Posts about journalism

Sorry, Nick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power corrupts.

Native advertising: Another false messiah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

From Media to Memes: Lessons from Occupy Democrats

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.

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.

To a faster — and distributed — web

Screenshot 2015-10-07 at 10.52.04 AM

Last May, shortly after Facebook announced its Instant Articles, Google held its first Newsgeist Europe and I walked in, saying obnoxiously (it’s what I do): “Facebook just leapfrogged you by a mile, Google. What you should do now is create an open-source version of Instant Articles.” Richard Gingras, head of Google News, has long been arguing for what he called portable content. I had been arguing since 2011 for embeddable content: If content could travel with its brand, revenue, analytics, and links attached, then it can go to the reader rather than making the reader come to it.

Today, fairy godmother Google delivered our wish — thanks to Gingras, Google engineering VP Dave Besbris, and media partners inside and outside of Google’s European Digital News Initiative. Hallelujah.

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) — as you can see from Google’s definition on Github, above — a simple way to dramatically speed up the serving of web pages (on mobile and on desktop) through several means, including:
(1) a shared library of web-page functions so that they can be cached and called and not downloaded with every new web page;
(2) the opportunity to cache content nearer the user — with Google or not and inside apps on user’s devices;
(3) the beginnings of advertising standards to get rid of some of the junk that both slows down and jumbles the serving of web pages; and
(4) the sharing of some functions such as gathering data for analytics.

Note that the publisher’s revenue (that is, ads), analytics (that is, user data), brand, and links stay with the content. Google emphasized again and again: It’s just the web, done well. It’s just a web page — but way faster. A link is no longer an invitation to wait. A link is just a next page, instantly and fully visible.

You can get a demo here. So far, it’s just a sample of about 5,000 new pages per day from the launch partners. Open that URL on your phone. Search for something like Obama. Go through the carousel and you should be amazed with the speed.

But I think AMP and Instant Articles are more than that. They are a giant step toward a new, distributed content ecology on the web … and a better, faster web, especially in mobile.

Here are a few ways I see this changing the way content operates on the web:

Imagine an aggregator like Real Clear Politics or an app like Nuzzel. Now, every time you click on a link, you have to load a browser and all the cruft around the content on a page. Now, the page — every page made to the AMP standard — can load *instantly* because the architecture and functionality of the page can be prefetched and cached and the content can be cached closer to the user — and the advertising and analytics will not be allowed to screw up the loading of the page. So the experience of reading an aggregation of content will be like reading a web site: fast, clean, smooth. If I were in the aggregation business, I would build around AMP.

Imagine starting a new media service without a web site but built around content meant to be distributed so it goes directly to readers wherever they are: on Twitter (via users’ links there), on Facebook (in a community there), on Nuzzel (through recommendations there), and elsewhere — via Reddit, Mode aggregation, Tumblr, etc.

Now there are a few key things missing from the AMP architecture that will be critical to business success. But they can be added.

The first is that user interest data needs to flow back to the content creator — with proper privacy transparency and consent built in! — so that the publisher can build a direct relationship of relevance and value with the user, no matter where she is encountered. That is more complicated but vital.

The second — and this is a lesson I learned working with shared content and thus audience in the New Jersey news ecosystem — is that we must value and reward not just the creators of content but also those who build audience for that content.

That’s a small matter of deal making. AMP is built with *no* need to make deals, which is critical to its quick adoption. You make your content AMP-ready and anybody can serve it instantly to their audiences with your business model (advertising, etc.) attached. But there’s no reason two publishers can’t make a separate deal so, for example, the Washington Post could say to the Cincinnati Inquirer: You can take our AMP-ready content with our ads attached but we will give you your own ad avail or we will give you a reward for the traffic you bring us and we can share a special, co-branded page. The Post is already getting ready to distribute all its content in Facebook. It is using its owner Jeff Bezos’ Amazon to distribute itself, too. (Speculation is that these alone will have it leap past The New York Times in audience.) Why not use AMP and make deals to reward other quality news services on the web to be its distributor? That is the new newsstand. That is the new site-less web.

I also see the opportunity to make AMP-ready modules and widgets that can be collected and aggregated *inside* web pages.

This is a big deal. It’s not just about speeding up the web. It’s about unbundling the web and web sites. If we in media are smart in exploiting its opportunities and if AMP and Amazon and others gather together around a single set of standards — which is quite possible — if we add more data smarts to the process, this could be big for us in media or for upstarts in garages. Your choice, media.

AFTERTHOUGHT: How should Facebook respond? I would suggest they have nothing to lose by joining the standard so publishers can publish both ways. I would also suggest that Facebook can now leapfrog Google by helping publishers with interest data and user profiles — that is where the real value will be.

Social Journalism: Apply & hire now!

We are not far from the end of the first year of our new degree in social journalism at CUNY and I couldn’t be prouder of what the students and the faculty are accomplishing. (If you are interested in being part of the second class, now is the time to apply.) My best accomplishment in helping to start this degree was recruiting the amazing Carrie Brown to head the program.

I am learning a great deal from Carrie and our students as we grapple with some fundamental questions about the nature of journalism as a service, about the idea of internally focused vs. externally focused journalism, and about a community’s definition of itself. We have been looking at whom we serve in a community — and whose behavior we thus set out to change. We have been asking what the appropriate measures of success — of impact and value — should be. We, of course, we are learning much about the impact of new social tools on journalism and gaining skills in that realm as a result.

And we are producing a class of high-powered pioneers. At the Online News Association confab in L.A. a week ago Carrie and I found employers dying to get their hands on our soon-to-be graduates. When Sarah Bartlett and I came up with the idea for this degree, we knew we were betting on the come: that news organizations would need the journalists we would educate in this program. A damned good bet.

I asked Carrie for an update for you about what our students are working on in their practicums (practica?) in the communities they have chosen to serve and in some cases in internships in media companies. A sample of their work:

A photo posted by Carrie Brown (@brizzyc) on

* Pedro Burgos has been teaching himself to code beyond what he learned in class and has built a sentiment analyzer using IBM Watson’s API to allow him to examine what kinds of Facebook strategies produce the best comments and dialogue. He has interviewed experts in improving comments from around the country as well. Pedro loves to challenge me in class discussion and I relish that for through that we are exploring new metrics that should guide our work in journalism.

* Luis Miguel Echegaray is interning this semester at Vice. He is also live blogging soccer in Spanish for The Guardian, which has garnered them a lot of traffic. Luis is also working to build his The Faces of Soccer website. He is going to be working with South Bronx United, a nonprofit org that not only offers soccer coaching but school tutoring. Luis intends to become the Anthony Bourdain of soccer. He will succeed.

* Rachel Glickhouse is interning this semester at Medium. She’s also freelancing for a number of outlets, including Al Jazeera America and Quartz. We are impressed by how her work helped one man get his deportation stayed. At Medium, Rachel is assisting with audience engagement and involving journalism schools in an upcoming investigation. She’s also developing her practicum to start a conversation on Medium and social media about the difficulties of becoming a legal resident in the U.S.

* Deron Dalton is interning with the Daily Dot. In addition to other stories, he is using the expertise he has developed serving #BlackLivesMatter there. He is also developing resources for journalists on how to cover the movement.

* Julia Haslanger is working with Chalkbeat to study how the organization can continue to grow its readership and engagement. Her journalism salary survey – results posted on Medium – has gotten a lot of attention and reaction, and she was invited to speak at The Media Consortium as a result. She is also doing research for the Kettering Foundation, interviewing social media and community engagement editors in newsrooms to learn more about how they approach their jobs and the skills they need.

* Nuria Saldanha — who first completed our certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism — conducted her first media skills training in partnership with the Facebook Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab in the Heliópolis favela in São Paulo this August. People are learning how to use mobile devices to create text/photos/video. This is of particular benefit to small business that primarily use Facebook to promote their businesses. Facebook can use the Lab as a pilot project and expand it to other favelas and countries in Latin America. In collaboration with people she trains in media skills, she will produce 10 to 20 videos with elderly people from favelas, who are not familiar with the internet. Many of them migrated to the area while fleeing extreme poverty, moving São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro looking for a better life, but most ended up living in favelas and working in very low-skill jobs. She is also volunteering for BrazilFoundation, an organization that raises money to support social projects in Brazil, most of them related to her community.

* Emily Goldblum skipped the interim step of an internship when she was sought out for a job at The Odyssey. Her task there is to crowdsource stories from college students about a variety of topics. Her main goal is to diversify content with a specific focus on LGBTQ communities and has been working to cultivate more writers interested in writing about queer-focused topics.

* Aaron Simon has developed The Greenburg Post, an experimental community-journalism platform that seeks to collaborate with the residents and businesses that call North Brooklyn home. He has been reporting on a toxic Superfund site in the community and crowdsourcing stories and data about how the pollution has affected local residents.

* Sean Devlin is currently in Ireland interviewing Irish students who have participated in the J-1 graduate visa program, which allows them to spend 12 months in the United States interning and traveling. He has been serving the Irish community in New York for the past nine months and now went to the source to ask how social media (Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp) help Irish people in the U.S unite and get information.

* Erica Soto is working on a new kind of crowdfunding site for independent music artists. She writes: “SupportTour is Kickstarter meets Honeyfund for the indie musician on tour. At SupportTour, artists engage with fans by allowing them to participate in their tour experience. Instead of giving money for albums or studio space, fans purchase items directly for the artist. Just as Honeyfund allows users to register for honeymoon needs, artists will be able to register for tour needs such as hotel rooms, meals, additional gear and more. Fans then decide how they’d like to support the artists. They’ll even receive rewards when items are purchased. It could be a signed album, concert tickets, a secret Skype session or even a private dinner with their favorite artist. This is a chance for fans to become more involved with musicians on the road and for musicians to offer new incentive and creative fan experiences.”

* Adriele Parker’s goal is to “gather content to inform and share the stories of [African-Americans] that are suffering (or have suffered) from psychological disorders” and to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. She has developed a “Our Stories in Light” podcast to share stories and it also continuing to develop a website.

* Betsy Laikin is building a media platform for women from the Middle East and North Africa currently residing in New York, in conjunction with her work at Women’s Voices Now. This will include community-produced written stories, audio podcasts, photography, and videos.

* Cristina Carnicelli Furlong organized an impressive roundtable with the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is building resources to educate reporters about how to cover pedestrian safety in New York.

In addition to all that, Carrie has announced a partnership with Storyful to train social journalists. Here’s some of what Carrie has learned so far.

If you are a journalist who wants to challenge the way that journalism services the public, then come apply. If you are an employer who wants these innovative journalists to help you change how you do journalism, let Carrie or me know.

Honoring Neil deGrasse Tyson for his journalism

tyson photo croppedWhen Neil deGrasse Tyson interviewed Edward Snowden (via electronic avatar) for his podcast, the good doctor said a few times that he is not a journalist.

Yet the Knight Foundation and we at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism are giving Tyson the third Knight Innovation Award for journalism on Oct. 14. When I told him this, I anticipated his objection: “I’m a scientist, not a journalist.” That is just the point. In the larger information ecosystem in which news now works, Tyson provides an example to experts in any field for how to inject desperately needed facts and reasoning into a public discussion that too often lacks either. At a time when I argue that explanation itself becomes a journalistic specialty, Tyson again provides a model for how to bring complex subjects down to earth and relevance. As a media innovator, he has learned and exploited every new medium — from Twitter to podcasts — to use his celebrity to enlighten.

In any medium, Tyson uses clear explanation, humor, and blunt delivery of the facts to explain concepts and refute anti-intellectual arguments. On politicians debating global warming, he has said: “Now we have a time where people are cherry-picking science. The science is not political. That’s like repealing gravity because you gained 10 pounds last week.” In a two-minute YouTube video, he can explain the science behind climate change. In any lecture — like this one at ASU — Tyson demonstrates a journalist’s ability to impart knowledge through storytelling and to argue the case for art’s as well as newspapers’ impact on science.

I had the privilege of joining an episode of Tyson’s Star Talk show and podcast to talk about journalism. I know he cares about the future of the field.

So we are honoring Neil deGrasse Tyson at CUNY. At that ceremony, he will receive a $25,000 award from Knight and — here’s the cool part — he will have another $25,000 to give forward to a media innovator of his choice.

But wait, there’s more: We will begin the afternoon at 4 p.m. with a panel on podcasting led by Alex Blumberg, founder of Gimlet Media, and including Heben Nigutu of BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast, Manoush Zomorodi of WNYC’s Note to Self, and Greg Young of the Bowery Boys podcast.

There will be a limited number of seats open. If you, like me, are a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and podcasts and journalism, then this will be a slice of conversational heaven. The details and sign-up are here.