Columbia Journalism Review

Vox.com is going to be a great test of Ezra Klein’s critique of journalism

[Commentary] Vox.com, the much-discussed new project from Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and Matt Yglesias. With the obvious disclaimer -- cautioned by the Vox crew -- that it’s way too early to draw any real conclusions, I agree with what seems to be the prevailing view online: It’s off to a pretty good start.

But if it’s still early to draw conclusions about the execution, one thing about Vox seems already clear: It’s going to be, basically, what you’d expect if you’ve been following Klein’s critique of the industry -- which is that journalism turns off news consumers by focusing too much on what’s new, and so makes it hard to understand why it matters, or what the big picture is.

Can The Washington Post’s national push help support local news?

When The Washington Post announced in mid-March that it would provide free digital access to subscribers of a half-dozen local papers around the country, the consensus take was clear: After years of hesitation, the Post, under Jeff Bezos, was finally looking to “go national” in a big way.

Under the arrangement, subscribers of six papers -- The Dallas Morning News, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, and The Blade of Toledo (OH) -- will get digital-subscriber access to the Post’s website and apps once the pilot program launches in May. The local papers get an extra benefit to offer subscribers; the Post gets greater national reach, a local marketing boost, and a chance to build relationships with people who are already devoted news readers. No money changes hands. The offer is “intended for print subscribers [of local papers] only -- not for digital,” Steve Hills, the Post’s president and general manager, said.

For the Post, the new program is “a bigger bet” on the paper’s ability to attract a larger, engaged national audience while it also remains focused on its local market, said Hills. And while the arrangement will presumably make it a bit harder for the paper to sell web subscriptions in, say, Dallas or Minneapolis, he said the program can co-exist with the Post’s efforts to build its own digital subscriber base. “We think it’s a great fit for the industry, because so many papers have decided the key differentiation they have is local,” he added. From the Post’s perspective, a side benefit of the deal is that it adds another incentive to subscribe to local papers, he added.

Planned NSA reforms still leave journalists reason to worry

[Commentary] The Obama Administration set forth a proposal to reform one part of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program: the indiscriminate collection of American phone records.

Under the President’s proposal, the government would no longer collect call data in bulk but would be allowed to ask for it from phone companies with court approval, and only for numbers linked to terrorism.

But the White House proposal leaves plenty of room for reporters’ information to be caught up in the NSA’s -- albeit smaller -- dragnet: The government would still be allowed to collect data for numbers “two hops,” or degrees of separation, from the targeted number, down from three. And once the government has that data, there are few restrictions on what they can do with it. In other words, the proposed reforms don’t appear to do anything to address journalists’ concerns about this administration’s crackdown on national security leaks.

“Journalists are at risk if they communicate by phone with potential NSA targets -- or even if they simply talk with others who happen to speak with those targets,” said Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.

Native ads: Advertorial for the digital age

[Commentary] The native-ad wars have flared up again, this time over Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, the longtime standard bearer for serious, digital-first, for-profit news.

TPM has signed up Phrma, the drug-industry lobby, to sponsor its Idealab Impact section, a deal that includes running Phrma-written pieces as native ads.

There’s nothing inherently worse about an advertiser using a thousand words in story form to spread its message than there is with an ad that uses 30 words, an idealized photo, and a catchline to do the same. So if we accept that advertising itself is a necessary evil, the only question for native ads is whether they’re clearly presented as advertisements and not editorial.

Meet the local paper that’s ‘raising hell’ to keep government open

The Jacksonville-based Florida Times Union is a rare outlier these days, a mid-sized regional paper willing to fight big open-government battles even as most media organizations cut back on the resources they devote to forcing officials to do their work in public.

The paper has been aggressively enforcing the state’s expansive Sunshine Law, going to court in three recent cases to compel officials to open meetings and court proceedings and release records. At times, the paper has mounted these battles to get key information for a major article. In other cases, they took on a fight even when editors and reporters expected no story would result. They did it on principle.

“We’re teaching government officials they can’t throw the public out of public meetings and they can’t withhold public records,” said Frank Denton, the Times-Union’s editor. “If there is a perception out there that the media is weak because of what has happened in the newspaper industry, we’re letting them know that we’re still here, we’re still strong, and we’re still raising hell.”

This is a battle Denton’s been fighting for 40 years. In the column, he recalled how he had sworn out a criminal complaint against the entire board of trustees of a local public hospital for violating the open meetings law back when he was a cub reporter at The Anniston Star in Alabama.

Diversity -- or lack thereof -- in journalism startups, cont.

[Commentary] Someone is wrong on the Internet, and I wonder if it might be me. I recently wrote a piece for the Guardian about what I saw as a disappointing trend: high-profile journalism startups reflecting the structures of old media. Namely, they’re led by white men.

Many women cheered both publicly and privately, saying, “Everybody wants to say it, nobody quite dares.” Others did not, saying that I was both overlooking and diminishing the roles of women in new journalism startups by writing them out of the script. The most thought provoking responses came from Melissa Bell, who elegantly pointed out that if my coverage overlooked her, then it added to the problem of visibility in the media. This is true. Had I been unfair in my assessment?

However, the numbers for all startups, where journalism is not broken out, are indisputable. Venture capital money mostly goes from men to other men. Estimates of what proportion of funding, exactly, goes to women-owned startups vary but never get above 15 percent, and are often as low as 7 percent.

The grander point that I tried to make, and will continue to hammer away at, is that journalism is important. It shapes information and the way people engage with vital issues. But doing it differently is not just words on page, or line graphs, listicles, and math. Doing it differently means considering the workforce, the outward face of the organization, and measuring it carefully. One of the most common refrains I heard was, “Are we still having this debate?” Yes, I’m afraid so.