Posts about journalism

Patches

Tim Armstrong says he will close, sell, or find partners for 300 local Patch sites to reach profitability.

I have a fourth option, Tim: Invest. Set up independent entrepreneurs — your employees, my entrepreneurial graduates, unemployed newspaper folks — to take over the sites. Offer them the benefit of continued network ad sales — that’s enlightened self-interest for Patch and Aol. Offer them training. Offer them technology. And even offer them some startup capital.

You could end up better off than you ever were by being a member of an ecosystem instead of trying to own it. It can grow faster — just look at how Glam became gigantic: by supporting a network.

I still believe in hyperlocal. You’ve always believed in hyperlocal. I don’t want to see retrenchment of Patch give the naysayers as chance to nya-nya us.

So please consider another path: shrink the company but grow the network.

Jeff’s Post problem

One issue I’m surprised I haven’t seen discussed regarding Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post is what his tenure will mean to local advertisers.

They don’t like him. He’s helping putting them out of business.

Haven’t you seen: retail is in the tank. Stores have become showrooms for Amazon’s sales. Looking at the golf club? Go to the pro shop and try it out and learn about it and get advice about it, then go to Amazon and buy it for a better price.

Amazon is going into local markets with experiments in same-day delivery. He will do that in competition with local merchants.

eBay, on the other hand, says it will serve local merchants and help them with same-day delivery and online sales. Google is looking to test same-day local delivery and I would imagine it, too, would work with local businesses, who are its advertisers as well.

The New Republic wondered whether Bezos wants The Washington Post’s delivery trucks. I doubt that. Though as I remember, the Post was one of the first papers in the country to shift from large-scale delivery to small-scale (trucks to station wagons), the system is still not set up to do what a UPS truck does.

So how will Bezos finesse this? He’s not big on finesse, Jeff. He could come and find ways to reassure local advertisers. He could involve them in his local delivery scheme, just as he handed over his sales and technology platforms to more merchants. He could shrug and not worry about retail advertising since he’s killing retail anyway.

As with all speculation about the Bezos era in journalism, we’ll just have to wait and wonder.

Hot off the presses

Screenshot 2013-08-05 at 6.25.08 PM

Some quick thoughts on Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post:

A reporter asked me whether this was “an act of philanthropy.” Probably yes, but I hope it is much more than that. I am glad Bezos is using his wealth to save a great and necessary American institution. But I hope and pray the real value he brings is his entrepreneurship, his innovation, his experience, and his fresh perspective, enabling him to reimagine news as an enterprise.

I’m ready for folks to cry for joy that Bezos knows how to sell content. He’ll know how to build pay walls, damnit! But I don’t think that’s his key value here. He knows how to sell and deliver unique not commodity content: entertainment mostly.

No, Bezos’ key competence is in building relationships. This is wishful thinking on my part, as I have been arguing that we in journalism need to stop thinking of ourselves as manufacturers of a mass commodity called content and start understanding that we are in a service business whose real outcome is informed individuals and communities. Thus we must be in the relationship business.

I have been arguing with newspapers lately that they must gather small data about their individual users — where they live, where they work, what their key interests are — so they can serve people with greater relevance and value. I hope that skill — building profiles and using them to improve relevance — is the first that Bezos brings to the Post.

I have one fear of Bezos: his secrecy. A news organization must be open (there I’m a disciple of the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger). I also want to see innovation and experimentation at the Post done in the open so the rest of the industry can benefit from it. Then perhaps Bezos can save more than one newspaper.

I do trust the Bezos understands the value of the Post and the necessity of — using my CUNY dean’s phrase — journalism’s eternal verities. I also trust that Don Graham would not have sold his family’s jewel to anyone who did not understand that.

Now mind you, Bezos also invested in Henry Blodget’s Business Insider. I’m a fan of Henry and what he has done there, but he is controversial in the halls of journalism schools. Bezos praises the Post for waiting to get things right. Henry is rather quicker on the trigger. I’m glad Bezos has an interest in both models; I think each can learn from the other.

Bottom line: I’m hopeful.

I am left with tremendous admiration for Don Graham, whose family not only built the Washington Post into its glory and protected it from political pressure to serve the people. Today, Don Graham made no doubt the toughest and bravest decision of his life: He admitted that he did not have the strategy to save his newspaper so he found someone he believes will. That takes courage.

What is journalism, redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, then, what the hell is journalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)