The Hedy Lamarr Lecture

Although Vienna-born Hedy Lamarr is best remembered as a movie star in the golden age of Hollywood, she was also an inventor. The National Inventors Hall of Fame credits her as co-creator of a radio frequency-hopping system to prevent jamming of signals by an enemy. And so the Austrian National Academy of Sciences has a lecture series in her name. I was invited to deliver the Hedy Lamarr Lecture of October 3, 2011.
A modified version of that lecture has been published in Nieman Reports. Here it is in its original form.

How Quality Journalism May Survive in the Web 3.0

Philip Meyer

First, let me note how pleased I am to be in Vienna, the birthplace of one of my professional heroes, Paul Lazarsfeld. I first became aware of his work when my political science professors taught his early voting studies that led to his theory of the two-step flow of political communication. Many years later, on a mid-career fellowship at Harvard, I listened to lectures on American colonial history by his son-in-law, Bernard Bailyn.

Two other sons of Vienna have played a role in my personal history. The architects Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler were creators of a kind of residential architecture that we now call “mid-century modern.” Neutra lectured at Kansas State University while I was an undergraduate there and set off a controversy about campus architecture that made wonderful material for college journalists. And today, my niece, Kimberli Meyer, is director of the Rudolf Schindler museum in West Hollywood.

Journalism is in trouble. And when journalism is in trouble, democracy is in trouble. Democracy in my country has been in trouble before, and quality journalism has come to its rescue. In my lifetime, there have been two salient examples of journalism’s healing power at the national level. Edward R. Murrow’s CBS broadcast of March 9, 1954, began the decline of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s exploitation of the fear of communism to assault American civil liberties. “We are not descended from fearful men,” Murrow reminded us, “not men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes which were, for the moment, unpopular. “ I was a 23-year-old Navy journalist at that time and, I can remember the thrill of witnessing the power of Murrow’s fine reporting.

The second example was just 19 years later when the Washington Post kept the spotlight on the Watergate burglary and started the chain of investigations that led to the Nixon White House. I was in Washington then, reporting for the Akron Beacon Journal, and I could not get my editors interested so long as the story was based on the Post’s unnamed sources. But Post Publisher Katharine Graham kept the story on the public agenda long enough to motivate official investigators from the judicial and legislative branches of government. Finally, it was Judge John Sirica and Senator Sam Ervin who brought out the incriminating facts that led to President Nixon’s resignation. From my office in the National Press Building, I watched his helicopter depart.

In these examples, we can find a definition for quality journalism. It is journalism with influence that is exercised in the public interest. My generation of managers at Knight Ridder, a great newspaper group before it was broken up by the new media economics, believed that journalism was a business whose primary product was influence: societal influence, which was not for sale, and commercial influence, which was for sale in the form of advertising. That model provided a business justification for truth, social responsibility, and earning the public’s trust. It worked because the societal influence made the commercial influence more valuable.

But the model began to fail long before the arrival of the Web. The number of media channels was increasing across all the technologies, radio, TV, and print. The increase in channels made more specialization possible. Instead of sending a few messages to many people, the system began sending many messages, each to a few people.

All of this happened before the Web. But we could see it coming. At Knight Ridder, we tried to preserve the influence model in our 1980s Viewtron experiment, which we can see now was an early effort to anticipate the Web.

We failed because we did not understand how cheap and powerful, digital information would become. We thought too much in newspaper analogies. The computer was like a printing press, a large, expensive machine that breaks easily. The cost of one limited the number of possible competitors. I left before Knight Ridder pulled the plug on Viewtron. Its vision was too far ahead of the technology.

The Web, in its various stages, has been breaking that model of a central and influential news source – first by making advertising cheap, and second by interfering with journalism’s ability to focus the public’s attention on an issue or a problem. At the peak of Ed Murrow’s career, national television news was confined to just four channels, three commercial and one public. In 1963, the Washington Post was so effective on the Watergate story because it was the dominant daily and the only morning paper among three dailies in Washington, D.C. Getting and holding the public’s attention was not a problem when the number of channels was limited.

Today, we have a very different environment. Information used to be scarce. Now it is plentiful. The Nobel laureate Herbert Simon put it in economic terms. Information, he said in 1971, consumes the attention of those who receive it. Therefore, when information is plentiful, attention will be scarce. Simon observed this process decades before the Internet. After World War II, FM radio, cable television, offset printing all contributed to the increased flow of information. Now the Internet, in its many manifestations, increases the flow still more while undermining journalism’s traditional advertising support.

The problem that Simon framed in economic terms was anticipated by Paul Lazarsfeld as far back as 1948. Too much information, he said back then, can create what he called “narcotizing dysfunction.” The public becomes overwhelmed by more information than it can process, and so it withdraws its participation and becomes apathetic.

The average citizen, Lazarsfeld said in 1948, took “his reading and listening and thinking as a vicarious performance. He comes to mistake knowing about problems of the day for doing something about them.

“His social conscience remains spotlessly clean. He is concerned. He is informed. And he has all sorts of ideas as to what should be done. But after he has listened to his favored radio programs and after he has read his second newspaper of the day, it is really time for bed.”

Today, the Web, by increasing the flow of information, has, of course, magnified that problem. If quality journalism is to survive in this new environment, we must figure out how to do three things:

1. Pay for its creation.
2. Distribute its results to the public.
3. Get the public to pay attention and act on its information.

Although the Web has captured advertising share from traditional media, finding new ways to pay for journalism is proving to be less of a problem than expected. In the United States, there has been a flowering of experimentation by both business and non-profits. I serve on the advisory boards of three innovative and very different — news organizations. Patch Media is a for-profit subsidiary of AOL that uses a mix of professional and citizen journalists to bring hyperlocal journalism on the Web to affluent communities in the northeast. Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) began as a non-profit Internet service provider in the hills and hollows around Asheville, North Carolina, and hopes to build social capital by providing local news. And the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University in Washington, D.C., uses charitable support to produce national stories for the mainstream media –and teach journalism at the same time.

In other words, we have plenty of reason to hope that ways will continue to be found to pay for good journalism. But, like the tree falling in the forest, it makes no sound unless there is an ear to hear it. Each of these startups must find a way to match the distribution and attention-getting power of a traditional local newspaper.

For some time, I had pinned my hopes on Paul Lazarsfeld’s concept of the two-step flow. His early voting studies in the United States showed that political information traveled horizontally — from person to person — more than from mass media to the voters. The media reached the influential citizens, and, from them information diffused to everyone else. Today’s social media greatly facilitate such horizontal flows of information. Being ever-optimistic, I thought the two-step flow would be our salvation in the age of the Web.

But I am afraid that Lazarsfeld’s other concept, narcotizing dysfunction, is overwhelming the two-step flow. Add social media to the stream of information about public affairs, and Simon’s scarcity of attention makes the public very hard to engage.

The pattern since the end of World War II has been for specialized media of all types, print, radio, TV, movies, to do better than media that seeks a mass audience. The Web has encouraged even more specialization. This trend is dangerous for democracy because it inhibits deliberation and the ability to understand and appreciate points of view other than one’s own. If we all crawl into our little silos of specialized information and don’t talk or deliberate with people with different views, representative democracy can’t work. The horizontal flow of information keeps bumping into the silo walls.

The United States is more vulnerable to this problem than European parliamentary democracies because of the single-member districts that underly our two-party system. In Europe, specialized interests can form specialized parties. Once in office, the representatives of those parties can negotiate, deliberate, compromise and then form coalitions to operate the government. That process is fairly transparent.

In the American two-party system, the deliberation and coalition building has to take place during the election campaign, and the process is anything but transparent. If public opinion polling were more sophisticated, we could see what is going on and get to know our political bedfellows. But it’s not.

Now I can imagine a way in which natural selection might solve the problem. Out of the noisy combination of the many voices on the Web, a trusted few might emerge. Perhaps we are in a situation comparable to that in Europe right after Gutenberg. The lonely pamphleteers who roamed the countryside, carrying their type in their shirttails, worked for a variety of interests. Nature likes to organize itself into hierarchies of dominance, and the work of those lonely printers was eventually organized into newspaper companies.

In 19th century America, urban newspapers found they could make more money by appealing to, and being trusted by, a large audience.

Now there are several ways to gain trust. One is to appeal to the existing prejudice of your audience. That works best when the audience is easy to fragment as it is in the 21st century. But newspapers in the 19th and 20th centuries were manufacturing products that needed economies of scale. So publishers were motivated not to appeal to prejudices but to seek common ground.

How can we make something like that happen to the web in our century?
Call me an optimist, but I truly believe that it can be done.

First, we have to create ways to recognize quality, which I define as discovering and imparting the truth in a way that is recognized.

With liars and truth tellers having equal access to the web, there should be, in the long term, an advantage for the truth, as John Milton reminded us in the 17th century. The problem is to convert it to a shorter term advantage as well. It was the 19th century America writer Mark Twain who said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while truth is still putting on its shoes.” But if we can find institutional ways for truth to be recognized, we might speed it up a bit.

Professionalization is one way to give the truth tellers some visibility. Voluntary professional organizations can set standards for both moral behavior and technical competence. If they do it convincingly, they can make a difference. One way to do it convincingly is through certification programs.

Most entry-level journalists in the United States are certified for technical competence by degree-granting programs at universities. In 2005, which now looks like it might prove to have been the last good year for traditional media, 85 percent of new hires at newspapers and 92 percent of those in television news departments, held journalism degrees.

Those degree programs include some training in ethics, and at least one professional association, the Society of Professional Journalists, publishes and promotes a code of ethics and revises it from time to time. One such revision is under way right now. I expect its fundamental rules to remain unchanged. Such codes are best enforced by simply calling public attention to violations, and units of SPJ have done so, although not yet in a sustained and systematic way. It is not at all clear how these rules might be applied to bloggers, tweeters, FaceBookers, and all the other independent manifestations of the Web.

Because the Web enables every citizen to be a journalist, we need broader systems of lower-level training and certification, and they are being created. For example, Columbia University has established an online certification program for high school students to qualify them for participation in Pearl World Youth News, an international news service for secondary schools honoring Daniel Pearl, the martyred journalist.

Many of the online journalism sites in the USA have some level of certification. For example, MinnPost.com in Minneapolis requires its citizen journalists to read and sign the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Thus the organization can attest to two things: that its reporters know the code exists, and that they have agreed to abide by it.

But we need more. Truth needs some vigorous assistance in its effort to catch up with falsehood. Institutionalized fact-checking efforts are needed. Here are two salient examples in my country:

1. FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which, despite its name, is an ivy-league private university located in Philadelphia. Its mission statement says, “We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding. “

2. Snopes.com is a reference source for urban myths, legends, folklore, and all sorts of information that springs from vague sources and travels freely across the Web.

In sum, for journalism to survive in the Web 3.0, we must do four things:

1. Encourage the ongoing process of web aggregation so that it leads to new institutions that will have the same competence and public spirit that the best newspapers had in the past. The lonely pamphleteers eventually evolved into newspapers. What will today’s bloggers and citizen journalists become?

2. Find some systematic way to evaluate and publicize the truthfulness and public mindedness of individual citizen journalists. Conversely, identify and publicize the liars.

3. Create voluntary associations of journalists in different specialties that can encourage technical competence and moral values and make them visible.

4. Support research that shows how the classic theories of mass communication, from two-step flow to agenda setting are affected by the new media.

This last proposal might be the most important. Without theory, all we have are collections of unconnected facts and events. To cope with change, we need a 21st century Paul Lazarsfeld to help us go beyond the facts and events to understand the patterns and structures that our new information systems are forming. Failure to understand them could be dangerous. Let us be ready.

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Another Memorial Day

 

Ernest R. Morrison (1910-1944)

He was my uncle. It was 70 Memorial Days ago when his Bronze Star was awarded to my grandmother, Mae Morrison. The ceremony was held at the nearest military installation, which happened to be the prisoner-of-war camp at Concordia, Kansas, about an hour’s drive from the family farm. We looked at the directional signs in German as we were escorted to the commander’s office. The citation tells the story:

For heroic achievement in connection with military operations against the enemy on the Island of (redacted) on 9 December 1944.  Private Morrison, an automatic rifleman, covered the extreme right flank of a front which was under continuous machine gun fire. With outstanding courage and zeal, he advanced to within twenty-five yards of an enemy gun, knocking it out. While executing this heroic act, Private Morrison was mortally wounded. Inspired by his heroism, his squad swept forward.

 We already knew that the island was Leyte. Ernie’s division, the 77th, had been assigned to repel a Japanese counterattack on the western side of the island, seven weeks after General MacArthur’s landing on the east coast. Going ashore on December 7, the division met light resistance until the firefight on a hilltop overlooking the city of Ormoc two days later.  The 77th entered the city on December 10.

In 1995, the Asia Foundation asked me to visit Manila to teach Philippine media some of the newer uses of public opinion research. I found time to visit a number of historic sites, including the American military cemetery, where I found my uncle’s grave. It is marked by the cross in the foreground of this photo.

Ernie's grave

 

 

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How, Then, Should We Live?

A version of this post appeared in Chapel Hill News August 17, 2014.

In the mid-1950s, I was a reporter for the Kansas desk of the Topeka Daily Capital. The Kansas Territorial Centennial fell in that period and led to some colorful celebrations, including beard-growing contests. Part of my job was finding authentic old-timers to interview.

I read the country weeklies that came in the mail, and any announcement of someone’s 100th birthday was an event rare enough to send me halfway across the state to find that person.

Some centenarians lived in private homes, those of their children or grandchildren. The other option was one of the nursing homes, found in even very small towns.

Often, they were sponsored by a church. I remember one 100-year-old woman who advised me to find “a nice Christian girl” to marry. I think she would have been pleased with my choice. I found Sue in Topeka, and we came to Chapel Hill on our wedding trip.

Six decades later, we’re the old-timers, and options for dealing with aging are more complicated. Between our own home and the nursing home lies a broad range of choices.

That’s a problem I never anticipated. Decision-making under uncertainty is difficult enough when you are young. Age makes it worse.

The continuum of services begins with those that help keep us in our own home. Carolina Villages, a nonprofit serving Chapel Hill and Carrboro started providing such services last year. We joined it as soon as we found out about it. Sue and I downsized to a townhome in 2007, and the hassle of that move made us reluctant to ever consider another.

A more surefire way to manage the uncertainty would be to put up with one final move: to a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC). The first one in Chapel Hill, Carol Woods, opened in 1979. The newest, The Cedars of Chapel Hill, started in 2004. A CCRC provides the whole continuum of choices from independent living through various levels of assisted living, and finally to a nursing home, but all in the same location. Starting at the first level, independent living, is a requirement. You have to be healthy enough to walk in the door, or they won’t let you in.

Once you make that financial commitment, it can be complicated to get out, depending on how the CCRC is structured. But at least you have reduced the hassle of further lifestyle decisions.

Our current strategy is to dig in and look for every resource we can find to help us stay right where we are until our infirmities are great enough to make our long-term care insurance policies kick in. Those would help support us in an assisted living facility like Wynwood, where our friend Chuck Stone spent his last years.

Chances that we’ll both use those policies are slim. Invoking them requires medical certification that you need help to perform at least two of five specified activities of daily living: bathing, dressing, toileting, eating, and getting in or out of a chair or bed. Only 44 percent of men who reach the age of 65 ever get to that point. For women, the risk is higher: 72 percent. These numbers come from the American Association for Long-term Care Insurance.

It helps to think about it if you prioritize your outcomes. Think of it as a game with nature the opponent. Nature has two cards to play: disable us or not. Our cards: move to a CCRC or age in place as long as we can.

That yields four possible outcomes. Not everyone will have the same priorities. For us, the ranking is:

1. We age at home, and nature never interferes.

2. We age at home, then move to assisted living when nature demands it.

3. We move to a CCRC and nature impairs us, so we’re glad we did.

4. We move to a CCRC, but never need it.

In classical decision theory, the goal is to assure the least of the worst possible outcomes. On that basis, we ought to go with aging at home.

But wait. Your rankings might be different. One advantage of the CCRC is that the transition from independence to assisted living is seamless. You don’t have to plan, you don’t have to move. Everything you need is on one campus. You can spend your golden years thinking about other things.

For a couple, a compromise might be to age in place until one needs assisted living. The other would still be able to make decisions and do some heavy lifting in the transition. Based on the figures above, the probability that at least one of us will need assisted living is high: 84 percent.

Aging in place is a national trend now, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro has several neighborhood associations that try to help. Carolina Villages is the only one with professional staff.

We try to be active in both: our neighborhood group for its social functions and Carolina Villages for practical help when and if we need it. It’s a gamble, but we’re rolling our own dice.

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The Other Miami Herald Building

 

This was the Miami Herald building at 200 South Miami Avenue when I joined its staff in July 1958. I was 27 years old, just out of graduate school at Chapel Hill, and ready to test my reporting skills in this new and exotic environment. George Beebe, the managing editor, told me that the Herald had moved into this building in 1941 and was already outgrowing it, less than 20 years later. A new one was being planned in an undisclosed location.

“Maybe in the suburbs?” I asked hopefully. It would be nice to be near housing that would be affordable for a young family. Beebe gave no hint and turned me over to Al Neuharth, the energetic assistant managing editor, for a briefing about the Herald and its culture.

A key part of that culture was intense rivalry with the Miami News, Neuharth said, and its owners had just expressed their confidence in the News’s future by building a fancy new plant on the south bank of the Miami River.

“We thought their city editor was too good for the Miami News, Neuharth said, “so we brought him over here.” And he took me to meet John McMullan, who in turn assigned me to ride with Gene Miller as he made his rounds on the Miami Beach beat.

“Don’t get any of Miller’s bad habits,” he yelled as we headed for the elevator. McMullan was a sharp judge of good writing, Miller told me. “He likes to reach way down into your story, find a buried lead there, and bring it to the top.”

The newsroom was so crowded that I would not have my own desk, McMullan told me when we got back. I would have to float from one unoccupied desk to another, a serious inconvenience. My beat, I was told, would be education, being temporarily covered by Joy Reese Shaw. She took me to a School Board meeting and introduced me around.

“This beat is about the two things that are the most important to our readers,” she said. “Their money and their kids.”

After my second School Board meeting, I returned with a stack of documents related to ongoing stories. “Where should I keep these?” I asked McMullan.

He led me on a stroll around the perimeter of the news room, looking for an empty file drawer. There weren’t any.

“You know,” he said, “the education reporter really needs a desk.” And I was assigned one in a cluster of four with Gene Miller, Dom Bonafede, and Mike Morgan.

When it was announced that the new building would be on the bay front between McArthur and Venetian causeways, the disappointment over the midtown location was mitigated by the impressive view we would have. And the new building at what would become One Herald Plaza occupied our thoughts for the next four years. Ground was broken on August 19, 1960.

I was in the Washington Bureau by the time the new building was ready for occupancy in March 1963, but I became a frequent visitor, helping with election coverage or special projects. And when I was moved back to Miami, as part of the corporate staff in 1978, I got a windowless office on the sixth floor and privileged parking under the building, sheltered from the Florida sunshine. I grew fond of that mustard-colored building. When the movie “Absence of Malice” was shot in its newsroom, I took my family down in the middle of the night to watch Sally Field and Paul Newman perform from Kurt Luedtke’s script.

The building in the picture above is still standing, although the exterior has been modified so that you can’t tell that a newspaper once had a home here. Federal Express occupies it today, and a few years ago, I walked in and looked around to see if I could recapture that feeling of being young and confident, ready to test my talent. It did help the memory a bit, and I’m glad the building is still there. Thomas Wolfe was right, you can’t go home again, but you feel better when visible parts of it are still there to visit.

Sadly, that won’t be true for One Herald Plaza, whose demolition started last week. It’s going to be some kind of resort. The building was made to be strong and hurricane proof and that makes it really hard to tear down, so they are doing it in increments. A lot of us will miss that mustard-colored building. And our days of wine and roses.

 

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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.  Its review is behind a paywall now, but, I can at least give you access to the lead.  Elby Adamson, wrote it. 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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