The News and its New Silent Majority: Clinton Supporters

hillary hat

This election, I’ve been trying an experiment, judging journalism from a different perspective, from the outside, as a member of a community and a partisan. I don’t like what I’m learning about my profession.

We journalists tend to separate ourselves from the public we serve. We call ourselves objective, to distinguish us from the opinionated masses and to enable us to rise above their fray. We fancy ourselves observers, not actors, in the dramas we chronicle. I’ve argued that we must end that separation and learn to empathize with the needs and goals of the communities we serve, even considering ourselves members of those communities. Thus, social journalism. But in this argument, the journalist is still the journalist.

Then I found myself in a position to look at the field not as a journalist but as an involved participant in a community. That community: Hillary Clinton supporters.

I haven’t been a reporter or editor in years. I have been a loudly opinionated blogger since 2001, transparent about my political views and votes. I made it clear eight years ago that I voted for Clinton and then for Barack Obama. So there’s no surprise in telling you that I would vote for Clinton now. But this time, I decided to become politically involved. I bought my Hillary hat, went to a few campaign events, contributed to the campaign, made my support abundantly clear on social media, and a week ago volunteered at the Clinton office in West Philly, registering voters, driving others doing the same, and briefly canvassing a neighborhood so I could talk with voters. These are things journalists have never been allowed to do. Some people tell me every day on Twitter that I should not be allowed to do these things now. I disagree.

I have my reasons:

First, #ImWithHer. Full stop. I want to be clear that I am enthusiastic about Clinton’s candidacy. I am not voting for her as the lesser of evils. I am not just voting against Donald Trump. I am not voting for her in spite of all the reasons media give not to do so. I am voting for Hillary Clinton because I respect and trust her intelligence, experience, policies, and good will. I tweeted 25 reasons (and counting) #WhyImWithHer.

Other community members’ reasons #WhyImWithHer at Clinton’s West Philly campaign office

Second, I am voting against Trump and actively opposing him because I see a moral imperative to do so. As Jay Rosen said in my dotNYC podcast, Trump’s candidacy approaches a civic emergency. As Univision’s Jorge Ramos said in Time: “It doesn’t matter who you are — a journalist, a politician or a voter — we’ll all be judged by how we responded to Donald Trump…. And neutrality is not an option.” This is my generation’s “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” Still, I’m not hiding behind any Trump exception to the journalistic canon, arguing that this year is special. If Clinton were running against a reasonable, human, patriotic, unbigoted, smart, articulate, decent, mature, experienced opponent, I’d still be her passionate, open supporter.

My third reason — a fringe benefit of sorts — is that I’ve wanted a better understanding of journalism from the public’s perspective and I finally saw I could not do that unless the coverage mattered to me, unless I took it personally. I also realized that this meant I could no longer claim to be standing removed, as the disinterested critic. Some years ago, when I spoke on a panel at the Online News Association, an editor came to the mic complaining about my use of the term “citizen journalism.” She cried (choking back real tears): “I’m a citizen, too.” Then act like a citizen, I said; be a part of your community. Many years later, I decided to take my advice.

As I consume the news in my role as a citizen, not media critic or journalist, I find myself constantly aggravated — not just by Fox News but also by CNN and the Associated Press, often by MSNBC and NPR, and occasionally by The New York Times and The Washington Post. My lessons so far from this:

Journalism is a lousy mirror.

I don’t see myself in any of the coverage of the campaign. All I ever hear from media is that nobody likes or trusts the one candidate who has an 89 percent chance of winning the presidency. In media, I never hear from voters like me who are enthusiastic supporters. I never see reporters wading among eager backers at Clinton rallies to ask them how much they like her and why. I don’t even hear her surrogates (what a ridiculous beltway/TV invention that is, by the way) asked about their support of Clinton, only their defense of her. In media, I never hear echoes of the voices I heard last week when I met people on the porches of West Philly, who told me their families were all in to vote for Hillary. (Only when I continued the conversation did they also agree we must defeat Trump. Like me, they are voting for, not against. )

I’ve been able to use Twitter to call journalists on this failing. When The Post’s Post’s Chris Cillizza labeled Clinton a “deeply flawed” candidate on CNN once too often, I tweeted a challenge and, to his credit, Cillizza answered. He said polls show that two-thirds of Americans don’t trust her. But compared to whom? Four-fifths of Americans don’t trust journalists. When media keep hammering again and again how untrusted Clinton is, couldn’t that become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

This is why the great James Carey despised the reductionist impact of public opinion polls on democracy and the press:

[P]ublic opinion no longer refers to opinions being expressed in public and then recorded in the press. Public opinion is formed by the press and modeled by the public opinion industry and the apparatus of polling. Today, to get ahead of the story, polling (the word, interestingly enough, from the old synonym for voting) is an attempt to simulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming. With the rise of the polling industry our entire understanding of the public went into eclipse.

This is also why I am fascinated by the death of the mass-media business model, the consequent death of the idea of the mass, and the impact this has on institutions — the press, government, politics, advertising, brands, schools— which depend on speaking to and swaying the mass. The mass is dead. Long live communities.

My community of Hillary Clinton supporters is unheard and unseen. But that’s by no means the best example of journalism’s faulty mirror. Because of this election, we now know that the media has done a terrible job of reflecting the concerns and goals of underemployed, angry white men in the heartland. If media had done a better job of reporting — and then informing — their worldviews, would there have been an opening for them to be recruited by Trump and the forces of the so-called alt right?

Far more important than either of those examples, of course, is the experience of minorities in this country: African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, too often women, and too many others who are unseen in media. A few weeks ago, I spoke with a journalist planning to write about how the internet is destroying the truth. The unsaid assumption in his thesis is that we used to have the truth, when the truth came from media. But whose truth was that? The truth presented by mass media was but one view of the world and did not reflect so many diverse worldviews because the people making it were — and still are — not diverse. That is one reason why so many do not trust journalists. (Note that people trust presidents more.)

In this election, I am not a mass. I am not a poll number. I am not a color on a map. Neither am I a journalist. I am a member of a community I cannot see and hear in media. I am frustrated.

The news chases squirrels, calls them rabid, and shoots them.

Every damned day, news organizations scan the horizon for any distraction they could call a scandal — squirrel! — and, finding none, they just dredge up yesterday’s road kill and repeat it all again, over and over, asking the same questions that are so obvious as to be rhetorical but that nonetheless fill hours of airtime.

Is Hillary Clinton a bigot because Donald Trump says so? they ask. Did TV’s anchors even consider what an insult that is to the 91 percent of African American voters who support her vs. 1 percent for Trump? Can’t our commentators see Trump’s trick: that he projects onto Clinton every failing of his own? He is crooked, so he calls her crooked; he is unhinged, so he calls her unhinged; he is a bigot so he first calls her a bigot. But the press treats each new attack as news to be debated. Seriously?

I know I’ll get scorned for this, but I say Clinton’s email scandal isn’t a scandal. It was a mistake. Yes, I believe that she never knowingly sent classified information. Of course, she didn’t. In any case, where her email sat is less important than every issue facing the American electorate.

I’ll get trolled for this, too, but the Clinton Foundation story isn’t a scandaleither. The Foundation does good work, and as James Carville says, someone will be going to hell for cutting off that good work. The Associated Press’ recent effort to find its scrap of squirrel meat in this story was an appalling example of journalism corrupted by the hunt for traffic. It is fine and necessary to ask the questions the AP asked but then, finding no quid pro quo, no smoking gun, why still report the innuendo of the question? I am utterly unconvinced by AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll’s defense of it. Of course, Secretary Clinton met with Melinda Gates and Muhammad Yunus; people line up to meet both of them every year at Davos because they are important people who do important work and, like the Clintons, they both raise and donate funds and find partners to help meet their worthy goals. That’s how the world works. I’d have thought world-wise journalists would be wiser about that. Amazing how they can turn off their sophistication when convenient.

The problems with chasing these squirrels:

  1. Balance: These faux scandals become tokens in journalists’ well-documented insistence on finding balance. Let’s spend one block of our show talking about how Donald Trump demonizes Mexicans and Muslims and — because we need something to “balance” that — let’s spend the next block repeating the same, year-old allegations about Hillary’s damned emails. The hunt for balance is especially cynical this year, as any attempt to give balanced coverage to an unbalanced candidate can only mislead.
  2. Savvy: Journalists use these stories and their impact to try to feed their political savvy, as Jay Rosen has pointed out for years. They want to sound like — no, they want to be — insiders who can predict every political outcome. I’ve been particularly struck this season how both commentators and reporters talk about what a candidate “should” do to win. When was that the reporter’s job, to advise on political strategy for politicians? Do they want to declare themselves partisans? Then they need to declare sides.
  3. Distraction: The real problem, of course, is that these squirrels keep journalism from doing its real job, which is to say….

Journalism does not inform.

If journalism as a whole had done its job informing the electorate in the U.K., I believe there would not have been Brexit. If journalism had informed and educated the American electorate, I am confident there would have been no room for Trump to spread his virus of ignorance, lies, and bigotry. It is patently clear that journalism is doing a terrible job informing the public. Judge the results.

This is what depresses me most and makes me realize more than ever that we must rethink and reinvent the very core of journalism, its relationship with the public, its forms, and its business models. For it’s the business model that makes Les Moonves at CBS and Jeff Zucker at CNN rub their greedy little hands in glee at the audience and revenue the Trump Circus brings them. It’s the business model that has newsrooms chasing rabid squirrels and outrageous Trumpisms to get more volume, less value. It’s the form of journalism — the scoop, the exclu, the provocative TV yelling match, the savvy political roundtable— that brings out our worst in political opportunism and sensationalism, leaving no room for substance. And because we in journalism separate ourselves from the public we serve — sitting above them, in judgment — we try to argue that it’s not our fault if they’re not informed. Because of that separation, we cannot credibly contend that we know what the public’s concerns are; we’re not good at listening. And because of that separation, we still expect people to come to us for the news, when we should be going to them wherever they are.

Imagine if even a fraction of the time we see wasted on cable news were devoted to educating the public about the issues and realities of immigration, refugees, criminal justice, the economy, infrastructure, education, health care costs, entitlement costs, security, the environment, taxes, jobs…. When was the last time you saw TV news do that? How much of any news organization’s work is devoted to doing this, to informing the electorate? Shouldn’t we ask before assigning every story and booking every TV discussion: How will this help the public better decide how to vote?

Journalism is failing the nation. This election is the proof.

Since I’ve declared myself a member of the community of Clinton supporters, I also have standing to criticize the campaign. If the campaign were run more as a grass-roots effort — à la Dean, Obama, Sanders — then it would be easier for the journalists to find and report on the enthusiasm I have seen myself. I can now speak from first-hand experience about how difficult it is to get involved in the campaign in person and online.

If the candidate did a better job addressing the damned email story from the start, maybe — maybe — we wouldn’t be bombarded with it every day.

If the foundation and family were more aggressive in sharing news of what the foundation does then it would be less of a target for squirrel hunters and more of a character statement in her favor.

If the candidate gave more interviews, there’d be less whining among the journalists about her not having a press conference (not that press conferences ever do a great job of informing; interviews are better because they allow for followup).

And — this is going to sound trivial but I mean it — if the campaign didn’t take a full month to ship the Clinton-Kaine bumperstickers, then we’d be seeing them on more cars and it would be more apparent to the journalists that there is a community of Clinton supporters out here.

As I was writing this, I spoke with one of my deans and he pointed out that all my complaints have been the fodder of academic critics of journalism for decades. They are outsiders. It has helped me to be the outsider so I could judge journalism as a user. That these problems continue and perhaps get worse as news companies get more desperate (“We need more traffic! Throw more squirrels on the fire! We need to save money! Fire more reporters!”) is only cause for deeper professional angst.

What could save journalism from uselessness and society from the consequent stupidity and ruin? We bloggers thought we would topple the gatekeepers. Blogs did allow more voices to be heard and social media did enable debate. Then again, blogs led in a straight line to Breitbart and Twitter to Trump and we know where those lines crossed. And as I noted in my Gawker death notice last week, the death of the mass-media business model might mean the death of blogs, too.

What stops me from quitting and sustaining myself on road kill or PR? My students. I tell them they must reinvent journalism. When I spoke with our incoming class last week, I came away inspired by their innovation (in a design exercise, none of them invented a magazine or a web-site filled with long-form writing) and their aspirations (I will once again quote the definition of journalism from student Kate Ryan: “It is a means to inform the public and, in doing so, cultivate an educated, empathetic, and engaged society”).

Does our political journalism inform and cultivate an educated, empathetic, engaged society? It fails on all counts, wouldn’t you agree? Could it ever do all that? Ever the optimist, I will say yes. It must. But we have to throw out our well-worn reflexes and assumptions and start over. Do we need to destroy the news to save it? People think that’s what I’ve been saying for years, but I wasn’t. Until now.

We must create a journalism that mirrors the many and diverse communities and concerns in societies and convenes these communities in dialog so they can foster empathy and understanding. We must create a journalism that educates the public about the issues that matter to each other (so we must start by asking them what matters, not assuming we know). We must create a journalism that does not reduce people to numbers and colors but instead invites them into a substantive, intelligent, fruitful, and civil discussion as individuals and members of communities, not a mass. We have so many new tools to do all that. That’s what I tell my students; they are our last, best hope.

In the meantime, be forewarned: I’ll keep tweeting my support for Clinton and my disgust at Trump. I’ll put my new bumper sticker on the car and wear my Hillary hat. But I won’t go this far:


Specimens of Old Journalism

Here is AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll defending what I believe were a seriously flawed story and tweet about some of Clinton Foundation donors Hillary Clinton happened to meet with while Secretary of State.

I bring this clip to you because it contains — as my friend Jay Rosen would say — specimens for study, two specimens revealing the difficulty classical journalism has adapting to a new media ecosystem today.

CNN Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter recounts the difficulties the AP had getting Clinton’s meeting records and then asks his audience: “Did they just want to show they had done the work, did they just want to show they had found something, even if it didn’t amount to much?”
Carroll’s answer: “We didn’t say it amounted to the end of the world. We said this is an important and interesting thing that people should know about.”

Editors love to tout news judgment as a key value that journalists add to the flow of information in society. What is the AP’s news judgment here? How important is this story? Somewhere between interesting and the end of the world: You decide.

Stelter shows Carroll how Donald Trump & Co. were exploiting especially the AP’s deceptive tweet promoting this story.

Her answer: “All of us can’t be held responsible for the way that everybody thinks about and responds to and talks about the coverage…. Our responsibility is to give them fair and balanced and rock-solid reporting and let them agree with it, disagree with it, talk about it, think what they might about it.”

Right there is a specimen of a common old journalistic belief: We just report the facts; we have no view; we don’t have a role in what those facts mean or do. I call this the Wernher von Braun Rule:

Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Carroll also says: “I think the issue with conflict of interest is not the actual quid pro quo. It’s the proximity. It’s the impression that people have of maybe they got the meeting because they donated, maybe they didn’t.”

In other words, the AP found no evidence of quid pro quo, no smoking gun, nothing here that was wrong, no rock-solid reason to cast aspersions, no real conclusion. But they went with the story anyway because of the impression people might have — an impression the AP’s story gives them. Yet remember that Carroll says she “can’t be held responsible for the way that everybody thinks about and responds to” this story. Does not compute.

We most certainly need to look at the impact our work has, not only in how interested parties exploit it, not only in how the public interprets it, but also in how effective it is in performing our key job: informing the public. Was the public better informed after this story? Did this story give people the information they needed to decide how to vote for President? I would say no. As Stelter said, the AP took what it could get with its Freedom of Information request and tried to make an article out of it. Because that’s what we do. We make articles.
That leads us to our second specimen: the tweet and Carroll’s discussion of it.

The key problem here is that the AP is discussing only 154 meetings out of more than 1,700 Clinton held as Secretary of State, according to her campaign manager. Thus the AP’s math — that 85 of the 154 meetings, or more than half, were with foundation donors — is wrong, deceptive, and irresponsible. The real proportion is more like 5 percent.

On Reliable Sources, Carroll says the tweet linked to the full story. I can’t find anything to click on in that tweet, can you?

When Stelter challenges her about the tweet’s accuracy, Carroll says: “I would say that we’re a lot better at breaking stories and covering news and gathering video and taking photos than we are at tweets. This one could have used some more precision.”

Does that mean you regret it? Stelter asks.

“No, if we felt it was wrong we would have taken it down…. I think it was sloppy. Maybe going forward we would need to work on more on our precision on our tweets.”

Thus she is saying that sloppy imprecision is good enough for Twitter. Nail that to the museum wall.

Stelter confronts her with another tweet that ignores Donald Trump’s exploitation of a tragedy for his political ends:

“It was clumsy,” Carroll admits. “We’re better at news-gathering than we are at promotion.”
In Carroll’s view, then, Twitter is merely an advertising vehicle, a means of promoting the AP’s real work: articles. She does not see it — or, one presumes, the rest of social media — as another form of reporting, another means of informing the public.

What have we learned about classical journalism in this age? We see that classical journalists think it is their job to make good stories. I would argue that our job is to inform the public. Classical journalists say their work ends when they produce their stories — they aren’t responsible for what comes next. I say we should always ask why we are are reporting what we are reporting and what our impact will be. At least at the AP, classical journalists say they want to get readers to their stories. I say it is our job to take journalism — reporting, investigation, facts, context, explanation, impact — to the public, wherever they are, in whatever form necessary. Even on Twitter.

Kathleen Carroll is stepping down as the AP’s editor soon. I honestly feel sympathy for her having to end her tenure with this, trying to defend old journalism in a new world.

On Twitter — where I don’t just promote my articles, I have informative conversations — Raju Narisetti responded to my tweet containing one of Carroll’s quotes on CNN with this:

I agree. But this also should make the AP ask what kind of executive editor it needs next, an editor who can rethink what the Associated Press’ job is in an age when we can inform each other (we are becoming our own wire service), when the AP can inform people in so many new ways, when bad actors can use the AP’s reporting for their ends, when the standards of journalism — bringing facts, correction, understanding, context, investigation and other classical journalistic values — are more needed than ever.

Sorry, Nick

I remember clearly, in Gawker’s early days, when my old friend Nick Denton insisted that what his new blog was producing was not journalism. He didn’t want to come speak at a journalism school. He refused to hire journalists, as they’d already been ruined for Gawker’s work.

But yesterday, in his eulogy for the devil baby he birthed, Nick draped Gawker’s casket in the flag of Journalism, waving the words journalist, journalism, and even journalismism 27 times.

Sorry, Nick, but maybe you were right the first time.

Don’t worry: I’m not about to launch into a J-schoolmarm scold about about Gawker violating journalism’s ten thousand commandments. No, I’m going to use this as a teachable moment to ask: WTF is journalism now? After Gawker. On the internet. In the age of Trump.

I had the honor of spending last week with our impressive incoming class at the CUNY J-school, trying to help them put journalism — their coming months of classes and their careers thereafter — in the context of history, business, and our role in society. I asked them each to begin by defining journalism. We discussed many thoughtful insights, including the idea that journalism exists to “cultivate an educated, empathetic, and engaged society.” We also discussed one definition that might as well have been Nick’s in his remembrance: that it is the journalist’s job to disrupt the status quo and bring down powerful institutions or people. That is certainly a common view in the profession.

Once having done our jobs afflicting the comfortable, do we ever ask, “What then?” Is it journalism’s job just to expose and destroy? Or to build and improve? Should we ask the same question of the net today: Is it the purpose of blogs and now social media to upend? Or to progress? Why are we here? Why do we bother?

In her more excellent elegy to Gawker, its founding editor, Elizabeth Spiers, saw in Gawker’s life the larger story of blogs: “Blogging gave us everything we love — and hate — about the web,” said the headline. Right. We had freedom and attitude and reported to no one. In our existence and our worldview, we were the anti-institutions. Elizabeth writes:

We hoped blogs would democratize media and allow people to make real connections via the Web. We feared that power would accrue to a handful of sites or writers; that this small group of people would talk among themselves and exclude others; that eventually, inevitably, what we considered an art (sort of) would be degraded by commerce.
Yes, basically all the bad things came true.

Now I wonder whether the death of Gawker — not to mention the departure of Arianna Huffington from Huffington Post — signals the super nova of blogs and everything we held dear and every ill we caused. I don’t say this from atop a pedestal. In my day, I was down in the blogging trenches, snarking along with the rest of them. I had my share of feuds and fits. You could say I damned near brought Dell down. That all seemed like fun until it wasn’t. Now I long not for the return of the gatekeeper institutions, only for a path to civility.

What hath we wrought? Did blogs and their commercial, psychotic apotheosis, Gawker, open the door for the armies of trolls that have taken over social media? Did we cause Breitbart or can we blame that on Fox News and Roger Ailes? Should we blame Gawker for Trumpism and Twitter? In Advertising Age, Simon Domenco damned near does:

There was something downright proto-Trumpian about Gawker as it shifted from afflict-the-comfortable snark to take-no-prisoners drive-bys. In fact, these days, when Donald Trump really loses it and gets personal and goes absolutely nuclear on his targets — particularly when he attacks the family members of his targets — it’s hard for me not to think of the tone and tactics of Gawker at its worst.

It is often lamented that the Arab Spring proved good at tearing down old regimes but not at building new ones. Is that what journalism, news, and media have become? Are we simply too early in this process of disruption and destruction to expect more? Or is that precisely our problem: We expect too little. I return to my student Kate Ryan’s high aspiration for journalism:

It is a means to inform the public and, in doing so, cultivate an educated, empathetic, and engaged society.

Gawker did not have that ambition. In this election, cable news does not have that ambition. How much of journalism does? As I think about trying to save journalism, I ask first what we are trying to save. The answer can’t be snark, gossip, meaningless blather, and cruel destruction. We must be of value in people’s lives, helping them improve their communities and society. Or why bother? Therein lies the only hope of finding a new business model for journalism: raising it up, being of value.

In Gawker, we also saw the implosion — the symbolic last gasp — of the mass-media business model, in which Reach Rules, forcing us to do anything (and I mean anything) to get more page views, more traffic, for more ads and more pennies.

We know precisely where that leads: to the day when Gawker outed a private and married media executive being blackmailed by a gay escort. Gawker’s editors did that just because they could. They had freedom, remember? Freedom was Gawker’s ultimate value. But on that day, Nick finally found his limit and killed that reprehensible piece. His editors quit in protest, claiming freedom of speech. No, boys, freedom of speech does not mean that you have to publish everything you could publish. Freedom of speech also protects the right and necessity to edit responsibly. One of those editors, Max Read, wasn’t exactly contrite in his less-good obit for Gawker:

It would be nice to say that I struggled with the ethics of publishing the story, or that, even better, my maniacal and sociopathic boss pressured me into publishing it. But there was very little question in my mind: It seemed so naturally a Gawker story that I assigned it immediately. . . . I had gone out on the limb because I liked it out there. I liked being the villain, the critic, the bomb-thrower. If one of my bombs went off in my face, it was only my fault.

Gawker no longer brought down the powerful. Gawker became the power to be brought down. Enter Peter Thiel.

So now we come to the real lesson in Gawker’s death. Nick would have us believe that (sorry for the spoiler): “Gawker’s demise turns out to be the ultimate Gawker story. It shows how things work.”

Sorry, Nick, but the real moral to this story is banal, prosaic, obvious, and trite. Gawker’s editors and Gawker’s destroyer, Thiel, each teach us the exact same lesson:

Power corrupts.

Native advertising: Another false messiah?

I’ve been waiting for this: the leak in the native advertising balloon.

Tablets were going to save the news business. Not so much. Paywalls were our salvation, damnit. Nope. Native advertising is our future. Think again.

Digiday reports on the latest problem with the native advertising strategy:

Digital ad sales intelligence platform MediaRadar said the average renewal rate for sponsor content this year is 21 percent. Meanwhile, native ad tech company Polar recently described renewal rates as “weak,” with 40 percent of the publishers it surveyed showing renewal rates below 50 percent.

Native advertising isn’t going to cure all our problems because:

1. The ROI is debatable. Says Digiday: “Behind the low renewal rates is the fact that advertisers are uncertain about the return they’re getting on native advertising.” This has been my worst fear. We give the advertisers what our standards and ethics forever forbade — confusing our readers about the source of content — and then the advertisers wake up and say, ‘Well, that was fun. But we’re bored with that. What can you sell us next?’ Except with badly done native advertising, we’ve already sold our brands, our souls, our seed corn. We have nothing left. Jack, you gave away our only means of support for what? Magic beans?

I have long wondered whether native advertising would do what advertising is supposed to do: drive sales. What is the efficacy of replacing five-word banners with 500-word stories? Perhaps we are beginning to find out.

2. Competition is rushing in. Digiday: “Three years ago, there were about 15 companies helping brands produce sponsored content, according to MediaRadar CEO Todd Krizelman. Today, there are more than 600, and the number is growing.” I have long said that in media need to compete with creative agencies but we can’t imagine that they won’t fight back. Content is a commodity. Anybody can make it. That is the key lesson of the internet for media. So we surely couldn’t believe we’d hold onto the business of “telling brand’s stories” for long.

3. It’s expensive. It takes a lot of resources to make content for finicky advertisers.

4. It’s no longer enough to write a “brand’s story” and put in in our editorial space (barely camouflaging it as an ad). Media’s audience is insufficient. So media has to spend money (a) placing ads elsewhere to drive traffic to our native ads, (b) placing the native ads we make at other media sites, and (c) trying to buy social traffic. That, too, is expensive.

So what is the profit margin on native advertising after we are left marketing our services to replace the clients who churn out, after spending a fortune on making native advertising, and after spending another fortune advertising the advertising? Native ad distributor Polar says it’s a high-margin business still and that’s good. But where do those trend-lines fall given the news above?

This is the moment where you say, “Goddamnit, Jarvis, you shoot down tablets, paywalls, and native advertising, not to mention programmatic advertising (because it commodifies media) so what do you expect us to do?”

Mind you, I am not against doing native advertising well. See Quartz, for example. I am in favor of media companies competing with ad agencies for both creative and media business. What I object to is the idea that this could have been our sole salvation, any more than our earlier magic beans, without embarking on the much harder work of reinventing ourselves.

Our only salvation will be to question *everything* about our mass-media business models as we enter a new reality, starting with the value of reach in an age of abundance and endless competition. Yes, reach matters but only if we have something of value to convert all those folks to. We have to shift from reach to relevance, volume to value. We have to rethink the essence of what news and media are. That’s why I wrote this: to begin questioning and exploring.

That’s also what I said to our incoming students at CUNY’s J-school last week. At the end of our week together, the students listened to voters about their needs in this election and their proposed solutions didn’t look like content-based mass media at all. They’re all journalists but they are learning to question their assumptions. We need to do the same with business people and reinvent what they do. Instead, we’re grabbing the deck chairs on the Titanic hoping they will act as flotation devices.

* * * — a reputable native advertising company (with whom we are doing at study at CUNY) just released some further data on media’s behavior. 68% of publishers have editorial staff make native advertising. Nooooo! 45% think the biggest threat to native advertising is the lack of separation between church and state. Jeesh.

From Media to Memes: Lessons from Occupy Democrats

I want you in the news business — and politics and brands — to learn from two media and political geniuses for the social age you’ve probably never heard of. They are Rafael and Omar Rivero, 29-year-old twin brothers and the founders of Occupy Democrats, a Facebook page that specializes in the creation of memes like those above and below: a gif with text and photos or a video (the “veme”), containing information, opinion, and a call to action. Thus they feed conversations all over the net. Their Facebook page has 3.5 million likes, adding 100,000 a week. The average meme reaches 1 million people. In total, Rafael Rivero says, they reach between 100 and 300 million impressions a week.

Oh, they also have a web site with posts and articles, like a media company, but that’s frankly “an afterthought” — even though it’s the web site that has the advertising that brings in high five-figures of income a month, which enabled the brothers to quit their work and hire help: “five of us in a living room.” The point of their enterprise is not making content or building a destination, in media terms. It is “affecting the national conversation.”

“We want to give people the ammunition to engage in meme warfare,” Rafael told me, “giving people the fodder to win the battles and ultimately the war. The battles are fought and won or lost on social media.” The battles are also informed or uninformed there and that is why news media should pay attention.

ocmeme 8

The reason I called Rafael is because I believe Occupy Democrats demonstrates a vital skill we must learn in media: feeding others’ conversations with information and arguments, adding journalistic value to the flow of information the internet enables. When I attended Vidcon, I saw that for YouTube fans, content is not a destination but a social token — something that speaks for them or informs and provides fodder for their conversations. We in media need to learn how to do that: how to take what we make to the people we serve, how to do that in a manner that is native to the platform and use case where these people are, and how to add value to their conversations and thus be valued for our contribution. Occupy Democrats does that. Sure, it’s partisan at its core. It’s not journalistic. But it has lessons to teach journalist.

The brothers launched Occupy Democrats a month before the 2012 election in response to the success of the Tea Party and to make up for what they saw as the weaknesses of the Occupy Wall Street movement — “outside the system, aggressively leaderless.” They started “just as a hobby, to be honest.” But it took off and started bringing in enough money that Omar, a Cornell graduate, could quit his job in finance and Rafael, a Swarthmore graduate, could give up his work running a vacation rental company and a furniture assembly business. “I always had an inclination to use the internet to fund my life,” Rafael said. “Ever since I was little, launching online businesses and online websites.” That’s the other thing media has to learn from them: entrepreneurship.


Rafael says the hardest part of their job is selecting what to make into a meme. “When I look back at the first memes I made on Facebook, damn, I sucked. Media companies: they suck, too.”

Define “suck.”

“The meme must tell the full story. You can’t assume people know anything. You have to be able to tell the entire story in as few words as possible. You have to plug into the zeitgeist. The text has to pop and be 100 percent readable from 30 feet away. The image has to be compelling. The arrangement — it’s very hard to describe. It’s very intuitive. The statue is already in the block of marble and the sculptor just uncovers it. The meme is already there. You just have to find it….”

You might make fun of making GIFs as a media artform, just as I made fun of one of my CUNY colleagues some years ago when he said he wanted to teach the making of animated GIFs. I was wrong, dead wrong. These little media nuggets are portable and carry value. Rafael thinks hard about what people will do with them. “There’s something very personal about sharing a graphic on Facebook,” he said. “You’re not sharing with one person, with five people. You’re sharing with pretty much everyone you’ve met through your entire life. It says, ‘This speaks for me. This is how I feel on this issue,’ often a very controversial issue. People in the past were hesitant to discuss politics in person…. People have become much more willing to engage in political discussion because of Facebook. We give them the tools to do that.”

Yeah, I know, sometimes you wish people didn’t discuss politics online. But they do. We in journalism have an opportunity and an obligation to inform that discussion. And we in media have clearly done a bad job of that. So when you hear uninformed discussion, think about blaming us first.

Facebook et al give us new tools to do our job. Sadly, we keep thinking they exist to distribute our content, to drive traffic back to our sites, to generate page views and reach. When Facebook tweaked its God Algorithm a few weeks ago and announced the principles behind it, it was really trying to teach us in media that — though Instant Articles are nice — the real way to succeed on the platform is to give people things *they* will use in *their* way.

Occupy Democrats teaches us to do that. It also teaches us new ways to reach more people. Their claimed 100–300 million weekly impressions “puts some of the old media horses to shame, leaves them in the dust. It’s just insane,” Rafael said.

But reach isn’t everything. Damnit. Relationships matter. Impact matters.

I asked Rafael what he knows about the impact they’re having. So far, he sees it in terms of who’s copying him. “I created so much viral Bernie Sanders material when no one had any idea who Bernie Sanders was,” he said. “Someone in the Bernie Sanders campaign woke up and thought, ‘we can make our own memes.’ It can’t be coincidence that they copied our style. Sometimes when I get drunk I tell people I created Bernie Sanders as a political force.” He’s joking. In any case, Rafael is right when he says: “Bernie Sanders was basically the meme candidate.”

(By the way, the brothers were split politically: Rafael for Clinton, Omar for Sanders; now they’re both #withher. And by the way, the brothers are dual citizens of the U.S. and Mexico and so fighting Trump is extra delicious: “He fucked with the wrong pair of Mexican twins.” )

I was curious whether the campaigns have come to Occupy Democrats for help. Someone high in Sanders campaign wanted them to share Bernie’s memes. Rafael is not complimentary of the memeing in the Clinton campaign but he says they are talking with someone there. The campaign runs weekly calls for folks like these, sharing their messaging — that is, giving guidance rather than asking for it. The DNC? Nope. If they were right-wing, Rafael believes, the RNC would fund them.

What interests me more is whether media companies have come to the brothers to learn at their feet. One innovative company — Fusion — did because of the data they saw on social-media tracking service CrowdTangle: “Who the fuck is Occupy Democrats and they’re eating everyone’s lunch.” There was talk of a TV show but remember that the brothers are less impressed with big media than they are with Facebook. “We already are pretty busy. We didn’t see that it would add that much value to us…. The old-media landscape was what was said on Meet the Press. Now you’ve got to control the media narrative on Facebook.” In any case, points to Fusion and Univision.


So how should news organizations incorporate these skills? Should The Washington Post have a meme desk? Sure, it should. The Post is hiring two full-time producers for Facebook Live alone. Others are hiring devoted Snapchat producers. Lots of media properties have email newsletter authors. More and more, I see calls for platform-native content creation (and that is making us ask questions about how we teach skills in a journalism school).

The problem with much of that so-called social-media work is that the goal is still to drive traffic back to the media site and that will be the case so long as we try to prolong the life of the volume-based mass-media business model and depend on volume. If we instead judge our value on how well we inform people and how much we help them solve their problems and meet their goals, then we will go to wherever they are and use the tools at hand to deliver value the best way we can.

Thus the meme desk would not create promotions for articles on web sites. It would not be an arm of the audience development department. It would not identify trending stories and jump on them by copying those stories. No, the meme desk would start by seeing what people need to know: what are they curious about or wrong about, what information do they need to know, what are they already talking about and how can we improve the quality of those conversations journalistically, with information, fact-checking, explanation, evidence, news? Then the meme desk would teach every journalist to do this and put itself out of business.

I was talking about all this today with tech journalist Charles Arthur, whom I’ve worked with at The Guardian. When I said that the newspaper front page and home page are dying because hardly anyone is going to them — demonstrating a lack of demand for our vaunted “news judgment” (for they exist to promote more than to summarize and inform), I also said the only exciting page 1’s I see these days are from New York Daily News editor-in-chief Jim Rich, who has reinvigoratec the form. Right, Charles said. That’s because they’re memes. Right.

daily news trump

Dear Morning Joe,

I watch or listen to you every morning and over the years have enjoyed it. But during the rise of Trump, you infuriated me. You took pride in seeing Trump’s potential to capture the nomination while everyone else did not. But you could not see then what so many others of us could see: that your friend (your word) Donald is uninformed, demagogic, bigoted, mean, unstable, possibly insane, and certainly unfit to serve in the highest office in the land.

I am glad, very glad that on this morning’s show, you recognized all this about Trump and said so — and that you all went further, trying to get Republican leaders, including at least one at your table, to repudiate their candidate for president.

But what if you had seen Trump’s potential not just for votes but also for danger from the beginning? Would the Republican Party and the United States be in this precarious position today? This isn’t funny anymore. It’s not show biz anymore. It never was. You said as much this morning when you questioned Ret. Gen. Michael Hayden about how easy it would be for President Trump to launch a nuclear missile out of pique — hearing only answers that gave no comfort. Worse, you revealed that in a one-hour briefing with a foreign affairs expert (when was that, Joe?), Trump asked three times why we (he) can’t use nuclear weapons. This is serious. It always has been.

When it mattered most, journalism failed utterly to inform the public about the clear and present danger of a demagogue and an unstable, unfit candidate getting to within a step of the White House.

Now I’m not trying to blame you for Trump and his rise. But because I watch you in the morning over the other guys, I need to use you to spark a discussion about what we must rethink in political coverage in American journalism and media.

For years, media natterers like me have lamented the horserace coverage of elections — particularly presidential elections — with journalists taking pride in predicting winners. This year, I’ve been frustrated to hear journalists (often on Morning Joe) taking it upon themselves to tell candidates what they need to do to win — that is, acting more as campaign consultants than correspondents. In both cases, this is a matter of journalists wanting to appear savvy, a syndrome NYU Prof. Jay Rosen diagnosed two presidential races ago. But that is the least of our problems now.

When it mattered most, journalism failed utterly to inform the public about the clear and present danger of a demagogue and an unstable, unfit candidate getting to within a step of the White House. Friend Rosen has argued that we in news media must bring new worldviews to this new situation. Yes, and new tools.

I often hear complaints about the ignorance and bile that characterize the public discourse in politics today. We blame the public for that. OK. But the fault for an uninformed public also lies at the feet of those whose job it is to inform the public. We in news and media are doing a terrible job.

Rather than predicting who will win — and calling the day done — journalists must concentrate on revealing the qualifications, experience, policies, assets, and deficits of those running so the public can judge: the profound job interview. In any rational equation, it should have been easy to question every such aspect of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Back to you, Morning Joe: Trump called in constantly. How often did you demand full and cogent answers about his policies: How will you do everything you promise to do. “How?” was the most under-asked question of this campaign. You say you know him. Surely you could have revealed his obvious narcissism if not his instability to the nation. That you did not — and that media as a whole did not — can only be a measure of our failure. Yes, sure, you’ll put Hillary Clinton through a job interview as well. But don’t even think of trying to talk balance: a few minutes on Khan and a few minutes on email. There is no such thing as balanced coverage of an unbalanced candidate. Because you know Trump so well, Morning Joe, you could have led our field in asking him the toughest and most revealing questions. That is our job.

Falling to these frightening depths — and remembering that we’re not saved from it yet — is an opportunity to rethink how we do journalism, conduct elections, run political parties, and govern. Let us get at least that much out of this fiasco.

Facebookmageddon? Not so soon

Only time, experience, and data will tell, but I wouldn’t be throwing out Facebook strategies for news quite yet.

Two things happened today: (1) Facebook for the first time outlined the principles that govern its decisions — that is, its News Feed algorithm — about what to select and show you. (2) At the same time, Facebook tweaked — we don’t know how much — that algorithm to emphasize friends and family more and news less.

But Facebook has *always* favored friends and family over news content. It is a *social* site. That should come as no surprise to anyone. The only question is how much weight each has.

Indeed, when Facebook’s execs told me their priorities in the past, they were (1) connections with people, (2) entertaining people, and (3) informing people. Its document today reversed the order of 2 and 3 in the narrative; I have no idea what the order is in the algorithm.

The shock at this news is, I suspect, a bit overdone. Says Farhad Manjoo in The Times:

Though it is couched in the anodyne language of a corporate news release, the document’s message should come as a shock to everyone in the media business. According to these values, Facebook has a single overriding purpose, and it isn’t news. Facebook is mainly for telling you what’s up with your friends and family.

Who the hell *ever* thought that Facebook’s single overriding purpose was news? No one. Ever.

So this is a matter of degree. It’s more transparent than it has been — which is what we have been asking for. It emphasizes that people want to talk to people on Facebook and if people want to talk about your news, you’re in luck. If they don’t, you’re shit out of luck. Always have been. Still are.

Let’s wait and see what the real data look like. And let’s follow Facebook’s example to serve people rather than merely serving content.

Getting Google and Publishers to Share Love — and Data

This last week, in three high-level publisher summits in Europe, I saw tangible progress toward realizing what I think is the most important single opportunity that publishers and platforms have together: sharing data to benefit first our users and then our businesses.

For years, I have been arguing to publishers — including those warring with Silicon Valley — that what they should seek from the platforms is not cash (that isn’t “our money” the platforms are earning) or raw traffic (look at how the pursuit of reach über alles has ruined journalism) or throttling technology companies through government intervention (new copyright laws and antitrust investigations are not investable business strategies).

Instead, we should seek data: information about people — their interests and behaviors — that helps us build relationships of relevance of value with them.

When I said this to publishers, they either didn’t understand or they argued that the platforms would never give data to us. To which I answered: “Have you asked?”

When I said this to the platforms, they would kvetch — rightly — that our demands were too vague to deal with. And besides, they’d finally say after a few beers: “Your guys wouldn’t know what to do with the data if we gave it to them.” True that. But then I’d reply: “So educate us.”
Well, over the last week, I have seen real progress in having publishers get specific about their requests and I have seen a willingness from — so far — Google to engage.

My trip began at a Distributed Content Summit in Berlin convened by Axel Springer — which has led the war against Google in Europe — with 25 media companies from around Europe. I was the only American representative, assigned to provoke discussion with American bluntness. I told the group that it was time to shift from war footing to business footing and that the responsibility lay with us to get specific with our requests: What data are we asking for? How will we use it to benefit our users? What will we do with it? How will it benefit us? How will it benefit the platforms? Springer’s executives smartly turned this charge into an assignment: that every workshop led by the brands should come back with a project or test to propose to the platforms.

Some of us took the fruits of this work to the next event: the second annual Newsgeist in Bilbao, at which Google brought together about 150 news leaders for an unconference on the future of news. At last year’s Newsgeist some of us arrived asking for something specific: an open-source version of what Facebook had just announced, Instant Articles. We got AMP (accelerated mobile pages) as a result. Great precedent; high bar.

In Bilbao, we convened one session on what Google could do for news (and vice versa) and on the final morning we had another, getting far more specific and useful, on what collaborative A/B tests we could imagine, building on the discussion from Berlin. Here’s what the group came up with:

* How could Google use its knowledge about our users and our content to help us improve the recommendations we make to our users and thus their experience on our pages? We could also test how such data could improve conversion to subscription or membership, ad performance, and (when are we going to explore this opportunity?) commerce.

* If publishers passed their subscription/membership data to Google and Facebook, how could the platforms improve users’ experience (and our business prospects) there? That is, if Google knew I were a subscriber to Springer’s Bild, then when I come to Google Search or News asking for Formula 1 news, shouldn’t Google give some priority to Bild’s coverage, which I’ve paid for? That answers a constant request from pay-walled publishers to recognize their disadvantage in SEO.

* Obviously and especially in Europe, these ideas raise privacy concerns. The platforms could not pass over personally identifiable information. But they could pass over categorization of users: this is a user who belongs to a group that watches a lot of video or reads a lot of politics or tends to read long stories or looks at lots of short things in the morning, and so on. What that leads to is the need to build a framework for such categorization of users and content. If we build that together, it means that publishers could also share this data. And that answers Google’s plea that we not look only to Mountain View for help but also look to each other. (Coincidentally, German publishers just announced their own consortium to share what appears to be ad data to compete with Google and Facebook.)

bad ad* Collaboratively improving recommendations for content begins to look similar to the function of the recirculation engines Taboola and Outbrain, which send our users off our sites to the most irritating clickbait imaginable (example: left), getting the benefit of publishers’ data along the way. Every publisher I know hates the companies but loves the checks they send. It’s reach crack. Well, hmmm. Should publishers and platforms consider building their own, not-evil recirculation engine? Just asking. For some friends.

* Just to round this out, I also renewed someone’s idea from last year’s Newsgeist Europe for an API to Google News, which would enable publishers to curate news (somebody once said: do what you do best and link to the rest) and also to see where their own news fits in clusters of others’. The problem is that we don’t fully understand our content (once getting data about a user’s habits or interests, we will have trouble finding the right content to match it).

Then came the next event on the European Future-of-News Love Tour (t-shirts coming): a news publishers day convened by Google Play in London, where we continued the discussion and where I saw that Google executives are serious about responding to publishers’ now-more-specific proposals. The answers may not always be yes because of practicality or competition (the platforms are companies). And as the discussion widens, better ideas may emerge. Great. The discussion is launched.

I’ve been spending a lot of my time lately — in writing here and in meetings and discussions anywhere I can — to bring peace to the kingdom between publishers and platforms, from the U.S. to Europe to Latin America. As a result, individual publishers or groups are coming to me suggesting they want their own war or manifesto or list of demands. I have been arguing in return that it would be far more productive to find areas of mutual benefit to have strategic impact on our businesses. It helps me in that argument when I can point to real signs of progress such as what I’ve witnessed this week.

It is also important to note that the discussion with platforms is — and can only — move forward when product is involved, not just marketing, PR, or business development. In Silicon Valley, product is everything. Some top engineers at Google are beginning to get involved in news products and I was delighted to meet one at the London Play event (I wish I’d seen more such representation in Bilbao, not just to show respect but to foster mutual understanding and collaboration). Google’s response to the war in Europe was to establish a Digital News Initiative, and much progress has followed: AMP, a new YouTube player and deal, Newsgeist, the Google News Lab. I’ve quibbled that these are marketing and comms initiatives. But on this trip, a Google exec set me straight and said that status changed when Google CEO Sundar Pichai made news a priority. (I learned elsewhere that the cool-kid way to say this is that news became a Google OKR.)

Meanwhile, down the road at the Facebook ranch…. News has long been a product priority there. Some of their best product-development talent has been working on things that have news at the core: Instant Articles and Facebook Live, to name two. So in product, Facebook has been ahead of Google but Google is catching up. In the arena of building relationships with publishers through events like those in Bilboa and London and groups like the Digital News Initiative, I’d say Facebook needs to catch up. (There was at least one session just about Facebook at Newsgeist.) There is much that Facebook can do to share data in similar ways and improve the experience and relationship of news brands and users on Facebook and off. Publishers can also make better use of Facebook to develop relationships, serve communities, and generate interest data there. I have more ideas about this that I’ll leave for another day.

In the end, this effort is not about warring are even about negotiation. This is about collaborating on the reinvention of news. What gives me the greatest hope after this European tour is that I saw the carcasses of many a sacred cow lining the road from Berlin to Bilbao.
I heard a surprising consensus that media’s reach strategy is a loser, or at least that we’ve lost it. Seeking audience and page views for their own sake does not build real value; it’s highly competitive; it rewards our worst instincts as editors and readers.

To replace it, many publishers are, of course, seeking consumer revenue through subscriptions and (I hope to see more of this) membership and commerce. As a result, they seek to build more valuable products that drive engagement. That’s a step in the right direction.

I was most impressed at Springer’s event in Berlin when most of the participants did not drag their heels in the hopes that they could fight content distribution and count on always driving audience back to content on their websites as destinations (is each italicized word becoming outmoded?). The Springer meeting was invaluable in getting publishers to share information about their goals and experience with distributed content. No one had blinders on about it.

In all these places, I heard editors and publishers enter the confessional to admit that distributed content tells us our sites are bad and ad blockers tell us our experiences are awful. Confession is good for the soul and strategic development.

This is all positive. News won’t survive and succeed by ignoring the platforms or trying to trip them. The platforms need the authority and originality that news organizations can bring. Together, we can finally start to challenge our assumptions about news and each other and set about the more critical task of reinventing news for this new age — that is, serving the public better. To peace in the kingdom.

* * *

Disclosures: I do not accept pay from Google, Facebook, or any platform. Being a poor prof, I do take travel expenses when I could not otherwise attend some of these events. For this trip, Google and Springer each paid a share of my flights and hotels as will the Tow-Knight Center, which I direct. That center is in part funded by the Knight Foundation, which is also a partner in the U.S. versions of Newsgeist. I have consulted with and spoken at some of the news organizations at these events.