Ask The Editor

January 18, 2010

Yet another disappointing column by The New York Times’ public editor

Clark Hoyt, The New York Times’ public editor, has belatedly discovered that sources quoted by reporters may not always be disinterested observers of the issues on which they comment.

Hoyt points to several people who were quoted by reporters who had business interests intertwined with the issues they were discussing. Included among these sources is Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who has been a paid analyst on health care reform to the Obama administration.

There is no question that Gruber should have disclosed his relationship. But there is also no question that Hoyt, in identifying a squeaking mouse in the corner of the pantry,  ignored the herd of elephants regularly stampeding through the building.

What about the tendency to quote political figures making false statements that reporters know are false, without pointing to the actual facts that refute the statement? You can find a New York Times’ report, blog or column that quotes a political leader making a false statement virtually every day. I challenge anyone — but especially Mr. Hoyt — to show me where the reporter informed readers where the truth actually lay after acting as a stenographer of such quotes.

Here’s a typical example. And no, I didn’t have to look hard to find it. My first click after reading Hoyt’s column brought me to this doozy.

In writing about the problem Democrats will have passing healthcare reform should Ted Kennedy’s seat go to a Republican, David Herzenhorn quotes Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying the following:

“This arrogant attempt to have the government take over one-sixth of the economy on the heels of running banks, insurance companies, car companies, taken over the student loan business, doubling the national debt.”

Nowhere in the Herzenhorn column will you see any mention of the facts, easily accessible to any Times’ reporter or blogger,  that show that McConnell’s claim about a government takeover of healthcare (his one-sixth of the economy claim) to be utterly false.

Nothing in the healthcare bills under consideration involves a government takeover of healthcare. The House and Senate bills would, among other things, regulate insurance companies; create exchanges where people could buy private insurance; make insurance available to 30 million more people; end denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions; and subsidize the purchase of insurance for most middle-income Americans. Most important, given the claim of the speaker, the bills are projected by the CBO to reduce the deficit over time.

Quoting, without context, someone’s false statement concerning something with such massive consequences as healthcare reform, is a far greater failing than quoting someone who has a business interest without disclosing that business interest.

Hoyt continues to go after fringe failings at the paper of record, while ignoring the immense ones that contribute to the public’s confusion about the most important issues of their lives. We saw this in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and in so many other issues that have life-altering effects.

These are the issues news organizations exist to inform us about. And they’re failing — not just the Times but most news organizations. I point to the Times only because of its stuffy insistence, in Hoyt’s columns, that it is rooting out problems when it’s doing nothing that even comes close. Hoyt’s columns point to a self-satisfaction at the Times which is likely to dissuade those in charge from addressing the serious issues.

– Anita Bartholomew

January 4, 2010

The New York Times and freelancers (A.K.A. filthy non-staff writer scum)

Clark Hoyt, The New York Times public editor, has continued his predecessor’s attack on freelance writers. He doesn’t exactly call us an odious bunch as his predecessor did but seems to feel it’s perfectly fine to impose draconian rules on non-staff writers while refusing to pay their reporting expenses or a decent pay rate, and to ignore the huge transgressions of staffers and stars.

Hoyt points to three freelancers who “transgressed” and were tossed by
the Times, but the offenses are minor compared to those of Times’ stars who are still with the paper.

  1. Mary Tripsas, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School wrote a column about innovation and included 3M in her column without disclosing that 3M paid her expenses to go to their site. Because her university research involves checking out such sites, if 3M hadn’t paid Harvard certainly would have. And presumably, that would have been okay with the Times. Otherwise, her career as a professor, which qualified her for this column, would have been viewed by the Times as an ethical failing and also disqualified her for this column.
  2. Mike Albo, who accepted a travel-sponsored junket to Jamaica but didn’t write about it for the Times. Hoyt fails to mention that few travel publications or columns pay travel expenses to travel writers.  So writers who wish to write about travel have three choices: pay their own expenses (usually greater than the assignment fee); accept complimentary trips from travel companies; or stop writing about travel.
  3. A third freelancer, Joshua Robinson, identified himself as a writer for the Times while soliciting photography work from airline magazines — and asking the airline magazines to cover his airfare. Wouldn’t any of us, if pitching an airline magazine A) promote our major credits and B) ask the magazine to cover the travel and other expenses of the project?

Virginia Postrel was asked by The New York Times to write the column that Tripsas eventually accepted and was fired from. Postrel turned it down due to the Times’ measly pay and refusal to cover research expenses. However, she says, had she taken the gig, she also would have been disqualified on “ethical” grounds.

She had a correspondence with Hoyt about the hypocritical so-called ethical stance of a media outlet that demands purity from freelancers but refuses to pay in full for the research and reporting it profits from. Worth a read.

– Anita Bartholomew

Post has been updated to remove a statement that Hoyt didn’t mention that Tripsas’ expenses could have as easily been picked up by Harvard. Hoyt did mention this.

October 27, 2009

More.com gets into the writer exploitation game

On a writers listserv I subscribe to, a writer posted a message that she’d been asked to write for More.com — the online presence for More magazine.

But…

More.com wants her to write for free. And this writer wonders if it will be good exposure for her to do so.

Here’s my take. You can expose yourself, night and day, all over the web. And it will get you exactly nothing. Why would you think that the exploiter will pay you for what you’re giving away for free? Why would other magazines rush to offer you big money if they know you’ll write for free (and trust me, they’ll know).

The only time it makes sense to write for exposure is when you’re publicizing something else that you want readers to know about and buy (your book, for example). If you don’t have something to sell to readers, working for nothing gets you exactly that.

Don’t allow profit-making ventures to make money from your labors.

But for those who still aren’t convinced, who think it might make sense to write for “exposure” only, here’s a suggestion. Contact one of your favorite charities and offer to write something that lets the charity spend its limited funds on doing good deeds. In these difficult economic times, that would be a great way to get web exposure while helping out those who really need your help.

– Anita Bartholomew

 

The book contract is finally signed

I’m pleased to be able to tell the world, now that contract negotiations are complete, that SOMETHING TO PROVE: Memoirs of a Ditchdigger’s Daughter, by Yvonne S. Thornton, M.D., with Anita Bartholomew, will be published by Kaplan Publishing in Fall 2010.

This book is the sequel to Yvonne’s earlier, bestselling memoir, THE DITCHDIGGER’S DAUGHTERS.

The book sold via proposal at auction. More details may be found at my co-author’s blog.

– Anita Bartholomew

September 17, 2009

Publishing at the crossroads: who will own the future, you or Google?

I’ve written before that I believe the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) from On Demand Books,  could be a publishing industry game-changer, as much and even more so than the advent of ebooks. Although the EBM is only in 10 locations now, the wide distribution of EBMs or other machines like them, would allow authors, with new or out-of-print books, to publish their own work, at lower costs than are now generally available from POD printers. Because the books get published at the bookseller’s site, the author-publisher isn’t saddled with the significant costs of warehousing, shipping and distribution.

And returns? That would be a store-by-store policy issue but here, too, the savings to the author-publisher would be significant. If a store with an EBM permitted returns, the author-publisher might have to bear those costs. But the author-publisher would be spared the expense of refunds and two-way shipping on unsold  books that were published sans demand, and then removed from the shelf and returned when demand failed to catch up to supply.

The lower overhead opens up all sorts of possibilities and Google is now showing us that the game could go either way for those who want to breathe new life into their old books.

A story today in Wired says that Google is going to offer public domain (out-of-copyright) books via the Espresso Book Machine:

Over the last seven years, Google has scanned millions of dusty tomes from deep in the stacks of the nation’s leading university libraries and turned them into searchable documents available anywhere in the world through its search box.

And now Google Book Search, in partnership with On Demand Books, is letting readers turn those digital copies back into paper copies, individually printed by bookstores around the world.

Or at least by those booksellers that have ordered its $100,000 Espresso Book Machine, which cranks out a 300 page gray-scale book with a color cover in about 4 minutes, at a cost to the bookstore of about $3 for materials. The machine prints the pages, binds them together perfectly, and then cuts the book to size and then dumps a book out, literally hot off the press, with a satisfying clunk. (The company says a machine can print about 60,000 books a year.)

Two issues the story doesn’t address give us the clues to what makes this so technology so important to those of us who make our living by the written word:
The possibility for POD editions had been treated as a “maybe someday” clause in the Google settlement. Someday is here, it seems, the moment the settlement gets the judge’s thumbs-up (if it does). Assuming the same pricing structure as the out-of-copyright books, Google gets a dollar, and passes along 63 cents to the Book Rights Registry (BRR). The BRR passes along to publishers what’s left after taking its unknown cut. Publishers pass along to authors — what? Maybe 10 to 25 cents per book sold?

Contrast that to what an enterprising author might get by republishing her or his own out-of-print book and offering it via the EBM. Costs to print via the Espresso Book Machine are just $3 in materials plus whatever the bookseller adds for profit and the cost of amortizing the EBM owner’s investment in the machine. But on the author-publisher’s side, when you consider eliminating the costs of warehousing, shipping, distributors and returns, you’re likely to be about where you’d be with a traditionally published book with one enormous difference. You’ve removed the uncertainty factor that drives costs to unknown, profit-killing levels and keeps so many would-be author-publishers from going it alone.

When you’re no longer working on the crazy model of providing books on consignment and assuming all financial risks, you might actually be able to run a profitable business as an author-publisher.

Can you say the same is anywhere near possible if your books are coming out of the same Espresso Book Machine but the money goes to Google instead?

– Anita Bartholomew

September 9, 2009

ASJA, NWU, argue against their own Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick settlement in Google objection

This is pretty amazing.

As some of you know, I am one of the objectors to the class action settlement reached by ASJA, NWU and the Authors Guild with Reed Elsevier and other databases and periodicals publishers. There, as in the Google case, large corporations had infringed the copyrights of a huge number of writers.

My objection in that earlier case was simple and mirrors the reasons I’ve protested the Google settlement. The writers’ organizations — ASJA, the Authors Guild and NWU — agreed to hand over, to the Defendants, the future rights of anyone who didn’t file a claim or opt out.

(See the Tasini case for the genesis and a bit of background; also see Irv Muchnick’s blog, which outlines every move since,  in excruciating detail).

Defendants also got the only thing they should have been given, what Defendants normally get in a settlement: release of the claims of past wrongdoing.

I objected to the theft of the rights of absent class members, first to the leadership of ASJA and then, when I could not get them to budge, to the court.

Fast forward to yesterday, and ASJA as well as NWU (as part of a group called the Bloom objectors) have filed an objection to the Google settlement.

Their key argument?

“… after approval, Rightsholders will be deemed to have granted a license by virtue of doing nothing.”

In other words, ASJA and NWU, both of which once agreed to give away, to Defendants in the earlier class action, the future rights of periodicals writers who fail to opt out or file claims, now object to giving away the future rights of book authors who fail to opt out or file claims.

ASJA’s aggressive support for what I saw as theft in the Freelance settlement is the primary reason I resigned from that organization. That was no small thing for me. I’d been a very active volunteer on the First Amendment  and other committees, and had served on the board.

I’m glad to see that ASJA, under the new leadership of Salley Shannon, finally appears to understand that it’s unethical to bargain away the rights of some writers in exchange for better terms for the writers you represent.

Better late than never.

– Anita Bartholomew

August 11, 2009

Authors Guild sends authors another misleading letter about Google settlement

You have to wonder why, if the Google settlement is as good a deal as the Authors Guild keeps insisting it is, the honchos over there keep misleading their members when attempting to gain support.

Any settlement worth signing onto doesn’t need to be spun, finessed, or made to appear something it isn’t. If it’s worth signing onto, you simply list the actual benefits. You don’t pretend authors will get benefits that the settlement doesn’t, can’t, and won’t give them.

Although I was once a member of the Authors Guild, I am no longer. But friends do forward the emails they get. And I found the text of that email, inviting all authors and agents to a free teleconference this coming Thursday, on the AG website.  I don’t have the time to fact-check everything, as it would require me to dig through the settlement agreement again, but here are some obvious whoppers I spotted that required no new research:
AG CLAIM: the only way to ensure that your book will not be completely removed from the database, and thus benefit from Google search, is not to opt-out.

AB RESPONSE: False. As I’ve written ad nauseum, just sign up for the Google Books Partner Program and you will be in Google search — but you won’t be locked into the settlement terms.

AG CLAIM: The settlement offers a 63/37 split** in your favor … It’s a good deal. For comparison: Amazon buys e-books at a 50% discount from publishers. If you’re a self-published author, the split is 35/65 — in Amazon’s favor. Newspapers face a 30/70 split — again in Amazon’s favor — for electronic distribution of their content.

AB RESPONSE: Misleading. Here’s what the AG isn’t telling you about the above “good deal.” You’re not getting 63%. The Book Rights Registry takes delivery of that 63 percent, and takes its cut off the top. The BRR’s cut is unknown, and unspecified in the settlement. Estimates are that it can be anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent of that 63 percent. Whatever is left after the BRR takes its cut goes to the publisher which then parcels out your share to you. What will that share be? Whatever your contract says it is.

Not exactly sounding like a 63 percent share any longer, is it?

AG CLAIM: Want to negotiate a different deal with Google?  Turn off all display uses of your works and go for it.  At any time.

AB RESPONSE: Huh? You can’t re-negotiate the terms through the settlement, of course. Those terms are set in stone if/when the settlement is approved. Unchangeable. Approved settlement = done deal.

So, I wondered what on earth the AG was up to with the above claim.  As I keep saying, you certainly can get better terms through the Google Book Partners Program if for no other reason than you won’t have the BRR as a silent partner, skimming off the top. (Fun fact: 50 percent of the BRR will be appointed by the AG).

The Google Books Partner Program is the only current way to get a better deal from Google in its book search and scanning venture, to my knowledge. And you can be in both the program and the settlement. Here’s what the settlement FAQ says:

Can I participate in both the Partner Program and the settlement?
Yes. You can choose to participate in the settlement and its revenue models for one or more books even if you are already a participant in the Partner Program. The Partner Program agreement, if applicable to a particular book that is also included in the settlement, will govern Google’s treatment of that book to the extent the Partner Program offers the same uses or revenue models as the settlement and any prohibitions imposed by the Partner Program agreement on Google’s uses will apply.

So, the only thing I can figure, re its re-negotiation claim,  is that the AG will suggest, during its free conference call on Thursday, that you opt in, tell Google not to display your book, then sign up for the Google Books Partner Program.  But, if I’m reading the FAQ right, the catch is that, once you’re in the settlement, you’re stuck with the same terms, or as the FAQ says, the same uses or revenue models as the settlement.”

If that’s the strategy AG plans to offer in its “go for it” re-negotiation recommendation, my brain hurts just thinking of the convoluted reasoning.

Why on earth would you give up your right to sue if Google oversteps, bring in a partner who’ll take an unknown percentage of the proceeds, sign a hundreds-pages long agreement you probably don’t understand  … just to seek the better deal that you can only get outside the settlement?

Can’t wait to hear what they say next.

– Anita Bartholomew

August 7, 2009

Where are the responsible adults? Certainly not in the newsroom.

Yesterday, a mob (no other word for it) of misinformed, angry people who, when interviewed, said they were part of a group formed by Glenn Beck, shut down a heath care reform town hall in Tampa.

The local NBC television affiliate, when reporting on this, gave no context on what’s behind such events. Instead of analysis, the station just showed angry demonstrators and then said, go to our website and give us your opinion.

Give your opinion? Based on what? Zero reporting of what inspired the demonstrators? Zero reporting on whether that inspiration had any basis in fact?

So, why should anyone be surprised that the situation is now escalating and, on Twitter, an anti-health insurance reform leader is telling fellow protesters to bring guns to use against union leaders and community organizers at subsequent town halls?
When American television news became infotainment and ratings trumped all, we lost an important means of educating people. Almost nobody is well-informed in this country, despite making the effort of watching so-called 24-hour news stations. CNN, calling itself an all-news network, hosted Glenn Beck until he was wooed away by Faux News, and still hosts the race-baiter Lou Dobbs!

With the simmering racism that’s stoked by Beck, Dobbs, and others, we have a populace, or a large swathe of it, that’s about as ignorant and probably close to as resentful as the poor undereducated masses of some oil-rich countries. Over there, they believe bin Laden. Over here, their American counterparts believe Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

As a result, many are nursing pseudo-grievances that can and do lead to violence.

And now, we have the former Republican VP candidate, stirring the flames, crazily claiming that the president’s “death panel” wants to euthanize her Downs Syndrome child.

All of the above are acting in the service of the health insurance industry so insurers can keep their near-monopolies in their respective areas, and suck the lifeblood out of the very people they’re manipulating into hate and potential violence. But the mainstream news media won’t report that. Instead, everything is treated with so-called balance, with opportunities for he said/she said, as if there were no actual truth to be uncovered, just opinion that you form based on the words of flacks and then, go post on the TV stations’ websites.

This insanity is the fault of news executives who care nothing about fact and everything about ratings. They hire industry mouthpieces and nutcases who can manipulate the ignorant into a frothing frenzy.

Is there a Cronkite in the house? When will the mainstream media finally stop playing games and tell it like it is? Or are they going to wait until those twitterers show up with their guns and start blasting away?

– Anita Bartholomew

August 5, 2009

Why writers shouldn’t bet their careers on magazine writing, part II

Article fees are stagnating at best. Numerous magazines have lowered their per-word rates. I hear reports all the time from  writers that magazines assign an article at, say, 1,000 words but demand extra reporting that can require the writer to up the submitted word count by 50 percent or more, with no extra pay.

Writers, brace yourselves. This is your future if you continue to bank on magazines. Magazines were hurting before the economic downturn and you can’t assume that the situation will reverse once the economy stabilizes. See this article from Min on the prospects for consumer magazines — or simply read the following sobering excerpt:

Magazines did not come into the recession from a position of strength, with a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] at a meager 1.1% from 2003 to 2008.

Virtually all of the main revenue drivers for this industry are being depressed by a shifting media economy and digitization, such that magazine advertising will decline 15.6% in 2009 to $10.53 billion and a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of -6.6% for the 2008-2013 period. This will leave the ad spend on magazines at $8.87 billion in 2013, the lowest level since 1995.

Ever-shrinking ad revenues mean that articles fees must also continue to shrink.

And for those who say, “no problem, I’ll write for the web,” I have to ask: haven’t you noticed that most websites pay less than even the struggling magazines? While some web publications pay at least something, too many are paying so little, the fee offered is an insult. And you can’t pay your bills with the proceeds  of insultingly low fees no matter how quickly you write.

So, what’s left?

My guess is that the writers who continue to make a living from writing will be writing books. Some will get traditional publishers. Some will publish their own books as book publishers also tighten their budgets.

The Espresso Book Machine, or something like it, if it catches on, will make any bookstore that has one a print-on-demand center. That will make it possible for good writers to become publishers without the overhead of warehousing and shipping, and with a lower per-book printing cost than current POD options. But only those who master marketing and publicity will earn enough to make a living.

I know this isn’t a cheery post but I read too many cheery proclamations from writers who keep doing what they’ve been doing while their incomes shrink. We all need to think ahead, not just to the end of the year but to five years from now. Where will publishing be? And where will you be in publishing?

– Anita Bartholomew

August 1, 2009

Where does The New York Times get all these lazy reporters?

I admit I have a love-hate relationship with The New York Times. I count on it being what a newspaper is supposed to be (and it often is). So when it lazily just quotes the interested parties in a story without digging for what the real story is, as it seems to do about once a week,  it feels like more than a disappointment. It borders on a betrayal.

Scott Horton, in his blog post about the difference between the Times and Washington Post reporting on the same story, points to WaPo having done real reporting. Reading the WaPo piece, you see that he’s right. The reporter quoted the interview subject, in this case, Karl Rove, then checked his claims against the evidence and refuted a number of Rove’s statements. The New York Times reporter, by contrast, swallowed Rove’s statements whole simply to regurgitate them onto newsprint.

To my mind, this pattern of laziness casts doubt on the value of all Times‘ reporting whether political or medical or sociological or legal or otherwise, at a time when news reporting is in deep crisis and needs to prove its worth:

… Karl Rove, violating his agreement with the House Judiciary Committee (which I discussed here), gave “exclusive” interviews to the Times and the Washington Post, in a determined effort to spin the bad news about his role in the firing of the U.S. attorneys and his unseen hand in the work of the Justice Department generally. The Post’s piece, by Carrie Johnson, shows an appropriate level of balance and skepticism about Rove’s self-serving and highly misleading claims. Not so the Times. Indeed, the headline tells the whole story: “Rove Says His Role in Prosecutor Firings Was Small.” The problem, of course, is that the evidence the Judiciary Committee has collected, and the investigation by special prosecutor Nora Dannehy, show precisely the opposite. They put Karl Rove squarely in the center of the effort to remove the U.S. attorneys fired in the December 7, 2006 massacre…

– Anita Bartholomew

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