Thursday, August 21, 2014

Impressive work by Charleston Post and Courier

The Post and Courier in Charleston has started running an investigation into domestic violence against women in South Carolina.

It's nice work , and you should read it.

My only reservation is technical -- the paper has tended to "snowfall" this a bit, and I'm not sure it is the best technique for a public policy story like this. The legislative part of it tends to get lost toward the bottom, and it also kind of gets in the way of a more general thread of telling women's stories, which works better integrally as a long-form narrative.

That the Legislature so far has resisted most changes  is important enough that I think it would be better split out and floated on the side so it stays in people's view. But that's only a minor quibble.

Labels: , ,

FOIA: Call for grassroots effort in SC

Don Kausler, regional editor of the Morning News in Florence, has taken up the call that changing SC's wounded Freedom of Information Act has got to be a full-time, concerted effort in which we get the public involved, not just a one-of Sunshine Week effort.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

RIP: Dan Lynch

Sad news from Fort Wayne that former Journal Gazette editorial cartoonist Dan Lynch has died.

Dan was on staff when I got there and was genuinely a fun guy to work with. He trundled off to Kansas City for a stint and Steve Sack, now in Minneapolis, took his spot for a bit.

But Dan returned to the Fort Wayne fold, poking fun at the city and its pols (which is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel), until a stroke sidelined him in 2001. I always liked his clean and to the point style.
I hope I still have in my files a couple of Dan's drawings that he graciously shared. Dan and his work will be missed.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Gannett's Asheville editor is frank about the changes

With all the turmoil at Gannett this week, Columbia Journalism Review's Corey Hutchins has landed a rather frank interview with Joshua Awtry, editor overseeing the Asheville Citizen-Times in North Carolina and The Greenville News in South Carolina.

Among some of Awtry's lines:

  • "I will not hire a digital producer who doesn’t have a strong grasp of editing."
  • "The Carolinas will have a full-time beer reporter. Right now, both Asheville and Greenville have beer reporters in different fashions. Asheville has a reporter who does a lot of beer coverage but has to pick up other things too. In Greenville the beer reporter also covers the nuclear energy plant.
    "When layoffs have happened in the past, it was, 'This position is gone and we need you to do these jobs,' and peoples’ lives have gotten, I think, needlessly hectic. And this is a chance to set up reporters around really, really deep coverage areas. Having a reporter who covers beer and the nuclear energy industry, I don’t know which of those two halves he’s reporting on."
  • "The public has gotten so good at detecting when they’re being fed something."
That last line is refreshing -- and intriguing. There's no reason to believe Awtry is not being straightforward. On the other hand, Gannett's record can easily make one feel like a Missourian -- "Show me."

So we'll wait and see. But I'd recommend you read the interview.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, August 02, 2014

It's almost always 'rebut,' not 'refute'

The State newspaper in Columbia has suddenly, in recent months, seemed to get tangled up about "rebut" versus "refute." Maybe they don't go over this at the editing hub up north or whatever.

Tonight's entry:

Unless you're taking the PGA's side in this, the word is "rebuts" -- or, even better, "denies," which is the word used in the story's lede.

"Refutes" implies that you've taken sides and decided that one party has essentially proved its argument.

It's not an inconsequential nuance, especially in headline type, for professional writers and editors who are supposed to know better.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

More SC FOIA follies from the AP's Jeffrey Collins

The AP's Jeffrey Collins provides this image on Facebook today of a North Augusta police report:

Here is his explanation:

I'm not a big fan of calling myself words like watchdog. But I do like to verify information governments want to give out. Sometimes it's not the whole story. Sometimes, it isn't true. I wanted to talk to the woman who called police on the 9-year-old girl at the park in North Augusta. Maybe she regrets the decision now. Maybe she saw something really dangerous that is not in the police report. But the Solicitor's Office blacked out all the identifying information about her. First off, it is likely illegal. Secondly, this is South Carolina, so your government is saying it knows best.
This was my response in the comments (slightly edited here):

This is very typical from what I've found in the spot audits my students do. It was also mentioned in The Sate's FOI piece this weekend.

What we have here is a clash of two sections of state law - the FOI and the privacy provisions. 

There shouldn't be a clash. But there is one, manufactured by too many agencies' legal guns and bureaucrats. As a result, the provisions of SC Code 30-4-30 that require police reports to be open for inspection without a written request are being undermined by  legal opinions or departmental policies focusing on 30-4-40, which deals with information of a "personal nature." Those (such as Columbia PD's) generally have advised that if certain information is private, the record must be redacted by the legal staff.

That triggers two things. As in the case of our experience with the Columbia Police, the claim now becomes that you can no longer just inspect the record for free, as the law allows. Instead, you must be provided a redacted copy, which the city then uses as an excuse to charge (for the staff time, of course).

And then there are the overreaching redactions, as you see here based on a very broad reading of 30-4-40(3)d exempting law enforcement material "endangering the life, health, or property of any person." Too many departments now say this includes all people mentioned in a report or, as in this case, the person who filed the complaint. Balderdash. All this is despite the language of the law that says bodies "may" but are not required to withhold such info and court and attorney general's opinions that say such exemptions must be construed very narrowly. I reviewed some of those here 

Especially of note is the attorney general's "Tanner" opinion ( But the reality is that someone is going to have to sue over this, and given the recent state Supreme Court rulings, I'm not nearly as sure anymore that the privacy exemption might not be expanded, despite the precedents.

Collins follows up with this:
I see skirting or outright breaking of the FOI law in SC on nearly a weekly basis. There is no fear of it by public bodies any more. They aren't scared of being embarrassed and there is no fear of criminal sanctions. I keep my favorite police reports. Here's one from Walhalla, where the officer writing the narrative didn't feel all that inspired. 
He's right. There is no fear. 

While I'm all about the potential of the digital age, it has had unmistakable consequences for news orgs (and, in this case the public's ability to know) that I doubt we'll ever get back and that directly bear on this. (And that are not really talked about enough.)

The collapse of the monopolistic/oligopolistic financial model has left most limited in their ability to or unable to pursue the kind of blanket-bombing legal cases that might be necessary to stop this. (In other words, you sue the SOBs early and often, hoping to get enough lower-court rulings to send the message but also to establish a solid footing for a case to go to the state Supreme Court. And even if you get a favorable SUPCO ruling, as we can see with the S.C. Legislature's constant flouting of "local legislation" prohibitions, it might become a legal battle of attrition.)

Second, news media, thrown into the truly competitive marketplace (a good thing generally, I think), also find they no longer have the reality or, more likely, the perception that they can effectively mobilize public opinion. That really was the only thing in journalists' quiver that made public officials take notice. Politicians are like sharks in the water - they can smell blood a mile away, and it hasn't taken long for them to figure out that journalists are now more nuisance than threat. (Aside from the marketplace, journalists themselves have done their own damage to this with a series of scandals combined with failing early on to realize that their audience was moving on into the digital age. And some news orgs still don't totally get it.)

Collins  is doing his part by trying to publicize this regularly. But I hope more media outlets will do so. As I've said, this no longer can be a "Sunshine Week" thing. News orgs are going to have to get deep into the fray.

There's an excellent and readable (even though it's an academic paper) treatment of this (and the angst such activism provokes) in June's Journalism & Communication Monographs by Emily Erickson: The Watchdog Joins the Fray: The Press, Records Audits, and State Access Reform. (Unfortunately, as with many academic journals, it's not free unless you have connections through your local college or public library. But the abstract alone is worth reading, and I do recommend asking your library to get a copy if it does not have the database.)

Update: Good takeout on SC's FOIA issues from Jonathan Peters at Columbia Journalism Review.

Labels: , ,

Monday, July 28, 2014

How not to do customer service in 2014, newspaper version

So here's a wager for you (I'll provide a copy of AP's newswriting guide by Jack Cappon to the first person who can figure out the puzzle).

One condition: You must be a seven-day print and digital subscriber to The State newspaper.

The setup: Go to the newspaper's website. Pretend you want to look at various pricing to see if, as a consumer, there are options to consider. Try to find where it lists your subscription options other than your existing seven-day-plus-digital subscription.

That's OK, I'll wait.

Try the FAQs. See anything there (of course, that they haven't been updated since November 2012 might  speak for itself). Click on those links and it takes you to the page where you can start a new subscription "from $2.60 a week." Click on that, however, and you are prompted to set up a new account with all new user info and password. If you don't do that, you apparently don't get to see that "from $2.60 a week" rate -- or any other.

You can try it from any number of pages where there are links to manage your subscription, etc. -- same result.

So existing or prospective subscribers are denied some of the most basic information that should be provided so they can make intelligent decisions going forward. And nonsubscribers have to disgorge a bunch of personal information before they can get comparison pricing info. Imagine if Wal-Mart or any other retailer had a gate before you could get into the store. Of, if you don't like the analogy to a retailer, how about a service, like asking a plumber the cost estimate of a repair and being told it's none of your business until you give up a bunch of info (or, if you've used that plumber at all, it's none of your business whatsoever).

All in the name of what? Trying to force people into staying with their current option? Trying to force them to stay with seven-day print (you can do that by pricing, not by hiding the info).

Besides, it's 2014 -- you know, the digital era -- and as a digital user I even expect (hold your breath now), that when it comes time to renew I can go online and change my options (if I find them more useful) and pay for the new subscription instead of having to call an 800 number during business hours and be told traffic is "heavy" and wait untold minutes. (Well, sort of business hours -- 7 a.m. - 4 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Sunday. That's convenient and consumer friendly, eh? Makes Comcast customer service seem like it's worthy of a J.D. Power award.)

This is still one more data point on how some news orgs simply don't get that they have gone from a monopoly to a retail/service business. Spot checking around. (In none of these cases can I tell whether existing subscribers can change their plans online.):
  • The Augusta Chronicle - not much better. Gives you an" as low as" monthly price, but no options for various home delivery frequencies. Clicking on "learn more" just gives you a bunch of sales copy about the service, no prices. Clicking on the digital only gives you a teaser rate. Clicking on print plus digital stops you with a wall demanding your ZIP code. Put in 30912 and you'll get the options (not sure if that link will work directly).
  •  Post and Courier (Charleston): Well, at least there are options in pricing. But each is an "introductory rate" with no indication what the normal rate will be starting in the seventh month. (OK, so the paper is taking its cues from the cable or phone companies, but it's a start.)
  • The Greenville News - a winner! All the options laid out. Now, if the paper would just get rid of the annoying splash screen with the condescending option "No, I don't want to save."
  • Herald-Journal (Spartanburg) - another winner with it all laid out.
  • Florence Morning News - It's all there, though not many options, eh? (This is the pricing model I referred to above.)
  • Times and Democrat (Orangeburg) - It's there, but don't be fooled by putting a local ZIP code into the "home delivery information" form at the bottom. All you'll get is a 404 error. Instead, click on "start a new home delivery subscription" for print-only rates. If you want the print and digital package, or digital only, you'll have to click on "online subscription" and be hit with an annoying splash screen with the options. But here's the rub. It appears that if you want a print-digital bundle, you have to do the home delivery option first, create that and then go here to add the digital. So much for one-stop shopping (hey, guys, find out how Amazon does it).
  • Island Packet (Hilton Head) and Beaufort Gazette (McClatchy papers along with The State) - well, it's there if you root around. One you follow that link, click on "print & digital" and then on "view delivery rates."
  • The Herald (Rock Hill) - at first, looks like the other McClatchy papers. But lo and behold, click on the print and digital link and a really smart form comes up that lets you pick a plan before you have to disgorge any personal info (and you get a gift to boot!).
  • Myrtle Beach (McClatchy) - just as bad as The State. (So if other McClatchy papers can show rates, why can't all?)
  • Charlotte Observer (McClatchy) - Hits you with the ZIP code, but once you put that in, you get rates.
For all I know, The State will give you rates once you disgorge all your personal info, but I find that troubling  in so many ways (you harvest my data to sell to others just so I can see your pricing?).

The State makes it even more torturous. Log into your account and there is a "Delivery Options" link. Follow it (you can't from here without logging in) and all you get (at least all I get) is "start a new subscription," "vacation holds" and "report delivery problems." Click on the new subscriptions link, and all I get are options for Go Gamecocks and Lake Murray Magazine. Someone truly evil has had to figure out this consumer torture.

What is even more interesting to me is that on many of these websites, "subscribe" is in small type and has to be hunted down. Aren't we in the business here of getting people to subscribe? And many are pushing E-Z pay, the auto draft on your credit card or bank account. Read the fine print. Orangeburg, for instance, says that's an extra $18.

But maybe you know something I don't. Have at it and share.

Update, 2 p.m. 7/29: After a 12-minute call to customer service, here are some of the rate plans (compared with $288.60 for seven-day delivery and digital - 79 cents a day); all include digital:
Thursday-Sunday: $195.52 (94 cents a day)
Friday-Sunday: $177.84 ($1.14 a day)
Saturday-Sunday: $159.64 ($1.54 a day)

All per-day prices are approximate. I just multiplied 52 by the number of days each week; there might be slight variations, but I did not count actual days.

I did not price Monday-Saturday, Monday-Friday or Sunday only.

Labels: , , , , ,

And now a family moment ...

Proud of my son Scott as he works toward his doctorate.

Publication out today in a U.N. volume:


Friday, July 18, 2014

Not to pick a fight, but SCPA leader's FOI commentary misses important context

Bill Rogers, head of the S.C. Press Association, has written a forceful and important column on two recent state Supreme Court rulings that have done major damage to freedom of information in the state.

Bill is good and valued friend, and I don't want to pick a fight. And I agree forcefully with his frustrations over both these court rulings and trying to get any changes to the FOI Act through the Legislature.

 But I think the order in which he presents his argument is important when read with the court' ruling.

Bill writes:

The public also lost a few weeks ago when the high court ruled that not only could public bodies change meeting agendas at the last minute without notifying the public, but that agendas for public meetings were not even required.

I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve got enough sense to read this part of the FOIA: “All public bodies shall notify persons or organizations, local news media, or such other news media as may request notification of the times, dates, places and agenda of all public meetings…”

Pretty clear to a layman. But the court chose to focus on the wording for notification of regularly scheduled meetings at the beginning of the calendar year, where the wording said that notice must include the agenda, “if any.” If you announce a meeting to be held in October at the start of the calendar year, I can’t imagine having a meaningful agenda prepared. The law made it clear later that agendas must be available 24 hours in advance.

Problem is, the way the law is worded (poorly as it turns out), there is an entirely plausible other reading -- the one the court took.

Bill has structured his argument by moving the order of key points in the law.

Here is my reading of the law the way I understand the court to have read it. First, the law:
SECTION 30-4-80. Notice of meetings of public bodies.

(a) All public bodies, except as provided in subsections (b) and (c) of this section, must give written public notice of their regular meetings at the beginning of each calendar year. The notice must include the dates, times, and places of such meetings. Agenda, if any, for regularly scheduled meetings must be posted on a bulletin board at the office or meeting place of the public body at least twenty-four hours prior to such meetings. All public bodies must post on such bulletin board public notice for any called, special, or rescheduled meetings. Such notice must be posted as early as is practicable but not later than twenty-four hours before the meeting. The notice must include the agenda, date, time, and place of the meeting. This requirement does not apply to emergency meetings of public bodies.

(b) Legislative committees must post their meeting times during weeks of the regular session of the General Assembly and must comply with the provisions for notice of special meetings during those weeks when the General Assembly is not in session. Subcommittees of standing legislative committees must give notice during weeks of the legislative session only if it is practicable to do so.

(c) Subcommittees, other than legislative subcommittees, of committees required to give notice under subsection (a), must make reasonable and timely efforts to give notice of their meetings.

(d) Written public notice must include but need not be limited to posting a copy of the notice at the principal office of the public body holding the meeting or, if no such office exists, at the building in which the meeting is to be held.

(e) All public bodies shall notify persons or organizations, local news media, or such other news media as may request notification of the times, dates, places, and agenda of all public meetings, whether scheduled, rescheduled, or called, and the efforts made to comply with this requirement must be noted in the minutes of the meetings.  

The order in which those items is presented is important when courts start dissecting things. The section that Bill excerpts first actually comes last in the law. And there's the rub.

Here's another plain reading version of the  key points of the law that the court took:
  • If you're a covered public body, you have to put out a list of your regular meeting dates and times at the beginning of the year.
  • As you get closer to each of those regular meetings, you have to put up an agenda, if any, 24 hours ahead of the meeting.
  • This is different from special meetings, where the law clearly says you must post an agenda.
  • And if anyone asks you ahead of time to be notified you have to send them that information, including the agenda (if there is any) of any regular meetings and definitely the agenda of any special meetings.
The order of things is important because the court basically said that once the phrase "if any" appeared with "agenda" in regard to regular meetings, it modified that term subsequently throughout the law. That would include the passage Bill moved to the front of his argument.

Bill also argues, "But the court chose to focus on the wording for notification of regularly scheduled meetings at the beginning of the calendar year, where the wording said that notice must include the agenda, 'if any.'" He then sets up a logical straw man that no reasonable person could expect there to be agendas that far out and concludes, "The law made it clear later that agendas must be available 24 hours in advance."

But that's also a debatable argument. (In fact, were it that clear, this ruling probably would have gone the other way. The court helpfully included citations from several other states with clearer wording.)

If you look at the law, "if any" does not appear to apply at all to the yearly notice. In the opinion, the court parsed the next sentence to effectively distance it somewhat from the yearly notice requirement and focus on the 24-hour requirement. (In fact, the opinion went so far as to split the single paragraph into two "for readability," but I think there's a bit more to be read into the fact the justices felt they needed to make that emphasis.)

As a result, they concluded:

However, we agree with the circuit court and the dissent that the plain language of the words "if any" can mean only that an agenda is not required for regularly scheduled meetings.  To conclude otherwise would be to read the words "if any" completely out of the statute.  In plain terms, written public notice of regularly scheduled meetings must be given at the beginning of each calendar year and must include the dates, times, and places of the meetings. An agenda, if there is one, must be posted at least twenty-four hours before the meeting.
Bill doesn't like the ruling. Neither do I. But rearranging the law's language in making the argument drops context that was central to the court's ruling and leaves an otherwise important argument open to attack.

Ultimately, this is all folderol for readers who don't get into the legal niceties of all this. But in our anger, we produce things like this headline from the Kingstree News -- When is the next council meeting? I have no idea! -- that patently misrepresents what the court ruled (governmental bodies still must produce times and locations for their meetings). Or we denounce the court's decision denying access to autopsy reports as "irrational" and filed with "all sorts of legalese." Nothing was irrational in that decision and, yes, legalese is what court decisions are written in by definition. And if you have a problem with "legalese," let's discuss any number of court and crime stories in papers throughout the state almost daily.

The important thing is to reframe the debate, consistently and forcefully, so that we have some chance at building public opinion. That, of course, is the only thing we as journalists have in our quiver. It's all we ever had -- the ability, or at least the perception of the ability, to form opinion (this is not the same as a Fox or MSNBC bias - simply repeatedly uncovering public corruption using FOI laws, for instance, hopefully helps form the opinion to bring about change).

The reality for journalists, of course (and the thing too many still seem to be grappling with somewhere between stages two and four on the five stages of grief) is that, frankly, we're just not all that important anymore. Politicians and other public figures can easily go around us on social media or other channels. PR people can spread their version of things directly online. Our readers can find all sorts of things elsewhere.

This makes it all the more important that we stop framing this as primarily a one-week-a-year awareness thing in March. And that we stop just trying to play the clubby insiders' game at the State House (and at others around the nation where similar laws are under attack).

If we continue primarily down that path, the "house" (and Senate) always wins.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Body blow two to S.C. FOI

A few weeks ago, it was a ruling by South Carolina's Supreme Court saying that public bodies were not required to post meeting agendas that punched a hole in South Carolina's FOI law.

Now it has ruled that autopsy reports are medical records not subject to disclosure. (PDF of ruling.) While I felt the last ruling was defensible because of a poorly worded law, this one is just bad public policy. As reported in the Sumter case in question, the autopsy report the newspaper eventually got elsewhere seemed to contradict the police explanation in a man's shooting.

This is one where I think Justice Costa Pleiconas got it right in dissent -- that other parts of state law indicate the intent is that these be public.

As Justice Kay Hearn said, it's a matter for the Legislature. And maybe two in a row will persuade newsrooms in the state that it's poor strategy to do most of the FOI drum beating largely one week a year. As the tough road to change the law in other areas the past two years shows, this is a battle of attrition.

For starters, every newsroom should include specific FOI questions on every candidate questionnaires going out to legislative candidates this election season. They should include these two FOI issues. Don't give any room to vapidly prevaricate.

And then work with the press association to assemble a short weekly roundup of FOI issues in the state. It already has the info in its newsletter -- every paper and news website in the state should run it, perhaps under a suitably in your face head like Where you were denied vital information this week.

Broadcasters have tended not to be as involved in these issues just because for many, if it bleeds, it leads, and press release journalism or the quick official statement is the M.O. (Though it's nice to see that changing a bit as some consultants see an opening in positioning stations as "investigating for you" -- for a few ratings books at least.)

Newspapers have tended to try to play the clubby game at the Statehouse. On one hand, they do push for more openness. On the other, they are deathly scared the Legislature will take away their sales tax exemption.

But it's time to be more aggressive. The FOI, despite its vaunted opening language, is being hacked to bits from rulings like this and from open defiance from agencies like Columbia police who refuse to make copies of reports available for inspection, as the law allows. (That's another situation where I fear the court might overbroadly interpret the law's limited privacy exemption.)

If you believe in public information, it's time to put up or shut up.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Journalism Education: If you teach reporting, especially public affairs, you must download this financial guide

If you teach public affairs reporting -- or are a journalist who has to deal with local government -- you really should download Governing magazine's "A Public Official's Guide to Financial Literacy."

Fantastic teaching tool.

Plain English.

Any guide that gives your students (or you) a fighting chance of understanding GO vs. the types of revenue bonds; or cash, accrual and modified accrual accounting (gotta know that to be able to read the financials) is worth every minute you spend with it (and that won't be many because it's only 34 easy-to-digest pages).

(I should warn you, you will be asked for copious info (name, phone, employer) as many of these marketing things do. But I can say without hesitation that I have never been spammed by Governing. I get an occasional entreaty to a conference, but that is minor at best in return for a free subscription to the magazine and access to things like this. (Personally, I think every reporter or editor covering the city or county should be getting a copy of Governing or at least its daily email of top stories.) )

Labels: , , ,

Monday, June 23, 2014

The promise -- and peril -- in Atlanta editor's words

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's managing editor, Bert Roughton Jr., told Poynter last week: I can’t have people stuck on beats that may or may not have audiences all the time.

In that simple sentence lies the complicated tale of the current state of the news industry, at once fraught with promise and peril.

Roughton said those words in the context of trying to, as he put it, "smartly" manage what has been one of the more decimated staffs, having gone from about 500 people to about 180 in a bit more than a decade.

The AJC was one of the first to go "digital first," in 2007 moving its spot news online and creating a system designed to separate content creation from production.

Now, among other things, there will be 10 topic teams. There is a lot to like here:
  • Each team will include "audience specialists" that had been in a separate digital department.
  • Those specialists will help journalists still a bit tentative about this digital thing discover new tools and other ways to tell stories. That, in 2014, there still is nervousness in the newsroom about digital is worth taking a minute alone to ponder. (From Poynter: Roughton told me some traditional reporters are “still a little nervous about this whole Internet thing.” So having a digital specialist “in the family,” so to speak, gives reporters intimidated about digital a go-to person for help. “The truth is, I think most reporters are dying to be good at this,” Roughton said.)
  • There will be broader attention to audience research (trying to pay attention to your audience is always a good thing)
  • Based on that, and with echoes of Clayton Christensen's model that people don't buy products as such but hire "jobs to be done," Roughton promises a lot of deeper thinking about what to cover and how to do it. (From his memo as quoted by Poynter: Each topic team must develop a guiding statement of what they cover based on audience metrics, research and judgment. Instead of a collection of beats, each team will have a coherent theme against which to work. The topic statements should evolve as audience demands and circumstances change. For example; instead of covering a bunch of individual companies, the Economy team might focus around a topic such as “Metro Atlanta’s recovery from the Great Recession and how that is reshaping the economy for our audiences.”
But this highlights the stresses on the modern news organization because some of the truly important "beats" don't have audiences to start. In many cases, our job as journalists is to create those audiences for things that otherwise might go unnoticed but turn out to be hugely important.

The idea of  breaking away from the "beat" that produces isolated, incremental coverage is not new. Gil Thelen, as editor of The State in Columbia, S.C., for instance, was one of those pioneering coverage "circles" in the 1990s. There are several other examples, such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that was studied in depth (here's the PDF link if you can, through your library, get to the full study, which is paywalled) and Minneapolis (again, the full paywalled PDF).

But the stakes have been raised in the current digital age and business climate.

Some of those beats with low or no audience are critical to actually discovering those stories that have the elusive audience we seek. I already see around the country stories about significant lawsuits or court decisions days or weeks late on news organization sites. (As any "traditional" reporter will tell you, the reason you checked those filings regularly was because they were the quickest way to discover an area's underbelly, reveal its interlocking connections, and turn up some darn good stories.)

Yes, it's good to get out of the press release processing business when it comes to covering local companies, but the contacts made by a follow-up call and short story from one of those can often lead to sources for better stories and a much better understanding of the background needed to cover such organizations.

The turn-of-the-screw stories from City Hall definitely need to be a thing of the past, but if we are left to rely on agendas and other handouts, even if we deeply report "advancers" and the like, then what? I spent a fine summer trailing Andrea Mitchell around Philadelphia City Hall during the Rizzo administration as she ran the beat. There was a lot of incremental work there, but like a mosaic, when you stepped back it created a larger, more significant picture.

And we know how most State House bureaus have been gutted as more power is being shifted to the states and when people's lives arguably are more affected, on balance, by what happens at the State House than in Congress or City Hall. Covering state government effectively is a contact sport, bar none.

I wish I had the answer to a question that has gnawed at me for years, back to the "circles" days: How do we balance the journalism of relevance, for lack of a better term (we'd hope it's all relevant, right?), with the journalism needed to discover those sometimes disparate threads that require the kind of institutional knowledge and sometimes mind-numbing amassing of detail that allow you to realize the thread is there and not just fuzz?

No newsroom has ever been able to do it all, of course, and many stayed too long exclusively in the bricks-and-mortar beats mode. Digital tools can make some of this transformation a bit easier, but they can be gamed by those producing the info fed into them (yes, regular personal contacts can be gamed too, but it's harder when they have to look you in the eyes).

We are gaining, I think, some smarter journalism. But it will take journalists, especially newsroom leaders, of strong constitution and unusual enlightenment to try to keep things balanced. We also are losing something in this process.

Fifty years ago this month, three civil rights workers were killed. Less than a year earlier, four girls were killed in the Birmingham church bombing. In 1965, the world watched as civil rights marchers were beaten in Selma, Ala.

Thanks to Eugene Patterson, the AJC had one of the outstanding records among Southern papers of that time. But it was 15 years earlier when much of journalism really needed to be paying close attention.

If it were today, would the civil rights beat at that critical time -- before things exploded -- really have the "audience"?

Labels: , , , ,