Posts about journalism

Reporters: Why are you in Tampa?

I challenge every journalist in Tampa for the Republican convention — every one of the 15-16,000 of you — to answer this:
* Why are you there?
* What will we learn from you?
* What actual reporting can you possibly do that delivers anything of value more than the infomercial — light on the info, heavy on the ‘mercial — that the conventions have become?
* Would you be better off back at home covering voters and their issues?
* Can we in the strapped news business afford this luxury?

Figure that those 15k journos spend $300 a night each on a hotel room times five nights, plus $500 for transportion. That’s $2,000. And I’m figuring they’ll be slurping up free meals and drinks. So $2,000 is probably (pardon me) conservative. That’s $30,000,000. Now multiply that times two conventions. That’s $60,000,000.

Why? For what?

Note that even while newspapers and news organizations have shrunken drastically, we are sending the same number of journalists to the conventions that we sent in 2008 and 2004.

Why? Editorial ego: It’s fun to be there, in the pack. It’s fun for a paper or station to say, “We have our man/woman in Tampa/Charlotte.” Well goody for you.

It’s a waste.

Take that $60,000,000 and divide it by a fully loaded labor cost of, say, $100,000 per head and it would pay for 600 reporters for a year. At $50,000 for a hyperlocal reporter, we’d get 1,200 towns covered — more than Patch! What could they do versus what you will do in Tampa and Charlotte transcribing marketing messages and horrid memes?

Or we could pay for Homicide Watch 1,500 times over, instead of just paying attention to a shooting that happens where tourists wander.

Those 15,000 journos will — three-to-one — cover 2,286 delegates (6,000 for those spendthrift Democrats) wearing funny hats, saying nothing new.

At least 3,775 newspaper jobs were lost last year; 39,806 since mid-2007; one in three newsroom jobs have been eliminated since 1989. How’s that make you feel, convention press corps?

We can see whatever we want to see on C-SPAN (and I don’t begrudge the networks for giving us America’s Got Talent instead of the conventions since at least AGT has surprises; the conventions are scripted).

Commentary? There’ll be more than we can possibly use this year on Twitter and Google+ and blogs and everywhere. We don’t need to pundits’ palaver. Citizens will comment this year.

So enjoy yourself, hacks. You’re living off the last dollars of your business. And for what? Tradition? Where has that gotten us?

Please prove me wrong. In a week, show me the amazing reporting we couldn’t have gotten if you weren’t there.

Without mediation

The shooting near the Empire State Building today demonstrated in yet more ways how news will arrive without mediation.

On Twitter, some objected to my linking to photos from the scene taken by witnesses immediately after the crime, without warning of their graphic nature. The murder victim lay in his blood, so bright red that someone else on Twitter wondered whether the image had been doctored. No, we’re simply not accustomed to seeing so much blood so fresh. We have waited until news photographers arrived, until after the bodies have been taken away, replaced by chalk outlines behind yellow ribbons with only dried, brown-red stains remaining. We are used to seeing the sometimes ugly world packaged and sanitized for our protection by media.

So it’s doubly shocking, perhaps, when media now shows such images from those witnesses.

Jim Romenesko asked The Times about running that photo on its home page, albeit briefly, and they gave what I’d call a right answer: “It is an extremely graphic image and we understand why many people found it jarring. Our editorial judgment is that it is a newsworthy photograph that shows the result and impact of a public act of violence.”

I say it is a good thing that we see a more unvarnished world. Perhaps then we’ll have a real debate about guns the way we were forced to face Vietnam through scenes of death on the evening news, as some of my defenders on Twitter pointed out. “Death by gunshot is graphic. Now uncontainable,” said the Guardian’s Charles Arthur (though the Guardian tried to contain it)

I also say that in any case, we’d best get used to it, for as we all well know, news and images of it won’t come from reporters and credentialed photographers first and won’t be filtered through media before it comes to us. It is coming from witnesses who go by names like @yoassman [the name and a Seinfeld tribute, no doubt] and Mr. Mookie, who may write indelicate comments like, “They shoot, aw made you look. No really tho. Dude got popped!” and “Why yall keep saying it could be someone I know? I don’t have anymore room for RIP tatts on my arm. I’ve seen my friends with they heads blown off in the street. Yea it happens to me too and I get over it. Its life.”

Yeah, welcome to life. Most such life isn’t reported with such a splash because it doesn’t happen in such a public place. It happens in the Bronx or 19 times in a weekend in Chicago.

I think we’ve become much too accustomed to mediated news, to a world sanitized for our protection. That’s what makes people ask for warnings before being shown reality, even if the discussion is about murder, and even if they had to click on a link to see what I was writing about. They had to be curious enough to do that. But they weren’t curious enough to see news as it really happened. The image didn’t come into their homes on a TV screen with kids on the couch. It came through my Twitter feed. It was insensitive of me to link to it without warning, I was told. No, I think the problem is that media have made us insensitive — desensitized would be the cliché — to such a fact.

Don’t tell me you’re offended by murder. If you weren’t, that would be the problem. Of course, you are. So don’t tell me not to offend you with what it looks like once you click. And don’t tell me what to say and what not to say.

A man was killed in New York this morning. Now we know better what that looks like. That is news.

:Later: On the Media tells the story of that photo on The Times homepage. And here’s Poynter on the photo.

The responsibilities and opportunities of the platform

Technology companies and news organizations have a lot to learn from each other about the responsibilities of running platforms.

I have been arguing that news organizations should reimagine and rebuild themselves as platforms for their communities, enabling people to share what they know and adding journalistic value to that. As such, they should study technology companies.

But technology companies also need to learn lessons from news organizations about the perils of violating trust and the need to establish principles to work by. That, of course, is a topic of conversation these days thanks to Twitter’s favoring a sponsor when it killed journalist Guy Adams’ account (later reinstated under pressure) and its abandonment of the developers who made Twitter what it is today.

One question that hangs over this discussion is advertising and whether it is possible to maintain trust when taking sponsors’ dollars — see efforts to start app.net as a user-supported Twitter; see Seth Godin suggesting just that; see, also, discussion about ad-supported NBC ill-serving Olympics fans vs. the viewer-support BBC super-serving them. I have not given up on advertising support because we can’t afford do; without it, my business, news, would implode and we’d all end up with less and more expensive media and services. So we’d better hope companies getting advertiser support learn how to maintain their integrity.

In the discussion on Twitter about Twitter’s failings in the Adams affair, Anil Dash suggested drafting the policy Twitter should adapt. Even I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. But I would like to see a discussion — not just for technology companies but also for media companies and governments and universities of institutions in many shapes — of the responsibilities that come with providing a platform.

For the opportunities and benefits of building that platform are many: Your users will distribute you. Developers will build and improve you. You can reach critical mass quickly and inexpensively. As vertically integrated firms are replaced by ecosystems — platforms, entrepreneurial endeavors, and networks — huge value falls to the platforms. It’s worthwhile being a platform.

But if you lose trust, you lose users, and you lose everything. So that leads to a first principle:

Users come first. A platform without users is nothing. That is why was wrong for Twitter to put a sponsor ahead of users. That is why Twitter is right to fight efforts to hand over data about users to government. That is why newspapers built church/state walls to try to protect their integrity against accusations of sponsor influence. That is why Yahoo was wrong to hand over an email user to Chinese authorities; who in China would ever use it again? Screw your users, screw yourself.

I believe the true mark of a platform is that users take it over and use it in ways the creators never imagined. Twitter didn’t know it would become a platform for communication and news. Craigslist wasn’t designed for disaster relief. That leads to another principle:

A platform is defined by its users. In other words: Hand over control to your users. Give them power. Design in flexibility. That’s not easy for companies to do.

But, of course, it’s not just users who make a platform what it is. It’s developers and other collaborators. In the case of Twitter, developers created the applications that let us use it on our phones and desktops — until Twitter decided it would rather control that. If I were a developer [oh, if only] I’d be gun-shy about building atop such a platform now. Similarly, if a news organization becomes a platform for its community to share information and for others to build atop it, then it has to keep in sight their interests and protect them. So:

Platforms collaborate. Platforms have APIs. They reveal the keys to the kingdom so others can work with them and atop them. Are they open-source? Not necessarily. Though making its underlying platform open is what made WordPress such a success.

In the discussion about Adams and Twitter, some said that Twitter is a business and thus cannot be a platform for free speech. I disagree. It is a platform for speech. And if that speech is not free, then it’s no platform at all. Speech is its business.

When a platform is a business, it becomes all the more important for it to subscribe to principles so it can be relied upon. Of course, the platform needs to make money. It needs to control certain aspects of its product and business. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But if it keeps shifting that business so users and collaborators feel at risk, then in the long-run, it won’t work as a business.

Platforms need principles.

All this can, of course, be summed up in a single, simple principle: Don’t be evil. That’s why Google has that principle: because it’s good business; because if it is evil, it’s users — we — can call it out quickly and loudly and desert it. As Umair Haque says, when your users can talk about you, the cost of doing evil rises.

There are other behaviors of platforms that aren’t so much principles as virtues.

A good platform is transparent. Black boxes breed distrust.

A good platform enables portability. Knowing I can take my stuff and leave reduces the risk of staying.

A good platform is reliable. Oh, that.

What else?

#twitterfail ethics & economics

Update 415p EST: Twitter reinstated Guy Adams account and sent him essentially a form letter and then Twitter’s general counsel, Alex Macgillivray (@amac) wrote a post that did apologize and did discuss the need for trust but still leads to the impression that Adams violated Twitter’s terms of service, which I do not believe happened (he revealed a *public* address; he was not given the opportunity to act on the complaint). It also makes a rather quisling argument that business emails could have personal use; if that’s the case, then Twitter’s policy would forbid the sharing of all email addresses, which would be silly.

In this paragraph, Macgillevray points to precisely where the church/state line I refer to in the post below should be drawn:

That said, we want to apologize for the part of this story that we did mess up. The team working closely with NBC around our Olympics partnership did proactively identify a Tweet that was in violation of the Twitter Rules and encouraged them to file a support ticket with our Trust and Safety team to report the violation, as has now been reported publicly. Our Trust and Safety team did not know that part of the story and acted on the report as they would any other.

So the commercial team working with a business partner acted on behalf of that partner’s interests rather than in the interests of the users and in the interests of Twitter as an open, reliable, and trustworthy platform.

#twitterfail.

I am glad that Twitter recanted and reinstated Adams. But the discussion has not gone far enough. What Macgillevray apologizes for is Twitter employees actively monitoring a user’s content rather than waiting for a complaint. That’s too limited a scope. We still need to discuss the principles under which a platform operates and the trust it requires.

My earlier post:

* * *

Twitter is going to have to learn the lesson that newspapers had to learn when they started accepting advertising: that when trust is your asset, you must run your service and your business according to principles of trust. Newspapers built church/state walls to demonstrate that they could not be bought by sponsors’ influence. Twitter needs that wall. Every tech company fancying itself a platform does. Or it can’t be trusted and won’t be used and will lose value. Those are the economics of trust.

Twitter’s killing of a journalist’s account threatens to be a defining moment for the company, as Dan Gillmor warned. The details are nearly meaningless. Independent writer Guy Adams was very critical of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics (as I have been and many have been, using #nbcfail as our gathering place and megaphone). Adams published the corporate email address of NBC Olympics chief Gary Zenkel and then Twitter killed his account. But the email address was hardly private — it had been published online and follows NBC format: first.last@nbcuni.com. Adams was not informed of the complaint and given the opportunity to delete the tweet, as Twitter’s rules require. Indeed, Adams found out that Twitter initiated the complaint, not NBC. And what’s the harm, really, to NBC: that its viewers can talk to them? NBC should welcome that. And the furor certainly spread Zenkel’s email far wider than any tweet.

No, the real issue here is that Twitter entered a business deal with NBC and its parent, Comcast, for the Olympics. That, in Adams’ word, puts NBC and Twitter in cahoots with each other. So now do other users have to worry about biting the hand that feeds Twitter?

I asked Twitter repeatedly for what it has to say about this and held off writing this post until I gave up on getting a response. I still hold hope that Twitter will come to its senses, recant, restore Adams’ account, apologize, and learn a lesson.

For this incident itself is trivial, the fight frivolous. What difference does it make to the world if we complain about NBC’s tape delays and commentators’ ignorance?

But Twitter is more than that. It is a platform. It is a platform that has been used by revolutionaries to communicate and coordinate and conspire and change the world. It is a platform that is used by journalists to learn and spread the news. If it is a platform it should be used by anyone for any purpose, none prescribed or prohibited by Twitter. That is the definition of a platform.

In political matters, Twitter has behaved honorably. It famously delayed a maintenance shutdown so as not to cut off communication at a crucial moment in the Arab Spring. It has fought government subpoenas to get information on tweeters in protests and regarding Wikileaks.

But now in business matters, it acts in a suspect manner and that is worrying for Twitter and moreso for its users.

Twitter needs to decide on, declare, and live by principles. I believe it needs to prove to us that it is not beholden to sponsors any more than it is to governments. It must fight for our trust or it will lose its value to us (and its shareholders). This is why Google was wise to decree that it should not be evil. It is a good business decision.

Now I fully understand the irony of my beginning this post using newspapers and journalism as a model. We in my industry have squandered our trust, not so much through direct advertiser influence but through short-sighted economic thinking: pandering to the perceived mass — with celebrity, sensationalism, and the view from nowhere — to build sales and traffic over substance; devaluing our product by cutting the wrong things when faced with competitive pressures; lacking the strategic vision that would carry journalism into the digital economy. This is a case of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do, I’m afraid.

In a Twitter discussion this morning, Dave Winer and I parried on whether the tech industry needs to become the journalism industry or whether the journalism industry needs to become the tech industry. I’m not sure where that lands. I do see tech companies — Twitter, Tumblr, Google, Facebook, and more — hiring journalists. I see journalists using and relying on — perhaps too much — these companies. I see an opportunity for them to work together to set a line where we can build a new wall between church and state, between business and trust, by establishing principles that platforms — indeed, the internet itself — must live by.

I have nothing whatsoever against making business and journalism businesses. I believe they must be businesses to be sustainable. But they must be responsible businesses. They must learn where their value truly lies. That is in trust. Squander that trust and you lose it all.

Twitter has another moment to learn and then teach that lesson. Please.

The scoop is dead and deserves to be

I was just asked about CNN’s, Fox’s, and others’ screw-ups with the announcement of the Supreme Court health decision in the context of process journalism. I disagreed with the characterization. My response:

I could not disagree more strongly with your characterization of this as an error of process journalism. Hardly!

This was not a matter of reporting what you know when you know it. This was a matter of reporting your misunderstandings before you know enough to say that you know anything.

The entire decision was made and written. CNN, Fox, and others listened to a bit and went with it.
The New York Times, on the other hand, essentially admitted it didn’t understand enough to make some things clear. It was oddly phrased — saying that something about the decision couldn’t be known when, instead, it couldn’t yet be understood fully. Whatever. At least The Times used restraint and appropriate caveats. We saw a similar case in the Italian murder appeal of Amanda Knox, when TV said too much too soon.

(Later: What the Times said in its earliest version was: “It remained unclear whether the court officially upheld the mandate or chose a more technical path that effectively allowed it to stand.” Well, yes, it remained unclear to The Times because The Times hadn’t had the opportunity to absorb and understand the decision and its implications yet. It said so.)

In true process journalism, the news itself is a process, not a fait accompli like a court decision. Process journalism is about news itself as a process and journalism following that process — again, with due caveats. Process journalism is about covering a truly breaking story — a storm, a riot, a revolt, say — and recognizing that fact in how we cover it.

This was a matter of TV news making bad assumptions on too little information and speaking too soon. That has been the danger since 24-hour news immemorial.

The real lesson here is that the scoop is and always has been a dangerous act of journalistic narcissism. Did it truly matter if one outlet “broke” the same information that other outlets — and the world of the internet — knew a second before another? Or was it indeed worse when those outlets got it wrong because they were hasty and stupid? They were still seduced by the scoop, which has no value in media that operates at the speed of the link.

Journalists must think how they can best add value to information, not how they can most rapidly repeat it. Explaining the story is adding value. Getting it wrong detracts value and devalues credibility.
CNN and Fox and others fucked it. It’s as simple as that. It’s not a matter of process journalism. Please!

After I wrote that, my correspondent wrote back quoting my discussion of process journalism with references to, for example, the misreports in the breaking, moving, confusing stories of tornadoes and shootings. I added this:

That’s talking about things that are presently unknowable by the reporter but are known, the reporter hopes, by others. (Does anyone know of prior problems with this politician? Does anyone know whether the power is still out downtown?). That is *not* the case here. Everything that needed to be known by CNN and Fox was knowable. They just spoke before they knew it. I repeat: That’s fuck-up journalism, not process journalism. Please do not libel the one with the other.

LATER: Steve Myers of Poynter continues to go down the road of blaming process journalism for CNN’s and Fox’s fuckup. I was responding to him above.

News articles as assets and paths

This is the start of a new project I’m working on to brainstorm new forms, relationships, and (business) models for news. Responding to a current discussion on Twitter among @AntDeRosa, @felixsalmon, @jayrosn_nyu & @davewiner about the form of articles, I’m posting it here. The discussion started when Jay challenged Anthony, as a representative of Reuters, about the service’s article on the Facebook IPO: “Should be a sign on this story: ‘written so people who aren’t in the investor class cannot understand it.’” I said that the story needs a link to an explainer (which Jay has written about), because background paragraphs necessarily ill-serve everyone: too little for the novice, too much for the expert, they were an invention that fit the necessity of our means of production and distribution. I say we should link to more elements than just backgrounders. Let’s reinvent the article. To wit…

I come not to kill the article but to praise it. Machined to near-perfection over a century of production, the article is perfectly suited to its form: headline and lede imparting the latest — the news; nut graf delivering the essence of the story and telling us why we should bother reading the rest; background graf bringing us up to speed; timelines to set context; catalogues of issues and players; quotes from various perspectives; examples — all prioritized so readers can easily navigate the form and extract its value and so that printers with scarce time and limited space in the paper can lop off lines at the bottom without losing the heart of the matter. This is our inverted pyramid. It is the form we teach, including the skills of summary and abstraction (what is the story? — perhaps the most difficult skill a journalist learns), of evidence and example, of completeness and fairness, of narrative and engagement, of prioritization. This is the form that teaches the essential logic of journalism: that any event, issue, battle, or person can be packaged and delivered in so many lines of type. That is what we do.

Given the opportunities presented by new media technologies, we’ve added to the article, giving it not just photos but slideshows, and not just slideshows but video and audio. We’ve added graphics and graphics that move and interact to readers’ commands. We’ve curated related links to give readers more from our own archives or from anywhere on the web. For good and ill, we’ve added comments.

Now let’s subtract from the article, deconstructing it into its core assets. Draw that inverted pyramid and its constituent elements and then imagine each as a separate entity in its optimum form. Take the background paragraph. It ill serves everyone. If you know nothing about an ongoing story, it gives you too little history. If you know a story well, it merely wastes the paper’s space and your time. It is a compromise demanded by the one-size-fits-all constraints of news’ means of production and distribution.

Freed from those limitations, what should the background paragraph become? A link, of course: a link to an ongoing resource that is updated when necessary — not every time a related article is written. It is a resource a reader can explore at will, section by section to fill in knowledge, making it more personalized, efficient, and valuable for each reader. It can be created by the news organization that links to it or it can be created by anyone and still be only a link away. It can be a Wikipedia article. The background in an ongoing story becomes an asset of ongoing value.

A story can be made up of many assets. Once separated, the storyteller has the opportunity to present — and the reader to take — many paths through them. The expert in a story can go straight to what’s new and then leave, saving time having to look for the fresh nuggets among all all the space-filler that used to make up an article. The novice can start with the background, then read what’s new, then delve into the characters and timelines, then explore examples and arguments. The article becomes sets of assets and paths.

Think of how Prezi works: This PowerPoint replacement isn’t built just to make its viewers dizzy as one navigates through floating, weightless text. It forces the creator to organize ideas and then create appropriate paths through them. So imagine that what used to be an article becomes a set of assets — all those I listed above: what’s new, background, timeline, players, etc. — and that the journalist can create distinct paths among them: one for the novice, one for the expert, another for the professsional, another for the policymaker.

Of course, those assets themselves can be constantly updated as needed. And, again, they need not all be created and maintained by a single source. So if Wikipedia has a great backgrounder, why recreate it? Link to it. (Remember: Do what you do best and link to the rest.)

Perhaps we end up with news organizations that specialize not just in beats and topics but in kinds of assets: the latest (a wire service) or explainers (weekly publications like the Economist) or relationships (algorithms like Daylife’s) or data (e.g., Texas Tribune). Of course, the people formerly known as the audience (quoth Rosen) can also create assets. May the best assets win: Link to that which best explains a story. And may the best paths win: Curate the assets that best get the story across. Maybe the best editor becomes the best creator of paths. Maybe algorithms help create paths by finding the most recommended assets from the most trusted sources (data that readers create through their use).

Then articles become new molecules that bind atoms from an ecosystem of information.

What would it take to do this? As De Rosa said in the Twitter discussion, it would require new culture and procedures in a newsroom. Instead of thinking that we have to turn out a self-contained article for every event, we instead find assets and create paths. For that matter, instead of leaving the reader to dig through a live blog to discern the elements of an event, we also find assets and create paths (which may include posts in that live blog).

I can already hear people in newsrooms fret that we need a new CMS (content management system) to do this. Not really. It’s called the link. We can kludge that and then make it more elegant and efficient and automatic once we’ve figured it out. So I don’t think we need to start with a hackathon and new code, though coders can definitely help. I think we need to start with a new notion of the value of an article and how to create that value.

The end result is still an inverted pyramid — a prioritized set of assets that one can stop going through when one feels sated with information. But everyone’s pyramid can be different. And what fills those pyramids can come from various sources. The article is dead. Long live the article.

It was suggested in the Twitter conversation that we have a conference (let’s just say lunch) on this topic. Done. I’ll schedule it at CUNY.

LATER: Storify of the Twitter discussion referenced at the start of this post here.

The (not so) daily news

I have more conflicts than a Louisiana politician when it comes to the news of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reducing its frequency from seven to three days a week: I was in charge of digital content in the parent-company division that started its sister site, NOLA.com; I worked on Advance’s Ann Arbor project; I was involved in the early stage of its Michigan project; and I’m working with Advance on another effort — though I am privy to nothing about New Orleans today. So take anything I say with a grain of salt the size of the Gulf of Mexico…. Still, I can’t not comment on the news.

Mathew Ingram and Ken Doctor will take you through the economic reality at work in New Orleans and Advance’s Alabama and Michigan markets: The cost of printing seven days a week is becoming unsustainable. It’s still profitable to print two or three days a week, not because those are the only days when news happens but because newspapers are still in the distribution business and those are the most lucrative — still-lucrative — days to distribute inserted and printed ads.

That could change again when and if (a) newspaper circulation falls below the critical mass needed to distribute coupons and circulars and (b) local advertisers become more savvy and finally move online themselves. Then printing and distributing paper will become even less profitable, even less sustainable. That’s when print could — mind you, I didn’t say “will” as I’m not predicting the form’s demise; I repeat, “could” — disappear.

By then, newspapers had better be ready. That is, they had better have become digital companies. That is the essence of the digital first strategy: become sustainable, successful online companies that can survive without (or with) print. And grow again from there.

That’s the process we’re witnessing here — that and a continuing cutback brought on by falling circulation and advertising revenue; not a new story, of course. This is a most difficult transition.

Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger has been talking about this transition for years. Back in 2005, he talked about buying the last presses. Later, he talked about trying to move his newspaper over what he called the green blob — the great unknown that stands between declining print and ascending digital. That is the job of the editor and publisher today: to make that transition. Shifting content, staff, readers, and advertisers from print to digital is necessary. Improving digital is necessary. And rethinking print is necessary.

If profitable, I think there could continue to be a role for print. In the Guardian’s case, I’d propose that it follow the very successful model of Die Zeit in Germany and publish once a week as the Weekend Observer, turning the Guardian into an online-only, worldwide brand, which it pretty much already is. See, I’m not against print.

But we have to make print beside the point. Of course, it’s not the manufacturing and distribution we should care about preserving and advancing. It’s the journalism and service. It’s not the past we want to protect. It’s the future.

You can argue with the strategy undertaken by any newspaper company undergoing this difficult transition. But better a transition than the alternative.

LATER: Postmedia in Canada just announced that it, too, is cutting frequency, ending Sunday papers (which are thin like Saturday papers in the U.S.) in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa. The National Post is suspending Mondays in the summer and looking at its schedule. The company is moving page production to a shared facility in Hamilton, Ont. Disclosure: I’m on the digital advisory board for Postmedia.

Journalism Inside®

I wonder whether we should be teaching journalists to embed themselves and their abilities into the world rather than always making the world come to them. Thinking out loud…

The other day, when Amazon peeved me by suddenly trying to sell me software — who has bought a box of software in years? — it occurred to me: After software left store shelves, demand for the programmers who make it has only grown. So why, as newspapers, magazines, and books leave shelves, is there not more demand for the journalists who make them?

Companies are clamoring to hire more programmers and investors are dying to back what they do. Everybody wants more code inside their endeavors. So imagine an economy in which companies and investors want journalism inside: “We need to get us some journalists!”

It’s not quite as insane as it sounds if we rethink what a journalist does. Journalists and programmers aren’t really so different. In the the research on innovation and news we commissioned at the Tow-Knight Center, Nick Diakopoulos notes their similarity: “One of journalism’s primary raisons d’être is in gathering, producing, and disseminating information and knowledge…. What is perhaps most interesting about these processes is that they can, in theory, all be executed either by people, or by computers.” Nick’s point is not that technology would replace journalists but instead that technology provides new opportunities for news.

Programmers and journalists create similar value — or they could. Each makes sense of information. Technology brings order to the flow of information; journalists ask the questions that aren’t answered in that flow. Each brings new abilities to people — functionality (in software terms) or empowerment (in journalistic terms). But programmers don’t produce products so much as they produce ability: your ability to get what you want. Shouldn’t journalism act like that? Shouldn’t we teach them to?

Imagine a perpendicular universe in which an organization or community says: “We need someone to help make sense of this information, who can add context to it or find and fill in missing pieces or present it in a way that will make sense to people — as a narrative or a visualization. We need to get us a journalist.”

It so happens that our entrepreneurial journalism students just had the treat of hearing from Shane Snow of the startup Contently. He is offering a service to companies — brands in particular — that are indeed asking the question above. Brands, haven’t you heard, are becoming media. Instead of placing their ads around others’ content, brands are putting content around their ads. Contently lets them search its 4,000 writers’ profiles and use its reputation system to find the right writer or community manager or video maker or infographic whiz. Contently also offers to manage these tasks.

Isn’t that just PR, working for a brand? No, Shane says, because Contently provides writers to make content an audience will value instead of a message a company wants to get out. Messaging is marketing. This is more analogous to the soap opera model — or the show Northern Exposure: P&G underwrote those shows so it would have a place to put its ads. Now more brands are doing that on the web. YouTube, too, is underwriting the creation of independent content — without owning it — just so more people will have more good stuff to watch there. Advertising still subsidizes content but the chicken and the egg are trading places.

But funny you should mention PR. Its role, too, changes. In What Would Google Do? I spoke with Rishad Tobaccowala, strategist for Publicis, and we thought of a reverse world in which public relations exists to represent the public to the company, not the other way around (a professionalization of Doc Searls’ Vendor Relationship Management). We now see companies looking for that skill. They call it community management but that’s a misnomer unless you mean it in Doc’s context: that the community manages the company (the company doesn’t manage the community).

As I wrote this, I got a lucky visit from Kevin Marks, now of Salesforce, ex of Apple, Google, and Technorati, who teaches me much about technology. He posed the programmer-v-journalist comparison another way, arguing that each models the world, one with algorithms, one with narrative (and each faces the problem of “imperfect mapping”). He called it the tension between the storyteller and the builder.

That’s a very telling contrast for journalism schools. Many of our students want to build things, which we encourage, but we constantly struggle with balancing technology and tools vs. journalism and its skills in the time we have to teach. There’s also a tension regarding what they build: journalists pride themselves on being storytellers but is that all they should build? They might build visualizations of data — which, yes tells a story, sans narrative — but shouldn’t they also build tools that enable the public to dig into its own information (see: Texas Tribune) and platforms that let them share their information?

These new opportunities have led some to believe we should turn out the mythical journalist-coder, the hacking hack who does it all. I am not so sure that unicorn lives in nature. Yes there are some; it’s possible they exist. But I don’t think that journalists must become coders to take advantage of new technologies. They need to know how to work with the coders, how to spec and modify and use these tools. They need to understand and exploit the opportunities.

They also need a different culture. Rather than seeing ourselves as the creators (and owners) of products (content), shouldn’t journalists — like coders — see themselves as the providers of services, as the builders of platforms, as the agents of empowerment for others? That’s how developers see themselves. They build things, yes, but no longer shrink-wrapped. They build tools people use; they add value to information they produce. Journalists, in addition, have seen themselves speaking for the little guy but as Kevin Marks put it to me, that role becomes subsumed by the network when the little guys can speak for themselves. Still, there’s value in using new tools to help them do that. Is that a new journalism or is that a new PR? Gulp! Depends on who gets there first.

So where do journalists fit in in the world? And what do we teach them?

Well, we still start by teaching what my dean calls the eternal verities: accuracy, fairness, completeness. Implicit in that is a sense of service and given the rise of the network we need to consider what our fundamental service is.

We teach them to gather, make sense of, present, and most importantly supplement information through reporting — but there are now so many new ways to do that, so now we don’t just teach reporting but also data skills.

We teach them to build — yes, stories, but now in more forms, and also more than stories: tools and platforms.

We also teach them to build businesses. We teach them sustainability.

We teach them to go out into their communities, but now I say we need to make them see that they are a part of and not separate from those communities, no longer envisioning ourselves at the center, gathering everyone’s attention, but instead at the edge, serving their needs, providing communities elegant organization. This is a difficult skill to teach. Since starting what we call interactive journalism (not “new media”) at CUNY, I’ve struggled with finding ways for the students to have a public with whom to interact. One way we’ve done it is The Local with The New York Times, but we need more ways.

If we consider the programmer worldview, then we need to teach journalists how to fit in to the world differently, to spread their skills and value (and values) out into other enterprises, institutions, and communities rather than making the world come to us for journalism: Need some reporting, some editing, some sense-making, some empowerment, some organization, some storytelling, some media making…? “We need to get us some journalism!”

Now, of course, the journalists will worry that when working in the employ of others, they lose the independence that their journalistic institutions afforded them (so long as those companies were rich monopolies). That is well worth the worry. But again, consider the programmer who brings her skills to an enterprise but still must decide whether the enterprise is worthy of them. Consider, too, how programmers work in open-source to spread their value — and grow it — among anyone who sees fit to use it. They don’t own coding the way we thought we owned the news. They spread it.

Shouldn’t we spread journalism out beyond our walls as not only a skill set but also a worldview, getting more people to see and create a demand for the value of accurate and reliable information (“trust is the new black,” says Craig Newmark), organized information, context, and so on? Shouldn’t we want to embed journalism the way programmers embed code? Then we wouldn’t just teach journalists to go to work for news organizations — or, for that matter, start them — but also to organize news everywhere? Whether and how to do that, I’m just beginning to wonder….

/thinkingoutloud