Posts about journalism

Content, dethroned

Jonathan Knee uses Netflix to argue in The Atlantic that content is not king and that aggregators are better at capturing value. That will be raw meat to those who claim that aggregators are content kleptomanics.

Knee’s analysis is good but there’s a critical element that needs to be underscored: Aggregation itself is not sufficient. Netflix gains its advantage because it has a substantive relationship with its customers, which yields data about their desires that the company uses to superserve them, making highly relevant recommendations and filtering noise (give me the filter bubble!).

This business strategy makes us rethink where the core of value is in media: in the content or in the relationship and data. What is Facebook’s answer? Google’s? I address that in my link economy treatise here:

Rather than concentrating on total audience, we should concentrate on the net future value of each reader. Where does that value reside? That question raises a fundamental strategic—and religious—issue: We in news and media keep saying that our content has value. Well, yes; no one will disagree. But we need to ask whether the greater value resides in the content or in the relationships and data it can spawn. Yes, the content has value, but how best do we extract that value?

Over lunch recently a media executive repeated the accepted wisdom that “our content has value.” That often leads next to the contention that we “should be paid for it,” though I counter that “should” is never the basis of a business model. In news, of course, we have always extracted more value for our work through selling our audiences to advertisers than selling our content to audiences. Why would that change today?

This executive also complained that digital companies, such as Google and Facebook, don’t value our content. But look at this new media ecosystem from the perspective of Facebook, a company that by some reckoning could be valued at as much as $100 billion by the time it goes public within a year. What does Facebook itself value? Relationships. Data. Relevance.

As for content, Facebook doesn’t so much refuse to value it, as my media friend implied, but instead finds value in a much more expansive view of content. It finds worth in all that apparently useless blathering we do in what Facebook calls, to journalists’ derision, its members’ “News Feeds.” That’s not news, the news people say; news is what we make. That may have been the case in a scarcity-based content economy, when there was room for only so much news in the world’s publications and airwaves. Now content—like advertising—is abundant. The incumbent content companies are having trouble taking advantage of that growth because their definition of content remains limited and their models based on controlling scarcity. Facebook, like Google, sees content everywhere, made by everyone, and each in its own way is better than legacy content companies at finding value in it. Each uses content to gain more signals about users and to use that data to target content, services, and advertising.

My lunch companion said that media companies’ content is the “steel” that makes Google’s “cars.” That metaphor still assumes that content is a scarce, consumable, and perishable commodity. Digital companies’ ability to make money on the back any content—Facebook enables the creation of it; Google organizes it—irks the content makers. This is why Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. lieutenants (in a list curated by Arianna Huffington) accuse Google and its ilk of being “parasites,” “content kleptomaniacs,” “vampires,” and “tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internets” who “steal all our copyright.”

There are two problems with the Murdoch worldview: First, according to my thesis of the link economy, Google, Huffington Post, curators, aggregators, bloggers, and readers linking via Facebook and Twitter do not steal value but instead add value when they direct readers to content. In response to News Corp.’s accusations and epithets, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said in Murdoch’s own Wall Street Journal in December 2009 that Google causes 4 billion clicks a month to news publishers, a quarter of that from aggregator Google News.

In an apples-to-pineapples comparison, only a few months later, Bit.ly, the leading URL-shortener used in Twitter, passed that 4 billion mark and a year later it doubled that (though not all that goes to news sites). There we see the rising power of the peer’s recommendation, the human link. In early 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism confirmed that social services were driving higher proportions of traffic to news sites, with Facebook coming in second or third in the list of referrers to five of the top 25 news sites.

The second issue with the Murdoch view of links is that it fails to take account of the new ways that digital companies mine value in content, links, and relationships. For them, content is not a product to sell but is more a device to generate information about users to increase their value. Content is a signal generator that reveals interests, needs, sometimes location, and more. Facebook can find out that you are a fan of Green Day if you read articles about it but also if you write about it or your friends are fans or you listen to or recommend its music. Then Facebook wants to sell you a ticket to the next Green Day concert near you (and Facebook knows where you are). In this example, content takes many forms—an article, a conversation, a song—and monetization comes not from advertising but from commerce. Does Facebook need a publisher’s article to make these economics work? Is it the steel without which there can be no car? Hardly.

A more extreme example: In 2010, researchers used a set of keywords to track aggregate moods in Twitter messages and found they could predict daily ups and downs in the Dow Jones Industrial Average with up to 87.6 percent accuracy. A hedge fund now uses the formula in partnership with one of the scientists. The content—very broadly defined—created by millions of Twitter users produces value, if you know how to look for it.

In our research, we will need to catalogue such additional sources of worth and revenue. For part of the lesson to content creators and link recipients should be that there are more ways to recognize value than the traditional way of selling audiences to advertisers. At the e-G8 conference in Paris in May 2011, Zuckerberg bragged that Zynga, built atop Facebook’s open platform, had just past game champion Electronic Arts in market capitalization. He said Zynga succeeded because it understood not only games but also people and relationships. He suggested that the next winners in music, for example, would similarly understand both (see: Lady Gaga). How will the similarly savvy news company succeed?

I’m not suggesting that editors call the people formerly known as the audience little monsters and don bodacious bustier to earn a buck. But I do believe we must challenge our every assumption about the role of content and its creators in a new media economy. Media’s role was to make and distribute content because it controlled the means of both. Now they do not. The former audience can make content and media’s role may be to support them in that with tools, platforms, aggregation, curation, promotion, training. The former audience has also taken over the role of distributor when they link, recommend, discuss, and embed content and so the question for media is how to take full advantage of that. Where do the former content controllers fit into this new ecosystem? How do we add and extract value?

The simple question—how do we increase the number and value of links and clicks for media—raises these larger questions. This research can hardly answer them all but perhaps it can inspire new ways to see value and new structures and methods to realize it.

An article on the article

In the Guardian, I pull together thoughts on reconsidering the article, the reaction to those thoughts, and the impact on a digital-first strategy. Excerpt:

The article is no longer the atomic unit of news. It’s not dead. I didn’t kill it. But in the age of online – of “digital first,” as the Guardian defined its strategy this month – we should reconsider the article and its place. No longer do the means of production and distribution of media necessitate boxing the world into neat, squared-off spaces published once a day and well after the fact. Freed of print’s strictures, we are finding many new and sometimes better ways to gather and share information. . . .

In print-as-luxury, the article should be elevated to Economist standards, combining reporting with cogent analysis, unique perspective and brilliant commentary. Should such a newspaper be published daily? Can it meet that standard that often? Perhaps not.

Imagine if a British newspaper with tens of millions of online readers became a digital-only brand freed of the leash of the distance its trucks can drive, able to become a truly international voice. Imagine then if the once-separate Sunday sister title – printed on a more lucrative day of the week than Sunday – became a luxurious journal of reporting and commentary like Die Zeit in Germany (whose print circulation is still growing).

That’s not a recommendation, only an example of where reconsideration of the article could lead. I want to challenge assumptions about the article’s role, not whether it lives or dies. After all, I just wrote one.

The storyteller strikes back

When I dared question the article’s monopoly as the atomic and only acceptable form of news, I honestly did not imagine the reaction I would get. I thought I was observing a trend and an opportunity. I have tried to provoke plenty of times. But here I truly did not think I was saying anything provocative. But clearly, I plucked a nerve. I’ve been asking myself why I evoked such a strong emotional response, online and off. At Jeff Pulver’s 140 Conference in New York this week, I endeavored to answer that.

In a performance that well demonstrates that I should not quit my day job and hope for a career on Broadway, I tried to take on the voice — in a purposefully simplistic, over-the-top way — of the storytellers who objected to what I was observing. Here’s what I think they were saying: “You can’t have a narrative without the narrator, a story without the storyteller. I am the storyteller. I decide what the story is. I decide what goes in it and doesn’t. I decide where it begins and where it ends.” That’s part of the issue: control. But it’s more than that: “If you don’t need as many articles — if there are other ways to impart information — do you still need me, the storyteller?” That, I think, could be at the heart of their fear and reaction.

Once again, I’m not getting rid of the story, not replacing it or the storyteller. I’m arguing that articles are precious, more precious than ever, and need to add value or we can’t afford to waste our time on them. I’m saying that the journalist takes on new roles and more tasks. But, yes, if as a journalist you see yourself only as a storyteller, a maker of articles, your horizon just got closer.

At 140, I told the room and the cameras that I see something else happening. I referred once again to the Gutenberg Parenthesis, coined by the University of Southern Denmark to describe how the change in our media affects our cognition of our world.

When people say they like newspapers and books they aren’t just talking about the physical form of them: the feel and smell, the portability and tangibility. They are talking about the finiteness of them. Articles and books have beginnings and ends; they have boundaries and limits; they are packaged neatly in boxes with bows on top; they are a product of scarcity. Abundance is unsettling. That is precisely why the internet is disruptive not only to business and government but to culture and cognition. Threatening the dominion of the article is to threaten our very worldview.

You see, I am trying to understand the visceral reaction to what I said. It took me by surprise.

I asked the folks at 140 not to kill the article but to question assumptions about it.

I may live to regret embedding my talk (I haven’t had the courage to watch it yet), but here it is:

Then I got to introduce my friend John Paton, who is challenging assumptions about the form and business of journalism:

The orthodoxy of the article, part II

Frédéric Filoux willfully misrepresents me so that he may uphold the orthodoxy of the article. He will be disappointed to learn that we agree more than he wishes. Here is what I am really saying about the article.

First, far from denigrating the article, I want to elevate it. When I say the article is a luxury, I argue that using ever-more-precious resources to create an article should be taken seriously and before writing and editing a story we must assure that it will add value. Do most articles do that today? No. Go through your paper in the morning and tell me how much real value is added and how much ink is spilled to tell you what you already know (whether that is facts you learned through Twitter, the web, TV, radio, et al or background that is reheated more often than a stale slice in a bad New York pizzeria).

How many articles are rewritten from others’ work just so a paper and a reporter can have a byline? How many predict the obvious (every story about an upcoming storm, holiday, press conference, or horse race election)? How often do you see a local TV story with any real reporting and value instead of just someone standing where the news happened 12 hours ago telling you what you and he both read online already? Too many articles passing themselves off as professional journalism are crap and I say we can’t afford to do that anymore. I say we should treat articles with veneration as a luxury.

Second, I am also promoting rather than devaluing background when I say it is best linked to. The background paragraphs in an ongoing story generally do one of two things: they bore and waste the time of people who have followed the story or they underinform the people who have not been following the story. Background graphs were a necessity of print but online we can improve background immensely, investing the effort in truly valuable and long-lasting content assets that give richer and more helpful background on a story. I’ve worked with smart folks at news companies imagining how we could provide multiple paths through background: here’s the path to take if you’re coming to the story as a virgin; here’s a track to take if you’ve missed a week; here’s a track from one perspective; here’s one from another. If someone else did a great job explaining the story or elements of it, we should link to them. Filoux calls that oursourcing. I call that linking. We do that nowadays. This is why I’m eagerly watching Jay Rosen’s project in creating explainers, which is an even richer form of background.

Third, in this entire discussion of the article, I am valuing reporting higher than repetitive retyping. As our resources become ever-scarcer, I say that we must devote more of them to reporting than to articles that add little: asking the questions that haven’t been asked and answered, finding people who can add information and perspective, fact-checking.

But I have angered the gods, first Mathew Ingram, now Filoux, who also misquotes me when he says I say that: “Tweeting and retweeting events as they unfold is a far more superior way of reporting than painstakingly gathering the facts and going through a tedious writing and editing process.” I say no such thing and dare him to show me where he thinks I say that with a direct quote. That sentence could stand a little painstaking editing itself. I do say that while an event is underway, tweeting is an amazing new tool to hear directly from witnesses, to question them, to debunk rumors, to manage collaborative reporting (that’s what Andy Carvin does in the Arab Spring). It is part of the reporting process. It contributes to articles later in the process (that’s what Brian Stelter was asking his desk to do when he covered a tornado).

The point is that there are many new ways to accomplish journalistic goals to cover news and gather and share information: Twitter, blogs, data, visualization, multimedia…. Jonathan Glick wrote a much more constructive answer to the question I raised about articles, saying that now that they are freed from the drudgery of reporting infobits of news — the things we have already been told sooner and by other means — then the article can concentrate on adding true value: context, explanation, education, commentary, further reporting, fact-checking….

That is the sense in which I say that the article is or often should be a byproduct of the news process. Once the public is informed of the facts through faster means, once we put digital first and print last (© John Paton), then we also no longer need to build the infrastructure and process of news around writing articles. We have to break out of that expensive, inefficient, archaic stricture. We can instead architect news around helping communities organize their information and themselves (that is my definition of journalism) and we have new ways to do that, including new ways to report news and write articles.

I dare to question the assumptions about the forms of news and journalism. That’s my job. Some — including apparently Filoux — might argue that it is the job of a university to impart orthodoxy: This is the way we have always done it, thus that’s the right way to do it, and that’s the way you will do it, students. I abhor that view.

I believe it is my job, especially in a university, to challenge assumptions and to free students to invent new forms. That is one of my hidden agendas behind teaching entrepreneurial journalism: to encourage and support students (and the industry) to break assumptions and invent new forms, because they can, because we must.

I fear Filoux’s still upset with me because I could not bear and dared criticize the discussion on a panel he ran at the e-G8 in Paris. It wasn’t him I was criticizing. It was hearing the same old stuff from the same old people. At a conference on the internet and the future, the past was rehashed once more. I can bear that no more than he apparently can bear my temerity to challenge the holy article.

But in the end, we almost agree. Filoux argues that newspapers should become, say, “biweeklies offering strong value-added reporting and perspectives, and using electronic media for the rest.” Hmmm. He’s saying, just as I am, that articles should be richer and more valuable and that reporting news bits can be accomplished by other means. So where do we disagree?

Intelligence isn’t measured by the inch

Since I’ve managed to piss off some who think I’m killing the article (I’m not; instead I’m raising the bar, arguing that articles need a reason to exist and that reason is to bring new value not old facts), I might as well go to the next stage of Defcon-J and question another sacred construct:

Long-form journalism.

In his smart continuation of the discussion about the fate, need, and requirements for the article, Jonathan Glick says that nuggets of news won’t have to be embedded into articles all the time and that frees journalists to add real value in the articles they write: context, analysis, perspective…. I agree with him except for one thing. He calls this…

Long-form journalism.

I hear that more and more these days from journalists looking for safe harbor for their lengthy ambitions. But I think it’s a terrible description of the form.

Length does not equal intelligence, no matter what Nick Carr says. I know we’ve all read lots of long and stupid things. And I’ve read plenty of smart and short things.

Indeed, it’s harder to be short than to be long. Thanks to my editor’s picking at loose threads in my manuscript, I just cut more than 11,000 words out of Public Parts that I either shouldn’t have written or wrote only to think something through until I found the right expression of an idea.

When I used to write for publications, I tried to write 20% long and then it was in the editing and cutting that I really wrote, exchanging a better word for one only good enough, organizing more efficiently, getting rid of repetition, excising excess. I certainly don’t always succeed but that’s the goal. That’s a key benefit of print (yes, there are benefits): The scarcity of space forces economy of thought. We don’t have that scarcity here online (what I find scarce is time to write).

I dread unleashing writers to believe that they can now be as long as they want and that that is the measure of their quality. Save us! I fear the label alone — long-form journalism, long-form writing — will encourage words for their own sake.

We need another description that better conveys the value and the goal.

Heavy journalism. No, that’s not too enticing.

Thick journalism. Triple entendre.

Perspective journalism. That means the journalist has to have one. Oh, no, that leads to whole ‘nother fight.

Analysis. I never much liked that, either. It says that the journalist can figure out things we can’t figure out. It also for too long has been used to excuse the journalist from the collection of facts.

Value-added journalism. In advertising terms, “value-added” is a pejorative that actually means less value (it ought to be a Britishism). Too bad. I like the requirement the journalist has to add value.

Narrative journalism. No, it needn’t tell a story. I’ve also questioned the notion that journalists are necessarily story-tellers.

Smart journalism. No, that label must be applied only by the reader, never the writer.

Thoughtful journalism. Maybe. That says one must do more than regurgitate to make an article worthwhile.

I fear I’ve failed and I risk going on for too long. What do you think we ought to call it?

The article as luxury or byproduct

A few episodes in news make me think of the article not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process.

* See the amazing Brian Stelter covering the Joplin tornado and begging his desk at The Times to turn his tweets into a story because he had neither the connectivity nor the time to do it in the field and, besides, he was too busy doing something more precious: reporting. (It’s a great post, a look at a journalist remaking his craft. Highly recommended for journalists and journalism students particularly.) (And aren’t you proud of me for not drawing the obvious and embarrassing comparison to Times editor Bill Keller’s Luddite trolling about Twitter even as his man in Twitter, Stelter, proves what a valuable tool it is?)

* In Canada’s recent election, Postmedia (where—disclosure—I am an advisor) had its reporters on the bus do nothing but reporting, putting up posts and photos and videos and snippets as they went, keeping coverage going all day, maximizing their value in the field. Back at HQ, a “twin” would turn that into a narrative — as blog posts — when appropriate. At the end of the day, the twin would also turn out a story for print, though everything had pretty much been done earlier; this was more an editing than a writing task. I asked my Postmedia friends what had to be done to turn the posts into an article. Mostly, they said, it meant adding background paragraphs (those great space-wasters that can now be rethought of as links to regularly updated background wikis, don’t you think?).

* At South by Southwest, the Guardian’s folks talked about their steller live-blogging. Ian Katz, the deputy editor, said that live-blogging — devoting someone to a story all day — was expensive. I said that writing articles is also expensive. He agreed. There’s the choice: Some news events (should we still be calling them stories?) are better told in process. Some need summing up as articles. That is an extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps.

* Of course, I need to point to Andy Carvin’s tweeting and retweeting of the Arab Spring. He adds tremendous journalistic value: finding the nodes and networks of reliable witnesses; questioning and vetting what they say; debunking rumors; adding perspective and context; assigning his audience tasks (translating, verifying a photos’ location); even training witnesses and audiences (telling them what it really means to confirm a fact). What he does never results in an article.

* I’ve been talking with some people about concepts for reorganizing news organizations around digital and I keep calling on John Paton’s goal to keep in the field and maximize the two things that add value — reporting and sales — and to make everything else more efficient through consolidation or outsourcing. As I was talking to someone else about this, it occurred to me that in some — not all — cases, not only editing and packaging but even writing could be done elsewhere, as Postmedia did in its election experiment. I’m not talking about complex stories from beat people who understand topics and need to write what they report from their earned understanding. I’m talking about covering an event or a meeting, for example. The coverage can come from a reporter and in some cases from witnesses’ cameras and quotes. The story can be written elsewhere by someone who can add value by compiling perspectives and facts from many witnesses and sources. It harkens back to the days of newspaper rewritemen (I was one).

Carry this to the extreme — that’s my specialty — and we see witnesses everywhere, some of them reporters, some people who happen to be at a news event before reporters arrive (and now we can reach them via Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare….), some who may be participants but are sharing photos and facts via Twitter. Already on the web, we see others — bloggers — turn these distributed snippets into narratives: posts, stories, articles.

The bigger question all this raises is when and whether we need articles. Oh, we still do. Articles can make it easy to catch up on a complex story; they make for easier reading than a string of disjointed facts; they pull together strands of a story and add perspective. Articles are wonderful. But they are no longer necessary for every event. They were a necessary form for newspapers and news shows but not the free flow, the never-starting, never-ending stream of digital. Sometimes, a quick update is sufficient; other times a collection of videos can do the trick. Other times, articles are good.

I’ve been yammering on for a few years about how news is a process more than a product. These episodes help focus what that kind of journalism will look like — and what the skills of the journalist should be.

The accepted wisdom of journalism and its schools was that storytelling was our real job, our high calling, our real art. Ain’t necessarily so. The accepted wisdom of blogging has been that now any of us can do everything: report and write, producing text and audio and video and graphics and packaging and distributing it all. But I also see specialization returning with some people reporting, others packaging. Can we agree to a new accepted wisdom: that the most precious resource in news is reporting and so maximizing the acquisition of facts and answers is what we need?

So what is an article? An article can be a byproduct of the process. When digital comes first and print last, then the article is something you need to put together to fill the paper; it’s not the goal of the entire process. The process is the goal of the process: keeping the public constantly informed.

An article can be a luxury. When a story is complex and has been growing and changing, it is a great service to tie that into a cogent and concise narrative. But is that always necessary? Is it always the best way to inform? Can we always afford the time it takes to produce articles? Is writing articles the best use of scarce reporting resources?

In a do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest ecosystem, if someone else has written a good article (or background wiki) isn’t it often more efficient to link than to write? Isn’t it more valuable to add reporting, filling in missing facts or correcting mistakes or adding perspectives, than to rewrite what someone else has already written?

We write articles for many reasons: because the form demands it, because we want the bylines and ego gratification, because we are competitive, because we had to. Now we should write articles when necessary.

This new structure changes not only the skills but likely the character of the journalist. These days when I see young journalists talk only about their passion to write and tell stories, I worry for them that they will find fewer jobs and less of a calling. But when I hear journalists say that their passion is to report, to dig up facts, to serve and inform the community by all means possible, I feel better. When I hear a journalist talk about collaboration with that community as the highest art, then I get happy.

Let the record show that I am not declaring the article useless or dead. Just optional.

: Seconds after I posted this to Twitter, Chad Catacchio said that by the time the article is written, its’ not news, it’s history (albeit the fabled first draft).

: If you came to this post via Mathew Ingram’s response, please note that I adamantly disagree with his characterization of what I say. See my comment under Facebook comments at the end of his post.

: LATER: Jonathan Glick has a smart take on this notion, arguing that nuggets of news will be delivered as nuggets, freeing journalists to write analyses, adding their value, without the burden of conveying the latest.

There is nothing sacred about the article for the transmission of news. It is a logical way of packaging information for a daily print run of a newspaper and a useful format around which to sell display advertising. It has survived into the Internet age for reasons of tradition and the absence of better formats. We have come to accept it as a fundamental atom of news communication, but it’s not. Given faster, easier alternatives, the article no longer makes sense to mobile users for consuming news.

News will go one way, into the stream as scannable updates, and analysis will go the other, toward a new long-form business model for writers. I believe it will be a happy divorce.

I like his take except for this notion that journalism will be defined by length. I find “long-form” to be often used in a rather self-indulgent way: I want to write a lot, it says, and I want you to read it all. Now I know that’s now what Glick is saying; he’s saying that one must have a lot to say, a lot to add. But I think we need another way to describe that than by the inch, for I’m sure we’ve all known too many writers who like to write more than inform.

: Amy Gahran has a very nice piece — not just because she agrees with me — whose subhed begins:

he cutting room floor of journalism is a sad place: all those facts, interviews, asides, anecdotes, context, insights, and media gathered during reporting which, while relevant and interesting, just doesn’t fit comfortably into the narrative flow or length/time limits of the finished story.

This doesn’t merely represent wasted time and reporting effort. Many of those scraps are missed opportunities to engage readers and gain search visibility or links…

Well-said. She argues that we need to look at assembling news the way we play with Legos and we need CMSes that will do that (Storify is a start).

When I was the ghoulish gawker

princess-di people coverBy popular demand (well, one tweet), here’s the tale of my journalistic function during the last big royal wedding, of Chuck to Di.

At People magazine, I was assigned to write obits for the couple in case an IRA attack struck the wedding. Recall that London still fell victim to sporadic terror and there was no greater symbol of British rule than its crown. It also helped that People’s editor then, Pat Ryan, came from an Irish family and was ever aware of the great struggle.

It happened to be that the wedding occurred on the morning People went to press. So I wrote, as I remember, variations on the theme: Charles dead, Diana dead, both dead. The obits were set in type on pages with appropriately fond photos. The pages were made into plates that were set aside the presses. If the worst happened, the order could go out — “Stop the presses!” — so the plates could be installed quickly and deliveries to the newsstand would be hardly delayed.

All that was missing were the facts of the event, if it happened. So I had to be at work criminally early that morning, sitting in Pat’s office, watching the wedding, ready to write a tight lede with whatever horrific details ensued so that could be set in type (typesetters — how quaint — awaited) and a new black plate could be transmitted to the plant (where the other colors awaited).

Why me? I was a newspaper guy and thus the fastest writer in sight. Magazine people looked down their noses at us newspaper people. We weren’t up to their high gloss, rough-hewn tradesmen that we were. When I applied at People, they were dubious, having never hired the likes of me. They insisted on a tryout and, though insulted, the boyhood dream of conquering Gotham beckoned, and so I acquiesced. The first morning, I was given a reporters’ notes and turned them into 120 lines of trivialized type by lunch. I asked for the next; they had nothing. Next day, same routine and ditto for the rest of the week. At the end, they hired me. My boss at the San Francisco Examiner, Jim Willse, said at the news of my departure for New York: “What, tired of journalism?”

Upon my arrival at People, another grizzled vet, Cranston Jones (there were two Joneses at People, neither a Bob; the other was Landon — one Princeton, the other Yale) pulled me aside and roundly scolded me for my tryout. “Don’t you ever do that again!” he instructed. I was ignorant as to my sin — and afraid to ask more — until a writers’ meeting soon afterwards, where Pat told us all that we had to do be more efficient and get up to writing one story a week. Five a week was, you see, unheard of.

I was a newspaper guy. I’d learned to write fast. As a rewriteman (sorry, not a rewriteperson), I used to write on “half books” — half-sized sheets of paper and carbon paper. We’d write a graph at a time and then — ah, this was my very favorite part of newspapering — yell “COPY!” and the poor slob one year younger and one rung down from me would have to run over to tear the book apart and distribute copies around the newsroom so the process at the heart of newspapering — the sacred production timetable — could get a head start on editing and typesetting and composing my fine opus.

I remember working rewrite on an Indiana prison break at the Chicago Tribune when I turned to the news editor, Ralph Hallenstein, to ask how much more he wanted. Ralph never stopped smoking. He’d fill a large ashtray every night, and until their game was discovered, the editors on the next shift held a “ghoul’s pool” and counted Ralph’s butts. Ralph died of lung cancer. When I asked Ralph this night, he took a pneumatic drag of his cigarette, exhaled three-alarms’ worth of smoke, and rasped over at me, “Find the nearest period.”

That’s how I learned to be fast. When computers came in, that didn’t change. I was the first the newsroom to use them because, as I sat on the midnight shift in 1973 waiting for someone in Chicago to die a horrible death so I could write a story under the rotating slugs “slash,” “crash,” “slay,” or “burn,” I was bored and started using the strange green-eyed monsters that scared everyone else (that, you see, is how I came to like technology and that’s what got me here today). Even on computers and to this day I write fast so I know I can finish in time and so I have a structure and then I use all the time available to edit. I edit more than I write. (Except sometimes on this blog when I just hit “publish” because, what the hell, I can always edit later. That explains the abundance of typos you find — evidence of my fallible humanity.)

So anyway, I sat there that morning on the 29th floor of Time Inc.’s building, staring at Pat’s surprisingly small TV in her office, taking notes to have ready the kinds of specifics Time Inc. editors so loved to jam into sentences like falafels into a pita: Don’t just tell me the bomb exploded the carriage; tell me the color of the horseman’s bloodied hat. But nothing happened, thank goodness.

As soon as the wedding was over, as I recall, the plates were ordered destroyed so no one would see what pessimists we were. At a newspaper or wire service, writing obits in advance is good form. It’s an honor, even: Your impending demise is worthy of a timely report made ready and held for release — “HFR” is boldly written atop such copy. I wish I were important enough to have an HFR obit done of me. Indeed, I’ve long said that the only fringe benefit of working for a newspaper is getting your obit in it. Except now I may outlast papers. Obits are at the heart of what newspapers do.

But at a magazine — even People magazine — writing an HFR obit for HRH was seen as rather distasteful. Actually, for a long time, magazines weren’t fond of death. Time Inc.’s publications didn’t believe in death as a cover story until John Lennon made it into People’s cover and sold like mad. Soon, People was obsessed with that I’ve called bodily fluids journalism: the diseases, affairs, births, and deaths of the famous. I joked that we should have just changed the name to Dead People magazine.

Sixteen years and many, many People covers later, Diana did die. And now, 30 years after the wedding I didn’t cover, William and Kate are to be wed. That’s what led me to Twitter this morning to recall my macabre duty way back when. I was saying how little I care about this event — as, I think, is the case with most Americans. Still, networks and magazines will demand we give a shit and spend a fortune doing so. I dared disdain the royals in a tweet and — it took only a minute for Brits to fall into my trap — I was scolded by those who said they cherish the royals as symbols of endurance. I see them as symbols of privilege. I prefer symbols of change and opportunity.

But still, I wish William and Kate a happy and lovely marriage … and long lives.

Who’s afraid of Arianna Huffington?

The New York Times has been gunning for The Huffington Post lately, which makes me wonder what exactly Arianna Huffington has done to scare or anger them so. Or perhaps that’s the wrong question. Given that our enemies are often those we don’t understand, I wonder what The Times fails to grasp about HuffPo. That then leads to the question of what The Times can learn from this Post.

Felix Salmon has done a skillful job covering this one-way war, this schoolyard taunting in two posts. Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote two columns and a blog post going after Huffington—once directly; once without (as Salmon puts it) the intellectual honesty to link to and allow his readers to judge those he criticizes; and once defensively, after Huffington called his bluff. Times staff loyally picked up Keller’s spitballs to lob their own. Media critic David Carr wrote and then killed a tweet sniping about Arianna that he later conceded was “tasteless.” Andrew Goldman didn’t so much interview Huffington for The Times Magazine as he acted like a parody of a TV prosecutor trying to bait a cagey witness—or perhaps it is better described as a comic homage to Joe McCarthy trying to elicit confessions of leftness. Then Salmon points out that The Times snagged a HuffPo scoop without credit. Just now Carr delivers a glancing blow to Aol/HuffPo, reading into a defection a defeat.

What is The Times’ problem? I think it’s that they do not understand what makes Huffington Post successful and they lash out at the unknown. Here, I suggest, is what The Times and Keller don’t understand about HuffPo. Here is what they think is wrong with it:

* Huffington Post is not content. Content is what content people make; if they don’t make it, it’s not content. That, I believe, is The Times’ cultural view of HuffPo: It cannot be content because the likes of The Times have not made it (no matter how many Timesman Huffington hires). That, I theorized, is why The Times and other media temples did not start their own HuffPo’s or buy the original: It’s not real. Even if The Times were to give it credit for the one-third of HuffPo that is content—by dozens of journalists—they’d still say it’s diluted by the other third that is aggregation and the last third that is comment. And that leads to…

* Conversation is not content. When I had Henry Blodget speak with my class on new business models and disruption, he praised HuffPo for its understanding of the value of conversation. In The Times’ view, conversation is what they enable—no, tolerate—when readers chatter under articles once they are finished. As I learn in every damned meeting with news folks I ever have, comments have cooties. All they can ever hear from the vox populi is the voices of the trolls. Blodget and Huffington have a broader sense of the conversation. That was Arianna’s essential insight when she gave celebrities a place to speak; that is conversation. That was Henry’s insight when he learned to listen to what people were talking about so he could join in and add to their conversation. Which leads to…

* Aggregation is cheating. The Times thinks aggregation is not content. Worse, they are coming around to Rupert Murdoch’s view that it is theft. As Jay Rosen tweeted, seen from the readers’ point of view, aggregation is helpful; it adds value to coverage. Indeed, that’s why The Times does aggregate and curate. But when looking for enemies, it’s best not to look in the mirror. I talk (a lot) about the link economy and how there are two distinct creations of value online: the creation of content and the creation of a public (née audience) for it. Aggregators, curators, and commentators bring audience—and value—to content. If the recipient of those links can’t build a relationship of value with the people who are clicking, that’s their problem. At CUNY, I will soon finally have the time to start a research project on the value of links and how to optimize it. I’d like to see this debate about aggregation between The Times and HuffPo occur on economic rather than emotional terms and hope to inform that discussion with facts.

* Free is offensive. Here’s another area in which The Times is coming to side with—gasp!—Murdoch. Now that it has a meter—and without a proven economic basis for it (not yet)—Times people must put the case again, in emotional terms of entitlement: Readers *want* to pay. Readers *should* pay. Times content *deserves* payment. People who question the strategy are demonized. (David Carr attacked me on NPR over just this … we’ve since hugged and made up; this is what I really have to say about the Times’ meter.) Huffington created value—we know the exact amount, to nine figures—out of getting people to write for free (because they wanted to and found value in). She’s cheapening the valuable work we journalists perform, isn’t she? No, like her free writers, she’s valuing something else. She’s valuing the relationships she has with the people formerly known as an audience.

* Left is not right. Goldman’s desperate effort to get Huffington to admit—CONFESS, I SAY AGAIN, CONFESS!—that she’s—gasp!—liberal, taken with Keller’s paeans to himself and his kind of journalism, were as revealing as they were disingenuous. I find Arianna, too, disingenuous in her efforts to sidestep the word the way Roger Ailes won’t own right. All of them want to dump us, the people, in these two buckets, left and right, but they are above classification. The Times’ real problem is not that Huffington a liberal but that she is an advocate of a point of view. So she tweaks The Times for WMDs and upholding antiquated definitions of objectivity and balance.

* Fun is not allowed. Journalism is serious business. It’s no place for kittens.

In my class, I’ve had my students pick a target to disrupt with a new business (after doing that, they’ll turn around and act as the disrupted company to craft a defense—it’s a lesson in finding opportunity in change). The class picked their target: Huffington Post (when I thought they would have picked The Times). Last week, they presented research and what struck me was the difference in engagement at both sites. HuffPo users generate 18 page views per month on average. The Times is defining only a small slice of its uniques—10%? 20%?—as that engaged, at 20 pageviews per month. I say The Times would have better used the $30-40 million reportedly spent on its meter finding ways to better engage its public—multiplying pageviews (fourfold or more?) and consequent ad revenue—while finding new ways to exploit these deeper relationships (data, commerce, events….). The Times knows it needs to increase engagement; that’s the industry’s favorite conference buzzword. The irony of The Times’ meter is that when it succeeds at engaging a once-casual reader, their reward is a wall. That is an economic and strategic question.

How could The Times increase engagement? By learning from Huffington Post rather than snarking at it. Aggregation has value for readers. Conversation is engaging. Fighting for the people—which is what newspapers did, in their good old days—is the most meaningful way to engage with a community. Fun is fine.

I am reminded of the schoolyard, when the boy nasty to a girl and some sage adult would see that he really just had a crush on her and didn’t know how to say it. OK, Bill and Arianna, kiss and make up.

: See also Jonathan Stray, who calls for a paid content API. I’d broaden that (as above) into a means to exchange value for both content and audience however that value is then exploited.