Journalism and leaks

Over at Lawfare, Jack Goldsmith had a great article called “Journalism in the Doxing Era“. Professor Goldsmith examined the differences between data published by Wikileaks and The New York Times. I’m no journalist, but I am a journalish, and the thing that stood out to me is what makes the act of publication journalism.

Two attributes, in my mind, make the publishing of leaked or stolen information journalism. First, authentication. Responsible journalism requires presenting facts, not rumors. If documents are published, they had better be the real deal. It’s easy to fake correspondence that looks authentic, but if you publish it, it had better be real.

The second attribute is editorial filtering. Once you’re left with true (or at least authentic) documents, what’s newsworthy? There’s an argument that everything should be published so the public can decide for themselves what they think is important. I’m sympathetic to that, but it’s also a little lazy. Journalists should not just be gatherers of information, but they should be curators of it. That means chucking out what’s not important in favor of what is.

Of course, importance is very context-sensitive, but some things are pretty clear. John Podesta’s risotto recipe? Not important (unless there’s a food blog that wants to run with it). The Clinton campaign receiving debate questions in advance? Important. (As an aside, the whole “but her emails” thing overall may prove to be one of the great tragedies of the 21st century. That doesn’t make this particular example unnewsworthy.)

An editorial filter does lend itself to bias, and an even greater perception of bias by those biased in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, most news consumers don’t have time to examine everything and draw their own informed conclusions. Journalists serve the public interest when they collect facts, but also when they curate them.

Gannett paywalls: suicide or savior?

Edited at 11:48 AM on 25 February to add a reference to the hiring of digital staff. Thanks to @HenryHoward for pointing out that omisssion.

Full disclosure: I am on the Reader Advisory Panel for, and am an uncompensated contributor to, my local Gannett property. While I have several friends at the Journal and Courier, I do not claim any particular inside knowledge of the workings of that paper, nor of Gannett in general. My opinions are my own and stem from my observations as a subscriber and once-monthly visitor to the conference room. I am no expert on the business of journalism.

Earlier this week, the Journal and Courier set up a paywall for online content. It is an early adopter of what appears to be a Gannett-wide initiative to limit online access to subscribers. There are several fairly trivial tricks available to circumvent this paywall, not to mention the simple use of multiple devices/browsers, which suggests to me that they’re not super-serious about enforcing access. Technological workarounds aside, there has been some heated discussion locally.

To some degree, I feel bad for the staff at the J&C. The staff have worked diligently in the face of layoffs, furloughs, and budget cuts. Locally, at least, the realization was made that they can no longer be a newspaper, but a newsoutlet. To that end, they’ve embraced (some more than others) real-time reporting via Twitter and additional analysis in blog posts. Online databases have been added, including public salaries, property tax information, and even pet registrations. The local staff get it, even if they’ve been hamstrung by corporate mandates.

For years I’ve been saying “give me a full version of the paper that I can read on my phone, and I’ll stop making you print a dead-tree version for me.” Of course, the local staff had no control over that, but Gannett finally decided it was time to make that available. They even have an iPhone app. The Android app is “coming soon.” (As a sidebar, I think it’s pretty stupid to not have an app ready for Android at release, considering Android’s market share is fairly close to that of iOS.) A generic tablet version, which isn’t quite as responsive is also available via a dedicated URL.

Given the financial difficulties, it’s no surprise that the staff seem to mostly support the paywall (or are at least unwilling to publicly speak against the company line). They really want to get paid for their work, and I don’t blame them. The real problem, in my opinion, is taking something that was once free and making it no longer free. There seems to be general agreement that local news is useful, but the amount people are willing to pay is less unanimous. Some options, like local news stations, remain free.

Over-the-air TV is free because it is paid for by advertisers (i.e. viewers are the product, not the customer). With newspaper historically, and newswhatever-Gannett-becomes in the future, the model is a little bit different. Ad sales help subsidize the cost, but do not cover the entirety. (I’ve heard, but cannot verify, that ads cover most of the cost of producing the content and that newsstand and subscription fees cover the delivery costs. It certainly makes sense, especially considering that there is an increased distribution cost per subscriber, whereas a TV antenna only gets cheaper on a per-viewer basis as more people tune in.) There is unquestionably value in original, professional local reporting and providing that content is not free.

I do believe this will be a risk for Gannett’s bottom line. Will enough people pick up online subscriptions to make up for lost page views? For myself, the day I can no longer read the Louisville Courier-Journal’s [paltry] Indiana section is the day I go instead to TV websites for news from my homeland. Gannett’s real problem is that they’ve tried for too long to remain a newspaper company and have slashed costs instead of investing in 21st century reporting. What if, instead of laying off staff, they added people to generate more unique online content? What if people could go to their local newspaper website during severe weather for uninterrupted streaming coverage instead of waiting for a TV station to break in?

After years of falling subscription rates and stock prices (down over 75% in the last five years), Gannett finally seems to be embracing the modern world. But unless they can create the impression that the paywall-protected content is better than what they used to offer for free, the move may be too late. The Journal and Courier is preparing to add four staff members focused on digital content. Hopefully, this will allow them to create that value-add before too many potential subscribers give up.

Comic relief

Recently, the Lafayette Journal and Courier’s Reader Panel discussed the Sunday comics.  The comics section is a part of our cultural heritage, and any changes are the quickest way for an editor to get complaints.  It’s no surprise that the Managing Editor never gave us an explicit reason for the discussion, but I’m sure it has something to do with figuring out which comics can be cut to add new ones.  Comics are expensive, and if the readers aren’t reading them, then it’s time for fresh blood.  I read all of the comics, but that’s not the case for everyone on the panel.  In fact, the least funny comics tend to be the most read in the group.  Probably because the group tends to be old enough to enjoy “The Family Circus”.

I did find some things interesting.  For example, “Mallard Fillmore” had more regular readers than “Doonesbury”.  They’re both very political, but I understand that the political leanings of the duck fit better with the older, Midwestern demographic.  What I don’t understand is how it’s entertaining.  “Doonesbury” has a story arc and character development.  “Mallard Fillmore” strips are standalone and have all the subtlety of a brick to the face.

“Peanuts” is still widely read, even though it’s been nearly 11 years since Charles Schulz died.  I rarely find it funny, but it still manages to amuse me in a way few comics can.  It’s timeless.  The same can’t be said for other old timers like “Blondie”, “Beetle Bailey”, and “Garfield”.  Holy crap, is anything less funny than “Garfield”?  The only way to make “Garfield” funny is to take Garfield out.  See

So what could the Journal and Courier get rid of?  I wouldn’t shed a tear if “Garfield”, “The Lockhorns”, “Crankshaft”. “Mallard Fillmore”, or “The Family Circus”went away.  But like I told the editor, “if you cut ‘Pearls Before Swine’, I’ll cut you!”

Military intelligence?

Many news outlets, including my local paper, recently carried an AP story about a report issued by The Education Trust.  In the report, we learn that one out of every four people who take the U.S. military’s entrance exam fail.  The report and article use these findings to indict the education system in the United States.  Unfortunately, it is more of an indictment of the authors.  While the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) is required at “hundreds” of high schools, it is by no means ubiquitous.  The sample, then, is not random, but largely self-selecting.  Consider also that the ASVAB is not required for officer-track students (i.e. service academies and ROTC), but only for enlisted personnel.  When I first read the article, I immediately realized that the conclusion wasn’t justified.

It wasn’t until I did some further research that I realized exactly how wrong the authors were.  As it turns out, ASVAB scores are given as percentiles.  In other words, to get into the Army, you need not get 31% of the questions correct, you need to score better than 31% of the other test takers.  This means that the military automatically rejects the lowest scores, no matter how good or bad they may be on an absolute scale.  The military grants waivers for low scores in certain situations, which is why only a quarter of test takers fail.

So the news here is that 25% of students fail an exam designed for them to fail.  In other news, water is wet.  On second thought, maybe this is an indictment of the education system, but not in the way suggested.  An elementary understanding of statistics immediately calls into question the credibility of the study.  One paragraph of a Wikipedia article ruins the starting point of the article.  The education system may have flaws, but the only flaws exposed by this article are the lack of statistical understanding and simple research ability possessed by The Education Trust and AP writers Christine Armario and Dorie Turner.

Twitter made me feel important

I know it’s hard to imagine Twitter serving a useful purpose, but it did on Monday.  Not only did it make me feel useful, but I was able to pass along information.  Allow me to set the scene.  Purdue University announced last month the need for a $30 million cut in the budget to address a “structural deficit.”  Recently, the governor announced a cut of $150 million in higher education funding for the remainder of the biennium.  Because of cuts and RIFs earlier this year, there are a lot of questions among the faculty and staff about what these cuts might bring.  In order to address some of the concerns, President France Cordova held an open forum on Monday, joined by Provost Randy Woodson and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Al Diaz.

The South Ballroom in the Purdue Memorial Union was standing-room-only, and there were still many people who could not attend.  In order to keep my colleagues (and other followers who are interested in the state of Purdue’s finances), I live-tweeted during the 45-minute discussion.  As I expected, it was rather difficult to try to summarize important points in 140 characters or less while listening for the next useful piece of information.  What I didn’t expect was how fun it was to do it.  It was fun trying to meet the challenge, and I was encouraged by the fact that I got a few follow-up questions from followers (and amazingly, no one complained).  I’m not about to quit my job to become a full-time Twitter reporter, but I do hope I get a chance to do this again.