Our most important news organization is quietly pulling off a revolution

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The evidence has been building for weeks – no, for months – but in the past few days it has struck me with a thrilling clarity: The New York Times is giving us news – good and bad, soft and hard — about a richly representative array of Americans. That hoary presumption that all the news that’s fit to print is male (and white) seems at long last to be under serious challenge.

Last Friday’s Weekend Arts II section, and yesterday’s Sunday Business section ( I read the paper online AND in print, and I sense that this shift may be more evident in print) provided delicious examples. Arts (April 20, 2018) had a lead story on the artist Adrian Piper and her new show at the Museum of Modern Art. Also on the cover was a conversation with the U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith and Jacqueline Woodson, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Inside, the riches continued: a wonderful gathering of faces (and topics) from all over the American spectrum.

Similarly, yesterday’s (April 22, 2018) Business section had as its lead a piece on Campbell Brown, with a photo teasing an inside look at what Marissa Mayer is up to post-Yahoo.

Women in (and out of) journalism have been ardently (and mostly fruitlessly) seeking this change for years.

I remember well, back in 1990, when Max Frankel (then executive editor of The New York Times, a former boss of mine and a man I like and respect) was frustrated by a survey that showed that his paper had even fewer front-page stories about women than other prominent papers. He told the Washington Post: “If you are covering local teas, you’ve got more women [on the front page] than the Wall Street Journal.”

The next day, the vast majority of Timeswomen came to work with teabags pinned to their lapels, and Max lamented his choice of wording. Yet there was truth in his words, however maladroit. If women weren’t allowed to DO things, they couldn’t be portrayed in the paper as having done them.

But the issue was much larger, as shown indelibly by the Times’ recent work bringing to light prominent women who never got their own obituaries.  One mind-boggling discovery:  The paper made no mention of Charlotte Bronte’s death, but gave her husband an obit.

Gloria Steinem, who long led the charge to make news inclusive, put it this way: “It’s hard to think of anything except air, food and water that is more important than the media. Literally, I’ve spent most of my life working in the media. That has made me hyper aware of how it creates for us the idea of normal, whether or not the normal is accurate. Especially for groups that have been on the periphery for whatever reason: If we can’t see it, we can’t be it.”

Well, now we can see it, at least in the Times: Women in all their glory and all their quirks, their talent and their shortcomings – women as full human beings, playing multiple roles, making countless contributions.

Why now? Part of the change of course affirms Max’s point, however distasteful it seemed. Women ARE now in more of the positions that journalists have deemed newsworthy. They couldn’t have done a piece on Marissa Mayer post-Yahoo if she hadn’t led Yahoo in the first place. Another part of it is the evolving enlightenment of people in other positions of power: If the artist Adrian Piper hadn’t been seen as worthy by MoMA, she’d wouldn’t have been seen in the Times, either.

Surely, too, this increased and more varied visibility has been given a head of steam by women’s activism in the past year: the women’s march and related events, and the #MeToo movement specifically.

Finally, we can’t ignore the internal workings of the Times. The paper’s culture has changed so substantially over recent decades that I can’t help believing it stems back to (now former publisher) Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who from early in his leadership called diversity and inclusion the “single most important” issue at the paper.  And surely the man at the top of the news operation, Executive Editor Dean Baquet, has led the transformation, from the hiring decisions that build in their impact over time to the choices about where to place resources. Just look at photos of the Times’ recent Pulitzer winners for affirmation.

Now the effects are evidenced throughout the paper, and I expect they’re here to stay. Inclusion of women and of people of color (equally essential, and another arena in which I think the progress at the Times has been impressive, though I’ll leave that to keener eyes to assess) will be self-sustaining because it forms a virtuous circle. The Times is a better paper because it is bringing us a much more interesting report – a report both more complicated and more promising because it more accurately reflects the world around it.

It’s worth noting that all of this is happening even as the Times does some of its most important, digging, substantive investigative and entrepreneurial work. This is to be expected. Excellence and inclusion are natural partners, however obstinately the blindfolded have cast them as mutually exclusive.

Including more viewpoints and bringing in a broader array of talents were always going to make for better journalism. It just took a (very long) while to figure that out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can we have a better sexual-harassment conversation?

Boy, is this ever a moment: Sexual harassment has come out of the dark.  That’s a great thing. But it’s worrisome. too. The conversations – and the events – are raging like wildfire on terrain that is utterly unfamiliar. Could we think about some guidelines to keep things as fair and truthful as possible? Some considerations to help us generate more light and less heat?

Here are four possibilities:

  1. Accusations should not be anonymous. We should do everything we can (I’m looking at you, fellow journalists) to encourage the people who make sexual harassment accusations to do so under their own names. This honors a longtime journalistic commitment to render information verifiable and to prevent people from harming others with impunity. It’s a good rule for society to follow more broadly. There will be exceptions on this difficult topic (several women making credible claims together anonymously against a very powerful public man?) but the fewer the exceptions, the more progress we’ll make. The fact that so many women have been willing to go on the record lately is an enormous part of why we are where we are today.
  1. Not all sins are equivalent. The term sexual harassment seems to be stretching to cover an awful lot of ground: From a wink and a whistle, through an uncomfortable conversation or an unwelcome kiss, to an erection pressed against you, having your breasts grabbed or a hand thrown under your skirt – all the way up to sexual assault. Throwing all offenders together is unfair and inaccurate. It is essential that we get as close as we can to the truth of each report, uncomfortable as the details may be.
  1. Consider a statute of limitations for minor offenses. A guy who brushed his hand against you in the wrong place 30 years ago may still be messing around years later, or he may not be. You didn’t report it then, times have changed, the culture has changed. Sharing experiences (as in the #metoo social media exchanges lately) is valuable in raising awareness about how common harassment is. But an expiration date for shining the light individually on a man whose sins are minor and lost in time may be in order.
  1. Men need to help in sorting all this out. This is surely not just a women’s issue; in fact, it’s really much more of a men’s issue. That these conversations are happening is great, but they can’t be just among women. We’ll all be much better off with men involved.

(I should note here that I do understand that men prey on men, women on women and some women on men. I’m employing language that is too narrow. But I’ll leave that guideline for someone else’s contribution.)

 

How the media lost the public’s trust — and how they’ll earn it back

(Note: I wrote this post for LinkedIn, with whom I did a video interview on these topics)

A tangle of questions troubles journalists these days: Why are we so distrusted? Can we survive the loss of the advertising that supports us? How do we stand up against the control that behemoths like Facebook and Google have over our futures? And what do we do about the growing assaults on truth telling from bots and hackers, viral deception and foreign meddling – let alone our own president?

I want to add this to the tangle: How can we bring these questions to you? And how can we bring you into the discussions? I want to do this because I worry that, unless journalism matters to the people it exists to serve, it may not exist at all for long. So, if you think that being able to count on a fundamentally reliable supply of information in the public interest is critical to you and to our democracy, here are four things I’d ask you to think about:

  1. Journalists increasingly (I could add, belatedly) understand that we need to do a better job of serving the public’s needs. There are scores of efforts underway to get at the question of how to win the public trust. Some are focused on being more transparent or more inclusive of different viewpoints and voices. Others emphasize listening better and engaging with their communities in creating the news. There is a recommitment to ensuring that journalism is fair, balanced, verifiable and proportional, as well as a new awareness that we must focus not just on what goes wrong, but on the equally newsworthy (and hope-inspiring) things that go right. Perhaps most important, there is a growing understanding that we must direct our fast dwindling resources toward watchdogging government and business, probing the dark corners of poverty and injustice, and providing the basic information needed for effective citizenship.
  2. You – Mr. and Ms. Public – also have a responsibility, one that is unfamiliar to most: to be the curators of your own media diet. Until recently, news simply came to you (for free or cheaply), and you received it. Nobody felt the need to teach her kid how to be mindful of seeking the balanced diet that would produce civic health, choosing what was best for her, demanding better when it didn’t satisfy. Now that the top-down model is gone, it’s little wonder that we live in a chaotic world of half-truths and worse, or that we have trouble figuring out what information came from where — whether the author was a trustworthy source or a kid in Macedonia making a buck off our gullibility. All of us now shape our common news world through the choices we make about what to read or watch or view – and about what we write or share or like. But few of us understand how potent that responsibility is.
  3. If news is going to survive, it will be because the public views it as a civic good, a democratic necessity, and thus is willing to support it. We know that education is essential to a self-governing people, so we fund public schools. We know that human beings need art, so we pony up for admission. Our journalism has long been paid for by advertisers – you, the reader/viewer/listener were the product, not the customer, which made things run effectively but also had some unfortunate aspects, such as disconnecting journalists from readers. Now that advertising tied to news is collapsing, and unlikely ever to return to its previously vigorous state, someone is going to have to pay for this often costly thing that is original journalism. Philanthropy has a role (community foundations, for example, as well as wealthy individuals), and we are already seeing it come into play. But I am convinced that the best journalism will be the journalism that is supported in substantial part by those whom it serves.
  4. Journalists’ failures, and the public’s obliviousness to the challenges, have contributed to the parlous state of news today. But there are other potent forces arrayed against the public’s ability to receive a reliable and fair-minded news report. Powerful critics, backed by individuals of enormous wealth who feel inconvenienced by a free and independent press, seek to weaken it. Intrusions from other nations, as well as individuals making money off falsehoods and deceptions, thrive in the largely human-judgment-free zones of our social-media platforms. Facebook and Google may at long last have acknowledged that they are indeed in the business of providing information – along with the viral deception that infests it – but their responses to date are baby steps. Meanwhile, they sap advertising from traditional journalism organizations, and strip them of their ability to project their own brands – a huge challenge to building trust (not to mention to building an economic model). Extremist publications, poor in truth but rich in demagoguery, render the essential democratic necessity of coming together around common facts a near impossibility. These forces, arrayed against the time-honored notion that “the truth will out,” are not sufficiently understood. And they are far from being adequately addressed.

It’s clear that Americans widely distrust institutions generally, and media organizations in particular. And we seem intent on dividing bitterly along partisan lines, putting our faith (such as it is) in different news sources. So maybe an appeal to join in a common effort seems doomed. But I’m talking about something well beyond today’s dissatisfying landscape. What if you truly felt that there was no source of information that you could rely on to sort fact from fiction? No one to turn to, in a disaster, to find out what really happened? No source you trusted to certify a quote, or a death toll, or determine whether your city council had passed a law that will change your life?

Such a situation is far from unimaginable today. Indeed, I think I can see it on the horizon. And the main thing standing between now and that looming possibility is whether the public begins to see it, too.

 

Journalism failed us badly. Here’s how.

People will be parsing this election for years to come. Here’s one thing I know: Journalism failed us badly. Since we are going to need good journalism more than ever in the days ahead, I offer some thoughts about what went wrong:

  1. The bottomless well of Trump coverage early on. This is mostly attributable to cable, but it was true of television more broadly, and it influenced print and online media as well.

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I included this chart from the New York Times in my March 28 blogpost: A tough test for Journalism and the Midterm Grades Aren’t Good.

As the Times story said, “Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.”

Of this development, CBS Chairman Les Moonves famously said: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”  Here’s what else he said: “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

He did. So did they.

Continue reading Journalism failed us badly. Here’s how.

A terrible loss for journalism, as Gwen Ifill dies at 61

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Gwen came out to Los Angeles to receive the 2011 National Cronkite Award at USC.  The  judges (I was honored to be among them) cited her (and her co-winner Judy Woodruff) for election coverage “focusing on the issues, talking with real voters and letting the candidates explain themselves,” adding that “they avoided the horserace component that is so typical in political coverage.”

How powerful those words feel now, at this moment of loss.

 

 

 

More lessons from civic journalism for today’s disengaged media

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Democracy Fund has published a white paper I wrote: “How to Best Serve Communities: Reflections on Civic Journalism.”  I conclude that “today’s engaged journalism, civic journalism’s replacement in this digital age, enjoys an utterly different environment from the one that confronted civic journalists — one in which disruption prevails, change is the new constant, and innovation is seen, almost universally, as essential. The contemporary movement is landing on far more fertile terrain.”

DF’s Paul Waters blogged about it here, saying:  “Our belief is that this reorientation of local journalism towards engaged journalism is critical to fostering a thriving journalism landscape and a more engaged democracy.”

Making Journalism Indispensable

Last week, I was part of a national conference https://sustainlocal2016.sched.org/ on journalism sustainability convened by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media. Our panel was asked to begin with an overview of the state of local-news sustainability.

Having no particular expertise regarding the mix of revenue streams everyone is testing these days, I decided to focus on what I think lies at the heart of the question: the public. Whatever happens with advertising and subscriptions, events, membership or repurposing of content, I’m convinced that a key to survival will be a public willingness to support journalism. We must come to see information in the public interest as we do the arts or education – as a civic good, one we are responsible for sustaining.

This is no small challenge, since we’ve trained the public for years to believe that the news comes to them for free — or really cheap. You turned on the TV, or you plunked down your quarter for the paper, and you never really thought about the fact that advertisers were paying the bill. This means that we are going to have to make our work so important, so engaging, that people will feel they can’t do without it.

In other words, we’ve got to make our journalism indispensable. Here are a few thoughts I shared with the journalists at the conference about how to go about it:

— Be IN and OF your community.   When I started as a cub reporter at the Colorado Springs SUN, the editor and publisher wrote a column published on the front page. As a newly minted Medill master’s graduate, I found this unorthodox custom disquieting. But it surely worked for the readers, who sensed the editor’s engagement with the community. Later, when I became editor of the Des Moines Register, we kept alive the paper’s historic tradition of running our cartoon on the front page. Register cartoonists had won two Pulitzers over the years; more important, they’d won the hearts of Iowans. In particular, the Sunday cartoons, poking fun at the state and its residents, made it clear that we were all in this together.

— At the same time, we need to remember our leadership role. We are not, as journalists, just seeking to be part of the kaffeeklatsch. We are leading a conversation. I remember focus groups at the Register in which, at the end, a reader would say, “Well, you’re the editors. Help us see what you think is possible.” It’s not a return to the old top-down model that I’m recommending here, but rather engaging in ways that broaden and deepen the community, making it more inclusive and ensuring that people discover things they don’t know.

— We need to be honest about who we are and what we’re attempting to do. The hardest voice I ever had to write in was the editorial voice of The New York Times, when I served on its editorial board. People don’t respond easily to disembodied voices. Amid today’s endless debates about objectivity, I’m struck by the power of the view espoused by the Dutch news organization De Correspondent. They believe that their journalists should be, first and foremost, AUTHENTIC — a quality that is essential if they are to cultivate the rich relationship with readers that the organization seeks.

— Keep in mind that HOPE may be bigger news today than disaster. In this era of cynicism and division, we need a journalism that helps people understand that solutions are possible and government can work. Journalism is supposed to provide an accurate picture of the world around us, but ours has looked pretty lopsided for years. This is not about softball questions or happy-talk stories: Good journalism creates community through a common understanding of accurate information – the good as well as the bad.

— We must remember that we are most effective when we reach people through their hearts as well as their brains. We’ve always known that good writing and powerful photography were key to our success. We have so many more tools today for engaging people and making lasting connections. Elizabeth Alexander closed her poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” by asking “…and are we not of interest to each other?” In recent years, journalism has done as much to distance us from one another as it has to connect us. Our future now may rest on our ability to correct that course.

 

Civic Journalism, Engaged Journalism: Tracing the Connections

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By Geneva Overholser / 2016 August 3rd

“Want to attract more readers? Try listening to them.” That’s the headline on Liz Spayd’s debut as the New York Times’ new public editor. That she devoted her first column to the need to pay attention to readers’ views shows how central the idea of engagement has become for journalists.

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Please see article as published by the Democracy Fund.

 

 

It’s not just the Fox, it’s the sheep’s clothing

The New York Times’s new public editor worried recently that the paper is perceived as liberal; she advised trying to address that problem. Like NPR’s bid to shed the “liberal-media” epithet by shedding Vivian Schiller, like Walter Isaacson’s attempts to cleanse CNN of it by paying a visit to Trent Lott, this is doomed to fail. Thanks in no small part to Roger Ailes.

Ailes, when he set out to create a cable network with a point of view, was clearly filling a market need. But his real brilliance lay in the motto he chose: “Fair and balanced.” The outlet designed to serve conservatives was inoculated at birth from charges of bias by claiming that it alone was free of that taint.

A few years into Fox News’s existence — on the occasion of an award being given to Fox’s leading newsman, Brit Hume — I suggested a public discussion about the merits of this new (for the U.S.) kind of journalism, The Washington media were so dog-whipped by the “liberal-media” lashings that nobody wanted to own up to noticing that Fox was conservative. But the reticence protected no one. The “liberal-media” accusations have only grown, as the public editor’s column reminds us.

Continue reading It’s not just the Fox, it’s the sheep’s clothing

One More Sexual Assault, One More Brave Woman, a Quarter Century Later

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Read it and weep  — this statement from a young woman attacked by a  Stanford freshman. Having been convicted of sexually assaulting her while she was unconscious, he has now been tapped with a ruler on the wrist.

Just over 25 years ago, we published a series in The Des Moines Register  called “It Couldn’t Happen to Me: One Woman’s Story.”  I felt we were taking one strong step to move rape out of the darkness in which it flourished.  Whatever society’s pretensions against it, we seemed unlikely to act against it until we could really see it.

I knew that this seeing and even more, the acting — would require many acts of courage like that of Nancy Ziegenmeyer (the remarkable truth-telling rape survivor in our story).  And I knew that the actions would require a disorienting shift within our society — confronting the gap between what we say we condone, and what is in fact rampantly present.

But today I wept, reading this woman’s statement, to see just how far we are from closing that gap.

Why is progress on this painfully clear human-rights challenge so slow?  What is the difference, say, between progressing here, versus progressing on gay marriage?  Not that justice for gays didn’t take eons; it did, and continues to.  But, on the issue of gay marriage, from the moment when people began speaking out, began really grappling with it and openly arguing about it — from that moment, the change came with remarkable speed.

We are nowhere near that on rape — not really speaking out loudly enough to be heard, not really grappling, still not really arguing about it.  Those societal “Tsk’s” when yet another athletic program is revealed not to have taken sexual assault seriously? That’s not grappling.  That’s closer, by far, to sighing that “boys will be boys.”

This administration has tried to deal seriously with sexual assault on campus.  Countless brave women have spoken out in the years  since Ziegenmeyer refused to remain in the shadows prescribed for those who have been raped. Yet here we are, far indeed from the grappling, from the serious arguments about the need for change. Far from confronting the everyday reality, far from holding people accountable, far from forcing those opposing change to make their arguments about why this deep injustice should continue.

The only thing I can think to say is that this will change when women’s voices are heard against rape, the way gay voices were heard for marriage.  So I guess that puts me back where I was, a quarter of a century ago, believing, as I wrote then, in a column that triggered the Register series:

“I urge women who have suffered this awful crime and attendant injustice to speak out, as some are beginning to do, and identify themselves.

“Rape is an American shame. Our society needs to see that and attend to it, not hide it or hush it up. As long as rape is deemed unspeakable – and is therefore not fully and honestly spoken of – the public outrage will be muted as well.”

 

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On Rape and the Power of Speaking Out:”  I am adding today to my site a page to bring together pieces I have written and other resources on the issue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old media bio, new media gusto!