Posts about journalism

Journalism via jokes

Tonight I redeemed the greatest Christmas present from my son, Jake: tickets to see The Daily Show taping with him. It was fun and funny. But even better, it inspired me as a journalist.

I left the studio determined to teach a course in journalism via jokes. (I’d call it Truth Through Humor, but that sounds like an Orwellian sitcom [starring John Goodman as Big Brother]).

Jon Stewart regularly demurs when we journalists try to drag him into our sad fraternity. Well, bullshit. His interview tonight with Republican Sen. Jim DeMint was journalism at its best.

Stewart has a worldview. He’s in favor of civil discourse. He’s in favor of America. He’s in favor of government when it adds value and security to citizens’ lives. He does his homework. He knows his facts. He asks hard questions and won’t accept easy answers. He pressed DeMint — civilly and smartly and comically and again and again — on the senator’s divisive rhetoric in the book he was there to plug. He pressed the studio audience to be civil to DeMint. He left trying to find common ground for a discussion about better government and a better nation.

The interview went on 20 minutes or maybe even 30 minutes to fill a seven-minute slot. Stewart wasn’t filling time; he was asking questions. The remainder, Stewart said, will end up on the net (I’ll link when it’s up) and I urge you — or at least my journalism students — to watch it as an object lesson in interview that try to get somewhere (most don’t).

There’s a larger lesson here about jokes as journalism. So next, I urge you to listen to Ethan Zuckerman’s lecture on cute cats and revolution on the wonderful CBC series Ideas. Ethan talks about humor as a means to get around censorship. I listened to his talk a day after hearing Richard Gingras, now head of Google News, talking at a symposium on entrepreneurial journalism organized by Dan Gillmor at Arizona State about how difficult it is for algorithms to recognize humor.

I hope algorithms never understand humor. If algorithms succeed, then censors and tyrants will use them to find it and quash humor. If algorithms succeed at creating jokes, then Hollywood will hire geeks to build virtual Stewarts, Sterns, and Lettermen: plastic action figures. Then humor will lose its humanity and credibility. No, humor is hard. May it ever stay so.

At the end of a meeting about trying to scale fact-checking that we held with Craig Newmark at CUNY, we decided that as a followup, we should hold an event on facts as entertainment: fact-checking as a game and truth a la Stewart at amusement. When did truth become boring and dutiful and dull in journalists’ hands? In Stewart’s hands, comedy is truth, truth is journalism, ergo comedy can be journalism. His is.

Want a class in that? If only it could be taught by Prof. Stewart.

So much for the penny press

The New York Times raised its daily price to $2.50 today. I thought back to the penny press at the turn of the last century and wondered what such a paper would cost today, inflation adjusted. Answer: a quarter.

Screen shot 2012-01-02 at 11.09.10 AM

So, in inflation-adjusted current pennies, The New York Times today costs 10 times more than a newspaper in 1890. Granted, Today’s Times is better than a product of the penny press. But is it worth 10x? Should it cost 10x?

In the meantime, labor rates have risen (a Timesman today lives better than a Timesman then) but production technology has become far more automated and efficient (no more typesetters, proofreaders, compositors, engravers, stereographers, mailrooms, or “rubber rooms” filled with unneeded pressmen). And the advertising value of newspapers has increased exponentially.

On the one hand, there’s less competition today. The New York Times is essentially a national newspaper monopoly (the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are different beasts). That should enable it to raise its price to such a premium. On the other hand, what’s really at work, of course, is that there’s much more competition today: the entire web. That would drive the paper to lower its price.

Instead, today it raises its price — by a whopping 25% over its old daily price of $2. That’s because it is trying to support an outmoded economic model. The myth of legacy media — rich while it lasted — was that every reader saw every ad so the paper charged every advertiser for every reader. That’s how scale paid off. Those are the economics that led to the rise of the penny press.

Online, that myth has been punctured: (a) every reader does not see every ad, and (b) advertisers pay only for the ads readers see (or in Google click on), and (c) there’s abundant competition. That’s what confounds legacy media folks: “If I get more audience and have more effective advertising, why am I not being paid more?” Because you’re operating by media laws that are now outmoded. You’re still operating under an industrial economy built on scarcity. That’s what makes you think you still have pricing power.

You need to find opportunity in entirely new models, in the new scale, in abundance. Google finds value in scale by taking on risk for the advertiser (who pays only for clicks) and by increasing relevance by putting ads everywhere. Facebook finds value in relationships and data about them and it doesn’t sell content but does use content as a tool to generate more data about users and their interests.

In their day — a century ago — newspapers found new ways to exploit scale. Today, net companies exploit scale in new ways. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are the penny press of today. Only they cost even less.

BTW, thanks to the very good Times Machine, we can see that The Times started life at a penny, which rose to four cents and then back down to a penny by 1900 — because it wanted scale.

A new M.A. in entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY

We got some big news at CUNY this week: We are approved to offer what we believe is the first MA in entrepreneurial journalism.

Last spring, we already taught our first class of full-time entrepreneurial journalism students, awarding certificates. But now we also have the ability to award MA degrees to students who complete the CUNY J-school program plus a fourth entrepreneurial semester. This comes under the auspices of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY.

My colleague Jeremy Caplan and I teach four courses: MBA in a box in the media context (Jeremy’s qualified to teach that; I’m not); a course in disruption in media (that’s what I teach); the incubator as a course (the core of the curriculum is the students’ development of their own businesses and for that we the faculty and mentors meet individually with them and meet as a group to compare issues, problems, and solutions); and a technology course (this semester, we plan to work closely with General Assembly for some of that curriculum and are bringing in Nancy Wang and Jeff Mignon to work with students). In addition, the students do a project as an apprenticeship with a New York startup.

We are about to admit our 15+ students for the spring term, most of them professionals seeking the certificate (and in some cases a second career) with some students from our regular journalism program (they’ll be the first to earn the MA in entrepreneurial journalism).

This comes right after the fifth annual jurying for our regular entrepreneurial course, offered in the MA in journalism, in which a dozen students created their own business plans and a jury awarded seed funding from a Tow-Knight grant.

At CUNY, we are constantly changing our curriculum, updating it as reality in media shifts, as we learn new lessons, and as we see what works and doesn’t work in helping students reach their goals. That can be unsettling for both students and faculty but there’s no choice about change.

This week, coincidentally, I was contacted by two searches for journalism school deans (it appears to be open season on the species as there are even more of these jobs open). I’m not going for and certainly doubt I would be offered either, but I did offer recommendations to one of them and that caused me to take a look at the curricula for various journalism programs in the nation. There are some neat new courses and methods (e.g., via @underoak, UNC’s master’s in technology and communication). But what struck me about journalism curricula is how little some of the courses appeared to have changed, even now. What does it mean to teach magazines these days?

Jeremy and our colleagues Peter Hauck and Jennifer McFadden sat down last week and played the game of 52-card-pickup we regularly play at CUNY, rethinking what we’re teaching and how. For example, we are going to emphasize prototyping and project management more than we had. In the admissions process for this spring, we not only wanted a diverse group of students and perspectives but also of businesses, from hyperlocal content businesses to disruptive platforms. In the other arms of the Tow-Knight center, we are supporting research in new opportunities and needs in journalism to help guide students and the industry as they propose new ideas to fit new needs. And with our growing incubator, we are bringing in new services to help both students’ and outside entrepreneurial ventures.

Of course, elsewhere at CUNY, change continues apace. For example, my interactive colleague Sandeep Junnarkar and others have been shepherding into the curriculum new courses on data visualization and a modular course in coding for journalism. We find ourselves constantly managing tension between journalism and tools (always fighting to make sure the former is not overcome by the latter).

Getting a new degree in entrepreneurial journalism is just one milepost in a constant process of trying to stay an inch ahead of the snowball. I’m proud and grateful to work with an administration — Deans Steve Shepard, Judy Watson, and Steve Dougherty — and with a faculty who support this endless creative tsuris.

We teach change.

Why not a reverse meter?

As I ponder the future of The New York Times, it occurred to me that its pay meter could be exactly reversed. I’ll also tell you why this wouldn’t work in a minute. But in any case, this is a way to illustate how how media are valuing our readers/users/customers opposite how we should, rewarding the freeriders and taxing — and perhaps turning away — the valuable users.

So try this on for size: Imagine that you pay to get access to The Times. Everyone does. You pay for one article. Or you pay $20 as a deposit so you’re not bothered every time you come. But whenever you add value to The Times, you earn a credit that delays the next bill.
* You see ads, you get credit.
* You click: more credit.
* You come back often and read many pages: credit.
* You promote The Times on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or your blog: credit. The more folks share what you’ve shared, the more credit you get.
* You buy merchandise via Times e-commerce: credit.
* You buy tickets to a Times event: credit.
* You hand over data that makes you more valuable to The Times and its advertisers (e.g., revealing where you’re going on your next trip): credit.
* You add pithy comment to articles that other readers appreciate: credit.
* You take on tasks in crowdsourced journalistic endeavors: credit.
* You answer a reporter’s question on Twitter and the reporter uses your information: credit.
* You correct an error in a story: credit.
* You give a news tip or an idea for an article The Times publishes: credit.
Maybe you never pay for The Times again because The Times has gained more value out of its relationship with you. If, on the other hand, you hardly do any of those things, then you have to pay for using The Times.

I’ve been thinking about this, too, in light of a few other trends I’ve seen with newspapers online. First, some that are trying meters are finding that very, very few readers ever hit the wall (which papers are setting at anywhere from 1 to 20 pages). That so few hit the wall is frightening. It means that most readers don’t use these sites much. That’s nothing to brag about. Engagement is criminally low. Second, I’ve seen many sites that get a surprising proportion of their traffic from out of their markets — traffic that is valueless (or even costly, in terms of bandwidth) to sites that sell only local ads. This comes from following a goal of pageviews, pageviews, pageviews — brought in with search-engine optimization — rather than valued relationships.

After hearing a few such stories, I suggested that a site with a meter might want to reward local readers by giving them more free content and charge out-of-market readers by charging them sooner.

You see, that values the local reader over the remote reader. My idea for the reverse meter values the engaged reader over the occasional reader — and even rewards greater engagement. And therein lies, I think, the key strategic skill for news businesses online: understanding that all readers are not equal; knowing who your more valuable readers are; getting more of them; and making them more valuable.

Now I’ll tell you why my reverse meter won’t work: When I spoke with all our journalism students at CUNY about their business ideas on Friday, I asked how many had hit the Times pay wall — many — and how many had paid — few. Abundance remains the enemy of payment. There’s always someplace else to get the news. The Times can make its present meter work because (a) it’s that good [the Steve Jobs exception that proves the rule], (b) it’s still sponsoring — that is, giving a free ride — to its most valuable readers, though that is supposed to end soon, and (c) its engagement is still too low and thus many readers don’t even confront the wall (that needs to change).

So never mind the idea of the reverse meter, but retain the lesson of it: Value should be encouraged, not taxed. Readers bring value to sites if the sites are smart enough to have the mechanisms to recognize, exploit, and reward that value, which comes in many forms: responding to (highly targeted and relevant) ads; buying merchandise; contributing information, content, and ideas; promoting the site…..

The key strategic opportunity for news sites is relationships — deeper, more valuable relationships with more (but not too many) people. Engagement.

Scaling fact-checking

Before Thanksgiving, CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism convened a meeting of three dozen journalists, technologists, librarians, entrepreneurs, and academics to discuss ways to scale fact-checking.

The event was born out a conversation with Craig Newmark, who helped fund it. Improving trust in the press and battling disinformation are among the causes he supports. There are fact-checking enterprises already doing good work — most notably, and Politifact. Craig Silverman of Regret-the-Error fame, gave us a great presentation on the history and state of the art in fact checking.

But these find efforts and organizations can do only so much. And there are so many lies, distortions, and mistakes out there. So the question Craig and I discussed is how to scale fact-checking — and awareness about the need for it.

That led to the event. Here is my colleague Jeremy Caplan’s exhaustive Storify compiling tweets and more from the event. Craig’s takeaway is here. And here are my notes. After hearing the room, I came to see that facts face supply and demand issues.

* Supply of facts: We need more effort to get more government and business information made public in useful forms. There are organizations like The Sunlight Foundation, represented at the event, that are trying. But I believe we — especially journalists — should be campaigning to make government — as I argue in Public Parts — transparent by default and secret by necessity. More data made public is good for many reasons but one of them is simply increasing the supply of facts.

* Supply of disinformation: Jay Rosen argued that we are seeing a disturbing trend in “verification in reverse:” taking a fact and unmaking it, until people don’t believe it anymore. He cited the birthers and climate-change deniers as well as Mitt Romney’s much-fact-checked and debunked campaign commercial. He said there is a growing supply of “public untruths.” He argued: “Verification in reverse should be a beat… We have to start ranking public untruths by their seriousness and spread — we have to start IDing the ones that are out there and influencing public conversation, even though they’re already being fact-checking… We have to start acknowledging what’s going on with systematically distorting truth…”

* Demand for facts: Part of the challenge, the group said, is to increase the demand for fact-checking among journalists and the public — and maybe even politicians.

That leads to:

* Practices: The Washington Post and the Torrington Register Citizen began putting fact-check boxes on their stories. That, to me, is an incredibly simple way to open the opportunity for facts to be challenged and corrected and to make constant correction part of the process. What else can we do to bring fact-checking to the fore?


* Standards: Joaquin Alvarado, VP for digital innovation at American Public Media, threw out the challenge to begin standardizing how we store and present facts in media so we don’t have to waste effort and so there is an easy means to point the public to already verified information. This won’t be as simple as a spreadsheet; facts require explanation and examination. But Joaquin volunteered to get appropriate parties together to get a start on standardization.

* Tools. See Jeremy and Craig Silverman above for links to the neat tools some are creating, among them Truth Goggles, a project at the MIT Media Lab.

* Culture and education: CUNY might hold a next event on making facts fun. Sounds silly, I know, but many in the room believed that fact-checking needs to be made into a game. And Craig pointed out that some of the best fact-checking out there is done by Jon Stewart et al: truth as entertainment.

* Research: The New America Foundation is holding another event on fact-checking in December, concentrating on research about effectiveness of various methods: what works, what sticks? That is vital to make best use of the precious resources we have.

And finally, that leads to:

* Sustainability: Fact-checking is expensive. All the efforts above try to make it more efficient, by increasing the supply of facts, by getting more people involved, by creating tools, by adopting standards. This is where the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism gets involved: I believe that more transparency and more collaboration will help make for more efficient and sustainable journalism. We need to create and take advantage of existing platforms and then add journalistic value to them. We need to harness the care and energy communities already expend to share their own information. We need to help them do that.

More to come later. If I got anything wrong, correct me.

Meanwhile, at Google+

I’m going to try something: linking here to things I’m writing on Google+, because the conversation there tends to be lively and quick and because I want to keep a record of some of those interesting conversations here before they scroll down into oblivion. So…

* The Associated Press gets into the CIA’s social-media analysis operation, which only makes me think that we in journalism should have just such operations ourselves.

* Adding my experience with Reid Hoffman to the deserved attention he got today in The New York Times: Reid as an open human API.

* Dell Hell charted against Dell’s share price. It wasn’t my fault. I swear.

Digital First

At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, we invited John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, Journal Register, and Media News, and Justin Smith, CEO of Atlantic Media, to answer questions about how they are executing their digital first strategies. I interviewed them, digging down into revenue, costs, transition for staff, audience, and advertisers, and more. Here’s the full video:

Digital First and the Future of News from CUNY Grad School of Journalism on Vimeo.

Paton made it clear that digital first is a transitional strategy, not an end game. He said that at companies like Paid Content, he cannot ever imagine them having a digital first discussion because they obviously are already digital. But he has to transform his companies into digital companies. He talked about cost-cutting and efficiency; about how he is multiplying digital revenue; how he motivates sales people to sell digital; about digital journalism; and about the size of a digital company versus a print monopoly.

Smith — who also launched The Week magazine in the U.S. with a unique and successful strategy — came at many of these questions from the perspective a magazine that sells high value. So he is not only multiplying audience through digital. He is making Atlantic, more and more, into a digital marketing agency for his clients. On the one hand, he says, costs decline from paper to screen, but costs also increase as advertisers need and will pay for greater services. (I think we’ll find that even down to the local level, media companies will have to act like agencies, helping advertisers execute their own digital strategies …. more on that another day.)

In a time when much of the rest of the newspaper and magazine industries are moaning and mourning about their fate, these two executives are building a new future. They are optimists, as are we at Tow-Knight. They have reason to be as they begin to find successes on this difficult path.

But is it journalism? (Damnit)

Four incidents of late challenge the very notion of journalism. Michael Arrington, Henry Blodget, Wikileaks, and TV’s Irene coverage each in their own way raise the question: What is journalism? And does it matter?

When Michael Arrington announced that he was starting an investment fund at Aol with capital from other VCs, Kara Swisher went after him for violating canons of journalism. Just one thing: Arrington rejects the title of journalist. At his Disrupt conference, I tried to get him to take on the mantle and alter it. But he sees nothing to aspire to there.

In Swisher’s case, one has to concede — as she does — the irony in riding the journalistic high horse from within News Corp., which is rapidly becoming journalism’s Death Valley. I asked her on Twitter what she had written about hackgate and she responded at length with multiple links in this thread. She has written about it and has been, as she says, more vocal than other Journal journalists. That’s what troubles me. I would have hoped that WSJ reporters and editors as a group would have spoken out against not only hackgate but also their paper’s anemic coverage of it and its humiliating editorial justification of its owners. Where are their standards?

What are the standards? Arrington, remember, started TechCrunch not as a journalistic venture but instead to gather and share information about startups and to promote himself as an investor. He is returning to his roots. Along the way, he created a media entity of value. I noted on Google+ that The New York Times Company invests in startups (including one where I’m a partner, Daylife) and starts them and still covers them. It will say it maintains a wall. Arrington, not so much. Neither church nor state, he’s not trying to be a journalist. He’s trying to get information. He does it well. He has covered startups better than any big paper; that’s why publishes TechCrunch posts. Given his links to startups and investment, can we trust him? That’s what Swisher’s trying to make us ask.

Now look at Henry Bodget, another businessperson who creates a media enterprise around gathering and sharing information — which we journalists define as journalism … if it’s done to our standards. Jay Rosen challenges Blodget for using confidential sources in this thread: “I hate the way @BusinessInsider uses anonymity.” But Blodget has an answer: “Sorry, Jay. Sometimes (often) it’s the only way to get the real info…. In business, anyone who goes on the record has agenda.” Felix Salmon counters: “Anyone who goes OFF record has an agenda. And those guys are more likely to lie. I trust on-the-record more.” Blodget: “Then you’ve clearly never worked in business. On record is only propaganda.”

Note cultures clashing. The journalism tribe says that confidential sources and the journalists who use them are not to be trusted. I agree that journalists overuse them. That’s not reporting to our standards. But the deal-makers disagree. Blodget says, “My goal is to get to the truth.” Isn’t that journalists’ goal, too? How can he get there by a different route? Is that journalism? Who’s to say? The journalists? Perhaps not.

Now look at TV coverage of Irene. Complaints about it have been miscast as “overhyping” the storm. The storm was severe. My problem was instead the over-exploitation and under-reporting of the storm. They had “reporters” as cast members standing thigh-deep in the surf or even being covered in sewage not to impart information, not to get to the truth, but to entertain. How much better it would have been if even a few of them had been dispatched north the center of their universe, New York, to report the devastation that would come there. My problem with the coverage is that all it did was take information already available to us all and repeat it endlessly and theatrically, adding no value.

Wikileaks saw, for a bit, the ability of journalism to add value to the flow of information. Julian Assange went to the Guardian, The Times, and Der Spiegel to get their help redacting leaks to make their revelation — in the view of these participants — responsible; to add context and facts; to promote the leaks and get them noticed. Now these journalistic organizations are disavowing Assange as he releases unredacted cables and Assange is disavowing the Guardian for publishing what it thought was a dead password to the files (though who was responsible for the entire file being available is another question). Assange has called himself a journalist; now the journalists are rejecting him. They say he’s violating their standards, though there is no rule I know of that would cover these eventualities, except perhaps the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.

What is journalism, then? I define it broadly — some would say too broadly, but I am always afraid my umbrella is not broad enough. I say that journalism helps a community organize its knowledge so it can better organize itself. I say that a community can now share its information without us, so we journalists must ask how we add value to that exchange. I use Andy Carvin as a model of adding value through vetting, questioning, challenging, and giving context and attention to the end-to-end, witness-to-world flow that already goes on without him. But he violates plenty of rules, passing on information before it is known to be true — so we can get closer to what is true.

What is journalism, really? Does it matter? I’ve long said — ever since I rejected my own use of the term “citizen journalist” — that is a mistake to define journalism by who does it, as anyone can commit an act of journalism. Anyone can share information. By that definition, Arrington and certainly Blodget are committing acts of journalism as they gather and share information quite effectively. TV news is less effective. Wikileaks is perhaps too effective.

So what the hell is journalism? Dave Winer says it doesn’t matter. “Journalism itself is becoming obsolete,” he argues well. Mathew Ingram recasts what Winer says, asking whether journalism is obsolete because anyone can do it.

In a wonderful email thread among the members of Journal Register’s advisory board (of which I am privileged to be a member), we debated about the Washington Post’s new social rules. Jay Rosen said, in the kind of essential abstraction I try to learn from him, that “the subtext of all such rule sets: ‘We’re in charge. Really…We are!'” Is that what journalists are doing when they set social rules or claim that Arrington or Blodget or Wikileaks violate journalistic rules (or when I claim that TV news does)? The rule-setters would argue that rules define what they do. Rules try to protect one from the consequences of bad judgment. Those subject to rules — or those we journalists would like to subject to them — would say that rules are a way to exercise power and sometimes to exclude. In the thread, I recalled the worst and best of my time at Time Inc., when I was saved not by rules but by one editor’s integrity, by the principles she maintained.

As I was trying to think through this post — a process obviously not over — I tweeted: “Information, more and more, comes from nonjournalists who’ve not signed the pledge.” To which Chris Tolles of Topix replied: “This is key. Journalism no longer the gatekeeper. Journalists’ protests about this are guild protectionism.” There’s the peril of setting rules: They are, in so many senses of the word, limiting.

Journalism is not defined by who does it and who does it does not define journalism.

So what is journalism, damnit?

I don’t know.

I know that people can exchange information and knowledge easier than ever. I believe there is a need for someone to add value to that exchange. I hope that “someone” can be journalists who will use precious resources only to bring value. I pray their efforts can be sustainable (that is, that they can eat; that’s why I do what I do in entrepreneurial journalism). But I think we need to question — not reject, but reconsider — every assumption: what journalism is, who does it, how they add value, how they build and maintain trust, their business models. I am coming to wonder whether we should even reconsider the word journalism, as it carries more baggage than a Dreamliner. These are the questions I see raised by Arrington, Blodget, et al. Do they matter? You tell me.

: YET MORE: Jay Rosen, as I’d hoped, abstracted the discussion including his abstraction. In the comments, he write: “The users don’t care about “journalism” all that much. That’s the name the producers of it have for what they do. News, information, “what’s happening,” accountability, staying in touch, alert system, “just tell me what I need to know…” Yes. The users care about those things. Journalism? Not so much.”

Right. The question of what is and isn’t journalism is one that journalists ask. It has nothing to do with the questions the public asks. And the journalist’s job, supposedly, is to answer the public’s questions. Disconnect, eh?

: And in the also-lively discussion on this post at Google+, David Sass has an interesting perspective:

I submit journalism was never more more than a academic concept – like Plato’s forms – that never really existed except as a vague concept in poly-sci textbooks. The reality is that I receive information from many sources – from direct observation, from friends, from entertainment, from politicians, from government, from media, from pundits/propagandist. Journalism is the naive belief that I should trust any one of these sources more or less than another. . . Information is not to be trusted from ANY source. To believe otherwise is to abdicate your individual responsibility to seek the truth.