So, President Donald Trump’s surprise visit to Afghanistan is to be applauded. For a president often under fire for bucking the trappings of the office, it was the presidential thing to do.
As is typical of such things, secrecy was of the utmost importance, and for an administration known for its leakiness, the White House was pleasantly surprised to pull it off.
There is an excellent article from the New York Times that lays out just how it was done.
“So when Mr. Trump pulled off an unannounced trip to an American air base here on Thanksgiving Day — a secret that held until the White House lifted a news embargo from Afghanistan — his aides were delighted. In an information-saturated era of Twitter, text messages and aircraft tracking websites, the president had traveled halfway around the world undetected in perhaps the world’s most recognizable airplane....
Even the president surrendered his phone. Cognizant that a long absence from Twitter was sure to draw notice and arouse suspicions about Mr. Trump’s activities, the White House posted from his account while he was in the air.”
The Fox News reporter who went on the trip also did a good first person tick-tock of what the experience was like.
I draw attention to this partially because the effectiveness of the subterfuge caught unprepared news organizations with their britches down.
Prior to it becoming public knowledge Trump had traveled to Afghanistan. Newsweek published an article under the clickbait headline “How is Trump spending Thanksgiving? Tweeting, golfing and more.”
The story received the anticipated public backlash after the fact from Trump supporters, particularly Don Jr. and the president himself.
The Washington Examiner does a nice bit of reporting on the evolution of the story here.
Unsurprisingly, the story was pre-written a day before. Unsurprisingly? We’ll get to that in a minute, but given the secrecy of the mission successfully executed by White House staff, suffice to say accuracy would have been an impossible ask.
According to The Examiner, who interviewed the original reporter, “When the president's trip to Afghanistan was announced, that editor then decided to assign another reporter to write a new story about it but neglected to update ... (the) original piece in a timely manner.”
New reporting, new headline. In the electronic era, where the original story had generated a healthy amount of clicks from Trump haters and Trump supporters alike, apparently that means “no harm, no foul.” After all, Newsweek added “This story has been substantially updated and edited at 6:17 p.m. EST to reflect the president's surprise trip to Afghanistan.”
No harm no foul — except for the reporter who wrote the original story:
“Newsweek investigated the failures that led to the publication of the inaccurate report that President Trump spent Thanksgiving tweeting and golfing rather than visiting troops in Afghanistan," a Newsweek representative told the Washington Examiner. "The story has been corrected, and the journalist responsible has been terminated. We will continue to review our processes and, if required, take further action.”
So, basically, Newsweek axed its content slinger for an “inaccurate” story written before the fact at its behest.
It is easy, particularly for supporters of the president who are hungry as always for another chance to lambaste “the media” to dance on the grave of some unknown reporter, or, even more fun, to find said reporter on social media and rip them in online anonymity. After all, it’s all in the spirit of Thanksgiving.
As I am apt to do in this space, however, I ask you to THINK about the things you think about.
I posted an article about a month ago from the Columbia Journalism Review: Dropshipping journalism: No one working at Newsweek can tell me why it still exists.
A reading of it, and an understanding of what Newsweek has become, and not what it once was, would at least give you a place to lay the blame, and in my mind it wouldn’t be on the reporter.
A couple of highlights from said article:
“In March 20, Nancy Cooper, the editor in chief of Newsweek, sent an email to her editorial staff. The subject was “What is a Newsweek story?”—an odd question at an eighty-six-year-old newsmagazine once considered one of the “big three,” alongside Time and the US News & World Report. The email contained four requirements for any story published on Newsweek.com. One, it must contain original reporting. Two, it must provide a unique angle or new information. Three, the reader must care about it. And four, the news must be news.
Pretty basic stuff, and I’d imagine these are expectations most people believe reputable news sources should have. But, let’s shed the light of reality on things.
The same editor earlier in the year asked for four stories per day from reporters. The article goes on to lay out a typical day.
“For most of the dozen or so reporters in the New York office, the day starts early. Their first story is supposed to be filed by 9am, and before it can be written, the story must be pitched to an editor over Slack in the form of a headline. In theory, these headlines appeal both to a reader and to Google’s algorithms, but in practice the algorithm takes precedence. Editors sometimes suggest more viral headlines, or pitch headlines themselves using Google Trends or Chartbeat. (Lack of knowledge on a topic doesn’t stop them from assigning stories, which has led to Newsweek wrongly declaring that Japanese citizens want to go to war with North Korea and incorrectly reporting that the girlfriend of Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock was a polygamist.)”
Adding to that lack of knowledge is a lack of experience, a fact that likely comes as a surprise to those with memories of what the “big three” news magazines were in the 1980s and romantic ideas of global staffs covering the world.
“Newsweek has tended to hire young reporters, many of them fresh from college papers or internships. In the course of my reporting for this piece, at least ten senior staffers left or were let go, their salaries freed up while Newsweek continued to look for “News Fellows,” contract employees working forty-hour weeks for $15 per hour, the minimum wage in New York City. Three former Fellows confirmed that they were expected to do the same amount of work as salaried reporters—a minimum of four stories a day, with no overtime—with the promise of being hired full-time after four months.
In many ways, Newsweek is no different than your local community newspaper. The mission is being strangled to death while, as one former Newsweek reporter put it better than I can, “The owners see media as a profitable thing, but it’s profitable because they’ve found an exploitable workforce. There are so many young, earnest, hungry writers who will work for so little.”
Newsweek inherited its current model from International Business Times, which purchased it in 2013. IBT has been dogged by questions over editorial quality “excessive SEO activity.”
The CJR article lays out IBT’s expectations from reporters via an interview from a former IBT reporter.
“My original contract stipulated that I had to bring in a minimum of ten thousand unique readers a month, an impossibly high number that my editor told me to ignore. The world, US, and business desks were meant to write “legitimate” stories that went on the front page, while a “Continuous News Desk,” later renamed “Breaking News,” spammed Google News and paid our salaries. Drafting off the BuzzFeed News model that had developed months earlier, Jeffrey Rothfeder, our Editor-in-Chief, said that the clickbait would bring in revenue while hard-news reporting would build our reputation.”
The writer goes on to explain how good reporters lost jobs because of low traffic numbers, and how others wrote under pseudonyms so as not to pollute their own bylines with clickbait garbage until a content management system update eliminated the ability to do so. A bonus program was introduced, with reporters ranked in a spreadsheet.
“Until recently, a reporter could earn an extra $2,000 per month for stories that attracted six hundred thousand unique page views. Numerous current and former reporters told me that when interviewing for a job at Newsweek, editors told them not to worry about salaries between $35,000 and $45,000—about $10,000 less than the average entry-level reporter position in New York City—because their bonuses would earn them an additional $24,000 per year.
But the reality is that if you aren’t writing clickbait, the bonuses can be hard to get. And failing to get a traffic bonus, some said, puts a target on your back...”
Of course, Mr. Trump is right when he questions whether Newsweek is still in business. The article goes on to explain the dire financials at Newsweek: Unpaid taxes, back rent settlements, defaulting on contractsand a wide array of questionable to illegal labor practices.
“Reporters have told me that they’ve come to work to find the phones disconnected, the Getty Images subscription suspended, and been told that Gmail would be locked. Computers run on Windows 8 and Newsweek uses a free version of Slack.”
I won’t even touch on the print magazine. But I will add this, as part of my recent new-found interest in freelancing.
“For several years, Newsweek has struggled to pay freelancers, even those writing cover stories. Five freelancers, some of whom wrote dozens of stories for Newsweek, told me it could take up to eight months to get paid. In New York City, failure to pay a freelancer within thirty days of receiving an invoice has been illegal since 2017.
The magazine’s editors eventually decided the payment delays were so unethical, they discontinued using freelance writers. As a result, the quality of the magazine has suffered.”
So, what’s my point?
I have railed on and on about the state of journalism in this country. Ownership gutting news organizations for profit while news deserts expand. For the most part you have patted me on the head and said “there, there.”
The easy route to go here is to blame some person we don’t know for some anti-Trump agenda, someone obviously from the “MSM,” flame them on social media, then spend quality time with the family and eat some holiday leftovers.
The other option is harder. Let’s talk turkey.
Newsweek is trading on name recognition, but that venerable news magazine you remember is long gone. Journalism is changing. Along the way, some old nameplates will die, others will become empty shells of what they once were. For some outlets, clicks and news aggregation reign supreme.
Those who have chosen to work in the industry are trying to find a place to fit in this brave new world. Some suck it up and work the sweatshops. Some have moved to public relations or create sponsored content. Some still manage to find a place to do the real thing. Most are struggling to put food on the table and a roof over their head.
Rather than shame the writer who owned it, gleefully rejoicing in their misfortune, on THANKSGIVING, no less, it would be far better to hold the organization that allowed it to happen and fired the writer to cover its own poor decision making accountable. It would be a far more useful outlet for righteous indignation.