“I’m committed to the destruction of the old media guard.” ABC News and Andrew Breitbart.

Wake up, journalists. You have no magic exemption from the requirements of political maturity. There are people out there who seek your destruction, and they are not evenly distributed.

3 Nov 2010 11:24 am 54 Comments

“We think it’s important informationally. We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.”

Those are the words of former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie, explaining to author Matt Miller how decisions are made about what belongs on the front page. Not allowing ourselves to think politically is a piece of pressthink that fascinates me, and this is a post about that.

I understand what Downie meant. He meant that the news should be, as far as humanly possible, an ideology-free zone. In making up the front page, the editors of the Washington Post are not trying to advance an agenda they have, or solve a problem they think needs solving, or rally people to a cause they find worthy. They are not fighting for justice or against the enemies of reason. They have cooler heads. They are thinking informationally.

I get all that. I understand how pursuing a political agenda in the guise of providing news is a bad idea, unlikely to generate trust in the provider. As I have written elsewhere, “Power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviors, and this is what creates the distinction between politics and journalism.” But even so, not being able to think politically can get you killed in big league journalism.

ABC News got killed this week. These events are worth reviewing because they point to a blind spot in the mind of the mainstream press that seems to be getting worse.

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NPR News Analyst: How Juan Williams Got Fired

“The term 'analysis,' as NPR is using it here, means something so obscure, tendentious and peculiar to the culture of professional journalism that the vacuous and tautological statements I’ve quoted are probably the network’s better option."

24 Oct 2010 6:15 pm 38 Comments

The statement read: “His remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”

That was NPR terminating the contract of Juan Williams after remarks on Fox News Channel about his fear of Muslims. “The deluge of email crashed NPR’s ‘Contact Us’ form on the web site,” wrote Alicia Shepard, the NPR ombudsman, who called the dismissal poorly handled. You can sample the explosion of commentary here. My own views most closely parallel what Will Bunch said about it.

What the hell is a “news analyst?”

I am less interested in adding to this debate than in isolating one key element in NPR’s pressthink: a job category, news analyst, that is distinct from reporter and show host on the one hand, or commentator or columnist on the other. Officially, the reason Juan Williams was fired is that he failed to follow NPR policies for what a “news analyst” is permitted to do. This is from CEO Vivian Schiller’s memo to NPR affiliates:

NPR News analysts have a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. This is a very different role than that of a commentator or columnist. News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation. As you all well know, we offer views of all kinds on your air every day, but those views are expressed by those we interview – not our reporters and analysts.

By all accounts, NPR grew more and more uncomfortable with Williams as his appearances on Fox began to draw complaints. “After other inflammatory comments on Fox, in April 2008 NPR changed Williams’ role from news correspondent (a reporting job) to news analyst,” the ombudsman writes. “In this contract position, he was expected to report, think quickly and give his own analysis – while carefully choosing his words on any given subject.”

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The 100 Percent Solution: For Innovation in News

"It starts with a vision: what if we could cover all of it? When you try to act on that vision, you invariably run into problems. And it's sweating those problems that leads to innovation, or at least to new knowledge."

21 Oct 2010 2:07 am 20 Comments

Here’s a little idea for creating innovation in news coverage: the 100 percent solution. It works like this: First, you set a goal to cover 100 percent of… well, of something. In trying to reach the goal you immediately run into problems. To solve those problems you often have to improvise or innovate. And that’s the payoff, even if you don’t meet your goal.

Got it? Good. For that’s the whole idea.

In the rest of this post I will explain what I mean and why I think it can work. And I will give you some examples. Because the 100 percent solution is not an entirely new idea. It’s been tried. My aim is to get more of you to try it in some form.

So let’s start with a few imaginary cases

There’s going to be a wide open mayor’s race in Chicago because the incumbent, Democrat Richard M. Daley, is retiring. Rahm Emanuel is running and he will have plenty of competition. A big city mayoral election generates a lot of events: Candidates appear all over town. Unions and community groups have to decide whom to endorse. Speeches, debates, rallies, fundraisers in living rooms, backyard barbeques, meetings in church basements… Picture them all on a spreadsheet. Now tack that spreadsheet up on a wall.

What if we tried to cover every event, big and small, involving every candidate who had a legitimate chance to be the next mayor, but also all the events where the candidates themselves may be missing but the campaign is somehow alive and present in the space between Chicagoans. That would be 100 percent coverage of campaign events.

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Why I am Not a Journalist: A True Story

The short answer is: I wanted to be, but I screwed it up, so I couldn't be.

28 Sep 2010 3:31 am 77 Comments

Discovering journalism in college saved me. At the time (1976) I was on a track that would have led to an assistant manager’s job at an Applebees. Seriously: I was a business management major at SUNY Buffalo, living at my mother’s house to save money, working nights and weekends at a banquet hall as a busboy, and without any passions other than playing pick-up basketball in four different gyms four nights a week, despite the fact that I wasn’t even good enough to make my high school team. I had no ambition because I didn’t know how to have an ambition. I wasn’t excited about learning and didn’t know what I was good at.

But then I walked into the college newspaper with a good story, and the editor who happened to be there, Brett Kline, said, “why don’t you write about it?” So I did. My piece was published, I got bitten by the journalism bug, and within six months I was special features editor of The Spectrum, then managing editor. In the spring of 1978 I was elected editor-in-chief for the following academic year. I was also a columnist. I rarely went to class. I was learning too much to stop and do that.

It was in the spring of 1977 that I decided that I wanted to become a professional journalist– a political reporter. Basically I wanted to be Johnny Apple, the legendary correspondent for the New York Times, who seemed to be on the front page every other morning. In those days the way you got to be a correspondent for the New York Times or the Washington Post was by 1.) rising in the hierarchy at your college newspaper, or going to a decent J-school; 2.) grabbing an internship at the biggest metro daily you could talk your way onto; 3.) doing well enough in the assignments you were given to get hired at that newspaper or a comparable one in your region; 4.) generating the “clips” (copies of your by-lined articles) that would allow you to jump in a year or two from Buffalo, Columbus, Birmingham or Norfolk to, say, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta or Baltimore; 5.) repeating step 4.) until you had the clips to get hired by the Post or the Times, which could take many years; and 6.) starting on the metro desk in New York or Washington until you got the call to report on the statehouse or the national scene.

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The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media: My Advice to the Next Generation

This is adapted and expanded from the Inaugural Lecture I gave to the incoming class at Sciences Po école du journalisme in Paris, September 2, 2010: their first day. Presented to French students, it is intended for anyone studying journalism today, or attempting to re-learn it.

19 Sep 2010 2:57 am 1 Comment

Originally published at my Posterous blog, Sep. 6, 2010.

Typically when people like me—a professor of journalism who is deeply involved in the digital world—advise people like you—students just starting their careers in journalism—we say to you things like:

You need to be blogging.

You need to understand search engines.

You need to know Flash and perhaps HTML5.

You need to grasp web metrics like Google analytics.

You need to know how to record audio or edit video

You need to “get” mobile. (“Mobile is going to be big!”)

And all of those things are true. They are all important. But I want to go in a completely different direction today. Ready? You need to understand that the way you imagine the users will determine how useful a journalist you will be.

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The Virtual Assignment Desk and The Launch of the Local East Village

Today The Local East Village launches. That makes it a big day for me and the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU. And for Studio 20, which developed for the launch a new piece of software: the Virtual Assignment Desk. What is it? Read on...

13 Sep 2010 3:37 pm 14 Comments

Today The Local East Village launches. That makes it a big day for me and the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU.

A daily news blog that covers the East Village neighborhood in Manhattan, The Local East Village—or LEV, as we call it—is a New York Times site produced in collaboration with NYU faculty and students. Some quick facts, and a caution:

Quick Facts

  • On Twitter, it’s @nytlev. The Facebook page is here.
  • The editor is Richard G. Jones , a former New York Times reporter, with oversight by Mary Ann Giordano, a Deputy Metropolitan Editor at the Times. They’re responsible for the content and the coverage.
  • The Studio 20 program at NYU, which I direct, was intimately involved in the planning and conceptual stage, working closely with Jones and Giordano, as well as Jim Schachter, the Editor for Digital Initiatives and Associate Managing Editor of the Times, Jeremy Zilar, Blog Specialist for the Times, Brooke Kroeger, Director of the Carter Institute, Jason Samuels, my colleague on the Studio 20 faculty, and Yvonne Latty, who directs the Reporting New York program at NYU.

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