My next venture

Hi everyone. Hope you are all enjoying the start of summer and haven’t got tired yet of winning. I sure haven’t.

A couple of months ago, I announced that I would be stepping back from Acton Forum to pursue other ventures. My plans are slowly making progress and I wanted to give readers an update because some of you might be interested in my new project, and there is an opportunity to get involved if you are.

I have never been a real journalist. I have been a small newspaper publisher and an advertising salesman, and have dabbled in journalism a bit with the Acton Forum. But most of my publishing experience has been on the “business” end of newspapers, i.e., advertising and revenue, not editorial content and journalism. But I am a regular newspaper reader and have been for forty years, plus I believe that journalists in general perform a very important role in our society.

What gives journalists the right to publish their articles or opinions? It is two-fold. First and foremost is the U.S. Constitution and the freedoms of speech and the press which are guaranteed there. And second is capitalism and personal freedom…the ability to own newspapers, to publish them without government interference, and to make money doing so, thereby funding the profession. Revenue generally came from advertising and newspapers were fairly profitable. Notice that I am speaking in the past tense. At its height, when the Boston Globe was purchased by the New York Times, the sale price was over $1 Billion. (This was back when a Billion dollars was nothing to sneeze at. Today, you can make a Billion dollars by taking the plastic weekly pill organizer and creating a pill packaging business, a very poor and cumbersome substitute, but I digress.)

These rights and freedoms are guaranteed to all citizens. Journalists and publishers are self-appointed watchdogs who use these freedoms to practice their profession. There is no government oversight of their work, nor should there be. But readers expect a certain level of professionalism, and journalists usually believe in a code of ethics, including such concepts as printing the truth, checking sources, showing both sides of a debate, protecting their sources, not having hidden biases, etc. In the past, newspapers who performed their journalistic roles properly were rewarded with high status, committed readers, and loyal advertisers.

Even with the recent decline in print journalist, the large daily newspapers, like the Boston Globe, are still the biggest, most experienced, and most important journalistic enterprises in the country. Unlike radio or TV, reporters writing for newspapers have a real and lasting impact, which has been magnified, not diminished, by the rise of the Internet. Now, a quick Google search can turn up articles from years ago. Someone can research these articles from their home or on their phone in a fraction of the time it used to take (going to the library, looking up microfiche records, or pawing through recent copies of newspapers on file.) In other words, newspapers and journalists should be experiencing their heyday because their work is so much more accessible with computers and the Internet.

But newspapers have been much more hurt by the Internet than helped, at least for the time being. Maybe this will one day change, when the public realizes that having real journalists and not news readers on TV is important. No, it is more than important, it is vital. We need good journalists at newspapers, or some facsimile of this function, for our democracy and our society to work.

But most newspaper journalists have been poisoned, not by the Internet, but by bias. I can’t speculate how this happened, or why, but I’ve seen it in our local Boston Globe and I see it when I read the other major daily papers. And, of course, I see it when I occasionally watch the TV news, which feeds off these newspapers for stories and opinions. These biases are clearly from the top-down, but they also seem to exist on college campuses which are training our future journalists. My guess is that many working journalists today see themselves as part of the “Trump resistance” rather than objective observers performing a vital role in our society.

Imagine if criminal lawyers decided that it was their job to help determine the guilt or innocence of their clients, rather than the jury. That is a rough analogy of what has happened to journalists, in my opinion.

Because of this bias (and despite my support for journalists and my belief that functions like the “Globe Spotlight” series were worth supporting financially), I cancelled my Globe subscription years ago and stopped reading it. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I disagreed with the Globe’s editorial stances on most issues, but I also felt that the news itself was being slanted to fit the editorial consensus of the publisher and editors. In short, it had become corrupted. And it remains corrupted to this day.

Newspaper publishers used to believe that the news articles were for facts and presenting both sides, and opinions were to be kept on the Editorial pages. But even there, it was expected that sections like the Letters to the Editor were available for readers to disagree with the publisher’s opinions. That is no longer the case, so the bias has grown over time.

Because public trust was important, and journalists were supposed to follow certain codes of conduct (enforced by the newspaper’s editors), some newspapers appointed internal watchdogs to give readers a voice, to examine journalistic ethical violations, and to report back publicly. These watchdogs were called ombudsmen or public editors, and they were given some space in the paper and (in theory) would work somewhat independently of the top managers and publisher. But, obviously, they knew where their bread was buttered, and while an ombudsman’s role was meant to be truly independent, that independence was probably an illusion 95% of the time. Be that as it may, this role has pretty much disappeared from the major papers. From some limited research that I’ve done, I think the only large journalistic enterprise that employs ombudsmen is National Public Radio (and I believe they have two). Whether these positions were cut because of budgetary reasons or philosophical reasons is unknown but irrelevant. The functions are simply not being done at our major newspapers anymore.

So to sum all this up, we have an important societal function, journalism; we have a code of ethics for journalists that appears to be wantonly violated by the major players; we have internal watchdogs called public editors whose positions have been eliminated; and we have a corresponding loss of confidence in the news media by a large percentage of the population. We also have a huge drop in subscribers to all the newspapers, but that is more likely caused by the Internet rather than the loss of confidence in the product produced, but who knows. Maybe these journalistic failures are playing a larger role than anyone realizes for the decline in subscriptions. It is easy to blame the Internet, but why haven’t digital subscriptions taken over and exceeded the paper versions? It could be that people don’t think they need to “pay for news,” or it could be that they don’t think news produced by real journalistic enterprises is worth paying for.

My new venture is to start a website dedicated to performing the role of Public Editor, and I’m going to start with the Boston Globe. I will be asking readers to weigh in on articles to give a larger audience for feedback on bias in Globe articles, and I will be compiling ratings for individual Globe reporters based on the bias ratings I give them. Reporters that get low marks will eventually get a call from me to challenge their facts or assumptions and I will publicly report back their response. And now we get back to the Internet, because this venture would not be possible without it. An ombudsmen needed the article space to report his or her findings. Now, they can be published online and open to all, even non-subscribers.

I will also be reviewing the editorial balance in the Boston Globe, to see how Liberal or Conservative the newspaper is. There is no ethical violation in having editorials that lean one way or the other, but I believe readers are much better served by having an even balance of opinions. But that is up to the Publisher. One thing that we should watch for, however, is whether a newspaper that is “out of balance” in its editorial views gives favorable treatment or coverage to candidates or positions that mirror its own beliefs. That will be another area of interest to me going forward.

The website is still being built and is not quite ready for prime time, but if you have followed me so far and are interested in getting involved, drop me a line. I would love to have lots of feedback before I go public (targeting September 1st or thereabouts) and for those with time on their hands, there may be volunteer opportunities to get involved. I will send the link to the work-in-progress website and would appreciate any constructive feedback you can share.

The Boston Globe is the first focus of my work, but I would love to see this concept roll out to cover all the major dailies across the country, with local “public editors” working in these markets, using my website as the foundation. So if you have friends who have journalism backgrounds or are into newspapers, feel free to pass my contact information along to them and have them get in touch with me.

Eventually, I hope to provide enough feedback to the Boston Globe so that its publishers and editors can be convinced that their mission is better served by returning to their journalistic roots, and by reaching 100% of the potential subscribers, rather than having half the population write them off as biased. My goal is to convince the Globe that having readers agree with their slant should not be their goal.

Finally, if and when the Boston Globe reforms itself and starts practicing real journalism, I hope to be the cheerleader to urge adults in the Boston area to resubscribe. We all need to support this enterprise because we need an independent, well-informed, journalistic enterprise serving the public. What we don’t need in journalism is a biased bunch of people on a mission to support one political party or philosophy over another.

I hope you agree and will consider joining me in this quest. It will be a lot of fun!

Allen Nitschelm