Prospects for the American press under Trump, part two

Winter is coming. But there are things that can be done. The second half of my post on the American press under threat. (Part one is here.)

30 Dec 2016 3:53 pm 82 Comments

pressdamnIn part one of this post, I described in 17 numbered paragraphs a bleak situation for the American press as a check on power, now that Donald Trump has been elected. My summary of it went like this:

Low trust all around, an emboldened and nationalist right wing that treats the press as natural enemy, the bill coming due for decades of coasting on a model in political reporting that worked well for “junkies” but failed to engage the rest of us, the strange and disorientating fact that reality itself seems to have become a weaker force in politics, the appeal of the “strong man” and his propaganda within an atmosphere of radical doubt, the difficulty of applying standard methods of journalism to a figure in power who is not trying to represent reality but to substitute himself for it as a show of strength, the unsuitability of prior routine as professionals in journalism try to confront these confusing conditions, a damaged economic base, weak institutional structure and newsroom mono-culture that hinders any creative response, and a dawning recognition that freedom of the press is a fragile state, not a constitutional certainty.

This is a crisis with many overlapping and deep-seated causes, not just a problem but what scholars call a wicked problem— a mess. You don’t “solve” messes, you approach them with humility and respect for their beastliness. Trying things you know won’t “fix” it can teach you more about the problem’s wickedness. That’s progress. Realizing that no one is an expert in the problem helps, because it means that good ideas can come from anywhere.

Being willing to start over is good, too. If I were running a big national desk in DC, I would try to zero-base the beat structure. Meaning: if you had no existing beats for covering national affairs in Donald Trump’s America, if you had to create them all from scratch, what would that system look like?

Is that going to fix what’s broken in political journalism? Nope. But trying it might reveal possibilities that were harder to see before. So let me be clear about this: I don’t have solutions to what I described in part one. And I’m not saying my suggestions are equal to the task. They are not. Rather, this is what I can think of. I have a series of small ideas that might be worth trying and a larger one to spell out.

I wish had better answers for you.

Measures worth taking (not “solutions.”)

27. Uncouple the news agenda from Trump’s Twitter feed. I don’t agree with those who say the press should ignore Trump’s tweets. Even calling them tweets is in a way an illusion. These are public statements from the president-elect. Bulletins from the top. Naming them for their means of delivery (Twitter) doesn’t help. They can’t be ignored any more than an announcement on whitehouse.gov can be disregarded.

But it is true that Trump uses his Twitter feed to deflect, distract, intimidate, monopolize and confuse. The press should find a way of handling — and fact-checking — these bulletins that shrinks them into a sidebar, or weaves them into a larger story originated by journalists rather than Trump’s Twitter finger. (One option: annotation.) Don’t let his feed set your agenda. And learn to be more careful with your headlines! That may be all he wants: your lazy headline.

28. Switch to an “outside in” (rather than inside out) pattern. Assume almost no access to Trump and the people around him who have power, or imagine that the access game becomes a net negative. Now what? You still have to find out what’s going on, but the “access” portal is closed. This seems to me a better starting point, even as you fight for real access, defend the daily briefing, and demand timely responses to Freedom of Information requests.

Outside-in means you start on the rim and work towards the center, rather than the reverse. Domestically, it involves mining sources in the agencies and civil service rather than the people perceived as “players.” (As is commonly done in investigative journalism.) With foreign policy it means more is likely to come from other governments than from the U.S.

During the Trump campaign who had better access: The reporters in the media pen, or those who got tickets and moved with the rest of the crowd? Were the news organizations on the blacklist really at a disadvantage? I can hear the reply. We need both: inside and outside. Fine, do both. My point is: outside-in can become the baseline method, and inside-out the occasionally useful variant. Switch it up. Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim.

29. Less predictable, please. If Trump can break with established norms so can the journalists who cover him. When you’re not where he expects you to be, you’re winning. I’m not going to elaborate on this because that would defeat the point of listing it.

30. Drop the White House Correspondents Association Dinner.  Just stop. You know why.

31. Track closely Trump’s promises and boasts during the campaign so you can compare them to what he is doing. It’s already underway. More like this.

32. From a follower on Twitter: (Good ideas can come from anywhere.) Seek and accept offers to speak on the radio in areas of Trump’s greatest support. Audience development people: this is your gig. Perfect thing to talk about about on red state talk radio: comparing Trump’s campaign promises to what what he has actually done.

33. Make common cause with scholars who have been there. Especially experts in authoritarianism and countries when democratic conditions have been undermined, so you know what to watch for— and report on. (Creeping authoritarianism is a beat: who do you have on it?)

34. Keep an eye on the internationalization of these trends, and find spots to collaborate with journalists across borders.

35. Try threat modeling the loss of press freedom or the vanished capacity to hold government to account.

36. Find coverage patterns that cross the great divide. For example“Dave Weigel, who brought his distinct voice and broad knowledge of the far-right and far-left to our 2016 campaign coverage, will do the same on the Hill. He will track Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, and the Freedom Caucus in the House. He will look for new movements, new factions and new stars. And he will continue reporting on the so-called alt-right and the fake news industry, tracking its origins and spotlighting its authors in real time.”

37. Learn from Fahrenthold! Nothing I have said so far addresses the hardest problem in journalism right now: recovering trust while doing good work. But David Fahrenthold, the Washington Post reporter who uncovered the fiction of Donald Trump’s philanthropic giving, is single-handedly showing the way. It’s not just the great stories he’s digging up, or the way they hold power to account. It’s also the social turn his investigation took, and the lesson in transparency that he’s teaching the press.

Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. (And to mistrust Trump’s attacks on it… See how that works?) He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe.

He is not “solving,” but he’s certainly helping with the trust problem, the revenue problem, and the press-hater-in-chief problem (numbers 6, 1, 8 in part one of this post) all while pumping out Pulitzer-worthy stories that prove to Americans why we have a free press. That’s how a “mess” yields to patient effort. His methods are no mystery. They point the way to a trust restoration and learn-as-you-go project that needs to start tomorrow in journalism. Teams of people should be doing it the way he does it.

Learn from Fahrenthold! I can’t make it any clearer than that.

38. I’m not sure how to put this one, but here goes: Journalists need to think politically about journalism itself, which does not mean to politicize it. Like it or not, the press is a public actor, currently in the fight of its life against forces that want to bring it down. This is a political situation par excellence, but nothing in their training or temperament prepares journalists to fight the kind of battle they’re in. They think they would rather chase stories, publish what they find and let the politics take care of itself. But that won’t cut it anymore.

What I mean by “think politically” involves basic questions: What do we stand for that others also believe in? Who is aligned against us? Where are we most vulnerable? What are our opponents’ strengths? How can we broaden our base? Who are our natural allies? What can we unite around, despite our internal differences? What are the overlapping interests that might permit us to make common cause with people who are not journalists?

There is a reason these (political) questions sound “off” to most people in journalism. A free press has to be independent, or it is useless to us. That remains true, even in the emergency journalists find themselves in today. But staying independent does not mean standing alone. They cannot win this fight alone.

Reacting to their perception of a national emergency, Americans who still have trust in the press are putting money down and signing up for the news sources they want to support. What is that but a form of civic action? It involves not a party or interest group competing for power, but a public good they want to exist: accountability journalism. Nothing else can explain the surge in subscriber revenue following the election of Trump.

From journalists is only one way Americans get news now. They get it directly from newsmakers, as with Trump’s Twitter feed. They get it from ideological cadres styled as news sources, like Breitbart. They get it from entertainers like Rush Limbaugh (an opponent of the press) or John Oliver (an ally of accountability journalism). They get it from friends and family members passing along a personalized mix of stuff. They get it from people interested in the same things who collect online and pool information. They get it from bad actors filling false reports that look like news, like Alex Jones or those Macedonian teenagers.

How to persuade more people to get news from journalism — when they have many other choices at hand — is what I mean by thinking politically, but the wrong way to win that fight would be to politicize the product. This is where the problem of trust in the news media meets problems of practice in journalism; the two things are really one: how to begin to practicing in a way that might begin to expand trust. That’s why I said learn from Fahrenthold. He’s got that part working.

39. Where troubles meet issues: listening better.

After the election we heard this a lot: journalists need to listen better to people outside their current orbit and pick up the signals they somehow missed in 2016. As Jeff Jarvis put it in a morning-after symposium:

The news industry is stuck in its mass-media worldview, trying to create one product for all. Its worldview is limited by its creators’ lack of diversity — ethnic, economic, geographic, political (and let’s finally admit that most media and journalists are liberal).

We must do a much better job of listening to more communities — African-American, Latino, LGBT, women, of course, and also the angry white men (and women) who bred Trumpism — so we can understand and empathize with their needs, serve those needs, gain their trust, and then reflect and inform their worldviews.

We must do a better job of listening… It sounds good: who is not in favor of that? But what does better mean in this context? Better than whom?

Here’s an abstract answer (sorry: it will only take a minute!) Journalists, I think, need to listen for people’s troubles, and find the points where they connect to public issues. And they have to be better at that than a broken political system is. From there they can start to rebuild trust.

The distinction between “troubles” and “issues” was struck by sociologist C. Wright Mills in the 1950s. He said troubles were the problems that concern people in their immediate experience. “An issue is a public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened.” When the issues that get attention fail to connect to people’s troubles, or when common troubles don’t get surfaced and formulated as public issues… that is where journalism-as-listener can intervene, and earn back trust.

A vivid example is the movie “Spotlight.” Thousands of people were personally troubled by the legacy of child abuse in the Catholic Church. But their private suffering was not a public issue until the Boston Globe made it one— by listening to their stories, piecing them together and confronting the people in power. For the Globe, the gain in reputation from that act was incalculable: years of goodwill in the community, impossible to purchase any other way.

But “Spotlight” is a once-in-a-lifetime story. More Spotlights is not much of a suggestion, is it?

This call-out was published two weeks after the election by the non-profit public affairs news site, Texas Tribune: Help us hear more voices from more Texans. It’s asking people to support with their donations a new position:

Voices not previously heard by the political establishment are being heard now. It’s a good time for the press to hone its listening skills too. This is and always has been — or should have been — a two-way conversation.

That’s why we’re crowdfunding the Trib’s first-ever community reporter position. This reporter will go the extra mile, literally, to forge relationships with our readers all across this state, translating their feedback into stories produced by our awesome reporters. The new position will ensure that the voices of more Texans from more places inform our coverage. This reporter’s beat will be Texans.

The bread-and-butter of the Texas Tribune is government and public policy news. Here it wants to make sure that the issues it reports upon speak to the troubles Texans experience in their lives. The beat is “Texans” because that is one way to make sure the listening gets done. It’s a modest start (one person, one beat) but there’s a big idea beneath the bubbly pitch.

Journalism that tries to find its public through “inside” coverage of the political class is vulnerable to rejection by portions of the public that are busy rejecting that class. This is a hard problem, to which “listening” sounds like a soft, warm and fuzzy solution. It isn’t.

Andrew Haeg, CEO of the journalism start-up Groundsource, recently tried to sketch what a “listening” model looks like. I found inspiring his imaginary description of a two-person listening team:

Emboldened by election postmortems urging better listening, inspired by Spotlight, trained in new tools and techniques, and stoked to pioneer new forms of listening-first investigative journalism, the duo works deep into the night, tipped over Chinese takeout, bleary-eyed, adrenaline-fueled, writing as they go a new playbook comprised of equal parts data journalism, community outreach, crowdsourcing, and investigative journalism.

They print and post handmade signs in grocery stores and truck stops: “What should we know?” with a phone number to text or call. They FOIA 311 data, download 211 data from the United Way, use Splunk and IFTTT and other tools to trigger alerts when key community datasets are updated. They hold town hall forums, set open office hours at local coffee shops and diners, and form key partnerships with community organizations to invite underserved communities into the conversation. They build a community of hundreds who ask questions and vote on which ones get answered, get texts with updates on the newsgathering progress and ongoing opportunities to share their concerns and stories. The community feed that develops is rich, authentic, and often shockingly prescient.

Five years ago I published this post: The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage. It went nowhere with the U.S. press. It describes a listening model for election journalism in which the central question put to voters is not: who are you going to vote for? Or why are you so angry? But: what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes? (It’s based on a 1992 project at the Charlotte Observer that did exactly that.) A team of journalists who had supple and plural answers to that — because they did the work and got it right — would hold in their hands a template for election coverage that builds trust.

For if you know what different groups of voters want the candidates to discuss (and you’re right!) you can push the candidates to address those things, whether they want to or not. You also have a blueprint for your own news agenda that is independent of the candidates, but expressive of the voters. I don’t know that this model would have prevented the debacle we saw in 2016, but I do know that horse race journalism has failed the people who practice it.

Whenever troubles don’t match up with issues, there is trust to be won for journalists able to listen better than systems that are failing people. Somehow this insight will have to be combined with more traditional virtues in journalism, if the press is going to withstand the attacks that are coming and thrive in a far more dangerous world.

Cover image by Matt Wuerker, Politico. Used by permission. For part one of this post, go here.

 

Winter is coming: prospects for the American press under Trump

How bad is it? Bad. I will explain why. Any bright signs? A few. This is part one. Part two is about what can be done.

28 Dec 2016 9:55 pm 182 Comments

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This started as a thread on Twitter about “things to look for” in the next six to eight months. Readers asked what could be done in response. I will try to meet that request in part two. (And here it is.) First we have to understand how deep and interconnected the problems are.

How bad is it? Pretty bad.

For a free press as a check on power this is the darkest time in American history since World War I, when there was massive censorship and suppression of dissent. I say this because so many things are happening at once to disarm and disable serious journalism, or to push it out of the frame. Most of these are well known, but it helps to put them all together. Here is my list:

1. An economic crisis in (most) news companies, leaving the occupation of journalism in a weakened state, especially at the state and local level, where newsrooms have been decimated by the decline of the newspaper business. The digital money is going to Google and Facebook, but they do not have newsrooms.

2. A low-trust environment for most institutions and their leaders, the same ones who are regularly featured in the news.

3. A broken and outdated model in political journalism, which tries to connect to the public through “inside” or access reporting about a class whose legitimacy is itself eroding. And since almost everyone got the result wrong in 2016, responsibility for this massive error is evenly distributed across the press, which means that no one is responsible for fixing what is broken.

4. An organized movement on the political right to discredit mainstream journalism, which stretches from Steve Bannon in the White House to Trump’s army of online trolls, with Breitbart, Drudge Report, talk radio and Fox opinion hosts mediating between the two, while the “alt reality” fringe feels newly emboldened. Its latest tactic is to shout down as “fake news” any work of reporting that conflicts with its worldview, leaving the term useless as a fraud alert. “Over the years, we’ve effectively brainwashed the core of our audience to distrust anything that they disagree with,” said John Ziegler, a conservative radio host, to a New York Times reporter. “Because the gatekeepers have lost all credibility in the minds of consumers, I don’t see how you reverse it.” In fact, no one knows how to fix this.

5. The rapid escalation of this drive-to-discredit as Trump gained traction with the electorate. Since 1970 it has grown from questioning the motives of people covering a Republican president in the speeches of Spiro Agnew, to countering liberal spin with the personalities at Fox News, to mistrusting all of the mainstream (or “drive-by”) media with Rush Limbaugh, and now to a place beyond that. Sean Hannity — who is probably closer to Trump than any other media figure — recently said on air: “Until members of the media come clean about colluding with the Clinton campaign and admit that they knowingly broke every ethical standard they are supposed to uphold, they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people.” In other words, the mainstream press should not be allowed to cover Trump. A few years ago that was a bridge too far. Now it’s a plausible test of poisoned waters.

6. After the debacle of 2016, trust in the news media as an institution feels lower than ever in living memory, while popular anger reaches an all-time high. The resentment is coming from the left, the right and what remains of the center. Pew Research Center: “Only about two-in-ten Americans (22%) trust the information they get from local news organizations a lot, whether online or offline, and 18% say the same of national organizations.” Gallup in September of this year: “Republicans who say they have trust in the media has plummeted to 14% from 32% a year ago. This is easily the lowest confidence among Republicans in 20 years.”

7. A homogeneity and coastal concentration in American newsrooms that can be described in many ways — lack of diversity is the most common, with disagreements on what kind of diversity is most desired — leaving the press ill-prepared to take creative action across a cultural divide. The situation was summed up in the most quotable line written by a journalist about Trump’s candidacy: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” (Salena Zito in The Atlantic.)

8. A figure in power who got there in part by whipping up hatred against the press, and who shows no signs of ending that abusive practice… coupled with a disturbing pattern in which Trump broadcasts through his Twitter feed outrageously false statements, the press reacts by trying to “check” them, and the resulting furor works to his advantage by casting journalists in the role of petty but hateful antagonist, with Trump as the man who takes the heat and “tells it like it is.”

9. The emergence of an authoritarian political style in which trashing the norms of American democracy (as when he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, or suggested prosecution of his opponent) works to Trump’s advantage with a huge portion of his supporters, while failing to alarm the rest. This is especially troublesome because norms of democracy are what give the press its place in public life and representative government; if these can be broken without penalty that means the press can be shoved aside and not much will happen.

10. The increasingly dim prospect that there will be a fact-based debate to which journalists can usefully contribute when the leader of the free world feels free to broadcast transparently false or ignorant claims… coupled with the full flowering of the “we make our own reality” attitude (circa 2004) into a kind of performance art that simultaneously kicks up hatred of anyone trying to be evidence-based and liberates the speech of powerful actors from even the most minimal factual constraints.

11. An advanced stage of culture war, political polarization and asymmetrical mistrust of the press in which, instead of leading to greater public awareness and a gradual movement toward reform, sensational revelations, hard-hitting investigations and exposés of corruption are consumed as fuel in an accelerating political divide. In other words, Watergate-style journalism increasingly enflames and polarizes, rather than informing and alerting the public. The more damning and irrefutable the findings are, the more likely is this furious reaction, especially when Trump launches attacks on the journalists and news organizations doing the digging.

12. The success of “verification in reverse,” a method on the march, in which a knowing political actor takes facts that have been nailed down, and introduces doubt about them, which then releases energy (controversy, resistance, ready-to-hate news coverage) which in turn helps power a movement among those who wanted the established facts repealed, as it were. This is how Trump launched his political career. He became a birther. Wherever it succeeds, verification-in-reverse is a triumph over the craft of journalism, which has to be pro-verification or it may as well exit the stage.

13. Amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman’s 1985 book put it, in which the logic of entertainment overtakes adjacent but nominally distinct spheres that are supposed to be governed by their own logic, as when newsworthiness and the requirements of political debate are subordinated to entertainment values by media companies obeying commercial imperatives, while claiming a public service mantle. For journalists, this is the import of Jeff Zucker’s reign at CNN, and one of the lessons of Trump’s career as a “reality TV” star.

14. A shift in the power-to-inform toward a single platform and attention-economy colossus: Facebook, a creature of the tech industry that feels no native commitment to journalism… that wants to avoid responsibility for editing because editing does not scale… that easily surfaces demand for false stories about real events… and that is slowly taking charge of the day-to-day relationship with users of the news system, especially on mobile devices, which is where the growth is.

15. A proven model — proven, that is, by billionaire Peter Thiel — for bankrupting news companies and driving them out of business by using the court system and jury trials, which can leverage public disgust for The Media  (see no. 6 above) into jury awards that defendants cannot possibly pay. As yet there is no known counter to this strategy. The fact that it worked once has an intimidating effect.

16. A crisis of representation around covering Trump in which it is not clear that anyone can reliably tell us what his positions are, or explain his reasons for holding them, because he feels free to contradict advisers, spokespeople, surrogates, and previous statements he made. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce put it to me: “Nobody speaks for the prez-elect, not even himself.” I list this because the press is not good at abandoning rituals and routines when they cease to make sense. Every interview with Kellyanne Conway or Reince Priebus is premised on a claim to represent the man in power. This claim may be false. But journalists need people to interview! So they will continue to do it, even though they may be misinforming the public. They may even realize this and be unable to shift course. What I’m trying to point out is that existing methods for “holding power to account” rest on assumptions about how it will behave. A man in power untroubled by contradictions and comfortable in the confusion he creates cannot be held accountable by normal means.

17. Weak leadership and a thin institutional structure in the American press, which is not accustomed to organizing itself to fight back or act assertively in any coordinated way, as with the White House Correspondents Association, currently failing even to get a meeting with the Trump transition team, but still planning to yuck it up with him at the WHCA dinner in the spring of 2017. In many ways the press resembles a “herd of independent minds,” with no one responsible for the beast as a whole, and no easy way to fix broken practices, or re-direct effort. Collaboration is on the rise in journalism, and that’s a good a thing. But while it’s easy to act against the press, it’s almost impossible for the press as a whole to deliberate and act in reply. And even if it could miraculously discover the will to do so, this would probably give new ammunition to political enemies of the press. Remaining a “herd of independent minds,” politically weak, is thus the safest course. Which is not to say it will work.

So that is what I mean by “winter is coming.” All those things 1-17 are happening at once, and strengthening one another. The combined effect is chilling.

The common elements: Low trust all around, an emboldened and nationalist right wing that treats the press as natural enemy, the bill coming due for decades of coasting on a model in political reporting that worked well for “junkies” but failed to engage the rest of us, the strange and disorientating fact that reality itself seems to have become a weaker force in politics, the appeal of the “strong man” and his propaganda within an atmosphere of radical doubt, the difficulty of applying standard methods of journalism to a figure in power who is not trying to represent reality but to substitute himself for it as a show of strength, the unsuitability of prior routine as professionals in journalism try to confront these confusing conditions, a damaged economic base, weak institutional structure and newsroom mono-culture that hinders any creative response, and a dawning recognition that freedom of the press is a fragile state, not a constitutional certainty.

Are there any bright signs? Yes, a few.

18. When you ask about specific news brands (as against The Media) the trust picture looks better.

19. I quote New York Times columnist Jim Rutenberg: “In the weeks since the election, magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair; newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post; and nonprofits like NPR and ProPublica have been reporting big boosts in subscription rates or donations.” The Guardian and Mother Jones are benefitting, too.

20. According to news industry analyst Ken Doctor, the Washington Post will add more than 60 journalists in the coming year. The Post is making money again. And its leadership believes that “investigative and deeper enterprise stories are good for the brand and the business”— not an expense that has to be subsidized by lighter fare, but a means to sustainability in themselves. That’s significant.

21. As the scope of the emergency dawns, it is possible that journalists in the U.S. will be inspired to do a better job and change what needs changing. Talent (and tips) could flood in as a slumbering public for serious news awakens.

22. Facing the same kind of hostility in multiple countries where similar conditions are found, journalists may discover a new level of international cooperation that helps them cope with the threat to their occupation. There’s already a global movement for fact-checking in journalism. Maybe another one will emerge around the realization that fact-checking is not enough.

23. In the U.S., the Constitution remains firmly in place, hard to alter. First Amendment protections are real and among the strongest in the world. There are no signs that prior restraint or overt government censorship are on the horizon— though self-censorship is another matter.

What not to do…

24. Don’t recruit Trump loyalists into the news and opinion space (Jeffrey Lord of CNN is the model) as a gaudy show of balance. This will not save you. Conservative, red state, working class and rural American voices may deserve special recruitment, but if they have integrity these people are just as likely to be critical of Trump. 

25. Don’t settle for accusation-driven over evidence-based reporting, just to avoid drawing flak from Trump’s press-hating supporters or demonstrate how even-handed you are.

26. Don’t make it all about access to the President and his aides, or preserving the routines of White House reporting, as the press corps is currently doing— mostly out of habit. A Trump presidency is likely to be constructed on a propaganda model in which fomenting confusion is not a drag on the Administration’s agenda but a sign that it’s working. Access to such a machinery could wind up enlisting the press in a misinformation campaign.  Here, I am getting ahead of the story because we don’t really know what a Trump White House will be like. And I am not saying that access to the president and his top advisors is unimportant or a dirty word. Rather, it should not be the organizing principle for journalists who are preparing to cover Trump.

In part two of this post, coming tomorrow, I will discuss “measures worth taking,” given what I have said in part one. I have several small ideas, and one larger one. It involves listening better than the political system does to what’s troubling Americans, and fashioning a proper news agenda out of that. This is not a new notion, but it is newly relevant now that winter is here for the public service press.

Part two of this post — on things that can be done — is here. Photo credit Renee McGurk, Creative Commons License.

A miss bigger than a missed story: my final reflections on Trump and the press in 2016

A shift in political culture away from journalism’s grasp.

6 Nov 2016 10:35 pm 37 Comments

On the eve of an election filled with danger I take up my pen to describe one more time what I think political journalists missed about the candidacy of Donald Trump.

We lack any common language for talking about press performance at the level where Trump eluded it. So this essay will have to roam a bit. If it doesn’t cohere in the end— well, neither do we. We who care about news, truth, factuality, and democracy. We don’t know where we are with Trump and the depiction of reality in an election contested this way. We have lost the plot.

This is my attempt to restore one. But it probably won’t work.

I’d start the story in October of 2004, with the appearance of an article by Ron Suskind in the New York Times magazine: Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush. You might recall it as the piece that introduced the phrase “the reality-based community” to American discourse. That phrase — and the quotation from the Bush adviser that introduced it — caused an instant sensation.

Few people remember that Suskind’s article was primarily about the creatures we today call “establishment” Republicans. They were dismayed by a confusing development within the Bush White House. Asking for evidence, expressing doubt, presenting facts that didn’t fit a simplified narrative: these were considered disqualifying acts, even for allies of the President.

Knowing what you know now, about candidate Trump, listen to these quotes from 2004…

* “He dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts.” —Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan and Bush-the-elder adviser.

* “In meetings, I’d ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!” —Christie Whitman, head of the EPA under Bush.

* “If you operate in a certain way — by saying this is how I want to justify what I’ve already decided to do, and I don’t care how you pull it off — you guarantee that you’ll get faulty, one-sided information.” —Paul O’Neill, Treasure Secretary under Bush.

* “Open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker.” —Suskind’s words.

* “A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush’s White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners.” —Suskind.

* “You’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way [Bush] walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!” — Mark McKinnon, media adviser to Bush, explaining the political logic to Suskind.

And then the money quote, the one everyone remembers, from a Bush adviser who went nameless:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Liberals immediately embraced the term: We’re the reality-based community, yay for us! Conservatives thought this hilarious (and they still do.) Both reactions bypassed what Suskind reported: a tension between factions within the Republican coalition. Bruce Bartlett, Christie Whitman, Paul O’Neill and other loyal Republicans who talked to Suskind were alarmed by what he called “the retreat from empiricism.” The most outstanding example was of course the faulty case for war in Iraq presented to the U.N., to Congress and to the American people, which the press had failed to detect, debunk, or resist. (With one exception.)

Today this is seen as a major screw-up by journalists, a moment of shame. They admit it: they missed a huge story. But now we can see that underneath it was an even bigger failure: they failed to flag the retreat from empiricism as a pattern that could replicate. That’s more than a missed story. That’s a shift in political culture away from journalism’s grasp. I tried to point this out in my 2006 post, Retreat From Empiricism. I failed.

The alternative to facts on the ground is to act, regardless of the facts on the ground. When you act you make new facts. You clear new ground. And when you roll over or roll back the people who have a duty to report the situation as it is—people in the press, the military, the bureaucracy, your own cabinet, or right down the hall—then right there you have demonstrated your might.

Complicating any attempt to sound this alarm was an asymmetry in the pattern. It wasn’t exclusive to the Republican Party; but it found more fertile soil there. Liberals warning about vaccines and genetically modified foods, left wing extremists who considered 9/11 an inside job: they were also in retreat from empiricism. They just never had the influence among office-holders and opinion leaders that, say, climate change denialists and the birther movement had within the Republican coalition. But as I wrote in a previous post: this kind of asymmetry fries the circuits of the mainstream press.

With the election upon us — and with our knowledge of what the Trump campaign turned out to be — try to connect these dots:

2009: Clip of Tucker Carlson at the CPAC conference, an annual gathering of conservatives. He’s trying to persuade them that they need their own version of the New York Times: a news source that cares first about establishing what actually happened.
Nooooooo, the crowd says. The Times twists everything! “Yes, they twist it, but they are still out there finding the facts and bringing them to people,” Carlson replies. Some in the audience cotton to what he’s saying. But he gets heckled and shouted down when he tries to insist “at the core of their news gathering operation is gathering news!” What the crowd wants is denunciations of liberal bias, not a plea for rigorous reporting from one of their own. They don’t know it, but the people heckling Carlson in 2009 are heralds of Trump in 2016.

2010: The New York Times runs a detailed portrait of the Tea Party movement, after sending a reporter on the road for five months to interview participants and understand their grievances. One part of it puzzled me:

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.

I did not understand what the Times was saying about this “narrative of impending tyranny,” other than: these people seem to believe it! No reports about an impending tyranny had appeared in the New York Times. The columnists weren’t warning about it. That’s a pretty big story to miss (if it was actually happening.) As I wrote at the time:

Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable? If we credit the observation that a great many Americans drawn to the Tea Party live in fear that the United States is about to turn into a tyranny, with rigged elections, loss of civil liberties, no more free press, a police state… can we also credit the professional attitude that refuses to say whether this fear is reality-based? I don’t see how we can.

How can you say to readers: these people live in a different reality than we do… and leave it there? That is not the kind of story you can drop on our doorsteps and walk away from. It’s describing a rupture in the body politic, a tear in the space-time continuum that lies behind political journalism. I don’t think the editors understood what they were doing. But even today they would find this criticism baffling. We reported what people in this movement believe. Accurately! What’s your problem?

2016: This is from Oliver Darcy’s compelling portrait of the conservative media universe after Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party. The speaker is Charlie Sykes, host of a right wing talk radio program in Wisconsin that was influential in the rise of Scott Walker.

One of the chief problems, Sykes said, was that it had become impossible to prove to listeners that Trump was telling falsehoods because over the past several decades, the conservative news media had “basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers.”

“There’s nobody,” he lamented. “Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood. The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that, ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bulls—.’ There’s nobody — you can’t go to anybody and say, ‘Look, here are the facts.'”

“Everybody knows it’s a falsehood.” (Sykes said.) Except our listeners! (Sykes said.) So “everybody” doesn’t mean everybody, does it? Just one way that language breaks down when we try to talk about the retreat from empiricism.

One of the missing facts in Darcy’s report is that while conservatives with big microphones taught their listeners not to believe what is reported in the mainstream media (and especially the elite press in New York and Washington) they themselves still relied on those sources as their baseline reality— minus the liberal “spin,” of course. They weren’t willing to adopt the information diet they recommended for others. This act of bad faith lies behind the complaints of someone like Sykes, who is now saying: Lord, what have we done?

2016: This is from Politico Europe, a few days ago:

Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned on Saturday that political debates devoid of facts present a “deadly danger” to democracy. Referring to the upcoming presidential election in the United States, the U.K.’s campaign to leave the EU, as well as an ever more assertive Russia, Steinmeier said the “audacity with which facts are hidden and denied in public, expert knowledge is discredited, and, simply, lies are being told in the West as in the East and beyond the English Channel, leaves one almost speechless.”

Speechless we cannot afford to be. Yesterday I read something by a philosopher, Jason Stanley, that illuminated what I mean by “a miss bigger than a missed story.” Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality. Stanley made the point that fact checking Trump in a way missed the point. Trump was not trying to make reference to reality in what he said to win votes. He was trying to substitute “his” reality for the one depicted in news reports.

“On a certain level, the media lacked the vocabulary to describe what was happening,” Stanley writes. And I agree with that. He compares what Trump did to totalitarian propaganda, which does not attempt to depict the world but rather substitutes for it a ruthlessly coherent counter-narrative that is untroubled by any contradiction between itself and people’s experience.

The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power. Its open distortion of reality is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Trump’s campaign was “openly intended to distort reality” because that is a show of power. Power over his followers. Over the other candidates he humiliated and drove from the race. Over party officials who tried to bring him to heel. And over the journalists who tried to “check” and question him.

One of the first observations the checkers made about Trump is that he doesn’t care when his statements are shown to have no basis in fact. As Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, put it: “What’s unusual about Trump is he’s a leading candidate and he seems to have no interest in getting important things factually correct.” The more astute journalists were aware that something different and threatening was going on. In December of 2015 Maggie Haberman and Patrick Healy of the New York Times made this observation:

Trump uses rhetoric to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, nuance, government and the news media, according to specialists in political rhetoric. “Nobody knows,” he likes to declare, where illegal immigrants are coming from or the rate of increase of health care premiums under the Affordable Care Act, even though government agencies collect and publish this information. He insists that Mr. Obama wants to accept 250,000 Syrian migrants, even though no such plan exists…

A political campaign intended to erode people’s trust in facts is an attack on the very possibility that journalists can inform those people. But Trump went beyond that. He tried to substitute his world for the one we actually live in, as Jason Stanley describes:

The simple picture Trump is trying to convey is that there is wild disorder, because of American citizens of African-American descent, and immigrants. He is doing it as a display of strength, showing he is able to define reality and lead others to accept his authoritarian value system.

So what I mean by a miss bigger than a missed story is this. It is one thing to bypass the journalists and go directly to voters. It’s another to pull up the press by its roots. It’s one thing to lie for political advantage. It’s another to keep lying to prove you have the power. The retreat from empiricism was a disturbance in 2004. Twelve years later it is a political style in utter ascendency. “When we act, we create our own reality” was a boast in the Bush White House, a bit of outrageousness intended to shock the reporter. Now we have Trump’s attempt to substitute his reality for news of the world. Covering Trump was a massive challenge. Recovering from him may be all but impossible for the political press.

I hope that is not the case. But as election day dawns I fear it might be.

Speaking truth to audience power

Something happened yesterday that has never happened to me in 30 years of writing press criticism. I want to tell you about it.

3 Nov 2016 11:32 am 20 Comments

This week I published in The Guardian a column about a Florida newspaper that wrote an open letter to readers, apologizing to them for news coverage that was too critical of Trump. The editors were under fire from angry subscribers, many of them conservative, white retirees who live in the area.

My piece was critical. It concludes this way: “Unable to think it through clearly, the editors surrendered their right to speak truth to power and sold out their colleagues in the national press.”

The next day I sent the link to the Daily Commercial, using the public address for letters to the editor. I wanted them to know they had been written about. Quickly, I got a reply back. This is what it said:

I saw your column, Mr. Rosen. I’m the editor who wrote the open letter. Your column was a well-reasoned, measured and intellectually honest piece. I can’t disagree.
———
Tom McNiff
Daily Commercial
executive editor

With these words, the editor was acknowledging: yep, we surrendered our right to speak truth to power and sold out our colleagues in the national press. Normally a note like that would include the words “just between us…” or “please don’t run this.” Those words were absent.

The most likely interpretation is that the publisher made him write the open letter and he hated doing it. He understood it as a form of corruption: soul damage. (That’s my read, not what he said.)screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-11-05-47-amIn the original version I sent to The Guardian, the conclusion read like this. “The editors surrendered their right to speak truth to power (in this case audience power) and sold out their colleagues in the national press.” Meaning: Speaking truth to angry readers egged on by their candidate is just as important as standing up to the mayor or bank president.

I am publishing here the fuller version of the column I wrote for The Guardian. (Twice as long.) It’s not about one newspaper in Florida. It’s about how Trump has altered patterns in journalism that stood for decades, leaving no room to hide.

Seeking truth or seeking refuge? Pick one, journalists.

Did you hear about the Florida newspaper that apologized to its readers for running too much news that was critical of Donald Trump? It happened last week at the Daily Commercial, based in Leesburg, Florida, a conservative-leaning area of the state with a lot of affluent retirees. The editors published an open letter to readers in which they made the following claims:

* “An uncomfortably sizable number of our readers have been writing and calling to express their dissatisfaction with what they believe is the media’s bias toward Donald Trump.” (They meant against Trump.)

* The national news services “finally said the heck with it, Trump is a bad guy and we’re not going to dance around it any more… Trump’s every utterance, no matter how innocuous, is now parsed, analyzed and criticized.” This is unfair, they said.

* Yet those same national news services “turn out so few stories that fact check Clinton, who also has a strained relationship with the truth… Little has been written about some of Clinton’s questionable decisions as secretary of state, her emails and the fact that she and Bill have somehow amassed incredible wealth.”

* The mea culpa: “The Daily Commercial hasn’t done enough to mitigate the anti-Trump wave in the pages of this paper.”

* “This is not an endorsement of Trump, a candidate whose brutish, sometimes childish antics are responsible for his sizable deficit in the polls. Rather, it is a recognition that you, the voter, deserve better than we in the media have given you. You deserve a more balanced approach.”

Protecting against criticism.

An observation I have frequently made in my press criticism is that certain things mainstream journalists do they do not to serve readers, viewers or listeners, or to report the news and keep us informed, but to protect themselves against criticism, including the kind of criticism the Daily Commercial has been getting. That’s what “he said, she said” reporting, the “both sides do it” reflex, and “balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon” are all about.

Reporting the news and serving readers are first principles in journalism, bedrock for sound practice. But protecting against criticism is not like that at all. It has far less legitimacy, especially when the criticism itself has thin legitimacy. This is how the phrase “working the refs” got started. Political actors try to influence judgment calls by screeching about bias, whether the charge is warranted or not. To listen to feedback like that is to invite into news work what Jürgen Habermas, the world’s leading scholar of the public sphere, calls “systematically distorted communication.”

My favorite description of “protecting ourselves against criticism” comes from a former reporter for the Washington Post, Paul Taylor, in his 1990 book about election coverage: See How They Run. I have quoted it many times:

Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses– partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.

I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. What if it’s not possible to do both?

This is what the editors of the Daily Commercial failed to ask themselves. And this is what the movement for Trump is forcing journalists everywhere in the U.S. to realize, even if word hasn’t reached Leesburg, Florida. It’s not true that the national news agencies have done little to fact check Hillary Clinton’s dicier statements. When the editors wrote that they violated their most sacred duty to readers, which is to leave them undeceived. (Examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and that’s just from the AP.) But it is true that Clinton’s opponent, Trump, manufactures and distributes untruths at a rate unprecedented for a major party candidate in the modern era.

Campaign coverage that fairly reflects this discrepancy invites criticism from angry Trump supporters who are taught by the candidate himself that the election is being rigged by the crooked media. Under these explosive conditions, truth-seeking and refuge-seeking become incompatible behaviors. There is no refuge. Instead there is the First Amendment, which guarantees that the cops can’t arrest the editors of the Daily Commercial for publishing a newspaper that is insufficiently pro-Trump. (Of course, here too Trump represents an “unprecedented threat.”) What there is instead of refuge is to be on the side of verification, asking again and again: Did that actually happen? Is that really true? Does that square with what we know?

“We didn’t know how to write that paragraph.”

A few weeks ago, Dean Baquet, editor of the New York Times, said Donald Trump had changed journalism.

I was either editor or managing editor of the L.A. Times during the Swift Boat incident. Newspapers did not know — we did not quite know how to do it. I remember struggling with the reporter, Jim Rainey, who covers the media now, trying to get him to write the paragraph that laid out why the Swift Boat allegation was false… We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, “This is just false…” We struggle with that. I think that Trump has ended that struggle.

Some of you may wonder: in 1990, in 2004, or in 2016 how could it be hard to say in a news report “this is false” when the reporter and the editor are both persuaded that it is false? I have an answer for you. Alongside the production of news, reporters and editors in the mainstream press have for a long time been engaged in another manufacture: persuading us of their own innocence, especially when it comes to a contested election.

Innocent! Meaning: you cannot reasonably convict them of being on one side or the other. They are on no one’s side except for truth’s. Also: the readers, the viewers, the listeners. Being on their side is almost as innocent as being on the side of truth. For its 2012 election coverage, CNN’s slogan was: The Only Side We Choose is Yours, which captures what I mean by the production of innocence. (And it is a production, a show.) This is how to make sense of Dean Baquet’s strange words: “We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, ‘This is just false.'” He means: we didn’t know how to say it without appearing to take sides. We didn’t know how to write it and also remain innocent to ourselves.

Speaking truth to audience

But as Dean Baquet declared: “Trump has ended that struggle.” (Also see this.) His point is not that it’s suddenly “okay” to take sides. That’s a lazy conclusion, and a crappy way of putting it. Trump has ended the struggle in this sense: By openly trashing the norms of American politics, by flooding the campaign with wave after wave of provable falsehood, by convincing his supporters to despise and mistrust the press, by encouraging them to believe in a rigged election — rigged in part by the people who are bringing them the news — Trump has made it a certainty that when honest journalism is done about him it also works against him. Because of the way he campaigns — because of who he is — when he’s in the news he’s typically losing ground.

For journalists this destroys the illusion of innocence: just by doing your job you are undoing Trump… UNLESS he can turn his portion of the electorate against you so decisively that the very possibility that you may be trying to do an honest job is rejected out of hand. And then the disaster is complete, for now by doing your job (applying scrutiny, checking facts) you are actually helping Trump, confirming among his most committed supporters the hateful image of a media elite trying to rig the election. Either way the production of innocence fails.

In this vexing situation the Daily Commercial of Leesburg, Florida published its open letter to readers. Unable to think it through clearly, the editors surrendered their right to speak truth to power (in this case audience power) and sold out their colleagues in the national press.

“Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge.” For journalists covering this election, and for the American press in the years after, the days of doing both are over. Pick one.

What the campaign press should not be neutral toward

Some things I think journalists are allowed to advocate for in covering an election.

23 Oct 2016 6:14 pm 43 Comments

I wrote a whole book called What Are Journalists For? So I don’t say this lightly: To me it is not proper — I don’t think it builds trust in a free press — for the people who produce news to be campaigning for a political party, or trying to win it for a favored candidate.

As private citizens with political lives they can do whatever they want. As makers of a common story, news of the election, they should not operate as party creatures. Even if they are open about their beliefs they should not be “on the team.”

But there are things they can advocate for in a contested election— and other things they can legitimately oppose. Here is my list:

Pro-participation: Democracy is not a spectator sport. The more people who participate in the system the stronger it is. Journalists can safely advocate that people go out and vote. They can, I think, legitimately oppose efforts to discourage people from voting.

Pro-verification. “Did that actually happen?” “Is there good evidence for it?” “Can it be squared with what we know?” Journalists should reward with focused attention truth claims that can be verified, and they should penalize (by publicly doubting them) other claims that do not meet that test.

Pro-deliberation. People need to know what’s going on (news.) But to cast an intelligent vote they also need to hear a range of views around a common set of facts. Journalists can thus be “for” a lively, inclusive and fact-based debate. They can work against attempts to undermine it.

Pro-accountability. Elections are a contest for power. They are also a means for holding the powerful accountable. Contenders should have to answer for their words and deeds. They should explain themselves and reveal their plans. Journalists are on firm ground when they insist upon this kind of accountability, and when they resist attempts to elude it.

Against opacity. If nothing makes sense, if words have no meaning, if a manufactured confusion reigns, if we cannot tell where the candidates stand or what they intend to do, if the public record is obscured or destroyed, then democracy is defeated before the votes are cast. Journalists should stand against anything that makes for a more opaque election.

Against demagoguery. The attempt to gain power through a charismatic appeal to fear, prejudice, ignorance and an animus toward the “other” contradicts everything that principled journalists stand for. In the degree that such appeals succeed, they render impotent the basic acts of reporting and verification. When journalists combat demagogic argument they are not exceeding their brief. They are meeting their mission.

I have phrased these items as permissions: they are allowed to… they are on firm ground when… But it would be just as correct to use a term like obligations. If in covering the campaign journalists cannot stand up for informed participation, rigorous verification, a fact-based debate, real accountability; if they can’t find a way to oppose opacity and demagoguery, then they will sell themselves short and encourage the rest of us to tune them out.

Now we come to the hard part. All these acts require the journalist to form judgments, which will be contestable. There is no way around that.

And now we come to the really hard part. When journalists press for the things I say they can press for; when they fight against what they ought to fight against, the results are unlikely to be “neutral.” They are going to wind up penalizing some candidacies more than others. If making stuff up to mobilize fear and prejudice is the political style to which a candidate has become attached, journalists will have to set themselves against that style. And they will have to call it by its proper names.

To committed supporters this will seem like joining the other team. It’s not that, but it will seem so. There is no easy solution, especially at a time when institutional trust is bottoming out. But to feign neutrality toward the causes of ruin would be far worse.

PressThink’s new design and third space

Today I debut a new look, and a new feature of my site, born in 2003.

10 Oct 2016 2:44 am 27 Comments

This is the third version of my site. The designer is Andy Rossback, recently of the Marshall Project, now at the New York Times. The programmer is Garrett Gardner, webmaster at NYU Journalism. My thanks to both of them. They did a great job.

I like having my own joint. My friend Dave Winer — who had a hand in the origination of blogging software, RSS and podcasting — has over many years of conversation gotten through to me that you should always have your own place on the open web. Doc Searls has also helped to persuade me of this.

Anyone who pays attention to online publishing knows that the trend is in an opposite direction, toward capitulation to the platforms: Facebook with its instant articles, Medium.com, Apple News. I fully understand why the platforms are winning, and I don’t resent them, but I also don’t feel compelled to join in.

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” said press critic A. J. Liebling in 1959. That was a profound remark— in fact, the most important thing anyone has said about press freedom since Thomas Jefferson drafted the bill of rights.

Having a space that’s mine on the web — pressthink.org — is for me indistinguishable from owning my own printing press and hosting my own discussion forum. I’m not ready to give those up those powers.

Instead, I wanted to give my writing home on the web a refresh — especially with mobile becoming the standard — and add to it something new. I’m calling the new feature “the board.” Another term for it would be cards, a slightly different space for me to unfold what I think.

In the way I imagine this working, the first card will always be the same: “problems in pressthink that most concern me now.” It’s a live list that is constantly in motion, although I won’t feel compelled to change it for change’s sake. The problems on it are placed in order of urgency. Since I spend most of my time in my head, I figured I would rank what goes on there 🙂

Following the “current problems in pressthink” card are little posts that are longer than Twitter updates and shorter than PressThink essays, a third space for composing, in between social updates and long form blogging. I have wanted this for some time. You can see the board here and the live list of current problems here. I still have to work out the kinks for making the cards fully shareable on social and snack-able (swipe-able) on mobile. But I hope you get the basic idea.

I don’t think indy blogging is done for. No way. More likely it’s due for a re-birth. My own circumstances are fortunate. I don’t have to make money from my site, or generate big traffic. The PressThink archives are hugely important to me, even if they only draw a handful of users per week. I practice slow blogging: 20 to 30 posts a year. But each one has hundreds of hours of thought behind it. PressThink is not a commercial proposition. It’s the extreme opposite of click bait: an academic project and labor of love.

Ever since I began blogging, people have told me that they often find the comments better than the posts. They sometimes think this will hurt my feelings. No. It’s the opposite really.