May 04, 2016

Why I killed my High Country News subscription

When my suburban Dallas newspaper company went belly-up in 2009, and the parent company of the newspaper where I wound up next went into Chapter 11 my first day of work, I naturally tightened the belt a bit.

Among things lost was a subscription to High Country News. It was a magazine I loved.

I still read the non-paywalled articles. And I still touted stories it had done on social media. But, I wanted to read its in-depth pieces, and I wanted to resubscribe.

So, I got a digital-only subscription. Which I have let lapse. And won't renew.

Nor am I likely to read the non-paywalled articles. Nor am I likely to tout HCN on social media any more.

It's gone off the rails somewhat. And, late-February issues finally turned on a light bulb.

As far as I can tell, it's given in to the Overton Window.

When you have a staff writer who repeatedly has called Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski a "moderate," that's what we call a "tell." When you run a photo caption about Sagebrush Rebellion folks having their constitutional rights violated and never use the word "alleged," that's a concern.

The straw that broke the camel's back? Numerous problems related to their commenting system. They generally revolved around articles about the Bundys taking over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and the amount of "constitutionalist" drivel, followed by outright conspiracy theories, that people there started posting.

Yes, you may have an old, proprietary or semi-proprietary back-end system for website content management in general. But, I suggested a couple of easy fixes.

One was to limit commenting to subscribers only.

If that was too draconian, another one was to put a three-day, or maybe five-day, limit on articles being open for commenting. I'm sure that either one is easy to do. I know that Wordpress-based websites, and I think even the free blogging version of Wordpress, allow that. If your CMS doesn't allow for either one of those, it's time to look at investing in something new, because it has problems otherwise.

And, you don't even need that. Given that HCN web staff will manually close comments for an article, they could easily do that for every article after a three-day or a five-day comment window.

An "attentuated" version of enforcing commenting guidelines was the straw within the straw. Calling an apparent tea partier a tea partier is apparently a personal attack, rather than arguably nothing more than a label, even as the tea partier (and others on other threads) hijack comments by repeatedly going into the deep weeds of constitutional misinterpretation.

Further exacerbating it is that it's invariably non-subscribers doing this. Per evolutionary biology, I don't have to feed the beast on the well-known "freeloader" problem.

The Overton Window would also explain why the likes of Felice Pace no longer write there. Let alone Jeff St. Clair.

That said, there were other reasons, too.

HCN repeatedly emails me, and presumably all subscribers, about advertising opportunities for coming issues and special sections.

Erm, I'm not a business. And, I shouldn't have to be forced to find out how to opt out of such emailings; they should be an opt-in system.

That said, these issues are probably related to why Pace and St. Clair no longer write there — they probably spook some donors.

And, yet, it can't email me personally about my feedback, and how they're addressing commenting issues — if they are at all.

Call this all the feedback of a jilted lover.


Gadfly said...

Add in, on the Overton Window, that senior editor and long-term editorial staffer Jonathan Thompson recently called former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett a moderate and I hope you understand my concern even more.

Jonathan Thompson said...

Dear Steve,

Since you don't pay for your High Country News reading, I'm not going to further irritate our paying readers by cluttering up our comments pane with our back and forth. I don't really care whether you pay for your HCN reading or not, and I doubt your readers do, either. The commenting system isn't my department, so I can't respond to your complaints there.

But when it comes to me describing Bennett as "a moderate," I didn't. I described him as a "moderate Utah Republican." Meaning that he falls somewhere in the middle of the Utah Republican political spectrum. He's more conservative than, say, a Jon Huntsman, but less so than a Mike Lee. I only used the adjective in this case to set up what comes a bit later in the paragraph: Mike Lee defeating Bennett in the primary. Bennett lost to Lee, a tea partier, because he was too moderate for the Utah Republicans, who lean far to the right.

Sure, I could have used more words as you suggest (i.e. "moderate Republican in a party both in Utah and nationally where the meaning of the word 'moderate' has shifted strongly in the last 10-20 years."), but here's the thing: The story was not about Bennett! It was not about the shift in Utah politics! It was about the Bears Ears proposal.

I mean, come on. It was a 2,500 word story, and you're focusing on one single word. If you want to critique the whole story, have at it. I'm sure there are things in there I got wrong; I'm human, it happens (just as you mistakenly said that I called Rob Bishop a moderate). Otherwise, give me -- and your readers, and ours -- a friggin' break.

Jonathan Thompson

Gadfly said...

Your comments are noted. In response, I go back to what I said that I was reading this in context of multiple comments by Krista Langlois about Lisa Murkowski being a moderate, plus the issues noted above.

I don't know what the likes of St. Clair and Pace no longer write for HCN, but, Jonathan, as a senior editor there, you are in a position to know that. If it's not because the mag thinks they're too left (since they DO write at places like Counterpunch), please let me know!

As for the Bear Ears piece itself, and Bennett's Senatorial history, and his alleged help for public lands in southwestern Utah, more ardent environmental groups like SUWA didn't think much of that.

So, yes, Johnny, you can argue that I was taking something out of context.

I would argue, instead, that at worst (after correcting my reference to Bennett rather than Bishop), I was guilty, or "guilty" of a bit of narrowness of focus.

I otherwise stand by what I said at HCN on the Bear Ears piece.

You're welcome to comment back here about Bennett, but I can find plenty more links like the one above.

And, you're also welcome to comment back here about Pace, St. Clair, and editorial decisions on use or non-use of particular writers.

Jonathan Thompson said...

When it comes to my use of "moderate" to describe Bennett, I think you're confused. You seem to think that by using that adjective I'm expressing some sort of opinion about whether Bennett's a good politician or not, or whether his plan to broker a deal was honest, or cynical, or a good one. I'm making no such judgment, so your link to SUWA's piece is neither here nor there. I've explained before, it was a relative term, used specifically to add context and meaning to the Mike Lee/Bennett primary battle that I also mention.

And then you go further to imply that the use of "moderate" in this and other cases is somehow HCN editorial policy -- an organization-wide shift in the "Overton Window." That's absurd. Do you really think that our editorial team sits around and debates and then dictates things like whether we call Bennett or Murkowski or anyone else "moderate"? Seriously!? Well, just to be clear: We don't. End of story. If you think "moderate" was the wrong term to use in that case, that's fine and valid. But to think that the word was used to push some sort of agenda, or reflects some organization-wide political slant, well, I don't even know how to respond to that except to say that you're absolutely wrong and that you have a very distorted view of what a small media organization like ours does and how we do it.

As for which writers write for us and which don't and why, let me explain how this works. Writers pitch us story ideas. If the idea's good, if we haven't done it before, if it is in our wheelhouse, then we assign it. We reject at least 90 percent of the pitches we receive, for all kinds of reasons. Yet I can assure you that we don't vet writers based on their politics. Period.

A sort of exception: We won't assign someone from an advocacy organization to write straight news stories about the issues that they advocate for or against (any more than we'd let the CEO of Exxon write about the oil industry). But we will pass such pitches on to be considered as Writers on the Range opinion pieces. Again, various factors go into whether they are accepted or not, but not the writer's politics. WOTRs come from all across the political spectrum, even the extreme sides (and some pretty nutty ones, too).

St. Clair wrote a few opinion pieces for us many, many years ago. To my knowledge he hasn't pitched us anything in the ten years I've been with HCN. So that might explain our "non-use" of him as a writer. Pace also has written opinion pieces for us in the past, and he still writes letters to the editor (many of them not for publication, but just him keeping us on our toes).

For every reader like you who thinks we've gone too far right, there are at least ten who think we've gone too far to the left. The fallacy in both notions is that it assumes that there is a collective "we" with one, unified political view; that we get together at board meetings and decide where we are going to be on the political spectrum, and then set editorial policy based on that. We don't. We're just a bunch of individuals, with a variety of views and opinions, who are trying our damnedest with very few resources to cover the important issues and stories of an enormous region. Each writer has his or her own style and views, as does each editor. What I as an editor want out of a story can be radically different than what my colleagues want.

But I think I speak for everyone at the organization when I say that we strive above everything to be fair, accurate, clear, truthful and intellectually honest and curious.

I hope that answers your questions.

Gadfly said...

First, thanks for the explainer on the writers.

Second, seeing how the media business works, though, no, I don't think it's absurd to question policy or political stances of any media organization. I remind you that just a month ago, the New York Times got busted for doing a heavy-handed rewrite of an online piece about Bernie Sanders to make it much less favorable to him, put no explainer paragraph at the end to note that it had been a rewrite, then had its public editor deny there was any journalistic ethics problem with having done any of this.

No, I wouldn't think editorial staff meetings specifically say "use the word 'moderate' about these politicians, but I do think that editorial staff meetings, discussions with freelancers, etc., would set the general tone for an article or an issue, or might shift the stance of the magazine or newspaper in general.

I mean, HCN's editorial policy may be, say, somewhat vague, but on straight news stories, and even on WOTR, you've got some sort of editorial policy. If not, if I see if Aryan Nation still has activism in Couer d'Alene, since that's part of the West, will you do a WOTR from it?


Per the 10 who think you've gone too far left, vs. 1 who go too far right, oh, I've seen that in comments. And, I think those comments have become more pushy in the past. Hence my multiple frustrations with the commenting system.

It's a version of "working the refs."

Whether it works or not, who knows?

That said, as far as writers, and what you said about Felice writing non-published letters to the editor ... part of this is, not just a jilted lovers' letter, but my own bid at keeping HCN on its toes.