Uncategorized, News & Publishing

Some thoughts on a year in news

As 2022 comes to a close, my social feeds have been heavy with news of layoffs across media and tech worlds.

It’s the loss of local news that feels most ominous. We’ll start the new year with fewer journalists in newsrooms, fewer columnists to stoke our minds, fewer visual journalists to show us new perspectives, fewer production, sales, audience and administrative pros to ensure that the news reaches subscribers and the public.

The threads that gut me most chronicle all the stories of little to great importance that journalists produced over time in service to employers and the community. There are the investigative pieces, expensive and sometimes tedious to produce; stories holding the powerful and elected to account; stories about the economy, housing, the food chain, immigration, public policy, foreign policy, crime, war, the heavy stuff.

There are endearing examples of human interest stories about the many inspiring people who contribute to our communities. There are the stories about events, art, food and local traditions that help us to feel connected to one another, to have the sense and security of a community around us.

Who will tell these stories, elevate these voices, speak these revelations when newsrooms are scuttled?

I’ve had the pleasure of another year reporting on the state of news for Editor & Publisher magazine, my 12th year with the title. It’s been a humbling, troubling, yet exhilarating year in news. Here are just a few of the stories I’ve had the privilege to tell:

I learned about anti-boycott legislation spreading through statehouses like wildfire, with repercussions to free speech and a free press. I also spoke with Mike Barnicle about the policy trend and other ways in which the 1st Amendment is under attack. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/anti-boycott-laws-run-afoul-of-the-free-press,217354

We followed the dynamics between news media and big tech, diving into the Journalism Preservation & Competition Act (JCPA), copyright issues, Section 230 (let’s not go there), and an anti-trust suit working its way through the courts. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/an-inequitable-partnership-turns-toxic,220234

We told good-news stories, like at The Oregonian. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/the-oregonian-curates-a-feel-good-news-experience,221670

E&P Publisher Mike Blinder was kind to invite me to join him on a few episodes of E&P Reports, like this spirited discussion about public notices: https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/floridas-public-notice-reversal-could-it-have-been-avoided-and-will-other-states-follow,221605?newsletter=221606

We reported on cybercrime and the specific threat to news organizations around the world. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/cyber-threats-to-media-companies-are-on-the-rise,225421

We chronicled the development of “democracy teams” around the country. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/the-washington-post-deploys-democracy-team,225938

And about how the norms, institutions and tenets of democracy are under attack: https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/american-democracy-in-crisis,239480

As a “daughter of Baltimore,” I had the distinct pleasure of telling the story of the 130-years-young The AFRO-American, and the inspiring family behind the news brand. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/news-history-130-years-in-the-making,239598?newsletter=239660

And told the story of the brand-new Baltimore Banner: https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/a-banner-year-for-baltimore,227440

I got to know some truly impressive journalists this year, including many award-winners, like Samantha Max. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/shattering-the-code-of-silence,231515

Under Robin Blinder’s direction as editor and co-publisher, we informed readers — mostly C-Suite news exes — about what journalists contend with today, including challenges related to mental health and physical safety. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/mindful-of-mental-health,233569?newsletter=233935

We told the cautionary tales about how news media publishers are imperiled, and how the public’s trust in news is fragile and fleeting. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/libel-suit-leaves-local-paper-in-crisis,237861?newsletter=238485

We reported on news outlets reporting on crises, like catastrophic Hurricane Ian. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/ian/

I wrote a cover story I didn’t want to write, shouldn’t have to write, nearly couldn’t bring myself to write, and have forever been changed by it: https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/reporting-on-school-shootings,232615

We asked tough questions of our peers, including Mike Reed, CEO of Gannett, who just directed the en-masse layoffs I mentioned at the beginning of this missive. He can expect more questions from me in the new year. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/the-good-news-and-bad-news-about-gannett,240563

I learned a lot this year from some really inspiring visionaries. I hope E&P readers did, too. Everything about news is in flux, even the profession of journalism. https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/the-objectivity-wars-wage-on,240841

My final E&P dispatch of the year is bittersweet, like the holidays or the end of a year. We wanted to tell the stories of journalists who’ve worked a newsroom, a sound booth or a TV studio on one of the major year-end holidays. We wanted to know about festivities, food (because you know that’s important to us) and newsroom traditions, but also about the memorable events reported on those holidays — a reminder that the public’s need to know never takes a holiday.

I was so grateful for all the reporters, editors, photographers, on-air hosts, everyone who shared their memories with me. Throughout those conversations ran two themes — what a privilege it is to do this job, and how so many journalists lost their jobs this year, how so many have had to (reluctantly or enthusiastically) leave the profession.

I’d like to extend a special thanks to E&P Columnist and Cartoonist Rob Tornoe, who illustrated the cover and perfectly captured the experience of chasing a lead while the newsroom is quiet and the world around you celebrates.

You can read the entire December 2022 e-edition here: https://editorandpublisher.pressreader.com/editor-publisher

My New Year’s wish is that all of these talented, smart, earnest people — indispensable members of our news family — land upright and ready to lead us toward a new trajectory. ~ G

News & Publishing

American Journalism Project makes good on a promise to fund nonprofit local news

One recipient, Block Club Chicago, hopes to “supercharge” operations with the funding

WATCH: E&P Reports welcomes Shamus Toomey and Stephanie Lulay of Block Club Chicago, and the American Journalism Project’s Anna Nirmala and Sarabeth Berman to talk about venture philanthropy and nonprofit local news:

https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/american-journalism-project-makes-good-on-a-promise-to-fund-nonprofit-local-news,216024

Military Service, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

History Repeats

A pilgrimage back to the battlefields of Gettysburg

By Gretchen A. Peck

Growing up in a then-small town in mid-state Maryland, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania always beckoned from the north. As 5th-graders, we’d travel to Camp Round Top for a standard-curriculum introduction to cabin life and campfire songs. Those who could afford it trekked up to places like Seven Springs for high-school ski trips. Towns like York and Reading appealed to our parents for stuff like farm-fresh canned goods and outlet shopping. It was rare to venture far enough east or west to get a taste of the big cities in Pennsylvania. I didn’t see Pittsburgh until I was well into my 40s, and Philadelphia eluded me until I was in college and in control of my own journeys. 

Though it felt like an epic adventure back then—through the wide-eyed but impatient eyes of a child — Gettysburg was an easy day-trip destination for parents and teachers who wanted to leverage some pretty remarkable local history. As a kid, I went there twice. Both times are etched in my memory still — one a fond trip; the other, a not-so-fond trip involving a banana-seated bicycle and a flashy Mercedes-Benz. 

The fonder of those two trips was with my main pal, my great-grandmother, Ruth. She was always rather independent and still felt comfortable behind the wheel of one those iron-horse American-made cars and station wagons she used to drive. I can’t be certain if she pitched the idea of a day trip to Gettysburg because she was intrigued by the history herself, or if she was just looking for a way to keep a precocious kid occupied for a span of time, but northward we went to the battlefields of Gettysburg. 

Gettysburg

I knew about Gettysburg’s history, probably because I’d read about it independently. I was a voracious, above-grade reader with an affinity for history and historic fiction. I don’t know what I expected of the battlefields there, which I knew to have claimed the lives of thousands of men, but as we drove Gettysburg’s rolling hills and past its stacked stone walls, I found them to be just pretty countryside, but otherwise unremarkable. It was hard to imagine them littered with the bodies of dead and dying soldiers. Then again, it was hard to imagine fellow countrymen turning on one another at all. It didn’t sit well with me then, as a child, and doesn’t now.

At the museum commemorating the pivotal battle, there was an interactive display — what they refer to as a cyclorama — a painting by French artist Paul Philippoteaux that offers a 360-degree depiction of the battleground’s horrors and the spoils of war. The artist shied not away from the gore, and viewing the battlefield like that helped me to imagine what those bucolic fields looked like in July 1863. I spun around, taking it all in, aghast at the blood and carnage. 

Cyclorama depicting the Battle of Gettysburg
Cyclorama (detail)

There was another artifact from the museum that I thought I remembered so vividly—an old wooden table used as a makeshift operating table. As a child, I stared in horror at the rough-blade saws they used for amputation with little to soothe the wounded soldiers. The table had what appeared to be a stain, and I gasped at the thought that no one had thought to wipe away the blood before putting it on display. 

Before we headed for home, my great-grandmother bought me a fold-out miniature depiction of the cyclorama, on glossy postcard stock. I unfolded it on my lap and studied it the whole way home. 

I was in my 40s when I went back to Gettysburg on a cold misty-mountain day, the end of a brief but cathartic pilgrimage back to where I began. Decidedly middle-aged by then, I had new perspective on childhood homes and places of significance around my hometown. I toured it with my parents, and we spoke of memories, avoiding the hardest ones. After the visit, I packed my truck and headed north toward home in Pennsylvania. I toyed with the idea of stopping in Gettysburg, but it was threatening to rain and I kept that in the back of my mind as an excuse not to make the pitstop. 

But something compelled me to retrace the steps my great-grandmother and I had walked together decades before. 

I thought of her as I bought my ticket, and wandered through the exhibits. She felt beside me as I ascended the long escalator to the theater-in-the-round where they cyclorama painting is on display. I could practically hear her laughter when I walked up to the display of the operating table to see that the “stain” I’d remembered was most likely just the natural grain of the wood and some wear and tear — the blood I’d conjured were just a child’s imagination run amok. 

Kitchen table/Operating table

I brushed by families and stood by myself reading the plaques and watching the video clips throughout the exhibit. I thought about the toxicity of politics, how it inherently divides up the nation into neat little categories, largely based on where and to whom we’re born. I thought of the barbarism of the war, the hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye combat, an intimate, personal war waged among neighbors and families and fellow countrymen. 

What would the weapons of Civil War be today?

It seemed to me then, even as a child, a wholly absurd notion. I felt men were to blame and women had to suffer their consequences. Now that members of Congress like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) openly flirt with the idea of civil war, like it’s the stuff of romantic nostalgia, I can no longer blame the barbarism on men alone. I do imagine that the civil war the Congresswoman pines for will not be so “fairly” fought, with men in uniforms on rural battlefields, but instead through cowardly acts of terror.

By the time I found my middle-aged self in Gettysburg back on that misty day, the nation’s politics had once again turned toxic, like a sepsis from a wound that never really healed. It’s exponentially worse now — in 2022, as we sit — so much more vitriolic, hateful, and steeped in a scourge of misinformation. 

Before I left Gettysburg in my wake for that third time in my life, I stopped in the gift shop — now, a gift shop on steroids — and bought water for the ride home, a soldier bag for my husband (he’d hate it if I called it a murse, which it is), and a mug depicting the Gettysburg address for me. Just outside the gift shop sat a table where visitors could “Send a Message to the Troops” via postcard. I filled one out, and hoped it found someone out in some far-off “battlefield” and makes her or him feel thought-of and important.

I stopped to snap a selfie with a bronze statue of President Abraham Lincoln before getting on the road, just long enough to hear a strange conversation unfold between a father and son coming up the path to see the museum. “Lincoln,” the child exclaimed when he saw the statue where I was taking my selfie. “Take a picture of me, Daddy,” the little boy pleaded. There was an awkward pause before the father said, “Nah. Nah. Not now. Besides, he was on the other side.”

I thought of my great-grandmother again in that moment, by all accounts a church-going, southern, conservative Republican woman to her core. There was never any question how she came down on such matters. Slavery was immoral, a sin, and a war fought on slavery’s behalf — pitting neighbor against neighbor, countryman against countryman, brother versus brother — was, too. This was not up for debate.

She’d brought me to that hallowed battlefield to instill that in me. 

“War is cruelty.”

It felt tragic, almost surreal, to see a child brought to that solemn place and taught otherwise — its lessons not just missed but mistaken, misrepresented, warped.  Once again it feels surreal to see members of Congress masticating the possibility of bloodshed, or to read articles by pundits pondering whether Civil War in the United States is inevitable or has already begun. 

Perish the thought. 

News & Publishing

Under New Management

With new local owners, former Gannett-owned newspapers benefit from reinvestment

By Gretchen A. Peck

Gannett remains at the top of the leaderboard for newspaper ownership. It publishes over 1,000 weekly titles and more than 100 dailies, amassed over the years through independent acquisitions and headlining mergers. But the company turned heads in the newspaper world when it recently began selling off some of those newspapers, mostly small-market and community titles that local owners were eager to buy.

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine.

News & Publishing

What’s Left Behind

The shadow of hedge fund and corporate ownership leaves newsrooms in fear they’ll be picked clean

By Gretchen A. Peck

This summer, Alden Global Capital acquired Tribune Publishing and its titles, from small community newspapers to major metro titles like its flagship, The Chicago Tribune, and The Baltimore Sun. It wasn’t the first newspaper acquisition for this hedge fund firm, nor is it the only firm of its kind eyeing the nation’s newspapers. But this acquisition was profound, making Alden Global Capital the owner, in effect, of more than 200 newspapers across the land. It was a deal rife with drama, as the Tribune newsrooms publicly pleaded for some other savior. In the end, no eccentric billionaire philanthropist descended on the scene to save them. Instead, the newsrooms steeled themselves for the future.

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Access Journalism: The Impact on Trust in News

Relationships with sources are more scrutinized and more complicated than ever

By Gretchen A. Peck

Access journalism. Follow threads about the press or conversations among journalists and it’s bound to come up in discussion. Fundamentally, access journalism occurs when reporters value landing a source more than the information gleaned from that source.

But what do readers, viewers, or other members of the public mean when they use the term as criticism? Is it simply expedient and pithy, just a new way to disparage the press?

More importantly, what does the practice or appearance of access journalism mean to the trust audiences and the public place in their news sources? And how should we prepare new journalists coming into the field for navigating the access minefield?

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine:
https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/access-denied-or-granted,199088

News & Publishing

The Podcast Revolution

By Gretchen A. Peck

Audio is a platform unlike any other, in that it closes the distance—physically and cognitively—between the listener and host and guests. In conversations with people who podcast, you’ll hear the word “intimate” used a lot to describe the relationship between listener and the voices emanating from their earbuds. It’s as if there’s no one else in the equation, as if you’re being told a story just for you.

For news organizations increasingly reliant on audience more than advertising, audio is proving to be a platform that makes those connections, builds trust and familiarity, and solidifies those relationships.

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine: https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/the-podcast-revolution,196969

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Newspapers Emerging from the Pandemic

In this month’s Editor & Publisher magazine, check out the cover story. I spoke with news organizations about the past pandemic-challenged year and how they’ve managed through the tumult.

Read on at EditorandPublisher.com:

https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/newspapers-emerging-from-the-pandemic,189882

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

HD Media Takes on the Tech Giants

With a federal antitrust suit against Google and Facebook, a single newspaper publisher seeks to level the playing field

By Gretchen A. Peck

Tech giants Google and Facebook aren’t strangers to antitrust litigation and Congressional scrutiny, but in a first-of-its-kind case, the two companies have been named as defendants in a federal antitrust lawsuit filed by a newspaper publisher.

The plaintiff, HD Media Co., LLC, is the West Virginia-based publisher of seven titles, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Herald-Dispatch, a historically significant newspaper that dates back to 1871.

On Jan. 29, the publisher filed its lawsuit in the Southern District of West Virginia. To small community and regional newspaper publishers across the nation, the action may seem like David squaring off against a two-headed Goliath.

Read on at Editor & Publisher magazine.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

What’s “Section 230,” and why should you care?

Yesterday, the Giants of Social Media stomped their feet down on the President of the United States, who’d abused their platforms all along, leveraging them to spread disinformation, launch attacks, paint targets, fire people, lament TV ratings, race bait, and – his most egregious offenses – to discredit the 2020 election, grift people of their hard-earned cash with promises of an overturn, inciting the most gullible among them to disrupt governance, trash and pillage the U.S. Capitol, plant bombs in the nation’s capital, murder a Capitol Police officer, and attempt to install Donald J. Trump as a second-term President via violent insurrection against their own country.

Whew.

Indeed, social media had tolerated much from the digitally prolific President, but as conversations of an armed terrorist attack on the nation’s capital began to simmer, they’d had enough. 

Immediately came the decries of a “First Amendment infringement” (it’s not), and Trump’s most loyal lawmaker friends calling for a repeal of “Section 230” – a pet peeve for the outgoing Commander in Chief.

What is Section 230?

“Section 230” – more formally known as Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 at 47 U.S.C. § 230, and colloquially as “the 26 words that created the Internet” – was born out of two 1990s lawsuits against ISPs and challenged in the Courts several times since. Each time, it was upheld. 

It is fair to say that Section 230 is perhaps the single most important legislation applicable to social media. It is what enabled platforms like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and others to grow, flourish, and become a huge, integral part of the American economy and culture.

President Trump’s interest in Section 230 appears to coincide with Twitter’s first fact-checking of the President’s potentially harmful tweets, back in the spring of 2020. At the time, he was undermining his own taskforce with COVID-19 disinformation, and already sowing the seeds of election chaos. 

Twitter justified the tags it placed on the President’s tweets by suggesting that virus disinformation could kill people – and it has – and that his election discrediting jeopardized democracy itself. The rest of the President’s political gamesmanship was all fair game, Twitter and Facebook concluded. 

From then on, the President became hyper-focused on a Section 230 repeal. He would like to be able to sue the tech companies for denying him a platform and megaphone. He wants to criminalize fact-checking. He has been so intent on this goal, that he was willing to tank two major pieces of legislation – the NDAA and a second sweeping COVID relief Bill – if he couldn’t get his way on Section 230. 

For Democrats, this repeal is a non-negotiable dealbreaker, perhaps because they have a better grasp of what’s at stake. 

In Congress, some of President Trump’s most lock-step Republicans now champion the repeal in his stead. 

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) sponsored a 2020 bill, known as H.R. 8896 – the AOC Act, which conveniently shares the acronym with a certain Congresswoman perpetually under the skins of her Republican colleagues and its actual title, “the Abandoning Online Censorship Act.” Gohmert was able to get seven co-sponsors to sign on, all Republicans.

It was “dead in the [swamp] water.”

In 2021, and in the wake of the de-platforming of an American President who would not follow the rules, Republicans will make this case: When the platforms began to fact-check, censor, and now ban content from the President and others, they have ceased to be a platform and are instead a publisher, with an editorial due diligence and subjective control over what users see or don’t see. 

The tech platforms will argue: As private companies, with clear terms of service (that users agree to when they open their accounts and create their avatars), they should be able to enforce those rules and codes of conduct, which clearly state that users are prohibited from sharing content that will harm or threaten people (other users or otherwise). 

It’s worth mentioning that the federal government already has some control over platforms and their users. For example, it is criminal act to distribute certain types of content across the Internet or any platform. Section 230 does not give social media platforms blanket immunity from all forms of civil or criminal prosecutions. 

If Section 230 goes away, what happens?

Without Section 230, the platforms, like publishers, would be subjected to defamation and libel laws. The distinction, however, is that publishers own their content. Publishers create, edit, verify and challenge, run it by lawyers, decide what and what not to publish, and then take whatever fallout there is from those choices; they wholly own the content they share. 

Conversely, platforms are just that – a technological foundation for users to share the content they and others produce. Without Section 230 shields, platforms could then be held liable for content they do not create and merely host. 

President Trump and his Congressional allies vow this repeal will force the tech companies to take an apolitical hands-off approach to users; that it will force them to enable more free expression; and force the platforms to be tolerant of a broader spectrum of ideas and alt-facts. 

They feel social media has been unfair to conservative voices and ideas. A simple glance at what trends on Facebook defies this assertion. On any given day, the top 10 trending posts on Facebook are often from Right-leaning media and personalities, or topics deemed of import to conservative-minded users.

I know you’re surprised that politicians would sell you poppycock, right?

Instead, a repeal would likely have a chilling, constricting effect on users most of all. 

Now, liable for content they do not create, platforms will be forced to more protective and less likely to tolerate content that could be controversial, debatable or have merit in a Court of law. 

Users would have less opportunity for free expression, not more

It’s a bottomless pit of liability for the social media platforms, which could be named as a Party in every single lawsuit in which a social media comment somehow plays a role – big-dollar cases to petty ones. 

The only real winners will be lawyers. 

Ultimately, it would hobble the tech companies, just as one notoriously vindictive President hopes. The tech market would be destabilized, fractured. Users would find themselves with fewer options and tighter restrictions on what they can post and share. Online communities will be more insular and more echo-chamber like. 

Businesses – especially small businesses that rely heavily on the mostly free marketing perks of platforms like Twitter and Facebook – would be hobbled, too. It doesn’t seem the Republicans like Lindsay Graham and Louie Gohmert have really thought this through. 

None of this is to say that social media execs don’t have plenty of atoning to do. There is no shortage of Silicon Valley sin, but repealing Section 230 will not address those in a surgical, effective way.