I meant to respond to Brett Sokol's piece in The Awl last week, but needed some time to address the writer's numerous errors and mischaracterizations, not to mention the overall tone, which emphasized turning a phrase over picking up a phone.
Let me start by saying this: I don't believe everyone who writes about any company is required to contact it for comment. But, when you don't, you put yourself under that much more pressure to get your facts right. On that point, Sokol's piece is an abject failure.
But let's actually start with the two parts of the story I actually agree with. First, there's no question Paul Bass and his team are doing outstanding work at the New Haven Independent. Case closed. There's always room for multiple sources of quality information in any town, and I have nothing but respect for what the Independent has accomplished. In fact, the New Haven Register has worked with the Independent on local issue forums, and hopefully, we will continue to find ways to collaborate.
I also agree that the current design of the Register site -- and, frankly, many Digital First Media sites nationwide -- is subpar. Guilty as snarked. That's why we're redesigning all of our web sites in the next 12 months, and have already started rolling out beta versions of the article page in some of our markets. (Incidentally, on Wednesday, we also launched print redesigns of our smaller Connecticut papers -- the Register Citizen in Torrington, and the Middletown Press. New Haven will get this new design as well in early 2013.)
But once we get past the quality of the Independent and of our web design, any agreement -- and, apparently, any reporting on Sokol's part -- ends.
Sokol starts by using the Register's design to all but dismiss the entire site. He also asserts that DFM has pumped millions of dollars into these sites, which is ridiculous, yet offered up as fact. The Journal Register sites have had these designs for a long time -- too long, obviously -- and were not conceived under its new management team. Either way, it's on us to fix them. But sites don't begin and end with their designs.
That's not to say that Sokol doesn't go after the journalism; he does. But he offers a year-old anecdote about a mayoral election and a bunch of generic complaints about tweets, video and blogs that contain no actual examples.
If Sokol had bothered to call Matt DeRienzo, our Connecticut editor, he would have found out what the Register has been up to recently. This includes:
- Garnering wide praise for its second-to-none coverage of the Connecticut 5th District campaign, including uncovering campaign activities by former Gov. John Rowland. These stories prompted a federal grand jury investigation.
- Rolling out the Missing in Connecticut series, which reports on the efforts to find adults who have disappeared in the New Haven region. The project also includes a Facebook page we started that has been adopted by others in the community. Two months after we began running these stories, the state police formed a team to focus on missing persons cases.
- Creating New Haven's first investigative team in more than a decade. Recently, that team exposed potential loopholes in laws designed to crack down on metal theft. It also recently exposed that most crime victims are not made aware when a convict in their case applies for a pardon.
- Winning a first-place national award from the Local Media Association for Best Coverage of Local Education.
- Sweeping the Connecticut SPJ awards category for Online Spot News Reporting for its coverage of Hurricane Irene and the Joshua Komisarjevsky trial, and winning first place for its online coverage of New Haven's murder rate, which its handling via a blog that maps every murder in the city, profiles the victims and tracks arrests updates and court appearances.
- Receiving numerous other awards in the past year on a statewide, New England and national basis for in-depth reporting, breaking news, editorial writing, features, arts and entertainment, sports and photography.
- Crafting partnerships with other high-quality Connecticut journalism entities such as CT News Junkie and the Connecticut Health I-Team.
This wordy-but-empty paragraph illustrates the problem with Sokol's entire article:
For starters, daily reporting isn’t "crowd-sourced." Bass assigns it primarily to either himself or three other full-time paid staffers—all of whom regularly close their laptops and hit the pavement, interviewing sources face-to-face, covering events first-hand and writing real stories full of nuance and analysis. Not all of these reporters share Bass’ decades of experience in digging around New Haven’s nooks and crannies, but the emphasis is on doing just that—learning the ins and outs of the city and making sense of it all, not producing a sea of inane videos, glib tweets and half-baked blog posts.
Sokol never explains the crowdsourcing reference at all, but if he believes working with the community somehow cheapens our work, then I'd like to get a ride on the time machine on which he rode into the 21st century. He then implies that Register reporters don't talk face-to-face with sources or leave the office to cover events. That's absurd, of course, and I'm sure Sokol knows that. If Sokol doesn't approve of the quality of the stories, videos, tweets and blogs, so be it, but based on the tone of his article, it sounds like the real issue is Sokol's general distaste for the new tools of journalism and the people who use or espouse them. In fact, he sounds like one of those cranky men in newsrooms that Dean Starkman says don't exist anymore. Note to Dean: I think I found one.
Sokol also seems to come from the school that believes every piece of journalism should take down a public official or have some grander ambition. The Register has done plenty of those ambitious pieces, but local journalism also involves producing hundreds of smaller stories that collectively keep citizens informed. Based on his piece, I'm guessing Sokol has never worked in a local newsroom, because he sure doesn't show any understanding of how they work.
Sokol's mayoral race criticism was fair, but also dated. That race preceded the Register's newsroom reorganization, which focused on three core areas: breaking news, investigative/enterprise and community engagement. Since then, the Register's coverage of breaking news is much improved, a fact I'm guessing even the New Haven Independent would acknowledge.
As for the people who really matter -- the readers -- they seem to be happy with the changes we've made. Year over year, traffic to the Register is up 40 percent. We're proud of the work the Register is doing, not only journalistically, but also in trying to engage its audience in ways that go beyond Sokol's lazy and cliched reference to message boards. Again, we could have walked Sokol through those efforts, but pesky facts might have gotten in the way of his Ku Klux Klan joke.
But as shaky as Sokol's reporting is when discussing the Register, it's when he goes after our Thunderdome project that he loses all credibility. In fact, about the only thing he gets right about Thunderdome is the name.
Let's start with the centralization of non-local news. Sokol asserts that I am apparently unaware that the New Haven Register already runs non-local news stories. Thanks for the tip, but I am quite aware. The issue has never been that the Register -- or any of our other 74 dailies -- runs these stories. It's that each produces those non-local stories individually. That means, in some cases, we might have 50 different editors in 50 different newsrooms producing the exact same non-local story. The whole idea of this part of Thunderdome, in fact, is to free up local resources by centralizing non-local production so that those stories need to be produced one time, not 50 times. Not that difficult a concept to grasp. Or so I thought.
This complete misunderstanding of Thunderdome's core mission then leads to Sokol's next journalistic face-plant. He asserts that the better use of the 40-plus people we're hiring in New York would be to send them to replenish our local newsrooms. That's a great idea. In fact, Sokol managed to Inspector Clouseau his way to solving the crime. That is exactly the purpose of Thunderdome: To increase the number of available journalistic resources at our local properties. With non-local news production off the plates of those newsrooms, resources will be freed up to produce more local journalism. Had Sokol read anything about Thunderdome (or called anyone involved), he would have understood that. Instead, he produced the embarrassing combination of extreme snark and a complete factual whiff.
Also, I'm sure Sokol's joke about Thunderdome having 45 SWAT team members was just another attempt at fact-free humor. I will merely point out that there are actually three SWAT team members, so Sokol was only off by 42. As for his mocking of the title, that's his right. But since he doesn't even understand what these journalists do anyway, mocking the title is just doubling down on ignorance. In fact, the idea of that SWAT team is not to parachute in to help with major national and world stories; it's to help any of our local properties when they are stretched thin by a major local breaking news story or significant enterprise or investigative effort. There's a reason we don't call them "national correspondents," as Sokol suggests we should. Because that's not what they do. We're kind of sticklers about that kind of thing.
My advice to Mr. Sokol: Next time you are in New Haven, skip Louis Lunch and go visit the Register. And next time you are in New York, come visit Thunderdome. I know either visit would require some guts after such a sloppy and mean-spirited piece, but it would certainly show a level of journalistic rigor that was completely lacking in your Awl piece. There's nothing easier than Monday morning quarterbacking and taking cheap shots at a hard-working staff from a distance. Getting up close and doing reporting is what good reporters do. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE (OCT. 2): As of this morning, I have yet to hear from Brett Sokol. In the best tradition of Claude Rains, I'm shocked -- shocked -- to have to received no response. The only response to this post from The Awl was a tweet from one of its editors, saying this post was "evasive and fallacious." In the best tradition of The Awl, the tweet came with no specifics and no follow up.
For those interested in what Thunderdome is actually doing, here's a summary, courtesy of Spundge: