The orthodoxy of the article, part II

Frédéric Filoux willfully misrepresents me so that he may uphold the orthodoxy of the article. He will be disappointed to learn that we agree more than he wishes. Here is what I am really saying about the article.

First, far from denigrating the article, I want to elevate it. When I say the article is a luxury, I argue that using ever-more-precious resources to create an article should be taken seriously and before writing and editing a story we must assure that it will add value. Do most articles do that today? No. Go through your paper in the morning and tell me how much real value is added and how much ink is spilled to tell you what you already know (whether that is facts you learned through Twitter, the web, TV, radio, et al or background that is reheated more often than a stale slice in a bad New York pizzeria).

How many articles are rewritten from others’ work just so a paper and a reporter can have a byline? How many predict the obvious (every story about an upcoming storm, holiday, press conference, or horse race election)? How often do you see a local TV story with any real reporting and value instead of just someone standing where the news happened 12 hours ago telling you what you and he both read online already? Too many articles passing themselves off as professional journalism are crap and I say we can’t afford to do that anymore. I say we should treat articles with veneration as a luxury.

Second, I am also promoting rather than devaluing background when I say it is best linked to. The background paragraphs in an ongoing story generally do one of two things: they bore and waste the time of people who have followed the story or they underinform the people who have not been following the story. Background graphs were a necessity of print but online we can improve background immensely, investing the effort in truly valuable and long-lasting content assets that give richer and more helpful background on a story. I’ve worked with smart folks at news companies imagining how we could provide multiple paths through background: here’s the path to take if you’re coming to the story as a virgin; here’s a track to take if you’ve missed a week; here’s a track from one perspective; here’s one from another. If someone else did a great job explaining the story or elements of it, we should link to them. Filoux calls that oursourcing. I call that linking. We do that nowadays. This is why I’m eagerly watching Jay Rosen’s project in creating explainers, which is an even richer form of background.

Third, in this entire discussion of the article, I am valuing reporting higher than repetitive retyping. As our resources become ever-scarcer, I say that we must devote more of them to reporting than to articles that add little: asking the questions that haven’t been asked and answered, finding people who can add information and perspective, fact-checking.

But I have angered the gods, first Mathew Ingram, now Filoux, who also misquotes me when he says I say that: “Tweeting and retweeting events as they unfold is a far more superior way of reporting than painstakingly gathering the facts and going through a tedious writing and editing process.” I say no such thing and dare him to show me where he thinks I say that with a direct quote. That sentence could stand a little painstaking editing itself. I do say that while an event is underway, tweeting is an amazing new tool to hear directly from witnesses, to question them, to debunk rumors, to manage collaborative reporting (that’s what Andy Carvin does in the Arab Spring). It is part of the reporting process. It contributes to articles later in the process (that’s what Brian Stelter was asking his desk to do when he covered a tornado).

The point is that there are many new ways to accomplish journalistic goals to cover news and gather and share information: Twitter, blogs, data, visualization, multimedia…. Jonathan Glick wrote a much more constructive answer to the question I raised about articles, saying that now that they are freed from the drudgery of reporting infobits of news — the things we have already been told sooner and by other means — then the article can concentrate on adding true value: context, explanation, education, commentary, further reporting, fact-checking….

That is the sense in which I say that the article is or often should be a byproduct of the news process. Once the public is informed of the facts through faster means, once we put digital first and print last (© John Paton), then we also no longer need to build the infrastructure and process of news around writing articles. We have to break out of that expensive, inefficient, archaic stricture. We can instead architect news around helping communities organize their information and themselves (that is my definition of journalism) and we have new ways to do that, including new ways to report news and write articles.

I dare to question the assumptions about the forms of news and journalism. That’s my job. Some — including apparently Filoux — might argue that it is the job of a university to impart orthodoxy: This is the way we have always done it, thus that’s the right way to do it, and that’s the way you will do it, students. I abhor that view.

I believe it is my job, especially in a university, to challenge assumptions and to free students to invent new forms. That is one of my hidden agendas behind teaching entrepreneurial journalism: to encourage and support students (and the industry) to break assumptions and invent new forms, because they can, because we must.

I fear Filoux’s still upset with me because I could not bear and dared criticize the discussion on a panel he ran at the e-G8 in Paris. It wasn’t him I was criticizing. It was hearing the same old stuff from the same old people. At a conference on the internet and the future, the past was rehashed once more. I can bear that no more than he apparently can bear my temerity to challenge the holy article.

But in the end, we almost agree. Filoux argues that newspapers should become, say, “biweeklies offering strong value-added reporting and perspectives, and using electronic media for the rest.” Hmmm. He’s saying, just as I am, that articles should be richer and more valuable and that reporting news bits can be accomplished by other means. So where do we disagree?

  • Al Pittampalli

    This is a great intellectual debate. I agree that Filoux took many of the comments from your original post out of context, and in general, your accusation of being “misrepresented” is fair.

    I must admit though, Jeff, that the tone of your first post could have easily been interpreted as slightly anti-article (as I originally did)…although this one seems to clarify your position nicely.

    And all in all it’s clear you both agree way more than you disagree. Great debate.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Al,
      Thanks.
      I’m unapologetic. The article is not holy; if it were, we’d have more good articles. We need to question old assumptions and closely held beliefs.

  • http://pressthink.org Jay Rosen

    When the demand for a certain author that many wish to debunk–for example, an author who would claim that Twitter is replacing good old fashioned shoe leather reporting–is much greater than the supply of writers actually making that claim, the excess has to go somewhere.

    That, more than anything, explains this exchange.

    • http://sfadj.com Rubin

      Jay,

      What you are describing, it seems to me, is a process of totemization (of Jeff by Filloux). While the claim is certainly a bit strong, the idea is very interesting.

      • http://pressthink.org Jay Rosen

        Totemization is a a good way of putting it.

        There’s a moment in Filloux’s post where he actually recognizes that he’s doing it. I refer to this: “Then, if we follow the Jarvis Doctrine, any additional reporting – let alone narrative reconstruction – would become extraneous or useless. (OK, I’m slightly over the top here).”

        In other words, he is making Jarvis say something he needs Jarvis to be saying so as to make a point he wanted to make for his own reasons.

        Another clue is this bit: “What about the notion (outdated, I know) of accuracy, of fact-checking?” Filloux lets on how badly he wants to be arguing with someone who thinks accuracy outdated. He really, really, really wants to refute that person. But he can’t find one. So instead of Smith’s notion or Brown’s notion or de Chardin’s notion or Jarvis’s notion that accuracy is outdated, it’s just “the” notion. Because the demand for someone to refute on that score is infinitely greater than the supply.

      • Andy Freeman

        It’s even worse. “What about the notion (outdated, I know) of accuracy, of fact-checking?” is part of Filloux’ criticism of Jarvis’ “Isn’t it more valuable to add reporting, filling in missing facts or correcting mistakes or adding perspectives, than to rewrite what someone else has already written?”

        Maybe Jarvis is wrong, that it is more valuable to rewrite without adding or correcting, but in saying that that correcting is more valuable than rewriting, something that journalists seem to value highly, Jarvis is saying that correcting is important, that it isn’t outdated.

  • cm

    Traditional journalism certainly has a role to play in providing well constructed articles with good research and excellent provenance.

    Unfortunately such journalism is being eroded as it has to complete for attention with other media and with journalists being increasingly pressurised to crank out eye-catching stories. As journalism shifts with the times to be more immediate and less discerning it dilutes its differentiation and thereby defeats itself.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Traditional journalism certainly has a role to play in providing well constructed articles with good research and excellent provenance.

      > Unfortunately such journalism is being eroded as it has to complete for attention with other media

      That’s the excuse, but the reality is that “traditional journalism” was never all that common and very few journalists have any interest in it except as an excuse for why they’re not being paid as much to engage in something else.

      This week’s example (showing that “journalists” have little interest in journalism) is the Palin e-mails.

  • http://profiles.google.com/dave.martin Dave Martin

    Jeff,

    Kudos on another thought provoking post. Those able to take advantage of technology, I and your other readers certainly a part of that group, will welcome the brave new world you speak of.

    My concern is with those without equal access to the technology. For example, three groups most often cited as those on the other side of the digital divide: the poor, the elderly and rural folks. According to Pew, 50% of both the lowest and highest income brackets “typically get news from a local print paper.” Pew’s data further indicates 82% of those in the highest income bracket also access news online (which I read as gaining access to news both on and off line). However, 43% of households making less $30,000 a year do not have internet access at home. Many of us are aware of seniors who don’t own a computer, have never been online and attempt to stay informed by reading the print daily in their town. Absent some regulatory solution, what are publishers to do? Leave those without access behind?

    Here’s a question for your class. What becomes the reasonable, real-world definition of the public’s right to know?

    • Andy Freeman

      > However, 43% of households making less $30,000 a year do not have internet access at home. Many of us are aware of seniors who don’t own a computer, have never been online and attempt to stay informed by reading the print daily in their town. Absent some regulatory solution, what are publishers to do? Leave those without access behind?

      How about provide news to them in their favored format?

      Are you really claiming that you can’t make money serving 43% (actually more, since seniors are under-represented in that 43%) of the population?

  • http://www.gstene.wordpress.com gstene

    This might be a bit on the side of the discussion. Nevertheless an input to the discussion. I´m still surprised by the media industry and it´s seemingly ignorance or is it lack of knowledge of relatively basic business perspectives?

    Yes I know the blog posting is about journalism, and the ´new´channels like social media and how “it transforms” the media business.

    The point (in the search for “new journalism”) is not about twitter or newspapers. What ever angel you look at it it becomes about business. In any other business the most important to ask is to ask for the ´purpose´ of the business. What is the point?
    So – what the media industry should start answering seriously is what is the point of what they are doing? (and we know there are loads of pointless content in todays news – so the answer should be thought about for a while, before repeating old memorized statements).

    The second most important (yes it is second) is to have insight in what the customer/ audience / user consider a benefit. Meaning; “What benefit does this media and media channel give me?” A newspaper, an on-line news website, a mobile news service (cell phone or reading list) and so forth are all capable of delivering different styles of content / news of some sort. Twitter is also such a source, where the user may find news.

    By now you maybe have some idea of what I think of as the third most important ? It´s the product. The mistake almost everyone does in business (and especially when revenues are dropping) is to “blame” the product and forgetting about the two more important issues, that have to be resolved first.

    News is not a product! A newspaper is. A website presenting news is another kind of product. An iPad newspaper is as well. But as I said there is a huge difference between the raw material as a news happening is, and what kind of product someone decide to make out of it. News content is produced, but have still not become “a product”. A twitter message is a “news product” because it is a produced statement of a news event, ´delivered´in an specific channel(Internet) and published in a genuine brand(twitter) by someone(me). The difference between an article and a tweet is merely that I can publish my tweet in a second, without any editor deciding if my statement is worth while publishing.

    In both cases (a tweet/ an article) it seems like the audience prefer high quality!

    The ´product´ in the media industry consists of both the content, and the channel it is delivered by. This goes for TV, film, CD/DVD, print, web, mobile and so forth.

    The last aspect of the important elements is to communicate the benefits and the qualities of the product in a manner that the customer find interesting.

    I believe that understanding: What, where, how, why – journalism should change foremost have to have the three aspects mentioned above covered, before jumping to conclusions – otherwise it might end up as a brilliant idea, but pointless:

    “What is the benefit for the customer?”
    “How do we produce products that are able to ´carry´those benefits?” and “How do we communicate the ´character´of our customer offering?”

    gstene

  • http://byjoeybaker.com Joey Baker

    It seems like this is mostly a semantic argument over what the canonical source of news/information. (or as Prof. Jarvis has already termed it the ‘atomic unit of news‘).

    Prof. Jarvis argues, as he did in 2008, that the article is an old-fashion way of telling a story that was designed for the constraints of a printed product. With the evolution of ‘new media’ as brought by the web, there’s no need to break a story into distinct segments that often lack context (due to space considerations or the need to reduce repetition in a series) or fail to live up to the natural evolution of a story in the manner that real-time systems easily accomplish.

    Mr. Filloux is simply arguing that a stream of tweets or links does not make a canonical source of news.

    As Prof. Jarvis points out, there really is no disagreement here: it’s a confusion of terms that can best be summarized as everyone agreeing that the atomic unit of news needs to adapt better to the web.

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  • http://americandigest.org Vanderleun

    “He’s saying, just as I am, that articles should be richer and more valuable and that reporting news bits can be accomplished by other means. So where do we disagree?”

    He’s saying, in his haughty but accurate way, that you fail to appreciate the deep and abiding and fundamentally uninformative and mis-informative way in which “social media” news tools suck and will continue to suck ever more deeply.

    • Andy Freeman

      > you fail to appreciate the deep and abiding and fundamentally uninformative and mis-informative way in which “social media” news tools suck and will continue to suck ever more deeply.

      A description of said suckage would be nice. Do social media tools make it harder to do fact checking? Do social media tools make it harder to cite others work? Do social media tools make it harder to provide “enough” information? (Twitter might, but blogs and youtube are not space constrained.) Do social media tools make it harder for journalists to distribute their work? Do social media tools make it harder for someone to edit?

      I assume that “suck” is relative to something else, so feel free to compare and contrast.

      Filloux doesn’t describe tool suckage. The closest that he comes is the exact opposite, pointing out that distribution has become significantly easier.

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  • Mike Phillips

    This exchange has been intriguing, but it sits on the surface of something more profound. Print journalists rely on “the article” because the nature of print limits them to a handful of story forms. Even the visual revolution of the previous century added just a few more visual story forms to what had been a mostly word-based tool box.

    After a muddle-around decade of shoveling print concepts (“editions,” for god’s sake!) onto their web sites, journalists are starting to recognize the scores upon scores of digital story-telling options in front of them. When multiplied by the growing number of distribution channels, a story-teller’s options likely will approach infinity in the next decade or two.

    Small minds no doubt will call this chaos and demand a return to “articles.” (There always will be bureaucrats.) But journalists who can operate with both sides of their brains will jump in — joyfully — and create the new world.

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