Wick Communications

Illusion of asymmetrical insight

In journalism on 16 May 2018 at 10:48 am

James and Deborah Fallows in conversation with Lenny Mendonca on May 15, 2018.

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a Commonwealth Club of Silicon Valley discussion with authors James and Deborah Fallows. (Commonwealth Club board member Lenny Mendonca invited me and I quickly accepted.) The Fallows have written a book called “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.”

Before I say any more, I haven’t yet read the book, which came out last week. The Fallows are thoroughly impressive people with a long list of accomplishments. They are persuasive optimists and it was an uplifting, interesting hour or so of conversation.

The premise of their book is this: Pilot a single-prop airplane into small airports the rest of us fly over. Stop in places like Greenville, S.C., and Sioux Falls, S.D. Look for stories other reporters miss. They admit — as if this is something terrible — they wanted to find stories of success and renewal in the heartland. Consequently, that’s what they found.

James Fallows is a media veteran and the writer of more than a dozen books. When he mentioned an “asymmetrical bias” as a problem for many coastal reporters, he knows of what he speaks. He maintains that “the media” thinks of large coastal cities as places of terrific innovation, dynamic arts, diverse communities — in short, all the good things for which America is known. What does the media leave for flyover country? Racism, addiction, poverty.

His critique is not without merit. Turn on the TV and watch the discussion on cable news. Before long, you’ll hear reference to this dichotomy. Red states and blue states. Us and them. Good and bad. …

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Habits, curiosity, elitism

In journalism on 7 Mar 2018 at 2:56 pm

Dean Baquet, courtesy Joi Ito from Cambridge, MA, USA (Dean Baquet) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet speak to a gathering arranged by the Brown Institute of Media Innovations at Stanford. Baquet is as important as any single figure in the journalism world, so it was comforting to hear that he has the same challenges that I face every day. The differences are just a matter of scale.

He indicated the same fiery competitive streak that marks journalists of a certain age. He talked about the paywall (saying it saved the New York Times) and how staff’s use of Twitter sometimes gives him heartburn. He admitted to just filling the paper with whatever he could get back in the halcyon days, when so many more ads were printed in newspapers. He seemed like a great boss who had a deep understanding and appreciation for work of journalists.

Three takeaways:

  1. Perhaps the most interesting admission he made dealt with the struggle between “bedrock principles and things that are just habits.” He was talking about the (perhaps) inexorable evolution from print to digital formats. He began by saying that he wakes up to read the New York Times on his phone. He wants to get the experience that most of his readers get. Then he looks at the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal’s digital offerings, all before settling into the print NYT. It was a good reminder that the newspaper isn’t the end result or the most-perfect product in our portfolio. Then he started in on the inverted pyramid. No, Dean, please not the sainted pyramid! Yes, the pyramid, the very foundation of every journalism writing text for decades up until about 1995 or so. Baquet pointed out that the purpose of the pyramid was to get as much important stuff as possible high in a story because the bottom was apt to be sliced with an X-acto knife before the story was run through the waxer… Well, no one is sticking words to a board with wax and cutting them off with knives these days, and there is no need to cut off the bottom of a story that runs online either. If the stilted prose of the pyramid is merely a habit, what else might we change to benefit readers? For instance, our newspaper comes out on Wednesday. Why is that? Whatever the original reason, now it is simply force of habit and we should explore whether it makes sense to change.

When you hear, ‘No pictures!’

In Photography on 23 Feb 2018 at 3:36 pm

For Carina Woudenberg, Feb. 22 was an eventful day.

I called her before she even got to the office to say there were reports on Twitter of a shooting in one of our beachside communities. She agreed to head over there and ended up spending the rest of the morning there, doing what reporters generally do after cops close a crime scene. That is to say she waited. While she was waiting for the Sheriff’s spokesman to get his act together, she took some photos from the public street. That caught the attention of the guy you see above in the light-colored shirt. He didn’t like that she was taking photos of a crime scene. So, he berated her. He called her names. He threatened to sue. I’m sure it was upsetting to Carina, who was just doing her job from a public space.

As if that wasn’t enough, she got word shortly after noon that one of the homeless men who lives in a local encampment had died. Carina is a particularly empathetic reporter and has gone to the makeshift neighborhood many times. She got out her camera and began to take photos of authorities at work. She knows the kinds of things we might use from a scene like that. We don’t run anything graphic. Very rarely would we show a body, even from a distance or under a blanket. Nonetheless, she was accosted by a friend of the deceased who demanded she stop taking photos.

That’s two very stressful situations in a single day for Carina, who did her job very well that day, reporting the news and getting photos that only showed what anyone would see should they happen on these public places.

I think partly because there are fewer newspapers and professional photographers around now, the general public no longer understands First Amendment protections, that your right to privacy in many respects ends when you are in public. (That is a little odd since so many of us now have sophisticated cameras in our pockets at all times and it seems people are taking photos of everything all the time.) …