Posts about journalism

There are no journalists

There are no journalists, there is only the service of journalism.

Yes, I know that in condensed form, that may sound like a parodic tweet. But please consider the idea.

scrivener

Thanks to the Snowden-Greenwald NSA story, we are headed into another spate of debate about who is and isn’t a journalist. I’ve long said it’s the wrong question now that anyone can perform an act of journalism: a witness sharing news directly with the world; an expert explaining news without need of gatekeepers; a whistleblower opening up documents to sunlight; anyone informing everyone. It’s the wrong question when we reconsider journalism not as the manufacture of content but instead as a service whose goal is an informed public.

Why must we define a journalist? Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan felt compelled to because the newspaper took it upon itself to decide who may wear the cloak, because of debates about Glenn Greenwald as an advocate, and because of questions of law. Her wise and compelling conclusion: “A real journalist is one who understands, at a cellular level, and doesn’t shy away from, the adversarial relationship between government and press – the very tension that America’s founders had in mind with the First Amendment.” Sadly, we don’t often see that definition of journalism played out from TV or the Beltway or especially the overlap of the two.

John McQuaid felt the need to ask why Greenwald is driving other journalists crazy. He concludes that asking who is (and isn’t) a journalist is often “a prelude to delegitimizing their work and what they have to say. It quickly devolves to tribalism.” Read: journalists v. bloggers. Sigh.

God help us, Dick Durbin felt empowered to propose that legislators should decide who is (and isn’t) a journalist, though in truth they already are when it comes to deciding who is protected by shield laws. But I certainly don’t want government licensing (or unlicensing) journalists.

All that discussion in just a few days. All that rehashing a question that has been asked and not answered — or answered all too often and in too many ways — for years. Enough.

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

So then what the hell is journalism?

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

Thus anything that reliably serves the end of an informed community is journalism. Anyone can help do that. The true journalist should want anyone to join the task. That, in the end, is why I wrote Public Parts: because I celebrate the value that rises from publicness, from the ability of anyone to share what he or she knows with everyone and the ethic that says sharing is a generous and social act and transparency should be the default for our institutions.

Is there a role for people to help in that process? Absolutely. I say that organizations can first help enable the flow and collection of information, which can now occur without them, by offering platforms for communities to share what they know. Next, I say that someone is often needed to add value to that process by:
* asking the questions that are not answered in the flow,
* verifying facts,
* debunking rumors,
* adding context, explanation, and background,
* providing functionality that enables sharing,
* organizing efforts to collaborate by communities, witnesses, experts.

So am I just rebuilding the job description of the journalist? I’m coming to see that perhaps we shouldn’t call it that, for it’s clear that the word “journalist” brings a few centuries’ baggage and a fight for who controls it. These functions — and others — need not come from one kind of person or organization.

Well but what about the legal question? Shouldn’t we at least have a definition of journalist so we know who is protected by a shield law? No. For that also defines others who are not protected. Those others are sometimes called whistleblowers and instead of protecting them, our government is at war with them and what they share: information, information about our government, information about us, information that will help us better organize ourselves as a free society.

No, we should be discussing this question — like others today — as a matter of principle: protecting not a person with a job description and a desk and a paycheck but instead protecting the ideals of a transparent government and an informed society as necessary conditions of democracy.

I’m speaking next week before the third World Journalism Education Congress. I was planning to ask them to challenge our industrial age assumptions about the relationships, forms, and business models of news and to reconsider what and how we teach journalism. I was also planning to suggest that if they call their programs “mass communication,” they should change that, since the title itself is an insult to the public we serve. For as Jay Rosen taught me long ago, sociologist Raymond Williams said: “There are in fact no masses; there are only ways to see people as masses.” No more.

Now I’m wondering whether we should discuss the idea that we’re not journalists. Even trying to define a journalist — to fence in the functions and value of the role to a particular job description — is limiting and ultimately defeats the greater purpose of informing society.

So what are we? We are servants of an informed society. We always have been.

All journalism is advocacy (or it isn’t)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matters of principle

Prism
America is supposed to be a nation governed by principles, which are undergirded by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and carried into law. The discussion about the government and its capture of *our* data should be held on the level of principles.

* Privacy: Our direct and personal communication in any medium and by any means — mail, email, phone, VOIP, Twitter DM, and any technology yet to be invented — should be considered private, as our physical mail is, and subject to government intervention only through lawful warrant. That is not the case. Thus it is quite reasonable to be disturbed at the news that government can demand and receive communication we believe to be private. Government may call itself the protector of our privacy but it is our privacy’s worst enemy.

* Transparency: The actions of government should be known to citizens. I argue in Public Parts that our institutions should be public by default, secret by necessity; now they are secret by default and open by force. There are necessary secrets. There is a need for intelligence. There I agree with David Simon. I saw people die before me on 9/11 and I fault intelligence or not stopping it.

But we are left out of the discussion of where the line of necessity should be. If President Obama believes in the transparency he talks about and if he now says he welcomes the debate about security and freedom then it should have occurred *before* government took the actions now being reported and not by force through leaks. There I agree with James Fallows that this leak is not harmful — what bad guys didn’t already realize that their phones could be tracked? — and will be beneficial for democracy.

* Balance of powers: The best protection of our nation’s principles is the balance of powers. Yes, Congress passed the Patriot Act and yes, a FISA court does approve the executive branch’s actions. But both our representatives and our justices are prevented from sharing anything with us, as are the companies that are forced to be their accomplices. The true balance of powers is the exercise of democracy by citizens, but without information we have no power and government has it all.

* Freedom of speech and of the press: Information comes to the public from the press, which is now anyone with information to share. And citizens exercise power through speech. But in its jihad against leaks… that is whistleblowers… that is reporting… that is journalism and the public’s right to know, the White House is chilling both the press and speech. I pray that Glenn Greenwald doesn’t have a Verizon phone.

This discussion is less about privacy and more about transparency and speech. The principles most offended here are those embedded in the First Amendment for those are the principles we rely upon to take part in the debate that is democracy.

I am asking for government to behave according to principles. I am also asking companies to do so. Twitter — whose behavior toward developers and users can sometimes mystify me — is apparently the platform most stalwart in standing for its users’ rights as a matter of principle. They apparently refused to make it easier for government to get data. Now one could argue that helping government thwart terrorists is also behaving according to principle. But again we and these companies aren’t allowed to have that debate. So I’d now advise following what is apparently Twitter’s route in only responding to demands, nothing more. And I’d advise following Google’s example in revealing government demands for information (though under FISA, once again, they’re not allowed to reveal — even by a count — them all).

There is much debate and sometimes conspiracy theorizing swirling around about what Google, Facebook, et al did and didn’t provide to government. I take Larry Page’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s statements at their literal word and agree with Declan McCullagh that I so far see no evidence that these companies handed the keys to their servers to the NSA. We know and they have long said that they comply with government orders, whether in the U.S. or China.

Though some are attacking him on this issue and though I often disagree with him on the state of the news business, I again say that I agree with David Simon on the unsophisticated and emotional interpretation of this news. Since the initial New York Times report on NSA “warrantless wiretapping,” I have understood that one of government’s goals is to use data to find anomalies but to do that it has to have a baseline of normal behavior. We’re the normal. This has been going on for sometime, as Simon says; we just haven’t known how.

Are we as a nation OK with allowing government to make such an analysis to find the terrorists’ anomalous behaviour or not? That’s a discussion that should occur according to principles, properly informed about the risks and benefits. Are we OK with government using that same data to fish for other crimes — like, say, leaking a PowerPoint to the Guardian? I am not. Are we OK with government treating whistleblowers and leakers as traitors — starting with Bradley Manning? I am not. I agree with Bruce Shneier: “We need whistleblowers.” Are we OK with government having access to our private communications without warrants? I say: most definitely not, as a matter of principle.

Under a regime of secrecy, assuming the worst becomes the default in the discussion. We assume the worst of government because they keep from us even activities they say are harmless and beneficial. We see people who want to be suspicious of technology and technology companies assuming the worst of them because, after all, we can’t know precisely what they are doing. I agree with Farhad Manjoo about the danger. People in other nations — I’m looking at you, EU — already distrust both the American government and American technology companies, often in the past for emotional reasons or with anti-American roots but now with more cause. You can bet we’ll hear governments across Europe and elsewhere push harder for legislation now in process to require that their citizens’ data be held outside the U.S. and to European standards because, well, they assume the worst. We’ll hear calls to boycott American-made platforms because — even if they try not to go along — their acquiescence to our government means they cannot be trusted. This is bad for the net and bad for the country. The fault lies with government.

This is a story about transparency and the lack of it. It is a story about secrecy and its damages. It is a story about principles that are being flouted. It should be a discussion about upholding principles.

In the End Was the Word and the Word Was the Sponsor’s

and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsor1
We used to know what ads were. They had borders around them — black lines in print, a rare millisecond of dead air on TV, the moment when the radio host’s voice became even friendlier, letting us know he was now being paid to peddle.

Today, under many ruses and many namessponsored content, native advertising, brand voice, thought leadership, content marketing, even brand journalism — advertisers are conspiring with desperate publishers to erase the black lines identifying ads.

When I started Entertainment Weekly, a sage editor sat me down and summarized in one sentence the magazine industry’s voluminous rules about labeling what we then called “advertorials”: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Confusing the audience is clearly the goal of native-sponsored-brand-content-voice-advertising. And the result has to be a dilution of the value of news brands.

Some say those brands are diminishing anyway. So sponsored content is just another way to milk the old cows as they die. Lately I’ve been shocked to hear some executives at news organizations, as well as some journalism students and even teachers, shrug at the risk. If I’m the guy who argues that news must find new paths to profitability, then what’s my problem?

Well, I fear that in the end we all become the Times of India, where paid advertising and news content are allegedly mixed so smoothly in some areas that readers can’t tell one from the other. Worse, at some news organizations, editorial staff do the work of writing this sponsored content. They become copywriters.

Mad Men Don Draper Peggy Olsen

At the same time, many of these news organizations are using their brands as candy to attract legions of new contributors, which can drastically lower the cost of content. Mind you, I’ve applauded that spirit of openness and collaboration as well as that newfound efficiency.

But here’s the issue: Some media properties have taught me to pause before following a link to them. Sometimes, I’ll find good information from a staffer or one of many contributors who brings real reporting or expertise. Sometimes, I’ll find a weak contributor — or staff — piece that adds no reporting or insight; it merely regurgitates what others have written when a link would be better. (Beware headlines that start with “how” or “why” or include the words “future of” or “death of” or end with a question mark; chances are, they add nothing.) And then sometimes I’ll find one of those sponsor-brand-native pieces only vaguely labeled to let me know its source.

My problems with these trends in news media:

Inconsistency. I no longer know what to expect from news organizations that do this. Yes, I’ve heard editors claim that they work with both contributors and sponsors to improve the quality of their submissions — but apparently, not enough.

Brands used to be selective both because the scarcity of paper or time forced them to be and because that became key to their value. Now they want more and more content. Making content to chase unique users and their page views rewards volume over value.

Conflict of interest. First, let me say that I think we in news became haughty and fetishistic about our church/state walls. The reason I teach entrepreneurial journalism is so that students learn about the business of journalism so they can become more responsible stewards of it. I argue that editors, too, must understand the business value and thus sustainability of what they produce.

That said, I worry about journalists who spend one day writing to serve the public and the next writing to serve sponsors. News organizations should never do that with staff, but I’m sorry to say that today, a few do. Freelance journalists are also turning to making sponsored content to pay the bills.

Thus, I hear of some journalism educators who wonder whether they should be teaching their students to write for brands. Please, no. My journalism school doesn’t do that. Others schools already include courses in PR and advertising, so I suppose the leap isn’t so far. In any case, brands will hire our students because of the media skills we teach them and we need to prepare them for the ethical challenge that brings.

Brand value. Some news companies are exchanging their brand equity for free or cheap content of questionable quality and advertising dollars of questionable intent. As someone who champions disruption in the news industry, you’d think I wouldn’t care about dying legacy media brands. But I do. I see how legacy news companies can bring value to the growing news ecosystem around them through sharing content and audience and someday soon, I hope, revenue. If the legacy institutions lose their value — their trust, their audience, their advertisers — then they have less to give, and if they die, there’s more to replace.

Now here’s the funny part: Brands are chasing the wrong goal. Marketers shouldn’t want to make content. Don’t they know that content is a lousy business? As adman Rishad Tobaccowala said to me in an email, content is not scalable for advertisers, either. He says the future of marketing isn’t advertising but utilities and services. I say the same for news: It is a service.

I’ve been arguing to news organizations that they should stop thinking of themselves as content businesses and start understanding that they are in a relationship business.

News organizations should not treat people as a mass now that they — like Google, Amazon, and Facebook — can learn to serve them as individuals. Can’t the same be said of the brands that are now rushing to make content? They’re listening to too many tweeted media aphorisms: that content is king, that brands are media. Bull.

A brand is a relationship. It signifies trust and value. Advertising and public relations disintermediated the relationship that commercial enterprises used to have with customers over the cracker barrel. Mass media helped them bring scale to marketing. But now the net enables brands to return to having direct relationships with customers. That’s what we see happening on Twitter. Smart companies are using it not to make content but to talk one-on-one with customers.

Here’s where I fear this lands: As news brands continue to believe in their content imperative, they dilute their equity by using cheap-content tricks to build volume and by handing their brand value to advertisers to replace lost ad revenue. Marketers help publishers milk those brands. And the public? We’re smarter than they think we are. We’ll understand when news organizations become paid shills. We understand that marketers would still rather force-feed us their messages than simply serve us.

What to do? The reflex in my industries — journalism and education — is to convene august groups to compose rules. But rules are made to be pushed, stretched, and broken. That is why that wise Time Inc. editor over me at Entertainment Weekly (as opposed to the oily ones who tried to force me to force my critics to write nicer reviews) summed up those rules as a statement of ethics. Again: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Well, if we’re not in the content business, then what is the ethic by which we should operate now? I think it’s even simpler: “We serve the public.”

If we’re doing what we do to fool the public, to sell them crappy content or a shill’s swill, to prioritize paying customers’ interests over readers’, then we will cannibalize whatever credibility, trust, and value our brands have until they dry up.

So am I merely drawing a black rule around advertising again? Don’t we hear contributors to a hundred news sites rewrite the same story every day — that advertising is dead? Well, yes, advertising as one-way messaging is as outmoded as one-way media. Oh, we in media will milk advertising as long as advertisers are willing to pay for it. But we know where this is headed.

Then do media companies have any commercial connection with brands? Can we still get money from them to support news? I think it’s possible for media companies to help brands understand how to use the net to build honest, open relationships with people as individuals. But we can teach them that only if we first learn how to do it ourselves.

Some will accuse me of chronic Google fanboyism for suggesting this, but we can learn that lesson from Google. It makes 98% of its fortune from advertising but it does so by serving us, each of us, first. It addresses its obvious conflict with the admonition, “Don’t be evil.” (When Google has failed to live up to that ethic — and it has — its fall came not from taking advertisers’ dollars but instead from seeking growth with the help of malevolent telcos or tyrannical governments.) Note well that Google sees the danger of sponsored content, which is why it has banned such content from Google News.

Whether you like Google or you don’t, know well that it provides service over content, enabling it to build relationships with each of us as individuals while also serving advertisers without creating confusion. Google is taking over huge swaths of the ad market by providing service to users and sharing risk with advertisers, not by selling its soul in exchange for this quarter’s revenue, as some news organizations are doing.

My advice to news organizations: Move out of the content — and sponsored content — business and get into the service business, where content is just one of your tools to serve the public.

downton1

(Crossposted from Medium.)

Apologies

Howard Kurtz screwed up, yes, but he also just showed an admirable example of accountability in apologizing on his CNN show Reliable Sources — saying that as a media critic he should be held to a higher standard of media trust — and then submitting to grilling by David Folkenflik of NPR and Dylan Byers of Politico. The video is here.

Our first mistake in journalism is to pretend that we don’t make mistakes. That hubris has gone before many a fall. Now, of course, our imperfection is no excuse, no cover to make mistakes. But knowing they will be made, the real question is what we do about them. That is when credibility is truly tested. Kurtz and CNN just set a new example for what to do.

Imagine if Dan Rather of CBS or Judith Miller of The New York Times had submitted to being interviewed by outside journalists not after some stupid remark but after reporting that was called into serious question.

The grilling of Kurtz started to verge on S&M. He admitted that he screwed up with his remarks about the NBA’s Jason Collins and apologized and then was made to admit it again and to admit prior screw-ups. I’m not looking for the hairshirt to become the new uniform of the journalist. Just getting beaten up won’t get us anywhere.

Such sessions could accomplish a few things. They can teach lessons; Kurtz said he wanted to learn from this episode and I don’t doubt he will be more careful before he makes another offhand remark. These sessions can also examine facts and try to get the fuller story.

The part of this story that’s still a bit baffling is Kurtz’ involvement in The Daily Download, mainly because — as Jay Rosen has been saying on Twitter — the site itself is baffling. I’m not sure what it wants to be. I’m not sure what the Knight Foundation expected it to accomplish with the substantial funding it was given. I’m not sure why Kurtz was involved in it on top of what for anyone else would be two full-time jobs and whether this played a role in his departure from the Daily Beast. If Kurtz was just helping a friend in Daily Download founder Lauren Ashburn, he was using his good offices at CNN — by having her on the air often and by calling on others for help — to do that. None of that might matter much. But if I were an editor reviewing reporting on the Kurtz story, these are questions I’d say are still unanswered. That’s not to say there is anything suspicious. Just unanswered.

In the post below, I disclose my relationship — or really my lack of one — with the Daily Download. I am no longer listed as a member of its board of advisers simply because that reflects reality. (I am still listed as such on the About page, but I’m sure that will be updated soon.)

My bottom line at this moment: I like and respect Kurtz and his work, and today I have another reason to respect him. I hope he continues on Reliable Sources because I think media need coverage on a mass media outlet.

Much more coverage of this Kurtz episode would be navel-gazing — or perhaps navel-piercing — for a very small corner of the media wonk world. What I hope this story becomes is not more whither-Howie wondering but instead an examination of how to handle the mistakes we will make.

And now the news: Here’s what we *don’t* know at this hour…

I often tell my students that where they see a problem, they should find the opportunity. Well, we’ve been told over and over this weekend that we had a big problem with misinformation after the Boston Marathon bombing. Breaking news, haven’t you heard, is broken.

So I see an opportunity, a big journalistic opportunity. I also tell my students this:

* Journalism should add value to a flow of information that can now occur without media’s mediation — verifying facts, vetting witnesses, debunking rumors, adding context, adding explanation, and most of all asking and answering the questions that aren’t in the flow, that aren’t being asked, i.e., reporting. Let’s acknowledge reality: There’s no stopping or fixing that flow. What witnesses see will be shared for all to see, which is good, along with rumors, rank speculation, and the work of the New York Fucking Post, which is bad.

* The key skill of journalism today is saying what we *don’t* know, issuing caveats and also inviting the public to tell us what they know. Note I didn’t say I want the public to tell us what they *think* or *guess.* I said *know*.

So the opportunity: If I ran a news organization, I would start a regular feature called, Here’s what you should know about what you’re hearing elsewhere.

Last week, that would have included nuggets such as these:

* You may have heard on CNN that an arrest was made. But you should know that no official confirmation has been made so you should doubt that, even if the report is repeated by the likes of the Associated Press.

* You may have heard reports repeated from police scanners about, for example, the remaining suspect vowing not to be taken alive. But you should know that police scanners are just people with microphones; they do not constitute official or confirmed police reports. Indeed, it may be important for those using police radio to repeat rumor or speculation — even from fake Twitter accounts created an hour ago — for they are the ones who need to verify whether these reports are true. Better safe than sorry is their motto.

* You may see on Reddit that people are speculating about who perpetrated these crimes, including speculation that it *could* be a missing college student. But you should know that these people are merely speculating and that is about as useful as a rumor, which is worthless. That’s not to say that the amateur sleuthing could not turn up a connection to the crime. But so far, it has not.

* You may have heard reports that there were more bombs. But you should know that we cannot track where these reports started and we have no official confirmation so you should not take those reports as credible. We are calling the police to find out whether they are true and we will let you know as soon as we know.

* You may have seen the New York Post report that there were 12 victims and you may have seen it publish a picture of men with backpacks, implicating them in this crime with no justification. But you should know that this is the New York Post. Need we say more?

That is journalism. That is what every news organization and site should be doing. That they don’t is only evidence of a major journalistic opportunity, perhaps even a business unto itself: The What We *Don’t* Know News, the only news show you can really trust. It doesn’t ignore breaking news or what you’re hearing. It adds value to that flow of both information and misinformation.

On Howie Kurtz’ CNN show this weekend, Erik Wemple said that news organizations should report nothing until it is confirmed. Lauren Ashburn countered that police did not confirm even the Marathon bombings until nearly an hour after they occurred, so clearly that’s untenable. She’s right. But this is easily solved if journalists say *how* they *know* what they *know*. We know a bomb went off because we saw it and we’re showing it to you over and over and over and over again. We don’t know whether a suspect has been arrested because we didn’t see it ourselves and police haven’t told us yet and hearing it on CNN isn’t good enough.

That is journalism.

It’s not about content: Part I

Brands (read: advertisers) are following media down the wrong path, deciding that they, too, are media now and that they, too, should make content to draw customers to their messages (thereby, by the way, getting rid of that middleman, media).

I’ve been arguing that media should build their futures around relationships, using content as a tool to that end. I’d say that is even more true of brands.

Yesterday, Samir Arora, CEO of Glam (where — full disclosure — I’ve been an adviser), tweeted a link to Marc Andreessen arguing that Ning, the company he cofounded and sold to Glam, is about to come into its own as it is remade for brands. That got me thinking about brands’ direction.

Whatever platform they use — Ning, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, blogs or all of the above — is less the issue than the culture that enables its brands and its employees — every one — to talk with and build relationships of value and trust with customers.

We’ve all seen this happen on Twitter when we get pissed off at some unfair or unrighteous action by a company; we appeal to sanity; an employee — sometimes the official tweeter, sometimes just a decent soul — rescues us; our relationship with the company is redeemed.

That is the model for brands online. I thought we’d learned that years go. Apparently not quite. Today not only are brands making content in their own domains but they now want to make content in media’s space; we used to call that an advertorial but now that is apparently called — in jargon that appeared from nowhere — “native advertising.” WTF does that mean?

Mind you, brands should indeed create content and make it available — about their products so we can find every question we have answered. But that’s utility. That’s not what brands talk about when they become media. They make this:

Screenshot 2013-03-12 at 11.24.24 AM

Huh? How is that really any different from slapping a banner onto content? Oh, yes, it’s supposed to make us associate the Droid Razr Maxx HD with exotic locales and long battery life. But Motorola would do better to finally produce a decent phone, in which case, we the users would advertise it. I do hope that’s a lesson Google teaches them. Google understands the value of building relationships with individuals and using knowledge about them to deliver relevance and value. Isn’t that the wise future of media … and marketing?

Hyperlocal cooties

Another hyperlocal venture is struggling, and each time this happens, I fear hyperlocal gets more cooties. But I refuse to give up hope because there’s a reason for each fall, there’s much still to do, and it’s still early.

The latest: Carll Tucker’s Daily Voice (née Main Street Connect) closed 11 of its sites, lost its CEO and other executives, shut some offices, and fired a bunch of people to cut its burn from $500k to $150k per month, according to Street Fight.

In hyperlocaland, Tucker was known to be particularly cocksure, saying he had the secret and — in the surest sign of hubris — raising large amounts from investors. Some smirk at his fall. But if he can now survive, then I’ll celebrate.

Tucker’s mistake, like Patch’s, I believe, was in thinking too big too fast. Before they nailed the business and knew what worked, they multiplied the model and thus the mistakes, which only threw accelerant on their burns. Perhaps they also thought too big. I’m not sure hyperlocal can be big — that it can scale, in the argot and desire of investors. More on that in a minute.

But first, in other cootie news: Patch recently cut staff and I’ll argue as I long have that they are creating closed sites when they should be building open (and more efficient) networks. NBC* closed Everyblock, though I was never sure why it fit there. Village Soup died, and I would still like to know more about its specifics. TBD was murdered before it ever had a chance to live thanks to parental politics. Add these to earlier cootied corpses: The Chicago News Cooperative had neither a business model nor cash from donors. Bayosphere failed sometime ago and I think its founder Dan Gillmor would acknowledge a lack of a business model. It was sold to Backfence, and its founder, Mark Potts, has very generously shared his lessons learned. There’s a reason behind each one of these.

At the same time, there are hyperlocal sites that are proving to be sustainable. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much the same list we’ve had for sometime: Baristanet, West Seattle Blog, NJ’s TheAlternativePress, Red Bank Green…. We analyzed these blogs a few years ago at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY, and found local blogs that then were able to bring in upwards of $250k in ad and other revenue.

There’s something that ties the survivors together:
1. They are small.
2. They are the products of a great deal of hard work by very dedicated journalists/publishers.
3. They are very much a part of their communities (which makes it difficult to parachute in any kid just out of J-school, I’m afraid).

Hyperlocal is going to be built this way, a town or city neighborhood at a time, I think. Are there enough dedicated journalists willing to do this hard work and to risk and sacrifice better paying alternatives (read: PR or flipping burgers, for that matter) and to learn how to do culturally distasteful things for journalists like sell ads and do business? In New Jersey alone, we have 565 towns and given this state, each is an opportunity ripe for corruption that needs to be covered. Even if we say that one hyperlocal site could cover three towns (some are small), that’s still more than 150 bloggers needed. I’d say we have a bit more than a dozen in the state now. Is it reasonable to think we could get 10+ times more? No. But I’d be ecstatic three three or four or fives times more.

I think we see a model for what’s possible in blog-rich Brooklyn, where there are scores of local blogs. CUNY runs The Local there, now solo, after The New York Times pulled out of its hyperlocal endeavors (another cootie). One of my entrepreneurial students is on the way to starting what I think will be a great service there (more bragging about him when he’s ready). It is possible. But they all need help.

This is why I worked with Montclair State and the Dodge Foundation (where — disclosure — I’m an advisor) to help start the NJ News Commons in New Jersey. My hope — OK, call it a dream — is that it and others (like NJ.com, which — disclosure — I helped start and where I’m now an advisor) can help make it feasible for an unemployed journalist — and we have lots of them — or a caring community member to start a site to serve a community bound by geography or interest. Among the things the Commons will do to help:
1. Aggregate, curate, promote, and distribute the best of the content created by independent members of the New Jersey news ecosystem. Debbie Galant has started a content sharing network enabled by Repost.US.
2. Train local publishers in the skills they need: new media, journalism, and especially business. That’s just beginning.
3. Coordinate collaborative projects so the independent members of the ecosystem can do together more than any one can do apart. That is beginning and I think it will grow with coverage of Hurricane Sandy recovery, which will be helped along with grants coordinated by Dodge and the NJ Community Foundation.
4. Provide services, which we hope may include everything from health and libel insurance to technology platforms to make it easier for sites to start with less effort and risk.

All that is well and good but it doesn’t address the key question, the only question of hyperlocal: revenue. This is where commercial endeavors must enter. In our modeling at CUNY, we saw the need for this work in revenue:
1. Better ad sales by hyperlocal sites serving merchants with more than just banners but also helping them with their digital presences. At CUNY, we looked at the digital lives of 1,000 merchants in a city neighborhood and a suburban town and saw great opportunity to help them. I don’t expect every hyperlocal publisher to innovate this. They need help. But I see big business opportunity here for entrepreneurs (or Patch).
2. Ad networks that aggregate audience from independent sites so they can for the first time get a piece of revenue from larger advertisers. This is likely something that needs to be done by a larger local media company (e.g., a newspaper or broadcast outlet).
3. Explore new revenue opportunities, such as events and newsletters. We are sharing lessons from sites that have found these to be surprisingly successful.

Still, this is hard work. It’s guerrilla warfare, a hill at a time. And that gets us back to the question of scale and one more need: funding. Hyperlocal ventures are caught in a terrible chicken-egg omelette. Funders will back ventures only if they scale, if they’re bigger than one town. Promising scale is how Daily Voice, Patch, Backfence, Everyblock, and other local ventures got funding. Striving for scale is what made them each perhaps grow too far too fast. Maybe the truth is that hyperlocal won’t scale. One entity won’t own thousands of towns and their sites because the successful site is very much a part of the community. OK, but each of those small ventures still needs funding to at least cover loses until an audience and a set of advertisers can be served. Where will that money come from? Journalists aren’t rich — especially now — and don’t have rich friends and family.

The more we can create the hyperlocal-site-in-a-box for would-be local entrepreneurs, the better — giving them membership in larger revenue networks, methodology, technology, and services like insurance. That will lessen the start-up cost and the risk. But they’ll still likely need some money to get them started.

This is where I believe that local patrons, local media companies, and especially foundations should be putting their resources: not into supporting journalistic charities or into building yet more gee-whiz cool tools but into helping to start sustainable journalistic enterprises with grants or convertible loans. Some will be gifts. Some will be investments — not big, scalable, exit-strategy, Silicon-Valley, technology platform investments but investments the size of a bakery. We need more bakeries for news.

When it comes to the information needs of communities, I’m less concerned about national coverage — Washington will always be overpopulated by scribes and cable will overcover disasters — and more concerned about local, especially the very local. That is where I hope we turn our attention. I also hope we do not get discouraged by the occasional cooties.

* Note: I changed the reference to Everyblock from MSNBC to NBC at the suggestion of Everyblock founder Adrian Holovaty.