A Year in Review, for Worse and Better
Things in and around journalism that have gone badly, but also pretty well
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
This is probably the last of these columns in 2021, so it seems like a good time to take stock of things that have gone particularly well and poorly in and around journalism this year. There have been plenty of both. In doing this, I want to look at broad trends, rather than calling out particular pieces—there will be ample time and opportunity for all of us to do the fun part of that as the almost never-ending awards season resumes early in 2022.
Facebook has learned nothing
Facebook has faced intensifying scrutiny this year, and the tide may be beginning to turn on the need for governmental intervention in its business (the subject of the first of these columns), but the company itself seems to have learned nothing about the need for conscience— other, perhaps, than that the tarnishing of its brand called for a name change at the corporate parent. I wrote in September that I thought it might be time for news organizations to wean themselves from Facebook, and, doing what I could, stopped placing this column there. While Second Rough Draft is admittedly tiny, I am pleased to report that the number of free subscribers (now well over 1100), weekly readership (averaging about 2000) and open rate (now regularly above 45%) all only continued to rise. Thank you all for that.
The clear and present danger of the local news crisis is better understood
Lots of new and exciting initiatives are underway in the field of local news—the part of the journalism business under the greatest threat. I think this energy, and the enthusiastic reception many of the new efforts are receiving, reflect a substantially growing awareness of the seriousness of the problem. I’ve been heartened by the announcement of the forthcoming Baltimore Banner and Ohio Local News Initiative, the local focus of Capital B, and the continued growth and great work being done in ProPublica’s local news initiatives, and at the Texas Tribune, Outlier Media in Detroit and Vermont Digger, to name just a few.
Tip O’Neill said that “all politics is local.” That may or may not be true, but the most urgent part of the business crisis of the press surely is.
The recent Afghanistan coverage was as badly executed as the Afghanistan withdrawal
For years, as I wrote in August, the great weight of (often excellent) press coverage told us that the US needed to withdraw from Afghanistan, and also that, absent US support, the government there would collapse in chaos and be replaced by a revanchist Taliban. When all that happened, far too much of the coverage affected surprise—and devolved into special pleading for the evacuation of our own friends and colleagues.
Great work is being done on the attempted coup
This was the same year in which, on its sixth day, the president of the United States and a few cronies hoped to stir up an angry mob to help them overthrow constitutional government in this country. If you think that sentence is overwrought, you have simply (willfully?) not been paying attention. Last week, for instance, the then White House chief of staff disclosed a PowerPoint from his files that recommended that the vice president betray his oath of office, negating an election, and that the president then declare a “national security emergency.” Fortunately, the press coverage of these events has been stellar from the outset, and, even more important, sustained. As with many of the most important stories, the deeper you dig, the uglier it gets.
Murdoch makes Logan Roy look like a kindly uncle
The darkest strains in this country—racism, the glorification of ignorance—have increasingly become the lifeblood of one of our largest media empires, that of Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan. Any suggestion that the demise of Roger Ailes would bring moderation has been smashed. Instead, Tucker Carlson is being groomed as a successor to Trump, a next generation opportunist racist autocrat. I continue to think, as I wrote in July, that other people who work for Murdoch need to step up.
Progress is being made toward a new shared understanding of news values
There is an emerging consensus, at least in my view, that our news values need to evolve beyond the understanding of them that prevailed in the postwar decades, and instead root journalism and the journalism business in a new commitment to our readers—all rather than just some of them—and also in the fundamental values and aspirations of this society, including democracy and truly equal opportunity. This discussion is enormously healthy for our business, and I look forward to it continuing in 2022 and beyond.
We continue to be distracted by the shiny objects of the political news cycle
My big hope for journalism going into this year was that we could spend more time and space focused on the substance of government and less on the distractions of the cable political news cycle, more also on what it means to again have a normal presidency. These hopes have been, how shall we put it, delayed at best. I expect to have more to say about this early in the new year.
After almost two years, our daily COVID coverage is getting much better
I wrote above coverage of the Omicron variant when it first surfaced a few weeks ago, and noted that probably the most significant need was to stress uncertainty as long as that remained. I think we can say now that the press generally has done a very good job of this, contrary to the practice of many earlier in the pandemic. Being willing to say “we don’t know yet” may not make for the most exciting reporting, but it can be essential in important circumstances. This has been an encouraging sign of increasing sophistication in pandemic coverage as we approach the end of another very long year.
Second Rough Draft will likely take off the next two weeks, and return to subscribers’ inboxes on January 6, 2022. Best wishes for the holidays.
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