Posts about journalism

Stop. Stop the presses.


At the end of an exceptional first week for our new program in News Innovation and Leadership at the Newmark J-school, the students — five managing editors, a VP, a CEO, and many directors among them — said they learned much from teachers and speakers, yes, but the greatest value likely came from each other, from the candid lessons they all shared.

When I first proposed this program about four years ago, I suggested it should offer a smorgasbord of courses to be taken at will. Then I was fortunate enough to recruit Anita Zielina, the ideal news executive, to create and run it. She said (nicely) that I was wrong and that the program had to revolve around a tight cohort of students sharing their education together. She was so right. This week, I watched this group build trust, respect, and empathy — and a common store of knowledge and insight … as well as exasperation.

Next Saturday in Philadelphia, the Tow-Knight Center at Newmark, will take part in the first meeting of an international gathering of product leaders in the news business. Our involvement grows out of one of a handful of communities of practice my colleague Hal Straus has been running for a few years, bringing top product, audience, commerce, and talent-and-inclusion executives in New York together to share — and sympathize — with each other. Aron Pilhofer at Temple and Damon Kiesow at Mizzou generously offered to include us in a collaboration to build a national product organization whose aim is to answer the question, “How do we make news organizations more audience-oriented, data-driven, and product-focused?” In short, how do we save the news business?

These people — like the Social Journalism students I wrote about so proudly last month— are our innovators. They will be our leaders. But they are frustrated by the state of the business and, of course, now and then by their bosses. They see the imperative for change; they have ideas; they are eager to run. But where? What frustrates them — and, in fairness, their bosses — is that the solutions are not evident and thus finding them requires risk, experimentation, failure, and investment of capital we do not have, capital we can acquire these days only from others who bring their own goals and agendas. Does this mean it may require letting some institutions burn to the ground so a radically new journalism can be built from the ashes?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about Gutenberg and the birth and long progress of printing toward its eclipse in our age of digital data and connectivity. And so this morning I came across an article by Otto Fuhrmann, a book and Gutenberg historian and former director of graphic arts at NYU, in the 1926 edition of the Gutenberg Gesellschaft Jahrbuch (Gutenberg Society Yearbook). He wrote about the New York Club of Printing House Craftsmen in a lovely evocation on the value of sharing in our field, which we used to call printing.

“The times are not so far distant when every foreman or executive jealously guarded his technical ‘secrets’, in the mistaken idea that by doing so he would make himself indispensable to his employer,” Fuhrmann writes.

So it was quite natural that the younger element should find out that a business can be run without secrecy, as long as the essential facts are recognized and dealt with. A friend working in a competitor’s shop did not cease to be a friend just because his employer did not like the other employer. And the men [sic*] who had the same or similar problems to meet in the actual running of their employers’ businesses found that an exchange of views and ideas benefitted them without hurting their employers.

It is true that employers first frowned upon the very idea to have their foremen meet other foremen…. However this prejudice is gradually disappearing, in the same measure as the spirit of cooperation and fair dealing, instead of the old method of slamming a competitor, is growing. Naturally, a large city like New York was the best place in which to inaugurate the craftsman idea, and it succeeded as it deserved.

Indeed.

Fuhrmann attributes its success in part to “a gradual change in business ethics that has taken place in the last 15 years.”

This change is signified by the word “service”. It meant, fundamentally, a complete change from the old standpoint of the producer or seller that the customer had to take the goods as they were offered, or do without them. The technique of advertising became more refined, and instead of forcing goods on an unwilling customer it became a fine art, all over the business world, to find out what a customer wanted and to satisfy his desires…. Developed to the n-th degree, “service” today often means anticipating the client’s wishes…

There is nothing new. I have been arguing for years that we should see journalism not as the manufacture of a commodity — content — but instead as a service. Here is Fuhrmann in 1926 arguing the same for printing. And that is the argument made by product people (though I’ll contend that their self-anointed label is a misnomer, for their craft is all about understanding customers’ needs and desires so as to serve them; they don’t make products so much as they serve people).

Fuhrmann notes that he is writing about his craft in a time of deep disruption. The Linotype had been patented only 40 years before. Rotary presses and dry stereotyping came about the same time. Paper made from pulp came not long before. Thus the business of publishing changed greatly, becoming a mass medium. In the shop, all these technologies spread and robbed the craftsman — whose heritage was in centuries of hand composition and hand presses — of their sense of control of their art.

The increasing mechanization tended to lower the skill and to narrow the range of the individuals in the printing business. It came to the point where specialization made it hard to find good all-around craftsmen. So it can be seen that the time was ripe and the background prepared for an attempt to bring the essential factors in our industry together for frank discussion and study of their problems.

What was needed, says Fuhrmann, was for executives to have a full understanding of every technology of the industry — “he must know enough about paper, engraving, electros, binding and finishing processes” — and perspectives from other fields. “That calls for real men of no mean calibre; and, of course, the man with the greatest fund of knowledge and resourcefulness will be the most successful one.”

And so, the club. According to Fuhrmann, monthly meetings began with dinner and entertainment to provide “a good antidote against the tension and the strain of business work and furnish a background for good-fellowship.” The building of a cohort, in our modern tongue. “We particularly lay stress upon the educational feature,” with guests and lectures. And they had an annual dinner dance. (There’ll be no dancing in Philadelphia.) The club, together with other trade associations — the New York Employing Printers’ Association and the Typographical Union — operated well-equipped schools for compositors’ apprentices and “a training course for foremen in the science of modern business management,” with employers “glad to pay the entire amount of tuition, knowing that the benefit to the foremen would ultimately redound to the firm many times over.”

And so, we attempt the same today in our rapidly changing field with meetings and communities of practice and training of journalists and managers. The difference is that from 1926, printing qua printing grew, tremendously so. Its methods and means changed significantly, which had considerable impact on the product and the profession. But it was still printing.

Today, we are leaving the business of printing and text, of content and publication, even of authoring and storytelling. But, let’s be honest, we still refuse to admit it. So the solutions talked about in classes and conferences are all incremental, aimed at getting bosses and boards to allow us to change what we have done enough to keep doing it, to save what we knew rather than start on what we don’t yet know.

Stop. Stop the presses.

The death of the newspaper has been often foretold. Yes, they are still around us. But I must ask to my Twitter peril, are they better off dead than in the hands of hedgies who milk every last drop of ink, sweat, and blood from the end of the diminishing tribe of (pardon me) craftsmen of our field? Are we better off if they die so newspapers and magazines and broadcast channels are not reinvented but journalism can be?

I take full blame myself for not being radical enough in seeking new definitions of journalism. But even that confession is hubristic. For perhaps these definitions are not new but only new to us. Perhaps they should come from other fields — anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, design, philosophy — to help us envision an entirely new service to the public and its conversation. We who have the luxury and privilege of time and salary in universities should reach out to other fields to seek new expressions of society’s goals and problems and new ways to meet them using the new tools at hand.

So when all the young leaders we are gathering above who are eager to run and ask “where?” we should be ready not with answers, for we do not have them, but with audacious suggestions: Try here, try there. Try using the tools of the net and data and listen to the public we serve in new ways. Try understanding how people make decisions individually and together (even against their self-interest) and how to improve what they decide. Try listening to, valuing, and serving the people and communities who were long ignored and left unserved by our old industry, mass media. Try using the tools of connectivity to enhance the public conversation. Try new measures of value based not on our products but on how we help people improve their communities and lives.

And when they try and fail — as they must — we should offer support, convincing their bosses and boards or new funders that there is promise in this direction or that, but only if we explore. Along this journey — which I believe will be long, generations or even centuries long — we need to provide the means to bring together these brave new leaders not just to teach them what we know (so they may challenge it) but also to enable them to teach each other, to share.


* I will apologize for the sexist language of the period and then leave it unchanged and unremarked upon as it presents a picture of a past.

Polls subvert democracy: Media’s willful erasure of Kamala Harris’ campaign

It is journalistic heresy that I abandon the myth of objectivity and publicly support candidates. But the advantage of heresies is that they open one up to new perspectives. By seeing my profession and industry from the viewpoint of an interested voter, I get a new window on the failures of news media.

People know that I support Kamala Harris for president and so these days they’re asking me whether I’m still for her because, you know, the polls. Inside, I scream and deliver a searing lecture on the tyranny of the public-opinion industry, on the true heresy of journalistic prognostication, on the death of the mass, on the devaluing of the franchise of so many unheard voices in America. Outside, I just smile and say “you’re damned right, I do,” and wait to get to my desk pour out that screed here.

The coverage of Kamala Harris’ campaign is a classic case of media’s self-fulfilling prognostication. Step-by-step:

  1. Harris’ campaign opens with a big rally and reporters say she could be bigger than Obama! Thus media set expectations the candidate did not set.
  2. A parade of white men with established recognition (read: power) enter what had been a wonderfully diverse field, splintering the vote.
  3. Harris’ poll numbers decline. Media declare disappointment against media’s overblown expectations.
  4. Media give less attention to Harris’ campaign because, you know, the poll numbers.
  5. Harris’ poll numbers fall more because media give her less attention and voters hear less of her, less from her.
  6. The candidate finds it harder to raise money to buy the attention media isn’t giving her so the polls decline and media give her less attention. Candidates with more money get more attention. Pundits even use money as a metric for democracy. (And meanwhile, candidates can’t use the the inexpensive and efficient mechanism of Twitter advertising because media cowed the company into closing that door.) Harris closes New Hampshire offices. Pundits say they predicted this, taking no responsibility for perhaps causing it.
  7. Return to 4. Loop.
  8. Pundits mainsplain what went wrong with her campaign.

Not a single citizen has voted yet. Yes, campaigns come and go. That’s politics. But here I see this cycle affect the campaign of an African-American, a woman, a child of immigrants, someone 15–23 years younger than the three best-known leaders in the field, and someone who can take on our criminal president and his criminal henchmen. We need her perspective in this race and her intelligence in office. I want my chance to vote for her. But media gradually ignore her, erase her.

And then Harris delivers a speech like this one, last week in Iowa. If you want to know why I support her, all you have to do is watch it.

Afterwards, people notice. Some take to Twitter to suggest she should not be counted out. Some of them are African-American commentators who are also saying we should not count them out.

And now the Guardian says she could salvage her campaign. It’s not in the trash, people. It’s still happening.

At the root of this process of disenfranchisement is, paradoxically, the poll. Theoretically, the opinion poll was intended to capture public opinion but in fact does the opposite: cut it off. I often quote snippets of this paragraph from the late Columbia professor James Carey. Here it is in full, my emphases added:

“This notion of a public, a conversational public, has been pretty much evacuated in our time. Public life started to evaporate with the emergence of the public opinion industry and the apparatus of polling. Polling (the word, interestingly enough, derived from the old synonym for voting) was an attempt to simulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming. With the rise of the polling industry, intellectual work on the public went into eclipse. In political theory, the public was replaced by the interest group as the key political actor. But interest groups, by definition, operate in the private sector, behind the scenes, and their relationship to public life is essentially propagandistic and manipulative. In interest-group theory the public ceases to have a real existence. It fades into a statistical abstract: an audience whose opinions count only insofar as individuals refract the pressure of mass publicity. In short, while the word public continues in our language as an ancient memory and a pious hope, the public as a feature and factor of real politics disappears.”

There is not one public; that is the myth of the mass, propagated by mass media. There are many publics — many communities — that together negotiate a definition of a society. That is what elections — not polls — are intended to enable. That is what a representative democracy is meant to implement. That is what journalism should support.

Polls are the news industry’s tool to dump us all into binary buckets: red or blue; black or white; 99% or 1%; urban or rural; pro or anti this or that; religious (read: evangelical extremist) or not; Trumpist or not; for or against impeachment. Polls erase nuance. They take away choices from voters before they get to the real polls, the voting booth. They silence voices.

That is precisely the opposite of what journalism should be doing. Journalism should be listening to voices not heard, not as gatekeeper but as a curator of the public conversation. Facebook and Twitter enable voices ignored by mass media to be heard at last and that is one reason (the other is money) why media so hate these companies.

A little over three years ago, in the midst of the general election, I wrote a similar screed about the coverage of Hillary Clinton. The sins were slightly different — but her email, false balance, the aspiration to be savvy — but my opportunity was the same: to see journalism’s faults from the perspective of the voter, not the editor. My complaints there all stand. We haven’t learned a thing.

And I’m not even addressing the myriad faults in coverage of Donald Trump: letting him set the agenda (no, the big story is not quid pro quo, it is his malfeasance in office); playing stenographer to his tweets; refusing to call a lie a lie; refusing to call racism racism; being distracted by his squirrels. That will all come back to haunt us in the general election. How the nation fares in that election depends greatly on how we are allowed by media to negotiate the primaries.

Return to 2. Loop.

For a National Journalism Jury

For the last year, I’ve been engaged in a project to aggregate signals of quality in news so platforms and advertisers can recognize and give greater promotion and support to good journalism over crap.

I’ve seen that we’re missing a key — the key — signal of quality in journalism. We don’t judge journalism ourselves.

Oh, we give each other lots and lots of awards. But we have no systematized way for the public we serve to question or complain about our work and no way to judge journalistic failure while providing guidance in matters of journalistic quality and ethics.

Facebook is establishing an Oversight Board. Shouldn’t journalism have something similar? Shouldn’t we have a national ombuds organization, especially at a time when the newsroom ombudsperson is all but extinct? The Association of News Ombudsmen lists four — four! — members from consumer news organizations in the U.S. I’m delighted that CJR doubled that number, hiring four independent public editors, but they cover only as many news organizations — The Times, The Post, CNN, and MSNBC; what of the rest?

I would like to see a structure that would enable anyone — citizen, journalist, subject — to file a question or complaint to this organization — call it a board, a jury, a court, a council, a something — that would select cases to consider.

Who would be on that board? I doubt that working journalists would be willing to judge colleagues and competitors, lest they be judged. So I’d start with journalism professors — fully aware that’s a self-serving suggestion (I would not serve, as I’d be a runaway juror) and that we the ivy-covered can be accused of being either revolutionaries or sticks-in-the-mud; it’s a place to start. I would include journalism grandees who’ve retired or branched out to other callings but bring experience, authority, and credibility with journalists. I would add representatives of civil society, assuring diversity of community, background, and perspective. Will these people have biases? Of course, they will; judge their judgment accordingly.

How would cases be taken up? Anyone could file a case. Yes, some will try to game the system: ten thousand complaints against a given outlet; volume is meaningless. The jury must have full freedom and authority to grant certiorari to specific cases. Time would be limited, so they would pick cases based on whether they are particularly important, representative, instructive, or new.

What would jurors produce? I would want to see thoughtful debate and consideration of difficult questions about journalistic quality yielding constructive and useful criticism of present practice. There is no better model than Margaret Sullivan’s tenure as public editor of The New York Times.

Isn’t this the wrong time to do this, just as the president is attacking the press as the enemy of the people? It’s precisely the right time to do this, to show how we uphold standards, are not afraid of legitimate criticism, and learn from our mistakes. There is no better way to begin to build trust than to address our own faults with honesty and openness.

How would this be supported? Such an effort cannot be ad hoc and volunteer. Jurors’ time needs to be respected and compensated. There would need to be at least one administrative person to handle incoming cases and output of judgments. Calling all philanthropists.

Do journalists need to pay attention to the judgments? No. This is not a press council like the ones the UK keeps trying — and failing — to establish. It brings no obligation to news organizations. It is an independent organization itself with a responsibility to debate key issues in our rapidly changing field.

Would it enforce a given set of standards? I don’t think it should. There are as many journalistic codes of conduct and ethics as there are journalists and I think the jurors should feel free to call on any of them — or tread new territory, as demanded by the cases. I’m not sure that legacy standards will always be relevant as new circumstances evolve. It is also important to judge publications in their own context, against their own promises and standards. I have argued that news organizations (and internet platforms) should offer covenants to their users and the public; judge them against that.

Whom does it serve, journalists or the public? I think it must serve the interests of the public journalism serves. But I recognize that very few members of the public would read or necessarily give a damn about its opinions. The audience for the jury’s work would be primarily journalists as well as journalism students and teachers.

Will it convince our haters to love us? Of course not.

Isn’t Twitter the new ombudsperson? When The New York Times eliminated its public editor position, it said that social media would pick up the slack. “But today,” wrote then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger, “our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.” That should be the case. But in reality, when The Times is criticized, reporters there tend to unleash a barrage of defensiveness rather than dialog.

Now I don’t want to pick on The Times. I subscribe to and honor it as a critical institution; I disagree with those who react to Times’ missteps with public vows to cancel subscriptions. Indeed, I hope that this jury can act as a pressure-relief valve that leads to dialog over defensiveness and debate instead of our reflexive cancel culture.

Having said that, unfortunately The Times does give us a wealth of recent examples of the kinds of questions this jury could take up and debate. The latest is the paper’s decision to reveal details about the Trump-Ukraine whistleblower, potentially endangering the person, and the justification by editor Dean Baquet. I want to see a debate about the ethics and implications of such a decision and I believe we need a forum where that can happen. That case is why I decided to post this idea now.

This is not easy. It’s not simple. It’s not small. It might be a terrible idea. So make your suggestions, please. In the end, I believe we need to address trust in news not with media literacy that tries to teach the public how to use and trust what they don’t use and trust now; not with the codification of our processes and procedures; not with closing in around the few who love and pay for admission behind our walls; not by hectoring our legitimate critics with defensive whining; not with false balance in an asymmetrical media ecosystem; not with blaming others for our faults. No, I believe we need a means to listen to warranted criticism and gain value from it by grappling with our shortcoming so we can learn and improve. We don’t have that now. How could we build it?


Disclosure: NewsQA, the aggregator of news quality signals I helped start, has been funded in its first phase by Facebook. It is independent and will provide its data for free to all major platforms, ad networks, ad agencies, and advertisers as well as researchers.

Worries

Professor Rosen gave me homework. He told me he wanted me to prepare a list like his, of the top problems he sees in journalism. I do not take an assignment from my academic mentor lightly and so it took me time to contemplate my greatest worries. When I did, I found links among them: Trump and all that comes with him, of course; race; the opportunity at last to listen to unheard voices; fear of criticism; fear of change — there’s a bit of all that in all of them. I second Jay’s current concerns and add my own:

The need to study our impact and consider our outcomes

Oh, I hear a lot of talk about impact in journalism but it is reliably egocentric: ‘What did my story accomplish?’ Impact starts with journalists, not the public. And it’s always positive in discussion. I rarely hear talk of our negative impact, how we in media polarize, fabricating and pitting sides against each other, exploiting attention with appeals to base instincts.

Coming to a university I learned the need to begin curriculum with outcomes: What should students learn? I wonder about outcomes-based journalism, which would begin by asking not just what the public needs to know (our supposed mission) but how we can improve the quality of the public conversation, how we can bring out voices rarely heard, how we can build bridges among communities in conflict, how we can appeal to the better nature of our citizens, how we can help build a better society.

If we did that, our metrics of success would be entirely different — not audience, attention, pageviews, clicks, even subscriptions. Thus our business models must change; more on that below. We cannot begin this process until we respect the public’s voices and build means to better listen to them. We also need research to understand communities’ needs and our impact on them. This is not nearly so practical a worry as Jay’s are, but it’s my biggest concern.

The need for self-criticism in journalism

What troubled me most about New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet’s round of interviews after the Unity vs. Racism headline debacle is an apparent unwillingness to hear outside critics, even while arguing that the paper doesn’t need an ombudsman because it has outside critics. Baquet dismissed politicians — Beto, AOC, Castro — who had legitimate criticism of the paper, saying: “I don’t need the entire political field to tell me we wrote a bad headline.” When told that Twitterati were criticizing the headline, Bacquet told his staff: “My reaction was to essentially say, ‘Fuck ’em, we’re already working on it.’” (Dismissing what citizens have to say on Twitter is a Times sport.) More worrisome to me from Slate’s transcript of the newsroom meeting was the evidence (as I said in a comment on Jay’s post) that Timespeople are scared of talking with each other. So one wonders how this family will ever work it all out. The most eloquent statement in the meeting came from a journalist who chose to remain anonymous in his own newsroom. Though I want to keep this short, I will quote it in full:

Saying something like divisive or racially charged is so euphemistic. Our stylebook would never allow it in other circumstances. I am concerned that the Times is failing to rise to the challenge of a historical moment. What I have heard from top leadership is a conservative approach that I don’t think honors the Times’ powerful history of adversarial journalism. I think that the NYT’s leadership, perhaps in an effort to preserve the institution of the Times, is allowing itself to be boxed in and hamstrung. This obviously applies to the race coverage. The headline represented utter denial, unawareness of what we can all observe with our eyes and ears. It was pure face value. I think this actually ends up doing the opposite of what the leadership claims it does. A headline like that simply amplifies without critique the desired narrative of the most powerful figure in the country. If the Times’ mission is now to take at face value and simply repeat the claims of the powerful, that’s news to me. I’m not sure the Times’ leadership appreciates the damage it does to our reputation and standing when we fail to call things like they are.

I don’t mean to join the Times pile-on; like Jay, I remain a loyalist and a subscriber. I also don’t mean to make The Times emblematic of all journalism; it is the grand exception. I use this episode as one example of how we journalists who criticize anyone do not let just anyone criticize us. Here I argue we need to consider — as Facebook, of all institutions, is — a systematic means of oversight of the quality of journalism as a necessity to build (not rebuild) trust. Instead, we tend to codify the way we’ve always done things — and wonder at the daily miracle of a front page — as if the goal is to recapture some Golden Age that never was.

Race

Race is not the story of the moment. It is the story of the age that is finally in the moment in media. As a child of white privilege who grew up being taught the mythical ideal of the melting pot, I unlearn those lessons and learn more about racism in America every day. I learn mostly from the voices who were not heard in mass, mainstream media. I hear them now because they have a path around media (and then sometimes into media) thanks in considerable measure to the internet.

Race is a big story in media now not because of Donald Trump and his white nationalists. That gets things in the wrong order and gives credit to the devil. First, race is the story now because people of color can be heard and that is what scares the old, white men in power so much that they would rather burn down our institutions than share them — which is what has finally grabbed the attention of old, white media, so race is now news.

But it is apparent that media do not know how to cover this story. I don’t know how to, either. I am grateful for the publication — as I write this — of The New York Times’ and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ profoundly important 1619 Project and its curriculum. That’s not a worry; that’s gratitude. Yet it comes even as The Times itself grapples (above) with how to cover race and how to hear new voices. This is that hard.

Moral panic

Because I treasure those new voices I can now hear, because I value the expression the net brings to so many more communities, I want to protect the net and its freedoms. I see attacks on those freedoms from the right — from authoritarians abroad and right-wing white nationalists here. I also see attacks on the net and its freedoms from media (who never acknowledge their conflict of interest and jealousy over lost attention and revenue) and the left (who are attacking big corporations). I complained about the quality of tech-policy coverage here.

Coverage of Section 230, the key 26 words in law that enable the conversation online and empower companies to improve it, has been abysmal. I hate to pick on The Times again, but its coverage has been among the worst, with the most humiliating correction I’ve seen in years. There’s a wonderful book about 230 by Jeffrey Kosseff, The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet, but it seems that reporters covering the story can’t be bothered to read even that. I am grateful that Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, wrote this: “Liberals Beware: Repealing a Law That Protects Free Speech Online Will Only Help Trump.” Says Tims:

Those simple words are now being flagrantly misinterpreted across the political spectrum as a way to threaten companies like Facebook and Twitter. But make no mistake: if the law is repealed, the real casualties will not be the tech giants; it will the hundreds of millions of Americans who use the internet to communicate.

have been worrying about moral panic over technology in media that is helping to fuel an exploitive and cynical moral panic among politicians, to damage the net and the new companies that challenge all of them and their power. My worries only worsen.

Trump’s chumps

Here I lump together my fears about the state of political journalism, campaign coverage, disinformation, and manipulation. As Jay has been arguing and strenuously, the press has no strategy for covering the intentional aberration that is Donald Trump or the racism he exploits and propels. The press continues to insist on covering his “base,” a minority, rather than his opponents, a majority, which only gives more attention to the angry white man and less to voices still ignored. As many of us have been arguing, predictions do nothing to inform the electorate, but predicting is what pundits do (usually incorrectly). As James Carey argued, the polls upon which the pundits hang their predictions are anathema to democracy, for they preempt the public conversation they are meant to measure. Trump, the Russians, right-wing trolls, and too many others to imagine are taking the press as chumps, exploiting their weaknesses (“we just report, we don’t decide”) to turn news organizations into amplifiers for their dangerous ideas. (See the Times discussion face value above.) I see nothing to say that the political press has learned a single lesson. I’m plenty worried about that.

Business

Of course, no list of worries about journalism is complete without existential fretting over business and the lack of any clear path to sustainability. There likely is no path to profitability for journalism as it was. The only way we are going to save journalism is to fundamentally reconsider it: to recognize at last all the new opportunities technology brings us to do more than produce a product we call content but instead to provide a service to the public; to build the means to listen to voices not heard before and, as I said above, to build bridges among communities; to bring value to people’s lives and communities and find value ourselves in that, basing our metrics of success there. The business of journalism is what I worry and write about more than anything else, so I won’t go on at length here. I join with Jay’s concern. I worry that newspapers continue to believe they can new find ways to sell their old ways; see Josh Benton’s frightening and insightful analysis of news on the L.A. Times’ subscriptions. I fear that Gannett and Gatehouse have no strategy and neither do most newspaper companies. I even worry that Google, Facebook, and the rest of the net are still built on mass media’s faulty, volume-based business model. I worry a lot. Then I remind myself that it’s still early days.


As I write this, I’m halfway through teaching our incoming class at the Newmark J-School about the context of their upcoming study and work: the history of media and journalism, the business and how we got here, and the new opportunities we have to reconsider journalism. I tell them it is their responsibility to reinvent journalism.

My favorite moments come when students challenge me. Friday one student did that, asking what I — and my generation in journalism — did wrong to get us in this fix. It was a good question and sadly I had many answers: about not listening to communities, about importing our flawed business model onto the net, about my overblown optimism for hyperlocal blogs as building blocks for new ecosystems. (I will try to post audio of the discussion soon.)

In that spirit, I should anticipate the question about my worries here: And what are you doing about them? These worries do inform my work. One thread you see in everything above is the need to listen to, respect, empathize with, and serve communities who for too long were not heard; this is what inspired the start of Social Journalism at my school. Now I am working on bringing other disciplines into a journalism school — anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, economics, philosophy, design—to consider how they would address society’s problems and the outcomes they would work toward. I am proud to work at a school where diversity is at the core of our strategy and we are starting new programs to address racial equity and inclusion in media leadership and ownership. Regarding moral panic in media coverage, I am working to organize training for reporters in coverage of major policy issues like Section 230. Regarding disinformation, I am working on projects to bring more attention and support to quality news. Whether any of those are the right paths, I will leave to others to judge.

Jay Rosen updates his list of concerns and problems and I will try to do the same as warranted. In the meantime, tell me: What problems worry you? What do you want to do about them?

Governance: Facebook designs its oversight board (should journalism?)

Facebook is devoting impressive resources — months of time and untold millions of dollars — to developing systems of governance, of its users and of itself, raising fascinating questions about who governs whom according to what rules and principles, with what accountability. I’d like to ask similar questions about journalism.

I just spent a day at Facebook’s fallen skyscraper of a headquarters attending one of the last of more than two dozen workshops it has held to solicit input on its plans to start an Oversight Board. [Disclosures: Facebook paid for participants’ hotel rooms and I’ve raised money from Facebook for my school.] Weeks ago, I attended another such meeting in New York. In that time, the concept has advanced considerably. Most importantly, in New York, the participants were worried that the board would be merely an appeals court for disputes over content take-downs. Now it is clear that Facebook knows such a board must advise and openly press Facebook on bigger policy issues.

Facebook’s team showed the latest group of academics and others a near-final draft of a board charter (which will be released in a few weeks, in 20-plus languages). They are working on by-laws and finalizing legal structures for independence. They’ve thought through myriad details about how cases will rise (from users and Facebook) and be taken up by the board (at the board’s discretion); about conflict resolution and consensus; about transparency in board membership but anonymity in board decisions; about how members will be selected (after the first members join, the board will select its own members); about what the board will start with (content takedowns) and what it can tackle later (content demotion and taking down users, pages, groups — and ads); about how to deal with GDPR and other privacy regulation in sharing information about cases with the board; about how the board’s precedents will be considered but will not prevent the board from changing its mind; even about how other platforms could join the effort. They have grappled with most every structural, procedural, and legal question the 2,000 people they’ve consulted could imagine.

But as I sat there I saw something missing: the larger goal and soul of the effort and thus of the company and the communities it wants to foster. They have structured this effort around a belief, which I share, in the value of freedom of expression, and the need — recognized too late — to find ways to monitor and constrain that freedom when it is abused and used to abuse. But that is largely a negative: how and why speech (or as Facebook, media, and regulators all unfortunately refer to it: content) will be limited.

Facebook’s Community Standards — in essence, the statutes the Oversight Board will interpret and enforce and suggest to revise — are similarly expressed in the negative: what speech is not allowed and how the platform can maintain safety and promote voice and equality among its users by dealing with violations. In its Community Standards (set by Facebook and not by the community, by the way), there are nods to higher ends — sharing stories, seeing the world through others’ eyes, diversity, equity, empowerment. But then the Community Standards becomes a document about what users should not do. And none of the documents says much if anything about Facebook’s own obligations.

So in California, I wondered aloud what principles the Oversight Board would call upon in its decisions. More crucially, I wondered whom the board is meant to serve and represent: does it operate in loco civitas (in place of the community), publico (public), imperium (government and regulators), or Deus, (God — that is, higher ethics and standards)? [Anybody with better schooling than I had, please correct my effort at Latin.]

I think these documents, this effort, and this company — along with other tech companies — need a set of principles that should set forth:

  • Higher goals. Why are people coming to Facebook? What do they want to create? What does the company want to build? What good will it bring to the world? Why does it exist? For whose benefit? Zuckerberg issued a new mission statement in 2017: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” And that is fine as far as it goes, but that’s not very far. What does this mean? What should we expect Facebook to be? This statement of goals should be the North Star that guides not just the Oversight Board but every employee and every user at Facebook.
  • A covenant with users and the public in which Facebook holds itself accountable for its own responsibilities and goals. As an executive from another tech company told me, terms of service and community standards are written to regulate the behavior of users, not companies. Well, companies should put forth their own promises and principles and draw them up in collaboration with users (civitas), the public (publico), and regulators (imperium). And that gives government — as in the case of proposed French legislation — the basis for holding the company accountable.

I’ll explore these ideas further in a moment, but first let me first address the elephant on my keyboard: whether Facebook and its founder and executives and employees have a soul. I’ve been getting a good dose of crap on Twitter the last few days from people who blithely declare — and others who retweet the declaration — that Zuckerberg is the most dangerous man on earth. I respond: Oh, come on. My dangerous-person list nowadays starts with Trump, Murdoch, Putin, Xi, Kim, Duterte, Orbán, Erdoğan, MBS…you get the idea. To which these people respond: But you’re defending Facebook. I will defend it and its founder from ridiculous, click-bait trolling that devalues the real danger our world is in today. I also criticize Facebook publicly and did at the meetings I attended there. Facebook has fucked up plenty lately and that’s why it needs oversight. At least they realize it.

When I defend internet platforms against what I see as media’s growing moral panic, irresponsible reporting, and conflict of interest, I’m defending the internet itself and the freedoms it affords from what I fear will be continuing regulation of our own speech and freedom. I don’t oppose regulation; I have been proposing what I see as reasonable regimes. But I worry about where a growing unholy alliance against the internet between the far right and technophes in media will end.

That is why I attend meetings such as the ones that Facebook convenes and why I just spent two weeks in California meeting with both platform and newspaper executives, to try to build bridges and constructive relationships. That’s why I take Facebook’s effort to build its Oversight Board seriously, to hold them to account.

Indeed, as I sat in a conference room at Facebook hearing its plans, it occurred to me that journalism as a profession and news organizations individually would do well to follow this example. We in journalism have no oversight, having ousted most ombudsmen who tried to offer at least some self-reflection and -criticism (and having failed in the UK to come up with a press council that isn’t a sham). We journalists make no covenants with the public we serve. We refuse to acknowledge — as Facebook executives did acknowledge about their own company — our “trust deficit.”

We in journalism do love to give awards to each other. But we do not have a means to systematically identify and criticize bad journalism. That job has now fallen to, of all unlikely people, politicians, as Beto O’Rourke, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Julian Castro offer quite legitimate criticism of our field. It also falls to technologists, lawyers, and academics who have been appalled at, for example, The New York Times’ horrendously erroneous and dangerous coverage of Section 230, our best protection of freedom of expression on the internet in America. I’m delighted that CJR has hired independent ombudsmen for The Times, The Post, CNN, and MSNBC. But what about Fox and the rest of the field?

I’ve been wondering how one might structure an oversight board for journalism to take the place of all those lost ombudsmen, to take complaints about bad journalism, to deliberate thoughtful and constructive responses, and to build data about the journalistic performance and responsibility of specific outlets. That will be a discussion for another day, soon. But even with such a structure, journalism, too — and each news outlet — should offer covenants with the public containing their own promises and statements of higher goals. I don’t just mean following standards for behavior; I mean sharing our highest ambitions.

I think such covenants for Facebook (and social networks and internet platforms) and journalism would do well to start with the mission of journalism that I teach: to convene communities into respectful, informed, and productive conversation. Democracy is conversation. Journalism is — or should be — conversation. The internet is built for conversation. The institutions and companies that serve the public conversation should promise they will do everything in their power to serve and improve that conversation. So here is the beginning of the kind of covenant I would like to see from Facebook:

Facebook should promise to create a safe environment where people can share their stories with each other to build bridges to understanding and to make strangers less strange. (So should journalism.)

Facebook should promise to enable and empower new and diverse voices that have been deprived of privilege and power by existing, entrenched institutions. (Including journalism.)

Facebook should promise to build systems that reward positive, productive, useful, respectful behavior among communities. (So should journalism.)

Facebook should promise not to build mechanisms to polarize people and inflame conflict. (So should journalism.)

Facebook should promise to help inform conversations by providing the means to find reliable information. (Journalism should provide that information.)

Facebook should promise not to build its business upon and enable others to benefit from crass attempts to exploit attention. (So should the news and media industries.)

Facebook should warrant to protect and respect users’ privacy, agency, and dignity.

Facebook should recognize that malign actors will exploit weak systems of protection to drive people apart and so it should promise to guard against being used to manipulate and deceive. (So should journalism.)

Facebook should share data about its performance against these goals, about its impact on the public conversation, and about the health of that conversation with researchers. (If only journalism had such data to share.)

Facebook should build its business, its tools, its rewards, and its judgment of itself around new metrics that measure its contributions to the health and constructive vitality of the public conversation and the value it brings to communities and people’s lives. (So should journalism.)

Clearly, journalism’s covenants with the public should contain more: about investigating and holding power to account, about educating citizens and informing the public conversation, and more. That’s for another day. But here’s a start for both institutions. They have more in common than they know.