Aug 13, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Why newspapers are dying

picture-12.pngIt’s always bugged me to read stories in the press about the financial problems the press is having. Journalists, it turns out, aren’t too clear-eyed (and often aren’t too intellectually honest) when it comes to analyzing the collapse of their own profession.

My argument for what’s really going on, or at least the beginning of a series of them, is currently up at Splice Today.

The result is a long—too-long probably—detailing of the five central issues that I contend are at the heart of the collapse of daily journalism. To me it’s incredible that they are almost never detailed in mainstream accounts on the troubles of the industry—because there’s no way to fix the problems if it’s not acknowledged what they are.

Part I is up now. Part II will be up later today. I’d welcome, of course, comments, criticisms and other thoughts on the industry.

Jun 22, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

“Sources? We don’t need no stinking sources!” The WSJ and Steve Jobs

The Journal’s crushing scoop on Steve Jobs the other day—which said Jobs had had a liver transplant in Tennessee a couple of months ago—left competitors flat.

Generally when news like that breaks, the reporters who got scooped are sent off on one of the most humiliating jobs in journalism—calling sources and asking, rather pathetically, if they could possibly confirm the story for you so that you can report it to your own readers as straight news, crediting the competitor who got the scoop originally as far own in your own story as possible.

(Howard Kurtz has this down to a fine art.)

Anyway, the odd thing about the WSJ story is that it cited no sources in its flat lede, and backed up the lede’s assertions nowhere else in the story:

Steve Jobs, who has been on medical leave from Apple Inc. since January to treat an undisclosed medical condition, received a liver transplant in Tennessee about two months ago. The chief executive has been recovering well and is expected to return to work on schedule later this month, though he may work part-time initially.

A hint to who did leak can be found in this key graph, similarly delivered with no sourcing:

At least some Apple directors were aware of the CEO’s surgery. As part of an agreement with Mr. Jobs in place before he went on leave, some board members have been briefed weekly on the CEO’s condition by his physician.

I don’t buy a lot of the complaints about anonymous sources, myself; much of the problem is just a subset of the game-playing papers get into with governmental officials, trading anonymity for incremental disclosures on an ongoing political agenda that have no real value for readers.

In other words, a big part of the vacuous use of anonymous sources are part of stories that are shitty in the first place. But it is fun to watch the papers enforce rules about it, producing some nice semantic juggling as they try to both still use the anonymous sources and simultaneously explain why the sources are unnamed

I suspect that this was a one-source story. The usual formulation would be to make the attribution as vague as possible: “… sources familiar with the matter said.” (The use of the plural in that phrase is one of the biggest lies in journalism.)

So it could be that the Journal decided rather than broadcast how flimsy their sourcing was they’d just go with a pronouncement from on high. More charitably, you can read it as a little bravura flourish. It intimidated the NYT so much, for example, that the paper’s follow-up could not only do nothing but report the fact that the Journal had reported the operation, but also didn’t even bother to state something that would cry out to be mentioned (and would, for example, be exhibit A if the story were later found to be inaccurate): That the WSJ, with an unusual disregard for big-time journalism’s first law, cited no sources for its information.

Jun 15, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Howard Kurtz, the conflicted media critic

Say you’re a big-time media critic, like Howard Kurtz. It’s time to do a little media analysis on that newfangled Twitter. Your angle:

[T]he site is less important than the way its users are changing the media culture. They are exchanging more than just 140-character bursts of blather about their daily lives: They are guiding their friends and followers to the latest news, information, gossip, snark and a pulsating, real-time debate.

If only you had an up-to-the-minute example of how that phenomenon you’ve identified manifests itself!

Kurtz, who works for the Washington Post, started to work the phones. He got one:

When I mentioned on my Twitter page that I would be talking on the air about Conan O’Brien taking over “The Tonight Show,” I got a flood of messages.

Well, ok, that didn’t require any phone work, or even looking past one’s belly button. Still, every reporter knows that one anecdote does not make a story. Kurtz went deeper, all the way down to … the celebrity angle:

[T]he boldfaced names may provide carefully calibrated glimpses, but some actively engage with their fan base.

I became friendly with Mariel Hemingway when the actress began following me on Twitter. When I began checking out her page, I was struck by how often she shared the details of her life, from her hiking to her bedtime. Without any handlers or publicists, we agreed to meet for a CNN interview when I was in Los Angeles.

Turns out Hemingway was promoting a cookbook! How surprising she would agree to meet with … a journalist.

And how fortunate that she is about the most glamorous cookbook author one can think of. One suspects that if Kurtz had noticed Dick Van Patten was following him on Twitter that they might not have “become friendly,” which I bet is a euphemism for “I sent the attractive actress a private Twitter message.”

Anyway, the point of all this that, while Kurtz was flirting with Mariel Hemingway and marveling that normal people would tweet about someone in the news, there was a very real example of how Twitter users are interacting with the media.

Here’s a story in todays’ NYT, about how CNN unaccountably blew off strong coverage of the chaotic aftermath of Iran’s election:

Untold thousands used the label “CNNfail” on Twitter to vent their frustrations. Steve LaBate, an Atlanta resident, said on Twitter, “Why aren’t you covering this with everything you’ve got?” About the same time, CNN was showing a repeat of Larry King’s interview of the stars of the “American Chopper” show. For a time, new criticisms were being added on Twitter at least once a second.

In other words, while the Post’s media critic was writing a dizzily focused, celebrity-dripping recitation of the obvious, the Times was doing an actual story  with a real-world impact stemming from the same subject.

The difference? Kurtz, of course, works for CNN.

In his Washingtonpost.com chat this morning, with typical intellectual dishonesty he addresses a question on the issue from a visitor:

Howard Kurtz: The role of bloggers and tweeters in covering the unfolding Iran saga has been invaluable. And with Ahmadinejad’s regime starting to crack down on the likes of the BBC, it’s been a difficult story to cover.
I know Twitter folks have been all over CNN for not providing more coverage on Saturday. I’m sure CNN could have done more, rather than run some taped programming, perhaps by taking the CNN International feed in the U.S. But it seemed to me that CNN did more than the other cable networks, with regular reports by Christiane Amanpour from Tehran, and especially on Sunday, when it ran many hours of live coverage.

Note how he tries to position himself as being in the know .. and then spins for the network that employs him … without revealing the confllict of interest.

A lot of people don’t like Kurtz; what bugs me about him, and to my mind makes him unfit to hold the positions he holds, is that intellectual dishonesty.

To me, an honest media critic would a) first have bent over backward to include the issues in his piece, and b) in any case bent over backward to address the issue later. (“I wish I’d been alert enough to have noticed the Twitter complaints about CNN while I was doing my in-retrospect-pretty-superficial Twitter piece in this morning’s paper. I don’t agree with most of what was said about CNN—which, remember, writes me a paycheck every week—but it was a trenchant example of the thesis of my piece.”)

And later in the chat Kurtz spins for CNN again:

But when there’s an extraordinary event, such as what is happening in Iran, they need to step it up. As I said, CNN had a lot of coverage on Sunday but not as much as people were demanding, which is why they turn to blogs and Twitter, where some folks are always posting, around the clock.

Link via kausfiles. By the way, Hitsville is on Twitter, too.

Jun 05, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Sellout Watch: Jimmie Fallon

Jimmie Fallon is comedically spineless, and has the moral ethos of a timid paramecium. So the news that he’ll be shilling on his new show for Bing, Microsoft’s umpteenth attempt to get into the search game, won’t besmirch his persona.

From the NYT:

[T]he segments on “Late Show” will present Mr. Fallon as a quiz master, asking contestants to use bing.com to search for answers to questions in categories like travel, health and shopping.

“ ‘Bing’ sounds like a Jimmy Fallon word,” Mr. Silverman said, laughing. “The alignment is great.”

In this way, Bing is the new Garden Weasel.

What will be interesting to watch from here on in is how NBC (and Fallon’s creator and puppetmaster, Lorne Michaels) will handle a name host whom they have essentially formed out of clay, and who will obviously do whatever he is told.

These days, 10 or 20 years in the life of a modern media franchise is unimaginable. But in theory, when Conan O’Brien* finishes his time on the Tonight Show there will be an even more pliable shell waiting in the wings—one who makes the pliable Jay Leno** seem difficult.

Since Bing is owned by Microsoft, Fallon probably won’t suffer the same fate as Whoopi Goldberg, a star with similarly high standards in her commercial affiliations, who jumped into bed a while back with another one of those newfangled internets companies and brought home a little problem. (If you’ll recall, she was suddenly the ubitquitous spokesperson for a misbegotten outfit called Flooz.com, which ended up screwing a lot of its customers out of their money when it shut down abruptly.)

As for Bing—Microsoft’s last search gambit, you will recall, involved paying people to use it. (This was the euphoniously named, oddly unsuccessful “Live Search Cashback.”)

The only problem with that was that M’soft couldn’t get advertisers on the thing. After chatting with Steve Ballmer on the subject, one reporter in all seriousness speculated that he was considering paying advertisers to support the idea as well.

At the time, Hitsville contended that the only way to improve on this innovative business model would be if Microsoft also just bought the companies’ products and gave them to consumers, thereby guaranteeing the ads’ success.

————

* Has O’Brien been funny yet in his new show? After presidential-transition-level coverge in the Times, it was hard not to be at least curious. But I’ve seen only tepid laughs, flop sweat, and O’Brien’s inability to stop hitting the desk top, the thumps from which echo uncomfortably into his mike.

Sample line: Joan Rivers is trying to sell her NYC apartment for $25 million. “It sounds high, but knowing Joan Rivers, it’s probably had a lot of work done.” The audience laughed tepidly, but O’Brien didn’t blink: He followed that up with a Larry King joke.

** Speaking of hacks, Neil Strauss does a blowjob interview with Jay Leno in the newest Rolling Stone. (There’s a short excerpt here; RS doesn’t generally put whole features online.) The departure of Leno from late night would be a nice moment to reflect on a guy who after 17 years on the job will leave no footprints—a colorless gladhander, a host simulacrum. Carson held him in contempt, as does, patently, David Letterman. But Strauss, no doubt looking for a new ghostwriting gig, doesn’t ask Leno anything remotely challenging.

Jun 01, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

The return of the Master of the Obvious

The WSJ’s L. Gordon Crovitz plods on. Connoisseurs of his sober assertions of eminently incontrovertible fact will find much to savor today:

[Google] so dominates search on the Web that “google” has become a verb meaning “to look for information.”

[Search is] the first place we look for information on the Web, and the Web has become the first and often last place we look for answers.

These scintillating observations come not in a 10th-grade book report but an regular op-ed column in the WSJ. These tidbits come in the context of a column in which he tells us that Microsoft’s new “Bing” search engine had “the most buzz” of any product launch at the Journal’s All Things Digital conference. He was there and I wasn’t, but it’s hard to believe that was the case, unless it was the only product launch.

The prospect of Bing lets him ruminate on the nature of Google:

One of the most impressive achievements of Google is how well it’s done without much effective competition. About two-thirds of searches in the U.S. are now through Google, one-fifth through Yahoo and less than one in 10 through Microsoft.

Does that sentence make sense? There used to be a lot of competitors, but Google outsmarted them, right? Yahoo and AOL had huge user bases, but they lost much of them to a better product.

Crovitz is so wooly-headed that it’s hard to figure out what he’s trying to get at. If Google didn’t have “effective competition” its success wouldn’t be that impressive, right?

I think it’s more true to say, “The most impressive achievement of Google is how well it’s done in such a once-crowded field, even with very big operations (Yahoo, M’Soft, Amazon) always trying to steal its crown.”

Waxing profound, Crovitz continues:

After all, search has changed how we gather information and, when it works, find knowledge. It’s been a little more than a decade since people first began to go online to look for information rather than in print directories, encyclopedias and indexes. It’s impossible to overstate how reliant we have become on the Web and its search engines to find information.

As I’ve noted before (“The Master of the Obvious”), Crovitz’s column is a classic put-out-to-pasture consolation prize to a former editor, in this case a former publisher. One gets the feeling the Journal editors and copy editors view Crovitz’s fatuous submissions as a big ol’ waste of space, and courteously decline to make suggestions to improve it.