Sunday, April 13, 2014

Journalism and the Curse of the App Culture

This is a version of a guest blog posting on Eric Koch's "Sketches."

It’s a truism to say that audiences are being fragmented and distracted by the wealth of offerings in media. Offered everything from the horrors in Syria to cat videos, its amazing that our culture’s propensity to ADD isn't worse.

I urge my undergraduate students in Journalism to focus, focus, focus on what’s important. They tell me that it’s almost impossible to do so.

One young woman in her first year told me that she finds physical contact with newspapers revolting (I think she called them “euuww”). “Dirty, grey and confusing.” When I suggested she read online, she replied, “I tried that but I get distracted.”

What’s distracting her?

“You Tube,” she replied.

This is a media savvy generation, but even in a university journalism program, these students don’t understand what the news is for.

Eventually they do “get it”. And my brilliant but distracted student has gone on to graduate with an honours degree in journalism. She is now in law school having decided journalism was not for her.

And she’s not the only one.

Increasingly I’m seeing young journalists who try to make a go of it. After the few years they see journalism as less promising than it first appeared.

Partly this is because the business of journalism is more about the “business” than about the “journalism.”

This is a side effect of the “app culture.” Media organizations are looking for the next big thing in technology that will miraculously aggregate audiences and bring back advertisers. This is a new form of magical thinking.

The “app culture” has its benefits: newsrooms now employ fewer people who do the jobs that specialists once did. They are younger than ever. Smarter too. Also cheaper. They’ll work for lower wages with fewer protections and benefits. Even in union shops. This is a new form of digital sharecropping.

So hence the reliance on unpaid internships.

Many media organizations, especially those whose profit margins are thin, claim to be helping young people get a start in the business. The exploitation of these people has not gone unnoticed by some governments. In Ontario, the Ministry of Labour has ordered two local magazines to stop hiring unpaid interns, mostly the scions of wealthy parents who can afford their children’s efforts.

The son of a friend (who tried journalism and left) wrote to say:

…journalism's biggest problem: it has been devalued by society and the business side of media. That may never be fixed properly. And right or wrong, it's no way to make a living. So the smart kids work where they get paid: Finance first, technology second. That cycle, of drawing inferior brains to an already diminished product, will be fatal.

You Tube has done its job well. To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he described anti-social behaviour – it’s now the digital cultural that is driving deviance downward.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Ending Digital Sweatshops in Ontario

The Ontario Government’s Ministry of Labour has ordered that Toronto magazines must stop hiring interns for no pay.

The reasons for this may seem obvious: free labour tends to be exploitative even if media organizations claim that there is no intentionality to exploit. And media organizations say that they are giving young people real and valuable experience. Many young people leap at this opportunity.

But there is a downside: free labour is not covered by the regulations designed to protect workers. And free labour is not eligible for any compensation in the event of an on-the-job injury.

This has caused some media operations in the Toronto area to protest against this government intrusion into their operations. One magazine, The Walrus has had to let go no fewer than eleven (!) interns. Executives will feel their ability to produce a quality product has been severely compromised.

Journalism programs at universities and colleges are also put in a complicated situation: part of the allure of a journalism program has always been the promise of an internship or placement arranged by the post-secondary institution. These have usually been unpaid (with some exceptions) but the students receive academic credit for the experience that counts toward their eventual degree.

Students are also expected to pay their colleges and universities extra (i.e., beyond their tuition fees) for the privilege of landing a placement. The Ontario Government says will continue to allow universities and colleges to place their students in unpaid internships as long as students are pursuing their degrees.

Even as media organizations struggle to monetize their content, the fact that they have been doing it on the backs of young people, desperate to gain a foothold inside a news organization, is nothing short of exploitation.

We all want a healthy media ecosystem. But creating a class of digital field hands is wrong and just a form of indentured servitude. At least in sharecropping, there was minimal payment.

Many young people find themselves moving from one unpaid gig to another. The result is that only wealthy young people (aka - those who have wealthy parents) can afford these positions. It serves to limit the diversity of young job seekers.

And a further unintended consequence of digital media has been, as in the manufacturing business, to drive down wages and prices.

As news organizations find themselves in competition with, and imperilled by the digirati, their profits have declined rapidly: Share prices for publicly traded media companies have fallen (with some notable exceptions like Rupert Murdoch’s empires). Profit margins have been drastically reduced especially in the newspaper business.

As with manufacturing, media organizations have looked for cheaper ways to produce their content and remain competitive.

The automobile industry in North America have relocated to Central America and Asia where labour costs are cheaper.

Media industries have also relocated to a “Mexico City of the Mind” (pace Laurence Ferlinghetti) by downsizing and seeking cheaper workers. As senior and more costly journalists have been laid off or bought out, younger journalists have been hired. The Huffington Post may be the most egregious example by tempting writers for no pay at all. The fact that so many young (and some not so young) journalists write for HuffPost is another indication that the plantation mentality exists among media organizations.

Now the Government of Ontario has decided that this practice must stop. That is encouraging. Discouraging is that would-be journalists will find themselves back looking for work as baristas. The prospect that some magazines might fold is also sad.

But the health of media industries must be based creating great journalism by employing smart journalists who are also paid a decent wage. That should not be too much to ask.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Public Broadcasting: the agony and the ecstasy!

At a well attended conference held at Massey College, University of Toronto yesterday, I was asked to be the moderator/provocateur for a panel on the future of public broadcasting as part of the 2014 Walter Gordon Symposium.

Panelists included Trina McQueen, former head of CBC English TV News as well as first CEO of Discovery Canada and then CEO at CTV. Tina was, for a time, my boss when I worked at CBC TV's "The National."

Also there was Mark Damazer, now head of St. Peter's College Oxford. Previously Mark held a number of prestigious positions at the BBC including head of news and Controller for Radios Four and Seven.

In anticipation of this discussion, I wrote this op-ed piece on a strategy that I think the CBC might usefully explore. I thought it was provocative. But it was hard to "out-provoke" when the statements by the panelists were so usefully provocative on their own.

Trina, who spent some time as a member of the Board of the CBC was wonderfully forthright in condemning the CBC for squandering its reputation as one of the great news services of the world. The CBC, she said has been plain wrong in moving budgets and resources away from news and drama, plopping them into frothy, so-called "reality" entertainment programs. She was, in a word, magnificent in her defence of CBC's best traditions of news and current affairs.

Mark Damazer was also very strong and candid about the BBC's managerial gaffes (for which he took some of the heat) over lapses in news judgment. He was also very clear about the culture of self-loathing that exists inside the Beeb. "A jolly good thrashing" was how he described the way the BBC reports on itself whenever errors great and small are revealed.

This contrasts starkly with how the CBC has responded tepidly to revelations that some senior journalists have been pocketing speaking fees from groups that have an interest in how they are covered by CBC News. (The CBC Ombudsman, to her credit, has condemned the practice and a policy review is now underway).

I spoke about how public broadcasting in the US has been faring. After a series of corporate gaffes at NPR including the firing of a high profile commentator, followed by the firing of the VP of News followed by the firing of the president for how she fired her senior fundraiser who was pranked when he commented on how he thought the Republicans are racists...well, it went on for quite a while...

For the moment, NPR and PBS seem to have entered a period of relative calm. Attacks from Congress have abated. PBS continues to have some missteps about funding and NPR is still searching for its next president - the seventh in eight years...

All of us agreed that the essential question for public broadcasting is who are you going to trust? The public in all three countries want to believe that public broadcasting operates on their behalf. And operating at variance from the best of their core values is always fraught. In the end, its not the comedies or the digital fluff that sustains, but a deep commitment to reliable and contextual information that has meaning for the public.

Could it be any more simple and yet more elusive?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Journalists: Don't Make Promises You Can't Keep

Joe McGinniss
Joe McGinniss died this week, age 71.

He was a newspaperman and author who pioneered two amazing pieces of breakthrough journalism in his career.

First, he was able to have access to Richard Nixon's second presidential campaign. No other reporter had ever gained such access. The result was "The Selling of the President - 1968". It revealed how devious Nixon really was. Hence the deserved sobriquet: "Tricky Dick."

Jeffrey MacDonald
Second, he cajoled and convinced the murderer Captain Jeffrey MacDonald to give him unprecedented access, by promising that the "real" story would be told. The result this time was the book "Fatal Vision" which confirmed that McDonald was the murderer.

In a fit of chutzpah, MacDonald sued McGinniss for a form of journalistic breach of promise, claiming in his lawsuit that McGinniss had agreed to write a sympathetic portrayal that would be used to exonerate him. The jury could not reach a verdict and the case was settled out of court for a reported six-figure amount.

The MacDonald-McGinniss story got even more complicated when in 1989, the New Yorker reporter Janet Malcolm wrote her extraordinarily brilliant assessment in her book, "The Journalist and the Murderer."

Janet Malcolm
In it Malcolm accused McGinniss in particular and journalists, in general, of moral deviousness. Malcolm described what he did as something many journalists do in pursuit of a good story:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

McGinniss was a remarkable, old style newspaperman. He covered the war in Vietnam, then asked the publisher Walter Annenberg if he could also cover the Paris Peace Talks. Annenberg who disliked McGinniss' columnizing opinions but respected his work at a reporter, just picked up the phone and told his business manager to put McGinniss on the next flight to Paris.

His many friends and admirers spoke warmly about him today, especially about his time at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Editor Bill Marimow posted this remembrance on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Does Public Broadcasting Have a Problem with Free Speech?

So it seems.

Recent revelations that two high profile CBC TV News host/commentators - Peter Mansbridge and Rex Murphy - were paid to give speeches to the oil industry. This has created much distress among supporters of public broadcasting in Canada. Quite a few CBC staffers are upset as well.

Mansbridge's speech was appropriately neutral. Murphy's was not. But the impression remains that both could be bought if the price is right.

It has also created much embarrassment among CBC management. None has commented publicly and in the interim, a new policy is supposedly being hammered out in the executive suites.

I was asked by the CBC Radio program, "As It Happens" to comment. My own position is that public broadcasters should be out there, pounding the bully pulpit for the principles of public broadcasting, but with some conditions:

1. They should not take money for doing what is essentially just an extension of their regular jobs.

2. They must never take money from any interest group especially those that the public broadcaster might be reporting on.

3. They should not express personal opinions on matters of public controversy.

CBC is not the only public broadcaster being chagrined by the actions of its employees.

NPR also went through a period of regret when its contract employee Juan Williams appeared on Fox News to state that he is nervous whenever he sees someone at an airport "in Muslim garb." And NPR's chief fund raiser Ron Schiller was pranked and videoed stating that he thought that Tea Party supporters and the Republican Party were racists. Both Williams and Schiller lost their jobs as did the then president of NPR and the Senior VP of News who were fired by the NPR board.

But if public broadcasters never allow their journalists to leave the premises or if they do, to only speak in the vaguest of bromides, what value is there in a neutered public broadcaster, fearful of offending anyone and everyone?

Public broadcasting remains highly valued. So much so that there are extraordinary efforts made by the public and by interest groups, to have THEIR views (and their views alone) heard and endorsed. Interest groups, whether they are advocating for the Keystone pipeline, abortion or the Palestinian cause, feel vindicated whenever their perspectives appear on public broadcasting. For many of these groups, journalistic balance is boring.

Other media also feel the lash of an advocate spurned, but nowhere is the intensity so powerful when the public broadcaster appears to be on one side and not on another.

Yet the purpose of public broadcasting should be to allow for a range of ideas and opinions...opinions presumably from the public and not from the journalists who are paid (often extremely well) to air those voices. Journalists (as opposed to op-ed writers and commentators) must resemble the eunuch in the harem: all the responsibility and none of the pleasures...

If the public broadcaster seems to have lost its way, so has the public. What is missing here is a sense that the public actually understands the purpose of public broadcasting.

And management needs to manage its journalists better to help them understand that their power and presence have consequences that could place public broadcasting in dangerous disrepute.


Monday, February 10, 2014

Does Chomsky Still Matter?

I had an interesting conversation with a grad student doing a research paper. He asked me what I thought about why more news organizations aren't more Chomsky-esque.

Noam Chomsky, as many acknowledge, is one of the great living thinkers about linguistics. He is particularly sought after for his thoughts about media, manipulation and the not so-unwitting collusion between the media and government in sustaining the capitalist (or neo-liberal, as it is now known) system.

Chomsky is now in his 80s and he still has an impressive ability to demolish his opponents in debate as seen in this recent exchange at Boston University in 2012.

In the 1980s, Chomsky wrote one of the most significant critiques of the media ecology with Edward S. Herman called "Manufacturing Consent." A small but persistent band of followers especially in Canada are convinced of the book's central argument: that US foreign policy is inherently fascistic and that the media operates to perpetuate governmental oppression especially in developing countries.

The grad student who contacted me wanted to know if I thought that journalists understood this relationship between media and capitalism or whether working journalists had simply bought into the values of their media bosses in the interests of self-preservation.

I told him that I thought that Chomsky was probably correct on a theoretical level. And yes, media organizations function essentially as businesses with the aim of making money. Whether that constitutes deliberate collusion with power structures is worth debating. But I think Chomsky's understanding about the pressures inside a news organization remain wildly off the mark.

Without romanticizing the press, the media environment is a lot more robust than Chomsky-ites think it is. Add to that the emerging power of digital media and you have a fractious and libertarian culture that refuses to be easily cowed or to toe any corporate line.

Yes, there can, on occasions, be a degree of self-censorship about certain issues (one doesn't bite the hand that feeds, but one can certainly gum it), but the instinct and obligation to report fairly and honestly is part of journalism's DNA.

One example I cited was the differences between the editorial direction of the Wall Street Journal and the integrity of the newsroom. That creative tension exists in most news organizations.

Chomsky advocates seem to overlook the idea that a news organization's reputation is also important, especially at a time when all media are looking for ways to adapt to survive.

Where I also disagree with Chomsky is over his apparent willingness in the late 1970s, to defend the indefensible Robert Faurisson, a French holocaust denier, on the grounds of freedom of speech.

Even so, Chomsky still matters, in the way that reading Walter Lippmann still does. But increasingly, he belongs to a category of historical writers who are important for how they viewed journalism at a specific time and place. Chomsky is also important because his thinking reminds us that it is possible for the powers that are, to exercise undue influence.

With the rise of digital media, Chomsky feels more like an important historical thinker, rather than a timely critic. But I doubt I convinced my curious graduate student.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Two Cheers for the Analog Culture. Or Why You Still Need a Pencil!

The Bibliothèque Nationale - Paris
For about 15 months in the early 1970s, I spent five days a week in the National Library of France, the Bibliothèque Nationale. I was researching a thesis and many of the original documents and pamphlets I needed were kept in this magnificent building, designed by Henri Labrouste (1862-1868).

The building has recently been restored and the windows cleaned. The bucolic arches (seen here on the left) were invisible to me, covered as they were with about a century's worth of Parisian grime and intellectual sweat. The lighting was also particularly dim, with one 40 watt bulb per table, providing shared "illumination" for four researchers.

One crabbed old scholar, working on his "Doctorat d'Etat," (a 30 year process) would yell at anyone who sat down at his shared table and who dared to turn on the light. "Monsieur," he would yell. "The electric light, it is not good for the eyes." And he would turn the light off, leaving the others (sometimes me) sitting at his table in the dark.

I was reminded of this remarkable, if somewhat solitary period of my life by an article in the New York Review of Books of January 9, 2014. It's a review of a book by Arlette Farge, entitled "The Allure of the Archives," and the reviewer is the renowned French historian, Robert Darnton of Harvard University.

The review evokes the pleasures of historical research - the discovery of a document that might just transform your efforts by providing you with a key that no one has seen before. Darnton writes of his own efforts in this beautiful building where the point of doing the research, not by computer, but by copying out the evidence on 5 x 8 index cards (Darnton asks if you can still find them anymore), which in his delightful phrase, allows you, the researcher, to "marinate" in the facts you have uncovered.

Darnton also places in perspective the digital environment. He claims that the following assertions are deeply flawed:

  1. We live in the information age. Misleading, says Darnton. Every age is an information age, each in it own way, he writes. "Farge (the author of the book he reviews) shows how information travelled through the media of eighteenth-century Paris. ...the flow of talk and images...shaped a collective consciousness that often erupted in violence." Information has always been "flammable," says Darnton.
  2. All information is available online. False, he writes. "According to a well known but unverifiable estimate by one of Google's engineers, 129,864,880 different books exist, and Google has digitized over 20 million of them." That is only about 6.5% of everything in print.
  3. The future is digital. Misleading again says Darnton. "To imagine a future in which digital destroys the analog is to misunderstand...the history of communications in general.
For journalism, this is a sobering idea. 

We live in an environment that is so relentlessly and arrogantly digital that the idea that books, pamphlets, document and libraries are still relevant is a shock to the system. Investigative reporting has been a huge beneficiary of digital sourcing. But it still requires a lot of shoe-leather reporting, in much the way that historians do.

As Darnton states, the future may be undoubtedly digital. But he hopes it comes with a greater tolerance for analog information, and the willingness of journalists and historians to uncover that information on whatever platform it may be found.