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Issue for October 2020

BBC Journalists Warned Against Virtue Signaling

Posted on Friday, October 30, 2020 at 4:57 PM

In the news: BBC lays down stringent new rules for its journalists in response to complaints of partisanship.

The BBC has warned its news staff not to post any social media content or participate in any public activism that might hint at their personal points of view. According to Jim Waterson on BBC.com, the rules go even a step further: “The rules reiterate a requirement not to publicly criticise fellow BBC employees and warn that using certain emojis in tweets can be seen as a sign of bias....

The BBC has recently faced criticism from Conservative Party figures and far-right media outlets in response to some BBC staffers’ social media content. “Staff have been told to stop getting into unnecessary arguments online,” Waterson reports, “and warned that building their ‘personal brand’ on social media is secondary to their responsibility as an employee of the BBC.” Waterson does specify, however, that “While many of the rules will apply to all BBC employees, including freelance staff, some of the tougher guidelines apply only to staff in news-related jobs.” Read more here.

Also Notable

Fact-Checking the Election

Similar to the 2016 election, the 2020 election has been riddled with conspiracy theories and disinformation attempts. So what are newsrooms doing to combat the surge of bad information? Fact checkers tell Poynter.org to expect lots of disinformation on social media between now and next week. Cristina Tardáguila of Poynter.org reports: “To try to stop conspiracy theories, be they about the candidates, the pandemic or the electoral process, U.S fact-checkers are preparing “war rooms” for this weekend. Many will be on duty -- throughout Saturday and all of Sunday -- to not only follow closing arguments by Trump and Biden, but also to identify falsehoods before they gain relevance and viralize on social media.” The pressure is on these fact checkers to catch and call out heaps of bad information, but the onus falls on someone else as well: the reader. “Don’t share conspiracy theories,” she cautions. Read more here.

LA Times Staffers Form Latino Caucus

Representation in newsrooms and on magazine mastheads continues to be a developing story in the media industry. Most recently, Latino staffers at the LA Times have formed their own caucus to help the paper better serve its readers. As Evelyn Mateos of EditorandPublisher.com notes, quoting a staff writer at the paper, “while the population of Los Angeles County is almost 50 percent Latino, the newsroom is only 13 percent Latino.” The group wrote a letter to owner Patrick Soon-Shiong expressing its concerns and laying out its mission: “The Latino Caucus was established in July 2020 to call for change. We did so inspired by our Black colleagues, who formed the L.A. Times Guild’s first Black Caucus and pushed open the doors of what is possible.” Read more about the caucus here, and the group’s letter to ownership here.

Covid-19 Hurting News Industry

Newspapers have been hit hard by the current pandemic, report Michael Barthel, Katerina Eva Matsa, and Kirsten Worden of Pew Research Center. In a piece published this week, Barthel, Matsa, and Worden discuss the Q2 numbers and other developments in the news industry. “Among the six publicly traded newspaper companies studied ... advertising revenue fell by a median of 42% year over year,” they write. And the news isn’t much better on the digital side: “Digital ad revenue fell by a median of 32% year over year in the second quarter.” Circulation revenue is down 8 percent as well. Read the full report here.

Washington Post Grows Global Subscriptions

Lifting paywalls on Covid-related content has paid off big for some publications, including the Washington Post. Kayleigh Barber of Digiday.com discusses how WaPo paved the way for success before the pandemic hit: “Taking a regionalized approach to everything from marketing to pricing to bundling helped to keep its international subscriptions business growing when many of the publisher’s counterparts experienced a plateau in reader revenue,” she reports, citing comments by CMO Miki King at the Digiday Publishing Summit. King tells Barber that “since the beginning of the year, the Post’s subscriptions business has grown by over 40% year over year, while its global subscriptions business, in particular, is up over 60% from last year.” Read more here.

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Social Media Flap's Danger for Editors?

Posted on Friday, October 30, 2020 at 4:56 PM

Current regulations treat social media as “common carriers” rather than “information content providers.” Has the time come to rethink this classification, or perhaps even create a new one?

By William Dunkerley

Official reactions to a recent New York Post-Twitter-Facebook scandal could lead to actions detrimental to publication editors. This article will suggest a way out for us.

The incident in question was triggered by a recent New York Post exposé. The piece presented allegations that reflected poorly on the Biden family. In response, Twitter and Facebook both took steps to block or impede the propagation of the story across their networks.

The social media giants generally asserted that the Post presented alleged evidence that had not been verified.

Sharp reactions followed by those who favored besmirching the Bidens for partisan reasons. They claimed the "verified evidence" principle was not being applied with political neutrality and reflected a bias.

We won't deal with those political arguments here. But there is another aspect of this that seems ominous for publication editors. It comes down to a disparity that exists between social media networks and publications.

Social Media Immunity: An Unfair Advantage?

The difference is this: We can face consequences for what we publish. Social media networks are afforded a degree of immunity that we don't have.

That gives social media a competitive advantage and places on us the burden and expense of greater vigilance over what we publish. Make no mistake: We are in competition with social media and the internet at large as suppliers of content to audiences. Social media's advantage is our disadvantage.

The exact legal issues involved are complex and beyond the scope of this article. I'll deal with the relevant concepts in generalities from a media professional's point of view.

Social media networks derive their benefit of immunity from a provision in the FCC rules. It largely short-circuits actions against them pertaining to content posted by network users.

The Onus of Content Sources vs. Common Carriers

To put this into perspective, envision the difference between content sent over telephone landlines and that delivered by a publication.

If two criminals, for instance, plan a crime over the phone, go on to carry it out, and are subsequently caught, the telephone company isn't going to share in the blame. But if the crooks had exchanged posts in the comments section of an article you published, it could be a different story.

A classic example is provided by the Soldier of Fortune case from the 1980s. Someone placed a classified ad that read, "Gun For Hire: 37-year-old professional mercenary desires jobs. Vietnam veteran. Discrete and very private. Bodyguard, courier, and other special skills. All jobs considered."

A reader subsequently hired the advertiser to kill a business associate. The reader and the advertiser were eventually convicted. Ultimately the publisher was found to have some culpability, too, and a large civil penalty was levied. In the end, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld that judgment.

The fundamental difference between a telephone company and a publishing company is this: While the telco has no onus to monitor and control what's distributed over its network, a publisher indeed exercises control over what it publishes. The telephone company is considered to be just a "common carrier" but the publisher is not -- it's a content source. When social media came along, there erupted a quandary over which category it belongs in. Naturally, the social media companies preferred the former.

A Raw Deal for Publishers

Sanctuary for the social media companies came in the form of an FCC regulation that says, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

Publishers, on the other hand, are considered "information content providers." That means we are "responsible in whole or in part for the creation or development of information provided through the internet or any other interactive computer service."

That's a bad deal for publishers, in my view. Social media networks were shoehorned inappropriately into the preexisting common carrier category (even though they exert influence over available content). They are like neither telephone companies nor publishers. In reality, they represent a new category. Out of fairness to publishers, their misclassification is a wrong that needs to be righted.

Rethinking Social Media’s Legal Classification

But what should this new category be? Are there any existing analogues that could help define it?

Indeed there is one. It came to prominence in a California case where students sought signatures in a shopping mall for a petition. The mall managers disallowed the activities. The students sought redress. A US Supreme Court ruling ensued. The general gist is that a shopping center's common space had taken on the characteristics of a public square and that individuals exercising their free speech rights there "did not violate the owner's property rights."

Doesn't a parallel exist there? Haven't social media outlets, especially the large monopolies, come to resemble a digital public square wherein participants should be accorded free expression?

As with the historical public square, there can be behavioral restrictions to protect the rights of others and assure lawfulness. But the content of the discourse, if legal in nature, should not be subjected to editorial decisions made by mall or network management.

That's my solution. Social media networks deserve their own category in information space, and it should resemble a public square. If instead they want to exercise editorial influence, let them be classified as publishers -- with all the attendant responsibilities.

Are Unfavorable Changes for Us Possible?

Now, you might think that the possibility of new restrictions for us coming from the New York Post-Twitter-Facebook scandal is remote.

But it has already begun. On October 15 Reuters reported, "Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai said Thursday the agency will move forward to set new rules to clarify the meaning of a key legal protection for social media companies."

Because there are strong political connotations to each side of this issue, it is hard to anticipate what direction that or other actions might take.

Obviously this is not an issue for individual editors to tackle alone. But I recommend two steps you can take to help protect the prerogatives and competitive position of your publication and others.

First, urge vigilance from any relevant professional organizations you may belong to. Be sure they will act to protect your rights and interests.

Second, make clear to members of your congressional delegation that you wish them to exercise caution in this area, lest publications within their constituency be treated unfairly by whatever new rules may arise.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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A Fresh Approach to Leads, Part IV

Posted on Friday, October 30, 2020 at 4:56 PM

The final installment of our series on good article leads.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Creating a sense of puzzlement in your lead can be a useful change of pace. Be careful, however. Make the puzzle really lead, not mislead. I recall a news magazine story -- let's leave the exact source nameless -- that began this way:

The disease strikes suddenly, and its symptoms are often frightening: severe diarrhea, bloody vomit, and dehydration -- sometimes ending in death. Sweeping northeast across the United States from Texas, the viral illness has claimed hundreds of lives in the past six months. Doctors can treat only the symptoms, then hope for the best. And a vaccine to fight the virus is in such short supply that it is almost impossible to obtain. No national health emergency has been declared, but many American families grieve.

The title above that opening gave nothing away. "A viral epidemic without a cure," it said. The next sentence in the story read: "All the victims of this cruel killer are dogs."

A tragic enough situation. But the earlier material (title and story opening) had led my mind in quite a different direction. An even more worrisome one.

I consider that start deceptive. I consider it dishonest, trying too hard.

My philosophy is: "Whatever way you can get your reader into a story is fine." But my companion philosophy is: "as long as you do it with honesty."

Don't permit writers to mislead with their lead.

Proper Use of Question/Quote Leads

Now, a couple of other watch-out-fors. Question leads. Quote leads.

Almost any story can be led with the question because a writer usually attempts to answer one or more questions. Almost any story can be led with a quote because the writer will collect lots of comments from information sources. But these are two easy approaches. So, be sure -- when you select question or quote as a curtain raiser -- that what you've chosen is your strongest and most natural approach.

Who would dare change the arms of God on the first day of Creation? Michelangelo. First he scribed outlines for God's arms onto wet plaster with quick strokes of a sharp tool. Then he abandoned those outlines in a flash of brushstrokes. He painted God’s left arm so it swept directly overhead, made that arm plunge a divine hand into the turbulent light and wrench it from the darkness.

David Jeffrey, in his National Geographic story of the restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, poses the question, then immediately supplies the answer. That's a good use made of the question technique.

"Listen," begins Myron Magnet's article on "America's Underclass: What to Do?" in Fortune:

Listen: "He made me scared, so I pulled the trigger. So feel sorry? I doubt it. I didn't want to see him go down like that, but better him than me."

"I'm gonna work 40 hours a week and bring home maybe $100, $150, when I can work 15 minutes and come back with $1,000 tax-free?"

"I ain't working for no minimum wage."

"Man, you go to, three years not working, and hanging around and smoking reefer or drinking, and then you get a job -- you can't handle it. You say, 'I don't want get up in the morning, get pushed and shoved. I'm gonna get on welfare.'"

"Everybody else I know was having babies, so I just went along."

"It just seems that everybody here is down on their luck."

The voices, reported in the press, or the voices of the underclass and their message is that the troubles of this group at the very bottom of the American social ladder need fixing fast.

Quotes from those who live the life. Strong beginning.

A Good Lead Works for the Story

Note, please, that the Fortune lead is not a short one. Don't worry about length. A lead is whatever it takes to get a story underway. Don't let the writer waste words, but let the start do what it needs to do. Sometimes that takes space. Sometimes that requires background or context. Just so the lead gets the reader close to the subject, as Magnet's does. It helps me to see. It helps me to understand. It's not too long. It's not too short. It's just right.

What's important is that the lead works for the story by working on the reader.

Be real, as Michael Lemonick demonstrated in a onetime cover story for Time:

They can strike anywhere, anytime. On a cruise ship, in the corner restaurant, in the grass just outside the back door. And anyone can be a carrier: the stranger coughing in the next seat on the bus, the college classmate from a far-off place, even the sweetheart who seems perfect in every way. For whatever we go and whatever we do, we are accosted by invaders from an unseen world. Protozoans, bacteria, viruses -- a whole menagerie of microscopic pests constantly assaults every part of our body, looking for a way inside. Many are harmless or easy to fight off. Others -- as we now are so often reminded -- are merciless killers.

Humanity once had the hubris to think it could control or even conquer all these microbes. But anyone who reads today's headlines knows how vain that hope turned out to be.

Maybe it's apocryphal as in a Newsweek profile some years back:

For the world's great conductors, so the joke goes, are bickering about which one is best. "My 'Chicago sound' is revered everywhere," says Sir Georg Salti, "and I've been knighted by the Queen of England." "Ah, but my tours with the Boston Symphony have been a triumph," says Seiji Ozawa. "I'm the most respected Japanese name since Sony." "Yes, but who else here is as celebrated a composer as he is a conductor?" injects Leonard Bernstein. "It was God himself who inspired me to write my Mass." "No, I did not!" snaps Herbert von Karajan.

Yes, we go on to read the real story about Herbert von Karajan. The opening fiction, however, paves the way.

Make the lead work for the story. That's the key. Make the lead work for the story, as does Matt Bivins in his "Russian Roulette" article for Modern Maturity:

Nikolai Sigayev saved carefully over the years to buy a car, something only a select few Soviet citizens could afford. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, Sigayev saved 10,000 rubles -- an amount worth about $16,700 in 1989 and nearly enough. Five years later, 10,000 rubles is equal to about five dollars. Sigayev, 62, grins ruefully at the comparison. "I was going to buy a car," he says. "But after inflation, I had to settle for a bicycle."

Like Sigayev, the majority of Russia's older citizens have had the financial, political and social rug pulled out from under them.

And so forth.

A good lead.

Editors must help writers make them so.

A classic article from a past issue in tribute to the late Peter J. Jacobi, longtime EO writer and author of The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It.

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Free Assistance

Posted on Friday, October 30, 2020 at 4:56 PM

During this time of crisis, we stand ready to answer any specific questions our readers may have, time permitting. You can contact us at: crisis-help@editorsonly.com.

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