Journalism Lives

Two lengthy, extremely well written profiles worth your time if you’re the least bit interested in (1) North Korea and/or (2) marketing.

1. The Untold Story of Otto Warmbier, American Hostage. Unfunny throughout.

2. How Goop’s Haters Made Gwyneth Paltrow’s Company Worth $250 Million. Very funny in places.

Too Smart For Own Good

Near the very end of Claire Cain Miller’s New York Times story, “When Wives Earn More than Husbands, Neither Partner Likes to Admit It”, there’s a powerful illustration of why academic writing often sucks.

Consider two of the last few sentences. First Cain Miller’s clear, specific, easily comprehensible one:

“. . . . Women who outearned their husbands were more likely to seek jobs beneath their potential, they found, and to do significantly more housework and child care than their husbands — perhaps to make their husbands feel less threatened.”

Immediately followed by Marianne Bertrand’s, a University of Chicago Business professor, attempting to communicate the exact same idea:

“‘When the gender norm is violated, there is some compensating behavior to try to undo some of the utility loss experienced by the husband.”

That contrast is the problem of academic writing in a nutshell.

Bertrand’s use of more sophisticated vocabulary, “gender norm is violated”, “compensating behavior”, and “utility loss” muddies more than it illuminate’s Cain Miller’s previous point. It would be nice if doctoral economics programs, no make that doctoral programs of all sorts, required a class in journalism.

Academics would be well advised to follow Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s advice to her writing students.

“She tells them to avoid inflated language—’never purchase when you can buy.'”

Amen to that.

Selecting The Wrong Leader. . . Again

Fighting an insidious attack on my immune system, I’ve opted to lean in to the sickness by reading the Atlantic’s God’s Plan for Mike Pence and the New York Times’s Inside Trump’s Hour-by-Hour Battle for Self-Preservation.

Journalism is hemorrhaging jobs, but fortunately, in some places, long form journalism is flourishing. These are detailed; thoughtful; and if you’re left-leaning, harrowing pieces.

From God’s Plan for Mike Pence:

“Scott Pelath, the Democratic minority leader in the Indiana House of Representatives, said that watching Pence vouch for Trump made him sad. “Ah, Mike,” he sighed. “Ambition got the best of him.” It’s an impression that even some of Pence’s oldest friends and allies privately share. As one former adviser marveled, ‘The number of compromises he made to get this job, when you think about it, is pretty staggering.'”

Tucked in the NYT piece were passing references to Trump’s twelve daily Diet Cokes and his regular dinner of. . .

“plates of well-done steak, salad slathered with Roquefort dressing and bacon crumbles, tureens of gravy and massive slices of dessert with extra ice cream.”

I’m calling bullshit on his doc’s glowing reports on his health. #fakenews

Why do we as citizens, employees, members of civic organizations, make leadership decisions we often regret? Why is our batting average too often Seattle Mariner-like?

Because we pick leaders based upon tangible qualifications that most closely match those we detail in our job postings, with far too little attention paid to the finalists’ psychological well-being. Granted, psychological well-being is hella-hard to assess in even a series of interviews, but somehow, we have to get better at it.

Let’s start with this premise, on a “Psychological Health” scale of 1-100, the most self-actualized person in the world is a 90. Put differently, everyone has “issues” and is fallible. The goal is to select leaders with the fewest inner demons so as to avoid getting hopelessly side-tracked from the group’s overarching mission. How about this for an interview question: Which of your inner demons are we likely to learn about six months from now? Maybe I should use italics when joking. But seriously, how do interviewers enter the side or back door to assess a candidate’s relative mental health and basic people skills?

My best work friend of all time took another job two and a half years ago. When the damnable university called me to talk about him, this is some of what I said, “He utterly has no ego. As a result, he doesn’t care who gets the credit for the good work that get’s done. All he cares about is that good work gets done.” His lack of ego was an indicator of genuine psychological health, the foundation of which, was equal parts a wonderful marriage and extended family, a deep spirituality, and a commitment to physical activity. Importantly, he also laughed a lot, often at himself.

Maybe the answer to the question, how do we assess job finalists’ psychological health, lies in the previous paragraph. Talk to more former co-workers in greater depth. I’m interested in other ideas you may have.

 

A New Philanthropy

My university’s decision to sell its public radio station (KPLU) to Seattle’s (KUOW), has upset lots of KPLU listeners both on and off campus. You can read the PLU president’s rationale here and decide for yourself how persuasive it is.

The sale is being reported as $8m, but it’s really $7m since $1m is $100k worth of radio advertising for ten consecutive years. At a recent faculty meeting the president said young adult radio listening is down 41% which prompted me to ask him why then the $1m in advertising.

Tacoma’s newspaper puts the sale in a larger context:

What’s happening to KPLU’s news team has been happening across the United States for the last decade. Battered by the Great Recession and the migration of audiences to the Internet, America’s traditional news operations . . . have collectively been forced to shed many thousands of professional journalism jobs.

That would merely be tough luck for those companies if new digital media were picking up the slack. Many traditional media companies . . . have successfully migrated to the Internet themselves. But online news rarely attracts the kind of advertising revenue that the old media once enjoyed.

It’s not just lost advertising revenue, it’s Craigslist and other on-line publications which have siphoned off classified revenue, another critical stream.

The Tacoma paper predicts what will happen next:

Shrunken newsrooms and fewer reporters and news editors. With fewer reporters, there’s less news. Pardon the sarcasm, but it’s remarkable how much less scandal there is in government and the corporate world now that fewer journalists are on the lookout for it.

The Web creates an illusion of abundant news. There is in fact an abundance of commentary about the news; political websites and blogs are saturated with punditry and ideological spin. There’s also a lot of news that’s been recycled, aggregated, tweeted, repurposed and attached to ads on the Web. But there’s less real bedrock information out there than it appears.

The Good Wife and I went a little cray cray last weekend and went to two movies. One of those, Spotlight, is the story of the Boston Globe’s 2000-2002 reporting on the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal.

Even though the story happened only 14-15 years ago, it felt like much longer. Almost like entering a time capsule. It’s a last gasp salvo against the march of the internet, an engaging case study of important investigative reporting. Unbelievably, the editors kept slowing down the journalists, telling them to take more time, meaning using more resources.

Since power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, a vibrant democracy depends in large part on a free and tenacious press that repeatedly asks challenging questions of people in power. Legions of journalists are sounding a warning, saying few media entities have the financial wherewithal to do original, excellent investigative reporting.

But I’m unaware of journalists thinking creatively about alternative revenue streams. So I will offer an idea. What if super wealthy philanthropists gave less to the (normally) already super wealthy universities they attended, and instead, made seven and eight figure gifts to our once great newspapers, or their newer online competitors, to create endowments for them, just like colleges and universities have, so that they can count on the revenue those endowments would generate.

And what about endowing journalists more specifically, like an endowed chair at a college or university? The Daniel Pearl Chair of Southeast Asian Reporting. The David Carr Chair of Media Studies. Seems to me this idea might appeal to super wealthy lefties and right wing nutters since the resulting investigative light would shine on scoundrels of every conceivable ideological bent.

Postscript/Administrivia:

• Thanks to Adele for filling in for me last week.

• I just don’t get the Kobe worship (Rest in Peace moms). He’s shooting 31%! If he cared about the Laker’s future half as much as he does himself, he’d retire right now.

• Happy to report that I ran the Seattle Half Marathon Sunday without either calf rebelling. My time suggests what I’ve suspected, I’m getting older. My brother informs me my time was five minutes slower than his personal record. Forgets to mention Grease was the top grossing movie when he ran that race.

 

 

 

The Problem With Direct Democracy

Let’s start the new year off with some heresy.

Education, medicine, policing, journalism, fill in the cross-section of the work world, every work collective is attempting to reinvent themselves; to save money; to work smarter, not harder; and ultimately, to meet people’s needs more effectively. Thoughtful reformers across the gamut repeatedly cite the importance of public participation in reform efforts.

A friend of mine, a transportation engineer, shared a story with me recently about an award his office received for a particularly successful redesign of a small downtown in Central Washington state. What stood out in the write-up was how thoroughly his team sought citizen’s input on what improvements they most valued before ever picking up a shovel.

Another friend is in the State Highway Patrol. Last week I shared a lengthy article with him about changes afoot in the Seattle Police Department. Here’s his insightful reply:

I’m all for a new approach to policing and public safety, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives and new laws not local prosecutors deciding what to file based on what they think is important. I don’t agree with a lot of the prostitution laws, but it is still illegal. Just like I didn’t agree with the marijuana laws, but it was still illegal. The citizens determine what laws we live by not selective prosecutors and politicians.

That makes imminent sense. The education parallel is we need new approaches to K-12 schooling and teacher education, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives not middle managers at the Office of Public Instruction.

But I have to believe, given the notion of connoisseurship, or specialized expertise, that there are limits to direct democracy. When it comes to reforming our medical system, I trust Atul Gawande way more than I trust myself. Why? Because from reading him I know he has patients’ best interests in mind. Plus, he has highly specialized expertise.

Like everyone, I have some thoughts on how to improve medicine–I’d like my doctors to work more closely together, I’d love to see a dermatologist sometime before I die, and it would be nice if rising costs were in line with the Consumer Price Index–but I have no idea how to get from here to there. I don’t need a seat at the table, I trust the Atul Gawande’s of the world to reinvent medicine. I’m content, if in the end, I get to vote for what he and his doc friends propose.

For the last three decades education reform has been largely ineffectual because nearly every change has been imposed on teachers from well-intentioned people outside of schools—whether Presidents, Secretaries of Education, Governors, Superintendents of Public Instruction, CEO’s, wealthy philanthropists, and academics. When it comes to revitalizing K-12 schooling, I trust teacher leaders in those schools way more than I trust President Obama, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, Bill Gates, Randy Dorn, or myself.

Here’s the most bold education proposal imaginable—let’s empower teacher leaders to reinvent their profession. Let them decide themselves what to teach; how to teach; and how to evaluate, promote, and reward one another. I’ll be content if, in the end, I get to vote up or down for what the teacher leaders propose for the schools in my community.

When it comes to redesigning a small town’s downtown, I trust my transportation engineer friend. When it comes to reinventing policing, I trust my State Trooper friend. Because they have citizens’ best interests in mind and they are far more expert than me in their respective fields. That’s why I’m more a fan of representative democracy than direct.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Is a successful career or an especially close extended family more important? Why bother being introspective? Why are sibling relations often strained? Can family members reconcile given longstanding dysfunction?

These are some of the questions Rod Dreher takes up in his brilliant book about his sister’s life. Put down whatever you’re reading and travel to rural Louisiana with Dreher and Leming. The subtitle is “A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life”. Dreher’s book is more novel (or Shakespearean play) than social science essay. He writes extremely well and tells a riveting story that was so sad in parts I didn’t even bother tilting my head back.

Dreher contrasts his sister’s life with his own and finds his wanting. He prioritized career, often moving to pursue better journalism jobs. In contrast, Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, went to college thirty minutes away, and then returned home to teach, live next to her parents, and raise her three daughters.

Dreher’s story made my head spin. He mostly idolizes his sister’s life choices, but clearly he wouldn’t have become as outstanding a writer if as a teen he hadn’t gone to a selective, public boarding school, or if he hadn’t taken successively more challenging journalism gigs. His ambition and career trajectory enabled him to tell his sister’s story so beautifully. And yet, he’s eloquent about the costs of his professional ambition to his relationship with his sister, his parents, his nieces, and his hometown.

As young adults, nearly everyone in my extended family moved far away from their parents. Now sprinkled all over the country, we’re held together by email, airplanes, and an aging matriarch. Except for the conservative politics, I am Rod Dreher, by which I mean I’m often too introspective for my own good. Then again, without introspection, Dreher never would have bothered with the story in the first place.

While reading “The Little Way” I thought about my dad who had unimaginable career success, my sister whose longstanding commitment to her small community and her family reminded me of Ruthie, and most of all, my daughters. What will be more important to them, ambition or relationships? Will they keep the “family moving away” streak alive? Previously, I’ve written about the key ingredient to tight-knit extended families—a vision for closeness coupled with an intentionality that fosters that. Dreher’s experience, especially his father’s regrets in life, makes me think inertia probably plays a part too.

In the end, Dreher zigs when you think he’s going to zag. He doesn’t offer his beloved sister’s life as a model, or his own, instead he thoughtfully recommends something in between.

One question Dreher inspired is what’s the best way for the GalPal and I to encourage my adult daughters to live within a half day’s drive? I know I probably shouldn’t do or say anything to compromise the freedom I enjoyed in my early twenties, but our laissez-faire approach to extended family has serious limits. Maybe it’s time for some sort of an audible. Reading and talking about “The Little Way” would be an excellent start. We have to do something because I can’t take much more air travel.

imagesNext in the queue—Nate in Venice by Richard Russo. Next next—The Unwinding by George Packer.  Next next next—College (Un)Bound by Jeffrey Selingo.

Feeding the Spirit. . . Slowly

Most days I’m bullish, in a two-thirds kinda way, on our future. But about a third of accelerating modernization worries me. For example, young people gravitate almost exclusively to high speed, visual media that leaves the future of non-visual slow mo media like National Public Radio extremely vulnerable.

This was painfully apparent the other day while I was listening to NPR while driving through downtown Bend, Oregon. I learned that the “Talk of the Nation” call in program was going off the air after 21 years. Something about a $7m debt. Next, as I drove back to Sunriver, I listened to a riveting, seemingly unbelievable (it was April 1st) story about a Portland State University student who got caught in a gruesome, downward sex trafficking spiral.

And I thought it was an exotic, mostly Southeast Asian story. I needed educating and was schooled by a memorable story that stuck with me the way powerful journalism does. Journalism that educates, pricks your conscience, and tugs at your emotions.

Youtube videos are often funny diversions from day-to-day life, but few rise to the level of powerful journalism.

I had to listen to the same station for twenty minutes and use my imagination to envision the young women’s harrowing story. Devalued attributes in today’s social media landscape.

I’m a frugal fool meaning my money saving strategies are sometimes irrational. So I identify closely with my friend who likes the Washington Post. I sent him a link to a recent article that described the Post’s new pay wall. He quickly fired back, “It will never work, I’ll just read the minimum number of articles and then turn to other news sites.”

But when it comes to the potential of our journalism to challenge our intellect, hold our public officials accountable, and sometimes even nourish our spirit, we get what we pay for.

I can’t help but wonder, no make that worry, about what happens to 21st Century media when young people are unwilling or unable to paint pictures for twenty minutes and their parents refuse to contribute to the salaries of the skilled men and women who excel at telling our stories.