Posts about journalism

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

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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.

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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.

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(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:

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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.

Public is public…except in journalism?

Reporters and editors used to decide what was to be made public. No longer. More and more, the public decides what will be public … and that’s as it should be.

In today’s Times, David Carr concludes that he’s uncomfortable with a newspaper publishing a map of gun permit applicants. Yesterday on Twitter, Jim Willse, the best American newspaper editor I’ve ever worked with, got similarly sweaty.

I, too, struggled with this matter. But in the end and with respect, I think my friends are asking the wrong question. It is not up to journalists to decide that gun permits are public information. It’s up to us as citizens to decide that, as a matter of law. If there is something wrong with that, then change the law. If society is not comfortable with making that information public, then don’t try to make it somewhat public, public-with-effort (like TV stations’ campaign commercial revenue). There’s no half-pregnant. In the net age, there’s no slightly public.

I hate to see a news organization being condemned for trafficking in public information. I would also hate to see journalists end up campaigning to make less information public. Journalists of all people should be fighting to make more information public. In Public Parts, I argue that government today is secret by default and transparent by force when it must become transparent by default and secret by necessity. There are necessary secrets regarding security, criminal investigation, and citizens’ privacy.

Should gun permits be private then? Isn’t that by extension what my journalist friends are really asking when they want them to be less public? I say no. There is a public interest in this information being available and accessible. It allows the public, journalists and neighbors included, to keep watch on the process of government issuing permits. It enables the public, news organizations and others, to correlate data about permits with data about crime and safety. At a personal level, it enables me as a parent to know whether the homes where my children go play have arms — and to be able to discuss with the parents there whether their weapons are safely secured. These are matters of public safety, of public interest.

Now Carr and Willse are arguing that there is a difference between that information being available and making it more available by printing it in a newspaper, on a map. “Publishing is a discrete act, separate from whether something is public or not,” Carr says. “Our job as journalists is to draw attention, to point at things, and what we choose to highlight is defined as news.” That is the old editorial gatekeeping function trying to assert itself. Online, that question is becoming moot as there’s no longer a scarcity of space to control, to edit. Publishing information for all to see in print is different from making information available for those who seek it in search or by links. If the news organization doesn’t make this information more widely available, someone else can and likely will. I’ll argue that the town itself should be doing that. (And I’ll argue with Carr about the idea that journalists define news another day.)

Haven’t we heard that data viz is all the rage? Don’t we know Google’s mission to make the world’s knowledge accessible to all? Shouldn’t that be part of journalism’s updated mission? I say that news organizations should become advocates for open information, demanding that government not only make more of it available but also put it in standard formats so it can be searched, visualized, analyzed, and distributed. What the value of that information is to society is not up to the gatekeepers — officials or journalists — to decide. It is up to the public.

Now where I will agree strongly with Carr is that it is also journalism’s job to add value to that information. “And then it is our job to create context, talk to sources who bring insight and provide analysis,” he says. It’s legitimate to ask whether the paper with the map added such and sufficient value. I think this will be our primary job description going forward: adding value to flows of information that can now exist without our mediation. We should add value in many ways: contributing context, explanation, caveats (how the information can be out of date or flawed), education (how to verify the information), in some cases editing (the value The Times and Guardian added to Wikileaks data was not just distribution but also redaction of necessary secrets), and especially and always reporting: Why do all these people own guns? How are they storing them? What are they teaching their children about them? Have they ever used them? Are they trained in using them? Oh, there are many questions and answers that won’t be in that flow of data. That’s where the need for journalism and its future lies.

Both Carr and Willse want to make moral judgments about data. “Should data have a conscience?” Carr asks. It’s our use of data that needs to be governed by conscience. This is a lesson danah boyd taught me for Public Parts when it comes to privacy and data: It’s not the gathering of data we should regulate — or the technology employed to gather it. It’s the use of data we need to regulate. It’s one matter to know that I’m a middle-aged geezer, another to use that information to deny me employment. I would hate to see society and especially journalists find themselves advocating the regulation of knowledge.

Our default as journalists should be that more information is good because it can lead to more knowledge. We no longer hold the keys to the gate to that information. We can help turn information into knowledge. But we can’t do that with less information.

Again, I sympathize with Carr’s and Willse’s discomfort. I shared it. But as I tested the limits of my views on publicness and its value, this is where I came out.

Atomizing the article

The Washington Post did good reporting under the headline above on the state of negotiations on the so-called fiscal cliff. But the report is long because it carries all the equipment an article carries — the background paragraph (the sixth paragraph), atmospherics (seventh paragraph), quotes (eighth, ninth paragraphs), play-by-play (paragraphs 10-22), getting to some key details on the third screen.

Compare and contrast that with Henry Blodget’s summary under this headline. Now some will say that Henry — like a anthropologist with a camera in a remote village that has never seen one — stole the soul of the Post’s article. But I say he performed a service: He pulled out just the key facts of what’s new in five cogent bullets plus two additional paragraphs, giving us facts the Post didn’t get to until paragraphs 25-28. He read all that so we don’t have to.

Now I’m not criticizing the Post here. It did the reporting. I’m criticizing the form. I’m also not criticizing the Post for following that form; that’s what print dictates: a one-size-fits-all, one-stop-shop for this story.

This is a wonderful example of how online provides journalists the opportunity to atomize the article into its component assets. Blodget gave us the what’s-new part. Someone else could create the background, play-by-play (from the middle of the Post article), players, timeline, quotes, and so on.

Now I know the argument we’ll hear: Blodget took value from the Post. But I say he added value for readers, for I’m sure many of us are sick of reading the same old stuff, we just want to know *what’s new* — that is, the *news*. That’s what the Post and newspapers should be paying attention to here: where is the value for the market?

We can quickly tie ourselves in knots discussing business models. Maybe the Post should run Blodget’s summary as value-added for its readers, giving him a share of the ad revenue. Does Henry pay the Post for the value of its reporting? Or is his link payment? That depends on how the links perform (I’ve been wanting to perform tests of that for research).

My point here is simply that, of course, reporting has value but that the full-blown, kitchen-sink article is not always the best way to convey that value. Here’s just one example.

I confess a journalistic sin

I just got off the phone with Bob Garfield of On the Media talking about the shooting in Connecticut and the discussion that ensued on Twitter around an account alleged to be that of the shooter. He called me because I screwed up — and particularly because I am a journalist and journalism professor who screwed up.

After the shooting, I followed the trail of many on Twitter to an account that was written by a person of the same name that had been broadcast on TV news as that of the shooter. It was eerie reading and I said just that. I did not use the name of the person or the name of the account because I knew better: these facts could change. But then I also foolishly did not include a conditional statement in my tweet: I did not say “if this is the account of the killer, then…” Or I did not say this was the “alleged” or “reputed” account of the person named as the killer. These are basic, basic journalistic skills drilled until they are reflexes and I would use them in any story for print. I didn’t use them online. That was wrong. We don’t learn these things as journalists just to cover ourselves or to sound like journalists. We learn them because the key skill of the journalist is to say what we do *not* know and to make that clear. That is the essence of credibility.

I immediately tweeted that I should have added the conditional statement. I then erased the single tweet, which I hate doing because one should not try to eliminate the record. But on Twitter, there is no way to amend or correct a tweet — a fundamental structural problem, I think, but I’m not shifting blame to Twitter — and so it could continue to be retweeted and passed around.

As you know by now, it soon was reported that the original name was wrong. A person by that name was being questioned and his brother was identified in the press as the killer. Though as I write this, the police have still not verified either. So caveats still apply. And I am not using the names still.

Also, as this proceeded, the Twitter account associated with the first name got new tweets. That is apparent evidence that it was the wrong account. But even that is not foolproof as one can send delayed tweets. So nothing is certain. That is the important lesson.

Bob Garfield wanted me to shrug and say oops — such is news. I wouldn’t do that. Yes, this is news and we’ve all — not just journalists but also everyone who ever watches a breaking story on TV and now on the net — learned that facts change. But it was wrong. Bob also wanted me to blame haste. But I wouldn’t do that, either, for by that argument, one would need to wait hours, days, weeks, or even longer before reporting any facts and clearly that’s not going to happen.

No, we always need to be as diligent as possible about verifying facts — and listening to TV news, I’ve learned, is not sufficient. That includes now not just journalists but those who spread what they hear from journalists via Twitter, Facebook, et al. We need to be careful about saying what we don’t know or how we know what we’re saying. Those attributions and caveats are important. I left them out of my tweet. That was wrong, especially for me. I am sharing this here both to share the lesson. I’m sorry.

: LATER: Looking at Twitter reaction, I want to be clear that I’m not blaming Twitter’s length; I could have fit an attribution and caveat in the tweet.