letters to the editor

Letters to the Editor

Readers weigh in on our September/October cover story "The Hamster Wheel"
December 1, 2010

Hamster Food for Thought

Great article (“Hamster Wheel” by Dean Starkman, CJR, September/October). “The Wheel” entirely devalues the profession of journalism. It allows business-siders to support their misconceived “anyone can write” agenda that allows them to let go of staffers, churn out fluff pieces, or simply rewrite press releases or reports.

Perhaps backlash has offered the opportunity to reinvigorate the idea of professional journalists and editors as “curators” of the news. Today’s sites have become places where Rembrandts hang alongside Keans, the rare Night Watch surrounded by lots of paintings of kids with big eyes. Could there be room for allowing news reporters and editors to make choices, investigate, and analyze? And do it in a new model? Please!

Stuart Feil
New York, NY

A very important piece by Dean Starkman. The growing ability of PR folks to control the news agenda is alarming. Their ability to create and parcel out mini-scoops over the course of a news cycle gives them huge leverage. They will do whatever reporters let them do.

Bill Bulkeley
Boston, MA

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Brilliant piece. Unfortunately, I had to stop in the middle of reading it yesterday morning to file three blog posts. I finally got back to it at 1 am this morning. Big wheels keep on turnin’. . . .

Dan Tynan
Wilmington, NC

Regarding your story, there’s a simple way to get off that hamster wheel: Ditch your already obsolete websites.

The newspaper business is suffering from a thought virus that has virtually everyone believing that their particular website will someday be monetized. They are the equivalent of rusting 1974 Impalas cruising down a highway of despair with their drivers perfectly oblivious to how old fashioned and ineffective they’ve become in the era of Facebook, social networking, and cookie-cutter websites beyond count.

Our alternative newsweekly, Northern Express Weekly, takes an online tack that mimics what has proven successful during the three-hundred-year history of the newspaper. We simply put the entire paper online as a “virtual” publication.

Result: our advertisers get something out of our online effort with “free” Internet ads for supporting the real world paper. And our readers get to see the ads that are missing on the typical newspaper website.

The virtual newspaper costs next to nothing to produce and works on the iPad. By the way, revenues at Northern Express Weekly are up 11 percent over 2009.

Robert Downes
Managing editor

Northern Express Weekly
Traverse City, MI

Pillar to Post

Re: “A Rocket’s Trajectory: Marcus Brauchli at The Washington Post” by Scott Sherman (CJR, September/October). It’s clear that Brauchli has made more than his share of missteps, some major; few of his friends would even argue otherwise. But the broader question that the article begs is, What would success look like? It’s a paper that has lost at least a quarter of its staff, was saddled with a split print/online newsroom (in two locations), faced with plunging revenues and other challenges.

Leonard Downie Jr, to his credit, managed the journalism at the Post exceptionally well over the years of declining resources; he may well have been the best at it among U.S. editors. But it didn’t really put the paper on any firmer financial footing, and Brauchli’s job now is to try and find some sustainable business with fewer and fewer resources.

That’s not to say he’s doing a good job; only that this is pretty untrod ground for everyone. There are few U.S. papers that could stand a comparison with their ten- or twenty-year-ago selves.

Reg Chua
Hong Kong

Sherman’s “A Rocket’s Trajectory” was well constructed and right on point. It captured the difficulty Brauchli has encountered assuming his position at a time of stress and flux. It is honest about Brauchli’s failures and clear about his successes. However, there is one issue I wish Sherman had included in the piece: Declining coverage of the D.C. region.

When I moved from Manhattan to Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2007, the first thing I did was call The Washington Post to subscribe to home delivery. I remembered fondly the weekend visits I had made to Washington in the 1980s and 1990s, when my group of Texas-raised journalist friends and I would sit around and devour every section of the Sunday Post, lamenting that our local papers from Texas could not or would not cover their regions so lyrically and comprehensively. We would marvel at the resources the Post put into local coverage.

My fond memories of the old Post would only haunt me as I established myself as an active citizen of Virginia. By the fall of 2009, I had cancelled my Post subscription. The Post was no longer a serious newspaper, willing to make sense of its readers’ world for them. By then, the Post had closed all its bureaus in the U.S. And the newsholes devoted to Virginia and Maryland were so small as to be largely irrelevant. So the states that taxed the two largest segments of Post readers would no longer be of interest to the Post newsroom. The Post would still devote massive resources to packages, series, and stories that might win big prizes. But covering the actual news about the country and region would be a luxury the Post could not afford.

The incentive systems of daily newspapers has been askew for years. Under current conditions, it’s even more absurd. The feedback mechanisms at work have created a vicious cycle by which readers care less about the brands that deliver news as those firms care less about news. So revenue decreases, so papers cut back on news, so readers flee.

The Post will never be great again until it re-opens bureaus across the country and decides to cover, rather than ignore, Maryland and Virginia.

Siva Vaidhyanathan
Charlottesville, VA

Who Is Out There?

Lucas Graves’s “Traffic Jam: We’ll never agree about online audience size” (CJR, September/October) makes me think that some open cookie standard would help. For one thing, the cookie would be regulated, which would be good for users. But it could be a source of clout for the social networks as well. A news viewer may access the same site from several computers, but one thing those computers have in common is the cookie they get from Twitter or Facebook or Google.

North America

As Graves’s article implies, Nielsen’s monopoly over television ratings has raised questions for years about how numbers are generated, tracked, manipulated, and published. I’ve spent more than a few nights looking at TV ratings, week-by-week, year-over-year, and my view is such that complacency with a crooked system is just as bad as being in promotion of said system. Set-top-box data? Some people have legitimate concerns about it, but it’s a shame others refuse it just because the new technology would force market researchers to be a little better at their job.

Aaron B.
Champaign, IL

Graves writes: “But Nielsen’s numbers are better than nothing at all, and that’s what radio or TV broadcasting offers: no way to detect whether 5,000 people tuned in, or 5 million.”

Since we’re in the age of digital TV, this makes little sense to me. If the cable and satellite TV companies got together, they could tally an actual count of viewers. They could also indicate how many people watch commercials (not many), which is probably why they don’t report this stuff. I imagine they are doing this kind of research anyway—for their own internal optimization purposes. But the idea that Nielsen is the only option out there seems wrong to me. There are plenty of ways to “detect,” either by tallying actual numbers or using a statistically significant sample size. It just seems that there’s no interest in doing it—at least not for public consumption.

Michael Schreiber
Montclair, NJ

The New Video Storytellers

While Jill Drew addresses many aspects of, and despairs over, the state of online video journalism (“See It Now,” CJR, September/October), she and CJR may have overlooked the real challenges in recent years to the quality of video journalism produced by local television stations and the broadcast / cable networks.

The growing appetite for instant information on the web has driven down viewership for television news. The state of the economy and the desire to cut costs have led many news managers, especially at the local level, to require reporters to shoot and edit their own news video as well as write and voice the stories they cover. An enormous number of TV news photographers have lost their jobs as a result. While smaller cameras and simpler software make the job somewhat easier for local VJs (Video Journalists) or MMJs (Multimedia Journalists) working alone, the impact of and the adjustment to the loss of the TV news photographers in the industry is significantly changing the content of local news, as well as the quality of video storytelling. Drew’s subhed—“Video journalism is dying. Long live video journalism”—also applies to the upheavals on the broadcast side.

However, quality newsvideo can be found on broadcast and cable-TV websites. While many may be “repurposed for the Web,” there are stories of value, interest, and high quality being produced everyday for the digital age. This is, in part, because a significant number of those TV photographers whose jobs were threatened and were always true believers in video storytelling saw their world changing and became MMJs themselves. Broadcast TV photographers are helping to build the foundation of online video news worth watching.

Bill Goetz
News photographer, KVAL-TV
Eugene, OR


In a piece about Russia Today in our September/October issue, we misidentified Sophie Shevardnadze as the daughter of Georgia’s second president. She is his granddaughter. We also wrote that RT had “aired” ads that conflated Barack Obama with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The ads were posted on billboards, not broadcast. And in our September/October Lower Case, we misspelled Corvallis in Corvallis Gazette-Times. We regret the errors.

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.