McGuire on Media

The “religion of journalism” and how do we break from it

The second item in Wednesday’s Need to Know from American Press institute was worth savoring. The Harvard Business Review article on thinking like a customer rather than a manager is so simple yet so powerful.

The author, Graham Kenny, makes the powerful point that if a management team develops an strategic plan it is probably an operational plan in disguise because the managers know operations. He says a plan only becomes strategic when we view our company from “outside-in,” that is from the customer’s perspective.

I remember an incident 20 years ago when I was trying to make changes at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. A talented reporter told me, “Tim, our job is to write and edit the paper and the reader’s job is to read it.” I responded gently, “but they don’t have to take that job.”

I believe practically every journalist has passed that stage now and knows that the competitive environment requires us to be compelling enough to challenge Buzzfeed, Vice and Big Bang Reruns for our reader’s time.

And yet, what I call “cultural beliefs” of journalism hang on as tightly as firmly held religious ideas in any church you want to name. For example, the belief the article is really the only legitimate way to tell a story. This Poynter story and this provocative Mashable piece propose ways to rethink story telling  but when I see the occasional experimentation it seems as rare as a purple squirrel.

But as Kenny says the real experts on how we should tell stories should be the customers. As I read newspapers and watch television I have a difficult time believing customers want to be bored by stories that don’t matter to them.

Thomas E. Patterson in his fine book Informing the News says journalists make a mistake in thinking people have a need for the newspaper or newscast when “in fact, what people have and what they have always had, is a need to know.”

Patterson discusses the fact that readers don’t care about policy and politics until if affects them directly. Patterson specifically addresses  a “cultural religious belief” when he writes, “Journalists’ sense of the audience  is wrong side up. What’s happening at the top as it affects the fortunes of those at the top is not what interests most people. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel note, ‘Journalists need to focus on people and their problems, not on politicians and theirs.”

I know a lot of journalists nod in assent at that advice but so much of the journalism I see seems to ignore it.

If a newsroom made people and their problems the center of the news report their individual articles would look fundamentally different and so would the overall report.

Again, certainly the process of rethinking everything we once believed has begun in many places. But starting over and shoving our “cultural beliefs” aside would not describe the approach most journalists prefer.

If I could be so bold, let me share the three things I am going to tell my students this semester as they attempt to reinvent public television and the new digital State Press.

1. What are the things you absolutely KNOW about journalism? Assume those things are wrong. Now where does that lead you?

2. What do your aunts, cousins, parents and non-journalism friends care about?  Dig deep into their health, emotions and fears. Does your publication reflect those concerns?

3. Audit your news product and ask a simple question: What percentage of your output is compelling, really compelling? What would it take to increase that percentage?

Let me know if you use the process.

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Worrying about Digital First, simple explanations and proper recognition

I woke up worrying the other day. I have plenty to worry about on my own personal plate but I was bedeviled by a few journalistic issues as I got ready for work.

Digital First Media has announced it is researching strategic alternatives for its individual newspapers and the parent company. The company’s leader, John Paton, has been an industry scold urging a total shift to digital  in America’s newspapers, thus the name Digital First.  

My worry is that a lot of vindictive people who oppose change in the newspaper business are going to use Paton’s latest predicament as an example of the failure of a digital first strategy. That would be utter nonsense.

It is true I worried for a long time that Paton and Digital First should moderate its tone. In May of 2012 when I wrote a blog post entitled, “This I believe, I wrote this:

However, Digital First is not necessarily the Holy Grail and I will be more comfortable when they lead more by example than by mocking. Preaching collaboration in your work environment and then giving the finger to the industry seems short-sighted. I like it when they modulate and take this approach. The news industry desperately needs constructive leaders, but I do understand the frustration when print publishers don’t follow because they are desperately clinging to the past.

And that’s where I still stand today. Digital First did a lot of important things for the industry including wagging its digital finger. Things are dire for newspapers as I wrote a few weeks ago. The example Digital First set in refocusing newsroom efforts was a good one. Through Steve Buttry the company shared a lot of important ideas about reinventing newsrooms and the company reoriented a lot of thinking.

What did not work for Digital first was the print dollars to digital dimes strategy. It was a noble effort but, in the end, there weren’t enough dimes and not enough leverage to switch out of a business model too long dependent on advertising. The ad model is close to bankrupt and the magic bullet remains elusive for everyone.

Just as Alan Mutter did in April I worry that some of the folks who can’t see the future will delight in what seems like Digital First’s demise. That would be a tragic mistake. Digital First should be viewed as the organization that took a good hard push at the applecart and got run over by reality.

That should not stop other companies from following their courageous lead perhaps with a little less hubris. Digital First’s digital only approach was correct.

I guess I fear and worry a lot about oversimplification. Another thing I worried about this morning was something I read  in a paper a student produced evaluating The book Page One, edited by David Folkenflik. The student quoted James O’Shea former editor the Los Angeles Times and managing editor of the of the Chicago Tribune who wrote this in Folkenflik’s book: “The lack of investment, the greed, the incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy of people who put their interest’s ahead of the public’s are responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.”

O’Shea may have had as bad a day as I had this morning. He might also be guilty of either omission or gross oversimplification when he fails to mention that the people who ran newspapers saw their ad model blow up.

I would argue O’Shea touched on some real truths but then fell off a cliff. The single-minded focus of Publishers and CEO’s on short-term profits and the total refusal to hear dissenting voices was shameful. And, the lack of investment was a joke. But corruption and hypocrisy seem to require more proof for my taste. And, O’Shea’s failure to discuss the total collapse of advertising because of the digital revolution, which affected countless industries,does a disservice to students. I will need to fix that this week in class.

A lot of people are trying to explain the last 20 years in journalism, but let’s not take shortcuts to the whole truth. There are lots of culprits to go around including editors. Solely blaming publishers and CEO’s is inaccurate and self-serving.

Finally, I worried this morning that the journalism industry does not appreciate the gift that is Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Institute. Early this morning I read what I found to be a brilliant essay on how the ethical philosophers give us clues on how the video in the Ray Rice case should have been handled.

I have been in some debates recently with people who are not totally convinced the great philosophers are particularly relevant to teaching modern ethics. I tell those people unequivocally they are wrong and Clark eloquently explains why and how the great philosophical thinkers can be terrifically relevant to a current case in the public eye.

Roy Peter and I are friendly, but not close. Yet, whether he’s commenting on writing, arguing with the best and brightest in our business or representing Poynter with class, Roy Peter Clark deserves a toast from our industry.

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API’s Need to Know is an important part of my Business and Future of Journalism classes

For the last few years I have required students in both my graduate and undergraduate business and future of journalism classes to keep up on the news about journalism business.

This semester in my 21st Century Journalism and Entrepreneurship class I have gone an extra step and assigned API’s daily newsletter, Need to Know.

The future of our business is so fluid and so much in flux that I simply can’t expect that the readings I assign at the beginning of the semester will keep students as current as they need to be on the volatility of our business. 

After a lot of trial and error I have discovered that Need to Know has all the elements I need to teach the first 30-35 minutes of my class from contemporaneous events. It provides me with the latest news and perspectives.  It provides deep and rich context and it makes connections students could seldom make.

And, probably most important, it is not legacy-media-centric. Recent editions have certainly discussed the Washington Post and the New York Times but Vice, Buzzfeed, Facebook and mobile usually dominate.

Students don’t read the national newspapers but they all consume news via  mobile devices and Facebook and they have experimented with Vice and Buzzfeed. By pointing students to things they are familiar with I can make the macro points about changing journalism.

At the beginning of each class I ask students to tell me what they read.  I want them to set our discussion agenda based on what interests them.

Now some professors might not like the way I manage this part of the class because I fly without a net.  I ad lib my responses and feedback. If we’re teaching a class like this, our grasp of the subject should be strong enough to survive.  And, I always have the most important three words in the English language at my disposal: “I don’t know.” Students really appreciate those words and value them a lot more than B.S.  

By using contemporaneous material my class covers stuff I would never have thought of in planning the class ahead of time. Last week students were really engaged about whether Twitter and Facebook should control our news values.  We had an energetic discussion that I am just not sure would have arisen without Need to Know.

I am convinced this newsletter adds urgency and realism to a class that is essential for our students’ understanding of the changed journalism world they are going to encounter.

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Steve Isaacs should be defined by his vision, not by a few ill-advised acts

This piece appeared on MinnPost September 4, 2014.

Steve Isaacs should be defined by his vision, not by a few ill-advised acts.

I was very sad last Friday morning when David Isaacs called me to tell me his dad, my benefactor, friend and mentor, former Minneapolis Star Editor Steve Isaacs had died in Austin, TX. I became a lot sadder and quite angry a few hours later when, in response to a Facebook post I wrote about Steve’s death, a respondent lit my fuse.

Amid several commenters praising Steve, one man recalled Steve’s notoriety for cutting down trees in front of his Lake Harriet home. That act earned Steve a citation, a fine and solidified his reputation as a community character.

Those damn trees wrongly defined Steve and his legacy.

Now, Steve Isaacs was a character. There is simply no denying that and for many it was part of his charm. This outstanding Washington Post obit is a fair portrait of his bluster, his outrages and his inherent genius.

But I worry that the genius of Steve is not being appropriately represented, especially in Minnesota. The very act of joining The Minneapolis Star as its editor, when its exact date for extinction was the only issue in question, was courageous, rebellious and pugnacious.

Isaacs knew his mission to save a dying afternoon paper was a 100-1 shot but he relished in reinventing journalism and embracing long-form writing as it had seldom been embraced. He made bold hires, me among the boldest. He committed to a year-long energy project and he raced head-long into a culture change of a rigid journalistic tradition.   

Steve Isaacs was a brilliant provocateur. He once was so disappointed in  the morning front page offerings for the Minneapolis Star that he sent the editors back to find stories that better fit the mission. He sometimes chose deliberately outrageous stories simply to build a culture that said risk and failure was okay. This was in 1979 years before most people realized that journalism had become hopelessly entrenched in a military–like hierarchy that discouraged experimentation.

Isaacs knew even then that newspapers were not connecting with readers as they need to connect. He didn’t claim to have the answers but he knew the status quo was not it.

Tact, diplomacy and long-term political assessment were not Steve’s gifts. He would rather blow something to smithereens with an incisive, cutting comment just to see how people would fix it.

As bombastic and cutting as he could be Steve was incredibly loyal and kind. He took several steps to make sure the demise of the Star did not hurt my career and that of several others.

Steve Isaacs was as complex a human being as I’ve ever known. He was also one of the most exciting, intelligent and future-oriented people I’ve known.

It would be tragic if a few bleeping trees on Lake Harriet defined the man’s legacy. 

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Advocacy and self-interested journalism are inevitable, but what are the consequences?

Just last week I told  the students of my 21st Century Journalism class at least 30-40% of them would one day work for organizations that don’t do journalism now.

I have been telling other classes the same thing for the last three or four years. I have never found the statement particularly bold or outrageous. It seems quite logical to me that as mainstream news outlets (read newspapers) fade into a misty, romantic future, the vacuum for news and information will have to be filled.

The mostly likely new occupants of that space will be organizations deeply committed to causes, deep pocket organizations with brands to protect, or franchises who feel wronged by the independent bluntness of the old news world.

You can already see signs of upheaval in the traditional delivery and presentation of news and it is painfully clear to me that we need to think more deeply about what really happens if companies such as Ford Motor Company or Pfizer Pharmaceuticals or even non-profits with lofty social goals, decide to start news sites.

Three events this past week stimulated my thinking on the subject.

The first was a proposal from some Cronkite School freshmen who wanted to start a school sanctioned “advocacy journalism” site. They wrote that they wanted to “aim to raise public awareness of certain (advocacy) issues through a variety of multimedia platforms.” It seemed obvious to me their plan had an ideological goal.

When another faculty member asked me my opinion, I said I clearly think this sort of thing will be part of the journalistic future. Naturally he followed up and wondered if I would mentor the group. It was immediately clear to me I wanted nothing to do with that. So there I was, choking on my hypocrisy.

The students quickly realized they were on a mighty slippery slope and withdrew their request, but  in my estimation we, and other journalism schools only have a temporary reprieve.

It is pretty clear to me we are going to have to come to grips with whether and how we are going to prepare journalists for an an inevitable future of working for non-traditional journalism organizations.

I am still comfortable with the Kovach and Rosenstiel definition that says journalism must provide  “independent, reliable, comprehensive and accurate information that allows citizens to be free.” Most knee-jerk traditionalists, perhaps like me, would look at that definition and say there is simply no way an advocacy journalist can be independent, reliable etc.

My colleague across the Cronkite School Hall, Dan Gillmor, will be shocked to learn I actually listen to him when he sings the praises of advocacy journalism. This piece cites several examples Dan finds admirable. Dan believes the expertise, quality of research and depth provided by advocacy sites makes them worth reading even if they come with a point of view. 

Two sports incidents last week made it particularly clear to me  that some special interest reporting is losing sight of some of the most basic journalistic principles.

At the University of Southern California the captain of the football team injured his ankles. With all the foresight one can expect from a 20 year-old kid, the player told his coaches he hurt his ankles rescuing his nephew from drowning. The truth while still not clear, is substantially different from that feel good tale.

The kid’s unsurprising lie took on national significance when the sports information staff of USC produced a story that quacked like journalism with quotes, lively storytelling and a whiff of clear journalism certainty.  Unfortunately many mainstream news organizations picked up the USC story before their appropriately skeptical reporters took over.      

The USC sports information department has been busy throwing the young man under every bus in Hollywood contending they asked penetrating questions but the plain truth is they didn’t independently check out the story. Verification is the essence of journalism and these journalistic wannabes  couldn’t take the most basic step. If “house journalists’ can’t  remember that if your mother tells you something, check it out, then the coming journalism vacuum could be filled with dreck, especially if mainstream news organizations suck up everything they are given. 

And some organizations are anxious to create that main-stream media vacuum. At Miami’s Florida International University a besieged athletic director named Pete Garcia has refused to credential the one full-time beat reporter from the Miami Herald. That reporter has clearly been contentious and aggressive and God love him for it. Here is a video David J. Neal did that is hilarious and indicting at the same time. That’s real journalism, holding FIU’s feet to the fire.

When the Miami Herald rightfully decided to refrain from covering the game, FIU was indignant when they faulted the paper, saying other Herald reporters were credentialed. I hope the Herald sticks to its guns and refuses to let FIU determine who covers them. FIU apparently doesn’t realize thousands of organizations before them have tried the same trick.

As mainstream journalism loses its once vaunted power, tricks like USC’s and FIU’s are going to become common place according to Butch Ward. Media organizations need to keep protesting and they certainly need more skepticism about the work output of these pseudo-journalistic operations.

But journalism educators and watchdog organizations like Poynter, SPJ, ASNE and API need to give serious consideration to a set of standards for journalists employed by non-traditional news producers.

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Newspapers no longer deserve the treasure of our time

The debate on the death of newspapers seems really late.

I find it more than a bit odd to waste many key strokes over whether Gannett and Scripps spinning off their newspaper divisions from their broadcast operations is THE sign of newspapers demise or if some other calamity will deal the decisive death blow. 

On August 11 David Carr of the New York Times set off a firestorm by declaring newspapers have been “kicked to the curb” by media companies spinning off their newspaper divisions from their broadcast and digital operations. Many of his critics accused Carr of saying newspapers are dead but I can’t find that phrase to save my life. One critic argued Carr “distorted print’s demise.”Some print apologists seemed to imply Carr’s piece was overblown and overwrought. Some critics argued someone must be blamed for the demise of newspapers. The essential argument seems to be “we’re not dead yet.”

Clay Shirky, stirred the pot again last week with his usual laser-like insight in a piece he called  “Last Call, the End of the Printed Newspaper. ”

Shirky was specific in his contention that Sunday pre-print inserts will stop soon and that will be the date of demise of newspapers. He is absolutely correct but that will simply be a final blow.

Printed newspapers have been dying an inexorable death for the last eight or nine years and it is time newspapers realize the only question now is can their news organization survive as a digital product?

Affixing the exact time and date of the death of newspapers should not be our focus. Newspapers may well hang around as print products for a while but if those organizations want to serve as the primary news source for their community they need to follow Steve Buttry’s advice and “unbolt” from their newspapers and reinvent journalism to serve communities. Some are trying, but in too many cases those efforts are naked cost-cutting rather than reinvention.

As a journalism educator I need to focus more on the reality facing my students. They don’t read newspapers and damn few of them are going to work for the print side of newspapers.

I have always believed you could spot a person’s real passion by where they spent their time. I am convinced, to paraphrase Matthew:6:21, we must invest our time where our treasure is.

People working in newspapers intuitively know their business is under siege but they keep doing the same old thing. One section editor, for whom I have deep affection,  was visibly upset when I told him I only read his newspaper on the Kindle. He whimpered “we spent all that time on those special layouts and you never saw them?” No I didn’t and neither did thousands of others.

Our real treasure is where we invest our time and too many newspapers are still investing much of their time in the “treasure” of newspapering rather than digital reinvention.

It is becoming clear that a person under 50 with a newspaper is becoming as rare as a Catarina pupfish. Many of my non-newspaper, mid-60 contemporaries still love the “concept” of newspapers but they see them becoming shadows of the quality publications they once were because of economic cutbacks.

It is also obvious that newspapers are losing their impact. I have no scientific evidence to support this but when my wife of 39 years, Jean Fannin McGuire, died June 21, social media seemed to inform the people who wanted to connect with me. I quickly figured out that numerous people I assumed would know about Jean’s passing from four newspaper obits simply didn’t know because they have stopped reading newspapers.

From Shirky to Carr to anecdotal evidence, it is clear it is time for me and my students to move on from newspapers.

My syllabus for this semester of 21st Century Journalism will address newspapers in a primarily historical context. Converting print operations to digital will remain important and we will focus on that, but we are also going to explore new business models for the new digital broadcast operation at the Cronkite School and Arizona Channel 8 PBS. We will also attempt to develop new business models for the new all digital State Press.

Newspapers have always been at the core of my class. It’s easy to figure out why. I spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business and the institution shaped my entire way of thinking. Distance and academia have forced me to rethink the role of newspapers in our society and it is clear disruption has reached a major breaking point for newspapers.

My students deserve a class that looks at the future realistically and that future is a fading one for the printed newspaper. It is the right moment for journalism schools and news organizations to invest their time in the right treasure—digital.

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Advice for an adjunct professor at Steve Buttry’s request

Steve Buttry extended an invitation to several former journalists who are now teaching university journalism classes to offer advice to a new adjunct professor.

There’s already been a lot of good advice so I will try to go in a few different fresh directions and discuss respecting students, experimentation and appreciating learning styles. I also have strong feelings that the professor needs to concentrate on engaging students but I wrote about that a couple of years ago in this blog post

I think it is crucial that university journalism instructors like, respect and show genuine enthusiasm for students. Rather than concentrating on our experiences, we need to focus on theirs. They read and do some amazing things, they understand the popular culture world in ways we can’t. They have been exposed to knowledge many of us don’t even know exists. I sometimes hear professors complain students don’t know what we know. Well, we don’t know much of what they know either.

If you buy into that horse hockey about this being an ignorant or lazy generation I would argue you have no business in the classroom. Some  professors demand respect from students without respecting the students. That’s silly and morally bankrupt.

Here at Arizona State’s Cronkite School I face an incredible array of smart, bright, practical students who want to make a difference. Most of them have skill sets too many people in our generation don’t begin to understand. If they don’t know grammar or don’t meet expectations, that’s our fault for not setting the bar high enough. Here at the Cronkite School freshmen have to take a grammar class and pass a tough grammar test before they move into journalism classes.

I am not just moving my lips when I tell students I learn at least as much from them as I teach them. I speak with conviction when I tell students they will decide the ethical precepts for the future and that they will invent the new business models that save journalism. Those answers aren’t coming from my generation.

I find the ageless Socratic method needs to be more of a conversation than a rigid question/answer approach that leads to a predetermined place. As I tell students every semester class my ethics class and my Business and Future of Journalism class are not designed to teach them stuff, they are designed to teach them how to think about stuff.

My close friend and ASU colleague Prof Rick Rodriguez perceptively says, “if students see you working hard for them, they will work harder for you.”

I find that experimentation is the soul of effective teaching This is my 15th semester of teaching and I’ve never used the same syllabus twice. Sure, I keep some elements from previous semesters but every semester I essentially redesign my courses.

I certainly want to stay current with the fast-breaking world of journalism, but it is even more important that I continue to try new methods, new approaches and new ways to incite the imaginations of students who want to think outside the box.

In the fall semester I sent my graduate students to two local hot dog shops to help them think about how newspapers can avoid being commodity products. It worked to a certain extent, but I think I can improve upon it and so I have kept it in the undergraduate course this semester to see if I can’t perfect it.

Experimentation can certainly be planned, but it can also be ad libbed. As engaging as I think I am, I sometimes look out out at very bored faces. For some students that is congenital, but for others it’s my signal I have to change my game and I often switch directions on the spot. Sometimes I even ask why they’re bored.

After all, and this must be remembered, I am there to serve them. They are not there to serve me.

That brings me to the point with which I have just recently began struggling. Different learning styles are a very real phenomenon. I have been battered over the head with that realization by watching my grandkids. My 10-year-old granddaughter, Kayley, learns the way I did, she reads. Unlike her grandpa she also pays strict attention in class.

My grandson, Collin, learns by doing. He can put together spring-loaded can crushers and he understands and is fascinated by nature because his Dad shows him the way with hunting and ice fishing. They have helped me appreciate my students all learn differently.

That’s why I more and more work on telling, showing, demonstrating and even talking to students about my pedagogical intent.  Most of them didn’t know what pedagogy was until I started to seek their help. More than I used to, I now ask whether they are following my points and I try to make it completely okay to slow me down.

I do not dodge the fact that I have been blessed with two callings in my life.  I viewed editing newspapers as a calling and I view teaching as a calling. As such I could rattle on for pages about my views on teaching.  I care about it deeply and I think about it a lot but knowing when to stop is an important skill in both journalism and teaching.

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Timing is everything when it comes to flap over Washington football team’s nickname

The fact that the nickname for the Washington football team is suddenly back in the news has stunned me. It proves that there is a time for everything and 1994 certainly wasn’t the time.

A who’s who list of sports figures and publications has promised not to use the name including NBC’s Bob Costas,  Sports Illustrated writer and online franchise Peter King, USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, Slate.com, The New Republic and others. The San Francisco Chronicle, calling the Washington nickname a “racial epithet,” stopped using it last week. Tuesday morning six members of the Minneapolis City Council even came out against the nickname.

That fascinates me because in 1994, as Editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune  I banned the use of Indian nicknames to describe sports teams. I followed by two years Editor Bill Hilliard’s move to do the same thing at the Portland Oregonian. I admired Bill and felt he was on the right track. Hilliard largely escaped public pillory. And his successors Sandy Rowe and Peter Bhatia have remained loyal to Bill’s decision and have never changed the policy.

 I did not fare as well. My sports staff was not happy and criticism came  from many quarters. Among other things, we were accused of being self-aggrandizing. Naturally, there was also praise from the Native American community.

The decision did not have legs at the Star Tribune either. Soon after I retired in 2002, the new editor, Anders Gyllenhaal rescinded the decision. He received some criticism and Keith Woods wrote a blistering column for Poynter but not much else happened. The Minneapolis City Council certainly didn’t weigh in.

Hilliard’s courageousness was a huge motivator for me but there were three other factors. One was the passionate urging of Star Tribune Deputy Managing Editor Steve Ronald who had attended a Native American Journalists convention. Sports editor Julie Engebrecht also enthusiastically supported the idea.

Another huge issue for me was that as we discussed the issue it emerged that unbeknownst to readers, editors and fellow staff members, a courageous reporter and writer, Howard Sinker, had implemented his own ban during the 1991 World Series. Sinker never once used the nickname for the Atlanta baseball team in writing all of our page 1 game reports. The fact that nobody noticed or protested helped me decide, mistakenly, that the ban was not a big deal. 

The bigger motivation for me was a fairly popular parody poster from the time which showed pennants with derogatory team names. I cannot find that poster now but this one and this cartoon make similar points. When Bob Costas spoke out on the issue he said, “Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group.”

I found that walking in other people’s shoes crystalized the issue for me. At the time I was coming to grips with my own physical disability and I intensely disliked the idea of a team being named The Minneapolis Gimps.

But that still leaves the threshold question in play: Why is the issue resonating now and it was mocked in 1994?  As always the answer is not obvious but I think there are some good possibilities.

My wife, Jean, has a good point when she opines that the country’s move toward recognizing gay marriages and gay unions is a factor.  She argues there is less tolerance for irrational acts of hate and malice because of the move toward gay marriage. I am skeptical because as evidenced from the horrible mess with the Miami Dolphins and our national politics, compassion does not seem to be on the uptick.

I think the answers are media answers. In 1994 the new media was still centralized. There was basically one source of information in each town. As long as newspaper editors didn’t pick up the cudgel nobody else was going to do it. And newspaper editors steered miles clear of the decision.

Actually the NCAA took up the case in 2005 and used its power to  change several loffensive nicknames. But you still didn’t see a lot of newspapers change their stylebooks to ban such nicknames.

As so it is now. With the exception of last week’s action by the San Francisco Chronicle, newspapers and local television stations are not the leaders on this issue. Peter King of MMQB, Slate.com and New Republic are out front and that is curious.

Some would argue that only newspapers believe in strict accuracy, the usual defense of keeping such nicknames. I have always rejected that theory as specious. However, nobody has rejected it as well as Keith Woods did in this article. He wrote:”Take this example: We may report that a man “suffered head injuries” in a traffic accident. That’s accurate. Or, we may say that “a huge
gash was opened just below the left temporal lobe of the brain and
small portions of brain matter were scattered on the asphalt.” That,
too, is accurate. It’s just that the second one’s likely to hurt many
people, not least among them the family of the person on the pavement.” It’s a vivid but effective analogy.

I am afraid I conclude that the newspaper silence on this issue is more about a lack of boldness than it is about accuracy. And, if newspapers can’t be bold about not using the Washington’s football team nickname then can they really be expected to be bold about anything else in these times that call for innovation and reinvention?

Many sportswriters are starting to cover this story like, well, like a sport story.  They are focusing on whether Daniel Snyder owner of the Washington team will drop the ugly nickname and when. They are putting in a win or lose context. That should not be newspapers’ concern.

This should never be a campaign to force a name change. that never dawned on me in 1994.  Newspapers’ only concern should be whether they are doing what is right. Daniel Snyder will do what he wants to do, but newspapers do not have to be complicit with the racist nickname for his team.

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Katherine Schneider Disability Journalism contest shows its real value.

I hated the idea. When Kristin Gilger, Associate Dean at the Walter Cronkite School told the board of the National Center for Disability Journalism a donor wanted to sponsor a new journalism contest for disability journalism I rebelled.

I railed about the difficulty of getting entries, the hassle of managing a decent contest and most vigorously argued, “the deteriorating journalism world does not need another $%^#$$^& contest.”

When it came time to vote I was the only nay vote on the board of the organization based here at Cronkite. That turned out to be a very good thing. Dean Gilger ignored my protestations, and my bad attitude, to ask me to be a contest judge. That judging experience converted me into a believer.

I still believe there are too many journalism contests. I am convinced the journalism industry needs less self-congratulation and more aggressive efforts to save itself. However, I am also convinced that the donor, Katherine Schneider and her $5,000 first prize will allow us to encourage outstanding reporting on disabilities from a fresher perspective.

Several of the 72 entries in the contest for the Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability  are going to be put on the NCDJ website in our effort to produce a solid archives of noteworthy disability reporting. Reporters nationally will be able to find models and inspirations for their disability work. We also plan to mine the entries for several story ideas that deserve energetic follow-up.

The high quality of this year’s winners will certainly stimulate more and even better higher quality disability reporting in the future. I have judged well more than a score of contests during my career and my journey through the entries was far more rewarding that I expected. I was moved, provoked and warmed by these entries as much as I have ever been in contest judging.

As announced today, First Place went tp Broken Shield, written by  Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch. As I said in the official press release  about the contest winners: “Our runaway winner was a remarkable multimedia series called “Broken Shield.” With painstaking thoroughness and dynamic storytelling, reporter Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch, showed how a California police force designed to protect developmentally disabled patients failed to investigated horrible, violent abuse of patients. The stories make you mad and break your heart at the same time. And, most importantly they got real results.  Severely developmentally disabled patients are safer today because of Gabrielson’s work.”

Gabrielson’s gut-wrenching set of stories has been honored by others. When the series was named finalist for a Pulitzer, Center for Integrity’s Executive Director Robert Rosenthal said, “This series truly gave a voice to the voiceless and held the government accountable.” In that quote Rosenthal captured the sentiments of the judges perfectly.  Giving voice to the voiceless was one of the strong intentions of the contest.

The contest funder, Katherine Schneider, who has been blind since birth, hoped the award  would help journalists improve their coverage of disability issues, moving beyond “inspirational” stories that don’t accurately represent the lives of people with disabilities. “That kind of stuff is remarkable, but that’s not life as most of us live it,” she said.

The contest winner shone a light on the dark side of treatment of developmentally disabled adults and certainly went way beyond the ordinary sort of disability coverage. So did the other three contest honorees.

We awarded Second Place to a New York Times magazine piece  called The Autism Advantage, by Gareth Cook. The piece surprised us and seemed particularly appropriate to Katherine Schneider’s vision. It’s a story about a man who stopped focusing on what autistic people cannot do and built a successful business around what they can do. That story was inspirational and moved well beyond the ordinary.

Unlike any contest I have ever judged these contest entries came from TV, radio, online sites and even a college alumni magazine. Comparing pieces from different media was challenging but rewarding. A wonderful video story called Playing  by Ear done by Daphne Denis and Hoda Emam won an  Honorable Mention. The piece featured a young, blind New York man who aspires to play in the Paralympics in a special sport for the blind called goal ball. As I watched the charming, warm story I see Schneider’s vision fulfilled; the protagonist is a guy scrambling for athletic glory who just happens to be blind. He lives his life pragmatically and genuinely. The videographers captured that beautifully.

The other honorable mention went to a stunningly intimate and revealing profile of a deceased Dartmouth Alumni, Barry Corbet. Corbet was profiled in the Dartmouth Alumni magazine by Broughton Coburn  after his death. The story described a wonderfully authentic man who vowed to “become the most active gimp who ever lived.” Since that sounds like the irreverent kind of thing I have said, I was intensely drawn to that story.

The tremendous challenge of the contest was that so many stories were wonderfully executed and so many perfectly met the mission of the contest.  I think we found four winners that did both.

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Three new ethical principles are important, positive step but Independence needs to stay

The New Ethics of Journalism did a positive service for journalism by proposing the new core ethical principles to guide practitioners through a transformed digital age.

In my blog post last week I praised the book, writing that I admired “the boldness of the changes” while agreeing with the motivation behind them. I added that the presentation of the changes was “clear-headed and forceful.”

The former ethical principles were Seek Truth, Act Independently and Minimize Harm. The new core principles offered by Kelly McBride, Tom Rosenstiel and Poynter are Seek Truth, Transparency and Community.

I am comfortable with the three but when I teach the three to my ethics students in the Spring I will make some key contentions about each principle.

Seek Truth is the rock of all ethical principles. McBride and Rosenstiel utilize important sub points: accuracy, honesty and fairness, giving voice to the voiceless, hold the powerful accountable and be accountable. Those are strong and important but I think one important aspect of seeking truth is ignored. I would add “tenacious commitment to verification.”

When Rosenstiel partnered with Bill Kovach on the Committee for Concerned journalists to produce 10 principles of Journalism the discipline of verification was one of those principles. It belongs on any list of ethical values surrounding truth. In today’s rapid-fire news world when something becomes “old and tired” in six or seven hours, verification rises to the top of of our ethical requirements. The way to beat back the messengers’ relentless attempt to skew and control the message is to fearlessly verify, no matter what, or how long it takes.

Transparency is an important ethical value and I endorse it completely. I also agree with Steve Buttry who wrote in October of 2012 that this principle should read “Act Transparently and Independently.”

I get that journalism is changing and that people want to know where you stand. Transparency is crucial and we ignored that ethical obligation way too much in the past. Too often, the press has not been straight up about its entanglements, interests and direct involvement in important stories. Those ethical transgressions  must end and  readers need to know where journalists and their news organizations stand.

McBride and Rosenstiel explain transparency by calling for demonstrations of how reporting was done, clear articulations  of your point of view and its impact and acknowledgement of mistakes and errors. That presumably is enough to make it ethical.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that gives free license to the agenda-based reporters who threaten to take over journalism. Disclosure is not enough for the crooks and charlatans who want to argue their news should be respected as much as anyone else’s.

Let’s say I am a reporter and I take $25,000 from a prominent health insurance company to write a story about health insurance. Let’s also say that I meet all the disclosure requirements of transparency. Not enough.  Even if the reader knows I took the $25,000 to feather my own nest, I have committed an egregious ethical violation.

I am just as concerned about some of the partnerships news organizations are forging with deep pocket “investors” who are inevitably going to want something for their money.  I am fully aware many news organizations are taking this kind of money. I am unwilling to condemn it out of hand but I believe those relationships need more debate before getting a free pass.

My friend Steve Buttry endorsed the new principles with one complaint about the failure to address linking. Outside of that post I have not seen much discussion of the new principles. That could mean universal acceptance, apathy or that I am missing the debate. For the health of journalism I hope that debate becomes more obvious especially on this Independence point.

I am convinced we need to hold on to independence as a core ethical value to prevent arguments over how much transparency satisfies the requirements. Our demand for independence as a core ethical principle makes it clear our journalism is not available to the highest bidder. Selling out has always been wrong and it always will be. The journalism world has changed at a dizzying pace. Our moral standards should not change at all.

I always like the spirit and the moral high ground that “minimize harm” demonstrated but it was a nightmare with students. As my Cronkite colleague, Rick Rodriguez, correctly points out “Our students too often used that as an excuse to not be tough.” More often than not, I found students believed minimize harm meant don’t make anyone sad.

So, it’s good to be rid of minimize harm. While Community is a strong substitute, I think it  will require constant coaching and development.

Many of us have espoused community obligation for many years, but it took Poynter, McBride and Rosenstiel to correctly label it for me. As early as my stay in Lakeland, Florida in the late 70’s I coached the staff to write a 100 word description of or area. Then I submitted it was our obligation to reflect that statement every week in our coverage.

When The New Ethics of Journalism espouses that we engage community as an end I think that is the level of community understanding they seek. The specifics of the Community point in the book calls for: understanding the community, seeking out competing perspectives, individual responsibility with collaboration, minimize harm  and empathy, and encouraging the community to self-inform.

It’s an absolute quibble, but after discussions with Rick Rodriguez, I think I would argue for dropping minimize harm and emphasizing empathy.  We should walk in out subject’s shoes before we skewer them. 

Bottom line: these new ethical principles are excellent but let’s add Independence to the transparency value. 

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