Tag Archives: news

What if traffic metrics had been used throughout journalism’s history?

By Christopher B. Daly 

That’s a question that came to mind today while reading David Carr’s latest. In his column, Carr identifies a trend (at least, a trend by journalism standards) of news organizations paying their contributors based on how much traffic their individual “stories” garner. If an item is really popular and brings a lot of eyeballs to the site, the “writer” of the piece earns more money. Conversely, if you write pieces that hardly anyone look at, you get paid less — or nothing.

It all sounds simple and fair and transparent and populist. (This approach puts the “piece” in piecework with a vengeance.)

Only it’s not. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account that journalism has other values besides popularity. Yes, we want readers/viewers, and we want as many as we can get. But we also want to serve our society by occasionally embarking on stories that are so expensive to investigate that they will never pay back any return on the investment of resources put into them. Or, we sometimes work on stories that matter intensely to a small group of people. And, from time to time, we run stories that turn just about everyone off but still make the world a slightly better place.

Let’s consider how a “metrics model” would have served journalism (and the world) over the last couple of centuries.

–The first story about sexual abuse by Catholic priests was hardly a candidate for “most-read” and yet it began a tidal wave of reporting that ultimately rocked the Vatican.

–The first Watergate story (the one with Al Lewis’ byline, on June 18, 1972) had only a tiny fraction of wapo-front_18june1972the readership that the “last” Watergate story 26 months later (the one with the headline “Nixon Resigns” on Aug. 9, 1974)

–Then there was Sy Hersh’s original story about Lt. William Calley and the massacre at My Lai.

One takeaway from those historical cases: some stories need time to build.

–Or what about the columnist Westbrook Pegler? Incredibly popular, but a crackpot who was wrong about everything. His metrics would have crushed the likes of Walter Lippmann (in terms of actual readers, not just people who said they read Lippmann.)

–The first-day stories about the Gettysburg Address barely mentioned Lincoln’s little speech, because (by the lights of the day) it was considered dull and inconsequential compared to the stem-winder of a speech given by the day’s main speaker, Edward Everett. (Who?)

–For a few weeks in 1835, the New York Sun had a wildly popular (and exclusive) story about life on the moon. The paper really racked up eyeballs — until the story was revealed as a hoax. Oh, well. It sure sold papers.

–Or, how about the summer and early fall of 2001? The media were in full cry to “prove” that

Egregious illustration of Chandra Levy.

Egregious illustration of Chandra Levy.

the disappearance of a missing Washington intern, Chandra Levy, was somehow connected to married congressman Gary Condit. (Who remembers them now?) You could look it up: this was a huge story for months in 2001, right up until 9/11. Anyone want to go back there?

Just as some stories need time to develop, some writers need time to develop.

What was Samuel Clemens’ first story, for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada? If he had not been given time to develop as a writer, he would have ended up as the funniest steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, but there’d be no Innocents Abroad (his first big success), not to mention no Huckleberry Finn. What about the first news stories ever written by Ernest Hemingway? Is there a new Martha Gellhorn or Joan Didion chasing clicks today at Gawker?

If we only work on stories that are popular, we might soon become so popular that we won’t matter any more.

The original moonbats.  New York Sun, 1835

The original moonbats.
New York Sun, 1835

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JFK shooting: TV news grows up fast

By Christopher B. Daly 

With the approach of the 50th anniversary of that fateful day in Dallas, I thought it might be worth re-visiting my account of the assassination. Here is an excerpt from Covering America that looks at the media response to the shooting:

During the Kennedy presidency, television news became more powerful than ever. In the years since the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, television executives had been atoning by lavishing resources on their news divisions. Television sets were in the vast majority of homes by 1960, and the audience for the TV networks dwarfed that of any newspaper and even the readership of the entire Time-Life empire. The media president, Jack Kennedy, also introduced live television coverage of presidential news conferences and proceeded to thrive in the new forum. Television carried more news than ever, to more people.

On November 22, 1963, television was the medium by which many Americans first got the news about the shooting. There it was, right on TV. The president and his wife were in a motorcade with Governor John Connally and his wife. Shots rang out, and the president was rushed to the hospital. No word on the shooter’s identity. It may not have been apparent to viewers, but television executives were scrambling to keep up. The networks did not have the equipment and staff needed to “go live” and put news on the air as it was unfolding. Just off camera it was pandemonium, as executives met to decide how to cover a presidential shooting in the new medium. Eventually they reached a consensus: they would stay with the story, without interruptions and without ads, for the duration. So it was that for three or four days the American people did something they had never done before: they stayed home and attended a funeral via television. If they were watching CBS, they saw Walter Cronkite dab at his eye when he announced the bulletin confirming Kennedy’s death. No matter what network they watched, viewers saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald; they saw the flag-draped caisson and the riderless horse; and they saw the salute given by the president’s young son. For the first time (and almost the last, as it happened), nearly the entire country had nearly the same experience at the same time.

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite struggles to keep his composure on-camera as he announces the news of the death of President John F. Kennedy live on the air on November 22, 1963.     —Getty Images.

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite struggles to keep his composure on-camera as he announces the news of the death of President
John F. Kennedy live on the air on November 22, 1963.
—Getty Images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the New York Times, on Monday, November 25, 1963, the front page featured a banner headline across the entire page, stacked three decks deep:

PRESIDENT’S ASSASSIN SHOT TO DEATH

IN JAIL CORRIDOR BY A DALLAS CITIZEN;

GRIEVING THRONGS VIEW KENNEDY BIER

The funeral was planned for later that day. Below the big headline was a photo (from the AP) of Jackie Kennedy and Caroline kneeling next to the president’s flag-draped casket. Underneath was a little single-column story headlined:

JOHNSON AFFIRMS

AIMS IN VIETNAM

Then, this ominous subhead:

Retains Kennedy’s Policy

of Aiding War on Reds

 

[To read my book, order Covering America from Amazon.]

 

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The re-making of the news media

By Christopher B. Daly 

We are living through a period of great flux in the news business. There are new ventures, new hybrids, new devices for gathering and disseminating information, documents, and polemics. It’s a treat to have a front-row seat (Goodbye, Google Reader! Hello, Feedly!), but it can be disorienting at times.

To wit: the decision by the mighty Time Warner media conglomerate to abandon its shiny, still-new namesake building at Columbus Circle in Manhattan and decamp to a still-unfinished tower in a lower-rentPennStation district the developers refer to as Hudson Yards. (Does anybody really call it that? It’s really a vast wasteland on the Far West Side between Chelsea and Hells Kitchen, but it is slowly becoming a new media hub within Manhattan.)

But not to be missed is a more powerful trend sweeping through much of Big Media: the break-up of many of the big conglomerates. At Time Warner, at News Corp., and at Tribune Co., the same de-conglomeration process is underway: the division of those big companies into a print division and a (for lack of a better word) video division.

–Time Warner is spinning off its magazine division, which has been the cornerstone of the Time empire since Henry Luce founded Time magazine in 1923.

–News Corp. took out a double-truck ad in the NYTimes on Monday to signal its separation into two divisions. One made up of the Wall Street Journal, the NYPost and many, many other newspapers along with some magazines, almost all of which lose money. The other is a new company (called “21st Century Fox”) made up of the highly profitable television, cable, and movie-making subsidiaries. (The new video division began trading on the stock market on July 1; shares opened at $29 and basically stayed there all day. The new print division has not started trading yet.)

–Tribune Co., which traces its roots to the Chicago newspaper empire founded by Joseph Medill and taken over by his grandson, Col. Robert R. McCormick, announced this week that it is going to spend $2.7 billion to buy 19 local television stations around the country. At the same time, Tribune Co. is trying to sell “some or all of its newspaper properties,” including the cornerstone Chicago Tribune, according to a story in today’s NYT business section.

–The New York Times Co., which traces its roots to the founding of the New-York Daily Times newspaper in 1851, began selling off its broadcast units about six years ago and completed the process a few years later. The Times Co. is apparently pursuing a strategy of shrinking to its core business and trying to defend the castle keep with a paywall.

The big open question: What will any of this mean for the quality of the journalism that is carried out by these companies?

Stay tuned.

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The bombing case: “Total Noise”?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Here is a fine piece that features the author Jim Gleick thinking in print about the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and related events. (Full disclosure: I have known Jim since we were in college together, and I admired his books Chaos and The Information; I am not currently in touch with him.)

Gleick’s piece from New York magazine was also noticed by Maureen Dowd in her column today. She added value by actually taking him out for coffee and interviewing him.

Photo montage by New York magazine (including photo by BU student journalism Kenshin Okubo).

Photo montage by New York magazine (including photo by BU student journalism Kenshin Okubo).

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When the news is wrong (for a stupid reason)

By Christopher B. Daly 

imagesAs many have observed, several front-line news organizations reported incorrectly on Wednesday afternoon that authorities had “arrested” or “taken into custody” a suspect in the Boston marathon bombing. As someone who spent 10 years working for The Associated Press (where our watchword was always, “Get it first, but get it right”), I feel bad for journalists who are chasing leads in the investigation into the bombing case. They are under tremendous pressure to advance the story, “break” news, and stand out from the crowd.

I feel bad for them, but that’s not my only response. I also feel appalled at the news media’s chronic inability to exercise restraint. As the afternoon unfolded, I had a sickening sense of deja vu: here we go again, with the race to be first.

But, first with what, exactly? If the cops or the FBI had really made an arrest, they were going to announce it — and quickly. So, what difference does it make if I find that out at 2:30 or 2:45 or 4:00? Is my life any better?

Besides, it’s not as if this is the kind of news that authorities try to hide. When they nab a bad guy, they’re proud of it. They want to stand there at the press conference (ties all straight, uniform gleaming) and take a turn at the podium to say the same clipped phrases they always say. Sure, that’s important, and someone should be there to report it. But we do not need an entire army of reporters trying to get this information first. The mania for being first upsets and erodes all other journalistic priorities.

This kind of frenzy for “scoops” is essentially a waste of journalistic resources and enterprise. There are many fine, experienced, tough reporters and photographers in Boston this week. They should not waste their time trying to surf a few feet ahead of the cops in pursuit of factual information that is going to be divulged anyway. This is particularly true when reporters get in the way: if journalists report, for example, that an arrest is “imminent,” doesn’t that tell the bad guys that it’s time to flee?

In fact, I don’t consider that kind of reporting a “scoop” at all. Real news consists of information that someone is trying to hide or that would not come to light unless an individual journalist gets out and gathers information and connects some dots. Reporters make a contribution to society when they generate information that we would not have otherwise.

So, get out there and find a real, true story — and tell me something I don’t know and that won’t be announced from a podium.

We can do better.

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Un-bundling the media

By Christopher B. Daly 

In his latest column, the New York Times‘ David Carr makes a smart argument about how the media — both entertainment and news — are coming apart under pressure from the Web. That’s coming apart, not falling apart. They are coming apart in the sense that the “bundles” of material that arose during the pre-digital era no longer make sense. 

Here’s his lead:

For the longest time in the media business, the concept of the bundle has been foundational. Ads go with editorial content in print, commercials go with programming on television and the channels you desire are paired with ones you did not in your cable package.
People were free to shop for what they wanted, as long as they were willing to buy a bunch of other stuff they did not. The box score last night for your home team? It was wrapped inside a bundle of paper that included everything from foreign news to ads for lingerie. If you liked a song, you generally had to buy an album full of others to get the goods.

 

I think he’s on the right track. Consider the newspaper, for example, as I did in my book Covering America. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 13:

Another problem besetting newspapers (and, to a great extent, magazines and television news as well) was even more existential. When seen against the backdrop of the Internet, one fact about newspapers becomes painfully obvious: a newspaper is a fixed bundle of coverage that is good but ultimately second rate. Offering readers no choice, a newspaper presents coverage of a set matrix of topics: politics, crime, business, sports, arts, and something called lifestyle. In each case, though, people who really know or care about those fields understand that they are not going to find the absolute best, most detailed, most passionate coverage of their favorite topic in a daily newspaper. They know that the best coverage will be in some niche on the Web where obsessive amateurs or professional experts gather. And with the coming of the Web, the absolute best coverage is available to everyone, everywhere, all the time, for free. In politics, for example, readers can find pretty good coverage in the Times or Newsweek. But if they really live and breathe politics, they will want it faster and at a much higher level of granularity, so they will log on to a site like Politico or Real Clear Politics instead and get what they are looking for. The same is true for business, sports, even crosswords and recipes. Thus the question arises: What is the remaining value of reading merely pretty good coverage (and paying for it) when readers can unbundle the newspaper, go online, and plunge into first-rate coverage, written by real aficionados and provided at a price of zero?

One way to understand the decline of the newspaper is to ask the ultimate question: If newspapers did not exist, would it make any sense to invent them?

I wrote that about two years ago. The only change I would make now would be to drop the reference to Newsweek. The venerable weekly print newsmagazine went broke in 2012 trying to sell a fixed bundle of pretty-good coverage and was absorbed into a born-digital enterprise, The Daily Beast. I might also amend the statement that all the high-quality niches are free, since a small but possibly growing number do charge something.

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Shameless self-promotion (Journalism history division)

By Christopher B. Daly

Finally, it’s here: the electronic version of my book about the history of U.S. journalism, Covering America.

Just in time for the anniversary of the rollout of the hardback, this prize-winning book is now available in all major formats:

Nook,

Kindle,

Apple iBook, (This is the format I am checking it out on, and it looks great.)

Google Play,

you name it.

I am very pleased because I know that some folks have been waiting for the e-book. These formats make the book quite a bit cheaper and dramatically lighter! For people who don’t feel drawn to the ~$50 hardcover, here’s your chance to read Covering America. The book won the 2012 Prose Award for Media and Cultural Studies, and it has been selling well and drawing rave reviews (except for one stinker on Amazon — sheesh).

Enjoy it, and write to me about your reactions. You can comment here, or email me: chrisdaly44@gmail.com

CA cover final

 

 

 

 

 

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Times’ paywall is paying very well

By Christopher B. Daly

Buried in the business section of today’s New York Times is a story with some very encouraging news about the future of quality journalism. The story concerns the New York Times Company itself. There’s a lot of noise in there about the sales of assets such as About.com. There’s also the usual gloomy news about the continuing declines in print advertising (down 5.6 percent).

But there are also two positive signals in all the details:

1. Digital advertising revenues rose 5.1 percent. That’s the money the Times makes from selling the electronic ads that appear in the online version. They are rising from a small base, to be sure, but they represent the ad dollars of the future.

2. The biggest good news: revenue from circulation grew 16.1 percent. In other words, the Times‘ paywall is paying very well. I would say this story “buried the lead” — because this is the biggest news in a while. The increase in circulation revenue is certainly not coming from a surge in subscriptions to the old-fashioned print version of the paper; nor is it from an upswing in newstand sales. It is coming from people who bump into the Times‘ online “paywall” and decide that it’s worth paying for the Times‘ content online. That may well turn out to be the paper’s salvation: the readers.

Here’s an excerpt from the NYTCo official earnings statement:

Paid subscribers to The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune digital subscription packages, e-readers and replica editions totaled approximately 640,000 as of the end of the fourth quarter of 2012, an increase of approximately 13 percent since the end of the third quarter of 2012.

That’s impressive. Readers in those numbers (plus some more, of course) could carry the paper into the digital future.

Can a restored dividend be far behind?

 

Here’s a chart of the company’s stock performance. NYTCo stock is up today, but it has a long way to go to get back to the glory days of a decade ago.

NYTCo stock

NYTCo stock

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Obama: Media Critic?

By Christopher B. Daly

Even on vacation, I couldn’t help noticing this piece in today’s Times about President Obama’s news-reading habits and his criticisms of some of the coverage. 

As a media critic myself, I am not sure how I feel about adding this new guy to the ranks. But he does seem to have a grasp on some major issues. From the Times:

The news media have played a crucial role in Mr. Obama’s career, helping to make him a national star not long after he had been an anonymous state legislator. As president, however, he has come to believe the news media have had a role in frustrating his ambitions to change the terms of the country’s political discussion. He particularly believes that Democrats do not receive enough credit for their willingness to accept cuts in Medicareand Social Security, while Republicans oppose almost any tax increase to reduce the deficit.

Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.

Mr. Obama’s assessments overlap with common critiques from academics and journalism pundits, but when coming from a sitting president the appraisal is hardly objective, the experts say.

Irony alert: after quoting Obama on the problem of false balance and explaining the concept, the piece goes on to engage in the very practice.

To his credit, Obama seems to read a lot, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Now, back to the beach.

Obama reads his iPad while walking. ABC News.com

Obama reads his iPad while walking. ABC News.com

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“Forgive us our press passes”

By Christopher B. Daly

I heard a fantastic story yesterday on the “This American Life” radio program. It was about the business/ethics/professional issues raised for the field of journalism by a new-ish company called Journatic. The story, by producer Sarah Koenig had the brilliant memorable headline “Forgive us our press passes.” It explained the creepy side of how out-sourcing has arrived, almost completely under the radar, in the American newspaper business. Turns out, lots of the routine fillers (school lunches, ordinary obits, etc.) that fill up small-town and suburban newspapers are actually “written” by worker bees in the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and Africa. They toil away for peanuts, then transmit their “stories” to editors in the states, who get paid next to nothing to “edit” those “stories,” even though the editor could be more than 1,000 miles away from the community being “covered” in this way. The whole operation seems to make a mockery of the idea of “hyper-local” news. 

Sheesh.

To her credit, Koenig really pursues the issue in great depth and nuance.

Also, a note to journalism teachers: you should share this piece with your classes. It is really a two-fer: it tells some important truths about the direction the news business is heading in, and it is a model of how to use audio to tell a complicated story. It is must-listen journalism.

 

 

 

 

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