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Media mashup

By Christopher B. Daly

A couple of recent developments need noticing:

–The NYTimes’s redoubtable foreign correspondent John F. Burns is retiring. In an unusual note about personnel matters published in today’s paper, the Times gives Burns a fond salute.

Also not to be missed: Burns’ last story was a colorful account of the re-burial of English King Richard III. At the end of his final piece, Burns closes with a “kicker” in the form of a quote — “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Not original, of course, but a nice touch.

–The Times flooded the zone in the East Village yesterday to cover the gas explosion and building collapse. By my count, there were 18 reporters and photographers involved (judging by bylines and photo credit lines), not to mention all the nameless

Victor J. Blue/NYT

Victor J. Blue/NYT

editors. Among the team of metro reporters was Tatiana Schlossberg, whose role is featured in the Times’ “City Room” blog. Which is fitting, since she is the daughter of one prominent New Yorker (U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy) and the granddaughter of another prominent New Yorker (Jackie O).

–The gang at Vice Media, the unshaven new news organization, has found a big new platform for distributing its news reports: HBO. Plans call for a daily newscast from Shane Smith and his band of disruptors.

Raising the question: who is NOT a journalist these days?

Shane Smith in a suit.

Shane Smith in a suit.

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Cronkite didn’t do it all alone: RIP, Sandy Socolow.

Let us note the passing of one of those people you never hear about who work behind the scenes to make sure the news keeps coming to you. Today’s Times brings news of the death of Sandy Socolow, the longtime CBS News exec who produced many of Walter Cronkite’s shining moments.

From the Times obit:

Mr. Socolow worked for CBS almost without interruption from the mid-1950s until 1988. He arrived as a writer for the morning news and shortly thereafter began working with Cronkite, first on a midday news program and later on “Eyewitness to History,” a series of news specials that evolved into a weekly prime-time half-hour that lasted until the “CBS Evening News,” with Cronkite in the anchor seat, expanded to 30 minutes, from 15, in 1963.

For several years Mr. Socolow was a co-producer of the “Evening News,” in charge of, among other things, Vietnam coverage; according to CBS, he was the New York segment producer of the shocking 1965 report by Morley Safer that showed American Marines setting fire to Cam Ne, a village near Da Nang, and that helped awaken Americans to the escalating calamity of the war. Mr. Socolow produced Cronkite’s coverage of the moon landing in 1969. In 1971 he hired the program’s first female producer, Linda Mason.

He became vice president, deputy news director and executive editor of CBS News in New York, and in 1972 was involved in one of the news division’s most controversial episodes. Less than two weeks before the presidential election, the “Evening News” broadcast Cronkite’s two-part summation of the unfolding Watergate story, largely following the reporting in The Washington Post by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

Sandy Socolow, second from left, with Walter Cronkite, left, in 1970. The two later worked together on coverage of the Watergate scandal.  Credit Dan J. McCoy, Walter Cronkite Papers, UT Austin's Briscoe Center for American History

Sandy Socolow, second from left, with Walter Cronkite, left, in 1970. The two later worked together on coverage of the Watergate scandal.
Credit Dan J. McCoy, Walter Cronkite Papers, UT Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History

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Place your bets! When will NYT hit 1m digital subscribers?

By Christopher B. Daly

From today’s business pages, more good news (if you hunt for it) for the country’s most important institution of journalism. In a report on its own financial performance, tucked demurely inside the Business report, the New York Times reveals two key fact:

1. Digital advertising revenue is up!

2. Paid digital subscribers are up!

In today’s story, you have to hunt to find the good news, buried under the usual gloomy headline about the NYTCo’s overall performance. The main headline is — as usual — that profits slipped a tiny bit, mainly because of the continuing inevitable endless decline in print advertising and a small downturn in the money coming in from people who pay for the print edition. So what?

If you read the details of the company’s 4th-quarter results, you can find lots of good news:

–Online advertising rose 19 percent in the 4th quarter. (Yes, that includes some gain from “native advertising,” but if that’s what it takes to float the Times‘ boat, so be it.)

–The number of people who pay to subscribe to the Times online rose soared from 760,000 a year earlier to 910,000 at the end of 2014. That’s an increase of 150,000 new, paying customers, or 20 percent!

When you look at that part of the business — which is, after all, the future — the Times looks very much like a going concern. In fact, the Times‘ executive in charge of the business side, Mark Thompson, stuck his neck out and predicted that the Times will reach the 1 million milestone in paid online readers sometime in 2015. Care to wager on what day that will happen?

I’ll put my money on Sept. 18. That’s the date in 1851 when the New-York Daily Times was first published, saying about itself:

“. . . we intend to issue it every morning . . . for an indefinite number of years to come.”

And, for perspective, here is the 10-year chart of the NYTCO’s stock performance. Two things strike me. It’s hard not to notice that the stock plummeted in the Great Recession and that the Times is now up off the mat and fighting back. I now wish I had had the courage to buy some in 2009 — I could have doubled my money!

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 10.52.54 AM

[P.S. IMHO, the existential goal of the Times should be this: find enough digital revenue to pay for the cost of running the newsroom. Everything else is a distraction.]

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Journalist Ben Franklin inspires India’s PM

By Christopher B. Daly

imagesBy one account, India’s Prime Minister, Narendi Modi, has drawn inspiration from the life story of Ben Franklin — colonial-era printer, proto-American journalist, and publishing success.

In a recent radio address in conjunction with President Obama’s visit to India, Modi hailed Franklin.

. . .your question is, who has inspired me. I liked reading as a child. And I got an opportunity to read the biography of Benjamin Franklin

“And I tell everyone, we should read Benjamin Franklin’s biography. Even today, it inspires me. And Benjamin Franklin had a multi-dimensional personality. He was a politician, he was a political scientist, he was a social worker, he was a diplomat. And he came from an ordinary family. He could not even complete his education. But till today, his thoughts have an impact on American life,” he added.

It is unclear (to me, at least) whether Modi is referring to Franklin’s famous “Autobiography” or to one of the many fine biographies of BF (although most of the best ones were written long after Modi’s childhood; my favorites are by Isaacson and Brands.) If it’s the “Autobiography,” then Modi is probably referring to young Ben’s ferocious program of self-improvement and his determination to rise from beyond-humble beginnings to make something of himself. Indeed, 44-benjamin-franklin-1706-1790-grangerthe circumstances of Ben’s early life in Boston, as the 15th child in his father’s large family, were those of deep poverty in a distant fragment of the British Empire. Yet, by the end of his long and remarkable life, Franklin was one of the most accomplished and celebrated figures on the planet.

Need inspiration?

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Is the Internet melting away? Does “link rot” threaten all our memories?

By Christopher B. Daly

The Internet is many things, and most of us in the developed world have come, in a matter of just a few years, to depend on it for all sorts of things. Like a lot of people, I depend on the Internet to do most of my work, to keep track of my finances, to take and share photos, to keep in touch with loved ones, and lots of other activities that are fun, expressive, or important. More and more, I rely on the Internet to store or remember things for me. I have exported much of my deteriorating capacity to recall.

There’s more at stake than just my inability to find an old story or locate a picture I think I took a while back on my cellphone.

As a historian, I have to express my alarm about one feature of the Internet that most of us choose not to think about: LINK ROT. That’s the term for all those links you try to follow that bring you to an error page instead of the place you thought you were going. As these bad, broken links proliferate across the Internet (and its subset known as the Web), we have to wonder what kinds of things future historians will not know about us. They may be able to find out what was for lunch at our local middle school on a given day, but those researchers may be unable to find many other things.

Here is a recent New Yorker piece by Harvard historian Jill Lepore that explores the problems inherent in trying to save everything online. Can it be done? Should it? Lepore goes to the heart of the matter, by visiting the Internet Archive, at its real-world headquarters, in the old Presidio in San Francisco.

An excerpt:

The Wayback Machine has archived more than four hundred and thirty billion Web pages. The Web is global, but, aside from the Internet Archive, a handful of fledgling commercial enterprises, and a growing number of university Web archives, most Web archives are run by national libraries. They collect chiefly what’s in their own domains (the Web Archive of the National Library of Sweden, for instance, includes every Web page that ends in “.se”). The

Mr. Peabody and Sherman using the original "Wayback Machine."

Mr. Peabody and Sherman using the original “Wayback Machine.”

Library of Congress has archived nine billion pages, the British Library six billion. Those collections, like the collections of most national libraries, are in one way or another dependent on the Wayback Machine; the majority also use Heritrix, the Internet Archive’s open-source code. The British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France backfilled the early years of their collections by using the Internet Archive’s crawls of the .uk and .fr domains. The Library of Congress doesn’t actually do its own Web crawling; it contracts with the Internet Archive to do it instead.

All well and good, I suppose, but it’s not that simple. As Lepore points out, there are copyright issues, and there are lots of technical issues, too, involving how URLs are stored and retrieved.

In my own experience, this came home to me recently when I had to compile a dossier of my own work for a promotion. Turns out, if I wrote something for a magazine that went out of business (like the much-missed New England Monthly, for instance), no one has a stake in bringing that material onto the Wed or archiving it. So, it is pretty much gone, unless I can find my paper “clips” and scan them and post them somewhere myself. I also ran into a roadblock when I tried to retrieve my own work from a former employer, The Washington Post. Since I am no longer under contract to the Post, I had to pay for the privilege of getting access to my own work. (The Post also grabbed the copyright from me, but that’s another story.) In some cases, the only version that I had access to was the one that is stored on the floppy disk that I was using when I first wrote it back in the 1990s. But that led to another problem: I have a stack of floppies, but I no longer own a computer that can read them.

The issue is not going away any time soon. What can historians, “content-creators,” archivists and others do about it?

Here is a list of terrific suggestions from the Journalist’s Resource at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. Part of the answer may involve a new site called Perma.cc. (But at the speed I am working, I can’t make heads or tails out of it.)

Here’s an excerpt from the JR essay by Leighton Walter Kille:

To address some of these issues, academic journals are adopting use of digital object identifiers (DOIs), which provide both persistence and traceability. But as Zittrain, Albert and Lessig point out, many people who produce content for the Web are likely to be “indifferent to the problems of posterity.” The scholars’ solution, supported by a broad coalition of university libraries, is perma.cc — the service takes a snapshot of a URL’s content and returns a permanent link (known as a permalink) that users employ rather than the original link.

Anyway, there are a whole pile of useful tips in his essay.

And, finally, here is an entirely different perspective, from a scholar who says it’s important to curate the Web by deleting stuff. Bruce Schneier, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, argues that we save too much material that used to be ephemeral (like saving emails that took the place of previously unrecorded phone calls) or so trivial that it would be literally thrown away (like that receipt from lunch).

An organization-wide deletion policy makes sense. Customer data should be deleted as soon as it isn’t immediately useful. Internal e-mails can probably be deleted after a few months, IM chats even more quickly, and other documents in one to two years. There are exceptions, of course, but they should be exceptions. Individuals should need to deliberately flag documents and correspondence for longer retention. But unless there are laws requiring an organization to save a particular type of data for a prescribed length of time, deletion should be the norm.

When it comes to archiving the Web, how much is too much?

How much is too little?

And how will we know?

[To be on the safe side, I am printing all my work and storing copies in plastic tubs with tight-fitting lids. You never know. -CBD]

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The Monday Rdp (Nous sommes Charlie edition)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Like many other people, I adopted the political slogan “Je suis Charlie” last week. As with any slogan, it is a statement that is not valuable for its literal truth. It is valuable for its political message. It says that in a conflict between murderous doctrinaire literalists and peaceful free-thinking artists, I’m always going to be on the side of the artists. Of course, as a slogan, the statement “Je suis Charlie” also flattens the issue and robs it of much of its nuance. That’s too bad, but in a political crisis, some things do have to wait. Last week, the paramount issue was to defend freedom of speech, thought, and expression.

That’s why it was so disappointing that no high-ranking leader of the United States (the country that invented constitutional guarantees of free speech and press) managed to get to Paris to take part in the giant demonstration over the weekend. Shame on us. (This just in: Obama now gets why this was such a mistake. He could have at least dispatched that great avatar of press freedom Eric Holder to the march, since Holder happened to be in France anyway. Sheesh!)

Thousands of people gather at Republique square in Paris, France, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015.  Thousands of people began filling Franceís iconic Republique plaza, and world leaders converged on Paris in a rally of defiance and sorrow on Sunday to honor the 17 victims of three days of bloodshed that left France on alert for more violence. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Thousands of people gather at Republique square in Paris, France, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. Thousands of people began filling Franceís iconic Republique plaza, and world leaders converged on Paris in a rally of defiance and sorrow on Sunday to honor the 17 victims of three days of bloodshed that left France on alert for more violence. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

In related news, “Mr. Natural” himself — pioneering underground cartoonist R. Crumb, who has lived in France for a couple of decades — holds forth on the politics of cartooning in an interview with the Observer. Unlike most people, imagesCrumb actually knows what he’s talking about here.

Plus, there’s this. Just when you thinks can’t get any crazier, here is an example of the Saudi attitude toward free expression. A thousand lashes! Read this New Yorker piece and ask why we not only tolerate but actually support that government.

Elsewhere . . .

New York Times media columnist and BU Prof. David Carr has two items of interest to readers of this blog.

In his column today, he reports on his recent trip to CES in LV. My favorite line:

Think about it: What better place to explore the world of virtual reality than Vegas, a place where both Venice and New York are rendered as casinos?

And here’s the syllabus for Carr’s spring course at BU on media criticism. Sorry, but I think it’s too late to sign up.

Also worth reading, NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan on the decision all media faced last week about whether to re-print the offending cartoons.

Great photo but not Kyrzbekistan.

Great photo but not Kyrzbekistan.

And on a lighter note, an embarrassing screw-up at the Times last week resulted in the brief birth of a new nation: Kyrzbekistan (which perhaps ought to exist)

Favorite new flavor: The Ira Glass audio story-telling complex has just launched another subsidiary. The newest part of This American Life is a venture called “Invisibilia” — which just has to be heard to be believed. The first two shows blew me away this weekend: one about a blind guy who taught himself to echolocate (like a bat, a dolphin, or a sperm whale) and the other about the power and consequences of our own dark thoughts. Superb storytelling.

Closer to home:

The Boston Globe has re-invented its soft-news/arts section yet again. Gone is “g” — the daily tabloid insert. In its place is a free-standing regular section with different themes on different days. Enh. The print edition looks pretty dreary (because it’s printed), but the online version looks a bit snappier. Much will depend, of course, on how worthwhile the content is. Here’s the editor’s note from Brian McGrory.

And in other local developments, a hat-tip to Adam Reilly, the new regular news anchor on the evening news program produced by PBS affiliate WGBH in Boston. Reilly brings a welcome measure of intelligence, curiosity, and gravitas to a job that really screams for it. His resume includes a degree from Carleton College and one from the Harvard Divinity (!) School, as well as reporting stints at the late Boston Phoenix and WGBH radio and TV.

Keep up the good work!

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Risen on press freedom (and our secret history)

George Orwell

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

George Orwell

With that epigram in mind, let’s consider the recent experience of James Risen, the New York Times national-security reporter who is battling to stay out of jail for refusing to reveal his confidential source (or sources) in a case the government is bringing against someone else. [That would be former CIA officer Jeffrey A. Sterling, whose case I wrote about last summer in an earlier post.]
In court this week, Risen complied with a subpoena and testified in federal court. He testified that he would not reveal his sources. Well done.
Here’s why what he is doing is so important: Unless reporters find out secrets, they are not really doing their job. Without those stories, we would have next to no idea what our government is doing.
In Risen’s own words (according to the Times story):

Mr. Risen, in the speech last fall at Colby College, noted that many of the most controversial aspects of the government’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — drones, waterboarding, secret prisons, prison abuses in Iraq and more — took place in secret.

“If you took away all the things that the press revealed to begin with in the war on terror, you would know virtually nothing about the history of the last 13 years,” he said. He said that the government was less likely to prosecute leaks of classified information that made the government look good, such as the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

“Stay on the Interstate highway of conventional wisdom with your journalism, and you will have no problems,” he said. “Try to get off and challenge basic assumptions, and you will face punishment.”

Well put.

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