From Media to Memes: Lessons from Occupy Democrats

ocmeme2
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.

ocmeme7

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.

ocmeme6

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

tshirt
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.

Meeting and Exceeding the News Business’ Hiring Needs

superpowers
At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, we just published a lengthy report on the job needs of the news business today, based on surveys, interviews, and analysis of employment ads.

It reveals much about the new jobs and entirely new skills and combinations of skills—journalistic superpowers, we call them — that news organizations need and want. It also reveals where — in my opinion — the news business still needs more innovation. Below, I’ll concentrate on that because it’s my job in a university to worry about what’s coming next, so in our Center we can help the industry shift strategy — exploring new business models and forms of news — and so in the classroom we can prepare our students for the new roles they will take on in a constantly changing industry.

The report was made by former NPR execs Mark Stencel (now codirector of the Duke Reporters’ Lab) and Kim Perry (now senior editor of the digital transition team at The New York Times) and overseen by Tow-Knight general manager Hal Straus. The survey’s sample, as they point out, is small and unscientific. Though detailed, the report is directional. I hope it provides a baseline so we can regularly revisit these questions with followups to inform both the industry and student (and teacher!) training in journalism schools. Note well how the report finds that the skills we once thought would swallow our journalistic brains — blogging! CMSes! oh, my!— are now just part of the fabric of a newsroom; imagine the changes we can track in upcoming years. Please give us feedback and tell us what else you would like us to address in future versions.

This work already has inspired a number of decisions at CUNY J+, the J-school’s new professional training program run by Marie Gilot, helping her decide what skills to offer to companies and individuals (including our own graduates, taking advantage of what we call our 100,000-mile career guarantee). The admonition in the report from Vice’s Drake Martinet — that “the best new employees are the ones who have a superpower” — has become her program’s watchword.

I’ll leave it to Stencel and Perry to fill you in on the demand for transformational and foundational skills. Their key finding:

When asked to identify five to 10 top hiring needs for the coming year, the news organizations that responded to our questionnaire prioritized skills in three areas: coding; audience development and data; and photo/video production. Two thirds of the organizations chose “coding/development” and “audience development/user data and metrics.” Nearly 60 percent chose visual storytelling/editing.”

When we asked survey participants to narrow their choices to just three top hiring priorities, the same three skills — coding, audience development/data and visual storytelling — led that list as well.

Here I want to explore three areas that might be underemphasized or missing in the industry’s thinking and what might come next. It’s the report that enables me to identify these syncopations.

PRODUCT: I am glad to see that product development ranked sixth in demand in the survey. Stencel and Perry report product ownership and development ranked as high as “journalism essentials” (which they defined as “reporting, writing and editing”). OK, but I’m greedy. Though the sample size is too small to quibble over statistical ranking, I will argue that product development should rank higher, perhaps even highest. I’m disturbed that in their wide-ranging sample of companies, old and new, Stencel and Perry found product development ranking much lower with newspapers and local news companies. In other words, digital startups skewed the numbers, ranking product development higher than the others. That is a lesson to us all.

Every day, I become more firmly convinced that product development is the key skill news organizations need so they can build new business strategies, saving us from the dying reach game of our dead mass-media business model and helping us provide greater relevance and value for the people we serve, generating our own first-party data so we can begin to compete with Google, Facebook, and ad tech for users’ attention and trust and so we can earn revenue not only from advertising but also from events, membership, and commerce. That, in one over-long sentence, is the strategic transformation I propose for our industry. (And I wrote a book about it.)

This is also why we at CUNY chose product development as the first new professional community of practice we convened and will support. A few weeks ago, we brought together almost 20 of the best product people we know in the business — from Vox, BuzzFeed, Quartz, The New York Times, The Skimm, Medium, Dow Jones, and elsewhere — for a private session where they could candidly compare notes and needs. (More on this another day.)

Though I do hear about product development when I visit newsrooms and news executives around the world — and that’s great news — I must say that I hear a different vision of what product means from them than I hear from the product leaders we convened. In newsrooms, product still often means making a new section or perhaps app based on the content they already make.
No, in my view, product development starts with identifying a community or use case for news and listening to people to discern their needs and goals, then and only then returning to the office to work with a small, cross-functional, fully empowered team representing editorial, commercial, technology, data, and design to formulate ways to meet those needs.

This view of the future of news enterprises — not just newsrooms — also teaches us that teamwork is a key skill we need to work on in journalism education and professional development. I will confess I have not cracked how to teach journalists to work with business people, technologists, data people, and designers when I don’t have those constituents in our student body. Any ideas?

But the fundamental underlying skill that all this talk of product development leads us to is listening. We’re not very good at that in the news business. Oh, yes, our reporters do pick up the phone and listen for the quotes they need to fill in blanks in their stories but that process begins with us; it is media-centric. We must shift so that news becomes public-centric.

AUDIENCE: In related news, I was heartened to see that audience development ranked high in our study as a necessary set of skills.

I’m afraid I despise the job title. “Audience” (as in “the people formerly known as”) is a passive, media-centric concept. “Development” and its frequent synonym in the industry and this report, “growth,” are also media-centric: But enough about you, please come read/like/share/comment on my story. Too much of audience development is about using so-called social media to market our content. This is the last gasp of the old, mass-media reach-based business model.

I am relieved to hear again and again in the newsrooms I visit and the conversations I have with media executives — including business heads — their acknowledgment that the reach model is doomed by advertising abundance and commoditization, not to mention competition from the platforms and ad tech.

So I shouldn’t quibble. “Audience development” is a critical, strategic start toward putting the public first in our work. What we need to explore now is where it goes next (and that is why we at Tow-Knight next plan to convene a community of practice around audience development). At our community of practice meeting of product development geniuses, I heard the rumblings of yet another new job on the horizon: audience advocate. That is a critical role in the early stages of product development — observing, listening to, and discerning needs of the communities we serve. The product development folks said this is also an important skill to invoke once the product is built, so a product team doesn’t revert to defending their product against change and improvement.

Here is a case where we in a journalism school tried to get ahead of the industry. Seeing the need for developing richer relationships with the communities we serve — or more accurately betting on the come — CUNY developed a new degree in Social Journalism, led by Carrie Brown, to prepare journalists for this new and strategic skill of becoming servants to the public’s needs. We frankly could not guarantee that they would be hired. After graduating our first class, I can report with great relief and pride that our graduates are being fought over by innovative news companies. The bet paid off.

MANAGEMENT: The next frontier in my own thinking revolves around the need to produce more innovative leadership for the industry — and not just in newsrooms.

In their report, Stencel and Perry note that demand for management ranks low in their surveys. But as they interviewed some of the smartest (young) innovators and leaders in our industry — see comments from Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat and Brian Boyer of NPR — they heard a strong desire for better management and more management training.

I am hearing this again and again: As our industry is finally smart enough to promote younger innovators or fund their visions, we are leaving them ill-prepared to handle tasks that are still required of managers, from motivating staff to negotiating partnerships to driving revenue growth. I also see an urgent need to teach change management to our news executives of today and tomorrow. I’m asking myself how we can help meet this vital need in my school. Please help me think this through.

Two more notes:

First, I’m not sure what to do with the report’s finding about newsrooms’ hunger for coders. Since we started our school, I’ve argued that we should not strive to produce the elusive unicorn, the coder-journalism, the hack-hacker, in all students. I think that was right when it comes to every student; we don’t have time to squeeze comprehensive coding training into the curriculum for all. But I’m glad to be proven wrong when it comes to some students’ desire for specialization. The other day, I was delighted to hear that the coding courses my colleague Sandeep Junnarkar has developed are selling out. My friend at Columbia, Emily Bell, tells me they are having similar success now in their combined journalism/computer science program. All students leave CUNY able to work with coders; they are literate in it. Some students leave able to code; they can become leaders just as those who specialize in data or VR or social journalism will.

This is one example of how I now believe we need to offer specializations and certify students’ skills in them — whether in coding or visual storytelling (much about that in the report) or what’s next (VR and immersive experiences? ubiquitous live reporting? advocacy? platform relationships?).

Second, the report makes me reflect on a shift in the locus of innovation in our industry. When we started the J-school almost 10 years ago, I pushed to include entrepreneurial training — leading us to develop a degree and advanced certificate in the field, a program run by Jeremy Caplan — not only to teach journalists the business of journalism but also to recognize that real innovation in news was coming from startups and we needed to support that.
Now, in this report, we see how startups — digital pure-plays in the inelegant argot of the day — are still, unsurprisingly, ahead of their media forebears in recognizing the importance of, say, product development, audience development, and innovation management. But the big news from this report is that the leaders of legacy companies are no longer smugly, curmudgeonly insisting that all that matters is preserving the fundamentals of traditional journalism: reporting, story-telling, editing, news judgment. Those skills are by no means outmoded. They are presumed. To preserve and sustain the fruits of journalism today and in the future, our news organizations need — and journalism schools need to develop — the host of new skills outlined in this report: the new superpowers.

The First Amendment and a couple of pricks

If the First Amendment does not protect offensive speech, it protects no one. Gawker is nothing if not reliably offensive, noxious, and cruel. Nonetheless, it deserves the defense the Bill of Rights affords.

Gawker lost that protection in the judgment Hulk Hogan won against it. I fear this is the First Amendment as Donald Trump would interpret it: “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” 115 million moneys, to be exact.

My greatest disappointment in this case is Gawker proprietor Nick Denton himself. Some disclosure is warranted: I served on the board of Denton’s prior company, Moreover. Nick introduced me to blogging. He convinced me to convince my then employer, Advance Publications, to invest in and save Blogger, founded by the founder of this very platform, Ev Williams. Nick tried to get me to start a blog company that would be the Time Inc. of blogs to his imagined Condé Nast of blogs. I haven’t talked with Nick lately. Most recently, he asked me to introduce him to possible German investors, who could backstop him in the Hogan case. He went with a Russian instead.

Nick Denton is — was — a brilliant journalist and entrepreneur. He believed, quite rightly, that American journalism sucked dick to get access to power. So he started blogs — Gawker, Wonkette, et al — as blunt alternatives beholden to no man. Sadly, after a time, Gawker’s sites did not cover the shitheads; they became the shitheads. Gawker didn’t need to show us Hulk Hogan’s fornicating ass. It didn’t need to ruin a magazine executive’s life (look it up; I won’t link). It didn’t need to attack people for the glee of it (including me). It didn’t need to exist.

Nick proudly portrayed himself as the anti-journalist. Cute but useless. Nick Denton — former Financial Times and Economist reporter and accomplished entrepreneur — could have done so much more than show us Hulk Hogan fucking his best friend’s wife.

I don’t mean to come off as haughty. I am a great fan of Howard Stern. Thus I’ve heard Hulk talk about his fucking. But I never enjoyed it. The visual was too much to bear. I switched over to NPR.

On the demerits of the case, Hulk Hogan is a public figure and he cannot separate himself from his persona. Like it or not, he forfeited his privacy for wealth and fame. Like it or not, Gawker deserves the protection of the First Amendment like Nazis in Skokie. Gawker might well win on appeal.

But along the way, journalism and Denton both lost an opportunity to show what news could be with honesty and accountability to the public instead of the powerful. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a fucking shame.

STOP THE PRESSES! The Independent is Dead. Long Live the Independent.

I will sound like a native of some isolated tribe where death is celebrated — and I might well be accused of dancing on print’s grave — but I think it is wonderful news that London’s Independent is turning off its presses … yet living on.

On Facebook and Twitter, this news brought the predictable wailing and beating of breasts from journos and print moguls: how sad, how scary, they cry. But not from me. I’m happy for the Independent and for the example it can bring to others. At last, a newspaper has slipped the surly bonds of earth and can fly free online. There is life after the death of print. Hallelujah!

For more than a decade, I’ve been imploring newspaper people to set a date in the future — too close for comfort — when they will shut down the presses because print has become unsustainable. Becoming a sustainable digital enterprise before that day arrives is the definition of digital first.

In the U.S., some papers are now printing a few days a week because those are the days when they distribute coupons and circulars — which is the last good economic justification for producing and distributing a newspaper. But inserts are going away. See newspaper giant McClatchy’s earnings this week with a 22% drop in inserts from last year; another report found department stores’ use of newspaper circulars fell 24%. A confluence of forces — print circulation falling below critical mass; a new generation never coming to replace dying readers; consumer couponing habit shifting to mobile; Amazon (and box stores before it) continuing to kill local retail advertisers; the impending loss of legal advertising; abundant competition for advertising dollars everywhere — join to kill print.

Now the Independent is digital only. It claims its web site is profitable. Yes, print jobs will be lost but the company’s management says it will hire 25 new people to work on the digital future. They aren’t just shutting down the old; they are restructuring the company around the new.

Without a paper to dictate process, organization, culture, and economics, the Independent will be free to be whatever it needs to be to best serve its public. It need no longer always produce 600-word articles to cover any eventuality. I will bet it will take time — perhaps a newsroom generation — to realize this freedom. But someday, the Independent might not look at all like its newspaper forebear.

I’ve been talking with lots of newspaper editors and publishers who are trying to figure out how to make this transition while they still have — and, yes, depend on — print and its mass-media business model. It’s not easy. I believe that we must shift not only from print to digital but also from volume to value, building relationships with people based on relevance. The way we will do that is to listen to the communities we serve — communities of geography, interest, demography, or use case — and then find new ways to help them answer their needs and meet their goals with the tools we now have and the new products we make.

What if you have a newspaper that still makes money? Sure, milk it. But take that cash and reinvest it in the future — in new products and new models. And don’t put print on artificial life support. The New York Times’ pricing model, which makes it cheaper to subscribe to print and digital than digital alone, only props up subscriptions to the legacy product. Of course, I know why that’s beneficial to The Times — print readers are still worth more in advertising than digital readers. But the longer newspaper companies delay the inevitable, the weaker their transition to digital.

While you do keep the print newspaper alive, I’d advise rethinking it, too. Who needs a product conceived a century ago that today tells us what we already know from the web, let alone TV and Twitter? Just as I argue we must rethink news on mobile around use cases — summary, background, alert, engagement, action, collaboration — so should we reconsider the use case of the old newspaper. It could give us a quick view of the world, explanation, engagement (even fiction), photography, surprises: a different experience with different value. The risk of reinventing the paper is that staffs get excited by it again. But by separating the paper product from digital and mobile products, it also helps change the operation and culture of a newsroom, which must learn to regard print as a byproduct, not the end-product. The paper cannot lead the process of journalism if we are to get past it.

The Independent has taken one step — it might seem like a big one but it’s really just a first one — toward reinventing itself by breaking from its legacy means of production and distribution. Now it needs to realize and utilize the freedom it now has and, I hope, show the way for others.

Aaron Sorkin and the Technological Arts

jobs
I think I finally have figured out Aaron Sorkin. He had eluded me.

I remember liking The West Wing — so much so that I don’t dare watch it again for fear that, knowing what I know now, I might discover that Sorkin’s masterpiece was really just another soap opera with sermons. I liked Sports Night, at least for its effort. I was willing to forgive Studio 60.

But I despise what Sorkin did to the truth and to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and what he does now to Steve Jobs in his latest: demonizing them both. And I could not bear what he did for cable news in The Newsroom: worshiping it.

This week, watching Steve Jobs and listening to Sorkin as he was interviewed by The Verge’s Nilay Patel at a screening, I think I finally got Sorkin.

He’s jealous.

Sorkin admires those who change the world. In The West Wing, he imagined and brought to life the ideal, the impossible President that America could not — and God knows still cannot — produce on its own. He seduced us all to admire and adore Josiah Bartlet: Sorkin as kingmaker. In The Newsroom, Sorkin created people who would have changed the world with their high-minded journalism (if only they had not been such horribly flawed, misogynistic, pompous, wordy, preening, horny shitheads and disgusting sell-outs).

But regarding his subjects from the Other Coast, the Lesser Coast, I believe I can hear Sorkin’s inner dialogue:

You just make toys, boys. Zuck: You get people laid because you couldn’t get laid yourself. Never mind that you had a girlfriend I chose to ignore. I decided you didn’t deserve one. That is my power. I am filmmaker. And as for you Steve: I had your daughter say it, but I believe it: Your iMac looked like a fucking Easy-Bake Oven. Your biggest invention, your only real invention was — as your technology tribe might say — Walkman 2.0. Toys, nothing but toys.

In Steve Jobs, Sorkin gives us a silicon opera, a telco novella, daring us to watch as he imagines and intrudes on horribly uncomfortable moments of his protagonist’s life: being a heartless cad to his daughter, to his every employee, and to his Rainman (Sorkin’s word), Woz. In Sorkin’s eye, Jobs is all but irredeemable. It makes for a most uncomfortable two hours, like being stuck in an elevator with the meanest, nastiest feuding family you know. Or at a board meeting of a bad company.

Again, I hear Sorkin’s voice:

Zuck and Steve, you two don’t even try to be charming. You don’t understand the obligation of celebrity. I know stars. Hell, I make stars. Stars seduce the public. So do my characters. Didn’t you love my President? But you two: You don’t seem to give a damn about earning anyone’s love. Zuck: You are just a weird, flat nerd. Steve: You were a nasty SOB. How the hell can people love you when you don’t try to be loved?

In his conversation with Patel, Sorkin said he was “astonished at the way Steve Jobs was eulogized.” Sorkin said he could not understand how people loved not just the things he made but Jobs himself. He thus could not understand the impact of the technology itself in people’s lives. Sorkin said making the movie is his way of catching up. Or perhaps, better put, it was his way of getting even.

Now, of course, it’s not fair of me to psychoanalyze Sorkin — just as it isn’t fair of him to psychoanalyze Zuckerberg and Jobs. But now I understand why he does it. It’s fun. Bullshit, but fun.

Yet I have to give Sorkin this: Somewhere down in his gut, though he might not want to admit it, he understands that both Zuckerberg and Jobs are artists. For that is the context that wraps around his anger about them. That is where he attacks them. That is what makes him so sputteringly jealous.

What gives you two the right to change people’s lives? Who chose you? Who made you? You are just technicians. I am the artist. Artists change people’s lives. You geeks don’t make art. You make gadgets and gimmickry. Yet people treat you as artists. They give you adulation and fortunes and credit and power. WTF?

Sorkin believes he works on a higher plane. He looks down on both technologists and journalists. When Patel dared challenge Sorkin about his disregard for the facts — pesky, fucking facts — in Steve Jobs, Sorkin the auteur — in his actual and not my imagined voice — responded:

“How do I reconcile that with facts? There is a difference between journalism and what I do…. The difference between journalism and what we do is the difference between a photograph and a painting. What we do is painting. Those facts are not as important….” As important as what Sorkin wants to say.

Sorkin also wants to believe filmmaking is a higher form by far than what Zuckerberg and Jobs do. But his films about them are his admission that he is wrong, whether he could bear to say that or not. Sorkin doesn’t change the world as his subjects do. Sorkin works in a lesser art — which he uses, nonetheless, to tear these boys down to size, to assassinate their characters.

Sorkin is Salieri to their Mozart. They are greater artists than he will ever be. They and their impact will be remembered for generations — and not because of Sorkin’s films about them, which will be soon forgotten. They have changed the world more than Sorkin or his beloved, imaginary President or journalists could ever hope to. Yet Sorkin is doomed to make movies about these damned, fucking geeks.

Pity.