Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dumbing Down

It only takes a minute on my morning perusal of today's news to find this stumper which, presumably, was printed in the teeny Tuesday print edition of Chronblog:
In many places, it ain't exactly like CSI.
In case you're wondering, that tidbit of literary brilliance was foisted on the public by one Lisa Falkenberg, the Chron's Jr. Metro columnist and chief nail-banger. Which editor allowed it into print is information to which I'm not aware, being an outside accountant-blogger whose** opinions in this matter are given short shrift by the powers that be over at 801 Texas Ave. (Unlike say, Christof Spieler, ChronBlog's transportation go-to guy (and employee of Morris Architects a firm with ties to Parsons that stands to benefit from increased LRT development...just sayin'), or Bob Stein designer of the SafeClear program (and the conductor of a survey regarding its** efficacy) and husband Mayor White's agenda Director**. (No conflict of interest there))

The problem with the blurb is that it's just one of the many instances where "Features creep" has infiltrated the newsroom. It's bad enough that the ChronBlog is directing most of it's resources toward projects like the hardcore-porn promoting 29-95 or the potential FoodBorg magnet delish but now there's evidence that low standards of language are infiltrating the newsroom as well. It's started with cute, witty passages from ChronBlog's Caucasian think-tank and has now trickled into the outlying opinion columns.

Need more evidence?

The Houston Mayoral race and most State political coverage has been relegated to staff blogs, freeing up more print space for personal asides.

The offshoot of this is that the public is being drastically underserved by the former newspaper of record on many fronts. Critical watchdog reporting has been all but ceded to non-profit ventures such as Texas Watchdog or amateur bloggers such as HouBlog who are doing the heavy lifting that should be done by paid, trained reporters. When those, local, groups aren't out there scooping ChronBlog, it's out of town, or national news organizations that are doing the job, as in the case of Enron.

Unfortunately, the list of key issues that the newspaper has missed, due to either lack of interest or lack of staff, is growing longer by the day. KHOU broke the crime lab story, the under reported crime story and a host of others. KTRK was responsible for breaking the story about Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, scandals that could land the Commissioner in court. Then there's BARC, the reporting of which has been owned by Craig Malisow of The Houston Press and local blogger Kelly Cripe. All of these stories broken by organizations with much less funding and resources than ChronBlog.

Why is this a concern? Because a community needs a strong and independent media to be healthy, and Houston has been operating without this civic cog in its inner working for quite some time. Ever since the now-infamous rail-mirror memo was inadvertently posted on Chron.com (and then quickly withdrawn with the weak explanation that it was 'an internal memo' not meant for public consumption) watchdog reporting has taken a back-seat to features fluff over at Chronblog, and the City of Houston has been worse off for it.

It's such a little thing, one phrase in a long article about errors in autopsies that are occurring throughout the State. Such a little thing that speaks volumes about the state of media in Houston, and why our democracy is nearing the end of its half-life perhaps. Given the general lack of quality and creativity demonstrated by the current crop of candidates for public office I'd say we're getting very, very close to the end of it.*

*If a candidate like Gene Locke can be an announced candidate for months and only have his potential conflict of interests high-lighted weeks before the election (and by the aforementioned Texas Watchdog to boot) then I'd say that we're in just a little bit of trouble.
**Thanks to Mike, who was kind enough to provide me with some free editing. We'd offer to buy you a hamburger but sadly, free lunches have been cut back in the latest budget


  1. I think what you're seeing is the messy protracted prologue to a palace coup, in which Hearst is overthrowing itself while smaller media players begin to realize the king is dead. Unfortunate for the public during what looks like a long transition, because of course corruption will grow like mold without enough sunshine to burn out the growth.

    The same scene is, has or soon will be playing out in every newspaper market. I have hopes that something better than the chron will replace it, but I'm afraid that's not setting the bar very high.

    Meanwhile, can you imagine how much dough Hearst will be rolling in once it takes the "best" of this web content and puts it behind a paywall?

  2. Hmmm. A language critique. Use of the colloquial "ain't" is a writer's choice I might not have made, but it's not incorrect. Happily, you provide actual errors in your own post: ". . . an outside blogger who's opinions" (read: whose opinions); " . . .a survey regarding it's efficacy" (read: its efficacy). You also squeeze in factual errors; Marty Stein is the mayor's agenda director, not "director of policy" (no such position exists), for example. When you use the language properly and get your facts right, your criticism will be more credible.

  3. I could point out that the Chron.columnists are paid for their work, and this blog is something I do with no compensation, or that they have paid editors spell-checking and (supposedly) fact checking, etc. etc....

    But I'm guessing that wouldn't mater much.

    MeMo used to piss and moan about its and it's as well, as if a simple typo makes all of the criticism invalid. Perhaps that's the problem with newspapermen these days...they think everyone has editors and fact checkers as do they?

    I would also argue that 'agenda director' and 'director of policy' is a matter of semantics. But again, I don't have an editor pouring over my work to make that change.

    However, since you provided me with some free editing I'll be happy to make those changes (and give you credit for them.)


  4. ** When you use the language properly and get your facts right, your criticism will be more credible. **

    No doubt that is good advice for all of us, professional journalists and amateurs alike.

    I just wish some of the professional journalists at the Houston Chronicle would look inward a little more often with that same advice.

    The number of factual and grammatical errors that work their way into Chron stories is abysmally high. Sadly, the reader representative is no longer an actual position, but is merely an email/message box that is transcribed and delivered to editors, who sometimes make corrections and frequently do not (at least this is what I'm told by people I trust and who are in the know -- but if this is another of my "errors" please inform otherwise). It's not as if the Chron professionals set a very good example for the rest of us, although I would suggest that the best local bloggers are many times better than the Chron about correcting factual errors.

    And that's totally leaving aside the understaffing on the metro desk, which simply does not allow the Chron to pursue analytical/watchdog stories with the same zeal as one would like from a major metro daily, or the HORRIBLE Chron editors, who don't seem to understand what even constitutes good, salient work and certainly don't seem to be able to move the limited staff to produce it in significant quantities.

    Sadly, there is no longer a reader rep blog where newsies might discuss these issues with at least some representative of the paper. Some Chron journalists turn to anon comments or sticking their head in the sand (or quietly -- perhaps not even so quietly -- looking for other jobs! What, you think we don't hear/read about that? doh!), because they know the higher-ups don't especially encourage discussing/improving the journalism. As for the higher-ups, their answer is to insist that certain undesirable blogs and twitter accounts be BANNED by the newspaper, instead of trying to engage some of the most informed consumers of the declining product. So if people are sometimes not as well informed about the newspaper as those who work within the insular (crumbling) walls -- whose fault is that exactly? Aren't Chron higher-ups getting exactly what they aimed for? Maybe somebody should be engaging the public more actively (as opposed to insulting some of the better news consumers). I won't necessarily fault Chron journos for not fighting that battle internally (who wants to be the next victim of Cohen's axe for not sucking up sufficiently?), but I do question why they would lash out at blogs that value good journalism and probably are more on their side than not.

    So yes, Michael, we can agree that typos and errors do sometimes detract from blog posts. But let me ask this -- does cognitive dissonance also sometimes lead to overreaction to blogs that certainly have a point about the declining product (and about the arrogance/rudeness with which the institution treats some of its more informed customers)?

    There is no glee here or at blogHOUSTON about the declining product. It's bad for our community (it's also bad when people steal it, but that's another topic). We agree! Too bad we can't convince the folks who run the place, eh? Or that THEY are too insecure even to acknowledge the critics (let alone that they might have a point on occasion)? ;)

  5. Furthering the conversation... here's an excerpt from a Chronicle story by Mike Snyder:

    ** All the candidates expressed support for the program, which TMO said would return $5 in economic benefits for every dollar spent. “It's not a lot of money over three years,” Brown said of the requested city investment.

    Parker, however, said shrinking local revenues would make it impossible to support the program through the city's general fund. Using federal funds could require cutting other program, she said. **

    The last graf confuses me. If she doesn't want to use local revenues and doesn't want to use federal funds, then how can she be said to be in favor of the program? Also, "other program" should be "other programs" I presume.

    These are the sorts of regular, confusing problems from professional writers and editors that I wish one of the country's largest metro dailies could clean up. When professional writers and editors use the language properly and get their facts right, their reporting is more credible.


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