Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, April 25, 2016 7:32 pm

No more copy editors; or, Sue me, please!

The Bay Area News Group has just declared open season on itself for plaintiffs’ attorneys.

It has announced that it’s killing its copy desk and getting rid of 11 FTEs thereupon.

Because they don’t directly produce content, copy editors increasingly have been seen as superfluous in digital media, which don’t seem to value clean copy as much as print historically has done. Copy editors have been as vulnerable to other layoffs as other journalists, and in recent years newspaper chains have trended toward regional hubs for copy editors rather than a copy desk for each publication, a move that saves money but kill institutional memory and the accompanying ability to catch dumb mistakes that the locals would recognize.

Now, the Bay Area News Group is going that one better:

We’re launching a series of changes to the assigning and copy editing process in an attempt to manage a planned loss of approximately 11 FTEs. We are choosing

this course, as many papers have across the country, rather than cutting more deeply into the ranks of content producers or neglecting our digital needs.

The bottom line is that we will be eliminating a layer of valuable editing across most of the copy desk — what is known in desk parlance as the rim. The result:

* Staff stories that go inside sections will not be copy-edited. The assigning editor will be the only read. (In sports, late stories that do not go through an assigning editor will continue to be read on the desk, once.) Stories for our East Bay weeklies will not be copy-edited./CONTINUES

* Staff stories for section covers will receive one read on the desk rather than the current two.

* Proofreading will be reduced.

This is going to place a new level of responsibility on reporters and, especially, assigning editors. Many of the ways in which the desk bails us out — often without us noticing — will disappear. That will mean:

* All assigning editors must run Tansa on stories before moving them to the desk, and all proper names will have to be cq’ed. Grammar mistakes that make it through an assigning editor are highly likely to appear in print.

* Reporters and editors will need to be more familiar with AP and BANG style.

* Budgetlines will need to include accurate deadlines and lengths. Desk folk who receive overly long stories will not have time to redo page designs; they will be instructed to cut from the end (on some occasions, early notice to the desk that a story is running long may avoid this fate). When deadlines are blown, the desk may need to grab a web version of the story and move on.

* Editors (or reporters) will need to write a print headline for each story that designers can tweak to fit; it will not be the same as the web headline. Copy editors cannot write headlines for inside stories because they will not be reading them. We will also ask you to write a longer summary headline to give additional guidance to the designer; we will be adding a new field to your story templates to make this adjustment easier.

* Photographers and photo editors will need to exercise a new level of care over photo captions, many of which will now be tweaked by designers to fit rather than written from scratch by a copy editor. They need to be tightly written, use correct grammar and agree factually with the story. We would like proper name spelling to be double-checked in captions as well; comparing to the story should be sufficient.

We will continue to provide a high level of review for our featured work. This is not because the other work is not important; we are making simultaneous efforts to boost the audience for everything we do. But we have to set priorities in an era where readers continue to demand much of us, and economic realities force us to make smart, tough choices.

We are going to start these new responsibilities for editors and reporters beginning Monday, April 25. The first week we’ll have additional staffing on the copy desk to help the adjustment, and there will be a bit of a backstop for you. Beginning May 2, though, the new regimen begins.

These sorts of changes are not easy. The quality of our work — of your work — is what attracts people to our newspapers and websites. We appreciate the efforts of the folks who remain on our productions desks, our reporters, photographers and editors to deliver the Bay Area’s best news report every day.

Now, I do agree with some of what’s in this memo. As both a former reporter and a former city-desk editor, I am 100% in favor of reporters’ being their own best editors and 100% in favor of desk editors’ keeping reporters on the reservation, journalism-ethics-wise. (And Lord knows I am in favor of reporters’ filing their stories on time and at budgeted length, particularly when computer systems give reporters the ability to fit stories down to the tenth of an inch.)

But I also know from experience that reporters are never their own best editors. Everyone (even I) needs an editor, someone who can play the part of the eventual reader and judge a piece on whether it accomplishes, in the right way, what it set out to do.

And I know that city-desk editors, who often assign the very stories they must then try to edit disinterestedly, sometimes grow too close to the story to be able to edit it as disinterestedly as it needs.

So I know that without copy editors, more bad stuff, from misspellings and bad grammar to factual errors that institutional memory would have caught, will make it into print or onto the Web.

I want to focus on just one: libel.

Long story short, one thing public figures have to prove to win a libel case against a media outlet is that the outlet published false, defamatory material either intentionally or with reckless disregard as to the material’s truth or falsity. This memo, as I asserted earlier on Twitter, strikes me as prima facie evidence of reckless disregard.

Now, one of my Twitter interlocutors said that that assertion is ridiculous, that in-house counsel, not the copy desk, should be the bastion against libel allegations.

I’ll let those of you who actually have spent any time in the news bidness chuckle over that for a second. Done? OK, good.

For the rest of you: Damned few media outlets of any kind have, or have ever had, in-house counsel to review news reports to ensure that they are not libelous. It’s simply a luxury most outlets could never afford. Some medium-sized to large outlets kept counsel on retainer to review reports on an as-needed basis, usually for complex investigative pieces, but even that, in this era, increasingly is going the way of the dodo.

And then, for those of you not in or of the news bidness, ponder this: In my experience — an experience that colleagues at other papers said they shared — it’s generally not the larger, heavily lawyered investigative pieces that actually bring suits or threats of suits. It’s almost always the everyday stuff. The routine political stuff. Cops briefs, even.

The stuff that lawyers never saw before publication, but copy editors did. Until now.

What would I have done? I’d have gone to the publisher and said that at some point, it makes less practical and journalistic sense to keep cutting than to shut down the operation entirely. And when you’re talking about completely killing the only independent set of eyes to see a story before it goes to the public, you’re probably at that point.

And that’s ridiculous because, while I don’t know anything about the finances of the Bay Area News Group in particular, I know that a lot of news operations are making cuts like these not because they’re losing money, but because they’re not making ENOUGH money. Today’s announcement by Gannett that it will finance its proposed $833 million purchase of Tribune Co. entirely with debt helps explain why, but it also illustrates just how badly the news-media bidness can be and often is run.

And then there’s the real bottom line: Do readers care?

For the average clickbait listicle, no, they probably don’t. But for journalism that actually attempts to inform the public as a public service, they do. I know this because, during my 25 years in the bidness, they told us so, often.

Now, it becomes easier to win a libel lawsuit. And the more wins there are, the more suits there will be, and so the less public confidence there will be in news outlets, and so the less money those outlets will make, so the more they’ll have to cut, in a vicious circle that has grim ramifications for self-government in a democratic republic.

 

 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 12:09 am

Radical conservative morons try to shut down local blogger; or, An even more special kind of stupid, cont.

So it turns out that the political action committee Conservatives for Guilford County and four of its principals are suing local blogger Jeff Martin, who blogged under the pseudonym Fecund Stench, for defamation. If I liked popcorn, I’d be buying some.

First, the obligatory disclosures: Jeff and I have been friends online and in real life for years. (Less relevantly, his wife and my ex-wife used to work together at the old TriadStyle magazine, which is, indirectly, how he and I first met in real life.)

Second, for those of y’all not from ‘Round Here: C4GC is a local Tea Party outfit, with all the ideological baggage that that term implies. And Jeff Martin, a more traditional Republican, despises it and everyone associated with it. And Jeff plays hardball. To extend the baseball metaphor, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him intentionally hit a batter, but when a batter crowds the plate, Jeff will throw a 99 mph brushback pitch and not lose a second’s sleep. I like him, but I don’t agree with every last thing he says. And fellow Greensboro blogger Ed Cone, who is more dispassionate about Jeff, says this about him: “At his best, Fecund Stench is Guilford County’s own, digital H.L. Mencken (and like Mencken, his use of racial and religious stereotypes can be an issue). At his not-best, duck.” I think that’s fair.

Now, the complaint, which you can read for yourself. (Jeff has 30 days to respond.)

Now, the obligatory disclaimer: I Am Not A Lawyer, and I don’t play one on the Internet. However, I did publish a fair bit of potential lawsuit bait about some incompetent and/or bad people during my 25 years in print journalism, consulting with lawyers many times in so doing, without ever being sued at all, let alone successfully. And my just-completed master’s program included a media-law course just a year ago. (Much of what appears below is adapted from the text for that course, The Law of Public Communication, by Kent R. Middleton and William E. Lee, published in 2013 by Pearson.) So I’m in a position to do a little analysis without attempting to say who will win.

Now, the caution: Jeff has taken the Fecund Stench blog down, apparently as a result of the lawsuit, so the posts quoted in the complaint are absent any context. That caution is important no matter which side of this case you’re inclined to come down on at the moment.

In plain English, the first question is: Are the plaintiffs — that is, C4GC and the four named individuals — public figures? The answer determines what they have to prove in order to win the suit. The answer is that they almost certainly are. They are not public officials — the least ambiguous type of public figure. But they are public figures. The PAC has attempted to play a role in local elections. Jodi Riddleberger is an occasional op-ed columnist for the News & Record. And so on.

I’ll explain why the fact that they are public figures is important in a minute. First, you need to know that to win a libel suit, plaintiffs must prove, at a minimum, all of the following six things:

  • defamation: that what was published damaged plaintiffs’ standing in the community or professional reputation via attack on plaintiffs’ character or professional abilities, and/or that it causes people to avoid the person defamed. (Fun fact: The law does, indeed, recognize the possibility that someone’s reputation might already be so bad that they can’t be damaged any further by being libeled.)
  • identification: that what was published specifically identifies each plaintiff (it need not do so by name if the description clearly identifies a particular individual).
  • publication: defendant made the allegedly defamatory statements where at least one other person besides defendants could see them. Blogging on the World Wide Web meets this definition.
  • fault: defendant published the information either knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.
  • falsity: the information must be provably false, and the burden of that proof falls on plaintiffs.
  • injury: plaintiffs must prove some form of actual damage, financial or reputational.

Remember, the plaintiffs must prove all six to have a chance of winning.

Now, the public-figure status of the plaintiffs matters because of the level of fault they must prove as public figures, noted in bold above. In North Carolina, private figures under the law need not prove quite as much — merely that the allegedly libelous material was published negligently. But, as I noted, I’m pretty sure that C4GC and the named individual plaintiffs qualify as public figures because of how they have injected themselves into public debate on issues of public import, e.g., elections. If the court finds that they are in fact public figures, they’ll have to prove that Jeff knowingly or recklessly published false and defamatory statements about them.

Here’s the thing, though: Defendants in libel cases have several defenses available to them under the law, and if the defendant employs any of those defenses, the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs not only to prove the six things listed above but also to show that those defenses are inadequate or don’t apply.

Some of those defenses that might relate to this case are:

  • statute of limitations: Even if a statement is libelous, a suit must be filed within a certain period of time after its publication to be allowed to proceed. If a would-be plaintiff waits too long — typically a year — to sue, the plaintiff is out of luck. Some of the statements at issue date to 2011.
  • truth: If the plaintiff alleges that the defendant has published something false and the defendant can prove that the statement is true, the plaintiff is out of luck.
  • neutral reportage: If Candidate A says something potentially libelous about Candidate B, Newspaper C may be able to report what Candidate A said without committing libel, even if it knew or suspected that Candidate A’s statement was false and defamatory, as long as it reports what Candidate A says in fair and disinterested fashion. Candidate B might, just maybe, have a libel case against Candidate A, but not against Newspaper C.
  • First Amendment opinion defense: Statements can’t be libelous if they are opinions based on verifiable fact or if they are opinions whose truth can be neither proven nor disproven.
  • exaggerations and figurative terms generally are not libelous.

Obviously, we can’t even begin to know until the discovery phase of the suit is complete whether plaintiffs can prove the six things they need to prove. Publication is a slam dunk, and for the sake of argument, let’s give all five plaintiffs the benefit of the doubt on identification. That still leaves falsity, defamation, injury, and fault, specifically that the plaintiffs must prove that Martin published false and defamatory material either knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.

Which raises another issue. Is it provably false, for example, that plaintiff Brett Riddleberger “suffers from a medical condition known as Erectile Narcolepsy, by which loss of blood to the brain when aroused causes him to lose consciousness.” To this layman, a better question would be: Who, among those older than 9, would believe this to be true in the first place? This is arguably an example of the kind of exaggeration that cannot be considered libel.

Anything is possible in a lawsuit, particularly if a case actually gets tried in front of a jury. But few libel cases get that far. The farthest most ever get is that after discovery (in which each side is obliged to provide certain evidence to the other), both sides move for summary judgment — they ask the judge to rule for their side without even letting the case go to trial — and the judge grants it to one side or the other after determining that there are no real issues of fact for a jury to determine.

But even more likely than that is that the two sides settle or one side, usually plaintiffs, realizes that it has no case and cuts its losses. A letter from Jeff’s counsel, Ron Coleman, strongly suggests to plaintiff’s attorney that that is where this case should be headed:

Although we have only passing familiarity with the litigation pending in Guilford County at this point, we see no reason to doubt that a cooperative resolution of this matter is the likely outcome. In light of your own experience and considering your level of practice, we would expect that you see it the same way. If so, you will probably agree as well that we should make every effort to skip the stupid steps and get to that point now.

Rationally, I agree that that’s exactly where this case should be headed. But I’ll be honest: Part of me wants to see what plaintiffs have to say, under oath during depositions in the discovery phase of the suit, about the businesses of the Adkinses and the financial backing of C4GC. As a longtime Republican living in N.C.’s 6th Congressional District, I must vote in a runoff between the top two finishers in the May 6 GOP primary, one of whom, Mark Walker, is backed by C4GC. If one of the candidates is backed by money from strip clubs, I’d certainly find that relevant. It might or might not affect my ballot — past performance, more than anything else, generally dictates my voting decisions — but it might very well affect those of other Republican voters in the 6th District. It’s certainly germane. And, frankly, given the Christofascist nature of some of the candidates previously supported by C4GC, the possibility of exposing great hypocrisy is attractive to me.

In short, part of me wants to see plaintiffs spanked so hard their appendixes come flying out of their mouths.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about Jeff and his constitutional right to publish factual information, criticism, and even parody, and about the same rights for other bloggers, perhaps, one day, including me. Assuming everything he has published is either true fact, protected opinion or parody, not only does he need for this suit to go away, America needs for the plaintiffs to be driven away with their tails between their legs and lots of bright red bruises on their asses so that robust political commentary and criticism can continue unabated.

Sunday, April 22, 2012 2:23 pm

Ratf*cking for the new millennium

Filed under: Evil,Journalism — Lex @ 2:23 pm
Tags: , , , ,

This is at once one of the most sinister and one of the most puerile things I’ve ever seen anyone do:

A USA TODAY reporter and editor investigating Pentagon propaganda contractors have themselves been subjected to a propaganda campaign of sorts, waged on the Internet through a series of bogus websites.

Fake Twitter and Facebook accounts have been created in their names, along with a Wikipedia entry and dozens of message board postings and blog comments. Websites were registered in their names.

The timeline of the activity tracks USA TODAY’s reporting on the military’s “information operations” program, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan — campaigns that have been criticized even within the Pentagon as ineffective and poorly monitored. …

If the websites were created using federal funds, it could violate federal law prohibiting the production of propaganda for domestic consumption.

“We’re not aware of any participation in such activities, nor would it be acceptable,” said Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman.

Note the alacrity with which the Pentagon promised to get to the bottom of this. Oh. Wait.

 

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 6:13 am

Shifting the burden of proof — in the wrong direction

I haven’t read Cass R. Sunstein’s new book, “On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done,” so I’m withholding judgment. But I want to read it, soon. Because if this is true, Obama has gone a czar too far and Sunstein never should have been confirmed. As Marla Singer writes, “‘Prove the content is not libelous’ is rather a troublesome contention.” To say the least.

(I confess I hadn’t heard that he had been confirmed. Apparently it happened last month while everyone was running around talking about health or something.)

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