Monthly Archives: June 2006

Burned by the cycle

Well, we got tripped up by a 3 a.m. shift in the news again. A few months ago it was the premature announcement that several trapped miners had been found alive. Sadly, they weren’t. This time it was the 11th-hour stay of the execution of Sedley Alley.
Our night staff hustled like crazy to adjust Page 1 to news of the stay. It was good work and resulted in a dramatic front page. But by the time the paper was delivered, the stay had been lifted and Alley was dead.
At least nowadays we can update the news on our Web site rather than having to wait until the next day’s paper to correct the story. .

The ‘disgraceful’ New York Times

In an earlier comment, Houston Ball raised the issue of The New York Times’ publication of a story revealing a CIA-Treasury program that tracks millions of financial records in search of terrorist suspects.
“You could take a strong position supporting the NYT and their front-page story exposing the government’s secret Bank Record spying program trying to catch terrorists, thereby alienating even more of your readers who might feel such revelations are not as much “in the public interest” as in the interest of our enemies,” he wrote.
I truly don’t want to alienate readers. But I’ll admit I’m sympathetic to the Times, whose behavior the president of the United States has called “disgraceful.” I’m certainly glad I’m not making the decisions the editors and publisher there are making.
To many readers, the right decision may seem easy: don’t publish something that the president believes will endanger national security. But I would ask those readers to suspend cynicism toward the media for a moment and consider how difficult it might be for a newspaper to decide to not publish information it has, especially about a matter of public importance.
There are two reasons I can think of, off hand, that a newspaper might not publish. First, it might succumb to outside pressure and withhold information simply because the powers-that-be wanted it withheld. Second, it might disregard any outside influence but conclude, based on its own judgment, that withholding the information was the best thing for society.
I think most readers would agree that the first reason would be cowardly and unethical. The second reason might be ethical. But isn’t there also danger in a newspaper arrogantly assuming a we-know-what’s-best role? The Times and other papers are frequently criticized for slanting the news. What could be more manipulative than withholding a major story?
A critic may reply that the judgment of the president and the Pentagon should be respected and prevail. I would ask then if that standard should apply no matter who the president is, what party is in power or what information is being weighed? I would ask, too, if the standard should be extended beyond national newspapers. Should papers in state capitals place similar faith in the judgment of governors? Should local papers let their mayors make the call?
Newspapers are asked nearly every day to withhold publication of something, in the interest of privacy, security, even economic development. Often persuasive arguments are made. Sometimes newspapers comply, agreeing, for example, to withhold for a day or two news of an upcoming police sting. Perhaps the bank-records case in analogous. The most famous example of a newspaper sitting on a story involves the Times itself and atomic bomb project. But rarely do papers agree to withhold news indefinitely, and in this case there was evidence that the terrorists already were well aware that wire transfers were being monitored.
In the end, newspapers almost always decide to do what they are meant to do, and that is publish. Consider this: Would you really rather have The New York Times collaborating with the White House, administration after administration, deciding what to tell the American people and what to keep secret?
Here is The New York Times’ editors’ letter describing how the decision was reached. As I said, I’m glad it wasn’t a decision I had to make.

Diversity on the Sports Desk

Phil Kaplan, our assistant sports editor, has been in Las Vegas this week for the national convention of the Associated Press Sports Editors, APSE. There he heard a report showing that many sports departments in American remain the bastions of white males.
According to a survey of 305 newspapers, blacks make up 6.2 percent of sports staffs, out of a total minority representation of 12 percent. Women account for 12.6 percent of sports writers and editors compared to filling 37.7 percent of the jobs in newsrooms as a whole.
The News Sentinel has nothing to brag about in this regard. A couple of years ago our sports department hired its first black professional, Jamar Hudson. Jamar is leaving, though, to join Good for him; bad for us. The number of full-time women on the sports staff is nil, too.
We have room for improvement, to say the least.
I’ve attached an AP story on the new report as an extended entry.

Continue reading

News Sentinel TV

We have a brief portion of our directors’ meeting each week dedicated to discussing fresh ideas or creative initiatives that other news organizations are trying. This week we talked about The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., where the editors have started webcasting their news meetings.
I’m intrigued by the idea. Showing how we plan the newspaper would make the process more open and transparent. And the exercise would help us start the meetings on time and keep everyone focused. On the other hand, having spent much of my adult life in news meetings, I find it hard to imagine why anyone would want to watch one on a computer screen — much less tune in on a regular basis.

Over the top?

The past few years, the News Sentinel has put a lot of energy into coverage of Bonnaroo.
First, we think the emergence of this Tennessee music festival into the biggest in the nation is an interesting story. Second, the content connects with a younger demographic (see previous entry). Third, this offers a chance to try some edgier, more creative approaches to coverage. Blogs, video and slideshows all have been part of our Bonnaroo report.
Did we go over the edge in Sunday’s paper with a photo spread called the Faces of Bonnaroo? I thought the photos — presented unusually in black and white — were very well done. Photographer Saul Young built a sort of portable studio to produce them.
But was the content too edgy? We’ll see what letters and e-mails show up over the next few days.,1406,KNS_347_4784941,00.html

Online and over the hill?

How old are you? Older than I might hope, according to the latest research.
Newspapers have long been aware of the problem of aging readership. We love our readers, but we’d like to have some new ones for the decades to come. Attracting young readers has been a real challenge.
There’s been some belief in the industry that newspaper Web sites were the ticket to reaching the still-climbing-the-hill demographic. New numbers from Belden Associates — leading media researchers — show that’s true, but not to the extent that might be wished.
The average newspaper reader now clocks in at a mature 55 years of age. The average online reader is a much younger 42. But the number of newspaper Web visitors age 25-44 has steadily declined over the past five years.

Open government

Most of my day today was spent traveling to and from Chattanooga for a meeting of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. TCOG is made up of media types and representatives of such groups as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. Its purpose is to push for openness in government.
Fighting for public access to records and decision-making is one of the more frustrating, but ultimately important, duties of an editor. It’s frustrating because, frankly, much of the public doesn’t really support the media when they press for access. Our arguments come across as self-serving and insensitive to concerns of privacy, propriety and security. There’s no question a newspaper has a financial stake in easy access to information, and reporters can build their careers by exposing the secrets of public servants. But most journalists also intensely believe that democracy is best served by a free flow of information about government.
Regardless of motives, the media are the only real force in our society in a position to fight government secrecy. My personal philosophy is that every worthwhile newspaper should have at least one public-access lawsuit pending at all times (we’re still suing for access to police videotapes) and should fight every attempt by government to close meetings, seal records, debate in secret and cloak decisions. We know we won’t win every fight. But we also know that, if we don’t fight for openness, no one else will.

All in the Frist family

We got a call from Matt Lehigh, Sen. Bill Frist’s press aide, after we started working on an item about a minor brouhaha involving the senator’s sons. It seems the Capitol newspaper Roll Call and the blogger Wonkette have been having a bit of fun at the Frist offspring’s expense after some irreverent content appeared on the young men’s Facebook sites.
Our man in Washington, Richard Powelson, began developing the story for this Sunday’s Knoxville Calling column. Lehigh argued that the item wasn’t newsworthy and was an unfair intrusion into the privacy of the Frist sons. We weighed the objection but decided to go ahead and publish for a variety of reasons:
1) Frist is a national leader and presidential candidate, and the sprouts of presidential timber have always been subject to some public scrutiny, just ask the Bushes, the Gores, the Clintons, the Cheneys, etc.
2) Frist was at that very moment leading a national debate involving families and values, namely the push to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Arguably, information that reflected on his own family’s values might be instructive.
3) Millions of American parents of teenagers and college students are adjusting to the new dynamics of Facebook, MySpace and other Internet socializing. It contributes to the national conversation to know that someone near the apex of power also shares the angst.
4) The boys were the ones who went public with the information in the first place by publishing on the Internet.
5) The story was no big deal anyway. There’s no rule that says every word in the newspaper must contribute to serious public dialog. We run frivolous items every day. Readers enjoy them, and no real harm is done.
As it turned out, before Powelson’s item could be prepared, the Associated Press picked up a similar item out of our sister paper in Memphis and moved it on the wires. So we ran it in our People column today. It said:
Washington, D.C. — Two sons of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have started making news, although not likely the kind craved by their father.
There’s been some chuckling over the recent coverage by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call and the blogger Wonkette on the pages for Frist’s sons, Bryan (at Princeton) and Jonathan (at Vanderbilt), reports The Commercial Appeal. Wonkette struck first last Friday, with a story about Bryan’s Facebook, and its quote: “I was born an American by Gods amazing grace. Lets bomb some people.

Dead wood?

How dead are the dead-wood media, the old ink-on-paper dinosaurs of the communications ecosystem? There’s no question that newspapers are facing unprecedented challenges. But reports of our demise may be a bit premature.
An article making the rounds from Presstime magazine, the publication of the Newspaper Association of America, argues that the print media are alive and pretty darn healthy. Sixty percent of ad spending last year was on old-fashioned printed images, 27 percent went to television and radio, and the “new media” of cable and Internet captured 13 percent.
Now, it would be the height of folly to suggest that newspapers don’t face significant changes. But Wednesday is my birthday — my 53rd — and I have some hope of making it to retirement — at least if I keep on blogging. .

Grim image II

I received this note from a reader today regarding this photo’s appearance on Page A5 Saturday:
“Today’s paper is troubling. On the main page there is an article talking about the Iraq civilian deaths blamed on the United States. That isn’t the issue, the issue is that you have a picture of dead bodies on the continued story, two of which are young children. Displaying dead children in a community newspaper is not acceptable, and I am greatly disappointed in the News Sentinel for printing this disturbing photograph. If a American child was killed would you show its lifeless body in a large county newspaper? I do not think so. A explanation for this is appreciated.”
This was my response:
“Thank you for your note. We very much appreciate the feedback. We did not make the decision to run that photo lightly. We realize that anytime we publish a photo of a dead body we risk offending readers, doubly so if the photo is of children. Yet we also believe it is wrong to shield readers from all horrifying images involving issues of public policy. Because of the seriousness of the accusations involved in this and the related cases in Iraq, we decided to include the photo with our coverage on an inside page of the paper. I believe we would make the same decision if the child were American, though I cannot think of circumstances under which we would do the same if the child were local and friends or loved ones might recognize the face.”
I also asked the reader if we could use the note as a Readers Corner comment on Page A2. I’m awaiting a response.
Some editors completely ban photos of dead bodies. That has never seemed right to me. But when and how to publish such grim images is certainly a judgment call on which reasonable people might disagree.