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Dumbing Down

How Print Journalism Survives…or Not

Fascinating piece by the Public Editor of The New York Times this past weekend taking the gray lady to task for not preserving “its dignified brand,” while covering popular culture.

Arthur Brisbane wrote, “The culture is headed for the curb, and The New York Times is on the story.” Brisbane went on from his exalted perch as “the readers’ representative” – the watchdog of the watchdog if you will – to criticize the Times for running three pieces in five days, two book reviews and a feature, on “The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt.”

For the culturally unhip that is the title of a new memoir about, I gather, a New York guy who wears women’s clothes and confuses and confounds his family and friends. One of the Times reviews called it “vaguely sad.” The Public Editor was suggesting that such a book, with a $750,000 advance to the author one Jon-Jon Goulian, is certainly news, but perhaps the newspaper of record had overplayed the whole thing just a tad.

OK, OK, NPR reviewed it, too – “very funny but frustratingly shallow.”

Brisbane’s larger point, I think, and a fundamental point for mainstream journalism in an age of shrinking newsrooms and circulation. is a question as old as the craft: do we give the reader what they want or do we give ’em what we think they need?

Somewhere, I suspect, some people are making a lot of money telling newspaper executives what to do to re-imagine the content and financial model for old paper on the front step. The Times recently put a tentative toe in the pay wall water and its website is a must visit for news junkies even if it messes with its brand by writing silly pop culture pieces that are better left to the Huffington Post.

The old Seattle P-I went out of business some time back as a cut-down-trees product and is now entirely online and mostly local. One of the more intriguing experiments is unfolding in Tampa where Gannett is testing “hyperlocal” content in a series of new websites.

My own bias, as the last guy on the planet who will relinquish his grip on old-style newsprint, is for local news organizations to try their own versionof the Gannett Tampa model. Go even more local.

An old journalism prof told me once, admittedly this is ancient history – BC (before computers) – “that people like to see names in the paper.” He meant that readers want to read about their neighbors, their kids, people they know, their community. Such stuff has long been the content staple of good weekly papers

If I were editor for a day – or a month – at a small to mid-sized paper, I’d junk the daily national and international news, or perhaps run just a few headlines, and put all the newsroom resources on the community. Go back to covering the school board meetings. Report on what’s new at the Saturday market. More local culture, more local politics, more of everything local. I’d localize national and international stories more in the interest of getting local folks to comment on the news. I’d take a page from the Times and create a local Bill Cunningham, the photographer who rides the streets of Gotham on his bicycle recording the look and rhythm of the city.

Sounds easy and I know it’s not. It requires boots on the ground and reporters and editors completely invested and interested in their place. But this much is true, I can get the national political news, and do, from lots of sources all day long and into the night. We have many fewer options to find out what’s going on close to home.

The headline on the Times Public Editor piece this weekend was “Loitering on the Fringes.” Here’s hoping that struggling newspapers strike the right balance on the old “what they want and what they need” question and give us more of what answers both questions – more local content. More coverage where we live and most of us don’t live on the fringe.

By the way, Publisher’s Weekly said of that book the Times has given so much attention to: “Through all his flashy attempts to grab the reader’s attention, Goulian’s story never seems interesting or serious enough to deserve it.” If that blurb is true – who cares about this slice of pop culture?

Not interesting, not serious, not exactly the standard definition of news in The New York Times or elsewhere. In every town the school board still makes news.



“Go Talk to Tiffany’s”

Any candidate who says those words on national television is, by definition, in the deep do-do. Newt Gingrich used the “go talk to Tiffany’s” line in his Face the Nation interview last Sunday with the dean of D.C. television Bob Schieffer.

Schieffer, an old school reporter if there is such a thing, was like a dog with a bone wanting to know about what he called this “bizarre” story of the former speaker of the house and his wife owing between $250,000 and $500,000 to the tony jewelry retailer Tiffany’s. (The company has a great website, by the way.)

“What did you buy?” Schieffer asked the obviously flustered Gingrich. Gingrich never answered the question saying it was a matter “of his private life” and suggested multi-thousand dollar charge accounts at Tiffany’s are something every Joe Six Pack has.

The Schieffer-Gingrich interview was one of the most uncomfortable TV encounters I’ve seen in a while, and with the newly minted Republican presidential candidate refusing to respond to questions about his line of credit with Tiffany’s, its hard not to see this little glimpse into the candidate’s private life assuming a defining role in his effort to re-introduce himself to GOP primary voters. Coming on the heels of Newt’s comments about GOP plans to “reform” Medicare, Tiffany’s could be the bling that takes down the campaign.

His admirers, and there are many, say that the former speaker is a “brilliant” guy, a policy wonk, a big thinker. Maybe. If he were as smart as they say, he would have had a better answer for Bob Schieffer and he would never have dismissed the question with “go talk to Tiffany’s.”

A friend once told me that the part of politics he most enjoyed was “watching a candidate implode.” A bit cynical perhaps, but such implosion moments are very revealing. Remember the John Edwards $400 haircut? Or the fact that John McCain couldn’t recall how many houses he owned. Or George H.W. Bush in 1992 being amazed in a mock up of a grocery checkout line, obviously for the first time, to see the scanner technology that most of us take for granted several times a week.

In and of themselves such seemingly unimportant trivia, the candidates think, should pile up on the shoulder of the road to the White House. Trouble is they never do. Even accounting for the media pile on effect with a story like Gingrich’s expensive tastes at Tiffany’s, such stories are singularly important for the unscripted glimpse they provide behind the Oz-like curtain of the modern presidential campaign. Such stories also show the power of one incident to drive a story line – a negative story line – for days.

Since the Schieffer interview and the ever growing attention on Tiffany’s charge accounts as a campaign issue, a new poll shows Gingrich sinking with GOP voters. You might say he’s dropping like the Hope Diamond in a rain bucket. Another story links a former Gingrich aide to Tiffany’s lobbying operations at a time when Mrs. G. was a House staffer.

TIME magazine has a slide show of Calista Gingrich’s jewelry and one enterprising reporter went back and checked Gingrich’s published works for references to Tiffany’s. Hint: there are quite a number. And, for the truly uninformed about just how big jewelry store charge accounts work, the Washington Post rides to the rescue with a “fact check” piece that concludes Gingrich’s comment that this is all just routine don’t quite pass the smell test. Pile on, indeed.

There was a reason that Abraham Lincoln didn’t shy away from publicizing the fact that he was “born in a log cabin.” From Andrew Jackson to James A. Garfield, the log cabin was a potent symbol that candidates for the White House were in touch with the voters. Politicians always strive to be seen as “one of us,” but to be successful they must also be authentic or, at least, appear to be authentic.

Franklin Roosevelt came from great family wealth, as did John Kennedy. Neither one of them tried to hide that fact, but by the same token they didn’t try to be something they weren’t. The times were much different when those two sons of fortune occupied the White House, but I suspect even FDR and JFK would have had some explaining to do had it been revealed they had credit lines at Tiffany’s.

Curious thing about the American presidency, we expect these men – I chose that word advisedly – to be superhuman problem solvers, able to leap tall buildings, but we also expect them to be able to keep track of their houses, keep their haircuts affordable and window shop at Tiffany’s.

When we find out that they really aren’t at all like us, well, we do the natural thing – we conclude that guy isn’t authentic and that conclusion is deadly in politics.

Saying “go talk to Tiffany’s” is a bit like telling a reporter (or a voter) to “go pound sand” or go, well, you you know where.

I’ll bet you a peek in a Tiffany display case that before Newt Gingrich is done with this campaign – and that looks like it will happen sooner rather than later – we’ll know the answer to Bob Schieffer’s simple and completely predictable question, “What did you buy?” Stay tuned.


On Being Unique

OK, That’s Different

KNOW anyone who wears white suits these days? The signature white suit was adopted rather late in his life by the great writer and humorist Mark Twain as part of his “brand.” It was part of what made Mark Twain, well, Mark Twain.

In his enjoyable book, Mark Twain: Man in White, Richard Shelton tells the delightful story of Twain showing up on a December day for a Congressional hearing in Washington wearing a snow white suit, shirt, tie and shoes.

Twain’s friend William Dean Howells said: “Nothing could have been more dramatic than the gesture with which he flung off his long loose overcoat, and stood forth in white from his feet to the crown of his silvery head.” Just what Twain intended.

With tongue firmly in cheek Twain said of his sartorial choices: “You see, when a man gets to be 71, as I am, the world begins to look somber and dark. I believe we should do all we can to brighten things up and make ourselves look cheerful. You can’t do that by wearing black, funereal clothes.And why shouldn’t a man wear white? It betokens purity and innocence.”

It also betokens being known for something even if you lack the talent to pen a Huckleberry Finn.

Needless to say, few of us – none of us – are Mark Twain. That mold was broken, but there is a good deal to be said for “being known for something.”

I frequently sit in my office and talk to young folks just embarking on their careers. They ask for, and I routinely grant, an “informational interview.” These young folks typically want to know about our business, my career path and, of course, how they break the barrier and land that first real job.

Having done this interview many, many times over many years, I’ve come to regard two questions as essential. If the aspiring professional can answer them, I have all the time in the world for them. If they don’t have an answer, I politely suggest they need to think some more and come back another time because I probably can’t help them.

First question: what are you really good at doing? I think the simple, one word answer is best, but I usually get something like, “Well, “I’m a very good team player.” Or, “I’m a good, fast learner.”

I’d prefer an answer like, “I’m good with the short irons.” Or, “I can write well and fast.”

Second question: Who are you? It’s not a trick question, either. I want to know – and young folks often don’t know – just how to describe themselves. I’m looking for insight in what they are all about, what they care about. You tell me “I’m a history buff who loves movies” or “I’m a sports fan who really understands social media,” I now know something about you. I’m particularly not interested in talking to the person that they think I want to take to. I want to talk to them – the real person.

Answers to those questions tell me – and the world – something about the person. In a way, it is the beginning of their personal brand.

Barry Salzbergis the CEO of Deloitte LLP and soon to be the global CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu the international accounting and consulting firm. Salzberg told the New York Times recently that he tells his young colleagues to “brand yourself.”

“Make sure people know who you are and that you stand for who you are. Be unique about something. Be a specialist in something.”

I think it is great advice designed to set one apart the sameness of the crowd. The world is full of generic answers. The football coach whose only comment is a variation on the theme “if we can stay healthy, we should be OK this season.” Or the candidate who says in response to the most asked question in politics, “why are you running,” well, “because I have a strong desire to serve the public.”

Horse pucky. I like coaches like former Montana Tech football coach Bob Green who once said his team played like we “just got off Willie Nelson’s tour bus.” Or the politician like former Sen. Bob Dole who once said as he watched former presidents Carter, Ford and Nixon standing together: “There they are. See no evil, hear no evil, and…evil.” You don’t forget those guys.

Few of us would feel comfortable wearing a white suit as part of our personal brand – it occurs to me that the writer Tom Wolfe does – but we can intentionally adopt a brand that can “make sure people know” who we are.

I can only guess at how the great Man in White would answer my two simple questions. No generic answers from him, I’m confident.

The world is full of people in plain packages. It’s no crime, and quite an advantage, to stand out with distinction in a crowded world. It just might get you noticed. It just might get you hired. It’s certainly more fun.



I Thought the Guy Was a Kenyan

The problem with some people is that when they aren’t drunk, they’re sober.”

– William Butler Yeats

When Barack Obama stood before a crowd estimated at 50,000 last night in Dublin, he introduced himself to the adoring Irish crowd as: “Barack Obama, of the Moneygall O’Bamas. I am here to find the apostrophe that we lost along the way. Tá áthas orm bheith in Éirinn.”

Obama has proven again, as John McCain’s campaign attempted, unsuccessfully, to use against him in 2008, that he is the “biggest celebrity in the world.” True enough, but the Irish have long proven they love the American president, whomever he happens to be.

Just behind the main entrance to the building that houses the Irish Dial, is a lovely room festooned with photos of the American presidents who have visited Ireland. John Kennedy, of course, and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and now the distant son of Moneygall.

I love Ireland – the people, the landscape, the literature, the history, well some of the history, anyway. But most of all, as I have enjoyed the coverage of Obama and Michelle sipping a Guinness in a pub in Moneygall, I like the notion that everyone has some of the Irish in them.

It can’t hurt the president’s standing with Irish-American and Catholic voters that he was welcomed like a rock star – the Kenyan Bono? – in the old sod. While the stout sipping photo op got most of the play, the best photo I saw was of Obama hoisting high a darling, red haired Irish lass of maybe three or four. She displayed classic smiling Irish eyes as the black/white/Irish/Indonesian/Kenyan/Christian/Muslim president beamed back at her.

These pictures, the lost apostrophe in Obama and the obvious respect and affection an American president commands in a country hard pressed to recover from its disastrous real estate implosion and still hardened by religious troubles, must be hard to swallow for the birther crowd. Some folks – Jerome Corsi for instance – have made an industry of advancing the line that Obama just “isn’t one of us.”

Trouble is, for most of the world, Obama is one of them. Just ask the crowd in Dublin or that adorable Irish redhead. Here’s a bet: you’ll see those pictures again; during the campaign, in a commercial.

The Irish Times summed up the president’s visit, coming as it did on the heels of the visit of the Queen of England, with this: “Obama’s eloquence, self-deprecating humour, and patent empathy turned what otherwise might have been seen as pro forma diplomatic expressions of goodwill and shameless stroking of the national ego, into something heartwarming and inspiring.”

Any self-respecting, world-wide celebrity should hope for such reviews.


Education Reform?

Idahoans Aren’t Convinced

New statewide opinion research finds Idahoans distinctly unsure that the educational reform efforts that dominated the state legislative session this year will help Idaho students be better prepared for learning beyond high school and to enter the workforce.

My public affairs firm teamed up with respected pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review to conduct a 400 sample survey in late April that was aimed at understanding more about where the Idaho economy may be headed and the priorities voters attach to various issues. The poll has a +/- of 4.9%.

(Strimple served as Sen. John McCain’s pollster in the last presidential election and works nationally for major clients like AT&T, the National Football League and GE. He lives in Boise.)

In a previous post, I noted the wide demographic splits that characterize attitudes about the economy in Idaho. In a nutshell, many older, less well-off, and less educated Idahoans are pretty content with the Idaho they have long known, including an economy dominated by agriculture and the state’s natural resources. A younger, better educated group thinks about the future economy quite differently. They believe innovation, education and technology hold the keys to the future.

We asked a series of questions in our survey about education, including a basic question about education reform: “In your opinion, will the recent education reforms passed by the state legislature make students better prepared to enter college and the workforce, less prepared, or make no difference?”

Idahoans in our survey were almost equally split: 24.5% said the Luna efforts would make students better prepared, 27.3% said less prepared, 28% said the reforms would have no difference. The rest didn’t know or declined to answer.

Looking more deeply into the internal numbers reveals that the level of division about the effectiveness of the reforms in terms of student preparedness cuts across virtually every demographic and ideological boundary. Even the most conservative folks we surveyed are split on whether the reforms will better prepare kids for more school and future work.

In fact in no demographic group – males, females, very conservative people, younger folks or older, etc. – does the reform package command a 50% majority who are convinced it will make students better prepared.

Perhaps this has something to do with the tone of the legislative debate around school reform. As the debate unfolded from January to April it was, by and large, a back-and-forth about teachers and money. That debate continues on an almost daily basis with Luna recently warning educators to be careful about mixing politics and school business and teachers accusing the superintendent of violating ethics rules. The entire conversation around education reform has been much less about student outcomes, including particularly what Idahoans might reasonably expect following such a long and difficult debate around a subject they obviously care a great deal about, and more about ending tenure and using more computers in classrooms.

And there is more: Idahoans who say they prefer a future economy focused on exporting goods and services, encourging innovation and fostering an entreperneurial culture are the most skeptical of Superintendent Luna’s reform package. This group thinks, by a 2 to 1 margin, that the reforms will result in students less well prepared for further education and future work.

We also asked our survey group to identify the initiatives “most important to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Providing better K-12 education and increasing the number of students that pursue higher education was the top choice of 43% of respondents. A favorable tax and regulatory policy was second with 21%.

We also asked what “government policies” are most important “to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, nearly 32% of respondents said attracting new businesses and promoting job creation through incentives was the top policy priority. Developing a more highly trained workforce was second at 29%.

Our survey shows that Idahoans believe education policy is important to economic growth and job creation. Many may also think reforms will save money, curb the influence of the teachers union and emphasize technology in classroom, but they aren’t convinced – at least not yet – that students are going to benefit as they prepare for post-secondary education and a life-time of work.

Meanwhile, the long-shot effort to recall the state superintendent continues, as does the substantially easier job of obtaining the signatures that could force a referendum vote on the education package in the fall of 2012.



Yesterday’s Candidate, Today’s Campaign

A good deal of the analysis of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s less-that-successful first days on the presidential campaign trail have focused on Newt’s “lack of message discipline” and whether the freewheeling former college professor can control his basic instinct to talk too much.

I think there may be something else at play that makes Gingrich’s race for the GOP nomination even more problematic. He is really yesterday’s kind of candidate trying to find his footing in today’s kind of campaign.

Political consultant Mark McKinnon said it well: “Elections are about the future, not the past. And Newt is anchored to another era.”

Jon Stewart wasn’t so kind. Newt is trying to hard to be cool, but his hash tags won’t get him there, Stewart said, in a savage take down of the old Gingrich.

Gingrich, his critics love to point out, has never been elected to anything – not including being elected by House Republicans as their leader – other than to represent a congressional district in Georgia. The last time he was on any ballot was 1998. Politics and campaigns have changed dramatically in the dozen years since Gingrich traded the daily inside game of Congress for the controlled environment of a Fox TV studio or the command and control of a hotel ballroom podium.

Even a guy who has been around as long as Gingrich needs to learn the rythem and the ropes of the modern campaign. It is a whole new ballgame out there.

When Gingrich last ran for anything Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, was 14 and still four years from Harvard. Twitter was nearly a decade away and YouTube wasn’t even an idea. Gingrich’s real problem isn’t just discipline, its age and agility.

Case in point. TIME reports that the Obama White House is doubling down on social media as it prepares for re-election.

In a story entitled, “Can they win one tweet at a time,” Michael Scherer writes: “When Barack Obama traveled to Texas this month to talk immigration, David Plouffe, his top message guru, decided to stay home and watch Twitter instead. While Obama spoke, Plouffe sat before two flat-screen televisions in the White House complex. One showed live footage of Obama in El Paso. The other flickered with a lightning-quick vertical ticker tape of people tweeting with the #immigration hashtag, reacting line by line to the President in real time. ‘I find it useful,’ Plouffe says, ‘to see what’s penetrating.'”

Gingrich must have thought he was out on the cutting edge by announcing his candidacy the other day via Twitter, but he may be confusing the tactics of social media with the mindset of a cutting edge campaign.

Gingrich made his now classic comment – “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering” – to NBC’s David Gregory last Sunday morning. By Monday morning the pundits were chewing him up and by Tuesday, too slow for a modern campaign, he had started to address the criticism fellow Republicans were flinging his way.

Democrats wasted no time in producing the standard YouTube video – Litmus Test – dissecting Newt’s comments. Meanwhile, the candidate was in Iowa getting pelted with a bag of glitter with one crusty Iowan, captured on video, telling him to get out of the race before he made a bigger fool of himself.

Gingrich is the 21st Century equivalent of those pre-20th Century candidates who campaigned by never moving from the front porch of their homes. His mindset is 1998, while the rest of the political world is operating in cyberspace in 2011.

A true test of leadership is the ability to react effectively in a crisis, avoid the human inclination to blame someone else for your mistakes and reset the discussion. Newt and his handlers should have known his incendiary comments on Meet the Press would require immediate damage control. His spokesman should have refrained from one of the longest, bitterest denunciations of the media I’ve seen in a while and he should have tried something to change the arc of his story.

He did none of that and on the Thursday after he laid his egg on national television the Gingrich story, and particularly the video from his interview with Gregory, was still all over the air and the Internet.

There is a mindset in military history referred to as the tendency of leaders to “fight the last war.” It happens in politics, too, but those kinds of campaigns tend to end in the cold and snow of a February night in New Hampshire. We’ll see if Gingrich last that long and whether he can learn quickly to adapt to the kind of daily politics he’s never really played.

TIMEnotes in its piece on David Plouffe, Obama’s social media guru, that he just sometimes “creates his own news. For the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Plouffe’s team created a fake movie trailer in the spirit of the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, hoping it might go viral. The YouTube video of Obama’s remarks has already been watched more than 8 million times, a bigger audience than that of most nightly network newscasts. “People saw that and said, ‘I am going to share it with my family and friends,'” Plouffe says proudly. “You have to find ways to compound what you are doing.”

Or…to counteract what you’ve messed up.

Mark McKinnon gets almost the last word on yesterday’s candidate. Newt Gingrich has earned, McKinnon says, a spot in the “hall of fame for disastrous political launches.”

Meanwhile, Gingrich is booked on at least one weekend talk show already. Good strategy. Keep this great week going a little longer.