Posts about tow-knight

But is it journalism? (Damnit)

Four incidents of late challenge the very notion of journalism. Michael Arrington, Henry Blodget, Wikileaks, and TV’s Irene coverage each in their own way raise the question: What is journalism? And does it matter?

When Michael Arrington announced that he was starting an investment fund at Aol with capital from other VCs, Kara Swisher went after him for violating canons of journalism. Just one thing: Arrington rejects the title of journalist. At his Disrupt conference, I tried to get him to take on the mantle and alter it. But he sees nothing to aspire to there.

In Swisher’s case, one has to concede — as she does — the irony in riding the journalistic high horse from within News Corp., which is rapidly becoming journalism’s Death Valley. I asked her on Twitter what she had written about hackgate and she responded at length with multiple links in this thread. She has written about it and has been, as she says, more vocal than other Journal journalists. That’s what troubles me. I would have hoped that WSJ reporters and editors as a group would have spoken out against not only hackgate but also their paper’s anemic coverage of it and its humiliating editorial justification of its owners. Where are their standards?

What are the standards? Arrington, remember, started TechCrunch not as a journalistic venture but instead to gather and share information about startups and to promote himself as an investor. He is returning to his roots. Along the way, he created a media entity of value. I noted on Google+ that The New York Times Company invests in startups (including one where I’m a partner, Daylife) and starts them and still covers them. It will say it maintains a wall. Arrington, not so much. Neither church nor state, he’s not trying to be a journalist. He’s trying to get information. He does it well. He has covered startups better than any big paper; that’s why WashingtonPost.com publishes TechCrunch posts. Given his links to startups and investment, can we trust him? That’s what Swisher’s trying to make us ask.

Now look at Henry Bodget, another businessperson who creates a media enterprise around gathering and sharing information — which we journalists define as journalism … if it’s done to our standards. Jay Rosen challenges Blodget for using confidential sources in this thread: “I hate the way @BusinessInsider uses anonymity.” But Blodget has an answer: “Sorry, Jay. Sometimes (often) it’s the only way to get the real info…. In business, anyone who goes on the record has agenda.” Felix Salmon counters: “Anyone who goes OFF record has an agenda. And those guys are more likely to lie. I trust on-the-record more.” Blodget: “Then you’ve clearly never worked in business. On record is only propaganda.”

Note cultures clashing. The journalism tribe says that confidential sources and the journalists who use them are not to be trusted. I agree that journalists overuse them. That’s not reporting to our standards. But the deal-makers disagree. Blodget says, “My goal is to get to the truth.” Isn’t that journalists’ goal, too? How can he get there by a different route? Is that journalism? Who’s to say? The journalists? Perhaps not.

Now look at TV coverage of Irene. Complaints about it have been miscast as “overhyping” the storm. The storm was severe. My problem was instead the over-exploitation and under-reporting of the storm. They had “reporters” as cast members standing thigh-deep in the surf or even being covered in sewage not to impart information, not to get to the truth, but to entertain. How much better it would have been if even a few of them had been dispatched north the center of their universe, New York, to report the devastation that would come there. My problem with the coverage is that all it did was take information already available to us all and repeat it endlessly and theatrically, adding no value.

Wikileaks saw, for a bit, the ability of journalism to add value to the flow of information. Julian Assange went to the Guardian, The Times, and Der Spiegel to get their help redacting leaks to make their revelation — in the view of these participants — responsible; to add context and facts; to promote the leaks and get them noticed. Now these journalistic organizations are disavowing Assange as he releases unredacted cables and Assange is disavowing the Guardian for publishing what it thought was a dead password to the files (though who was responsible for the entire file being available is another question). Assange has called himself a journalist; now the journalists are rejecting him. They say he’s violating their standards, though there is no rule I know of that would cover these eventualities, except perhaps the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.

What is journalism, then? I define it broadly — some would say too broadly, but I am always afraid my umbrella is not broad enough. I say that journalism helps a community organize its knowledge so it can better organize itself. I say that a community can now share its information without us, so we journalists must ask how we add value to that exchange. I use Andy Carvin as a model of adding value through vetting, questioning, challenging, and giving context and attention to the end-to-end, witness-to-world flow that already goes on without him. But he violates plenty of rules, passing on information before it is known to be true — so we can get closer to what is true.

What is journalism, really? Does it matter? I’ve long said — ever since I rejected my own use of the term “citizen journalist” — that is a mistake to define journalism by who does it, as anyone can commit an act of journalism. Anyone can share information. By that definition, Arrington and certainly Blodget are committing acts of journalism as they gather and share information quite effectively. TV news is less effective. Wikileaks is perhaps too effective.

So what the hell is journalism? Dave Winer says it doesn’t matter. “Journalism itself is becoming obsolete,” he argues well. Mathew Ingram recasts what Winer says, asking whether journalism is obsolete because anyone can do it.

In a wonderful email thread among the members of Journal Register’s advisory board (of which I am privileged to be a member), we debated about the Washington Post’s new social rules. Jay Rosen said, in the kind of essential abstraction I try to learn from him, that “the subtext of all such rule sets: ‘We’re in charge. Really…We are!’” Is that what journalists are doing when they set social rules or claim that Arrington or Blodget or Wikileaks violate journalistic rules (or when I claim that TV news does)? The rule-setters would argue that rules define what they do. Rules try to protect one from the consequences of bad judgment. Those subject to rules — or those we journalists would like to subject to them — would say that rules are a way to exercise power and sometimes to exclude. In the thread, I recalled the worst and best of my time at Time Inc., when I was saved not by rules but by one editor’s integrity, by the principles she maintained.

As I was trying to think through this post — a process obviously not over — I tweeted: “Information, more and more, comes from nonjournalists who’ve not signed the pledge.” To which Chris Tolles of Topix replied: “This is key. Journalism no longer the gatekeeper. Journalists’ protests about this are guild protectionism.” There’s the peril of setting rules: They are, in so many senses of the word, limiting.

Journalism is not defined by who does it and who does it does not define journalism.

So what is journalism, damnit?

I don’t know.

I know that people can exchange information and knowledge easier than ever. I believe there is a need for someone to add value to that exchange. I hope that “someone” can be journalists who will use precious resources only to bring value. I pray their efforts can be sustainable (that is, that they can eat; that’s why I do what I do in entrepreneurial journalism). But I think we need to question — not reject, but reconsider — every assumption: what journalism is, who does it, how they add value, how they build and maintain trust, their business models. I am coming to wonder whether we should even reconsider the word journalism, as it carries more baggage than a Dreamliner. These are the questions I see raised by Arrington, Blodget, et al. Do they matter? You tell me.

: YET MORE: Jay Rosen, as I’d hoped, abstracted the discussion including his abstraction. In the comments, he write: “The users don’t care about “journalism” all that much. That’s the name the producers of it have for what they do. News, information, “what’s happening,” accountability, staying in touch, alert system, “just tell me what I need to know…” Yes. The users care about those things. Journalism? Not so much.”

Right. The question of what is and isn’t journalism is one that journalists ask. It has nothing to do with the questions the public asks. And the journalist’s job, supposedly, is to answer the public’s questions. Disconnect, eh?

: And in the also-lively discussion on this post at Google+, David Sass has an interesting perspective:

I submit journalism was never more more than a academic concept – like Plato’s forms – that never really existed except as a vague concept in poly-sci textbooks. The reality is that I receive information from many sources – from direct observation, from friends, from entertainment, from politicians, from government, from media, from pundits/propagandist. Journalism is the naive belief that I should trust any one of these sources more or less than another. . . Information is not to be trusted from ANY source. To believe otherwise is to abdicate your individual responsibility to seek the truth.

Hard economic lessons for news

I’m working on a talk that I hope will become the canonical link to my essential message about the business rules and realities of news. I continue to be astonished at the economic naiveté I hear in discussions of the business of news. (Look at this comment thread and and this one.) Here is my answer, the basis of a talk — to be delivered in tweets, in the model of John Paton — and a lesson for my classes. Work in progress. Thoughts so far; please join in….

RULES FOR BUSINESS MODELS

* Tradition is not a business model. The past is no longer a reliable guide to future success.

* “Should” is not a business model. You can say that people “should” pay for your product but they will only if they find value in it.

* “I want to” is not a business model. My entrepreneurial students often start with what they want to do. I tell them, no one — except possibly their mothers — gives a damn what they *want* to do.

* Virtue is not a business model. Just because you do good does not mean you deserve to be paid for it.

* Business models are not made of entitlements and emotions. They are made of hard economics. Money has no heart.

* Begging is not a business model. It’s lazy to think that foundations and contributions can solve news’ problems. There isn’t enough money there. (Foundation friend to provide figures here.)

* There is no free lunch. Government money comes with strings.

* No one cares what you spent. Arguing that news costs a lot is irrelevant to the market.

* The only thing that matters to the market is value. What is your service worth to the public?

* Value is determined by need. What problem do you solve?

* Disruption is the law of the jungle and the internet. If someone can do what you do cheaper, better, faster, they will.

* Disrupt thyself. So find your weak underbelly before someone else discovers it. Or find someone else’s.

* The bottom line matters more than the top line. Plan for profitability over revenue, sustainability over size.

REALITY CHECKS FOR NEWSPAPERS

* Circulation will continue to decline. There can be no doubt.

* Cutting costs will reduce product quality and value, which will further reduce circulation, which will further reduce ad revenue. A vicious, unstoppable cycle.

* Low-cost competitors and abundance will continue to reduce the price of advertising.

* Local retail will continue to consolidate, further reducing ad revenue. Blame Amazon.

* Classified categories—real estate, auto, jobs, merchandise—will continue to become more self-sufficient. They will need market mediators less and less.

* There’s a cliff coming: the end of a critical-mass of circulation needed to maintain inserts. That will have a big impact on newspapers’ P&Ls and will take away a primary justification for still printing and distributing paper.

* Some readers are not worth saving. One newspaper killed its stock tables, saved $1 million, and lost 12 subs. That means it had been paying $83k/year to maintain those readers. In creating business plans, the net future value of readers should be calculated and maximized.

* Once fixed costs are sliced to the bone, they will rise again. Cutting alone does not a business strategy make.

* “The newspaper model is broken and can’t be fixed.” Says John Paton.

DIGITAL RULES

* Scaling local sales is the key challenge. Google will pick low-hanging fruit from the 6 million businesses that have claimed their Places pages. Facebook’s fruit will be businesses that use its free Deals. Each will use distant sales. Groupon and Patch will attack the challenge with the brute force of local sales staff.

* There will always be new competitors. For content, attention, advertising, and advertising sales.

* You no longer control the market. You are a member of an ecosystem. Play well with others.

* Abundance will drive down prices in digital even more than in print. That’s the lesson Google tries to teach media (and government).

* The question about pay walls is whether they are the *best* way to make the *most* money. It’s not a religious matter. It’s a practical question of whether circulation revenue will net more than equivalent advertising, whether one can afford to give up audience and growth, what the costs are to support pay.

OPPORTUNITIES

* Scaling local sales is the key opportunity. I think the answer will lie in productizing services for local merchants (across all these platforms — not just selling them space in a media site but also helping them with Google Place pages and Foursquare and Facebook deals and Twitter specials) and establishing new, independent, entrepreneurial sales forces. The key challenge then will be holding down the cost of sale and production.

* There is huge growth potential in increasing engagement. Facebook gets roughly 30 times the engagement of newspaper sites, Huffington Post’s engagement is also a multiple of newspapers’. If we are truly community services, then we must rethink our relationship with the public, becoming more a platform for our communities, and that will multiply engagement and, with it, audience, traffic, and data. We have not begun to extend and exploit the full potential of the value news organizations can have in relationships with their communities: more people, more value, more engagement equals more value to extract.

* There are still efficiences to be found in infrastructure. If the presses and the distribution and sales arms of papers are not in and of themselves profit centers, they should be jettisoned and their tasks outsourced. If other tasks — including editorial tasks — can be consolidated, they should be.

* Journalists should do only that which adds maximum value. That’s not telling the public what it already knows. It’s not exercising ego. It’s not production. It is reporting, vetting, curating, explaining, organizing, teaching…. Do what you do best and link to the rest.

* There is growth to be found in networks. The more members there are in the ecosystem, the more content there is to link to (without having to go to the cost of creating it), the more opportunities there are for free promotion (links in), the more opportunities there are in aggregated and joint sales. See our work on new business models for news in the local ecosystem at CUNY.

* There are efficiencies to be found in collaboration. Working with the community and with other members of the ecosystem enables a news organization to specialize and increase value and to do more with less.

* There are other revenue streams worth exploring. Local bloggers are making considerable shares of their revenue in events. Newspapers are going into the real estate business and are also selling merchandise.

* We have not begun to explore new definitions of news.

: Note: I rearranged a few of the rules and combined two into one for better organization.

: Was mit Medien translates these rules into German. And translated again.

The NJ News Co-op

Please take a look at — and rate and comment on! — a proposal I helped draft for the Knight News Challenge proposing a co-op to support the emerging local news ecosystem in otherwise-deprived New Jersey.

The idea is that the scattered, independent members of that ecosystem need help to (1) curate and share the best of what they do across all media and get them more attention; (2) organize them to create collaborative works of journalism; to train them in skills from journalism to new media to business; and (3) begin to fill in the blanks that the ecosystem and the market leave with beat reporting and investigations. It’s not meant to be a news organization so much as it helps organize and support other news organizations of all sizes, media, and models in the state. The goal is not to grow a large enterprise but to help grow a large ecosystem.

I believe we are seeing the new ecosystem emerge (see our business modeling at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism here) but I also believe it needs help and support to grow and inspire more journalists and community members to join in. Thus the co-op.

The notion of a co-op was inspired by Deb Gallant, New Jersey’s own Queen of Hyperlocal at a meeting organized by my friend and neighbor, Chris Daggett, whom you last saw here when he ran as an independent for governor of New Jersey; now he heads the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Chris brought together other foundations plus journalists, public broadcasting folks, and state officials in an all-day meeting to look at what can be done to help New Jersey’s media future. There are other efforts coming out of these players; this is just one.

New Jersey’s media scene is a unique mess. It has never been served by the media outlets at either end of the state, in New York and Philadelphia. The daily newspapers are shrinking rapidly. The governor has been looking to sell the public broadcasting licenses here at NJN and, truth be told, they’ve never been robust.

But all that bad news is good news, for it means that New Jersey is a blank slate, a unique opportunity to build a new media sphere. We want to nurture that development. This endeavor is a not-for-profit cooperative. These enterprises also need commercial help with revenue (advertising and events); others are simultaneously working on that.

(Because entries lose paragraph-spacing, it’s a bit hard to read on the Knight site. So you can read it here but please, please do comment there. We’re eager for suggestions and questions and help in fleshing this out.)

Entrepreneurial Journalism curriculum at CUNY

Here are the courses that make up the new Entrepreneurial Journalism curriculum at CUNY. We plan to offer these courses this spring–to our own students and to midcareer journalists. Once approved by the state, we’ll award a certificate and then an MA in entrepreneurial journalism.

This Monday evening the 29th at 6p, we’ll hold an information session at the school–219 W. 40th St. in NY–and we’ll stream it for folks who can’t be there. Details here. We’re accepting applications now–admissions addresses here.

We’ll teach a course in business basics in the media context and a course in new business models for news–which is really, I’ve discovered, a course about disruption (whether you cause it or have to cope with it). Students will create their own business plans and incubate them in a third course. We’ll give students an immersion in relevant technologies to inform their plans. And students will work on an apprenticeship in a New York startup to be exposed to startup and engineering culture. I’m delighted to be teaching these courses with my colleague, Jeremy Caplan, and others we’re recruiting in various specialties.

Students may leave starting their own businesses and making their own jobs. They may work for startups. They may bring entrepreneurship into legacy companies. And legacy companies may send them to the program. In my Entrepreneurial Journalism class at CUNY — an inspiration for this program — we have a few midcareer professionals in the class this term and I’m finding the mix with students to be good. So we plan to continue that mix in the larger program.

This educational program is one of the three legs of the stool that makes up the new Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. We will also continue research on new business models for news. We are also starting in incubator and investment fund. The research will inform the students businesses and those in the incubator and identify new opportunities we can help start. The courses we create for this program will also bring in resources to help teach and support businesses in the incubator. And having more services in the incubator will help the students with their businesses. That’s the idea.

At the end of the day, we hope to bring more innovation and innovators to journalism. That’s the hope.

Here are the syllabi (don’t ya love that word?) for the courses. If you would prefer, you can see them on Google Docs here.

CUNY Entrepreneurial Journalism curriculum

The Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism

Today we at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism are announcing the founding and funding of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism.

The Center, which I’ll direct, received $3 million each from the Tow and Knight foundations, in addition to earlier funding from the McCormick, MacArthur, and Carnegie foundations and CUNY. We will:

* Establish the country’s first MA degree in entrepreneurial journalism for our students and also offer certificates in the field for mid-career professional journalists.

* Continue our research in new business models for news, following on our work last summer in the new ecosystem of local news.

* Help create new enterprises in news. More on that later.

See the entire release here.

This all flows from an essential optimism about the future of journalism. We just have to build it. That’s why I’ve been teaching entrepreneurial journalism — with seven students’ businesses in development now with a total of $100,000 in seed funding — and why we are expanding that into a degree and certificate program to prepare journalists to start and run businesses and make journalism sustainable. That’s why we will continue to bring concrete specifics to the discussion about new business models for news. And that’s why we will help create those businesses in and out of the school. We will also help lead the movement to teach journalists to be entrepreneurs at other schools. And we have other plans.

I’m grateful to the The Tow Foundation for giving us the challenge grant that led to today and to the Knight Foundation for pushing us to elevate our ambition. I’m grateful to the McCormick and MacArthur foundations the Carnegie Corporation for funding work that paved the way for the center. And I’m grateful to my CUNY colleagues — Dean Steve Shepard, Associate Dean Judy Watson — for having the vision to support this work.

Watch this space.