By Nathan L. Walls

  • Engagement Photos/Washington, DC
  • Cameras Ready III/Washington, DC
  • Cameras Ready I/Washington, DC

Articles tagged “journalism”

Reporting to a conclusion

Finishing a thought on beat reporting I started to have working on my previous post.

Sustained writing about a topic leads to a level of expertise that allows the writer (reporter) to synthesize facts, develop an analysis and – crucially — show what follows from that.

An example of this has been the News & Observer's work on the intersection of misconduct at the state crime lab, an erratic District Attorney in Durham County and the request by Michael Peterson, convicted of murdering his wife, to get a new trial. That request was granted Dec. 14, 2011.

Because of the depth of reporting on both the SBI and Tracey Cline, the N&O is free to take more license in the news article itself (not just on the editorial pages). In the retrial decision, reporter Joseph Neff can write the following without finding a source to say it for him (emphasis added below):

The Peterson hearing provided evidence that SBI supervisors knew from the start of Deaver's career that he had a strong bias toward the prosecution. In 1988, soon after being hired, Deaver participated in a mock courtroom exercise to prepare him for testifying at trial.

His supervisor at the SBI crime lab noted several weaknesses, including “a strong bias towards the prosecution.”

That was inappropriate; forensic scientists are tasked with being unbiased, using science to find facts irrespective of whether the truth helps prosecution or defense.

In stories on Cline, J. Andrew Curliss could leverage his reporting to write the following on Dec. 6, 2011 (emphasis added):

Coleman said the motions seem to relate to Cline's efforts in voluminous court filings recently that allege the senior judge in the county, Orlando Hudson, is out to punish her because she would not dismiss a murder charge.

One of Cline's filings runs more than 99,000 words and contains a string of unsupported or disputed allegations against Hudson. It also contains verifiable errors. Another filing by Cline says Hudson has “raped” victims in dismissing charges while finding that defendants' rights were violated by Cline and others.

Cline seeks to remove Hudson from all criminal cases in Durham while she pursues a complaint against him with the state commission that oversees judges. Her complaint has not been made public.

In both cases, the reporter is making a statement, backed by significant experience with the cases at hand and source material, that makes a clear statement of fact.

I have greatly appreciate the N&O's reporting across this entire convoluted mess of situations. Even if the stories don't specifically tell you what reporter knows and believes, the depth and care in the reporting and writing should help the reader reach a conclusion. That conclusion may be, but is not necessarily, the writer's own.

My argument is that the weighty topics at issue at the beginning of 2012, the ongoing fallout from the economic crash of 2008, climate change, how government acts and holding public figures to account requires the level of care that went into the these examples. Even less weighty topics can get the same treatment. Tech industry reporting and writing, for instance. Sports reporting.

Writers should feel comfortable stating, unequivocally, where their reporting takes them and what their experience provides them in terms of insight.

Why: Analysis is not (necessarily) approval

My last post on the “view from nowhere” and how it relates's to John Gruber's writing of Daring Fireball triggered an email from a friend and former coworker, asserting that Gruber was, in fact, an Apple fanboy.

I wrote the following in response, “A lot of what he writes in terms of trying to understand Apple's behavior and motivation is interpreted as if he wholly approves of their actions. There's a lot of overlap, certainly, but they are not the same thing.”

I clarified for myself a point broader than the one I was trying to make back to my friend. Frequently, people interpret in-depth analysis of motivation of actions as approval or disapproval. Politics is an easy target, hence why the “view from nowhere” is popular.

For purposes of example, I'll use sports coverage. A beat writer covers a local team. You follow the team all season. You get to know the players, the arena, the organization. You get to know your fellow writers. You can start to write with authority, on the foundations of your previous reporting, on not only what the team is doing but why. Although what can get enmeshed in debate, why is a far trickier proposition, because its moving beyond strict fact reportage into synthesis and analysis. The writer is trying to explain the motivations behind the actions. This might be less tricky with immediate post-game coverage, but exceptionally so when trying to write about why a team is pursuing a trade, going to fire a coach, seeking a new arena and so on.

It's very easy for readers to see the writer as a cheerleader if the coverage is “positive” or someone who has it out for the team if the coverage is “negative.” Stipulated, these can be congruent, but they are not causal. It's trickier for the writer to fully convey a point that comes from an executive's or player's thinking and not have the audience associate the writer with that point.

It is all the more difficult for a writer, if she is an independent reporter, to be seen as truly independent, if other writers are not, or are not independent in the same way.

John Gruber on Objectivity

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen uses the term “view from nowhere” to describe how a significant segment of America's news media presents news, analysis and opinion. If you're unfamiliar with the premise, please go read Rosen's explanation of what he means with the term.

I see frequent references to what ends up being false equivalence in several arenas. Political coverage is a big one, particularly around the differences between Democrats and Republicans. James Fallows has an exemplar dismantling of how the Senate minority is acting, and how the media is writing about it. Climate science, the healthcare debate and the global financial crisis all have their examples where the “view from nowhere” pervades reporting and actively obstructs a layperson from understanding of what's actually happening. It's also harmful to news organizations committed to the “view from nowhere”, say NPR, when their opponents are willing to leverage that policy against them.

I finished college and started my career in journalism, so I have a deeper interest that I suspect most folks might in the sausage making of reporting and commentary. So, over the couple of weeks, I've really appreciated how John Gruber has been trying to get a splinter out from under a fingernail regarding the claim he's a mindlessly pro-Apple fanboy, after his appearance on “On The Verge”.

I've followed Gruber's writing, with relish, for years and I'm in agreement with roughly 90 percent of what he writes. I like his sarcasm and the fact that it's generally crystal clear if he likes or dislikes something. It's also not hard to find when he thinks Apple is off-base. I usually go back to late July 2009, a period when Apple rejected Google's voice apps from the App Store, but more recent examples abound.

What really clicked in my head and went, “Yes, that!” was listening to his post-appearance debrief with Dan Benjamin on The Talk Show, Ep. 71. Starting about nine minutes in, Gruber takes the “fanboy” premise and goes on a nice discourse on objectivity vs. fairness, using his appearance on the show and the rest of the show segments as examples for why the “view from nowhere” is dishonest to the audience.

If you're familiar with tech, and you're familiar with Gruber's grasp of his areas of interest, listen from minute 9 to minute 30 or so and imagine where else commentary and reporting could benefit by not being watered down by false balance.

Locating North Carolina budget and tax proposal analysis

North Carolina has something of a budget crisis going on. Not as severe as California's, but one where there are a lot of tax proposals being floated as potential solutions. Here are some of the ones I've heard since mid-June:

These items may, or may not be in a budget passed by the legislature. I'm curious about why these particular tax proposals make sense, or do not. I'm motivated by three factors:

  • I'm a business owner, and I'm very interested in what might be coming that will affect how I operate my business.
  • It speaks to the part of me that got a journalism degree 10 years ago.
  • I like making sense of data.

The News & Observer has an ongoing series, The Generous Assembly about how various programs and practices consume a large amount of resources. That's a start at what I'm looking for.

I'm not approaching this with the assumption that all government spending is good or bad. I do want to know if we are getting our money's worth. I want to know if there's a better way to do things. I want to know what the special-interest obstacles are and the motivations behind them. I'm not interested in getting angry at anyone. I'm not interested in political gamesmanship. Talking points do not interest me. I want well-sourced information to make an informed evaluation.

Here's an incomplete list of questions I'm interested in seeing addressed:

Is the spending we are trying to pay for effective spending?

  • Are we paying for things that we shouldn't be?
  • Are there programs – Global TransPark comes to mind – that have not met their stated goals?
  • Is there a possibility those programs could be fixed?
  • Is there good process to determine if a program is ineffective and shut it down?

Do these tax increases make sense?

  • Are these items that are convenient to tax because they're harder to justify?
  • Because some of them are purely discretionary?
  • Because they'll make a meaningful dent?
  • Are there alternative tax structures to examine?

Is there an alternate way of resolving the issue?

  • Could we spend less money?
  • How?
  • What programs would be affected? Are we talking about eliminating kindergarten to make that happen? (Yes, hyperbole, but consequences are important considerations)

Is this the best possible solution?

  • Are we getting the state's financial house on better footing or merely staving-off disaster?
  • If we're just staving-off disaster, what do we really need to do to set things right?

How is this going to affect me?

  • How much are these tax increases going to cost me?
  • Are these increases offset by anything?


Two late-evening tweets got a couple of responses, with one link to NC State's Budget Central. The other is to the Sunshine Review of the NC state budget. (Thanks, @mockernut)

I don't have comments here, but if you find information that would add to everyone's understanding of the budget and tax situation, write-it-up and tag it with 'budgetnc' on your blog or with '#budgetnc' on Twitter. Thanks in advance for helping me understand our state's situation at least a little bit better.

Neighborhoods don't scale

There is so much cross-pollination between starting a neighborhood site and running a small business. Jeff Jarvis posted about CUNY and the New York Times beginning a partnership for a network of hyperlocal sites. Howard Owens, formerly of Gatehouse Media, is taking over The Batavian as owner and got into an interesting argument with Jarvis. He expanded on his point of view in a full post, “VCs chasing fool's gold in funding 'hyperlocal' projects that 'scale'”:

Now scale is being applied to “hyperlocal” start ups.  And the meaning in this context, as I take it, is that a “hyperlocal” business needs to have the capability to expand in multiple towns and neighborhoods rapidly at a very low cost.

The “hyperlocal” approaches that supposedly “scale” don't scale in one very important aspect: building new audience for community news.

Sure, they might appeal to a segment of the population that is already involved in a community, but they're not tackling the “Bowling Alone” problem.

From the number and visibility of venture-backed, industry-supported hyperlocal flameouts, it'd be tempting to think that there isn't money/eyeballs in being hyperlocal. Heck, the Washington Post failed to make a go of it. But it seems like all of the existing big media companies and venture capital-backed startups are trying to attack the problem the same way. Throw money at building a platform, put it in a lot of places. When it doesn't work, it's a failure. But that doesn't mean there isn't a solution. Just that the way a lot of people have been trying to go about solving it isn't working.

One of the things Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals talk about frequently is doing only those things you absolutely have to do. Trying to instantly scale the platform is premature and distracts from learning what the business needs to work and executing on it.

I was ecstatic to read David Westphal's piece at OJR.org, talking to various local sites and how well they're doing:

Local news sites come in all sizes and shapes. Some are non-profits. Some aren't trying to live off the operation. But for those who are, some survivable wages are being earned.

Tracy Record and Patrick Sand, another husband/wife team who operate West Seattle Blog, are getting revenue in the high five figures. Debbie Galant, co-owner of Baristanet, earned more from the site than she did from her free-lance writing business last year. And Bob Gough, who runs Quincy News, pockets $1,000 a week in wages from his startup that serves an Illinois community of only 40,000.

Right now, there are a lot of companies predicting doom and gloom and continuing to do exactly what they've done. There are also entrepreneurs who “don't know” that they're not supposed to succeed at providing a service and earning money where others have been before. But why are these sites succeeding?

Success for these sites looks different than it does for an established media company. They're focused on solving a smaller problem and making it the problem they're addressing. They're risking the business on solving it. They're climbing Everest by climbing Everest, not thinking about how they're going to summit then climb K2 or the Matterhorn or Denali in the exact same way with the exact same tools and the exact same resources. They're all mountains in the way that Raleigh, Miami, Paris, Mumbai and Houston are all cities.

Within those cities, distinct areas and boundaries. I'd pursue a site covering SoMA in San Francisco differently than I would one covering North Beach or the Sunset. In Paris, the Marais is different than the 5éme arrondissement. In Raleigh, Glenwood South isn't North Hills or Oakwood. Sure, there are similarities, but you can't treat them as the same thing. Neighborhoods don't scale.

I suspect beyond the stories these sites are writing, they're solving the advertising needs of smaller businesses, the sorts of businesses that live in smaller spaces along city blocks and next to strip mall anchor stores. These are, coincidentally, the sorts of businesses that don't tend to buy any or much advertising at the major daily. Why not? Well, drawing on my own case, buying a print or section-specific ad at a typical newspaper would be beyond budget. I'm not going to reach the right people for my business, either. A neighborhood site is a much easier way to draw and address a specific audience. Plus, it's far more likely I can see and talk to who's selling me the advertising. With not a whole lot of luck, they're probably a customer, too.

Maybe there is a way to abstract a platform and aggregate neighborhood sites, but, just as mountains have their own weather, neighborhoods are unique and not taking the time to dive into them and understand them is a mistake. The large, monolithic approach is not the workable one. There's no rule saying there must be a way to build and sustain a larger business out of “hyperlocal” content.

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