Why journalism keeps breaking my heart

The news this week that a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist had left the industry for a job that could better pay the bills certainly caught my attention, although the path Rob Kuznia made from The Daily Breeze in southern California to the public relations field is a very familiar one.

So I didn’t think much more about it; this has happened so many times and will continue, to many people I know. Even by going into non-profit PR for a Holocaust-related organization in higher education Kuznia boosted his income by 25 percent over his newspaper salary.

What brought me to gut-wrenching tears by the end of the week was all the piling on in many of the same news media corners that have been shedding staff for years. That, too, shows no signs of letting down, although there aren’t many more people to cut.

This in The Washington Post illustrates the journalism-to-PR ratio that has become alarming, and the concentration of journalists in New York, D.C. and Los Angeles.

While those are sobering numbers, Felix Salmon of Fusion was just maddening, as he likes to be, in declaring there likely will be no such thing as a digital journalism career. His usual dismissiveness really angered me when he cranked out this paragraph, clearly designed for his site’s millennial audience:

When you see a company like Vox Media investing millions of dollars in Vox.com, the youth of the founders is a feature, not a bug. When you see companies like Gawker Media or BuzzFeed building newsrooms of young people, that’s partly because young people are cheaper and hungrier, but it’s also because they’re better at doing these very new things than their more experienced colleagues might be.

Permission to commit age discrimination is how I interpreted the end of that remark, which is categorically untrue. Salmon later touts “old fashioned specific expertise” as being necessary for success in journalism in the future.

You know, what those cranky old farts being tossed out into the street were pretty good at, but that is increasingly being devalued in the digital age. The kind of expertise that millennials are not being taught, at least not as stringently as my generation was.

It’s not their fault; it’s the environment they’re in, in which mentoring and cultivating things like sources, news judgment and craft are seen as luxuries, not essentials of the profession.

Kuznia, 38, appears to be an exception, but he’s had to leave what he loved behind, as so many of us have, either by force of layoffs or by the reality of a grim future if they stayed.

On Friday, I almost lost it at work when I read this post from former Greensboro News & Record editor John Robinson about 2007 layoffs he had to impose. After the ugly business had been done, there was this:

I wept when I got home. Wept from guilt, from regret, from stress. Wept because I knew this was the beginning of the end for me and the paper.

In the ensuing days, it was clear that a bond between the company and the employee was broken. The deal had been this:

They would work hard, do good work, miss family dinners, have coworkers critique their work, hear from readers that they were stupid and biased and worse.

We would give them a place to do what they loved, a paycheck and job security. We could no longer provide the security.

After that day, that covenant wasn’t ever fully restored.

The following year, I took a buyout from my former newspaper, and last year, I was laid off from a job editing a community news site. Two dislocations in less than seven years have taken a toll, but I still can’t imagine doing any other kind of work.

In addition to occasional sports freelancing, I’m also contract web producer at a public radio station, work that I enjoy and that keeps me in the business.

It’s a business that grows ever more fragile, and I may have to face the same crossroads as Kuznia. It’s the kind of decision I’ve desperately tried to avoid having to make. But at 54, I realize I’ve beaten the odds a lot longer than some of my peers.

What’s been more agonizing than the loss of jobs — which has been bad enough —  has been to watch a decent way of life virtually disappear before your eyes.

Covering school boards, zoning cases, high school football games, chamber of commerce luncheons and community theatre wasn’t work that was ever going to make anyone but publishers and high-ranking editors rich.

But the work was never boring, and most days being a journalist never felt like having a job. It was so much more than that, despite the low pay, long hours and ultimately for those of my age, rotten prospects to retire in relative comfort and security.

I remain bullish on the creative possibilities of digital journalism, but the financial component remains elusive. Journalists of my generation probably cannot afford to hold out for a new “golden age” to realize itself.

But while I don’t want to have to step away from something that’s been in my blood since I was a high school freshman, I have to admit I have been thinking long and hard lately about making a clean break. And not for the first time.

This week’s events rekindled that reality with a sledgehammer.

Nous ne sommes pas Charlie Hebdo

The media solidarity for the victims of Wednesday’s massacre at the offices of the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is at the very least fraught with some obliviousness.

The cartoons mocking Muslims and the prophet Mohammed prompted two French-born Muslims to commit the bloodbath that killed 10 staffers, a police officer and a bodyguard. These caricatures were meant to be exceedingly offensive, and the publication’s leadership vowed to carry on after the offices were firebombed in 2011.


Much of what I’ve seen of Charlie Hebdo cartoons are in what I consider poor taste. In quite a few covers, the icons of multiple religions, including Christianity, are depicted as taking it in the behind, or shown in degrading post-coital positions.

This is not the satire of The Onion or the snark of Gawker, with their aura of cynical detachment and hip disillusion. Nor is this the satire of Jon Stewart, the poster boy of American liberals who think of themselves as sophisticates of the pop culture send-up.

The willfully pugnacious Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of searing French satire unfamiliar on these shores, “best seen as an anarchic publication, willing to tackle anything taboo.”

We in the West tout our love of a free press. But more mainstream outlets, in Europe and North America, refused to print the offensive cartoons to illustrate why some Muslim terrorists acted with rage. Some journalists even defended these actions with greater cowardice than not showing the cartoons. Others complained that Charlie Hebdo peddled racist ideas, and that there’s no defense for that.

In The New York Times, David Brooks argues that a student publication that dared to print Charlie Hebdo-style fare wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds” at any American university, where speech codes are enforced with an iron fist.

Think about that for a minute: Two of the most liberal institutions in America, designed to promote free inquiry and expression, are among the most censorious entities we have. The gunmen who assassinated journalists in the broad daylight, in one of the most cultured, open cities of the world, thought Charlie Hebdo was full of hate speech, then undertook a brutal rite of censorship they made sure would never be forgotten.

No, we are not Charlie Hebdo, and the real effect of this terrorist act will be to move further away from what the magazine’s publisher, editor and cartoonists deeply embodied, as vulgar and offensive as their work often was. French novelist Michel Houellebecq, a master provocateur whose new book is about his country being ruled by a Muslim, immediately suspended a promotional campaign.

The staff of Charlie Hebdo lived dangerously with the full knowledge that their next issue, their next cartoon that blasphemed Muslim faith and culture, could be their last.

And so it was, for 10 of them.

In 2006, Charlie Hebdo opened its doors to an editorial meeting. Some of those killed are featured in this video, which was updated after the shooting. It’s in French with English subtitles, and is absolutely haunting.

The next time you laugh at what you think is provocative satire, keep in mind what the cost for the truly subversive variety can be. It was measured in an awful lot of blood this week.

Hoping for better Web civility in 2015

In looking through some collected links from the last year, I found that this one, dating back from February and posted on the Harvard Kennedy public policy journal website, sums up so much of what I’ve been thinking lately about the digital world.

Australian graduate psychology student Claire Lehmann bemoans the culture of easy outrage on the Web, and how this supposedly ideal collaborative realm has become a forum to deepen already sharp ideological differences:

“In an era in which social media provides the fuel for partisanship, online platforms are monetizing the flames. But they are also burning the bridges between us. We seem to have fewer shared goals. Our most pressing moral challenges are ones which require creative, long-term solutions of cooperation and commitment. Globally and locally, we face environmental calamities, rising economic inequality, and ageing populations. The need for bipartisan solutions has never been stronger.

“Reinforcing bitterness between groups of people by invoking indignant outrage may be a good business strategy for online news outlets, but it is terrible for encouraging the social cohesion required to address problems facing our society . To foster cross-pollination of ideas, we need both to be aware and to listen. We should endeavor to avoid joining online digital mobs where we might throw verbal stones at anyone who may disagree with us. Ideally, we would consume a balance of information that both comforts us by adhering to our world-view and challenges us by expanding it.”

This is not a new concern, but I haven’t read a better expression of what for many, myself included, have found to be a frustrating, dispiriting development.

After nearly seven years of actively using social media, I dropped off significantly in my participation in the past year. The ability to quickly connect, converse and share information with people I find interesting and engaging was diminished by others seeking to demonize those with differing points of view, or who link to the “wrong” thing.

Perhaps I need to alter whom I follow — there are far too many people I follow who post frequently, and at times nastily, about politics. That’s not why I follow them, even if I may agree with them. It’s cable news come to my timeline, and it’s an unwanted intrusion.

Depending on the issue — and especially if it involves race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and political philosophy — one is essentially drummed into silence if the social media mobs declare a certain view to be incorrect. The cultural topics that help define who we are as humans have become bristling ideological and political vehicles, instead of entry points for understanding through respectful argument.

One of the pleasures of adopting to digital media has been the ease of hashing out points on which we may not agree. I’ve been a guest on the sports-and-culture podcast of writer Michael Tillery, whose program is housed on the RAPStation website. I don’t care for rap at all and Michael and I disagree on some of the things we talk about, and Tweet at one another. But I appreciate the chance to think out loud and not be flogged out of reflex.

There’s nothing like a vigorous, but civil debate. While social media, especially Twitter, isn’t perfect for this, some enlightening discussion has been possible. I’ve enjoyed it, in spite of its limitations.

But if mobsters want to disrupt that dialogue — and it’s troubling how many of them call themselves journalists, writers, artists, academics and intellectuals — it’s far easier to do that, and rudely troll someone they don’t follow, or who doesn’t follow them.

So whenever big news came down — a Supreme Court ruling, the Ferguson demonstrations, a mass shooting or allegations of a gang rape — I logged out. I suspect I wasn’t alone.

It’s just not worth it to engage in any kind of meaningful discussion of hot-button issues, at least openly on social media. I’m not afraid of having my own views challenged; if anything I want to learn what I don’t know, or what my blind spots are.

But it’s best doing so in other venues, including blogs and podcasts and offline conversation. Despite its many positives, social media is no match for old-fashioned face-to-face talk, or a phone call, or a thorough vetting through the written word.

Besides, I’m not any good at responding to the mobs. I don’t have the jugular for it. I admire those who do, such as blogger extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan. He recently pegged a fierce defense of his tenure as editor of The New Republic, and its contrarianism that offends many liberals, following an attack from leading black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.

While Coates seems eager to banish even discourse about views he doesn’t like, Sullivan loves the free-range, interactive exchange of ideas that the Web makes possible. On his blog, The Dish, he exemplifies it like few others

“The role of journalism is not to police the culture but to engage in it.”

Sullivan’s Enlightenment-oriented desire to let all views be aired, and then see where the debate goes, is being eclipsed by an authoritarian sensibility that’s getting stronger in the digital world, and on social media in particular.

This growing force of the culture police wants nothing to do with engagement. They are on the left and the right, and this leaves the rest of us feeling as we do about politics — left out of the conversation, browbeaten into withholding our views. Especially if they are more nuanced and complicated than the mob can handle.

Like Lehmann, I fret that the mainstream media will continue to traffick in such divisive fare, and that the onslaught will be far more overwhelming than anything we saw in 2014. That’s saying something.

Crying Wolff about the state of digital media

It’s not news that Michael Wolff is sour on digital media, and has been for quite a while, and this recent Q and A with Digiday makes it clear his mood is as dour as it’s ever been:

“TV was the wasteland. Now digital media is the wasteland. There’s nothing there. A deluge of crap. TV has gone in the other direction and produced these things everybody watches and talks about and become important signposts of the culture. So TV is upscale, and digital is downscale media.”

What’s more, he says that what successful web plays like Vice are really angling for is some kind of TV gig. But he’s off the mark in claiming that “digital media has killed music, has killed newspapers.” No, those industries cemented their own demise long before Napster and Matt Drudge, et al, came along. Not that Wolff cares about being right, even after being reminded that he once predicted the end of BuzzFeed. Classic reply:

“What the hell, that’s karma.”

20 years of audio on the Web, more or less

The Knight Lab worked up this very cool timeline of audio developments on the Web. It’s an unpredictable arc, ranging from the now-shuttered Napster to the seemingly invincible iTunes, but the real bullishness here is the present and future of the podcast.

Included in the timeline is a link to a story from The Washington Post in September about the growing profitability of podcasting, but of course it’s relative to the kind of topics and the entrepreneurial verve (if any) behind them.

With all the buzz lately about the addictive podcast “The Serial” (from the creators of NPR’s “This American Life”), it’s worth watching what it may inspire, whether we’re in a “golden age” of podcasting or not.

As Cecilia Kang of The Post notes:

“Radio is still far more popular and lucrative than the fledgling world of podcasts. The industry has withstood the disruption that the Internet wrought on newspapers and TV, partly thanks to an enormous audience of commuters trapped in cars. But podcast enthusiasts believe preferences are beginning to change.”

Marketing guru Seth Godin blogged not long ago that the business of local radio is on very shaky ground:

“Just as newspapers fell off a cliff, radio is about to follow. It’s going to happen faster than anyone expects. And of course, it will be replaced by a new thing, a long tail of audio that’s similar (but completely different) from what we were looking for from radio all along. And that audience is just waiting for you to create something worth listening to.”

Public radio’s response to the demand for personalization of Web audio was the introduction this summer of the NPR One app. Users can devour a mix of NPR and affiliate content curated on their preferences.

News economics consultant Ken Doctor calls the app first and foremost a “listening hub” (his italics), and says it’s aimed at casual, rather than addictive, public radio audiences. Kelly McBride at The Poynter Institute dubs it the Pandora of public radio.

Godin is the recent guest of Krista Tippett, host of one of my favorite podcasts, “On Being,” where long-tail radio has found a comfortable place. The topic of this episode is “The Art of Noticing, and Then Creating.”

‘Giving credit where credit is due’

Richard Bradley, the former George editor who first raised doubts about Rolling Stone‘s story about gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house, has been a house of fire since the magazine backed down from its reporting.

His blog, Shots in the Dark, is loaded with links and commentary stemming from that story as well as the saga of The New Republic. Duped by the infamous plagiarizer Stephen Glass, Bradley has a b.s. meter that has been in overdrive on the topics of “rape culture” and media ethics.

While hand-wringing in too much of the mainstream press wants to scold “us” to remember rape victims, Bradley is calmly, methodically urging the media to stick to what it’s supposed to be upholding above all else — a sobering quest to find out what happened, if that’s even possible now:

“We all need to step back and take it down a notch. Of course we should search for the truth, but in a deliberate and cautious manner, remembering that there are real human beings involved, most of whom are young people.”

On the Rolling Stone debacle

The cautionary tale of the Duke lacrosse scandal has been routinely dismissed by far too many media outlets, and in increasingly alarming fashion, since it first unfolded eight years ago.

The scandal there, as I have written elsewhere, was the duplicity of the media — and not just any old media but the likes of The New York Times — in falling for an irresistible narrative.

But even after the rape accuser’s story proved to be a complete hoax, and a district attorney was disbarred for prosecuting based on the narrative, the hysteria over “rape culture” in America has reached a fever pitch.

So the admission on Friday by the editor of Rolling Stone magazine that key parts of its bombshell gang rape allegation piece, entitled “A Rape on Campus,” don’t add up shouldn’t be terribly surprising.

What’s deeply troubling is the admission by the freelance writer of the piece, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, that she chose not to contact the accused fraternity members at the request of the accuser.

Erdely unfurled a 9,000-word narrative based on the story of a single female accuser with no corroborating reporting, and her editors let it sail through to publication. The power of narrative, indeed.

Even more troubling is another admission by Erdely, that she scoured a number of elite college campuses looking to find the perfect case study for this continuing narrative of rape epidemic on campuses. The UVa fraternity culture has gained an especially notorious reputation over the years, and even as her story was unraveling, Erdely tried to make the case that it was that broader issue that was the subject of her investigation.

So the details don’t matter?

This is a cardinal sin of journalism, and yet as in the Duke lacrosse story, it’s a sin that’s committed far too frequently when it comes to reporting about sexual violence, especially in American college life.

The narrative of this story — based on claims by a UVa student named “Jackie” that she was repeatedly assaulted on a bed of broken glass by a series of men for several hours — was just too good to be true.

And so it may be.

And now certain feminists who insist that the woman should ALWAYS be believed are upset because Erdely not only believed the woman, but incorporated that premise into the heart of her work.

As Amanda Taub wrote at Vox, the failure to check the stories of rape accusers doesn’t protect them, but makes them even more vulnerable.

Yes, this backtracking by Rolling Stone will make things more difficult for rape victims to speak up, and that’s difficult enough. Hanna Rosin of Slate, whose podcast interview with Erdely raised some serious questions about this story early on, wondered late Friday if “maybe we’ve reached a point where we hold stories about rape to a lower standard.”

Well, yes. Who doesn’t want to believe a rape accuser? Who wanted to believe something so terrible as what Jackie claims could be made up? Or Crystal Mangum, the Duke lacrosse accuser, who said she was gang raped at a team party where had been hired to perform?

In the eight years since Duke, mainstream media outlets have not only ignored those journalistic blunders (and the fact that Mangum is now in prison for murdering her boyfriend), they’ve happily jumped on the “rape culture” bandwagon, especially when the claims involve athletes, and football players in particular. As the Obama Administration is demanding tougher crackdowns on alleged sex assault on campuses, there’s an uncritical willingness to believe statistics about college rape that are hardly empirical.

The full story about what may have happened to Jackie at UVa still hasn’t been revealed, and Rolling Stone wasn’t clear about what the “discrepancies” are that it is still investigating. So whether this is a hoax or not can’t be determined at this time. We just don’t know what, if anything, transpired, or if it happened the way Jackie told Erdely.

The Washington Post did its own reporting that details some of the apparent inconsistencies, but what triggered the inquiry was an outside party. Former George editor Richard Bradley, who once worked with the disgraced Stephen Glass, wondered on his personal blog if the story was true.

He was roundly vilified for raising such a question, including the predictable snarky comeback from Jezebel. “A giant ball of shit” is how a Columbia j-school grad described his claim. So classy.

Brooklyn College professor K.C. Johnson got the same treatment for his work questioning the story in the Duke case, even as his Durham in Wonderland blog was regularly revealing the media and academic dishonesty that kept perpetuating a dubious narrative.

Bradley and Johnson are in a sense proxy ombudsmen for mainstream media institutions that are falling hard for catnip narratives. In his summation post on Saturday, Bradley concluded that “Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story does not establish any larger truths about the University of Virginia.”

Perhaps this will become the cautionary tale that will be finally heeded:

” ‘A Rape on Campus’ is an irresponsible patchwork of personal politics, sloppy reporting and preconceived conclusions by a writer who lamented that the University of Virginia has no ‘radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy’—and took it upon herself to do just that.”

More good insight from smart female commentators here: Megan McArdleJudith Levine and Cathy Young. This embodies what feminist opinion-writing can be, once raw emotion is ditched in favor of intellectual and journalistic rigor.