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April 19 2012

13:17

The newsonomics of risking it all

Alfredo Corchado was used to getting mortal threats.

He received three in Mexico, but now he was in a Laredo bar, north of the border.

You better stop what you’re doing, or you’ll end with a bullet in your head and your body in a vat of acid, he was told. And then we’ll deliver the bones to your family in El Paso.

It was a chilling warning, or at least we’d expect it to put a chill into Corchado. An investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News (and a former Nieman Fellow), he’s been covering the ravages of drug trafficking for years, much to the concern of his parents living, as the traffickers plainly know, in El Paso. Yet Corchado goes on with his work — as do Adela Navarro Bello of Tijuana’s Zeta news magazine, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Ramita Navai of the U.K.’s Channel 4. As Navarro Bello explained of her paper’s coverage of the drug trafficking that has consumed at 50,000 Mexican lives, “If we don’t publish this information, we are part of the problem.” (Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz has captured Zeta’s struggle — including the murder of two of its journalists — with a new movie.)

Each is an investigative reporter who put their lives on the line to reveal stories they think readers must know about. They spoke on the “When the Story Bites Back” panel this weekend, at UC Berkeley, part of the sixth annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium (live blogging of the conference, here, with a #Logan12 Twitter feed).

That panel and the entire spirited weekend, organized and led by esteemed investigative producer Lowell Bergman, tells us a fair amount about the business of journalism. Though it is not — like most of my work — concerned with the dollars and cents of the business, in its very essence, it describes why the current crazy-quilt economics of the business matters. Funding the journalism business isn’t like funding Sears and Kodak (“The newsonomics of the long good-bye”) or other fading institutions. It’s not even about saving a perhaps-vital American industry, like the auto industry.

It’s about keeping a lifeline of funding open so that our best reporters can do their jobs.

I’ll call it the newsonomics of risking it all because that’s what these reporters do. Many of the other Logan participants and attendees, thankfully, do less life-threatening work. Yet those represented at the conference — from ProPublica, the Washington Post, and New York Times to ABC, NBC, and NPR — are among the cream of the crop of investigative work and produce work with real public interest impact.

As we endlessly debate pay models, whether or not to work with Facebook, how to deal with Apple and Amazon and multi-platform journalism, the Logan Symposium is good tonic — certainly for those of us who attended, but really for all of us who know why this business matters to democracy. Whether and how the economics of the new news business work out isn’t an arcane question; it’s central to our collective future. The value of good, deep reporting is truly priceless.

So what about the state of investigative reporting? Look at the glass as half full and half cloudy.

What emerged from the conference, surprising to some, is that national investigative reporting is keeping its head above water. Both NBC and ABC talked about their expansions in the investigative area, while companies like NPR and Bloomberg have put new resources in as well. Units at the Post, L.A. Times, and New York Times may not be growing much, but seem to be sustaining themselves, for now.

“For now” is an important qualifier, and New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet’s opening interview at Logan, in its over-the-top self-assurance, bothered many of the conference participants with whom I talked.

Washington Post investigative editor Jeff Leen suggested that there were 200 investigative reporters paid by news media in the U.S., which I calculate as one for every 1.5 million Americans. That’s not a ratio that’s going to hold many big institutions — government, business, labor — to account. Maybe that’s why as Logan participant and new-media vet Neil Budde tweeted, “How many times will ‘existential’ be used this weekend? I think count is six so far.”

Importantly, it is largely the largest news media — mainly national and global ones — that continue to put money into investigative work; these are the Digital Dozen companies I identified in my Newsonomics book. For them, as NBC senior executive producer David Corvo put it, investigative work is a “differentiator,” important to distinguishing big news brands from one another in the digital age.

What’s going on regionally is more of a patchwork.

Dozens of people like the Logan family are using their wealth to fund investigative enterprises from coast to coast, most with little fanfare. The Knight Foundation, represented at the conference by its senior advisor and grant-giver extraordinaire Eric Newton, has put $20 million into investigative journalism. With the decline in newspaper budgets, and thus in funding of investigative teams at many regional papers, such private funding has been a lifeline, though there’s a profound sense that significantly less in-depth work is being done at former powerhouse regional papers.

This Logan conference lacked the always-odd spontaneity of a Julian Assange appearance, but it offered intriguing emphases:

  • Front and center, though not appearing in person was Rupert Murdoch. After screening “Murdoch’s Scandal,” Bergman’s Frontline documentary that aired March 27, “The Murdoch Effect: News At Any Price,” made for a raucous panel. Milly Dowler attorney Mark Lewis told how the phone hacking scandal had consumed his life and spoke of the “commercial despotism of Murdochracy” in the U.K., given the News Corp. CEO’s multi-party, decades-long influence. Big questions: What next, and if and how this tale plays out in the U.S.
  • “If it’s not on TV, the American public doesn’t know it,” observed Diana Henriques, the New York Times financial investigative reporter. Yes, we may be on the brink of this multi-platform age, where old newspapers like the Times and the Journal do video alongside print, but still — in terms of notice and public action — there’s nothing like the impact of TV documentary.
  • This is a generational challenge. Journalism has always had its challenges, but never has there been more uncertainty about how one generation can pass along its best practices to the next. Through that foundation funding, a couple of dozen younger journalists and students had their way paid into the conference. Surveying the group on the last day, Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, summed his baby-boomer generation’s role: “I’m a bridge — we’re all bridges to the future.”

Bridging is, in part, what Lowell Bergman’s program does. UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program is a partner in the new Collaboration Central project, along with PBS MediaShift. With new funding, IRP will soon move into a new permanent office. It provides lots of training and fellowships, bringing along new generations to work alongside people like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bergman, whose career has spanned from early Ramparts through CBS, The New York Times, and Frontline, and who was played by Al Pacino in the tobacco industry exposé The Insider.

Bergman paid tribute to his one-time CBS colleague Mike Wallace, underscoring Wallace’s storied tenacity. That tenacity, based on Wallace’s fierce journalistic power (highlighted at CBS, in story and video), is what it took a non-journalist to highlight in Berkeley.

Jules Kroll, who led the invention of the modern intelligence and security industry, gave the trade good, pointed advice. Saying he had heard a lot of journalists talking about how beleaguered they are, he noted, “You have a big impact.” His shared his inside view of the power of a good investigation. Colloquial translation: Stop whining and get on with it.

And that’s always good advice. As ProPublica managing editor Steve Engelberg aptly said, “They were whining in 1989, when times were good.” That’s true. There may be more to whine about these days than in 1989, but the power of great public service work, sometimes when lives are on the line, is one of the things that must propel the trade forward.

Photo of Alfredo Corchado by the U.S. embassy in Paraguay used under a Creative Commons license.

June 02 2011

15:42

New York Times: Jill Abramson to replace Bill Keller

New York Times :: Jill Abramson, a former investigative reporter and Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, will become the paper’s executive editor, succeeding Bill Keller, who is stepping down to become a full-time writer for the paper. Dean Baquet, the paper's Washington bureau chief, was named a managing editor

Thursday, June 2,2011 - 10:36 am EDT

Continue to read Jeremy W. Peters, www.nytimes.com

February 01 2011

20:41

NY Times Defends WikiLeaks Collaboration, Metered Pay Wall

"All the News That's Fit to Print" is both the slogan of the New York Times and the title of the most recent installment of the Kalb Report, a monthly media discussion put on by George Washington University in D.C. Given its title, the overflow audience at last night's discussion between Marvin Kalb and Times executive editor Bill Keller and Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet might have expected to hear more about the paper's long history in the printed word.

But in spite of the moderator's repeated attempts to talk up the front page, the "wild web," as Kalb described it, kept creeping in. Keller and Baquet explained how the Internet has -- and will continue to -- change America's newspaper of record.

Changing Strategy

Keller.jpg

To begin with, Keller said its famous motto, which has been printed on the front page of every edition since October 25, 1896, is no longer entirely accurate.

"The slogan," as he called it, "harkens back to a day when the aim of the newspaper was to be comprehensive." Now it is simply "an aspiration, or a mindset."

Keller pointed out that, for many years after it was founded on September 18, 1851, the Times would print items as seemingly mundane as the comings and goings of ships in New York Harbor. Information like that is now relegated to trade newsletters or specialist websites.

All of these publications are now to some extent competition for the Times. While Keller sees the Wall Street Journal as his primary competitor, he is also keeping his eye on websites that have a niche focus. Last night, he specifically mentioned both the politics-centric reporting at Politico and the opinion-driven coverage at the Daily Beast.

The race is "not just for the stories," according to Keller. "The Huffington Post and places like that are competing with us for talent," he said, alluding to the recent defections of a Times' business editor and economic correspondent to the progressive news and aggregation site.

"They're competing with us a lot in the field of innovation," Keller added. "I don't regard the Huffington Post as an extremely aggressive competitor in national reporting, but the way they do social media is pretty instructive."

Rise of Metered Pay Wall

While the Times is taking user engagement cues from the Huffington Post, it is taking a page from the Financial Times when it comes to business models.

Like HuffPost, NYTimes.com attracts hundreds of millions of readers. Keller said the Times has made a "tidy sum" from advertisers trying to reach its 50 million unique visitors each month. But with a much larger news team -- Keller put the current headcount somewhere between 1,100 and 1,500 -- the Times' digital ad revenues are not enough to offset losses from declining print ads and circulation, which has fallen to about a million subscribers per day.

To make up this difference, the Times is planning to end unlimited access to its website. Like the Financial Times, Keller said that "later this year" NYTimes.com will implement a metered pay wall. That would allow casual users to read articles on the site, but charge frequent visitors if they are not already subscribers to the print newspaper.

"People who use the New York Times website as their newspaper," he said, "should pay a little something for it."

Keller's statement seems simple enough, but it is a profound departure from the way newspaper companies have viewed their websites in the recent past. And, because of the Times' size and stature in the American media landscape, its change of heart will likely have a profound effect on the web strategies of other newspapers around the country.

Working with WikiLeaks

Kalb's pointed questioning seemed to suggest the view that the Times' decision to collaborate with WikiLeaks has degraded the definition of, and standards for, journalism organizations. Keller and Baquet, the DC bureau chief, both pushed back hard against this notion.

Baquet.jpg"The New York Times became the enabler of WikiLeaks by publishing a lot of stories based on the cables WikiLeaks provided. And when I use the word 'enabler,'" Kalb emphasized, "I'm not using that in a positive way."

WikilLeaks is not a journalism organization, according to Keller. "They are an advocacy group," he said. "You can call them a vigilante group," he added.

And, Keller pointed out, they didn't need the support of the Times to throw American diplomacy into disarray. "They would have published it to a website available to anybody who wanted to look at it and the information would have circulated through the blogosphere in a day."

Baquet was more forceful in his defense of the controversial collaboration. "There is no question that WikiLeaks added tremendously to the understanding" of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, he said.

Baquet said questions about if the Times was "behaving in an arrogant way, flaunting its ability to publish this stuff, enabling WikiLeaks," missed the point.

"To me the most unimaginable and arrogant thing the New York Times could have done," Baquet said, "was to have this stuff, look at it and say, 'This is interesting. Let's have an ethical debate. Let's put it back in the computer. And let's go have lunch.'"

Regardless of their objections with the source -- and Keller, as he's done before, again expressed his distaste for WikiLeaks and Julian Assange by association -- the Times felt obligated to share information it had received.

New Opportunities

The web has not only upended the Times' motto and business model and forced it into unusual sourcing arrangements, it has also enabled new editorial experiments and collaborations.

"It's a particular malady of the journalist that we jump right to the negative," Baquet said, "but the reality is that the rise of the Internet and newspapers is the greatest thing that has hit us since sliced bread."

For those outlets that can still afford to do it, the web has opened new opportunities in international reporting. Keller was eager to talk about the paper's thorough reporting of the ongoing protests in Egypt.

Keller also highlighted an innovative series from 2008, Kremlin Rules. The stories were translated into Russian and posted on one of the country's most popular blogs to elicit comments, which were then translated back into English before each article was published in the Times.

"The Russian readership enriched our stories about Russia," Keller explained.

In addition to collaborations with Russian bloggers, the Times has worked with NYU and non-profit newsrooms like ProPublica. During the question and answer session after the discussion, I asked Keller if readers and media watchers should expect more projects and partnerships from the Times in the future.

"Yeah, I think so," he said. "These days we're in an era of experimentation and -- as long as we can be persuaded that we can undertake an experiment without putting the credibility of the paper at risk -- we're game to try it."

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based associate editor at MediaShift and climate blogger for UN Dispatch and the Huffington Post. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of The New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at The Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar.

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