Thursday, February 28, 2008

Linda Greenhouse to Leave the Times

At the risk of gushing, Linda Greenhouse's decision to leave the New York Times has left me very depressed. Her departure is not a death in the family but it is always a passing of note when a writer who has defined her beat in the best traditions of writing and reporting decides to get off the bus.

Greenhouse, who has worked at the paper for 30 years and is the dean of the Supreme Court press corps, is an appointment read for me. I like the law anyway and the Supreme Court especially -- of course I read "Becoming Justice Blackmun" and am reading "The Nine" right now -- but her abilities transcend the subject matter.

Her prose is consistently clear and diligent and spare, at any length. She eschews the soft lead so common elsewhere in the paper (and elsewhere) but does not rigidly adhere to the 5Ws. Great writers can pull that off, but she is a professional driver on a closed track: do not try this at home.

As a reporter, Greenhouse leave no relevant stone unturned and all the irrelevant ones untouched. Her use of non-linear references are always en pointe: If she makes a historical reference it is only to explain the otherwise obscure significance of a phrase or the cadences in a decision, or of the "Survivor"-like alliances in the largely secret society that is the Court.

I presume she is a pleasure to edit since to edit her is probably just to read her.

Yes, I am a fanboy, and not ashamed to admit it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Puppies, Iraq and Fuck You

Yeah, I love this debate. I wrote at the Committee of Concerned Journalists on the naughty word controversy (What the $%*&#! Did He Say) and how newspapers perpetuate a silly standard of keeping foul language off their pages even if the foul language is the story (btw,the clip doesn't make clear what prompted Sam Zell to curse; it was the reporter who asked the question walking off before he had finished talking).

But the merit of the question is fundamental. And I don't think there is an easy answer. Unlike, say, the Big Three automakers it is too easy to blame newspaper executives for failed strategies that have left their businesses struggling; while Detroit is similarly saddled with legacy issues that new players were fortunate to be able to avoid, it is also true that US carmakers missed and dissed trends that invited nimble competitors to flourish.

But people still buy cars, so at least the automakers don’t have to start making bicycles, gyrocopters -- or frozen pizzas.

Newspapers were also not quick to pick up on the revolution in their business. But even if they had, they would have still have been confronted with a different reality: people don’t still buy newspapers. So newspaper companies do have to find out if people want the equivalent of bicycles, gyrocopters or frozen pizzas.

And they have to hope their customers won’t be mesmerized by the next shiny thing and abandon the gyrocopter for a jet pack (or they have to position themselves to be gyrocopter/jet pack agnostic).

And they have to figure out how to make money on a gyrocopter or get by with less by selling non-strategic assets, cutting back on coverage, requiring more of their employees, etc.

Is it any wonder that there are basic questions about what business newspapers really need to be in to survive? If GM can be described as a pharmaceutical company that also sells cars is it a shock to the system that newspapers regard both their delivery systems and news editing philosophies as malleable?

The important question, I think, isn’t so much if covering puppies (or local theater or high school football or weddings) isn’t real journalism. It is that, when we loosen the definition of what is news, we don’t also loosen the definition of what is good journalism. And, in an emotional sense, that newspapers still can do journalism no matter what else they have to do.

I mean, it wouldn’t really be GM anymore if all they were was the world’s largest private purchaser of Viagra.

100% Buyer, 0% Seller

Jeff Jarvis asks a provocative question (imagine the odds): What will the "distributed university look like?"

Start here: Why should my son or daughter have to pick a single college and with it only the teachers and courses offered there? Online, they should be able to take most any course anywhere. Indeed, schools from MIT to Stanford are now offering their curricula the internet.

Similarly, why should a professor pick just from the students accepted at his or her school? Online, the best can pick from the best, cutting out the middleman of university admissions.

Looking way out into the future (but, hey, Sam Zell is saying that nupes will be OK — in 30 years!), I wonder if we are rubbing up against forces that will expose the limitations of the free market as it relates to supply.

  • If aggregators become the dominant publishers but do not participate in news gathering, what happens to reporting?
  • If it is a practical truth that any movie or book can be obtained easily and at no additional cost to ownership of the pipe, who will make them?

I don’t think Google is destroying the news business, nor to I completely agree with Michael Eisner’s oft-repeated rant that discounting DVDs ruins that business because it gets people used to low prices. And it's also very true that the ability to pirate software hasn't destroyed Microsoft.

But the market forces Jeff describes in this piece are real and they will have a real disturbing effect, even if some entrenched interests can postpone them.

When the smoke clears we will all still be consumers, but how many of us will be creators? What will the creator eco-system even look like?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

You, Sir, Are the National Enquirer Of ...

when you really, really want to insult a news organization you accuse them of being no better than the National Enquirer, it seems. But it looks like we set some kind of record for this invective in the past few days. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

when a story isn't a story but it generates a lot of stories, nobody looks particularly good. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Monday, February 25, 2008

NYT Ombud Chides Paper Over McCain Story

New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt takes his paper to task for its original John McCain story as well as the Friday follow-up.

Hoyt concludes that the newspaper didn’t have enough to report that top McCain aides had become “convinced” the senator’s was having an intimate relationship with a lobbyist, that they story did need that angle to make its points and that including it had invited distraction from what was otherwise “a good story.” (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Friday, February 22, 2008

McCain Times II: The Story Shifts

The New York Times insides its second-day McCain story, writes around the romance angle and offers no new reporting about the bombshell affair allegation which caused a substantial reaction from media critics and thousands of New York Times’ readers. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Medill Dean Apologizes for 'Poor Judgment'

Embattled Medill Dean John Lavine has apologized to faculty and students for "exercising poor judgment" but says he did not make up the anonymous quotes in an incident which has brought criticism from his colleagues and unwelcome press scrutiny. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Should Newspapers Endorse Candidates?

Newspapers have long endorsed candidates. Has the time come for this practice to end? (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

McCain Article Makes the New York Times the Story

The New York Times is the story after running a front-page article in which anonymous sources allege some top advisers to John McCain "became convinced" during his 2000 presidential campaign that the candidate’s relationship with a much younger female lobbyist "had become romantic." Do they "have it?" (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Yeah -- This is Important

Silly enough that 'bad' language is deemed unsuitable for most daily newspapers. Now the Chicago Tribune's Public Editor has taken owner Sam Zell to task for cursing -- in the newsroom. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Get Me Re-Write! What -- We Don't Have One?

How many editors is too many editors? How many is two few? Is there a 'Just Right?' In a time of cutbacks and Internet-inspired casualness are editors expendable -- or are they needed more than ever before? (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Multimedia Literacy is Not Optional

The method you use to tell a story tells a story of its own: about your fears and your strengths and your comfort level using unfamiliar tools. It’s a small wonder that newsrooms may be eager to take refuge in the familiar, but that has to change. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Reinvent Journalism in 10 Easy Steps

  1. We love lists.
  2. Lists are good.
  3. List provide a nifty, economical way to provide words to live by or talking points for further discussion.

So here are the Top 10 ways you can reinvent journalism. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Medill Faculty Criticize Dean Over Anonymous Quotes

Some tenured faculty have now openly criticized Medill Dean John Lavine over his use of anonymous quotes. They assert that the incident has become a 'crisis' for the prestigious j-school and that Lavine's explanations are 'at best inadequate.' (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Angry Journalists. Who Knew? may not solve your problems, but it's better than keeping it all bottled up inside -- or taking a baseball bat to the next person who smilingly tells you that you didn't get into journalism for the money. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

To TV or Not To TV

On demand TV is eating into television viewership. Are local TV stations starting to feel the same pain of an online migration that newspapers have been enduring for years? (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Dumbing Down, or Reaching Out?

Telling a story on a whiteboard may not sound like great TV. But CBS News may be onto something. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Voting Ethics, Continued

Chris Cillizza, blogger of's "The Fix," wades into the 'should journalists vote' by asking his readers what they think. Their reply: Vote -- and get over yourselves. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Anonymous Quotes Make Medill Dean A Story

In a letter to the alumni magazine Medill's dean quotes a couple of students, anonymously. A student journalist tracks down every student who could have been one of the quoted, and they all say it wasn't me. Will anything good come of this? (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Crime, and Punishment

MSNBC's suspension of David Shuster raises issues about the role of campaigns in election coverage and, more broadly, how news organizations should react when a subject goes beyond expressing indignation about a transgression to try to influence how the offending reporter will be punished (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For, John

The snarky Romney sore losers -- did anybody with a brain think he ever had a chance, really? -- who dissed a winner for thrashing their boy may have been on to a little something: Mike Huckabee was much more appealing than Mitt among Republicans, so, it follows that if he had never been born more conservatives would have voted for the born-again Mormon.

McCain, the reasoning went, was able to run up an unprotected middle while Mitt and Mike blocked (both on the ... right? ... time to retire the metaphors).

But now there is a new reason to beat up on Mike: by continuing to strongly challenge McCain he is embarrassing the presumptive Republican nominee, showing him to be a weakling even among the people most likely to identify with him. Collegial Mike's presence had given McCain undeserved cover and now the ingrate doesn't have the decency to just step aside. Instead, he is busting another myth by proving that McCain really doesn't have wide and deep support -- Hey! Just like the Romniacs said!

But here's another view: McCain still needs to win, and it shouldn't look like it's taking its toll. But if there wasn't a competitive race on the GOP side would anybody be talking about him at all? Would there be any McCain news during a competitive Democratic primary season that still has at least several weeks to go before anything can be resolved, in a campaign season where the Republican presidential candidate is regarded as mere cannon fodder?

McCain has been doubly blessed by Huckabee, and he needs to look at the big picture. McCain's dilemma reminds me of an Eastern European Cold War story about spycraft I once heard.
A bird with a broken wing is on cold, city street in the dead of winter. He's hungry, can't get to his nest and is in danger of being stepped on by one of the bustling passers-by.A person notices the bird, stops, picks him up and puts him in a fresh pile of dog shit.

The bird is a bit shaken and confused and, angry. But it dawns on him he is now safe; nobody is going to step in the shit. And it is warm. Things are looking up. He starts to sing.

Another person, hearing the bird, comes over, picks him up, breaks his neck and takes him home to stretch the soup.
There are three morals:
  1. Not everybody who puts you in the shit is your enemy.
  2. Not everybody who takes you out of the shit is your friend.
  3. When you are in the shit, keep your mouth shut.
McCain needs to play this out and think long term, no matter what happens. His detractors, and Huckabee, are just looking for a little respect. A big man will be able to do the magnanimous thing when the time comes, and look no less diminished.

Go, Hillary?

Not that she seems to have any choice in the matter, but Hillary's mantra that she'll show us who's boss March 4 -- wait for it -- is beginning to seem more Giuliani-esque with each passing day. How can she lose here, there and everywhere for a month and not seem like a loser?

If Obama does as well in Virginia, Maryland and DC today as it seems he will, has won more states and takes the pledged delegate lead, won't that have a demoralizing effect on Hillary's numbers in Ohio and Texas?

If you can win, you try. Rudy didn't make losing, and not competing, sexy in Florida. Hillary won't want to bring that sexy back.