Letters to the Editor

Readers respond to our 50th anniversary issue

At Fifty

Congratulations on the publication of your recent fiftieth anniversary issue (CJR, November/December 2011). It was truly the finest collection of commentary and analysis concerning the media that I have ever seen. I am so happy to see that your magazine has improved dramatically in the past few years.

Bill White
Los Angeles, CA

I am truly honored that you included a photo of me (or at least of my bare feet) in your fiftieth anniversary edition (“The Moments,” CJR, November/December); it is Susan Meiselas’s photo among the Magnum selection. However, for the record, I was working for The Boston Globe at the time, not The Washington Post. In the full set of Meiselas’s photos from that day (we were in the public telephone office in San Francisco Gotera, Morazan province, El Salvador), there is a fourth reporter, Robert McCartney. Bob was the Washington Post correspondent.

To fill in the background: in the best of the photos that include Bob, he is sitting on the floor munching on chicken—a somewhat less heroic stance than the three reporters, including me, diligently dictating stories from longhand. The truth of the matter was that Bob was faster than me and Sam Dillon and James LeMoyne, and he had already finished filing by the time Susan made the shots.

The issue was full of valuable stories. I especially liked Michael Shapiro’s revealing history of the Merc.

Onward to the next fifty!

Julia Preston
National Immigration Correspondent
The New York Times
New York, NY

Fun With FON

Thanks, Dean Starkman, for a good piece that everybody who cares about journalism should read (“Confidence Game,” CJR, November/December). And I think you arrive at the right place—the middle ground of institution-based journalism in a networked world.
I often cringe at the theorizing of what you call the Future of News (FON) crowd. As you correctly point out, it’s rarely fact-based opinion. I don’t dismiss out of hand the degree to which old-school journalism will continue to be disrupted in an increasingly digitized, mobile, and networked world, but I do know there is an audience for third-party reportage, both small and great in scope. I don’t see a way in which that might ever change. The big question will be in an increasingly turbulent media environment: How do we pay for it? None of the fon crowd has answered that question.

In the near term, I think I see a path forward (via good old-fashioned adjacency marketing), but I also see a horizon out there, a scary one, to be sure, and uncertain how far away it is, in which solid journalism is much too disrupted to be profitable in any form.

Howard Owens
Batavia, NY

Congratulations on a valuable counterbalance to the new orthodoxy of the FON approach. New media have brought so much beneficial public involvement in newsgathering, comment, and the dissemination of information that opposition to the FON consensus gets dismissed as simply Luddite. Yet the vague FON optimism—that somehow committed activists will replace much of what journalists do—remains unjustified.

A notably fatuous claim is that “news is a conversation.” News is a service that people require for many reasons—and most people no more want to have a conversation with a journalist than they want to have a conversation with the postman. So I wish the FON enthusiasts would advocate new developments without damning the journalistic systems on which we still depend.

Martin Huckerby
London, England

There are three pay models for journalism: 1) reader-sponsored subscriptions; 2) commercial-sponsored advertising; 3) benefactor-sponsored commons. I may be wrong, but for a journalism venture to be successful, you have to have one or a mix of these three.

The problem facing journalism today is the same problem facing music labels and movie content providers: people can do their own production and distribution because the process of distribution over the network carries near zero cost at near instant speed. This acts as a cost pressure driving down margins of profit from subscriptions and ads. Once you’ve softened the professional requirement for journalism production and distribution, it becomes difficult to justify charging the professional premiums.

In that, the paywall seems like a necessary innovation to make people pay for value by restricting the supply of professional content and research. The profit margins won’t be quite as high because the ad model won’t pay as much as it did, but getting the users to pay for what they read is a workable model so long as the quality of what they’re reading exceeds that which they can get for free.

Chris Allan
Victoria, BC

What the Merc Meant

Thanks to Michael Shapiro for his fascinating article about the San Jose Mercury News and its early role in digital news (“The Newspaper That Almost Seized the Future,” CJR, November/December). I was on the newspaper staff there from 1987 to 1994, some of the paper’s salad days. I spent most of my time at the Mercury News on the city desk in San Jose as special beats editor, deputy city editor, and acting city editor. One day in 1994, Bob Ingle, then executive editor, came to the bureau to talk about the future. He told reporters that someday they’d be carrying audio recorders, taking pictures, and shooting video. His reception was silence and shock. Ingle, as your piece suggests, was a somewhat taciturn sort who kept his own counsel. But he had as good a vision of the future as anyone in those years. Too bad he didn’t help Knight-Ridder chart a new course. But as Charlene Li apparently learned in two years, according to your article, this was a company that keyed on short-term earnings only and maximizing the bottom line.

That, of course, wasn’t the staff’s desire. I wouldn’t necessarily call the Merc a great paper in my time. But it was a very good paper with many reporters and editors who have gone on to enormous careers. When I left, I went back to the “academy” (I’m now an associate professor at Emerson College’s journalism department). But I left my heart in San Jose.

Jerry Lanson
Boston, MA

I worked in advertising at the Mercury News during the period described here. Based on the events I participated in, the things I heard about, and from what I remember this story is accurate, insightful, and contributes vastly to the story of newspapers in the digital age.

But after reading it, I am somewhat inclined to say, “So what?” My last year as classified manager we did $120 million in help-wanted alone. A couple years later—after I retired—that number dropped to about $10 million. Filling jobs and selling cars and houses works well on an electronic platform that has no need for an expensive adjunct that produces content. I’m with Bob Ryan on this one. The train was going to get us pretty much no matter what.

Lou Alexander
San Jose, CA

Newspapers and the people who run them are by definition conservative. They write the first draft of history, so they’re reluctant to make mistakes. That was especially true at the Merc after “Dark Alliance,” so it’s amazing they went as far as they did with Mercury Center. The opportunity was there, but the vision to exploit it by fundamentally changing the business model, could never find purchase in a corporation ruled by newspeople. That said, the reporters and editors at the Merc were incredibly talented at what they did best—producing good journalism. Unfortunately, what they did best was not what the business needed to survive.

Doug Edwards
Los Altos, CA

Spirit of St. Louis

Congratulations on your fiftieth anniversary. But I was disappointed in your erroneous statement that the award-winning St. Louis Journalism Review (SJR)—among other regional reviews—“didn’t make it” (“Opening Shot,” CJR, November/December 2011), and in your refusal to publish a correction. St. Louis recently celebrated SJR’s fortieth anniversary with a gala event. Yes, in recent years, the survival of SJR was threatened many times. However, the commitment of its readers, writers, and contributors helped overcome these difficulties. We found a willing partner in the journalism school at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. SJR transferred there last year. We added the name Gateway Journalism Review to reflect its expanded focus to sixteen Midwestern states. The cover of every issue states “The St. Louis Journalism Review presents the Gateway Journalism Review.” The St. Louis operation continues under editor Roy Malone.
To paraphrase another Missourian, the report of our death has been greatly exaggerated.

Charles Klotzer
Founder, editor/publisher emeritus
St. Louis Journalism Review
St. Louis, MO

The editors respond: It is good news that the spirit of the St. Louis Journalism Review lives on under a different name, business model, institutional host, and mission. For those reasons, we chose not to run a correction, but are happy that we could provide our readers with more of the story.

Three Cups of Context

Alissa Quart’s “The Long Tale” (CJR, September/October 2011) says that writer Jon Krakauer came to 60 Minutes in 2010 with “his findings” about Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, and the mismanagement of his charity that builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It goes on to say that “as is typical for television, the show was slow to get his story on the air…. So Krakauer decided to write about Mortenson himself.”

While it is true that Krakauer came to 60 Minutes with his concerns and suspicions about Mortenson, he had done no formal reporting on the story at that point, and had no intention of writing an article. Krakauer said his interest was personal and altruistic. He had known Mortensen for a long time, had donated a substantial amount of money to his cause, and felt strongly there was an important story here. We told Krakauer that if we were going to put anything on the air about Mortenson, we would need to report and verify every aspect of the story. We also made it clear that it could take months to dissect the finances of Mortenson’s charity, check out its schools, and find people who were willing to appear on camera. Krakauer agreed and offered to help us. The result was a seven-month investigation that proceeded on separate, but parallel tracks. In the end, Krakauer appeared as an on-camera source for our story and also decided to write his own long-form account, which appeared on Byliner.com shortly after the 60 Minutes story aired.

The reason it took so long to put this story together is because it was ground-breaking and complex, and we wanted to make sure we got it right. The segment 60 Minutes broadcast on April 17, 2011, was the product of more than 120 interviews conducted in eight languages.

We would have told CJR all of this if anybody from the magazine had contacted us.

Steve Kroft
Correspondent and Co-Editor
Andy Court
CBS News / 
60 Minutes
New York, NY

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.