Some of our amazing, innovative Social Journalism alumni from the Newmark J-School at CUNY are holding a Zoom call tonight to talk about the program and the work they’ve done because of it.
Given the state of the nation — and world — we have seen an upsurge in interest in #SocialJ and so we’ve just reopened admissions for the fall. Social Journalism could not be more relevant to the times.
I’ve spoken with some prospective journalism students lately who ask me whether this is the time they should come to school, or whether they should defer. My answer: If you wait a year, I think you’ll kick yourself.
In my life — and that’s a long time — I have never seen such a coming together of profound forces for change in society as we witness today. Systematic racism is exposed in glaring light no one can ignore any longer. That is for one thing because of the disproportionate and deadly burden on communities of color brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. And that is because police abuse is evident for all to see — not so much because of media’s cameras but because of the lens of the public, victims and witnesses, who can now share what they endure. It is thanks to the courage of a 17-year-old young woman who recorded the murder of George Floyd and posted it on Facebook that ignorance of police violence is no longer possible.
At the same time, of course, news media are challenged to their core. That is no reason to move away. That is a reason to move in. For as I tell our students every fall, it is their responsibility to reinvent and rebuild journalism, to take everything we teach and question it: How did we get here? Why do we do things this way (follow the money; follow the power)? What is the goal and reason of journalism? What are the ways we can now do it better?
Good God, if you want to change the world as a witness and participant, now is the time to do it.
Yes, it’s a tough time to go to school, as classes might start online or be interrupted. But when better to learn skills and confidence than in challenging times? Our students now will come out with untold resilience, with a need to be creative, with an ability to find new solutions, with strong motivation for their work. Lord, we need all that in the news business.
In Social Journalism, we — my brillant colleage Carrie Brown and the faculty she gathers in this program she directs — teach that journalism is not an industry with factories manufacturing a product called content to monetize with a commodity called attention. We teach that journalism is a service. I often teach the words of James Carey: “Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places.” After a half-millenium of control by the gatekeepers of media, society is finally beginning to relearn how to hold a conversation with itself. So I redefined journalism and its mission: to convene communities to respectful, informed, and productive conversation. That’s what we do.
All our #SocialJ students select a self-defined community (not a mythical demographic like “millennial”) and first observe, listen to, empathize with, respect, and reflect the needs of that community before deciding what journalism can bring given all the new tools we have. See here a glimpse of the phenomenal, innovative work done by last year’s graduates.
We are heretics who are unafraid of examining how journalism can and should be advocacy for communities, for justice, for fairness, for science, for listening. Now is that time for that journalism, social journalism.
So come hear our alums talk about their experience (I’ll put up a link to the video here afterwards). It’s not a sales session. It is an event we long planned to show off their work. But given the intersection of circumstances — the challenges in society, the changes in prospective students’ lives, the reopening of our admissions — it’s a good time to hear what they have to say. (We will also have an information session for the school for veterans coming up on June 25 at 11 a.m. ET — sign up here.) Even if you don’t come to Newmark, if you are thinking of coming to school to come to journalism, my advice is that the time is now.
If you have questions, let me know. DM @jeffjarvis at Twitter.
Be careful what you clamor for. You demand that platforms deal with harmful speech. Then he whose speech is thus affected unleashes the dogs of Trump. They harasstheplatform and its employees for exercising their freedom of speech. They threaten to limit freedom of expression for everyone on that platform and the net — including you.
Thus efforts to control noxious, right-wing speech have backfired as the right-wing exploits every tool used against them. The weapons Trump brandishes — regulating social platforms, limiting or repealing Section 230, redirecting government advertising, blaming algorithmic “bias,” demanding “neutrality,” defining the net as media and platforms as publishers — are things proposed by those who want to limit harmful speech online. In his so-called executive order, the Troll in Chief is using them all for his ends. Have we learned nothing from bad actors online— that every function, every lever, every precedent that can be gamed and exploited by them will be? Now Section 230, our best protection of freedom of expression on the internet, is in peril.
The more I study net regulation, the more of a free-speech absolutist I become. To think that speech is harmful is almost inevitably a third-person effect: believing that everyone else — but not you — is vulnerable to bad words and ideas and that protecting them from it will cure their ignorance. There is but one cure for ignorance: education. The goal of education is to prepare the mind to wrestle with lies and hatred and idiocy … and win.
It is worthwhile to remind us of that very argument made long ago by Franklin, Milton, and Wilkes. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine.
In 1731 Benjamin Franklin was fed up with people complaining about what came off his press — not just in his newspaper, but even in advertisements — and so he wrote an Apology for Printers, which was nothing of the sort. I’m going to take the heart of that essay and substitute modern words like platform and social media for old-fashioned words like printer to make my point: that Franklin’s point still stands. Let me be clear: I do not believe the internet is a medium. It is a platform, a platform for facts and opinions and conversation about them. That is how Franklin viewed his press, as a platform. He wrote:
I request all who are angry with me on the Account of serving things they don’t like, calmly to consider these following Particulars
1. That the Opinions of Men are almost as various as their Faces; an Observation general enough to become a common Proverb, So many Men so many Minds.
2. That the Business of Social Media has chiefly to do with Mens Opinions; most things that are posted tending to promote some, or oppose others….
4. That it is as unreasonable in any one Man or Set of Men to expect to be pleas’d with every thing that is posted, as to think that nobody ought to be pleas’d but themselves.
5. Technologists are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter: Hence they chearfully serve all contending Twitter or Facebook users, without regarding on which side they are of the Question in Dispute.
6. Being thus continually employ’d in serving all Parties, Platforms naturally acquire a vast Unconcernedness as to the right or wrong Opinions contain’d in what they serve; regarding it only as the Matter of their daily labour: They serve things full of Spleen and Animosity, with the utmost Calmness and Indifference, and without the least Ill-will to the Persons reflected on; who nevertheless unjustly think the Platform as much their Enemy as the Tweeter, and join both together in their Resentment.
7. That it is unreasonable to imagine Platforms approve of every thing they serve, and to censure them on any particular thing accordingly; since in the way of their Business they serve such great variety of things opposite and contradictory. It is likewise as unreasonable what some assert, That Platforms ought not to serve any Thing but what they approve; since if all of that Business should make such a Resolution, and abide by it, an End would thereby be put to Free Tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming and TikToking and YouTubing, and the World would afterwards have nothing to read but what happen’d to be the Opinions of the Technologists.
8. That if all Platforms were determin’d not to serve any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little posted.
9. That if they sometimes serve vicious or silly things not worth reading, it may not be because they approve such things themselves, but because the People are so viciously and corruptly educated that good things are not encouraged….
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” — John Milton, the Areopagitica
In 1638 Milton visited Gilileo, who was under house arrest for what authorities decreed were his dangerous ideas and harmful speech. Milton paid tribute to Galileo, including him in Paradise Lost, and the visit helped inspire the Areopagitica, Milton’s 1644 polemic against the licensing of books in England and in defense of freedom of expression.
The abolition of the Star Chamber in 1637 had led to the effective end of censorship and a flowering of publishing — too much publishing for the taste of authorities. In 1643, Parliament passed a Licensing Order “for suppressing the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and Government.” Might as well add tweets and Facebook comments to the list. Parliament argued, as unfortunately some do today, that there was too much speech. Bad actors, they said, “have taken upon them to set up sundry private Printing Presses in corners, and to print, vend, publish, and disperse books, pamphlets and papers, in such multitudes, that no industry could be sufficient to discover or bring to punishment all the several abounding Delinquents.”
Speech scaled and control did not. In England, the Stationers Company — a private, industry organization for printers — had been deputized to regulate this speech, just as Twitter and Facebook are expected to do today. The Order decreed no publication could be printed unless it was first licensed.
In the Areopagitica Milton rose up in righteous, eloquent anger in defense of speech, of debate, of learning, and of this less-than-200-year-old art of printing.
“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life … of that living intellect that bred them.” Thus, Milton said, one might as well “kill a man as kill a good book…. he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God.”
But what of bad books? Well, who is to decide the difference? A Star Chamber? The Stationers Company? Twitter? Facebook’s Oversight Board? The White House? Courts? Or readers? “Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter.” That is God speaking to Pope Dionysius of Alexandria in 240 A.D., according to Milton.
We learn by testing ourselves, Milton argues. “That which purifies us is trial and trial is by what is contrary…. Our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise.” He acknowledges the authorities’ fears that bad speech is “the infection that may spread” — just what we hold this fear today about internet disinformation. But he contends that “evil manners are as perfectly learned without books” and so eliminating bad books will not staunch the infection. So: “A fool will be a fool with the best book, yea or without a book; there is no reason that we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdom, while we seek to restrain from a fool, that which being restrained will be no hindrance to his folly.”
This is Milton’s article of faith: “See the ingenuity of Truth, who, when she gets a free and willing hand, opens herself faster than the pace of … discourse can overtake her.” And: “And though the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple.”
Yet he adds a caution: ‘Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the land, to mark and license it like our broadcloth and our woolpacks.” Truth is not a product to be packaged. It is a choice.
He makes two key arguments: that citizens need to learn by facing and rejecting sin (“When God gave him reason,” Milton says of Adam, “he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing”) and that no small group of men is capable of making decisions to protect citizens from those choices: “Who shall regulate all the mixed conversation of our youth, male and female together, as is the fashion of this country? Who shall still appoint what shall be discoursed, what presumed, and no further? Lastly, who shall forbid and separate all idle resort, all evil company?”
Milton warned of the precedents licensing would set. If we license printing, must we not then license dancing and lutes and lyrics and visitors who bring ideas? And what does Adam teach us about forbidden fruit? “The punishing of wits enhances their authority… This Order, therefore, may provide a nursing-mother to sects.” To forbid it is to spread it; that is another lesson of disinformation on the net.
Milton, like Franklin, recognizes the value of the public conversation: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” I cannot help but also call on James Carey, who said: “Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places.” In the development of the net I have come to see that what we are witnessing is a society relearning how to have a conversation with itself.
But what of nasty, hateful conversations with trolls? Should we not be protected from them?
I give you John Wilkes, the urtroll, who is also, in the title of Arthur H. Cash’s biography, The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty. Wilkes was, by every description, unattractive, a cur, a libertine, a smartass. He feuded with the prime minister, Lord Bute, and published anonymously a newspaper that mocked him, which “proceeded with an acrimony, a spirit, and a licentiousness unheared [sic] of before even in this country,” said Horace Walpole.
In the first issue of the North Briton, Wilkes called a free press “the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country … the terror of all bad ministers.” Says Cash: “Wilkes was in constant danger of having his ironies taken literally by humorless or stupid men.” Indeed, Wilkes and his printers were arrested and his papers seized and there were attempts to rob him of his seat in Parliament.
But he persevered and in the process, according to Cash, set many legal precedents: the end of general warrants, the establishment of a right to privacy, an enhanced right to sue the government for false arrest, in addition to a right to transparency of Parliament and freedom of the press. Wilkes did it by nastily trolling, because that was the power he had at hand. Wilkes is a hero of mine, not as a troll, of course, but as a defender of liberty.
Larry Kramer, who died this week, was also a hero of mine. He was also a troll, a power he used when it was all he had to save lives at the start of the AIDS epidemic. Hear Dr. Anthony Fauci about their relationship:
“How did I meet Larry? He called me a murderer and an incompetent idiot on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner magazine.” …
Addressing Dr. Fauci in the letter, Mr. Kramer wrote: “Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers. Your present inaction is causing today’s increase in HIV infection outside of the Queer community.”
“I thought, ‘This guy, I need to reach out to him,’” Dr. Fauci recalled. “So I did, and we started talking. We realized we had things in common.”
How better to tell the story of the power of listening?
So what speech is it you want to control? Hate? I hate our president and say so. Lies? Who wants an official truth but the officials who set it? Trolling? We risk losing the righteous power of Wilkes and Kramer and the opportunity to learn from them.
Donald Trump is a hateful, lying troll. So what should Twitter do with him? Whatever it wants to. That is the point. That is its right as a private entity in the United States. That is its freedom of expression. It has the freedom to do nothing, to delete his tweets, to add fact checks and warnings to them, to not promote them. I think it is now doing the right thing.
Above all, what Facebook and Twitter and every technology company should be doing is deciding why they exist. I have complained that in establishing its Oversight Board, Facebook has not set a North Star, a raison d’être for the platform. Why does it exist? What behavior on it is beneficial and welcome and what is not, for what reason? They are asking the 20 wise members of the Oversight Board — its Stationers Company — to enforce a set of statutes without a Constitution. Twitter, by its actions, is beginning to write its Constitution, to decide what is acceptable and not and why. Those are their decisions to make.
So what of Trump’s people, those whom he eggs on? Well, what are the characteristics we know of his so-called base: they are uneducated, white males. White, male entitlement matters. But uneducated, that is the key. To update Milton as I updated Franklin: “A fool will be a fool with the best Twitter, yea or without Twitter.”
If we try to use official power to restrain speech on social media, we give fools the power to restrain wisdom there. That is what Trump is trying to do. We must recognize it for what it is: not a legal but a political ploy, an unconstitutional one, also unAmerican. We must fight to protect the freedom of expression, even for fools, so we protect our own. We must fight for the net.
Our house was already on fire; COVID threw gunpowder on the flames. In this piece for Tortoise, I surveyed the damage to our field. Now I will look at some hopeful sprouts rising from the ashes.
First, to be clear: There is no messiah that will save us overnight; our messiahs have all been false. We will not — and should not — return to journalism as it was; we must not lose this opportunity to rethink what journalism can be. Though I want to give them the benefit of hope, I fear the innovation required will not often come from incumbents as they are overwhelmed trying to save the business that was; but I still wish they’d try. The new journalism will not arrive big and fully birthed; it will grow from many small seedlings, many experiments, thus many failures. Patience is required.
Here I’d like to report on conversations I’ve had with three local examples I’m impressed with: Canada’s Village Media, Innocode’s transparency app, and a German paper’s experiment with delivery for stores.
Talk with Google’s senior VP for news, Richard Gingras, about local news (as I will be on June 10) and he will tell you that Jeff Elgie has the answer. I agree. He has a very good answer.
Elgie’s Village Media has the model of simple local reporting for three dozen towns of 50,000 to 150,000, some of its outlets owned by the Sault St. Marie-based company, some franchised to partners (including a few experiments underwritten by Google with McClatchy in Youngstown, Ohio, and with Archant in the UK). In Elgie’s model, the ideal town is a bit isolated, the kind of place where people are born, live, and work without commuting to the big city. Village Media isn’t perfect for tiny, uh, villages (though it has a town of 10,000 as a satellite to a neighboring market) or suburbs or big cities, at least not yet. Elgie says in his best markets residents have a local news habit; it’s easier to start a Village Media site in a town with competition or in which the paper just died, rather in one that has been a news desert.
Village Media sites provide just the value you’d expect from a local newspaper a few decades ago: town council doings, schools, crime, new businesses; it’s comforting in its familiarity. Each site has a handful of reporters covering what matters and Elgie firmly believes they should not waste time rewriting press releases; their sites post them, properly labeled. Village media provides the model and the technology.
Village Media sites are supported by — get ready for it — local advertising. It has not died. Elgie has creative offerings for local merchants beyond standard ad units, video, and sponsored content. There is directory advertising that is self-published by the local merchants, and “sponsored journalism.” That’s not as fearsome as it sounds. It’s underwriting as engaged in by public-radio stations: A sponsor is able to take credit for making it possible to offer coverage of, say, volunteerism or high-school sports or local arts. Village Media also has some programmatic advertising and — like McClatchy, Advance, and Stat — has instituted voluntary payment (read: contributions) in this crisis.
Now hold onto your hat: Even in the COVID crisis, Village Media’s revenue is *up* this April over last by more than a third, not counting growth in franchise fees.
Yes, Village Media sites lost advertisers in the shutdown. But it worked hard (like the German site I’ll mention below) to help them get customers. A major auto dealer that was ready to cancel has ended up spending more. Cities are advertising.
There are other, similar models out there. Patch in the U.S. spread like kudzu into 900 towns, blew up, and rose again from its own ashes, smaller. My area in New Jersey has TAPinto sites as well as independent blogs. In Geeks Bearing Gifts I extolled the hyperlocal blog as a building block of a new news ecosystem and then I confessed my over-enthusiasm, though there are still lots of great single-proprietor blogs serving towns. Every commentator about local news — and there are more commentators about it than reporters in it these days — is quick to complain that any model I propose doesn’t scale. Well, nothing will scale in an instant; that was Patch’s problem: thinking it could. Local is going to be spotty. For Village Media, the challenge is identifying and training the perfect local publishers; as a school, I’m drawn to help.
I’ve long taught our entrepreneurial students the C-A-R rule of media businesses: They must first build a critical mass of content before they can attract a critical mass of audience before they can get a critical mass of revenue. This meansan enterprise of the size of Village Media’s requires a low six-figure investment to get to break-even. Given that the model is proven and the revenue and margins are enviable, I see no reason that capital cannot be raised as loans to build new outlets all over the map. Think of it as a burger franchise and it makes financial sense.
What about tiny burgs that don’t fit the Village Media model? On my last trip outside New York, I got to sit down with Richard Anderson, the founder of Village Soup (no relation) in Maine and a great pioneer in online local journalism. He had thriving local digital sites and then unfortunately bought the local newspapers just before the crash and ended up selling the business. But he remains an innovator, working on how to serve towns’ needs for local government transparency and accountability without wasting time and resources on distractions. Anderson is working on an exciting idea I’ll tell you about another day, when he’s ready.
Anderson and I are inspired by a 2018 paper by Pengjie Gao, et al, that contends: “Following a newspaper closure, we find municipal borrowing costs increase by 5 to 11 basis points in the long run…. The loss of monitoring that results from newspaper closures is associated with increased government inefficiencies.” That is, transparency is good for local towns, schools, businesses, and taxpayers. In my state we have something called Sustainable Jersey, which certifies towns on a number of criteria — including public information and engagement — and they compete to improve.
This inspired another thought: call it transparency-as-a-service. What if transparency services offered a start — just a start — on the way to a healthier local information ecosystem? What if that could be a business? What if the client is the town? Is that a conflict of interest? Sure. So is advertising. Bear in mind that Benjamin Franklin was not only the publisher of a newspaper in Philadelphia but also the official printer of Pennsylvania and the postmaster at the same time. If Ben could manage it, we can.
I was sharing this thought with a Scandinavian media executive I respect and he told me I had to talk with Morten Holst of Innocode, which provides technology for many media companies. I mentioned my thoughts on transparency-as-a-service to Holst and he showed me the Sandefjord Citizen app they’ve already built. The client is the local government. The users are a third of the population of the town. The product is local data. With the app, users can sign up for alerts when building permits are filed (the town would rather people raise objections before v. after it is issued), get data on water temperature and snow plowing (it’s Norway), and send out messages on behalf of their local clubs and organizations.
No one would say such data transparency is sufficient to assure local government accountability. Journalism is needed atop this data. The Citizen app is just one piece of an impressive, larger local strategy Innocode has. In any case, why waste journalists’ time rewriting press releases about snow plowing? Why not, too, follow the lead of Chicago’s City Bureau and make citizens collaborators in covering meetings and gathering data? The journalists should devote their time to true accountability journalism, not just filling space. The more informed and engaged citizens are in their local government, the better for journalism, the better for the town.
My point here is that we need to cut journalism up into component parts so we can start smaller. As I said in this post, one of my students argued that when faced with building from ground up, one must choose whether to build transparency or service journalism and I would add community. You want to end up with all three, but you need to start somewhere. The Citizen app is an example.
Translated: “The newspaper now brings beer. Many local papers are fighting to survive. But in the middle of the pandemic, the Mindener Tageblatt had an idea.”
I emailed the publisher, Carsten Lohmann, to learn more. What impressed me is that he empathized with the needs of his local advertisers and their customers and brought to bear what he could: his own newspaper delivery staff. The company had already decided to take a cost center — delivery — and turn it into a revenue stream. Then came COVID. Lohmann told me:
With our daily newspaper we reach about 45% of all households in the distribution area and pass through about 70% of all mailboxes. So it made sense to take other products with us on this route.
Since we have to collect business mail from our customers during the day and also deliver it for our printing plant and office supplier (a local Staples), we decided to offer this service to external customers as well.
In this respect, our logistics department is certainly already experienced. Nevertheless the project is a challenge. For example, we have invested in a new logistics software.
They have been delivering beer (it’s Germany), plus about 80 pair of shoes so far, and office supplies. Will this make him rich? Is it the elusive messiah? Of course not.
It’s not gonna make us a fortune. But it should and does help us to share our own costs with external customers and to intensify contacts with local retailers on several levels — or even to establish them for the first time. At kauflokal-minden.de(buy local — Minden) companies have registered with which we have had no business contacts so far.
This is not the only line extension the paper has developed. In 2003, it founded MR-Biketours and is now the largest provider of guided motorcycle tours to the U.S. By the way, when I told students in our News Innovation and Leadership program at Newmark about the Minden paper, my colleague Anita Zielina said the paper she once worked for in Austria, Der Standard, bought a local bread company and offered daily delivery of papers and rolls. Who wouldn’t want a nice Zimtschnecke with the news?
Many years ago, when I was still consulting, I set up a meeting with eBay and PalPal (they were still together) to investigate whether local newspapers could help local businesses sell online and deliver locally to compete with Amazon. The eBay executive said the problem was that local stores did not generally have inventory digitized, so it could not be presented for sale online. I wrote a business plan for a stores’ equivalent of OpenTable, which had to build a system for restaurants to manage reservations so those reservations could be offered online. It almost got investment and a team but then didn’t. More recently, at the Newmark J-School, we started a professional community of practice for ecommerce with a not-so-hidden agenda to convince and help publishers to open online stores (à la Wirecutter) to build a new revenue stream and a new set of skills around individualized user data. The group convinced one company to do this and it gained a new revenue stream of a few million dollars.
My point is that we need to build new journalistic enterprises, new models, new services, and new revenue in small ways. This is why I like the dialog-driven journalism of Spaceship Media, the collaborative journalism of Chicago’s City Bureau, the answers and advocacy that come from Detroit’s Outlier, the listening inherent in Tortoise’s Thinkins, the power-sharing of The City’s open newsrooms, as well as innovation from the incumbents: Advance’s texting platform Subtext; McClatchy’s and Archants experiments above, and service journalism from the Arizona Daily Star’s This is Tucson. They build a piece at a time.
At Newmark, we just announced that we are also thinking small to train individual, resilient journalists in our new Entrepreneurial Journalism program. It will prepare journalists to serve passionate communities by making email newsletters, videos, events, sites, texting services, books, and more — and to support their work by making money via Medium, YouTube, Patreon, book publishers, events, and so on. My colleague Jeremy Caplan will head the program.
None of these journalists is likely to get venture-capital funding and return 100x. None of them will instantly serve every town in America. None of them will solve all of journalism’s woes overnight. None of them is a messiah. But any of them could serve a town’s transparency needs or bring together a community to share with each other or find creative ways to earn money by serving local merchants. Any of them could rebuild journalism from the ashes as small sprouts. That’s what it’s going to take, when the fire is out.
I just had a delightful conversation with the voice behind Steak-umm’s Twitter, Nathan Allebach, who — from the platform of a frozen meat brand — has brought sanity, rationality, and empathy to the discussion online in the midst of this pandemic.
I did this mainly for journalism students and journalists, for there is much to learn from Nathan about listening, about bringing value to conversation, about community, about empathy, and about authenticity and transparency. In the end, when I ask him whether he would think of being a journalist, he said he might be too radical in his view of journalism and marketing; I told him he’s made for our Social Journalism program at the Newmark J-School.
Nathan talks about how he approaches communities on Twitter, how he built trust between himself and his client and their brand and the public, how he has to navigate the delicate line between being himself and being the voice of a brand, and a little about himself as an autodidact nerd and musician.
Media are no longer the deliverers of information. The information has already been delivered. So the question now for journalists is how — and whether — we add value to that stream of information.
In this matter, as in our current crisis, we have much to learn from medicine.
In microcosm, the impact of the new, open information ecosystem is evident in the COVID-19 pandemic as scientists grapple with an avalanche of brand new research papers, which appear — prior to peer review and publication — on so-called preprintservers, followed by much expert discussion on social media. Note that the servers carry the important caveat that their contents “should not be reported in news media as established information.”
Almost to a scientist, the experts I’ve been following on my COVID Twitter list welcome this new availability of open information, for it gives them more data more quickly with more opportunity to discuss the quality and importance of researchers’ findings with their colleagues — and often to provide explanation and context for the public. So far, I’ve seen only one scientist suggest putting preprints behind a wall — and then I saw other scientists argue the point.
Clearly, low-quality information presents a problem. There is the case of the hydroxychloroquine paper with a tiny number of patients and no controls that got into the head and out of the mouth of Donald Trump. But many, many scientists objected to and pointed to the problems with that paper, as they should. The weakness in that chain, as in many, is Trump.
A better example of what’s occurring today is the reaction to a SARS-CoV2 antibody study in Santa Clara County, California — which matters because we still do not know how reliable our counts of infected patients is. I am not nearly qualified to understand it. But as soon as the paper was posted, I saw a string of thoughtful, informed threads from scientists in the field pointing out issues with the study: See Drs. Natalie Dean, Howard Forman, Trevor Bedford, John Cherian, and grateful reaction to all of them from a scientist all the others respect, Dr. Marc Lipsitch. All of them responded within one day. That is peer review at the speed of the internet.
The tone of their criticism is respectful and backed up with reasoning and citations. Because science. One example, about the paper’s conclusion regarding the infection fatality rate (IFR):
To make this open, rapid system of information functional, scientists are, with admirable dispatch, adapting new methods and models, which brings many requirements:
First: The information needs to be open, of course, and that is happening as SARS-CoV2 papers are being published by journals outside their high and pricey paywalls. Preprint servers are free. Note also that the EU just announced the establishment of a Europe-wide platform for open sharing of both papers and data on the pandemic. #OpenScience is a movement.
Second: There needs to be some means to sort and discover all this work. Seeing that need, up popped this index to preprints that clusters and maps them around topics; and the Covid Open Research Dataset, which tries to provide organization; and a writer who summarizes 87 pieces of original research published in a week. The volume is heaven-sent but crushing. As a delightfully wry medical blogger named Richard Lehman writes: “Five weeks ago, when I began writing these reviews, everyone was aghast at the challenge of covid-19 and thrilled how it was dynamizing all the usual slow processes of medical knowledge exchange. In the intervening century, we have become more weary and circumspect.”
Third: Of course, there need to be mechanisms to review and monitor quality of the papers. That’s happening almost instantaneously through medical social media, as illustrated above. And there are papers about the papers, cited by Dr. Gaetan Burgio in the thread above. One analyzes the 239 papers on COVID-19 released in the first 30 days of the crisis, separating research science, basic science, and clinical reports. “It is very much like everyone would like to have a go at #COVID19 & we end up with a massive ‘publication pollution,’” Burgio tweets. Some are good, he says, some atrocious; some come from relevant researchers, some not. That is why the swift and clear peer review and some level of vetting is important. And that leads to…
Fourth: There needs to be a means for experts to judge experts, for credentialing and review of those rendering judgment of the research. That, too, is happening in the public conversation. In the process of maintaining my own COVID Twitter list of epidemiologists, virologists, infectious-disease physicians, and researchers, it becomes clear by their citations and comments whom they respect. It also becomes clear whom many respect less. This is the question: Whom do you trust? On what basis? For which questions?
But when the question moves from science to personality, things can get uneasy. One case: Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding has been getting much Twitter traffic and TV airtime for his tweets. Some scientists made a point of telling me that he does not have credentials and experience as relevant as others’. Then followed a deftly critical Chronicle of Higher Education piece about him, which he in a DM to me called a hit piece. I’ll leave this to others, more qualified than I am, to judge.
True, there is an ever-present risk of credentialed disciplines endorsing only the members of their tribe. But that credentialing is an institution that has long been central to the academe and science, necessary to certify credibility in an educated and enlightened society. The granting of degrees and appointments is the best system we have for determining expertise. Especially in these anti-intellectual, science-denying, cognition-impaired times, it is vital that we maintain and support it.
I have been arguing to editors, producers, bookers, and reporters that they should be doing a better job asking the right questions of the most relevant and experienced experts — not, for example, asking a spine surgeon about virology, not giving op-ed space to armchair epidemiologists. This means that journalists — and internet platforms, too — need to make judgments about who to quote and promote and who not to. To quote my friend Siva Vaidhyanathan: “I wish journalists were more discriminating when assessing expertise worthy of informing the public. Knowing academic ranks, positions, journals would help. More scientific expertise in the newsroom would be best.” This gets us to:
Fifth: Both scientists and journalists must do a better job explaining science. I’m working with Connie Moon Sehat in our NewsQ project (funded — full disclosure — by Facebook) to formulate definitions of quality in news, starting with science news, so those definitions can be used by platforms to make better judgments in their promotion of content. This will end up with measurable standards — for example, whether reporting on a preprint includes views from multiple scientists who are not its authors and what the credentials of the quoted experts are.
I hear scientists worry about how well they communicate with the public. That’s why they are sent to take training in science communication (“scicomm”). But I tell them it’s not the scientists who should change, but the journalists, who must learn how to grapple with open information themselves.
Before I explore some of the lessons for journalism and media, let me make clear that — as ever — none of this is new. In science, says a paper by Mark Hooper, the accepted historical narrative has been that peer review began with the first science journals in 1665. Or when the Royal Society “published a collection of refereed medical articles for the first time” in 1731. Or when the Royal Society formalized the process of using independent referees in 1832. Or during the Cold War when peer review became “a requirement for scientific legitimacy.” The term “peer review” was not used until the 1960s and 1970s.
But Hooper contends that the practice of peer review — which he defines as “1) organized systems for facilitating review by peers; 2) in the context of publishing practices; 3) to improve academic works; 4) to provide quality control for academic works” — began much, much earlier. Cicero received editorial review from Atticus, his publisher and editor, in the first century B.C. (A lovely full circle, as Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters to Atticus is marked as a foundational moment of the Renaissance.) Scholia — “comments inscribed in the margins of ancient and medieval works” — were so valuable that scribes made margins larger to accommodate them. Pre-publication censorship in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries was also a form of academic review, Hooper says.
All of which is to say that every form of media is an adaptation of another. Peer review by experts has been a need long fulfilled by different, available means. As I wrote the other day, news was poetry, song, official decrees, cheap broadsides, single-subject pamphlets, and handwritten newsletters before it became newspapers.
So what does this open information ecosystem portend for news? Well, again, we don’t deliver news or information anymore. It is delivered already: via blogs, social media, direct connection from officialdom and companies to the public, scientific papers, open databases, and means yet unimagined in the vast public conversation opened up by the net. Nobody depends on us to bring them information. We are no longer the deliverer or the gatekeeper.
But this open information ecosystem does bring many demands — just as that in medicine — and therein lie many opportunities.
First: How do we help make information open, breaking the seals of governments and companies and other information sources to the public? How do we aid transparency? Maybe that’s one of our new jobs: transparency-as-a-service (more on that idea another day). And we must ask: Can we function in an open information ecosystem when our information is ever-more frequently closed behind paywalls?
Second: How do we make information more discoverable and organized? Google, of course, did that with search, but that’s only a beginning, as I’m sure Google itself would agree: a miraculous but still-crude layer of automated organization it is constantly improving. Who will master the challenge of sorting wheat?
Third: How do we create mechanisms to review the credibility and quality of information and disinformation? Note how Medium is, to its credit, grappling with making judgments on the credibility of COVID-19 content while other platforms all but throw up their hands at the impossibility of judgment at scale. Ultimately, this task will depend upon:
Fourth: How do we judge the expertise of those we call upon for judgment?
Fifth: How do we amplify their expertise, adding context, explanation, verification, and perspective in the public conversation?
Expertise is key. The problem here is that experts are much easier to find, certify, and judge in medicine than in other fields. Because science. Is there such a thing as an expert in politics? Half the world thinks it’s them. Another problem is that academically certified experts are becoming scarcer — and less heed is paid to them — in this era than elevates idiocy. One more problem is the methodology of journalism, which is built to regurgitate events and opinions around those already in power without accountability for outcomes. Imagine — as one of my former students, Elisabetta Tola, is— journalism in the scientific method, beginning with a hypothesis, seeking data to test it, calling on experts to challenge it, and recognizing — as scientists do and journalists do not — that knowledge does not come in the form of a final word but instead as a process, a conversation.
It is no longer our job to tell finished stories. In the economic aftermath of this crisis, that is a legacy luxury that will die along with the old business models that supported it. Get over it. Adapt. Survive by adding value to the free flow of information in the open ecosystem that is our new normal. Or die.
UPDATE: The day after writing this came an all-too-perfect example of what I’m trying to warn against in this post. The New York Times gave space to a controversial and contrarian preprint without getting differing views from scientists, without providing the context that this scientist’s views have been used by the it’s-just-flu, open-up-now COVID deniers. Shameful editing. In my thread, see also the last link to an example of good reporting from the San Jose Mercury News.
I want to thank Drs. Gregg Gonsalves, Krutika Kuppalli, Angela Rasmussen, and Emma Hodcroft for talking with me about their experience with their new information ecosystem — preprints and social media — when I interviewed them for their guidance on how journalism should over the crisis. You can watch those interviews here.