Peeling the onion

A U.S. think piece asks of the phenomenon of a publication full of fake news that rivals America’s ninth-largest newspaper in circulation, “Is The Onion our most intelligent newspaper?”

An excerpt:

While other newspapers desperately add gardening sections, ask readers to share their favorite bratwurst recipes, or throw their staffers to ravenous packs of bloggers for online question-and-answer sessions, The Onion has focused on reporting the news. The fake news, sure, but still the news. It doesn’t ask readers to post their comments at the end of stories, allow them to rate stories on a scale of one to five, or encourage citizen-satire. It makes no effort to convince readers that it really does understand their needs and exists only to serve them. The Onion’s journalists concentrate on writing stories and then getting them out there in a variety of formats, and this relatively old-fashioned approach to newspapering has been tremendously successful.
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Saskatchewan ban on public servant interviews

A public affairs spokesperson says Saskatchewan’s health department has imposed a total ban on anyone giving media interviews, on any topic, to any journalist anywhere, for the duration of the provincial election. When I called about a story, I was told that to have a routine bureaucratic question answered, I would have to call the minister himself. The ban will only end with the vote in November.

I ran into this brick wall while researching a national issue that is arguably in the public interest, but which is administrative and has little or nothing to do with provincial partisan politics. Calling across the country, it seemed reasonable to me to expect public servants in every province to be able to simply respond to questions that are not directly political. But in Saskatchewan, I was told, partisan politics currently prohibits public servants from serving the public by answering routine questions from journalists.

Has anyone else run across such a strict and total ban in an election?
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In defence of newspapers

“A lot of journalists and former journalists and bloggers seem to hate their newspapers because of some vague psychic or moral sensibility, as if some great social contract has been breached. The newspaper was supposed to represent some Rockwellian expression of American idealism and democratic life along with a devotion to craft.  Instead, it became a place where the sounds of cash registers were louder than the roar of the presses; where any spark of creativity was watered with a fire hose; where literary rebels were chained by the next corporate formula to come down the pike,” writes Roy Peter Clark on Poynter Online, in an eloquent summary of the common complaints.

Clark has been on a campaign lately to get people to read “newspapers.” I agree with Clark about reading news. Largely, I agree with his critique of the critics of mainstream media. But I think his notion that quality news has to be printed on dead trees is, at best, antiquated. I think “newspapers” read online are even better than the link-less, search-less, video-less, voice-less, ink-smudge-less, boringly two-tone “newspaper” that still thuds loudly onto my porch at 3 a.m. each day, after we’ve been awakened by the radio and door alarm blaring from the newspaper delivery guy’s car, left idling on the street to spew exhaust and noise into the night air.
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Media deregulation proposed again in the U.S.

American media conglomerates would be the big winners under a plan circulated this week by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. The plan would, reported the New York Times, relax media ownership rules that have been in place since 1974, and would repeal a rule forbidding a company to own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city.

Excerpts from the Times story:

The deregulatory proposal is likely to put the agency once again at the center of a debate between the media companies, which view the restrictions as anachronistic, and civil rights, labor, religious and other groups that maintain the government has let media conglomerates grow too large.

As advertising increasingly migrates from newspapers to the Internet, the newspaper industry has undergone a wave of upheaval and consolidation. That has put new pressure on regulators to loosen ownership rules. But deregulation in the media is difficult politically, because many Republican and Democratic lawmakers are concerned about news outlets in their districts being too tightly controlled by too few companies.

The story has a fair bit of background, including previous attempts to relax the rules, and concerns that the rules are too restrictive. 

Hat tip to Press Notes of the Society of Professional Journalists.
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New York Times savaged on stock market

From a Bloomberg story today:

Morgan Stanley, the second-biggest shareholder in New York Times Co., sold its entire 7.3 percent stake today, according to a person briefed on the transaction, sending the stock to its lowest in more than 10 years….

Hassan Elmasry, managing director of Morgan Stanley Investment Management, unsuccessfully challenged the Sulzberger family’s control of New York Times Co. through super-voting stock that gives them a board majority. Shareholders owning 42 percent of the company, parent of the namesake newspaper and Boston Globe, withheld support for directors at the publisher’s April annual meeting.

“This guy has been speaking for a lot of people who are too discreet to speak up and challenge management,” said Porter Bibb, a managing partner at Mediatech Capital Partners LLC in New York and a former New York Times Co. executive.

Yet more evidence that the profit-driven markets are an appallingly bad model for journalism that’s in the public interest?

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Magazine ads/malaise

Anyone wondering why Time magazine is so skinny these days? Marvelling at the fat People on the newstands? Take a look at this graph compiled by the U.S. Project for Excellence in Journalism, showing changes in advertising. Says the blurb above the feature at journalism. org, “It’s been a rough year for the three major U.S. newsweeklies and a boom year for the celebrity/gossip magazines, according to the most recent advertising numbers released by the industry.

“New numbers from the Publishers Information Bureau (PIB), measuring ad pages in about 250 titles find that industry-wide, magazines have experienced a slight decline again in ad pages (about a 1% percent drop) this year, and since 2001 they are down more than 10%. The numbers compare totals for the first nine months in 2007 to the same period in the prior year….. Time and Newsweek, especially, have had a bad run over the last few years. Both titles saw double-digit declines in ad pages in 2005 and then an essentially flat 2006. If both continue on their current 2007 path, they will see their lowest ad-page counts in 20 years. The holiday season and its annual big bump in ad buys loom. But even with sizeable fourth-quarter increases the PIB report indicates they would finish with their lowest ad page figures since 2001, when the numbers crashed.”

So … ads and presumably readership of serious American news journalism plunged in 2001, the year 9/11 happened and the democracy that’s the self-proclaimed “leader of the free world”  — and the U.S. administration — faced a series of historic trials that would afffect not just Americans, but the world.

Is it just me, or something very seriously wrong with this picture?

(Disclosure: I was a Time contributing reporter until Canada’s bureau closed last year and still, very rarely, do freelance reporting for it)

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Murdoch’s plans for WSJ: it would be nice to “kill” the New York Times

Later this year Rupert Murdoch will actually get his hands on his new prize, the Wall Street Journal. Jonathan Richards has stories in today’s Times and Guardian based on a speech and an interview with Murdoch following a San Francisco Internet conference, about his plans for the U.S. newspaper icon. In the stories, the planned new WSJ entity sound like a death star, or perhaps a pit bull. And , I think, with our short memories and focus on junk journalism, it’s quite possible that nobody will even remember that Murdoch promised as part of his takeover bid not to interefere with WSJ editorial decisions.

From the Guardian: Murdoch “has laid out drastic plans to shake up the Wall Street Journal and launch an assault on the mainstream American newspaper industry …  last night said he wanted to move the newspaper beyond its financial roots and target mainstream competitors such as the New York Times. …

The report quoted Murdoch saying he wants to “improve it” in areas of finance, national and international news and coverage of cultural issues to draw ads from movie studios, and add major coverage of the arts, fashion and culture. “When asked whether he was aiming to kill the New York Times, Mr Murdoch replied simply: “That would be nice.””

The story also mentioned Murdoch’s take on social networking sites including FaceBook and MySpace, and a bit about his plans for a new Fox business channel.

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Award honours Gzowski

The Association of Electronic Journalists has created an award named after Peter Gzowski, the late Maclean’s editor and long-time CBC radio host of Morningside. The RTNDA Peter Gzowski Award – Best Radio News Information Program was announced today. “Gzowski exemplifies the very best in Canadian Journalism,” said the association said in a press release. It said the Gzowski award will be given to the station “which displays overall excellence in content and presentation in a regularly scheduled news information program, which is not a daily newscast.”

The first Peter Gzowski Award will be handed out at the RTNDA National Awards Ceremony in Ottawa next June. The organization describes itself as “the voice of electronic journalists in Canada,” with the aim of fostering “the very best in Radio, Television, and New Media.”
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A selection of headlines above the first online, breaking-news stories about today’s Statistics Canada crime report. It’s a hot political topic in the context of yesterday’s Conservative government throne speech — which includes a priority on “law and order” measures.

The Globe and Mail:
Homicide rate drops in 2006
Other violent crimes on rise as number of killings with firearms drops for first time in four years, Statscan says. (A Canadian Press story.)  The story’s second graph points out the political connection: “With the minority Conservative government in Ottawa declaring crime – and gun crime – one of its top priorities in Tuesday’s throne speech, Canada’s police services reported 605 homicides in 2006, 58 fewer than the previous year.”

The Toronto Star:
Homicide rate down in 2006
(CP story)

The Vancouver Sun:
Violent crime on the rise
A CanWest staff story. The lead is about the 10 per cent drop in murders, and fewer
murders committed with a gun, and the headline’s claim is only reached
midway through the second paragraph: “But while the murder rate dipped
after two years of going up, Statistics Canada said other violent
crimes, such as attempted murder, serious assaults and robberies, were
on the rise last year.”
Violent crime on the rise
(Same CanWest staff story as in the Sun, same headline)

The National Post:
Murder rate drops, violent crime on the rise
(Same CanWest staff story, but with its comprehensive nature reflected in the headline)
National homicide rate drops in 2006: StatsCan
(Staff story)
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“Shock” at murders of Iraq journalists

The International Federation of Journalists has called on the international community “to take special action to confront the human tragedy in Iraq where the killings of journalists and media staff have reached “shocking proportions that can no longer be ignored.”  Everything about Iraq seems shocking — but the IFJ has had enough with the recent murders of five media workers in Iraq, while it says Iraqi journalists are frustrated that their situation is “not being taken seriously by major players on the international media scene.”

From outside Iraq it’s unclear what can and should be done — other than bear witness. “The international community must stand up and take fresh action to alleviate the distress of journalists and media under siege in Iraq,” said IFJ General Secretary Aidan White, who wants the “media crisis at the top” of political and  social movements. The IFJ is one of several media organizations that set up Iraq Media Safety Group, which set up a “safety office” in Baghdad and aims to “develop high-profile connections with government officials and media owners in the area of security for journalists.”
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