A very bad week for journalism

By Caitlin Kelly

David Carr, NYT media columnist, dead at 58
David Carr, NYT media columnist, dead at 58

As I blogged here a few years ago, journalism — at best — is a tribe:

The tribe, regardless of age, race, gender, religion or nationality, has time-honored rituals, the shared and inevitable scars we’ve acquired and sometimes discuss over a beer in Berlin or at a conference in Boston or at a presser in Brooklyn or Doha. The breathtaking self-assurance of some, that so often spills over into arrogance, hides the truth we all really know. Every one of us will err, whether it shows up in the paper’s corrections box or remains a private and unresolved matter of conscience. Within this industry, at almost any level of the game, there’s daily doubt and fear, confusion and pain — and, sometimes, great, shared joy when we’ve done it well.

No matter where you live or what you earn, if you yearn to tell as many truthful, fact-based stories to strangers as possible, you share a passion with other journalists that’s hard to explain to everyone else. People I call “civilians.”

The military is like that, I hear, bound by codes of honor and behavior, of hazing and terror, that only initiates truly understand and share.

Some journalists write about technology, hanging out with guys in hoodies. Others work the frontlines of wars and conflicts.

But, whether we’re a fresh grad or a grizzled 50-year-old, we all know it’s damn hard to get and keep a good job in our field — i.e. one that pays more than $60,000,  (many earn in the mid-40s), and where your bosses are still somewhat decent human beings whose judgment you respect.

If you, like me, have been the J-game for a few decades, you’ve read, heard or watched the work of hundreds of other journalists, sometimes with irritation, sometimes with envy and deep admiration for their access, skill and visibility. Many flame out. Some go into public relations or teaching.

A very fortunate few, like Brian Williams, a television anchor, pull in a cool $10 million a year. Most of will be lucky to ever make six figures in any year.

In the year 2008, 24,000 of us lost our jobs, so anyone who has one, still, is damn lucky and we all know it.

The past week has been a shitshow for our industry.

The death — of all things, while riding in the back of a New York City limousine — of legendary, 72-year-old CBS News correspondent Bob Simon. A man who had covered the world and survived many harrowing and dangerous assignments.

The death of female, Canadian baseball writer Alison Gordon, at 72, who, in her off hours, played (of course) in a band. She was the first woman to cover Major League baseball, beginning in 1979. I was offered a sports reporting job in 1985 and said no. I knew how incredibly rough, then, that ride would have been for a woman trying to cover what was still very much a man’s world. (Sent to cover a major league hockey training camp then, I watched every man there get a complete press kit. “Oh, we’re all out!” I was told.)

“She was relentless,” said Lloyd Moseby, who played for the Jays throughout the 1980s. “A lot of women that are in the profession right now should be very thankful for what Alison did and what she went through. She took a beating from the guys. She was a pioneer for sure.”

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The sudden death Thursday night of New York Times media columnist and author David Carr, at 58. He had just finished moderating a panel discussion next door in the Times’ auditorium, went upstairs to the newsroom and collapsed there. He died that evening in the hospital, leaving a wife and three daughters. Carr, probably the least likely writer to join the staff of the Gray Lady — as a former coke addict — won tremendous respect from his peers, there and elsewhere, for his crazy hard work, sense of humor and no-bullshit worldview. Covering other journalists and their companies is a gig many of us would happily avoid; we like to be the observed, not the publicly-pulled-to-pieces. And where would he go if he ever needed another job?

One of his many bons mots, (which so many of us long to shout!): “I don’t do corporate portraiture.”

My husband works at the Times and knew David there; one day he shared an elevator with him. “How are you?” asked Jose. “Happy!” Carr shouted.

That, so un-Timesian raucous and, always, real, was Carr.

Hundreds of his colleagues gathered in the NYT newsroom for an hour to pay tribute; Editor Dean Bacquet on the stairs, publisher Arthur Sulzberger in shirtsleeves standing; photo Jose R.Lopez
Hundreds of his colleagues gathered in the NYT newsroom for an hour to pay tribute; Editor Dean Bacquet on the stairs, publisher Arthur Sulzberger in shirtsleeves standing

photo by Jose R.Lopez

The newsroom filled at 3pm Friday for his colleagues’  many tributes to, and speeches about him, heartfelt laughter and tears. For a tough-minded, elbows-out culture like the Times, the outpouring of love and respect was unprecedented.

Here’s a lovely piece about him from The Globe and Mail (my first newspaper employer.) I’ve worked for three big dailies; Carr, more than many, knew and really appreciated what a fantastic, fun gig a newspaper job can be. I loved it and miss it terribly.

The firing of Jared Keller, the news director of Mic, a popular website, after charges of plagiarism. He had previously worked for Bloomberg, Al Jazeera and the Atlantic — which is to say, for non-journos, he had already enjoyed a pretty nice career in an industry pretty much in chaos these days. Why blow it?

The six-month unpaid suspension of NBC News anchor Brian Williams, for his inability to clearly recollect memories others had to explain to him. I normally watched his show but was appalled when, in his nightly news broadcast, he mentioned his daughter, Alison Williams, a regular on the HBO series Girls, appearing in a show of Peter Pan — with no nod whatsoever to their family relationship. Seriously?!

Today’s journalism — plagiarism, scandal and other forms of editorial mayhem

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...
English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently spent a few hours with a rising senior at a top American university who thinks he might want to become a journalist. I agreed, because he’s been interning for a good friend of mine.

He will graduate with $68,000 in debt.

But what, really, can I tell him?

I wonder if my field is still worth entering or committing to: financially terribly insecure, often poorly paid and sadly formulaic in its thinking.

The web’s ruthless drive to get news first destroys, at worst, the larger goal of being accurate. Of telling us why a story matters, not simply that it exists.

And, please God, not just telling us what another sad sack “celebrity” wore to buy a latte.

Here’s a heartening little tale, that of 31-year-old Jonah Lehrer, whose enviable trajectory of best-selling books and, (most coveted of all), a staff job at the New Yorker, recently ended with his admission of making shit up.

Dude, seriously?

If there is anything more annoying than the latest tyro being glorified, it’s finding out, (which keeps happening), they’re a lying plagiarist. Typical of these sorts of debacles is the statement from New Yorker editor David Remnick that this discovery is “terrifically sad.”

No, it’s not. When I Facebooked my feelings about this, several of my veteran journalism colleagues chimed in, agreeing with my disgust.

What it is is someone who’s gotten the sort of opportunities most of will never even get near treating them carelessly. Sort of like the Yale grad who was fired this summer from her reporting job at The Wall Street Journal.

It’s like being given the keys to a shiny new Escalade and dinging the doors because…you can.

For those of you living outside the U.S., perhaps less familiar with the narrow and slippery rungs of privilege here — getting into an Ivy League school, (Lehrer attended one as well, Columbia), is extremely difficult. Every year there costs about $40,000+. Then gilded doors swing open to you, at places like the New Yorker, many of whose staffers also attended prep schools and Ivies.

An article in the June Vanity Fair was a name-drop-fest of elite privilege and Ivy log-rolling:

Ben Bradlee, the managing editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991…hired me fresh out of college as a night police reporter the year he took the paper’s helm—we had been members of the same undergraduate club at Harvard…Harvard has been a big feeder of The New Yorker over the years, particularly the Lampoon, where I was the jester, dancing on the table in a multicolored jingling outfit at Thursday-night black-tie dinners, from 1965 to 1968.

Charm and connections offer these folks rare and much-coveted opportunities to publish in the most respected and influential of outlets, while, almost daily, dozens more journalists are being fired, their odds of getting back in at their previous level of skill or wages, slim to none; 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008.

Many of us, and many over 45, are now working at home for a fraction of our former incomes.

Freelance pay rates today are often as low as they were 30 years ago, (while the cost of living has risen tremendously), typically paying $1/word.

If you’re writing 3,500 to 5,000 words, you’re cool. But very few publications still assign at that length; more typically 500 to 1,200 words. You do the math on the volume we now need to pump out to simply get the bills paid. Pre-recession, the big mags were paying $3/word; now you’re lucky to get $2/word.

Yet the way journalists think and behave editorially hasn’t changed much, or enough.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece by their media columnist David Carr, writing on the Murdoch phone-hacking scandals:

Now would seem to be journalism’s big moment to turn that light on itself, with deeply reported investigative articles about how things went so wrong: the failures of leadership, the skewed values and the willingness of an industry to treat the public with such contempt. The Guardian correctly suggested that the arrests were unprecedented in the history of newspapers.

But because it is the news business and the company in the sights is News Corporation, the offenders are seen as outliers. The hacking scandal has mostly been treated as a malady confined to an island, rather than a signature event in a rugged stretch for journalism worldwide. Collectively, the press in the United States put more time and effort into pulling back the blankets on the indiscretions of Herman Cain.

But journalism’s ills don’t live exclusively on Fleet Street or stop at British shores. While American newspapers don’t publish in the hypercompetitive landscape that played a role in the tabloid excesses in Britain, the growing ecosystem of Web and cable news shares many of the same characteristics and, all too often, its failings. Economic pressures have increased the urgency to make news and drive traffic, even as budgets have been cut and experienced news professionals tossed overboard.

Here’s an excerpt from a new autobiography by a top American editor, describing how print fell prey to digital media.

Do you write for a living — or hope to?

What do you think of media these days?

How Many Words Are Too Many? NYT Plagiarist Resigns, Producing 7,000 A Week

The New York Times building in New York, NY ac...
Image via Wikipedia

In the second screw-up of a thriving journalism career over plagiarism in recent weeks — in this case with a 31-year-old business writer for The New York Times, Zachery Kouwe —  over-production seems to be the culprit.

He has resigned.

It’s too easy to line up and waggle fingers at anyone caught doing this. It’s much harder to be that person.

Any journalist who still has a job, at The New York Times, (which just axed 100 people from the newsroom, some who took the buy-out, some canned), or elsewhere is under the gun. They know very few other jobs are out there, certainly not at the $80-100k/year plus that an outfit like the Times is paying. With 24,000 print journalists losing their jobs in 2008-2009, it’s easy to feel like a polar bear tap-dancing on a shrinking ice floe, staring across what was miles of solid ice at a very large expanse of open water. Once you’ve gotten a good job, like many others these days, damned if you’re going to blow it.

Choices?

No one wants to trash their career. Few intend to do so. Hearing stories like that of Gerald Posner and Kouwe, both of whom basically said “I was writing too much” begs the question — what’s too much?

In my most frenzied month of freelancing, I cranked out 9,000 words: from initial call to the people I interviewed to final copy. Kouwe was doing almost that each week, he says.

In addition to my blogging here and other writing and editing work, I’m writing a non-fiction book and, after about 2,000 words a day, I’m pretty tired. I hope to produce 5,000 to 6,000 per week, i.e. a chapter. I have a deadline, but it is months away — not minutes, as it is with a blog, for Kouwe and anyone else trying to keep up, let alone lead, a large and competitive pack.

From The New York Observer:

In the coming days, inevitably, The Times will look inward to ask whether the pace of publishing in the blogs can be sustained given the level of editorial oversight they obviously need.

The DealBook banner says that it is “edited by Andrew Ross Sorkin.” Though he does oversee it, he does not edit the majority of its posts, sources said. The editing responsibilities of DealBook are primarily left to Jack Lynch, who staffers said aggregates for the site and posts items and doesn’t precisely give thorough spot checks on each item that he posts.

“Many people have thought for quite a long time that DealBook was the part of BizDay that desperately needed a baby sitter,” said one staffer.

A Times spokeswoman said, “Our journalistic standards are the same online as they are in print.”

When we asked Mr. Kouwe if he felt he needed stronger editing, or if perhaps the breakneck pace was to blame, he said, “It wasn’t anybody else. I was pushing myself to do as much as I possibly can. It was careless.”

The web is a lovely thing for many of us, offering freelancers and others a larger, more interesting platform for our work and ideas.

Maybe not so much if you are on staff, having to crank out yards of the stuff — while remaining readable, accurate and reliable. These days, added to the daily responsibilities of covering a beat and staying highly visible and productive on it, it’s starting to look like a speeded-up industrial assembly line.

Is this journalism any of us want to read? Or produce?

This Week's Plagiarist?

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14:  The New York Times he...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Another possible plagiarist?

Today’s New York Times has a mea culpa in its corrections box about business reporter Zachery Kouwe. He came to the Times in 2008 from the New York Post.

Let’s focus on one set of numbers: 24,000 print reporters lost their jobs between 2008 and 2009. The streets are filled with smart, reliable, experienced reporters who don’t use others’ copy without attribution. They know a great job is an increasingly rare prize. If you’re lucky enough to have one, why exactly would you screw it up?

Who’s next?

Gerald Posner's Plagiarism Apology — And Why It Doesn't Work

Gerald Posner, a writer I haven’t read and don’t know personally, has resigned from his spot at The Daily Beast for plagiarism. Part of his explanation:

Readers of my writing over 26 years, 11 books and over a hundred articles, have the right to trust that I have personally vetted and corroborated the facts I present, and that I can vouch for them. Plagiarism is insidious because it rightfully violates that trust. Just the mere use of the word raises the idea that the accused journalist has broken one of the cardinal rules of writing and is somehow cutting corners on research, facts, or original reporting.

Since June 1, when I accepted the full time staff position, I have published 72 articles (8 were published freelance before accepting the full-time reporter’s job). That averages about 2 articles a week. They all required intensive reporting, and the subjects ranged from the Michael Jackson death probe, CIA morale, Teddy Kennedy’s fortune, whether there was a John Doe 2 in the Murrah bombing, exclusive interviews with Afghanistan’s Karzai brothers, Roman Polanski, probes into domestic and international terror, and the Tiger Woods story, among many others. At least a dozen stories that I spent time researching did not pan out, and never got published.

I realize how it is that I have inadvertently, but repeatedly, violated my own high standards. The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer – with two years or more on a project – to what I describe as the “warp speed of the net.”

I’m not buying it. As a writer of his vintage, who has written hundreds of articles, likely more than a thousand by now, and only 1.5 books (the second is in progress), I know he knows the rules of the game.

What he’s not telling us, nor does he need to although it might better explain his need for speed, is the payment method that dragged him into this mess. Why was he working so quickly and cranking out so much copy? Because his editor(s) asked him to? Because only then would he make more/enough income from his Beast material? Because that’s what his competitors do?

Every ambitious writer who works in the game of intellectual piecework known as freelance journalism faces growing economic pressure.

Very few  — either because they’re making $8,000 or $15,000 or $25,000 per story can thereby earn $100,000+, which — after 11 books and 26 years’ experience — would barely match what a staffer of that level is making at a decent magazine or newspaper job. Pay rates in journalism are risible. Many major magazines have reduced their freelance pay rates in the past two years and also reduced the number of stories they are assigning. In addition, very few want a story of 3,500 words at $2/word (i.e. a $7,000 check) or $3/word (generally considered a high rate).  When you are paid (as we are) by the word, your income is going down, not up.

Pay rates haven’t budged in 30 years — a payment of $700 or $1,000 or $1,500 is not unusual for those writing even for prestigious outlets like The New York Times, for whom I’ve written since 1990. Do the math. Unless you have a steady gig, or make $3/word+ every time you turn on your computer, it takes an insane amount of production to scrape together a middle-class income, or more.

The pressure to keep up, both intellectually and financially, is enormous.

But…blaming this issue on the acceleration from the slow lane of writing a book to the express lane of blogging doesn’t work for me as a reason. I’m doing it, and others are as well. Every day I’m swerving between those lanes — blogging here and writing a non-fiction book on deadline. Last night I wrote a blog post and spent two hours on my book.

They are totally different creatures. They do require quite disparate ways of thinking, writing and connecting with your audience.

Frankly, and maybe it shows — there are only so many hours in a day — my book will take precedence until the final manuscript is accepted. It is tougher and tougher to get a major publisher to commit to a book, so it’s not something you can or should, take lightly.

I’ll blog here as often as I can intelligently. The pressure, now, for writers to grow their digital “brand” is also enormous and not one we can afford to ignore. But the revenues aren’t there. Books generally don’t pay well either, (maybe for writers of Posner’s stature), but using the excuse of shifting from one slower writing style to another faster one, arguably for some voracious, insatiable audience dodges other issues.

Maybe Posner, like many of us, simply placed inordinate pressure on himself to produce a lot of copy. Two stories a week, of the sort he describes, is a lot of work when thoughtfully reported and well-written. Why two? Why not one? Blaming the “warp speed of the net” clouds the issue.

It’s the warp speed of trying to keep up, to keep up your standards while keeping up.

Like every writer doing the wearying, challenging dance between the old, slower world of print and the newer, faster world of blogging, we have to make choices.

Let your standards slip? Write fewer stories? Fall out of the elite slipstream?

Which is worse?

Another lying ambitious young journo…sigh

The Drop Dead cover in 1975
Image via Wikipedia

Laugh hard, laugh long.

Some old-school, old-media types actually love newspapers — not loved past tense, but still, however unreasonably, sort of like whaling captains who love square-riggers,  feel passionately about them and love writing for them and know how damn lucky anyone is these days to even work in a newsroom. It’s all we ever wanted to do.

Explain to me, then, what is wrong with Hailey MacArthur, the intern caught plagiarizing from The New York Times and fired from the Colorado Springs Gazette?

Here’s the deal, Hailey. Getting a staff newspaper job these days, especially if you’re over 30, is about as likely as flying to the moon. In the past two years, 12,000 of us — I’m a veteran of three major dailies, most recently the New York Daily News — have been canned. Very few of us, the old, expensive ones, will ever find another job in that industry again. And, whatever you want to say about how utterly miserable it is to work for a newspaper, some of us had a blast and miss it like oxygen. Some of us are still friends with, and freelance for, our former colleagues. It hurts like hell, but tant pis. Continue reading “Another lying ambitious young journo…sigh”