Monthly Archives: October 2009

What brought all this about?

I thought this was a bogus story when I first heard about it, and can’t believe The New York Times made such a big deal about it over the weekend: President Obama’s all-guys hoops games, and what that might say about the true influence and “place” for women in his administration:

“Women are Obama’s base, and they don’t seem to have enough people who look like the base inside of their own inner circle,” said Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary in the Clinton administration whose sister, Betsy, served as the Obama campaign’s chief operating officer.

Ms. Myers said women have high expectations of the president. “Obama has a personal style that appeals to women,” she said. “He is seen as a consensus builder; he is not a towel snapper and does not tell crude jokes.”

But wait, the hectoring gets sillier still, from NOW president Terry O’Neill. Then again, Obama was remiss in filling out an NCAA women’s basketball tournament bracket last season. What a Neanderthal!

At least Obama is playing golf with a woman! Oh joy! Nip that Martha Burk problem in the bud before it sprouts.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in the realm of high political circles, but I do cover sports for a living, and have devoted much of my work to covering women’s sports. Dee Dee, you don’t know towel-snapping like I do!

I know what it’s like to operate in a mostly male environment, and to push for more media coverage of women athletes who aren’t in the so-called “Bambi” sports (tennis, gymnastics, figure skating, etc.).

But I find this whining from very privileged women — the products of elite educations and powerful political, corporate and social connections I have never enjoyed — absolutely bamboozling. Former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor and Portfolio editor Joane Lipman, also writing in the NYT over the weekend, sounds as though we’re still in the 1970s.

Perhaps this is the mid-life crisis issue for women of my generation. I understand their frustration, but I don’t share their dour mood. And I don’t like the implication that their experiences speak for all of us.

Neither do I have a problem with guys wanting to be with the guys, at least some of the time. Even males I know who are deeply involved in women’s sports need this release. Ladies, just let them be, for a few minutes out of the day.

Obama was right to call the claptrap over his hoops games “bunk.” As usual, he was being too polite. Women need to be more concerned with finding satisfaction with their own work and lives instead of worrying about symbolic issues and infantile name-calling on the Web.

The key ingredient for the new news emporium

Mathew Ingram, an online news evangelist at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, admits that the printed word still has something over the Web that may not be changing anytime soon:

“I realize that there is far more content — from a vast diversity of sources — available on the web than there is in a newspaper. But who will filter and condense and aggregate it for me the way a newspaper does? I still haven’t found something that does the job quite as well. Perhaps someday I will, but until then I will keep reading newspapers.”

This notion is especially relevant for me now as I am creating a specialty sports news site that will be populated in part by aggregating and curating news stories. I’m largely on top of the stories in this particular niche, but there’s no way to collect everything of importance to our intended audience.

The person who’s overseeing our project asked me if there was a good existing RSS feed for this particular topic. It would certainly save time that I could spend on the stories I’ll be writing for this site. But I told him there isn’t, not for the readers we’re trying to attract. I advised it would be best to hand-dip the news, as at an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, to provide the best value. This will require additional work, but I think it’s well worth it.

Especially after I noticed this morning a six-year-old story in one of my news feeds. Automating the news via keywords is a wonderful thing. It can permit a few extra winks of sleep for an online editor or curator. If one is aggregating on a high-profile subject, it makes perfect sense and adheres to the best slogan about the news that Jeff Jarvis has ever come up with: “Do what you do best, and link to the rest.”

But like fishing, this practice occasionally pulls an old rubber boot out of the water. I know I’m not saying anything new here, but I’m learning more and more each day about the necessity of employing my best news judgment — and an appropriate human touch — to presenting the news for others.

And it ought to be a relatively easy concept for print-oriented journalists to embrace since it’s an old newspaper technique gone to the Web:

“This sort of picking, choosing and assembling from a wide range of sources—curation and aggregation—is precisely what modern editors should be doing online, not just regurgitating the limited content they get from their parent organization. It leverages the strength of the editor’s skills: the ability to divine the best content, deep knowledge of a subject, and the ability to shape it into a compelling package for readers. That’s what good editors have always done: curate.”

Silencing the voice of an institution

Allow me to be parochial here, at the risk of getting overly sentimental. I’m coming late to this topic because I’ve been out of town on business the last few days.

One of the giants of the sportswriting tribe has retired. A lot of them have been doing that in recent years with newspaper buyouts and layoffs, with some of them leaving before they were ready.

But this individual has done so at the age of 90! Furman Bisher, who was a sports editor and columnist at my former newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for 59 years, penned his final piece that ran in Sunday’s paper. Bisher was always kind and generous and genial to me, and I was truly honored to have been able to know someone I have read and admired most of my life.

Another former colleague offered his own remembrance, with the following observation terribly ironic for reasons I’ll explain below:

“Furman still has opinions. Strong opinions. It’s what made him a great columnist. He wrote with a voice.”

Bisher’s retirement coincided (coincidentally, alas) with the AJC’s decision to no longer endorse political candidates on its opinion pages. That’s an action that’s been decried by Alan Mutter, among others, but it’s not surprising. Not long ago the AJC gutted its editorial board, replacing lightning-rod opiners with the publisher, editor and managing editor.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether political endorsements are relevant any more. I tend to think they’re not, but the issue here runs deeper than a paper telling readers whom to vote for, or against.

This is silencing the voice of an institution.

The AJC will remain neutral on political candidates, even though this one could be polarizing on name alone. (Photo by Wendy Parker)
The AJC will remain neutral on political candidates, even though this one could be polarizing on name alone. (Photo by Wendy Parker)

An institution that gained its stature by resisting the tide of public opinion like former Constitution editor Ralph McGill did in the 1950s and 1960s, as the Deep South convulsed from the tremors of the civil rights movement. McGill even won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. For using his voice.

Ironically, Bisher wrote his first column in Atlanta in 1950 in Ralph McGill’s office, using the famed editor’s typewriter. McGill later gave the typewriter to Bisher, who kept it for the rest of his career and continued the tradition of having a bold, unforgettable, legendary voice.

An institution that helped shape my passion for newspapers and journalism at a very young age — I can’t pinpoint it but my mother says I started reading Bisher and the AJC sports pages around the age of eight  — is now taking journalistic neutrality to a highly sanitized level.

A paper that still prints many words has consciously and deliberately chosen to discard a once-great, vital and unmistakable voice.

Which leaves me at a loss for any more words here.

Taking a deep breath, and the long view

I came across Kurt Andersen’s “Reset” at the bookstore the other day. After sifting through polemical, shock-inducing titles that heave on current affairs shelves — “Catastrophe,” “Arguing With Idiots,” “Whores” and “Shut Up, America!” — I luxuriated in deeply humane reflections about making sense of the economic recession, as well as the profound cultural and technological transformation that it’s accelerating.

I found “Reset” so sensible, so rational, so remarkably sane — especially as Americans hyperventilate over their president winning the Nobel Peace Prize — that the paragraph below seems rather exceptional to point out:

“Plenty of quintessentially 20th century businesses that have been sickening will now, finally, die. A generation or two of managers in those industries coasted along in denial, behaving as if the dark horizon would remain perpetually a ways off. With this recession, many of them are arriving at the abyss. However, people will still want to buy cars, still need to buy houses, still want to read quality journalism, watch TV series and movies at home, listen to recorded music, and all the rest. And so starting now, as some of the huge, dominant, old-growth trees of our economic forest fall, the seedlings and saplings — that is, the people determined to produce and sell new kinds of transportation and housing and media and other merchandise in new, economically rational ways — will have a clearer field in which to grow.”

As an important weekend for me looms — a sports media startup I’m involved with is finally taking some operational shape for a forthcoming launch — I’m trying to maintain some big-picture, long-term perspective. Keeping these thoughts in mind helps, as does this additional sequence from “Reset.” The fate of displaced journalists might have been determined long before the recession, but we’ll have plenty of company, prompted by horrible economic consequences, as we move forward:

“The post-bubble, post-crash dislocation and pain will be irremediable. But multiply these hopeful starting-over stories by a hundred thousand or a million, and you’ll have sense of how, in the new America, necessity can be the mother of reinvention.”

Twitter goes down, the world Tweets anyway

While waiting for my social media crack supply to be replenished today, I found out I’m hardly alone in my Twitter cravings. The problem, in a nutshell: It was possible to post and the search function worked, but timelines weren’t available. And quite a few people, myself included, were down to 0 followers and were following nobody.

A random sampling of the reaction taken during my lunch break (otherwise I did get a lot done during the outage!):

Twitter Is Frozen, which is many signs of the apocalypse


Wtf wat is dit met Twitter?


Trying to figure out twitter! Wondering if its better than facebook

Hello!!!!!!!! hello helloo helloo helloo! wow there is nobody but my own Twitter-Eco

I’m reasonably sure I just broke Twitter

Quelle horreur! Twitter is frozen!

Is it me or is twitter having a wobbly?

Meu twitter não está atualizando nada!!!

Is Twitter twatted or did everyone go very quiet?

O Twitter tá bizarro hoje.

Why is Twitter quiet? COULDN’T BE: people have lives, internet slow, lazy day. MUST BE: end of the world (except Utah) Welcome to my brain.

ทวิตเมื่อสองชั่วโมงที่แล้วเพิ่งโผล่มา Twitter ท้องผูก?

Irgendwie bekomme ich keine Updates mehr von den Menschen den ich folge. Ist Twitter mal wieder kaputt?

hey twitter, stop being douchey.

Twitter is hier stuk.

twitter ta bugado ?

what have i missed? why has miley deleted her twitter?

twitter is goin bi polar on us maaaan!!

@twitter, @twitter, @twitter, @twitter can ya hear me?

fuckk twitter. im going back to bed.

Twitter needs that thumbs up thing.

just said to a friend, I might actually have to talk to hubby tonight if twitter is down

Twitter “What were you doing 2 hours ago?”

is anybody out there or is twitter being an arse?

Has just discovered twitter, help?!!

pourquoi je ne reçois rien sur twitter ????

i feel me sooo damned alohoooone without my following peeps, dear mister @twitter

Twitter? Why are you dead today? I need amusement.

eating blueberry yogurt and emo’ing over a frozen twitter.

Twitter is frozen. Does this mean we have to go outside and actually socialize with, like, people?

Is Twitter still ackin’ all janky!?

Twitter Is Frozen – just like the rams offensive line for the past two years!!

is there a twitter strike??

Tired and a headache, but it doesn’t look like I’m leaving the office any time soon. Not that you care twitter, you’re not even listening!

Uhhhh Twitter Is Frozen because of stupid Miley!!! I really hate her so much!

Twitter is frozen because Kanye interrupted it.

Some tough lessons about journalism startups

I write here quite a bit about my general bullishness regarding journalism startups and other experiments that I do believe will pave the way for successfully doing the news online.

But Alan Mutter reminds us of two ventures involving former Rocky Mountain News journalists that were non-starters because of misunderstood assumptions about their work, and how it would be paid for:

“The first business of a business is business. Like so many entrepreneurs, the journalists started their websites so they could do the work they wanted to do. But a business, especially a start-up, requires far more than passion for the work. It requires close attention to the nuts and bolts of raising money, making sales and controlling expenses. Above all else, it requires the discipline of living within your means until the business grows healthy enough to fund your aspirations.

“The start-up news sites failed for fundamentally the same reasons the Rocky did. People felt the universe would reward them for doing what they wanted to do, instead of doing what they needed to do to earn the patronage of readers and advertisers.

“Sorry, folks, it doesn’t work that way.”

This isn’t a told-you-so moment, but underscores the importance of gaining business and entrepreneurial skills that many journalists have never had to think about. As I’m finding out, while this is an exciting proposition, it’s also the most extraordinarily difficult thing I’ve ever undertaken.

Especially since there are no guarantees even for those wishing to try something else.

Caught in the pinch of health care reform

Read (and listen to) this former newspaper journalist’s account of trying to nail down adequate, affordable health insurance for her family as a freelance writer and editor, and keep in mind that she used to cover this issue for the Chicago Tribune:

“I understood how health insurance worked, or at least I thought I did. So, leaving the Tribune and finding myself sort of cast adrift in the sea to get my own health insurance . . . “

“It was a real eye opener for me about how difficult it is to figure out. I thought I understood the language, [but] I would read these policies and not understand. It really made my heart go out to people who have no health insurance who get stuck trying to find this on their own.”

Is this any way to spark entrepreneurship, self-employment and small business activity? The national unemployment rate is nearing 10 percent, and it’s barely enough to get the president to utter the “e” word. His political opponents — including my congressman — barely match that lip service and offer few workable alternatives. Meanwhile, here’s Richards again:

“What if I lose the policy?. . . Finding this policy was a huge deal for me. Being able to have my entire family covered was a huge weight on my mind. The idea that we might get sick and they might cancel us, just like if you have a bad car accident and the auto insurance company will cancel you, the idea that that could happen with our health insurance is really terrifying, because what are you supposed to do then?”

Anyone who continues to insist that any move away from the status quo amounts to “European socialism” that would undermine the mythology of “rugged individualism” ought to be disabused of this rhetoric. The perpetually aggrieved Tea Party crowd sucks up so much media oxygen about health care and anything else it’s upset about — which is everything.

But middle-class people with middle-class values who need to be served by reform are part of no influential political constituency. They would be required to have coverage under most of the proposals floating in Congress, although it may not be more affordable than it is now. (In fact, the process could very well produce a magnificent debacle.) Yet they soldier on quietly.

They’re too busy trying to make a living, and scrambling to pay for health insurance, to protest.

In the interests of full disclosure — and to prevent any future long reach from Big Brother — I accepted no swag for writing this post. But if you want to toss some my way . . .

Journalistic minds shouldn’t think alike

A few links I’m finding helpful as I begin a critical week for a media startup project that’s soon to bear fruit. More details on that later; for now, some good reads about journalism, media and work, and the importance of shedding old ideas and ways of working that just don’t cut it any more:

New opportunity for laid-off NPR staffer: “Get out there! Feeling sorry for yourself and cursing the company for not placing more value on you is a waste of energy. Journalism (nay, any job) is not indentured servitude. We do it because we love it and we’re good at it. Re-purpose yourself. Meet people, exchange ideas and be ready for whatever the next big thing is. Take advantage of learning opportunities and be patient. Young people are the key, but don’t think because you’re not young and/or in school you don’t matter.”

No more pity parties for journalism: “It’s actually harder to get the more traditional journalists to sort of break their chains. It’s interesting. It is extremely liberating. It’s very absorbing. I mean, I just think it’s much more fun to be in a position where I can try to come up with a formula that works rather than just be part of a system that you are aware is crumbling around you — and to be unable to do anything about it, which is where a lot of journalists have been. It’s incredibly frustrating and it’s also a really bad environment in which to do journalism.”

Leaving a ‘traditional’ paper for a startup: “I feel, and still feel, that the newspaper business is in serious crisis. I’m not content to cling to a deck chair and go down with a sinking ship. We’re trying to prepare for the next incarnation of journalism. If this venture is going to work, it’s going to work because serious, talented journalists were brave enough to take the risk.”

Life and work after journalism: “I like to hire reporters. They know how to write, they know how to think, know how to go out and dig things up. And they know how to move quickly. To me, it’s still a noble profession.”

Working hard is overrated: “Much more important than working hard is knowing how to find the right thing to work on. Paying attention to what is going on in the world. Seeing patterns. Seeing things as they are rather than how you want them to be. Being able to read what people want. Putting yourself in the right place where information is flowing freely and interesting new juxtapositions can be seen.”

As the neutering of the newsroom continues . . .

It’s been so easy to whip up on the Washington Post for its new social media policy imposed in the wake of a top editor revealing political opinions on a protected Twitter account (since closed).

Certainly it could be a teaching moment for a once-great newsroom that, like so many others, has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. But these new dictates likely will have the opposite effect:

“All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens. Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.”

Indeed, the frenzy of ritual asceticism that inhabits so-called mainstream media outlets reveals a professional tribe so afraid to dare to be human that even those educating their successors scratch their heads:

“Why am I, a professor of journalism, encouraged to blog, tweet, and engage in public dialog about journalism, but still trusted to speak the ‘truth,’ while journalists are not? Why am I not required to ‘relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens’ in order to do my job well? Why am I allowed to get up in front of a classroom everyday and teach youngsters how to ‘do journalism,’ while journalists themselves have to give up some of the personal privileges of private citizens? What is it about journalistic professionalism that demands the monk-like embrace of personal rectitude?”

Perhaps I haven’t been gone long enough from the culture of the newsroom to believe that it’s fine to say whatever the hell we like once we leave the confessional booth of transparency. Revealing everything — including how journalists vote on a secret ballot — is just as absurd as being “antisocial mannequins.” This strikes the right tone as far as I’m concerned:

“I think a smart reporter or writer won’t say things that would damage his or her credibility, either on Twitter or anywhere else.”

All I know for certain is this: The zeal that editors still employ to tell their staffers “no” is hardly a good thing at a time when they need to be finding more encouraging, creative ways to say “yes” more often.

Instead of dealing with the “offending” editor individually (some think he did nothing wrong), the Post has imposed guidelines that, while reasonable in some places, effectively add a new level of fear and intimidation for a depleted staff to absorb. This is so fourth grade: Somebody makes a mistake, and everyone else is punished.

While their newsrooms continue to hemorrhage talent and passion, editors treat their underlings like children. This has gone far beyond the frequent (and annoying) reminders I got in my former newsroom about the evils of slapping a political bumper sticker on my car.

Editors are so worried of perceptions of bias that they are oblivious to the effects of constantly saying “no” — to their reporters, and to the public they claim to be informing. Saying “no” stifles innovation, creative thinking and initiative. Saying “no” inhibits those still on hand to step beyond the artificial boundaries of “impartiality” when it means getting to the truth.

Above all, saying “no” drains journalists — and the journalism they create — of the personality and vitality that’s disappearing along with news holes.

But the neutering of newsrooms is a very hard habit to break, and it will continue as long as there are even a few souls who inhabit them.

What a waste of time and energy to tiptoe with trepidation around the future instead of stepping firmly into it.