For Jon

One editor’s notes, shared


Tonight I am violating two rules. I’ve written and will post these words after imbibing two small glasses of red wine (that’s the no-alcohol rule I’m breaking), and I’m going to get a bit personal (that’s the let’s-keep-it-professional rule being ripped asunder).

Today, this night, December 2, 2016, my husband, Jonathan Kellogg, would have turned 70. It was not to be. He died without warning on August 17, 2015.

Last night and again tonight, for comfort, I read some of the bits and pieces of his life’s work, papers gleaned from our attic archives last winter. They are relevant to this blog, these bits and pieces. He didn’t originate all of them; he kept them to remind himself of why he did what he did, of the standards he worked so hard to sustain during his lifetime as an Associated Press reporter, editor and bureau chief, and as a newspaper managing editor and executive editor.

The rest of this post is composed of some of those bits and pieces.

First, one that he wrote:

“What will keep newspapers successful … is the ability to find and deliver information that readers truly need in a format that is accessible and clear. … Failing newspapers will content themselves with simply reporting events. The successful newspaper will be loaded with stories that surprise readers with information and insight. It will satisfy readers’ curiosity about themselves and their world. It will be a newspaper that readers can’t afford to miss.

And now, other bits that he kept, most of uncertain origin:

People who own stocks, read stock pages. People who live in a community, own stock in the community. They read the newspaper to determine how their stock is doing. The function of the newspaper is to get as much of that day’s news as possible into the paper.

Editors can only respond. They cannot command a story.

People are a long-term investment. Treat them that way. Evaluate the work, not the worker. Show the worker how his habits and attitudes relate to the work.

On interviewing:

  • Do your homework — know the right questions.
  • Listen — get the answers right.

On writing: Two functions — entertain and inform. Writing that fails either test loses readers or wastes their time.

Love the reader. Write stories that mean something to the reader.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian who wrote “Democracy in America,” wrote of newspapers: To suppose that they only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization.”

Indianapolis is the same distance from Washington, D.C., as Chernobyl is from Moscow. Yet the people of the Soviet Union knew nothing and did not even begin to get information until the cloud drifted over a foreign country. Can you imagine the Canadians telling us about a nuclear power accident in Indianapolis?

Secrecy is the hallmark of totalitarian government. The Soviets allow secret arrest, secret trial and secret imprisonment. Any, I repeat, any, movement in that direction strikes at the very foundation of a free society.

Who has the power in society?
The municipality collects taxes.
The sheriff can jail you.
The state can execute you.
The president can send you to war.

The press can tell you the truth about these powers.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment guarantees the right to publish. It does not include the right to be free from criticism or from paying a price of irresponsibility.

Article 22 of the N.H. Constitution: “Free speech and liberty of the press are essential to the security of freedom in a state: They ought, therefore, to be inviolably preserved.”

Inviolable: to secure from violation; secure from assault or trespass.

Article 15 of the N.H. Constitution (in part): “No subject shall be arrested, imprisoned, despoiled, or deprived of his property, immunities, or privileges, put out of the protection of the law, exiled or deprived of his life, liberty, or estate, but by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land.”

The key phrase is “judgment of his peers.” Arrests must be made public, detention that could lead to any court action or deprivation must be made public. It’s not the right of the press, but the right of the public. It is the media that preserves this right by informing the public of decisions of government and actions of police.

Frank Batten, chairman of the board of Associated Press directors and president of Landmark Communications, explaining the AP policy on member assessments, Feb. 9, 1984:

“The AP has been — and remains — the backbone of the information system of this nation and a large part of the world. The AP has a tradition of honesty and objectivity and of dedication to member service. In a world of glitter, the AP keeps its eye on substance, reliability and dependability. It evokes loyalty and devotion from hundreds of journalists and technicians we have never met.

“Some go in harm’s way. Some work in cramped and disagreeable places. All of them keep the watch — keep it so faithfully and surely that we might tend to forget their contribution to our newspapers and to the concept of a free press and an informed public

“I say these few things about the AP because without them the rest of the message this morning is hollow, a complex recitation about money that might seem remote from your real interests. I have said them so that we might all remember why we are here.”

And lastly, because, in addition to being a very serious newsman, my husband loved what he did, loved life and loved to laugh, here’s one more bit, Jack Germond’s story on why things are not always as they appear:

An accountant woke up early one morning dreaming of a huge number five. He was startled because he was a man who liked the ponies and often was looking for signs after which to fashion bets.

He looked at the clock; it said 5:55.
As he left the house, he checked the temperature; it was 55 degrees.
When he got in his car, the odometer read 55,555.
He drove to an auditing assignment at 555 Park Avenue.
The balance sheet he did for his client came out solid fives across the bottom.

He could stand it no longer. He grabbed a cab and said, “Take me to Belmont!” He went to the $50 window and bought five win tickets on the number five horse in the fifth race.

 The horse came in fifth.

Grounding our now in then

Who owns your local newspaper? Why should you care?

This morning, I was preparing a diatribe of a post.

It was sparked by news in the local daily about the efforts of one newspaper chain (Gannett) to buy another (Tribune Publishing).

Although Tribune resisted Gannett’s initial offer, the concluding quote of the story predicted eventual success for Gannett because the deal offered such a great return on the investment Tribune’s largest shareholder had made in that company just three months ago. Surely that shareholder, as well as Tribune’s other shareholders, would reach for the money and sell.

And so I began to write this post: Buy. Sell. Make money. Who is minding the long-term effect of such transactions on the communities served (a questionable verb) by the newspapers so traded?

Taking a break from my breathless drafting to search for a fact or two, I stumbled on a treasure, a three-part series from the American Journalism Review archives on the state of the American newspaper.

The articles, written by Mary Walton and published in May 1999, glued me to my screen from the first sentence to the last. Walton did a marvelously thorough job, presenting both broad picture and detail in a masterful fashion. Yes, her piece was written 17 years ago, but many of the players remain active on the giant monopoly board of American journalism.

Whatever I could have written for you pales in comparison — read on, and enjoy, Walton’s articles: “The Selling of Small-Town America.”

The benefit of Capitol coverage

We need newspapers to keep their eyes on our public servants.

You might surmise from my last post (Too much of a good thing, II) that I think our national leaders need only be covered by a few journalists, to avoid cluttering up the internet with similar reports on identical topics.

Au contraire. One of the benefits, in fact, of the traditional newspaper model as it worked in the past was that even dailies from midsize cities could afford to post a reporter in our nation’s capital to cover the state congressional delegation.

A state’s senators and representatives work a long way from home. A full-time reporter working the Capitol Hill beat can keep an eye on them, sending back stories explaining what they’re up to and why.

However. We’ve been seriously slogging away at the topic of saving the news business for two months. Shall we take a break?

Oh, let’s. I invite you, gentle reader, to divert your attention to the C-SPAN video of President Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, held on April 30.

It’s a hoot.

My favorite joke begins just after minute 11:30, when the president thanks the “award-winning reporters” present — the stars of the movie “Spotlight” — and then goes on to say he’s just joshing the crowd:

“… As you know ‘Spotlight’ is a film, a movie, about investigative journalists with the resources and the autonomy to chase down the truth and hold the powerful accountable.

“Best fantasy film since ‘Star Wars’. …” —President Barack Obama

At the end of his speech, the president turns serious, acknowledging the differences he and the press corps have had.

“… But we’ve always shared the same goal, to root our public discourse in the truth. To open the doors of this democracy. To do whatever we can to make our country and our world more free and more just, and I’ve always appreciated the role that you have all played as equal partners in reaching these goals. …

“… At home and abroad journalists … engage in the dogged pursuit of informing citizens and holding leaders accountable and making our government of the people possible. And it’s an enormous responsibility. And I realize it’s an enormous challenge at a time when the economics of the business sometimes incentivize speed over depth and when controversy and conflict are what most immediately attract readers and viewers.

“The good news is there are so many of you that are pushing against those trends. And as a citizen of this great democracy, I am grateful for that. …” —President Barack Obama

The benefit of peer associations

Regional and national organizations encourage high newsroom standards.

It happened over 20 years ago in the elevator of the Gannett Building, then the headquarters of The Portland (Maine) Newspapers.

As we reached the newsroom floor and the doors opened, my editor, Bill Nemitz, and his boss told me that I’d won the daily analysis category of the Maine Press Association Better Newspaper Contest, for a series I’d written on the state of the city’s waterfront.

I jumped for joy. Literally.

Journalists may seem a tough lot, loners who ruthlessly cover their beats, impervious to criticism, unfettered by fear.

Perhaps a few are, by many are not. Many, in fact, are full of self-doubt, constantly wondering whether they’ve asked enough questions, drawn the correct conclusions and explained it all with clarity and grace and verve. Could they have done it better? Did they do it well enough?

Which is why, when a journalist’s peers applaud a particular piece of work, the satisfaction is profoundly felt.

Traditional newspapers support state and/or regional press associations. Enlightened publishers allow reporters and editors to volunteer company time to help lead the associations, and the papers also pay the tab for contest entry fees and the travel expenses incurred to attend meetings.

Why? Because the associations provide continuing education that raises newsroom performance while reducing libel and other risks.

Typically (at least in New England (I confess I’m not familiar with practices elsewhere), association meetings include presentations about stories gone wrong, ethics seminars and training sessions on the basics: interviewing, writing, editing. Hard questions are asked, fears are expressed. Many learn something new. Most are comforted by the apparent fact that they are not alone.

Reporters and editors return to the daily grind with a new understanding of how to do what they do — better.

I was reminded of this benefit by emails I received this week. The New England Newspaper & Press Association (NENPA) sent a link to its latest e-Bulletin. The New England Society of Newspaper Editors (NESNE) sent an invitation to its 2016 Awards Ceremony. Good examples, both of them, of the opportunities provided by peer association in the newspaper business.

The gatekeeper benefit

Experienced editors select the news for the community.

It seemed obvious, barely worth mentioning, up until now.

In the traditional print newspaper model, the paper is the content gatekeeper.

Whom does that benefit?

If news decisions are dictated by the publisher’s point of view, the paper’s gatekeeper role benefits the publisher and his or her interests.

If editors are free to make the best decisions they can (the typical situation in our country), the paper’s gatekeeper role benefits the public.

Editors are far from infallible, but it’s their business to be on top of the news and to evaluate, each day, which stories are worth pursuing and, in the case of wire copy, which versions of which stories should be in the paper.

Readers who disagree have recourse; the editors are right there, in the community the paper serves.

And each day, editors have another chance to learn from errors they have made, another chance to get it right.

Not a bad system. But the newspaper’s gatekeeper role is being supplanted. More tomorrow. Stay tuned.

The benefit of daily contact

When you buy a daily subscription, customer service extends to your door.

In the wee, dark hours of the morning they work — usually alone, often unseen, often unheard.

The traditional daily is delivered by newspaper carriers.

Sometimes, they encounter peril on their route and, sometimes, they do more than just deliver the news. A Poynter article by Andrew Beaujon, “The year in newspaper carriers,” offers an entertaining and enlightening sample of delivery stories from 2014. Here’s one:

“September: Don Hardin, 80, a carrier for the Valley News Dispatch, alerted a family that ‘their SUV was burning furiously and threatening their house.’ ‘People need to get their paper delivered,’ rescuee Angela Worthing told Chuck Biedka. ‘Reading it online wouldn’t have saved us.’ (Valley News Dispatch/TribLive)”

The carriers’ role was brought to mind by a full-page ad I unearthed from our attic archives the other day.

“There are nearly 2,000 boys and girls, men and women, who deliver the Portland Press Herald, Evening Express and Maine Sunday Telegram,” the ad says.

Designed to commemorate International Carrier Day, the ad includes a quote from each newsroom executive. My husband’s says this:

“I got my paper route when I was 11 and kept it for three years. It earned me my first bank account, paid for my first new bicycle and paid for the first real Christmas present I gave to my mother.

“Paper routes teach discipline, responsibility, teamwork and entrepreneurship. It’s a great way to instill important values in young people and let them gather the rewards of their own labor at the same time.” —Jon Kellogg, Managing Editor—Reporting

Carrier jobs provide a part-time gig for youngsters, retirees and anyone in between. They are the contact between the newspaper and its customers each day. And, as Beaujon says, they are “America’s least-acknowledged first responders.”

Amazon can have its drones. We’ve got carriers.

The benefit of original reporting

Print journalists are the source of most news found elsewhere.

Traditional newspapers produce original news. Their reporters, columnists and editors get their information from primary sources.

Well, duh, you might be saying. Of course they do. That’s how a news operation works, right?

Not any more. Consider the quote below from a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism:

“… The study, which examined all the outlets that produced local news in Baltimore, Md., for one week, surveyed their output and then did a closer examination of six major narratives during the week, finds that much of the ‘news’ people receive contains no original reporting. Fully eight out of ten stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information. And of the stories that did contain new information nearly all, 95%, came from traditional media—most of them newspapers. …”How News Happens

Or consider another study done in 2010. The Nieman Lab published a report that focused on one big story, the Google/China hacking case. The report’s author, Jonathan Stray, found that only 13 (11 percent) of the 121 distinct versions of the story that appeared on Google News  contained “some amount” of original content. He wrote:

“… Of the 13 stories with original reporting, eight were produced by outlets that primarily publish on paper, four were produced by wire services, and one was produced by a primarily online outlet. For this story, the news really does come from newspapers. …”The Google/China hacking case: How many news outlets do the original reporting on a big story?

What is going to happen if our traditional dailies no longer have enough reporters to provide all of the original content that now gets aggregated, republished, regurgitated — just plain reused — over and over again on the net?

One might hope that, as dailies adapt to lower profits by cutting news staff, new online-only news outlets would make up for the cuts by hiring their own reporters — to do their own original reporting. One might hope for that.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center studied the growth of digital reporting and digital news outlets and found that nearly 5,000 full-time editorial jobs had been created. However, the study continued:

“… Still, purely in terms of bodies, the growth in new digital full-time journalism jobs seems to have compensated for only a modest percentage of the lost legacy jobs in newspaper newsrooms alone in the past decade. From 2003 to 2012, the American Society of News Editors documented a loss of 16,200 full-time newspaper newsroom jobs, while Ad Age recorded a decline of 38,000 magazine jobs, which includes all jobs for the entire consumer magazine sector. Such job cuts continued in 2013 and early 2014—at such big organizations as the Tribune Co. and Time Inc. …”The Growth in Digital Reporting

Equally worrying is the fact that the new digital-only model for news is hardly robust. The Pew report says, “For all the expansion, it is far from clear there is a digital news business model to sustain these outlets.”