By paulgillin | July 24, 2018 - 7:54 pm - Posted in Hyper-local, Layoffs

The cure for the newspaper  industry’s ills was once thought to be a “hyper-local” focus, but that’s not proving to be the salve for New York City, which is suffering an unprecedented decline in local news coverage. The latest casualty is the New York  Daily News, which on Monday said it would cut its newsroom staff by half. The Washington Post points out that this means that a paper that employed 400 journalists in 1988 will have a reportorial staff of just 45 when the latest cuts new owner Tronc take effect.
U.S. newspaper employment has fallen by 55% since 2000, from 424,000 people to 183,300 in mid-2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ironically, the cuts are hitting hardest in New York, which is one of the media capitals of the world. Politico notes that The Wall Street Journal shut down its own experiment in hyper-local journalism called “Greater New York” in 2016 while The New York Times has cut back on metro coverage and the Village Voice shut down its print edition last year. Newsday pulled out of Manhattan long ago and no one knows about the condition of The New York Post, whose finances are closely held secret of owner Rupert Murdoch.
BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who is a veteran New York reporter, summed it up best, telling the Post, “Politicians know nobody is watching in a state where everything from economic development to the electoral system is plagued by systematic corruption.” The Daily News has won 11 Pulitzer Prizes, including one last year for its work with ProPublica on the abuse of eviction rules in New York City.
Arthur Browne, who served as editor-in-chief of the Daily News last year, told the Daily Beast last year that the borough of Queens, which has 2.3 million residents, now has no full-time court reporter, despite the fact that it experiences 35,000 major crimes a year and that the local courthouse hears 200,000 criminal cases annually.
Robert York, the Daily News‘s new EIC, asked the staff for 30 days to define a new strategy, which was apparently not in place before the firings were announced. York has a 20-year-plus journalism career, including some recent successes with the Allentown, Pa. Morning Call, but his background has been mostly limited to features and photography, and he has no experience in the rough-and-tumble New York market.
Among the casualties was former Daily News EIC Jim Rich, who had reportedly resisted demands for further staff cuts. Rich didn’t respond to media inquiries, but issued this tweet, which sort of sums up the situation in NYC right now.

Cuts are expected at other Tronc papers, which include The Baltimore Sun and The Chicago Tribune, but Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn said they wouldn’t be as draconian as they were at the Daily News. 

Image: Pixabay
By paulgillin | May 29, 2010 - 4:38 am - Posted in Hyper-local

Last January we told you about Adam Chadwick and Bill Loerch, two filmmakers who are chronicling the decline of the US newspaper industry and the resulting crisis in journalism for a documentary film called Fit to Print. We just got a link to the trailer for their film. Watch it below. The filmmakers have been working on a shoestring budget and could use funding. If you can help them, contact Chadwick directly.
[zdvideo width=”480″ height=”288″]http://newspaperdeathwatch.com/audio/Fit_to_Print.flv[/zdvideo]

By paulgillin | May 27, 2010 - 2:44 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Hyper-local

While Google is busy figuring out how to save journalism, some entrepreneurs are going ahead and doing it on their own using unconventional techniques that may make some traditionalists shudder. Writing in The New York Times magazine, Andrew Rice surveys the landscape of recent media startups that are confronting the reality of plummeting margins by crowdsourced news operations.

Lewis Dvorkin of True/Slant

They range from Demand Media, which generates assignment lists based entirely on search terms, to Global Post, which hopes to charge readers for direct access to its foreign correspondents. A few themes are apparent through many of the business models. One is their reliance upon search as both a guide and a source of revenue. New-age publishers see Google as the pulse of reader interest and have tuned their models to respond, in some cases, in near real-time. Another is that they pay very little for journalism.

Rice visits True/Slant, an operation that uses a digital speedometer to match content on its site to trending topics on Google and Twitter. Thousands of writers contribute to the service, which posts about 125 articles a day. Journalists are paid a fraction of what that would make at traditional media organizations, but at least there’s a little money in the work. True/Slant has only five full-time staff and about 300 contributors. “It’s not so much a unified publication as a loosely connected commune of bloggers, who generate a continual stream of content with minimal editorial intervention,” Rice writes.

The 125-story-per-day figure may sound like a lot, but it’s a pittance compared to the daily output of Huffington Post (500) or Examiner.com (3,000). These publishers produce news in the kind of volumes meant to serve picky advertisers, who only buy proximity to certain keywords. Since advertisers don’t have to waste money on audiences they don’t want any more, the publishing model being built by these new companies is to churn out huge quantities of content and serve lots of niche advertisers.

Everything is search-optimized and, in some cases, search drives the boat. Demand Media actually assigns stories based upon search popularity. Freelancers pick from a list of topics culled from popular search queries and turn out articles and video that post to sites like eHow, which has a revenue-sharing agreement with Demand. No story is assigned unless there’s a high probability it will pay for itself.  Demand “says these mathematically generated ideas are 4.9 times as valuable as those devised by mere human brainstorming,” Rice writes. Journalists get $15 to $20 per item and Demand Media booked $200 million in revenue last year.

The new economics of search-driven publishing have thrown open the question of how much journalism is worth. Contributors to many of the sites Rice describes are paid anywhere from $10 to $25 per contribution. Search advertising is such a low cost-commodity that one publisher estimates a journalist needs to attract 1.8 million monthly page views in order to earn a $60,000 annual salary.

If all of this makes you slightly nauseous, you’re not alone. Many of these emerging business models play to popularity as measured by search volume. Nor surprisingly, sex and sin sell. “Writers and editors know that click-driven Internet economics tend to reward lowbrow gimmickry. They have to decide whether to work around that or to embrace it as a fact of life,” Rice writes. Some new models play directly to the will of the crowd, such as Henry Blodget’s (yes, that Henry Blodget) gossipy Business Insider and Demand Media.  Other new operations, like GlobalPost, The Politico and Awl, are attempting to produce thoughtful journalism and make money at it, mostly through creative use of alternative funding sources.

The elephant in the corner is the rising interest of businesses in inserting themselves into the media stream. Nearly everyone Rice interviews agrees that the companies that pay the bills want – and deserve – a role in determining  content. True/Slant, which is run by 57-year-old former newspaperman Lewis Dvorkin, gives its advertisers the same tools to contribute to the news stream as its reporters. “It’s the way the world is moving,” Dvorkin says.

By paulgillin | April 12, 2010 - 9:58 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Hyper-local

McKinsey Quarterly has some good news for newspapers. It’s been looking at readership trends in the UK and sees growing interest in news from under 35-readers. In fact, daily time spent consuming news in the critical 25-to-34 age category is up 37% from three years ago (you have to register to read the report or you can download a PDF here). People in that age group prefer to consume the news on the Internet rather than in print, but the good news is that they trust newspapers more than any other source: “66 percent describe newspaper advertising as ‘informative and confidence inspiring,’ compared with only 44 percent for TV and 12 percent for the Web,” the report says.

The report is pessimistic on the chances that existing business models will ever transition successfully online. It notes that only one in seven UK news consumers declared a willingness to pay for content. However, the trust factor should embolden publishers to seek more innovative revenue models, including advertorials and transaction fees.

In our view, this is news organizations’ best shot. As the volume of online information grows by leaps and bounds, the need for trusted sources grows with it. Publishers need to discard their not-invented-here thinking and look for ways to aggregate information in ways that command a premium value. We also really like the transaction fee idea. We’ve been pushing that one for about a year.

Google CEO Brings Upbeat Message

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was on hand Sunday night to speak to members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and tell them what they already knew: their content is valuable but their business model is broken. However, the executive had encouraging words. “There’s every reason to believe that eventually we’ll solve this,” he said, pointing to emerging but still unspecified subscription models that Google and others will develop. Schmidt later told reporters that he doesn’t know what the solution will look like, but it will probably be a combination of subscriptions and advertising.

Schmidt prodded the editors to focus on mobile devices like the Apple iPad and Google Android, noting that publishers will need to address all popular form factors and not simply look to the iPad or the Amazon Kindle as a cure-all. “When I say Internet first, I mean mobile first,” he said. He also asserted that new sites themselves will need to become smarter, not only habituating themselves to the interests of the readers but also presenting them with selected information they don’t necessarily choose to consume. In comments to Paidcontent.org, he reiterated his confidence: “This problem will be solved when newspapers are making bundles of money and the sooner we can make that happen …”

Miscellany

If you’re considering instituting a pay wall for your newspaper, you might want to head on over to Paidcontent.org, which has assembled a list of 26 newspapers that are now charging readers for online access. The subscription fees  are all over the map, ranging from less than $1 per month for online access bundled with print subscriptions at the Vineyard Gazette to $20 at Newsday. The chart doesn’t include The Wall Street Journal, which has been charging a subscription fee for years. Paidcontent.org says the list is about to expand by at least six other titles which have announced plans to erect pay walls but haven’t gone live yet.


The Newspaper Association of America’s mediaXchange conference is going on live in Orlando this week and the organization is providing some live video coverage as well as blogs and a Twitter feed. Five sessions will be webcast live between now and Wednesday, including one by the Director of Global Online Sales and Operations at Facebook and another Jeff Hayzlett, the Chief Marketing Officer at Kodak. The Kodak presentation could be particularly interesting, because that company faced a crisis that many newspapers can identify with: its core paper business was displaced by electrons years ago.


The founder of journalismjobs.com says he’s seeing some revival in the recruitment market for journalists. “Even with newspapers – which are supposed to be dead – I’m seeing a good number of traditional openings being advertised as well as online jobs,” said Dan Rohn. He pointed to The Wall Street Journal’s plans to hire 35 reporters and editors to cover New York as well as new postings at small papers like the Green Bay Press-Gazette, York (Pa.) Daily Record and Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune. That’s just a sampling, Rohn said, implying that journalists would be well served by going to his website for more opportunities.


Tribune Co. has reached a deal to emerge from bankruptcy protection later this year, apparently with its existing management intact. The deal was negotiated by a group of the bankrupt publishers senior lenders, who will control 91% of the stock of the reorganized company. It’s been challenged by a group of junior stakeholders who say they were excluded from the negotiations. Tribune filed for bankruptcy 16 months ago and has sold its stake in the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field in an effort to pare down more than $8 billion in debt. The creditor committee was vague on how the proposed reorganization will permit Tribune to emerge with sufficient operating capital to remain liquid.

By paulgillin | April 5, 2010 - 9:49 am - Posted in Fake News, Hyper-local, Paywalls

Victor Navasky and Evan Lerner throw some cold water on the iPad party, suggesting that e-readers could save the floundering magazine industry at the expense of journalistic standards. They point to research by the Columbia Journalism Review (which Navasky founded) that revealed  that magazine editors admit their practices are sloppier online than they are in print. Copy editing and fact-checking standards are looser and editors are more aware of the need to drive traffic to their work, which increases the temptation to sensationalize or invent. “Where advertising is based on traffic, and traffic is thought to depend on the speedy posting of new content, we’re seeing a gradual breakdown of [the ad/edit firewall] as journalistic standards become even more flexible to allow for greater and greater speed,” they write.

Apple iPadTheir oped  raises an important point about the influence of traffic on journalistic quality and the declining value of circulation. As we noted last September, circulation at some of the country’s largest magazines is down between 60% and 75% over the last eight years. This threatens the business models of these publications and the journalistic standards that they support. Here’s why.

Circulation is a complex and arcane discipline that is critical to the health of publications. Publishers manage circulation carefully, each seeking an ideal balance between subscription and newsstand sales. For consumer publishers, a high percentage of newsstand sales creates subscriber churn which delivers new blood that is desirable to their advertisers. For professional and trade publishers, many of which don’t distribute on newsstands, renewal rates signify reader loyalty, which their advertisers crave. In all cases, circulation quality is at least as important as circulation quantity.

All magazines have paid subscribers who contract to receive the publication for a defined period of time, regardless of whether they actually read it. Subscriptions provide a degree of security for publishers because they increase the likelihood that a reader’s perception of the product will be shaped over time rather than by one headline. One of the reasons newspapering has been such a stable business for so many years is that renewal rates for newspaper subscribers have been astronomically high. Subscriptions create incentive for publishers to produce information that has broad appeal to their target audience. While some would argue that this leads them to “dumb down” content, it also gives them the luxury to deliver information they believe readers need to have, even if they don’t want to have it.

Google Is the New Newsstand

Michael Jackson death on TMZOn the Web, of course, there is no circulation. While a few professional publishers do limit access to their content to paying subscribers, most rely upon search engines and referral links for the traffic that sustains their business. This severely disrupts their business models. When the luxury of subscribers is gone, publishers must compete for readers on every single story. This means that speed, sensationalism and search-friendly headlines like “Top 10 Tips for Whiter Laundry” become more important factors in delivering a volume of visitors that can be monetized (Consumer magazines honed this to a fine art years ago). It also creates an incentive to shortcut quality for timeliness. A notable example of this was the death of singer Michael Jackson last June, which was first reported by the celebrity gossip site TMZ. The Los Angeles Times reportedly had the story at the same time but held the news because of lack of verification. Quality lost out to speed.

The impact of the industry’s shift from subscriptions to search results and links is enormous. Publishers now have to compete on every single story, which means anything that doesn’t deliver a large audience is bad. You can imagine how this influences reporting on niche topics. It also creates an incentive to make stories bigger than they really are. The problem is compounded when editors are rewarded solely on the basis of page views. Balance gives way to expediency and errors are more easily excused when they can be quickly and quietly fixed online.

Navansky and Lerner implore people who care about journalistic quality to “take up the challenge of debating and discussing — and, we would add, codifying — the values, standards and practices that ought to prevail online.” It’s an admirable call to action but unlikely to result in any enforceable standards. As long as publishing success hangs on a thin thread like traffic, the temptation to practice bad journalism will remain strong. If publishers can come up with a persuasive way to sell the quality of their audiences, then the tide might begin to turn. Until then, we’re going to see a lot of articles on whiter laundry.


Speaking of the iPad, TechCrunch reports that Apple sold 300,000 units in the US as of midnight Saturday. That’s about 10% more than the total number of iPhones sold during that product’s first week on the market. However, it’s worth noting that when the iPhone went on sale, there was no iPhone to compare it against. In contrast, the iPad has the momentum of the iPhone’s popularity along with a substantial base of applications. On that note, the product’s opening week performance is notable. Apple said customers downloaded over 1 million applications and over 250,000 e-books.

By paulgillin | March 29, 2010 - 7:43 am - Posted in Hyper-local, Layoffs

After visiting the School of Journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook last week, I came away hopeful that some journalism educators accept the profound changes that are going on in their field and are earnestly trying to adapt instead of hiding in a foxhole.

There are 10 full-time and several adjunct faculty at the only journalism school in the 64-campus SUNY system, and I met with many of them, including Dean Howard Schneider and Undergraduate Director Paul Schreiber, both of whom are 30+-year Newsday veterans. The school is only four years old and isn’t much burdened by the calcified thinking that tends to set in at more established schools. The fact that they would actually invite an iconoclast to visit demonstrates that. We didn’t agree on everything, but we had vigorous discussions, and that’s what counts.

Three things in particular impressed me about the program:

  • The faculty has completely bought in to the idea that students must learn to work in multiple media. That doesn’t mean they force a gifted writer to become a video producer, but they do insist that their students master the tools that they will need to survive in a digital media world. They’ve even built a futuristic newsroom with all the tools and sources that students need to master.
  • A “News Literacy” program is offered to the entire school and even to outside educators. These courses are aimed at teaching students in different concentrations to understand how media works so that they can become better communicators and smarter consumers. It’s a great idea that could be the foundation of growth for the entire journalism program.
  • All journalism majors are required to take an ambitious slate of courses in one of four multidisciplinary concentrations: Public Affairs, Diversity and Society, Science and the Environment, Global Issues and Perspectives. The idea is to get students started on a concentration early in their careers. That’s smart thinking, since the days of the general assignment reporter are basically over.

Radical Thinking

The advice I shared with the faculty should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog, but here’s a summary:

  • The core principles of journalism – accuracy, fairness and trust – are more important than ever in a world that’s awash in opinion, speculation and rumor. Don’t stop teaching these skills.
  • Entrepreneurship should be a core competency for any aspiring journalist because the institutions that sustained careers in the past won’t be healthy or even available in the future. Students must learn to take responsibility for their own success.
  • Not-invented-here thinking is death. Journalists must learn the skills of curation and aggregation because their audience is no longer seeking more information but rather ways to manage the overwhelming amount of information they already have.
  • Media democratization can be an opportunity or a threat, depending on how you look at it. The opportunity is in the fact that professionals in nearly all disciplines will need to be skilled communicators in order to get ahead. Journalism education should become part of core college curricula. However, this may require blowing up some existing journalism schools and spreading those resources throughout other departments. Most journalists still see democratization as a threat; educators that choose to see opportunity can quickly move ahead of their peers.

I wrapped up the day by speaking to one of Prof. Barbara Selvin‘s classes. I took the opportunity to haul out the Flip cam and ask seven journalism majors why they’re bucking conventional wisdom. Their responses were encouraging. See the brief video

By paulgillin | March 24, 2010 - 10:42 pm - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Hyper-local

Perhaps it’s because we were headed down to Long Island for a day-long visit to a journalism school today, but an opinion piece in the Loyola student newspaper got us riled up about the state of journalism education when we came across it yesterday.

Michael GiustiIn it, Loyola journalism professor Michael Giusti (right) makes a misguided assumption that the print media model is going to be just fine, basing his conclusions on the assumption that the worst is over, advertising activity is starting to pick up again and that his own reading habits can be projected out to the general population. We hope this isn’t what he’s teaching his students, but we suspect otherwise.

Giusti does have some interesting figures from Lee Enterprises to support his point. They show a 50% drop in classified advertising revenue compared between 2006 and 2009, compared to just a 20% decline in display advertising. Giusti finds reason for optimism in this fact, based on the assumption that a recovering economy will stimulate the latter category while the worst is over in the former. Even better, newspaper publishers have largely completed their cost-cutting initiatives and will learn to make due with smaller staffs.

“With their leaner personnel roles, newsrooms can continue operating within their tighter post-Craigslist budgets. Most publicly traded newspapers are now posting positive numbers, and many are even on track to post profits for the first quarter of this year.”

This conclusion appears to assume that nothing will change in the future, but evidence indicates otherwise. The Internet  recently became the world’s largest advertising market and it’s going nowhere but up in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, newspapers who  have lost the young audience are focused mainly on milking whatever revenue they can out of an aging reader base while doing little to prepare for a digital future other than trying to charge for the content they now give away. This is not a healthy state of affairs.

It’s disturbing to see such blind optimism from someone who is supposed to shape young minds. For starters, the core problem for newspapers isn’t Craiglist but efficiency. Advertisers now have vastly more leverage in the way they invest their dollars than they did a few years ago. What’s more, the online competitors that newspapers face operate far more efficiently than print publishers do. The cost of advertising is only going to decline further in the future. Publishers are enjoying a respite right now because of the slowly recovering economy and the benefits of cost-cutting over the last two years, but to believe that the worst is over and the future is bright is to take a dangerously optimistic point of view. The business model is anything but “solid;” it is on very shaky ground.

Also, Mr. Giusti’s statement that “I plan to read my newspaper in its paper edition long into the future” demonstrates that he is out of step with his students. We addressed a class of public relations seniors at a major university last week and asked our usual question: How many of you have read a print newspaper in the last week? Out of a room of 25 students, one hand went up. This is par for the course in our experience with young communicators and it indicates that while Mr. Giusti may plan to read his newspaper far into the future, very few of his students will.

Online News Readers are Tech-Savvy

Alan Mutter quotes new research demonstrating that visitors to newspaper websites are more technologically savvy than many of us would believe. The research by Greg Harmon found that online newspaper readers are about the same age as their print-focused counterparts but are 1.5 times more likely to own a smart phone. He also quotes Harmon characterizing as “stunning” the finding that 30% of these readers are hungry to buy an Apple iPad.

It seems that the usual pattern in consumer gadget purchase is that about twice as many people plan to buy a gizmo at any give time as actually own it at that moment. But Harmon discovered that in the case of the iPad, five times as many online newspapers readers plan to buy it or some other kind of e-reader as currently own one.  This suggests that newspaper enthusiasts are keen to embrace the new technologies, a finding that should encourage news executives to get off the mushrooms on which they’ve been sitting since late January and start figuring out how to turn these loyalists into e-reader subscribers.

Sadly, the whole newspaper industry has been gloomily silent in that time. Perhaps they’re waiting for the population of iPads to reach critical mass – by which time someone else will have captured the market – or maybe they don’t know how to offer a differentiated product on a portable digital platform. Here’s an idea: regional aggregation. And there’s more where that came from if you’d care to give us a call.

Miscellany

The Financial Times must be thinking it has figured out the paywall model. The British business daily has completely eliminated free access to its content, except for readers who arrive from Google. Previously, FT.com visitors got five articles per month for free and 25 if they filled out a free registration form. Now those thresholds have been reduced to 0 and 10 stories, respectively. Annual subscriptions cost as much as $550.


Gannett's Craig Dubow, Newspaper Death WatchCurrent and former employees of Gannett Co, who aren’t known for reticence with their opinions, are likely to be royally steamed to learn that CEO Craig Dubow took home a $4.7 million paycheck last year even as revenue declined 22%, the company laid off 6,000 people and shut down the Tucson Citizen. However, those employees should keep in mind that the market capitalization of Gannett increasedby about $3 billion during the year. As far as shareholders are concerned, Dubow’s bonus is cheap.


Only 544 newspaper employees were laid off in the first two months of 2010, says the blog News Cycle. indicating that the blood flow may be slowing. That compares to more than 30,000 newspaper jobs that were lost between 2008 and 2009, according to Erica Smith. Smith’s 2010 numbers are less optimistic than News Cycle’s: she  counts more than 1,650 lost newspaper jobs this year, but that may include the 600 people at the Honolulu Advertiser who have yet to receive their formal termination notices. We’re inclined to trust Erica, who has documented this trend with unerring discipline for more than three years.


Speaking of Erica Smith, her latest blog entry is about Paper Haters, a blog that documents the more outrageous and ignorant complaints that newspaper editors get from readers. “The blog is intended to point out the irrationality and sometimes utter ignorance of newspaper readers and their often misplaced anger,” blogger Maggie Jenkins tells Smith. “It’s all at once funny and frustrating.”

A scan of the site reveals that readers do complain vociferously about seemingly ridiculous things. Jenkins, who fields reader letters as part of her job, estimates that only about 1% of communications from readers are positive. The most common complaints: alleged favoritism toward a particular restaurant/school/candidate and the classic “You’re just a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals” accusation. She invites you to submit your own favorites, whether from print, broadcast or online.

And Finally…

Reporters are editors disagree all the time, but rarely do you see their differences erupt in the way they did between these two TV newsmen in a recent exchange. We assume these guys don’t often go out for beers after the evening newscast.

By paulgillin | March 16, 2010 - 2:35 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Hyper-local

The Chaos Scenario on Newspaper Death WatchIn this video interview, Bob Garfield, the author of The Chaos Scenario discusses the changes being brought about by the collapse of the mass advertising model, and with it the mass media. While Garfield is fundamentally optimistic about the future, he compares the pain being experienced by media professionals and their organizations today to the dislocation that occurred when the craft/artisan economy gave way to the Industrial Revolution. In the long run, Garfield asserts, we’ll be better off for the democratization of media. But there’ll be a decade or two of chaos that precedes new models.

Garfield was interviewed at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, where the people who are incubating the changes he describes have gathered for their giant annual mind meld. Running time: 19:17.

Bob Garfield on Media in Chaos from Newspaper Death Watch on Vimeo.

By paulgillin | March 4, 2010 - 12:13 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Hyper-local
David Cay Johnston in a Newspaper Death Watch interview

David Cay Johnston

We don’t get a lot of e-mail from Pulitzer Prize winners, so we were pleased and intrigued when David Cay Johnston sent a lengthy response to our recent comments on the shortcomings of American journalism schools. Johnston is a reporter’s reporter in the classic mold of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

In his career, Johnston has certainly done plenty of afflicting. Starting with a staff writer job at the San Jose Mercury in 1968, he progressed through reporting positions at the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer before landing at The New York Times, where he reported on economics and tax issues until his retirement in 2008. He was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting “for his penetrating and enterprising reporting that exposed loopholes and inequities in the US tax code, which was instrumental in bringing about reforms,” according to his Wikipedia bio.  He was also a finalist for the prize in 2000 and 2003. Today, he writes, teachers and consults.

You can read much more about his accomplishments in the biography accompanying his book, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and StickYou with the Bill). It’s one of three bestsellers he has authored, a list that also includes Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich–and Cheat Everybody Else and Temples of Chance: How America Inc. Bought Out Murder Inc. to Win Control of the Casino Business.

Although Johnston considers himself to be an optimist, he’s anything but cheerful about the state of American journalism and its culture of celebrity-mongering, lightweight lifestyle pieces and regurgitation of factoids spoon-fed to junior reporters by executives and government officials.

“Young journalists need to learn techniques for getting people to open up and especially to check, cross-check and re-cross-check facts; they need to learn how to mine documents which J schools do a lousy job of teaching; they need to become adept at numbers, which goes virtually untaught; they need to learn the underlying principles of whatever issue they cover,” he commented in his e-mail to us. “Use your independent judgment and you stop letting sources tell you what is news.”

This 24-minute audio interview covers the decline of investigative reporting, hopeful signs from early philanthropy-backed experiments and the passive culture of many American newsrooms that has contributed to a dumbing-down of content. “I’ve discouraged a lot of young people from going into journalism,” he told us. But he also noted that if you can make a living in the field, “It’s fun, there’s a lot of freedom and a cachet to it.”

[audio:http://www.newspaperdeathwatch.com/audio/NDW_Interview_David_Cay_Johnston.mp3]
Right-click and save to download.(24:43)

By paulgillin | March 2, 2010 - 10:47 am - Posted in Hyper-local

Three new studies document the changing way in which journalists practice their craft, for better and for worse:

  • New research by the Society for New Communications Research and Middleberg Communications finds that seven in 10 of journalists are using social networking sites for research and reporting, a 28% increase over the previous year. Twitter use was up 25% and two in three journalists read blogs. Maybe more importantly, 80% of the journalists surveyed “believe that bloggers have become important opinion-shapers in recent years” and more than 90% “agree that new media and communications tools and technologies are enhancing journalism to some extent.” Researchers surveyed 341 journalists but didn’t say if the sample base was US-only or international.
  • Another new study, this one by media monitoring company Cision and Don Bates of The George Washington University, finds that nearly nine in 10 journalists use blogs for story research, 65% turn to social media sites and 52% tap into Twitter. Remarkably, the survey also found that 61% use Wikipedia despite popular doubts about the crowdsourced encyclopedia’s reliability. There’s a caveat, though. While reporters turn to social media for sourcing, they don’t necessarily trust the information they find there. Researchers noted that 84% of respondents said social media sources are “slightly less” or “much less” reliable than traditional media, with half said social media suffers from “lack of fact checking, verification and reporting standards.”
  • Finally, a Columbia Journalism Review survey of 665 consumer magazines finds that online content isn’t fact-checked or copy-edited as rigorously as printed content. Nearly half the respondents to the survey said their copy-editing standards are lower for online content compared to print and 11% don’t copy-edit online material at all. More than one-quarter of the respondents also said they’re less careful about fact-checking the information they publish online. CJR researchers attribute this to the primacy of speed in the digital publishing world, which causes publishers to cut corners on little things like getting stuff right. On a side note: only one-third of the online magazines are profitable and of those that are making money, nearly two-thirds give away all their content. Here’s a link to the full report on the CJR site.

Miscellany

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School turns one of its professors loose on The New York Times’ paywall plans. Marketing Professor Peter S. Fader says the Times shouldn’t have abandoned Times Select three years ago; it was a decent service that could have given management valuable experience in how to generate reader revenue streams. Now it’s starting from square one in a very visible and risky position. Fader thinks the Times is doing the right thing in making most of its content free to the casual reader, but announcing the pay wall a year in advance with so few specifics is a “terrible mistake.” The Times is “being completely vague about the pricing, about the specific timing, about the name of it, about what kind of content is or isn’t covered,” Fader says. It’s also focusing on the negatives – what you can’t read – as opposed to the benefits of a subscription system. However, he doesn’t offer up any benefits that the Times can talk about, other than the brand’s continued viability. It sounds like the short-term perspective is dominating the Times’ thinking, Fader says. “They need to be thinking, ‘How can we delight our customers three, five, ten years from now?’ as opposed to, ‘How can we squeeze revenues out of them to stay afloat over the next month?’”


A new study funded by the Newspaper Association of America finds that newspaper sites are considered the most reliable sources local information, including classified advertising. Local newspaper Web sites were identified as “the top online source for local information” by 57% of the 3,050 respondents to the survey, which was conducted by ComScore. Four in 10 respondents also agree that the source of an online advertisement is an important factor in its trustworthiness and in that category, newspapers (36%) bested local television (23%) and online local portals (12%) by a significant margin. Newspapers also beat all other local channels in credibility and value information, although the principal challenger – television news – isn’t much competition.


Rutgers professor Benjamin Davis wants to reinvent the inverted pyramid with a digital touch. In a piece in Online Journalism Review, the educator recounts some interesting historical facts about the news reporting style that places the most important information at the top and proceeded backward from there, including the fact that telegraph messages during the Civil War cost as much as a penny apiece. His “Digital Media Pyramid” still leads with the most critical information but then proceeds through layers of aggregated and multimedia content. It even accounts for advertising awareness, which Davis explains as teaching “the writer to be aware of any ads automatically placed near or inside a written story, so the writer can inspect a story’s presentation and seek to maintain objectivity.” We’re not sure what that last part means but trust that doesn’t involve pulling punches to avoid embarrassing and advertiser.


Robin Good interviews three futurists about the evolution of journalists into what he calls “newsmasters.”  All three commentators agree that the problem that media was created to solve — lack of information — has been displaced by the opposite problem; we’re now swimming in information. This means that the role of media must change to provide aggregation and filtering rather than pushing out more original information. The best example of this evolution comes from educational technologies researcher George Siemens, who notes that when Microsoft was originally planning to bring its Encarta encyclopedia to market, it envisioned prices of over $1,000. When the company finally shuttered Encarta last year, it was charging just $19.95.


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