Posts about guardian

All journalism is advocacy (or it isn’t)

Jay Rosen wrote an insightful post forking the practice of journalism into “politics: none” (that is, traditional American journalism: objective, it thinks) and “politics: some” (that is, the kind just practised by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian). Jay catalogs the presumptions and advantages of each. As both he and The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan observe, Edward Snowden took his leaks to Greenwald and the Guardian because they exemplify “politics: some.”

I want to take this farther and argue first that what Greenwald and the Guardian were practising was less politics than advocacy, and second that all journalism is advocacy (or is it journalism?).

To the first point: Greenwald and the Guardian were not bolstering their own politics in the NSA story. To the contrary, Greenwald and the Guardian both identify politically as liberal — the Guardian’s mission is to be nothing less than “the world’s leading liberal voice” — yet they attacked programs run and justified by a liberal American administration and no doubt caused that administration discomfort or worse. In so doing, Greenwald and the Guardian exhibited the highest value of journalism: intellectual honesty. That does not mean they were unbiased. It means they were willing to do damage to their political side in the name of truth. Greenwald and the Guardian were practising advocacy not for politics — not for their team — but for principles: protection of privacy, government transparency and accountability, the balance of powers, and the public’s right to know.

Now to my second point: Seen this way, isn’t all journalism properly advocacy? And isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? As James Carey said: “The god term of journalism — the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public.”

When the Washington Post — whose former editor famously refused to vote to uphold his vision of Jay’s “politics: none” ethic — chooses to report on government secrecy or on abuse of veterans at a government hospital or, of course, on presidential malfeasance and coverups, it is, of course, advocating. When an editor assigns reporters to expose a consumer scam or Wall Street fraud or misappropriation of government funds, that’s advocacy. When a newspaper takes on the cause of the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the forgotten, or just the little guy against The Man, that’s advocacy. When health reporters tell you how to avoid cancer or even lose weight, that’s advocacy on your behalf. I might even argue that a critic reviewing a movie to save you from wasting your money on a turkey could be advocacy (though we don’t necessarily need critics for that anymore).

But what about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour, a tragic accident with no lesson to be learned? Is that advocacy? No. When a TV network — not to pick on TV — devotes hours and hours to the salacious details of, say, the Jodi Arias crime, which affects none of our lives, is that advocacy? No. When an online site collects pictures of cute cats, is that advocacy? Hardly. When a newspaper devotes resources to covering football games, is that advocacy? No. Is any of that journalism? Under the test I put forth here, no.

So what is it then, the stuff we call journalism that doesn’t advocate for people or principles, that doesn’t serve the public need? At worst, it’s exploitation — audience- or sales- or click- or ratings-bait — at best it’s entertainment. The first is pejorative, the second need not be, as entertainment — whether a journalistic narrative or a book or a show or movie — can still inform and enlighten. But if it doesn’t carry information that people can use to better organize their lives or their society, I’d say it fails the journalism test.

Journalism-as-advocacy has been bundled with journalism-as-entertainment for economic reasons: Entertainment can draw people to a media entity and help subsidize the cost of its journalism. But it was a mistake to then put an umbrella over it all: If a newspaper creates journalism then everything its journalists create in that newspaper is journalism, right? No. The corollary: People who are not journalists can do journalism. It’s a function of the value delivered, not the job title. (I’ll write another post later looking a pricing paradox embedded in this split.)

Why does what seems like definitional hair-splitting matter? Because when a whistleblower knocks on your door, you must decide not whose side you’re on but whom and what principles you serve. This is a way to recast the specific argument journalists are having now about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. Wrong question. As a journalistic organization, the Guardian had to ask whether the public had a right to the information Snowden carried, no matter which side it benefitted (so long as the public’s interests — in terms of security — were not harmed).

The next issue for the Guardian was whether and how it adds journalistic value. That is, of course, another journalistic test. Edward Snowden, like Wikileaks, delivered a bunch of raw and secret documents. In both cases, news organization added value by (1) using judgment to redact what could be harmful, (2) bringing audience to the revelation, and most important, (3) adding reporting to this raw information to verify and explain.

Based on his Q&A with the Guardian audience, I’d say that Snowden is proving to be big on rhetoric and perhaps guts but less so on specifics. I still am not clear how much direct operational knowledge he has or whether he — like Bradley Manning — simply had access to documents. So more reporting was and still is necessary. This Associated Press story is a good example of taking time to add reporting, context, and explanation to Snowden’s still-unclear and still-debated documents.

Both these organizations made their decisions about what to reveal and what to report based on their belief that we have a right and need to know. That’s journalism. That’s advocacy.

Crossing the Channel

Some people wonder why I go to Germany so often. It’s to meet some brilliant people who are doing amazing things there, among them Wolfgang Blau, for almost five years the editor-in-chief of Zeit Online. Now I won’t have to go as far to see him as Wolfgang is moving to London to become director of digital strategy at the Guardian. Don’t you love it when friends marry?

I’m reminded of John Paton, who was executing much of his strategy for digital-first news in the U.S., but no one saw it because it occurred in Spanish, at Impremedia, a roll-up he engineered with publications he then re-engineered. Only when he took over two English-language newspaper companies under Digital First Media did our world take note of what he was doing. Same for Wolfgang: At Zeit Online he did phenomenal things, complementing a still-successful (!) print paper in Germany with an innovative journalism online, growing the site and its audience tremendously. But my friends over here couldn’t see it because he did it in German.

Now Wolfgang comes to my favorite newspaper in the world to extend its digital lead. The Guardian — under another friend, Emily Bell, now a friendly competitor at Columbia’s j-school — showed the way for news online. Now, in my view, the Guardian will be competing with The New York Times (under its new ex-BBC CEO) and the BBC and perhaps the Wall Street Journal to become the leading English-language news brand online. That battle is just underway and the battleground is digital.

As I was writing this post, someone in Twitter noted the timing of the Guardian getting ready to launch a next round of layoffs. My view: newspapers have to finish the process of shrinking so they can grow again, and they’ll grow digitally.

Wolfgang is a dear friend and I’m delighted for him and for Alan Rusbridger and company at the Guardian. (And disclosures: I’m on the Digital First advisory board and I have consulted and written for the Guardian over the years.)

Here’s the Guardian announcement in English and here’s the Zeit announcement in German.

Are media in the content business?

The Guardian launches its new Media Network my essay asking whether we in media are really in the content business. Here’s the first half (in the rest, I catalog the methods I think are worth exploring to rethink our role…. I’ll be expanding on that later).

* * *

What if we in media are not in the content business?

Oh, yes, we will produce content; that’s what we do. But perhaps our greatest value is not in what we produce but in what it produces: signals about people’s interests, about authority, about topics and trends.

That is how Facebook, Google, Twitter and company see content – as a signal generator. That is how they extract value from it, by using those signals to serve more relevant content, services, and advertising. But they are not in the content business. They are in the relationship business. Shouldn’t we also be?

A US TV news executive I know complained to me recently that Facebook and Google, in his words, use media’s steel to build their cars. “Mark Zuckerberg,” he said, “does not value content.”

No, I said, Zuckerberg values more content than we do. We think content is that which we make because we are content people – we see content as a scarcity we produce and control. Facebook and Google, on the other hand, see content everywhere – in the allegedly useless creations, chatter and links made by people in the course of their lives. They see content as an abundant resource to learn from, value and exploit.

The problem is, the media is not built for relationships because our industry was born in a time of factories, not services. We rarely know who our readers are (and we still call them just readers or at best commenters, not creators or collaborators). We do not have the means to gather, analyse and act on data about their activities and interests at an individual level. Thus we cannot serve them as individuals.

Our product, content, is not built for that. It is built for masses. That is what our means of production and distribution demanded. So now we try to adapt that content for new tools, impressed that we can add motion, sound or touch to what we have long done. But our online books, magazines, and newspapers are still recognisable as such. We haven’t gone nearly far enough yet to rethink and reinvent them….

Readers are our regulators

Here’s a post I put up on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (comment there).

Please resist the temptation to impose government regulation on journalism in the aftermath of phone-hacking. Oh, I know, it would be sweet justice for Murdoch pere et fils to be the cause of expanding government authority. But danger lies there. Regulation requires teeth and teeth carry power.

Let me begin by posing four questions:

What activities are to be regulated? Activities that are already criminal, like News Corp.’s, should be prosecuted as crimes. Then does speech itself become the target? In the United States, we grapple with this question in the one exception to our First Amendment, which is about to be tested in the Supreme Court. That loophole to the Bill of Rights gives the Federal Communications Commission authority to regulate and fine mere words on TV and radio. I have argued in the pages of the Guardian that “bullshit” is political speech but we are forbidden to speak it on our air — even about this regulation itself — under threat of a regulator’s chill and penalty. What we need today is more speech, not less.

What should a regulator do in the case of violations? Fine the offender into submission? Close the publication? Does that not give your government the same weapon used by dictators elsewhere against journalists? Doesn’t this return the UK to a regime of licensing the press? Remember that he who grants licenses may also not grant them or revoke them.

Who is the proper regulator? Clearly, it is not the industry. The Press Complaints Commission has proven to be nothing more than a diaphanous gown for the devil. But government? Is government the proper body to supervise the press, to set and oversee its standards? How could it be? The watched become the watchers’ watchers. Certainly government has shown itself to be incompetent and mightily conflicted in this case, as alleged overseers of the crimes at hand end up in high places and the police themselves are reported to be beneficiaries of corruption.

Finally, who is to be regulated? In other words, who is the press? That’s the key question raised here. Alan Rusbridger posed it in his forceful soliloquy on this amazing week: Is Huffington Post the press? Guido Fawkes? By extension, is any blogging citizen? Any YouTube commentator or Twitter witness-cum-reporter? Yes, we wrangle with this same question in the United States, but in the context of who should receive the rights and protections of the press — namely, shield laws — rather than who should be under the thumb of a government agency.

The goal must not be to further solidify the hegemony of the media-government complex but instead to bust it open. We have the tools at hand to do that: journalists, the public they serve, and their new tool of publicness, the internet.

As Rusbridger also said in that video, this was a week marked by the worst of journalism and the best of journalism. Reporting is wot did the bastards in. Nick Davies is the Woodward and Bernstein of the age though it’s a pity that his Nixon built his nearly absolute power — and nearly inevitable corruption — in our profession. The first and most important protection we will have against the likes of him is a business model for the Guardian to sustain Davies and support future generations like him. The second most important thing the Guardian can do is set an example for other journalists.

I was talking with Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, just yesterday about his cause and favorite obsession: fact-checking. There are scattered organizations that endeavor to check politicians’ and journalists mistakes and lies. But no organization can do it all. How do we scale fact-checking? My thought is that we should see every news organization place a box next to all its reports inviting fact-checking: readers flagging dubious assertions and journalists and readers picking up the challenge to investigate. The Washington Post and the Torrington (Connecticut) Register Citizen have them.

That small addition raises the standards and expectations for journalists’ work and, more importantly, opens the process of journalism to the public, inviting them to act as both watchers and collaborators.

I also think we must increase our diligence to all but eliminate the scourge of the anonymous source. Note that I left an opening for whistleblowers and victims and the too-rare true investigators like Davies. But if we had as an expectation that the News of the World should have told us where and how it learned what it learned about its 4,000 victims, it would have been less able to perpetrate its crimes of hacking and bribery.

The Guardian is making openness its hallmark and this is what it must mean: Rather than closing down journalism to some legislative definition of who may practice the craft, we must open its functions to all. Rather than enabling government and media to become even more entwined, we must explode their bonds and open up the business of both for all to see. Regulators, bureaucrats, politicians, and titans of a dying industry are not the ones to do that.

In researching my next book, Public Parts, I dared to read Jürgen Habermas and his theory of the public sphere. Habermas says the public sphere first emerged as a counterweight to the power of government in the rational, critical debate of the coffeehouses and salons of the 18th century. But almost as soon as this public sphere formed, Habermas laments, it was corrupted and overtaken by mass media. Now, at last, is our opportunity to reverse that flow and to recapture our public sphere.

There’s where this tale’s sweet irony lies: It’s Murdoch & Co. who set the charges to blow apart the very institutional power and cozy relationships they built.

: LATER: I’m disturbed by a fundamentally undemocratic theme I see in the comments here and at the Guardian: Some blame the public for the excesses of Murdoch, Inc. That’s essentially cynical and condescending toward the public. Some don’t trust the public to regulate media. If you distrust the public that much, then you might as well throw in the towel on democracy and freemarkets, not to mention journalism and education (why inform the public if they’re a mass of boobs?). But these folks — just like institutional media — better get used to the public having a greater voice and regulating their behavior, for that’s where we’re headed: back to the coffee house.

The article and the future of print

This week, Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger declared that the paper would go “digital first,” following John Paton‘s lead and stopping a step short of his strategy at Journal Register: “digital first … print last.”

My Guardian friends are getting a bit tetchy about folks trying to tell them how to fix the institution, but given that it lost £34.4m last year, I’d say the intervention is warranted and should be seen only as loving care: chicken soup for the strategy. So I will join in.

My thoughts about the Guardian have something to do with my thoughts on the article. That’s a logical connection because the means of production and distribution of print are what mandated the invention of the article. So it is fitting that we consider its fate in that context.

But first let’s examine what it means to be digital first. It does not mean just putting one’s stories online before the presses roll. In that case, print still dictates the form and rhythm of news: everything in the process of a newsroom is still aimed at fitting round stories into squared holes on pages. That, as Jay Rosen says, is the key skill newsroom residents think they have (and the skill journalism schools prepare them for): the production cycle of print.

Digital first, aggressively implemented, means that digital drives all decisions: how news is covered, in what form, by whom, and when. It dictates that as soon as a journalist knows something, she is prepared to share it with her public. It means that she may share what she knows before she knows everything (there’s a vestige of the old culture, which held that we could know everything … and by deadline to boot) so she can get help from her public to fill in what she doesn’t know. That resets the journalistic relationship to the community, making the news organization a platform first, enabling a community to share its information and inviting the journalist to add value to that process. It means using the most appropriate media to impart information because we are no longer held captive to only one: text. We now use data, audio, video, graphics, search, applications, and wonders not yet imagined. Digital first is the realization that news happens with or without us — it mimics the architecture of the internet, end-to-end — and we must use all the tools available to add value where we can.

Digital first, from a business perspective, means driving the strategy to a digital future, no longer depending on the print crutch. That means creating a likely smaller and more efficient enterprise that can survive, then prosper post-monopoly, post-scarcity in an abundance-based media economy. It means serving the commercial needs of businesses in our communities in new ways: not just by selling space but by providing services (helping them with their own online strategies — including Google, Facebook, Groupon, craigslist, et al; training them; perhaps holding events with them). It means finding new efficiencies in the collaborative link economy. It means outrunning the grim reaper and getting past risky dependency on free-standing inserts (the coupons and circulars that will one day, sooner than we know — zap! — disappear) and retail advertising (which continues to implode) and the last vestiges of classified (how quaint) and circulation revenue (sorry!). It means getting rid of the cost of the analog business (“iron and real estate,” as Paton says).

Print last. Note that none of us — no, not even I — is saying print dead. Print, at least for a time, still has a place in serving content and advertising. But let’s re-examine that place even as we re-examine the role of the article, the journalist, and the advertisement in digital.

Since I spoke about this with Rusbridger last time he was in New York to herald the coming of Guardian for Yanks, I’ve refined my thinking. As I understand the well-known business of the Guardian — unlike many US papers and unlike at least one of its UK competitors, the Times — its Sunday paper, the Observer, is an economic burden. My thought earlier had been to give it up, just as many American papers are contemplating giving up other days of the week but keeping Sunday (and Thursdays and perhaps another … because they are still useful to wrap around those free-standing inserts). No, they won’t keep publishing on those days for journalistic purposes but because they have distribution value. Cynical, perhaps, but true.

But all this talk about the article has made me contemplate a new future: What if the Guardian became an online-only and international brand of news, multimedia, and comment and the Observer became a once-a-week (who cares what day of the week?) print brand of analysis, context, comment, and narrative? The Guardian has 37 million users, two-thirds of them outside the UK. Going online-only would enable it to become a truly international brand. The Observer could compete with the master of the article, the one publication that adds great value through the form: the Economist. As a newspaper of depth, this Observer could mimic Die Zeit in Germany, an amazing journal of reporting and commentary that is still growing in circulation. The print Observer could be printed in America, competing with weak-tea Sunday newspapers in markets across the country. Prior efforts to consider a print Guardian in the U.S. have stopped short. Could this succeed? Dunno.

The point is that the article as a high form of journalistic practice could succeed in a high-value print form while the Guardian could become a journal of news and comment in text, photo, video, audio, graphics, data….

What also makes me wonder about this is The New York Times’ proud announcement that it will remake its Week in Review into the Sunday Review next week. Truth be told, I haven’t read the Sunday Times in ages. I used to hang on its arrival at newsstands on Saturday nights in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but now I find it to be day-old bread, yeasty but stiff. Could The Times turn its plans for Sunday Review into an American Economist? I’m less sanguine about its chances than the Guardian’s. In either case, the winner would be the one that finds the greatest value in the old form of the article.

See, it’s not dead. It just needs a savior.

: MORE: I meant to add a few thoughts on the form the article takes in these media. In digital, articles are still valuable to synthesize a story, to summarize a complex day’s news, to add context, and so on. Again, not all stories need such articles, but many will. In this vision of print, the article takes on a different raison d’etre and a higher calling: It needs to add perspective. Bill Keller says it this way in his preview of the new Review:

Jonathan Landman, who took over the section from Dan Lewis, put it this way: The news sections’ job is to inform. (The desired reader reaction: “I didn’t know that!”) The opinion section’s job is to persuade. (“Yes, I see the light!”) The job of the Review is to help people see things in unexpected ways. (“I never thought of it that way!”)

I’d say The Economist presents the model for that kind of article. It is a high, a very high bar to reach. Can the Guardian attain that? Yes. The New York Times? Yes. The workaday local paper?

: Related: Charlie Beckett on Wikileaks and the threat of new news. Terry Heaton on news and the story.