Category Archives: Essays

The desert is the place for soul-searching


Nothing like nothing to clear the mind

(I’m doing some thinking in preparation for some future blog postings. This is a rerunn of a previously-written post that is suggestive of my thinking. FYI the person shown is Lindsay Fincher  who I don’t know but I liked the picture.)

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Let me briefly introduce two items today and invite you to click through this cover page for more.

  • I’ll take a third and final look at the new (as in more efficient) media by citing a few snippets from, and taking a few snipes at, a piece by Slate’s Jack Shafer in which he tells newsroom whiners to heed “The Bloomberg Lesson.”
  • And perhaps you noticed that the World Association of Newspapers said rumors of the industry’s decline are greatly exaggerated because circulations are up planet-wide. Well, yeah, but the paid circulation is up in Asia and Africa, and down in Europe and North America; and in the latter two regions, free circulation news is growing rapidly. That does not seem like good news for journalists.

The graphic is from an article Shafer wrote in November contrasting the success of Bloomberg News with the malaise afflicting the mainstream press. (If you are not familiar with Bloomberg, the Wikipedia entry is a place to start). Shafer starts the piece by noting how journalists have a sense of job entitlement second only to government workers, then allows that “the miserable . . . whiners have a point” because their numbers are declining:

“According to decennial workforce estimates published in The American Journalist in the 21st Century, the number of daily newspaper journalists rose steadily from 38,800 in 1972 to a peak of 67,207 in 1992 before sliding to 58,769 in 2002, the most recent year surveyed,” he writes.

Contrast that to the rapid growth of Bloomberg’s financial reporting empire, which has arisen in the last quarter century to challenge established finance powers Dow Jones and Reuters. How? Shafer doesn’t really explain other than to say Bloomberg took risks and focused his information and news products tightly on financial news (”our prinicpal mandate is to cover anything that has money written on it,” Bloomberg’s Washington, D.C. bureau chief tells him). Oh and then there’s the work ethic of Bloomberg which stands in contrast to the leisurely pace of newspaper newsrooms (many of which are unionized). Shafer writes:

“Bloomberg pays well but forces its reporters to work harder than mules carrying hods of bricks up ladders.”

It’s a brisk piece that’s worth a quick read. I cite it today as a follow up to the new media job skills survey I wrote about on Monday and the academic paper that I mentioned on Wednesday in which a sociologist calls new media journalists “flexible laborers” caught up in a “news cyclone.”

I dwell on all of this because it seems that there is a clash between what the market wants from journalists and their self-appointed mission. The market wants journalists to follow the money or, if they haven’t the financial savvy, at least to follow Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton or whomsoever may be the fav-du-jour — and by the way bring an audio/video recorder along with the notepad ’cause the viewer wants the actuality.

Journalists, by contrast, imagine that they are christened warriors in the service of Truth and Justice. Representative of this sense of mission (or as Shafer says, “entitlement”) is recent essay titled “A Call for Conscience Journalism.”

Read it and weep. Or just whine.

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I can’t blame Timothy Balding, CEO of the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers for sugar-coating the data from its World Press Trends report. ”What we are seeing completely contradicts the conventional wisdom that newspapers are in terminal decline,” he says in a press release. The full report covers newspaper titles in 165 countries though circulation is only available for papers in 92 nations. Nevertheless it is a tremendous effort and worth studying. Balding cites the optimistic data including:

  • Globally, combined paid-for and free newspaper circulation increased 9.95 percent over five years, and 2.36 percent over one year, in 2005, the most recent period for which full-year figures are available.

  • The total number of paid-for daily newspaper titles worldwide jumped over the 10,000 mark for the first time in history, to 10,104, a 13 percent growth from 2001, when there were 8,930 titles.

But when we look down at the highly informatives tables it seems that most of the circulation gains are in the developing world; that average paid circulation per title is down in all continents except Europe and South America (more papers but fewer readers per each?).

And one of the biggest increases was in free papers. The report says:

Free daily newspaper circulation more than doubled from 2001 to 2005, from 12 million copies in 2001 to 28 million in 2005, an increase of 137 percent.

Free circ papers are a phenomenon we see particularly in California, where the alternative press is a by and large populated by free-weeklies. Many do a lot of good work. But the trends in the WAN report show paid circulation declining in North America. And the less journalism can count on paid support the weaker it becomes relative to advertiser pressure. And that seems not a good thing, as I’ve opined before. 

Still, WAN is right to remind us all that ”newspapers represent a nearly 180-billion-dollar industry worldwide (that) employs nearly two million people world-wide.”

So even if they are in decline, they still have plenty of whining left in them.


The Best Jobs of Our Lives


Myrna Loy, Fredric March & Teresa Wright

They sure don’t make ’em like they used to, movies, marriages, jobs. Take the 1946 film classic, “The Best Years of our Lives,” the story of three returning World War II veterans who meet by chance on the way home and whose lives become entangled. At one point, Teresa Wright, who has fallen in love with one of the men, asks her mother, played by Myrna Loy, why her love life can’t be as tranquil as that of her marriage to Fredric March, who plays her father. Loy, who is cracking open peas, says without pause: “You don’t know how many times I told your father I hated him — and meant it.”

I think of that film often as I carry home the frustrations of my job and inflict them on those closest to me. Gabbing with my favorite newsroom old timer the other day, I heard how he spent two months in a remote locale during the mid 1960s and filed 30 typewritten dispatches. They had to be carried out by hand. Now there’s content! I, by way of contrast, spent late Friday afternoon by explaining to my section editors at the day-end news meeting why my story about rising egg prices didn’t fit the pre-assigned concept graphic of a decorated Easter egg.

In any event, I’m off for two weeks. At the moment I’m driving to a weeklong campout in the desert to chaperone my 15-year-old son, a homeschooler who can’t wait to connect with friends scattered throughout the state who, like him, count the days between these periodic tribal gatherings. It’s the first time he and I will be alone this long without the complications of the rest of the family and I’m looking forward to that.

I also need to do some soul-searching and deep-thinking.  The last time I was here was five years ago when the invasion of Iraq had just been launched. I had volunteered to go over there but had been turned down. Perhaps just as well as, unbeknownst to me, my wife was even then gestating the suprise daughter who is now four-years-old, and the family delight.

I even dusted off the unpublished novel I wrote about 20 years ago before I became a reporter. In fact my failure to sell that manuscript sent me down the path toward newspaper journalism. The protaginist is a young sailor of Italian-American extraction who has conflicts with authority during his tour at the end of the Vietnam War. He reminds me of someone I used to know.


What’s in a name? Everything.


Edwin R. Newman says: use your words (carefully) journalists

In his 1974 book, Strictly Speaking, former NBC newscaster Edwin R. Newman warned that mass media were polluting public discourse with “banalities, cliches, pomposities, redundancies and catchphrases.” Alas his warnings fall on deaf ears. Fast forward three decades and journalists have become so accustomed to accepting mealy-mouth that they no longer seem able to discern or demand the truth.

One silly little anecdote serves to illustrate the extent to which American journalism has devolved into a pathetic sub-species of stenography. A Ohio newspaper ran a correction to alert readers that one hapless reporter had mistakenly confused a congressional aide named Hillary Wicai Viers with the presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The correction said, in part:

“According to the reporter, when Viers answered the phone with, ‘This is Hillary,’ he believed he was speaking with the Democratic presidential candidate, who had made several previous visits to the Mahoning Valley (in Ohio).”

To correct any such future errors until American journalism gets its act together, let me suggest that anyone named “Hillary” or “Barak” henceforth answer the phone, “Hello, this is Hillary (or Barak), not the presidential candidate.” I would hesitate to offer a similar suggestion to prevent the mis-identification of an ordinary American with presidential candidate John McCain, as his first name is so common. So let me suggest the reverse: specifically, between now and the general election, let American reporters refrain from phoning any Johns. Had this rule been in effect only a short time ago, one prominent New Yorker would have avoided trouble.

It’s something of a joke when the boo-boo occurs in a part of Ohio which still reveres the Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest, arguably the greatest of the many fine tacticians of the Confederacy. (“Always meet a charge halfway” is an adage I recall from a book I once read of his exploits.)

But it’s not so funny when such stupidty and lack of obvious follow-up questioning afflicts the entirety of U.S. mass media on an issue of national security. This was suggested by a recent report from The Center for Public Integrity which identified, in the two years prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “935 false statements by eight top administration officials that mentioned Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, or links to Al Qaeda, on at least 532 separate occasions.”

Wow, I wonder how the capitol press corps kept track. Did they use those clickers you see the gatekeepers use at sporting events or movie theaters to make sure the room isn’t filled past legal capacity? It almost makes you wonder why none of them asked the tough follow-up questions that might have called into doubt some of the assertions later discovered to be some flavor of not-true. Actually, there was one American journalist who put forth the question, tiny tower of moral courage Helen Thomas, who I heard speak some time ago at a Media Alliance event in San Francisco.

This dereliction of journalistic duty has all but killed the body politic which now languishes in near-diabetic shock, having been so long fed a steady diet of sugar-frosted sound bytes mixed in with actual bits of lies. When the polling firm BIGresearch recently surveyed which of five political actors – the President, the House, the Senate, the media and bloggers – Americans most trusted, 70 percent answered, “None of the above!” The President’s 14.2 percent trust rating was a tad higher than those of the other four combined. With respective ratings at bloggers (5.8%), media (4.4%), House (2.6%) and Senate (2.2%), the pontificators of the blogosphere out-polled the watchdogs of the Fourth Estate!

But that makes perfect sense to me. Bloggers may be fast and loose with facts and all too quick with opinions, but they’re volunteers who don’t profess to uphold some noble mission of which they’ve fallen so miserably short. Card-carrying journalists, who ought to know better, have forgotten that ancient wisdom which lies at the heart of their craft: to name the thing is to have power over it. It’s the words, stupid! These great tools have forever raised humans above the rest of the animal kingdom. We must keep them sharp and safe, so that the people may use them to grasp the big ideas, move the levers of power and bring tyrants to heel. Protecting words requires constant vigilance, because the 26 letters of the alphabet – the atoms of meaning – are prone to extraordinary rendition and may be made captive to lies.Journalists should protect words by writ of habeas corpus instead of aiding and abetting the waterboarding of our language. Let’s not torture the language amongst ourselves. Please, Kiyoshi Martinez, founder of the oxymoronic site that I ranted about yesterday, think about making some rule or name change so that you do not further the temptation of American journalists to dissipate their anger by pissing into your anonymous cesspool of ennui.

Pissy Poodles Can’t Be Angry Journalists


I recently visited a web site called I had read about it in a commentary from a prestigious journalism think-tank, the Poynter Institute. At first I thought it was a joke, then I got angry, because its welcome screen read:

“Tell us what’s making you upset at your journalism job. Anonymity guaranteed. One rule: no real names.” 

How oxymoronic! Journalists sign their work. They report the news without fear or favor, or at least they should. To post an anonymous complaint shows fear. Even if some of the posters hold media jobs they are not journalists. Journalism is a standard of performance, not a position. And that standard is incompatible with anonymous caterwahling.

I live the frustration and fear so common in this age of disruption. Last year I survived a one-in-four cut in my newsroom. Empty cubicles surround me where colleagues once sat. I wonder when my turn will come. My paycheck is the main support for me, my wife and three kids. My wife had a cancer four years back. She is in remission but is now uninsurable outside of a group health plan. I worry about this but it doesn’t make me angry. At who or what? The 21st Century?

Instead I focus my indignation on the moral corwardice of American journalism. The most important decisions we as journalists make is what we cover and what we ignore. And it is the tone of  coverage that sickens me. Setting aside politics and crime, what passes for news seems like so much hedonistic trivia meant to drive advertising sales.

I find this “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” sensibility completely at odds with what I see around me. I’m a frugal man. My commute car cost less than an iPod. A carpool buddy sold it to me as a favor. Yet for the first time in my life, at age 53, I must now balance my checkbook for any debit over a hundred bucks. This fluffy coverage represents the collective judgment of  thousands of putative journalists. They too are anonymous for all practical purposes. But their judgments bother me. Aren’t media supposed to be a mirror? Mirror, mirror on the world, what the hell is wrong with you?

Since I work inside the system I do what I can. On my beat I try to cover stuff that I think matters. When things fall through the cracks I write a memo. I try to keep my anger in check because it doesn’t help. My editors are stuck between the newsroom headcases and the boardroom briefcases. No surprise which wins more often.

But I will not put a black bag over my angst and whisk it off to some anonymous Internet holding cell. If it disturbs you that a journalist who kicks ass and takes names by day goes home some nights and cries, then you should be disturbed.

Every morning I get up and put on a tie and my moxie and do it again. I know that thousands like me must do the same. We pick a few battles and try to manage the career risk by keeping our bitch-to-byline ratio positive. I  sure wish we knew who each other were because I’m driving my family crazy and I could use the company of people who can understand how much it means to me to be a journalist, how hard I work at it and how little I get in return.

Meanwhile, I wish these anonymous whiners and wankers would change the name of their pissing pond to That way they could enjoy the catharsis without tarnishing the brand of those of us who journalists and are angry enough to take our stands.

Taking time to smell the Redwoods


I was supposed to pick up a thread I left dangling yesterday, but I am not so full of myself as usual and had no thoughts to fill this space. So let me share this picture of the homestead where I set my mind to wandering.

‘Influence peddling’ a future news revenue stream?

If you’re in the news business online guru Kevin Kelly has news for you. Forget how you used to make your living delivering scoops. Make yourself valuable in new and more personal ways or else perish he suggests in Better than Free.

With that in mind Paid Content reports that the Financial Times has created a $3,300-a-year Executives Forum “where members can “maintain contact with peers and luminaries …  and to stay in touch with the key issues facing fellow members.”

The 140-year-old FT is the Wall Street Journal of the United Kingdom.

And now this journalistic icon has set up a VIP lounge. Critics might call this influence peddling but not me. The rich and powerful have always had influence, undue influence if you prefer. I see no reason not to monetize that fact.

Moreover the grassroots influence on the news is growing. It’s the interactivity, stupid! Online readers can comment on stories, contribute citizen-generated content and spark trends. Technology is making media into better mirrors.

 In time new webs site will become portals for the people. Comments and citizen journalism will create a bubbling up effect. Journalists will actually build the public forum that has so far existed only in their imaginations.

But first journalism must survive. So let’s wish the FT luck. If they can nick corporate Peter to subsidize populist Paul so can we.

Personal blog precipitates firing of CNN producer

tn_chez.jpg Chez Pazienza

The New York Times reports that CNN fired senior producer Chez Pazienza after he was told that he had violated a company policy by failing to get permission to do outside writing. Pazienza maintains a personal blog, DeusExMalcontent, and has apparently also contributed to the Huffington Post. CNN told the Times: ““CNN has a policy that says employees must first get permission to write for a non-CNN outlet.”

Panzienza, 38, is married. He and his wife are expecting a child in August. He told the Times he was not going to seek his job back and had not decided whether to hire a lawyer or what to do about the dismissal.

In a Feb. 18 post titled “Requium for a news career” Panzienza tells about how, at age 19, he used a live radio show at the University of Miami to read aloud the minutes of a meeting where his then-supervisors were trying to deal with “The Chez Situation.” He goes on to write:

“When I got into television, I did my best to bury my inner-revolutionary . . . Over the past several years though, something has changed. Drastically. And I’m not sure whether it’s me, or television news, or both . . .  the profession I once loved and felt honored to be a part of has lost its way.”

He goes on to describe how his whole attitude changed after he underwent an operation to remove a brain tumor and had time to start the blog and explore his own suppressed feelings. The Requium posting goes on to talk in detail about the firing conversation so do read it if you want those details but I was more interested in the ending, where Panzienza writes:

“All it takes is one person to stand up and say ‘fuck this.’ I truly hope so, because I’m finally doing just that. And I should’ve done it a long time ago.”

I hope he and his young family are ready to reinvent themselves. Meanwhile the Times included this parenthetical comment at the end of its article about his firing:

“(For those who wonder, The New York Times’s policy on ethics in journalism does have a section on blogs. While it states that blogs “present imaginative opportunities for personal expression and exciting new journalism,” it adds that blogs “also require cautions, magnified by the Web’s unlimited reach.” It elaborates that personal blog content should be “purely that: personal,” and that staff members should avoid blogging about topics they cover as journalists and avoid taking stands on divisive public issues, among other guidelines.)”