Category Archives: MediaMeta

Hunting for Intelligence in the New Planets News

My grandfather turned 87 last week, and being the considerate grandson that I am, I waited a few days to call  – to let the holiday linger, you know.

The report from Indiana included the news that he  enjoyed his birthday dinner of broasted chicken and a can of beans from the Pay Less grocery; that Mr. Trump was likely not spanked enough as a child, since he turned out to be such a brat; and that there were some new planets discovered that might support life though “their sun ain’t as hot as ours.”

Despite the provincial nature of my job as a local newsman, I sometimes like to know what’s going on out there in the worlds. So after exchanging weather notes with Grandpa and saying goodbye, I plugged “new planets” into the search machine.

The Fox News headline above was Number Two on the results list; given the bear-blinding flashlight advertised, it seems they have targeted what their readers want to know about life.

New aliens to hunt? Martha, pack your bags. We got a new place to go on safari!

And we wonder why the aliens don’t want to say hello.

The National Geographic headline reminds us of the paradoxes inherent in this thing we call life:

New Earth-Size Planets Would Be Nothing Like Earth

The three dimensions are so passe when we’re talking about outer space.

Listed as our “in-depth” option on p.1 of Google News results, the NatGeo lead is about as purple as the infrared light put off newly discovered ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1  might appear to our eyes:

A tantalizing trio of Earth-size worlds circles a tiny, dim star relatively close to us, and each planet is within or near the region where the star’s light could support the whispers and sighs of extraterrestrial life.

Don’t worry about the aesthetic life of any potential life on this planet, though; as astrophysicist Michaël Gillon goes on to explain in the NatGeo article, “for local creatures with infrared vision, plants would have some colors and would look much nicer.”

Several of the articles, like that from CNN – which, oddly, nests the news under its “health” directory – and that from his home school of MIT make sure to quote postdoc Julien de Wit’s line that it was a “risk” to bet on looking into the infrared spectrum. Such a risk that, as the MIT article notes, it was funded in part by the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research, the European Research Council, and NASA.

The Reuters lead is a simple example of the basic issue in reporting on Outer Space news: The only thing we care about is “Can we go there?” and that’s the only way science gets funded.

So you have this:

The discovery of three planets that circle a small, dim star could bolster the chances of finding life beyond Earth, astronomers said on May 2.

Which, rewritten for more pedestrian topics, comes out something like this:

The discovery of a fact could bolster the chances of having something we want to be true, be true, authorities said.

Oh, that’s how we write the news anyway, from official handouts and assertions? I’ll shut up now.

Start reading the letter in Nature which broke the research and it becomes clear why all these sources are fine with repeating whatever the scientists tell them: even the intelligent layman can’t be expected to decode the stuff in these journals.

But I can read good enough to know that I like these two sentences of “it depends”:

The planets’ atmospheric properties, and thus their habitability, will depend on several unknown factors. These include the planets’ compositions; their formation and dynamical history (their migration and tides); the past evolution and present level of the extreme-ultraviolet stellar flux (probably strong enough in the past, and perhaps even now, to significantly alter the planets’ atmospheric compositions); and the past and present amplitudes of atmospheric replenishmenmechanisms (impacts and volcanism).

Unfortunately, a Tbilisi, Georgia-based psy-trance duo has beat you and me to the band name “Stellar Flux.” 

I do have to give the Google ‘rithm credit for its selection on one count. At the bottom of the page one results for “new planets” was this science column from Tim Philp of the Brantford (Canada) Expositor: the opening and closing ‘graphs are generically “gee-whiz, things have got crazy since I was a kid,” but in the core five paragraphs, he does some fine expository writing on how astronomers have been finding so many more planets in recent years. It’s a two minute read that’ll leave you more intelligent. 




Our local daily is the Ithaca Journal, Frank Gannett’s second newspaper; purchased by the grand old man of newspaper consolidation in 1912, the Journal just had its 200th birthday. That fact went unnoticed by the paper, given that the folks over there are down to three reporters.

Last weekend, while doing my usual round of online check-ins with Ithaca’s other media outlets, I noticed this doozy of a headline in the story carousel:

Teacher viewed SEX VIDEOS with students, polic…

It occurred to me that there had been lots of headlines popping up on the Journal‘s site recently with some variation of the RANDOMLY CAPITALIZED format. The New York tabloids freely use ALL CAPS in headlines, but they almost always use them before a colon, in a “HEAD: Here’s the subhead” format.

So, to indulge my idle and irresponsible speculation that perhaps Gannett is gearing up for another purchase — the Daily News, last I heard, is still on the block with a price of $1 attached – I took a swing around the internet to see if CAPS LOCK was taking over other Gannett properties.

The answer gleaned from this highly scientific anecdotal survey, in short, is that if Gannett’s NEWSROOM OF THE FUTURE will be featuring lots of random caps to INCREASE ENGAGEMENT, its Southern Tier papers are serving as the incubator for the program.

I skimmed pages as far down as clicking “more news” twice will let you. 27 stories are shown on most of the Gannett pages, before you can’t click anymore and run into the video and FEATURED CONTENT bars, because the “8 biggest moments in Apple history” and “Why this grocery store unisex bathroom sign went viral” is essential local reporting …

There weren’t any random caps at the Detroit Free Press, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Asheville Citizen-Times. Nothing in Reno or the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. Shreveport, Pensacola, Tallahassee, all have yet to start serving the capitalization lords. Nothing in Indy or Phoenix.

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader missed an opportunity to write THUNE: GAPS EXIST in Sioux Falls airport security. Burlington missed a chance to put CLEAN TOILET BOWL on their sidebar. A Green Bay columnist remarking on a Lysistrata-inspired movement to stop Trump got the relatively tame header “Trump or sex?” rather than


Look at that – how can you resist?

There certainly are some Gannett sites using some caps.

Gannett’s lone Montana paper, the Great Falls Tribune, had several GALLERY and UPDATE headers. Delaware’s News Journal featured a RECAP and a TGIT! – which I presume to stand for Thank Goodness/God It’s Thursday, as it was a link to the entertainment section.

Bruce Springsteen’s hometown rag had some WATCH on its homepage, while used STUDENT NEWS.  Morristown was using WATCH and LETTER and PHOTOS, though a video of “True Islam” program in Mountain Lakes got a lower-case “Watch.” “History:” and “Police:” got no caps treatment along with “WATCH” in Vineland, but “FISHING” did.

Gannett has six papers in New York. Poughkeepsie had a SPEAK UP to encourage commenters to speak up. Rochester and Westchester’s Journal News ( seem to have avoided the bug, even while using identical headlines on Albany bureau generated items like “How they fared in the state budget.”

Ithaca, Binghamton’s Press & Sun Bulletin and the Elmira Star-Gazette, old Mr. Gannett’s very first newspaper, share a lot of editing and content. And here is where the CAPS seem to be given their greatest freedom. All of these headlines were up at the same time one early morning late last week. The CAPS are original; the colors are my innovation. If you’re reading Gannett executives, I’m available for consulting gigs.

From Binghamton:

SETTLE IN: Fourth Cal Harris trial

TAKES YOUR BREATH AWAY  (a N.Y. cigarette tax story)

TROUT OPENER: mixed results for anglers.

UPDATED: Who’s the best? 34 years of all-star hoops

ZERO FATALITIES: DEC says 2015 safest season in decades

MAKING A MURDER TRIAL: Harris case needs resolution

And then there was “SUMMER PLANNER: Send us your event listing” and “How much for THAT house? Look it up here,” “HOW MUCH? NY educator pay, pensions a click away … those are promoting a database site Gannett’s been building that might or might not be more navigable than plucking things like salaries and government contracts straight from state sites.

A couple favorites that were up on Ithaca:

NAME CHECK: See if you’re owed unclaimed money

ORANGE PRIMER: What you need to know about Syracuse

PARTICIPATE: Election 2016 coverage

And this, on Facebook.

SAD STORY: Suffocated while asleep. Mom rolls on child

Fortunately, DEATH NOTICES is not yet part of the style guide.

See the above image for Elmira’s current idea of how to get people “engaged.”


While compiling this piece, I stumbled across an item printed in the May 11, 1977 Washington, Pa. Observer-Reporter regarding a recent purchase Gannett had made of a western chain.

Al Neuharth told the stockholders there has been some recent criticism of newspaper groups or chains, the story said, and then closed like so:

“The infusion of professionalism that Gannett and its subsidiaries bring to these newspapers will convince even the critics or cynics that it matters little whether newspapers are owned by individuals, or families, or partners, or chains,” he said. “What really matters to the readers is what those owners do with them.”