(This is the text of a speech delivered at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism on January 26, 2019 while accepting the Media Changemaker award.)
I had intended, at first, to give a speech on communication. You won’t hear it today, but trust me: it’s a good speech. Communication and conversation are two subjects on which I’m very passionate. I’ve dedicated my life in recent years to improving both, because our conversational skills, in general, are in decline.
But I filed away that speech last night, and wrote a new one about journalism. After all, journalism is why I’m an international expert on conversation. I was trying to become a better journalist when I first started to research the subject. Being a good journalist does mean being a good communicator, after all.
Journalism demanded I become a better listener. A good reporter or producer needs to talk and write well. But most human beings are born with reasonably good communication skills. After years of research in sociology and neuroscience and psychology, that’s one thing I’ve learned: most people are inherently good at talking. Listening is where and when we struggle.
Good journalism demands a higher level of listening. Good journalism requires you ask questions without assuming you already know the answers. It demands you really hear what someone is saying, and pick up nuances and surprises — not listen for what you want to hear.
I wrote a new speech because your mentors and elders in this industry have not been listening as well as they should. And we need you, I need you, to do better than we have done.
It’s been an incredible week for news. I don’t just mean the Roger Stone indictment, or the end to the longest government shutdown in US history. I’m also talking about mass layoffs in our industry.
In this one week, more than a thousand writers, editors, and other journalists lost their jobs. Verizon, which owns the Huffington Post and Yahoo, canned seven percent of its staff. Buzzfeed will fire 15 percent of its staff, and Gannett, which owns more than a thousand papers in the US, cut about 400 jobs.
These people didn’t lose their jobs because they were bad at them. The HuffPo laid off a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Buzzfeed laid off the very team that scooped all other outlets with their reporting on Michael Cohen.
So imagine my dismay when I started to see comments appear on social media that said reporters will have to change their ways and modernize if they plan to survive. I read think pieces and earnest responses from people who say news media are dying because they can’t attract readers, and maybe journalists should just be better.
And that’s why I tossed out my old speech. It is vitally important to tell you the news media are just fine. If you judge by the number of people reading our material and listening to our reports, we are booming. NPR reached a record high number of listeners last year. Visits to newspaper websites rose from 8.2 million in 2014 to 11 and a half million in 2017. Revenue from circulation rose to more than 11 billion dollars.
More than 90 percent of Americans listen to the radio at some point every week. Online listenership is climbing. So are audiences for flourishing podcasts.
The audience is there. The content is there. What’s not there is a profit margin large enough to satisfy stockholders. Decades ago, when newspapers were the only source, not just for news, but for want ads and classifieds ads and store coupons and job listings and help wanted, profit margins at many dailies were 30 to 40 percent! That’s incredible. Executives with no interest in journalism’s public service strengths rushed to buy up as many newspapers as they could. Even as recently as 2008, some newspapers saw profits of around 20 percent. Now, the average profit is somewhere between eight and 15 percent. Any profit is good profit. And that’s what no one seems to be talking about. Executives laid off reporters at papers that were profitable.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune is a great, albeit depressing, example. When Advance Publications bought the paper, it had the highest penetration rate in the US. More than 75 percent of the city read the Times-Picayune. Back in 2012, Advance decided to stop printing the paper, make it digital only, and lay off dozens of employees. Lots of columnists wrung their hands and said, alas, the golden days of newspapers ended long ago. But the paper was making a profit when Advance laid off all those reporters. It was a successful, profitable paper. Just not profitable ENOUGH for its corporate owners.
As profits fell from the highs of the 1970s, corporate owners tried to boost profits by cutting costs. Your take fell below 20 percent? You lay off a hundred more reporters and editors but keep the people who generate money, like ad sellers. That strategy was doomed to crash the papers. People don’t read them just to see Nordstrom ads. They come for the reporting and editorializing and entertainment. Corporate owners shrank comics pages down to a point where you needed a magnifying glass to read them, and restricted reporters to 700 words or so. And subscriber numbers, not surprisingly, started to fall.
There are slivers of silver lining in that for journalists. The American reading public is hungry for your work. You may have read, or heard, that people don’t read entire articles anymore and just skim the first couple paragraphs. That’s true of some readers in this age of distraction. But what’s also true is that longreads.com, where you can read stories that are thousands of words long, has continued to grow in popularity since its 2009 debut, and is now paying writers and reporters for original work instead of just posting already-published pieces. The site started in some guy’s home office and now has a staff of nearly 20 people, searching for great work, promoting great work, paying for great work.
NPR pays journalists all over the world for their stories. The headline in 2017 was “NPR Ratings at All-time High.” NPR brought in nearly $29 million from grants and contributions, and an additional $84 million from member station dues and fees. Then in 2018? “NPR Maintains Highest Ratings Ever.”
And it wasn’t just broadcast. In 2018 the New York Times pulled in $24 million in profit as subscriptions rose. From READERS!
Reporters don’t need to learn how to operate in a digital market. Most journalists I know have transitioned pretty smoothly to online content and video clips and Twitter. The news business isn’t dying. We aren’t losing our audience. What should die is this destructive idea that the news industry can generate dividend checks to rival Amazon’s.
News is not a product you can sell like a thousand dollar cell phone or a pair of fashionably ripped jeans. Journalism is not a commodity. It is a public service. And at its best, it can be an art.
How important is Journalism? It is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. No other occupation is specifically protected by the US Constitution. The only one! “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.” That’s not just an amendment, that’s the first amendment.
Henry Grunwald, long time editor-in-chief of Time Magazine, once said: “Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.”
Good journalism protects and prosecutes and enlightens and explains. It creates our historical record.
Let me tell you a story about my family. My grandfather was the celebrated composer William Grant Still. In 1936, he was invited to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. He was black, by the way, and it was 1936 — Pre-World War II, at a time when African-Americans were still being lynched for looking at a white woman the wrong way. He stood up on a podium in front of an all-white orchestra and led them through an evening of his music. It was an incredible moment.
And the Los Angeles Times didn’t bother to cover it. None of the other major dailies wrote about that concert. So, years later, when historians were trying to figure out who was the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US, they came up with another guy in the 1960s or something. But my grandmother protested and said her husband had done it in 1936. “Impossible!” they said. “There’s no record of that.”
So she showed them the clippings from LA’s black newspapers. For them, the concert was front page news, top of the fold. “CONDUCTOR WIELDS BATON AS THOUSANDS CHEER.” That story is a cautionary tale for me. First of all, I really need to keep a scrapbook. But also, thank God for those underpaid, unprofitable reporters at the black papers in California.
With all of the alt-weeklies and small papers that have closed over the past four decades, what history have we lost? What communities are unheard?
Journalism helps level the playing field between the powered and the disempowered. It holds the powerful to account. It is unethical and literally unreasonable to treat our industry like Wal-Mart. I see our government as a three-legged stool. The legislative and executive, the judicial, and the journalistic.
We live in perilous times indeed. Journalism in the US is in danger for a whole host of reasons. One is the corporate model, of course. But another is not their fault but ours.
There were other breaking news headlines lately, beyond the mass layoffs of reporters and editors. Long-time Trump cohort Roger Stone was arrested and indicted for lying, obstruction, and witness tampering. As I began to see the tweets mocking Stone for his cartoon villain antics and the large tattoo of Nixon’s head he sports between his shoulder blades, I felt an uncomfortable burning in the pit of my stomach.
This saga is as much an indictment of our industry as it is of Mr. Stone. Let me explain. Newsrooms have known for years that Stone is a reprehensible person and a dishonest player. Why does he boast a tattoo of Nixon’s face on his back? Because he was part of the Watergate conspiracy. That got him fired from Senator Bob Dole’s staff in the 1970s. Stone was behind the Brooks Brothers riot that helped get George Bush re-elected, something he later says he regretted because he realized that the Iraq war was not going well and he said, quote, “Maybe there wouldn’t have been a war if I hadn’t gone to Miami-Dade.” He was the source of the completely fabricated rumor that Michelle Obama referred to white people as “whitey.”
He was forced to apologize for using racist slurs to describe some prominent black Republicans. He called Hillary Clinton a c-word I won’t repeat. News headlines have referred to him as a “dirty trickster” because that’s how he has referred to himself.
So, why was Roger Stone being interviewed by major credible news organizations in the run-up to the 2016 election? It was not just that the FBI said he’s a liar. He admitted that years ago. So, why interview him, knowing his answers to your questions may be completely untrue?
Let the public decide, we say. That’s our out. And that’s why I’m talking about Roger Stone. He is a miserably obvious example of the way we have squandered the trust and good opinion of the public. And we must dedicate ourselves to winning that trust again.
“Just let the sources talk and let the people decide.” That philosophy is based on cowardice, partly. We fear we might take a stand and be criticized for it. It’s also based on budget, because real reporting is expensive, and fact checking takes time. But it’s also based on this equally ridiculous notion that news can be click-bait. The faulty assumption is it’s a good thing to base our coverage on outrageous comments from sources and provocative positions because that will outrage viewers and outrage fuels clicks.
Roger Stone is just one example of journalism’s current addiction to pundits. It’s a habit that needs to be kicked.
I have a strict no-pundit policy on shows I host. Before I explain why, though, let’s define our terms. What is a pundit? Here’s how Wikipedia defines it: “A pundit (sometimes called a talking head) is a person who offers to mass media their opinion or commentary on a particular subject area (most typically political analysis, the social sciences, technology or sport) on which they are knowledgeable (or can at least appear to be knowledgeable), or considered a scholar in said area. The term has been increasingly applied to popular media personalities.”
I chose this definition over Merriam-Webster’s because Webster defines a pundit as someone who knows a lot about a topic, and gives his or her opinion on that topic. I think Wikipedia is more accurate when they say a talking head “can at least appear to be knowledgeable.” To my mind, a pundit makes a living by talking or writing. A pundit doesn’t talk about truck driving because he drives a truck. She doesn’t give her opinion on education because she is also a 4th grade teacher. A pundit just has opinions on things, and that’s not particularly valuable to me as a journalist. Consulting a pundit is about as valuable, journalistically, as consulting my next-door neighbor.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against pundits as people. I know a number of people who could be classified as talking heads and they are smart, dedicated professionals. I also understand why so many media outlets rely on pundits in news coverage. Pundits make their living by talking to reporters, so they’re usually easy to book. And there are other benefits. While a scientist may hesitate to give her opinion on a new study because she hasn’t read it, a pundit is often willing to comment quickly. Pundits also understand the value of a good sound bite. If they’re good, they’ll give you compelling, interesting quotations.
Working with non-professional speakers is a lot more work, I grant you. They’re difficult to schedule, they’re sometimes unwilling to talk about controversial subjects, and they have to be carefully coached to stay focused and relaxed on the air. But I still prefer that to booking a pundit. A working teacher has a nuanced opinion. His views are shaped by his experience.
And the beet farmer isn’t invested in giving me a controversial sound bite that will “go viral”; she’s just talking about the issues that make her life easier or harder. I want to have a real conversation with people, not an argument. I’m interested in insight, not incitement. Doug Mitchell once told me that “We have to continue to insist that we grow the art form that is talking to people who are different from ourselves. Echo chamber journalism is not journalism. Talking only to people with whom we are most comfortable leads to inaccurate storytelling and a sheltered, if not uninformed, consumer.”
Talking to pundits, even dirty tricksters like Roger Stone, is comfortable because he’s familiar, he speaks our language, he knows the same people we do. He’s funny. He’s provocative. He’s bound to say something that will delight one group and offend another.
Talking to the kindergarten teacher in Billings, Montana, can be so much harder and more expensive, but that interview has value.
The Stone interview is just hot air in a paper bag. Opinions are easy. If I go and read a bunch of books about medical ethics, does that mean someone will value my opinion on the ethics of transplant policy? Well, they might book me to talk about it on cable news, but they really shouldn’t. Get an expert who actually makes decisions and maybe a person who’s waiting for a transplant. Who cares about an opinion that’s not backed up by experience? As Bono once said, “The less you know, the more you believe.”
Overuse of pundits is dangerous. Read the 24-page indictment of Roger Stone, you’ll understand why. Email exchanges reveal Stone was behind the rumor that Hillary Clinton was unwell. And be careful not to let your personal, emotional opinions influence you here. We are journalists. We’re not talking about who we like or don’t. We’re talking about facts.
So Stone sent an email that said “Would not hurt to start suggesting HRC old, memory bad, has stroke.” His team began to circulate the rumor and news media started to cover it as though it were a story. Three weeks later, Rudy Giuliani goes on TV and says the mainstream media was purposely hiding the fact that Clinton was sick and he suggests that we Google “Hillary Clinton sick” and see what comes up. Well, lots of things came up, because Stone and his team purposely spread lies about Clinton’s health all over the internet.
The Drudge Report showed a photo of Clinton being helped up a set of stairs by her assistants, not mentioning that the photo was six months old and taken just after she slipped a little on black ice.
The Clinton campaign released a statement saying the questions about her health were quote “lies based on fabricated documents promoted by Roger Stone and his right-wing allies.”
But two days later, August 18, 2016, Andrea Mitchell of NBC, as fine a journalist as you’ll find, asked Clinton about her health.
The news media were still talking about it a month later. One day in mid-September, Hillary Clinton’s health received 13 hours 41 minutes of coverage. Malfeasance at the Trump Foundation was discussed for 51 minutes.
Keep in mind that, as it turns out, Clinton is perfectly healthy, while the Trump Foundation was dissolved last year after what New York attorney general Barbara Underwood called “a shocking pattern of illegality.”
May we pause for a moment to address what may have entered your mind? That this journalist is showing intemperate support for Clinton because journalists are all liberal and hate Donald Trump.
I really don’t care if you hate Clinton and love Trump or hate Trump and love Bernie. It doesn’t matter to me. And, for the record, I am an independent, was raised in a Republican household and the first president I voted for was George H.W. Bush. But that doesn’t matter!
Because if I’m telling the truth, my political opinions are of no consequence. They are unimportant. Isaac Bailey, a Nieman Fellow wrote in the Nieman report in December, “I’m beginning to wonder if journalists have been bending over backward so far to disprove the “liberal media” narrative that they have unwittingly become advocates for conservatives and, more importantly, have been misinforming their audiences at critical junctions of our country’s recent history.”
It’s possible that, in order to prove we’re not biased in favor of one side, we default in favor of the other side.
But let’s go into the breach one more time with Roger Stone. After the Democratic National Committee was hacked, we learned from the indictment that Stone conspired with Julian Assange of Wikileaks to spread the rumor the emails stolen from the DNC proved all kinds of horrible, unsavory things about Clinton and her campaign.
The truth is, the emails proved none of those things. But journalists ran with the story. Between October 4th and election day on November 8th of 2016, there were 235 mentions of Clinton’s emails and 247 full segments about the emails.
Amanda Marcotte, political reporter for Salon says, “the media treated Stone like an assignment editor, who largely dictated their coverage of Clinton. Stone may be in handcuffs now, but most of [“the”?] journalists he fed and manipulated in 2016 will evade any responsibility for their failure to do their jobs.”
Our job is to do the reporting and find the actual experts, not the people who are readily available and have an opinion and have been on other news shows. When I was hosting a show called “Tell Me More,” we were doing a segment on voter fraud.
The producers had booked a lawyer and professor who had specialized in issues of voting rights for years. They also booked Hans von Spakovsky. Spakovsky is booked a lot to talk about voter fraud because he’s a big reason people believe voter fraud is real. The truth is, voter fraud is not real. It’s a myth. Extensive research has shown it’s not a problem. The chance voter fraud will occur is somewhere between .0003 and .0025 percent. A report on the subject said it’s more likely an American citizen will be struck by lightning than impersonate someone else at the polls.
Journalists have known for years Hans von Spakovsky does not tell the truth about voter fraud. We know that. So why book him as an expert to rebut an actual expert with no history of misinformation or fabrications? I refused to interview him. Two hours before going on the air, I insisted they drop Spakovsky. And I was the host, so they dropped him.
It took me more than 15 years to attain the kind of position that made that possible. But I hope younger journalists were listening. I hope they heard me reject a well-known source because he was not trustworthy.
I could not bring him onto the show because I’d spend the entire segment fact-checking him. That’s unfair to him and it’s not particularly interesting to listen to.
It is time for journalists to stop running scared and to stand by the facts. If you have done the work, if you’ve confirmed the information with two independent sources, if you’ve consulted the true experts, if you have checked your own bias and submitted your work to editorial review… if you have done all that, then you have found your story. Stand by it.
When it comes to finding your story, I do have one piece of advice for you that comes from my years of research into communication: Pick up the phone. Stop using email to reach sources.
Have you ever gotten a call from a friend and only have to hear them say “Hello” before you ask, “What’s wrong?” That’s how quickly we subconsciously pick up on information and detect emotional nuance.
Let me tell you how important this is. We started out with the same basic equipment in our mouths and throats as apes. But our evolutionary path broke away so that we could form words. Our mouths shrank, our necks got shorter, our lips became more flexible. All that came at a high price. Our larynx eventually moved further down our throats. That allowed us to form words, but it also meant food has to find its way past the larynx to the esophagus.
That’s why some people choke to death. Sometimes the food doesn’t get all the way past and it blocks the airway. Consider that for just a moment: the human race risks death in order to communicate more clearly. That’s how important conversation is.
So, even if you work in print, go see for yourself. Pick up the phone and hear their voices for yourself. Don’t get your quotes from Twitter. Talk to people.
Since I’m offering advice, let me add a bit more: forget about the big networks. There are plenty of news organizations with high standards and a love for real journalism. ProPublica is doing absolutely incredible work and they are often hiring. The Center for Investigative Reporting, along with their show Reveal, is kicking journalistic tail all over the map. The American Conservative is a fantastic publication. The Los Angeles Times needs a data journalist. Scripps is looking for an environmental journalist. Chico, California is looking for a writer.
Two of the most important qualities a journalist needs are integrity and humility. You must be humble enough to accept, at all times, that you may be wrong. You must be able to admit that you’re biased and that your biases might affect your reporting. You must be humble enough not to ignore or resent editing, but to welcome it and appreciate it. Everybody needs an editor.
And you must have the integrity to stand by your reporting. One of my favorite axioms: Journalism. It’s a tough job with insane pressure and pretty crappy pay. On the other hand, everybody hates you. But that’s not true. Everybody doesn’t hate you. Just a lot of people.
That’s the job. Are we liked? Rarely. Are we necessary? Absolutely. We have a sacred trust that we’ve abused in the past, and must honor now.
Farai Chideya, outstanding journalist and writer who’s now at the Ford Foundation said this about the current state of our industry: “This deepening division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task as journalists is to define that choice and press for accountability, remedy and resolution in our newsrooms and industry.”
If another Roger Stone arises in the years ahead — or the weeks, as will more likely happen — let’s not have that guy on our conscience. And in the words of Leslie Nielsen, I just want to say Good luck. We’re all counting on you.