The Real Question for Jeff Bezos: Time to Invest in Journalism?

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It’s been fascinating to watch the cheerleading that’s gone on since the announcement that the Graham family was selling The Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

When the announcement was made, the reaction from technologists and Web journalists was pretty reflexive.  Many out there are describing Bezos as a savior, as the person who will finally help The Post get its digital act together. Lots of cheerleading about the possibilities with new packaging, and the “bold” business acumen of Bezos.

We’ve seen letters to Bezos from former Posties and declarations of hope from former Posties who worked for Bezos. We’ve seen a little finger-wagging from current Posties as well as a long parade of sentimentalism praising Don Graham, and reminiscing of a time gone by.

It seems we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum — cheerleading from technologists and other journalists who seem almost giddy that a rich tech guru will become a major media player — and those lamenting the end of an era.

Where’s the healthy skepticism?

It’s been hard to find. As another former employee of the Post Company (I worked at washingtonpost.com from 1996-2006) I’m also curious as to how this new transition will work out but I’ve hesitated to jump on the Bezos bandwagon.

There have been a few out there who have registered concernsJeff Jarvis tweeted: “One thing about Bezos and a newspaper: He is no proponent of openness. A more secretive tech company it’s hard to find.” And, Christopher Mims tweeted:  “Jeff Bezos now owns both Washington Post, $600 million server cloud for CIA. That won’t be a conflict of interest.”

And, Felix Salmon pointed out some basic management issues that may not sit well at The Post: “It (Amazon) also employs, mostly indirectly, thousands of workers in warehouses around the world, picking and packaging the goods it sells; those workers are treated badly, and enjoy effectively zero slack in their working lives.”

Yet, it’s been difficult to hear any real analysis amongst the cacophony of cheerleaders saying Bezos will create a Post where the readers will finally get what they want (like with Amazon.) What exactly does that mean? More coverage of the Royals? More video of car chases? More shallow news of the weird?

There’s been plenty of commentary about what a technologist like Bezos can bring to a company like The Washington Post. And, yes, after stagnating for the past 15 years, The Post will finally have to change its business model and those not on board with a “digital-first” mindset will not last long.

But, what about the journalism? Yes, The Post was a great newspaper but just because the delivery mode is changing doesn’t mean the journalism should.

The real questions for Bezos have not been asked — or answered.

Will he invest in a timely, costly investigative pieces?

Will he devote time and resources to foreign reporting?

Will he re-open bureaus that have been closed in the past decade as cost-cutting measures?

Some have described Bezos as a bottom-line kind of guy, well the bottom-line is that good investigative journalism takes time and money. And, Bezos won’t see much return on his investment, unless you can start quantifying “afflicting the comfortable” and holding government accountable.

Since the onset of Web journalism, there has been a wrestling match over the role of journalists and editors. The gatekeeping role has disappeared — no longer do journalists and editors determine what the user/consumer should read.  The Great Decoupling, as JD Lasica put it.  That unwillingness to give up the gatekeeping role and create new roles hurt The Post and many other news organizations.

But, it’s beginning to feel like the pendulum needs to swing back a little. We live in a scary, secretive time where the idea of privacy is laughable and where the public, press, and judiciary all seem to support the right of the government to eavesdrop and collect information on the citizenry at will. Jay Rosen recently asked how we can get ourselves back to an informed citizenry.

Jeff Bezos can go a long way to doing that by investing in journalism. I think many are hoping he will. We’ll see.

Should you always publish a video?

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I wrote this colmn for the Daily Hampshire Gazette this week:

AMHERST – When the judge in the involuntary manslaughter trial of former Pelham Police Chief Edward B. Fleury ruled this week that video of the accidental shooting of 8-year-old Christopher Bizilj would be available to the media, I winced.

As a father of three, I carry a bias into this discussion. My knee-jerk, visceral reaction to the decision by Judge Peter A. Velis on Monday was twofold. First, I wondered how seeing such a video could not sway a jury and second, I wondered whether I would publish the video.

I spent Monday contacting friends – those still in the business, as well as fellow educators and media ethicists. Out of the nearly dozen people I spoke with, there was unanimity in the belief that there was little news value in publishing the video.

I’ve always believed in the power of images. I teach a multimedia course where students learn to create packages pairing the power of words with visual storytelling. Today, the new wave of storytelling includes audio slideshows and mini-documentary videos that can be found on news Web sites. Some sites provide raw, uncut video and images of news events. For those interested in bypassing the gatekeeper, you can go see graphic images.

It hasn’t always been this way. When I got my first newspaper job 25 years ago, the standard for newspapers was to not run shots showing blood on A1. Editors and publishers didn’t want to jolt readers over their morning coffee.

As an editor at The Washington Post’s Web site, I remember being part of a huge debate over whether to show images of the death and destruction following the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.

I argued against using the photos, but in the end, we decided there was news value in showing some of the reality of the attacks.

We had similar conversations during the attacks on 9/11 – especially on what to do with pictures of people jumping out windows of the Twin Towers. In that case, my colleagues and I felt the news value of those photos were not enough to outweigh the tragic circumstances behind them.

For me, a huge turning point came at the start of the Iraq ground war. During a debate on press access at a conference, a PR representative for the Army argued that access wasn’t the issue. He argued that U.S. media organizations opted to not publish photos showing the true cost of war. He was right, and it changed my perspective. In more cases than not, I now opt for transparency – for showing the reality via video or pictures.

This is not one of those cases.

Showing this video seems to border on the obscene. I’m not sure anyone needs to see this. The words alone depict a parents’ worst nightmare.

Will the video get out there? Undoubtedly. Such is the cost of living with a free press.

But, would publishing the video in this case force a real debate on gun control? I’ll admit, I don’t understand the gun culture that dominates this part of the country. I have many friends who are hunters and who have guns in their homes. I respect their right to hold their views but guns do not reflect my own values.

And, it’s just mind-boggling to me that a submachine gun would end up in the hands of an 8-year-old at a shooting range.

Does the potential for a gun control debate here create news value for the video?

I don’t think so.

Karen List, the director of the UMass journalism program and a media ethicist, says the debate over gun control will take place because of the tragedy behind this story, regardless.

Let’s hope so.

The debate should take place because a child died, not because of a video.

Steve Fox is a full-time lecturer and the multimedia journalism coordinator for the UMass Journalism Program. He has been a journalist for 24 years, including 10 years at the Washington Post’s Web site.




Weigel, the ‘off-the-record’ listserv and Club Journolist

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One of the main critiques of journalists over the years is the notion that we are insular; that we play by our own rules and that we are clubby and enjoy fraternizing.

The recent debacle involving former Washington Post blogger David Weigel and “Journolist” certainly seems to indicate that the airs of clubbiness continues with professional journalists claiming their privacy was violated when discussions on their listserv were outed.   If you missed it, Weigel resigned his position at The Post after opinions he voiced on the Journolist — opinions bashing Republicans and conservatives — made it into the public sphere.  This caused a bit of a conundrum for the folks at The Post since Weigel authored a blog called “Right Now: Inside the conservative movement with David Weigel.”

This is the second time a conservative blogger at The Post has come under fire and resigned.  In 2006, when I was still working at washingtonpost.com, Ben Domenech, the author of The Post’s Red America blog, resigned his post after a short stint after allegations of plagiarism were aired in the public sphere.  With Domenech, there were some serious questions about the thoroughness of the background search conducted before hiring such a high-profile blogger.

One would think that the execs over at The Post would be extra vigilant these days about those involved with their operation.  Yet, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli seems to want have it both ways.  On the one hand, he tells The Post’s Howard Kurtz:

“….we can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work. . . . There’s abundant room on our Web site for a wide range of viewpoints, and we should be transparent about everybody’s viewpoint.”

Then when questioned about the apparent contradiction of having a conservative blogger bashing conservatives, Brauchli gets into a defensive crouch, telling Kurtz:

“We don’t have the resources or ability to do Supreme Court justice-type investigations into people’s backgrounds. We will have to be more careful in the future.”

We expect more from one of the premier political reporting organizations in the nation.

The Post’s Howard Kurtz describes Journolist as an “off-the-record listserv for several hundred independent to left-leaning commentators and journalists that was founded in 2007 by Ezra Klein, now a liberal blogger for The Post’s Web site.” The premise — an off-the-record listserv for journalists — seems almost laughable, especially in the context of Katharine Weymouth’s failed dream for off-the-record dinners.

A  number of journalists, as well as Klein and Weigel themselves, seem irked because some of Weigel’s comments were “leaked.”   Klein, upset that his little private club has now exploded into the public eye, has decided to kill the “off-the-record listserv.”

Part of the reason Klein says he started the club was to create:

“An insulated space where the lure of a smart, ongoing conversation would encourage journalists, policy experts and assorted other observers to share their insights with one another.”

There’s that word again:  Insulated.  And if you look at a roster of who was in the club, it reads like a Who’s Who of print reporters who just don’t get it.  And, in the end, that’s the feeling you really get from this whole debacle:  Out of touch print dinosaurs creating a little club where they thought they could hold private electronic discussions.  Of course, is that if such a club were being conducted by a group of politicians, I doubt Klein or Weigel would hesitate to report on some “leaked” e-mails containing similar comments. The claims to privacy ring a bit hollow.

Klein attempts to understand the world of transparency and the Web, but doesn’t quite get it:

“There’s a lot of faux-intimacy on the Web. Readers like that intimacy, or at least some of them do. But it’s dangerous. A newspaper column is public, and writers treat it as such. So too is a blog. But Twitter? It’s public, but it feels, somehow, looser, safer. Facebook is less public than Twitter, and feels even more intimate. A private e-mail list is not public, but it is electronically archived text, and it is protected only by a password field and the good will of the members. It’s easy to talk as if it’s private without considering the possibility, unlikely as it is, that it will one day become public, and that some ambitious gossip reporters will dig through it for an exposure story. And because that possibility doesn’t feel fully real, people still talk like it’s private and then get burned if it goes public.”

Weigel goes further in his version of events, saying:

“No serious journalist has defended the leak of my private e-mails; no one who works in politics or journalism would accept a situation where the things they said off the record could immediately become public.”

Welcome to 2010, Mr. Weigel, Mr. Klein.  Assume that anything and everything is public.  Get used to it.

Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander takes the “it only takes one bad apple to run it for us all approach”  while a rather cogent argument for outing the emails comes from FishBowl DC.

In answering the question on whether or not the e-mails from the “off-the-records listserv” should have been published, Besty Rothstein cuts through all the nonsense pretty quickly:

“It’s not a reporter’s job to worry about the outcome of a genuine news story in that it may upset some people.”

End of story.

Much of what has been written in the wake of this debacle has focused on ideology.  Not many are writing about the privacy issues and the silly presumption of an off-the-record listserv for journalists.  As most of my students know, creating and maintaining a respectable digital footprint takes work.  It means acting responsibly on Twitter and Facebook.

It also means taking care in e-mails and all electronic communication.  You never know where your e-mail is being forwarded or where it will end up.

Weigel and Klein should know this.  If they didn’t know it before, they do now.