A current list of my top problems in pressthink, August 2019

These are the things I spend the most time puzzling about. Ranked by urgency. Updated from time to time.

6 Aug 2019 4:28 pm 20 Comments

1. The entire system for covering the Trump presidency is wrongly conceived. It needs to be rebuilt, faulty premise by faulty premise. But there has never been such a rebuild while the story is running hot. No one knows how it can be done. Reporting what he said today amplifies his falsehoods and hatreds, which is unacceptable, but ignoring what he said pretends it never happened, which is unacceptable in a different way.

(Here’s my thread about that problem. Here’s an article about it. This podcast is also good.)

2. Explicitly or implicitly, it seems likely that Trump is going to run a racist re-election campaign in 2020, in which “othering” (not a word I like, but it’s the best I can do…) is basic to his appeal to voters. This goes way beyond noisy controversies like whether to use the term “racist.” Is the press ready for a campaign like that? Does it have the people and practices in place to respond? Is it willing to break with precedent to meet a threat without parallel? I doubt it.

3. If there somehow arises among American journalists a determination to assume a more forceful role within the atmosphere of civic emergency created by Trump, what are the best sources of inspiration — from press history, from journalists in other countries, or from adjacent fields — that can be drawn upon to guide, shape, justify and delimit these efforts?

4. So far the debacle in 2016 has not brought forth any dramatic shift in approach in covering the 2020 election. An alternative to the horse race model does exist. It’s called the citizens agenda. It starts by asking the voters you are trying to inform, “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” But how do we get more newsrooms to give it a try?

5. Something has gone awry in the relationship between New York Times journalists and core readers of the Times, a category in which I include myself. I tried to describe the problem here. As far as I can tell, no one in leadership is concerned about it. And there’s no longer a public editor who can inquire. The Washington Post seems far more agile and fluent in adjusting to new conditions. The Times is still great, still essential, still (for now) the flagship in the American fleet. As a business it has recovered its bearings and it is doing well. But the newsroom and the editorial page are having trouble navigating the culture wars. They seem to think that backlash from their most loyal readers is proof of a job well done, or something they must ignore— on principle, as it were.

6. Now in its 14th year, the collapse of the news industry’s business model is still unresolved, leading to an especially acute crisis in local news. Google and Facebook dominate the digital ad market because they own the data required to target individual users. Among legacy producers like the local newspaper, the consensus strategy is to push for digital subscriptions. But there are huge problems with that. These are companies accustomed to monopoly conditions in a manufacturing business. With a handful of exceptions, they are unprepared for technology-rich, data-centric and customer-first models. Many of the professionals in these newsrooms believe that people ought to pay them for the same journalism they have always practiced. That attitude is not going to get it done.

7. Membership models are an alternative to subscription plays but people in journalism tend to group them together as rough equivalents. In fact they lead in opposite directions and imply different requirements for newsrooms. Subscription is a product relationship: you pay your money and you get the product. If you don’t pay you don’t get it. Membership means you join the cause because you believe in the work. If you believe in the work you want it to spread, even to non-members. Therefore membership does not require a digital paywall. Subscription does. But for membership to work, there first has to be a cause worth joining, as well as opportunities for members to participate. Again, that is unlike a subscription business. Grouping them together just fuzzes everything up.


Mark J. McPherson says:

If there were a viable outlet dedicated to Citizen’s Agenda coverage, staffed by people trained in and committed to traditional journalistic craft and ethics, I would and will gladly subscribe, all the more so if there is no paywall.

The New York Times seems to reserve its anger for its readership, which is a curious wrinkle in any business model. The liquidation of the Public Editor was quite a statement against readership. The Times seems hyper-sensitive and hyper-reactive to rightwing, bad faith criticisms of its coverage while being contemptuous of the opinions and passions of its subscribing readers.

I know there are those who suggest the PE is ancillary because it was operationally an after-the-fact influence. But that ignores the keeping-them-honest aspects and its role as a vehicle for readers to give feedback and to be heard. It seems as if the PE became a victim of its own success and soon became a pita to the mastheaders, who promptly took the wrong action in chloroforming the PE and drew the wrong lessons, as the decline in the discerning quality of coverage has only accelerated since.

The New York Times’ flag has not fallen; it’s been dropped and trampled under by those who should have carried it forward. That the Times persists and intermittently publishes quality articles on random topics, means that it operates as a kind of black hole, rather than merely as a void (that a membership-based Citizens’ Agenda start-up might fill), as it continues to draw eyes and attention and to influence events in increasingly negative ways. It is hard to conceive that under the current and previous generation publisher, the Times has gone wobbly-soft on war, treason, race, and justice. There is no longer any deep or proud sense of carrying their banner aloft for such things, and their defiance is instead directed at readership.

Andrew Dabrowski says:

I become inreasingly cynical with age, and in this case cynicism seems warranted: if the Times doesn’t seem interested in fighting Trump, it’s probably because they think their brand and hence bottom line are better served by triangulation.

David Mendels says:

Question about your Citizens agenda approach. My view is that roughly speaking the choice of topics at the Dem debates last week reflected citizen priorities (eg Healthcare first). However, I thought the oddly narrow antagonistic questioning was a disaster (eg. Not, “what’s your vision for healthcare and how does it compare to Trump?” But “your vision will take away healthcare from 180M people, defend yourself, you have 15 seconds”.). So, I am at a loss to see how the Citizen agenda really could work to address some of the distinction we see today because it isn’t just about priorities. I’d love your perspective, what am I missing?

If there were a viable Citizen’s Agenda outlet, even the best one ever conceived with fantastic content doing and saying all the right thing, it would struggle. The problem is not its worthiness or even paying for it, but finding time in already full, frenzied days for any of us to read/watch it. Consumers are notoriously stubborn to change their habits and are already overwhelmed with information (and misinformation), so building a business plan around shifting them to another news outlet because the content is better and/or better for them is a daunting proposition.

Dan Greaney says:

I wonder if you would consider the possibility that the collapse of local journalism was neither inevitable nor technology driven, but rather caused by the hollowing out of local content by owners relying on monopoly and momentum. The smartphone accelerated a trend already well in place. The answer might be, as it has been with independent bookstores in the age of Amazon, a simple focus on quality and customer interest. I know several old linr small newspapers that are thriving on that basis.

I actually don’t think this is a huge mystery. The Times isn’t really a publicly held corporation. It’s a family business. 90% of the class B shares, which are really controlling, are held by the descendants of Adolph Ochs. Presumably the newspaper reflects what its owners want it to be.

Voilà! You solved it.

Jeannette Smyth says:

Could there not be an emergency hiatus fix until Dean Baquet et al get over their Hamlet solililoquies? Per your gaslight desk, the A1 story would report his use of racial epithets but not say which ones. A special section of the paper would names the epithets used and connect them, briefly, to the racist rhetoric tradition from which they come. Thus the record could be kept without amplifying incitement and the creation of a hostile environment. I think that’s the core of the problem, being the messenger of incitement/hostile enviro per Meritor v. Vinson.

I think when talking about the crisis at the Times, it’s important to focus on the heart of the problem — the politics desk. There are problems at other desks, but they tend to be less systematic and less deep.

Criticizing the Times in general for the problems of the politics desk leads to the senior leadership retreating to a position where they point to a lot of good reporting at the paper. And there is a lot of good, even great reporting. But a closer look at some great reporting illustrates how broken the politics desk is.

Take two examples, the April 2019 Mahler/Rutenberg piece on Murdoch and Fox, and the October 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning article by Barstow, Craig and Buettner on Trump’s tax fraud. They were fantastic, deeply reported and highly analytical pieces that the Times had every right to be proud of. Times management touted them, especially the Trump tax piece, as the kind of thing they do best.

But here’s the interesting thing. Mahler, Rutenberg, Barstow, Craig and Buettner don’t write for the politics desk. And here’s the infuriating thing — if you read any article by the politics desk on Fox or Trump’s taxes, there is no reference whatsoever to the incredible reporting of their colleagues.

Read a politics desk article on the House efforts to obtain Trump’s tax records, and you will realize that there is zero mention of the fact that their non-politics desk colleagues uncovered the long running tax fraud carried out by Trump. You’d think it would be relevant to them as a reason for seeking the records, but you would be wrong.

Read a politics desk article mentioning Fox, and you would think they would incorporate some of the conclusions of Mahler and Rutenberg about the deep bias and partisan support of Fox. But no, Fox’s bias is rarely mentioned by the political reporters.

The politics desk is stovepiped from the rest of the paper, not to mention the reporting world at large. The political and campaign reporters are insular and imperial and they will never acknowledge the importance of other reporters, even those working at a different Times desk.

This insularity leads to a ridiculous amount of focus on self-chosen themes — the centrality of Trump’s die hard white supporters and the supposed corruption of Hillary Clinton. The political and campaign reporting is so repetitive and so questionable because the reporters and editors simply can’t see facts or interpretations which don’t mirror their own, or don’t match what they hear from their limited set of sources.

If they can’t even acknowledge and incorporate the reporting of other desks, what hope is there that they will pick up on the grassroots reporting of Dave Weigel? What chance is there that they might follow up — and acknowledge — the reporting of local newspapers? If they won’t follow environmental reporting, what hope is there of Climate Change ever being seen as a legitimate political issue with a right side and a wrong side?

M. Rodgers says:

Keith – And what, exactly, was the impact of the Trump tax story?

Interestingly, the one area where there has been some movement is at the NY State level, with the legislature passing a law allowing Congress to get access to state tax returns.

What’s particularly relevant is that unlike the national politics desk, the NY Times Albany desk has referenced the Times investigation in its reporting on the state government’s effort. The stovepiping is deepest at the national politics desk.

There is a good article today in today’s Times on the clear adoption of white supremacist language on Fox and in the Trump administration. I will put the odds at 10-1 against the national politics desk ever acknowledging these findings in its reporting the next time Trump or other GOP politicians do this, and the influence of Fox will also be deep sixed.

I’d add an appendix to ‘how to cover Trump’, that his actions seem to be wielded as misdirection. So a weekly ‘what news has Trump’s latest speechlessly outrageous behavior been crowding out” column could turn out, in retrospect, to be the most-informative content a newspaper could offer.

M. Rodgers says:

“These are companies accustomed to monopoly conditions in a manufacturing business…. Many of the professionals in these newsrooms believe that people ought to pay them for the same journalism they have always practiced. That attitude is not going to get it done.” I think this line really gets to it. Aside from all the agonizing over NYT etc., the deepest crisis is at the local/regional level. And at this late state in the unfolding disaster, I remain amazed as to how this attitude persists. I left journalism 20 years ago and can see now that this “monopoly” mentality was a real problem. What deep cultural problem is keeping journalism at this level from being more bold, instead of being almost 100% reactive? The most I see is a paywall + messaging saying “journalism costs money, so please pay us.” Can you imagine a carmaker saying “a great car is expensive to produce, so please pay us so we can continue to manufacture for you?”

M. Rodgers says:

Another post as I wanted to raise a different issue. Jay – re: Citizen’s Agenda. I think you deserve credit for having developed a new approach for campaign coverage. But I was in a newsroom that early on applied your concepts and I wish I could say that this is the “answer.” It is certainly possible with modern polling etc to design coverage that closely tracks what people say they want the candidates to discuss. BUT that does not mean that people will consume the very coverage designed to meet their supposed desires. I think it is much the same as if you asked people want they want to eat. They might say a well-balanced meal with salad, lean meat and fruit. But when given other choices, they take the greasy burger and fries. The Citizen’s Agenda assumes that people want an earnest politics that “addresses my real concerns.” But politics is not about – it is entertainment and identity and facts that do not conform to existing belief are rejected. And lots of folks enjoy the outrageous statements and attacks – much more interesting than policy. That’s why the fad of “factchecking” is so futile.. Citizen’s Agenda assumes that a reasoned public will compare the “policy ideas” of candidates and choose the best one. I see little evidence that this is how our world works, or will ever work again. I know that when my paper tried Agenda-driven coverage, it came out bland, serious and did very little to engage readers or drive public policy. I wish very much that this was not the case. What evidence do we have that this kind of coverage would draw an audience sufficient to make business sense?

M. Rodgers says:

And I would add that perhaps our efforts were just not that good in explaining the relative tepid quality of what we produced. That’s on us.


The citizens agenda is not The Solution.

Do you have a URL for the Citizens Agenda that your newsroom published? I would love to see it. Thanks.

Barry Kiefl says:

A very small point: is there a better phrase than “culture wars?” It seems to cover up something quite ugly and may contribute to the underlying problem.

Hoping pieces of this great conversation can touch on business, technology and products. Jeff in his Medium piece alludes to all the work that many of us are doing to try to deal with the “business problem.” And there’s a great deal to say about it. As I travel to visit with digital news professionals both in for profit and nonprofit organizations, change is still coming but way too slowly. Unfortunately macro issues about Trump and the horrors of threats to the First Amendment are taking some of the energy away from the need to improve news products from journalistic, tech and revenue points of view.

While there’s excitement about increasing philanthropic interest in news from the American Journalism Project and many others, the progress made so far in designing and implementing new products and new revenue initiatives seems almost negligible. As Rasmus Kleis Nielsen observes in his “Hopes for Journalism” piece much of journalism is better than it’s ever been and he has a point. But how that highly positive progress is supported by technology and revenue strategies is a piece of the puzzle that limps along. That reinvention certainly isn’t going to come from GateHouse. It’s going to come from entrepreneurs, investment, new initiatives, experimentation and product development.

Today’s Washington Post “Post Reports” podcast is a masterclass in horse race coverage. The reporter repeatedly encourages a lesser known Democratic candidate to drop out of the race — almost mocking him — because of his lack of name recognition. Completely absent is any recognition of their own role as gatekeepers, and that he is unknown because outlets like the Washington Post don’t talk about him (and certainly not his policy platform). The circular logic is completely lost on them. This is not a fringe candidate, either. This is a member of congress and veteran (Seth Moulton). After listening to the podcast, I still don’t have a clue what policies he endorses.

Jay, I hope you’ll give it a listen. It’s something.