Columbia Journalism Review

How a new Washington stifles a new political press

[Commentary] Friction between reporters and government is inherent in journalism. Yet it has reached a fever pitch in Washington, many journalists and experts say -- former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson in 2014 called the Obama Administration “the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering.”

Nearly three of four journalists who cover the federal government believe public information officers are tightening press controls. More than three quarters of local, state, and national political reporters, meanwhile, said the public is not getting the full truth because of it.

How public media collaborations are creating opportunities for local reporting

There are seven Local Journalism Centers scattered throughout the United States. Supported at launch by two-year grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the LJCs are designed to foster regional journalistic collaborations, and to allow local reporters to become authorities on subjects of national importance.

They’re also opportunities for local public stations to figure out how to build something sustainable -- both in content and in finances. After five years of trial and error and almost $16 million of investment from CPB, the projects are beginning to stand on their own. According to the executive director of one such LJC, Inside Energy, Alisa Barba, the goal is to ready the work of local stations for national -- and even international -- exposure.

Brick by brick

[Commentary] That Amazon’s Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post has the potential to be one of the more significant events in the history of modern American journalism.

The Post went from being a newspaper in retreat to being the only legacy media company in America that can consider itself a technology property. The Post is once again hungry to be a dominant force in American journalism, and the newsroom senses that the Graham era has been sealed off behind them.

The journalism isn’t what Bezos plans to revamp, or necessarily invest significant new funds in -- the new hires notwithstanding -- at least initially. His main focus is the pipeline: reaching the maximum number of customers by putting the Post’s journalism in a package (a tablet, a mobile site) that will draw the greatest number of readers.

As it has been with Amazon, his obsession at the Post is finding a way to integrate a product into millions of people’s lives in a way they haven’t yet experienced.

Local cops can track your phone, and the government doesn’t want you to know how

[Commentary] Police departments around the country increasingly are using sophisticated technology to surveil American citizens by monitoring cellphone data, in many cases carefully hiding those activities from the public and the press.

The American Civil Liberties Union, along with The Associated Press and USA Today, have all done important work recently to shine a light in the surveillance shadows. Local news outlets, including some here in Florida, have also done valuable reporting on the use of the technology, which offers investigative benefits but also raises constitutional concerns. It’s vital that a close look at these surveillance practices continues.

Local journalists in particular have an opportunity to serve their readers by building on the work that’s been done -- work that has raised serious questions about an area of high public interest, and already has had demonstrated impact.

But it’s vital, too, to understand the government secrecy that has surrounded these techniques --and how the relationships between local police and state and federal agencies, which sometimes supply the equipment, challenge public records laws. It’s going to take a multipronged media attack to get around that secrecy and learn more about what law enforcement agencies at all levels are doing.

Online publishers still aren’t usually liable for user-generated content

A federal appeals court judge has decided that a gossip site is not liable for content it invites users to submit, even if some of that content is illegal in some way, making it the latest decision that immunizes websites, including news sites, against liability for user-generated content.

The US Supreme Court has never addressed the issue, so there is no national standard for whether online sites and companies are liable for user submissions, though nominally protected under Section 230 of the federal communications decency act.

The court’s decision, which reversed a $338,000 judgment against, leaves in place, for now, immunity that websites enjoy when it comes to publishing third-party content -- like online comments on news sites -- as long as the website does not add any unlawful material to that content. (The same protection does not extend to letters to the editor in print publications, paper’s version of user-generated content.) Plaintiffs can sue the author of the comments, but not the operator of the website where the comments are posted unless the website materially changes a user’s content from lawful to unlawful.

Journo-startups that appeal right to readers

If you spend any amount of time around freelance writers, you’re familiar with the litany of complaints. Most publications don’t pay well. Publications that do pay well expect freelancers to do so much reporting up-front, before they’ve accepted a piece, that it makes pitching a financially risky prospect. Enter the freelancer-founded collective journalism startup.

Deca, a new nonfiction platform created by an international collective of magazine writers, is based on the premise that freelance writers know what readers want and what makes a great story, at least better than staff editors do.

Deca, which will publish stories that are “shorter than a book but longer than an article,” joins longform-oriented startups like Atavist and Byliner in selling original content as individual Kindle Singles. Each Deca member agrees to write one story per year and to edit another. This commitment to editing each other is another way of circumventing more traditional magazine structures, in which editors edit and writers write, with few opportunities for switch-hitting.

Within Deca, each story idea must be approved by two-thirds of the collective, and before publication each piece must be green-lit by three-fourths of the collective. For each $2.99 Kindle Single they sell, Amazon keeps 30 percent and 70 percent goes to Deca. Of that 70 percent, 70 percent goes to author, 5 percent goes to the editor, and 25 percent goes back to the Deca general fund. That means writers can expect $1.46 -- roughly half of the sale price -- for each Kindle Single sold. And everything that’s in the collective kitty gets distributed equally among members at the end of 2014 -- meaning even its lowest sellers reap a bit more of the benefits.

News organizations are the new journalism schools

Politico and Condé Nast are entering the J-school business. Politico recently announced the creation of a 10-day Journalism Institute for college students, while Condé Nast is in talks to set up academic programs involving its magazines, including Wired and Gourmet.

As journalism schools increasingly try to connect classrooms with newsrooms to ensure students will have the right skills in a fast-changing job market, news organizations are doing the same from the opposite end.

With journalism foundations calling for “the reform of journalism and mass communication education,” and academics questioning if journalism schools are teaching students the right skills, it’s hardly surprising that news outlets are more interested in training rookies. After all, many working reporters are also adjunct journalism school professors -- setting up an academic program is just one step further.

But 10 days’ training will probably give students only the most basic introduction to political reporting, and it’s difficult to say how effective Condé Nast’s program will be without knowing which universities and schools will be involved.

Pressure, potential for a federal shield law

Though the Supreme Court has refused New York Times journalist James Risen’s appeal that he should not be made to testify in a government leak prosecution, efforts to pass a federal media shield law are gathering steam.

On June 11, more than 70 media organizations sent a letter to Senate leadership demanding a vote on a law that’s been sitting around since it passed the Judiciary Committee since last September. And in late May, the House approved an amendment proposed by Rep Alan Grayson of Florida that forbids the Justice Department from spending money to force a journalist to testify about a source.

“I think we’re really close, and the Risen situation really highlights the need for the law,” said David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, one of the signatories on the letter to the Senate. “There might be some senators who are still undecided and still on the fence, but I hope that they’ll now realize this is long overdue.”

One in five journalists has had a credential request denied

A Harvard study “Who Gets a Press Pass? Media Credentialing Practices in the United States,” released by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy is the first of its kind to perform a quantitative analysis of credentialing in the US, the study captures the experience of journalists nationwide in their efforts, from 2008 to 2013, to obtain credentials from various organizations.

It also highlights the need to reform credentialing systems so they reflect the reality of the current news ecosystem -- and protect the ability of all journalists to bring news to the public. The overarching goal, according to the study, was to identify patterns in credentialing practices that would lead to “better structure and predictability in the credentialing process,” recognizing that the US journalism industry is “more diverse than ever before, with a wide array of independent newsgatherers complementing the work of institutional news organizations.”

The survey asked the respondents about their efforts to obtain credentials from 17 types of federal, state, local, and private organizations, including state legislatures, municipal governments, and county law enforcement agencies. Out of the 676 respondents who said they had applied for a credential from one or more organizations, a full 21 percent -- one out of every five -- said they were denied at least once.

As the study concludes, the results suggest that credentialing organizations give preference to formal employment relationships over other types of arrangements. The last 10 years have seen major swings in media-consumption patterns, and innovations in technology have created new means for people to commit acts of journalism -- all complicating efforts to define a journalist for credentialing, shield law, Freedom of Information fee waiver, and other purposes.

Management isn’t journalism’s strong suit

[Commentary] Newsrooms have long hired and promoted based on journalistic chops, and often that alone. The problem, of course, is what makes for a great reporter doesn’t necessarily make for a great boss. Bad bosses are a fact of life in all businesses, of course, but journalism seems to be particularly poor at developing and training managers, and there are reasons for that.

For one thing, as a percentage of payroll, non-news corporations spend nearly five times as much on training as do newspapers, according to 2008 graduate research by Teresa Schmedding, who’s now president of the American Copy Editor’s Society.

Another problem: personal traits that tend to foster reportorial excellence --independence, skepticism, aggressiveness, etc. -- can be, shall we say, counterproductive in a boss. While being abrasive may have worked in the Abe Rosenthal era, newsroom culture has changed in recent decades. The imperial boss largely has been replaced by the consensus builder, or so the literature tells us, and workers expect to be treated more civilly.

All of which leads to a suspicion that a big reason that journalists might tend to make for bad managers is that the job is just really, really hard. Nieman Reports reported that a non-journalist management expert hired to assist assigning editors said that “in 30 years of research he had never encountered a job with such intense problem-solving demands,” adding: “The assigning editors were not surprised to hear this.”

Then there’s the fact that journalists can be, well, difficult: “Managing journalists is particularly challenging, because if they’re any good, they question authority and challenge spin,” Jill Geisler, who, as head of the Poynter Institute’s Leadership and Management, says. “We want to hire those who will question authority -- except ours.”