Category Archives: publishing

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.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 2.47.14 PM

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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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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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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Narrative: how long is too long?

By Christopher B. Daly 

That’s a question raised by a controversial recent piece on the Grantland site and by a critique posted today on the Times op-ed page. As Jonathan Mahler puts it:

There’s a lot of excellent magazine-length journalism being done now, and Grantland publishes plenty of it. The problem is that long-form stories are too often celebrated simply because they exist. And are long. “Long-form, on the web, is in danger of meaning ‘a lot of words,’ ” as James Bennet wrote recently in The Atlantic, the magazine he edits.

Turns out, there are some unknown number of readers who like long articles and books and will hang in there through thousands upon thousands of words (provided, I assume, that the words are actually interesting).

Don’t take my word for it. Look at sites like longform and longreads. Get comfortable.

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New biography of Roger Ailes

By Christopher B. Daly 

Looking forward to reading the new biography of Roger Ailes, the driving force behind Fox News, by Gabriel Sherman. It sounds like this is the one worth waiting for, rather than the earlier version published last year by Zev Chafets, which had Ailes’ cooperation (which can only mean one thing).

Sherman, a contributing editor at New York mag (and Newton, Mass. native), has been working on this book for years, and he certainly has the journalistic credentials to pull it off.

Today’s story in the Times features this quote from Ailes:

“I want to elect the next president.”

As if that were a shocking ambition for a news executive. The same could have been said of Benjamin Bache at the Philadelphia Aurora in the election of 1796 or of Henry Raymond of the The New-York Daily Times (as it was originally known) in 1856 or William Randolph Hearst every year from 1896 to his death in 1951. American publishers and broadcasters have usually seen themselves as king-makers (it not candidates, a la Hearst). It appears to be one of the major appeals of the job.

Another curious passage from today’s story:

Last year, lawyers from Fox News met with lawyers from Random House to discuss Mr. Sherman’s book. Fox requested the meeting because it had heard about allegations that might be in the book that it said were inaccurate, and to emphasize that the book had not been fact-checked by Fox News.

Well, why would the book be “fact-checked by Fox News”? It should be fact-checked by its own publisher, Random House, not the subject. Isn’t that the essence of editorial responsibility? Sheesh.

Fun fact: Ailes is quoted as calling Bill O'Reilly "a book salesman with a TV show."

Fun fact: Ailes is quoted as calling Bill O’Reilly “a book salesman with a TV show.”

Photo: Brian Ach/Associated Press Images for The Hollywood Reporter

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A new New York Times online

By Christopher B. Daly

Today brings a long-awaited redesign of the New York Times online in all its various incarnations — desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile.

An overall first impression: it’s clean, smart, fast, and user-friendly. A clear winner. 

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 11.11.00 AM

To learn more, here’s an article by former Times media reporter Brian Stelter.

Some concerns:

–In the mobile version I am seeing on my iPhone, one screenful displays only 1.5 stories. It feels a bit like following a flashlight beam. I get no sense of the overall news picture.

–I am, of course, concerned about the simultaneous introduction of “native advertising” — which I consider an insidious erosion of the separation of  “church and state” within news organizations. I don’t care that everybody’s doing it. (On the other hand, I was just roaming around the site on my desktop computer, and I saw zero ads of any kind: is that courtesy of my ad-blocker?)

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

For comparison, here’s the way the Times looked when it made its debut in 1851 (price, 1 cent):

The_New-York_Daily_Times_first_issue

 

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Hyper-local news: a $300 million bust?

By Christopher B. Daly

Now comes word that AOL’s CEO, Tim Armstrong, is putting the finishing touches on the finale of Patch.com, the online local news sites. In his column today, NYTimes‘ David Carr reports that Armstrong is throwing in the towel on what used to be his baby. Too bad it didn’t work out.

There was a time when Patch looked like it might be an important part of the journalistic future. It was based on a key insight: more people were getting their news and information online, so why not local news? (Plus, there are a lot of local pizza parlors and nail salons that might advertise in such a site but would not be bothered advertising on a bigger site, because they would be paying to reach a lot of people who would never wander into their shops.)

While it lasted, Patch was a source of entry-level jobs for our journalism students, and I am worried about what will replace it.

Here’s Carr’s take:

 

The theory was that Patch would use a single news person and a single advertising person, at least initially, to create a digital maypole in hundreds of communities at a cost of about $100,000 annually per site. Patch sites popped up across the country, like Calabasas, Calif., and Nashua, N.H., covering high school sports, city elections and other local fare.

The execution risk was large — Patch was all moving parts, many undermanaged. At its peak, some 900 sites employed 1,400 people. Much of the journalism was pedestrian, while some of it, especially during Hurricane Sandy, was deeply important, but the decision to start at such a large scale was crippling. And all local efforts, digital or not, confront the tyranny of small numbers. Both the journalism and the ad sales were hand-to-hand, a retail effort that required spending a lot of money to go after pretty small revenue.

In August, it was clear that the math would not work. More than 350 people at Patch were laid off and hundreds of sites were shuttered.

What strikes me is the amount of money Armstrong was able to shovel into it — $300 million. Even for corporate moguls, that’s not nothing. Maybe that’s what was wrong all along: if you want to live online, keep your costs down.

I look forward to the experiment in this space that gets it right.

 

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