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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Uber-ization of Journalism

Media managers are wondering what went wrong. They are asking why journalism doesn't pay any more. If the solutions are hard to discern, they have only to look at the technology they so eagerly embrace.

It's the digital technology. Digital emerged in the late 90s and early 2000s. It has spread throughout many industries including journalism, like a virus. Not co-incidentally, ratings and circulation began to decline. Media organizations, pressured by shareholders and desperate to find a way to return to the great profit margins, seized on digital as the silver bullet of transformations. But if ever there was a poison pill, it is the digital culture. It has enlarged our possibilities while offering up cat videos, celebrity sightings and listicles. It is driving journalistic deviance downward, to paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Yet media organizations cling to digital like a torpedoed sailor clings to a raft, hoping that the submarine won't hit them again.

Last week in Toronto, at a gathering sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, three prominent newspaper publishers discussed the future of the business. To a person, they were all bullish on the future. And that future for newspapers, they said, is digital, digital and more digital.

We live in strange times.
  • We have a lodging system called Air BnB. It doesn't own any actual hotels.
  • There's a food delivery service called Foodora. It doesn't own any restaurants.
  • There's a video service called Youtube. It doesn't own movie or TV companies.
  • There's a taxi company called Uber. It doesn't own any cars.
All of those businesses - and many others - have been transformed by digital. While customers have benefited from the ease, cost-effectiveness and simplicity of digital, there is also a powerful downside: wages for workers in those industries have plummeted, working conditions are often worse and company morale, in many instances is still dropping and not yet hit rock bottom.

At the same time, profit margins for owners in many industries, have never been greater.

Journalism is also being Uber-ized.  Newspapers have closed or been downsized, broadcasters have cut their more expensive (and usually more labor-intensive) content. In the rush to return to the once rich profit margins of the early 2000s, media organizations are being urged by their shareholders to dispense with expensive ventures like international reporting. Instead, news consultants are hired to telling their news clients that weather, traffic and crime (WTC) are what most audiences prefer.

Not co-incidentally, WTC also happens to be the cheapest and most readily available content. And all three bits of low-hanging journalistic fruit, happen to originate from government sources. So much for independent journalistic inquiry.

Worse yet, media organizations, especially broadcasters, try to entice their audiences through "clickbait." This is defined as "an eyecatching link on a website which encourages people to read on. It is often paid for by the advertiser ("Paid" click bait) or generates income based on the number of clicks."

It's rarely newsworthy, but it does attract eyeballs. The assumption seems to be that audiences will stay for the "serious" content after gorging on the fluff. The CBC's website seems to be particularly smitten with "clickbait" even though their own journalists complain and the public resents this waste of the public broadcaster's journalistic efforts and reputation.

No technological change can ever be reversed. Occasionally, it can be slowed, even questioned. Can the effects of the digital culture be made to work on behalf of the culture, rather than against it? If journalism in Canada (and elsewhere) is to survive, then it has to resist digital's worst qualities (listicles, cat videos and celebrity sightings) in order to let the digital culture offer what's best on behalf of the public.

One of the best qualities of a journalist is skepticism. When it comes to digital, skepticism has been jettisoned for unquestioning enthusiasm.

And the information-starved public is less well-served as a result.



Saturday, January 30, 2016

More Digital "Deviancy" at the CBC: From My Source - "Deep Microphone"

Mindy Kaling - American Actress
The late New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined a phrase "defining deviancy down," the catchy alliteration equivalent of "permissiveness" in political rhetoric about crime and criminal justice.

The CBC continues to pursue a race to the bottom of the digital culture on its website, cbc.ca.

This time, the story is out of Newfoundland.

Three important stories recently emerged concerning the justice system in that province.

The first involves a 12-year old fraud case. It involves a complex condo-flipping scam. The judge in this case threw it out because the RCMP took too long to get the case to trial. This resulted in millions of dollars in fraud and court costs being lost. And it seems, this is the second such case over the past year thrown out because of allegations of RCMP fumbling.

The second case involves a homicide. Charges were again dropped against a man in Labrador accused of the second-degree murder of his infant son. A critical piece of evidence was a piece of the 4-month old's brain, accidentally disposed of by the medical examiner. The defence argued that without the tissue sample, there was no way to determine the veracity of the photos that the Crown intended to enter as evidence.

Third case: the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary is under investigation for turning a blind eye to the illegal activities of a CI (confidential informant) until he assaulted two individuals.

None of these stories was covered by the CBC.*

This, at a time when local news everywhere in Canada is being diminished by the collapse of the newspaper industry and the closing of commercial TV newsrooms.

Instead, "Deep Microphone" informed me that the CBC newsroom in St. John's assigned TWO journalists to cover this "important" story concerning the American celebrity, Mindy Kaling who can properly pronounce "Newfoundland."

It is possible that the CBC did cover the more significant stories. But there is no sign of them on the local website. I hope I'm wrong. And I'm not against the occasional "clickbait" to brighten up our dismal times. But news judgement at the CBC seems to be in favour of the trivial and what Neil Postman called "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

In economics, there is a theory called "Gresham's Law." Gresham (1519 - 1579) was an English financier who observed that "bad money drives out good"...that any dubious coinage causes all monies to be suspected as worthless.

Perhaps there should be a similar law in journalism.

* I have been informed that these stories were reported locally. Apologies to the journalists who did these stories. But I am still appalled by the prominence of clickbait on cbc.ca. The public broadcaster remains our last best hope for substantial local information in Canada. But I sense it is slipping away under the pressure of the marketers and the digirati.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

My interview in the University of Toronto Bulletin about the declining Canadian media scene

Plant closures and newsroom layoffs: Jeff Dvorkin on the week in Canadian media

Don Campbell

First came the announcement the Toronto Star would be shuttering its printing plant in Vaughan, cutting some editorial jobs in the process. Then Postmedia announced it was merging news rooms in Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. 
Jeffrey Dvorkin, a lecturer and director of the journalism program at U of T Scarborough, has been the ombudsman for America Abroad Media and National Public Radio, a managing editor and chief journalist at CBC Radio and vice-president of news and information at NPR.
He spoke with writer Don Campbell about what these cuts mean to the health of journalism in Canada.

Along with printing staff, some editorial staff in the Star’s tablet division are being laid off. Does this indicate a tempering of expectations in terms of what digital content can bring in?  
It’s difficult to tell. The Star is taking what’s going on at La Presse in Montreal as a model; La Presse has now pretty much gone full tablet and is only publishing one edition a week on Saturday. However, the markets are really quite different. La Presse has a captive linguistic market whereas the Star does not. 
We’ll see how well the Star does with their plan. They’ve certainly invested heavily in terms of time and resources into the Star touch product. 
Will advertising continue to be key in the transition from print to digital?
Yes, and the advertising transition is happening slowly. Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, wrote about something he calls Rusbridger’s Cross: essentially, as print advertising revenue declines there needs to be an increase in online advertising revenue and at some point the two will intersect. 
This hasn’t happened yet, although the New York Times has been very successful and is making quite a bit of money through online revenue. A big part of the reason is that the content produced by the Times is outstanding. 
That seems to be the crux of the issue; are newspapers providing readers with indispensable information that citizens need? In some instances they are, while in other instances it’s simply not the case. 
Yesterday, Postmedia announced the merger of newsrooms in four Canadian cities. What does this mean for their ability to cover the news?
It certainly has a lot of symbolic value. Postmedia is the largest newspaper chain in the country, so the consequences of the layoff are pretty significant. It’s also an indication of convergence in the media, which in the past may have resulted in some savings but has not resulted in better journalism. 
That’s a concern. If a newspaper had two or three reporters assigned to municipal politics or city hall they wouldn’t all just be going after Rob Ford, which is what happened when Ford was the mayor. The “Ford Follies” was over-covered because these newspapers are understaffed and only paying attention to one particular story. 
Even the CBC, which has gone through its own convergence issues, ended up covering Rob Ford like a blanket when in fact there were other stories that were of great importance that were outright ignored because Ford made for such easy copy. 
Newspaper reporters are far more visible now on other mediums. Will we see more of this?
It’s true. There are fewer reporters and there’s more pack journalism which is essentially reporters all chasing after the same stories. In addition to being obliged to cover a story for one medium, these reporters need to be on two, sometimes three, platforms including social media. If a reporter has more than a couple of hours to dedicate to a story that’s considered a luxury. 
I don’t want to start moaning about how much better it was in the pre-digital age because that time has passed and we’re never going back, but there is a downside to the digital culture and that’s a general thinness of context. There’s a predisposition to cover the journalistic low-hanging fruit, which is weather, traffic and crime. 
These three subjects are entirely sourced through the government. That’s why we’re seeing that type of journalism more often than long-form investigative reporting. Long-form is still being done, but it’s not being done in the way it could be. 
Can Canadian newspapers cope with an increasingly competitive and shrinking marketplace while delivering effective journalism? 
There’s a good case example where three American newspapers in mid-size markets, one in California, one in the mid-west and one in the south, decided they would invest more heavily in digital but do it in a way that was intensively local. They discovered that there’s a market for significant and high-quality local information. 
These papers were not doing all the stories they once did if they could get it from a syndicated wire service, but instead focused on stories that really affected their community – and suddenly found out they were making money with a pay wall. The combination of a pay wall and important, quality information seem to be a pattern of success for those markets. Would that work everywhere? I don’t know, but it would certainly be worth considering rather than going after the low-hanging fruit.
Why is it important that these outlets adapt?
For all that’s said about them, newspapers and the reporters who work for them are the single most reliable source of information for other media platforms, at least locally. There was a study in Baltimore that found 80 per cent of news content on the Internet, blogosphere, radio and television relating to Baltimore originated from the Baltimore Sun. It was the single most important source of information for these other platforms. So if there are continued cuts to newspaper staff will the quality of journalism in these other mediums be affected? Absolutely it will.
But it also speaks to media convergence. If news media have to continue relying on smaller staff and continue to insist on entertaining their audiences rather than informing them, in the long run people will go elsewhere for their information.
If they continue to rely on so-called click-bait and other content meant to drive web traffic only instead of covering the news, I think they will be do so at their own peril.   

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CBC's Digital Dilemma: Good Journalism or Clickbait?

Over the past few days, a colleague and friend, Frank Koller has posted on his website and on the Huffington Post site, some curious developments on the CBC's website, involving a number of high profile CBC journalists.

Frank observed that reporters who normally operate as professional observers have suddenly been transformed into highly opinionated columnists. CBC management responded to Frank's post by dismissing his concerns.

In fact, these well-regarded reporters are using CBC.ca to call out (twice) the Government of Canada for 1) "slavish" adherence to antiquated institutions (aka, The Senate of of Canada), and 2) demanding that the Republican Party suppress the free (if deeply provocative) speech of some of the Republican candidates for President.

These pieces posted on the CBC website are surprising. Usually expressions of sharp opinion have been given to non-CBC journalists, thus keeping the CBC reporters free from accusations of bias.

This is a not-so-subtle change in the role of the CBC and its website. As the public broadcaster moves toward a more digital and smartphone universe, the wild west values of cyberspace seem at variance with the high journalistic standards on which the CBC once prided itself. Is the cyber-tail wagging the journalistic dog? It seems so.

This was confirmed in a website called News Net Check. In a "Special Report" entitled "At CBC, Cutbacks Make Room for Digital Growth", one Richard Kanee, whose title is Senior Director of Digital Media at the CBC is quoted as saying:

“We’re deprioritizing innovation and we’re actually privileging things that can function more like a widget factory, which is what media companies need in order to have real scale.” (sic).

I assume this means that once serious reporters are now allowed to become part of the vast digital bloviator culture. As Mr. Kanee further states, “We recognize that there’s a new, younger audience that may be looking for something different than what we put on our airwaves.” But is this in fact, true? Mr. Kanee says he has no evidence of that shift.

Indeed, there may be a good reason for emphasizing the digital presence. Increasingly, younger media consumers are opting for podcasts over so-called "appointment listening and viewing." NPR for example, now has (at last count) 26 million downloads PER MONTH. No surprise that people prefer to listen when they want, not when the programmers think they should.

But how does this affect quality journalism? Poorly, according to sources inside the CBC.

Even as Marisa Nelson, also with the title of Senior Director for Digital Media says “We wanted to create more local content with less money."

One CBC journalist (who prefers to remain nameless for obvious reasons) sent me this overnight:

The reality is, whatever local content being churned out is, for the most part, utter garbage. By garbage, I mean in the true sense of the word: something you throw away and don't bother picking up. Frankly this bullshit about digital and young audiences is little more than a way for the new digital masters to create their own self-fulfilling fiefdom: crank out "stories" (in as few words as possible because writing - good writing - takes time) that feature animals, crime and pictures of any sort because that's what people click on. Next, count the clicks. Then write self-congratulatory emails describing the "wins". 

Finally, if a heretical journalist suggests a story that sounds suspiciously like the high impact, public accountability story telling we used to aspire to, refer them to what gets clicks and assign them to scour WaPo or Reddit for something that will pull in page views. Should a journalist buck the prevailing dogma and despite the editorial opposition actually pull off something original, make sure it's not promoted on the social media feeds because it might soften the numbers. 

Jeffrey, the truth is editorial priorities of news are being largely dictated by digital hires, most who have never been in the field, and rarely, if ever, communicated with anyone without the use of a keyboard. Sadly, pumping more money back into the CBC would encourage what I see to be a degradation of the news service we used to aspire to. Yes, some good stuff still gets done. In spite of it all. Digital is an excellent platform... The problem is now what we're doing with it. Journalism is not the priority.






Saturday, December 12, 2015

Trigger Warnings for Jazz Fans?

Less McCann and Eddie Harris


I understand the reasons why some people in universities are requesting that professors "warn" students that some ideas may be uncomfortable. And there are issues of culture and values that may be upsetting to some students. But that is what education is for - not to shock, but to provoke thinking that may be at variance with accepted norms.

I also agree that there are limits beyond which a respectful teacher may not go. In effect, the teacher has to "read" the classroom and figure out a way to broach certain ideas that may be new and even shocking. My wonderful students are a VERY diverse bunch and that makes teaching more interesting than if I were faced with a more culturally homogenous room.

Journalism is about treating subjects with a certain amount of skepticism, including those ideas that cause us to squirm with embarrassment. And of course, not every idea deserves equal of fair treatment. Some ideas are just too poisonous to be treated with equanimity.

At CBC and NPR, we would frequently warn the listeners that what they were about to hear involved some difficult and even dangerous ideas and powerful language. I thought then, and still do, that journalists owe it to their audiences to help them stay with the reporting and not be so shocked and appalled that they would turn off the radio.

That also meant that we needed to understand who might be listening, and when.

In the late 1990s, a 13 minute and 50 second report on NPR's Morning Edition on child sexual abuse was too graphic. It would have been better to have aired it in the afternoon run of All Things Considered. That's when there are more adults listening, as opposed to the morning when the radio is often on the kitchen as kids are getting ready to go to school. Also 13:50 was awfully long for that time of day...the story needed to be done, but not as it was broadcast.

So imagine my surprise when I was told that a jazz station in Long Beach, California KJAZZ played a standard from the 60s with some of the lyrics actually BEEPED OUT!

The song by Les McCann and Eddie Harris is a classic - "Compared to What?" Here's the video and
the lyrics from the album "Swiss Movement" from 1969.

I love the lie and lie the love
A-Hangin' on, with push and shove
Possession is the motivation
that is hangin' up the God-damn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut (everybody now!)
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what? C'mon baby!

Slaughterhouse is killin' hogs
Twisted children killin' frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin' logs
Tired old lady kissin' dogs
I hate the human love of that stinking mutt (I can't use it!)
Try to make it real — compared to what? C'mon baby now!

The President, he's got his war
Folks don't know just what it's for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We're chicken-feathers, all without one nut. God damn it!
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what? (Sock it to me)

Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin' to duck the wrath of God
Preacher's fillin' us with fright
They all tryin' to teach us what they think is right
They really got to be some kind of nut (I can't use it!)
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what?


Where's that bee and where's that honey?
Where's my God and where's my money?
Unreal values, crass distortion
Unwed mothers need abortion
Kind of brings to mind ol' young King Tut (He did it now)
Tried to make it real — compared to what?!


Which specific lyrics were censored, one can only guess. (I've high-lighted beep-potential lyrics in yellow).

I asked the station manager if indeed, they had beeped out specific lyrics. He told me that the song came from a syndicated feed and they played it as they received it - beeps and all. He apologized and said they would be more selective with their choices in futures.

But the idea that listeners to a jazz station need to be protected somehow, from ideas that might upset them, is absurd.

I understand that some undergraduates might not yet be resilient enough to handle the realities of life. But jazz fans? Were they worried about law suits? A decline in listener support? We have become much too fearful.

In the meantime, enjoy this classic American creation before we lose it completely.



Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Dubious Value of Editorial Endorsements


Over the past weeks since the election of a Liberal government in Canada, a number of critics have decried the open editorial support for the Conservatives given by most newspapers in this country.

Editorial support for a party is, as one wag one opined, "like wetting yourself in a blue serge suit; it makes you feel warm all over, and nobody notices."

This time, quite a few people noticed. Post Media is the largest newspaper chain in Canada. It came out with a false front page on all its newspapers calling on citizens to vote the Harper government back into power for a fourth mandate. It didn't work and the Liberals were elected in a landslide.

The Globe and Mail (now Canada's largest circulation paper) tried to have it both ways: it called for a return of the Tories, but for the immediate resignation of their unpopular leader, Stephen Harper.

Only the Toronto Star with its long Liberal tradition wrote to support Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party.

Did the respective editorial endorsements have any effect on the reporting side? For Post Media - not so much. It's always been a Tory paper and its columnists and reporters have always reflected that.

The Toronto Star's progressive political principles were established a century ago by Joseph "Holy Joe" Atkinson's approach. It was more Methodist than Marxist. Star columnists were delighted with the election outcome and did not hid their glee. The Star's political reporting seemed more even-handed.

The Globe and Mail was more openly critical of the newly elected Liberals.  As my friend Peter McNelly noted on Facebook, the Globe's coverage of the new government, barely one week old, was instantly disparaging of the Liberals and of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. As Peter wrote: "...there was their story trying to belittle the gender parity in cabinet by pointing out that several of the new female ministers were only ministers of state and would be paid less. The Liberals swatted that away by noting that these portfolios would quickly be upgraded to full status, and that it was only a technical issue due to a holdover of old titles.

Now, the U.S. decision to reject the Keystone Pipeline has brought their adversarial stance toward the new government into sharper focus...The New York Times, suggests the cancellation is an opportunity for the new government...The Globe and Mail, paints the move as a problem for the government. I think the Globe reporters know what the editorial board wants and are, shall we say, tilting their reporting in that direction. "     

So much for a press honeymoon.

The CBC, as the public broadcaster is supposed to take a neutral stance on all things political. But the flagship nightly newscast, "The National" obtained what it called "unique access" to the new Prime Minister by the show's host Peter Mansbridge. It's worth watching.

The sequence ran about 15 minutes and had some modest insights and perspectives on Trudeau. But the chummy quality of the chats (they were hardly interviews) between Mansbridge and the telegenic P.M. was unnerving and in many ways, unjournalistic. "Cloying" was how one National Post columnist described it. This seemed especially inappropriate given the Liberals' campaign commitment to restoring most of the budgetary cuts the CBC has endured under the Conservatives.

I couldn't help but feel that there was a "thank God you're here" quality to the Mansbridge-Trudeau segment. There should have been a bit more reportorial distance and a lot less folksy bonhomie. In the end, I didn't learn anything important about either the Liberals or the new Prime Minister that CBC and others hadn't already reported.

But I am more convinced than ever that the CBC TV needs stronger editorial management. And newspapers need to reaffirm the primacy of their reporting over the obvious business interests of the owners.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

What a Liberal Win Means for the CBC


Be careful what you wish for.

That was a parental admonition going back some years.

During the darkest days of the Harper cuts to the public broadcaster, a prominent CBC executive told me that the only thing the CBC needed was "a return to full funding and Justin Trudeau."

So far, he's got half of his wish.

But will a return to full funding (whatever that is), actually be what is needed at the beleaguered public broadcaster?

I would argue that a return to 1990s funding levels would be the worst thing that could happen to the CBC.

Here's why:

The CBC needs more than money. It needs a vision that Canadians can support. Under President Hubert Lacroix, the lack of vision has been more damaging than a lack of funding.

Calls for Lacroix's resignation are beginning and not a moment too soon.

Under his direction, the CBC has abandoned all pretence of being a public broadcaster. It is a commercial network, with the occasional nod to public service, mostly relegated to CBC Radio. Radio has more than done its obligatory service, keeping the flame alive even while having its budgets plundered for the benefit of light entertainment on CBC Television.

Prime Minister-Elect Trudeau - once he appoints a minister to oversee the CBC/Radio-Canada, should ask for Lacroix's resignation, along with the political appointees who now fill the board positions.

The German public broadcaster has a governance model that is worth exploring.

Their board is appointed by a series of blue-panel regional committees who are asked to find the right people who support the concept of public broadcasting. This is dramatically unlike the CBC, where a number of board members have voiced opinions in opposition to the concept of a public broadcaster.

(One was quoted as saying that he wonders why the CBC spend any money at all on foreign news, when it's readily available on other networks).

Restoring the CBC to full funding would only reward the present directors and senior managers who have allowed the Corporation to be reduced to its painful condition.  

The CBC needs to make some tough decisions, ones that support the concept of commercial-free public broadcasting. In exchange for a government allocation, the CBC/Radio-Canada needs to serve the public as citizens first and as media consumers second. It also must learn to live within its budgetary means and not allow a deformation of its mission by appealing to advertisers.

Would this be enough to transform the CBC into a true public media organization that is digitally adept? It might, but it can only do this under new management.