Out of work reporter breaks big news in pajama pants

Despite no longer having an organization or a job or maybe even a desk, former Boston Phoenix staff writer David S. Bernstein (@dbernstein) still managed to break the story that Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino would not run for another term (this is huge news in Boston — physicists have determined that Menino is the city’s Constant).

Bernstein’s feat was celebrated in journalism circles, and some rightly questioned how a man who can land the big scoop remains unemployed:

And this is when my respect for Bernstein reached a whole new level:

Key lesson: journalism needs more pajama pants.

Via Poynter

Freelancers and editors, we will figure this out

Whose fault is it?

That’s the question that’s rattling around my head after the dustup between freelance journalist Nate Thayer and The Atlantic.

For those who may have missed it: Thayer was asked by an editor at The Atlantic if he could condense his feature story “25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy” into a 1,200-word version that would run on The Atlantic’s website. The catch was that he’d be doing this extra work for exposure, not money. (That’s quite a catch. Editing 4,000-plus words down to 1,200 is no easy task.)

Thayer’s blog post chronicling the exchange inspired a lot of follow-up. Of particular note:

  • The comments on Thayer’s post morphed into a virtual support group / troll target.
  • Reuters’ Felix Salmon used the moment to note differences between print freelancing and digital freelancing. (This was my favorite of the fallout pieces.)
  • Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic wrote … you know, I’m not sure what he wrote. He was angry and passionate and I think he meant to defend his colleague and his publication. His response was a jumble of thoughts — many of them smart — but my real takeaway from his piece was that everyone is anxious about this stuff.

At first, I read these posts because they’re gossipy. I enjoy watching journalists go after each other because a snarky journalist is often an entertaining journalist. Anger leads to focus and focus leads to excellent word choice. These folks do know how to turn a phrase.

But as I read more and felt my own anxiety rising, I tried to understand the bigger pressures at play.

And that’s when I picked up on the weird blame thing that runs through all of this.

We’re all so incensed. Freelancers think the editors are low-balling on purpose. Editors complain that freelancers don’t understand the economics of digital.

Pointed fingers. Thumped chests. Pitchforks and torches.

Yet, there’s nowhere to march. The rage can’t be released.

Why? Because the question I posed at the beginning — Whose fault is it? — has two answers:

1. It’s no one’s fault.

2. It’s everyone’s fault.

Digital evolved out of a stew of history and context, propelled by a fundamental catalyst: information exchange always chooses the path that’s faster and easier. In that sense, there’s no one to blame. It all just happened because that’s how information works.

But we — all of us — also made digital what it is through our collective adoption. We’re the ones who commoditized content. We turned to digital services and devices because they offered better options than their ancestors. In that sense, everyone is to blame.

Now, this is supposed to be the “so what?” part of the piece. It’s where I outline my brilliant five-step plan for the thoughtful advancement of the journalism and content industries.

Well, I don’t have a plan. No one has a plan.

I’m optimistic, though, and that counts for something. (Stop rolling your eyes.)

All the anger and anxiety we’re feeling can be productive. It shows we care. We want to assign blame and move on. We want to figure this out because we like doing what we do and we want to keep doing it.

That makes me think we’ll get it together. Yes, this smacks of blind faith. I’m okay with that.

There’s more to it, though. There’s also a business here.

I believe digital publishers will find their natural revenue levels — and those levels are not at or near zero. In time, publishers will regroup and build those levels up. They’ll want to do more and get better, and that improvement will require finding and paying people to do better work for better fees.

We’re already seeing hints of this. Take a look at Quartz or BuzzFeed or Gawker. There’s no slideshows. Not a pop-under in sight.

These outlets still have revenue gimmicks, that’s true, but they’re new gimmicks. They aren’t clinging to old ad and sponsor methods. The people behind these sites are trying new things, and these new things are much closer to the mark.

That’s a small signal, but it’s a positive one. We’re circling closer to the sweet spot of content, audience value and revenue. Once we hit that, we’ll move into the building phase.

It’s important to take a step back. To look at where we were and where we are. The process isn’t fast enough and it’s still frustrating, but fundamentally we’re improving.

So that’s the only plan I can see. Keep getting better. Keep getting closer.

And if we do that, I believe we’ll figure this out.

$20,000 to speak at a journalism event. Wow.

Jonah Lehrer, he of the self plagiarism and fabricated Bob Dylan quotes, received $20,000 to speak at the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar.

Knight is now sorry about giving Lehrer all that money.

I don’t take issue with Knight inviting Lehrer. I appreciate the absurdity of this guy speaking at a “Media Learning Seminar.” I’m not offended by it, though.

My gripe is with the perception.

The traditional journalism business is bleeding out. There’s buyouts and layoffs and lots of hand-wringing about what comes next.

So why is anyone getting paid $20,000 to speak at a journalism event?

EveryBlock is gone. Maybe it’s time to admit hyperlocal doesn’t scale

EveryBlock is no more.

The announcement was made via a friendly-but-succinct blog post:

Within the world of neighborhood news there’s an exciting pace of innovation yet increasing challenges to building a profitable business. Though EveryBlock has been able to build an engaged community over the years, we’re faced with the decision to wrap things up.

This was a surprise to EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty, who left the organization last year.

Hyperlocal is rough. It seems like there’s so much potential. So many local businesses and groups just waiting for the efficiencies of the Internet to revolutionize their efforts. And presumably, there are plenty of local advertisers who want to reach local people. That’s why we still have local radio and local TV and local newspapers.

But there’s something about efforts like EveryBlock and Patch and others that just doesn’t click. I realize I’m generalizing. And I know Patch is still around. And I know these sites all have different approaches and business models. Yet they all have that “hyperlocal” thing in common, and to date that’s been problematic.

The knee-jerk reaction to a hyperlocal failure is to blame the outsider approach. This is a case where I think that knee-jerk reaction is the right reaction. The more hyperlocal failures we see the more I’m convinced the trick to unlocking local is being local. The hub-and-spoke approach these organizations take is fundamentally flawed because they’re trying to create a model that can be plugged into any location. But is that what local audiences want? These outlets are franchising when they should be customizing.

Back to EveryBlock. Whatever the ultimate cause of the service’s demise — it’s weird how quickly it shut down — it’s still sad to see it go. EveryBlock was “data driven” long before everyone jumped on the big data bandwagon.

Editorial objectivity is under constant attack. So what?

This BuzzFeed headline is a bit much: “Every Tech Journalist’s Worst Nightmare

The article, written by John Herrman, tells the “nightmare” of CNET bestowing a “Best of CES” honor on DISH Network’s Hopper device, but that award was soon revoked when CNET’s parent company — CBS — cried foul. CBS is suing DISH because it doesn’t like the Hopper’s ad-skipping technology.

So, yes, having your editorial autonomy undermined is unfortunate. But “nightmare”? No. That’s not an apt description of what happened here.

A tech writer’s real nightmare would involve an Apple exclusive that’s scooped by a competitor. This CNET thing? That’s a challenge to editorial objectivity, and those challenges happen all the time. Sometimes you win those battles. Sometimes you lose. There’s no immutable objectivity law.

Herrman also makes this point:

This is a constant fear for many tech writers — their jobs, more than many other in media, require them to cover companies they either work for, or which their employers interact with.

“Constant fear.” My God, being a tech journalist sounds awful.

I also take issue with the “more than many other in media” bit. News organizations that still adhere to the church/state division of edit and advertising might shield writers from this situation, but how many of those organizations are left? (And I question whether that line is even necessary — but that’s a topic for another day.)

Tiptoeing along editorial integrity is hard no matter the circumstance. It’s even harder when your content and your sources and your stories are tied to business partners or advertisers or sponsors or a mothership corporate entity. Anyone who’s worked in B2B publishing knows exactly how this feels.

This isn’t a “nightmare.” It’s the nature of the beast, and you have to accept that it’s part of the job.

Notable things: Eggy police; “The Social Network” in 10 words; Andrew Sullivan tells journalism to earn its keep


Framingham police were called to the home to check on a report of two teenagers egging a home. Police stopped a car and found two adults. A third adult was located near the home.

The chosen profession of those adults? Police officer.

“Kid was a dork, invented stuff, and people got mad.” — Ryen Russillo describing the plot of “The Social Network” on today’s SVP and Russillo show.

Andrew Sullivan is going independent with his site, The Dish. He talked with the New York Times’ David Carr about the move and their resulting Q&A includes this fantastic exchange:

[Sullivan] “There’s nothing tawdry about offering your wares on the street. It’s how magazines and newspapers started. It is a model where the people decide and no one is in charge of the velvet rope deciding who gets to write or who gets the big writing contract or not. In some ways we’re breaking up cartels and creating a true kind of journalistic capitalism. Those sites that readers really want to stay in existence will have to earn that.”

[Carr] “Journalism has always survived on various subsidies: rich people, legal notices or advertising that might or might not produce the desired result.”

[Sullivan] “Well, it’s about time journalism got over it and started earning a living like everybody else.[Emphasis added.]


Notable things: No more memoirs; the strange connection between Scarlett Johansson and young Christopher Walken; sequels that need to happen

Here’s an excellent piece by Hamilton Nolan that smacks sense into would-be memoir “journalists”:

The extent to which we train a generation of young writers to become robotic insta-memoirists is the extent to which a generation of stories from the wider world does not get told. The real tragedy of journalism-as-narcissism is not the general pettiness of the stories it produces; it is the other, better stories that never get produced as a result.

Here’s the scenario:

You see a post on BuzzFeed titled “Young Christopher Walken Looks Exactly Like Scarlett Johansson.”

“Surely, that can’t be true,” you think.


Picture of Scarlett. Okay, got it.

Picture of young Christoph … holy hinges!

See for yourself.

This is the kind of pop culture discussion I live for: “What movie deserves a sequel that never got made?

The comment thread is great: “Léon: The Professional,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and on and on.

One person suggested “Serenity.” I adore “Serenity” and a sequel would be just so very very lovely.

I’d also like to see a follow-up to “Cloverfield” (it might actually happen). Sequels try to be bigger and louder, and that’s exactly what “Cloverfield 2” should go for. I love the idea of taking the pinhole view from the first movie and expanding it into a massive monster flick with the second film.

Journalists, grief and acts that cannot be justified

This is why I never got into “real” journalism.

I interned at a newspaper one summer during college. Most of it was typical intern crap work — town meetings, graduations, the annual fair, that sort of thing.

One day we got word in the newsroom that two fisherman were caught in the undertow at a nearby beach and swept out. I don’t remember how many reporters and photographers rushed off — more than was necessary, I’m sure — but I was part of the group.

The specifics are fuzzy all these years later, but we get to the beach and the paramedics are treating one guy. The other guy isn’t around. We hear he didn’t make it. His waders filled with water, his friend tried to grab him, but the man was gone too fast.

Photos are snapped. Details are recorded. The mass of journalists heads back to the newsroom.

I’m assigned the task of calling the deceased fisherman’s relatives to get a response. I don’t challenge this because real reporters always ask the tough questions. Or some such nonsense.

So I call, expecting an answering machine. These poor people are surely occupied with all the emotions and to-dos of those horrible first hours.

But someone answers.

And they don’t know.

That was the moment my reporting career ended.

I told the person on the other end of the line that an accident occurred and they should get in touch with the police. I left it at that because that’s the only reasonable thing I could do. It wasn’t my place to break this “news.” I didn’t have the information they’d need.

And if this was reversed and I was the one getting word that someone I loved died, I better not hear it from a newspaper intern. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

It comes down to this: You either can do this kind of work or you can’t. I can’t.

I went to school with people who got into that side of journalism. I worked with a bunch of those folks, too. I admire them in many ways.

But there’s no excuse for barging into someone’s grief. I cannot accept that, even if I otherwise like the person doing the barging.

A comment from the crying mother or the photo of a grief-stricken new widower is not necessary. But there you are, prying it out of them during one of the worst moments of their lives.

If you choose this line of work and you do these kinds of things, so be it. But don’t hide behind the job or journalism or public good.

There is no explanation. There is no justification.

Notable things: Ryan Seacrest will be your boss (if he isn’t already); A reporter’s bad decisions and a need to get to the damn point

Ryan Seacrest is taking over the world. From The Hollywood Reporter:

With this acquisition [marketing agency Civic Entertainment Group], Seacrest can push his personal brand into the broader branding world, and explore possible synergies within his portfolio. Already, the latter includes assets such as his nationally syndicated radio show, a series of cable shows (Keeping up with the Kardashians franchise, Shahs of Sunset) and hosting efforts (American Idol, New Year’s Rockin’ Eve) and a collection of media investments and brand ventures with blue-chip companies like Coca-Cola, Ford and Procter & Gamble.

And before you mock Seacrest’s “business” efforts, consider this: Seacrest “earns a reported annual income of nearly $60 million.”

Somewhere, Brian Dunkleman weeps.

Oh no.

Karen Jeffrey, a longtime reporter for the Cape Cod Times — a paper I interned at way back when — fabricated a lot of sources in a lot of stories. An audit of of Jeffrey’s work since 1998 identified 69 people who could not be found. Jeffrey fessed up and is no longer at the Times.

Semi-related: The apology from the Times’ publisher and editor suffers from a common malady: paragraphs of of introductory “context” that deaden the main point.

Here’s how the apology begins:

There is an implied contract between a newspaper and its readers. The paper prints the truth. Readers believe that it’s true.

It’s not always so simple, of course. There are nuances in how a story is presented, what words are used to describe the action. Papers have personalities, and no two are exactly alike, but at the end of the day, facts are facts. And a good newspaper holds nothing more sacred than its role to tell the truth. Always. As fully and as fairly as possible.

This is our guiding principle, so it is with heavy heart that we tell you the Cape Cod Times has broken that trust. An internal review has found that one of our reporters wrote dozens of stories that included one or more sources who do not exist.

Here’s how it should begin:

An internal review has found that one of our reporters wrote dozens of stories that included one or more sources who do not exist.

Specific disruption: A reporter screwed up on social media. What are you going to do about it?

Here’s the situation: A reporter with a high-profile position in the Jerusalem bureau has been a little too free with her thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, etc.

What do you do?

A. Tell her to knock off the social media stuff.

B. Have a colleague read and critique all of her social media updates before they’re published.

C. Allow this reporter — and others — to post what they want, when they want. Professionals don’t need babysitters.

The New York Times is going with Option B.

From NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan:

… The Times is taking steps to make sure that Ms. [Jodi] Rudoren’s further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts.

The idea is to capitalize on the promise of social media’s engagement with readers while not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts.

Given the spotlight that the Jerusalem bureau chief is bound to attract, and Ms. Rudoren’s self-acknowledged missteps, this was a necessary step.

The alternative would be to say, “Let’s forget about social media and just write stories.” As The Times fights for survival in the digital age, that alternative was not a good one.

My initial reaction was to rake the Times over the coals for its perpetuation of the “objectivity myth” (this perspective is shared by others). And what’s this nonsense about “not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts”? That’s naive.

But then I re-read this part:

“The alternative would be to say, ‘Let’s forget about social media and just write stories.’ As The Times fights for survival in the digital age, that alternative was not a good one.”

The Times is in a tough spot — and it’s a spot that people outside the Times (like me) don’t immediately understand.

The Times can’t give up on objectivity. Objectivity is its lifeblood.

The Times can’t give up on social media. Social media is the attention generator.

So if you can’t turn your back on the past (objectivity) or the future (social media), what do you do?

What you do is institue an editorial filter that seems ridiculous to anyone outside the organization.

And it is ridiculous. Investing someone else’s time into the social media wanderings of a colleague suggests the Times’ profit margins aren’t as narrow as we’ve been led to believe.

But what choice do they have? Think about it. If you’re not going to fire her or silence her social media efforts, what’s your recourse?

This is why knee-jerk reactions don’t work when you’re discussing real and particular moments of disruption. It’s easy for those unencumbered by the unique pressures of a specific organization (like me, again) to tell that organization how it should handle its business. “Fire her!” “Delete her Twitter account!”

Easy, right? But it’s not. Not when you inject the context of a business and a person into the conversation. This isn’t theoretical. This happened. And what are you going to do about it?

Real conversations about disruption — conversations catalyzed by specific events — are far more important and instructive than the theoretical babble that spews out of journalism conferences. These real examples show just how complicated this stuff is.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Times did the right thing here (I’d take the reporter off of social media altogether and suffer the consequences). What I’m saying is that I understand why they did what they did.

To me, that understanding is an essential part of a post-disruption mindset. I’m done with the theories and the reports and the “future of X” stuff. The real future of our media industries will be formed collectively through specific and tough decisions. This is how we learn.