Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Steve Burgard - More Burgard Bits

Listen to Steve's latest podcast brodcast on WBUR:

A law that has never been used to prosecute journalists might become a new weapon for the Bush administration in what it says is its struggle to protect national security.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez suggested Sunday on ABC TV's "This Week," that a close reading of U.S. law shows reporters could be prosecuted for simply publishing classified information. But, journalism advocacy groups are already crying foul.

Professor Stephen Burgard, director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University.

Here are links to Several articles written by Steve:

A link to an article Steve wrote for the Christian Science Monitor on the press and religion:

A link to something Steve wrote on Otis Chandler, the legendary publisher of the Los Angeles Times:

A piece Steve wrote on the press and faith-based politics for UC Irvine's Center for the Study of Democracy:

There's a lot more of Steve's writing at: The only thing is that there's a lot of editing going on and you will have to use the advanced search to find them. Anyway here's one of Steve's letters

From Poynter Institute's Romenesko web site, a letter from Steve in 2003 that became central to the controversy over Michael Kinsley's tenure at the Los Angeles Times.

From STEPHEN D. BURGARD, director, Northeastern University School of Journalism: For years, editors have debated how to enliven editorial pages, but something more radical is going on at the Los Angeles Times under Michael Kinsley, as reported in today's New York Times. The LA Times editorial page is sending conflicting signals to the readers and to the industry, and I don't think it quite knows what it is doing. One message is that it is going to be more interactive, which is fine. The second, is more serious and evident through statements from two top editors, Kinsley, and the paper's new editorial page editor, Andres Martinez. It is that it is restructuring the basic understanding that editorial pages of major newspapers have had with readers in the modern newspaper era.

Some of the elements of the "contract" are: "We live here and have primary allegiance to this community, even if we are owned by somebody far away, and even if our editorial mission is global. The unsigned pieces are researched and written by our staff, and represent the voice of the publisher, who delegates but can weigh in. We know you are busy, so we make these recommendations, and are clear that the news side has a different mission. We provide alternate space for reply and for columnists and experts. In doing so, we make it clear what's our opinion and what's not. We admit our mistakes, but also will defend our mission and positions. All this is informed by a belief in the power of newspapers to make a difference."

This working agreement has become a staple of American print journalism. The basic form - editorials, letters, oped articles - continues at the Los Angeles Times, and was reinforced yesterday in a message to readers from Martinez. But if one follows the public statements and writings of Kinsley, it now seems clear that the newspaper has signed on an opinion pages editor who doesn't really think much of newspaper opinion as we have come to know it. To this former staffer who has admiration for the conventions of the editorial page, this is quite different from hiring a celebrity journalist to liven things up.

Kinsley has brought a keen intellect and restive mind from the online and magazine worlds, which is obviously what the Times bargained for. But in thinking aloud, Kinsley has spoken and written as if the basic model is broken, which is another question altogether. If he is right, then he is a prophet intent on guiding an outmoded industry format out of the wilderness. I happen to think otherwise, that the operating agreement as it has evolved on editorial pages is one of journalism's best traditions, and that it simply needs adaptation to the digital age. The good editorial page has attributes worth championing in addition to its clear positions and analysis. It doesn't shoot from the hip; it checks things out; it uses its board meetings and daily appointment with readers to an advantage not available to those spewing out a blog. Its established customs and procedures, its commitment to fair play in commentary, have the effect of shoring up a newspaper's foundation, inoculating it against real damage at the hands of ranting critics.

This is the part that worries me. Kinsley hasn't seemed entirely comfortable in the skin of editor of a top American paper's opinion pages. In his May 8 column, he lampooned a rallying cry to save newspapers. It was a clever and light-hearted, but nevertheless made no attempt to conceal the view of newspaper plants as dinosaur dens. Such perspectives are plentiful from web-savvy iconoclasts like public radio's Christopher Lydon, but they don't sound appropriate coming from a person in Kinsley's current job. His irreverence extends to his flouting of the convention that the top editor live in the metropolitan area where his newspaper publishes. If the usually reliable web site LA Observed had it right, Kinsley even opined at a brainstorming retreat that it might not be bad if editorial pages vanished altogether, making even his commutations from Seattle unnecessary.

Editorial pages surely must invite and publish criticism, but a top editor is also a guardian and a trustee who would not expose the mother ship to crippling attack. This should go without saying. But in instituting a column called "Outside The Tent" that calls on the torpedoes, Kinsley seemed to go beyond innovation. Some people who cherish the Times share my concern about this column, coming as it has at a time when the paper roused reader indignation for cutting back on coverage in the region.

Kinsley's page is reportedly bringing in people from outside the staff to write the paper's opinions, potentially undoing the work of editors and publishers on pages everywhere to make clear "who is talking." Are a newspaper's opinions no different from contracting a janitorial service? Several freelance editorials already have been written and more are under consideration. This is a terrible idea. There is a plan to bring in rotating fellows. Isn't the op-ed pages where you put the experts like those proposed as rotating "visitors" to the editorial board? Some of this strikes me as a conceit, frankly. It's an attitude many at the Times have seen come and go in the past, where some new regime lands on Spring Street and is going to fix things.

Kinsley also told L.A Business Journal that newspapers don't do opinion as well as blogs, but passed on the opportunity to defend a page's second-day ability to do the reporting, check the facts, and take a breath before responding. His page recently began a series of editorials on malaria that acknowledged "the bug" also was a major initiative for his wife at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The first piece was well done, and the project later was said to be the idea of Kinsley's deputy, but the allocation of vast space and resources had to be explained because of Kinsley's connection.

The overarching concern I have is whether Kinsley is creating confusion in the minds of readers that later will have to be undone in the interest of clarity and credibility for the newspaper. One veteran staffer has suggested to me that some of this comes down to institutional loyalty, something that a big-name journalist who travels from province to province on an illustrious resume will not necessarily import. All of Kinsley's musings might sound quite different coming from a big-name columnist or from the kind of TV talk show intellectual that he has been in previous career incarnations. But now he also is a top masthead editor of a top established paper. It may be that his strengths as celebrity journalist make it difficult to play his hand with a requisite measure of reserve, so that the paper, not the personality, is always put first.

A top opinion editor should recognize that having editorial pages be less chattering than blogs is a plus, not a minus, even with the opportunity to take advantage of online forms. Editorial pages were doing opinion long before the new guys, and they know a lot more about where the land mines are. Who's the teacher here, anyway? That is not to say that the editorial page can't use the digital opportunity to full advantage, and to put a lot more reader opinion and commentary online than ever before.

The larger challenge for editorial pages is not so much to change their ground rules to somebody else's game. It's to be liberated by publishers to be less boring and predictable, to be better written and reported and to be willing to rethink an established position, and to be more relevant to the concerns of readers who increasingly are online. The difficulty in doing all these things day in and day out is the reason we hear that even the best pages can be dull. But part of what has made them such fixed stars is the reliability and consistency of how they do their business. This has positioned them to help shape public opinion credibly, something that people on the web are still trying to figure out how to do.

Across town, the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC posts some tips on ethics in its Online Journalism Review. Many of the same fundamentals offered for new media are adapted directly from the world of print codes that can be found on the American Society of Newspaper Editors' website. This suggests to me that just as the web drives the printed word to be more hip, the established ways of newspapering have something to show the new kids on the block, and that the online experts in our field recognize this. A newspaper's editorial page is one of those places where the tried principles have application and vitality, and they deserve to be articulated and defended by a top editor as he navigates the big ship to a hipper port.

6/13/2005 2:27:17 PM

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