Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Online media’ Category

I recently read the most thoroughly detailed proposal I had ever seen for ensuring that local journalism survives the audience disruption and advertising decline created by the rapid growth of the internet.

It came under the sure-to-be-recipient of the Worst Headline of the Year Award on an article on the website of the journalism-research-oriented Poynter Institute: “Academics craft a plan to infuse billions into journalism: Give every American $50 to donate to news orgs.”

Least among my complaints is the use of the term “orgs” instead of organizations. The headline is already longer than the Amazon River, and the place the writer decides to economize is the last word?

Anyway, quickly: Horrible idea.

If you want the details, this is the idea, developed by a panel led by Guy Rolnik of the Stigler Center of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business: There would be a checkoff on your income tax form, much like the current federal checkoff for election funds and the state checkoff for wildlife conservation projects, and $50 is either added to your tax bill or deducted from your refund to go to news organizations that you choose.

The report estimates that this structure could raise $13 billion to help ensure the continuation of “accountability and investigative journalism,” which it justifiably calls vital to an informed electorate and a functioning democracy.

I think that number is way high. The report posits that there are 260 million adults who would pay the $50 each, but the Tax Foundation says that in 2018 there were fewer than 141 million taxpayers, which would yield about $7 billion.

Regardless of the figure, the proposal has significant problems.

First problem: Even if the tax form is electronic, there is no practical way to list every news outlet in the entire country, and if there were, no one would read the full list. The choice or choices would be whatever news outlets come to mind quickly.

The panel’s report does not address the issue of whether a selection of news outlets would be presented to the taxpayer or it would simply be a fill-in-the-blank process. If it’s the latter, Fox News, MSNBC and NPR would do well. The News-Topic? Probably not.

That almost certainly means the money that any newspaper would get would come from people who already buy the paper. If you buy only the Sunday paper but get it every week, you already are paying the News-Topic $104 a year. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt that those who don’t buy the paper at all would like to send us $50.

The report addresses the issue of a few large, popular organizations getting the lion’s share of designations: No organization would be able to receive more than 1 percent of the total amount to be allocated. All money that taxpayers designate for those outlets already getting 1 percent would go to other outlets, more or less proportionally according to everyone else’s selections – although if 75 percent of all choices made were organizations that have already maxed out, putting the majority of the money to 25 percent of the choices doesn’t sound like it can be proportional.

That also sounds pretty complicated.

You might ask, what if most people don’t make any selection at all?

The report says the money would get allocated anyway, divided according to the choices of those who filled in the blank, subject again to that 1 percent limit.

So, you hate the media and don’t want to fund it at all? Tough, you have to.

Which brings me to another problem: Who would be eligible to receive the money? Does Infowars.com count as a news site? Most people don’t think so, but some people do. The president and at least some of his supporters, on the other hand, would say CNN shouldn’t be eligible.

The report says an independent panel would decide who qualifies to receive money:

“Key is the independence of this body; we believe that it should include representatives of journalists and of media owners, as well as scholars.”

Who appoints the panel members? It doesn’t say. One assumes it has to be the government. This is taxpayer money.

Anyone paying attention over the years knows that the “independence” of any body whose members are appointed by politicians is in the eye of the beholder. Regardless of the criteria that are on paper for that body to use, all it would take is one radical change in direction of the administration in control, and many once-qualified news organizations could find themselves on the outs.

This possibility seems to have eluded the report’s writers.

“Any policy to preserve the free press should try to reduce or eliminate the news media’s reliance on politicians, governments, advertisers, large business groups or billionaires,” it says.

The motives behind the report are good – maintaining a functioning democracy, independent watchdogs on local government and independent voices.

“Recent events across the Western world have demonstrated the fragility of the liberal democratic order,” the report says in its conclusion, “and we believe that waiting longer to see if market forces alone can maintain the free press in the 21st century may be a risky choice.”

In other words, “Eat your spinach, taxpayer!” You’ll support the local news and like it.

The report notes that, despite research demonstrating the good that local journalism does and the negative effects that follow when local news dries up, “for the most part citizens are not willing to pay for this public good,” which is why it recommends a mandatory funding source.

I’m all for maintaining local news sources. I just have trouble endorsing something that’s mandatory and ultimately controlled by the government in the name of saving democracy.

Read Full Post »

Hudson, North Carolina, is a thriving vacation hotspot where several hundred property owners are making an outrageous amount of money from renting rooms or entire houses to well-heeled tourists.

Or so says an email I received this past week touting a “study” of data from websites “like Airbnb and VRBO,” two sites where people can post property for short-term rentals. These have become increasingly popular ways for people to find places to stay while on vacation or traveling for business.

The email came from the “head of media and PR” for a website called AllTheRooms, which calls itself “the world’s first vacation rental search engine” and “a trusted source of vacation rental market data for a number of organizations.”

If the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau trusts AllTheRooms, maybe I should too.

According to AllTheRooms, Caldwell County’s own Hudson is the 472nd fastest-growing vacation rental market in the United States. There were 435 rental properties in Hudson listed online as of May, an increase of over 14 percent from a year earlier.

What’s more, they rent at an average of over $1,100 a night and are booked an average of 58 nights a year.

Hudson rental hosts took in nearly $9 million from May 2018 to May 2019.

Consider that Hudson’s entire population was 3,698 in the Census Bureau’s 2017 estimate. If there are 435 rental properties in town, that’s a huge percentage of the overall number of parcels in town.

Clearly, Hudson’s wealthy tourist trade is the best kept secret in Caldwell County. Money is just sloshing around the town, yet no one in the rest of the county knew it.

Funny thing, though. If you search Airbnb or VRBO, you get results that are not just wildly different from what AllTheRooms touted, the results are from an entirely different universe.

Airbnb shows zero rentals available within the Hudson town limits. There are about a dozen in all of Caldwell County, ranging from $40 to $140 (the most expensive is for a full house atop a mountain near Zacks Fork Road).

VRBO shows two rentals in the Hudson town limits, one for $79 a night but one in the neighborhood of AllTheRooms’ numbers: $669 a night for a two-bedroom, one-bath loft with room for two people.

I thought maybe AllTheRooms simply had a typo and sent me data for Hudson, NY, instead of Hudson, NC, but on Airbnb and VRBO the rentals available in that other Hudson fall well short of the nightly rental cited in the email, though at least the number of rentals available is closer.

So I decided to check a different market entirely: Atlanta, listed by AllTheRooms as the 14th fastest-growing vacation rental market, with 6,923 rental properties going for an eye-popping average of $1,858 a night.

That’s what the list said.

That’s not what Airbnb says.

Airbnb says there are 306 rentals in Atlanta, and a huge percentage appear to be less than $100 a night.

VRBO also shows more than 300 places, though many are pricier than on Airbnb — but nowhere close to $1,800 a night.

It’s a terrible thing when you can’t trust a stranger’s email from a website you never heard of to give you accurate numbers on secret tourist millions in a nearby town. It makes me wonder whether the Los Angeles CVB and the other organizations listed as trusting AllTheRooms really do trust it.

What is the world coming to?

Mostly, though, I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to do a news story about all the new wealth flooding Hudson. That would have been exciting.

Read Full Post »

Reading is vital to the development of the human brain, but how we read – whether we read words printed on paper or words lit electronically on a digital device – may be more important still. The question is whether you should find that chilling.

Maryanne Wolfe, a professor in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, recently wrote in an article for The Guardian – “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound” – about research by her and others that has disturbing implications for the ability of people to comprehend what they are reading, to think critically and to act rationally.

“My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight,” Wolf wrote. “Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential ‘deep reading’ processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.”

Why should it make such a difference whether you are holding a paper book and turning physical pages rather than holding a Kindle and swiping left?

In part, Wolfe wrote, some research suggests that the physical sense of holding a book or newspaper and turning a physical page adds a spatial sense that helps the brain file the information away.

Other research suggests that it may be related to what paper does NOT do: enable you to stop reading and check Facebook, or text messages, or Twitter, or anything else you can do on an internet-connected device. Such multi-tasking trains the brain’s “reading circuit” how to behave, Wolf wrote.

“If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age,” she wrote.

This has enormous implications for what people will and won’t be able to do in all spheres of life – at school, at work, in personal interactions, in daily life. As Wolf wrote, people become impatient for quick bites of information and can’t devote the time it takes to understand something complex – including not just literature but such things as wills and contracts.

More disturbing, think of what this means for our ability to maintain a unified and relatively civil society. Consider all we know now about disinformation campaigns on social media. How much worse could things be as the ability to critically analyze information becomes increasingly rare?

“The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery,” Wolfe wrote.

Despite all that, Wolfe sounded a hopeful note: “There’s an old rule in neuroscience that does not alter with age: use it or lose it. It is a very hopeful principle when applied to critical thought in the reading brain because it implies choice.”

Cynical journalist that I am, though, I can’t help but see Wolf’s article through the lens of how the innovations of the digital revolution have disrupted my own industry and left it perhaps permanently diminished. My reading brain lingers on this passage:

“As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating.”

Read Full Post »

I am not at all sure what to think of the announcement that McClatchy is changing its leadership structure and appointing regional editors, including one over its properties in North and South Carolina, with the goal of speeding newsroom innovation.

Mainly that’s because of the emphasis in the Raleigh News & Observer story on one particular quote in the company’s announcement:

“Our current system, with each newsroom operating separately from the others, discourages cooperation in favor of competition and duplication,” the company said in announcing the changes. “By working together, we will marshal all the resources and talents and expertise from each region, and across the company, to produce local journalism that is ever more essential to the communities we serve.”

Any veteran of the former Media General newspapers, among some others, would recognize that description of working together to marshal regional resources and talent. Such a thing used to be called synergy. It’s hardly a new concept, and the word hasn’t been in favor for at least 10 years. Even if that’s what was being described, McClatchy officials doubtless would dismiss the suggestion that it’s what was intended because it wouldn’t sit well with investors to revive a term that no one uses anymore.

Time will tell what McClatchy’s intent actually is, but I am hard-pressed to reconcile the talk of “competition and duplication” among its N.C. and S.C. properties with the company’s footprint. There aren’t that many properties, they don’t have that much overlap, and McClatchy already combined its page design and state capital reporting operations, or at least announced it had. Are the newsrooms still, to this day, so resistant to the idea of working together that management had to be shoved aside and new blood brought in? Or is the emphasis on that one paragraph misplaced — bad reporting? Or is it company misdirection?

It was just a few months ago that Poynter reported on McClatchy’s “reinvention teams,” which the company said at the time were “picking up the pace” of innovation.

But that’s what the new regional editors are supposed to do.

It’s hard to know where things are really going. I look forward to seeing what happens.

Read Full Post »


If only Martin Luther King Jr. had started knocking heads, imagine how much he would have accomplished.

Or so seems to be much of the most joyous thinking on the left in the wake of a viral video that grew out of the anti-Trump protests on Jan. 20.

If you haven’t seen it, a television reporter was interviewing Richard Spencer — who leads a white supremacist movement and not long ago headlined a conference in Washington, D.C., that ended with those assembled giving a classic Nazi “heil” salute — when suddenly someone lunged at Spencer from his right and sucker-punched him. Spencer staggered away, the attacker leaped back, and that was the end of it.

That brief video has been circulated widely and applauded. That celebration drew quick, but not wide, condemnation by others on both the left and right, which led to a question that also spread in a viral manner on social media:

Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

Those asking the question often answered it themselves in the affirmative, and most others chiming in said essentially that the answer was not only yes but hell yes. Those answers sometimes came attached to images of comic book hero Captain America punching Hitler and movie hero Indiana Jones punching a Nazi.

Those giving a contrary answer included Newsweek, which called ethicists and posed the question to them, prompting one, Randy Cohen, to say, “Do you really not know if it’s ethical to punch someone even though they have odious politics? I mean, should we call your mother?”

Apparently we should call a lot of people’s mothers. One response on Twitter that captured the overall sentiment was this:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

One hopes that if the person who wrote that thought about it a while she would change her position because she could easily find herself targeted by it.

The problem with saying you support punching Nazis is you take a step onto a slippery slope. For one thing, Spencer does not belong to the Nazi party; the label of “Nazi” has been applied to him because of his racist views. If it’s OK to punch someone who isn’t a Nazi but is labeled one, who then who determines what other people get that label applied to them?

Regardless of whether he is a Nazi, Spencer has not engaged in violence or called for it. Who gets to decide that a person’s views go far beyond what the person states and actually encompass “eradication” of other people? Spencer’s views are extreme, but who gets to decide that someone’s views are extreme enough to warrant violence? President Obama was labeled a socialist and extremist with long-term goals described at times in nearly apocolyptic terms. Would it be OK to punch Obama?

If it’s OK to punch someone, what is the goal of the punch? To change his mind? To punish him? If punching him won’t change his mind or change his ways, then what? Should he be killed?

The American Civil Liberties Union is perceived by many on the right as the ultimate liberal special interest group, but many liberals can’t stand that the ACLU will stand up for the free-speech rights of right-wing extremists. On both the left and the right, people want free speech for their own views, but any views that stray too far from theirs make them uneasy. Unfortunately, the First Amendment doesn’t come with an asterisk and a footnote saying that it doesn’t apply to racists, thugs and religious extremists.

The First Amendment right of free speech has repeatedly and frequently been interpreted by the courts as guaranteeing anyone the right to espouse even horrific views — not the right to do horrific things, but to talk about them. In other words, the First Amendment provides everyone a forum to talk about anything they wish.

Of course, the First Amendment says only that the government may not censor your views. It does not say that there will not be non-government repercussions for your views. What you say may, for instance, anger others enough that they want to punch you. That’s where we are now.

The irony is that this all happened less than a week after the day America remembers King, who met hate with love and met violence with peace and in 1964 won the Nobel Peace Prize. Spencer is a milk-fed, baby-faced poser compared to the people King had to deal with, vicious thugs with a badge such as Eugene “Bull” Connor, whose Birmingham police turned high-pressure fire hoses and attack dogs on African Americans. We don’t have to imagine how King would have answered the question “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” because he answered it over and over. Just a few of those answers:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”

“Man was born into barbarism when killing his fellow man was a normal condition of existence. He became endowed with a conscience. And he has now reached the day when violence toward another human being must become as abhorrent as eating another’s flesh.”

“Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

Is it OK to punch someone hateful? I understand the impulse, but the answer is not just no, but hell no.

Read Full Post »

For every situation we face, there are choices with bad outcomes and other corresponding choices with good outcomes. We tell ourselves this all the time.

If a choice turned out to be a bad one, we feel sure that if we had made a different choice, what happened would have been a better result.

But life is more complicated. You can make a choice that turns out to be a mistake, but if you had it to do over there might be more than one choice, and it’s not a given that there is always a choice that brings the result you desire, or that the correct choice is easy to recognize. All of the choices might have outcomes you don’t like – a giant series of chutes that all ultimately feed into a single, spiral slide downward to the same destination, or to a variety of slides and destinations, all of them bad.

That’s where I’m left when thinking about Jack Shafer’s much-shared column in Politico about a paper by H. Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim of the University of Texas and published in the journal Journalism Practice.

“The paper cracks open the watchworks of the newspaper industry to make a convincing case that the tech-heavy Web strategy pursued by most papers has been a bust,” Shafer writes. “The key to the newspaper future might reside in its past and not in smartphones, iPads and VR. ‘Digital first,’ the authors claim, has been a losing proposition for most newspapers.”

Shafer contends that the newspaper industry “should have stuck with its strengths—the print editions where the vast majority of their readers still reside and where the overwhelming majority of advertising and subscription revenue come from—instead of chasing the online chimera.”

I’m generally sympathetic to the argument, but I have trouble seeing how simply not putting content on the web would have done much more than slow the bleed of readers because it assumes news from traditional sources is competing with other news for readers’ attention, not with the larger ecosystem of things that are available to occupy readers’ time, which skyrocketed in number and especially convenience due to the mobile web.

The larger problem for the argument posed by Shafer, who is only the latest to make it, is that the ultimate problem for news is not the bleed of readers leaving print but the bleed of advertisers. As Jim Brady noted in a tweet, “There’s a reason you can put 50 cents in a newspaper machine and take ALL OF THEM. That wasn’t where real revenue was.”

To this day, the Charlotte Observer loses money, when comparing what the subscriber pays to the cost of paper, ink and gasoline, on every paper it delivers to my town. The Observer does it to preserve the size of its print audience, which helps it prop up advertising rates.

Advertising has left print faster than print’s audience has, not because print didn’t serve advertisers’ needs but because online offers shinier, cheaper, easier-to-measure and easier-to-target options in a vastly larger array of attention-getting offerings, even if the measures are bots and smoke and the audiences are diffuse. Put news behind a digital Great Wall of China and it wouldn’t change that.

Defending the idea that print would have been better off keeping the web at arm’s length depends on believing that the departure of advertisers especially not only would have been a great deal less than it has been but also that advertising revenues would – and perhaps still could, if only there were more paywalls – level out at a higher level than they are at now.

You have to consider the possibility that if the newspaper industry had done as Shafer wishes it had, today its overall circulation might be – might be – somewhat higher than it is now, but free online options other than news still would have peeled away many casual subscribers; advertising still would be a fraction of what it once was, which would have driven both staff and content cuts, which would further have driven away readers; and there still would be no end in sight to revenue declines; that the chute might be less steep, but it still would lead the same direction.

Furthermore, there’s also the issue addressed by Steve Buttry that Shafer, Chyi and Tenenboim look at what the news industry has done online and conclude the industry actually strongly pursued a digital strategy, while those like Buttry and Brady who have advocated for a digital-first approach feel the industry pursued less-than-half-hearted measures that were doomed from the start.

“The colossal mistake that the newspaper industry made,” Buttry writes, “was responding to digital challenges and opportunities with defensive measures intended to protect newspapers, and timid experiments with posting print-first content online, rather than truly exploring and pursuing digital possibilities.”

A few, in that view, have actually approached the digital-first chute, including the former Digital First Media that Buttry and Brady worked for.

Buttry again: “When I worked at Digital First, I described our company’s name as an aspiration, rather than an achievement. I applaud our former CEO John Paton and our former Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady for leading us further and faster down the digital path than any other newspaper company. But that barely took us to the outskirts of digital experimentation.”

In other words, most who have even approached the true digital-first chute jumped off, and even those still on it have not yet ridden it all the way. We don’t know where it would end up.

Buttry, Brady and others who see things as they do might still be proven wrong about where that chute goes, but there is less evidence that they are wrong than that Shafer is.

UPDATE: Another view, by Matthew Ingram writing in Fortune:

“As tempting as it is to re-imagine history, however, it’s a virtual certainty that even if most newspapers had focused more of their resources on print and less on digital, the outcome would have been more or less identical.”

AND THIS: A good summary of the debate online from Poynter.

Read Full Post »

There’s only one sure way to keep your name out of the news: Don’t do anything that is routinely reported by your local news outlets.

Most of the time, that means don’t be arrested for anything serious, and don’t get sued for anything serious. There are some types of public records that my newsroom routinely reports each week inside the paper, such as marriages and property transactions, but as far as avoiding being on the front page or listed as being charged with a crime, you should keep your head down, be a good citizen, and don’t make trouble.

Like most newspapers, the News-Topic reports many arrests, and we try to cover the most serious cases when they go to court.

Sometimes people call and ask whether we would keep someone’s arrest out of the paper. Sorry, no. We have to try to treat everyone the same. If we start making exceptions because someone’s mother or children will be embarrassed, we would have to stop printing all of the arrests.

Last May, I received a letter from an inmate at the Caldwell County Detention Center asking me “to please not put my name in the paper for any reason. Or any thing concerning my case.”

He complained that a story we ran last January about a court hearing that had been called for him to enter a plea deal, pleading guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence, only to have him back out at the last minute, was not accurate, though what was in the story was exactly what both his lawyer and the prosecutor said in open court had happened.

“That (story) vilated my rights,” he wrote. “I haven’t even gone to trial and that made me sound guilty before I could get a fair trial. You embaresed me and my family.”

The legal process in the United States is not set up to shield everyone’s identity, just in case someone is not guilty, until the outcome of a case has been decided. It is set up to be open to the public so that members of the public can look up any information they want, observe legal proceedings and therefore be assured that the legal system strives to be just. The jury selection process, however, has steps for lawyers to be able to exclude from a jury anyone whose mind was made up by previous news coverage.

The News-Topic, like any news organization, chooses the cases it covers based on a judgment of which cases are serious enough or unusual enough that we think many people will want to know what happened. In those cases, we do exactly what any member of the public is welcome to do: We go to the courthouse, sit in the audience and listen. You can do it too, if you are quiet and obey the rules of the courthouse. Your friends, neighbors and co-workers can do it too. No one needs to make reservations. Leave your cellphone and pocketknife in the car, but you can show up unannounced, pass through the metal detector and walk right in. The state even maintains a website where you can see whose cases are tentatively scheduled to be heard in each term of court. Literally anyone on Earth with an Internet connection can read those names and see what the charges are.

Before a case has a court hearing, if there is something about the case that we want to find out, we go to the clerk of court’s office and ask to see particular public records on the case. The term “public records” includes the word “public” for a reason. It means those are records that are open to any member of the public, not just reporters. You can go read them yourself, but in some cases, depending on what you want, you might have to pay to get a copy instead of seeing the original file.

The letter from the inmate last May concluded: “I don’t wont my name in the paper period. I will take legal actions if my name is in the paper again. Thank you.”

No thanks were necessary, because we didn’t comply, and wouldn’t. We can’t. I’d get fired if I were to.

And any lawyer in the country will tell you that you can’t win a lawsuit accusing a news organization of violating your privacy because it reported on your arrest, criminal case, court hearing, court records and/or trial.

The inmate’s name wasn’t in the paper for the past few months, but that particular case came to trial last week, and Allen Duane Parlier, 44, of Hudson was convicted as charged (linked story is behind a paywall) of statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child, who in this case was a 15-year-old girl at the time of the events in question. By going to trial, Parlier caused far more details embarrassing to his family to become public than would have if he had taken the plea that prosecutors offered, so we don’t think he was motivated to write to us to protect his family, and he appeared to admit just before his sentencing that he lied under oath during his trial, so we can’t really put a lot of stock in the assertions of the letter he sent to us anyway. But we didn’t cover his case to spite him. We just covered it, the same as we did for dozens of cases last year and will for dozens more this year.

If you happen to be arrested and you wish to minimize further damage to your reputation, the two best things for that are a good lawyer and sincere prayer, but there are limits to what even those can accomplish.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »