Posts about newsinnovation

Jimmy Journalists

My Guardian column this week argues that what Jimmy Justice does, videotaping errant traffic cops, is vigilante journalism, but journalism nonetheless. (nonregistration version here) Snippet:

So here’s the question: is what Jimmy Justice does journalism? Consider: he is performing the watchdog function of journalism, holding government and its agents to account. He is recording facts; his video camera – oscillating between the no-parking signs and the cops’ licence plates and badges – does not lie. He is asking tough questions. Then he shares what he learns. . . .

But Jimmy’s not slick, he’s sloppily dressed, he has a grating accent and manner, and his camera wobbles. In short, he’s unprofessional.

Aren’t journalists supposed to be professional? Not necessarily. Not anymore. That is precisely what the professional class – in many trades – fears from the internet: it enables the amateurs. And that’s not always pretty. Institutional journalism considers its ability to package – to make things look neat and complete – a key value. But that expectation was really just a necessity of the tools of production: you have one chance to print this story, so make it good. In truth, a news story is a process to which many can now contribute. Life is messy. So is reporting on it. . . .

But I still say that if we care about a watched government and an informed society, then the response to Jimmy shouldn’t be to scold him but perhaps to teach him. Indeed, a commenter on my blog suggested a gadget for Jimmy that would help him hold his camera steadier. Perhaps journalistic organisations should arm a thousand Jimmys with cameras and microphones. Perhaps they should assign the public to report alongside the professionals, to gather more news than could ever be gathered before. Maybe, just maybe, this is an element of a new means – and one new business model – of news: armies of Jimmy Journalists.

MORE: Or they could be Johan Journalists. Martin Stabe says that the German tabloid Bild has used more than 400,000 photos sent readers via their mobile phones and that politicians aren’t happy about it. That must mean they’re doing something right. (Full story auf Deutsch here.) Here’s a key to it: The paper pays €500 if the picture gets in the national edition, €100 in a regional edition. Still cheaper than having 2,500 photographers on staff all over the country.

What he says

In the comments below, Howard Owens responds to the LA Times in the conversation started by its editorial about GoogleNews new comment feature. Jon Healey of the Times worried that flacks and spinsters will use Google to flack and spin without reporters there to filter it. Howard advises:

I don’t think you get it, Mr. Healey.

Let’s say company X stonewalls, and then comments as you say … well, why do you think that ends the conversation. Company X just made news by their comments, not matter how untruthful. Your story just got better. The reporter goes and writes a story about the comments and debunks them. More truth is illuminated. Readers are better informed, and they have a clearer picture of who company x really is.

This is better journalism. This is better civics.

Google is HELPING you. And us. If it works (and I’m not sure it will, but I appreciate the effort).

One of the main things that really bugged me about the LAT piece, and I still don’t think you get based on the above, is that you think readers are not smart enough. That’s the common journalistic hubris. If we aren’t there to guide readers and make sure their information is properly filtered and balanced, they won’t really be able to figure out things on their own and separate fact from spin, etc.

But, how good has journalism done at that over the past couple of decades anyway?

First, readers are smarter than most journalists give them credit for; Second, thanks to blogs and such, they’re getting smarter. The thing about the new information economy is we all have to be smarter, and that’s happening, because we’re largely on our own for filtering news and opinion. I, for one, thing that’s a good thing. It’s actually BETTER for democracy.

Sometime you might want to walk across the hall and have a long conversation with Matt Welch about all this. It would help a lot.

I emailed Matt — one of the first people to teach me how blogs and links and the distributed conversation work, back in the day — in the midst of all this when I wanted to see whether my take on the editorial was wrong. Matt was just returning from book leave (he’s about to come out with a book on John McCain) just as this kerfuffle was fuffling. But he did tell me that the Times is about to enable response on the opinion pieces his department produces. The bigger question, I think, is how to link a paper and its journalism into the larger distributed conversation in comments, links in outside blogs, and responses at GoogleNews. If someone responds anywhere, as Howard points out, the reporter should be ready to jump on that and do what reporters do: add journalism.

The L.A. Times responds

The LA Times just responded to my post about its excoriated editorial that reacted to the new GoogleNews feature enabling subjects in news stories to respond… at Google. Jon Healey writes:

Hey, thanks for the post. It’s a sign of bad writing when so many people miss the point, and aside from you, just about everybody seems to have missed the point of this editorial. I’ll take the rap for that. The comment about Osama was meant to be ridiculously over the top because, as the Times’ editorial board has said in the past, publishers have been quite wrong about Google. And that includes the guy soon to be my boss. Maybe it was confusing to readers to include a non-genuflecting reference to the new boss….

Anyway, some readers also seem to think we were criticizing Google by saying it’s not journalism. Umm, we’re not *that* hubristic. We were simply trying to remind people of the shortcomings inherent in its approach. For starters, unfiltered does not equate to true. And IMHO, it’s a really bad thing if people assumed that the comments are, in fact, screened for truth. They won’t be. That’s not to say newspaper stories are, but at least there’s often some critical thinking at work there.

Here’s the scenario that really troubles me. Investigative reporter digs up tons of documents showing that Company X lied to regulators. Reporter calls Company X, which curtly denies wrongdoing and stonewalls. Reporter writes story, including denial. Company officials then use Google to launch a lengthy and utterly bogus defense of their behavior. Is that a value add by Google? Sure, it’s just as easy to dream up the opposite — where a reporter writes something that’s just plain wrong and Google provides what amounts to a high-profile forum for a correction. And maybe that will end up being the predominant use. But there’s no telling, and in the face of conflicting assertions, Google won’t be giving readers any help figuring out who’s right. As the editorial says, that’s not its mission.

BTW, we do give people fora to respond to stories about them after they run. In addition to letters to the editor and op-eds in the newspaper, we have the Blowback section online. It would clearly be better if we enabled people to comment and discuss stories online on the same web page as the stories themselves, and we’re on our way there. So yes, what Google’s doing is a prod for us to come up with a better mechanism online. All criticism on that front is accepted.

One last point: the criticism of journalists’ listening skills (and those of the organizations they work for) is apt. But Google’s new feature isn’t just about that. It’s also about giving newsmakers a route around skeptical ears. We in this biz get it from both ends, remember; we’re stenographers *and* deaf. But sometimes, we’re also capable of recognizing when someone is lying, spinning, dodging or obfuscating.

I’m not arguing that less information is better than more information. I’m just saying it’s good for readers to understand what they’re looking at and how it got there.

All this is all the more reason why news organizations should enable comment and response at their own sites, on their own stories. And how will we deal with Healey’s fear about reporters not being there to provide facts, counterbalance, and perspective? That’s easy: The reporters should be part of that conversation. When challenged, they should come back with more facts. When wrong, of course, they should say so. And we ought to be able to subscribe to that ongoing discussion and the reporting around it. I do agree with the critics who say that newspapers without comments on stories should be ashamed that GoogleNews beat them to it.

Questioning conventional wisdom

The Times Bits Blog points us to research apparently tearing apart the generally accepted connection between cell-phone usage and auto accidents: Even as phone usage has increased, accidents have not.

Of course, it should always be the job of journalists to question conventional wisdom. But until now, no one has probed this one, so far as I know. Someone should have asked long ago whether this connection was known and how it was known and if it wasn’t someone should have noted that and looked into it. Instead, it got spread: another damned media meme.

Makes me think that newspapers should engage assumption-debunkers from the public and the academe. Now that The Times has the Freakonomics guys under their roof, perhaps they can organize a network of balloon poppers, also known as fact checkers.

The citpaper

Just saw that the Chicago Tribune is following Bakersfield’s Northwest Voice and taking citizen content contributed online and then freeze-drying it into a print publication it is distributing in a handful of suburbs.

I’m jealous. I always wanted to do something like this when I was involved with local papers.

I think there are also more ways to push the model, some I hope we can discuss at the networked jouralism conference we’re having at CUNY on Oct. 10. For example:

You don’t need to have everything come to you at the site, Backfence-like. You can go to the local bloggers and get news from their blogs. You can encourage them to do more and get more bloggers to blog. You can pay them to encourage them to contribute what you need (it’ll be cheaper than paying staff and they won’t complain as much). The bloggers can perhaps take charge of organizing the news in the community and you help them. You make the product the center of a hyperlocal ad netework, which any of the participants can sell into.

The start of something small. And that could be big.

Just kidding?

Far be it from me to defend LA Times editorialists, but I think some critics are missing the attempted irony in their excoriated opinion piece about Google and newspapers — specifically, the new GoogleNews program that enables the subjects of news stories to respond. Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review lead the lynch mob, performing a vigorous fisking of the Times.

The Times wrote: “Many publishers consider the Internet, and Google in particular, a greater threat to their livelihoods than Osama bin Laden.” And Niles harrumphed in reply: “The Los Angeles Times this morning insulted its readers in a stunning editorial that compared Google with Osama bin Laden and showed why Times editors simply do not understand the medium that is growing to dominate the news publishing industry.”

When I read about this kerfufflement elsewhere, I assumed — as you probably would — that I’d agree with Niles. But reading the Times piece, I think that bin Laden line was so over the top it was intended to mock Luddite ink-stained wretches and distance the wise, newfangled Times from those old fools (including, it would seem, their new owner, Sam Zell, who, the editorial reminds us, “once famously asked, ‘If all of the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content, how profitable would Google be?’ “).

In the end, I read the Times editorial as a defense of Google against frequent charges that it is competitive with newspapers.

The Times acknowledges, albeit without enthusiasm, that this new Google feature may expose news stories’ mistakes: “News organizations have their flaws, and the added comments on Google may demonstrate that.” Indeed. But then they go on to argue that journalism is about asking questions and these sources’ comments will go up not as a result of questions and without questioning in response and so this isn’t journalism.

The Times dismisses Google’s new feature and thus says that Google isn’t competition. I would certainly agree with that. Many of those aforementioned Luddite newspaper publishers who fear Google more than bin Laden would disagree. But I say Google is the new newsstand. It is a way to be found and read. It is a reporting tool. It is a presentation tool (with maps and such). It is now a means of continuing the journalistic process by getting response and with it more viewpoints and facts. Google could also be your ad sales force. Oh, there’s much to fret about Google’s power. But as journalistic competition? No, it’s not trying to compete. And I think that was where the Times was trying to get, if by an odd detour. I think.

Now having said all that, I agree with many of Niles’ criticisms — especially of “stenographic journalism” — and I’d say that the editorial was clumsy at best. Irony — if that is, indeed their intent — is hard, especially in L.A.

But more important — and here’s where I vigorously agree with Niles — the editorial was the wrong response to the Google feature. The proper answer from the Times — and every other newspaper in the country — should have been: “Me, too. Good idea, Google. News source, you don’t have to go to Google to respond to, correct, clarify, or augment articles. You can do it right here at our newspaper.com. We don’t just welcome this new opportunity to listen better and get more perspectives and facts. We will beg you to do it. Because it will improve jouranlism.” That is what the Times should have said.

And that’s in essence what Dave Winer is suggesting when he again proposes that newspapers should host the blogs of everyone they quote. I don’t know that I’d want to be hosted by a bunch of newspapers. But I would want them to open up the right of response there and I would want them to link to my own blog (a process we are starting to see in places such as the Washington Post). That’s what the Times should be doing with its editorial: linking to Niles and Winer and me and encouraging the discussion to continue. That is the real lesson Google is teaching.

Is local news doomed? Naw.

The Shorenstein Center at Harvard just released a report arguing that local newspapers are the most threatened by the internet. I’ll discuss how to deal with that “threat” in a moment.

But first, I have to say that I think the report’s methodology — and, a few cases, its analysis — are seriously flawed. They relied on just one source of data for news sites’ audience, Compete.com, and in my random check of its data versus the stats I know for various services, Compete wildly undercounts audience — by half or as much as two-thirds. Like all sampling methodology in a broadly distributed or fragmented universe, it cannot possibly accurately measure smaller, nicheier sites — that is, it will be biased against local sites because their audiences are smaller. In other words, its undercount for local news sites I know is worse than its undercount of NYTimes.com. And that comparison is critical to the study’s conclusions: that big, national brands are better off than local brands. They say they picked Compete because it is free and U.S.-based and that its rankings are relatively in line with other services. But rankings are not the basis of this report; absolute numbers are. So it is a pity that they did not also approach the sites they analyze to get server data and compare that with the samplers’ data. It also would have been helpful to go to services that have a broader view of traffic, such as Tacoda, to triangulate their data and also deal with issues of audience overlap.

Having said that, let’s still take the Shorenstein report’s conclusions at face value and talk about how local newspapers can deal with this alleged threat.

But first, I’ll challenge the notion that it’s a threat. As I see it, local newspapers are, for the first time since the advent of network news in the ’50s, in competitive markets. And I’ll argue that competition is good and healthy. The continuing growth of the national brands the report points to comes in a highly competitive national news market. So while the report notes that some of its small sample of metro papers are suffering flat or even declining traffic, it also notes growth in local TV stations’ sites — now that they are getting competitive and now that video is a workable medium on the web. And so, adding newspapers’ traffic with TV sites’ — and the many other local sites that are starting to blossom and that the report acknowledges are nearly impossible to measure using sampled data — isn’t there a net growth in local news traffic? anticipated. The report wonders: “[I]t is not clear just how much Internet traffic a particular community can bear. If local newspapers, television stations, and radio stations all compete strongly for residents’ Internet
time, are there enough users to go around?” That’s the wonder of competition. It’s not as if we pick one news site and stick with it; that’s even less likely in a medium built on links and search. No, I say that more news means more interest in news.

But let’s still accept the Shorenstein conclusion that national brands will have an easier time than local brands in attracting traffic. Says the report: “The Internet is also a larger threat to local news organizations than to those that are nationally known. Because the Web reduces the influence of geography on people’s choice of a news source, it inherently favors ‘brand names’–those relatively few news organizations that readily come to mind to Americans everywhere when they go to the Internet for news.”

I think they have a point. In a portal economy, the big guys get bigger. But I’ll keep arguing that the most successful internet company — Google — isn’t a portal but a distributed network and there are lessons in that for local news: WWGD.

So given present circumstances, are local newspaper sites screwed? Let’s take the Shorenstein report’s worst case and say they are. But the response to that should not be to lie down and die but to figure out what to do about it. This isn’t an attack on local newspapers. It is a new market reality. The only responsible response is change. A few humble suggestions, linking to posts on the subject I’ve written here:

* Get distributed. Get aggregated. The Shorenstein report marvels at the growth of Digg — growth so great (2-to-15 million users in a year) it wouldn’t fit on their chart. But the report’s authors come at this with an old-media prejudice: that aggregators are “free riders” that compete without bearing “an equitable share of the production costs.” Wrong analysis. These aggregators are your distributors — and they’re even better than newsstands because they’re more efficient and targeted and they don’t take a cut of your circulation revenue. So the natural question the report should be asking — the one that more and more wise newspapers are asking is: How do we get on Digg more often? How do get more links and audience Digg?

A while ago, I had lunch with a big-paper executive and brought son Jake along. The executive was pooh-poohing Digg, saying nobody really uses it. At that very moment — swear to God Google — Jake was sensibly bored and was engrossed in his iPhone. What was he doing? Digging. And how does Jake find the news he reads — and it’s a lot of news? Through Digg and friends. Aggregators and links, the magic combination. Jake told the executive that he doesn’t even go to blogs to read them anymore. He gets his news not from portals and brands but from links.

Keep in mind that I’m a partner at an aggregator, Daylife. Part of my reason for getting involved is that I believe aggregation and links are the keys to success for news organizations online. Without aggregation and links, all you have is marketing costs to attract users to a portal that doesn’t fit in their online lives anymore.

* Think beyond the link: Widget it. Perhaps a link isn’t enough. In relying on the link, we are still making people come to us. We should be going to them. Listen to CBS’ Quincy Smith: “We can’t expect consumers to come to us. It’s arrogant for any media company to assume that.” What does that mean? I’m not sure. But think of it this way: The more that we can find ways to put out content out there — and benefit from branding and monetization via advertising or other means — and the more we can get people to distribute us (in which case, we are the free riders), the larger we will grow. So if we can come up with those means, we should encourage the aggregators and portals and bloggers to take our stuff and spread it around. If.

* Network. Network. Network. We need to network in every sense of the word:
1. Just as we need to be aggregated, we need to aggregate. We need to pull in a broader network of content from our communities. We can’t do it all ourselves, not anymore.
2. We need to set up networks that benefit these new producers so we can gather more and produce less. I mean ad networks.
3. Get involved in our communities. If our value is local then we have to get local and mean it. We need to crack the hyperlocal nut and that’s not just about content. That’s about enabling a community to do what it wants to do. That’s about human relations in our communities. Local is about people.
So in the long run, to measure our success and influence and loyalty, you don’t just measure one site, you measure our presence in the community online.

* Promote while we still can. Rather than fretting about cannibalization, we should be using our diminishing promotional power to push people to what comes next. Invent it. Promote it.

* Report, damnit, report. The most important thing we can do is, of course, bring journalism to the community: report. We need to become known as the indispensable sources of local help and information and I’d argue — contrary to the Shorenstein report — that this comes not from trying to compete with the big guys in national, commodity news but by putting all our resources behind what we do best and what no one else — including, ferchrissakes, local TV — can afford to do: report. We have to make our value absolutely clear and we need to increase that value even as our resources are diminished. How? Do what you do best and link to the rest.

: LATER: And while we’re screwing newspapers, let me finally get around to analyzing Henry Blodget’s eulogy for newspapers now that he is tossing more dirt into the grave arguing that the big only guys only get bigger while the once-big offline guys only get smaller. Jack Schofield does a great job summarizing reaction from Seamus McCauley, not to mention Steve Yelvington.

Blodget’s first analysis — in which he purports to run the numbers and show how the New York Times is screwed — is flawed for many of the reasons these others point out (the Times is the Grand Exception to all rules, for example) and others’ I’ll point out.

First, he far underestimates the savings that would result from the hypothetical death of print. I don’t have current numbers for the Times, but use the San Francisco Chronicle as an example: It has 3,000 employees, 400 of whom are editorial. Blodget said that if paper died at the Times, only 25 percent of labor costs would disappear. Hardly. Ink, paper, printing, handling, distribution, circulation marketing, accountants who audit sleazy distributors, plants for all this, trucks… lots of costs would disappear. I’ve heard it said that this would amount to $1 billion a year at the Times.

Second, there are other savings that papers other than the Times can execute — getting rid of commodity news, for example.

Third, there’s no reason to say that some highly profitable print products could not remain — specialized publications, free papers, hyperlocal publications, and so on.

The fundamental problem with both Blodgett’s and the Shorenstein report’s analyses — not to mention the worldview of too many a newspaper executive still — is that they essentially define the product as it is, steady state, without the innovation, change and growth the internet enables and demands.

Who says that a newspaper is just news? It can also be community. Who says all the content is produced by expensive staff? Much of it can be produced in a broader network the paper doesn’t have to pay for. Who says that the only inventory to be sold is on newspaper.com page? Build a bigger network and you have more to sell. And who says Google has to own the world?

Blodget’s latest analysis argues that Google is “sucking the life out of media.” That’s because we in media are letting Google do that — indeed, helping Google do that. Newspapers make it painfully difficult for advertisers large and small to buy them — because they spent so many years operating as monopolies (I honestly know people in the classifieds departments of newspapers who spent their days telling advertisers what they could not do with their money). And they have no idea how to serve the limitless mass of small advertisers who couldn’t afford them before but who can now afford Google. Add to this the general behind-the-times stupidness of advertisers and, yes, you do have a formula for Google world domination. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Newspapers and media companies can create and sell new value to advertisers and can band into networks to make it as easy for those advertisers to give them money as it is for them to go fill in a form at Google.

If they do nothing, I agree that newspapers are screwed. But there’s still time to do something. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Vigilante journalism

I love Jimmy Justice, the guy who wanders the streets of New York videotaping traffic cops who are violating the traffic laws they are supposed to enforce and confronting them with their sins. This is the power of the people, armed with their own cameras and the internet, acting as watchdogs on government. Isn’t that journalism?

On the Today Show this morning, David Gregory got on a high horse interviewing Jimmy, asking whether he wasn’t just a bit obnoxious. (I dare you to try to find the story on the show’s site; I can’t.) *

Well, what’s any less obnoxious about a reporter asking the same question? That’s exactly why subjects so often think reporters are rude: they’re being asked questions they don’t want to answer. But here’s Gregory calling a citizen with a camera obnoxious for doing what reporters do. Maybe that’s because Jimmy has an accent and an attitude. Gregory clearly thinks that asking the question in a tie with a sterile TV voice is less obnoxious: more professional. Style is substance on TV. And I can hear someone now saying that Jimmy has an ax to grind, a bias, an agenda. Well, yes, but so does a reporter when he decides to follow that cop and confront her about her actions; that agenda is precisely the motivation for the question. It’s all journalism.

If they really care about watchdogging government and its abuses of power, the proper response from the Today show and any journalistic organization should be to encourage more people to do what Jimmy is doing. What’s wrong with more watchdogs on the street? Indeed, Today should hand out some video cameras or at least share a few lessons with Jimmy about how to shoot video without giving us motion sickness. And it would be generous of them to talk about Jimmy’s rights to shoot public officials’ actions in public, since those officials try to threaten and intimidate Jimmy.

Hey, Mr. Gregory: You and Jimmy are on the same side. You’re doing journalism. It may not sound as slick, but the end result is the same.

* LATER: Thanks to Dan in the comments for finding the Today segment. David Gregory’s fuller quote: “It’s a little obnoxious. Do you not worry about coming off as an obnoxious, aggressive guy here?”

Do reporters? Should they?

Jimmy says he was frustrated getting anyone to pay attention to his complaints about the traffic officers: “I had to bring it to YouTube. I had to show it to the people.”