Alaska’s largest newspaper is again downsizing, but it is understandable if you missed this news.
The email to ADN.com viewers from editor David Hulen required fluency in Orwellian doublespeak.
One could easily have taken at face value his pitch that “ADN has mobilized to cover the coronavirus crisis” and missed the contradiction that followed:
“We’ve had to temporarily cut back hours and pay for all employees, along with some painful layoffs.”
Doublespeak – from George Orwell’s dark vision of the future in the novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four – is the description for language turned on its head. Demobilizing the staff means mobilizing the coverage. Retreating means attacking. Doing less means giving you more.
And mainstream journalism wonders why it has a credibility problem.
The sad thing is Daily News staffers appear to have been working hard through the COVID-19 crisis. And you can expect those left to continue to work hard despite what is said to be a significant cut in pay driven by a drop in advertising revenue due to the pandemic.
With bars and restaurants closed, events canceled, the upcoming tourist season headed for the rocks, supermarkets trying to discourage hoarding rather than attract customers, and health care professionals avoiding elective surgeries while helping the sick, key parts of the advertising base are gone.
And all the commerce that has moved online doesn’t really need the newspaper or ADN.com. Once the shop of your choice gets your email, it can cut out the middleman and go straight to you.
This might be the darkest hour for journalism as older Americans have known it. I fear an old journalism friend who thought early on that COVID-19 might save the business was badly wrong.
“People need reliable sources in the midst of this,” he said.
He was right about that. The problem is there are likely a lot of people who are doing what I am doing on a personal level, and that is turning to professional sources instead of journalists.
To name just a few:
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH)
- The Lancet
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
- The World Health Organization (WHO)
- Our World in Data, which provides more than a daily, sport-style, “box score” look at the numbers
- John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center with its nifty little map of a pandemic exploding around the globe as one would expect a pandemic to do.
- The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) at Oxford University
All of these appear part of the trend toward specialization in the tubes as readers and viewers are gravitating to sites staffed by experts or those who can appear so on TV.
Few journalists are experts on much of anything. A goodly number of them border on scientifically illiterate. They simply weren’t trained for this. A large share of them, maybe most, are far more interested in politics and sociology than science and technology.
The last time they took a science class was in a high school. The last time they read a peer-reviewed scientific study is never. Some don’t even know what “peer-reviewed” means.
Winners versus losers
Given this, it’s to be expected they cover an exploding science story much the same way they now cover politics. It’s all about the score. It’s all about whose winning and losing. The nitty gritty of the substance is just too complicated.
Headline: “Third Alaskan dies of COVID-19 as state confirms 12 more cases”
Scary isn’t it? Especially when you consider no one ever died in Alaska before COVID-19 came along.
Except that is wrong. People normally die every day in Alaska.
More than 800 of those deaths – more than two per day – stemmed from diseases of the heart. Many of these people would have lived longer, better lives if they exercised more, smoked less, ate better and moderated or stopped their consumption of alcohol.
Alaska’s first, official COVID-19 victim was, sadly, dying of heart disease when he contracted the coronavirus that was blamed for his death.That is a too common occurrence in this pandemic.
Among those dead in Italy as of March 19, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) this week reported, 98.8 had a pre-existing medical condition, primarily high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, atrial fibrillation, or cancer.
“About half (48.6%) of the COVID-19 deaths had three or more comorbidities, 26.6% had two comorbidities, 23.5% had one comorbidity, and 1.2% had none,” the ECDC said.
With more than 11,000 dead of COVID-19, Italy is now the focus of the pandemic, which appears to have originated in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and three months later appears finally in decline there. The Chinese data mimics that of Italy.
Washington state, where the pandemic is now also raging and on the rise, does not report on pre-existing medical conditions, but its data does show 93 percent of fatalities have been people over age 60, and 99 percent over age 40.
Older people are more likely to harbor pre-existing conditions than younger people.
These numbers led the director of the CEBM and a senior associate to Monday suggest that maybe the world has been going about battle with COVID-19 in the wrong way.
Sounding more like economists than scientists, they suggested the focus shift to protecting the vulnerable while letting others get back to work.
“Changing the emphasis from hospitals to the community could avert a disaster for the wider population. Care in the home setting restricts movements of the infected,” they argued. “All those with a fever and a cough should stay at home; they could be prescribed pulse oximeters, and oxygen could be delivered to severely affected cases; rescue antibiotics prescribed along with daily video-monitoring could be used to detect deterioration. In the older population, the mildly ill and the recovering, food supplies should be delivered at home.”
They went so far as to claim that sending old people to the hospital might just be dooming them.
“Older Patients admitted to hospital are at greater risk of delirium, pressure sores, adverse effects of new medications, malnutrition and hospital-acquired infections,” they wrote. “An older person admitted to hospital runs the risk of never seeing the light of day again. This is probably the clearest message coming from Italy.”
Distraction in chief
These discussions within the scientific community are interesting, but they sometimes appear to get lost in the media’s myopic search for latest COVID misstep by U.S. President Donald Trump.
“Arizona man dies after attempting to take Trump coronavirus ‘cure’,” The Guardian headlined on March 24. “Wife survives after couple in their 60s ingested chloroquine phosphate, which Trump falsely claimed was approved to treat coronavirus.”
Chloroquine phosphate is the chemical in a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drug for treating malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
What the man and wife did was poison themselves by consuming a chemical cleaning agent that contains the chemical. Trump has advocated for the use of the medical version of the drug as a possible COVID-19 treatment but, as the BBC reported, “the toxic ingredient taken by the Phoenix couple was a chemical commonly used to clean fish tanks.”
How effective it will be remains to be seen, but it is guaranteed to help some if for no other reason than the placebo effect. This has mainly been studied in relation to alleviating pain, but has also been show to boost immunity which can help people fight off disease.
Trump could actually be right on this one or partially right, but politics in the U.S. have become so divisive that not even a national crisis appears capable of bring people together.
And the media, of course, is in the middle of the mix, weighing the winners and losers on how they perform or say they would have performed if they’d been at the control when the plane went into a flat spin, and keeping score.
This what the ADN’s Hulen calls the journalistic effort to “produce timely, fact-based, clear-headed reporting that can be trusted. To hold officials and institutions accountable.”
This from an editor whose newspaper wrote almost nothing about its former owner, the now Alaska infamous Alice Rogoff, being in bed with Gov. Bill Walker after helping him get elected, and worse ignored intentionally or naively (take your pick) the implosion of the newspaper itself, an institution portrayed in federal Bankruptcy Court filings as ” vital to all of Alaska.”
With the Rogoff-owned Alaska Dispatch News in court with creditors and spiraling toward bankruptcy, Hulen had his reporters writing about how the lawsuits were normal business problems.
Then, months later with the newspaper in bankruptcy, it covered the announcement of the filing with self-serving claims from Rogoff about how the newspaper failed because, “like newspapers everywhere, the struggle to make ends meet financially eventually caught up with us. I simply ran out of my ability to subsidize this great news product. Financial realities can’t be wished away.”
She, her accountant and Alaska Dispatch co-founder Tony Hopfinger would later take the stand in an Anchorage court to paint a picture of Rogoff’s managerial incompetence steering the Alaska Dispatch News (ADN.com) off a cliff.
Hopfinger sued Rogoff after she reneged on a promise to pay him $1 million for his remaining interest in the online-only news operation he started with ex-wife Amanda Coyne in 2008.
It was growing toward success when an impatient Rogoff decided she could get more bang for her buck by buying the Anchorage Daily News (ADN.com) newspaper for $34 million six years ago. She named it the Alaska Dispatch News (ADN.com) and killed it in three years.
She sold the newspaper to the Binkley Company from Fairbanks for $1 million, but her legacy – Hulen – remains in charge of the newsroom. He claimed to be working from his kitchen table on Monday, something which was a norm for some Dispatch staff.
Unless your news organization is run by a control freak, why spend money paying for offices when reporters and editors can work from home and hold weekly or twice weekly staff meetings in a coffee shop or bar? COVID-19 might actually provide the Binkleys the opportunity to take the Daily News back to the future where it began in the digital world.
Hulen was hyping up the newspaper’s success there in the most noble of ways.
“We made a decision early on to make much of our coronavirus coverage free as a public service — and then we decided to make virtually all of it free. That continues.”
This would be the online version. Nobody is giving you the newspaper for free.
“But it’s a risk,” he continued. “Doing this work and doing it well takes resources. It’s why we ask our heaviest users to pay for online access. We know people will pay for quality news online because thousands of adn.com readers do. But what happens when you suddenly make much of the content free?”
His answer is that if you make it free, more people sign up.
“A heartening thing happened: In recent days, we’ve seen among the biggest spikes in digital subscriptions at ADN ever,” he wrote. “We’ve seen hundreds of new digital subscriptions even though the bulk of the content has been free. We’re touched and deeply grateful for the support. If you value what we do, haven’t subscribed yet and are able, please consider joining your neighbors in supporting local journalism.”
But if this is truly the case – if making the website free has sparked “the biggest spikes in digital subscriptions at ADN ever” – what exactly is the “risk” in making it free? If that claim is true, wouldn’t the Binkleys be rushing to make it free rather than claiming a “risk”?
It’s all rather confusing. Maybe the situation is best summarized by a now former adjunct instructor of philosophy at the University of Alaska Anchorage:
“Logic is dead in this state.”
Or it least it appears to be so in much of the journalism business. “We have met the enemy,” as Pogo observed 49 years ago, “and he is us.”