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Oct. 12, 2012, 10:30 a.m.

This Week in Review: Discerning truth and lies in political coverage, and the value of digital-first news

Plus: The debate about free news and journalism quality, The New York Times’ labor conflict, and the rest of the week’s media and tech news.

How far should journalists go in judging political lies?: The U.S. vice presidential debate was held last night, and moderators remained in the spotlight during the leadup to it, as ABC’s Martha Raddatz received scrutiny from conservatives because President Obama attended her wedding 21 years ago (he was a classmate of her now ex-husband). The episode reminded The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone of similar attempts to “work the refs” in 2008. After the debate, though, she was praised at The New York Times and NPR for her tough, smart style.

The moderator from the first presidential debate, PBS’ Jim Lehrer, also continued to explain his much-criticized hands-off style. NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen synthesized Lehrer’s statements about his approach and connected them to PBS NewsHour’s brand of get-out-of-the-way journalistic impartiality. Elsewhere in debate coverage, the Lab pointed to Pew research that found that a lot of young people are watching the debates on something other than a TV.

In between debates, meanwhile, the talk about campaign coverage continues to center on questions of truth, falsehood, and the ability of journalists and the public to point out the differences between the two. BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith and Ruby Cramer wrote that an environment where neither side can agree on a basic conception of reality is making political discourse harder and spurring a cottage industry in “unskewing reality.”

Meanwhile, Time’s Michael Scherer wrote about the difficulty of declaring (and especially determining) which campaign is being more deceptive as the election unfolds. Forbes’ John McQuaid gave Scherer kudos for wrestling with the issue, but argued that just because the question is virtually impossible to definitively answer empirically doesn’t mean it can’t be addressed. He took issue with Scherer’s assumption that if journalism isn’t strictly empirical, it’s less credible: “If we’ve seen anything in recent weeks, it’s that data is no shield. If your conclusions come under attack, so will your data.” Jack Shafer of Reuters argued that despite all our ongoing fact-checking efforts, lying will still dominate politics because it works — we prefer to vote for liars.

Does free, digital-first news work?: Two interesting debates this week focused on the value of free, digitally centered approaches to journalism: The first reached back to last month’s bankruptcy of the Journal Register Co. newspaper chain and its much-heralded “digital first” strategy. Editor & Publisher’s Kristina Ackermann wrote a column throwing cold water on the idea that a digital-centric approach is the way to rescue the newspaper industry: “Digital first may well come to be the industry standard, but we’re not there yet, and we won’t get there until we figure out a way to make some money doing it. The next time a media guru comes along to tell you how to run your business, take it with a grain of salt.”

British j-prof Paul Bradshaw responded with a post arguing that to dismiss web-first journalism is to act as though progress will stand still for newspapers to get their houses in order. Even if we don’t know how to make digital journalism pay yet, he said, “we should at least acknowledge that the old system is broken. We cannot go back to print profit margins: readers have left, and advertisers are following.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram echoed his point, saying that while there are many different approaches to the transition to digital-first news, the fact that the transition has to be made isn’t in question.

Media consultant Martin Belam noted, though, that digital-first news orgs are competing against digital-only companies, and John Bethune of B2B Memes countered that digital-first at news orgs should exist alongside print, rather than becoming digital-only. The Lab’s Adrienne LaFrance reported on one paper making a major print-first expansion — the Orange County Register.

The second debate centered on free vs. paid news, and also tied in part to last month’s Journal Register bankruptcy. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman continued his ongoing argument with Mathew Ingram about whether making news free leads it to be lower-quality. Starkman argued that the free model is by and large intended to produce volume, which, despite some exceptions, isn’t particularly compatible with quality. Ingram countered that there’s plenty of evidence than a primarily ad-supported model — in old or new media — is (or isn’t) compatible with quality journalism, and a business model doesn’t predetermine anything about the actual product.

Steve Buttry of Digital First (which manages Journal Register papers) also chimed in to disagree with Starkman, though unlike Ingram, he said the business model does affect the journalism. But he said the drive for volume (i.e. traffic) at free news sites isn’t incompatible with quality and in many cases encourages it, and he also noted that paywalled websites are gunning for more traffic, too.

The Times’ labor conflict gets testy: The New York Times’ ongoing conflict with its unionized employees reached a head this week, when several hundred staffers staged a brief walkout. Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo reported on the walkout and included the union memo that outlined its grievances regarding the Times’ pay and benefit proposals, and Poynter’s Julie Moos Storified reactions to the move.

According to a union memo posted by Jim Romenesko, Times management responded by walking out of negotiations after 10 minutes the next day (after both groups nudged closer with counteroffers) and declaring a final offer coming Thursday. Before that final offer could come, both sides agreed to use a mediator to help nudge along the resolution process, in which one Times staffer said “we were getting nowhere.” Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman reported that a deal could come anytime between now and early November. Meanwhile, DNAinfo’s James Fanelli reported that the heirs of the recently deceased Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger are working to sell the $41 million of stock he held in the company.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else is worth a look this week:

— Nicholas Lemann, who has been the dean of the Columbia Journalism School since 2003, announced this week he will step down next summer. Bloomberg and The New York Times have good summaries of what he did during his tenure, and Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman talked about what’s next for the j-school.

— Last Friday marked a year since the death of Apple’s Steve Jobs. You can read about Jobs’ legacy from Wired’s Mat Honan, about what Apple’s missing without him from Robert Scoble in a BBC column, and about what’s ahead for Apple from Ars Technica’s Jacqui Cheng.

— Salon’s Will Doig wrote a column arguing that alt-weeklies’ days as the alternative voice of a city are over, while Carly Carioli of the Boston Phoenix wrote a rebuttal defending their continued relevance.

— A few thoughtful pieces to leave you with: Craig Kanalley of The Huffington Post cautioned news orgs about an addiction to social media, j-prof Cindy Royal wrote at the Lab about the importance of reaching female students with journalism tech instruction, and MediaBistro talked to The Wall Street Journal’s David Ho about the work of incorporating mobile technology into journalism.

Photos by tq2cute and Niall Kennedy used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 12, 2012, 10:30 a.m.
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