When a community stops subscribing, the ties that bind may break.


I was standing in the barn doorway the other evening, talking to the farm’s manager. A cold wind was pulling blond tendrils from her ponytail, whipping them across her face as we relaxed and talked about horses, until the beauty of the moment caught my attention.

“What a gorgeous sky,” I said, looking west. The manager turned and looked up at the crescent moon. A planet sparkled, just to the left. The fresh wind on our faces, we began to guess the planet’s identity.

“I used to get the Kent County News,” the manager said, referring to the local weekly. One of her former teachers, she went on, wrote a column for the paper, telling everyone what they would be seeing in the night sky. She missed reading the column. She missed reading the paper. “I feel disconnected,” she said.

The Kent County News is still published here. But, as with many in the community, the barn manager’s life has become complicated and busy. Her subscription has lapsed.

“WHEN men are no longer united among themselves by firm and lasting ties, it is impossible to obtain the co-operation of any great number of them unless you can persuade every man whose help you require that his private interest obliges him voluntarily to unite his exertions to the exertions of all the others. This can be habitually and conveniently effected only by means of a newspaper; nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment.” —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Not so today. Today, we have a president who is using a social media platform, Twitter, to drop his 140-character thoughts into the minds of millions of people at the same moment.

He does not control the distribution channel. He does not control Twitter. If our president-elect were to become a true despot, a danger to our nation, would the managers of Twitter shut him down?*

Ah, but then what if he bought a majority interest in Twitter — what if he did own the distribution channel?

Our traditional newspaper business model, literally, puts everyone on the same page, enabling all readers within a given community to share a common base of knowledge.

Another benefit of the original model, though, and one that’s sorely lacking now, is that it was robust enough to finance standalone monopoly newspapers, individual businesses, successful one-town, one-city, one-region papers.

It is the existence of thousands of independently owned and operated newspapers that helped keep our democracy strong up until now. A Donald Trump would have had to buy ads in every paper in America to try to achieve the reach he now has, for free, on Twitter.

I’ve recently begun asking new acquaintances how they get their news. So far, I’ve asked three. The responses were Twitter, Twitter, and Facebook and Twitter.

It is readily apparent that developing new, sustainable news models won’t be enough. The news product that the models produce must be so good that, as my husband once wrote, readers can’t afford to miss it.

Our task is not one, but two: Build the water tanks and fill them, and then convince the horses to drink. So that we all may be — safely — reconnected with each other and our communities.

*UPDATE:  Well, well, well.  On January 12, The Verge published a story saying that the employees of Twitter have, indeed, discussed the idea of banning Trump’s tweets.  See “Inside Twitter, employees reckon with Trump.”

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.

We hear them, don’t we?

A newspaper that doesn’t understand its readers may lose them.

Does it all come down to empathy, the lack thereof?

Wednesday’s post ended this way, referring to fake news: “At least we can agree on what we don’t want and work to snuff it out.”

Not so fast. WAMU’s Diane Rehm spent part of Wednesday’s show on “The Power of Fake News And Personalized News Feeds.” Listeners who called in said that fake news was not a problem because Trump supporters were smart enough to know it was fake, and besides, plenty of real news was out there to counter it.

Common sense leads us to believe that, if fake news didn’t generate ad revenue or sway views, it wouldn’t exist. Fake news exists because it works, both as a source of money and as a powerfully persuasive tool. Fake news pays off.

But of course, the premise that Trump won because fake news swayed voters is insulting to those who voted for him.

Some of Diane Rehm’s listeners were understandably defiant. The mainstream media didn’t hear us, they seemed to be saying, so we turned away from you. We created, read and repeated the work of our own, preferred news sources because you weren’t speaking to us.

Which brings to mind the words of Terry Egger, CEO and publisher of the Philadelphia Media Network.

The Philadelphia Media Network, a public benefit corporation, is an enormous experiment in news business modeling, and, through its parent, the The Institute for Journalism in New Media, is fostering the creation and study of other news models, as well.

Egger was a speaker at the New England Newspaper & Press Association 2016 Conference. During his talk, he explained the three principles that are guiding him as he strives to lead the way to a sustainable news future. First of the three: empathy.

There was a time, Egger reflected, when newspapers controlled the message, its distribution and how and when it was distributed. Now, the receiver has all the power. “We have got to establish the relevance of what we do,” Egger said. “We have to think of our customers, deeply, always.”

How, exactly, does one do that in a newsroom?

Perhaps by following up on voters the paper wrote about when Obama first took office, the ones who were laid off, lost their homes, lost their way, to find out how they are faring now. As well as bank and mortgage company executives and the companies’ owners.

Perhaps by spending a day on the job with an undocumented immigrant and writing about the low-level jobs that local employers can’t find citizens to fill.

Perhaps by treating the campaign as a job-hunting exercise — the kind so many readers face — inviting them to help draft a job description for the office of president, sticking it out front, measuring each candidate’s qualifications against it.

Perhaps by recognizing how overwhelmed readers are by the volume and complexity of information they encounter, and so making content as clear as possible — consistently labeling all opinion pieces as such, being careful of our word choices, being cognizant of the shift of labels (sexist, racist, misogynist) from the candidate’s comment to the candidate, and justifying that shift when it occurs. For readers are simply too busy to parse our meaning from our words.

If we had begun each day considering what our readers were facing as they drank their morning coffee — might our news coverage have been different?

A news business model is only a skeleton. We humbly suggest that Terry Egger’s use of empathy as a guiding principle is a good idea for all who labor to turn that skeleton into the body of work that keeps our democracy strong.

For more on fake news, see:

Keeping our eye on the prize

What kind of news do we want?

Yesterday, I drove to the local community college to watch two touring debaters from Great Britain discuss objective media versus partisan media.

The free event, hosted by Chesapeake College’s Honors Council, focused on a question of preference, for living in a country where major media outlets would be balanced and objective, or for living in one where major media outlets represented different political and world agendas.

The debaters, James Baross and David Jones, landed their points with vigor.  Here are just a few of them:

Jones stood for one state-sponsored but independently run media outlet that would strive to report balanced and unbiased news, maximizing truth (e.g., the BBC), and that, when found in error, would publish retractions with the same prominence as the original mistake.

Conversely, he warned, in a commercial news landscape offering a plurality of views, each view stems from the top, from the news outlet’s owner. When an owner  (and one’s boss) is pushing an agenda, Jones cautioned, the agenda takes primacy over facts and accuracy. And partisan media sensationalize the news to drive up readership, creating disparate visions of America. Citizens are forced to choose between competing realities, each defined in opposition to the other. Society becomes polarized.

Baross stood for a media world consisting only of partisan, commercial outlets presenting news aligned with their ideologies (e.g., Fox News, MSNBC). You don’t have time to evaluate and interpret the tremendous flow of facts and events that an unbiased news source would present, he reminded the audience. Wouldn’t you rather have someone who shares your views do that for you? Doesn’t it make sense, Baross suggested, for you to follow an ideologue from the mainstream media who thinks the way you do? Besides, it’s impossible to be truly neutral, he reasoned. Even when a news source is simply presenting facts, judgments and evaluations occur.

To illustrate that point, Baross told a story about two monks in a monastery.

One of the monks goes to his pastor and asks, “Pastor, am I allowed to smoke while I pray?”

“No, no, how dare you!” responds the pastor. “You are desecrating a sacred activity!”

Another monk asks the pastor, “Pastor, is it okay if I pray while I smoke?”

“Of course it is, my son,” the pastor says. “Praying is an activity to be done at any time, all the time, whatever you’re doing.”

Just the framing of a question, what comes first and what comes last, changes the way in which a situation is perceived. “Even in a world in which you simply tell facts, you can’t avoid implying position; you can’t avoid bias,” Baross concluded.

“We agree,” responded Jones.  “You can’t have an unbiased news media source. But what you can do is, you can set up a primary news organization that has the overriding ideology of promoting unbiased information.”

Ooh, they’re good, those debaters from Great Britain.  Their arguments reminded me that, while we try to find ways to financially support excellent news coverage in this country, we also need to keep our eye on the prize — what sort of news coverage we want.

That task may have become a little bit easier this week. For in this world in which we live, in addition to objective news and partisan news, we face a new player — fake news.  At least we can all agree that we don’t want that. The advertising revenue that legitimate news sources so desperately need should not be shared with purveyors of outright lies.

This week, The New York Times reported that Google and Facebook now say they intend to choke off advertising revenue that has been helping to support the producers of fake news.

“Google kicked off the action on Monday afternoon when the Silicon Valley search giant said it would ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service. Hours later, Facebook, the social network, updated the language in its Facebook Audience Network policy, which already says it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites.” Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites

At least we can agree on what we don’t want and work to snuff it out.  It’s a good start.

The benefit of one-to-many dialogue

The traditional daily shares its soapbox with readers.

Have you ever sat down, in a fit of opinionated passion, to pen an epistle to the editor of the local daily?

I have — when I was upset about an event I had witnessed, when I wanted to thank people for help I had received, and when the newspaper’s editorial was too slanted to be tolerated.

(Tiny confession: I’ve sent more than one letter for the last reason.)

Traditional dailies reserve two pages in each edition, the editorial page and the op ed page, for venturing into opinion. It’s where readers turn to find out who’s riled up at whom.

The pages typically contain the publisher’s opinion (the editorial of the day), an editorial cartoon, letters to the editor and pieces by nationally syndicated columnists.

It’s usually an interesting read. Some dailies try to make it even more so. When I was the wire editor of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor many moons ago, my job included laying out the opinion and op ed pages. The Monitor had recruited a stable of local experts in various fields, and I managed their scheduled submissions. It was fascinating work. They were the content experts of the day, blogging, as it were, through the paper. But I digress.

A block of space on the opinion pages is reserved for letters to the editor. It’s foolhardy to engage in a writing war with a publisher who buys ink by the barrel, but many march in with the courage of conviction.

It does take courage, for most newspapers require your signature and will publish your name with your letter. That tends to raise the level of discourse.

(If you don’t believe me, just compare the letters in the local daily print edition to the anonymous comments posted in an online edition.)

It’s a community benefit, this public opportunity for a one-to-many expression of ideas and opinion. It’s also an individual benefit for any reader who, in essence, is allowed to borrow the publisher’s press for a day.

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 community calendars

The local daily spreads the news for nonprofits.

Recently, I asked some friends to imagine life without the local daily.

One of them immediately mentioned a benefit I’d forgotten. “What would we do without calendar listings?” she exclaimed. “How would we get the word out?”

If you have a community like ours, it’s full of nonprofit organizations that can’t afford to advertise. Most of them have websites; some actually post news about upcoming events. Even so, their updates are likely to only reach the site’s existing audience.

Enter the local newspaper and its daily or weekly lists of upcoming events. Arts calendars, sports calendars, church calendars — whatever the type of event — the paper gives nonprofits a free way to tell everyone in the community what’s happening. It seems like a small thing, until you imagine life in your community without it.