Thoughts for St. Patrick’s Day

“If you’re lucky enough to be Irish,” they like to say in Ireland, “then you’re lucky enough.”

That makes me pretty lucky. My direct Irishness is only one-eighth, thanks to my mother’s grandfather, Calvin Bond. We don’t know his history beyond the fact that he was one of the orphans exported from Ireland to save them from starvation in the middle of the 19th Century. He was adopted by an Iowa family and wound up in Kansas.

But I am all Irish by marriage, having met Sue Quail in the newsroom of the Topeka Daily Capital in 1954. Her mother’s people were from the west of Ireland, and her paternal ancestors, led by William Quail, came from County Down in Northern Ireland to rural Pennsylvania in 1811. We know more about that branch. A couple of generations later, some of the Quails joined the westward movement but stopped when they found good farmland at what is now the south edge of Topeka.

It was a good choice. The land in Kansas gets thinner the further west you go. And living near the state capital provided educational and professional opportunities. Sue’s great-uncle Frank A. Quail became a lawyer and joined a firm in Cleveland. By 1903, he was affluent and curious enough to go down the family’s back trail in Northern Ireland.

He took his father, also named William Quail, with him. And using documents preserved from the 1811 crossing, they found their roots. The photo below shows the two of them posing casually in front of the house that the immigrant Quails left behind. That’s Frank seated on the left.

 

That might have been the start of a family tradition. Fast-forward 101 years to 2004. I had a teaching gig in Spain that summer, Sue came along, and we arranged some time in Ireland on the way home. Using the preserved documents, driving around, and querying residents, we found the property. Here it is, with Sue in front. We also found her family name in a couple of places: the Quail Meadow and the Quail Lane. And we found the present owner of the property, who must be related, because he has two middle names, and they are “William Quail.”

 

There’s more. A similar building on the same property has been restored as a self-catering facility, meaning you can sleep and cook your own meals there. To see what it looks like now, click here.

Makes us wonder what another 100 years will bring. Here’s hoping the Irish luck holds, and our great-great-grandchildren will visit that good place.

 

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The Snows of Yesteryear

More than a century ago, the anthropologist Franz Boas reported that the Intuits living in northern Canada had dozens of different words for “snow.” That information has since been used to make a philosophical point: the more you have of something, the greater your need to make fine distinctions.

After living in a variety of locations in the United States over a long life, one can understand the Eskimos’ appreciation for the varieties of snow. Sue and I grew up in Kansas, and we knew snow as a dry powder that seldom remained where it fell. Its lightness, combined with the prairie wind, led to all manner of messes.

You could shovel your walk and then have to do it again the next morning after the wind pushed the snow back into the space you had just cleaned. Farmers erected snow fences to direct the drifts away from their roads and steer the melting runoff to their stock ponds.

Made of wire and vertical wood strips, snow fences reduce the speed of the wind, causing it to drop its load of flakes on the downwind side of the fence. It is a clever way of getting nature to work for you.

The small towns where I lived growing up could not afford snowplows, so drivers put chains on their tires and kept going. The traffic eventually packed the snow down on the streets, leaving them slippery but passable.

Sue and I especially appreciated the regional differences in snow when we spent the 1966-1967 academic year in Arlington, Mass., a suburb of Boston. The first snow of that season startled us because it was accompanied by thunder! To us, that was downright spooky.

The New England snow was moist and heavy, and remained where it fell. When I shoveled the walk, it was good until the next snow fell. I felt compelled to put chains on the tires of our car, but it stayed in the garage as long as snow was on the streets. We could get to Harvard Square by bus and, from there, to downtown Boston by the Massachusetts Transit Authority subway.

Snow also varies across regions by quantity, which seems obvious until you experience it. Our first exposure to southern living was in Chapel Hill the winter of 1956-1957. We had just one snow that year, and it was barely enough to make a snowman. My fellow graduate students and I built it in front of Caldwell Hall, which housed the political science department in that day.

When we lived in Miami, at two widely separated intervals between 1958 and 1981, we never expected to experience snow. It finally happened, but we missed it by a year. That was 1977. The snow melted before it hit the ground, although some citizens reported catching a few flakes on their faces as they stood outdoors and watched it fall. The Miami newspapers normally liked to downplay cold weather, so as not to discourage tourism, but they broke out their Apocalypse-level headline fonts to record that event.

The snows we enjoyed the most were those that fell on Washington, D.C. Some were just severe enough for us to perform heroic acts that we’d never done before. Our third daughter was born in February 1966, and I remember shoveling out a portion of our alley to guarantee an exit route for the car. Fortunately, she waited for the snow to melt before announcing her pending arrival.

In our Washington days, the children were just the right age to enjoy snowmen, snow forts, and family hikes along the snow-covered towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Sometimes we remember those days with the wistful hope that we’ll get one more chance to build a snowman in Chapel Hill. This year, we almost did. Here is the view from our front door on February 13, 2014. But it was gone too soon.  Maybe next year?

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JFK and RTP

President Kennedy liked frequent and live press conferences. So did newspaper correspondents, because it gave them a chance to be on television. The meetings were held in the State Department auditorium to accommodate the heavy demand for seating. On October 31, 1963, the Charlotte Observer called the Knight Newspapers Washington Bureau with a request.

Governor Terry Sanford had been lobbying to get a proposed national environmental health research center placed in North Carolina’s new Research Triangle Park. The park was an expanse of land between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill designated for research activity, but it was struggling to gain tenants. It needed a catalyst. Because of disagreement over where to put the environmental center, its approval was stalled in Congress. The Observer needed a reporter to query the President about the possibility of putting it in North Carolina. I was available. It would prove to be Kennedy’s next-to-last press conference.

The procedure was orderly. The President, wearing a three-button pin-stripe suit and narrow tie, entered from stage left, stood behind a lectern, and went right to work. He started at his right, recognizing the senior correspondent, Merriman Smith of United Press International. Then, for the next half hour, he worked his way from right to left. Reporters in his line of vision would stand up if they had a question, and he would recognize one of them with a point or a nod. The situation was more dignified than your average press conference today. No one had to raise his or her voice because the acoustics were good, and a sound technician with a directional microphone stood on the stage to pick up every syllable for the live television audience.

I sat to the President’s left so that I would have time to compose myself. About 22 minutes into the conference, he got to my sector. When he pointed to me, there was an awkward pause while I turned and looked at the reporters seated behind me, thinking he might mean to recognize somebody more important. Then I looked back, and the President nodded at me, a little impatiently. I asked my question.

“Mr. President, as you know, the plan to build a National Environmental Health Research Center has been hung up in Congress. Apparently they can’t decide where to build it. There is a report that you would like it built in North Carolina. Would you?”
To the surprise of some, he had a ready and specific answer.

“North Carolina would be very acceptable,” he said. “I think the Budget recommendation was Maryland, but North Carolina does have the facilities. But I think in our recommendations we made, HEW made, the first recommendation was Maryland. The site in North Carolina is a good one, as there is a triangle there of colleges and hospitals and medical facilities. I have indicated that that would be satisfactory, if that was the judgment of the Congress. I think our first choice was Maryland.”

Some of my cynical colleagues believed the question was a plant, that Kennedy had been warned about it in advance. No, no, I said, this was spontaneous. But much later, after I was more knowledgeable about the ways of Washington and politics as theater, I changed my mind. Governor Sanford had visited the White House a few days before to press that very issue, and it was probably he who made the suggestion to the Observer.

Political theater or not, it must have worked, because the stalemate in Congress ended in favor of North Carolina, and what is now known as the National Institute of Environmental Health Research Sciences has become a major presence in Research Triangle Park. Now that I live in North Carolina, I like to brag that I had something to do with that.

(Adapted from “Paper Route: Finding My Way to Precision Journalism”).

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The Washington Post and Me

 

The sale of the Washington Post after 80 years in the same family makes me nostalgic about the years that Sue and I were its home delivery customers, 1962-1978. It was high-class delivery, no careless tossing at the curb, but always dropped right at the front door.

There was a time when we had home delivery for three local papers: the Post, the Washington Star, and the Washington Daily News. The Star’s best years were 1975-1978 when Jim Bellows was editor. The Daily News was a well-edited tabloid with a flair for dramatic covers when events justified them. When Eleanor Roosevelt died, the page was filled with a quote from Adlai Stevenson, “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness.”

In my memoir, I describe several youthful job searches that were frustrated by bad timing. The Washington Post was one such case.

I wrote to many newspaper editors during my final semester of graduate school at Chapel Hill, spring 1958.  One was Alfred Friendly, managing editor of the Washington Post. He invited me to visit him next time I happened to be in D.C. That was an easy drive, so I got classmate Kent Jennings to meet the section of Political Science 41 (American Government) that I was teaching, and drove with Sue to Washington.

We stayed at the Harrington Hotel on 11th Street NW, just north of Pennsylvania Avenue. It was cheap and walking distance to the Post. While I waited outside Friendly’s office, I overheard a secretary chatting with a staff member about the unexpected death of one of their reporters.

Friendly at that time was in the process of integrating the resources of the recently purchased Times-Herald, a step that would improve the Post’s already strong national reputation.  He was impressed with my clips, not so much with my education. If I were offered a job, would I be able to start next week?

Whoa. I realized he was thinking about asking me to take the dead guy’s job! No, sir, I said, I have a semester to complete, both my own courses and the one I am teaching. My earliest availability would be in May.

“May?” he said. “How would I know what my manpower needs will be in May?”

That was pretty much how newspaper reporters were hired in the 1950s. If you showed up just after somebody quit, got fired, or dropped dead, you stood a chance of getting that person’s job.

I would get to Washington by another route, through the Miami Herald, just four years later. My longtime relationship with the Post was as one of its loyal readers, although, once in a while, a story that I wrote for the Knight Newspapers turned up in its columns. The Post subscribed to the service of the Chicago Daily News, which had formerly been part of Knight Newspapers, and we still fed its wire. It was nice to be read in Washington.

But it was even nicer to receive a high-quality local and national report every morning, delivered where I could pick it up without walking outdoors in my pajamas. Now that is a privilege that I don’t expect to have again. Not in this world.

 

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The Reviews Are In!

Reviews come in slowly for an academic book.  Learned journals have leisurely publication schedules, and reviewers often have to wait until summer to do their reading. But now we have some for my memoir, whose primary audience is journalism historians.

My favorite is Paul Steinle’s one-paragraph comment on Amazon.com. I met Paul once, when he and Sara Brown dropped by for a 2010 interview in my living room.  Their project is called, “Who Needs Newspapers?”

Here’s what he said:

            Phil Meyer’s story is an unvarnished journey of growing up amid “The Silent Generation” and trying to give it a kick in the pants. His journey through journalism reflects the changes this profession has encountered and how he worked to identify the newspaper industry’s weaknesses and warn it about where it was going awry. This is an honest telling of the best and worst of the history of this business over his lifetime and a clear tale about one man’s life in a profession he clearly loves. It’s essential reading for journalists and those who care about this vital service industry.

The basic journal for journalism educators is Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly.  Its book review editor, Edward Pease of Utah State University, assigned my memoir to himself. His review from the December 2012 issue is online but behind a  paywall for all but subscribers. However, the fair use doctrine allows me to quote a brief excerpt.  So here’s the nut graph:

            Meyer’s Paper Route, like himself, is low key and self-deprecating. But this is a lot more than a memoir; it traces an extraordinary career of a man whose early journalistic hero was Clark Kent, a thoughtful guy who is still out ahead of most of us, who developed a superpower that has the potential, at least, to change the way journalism is done, if only we’d use it.

Donna Lampkin Stephens, University of Central Arkansas, reviewed the book for American Journalism, the publication of the American Journalism Historian’s Association. Her conclusion:

            And, nearly fifty years since Meyer’s Nieman year, journalism continues to evolve. Today’s practitioners would do well to keep in mind his willingness to go beyond the status quo, to dig deeper, to look at the business in new and different ways. As he recalled, he learned his superpower—the scientific method—at Harvard and applied it to newspaper reporting. There are other such powers out there. Who will find them, and how can they be used for the good of journalism?

As far as I know, only one newspaper has reviewed Paper Route.  But it’s the most important one, the paper that I threw from a bicycle in my first newspaper job: The Clay Center Dispatch.  Because the Dispatch has not as of this writing put up a pay wall, I can give you access to the full review by Elby Adamson, contributing writer. I had a teacher named Adamson. I wonder if they are related?

 

 

 

 

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The spurious significance of 2043

 

Let’s see ….  If I live until the first quarter of 2043, I’ll be 112 years old.

Not likely, and that’s a good thing, because, as sure as I’m typing this, there is going to be a journalism historian somewhere publishing an article with a headline that will say something like this:

Meyer was wrong!

He or she will say this because, trust me, there will still be newspapers publishing in that year.  I’m sure of that.

I’m also sure that my obituary will describe me as the professor who predicted that the last newspaper would publish its last issue in 2043.

But it ain’t so. Here’s what really happened. In 2004, I published a book with the catchy title The Vanishing Newspaper. Its goal was to try to save the newspaper industry from itself, from its shortsighted owners and managers, and nudge it toward a path that would lead to sustainable journalism.

To emphasize the gravity of the problem, I used a statistical graphic. It was a line chart, showing the percentage of adults who told the National Opinion Research Center that they read a newspaper “every day.” The line starts in 1967, when NORC asked the question for Norman Nie and Sidney Verba’s Participation in America study. After that, NORC started repeating the question every few years in the General Social Survey. In the first edition of The Vanishing Newspaper in 2004, the chart looked like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peer down that regression line, I wrote, and you will see it reaching zero in the year 2043. In April.  A lot of folks took that as a prediction. It’s not.

You see, nature doesn’t like straight lines. Neither do the people affected by them. Something always happens, sooner or later, to bend the line. Put your hands over the chart to focus your eye on the decade of the 1980s. The curve flattens out quite a bit. What happened was that newspaper owners got scared, and they started hiring more reporters. Maybe, they told themselves, if we make our product better, people will stick with us. And they did, and it worked.

But in the 1990s, the competition from Internet advertising kicked in, publishers started slashing costs, and the regression line resumed its downward trek. But please remember this: the line shows the proportion of adults who read a newspaper every day. The less frequent readers are important, too, and they are not represented in the chart. You might still make a sustainable business by holding on to those who read only two or three times a week.

Or, perhaps – and this seems more likely — publishers will follow what some call the “harvesting” model where they squeeze the money out of the newspaper operation as rapidly as they can and then just let it die. That could happen to many of them well before 2043.

A key reason that the theme, “Newspapers are gonna die in 2043,” took hold is that it is easy to remember. And remembering that dramatic line is easier than reading the book, which is an academic tome meant for a specialized audience.  “Dry as dirt,” said one Amazon reviewer.

I tried to take advantage of this phenomenon in a luncheon speech to Canadian journalists last year. I showed them the chart, gave the dramatic interpretation of the regression line, mentioned 2043, and paused to let it sink in.

Then I said, in effect, “not gonna happen.” We professors call this “bait and switch.” It’s an attention-getting device. While I had their attention (I thought), I explained the part about nature not liking straight lines. Sooner or later, it will bend, I said. When, and how, is up to you.

Later, my hosts sent me a log of the tweets during my talk. “The last newspaper will be printed in 2043” was the most tweeted message. In fact, they were so busy tweeting the bait that they missed the switch. Apparently nobody was listening when I explained the ain’t-gonna-happen part.

A few days ago, I got a call from an Italian journalist. She works for a “daily Web magazine,” and its name is Lettera43. And, yes, the name of the magazine was inspired by my spurious “prediction.”

“We were the first entirely digital media in Italy and picked our name out of your prediction of 2043,” said the reporter, Gea Scancarello.

The vagaries of Google translation make it hard to tell what I said in that interview, but it is interesting that the prediction has morphed again: now it is the New York Times, not newspapers in general, that will die in 2043. I have no idea where that came from. Perhaps I speculated that the Times, bless its heart, would be the last newspaper standing.

But I am not complaining. They always spell my name right. And in my mind’s eye, I see a really great excuse for a newspaper staff party. In 2043, preferably in April. Maybe it could be held in an old Miami Herald building. My ghost will be there. Think of it, and turn down an empty glass.

 

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Theory v. application in media research

Of late, there has been renewed discussion of the seeming conflict between academic and practical research in the field of journalism.

This discussion is worthwhile, but it sounds a lot like one that the Newhouse School sponsored at Syracuse in 1985.  Have things really changed so little since then?

From my remote perch, it appears that the Web has created all sorts of new research questions that ought to interest practitioners and academics alike. A few right off the top of the head:

– Under what circumstances do bloggers become agenda setters?

– What happened to Mr. Gates? Can the concept of gatekeeper be refitted to apply in cyberspace?

– If, as Knight Ridder’s Hal Jurgensmeyer claimed, influence is a marketable commodity, how can digital news media package and sell it?

– How is the Web affecting the minimum efficient scale for a news business?

–Is the enabling of issue publics by the Web a cause of what social psychologists call “risky shift” in decision making? Is that the source of group polarization that we see today?

When newspapers thought they were in a steady state, the conflict between academics and practitioners was mostly one of time scale. The academy’s time horizon was long, practitioners wanted information they could use right now. That won’t change, nor will the fact that the best short-term results depend on some long-range theory to provide context and justification.

Nancy Weatherly Sharp edited a report of that Syracuse meeting into a nice book:  “Communications Research: The Challenge of the Information Age,” Syracuse University Press, 1988. If you can find it, check out my brief chapter, “On the impracticality of applied research.” I argue that the best research is cumulative, and it requires the long attention span of the academy as we strive to construct useful theories for which practical value might eventually be found.

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Good news about newspapers

 

Has the newspaper business hit bottom?  Could be.

One encouraging sign came in April when a group of Philadelphia business leaders bought the Inquirer and Daily News for $55 million.  Just six years ago, the same two papers sold for $515 million.

Newspapers still make money – not as much as they did before the Internet started giving them competition for advertising, but enough to be attractive investments if the price is right.

And now Warren Buffett has entered the game on a large scale by acquiring 63 papers from Media General, including the Winston-Salem Journal and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In The Vanishing Newspaper (p. 43 of the second edition), I suggested that a newspaper earning a 6 or 7 percent operating margin could be just as socially useful as one earning the traditional 20-40 percent. The problem, I said, is that there is no smooth way to get from double-digit margins down to less than 10 percent. But now it’s happening.

There would be publishers willing to operate at that level, I predicted, if their investment is low enough. With the right price, they can get the same return on investment that previous owners enjoyed from much larger investments.

I illustrated the point with a parable about a goose that lays a golden egg every day. A buyer would pay a price for that goosed based on its production.

Now imagine a buyer who acquires such a goose only to find that its production drops to one golden egg per week. That person is going to be disappointed, but it’s still a pretty good goose. And this second owner can find a third person who will happily pay a much smaller price based on the lower production rate: a happy publisher with a normal retail-level margin.

Warren Buffet is that third owner. He has access to more data than I do, and it looks like he is betting that the slide in newspaper earning power has leveled out. The Internet has done all the damage it can, and papers still make money. His return on investment will enable him to cheerfully support product improvement and the public service functions of a good newspaper.  Let’s hope he’s right.

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On self-publishing

(Remarks to a UNC J-School faculty reception, May 8, 2012)

The last decade of my academic career was spent worrying about the disruptive effects of new technology on the newspaper business.  The publication of this memoir has forced me to think about technology’s effects on academic publishing.

Like newspaper journalism, academic publishing was constrained by the economies of scale obtained through mass production. To pay for a journal or a book, you had to make a lot of copies. The gatekeepers in academic publishing had two concerns: enough interest in the topic to yield sales that would make the break-even point, and  the value of the work’s contribution to knowledge.

Now technology has undermined both forms of gatekeeping. There is at least one advantage: it saves a lot of time. When I wrote my first book, it took three years from completion to seeing it in print. (The series of rejections that I endured is documented in the memoir.) Precision journalism merged two fields, social science and journalism, and reviewers in neither field could see enough demand for it to create the necessary economy of scale. If on-demand printing technology had been available in 1970, I would have been well-advised to self-publish and get it to market much sooner.

There are now at least 50 book stores that provide on-demand publishing – from Harvard Square to the campus of North Carolina State University. They use a machine that lets students convert their honors theses or dissertations into perfect-bound hard-cover or paperback books at the same cost per copy and with the same production values as a mass-produced book.

You see what this does to the gatekeepers?  It gets them out of the way in favor of the direct effects of the marketplace. This can be good or bad, and therein are some interesting research questions for you.

Until those questions are answered, I choose to rely on the judgment of Peter Osnos, founding editor of a traditional publisher, PublicAffairs Books, and an old newspaperman himself. He describes the present situation in just eight words: “Good books. Any way you want them. Now.”

If he is right, it provides some freedom for us academics who have something to say, but it puts a burden on us. We have to become entrepreneurs. Self-publishing requires self-marketing. And the mere fact of publishing will count less in tenure decisions than acceptance of the work as measured by the reviews and the citations that it generates. Welcome to this brave new world.

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Food: a parsimonious theory of everything

Looking at the New York Times Book Review for May 6, I found the kind of viewpoint that makes me sit up and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Lizzie Collingham, in The Taste of War, argues that the events leading up to World War II were based on food shortages. Germany needed the fertile lands of Eastern Europe to feed its people, and Japan’s land area was too small to provide enough food for its population.

The technology advances sparked by the war led to the reverse problem in the USA by making food so plentiful that overeating, not hunger, became our main health problem.

This history would have made a great narrative theme for my memoir. I grew up in a midwestern farm economy, and the major events in my life could be linked to food and its production.  I mentioned the connection several times, but without the drama that more detail could have provided.

Collingham’s work provides a historical frame for the innovative work being done in Boston by Yaneer Bar-Yam and his New England Complex Systems Institute. Bar-Yam uses investor behavior to model worldwide food prices and relate them to social disruption.

“In 2008 and 2011, increases in global food prices triggered hunger, food riots and social unrest in North Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, at a cost to global stability which policy makers can no longer ignore,” he says in a press release.

Bar-Yam ‘s model predicts the next bubble in food prices in 2013, along with a high risk of major social disruption.

If I were still a working journalist, I would try to synthesize the precision of the Bar-Yam model and the drama of Collingham’s narrative.  Theory and narrative, working together, can illuminate the dizzying cloud of facts with which we are increasingly confronted.

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