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Journalism

Photo by David Ackerman

When The New York Times recently published an editorial titled “Don’t Cancel That Newspaper Subscription,” it caught our attention. Not just because of the subject matter — anything about the general decline of local newspapers is, of course, something we’re very concerned about — but because of the struggles each reporter and editor faces while trying to do their jobs.

The beginning of the editorial tells the story of John Seigenthaler, initially a young reporter with The Tennessean who saved the life of a man he was interviewing back in the 1950s. Seigenthaler went on to become editor and then publisher for the local paper and was at the forefront of civil rights coverage in the heart of the segregated South. However, the piece is not a love letter to the local papers of the 20th century; it’s a cry for help for the publications of today.

The editorial touches on how newspapers and their newsrooms have become smaller over time, even before the coronavirus pandemic diminished the amount of advertising, the main source of revenue papers rely on. Over the years, local publications have been suffering as more and more readers take to the internet to get their daily or weekly dose of news. It also doesn’t help that the false moniker of “fake news” is thrown around by too many without a care for the consequences such an impetuous statement can create.

According to the editorial, newsrooms across the country lost half their journalists between 2008-19. Citing a recent Business Insider article, the writer Margaret Renkl, said “a staggering” 7,800 journalists lost their jobs in 2019.

The writer goes on to tell the story of how The Tennessean recently ran an ad that many found appalling and racist, but she urged people not to cancel their subscriptions. She not only cited how the publisher quickly tried to rectify the situation by pulling it from future editions and firing the sales manager that approved it, but she pointed out many other things, too. Despite the extreme lack of judgment in placing the ad, even with a shortage of journalists due to cutbacks over the years, the paper still covers and publishes a variety of topics that show it is still doing everything in its power to maintain a balanced and reputable publication.

We get this. There have been times when some may not have been pleased with an article, letter or editorial in our newspapers. That is perfectly fine, and we invite reasoned criticism from all in our letters to the editor. But as Renkl wrote in her editorial, “As the ‘first rough draft of history’ journalism will always be prone to mistakes.” We, perhaps beyond any other industry, not only invite justified review of our papers, but we also actively try to improve, working many, many hours to try to get the story of local happenings. We cannot be everywhere and cover everything, but we do our best.

Canceling your subscription to a newspaper only hastens the death of journalism. We’ve written it before on this page, and we’ll put it out there again: If newspapers and journalists didn’t exist, who would tell you what leaders are up to? Who would be there to challenge their responses when something doesn’t sound quite right? And this is even more important with our local leaders, especially as more news networks focus on the national side of our society.

Without local papers, where would readers go to find out what fun activities are going on right in their own town? Who would celebrate the academic and athletic achievements of our local students?

Unfortunately, the days of local newsrooms brimming over with editors and reporters, who could run out and cover every incident in town, may be over, but pulling out a newspaper from the mailbox or picking one up on the newsstand doesn’t need to end.

Let’s work together to keep local journalism alive. With each subscription, just like with each ad, we are empowered to continue and enabled to cover more of our communities’ activities for the benefit of all.

Stock photo

For journalism to be effective in not only covering the events of the day, but also uncovering mistruth and misdeed, it requires access to people and records. 

As local journalists, that usually means sitting in an interview or talking on the phone with our local school district, village and town officials, as well as our local, state and federal representatives and officials. More often, though, we find a certain lack of … well, frankly, the ability to connect with some of them. 

This issue needs to be addressed.

Journalism is financially struggling, locally and nationally. Advertising dollars have plummeted, and staffing is short on people. The Pew Research Center has reported print circulation for weekday papers was down nationally by 8 percent for 2018 over the previous year, and 9 percent for Sunday papers.

So, as newspapers struggle to maintain current standing, access to information from all these local sources is now at a premium. 

Too often, information is withheld, embargoed or stymied. Though it is more rare, some officials resort to tactics of intimidation to prevent the release of information. Some sources are afraid to comment on issues for fear of public retaliation. 

Cases of great importance, like that of the ongoing health issues at the Northport Middle School, have bureaucratic hurdles that include using public relations firms as contact people. Something as simple as getting an official’s comments or requesting documents through the Freedom of Information Law can often become problematic. 

It seems to take more work than it has in years before. 

In modern times, the number of public relations professionals only seems to increase, while the number of journalists decline. Bloomberg News wrote this year there are six PR professionals for every one journalist working in the field. This is up from a less than two-to-one ratio just 20 years ago. If you were to check our inboxes, you would likely have to shield your eyes from the blinding number of emails we receive daily from PR firms.

That is not to say we oppose these professionals. They are often a very useful and necessary component of business. And a good PR person can make a reporter’s work a little bit easier. But of course, that’s only when good things are happening. When there are issues, we often find communications professionals actively make getting even simple comments from officials that much harder.

We as journalists often prefer to speak directly to officials when the need arises. That’s what the public expects. We thank the many people who have worked with us on stories, both public officials and spokespersons alike, but we also ask everyone to understand the importance of the press, often regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy, even at the levels closest to the community.

Restricting access to even the smallest bits of information hinders the effectiveness of government by the people. It’s problematic for both the journalist and the municipal body that maintains government operations.

In the great tug of war match between journalists and officials over information, the knot in the rope should always land on the public’s side of the line, and our role is to be the watchdog for the people.

We thank the officials and communication specialists who honor that premise and work diligently to uphold high standards. Our world is a better place when that happens. 

It may be difficult sometimes for news consumers to decipher between a news article written by a journalist and a press release composed by a public relations practitioner, especially when the number of the latter outnumbers the former. In an era of websites and social media,  press releases are plentiful and can be easily shared. So, readers should take heed.

No offense to those in the public relations field. These are the people who play a valuable role in working with journalists to alert them about interesting stories in their coverage areas and connect them with important people.

However, during times when newsrooms are short-staffed and websites make it easier to post items, many times press releases may appear as articles, though they adopt a public relations position that aims to promote rather than inform. For many news outlets, the luxury of using a press release as only a starting point and digging in deeper with their own reporting has become more and more difficult. And with one quick posting, a story presented by a PR person is shared as news.

When it comes to some short pieces — say about an upcoming career fair, what’s going on at the local library or what awards students or people have won — sharing a short press release isn’t a bad idea. When applicable and appropriate, these pieces can be a valuable tool, because journalists can’t be everywhere.

But when it comes to articles that take on controversial subjects, such as where taxpayer money goes, or where an elected official or political candidate stands, it would be wiser to look for the pieces written by a bona fide journalist. Why? Simply because a press release is written to present the stance of a person or institution, usually from a positive point of view. News articles written by journalists look to represent the various sides of an issue, and when it comes to hot button topics, to find the information that wasn’t revealed. This information is also vetted and double-checked.

It’s important for readers to pay attention to what they are reading. When it comes to contentious events, does the article include all sides? Does it cite documentation that verifies the stated facts? Does it show different points of view and include the names of people who chose not to comment? Be sure to look for multiple points of view from credible, authoritative people with firsthand knowledge of a situation, such as an eyewitness or an expert.

It can be difficult at times. There are those contacts who are inaccessible — some even hiding behind their public relations staff — and with short-staffed newsrooms, a well-written press release can be a big help. But when it comes to articles about contentious topics and important matters, make sure that article you’re about to quote at the dinner table or party or share on social media has been carefully constructed by someone who attends the meetings, makes the phone calls and asks the important questions.

Sharpen your skills when it comes to interpreting information. The skill is essential at a point in time when the ways of democracy are being challenged.

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Barbara Ransome, front, and journalistic scholars visited Port Jefferson May 10. Photo by Kyle Barr

Something is always new to somebody.

Sixty-three people from 23 different countries were in Port Jefferson village May 10 as the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies surveyed the surroundings as part of its 14th annual conference.

Journalistic scholars visited Port Jefferson May 10. Photo by Kyle Barr

The conference has been held in many other parts of the world, such as Paris, France; Porto Alegre, Brazil and Vienna, Austria, but this is the first event held on the U.S East Coast. Though the conference is being hosted through Stony Brook University and the School of Journalism, the association wanted to emphasize Port Jefferson’s unique flavor of historical significance and modern small-town charm. Members came from as far away as Mexico, Brazil, Poland and all the way to Australia.

Chamber of Commerce Director of Operations Barbara Ransome took the visitors on a tour from Danford’s Hotel, to the Village Center, which was once a shipwright warehouse where shipbuilders constructed masts and other ship parts, and up East Main Street to the Knitting Corner, which was partially the old location of the Bucket of Blood inn. The group then traveled past the Port Jefferson Free Library, visiting the Brewster House and other landmark homes before ending the tour at the Island Christian Church.

Below is an editorial written by Judy Patrick, the New York Press Association’s vice president for editorial development.

We’ve been complacent.

We thought everybody knew how important a free press was to our world and that all this talk about us being the enemy of the people would be dismissed for the silliness that it is.

But the reckless attacks have continued, instigated and encouraged by our president.

When the leader of the free world works to erode the public’s trust in the media, the potential for damage is enormous, both here and abroad. We once set an example of free and open government for the world to follow. Now those who seek to suppress the free flow of information are doing so with impunity.

The time has come for us to stand up to the bullying. The role journalism plays in our free society is too crucial to allow this degradation to continue.

We aren’t the enemy of the people. We are the people. We aren’t fake news. We are your news and we struggle night and day to get the facts right.

On bitter cold January nights, we’re the people’s eyes and ears at town, village and school board meetings. We tell the stories of our communities, from the fun of a county fair to the despair a family faces when a loved one is killed.

We are always by your side. We shop the same stores, attend the same churches and hike the same trails. We struggle with day care and worry about paying for retirement.

In our work as journalists, our first loyalty is to you. Our work is guided by a set of principles that demand objectivity, independence, open-mindedness and the pursuit of the truth. We make mistakes, we know. There’s nothing we hate more than errors but we acknowledge them, correct them and learn from them.

Our work is a labor of love because we love our country and believe we are playing a vital role in our democracy. Self-governance demands that our citizens need to be well-informed and that’s what we’re here to do. We go beyond the government-issued press release or briefing and ask tough questions. We hold people in power accountable for their actions. Some think we’re rude to question and challenge. We know it’s our obligation.

People have been criticizing the press for generations. We are not perfect. But we’re striving every day to be a better version of ourselves than we were the day before.

That’s why we welcome criticism. But unwarranted attacks that undermine your trust in us cannot stand. The problem has become so serious that newspapers across the nation are speaking out against these attacks in one voice this week on their editorial pages.

As women’s rights pioneer and investigative journalist Ida B. Wells wrote in 1892: “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

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More than a week after the New York Daily News slashed half of its editorial staff, including writers and photographers, the news still stings.

Many of the journalists at TBR News Media aren’t residents of the areas we cover, but we feel like honorary members of the communities. We can imagine how heartbreaking it must be for the former staff members of the Daily News to be ripped from the neighborhoods that probably once felt like home to them.

But there is a bigger issue. Both daily and weekly newspapers face the same battle every day — how to keep serving the public effectively while staying afloat financially. Once upon a time, print media only had to worry about radio and television news shows when it came to competition, but newspapers usually had the edge because they were portable. There was a time when it wasn’t unusual to see someone walking out of a stationery store or deli with a newspaper tucked under their arm.

However, in a time of infinite niche websites and social media, finding ways to stay current and viable is a daunting task. Most people have some type of portable device where they can quickly pull up a news site or see what articles their friends are sharing on social media. It also doesn’t help when many feel that if a media outlet doesn’t agree with their views, then it must be “fake news.” To compound the issue, the president of the United States has refused to take questions from journalists representing certain media outlets. Most recently at an international press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May in England, Trump said he wouldn’t take questions from CNN’s Jim Acosta and NBC’s Kristen Welker.

Despite the problems print media and even the media in general are facing, there are solutions — even though we feel a bit uncomfortable with the suggestion of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for an unspecified bailout of the Daily News. A news outlet receiving money from an entity the writers report on may lead to problems in the future. Which leads to the only people who can save print media: the readers, both current and potential.

There are the obvious things people can do to save the industry such as buying newspapers and frequenting the businesses who advertise in them. And readers can educate themselves. There may be “fake news” out there, but pieces of false information can be weeded out.

It is incumbent upon and a requirement of citizenry to know the difference between information intentionally manufactured to mislead and factual information presented from a viewpoint different from one’s own. If journalism were as simple as making up sources and quotes to fit a desired narrative, we’d like our time back spent late at night at civic association and school board meetings, for example, and all of the other hard work that goes into informing the public. It is offensive and dangerous to lump this in with deliberately false drivel circulating on say, Facebook and Twitter.

Most of all, readers can remember they are part of a newspapers’ family, especially when it comes to TBR News Media’s publications. If you have something you want to see in our pages or have a news tip, our phone lines are always open.

A paper is only as good as its sources and, most of all, the readers it serves.

It’s no secret that newspapers, large and small, are financially hurting. We know the reasons as well. The internet makes shopping possible from our bedrooms and sometimes at a cheaper price than a downtown store. We can send birthday gifts to our grandchildren and friends while we are still in our pajamas and slippers, and the items will arrive nicely wrapped and on time. This in turn makes retailing difficult, from box stores and malls to neighborhood shops. So many of the large (like Toys “R” Us, Genovese Drug Stores) and the smaller (like Swezey’s) and mom-and-pop stores have given up. While the larger stores advertised in the dailies, these smaller businesses reached their customers in the immediate vicinity through the local papers, and they were the backbone of the hometown newspapers’ financial model. Fewer such businesses are left, and some of those place their ads only on the internet. The nature of shopping and of advertising has been profoundly disrupted.

So we have a publication like the New York Daily News, once the paper with the highest circulation in America, cutting half their editorial department in order to survive. And we have any number of community newspapers closing their doors and leaving their hometowns without an effective voice to protect them. Failure to adequately monetize their own investments in the internet by struggling papers has been part of the problem.

The difference between larger dailies and smaller weeklies is more than size. When a daily cuts back or gives up, there are other news sources that can fill the gap for national and international news. But when the community papers and websites disappear, the local issues that arise at school board or town board or civic or chamber of commerce meetings, or on a particular block with high crime or tainted water or garbage dumping or illegal development, those are not necessarily picked up by the remaining bigger news outlets. The stop signs and potholes are local matters, and for the most part they need local coverage.

That recognition is the reason that the State of New Jersey has now put up millions of dollars in its budget to help pay for community journalism. Say what? How can that be? After all, news media are supposed to be the watchdogs of the people against those who would take advantage, especially those corrupt officials in government. So how can government subsidize media and the residents still expect the media to independently investigate government?

Since the earliest days and the first leaders of our republic, people have known that a democracy cannot exist without independent news sources. That is why the First Amendment — the first before all others — protects freedom of the press. It is the only industry enshrined in our Constitution. And for those local legislators and executives and judges, the local newspapers are the ones who disseminate the news of what our officials are doing to help us.

So it is not so odd that local officials want to come to our aid. They need us just as we need to watch over them. Can this relationship exist in an independent, nonpartisan fashion?

I think it can if there is a neutral party between us. Public television, like my favorite PBS “NewsHour,” and radio stations get funding (not a lot) from the government. “It’s not about saving journalism in New Jersey,” Mike Rispoli, director of an advocacy group on behalf of local media, said in The New York Times. “It’s about making sure our communities are engaged and informed.”

So if funds are awarded to media by boards made up of representatives from the communities, like state universities, community organizations and technology groups as well as government officials, the goal of independent journalism can be met. There is a fine line here not to be crossed.

See editorial for another view on this topic.

Hello, my name is Dan and I’m a … journalist.

It’s been a few days since my last meeting and a lot has happened since then.

For starters, I’ve decided to hate myself. I’m coming to grips with the idea that, as a journalist, I am detested and detestable.

I ask questions. All the time. Just ask my wife and kids, although they’re too annoyed with my questions to entertain yours.

I have this insane urge to understand and appreciate the nuance of a word or phrase. I even have a dictionary. Didn’t we burn those long ago? Aren’t we supposed to look for the underlined red words in a document?

My editors and I also change my words. What you see doesn’t just leap from my fingers onto the page. How are you supposed to know what I’m thinking if I let my ideas develop before shouting them at you?

I don’t have a specific character limit. Oh, and I only use hashtags when I’m pushing the button on my phone. Sacrebleu! And I write foreign phrases like “sacrebleu” to express my surprise.

Additionally, I absolutely adore alliteration. I can’t help smiling when I think about the movie “Broadcast News.” I know, I know, we’re supposed to hate everything with the word “news” in it, but I grin when I hear Albert Brooks asking, “Pretty peppy party, isn’t it, pal?”

I frequently read. Sometimes, I’ll be in a room with a television and I’ll have a book or a, gasp, newspaper in my hands with the TV off. How am I supposed to relate to everyone when I’m not watching TV?

And deadlines? They’re so real for me that I sometimes don’t talk to my wife and kids just before they arrive. I used to work for Bloomberg News — the fastest twitch environment I’d ever experienced. An editor once followed me into the bathroom to find out how long I would be in there because I had a story to write. When I was on deadline at Bloomberg, particularly around earnings season, I would give my wife all of five seconds to share whatever she needed to communicate before I raced to the next story.

Oh, and I sometimes make mistakes. That’s horrific, especially when I have to explain how I could have erred. I used to have to write letters reviewing how I blundered; I called them the “I suck because …” letters. I periodically imagined weaseling my way out of trouble by claiming how tired I was from getting up at 4 a.m. when I learned of a story I’d missed in Europe.

That, however, would never fly, because a mistake has no defense; it requires a correction. I also use semi-colons and colons, which have nothing to do with my bathroom habits.

Sure, there are times when someone claimed I made a mistake when, in fact, the mistake was not agreeing with their opinion. That’s not a mistake — a difference of opinion.

But, hey, that’s another reason to hate me. I think about whether something is an opinion or a fact. An opinion lives in a realm where people need to repeat it to make sure everyone agrees. A fact can and should stand on its own.

It’s hard, when we’re all human, to ignore the pleas of people in power who want journalists and their stories to go away. One of my journalism professors said he tried to limit his friendships so they wouldn’t prevent him from doing his job.

That’s tough because I enjoy interacting, even with people who don’t share the same viewpoint. But, wait, I hate that because, ultimately, I’m loathsome and detestable.

Journalists need to embrace Detective Sgt. Joe Friday’s line from “Dragnet,” “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Caught up in intense public passions, journalists can either throw their opinions at the inflamed cacophony or they can seize an opportunity to do something that has escaped most politicians: Represent broader interests.

We live in a world of spin, where claims and counterclaims come out so rapidly that reality has become a blur. The challenges in sifting through fact and fiction have increased as officials of all stripes shout their truths from the rooftops, even if they have an obstructed view of the world down below.

When I was in journalism school more than two decades ago, a good friend from Bulgaria, who was one of the few people who could pronounce my name correctly when she read it in my mailbox, shared her writing with me.

I noticed a flaw in the way she recorded dialogue. The quotes in her story often lacked the syntax and vocabulary that native English speakers possess. When I asked if she only spoke with other Bulgarians, she playfully punched my shoulder and said she needed to hear better.

That was an unintentional consequence of the way someone who spoke three languages translated the world.

The chasm today between what people say and what others hear, even those who speak the same language, has gotten wider. Editors and reporters return to their desks or take out their laptops, ready to share quotes, events and facts.

These fellow members of the media may find themselves seeing what they want to see, much like the parent of an athlete on a field or a coach who has become an advocate or cheerleader. In editorials, where we’re clearly sharing an opinion, that works, but in news reports we should share the facts, offer context — and increase the value of fact-based reporting.

With facts under regular assault, the search for them, and the ability to verify them, becomes even more important.

A divided nation needs balanced, fair, accurate and defensible reporting. In their publications, scientists share materials and methods sections, which should allow other researchers to conduct the same experiments and, presumably, find the same results. Far too often, opinions disguised as news urge people to trust the writer. Why? Readers should be able to pull together the same raw materials and decide for themselves.

I know government officials don’t always deal in facts. I also know numbers can be repackaged to suit an agenda, turning any conclusion into a specious mix of farce and mental acrobatics. To wit, he’s the best left-handed hitter every Tuesday there’s a full moon below the Mason-Dixon line. Just because it’s presented as a fact doesn’t mean we have to report it or even mock it. If it’s meaningless, then leave it alone. The argument that other journalists are doing it doesn’t make it acceptable.

Several years ago, someone called to berate me for what he considered errors in my story. Rather than shout him down, I gave him the chance to offer his perspective. Eventually he calmed down and we had a measured, detailed discussion. This became the first of numerous conversations and interactions in which he provided important perspectives and shared details I might not otherwise have known.

Reporters face a public acutely aware of its own anger. Almost by definition in a country where the two major political parties struggle to find common ground, some group of readers disagrees with our coverage. We shouldn’t try to please everyone. In fact, we should try to please no one — we should merely work harder. It’s time to allow facts to speak for themselves.

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In an attempt to promote transparency, the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics recently proposed requiring public relations consultants to register as lobbyists if they are trying to influence editorial writers.

That would mean any public relations professionals who contacts a reporter or editorial board in an attempt to get the media to advance their client’s message would be considered to be delivering a lobbying message.

Several New York public relations firms and New York Press Association members immediately spoke out against this proposal, and we side with them and share their concerns.

To force anyone to report to the government before they speak to a reporter seems dangerous, and almost medieval. It treads on freedom of speech if the government is effectively regulating newspaper content, and interfering with a newsroom staff’s ability to independently and objectively judge its sources on its own. On top of that, it is an example of government butting its nose into what are largely privately owned companies — a place it has no business giving orders.

On the surface, it seems as though JCOPE is paying the press a compliment, saying the news media are so valuable that it wants to help preserve the public watchdog’s objectivity. But, in an ironic twist, within the same stroke it would be compromising the independence of the Fourth Estate by controlling its sources.

Freedom of the press is one of the rights America was built upon and relies upon to this day, and this move would tramp on the media’s liberty to print the issues and concerns of the public without needing permission from the government. One of the main jobs of a reporter is to evaluate whether a source is credible and whether a story is newsworthy. Let’s keep this task out of the hands of the government and in the hands of the people who make these decisions every day.

As a newspaper that takes pride in serving the community before anyone else, we stand against this proposal to restrict our communication and we hope you will too.