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Archive for the ‘Print media’ Category

Thank your teachers

This is adapted from a column that ran in the Lenoir News-Topic.

My mother was a newspaper reporter, but she’s not the person who was the biggest catalyst in my decision to become a writer.

For a large chunk of my childhood, I intended to become an artist.

When I entered high school, art was still the only thing I had considered pursuing. My mother encouraged me and, trying to help me find a way to make a living at it, even took me to see what commercial artists do.

I drew all the time — when I wasn’t reading comic books or science fiction novels. (I was a nerd. Shocking, I know.)

During my freshman year of high school, I read a novel by a retired general speculating how World War III would start and be conducted, and I wrote a book review on it and left it with the English teacher who was the faculty adviser for the school paper.

The next time I entered her room, she made a bee line for me. I have a clear memory of her locking eyes with me and crossing straight to me, complimenting my writing and encouraging me to submit more writing for the paper. I did. I started with more book reviews, and over time mostly I wrote humor columns, but I did some feature stories, and eventually I signed up to be the school’s teen correspondent for a monthly citywide special section of high school news that the local newspaper published.

By my senior year, I was the editor of the school paper, and my focus had shifted entirely to studying journalism in college and becoming a reporter.

Believe it or not, my mother wasn’t necessarily happy with this change. She told me, “You will never have any money,” because reporters were not paid well. (Some things never change.) But I couldn’t be dissuaded.

I might have become a writer without that teacher’s encouragement, but she certainly nursed the writer that I didn’t yet know was inside of me.

That teacher’s name was Kathy Kochevar. We called her Miss K.

Writing about it now, I wish someone had prompted me at some point over the years to let her know all of this.

There are many other teachers who stand out in my memories.

There’s Mr. Curran, the geometry teacher, whose lessons were punctuated with a superhero he invented: Bisectorman, the Winged Avenger of Angles.

There’s Mrs. Burgess, who taught Spanish II and III and provided great leeway for my sense of humor in my homework. For instance, for an assignment requiring us to submit a list of sentences that demonstrated the proper conjugation of a variety of verbs, I submitted sentences saying such things as, “The river of hamburgers is yellow,” and, “Put it in my eye!” For another assignment requiring two-person teams to write an entire narrative and read it to the class, a friend and I wrote a “Dick and Jane” story in which Spot eventually went on a rampage, killed Dick and Jane, became radioactive, grew to enormous size and destroyed a city. (We got an A and were asked to recite our story for the advanced class.)

Many students feel deeply affected by particular teachers, and in my newspaper in Lenoir I asked for students, parents, graduates, volunteers or anyone else to write in about great teachers and what they have done.

I also will try to get this column to Miss (probably now Mrs.) K.

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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.”

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Journalists think journalism is the main point of “The Post.” It seemed kind of secondary to me when I saw the movie earlier this week.

The movie is about events surrounding the publication of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, a secret, Pentagon-compiled history of the conflict in Vietnam – which predated the U.S. troop presence there, with U.S. involvement stemming from decisions made during the Truman administration. That history catalogued decades of lies that the U.S. government told the public about what it was doing in Vietnam and how successful those efforts were.

The New York Times obtained that history and found itself in the legal crosshairs of the Nixon administration after it began publishing stories detailing the lies.

The movie, though, is about what key figures at the Washington Post did after that.

Some, including journalists at the Times, complain that the movie should have focused on the Times and how it got the papers. But the movie doesn’t focus on the journalism surrounding the Pentagon Papers. There would be good drama to be found there, but that’s not what this story is.

The primary story “The Post” tells is that of Katharine Graham, her struggle to grow into the role of publisher and the decisions she had to make that could have destroyed her and, perhaps most significantly in her mind, her children’s inheritance.

The movie takes some license with the reality of Graham, portraying her as a much more fragile person than she was, and also with the reality of how extensive the pushback was against publishing the story, so the situation portrayed is largely accurate, but the drama is ramped up markedly — as often happens with movies.

If this is a movie primarily about journalism, then why is there so little actual journalism portrayed? The initial act that led to the Pentagon Papers coming into the Times’ possession is portrayed as that of a whistleblower, with no involvement of any journalist — the movie viewer doesn’t even know, at that point, where the documents land. Later, the Post reporter Ben Bagdikian is shown tracking down the whistleblower, but there is less of him in the movie than Graham as either the lone woman in a room full of male bankers and lawyers or the lone businesswoman in a room full of housewives or secretaries.

Time after time, there are scenes contrasting Graham’s roles – the socialite, publisher’s wife role into which she was raised, and the business owner/publisher role into which she was thrust. The scenes illustrate the man’s world of 1971, where a woman making important decisions was treated by men like, to borrow a phrase of Graham’s from one scene, the sight of a dog walking upright.

And other than the scene of the socialite housewives, in all the other scenes the woman all are young. They are the next generation. They are the ones following, looking to the example of Graham’s generation of women.

To be sure, this is a movie partly about journalism as a necessary means of holding government accountable – thus director Steven Spielberg’s emphasis on a key part of the Supreme Court decision: “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

But if this is not a movie primarily about Graham, why so much emphasis on scenes where Graham is an object of obvious veneration by young women? This happens in crowds of women twice, and both times the young women part for her like the Red Sea for Moses, all of the young women gazing upon her in open admiration, and it happens once with a young woman working for the U.S. attorney general. The movie hammers the point, as Spielberg movies tend to do with their points, that Graham was a trailblazer for women.

And as if to further drive home the point for all of the men who still think it’s a story about journalism, Spielberg has editor Ben Bradlee’s wife explain to Bradlee why Graham had the most to lose and showed the greatest bravery. Bradlee does not argue with her.

So, for the question, why does the movie focus on the Post rather than the Times? Precisely because Graham found herself in a crucible like no one else did (or at least, since in reality it all happened so quickly that she didn’t have time to agonize over the decision, Graham’s situation posed for the movie makers an irresistible potential for a crucible). That her crucible was a key moment in journalistic history would be beside the point if there were not powerful people who today believe the government should control what the media can publish.

This is a movie about women, and more than anything else this is a movie made for this new “Year of the Woman.”

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NOTE: One thing I’ve not read about “The Post,” anywhere: If the Post had only 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, as stated in the movie, there’s no way it would fill two giant boxes, not unless paper in 1971 was many times thicker than it is now. Pick up a ream (500 pages) of paper. You are talking 8 of those. That’s less than one box.

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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.

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I regret to inform all my friends in news, and family so inclined, that whatever soul I had left is gone. Starting Jan. 1 I will be the publisher of the Lenoir News-Topic.

At a company announcement, an editor friend said, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

I said, “I’m kind of corporate now.”

“You sold out!”

“It’s not the first time.”

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Sitting under a tiki-decorated patio umbrella in the early evening heat Wednesday at downtown Lenoir’s Hogwaller Stage, my wife and I chatted with a 50-something Caldwell County native as we waited for the sun to drop behind the county office building and a band to begin playing.

This is the third summer that you can find outdoor music with your dinner and drinks one or more evenings a week at Hogwaller, which is on Church Street directly behind 1841 Café, but our friend said he wasn’t even aware there was a stage there until just a couple of weeks ago.

He had a friend he had asked to meet him there. While we were talking to him, she texted him a question: Where is Hogwaller?

She had never heard of it either, though the name “hogwaller” in relation to that spot downtown long predates either of them.

In fact, this man — born and raised here, never lived anywhere else, and active in the community — had never even heard of 1841 until that first trip. He didn’t know that right across Main Street from it was another restaurant, the Side Street Pour House, with 40 beer taps and full bar.

We didn’t talk about it, but I would wager that if he didn’t know about all that, he didn’t know that a couple of blocks west is Loe’s Brewing, serving craft beer with gourmet burgers, pasta and sometimes a few other things, or just a little farther west Joan’s Sourdough Bread (fresh bread plus lunch), or Essie and Olive (known for popsicles but also serving lunch), or the Corner Creamery (ice cream!), or J&A General Store, or the soon-to-open Fercott Fermentables (home brewing supplies, beer and wine). I could go on.

I’ll assume he knows of the downtown antique stores, as well as Piccolo’s Pizza, which has been downtown since he was a young man.

This is something I keep encountering.

A few years ago a woman who grew up in Happy Valley and lived here all her life said she had no idea what was in downtown Lenoir or even what the streets were — she had never been.

When Lenoir had its first-ever beer garden at a street festival a couple of years ago, a woman who lives in Lenoir was irritated to find out about it only after the fact.

Last year a man who moved to Gamewell a number of years ago from another state said he didn’t even know how to get to downtown Lenoir — even though he had been to the U.S. Post Office there many times. He just went straight to the Post Office and then straight back out again. After I told him to just go another block or so farther west than he had before, suddenly he discovered Piccolo’s, his new favorite pizza place.

“Love the layout,” he wrote to me, “feel like I’m on a set for the TV show American Pickers!”

Similarly, the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission’s program “Hired Education,” in which a set of 30 local teachers get a three-day immersion in the local economy, consistently prompts expressions of surprise among its participants: They toured companies they never heard of before, or saw machines they never dreamed existed in buildings they pass every day, and involving jobs they had no idea anyone in Caldwell County held.

A man walked into the lobby of the News-Topic a couple of weeks ago and asked if there’s a shoe-repair place in town. Yes, about three blocks from our office.

Need I point out that all of these places and businesses have been in the newspaper within the past few years?

No one is more acutely aware of how much smaller newspaper staffs are than they used to be, and how much less they are able to cover than they once could, than a newspaper editor is. But there still is a lot of local knowledge missed by people who don’t regularly read the paper, whether on paper or on our website. It doesn’t cross their personal experience or their Facebook feed. It’s information that won’t seek you out. You have to look for it, without knowing for sure what you’re looking for. That’s one thing the newspaper is still good for, and it’s not a small thing.

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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.

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