New age journalism

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 19, 2009 9:24 AM

In California, a former editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune has launched an investigative reporting project that plans to sell stories to her old paper at lower cost.

In Kentucky, the University of Kentucky has created a Web site for Lexington residents who are being trained to report neighborhood news.

In Ohio, the eight largest papers -- from the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the Youngstown Vindicator -- share virtually all their reporting, freeing up staff for independent digging.

News organizations may be shrinking, as you have heard ad nauseam, but journalism is being revived and reinvented in some encouraging ways, a new report says.

Despite the "immediate disaster" striking newspapers, says Michael Schudson, a professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, he was struck by "the really stunning enthusiasm and excitement of people engaged in many of these startups, who were just bubbling over with what they were doing." Schudson wrote the report with Leonard Downie Jr., The Washington Post's former executive editor who is now a professor at Arizona State University.

Their recommendations -- particularly for a federally financed fund to subsidize local reporting -- might not fly. But amid all the hand-wringing over newspaper deaths and bankruptcies, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism" makes clear that a thousand media flowers are, if not blooming, at least popping up.

These new ventures "are actually re-creating the kind of competition that used to exist in local news reporting a long time ago," says Downie, now a Post Co. vice president at large. He's not worried about their quality because "most of them have been started by seasoned professionals who used to work for newspapers. My greater concern is the fragility of their economic base."

Some of the former newspaper and magazine journalists are acting out of necessity, others as mid-career entrepreneurs. Former Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith has raised part of a $3.5 million budget from donors in the state, including T. Boone Pickens, to start the nonprofit Texas Tribune in Austin. Former Washington Post and Baltimore Sun reporter Fern Shen recently launched the Baltimore Brew blog, from her kitchen table, with other ex-Sun journalists, and is trying to raise money from advertisers. Former Chicago Tribune reporter Geoff Dougherty, who has won plaudits for starting the Chitown Daily News, recently concluded he can't make it with foundation funds and is leaving with his team to launch a moneymaking site.

Campuses, from the University of Wisconsin to the University of Maryland, are producing more professional-level journalism with student manpower. Former Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has used his Northeastern University students to conduct 11 front-page investigations for the Globe since 2007. The report urges more universities to become centers for professional reporting, as they are for medicine, law, science, business, engineering and education.

The authors found more journalists collaborating with ordinary folks. At ProPublica, which has furnished investigative reporting to such news organizations as The Post, the New York Times, CBS, NBC and ABC, a former Huffington Post staffer recruited citizen volunteers to monitor 520 of the 6,000 projects approved for federal stimulus funds. New and old media are cooperating on several fronts, with nine-month-old Global Post, a network of 65 freelancers around the world, selling stories to newspapers and CBS News.

Foundations are funding many of the hyper-local startups -- the report urges them to do more -- and in some cases are going even further. The Kaiser Family Foundation has started a nonprofit news service to cover health care.

None of this outweighs the hemorrhaging in the establishment media. In recent years the Sun's newsroom has shrunk from more than 400 journalists to about 150; the Philadelphia Inquirer from 600 to 300; the San Francisco Chronicle from 500 to about 200; the Los Angeles Times from more than 1,100 to fewer than 600.

The picture isn't much brighter in local television. KDNL in St. Louis and WYOU in Scranton, Pa., have dropped their newscasts altogether. At about 200 stations across the country, the local news is produced by other stations. The Federal Communications Commission "no longer effectively enforces the public service requirement," the study says.

Commercial radio stations, except for a handful of big-city outlets, do little or no local reporting. At the same time, "only a relatively small number" of public radio stations offer much on-the-ground reporting. Downie and Schudson urge the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to "require a minimum amount of local news reporting" by every radio and TV station it helps subsidize.

The authors recommend that the FCC use some of the money it collects in broadcasting and telephone fees to create a national Fund for Local News, which would award grants for innovative local reporting -- even to profit-making outfits. Schudson expects resistance to that idea, "not only from people who don't want government to spend more money, but from journalists who think any money from the government is a mark of the devil."

I'm in that camp, because of the potential taint of political agendas. But the free market, in its halting, haphazard way, seems to be coughing up some money for new kinds of journalism.

It's increasingly clear that newspapers, which soaked up advertising in exchange for a general smorgasbord of news and features, are headed for a permanent era of decline. (One interesting tidbit from the report: Newspapers are less battered in cities with no Craigslist.) What was once a forest dominated by mighty oaks is now an uneven landscape that includes saplings, flowers, weeds and bald patches of grass.

These journalistic sprouts may never grow into towering institutions, and it's hard to imagine that the coverage of city hall, Capitol Hill and Kabul won't suffer. But they may produce a more diverse and energized form of reporting than the top-down monopolies of the past. They may be better suited to cover neighborhoods, recruit amateurs, engage in real dialogue and have some fun in the process.

"The days of a kind of news media paternalism . . . are largely gone," the report says. If that's true, not everyone will mourn the old way of doing things. Time for the kids to take over.

They said it

Ted Turner is no fan of printed newspapers, telling the Hollywood Reporter: "You're chopping all these trees down and making paper out of them and trying to deal with all the waste paper. It's the biggest solid waste problem that we have." . . .

New Republic columnist Jonathan Chait, dissing his industry's most prestigious prize, says magazine folks "tend to be both obsessed with who wins and convinced the process is a pathetic joke. . . . The last time the New Republic won a National Magazine Award, it was for publishing Betsy McCaughey's infamous anti-Clintoncare screed 'No Exit,' which is probably the worst article in the history of TNR."

This isn't my philosophy, but Gawker founder Nick Denton tells the gossip site's staff in a memo of "a few cases recently where we've thought *way* too much before publishing. . . . There's always a good argument for waiting. Let's check to see whether the associated claim is true; oh, the source might be exposed. But we should publish anyway, making clear what we know to be true and what remains up in the air. . . . We can always update. We can always write a second post when we've established more of the facts."

More hot air journalism

Lots of people, including those at "Good Morning America," have been asking me what I think of the media's role in the balloon hoax.

"They put on a very good show for us, and we bought it," Sheriff Jim Alderden said Sunday. That, of course, includes the news organizations that raced to put the bizarre Heene family on, prompting Falcon to throw up on both "GMA" and "Today." By the way, this may be the only story where the crucial evidence emerged from an anchor questioning a 6-year-old -- as when the poor kid told Wolf Blitzer he was just hiding in the garage "for a show."

I don't blame television for carrying the two-hour balloon extravaganza that turned out to be an utter sham. The anchors should have been more cautious in asserting there was a boy inside, but the authorities were taking it seriously. Plus, television isn't all that hard to fool. Remember the runaway bride, who claimed she'd been kidnapped? In 24-hour cable, you put the live pictures on the air first and seek explanations later. Any producer who cut away from the balloon, saying his news team wanted to gather more information first, would have been fired on the spot.

It's after we discovered that the kid never left the home that we saw the usual media excess. The yakkers, the experts, the child psychologists, all carrying on about people they've never met. Yes, Richard Heene seemed like a truly strange figure on "Wife Swap," and now seems to have been angling for a reality-show encore. But you begin to suspect that journalists are secretly pleased by this latest turn of events, by the way the story morphed from life-and-death drama to sick soap opera.

The sheriff apologized to the media for coming close to misleading them by saying he believed the family when he had his doubts. His behavior kept alive the possibility, at least for a couple more days, that it was not a hoax, that the parents really believed their son might be in danger.

How desperate must someone be to get on TV to deceive the country and use his own children as pawns? Just thinking about it makes me feel as queasy as Falcon Heene must have felt when he vomited on national television.

"Investigators are looking into the possibility a media outlet conspired with alleged hoaxers Richard and Mayumi Heene, who punked the world by reporting that their 6-year-old son was inside a homemade 'flying-saucer' balloon careening over Colorado. The fake emergency played out on live TV Thursday afternoon, riveting the country for hours," the New York Post reports. "Larimer, Colo., Sheriff Jim Alderman said he's examining the 'the possibility that. . . . some of the media outlets may have had some knowledge about this.' "

Stay classy, media.

Says the L.A. Times: "Falcon is one of many children who have in recent months been featured as players in sensational, reality-TV-ready story lines involving what might be dubbed extreme parenting.

"The trend may have started with Nadya Suleman, the California 'Octomom' who underwent advanced fertility treatments and had octuplets. Her offspring will reportedly receive $250 a day to star in a reality show now being produced. Then there are the Gosselin sextuplets and twins, caught in the media glare as their parents' marriage disintegrated on-camera, turning TLC's 'Jon & Kate Plus Eight' into a ratings smash."

Legal eagle returns

CBS News has a new chief legal correspondent -- and she's a familiar face. Jan Crawford Greenburg, a former CBS contributor, is returning to the network after a stint at ABC.

The onetime Chicago Tribune reporter is the author of the 2007 bestseller "Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for the Control of the United States Supreme Court." She did the first network television interview with Chief Justice John Roberts and also has sat down with Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer. And these people, unlike, say, congressmen, aren't easy to get on TV.

CBS News President Sean McManus said in a statement that "Jan is an enormously talented, well-respected and influential legal reporter, analyst and author" and praised her "groundbreaking reporting on legal and political issues."

The permanent campaign

Ronald Reagan wasn't shy about fighting for conservative legislation, but his onetime speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, finds fault with Obama's approach:

"I'm not sure the White House can tell the difference between campaign mode and governing mode, but it is the difference between 'us versus them' and 'us.' People sense the president does too much of the former, and this is reflected not only in words but decisions, such as the pursuit of a health-care agenda that was inevitably divisive. It has lost the public's enthusiastic backing, if it ever had it, but is gaining on Capitol Hill. People don't want whatever it is they're about to get, and they're about to get it. In that atmosphere everything grates, but most especially us-versus-them-ism. . . .

"The Democratic Party and the White House repeatedly suggest that if you are not for the bill or an overhaul, you don't care about your fellow human beings and you love and support the insurance companies. Actually, no one loves the insurance companies, including the insurance companies. They attack aspects of various bills but seem unable to defend themselves, which is why you haven't seen any 60-second spots explaining that they actually perform a public good, which they do, however imperfectly, frustratingly, mindlessly and passive-aggressively. An industry that always seems to have to be embarrassed into doing the right thing is an industry that is unlovable. But the Obama administration's strategy of making it 'the villain' in 'the narrative' will probably not have that much punch because. . . . well, again, who likes the insurance companies? Who ever did?"

On the other hand, shouldn't the administration punch back when the industry starts lobbying against health care with a questionable research study?

A most unpopular man

Gallup has the least shocking poll finding of all time:

"Former presidential and vice presidential candidate John Edwards, embroiled in personal scandal, is rated favorably by 21% of Americans and unfavorably by 59%. This is the first time more Americans have viewed Edwards negatively than positively, and reflects a 27-point drop in his favorable rating from Gallup's prior measurement in January 2008. . . .

"Edwards is far from the most reviled figure Gallup has polled about. His 57% unfavorable rating is well below those Gallup has measured for Osama bin Laden (97%), Saddam Hussein (96%), Mark Fuhrman (87%), Fidel Castro (83%), Monica Lewinsky (82%), and Yasser Arafat (80%). The highest unfavorable rating for a U.S. politician is 79% for David Duke." I'm sure he finds that quite comforting.

The Media Are Boobs

So says Meghan McCain, who criticized CNN for covering a flap about a picture she put out there, and now does the same on the Daily Beast:

"On Wednesday, I posted a hastily taken self-portrait on Twitter -- which I thought was funny and silly -- and within a few hours I had caused a minor media scandal. I spent most of the next day thinking about what exactly was so shocking about the picture, why there was such an immediate and nasty overreaction. After all, it's not like I was caught making a sex tape. I certainly didn't pose nude for Playboy. And I hadn't even exposed a nipple.

"So why all this Sturm und Drang?

"Could it be it's because I have breasts? Because for those of you who didn't know, I have two. They're larger than some women's and not as big as others. I don't usually show off my cleavage -- as I did in the photos I posted -- which I will admit is not the smartest thing I have ever done. But it's just not worth the drama it caused. . . .

"To be honest, I don't feel that I have anything to feel ashamed of. I've always embraced my curves and will continue to do so. I'd rather be the size I am than a skinny model fired for being too fat. And once again, a day after writing about my weight, it's the media that have a problem with my body."

I didn't find the picture particularly racy. But if you live online, you've got to deal with the cybercritics.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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