Monthly Archives: May 2012

The glass is half-empty AND half-full

By Christopher B. Daly 

In light of the recent announcement that the New Orleans Times-Picayune will scale back the frequency of its print editions, the following chart bears studying:

This chart was part of a recent presentation by Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins. (I got hold of it through Poynter.)

So, what’s the takeaway? If you extend those trend lines any further, you can see that the revenue won’t be there in the future to support a printed newspaper. If newspapers want to stay in the news business, they better have a plan to get out of the paper business.


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The Warren-Brown Senate Race: “Organized Hatred”?

By Christopher B. Daly

The 19th Century historian Henry Adams – who was no dope – once shrewdly described Massachusetts politics as “the systematic organization of hatreds.” That was certainly true in his day. A question raised by the current U.S. Senate campaign is whether it is still true today.

Here’s why I say that. The presumptive Democrat, Elizabeth Warren, has had to spend weeks defending herself from the revelation by the Boston Herald that she once, long ago, gave the impression that she was part Cherokee.  The resulting brouhaha has changed the subject in the campaign and presumably worked to the advantage of the presumptive Republican candidate, Scott Brown.

Where did the original disclosure come from?

Let me emphasize that I don’t know what happened.

In fact, it is probably unknowable at present, due to the code of omerta that prevails among political operatives and political reporters. That code is something I do know a little about, having spent a few years as a political reporter covering Massachusetts politics.

In that role, I was the recipient of calls from parties unknown who, for reasons best known to them, decided to “drop a dime” into an untraceable payphone (I am dating myself here, I realize) and share some precious intelligence. I was sometimes invited to “take a walk” by a gimlet-eyed young operative; we would end up on a bench on the Common, and the guy would lean in close and give me the phone number of a divorce lawyer representing some disgruntled ex-spouse of a politician or cabinet member. I was invited to lunch at restaurants in the vicinity of Beacon Hill and slipped manila envelopes with documents inside, detailing the names of political donors whose relationships to each other were not obvious but turned out to be quite interesting once the tipster connected the dots. I got to know the system, thanks to these then-young political operatives.

So, here is what I surmise happened in the Senate race.

The Brown campaign did what all well-financed modern campaigns do: the candidate took a sliver of the millions he has raised and hired a team tasked with conducting “opposition research.” That is, you get a bunch of brainy young people together and you tell them to research everything about the political opposition.

And when they say everything, they mean everything: every indiscretion and every discrepancy. Every tax or mechanic’s lien. Every divorce, adoption, or inheritance. Every real estate transaction, including mortgage notes. Every arrest and every traffic violation. Every grade in school, every bad date, every expensive hairdo – EVERYthing.

The fruits of all that research are then handed over to the campaign’s senior aides and advisers, who stockpile them like ammunition. When they see an opportunity to use the information to their tactical advantage, they fire away. The campaign has some options. In one scenario, they can use the material directly and have their own candidate make a public accusation.

Or, they can play it “cute” and aim for a bank shot. They might decide to “leak” the information to the news media. That approach has several advantages. One is that the damaging material has the added credibility of reaching the public in the form of a news story. Another advantage of the leak is that the campaign can deny involvement or feign ignorance, safe in the knowledge that the reporter they went to will never rat them out.

           This can be especially effective if the campaign aides don’t even tell the candidate. Then, when the “news” breaks in the media, the candidate can act sincerely shocked and outraged and call for further investigations into the “troubling questions” raised by the news reports. That way, the story gains what we call “legs” – that is, it has the capacity to sustain itself as a continuing “story” involving denials, “fresh details,” and so on.

Did that happen in the case of the disclosure about Warren’s heritage? As I said, I don’t know. But it has all the hallmarks.

And what’s troubling about it is this: somebody knows. Quite likely, somebody in the campaign knows. If that’s the case, then there’s your real scandal right there. I say that because it points a finger at someone on Brown’s staff who must have gone through a thought process something like this:

            Oh, boy! This is great. We can leak this baby to the Herald, which we can depend on to slap it on Page 1. It will look on the surface like a “gotcha” story about a candidate’s hypocrisy. But as an added bonus, this story comes with a dog whistle: For those who can hear it, this is really a story about affirmative action. It’s a smear, intended to leave the impression that Elizabeth Warren is some kind of race whore, who gamed the system that so many white ethnics still hate.

            In their view, affirmative action is a big con game designed to put unqualified blacks, Hispanics and other minorities in line ahead of qualified white ethnics for the few good things in life. If we can get Warren associated with affirmative action, we can stir up those resentments, organize those hatreds, and peel off a couple thousand white ethnics who are independents or even some who are still Democrats. If we’re lucky, the “story” will get picked up by the echo chamber of right-wing talk radio. The eight ball drops into the corner pocket.


Did all that happen? I don’t know.

But someone does.

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News beyond newspapers

By Chris Daly

I heard a terrific piece today on WBUR, the local NPR affiliate. It was about “Toys for Elephants” — a project by students from the Massachusetts College of Art who took up the challenge of designing play objects for two mature elephants who live at the Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford.

Here’s a link to the story by reporter Vicki Croke and producer George Hicks. (I hope I have that division of labor right, but it’s probably murkier than that.) It presents a really rich blend of multi-media: sound, still photos, video, and words.

Try that with your print newspaper!

[Actually, the Boston Globe did a version of the same story back in April, then posted a video version on the paper’s website. It’s a fine piece, too, but not as rich as the ‘BUR version.)

I don’t know anything about elephants, but these seem like two happy, engaged creatures.

Ruth and Emily /  photo by Susan Hagner for WBUR

Ruth, 54, and Emily, 49. / photo by Susan Hagner for WBUR

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Buffett on newspapers

By Chris Daly

Guess what super-investor Warren Buffett thinks about the future of newspapers?

Hint: he’s buying them. (And not just copies of papers; he’s buying whole newspaper companies.)


Warren Buffett’s letter to publishers and editors

p. 1


AP Photo

AP Photo


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Glass half full?

By Chris Daly

The latest American newspaper to take a step back from daily print publication is the venerable Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Today’s New York Times reports that the 175-year-old newspaper is scaling back to printing three days a week. By doing so, the managers hope to capture the bulk of the advertising revenue they get from display ads in the print version, while reducing some of the “legacy” costs that go along with printing: the extra salaries for full-time printers and drivers; the cost of the newsprint paper; the overhead, etc.

The good news: the folks at the Times-Picayune have taken the first steps along the narrow, rickety, wobbly, rope bridge to the digital future. The Times-Picayune is not going out of business. Far from it. The cutback in printing is part of a larger strategy to save the paper, not destroy it. Just about every newspaper in the country is somewhere along that same timeline, whether they recognize it or not. They are all groping their way into the future — without a map (such as the map of New Orleans below, which was created by the Times-Picayune).

Bonus question: What does picayune mean? (answer below)



From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
This article is about the obsolete Spanish coin. For other uses, see Picayune (disambiguation).

picayune was a Spanish coin, worth half a real. Its name derives from the French picaillon, which is itself from the Provençal picaioun, meaning “small coin.” By extension, picayune can mean “trivial” or “of little value.”

Aside from being used in Spanish territories, the picayune and other Spanish currency was used throughout colonial AmericaSpanish dollars were made legal tender in the United States by an act on February 9, 1793 until it was demonetized on February 21, 1857.[1] The coin’s name first appeared in Florida and Louisiana where its value was worth approximately six and a quarter cents, and whose name was sometimes used in place of the U.S. nickel.[2][3]

A daily newspaper published in the New Orleans market, the Times-Picayune, is named after the picayune.[4]


Wikisource has the text of the1911 Encyclopædia Britannicaarticle Picayune.
Look up picayune in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
  1. ^ Spanish Silver: General Introduction Coin and Currency Collections – University of Notre Dame, Retrieved on April 7, 2008
  2. ^ Picayune, Probert Encyclopedia, Retrieved on April 10, 2008
  3. ^ Picayune, World Wide Words, Retrieved on April 8, 2008
  4. ^ McLeary, Paul (2005-09-12). “The Times-Picayune: How They Did It.”Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved 2010-07-27.


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Should anonymous comments be banned?

By Chris Daly 

According to TIME, legislation has been proposed in the New York Assembly that would ban the widespread (but often annoying) practice of posting online comments anonymously. I like comments: I like to read them, and I allow them on this site. 

But here’s the thing: 

–Signed comments are sometimes good and sometimes bad.

–Unsigned comments are sometimes good and sometimes bad.

–All of the worst comments seem to be anonymous.

Let’s discuss. Feel free to comment. But let’s try this: if you insist on commenting anonymously, you must follow the guidelines that journalists use for granting anonymity for sources. That is, you have to have a reason for your anonymity, and you have to disclose as much information as possible about that reason.

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Covering Romney

By Chris Daly

Here’s the text of a letter I submitted to the New York Times for publication yesterday. Since they have had 24 hours to act on it and have not contacted me, I am assuming that they are not going to use it. (Everyone makes mistakes.) So, I am posting it here:


Re: “Tall Tales about Private Equity” (Op-ed, May 23): 
Steven Rattner makes a valid point about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s track record of job creation while Mr. Romney was the head of Bain Capital. Mr. Rattner argues that Bain’s primary goal was to make money and that job creation was secondary. He notes that in the case of Bain’s involvement with Staples, Mr. Romney claims credit for all of the 89,000 jobs Staples had by 2010, rather than the 42,000 employees it had when Mr. Romney left Bain in 1998.
From another point of view, even the 42,000 figure may be too high, because it is not a net figure. Staples is a big-box office supply chain whose success led indirectly to the closing of some uncounted number of small stationery shops, all of which once had employees too. When the loss of those jobs is reckoned against the gains at Staples, the net number of jobs gained in that retail field is probably much lower.
Boston, May 23, 2012

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Do college students study enough?

By Chris Daly

Recent news reports about college life focus on the findings of the latest National Survey of Student Engagement, which is run by Indiana University with funding from Pew and Carnegie. The upshot seems to be that college students don’t study enough — or at least, they don’t study as much as college students used to study.

I don’t know if that’s true, and I don’t think the NSSE has been around long enough to provide meaningful data about study habits during the Baby Boomers’ college days (a vague metric that seems to underlie a lot of the news coverage).

But as a college professor myself (at a large, selective, private university), I would venture to offer two reasons why today’s college students might study less than their counterparts from the 1970s, when I was in college:

1. Many of today’s students are working during the school year to help their families meet the exorbitant cost of college education. Whenever I propose an out-of-class assignment, the hands immediately go up, and students tell me that they can’t do it because they are working.

2. Many of today’s students are caught up in the expansion of NCAA sports. For one thing, under Title IX, the number of female athletes has exploded in recent decades. Not only that, but many NCAA teams require their “student-athletes” to train year round. I had a student last semester on the B.U. swim team who had to miss a few classes due to travel to swim meets during the winter season. When the season ended, I mentioned that she must be finding it easier to keep up. She said: no, the coach expects them to keep showing up for practice. This is a common fact of life for college athletes — they are competing or training continuously throughout the school year. There goes 3-4 hours a day.

Both of these trends really impinge on the time students could possibly devote to studying. Assuming they want to.



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A news blog evolves

By Chris Daly 

In my recent book, Covering America, I ended my 300+ year narrative of journalism in America on an optimistic note. One reason for that optimism is the success of Josh Marshall and his Talking Points Memo.


I admire Marshall, and I wish him well. So I was pleased to see this item in the Nieman

Josh Marshall (I would credit this photo, but I can’t find the source.)

Journalism Lab website, which suggests that Marshall is trying to figure out what a blog looks like when it grows up. After 12 years in business, TPM has expanded in several stages, reaching 28 full-time employees recently. That makes it a medium-sized newsroom, based entirely on the Web. TPM has no legacy in traditional media; it was born on-line and grew up there.


Now, the growing seems to mean branching out into all kinds of media, especially video, as well as mobile apps. Here’s the take-away, from Marshall himself:

“If someone were to ask me a year ago, I would have said, ‘Well, yeah, we’re not just a website — it’s this, and we have that, and the other.’ But I think it was when I saw mobile growing as fast as it was that it just sort of hit me at a different level,” Marshall told me. “Inevitably, as long as mobile was something like five percent of traffic, it was just something you made available on the side. But you start to see,this is going to be half of our audience. We can’t be approaching it in a way that the website is the thing, and we’re making imitations of it — because this thing is losing its primacy. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t until late last year that it hit me at a different level. It hit me as more than a concept. It was really true.”

 Keep up the good work. (But I must say I don’t care for pre-roll ads and usually bail out when I encounter one.)

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Is Google a publisher? Are you?

By Chris Daly 

What is Google?

Of course, it’s a search engine. But is it also a “common carrier” type of utility like the phone company or a bus company?

Or, is it a publisher like the old Yellow Pages or Consumer Reports? Does it organize, rank, and highlight certain information?

That’s a question that many folks are wrestling with. One, highlighted in today’s Times (as a result of an editorial decision, to be sure), is Eugene Volokh, the UCLA law professor behind the popular blog, the Volokh Conspiracy. According to the Times, Volokh took money from Google to write an “article” that argued — surprise! — just what Google wanted him to argue, which is that Google deserves just as much First Amendment protection as it wants.

BTW, if you blog, you are definitely considered a “publisher” in the eyes of the law, and you are just as responsible for the contents of your blog as a traditional publisher or broadcaster.

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