Category Archives: publishing

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. . . 

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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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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.

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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).

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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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