Journalism, independent of the police

In a recent Chicago Tribune column:

It’s not clear to me where activists and demonstrators ever got the idea that public protesting is somehow a private act that can be conducted anonymously. It’s dismaying that they insist their threshold for personal trauma outweighs the tenets of responsible journalism.

Column: The Phoenix rises: Loyola’s student newspaper takes a courageous stand for journalism” — Eric Zorn, The Chicago Tribune, Sept. 4, 2020

Looming unsaid over this column, and over every column written and published during this time, is how the practices, standards and supposed “norms” of the professional journalism industry were cemented into the newsroom consciousness when newsrooms were incredibly racist, anti-Black, and highly conservative workplaces of ideology.

The Tribune Tower is a neo-Gothic skyscraper in Chicago. It was the home of the Chicago Tribune. Prior to the construction, correspondents for the Chicago Tribune brought back rocks and bricks from a variety of historically important sites throughout the world. Stones included in the wall are from such sites as the St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Trondheim Cathedral, Taj Mahal, Clementine Hall, the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, Palace of Westminster, the Great Pyramid Notre Dame de Paris, Abraham Lincoln’s Tomb, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, which inspired the shape of the building. by Gautam Krishnan
The Tribune Tower is a neo-Gothic skyscraper in Chicago. It was the home of the Chicago Tribune. (Gautam Krishnan via Unsplash)

The way that supposed professional journalists evoke the standards of journalism would suggest that such rules and principles are plucked from the ether as absolute truths of the practice. It’s not true, and any amount of glossing-it-over with brushes of journalism expertise doesn’t make it any truer. Journalists are not an objective, external observer of ongoing events; by our very presence, we impact and influence the events we document, however well-intentioned we may be in attempting to stay out of it.

Institutional newspapers have been notoriously racist institutions. In the 1940s, the Los Angeles Times explicitly called for and endorsed the unlawful and unconstitutional detention of Japanese Americans, including numerous U.S. citizens, shrouding its racist views under appeals for “wartime” necessities, and writing that:

“As a race, the Japanese have made for themselves a record for conscienceless treachery unsurpassed in history. Whatever small theoretical advantages there might be in releasing those under restraint in this country would be enormously outweighed by the risks involved.”

The Los Angeles Times, as re-cited in a 2017 editorial

And numerous other supposed “journalism tenets” continually reinforce America’s racist hierarchies. Mugshots, for example, have been a journalism staple for decades and are as indisputably a tenet of journalism as “objectivity” and “reporting the facts” might be; yet, after decades of campaigning, news organizations continue to display and update them on their websites, despite the evidence that such mugshot galleries undermine the presumption of innocence, reaffirm biases against people of color (especially Black and Brown people), and can tarnish someone’s future forever. Remember that booking photos taken by police as part of the arrest record are not evidence of conviction — and our own journalists have been the ones who continually pay attention to how police actions are racist and violent, and provide evidence to back up these claims.

Stories about how journalists stand up to the mob are easy to read and write, but do little to help repair the gaping trust deficit between newsrooms and the communities that they supposedly serve. After all, it is also our reporting that spread the news about how police use photos from social media to track down and arrest protesters, and how the police seek to use legal means to force news organizations to hand over unpublished documentation to reveal protesters’ identities. We know that these things can and do happen — and so do protestors, including those affiliated with Black Lives Matter that the Tribune’s op-ed columnist riles against.

Judge orders Seattle Times, four TV stations to give photos, videos of protests to police

Judge orders Seattle Times, four TV stations to give photos, videos of protests to police

The police department’s demand “puts our independence, and even our staff’s physical safety, at risk,” Seattle Times executive editor Michele Matassa Flores said.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/24/seattle-times-protesters-police-subpoena/

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You may try to hide behind the comfortable excuse that you are doing your job. It is not, and has never been, a good enough reason to inflict any harm upon other people, including by aiding the police and the systems of society that have failed them for so many centuries.

We have had protests following the police killing of George Floyd. We have had chats to say Breonna Taylor’s name. We have had story after story after story about how Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald and the year-long fight it took to release the dashcam video that showed how Chicago police lied and covered up the truth about his killing. How much more do you need to think about how cozy you want to be with the police?

That we as journalists have the right to publish information does not mean it is ethical to publish it; nor are journalists a de facto law enforcement assistant to the government.

Nobody is disputing that the protests on North Sheridan Road outside of Loyola University and involving its students should not be covered or reported by its student newspaper. The complaint was limited to the journalists’ broadcasting and publishing of photos and videos, which we know can contribute to later police investigations and arrests. Nothing stops the police from bringing their own cameras to protests — but if we as journalists are to remain truly independent of all parties involved, we should consider whether we’re doing the police’s job for them.

thoughts on an arrest of a journalist

This morning, Minnesota State Police arrested CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and his camera crew as they were reporting live on the air on the protests in Minneapolis.

The event is confounding and unforgivable because there is no reasonable alternative explanation for the events. Jimenez is clearly heard on national television to be cooperating and deferential to the police officers. He is holding up his CNN identification badge clearly for the officers and the camera to see. He repeatedly identifies himself as a CNN journalist to officers, even when they arrest him.

It is highly likely that race is a factor when we consider that Jimenez, who is Black, was arrested while a white CNN journalist was not.

Jimenez is led away after being handcuffed Friday morning.
CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez is arrested by Minnesota State Police officers. (CNN)

Media organizations, including CNN itself, have responded quickly and correctly that this arrest is a violation of the First Amendment, which protects the freedom of speech and of the press.

For the police to arrest a member of the press for doing his job by reporting the happenings is a violation of those protected rights.

Most importantly, though, this is not just a violation against the media as a sector of society; it is a violation of the people’s rights and of the fundamental principles of accountable democracy.

Arresting a media staffer is to deprive the public of the ability to know what is going on and to understand what is happening in our country. It is an infringement of the public’s right to know what is going on, and to inspect and oversee its elected officials and government actors to hold them accountable for their actions and wrongdoings.

A people’s government acts in the light; it is tyrants, authoritarians and oligarch who operate in the dark, casting shadows over the consent of the people with fear, misinformation, arrests and state violence.

The news media’s supposed role of “impartiality” stems from the necessity for journalists to remain observers as much as possible, precisely for conflict-heavy events like this. As the state’s police and anti-police violence protestors are clashing in Minneapolis, members of the professional news media try to stay out of all of the parties’ way as much as possible to share the news with the country and document the events of history without being accused of or mistaken for being involved.

It is a lesson that the people of Hong Kong — my people — have learned as they clash with their own government over repressive, anti-freedom policies being pushed upon them by Beijing officials.

In Minneapolis, it was not the people nor the news media who got a CNN correspondent involved with the protests. It was the state police who stripped Jimenez of the protections of the First Amendment; it was the police who broke the bargain between the news media and every participant in a news event: The journalists will respect your involvement if you respect their disinvolvement.

Members of the professional press must now reckon with how much deference we give to police officers and the veracity of their statements, as journalists of color and those who have suffered from police violence have insisted for ages.

At the moment that Jimenez was arrested, accountable democracy got a bit weaker. An apology by the state governor is not sufficient. We must see and demand that our government officials understand the role of the news media in a democratic, politically accountable society.

A good start might be the governor issuing an order to state police forces reminding them to observe the protections for the news as they attempt to deescalate the unrests in Minneapolis.

“Embarrassing” and “ridiculous.” I’m not sure if these journalists are describing the Daily Northwestern or themselves.

After The Daily Northwestern apologized for actions by its student journalists during a recent campus visit by former attorney general Jeff Sessions, the professional journalists began to pile on.

Robert Feder, known for his coverage of the Chicago media scene, described the Daily’s editorial as “bizzare” and “embarrassing.” Glenn Kessler, the fact checker for The Washington Post (my current employer), said it was a travesty and embarrassment. Stephanie Zimmerman, currently with the Chicago Sun-Times (my former internship employer) and an instructor for Medill’s high school summer journalism program, said it was “ridiculous” and “journalists at @thedailynu should not apologize for DOING THEIR JOB.”

Their words are incredibly disappointing.

None of these journalists appeared to have done any reporting into the underlying circumstances of the issue. The Daily apologized for two separate and specific concerns of their reporting process: First, that they published photographs of student protestors at the event, and second, that they reached out via text to some protestors to ask them for comment.


I’ll address the second concern early, because it’s a pretty simple circumstance: The source of the protestors’ contact information was the University Directory, which is not an open, publicly-accessible data source. The University’s online directory at https://directory.northwestern.edu is available to the public, but information such as physical addresses and phone numbers are only presented to on-campus network users and those who sign in with a Northwestern NetID, not members of the general public. This information is sourced from the many forms that students complete throughout their time at Northwestern, including for emergency contacts.

It is reasonable for all students — including these protestors — to expect that their private data provided to Northwestern for purposes such as campus emergency notifications would not be used by The Daily’s journalists for reporting, and such contact would be seen as an infiltration of privacy, in the same way that any professional journalist should not be using a non-public data source for their reporting. (And if you are, then we do need to be having a conversation — and it’ll be a conversation about journalism ethics, privacy expectations, and the law like GDPR and California’s data protection legislation.)


There’s also a pretty simple response to the professional journalists’ criticism of supposed infringements of the First Amendment: Northwestern University is a private university and the First Amendment does not apply. But I feel that this would be a disingenuous response to their criticisms, because I think they are upset that The Daily has seemingly caved to public pressure and refused to stand up for the principles of the First Amendment as they apply to the freedom of the press.

To this, I respond that the freedom of the press not includes the freedom to publish the news, but the freedom to not publish the news as well. As members of professional news organizations, these journalists should have recognized the right of the newsroom editors to make calls about what is and what is not published, and the right of the same editors to respond to their readers’ criticisms of those decisions.

I have witnessed many meetings where senior editors have decided not to run certain images or videos because they felt the specific impacts on victims outweighed the newsworthiness to the general public. The only difference here is The Daily is doing it after-the-fact, and admitting their first instincts were probably wrong.


The First Amendment’s freedom of the press clause protects journalists from retribution or punishment by the narrow interests of those wielding government power, but does not mean that journalists are immune from the general public’s criticisms of their coverage. In fact, journalists should be hyperaware of and sensitive to criticism, because the public cannot hold journalists accountable through the regular mechanisms of democracy’s government machinery in institutions like Congress.

Nor are journalists an unaccountable arm of the law and the secret police of the government, which is why institutions such as the storied Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications — which, as many of these journalists did correctly note, does not operate The Daily, but is where many of the student editors study — put such heavy emphasis on consequential rights and protections, such as shield laws for journalism, in its courses and teachings.

Many of these professional journalists criticizing The Daily entered the industry during a time when society did not have access to the same technological tools as we do today, such as facial recognition algorithms and tools for large-scale data mining. The best practices of journalism must learn and adapt to these new threats for democracy. If anything, these students have a better understanding of what’s necessary for journalism’s future if our liberal democracy is to survive.


Finally, I’ll note one observation for the pedagogy: Many of the professional journalists criticizing The Daily Northwestern are white. Many of the student editors who signed the Daily’s note are not.

I’ve reminded of this excellent soundbite from Nikole Hannah-Jones: “White journalists’ obsession with objectivity comes from being a white person in a white-dominated country in which all of the laws were in the favor of whiteness.”

These professional’s criticisms of the protestors — that they “should have stayed home” and maybe “wrote a letter” from their dorms — are such patronizing comments about what I know to be a patient and well-informed cross-section of Northwestern’s already exceedingly intellectual community of students. These patronizations are stocked in the same aisle as the “There’s nothing you can do about it” lollipops and the “I’m not a racist but” detergents.

They invalidate these protestors’ activism, they patronize these protestor’s criticisms of Jeff Session’s complicity in the racism, sexism, and encouragement of violence by the Trump administration, and they seek to wash these journalists of the guilt of the media’s historical and continued indifference when it comes to the plight and suffering of the peoples of color, the LGBTQ+ communities, the immigrants and newly-naturalized populations, the poor and the needy, and anybody else who does not look or live life like the senior editors in the offices of these professional newsrooms.

Cut it out, you all. I’m not having it.

Student journalists: do better.

Looking up at the Weber Arch at Northwestern University in Sep. 2015. Photo by Leo Ji.

If we want our readers to trust us, we need to listen to their criticisms — and not disparage them, as The Daily Northwestern’s opinion editor has done

Before I applied to the Medill, I was studying physics and computer science. Despite being one of the few students who read the (physical) newspaper everyday, I couldn’t tell you how journalism worked or what went into producing that newspaper.

So when Matt Murray, executive editor of The Wall Street Journal, spoke at Northwestern a few months ago, I asked him for his thoughts on whether journalists should explain how they do their work. What is our responsibility to explain how we do journalism to our readers?

I’m asking the question again, but this time of the campus newspaper, The Daily Northwestern.

On April 17, 2018, the Daily published a “Letter from the Editor” written by Alex Schwartz, a Medill sophomore and the opinion editor of The Daily. The letter’s headline differs between print (“After ASG elections, recognize distinction between news, opinion”) and online (“After ASG elections, don’t call The Daily biased”).

The opinion editor was responding to criticism of The Daily by readers on Facebook, who accused the newspaper of bias because it published a Letter to the Editor heavily critical of Sky Patterson and Emily Ash, two candidates for president and executive vice-president of Northwestern’s undergraduate student government.

“The Daily itself cannot be conflated with the words of one columnist,” the opinion editor wrote. “To call an entire publication biased after reading the words of one person in the Opinion section ignores their separation from our reporting. …

“Our Opinion page provides an outlet for individuals to express their own ideas, and every other page is a space for reporters to relay unbiased information about issues and events affecting NU and Evanston communities.”


The Daily’s opinion editor is correct, but he’s missing the point.

First, the words “The Daily Northwestern” are included on both the Daily’s website and within its printed pages. To ask readers not to associate The Daily opinion section with The Daily itself is similar to asking consumers of Coca-Cola Zero not to associate it with Coca-Cola — if you were serious about making that distinction, you’d call it Dasani.

As he wrote, readers can misunderstand how the opinion section works, but it’s on The Daily to make it clear that the opinion pages work separately from The Daily’s reporting. It’s not on readers to find that out for themselves.

This is not the only controversial Letter to the Editor published by The Daily about this year’s student government elections. A few hours before voting closed, The Daily published a piece now headlined “Letter to the Editor: 30 LGBTQ+ students endorse Sky + Em.” The number “30” was added later.

While there’s definitely room to disagree, I believe “Letter to the Editor: LGBTQ+ students endorse Sky + Em” can be reasonably interpreted to imply that the letter is meant to represent the entire LGBTQ+ student community as opposed to the views of 30 LGBTQ+ individuals, and a change of this nature to a headline should be indicated to readers.

But, as of April 19, 2018, the online version of the LGBTQ+ Letter does not include any message that the headline was changed, and I was unable to find the letter in print from the archives of The Daily Northwestern’s issuu account.

And the opinion editor wrote in his letter that he takes issue with “folks insinuating (in some cases, flat-out stating) that this paper is biased without any knowledge of our editorial process or our structure.” But when I sent an email about the LGBTQ+ letter asking for factual information about the piece, the opinion editor responded with “I’m sorry, but we do not publicly disclose information about our editorial process.” That email chain itself is a separate story.

In addition, the headline of “After ASG elections, don’t call The Daily biased,” contrasts with his writing that “Yes, there is some bias involved in the act of choosing what stories we cover and publish. That’s called selection bias, and it’s something every single media outlet that isn’t staffed by robots experiences.”

While it’s understandable that he may have been responding to reader allegations of partisan bias, it’s still an unfortunate choice of words. Selection bias is a form of bias, and to communicate Yes, we’re biased, but not in the way that you think, and also you should be grateful we’re not robots in a letter responding to reader criticism is rather patronizing.

Moreover, that every other printed page of The Daily Northwestern may be dedicated to fact-based, un-opinionated and nonpartisan reporting is not enough, considering far more people get news online than through print, according to the Pew Research Center.

In the “Letter From the Editor,” the opinion editor wrote “all letters to the editor, columns and editorials are clearly labeled as part of the Opinion section, and — as all of them say at the bottom — they in no way represent the views of anyone other than the person who wrote them, especially not The Daily’s staff or this publication at large.”

The disclaimer does exist in small letters at the bottom of The Daily Northwestern in print, but it is not true for the dailynorthwestern.com website, where Letters to the Editor do not have such a disclaimer on their individual article pages.

As I have written before, the design and layout of websites does not make it immediately obvious whether something is opinion or reporting, and that problem exists even for publications as well-established as The Wall Street Journal.

That has begun to change. Earlier this month, The New York Times announced changes to the design of its Opinion pages in digital media with a distinctive font, a more prominent Opinion label, and a short author bio below the byline to explain why the author has authority to comment on a particular issue.

The Washington Post now has hover tooltips to explain its classifications of “Analysis,” “Perspective” and “Opinion” on its website, although that feature could be more obvious.

And when I brought up my Medium post to him, Matt Murray pointed out that the WSJ mobile apps already used different fonts for the headlines of news and opinion pieces, although I haven’t found that experience matched on the WSJ website.

But despite their shortcomings, all of these are much-needed steps in the right direction.


These actions— not acknowledging a changed headline, referencing the Daily’s printed pages without acknowledging its website, blaming readers for not knowing the editorial process — are examples of what I perceive as the elitism of journalists. This attitude says something like: “We’re journalists. Journalism is what we do. We know best. We know what we’re doing. You should listen to us.”

There’s nothing wrong with journalists knowing many things: journalism is literally the profession of information routing through society. (“You know things and tell me, now I’ll go and tell other people” is the my favorite basic summary of how journalism works.)

And journalism is a lot of work: since joining Medill, I’ve come to appreciate how much work it takes to do fact-checking correctly and well; fact-checking is an arduous process in which every name, every noun and every claim must be double-checked against notes and independent sources.

The Medill F is legendary within Northwestern; Medill lecturer Michael Deas once told me that the standard he uses for awarding the F is whether the error, if printed, would have required a correction in the newspaper the next day. (I have two, both from him, and I’ll never forget either.)

This is the standard that we are held to at Medill, and for good reason. Much of our work ends up in the domain of the public, stored within library shelves and archives or accessible on the Internet for who knows how long.

The European Union “right to be forgotten” is a just one example of how societies are struggling to balance the power of the media with individuals’ expectations of personal privacy. It’s not a coincidence that news articles make up many of the “right to be forgotten” requests to Google.

As journalists, our ability to impact the lives of other people means we need to hold ourselves more accountable for the accuracy of our work.

But simply because journalists work hard doesn’t mean other people don’t work hard as carpenters, couriers, chefs or counselors. And simply because we have satisfied ourselves that our work is accurate, ethical and complete doesn’t mean that our readers and audiences can’t know or understand that too.


One of the sayings I remember hearing during my earliest days at Medill is “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.” I trust my sources but am skeptical of the information they provide me and work to verify that information through other means. Often, that means asking questions about procedure: “How do you know this? Who did you get it from? Can I have a copy?”

That our readers might want to ask the same questions about the information we provide to them should not be surprising.

Transparency in journalism is not a new thing, but it’s become relevant again. The independent nonprofit newsroom ProPublica sets an excellent example of how to conduct and demonstrate journalism transparency and accountability. And in December 2017, the Washington Post shared how journalists reported the story of allegations against Roy Moore days after Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, said at the Poynter Ethics Summit: “I think there’s mystery about how we go about our work. Let’s just be more transparent about how we pursued the story.”

Whether we like it or not, journalism is in the business of trust, and we have plenty to learn from people who have been here for decades. Financial institutions like Bank of America, industry regulators like the Food and Drug Administration and technology companies like Uber and Airbnb are all playing the same game.

Transparency, openness, and willingness to listen to public criticism — even when the public has less information than you do — are better responses than trying to use industry jargon like “involuntarily denied boarding” and “re-accomodation.”

The need for transparency applies to all parts of a news publication’s operation, including its opinion section. In an age when anybody can post on Facebook or write on a blog (hello!), being published in a news organization like The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Daily Northwestern is a key signifier of quality, elevating selected opinions from the cacophony of the masses. When an opinion piece is published by these news organizations, the implication is clear and unremovable: Somebody other than the writer thought this was a good argument. I’d better read it.

Reactions like this “Letter From the Editor” to criticisms of news publications do little to solve issues like a lack of trust in news media and the rise of politicians worldwide portraying the press as the enemy. Instead, they turn readers away from understanding and appreciating our work.

I recognise that editing a newspaper is hard enough, and being opinion editor would only make it even harder. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t implement better solutions, such as including a subheading on Opinion webpages: “Opinion stories are edited by our opinion editor, managing editors and the editor-in-chief. Views expressed by named individuals and groups, other than our editorial board, do not represent the views of this publication, or any of its editors or its staff.”

Changes to how journalism is presented, as The New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have implemented, help our readers to understand how we do our work without impending on core journalism values: accuracy, clarity, brevity.

My three years so far at Medill have taught me that there is no secret to doing journalism. You find people, ask questions, write stuff down, find some more people, ask some more questions, write some more stuff, and then repeat until you’ve written a story. There’s nothing to hide and no mystery to maintain.

But our readers and our audience also owe us nothing, and we need to earn their trust and respect. We need to listen to the criticisms and feedback from our readers, and give them the information they need to decide if they will trust us. Amidst a crisis of trust in the media, all media organizations— including student publications — need to do better.

Who will pay for journalism?

Photo by Thomas Charters on Unsplash

Answer: you, dear reader. And everybody else.

The root of this post lies within the saga currently playing out at The Los Angeles Times, which is expected to be sold to one of the shareholders of its Chicago-based parent company, Tronc.

Before this, journalists at the LA Times overwhelming voted to form a union, the publisher was put on leave and the newspaper got a new editor. (This was about when I started wondering what was going on in Los Angeles.)

The unionization vote occurred a little while after it was revealed in December 2017 company filings that Tronc would pay a company controlled by its chairman, Michael Ferro, $5 million annually for the next three years.

LA Times journalists sharply criticized the company for saying the business environment was challenging and declining to invest further in the LA Times newsroom.


While this might demonstrate that Tronc executives were confused at best and disingenuous at worst about the state of the news publishing company’s finances, it’s unfortunately true that, industry-wide, revenues have fallen and keep dropping.

Newspapers’ circulation revenue climbs steadily even as advertising declines. Source: Pew Research Center.

This is a well-worn narrative today, extensively reported by media journalists (journalists who report about journalism — I know, I know) and espoused by working journalists, student journalists and professors of journalism alike.

Advertising revenues are down, circulation revenues are down, and digital revenues haven’t filled in the difference.

Despite subscription surges for largest U.S. newspapers, circulation and revenue fall for industry overall


But journalism remains expensive.

The cost of creating a mass media product — the vehicle of information — has sharply fallen, as printing a newspaper costs thousands of dollars per print run, while a website can handle a medium amount of traffic for no more than $50 a year.

We haven’t yet reached a point where technological innovations can replace human journalists.

Artifical intelligence systems now write many business earnings stories, but we’re still years away from an AI system capable of sifting through hundreds of pages of unstructured text, create and follow up on Freedom of Information Act requests, understand organizational structures and social context, determine a news event’s relevance to and impact on communities, notice what isn’t being said, write with sensitivity and awareness for bias and be able to discern truth from falsehood, fact from opinion and understatement from hyperbole.

So journalists are still humans, and we need to be fed, loved and appreciated. And paid.


The money to pay journalists has to come from somewhere. As far as the living memory of this generation of journalists extends, that money used to come from advertisements.

We printed a newspaper that many people read. You were a business that wanted to attract the attention of those people, as they might be (or become) your customers. You came to us, said “I’d like to attract the attention of your fine readers” and gave us money. We printed your advertisement alongside the news stories written by journalists paid from the money you gave us.

That worked for a long time.

Then the Internet happened, then one thing led to another, then advertising money started flowing to Google and Facebook. (“One thing led to another” skips over a bunch of history, but that’s for another post.)

The stream of advertising revenue dried up, and it got harder and harder to find the money to pay for all the journalists.


The publications that still remain — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, to name a few — earn a fraction of what they once did. Others, such as the Rocky Mountain News, have shuttered.

New publications have appeared as the Internet took over: BuzzFeed is the perhaps best-known, but Gawker and Vox also didn’t exist twenty years ago. We’ve also seen the emergence of nonprofit news publications, such as The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, who take the public service mission of journalism to the extent of ditching the profit motive altogether.

This period was also marked by the emergence of click-bait, the style of headline writing designed to entice readers to click through to an article: “21 Ways You Didn’t Realize You Were Annoying Your Servers and Bartenders,” “Which Swimsuit Matches Your Personality?” and “Build An Outfit And We’ll Reveal Which Iconic Decade Boyfriend You’ll Have.” (Apparently, Elvis Presley.)

But producing journalism remains as expensive as it always did, and publications are beginning to realize that they need to find a new way to pay for it.

If we were in the United Kingdom, we would already have a solution, if imperfect: the BBC is paid for by the licence fee, a tax on television sets determined by the government that is (eventually) appropriated to the editorially independent public service broadcaster.

The United States, however, has an aversion to the use of taxation power to finance the news media, deriving either from the nation’s supposed aversion to government institutions or a widespread belief that editorial independence is best served by financial independence. Either way, government funding is seen as a bad thing, and so news publications have to turn elsewhere to pay for their work.

If we can’t go to businesses and we can’t go to the government, we might be able to ask the country’s richest to pay for the public service of watchdog journalism. The Washington Post, for example, benefited from the financial might of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who coughed up $250 million of his own money to buy the then-fledging legacy newspaper in 2013.

But not every member of the US’s richest elite are going to want a potentially unprofitable media company, and owners interested in intruding upon the editorial affairs of the newsroom will lose the trust and quality of the publication’s journalists very quickly.

So: if we can’t go to businesses, we can’t go to the government, and we can’t go to the rich owners, then how can we pay for journalism?

We have to turn to the people we serve: our readers.


This might have been unfathomable twenty or thirty years ago, but The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian are now all asking their readers to pay for their journalism.

A screenshot of the end of a Guardian article. The Guardian now appends a panel asking for contributions to its articles online and in its mobile apps. The UK-based publication does not have a paywall. Screenshot from theguardian.com.

The Guardian has not erected a paywall, but instead includes a plea for contributions throughout its website and mobile apps. The New York Times scaled back its online paywall in December 2017 to allow non-subscribers five free articles per month, down from ten articles previously, although the Times has lifted its paywall temporarily for coverage of significant events of public concern.

This approach might have been borne of necessity, but it’s also a good thing. If news publications can’t receive government funding because of concerns over editorial independence when covering government, it’s fair to argue that they also can’t receive money from businesses they cover.

Newspapers have supposedly addressed this issue historically with the separation of “church and state” by dividing the operations of the newsroom from the business office. But the question still remains, and it’s a valid one: if The New York Times prints an ad from Proctor & Gamble, is it possible its coverage of the Tide Pods Challenge would be a little less critical than it otherwise would have been because Tide is a P&G brand?

Technology + Journalism = ?

Photo by Farzad Nazifi on Unsplash

Three definitions of the meaning of technology + journalism

I came to journalism from the exciting realm of computer science.

And so, quite understandably, many people around me have excitedly discussed the potentials of “the intersection between technology and journalism.” Or “technology meets journalism.” Or “CS+J.”

But I’ve found myself either feeling disappointed or feeling mislead multiple times during my last three years at Northwestern, and it’s usually because when I heard those terms, I thought the speaker meant something else than how I interpreted it.

So I’ve come up with three definitions of what I think people meant when they said “technology + journalism.”


1. Journalism about technology

This is the bread-and-butter of technology journalists: coverage of technology companies and products. It’s important but relatively uninteresting, and not really what sparks light bulbs and excitement when you say “technology+journalism” — unless you, like me, are a massive nerd.

To say technology journalism is “the intersection of technology and journalism” is to say that Bloomberg News is the intersection of business and journalism. Yes, it is, but you can also intersect business and journalism in the form of the office of a newspaper publisher.

Technology journalism is perhaps best described as “journalism about technology,” just as business reporting is “journalism about business” and automotive reporting is “journalism about cars.”

This is cool and always my favorite section of news coverage, but let’s move on.

2. Technology-enabled journalism products

I consider this category to be all the topics related by the reality that they have been created — or enabled — by technology products.

This includes ideas like the new field of data journalism, as computers, hard drives, digitalization and the Internet have made it possible to produce “news apps,” such as this beautiful project from ProPublica Illinois on Chicago Police Department grievances.

While newspapers might have covered this topic as a long-form investigative piece, it’s doubtful that a piece like CPD grievances would have been published in the pre-digital era. Without a computer, it might have taken weeks to collect, read and comprehend the volume of case files alone. The same data parsing probably takes a matter of hours or days electronically. (Of course, understanding the data is another matter.)

This also includes other news products, such as VR journalism (NYT VR), conversational news (Quartz’s chat app) and smart device apps (“Alexa, what’s in the news?”).

3. Journalism issues exacerbated by technology products

Filter bubbles, editorial-reader disconnects and a lack of diversity of experience and viewpoints are issues affecting the industry that were probably made worse by technology products.

The impact of filter bubbles is well-known, as Facebook was criticized for its heavy algorithmic selecting of content displayed to each user’s News Feed and its involvement in the 2016 US presidential election.

But a lack of trust in established news organizations in keeping the public informed probably has less to do with increasing partisanship and more to do with continued failures of the industry to convincingly connect with readers, as US public trust numbers in the media were already low before the 2016 presidential election campaigns.

And the utter lack of diversity within newsrooms drives home this point: there is no way that news organizations can expect their readers to trust their coverage when their news teams are significantly white and significantly male.

When particular voices are not present in newsrooms and editors’ meetings, important nuances about entire communities are lost. Changes in city zoning requirements might shut down a community center vital to an immigrant community. The reorganization of bus routes would affect the ability of poorer neighborhoods to reach better-paying jobs.

But without people in the newsroom who live these experiences or hear from people who do, it’s difficult to imagine the newsroom would take the news seriously. (And I find it unlikely that a majority-men newsroom would be able to authoritatively appreciate the nuances of Planned Parenthood’s services for women.)


These are my thoughts. I find it important to draw a distinction between journalism things created by technology and journalism issues made worse by technology, because I think the former is great and exciting, and the latter is pressing and increasingly more serious.

But I am not a media historian, and I would like to hear from people like you about these definitions — and whether there is a natural distinction between “journalism products created by technology” and “journalism issues exacerbated by technology products,” or if I’ve made an artificial distinction.

(This piece was also written in response to a realization that I graduate in March 2019 and should probably start looking for jobs, and if anybody would like to hire me to work on any of the three definitions of technology+journalism, I’m available and please do reach out.)

The divide between news and editorial

http://www.cjr.org/business_of_news/wsj_trump_editorial_opinion.php

For readers, however, that divide, no matter how firm, is often viewed as a distinction without a difference. “We have readers who’ve been reading the paper their whole lives and who understand those distinctions very well,” says Goldberg of the LA Times. “But, of course, we have plenty of readers who don’t understand the distinctions we’ve spent years and years trying to make…”


I like newspapers. I was the weird guy in high school who had a recurring subscription to the newspaper, and would be found reading the paper in the form room the first thing in the morning. One year, when I was absolutely terrible about it, I kept an entire year’s stash of newspapers in my locker, and didn’t clear it out until the end of the year. (It was a lot of ink and paper.)

I accept, though, that the new Internet age of journalism has meant things are changing. And I think one of the changes lies in newspapers editorials, and the divide — or lack thereof—between the news pages and opinion pages of a newspaper.

Because that’s exactly the point. In a newspaper, you can rely on the position of a piece within the paper — towards the front for news, or the back for opinion — to give you clues about what you’re reading. That distinction does not exist on the web.

We talk about “content” on the web because that’s all the web cares about. The technologies that power the World Wide Web today — HTTP, HTML, WebKit — don’t care about news and editorial, only content. At the end of the day, the web delivers content from server A to consumer’s device B, and no part of the Internet’s infrastructure cares about what the content is.


Which is what?

In a modern day news site (like the Wall Street Journal), everything looks pretty much the same. Go on. Take a look. If you can tell which is the news article and which is the opinion piece just from glimpsing at the screenshots, then I’m guessing you work for the Wall Street Journal.

You can’t rely on a reader peering at the tiny text (“politics” and “opinion”) to determine the type of article they’re reading. And in an environment of sharable content, Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like also don’t help in abstracting away the tiny differences that remain to help readers identify the difference between news and editorial.


Go on. Which is which?

This lack of distinction is why some readers of newspapers don’t seem to get there’s a difference: because everything looks the same. And it’s what the Columbia Journalism Review was touching upon when it discussed today’s WSJ editorial:

The Inquirer’s Jackson, who has served on the editorial boards of three different newspapers, agrees. “Most readers do not [understand the distinction],” he says. “Most readers believe there is collusion between the editorial writers and the news writers and editors, that one reflects the other.”

It’s easy to blame the reader, but the fault lies with the newspaper’s publisher and editors, not the readers. The news publisher hasn’t made it clear that there’s a difference between the editorial webpages and the news webpages.

How do you do it? Use a different template. Different fonts. Different layout. Maybe put big photos of the columnists on the article itself, to make it clear it’s a personal opinion, and not the newsroom’s stance.

Or kill the distinction between news articles and editorial articles, and start delivering opinion pieces that are truly representative of the newsroom’s opinion. They’re all WSJ journalists. Why are news staff and editorial staff any different?

Grammar, crash blossoms, and 140 characters

I was disturbed by this tweet from the New York Times National News account.


It felt off. There was something about the grammar that I didn’t like. I spent over a minute trying to decipher what it meant.

How do you break down this headline? Was it “Trump and House”? And what linguistic role does the word “Work” play — a verb, a noun, or an adjective? I thought I had forgotten how to read English.

I then realized that it wasn’t my fault: the tweet itself was problematic, because the order of the words was confusing my brain’s ability to put them together.

An illustration of my first interpretation of the word groups. These word groupings don’t make sense as a sentence.

We understand sentences as we read them. This sentence is problematic because it’s not immediately clear how the words are supposed to be grouped.

How the tweet was supposed to be grouped.

This type of wieldy, unclear sentence is known as a crash blossom, after a badly-written Japan Today headline confused readers.


I wasn’t just going to criticise The New York Times without knowing how to improve upon it. And I tweeted a suggestion.
https://twitter.com/theleoji/status/842976133360447488
But I’ve since come up with a better text for tweeting this story: “Trump and G.O.P in House Agree to Require Medicaid Recipients to Work”.


I added the preposition “in” to clarify the relationship between the House and the G.O.P.

I shortened “make a requirement” to “require.” I put in “recipients” to clarify the requirement will apply to people, not the Medicaid program.

It’s short. It’s clear. And it’s only 69 characters, which means it can fit in a tweet.


Incidentally, the article’s headline says it will be the states, not the federal government, that will actually decide to require able-bodied Medicaid beneficiaries to work.

But the article itself doesn’t say who gets the final decision about this requirement. It could be a requirement written into the bill itself by Congress and the president, or the bill will merely include permission for states to decide.

Huh.

Analytics data can and should be used to improve reporting.


Consumers are generally aware that their web interactions are tracked, and their interests and demographics are calculated. It’s time for editors and writers used that information to improve their reporting for their readers and audiences.

The role of journalism is has always been to inform people about what they need to know. For much of the profession’s history, this has been executed as what we think they need to know. The Internet has shifted that dynamic, as tracking and user profiling has become refined to the point of individuality.

Publications now need to justify their content — and their own existence — to their readers. I argue that readers no longer care about or respect the ‘division between church and state’ that previously divided the editorial and business side of a publication’s operations. Most readers don’t really care about how the media product is created.

Consider a fast-food restaurant: I highly doubt that most customers at McDonalds care about the labor division and food-preparation departments at the restaurant. As far as the customer is concerned, McDonalds is the name of a black box: an order is placed into the box, and the corresponding food items are delivered out of it. What happens inside the box is not the concern or consideration of the consumer.

Most media consumers do not care about a division between a publication’s editorial and business teams. They might say it’s a nice thing to have when told it’s to prevent ownership concerns from interfering with fair, impartial coverage, but I’m going to guess that most already believe that news sources are biased towards their owners anyway.

And if these consumers know about web analytics and demographic targeting (and a fair number do), then as far as they’re concerned, the publication already knows about them. Consumers don’t care that the data might only be held by the business and advertising departments, and editorial staff might not have access to demographic data about their online readers.

To the average reader, there’s no differentiation between The New York Times’ editorial staff, opinion staff, and business staff: it’s all The New York Times.

Given that this is how people are used to interacting with corporations and businesses, it makes no sense for editors and writers for a news publication to be kept in the dark about their online readers’ demographics.

The concern may be that having analytics and traffic data might start a war-for-the-most-clicks, without regard or consideration of an article’s depth of reporting — a fight between quantity and quality. This is a valid consideration. An ill-thought and misguided implementation of web analytics information into a community of editors and writers may lead to them believing that the numbers are the key to success. They’re not.

But taking advantage of analytics information about readers does not necessarily have to lead to an arms race for traffic numbers and a slippery-slope degradation into clickbait journalism, in the same way that newspaper editors knowing about circulation numbers didn’t always lead to sensationalist reporting.

Analytics information can serve as an additional and previously unavailable source to make decisions about coverage and editorial angles. Editors can improve stories to specifically target their reader’s actual interests and needs, rather than their own perception and assumptions about them.

Doing this means a new balance that must be found. Any publication that successfully pulls up the integration of analytics into the newsroom needs a team of editors who understand data and what it says, and can navigate through the chasm of potential problems to bring out the best of web analytics, while avoiding the pitfalls of quantity-over-quality writing.

Regarding the future of journalism


I’m experimenting with a series of posts regarding the future of the journalism industry.

I’m probably underqualified to write this as a second-year undergraduate journalism student, but I’m also told to say something whenever “something doesn’t feel quite right,” so here goes: the journalism industry is in a critical condition.

There. I said it. We’ve all known the journalism industry has been dying for some time, but I — having spent a sum of zero hours working in any bona fide media outlet — hereby declare the industry as near death. I recognize it’s a pretty bold claim.

Before the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, I was hesitant to make such a point. I knew many people were going to disagree with me, and I was reasonably certain they were right; while newspapers were suffering from a slow and seemingly inevitable death, the news and journalism industry as a whole seemed to be doing all right. It certainly wasn’t the heyday of journalism, but it was all right.

Now, though, it’s become clear: the journalism industry has failed to live up to its role in this elective democracy known as the United States. Whatever your political views and affiliation, the journalism and news industry has failed you.

I firmly believe nothing is more fundamental to a healthy, functioning democracy than a well-informed electorate. The role of journalism — regardless of how it appears or who or what may be playing it — is to inform, educate, and empower the people.

Since I entered the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications over a year ago, I’ve been thinking about the future of the journalism industry, and ways to solve the problems with the model of journalism as it exists today. In these series of posts, I’ll share my thoughts, and I invite you to contribute your views and expertise to this discussion.

It’s time we worked out what this industry should look like in the 21st century.