All Things Media
My Georgetown: Madeleine Albright
A Supreme Court Ruling and a Referendum on the Media
Amos Gelb • April 11, 2016
Much has been written about the seminal Supreme Court decision to uphold the Obama health care law. But perhaps less recognized was Thursday’s news gaffes —one which may go down as an even more pivotal turning point for American media.
Decades ago, the death and funeral of President Kennedy were true watersheds for live television news. In 1989, the Tiananmen standoff made CNN a real news force, while Michael Jackson’s death 20 years later gave Twitter news legitimacy.
But CNN and FOX News’ misreporting that the healthcare mandate had been overturned could be viewed as the moment that media legacy forfeited its monopoly on credibility.
It’s not like they didn’t know this ruling was a minefield. Bush v. Gore had set a precedent as to why you should never rush reporting a Supreme Court ruling. It’s like stepping in the puddle that you know is there — and yet they stepped right in, anyway.
This is why that fateful Thursday could be the end of news as we know it. That is, no more big names setting the agenda for what is right and good in journalism.
Those big brands of American journalism have long made their resources, expertise and credibility to get it right their last stand as to what separates them from everything else — from small papers such as this one, to startup news organizations to mommy bloggers.
And yet they stepped in the puddle that so many others do — the very alternatives to which they have held themselves superior, the very competition they say lacks their credibility.
But, needless to say, most of them got it right.
David Shuster, a former MSNBC anchor reported from of the grandiose plaza outside the Supreme Court, live online for a new venture called Take Action News. He proudly noted that while both CNN and FOX got it wrong, his team had taken the time to get it correctly — suggesting openly that if you want accuracy, turn off the networks and turn on Take Action News.
And, in many cases, that turning off has already begun. For while CNN was getting it wrong, the leaders of D.C. ‘legaldom’ gathered for a retreat outside town, where they weren’t even bothering with CNN. They had already been relying on their Supreme Court news from SCOTUSblog, the definitive blog site covering the Supreme Court, which reportedly had over a million hits on the day of the fateful decision.
This event certainly won’t be the end of the brand name networks, and this process has been underway for a while, but the fateful Thursday at the Supreme Court may come to be remembered as the day the “credibility superiority” claim finally came undone.
To update CNN’s most famous tag line, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is now just one of the networks, blogs or other media of record. ?
All Things Media: It’s Not Just the Discs Spinning
Amos Gelb • December 22, 2015
Oh, the drama to end the year. The stuff of “Desperate Housewives of Wherever,” it’s all happening right here in D.C. But nobody seems to have noticed.
Not D.C. politics, nor our not-quite sports teams. I am talking about Cumulus radio station WRQX, better known as 107.3.
The second-largest radio group in the U.S. (454 owned and operated stations reaching 245 million listeners with more than 8,200 affiliated stations), Cumulus has been buffeted for at least the last two years. Would such turbulence within the Murdoch empire go unnoticed? But such is radio, a medium declared dead more than 50 years ago that continues, like James Bond, to refuse its fate.
The saga began in the spring of 2013. At that point, the station was anchored by morning DJ Jack Diamond, né Harvey Fischer. For 24 years, he had enlivened his audience’s mornings bantering with various sidekicks, the last two being Jimmy Alexander and Erica Hilary.
Then, one morning, they were gone. No warning, no graceful hand-off. One of the brothers who founded and controlled Cumulus was quoted at the time as saying that the audience had spoken through declining ratings. Other reports had it that Diamond was offered a healthy bonus to transition to his former sidekick Bert Weiss, but wanted none of it. Nice things were quoted, but Diamond was unceremoniously replaced by Weiss’s syndicated show out of Atlanta.
And then, a year later, just as suddenly, Bert and his crew were gone too. Management reportedly decided they needed a more local host. In stepped afternoon DJ Marco to handle duties until a new cast appeared: Sarah, Ty and Mel — two former sidekicks from the rival 99.5 Kane show: Sarah Fraser and Melanie Glazener, joined by Ty Bentli who moved down from New York.
Promising a new kind of show, the three found a unique voice. And while the morning callers suggested they were getting traction, the all-important ratings apparently never reached management’s threshold for success.
Last month, the revolving door spun again. The new crew was gone and Jack, the man who stormed out in a huff, is back. Diamond commented that you can indeed go home (a fact proven by numerous college graduates). But it was not just Jack. The station also reversed the change in name and format that started the whole ruckus, moving back to a Hot AC (hot adult contemporary) mix from the Contemporary Hits Radio format (the subtle differences in music programming escape us) and reverting to Mix 107.3. Just like that, forward to the past.
Sarah, Ty and Mel handled the clear disappointment of their midnight execution with the stoicism of people who know better than to burn bridges in the very small radio world. Ousted Sarah Fraser penned the well-worn euphemism of “the station is moving in another direction.” It was announced that she would move to a noon slot to go with an all-Christmas music lineup.
But head to the Mix 107.3 website (as of deadline), and there’s no Fraser. In fact, there are no names other than Jack Diamond. The Christmas music never appeared either.
Slate cleaned. High drama in Radioland.
But that was just the surface waves. Underwater, there has been just as much turmoil. It is hard to get an accurate count, but it seems that RQX had four program directors since Diamond strode out the door, the last ejection being that of Jan Jeffries, the person who engineered Diamond’s return. Current program director Louie Diaz paused when asked to remember whether he had actually begun at the Jennifer Street studio before Diamond’s reappearance.
Even bigger, after a failed venture and declining stock, RQX’s owner, Cumulus, pushed aside the founding brothers and brought in a magazine turn-around artist.
So, can you ever truly go home? The time between Diamond’s departure and return has seen perhaps more changes in the media landscape than his entire previous two-decade reign. Facebook today is a premium content distributor. Podcasts are hot and audience time-shifting is the norm rather than an anomaly. But people still commute, so there may yet be an audience for Diamond.
Diaz says the format reversion was driven by the realization that while a younger audience was tuning in to the new format, the older Mix audience wasn’t sticking around. The numbers just weren’t working, he explains, and it was time for the station to get back to what worked before (ignoring the ostensible reason Diamond was ousted). According to Diaz, it is a new Jack Diamond, with a far livelier program that includes new segments and increased listener interaction and engagement. (We don’t recall an issue with Diamond’s audience engagement.)
Diamond did not reply either to emails or attempts to reach him by phone. He has no small mountain to climb. The current ratings put the station at half the listenership of main rival Hot 99.5.
Diamond says you can go home. Cumulus has bet that he is right. Stay tuned, and we’ll all get to find out.
Amos Gelb is director of the Washington Media Institute.
Trump and Clinton Play Chutes and Ladders
Amos Gelb • September 1, 2015
Oh, how Hillary Clinton wishes she were Donald Trump right now.
I mean purely in the media sense, of course. For Clinton, it was just a matter of time until the shoe dropped. The headlines seem like 2008 all over again, with the electoral flushing of the inevitability of her election. Oh, she just can’t get a break. (ATM will leave it to others to decide whether she deserves one.)
All the media, all the time, about her is negative. Polls slipping. Excitement drooping. Campaign stalling. My favorite from the Washington Post: “A summer of Clinton stumbles gives way to an uncertain fall for Democrats.” Past, present and future — all bad. Of course it’s still early and Hillary is still way, way in front of the other wannabe Democratic nominees. Well, except for Bernie Sanders, who’s gotten within seven points in a recent poll.
On the other side is Señor Trump, he of the Mexican-paid wall. The media has no idea what to do. And neither do the other Republican candidates. The media has no idea how to report him. The polls say he is for real but the coverage is somewhere stuck between not taking him seriously and riding the Trump carnival to ratings and clicks.
The other candidates have to be jealous. He goes to war with the darling of the conservative media, Megyn Kelly, and claims he is the one being reasonable. He has the most prominent Hispanic journalist thrown out of his press conference, while a Trump follower, possibly a staffer, literally tells him to go back to his country (Jorge Ramos is a U.S. citizen.) Yet somehow Ramos is on the defensive. Teflon wishes it were this good.
Trump has never been in the public light if it wasn’t at an ego-feeding press event of his making or of a reality show not of his making (he was just the hired firing gun). And even though he has had such a rocky business run, not a substantive story has been written on his ethics or behavior or history. The chances that guy is squeaky clean are about the same as my 14-year-old son actually doing his homework and not finishing the ice cream when he gets home from school.
ATM has never seen the media so confused and hamstrung on how to deal with a story. Trump, his hair and his ego are redefining the norms of political discourse in this country, and the media plays enabler.
Clinton has to be wondering how he is getting away with it while she has become the piñata of presidential politics.
Listen to the Sunday talk shows. Republicans hint and dance along the line of calling for a criminal indictment for her emails — and then Trump, nothing bad.
It’s a like a bad game of Chutes and Ladders. Every time Clinton spins she lands on a chute, sending her further back down. Trump keeps getting ladders that send him ever higher.
The leaves haven’t started changing yet; so all of this is political foreplay. But odds are Hillary wishes it resembled some other board game.
D.C.’s New Business Man
Amos Gelb • May 11, 2015
Back in the early 1800s, a French writer toured the embryonic United States, just a few decades after independence. It fell to this foreigner, Alexis de Tocqueville, to define the foundations of our country in his ever-fresh travelogue, “Democracy in America.”
As James MacGregor appeared over the rise of the steps at the Georgetown Four Seasons, seemingly scripted for J. J. Abrams’ latest saga, I wondered whether I was looking at a modern-day Tocqueville, a new foreigner in a crisp blue suit come to tell the tale of the emerging Washington, D.C.
Once-challenged neighborhoods like Shaw, NoMa and even Petworth (although more slowly) are at the forefront of what seems like the overnight birth of a new city, filled with entrepreneurs and young adults – not just passing through as they scratch the itch to dabble in politics, but planting roots and building careers.
It is a town where start-ups like 1776 and WeWork expand, it seems, as quickly as developers can throw up new buildings, and where whole neighborhoods along the Anacostia and the Southwest Waterfront are not so much gentrifying as metamorphosing.
And here to make sense of it all is James MacGregor, the 40ish father of two who hails from Toronto and comes via stints in America’s heartland (Louisville) and, for the last dozen years, in the start-up meccas of San Jose and San Francisco.
He’s come east to tell a great tale. One of growth and resurgence.
“Get 100 miles outside D.C. and everyone will tell you that D.C. is only about political gridlock and politics. But actually it is not. That might be the federal government, but the business community is engaged in getting stuff done.”
Not a bad party line for someone who has been in D.C. for about six months. But his D.C. boosterism is just getting started. He dismisses comparisons between the Silicon start-up land he just left. “Everybody seems to want to be the next Silicon Valley. There is a lot of stuff there that makes Silicon Valley what it is. It is a thing to strive towards, but, if that is the end goal, that is not going to work.”
Instead, what MacGregor sees is a story that is just starting to unfold, built on a number of industries. And he is here to make sure it gets told, because MacGregor is the new publisher of the Washington Business Journal.
He inherited the job from Alex Orfinger, the long time WBJ publisher who moved down the hall to take on broader duties for the WBJ parent company (owner of 40 print titles and a bunch more online, nationwide).
And MacGregor thinks there is a better story to tell in D.C. than on the other coast.
“It’s actually hard to cover the tech giants like Facebook or Google. So to really cover them you cover others things, like real estate deals.”
And that, he believes, is the heart of any business story, the people and the deals, mostly in real estate. And if it is about people and deals, MacGregor thinks D.C. offers a far richer story than the West Coast. MacGregor’s journalistic mantra: follow those two and you have a road map for what is happening. He has spent much of the first six months just getting to know both.
“When you eat out as much as I have to, you have to police what you eat,” MacGregor offers as he orders three eggs and grilled tomatoes, hold the toast.
The WBJ currently has a staff of 43, with about half devoted to editorial coverage for a paper that has circulation of 16,000 and 2 million hits, with a quarter of those unique visitors to the website in March. As publications go, that is rather modest, but you won’t hear MacGregor singing print’s swan song.
“Digital actually made us do print better, to make it more engaging for the reader. It does not have to be a race to a bottom. In fact we have spent a lot in redesign and improved the quality of the paper. We made investments across all platforms.”
Rather than the traditional competition, what worries MacGregor is the competition he can’t see, the challenges coming around the corner, that individual blogger whose posts about tech or health or one of the other emerging business hubs in town suddenly catch fire, build a following and take WBJ’s audience away.
The real challenge, MacGregor says, is that the barriers to entry are now so low that serious competition can emerge overnight out of nowhere. Partly in preparation for that, MacGregor believes the WBJ needs to leverage its unique position.
Currently, he sees a false separation between Maryland, Virginia and the District. MacGregor describes the Journal’s duty as being to foster a sense that “a rising tide will lift all regional boats.”
To that end, he believes the Journal needs to lead the conversation about what is important to local businesses. Thus, a third leg of the Journal strategy: holding breakfast sessions and other events across the region, focusing on growth, real estate and development and the challenges in each jurisdiction.
“If we do it right, we are going to get to the end of the year and there will be four things across all of these jurisdictions that are really important to business. And we can know what they are and perhaps how to tackle them.”
Add to those breakfasts, the panel discussions, which he hopes are not only events for those who attend but will generate news and stories that the Journal can then repackage (along with revenue). WBJ is averaging about 30 events a year.
So MacGregor’s WBJ is not going to be a passive chronicler. He intends to make it a force to enhance, encourage and facilitate development and business growth. It is almost planting the seeds of the stories the Journal will get to reap later.
He smiles as he recalls exactly that role, how he heard from people who wanted to start companies and used the Journal’s Power 100 list to call people up, get advice, then exploit those connections to establish thriving businesses of their own.
MacGregor is still in the honeymoon phase with his new city. But he says that the final decision to come to Washington was not really his.
After hearing about the job, he and his wife came to check out D.C. They arrived for one of those glorious fall weeks, a Destination DC-kind of trip, he recounts. They toured around as the leaves were changing, looked at some neighborhoods and tasted D.C.’s growing wealth of great restaurants, getting around on Capital Bikeshare bikes.
MacGregor had been to D.C. sporadically. He knew the great story brewing here and the strength of the publication Orfinger had built. At their final dinner, when Orfinger asked what they thought, it was MacGregor’s wife who answered for both of them: “Sign us up. We are in!”
And so MacGregor blazed the family’s trail to D.C., with his wife and two young children joining him at the end of the school year.
Now he will have two families to watch grow: his own and that of his newly adopted home.
The Taming of the Internet
Amos Gelb • March 11, 2015
The last week of February was pretty monumental in the world of free speech.
Let’s start with the win for the public soap box, the cacophony that is the internet.
The rules will be challenged and fought and likely evaded but the FCC voted to approve net neutrality, federally prohibiting internet providers from controlling the speed with which any particular content goes down their pipes and, in the process, saying what has been obvious for a long time – the internet has become a utility, an integral part of our society and should be managed that way.
This is huge for all those who are not going to be held at ransom by the internet service providers (ISPs) who would have been able to extract fees to guarantee easy flow. But more significantly, the decision ensures that commercial interests of ISP’s do not trump the American exceptionalism that is Free Speech.
There is an old cliché from the age of newspapers that the press is indeed free, but only for those who own the presses.
The internet changed that, and empowered such forces as the Tea Party and Facebook. It is loud, unruly, chaotic. And that is what makes it wonderful and terrifying at the same time.
When All Things Media spoke to FCC officials last year, they were wary of passing regulations that would play too heavy a hand in shaping the future. With Net Neutrality they didn’t have a choice – they either would give the ISP’s the power to control their pipes (one argument being they needed to be able to control the flow to guarantee equal access) or give the content creators unfettered access.
The FCC knew it would get battered whichever way it went. But it took a stand and did what so many people say agencies never do – its job.
Which brings us to a perhaps equally wise lack of spine.
Within a week of the FCC’s vote on Net Neutrality, Google – the de facto sorter of the internet – took steps to make it harder for “adult” blogs to be found on its blogger platform, forcing them to go private. Three days later it backtracked after a deluge of comments saying it would just reinforce the existing warning page. But non-commercial “adult blogs” could continue essentially unbothered.
In trying to valiantly protect the innocent, Google suddenly found itself in the strange position of becoming not just the conveyer of free speech but suddenly its arbiter. It was a noble attempt but someone at Google must have looked into the abyss of what the internet Goliath was about to step into and thought better.
It was a wise choice. It is enough to have the all-powerful algorithm essentially decide what we all get to see without the added headache of becoming cultural cops. That’s a role would make the FCC’s current situation look palpably enviable.