If Facebook = journalism = Facebook, why does the world need journalism?
This might be the number one issue facing journalism today, but it’s unclear whether it is recognized by all journalism businesses. And newspapers, TV stations and news websites are businesses.
Make no doubt about that. They live as businesses or they shrink to something like this website surviving mainly, and for who knows how long, on contributions from people who share a belief that facts matter in a society where thinking individuals now have to wonder if facts really do matter anymore.
Facebook is seldom about facts. It mainly about opinions.
And a lot of journalism today is channeling Facebook. Emotion, not reason, has become the product.
Case in point: The “most read story” in the Anchorage Daily News Thursday morning had this headline: “I’ve dedicated my life to teach in Alaska. Here’s why I’m leaving.”
It was commentary. There’s nothing wrong with commentary in the local newspaper. Properly vetted commentary is good.
But sadly, no one had bothered to vet the latest episode of “why I’m leaving.” This was commentary without substance. There were no facts. It was not journalism; it was someone blowing smoke to which the Daily News attached the imprimatur of journalism.
It was a letter to the editor, with the low standards for letters to the editor, boosted to the status given informed opinion. News organizations need to do better.
This is not meant as an attack on the ADN. There are lots of publications doing exactly what the ADN was doing in opting for click bait over informed commentary. Unfortunately, in so doing, all of them appear willing to devalue journalism in exchange for short-term, online traffic.
Readers of major news sites can be enticed to read anything with the endorsement of “we think this is something you should read,” but when what are you endorsing turns out to be bunk, readers eventually figure it out.
Then again, this is a value judgment based on the belief that the value of journalism is integrity; the belief that facts matter; and the belief that public policy debates in the absence of facts – entertaining though such yelling matches might be – don’t further discussions but diminish them.
Commentary stuffed with unsupported claims performs the disservice that used to get former Alaska Dispatch News editorial page editor Scott Woodham in trouble with Alice Rogoff, the former owner of the newspaper. Woodham believed commentary should contain facts to back opinions so a rational, thinking person could weigh the value of the commentary.
He also thought facts should be facts, not just more opinions, which really ran contrary to the “just-run-it-as-they-wrote-it” view of Rogoff.
Rogoff had the Mark Zuckerberg view news. Facebook, his wonderful and cursed invention, encourages everyone to write something and post it. There are no editors on Facebook. People can post anything they want, and they do, and that’s a good thing.
Free speech is a key part of democracy. It lets people express their feelings. It lets them vent. It lets them rejoice. It lets them mourn.
Journalism, however, isn’t just about feelings. Journalism is, or should be, mainly about facts.
And journalism is supposed to ensure news and commentary are fact based. Did Brinna Langford – the author of “I’ve dedicated my life to teach in Alaska. Here’s why I’m leaving.” – deliver fact-based commentary?
No, although the wholly correct answer would be that there is no way of telling because she provided only one real fact; she has no Social Security. A reader is left to trust that Langford has some evidence for her long list of conclusions, even though some of her conclusions don’t hold up so well if you actually go looking for the facts.
So let’s “break this down” as the sports analysts says. Here’s why her story is not journalism, and why the editors at the ADN should have fixed it to make it more like journalism before giving it their tacit endorsement.
Doing that would have been good for journalism, good for the community, good for the ADN and good for Langford. But it didn’t happen; so here’s what readers got:
“As a teacher hired after 2006, I have no pension,” Langford writes. “I am enrolled in TRS Tier III which means I have a defined contribution retirement plan.”
This might be a bad thing. It might also be a good thing. Langford could be worse off with her money in the “retirement plan,” Alaska’s form of a pension plan, or better off. There is no way of telling because she offers no clue as to how much money she has in the retirement plan.
She needed to tell readers how much money is in that TRS along with how much she might have accumulated in a traditional retirement plan elsewhere.
“Even with my contributions and planning,” she writes, “my financial advisor informed me that I would have less than half of what I need to retire comfortably by the time I’m 65.”
First off, the current, official retirement age in the U.S. is 66 years and 2 months, and it is slated to go to age 67 for those born after 1960. So unless Langford is over 50, and it doesn’t appear she is from her six-year lifetime experience as a teacher, she shouldn’t be expecting to retire at 65.
Why is she being treated so unfairly that she has to wait until she is 67? Because back when Social Security, the federal pension plan, was started in 1935, average life expectancy in this country was 61 years.
Most people were dead before 65. That seriously reduces pension payments. The average lifespan now is 78.6 years. Pensions are paying to support people a lot longer, and thus more money is required, which brings up another problem.
Langford provides no idea how much money her financial advisor suggested she would need to “retire comfortably.” That figure itself is highly variable depending on where one plans to retire. Some places are hugely costly; others aren’t.
Langford could have less than half of what she needs to retire in Honolulu and still have enough to retire to Beckley, WV, according to data compiled by Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Since Langford provides no numbers, there is no way of telling how much money she thinks she needs or what her idea of “retire comfortably” means.
She once again needed to put numbers to her opinions.
“Where we’re moving I’ll have a real retirement,” Langford writes. “After all, every other state in the country has a pension plan for their teachers.”
Since she doesn’t say where she is moving to, there is no way of telling what sort of pension plan she will have, or whether it comes with or without a 401K to which her employer contributes as is the case with the Alaska state TRS plan in which she is enrolled.
Meanwhile, her suggestion that every other state in the country has a better pension plan suggests retirement benefits for teachers are better in all the other states, but they aren’t.
“Alabama earned an F for providing adequate retirement benefits for teachers,” the site says. And Alabama was not alone. California, Minnesota, Hawaii and a number of other states also flunked. Washington state got the same grade as Alaska. Oregon got a B.
“Poorly researched news stories often appear in the national media portraying Alaska as a destination for teachers looking for a top-paying salary,” Langford writes. “At one point this may have been true, but when I signed my contract in another state teaching exactly what I’m teaching now, I’ll be making nearly the same amount as I do in Alaska, and that is without carrying over all of my years of experience. The cost of living is a fraction of what it costs to live in Alaska and my caseload will be less than half of what teachers in the Anchorage School District are forced to endure.”
One cannot argue with the first observation. Poorly researched news stories are so common these days one need not cite examples. An alert reader will catch a story lacking research almost every day.
But that also doesn’t necessarily mean all news stories are wrong.
The National Education Association ranks Alaska 25th for teacher salaries. So it’s not the best destination if you’re a teacher solely interested in “a top-paying salary.” But if you are a teacher interested in certain quality of life issues – where else can you grab a dipnet and go catch a year’s supply of sockeye salmon now $9.99 per pound at the local Costco? – Alaska isn’t a horrible deal either.
As to what Langford is making here and what she will be making elsewhere one can only guess because she doesn’t say. And it’s the same for her observations on class size and cost-of-living, not to mention that it’s hard to believe the claim the cost of living will be “a fraction of Anchorage” simply because it’s not that expensive to live in Alaska’s largest city.
“Anchorage is 23 percent cheaper than Seattle,” according to the cost comparison at Sperling’s Best Places. Minneapolis is 19 percent cheaper than Anchorage, but mainly because housing there is 25 percent cheaper. Anchorage is 4 percent cheaper than Portland; only 6 percent more expensive than Denver; and 50 percent cheaper than San Francisco.
Are you beginning to see the problem? Given the lack of facts in Langford’s commentary – facts like what she’s getting paid now and what state she is moving to – it is impossible to tell whether she is speaking truth, half-truth or making it all up as some politician are prone to do.
Every Alaskans pain
“(Leaving Alaska) is one of the hardest decisions my husband and I have ever made,” Langford writes. “Unfortunately, it’s been made easier by the fact that our state, and our school district have continued to cut positions, programs, and possibilities from our schools.”
We should all feel for Langford having to make a hard decision, but here she fails to mention even in passing that Alaska is in the midst of a major recession. The state population has been shrinking and with it the number of students. The Anchorage school district lost 600 students this year alone.
Fewer students reduces the need for teaching positions, and falling revenues make it harder to justify some programs. Most of the cuts now underway have little or nothing to do with the devaluing of teachers as part of the community as Langford suggests.
“Alaska, you have a crisis on your hands, and it won’t get better until you reverse the damage and start seeing children and education as worthy of your time, effort and investment,” Langford writes.
She is right about the crisis, though she presents no more information to buttress that claim than any of her other claims. But the evidence is out there.
“Alaska is expected to lose jobs again in 2018, although the losses appear to be tapering,” according to the state Department of Labor. “Total employment is forecasted to decline by 0.5 percent in 2018 (minus 1,800 jobs) after falling 1.1 percent in 2071 and 1.9 percent in 2016.”
All told, the state will have lost about 7,200 jobs since 2016. People leave because of this; school enrollment shrinks; property tax revenues fall; school size decreases as does school funding.
But there’s no evidence the problem of the moment is Alaskans failing to see “children and education as worthy of your time, effort and investment,” or at least not to see them as any less worthy or more worthy than in 2015 when the recession started and everyone, even teachers, had to tighten their belt.
The problems of the moment are the problem of a faltering economy, which is not to say there aren’t problems in Alaska schools as in the schools of many other states. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to identify those and offer ways to fix them.
The Foundation hasn’t made much progress and is now turning more of its attention to what it thinks might be a compounding issue: poverty.
By turning their attention to poverty, Christopher Lubienski, an education policy expert not connected to the Foundation told the Associated Press in February, “the Gateses are tackling the ‘really big elephant in the room’ when it comes to student achievement.
“‘It’s also a much bigger, more expensive and politically stickier area to attack than simply changing the structure of schools.”
American society could use an informed discussion about how to reduce poverty and how to improve education. Alaska could really use an informed discussion about what kind of economy it might create for the future.
Newspapers were once in the position of encouraging informed discussion. Now they invite people like Langford to, sadly, offer purely selfish analyses of what is wrong. At the end of the day, the only facts to be found in Langford’s commentary are that she isn’t, in her opinion, compensated well enough in Alaska (welcome to the club, and I’d bet you’re making more than I am), and her fellow teachers aren’t compensated well enough in Alaska, and because of this the state’s educational system is failing.
But since there’s no data on which to form an independent opinion as to her first conclusion – she could be making $20,000 a year to $120,000 a year for all the average reader knows from what she writes – there’s really nothing on which to base any of the conclusions that follow, which makes the whole commentary nothing but bar talk.
Or an average Facebook rant.
You can get that in the local bar or on Facebook for free. So why would you want to spend money to get it from a newspaper?
Hyping this sort of thing in the news might make it seem more “important,” and that always leads to more people arguing about nothing in the newspaper’s online comment section, which in turn boosts online traffic.
And boosting online traffic is good for a newspaper website fighting for its survival.
The problem is this strategy is unlikely to work for long. At some point people figure out newspaper = Facebook = newspaper, and then journalism is toast because there’s really no sense paying for something that is nothing.
Now, for those who are curious, Anchorage School District records would indicate Langford is paid a salary of $83,693 per year, with summers off, and collects another $42,892.62 in benefits. The cost to Anchorage taxpayers (local schools are largely funded through property taxes) total $126,585.62.
Whether that is too much or too little is for all of the people who pay the bill to decide. That the information wasn’t disclosed….
Well, that’s just another fail on the journalism side.
Clarification: The first version of this story failed to note Langford’s salary and compensation, and that her commentary contained one fact: she has no Social Security.