Detroit ’67

The play was produced by the Carolina Playmakers last week. It shows the effect of the Detroit riot on one family. After the Saturday matinee, I joined a panel discussion on the stage. Here are my notes for that discussion.

The riot began midnight and 3 a.m. Sunday July 23. First reports were in morning papers Monday July 24.

I was alone in the Knight Washington bureau around noon Wednesday, July 26, when the editor of the Detroit Free Press, Derick Daniels, called. (My advice to young journalists: always answer the phone.)

That evening I rode with the National Guard through the burning streets of Detroit listening to sounds of gunfire. The next morning, I started going through police and fire department reports to build a narrative of what happened. The Free Press headline that morning: “New Tactics Flush Out Snipers.”

In fact, only four of the 43 deaths ended being attributed to snipers.

My narrative, “Putting the Riot’s Pieces Back Together,” ran on Sunday July 30. Then we met in the city room to plan the follow-up coverage. The editors organized an investigation of each of the 43 deaths. I proposed a survey like the one that the University of California had just released on the Watts riot two years earlier.

“But it won’t take us two years,” I said.

“How long, then,” asked Daniels.

“Give me three weeks.”

I networked my way to two University of Michigan faculty members with experience in survey research and hired them as consultants. Managing editor Frank Angelo was a native of Detroit, knew everybody, and learned that a summer workshop for black teachers had just ended, and we recruited our interviewers from their roster. He recruited the Detroit Urban League to be the sponsor and several charitable donors to fund it.

It took us one week to write the survey questions and train the interviewers, one week in the field, and one week to analyze the data and write the story. It was published as a series starting Sunday, August 20.

There were two popular theories of the riot:

(1) The rioters were riff-raff and not representative of the black population.

(2) They were poorly assimilated immigrants from the South.

Both were falsified. The rioters did not differ from the non-rioters in education or income. Natives of Detroit participated at three times the level of the migrants.

That left rising expectations as the surviving theory. The closer you get to a goal, the greater your frustration at not reaching it.

I went back to Detroit for a year-after study of the same population. I found a sense of pride and optimism.

Today, the question of racial harmony tends to interact with another issue that affects blacks and whites alike – the issue of increasing inequality of income.

From World War II to the 1960s, income inequality in the USA diminished. Trade unions were strong, the income tax was steeply progressive, and corporations were sensitive about exorbitant gaps between their top executives and their workers. Then the trend was reversed.

As far back as 1996, a Harvard economist, Richard Freeman, warned that we are headed for “an apartheid economy.” A decline in the earnings of lower paid workers can breed “antagonism between groups as well as general social instability,” he said.

Nobody knows this better than the CIA. It tracks the degree of income inequality in each of 145 nations. The USA is in the high end, at about the bottom of the top third along with third-world countries in Africa and South America.

This, of course is an election year — a good time to observe how our leaders deal with antagonism and instability.

About Parkinson’s Disease

The realization came on gradually. My first diagnosis was parkinsonism, a lower-case word used when some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s are present, but not enough to confirm it. The diagnosis went to upper case last week after a drug prescribed specifically for Parkinson’s, levodopa, produced good results.

It’s a disease that progresses slowly, and I am thankful to have become this old (86 next month) before it turned up. I am not likely to die from it; something else will get me first.

Looking back, I can see some very early signs. Around a decade ago, my sense of smell went missing. “Down to four senses now,” I said. No biggie. Then there were the short-term memory problems. I handled those with corny jokes, e.g. “The nice thing about a bad memory is that you keep meeting interesting new people.” Or, “I can play hide-the-thimble as solitaire.”

My Harvard COOP book helps. It’s a breast-pocket calendar that has been organizing my life since my Nieman fellowship began 50 years ago this month. Only now I use it for remembering past events as much as planning the future.

And there were the falls. In June 2015, I fell at a friend’s house, landed on my shoulder, and damaged a rotator cuff. The following September I had a fall at the Forest Theater in Chapel Hill that left marks on a lower leg. The worst was last March when I fell out of bed and fractured an eye socket on the corner of the night stand. That one required surgery to repair.

A shuffling gait was another clue. So was bad posture. And my voice got so weak that I could not participate effectively in group meetings. My weight began to drop. Fatigue set in until it seemed like I spent all my waking hours taking naps.

Somewhere in there, browsing Facebook, I found Gil Thelen’s good discussion of his own case. His blog is at That helped me connect the dots.

Living near a university with a good medical school is a great advantage. The clinical programs of UNC Health Care have connected me with cheerful therapists who train me to improve my voice and movement skills. Surgical intervention to strengthen my voice is an option. Next month, I’ll check out a support group of fellow “Parkies,” as Thelen calls us.

One major Parkinson’s symptom hasn’t shown up yet, uncontrolled tremors of a limb or other part of the body. But every case is different. That’s why they call it a “snowflake disease.” Trigger warning! Here comes another silly joke.

I have Parkinson’s disease. (pause) And he has mine!

Remembering John McMullan

When I joined the Miami Herald in July 1958, it was my fourth newspaper (and the first one not in Kansas). I didn’t realize it immediately, but there were three giants in that newsroom: John McMullan, Al Neuharth, and Derick Daniels. McMullan, who died last week, was the city editor.


For orientation, John sent me out with Gene Miller on his Miami Beach beat. McMullan was a great judge of good writing, Gene told me. “He likes to reach way down into your story and find a good lede there and bring it to the top.” My next guide was Joy Reese Shaw, who took me around to meet her sources on the school beat, which was about to become mine.

I quickly learned that this was not anything like Kansas. John, with the backing of Lee Hills and the Knights, believed in asserting the power of the press. We work for the audience, not the School Board, he advised me.

Any growing company needs a tough guy to wake everybody up. I witnessed John’s talent when I was in the Washington bureau, and Lee Hills sent him there to step up our energy level. We had become accustomed to working too much around the edges of the news. We didn’t want to be accused of “duplicating the wires,” but producing something original could lead to the complaint that it must not be important or the wires would have it. McMullan convinced us that we could report and write better than the wires, and that confidence made all the difference.

I also saw him in action in Philadelphia, where his assignment was identifying and cleaning out the deadwood left by the Inquirer’s previous owner, Frank Annenberg. A construction crew was noisily tearing out a wall near John’s office. “I wonder if they’ll find another body on the payroll,” he cracked. Getting that heavy lifting done gave Gene Roberts a running start when he took over in 1972.

Newspapers were fat and happy during John’s most productive years, and he made the most of that opportunity. He was in the right places at the right times, and for that we can all be grateful.

Two four-year-old columns that are relevant today (I wish they were not)

The first, published in March 2012, argues that politicians should pay more attention to extreme distortions in income distribution. (Please don’t tell me that Donald Trump read it.) The sources that I quote go back as far as two decades. All support the argument that this is how democracy could destroy itself.
For income inequality, click here.

The other, published in August that same election year, warns that computer hackers could steal the election. I had pretty much forgotten it until the possibility arose that the Russians are already messing with the Democratic Party’s emails. In a close election like Bush v. Gore in 2000, one precinct could make the difference. And 2016 is starting to look like another close election.

What I said four years ago.

My Virtual Appearance in Hong Kong

Speech to the Data & News Society, Hong Kong Baptist University, May 27, 2016:

Greetings to Roselyn and the Data & News Society. I’m sorry that I cannot be with you in person, and I welcome this opportunity to send my image instead.

There is a new book related to my topic. Robert H. Frank of Cornell University is the author of Success and Luck. He argues that we tend to underestimate the degree to which simple good luck accounts for whatever success we have. Psychologists call this “hindsight bias.” The success of my Precision Journalism, still in print after 43 years, offers a case study.

My first lucky break looked at first like a bad break. I got so involved in undergraduate journalism at Kansas State University, that I deprived myself of a broad liberal arts education. When I graduated in 1952, I was a highly skilled writer, but I had nothing to write about. It was a minor issue at the time because the Korean War was under way, and I faced compulsory military service. So I joined the Navy and voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower for president. He had promised to end the war.

He kept that promise. I got early release from the Navy and plunged into reporting for the Topeka Daily Capital back in Kansas. And I started applying to graduate schools – not to study journalism but to fill the gaps in my education, to learn something to write about. My undergraduate grades were a problem, but my lucky break was having the support of a professor with strong ties to the University of North Carolina. He persuaded the political science department to accept me. And it made me a teaching assistant, a bold move as I had never taken a course in political science. But I was born in the Great Depression, a period of low birth rates. There was not a lot of competition in my age cohort. Another lucky break!

The use of quantitative methods in political science was a fringe specialty in those days. The only computational aid came from a mechanical device that performed multiplication and long division with a great deal of noise and shaking. Too much work, I said, and I stayed on the traditional track of studying the great books and political institutions.

My graduate work was enough to persuade the Miami Herald to hire me for its education beat, which I treated as a political story. Two issues, racial desegregation and international competition in science, made that relevant. I worked my way up to Washington as correspondent for the Herald’s sister paper, the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal. But the timing was poor. Ohio was a Republican state, and the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 had swept the Democrats to power in Congress. The Ohio members were neither powerful nor interesting. Moreover, the Beacon Journal was not read in Washington, and that was a major disadvantage.

One way to nudge a stalled career in journalism is take advantage of one of the mid-career fellowships designed for journalists. The most prestigious of these was the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, and my bureau chief, Edwin A. Lahey, had been a member of the first Nieman class in 1938. He agreed to back me, but I had to wait a year because a member of the Beacon Journal city staff had already signaled his intention to apply. That proved to be good luck, because it gave me more time to work on a study plan, a key element in the selection process. I found my inspiration in a newly-published novel by Eugene Burdick, a political scientist. Its title was The 480, and it was based on a real-life case, Kennedy’s use of a computer simulation to test different strategies for his 1960 campaign. This was the sort of methodology that I had avoided in graduate school, but now computers were making it newly relevant. My study proposal argued that if politicians were going to use these techniques to manipulate public opinion, journalists should know enough to explain them.

It proved to be an easy sell. When I got to Harvard, I contacted the professor who taught the graduate course in quantitative methods in political science. Surely I should start at that level. I had a master’s degree! A brief conversation revealed my ignorance, and the professor steered me to an introductory course designed for sophomores. It turned out to be a good fit.

That timing was perhaps my greatest stroke of luck. Harvard faculty had written a software package called DATA-TEXT that made an IBM 7090 accessible to sophomores. Programs were written in a form that was close to plain English. “Tell it, ‘compute correlations,’ said the instructor, and it happens!” I tried, and it did happen. When the machine gave me a three-inch stack of continuous-feed paper with correlations and crosstabs, I took it to Signet House, where Nieman fellows held their weekly dinners, and unfolded it across the floor.

David Hoffman, science writer for the New York Herald Tribune, was impressed. “Package it and sell it,” he said.

It was about then that my goal began to shift from reporting about the use of these methods in politics to putting them to work for my own goal – better reporting.

Selling the idea turned out to be easy because of yet another accident of timing. I was back in the Knight Newpapers Washington bureau when racial violence broke out in Detroit. It started on a Sunday morning. On Wednesday, I was alone in the Washington office when Derick Daniels, the editor of the Detroit Free Press, called. His reporters needed help. I volunteered to go. I went home to pick up a toothbrush and a change of clothes, then caught the next available flight to Detroit.

I spent that evening riding through the burning neighborhoods with the National Guard, and listening to gunfire. Then I gathered material for a narrative on the riot and the questions about its causes. At the end of the week, when the troops were gone and the fires extinguished, the staff met in the city room to discuss what to do next. We were in intense competition with the Detroit News, and we wanted to be visibly better. I proposed a survey, using my Harvard-learned methods plus some consulting help found through my political science contacts at the University of Michigan. “Write me a memo,” said Daniels, who had been my city editor in Miami. I did, and he approved.

The survey falsified two prevailing theories of the riot. The “riff-raff” theory held that the rioters were at the bottom of the economic scale, the poorest of the poor. The survey indicated that economic status was not a predictor of riot participation. Next was the assimilation theory, which blamed the riot on the difficulty that southern blacks found in adjusting to the urban north. The survey found that riot participation was lower among those migrants.

That left rising expectations as the surviving theory. The closer one gets to a much-wanted goal, the greater the frustration at not reaching it. This theory was consistent with Detroit’s reputation as generally progressive in race relations. The report became a factor in the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize to the Detroit Free Press staff.

One of my Harvard connections was Thomas Pettigrew, a social psychologist who specialized in race relations. We had frequent conversations at the weekly social hour of the Department of Social Relations. He told the Russell Sage Foundation about my work, and that led to a friendly letter from its president inviting me to New York to explore our possible common interests. I suggested a book to explain social science research methods to journalists, and that led to a contract for a year’s support to write it. Its working title: The Application of Social and Behavioral Science Research Methods to the Practice of Journalism. It was a work for hire, not a grant, meaning that the Foundation would own and publish it, provided of course that it was judged worthwhile.

I completed the manuscript on time and under budget, and the Foundation sent it out for review, both to journalists and social scientists. They did not like it! And that proved to be lucky for me. The journalists thought it had too much social science and the social scientists could not imagine a journalist doing these things. That caused ownership to revert to me, and I found a publisher on my own. Indiana University Press published it as Precision Journalism in 1973. A fourth edition is still in print, with an international commercial press, Rowman and Littlefield.

Every step was blessed with lucky timing: finding out about computers just as higher-level languages like DATA-TEXT were becoming available, finding an immediate application in Detroit, and getting foundation support for the book.

I used to read a lot of science fiction. One of my favorites was Kurt Vonnegut Jr., whose second novel was called The Sirens of Titan. After a series of exquisitely complicated adventures involving interplanetary travel, the hero lands back on earth and steps out of his space ship to confront a crowd. “What happened to you?” he is asked.

“I was a victim of a series of accidents,” he responds. “As are we all.”

One thing certain about the future is that accidents will happen. You will see value in some accidents and trouble in others. Your goal should be to recognize the valuable accidents and apply their benefits to your reporting on the troublesome ones. I wish you much luck and success.


Polls and the 2016 Election

Remarks to the Retired Faculty Association of UNC-CH, April 14, 2016

The more things change, the more they remain the same. You have probably noticed by now that there are a lot of public opinion polls circulating in the current national election campaign — and a lot of criticism of those polls. Now here’s the irony: This year, 2016, marks the centennial of the first media-sponsored political poll. So where is the celebration?

My old outfit, the American Association for Public Opinion Research, has not scheduled one. Neither, so far as I know, has the present incarnation of the Gallup poll. I think I know

Photo by George William Cloud

why. That historic media poll in 1916 was quite informal. The Literary Digest, a national weekly magazine, invited its readers to write in with reports on local sentiment regarding the presidential election. It was between Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes. Based on the response, the magazine predicted that Wilson would win re-election. And he did.
Encouraged by that result, the magazine made a more formal effort in 1920. The candidates were two Ohio newspaper publishers, Democrat James M. Cox, and Republican Warren G. Harding. It sent out ballots to as many names and addresses as it could collect and predicted a Harding victory. He won, and they figured that validated their methodology. Its main rule was to get as large a sample as possible, and it worked for three more presidential elections. In 1932 it called Roosevelt’s winning margin within a fraction of a percentage point. But it was just lucky – or unlucky as it turned out.

George Gallup was a student at the University of Iowa in that year. He worked on methods for measuring reader interest in different parts of the newspaper. His dissertation in psychology was titled “An Objective Method for Determining Reader Interest in the Content of a Newspaper.” It attracted the attention of a New York advertising agency, which offered him a job. He did his first political poll for his mother-in-law who was running for Iowa secretary of state. It predicted that she would win, and she did.
In 1935, Gallup moved to Princeton and founded the American Institute for Public Opinion. The following year, he got really lucky. He used a technique called quota sampling. Interviewers were free to interview whomever they could conveniently find provided they met specified categories of geography, age, gender, and ethnicity to match the voting-age population. By 1936, the New Deal had created a powerful coalition of Democrat voters that included white southerners and lower-income groups in the great cities—African-Americans, union members, and ethnic and religious minorities, many from recent immigrant groups.

Now here’s the important thing about sampling theory. A biased sample is harmless until the bias correlates with the thing you are trying to measure. In 1932, it did not. The Literary Digest got its names and addresses from the most convenient sources available, telephone listings and automobile registrations. In the 1930s – the time of the Great Depression – these were indicators of wealth. I was a child in the 1930s, and my family had neither a car nor a telephone until after World War II. We were not unusual. For the 1932 election, the one that the Literary Digest got right on the money, wealth did not correlate with presidential choice. The New Deal changed that, and by 1936 the two parties were aligned by social class.

Gallup realized this, and he pulled a hat trick. The Digest survey had 2 million returns to count. While it was doing that, Gallup used the same lists to get about 3,000 returns. And so while the Literary Digest was still tabulating its 2 million ballots, Gallup announced that the magazine would erroneously predict a landslide victory for Alf Landon of Kansas, the Republican candidate.

“The most accurate prediction I ever made,” Gallup recalled when I met him in the 1970s.
Expectations for the Literary Digest were high because of its accuracy in 1932, and it never recovered from its humiliation in 1936. It published its final issue in 1938. Gallup and his peers enjoyed the trust of the public until the next major polling failure in 1948. All of the polls got it wrong that year. You might have seen the classic photo of a smiling Harry Truman holding up a front page of the Chicago Tribune with the headline, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”

And that election marked the end of quota sampling, even though it was not the main cause of the polling errors. Gallup and his peers had assumed that voters made up their minds by mid-October, and so they just stopped polling. They failed to detect a last minute shift by disaffected Democrats who didn’t like Truman, but decided — at the last minute — that they liked Thomas Dewey even less. After that, Gallup kept his poll going right up to as close to election day as he could manage.
His 1952 and later polls were based on a stratified probability sample of housing units in a matrix of 49 cells created from seven geographic categories and seven size categories. Housing units still made a good sampling frame in those days because the population was more stable then and interviews were done in person, in the home. On weekdays, interviewing hours were 4 to 10 p.m. when working people could be found at home. Daytime interviews were held on weekends. Interviewers would ask for the youngest voting-age male present at the time because males and young people were less likely to be found at home. That amounted to a rough quota sample at the block level, but it was easy to execute.
Gallup’s best years spanned the presidential elections 1956 through 1976 – Eisenhower through Carter. Error on the winner was held to less than three percentage points in that period. He had a mild-mannered statistician, Paul Perry, who worked out ingenious ways to erase two barriers to accuracy: determining who in the sample would actually vote and allocating the undecided.
Housing units still make a good sampling frame, but I doubt that a house-to-house survey would work today. We’re no longer used to having strangers knock on our doors. I can remember when milk, ice, dry cleaning, and groceries were routinely delivered to the home. The mail came twice a day. When I was a newspaper carrier, I collected the subscription fees in person. The world was a gentler and more trusting place then, and survey response rates of 80 percent were not uncommon.
It was not until the 1970s that telephone interviewing became the more practical method. Phone service reached 95 percent of households by the middle of that decade. T he telephone company was a regulated monopoly, and that made samples of household numbers easy to get. There was a time, in fact, when the phone company would give us the ranges of working residential telephones for each three-digit prefix. Take a sample of those prefixes, add four digits from a table of random numbers, and you had a pure probability sample. It doesn’t get much better than that.
But then the telephone monopoly was broken up, cell phones started to become popular in the 1980s, and digital cellular networks started growing in the 1990s. And the problem of telephone sampling became seriously complicated. You can reach people easily enough, but knowing the probability of any individual being reached can only be roughly estimated. There are just too many ways to reach us, and we are devolving to the reliability of the Literary Digest.
That doesn’t stop the media from doing polls of course. And the myth still prevails that the quality of a poll is a function of the number of people who respond. The Internet offers many possibilities, none of them very good. There is the poll as click-bait. “Take the poll,” says a pop-up message on your computer screen. We call this an opt-in poll, where the respondents select themselves.
Then there are the Interactive Voice Response or IVR polls. These use robocalls. Your phone rings, a recorded voice invites you to take the poll, and you respond by punching buttons on your phone. They have a strong bias in favor of people who don’t mind talking to machinery.
Some sense is made out of all this confusion by the poll aggregators. The best of these, I think, is Nate Silver with his blog, “538.” He evaluates polls by their track records, their methodology, and their acceptance of certain industry standards. He weights their results accordingly in his model and uses it to estimate a probability that a given candidate will win. It works pretty well – with a few exceptions. For example Silver gave Hilary Clinton a greater than 99 percent chance of winning the Michigan primary on March 8. She lost to Bernie Sanders.
So what are polls for? There must be some higher purpose than predicting an election. We’ll know who the winners are a few hours after the polls close. Isn’t that soon enough?
In the 1990s, Davis Merritt, a Morehead scholar from Hickory, who became the editor of the Wichita Eagle-Beacon, proposed something that he called “public journalism.” He defined it as a conscious effort to report the news in a way that would make public life go well. One of its elements was using polls, not to predict elections, but to find out what issues most concerned voters. Then news coverage could be adjusted to focus on those concerns in the election campaigns, forcing candidates to address them.
The idea caught on. At one point in the 1990s, the New York Times swore off using polls for pre-election predictions. Instead it tried to use them to illuminate the process of coalition formation. Thus it would compare the candidates’ support among specific groups, blacks and whites, for example, or men and women. If you knew the proportion of these groups in the population and remembered tour high school algebra, you could calculate the horse-race standings on the back of an envelope, and I had a little bit of fun with that.
But the idea didn’t stick, and reporting the horse race is still the main application of pre-election polls. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, providing the polls are accurate. It’s a good way to sustain public interest in the campaign. Ånd the election is a good way to assess the validity of the polls.
An even better use of polls is to illuminate the process of coalition formation. The founders made that obscure by separating the executive and legislative powers. No provision was made for political parties, but they arose spontaneously as like-minded citizens banded together to try to gain control of the government. And that is what makes our politics so interesting.
The world changes pretty fast, and the changes often inspire dystopian theories about America’s future. In 1973, I took a year off from my job as a Washington correspondent for the old Knight Newspapers to help write a textbook on the national government of the United States. I was well into the project when the Watergate affair led to the constitutional crisis remembered now as “the Saturday night massacre.” That was in October 1973. We stayed on task, finished the book on schedule, and prayed that the United States would still have the same form of government when the volume finally came off the press. We gave the book a title based on something Benjamin Franklin said after the close of the constitutional convention of 1787. Asked what form of government the convention had designed, he replied, “A republic – if you can keep it.” So we called the book “To Keep the Republic.” A more recent book by Harvard law professor Larry Lessig used the same anecdote in a more pessimistic way. His book is about the effect of unlimited special interest money in political campaigns. Its title: “Republic, Lost.”
But the constitution of 1787 is more resilient than we think. It was written in a spirit of pragmatic compromise, and that set the tone and the precedent for most of the future conflicts. It was also the dawn of the industrial age, which enabled mass production and mass media to sell its products. The first newspapers were the voices of narrow political or business interests. Then publishers discovered the economies of scale that could be obtained by lowering the price from six cents to a penny and getting most of their revenue from advertising. That started around 1830 – mass production for mass audiences. With so many people getting the same information, the spirit of compromise and adjustment could continue.
Newspaper consumption peaked in the 1920s when commercial radio began to compete for the attention of the audience. I’m not talking about the number of newspaper readers but newspaper sales as a percentage of households. The peak was 130 percent. Yes, every day, 130 papers were sold for every 100 households in the USA. Now it is about 40 per 100 households. The decline in the 1920s followed the start of commercial AM radio, which competed for readers’ time. After that came other new technologies: television, FM radio, the Internet. The older technologies survived by finding more specialized audiences. The Internet, of course, supports the most specialized content of all, and that could be one cause of the political polarization that we’re seeing. It’s too tempting to attend only to those messages with which we already agree. We’re losing the moderating effect of mass media.
But more than that is going on in this campaign. I think that what we’re seeing is a realigning election. It happens every 30-40 years or so. Our single-member district (winner-take-all) system discourages third parties, and fairly stable coalitions are formed in the election campaigns. This is why we need polls – to see what groupings of strange bedfellows are being formed. The Republican coalition, forged in the 1964 and 1968 elections, is inherently unstable. It links economic conservatives and social conservatives. When the civil rights act of 1964 was passed, Democrats knew it would cost them their traditional solid support in the south. Republicans talked about “states rights” as code for segregation, and that dog-whistle tactic worked. It led to the “southern strategy” that provides tangible benefits to the economic conservatives but only symbolic reward for the social conservatives. But now we can see it fraying, and we can thank Donald Trump for that. He speaks clearly to the social conservatives and reminds them how little the party has done for them. He is a destabilizing force, and that might be a good thing.
Coalition formation is more stable in a European-style parliamentary system because it encourages multlple parties who can appeal to more specialized groups. The coalitions are formed after the election, in full view of everyone, as the winners negotiate to form a majority and elect a prime minister. In our system, we can’t watch that process without polls, and I wish our news media appreciated that more.
Pollsters today try to sample from a variety of sources, and then they use statistical weights to make their samples match the population. It’s like quota sampling, and there is always under matching. The hidden bias will be revealed only when it correlates with voter choice. Will this be the election that shocks and surprises us like 1948? The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Return to Vienna

Remarks to the Forum Journalismus und Medien Wien on its Media Innovation Day, Vienna, Austria, June 13, 2014

The organizers of this conference were wise to separate the topic into two perspectives: legacy media in the morning, new technology this afternoon. My contribution to this conversation is a historical perspective. I was part of an attempt to protect legacy media from new technology by coopting that technology. We failed.

Failure has its uses. Thomas Watson Sr. was the founder of IBM. Interviewed by a struggling young writer, he offered some advice: “Double your rate of failure.” His point was that every failure is a learning experience.

My part in a spectacular failure began in 1978. I was a national reporter for Knight Ridder newspapers when I was invited to join the corporate staff and redirect my research skills from reporting the news to marketing it. On arriving at the beautiful headquarters on Biscayne Bay in Miami, I was briefed by the two vice-presidents who had conceived the project: Hal Jurgensmeyer, a former IBM salesman, and Norman Morrison, a PhD in electrical engineering. They were just the sort of people who could bring fresh thinking to the newspaper business, and they were partly inspired by developments in Europe. Prestel in England and Minitel in France were using television to deliver interactive text information to home screens.

New technology has bothered news people since Gutenberg’s movable type system threatened the livelihood of the town crier. In 1960, Theodore Levitt warned about “marketing myopia,” and argued that to survive, a business should concentrate on customer needs, not on its own products. Identify the need, and work backward from there to create and sell the product. Levitt cited the examples of the railroads’ failure to adapt to competition from airplanes and trucks. They thought they were in the railroad business when in fact they were in the transportation business. Later, another Harvard professor would sum the concept as: “People don’t buy quarter-inch drills, they buy quarter inch holes.”

Jurgensmeyer was familiar with this literature, and he tried to redefine the newspaper business. Our core product, he said, was neither news nor information, but “influence.” We produced two kinds of influence: social influence, which was not for sale, and commercial influence, which we sold as advertising. As a journalist, I loved this concept, because it provided economic justification for quality journalism.

Morrison, the engineer, had a vision of a digital newspaper. Instead of a printing press, there would be a powerful mainframe computer. Instead of needing delivery trucks, printed information would move by telephone wire to the customer’s existing television screen. This technology could enable a newspaper company to overcome its chief disadvantage as a manufacturing industry: high variable costs. Business schools teach that variable costs are far more important than fixed costs because they increase directly and unavoidably with output. Double a newspaper’s circulation, and you double its costs of ink, paper, and delivery. Morrison’s concept, which we called “Viewtron,” had mostly fixed costs. There were fewer limits to growth!

We never anticipated the Internet. We never suspected that we would lose our position as a natural monopoly. That position was created by the high capital cost of a newspaper printing press – an expensive machine that breaks easily. It’s not efficient to have more than one in most markets. In 1978, we saw a mainframe computer as another expensive machine that broke easily. We never thought about Moore’s law, articulated in 1965, that the capacity of digital devices tends to double every two years. But Moore was right. And the falling costs of processing and transmitting information caught the newspaper industry unprepared.

After three years on the Viewtron team, I left for a quieter life as a university professor. Knight Ridder launched Viewtron in South Florida in 1983.  “The whole world is watching . . . We are dancing naked on the stage of history,” said Viewtron’s exuberant leader, Norman Morrison. Knight Ridder kept it dancing for three years, adapting it for the personal computer along the way. After spending 50 million dollars, it gave up and concluded that digital communication in that form posed no threat to newspapers. Eventually, Knight Ridder ceased to exist. The company was sold and broken up. Its former headquarters is being demolished.

The decline of newspapers was one of those transitions that happened so slowly that those in the midst of it hardly noticed. But circulation in the USA peaked around 1920 at 130 percent of households. That penetration rate has declined ever since in response to new technology, starting with radio advertising in 1921. Today, it is around 40 percent.

“Double your rate of error.” That is good advice for society, because the more things that are tried, the sooner useful inventions will be found. Is it good for individual entrepreneurs? Only if we expect past failure to predict future success. The opposite is true, according to a German study cited in The New Yorker. Founders of new enterprises with past failures were more likely to fail than novices.

Still, society benefits. And thinking about what technology does to society – for good or for ill – would be a fine topic for a future conference. In my country there is growing suspicion that our particular form of democracy is not meant for the information age. The authors of our Constitution were suspicious of power, and they built checks and balances to keep it widely distributed. But the digital flow of information makes those checks and balances too efficient — so efficient that information causes gridlock. A Harvard law professor, Lawrence Lessig, has argued that it is time for a new constitution, perhaps based on the European parliamentary model, to ensure that the same party controls legislative and executive functions.

So, as we professors like to say, further research is needed. Technology has consequences. Society needs our help in forseeing them.



Theodore Levitt, “Marketing Myopia,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 1960.

Gordon E. Moore,, “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits,” Electronics, April 19, 1965.

James Surowiecki, “Epic Fails of the Startup World,” The New Yorker, May 19, 2014.

Lawrence Lessig, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It, New York: Twelve, 2011.

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, 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. 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. 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.


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



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.