Posts about News

Exploding our ideas of membership: A CUNY summit

We are holding an important event at CUNY on August 26 exploring membership strategies for media — beyond pledges and paywalls.

Let’s be honest: In most news organizations, membership is just another word for subscription or for hawking tote bags. At this event, I want to see us push far beyond the present state of the art and challenge ourselves to reimagine what membership can mean for news organizations and their relationships with the people and communities they serve.

We will start with sessions led by two innovators in membership: public-media genius Melody Kramer (who just released a superb report with her latest ideas) and local media’s best friend, Josh Stearns, who is working on membership experiments in the New Jersey news ecosystem. We will learn about best practices in membership from outside the media industry (what could the frequent-flier miles of news be?). And — this is the critical part — we will take all that information and inspiration and then, in the best spirit of the unconference, brainstorm new opportunities for membership for news organizations of various types and sizes.

Here is the sign-up for the event.

I see three frontiers for innovation:

* New tribes: A person might feel an urge to join a club called the Guardian because it takes on causes or NPR or even The New York Times out of patronage. But does anyone really want to belong to — will they feel an affinity and loyalty to and want to brag about their special relationship with — say, Columbus Dispatch? Not so much. But one might well want to belong to the Columbus pissed-off commuters’ club or the Columbus school improvement society or the Columbus environment alliance or the Columbus senior club. My point: communities are internally, not externally defined; they are not built outside-in or top-down under brands. The premise of our social journalism program at CUNY is that we must begin by listening to communities and understanding their needs before we can serve them well. The same goes for membership. The opportunity is to build membership from the bottom up by serving many communities with many affinities, loyalties, and needs that we can answer.

* New currencies for contribution: We can extract value from our relationships with the public we serve in so many forms other than just cash. Indeed, we must learn to value our people — our users, our readers — beyond just their circulation dimes or CPM pennies. We must value them as individuals rather than as members of an anonymous mass. To join a community, we should value and credit the public’s effort, expertise, contributions of content, volunteer marketing (i.e., social media love), commerce (buying things through us or from our advertisers), and showing up (coming to our events). I explored some of these notions in a long-ago post that speculated about a reverse pay meter; Melody explores many more in her report.

* New currencies for reward: When we give our members nothing more than access to our content, then we are merely putting a new label on an old business model: the subscription. We can reward members in so many more ways: with access to events and our journalists, with some voice in the allocation of our resources, with social capital, with discounts from our advertisers….

Out of these ideas and more that we will explore on August 26 will come many new models for membership. The product of the day will not only be potential new business models but also new ways to look at–to quote my friend Jay Rosen–the people formerly known as the audience. When our members are our collaborators, the recipients of our services, experts, and our friends, then the nature of our product — our service — called journalism changes fundamentally. If we have any hope to compete with Google, Facebook et al for the attention and affection of the public we serve — and for the first-party data that will rescue us from advertising commodification — we must reconsider our essential relationship with them. We must become members of the same clubs.

If this is of interest to you and your news organizations, please sign up now.

I, for one, welcome our new newsstand

newsstand

Facebook just gave publishers almost what I was wishing for. It is enabling news companies to go to readers where they are (we used to call that home delivery), embedding their articles, photos, videos — and ads — in users’ streams of attention and keeping all the revenue they sell or a share of the ad revenue Facebook sells. They call it Instant Articles because it saves users the time of clicking on links and waiting for web pages to load. It’s a start, a good start.

I wish that Facebook would also work to share data about users at their option so news companies could serve those users with greater relevance and value and learn to build relationships with the public as individuals and communities rather than as a mass. Here, I suggest how that could happen. For now, Facebook is allowing publishers to track some usage data. One thing at a time.

In Facebook’s blog post announcing the deal, its chief product officer, Chris Cox, says: “Fundamentally, this is a tool that enables publishers to provide a better experience for their readers on Facebook. Instant Articles lets them deliver fast, interactive articles while maintaining control of their content and business models.”

The post continues: “Along with a faster experience, Instant Articles introduces a suite of interactive features that allow publishers to bring their stories to life in new ways. Zoom in and explore high-resolution photos by tilting your phone. Watch auto-play videos come alive as you scroll through stories. Explore interactive maps, listen to audio captions, and even like and comment on individual parts of an article in-line.”

I await much gnashing of teeth over the deal. Actually, I don’t have to wait. My Twitter feed was peppered yesterday with fretting over Facebook and news, for example:

Sigh. What are we supposed to do: ignore the audience on Facebook, stomp our little feet, and take our balls and go home, expecting users to always follow us to our home pages? Last week, I had this discussion with my students, trying to get them to focus on the business terms of a negotiation with Facebook over embedded content. It was hard to get some of them past typical media emotions: not liking or trusting Facebook, worrying about rugs being pulled out in the future. These are deal points that can be negotiated. And at least Facebook wants to negotiate.

Indeed, at last, both Google and Facebook are ready to talk. Two weeks ago, Google signed a friendship pact with eight European publishers. Now Facebook has made its deal with nine — take that, Google! — publishers, not just in squeaky-wheel Europe but also in America: The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC, Spiegel, and Bild. Note that the last one, Bild, is owned by Axel Springer, which has led the European war against Google, forcing it — and by extension, Facebook — to come to the table.

This is good news for news. At Facebook, the head of product — which is the center of power at a technology company — has made it clear that news matters to the company. Late last year, Facebook released new products for news media. Meanwhile, Google is promising to develop products with publishers and give grants for innovation and this weekend, it is holding its second Newsgeist summit in Europe (I will be there).

This is only a start. Further negotiation is needed to assure trust and more strategic benefit to news companies. And there is much serious discussion that must be held with these technology companies about their responsibility not to publishers but to society. For now these platforms are taking on the role of not only distributing but even editing the news the public sees. These are not easy questions with easy answers.

If news and technology can come to terms, we can begin to reinvent journalism in a distributed world with new business models. I’ve been suggesting that publishers consider starting new services — and new businesses — inside Facebook if the company will make that feasible. We in media can’t do it all by ourselves anymore. We are no longer monopolies in control of content and distribution from top to bottom. We now live in ecosystems where we must work with others. Get used to it. Find the opportunity in it.

LATER: On Facebook, appropriately, my friend Emily Bell asks five questions about the Facebook deal. OK, I’ll take the quiz:

1. How much revenue will this return to NYT vs its other distribution strategies?

First, given that Facebook allows publishers to place their own ads on their content and keep 100% of that revenue, then on an article-by-article basis, the revenue should be a wash. Except that if the paper recognizes a big bump in incremental circulation, then this is additional revenue. If the paper chooses to let Facebook sell the ad and take a revenue share, then I assume it does so because Facebook can get higher revenue and thus it’s a revenue increase.

But, of course, the value isn’t only in the direct ad sales. It is also in the potential to start a relationship with a new customer leading to other revenue: traffic to and ad revenue from visits to the publisher’s site and, in The Times’ case, subscriptions. This is more unknown. I recently spoke with a publisher who started putting videos on Facebook — no revenue yet — but found that they drastically increase the number of people who follow the publisher there, which, it’s hoped, leads to more business in the long run. We shall see.

All this is why I think it’s vital that we begin calculating the lifetime value of individual users and relationships, so we can calculate all this.

2. Who bears the publishing risk for the pieces FaceBook publishes?

That’s a different question in the U.S. than elsewhere. In the U.S., we are blessed with a First Amendment for digital, Section 230, which gives Facebook safe harbor.

Legalities aside, we know that Facebook does take responsibility for policing content, including that from publishers, according to its community standards [as if there could be one standard for one community in the world — but that’s another discussion]. At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, there was much discussion of Facebook penalizing the respected Scandinavian paper Berlinkse for photos with nudity appropriate both to its journalism and its culture. This, of course, is disturbing: Facebook as editor; Facebook as censor. This is why, as I suggest above, it is urgent that we have a substantive discussion with and about Facebook — and Google and Twitter — in regard to their roles potentially as gatekeepers. That is why they need to have more sophisticated voices inside their organizations to grapple with these significant issues.

3. How will it change the NYT’s digital journalism given that richer interactive presentations won’t work in this format?

But then again, Facebook is providing new functions appropriate to its platform. We must learn to present news appropriate to platforms, use cases, and user contexts. Katie Couric doesn’t do a thirty-minute show on Snapchat Discover; she delivers what is appropriate there. Same goes for this. The Times and these other publishers should find ways to present news in new ways for new uses.

4. How much data does the NYT get access to from FB?

This is *the* key question. As I made clear above and in earlier posts, I believe we in news *must* get information about our users that enables us to serve them with greater relevance and value and thus to extract greater economic value in return. Now I have heard people from *many* technology companies say in response to this idea that publishers wouldn’t know what to do with that data if they had it. True, tragically true. But therein lies an opportunity for these technologists: teach us in media how to build and serve and extract value from relationships with known individuals; cure us of our mass-media ways … please.

5. How much further is FB likely to go in turning itself from a platform to a publisher? Will it hire editors, other journalists etc?

Facebook, Google, Twitter, et should not and should not want to become publishers, in my view. It creates tremendous channel conflict. It invites antitrust scrutiny. It limits the scope of the content they can present.

That said, I do think that these companies need to import editorial sensibilities — particularly about professional standards and ethics and the issues outlined above. So far, that hasn’t worked terribly well. I do not think that editors should be imported as news cops or consultants. I think they should be integrated into the process of product development, where relevant, to bring a better sense of both the opportunities and the responsibilities.

And while I’m involved in a seminar with my friend, the good Prof. Bell, let me add this from her on Twitter:

My answer: Yes, or we are doomed.

Last weekend in the German magazine Focus, a guest commentator argued that publishers in Google’s friendship pact had made a Faustian deal with the devil. (I’d link to the article but I can’t because, like an riddle in an enigma, it’s trapped inside a paywall inside a PDF.) This professor is essentially urging journalists and publishers to become digital isolationists. I say that is both impossible and irresponsible. The means of production and distribution in media made a small oligopoly of rich and sometimes monopolistic owners sole proprietors of the entire chain of value, from reporting to presentation to production to distribution to sales. Well, my friends, those days are over. Over. Once again, we have no choice but to operate inside the new ecosystem of users’ choice and we have no choice but to find new ways to sustain our work. Somebody I know wrote a book about that.

ONE MORE THING: So Facebook’s Instant Articles are available only in iOS? Really, Facebook? Really? So what are the more than half of us using Android phones? Chopped liver? Shit. Here I defend the new product and I can’t even see it. Garg.

Building trust in news

In their Trust Project, Richard Gingras, head of Google News, and Sally Lehrman, a fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, argue the need to rebuild trust in news and they propose a set of practical tactics. I want to suggest further steps to support their campaign.

The reforms Gingras and Lehrman propose:
* News organizations and journalists should craft and publish statements of mission and ethics.
* Journalists should disclose their background to reveal both levels of expertise and areas of personal interest and conflict.
* For disclosure and accountability (and credit, I’d add), news organizations should reveal all the hands that work on content: researchers, editors, “even lawyers.”
* News organizations should aspire to an academic ethic of citations (links=footnotes) and corrections. They would also be wise to disclose their methodology — i.e., whom they interviewed, what they researched.

I agree with all that and with their contention that greater trust will yield greater value for news (through greater loyalty, engagement, attention, and promotion for worthwhile work).

A few added suggestions:

Google itself — particularly Google News — can encourage these behaviors by favoring news organizations, journalists, and other sources that follow standards such as these. This is not a manipulation of search. It is a proper use of legitimate signals of quality. Over the years, I’ve spoken with Google News creator Krishna Bharat and, on This Week in Google, with Google spam-killer Matt Cutts about their constant quest to find signals of originality and authority to improve search results and news ranking. For example, to avoid putting the 187th AP rewrite of a Washington Post story atop a cluster of articles, Google looks for citations referencing the Post, thus indicating that the Post has done original reporting and should get higher priority.

In particular, Google can encourage news organizations to cite sources through linking. News organizations and writers should be adhering to stricter standards for citation through linking: show us your sources; show us your work; let us judge those sources and that work for ourselves. This has clear benefit for the public. Journalists will learn that scrupulous linking can build trust, as Gingras and Lehrman argue. Rigorous citations through links will give Google more signals to judge quality and will give us all more data — which Google should publish — about what sources are cited across news organizations, so we can identify journalistic echo chambers.

Google’s prioritizing of original work over diluted rehashes has a further economic benefit: it supports the work of original journalism and reduces the traffic rewards everyone and his uncle gets today for deciding to publish his own “take” on someone else’s original reporting and work.

To encourage statements of disclosure, Google could revive its recently killed author program, this time giving prominent links not to the picture of the writer but to the writer’s disclosure statement when and if one exists. I’m not sure a statement of mission is necessary for every writer on the web (what’s my mission past truth, justice, and the internet way?). But disclosures are beneficial. Here are mine. (There you’ll find that I own shares of Google and have had my travel paid to speak at Google events but do not take fees from the company.)

Google can also support, encourage, and help distribute better corrections. Eight years ago, I wished for a means to subscribe to corrections related to news I’ve read — and, more importantly, stories I’ve written or linked to on my Twitter or Facebook feed or blog. Google is getting close to a means of doing that. Consider how good Google Now has become at recommending news to me based on the stories and topics I’ve been following on Chrome. (Calm your privacy panic; it’s fine with me; it’s a service that brings me relevance and value.) For example, Google knows I’m interested in the LG R watch and so it shows me news about when the gadget is going to be released. Why can’t Google also recommend that I read corrections that have been posted to stories since I read them?

I’m not suggesting that Google can or should do all this on its own. But as Gingras and Lehrman lead as individuals, Google can lead as a corporation, promulgating open standards that support better behavior and greater trust. With those standards, every curator could improve its recommendations.

Journalism schools should take a leadership role, too. At CUNY and most journalism schools, we require courses in law and ethics. We could help support these standards by having our students adhere to rigorous standards of linking and citation in their reporting and by having them publish disclosure statements. We can also help by fostering broader discussion of and research in trust. I’ll volunteer for that.

At a much higher level, trust is also a matter of business models. On the plus side, trust builds economic value, as Gingras and Lehrman contend. On the negative side, mass-media economics have had a significant role in corrupting media, news, and trust in them. As I will argue in my new book, Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News (out next month), importing mass-media models built on reach and frequency to digital news has resulted in the commodification of media and our epidemic of clickbait, cats, cynical manipulation (this link will change your life!), and endless takes on takes to scrounge up pageviews and ad impressions even as their value plummets toward zero.

Chartbeat’s Tony Haile has been beating the attention drum, arguing that selling time over space will lead to greater engagement, higher quality content, greater performance for advertisers, and greater value for media. Rewarding media for value over volume would be a big step in the right direction. I argue in Geeks Bearing Gifts that knowing the public we serve not as a mass but as individuals and communities and serving them with greater relevance as a result will also yield greater value for them and thus for media. I further argue that seeing journalism as a service that helps people and communities meet their goals — and measures its effectiveness that way — rather than as a content factory that merely assaults their eyeballs stories and messages will result in more meaningful relationships and greater accountability and thus greater trust and value.

There are other threats to trust rooted in business, of course. Cable TV’s continued reliance on mass-media economics is what leads to missing-jet-mania and ebola-panic-mongering. This is why I find promise in Reuters new TV news service, which will no longer fill a clock and pimp for viewers but will instead offer personalized, relevant, up-to-the-minute, and nonrepetitive newscasts for individuals.

I worry greatly about native advertising/sponsored content/brand journalism’s potential to poison trust, confusing readers as to the source of content and devaluing news and media brands. This is why we must have serious discussions about the ethics and standards of native advertising (I hope to hold a summit on the topic at CUNY next year). Here, too, Google is already helping by warning that poor disclosure of sponsors’ involvement in the creation of content will lower its status in search.

Finally, I always tell my entrepreneurial students that when they see a problem like the one that Gingras and Lehrman identify, they should not stop at pointing to it (as journalists usually do) but should find the opportunity in it. The proliferation of content and confusion and the crisis in journalistic trust can lead to many entrepreneurial opportunities. The king of corrections, Craig Silverman, is developing Emergent, a new tool to help identify misinformation on the web, and is building a business around it. Storyful developed systems to find and verify witnesses’ accounts of news events and News Corp. bought it.

I see more opportunities in building systems and companies around:
* gathering and analyzing signals of authority;
* building relationship data and analysis for media companies to increase their relevance;
* membership structures for media organizations to give clients — the public — greater voice in the use of journalistic resources;
* establishing new metrics for news as a service (did we improve your life and your community?), enhancing accountability;
* creating the means for trusted, recipient-controlled communication that is free of trolls and other online plagues (as opposed to email, Twitter, et al, which are sender controlled);
* advertising and revenue models that value quality over volume;
* new forms of TV news that do not rely on cheap tricks to fill time and build volume but instead get rewarded for delivering value; and on and on.
Technology companies — not just Google — and investors, media companies, universities, and foundations can invest in and support such innovation to build trust.

To rebuild journalism, news, and media around trust means rebuilding not just some behaviors but more fundamentally journalism’s business models, metrics, forms, and fundamental relationship with the public. That work is in the interest of members of the media ecosystem: news organizations, media companies, journalists, advertising agencies, networks, brands, and, again, Google and other internet companies. Project Trust is a start.

Cross-posted from Medium.

Absolution? Hell, no

sarducciovalThe good Reverend David Carr grants us absolution. “So whose fault is it?” he asks after chronicling the excommunication of newspapers and magazines from media companies casting off their old, print ancestors to starve and die. “No one’s,” Carr decrees.

Not so fast, preacher. It is our fault. Who else could be at fault? We journalists, publishers, and journalism schools have turned out to be irresponsible stewards of journalism. We squandered our trust and our cash flow. This was was our institution to nurture and protect and Carr says it’s all but dead.

Wait a minute, Father David. That depends on what you define as our institution. He sees it as print. Well, hell, I’ve spent years now begging my journalistic coreligionists to stop defining themselves by their medium — by their means of production and distribution — otherwise they’d all end up just where they are today: the baby swirling down the drain with the holy water.

But there was good news for media companies this weekend, wasn’t there? BuzzFeed got a $50 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz. I thought venture capitalists didn’t invest in content because it has cooties, no? But its new board member, Chris Dixon, says that’s because BuzzFeed’s not a media company. “We think of BuzzFeed as more of a technology company.”

cat baptismWell, hold on, you moneychanger in the temple, you (and mind you, sir, we’re glad to have you here; please make yourself at home). BuzzFeed is still a mass media company because it still operates by mass-media economics based on volume: the more people it can tempt into its harem with the siren call of its cats, the more people it can serve to advertisers (no matter what it calls its advertising). It is a last-gasp, clever (some might say cynical) exploitation of those old-media ways, grabbing the last dollars from the cold, dead hands of Carr’s congregation. It is the newest old-media company.

But I have faith that BuzzFeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti, can invent his way out of this — that’s why Andreessen Horowitz is not nuts to invest in him. He can use the cash flow the old ways bring him to invent something new. But he hasn’t yet. And that’s the point: There’s still time. Old media companies still have cash flow they, too, should be using to reinvent themselves.

But Brother Carr has renounced his vows right from inside the old scriptorium. Fucking Gutenberg. “Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense,” he writes. “A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.” Or how about asking Netflix?

No, market forces are not an excuse for fatalism and ultimately suicide. Market forces are an opportunity for — forgive me, for I do know I’m getting carried away with this religion thing — resurrection. There is still time as no one has yet challenged all our old-media assumptions about content and print and reinvented journalism as what it should be.

I’ve warned you that I’m about done with a 55,000-word tome about that reinvention. I’ll give you the tl;dr now: Journalism needs to rebuild itself as a service to individuals and communities, which requires having relationships with them as people, not a mass, helping them reach their own goals in new ways — not just with content — and sustaining this work with business models built on value over volume.

That’s not what newspapers — even the digital-first among them — are yet. That’s not what BuzzFeed or Huffington Post or Business Insider or Vox is … yet. I don’t know what that is yet (thus my tome is no prophecy) but I suggest a few paths to the promised land.

At the end of his eulogy, Carr writes: “It’s a measure of the basic problem that many people haven’t cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage. Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether? I’m not optimistic about that.” Ah, but it’s a poor shepherd who blames his sheep.

So I’ll end this as good sermons should, with a charge to the congregation: Go forth and figure it out, people. Stop whining. Stop looking for excuses and forgiveness. Stop giving up. Your flock needs informing. Go find new ways to do that. And I don’t want to see your prodigal asses back in these pews until you do. That goes for us in the seminary, too.

Amen.

Listen: They do exist

My two recent posts about philanthropy and the news touched a nerve among not-for-profit news gatherers, leading to a podcast conversation with Scott Lewis, head of Voice of San Diego (starting at about :22), and a response by Steve Waldman. Laura Walker, the CEO of New York Public Radio, also asked to respond here. Laura is a brilliant businesswoman who could run rings around any for-profit media executive. She also made a big announcement today about a $10 million grant to fund digital innovation. I don’t usually hand this space over to anyone else, but I happily give it to Laura here:

logo-wnycYour post “Philanthropy and News” and related tweets have sparked an important conversation about the role of philanthropy in journalism. I wholeheartedly agree with you that philanthropy should help build sustainable models in journalism that have diverse revenue streams. As you often point out, business thinking and revenue generation are critical to the future of our industry.

But, I don’t agree at all with your statement: “Every time a rich person gives to a news nonprofit, a journalism startup loses its wings.” Philanthropic giving to nonprofit news doesn’t compete with investment in for-profit news startups. It’s not “an either/or” scenario as to who will survive. More importantly, philanthropic support for journalism has provided seed funding for successful models of nonprofit journalism, including public radio. Models of success do exist!

Here’s how I see it:

• Philanthropic grants are not taking away capital from startups. The motivations and reasons for venture funding are fundamentally different from philanthropy. Both can be an investment in the future of news and work together to enhance overall quality in journalism.

• Investment in nonprofit journalism can be an investment in sustainable journalism. Already today, philanthropy is seed funding important work and sustainability in journalism; just look at public radio, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. To be sure, many nonprofit journalism enterprises have failed, and many don’t have business leadership. Just as with a for-profit investment, it is critical that philanthropic investors “kick the tires” on the leadership of nonprofits to make sure that a business plan has been created and sustainability can be achieved.

• Hands down, the most successful sustainable nonprofit model is public radio, and it is too often overlooked by you and others. Public radio, with some 1,200 reporters including NPR and stations around the country, has diverse revenue streams, uses venture philanthropy, and through collaboration offers national scale, local relevance and powerful enterprise journalism.

Let’s take New York Public Radio as an example:

Diverse Revenue Streams

• Our journalism and radio programs are sustained through the contributions of 175,000+ members, corporate underwriting, events, fees from other public radio stations, as well as institutional giving and major donor gifts.

• Institutional giving and major donor gifts are just pieces of a diversified revenue model that is built to promote long-term sustainability and impact.

Venture Philanthropy

• Philanthropy often seeds new ideas and helps create an infrastructure for them.Then, we sustain these efforts over time in concert with other diverse revenue sources. Philanthropic contributions from the Charles H. Revson Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Jerome L. Greene Foundation, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and others have acted as venture funding to seed projects like our Stop and Frisk coverage, our Data News unit,Radiolab, The Takeaway, and our New Jersey news unit, as well as the creation of digital apps that are designed for how people consume news today.

• This approach fuels just the type of innovation you are calling for and has resulted in journalism that has won many awards, including three Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards and seven George Foster Peabody Awards in the last several years.

Collaboration

• “Philanthropy and News” also highlighted the need for collaboration within the news ecosystem – to both innovate and best serve audiences. At its heart, the public radio system is based on a collaborative reporting model – stations working with NPR and other national outlets to cover breaking news and to offer an expansive national report.

• Then, there are projects and efforts within the system like Fronteras along the border, The Takeaway and the New Jersey News Commons, in which our New Jersey Public Radio service plays a leading role, working with NJ Spotlight, Montclair State University’s journalism program and other news providers, small and large, new and established.

• Sometimes we compete and sometimes we collaborate, but as a recent J-Lab study noted: “Public media outlets play an important role for news startups. A partnership with a public broadcaster amplifies their journalism and validates their efforts in ways that can help their sustainability.”

We both agree that building sustainability in journalism is essential. We should learn from all the models before us – the ones that failed, the successful ones that currently exist, and the experiments being taken up by for-profit startups and fueled by philanthropy in the nonprofit sector. For an example of sustainable nonprofit journalism, just listen to your radio.

Viral bullshit as the new classifieds

denton-tweet1

A very well-done post about viral bullshit on Gawker (et al) by Mathew Ingram really comes down to this: Journalism used to be subsidized by classifieds and fluff, now it is built atop viral bullshit. The argument: Sure, we serve crap — or cats — but that’s what brings in the traffic for the good stuff.

Quoting Gawker’s editor in chief, John Cook: “Part of our job is to make sure we’re writing about things that people are talking about on the internet, and the incentive structure of this company is organized to make sure that we are on top of things that are going viral… we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been — ruthless honesty — and be reliably and speedily on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.”

Of course, that is a bankrupt model, for soon it becomes impossible to find the diamond in the sewage: the one decent, worthwhile, true report buried amid native advertising, viral bullshit, trolls’ comments, breaking rumors, and staff’s snark. Soon, the brand’s value is nil — but, hey, the traffic is humongous. And the advertisers still pay because we gave them a home for their bullshit and the faint though fraudulent promise that we can make them viral, too.

I think a new business model emerges from the swamp: the news outlet that tries, at least, to deliver the truth. That’s what all journalism fancies itself to be, of course, but the field would suffer in an audit of how much of that claim is true. I’m biased, but I’d say the Guardian is one outlet that is trying to live by that goal, though many will quickly point out that it won’t live if it can’t also have a goal of making profit.

At my journalism school, I was having a discussion about an unrelated matter the other day and as I railed on about a certain faux-news outlet that appeared to be all offal, a colleague smiled and said, “I love it, Jarvis, when *you* launch into a conservative rant about journalism.” Yes, I’m known as the guy who wants to open up media to the world to hear more voices and the cacophony of democracy, to equip anyone to commit an act of journalism, to confess our fallibility and admit that news is always in beta.

But I have long believed that the real job of journalism is to add value to what a community knows — real value in the form of confirmation and debunking and context and explanation and most of all *reporting* to ask the questions and get the answers — the facts — that aren’t already in the flow. The journalist’s and journalism organization’s ability to do that depends on trust over traffic.

In the earlier days of the web, I’ve argued that many made the mistake of thinking of the net as a medium and so whenever they saw a comment or mistake from a civilian, they thought the entire enterprise had been ruined as if The New York Times had published porn. No, I said, don’t expect the web to be a medium that’s published and packaged and polished. It’s just another streetcorner. At Broadway and 40th, you might overhear an idiot or see a drooler but you don’t propose to reject all New York because of that.

Too many would-be journalistic outlets today are making the mistake of thinking that they want to *be* the web, to hitch onto every speeding meme, riding it to … where? I think we can see where: to the oblivion where memes go to fizzle and die. Journalists would make a fatal mistake to think that they are viruses when what they should be are the leukocytes that kill them.

Media, left out of the relationship

Note who’s missing in Tanzina Vega’s New York Times story today about the monster merger of ad agencies Publicis and Omnicom.

Media — TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, online — are nowhere to be seen. This merger, they all say, is about the ad agencies joining together to defend at the 11th hours against the real behemoth in the business, Google, as well as Facebook and Twitter. And the battleground is Big Data (when did that become a proper noun?) — that is, knowing about people, or having a relationship with them.

I’ve been arguing that media should stop thinking they’re in the content business and start believing they are in — or should be in — the relationship business. But we don’t know jack about people. We see people as a mass. We lived for a glorious century by the myth of mass media: that all readers see all ads so we can charge all advertisers for all readers. Thus we simply wanted *more* readers (or unique users, whatever you prefer to call us). Media companies are proud when they learn our email addresses but, of course, that is nothing but an excuse to spam us. My email address says *nothing* about me.

Media companies could know a great deal about us as individuals. Our content interests are a good signal — Google understands that and so does the NSA (says prior whistleblower Thomas Drake, “content is gold for determining intent”). But we in media have no good means to gather, analyze, act on, and exploit that signal beyond simple behavioral targeting.

I argue that media companies should be able to get people to build the trust to reveal themselves because media companies can give them value in return. Provide me traffic help and you’ll learn where I live and work and then you can target your content and advertising to my locale, delivering greater relevance and value. Right?

No. Google, Facebook, and Twitter listen to our signals. Omnicom and Publicis realize the value of those signals. They all understand the worth of relationships. And what do we do in media? We put up paywalls and scream about copyright. Garg.

LATER: Here’s Om Malik’s take on the merger. I agree that the net deflates.

Since 1920, US advertising industry revenues have hovered between 1 percent to 3 percent of the US gross domestic product. This pie is now shared between television, newspapers, magazines, radio, cable with Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and thousands of other digital outlets. Of course, Internet often brings measurability, targeting and interactivity — which leads to a sort of deflationary pressure on industries that have traditionally benefited from ambiguity. Stock brokerages and travel industry were the first two industry to be baffled by this new reality.

And now the news: Here’s what we *don’t* know at this hour…

I often tell my students that where they see a problem, they should find the opportunity. Well, we’ve been told over and over this weekend that we had a big problem with misinformation after the Boston Marathon bombing. Breaking news, haven’t you heard, is broken.

So I see an opportunity, a big journalistic opportunity. I also tell my students this:

* Journalism should add value to a flow of information that can now occur without media’s mediation — verifying facts, vetting witnesses, debunking rumors, adding context, adding explanation, and most of all asking and answering the questions that aren’t in the flow, that aren’t being asked, i.e., reporting. Let’s acknowledge reality: There’s no stopping or fixing that flow. What witnesses see will be shared for all to see, which is good, along with rumors, rank speculation, and the work of the New York Fucking Post, which is bad.

* The key skill of journalism today is saying what we *don’t* know, issuing caveats and also inviting the public to tell us what they know. Note I didn’t say I want the public to tell us what they *think* or *guess.* I said *know*.

So the opportunity: If I ran a news organization, I would start a regular feature called, Here’s what you should know about what you’re hearing elsewhere.

Last week, that would have included nuggets such as these:

* You may have heard on CNN that an arrest was made. But you should know that no official confirmation has been made so you should doubt that, even if the report is repeated by the likes of the Associated Press.

* You may have heard reports repeated from police scanners about, for example, the remaining suspect vowing not to be taken alive. But you should know that police scanners are just people with microphones; they do not constitute official or confirmed police reports. Indeed, it may be important for those using police radio to repeat rumor or speculation — even from fake Twitter accounts created an hour ago — for they are the ones who need to verify whether these reports are true. Better safe than sorry is their motto.

* You may see on Reddit that people are speculating about who perpetrated these crimes, including speculation that it *could* be a missing college student. But you should know that these people are merely speculating and that is about as useful as a rumor, which is worthless. That’s not to say that the amateur sleuthing could not turn up a connection to the crime. But so far, it has not.

* You may have heard reports that there were more bombs. But you should know that we cannot track where these reports started and we have no official confirmation so you should not take those reports as credible. We are calling the police to find out whether they are true and we will let you know as soon as we know.

* You may have seen the New York Post report that there were 12 victims and you may have seen it publish a picture of men with backpacks, implicating them in this crime with no justification. But you should know that this is the New York Post. Need we say more?

That is journalism. That is what every news organization and site should be doing. That they don’t is only evidence of a major journalistic opportunity, perhaps even a business unto itself: The What We *Don’t* Know News, the only news show you can really trust. It doesn’t ignore breaking news or what you’re hearing. It adds value to that flow of both information and misinformation.

On Howie Kurtz’ CNN show this weekend, Erik Wemple said that news organizations should report nothing until it is confirmed. Lauren Ashburn countered that police did not confirm even the Marathon bombings until nearly an hour after they occurred, so clearly that’s untenable. She’s right. But this is easily solved if journalists say *how* they *know* what they *know*. We know a bomb went off because we saw it and we’re showing it to you over and over and over and over again. We don’t know whether a suspect has been arrested because we didn’t see it ourselves and police haven’t told us yet and hearing it on CNN isn’t good enough.

That is journalism.