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

Book Publishing, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Printing and Imaging, Uncategorized

Everything I Know About Capitalism, I Learned In the 6th Grade

This headline is not true, and yet, it was in this pre-Middle School era of my life when I first began to fully “understand the value of a dollar.”

I find that’s a popular phrase passed down through generations, an invaluable life lesson or a rite of passage. For two sixth-grade classes in the 1970s, their introduction to commerce and capitalism began that week.

That was the year that the number of students had outgrown the school, and some lucky contractor got the local school system bid for providing pop-up classrooms made out of stitched-together double-wide trailers. Two sixth-grade classes shared the one we’d been sentenced to, with a sliding partition between the two groups, each with its own teacher.

The partition was an insufficient barrier that mostly rendered us distracted by what was happening with the kids on the other side. When they laughed, our heads swiveled. When we acted up, they’d go silent and giggle as they listened to our punishment being levied. One teacher would have to raise her voice to keep the attention of her class whenever the sounds of the other teacher seemed more interesting.

And vice versa, and so it went.

Imagine the delight in our little hearts when one day the partition was folded in on itself, the two classrooms of kids facing off at last. The once competitive teachers joined forces and announced that we were going to learn about “the value of money.” They went on to explain that for a period of one week, there would be no traditional classroom lessons and that our trailer would be transformed into a microcosmic town.

Each of us had a role to play in the town. They asked for a show of hands when assigning roles like bankers, retailers, landlords, food purveyors, even insurance carriers.

I was the only one who wanted to run the town’s newspaper.

The town also needed governance and law, and so a show of hands indicated which of my classmates aspired to political life – managing their day-to-day duties while also running for a handful of offices, including mayor and sheriff.

We spent a day or two planning and building the town. Creative cardboard cutouts became our storefronts. Logos were designed, and signs went up over our storefronts. My classmates got right to work. The banker “handprinted” money and distributed a precisely equal amount of cash to each of the town’s residents, so everyone had a level playing field – a comparatively endearing socialist start to what would end in survival-of-the-fittest capitalistic carnage.

The most popular business, by far, was the town baker, who sold decadent treats to a classroom of kids given the freedom to make their own nutritional and expenditure decisions.

We didn’t speak of food allergies back then.

I got right to work wearing all the hats at the newspaper – a lot like things are today.

I reported and designed the layout. I “printed” the paper on the front office’s mimeograph. Printing is a big cost for actual newspapers, but I’d managed to get the paper and “press” for free. This would be seen as an ethical breach for actual newspapers.

I had to hock the paper, selling single copies to passersby. I sold advertising and wrote ad copy. I had to distribute the paper when it was hot off the press.

And though everyone wanted to read the paper – mostly to see if they were in it – few wanted to buy the paper. It was hard to compete with Mom-baked brownies.

I spent the week walking around the perimeter of the trailer, interviewing my classmates about the health of their businesses or who they liked in the pending election. I wrote trends pieces about how the town’s residents thought the rent was too damned high and how they wanted to be able to spend more of their money on luxury items, like those chocolately brownies. I vaguely remember writing an expose on the insurance carrier in town, who I saw as a huckster selling vapor.

“People give you money, but what do they really get in return,” I grilled him like I was Woodward or Bernstein.

One by one, the small businesses fell, exiling their owners from town, to a corner of the trailer-classroom to watch an episode of “Free to be You and Me” or to throw a sixth-grade temper tantrum, perhaps.

Naturally, the bank endured; it thrived off of the interest. The insurance carrier – who had minimal overhead costs and a contained, safe environment that put odds in his favor – stayed afloat. The baker had fistfuls of colorful cash by week’s end. And the newspaper endured, though I, too, was pretty busted. By the time I’d covered my own costs – rent, insurance, crayons – I didn’t have enough currency for much else.

I’d spent days coveting my classmates’ disposable income and how they frivolously, happily spent it on baked goods and insurance policies.

Somehow, I’d managed to get the news out, but it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t lucrative.

Health, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Digital News Publishers Weather the Storm After COVID-19

I spoke with digital news organizations — and some major metro newspapers, including those that have been so-called “hot zones” for COVID-19 — about how the pandemic has influenced, impeded, affirmed, or transformed content, operations, staffing, revenue, and philosophies.

From the July/August issue of Editor & Publisher magazine:

https://www.editorandpublisher.com/feature/digital-news-publishers-weather-the-storm-after-covid-19/

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The Roof, the Roof, the Roof Is On Fire

Unlike George Floyd, who literally choked out his last words …

“Don’t kill me.”

“Momma.”

“I can’t breathe.”

… I only figuratively choke on words to chronicle this moment in our nation’s history. I feel inadequate and inarticulate. Nothing I can put to paper is profound enough. What can I write that I haven’t said before, after each injustice I’ve paid witness to in my lifetime — this life of mine that tonight feels privileged and impossibly long?

What have I not already said about the racial disparities that plague our culture? How can I, an inept bystander really, somehow define and encapsulate the festering wounds of racism and our pathetic inability to destroy it, once and for all?

I think I choke on these words because it’s not my story to tell. I think on these matters, as a white person who knows that I can go about my days — somedays even myself breaking laws — without that omnipresent fear that others will inherently aim to target me, harass me, disparage me, or even kill me, I might be best to shut the fuck up and listen, or better yet, to act as a conduit, a megaphone for others who know these atrocities firsthand.

I need to do a better job at making sure those stories are told. That is my mission and vow.

I may be better equipped to speak about protests. A child of the 60s and 70s, I have been witness to Vietnam-era rebellions, Los Angeles, Ferguson, and all the modern-era injustices that have led people to the streets to speak to their rage, to show the world their anguish.

I have myself marched, when there seemed like no other way to break through. This is all too familiar to me.

Tragically, rather than acknowledging their numbers and hearing their cries – rather than listening to their plight and empathizing with their anger – too many in this country will look at anecdotal property destruction and discount these protesters’ voices, wholesale. They will criticize them, or worse, tsk-tsk them and just move on about their days.

I sat up all night again, watching live feeds of fires burning in businesses, a news network under siege, tear gas canisters flying, and I think back to a demonstration I took part in years ago. I found myself side-by-side with a perfectly mild-mannered and otherwise peaceful, law-abiding person, who was so caught up in the moment, so unable to tamp down his rage, that he screamed out, “Burn it all down!”

That’s what rage does to human beings. That’s what being unheard, for years, decades, centuries, does to us.

As the day breaks, American cities will awaken to carnage today. They will find their neighbors and friends nursing wounds, glass on the streets, fires still smoldering. Talking heads on TV and social-media commenters will ponder, “Why have they done this? What purpose does it serve?”

They don’t understand it, because they haven’t tried to understand it.

I think about erupting rage and wonder how this anger is any less valid than the grievances that inspired this nation to elect Donald J. Trump as our 45th President? So often I’ve heard from Trump voters who say they voted for him to “drain the swamp,” to “shake things up.”

What they really meant was, “Burn it all down.”

The thing is, when you have that level of power – as a member of Congress or as President – burning it down proves rather easy and clean. No muss, no fuss. You don’t need to take the streets. K Street comes to you. You meet in chambers at the Capitol and with pen strokes, you dismantle it. You exploit that rage that sent you there to undermine law enforcement, intelligence agencies, the very system of justice that governs our land. You quietly leverage the courts to take mere access to healthcare away from millions who desperately need it. You slickly undermine public education. You put a price tag on the environment and sell it to the highest bidder. You champion war criminals and demote military heroes. You strike down laws intended to protect workers and people from businesses that will harm them and make them sick. You enrich your friends and starve the rest.

You challenge long-established Constitutional laws, because you can, and because you feel it’s what you were elected and emboldened to do.

You see a plague coming and you shrug it off, knowing that it might kill millions, especially in the cities for which you have disdain, cities that didn’t vote for you.

You burn it all down while surrounding yourself with blue-suited middle-aged white men cheering you on, never getting any grime on your hands at all. It’s all disgustingly dignified.

But the People don’t have that power. They’ve got to get their hands dirty.

The People don’t have those commemorative Executive Order-signing pens. They only have the streets. They only have their rage. They have only year after year of screaming into a void. And, so, they want to burn it all down the only way they know how, until the powerful listen, until they command their attention, until the change they demand comes.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Telling the Story of the Weight of the World

There’s a saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and for good reason. Graphics can be a powerful representation, somehow distilling down what is otherwise complex and difficult to process.

This Sunday morning – on the eve of Memorial Day, when we honor our fallen – readers found The New York Times’ front page free of graphics. Yet, the image of 1,000 printed names, a mere fraction of the American lives stolen by a global pandemic, is shockingly graphic.

You may read about the Times’ editorial decision to publish this stark and poignant representation here.

As of this writing moment, an estimated 342,000 people around the world have perished from COVID-19-related illness. Here in the United States, where everything must be politicized nowadays, the figures are undermined. You’ll hear plenty of pundits trying to shirk government’s blame for its slow response, its dragging of feet when mitigation was critical.

They say things like, “If a person has a heart condition or is dying of old age and they contract the virus, are they really dying of COVID-19, or are they dying of those preexisting conditions?” Dr. Deborah Birx was asked to address this at one of the maddening press briefings. She clarified that, in cases of this kind, it is the virus that’s the acute cause of death.

This is not a controversial medical opinion. If a patient is hospitalized for an injury or illness, and while in the hospital contracts an infection and dies, it is the viral infection that kills the person, not the condition that put them there.

But there is good reason to question the figures, which are flawed and fluid, and may, in fact, be conservative estimates at this point. It is unknown how many Americans during these past few months have been sick and died in their residences, in their workplaces, or in the streets, who were never afforded a post-mortem test for COVID-19. The disease is so wildly unpredictable and adept at subterfuge, with symptoms ranging from fever and the obvious respiratory ailments to neurological and vascular breakdowns. Even younger people with no underlying conditions have died of heart failure and massive stroke.

We still have so much to learn and to understand about this virus – known to be exponentially more contagious than flu-like viruses that have proceeded it. We don’t really know how it so effectively spreads. We don’t know why those symptoms vary widely. We can’t even say with certainty that those who have contracted the virus and lived to see the other side of it cannot be re-infected.

This story is not yet written.

Because everything is so politicized and polarized in the nation today, it is not surprising that pundits have stoked the anti-media flames, accusing the Press of somehow manufacturing the story, of inflating it, and causing people to fear for their lives.

I’m of the opinion that a virus that potentially makes you so sick that you feel that you’re drowning – not for minutes, which is what it usually takes for a person to die by drowning – but hours, days, weeks, deserves a perfectly rational level of fear. But if that’s not enough to give all Americans pause, to consider the seriousness and solemnity, certainly the number of deaths should.

97,426.

Our culture relishes comparison.

Those trying to diminish the virus like to compare it to annual flu deaths. Various strains of flu virus are to blame for 24,000 to 62,000 American deaths each year, measured over the course of 12 months. Nearly 100,000 people have died from COVID-19 in fewer than four.

It is true that more than 600,000 people died from cancers in the U.S. last year. But can you imagine if we simply gave up the quest for answers and cures?

An estimated 58,200 American soldiers died fighting the Vietnam War, a gut-wrenching statistic that erupted the country in protest. Can you imagine if the Press never reported on it, or never published the Pentagon Papers?

Nearly 3,000 people were slain on 9/11. Our government used those dead as opportunity to invade two countries. Can you imagine if the Press merely shrugged it off? Can you imagine if politicians and their “fans” told grieving, frightened Americans to “just move along, nothing to see here?”

I’m in the midst of writing a 2,000-word piece for Editor & Publisher magazine about how news organizations are covering the pandemic, for which I’ve spoken to a number of news organizations – from large national newspapers and broadcast companies to small community and non-profit digital publications. It has flipped newsrooms upside down, shaking them like snow globes, with more stories than they can tell falling down all around them.

Every single story today is colored by COVID-19, because the effects are far-reaching and disturbingly influential: Economics, business, labor force and unemployment. Critical public health and safety. Long-term healthcare. Education and schools. Parenting and caretaking. The food chain and food banks. The supply chain. Personal interest stories, and on and on.

And the Press must cover all these angles. To ignore them is a dereliction of duty.

It more than pains me – it makes me irate – when I see and hear people suggest that the Press shouldn’t cover this virus, that we shouldn’t even tell the stories of the individuals who died – people who lived and loved and contributed to the society in some way.

How completely selfish and vulgar it is to look at Press coverage and find it to be inconvenient and uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit into a preconceived, politically crafted narrative.

It’s insensitive, to put it mildly, to suggest that we shouldn’t tell the stories about the aftermath for their families, of grieving from afar and then alone. It’s foolish to ignore the challenges and burdens it has placed upon us, not just on commerce and businesses, but literally on every single one of us – here and around the world.

Pandemic is profound.

I think of what yet has to be told, what will be written in the weeks, months, years, and decades to come.

This morning, I look at the image of that Times’ front page, and I feel the weight of it all.

That image – the picture of a thousand words. A thousand names x 100.

NYT-front-page-05-24-20-superJumbo-v2

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The President’s “Keyboard Warriors” Take to the Streets

I saw this clip when the reporter first posted it — taken at some of sort of a rally. I can’t be sure whether it was a gathering just to celebrate the President or to make some sort of statement about the state of affairs on Long Island, within reach of the COVID-19 hotbed zone, New York City.

I’ve come to expect this kind of vitriol. It’s not new. Some years ago when I was dispatched to photograph a protest/counter-protest of Trump’s speech at the Coast Guard Academy commencement, I took some of this kind of flack myself from several individuals who walked alongside the protest marchers and screamed at the group. To me, they yelled “fake news” and some misogynistic nonsense that I shrugged off at the time. It’s gotten much worse in the years since, with reporters harassed, doxxed, physically assaulted, their gear ripped from their hands and destroyed.

The Constitutionally protected Free Press no longer feels very free. It feels like targets have been painted on their backs.

When this clip first published on Twitter, I had a couple of thoughts: First, note how brave the local TV reporter is as he walks through the frothy-mouthed crowd. See his calm as he navigates individuals/superspreaders yelling in his face and refusing to respect any physical distancing.

I thought, look at how they scream at him, even in front of their young, impressionable children. Look at how they seem to have lost their damned minds, becoming people I doubt they are in everyday situations. I bet they don’t behave like this at family reunions, nor at the workplace, nor in their neighborhoods, nor in their PTA meetings.

I was also hyperaware of the irony of this. Here, we have a reporter dispatched by the local Long Island TV station, to report on their event. Had he and others not been there, they would have been accused of ignoring their plights, blackballing their voices. How many times have you heard from the President’s most ardent supporters, “You won’t hear this on the mainstream media …”

And yet, this is about as MSM as you can get, the guy I bet everyone in the crowd knew by name and face, because he’s on their TV screens every weeknight. Local TV news is about as close to the community as you can get outside of a small-town paper. It’s not just “mainstream,” it’s “Main Street.”

Here he was to capture their moment, to take their story to the airwaves, to interview them and get their perspectives.

And what do they do? They threaten him, scold him, verbally shit all over the guy. They terrorize him.

I shared the clip on social media, and I blamed the President for this vitriol and hate. After all, it’s his words, verbatim, that they practically spit at the TV newsman. Listen carefully, and you can hear them parrot our President.

Turns out, I was right to put the blame at the President’s feet, because in the middle of the night — when the President should either be sleeping, meeting with his entourage at Camp David, or thinking long and hard about how to save lives in the throes of pandemic — the President shared this clip, too. Not once, but twice. That tells me he’s quite proud of these people, this behavior, and his ability to manipulate masses of his “keyboard warriors,” to the point that they have become something other than themselves.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

In the social stratosphere, questions are just as important as the answers

I lived in Pennsylvania at the dawn of the fracking boom, which ravaged the State in so many ways. I became interested in fracking because of personal experience with groundwater contamination back in my home state of Maryland – malfeasance that caused most of my family to be sick or to die of cancer. I learned about cancer clusters by being a member of one.

I anxiously watched what was happening in Pennsylvania, as gas-drilling leases were dangled before landowners and farmers as a way to sustain their properties when the local economy had fizzled. I noticed as landowners who’d leased reported obvious well contamination – hazardous materials that you could see and those that you couldn’t see. Pennsylvania’s waterways were suddenly contaminated with nasty things that were meant to stay deep in the ground and by chemicals used in the fracking process, which the industry wasn’t required to disclose to the public.

I chronicled how the gas companies made grandiose vows to communities about a commercial boom that would happen if only municipalities would welcome in their trucks and drills and legions of personnel, only to frack the town and then pack up and move along to the next dupes. I shook with rage as communities were terrorized by armed mercenaries for hire who’d shut down public roads and seal off private lands to prevent citizens from getting a closer look at drilling sites and well pads. I knowingly nodded when landowners who’d leased their properties began reporting that the gas companies were shirking them, using small-print loopholes so they didn’t have to pay landowners what they were rightfully owed.

Fracking wasn’t getting a lot of press coverage then, unless you counted some of the local small-town papers in the northern and western parts of the State, which seemingly were so enamored by the promise of commerce they missed the opportunity to protect their communities. Josh Fox’s Gasland helped ensure “fracking” became part of the public’s vernacular, in Pennsylvania and around the world.

Tom Corbett was Pennsylvania’s governor at the time, and to say he was pro-fracking would be understatement. He wasn’t just in the industry’s pockets, he banked his entire first term and a potential future term on the fracking economy.

I wasn’t on any kind of energy beat then, but I worked Corbett’s office as if I was, placing calls to the Governor’s office nearly daily, which he dodged. I attended every anti-fracking rally and protest I could – reporting on and photographing them. And I took to social media with what I found and the questions I had, including to Tom Corbett’s Facebook page, where I would plead with the Governor to address topics he clearly didn’t want to talk about.

I never name-called. I was never anything other than polite, but I did ask tough questions that I believed were critical to the public’s health and safety. I carved out at least a few minutes of my day to “touch base” with the Governor there.

I took a lot of heat from the gas-company reps who showed up there, too, and from laypeople who still believed that fracking would help Pennsylvania rise from its industrially ravaged ruins, like a fiscal phoenix. I received an onslaught of public and private threats, including on my life.

And one day, the Governor blocked me. Soon thereafter, he lost his bid for re-election. Pennsylvania installed a Democrat to the Office, who was still rather pro-fracking, but managed to straddle the middle by suggesting he’d tax the crap out of the gas companies while still allowing them to wreck the land and sicken the population.

I learned an important journalistic lesson during my time on Tom Corbett’s Facebook page: That sometimes it’s not the answer to our questions that matter; rather, that we have the tenacity to ask the questions.

Today, I often take to Twitter to question politicians and public officials, including the President of the United States, who has chosen Twitter as his bully pulpit. I model my questions there like I would if I were sitting in a Press briefing, or if I had the ear of the politician. With limited characters, I try my best to give context to the questions I ask, so they don’t come off as petty, biased or snarky, which is a common pitfall with truncated communications of this kind.

I do my best to be polite, but my questions are purposeful and pointed, and often formed because I’ve observed the politician being misleading, misinformed, or just unabashedly lying to the American people.

As you may expect, the barrage of clap-backs I get there are sometimes upsetting. Even though I haven’t attempted to be a verified “somebody” on Twitter, I – like so many other journalists, especially women journalists – get lots of attention in the form of harassment, getting doxxed, and threatened. I wish people weren’t so quick to condemn others just asking questions, but that’s the political, polarized nature of our world today. Even the most innocuous topics seem to inspire people to take to their corners and come out swinging.

Sometimes, it gets me down. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t take its toll on one’s psyche, but when it does, I remind myself: If someone took the time to comment, even with a visceral, nasty response, at least they’ve read the question. At least they now know there is a question, a dilemma, something to substantively debate.

At least that seed has been planted.

I’ve had fellow journalists question this approach. Some have reached out to me privately and asked, “Why do you bother? It’s not as if so-and-so is going to respond to your question on Twitter.”

I’ve explained that I have no delusions that when I tweet @ the President, for example, that he’ll respond or even notice – though if a comment trends, I suspect a lot of these politicians do take note. I explain that it was more important to put the question out there, to the benefit of the public. Twitter and other social media platforms tend to be echo chambers. Algorithms and personal settings make it far too easy for us to narrow the information that comes our way – usually, information that’s palatable to us, that supports our own established beliefs, rather than challenging them. A simple question posted to a politician’s feed breaks through that echo chamber.

Of course, tweeting at people – politicians or otherwise – doesn’t supplant traditional means of journalism. You still need to work your sources; you still need to dodge layers of blockers – press secretaries, comms pros, and PR folks – to get to them and to get them on record. None of that has changed.

Some days, Twitter feels as if it’s nothing but bots, pols, and journos swirling the drain together. But if the politicians and public officials are going to be there; if the bots and political operatives are going to be there, blasting misinformation and disinformation, we need to be there as well.

Checks and balances in the digital age. It’s our duty.

—————