Category Archives: Media

Observations of a friend on his retirement from the NY Times

John Markoff, a college friend from years ago who has been a tech writer for the New York Times for 28 years, just retired.

His remarks at a retirement gathering at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism were just published by Backchannel.com, and are worth taking a few minutes to read (“I Covered Tech for the Times for 28 Years, And Now My Time Is Over“).

Yes, I’m retiring from the New York Times. This is obviously bittersweet, but it’s also very weird. Whenever I tell someone I’m leaving the paper they immediately say “congratulations.”

What the hell? Congratulate me for bailing on one of the best jobs in the world?

The simple fact is that I lasted longer than a lot of my friends. But until I changed my mind last summer and took the buyout, I was sure I was going to go out like those guys at the Examiner?—?the copy editors who worked at night in their t-shirts. And then keeled over on their CRTs and were taken out feet first.

But what the heck.

He goes on to share observations on the changing world of journalism, and confesses to still being a print journalist, despite decades on the digital beat.

Give it a read.

Palo AltoWe’ve been friends a long time. We met John when we were all students at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, back in the 1960s. His family lived in Palo Alto, not far from my sister’s home at the time, and we spent time at their house enjoying his parents and sisters. One summer we crashed their family vacation on the beach on Kauai, and spent several days gathering sun tans and puka shells with the Markoff crowd. When Meda and I got married in Palo Alto in the summer of 1969, John was one of just two friends who attended our small celebration that followed. That’s John on the left in the photo.

He deserves congratulations on a great career with the Times. We’re looking forward to what’s next.

Some advice from a longtime journalist on legislative coverage

“If you want to really cover the Legislature you’ve got to be there, and not just for opening day.” Susan Halas,

Sage advice from Susan Halas, who has been reporting on Hawaii politics since 1976, writing for a number of publications over the years. She is now a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch, and has her own public relations and communications company, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Her comment on my post about how to cover the legislature is absolutely correct and on point. I’m reprinting it here for those who don’t obsessively follow comments because it so accurately captures what’s necessary to do it right.

I was a young reporter in the 70s working for the Maui News. In those years my paper sent me to Oahu to attend the sessions. I learned to cover the legislature by actually going to the offices of our elected officials and getting to know them and their staff, and showing up often enough that they got to know me too. I also learned early on that most really important decisions were not decided on the floor or in committee but in much more informal settings like the Columbia Inn, a variety of nameless bars, or hoisting a few pau hana beers with the ILWU folks. Those decisions were just confirmed at the legislature.

We reporters were also expected to actually READ the legislation introduced by members of our Maui delegation, and tell the folks at home what was in the bills sponsored by our lawmakers and also provide the details of the other important legislation of the day.

Even though print journalism is effectively comatose in Hawaii, there is no substitute for legwork, personal contact and a wide net of off-the-record friends and sources.

Following the career of a legislator like Maui’s Joe Souki from his first public office as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1978 (where he resented the tag “Elmer’s (Cravalho’s) Boy” through his rise to Speaker of the House, to his fall at the hand of his own crew and his resurrection through dint of circumstance and perseverance, has been a fascinating close-up view of how political clout is wielded in our state. It’s all personal. We still do it face-to- face, one-on-one, and the most important skill a lawmaker can have, as Souki learned early on, is the ability to count.

No matter what the vibe, speed or reach of social media it is not yet where decision are made, though it is regrettably often where opinions are formed.

If you want to really cover the Legislature you’ve got to be there, and not just for opening day.

And that was how I felt when I walked away after covering the legislature for five years as executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, serving as the organization’s lobbyist, public spokesman, researcher and legislative analyst.

I felt at that time, and continue to feel, that to make a difference in the legislative process requires a full time presence and full attention. You have to be part of living in that small village of several hundred people who gather from January to May each year and somehow manage to pass legislation by the end of the period. Whether as a reporter, a community advocate, or a lobbyist, you’re facing the same job of learning how the system really works, finding sources you can trust, and then riding the beast through the rough parts of each year’s session.

In an organization, it isn’t necessary for each person to commit to a full-time presence at the legislature, as long as you’ve got someone in that position who can work the hallways and also guide others in applying outside political pressure via public opinion, mobilization of constituents, etc.

In another comment, Aaron suggested a crowdfunding project to support independent reporting at the legislature. As with any journalistic endeavor, though, that’s no simple project.

And so it goes. If the ideas float around for a while, maybe some will take hold and go somewhere.

Local filmmaker seeking support for Ritte documentary

A Molokai filmmaker has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a one-hour documentary on the life of activist Walter Ritte.

Matt Yamashita (Quazifilms.com) hopes to raise $35,000 by the end of the month.

“His name is widely recognized and it stirs powerful reactions, yet the deeper I dig into his personal story, the more I realize that people don’t really know who Walter Ritte is,” Yamashita said in a press release.

“This film will explore Ritte’s troubled childhood through his ‘awakening’ as a Native Hawaiian activist during an era when Hawaiian culture and identity was nearly lost.”

“I hope this documentary gives viewers a deeper appreciation for Ritte’s generation and the challenges that they faced in their effort to understand and fight for the concept of Aloha ‘?ina,” Yamashita said.

Donations are tax-deductible through fiscal sponsor Molokai Arts Center, Yamashita said.

The Ritte documentary is intended for broadcast on PBS, following the success of his earlier documentary, Sons of Halawa.

According to Yamashita’s Linked-In profile:

Matt Yamashita is a successful freelance filmmaker from the Hawaiian island of Molokai. After receiving a BFA in Film Production from Chapman University, Matt returned to Molokai to become the island’s first professional filmmaker. He has been working in the Hawaii film industry since 2001 and has developed a full range of skills in all aspects of production including: concept development, writing, directing, producing, shooting, editing, and content delivery.

Matt has unique expertise working within Hawaii-based communities, cultures, and environments and has dedicated the focus of his work to telling Hawaii’s stories through a local lens. Matt has held key roles in large productions that have received national and international broadcast. He is also well-known for his ability to deliver quality products while working with very limited resources and small production teams.

Click here to visit the Kickstarter page for this project.

Why the projections don’t always match

Here’s an interesting look behind the numbers that have driven the election data reported by the New York Times this year (“2016’s Election Data Hero Isn’t Nate Silver. It’s Sam Wang“).

Throughout the campaign, I’ve been tracking the analysis of poll data provided by Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight.com and have watched the differences with data published by the NY Times and others.

Wired introduces Sam Wang, the “new” data guru driving the Princeton Election Consortium, and the ways in which his approach diverges from that of Silver.

Wang says his method differs from Silver’s in its approach to uncertainty. “They score individual pollsters, and they want to predict things like individual-state vote shares,” he wrote in his blog on Sunday. “Achieving these goals requires building a model with lots of parameters, and running regressions and other statistical procedures to estimate those parameters. However, every parameter has an uncertainty attached to it. When all those parameters get put together to estimate the overall outcome, the resulting total is highly uncertain.” By contrast, he says, PEC’s model relies on a snapshot of all state polls every day, and then makes sure unrelated fluctuations are averaged out.

Anyway, while we’re waiting for election results to start coming in, it’s an interesting read.

And when you’re done, check out this slide show of New York Times’ front pages reporting results over 41 U.S. elections.

Is crossing the line between politics and journalism an unforgivable sin?

I’m afraid that I don’t agree with the assumptions and insinuations in the column this week by Civil Beat’s “reader rep” Brett Oppegaard.

In a column published on Halloween, Oppegaard took aim at Honolulu Star-Advertiser Capital Bureau Chief Kevin Dayton for the sin of spending time on both sides of the divide between journalism and politics (“Reader Rep: Hawaii Mayor Billy Kenoi Scandal Stains Journalist, Too“).

The sub-head, probably not written by Oppegaard, stated the column’s conclusion: “The criminal trial of the Big Island mayor demonstrates why reporters shouldn’t cross the line between journalism and politics.”

He writes:

Dayton is another example of a local journalist who left the profession to pursue work in government, politics or public relations and then returned (twice), his credibility tainted by the special interest he went to work for.

But it seems to me Oppegaard’s conclusion–that there’s a hard and fast line between journalism and politics that shouldn’t be crossed–came first, and his argument never really followed. He believes journalists are inevitably tainted if they obtain first-hand experience in politics. But that’s his starting point, not a point he demonstrates through evidence or history.

He does make one reference to Nestor Garcia, the reporter turned elected official who was disgraced while in office and then returned to a position in the news business, implying that Dayton’s sojourn on the staff of Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi was somehow equivalent to Garcia’s epic fall. I think he’s wrong there, and wrong on the larger point.

Dayton was not an elected official, and was never hit with allegations of violating ethics laws. Dayton did his job well, it seems, both as a reporter and a political staffer.

Dayton said by phone he should be judged on the content of his work, not his background….

“I believe I’m a good journalist. I work hard at my craft,” he said. “I try to operate with integrity, and I always have. I hope that comes through in the work that I do.”

I agree with Dayton. He is a good journalist. And he should be judged on his record, his reporting. But Oppegaard doesn’t do that. Instead, he tosses out a series of insinuations in the form of hypothetical questions, some which can’t be logically answered.

He asks: What about “all of the decisions a journalist makes…like what stories to pursue or not pursue, who to interview and not to interview, what questions to ask or not ask, etc.”

Fair questions. But these are questions that are inherent in journalism. They can’t be avoided. And they aren’t unique to someone in Dayton’s position. They are inherent in the fact that reporters and editors are people with their own biographies, their own set of experiences and beliefs, their perspectives and viewpoints, which all contribute to their answers to those questions.

To me, these questions don’t imply a criticism of Dayton or of those who have tasted what Oppegaard apparently considers the evil fruit of politics. Instead, they’re part of the everyday tension that journalists face and must deal with.

This debate hits a chord for me because I’ve done the same dance across the line between journalism and politics.

The difference, perhaps, is that I didn’t start as a journalist. I never set foot in a journalism class while in school, and started my career as a peace activist and educator, later gaining legislative experience as a public interest lobbyist for the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, Common Cause. During that period, I spent considerable time with legislators, legislative staff, and with the journalists who covered politics. I tried to understand how they saw their roles, and I observed the process from their various viewpoints. It was quite an education, one that helped me later when I turned to writing.

Later, I campaigned for Neil Abercrombie, who served in the Senate while I was lobbying for Common Cause, and later served as his “senior advisor” after he was elected to the Honolulu City Council. I left Neil’s staff just before he made his first run for Congress.

It was only after all of that experience that I reinvented myself as a journalist by launching a small newsletter about Hawaii politics, focusing on the intersection of money and politics. I had learned a bit about that topic over the years, having seen it from the inside and the outside. And my unusual background made that initial foray into reporting a success, as I was often able to see and report interesting stories that went unnoticed by mainstream daily reporters.

During my relatively short tenure as a newsletter publisher, I earned accolades from the Republican Party as well as from progressive Democrats.

I was eventually offered, and accepted, a job as an investigative reporter for the late Honolulu Star-Bulletin. My unusual background, straddling that dangerous line between politics and journalism, likely gave heartburn to my editors from time to time. But it also provided an important background that helped my reporting.

And, like Dayton, I expected to be judged on my work. It think that was a fair expectation.

Yes, I personally was a Democrat. But I reported on questionable fundraising by island Democrats, and tracked the local roots of the Asian fundraising scandal that later rocked Bill Clinton’s presidency. My reporting challenged the leadership of one of the state’s largest unions, and contributed to the criminal charges that followed.

After leaving the Star-Bulletin, I’ve continued blogging about politics. For several years, I crossed back over to the political side of things as a legislative staffer, while continuing an independent daily blog. Yes, that was a challenge. And it had its awkward moments, for sure.

I continued writing for Honolulu Weekly and, more recently, Civil Beat. Should my experience on both sides of that political/journalism divide have forever barred me from being a reporter? I think not. And I’ll go further by saying that the experience in politics made me a better and more perceptive reporter.