USA Today, no longer #1 and slipping, takes a new tack

David Carr of the New York Times examines a kind of Gresham’s Law of the New Media

Let’s state the obvious at the outset: The Internet is a miraculous medium that makes it possible for people to communicate with each other from almost anywhere in the world, and it makes it possible for news organizations to report the latest news virtually as it happens to anyone who has a computer and Internet access, which is now a gazillion people.

One more obvious point: News organizations place a premium on reporting events first. That’s just the way it is. Intuitively it makes sense. No newspaper would go around boasting “You heard it here second.” I worked for newspapers for 35 years, and I never could overcome the chagrin of being beaten on a story.

Having acknowledged those two points—or, as the current usage goes, “That said”—can super fast be too much of a good thing?

The correct answer is yes. “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have,” the French philosopher Emile Chartier said. Haste, as your mother used to remind you, makes waste. Compressing time frames leads to a kind of intellectual myopia.

The Internet facilitates instantaneous reporting. Even if old-line news organizations, like newspapers, still put stories through their standard editing and vetting process, plenty of new news organizations truncate the process to take advantage of the Internet’s immediacy. What a medium makes possible too often becomes what it makes actual.

When speed is the only or even the primary consideration, the first victim isn’t necessarily accuracy, although that clearly can be the case, but depth. Almost by definition, speed and depth can’t coexist. Thoughtful journalism isn’t something that can be churned out while trying to beat the clock or meet a quota. In depth reporting takes time, and time is exactly what a reporter doesn’t have if speed is the priority.

The Shirley Sherrod disgrace, which wrongly and recklessly defamed her, might be an example of the dangers of too hasty reporting, but it’s a better example of a complete breakdown in reporting that hardly deserves to be called journalism at all. Absent the Internet, the incident may well not have happened.

Not only does news often come too fast in the Internet age, but there’s too much of it and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what’s really important, what’s merely important and what’s irrelevant.

Speed is only one reason why we’re being overwhelmed by “news”. Another reason is the infinite capacity of the Internet.

Newspapers are limited by the number of pages they can print, which is primarily a function of how much advertising is sold, but also press capacity. Television and radio are constrained by time.

If everything is reported in the same breathless way, it can be difficult to judge.

Now, with the virtually infinite capacity of the Internet, information is limitless. No triage is necessary because the space is infinite. Infinite space could be a good thing, an opportunity to present well-reported, in-depth stories. But if a premium is put on speed, getting it first, the opportunity for in-depth reporting is lost. And the unlimited space allows for an indiscriminate display of stories—some, many or all of which may be inconsequential.

The challenge for the reader then becomes to sift through all of that to discover which stories are important and which are not—a challenge that becomes all the more difficult when the reader is presented, as is so often the case with Internet news, with a list of headlines without much difference in emphasis. So the reader, rather than the news organization, has to decide what’s important. That is a service that newspapers provide with their display of news. The reader may not always agree with the newspaper’s judgment, but at least the newspaper is making the effort.

Another characteristic of the Internet is the tendency of Internet news sites to target their reporting to narrow interests aimed at a particular audience rather than the broad range that newspapers and their Internets sites try to attract. Internet sites need to have an identity to attract eyeballs.

A general site, designed to attract a general audience, dilutes the identity. As a result, a reader is forced to go from one specialized site to another in order to read about a variety of topics. The busy reader, having lingered too long at one site or another, may not have time to do that. So it becomes more difficult, rather than less, to stay informed on a broad range of subjects.

With the Internet then, we may know a great deal about what happens in a particular area without knowing why. And, at the same time, because our own time is limited, we may wind up knowing nothing about a great many things that affect us in very real ways—until it’s too late.

What we seem to be trending toward is a news system that threatens to turn journalists into wire service reporters—except that wire service reporters have professional standards. Whether or not the new Internet journalists do is still an open question.

Is it safe for a politician, public official or public figure wannabe to be brutally frank in private anymore? Does the public benefit when any of the above speak candidly behind closed doors expecting that their private remarks will remain private?

The easy answer is yes, the public does benefit. We get a glimmer, albeit second or third hand of what “they” are really thinking rather than the vapid, platitudinous or totally predictable rhetoric we usually get. The expectation of privacy tends to facilitate dialogue.

The Internet, which has revolutionized communication, perversely may at the same time make the closed meeting a thing of the past. That make sound like a good thing—transparency and all—but the case can be made that the lack of privacy kills frank discussion and with it the kind of dialogue democracy depends on.

How so?

First a little background.

Back in the old days, which was any time before the Internet, politicians and public officials often let their hair down in private, especially if they were among people they thought they could trust or with reporters who understood the meaning of being “off the record”. That didn’t mean that they were necessarily safe. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz lost his job in 1976 after making a racist remark to a freelance writer for Rolling Stone who had been a high official in the Nixon administration. Butz thought he was among friends. More recently General Stanley McChrystal lost his job as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan after he and his staff make critical remarks about officials in the Obama administration once again in the presence of a writer for Rolling Stone. In McChrystal’s case, the general and his staff apparently assumed that because they were hanging out with the reporter for several days that it was understood that they were off the record.

Then, of course, we have GOP chairman Michael Steele making remarks about the war in Afghanistan’s being President Obama’s “war of choosing” and suggesting that the United States can’t win it. And, to add just one more, we had Virginia’s U.S. Senator George Allen describing a dark-skinned American citizen at one of his campaign rallies in 2006 as “Macaca”. Allen’s remark played a major role in his subsequent election loss.

To dispense with the obvious, all four of the above victims of their own bluntness used poor judgment, as they might say in apology, or—they just fell prey to their own stupidity. To say anything in front of a reporter that one wouldn’t want to say in print is always a mistake.

Michael Steele and George Allen might not have known a reporter was present. And a professional reporter may not have been. We might never have known about either incident but for modern technology.

That’s where the Internet comes in, because now anyone with a cell phone or a video or audio recorder can be a reporter. One no longer needs access to a newspaper, magazine, television or radio station to get the word out.


That still doesn’t let Steele or Allen off the hook. They were speaking in public and had no presumption of privacy and no right to presume it. They either didn’t think a reporter was present or they didn’t understand how boneheaded what they were saying was.

On the other hand, when presidential candidate Barack Obama, speaking before a closed gathering of what were supposed to be his supporters, made a remark about people in small towns who have fallen on hard times clinging “to guns and religion,” he did have and had a right to have had a presumption of privacy. His remark got out because a “citizen journalist” who ostensibly was an Obama supporter recorded his remarks and they were put out on the Internet.

In the days before the Internet, even if someone was in the room when an indiscreet or stupid remark was made, you learned about it third hand, if at all. Access to the media was limited. Now, there are no barriers. Anyone can publish.

Given the state of technology in the world we now live in, it is more than just possible that any sensible public person will think twice about saying anything controversial, even in private, for fear that it will get out—not because someone might blab, because that’s always a possible—but because dissemination no longer is a problem; and as a result, anything that anyone says anywhere about anything can “get out”.

There’s not much we can do about that, and some may not think that it’s a problem. But it seems hard enough already to get politicians, public officials or public figure wannabes to say something candid, honest and/or unpredictable now.

In his June 25 column, David Brooks writes about the “culture of exposure,” He cites as the latest example McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone. The access that McChrystal gave Michael Hastings, the author of the piece, wasn’t, obviously, a good idea from the general’s point of view. It seems safe to predict that it will be a while before any general, admiral or high-ranking officer will again speak with anything remotely approaching frankness to a reporter. As Brooks points out, the net effect of this episode will be to drive public officials deeper underground where the public won’t know what they’re thinking or doing.

Now, with the advent of citizen journalists armed with digital video cameras, recorders or smart phones coupled with the Internet, the barrier to publication is gone.

The added chilling effect presented by the Internet’s capability to spread information virally may only aggravate an already lamentable situation. We may hear what we want to hear, but will we be able to know what we need to know?

For some reason, new technologies seem to spawn the notion that old verities and values no longer are valid.

Back in the 1990s, when the dot com bubble produced a booming stock market, the new theory was that the law of gravity no longer applied to stock prices. Something called the “new economics” made sky-high prices OK.

Tell that to all the investors who lost a bundle when the market tanked in 2001.

Then we had the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. No more needs to be said about that.

Now, somehow because of the Internet, the line between reporting and business in a news organization no longer needs to be an Iron Curtain.

Here, from a New York Times article is Exhibit A:

“One thing many of these new strategies have in common is a willingness to transgress time-honored barriers — for instance, by blurring the division between reporting and advertising. True/Slant offers to let advertisers use the same blogging tools that contributors do, to produce content that, while labeled, is blended into the rest of the site. Such marketing deals are central to the company’s plans for future revenue growth. ‘Everywhere I go the whole notion of enabling marketers to create content on a news platform is well received,’ Lewis Dvorkin says. ‘It’s the way the world is moving.’

“Not long ago, such an idea would have been considered heretical, and in many newsrooms, it still is. But clearly, attitudes are shifting. ‘Hopefully we’re breaking down the silliness of how church and state was historically implemented,’ says Merrill Brown, a veteran media executive and investor who is currently building a network of local news sites. Once, most journalists took a posture of willful ignorance when it came to the economics of the industry: they never wanted to sully themselves by knowing the business. The recession has, through fear and necessity, made capitalists out of everyone.”

My favorite part of that passage is characterization of separating news and sales as “silliness”. Elsewhere Brown expanded on his view of how things should work in this new digital world.

[Q] Is there danger in crossing over from business to editorial and back again? Did you ever feel undue influence from one sector over the other, or that your loyalties to either the news or the bottom line affect your ability to do your job?
[A] No, because job definitions are just that, and when you play one role, your commitment is to precisely that role. Although when you’re the EIC [editor in chief] of a media property these days, especially on the Web, you need to both influence the business process and figure out how to adapt to the changing nature of the newsroom in ways that didn’t exist in the past. I don’t believe in the traditional interpretation of what church and state means. I don’t think it’s inappropriate for ad sales people and editors and reporters to intermingle, as long as they know where the lines are. I think one of the failures of media today is the way “church and state” is implemented. Journalists with good ideas and sales staff with good ideas should be able to collaborate in a creative process. I’m for a complete breakdown of what church and state means, as long as ethics remain. I’ve walked that line, and I’d like to think that I haven’t crossed it. Editors need to understand the right place to draw that line, especially in the current environment.

Brown covers himself by paying lip service to “ethics” and we have his word that he’s walked the line but never crossed it. There’s no way of knowing if that’s the case, and even if it is, not everyone has Brown’s apparent impeccable judgment.

I was the EIC of a publication (granted it was print and not digital), and I came to have an acute appreciation for the need to turn a profit to keep the lights on. Nonetheless, I didn’t see it as part of my job description even under those circumstances to run articles or shape coverage in order to facilitate advertising sales. Our readers expected—and had a right to expect—that our coverage would be dictated by our news judgment and that that would be governed by what we thought was important and what our readers needed to know not by what would enhance our bottom line.

In 35 years of journalism at three different newspapers, including 32 at The Washington Post, I can’t recall sitting down at a table with ad sales people to hear what they’d like us to write about to help them sell ads.

The issue is trust and credibility, and when readers start to think that the news they’re getting is being shaped by profit considerations, their trust and confidence in the news declines. And it should.

That’s why the division between “church and state” is enforced by reputable news organizations, because even the appearance of a breach of the separation is enough to undermine credibility.

The values and ethics of the news business—the standards that govern its conduct—don’t, or shouldn’t, change simply because the method of delivery has changed. Accuracy, speed, comprehensiveness, independence and fairness should govern conduct and decisions in covering the news regardless of the medium.

Or maybe I’m just being “silly”.

OK, now that I have your attention, I’m not just kidding. This article from the Poynter Institute, a very serious journalism institution, features an interesting article. Newspapers aren’t the only ones suffering.

Do newspapers have different standards for their print and online versions? The New York Times’s Public Editor has a discussion in this week’s column of a story that ran on the Times’s Internet site but not in the print edition. The basic issue, without summarizing the details, is that a Times web reporter, in trying to add a different perspective on a jazz musician who had just died, wrote a piece that might not have passed muster in the print edition. The piece was factually correct but painted an apparently less than complete picture of the subject and raised some other issues as well.

In the near future anyway, we may see more rather than fewer examples of this kind of incident. The Internet has a different culture than print news. By its very nature, because of technology among other things, the Internet has a greater sense of immediacy with a premium placed on getting it on the web now, rather than later. Newspapers obviously are also interested in scoops and getting a story first, or at least keeping pace with the opposition, but with the Internet all of that is accentuated because the technology has eliminated virtually all barriers to access and time constraints.  Anyone can get information or opinion or misinformation or disinformation on immediately. Newspapers, in contrast, have a number of checkpoints that have to be passed to publish something. Obviously, errors do get printed in newspapers, but despite what some people think, that’s almost always unintentional.

For better or worse, on the Internet nothing and no one stands between writer and reader; the reader has no way of knowing what standards the writer holds himself to in presenting whatever it is, how careful and thorough he or she is in gathering information or what the writer’s agenda may be.

It took a long time for newspapers to develop the prevailing ethics and standards of the profession, and it isn’t at all clear that as we make the transition from print to web that the new practitioners of journalism will adopt the same code—or any code. It would be comforting to know that they will abide by the same or even superior rules, but that isn’t a given.

So, when it comes to the Internet, caveat emptor.

If we needed one, and apparently we did, the Gulf oil disaster is a sobering reminder that our technological reach often exceeds our grasp. It’s also a tragic reminder that when we cut corners, we take huge potential risks.

What hasn’t helped much has been the table pounding, foot stamping demands that the federal government DO SOMETHING, as if President Obama or the federal government or British Petroleum had an ace up their sleeve but were reluctant to play it. James Carville comes to mind—red-faced, eyes popping out of his head, yelling at the camera, demanding that President Obama and the federal government do something; it may have made for good television, but it missed the point.

The question we ought to be coming away with from this ongoing catastrophe is, what are we going to learn from it, and what are we determined to do to prevent its recurrence? And what are we willing to pay?

No doubt more could have been done. The federal government could have sent 42,000 people instead of 22,000 to the Gulf to try to stem the tide, More booms, which didn’t seem to do much good, could have been deployed. Sand could have been dredged up to create berms. Any number of things could have been tried. To what effect? And at what cost, especially to an already ravaged environment?

One potential benefit of the Gulf oil spill is to illustrate vividly how we have the ability to start fires that we can’t put out. We can punch a hole in the earth that we may not be able to plug. Maybe we ought to be asking ourselves if we ought to be doing something potentially dangerous before we have in hand a remedy if things don’t work out as planned.

It turns out that it’s a lot easier to blame the president for “not doing enough” than it is to take a good hard look at how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place and how we can prevent a recurrence. However incompetently George W. Bush handled the aftermath of Katrina—and it was pretty incompetent—he didn’t build the inadequate, poorly constructed system of levees that didn’t protect New Orleans, or allow houses to be built in a flood plain, or mess for decades with the flow of the Mississippi in a way that ultimately contributed to the destruction of wetlands that would have helped protect New Orleans.

Barack Obama inherited a corrupt regulatory system designed to facilitate oil exploration and drilling by minimizing restraints on the explorers and drillers, accepting their assurances that they were on top of the process and had adequate safeguards in case the best case scenario turned bad. Oil isn’t the only industry where we take the word of the producer when it comes to safety. What about drug testing? What about meat inspection? If we don’t want Big Government protecting us, prepare to accept the consequences.

We need to decide where we want to be on the continuum between maximum production and absolute safety. Or between cheap energy and energy independence. Or between cheap imported goods and financial independence.  We can’t be safer, more self sufficient and more independent if we’re unwilling to pay the additional cost.

When this disaster is finally brought under control, is the final word going to be that Obama and the federal government should have done “something” sooner, never mind what that might have been? Or are we going to establish properly tested safeguards for all of the offshore oil platforms–and there are thousands of them– including existing ones already operating? Or are we just going to wait until the next disaster and then start complaining again that the president, the federal government—somebody—needs to do something?