former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘future of journalism’

Will Journalists Be Reduced To “Gigs?”

In Blog on July 25, 2014 at 2:24 pm

On Sunday afternoons in the summer, the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association hosts terrific classical music concerts. The concerts are free, and they spotlight musicians with impressive resumes – schooled at the best conservatories in the country, performances at major music festivals, concert tours abroad, and awards.
In most cases, what the musicians don’t have is a full-time job playing with an orchestra. Instead, they play whenever they can, filling their time with as many performance dates as possible. Some teach. Others hold “day” jobs far from the concert stage.

It’s certainly possible that some musicians have wide-ranging skills and interests that lead them away from music and that they appreciate these part-time opportunities to play. But others, surely, had hoped that their years of preparation and talent would earn them a decent, dependable living.

Classical orchestras have seen hard times. So has journalism. I worry that, after the hemorrhaging of thousands of journalism jobs over the past two decades, many journalists with the passion to report now find themselves in the same place as many gifted musicians.

The “stars” of the profession, particularly the exceptionally facile writers, or those with the right connections or the luck to find the best internships, may be able to land a coveted job in journalism. But thousands more who aspire to a career in news will be reduced to free-lancing.

Indeed, a few years ago, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, speculated whether in the future, journalists would ply their craft in a series of “gigs” – short-term engagements with news outlets. News gathering may well be on the way of the profession of itinerant, albeit highly skilled, practitioners, whose passion prompts them to forgo economic stability.

They may blog, serve as a contributing editor for an online publication, write the occasional magazine piece. Some journalists may get themselves to conflict zones across the globe, hoping to be the eyes and ears of a major newspaper or broadcast outlet. Even major newspapers have drastically cut back on foreign correspondents, leaving the field to underpaid free-lancers, who are lucky if they can get nonprofit support for some of their expenses.

This is a tragedy for individuals with dreams and talent and nowhere to fully use their skills. But it is a terrible loss for the country. Journalism, which should be a staple of every community, may no longer viable enough to support the trained reporters we need to cover local and state governments, to hold elected officials accountable, to provide the information that informs citizens to enable them to participate in their democracy.

We should be a nation that can have classical orchestras in nearly every community. But we cannot be a nation that gives journalists no better job prospects than concert violinists.


Spare Us From Reporters With Agendas

In Blog on October 5, 2013 at 10:23 am

I wrote this blog before the shutdown.   During the crisis, David Farhenthold did solid reporting.  But now that it is over for the time being, I fear he’s repeating the same troubling pattern.  His October 20 front-page story focuses on the strategic errors House Republicans made in trying to achieve their budget goals.  But he neglects to mention one crucial fact.  There was an election in 2012, and the election was a referendum on spending priorities.  Many of the priorities that certain Republicans espouse were soundly rejected by the voters.

On September 27, as much  of Washington was consumed by doubts about a government shutdown, the front page of The Washington Post was consumed by something else – the story of one Mike Marsh, a federal worker urging Congress to defund his agency.  The headline “Fire Me,” was the size that newspapers usually reserve for declarations of war or presidential election results.

But this story, at best, should have been treated as a feature story, not a news story.  Lord knows, it contained very little news.

I’m not saying the Post should not have run  it.  It was a typical “man bites dog” news event.  But here’s the problem.  The reporter did little to enlighten readers, about whether there was any truth to Marsh’s claim that the agency in question, The Denali Commission, is useless.

What makes this front-page story all the more curious is that Marsh declined to be interviewed for it.  Yes, that’s right.  He sent his complaints about the commission to the Post and Congress, and responded to some emails, but that’s it.

What do we find out from this story?  How much The Denali Commission currently receives in federal funds,- $10.6 million annually –  and that the entire Alaska congressional delegation supports it.  Marsh claims that its purpose  – to help get federal assistance to communities in Alaska that need it – isn’t necessary.  He also contends that the commission builds projects in tiny Alaska settlements – power plants or health clinics – that the citizens can’t afford to maintain.

These are criticisms worth investigating.  But reporter David A. Fahrenthold never bothers to do any actual reporting. He never tries to  get to the truth.  Does Marsh – who is Inspector General for the Commission and commutes to his job from his home in Phoenix  when needed – have a point, or is he simply a loose cannon?

What has the Denali Commission accomplished or failed to accomplish?  Fahrenthold quotes the Commission’s top federal official, Joel Neimeyer, but it is difficult to know what he asked him.  All the story focuses on is Neimeyer’s views on Marsh.  At the very least, you would have wanted someone at the Commission to respond directly to Marsh’s charges.

Fahrenthold seeks out a labor representative on the commission, Vince Beltrami. But again, Fahrenthold  focuses on Beltrami’s reaction to Marsh’s attempt to defund the agency, not the work of the agency itself.

If this were a real news story, you might even get a list of what the commission cites as its accomplishments and try to contact people in the communities that the commission claims to have helped.

You might call mayors and community development specialists in the state to see if the Commission was doing a good job.  Even if they didn’t feel free to speak on the record, you’d get a better understanding of what this tiny federal agency was doing or failing to do.

I rarely say a reporter has an agenda.  But a spate of recent stories under Fahrenthold’s byline makes me think he’s angling for a position at the libertarian Cato Institute.  (One pleasant and recent exception: his September 29 story on agency waste that results from “use or lose it” policies for spending at the end of the fiscal year.)

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Five Things Jeff Bezos Can Do to Upgrade The Post and Win Over Its Readers

In Blog on August 7, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Since you’ve paid cash ($250 million) to buy The Washington Post, I’m assuming that you can afford to spend a bit more to enhance your property. Think of these suggestions as adding a new wing to your DC pied-à-terre. I believe they will actually make The Post more attractive to its readers, and since you say you are all about pleasing the customer, they might appeal to you.

Restore The Post’s ombudsman. Last  April, The Post discontinued its ombudsman position. That was a short-sighted move.  You can reverse this decision.  The Post needs an independent and wise journalist to look over its shoulder and assess its performance. An ombudsman is the paper’s conscience and its customer service rep, the person who can respond to reader concerns and complaints in a thoughtful, meaningful way. And if you do take this suggestion, hire someone feisty and brave, like The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan.

Hire more copy editors. As a reporter, I always resented editors for getting in my way. They do, and they should.  The good ones ask the right questions, guard the grammar, spot errors, and help shape stories. After waves of buyouts, you can see The Post has suffered from an editor shortage. Stories often are pointlessly long, lack focus, and leave readers frustrated for lack of basic information. Don’t take my word for it.  Read the corrections page each day, and the “reader’s comments page” on Saturday.

Beef up the Health-Science section. The Post Health section used to be plump with solid health journalism. Now it is thinner and a mishmash of health and science news, often snatched from wire services. Surely, an aging population of wealthy readers is pretty obsessed with health news.  Give them better, more comprehensive coverage from health journalists.  If you don’t want to staff up, give more in-depth assignments to free-lancers. Medical Mysteries is one feature that is a winner for the section, but it needs more heft.

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Does the News Go Better With Koch? What a Takeover Could Mean for Journalism

In Blog on July 11, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Anyone who cares about journalism and democracy can find it difficult to be upbeat these days.  Money seems to dominate politics, giving billionaires the power to influence public policy debates and frame issues, affecting electoral and public policy outcomes.  The power of money is even greater when media properties are on the auction block.  At a time when the number of mainstream media outlets is shrinking, owning media properties means having a megaphone to get your message across, while those with opposing points of view can only whisper.  This is the opportunity that ownership of Tribune Company presents to any prospective owner.   An opportunity that seems tantalizing to the Koch Brothers.

David and Charles Koch have been masters of the free enterprise system. Koch Industries is the nation’s second largest privately held company, primarily operating in energy and related fields, with annual revenues of $115 billion, operating in nearly 60 countries.   The Kochs have become philanthropists with their fortunes, but many of their donations have been more than investments in the arts.  Their largesse has sustained an impressive network of think tanks fostering a pro-free-market anti-regulation viewpoint that is buttressed by generous donations to politicians who agree with them.  Much of the Koch money has been pretty invisible, but many nonprofits, and a few investigative journalists, have laid bare the architecture of the Koch money machine.

Now the Kochs may be on the cusp of acquiring a venerable if financially ailing engine of mainstream journalism in the U.S. – the Tribune Company.  I recently wrote about how I felt a Koch Brother takeover would be bad news for the Tribune Company and for journalism in general. Two weeks ago, the Newspaper Guild – Communications Workers of America, the union that represents journalists, sponsored a lively discussion exploring what a Koch purchase may mean for the future of journalism.

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Talking About The Future of Journalism at the Alexandria Library

In Blog on June 13, 2013 at 9:00 am

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of giving a book talk at the Beatley Central Library in Alexandria, VA.  I had a small, but very discerning audience.  They listened intently to my talk, well supported by a creative power point designed by my daughter, Valerie. They asked terrific questions, and offered insightful comments about their views on journalism and its future.


Topics ranged from the coverage of the Boston bombings to obsession with celebrity gossip, to how the 24-hour news cycle has changed journalism. I was struck by their concern about how a new generation of journalists would be equipped to help citizens discriminate between fact-based information and propaganda.

more pictures here!

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Kochs Mean Bad News for Tribune

In Blog on May 30, 2013 at 10:30 am

Okay, this post is not about ABC news reporter Jonathan Karl or Benghazi. So if you want to talk about that, you should probably go elsewhere. What concerns me a lot more than the lapses of individual reporters are systemic changes in the news business that may have lasting and damaging repercussions on journalism for years, if not decades, to come.

I’m talking about you, Koch Brothers. As has been widely reported, Koch Industries, is considering a $660 million purchase of the Tribune Company’s TV stations and eight newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times. It appears that Koch may be the only bidder interested in all the media properties, a state of affairs that has alarmed progressive reform groups throughout the country.

The worry is that the Kochs have a very distinct, vocal and aggressive agenda – big on free markets, naysayers on climate change, and definitely against government intrusion into capitalism.

Certainly, these are sentiments that have been shared by many newspaper publishers over the years. But the Kochs are unique in the way they’ve advanced their views, not just the old-fashioned way through big political donations, but also through lots of financial support to think tanks that create the academic underpinnings to make the Koch ideology more respectable. Koch-infused messages challenging the validity of climate change or equating regulation with massive job loss, neither validated by evidence, seep out of these think tanks, or through so-called academic “experts” dependent on millions of dollars in Koch funding, and make it into the public sphere where they influence public policy.

The New York Times recently reported that the Kochs have a discussed their ten-year plan for moving their agenda forward, a plan that not only includes rallying grassroots support and supporting think tanks, but also influencing the media.

There are two ways a Koch purchase could be pernicious. They could actively involve themselves in news reporting side of the business, something so blatant that it likely would stir up lots of opposition and reader and even advertiser resistance. Indeed, some media commentators believe that the Kochs would gain little, and may lose money, on a deal to buy newspapers in two liberal bastions of Chicago and LA

Or it could be a lot subtler. The Kochs could buy the Tribune’s papers and broadcast stations, and assume what appears to be a hands-off approach. However, over time the Kochs could make changes in the newspaper’s upper management in ways that downgraded importance of certain reportorial functions.

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Readers Lose As Washington Post Cuts Ombudsman

In Blog on April 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

On March 2, The Washington Post confirmed what had been rumored for weeks. After a 43-year run, the paper was eliminating its ombudsman, trading in the independent critic of the Post’s journalism practices for an in-house “reader representative.”

Patrick Pexton, The Post’s outgoing ombudsman, had implied money problems were driving the change. The Post’s management denied that money was a factor, explaining rather that different times required different measures. They contended that the rise of the Internet, the proliferation of online media critics, and the ability of readers to comment directly about stories or to email reporters ensured enough accountability. So The Post no longer needed an independent, presumably thoughtful, journalist, to publicly assess its performance. Instead, what was really important was responding to individual complaints from readers.

While I have liked Pexton’s work in the past, I criticized him recently for heaping unnecessary praise on reporters for simply doing their jobs, and I must say this explanation for the elimination of the ombud is also just plain silly. The fact that readers can post comments on Post stories or contact Post reporters electronically in no way means that the paper no longer needs an independent assessor of how it measures up to journalism’s highest standards. Outside media commentators lack the ability to get the attention of the paper’s editors, or have the power to defend the paper from accusations of bias or unfairness the way an independent ombudsman can.

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Last of the ‘Lifers’? Milwaukee Magazine Reviews Out of the News UPDATED

In Blog on January 3, 2013 at 9:00 am

Updated to add!  The review and the book also got a mention yesterday from Jim Romenesko in a post on journalists leaving the newsroom.

A great review of Out of the News yesterday by Milwaukee Magazine’s Erik Gunn. He was even inspired to find out what the lives of some of his former colleagues have been like since they left the newsroom:

The simultaneous explosion and implosion of media may be especially dispiriting for the would-be lifers: If journalism is all you ever wanted to do, what happens when the craft changes so much it seems unrecognizable, or the ranks of working journalists become so decimated that you have no choice but to explore something new?

I pondered that question while perusing Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis (McFarland & Co., 203 pp.), by Celia Viggo Wexler. Wexler, a newspaper reporter turned lobbyist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, produced the book from probing interviews with 11 journalists who found themselves forced by conscience or circumstance to leave the profession. (Disclosure: Nearly 30 years ago in Rochester, N.Y., Wexler and I knew each other while working for competing newspapers.)

Probably her most prominent subject is David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of acclaimed TV shows including The Wire, which devoted one season to the struggles inside an urban newspaper. But the other 10, virtually all from the top ranks of media organizations, have stories just as compelling.

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Introduction to Out of the News

In Blog on August 8, 2012 at 9:00 am

Some of you may have seen an early version of this excerpt from the Introduction to Out of the News.  It first appeared a year ago, on the Columbia Journalism Review website:

On September 17, 1982, the Courier-Express unit of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild voted to do something no other media outlet in the U.S. had done or would do: it voted to turn down an offer from Rupert Murdoch’s News America Publishing Company to buy the failing Buffalo morning daily. The vote meant that Buffalo would be left with one newspaper, The Buffalo News. And it meant that the daily paper’s 1,100 employees would lose their jobs.

But to the union, being bought by Murdoch was about more than saving their livelihoods. It was about the future of journalism. I was the reporter assigned to cover that vote and the end of my own newspaper. I will never forget the emotionally charged night meeting, or the words of Richard Roth, a CourierExpress reporter and Guild international vice president. Roth was a legend at the Courier. Big and tough—he’d once threatened a meek city editor with physical violence if he ever changed his copy again—Roth was one of two reporters inside the prison yard in 1971 when Attica prison erupted in a bloody riot which resulted in the deaths of 29 prisoners and 10 hostages. At the tender age of 22, Roth was nominated for a Pulitzer for his work covering the riot and its bloody aftermath.

Murdoch demanded substantial staff cuts in the newsroom, and wanted the power to decide who would go and who would stay. Giving Murdoch that kind of leverage seemed wrong to the vast majority of the 250 guild members who crowded into the Statler Hotel that night to vote on Murdoch’s final offer. The guild wanted the rule of “last hired, first fired” to prevail.

It seems almost quaint now, but Courier reporters believed that experience should count for something in a newsroom, that there was a value and a dignity to working for a newspaper and learning a beat and a community. They also believed that reporters should have the freedom to write the truth, without fear of reprisal. Journalists, Roth said, needed “to be protected from ruthless publishers who may not want unfavorable things written about them or their friends.”

But there was something more leading up to the vote. Courier journalists, myself included, had researched Murdoch’s U.S. papers at the time and were not impressed. We did not want the CourierExpress, whose past editors had included Mark Twain, to be transformed into a sleazy tabloid. We wanted the daily that had existed for well over 100 years to be remembered with dignity.

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The Book

In Main Posts on March 12, 2011 at 4:02 am
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Long before mainstream news organizations were hemorrhaging jobs and losing billions of dollars, journalists at some of the nation’s biggest and most respected mainstream news outlets were leaving their newsrooms. Out of the News tells the stories of some of those journalists. In the process, it offers a detailed accounting of the past three decades of journalism, a time when the news industry has undergone dramatic change.

Out of the News captures the voices of the nation’s best journalists as they explain the circumstances that led them away from mainstream reporting and into new endeavors. Wexler, herself a former award-winning journalist, describes their experiences in and out of journalism and presents a fascinating group memoir of these times and their rich, exciting lives.

Their stories are good reads in and of themselves. But their experiences also offer an inside look at the structure of news organizations, and the limited power many journalists have over their own work.

read more and go to book page