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This Week in Review: Learning from Grantland’s errors, and Ezra Klein cuts loose from the Post

Plus: New restrictions for NSA surveillance, layoffs interrupt a bold newspaper plan, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.

Lessons from Grantland and Dr. V: Much of the talk about journalism this week centered on a single story about the creator of an innovative golf club on the ESPN-owned site Grantland. What drew all the attention (and outrage) was the way the story treated the fact that the inventor, known as Dr. V, was a transgender woman. The author, freelancer Caleb Hannan, made Dr. V’s transgender status a central element in the story and treated it as an extension of the “lies” that existed in other areas of Dr. V’s past. Hannan outed Dr. V as transgender to one of her company’s board members, and when Dr. V committed suicide sometime after telling Hannan he was “about to commit a hate crime,” Hannan incorporated it into his story, calling it a “eulogy.”

Nieman Storyboard has a good roundup of the wealth of criticism of the story, which covered a wide range of issues but generally focused on the callousness with which Hannan treated Dr. V’s transgender status and especially his treatment of it as part of a life of deception. Some of the most salient critiques were written by Shakesville’s Melissa McEwan, Jezebel’s Tracy Moore, Slate’s Josh Levin, and, at Grantland itself, Christina Kahrl.

Author Maria Dahvana Headley wrote a particularly insightful response, chastising Hannan for failing to realize that “his story is not the most important thing here.” Several other writers took away lessons from the story: Poynter’s Lauren Klinger and Kelly McBride drew out several principles of reporting on trans people, and OutSports’ Cyd Zeigler and The Atlantic’s Matt Schiavenza both reached back to the coverage of former Los Angeles Times sports columnist Christine Daniels, who was trans, to talk about how to approach transgender issues as a journalist.

After a weekend of uproar about the piece, Grantland’s editor, Bill Simmons, explained in a candid and conciliatory apology how the editing process broke down that was (with some notable objections) generally well received. One of its most striking aspects was that the story didn’t suffer from a lack of oversight — it was read by more than a dozen editors — but by those editors’ complete blindness to the story’s glaring problems relating to transgender issues.

NYU’s Jay Rosen called the case, and that massive collective blind spot in particular, “the best argument I have for you about diversity — real intellectual and intercultural diversity — in the newsroom,” outlining what he called Joy’s Law for journalism: “No matter how good you are, most of the smartest sources are untouched by your reporting and unknown by your people.” Meanwhile, Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram examined the backlash itself, noting that the web might cater to niche interests, but it also makes it much easier for niche stories to jump into the mainstream and come into contact with other niche groups who see it much differently.

ezra-kleinKlein strikes out from the Post: Ezra Klein, who’s been running the popular Wonkblog at The Washington Post since 2009, will be leaving the paper after it rejected his proposal of a new site devoted to explanatory journalism under the Post’s banner. Klein is setting out to start is own news organization, and according to The New York Times, he’s had talks with several potential backers that include Vox Media, owner of The Verge and the SB Nation network. Wherever he’s going, he’s taking Matt Yglesias from Slate with him.

Politico reported that Klein proposed an independent site that would have required a staff of more than three dozen and a multiyear budget of at least $10 million. As Politico demonstrated, opinion within and outside the Post was split over the decision to reject Klein’s proposal: Some saw it as evidence of new Post owner Jeff Bezos’ prudence and caution — “he doesn’t see his Washington Post purchase as a philanthropic venture,” said Columbia’s Bill Grueskin — while others saw a lot of similarity with the Post’s rejection several years ago of a proposal of a political sub-site that become Politico.

NYU’s Jay Rosen noted the clearer, more social science-oriented style Klein brought to the Post and the hostility he faced there, and Slate’s David Weigel (an ex-Postie himself) pointed out the similarity to the Politico case. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram wondered if the Post just lost another Politico and urged the paper not to be so wedded to the idea of complete control over its news projects.

On the other hand, the Lab’s Joshua Benton noted that $10 million is not an insubstantial investment for an organization in such a financially precarious position as the Post, especially for a site with an unknown (to us, at least) revenue model and potentially limited appeal. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy calculated that Klein’s site would have to draw significantly more traffic than it does now to provide a return on such an investment and called it a real risk that he can understand Bezos not taking. Others who talked to Digiday’s John McDermott also voiced their skepticism about the financial feasibility of Klein’s plan.

Similarly, Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review saw a disadvantage for Klein in the lack of a roadmap for a site like his and urged him to wait a year to see how the other new independent news franchises fare. Also at CJR, Brendan Nyhan outlined a number of tips Klein could take from ESPN’s Grantland in developing new, attractive forms of analytical journalism.

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Some new restrictions on the NSA: President Barack Obama gave a speech last Friday in which he defended the U.S.’ National Security Agency surveillance program, but outlined several restrictions he plans to place on its mass collection of telephone data. The Washington Post’s Brian Fung offered a good explanation of exactly what’s expected to change.

Most critics of NSA surveillance saw the proposed changes as vastly insufficient. Some NSA surveillance opponents in Congress applauded the reforms, though those critics also said they didn’t go far enough and called for Congress to do more. Likewise, the Freedom of the Press Foundation said Obama’s proposals “should be seen as the floor—and not the ceiling—for the debate going forward.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Mark Rumold told VentureBeat that “the NSA surveillance program is so broken that it was easy to pick off some low-hanging fruit and call them reforms,” and he and others in tech noted that Obama said nothing about the NSA’s encryption-breaking efforts and online information security. On the other hand, Slate’s Fred Kaplan saw the reforms as much better than nothing and called those who expect Obama to end bulk collection of metadata naive.

Elsewhere in the discussion about NSA surveillance: An independent review board in the executive branch determined the phone data program is illegal and called for it to end, and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer collected a list of the mass intelligence-gathering capabilities we know the NSA currently has. Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Kirchner documented the ongoing FOIA fight over NSA-related documents, and in the U.K., The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger charged Parliament with complacency on surveillance issues. Meanwhile, historian Sean Wilentz wrote in The New Republic that NSA leaker Edward Snowden and former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald aren’t truth-telling fighters for Constitutional rights, but “enemies of the liberal state.” Snowden also took a variety of questions in an online Q&A yesterday.

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Layoffs mar a bold plan outside L.A.: The Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise, two newspapers owned by Aaron Kushner’s Freedom Communications, both underwent significant layoffs late last week — 32 at the Register and 40 at the Press-Enterprise, according to The New York Times. Jim Romenesko has a bit of a blow-by-blow, and OC Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano has a full list of those laid off at the Register, which includes a lot of veterans and longtime editor Ken Brusic, who reportedly resigned rather than implementing the cuts. Brusic will be succeeded by Rob Curley, who reached prominence close to a decade ago for his work in hyperlocal journalism at The Washington Post, Las Vegas Sun, and the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. Arellano said Curley is already “loathed” in the newsroom and detailed the reasons for his own skepticism.

Since buying the Register in 2012, Kushner has drawn attention for his bold, counterintuitive strategy of investing heavily in improving the paper, particularly its print product. The New York Times’ David Carr, who interviewed Kushner two days before the layoffs, highlighted the juxtaposition of Kushner’s continued optimism and ambition for his papers (including his proposed new daily paper in L.A.) with the apparently brutal, though undisclosed, economic realities that led to the layoffs. Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor had the most thorough analysis of the Register’s plans, characterizing the layoffs as just one move in the midst of a still-uncertain whirlwind of unorthodox changes.

The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum noted that the Register is still better staffed than when Kushner began, but wondered whether Kushner’s plan is sunk or merely in need of a correction. At The Huffington Post, journalism professor Dan Kennedy expressed a similar ambivalence, emphasizing his hope that Kushner’s plan still succeeds.

Reading roundup: A few other stories that captured people’s attention this busy week:

— The former WaPo Labs — still owned by the Graham family and now separated from The Washington Post after the paper’s sale to Jeff Bezos last year — relaunched its social reader Trove, which allows users to create curated news topics and lists and share them with others. Recode’s Mike Isaac gave a good overview of the app, and The New York Times’ Vindu Goel and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram both assessed its strengths and weaknesses — Goel more positively, Ingram more tepidly.

— The New York Times revealed that an interactive quiz app got more traffic in 11 days that any other Times piece got all year. Carl Sessions Stepp of the American Journalism Review and Joy Mayer both said journalists shouldn’t be freaked out to a quiz at the top of the Times’ 2013 most-read list — Stepp because it represents the human desire to be entertained, and Mayer because it indicates a healthy desire to pick interactivity and personal relevance over traditional explanation. The Knight Lab explained how an intern created it, and at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost saw it as an example of the rise of “curiosity journalism.”

— A U.S. federal appeals court ruled last Friday in a defamation case that bloggers are entitled to the same free speech protections as traditional professional journalists. The case received some press a little more than two years ago when another judge ruled against the blogger, and this time around, legal blogger Venkat Balasubramani broke down the case and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram explained why it’s important.

— News Corp. had an editorial shakeup that included the resignation of Lex Fenwick, CEO of Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones. The New York Times has the background, and Jim Romenesko has the memo.

— A few miscellaneous worthwhile reads: Amy Wallace in The New York Times on the verbal abuse suffered by female journalists, especially online; Liz Hannaford of Journalism.co.uk on the role of journalist-coders in newsrooms, and The Atlantic’s Megan Garber on long reads for mobile devices.

Photo of NSA headquarters by AP/Patrick Semansky. Photo of Long Beach resident Antonio Romero reading the first edition of the Long Beach Register on August 19, 2013, by AP/Nick Ut.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 20, 2014
“A lot of people check their phones before they get out of the bed in the morning, and they check social media before the news sites.”