How (not) to interview

Here’s an object lesson for journalism students in the art of the interview.

Poor Sundar Pichai, the No. 2 at Google, sat down for an interview with a New York Times technology reporter, only to find himself bombarded with the same question a half-dozen ways, to wit: Aren’t mobile phones bad for us?

First question: “Do you see mobile phones heading down a path of social unacceptability? Do we have a problem of overuse?”

After acknowledging that phones can do good things — goddamned miracles, I’d say — the reporter came back to his plaint: “But then people start doing things like checking their email at dinner. Are there things Google is doing to return people to where they are and reduce the temptation to look at their phone?” Like everything else, isn’t this your fault, Google?

Sundar tried to politely deflect: “You’re asking questions that have nothing to do with technology. Should kids check phones at dinner? I don’t know. To me that’s a parenting choice.”

The reporter tried again. And then again: “As you have risen in the ranks at Google, have you noticed that people use their phones less in meetings with you?”

And again: “Have you done anything to ease back? I have a policy that I’m not allowed to walk around the house with my phone. It has to stay in one room.”

Oh, jeesh. I imagine the reporter getting Grandma’s telephone table from the front hall and tying an iPhone to it. Some of us would say that eliminating the need for wires was progress.

It’s not hard to see what was happening here: The same reporter had an “analysis” published the same day on devices and programs to get users to crack that addiction the reporter thinks we have to our phones. He interviewed Pichai and decided to make a blog post out of the transcript, giving us a window to the sausage factory. The writer wanted a quote for his story. So he did what reporters often do: He asks the same question over and over … until he gets the quote he wants for his story. That’s how interviews are too often held: to fill in a blank the writer has already made rather than really listening and being open to new information and new angles.

When a reporter does this to me, I finally say: You can ask the same thing as many times as you want but I’m not giving you the answer you want. Corporate executives trying to make nice can’t do that.

The state of hyperlocal

newsTow-Knight just released a new survey of the state of business at hyperlocal sites, conducted by Michele McLellan, creator of the authoritative Michele’s List.

The bottom line remains: This is a tough business. A third of them bring in more than $100,000 a year; the rest under. Almost half are profitable and another quarter have a steady flow of income. Most are heavily dependent on advertising. The good news, as far as I’m concerned: Many have hired business and sales help.

This is important work, for as I wrote in Geeks Bearing Gifts, I believe that beat businesses can be a building block of broad new news ecosystems in communities. This is why we now support Michele’s List at Tow-Knight. This is why we just held training for new beat businesses here. This is why I work with the Dodge Foundation in New Jersey on helping to support and build the news ecosystem in my home state. We need more training in business to bring these journalists running beat businesses to sustainability. But as Michele shows, this is also hard work, damned hard work.

Michele suggests possible areas for further research. I will argue to foundations that care about healthy news ecosystems that they should help support their growth by giving seed grants and funding training for new beat businesses. I hope other journalism and business schools will help train these brave entrepreneurs who care about their communities.

An object lesson for native content makers

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Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, finds itself between a lump of coal and a hard place by working for old energy companies while it also tries to appeal to corporate responsibility clients.

And therein lies an object lesson for media companies getting into the business of making and publishing native content. For that work — “telling brands’ stories,” as we euphemistically put it — puts the media company into the business of a public relations or advertising agency. It forces us to ask: Whom do we serve? And what does our brand stand for?

In What Would Google Do? — inspired by ad genius Rishad Tobaccowala — I came to argue that public relations firms should take their title seriously and represent the public to the company rather than the company to the public. It necessarily follows that if a brand owner flouts the advice of such a public envoy, then the envoy needs to fire the client or it will lose its trust from the public.

Are public relations (or advertising) companies willing to do that? Judging by the evidence of the story pictured above, no. And that’s not at all surprising. PR companies exist to fall on their own swords for their clients.

But what of news companies? Will they be willing to fire a brand and give up the business of telling its story? Where are the lines? What if Shell Oil comes to your news organization, checkbook in hand, to tell its story, or that fracking company that advertises every Sunday morning wants you to make a video about the wonders they enable? Or a gun maker while you’re exposing deaths by firearms? Or a drug manufacturer when your newsroom is busy exposing how drug makers addict children to opioids? Is it one matter to publish their ads and another to make them?

Just asking.

Calling all entrepreneurial–and social–journalism educators

At CUNY on July 16 and 17, we are holding our second annual summit for entrepreneurial journalism educators and combining it with our first annual summit for social journalism educators. Two, two, two mints in one.

Here’s the sign-up.

We will start the day on Thursday, July 16 focusing on entrepreneurial journalism education, this year focusing on the teaching of design thinking and once again sharing best practices. That afternoon, we will join with social-journalism educators to share problems and solutions. And, because unconferences are de regueur, we’ll reserve time to break into discussions that you want to have. The next morning, we will shift our focus to social journalism education. Because this field is so new, we will focus on defining what social journalism is: definitions, pedagogical goals, and the relationship with mainstream journalism education.

My colleagues at CUNY — Jeremy Caplan from entrepreneurial journalism and Carrie Brown from social journalism — and I will share our experience teaching in both fields.

You should sign up and come if you teach or want to teach in either field. Everyone is welcome to stay for both halves as we figure there will be much overlap.

This was a great event last year at which we shared many best practices and solutions to each others’ problems. It is back by popular demand.

Playing leapfrog and werewolf with Google and Facebook

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First Google made its friendship pact with eight old, European publishers, vowing to innovate together. Then Facebook leapfrogged Google — by a considerable distance — launching its Instant Articles with nine publishers, old world and new, inviting them into its mobile News Feed and helping them make money to boot. Now it’s Google’s turn to leapfrog Facebook. We like this game.

That opportunity for publishers — to build upon these positive steps — is what I, for one, emphasized this weekend in more than one session at Google’s excellent gathering in Helsinki, Newsgeist Europe, an unconference where we the participants chose what to talk about. Among other topics, we chose to talk about what Google could do for news, about Facebook as the new distributor — and sometimes editor — of the news, and about at least one idea to take advantage of that new reality.

That idea is something Google News chief Richard Gingras and I advocated at the last Newsgeist in the U.S., something I’ve been working on for years: the containerized, embeddable article that travels to any site with brand, revenue, analytics, and links attached. In other words, let’s take what Facebook has done with Instant Articles and open it up to any creator and any embedder. I was delighted to hear serious discussion of the notion at this Newsgeist, opening the door to reimagining the distribution of news so that instead of always requiring and depending on our users to come to us, we can now take our news to them.

Now there are many many issues and questions around this model, and you can count on a circleful of journalists to raise them all: how distributed news affects the business of journalism and how both creators and distributors can share in the value they make; the power and responsibility our new distributors hold over the dissemination of information and whether they will act as protectors of news or as censors or catalysts for cat lists; whether creators will get the specific user data they need to build relationships of relevance and value with the people they serve (that is the key issue, I think).

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we will recognize that the horse — and the article — have left the barn. Facebook was already a primary source of audience — links and clicks — for news. Now it will be a key distributor of complete content. You can bet that others will follow, taking what they already have — Twitter with its cards; Snapchat with Discover; Amazon with the Washington Post on its Kindle; Google and Apple with their newsstands — and finding ways to embed content with business model attached into the streams they deliver. Note also that we could find ourselves in a nightmare of publishing content 20 ways on 20 platforms using 20 CMSes in 20 business deals that we don’t control, struggling to make sense of too little data from each.

Publishers could take the lead and create open-source standards and structure for distributed news. But news publishers have proven to be awful at collaborative consortia (see: NCN) and worse — much worse — at technology. And this is no trivial task, as Repost.US learned when it couldn’t sustain its wonderful rendition of the embeddable article (for reasons I explore in Geeks Bearing Gifts). If we’re going to do this, we need help.

Who will help? I suggested Google, which could build the structure openly, adding its own services — ad sales, ad serving, hosting — as options. In the discussion, some feared that Google’s direct involvement beyond funding the project out of its European bribery — er, I mean innovation — fund would give the service cooties. Gift horse: mouth. Well, then Facebook could open up its lovely platform and CMS and make it possible to embed Instant Articles anywhere.

Note well the position that news publishers are in now. And a fine position it is: Google, Facebook, and potentially other powerhouses are finally competing for our affection to keep the wolves — that is, European regulators — at bay.

It’s metaphorically convenient that the favorite recreational activity at Newsgeists is a game called werewolf, which is all about mistrust. Suspicion has been the basis of the relationship between publishers and platforms. That atmosphere of wariness and warring was brought on by a campaign waged against Google by German publishers Axel Springer and Burda, using their considerable political clout to enlist politicians to pass laws and launch antitrust investigations disadvantaging the American technology giant. Google’s peers — Facebook, Amazon, Apple — are well aware that Old Europe’s pitchforks could be launched at them next. So though I did not like the tactic — because it is leading to dangerous if unintended consequences that could imperil an open net as well as European innovation — I must give credit where credit is due, to Springer and Burda, for bringing Silicon Valley to the table if not to its knees. Credit to Google and Twitter for talking. Credit to the publishers that are working with each, seeking peace in the kingdom. Group hug.

Now the game shifts from werewolf to leapfrog. Now we in journalism get to stand back and see technology titans jump over each other to bring benefits to news. But we’d best not stand back too far. We journalists and publishers must collaborate with the platforms as we demand that they collaborate with us. And as they teach us about technology, we must teach them about journalism.

By that, I mean that as platforms take on the role of distributor and (I lament this word) gatekeeper for news, we must help them understand the responsibility they are assuming. Mark Zuckerberg cares about a connected society. Does he also care about an informed society? I believe he does — witness his proper pride at seeing his platform being used by freedom fighters. Now Facebook must find the courage to publish and protect uncomfortable news, for real news, impactful news is almost always difficult news. It must fight to be open to diverse and often dissenting voices and viewpoints in the face of pressure from censors and tyrants, which will surely grow now that Facebook is carrying more news that matters. And as Facebook benefits from the content — the journalism and service — that publishers provide, then it does bear some responsibility to consider their business needs (and I’m delighted that Facebook did just that, offering publishers revenue with distribution via Instant Articles).

My friends Emily Bell, Jay Rosen, and George Brock have written about these concerns, as have I. I don’t think any of us would expect Facebook to produce all the answers overnight; indeed, we should not want them to make these decisions alone. What we do expect of Facebook, Google, and the other platforms is an open and substantive conversation about these principles. And they should expect from us a spirit of generosity and collaboration. We all now recognize that we live together in an ecosystem of information, technology, and service. We must build and maintain it together.

Unconferences, innovation funds, education, and especially new products like Instant Articles will help do that. But group hugs aren’t enough. We don’t just need to embed articles. We need to embed and educate people on both sides of this cultural divide who can understand and translate the differences and, more important, find opportunities of mutual benefit. These are not merely ambassadors doing biz dev and PR. They don’t just make each side smarter. They must make shit happen. They must build things. That means having technologists in the management of news companies and journalists in the product stream of technology companies.

I can imagine countless ways in which collaborative technologists and journalists can build great services for the public we serve. Traveling articles are just one example, a starting point. There were others raised at Newsgeist.

At this point, I know what many will say in the comments wherever links to these thoughts appear: “Well, I just don’t trust Facebook/Google/etc.” “They will pull the rug out from under us.” “They will never do what we want.” “They will serve their own interests.” Well, of course, they will serve their interests. They are businesses. But it’s no longer accurate to say that they cannot also benefit us or that they will not listen. Who’d have imagined — many at Newsgeist confessed they couldn’t — that Facebook would not only invite publishers into its precious stream but also let them keep 100% of the ads they sell for the privilege. Who’d have imagined that even Springer’s Bild would sign up for the deal? Who could have pictured the warm and substantive interaction of journalists, publishers, and Googlers this weekend in Europe?

The sensible, mature, productive way to enter negotiations is not to stomp away. The smart thing to do is to craft business terms. That’s what I teach my students. What would make you do a deal with the titans now that they are willing to talk? What would protect you against your concerns? What do you have that they want and what do they have that you want? Where is their mutual benefit for your businesses and — here’s the only thing that matters in the end — for the people we all serve?

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