Posts about guardian

Tech companies: Whose side are you on?

I wrote this for the Guardian. I’m crossposting it here for my archive. The post is all the more relevant a day later as Google, Apple, AT&T, and Public Knowledge attend a secret White House meeting about secrecy. I’d have a lot more respect for them if they refused, given the condition.

Technology companies: Now is the moment when you must answer for us, your users, whether you are collaborators in the U.S. government’s efforts to collect it all — our every move on the internet — or whether you, too, are victims of its overreach.

Every company named in Edward Snowden’s revelations has said that it must comply with government demands, including requirements to keep secret court orders secret. True enough. But there’s only so long they can hide behind that cloak before making it clear whether they are resisting government’s demands or aiding in them. And now the time has come to go farther: to use both technology and political capital to actively protect the public’s privacy. Who will do that?

We now know, thanks to Snowden, of at least three tiers of technology companies enmeshed in the NSA’s hoovering of our net activity (we don’t yet know whether the NSA has co-opted companies from the financial, retail, data services, and other industries):

(1) Internet platforms that provide services directly to consumers, allowing government to demand access to signals about us: Google with search, mail, calendars, maps; Facebook with connections; Skype with conversations, and so on.

In its first Prism reporting, the Washington Post apparently unfairly fingered nine of these companies, accusing the NSA and FBI of “tapping directly into the central servers” that hold our “chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs.” Quickly, the companies repudiated that claim and sought the right to report at least how many secret demands are made. But there’s more they can and should do.

(2) Communications brands with consumer relationships that hand over metadata and/or open taps on internet traffic for collection by the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ, creating vast databases that can then be searched via XKeyscore. Verizon leads that list, and we now know from the Süddeutsche Zeitung that it also includes BT and Vodafone.

(3) Bandwidth providers that enable the NSA and its international partners to snoop on the net, wholesale. The Süddeutsche lists the three telco brands above in addition to Level 3, Global Crossing, Viatel, and Interroute. Eric King, head of research for Privacy International, asked in the Guardian, “Were the companies strong-armed, or are they voluntary intercept partners?”

The bulk data carriers have no consumer brands or relationships and thus are probably the least likely to feel commercial pressure to protect the rights of the users at the edge. The telephone companies should care more but they operate as oligopolies with monopoly attitudes and rarely exhibit consumer empathy (which is a nice way of saying their business models are built on customer imprisonment).

A hodgepodge alliance of U.S. legislators is finally waking up to the need and opportunity to stand up for citizens’ rights, but they will be slow and, don’t we know, ineffective and often uninformed. The courts will be slower and jealous of their power. Diplomacy’s the slowest route to reform yet, dealing in meaningless symbolism.

So our strongest expectations must turn to the first tier above, the consumer internet platforms. They have the most to lose — in trust and thus value — in taking government’s side against us.

At the Guardian Activate conference in London last month, I asked Vint Cerf, an architect of the net and evangelist for Google, about encrypting our communication as a defense against NSA spying. He suggested that communication should be encrypted into and out of internet companies’ servers (thwarting, or so we’d hope, the eavesdropping on the net’s every bit over telcos’ fibre) but should be decrypted inside the companies’ servers so they could bring us added value based on the content: a boarding pass on our phone, a reminder from our calendar, an alert about a story we’re following (not to mention a targeted ad).

Now there are reports that Google is looking at encrypting at least documents stored in Google Drive. That is wise in any case, as often these can contain users’ sensitive company and personal information. I now think Google et al need to go farther and make encryption an option on any information. I don’t want encryption to be the default because, in truth, most of my digital life is banal and I’d like to keep getting those handy calendar reminders. But technology companies need to put the option and power of data security directly into users’ hands.

That also means that the technology companies have to reach out and work with each other to enable encryption and other protections across their services. I learned the hard way how difficult it is to get simple answers to questions about how to encrypt email. The industry should work hard to make that an option on every popular service.

But let’s be clear that encryption is not the solution, probably only a speed bump to the NSA’s omnivorous ingesting. At the Activate conference, Cerf was asked whether the solution in the end will be technical or institutional. No doubt, institutional, he answered. That means that companies and government agencies must operate under stated principles and clear laws with open oversight.

Before Snowden’s leaks, technology CEOs would have had to balance cooperation and resistance just as the nation supposedly balances security and privacy. But now the tide of public opinion has clearly shifted — at least for now — and so this is the moment to grab control of issue.

If they do not assert that clear control, these technology companies risk losing business not only from skittish consumers but also from corporate and foreign-government clients. The Cloud Security Alliance polled companies and found that 10% had canceled U.S. cloud business and 56% were less likely to do business with U.S. providers. “If businesses or governments think they might be spied on,” said European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes, “they will have less reason to trust the cloud, and it will be cloud providers who ultimately miss out.”

Besides taking action to secure technology and oversight within their companies and the industry, right-thinking technology companies also need to band together to use their political capital to lobby governments across the world to protect the rights of users and the freedom and sanctity of privacy and speech on the net. They must take bold and open stands.

To do that, they must first decide on the principles they should protect. In my book Public Parts, I proposed some principles to discuss, among them:
* the idea that if any bit on the net is stopped or detoured — or spied upon — then no bit and the net itself cannot be presumed to be free;
* that the net must remain open and distributed, commandeered and corrupted by no government;
* that citizens have a right to speak, assemble, and act online and thus have a right to connect without fear;
* that privacy is an ethic of knowing someone else’s information and coming by it openly;
* and that government must become transparent by default and secret by necessity (there are necessary secrets). Edward Snowden has shown us all too clearly that the opposite is now true.

I also believe that we must see a discussion of principles and ethics from the technologists inside these companies. One reason I have given Google the benefit of the doubt — besides being an admirer — is that I believe the engineers I know inside Google would not stay if they saw it violating their ethics even if under government order.

Yonathan Zunger, the chief architect of Google+, said this after the Guardian’s and Glenn Greenwald’s first revelations were published:

I can tell you that it is a point of pride, both for the company and for many of us, personally, that we stand up to governments that demand people’s information…. I can categorically state that nothing resembling the mass surveillance of individuals by governments within our systems has ever crossed my plate. If it had, even if I couldn’t talk about it, in all likelihood I would no longer be working at Google.

In the end, it’s neither technologies nor institutions that will secure us from the inexorable overreach of government curiosity in the face of technical capability. Responsibility for oversight and correction begins with individuals, whether whistleblowers or renegade politicians or employees of conscience who finally remind those in power: “Don’t be evil.”

What is journalism, redux

The Guardian asked me to respond to the issues raised in Yochai Benkler’s testimony at the trial of Bradley Manning about the definition of journalism. I’m cross-posting it here for archival purposes. To comment, please go to the Guardian.

When Bradley Manning‘s defense attorneys wanted someone to explain journalism (pdf) to the court (pdf) trying him, they did not call on a journalist, they called on a legal scholar and expert in networks: Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and author of The Wealth of Networks.

For as Benkler explained to the court, journalism is now a network – a “network ‘fourth estate'”.

In this network, there are many roles that can be linked together: witnessing, gathering, selecting, authenticating, explaining, distributing. Each can be an act of journalism. Each can be done by someone else, not necessarily working in a single institution. “Journalism,” said Benkler, “is made up of many things.”

Those actors can now include not just the reporters and editors in newspapers, and not just bloggers working alone, but also other, new players: witnesses who share what they see on the streets of Cairo, Rio, or Istanbul; witnesses or whistleblowers who share what they discover in their work (see: Manning or Edward Snowden) and organizations that aid one function or another (see: WikiLeaks). As Benkler went on to testify Wednesday:

One of the things that’s happened is people realize that you can’t have all the smartest people and all the resources working in the same organization. So we have seen a much greater distribution in networks that even though they use the internet, what’s important about the network structure is actually permissions, who’s allowed to work on what resource or assignments of work assignments.

Permission is precisely what is at stake in Manning’s trial and will be if Snowden is brought to court: both men had permission to see what they saw. They did not have permission to share it. Or if they are deemed whistleblowers, do they? Well, that may depend on whom they shared their information with: a journalistic organization, perhaps. But is WikiLeaks such an organization? Or is it a source for “the enemy”?

That is an issue Benkler and attorneys wrestled with, as he argued that WikiLeaks was indeed seen as a journalistic organization – until Manning’s files became public (with the help of the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, el Pais and other clearly journalistic enterprises). From then on, Benkler said, WikiLeaks was demonized by American politicians in their “shrill” campaign against it. To use Benkler’s word, WikiLeaks was “delegitimized”. Its permissions were withdrawn.

All this matters to Manning’s defense because it informs the question of intent: did he intend to share the videos and files he found with fellow citizens or with the enemy? Was WikiLeaks a journalistic entity with links to the public or an enemy tool with a line to Bin Laden?

The exact same question is already raised about Snowden: did he intend to share with the public through this newspaper or with other governments in their airports? There lies a line between whistleblower and spy – or so the argument goes.

There’s another issue in play: the one around “a journalist”. Who is a journalist? For that matter, what is journalism? Those questions underpinned not only Benkler’s testimony, but also the debate buzzing around the head of the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, as some colleagues in the field have amazingly questioned his role (his permission), and thus whether he should be arrested for aiding and abetting a criminal suspect.

They do that because Greenwald is an advocate and a journalist; while journalists – in the US, at least – have long believed that one must be a journalist or an advocate. Benkler told the court that one can be both. I argue that all journalism is advocacy even if it is simply advocating for openness and transparency, or standing up for the downtrodden, or believing that the public must be better informed.

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan tried recently (and for what must be the millionth time) to define a journalist. Senator Dick Durbin has proposed that the government should define who is a journalist.

But that would be tantamount to licensing the journalist. That is a permission government should not grant, for that gives government the power to rescind it.

Here’s the problem – the problem Benkler presents in his testimony: in a network, anyone can perform an act of journalism. Thus, I argue, there are no journalists. There is only the service of journalism.

At the Guardian’s Activate conference in London, this Tuesday, I asked Vint Cerf, a father of the internet, about the notion that journalists still think they manufacture a product called content (a noun) while Cerf’s invention and his current employer, Google, concentrate on making verbs: services that perform a function for people or society. Surely, as I’ve argued on my blog recently, journalism is such a service.

Journalism is not content. It need not be a profession or an industry. It is not the province of a guild. It is not a scarcity to be controlled. It no longer happens just in newsrooms. It is no longer confined to narrative form.

So, then, what the hell is journalism?

It is a service whose end is an informed public. For my entrepreneurial journalism students, I provide a broad umbrella of a definition: journalism helps communities organize their knowledge so they can better organize themselves.

So, anything that reliably serves the end of an informed community is journalism. Anyone can help do that. The true journalist should want anyone to join the task.

That’s not a complicated definition, but it raises no end of complications, especially in a set of laws that is built for institutions, not networks. What if Manning, WikiLeaks, Snowden and Greenwald all performed acts of journalism? I say they have, for they performed services in the name of an informed public. There is a role for the witness, the whistleblower, and the advocate in the “network fourth estate”.

And there must still be a role for journalistic institutions. For it is they that have the resources to perform many of the necessary functions that come after witnessing: selecting, authenticating, explaining, distributing. And it is they and their lawyers who can withstand the pressure that governments will put on them – witness the trial of Manning and the pursuit of Snowden – to forbid transparency.

In his testimony, Benkler warned the court of the precedents that may set:

If the threat to potential whistleblowers and leakers was as great as a death penalty or life in prison, [that would chill] the willingness of people of good conscience but not infinite courage to come forward and … [would] severely undermine the way in which leak-based investigative journalism has worked in the tradition of free press in the United States.

All journalism is advocacy (or it isn’t)

Jay Rosen wrote an insightful post forking the practice of journalism into “politics: none” (that is, traditional American journalism: objective, it thinks) and “politics: some” (that is, the kind just practised by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian). Jay catalogs the presumptions and advantages of each. As both he and The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan observe, Edward Snowden took his leaks to Greenwald and the Guardian because they exemplify “politics: some.”

I want to take this farther and argue first that what Greenwald and the Guardian were practising was less politics than advocacy, and second that all journalism is advocacy (or is it journalism?).

To the first point: Greenwald and the Guardian were not bolstering their own politics in the NSA story. To the contrary, Greenwald and the Guardian both identify politically as liberal — the Guardian’s mission is to be nothing less than “the world’s leading liberal voice” — yet they attacked programs run and justified by a liberal American administration and no doubt caused that administration discomfort or worse. In so doing, Greenwald and the Guardian exhibited the highest value of journalism: intellectual honesty. That does not mean they were unbiased. It means they were willing to do damage to their political side in the name of truth. Greenwald and the Guardian were practising advocacy not for politics — not for their team — but for principles: protection of privacy, government transparency and accountability, the balance of powers, and the public’s right to know.

Now to my second point: Seen this way, isn’t all journalism properly advocacy? And isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? As James Carey said: “The god term of journalism — the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public.”

When the Washington Post — whose former editor famously refused to vote to uphold his vision of Jay’s “politics: none” ethic — chooses to report on government secrecy or on abuse of veterans at a government hospital or, of course, on presidential malfeasance and coverups, it is, of course, advocating. When an editor assigns reporters to expose a consumer scam or Wall Street fraud or misappropriation of government funds, that’s advocacy. When a newspaper takes on the cause of the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the forgotten, or just the little guy against The Man, that’s advocacy. When health reporters tell you how to avoid cancer or even lose weight, that’s advocacy on your behalf. I might even argue that a critic reviewing a movie to save you from wasting your money on a turkey could be advocacy (though we don’t necessarily need critics for that anymore).

But what about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour, a tragic accident with no lesson to be learned? Is that advocacy? No. When a TV network — not to pick on TV — devotes hours and hours to the salacious details of, say, the Jodi Arias crime, which affects none of our lives, is that advocacy? No. When an online site collects pictures of cute cats, is that advocacy? Hardly. When a newspaper devotes resources to covering football games, is that advocacy? No. Is any of that journalism? Under the test I put forth here, no.

So what is it then, the stuff we call journalism that doesn’t advocate for people or principles, that doesn’t serve the public need? At worst, it’s exploitation — audience- or sales- or click- or ratings-bait — at best it’s entertainment. The first is pejorative, the second need not be, as entertainment — whether a journalistic narrative or a book or a show or movie — can still inform and enlighten. But if it doesn’t carry information that people can use to better organize their lives or their society, I’d say it fails the journalism test.

Journalism-as-advocacy has been bundled with journalism-as-entertainment for economic reasons: Entertainment can draw people to a media entity and help subsidize the cost of its journalism. But it was a mistake to then put an umbrella over it all: If a newspaper creates journalism then everything its journalists create in that newspaper is journalism, right? No. The corollary: People who are not journalists can do journalism. It’s a function of the value delivered, not the job title. (I’ll write another post later looking a pricing paradox embedded in this split.)

Why does what seems like definitional hair-splitting matter? Because when a whistleblower knocks on your door, you must decide not whose side you’re on but whom and what principles you serve. This is a way to recast the specific argument journalists are having now about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. Wrong question. As a journalistic organization, the Guardian had to ask whether the public had a right to the information Snowden carried, no matter which side it benefitted (so long as the public’s interests — in terms of security — were not harmed).

The next issue for the Guardian was whether and how it adds journalistic value. That is, of course, another journalistic test. Edward Snowden, like Wikileaks, delivered a bunch of raw and secret documents. In both cases, news organization added value by (1) using judgment to redact what could be harmful, (2) bringing audience to the revelation, and most important, (3) adding reporting to this raw information to verify and explain.

Based on his Q&A with the Guardian audience, I’d say that Snowden is proving to be big on rhetoric and perhaps guts but less so on specifics. I still am not clear how much direct operational knowledge he has or whether he — like Bradley Manning — simply had access to documents. So more reporting was and still is necessary. This Associated Press story is a good example of taking time to add reporting, context, and explanation to Snowden’s still-unclear and still-debated documents.

Both these organizations made their decisions about what to reveal and what to report based on their belief that we have a right and need to know. That’s journalism. That’s advocacy.

Crossing the Channel

Some people wonder why I go to Germany so often. It’s to meet some brilliant people who are doing amazing things there, among them Wolfgang Blau, for almost five years the editor-in-chief of Zeit Online. Now I won’t have to go as far to see him as Wolfgang is moving to London to become director of digital strategy at the Guardian. Don’t you love it when friends marry?

I’m reminded of John Paton, who was executing much of his strategy for digital-first news in the U.S., but no one saw it because it occurred in Spanish, at Impremedia, a roll-up he engineered with publications he then re-engineered. Only when he took over two English-language newspaper companies under Digital First Media did our world take note of what he was doing. Same for Wolfgang: At Zeit Online he did phenomenal things, complementing a still-successful (!) print paper in Germany with an innovative journalism online, growing the site and its audience tremendously. But my friends over here couldn’t see it because he did it in German.

Now Wolfgang comes to my favorite newspaper in the world to extend its digital lead. The Guardian — under another friend, Emily Bell, now a friendly competitor at Columbia’s j-school — showed the way for news online. Now, in my view, the Guardian will be competing with The New York Times (under its new ex-BBC CEO) and the BBC and perhaps the Wall Street Journal to become the leading English-language news brand online. That battle is just underway and the battleground is digital.

As I was writing this post, someone in Twitter noted the timing of the Guardian getting ready to launch a next round of layoffs. My view: newspapers have to finish the process of shrinking so they can grow again, and they’ll grow digitally.

Wolfgang is a dear friend and I’m delighted for him and for Alan Rusbridger and company at the Guardian. (And disclosures: I’m on the Digital First advisory board and I have consulted and written for the Guardian over the years.)

Here’s the Guardian announcement in English and here’s the Zeit announcement in German.

Are media in the content business?

The Guardian launches its new Media Network my essay asking whether we in media are really in the content business. Here’s the first half (in the rest, I catalog the methods I think are worth exploring to rethink our role…. I’ll be expanding on that later).

* * *

What if we in media are not in the content business?

Oh, yes, we will produce content; that’s what we do. But perhaps our greatest value is not in what we produce but in what it produces: signals about people’s interests, about authority, about topics and trends.

That is how Facebook, Google, Twitter and company see content – as a signal generator. That is how they extract value from it, by using those signals to serve more relevant content, services, and advertising. But they are not in the content business. They are in the relationship business. Shouldn’t we also be?

A US TV news executive I know complained to me recently that Facebook and Google, in his words, use media’s steel to build their cars. “Mark Zuckerberg,” he said, “does not value content.”

No, I said, Zuckerberg values more content than we do. We think content is that which we make because we are content people – we see content as a scarcity we produce and control. Facebook and Google, on the other hand, see content everywhere – in the allegedly useless creations, chatter and links made by people in the course of their lives. They see content as an abundant resource to learn from, value and exploit.

The problem is, the media is not built for relationships because our industry was born in a time of factories, not services. We rarely know who our readers are (and we still call them just readers or at best commenters, not creators or collaborators). We do not have the means to gather, analyse and act on data about their activities and interests at an individual level. Thus we cannot serve them as individuals.

Our product, content, is not built for that. It is built for masses. That is what our means of production and distribution demanded. So now we try to adapt that content for new tools, impressed that we can add motion, sound or touch to what we have long done. But our online books, magazines, and newspapers are still recognisable as such. We haven’t gone nearly far enough yet to rethink and reinvent them….

Readers are our regulators

Here’s a post I put up on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (comment there).

Please resist the temptation to impose government regulation on journalism in the aftermath of phone-hacking. Oh, I know, it would be sweet justice for Murdoch pere et fils to be the cause of expanding government authority. But danger lies there. Regulation requires teeth and teeth carry power.

Let me begin by posing four questions:

What activities are to be regulated? Activities that are already criminal, like News Corp.’s, should be prosecuted as crimes. Then does speech itself become the target? In the United States, we grapple with this question in the one exception to our First Amendment, which is about to be tested in the Supreme Court. That loophole to the Bill of Rights gives the Federal Communications Commission authority to regulate and fine mere words on TV and radio. I have argued in the pages of the Guardian that “bullshit” is political speech but we are forbidden to speak it on our air — even about this regulation itself — under threat of a regulator’s chill and penalty. What we need today is more speech, not less.

What should a regulator do in the case of violations? Fine the offender into submission? Close the publication? Does that not give your government the same weapon used by dictators elsewhere against journalists? Doesn’t this return the UK to a regime of licensing the press? Remember that he who grants licenses may also not grant them or revoke them.

Who is the proper regulator? Clearly, it is not the industry. The Press Complaints Commission has proven to be nothing more than a diaphanous gown for the devil. But government? Is government the proper body to supervise the press, to set and oversee its standards? How could it be? The watched become the watchers’ watchers. Certainly government has shown itself to be incompetent and mightily conflicted in this case, as alleged overseers of the crimes at hand end up in high places and the police themselves are reported to be beneficiaries of corruption.

Finally, who is to be regulated? In other words, who is the press? That’s the key question raised here. Alan Rusbridger posed it in his forceful soliloquy on this amazing week: Is Huffington Post the press? Guido Fawkes? By extension, is any blogging citizen? Any YouTube commentator or Twitter witness-cum-reporter? Yes, we wrangle with this same question in the United States, but in the context of who should receive the rights and protections of the press — namely, shield laws — rather than who should be under the thumb of a government agency.

The goal must not be to further solidify the hegemony of the media-government complex but instead to bust it open. We have the tools at hand to do that: journalists, the public they serve, and their new tool of publicness, the internet.

As Rusbridger also said in that video, this was a week marked by the worst of journalism and the best of journalism. Reporting is wot did the bastards in. Nick Davies is the Woodward and Bernstein of the age though it’s a pity that his Nixon built his nearly absolute power — and nearly inevitable corruption — in our profession. The first and most important protection we will have against the likes of him is a business model for the Guardian to sustain Davies and support future generations like him. The second most important thing the Guardian can do is set an example for other journalists.

I was talking with Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, just yesterday about his cause and favorite obsession: fact-checking. There are scattered organizations that endeavor to check politicians’ and journalists mistakes and lies. But no organization can do it all. How do we scale fact-checking? My thought is that we should see every news organization place a box next to all its reports inviting fact-checking: readers flagging dubious assertions and journalists and readers picking up the challenge to investigate. The Washington Post and the Torrington (Connecticut) Register Citizen have them.

That small addition raises the standards and expectations for journalists’ work and, more importantly, opens the process of journalism to the public, inviting them to act as both watchers and collaborators.

I also think we must increase our diligence to all but eliminate the scourge of the anonymous source. Note that I left an opening for whistleblowers and victims and the too-rare true investigators like Davies. But if we had as an expectation that the News of the World should have told us where and how it learned what it learned about its 4,000 victims, it would have been less able to perpetrate its crimes of hacking and bribery.

The Guardian is making openness its hallmark and this is what it must mean: Rather than closing down journalism to some legislative definition of who may practice the craft, we must open its functions to all. Rather than enabling government and media to become even more entwined, we must explode their bonds and open up the business of both for all to see. Regulators, bureaucrats, politicians, and titans of a dying industry are not the ones to do that.

In researching my next book, Public Parts, I dared to read Jürgen Habermas and his theory of the public sphere. Habermas says the public sphere first emerged as a counterweight to the power of government in the rational, critical debate of the coffeehouses and salons of the 18th century. But almost as soon as this public sphere formed, Habermas laments, it was corrupted and overtaken by mass media. Now, at last, is our opportunity to reverse that flow and to recapture our public sphere.

There’s where this tale’s sweet irony lies: It’s Murdoch & Co. who set the charges to blow apart the very institutional power and cozy relationships they built.

: LATER: I’m disturbed by a fundamentally undemocratic theme I see in the comments here and at the Guardian: Some blame the public for the excesses of Murdoch, Inc. That’s essentially cynical and condescending toward the public. Some don’t trust the public to regulate media. If you distrust the public that much, then you might as well throw in the towel on democracy and freemarkets, not to mention journalism and education (why inform the public if they’re a mass of boobs?). But these folks — just like institutional media — better get used to the public having a greater voice and regulating their behavior, for that’s where we’re headed: back to the coffee house.

The article and the future of print

This week, Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger declared that the paper would go “digital first,” following John Paton‘s lead and stopping a step short of his strategy at Journal Register: “digital first … print last.”

My Guardian friends are getting a bit tetchy about folks trying to tell them how to fix the institution, but given that it lost £34.4m last year, I’d say the intervention is warranted and should be seen only as loving care: chicken soup for the strategy. So I will join in.

My thoughts about the Guardian have something to do with my thoughts on the article. That’s a logical connection because the means of production and distribution of print are what mandated the invention of the article. So it is fitting that we consider its fate in that context.

But first let’s examine what it means to be digital first. It does not mean just putting one’s stories online before the presses roll. In that case, print still dictates the form and rhythm of news: everything in the process of a newsroom is still aimed at fitting round stories into squared holes on pages. That, as Jay Rosen says, is the key skill newsroom residents think they have (and the skill journalism schools prepare them for): the production cycle of print.

Digital first, aggressively implemented, means that digital drives all decisions: how news is covered, in what form, by whom, and when. It dictates that as soon as a journalist knows something, she is prepared to share it with her public. It means that she may share what she knows before she knows everything (there’s a vestige of the old culture, which held that we could know everything … and by deadline to boot) so she can get help from her public to fill in what she doesn’t know. That resets the journalistic relationship to the community, making the news organization a platform first, enabling a community to share its information and inviting the journalist to add value to that process. It means using the most appropriate media to impart information because we are no longer held captive to only one: text. We now use data, audio, video, graphics, search, applications, and wonders not yet imagined. Digital first is the realization that news happens with or without us — it mimics the architecture of the internet, end-to-end — and we must use all the tools available to add value where we can.

Digital first, from a business perspective, means driving the strategy to a digital future, no longer depending on the print crutch. That means creating a likely smaller and more efficient enterprise that can survive, then prosper post-monopoly, post-scarcity in an abundance-based media economy. It means serving the commercial needs of businesses in our communities in new ways: not just by selling space but by providing services (helping them with their own online strategies — including Google, Facebook, Groupon, craigslist, et al; training them; perhaps holding events with them). It means finding new efficiencies in the collaborative link economy. It means outrunning the grim reaper and getting past risky dependency on free-standing inserts (the coupons and circulars that will one day, sooner than we know — zap! — disappear) and retail advertising (which continues to implode) and the last vestiges of classified (how quaint) and circulation revenue (sorry!). It means getting rid of the cost of the analog business (“iron and real estate,” as Paton says).

Print last. Note that none of us — no, not even I — is saying print dead. Print, at least for a time, still has a place in serving content and advertising. But let’s re-examine that place even as we re-examine the role of the article, the journalist, and the advertisement in digital.

Since I spoke about this with Rusbridger last time he was in New York to herald the coming of Guardian for Yanks, I’ve refined my thinking. As I understand the well-known business of the Guardian — unlike many US papers and unlike at least one of its UK competitors, the Times — its Sunday paper, the Observer, is an economic burden. My thought earlier had been to give it up, just as many American papers are contemplating giving up other days of the week but keeping Sunday (and Thursdays and perhaps another … because they are still useful to wrap around those free-standing inserts). No, they won’t keep publishing on those days for journalistic purposes but because they have distribution value. Cynical, perhaps, but true.

But all this talk about the article has made me contemplate a new future: What if the Guardian became an online-only and international brand of news, multimedia, and comment and the Observer became a once-a-week (who cares what day of the week?) print brand of analysis, context, comment, and narrative? The Guardian has 37 million users, two-thirds of them outside the UK. Going online-only would enable it to become a truly international brand. The Observer could compete with the master of the article, the one publication that adds great value through the form: the Economist. As a newspaper of depth, this Observer could mimic Die Zeit in Germany, an amazing journal of reporting and commentary that is still growing in circulation. The print Observer could be printed in America, competing with weak-tea Sunday newspapers in markets across the country. Prior efforts to consider a print Guardian in the U.S. have stopped short. Could this succeed? Dunno.

The point is that the article as a high form of journalistic practice could succeed in a high-value print form while the Guardian could become a journal of news and comment in text, photo, video, audio, graphics, data….

What also makes me wonder about this is The New York Times’ proud announcement that it will remake its Week in Review into the Sunday Review next week. Truth be told, I haven’t read the Sunday Times in ages. I used to hang on its arrival at newsstands on Saturday nights in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but now I find it to be day-old bread, yeasty but stiff. Could The Times turn its plans for Sunday Review into an American Economist? I’m less sanguine about its chances than the Guardian’s. In either case, the winner would be the one that finds the greatest value in the old form of the article.

See, it’s not dead. It just needs a savior.

: MORE: I meant to add a few thoughts on the form the article takes in these media. In digital, articles are still valuable to synthesize a story, to summarize a complex day’s news, to add context, and so on. Again, not all stories need such articles, but many will. In this vision of print, the article takes on a different raison d’etre and a higher calling: It needs to add perspective. Bill Keller says it this way in his preview of the new Review:

Jonathan Landman, who took over the section from Dan Lewis, put it this way: The news sections’ job is to inform. (The desired reader reaction: “I didn’t know that!”) The opinion section’s job is to persuade. (“Yes, I see the light!”) The job of the Review is to help people see things in unexpected ways. (“I never thought of it that way!”)

I’d say The Economist presents the model for that kind of article. It is a high, a very high bar to reach. Can the Guardian attain that? Yes. The New York Times? Yes. The workaday local paper?

: Related: Charlie Beckett on Wikileaks and the threat of new news. Terry Heaton on news and the story.

The distraction trope

In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland is the latest curmudgeon to recycle Nick Carr’s distraction trope, microwave it, and serve it with gravy. The argument is that Twitter—though possibly a wonderful thing for Egyptian revolutionaries (we can argue that trope another day)—is distracting us Westerners from our important work of deep reading and deep thinking and something simply must be done. We have a crisis of concentration brought on by a crisis of distraction, he tells us. Some people I respect react and call this matter urgent.

Bollocks, as my Guardian friends would say.

I want you to think back with me now—I’m hypnotizing you, which should alleviate the stress of distraction, at least momentarily—to the moment in 1994 or soon thereafter when you discovered the World Wide Web and a new activity: browsing. Didn’t we all, every one of us, waste hours—days, even—aimlessly, purposelessly clicking links from one site to the next, not knowing where we would go and then not knowing where our hours went? Oh my God, we would never get anything done again, we fretted. We are all too distracted. We were hypnotized.

I know from market research I did that back then that it was not long before browsing diminished and died as our primary behavior online. We became directed in our searches. We came to the web looking for something, got it, and moved on. That’s partly because the tools improved: Yahoo gave us a directory; brands took on the role of serving expected content; Google gave us search. But this change in behavior came mainly because we got over the newness of browsing and had other, more important things to do and we learned how to prioritize our time again.

It is ever thus. Think back to the early days of TV and cable: My God, with so much to watch, will we ever get anything done? The exact same argument can be made—indeed, one wishes it were made—about books: With so many of them unread, how can we possibly ever do anything else? But, of course, we do.

Twitter addiction shall pass. Have faith—faith in your fellow man and woman. I was busy doing other things yesterday, important things, and so I pretty much did not tweet. I survived without it. So, I’m depressed to say, did all of you without me. I just wrote in my book that Twitter indeed created a distraction to writing the book, as I was tempted by the siren call of the conversation that never ends. But it also helped with my writing that I always had ready researchers and editors, friends willing to help when I got stuck or needed inspiration.

Twitter is a tool to manage and we learn how to do that, once the new-car smell wears off. That’s exactly what has happened with blogging. And here is the moment the curmudgeons triumphally declare the triumphalists wrong and blogging—which, remember, was also going to destroy us—dead or dying. What killed blogging? Twitter. Ah, the circle of life, the great mandala.

But I can guarantee that the distraction trope will be pulled out of the refrigerator and reheated again and again as the curmudgeons raise alarms about the destructive power of the next shiny thing. I’m loving reading a long-awaited new book by the esteemed Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein. In Divine Art, Infernal Machine, she takes us back to exact same arguments over the printing press among the “triumphalists” and the “catastrophists.” That is perhaps better title for our curmudgeons. She quotes Erasmus arguing that

the benefits of printing were almost eclipsed by complaints about increased output: swarms of new books were glutting the market and once venerated authors were being neglected. “To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?… the very multitude of them is hurting scholarship, because it creates a glut, and even in good things satiety is most harmful.” The minds of men “flighty and curious of anything new” are lured “away from the study of old authors.”

And isn’t really their fear, the old authors, that they are being replaced? Control in culture is shifting.

What are our catastrophists really saying when they argue that Twitter is ruining us and Western (at least) civilization? They are branding us all sheeple. Ah, but you might say: Jarvis, aren’t you and your triumphalists making similarly overbroad statements when you say that these tools unlock new wonders in us? Perhaps. But there is a fundamental difference in our claims.

We triumphalists—I don’t think I am one but, what the hell, I’ll don the uniform—argue that these tools unlock some potential in us, help us do what we want to do and better. The catastrophists are saying that we can be easily led astray to do stupid things and become stupid. One is an argument of enablement. One is an argument of enslavement. Which reveals more respect for humanity? That is the real dividing line. I start with faith in my fellow man and woman. The catastrophists start with little or none.

Ah, but some will say, these tools are neutral. They can be used by bad actors as well. That’s certainly true. but bad actors are usually already bad. The tools don’t make them bad.

Take the Great Distractor of the age: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The real debate over him in The Social Network and among privacy regulators and between catastrophists and triumphalists is about his motives. I write in Public Parts:

If, as the movie paints him, he acts out of his own cynical goals—getting attention, getting laid, getting rich—then manipulating us to reveal ourselves smells of exploitation. But if instead he has a higher aim—to help us share and connect and to make the world more open—then it’s easier to respect him, as Jake [my son] and I do. . . .

There is the inherent optimism that fuels the likes of him: that with the right tools and power in the right hands, the world will keep getting better. “On balance, making the world more open is good,” Zuckerberg says. “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” The optimist has to believe in his fellow man, in empowering him more than protecting against him. . . .

He believes he is creating the tools that help people to do what they naturally want to do but couldn’t do before. In his view, he’s not changing human nature. He’s enabling it.

I talked with Ev Williams at Twitter and he says similar things. He’s not trying to distract us to death. (That would be Evil Ev.) He’s trying to help us connect with each other and information, instantly, relevantly. (That is Good Ev.) It’s up to us how we use the tool well—indeed, we the community of users are the ones who helped invent the power of @ and # and $ and RT to refine the gift Ev et al gave us. I heard a similar mission from Dennis Crowley at Foursquare: helping us make serendipitous connections we otherwise wouldn’t.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the one who started this whole mess in the beginning (damn you, Sir!) is trying to push all the toolmakers to the next level, to better understand the science of what they are doing and to unlock the data layer of our world. Wonderful possibilities await—if you believe that the person next to you isn’t a distractable dolt but instead someone with unmet potential. There’s the real argument, my friends. And you are my friends, for remember that I’m the one who respects you.