A New York Times reporting error reached all the way to Alaska last week where Israel Payton, a member of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, had to explain what wasn’t.
The case didn’t exactly involve the “fake news” of which President Donald Trump regularly and usually wrongly accuses the country’s most influential on-paper news source, but did involve a mistake of some significance in Alaska.
In his conflict of interest statement before a special meeting of the Board on Monday, Payton sped through his sources of income – property development, rental property, wife’s job as a mental health counselor – and then added this at the end:
“And as a side note, contrary to what some of you may have read in the New York Times, I do not hold any interest in a northern district setnet fishery.”
In a region of the state where commercial and non-commercial fishermen are regularly at war over who gets to catch what salmon and how many, Payton fills a sport fishing/personal-use seat on the Board, and the NYT’s summer suggestion that he’d sold out to a commercial fishing business was a bit of a bombshell.
“Mike Wood, an owner of Su Salmon Co., and Israel Payton headed out with their nets into Cook Inlet outside Anchorage in July.”
“From left, Aden Wilcox, Mr. Payton and Ethan Ioli of Su Salmon Co., getting the boat ready to go fishing.”
“At Su Salmon Co., a group gathered before most of them headed out to fish: from left, Mr. Payton, Mr. Ioli, Mr. Wood, Molly Wood and Mr. Wilcox.”
In reality, Payton – a relatively new member of the Board – was accompanying commercial fishermen into Cook Inlet to get a better idea of how their fisheries are prosecuted.
How he came to be classed as a commercial fishermen is sadly representative of one of the biggest problems plaguing the news business today.
A complex world
Payton’s misidentification might even have been the least of the problems with the lengthy NYT story headlined “A Dwindling Catch Has Alaskans Uneasy – Red salmon, a summertime pleasure that feeds residents through the winter, has failed to show up this season in most rivers.”
With this story as with so many others, the problem isn’t with reporters trying to write inaccurate stories. Almost all reporters are trying to write good, sound stories.
But they’re often poorly equipped or poorly prepared or simply lacking the time needed to do that. In a perfect world, any decent reporter given the time can write a solid story about anything.
Given the time.
These days with the internet demanding news before it happens there often isn’t the time. In cases where editors can match reporters with knowledge to stories that require background, that problem can be solved. But there aren’t that many editors left and the few out there often don’t have the bodies around to match anything to anything.
They’re sort of stuck with what they’ve got, as the NYT apparently was, and thus sometimes go off the tracks.
To start with, red salmon showed up in all rivers, although runs to the Copper and Kenai rivers – two major producers in the most populated part of the state – were weak and somewhat late. As a result, commercial catches of red salmon off the mouths of the rivers were small, but both systems ended up meeting their sizable goals for fish in-river.
OK, so one can blame the headline on the headline writer, but that doesn’t account for the story failing to cover basic facts. The story talks about the Copper run being weak. The in-river goal for sockeye in the Copper is 360,000 to 750,000.
By July 28, nearly 702,000 salmon had entered the river. The story ran on Aug. 21. It focused heavily on how some personal-use dipnetters didn’t get the fish they wanted.
Dipnetting is a uniquely Alaska fishery that allows state residents to go down to glacial turbid river with big nets and scoop out a limited supply of salmon for food through the winter. Dipnetters did discover sockeye hard to find in the Copper in the early season, but those who persevered benefited from a late surge of the fish.
Large numbers of sockeye – 15,000 to 23,000 per day – started moving into the dipnet fishery about a week before the NYT story reported nothing there. The fishery was going good when the story appeared claiming it a bust.
Alaska fisheries are extremely complicated, and they were in a bit of chaos in many places around the state in 2018. But that has become something of a norm in Alaska in even-numbered years. The 49th state saw a mind-boggling, record harvest of 272 million salmon in 2013; 219 million of them were fast growing pinks.
The total catch fell to 152 million in 2014, a 44 percent drop. But it then rebounded to 263.5 million in 2015, which saw the second largest harvest on record. The pattern has continued since with a drop to 112 million in 2016; a climb back to 224.6 million in 2017, and then a drop to 114 million this year.
Oscillations are being driven by pink salmon, the smallest and fastest growing of the five-salmon species harvested in Alaska. The pink catch this year was 40 million, less than 20 percent of the 2013 harvest.
Odd-year and even-year pinks are genetically distinct, and Canadian salmon researchers have suggested that a warming Gulf of Alaska may be “benefiting odd-year returning pink salmon more than even-year salmon, especially in the southern part of their range.”
Meanwhile, questions have been raised as whether all those pinks – their natural numbers boosted by the 30 to 107 million pinks annually produced by Alaska hatcheries – are pushing down the size of returns of sockeye, coho and Chinook in some parts of the state.
“The hatchery harvests alone in both 2013 and 2015 were greater than the entire statewide commercial salmon harvest in every year prior to Statehood except for seven years (1918, 1926, 1934, 1936, 1937, 1938 and 1941),” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported.
Scientists Greg Ruggerone and Jennifer Nielsen have suggested the fast-growing pinks are consuming a larger and larger share of the food in the North Pacific Ocean to the possible detriment of other salmon species.
“The consistent pattern of findings from multiple regions of the ocean provides evidence that interspecific competition can significantly influence salmon population dynamics and that pink salmon may be the dominant competitor among salmon in marine waters,” they concluded in a paper published in Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries in 2004.
But the North Pacific is among the world’s most complex ecosystems, and once young fish from Alaska disappear into that undersea jungle of predator and prey, no one can accurately predict what will happen.
Complexity is a problem for journalism, which is in the business of simplification.
The New York Times was once a leader in dealing with this problem. It was famous in the business for its effort to develop so-called “beat reporters” as experts in the news they covered – politics, the environment, the military, etc.
All of that begin to fade in the digital age as “continuous news” came into play.
“The print paper staffers with expertise need to be encouraged to make time for consulting with the continuous news reporters about stories being written for the web,” Byron Calame, the NYT’s “public editor” observed more than a decade ago before going on to illustrate a case in which a poorly schooled reporter wrote a story on job growth statistics that turned out to be wholly wrong because the context was wrong.
The “consultation,” he wrote, “came too late to keep the top of the Nov. 3 online story on government job growth statistics from contradicting the next day’s article in the print paper.”
Since Calame made those observations in 2006, financial pressures on news organizations have largely eliminated consultation along with a lot of editing oversight. At the same time, the training and experience needed to make journalists highly knowledgeable in the material they are covering has faded.
The median age for journalists rose from 36 in 1992 to 47 in 2013 as newspapers began laying off less-experienced employees as budgets shrunk. Since that time, the trend has gone rapidly the other direction. Higher paid, older reporters are gone, replaced by lower paid, younger reporters.
As Kyle Pope observed in the special, spring/summer report for the Columbia Journalism Review, “news companies continue to cut their most senior (and best-paid) people, and lower levels of hiring have made what had been a tight market for new arrivals even more brutal. If you do manage to land a job? The pay is dismal, with the starting median salary for a reporter stagnating at $34,150.”
It is hard to avoid the simple observation that to some extent you get what you pay for.
As one 40-something editor still hanging on at mainstream publication observed, “the whole business is a disaster area. I think the one defining feature of the information age is how dumb we’ve become.”
“Younger reporters are inherently cheaper than older ones, and also easier to convince to work long hours,” writes Ricardo Bilton at DigiDay. “The result at many news organizations is large bodies of young reporters at the bottom ranks with a thin layer of editorial oversight at the top.”
At Mic, he reported an average age of 27 with reporters covering everything in which they are interested, “a significant departure from a generation ago, when young reporters cut their teeth covering high school volleyball or local council meetings for more fully-staffed local newspapers. Today, a 25-year-old can reasonably expect an entry-level job that lets them cover big stories about topics such as gender politics or national government policies.”
The downside for these people just entering the business?
“Young reporters are looking to do real journalism, but can be disappointed when they’re only called upon to churn out 10 stories a day and aggregate content,” Julie Hartenstein, associate dean for career services at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism told Bilton. “Also, it’s not much of a golden age if you can’t pay your bills.”
As a result, a lot of the best young talents abandon journalism for jobs in public relations or public affairs. It happens all over the country, and Alaska’s largest city has followed this national trend in a big way.
This shift only makes things worse. The PR cadre becomes the source of knowledge appropriately spun, which it rolls downhill to a gang of overworked reporters who are so busy trying to rewrite the stream of information coming at them there is little time for thinking let alone questioning.
When national publications go looking for help on covering stories outside their normal areas of expertise or circulation, they consequently find local knowledge hard to find. And when it comes to complex stories, that really shows.
It’s no wonder the NYT coverage of Alaska fisheries was superficial and mislead. Stories don’t get much more complex than those involving Alaska fisheries.
Both high water and cold water were blamed for slowing the entry of sockeye into the Copper River to interfere with dipnet and subsistence harvests there this year. And some tried to blame The Blob – a humongous pool of hot water in the North Pacific Ocean – for the general decline in salmon returns statewide, though the picture there was anything but clear.
Not to mention that the 2013 catch, the largest in state history and a number unimaginable to salmon managers in the 1970s – came as The Blob began forming. And the second highest harvest in state history, 263.5 million salmon, followed in 2015 as The Blob was nearing its peak. The third highest came in 2017 near the end of The Blob years.
If the Blob is responsible for the valleys between those peak harvests, how can it not be credited for peaks?
And then there is this from “Ecosystem Considerations 2015, Status of Alaska’s Marine Ecosystems,” an annual report from the federal Alaska Fisheries Sciences Center in Seattle:
“The (Gulf of Alaska) coastal winds were upwelling favorably…which helped maintain relatively normal sea surface temperature along the coast as compared with the much warmer than normal water offshore.”
Young fish spawned in Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet emerge from sheltered near coast waters into the Alaska Coastal Current that pushes them north before turning west toward Kodiak Island.
Given the normal temperatures there, it is possible those fish avoided The Blob, rendering it something of a non-entity when it comes to Alaska salmon production, which then shifts the focus back on other issues.
A peer-reviewed study looking for lasting damage from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound ironically found little evidence of problems from residual oil, but stumbled on a link between big returns of hatchery pink salmon and shrinking returns of Copper River sockeye returns. When hatchery pink returns go up, the study said, wild sockeye returns go down.
As state fisheries scientists Bill Templin pointed out, correlation is not necessarily causation. The Board then bowed to the argument that science can’t definitively prove the hatcheries, now the economic heartbeat of the Sound, are damaging other salmon runs.
But then the science on fisheries can’t definitely prove much of anything except that the fish need to be allowed to spawn in significant numbers or the size of runs will collapse.
The spawning needs were met in most Alaska streams this year, and the salmon catch though not huge was large. Prior to the new millennium, a harvest of 114 million would have been considered a decent catch, but perceptions have changed in the new, warmer Alaska of today.
Twelve of the 18 largest harvests in state and territorial history have come since the year 2000.
As scientists observed in a 2006 review of “The Commercial Fishery in Alaska,” an annual harvest below 100 million would today be considered troubling, but “from the inception of the salmon fishery in the late 1800s through the 1970s, such harvest levels were considered a Godsend. Prior to the (state salmon) plan being written, annual commercial harvest levels in excess of 100 million salmon had only happened in six years (1918, 1934, 1936 to 1938, and 1941; only 6 percent of the years prior to 1980). Since 1980, the Alaska commercial salmon fishery has only once (4 percent of the years) harvested less than 100 million salmon—in 1987, the harvest was 96.6 million fish.”