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Two American reporters on speed, elections an -

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HideRichard Aedy: Hello. Welcome to the Media Report on RN. I’m Richard Aedy.

Today, why would a very well established journalist, author and commentator put her name on the line and try something difficult?

Anne Summers: I think that it’s going to be a huge amount of fun. I mean, this is a time of great turmoil in the traditional media; the time of incredible opportunity for people with the energy and the ideas to do something in the new media.

Richard Aedy: More from Anne Summers later. Well she’s right; it is a time of great turmoil in the traditional media. That, unhappily, has been the big theme of this year’s show—job losses and cutbacks. And, as you often find in other areas, we’re three to five years behind the Americans. They’ve been dealing with mass retrenchments, thinning newsrooms and ultimately the closure of newspapers for some time.

What this means though, is that they’ve had a bit more of a chance to get their heads around the problem of trying to do journalism with fewer resources. And this different way of framing the problem is the approach taken by Leonard Witt from the Center for Sustainable Journalism in the US. You’re about to meet him. But firstly, here’s Charles Feldman co-author with Howard Rosenberg of No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle. That came out in 2008 and Charles says, it’s already out of date.

Charles Feldman: Howard and I have remarked a number of times since then, that if we were to rewrite the book today, we would probably call it, The Menace of Media Speed in the 24-Second News Cycle. What’s happened is that the cycle has greatly accelerated since we wrote the book in 2008, and that’s because you’ve had an explosion of social media—Twitter, Facebook, some blogs—some good, some not so good. And all of this, sort of, comes together in this big soup bowl, gets amplified by more mainstream media and the result is that this never-ending news cycle is much, much faster than it was, not only since 2008, but I daresay since 2011.

Richard Aedy: All right. Well, let’s talk about a real example, because the big story, really over most of this year in your home country, the United States, has been the presidential race. How has this, sort of, increasing velocity, if I can put it that way, how has that been…has that manifest in the coverage of the US presidential race?

Charles Feldman: It’s made it much more shallow and there’s no doubt in my mind about that. I’ve covered a number of presidential campaigns—going back to the ’70s actually—and the irony is that here we have this environment with so much information, all of the social media, the 24-7 news, television and radio, and yet the coverage was some of the shallowest coverage that I have ever seen. And the question then becomes, why is that the case? And the answer that I’ve come up with is this, it’s the fear that candidates have of saying something that is going to be perceived as stupid or incorrect or troublesome—some gaff—that is then picked up first by social media, goes viral on the internet, gets amplified by mainstream media, and it makes it impossible for them then, to continue their campaign without constantly addressing this one potential incorrect statement that they may have made—this one slip of the tongue. And the proof I offer for that is this, that during this campaign, the president of the United States, did not hold a single no-holds-barred news conference with the general press for an eight-month period leading up to the election.

Richard Aedy: As you say that, though, I’m thinking, what about journalistic responsibility? Why did the journalists let them get away with that? Isn’t it a problem of acquiescence as much as anything else?

Charles Feldman: Well, I’m not so sure that they let them get away with it. I think that most of the good journalists that I know—and I know a fair number of them who cover the national scene—certainly tried their best with varying degrees of success, to get across their questions and when they weren’t able to, they certainly would talk about it on television and radio without the benefit of the candidate actually speaking. So I don’t think it’s a lack of trying. I think what it really is, is at a certain point, one realises that as a reporter you are faced with these huge machines. I mean, that’s what these campaigns are, they’re huge machines. And it is very difficult for a single reporter, even if backed by, you know, a major news organisation—whether it be The New York Times or CBS News or ABC News—it is very difficult for a lone reporter to go up against this kind of machinery and be successful at it.

Richard Aedy: Well Leonard Witt, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism, let’s bring you in. Firstly, how did you see the reporting on the election?

Leonard Witt: Well, you know, my view differs, you know, from Charles’s. I think I’m better informed from this cacophony of voices. I mean, that’s what democracy is. Are you better off to have a few authorised voices, sort of, telling you what the news is? Are you better off having lots of different voices, and then you pick and choose? And we do that anyhow. You know, we talk to people every day. There’s some people who we think, you know, I don’t like their opinion very much, and I don’t think they’re well informed; I’m not going to talk to them. And then there’s a whole other group of people who are very influential and we talk to them. And we share our information and that’s kind of what makes a democracy.

Richard Aedy: But wouldn’t a good analogy be say, the cell phone plans that phone companies put out. They give you more and more information now and more and more options but the complexity of it is so much that you really have to be an accountant to know which is the right plan for you. I’m wondering if there’s a kind of information processing problem, that leaves us with?

Leonard Witt: Yes, well, this is…you know, there was the Lippmann-Dewey debates that happened in like, 1920, where Lippmann said there was too much information, the average person couldn’t process all this information and Dewey said, no, that’s not true; if things are worked well people can really understand a lot of information.

And it’s…so, it’s…this is not a new argument. 19…you know, whatever year, I can’t remember what it was—it was probably 30, 40 years ago—Boys on the Bus came out; it was one reporter’s story about how the reporters were following, basically, the spin doctors and they were never telling the real behind-the-scene stories that they were telling themselves, you know, talking about among themselves.

1988, you had this public journalism reform movement and that was based on the fact that they thought that the politics were…the political machines were spinning the debates and controlling the debates and the real issues weren’t available. So, this was pre-blogging, you know, pre-Twitter and all of these things. For me, you know, I look at all of the different forms of coverage, so that, you know, the person, the waiter, whoever it was who did the 47 per cent tape on Mitt Romney, that was very informative in the long run. And it wasn’t done by a journalist. We’re…you know, Nate Silver is doing statistical analyses in the background. He came out of a blog. He actually…before that he did sports statistics with baseball and then he just brought that same system to the political arena. But he is extremely accurate, extremely smart and, it’s hard to be…it’s hard to classify him as a journalist.

So, if you take all this cacophony of voices and then you, sort of, self-select, you come up with, for me…I was…I thought I was very, very well informed during this last election.

Richard Aedy: Well, I’ll come back, perhaps, to the election in a moment, but I want to talk briefly about what you’re doing at the Center for Sustainable Journalism, because one of the things you have done is developed a niche at the Center, which is on juvenile justice. So why choose that?

Leonard Witt: Well there’s a little anecdotal story that goes with it. Howard Witt, who is no relation to me—I did a story, I did a little video about him—and he worked for the Chicago Tribune, the Houston bureau and he told this story about Shaquanda Cotton, 14-year-old black girl, pushes a hall monitor and gets sentenced to seven years in prison. This is in Texas. White girl, same judge, same age, same time, intentionally burns down her parents’ house—she gets put on probation.

Howard Witt writes this story for the Chicago Tribune, gets picked up by the black blogosphere, there’s such an outcry that within 21 days, three weeks Howard says, she gets released from jail.

Then he did this story on the Jena Six boys; six black boys in Louisiana get in a schoolyard fight with some white boys and get charged with attempted murder. Gets picked up again—20, 000 people self-organise and show up in Jena, Louisiana and these boys, these black boys, get justice, just as Shaquanda Cotton did. There’s only one problem, Howard Witt worked for the Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune gets taken over by Sam Zell a real estate mogul, doesn’t care about journalists, doesn’t, you know…or journalism, closes the Houston bureau, Howard Witt goes off to another job. And he told me, Len, there’s nobody now, covering civil rights in the US on a daily persistent basis. And I was thinking, how can that be? So that will be our niche; we’ll do that and then people say, well that’s a pretty big niche for a small staff. And so then we took one piece of that bigger pie which could be women’s rights and age discrimination and gay, lesbian issues and we took the juvenile justice thing just because of the fact that nobody wanted to, sort of, look at. And I wanted people to look at it.

Richard Aedy: So…

Leonard Witt: And think about it.

Richard Aedy: What does it involve? Because you have students write stories don’t you?

Leonard Witt: Well, we…our experiment’s a little different. There’s a lot of journalism schools around the US that are using students to cover neighbourhoods and small-topic things. But this is, a big issue. This is a big systemic issue. You can do the little stories but there’s deep, deep systemic issues dealing with mental health and how kids with mental problems are put away in detention centres. There’s what they call, disproportionate minority contact, there’s too many kids of colour who are in the system. This is not something, frankly, that a kid coming right out of college can do. Give them five years and they can do it. So we, actually, use professional journalists and we’re based at the university and our experiment is, can you cover a really tough subject like juvenile justice that’s never going to get a ton of eyeballs and can you figure out how to—I hate to use this word—monetise it? How can you figure out how to make it sustainable over the long run? And that’s, kind of, our experiment. That’s the unfinished part of the experiment.

In the first year we have found that we can really do good journalism. And we’ve got…we went from zero…a lot of people said nobody’s going to read about juvenile delinquents, you know, juvenile kids and I said, well we’re going to do it. And we had 250,000 unique visitors every year, 500,000 page views. That’s not a lot in comparison to other places, but we know it’s a lot of the right people, the policy-makers, practitioners, the probation officers, judges. So we’re making a difference and we’re starting to get noticed for that too. So, tiny operation, but can have major impact in this niche that no one else wanted to look at.

Richard Aedy: This is the Media Report on RN. You’ve just been hearing from Leonard Witt from the Center for Sustainable Journalism in the US and before him, Charles Feldman.

I’m Richard Aedy and I asked Charles if the excellence of Leonard’s work on juvenile justice gave him more hope about the future of journalism.

Charles Feldman: Well it certainly gives me hope in the sense that the reason why there was a vacuum to begin with, is because newspapers, as he knows, have laid off an enormous amount of people, television as well. Back in the States there are, you know…being a journalist is not in many ways, necessarily…pretend a bright future in terms of employment.

Richard Aedy: It’s starting to look like that here too, I have to tell you.

Charles Feldman: Okay. And it’s the same also in Great Britain, because I have friends there who report back the same situation there. So, one of the reason why…one of the reasons why this niche developed, and correct me if I’m wrong, is because you don’t have a lot of professional journalists anymore who used to cover those beats.

Leonard Witt: Right. And in fact when we went out and talked to people, they said, in the past, I’d get two or three or calls a week from a journalist, you know, to ask questions. We never hear from them now except—and this is where it gets really bad—except when something horrific happens with kids. And then this terrible incident happens, the policy-makers, the legislators, pick up on that horrific thing. They make terrible, terrible policy decisions that we live with, you know, 20 years later and that’s in the juvenile justice area.

In the 1990s there was this thing about youth predators that came out—wolf packs. And all across the country, people got totally scared and they put in these three strikes and you’re out laws. Kids 15-years-old get sentenced to 30 years in prison. There’s one kid we know—he did a pretty horrific thing, but nobody got hurt—he was 14, and he’s now year 15 of a 30-year sentence. So bad policy comes out of episodic, quick, horrific reporting that television’s very good at doing and sometimes news too.

Charles Feldman: But the real problem…but if I can…if I may for a second…the real issue is going to be as he suggested a little bit earlier is, you know, and it may sound like a dirty word about how do you monetise this sort of reporting, but it is the reality of the situation. And what will be interesting to see in this experiment is, can you produce quality journalism through this method over a long period and a sustained time? And, you do have to make money doing it in one way or another. Whether you’re commercial or you’re foundation-funded or university-funded, at the end of the day, somebody has to sign the bills. Because journalism costs money as you know. And that is going to be, I think, the key to whether this experiment works in the long run, is can it be self -sustaining? Can it make enough money, not necessarily make a profit, but at least to keep doing what it’s doing? And I think you would agree that that answer is not there yet.

Richard Aedy: Let me just come in, Len, because I think that’s an important point. Journalism, the best journalism, has always been essentially subsidised by something else. The business models used to work that way: classified advertising, commercials on television. That’s where the money came from. It wasn’t because people wanted to read these stories that were doing them good. It’s going to be hard to find another approach to finding the money to pay for the journalism.

Leonard Witt: It’s going to be real hard. Texas Tribune though is an example of an operation in Texas that covers just public affairs journalism, better than anybody else in the state. It was a start-up by a really smart guy, Evan Smith, he started actually with a venture capitalist and he hoped within the first three years to, you know, bring in about $9 million from a lot of different revenue streams. He brought in $15 million. And…but he runs conferences, they have these great databases that they put together; the people pay for it because they want this kind of information. So he says he’s not just doing news but he’s also providing knowledge for people as well. And he says, if you’re going to go into this thing, you have to have this PT Barnum kind of idea…

Richard Aedy: Yes.

Leonard Witt: …and you can’t be afraid of commerce. But—and here’s the key, and he knows this better than anybody and he’ll say it over and again—you cannot compromise on the really good high quality, ethically sound journalism because that’s the product that people want.

Now in the US, I was just reading some statistics, 51 per cent of the people in the US, still say they like to read a lot, okay? That’s a good sign. 67 per cent of the people say that they want impartial news, 26 per cent say they want, you know, news coming from their own political side. So there is this big hunger for news and information. And my guess is, at some point if people can’t get it anymore, that’s when they’re going to be willing to pay for it. Now, hopefully the infrastructure doesn’t fall apart before that happens. But, you know, I think it’s going…

Richard Aedy: It’s like crossing a burning bridge isn’t it? And knowing that on the other side, perhaps there are the materials to build it but in the meantime you’ve got to keep moving.

Leonard Witt: I think that’s a good analogy.

Richard Aedy: Charles, can I ask you, are we now then seeing the establishment of a mixed ecosystem for journalism? It used to be simpler than now. I’m just wondering if there are…there will be perhaps a few very high quality news providers, maybe some more lower quality but very slickly presented outlets. And then perhaps a population of non-profits, some of whom like, Leonard’s centre are doing really good things?

Charles Feldman: Well, you know, you do have this notion, which is one that I do not subscribe to, that the future is in, so-called, citizen journalism. And I quote in our book—Howard Rosenberg’s book and mine—Don Hewitt who is a legendary…was a legendary television producer in the States—created 60 Minutes, produced the first US presidential televised debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960—we asked him, what do you think about citizen journalism? And he said, I’m all for citizen journalism, I’m also all for citizen brain surgery. And I agree with that.

I think that we in the news business have always benefitted from tipsters. We’ve always gotten people who have called us to say, oh, you know what’s going on down the block? You should investigate, you should look into it. And then it was turned over to people who hopefully were more skilled, more seasoned, more reasoned and better informed and better able to shape that into a cohesive news story. What my concern is, nowadays, is that because of economic reasons, a lot of news organisations are trying to benefit—they think benefit—from so-called citizen journalists. Why? Because they’re cheap, they’re free. But they don’t operate under the same rules often. They don’t have the same guidance often. And they don’t have the same mentoring system that a skilled journalist needs to have in order to develop properly.

Richard Aedy: Gentlemen, that is where…that is where we sadly have to leave it. But thank you both of you for joining me today.

Charles Feldman: Thank you.

Leonard Witt: Well thank you…enjoyed it.

Richard Aedy: Charles Feldman co-author of No Time To Think. and Leonard Witt from the Center for Sustainable Journalism.