The Steubenville, Ohio, rape case has been media catnip for months now—it has so many elements that make it compelling: cover-ups, fallen teenagers, social media misbehavior, &c. It draws people in.
There's been less focus on the victim, which is unsurprising—it seems that a lot of network and cable journalists and talking heads are more interested in the impact of the rape on the culture of the town (which is very interesting, but secondary), and on the effect on the football team, particularly the two players accused of rape. That is less interesting, unless we talk about how the team culture enabled and protected them—made them feel that of course they could sexually assault a young woman. But that hasn't been the narrative.
One CNN anchor today spoke about how the verdict possibly ruined the boys' lives, and how it was sad to see so much potential be waster. She didn't mention what it must have been like for a 16-year-old girl to wake up with no recollection of the night before, and then realized that she'd been raped.
But the fact is, the verdict and the sentence didn't ruin the boys' lives. First, they both had fairly lenient sentences, and are guaranteed to be out of custody before their 21st birthday. Second, if anything ruined their lives it was their own actions. They made a choice to assault the victim. Their actions before and after the assault belong to them alone, and focusing on how the verdict ruined their promising lives subverts that fact.
I have no idea about the character of the boys in question, and neither do the anchors or journalists covering the trial. What we do know—what has been proved in court beyond a reasonable doubt—is that they raped a 16-year-old girl, and spread pictures of the assault. CNN and everyone else should be more concerned about the impact the assault, threats, and trial had on the victim than on the perpetrators.
There is nothing wrong with a newspaper asking for, and then publishing a list of all the people in the community who have applied for or have received a permit to carry a concealed weapon, as long as that information is a matter of public record. Doing so endangers no lives, and is as benign as publishing information about property tax rolls, which in most areas is available online freely. Those listings include the name of the homeowner, as well as the assessed taxable value of the home. When people come into contact with the government—arrests, marriage certificates, home purchases, bankruptcies and foreclosures, to name a few examples—that information is public record. Some identifying data, such as birth dates and Social Security Numbers, are redacted, and that makes sense. Public information isn't meant to invite fraud. But it is meant to be available to the public, and the press has a right to publish that information.
Some disclosure: I am a First Amendment absolutist. I believe there was a reason the five freedoms of expression were put first in the Bill of Rights. That's probably not surprising, given that I spent nearly a decade working for newspapers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Iowa.
Part of the media's role in society is to gather data and explain what that data means. Gun ownership and gun restrictions are important conversations right now, and the rates of people in a community who own or carry weapons gives information valuable to that conversation. A lot of gun owners resist that, claiming privacy and hypothetical danger to them, but the fact is, until the legislature says otherwise—which is happening in some states and has already happened in others, that information is public. And that means people are allowed to access it. If you don't like that, fine, but change the law—don't demonize the people who are working to hold the government, and especially law enforcement accountable and ensure transparency.
The Romenesko threads about the Cherokee County Scout apology and various Facebook posts are filled with a lot of people suggesting that newspapers like the Scout would be better leaving well enough alone, not infringing on the privacy of law-abiding citizens, and that they have no reason to know.
Whenever you print something that involves personal information, you have an ethical obligation to sort through why you might publish it and why you might not. The editor who mentored me as I made the transition from reporting to editing had a fairly simple calculus on this point: What harm will printing it do, and what good will it do. For example, I once covered a murder trial where a man's children—ages 5 and 11—witnessed the crime and testified against him. I was curious whether we should name them, but we decided that their names wouldn't add anything to the story, but it might cause them embarrassment.
What good does publishing a list of the people with concealed carry permits do?
It opens a window into gun culture as it exists in America
It offers people the information to know if their neighbors, or the people in the store where they are shopping, are armed
It gives insight into the ongoing debate about the role of guns in our society
What harm does publishing that list cause?
One of the constant refrains in the comments on the Scout story is that it tells criminals where they might be able to steal guns.
The newspaper is printing information that the gun owner may have expected to be private.
It demonizes or stigmatizes law-abiding citizens.
The newspaper has no reason to publish the information, and is acting in bad faith by doing so.
While the gun owner may believe the information is private, or even wish that it were private, in most states, concealed carry permits are a matter of public record. If that seems wrong, work to change the law.
The charge of demonizing law-abiding citizens smacks of projection. Whether someone owns a gun or holds a concealed carry permit is a matter of fact, and should be presented as such. Without delving into the semiotics of this, it's no different from the lists of real estate transactions run in many newspapers.
The last argument angers me the most. First, you can say what you'd like to read, or what you'd prefer a newspaper ran, but you don't get to blindly assert they have no reason for asking for information. And besides, the beauty of public information is the reason you want it doesn't matter, and, in fact, shouldn't even come up—it's public, and so available to members of the public, and members of the media. And thirdly, sending out regular public information requests is an essential part of a journalist's mission. Those requests help ensure transparency and openness from government, something that Geneva Overholser notes is especially important right now, given the veil of secrecy over so much government.
In her fantastic piece talking about the importance of public access to record, she says:
But there are countless compelling reasons to publish data that have nothing to do with breaking the law. Some newspapers bravely (and wisely) publish the salaries of all public officials, as well as top salaries of executives of businesses in their communities. Some recently have published teachers’ classroom ratings. This kind of information is:
always terrifically well-read, and
guaranteed to provoke outrage.
“I’ll be robbed,” say the well-paid officials. “This isn’t a fair way to judge,” say the teachers. These predictable reactions do not negate the value of putting information into the hands of people to enable them to know themselves and their communities, to lead fuller lives and be better citizens.
And empowering people in communities to make decisions based on the information that is (or should be) publicly available to them is one of the highest ideals of journalism.
Romenesko pointed to this truly jaw-dropping note from a newspaper in North Carolina, which apologizes to the public for requesting the records of gun ownership in the county. It also apologized to the sheriff—the one who refused to follow the public records law—and withdrew the request.
It seems like there was a fair bit of outrage over the request, which was apparently leaked by the sheriff. Besides outrage, the publisher and editor were apparently threaten with both physical harm and a boycott of advertisers.
I understand trying to back away from controversy, but from what I can gather, the paper was trying to do a story on whether the sheriff was following the law when issuing gun permits, and ended up being bullied into letting him violate the public records law. That isn't just bad journalism, it's cowardice.
I feel bad for the people who worked there. It has to be frightening to see your family threatened for doing your job. I can even understand withdrawing the request—though I think that would be the wrong call. But to grovel? To throw out any credibility you'd ever have with the community? To apologize for asking for something you have a right as a citizen to have? That's shameful, and it shows a true lack of leadership on the publisher's part.
From an article in—of all places—the New York Times about the announcement of the PlayStation 4 from Sony.
The console itself was never shown during the two-hour presentation. No release date was given, although before the Christmas holidays is a good possibility. No price was mentioned.
So essentially, the paper of record went to an event where Sony said “We're going to have this fantastic new console with all of these great features,” but didn't answer the questions that actually matter to the people who'd buy such a console.
Of course, so did nearly every other member of the tech media.
I think the lessons I mentioned earlier on Twitter about the New York Times vs. Tesla pissing match controversy are about the only things we can learn from the whole thing: Most problematic stories are journalists getting sloppy, not making up facts whole cloth, and that Elon Musk is a dick1.
From the outside, it seems like Broder's notes weren't the best (I'm spitballing on that, I've never met Broder or even heard of him before this, and I'm guessing most of you hadn't either. I bet he wishes it had stayed that way.), and he thought his memory was more precise than it actually was. But in his defense, he's probably not very familiar with electric cars because 1) they're still quite rare and 2) unlike gasoline cars, there are big differences between how each brand handles things like recharging or maximizing battery life, because each brand uses different battery technology.
But I don't think there was some kind of institutional bias against Tesla, or that the piece was motivated by personal animus—at least as much as any car review that leaves the tester stranded and in need of a tow truck can be free of such animus.
The idea of a “hit piece” is appealing to outsiders, but people who've spent time in news organizations know that most examples of bias are really examples of laziness, sloppiness, poor fact checking or poor editing. And the public editor's findings seem to back that up in this case, as well.
There's plenty of blame to go around, including, as Marco Arment noted, Tesla's own tech support, which offered contradictory advice to Broder several times.
It seems like Musk has a skin much thinner than you'd expect from an experienced CEO and founder. I'm sure he's feeling extra sensitive after Top Gear's faked breakdown, and a positive review in the Times would go a long way toward assuring the public—or at least the portion of the public that can afford a $60,000 sedan—that electric vehicles are usable for more than just short commutes. But as the reaction to Broder's piece showed, Tesla owners aren't just owners or fans; they take criticisms of the car as personal attacks. So maybe Tesla walks away from this about square with what it is now–a moderately expensive car with a niche market.
And the Times walks away with people even more skeptical of journalism and a reminder that sloppy work can get uncovered, embarrassing the reporter and the organization he or she works for.
1: I’m going ad hominem against Musk here, but 1) I’d say the same thing were he to ask me for my opinion, which he has not and likely will not, 2) he started it he went ad hominem against the reporter, and it rankles my sense of fair play when a super-rich person decides to take on someone who displeased him with all his resources, even if that person has the resources of the New York Times behind him, 3) he could have offered a critique without acting like a dick, and 4) I assume I’m beneath his notice (though I’m always up for a feud, Mr. Musk).↩
A few months ago I noted that media companies keep firing journalists when they should be firing their executives. That hasn't changed. And it's making me feel like a broken record, or whatever the digital media equivalent is.
I'm not saying I'm a lone voice in the wilderness, but by and large the media that covers the media is focused on institutions and models, rather than the people doing the work.
A few weeks ago The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, where I worked for two years, laid off nine people in the newsroom. I knew all of those laid off and respected their work greatly. And in the comments on the Romensko post people note that two other papers had layoffs on the same day.
There's more that's bothering me than the fact that I knew the people who were laid off, though. It's the fact that it keeps happening despite the common sense notion that no business has ever cut its way to long-term success. All these cuts are doing—all the cuts that have happened in newsrooms across the nations have done—is move the reckoning back. In not very long we will be looking at an ever more homogeneous media landscape, controlled by a few large corporations, and it's going to happen so gradually that it will be hard to stop.
But the people who are suffering the direct hit of losing their jobs aren't the ones to blame. It's the media executives who failed to grasp what the future meant for their companies, and who should be bearing the brunt of these cutbacks. But they aren't. They stay in charge and talented journalists lose their jobs. That needs to change—the question is how.
The problem that media companies are having isn't that they're still searching for the right business model, it's that their structure—the way the create and present content, and the way they structure their staff—is outdated, and doesn't fit with the business models that we already know are successful.
It's not easy to make money on the Internet, but neither is it filled with penniless hippies, writing only for the love of it. There are profitable sites, but they are structurally very different from traditional media organizations—even when they serve the same or a similar purpose. Media executives don't understand how to make their business fit the model, instead of the other way around.
There are a lot of success stories on the web: Sites that are profitable, sites that offer insight into important issues. But none of those successful sites is set up like a traditional newspaper1. And there's a good reason for that. The web isn't a newspaper, and neither is a tablet or a phone.
Business models that have worked include free with display ads, free with limited ads, subscription only, subscription for access to an app, and paywalls both porous and rigid. Each of these has proved successful—for certain values of success.
What those models have failed to support (again, with the exception of the New York Times) is a large newsroom covering a region or metro area the way a traditional newspaper would. And for the Times, the success has been slowing revenue decline, rather than increasing revenue—or, more crucially, profit. I submit, that's because it's an outdated model. The new reality is one of small teams covering specific topics as well or better than anyone else. Maybe there isn't a place anymore for the legacy costs and inefficiencies built into a 20th-century newsroom. That means fewer positions in the industry, which is a sad thing, but how much worse is that right now?
The example of The Daily is instructive. It couldn't decide if it was going to be a huge, ad-supported news organization or a small, subscription service that just gave the most relevant news2. So it was the worst of both worlds. People balked at paying money for content they weren't interested in—or could get for free elsewhere—and those who did pay didn't generate enough money to sustain reporting on a broad range of topics.
Indeed. as Nick Bergus noted in a conversation with me about this post, The Daily had a revenue stream that a lot of places would envy. But they were bound by the concept of a traditional newsroom, so their revenue couldn't cover the costs. When you have the management structure of a traditional media organization and most of your employees are involved in something other than producing content, it's going to be very difficult to succeed.
You need immense amounts of capital, and a tolerance for losing money in the short to medium-term, to start a huge news organization today. But a small site, with a small staff and focused goals, has a lot of potential and just needs a small amount of money to start. A great example is photographer Sean Reid's site, Reid Reviews. I'm a former subscriber, and if you're interested in a very specific type of photography (mostly what's classicly thought of as street photography) and photography gear (mostly rangefinders and rangefinder-like cameras, but not exclusively so), his site is fantastic. And because it's just him, he can make a living without a huge subscriber base. (Note: I have no idea how much he makes from it, but it's been going for more than five years, so he's likely not losing money on the site.)
The successes—Marco Arment's The Magazine, just to name one other, more recent—really do point toward viable options for the future, even if Marco lays out a convincing case that wasn't his intention or his desire. Small sites can get enough traffic that ads and sponsorships can make them profitable. Or sites that produce meaningful, interesting content can use subscriptions to pay freelancers or even staff, given a broad enough base.
What the successes haven't shown is that a big company that 10 years ago wanted profits to increase 10 or even 20 percent each year, and that has since done little to staunch the flow of blood aside from layoffs, can see its glory days return. Nor have they shown that a news organization that's top heavy and has a traditional corporate structure can thrive without making major changes.
There are some downsides to this, namely that it means popular, easy to produce, high-profit content will usually win out against the kinds of reporting newspapers have traditionally subsidized. Think big investigative projects, narrative stories, etc. But usually doesn't mean always. The success of Arment's The Magazine shows that there is an appetite for well-reported, well-edited, magazine-feature-length stories.
Has this been glaringly obvious to everyone in the world but me?
Except for the New York Times, which I’ll address later. ↩
I’m not saying that you can’t have ads AND sell subscriptions, just that the scale of the two approaches is different.↩
Two stories today got my goat: One from the Wall Street Journal saying Apple has halved its order for iPhone 5 components, indicating a slowing in demand, and one arguing that pubic lice are becoming extinct.
John Gruber, was, of course, quick to call bullshit. And link to others who were also skeptical. Whether it's true or not remains to be seen, but it's astonishing how quickly something can pass from an unsourced or anonymously sourced assertion to a meme to established fact. All without any skepticism about ulterior motives.
And then there are the crabs of the not delicious variety. At Skepchick, the charmingly-named bug_girl writes about a story trumpeting the decline of public lice. As she notes, the people behind the press release—salons and beauty products—have a vested interest in the idea that shaving ones pubic hair is a good health move.
So why on earth does it take independent journalists and analysts to root out these not-so-hidden agendas? Taking things at face value is not a tenet of journalism.
Dan Frommer asks for something that would be a holy grail for me and my wife: Amazon's AutoRip, but for books. He also notes why it's unlikely, and how it could go horribly awry. But this exact idea is what my wife wanted three years ago, when I was considering buying her a Kindle or a Nook.
The last time we used LibraryThing, which was four or five years ago, we had more than 1,000 books. Now that total is easily 1,500. We acquire books at an astonishing rate, and Emily reads them even faster, so imagine two dozen library books being around at any given time, as well. And unlike me, she re-reads books, so she doesn't want an e-reader until she's able to take an enormous collection with her but not have to carry any physical books alongside the e-reader. I can't blame her—the beauty of the e-reader is that you just have to pack one thing.
Buying digital copies of all—or even most—of our books is obvious cost-prohibitive, and selling them and using the proceeds to buy a digital copy doesn't work either, because most books lose half or more of their value the second you buy them. And that's setting aside the old or esoteric books that don't have digital versions. I looked into creating a DIY book scanner, but scanning all of our books would be the work of a lifetime, considering we both work full time. And we wouldn't have time to read the books if all we did was scan them. Most scanning solutions capture either one page or a full spread at a time and require constant attention.
Frommer notes wisely that leaving this to the publishers would lead to another Ultraviolet. (Serious question: Has anyone ever USED Ultraviolet?) But I think they're really missing the chance to change the balance of power with Amazon. How amazing would it be to scan the bar code of a book and be able to download the digital version? I don't know how you'd handle piracy, and I'm not sure of the best way to handle distribution and verification, but it would make more sense for the publishers to offer it than it would for Amazon, at least from a consumer perspective. After all, it doesn't matter where you bought the book, only that you own it.
The DRM problems are staggering, of course, and there's no way the books would be offered DRM-free (really, there's no chance of this happening, at least not in the foreseeable future). But when the day comes that she can download any of the hundreds of books that she owns onto the device, Emily will be the first in line for an e-reader.
A reader took me mildly to task about my “Let's kill technology journalism post, saying that it wasn't just tech reporters and sites guilty of the infractions I cited. He is completely right, and his point about the flaws inherent in so many sectors of the news—entertainment, politics, the list goes on—is well taken.
The horse-race coverage that defines politics, the shallowness that passes for informed analysis in nearly every area of reporting, are infuriating. They make being aware and engaged with the world more difficult, more off-putting.
Part of the reason I focused my ire on technology is that I simply didn't have the time or attention span to make a complete list of all the sins of those who claim to be journalists. The other is that I think tech journalism is the most expendable, and aside from celebrity coverage and gossip, provides the least real value.
Try an experiment. Take every technology blog out of your feed reader—with a very few exceptions I did this more than a year ago—and see if you're 1) any less well-informed on the happenings in the world and 2) if you miss the content you were consuming at all. This rudimentary information diet might help your sanity.