Posts about News

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.

Death to the Mass(es)!

In the tweets above, leading journalists Ezra Klein and Anne Applebaum reflect the accepted wisdom, raison d’être, and foundational myth of their field: that journalism exists to align the nation upon a common ground of facts, so a uniformly informed mass of citizens can then manage their democracy.

The idea that the nation can and should share one view of reality based on one set of facts is the Cronkite-era myth of mass media: And that’s the way it is.But it wasn’t. The single shared viewpoint was imposed by the means of media production: broadcast uniformity replaced media diversity.

Now that era is over. What the internet kills is the mass media business model, with it mass media, and with it the idea of “the mass” as the homogenized, melted pot of citizens.

I’ll argue that we are returning to a media model that existed before broadcast: with many voices from and for many worldviews.

We are also returning to an earlier meaning of the word “mass” — from “mass market” to “the masses” as the political mob, the uninformed crowd, the ruly multitude … Trump’s base, in other words. That’s what the tweets above lament: a large proportion of the nation (at least ≈30%) who accept what is fed to them by Fox News and fake news and come out believing, just for example, that Obamacare is dead. What are we to do?

The answer isn’t to hope for a return to the Cronkite myth, for it was a myth. Mainstream media did not reflect reality for countless unreflected, underrepresented, and underserved communities; now, thanks to the net, we can better hear them. And mainstream media did not uniformly inform the entire nation; we just couldn’t know who all was uninformed, but now we have a better sense of our failings.

In 1964, E.V. Walter examined the shift from “the masses” to “mass” in his paper, Mass Society: The late stages of an idea in Social Research. He wrote (his emphases):

In the historical course of the idea, the decade 1930–1939 is a watershed. Before those years, thinking about mass behavior was restricted to dealing with the “mass” as a part of society, examining the conditions that produced it, the types of actions peculiar to it and their implications. After that time, the characteristics of the “mass” were attributed to society as a whole. This change was associated with significant historical events. One was the development of mass media…. The other was the more traumatic development of totalitarian systems…

Mass media, mass marketing, and mass production turned the ugly masses, the mobs, into the good mass, the marketplace-of-all to whom we sold uniform products (news, deodorant, politicians), convincing them that everyone should like what everyone else likes: the rule of the Jones. Well, good-bye to all that.

And so we are properly freaked out today: The mass isn’t a cohesive whole anymore (or now we know better). The masses have re-emerged as a mob and have taken over the country. We’ve seen how this played out before with the rise of totalitarian states riding on the shoulders of unruly, uninformed, angry crowds. “[T]he masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general,” José Ortega y Gasset properly fretted in 1930 in The Revolt of the Masses.

So what do we do? Let’s start by recalling that before the 1920s and radio and the 1950s and television, media better reflected the diversity of society with newspapers for the elite, the working class, the immigrant (54 papers were published in New York in 1865; today we can barely scrape together one that covers the city effectively). Some of those newspapers were scurrilous and divisive. The yellow journalism rags could lie worse than even Fox News and Breitbart. Yet the nation survived and managed its way through an industrial revolution, a civil war, a Great Depression, and two world wars, emerging as a relatively intact democracy. How?

It is tempting to consider ignoring and writing off as hopeless the masses, the third of Americans who take Fox and Trump at their words. Clearly that would not be productive. These people managed to elect a president. That’s how they showed the rest of us they cannot be ignored. I worry about an effort to return to rule by the elite because the elites (the intelligent and the informed) are not the same as the powerful (see: Congress).

It is tempting, too, to pay too much attention to that so-called base, reporting on the lies and myths they believe without challenge. This presents two problems. The first, as pointed out by Ezra Klein, is that the election hinged not on the base but on the hinge.

 

 

The second problem is that by paying so much attention to that base, we risk ignoring the majority of Americans who don’t believe these lies, who don’t approve of Trump’s behavior, who don’t approve of the tax bill just signed. As my Twitter friends love to point out, where have you seen the empathetic stories listening to the plurality of voters who elected Hillary Clinton?

The problem is that we in media keep seeking to cadge together a mass that makes sense. We don’t know how to — or have lost from our ancestral memory the ability to — serve diverse communities.

I argue that one solution is not just diversity in the newsrooms we have but diversity in the news and media ecosystem as a whole, with new and better outlets serving and informing many communities, owned by those communities: African-Americans, Latino-Americans, immigrant Americans, old Americans, young Americans, and, yes, conservative Americans.

We need to work with Facebook particularly to find ways to build bridges among communities, so the demagogues cannot fuel and exploit fear of strangers.

We need to work on better systems of holding both politicians and media to account for lies. Fact-checking is a start but is insufficient. Is there any way to shame Fox News into telling the truth? Is there any way to let its viewers know how they are being lied to and used?

We need to listen to James Carey’s lessons about journalism as transmission of fact (that’s what the exchange above is about) to journalism as a ritual of communication. This is why we need to examine new forms of journalism. (This is why we’re looking to start a lab at the CUNY J-school and why I’m leading a brief class next month in Comedy as a Tool of Journalism — and Journalism as a Tool of Comedy.)

What makes me happy about the Twitter exchange atop this post is that it resets the metric of journalistic success away from audience and attention and toward the outcome that matters: whether the public is informed or not. “Not” should scare the shit out of us.

I’m working on a larger piece (maybe a book or a part of one) about post-mass society and the many implications of this shift. A slice of it is how the mass-media mindset affects our view of our work in journalism and of the structure of politics and society. We need a reset. The bad guys — trolls and Russians, to name a few — have learned that talking to the mass is a waste of time and money and targeting is more effective. They have learned that creating social tokens is a more effective means of informing people than creating articles. We have lessons to learn even from them.

The mass is dead. I don’t regret its passing. In some ways, we need to learn how society managed before media helped create this monster. In other ways, we need to recognize how we can use new tools — the ones the bad guys have exploited first — to better connect and inform and manage society. Let’s begin by recognizing that the goal is not to create one shared view of reality but instead to inform discussion and deliberation among many different communities with different perspectives and needs. That’s what society needs. That’s what journalism must become

Facebookmageddon? Not so soon

Only time, experience, and data will tell, but I wouldn’t be throwing out Facebook strategies for news quite yet.

Two things happened today: (1) Facebook for the first time outlined the principles that govern its decisions — that is, its News Feed algorithm — about what to select and show you. (2) At the same time, Facebook tweaked — we don’t know how much — that algorithm to emphasize friends and family more and news less.

But Facebook has *always* favored friends and family over news content. It is a *social* site. That should come as no surprise to anyone. The only question is how much weight each has.

Indeed, when Facebook’s execs told me their priorities in the past, they were (1) connections with people, (2) entertaining people, and (3) informing people. Its document today reversed the order of 2 and 3 in the narrative; I have no idea what the order is in the algorithm.

The shock at this news is, I suspect, a bit overdone. Says Farhad Manjoo in The Times:

Though it is couched in the anodyne language of a corporate news release, the document’s message should come as a shock to everyone in the media business. According to these values, Facebook has a single overriding purpose, and it isn’t news. Facebook is mainly for telling you what’s up with your friends and family.

Who the hell *ever* thought that Facebook’s single overriding purpose was news? No one. Ever.

So this is a matter of degree. It’s more transparent than it has been — which is what we have been asking for. It emphasizes that people want to talk to people on Facebook and if people want to talk about your news, you’re in luck. If they don’t, you’re shit out of luck. Always have been. Still are.

Let’s wait and see what the real data look like. And let’s follow Facebook’s example to serve people rather than merely serving content.

To a faster — and distributed — web

Screenshot 2015-10-07 at 10.52.04 AM

Last May, shortly after Facebook announced its Instant Articles, Google held its first Newsgeist Europe and I walked in, saying obnoxiously (it’s what I do): “Facebook just leapfrogged you by a mile, Google. What you should do now is create an open-source version of Instant Articles.” Richard Gingras, head of Google News, has long been arguing for what he called portable content. I had been arguing since 2011 for embeddable content: If content could travel with its brand, revenue, analytics, and links attached, then it can go to the reader rather than making the reader come to it.

Today, fairy godmother Google delivered our wish — thanks to Gingras, Google engineering VP Dave Besbris, and media partners inside and outside of Google’s European Digital News Initiative. Hallelujah.

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) — as you can see from Google’s definition on Github, above — a simple way to dramatically speed up the serving of web pages (on mobile and on desktop) through several means, including:
(1) a shared library of web-page functions so that they can be cached and called and not downloaded with every new web page;
(2) the opportunity to cache content nearer the user — with Google or not and inside apps on user’s devices;
(3) the beginnings of advertising standards to get rid of some of the junk that both slows down and jumbles the serving of web pages; and
(4) the sharing of some functions such as gathering data for analytics.

Note that the publisher’s revenue (that is, ads), analytics (that is, user data), brand, and links stay with the content. Google emphasized again and again: It’s just the web, done well. It’s just a web page — but way faster. A link is no longer an invitation to wait. A link is just a next page, instantly and fully visible.

You can get a demo here. So far, it’s just a sample of about 5,000 new pages per day from the launch partners. Open that URL on your phone. Search for something like Obama. Go through the carousel and you should be amazed with the speed.

But I think AMP and Instant Articles are more than that. They are a giant step toward a new, distributed content ecology on the web … and a better, faster web, especially in mobile.

Here are a few ways I see this changing the way content operates on the web:

Imagine an aggregator like Real Clear Politics or an app like Nuzzel. Now, every time you click on a link, you have to load a browser and all the cruft around the content on a page. Now, the page — every page made to the AMP standard — can load *instantly* because the architecture and functionality of the page can be prefetched and cached and the content can be cached closer to the user — and the advertising and analytics will not be allowed to screw up the loading of the page. So the experience of reading an aggregation of content will be like reading a web site: fast, clean, smooth. If I were in the aggregation business, I would build around AMP.

Imagine starting a new media service without a web site but built around content meant to be distributed so it goes directly to readers wherever they are: on Twitter (via users’ links there), on Facebook (in a community there), on Nuzzel (through recommendations there), and elsewhere — via Reddit, Mode aggregation, Tumblr, etc.

Now there are a few key things missing from the AMP architecture that will be critical to business success. But they can be added.

The first is that user interest data needs to flow back to the content creator — with proper privacy transparency and consent built in! — so that the publisher can build a direct relationship of relevance and value with the user, no matter where she is encountered. That is more complicated but vital.

The second — and this is a lesson I learned working with shared content and thus audience in the New Jersey news ecosystem — is that we must value and reward not just the creators of content but also those who build audience for that content.

That’s a small matter of deal making. AMP is built with *no* need to make deals, which is critical to its quick adoption. You make your content AMP-ready and anybody can serve it instantly to their audiences with your business model (advertising, etc.) attached. But there’s no reason two publishers can’t make a separate deal so, for example, the Washington Post could say to the Cincinnati Inquirer: You can take our AMP-ready content with our ads attached but we will give you your own ad avail or we will give you a reward for the traffic you bring us and we can share a special, co-branded page. The Post is already getting ready to distribute all its content in Facebook. It is using its owner Jeff Bezos’ Amazon to distribute itself, too. (Speculation is that these alone will have it leap past The New York Times in audience.) Why not use AMP and make deals to reward other quality news services on the web to be its distributor? That is the new newsstand. That is the new site-less web.

I also see the opportunity to make AMP-ready modules and widgets that can be collected and aggregated *inside* web pages.

This is a big deal. It’s not just about speeding up the web. It’s about unbundling the web and web sites. If we in media are smart in exploiting its opportunities and if AMP and Amazon and others gather together around a single set of standards — which is quite possible — if we add more data smarts to the process, this could be big for us in media or for upstarts in garages. Your choice, media.

AFTERTHOUGHT: How should Facebook respond? I would suggest they have nothing to lose by joining the standard so publishers can publish both ways. I would also suggest that Facebook can now leapfrog Google by helping publishers with interest data and user profiles — that is where the real value will be.

Exploding our ideas of membership: A CUNY summit

We are holding an important event at CUNY on August 26 exploring membership strategies for media — beyond pledges and paywalls.

Let’s be honest: In most news organizations, membership is just another word for subscription or for hawking tote bags. At this event, I want to see us push far beyond the present state of the art and challenge ourselves to reimagine what membership can mean for news organizations and their relationships with the people and communities they serve.

We will start with sessions led by two innovators in membership: public-media genius Melody Kramer (who just released a superb report with her latest ideas) and local media’s best friend, Josh Stearns, who is working on membership experiments in the New Jersey news ecosystem. We will learn about best practices in membership from outside the media industry (what could the frequent-flier miles of news be?). And — this is the critical part — we will take all that information and inspiration and then, in the best spirit of the unconference, brainstorm new opportunities for membership for news organizations of various types and sizes.

Here is the sign-up for the event.

I see three frontiers for innovation:

* New tribes: A person might feel an urge to join a club called the Guardian because it takes on causes or NPR or even The New York Times out of patronage. But does anyone really want to belong to — will they feel an affinity and loyalty to and want to brag about their special relationship with — say, Columbus Dispatch? Not so much. But one might well want to belong to the Columbus pissed-off commuters’ club or the Columbus school improvement society or the Columbus environment alliance or the Columbus senior club. My point: communities are internally, not externally defined; they are not built outside-in or top-down under brands. The premise of our social journalism program at CUNY is that we must begin by listening to communities and understanding their needs before we can serve them well. The same goes for membership. The opportunity is to build membership from the bottom up by serving many communities with many affinities, loyalties, and needs that we can answer.

* New currencies for contribution: We can extract value from our relationships with the public we serve in so many forms other than just cash. Indeed, we must learn to value our people — our users, our readers — beyond just their circulation dimes or CPM pennies. We must value them as individuals rather than as members of an anonymous mass. To join a community, we should value and credit the public’s effort, expertise, contributions of content, volunteer marketing (i.e., social media love), commerce (buying things through us or from our advertisers), and showing up (coming to our events). I explored some of these notions in a long-ago post that speculated about a reverse pay meter; Melody explores many more in her report.

* New currencies for reward: When we give our members nothing more than access to our content, then we are merely putting a new label on an old business model: the subscription. We can reward members in so many more ways: with access to events and our journalists, with some voice in the allocation of our resources, with social capital, with discounts from our advertisers….

Out of these ideas and more that we will explore on August 26 will come many new models for membership. The product of the day will not only be potential new business models but also new ways to look at–to quote my friend Jay Rosen–the people formerly known as the audience. When our members are our collaborators, the recipients of our services, experts, and our friends, then the nature of our product — our service — called journalism changes fundamentally. If we have any hope to compete with Google, Facebook et al for the attention and affection of the public we serve — and for the first-party data that will rescue us from advertising commodification — we must reconsider our essential relationship with them. We must become members of the same clubs.

If this is of interest to you and your news organizations, please sign up now.