The Batavian’s basic rules for scanner reporting

Once again, scanner reporting is controversial.

The Batavian does a lot of scanner reporting. It works for us.

It’s not hard to find people in our coverage area who say they love The Batavian, that they’re addicted to it, that they check it multiple times a day or at least first thing every morning or last thing at night. The number one reason people give is that we’re right on top of things. We have more news faster. People like knowing why the fire trucks just went down Main Street or why all of the police cars are gathered at the end of their block.

The Web makes it possible to report real-time news that simply didn’t exist in paper or broadcast eras and readers simply expect real-time news these days and will reward it with their attention the sites that give it to them.

We have the largest audience in Genesee County and our audience is four to five times larger than a newspaper Web site in any other similar-sized market (that’s the subject of a future report).

As I said, scanner reporting works for us. It isn’t all we do, and we do go to scenes and do other kinds of reporting, but the foundation of The Batavian‘s success comes from how we’ve been able to use the scanner to keep the community informed.

Here are our rules for scanner reporting:

Do not report a possible crime in a way that might identify an individual unless a description is necessary to help identify a fleeing suspect.
Discussion: To report a group of people fighting in Austin Park will not reveal any identifying information about people involved. If a person is injured in the fight and a fleeing suspect description is given, publicizing the description might help police locate or identify that individual. In some cases, the name might be transmitted. We never use names transmitted over the scanner.

Do not report information that will jeopardize officer safety or thwart their ability to apprehend a suspect.
Discussion: If a tan sedan is fleeing down Warboys Road, you want people in the area to be on the lookout for a tan sedan, but you don’t want to give away the position or pursuit tactics of law enforcement (on the off chance a suspect is carrying a smartphone and knows to check The Batavian for updates).

When we had an incident a couple of years ago where a warrant suspect high tailed it in the city and officers from multiple agencies were called along with a K-9 unit and a helicopter, people wanted to know what’s going on.  We reported the location of the suspect, but we didn’t report the location of responding units or the nature of the response.

When a neighbor spotted two men going to into a house on Shepard Road and State Police thought the two men might still be inside when they arrived on scene, we waited hours to report anything (with the massive police action, if it had been in a more densely populated area, we wouldn’t have waited).   We didn’t provide details on the police response.  By the time we reported anything, we figured if they were still inside they had to be well aware of the dozens of police vehicles outside the house (full follow up report here).

Maintain a level of skepticism about information provided by dispatchers to first responders.

Discussion: In the initial minutes of any call, the only information a dispatcher has is what is provided by a caller about an event. Witnesses may misunderstand or be emotionally involved in a way that causes them to relay incorrect information. Further, the nature of communication is such that dispatchers may misunderstand or not correctly repeat information given to them. Sometimes the dispatcher informing first responders is not the dispatcher who spoke with the initial caller. This isn’t to say never report what the dispatcher says, but the more specific and sensational the information coming from the dispatcher, the healthier a reporter’s skepticism should be.

Basic dispatch information is generally safe.
Discussion: “Possible structure fire; callers report heavy smoke from a basement window of a residence on Ross Street,” is likely to be correct information. We nearly always wait to post a possible fire when there’s only one caller and there’s no report of flames showing. In that situation, we wait for a fire chief to get on scene and relay back “we have a working structure fire,” then report it.

It’s generally safe to trust the statements of first responders.
Discussion: The transmissions from a scene are by people who are there and reporting what they’re seeing and hearing. They are rarely wrong.

Never give details of medical condition of victims.
Discussion: Nobody needs to know the pulse rate of an accident victim. We had an accident victim recently where a medic reported the victim was not breathing on his own and bleeding from his mouth and ears. Those are unnecessary details that will upset family members. We confine a report in such a situation to “victim is unconscious.” We can convey a lot of the seriousness of the situation by reporting that Mercy Flight is responding.

Never use names off the scanner.
Discussion: I mentioned this earlier, but it’s true whether it’s a medical situation or a criminal situation, never use names. In medical situations, we want to give officials as much opportunity as possible to make proper family notifications. For that reason, we also never use vehicle descriptions. In criminal situations, you don’t want to risk misidentifying a suspect. We don’t want to use the name of a suspect until it’s released in person, on scene, by a police supervisor or through an official release. (Above, I link to a search in the city and in that story, you’ll see we name the suspect; that name was confirmed in person with a on-scene supervisor.)

Never report a fatality off the scanner.
Discussion: Verify it in person, on scene. This can be difficult, because situations where Mercy Flight is cancelled and the Crash Management Team dispatched (a sign the victim is dead or first responders believe the victim could likely die) are indications of a fatality and significant events in the course of the incident.

Never make assumptions.
Discussion: This is one of the hardest rules to learn because your mind wants to connect dots, and sometimes, in reality, there’s no connection. I wish off the top of my head, I could remember some of our mistakes we made in the early days of The Batavian by making assumptions, but we learned quickly any time we make an assumption, we’re usually wrong. It’s important to discipline yourself to stick just to the data transmitted and not go beyond it with information not specifically contained in a transmission.

There was an incident not long ago where I broke the rule on not being more skeptical about what dispatchers were transmitting and I made an assumption. A woman fell on a baby at a local business and the baby was unconscious and not breathing. CPR was being performed. It was a location where twice in the previous week police had been called to investigate either harassment allegations or an alleged violation of an order of protection. The dispatchers reported the woman had been assaulted. I reported all of this. It turned out, there was no crime. The woman fainted from a medical condition. That isn’t one of my proudest moments.

It’s good to be fast; it’s also good to wait.
Discussion: There are times when it’s obvious a call coming over the scanner is something that’s real and worth reporting. Multiple calls on a head-on collision reporting possible serious injury is a good indication the information is accurate.

There are also times when it’s best to wait for a first responder to get on scene.  We never report “automatic alarm of fire.”  There’s never been an actual fire. Someday, there will be, but so far an “automatic alarm of fire” has never turned out to be anything other than a false alarm.  More than once we’ve heard fire departments being sent out based on one caller reporting smoke in the area and it’s turned out to be a legal controlled burn (we report illegal controlled burns in April and May).

Being fast helps grow and retain readership, but when the information seems sketchy, it’s better to wait and see if the information in the initial dispatch is true (and the more you listen to the scanner, the better you are at recognizing sketchy calls).

We do not report non-accident, non-crime medical calls.
There are two issues with medical calls. First is privacy. If somebody on Morton Avenue is having stomach pains, who’s business is it? Not mine.  While accidents and crimes are public issues that have broader implications, that can’t be said for medical calls. The second reason is also a practical matter. On a routine day, there are a couple of dozen medical calls on the scanner. Who can keep up?

There is a triage sort of process on deciding what to report. Broadly defined, there are four types of calls on the scanner: Crime, fire, accident, medical (including overdoses and mental health).  While not every crime, fire or accident in our coverage area will result in follow up coverage, any initial call of a crime, fire or accident could blossom into a bigger story.  We believe in starting with the initial report, as a general rule, and it doesn’t become something that warrants a follow up, at least people know what the initial call was about.  We’ve had calls that started out sounding like not much turn into big deals and we were glad we captured those initial details.

Triage for crime: If weapons are involved, we’re more likely to report it. If a suspect is on the loose and being pursued, we’re more likely to report it. If there is a large law enforcement response, we’re more likely to report it. If it involves a high-speed chase, we’re more likely to report it.  If it involves a large group of people in a populated area, we’re more likely to report it.

Triage for fires: There needs to be a clear indication that it is a working structure fire to really get our attention.  An automatic alarm of fire or smell of smoke in the residence might encourage us to listen for what the first responding chief finds, but will not be reported until there is confirmation of a working structure fire.  Field fires only get reported during the n0-burn season in April and May, unless a first responder reports its out of control or threatening a structure.

Triage on accidents: Obviously, any accident that initial reports indicate could be a fatal will get an initial scanner report (without mentioning the fatality until we’re on scene) and then I’ll go to the accident. If Mercy Flight is responding or it is otherwise reported as serious injury, we report it.  If it’s minor injury, but blocking well traveled road, we report it.  If it’s in the city and blocking, whether injury or not, we report it.  If it’s in the city, not blocking and non-injury (property damage only), we ignore it.

Public suicides and public mental health issues are always tricky.  They can necessitate a substantial law enforcement and fire response, which makes them a public issue.  There are few clear-cut guidelines on these calls because each one can be so different.

The trivial can be entertaining
Discussion: Unlike a newspaper or a broadcast outlet, we have an unlimited news hole.  We report items off the scanner sometimes just purely for their interesting or entertainment value.  Once in a while, a post on our Facebook feed will result in a poster asking, “why is this news?”  My standard response is, “we never ask, is this news?” The word “newsworthy” is not part of our vocabulary.  We ask, is it interesting?  If it’s interesting and we have time to post it, we post it.


As I said earlier, we’ve built a large local audience because of our reputation of being on top of the local news. We couldn’t do it without a scanner.

We’ve made some mistakes and we’ve upset some people, but we’ve also been praised by people with connections to tragic incidents.

A landlord who was out of town learned that one of his apartments was on fire because of The Batavian and knew to hurry back to town.

A woman whose husband died in a car accident thanked us the following spring for our timely and complete reports because it saved her from answering a lot of questions.

One of the unexpected surprises about our approach to scanner reports is the praise it gets from first responders. Police officers check the home page of The Batavian at the start of every shift because it helps them know what’s happened since their previous shift. Volunteer firefighters love it because it helps inform the community about their calls.

Our scanner reporting has also led to us breaking news that other news organizations missed. When a 26-year-old woman hit a Walmart cashier on Christmas Eve 2011, it was only because we were listening to the scanner that the event ever became news, and it became national news. When a father threw his son to the floor of Walmart, a state trooper called on The Batavian, and nobody else, to help get the news out quickly, knowing our real-time news reputation had built up our audience. The concern was that the boy was injured and needed medical attention, so time was of the essence (turned out, he wasn’t hurt).

The scanner is just another news reporting tool, and like any tool, it can be misused and abused, but for Web journalism in the era of real-time news, it’s an invaluable tool when used well.

I think we’ve gotten better at scanner reporting the longer we’ve done it.  Rather than fight how technology changes journalism, reporters and editors need to learn how to harness it and use it to benefit the communities they serve.

Advocates of pay walls should consider the fate of the New York World

At the time it was built (1890), the New York World skyscraper was the tallest building in the world.

First, let me remind you of a post November, 2009, in which I quote Walter Lippmann:

We expect the newspaper to serve us with truth however unprofitable the truth may be. For this difficult and often dangerous service, which we recognize as fundamental, we expected to pay until recently the smallest coin turned out by the mint. … Nobody thinks for a moment that he ought to pay for his newspaper.

Second, a summary of the situation faced by the New York World in the 1920s:

So by every measure the acolytes of the Church of Journalism might apply to the sanctity of a newspaper, the World met the standards of absolute divinity.

So what killed the World?

It wasn’t bad journalism. It wasn’t cuts to the editorial staff. It wasn’t competition from the New York Times (the death of the World created a vacuum for the Times to fill). It wasn’t a change in the public taste.  It wasn’t new technology (radio news was just barely invented when the World closed in 1931).

According to The Golden Age of the Newspaper, by George H. Douglas, in 1925, Joseph Pulitzer II made a fatal mistake.  He raised the price of the paper from two cents to three.

No other New York newspaper followed suit and circulation plummeted. In  1931, Roy Howard bought the World and laid off its remaining 3,000 employees.

People may pay for home delivery. They may pay for a nice package of reporting, entertainment and advertising. But history has shown time and again: They won’t pay for news.

Ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism, the new list

For no particular reason, I found myself looking at Google Analytics and decided to open the calendar all the way back to 2007.

I discovered that the most popular post I’ve written in that time (and probably since I started blogging in 2002) is “Ten Things Journalists Can Do to Reinvent Journalism,” published Feb. 16, 2008. It’s been viewed more than 40,000 times.  If I go back month-by-month since 2008, it is consistently among the top 10 posts for each month.

So, I just re-read it, and I found, not surprising, given nearly four more years of experience, I don’t agree with everything it says.

The first two points could be summed up as “don’t treat journalism as an ego feed.” Setting aside for a moment that I’m the last one who should lecture anybody on ego, that overall point is something I still agree with.  The reader needs to come before your own journalistic pride.  The point I would dispute is the importance of being first with a story. I used to think readers didn’t care about who is first with a story. Since starting The Batavian, I’ve learned that readers very much pay attention to consistently is first with stories and they award points to news organizations that get the scoops.  When I was a print reporter, no readers ever seemed to care about such matters, but for online news, it’s a critical bonus.

There are some points, of course, I still agree with, and there are items that I would state differently, which leads to  a new list of “Ten Things Journalists Can Do to Reinvent Journalism.”

  1. Start your own online news site. You’re not going to make dent in the universe working for a newspaper company, or any chain news organization. Get out now. Pursue your own passion and your own dream, stick to it, and you will accomplish something that matters.
  2. Connect to the community you serve, whether it’s geographic or focused around an interest. Be passionate about that community and do your best to meet all of its informational needs. Make sure your site is indisputably essential to the community you serve. Readers trust news organizations that look out for their interests.  Be that kind of news organization.
  3. Cover the big and the small. Focus on people, not government actions and process (though, obviously, this can’t be ignored).  A continuous stream of news will include stories about dead deer, city council hi jinx, cows in the roadway, misappropriation of funds, great-grandma’s 100th birthday, etc. Focus on people more than politics.
  4. Be a real person. Your byline matters. You will be a more trusted source if people have some sense of who you are. You don’t need to open up every aspect of your life to public disclosure, but sharing selective details helps people connect with you and makes them more interested in what you report.
  5. Publish what you know when you know it and let stories unfold incrementally. This also brings your readers into the process, adding information, providing new tips, correcting errors.
  6. Be absolutely ethical in how you handle information.  Be as truthful and accurate as humanly possible. Part of the new information ethics, however, is also about correcting others errors where you find them.  Don’t let misinformation spread, because it spreads too quickly these days.
  7. Be transparent. Be transparent about who you are and what you believe. Be transparent about your news process. Truth is transparent. Always be truthful.
  8. Forget old-school objectivity. For readers to connect with you, they need to see your passion. Let readers in on what you care about.  It’s impossible to report and write a truly objective story anyway, so be transparent about your point of view.
  9. Give the readers what they want. Feedback is very important. Seek it out and pay attention to it and provide the kind of coverage readers seem to enjoy.
  10. Don’t give the readers what they want. Sometimes, you need to give them a little castor oil along with the candy and ice cream. At the end of the day, you’re not truly carrying about the community if you’re not also providing the kind of truthful coverage that might make some people uncomfortable.

A prescriptive look at the news business

The clip above came to mind while scrolling through comments on Dean Starkman’s CJR piece, Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus.

As Starkman points out, there’s two camps in the game of predicting where the news game is going and how it will survive.  There’s the Future of News Crowd, a group of academics and business elite who proclaim everything is changing, the world is falling apart and the old models will not work in the fully digital future.  The other camp is the Journalism for Democracy gang (Starkman’s phrase).  This is the group that us digital types have often dismissed as “printies,” dinosaurs who decry the changes in media markets and demand, “somebody must pay.”

I believe in, more than ever, the middle ground.

There will be no radical shift in the news business (though, I myself, fretted about it in my newspaper company executive days).  There is an evolution going on, not revolution.  Newspapers may die (and maybe they won’t), but the news business, and journalism, will survive.

The main thing both the FON and JFD groups miss is a sense of history, hence the Bogart clip.

Since early in the 19th Century, the news business has been constantly evolving, and each step of the way, there has been somebody to mourn the passing of an era, from the six-penny publishers losing out to the penny newspapers, from the muckrakers being superseded by the professional journalists, and then you had the advent of radio and TV and the death of evening newspapers, and finally, the digital age.

Each step of the way, the old school reacted with fear and loathing.

But somehow, each step of the way, new and better forms of journalism emerged.

Some of the greatest work in newspaper history came after broadcasters began competing for listener and viewer attention and local advertising dollars.

If you study the charts on newspaper readership and circulation declines, newspapers have suffered more from the changing demographics of America and changes in their own business structure than the rise of new technology.

Newspapers have been hurt by three things:

  • World Wars.  Both the first and second big wars caused great migrations around the country, mostly toward the west, as workers went to factories to find wartime jobs and military personnel found new ports of call on the coasts.  This created a less rooted society, which hurt local newspapers as people felt less connected to their communities, and therefore less interested in what the local daily or weekly had to offer.
  • Professionalization.  The rise of journalism schools and the sense that all reporters and editors needed to be “professional journalists” turned newspapers away from being interwoven in the fabric of their communities toward disconnected observers that need not be troubled with the consequences of what is covered, or not; and, more so, gave a sense of entitlement to reporters that they need not bother with the trifles of community life.
  • Chains and IPOs. Once a newspaper (or radio or television station) becomes part of a chain, it’s profits are no longer its own.  A certain layer of revenue gets sent back to corporate HQ to cover corporate expenses (corporate HQs are by definition incapable of generating revenue to support their own operations) and the local profits must be shared with corporate overlords. This means money that once stayed in the community to reinvest in journalism is now ripped away from the place where it could do most good for the health of the community and the news organization.  The introduction of publicly traded newspaper companies in the 1970s brought a whole next level of evil in the chain ownership structure.  With shareholders to please, insane profit margins needed to be maintained.  The news business — and it is a business — is not of sufficient structure to make rapid enough change or introduce new quickly commoditized products (the way a traditional manufacturer can) to maintain those profit margins.  The best newspapers can do are invest in themselves to improve and maintain quality.  In the publicly traded world, that’s not possible.

The news business was in decline before the Web came along.  Like the proverbial frog in hot water, nobody noticed how these structural changes to the news business were leading to irreversible long-term declines.  In fact, it looked like things such as chain structure (so bean counters could create “efficiencies of scale”) and a more professional work force (which also made reporters more like factory workers, more interchangeable), were in some ways beneficial (professional reporting is better, after all, than gossip mongering).

If my thesis is true — and obviously, I believe that it is — then digital represents more of an opportunity than a threat.

And the opportunity lies with those businesses that are addressing the structural flaws in the American media landscape.

  1. Local ownership.  Only local owners can address two of root causes of the news business decline. First is a connection to the community and a commitment to the community. Second is that revenue is not frittered away on support of a wasteful corporate infrastructure.  So called “scale” has no place in the news business. Local news operations by their most eloquent definition can’t scale.  Regionalism is one thing, national scale is a pipe dream.
  2. Start ups.  A start up doesn’t have the baggage that goes with legacy.  A start up can come out as a pure digital play and build a business around realistic cost and revenue projections. Digital is a different medium from paper or air. It calls for a different approach to news and business. The start up owner has the flexibility to experiment and fashion a structure that better fits the environment.
  3. Reinvent journalism. The independent editor has the freedom to change the rules of the game, re-evaluate all of the sacred cows that have been erected in the high church of journalism and decide what makes sense and what doesn’t.  The reinvented journalist can once again be a booster for his or her community, can care about the health of the local business community, can more effectively point out the rights and the wrongs in the civic sphere, and can engage his or her community in ways that are meaningful and hopefully attract more people into a new engagement with the very places they live and work.

There’s a lot of talk in the pundit class about the “sustainability” of local online journalism.  To me, it’s a ridiculous topic to theorize about.  Of course, local online journalism will be sustainable.  Each stage of journalism, from the penny press to the arrival of television, local journalism has remained sustainable.  Those who navel gaze lack a sense of history.

Think back to the original penny press publishers — they had no concept of professional journalism and certainly couldn’t imagine paying for it with classified ads, especially with big profitable verticals in jobs, cars and real estate, nor could they imagine full page spreads from department stores, nor did they think much about special sections and Sunday morning inserts — all of the things that went into making modern newspapers powerhouses of revenue and investigative, watchdog journalism were not invented for decades after the penny press was born.

We don’t know how online journalism will evolve, but it will evolve.  It will find ways to make more and more money to pay for more and more journalism.  The audience is there for it, local businesses will always want to connect with that audience, and entrepreneurial minded people will find ways to put the pieces together.

Recommended reading (books that influenced the thinking behind this post)

Independent Local Online News Publishers Trade Group Formed

This is something I’ve been hoping would happen for the past year or more — glad to see a first formal step forward:

On September 30, 2011, during the Block by Block conference at Loyola University Chicago, 21 local, independent online publishers from across the United States voted to form a trade association.

A steering committee was appointed to further organize the association.

Questions should be directed to Executive Secretary, Mike Fourcher at (773) 328-8451 or

‘Lede’ vs. ‘Lead’

Early in my career somebody I obviously respected — can’t remember who now — told me the correct newspaper spelling of the opening of a newspaper story is “lede.”

There’s lot of romanticism and nostalgia in the newspaper industry for “lede,” like there is for “–30–.”

journalism booksHell, there’s romanticism of the literal kind around the spelling of “lede” in my own life. When Billie and I were first dating, the shared knowledge that the word is correctly spelled “lede” was just one more way we bonded.

But we were wrong.

The other thing that Billie and I shared was a love of old journalism books. Before we met, with both collected them. Today, our collection exceeds 400 titles. About 100 of the best of them are sitting at the moment immediately to my left.

Some years ago, researching the evolution of “objective journalism,” I cracked open many of these old books, and something struck me — in none of these old books did any author spell the word “lede.” They all spell it “lead.”

It was then I realized, there is no historic basis for the spelling of a lead as “lede.” “Lede” is an invention of linotype romanticists, not something used in newsrooms of the linotype era.

It’s really emblematic of today’s print nostalgia, too — like Desi and Lucy sleeping in separate beds — a longing for an America that never was, or wasn’t quite what you thought it was.

Here are some sources for you:

The fact is, in none of the dozens of old journalism books that I have examined — none of them — spell it “lede.” I can’t find the definitive first reference to “lede” but it doesn’t start appearing in journalism books until the 1980s.

The discussion about “lede” vs. “lead” on Twitter this morning seems to have been sparked by a post from Jay Rosen, on the “the best lede ever.”

I’m not sure where the conversation went from there. By the time I jumped in, Steve Buttry, Steve Yelvington and others had weighed in. (Hash Tags weren’t used, so hard to point you to the entire thread).

The explanation for “lede” was offered up as an alternate spelling for “lead” (pronounced “led” as in “hot lead” or “hot type.”) of the linotype era.

However, as the sources I cite demonstrate, journalists working in the linotype era (which started in 1896) never spelled it “lede.” It was always “lead,” as in “news lead.”

It wasn’t until linotype was disappearing from newsrooms across the nation (late 1970s and into the 1980s), that we start seeing the spelling “lede.”

The safest conclusion, then, is that “lede” is a romantic fiction invented by those who were nostalgic for the passing of the linotype era.

UPDATE: Chris Keller used Storify to aggregate and organize this morning’s Twitter conversation.

Newspapers started small, cheap and with different standards

There are those in our industry who seem to assume that newspapers emerged in 1835 in full flower, that many of the elements of the newspaper world that were until recently taken for granted were all part of world of James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley.

An example of such thinking might be found in this post by Bill Doskoch.

The assumption, in my perception, is pervasive, and it colors the view of today’s journalist toward development of online news; in fact, the assumption may have blinded many executives (including online executives, including myself for a time) in their expectations how to build an online news business.

For more than a decade, we expected to build online news organizations that could support a super structure of the modern newspaper newsroom — with the all the reporters and editors and big story packages (look at all the emphasis we put on big Flash multimedia productions) and that we could keep doing journalism just the way we always did it.

While we bemoaned shovelware (taking the same exact print story and repurposing it for the Web), we took little time to really examine what might might be different about online publishing that should change the way news is gathered and presented.

That’s why we were slow to embrace blogging, slow to recognize the power of social networking, and why, even today, most newspapers treat reader interaction (re: comments on stories) as a nuisance rather than an essential part of the business.

Look at the typical home page design — the level of sophistication and attractiveness may have improved from five or six years ago, but these sites are still trying to recreate the newspaper experience, the packaged-goods experience, shoving everything possible into a single, wholistic collection of pixels.

From the in-the-trenches newspaper journalist perspective, today’s surviving reporters and editors keep looking to paid content as some sort of savior, ill-equipment mentally to understand why it simply won’t work, and unwilling to accept any online news model that looks different from the print world they’ve loved.

The seeming fact that no online news model has yet emerged to support their paradigm of journalism — the large staffs, the watchdog journalism (at least to the level they expect), and the comfortable 9-to-5 work shifts — is proof to them that online can’t or won’t work they way they expect.

Any experiment in online journalism that doesn’t fit their paradigm is just folly.

These reporters and editors need to go back to J-school, and one that offers some history of newspapers rather than priestly pronouncements on religious tenants in the High Church of Journalism.  Or at least reflect on what history they did learn.

James Gordon Bennett, Horace Greeley, E.W. Scripps and Joseph Pulitzer were not just earlier versions of Woodward and Bernstein. They were entrepreneurs, visionaries and risk takers who experimented and explored the capabilities of new technologies with a goal of meeting readers needs and growing audience.

They put ads on their front pages. They ran straight murder trial transcripts. They sent row boats out in the harbor to meet incoming ships so they might be the first with the news Europe. They produced multiple editions in the race to build reader loyalty. With the penny press, they disrupted the incumbent six-penny newspapers. They pushed partisan positions. They crusaded, some times to the point of unjustly influencing the course of events.

These entrepreneurs competed fiercely, which led to an intense circulation war between Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. This war became so pitched, that both papers embarked on a short era of sensationalistic reporting that we now know as "yellow journalism."

Pulitzer, who also ushered in graphics and color comics, so regretted later his participation in this low-brow craft that he endowed the Columbia School of Journalism.

The early giants of journalism got much wrong and got much right, but little that they did would resemble journalism of the past 60 or 70 years.

They didn’t, for example, do much in the way of investigative journalism. Nelly Bly worked for the New York World, but even her greatest public service reporting — locking herself in an insane asylum — isn’t what many of today’s newsroom pundits mean by high-cost investigative journalism.  it was a stunt, just like her most expensive adventure, going around the world in 80 days. That really brought down a president, didn’t it?

Most of the other muckrakers who set the stage for investigative journalism didn’t even work for newspapers. They wrote for magazines and published books.

It took a long time for newspapers to build the cash flow to afford big time, expensive investigative journalism, and for publishers to recognize its value (and some of them still aren’t convinced) in helping to retain readers.

So if it took newspapers more than 100 years to build the business and content models that we all now cherish, why do we expect a fully formed online model to emerge in just 10 years?

There are a number of worthy experiments in online publishing going on out there. Maybe rather than scoff, some of these skeptics should stop yapping and try an experiment or two of their own.  Maybe one of them will find the model that will one day employ a legion of highly paid investigators, at least until the next disruption comes along.

Events that have contributed to the decline of newspapers

  • The professionalization and creation of "objective" journalism in the 1920s
  • Movies, 1920s
  • Radio, 1930
  • Mass migrations caused by Great Depression and World War II, dislocating communities and families
  • Television, 1950s
  • Birth of suburbs, automobile, decline of mass transit, 1950s
  • Shoppers, i.e. PennySaver, (not sure when they started, but let’s put them in the 1960s)
  • Unrest of 1960s, distrust of mainstream institutions, rise of alternative press
  • Watergate
  • Wal-Mart and other Big Box retailers in the 1980 and 1990s, putting out of business traditional newspaper advertisers (at higher margins than pre-prints from Big Boxes), often with help of government subsidies.
  • Cable television, and not just more news, but more choices.
  • Digital media and all that comes with it — more choices, greater competition for attention, craigslist, more competition for advertising dollars, etc.

If you fail to look at the decline of newspapers in context of the historical arch of events, and you fail to see that the same forces driving down circulation are the same forces decreasing community involvement and civic engagement, then you’ll never have a clue how to solve the problem. If you don’t see the whole picture, you’ll look for quick fixes like government aid or legislation, grants and annuities, paid content or just whine about "society can’t function without us."

The solution lies in figuring out why increasingly society is deciding it doesn’t need us and fixing that problem, not in hair-brained schemes that attempt to force journalism on the masses.

Stop the insanity: The government has no business messing in the news business

This tweet:

Why didn’t I watch Senate hearing today? Because I’m busy working on journalism’s future, not worrying about its past.

Proved quite popular this evening.

I posted it in light of news about the Senate Subcommittee Hearing today on the future of journalism.  For months (years?) we’ve been assaulted with notions of  "saving" newspapers — should we give them non-profit status, issue some sort of taxpayer bailout, make Google pay, relax anti-trust laws … etc.?

There’s a whole host of proposals out there to "save" newspapers that any real capitalist should find not only laughable but horrifying.

Let’s be clear: If a newspaper can’t compete in the free market it’s not worth saving. If a newspaper needs aid from the government to survive, it’s not worth saving.

A newspaper is a business, just like any other business. It’s not a church. It’s not a social services agency. It’s not a civic organization.  It’s a business.

When a business model is broken, or a strategy is flawed, or time has just passed it by, that business – even whole industries — die. It’s a process of evolution. It’s necessary for the ecosystem of society.

Journalism will not die, though every newspaper might stop printing and some companies that now spew ink to tell the news will cease. Journalism will not die.

If businesses that support journalism are now are not able to compete in the free market, if they are unable to adapt to the changes in the market, they simply do not deserve to survive.

The only thing that will save journalism is the free market. Any other solution will lead to ossification and ultimately will greatly damage democracy, because citizens will become only more jaded and distrustful of a press that through government-backed monopoly power suppress entrepreneurial competitors.

I work my ass off every day — 14, 15, 16 hours a day — trying to create a sustainable online news site.  Maybe I’m on the right track, maybe I’m not, but as an entrepreneur I feel I have a right to put forward my ideas, my business model in a free market and see if it works.  

If it doesn’t, fine, but I shouldn’t have to compete against media companies that are given government favor through changing anti-trust laws or granted special privileges.

The free market should decide what journalism will be in the future, not some gray-haired Senator or government bureaucrat.

The imperative of localism and local news

"Hyperlocal" is an ugly word.

This fad coinage is meant to represent a new discovery, a new way of thinking about journalism: "Hey, gee, we should do some of this local stuff. People might actually like to read about their home towns."

"Hyperlocal" is ugly because it attempts to rewrite history, ignoring the noble, once-primary role of newspapers — largely forgotten by journalists and publishers in the past several decades — as the concourse for community life.

In the decades preceding the current "hyperlocal" fad, professional journalists, and the people who manage them, didn’t seem to realize is that "local" is what newspapers did before the "professionals" took over and decided the local flower show was nothing more than a calendar item and real news mean combing over every council member’s campaign contributions.

Now before I go too far in bashing "professional" journalists, let me clarify what I mean: When Walter Lippmann wrote Liberty and the News in 1922, with its indisputable and irrefutable call to eliminate the average newshound’s careless handling of fact and his facile understanding of events, he correctly diagnosed the need for a better educated, less callow, more thoughtful kind of reporter. But what Lippmann meant by professionalism, and objectivity, is not the brand of professional journalist that eventually emerged.

Lippmann’s conception of "professional" had nothing to do with learning the craft and tools of reportage so that one might demonstrate better news judgment or never forget a who, what or when; it had everything to do with applying a scientific, intellectual approach to gathering facts, weighing evidence and presenting reports.

Journalism has gone astray by giving us too much of the former and too little of the latter.

For the purpose of this post, I’m speaking of professionalization — with its stenographic and reader-may-care approach to news — as practiced, not as it should be.  (I’ll have more on Lippmann in a later post).

The Hyperlocal Fad
There would be no need for a word such as "hyperlocal" if there wasn’t a void to fill in community news coverage. The bare existence of the term speaks to the unfocused and misplaced coverage of most newspapers over the past several decades. The advocates of "hyperlocal" needed a term to differentiate what most newsrooms did compared to what they should do; or for those outside of the industry who applied the word to their own Web start-ups, they used "hyperlocal" to describe the opportunity left gaping by newspapers.

But what we now call "hyperlocal" is what William Allen White called "locals."  White saw no distinction between the role of a newspaper in its community and the community. The Emporia Gazette printed to be the community, not merely to deliver the news.

The narrative arch of the Gazette says something about what a community newspapers should be, and where local newspapers went wrong. As White grew older, achieved greater wealth, and settled into national prominence, he increasingly ceded editorial control of his newspaper to a J-school-educated, younger staff. In Home Town News, a biography of White, Sally Foreman Griffith writes:

The divergence between White’s vision of journalism and his staff’s reflected different conceptions of the Gazette‘s proper role. The divergence appeared most clearly in the continuing conflict over the paper’s locals. According to Frank Clough, Lambert’s successor as city editor, both William Allen and Sallie White constantly complained that their weren’t enough locals in the paper. But the editors argued that the Gazette was no longer a local paper and should emphasize "its district news, its associated press reports, and its features rather than its strictly Emporia news." Clough told Mrs. White on one occasion, "the Gazette is just like a boy who is too big for short pants and his parents don’t think he is big enough for long ones."  ”Go along with you,’ she retorted. ‘Tell your reporters we need some more local items and don’t let your pants get too big for you.’" The two generations finally compromised on a policy of publishing the locals that were brought to the Gazette but seeking out only items concerning "the town’s more prominent citizens." From the point of view of White’s earlier broader vision of community, such compromise amounted to defeat.

Newspapers and Democracy
There has been much consternation of late among the print set about newspapers dying and its effect on society, such as this column in the Seattle Times, which asks:

Who will tell the people what their institutions are doing? Who will ferret out the corruption? Who will fend off the legal challenges to public information? If no viable alternative emerges, what does that mean for our representative democracy?

Those are all fine questions, and certainly nobody is suggesting that a community should be without reporters who know how to hold government officials accountable, but there is also a trace of pretension in that line of thinking, that only newspaper journalists can do the job. and that’s the only kind of journalistic job worth doing.

Newspapers abdicated their role as stalwarts of democracy in the mid-20th Century as they moved away from conveying community life to takers of minutes and recorders of controversy, more dedicated to the process of government and wire reports than what their friends and neighbors might be doing at the church on Wednesday night.

Once people could no longer pick up the local gazette and find out who was visiting from California and when Helen Carter was going to sell her famous peach pies, the papers became less relevant to their lives.

Without that relevancy, society and democracy suffered. People became not only less informed, but less involved in their communities.

Consider that 57 percent of Americans say that if their local newspaper went away, both online and in print, they wouldn’t miss it and it wouldn’t hurt the civic life of their towns. The numbers are just as dismal when the question is isolated just to regular newspaper readers. This is in keeping with an earlier Harris poll that found nearly two-thirds of Americans say their local newspaper doesn’t serve its community well.

There is a nexus, I believe, between readership declines and less engaged communities that cannot be blamed entirely on the rise of radio and television nor on changes in urban-to-suburban lifestyles.

Readership Declines
It’s not often discussed in newsrooms, but readership declines started at least fifty years before the introduction of Mosaic. Readership peaked in the late 1940s, more than a decade after radio became a commercial force, and years before television reached popular saturation.

And while U.S. newspapers are not alone in facing competition from new technology or changes in social habits, the readership slide is greater in the U.S. than any other industrialized nation, with American papers now ranking low on readership 1,000 adults.

There is certainly something going on with American newspaper readership that can’t be blamed on radio, television, the Internet nor changes in lifestyles.

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam writes about Americans becoming increasingly disengaged from their communities in the final quarter of the 20th Century. People stopped joining bowling leagues, or the American Legion, or showing up for the big community fundraiser.

Putnam writes about social capital, the idea that interconnectedness among people is what sustains a community. Web 2.0 geeks like to talk about social networks, but social networks exist in the non-digital world as well. If you understand the importance of people learning about what’s going on in the lives of their friends, family and neighbors, it’s easy to see why a newspaper that carries such news is contributing to the social capital of its community.

When newspapers stopped making such deposits in the bank of community good will, they became increasingly disengaged and less relevant to their home towns.

By every measure, according to Putnam, civic engagement peaked in the mid-1960s, well after the rise of television and suburban flight.

It wouldn’t be surprising however, that people stopped reading their local papers long before they stopped attending Rotary meetings. People are, after all, social animals. The long habit of social networking with people in their community would be less easily broken than a connection to a paid-circulation newspaper.

Circulation and readership declines are lagging indicators of a failure to contribute social capital.  Declining community participation is a lagging indicator of less knowledge about friends and neighbors.

Both might be equally blamed on the turn from community news to more professionally produced political and process coverage by newspaper staffs. I call this "Castor oil" coverage, as in "we think this is important and we don’t care whether you, dear reader, agree — take it and don’t whine about it."

(And note, too, readership declines started before newspaper chains became massive entities and were often publicly traded, so readership losses are not necessarily an ownership problem, either.)

Building Community on the Web
Sadly, its probably too late to save newspapers, and it’s too late for newspapers to save their communities.

The Web won’t save newspapers. The mere transference of newspaper journalism onto digital devices is a doomed business model.

But the Web can save and revitalize local communities.

I’ve spent my career in or around small newspapers. I’ve never worked for a big metro, and outside of once dreaming of an editorialist’s job with the San Diego Evening Tribune, I’ve not aspired to life at a paper of more than 100K circulation. I’m a home town boy at heart, even though I’ve never really had a home town.

One of the great benefits of launching The Batavian is that it brought me into contact with Bill Kauffman, author and historian whose books include Dispatches from The Muckdog Gazette and Look Homeward, America.

Before I met Bill, I never heard the word "localist," but I know now, that’s what I am (and I’m not alone; there is a movement in this country of localists/placists), and localism is at the core of my political philosophy. I believe strong communities make for a stronger democracy.  Call me a Luddite in the face of digital globalization and international hyperlinks, I still believe in the importance and vitality of geographic communities (and I’m sure I’ll get the comment or two calling me naive for not bowing down to the inevitable gods of a one-world community, or communities of interest replacing geographic connectedness).

Kauffman writes of himself in Look Homeward, America:

I am an American patriot. A Jeffersonian decentralist. A fanatical localist. And I am an anarchist. Not a sallow garret-rat translating Proudhon by pirated kilowatt, nor a militiaman catechized by the Classic Comics version of The Turner Diaries; rather, I am the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived amidst the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn.

Like so many of the subjects of this book, I am also a reactionary radical, which is to say I believe in peace and justice but I do not believe in smart bombs, daycare centers, Wal-Mart, television, or Melissa Etheridge’s test-tube baby.

You may not agree with all of Kauffman’s politics, but there is something to be said for finding fervor and valor in cherishing your home town and the unique individuals that give it vitality.

As journalists, we’ve gotten away from cherishing community — that isn’t objective enough — and it’s hurt not only democracy, but our business model.

Strong local communities are important to the education of our children, the safety of our streets, the growth of our businesses, the employment of our neighbors and the quality of our parks.  By every measure, our well being depends on the quality of life were we live.

There’s nothing wrong with leading a digital life, but in the end you still need a life beyond the walls of your dwelling, and the kind of life you live in your community depends on the quantity of social capital you build.

It’s impossible to squander social capital and expect a community to thrive. We still share in the responsibility for potholes and clean parks, whether or not we drive or walk a dog. We are all part of a geographic community, whether we admit it or hide behind our Facebook friend feed.

And journalists, most of all, and publishers, and even the ad sales reps, can’t escape from social responsibility. If communities are to become vital again, journalism is going to either provide the bonds and lead the conversation, or cease even its current tenuous hold on relevance.

It’s ironic, given what I hoped to accomplish with The Batavian, that I picked Bill Kauffman’s community before I ever read a sentence of his work. The mission of The Batavian was never, in my mind, merely to fix the local news business model, but also to revitalize community journalism. Of course, to me, the business model and the journalism model are one and the same.  Revenue declines are closely related to readership declines, so we must fix readership before we can fix revenue.

The early results of The Batavian drawing together a community and creating a more engaged readership is promising. I do believe the digital tools of instant publishing, unlimited space, conversation and connection can re-energize the kind of community journalism that inspired William Allen White to grow the Gazette into a great local institution.

If this approach works — whether it be The Batavian or similar ventures —  we can reverse the trend of "bowling alone" and bring back the kind of community life that best serves a vibrant democracy.

But to make this approach work, it’s going to take people — including many of today’s trained journalists — to rethink everything they’ve learned about community journalism as practiced over the past half century or so. Merely promoting the "hyperlocal" fad isn’t going to get the job done. We need to bring back locals, and bring back the direct connection and involvement in the community by the people covering the community. This isn’t the detachment taught in J-schools. It’s participatory and social. But it will work. It must.

Books to Buy:

Horace Greeley on ‘hyperlocal’ journalism

Horace Greeley to “Friend Fletcher” in April, 1830:

Begin with a clear conception that the subject of deepest interest to an average human being is himself; next to that he is most concerned about his neighbors. Asia and the Tongo Islands stand a long way after these in his regard…. Do not let a new church be organized, or new members be added to one alrea! dy existing, a farm be sold, a new house raised, a mill set in motion, a store opened, nor anything of interest to a dozen families occur, without having the fact duly, though briefly, chronicled in your columns. If a farmer cuts a big tree, or grows a mammoth beet, or harvests a bounteous yield of wheat or corn, set forth the fact as concisely and unexceptionally as possible.

Is there a better description of what we now call hyperlocal journalism?

Couric interviewed Palin well, but withholding footage was potentially unethical

When, as a journalist, you possess information that will have some impact on society, will effect people’s lives, or otherwise rises to some level of salient import, do you have an obligation to publish or broadcast that information immediately, or is it OK to hold it to serve the business needs of your newspaper or network?

I’m ruminating on this question in light of the past week’s dribbling of the Katie Couric interviews with Sarah Palin.

Couric interviewed Palin prior to Sept. 24. The first two segments can be viewed and read here. I didn’t think much about the two-part interview last week. After all, a TV news show has limited time. As much as I believe in web-first publishing, I could give a pass to CBS for holding the interviews for prime-time viewing first.

Then rumors began to circulate that there was more material not yet released. First, that Palin had not been able to name a Supreme Court case besides Roe vs. Wade. Then, yesterday, the video came out of Palin’s inability to name a single newspaper — not the Anchorage Daily News nor her hometown Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

Thus, we learned that CBS had withheld newsworthy quotes from the public.

Ethically, is that acceptable?

I doubt a single reader would disagree with these two assertions: That Palin’s answers to Couric were news, and that the answers could have an impact on both on the election and on public perceptions of Thursday night’s VP debate.

So let’s consider the consequences of how CBS handled these answers.

If CBS had released the full interview, either in broadcast or on the intertubes, on the first day the impact might have been:

  • The shock of all the stupidity coming out at at once could have even more quickly torpedo people’s opinions of Palin, McCain and the GOP; or,
  • It would have given both sides more time to dissect what it all means prior to the Thursday night debates, thereby giving voters more time to draw more nuanced conclusions (if that’s even possible in this case).

But the most important factor in a decision to hold the full interview or not is the impact it has on the politically important expectations game.

Experienced political observers know how it works: Lower expectations so that a candidate can rise to the occasion and look better than people believed he or she could. It’s a tried, true and infallible political tactic.

But in dribbling segments of the interview, CBS is able to incrementally lower the expectation that Palin is anything other than a dimwit who is neither engaged nor informed enough to serve as VP.

Loyal GOP partisans, of course, will believe that CBS has handled the interview as it has merely to more broadly and deeply embarrass the governor.

Experienced journalists know that it is unlikely that CBS executives have any political motivation whatsoever. The decision to incrementally release the interview has only one motivation: Ratings.

Which brings us back to the central question: Is it OK for a journalist or a news organization to make decisions about newsworthy events based on business concerns?

Again, clearly, the Palin interview is full of information people need to know.  Is it OK to withhold that information for any reason other than a journalisticly sound reason?

Let’s be clear: I’m not being inconsistent with things I’ve said in the past. The modern journalist cannot be completely divorced from concerns about ratings and readership, but that has more to do with story selection and presentation than what facts a reporter or editor chooses to release when.  My question is very narrow: When you know something to be true, what is your journalistic, ethical obligation to inform the public of that information?  Is it immediate, or can you hold it?

In a Twitter discussion about this topic today, Howard Weaver raised a challenging question about newspapers holding investigative packages for Sunday publication. In 140 chacters, what I think Howard was getting at, is it a business decision to hold for Sunday?

I guess it could be, but Sunday is also the day the most people take the most time with the printed word. If you have a significant issue that you want people to time with and think about, Sunday publication makes a lot of sense. It may be the ethically superior publication day for big-package stories (not so much on the web, though — site traffic plunges on weekends).  You’re also talking about a package that is designed to revolve around a coherent thesis.  The Palin interviews were chalk full of individual news nuggets. There was nothing investigative about it. It was good, probing questions by Katie Couric, but it produced news, not a deep and broad policy review.

Regular readers know, I believe in web-first publishing. I’ve always advocating web-first as an audience growth strategy, but it also has a journalistic component. Journalists should not withhold information from the public based on artificial deadlines.  When you know a fact that is newsworthy, you should tell people. To withhold the information is to rob readers and viewers of time to act on or ruminate over the news.