The ecosystem of press criticism is probably as strong now as it has ever been: columnists like Jack Shafer of Politico, public-minded academics like Jay Rosen of NYU, in-house critics like New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan. There are press watchdog organizations and regular press reporting and criticism in places like Gawker and major newspapers and the Poynter Institute and, of course, Nieman Lab and Nieman Reports. But after this month, there is one fewer journalism review in the United States.
When Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, announced that the American Journalism Review would be ceasing publication, the world of journalism mourned. But the AJR that most of them probably missed hadn’t existed for about two years, not since editor Rem Rieder — its last paid employee — had left to become an editor and columnist at USA Today. And while Rieder’s departure was noted at the time, the two years that followed did not bring about thinkpieces about the end of press criticism — precisely because that ecosystem was so robust. Richard Pollak, the cofounder and editor of the 1970s journalism review (MORE), told once told me that even if that magazine hadn’t folded in 1978, there was no need for it now. The Internet, he said, had made press criticism abundant, varied, and pervasive.
While AJR’s strongest partisans, including Rieder and longtime contributor Carl Sessions Stepp, feel that journalism reviews do something that these other outlets cannot, it seems clear that the mourning for AJR isn’t so much about the loss of the institution itself (which barely existed anymore, anyway), but about the loss of the nameplate, which represented an ideal: When journalists were questioning power, journalism reviews were questioning the institutions of the press.
The American Journalism Review was born at the tail end of a journalism review movement, in a time of ethics and accountability reform in the American press. It died this summer as classroom tool — one that was still doing important work, but which was no longer the powerful voice of critical analysis of journalism that it had once been. And its demise highlights press criticism’s struggle for a viable business model.
When AJR was founded as the Washington Journalism Review in 1977, two other reviews dominated the field. The Columbia Journalism Review, which launched in 1961, was a slightly stodgy, establishment-minded, but well-respected publication. The anti-institutional journalism review (MORE) debuted in 1971 as a response to changing attitudes in newsrooms among younger reporters who had come of age in the 1960s and were more likely to challenge the status quo. (MORE) was inspired by a spate of regional journalism reviews that sprung up in the 1960s, including in St. Louis, Colorado, Southern California, and most notably Chicago.
The sixties and seventies were the journalism review’s heyday, and Roger Kranz launched the Washington Journalism Review at the tail end of that peak, hoping to split the difference between being a national review of journalism like CJR or (MORE) and being a local, Washington-based review. Kranz was still in his 20s, and sold his Volkswagen to pay for the magazine.
The cost of running a journalism review was always prohibitive. (MORE) was supported, for most of its life, by checks from its publisher’s personal fortune. The founders, Richard Pollak and J. Anthony Lukas, lucked into meeting the grandson of the founder of Manufacturer’s Hanover bank, who believed in their cause. It had been transferred twice for the cost of assuming its mounting debts by the time the Washington Journalism Review was founded. In 1978, the last owner turned over (MORE)’s last valuable asset, its subscription list, to Columbia Journalism Review. The Washington Journalism Review changed hands similarly in 1979, to Jessica Catto and her husband, former ambassador Henry Catto. Eventually, the Cattos also decided that institutional support was the only way to keep a journalism review going, and they donated it to the University of Maryland Foundation. The dean of the journalism school, Reese Cleghorn, led an effort to establish a $2.5 million endowment to run the magazine, but even in its most fiscally flush days, the review operated hand-to-mouth.
Susan Keith, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University (and a member of my dissertation committee) noted in an email that:
…there’s a basic difficulty with the journalism review business model. Whereas many commercial magazines make significant portions of their revenue from advertising, supplying companies with a platform for reaching a fairly large and well-defined audience — women interested in fitness, men passionate about fashion, hunters, Apple computer enthusiasts, etc. — the target audience for journalism reviews is small and growing smaller. There really aren’t many companies that sell products used only or primarily by journalists — and for which journalists, as opposed to publishers or station managers, have purchasing authority. News organizations that might be the targets of criticism from journalism reviews aren’t likely advertisers either. So that leaves a logical advertising base of only the foundations and schools that offer fellowships and prizes to journalists or companies trying to influence journalists’ opinions.
Even with foundation or university support, these reviews struggle to stay afloat. Even Steven Brill, the successful journalist and entrepreneur in his own right was unable to make a magazine about the media — Brill’s Content — last.
In 2004, Gene Roberts, the former Philadelphia Inquirer editor and a professor at the University of Maryland, headed a committee to raise money to establish a new endowment for both AJR and CJR. At the time, AJR, which had changed its name in 1993 under Rieder’s editorship, operated on a budget of $1 million per year, while only bringing in $650,000 in revenue. By 2007, the operating budget was down to $800,000.
Roberts did succeed in raising some money, and in getting AJR and CJR to agree to publish in alternating months, but by the time Dalglish came on as dean at the University of Maryland, things had gotten progressively more bleak. According to Dalglish, her predecessor, Kevin Klose, had managed to secure a two-year grant to keep the magazine running, but Rieder was the only remaining staff member. According to Dalglish, control of the magazine had been transferred from the University of Maryland Foundation to the College of Journalism, and in order to keep even Rieder, his salary had to be reduced. After Rieder left, a group of Maryland journalism faculty turned AJR into a capstone project for its undergraduate students, focusing on entrepreneurship and new models of digital journalism, and the magazine became an online-only operation.
According to Dalglish, AJR ran for its last year on a budget of $100,000, only 10 percent of the $1 million budget that already felt tight in 2004. She said that even that sum was only possible because she asked for special permission to use money budgeted to Kevin Klose’s salary to support the magazine while Klose was away on leave. When he returned, the numbers finally became unworkable.
“If anybody thinks this is an experience that filled me with glee, they’re wrong,” she said of having to close AJR.
Faculty at the University of Maryland understand her decision. Stepp had a byline in every issue of AJR for 25 years. “It’s not hard to understand what happened. It’s just sad,” he said. But despite his sense of loss, he doesn’t blame Dalglish. “She didn’t want to kill it. It’s not like some cost-cutter came in with an ax. She was a strong, solid, respected journalist who fought for it for a couple years and just couldn’t make it work.”
But while the monetary decision may be understandable, Stepp still knows that something important to the practice of journalism has gone by the wayside. “I think that what gets lost is a reliable organization that is willing to devote itself week-in and week-out to serious journalism criticism and reporting about journalism,” he said. “There’s no substitute for being there. It’s one thing to say that the nature of the copy desk is changing, but it’s another to go sit on a copy desk for a few nights and watch what they do and talk to them about it. And newsrooms would let you do it, too. You would tell them you’re writing about a topic and they would give you the run of the place, let you talk to people.”
Rem Rieder made the same argument, pointing specifically to AJR’s coverage of the Duke lacrosse rape story:
I think there is still a place for the kind of definitive story on something. There’s room for the really in-depth look at what went wrong or what really happened. And for me, when AJR went out of that business — which is before it really went out of business — we could do that.
I was on a panel about the Duke lacrosse thing and I realized that story hadn’t really been told, so I had Rachel Smolkin do it. That kind of in-depth, heavily reported, non-ideological reporting is something that journalism reviews are best suited to do.
Victor Navasky, the chair of the Columbia Journalism Review, feels the loss of his former rival publication acutely. “With the blogosphere, there is a lot more of opinion about journalism,” he said. “But there is no acceptance of what the standards are and no general agreement about what constitutes the best press criticism and what the best way to do it is.”
CJR’s editor, Elizabeth Spayd agrees. “At a time when journalism’s ethical standards are in flux, and even its place in public life, losing a another media monitor is a loss for us all, even for a competitor like us,” she wrote in an email.
And former CJR editor Mike Hoyt also wrote an encomium to AJR, praising it not necessarily as a unique voice, but as a complementary one.
Stepp said that he is sad that the journalism community can’t find a way to support another serious journalism review. But he and Navasky and Rieder all still believe that there must be a way to fund a serious, in-depth publication about the press.
In his position as editor-at-large and media columnist for USA Today, Rieder has noticed a “terrific interest in media issues among the general public,” he said. “I’ve been at USA Today for a couple of years, and I write a couple of columns a week, and I’ve been surprised at the audience for some of them. I think there’s still very much a place for it.”
Stepp sees things very similarly, maintaining a sense of optimism. “There is such a community of professional journalism lovers,” he said. “You know these people. Not journalists, but the people in your church, in your community. The people who are well educated and have opinions about journalism. There’s such a community out there, that maybe if we get them to contribute their 10 bucks or 30 bucks a year, we could make it work.”
Kevin Lerner is an assistant professor of communication and journalism at Marist College. He earned his doctorate in journalism and media studies from Rutgers University, where he completed a dissertation entitled “Gadfly to the Watchdogs: How The Journalism Review (MORE) Goaded the Mainstream Press Toward Self-Criticism in the 1970s.”
The Colombian government's 15-year-old programme for protecting journalists is clearly flawed and needs an overhaul, according two new reports that have been published as part of the Periodismo en Riesgo (Journalism in Danger) campaign. One of the reports was produced by the Bogotá-based Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), the other by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Colombia Federation of Journalists (FECOLPER).
The protection programme's many problems include inadequate funding, corruption, bad decision-making, difficulties with evaluating risks and choosing appropriate responses, and unjustified delays.
Despite a significant fall in the number of journalists murdered, the programme is disappointing, FLIP's report says. It has become increasingly complex but also more and more ineffective and falls far short of meeting the needs of journalists on the ground.
In the course of its 15 years of existence, the programme has focused on protecting and escorting journalists, without addressing the need for judicial investigations and prosecutions, or risk prevention and eradication.
Threats and attacks against news providers have not declined and, of the 388 threats against journalists since 2000 that the justice ministry had registered by mid-August 2014, only one has resulted in the arrest of those responsible.
FECOLPER president Adriana Hurtado said the National Protection Unit (UNP) must not use funding and administrative difficulties or problems with individual officials as an excuse for failing in its duty to guarantee the safety of the journalists it is supposed to protect.
Journalists receiving protection say they have often had to pay for the maintenance of the vehicles assigned to protect them without every being reimbursed by the state.
It is unacceptable for the UNP to blame the programme's flaws on problems of coordination between different departments or on misconduct by former and current officials. It is not the job of journalists to ensure that a government-run programme functions properly. According to the law and Colombia's constitution, it is up to the UNP to ensure that the entire protection programme works as it should.
“The protection programme is obviously defective and must be reformed,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas desk. “This kind of programme is essential in a country such as Colombia, one of the deadliest in the western hemisphere for journalists. We urge the authorities to begin restructuring it at once.”
A successful overhaul of the programme would provide a significant boost to media freedom in Colombia. Here are some of the recommendations that FECOLPER, RSF and FLIP propose:
- Reformulate the concepts and methods used for evaluating risk levels and deciding which protective measures to apply.
- Reorganize the chain of command in order to ensure a swift and appropriate response to the dangers to which journalists are constantly exposed.
- Properly train the UNP personnel responsible for security, by making them more aware of issues related to freedom of information.
- Ensure that the justice ministry participates in the protection programme. Protection will never be complete if threats against journalists continue to go unpunished.
- Redesign the programme so that it is not just reactive in nature. Anticipating risks and creating a secure climate are the best way protect journalists.
The report by RSF and FECOLPER, entitled Colombia: actividad periodística en riesgo, includes interviews with 104 journalists who have received UNP protection. It provides facts and figures about the various aspects of the programme and how they work. It also provides insights into the lives of journalists in the field and the risks they run.
The FLIP report, entitled 15 años de protección a periodistas en Colombia: esquivando la violencia sin justicia, analyses the regulatory, financial and operational changes in the programme during the past 15 years and provides key data about its funding, its results and the mistakes that have been made.
FECOLPER, RSF and FLIP urge the authorities to take appropriate measures to address the programme's flaws of the past 15 years while at the same time combatting the origins of the problem of violence.
As many of the country's journalists said on 9 February, celebrated as Day of the Journalist in Colombia, the best gift they could receive would be physical safety and an end to impunity.
Colombia is ranked 128th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
In Cincinnati, all eyes — or, at the very least, the eyes of those in the local news broadcasting business — have been on WCPO, an E.W. Scripps-owned ABC affiliate television station that in January 2014 put up a hard paywall on its website WCPO.com. It is, at least according to Scripps, the first TV broadcaster in the U.S. to charge for some of its separate online reporting, and while many are trying to guess at the model’s success and whether it will be exported to other markets, Scripps hasn’t released numbers on signups.
RELATED ARTICLEThe newsonomics of Scripps’ TV paywall and the Last Man Standing Theory of local mediaDecember 5, 2013Scripps’ chief digital officer Adam Symson has argued many times that there’s been an uptick in the quality and breadth of news coverage on WCPO.com, which he says in turn translates into better broadcast coverage. While the company isn’t releasing subscription numbers, Symson said they’ve met internal revenue goals. And the city’s Gannett-owned leading daily, the Cincinnati Enquirer, is certainly feeling the competition.
“The competition is real; there’s no question,” the Enquirer’s newsroom director Michael Kilian told me. “This may have become the digital equivalent of a two-newspaper town.”
Just from a traffic standpoint, it seems WCPO.com has indeed made itself into a serious rival. This April, Symson tweeted that WCPO.com had overtaken the Cincinnati.com sites for the first time in average unique views for the first quarter of the year, with an average 1,669,000 monthly uniques versus Cincinnati.com’s 1,621,000, according to comScore:
— Adam Symson (@asymson) April 16, 2015
We asked comScore to provide a monthly breakdown of U.S. multiplatform (which includes mobile and app traffic) unique visitors for these top two-performing sites. (See update below; the Enquirer disputes this data.)
[Update, Aug. 31: We should also note that Cincinnati.com disputes the numbers that comScore initially provided to me, which were “media title” traffic metrics. Based on “custom entity” metrics, Cincinnati.com sites received 2,005,000 unique visitors in January 2015; 1,401,000 unique visitors in February 2015; and 2,015,000 visitors in March 2015. comScore defines “custom entity” as “custom-defined combinations of URLs made available at the request of comScore clients.” Jordan Kellogg, Cincinnati.com’s consumer experience director, said the company prefers custom entity numbers because they include traffic from sport coverage, whereas the media entity measurement does not.]
Cincinnati was thrown into the national spotlight after the shooting of Samuel DuBose by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing last month; the big uptick in traffic for both sites almost certainly represents local news gone national.
comScore numbers are widely-cited as the best indicators of any given website’s online audience size, though they aren’t perfect, and often provide much more conservative traffic estimates than internal measures would indicate.
Chris Graves, former managing editor for WCPO digital who joined the Enquirer last month as a columnist, says that while she does still consider metrics like traffic stats, she can’t really think of WCPO as a sole competitor anymore.
“The true competition is for my readers’ time in a really crowded space,” she said. “The people I’m writing for are now giving more time to Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and Snapchat.”
(WCPO’s current general manager for digital, Dave Peterson, redirected me to Symson.)
RELATED ARTICLEThe newsonomics of splitting up media companies, with Gannett maybe nextAugust 4, 2014Cincinnati.com operates on a metered paywall, requiring readers to subscribe after 10 free stories a month. WCPO is keeping its more niche and enterprise offerings for subscribers only, while breaking news and weather stories are free to read. Stories on the WCPO website marked with a “+” symbol are available in full to subscribers, but non-subscribers can still read quite a few paragraphs before getting hit with the “Become a WCPO Insider” notice. The same goes for paywalled stories in the WCPO mobile app. As of the writing of this story, the Cincinnati.com paywall wasn’t in effect on its app, allowing access to all of its content for free, but that “will be changed and adjusted going forward,” according to the Enquirer’s senior news director Michael McCarter.
Since the first announcement about its paywall, WCPO has ironed out its Insiders membership plan, which normally costs $79.99 a year for unlimited access to all WCPO stories and discounts on events and at local businesses (half-off tickets to the University of Cincinnati Bearcats soccer games; buy-one-get-one-free burritos at Gold Star Chili). The membership also includes a digital premium subscription to stories from The Washington Post: last September, WCPO.com began partnering with the Post to deliver Insider members full access to Post digital content, in an attempt to further broaden its news offerings. At the moment, however, the cost of an annual subscription has dropped by $60 to just $19.99, as part of a “summer sale.”
— Lucy May (@LucyMayCincy) June 4, 2015
At Cincinnati.com, full access comes to $10.83 a month and includes paper delivery, as part of a “back to school sale.” The Enquirer also has its own membership rewards program, Xtras!, serving up similar deals on events and products.
To the non-Cincinnati resident, it’s not obvious what’s missing if one doesn’t choose to become a WCPO Insider or an Enquirer subscriber. Both outlets often lead with the same big local news story (“Naked man blamed for chilling seven-car crash” versus “Witness: Fleeing naked man, crash ‘chilling’“) and offer up the usual weather and traffic information that’s critical to local audiences. Both sites have drilled down with longform investigative reporting. Ultimately, the competition will benefit Cincinnati area residents, management at both outlets have said.
“I feel great about the journalism that the city now has access to as a result of WCPO,” Symson told NetNewsCheck last month. “I think it’s safe to say that even our competitors at the Enquirer have upped their game. To me, it’s just a win-win when the complacency is shaken out of a marketplace.”
Scripps and the Enquirer were once intertwined in another way: under a joint operating agreement that published the Scripps-owned Cincinnati Post and Kentucky Post, but the JOA was not renewed after 2007, ending a nearly 30-year partnership.
In recent years, Scripps has seriously moved to bulk up its digital offerings. Prior to the WCPO.com paywall’s launch, the company made a big hiring push by bringing on 30 new people, most of whom would focus on digital. It was a hefty up-front investment, and Scripps is still hiring: as of the writing of this story, listings for an entertainment reporter and digital enterprise editor were posted. The company also recently acquired the podcasting and advertising company Midroll Media, another signal of its emphasis on digital.
Enquirer editors stressed that they too were looking to experiment “fearlessly and regularly” in digital, while continuing to focus on the paper’s mainstay, which is simply thorough local news reporting.
“They have people who can do data journalism, enterprise, and all sorts of video journalism, too, but without them, we would’ve been pursuing those things anyway,” McCarter said. “Our job is to be the best we can be, which means serving our readers with meaningful storytelling.”
Last year Scripps announced a merger with Journal Communications in which both companies spun off their newspapers under a single umbrella (the Journal Media Group) and merged their broadcast operations, making Scripps into, essentially, a TV company (it now runs 33 television stations in 24 markets).
A transformational day for the @EWScrippsCo. Welcome to nearly 1500 new employees across the newly expanded TV and radio footprint.
— Adam Symson (@asymson) April 1, 2015
Cincinnati is ranked 36th among U.S. local television markets. WTMJ-TV in that city is also a Scripps-owned station, and Scripps CEO Rich Boehne told the Milwaukee Business Journal last August that the WCPO.com experiment would serve as a template for other Scripps markets, including Milwaukee. But how soon other Scripps-owned stations might actually start adopting the WCPO model, either completely or in part, remains uncertain.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cincinnati.com articles older than a week were behind a paywall. We regret the error.
Photo of downtown Cincinnati in 1949 by Michael G Smith used under a Creative Commons license.
Reporters Without Borders condemns the interrogation of at least six journalists by the National Department of Security (NDS), including Zaki Daryaie, the editor of the daily Etilaatroz, and Javad Naji, a journalist active on social networks. They were interrogated by NDS officers in the presence of a senior National Security Council representative during the past week.
They were summoned and questioned on suspicion of being the anonymous authors of Kabul Taxi, a Facebook page that has been revealing details of the activities of the country's leaders since April, including the movements of government ministers and national security advisers.
The journalists questioned have objected to the illegality of these interrogations as well as denying any role in Kabul Taxi.
After journalists and Afghan journalists' associations protested against the interrogations, the National Security Council issued a statement on 24 August stressing “the state's respect for freedom of information and the government's commitment to the right to information.”
Although it did not refer to the interrogation of journalists about Kabul Taxi, the statement condemned the publication of information about government officials and in particular, National Security Council members, which – it said – constituted a “state secret.”
Under the media law promulgated in 2013 by then President Hamid Karzai, complaints against media outlets and journalists are supposed to be handled by the Media Verification Commission before being transferred to the judicial authorities, if appropriate.
Journalists are supposed to be represented on this commission but as they have not yet been elected, the commission is not yet operational and, in its absence, the information and culture ministry is meant to handle this function. The National Department of Security and the National Security Council clearly do not have the right to directly summon journalists for questioning.
“We call on President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah to respect the ‘pact for the protection of media and journalists' that they undertook to implement,” said Reza Moini, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Afghanistan desk.
“They must also ensure that Afghanistan's security officials respect this pact. The authorities will not be able to combat ‘rumours' without respecting the law. The law on access to information, which President Ghani signed shortly after taking office in 2014, must be implemented. Unfortunately, this has not been the case until now.”