Posts about newbiznews

PR and corruption theater

Today was about public relations — but not about the public.

What was exposed in Parliament during the Murdochs’ testimony wasn’t necessarily News Corp. — we shall see what happens to it — but instead the cozy, closed ties between institutional journalism and institutional government. The corruption of their close links was what was most shocking about today: news executives and politicians at lunch and spas and sporting events; news executives hired by politicians and police to give advice and spin their ex-colleagues; news reporters paying police; news executives sneaking through the back door to the seat of power; government officials being protected from hearing too much about the dirty work of news…..

Can this institutional incest survive the Murdoch affair? We’d better not allow it — we, the public.

Today was all about theater and manipulation, of course. The only question was, who wrote the scripts? Was Rupert Murdoch’s dottiness a strategy handed down from Edelman or was that him abandoning his libretto to declare himself suddenly humble (if that’s humility…)? Was James coached to be a parody of a droning MBA? Was it in the crisis-management script for Rupert to decline responsibility for the scandal in his company and to blame those below him and those below them? Was it in his PR script to lash out at his competitors to for causing him to lose BSkyB, and not at himself?

Among the day’s many ironies was Rupert Murdoch extolling transparency. The reason I pulled Public Parts from his publisher, HarperCollins, was because I use his company as the best example I could find of opacity as strategy: the company behind walls. The problem through his entire scandal is one of hiding the truth from the authorities and the public.

Transparency would be true public relations. Transparency would have cured News Corp.’s crimes years ago. But it didn’t.

Jay Rosen was trying to figure out the News Corp. PR strategy — and Edelman’s strategy for taking it on. Raju Narisetti, managing editor of the Washington Post and a fine tweeter, argued that “good crisis management can lead to good, not just spin.” Richard Sambrook, former BBC News exec now at Edelman, concurred.

I don’t buy the strategy, not anymore. David Weinberger, a friend of Edelman, says the secret is aligned interests. I argued in What Would Google Do? that two trades — PR and the law — could not be googlified because they depend on clients. They cannot be transparent. They cannot be honest.

True public relations — like marketing — must represent the public — the customer — and not the company. True government must work for and not rule the public. True journalism will not exploit its community. I was struck today by the class structure still evident in British news: poshish Rebekah Brooks pandering to the Cockney masses. No, true journalism will act as a platform for the public.

What’s next for News Corp. and its worlds

There’s no telling how the News Corp. saga will turn out, but I’ll try. Here’s a scenario that leads to the breakup of News Corp., the Murdochs out of power, the deflation of institutional journalism, a break in the too-cozy media-government complex, an unfortunate rise in regulation of media, and a fortunate opening for newcomers. This story of legality and morality will quickly shift to one driven by business.

A week ago in HuffPo, I speculated that News Corp. would need to get out of the news business. Not so crazy. Since then, the FT’s John Gapper speculated similarly, as did John Cassidy at The New Yorker.

And since then, News International head Rebekah Brooks resigned and was arrested; Dow Jones head Les Hinton resigned; Murdoch gave up on BSkyB; the Murdochs agreed to testify before Parliament; and the revelations of corruption between News Corp. and police and government get only worse, leading to the resignation of the head of the police. What looked so far out doesn’t look so far out now. So how could this progress?

* Start with the end of a Murdoch succession plan. Rupert’s defense aside, James Murdoch’s handling of the scandal has been irresponsible, short-sighted, cocky, and dangerous. The trail of scandal is lapping at James’ feet. Whether or not he is investigated or arrested for crimes, there can be no confidence in his leadership. None of his siblings is in any better position and they are feuding anyway. Rupert Murdoch is looking more lost and his testimony Tuesday at what will appear (to Americans, at least) like an impeachment hearing will only implode his stature yet further.

Meanwhile, more importantly, News Corp. lost more than $7 billion in market cap over four scandal-filled days. That number may go up or down but it’s ominous in any case. Shareholders are suing. There will be a call for professional and independent management of the corporation, sooner than later. If I were an “independent” director of News Corp., I’d be scared to death right now.

Buh-bye Murdochs? As unthinkable as that may have been only two weeks ago, it’s now quite conceivable.

* Off with the headlines! That professional management will quickly conclude that the news divisions of News Corp. are a costly drag and will try to divest them, starting with the UK properties and then spreading elsewhere. News Corp. is an entertainment company. Professional management will focus on that and get rid of Rupert’s bully pulpits. If they previously did bring clout and regulatory convenience to the Murdoch’s business strategies, now all they bring is grief and the attention of lawmakers, prosecutors, competitors, and detractors. News is clearly not a growth business; it is, as a friend in the trade said, profit-challenged. So stop the presses already.

I said in my post last Monday it may be difficult to find a market for the properties. But they become costlier to News Corp. by the day, so the desire to unload them will only grow as their value declines. In the UK, the Sun has been eclipsed online by the Daily Mail. Murdoch gave up on strategies of growth and advertising when he put The Times behind a paywall, its audience shrinking from millions to a reported 100,000. An egotistical oligarch might buy either.

* In the U.S., the right-wing depends on Fox News and is surely getting nervous about its fate. It is becoming — if one can imagine this — even more of a laughingstock than it already was as it ignores or defends Murdoch in the scandal. I could imagine Roger Ailes assembling rich Republicans to engineer a leveraged buyout and keep it safe for them in time for the election. Then there could be no doubt of its role as a propaganda arm of the right.

The New York Post loses tens of millions a year and lives only to give Murdoch his toy and pulpit. Professional management cannot justify that. It will die or find its egotistical oligarch (its Conrad Black or Robert Maxwell … I cannot imagine even the Murdoch heirs allowing their patriarch to hold onto it and eat into their fortune yet further).

The Wall Street Journal is in quite the pickle. Again, professional management will want to get rid of it because it is not a good business; its ROI, if any, is worse than The Simpson’s. But who would buy it? Recall that no one else but Murdoch would buy it for the price he offered, an overeager amount he soon had to write-down. Last week, I suggested that if Murdoch wants to rescue the last shred of his legacy, he should put the Journal into a trust, a la the Guardian and its Scott Trust. Past that, it’s hard to imagine its fate. Would Bloomberg or Reuters buy its financial data businesses? Is there a fire-sale buyer for the paper and its web site? They’d better hurry before it is ruined by delusional editorial such as this one defending Murdoch.

News Corp. is also in the business of coupons and circulars distributed in newspapers. That business, too, will shrink as those transactions go digital and mobile. I’ve been told by major marketers that their need for FSIs (free-standing inserts) will disappear within two years — another blow to newspapers’ kidneys. Someone will buy that business to consolidate the trade. Though it, too, has News Corp. cooties. David Carr says this division has paid out $655 million to get rid of charges of espionage and anticompetitive behavior.

In publishing, that leaves HarperCollins. Murdoch tried to sell it sometime ago; no such luck. Who’d buy it now? I couldn’t imagine. (Disclosure: My last book, What Would Google Do?, was published by HarperCollins. My next book, Public Parts, was set to be but I pulled it when I found myself being highly critical of News Corp. as the antithesis to a company that operates openly.)

There’s been much speculation that illegalities abroad — or, if they are found, in the U.S. — could lead to News Corp losing its domestic TV licenses. I don’t think that would happen. If professional management replaces the Murdochs and the scandal-ridden news divisions are ejected, then it’s hard to imagine the FCC — which basically never revokes licenses and would take a decade to try — pushing News Corp. out of the local TV business. Besides that, there is nothing I’d call news on Fox stations. They are entertainment distribution outlets.

* The only thing left in the publishing arm is Australia. Various politicians of lesser or greater power are calling for reconsideration of the incredible newspaper holdings Murdoch has there. I could see the company holding onto this for old time’s sake if there isn’t too much political pressure. Or I could see it being spun off to family, again for old time’s sake.

* So then News Corp. would be an entertainment company and a successful one.

* The next big impact will be regulating journalism in the UK. As I said here, I would lament that. The regulators didn’t bring Murdoch to the bar; journalists did — namely Nick Davies of the Guardian. We don’t need more controls on journalism. We need more journalism.

In the US, you can bet we’ll hear more about regulating media consolidation. But that’s not the issue. Morality is.

* I believe the biggest long-term impact of l’affaire Murdoch will be the diminution of institutional journalism and its cozy relationship with institutional government. That is good news. It opens opportunities for independents: for us.

* None of this could happen. Murdoch will hold on as long as he can — witness Murdoch’s “interview” with the Wall Street Journal claiming that the company has handled all this well and also the denial in the Wall Street Journal editorial just published, which tries to shift the blame for shoddy journalism to Murdoch’s competitors and critics. The longer Murdoch holds on, the less his empire will be worth. Just how stubborn is he?

: LATER: Bloomberg says News Corp is worth 50% more without Murdoch.

By valuing each of News Corp.’s businesses separately, the New York-based media conglomerate would be worth $62 billion to $79 billion, estimates from Barclays Plc and Gabelli & Co. show, indicating News Corp. trades at an almost 50 percent discount to its units. . . .

“There’s just sort of this generic Murdoch discount, which encompasses the concern that he will make decisions that are not consistent with other shareholder interests,” said Michael Morris, an analyst at Davenport & Co. in Richmond, Virginia. “The sum of the parts on News Corp. is huge compared with where the stock trades.”

Readers are our regulators

Here’s a post I put up on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (comment there).

Please resist the temptation to impose government regulation on journalism in the aftermath of phone-hacking. Oh, I know, it would be sweet justice for Murdoch pere et fils to be the cause of expanding government authority. But danger lies there. Regulation requires teeth and teeth carry power.

Let me begin by posing four questions:

What activities are to be regulated? Activities that are already criminal, like News Corp.’s, should be prosecuted as crimes. Then does speech itself become the target? In the United States, we grapple with this question in the one exception to our First Amendment, which is about to be tested in the Supreme Court. That loophole to the Bill of Rights gives the Federal Communications Commission authority to regulate and fine mere words on TV and radio. I have argued in the pages of the Guardian that “bullshit” is political speech but we are forbidden to speak it on our air — even about this regulation itself — under threat of a regulator’s chill and penalty. What we need today is more speech, not less.

What should a regulator do in the case of violations? Fine the offender into submission? Close the publication? Does that not give your government the same weapon used by dictators elsewhere against journalists? Doesn’t this return the UK to a regime of licensing the press? Remember that he who grants licenses may also not grant them or revoke them.

Who is the proper regulator? Clearly, it is not the industry. The Press Complaints Commission has proven to be nothing more than a diaphanous gown for the devil. But government? Is government the proper body to supervise the press, to set and oversee its standards? How could it be? The watched become the watchers’ watchers. Certainly government has shown itself to be incompetent and mightily conflicted in this case, as alleged overseers of the crimes at hand end up in high places and the police themselves are reported to be beneficiaries of corruption.

Finally, who is to be regulated? In other words, who is the press? That’s the key question raised here. Alan Rusbridger posed it in his forceful soliloquy on this amazing week: Is Huffington Post the press? Guido Fawkes? By extension, is any blogging citizen? Any YouTube commentator or Twitter witness-cum-reporter? Yes, we wrangle with this same question in the United States, but in the context of who should receive the rights and protections of the press — namely, shield laws — rather than who should be under the thumb of a government agency.

The goal must not be to further solidify the hegemony of the media-government complex but instead to bust it open. We have the tools at hand to do that: journalists, the public they serve, and their new tool of publicness, the internet.

As Rusbridger also said in that video, this was a week marked by the worst of journalism and the best of journalism. Reporting is wot did the bastards in. Nick Davies is the Woodward and Bernstein of the age though it’s a pity that his Nixon built his nearly absolute power — and nearly inevitable corruption — in our profession. The first and most important protection we will have against the likes of him is a business model for the Guardian to sustain Davies and support future generations like him. The second most important thing the Guardian can do is set an example for other journalists.

I was talking with Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, just yesterday about his cause and favorite obsession: fact-checking. There are scattered organizations that endeavor to check politicians’ and journalists mistakes and lies. But no organization can do it all. How do we scale fact-checking? My thought is that we should see every news organization place a box next to all its reports inviting fact-checking: readers flagging dubious assertions and journalists and readers picking up the challenge to investigate. The Washington Post and the Torrington (Connecticut) Register Citizen have them.

That small addition raises the standards and expectations for journalists’ work and, more importantly, opens the process of journalism to the public, inviting them to act as both watchers and collaborators.

I also think we must increase our diligence to all but eliminate the scourge of the anonymous source. Note that I left an opening for whistleblowers and victims and the too-rare true investigators like Davies. But if we had as an expectation that the News of the World should have told us where and how it learned what it learned about its 4,000 victims, it would have been less able to perpetrate its crimes of hacking and bribery.

The Guardian is making openness its hallmark and this is what it must mean: Rather than closing down journalism to some legislative definition of who may practice the craft, we must open its functions to all. Rather than enabling government and media to become even more entwined, we must explode their bonds and open up the business of both for all to see. Regulators, bureaucrats, politicians, and titans of a dying industry are not the ones to do that.

In researching my next book, Public Parts, I dared to read Jürgen Habermas and his theory of the public sphere. Habermas says the public sphere first emerged as a counterweight to the power of government in the rational, critical debate of the coffeehouses and salons of the 18th century. But almost as soon as this public sphere formed, Habermas laments, it was corrupted and overtaken by mass media. Now, at last, is our opportunity to reverse that flow and to recapture our public sphere.

There’s where this tale’s sweet irony lies: It’s Murdoch & Co. who set the charges to blow apart the very institutional power and cozy relationships they built.

: LATER: I’m disturbed by a fundamentally undemocratic theme I see in the comments here and at the Guardian: Some blame the public for the excesses of Murdoch, Inc. That’s essentially cynical and condescending toward the public. Some don’t trust the public to regulate media. If you distrust the public that much, then you might as well throw in the towel on democracy and freemarkets, not to mention journalism and education (why inform the public if they’re a mass of boobs?). But these folks — just like institutional media — better get used to the public having a greater voice and regulating their behavior, for that’s where we’re headed: back to the coffee house.

What Google+ adds to news

To paraphrase Mark Zuckerberg, it is too soon to know what Google+ is. But I’ve been trying to imagine how it will and won’t be useful to news. You should add rock salt to anything I say, as I thought Google Wave would be an important journalistic tool. With that in mind, a few opening thoughts:

* Google+ likely won’t be good for live coverage of breaking events because its algorithm messes with the reverse chronology, promoting old posts when they get new comments. It doesn’t favor the *latest* the way Twitter and liveblogging do and live news is all about the latest. I don’t see Andy Carvin making the switch.

(I’ve wished that I could have the option to get a stream only of newly submitted posts. Many have complained about the promoting of too much old stuff. Sergey Brin said on G+ yesterday that they’ve tweaked the algorithm to give less weight to comments from people you don’t follow.)

* G+ should be good for collaboration on reporting. When I ask a question, the answers appear with my question and subsequent responders can improve on earlier answers. With Circles, I can focus my questions on a specific group (e.g., VCs) and can benefit when their circles see their interaction with me — so long as I am not fool enough to disable sharing.

* If Google gets its synergistic act together and incorporates Google Docs — and some of the tricks from Wave — into G+, then this could be a very good collaboration tool for communities to gather together and share what they know. That’s the basis for news.

* G+ will be good for promoting content. The service isn’t yet open and I have almost more than 7,000 followers. Memes spread quickly on G+, but because of its time-bending algorithm, they also last longer if they spark conversation — that’s its plus side (no pun intended). Automated spewing of headlines likely won’t be effective, but conversing will.

* I see a big problem in the G+ restriction of one link per post. I find that sadly ironic. G+ is a service for sharing and links are the essence of responsible sharing, revealing the provenance of facts and giving credit. A blog post is a better vehicle for a well-sourced, well-linked post.

* G+’s identities likely won’t be as reliable as Facebook’s, as it is easy to create an account and identity on there are not the social pressures for authenticity. Then again, people will invest in their Google profiles, especially as they become more prominent in search (see what Google is doing with authors, broadly defined; I’m one of them in the test). I’m still trying to get my head around the play on identity among Google, Facebook, Twitter, and players yet to join in.

* G+ may be a good place to find photos from news, depending on whether witnesses favor putting them there or on Twitter or on Facebook or on Flickr and how well Google does at making them searchable.

I see that we will have to teach Google Plus at my J-school. Especially at the start, it will be valuable to have students brainstorm how they could use it. That’s the way journalists should approach every promising new tool.

What do you think G+’s uses are for news?

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?