.

So, it turns out that Murdoch wants to own the company that is a distant relative of the company founded in 1923 by Henry Luce, one of the earliest of the modern media moguls. Luce created TIME magazine with his co-founder and frenemy Briton Hadden, and in its day, TIME was the cool new thing. Over the decades, Time Inc. added more magazines that became household names — Fortune, Life, SI, People, etc. As I wrote in my book Covering America, Luce used his midas touch with magazines to become a wielder of great influence in American politics, culture, business, and foreign policy. In the late 20th Century, Luce’s successors made a series of mergers and acquisitions that transformed a magazine publisher into a multimedia giant. More recently, the company’s executives decided to spin off the print properties, leaving Time Warner as a company with a desirable core of television and film content-makers. That’s what Murdoch wants.

Murdoch himself went through a similar process of corporate cell division last year, dividing his News Corp. into separate print and video divisions. He is using his profitable new company, 21st Century Fox, to gobble up Time Warner. If he succeeds, as he might, it would also represent the final victory of 20th Century Fox movie studios founder Daryl F. Zanuck over his great Hollywood rival, Jack Warner. (Ironically, Zanuck learned the business at Warner Bros., making his bones with “Rin Tin Tin” but left after creative differences with Jack Warner over the making of “Baby Face.”)

It’s hard to find anyone to root for in all this.

220px-Baby_Face_1933_film_poster

 

 

 

 

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NY Times: a bridge to a digital future

By Christopher B. Daly 

Most people who care about journalism share a concern: can the New York Times survive the transition from a print past to a digital future? And can the newspaper carry forward its unparalleled standards, staffing level, and values into a future where the Times flourishes in the news business gets out of the paper business and emerges as a truly online news operation?

Increasingly, it appears the answer will be yes.

A big hint landed softly this week in a column by the Times‘ public editor, Margaret Sullivan. In her column, she indicated that the budget for the Times newsroom is “more than $240 million” a year. That’s how much it costs for the care and feeding of some 1,250 journalists in New York and around the world — salaries (which are at the top of our field), benefits, travel, rent on foreign and domestic bureaus, and on and on. It does not include other costs, such as printing and distribution.

That figure, which I had not seen broken out that way before now, is important.

It confirms, of course, that journalism is not cheap — especially journalism that is predicated on original reporting on a global scale. It represents the paper’s “journalistic nut” — the hard core of spending that must be met, just like your rent or mortgage and utility payments.

The challenge is: how to make the nut?

The good news is that it seems more and more do-able to make the nut into the indefinite future, despite the severe contraction in print advertising.

Here’s one scenario:

–Begin by reducing the nut. Let’s just assume that there is some inefficiency in there, some feather-bedding, some wasted effort (like the still extensive time and energy put into the laying out of each next day’s print “front page.”) For the hell of it, say you could cut that budget by 8% and still survive essentially intact. (That’s one-12th of the total, or $220 million instead of $240 million.)

–That means you need to come up with $55 million per quarter.

–Already, the Times is bringing in $38 million, from digital advertising only, according to the Public Editor.

–She did not say how much money is coming in every quarter from digital subscriptions, but she did note that “digital-only” subscriptions have risen (from zero) to about 800,000.

–It would not be unrealistic to think that if the Times went digital-only, it would pick up another 200,000 out of the base of subscribers who now get the print edition.

–So, there’s a hypothetical base of 1 million digital subscribers.

–If those 1 million people would pay $20 per quarter, you would have more than your $55 million nut.

Of course, there are problems. Maybe the Times can’t find 1 million customers. Maybe those readers won’t pony up enough in subscription. And these revenue figures are all net figures: someone still has to go to work at the Times every day to sell those ads and handle those digital subscriptions. Just because those operations are digital, they are not free.

My point is that the trend of rising revenues from digital ads and digital subscriptions is approaching the point at which they could carry the newsroom. They are not there yet, which may point to another partial, temporary answer: just print on Sundays. Print advertising brings in something like four times the amount of digital ads, but that print-based is declining and will not carry the paper into the future. So, during the transition, why not keep the big fat Sunday edition? It has the largest number of readers (1.2 million), pages, ads, and revenue. No need to say goodbye to all those full-page Style-section ads from Ralph Lauren and Chanel. At least not yet.

NYTCo homepage

NYTCo homepage

 

 

 

 

 

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News media: Let’s impose a blackout on mass shoooters

By Christopher B. Daly 

The headlines are both horrifying and all too familiar: another town in America is the location for another mass shooting. My hunch is that to some degree, each new one is partly a product of all the preceding ones. The idea for it, the methods, the script — it’s all there in the coverage of almost every mass shooting.

Thanks to the folks at Vox for compiling this dreadful map, showing all the mass shootings since Sandy Hook (that’s 74, in about 18 months, or about one a week).

Screen_Shot_2014-06-10_at_1.48.46_PM

So, here’s an idea that goes against my grain and against the instincts of most of my colleagues in the news business: Let’s stop covering mass shootings.

Or, at least, let’s stop covering them in a way that glorifies the killer or provides a scenario for any copycat to follow.

Let me state: I believe the main reason for this horror is the specific combination of a scarcity of mental health care and an abundance of high-capacity firearms. Those two forces strike me as the overwhelmingly clear reason for our national plague of mass shootings. But there’s not much that anyone I know can do about either problem.

So, to the extent that coverage of massacres begets more massacres, let’s change the coverage. How?

For one thing, we should consider a moratorium on even naming the shooter. And no photos. And no follow-up profiles of a troubled young man who seemed a little weird to some people (but not that weird) and  not at all weird to other people and then, suddenly — blam! he became deeply psychotic and started firing.

I know something about those kind of stories, having written one for the Washington Post back in 1994 when a schizophrenic young man named John Salvi opened fire at two abortion clinics in Brookline, Mass., killing two people he had never met and wounding five others. Following journalistic protocol, I dropped everything and covered the shooting, then turned my efforts to the inevitable “profile of a killer.” Salvi’s story was one that is now all-too-familiar: young man grows increasingly aloof and unreasoning, no one does anything about it, and then he becomes almost totally isolated and captivated by voices or disordered thinking. Next he’s in a public place with an assault weapon.

In a sense, these shootings — tragically, awfully — do not meet a strict definition of news, because they have ceased to be rare. I would suggest that the news media refrain from covering these men and telling their individual stories so long as the shooter is:

–male

–white

–between 15 and 30

–at least a little “off” by someone’s criteria

–armed to the teeth in a way that would be impossible in almost any other country on Earth.

One Canadian news network did just that this week, following a rare multiple murder in Canada. Let’s impose a moratorium on this kind of story, at least until they become rare again.

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SCOTUS: If you make journalists criminals, then only criminals can be journalists.

by Christopher B. Daly 

It’s no surprise, I suppose, that the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from a New York Times reporter who has been seeking to avoid being sent to jail for his refusal to testify about his sources. The ruling is a setback for reporter James Risen and for the entire enterprise of journalism as well. The reason: the high court cannot find protection for reporters in the U.S. Constitution.

The First Amendment famously says (in part): “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of the press.” As I have written, I believe that the First Amendment goes beyond the right to disseminate news and includes the right to gather news. In some situations, that news-gathering function, also known as reporting, may require reporters to extend a promise of confidentiality to a source. I believe that they have a constitutionally protected right to do so. (Actually, to be precise: I believe that you and I and the rest of the American people have the right to learn what the journalist can learn — that is, we are entitled to information, especially controversial, secret information, that will enable us to make good decisions about powerful institutions.)

Many people disagree. They invoke the ancient legal doctrine which holds that justice demands every person’s testimony — no exceptions (oh, except for the “testimonial privilege” widely granted to clergy, attorneys, spouses and others — plenty of people enjoy the right not to testify with no deleterious effects on society). Superficially, this makes a certain amount of sense. But it overlooks the chilling effect on both sources and reporters if journalists can be dragged into court and ordered, under oath, to break their word and reveal the identities of their confidential sources. The fully predictable result of this doctrine will be that the people will not learn all that they might about difficult, hidden truths.

And a word here about criminal justice. Obviously, the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of crime is an important value in society. I would not want to live in a society that did not suppress crime. But we must bear in mind that law enforcement is not a transcendent value; it is not so important that it can be used to sweep away all other rights and values. It has to be balanced against other important priorities (like being secure in our persons and papers).

I maintain that it is better for a handful of prosecutors to miss out on the testimony of a handful of people than it is to impose blinders on the press. I don’t want to live in that kind of society, either. Prosecutors pursue justice; journalists pursue truth. Those are both important, and sometimes allied, enterprises. But they are not identical, and when they conflict, my default position would be to privilege truth-seeking.

Also, bear in mind: prosecutors have plenty of techniques and powers that journalists don’t have.

–They have the power to subpoena (non-journalist) witnesses and question them under oath.

–If witnesses lie, prosecutors can charge them with perjury.

–Prosecutors have the power to induce suspects to talk by negotiating plea-bargains.

–Prosecutors have the home-team advantage in every courtroom in the country.

–Prosecutors have the power to get a search warrant and spy on suspects.

If prosecutors can’t solve a particular crime with all those powers (which journalists don’t have), then maybe they’re just not trying hard enough.

One implication of today’s Supreme Court ruling: until there is a new array of justices on the high court who properly understand the Constitution, I guess the only remedy is to support legislation (S. 987) to create a federal shield law for reporters. Incidentally, most states already have shield laws that protect journalists in state courts, and we have not suffered any terrible crime wave as a result. All those state AGs and DAs somehow manage to live with laws that uphold press freedom and balance it against the imperatives of law enforcement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A pox on “A pox on both their houses”

By Christopher B. Daly 

I spend a lot of my waking hours at the intersection of Journalism and History, two empirical fields that share a lot of DNA. It’s an interesting place to hang out, and I wish more of the residents of each street would roam around more on the other street.

Today, a story in TPM about an item on a blog known as the 20Committee, nicely frames an issue that highlights one of the distinctions between the disciplines of journalism and history. The upshot is that journalists do us all a disservice when, in the name of non-partisanship or “fairness,” they throw up their hands and blame Democrats and Republicans equally for behaving in ways that are partisan, counter-productive, hypocritical or the like. As a former political journalist myself, I know this phenomenon well, and I know where it comes from: it is an adaptation to the pressure many American journalists feel to write as if they have no stake in the outcome, to show an aloof indifference to cause or candidate or party.

Many journalists, particularly in the mainstream media who work in the reporting tradition, apply this technique to coverage of hard problems like Obamacare or fracking or political spending. This is the problem often referred to as “false equivalence” or “false balance.”

But, I would submit, no historian who studies our current period in the future would be caught dead doing that. Every historian of our present situation will look at essentially the same facts and will exercise judgment.

[I will further predict that 95 percent of them will conclude that our current messes are the fault of Republicans. But, to use another favorite journalistic evasion, Only time will tell.]

Shutterstock/ Christos Georghiou

Shutterstock/
Christos Georghiou

 

 

 

 

 

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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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