Posts about 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.

Tweeters: I want a witness tag

A proposal:

It would be terribly useful if there were a separate convention for tweets from witnesses to major events so their reports can be separated from the discussion that follows. How about !jpquake for witnesses vs. #jpquake for discussion?

Moments after the tragic earthquake hit Japan, folks are reporting on TV, people turned immediately to Twitter to tell friends and family and perhaps the world what was happening to them and to use it to get information and services.

But, of course, in only moments, people around the world talking about the event and the hashtag gets overrun with folks who are talking *about* the event than *from* it. That’s all good and wonderful as well. But I want a way to separate the two.

If witnesses used the !tag, it would also be possible to identify and compile a Twitter list of them. This would be helpful in stories where personal security is an issue. Witnesses in Bahrain would be unwise to use geocoding. But the !tag would merely reveal what they are already revealing in their tweets: that they are there. Somewhere.

Note importantly that the !tag would help people in the middle of a major event — people who need information and services — to also filter out the noise of our discussion from outside.

As for reading !tag tweets, I’d want to filter out retweets and just get the originals.

I also would like to run !tag tweets through translation engines. I suggested that to Ubermedia’s Bill Gross and he and his crew had great ideas on that in return.

The challenge in all of this, of course, is inducing millions of people to add this behavior. Thoughts?

: See also: Doc Searls on how the net turns TV news into newspapers (read: stale).

: Somewhat related: I wish TV news would carbon-date its B-roll. In a disaster such as this, I get loop fatigue: The same video shown again and again and again. It’s understandable why they need to do that and fine that they do. But we don’t know the current state of the story if we keep seeing images of the state of things hours ago. So TV — which ought to be in the fresh news business — should show us how fresh its images are. I know they’re likely loathe to do that. But this is news.

: UPDATE: On yesterday’s TWiT at SXSW, Leo Laporte made an excellent suggestion: appending the ! onto a hashtag. So a witness would use #jpquake! while the observer would use #jpquake and one could search for one or both. Brilliant, Leo. Others had suggested #!jpquake but that messes up the search. This appends a claim to be a witness.

Many people have asked in the comments (over and over) why geotagged tweets aren’t enough. Two reasons: First, many (most?) people don’t enable geotagging; I see very, very few geo tweets in my feed. Second, in rebellions against repressive regimes, pinpointing one’s location exactly is perilous. The ! convention claims location as much as writing about an event as a witness or participant does, without giving the authorities one’s exact location.

NPR’s inevitable conflict

Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR, was just forced to resign by the network’s board. I don’t know what the spin will be, nor am I privy to the internal politics. But I will say that this is an indication of more trouble ahead for NPR on a few fronts.

First, the network lost a visionary leader who I know, first-hand, was doing great things. I told her executives that they were enjoying their work entirely too much while others in the news industry all have the worldview of Eeyore these days. NPR is initiating new journalistic endeavors around the country with Vivian’s leadership and support.

Second, this act reveals the NPR board as ballless in the face of pressure. Yes, the Juan Williams firing was bungled by NPR’s head of news but Schiller apparently forced her out and also let the buck stop at her. Yes, rightwing NPR haters entrapped chief fundraiser Ron Schiller in a kerfuffle of their making but he is gone. But that was not cause for Vivian Schiller to go. I’m afraid to see how they will acquiesce to pressure in the future.

Third, I say this is why NPR should get rid of federal funding so it gets rid of political strings and pressure. That leads to the biggest problem:

Fourth, look at the NPR board. It is comprised mostly of local stations. That made sense when the stations distributed NPR programming and paid for it. But today, NPR the network does not need the stations when it can distribute online, which is how radio will be distributed more and more. The stations that don’t add real value in their markets — such as WNYC does in mine — are screwed as their value as distributors diminishes. The stations’ audiences are going to shrink and with that their revenue. Most of them have no real local presence other than their towers. The stations also depend heavily — more than NPR does — on government support, so they cannot easily give it up and buy their independence. The board fired the last NPR CEO because he pissed off the stations. Now Schiller is gone. Who the hell would take this job next?

Bottom line: The stations’ interests and NPR’s interests are no longer aligned. That has been the case for some years. It is the elephant in the studio. Schiller tried hard to find ways to improve the stations’ lot. That’s why she created new content initiatives in their backyards, to have them create more value. But in the end, the stations will fear a stronger NPR.

This is parallel to what is happening at the Associated Press, which newspapers own. Its board, too, is run by local affiliates. But the majority of the AP’s revenue no longer comes from the papers but from other news outlets, broadcast and online. The newspapers won’t allow the AP to do what it must do to survive online: build its own brand and distribute widely on the internet. The newspapers, like the stations, face shrinkage and so they complain about the AP’s costs and try to beat it down. They are locked in inevitable conflict.

This is the untold story of the future of two important journalistic institutions in this country. There is a strategic cliff ahead. But no one dare speak of it. Watch out.

Exploiting Charlie

When I arrived in Detroit to intern at the Free Press many years ago, I saw a local character dressed in a bright yellow rain slicker, no matter the weather, theatrically directing traffic in front of the Cadillac hotel. He was there every day. My troop of interns suggested to our editors that he’d be a story. Apparently every group of interns had the same idea. And the editor sternly admonished us that we shouldn’t exploit the man’s insanity. Nuts aren’t news.

I wish that same editor would give the same lecture to Piers Morgan at CNN and the news departments at NBC and ABC regarding Charlie Sheen.

Far be it from me to diagnose Sheen from afar, but I agree with Howard Stern yesterday when, after playing Sheen’s clips, he said the guy sure sounds bipolar. Yes, Sheen is acting very much like the manic people I have known. Time asks whether he’s bipolar. Whatever. He’s clearly not acting sane.

So why are they interviewing him? Not because they expect him to say smart things that give insight. Neither are they trying to give a picture of mental illness, for they give no context. On Piers Morgan’s nightly exhibition of ratings neediness, the star dismissed doctors’ mentions of bipolar disease and then Morgan stepped up to give him a clean bill of mental health, telling Sheen he is “alarmingly normal.” I think in the field they call that enabling.

What Sheen does may be news. What his network didn’t do is also news — when he abused women, they kept him on the air to keep the ratings he gets. What his network did do is news — they yanked him only after he issued a manic rant against his producer.

But is what Sheen says in his haze of insanity or drugs newsworthy? I don’t think so. I think it’s exploitation. They want him to act nutty. Ratings, man, ratings.

After the horrid Arizona shooting, the gunman’s lunatic rants online came to light. This is now part of the news cycle: madman commits horrid crime; search internet; find madman’s words; make on-screen graphics of them; read them over and over out loud. For a while, news people read this madman’s words as if there was something to be heard in them. But they were so looney even the news people had to say so. Context.

One way or another, by one definition and diagnosis or another, Charlie Sheen is a sick man. He doesn’t need airtime. He needs couchtime. News people are ill-serving him and the issue of mental illness in this country by putting him on the air as if he were just another source, another celebrity. They are not informing the public. They are exploiting Charlie.