Posts about News

The new news

Josh Young writes a fascinating and nicely written essay about the shape of news and competition around it in the Google (read: internet) age, but I think it badly needs a clear lede summarizing his point to prove his point.

So I’ll summarize: He’s saying that Google is causing news to be reshaped so it can be found, now that it has been unbundled from the products we used to have no choice but to buy: our newspapers. He says that news is an “experience good” we can’t really know until we taste it. He says we need a new experience of news and it ain’t Google. I will argue, though, that this very post, the one you are reading now, is the antidote to what he sees, for I experienced his essay and I recommend it to you without Google while also giving you the search-engine-and-browsing-friendly summary – a reason to read – that we now expect before investing in content online. And there’s my point.

Young argues that Google causes the structure of news to change. We agree about the change but we disagree about the cause. Even I don’t think that the all-powerful Oz Google is behind everything that happens on and because of the internet.

In fact, news is one of the areas where Google has little influence – despite the wails and whining of newspaper people – for Google is bad at current content, at the live web, at news. It needs content to ferment with links and clicks and context before it can figure out what it is. There’s no time for that in news. And GoogleNews itself isn’t an answer for it only makes the vastness of news vaster. We don’t find the latest news through search. We find it through recommendations, still, either from editors (going to a packaged site, a [cough] newspaper.com) or from peers (in blogs and RSS for years now and more lately in Twitter; this is why Twitter matters and why Google recognizes that it complementary).

So I’ll argue that we already have the beginnings of the news experience Young wants. Through this quote (which comes at the end of Young’s essay but would have been better as his lede, I think… I often find that to be the case when I write a post), please replace the word “search” with news, for “search” has become synonymous with Google and that’s not what we’re talking about. Young writes:

“We need a What we need is a search [news] experience that let’s us discover the news in ways that fit why we actually care about it. We need a search [news] experience built around concretely identifiable sources and writers. We need a search [news] experience built around our friends and, lest we dwell too snugly in our own comfort zones, other expert readers we trust…. We need a search [news] experience built around beats and topics that are concrete—not hierarchical, but miscellaneous and semantically well defined. We need a search [news] experience built around dates, events, and locations. We need a search [news] experience that’s multi-faceted and persistent. Ultimately, we need a powerful, flexible search [news] experience that merges [automation] and human judgment—that is sensitive to the very particular and personal reasons we care about news in the first place.

I think we’re seeing the beginning of what Young wants in blogs, Twitter, aggregation, better automated targeting, geotagging, and the move to human curation and I hope we’ll see people build other pieces of it in the ecosystems of news that will replace the papers that die (or don’t). I’m working with folks who are trying to build that now – with beats and organization and social recommendation – associated with the New Business Models for News Project. It’s just starting to come together, I think, and Young will be glad to know it’s not from Google; Google’s only a part.

Something like that, Young and I agree, will be the structure of the experience of finding – searching, broadly defined – and using and spreading news. As I said, we also agree that the structure of news will also change – but not just because of Google.

I argue in this post and in slides 6-11 here that the basic building block of news will no longer be the article – a creation and necessity of the means of production of newspapers – but instead the topic or the flow with many elements: process (think: blog), updates (feed), snapshot of current knowledge (wiki), perspective (comments, links), curation (links), and narration (the article still has its place). Yes, it is SEO-friendly. And, yes, Marissa Mayer gave a similar vision to John Kerry’s Senate hearings – of a “living story” that is updated at a permalink – but that doesn’t mean she decreed it. The greater functionality of the internet is shifting news to this structure because it is also link-friendly, blog-friendly, Twitter-friendly, feed-friendly, conversation-friendly, distribution-friendly….

If we invented news today - and we are – this is how it will look, not because Google replaces paper as the medium but because we are not limited to either.

(By the way, I’m probably wrong about Young’s lede. Even without it, because his essay was so deftly written, I read through to the end and took the trouble of reacting to it and recommending it to you here. I’ll also confess that I found it through Google search but only because Young kindly linked to me and mentioned my book. So the link was human, conversational, contextual, targeted, everything Young wants. Google just helped.)

: LATER: Another neat essay today, this one by Kim Pearson, on bringing computational thinking to journalism. I think it stretches the point just a bit (I don’t see how slideshows are particularly compuational) but the larger point is intriguing.

Not my fault

“Criticism of CNBC is way out of line,” NBC head Jeff Zucker said at the BusinessWeek media summit at McGraw-Hill’s headquarters just now. “Just because someone who mocks authority says something doesn’t make it so.” He argued that “you’re already seeing a backlash” against the backlash against news media “in terms of people saying, ‘let’s stop beating the press.’” The press didn’t cause us to go to war in Iraq, he said; a general did. The press missing the financial crisis didn’t cause it. “Both are absurd,” he said.

Really? I think that says that the press has no importance and no role in public policy. Doesn’t matter if we miss the story, he’s saying. It’s not our fault. Will he take no responsibility?

Over to you, CNBC bashers.

Later: Asked whether MSNBC is tainting NBC News, Zucker says, “I’m not worried about it.”

He does kind of look like Alfred E. Newman. Without the hair.

He says the answer is that NBC News is “probably in a more dominant position against its competition than it has ever been.” It’s also smaller than it has ever been.

He says David Gregory “frankly has done a fantastic job, something we’re very proud of, and reasserted his dominance on Sunday Morning.” (Over to you, Jay Rosen.)

On media facing the internet: “Newspapers didn’t face those questions fast enough. And they weren’t honest…. We can wish this were 1987 but it’s not…. Advertising is not what it was… We have to think about the model.” He acknowledges that NBC prime time has not had a good three or four years. “Sometimes you see the world more clearly when you’re flat on your back.” That is making them question the model, “question everything.” There, we agree. “Too many media organizations, especially newspapers, weren’t willing to question the model…. including the local TV news model.”

Zucker acknowledges that he will never be No. 1 in prime time (in response to a question about the Jay Leno strategy). He’s right about the changing role of live, prime-time TV. But there again, isn’t he surrendering?

“We’re in show business and the show is important and the business is important. It was easier to be in the show when the business was easier. The business is much harder today.” Has he been drinking out of Paula Abdul’s Coke glass?

Zucker says if they don’t adapt to changing media habits of young people, “we will become the Rocky Mountain News.” The Rocky in the coal mine, it is.

Asked about his comments about analog dollars and digital pennies, he says, “I think we’re at dimes now. We’ve made some progress.”

: Later: In addition to lots of juicy comments, see the LA Times Patrick Goldstein skewer Zucker.

After the industry association (and the industry)

Following my bum’s rush from a industry association meeting yesterday – not a big deal on any scale; just personally aggravating, insulting, and embarrassing – I got to thinking (now there’s the danger) about the future of the industry association … and of industries. I wonder whether there is much of one.

By being ejected yesterday, the group decreed that I was an outsider. By one definition, that’s clear: I’m not a member; I don’t pay dues. But by a more sensible definition – we’re in this together, we people who care about the future of news – I’d say they’re defining insider way too narrowly, dangerously so. As I harrumphed out, I said this is the problem with the industry: It is too closed, still. It is not hearing enough new voices and perspectives and ideas. And this trade association is only exacerbating that insularity. Instead of calling it an echo chamber, perhaps my aural reference should have been to a crypt.

And as I walked out, I started to wonder why the people in that room need a trade association anymore. Isn’t Meetup the new trade association? If people in the industry want to get together to talk about their problems and search for solutions together, can’t they just arrange a meeting at a Starbucks? And wouldn’t it be better to open the tent wider – to expand the definition of inside – and get new people with new ideas to those meetings?

I will volunteer to play host to such meetings here at CUNY. Helping news transform is part of our mission, so we should. I’ll bet other universities would agree. Indeed, as budgets are cut back and trade association dues are lopped off, there’ll be a need for such ad hoc meetings – more need than ever. (Note, by the way, that the outsiders are getting together on their own at News Barcamp and we’re playing host to part of it at CUNY.)

And the wheels kept spinning. If there’s less need for trade associations – if they could even be dangerous because of the very limitations that define them – then doesn’t that indicate a diminution of the role of the trade (or industry or guild or craft or union, for that matter) in the future, when the tools get democratized and anybody can pick them up, when you don’t win through control of scarcity anymore but through supporting abundance? The idea of a closed industry and its closed association controlling a closed segment of media or the economy becomes absurd. In short: Who made you publishers and not you?

: BTW: There was a report that it was the WSJ that had me bounced. I didn’t think that was the case and Jay Rosen tweeted some reporting: It’s not.

: LATER: A rather lengthy addendum, in response to a Jay Rosen comment, here.

Guardian column: Witnesses take over the news

Here’s my Guardian column this week: reaction to witnesses’ growing role in the news in Mumbai.

The last mass-news story was 9/11, packaged from a distance. The 7/7 attacks on London and the 2004 tsunami then brought the perspective of witnesses via their cameras. The Sichuan earthquake and the Mumbai attacks brought the urgency of Twitter. The next news story will be seen live and at eye level. . . . Such will be our new view of news: urgent, live, direct, emotional, personal.

Out of the cacaphony of people sharing what they know – on the ground, in the area, then around the world – comes a greater need to make sense of it all. Thus, I conclude, organizing news will be the most important role of news organizations.

: After sending the column in, I got email from GroundReport’s Rachel Sterne telling us that:

* GroundReport.com had a full-length Mumbai attacks story on our homepage before any mainstream western outlet.
* We have published over 70 full-length articles, videos and op-eds from people on the ground there since the start of the crisis.
* GroundReport consistently published updates on terrorist whereabouts and casualty counts hours before mainstream media.
* During the attacks I used Twitter and #mumbai to recruit people on the ground in Mumbai to report, significantly adding to our coverage….

The building block of journalism is no longer the article

The old building block of journalism — the article — is proving to be inadequate in the current onslaught of news. I’ll argue here that the new building block is the topic.

The story was all we had before — it’s what would fit onto a newspaper page or into a broadcast show. But a discrete and serial series of articles over days cannot adequately cover the complex stories going on now nor can they properly inform the public. There’s too much repetition. Too little explanation. The knowledge is not cumulative. Each instance is necessarily shallow. And when more big stories come — as they have lately! — in scarce time and space and with scarce resources, each becomes even shallower. We never catch up, we never get smarter. Articles perpetuate a Ground Hog Day kind of journalism.

Talking this over with some smart folks over the last few days — in one set of conversations about newspapers and online technology and in another conversation with NPR’s David Folkenflik for a story he’ll air shortly — I came to see that we haven’t yet created the proper elemental unit of coverage of stories like these.

Six years ago, in an insightful essay, Blogger cocreator Meg Hourihan wrote that the elemental unit of online media was no longer the publication or section or page or story but the post. I think that’s right: countless grains of information, thought, or opinion, each with its own permanent link so it can become connected to something larger — carbon atoms adding up to earth.

But that alone won’t work as an organizing principle for informing a world. It is the underlying base from which we have to start. But we have to add more value atop that shifting beach.

We have many tools to work with now, first and foremost the link. The link can take us to more or less background, depending on how much each of us needs, and to original source material and to many perspectives.

The link becomes more important than the brand in news. I said to Folkenflik last night that I never would have thought to go to This American Life as a brand to find the best explanation of the credit crisis, but I did. (Its reporters are working furiously on a sequel for this week’s show.) Lots of people discovered that report and spread the word around — with the link. The link changes everything.

I think the new building block of journalism needs to be the topic. I don’t mean that in the context of news site topic pages, which are just catalogues of links built to kiss up to Google SEO. Those are merely collections of articles, and articles are inadequate.

Instead, I want a page, a site, a thing that is created, curated, edited, and discussed. It’s a blog that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering. It’s also a wiki that keeps a snapshot of the latest knowledge and background. It’s an aggregator that provides annotated links to experts, coverage, opinion, perspective, source material. It’s a discussion that doesn’t just blather but that tries to accomplish something (an extension of an article like this one that asks what options there are to bailout a bailout). It’s collaborative and distributed and open but organized.

Think of it as being inside a beat reporter’s head, while also sitting at a table with all the experts who inform that reporter, as everyone there can hear and answer questions asked from the rest of the room — and in front of them all are links to more and ever-better information and understanding.

This is the way to cover stories and life.

It’ s not an article, a story, a section, a bureau, a paper, a show. We have to use the new tools we have at hand to create new structures for covering news and informing each other. As I said in the post below, old structures are crumbling and new structures will be built in their place. We need to create that something new now.

What do we call it? I don’t know. The topic table. The beat bliki (ouch). The news brain. We’ll know what to call it when we see it.

: LATER: See Steve Yelvington on community memory and what he’s building.

Here’s Folkenflik’s story.

Losing control of media

NBC News says they will not make the videos from the Virginia mass murderer fully public and this morning on Today, Matt Lauer promised that they would not constantly loop them on the air. NBC News President Steve Capus just said on the air that “it’s so twisted” and “there’s no way to watch it without being extremely disturbed.” There’s a debate going on in blogs about whether the tapes should be released online. Dave Winer and Doc Searls say that the video should be released: “It’s 2007,” says Dave, “and it’s a decentralized world. We should all get a chance to see what’s on those videos.” But Micah Sifry says the father in him doesn’t want his kids discovering this on the internet.

As a father, I understand Micah’s wish. But that horse is out of that barn. This is related to yesterday’s discussion about news coming from witnesses, live, to the internet without the opportunity to filter it.

The essential infrastructure of news and media has changed forever: There is no control point anymore. When anyone and everyone — witnesses, criminals, victims, commenters, officials, and journalists — can publish and broadcast as events happen, there is no longer any guarantee that news and society itself can be filtered, packaged, edited, sanitized, polished, secured.

Like it or not, that’s the way it is. But before we start wringing our hands over the unique, one-in-a-billion exception to all rules — the mass murderer with a camera — let’s make sure we remember that this openness is a great and good change. It enables us all have a voice and to hear new voices.

And let’s not presume that we all need NBC or anyone to protect us from life as it is. But we do need to make sure to educate our children to be media-wise in a new media world. They will need to judge who the bad people are in life just as they will online. They need to understand that media is no longer a pasteurized and packaged version of life but life itself, witih all its benefits and dangers.

And though I don’t want to watch the murderer’s videos myself, I do think there may be a benefit to these tapes being out there: The guy was clearly insane and dangerous and what’s most shocking about this story is that people around him knew it and tried to both get him help and stop him from doing something dangerous and yet our laws even prevented his parents from being notified because of overzealous laws governing privacy. Perhaps this will motivate us to change those laws and our attitude about insanity and its dangers. That may be an advantage of the public life.

This is not an easy transition. It challenges so many assumptions we have about a controlled media. Some of us celebrate the loss of control but others fear that loss.

Davos07: Gates, Wolfowitz, and the world

Next session is on scaling innovation in foreign aid with Bill Gates, Paul Wolfowitz, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman president elected in Africa, Bill Easterly ex of the World Bank, and Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, as moderator.

Gates says that the amount spent on invested in foreign aid over the last n years is equivalent to the amount invested by venture capital: about $500 billion. He talks about aid and charity from the perspective of investment. He says that that saved about 100 million lives and that works out to $23,000 per life. Is that a lot? We spend a lot more to save lives in the West, he says. He also says that revolutions save lives.

Wolfowitz says the VC model works in some areas but not others. He says a small percentage of that U.S. aid went to Mobutu in Zaire and did more than just failed as an investment; it destroyed the country. But education is an example of strong investment; he points to South Korea. He also says the best-practices of good use of aid is consistent with the VC model. Wolfowitz says there is good news in Africa that doesn’t make news: a third of countries with a third of the population growing economically at 4 percent a year, a rate Europe would envy. Zakaria adds that that’s because in part of of high commodity prices.

Easterly says that when VC companies screw up, they die. Aid agencies don’t die. He goes on to criticize aid effort.

Gates gives a wonderfully passionate screed against that, arguing that it is wrong to judge aid based on GDP. Saving lives may not raise GDP but Gates says that saving lives in itself is of value. Asked about a Foreign Affairs story that warned of attention going heavily to sexy diseases, Gates says he is delighted that these diseases have become sexy.