Opinion

Jack Shafer

When editors bury that which cannot die

Jack Shafer
Jul 11, 2012 15:41 UTC

When Tom Waits sang, “You can’t unring a bell,” on the album One From the Heart, he was saying that even if we shove all of life’s mistakes and embarrassments down the memory hole, they still ding-a-ling-ding-ding from the beyond.

For reasons mysterious, not all media outlets have gotten that message. Yesterday, Poynter’s Steve Myers reported that NPR erased from its website an entire story about a Kabul execution by contributor Ahmad Shafi that was plagiarized in part from a Jason Burke piece in the March 2001 edition of the London Review of Books. NPR replaced the Web page with an editor’s note explaining the copy theft, but deleted the story.

NPR’s deletion was silly. As Myers reported, the plagiarized account can still be found elsewhere on the Web. If and when that site removes the page, the Wayback Machine or some archivist or Google Cache will have preserved it for inquiring minds. If those sites do not cough up the story, email me at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and I’ll exercise my fair-use right by forwarding a copy of the NPR piece for your educational and research purposes.

Why shouldn’t acts of plagiarism committed online be preserved online for study and enlightenment? Publishers don’t attempt to collect and destroy the newspapers, magazines or books they sell if they are later found to contain works of plagiarism. Nor do the copyright cops invade libraries to snip from the newspaper microfilm rolls the frames that are later discovered to have contained plagiarized material. We’ve wisely agreed that instances of print plagiarism should be preserved for study and for re-judgment in case the accused is innocent – and yes, also for fingerpointing.

NPR isn’t the only publication stoking the memory hole this summer. The Wall Street JournalHuffington Post and Yale’s New Journal deleted pieces by Liane Membis from their websites last month after elements of her work were shown to have been fabricated, as this story by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon explained. The Hearst-owned New Canaan News recently fired Paresh Jha for fabricating sources and quotes in more than two dozen stories, which the publication has removed from its website. Even those bad boys at tech ‘n’ gadget site Gizmodo briefly indulged the instinct to hide their embarrassment this week by deep-sixing a flawed report on Apple before coming to their senses and reposting the piece with a correction and an apology for their self-censoring ways.

How the byline beast was born

Jack Shafer
Jul 6, 2012 21:36 UTC

The church of journalism threw a minor fit last week after This American Life exposed the inner workings of local-news company Journatic. Based in Chicago, Journatic contracts with newspapers around the country to provide them with local news stories. Some of the heavy lifting it outsources to freelancers, who work hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from the publications in which their “hyperlocal” news pieces appear. Journatic pays piece-work rates equivalent to about $10 to $12 an hour to the freelancers who collect and assemble information about school lunch menus, real estate transfers, local deaths, marriage licenses, bowling scores, garbage pickup schedules, and the like. The final copy, which is massaged by Journatic hands elsewhere, some of them full-timers, has run in the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, GateHouse newspapers, and the Chicago Sun-Times.

The outrage over Journatic was, in part, protectionist in nature: No well-paid staff reporter wants to be replaced by one of Journatic’s $10-an-hour wage slaves living in the Philippines, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet republics, Brazil or Africa. Others found in the byline scandal new evidence of the crisis of newspapers, which has them cutting costs everywhere just to survive. But most of the coverage has concentrated on the unseemly ethics of the fake bylines, at least some of which were generated by a “select alias” button used by Filipino writers. Those fake bylines included “Ginny Cox,” “Jimmy Finkel,” “Carrie Reed,” “Jay Brownstone” and “Amy Anderson.” The San Francisco Chronicle has determined that Journatic contributor Jeremy Schnitker published 32 articles as “Jake Barnes” in its pages, presumably an homage to the character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The Sun-Times and GateHouse are ending their relationship with the content farm, and Journatic has announced that it has “banished” fake bylines from its stories. The Houston Chronicle apologized, and Journatic’s CEO claimed the ginned-up bylines were designed to optimize search-engine discovery and to protect his writers from reader complaints.

Where does the sanctity of the byline come from?

Obviously, every news story should brim with the truth. But does an accurate story become unclean if the byline does not match the name of the writer (or writers) who produced it? In even the most professional of newsrooms, editors frequently do sufficient work on a piece – reporting and re-reporting sections, composing long passages without the assistance of the bylined writer, redefining the story’s parameters – that they deserve a byline or at least a co-byline. Yet magazine, newspaper and wire editors rarely receive this credit for their extraordinary interventions. Even so, I’ve never heard anybody claim that the readers of these pieces were in any way hoodwinked.

Serving up the Supreme Court dough before it’s baked

Jack Shafer
Jun 28, 2012 21:07 UTC

Go ahead and ridicule CNN and Fox News Channel for fumbling the Supreme Court ruling (pdf) in the Affordable Care Act case today by reporting that the law had been struck down. If news organizations are going to crow about their breaking news scoops – Bloomberg News is bragging that it beat Reuters to the court’s decision by 12 seconds – they must submit to vigorous fanny-whackings whenever they perpetrate “Dewey Defeats Truman”-style mistakes. Tweets from the Huffington Post’s politics section, Time, and NPR got it wrong, too.

At least CNN and Fox only got it wrong one way. The Chicago Sun-Times erred at least four ways, posting to one Web page last night its preliminary coverage and headlines – ”Supreme Court strikes down health care law,” “Supreme Court waters down health care law,” and “Supreme Court upholds health care law,” and “Supreme Court XXXX Obama health law.” To be fair to the Sun-Times, every news organization pre-bakes as much coverage as it can when covering court decisions, elections, conventions and other scheduled news events. They write obituaries of the famous and old before they die. Pre-baking isn’t restricted to journalists. Even President Barack Obama stockpiled multiple speeches to cover three possible outcomes, he’s just lucky that he didn’t give the wrong one.

I suppose you could toss out my preconception theory and blame the errors on the continual acceleration of the news and the increasing pressure to get it first. But then you’d have to explain why Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Associated Press, and Dow Jones got it right inside the same instant news cycle.

Why leaks are good for you

Jack Shafer
Jun 27, 2012 22:16 UTC

Every leak of classified information benefits somebody. With maybe one exception, I’d say that the recent sluice of leaks that has opened up and been reported in the press benefits you.

Let me explain. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently theorized that the press disclosures about U.S. cyberattacks against Iran and about American drone warfare were leaked by the White House to portray Barack Obama as a decisive wartime president to aid in his re-election. That an administration might leak national security information for political advantage is no fantasy: In 2006, the Los Angeles Times documented several examples of President George W. Bush’s administration leaking classified material to change public sentiment in his favor.

But Noonan’s reductionist thinking fails to explain last month’s messy leak in the underwear bomber plot. That particular leak blew a double agent’s cover, endangering the agent’s life and benefiting the White House in no way.

The leadership lessons of Chairman Rupert

Jack Shafer
Jun 26, 2012 19:56 UTC

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.

Rupert Murdoch has endured more crises during his 80-plus years than Richard Nixon and Odysseus combined, so the CEO and chairman of News Corporation can be forgiven for seeming nonplussed by his current predicament. He took over the family newspaper business in Australia at 21, when his father died, and expanded it. He fought the British unions in 1986 and won. He repelled the bankers in 1990, when he was close to insolvency. He has survived two divorces, the purchase and sale of MySpace.com, a bunch of other digital disasters, and even the predations of John Malone, who threatens Murdoch family hegemony with his purchase of News Corp stock. And now, referencing his media empire’s latest fiasco, the British Parliament has deemed Murdoch “not a fit person” to run an international company.

If Murdoch were the sort of pompous captain of industry who collected leadership maxims, Look for Trouble would likely top his list. He craves competition, and has repeatedly bet his company on new ventures like 20th Century Fox, the Fox Network, NFL football and his satellite operations.

Most chief executives think rewarding stockholders is their primary job. Not Murdoch. The Murdoch family owns the controlling shares in the company, so the chairman can largely ignore Wall Street to pursue a strategy that stretches across decades, not quarters. Yes, he’s impulsive, but creatively so.

Turning the morning news into soap opera

Jack Shafer
Jun 21, 2012 21:50 UTC

Ann Curry, the second fiddle on NBC’s Today show, is apparently being shown the door. That news was broken yesterday afternoon by Brian Stelter, the prolific media reporter of the New York Times on the newspaper’s website, and that 1,100-word story earned prominent placement on Page One of the business section of this morning’s paper.

I’ll forgive you in advance if you don’t care whether Curry continues on Today or if you don’t care whether she finds a slot elsewhere in the NBC empire, just as long as you forgive me for not giving a fig either. It’s not that I dislike Ann Curry or Today‘s first fiddle, Matt Lauer, or even Today‘s morning-show competition. It’s just that I dislike the shows for being dulled-down messes of news, entertainment and talk. If I watch any of them, it’s by accident.

My lack of interest in the morning-show mix puts me in the majority. Today, which is usually the number-one-rated program, and ABC’s Good Morning America, which took that position a couple of times this spring, draw an average of fewer than 5 million viewers. The third-ranked show, CBS’s This Morning, pulls in a little more than 2 million viewers. In a country of 311 million, that’s minimal interest.

Jonah Lehrer’s recycling business

Jack Shafer
Jun 20, 2012 23:38 UTC

“Write every piece three times,” the late Richard Strout used to advise journalists who craved advancement in the profession.

Strout, who wrote the New Republic’s TRB column for four decades and worked 60 years as a Washington correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, wasn’t calling on his colleagues to submit identical copies of their work to different publications for payment, as New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer just got busted for.

Strout was more subtle. If, for example, you were a freelancer who had just penned a slice-of-life piece for the New Republic about a coal strike in West Virginia, the only way to earn back your investment of time on such a low-paying piece was to spin off a similar yet distinctive version, maybe to the Outlook section of the Washington Post. If you could reconstitute elements of the narrative into a work that fed the policy debate over unions, your efforts were legitimate. After satisfying those two outlets, a smart freelancer would shoot for the glossies with a big coal-strike feature, perhaps the New York Times Magazine or the Atlantic. Sometimes the publish-every-piece-three-times impetus has come not from writers, but from editors who, having seen a writer’s earlier work on a topic, wanted a localized version of the writer’s story.

Who jumped first from the newspaper sinking ship?

Jack Shafer
Jun 15, 2012 22:21 UTC

When did the ripe, bulbous, and gibbous newspaper bubble pop?

It was probably in the 1990s, when the business better resembled a cruising blimp than it did the dotcoms like Pets.com, Boo.com, and TheGlobe.com, which all went kerblewy around the turn of the century. Unlike the bombing dotcoms, the high valuation of newspapers was based on real, not imaginary profits, and the belief that the profits from these deals would extend for years, if not decades, into the future.

And such deals there were. The New York Times Co bought the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion in 1993. In 1997, McClatchy acquired the corporation that owned the Minneapolis Star Tribune for $1.4 billion and Knight-Ridder purchased the Kansas City Star and Fort Worth Star-Telegram (and two other smaller papers) for $1.65 billion. On the sidelines, newspaper consultant John Morton crunched the numbers and expressed the market consensus about these transactions in the headline for his January/February 1998 American Journalism Review column: “Expensive, Yes, But Well Worth It.”

Morton’s column provides no sense of the impending doom, no inkling that an entire industry is arrowing its way to a hospice, no clue that all these newspaper people have booked passage on a death ship. Even after the Hearst Corp ditched its San Francisco Examiner for a $660 million deal to buy the San Francisco Chronicle in late 1999, more happy talk ensued. If anybody cited Warren Buffett’s 1991 warning that newspapers had lost their special “franchise” value and that he wouldn’t be buying any more of them soon, I missed it.

What happens to Tribune after bankruptcy?

Jack Shafer
Jun 11, 2012 22:40 UTC

Choking softly on the wad of debt “rescuer” Sam Zell fed it, Tribune Co checked into a Wilmington, Delaware, bankruptcy court at the end of 2008. Now newly slimmed, especially after the payment of $410 million in legal and other professional fees, the much diminished patient is about to be released and turned over to its new owners, a group of banks and hedge funds. How diminished? At the time Zell acquired control in 2007, Tribune Co’s newspapers, television stations, other media properties and Chicago Cubs baseball franchise were valued at $8.2 billion. Reporting from court filings, Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Oneal put Tribune Co’s current value at about $4.5 billion.

That’s not a haircut. That’s a beheading. Some of that loss in value represents the sale (for $845 million) of Tribune’s Chicago Cubs operation in 2009, but still.

What will the likely new owners (JPMorgan Chase; Angelo, Gordon & Co.; and Oaktree Capital Management) do with the reconstituted Tribune Co? According to Oneal, who has been monitoring the ailing company’s vitals since before its bankruptcy, Tribune isn’t so sick that it must sell off all its parts immediately. But hedge funds and banks aren’t the best managers of media properties, and when combined with today’s declining market for media properties, those hedge funds and banks might want to put out a for-sale sign as soon as possible. I’m sure that if you were interested in Tribune’s 23 TV stations, which are valued at $2.9 billion, they’d meet you for coffee.

The great newspaper liquidation

Jack Shafer
Jun 5, 2012 22:53 UTC

In his 2004 book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, Philip Meyer imagined “the final stages” of a “squeeze scenario” by a newspaper owner who wanted to exit the business but didn’t want to actually sell the title: He would start charging more for his newspaper and delivering less, commencing the “slow liquidation” of his property. This slow liquidation would not be immediately apparent to observers, Meyer wrote, because the asset “being converted to cash” would be “goodwill” – the newspaper’s standing in the community and the habit of advertisers and subscribers of giving it money.

One reason an owner would want to extract a newspaper’s goodwill value before selling its physical assets – its real estate, presses, computers, trucks, paper, ink, etc. – is that traditionally, goodwill is where most of a newspaper’s value has resided. When Meyer asked two newspaper appraisers to estimate how much of a newspaper’s value was locked up in goodwill versus physical assets, both gave him the same answer: 80 percent goodwill, 20 percent physical assets.

Selling goodwill is a dangerous strategy because once sold, it’s difficult to reacquire. But a newspaper owner who feels trapped by losses and can’t find a new owner at what he considers a fair price may feel he has no alternative but to cheapen his newspaper bit-by-bit, month-by-month. He may explain the goodwill sell-off as temporary economizing to be reversed once business conditions improve, or even as the exploration of a new business model. Sellers of newspaper goodwill might protest that the financial losses they’re absorbing constitute a serious investment in the newspaper’s future, that they’re harvesting nothing. But don’t be fooled. If you’re winding your company down with no strategy to wind it up, you’re burning goodwill even if you don’t acknowledge it.

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