Tuesday, June 27, 2006

In the Belly of the Whale: A Conservative Blogger Visits the Boston Globe

On my way to a Boston trade show in April, I stopped for a visit at the Morrissey Boulevard complex of the Boston Globe. My visit was hosted by Richard Chacón, who was then the Globe Ombudsman. Richard toured me around the huge Globe complex and gave me some insight into how the newspaper comes together each day.

For 2 years I have authored this blog focused on the Boston Globe, which is usually quite critical of the paper. Did Richard expect that like Jonah in the belly of the whale, I would repent my past criticism after spending a just few hours at the Globe? Hardly. He did believe, though, that having some insight into the Globe’s workings would make any criticism more informed. I hope he was right. So here is a first impression – the points that stick in my mind after seeing the Globe in operation for the first time.

The Globe building has a typically grandiose 1960s corporate HQ lobby, full of granite, marble, and other signs of organizational pride. There is a huge stone map of New England on the rear wall and another wall has a huge fabric tapestry containing an image of the front page of the Globe from April 4, 1872. This may be the first paper since the continuous production of the Globe or have some other historic significance, I’m not sure. Anyway, I spent some time reading the 1872 paper, and much of the front page is devoted to covering the content of the Sunday sermons that were delivered in various Boston churches the day before. How times do change.

A Chance Meeting
While I was waiting in the lobby to meet Richard, I introduced myself to one Globe reporter who was there for a minute. When he found out I was a blogger he asked me if my blog was one of the “media bias blogs”. I told him it was, and he said that in his opinion “a lot of what may appear as media bias is really a result of laziness, incompetence, or organizational stupidity.” He related an example of one story that had been growing in importance for about a week. It was not covered by the Globe for several days because the key reporter on that beat was off on vacation and so the Globe’s antenna was impaired.

This is an interesting observation. Everybody who has worked in an organization, large or small, knows that work processes and practices are never all they should be, and that these issues always interfere with the organizational mission to some degree. Why should the Globe be any different? It cannot be. Of course we all know of organizations where the burden of organizational dysfunction eventually outweighs the ability to provide value (FEMA comes to mind as an example). The relevant question is how often and how badly such dysfunction impairs the Globe. Besides the inevitable issues mentioned by the reporter, there are also certainly dangers from group-think, ideological bias, and (of course) external competition. It is the external competition, I believe, that by far receives the most attention from Globe people today.

US newspapers are struggling. Circulation and ad revenues are declining. The creation of powerful, free Internet-based news sources and advertising/trading platforms (such as eBay) have changed the business more than any other form of competition since broadcasting. Major newspapers have responded by focusing more on local and specialized content, and by providing their own Internet content. But the business models for the newspaper business remain “in flux” as consultants politely say. My post-visit impression is that this external challenge causes far more anxiety within the ranks of Globe people, compared to accusations of liberal bias.

The Liturgy of the Hours
The most persistent impression to a new visitor is of the cavernous newsroom, which is on the 2nd floor and runs at least half the length of the building. When you see pictures of the room, it looks light and airy, but my recollection is of a very well-worn interior environment. The wear comes from almost continuous occupation. Each day a newspaper goes through a complete cycle as the product is produced. My visit was at the very beginning of the Globe’s daily cycle, starting at around 10AM.

The content creation process continues for each day’s Globe until the ‘first edition’ of the day’s paper is released to the building’s press plant at about 10PM. The paper goes through 3 more editions each day. The 2nd edition has updates of financial information and minor changes. The third edition has late sports stories and other content changes, especially updates to page 1 for late news. The 3rd edition is what most subscribers living near Boston’s Route 128 beltway receive. Finally the 4th edition is usually not a big change over the 3rd, but it is released later and is targeted for distribution by newsstands within the city of Boston.

How do you tell which edition you are reading? The 1st edition gets 4 tiny stars in the margin at the upper left of page 1. For each succeeding edition one star is removed. For you algorithmic types, that means the edition you are reading is expressed as 5 – S, where ‘S” is the number of stars you see in the margin.

Newspaper stories have variable gestation periods, depending upon their subject. The stores are assigned to reporters by “assigning editors”. Globe reporters are assigned to ‘beats’. This might be City Hall, Universities, the police department, or a suburban region. Senior editors at the Globe are responsible for prioritizing the stories within their own beat.

The reporter writing the story and this editor are the primary people responsible for the story’s content and accuracy. They collaborate to write the story and take primary responsibility for its accuracy. This may seem to be a fragile system, and it is. It relies on the good faith efforts of people to produce a quality product. Would extra check help to eliminate bias? I doubt it. Additional approvals would not have much value given the very tight schedule that constrains production. Besides, having fewer approvals concentrates responsibility (and accountability) for a story’s accuracy.

When a story is passed by an assigning editor, it goes to a 2nd editor who focuses more on how well the story meets the paper’s style guidelines. The style guidelines provide a uniform guide for editing all the paper’s content. They would make interesting reading. I think responsible newspapers would do well today to publish their style guides, so that critical readers can evaluate them.

The Morning Meeting
The highlight of my visit was to attend a daily morning meeting in the Globe newsroom. There are 2 such meetings each day. The meeting is brief, lasting only 20-25 minutes. It is a meeting of Globe Senior editors, those who are responsible for various sections or departments (National, Local, Business, Health/Science, Sports, graphics, photo, etc.). The Globe’s Washington editor attends via conference call. The Globe’s Managing Editor simply calls on each editor by name and they report the top 2 or 3 stories that they plan to run, give a thumbnail sketch of each story and maybe mention where their people are now deployed. Each editor talks for only 1-2 minutes. Then the next editor is called on by name and does the same. When all the editors have had their say, the meeting ends.

Not very exciting, but it is communicative. In 20 minutes one gets a good summary description of the content of tomorrow’s Boston Globe. On the day I visited about 80% of the stories appeared in the next day’s paper, and many of those that did not appear the next day appeared a day or 2 later. Seeing the stories in the paper the next day recalled the meeting and made me appreciate its significance. It is a meeting about tomorrow’s paper. There is another such meeting in the afternoon that I understand includes some discussion of which stories should appear on page 1. But that’s it for formal meetings. The overwhelming majority of the real work is done outside of meetings (isn’t that always the way!).

I didn’t see the layout process, since it happens during the late hours of the day. What I did notice about the process is that the advertisers get first pick. In other words, the areas of each page in the day’s edition of the Globe that are committed to advertisers are marked off first and the layout editors fit the news stories into the remaining space within each section. I don’t know why this surprised me. I already knew that magazines operated this way, but had just never thought about it in the context of newspapers. The customer comes first, and the Globe is an intermediary with 2 groups of customers; subscribers and advertisers. You would expect that the group that provided the most revenue would get higher priority service, and that is what happens. No big deal. Do the Globe layout people know who has bought particular ad space? I believe they do know what firm will be advertising in each area, but they do not know the ad content.

Layout is one of the last editorial processes, and most of the layout goes on from about 6-10PM within a large circle of workstations at the south end of the Globe newsroom. Since I was visiting in the morning, this area was completely vacant. I could only see a little of the debris left over from yesterday’s layout.

The Ink-stained Wretch as Author
Another aspect of the Globe that I could see and did not expect was to get some sense of the excitement of their business. We’ve all heard many people in the news business say that they love it. We’ve also heard them say (ad nauseum) how very important their business is, and cringed at the implied arrogance. Leaving arrogance aside, it is easy to see a sort of romance in the daily creation of an intellectual product which begins in the intangible and ends up on the doorstep and in the hands of hundred of thousands of people. Frost uses this image to describe the delights of authorship:

I told him this is a pleasant life
To set your breast to the bark of trees
That all your days are dim beneath,
And reaching up with a little knife,
To loose the resin and take it down
And bring it to market when you please

Bloggers especially should be able to appreciate this creative aspect of news-papering. Like any author, a blogger is delighted to find readers. Reporters and editors are writers, but in a collaborative, structured and sometimes chaotic process that repeats on a daily or weekly cycle. They do not have a blogger’s freedom to produce 'when they please'. Are they proud to have their work in wide circulation? I am certain of it. Are they entitled to that pride? Most of the time.

But back to media arrogance. Is there a further analogy between newspaper reporters and bloggers? Many bloggers have been sickened by the insufferable arrogance of major news media personalities (Dan Rather first comes to mind, but any such list would be long). On the other hand, I can think of other reporters who are personal heroes (Claudia Rosett, William Langewieche, and the late Mike Kelly fit in this category). Are there similar characters within the blogosphere? Certainly. The hero class for me includes Power Line, Andrew Sullivan, and many others. In the wildly over-arrogant class, I would enshrine the Wonkette and her ilk.

What contrasts Dan Rather and the Wonkette from the “heroes” is that becoming well known seemed to bring out more of their character weaknesses. The greater the fame, the greater the pathology. Character really does count. Wanting to be well-liked, well known, or well respected is not in itself a bad thing. But vice is only intemperate pursuit of what is in itself good. Hollywood is literally a global machine for identifying people who have developed extreme forms of this pathology. Our culture mistakenly refers to these as celebrities. It should not be surprising that the creep of Hollywood into the news media should result in circuses like today’s broadcast news. The same phenomenon occurs in print, but on a thankfully smaller scale, and even the blogosphere as it matures may see the same pathology in some cases.

Lessons Learned
The biggest change in my own perception of the Globe is a better appreciation for the separation between the news and the Op Ed content. These two operations go on in entirely separate but parallel processes, until they are combined in the day’s paper. The location of the Globe’s Op Ed content is well standardized within each day’s paper, but the degree of separation between the news and Op Ed processes is greater than can be communicated to the reader by just the layout. The reader often simply flips between pages . Perhaps the Globe should use red ink ( pink?) for the Op Ed content. Either of these color choices would be fitting. Seriously, since my visit I have revised upward my expectations for Globe news coverage and reduced my already low expectations for the Op Ed content. Realizing that most of what I find deeply offensive in the Globe originates in the Op Ed process helps me to enjoy the rest of paper more.

Finally, I learned some appreciation for the Globe’s esprit and for that of the whole newspaper business – a business that worries deeply about disruptive competition from the Internet in ways that remind me of the automobile business during my youth in Detroit, when today’s automotive climate of heavy government regulation and global competition was just beginning. The newspaper business has real concerns about competitors from the Internet. Yet the Globe and newspapers have at least two sustainable advantages. First, they deliver their product daily to my doorstep before breakfast in a form that, while venerable, is quite satisfying and will remain so. Second, they can marshal a relatively large group of talented people to create their product. If they do their reporting jobs well, they may even be able to support an insular Op Ed board that seems to believe their target market is the Harvard faculty, and others who react with hostility when ideologically challenged.

1 comment:

Frederick Milton said...

It sounds like a nice experience to go over there and to meet some interesting reporters. I hope that you enjoy your experience over there.

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