Unreliable source

A terrible development in a long and distinguished journalism career.

Author Gay Talese disavows his latest book amid credibility questions

Paul Farhi, The Washington Post:

In his forthcoming book, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” acclaimed journalist and nonfiction author Gay Talese chronicles the bizarre story of Gerald Foos, who allegedly spied on guests at his Colorado motel from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s.

But Talese overlooked a key fact in his book: Foos sold the motel, located in Aurora, Colo., in 1980 and didn’t reacquire it until eight years later, according to local property records. His absence from the motel raises doubt about some of the things Foos told Talese he saw — enough that the author himself now has deep reservations about the truth of some material he presents.

“I should not have believed a word he said,” the 84-year-old author said after The Washington Post informed him of property records that showed Foos did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988.

Money talks 

The shadowy war on the press: How the rich silence journalists

The Gawker lawsuit, financed in secret by by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, is the latest example of the rich using wealth and influence to get back at journalists who report critically on them.  The Koch brothers hired private investigators to dig up dirt on a journalist who was writing a book about them. Another wealthy person founded a his own news site for the purpose of going after journalists who criticized him.

Targets of media have always sought to retaliate, but the means of fighting back has reached mass scale. An entire industry has been created, some of it underground, some of it wide open, all of it aimed at discrediting a journalist’s critical take. Companies and interest groups, often coached by aggressive PR firms, are investing in bare-knuckled strategies to give their media rebuttals more teeth and a wider audience. They launch negative online ad campaigns against particular journalists and master the art of ensuring their stories reach Google’s top rankings. In some cases, the goal is as explicit as ruining a journalist’s reputation, so that when someone types the writer’s name into a Google search, a page full of humiliating, defamatory content appears.

[Damaris Colhoun/Columbia Journalism Review]

James O’Keefe stings himself

The self-styled right-wing investigative journalist pretended to be a foreign political contributor in an attempt to embarrass George Soros, but he forgot to hang up the phone when he called the financier’s office, thus divulging his brilliant plan.

As Dana Geraghty recalls it, March 16th was a “rather quiet Wednesday.” That afternoon, she was in her cubicle at the Open Society Foundations, on West Fifty-seventh Street, where she helps oversee the nonprofit group’s pro-democracy programs in Eurasia. The Foundations are the philanthropic creation of George Soros, the hedge-fund billionaire, who is a prominent donor to liberal causes, including Hillary Clinton’s Presidential bid. Soros, who has spent nineteen million dollars on the 2016 Presidential campaign, is regarded with suspicion by many conservatives. National Review has suggested that he may be fomenting protests against Donald Trump by secretly funding what it called a “rent-a-mob.” Geraghty, who is twenty-eight, had programmed her office phone to forward messages from unfamiliar callers to her e-mail inbox. She was about to review several messages when she noticed that one of them was extraordinarily long. “Who leaves a seven-minute voice mail?” Geraghty asked herself. She clicked on it.

“Hey, Dana,” a voice began. The caller sounded to her like an older American male. “My name is, uh, Victor Kesh. I’m a Hungarian-American who represents a, uh, foundation . . . that would like to get involved with you and aid what you do in fighting for, um, European values.” He asked Geraghty for the name of someone he could talk to “about supporting you guys and coördinating with you on some of your efforts.” Requesting a callback, he left a phone number with a 914 area code—Westchester County.

She heard a click, a pause, and then a second male voice. The person who had introduced himself as Kesh said, “Don’t say anything . . . before I hang up the phone.”

That piqued my interest,” Geraghty recalls.

In the words of the immortal Bugs Bunny: What a maroon.

Sting of Myself – Jane Mayer, The New Yorker

Grinding it out

Journalist Shane Ferro writes about getting ground down by Business Insider’s requirements to produce 5-6 articles per day. 

This is something everyone contemplating a journalism job should read.

For what it’s worth: For a few months, I closely followed the work of one Business Insider journalist, who often competed with me on the same stories. She wasn’t doing five or six articles a day – not even close. That lends credence to earlier reports that not every writer at BI is subject to the same requirements.

Like Ferro, I’m a relatively methodical writer on the job, but am capable of being quite prolific on social media. They involve different muscles. And I’m getting faster at writing on the job.

As Ferro notes: If you’re someone who’s capable of writing 5-6 articles a day, and enjoys it, and many people are and do, then Business Insider or a place like it is good for you.

Odyssey, an online newspaper startup, raises $25 million on a network of unpaid writers

10,000 writers aged 18-28 each write one article a week and aren’t paid for it. They’re edited by professional copy editors, each of whom is editing an average 140 articles per week so they can’t be doing a thorough job.

Writers have to apply to write. For free. The benefit? They “swap their work for being edited and professionally branded.”

Fuck you. Pay me.

Odyssey raises $25 million and hits 30 million uniques [Nathan McAlone – Business Insider]

The odds are against us

America now has nearly 5 PR people for every reporter, double the rate from a decade ago [Mike Rosenberg – Muck Rack Daily]

15 years ago there were two PR people for every reporter in the country. Now the ratio is 4.8:1.

But wait, there’s more: Journalism is contracting, while PR is growing. The number of news reporters declined from 65,900 in 2000 to 45,800 in 2015. Meanwhile, the number of PR people has gone from 128,600 to 218,000.

This is a huge change, as companies and organizations are seeking to bypass a shrinking media industry and tell their own stories. What this means is that people are getting less objective news and more biased content.

Also, the pay gap between journalists and PR people is widening.

And this:

The Voyeur’s Motel

“I’m thoroughly disgusted that I alone must bear the burden of my observations.”

“The Voyeur’s Motel” is a brilliant and disturbing “New Yorker” article from 84-year-old journalist Gay Talese:

I know a married man and father of two who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur. With the assistance of his wife, he cut rectangular holes measuring six by fourteen inches in the ceilings of more than a dozen rooms. Then he covered the openings with louvred aluminum screens that looked like ventilation grilles but were actually observation vents that allowed him, while he knelt in the attic, to see his guests in the rooms below. He watched them for decades, while keeping an exhaustive written record of what he saw and heard. Never once, during all those years, was he caught.

The voyeur, Gerald Foos, says in his 30 years as a peeping Tom, he witnessed a murder that he unwittingly instigated. He never reported it to police.

30 years of voyeurism made Foos a cynic.

… basically you can’t trust people. Most of them lie and cheat and are deceptive. What they reveal about themselves in private they try to hide in public. What they try to show you in public is not what they really are.”

Foos considers himself a scientist.

“I hope I’m not described as just some pervert or Peeping Tom,” he said. “I think of myself as a pioneering sex researcher.”

Talese also did a little peeping while visiting Foos to verify the story, although he does not describe himself as being aroused by it. Like Foos, Talese no doubt considers himself a dispassionate observer working for a greater cause. The difference between the two is that Foos worked in secret, while Talese has as worldwide audience, respect, and acclaim.

Gay Talese’s questionable ethics

“Talese had an obligation as a citizen to reveal Foos’ creepy, dangerous, illegal behavior, and did not do so.” [Isaac Chotiner – Slate]

Gerald Foos owned a motel with an intricate series of peepholes through which he spied on his customers’ sexual liaisons for 30 years. Journalist Gay Talese kept Gerald Foos’s secret for years. Talese even participated in the voyeurism at least once. Talese did not intend to write about Foos, though eventually Talese did.

What public interest is served here?

Politics, news and editorial video slashed in Mashable restructuring

20 reporters and editors reported to have been laid off, including executive editor Jim Roberts, a 27-year veteran of the New York Times. Hard to say what, precisely, is going on there, but it seems likely the site is “pivoting” (as the say in Silicon Valley) to 100% fluff and advertorial.

Mashable used to be a pretty good site for covering Internet technology and business. Then it tried to become a Buzzfeed clone, mixing serious news and frivolous memes and listicles. I don’t think it was successful at either.

My Spidey-sense tells me that it’s hit the final stage of death for a giant consumer-facing Web business, where the body is feeding on itself, maximizing traffic in any way that it can to maximize revenue in the short term before the investors cash in and shut the doors for good.

“Branded content is the business model for media going forward” [CEO Peter] Cashmore told staff. “It’s very, very clear that branded content is the future.”

In other words, “Advertisers dictate editorial policy here from now on. Any content that might offend our advertisers is forbidden.”

Asked about Mashable’s editorial focus, Cashmore compared it to old-school MTV, explaining that the site covers culture through the lens of technology the same way that the cable network once covered culture through the lens of music.

I don’t know what that means. I suspect it doesn’t mean anything.

Politics, news and editorial video slashed in Mashable restructuring [Peter Sterne and Hadas Gold – Politico]

Mashable video producer Nadja Oertelt was given the news while she was in Ohio for a video shoot, hours before the shoot was scheduled to begin, stranded without access to her company email so she couldn’t retrieve her itinerary homeward.

Mashable Axes At Least 20 Editorial Staffers As the Web Hurtles Towards Its Video Future [Jordan Sargent – Gawker]

Also:

Mashable executive editor Jim Roberts will leave the company and at least two dozen members of the site’s editorial staff will be laid off as part of a “strategic shift” toward video, CNNMoney has learned.

The layoffs, which will effectively deplete the site of its news editors and reporters, come one week after Mashable received a $15 million round in funding to build video content in partnership with Turner Broadcasting. (Turner is CNN’s parent company.)…

In a staff meeting, Mashable chief operating officer Mike Kriak said the site was “moving away from harder news” and toward an “entertaining digital culture,” two sources familiar with his remarks said.

Mashable lays off staff in ‘strategic shift’ toward video [Dylan Byers – CNNMoney]

9-year-old reporter breaks crime news, posts videos, fires back at critics

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9-year-old Hilde Kate Lysiak got a tip early Saturday afternoon about heavy police activity on Ninth Street in her town of Selinsgrove, Pa. She got over there with her pen and camera and posted something short online, beating the competition. Then she worked the neighbors and cops and nailed down her scoop with a full-length story, headlined, “EXCLUSIVE: MURDER ON NINTH STREET!”

But her reporting did not impress some of the good people of Selinsgrove, and they let Hilde have it on Facebook Saturday night.  “I think this is appalling that u would do a story like this when all the facts are not in yet,” wrote one commenter. Her parents were attacked too: “does no one realize that this is a 9 year old reporting this type of graphic information!” wrote a Facebook poster. “I mean, what parents are encouraging this type of behavior!”

Hilde was unfazed. Sunday morning, she gathered many of the comments she’d received online, summoned her older sister and her video camera, and read the comments aloud. Then she took on her critics directly: “If you want me to stop covering news, then you get off your computers and do something about the news. There, is that cute enough for you?”

She got the bug from her father, a former Daily News reporter.

9-year-old reporter breaks crime news, posts videos, fires back at critics [Tom Jackman – The Washington Post]

BBC hasn’t reported on biggest bribery scandal in history, implicating top UK firms

Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing:

On Wednesday, Fairfax and Huffington Post broke the Unaoil story, revealing that they had been leaked a trove of email from an obscure Monaco family business that had acted as a global fixer in bribery and bid-rigging that looted the treasuries and oil-fields of some of the world’s poorest countries, from Iraq to Yemen, acting on behalf of blue-chip companies like Rolls-Royce and Halliburton.

By week’s end, police in the UK, US and Australia announced criminal investigations against top executives, and the Monaco police raided Unaoil’s HQ.

And still not a word on bbc.co.uk.

Four days in, and the BBC hasn’t even mentioned the biggest bribery scandal in history [Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing]

The American Male at Age 10

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Journalist Susan Orlean followed around a typical American 10-year-old boy in 1992 – white, middle-class and suburban – and produced an Esquire profile. The Classic Esquire Podcast reads excerpts from the story and talks to the author.

In 1992, writer Susan Orlean was tired of celebrity profiles. Instead, she wanted to do something bigger, deeper, and much harder: She wanted to profile the inner life of an average American boy. After convincing her editor, Orlean spent more than a week going to fifth grade and hanging out with Colin Duffy, a ten-year-old from Glen Ridge, New Jersey. The resulting article—“The American Man at Age Ten”—stands as one of the most intimate and touching portraits of what it’s like to be a boy in America. Orlean joins host David Brancaccio to discuss how the story came about, what it was like to shadow Colin and where he is now, and how the piece continues to reverberate almost twenty-five years after it was first published.

Read the article: The American Male at Age 10 / Susan Orlean / Esquire / December 1992

The Classic Esquire Podcast

Ira Glass’s “This American Life” is leaving PRI and going indy

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On July 1, “This American Life” became independent, leaving its distributor of 17 years, Public Radio International, or PRI.

That change is partly technical. The program is no longer delivered to local stations through public radio’s satellite system, but instead over the Internet through the online platform PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

But the big impact is financial. Gone are a distributor’s financial guarantees, which in the case of “This American Life,” reached seven figures. Instead, Mr. Glass will now be responsible for the show’s marketing and distribution, as well as for finding corporate sponsors. It’s the equivalent of Radiohead’s releasing its own album “In Rainbows,” or Louis C. K.’s selling his own stand-up special — except all the time, for every show. It’s the kind of move that can signal radical changes in the public radio firmament, with National Public Radio and other distributors wondering who, if anyone, may follow suit, and whether Mr. Glass will return if he fails.

Ira Glass’s “This American Life” Leaves PRI

Nelly Bly, 19th Century crusading journalist, badass

Nelly Bly, 19th Century crusading journalist, badass

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She was born poor in 1864 but married a millionaire.

Initially assigned to the safe women’s beat of fashion, entertaining, gardening, and decorating, she got fed up and went to Mexico to be a freelance foreign correspondent.

After moving back to the United States, Bly landed a job at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. For her first assignment, she got herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, on Blackwell’s Island. It was the beginning of a pioneering career in stunt journalism that would include pretending to be an unemployed maid, an unwed mother looking to sell her baby, and a woman seeking to sell a patent to a corrupt lobbyist. She also dabbled in elephant training and in ballet. In an era when Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were engaged in a journalistic arms race for the most pyrotechnics in print media, Bly was an industry darling, the woman who popularized a genre that was as robust a century ago as it is today.

“Behind Asylum Bars,” Bly’s serialized account of her stay in the madhouse, showcases her reportorial skills and her wry way with language. She lived for a few days at a boarding house for destitute women, where she performed insanity so convincingly that her first assigned roommate refused to sleep in the same room with her “for all the money of the Vanderbilts.” Bly was then brought in for a medical examination: “I had not the least idea how the heart of an insane person beat, so I held my breath,” she wrote. “I puzzled to know what insanity was like in the eye, so I thought the best thing under the circumstances was to stare.” After being declared “positively demented,” she was sent to Bellevue, which had “that peculiar whiteness seen only in public institutions.” She was soon transferred to Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), where she joined some sixteen hundred other women—a “helpless class”—and was subjugated to inhumane treatment that included ice-cold baths, flimsy garments, and meals consisting of nothing more than “stuff honored by the name of tea,” bread with rancid butter, and a few prunes. “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” she asked.

An internal New York Times report paints a dire picture of digital strategy

An internal New York Times report paints a dire picture of digital strategy

The Times is too print-focused, says an internal report leaked to Buzzfeed. Reporters are evaluated on how often their stories get on page one, the online deadline is structured around the print deadline, and headlines are poorly search optimized.

I’m surprised by this. I thought the Times did a good job online.

Except for the headline SEO — I’ve noticed that myself.

Headline SEO doesn’t just make headlines more attractive to search engines. A well-SEO’d headline is better for readers.

Print readers have all sorts of clues as to what a story is about and how important it is. The print reader sees story placement, the amount of space the story occupies, sidebar headlines, subheads, take glance at the lede of the story, photos and breakheads — all of these things tell a print reader what the story is about before the reader actually dives in

Online, the headline is often all there is. The headline needs to tell the reader what the story is about, what to expect when they read it, and why they should read it — all in a half-dozen words or less.

For example, consider this powerful article about a 16-year-old who was put in prison after being put through hell in a series of homes where she was tortured and prostituted. The headline: What Is This Child Doing In Prison? That’s just a weak headline.

Writing online headlines is hard, and I wish I was better at it myself.

Looking through my inbox just now I saw…

Looking through my inbox just now I saw a press release that at first looked uninteresting but then the first paragraph said the company is a GLOBAL LEADER.

So I said to myself, holy crap, they’re a GLOBAL LEADER, I better get right on that!

“Why Apple’s PR strategy frustrated tech media for almost a decade”

Terrific analysis of how Apple’s PR team under Katie Cotton (who retired this week) successfully played tech journalists in the pageview-hungry environment of the post-2000s:

Apple rumors, no matter how silly, got clicks. Apple announcements, no matter how incremental, got clicks. Anti-Apple screeds, no matter how righteous the rant or obvious the troll, got clicks.

That last point is important: There is a perception among Apple-haters that people write fawning Apple articles to generate pageviews. That works — but it also works to write an irrational anti-Apple rant. That’ll get you lots of pageviews too. The Internet is an echo chamber, and people click on the headlines that reinforce their views.

Which isn’t to say that Apple is above criticism. There are legitimate reasons to criticize Apple, and to hate it too.

And Apple events — those carefully orchestrated infomercials/passion plays that are as much as part of Jobs’ legacy as any single product — were year-making page-view generators for tech-media publications. No one was more aware that the vast majority of these tech publications were — and many still are — dependent on page views driven by any kind of Apple coverage to sell advertising than Cotton and Apple’s public relations team.

Entry into those events could make or break a quarter’s traffic goals, even for publications that weren’t necessarily gadget-oriented. And for those that were, the ability to send multiple staffers to live blog Apple events and generate dozens of SEO-friendly stories in the immediate aftermath became an essential part of their business plan. Whenever Apple announced an event every single publishing organization with even a tangential angle on technology scurried to get a seat in the auditorium because their readers demanded Apple coverage in ever-growing numbers.

Also:

[A]pple’s PR strategy merely parlayed the intense interest in its products against an extremely competitive tech media landscape with a business model oriented around page views. This strategy surely did not make it many friends in the media world, but for a very long time, media companies needed Apple more than Apple needed media companies.

Someday that relationship will come more into balance. And whoever steps into Cotton’s shoes is going to have some interesting decisions to make should Apple decide it needs to court the media, after more than a decade of animosity.

That’s going to be an interesting transition to watch. Everything that rises inevitably comes down; Apple will inevitably start shipping some dud products and hit unprofitable quarters. What happens when the press turns on them? I’ve seen companies go through that transition — their executives and PR people don’t give interviews, they just scold reporter for failing to see how wonderful the company is. Eventually, the company either turns itself around or gets acquired at a discount and the name is all but forgotten. IBM did one, Digital Equipment did the other.

I covered Apple as a big part of my job 2007-2009. It was a wonderful and frustrating experience. Obviously, I still follow the company. But I’m glad my paycheck no longer depends, even in part, on covering them.

On the other hand: I’m glad I got to see an actual Steve Jobs keynote live. It was a minor keynote, introducing the MacBook Air in 2008. But I got to see it. It’s like having seen Hendrix perform “All Along the Watchtower” or Olivier do Hamlet.

Why Apple’s PR strategy frustrated tech media for almost a decade — Tech News and Analysis

A PR person asked for a response on their pitch. Here’s what I said.

The pitch had the subject line: “Don’t you hate it when people pitch you story ideas, Mitch.”

The first line was: “Well, I too have a PR pitch for you, but before you hit the spam button and move onto the next email, just give me 47 seconds…. ”

Then the pitch concluded by asking for feedback. I replied:

You wanted feedback? OK, here goes:

– I don’t cover this area. You need to focus your contact list on people who actually write about this kind of thing.

– You sent this to my personal email address. I last used this address for business in 2010. Clearly you are using an out-of-date list. Send pitches to my work email.

– Don’t be cute. “Give me 47 seconds.” A journalist or blogger reads the first sentence of a pitch email; if it doesn’t look like a story by then the recipient just moves on. You don’t have 47 seconds; you have about five.

– Just to underscore the previous point: I just finished sorting through my business email. Specifically, I was going through the folder where I automatically sort unsolicited pitches. There were 400 in there when I started. I went through about 100 of them, deleted every one of them, and decided I couldn’t bear it anymore today. I’ll try to look at the folder again tomorrow. But realistically, come on, who wants to do something like that on  Friday? Maybe next week.

I can’t emphasize the last point enough. The guy who wrote the pitch seemed to imagine journalists get one to four pitches per day. In reality, it’s more like a hundred. There have been times in my career when I was receiving 250 PR pitches a day.

If you want to get a journalist or blogger’s attention: Get to the point, get to the point, get to the point.

Attorney: Tech advances make courtroom cellphone ban unconstitutional

The pencil and pad of yesterday has been replaced by the iPhone and iPad of today…. By the state court banning the modern tools of the First Amendment, this case would be similar to one where a state court bans all writing instruments. It would be unthinkable, yet here we are

– Michigan attorney Philip Ellison

The present ban on recording devices in courtrooms dates back to 1965, when they were far more obtrusive than today.

Attorney: Tech advances make courtroom cellphone ban unconstitutional | MLive.com.