Category Archives: Journalism

Not all change is progress: Bring back Paperboys (and girls)

By Christopher B. Daly

[I am posting a longer version of an essay I wrote this week for Cognoscenti, the public discussion page run by the terrific Boston NPR affiliate WBUR.]

Lately, the Boston Globe has earned some unwanted headlines for problems with a new home-delivery service. Reporters, editors, and other Globe personnel have left their warm beds and leapt into the breach, using their cars to deliver the print version of the paper to their precious regular subscribers.

I can sympathize.

I delivered the Globe for nearly eight years, six days a week, in my old neighborhood in West Medford. By my reckoning, that was nearly 2,500 days of delivery without a miss – with help, occasionally, from members of my family who filled in (thanks, Monica!). It was a robust business that helped put me through college and taught me a number of life lessons – all in an era before corporate out-sourcing and sub-contractors.

I began my career as a paperboy (alas, no girls in those days) for the Globe in the winter of 1965. Back then, paper routes were coveted, and almost the only time of year when a route became available was during the week or two after Christmas. The reason was simple: paperboys all tried to hang in there and keep their routes through December so as to reap the traditional Christmas tips. Once they had collected that windfall, they would quit. That’s how I got my break.

The delivery system was simple. Sometime during the overnight hours, a Globe truck would slow down outside our house and someone would toss out a bundle of newspapers equal to the exact number of my customers. When my alarm clock went off, I would get up and get dressed, stuffing my feet with extra socks into the green rubber boots I wore most days in those snowy winters. I would bring the bundle of papers into the house, cut the string, and place them into a giant canvas bag that would hang from my shoulder.

On my very first day, I ventured out into the cold, dark morning, lugging my load of Globes like a tiny peddler. I had not memorized my route yet, so the first days took a long time. I had a paper list of my customers and their addresses, but it was still so dark out that I had to stop under a streetlight, read the next few names, try to memorize them, then trudge along making deliveries until I needed to check the list again.

My goal: get every paper safe and dry onto each front porch and get back home in time for breakfast and the walk to school.

Eventually, I got the hang of it and became more and more efficient. First step: memorize the route, so I would not have to keep checking “the list.” Second step: get a bike, which really speeded things along. Third step: learn to fold the papers so that I could toss them onto porches from the street rather than walking up each front walk.

Weather permitting, these simple steps greatly increased my delivery speed, to the point where I was able to take on a second, adjoining route. Now my customers sprawled over an area from the far reaches of Pine Ridge Road almost all the way to just short of West Medford Square, about a mile from end to end.

With the larger territory, I was keen to step up my pace. So, I mastered the ultimate in suburban paper delivery: I slung the canvas over 0106_paperboy_cog-592x324my shoulder and hopped on the bike. While riding “no-hands,” I would fold the papers as I went and toss them up onto the porches. Now, I could get through my whole route in no time and focus my attention on the revenue model.

The revenue model was pretty straightforward. I charged my customers whatever rate the newspaper established for home delivery. I was entitled to a share of that base figure, plus regular tips, and the Christmas bonuses. It was a pretty good business for a kid who could not even legally get a real job.

Yes, it was child labor, and it would have been illegal if the nation’s newspapers had not exempted themselves from all such legislation. Legally, I was considered an independent contractor. All I knew was that it put money in my pockets.

Besides, I started to get interested in the contents of all those papers. I started with the “funnies,” which were usually printed on the back page. As I got a little older, I moved forward through the paper, discovering sports and then general news. By the time I was a teenager, I

kept reading about Yaz and Russell and Orr, but I also included a pretty steady diet of news about Vietnam, protests, and the Beatles. This was, no doubt, the genesis of my life-long career in journalism.

 

But as good as it was, the paperboy business had its downsides. For one thing, I saw more sunrises than I care to remember, and to this day, I hate getting up in the morning. And there were the occasional disasters, such as when I would toss a folded paper onto a front porch only to see it crash through a glass storm door. Most of the time, I had to pay to replace them.

Another problem was on the customer-relations side. It was part of the paperboy’s responsibility to visit every house every Friday afternoon to collect that week’s subscription money. By going door-to-door to collect, I couldn’t help but stay in touch with my customers. I learned who really cared about getting the paper inside the storm door, who left for work early, and who tipped well.

Collecting also required me to learn a bit about book-keeping, because an astonishing number of my fellow suburbanites somehow couldn’t manage to scrounge up 50 or 75 cents at the end of the week. They seemed to be under the delusion that information should be free, or else they just couldn’t be bothered. So I had to keep track in a little ledger book of who was paid up and who was delinquent.

Then, there were the dogs. A mutt named Tammy seemed to be put on Earth just to torment me, chasing me every morning for the sheer malicious pleasure of it.

Plus, there was one special horror on my route. That was the Emery Nursing Home, a huge house set back from the road. I had about half a dozen customers in there. Delivering the papers was tolerable. I would just hop off my bike, leave a short stack on the front desk, and skedaddle. I hated the smell of the place, and I would often hear shrieks or moans coming from the upper floors.

But on Fridays, I would have to actually go in there and collect the week’s subscription money from each customer. This meant getting my courage up to walk upstairs and go room to room, hunting down those nickels and quarters that were owed to me and the Globe. For some of the inmates, I was their only visitor all week, month after month. Others were in various states of undress, dementia, or problems I could only imagine.

So, seeing as how I was an independent contractor, I made one more change in my small business: I hired a sub-contractor. My friend Bob Gillingham wanted a paper route, but I had the two routes in our area locked up. Eventually, I made a deal with Gilly: if he would take over the collections for me on my routes, I would split the week’s earnings with him. (I forget the details, but I’m pretty sure the split was in my favor.)

 

Despite all the problems, my route became so easy and so lucrative that I hung onto it all through high school. I would say the experience had a major formative influence on me, and I always thought it was a shame when the newspaper industry moved away from having paperboys (and girls) in favor of grown-ups driving around in cars and never stopping by to chat.

Not all change is progress. As the Globe struggles to tweak its home-delivery service, I might suggest that the newspaper’s executives consider recruiting a small army of boys (and girls!) on bikes. Globe readers would be delighted at the high level of customer service, and those kids would learn a thing or two about perseverance, efficiency, thrift, and record-keeping. They might even develop a real interest in the news.

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Monday media roundup

By Christopher B. Daly

Here are some recent comments worth thinking about:

–After seeing “Spotlight,” NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan expresses concern over the state of investigative reporting by the nation’s regional newspapers. (I guess “regional newspapers” is Timesspeak for papers that the Times respects but does not consider in its league — i.e., Boston, Seattle, Milwaukee.)

–“On the Media” views with dismay the current state of political rhetoric. The show even uses the L-word. (To listen, click on the link, then hit “This Week’s Show.”)

–On CNN, “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter went a few bruising rounds with Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson  on this Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 3.17.01 PMquestion: “Is Donald Trump the “post-truth” candidate?” Pierson is one tough cookie, and expect to see and hear a lot more from her.

–The battle over ad-blocking rages on. I don’t like most ads, and I happily use an ad-blocking app on my iPhone. My only complaint is that some ads still slip through. Now, I am the first to say that the news business needs to work as a business if it is to succeed and do all the other

BADADSillo-master1050

Illustration by Sam Manchester for NYT

things we want from it. My solution: allow customers like to pay more — even a lot more — to pay the full freight of news-gathering and eliminate the need for advertising altogether. This approach, which is reflexively pooh-poohed by certain people, has worked in the past: it was the basic model in the 18th century, and it has worked for I.F. Stone, for a lot of investment newsletters, and for a few others. Any takers?

–Finally, RIP to M. Roland Nachman, who was on the losing (and wrong) side of one of the landmark First Amendment cases in U.S. history — the Sullivan case of 1964. He seems to have been a decent fellow, but he was still wrong. Read more in my book, Covering America, at pages 312-13.

 

 

 

 

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My favorite films about journalism

By Christopher B. Daly

This weekend marked the general release of the terrific new film “Spotlight,” about the team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who broke the prize-winning story about the widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests. The film, as I noted in my review, is a much-needed valentine to traditional news media, praising their willingness to use their resources in pursuit of telling the truth and holding the powerful accountable.

“Spotlight” is already being hailed (to use a bit of journalese) as one of the best films of all time about journalism. Which raises the question:

What are the best films about journalism?

Here’s my annotated list:

[I like all of these films, for one reason or another, so I am not ranking them. Instead, they are arranged chronologically, which makes some interesting points about the evolving view of journalists over time. I had never noticed how many of these come in clusters, which must be a lagging indicator of something.]

 

I COVER THE WATERFRONT (1933)

Claudette Colbert plays a smuggler’s daughter who is being investigated by a reporter, played by Ben Lyon. Complications naturally ensue. Fun fact: The title song was recorded by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and others.

 

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

Dir. Howard Hawks. My personal favorite. Watch Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at the top of their games in a romp through Chicago journalism of MV5BMTM3ODQ2Mzg0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjM3ODA5._V1_UX100_CR0,0,100,100_AL_the 1920s. HGF features an epically dense screenplay, as the two leads constantly talk over each other. One memorable zinger after another. From the play, “The Front Page,” written by journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

 

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940)

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock. Joel McCrea plays a young American reporter in London on the eve of WWII, trying to expose enemy agents (as all good journalists just naturally do!). Ben Hecht is one of the writers, though uncredited.

 

CITIZEN KANE (1941)

The cinematic masterpiece from Orson Welles, who wrote, directed and MV5BMTQ2Mjc1MDQwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzUyOTUyMg@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_starred. It’s a thinly veiled biography of William Randolph Hearst, who hated it and did all he could (which was a lot) to try to suppress it. Welles gets the last laugh. Screenplay co-credit goes to Herman J. Mankiewicz.

 

 

WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942)

The first of the nine Hepburn/Tracy films. Two rival reporters meet cute and marry not-so-cute. Kate Hepburn plays a version of the real-life columnist Dorothy Thompson. Spencer Tracy wishes his globe-trotting, multi-lingual wife were home a bit more often. Ring Lardner Jr. shares screenwriting credit.

 

GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947)

Gregory Peck plays a journalist who decides to investigate anti-semitism by pretending to be Jewish himself. Peck at his righteous best. Screenplay by Moss Hart, based on novel by Laura Z. Hobson.

 

CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948)

Jimmy Stewart, who knew his way around a fedora, plays a Chicago reporter who re-opens a cold murder case in this film-noir drama.

 

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)

Burt Lancaster, depicts gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Tony Curtis, MV5BNTk2MzU2ODc3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDU1MjkyMw@@._V1_UY105_CR6,0,105,105_AL_plays an oily, sycophantic p.r. agent. A noir masterpiece that explores the careers of people who don’t know how not to manipulate others. One of the screenwriting credits goes to playwright Clifford Odets.

 

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)

MV5BODAxMTc4ODcxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDY0NTAyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR8,0,214,317_AL_The essential celebration of investigative reporting, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The film dramatizes the real-life reporting of the Washington Post reporters that led to the downfall of President Nixon. Screenwriter William Goldman wrote the best line, uttered by Hal Holbrook, playing “Deep Throat” in a dark and empty parking garage: “Follow the money.”

 

NETWORK (1976)

Dir: Sidney Lumet. Starring: Faye Dunaway and William Holden. Featuring Peter Finch for his memorable freak-out live on television, urging viewers to join him in ranting: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Writer: Paddy Chayefsky

 

THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979)

Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and a bearded Michael Douglas star in this drama about white-hat journalists exposing safety problems at a nuclear power plant. Very much in the shadow of the Three Mile Island incident of the same year.

 

ABSENCE OF MALICE (1981)

Dir. Sydney Pollack. Sally Field plays a young reporter who libels Paul Newman (horrors) by publishing leaked information about him that is false and harmful to his reputation. This one causes a lot of journalists to squirm.

 

THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982)

Dir. Peter Weir. Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. Australian reporter, assisted by Linda Hunt, covers Indonesia during a period of turmoil and finds time to romance Sigourney Weaver. Could be Gibson’s career high.

 

THE KILLING FIELDS (1984)

Sam Waterston depicting NYTimes correspondent Sydney Shanberg covering Cambodia during the appalling regime of the Khmer Rouge. Terrific performance by first-time actor Haing S. Ngor, portraying the Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran.

 

BROADCAST NEWS (1987)

Dir. James L. Brooks. A romantic triangle involving William Hurt, Albert Brooks, and their boss, the incomparable Holly Hunter. Set in a MV5BMTMwMzg2Mzc1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjY4ODk4._V1_UX100_CR0,0,100,100_AL_television newsroom, the main characters manage to address real journalistic issues without preachy speeches. Written by James L. Brooks, no relation to Albert. (who also wrote the newsroom-based TV shows Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant).

 

THE PAPER (1994)

Dir: Ron Howard (formerly Opie on Mayberry). Michael Keaton plays Henry Hackett, the city editor of a NYC tabloid, in a day-in-the-life about a journalist’s crusade for the truth at any cost: major fight with wife, lost job at the New York Times, etc. Highlight: the knock-down brawl with Glenn Close.

 

WAG THE DOG (1997)

Dir. Barry Levinson. An acidic satire of Washington’s manipulation of the mass media. Starring Robert DeNiro as a political operative who enlists a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to gin up a photogenic war to divert public attention from scandal. Hoffman envisions was as “a pageant.” From the book by Larry Beinhart.

 

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)

Dir.: Terry Gilliam.

Benicio del Toro plays Dr. Gonzo himself. In a masterpiece of understatement, IMDb tries to gets its arms around this film this way: “An oddball journalist and his psychopathic lawyer travel to Las Vegas for a series of psychedelic escapades.” That about sums it up. From the book by HST.

MV5BMTk4NjQwNTc0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwOTQzNTA3._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_

 

THE INSIDER (1999)

Starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. Based on CBS investigation into Big Tobacco. Crowe plays a chemist-turned-whistleblower, and Pacino plays TV producer Lowell Bergman as a blow-hard. Christopher Plummer portrays a TV reporter based on Mike Wallace of CBS’s “60 Minutes” – who did not appreciate the insinuation that he pulled punches. Based on Marie Brenner’s article in Vanity Fair called “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

 

 ALMOST FAMOUS (2000)

Writer/director Cameron Crowe wonders what it would have been like to be a teenager who gets to write a story for Rolling Stone that involves traveling with a rock band on tour. Starring Kate Hudson as the allusive groupie Penny Lane.

 

SHATTERED GLASS (2003)

The sad, miserable story of some guy (I don’t want to even use his name) who bamboozled his editors at The New Republic for an unforgivably long time. The guy’s story pitches were too good to be true, alas. Partial writing credit: journalist Buzz Bissinger.

 

CAPOTE (2005) MV5BMTczMzU0MjM1MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjczNzgyNA@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_

In one of his last major roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman does a star turn as the writer Truman Capote as he undertakes the reporting that turned into the non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood.” Catherine Keener plays the young Nelle Harper, Capote’s sidekick and better known as the author Harper Lee of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

 

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (2005)

Dir. George Clooney. David Straithairn plays Edward R. Murrow in this heroic biopic. Good as far as it goes, but it pulls punches on what happened to Murrow after he took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (CBS sidelined Murrow because he was too overtly political.) Clooney wrote it, too.

 

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)MV5BMTMyNjk4Njc3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDkyMTEzMw@@._V1_SX80_CR0,0,80,80_

Meryl Streep plays an imperious editor of a woman’s high-fashion magazine (a la Anna Wintour at Vogue), and Anne Hathaway plays her plucky assistant. Terrific cast.

 

FROST/NIXON (2008)

A dramatization of the real-life interviews conducted by British talk-show host David Frost with disgraced former president Richard Nixon (see “All the President’s Men”). Frank Langella turns in a very credible Nixon. Fun fact: the role played by Oliver Platt in the film was played in real life by former BU Journalism professor Bob Zelnick.

 

STATE OF PLAY (2009)

Replacing Brad Pitt (who backed out), Russell Crowe plays an old-school Washington reporter covering the death of a congressional aide, with help from perky blogger Rachel McAdams, who tries to teach the old dog Crowe some new reporting tricks found on this thing called the Internet. Fun cameos of actual DC reporters, including Woodward.

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015)

Dir. Tom McCarthy. With help from screenwriter Josh Singer, McCarthy delivers an appreciative bouquet to traditional “accountability” journalism. Based on the true story of the Pulitzer-winning investigative reporting team at the Boston Globe who exposed the rampant sexual abuse and extensive cover-up within the Boston Catholic archdiocese.

*        *         *      *       *       *

Honorable mention, TV series:

The Wire, Season 5

Newsroom

Lou Grant

Superman (George Reeves)

See a mild-mannered reporter at The Daily Planet, Clark Kent, turn into a righteous super hero. If only all reporters could be caped crusaders.

 

Honorable mention, documentaries:

Reporting America at War

Control Room

Around the World in 72 Days

Outfoxed

 

 

[For more info, see the website Image of Journalism in Popular Culture at USC]

 

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Journalism informed by history

By Christopher B. Daly

After a summertime hiatus, I want to revive this site. As ever, there is much to say about journalism, history, and the assorted other topics that show up here from time to time (NCAA, fossil fuels, etc.)

Today, I want to praise the NYTimes business columnist Eduardo Porter for his smart and effective use of history to inform what was essentially a political column about Donald Trump.

Porter begins with the premise that we all have our own histories and that our individual histories are entwined with the broader histories of our times. In Trump’s case, that personal history involved a coming of age at a very unusual period in American history — when the fraction of the foreign-born population was at an all-time low.

When Donald Trump was reaching adulthood in the mid-1960s, the United States was a less diverse place. By 1970, the share of the population born overseas had shrunk to 4.7 percent, the slimmest on record. Only about 0.4 percent of the population had been born in Mexico.

For a person of Trump’s time, that experience helps define a norm, against which all change is experienced as a deviation. Thus, for Trump and the slice of the population that is about his age (69, about the oldest possible slice of the baby boom), the last few decades represent a disorienting change in the composition of American society. Incidentally, there is nothing inevitable about his perception that such change represents a decline. He might see it as a plus. The fact that he interprets the change as a harm tells us a lot about Donald Trump as an individual. The times in which we live do not dictate everything about us; they just give us material to work with.

My only gripe with Porter’s column has to do with an issue that pervades the Times. Why won’t the paper include more links to source material? Most of the links in the online version link to other Times stories or to backgrounders prepared by the Times. In the Porter piece, it would make sense to link to the works of some of the experts he cites or to link to the Pew study he relies on. I suppose the paper is worried that readers will depart from the Times‘ site via links and never return. But I think that’s wrong. I think more readers would value the Times more if it included external links.

Besides, if the Times is going to write using a historical perspective more often, the writers will have to meet the standards that historians have for evidence. Footnotes anyone?

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A Grim Anniversary: The A-bomb 70 years later

By Christopher B. Daly

Seventy years ago this week, the United States used atomic bombs in war for the first (and so far only) time in history. It is an occasion to reflect on what that action meant and what it continues to mean for every person on the planet. Without getting into the debate over the morality or the military effectiveness of the bomb, here are some thoughts on the journalism of that fateful period.

Here is a recent piece by me that ran on The Conversation (a terrific website in which academics are invited to write for non-specialists). It is adapted from my book Covering America.

Here is the NYTimes own history of its role in the coverage.

And here is the text of John Hersey’s masterful account of Hiroshima.

 

William Laurence (left) on Tinian Island before departing for Nagasaki.  Military photo.

William Laurence (left) on Tinian Island before departing for Nagasaki.
Military photo.

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Media Roundup

By Christopher B. Daly

–I am so proud of my old newspaper, The Washington Post. The paper has recently been rendering a major public service: a reckoning of all the shootings of civilians by police that take place in the United States. You might think that information would be routinely collected by Justice, the FBI, or at least every state police agency. You’d be wrong.

Turns out, there is no central governmental accounting. So, the Post stepped into the vacuum and built a database from the ground up.

Turns out, American cops shoot about two civilians a day, every day.

Is that too many? Too few? Just about right? I don’t know, but at least now we can begin to have a debate about it and come to terms with the police. As Juvenal put it 2,000 years ago: Qui custodiet ipsos custodes? Or, Who will police the police? Who will guard the guardians? Who will watch over those who watch over?

In my view, this is exactly why we need a free and independent news media.

–Here we go again with the NSA.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all for a robust, state-of-the-art intelligence service. To my mind, that means spying on other countries in ways that advance our national interests without them even finding out about it. That’s my standard for U.S. intelligence-gathering. Anything else has to yield to the Constitution. When it comes to spying on Americans, there is no reason for the executive branch to take it upon itself to routinely spy on Americans who are not even suspected of having broken any laws.

According to the Times, the secret agency has justified its secret program to a secret court, so we are all supposed to just shut up and submit our data. Absolutely not.

Ssshhh!!

Ssshhh!!

–So, I see that tourists will now be allowed to take photos while touring the White House. Yay.

If only the professional news photographers who cover the White House had the same liberty!

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Why is it so hard to talk about Charleston?

By Christopher B. Daly

What happened in Charleston this week meets the literal definition of terrorism.

Here’s a dictionary definition (from Dictionary.com):

noun

1.

the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.

Here’s the FBI’s definition:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

So, why do the media find it so difficult to call it an act of domestic terrorism?

The NYTimes was willing to discuss the issue but not to use the term in its main coverage.

The most extreme case (as so often happens) involved Fox News. The Thursday morning episode of the show “Fox and Friends” hit a new low — in which the hosts and guests strained to frame the violent assault by a white man seeking to take his country back as an assault on religion and an attack on Christians. Wha?

Here’s a brilliant analysis by Larry Wilmore, who is getting better by the week. (courtesy of Comedy Central and TPM).gctqv5mtkz5pr8y6j2bi

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