Posts about journalism

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.

More innovation at CUNY

holaI’m proud of our CUNY Graduate School of Journalism for continuing to innovate.

Last night at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ convention in Orlando, our dean, Sarah Bartlett, announced a new initiative to train Spanish-language journalists in the U.S. We are seeking state approval for a new concentration and will look to develop a degree.

We are working in partnership with a stellar group of Hispanic institutions: El País and Prisa; Univision News; Instituto Cervantes; La Nación of Argentina; and ImpreMedia, which owns major Spanish-language news organizations across America.

Personally, I’m so excited about this work that I started studying Spanish. No, I’ll never be ready to edit any of our students — just the opposite. But after visiting El País in Madrid and then with this pending announcement, I finally was just too ashamed of being an American who doesn’t speak the language the 45 million other Americans speak. (Take that, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin.) Simply as a matter of respect and intellectual curiosity, I finally decided it was time. Así que estudio español.

(By the way, I highly recommend the Pimsleur method. I always thought that I hated learning languages, that I was incapable of it. That’s why I abandoned French after elementary school and didn’t pay attention to my German in high school, college, and since. I’ve long said I’m one of those horrible Americans who speaks only 1.1 languages — the .1 being irreparable German. But I am downright enjoying my Pimsleur studies: half-hour a day, 60 days out of 150 so far.)

Add to this another CUNY announcement yesterday: The New York Times Student Journalism Institute is moving to our school next year.

Add to that the start of our new program in professional development education, for which we hired Marie Gilot as director. I’m happy to say that the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, which I direct, is helping with research on new jobs, roles, and organizational structures for news organizations.

Tow-Knight has also acted as an educational incubator at our school, starting the nation’s first MA in Entrepreneurial Journalism, headed by my colleague Jeremy Caplan, and then the nation’s first MA in Social Journalism, headed by our new colleague, Carrie Brown. (And by the way, applications for both those programs are open now…. so follow the links to apply.) With my Tow-Knight colleague Hal Straus, we are planning major research and events to help our industry find new paths to sustainability.

Our journalism school is about to enter its 10th year. I was the first faculty member hired by our founding dean, Steve Shephard. From the beginning, we prided ourselves on continuing to act as a startup. As all the evidence above attests, we are still a startup. I’m proud to work with Sarah Bartlett on some of these innovations and more to come. Under her leadership, we are kicking ass. Now how do I say that en español?

Hacking through Amazon’s jungle of coverage

https://www.flickr.com/photos/pokerbrit/14846494975

The New York Times exposé of working conditions at Amazon lacks two key attributes: context and — I can’t quite believe I’m saying this — balance.

Like everyone in my feeds, I read the story with something verging on horror. Since then, I’ve seen many tweets presenting another perspective and just read a point-by-point rebuttal by an Amazonian.

Where’s the truth? in the mix. Except as a reader, I had to go search for that mix.

First, context: Last night on Twitter, I half-joked that Amazon sounded like many newspaper newsrooms:

Jay Rosen later responded:

You get the point: Where is the context about work as a whole? Is every office as wonderful as Google and Facebook are supposed to be? No, of course not. We all know that. So to what standard is Amazon being held? Is it better or worse than comparable and realistic (read: unGoogle) workplaces? That’s not in the piece. It needs to be.

Now to balance. Nick Ciubotariu, an engineer and executive at Amazon, wrote a very long rebuttal on LinkedIn, which I found only thanks to a Dan Gillmor link. Amid some amusing techcospeak (an issue “gets actioned”) are clear and sincere explanations for much of what The Times thinks it has exposed. For example, the orientation at any company, taken out of context, might sound like brainwashing; that’s normal. He says that the cases of how employees with pregnancies and health and family issues were allegedly mistreated are appalling and the company must address them. He acknowledges that Amazon might have changed between its founding and his hiring 18 months ago. But he likes working there. He, like many colleagues, is attracted to tackling huge problems — and that is obviously not easy work.

The Times talked with some Amazon employees but makes a point of saying that they were offered up by the company and so they are presumed to be like North Korean media handlers; they are to be discounted. Most of what The Times garnered from unofficial sources was negative. Most of what Ciubotariu says is positive.

We, the readers, are left to balance these accounts ourselves. And that’s my problem. The Times should have presented enough of that conflicting evidence so that we could weigh evidence and decide for ourselves whether Amazon is hell in Seattle.

But The Times decided that for us. It wanted to expose Amazon’s working conditions. It devoted two reporters for six months to do just that (who would devote such resource to finding out that it’s an OK place to work, if you have to work?).

The Times had an agenda. Well, some of you might remind me: Haven’t you, Jarvis, argued that journalism is by definition advocacy? Yes, and it’s clear The Times wanted to tackle the issues that arise from such demanding work. But as a journalistic institution, The Times is still required to exhibit the intellectual honesty to credibly and fairly present evidence that counters its worldview. It is still required to give us in the public the respect and trust to make our own decisions about what it presents.

But that’s not what The Times did. I am not doubting the truth of what The Times presented, only the selection. I am also not saying that after balancing all this, I would want to work at Amazon. I can’t stand the idea of a culture that enables an anonymous feedback system, which The Times exposes and its employee defends; I sure as hell won’t want to see that trend spread to other workplaces. I worry about a culture that can allow the cases of cold-hearted lack of empathy for employees’ lives that The Times presents, even if they are just anecdotal. On the other hand, I admire greatly the commercial and logistical miracle that Amazon has built. I love the idea of working side-by-side with people as smart, accomplished, dedicated, and passionate as the people who have built Amazon. I also read the piece worried that all this publicity would lead — Gawkerlike — to unionization, and I think that could jeopardize its growth.

On that last point, you may think I sound like an owner. I am. I have long held a few shares in Amazon. So you should judge what I say here with that conflict of interest well in mind. You’re probably scolding me right now for not saying it at the top of this piece. You’d be right. And that is how I illustrate my last point: The Times did not say until halfway down its very long piece that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, which some say is closing in on The Times.

The problem at a moment like this is that once one starts to believe The Times might have an agenda, one is left trying to suss out what it might be: against Amazon and its owner, Bezos, who is a competitor; against technology, a direction too much of media is taking (you should see the latest from Der Spiegel; its technopanic should be printed in purple ink); in favor of big labor? I wouldn’t be wondering that if The Times had given me greater context and balance and sufficient information to let me decide about Amazon for myself rather than having it decided for me. And that’s too bad. There is much good reporting here. There are important issues and modern-day phenomenon that deserve discussion. Instead, we’re starting to discuss The Times.

LATER: I think I’m clear about this but let me be extra clear: I am not saying The Times has a competitive agenda against the Post and thus Bezos. I am saying that it will open itself up to such questioning by not being sufficiently transparent and not exhibiting intellectual honesty by providing sufficient balance to make clear that in the end the judgment is the reader’s.

BEZOS RESPONSE: The letter Bezos sent to Amazon staff:

Dear Amazonians,

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/amazonians-response-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-nick-ciubotariu

Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at [email protected] Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

Thank you,

Jeff

Exploding our ideas of membership: A CUNY summit

We are holding an important event at CUNY on August 26 exploring membership strategies for media — beyond pledges and paywalls.

Let’s be honest: In most news organizations, membership is just another word for subscription or for hawking tote bags. At this event, I want to see us push far beyond the present state of the art and challenge ourselves to reimagine what membership can mean for news organizations and their relationships with the people and communities they serve.

We will start with sessions led by two innovators in membership: public-media genius Melody Kramer (who just released a superb report with her latest ideas) and local media’s best friend, Josh Stearns, who is working on membership experiments in the New Jersey news ecosystem. We will learn about best practices in membership from outside the media industry (what could the frequent-flier miles of news be?). And — this is the critical part — we will take all that information and inspiration and then, in the best spirit of the unconference, brainstorm new opportunities for membership for news organizations of various types and sizes.

Here is the sign-up for the event.

I see three frontiers for innovation:

* New tribes: A person might feel an urge to join a club called the Guardian because it takes on causes or NPR or even The New York Times out of patronage. But does anyone really want to belong to — will they feel an affinity and loyalty to and want to brag about their special relationship with — say, Columbus Dispatch? Not so much. But one might well want to belong to the Columbus pissed-off commuters’ club or the Columbus school improvement society or the Columbus environment alliance or the Columbus senior club. My point: communities are internally, not externally defined; they are not built outside-in or top-down under brands. The premise of our social journalism program at CUNY is that we must begin by listening to communities and understanding their needs before we can serve them well. The same goes for membership. The opportunity is to build membership from the bottom up by serving many communities with many affinities, loyalties, and needs that we can answer.

* New currencies for contribution: We can extract value from our relationships with the public we serve in so many forms other than just cash. Indeed, we must learn to value our people — our users, our readers — beyond just their circulation dimes or CPM pennies. We must value them as individuals rather than as members of an anonymous mass. To join a community, we should value and credit the public’s effort, expertise, contributions of content, volunteer marketing (i.e., social media love), commerce (buying things through us or from our advertisers), and showing up (coming to our events). I explored some of these notions in a long-ago post that speculated about a reverse pay meter; Melody explores many more in her report.

* New currencies for reward: When we give our members nothing more than access to our content, then we are merely putting a new label on an old business model: the subscription. We can reward members in so many more ways: with access to events and our journalists, with some voice in the allocation of our resources, with social capital, with discounts from our advertisers….

Out of these ideas and more that we will explore on August 26 will come many new models for membership. The product of the day will not only be potential new business models but also new ways to look at–to quote my friend Jay Rosen–the people formerly known as the audience. When our members are our collaborators, the recipients of our services, experts, and our friends, then the nature of our product — our service — called journalism changes fundamentally. If we have any hope to compete with Google, Facebook et al for the attention and affection of the public we serve — and for the first-party data that will rescue us from advertising commodification — we must reconsider our essential relationship with them. We must become members of the same clubs.

If this is of interest to you and your news organizations, please sign up now.

How (not) to interview

Here’s an object lesson for journalism students in the art of the interview.

Poor Sundar Pichai, the No. 2 at Google, sat down for an interview with a New York Times technology reporter, only to find himself bombarded with the same question a half-dozen ways, to wit: Aren’t mobile phones bad for us?

First question: “Do you see mobile phones heading down a path of social unacceptability? Do we have a problem of overuse?”

After acknowledging that phones can do good things — goddamned miracles, I’d say — the reporter came back to his plaint: “But then people start doing things like checking their email at dinner. Are there things Google is doing to return people to where they are and reduce the temptation to look at their phone?” Like everything else, isn’t this your fault, Google?

Sundar tried to politely deflect: “You’re asking questions that have nothing to do with technology. Should kids check phones at dinner? I don’t know. To me that’s a parenting choice.”

The reporter tried again. And then again: “As you have risen in the ranks at Google, have you noticed that people use their phones less in meetings with you?”

And again: “Have you done anything to ease back? I have a policy that I’m not allowed to walk around the house with my phone. It has to stay in one room.”

Oh, jeesh. I imagine the reporter getting Grandma’s telephone table from the front hall and tying an iPhone to it. Some of us would say that eliminating the need for wires was progress.

It’s not hard to see what was happening here: The same reporter had an “analysis” published the same day on devices and programs to get users to crack that addiction the reporter thinks we have to our phones. He interviewed Pichai and decided to make a blog post out of the transcript, giving us a window to the sausage factory. The writer wanted a quote for his story. So he did what reporters often do: He asks the same question over and over … until he gets the quote he wants for his story. That’s how interviews are too often held: to fill in a blank the writer has already made rather than really listening and being open to new information and new angles.

When a reporter does this to me, I finally say: You can ask the same thing as many times as you want but I’m not giving you the answer you want. Corporate executives trying to make nice can’t do that.