Follow the audience into the 21st Century

Doug Millison mashes up a 1979 B&W graphic by Josh Gosfield

In this final essay in a series let me explain why I accuse mass media of dereliction of duty for helping mislead the nation into war, for uncritically swallowing the sensational and for too often ignoring complex problems until they erupt into crisis.

Idealistically I am just a very sad American who feels that our nation has strayed from Lincoln’s mission to be “the last best hope of Earth” and that much of responsibility for this lies with the failure of the working press, of which I am part — although I am now on vacation and speak only for myself.

But I am a pragmatist who does not put much stock in hand-wringing. And while Mario Savio’s impassioned remarks (see graphic above or watch video ) resonate with me, I would not take his suggestion literally because only two types of persons throw anything, especially themselves, into machinery — saboteurs and candidates for the meat grinder. I am neither.

Nor have I merely been critical, for more authoritative critiques abound, including “Breaking the News,” “Rich Media, Poor Democracy,” “The Vanishing Newspaper,” “Fighting for Air,” and “The New Media Monopoly“.

Instead, to speak up without getting ground up, I tried on Tuesday and Wednesday to suggest how the corrosive effects of corporate ownership on journalism could be decoupled from the reality corporate ownership will persist. For insofar as Corporate Media are like the dinosaurs, it would take a meteor strike to extinguish them and I don’t think the ensuing fallout would suit anyone’s interests.

So I have suggested how to improve the credibility of mass media by giving rank-and-file media workers blogs, hosted on company websites, so as to drill thousands of connections down into communities, and from these to pull up ideas and stories that would make better journalism and better business than the all-too-common practice of rewriting the empty press releases issued by the officialdom.

But I’ve spent the last three days saying that and this throat-clearing only serves to betray my apprehension at today’s task — showing, not merely telling, how today’s mass media newsroom breeds the moral cowardice that ails professional journalism. For only when we recognize the sickness can we seek the cure.

So let me recall when I first joined the San Francisco Examiner in the summer of 1992, a 38-year-old white male who’d done a lot in and around media but had never worked in a daily newsroom. That job was my dream come true and I did some silly stuff at first. Early on I remember calling Carl Sagan on some science story and asking more than once something like, “How many stars there are?” until he caught on and uttered his signature line, “billions and billions.” I trust that Carl, wherever he may be, has either forgotten or forgiven this, but I mention this because I remain in many ways a kid who hasn’t lost the thrill of meeting great people and witnessing historic, and so I occasionally still do things that are silly.

Another seminal moment in my early Examiner days was when former colleague Dennis Opatrny called me over and said something like, “I wanna show you what kind of paper you work for.” With that he keyboarded me into “the staff basket” — an internal bulletin board for everything from yard sales to lengthy screeds aimed at headlines, stories and sometimes each other.

That staff basket has long since disappeared in the various technological and corporate metamorphoses that continue to reshape the San Francisco daily newspaper scene. But back then it used to let off hot air like a whistling tea kettle. I grew up in a Greek and Italian family where argument was almost a form of affection and I remember feeling like I had found my long-lost, extended family of truth-seekers. And if my staff basket inputs were a little too Brooklyn at times, I got cut some slack because we were short-staffed underdogs and I worked hard enough to earn the right to pound the table at times.

But let me tell you how even in those halcyon days I bumped up against the limits on free-wheeling debate and here I must name a few names because the first rule we learn in J-school is to attribute who said what to whom. This lets the audience assess motivations and allows parties to challenge misstatements. I think the working press too frequently sets this rule aside on issues of war or peace or even silliness.

Being pragmatist I also think it’s good business to name names because it is people who subscribe to newspapers, tune in to broadcasts or click on web sites. And they like to see and hear themselves. Two Stanford business school professors wrote a great article in which they asked Hoover Adams, founding publisher of the Dunn, North Carolina, Daily Record how his paper had achieved a market penetration above 100 percent. This is what the publisher told the eggheads:

It’s because of three things: Names, names, and names . . . . A local newspaper can never get enough local names. I’d happily hire two more typesetters and add two more pages in every edition if we had the names to fill them up.”

Of course I’m not a real publisher. I’m just a blogger trying to dial into American newsroom and the guy who has nailed that channel is Romanesko and he always names names. So let me take a page from his book and tell you about two interactions with former Examiner managing editor Sharon Rosenhause that suggests why we must change a system that puts super-human expectations on mere mortals.

Today Sharon is managing editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a leader of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and an advocate of newsroom affirmative action – the importance of which will become apparent when I discuss the second of two meetings I will use to illustrate my point.

But first things first. My initial closed-door meeting with Sharon occurred when she called me into her office for a gentle remonstrance over a screw up on my part. It involved a daily I must have written for the Ex sometime before Gray Davis ended his term as California state controller in 1995. I couldn’t find the e-clip because the online archives of Examiner stories starts in ’95.

But I recall the circumstances clearly and it was my bad — throughout the story I called this elected official by his first name, “Gray,” rather than the last-name convention, “Davis.” I recall Sharon sitting behind her desk, shaking her head and asking me how “such a talented writer” could have made such a goof. I think she said something about how it got through copy desk but I was preoccupied with feeling dumb.

Our second closed-door chat was different. I knocked on her door sometime in summer or fall of 1996 to complain about what I deemed to be the Examiner’s heavy-handed tilt against Proposition 209 a hot issue on the November 1996 election.

Prop 209 ended up passing and amended the California constitution to invalidate or complicate state and local government affirmative action programs. I visited Sharon to object to the tone and headlines of stories such as “Left forges new alliance aimed at fighting the right,” by Carol Ness; “Thousands Rally in San Francisco to ‘Fight the Right’ ” by Susan Ferriss; and “New Civil Rights Warriors” by Katherine Seligman and Kathleen Sullivan.

What I recall quite vividly is how Sharon used a single phrase, like a verbal Aikido move, to flip me on my back so to speak. “What is your problem with affirmative action?” she asked. I had come in to talk about balance on the news pages and suddenly I was defending myself against her correct observation that, as a guy raised in sleeveless t-shirts who still “tawks like dis” on occasion, I did have a problem with affirmative action, so maybe the perception of bias was in the eye of the beholder.

I do not mean to rehash the affirmative action debate nor suggest that the editors of the now-defunct Hearst-owned Examiner were wrong to reflect the liberal bent of the San Francisco Bay Area. I truthfully don’t know what is the correct course for mass media journalism, to cling to impossible concepts of objectivity or get edgier and closer to local constituencies.

But my point is that we don’t have any empirical system to understand our audiences and so we fall back on the time-honored method of going to the mat to solve such difference. That may have even worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when there there were enough media outlets and thus enough head-butting contests so that the Fourth Estate somehow got the job done.

Now there are fewer outlets and fewer people. Yet our news judgment system still relies on thousands of journalists at different organizational levels having discussions on all sorts of issues day after day after day in a vacuum of empirical means for figuring out what ought to get covered. The proper operation of this system presupposes an inexhaustible willingness for some participants to get back-flipped day after day after day. Either that or they learn to go along to get along because after a while hitting the ground gets old.

Here I speak from experience because about a year after this encounter with Sharon I started taking Aikido lessons under a terrific sensei and learned how to side-step trouble. But I started at age 44 and after four years of taking falls my body began to cringe at the thought of another pounding. So I quit.

But we don’t have to keep doing journalism they way they do Aikido. We can find a gentler way to arrive at a meeting of the minds by coupling interactive technologies with cultural changes in the newsroom. Let’s push the power to publish down into the ranks and offer thousands of journalists outlets for their interests, curiosities, even frustrations.

Liberating these suppressed voices is a business opportunity because interactive media is not like mass media. Interactive media is about making connections. People to people. People to information. People to products. Whatever. The old media business model based on distribution is dead. Stick a fork in it. Web-heads like David Weinberger have been trying to tell us for a very long time the Internet is a two-way street. But we still have this mindset of the one-way trip to the driveway. And cannot get to these new land of connections with Soviet-style central planning. We must allow newsrooms to follow their audiences into the 21st Century.

In many years of covering Silicon Valley I’ve noticed how those guys promulgate “laws” to lend authority to their educated guesses. I’d call this a cheap trick but make lots of money doing this so let me tell you about Metcalfe’s law which says the more people who use a network the more valuable it becomes. More connections means greater value plus better journalism. It’s a win-win.

I can’t believe I said that! It’s obviously time for me to stop and thank you for your attention. This project has consumed most of my two-week vacation and I’m already late for an alumni schmooze fest at Columbia J-school. Oh, well, I’ll be late for work on Monday, too, because I’ll be spending a leisurely Sunday with my table-pounding family and taking the first flight back to San Francisco on Monday morning.

But at least I will arrive, as they say, tanned, rested and ready.

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This concludes the fourth in a series of essays laying out the journalistic and business reasons for reforming mass media newsrooms. How? By letting all staffers cultivate part-time blogs and training editors to skim these blogs for briefs and story ideas. The series argues the need to flatten the newsroom hierarchy and empower the staff to become mini-publishers and demonstrates a  new business model in harvesting high-value clicks from specialty blogs and making connections. Finally, why the current newsroom hierarchy breeds moral cowardice and mediocrity and how a business model inspired by Silicon Valley can reverse both the financial and ethical slide of mass media.)

1.  Take me to your leader

2. The Pyramid and the Cloud

3. Newspapers don’t FARK yourselves to death

4. Follow the audience into the 21st Century

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