Journalism & technology: to duel or dance?

I have a yes-but relationship with Emily Bell. I say yes to most every brilliant thing she says but sometimes am foolish enough to add a but.

Go read Emily’s important speech on journalism’s relationship to technology and its masters in Silicon Valley. I will say yes to her argument that algorithms that determine distribution spring from editorial decisions. I will say yes to her concerns about the implications of those formulae for journalism and an informed society. I couldn’t agree more with her endorsement of Zeynep Tufecki’s brilliant exploration of the issues surrounding open v. filtered communication for news: It’s Twitter’s openness, its immunity from gatekeepers either algorithmic or editorial, that allowed news from Ferguson to emerge online before it emerged on the news. It’s Twitter’s openness that also makes it a Petri dish for trolls, harassers, and terrorist beheading videos. I say yes to Emily’s reminder that the platforms we’re discussing are still very new; the Jell-O is still warm and formative.

But I would remind readers that it was technology that freed journalism from its bondage to media moguls and corporations. Who’s to say that our corporations were better than their corporations? We have Murdoch. They have Uber.

I would remind us all that the craft of journalism and the business of news have had 20 years — an entire generation — since the introduction of the commercial web to understand that they should be about more than manufacturing content to fill products and messages to feed to a public that didn’t necessarily ask for them. We have had 20 years to learn to serve people as individuals with relevance and value as Google does; and serve communities with tools to gather, share, and interact as Facebook does; and serve advertisers with greater efficiency as both of them do. And we didn’t. Can we yet learn to create our own technology? We’re not so young as Silicon Valley. Based on our miserable performance thus far, I have my doubts.

I strongly agree with Emily that there must be a discussion about the ethics and principles of the algorithms that distribute, filter, and thus shape the information that cascades over us, now that everyone can publish and share. But my first reflex is not always to build our own; see the prior two paragraphs. My first reflex is to help Silicon Valley define evil and good. As journalists we have a role in sparking and informing discussion of issues that matter to society; that’s our skill, no? I agree with Emily that this is an issue that matters. So let us start there.

Emily and I were both at a — I choke at the label — unconference at Arizona State’s journalism school last week called #Newsgeist. It was convened by the Knight Foundation (which funds both of our work) and Google. I jumped at the chance to join a discussion that I and others had proposed, asking: What could Google do for news? There were many suggestions around the distribution — the embedding — of news in containers that news creators can control and benefit from; around advertising and data; around security.

I now wish that Emily had raised and I’d have seconded a suggestion to convene a discussion with Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al to grapple with the issues she as well as Zeynep and others raise about the ethical issues presented by both filters and openness.

I would remind us all that just because we in the news business used to control the entire chain of news — from deciding what was news to deciding how to cover it to writing the stories to packaging those stories to manufacturing their container to distributing the container to setting prices for both readers and the advertisers who subsidized us — there’s nothing to say that we can or should continue to maintain that vertical hegemony. The web demands and rewards specialization. We now work in ecosystems that demand and reward collaboration.

I chose to write this on Ello, which was built as a protest against Facebook’s power. Bravo for that. But we know that no one will discover it there. I have but one follower, the one who invited me at my request to join the platform. I will tweet this. I will share it on Facebook. I will add it to Google Plus. I will link to it on LinkedIn. (I repost it here.) I will hope for the kindness of friends and strangers to pass it on. They, our public — not an editable algorithm — are the real gatekeepers now. What I have to say will resonate or not depending on whether anyone thinks this falling tree is worth listening to. An algorithm may or may not help that along. That is our circumstance.

I won’t discourage any journalist from building technology — I encourage many of my entrepreneurial students to gather teams with technologists to do just that. But I am not ready to pin my hopes for the future of journalism on the unicorn much sought after and PowerPointed at #Newsgeist: the elusive hack-hacker, the programmer-journalist.

I am certainly not willing to pin my hopes on government regulation. I’ll soon have an essay published in Germany in which I take my journalistic colleagues there to task for running to government to attack Google et al because they could not reimagine their craft and business in our new circumstance, bringing forth an avalanche of unintended consequences: bad regulation, bad law, bad precedent. But I also take Google to task for not doing more to rethink the task and responsibility of informing society.

I agree with Emily that we must report, report, and report with the skepticism many — especially the technology press — have let slip away. I’m worried about the journalists who have criticized Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith for reporting on Uber’s idea to perform opposition research on PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy. I’m worried about the journalists who criticized the Guardian for reporting on Whisper’s — not to mention the NSA’s — dubious doings. The critics fear that Buzzfeed and the Guardian will ruin it for the rest of them — that is, cut off their access to technology’s powerful. The new inside-the-Beltway is the inside-the-101-and-280. What’s insidious in both is journalists’ desire to be inside.

But skepticism need not beget cynicism. I can well be accused of being too optimistic about technology and its makers. I do that to counteract what I see as the Luddite reflex of too many in my field — I’ll link to that German essay when it is published — to attack technologists as the enemy because they ruined the business for us. I think there is a chance to work together. I think we need to.

As a journalist and now an educator my response to the issues Emily raises has been to convene discussions with Silicon Valley about its responsibilities — not to us journalists but to the public we both seek to serve.

Innovation day at CUNY with Shane Smith and Bill Gross

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We have a few seats available for a great event on innovation and news at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism on Monday Dec. 1, starting at 230p and running through a reception ending at 730p:

* We will give Vice founder Shane Smith the Knight Innovation Award.
* Bill Gross, founder of Idealab and more than 125 companies, will deliver a keynote about how he innovates and invents, with lessons for us in media.
* A panel including former gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout; Betaworks data genius Gilad Lotan; Milena Berry of PowerToFly; and angel investor Alicia Syrett– all from outside media — will explore the challenges and opportunities of media.
* Smith will also award a give-forward grant to a journalistic startup of his choice.
* I will present my new book, Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News — and give away copies.
All that plus wine, beer, and discussion.

Details here. Register here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News

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I have a new book about the future of news — or rather, about imagining many possible futures for news. It is my answer to the question I often hear: “So now that your damned, beloved internet has ruined news, what now?” I can’t and won’t predict. But I will explore opportunities the digital age presents for new relationships, new forms, and new business models for news.

I meant to write a white paper — my response to the fine papers out of Columbia. It metastasized into a book. In it, I explore many ideas I’ve discussed on my blog and with news organizations I’ve worked with. It is a personal brainstorming. I hope many others — journalists, publishers, journalism students, journalism teachers, technologists, entrepreneurs, investors — will also imagine more futures for news.

The book is published by the CUNY Journalism Press with help from OR Books. You can buy the paperback here; the ebook here; the combination here. There will soon be links to buy it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Google Play.

In addition, I will be posting the book, section at a time, on Medium, which is helping me do that. So you can read it for free there or help support CUNY by buying a copy.

I’ll be eager to hear what you think.

Building trust in news

In their Trust Project, Richard Gingras, head of Google News, and Sally Lehrman, a fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, argue the need to rebuild trust in news and they propose a set of practical tactics. I want to suggest further steps to support their campaign.

The reforms Gingras and Lehrman propose:
* News organizations and journalists should craft and publish statements of mission and ethics.
* Journalists should disclose their background to reveal both levels of expertise and areas of personal interest and conflict.
* For disclosure and accountability (and credit, I’d add), news organizations should reveal all the hands that work on content: researchers, editors, “even lawyers.”
* News organizations should aspire to an academic ethic of citations (links=footnotes) and corrections. They would also be wise to disclose their methodology — i.e., whom they interviewed, what they researched.

I agree with all that and with their contention that greater trust will yield greater value for news (through greater loyalty, engagement, attention, and promotion for worthwhile work).

A few added suggestions:

Google itself — particularly Google News — can encourage these behaviors by favoring news organizations, journalists, and other sources that follow standards such as these. This is not a manipulation of search. It is a proper use of legitimate signals of quality. Over the years, I’ve spoken with Google News creator Krishna Bharat and, on This Week in Google, with Google spam-killer Matt Cutts about their constant quest to find signals of originality and authority to improve search results and news ranking. For example, to avoid putting the 187th AP rewrite of a Washington Post story atop a cluster of articles, Google looks for citations referencing the Post, thus indicating that the Post has done original reporting and should get higher priority.

In particular, Google can encourage news organizations to cite sources through linking. News organizations and writers should be adhering to stricter standards for citation through linking: show us your sources; show us your work; let us judge those sources and that work for ourselves. This has clear benefit for the public. Journalists will learn that scrupulous linking can build trust, as Gingras and Lehrman argue. Rigorous citations through links will give Google more signals to judge quality and will give us all more data — which Google should publish — about what sources are cited across news organizations, so we can identify journalistic echo chambers.

Google’s prioritizing of original work over diluted rehashes has a further economic benefit: it supports the work of original journalism and reduces the traffic rewards everyone and his uncle gets today for deciding to publish his own “take” on someone else’s original reporting and work.

To encourage statements of disclosure, Google could revive its recently killed author program, this time giving prominent links not to the picture of the writer but to the writer’s disclosure statement when and if one exists. I’m not sure a statement of mission is necessary for every writer on the web (what’s my mission past truth, justice, and the internet way?). But disclosures are beneficial. Here are mine. (There you’ll find that I own shares of Google and have had my travel paid to speak at Google events but do not take fees from the company.)

Google can also support, encourage, and help distribute better corrections. Eight years ago, I wished for a means to subscribe to corrections related to news I’ve read — and, more importantly, stories I’ve written or linked to on my Twitter or Facebook feed or blog. Google is getting close to a means of doing that. Consider how good Google Now has become at recommending news to me based on the stories and topics I’ve been following on Chrome. (Calm your privacy panic; it’s fine with me; it’s a service that brings me relevance and value.) For example, Google knows I’m interested in the LG R watch and so it shows me news about when the gadget is going to be released. Why can’t Google also recommend that I read corrections that have been posted to stories since I read them?

I’m not suggesting that Google can or should do all this on its own. But as Gingras and Lehrman lead as individuals, Google can lead as a corporation, promulgating open standards that support better behavior and greater trust. With those standards, every curator could improve its recommendations.

Journalism schools should take a leadership role, too. At CUNY and most journalism schools, we require courses in law and ethics. We could help support these standards by having our students adhere to rigorous standards of linking and citation in their reporting and by having them publish disclosure statements. We can also help by fostering broader discussion of and research in trust. I’ll volunteer for that.

At a much higher level, trust is also a matter of business models. On the plus side, trust builds economic value, as Gingras and Lehrman contend. On the negative side, mass-media economics have had a significant role in corrupting media, news, and trust in them. As I will argue in my new book, Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News (out next month), importing mass-media models built on reach and frequency to digital news has resulted in the commodification of media and our epidemic of clickbait, cats, cynical manipulation (this link will change your life!), and endless takes on takes to scrounge up pageviews and ad impressions even as their value plummets toward zero.

Chartbeat’s Tony Haile has been beating the attention drum, arguing that selling time over space will lead to greater engagement, higher quality content, greater performance for advertisers, and greater value for media. Rewarding media for value over volume would be a big step in the right direction. I argue in Geeks Bearing Gifts that knowing the public we serve not as a mass but as individuals and communities and serving them with greater relevance as a result will also yield greater value for them and thus for media. I further argue that seeing journalism as a service that helps people and communities meet their goals — and measures its effectiveness that way — rather than as a content factory that merely assaults their eyeballs stories and messages will result in more meaningful relationships and greater accountability and thus greater trust and value.

There are other threats to trust rooted in business, of course. Cable TV’s continued reliance on mass-media economics is what leads to missing-jet-mania and ebola-panic-mongering. This is why I find promise in Reuters new TV news service, which will no longer fill a clock and pimp for viewers but will instead offer personalized, relevant, up-to-the-minute, and nonrepetitive newscasts for individuals.

I worry greatly about native advertising/sponsored content/brand journalism’s potential to poison trust, confusing readers as to the source of content and devaluing news and media brands. This is why we must have serious discussions about the ethics and standards of native advertising (I hope to hold a summit on the topic at CUNY next year). Here, too, Google is already helping by warning that poor disclosure of sponsors’ involvement in the creation of content will lower its status in search.

Finally, I always tell my entrepreneurial students that when they see a problem like the one that Gingras and Lehrman identify, they should not stop at pointing to it (as journalists usually do) but should find the opportunity in it. The proliferation of content and confusion and the crisis in journalistic trust can lead to many entrepreneurial opportunities. The king of corrections, Craig Silverman, is developing Emergent, a new tool to help identify misinformation on the web, and is building a business around it. Storyful developed systems to find and verify witnesses’ accounts of news events and News Corp. bought it.

I see more opportunities in building systems and companies around:
* gathering and analyzing signals of authority;
* building relationship data and analysis for media companies to increase their relevance;
* membership structures for media organizations to give clients — the public — greater voice in the use of journalistic resources;
* establishing new metrics for news as a service (did we improve your life and your community?), enhancing accountability;
* creating the means for trusted, recipient-controlled communication that is free of trolls and other online plagues (as opposed to email, Twitter, et al, which are sender controlled);
* advertising and revenue models that value quality over volume;
* new forms of TV news that do not rely on cheap tricks to fill time and build volume but instead get rewarded for delivering value; and on and on.
Technology companies — not just Google — and investors, media companies, universities, and foundations can invest in and support such innovation to build trust.

To rebuild journalism, news, and media around trust means rebuilding not just some behaviors but more fundamentally journalism’s business models, metrics, forms, and fundamental relationship with the public. That work is in the interest of members of the media ecosystem: news organizations, media companies, journalists, advertising agencies, networks, brands, and, again, Google and other internet companies. Project Trust is a start.

Cross-posted from Medium.

Oh, those Germans

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German publishers warring with Google — and the link and the internet — have now completed their humiliation at their own hands, capitulating to Google and allowing it to continue quoting and linking to them. How big of them.

The pathetic sequence of their fight:

1. German publishers under the banner of a so-called trade group called VG Media and led by conservative publisher Axel Springer called in who knows what political chits to get legislators to create a new, ancillary copyright law — the Leistungsschutzrecht — to forbid Google et al from quoting even snippets to link to them.

2. In negotiations in the legislature, snippets were then allowed.

3. The publishers went after Google anyway, contending that Google should pay them 11 percent of revenue over the use of snippets.

4. Google, being sued over the use of the snippets, said it would take down the snippets from those publishers this week.

5. The publishers said that for Google to take down the snippets they were using to blackmail Google amounted to Google blackmailing the publishers. And you thought Germans were logical.

6. The publishers went to the government cartel office to complain that Google was using its market power against them.

7. Officials laughed the publishers out of the cartel office.

8. Now the publishers have said that Google can use its snippets for free while this legal matter is being ironed out.

Of course, the publishers never wanted the snippets taken down because they depend on those snippets and links for the audience Google sends to them … for free. It is all their cynical game to try to disadvantage their new and smarter competitor. Those who can, compete. Those who can’t, use their political clout.

Enough. Genug.

I have written a much longer essay about the damage these German publishers are doing to Germany’s standing that I am trying to place in a print publication — so I can speak to the print people. I’ll link to it when that happens. Here’s the lede:

I worry about Germany and technology. I fear that protectionism from institutions that have been threatened by the internet — mainly media giants and government — and the perception of a rising tide of technopanic in the culture will lead to bad law, unnecessary regulation, dangerous precedents, and a hostile environment that will make technologists, investors, and partners wary of investing and working in Germany.

LATER: Ah, there’s another chapter already.

9. Like Japanese soldiers stuck on an island thinking the war continues, Axel Springer has declared that Google must take down snippets from four of its brands: Die Welt, and the auto, sport, and computer subbrands of Bild. Note well that they didn’t do that with superbrand Bild, their largest newspaper and the largest in Germany. They need the eggs. So as it loses its argument that Google is a cartel, the German publishers’ cartel crumbles.

Inside an entrepreneur’s sausage factory

I will be assigning all my entrepreneurial journalism students to listen to every episode of Alex Blumberg’s podcast about starting a podcast company. It is an open, honest, true portrayal of the making of an entrepreneur.

Blumberg, you’ll recall, was a producer and voice on This American Life and one of the geniuses — along with NPR economic correspondent Adam Davidson — behind its Giant Pool of Money and then their podcast and blog Planet Money.

He decided to pick up and start a new company to produce quality, journalistic podcasts because he wisely saw the opportunity — we’ll all be streamin’ while we’re drivin’ — and because he saw their success in public radio.

Blumberg’s progress sounds so much like that of our entrepreneurial students. He starts with a passion to make what he does now pay. He faces and admits to many tough reality checks: How can he get the business to scale? Does he have the business and technical skills needed to make the enterprise sustainable? He faces fundamental choices: whether to become a content or a technology company. He learns that venture capitalists fund only technology companies; they fund scale. He learns the importance of the elevator pitch and clarity of vision. He learns the importance of learning from pitches.

Blumberg is a master storyteller and so this tale has plenty of suspense. I’ll be listening to every episode — and assigning every episode as well. Here are the first three:

A most cynical letter from a most cynical company

Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp., just sent a monumentally cynical letter to the EU attacking Google, matching the letter from a posse of European publishers led by Germany’s Axel Springer and another public letter from that company’s head, Mathia Döpfner. These supposed bastions of conservative thinking are running to the government they all disdain to try to get unfair advantage on Google because — simply put — they have failed in the marketplace on their own. The internet and defeated them. They are crying uncle. On Newsgenius, I annotated Thomson’s letter….

Technoeuropanic

Europe is at it again. Or still. I’m told that a consortium of European publishers will run an ad in European papers this weekend attacking Google and the EU’s antitrust deal with the company. It’s the same old stuff: publishers whining and stomping their feet that it’s just not fair that Google is doing better than they are and government should step in to do something about this, this damned, uh … competitor.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 at 8.17.21 PMIn the ad, the publishers’ argument is that Google’s search is not “impartial.” First, who said it has to be? Second, Google does point to its competitors; see this search for “maps” to the left. Third, who requires the publishers to promote their competitors? Here, the so-called Open Internet Project — a front started by German publisher Axel Springer — demands “equal search” (what the hell would that be?) for, say, shoe listings, complaining that Google makes money pointing to its shoe advertisers. Hmmm. And here is Bild, Springer’s gigantic newspaper, selling shoes itself. I don’t see them linking to Google’s shoe ads. Shouldn’t a news publication be — what’s the word? — impartial?

But, of course, this isn’t the point. It’s a game. I’ve seen German publishers chuckling about it that way. They think they can use government and political pressure to cut some flesh out of Google. But they should beware the unintended consequences. They are helping Europe — and particularly Germany — get a reputation for being hostile or at least inhospitable to technology. Here is the Economist writing about “Germany’s Googlephobia.”

It so happens that I’m going to Berlin next week to speak at the IFA technology show about just this topic: Europe (specifically Germany) and technology specifically American technology companies). I worry about Europe.

Germany just banned Uber (despite the advice of EC VP Neelie Kroes). A European court instituted the ludicrous and dangerous Right to be Forgotten (what about the right to remember?). German government officials harassed Google over Street View so much that Google gave up photographing its streets (so much for Blurmany). German publishers got government to pass an ancillary copyright to go after Google quoting and linking to their content (but then lost a round in court). The German book industry gave technosceptic Jaron Lanier its big-deal peace prize and Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel is roaring up the charts. A German pol is threatening to break up Google (how?). Spain is looking to tax the link. The head of powerful German publisher Axel Springer raises the spectre of Google starting its own nation without laws. A German government agency is talking about declaring Google a utility and regulating it as such; I’d call that quasi-nationalization. “It is the core task of liberalism and social democracy to tame and restrain data capitalism gone wild,” declared Social Democratic Chairman Sigmar Gabriel in a German paper. “Either we defend our freedom and change our policies, or we become digitally hypnotised subjects of a digital rulership.” I could go on….

Would you invest in technology in Europe and specifically in Germany? I sure wouldn’t.

Some of this is about disrupted companies and institutions rallying to try to hobble their disruptor. Some of this is cultural technopanic. In either case, the damage to Europe and particularly Germany could be great.

At IFA, I plan to tell the technology executives there that they need to step up and defend progress or they might find themselves left behind.

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