Sunday, September 23, 2007

Reuters Opinion 1.0

Reuters last week quietly ended a 156-year tradition which, more than any other, defined its character. The walls did not come tumbling down. And while for some the change might have come sooner, and for others not at all, I think it could not have come at a better time.

In a blog entry Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger announced that Reuters had begun publishing commentary written by editorial staff (Reuters also announced this change with an obligatory but quaint wire advisory). The ubiquity of "debating" partisans on cable news networks and the vitriole in what is still sadly called "the blogosphere" may make this change seem less than revolutionary. Or, for that matter, not even particularly newsworthy.

But for Reuters, whose dedication to the principle of unbiased reporting stems from its desire to be an honest broker of news from every boardroom and battlefield, this is big news. It comes despite an unambiguous editorial policy about the sanctity of impartiality:

We are committed to reporting the facts and in all situations avoid the use of emotive terms. The only exception is when we are quoting someone directly or in indirect speech. We aim to report objectively actions, identity and background and pay particular attention to all our coverage in extremely sensitive regions.

We do not take sides and attempt to reflect in our stories, pictures and video the views of all sides. We are not in the business of glorifying one side or another or of disseminating propaganda. Reuters journalists do not offer their own opinions or views.
This policy was sorely tested in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when Reuters seemed eerily alone in avoiding any form of the word "terrorist" to describe the attacks themselves or their perpetrators. Reuters took salvos from every side but remained resolute at what seemed great potential harm to its public image. Such was its commitment to even the appearance of impartiality.

But Reuters' aversion to publishing house-generated opinion as a means of appearing consistent about unbiased reporting required increasingly tortured logic. Reuters already published columns by freelancers -- many former staff correspondents -- and even third-party material from other news organizations that didn't always calculate the news-opinion divide in the same way. The struggle to seem chaste looked contrived at best and incomprehensible at worst.

Reuters has always published in-house analysis and enterprise pieces that drew conclusions, based on expert opinion sought and cultivated by reporters who strove to speak with no voice. A year or so ago Reuters dipped its toe in the undiluted opinion waters by taking a stake and becoming a customer of "Blogburst," a service which syndicates blogs by topic and publishing them alongside news on A significant part of the offering on its Africa news site is based on blogs aggregated by Global Voices.

The world not having come to an end after these experiments, that opinion soft launch has now gone mainstream. In his entry, entitled Argument without Invective, Schlesinger describes a kinder, gentler, approach to taking sides:
What these columns, and the ones that will join them, have in common is a mixture of facts expertise and a point of view. They won't engage in screeching name-calling or invective; they will be challenging and controversial. Agree or disagree with them as you like, but please read, be stimulated and join in the debate.
Still, it is a baby step. Call this development Opinion 1.0, barely out of beta. Reuters has designated only three journalists from its corps of more than 2,000 to write opinion pieces and none will be involved in any reporting.

The good news is that one of these newly-minted columnists is Bernd Debusmann, one of the most storied and longest serving of Reuters' correspondents, who will be writing about global issues (which means anything he wants).

Debusmann's despatches from Poland during the crackdown on Solidarity showed at least one aspiring journalist just how great journalism could be -- and how depressingly obvious it was before he even got his first break how this wannabe could never be anywhere as good. I can think of no better voice to gently move Reuters forward into the inevitable future.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Dan Rather Throws It All Away

Here's a takeway for all you journalism students trying to make sense of Dan Rather's $70 million lawsuit against CBS: Don't lie. Especially on the air.

I'm not referring to the story about President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service, the flashpoint which led to Rather's ignominious departure from his journalistic home of 44 years. That may or may not have been a properly vetted story but it is clear that Rather believed in it at the time — and his lawsuit suggests that he still does.

Being wrong isn't a capital offense in journalism. Being wrong and knowing in advance that you were wrong absolutely is one, without possibility of appeal. Ask Jayson Blair or Janet Cooke.

Here is what you do when you are "instructed" to report something you don't think is true: You quit on the spot. Period. You never allow the business side to make editorial decisions. Period. You go down to the bar, order a stiff one, contact Howard Kurtz, The Columbia Journalism Review and Editor & Publisher (and TV Newser if you're a broadcaster) in any order you like.

According to his suit, CBS management "coerced" the former CBS anchor "into publicly apologizing and taking personal blame for alleged journalistic errors in the broadcast."

During the 12 days from its airing and the retraction, Rather, already flypaper for conservative tormentors, defended the story on the air against increasingly strident and convincing criticism about its authenticity. But then, instead of going down in the blaze of glory he seeks now, Rather read an apology on the Evening News. He called the story a "mistake" and added: "I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry."

Rather, in his filing, said he delivered the statement despite his "own personal feelings that no apology from him was warranted."

What we now know, because Rather tells us without a whiff of irony, is that he capitulated to pressure from the business side to say things on the air he did not believe to be true. It is hard to imagine he will ever be able to restore his reputation from this fundamentally egregious offense. Beyond that, I wonder what damage he might even have done to journalism or at the very least the already-dying evening news "Voice of God" anchor format. Questions about corporate consolidations of the news industry are newly legitimized if the allegedly unbiased editorial face of one of the oldest brands in journalism is seen to be so easily be drawn into what he characterizes as a PR charade.

The pressure he says to which CBS was acceding — mending fences with the White House — is irrelevant. Even if the business wanted to sell out in Macy's window Rather didn't have to be part of it. And, if he knew then that this was what was going on behind the scenes, it makes his decision to acquiesce even more damning.

So was Rather a tool or a fool? What is certain that this self-appointed guardian of standards — whose recent criticism of the CBS Evening News and his replacement, Katie Couric, perhaps foretold the direction his venomous anger against CBS President Les Moonves, a defendant in the current suit, would take — has provided the enemies of journalism powerful evidence that mistrusting reporters is justified.

I'm not sure what the outcome of this suit will be. Rather was shown the door but he wasn't fired, like Don Imus. He was allowed to work out his contract, perhaps albeit as a shadow of his former self. I'm sure it was humiliating. Quitting might have also let Rather retain a modicum of dignity.

But whatever the outcome of this suit Rather has damaged journalism in a way his critics would never have been able to do on their own. A prominent prince of the medium has given aid and comfort to connivers and charlatans who flourish when the public's trust in journalism is diminished.

His is a terrible admission and it ought to spark a teaching moment in J-Schools, starting today.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Run, OJ — Run!

Apparently the presidential election is over and the Iraq War has ended. Rejoice one and all! OJ is a criminal defendant on cable TV news again!

But a funny thing happened on the way to the docket: All that pre-hearing blather about a battle royale between an over-zealous prosecutor and the famously cocky unconvicted criminal failed to materialize.

Despite kidnapping and armed robbery charges that could potentially land Simpson in jail for life, the D.A and Simpson's attorneys got together and made nice and have nothing but sweet praise for each other. So OJ got bail. Bail that I could make. Bail that I would lend him — but only if he promised to skip out on it.

OJ's gotta take it on the lam again. And this time he has to mean it.

OK — OJ has to turn over his passport, so leaving the county would be a little problematic and that Mexican equivalent of Miami Beach might be a bit out of reach (note to self: check out CNN B Roll footage for video of holes in the fence). But bail is a piddling $12,500 surety bond or $125,000 cash (that I can't spare). The bond is a tiny amount for a man in debt for nearly $38 million to throw away for a shot at his freedom.

I bet there are plenty of places in Wyoming or Montana or even Key West — they're still pretty loopy out there — where he could get lost for a long time, especially if he still has that fake beard, a sack of money and drives a gray Prius into the sunset instead of a white Bronco across the Causeway. I mean, they can't even find Osama and, even compared to OJ, he's a pretty awful dude a lot of people would like to get their hands on.

But this time, there can be no self-defeating cries for attention. No whimpering on Oxycontin in the back of a car threatening to "kill" himself. No hitting the road at high noon in one of the largest media markets in the world at the exact moment he is supposed to surrender. OJ has to to slink away in the dead of night and lay low.

I know, I know. Prison may be better than that hell. But hey — there are serious revenue opportunities for a fugitive so light on walkin' around money that he has hawk the sports equivalent of Hitler memorabilia through shady proxies to supplement a $400,000 NFL pension that alone can't keep him in the style to which he has become accustomed. It's got only tougher since those huge "Naked Gun" residuals have stopped pouring in.

Just spitballing: now that he's just about beat that Mexican rap I bet Dog the Bounty Hunter could be convinced to devote an entire season to tracking OJ down. Every once in a while, during long stakeouts or downtime at the end of another long day, Dog and Mrs. Dog could share a tender moment commiserating about what it's like to be falsely accused, even though they have a job to do.

I bet Simpson's lawyers could negotiate to get a piece of that action in the name of some entity the Goldmans also can't touch. Catch me if you can -- pay me either way.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. While on the run OJ could write a sequel to his memoirs and call it "If You Find Me." He could blog from parts unknown on a Google Ads supported web site. Let's see Fred Goldman hack that.

But, I'm probably just dreaming — unless the singular lack of drama at the hearing was just a smokescreen. There was no swagger and a barely audible voice from The Juice during the 10-minute proceeding. He even repeated himself once when he thought perhaps the "sir" part of a response to the judge might not have been heard. No "absolutely 100 percent not guilty" moment. Just another guy in prison garb and cuffs humbled at the bar.

Attorney Galenter says he won't try his case in the media. That's always nice to hear from a lawyer at a press conference. But there's a glimmer of hope that Galenter is media savvy. He wasn't above making an obscure film reference in court and making sure to refer to it again later while not trying the case in the media to a gaggle of reporters outside the courthouse.

Let's face it: OJ I set the bar very high 14 years ago and nothing since has come close to matching it (sorry Larry, Paris, Britney, Lindsey ...). And for many of the original cast, it was their finest hour.

Lead prosecutor Marcia Clark is now covering this case for ET — kinda one step above Court TV — and touting her incredible access on her site:

MARCIA CLARK is front and center and is sitting 12 feet behind defendant O.J. SIMPSON as he is arraigned this morning in a Las Vegas courtroom, where his girlfriend CHRISTIE PRODY appears to be crying and wiping away her tears.
Pundit Greta Van Susteren is reduced to interviewing Kato Kaelin on Fox. Prosecutor Chris Darden is in private practice, and told Oprah a year or so ago that he hadn't even told his young son of his association with the famous criminal case, the better to not tarnish the boy's childhood.

And Johnny Cochran is dead, except on TV ads and at The Cochran Firm, where surviving partners want you to know that "The Tradition Continues."

I'd say the timing couldn't be better for a little OJ diversion. Deliver us from the poseurs, OJ. Carry us through Iowa and The Surge — please.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The New York Times Sets It Free

The New York Times' decision to stop charging for content that had been behind the "TimesSelect" firewall is good news for fans of Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich and 21 of their columnist colleagues. And it is more compelling evidence that charging the customer directly for online content is not a winning strategy.

TimesSelect was generating about $10 million a year, the newspaper reports, “But our projections for growth on that paid subscriber base were low, compared to the growth of online advertising,” said Vivian L. Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of the site,
Even television, the epitome of an ad-supported medium, found ways to charge for some content, even things that had once been free. But TV spread like kudzu only because it was all free all the time

Couple that with the announcement yesterday that AOL was moving its senior managers from Dulles, VA to New York to be closer to the ad industry -- to say nothing of its new strategy of tearing down the garden wall and putting all their content online -- and it is pretty clear where the trend lines are.

You need a very good reason to expect your readers to pay you anything. There really aren't many, and none which seem to apply neatly in consumer context.
Many readers lamented their loss of access to the work of the 23 news and opinion columnists of The Times — as did some of the columnists themselves. Some of those writers have such ardent followings that even with access restricted, their work often appeared on the lists of the most e-mailed articles.

Should Everything Be Free Always And Forever?

Can you ever charge the end-user for anything online? Sure. Even the NYT will continue to charge for some archive material. The Wall Street Journal, the first and most successful publication to create a fee-based service, does it to the tune of $65 million a year. That may be re-evaluated when News Corp. takes over and new synergies and dynamics are evaluated and, arguably, it is really a B2B service anyway.

Some services use the Web as an additional delivery system for content that is highly valued by a relatively small group of well-paying customers. And television, the medium which is the epitome of an advertiser-supported mass medium, has many pay services -- even of things that were originally free, like boxing and movies. PBS is member and sponsor supported. But it took decades to redefine and refine a market that took root only because it was all free, all the time.

B2B vs. B2C

It seems clear that while charging a niche clientele cane make sense in a B2B model it makes no sense when trying to serendipitously capture as many general readers as possible. And serendipity is the controlling force these days since most pages are accessed as the result of searches -- and to a lesser but growing extent RSS subscriptions -- not bookmarked brand loyalty.

To exploit this opportunity your content has to be available, by definition; one of the reasons cited by the NYT for their change in strategy was the frustration of readers directed by search engines to one of their TimesSelect columnists -- only to find that it was not available. It has become common to see bloggers indicate when registration is required in links to outside sites. I know I am not alone in routinely not bothering to go to such destinations.

It may not be the case that as the New York Times goes so goes the world. But I always have a hard time not slowing down when I drive past a table on the road with a sign that says "Free Stuff." The demand for free is pretty much always going to be greater than the demand for not free. The arithmetic seems pretty simple.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

At CNN, No Reuters, or bin Laden - New York Times

The gifted former TV Newser blogger Brian Stelter, now a New York Times media correspondent, has one of the first stories about the consequences of CNN's decision to dissolve its 27-year-old relationship with Reuters: they missed the story.

I say this not to gloat, since I am not short Time Warner and neither employed by (anymore) nor a shareholder (anymore) in Reuters, but to commiserate. Because if CNN's stated reason for dropping Reuters is basically accurate there will be quite a bit more of these gaps in coverage until the cable news network realizes its goal of taking the money they have saved and putting it to work for them on the street. And there is serious reason to believe that it won't be remotely possible to replace the coverage organically.

This kind of money won't go far spent a la carte. I shudder to think that CNN hopes a big part of the slack will be picked up by iReporter contributions -- but these days you never know

A Few Million Bucks Doesn't Go a Long Way

The terms Reuters was seeking for renewal is not public knowledge. The Financial Times reported the value was less than $10 million, and Reuters reported it was $3.5 million, as reported by Sources told that the $10 million figure was the upwards of Reuters was expecting, which would amount to making the valid (but ultimately unconvincing) argument that even the same level of content is worth more going forward since it can be monetized in more ways.

The truth is that kind of money won't go far spent a la carte. I shudder to think that CNN hopes a big part of the slack will be picked up by iReporter contributions -- but these days you never know.

A couple of staffers in some Middle East location "with real infrastructure" can range over a couple of hundred miles for about half the $3.5 million a year CNN was paying Reuters, a long-time wire service TV professional tells me. So, for that kind of money, you buy two small hardship bureaus covering a few hundred square miles with the sort kick-ass communications a mission-critical team needs to make your network competitive. If Reuters would have settled for $7 million -- a whopping %100 increase in one contract cycle -- that means you have saved enough money for four bureaus. Remember: these can't be firemen, hours away from the story. And none of them would have got the Bin Laden video anyway.

Or, for the same money, you get the world served on a platter and somebody to complain to. You just have to share it with your competitors. But a tie is better than a loss, especially when you lose by trying for a win that is almost never possible.

Not Exactly Going It Alone

Much of what Reuters provided CNN is available from other sources with whom the network still does business, including the AP, so the network is far from being terribly exposed. But even the casual CNN watcher knows that the vast majority of their video comes from "partners" -- deals with local broadcast stations everywhere -- which collectively amounts to a domestic video news service, so the loss of a major supplier of overseas good is apt to be noticed.

This model not only works well, it may be the only one that does work. For years the broadcast networks have been cutting back on their own bureaus and relying more heavily on contractors and wires -- to save money. It is this simple: once you decide to start covering baseball yourself you have to cover every game in every city every day. Or, you pay pennies on the dollar you'd otherwise spend to have the AP do it for you.

I didn't think the public rationale for the breakup was very convincing. Even at the time it seemed to have much more to do with being penny wise than taking the opportunity to do great things suddenly possible. And CNN now does itself no favors, among those of us who may be inclined to admire the bravado of taking control of one's destiny, by explaining why airing the Bin Laden tape 30 minutes after its competitors was not a big deal, as reported by the New York Times:

A CNN spokeswoman, Megan Mahoney, downplayed the delay. “What’s important is to fully vet these kinds of videos before putting them to air, which we’ve consistently done over the years,” she said.
I wonder which blog will be the first to establish that CNN a) ran the Bin Laden tape as soon as it got the chance and b) managed to vet the Cho tapes and get them on the screen pretty darn quick.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Petraeus Speaks. Now, Let's Move On

The demonizing of Gen. David Petraeus was a dumb move( We need to get to the crux of the matter: what Petraeus says is irrelevant, even if it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Bush is running this war. Going after even the enabler-in-chief is like wasting all your ammo on the countermeasures in a dogfight.

The issue isn't whether the US military can kick open a lot of doors, or keep them shut. Indeed, the question is often how not to be as ruthless as the military could conceivably be, which is especially necessary in a war zone where most of the inhabitants are innocent civilians.

The issue is whether the fighting is a means to a realizable end. There is no point in continuing to fight if there is no hope that the suppressing fire will be used by the Iraqis to move into position, to reconcile and build their own nation.

The general cannot speak to this. Above his pay grade. Way above.

So today is just a sideshow, as far as I am concerned.