Eric Black: Excellence in MinnPost

March 31, 2009

The Eric Black piece in MinnPost about the hotfooting of Cheney and his advisers over Sy Hersh’s “assassin squad” accusations is just excellent.  This is just one example of the work that non-profit papers can afford to do, and the unorthodox ways in which they are willing to allow their reporters to put stories together.    And according to MinnPost editor Joel Kramer, readers are very interested in their local reporters’ take on national news.  No wonder.

Who’s Watching the Statehouse?

March 31, 2009

From Dunstan McNichol in The New Republic via Allen Mutter at Newsosaur.

Updates from the Front of Online, Nonprofit Journalism: MinnPost and St. Louis Beacon

March 28, 2009

Nieman Journalism Lab has two inspiring and instructive  pieces from Joel Kramer of  and Margaret Wolf Freivogel of the St. Lous Beacon.    They, along with Scott Lewis, Buzz Woolley and the team at VoiceofSandiego –and Paul Steiger, Dick Tofel and their team at ProPublica–form what I see as the vanguard of the non-taxable journalism movement.  All of these folk are doing stunning work with stunningly little resource.  I was especially inspired my Margaret:

Having spent 34 years working in print, I know that much newsroom effort is geared toward playing up stories that will appeal to “everyone” — an elusive concept that often results in lowest common denominator coverage of little interest to anyone. Digital stories, we’re learning, get traction when they’re very interesting to some group of people — usually those who are knowledgeable about the issue and eager to learn more. By digging deeply on questions that matter, we can construct a path to understanding complicated issues, and anyone’s access to this path is just a mouse click away.

But what struck me most bluntly in reading both pieces is the importance of experimentation.    Both MinnPost and Beacon found out that many of their ingoing assumptions about what would drive traffic were wrong.  A grander discussion is whether traffic is actually the objective function–as opposed to interjecting substantive investigative reporting into the stream of public dialog.  But God bless both organizations–and both CEOs–for making such a discussion possible.

Trains, Planes and Online Newspapers

March 28, 2009

I was very taken by this short note from Arnon Miskin from media bankers Mitchell Madison.  Why won’t newspapers work online?  Well, arithmetic, for one:

The newspaper companies have created enormous traffic to their local websites.  This week they announced that over half of American web users use newspaper web sites, and that they produce over 3 billion monthly page views.  Unfortunately that’s not nearly enough.  Even if they were able to sell advertising at slightly over $10 per thousand–a very high average–they would generate only $450 million per year–or about 10% of the cost of running America’s newsrooms

Sure, the newsrooms report bigger numbers for the digital revenue, but that’s the result of wrapping such ad content around their offline classified sales. 

Another thoughtful and more micro analysis is undertaken by Alan Mutter here  on the chances for

Jay Rosen’s Flying Seminar

March 26, 2009

If 2008 was the annus horibilis for newspaper journalism in the U.S., then Q1:09 will go down as quartus catastrophus.  Well, it probably won’t, but you get the picture.  Newspaper bankruptcies, closings, delivery stoppages:  this week’s announcements of 30% newsroom cuts at Hearst papers in Houston and Atlanta –alarming events in themselves–registered nary a ripple in the meta media.

Apropos of the moment, the debate over the future of journalism has been breathtakingly brisk and nearly untrackable.  Fortunately, to our aid comes NYU wise man Jay Rosen, with his “Flying Seminar in the Future of News.”  With characteristic humility, Rosen lays confesses what we’re all grappling with:

I don’t know what will replace the newspaper journalism we have relied on. It’s a terrible loss for the public when people who bought the public service dream lose their jobs providing that service, and realizing that dream. I do not look forward to explaining to my students the contractions in the job market and why they’re likely to continue for the near term. It feels grim to have to say: “There is no business model in news right now. We’re between systems.

Rosen lays out a dozen articles and posts in the last month alone that form a framework for thinking about this important and messy set of topics.    The first five are absolutely must reads if this stuff really interests you; I might quibble with some of the selections below that but so little as not to bother.

I would, however, recommend some additions that didn’t make Jay’s one-month cutoff.

Although the journalism blogosphere has been talking to each other about this stuff for a long time, the mainstreaming of the discussion really began with David Swensen and Michael Schmidt in their 1/29 NYT piece, “News You Can Endow.”  Along with Steve Coll, who I know had been thinking about non-profit newspapers for a while, these guys really introduced to the general public the idea that the newspapers have served a critical function in our retail democracy, and that market-based solutions might not suffice in preserving their role.   I wrote a postabout Swensen/Schmidt and Coll that linked to both. 

 Also worth reading are the responses to the Swensen/Schmidt piece that the NYT printed a few days later.  I especially liked Nicholas Leman’s line of thinking:

What’s essential right now is that we be precise about the social function we need to strengthen, and creative and non-doctrinaire about how to strengthen it.

Another Coll post on the Swensen/Schmidt piece is  here.  His response to Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” (#4 on Rosen’s list) is another one I would place on the must-read list.  Same is true for Eric Alterman’s New Yorker piece from last spring, which covers many of the historical antecedents for the current state of play.  His more recent thinking can be found in The Nation.

Coll’s New American Foundation also hosted a panel on the future of newspapers, the video of which I have not been courageous enough to watch, because I’m in it.  But it can be found here.

It’s also very much worth reading the views of people who think that non-profit status and journalism don’t belong together.  They generally divide into two schools of thought.  The first is what I’ll call the “Original Sin” school, which holds that if the news business could somehow shove the genie of free content back into the bottle, all would be well.  This is the ground plowed by Alan Mutter, #12 on Prof. Rosen’s list.  NYT media critic David Carr also got a lot of play for his suggestion of an “iTunes for news.”  But I found Clay Shirky to be the clearest thinker on the prospects of charging for content in a world of zero cost distribution.  (Hint:  they aren’t good, as is highlighted in this exchangebetween Mort Zuckerman and Walter Isaacson, whose cover piece about the future of news appeared in Time)And finally, a terrifically exhaustive treatment of pretty much every argument for and against the future of paid content can be found here

The second school of thinking is what I’ve described, with some ignominy, as the “pony theory.”  As in “if it looks like horse poo and smells like horse poo, there must be a ponty in there somewhere.”  Pony Theorists believe in markets uber alles and are fond of such phrases as “we’re in the early innings;” “we must have market discipline;” and my favorite:  that the disappearance of the serious journalism just simply isn’t that big a deal, because markets would would be giving it to us if we needed it.  I, of course think this is faulty reasoning, because I believe that serious journalism is a public good, not unlike clean air and national defense.  Public goods, by definition, are not produced in optimal quantities by market forces, and government is the solution to most such market failures.  For obvious reasons, government is not such a swift answer to a market failure in the coverage of government.  But a number of intelligent folk remain  particularly strident in their confidence in they place in “the market”:  Allison Fine, Dorian BenkoilSteve Brill.   The market-solution advocate who received the biggest shout out from his fellows was Jonathan Weber, the founder of the admirable for-profit site (which, I can’t resist pointing out, appears to have state government agencies as two of its biggest advertisers).  His piece covers all the bases of the argments against non-profit journalism.  I disagree with it almost entirely, but perhaps that’s the subject for another day.

Whew.  Anyhow, thanks again to Jay for his flying seminar.

Sen. Cardin, We Assume You Mean “Intentionally” Non-Profit

March 25, 2009

As has been widely reported, junior Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin has introduced a bill to allow newspapers to adopt 501c3 status.   According to Cardin spokesperson Susan Sullam, “this is really aimed at community papers” or newspapers that may be bought and turned into non-profits.


In addition, Sen. Cardin did give a nice ode to newspaper journalism on the floor of the Senate:

Most, if not all sources of journalistic information, from Google to broadcast news or punditry,” Cardin said, “gain their original news from the laborious and expensive work of experienced newspaper reporters, diligently working their beat over the course of years, not hours.”

 “Newspaper reporters forge relationships with people: they build a network which creates avenues to information. These relationships and the information that follows are essential to a free democratic society.”

To qualify, 

‘‘(1) the trade or business of such corporation or organization consists of publishing on a regular basis a newspaper for general circulation, (2) the newspaper published by such corporation or organization contains local, national, and international news stories of interest to the general public and the distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose, and (3) the preparation of the material contained in such newspaper follows methods generally accepted as educational in character.’’.

Double hmm, especially on that last bit.

Does anybody understand what exactly Senator Cardin is trying to accomplish?  If a 501c3 wanted to buy the Dallas Morning News, couldn’t it already do so?   I guess there might be some existing barriers to converting an extant paper to non-profit status that this would clear up, but I can’t really think of them.  And of course the  biggest issue is what to do with those pesky shareholders who aren’t feeling especially philanthropic.

Given the lack of a co-sponsor and silly wording, I assume this is merely a piece of political grandstanding that won’t go anywhere, but who knows–this is the same gang who wanted to enact a 90% tax on employees of a specific company.  Tough to predict what they’ll get all lathered up about next.
And for the sake of Sen. Cardin’s re-election chances, let’s hope he has a deeper-pocketed support base than merely those who are cheering for non-profit journalism.





Newspaper Woes Invade Big 10; Could Happy Valley Be Next?

March 25, 2009

Given Michigan’s economic woes, I suppose it’s not surprising that Newhouse is taking a hatchet to the eight dailies it owns there.   Both Detroit papers are ceasing home delivery on most days next week.

But–Ann Arbor?  It’s tough to see how a print local daily anywhere survives if it can’t make it in the home of the nation’s largest university.  Or maybe Newhouse thinks it’s the perfect place for the online only experiment?   I’d like to be optimisitic.  But it’s a little tough, given that typing
“” into my browser directs me to something called “mlive” (tagline:  all things Michigan) and has no mention of the Newhouse move that was reported in today’s WSJ.

Ironically, the WSJ also reports on the economic resilience of college towns, and implies that Ann Arbor’s unemployment rate is half or less of the national average.

What Am I Missing?

March 20, 2009

If employees of AIG violated civil statutes, the should pay money damages.   If they committed crimes, they should go to jail.   Congress should have nothing to do with any of it, at least not in their legislative capacity.  They had their shot, which would have been to pin a ransom note to any bonus payment that preceded a nickel of TARP money changing  hands.   They didn’t do that, and do-overs are for children under five. 

As Chris Dodd straightened his tie for the cameras with increasingly obvious haplessness, Treasury raised knotty questions.    “Geithner here.  I know I don’t have any..uh…staff or anything, but I think what you guys are proposing may be illegal.  I have a catalytic converter supplier on Line 2, so I’ll have to get back to you.”

And so this truth–however inconveniently– defied  its vanishing pont:  a confiscatory tax which is purely an ass-covering and “signal sending”  legislative gesture is almost certainly illegal.   And shameful.  And positively spineless.  Why not just burn a symbolic derivatives trader at the stake?  While the pain (and the stench) would be more concentrated, the spectacle would be mercifully shorter and  roughly as productive.

It is tempting to identify as the “bigger issue” that our government has already focused far too much psychic energy on a level of lucre that is inconsequential in the grand scheme, and that the AIG bonuses are simply a vestige of financial deregulation run amok during the Bush regime.    It is also tempting to utter the following heresies:  that the bonus recipients at  AIG were, quaintly, ” doing their jobs;” that they likely didn’t get out of bed in the morning hell-bent on destroying anything; and that at least a number of them were not hiding the Mark of the Beast beneath  their $200 haircuts.  

It’s tempting, because it’s all true.  But this would miss the point.  Because the bigger issue is actually, well , bigger:  if we live in a nation  where Congress can take money from people because Congresspeople are  embarrassed, none of us should feel very safe.   Because whether or not there is, there should be a lot of Congressional embarrassment to go around.

It is of course too obvious to point out that all Congressional salaries are “public money.”   What say that anyone who voted in the majority on the 90% tax bill has his or her pay docked for that day?  

Don’t bitch, Congresspeople.  You’re getting off easy.  And you might think twice before spending your paychecks.  I have my eye on you.

Sale of San Diego Union-Tribune to Platinum

March 18, 2009

I don’t know the folks at Platinum equity at all, but they have an excellent track record.  They are also not known as people with pictures of kitties and frolicking children adorning their conference room walls.  My most likely translation of the following from the article announcing the sale:

— The parent company of The San Diego Union-Tribune announced Wednesday that it has reached an agreement to sell the newspaper to the Beverly Hills private equity firm Platinum Equity for an undisclosed price. that it is as likely that the sellers wrote a check to the buyers as the other way around.

Dan Zehr reported that Platinum also visited the Statesman, but that’s not an asset that seemed distressed enough to fit their model.  This will be fascinating to watch, and certainly not a bad thing for San Diego relative to the alternative.

Still, the LA Times stated the obvious:

Though most employees seemed relieved, one longtime reporter said surprises could still be in the forecast: “One kind of uncertainty is over, and a new kind of uncertainty begins.”

A Tribute to the Too Brief Life of Nugget T. Cat

March 16, 2009

Nugget T(he) Cat, our beloved friend and porch dweller of nearly five months,   died early this afternoon in South Austin.  The proximate cause was euthanasia, although the precipitating event was likely an unfortunate encounter with an automobile.

Nugget (a name she would acquire later) appeared around Halloween last year, yowling and preening like David Lee Roth on a rock wall at the back of our property.  On the eve of  the third consecutive such performance, it became clear:   hers was not an entreaty so much as a demand for me to reach across species boundaries and Do The Right Thing.  “I know you have a rat problem you’re ashamed to talk about (true).  I also know there’s tuna in that pantry,” she harangued across the driveway with the self-assuredness of Stephen Douglas, “and that you don’t even like tuna.  Give it up.”    And holy cow, the volume!  Hang Nugget’s voice-to-weight ratio on the German Shepherd down the street, and reports of a stray velociraptor would flood 911.

Give it up I did, despite my wife Julie’s puzzled expression which reflected her familiarity with my checkered history of feline relations.  I am first of all horribly allergic to cat dander, as I demonstrated most luridly in a near-death experience on the couch of a business school friend about whom I had been thinking impure thoughts for some time.  Just as I thought I might get my wish, I instead became The Elephant Man inside about four minutes, and the swish of a gray (Siamese?) tail was my last visual before my eyes swelled completely shut.  Although there were countless instances over the years when I didn’t get the girl, this was the only time I can remember that I had a solid medical excuse.

Cats also figured in the two long-term relationships that preceded my meeting Julie.  The fact that I can’t remember either feline’s name is revealing  testament to the prickliness of our relationships.  Cat A, who lived with the parents of my high school and college girlfriend, despised me with an unfettered sort of glee.  Even though the guy for whom Girlfriend A dumped me  after six years was better looking, richer, and nicer, to this day I can still see Cat A’s evil paw in the breakup.  Cat B was more passive aggressive in her disdain for me, and it was Girlfriend B’s academic overachievement rather than a hunky new beau that took her elsewhere.  But still, when Cat B was carried off by a coyote from the small horse farm Girlfriend B had always wanted, I couldn’t help but think the cat and the coyote deserved each other.

Blessedly, my wife was and is a dog person.   Our first big commitment to one another (well, other than moving in together after three months of dating) was to procure our blessed Labrador Hattie from a breeder who met us in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen in Buffalo, Texas.  Hattie will be 13 in May, which tops Julie’s and my married life by 22 months.  During those 22 months we replaced and fully rehabbed both of  Ms. Labrador’s hips (we will meet our next breeder on his own turf or at least not under a DQ sign), and took turns carrying her downstairs to perform her bodily functions.  I gradually took on more of that duty as our “puppy” approached her full weight of 75 pounds.    Hattie nears her big day in May with another hip surgery, innumerable gastric episodes (“you see the large rock on the upper left of the stomach x-ray”), at least a couple of strokes, a few benign tumors, and all manners of arthritis in her ever thickening veterinary file.

Which brings us back to Nugget T.  After a week or so it struck me that although she couldn’t still be hungry, she was still howling as if walking across hot coals.  Perhaps she was a feline Tony Robbins, but probably not–there was no camera crew on the west wall.  “Of course,” I thought.  “The damn cat is in heat.”  All we needed was a baket full of kittens to raise hives on my forearms if they even lookded at me.  So, our intrepid assistant Nanette found a volunteer from the local Humane Society who, over a three-night stretch, enticed Nugget into a cage and transported her on a family planning errand.

Apparently, the cage goes into a sort of gas chamber, wherein the cat is rendered unconscious and the routine surgery can be performed.  Except that once Nugget was anesthetized, the officiating doctor sagaciously noted that she was already spayed.  Not one to waste good gas, the Doc placed a microchip in Nugget’s ear identifying her as ours.  So in two weeks’ time, we had begun harboring someone else’s cat; we then kidnapped, gassed, and electronically branded her.  Were Austin the Old West and Nugget a horse, WANTED posters with our pictures would have appeared in every saloon on 6th Street.

With Nugget now back on the porch (if moving both more gingerly and skeptically), Hattie regarded the buildup of cat paraphanalia with disdain but no malevolence.  The appearance of the various cat-themed dishes and toys, the heated kitty pad, and finally the custom-built condo pissed Hattie off less than it seemed to give her something new to live for, in a “hey you kid, get off my lawn!” sort of way.

Nugget, for her part, accorded exactly no deference to the dog 10x her size.  And Hattie’s difficulty in seeing and hearing the cat contributed less to Nugget’s insouciance than to my growing sense of Labrador Mortality Dread.  It wasn’t that Hattie wouldn’t occasionally bark (“f-ing cat!!” was all I could imagine she said, again and again).   It was that the light had to be just right, and the cat perfectly still.  Preferably, sleeping.

But the real story was how my heart–hard-boiled by feline treacheries long past–seemed completely defenseless in the face of Nugget’s late evening flirts and  pre-dawn recitations of her breakfast demands.  It was especially in the morning when I realized there was something vicarious in my regard for her.  Would she be somnolent and lazy, or all fizzed up when I went downstairs?  What story was she telling about last night’s activities (the two times I was rewarded with a fractional rodent carcass cleared up any such mystery for the moment).  Would Commander–the orange and white tom twice her size–be bedded down in the potted lugustrum, waiting to share breakfast but quite clear on who ruled this particular roost?

Having judged whether this was a leisurely meal  for two or a no-nonsense start to the day of a single girl in the city, I would scoop up the cat chow and signal the beginning of Porch Cat Kabuki.  She would strut away when I opened the door, then circle back ever-so-disinterestedly.  I would sit on the step; she would arch her back and–eventually–rub her forehead on my shins and forearms, purring like the trolling motor on the aft end of a one-man fishing dinghy.   Having discharged the scoop, I would then scrub a couple layers of skin each from my shins and forearms.  I only had to fail at this task once–but it was clear that the fault was mine.

Then last week, we had a big, glitzy party at the house for a local non-profit.  Lots of our friends were there, along with some pretty people we didn’t know, and even a few fading and B-list movie types staging stoned, stealthy raids on  the garage to eat handfuls of meatballs with the caterers.  We had a big noisy time, judged successful by the overflow of the recycling bins.  And it didn’t surprise us that our porch princess took her leave.   If I’d never heard of Brendan Fraser, I’m sure Nugget hadn’t either.

But she didn’t come back for four nights, and when she did it was clear that something was terribly wrong.  I tried to rationalize her condition away, but when I woke up on Sunday, Julie had already vanished to the 24/7 vet with the patient.   My wonderful and red-eyed wife came back, my new friend didn’t, and that was that.

Except of course it wasn’t.  I couldn’t help thinking that somehow it was all my fault.  I was the one with the allergy.  I was the one who wanted to have the party.  I like parties.  But I couldn’t get over feeling that I had traded a night of glitz for the seven pounds of fur and sinew which had moved me and lifted my spirits in a way I obviously can’t describe.

Maybe it was her vulnerability that drew me to her.  It was profoundly gratifying to see her every morning, to know that she still needed us, or at least pretended to, and that her silly condo was keeping the rain off the brindle coat that got shinier as she got fatter.  Maybe it was my pride in finding another gear, near slavish service to an animal I wouldn’t have been capable of  loving 15 years ago.  And, make no mistake:  this was love.

“Maybe,” I said to Julie from out of my funk, “we should go to the shelter and get another cat.”  But she’s right.  We don’t want another cat–didn’t want this one.   But sometimes it’s not really our choice.  And sometimes, occasionally if we’re really lucky–we can get out of our own way long enough to figure that out.


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