A Few Quick Thoughts on the New Republic

PM UPDATE:  I've postponed my planned 2nd blog for the day, and instead updated this one to reflect changing facts: 

It appears as though 30 contributors to The New Republic resigned this morning. I think this Mashable piece offers a balanced and reasoned take on the mass exodus. Overall, the mass resignations do not change my feelings about the situation. I've yet to hear anything that management has planned that automatically means weakening the journalistic foundations of TNR. Good journalism and analysis can co-exist with a profitable digital platform.

That's not to say that Chris Hughes and Guy Vidra are good people for whom to work, or that they won't run TNR into the ground. But if the objection from those who resigned is to going digital, and perhaps increasing the amount of click bait on the website, they are misguided about the future of journalism in the twenty-first century. A viable business model is the key to supporting great journalism, and the two are not mutually exclusive. 

My Original Post:

This won't be a full post, as I have another one planned for this afternoon. I also hesitate to write much given that I have no inside knowledge, nor have I done any reporting to figure out what is going on at The New Republic. There may well be much about the vision held by the leadership (especially owner Chris Hughes) that is not yet public and which I would find highly objectionable. 

Nonetheless, given what we know now (and my knowledge stems from tweets, this New York Times piece, and this Politico piece), I find some of the angst confusing. I lament the loss of two good editors, and I applaud Ryan Lizza, Jonathan Chait, and Robert Kagen for sticking to their guns and resigning if they find the changes at the publication troubling. 

But the substance of the changes, on the surface, doesn't seem like it will greatly reduce the quality of the content. 

Reducing to ten print editions per year and focusing on digital strikes me as almost irrelevant to the quality of the product produced by any publication in 2014. I'm far more troubled by the opinions purportedly held by CEO Guy Vidra regarding long form journalism. 

In today's day and age, platform is irrelevant. I am someone who prefers to read print books to ebooks. Nonetheless, I find digital articles far better than print publications from a convenience standpoint. I also firmly believe that a digital first strategy does not have to mean bad journalism. To the contrary, there is a lot of great journalism being produced by online only publications and plenty of it is long form. 

The key is good long form investigative journalism regardless of the platform. So long as a publication produces that, I see no detriment to society or journalism if a publication changes its business structure, and focuses on being a digital content company. 

In studying the media business, far too much is made about changes in delivery mechanisms. The reality is that old delivery mechanisms may cease to exist or find their purposes changed with time (as has happened for centuries). The key as a society is to ensure that the quality of content remains high, and that we get as much of it as we did through old delivery mechanisms. 

We also live in a society in which consumers can and will pick and choose what media they consume. Thus, I'm not even troubled by the fears voiced in the Politico article that The New Republic might now chase clicks like Buzz Feed

Again, to me, the key question is does TNR continue to produce high quality, long form journalism? If the answer is yes, then mixing in some click bait really shouldn't trouble people. In the days of a print journal, that might have been problematic because fluff would be taking pages from serious journalism. But in a digital world, people will pick and choose what stories they read, and space is fairly infinite. Most people will not read everything on the TNR website, so they can pick and choose as they see fit. 

As such, there is no reason TNR cannot appeal to multiple audiences in different ways. Click bait for readers interested in such fare (which might pay the bills), and serious long form journalism for people who like to read those sorts of pieces. The two can comfortably coexist on one website so long as TNR remains committed to hiring quality journalists and supporting their work. If this commitment wanes, it will be a loss for everyone. If it remains strong, then perhaps we will look back on this moment as the time when TNR's future became assured. 

 

The Importance of Newspapers

Yesterday the New York Times published a fantastic and critically important piece of reporting by Eric Lipton on the access of corporations and their lobbyists to state attorneys general. 

The piece chronicled just about everything wrong with our political system— corporate lobbyists getting days of private access to state attorneys general at swanky retreats all while the offices of those attorneys general had to decide whether to sue those very same corporations, and once they sued them, whether to settle and for how much! 

Shockingly, this access led to some decisions that, at the very least, created the appearance of impropriety, if not any sort of actual quid pro quo. Democrats and Republicans alike looked bad and taxpayers were left to wonder if the public's lawyers was capable of acting in the public interest (the answer for several of them seems to be a resounding no). 

I could blog about the corrosive impact of money and access in the political system (especially at lower levels of the system in which two sides are less likely to have even resources), call for campaign finance reform (long overdue), or discuss the way that access is often the most critical benefit that moneyed interests have in our political system. 

But instead, I want to focus on the critical importance of Lipton's reporting and the danger to our country posed by the bleak situation facing newspapers.

Over the last decade or more, newspaper advertising revenue has dropped precipitously. In 2013, print ad revenues reached their lowest level since 1950 when the Newspaper Association of America began tracking data. According to the website Newspaper Death Watch, the constant and persistent decline in print revenue (which is not being offset by a sufficient increase in online revenue) has led to the closure of twelve North American metro dailies since 2007. Another twelve major metro dailies have either eliminated print editions, cut the number of days of publication per week, or took another similar drastic step. 

Countless other papers have gone through bankruptcy, and even the strongest newspapers, like The New York Times, have resorted to other cost cutting measures including the elimination of sections, a reduction in the number of pages in the paper, pooling content, etc. The Times recently cut 100 newsroom jobs (representing about 7.5% of the newsroom staff). 

Over the last decade, the newspaper industry has undergone a bloodletting. The blog Paper Cuts counted 41,665 newspaper industry jobs lost from the middle of 2007 when tracking began through 2012 (when the blog's data seems incomplete). According to projections by the American Society of Newspaper editors, the number of journalists working at daily newspapers declined from 56,900 in 1990 (the year the number of reporters peaked) to 36,700 in 2014. That represents a reduction of over 35%.

In 2012, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 51,700 reporters and correspondents working for print and broadcast news outlets. BLS projected that number to decline by 14% by 2022. Thus, even when factoring in the reporting that occurs through broadcast media, the picture is quite bleak and growing bleaker by the day. 

Why do we care? Precisely because of Eric Lipton's fine reporting on the state attorney generals. We need great journalists to shine a light on government and business and keep them from misbehaving. Good journalists also uncover inefficiencies in government, and help consumers being mistreated by large companies who would otherwise ignore them. The explosion of blogs, data journalism, and new sites like Vox.com are no replacement for good local and state print reporting. 

I don't worry about coverage of Congress or the President ever becoming substandard. Those beats will always be sufficiently covered by the major national newspapers and broadcast outlets. What I worry about is coverage at lower levels of government. Corruption in state and local government that gets missed for far too long because there are so few reporters covering city hall and the statehouse. Reporting like Eric Lipton's reporting, or the reporting of Inga Saffron that I highlighted in previous blogs. 

Additionally, the dearth of local reporters covering their state's members of Congress in Washington allows the billions of dollars in political ads that are blanketing the airwaves (anyone ready for the campaign ads to go away?) and ideologically driven media to define even veteran members of Congress.

In Robert Kaiser's fantastic Act of Congress, then-Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) lamented how charges against him took off in part because he no longer had local reporters covering him as he had early in his career who could provide better context and perspective. 

Reporters perform a critical public service and having knowledgeable, veteran reporters covering government aggressively at every level (and business) is essential to government functioning well. Anyone who doubts this premise ought to consider the ugly result in the NFL two years ago when the regular referees missed several games due to a labor dispute (anyone remember this play?) Journalists are the referees of politics and then some.  

Many may consider reporters to be superfluous in an era with smart phones shooting high definition video and twitter allowing citizens to serve as journalists of a sort. They may view newspapers to be anachronistic in a world in which twitter brings us the news in real time. Many may also lament the proliferation of horserace coverage, and storylines that seem to guide reporting irregardless of actual events on the ground. 

Yet, Lipton's piece, and countless others like it, show that newspapers provide much more than a play by play of what happened yesterday. Lipton's story likely took months to report and required work from two reporters and two researchers. Citizen journalists are far less equipped to provide in depth investigate reporting than they are footage of a senator sticking his foot in his mouth (yes, all politicians should assume that pretty much everything they say is being recorded).

They don't have the rolodex of good, seasoned reporters, nor do they have the time (or expense accounts) to pursue big, complicated stories. I've conducted two hundred and twenty-five interviews for my research, and as research is a critical component of my work, my research skills (and the resources available to me) are likely better than most. Yet, it takes far more effort for me to track down contact information for many people to whom I wish to speak than it would for a good reporter. 

Newspapers undoubtedly need to change to reflect the current realtime news environment in which we live. They need to focus on big, in depth reporting that most real time news providers cannot offer. They also need new business models to reflect the changes in society (perhaps selling some sort of digital pass that gets a consumer access to all of the newspapers they want to read for one reasonable fee?).

Yet, we as consumers must do our part as well. We must be willing to pay for good in depth reporting. We must demand that media companies stop curtailing good local and state political coverage, and good coverage of locally based companies. We must demand the end to the old adage in local broadcast news that if it bleeds it leads (i.e. that crime stories lead the local news). If local print coverage gets reduced, local broadcasters must pick up the slack. 

Perhaps it might be time to investigate the feasibility of allowing taxpayers to allocate a portion of their individual taxes into some sort of fund to benefit the newspaper industry (the fund would obviously need to be handled by an independent body to prevent government from having any coercive power over reporters). It might also be time for newspapers to begin fundraising drives, a la PBS, or something else that allows the public to own a piece of their local newspaper.

While these ideas would be complicated to carry out so long as newspapers remain owned by for profit corporations, newspapers are truly public trusts, and the public suffers as their quality diminishes. Right now, absent either a change in the makeup of the Supreme Court, or the unlikely passage of a constitutional amendment, the work of reporters like Eric Lipton, and more stringent disclosure laws represent our best hope for reducing the corrosive impact of money on politics. 

Ebola And Everything That is Wrong About Our Political System

I had decided not to write a blog about the Ebola situation because I'm not a public health expert and I really didn't think I had anything to add. 

That resolve lasted until I saw tweets about a New Hampshire Senate debate between former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown (R) (Brown moved to New Hampshire to run for Senate), and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D). 

The following passage from Politico summarizes the irresponsibility that drives many of our politicians come campaign season.

"On Ebola, Blitzer repeatedly pushed Shaheen on whether she supports a travel ban from West Africa. She did not say yes or no but repeated that she defers to experts, who think it could make us worse off.

“My opponent and I aren’t infectious disease experts, so we really need to rely on the experts,” she said.

Brown said he doesn’t need to be an expert to call for travel bans.

“She calls it fearmongering; I call it rational fear,” he said.

Something is deeply wrong with both Brown's disingenuous attempt to take advantage of the Ebola outbreak, and moderator Wolf Blitzer (of CNN)'s choice of questions and follow up questions. Brown should have been the one facing hard follow up questions. 

Questions along the lines of Senator, how can you advocate a travel ban in light of the opposition from former Senator Bill Frist, a conservative Republican, but also a transplant surgeon, and former Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), who is also a doctor?

Instead, Shaheen inexplicably faced the difficult follow up questions for offering the proper response—TRUST the EXPERTS. Blitzer is a good journalist, but in this case, he fell pray to the temptation to try to pin down a politician who seems to be refusing to answer a simple question. 

He, and many other journalists covering campaigns have gotten caught up in the back and forth between candidates over Ebola rather than stepping back and asking whether the issue has any place in the campaign at all? 

My view is that it does not. Any attempt to make Ebola an issue on either side is an attempt to fear monger and a disservice to the American public. None of the Congressional candidates calling for travel bans, quarantines, etc. have any sort of expertise regarding infectious diseases. They're also openly ignoring the fact that the flu poses far greater risk to most Americans than Ebola (and I had my pick of hundreds of links to support this claim). 

I'll admit that a travel ban sounded reasonable to me—right up until the moment that I read that the experts believed that a ban would be ineffective, and might actually worsen the situation. 

Additionally, even though I agree with some of the critiques of the CDC's early handling of the situation (especially letting a Dallas nurse exhibiting possible symptoms of Ebola fly to Cleveland) I think we'd all be wise to take a step back and consider the following question: is it so surprising that public health officials dealing with their first Ebola case made some errors? 

Frankly, the real test is not whether they avoided making mistakes when treating the first case, but rather whether they learned from those mistakes and improved their handling of subsequent cases. 

Sadly, instead of statesmen, many of our public officials do and say anything that is politically expedient and they see a chance to capitalize in the waning weeks of the campaign. Ebola presents a nice simple, seemingly easy to understand issue. 

This situation also raises another major problem in politics today— the willingness of a segment of the political spectrum to ignore expertise and to willingly ignore facts. I got into several twitter debates last weekend with people over voter ID laws. My contention was simple— one is entitled to his or her own opinions. But he/she is not entitled to his/her own facts. 

We see this phenomenon most clearly in the Republican attitude towards climate change, but it is manifesting itself again in the Ebola situation. Conservative scorn for intellectuals and experts is not a new thing (the great historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about the topic nearly 5 decades ago).  Nor is it limited to issues relating to science.

Just two days ago The New York Times ran a piece on how Republican economic proposals  underwhelmed economists, even conservative Republican economists. Indeed, both the Times piece, which quoted several prominent Republican economic advisers, and the Ebola situation point to perhaps the most alarming element of today's strain of anti-intellectualism on the right— the unwillingness to listen to even conservative experts when their advice is not politically expedient, and does not match the narrative crafted by the conservative messaging machine. 

We see this phenomenon on issue after issue covering the entire spectrum of political topics. The result is often skewed perceptions among segments of the electorate and poor public policy. In several instances, Republicans have limited their own ability to govern because their rhetoric misleads voters to think that something is possible when it is not (for example, repeal of the Affordable Care Act). 

Refreshingly, many younger conservatives buck this trend, especially with regard to climate change. 

None of this is to say that experts are infallible or that they should we not challenge them. They make mistakes like all other human beings. We should ask them hard questions, regardless of the topic. Nonetheless, if we have no experts and no referees in the political process, and everyone is entitled to their own facts, the result is a destructive political process, a non-functional government, and an ill-informed public. 

My contention is that Republicans can do better without compromising their principles. For example, the economic experts cited in the Times article recommended dramatically increased spending on infrastructure. This proposal does not mesh well with Republican calls to slash government spending. And yet, there is no reason that infrastructure spending cannot be significantly increased within the context of reduced overall spending. 

Such a proposal simply requires greater spending cuts elsewhere. Indeed, it requires smarter spending cuts and would force Congress to demonstrate some courage. Congressmen would have to target programs for extinction rather than advocating across the board cuts, which are senseless, because they cut the good along with the bad. 

The same paradigm holds true regarding climate change. Republicans oppose a carbon tax for economic and philosophical reasons. But doing so does not require ignoring the obvious and telling scientific experts that they are wrong. Why not acknowledge climate change, and develop alternative, conservative proposals for combating it? (I can dream up any number of potential proposals that might fall into this category). 

While I've picked on Republicans in this post, Democrats do plenty of fear mongering and ignore experts when it suits their political needs as well (especially with regard to entitlement programs). 

There is a role for the press and the public in this process as well. The press has to hold politicians' feet to the fire. Blitzer should have followed up with Brown by asking why a travel ban related to rational fear when even conservative former office holders with medical expertise disagreed. He should have challenged Brown with the facts. Brown's campaign might have howled and charged liberal media bias. But the press ought to consistently practice this tactic with candidates and officeholders from both parties. 

As for the public, the first step is understanding that the media is a business. CNN airs hyperbolic coverage of every major "crisis" from plane crashes to Ebola because it helps drive ratings. If they minimized fears about Ebola, people would have less incentive to tune in.

Similarly, talk show hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow, cannot be people's sole news source. Their job is to entertain and to provide content that their audience wants to hear. Doing so produces higher ratings and increased revenue. 

As such the public must recognize that these programs can be worth watching/listening, and indeed, have an important role in society. Nonetheless, these sorts of opinion programs cannot be a substitute for hard news coverage (and we ought to question whether the news coverage on FOX News and MSNBC qualifies).

 

 

Would Jon Stewart Have Made a Good Meet the Press Host?

Last week Gabriel Sherman broke the news that before naming Chuck Todd the new host of Meet the Press (full disclosure— I am a huge Chuck Todd fan. He's simply one of the very best journalists working today), NBC offered Jon Stewart just about anything he wanted to take the post. 

Would Stewart have been good in the role? I am tempted to say that he is so talented, and so in sync with the cynicism that many Americans feel about the political process that he would have been outstanding. Indeed, I've already written in a previous post about what a fantastic interviewer Stewart is. As he is free from the strictures of traditional journalism, he is able to call BS answers out. In the same post, I praised the work of The Daily Show in terms of reporting on critical issues. These skills also augur well for the job that Stewart would have done on Meet the Press. 

Yet, the question requires more analysis. Much of what makes Stewart so effective stems from conditions that NBC could not offer.

For example, there are a lot of things he can say and do on cable at 11 PM at night that he could never do at 10 or 11 AM in the morning on broadcast television. The content on Meet the Press would have to be far tamer than it is on Daily Show. Sexual innuendo, coarse language, and other elements of The Daily Show would not be permissible, if for no other reason than the different regulations that govern what can be said on television and when. 

Even John Oliver's fantastic Last Week Tonight, which might at first blush provide a model for how a comedian could host a weekly news show and provide real, serious, substantive reporting, demonstrates this problem. If anything, by virtue of being on HBO, Oliver has even more freedom to swear like a sailor, and make racy jokes in order to make his long form journalism entertaining. 

Additionally, we must recognize a fundamental difference in purpose between the Daily Show  and Meet the Press. The former focuses on entertaining. The later focuses on reporting and analysis. Even if we want to argue that Daily Show offers better reporting and analysis, the difference in purpose matters. It allows Stewart to pick stories because they lend themselves to entertaining presentations. He might not have the same freedom on a show like Meet the Press. 

Instead, he would be forced to address the biggest topics for at least some of the show. 

The end result of some of these constraints is that Stewart might disappoint on Meet the Press. People would tune in expecting the same entertaining presentation, and he might not be able to deliver. 

Nonetheless, overall, I think he's a brilliant enough talent that he could have found a way to construct a successful program. 

What might the model have looked like? Well, I think he could have used the reporting resources of NBC News to offer good long form journalism. While the types of humor that he could be employ would be constricted, he would have all week to find a way to make a 12-15 minute piece hold our attention. He also could have breathed new energy in the interview and roundtable portions of Meet the Press.

His BS detector, and his willingness to push interview subjects would offer refreshing segments that might actually produce news. He also could force politicians to address the topics that cynical Americans want addressed, but that politicians avoid with talking points. Now the end result of this style might be that politicians refused to go with Stewart.