Just wrapping up the spring semester, so I’ve been a little busier than usual. With apologies for the delay, here’s a rdp of recent developments and commentary about the news business:
–THE ECHO CHAMBER:Here’s an intelligent discussion of the recent Sciencearticle examining the “echo chamber” effect of social media — to wit, do people on Facebook arrange their feed such that they hear mostly (or exclusively) from people who agree with them politically? The helpful folks at Harvard’s Journalist’s Resource have not only analyzed the Science article, they have also put in the context of other, similar studies.
–NYT NAILS THE SALON BIZ: The New York Times has struck again, this time with a major expose of a local industry that is much more widespread than Starbucks — the business of fingernails and toenails. The investigation by Sarah Maslin Nir has exploded, as it deserved to. She ripped the lid off a deeply corrupt industry. Reading her accounts of the women in the manicure business made me angry. It sounded like many of them had never left China: they have to buy their jobs with upfront money; they work for no wages at all until the boss decides they’re worth something; they make sub-minimum wages when they get paid; the chemicals they work around cause all kinds of harm; and on and on.
The Times has gotten a little of push-back for hyping the series (some of which is captured in this odd piece by the NYTimes‘ own public editor), but I disagree. What would Joseph Pulitzer have done? What would WR Hearst do with this kind of material? Of course, they’d shout it from the rooftops and demand reform.
One particularly impressive innovation: the Times published the articles in Chinese, Korean and Spanish as well as English.
The fallout so far: more than 1,300 comments; Gov. Cuomo is already submitting reform legislation; some of the owners are starting to cough up back pay; customers are finally beginning to wonder how their mani-pedis can be so cheap; and the journalist has been celebrated in print and on NPR.
For anyone in the news business not suffering from sour-grapes syndrome, there’s a lot to learn here. Start with the ancient wisdom: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
–ADVICE FOR JOURNALISTS: Speaking of the public editor, here is Margaret Sullivan’s wisdom about journalism, boiled down to 395 words. Way to go in being concise.
–BETTER LIVING THROUGH METRICS: Jeff Jarvis unloads on his latest Big Idea that Will Transform/Disrupt/Save Journalism. Here ya go. He says we need better metrics, which is probably true.
–RELIABLE SOURCES:Here’s the newly re-designed website for Brian Stelter’s program on CNN.
–NYT MEDIA COLUMNIST: Curious minds want to know — when will the Times name a successor to David Carr? Carr is irreplacable, of course, but there should be a successor. Since his death in February, all the air seems to have gone out of the Times’sMedia vertical. They need to get their mojo back.
–In separate posts, I am hoping to write soon about the NCAA, the new local evening news show on PBS in Boston, and what may have been the busiest news period in all human history. Stay tuned.
Much has been written about David Carr — as a writer, memoirist, editor, friend, mentor, reporter, and critic — and rightly so. He was a man of many parts.
I come to praise him for his last new venture: Professor.
When David died, he was the holder of an endowed chair in the Journalism Department at Boston University. There he was, inventing himself all over again. Far from the places in Washington and New York where he had made his bones, David was putting himself on the line to try something new.
And he was not just dabbling. He took it seriously, and from what he revealed, he was dead-serious about teaching. He saw teaching as another way to do most of the things he cared about — writing, thinking, criticizing, and nurturing this thing that we all care about so much.
David came to our attention early. Back in 2012, we were given a new chair in Journalism by a generous graduate of BU — Andrew Lack, a veteran news executive at NBC and Bloomberg. Andy wanted to use his donation to let us hire a professor who would be engaged in the big, noisy debate over the future of quality journalism. Specifically, he wanted to pay for a professor who thought a lot about the evolving economics of news.
Tom Fiedler, the dean who oversees BU’s Journalism Department, asked me to chair a committee to search for someone to fill the Lack Chair in Journalism and the Business of Media. (The others were profs. Bill McKeen, Anne Donohue, and Marshall Van Alstyne, along with Charlie Kravitz, general manager of BU’s NPR affiliate, WBUR.)
Almost from the get-go, David was on everyone’s wish list of people we hoped to attract. In fact, in an early meeting, Andy Lack, said he envisioned the position as one where the professor would be on David Carr’s speed dial for comment about the news business. It was a short step to think: why not David Carr himself?
A little while later, good news: Andy Lack had bumped into David Carr and mentioned the position to him, and he didn’t say no.
We were all very excited. He was at the top of our field, and he had more than 400,000 Twitter followers. What else could we want? But in academia, we have procedures that we must follow, and searches for new faculty come with more rules than the NFL. (Going back through my email, I can see 304 entries in a folder called “Lack Search”). We advertised for the spot, and we got in the low hundreds of inquiries.
But one got our attention: David Carr actually applied.
He wrote an amazing letter of intent (dated July 31, 2013). Here’s some of it:
Beyond my professional and educational experience, I’d like to suggest that my steady history of outperforming expectations in every job I have had makes me worthy of consideration. I’m a thinker, a journalist and a writer but I am also a worker, an earner, and a good colleague. I am reflexively loyal and ferociously represent the interests of the people and institutions with whom I affiliate.
While my teaching experience has been episodic, I have consistently given freely of what has been given to me by others who have shown me the way. I was taught that truth matters, fairness matters, excellence matters. Those values are relevant even as the skills required to prosecute journalism morph to meet a changing media landscape. . .
My intent is to establish a line of academic inquiry in class that is both participatory and observational. Whenever I spend time with students, I emphasize that they have to make things. The employment marketplace is far less interested in a prospect’s grade point average than what he or she has created, which historically been a clip from the college newspaper, but now takes many other forms. Since the students and I would be spending three hours together each week, I’d like to establish a parallel track of media creation and distribution. Apart from providing object lessons in using tools at hand to make things, the production and execution would give me criteria to evaluate and grade students’ understanding of the subject matter. . . .
In spite of my lack of a steady teaching position, I believe I have some relevant skills from my time as an editor and reporter. I took the liberty of attaching some letters of recommendation that I solicited and am proud of the fact that many mention a consistent history of finding and mentoring exceptional young minds.
Should you and the committee decide that I meet the expectations for the position, please know that I would work with the students, faculty and leadership to ensure that the college’s reputation for academic rigor and practical excellence only grows during what I hope would be a long and fruitful association. . .
I asked him: why teach?
He explained that in recent years, he had been asked many, many times to appear as a guest speaker in college classes. He accepted as many as he could, but it had begun to wear on him. He said there was a lot of travel time involved for a 45-minute appearance, and he wanted to improve the ratio of schlepping to speaking. Not only that, but he felt he was spreading himself too thin. He’d like to try his hand at developing a whole course and find out if he really had anything to say.
Besides, he said, he had worked as kind of a professor for much of his career — as an editor, he was famous as a spotter and developer of talent — and he had a genuine stake in the success of younger people he had brought along. David also submitted more than a dozen of the most amazing letters of recommendation I have ever seen — from colleagues, from younger journalists he had mentored — all over the moon.
Of course, we hired him.
As far as I know, he only presented one real demand: He insisted on keeping his column at the Times, which suited us just fine. He would commute to Boston on Mondays, teach that afternoon, then stay overnight and be on-campus for most of each Tuesday as well.
As soon as he was on board, I invited him to do a turn as a guest speaker in my beat-reporting class. It so happened that a student in that very class had just posted an item online that took off. He and a friend created a graphic that they called “Journalist guest speaker cliché bingo.” Each square had a cliché about journalism that they were already sick of. It was going to be a tough room for David. He never flinched. He went right at it:
And, of course, the students loved it.
David brought much to the classroom, but still he was nervous about his own first course. I offered him some practical advice and lots of encouragement, but he really invented himself as a professor. After a period in a cocoon, out popped this amazing, brightly colored new species. His firstsyllabus became an instant classic.
To begin with, we will look at the current media ecosystem: how content is conceived, made, made better, distributed, and paid for. We will discuss finding a story, research and reporting, content management systems, voice, multimedia packaging, along with distribution and marketing of work. If that sounds ambitious, keep in mind that in addition to picking this professor and grad assistant, we picked you. We already know you are smart, and we just want you to demonstrate that on the (web) page.
I grade based on where you start and where you end. Don’t work on me for a better grade — work on your work and making the work of those around you better. Show industriousness and seriousness and produce surpassing work if you want an exceptional grade.
This is an intense, once-a-week immersion on the waterfront of modern media-making. If you don’t show up for class, you will flounder. If you show up late or unprepared, you will stick out in unpleasant ways. If you aren’t putting effort into your work, I will suggest that you might be more comfortable elsewhere.
If you text or email during class, I will ignore you as you ignore me. It won’t go well.
I expect you to behave as an adult and will treat you like one. I don’t want to parent you — I want to teach you. . .
Students spend hours scrutinizing their professors, and they are pretty shrewd judges. David’s students came away knowing that they were lucky. They got the privilege of spending a whole semester with a brilliant man who really cared about them.
One of them, Claire Giangrave, wrote this in his memory:
He walked into the class shyly, his head bowed as it always was. He had prepared what he was going to say, as he would for every class, his fingers scrolling his notes on his red I Pad. I had waited to meet him for years and could not believe that he was teaching me. At first he wasn’t a great teacher, dispersive and chaotic. But he got better, he taught himself to be better, and when needed he asked his students for advice.
He wanted us to learn and to be good reporters. When the scandal regarding Bill Cosby and the alleged rapes emerged, David wrote a piece denouncing himself as one of the many enablers in the media that had kept it a secret for so long. He showed us how to be brave, how to speak our minds and keep our integrity as journalists.
Two more of Carr’s students, Megan Turchi and Justine Hofherr, also wrote about him this week. :
Carr took the time to meticulously edit our work, whether he did it from a plane, train, or his bed in New Jersey, which he described as surrounded by stacks of oldNew Yorkers and books authored by friends he meant to get around to reading. He just loved TV so much, he said. Carr always seemed honest to a fault.
It’s scary to be a young journalist. Many people tell you it’s a terrible field to get into. Carr always touted its importance and gave us hope, holding us to high standards and championing hard work. Carr’s professionalism in the field, eagerness to learn, and love for the Times were all reasons for us to do better.
David impressed his colleagues as well. I knew from the search process that there was a certain amount of skepticism on campus. In fact, David was a worker. He made it to classes, and he even made it to faculty meetings — a duty that a lot of veteran professors routinely blow off.
For anyone who knew David, none of this would come as any surprise. All his life, he outperformed. He understood in a deep way the essence of the internet: you get by giving.
Last time I heard from him was last weekend. He wanted to chat because he had pneumonia, and he was worried about having to miss class. He felt terrible about that, and he wanted to explore options: could he get a sub? Could he make it up later? What do professors do?
I tried to reassure him, and then he shot me an email the next day: he was feeling better, so never mind. He was going to soldier on.
Is former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson getting back into journalism?
Yes, according to hints she dropped Monday night during a talk at Boston University. Abramson said she has been exploring the possibility of launching a new journalism start-up with veteran publisher and investigative reporter Steven Brill.
The proposed new operation would focus on a few large stories, and it would employ professional journalists at decent salaries, Abramson told a packed hall during a conversation with Times media columnist and B.U. professor David Carr.
After Carr teased her about making some news and challenged her to “show a little leg,” Abramson said, “Well. . .” Then she divulged that she and Brill have been conducting talks with investors who might back their proposed venture.
But she revealed little else, offering no details on how her journalism start-up would work financially or how it would stand out
Since her departure from the Times, Abramson has given a series of i
Jill Abramson ( L) and David Carr (R) discuss what David Carr describes as the “present future”, when the production and distribution of media is in constant flux. Photo by Ann Wang
nterviews (mostly to female journalists), and she has been teaching a course in narrative non-fiction in the English Department at Harvard.
When Carr brought up the subject of her separation from the Times and seemed to be groping for a euphemism, Abramson abruptly corrected him, saying “I was fired.” She added that she has spent her career seeking the truth and telling it, so she saw no reason to sugar-coat her dismissal from the newspaper in May at the hands of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Abramson, 60, began her career in journalism by reporting for and editing a student publication at Harvard, the Independent, then went on to jobs at the American Lawyer, Legal Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Times.
Her conversation with Carr was sponsored by Boston University’s NPR affiliate, WBUR-FM. It was to be broadcast Tuesday evening at 8 p.m..
[Full disclosure: Jill and I were classmates in college, and I have seen her sporadically since then. I enjoyed her book about her dog.]
Update: You can listen to the full conversation here on WBUR’s superb midday program “Here and Now.”
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 the 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.
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.
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 Journalismfaculty at Boston University, where is the new, inaugural Andrew Lack Professor in the economics of journalism.]
[Update: Here is a glass-half-full response to Carr, which I think makes a lot of sense.]
David Carr uses his NYTimes “Media Equation” column today to describe the changes going on at New York magazine under its phenomenally successful current editor, Adam Moss. The magazine is scaling back its print version from nearly weekly now to
“You can’t help but get wistful about it,” said Adam Moss, the editor in chief of New York. Photo: Fred R. Conrad/NYT
every other week. The culprit: the high cost of printing and distribution versus the dropping value of print advertising.
The good news: the printing cutback is being done in service of strengthening the online version, which is the magazine’s future.
Meanwhile, New York is actually thriving by some measures: the website is going gangbusters and is considered must reading among younger “readers” in Manhattan and Brooklyn (as well as aspirational districts around the rest of the world).
As a supplement to Carr’s column, I am offering a couple of excerpts from my bookCovering America that touch on the early days of New York, under its founding editor, Clay Felker:
. . . Another reason for the success of the New Journalism was institutional. Like the innovators of any new creative movement, the practitioners of this hybrid form of journalism needed patrons. They did not find them among the lords of the newsroom, the editors of America’s daily newspapers, who mostly thought these writers had lost their bearings (and maybe their sanity). Instead the New Journalists found sympathy, encouragement, expense accounts, and pretty good pay at a handful of magazines with extraordinary editors. One of the most influential was Clay Felker, who edited the Sunday supplement published by the Herald Tribune. It was an incubator for the talents of the young Tom Wolfe and a columnist named Jimmy Breslin. Felker, who had previously worked at Esquire, stayed at the Trib, cultivating good new writers—such as Gloria Steinem—wherever he could find them, until the newspaper folded in 1967. Then he took the nameplate of the Trib’s Sunday magazine, New York, and turned it into the prototype “city magazine.” In the early days, New York magazine also served as one of the unofficial headquarters of the New Journalism. A second clubhouse was not far away in Manhattan, at the offices of Esquire magazine. Under editor Harold Hayes, Esquire published many of the foundational pieces of the New Journalism, including Norman Mailer’s 1960 meditation on JFK, “Superman Comes to the Supermart,” and Gay Talese’s famous profiles of Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra. Elsewhere in Manhattan, literary agents and editors at book publishing houses were starting to talk to some of these hotshot young writers, and some of those journalists quit their newspaper jobs to become full-time writers. . .
Here’s another excerpt, about Felker and Gloria Steinem:
. . . One of the most prominent and influential women who changed the perception of feminism was a journalist and political activist who helped found a magazine that captured the new zeitgeist—Gloria Steinem. With obvious talent, intelligence, and (as was always remarked) good looks, Steinem became a highly visible figure who helped to lead both a magazine and a movement.
After a difficult childhood in Toledo, where she saw firsthand the vulnerability of women in traditional roles after her father left her mother, Steinem went to Smith College. Following her graduation in 1956, she traveled around India before landing in New York City, where she began to work as a freelance magazine writer. She worked hard and took all kinds of assignments. In an effort worthy of Nellie Bly, Steinem even went undercover for an article about working as a Playboy bunny. She thrived as a freelance writer, and she became a rising star. But still, as a “girl reporter,” she knew there were limits. (The low point: a piece for the New York Times magazine about textured stockings.) Over the course of the decade, even as she kept writing, Steinem became an activist in the civil rights, antiwar, and farm workers’ movements.
She found a congenial base at New York magazine, where editor Clay Felker allowed Steinem to tackle bigger and better assignments. Eventually she wrote the magazine’s “City Politic” column, which meant she was covering national politics and all the major issues. She liked Felker, and he advanced her career immeasurably, but in the end they came to an impasse: he was interested in pro-feminist articles only if they were paired with articles from an opposing point of view. “That’s why I gradually stopped writing for New York,” Steinem later explained. “It was just too painful to be only able to do it in the context of two women fighting.” . . .
In his latest weekly column, David Carr identifies a growing trend: the paid creation of “content” (formerly known as stories, pieces, etc.) for clients who want to “tell a story” that also happens to advance their commercial interests. He highlights a leader in this new mutation, a website called Contently, which functions as a kind of dating service for journalists and companies. If you visit
Poe (minus the sunglasses)
the homepage, which features a full-screen background image of Edgar Allan Poe in aviator sunglasses, you are invited to proceed through one of two portals: “Journalist” or “Company.” In the “manifesto,” the founders explain their win-win proposition:
Those who tell and promote the best stories—in the best ways—will increase in reputation and trust, fans and influence. Journalists will build their personal brands. Businesses will make a difference. Media companies will thrive.
In writing about this phenomenon, Carr shrewdly sidesteps a category problem: what is this kind of material, exactly?
It’s not journalism, that’s for sure. It’s not journalism because it is not produced by independent people who are working for the good of their audience. They are hired guns working for the good of whoever is paying them.
It’s not P.R., exactly, either, because it appears in disguise — sporting a trenchcoat and a fedora borrowed (or stolen, if you will) from journalism. The reason to look and feel like journalism, of course, is to try to cadge some of journalism’s credibility, to bolster the sales pitch buried in these messages. I suppose it is the inevitable result of an over-supply of writers and the ceaseless demand for material that can fool people into buying stuff.
I am inclined to say “Judge not” when anybody can find a way to get a paycheck into a writer’s hands, but I have to say that I don’t have a good feeling about how this story ends.