Posts about News

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.

I, for one, welcome our new newsstand

newsstand

Facebook just gave publishers almost what I was wishing for. It is enabling news companies to go to readers where they are (we used to call that home delivery), embedding their articles, photos, videos — and ads — in users’ streams of attention and keeping all the revenue they sell or a share of the ad revenue Facebook sells. They call it Instant Articles because it saves users the time of clicking on links and waiting for web pages to load. It’s a start, a good start.

I wish that Facebook would also work to share data about users at their option so news companies could serve those users with greater relevance and value and learn to build relationships with the public as individuals and communities rather than as a mass. Here, I suggest how that could happen. For now, Facebook is allowing publishers to track some usage data. One thing at a time.

In Facebook’s blog post announcing the deal, its chief product officer, Chris Cox, says: “Fundamentally, this is a tool that enables publishers to provide a better experience for their readers on Facebook. Instant Articles lets them deliver fast, interactive articles while maintaining control of their content and business models.”

The post continues: “Along with a faster experience, Instant Articles introduces a suite of interactive features that allow publishers to bring their stories to life in new ways. Zoom in and explore high-resolution photos by tilting your phone. Watch auto-play videos come alive as you scroll through stories. Explore interactive maps, listen to audio captions, and even like and comment on individual parts of an article in-line.”

I await much gnashing of teeth over the deal. Actually, I don’t have to wait. My Twitter feed was peppered yesterday with fretting over Facebook and news, for example:

Sigh. What are we supposed to do: ignore the audience on Facebook, stomp our little feet, and take our balls and go home, expecting users to always follow us to our home pages? Last week, I had this discussion with my students, trying to get them to focus on the business terms of a negotiation with Facebook over embedded content. It was hard to get some of them past typical media emotions: not liking or trusting Facebook, worrying about rugs being pulled out in the future. These are deal points that can be negotiated. And at least Facebook wants to negotiate.

Indeed, at last, both Google and Facebook are ready to talk. Two weeks ago, Google signed a friendship pact with eight European publishers. Now Facebook has made its deal with nine — take that, Google! — publishers, not just in squeaky-wheel Europe but also in America: The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC, Spiegel, and Bild. Note that the last one, Bild, is owned by Axel Springer, which has led the European war against Google, forcing it — and by extension, Facebook — to come to the table.

This is good news for news. At Facebook, the head of product — which is the center of power at a technology company — has made it clear that news matters to the company. Late last year, Facebook released new products for news media. Meanwhile, Google is promising to develop products with publishers and give grants for innovation and this weekend, it is holding its second Newsgeist summit in Europe (I will be there).

This is only a start. Further negotiation is needed to assure trust and more strategic benefit to news companies. And there is much serious discussion that must be held with these technology companies about their responsibility not to publishers but to society. For now these platforms are taking on the role of not only distributing but even editing the news the public sees. These are not easy questions with easy answers.

If news and technology can come to terms, we can begin to reinvent journalism in a distributed world with new business models. I’ve been suggesting that publishers consider starting new services — and new businesses — inside Facebook if the company will make that feasible. We in media can’t do it all by ourselves anymore. We are no longer monopolies in control of content and distribution from top to bottom. We now live in ecosystems where we must work with others. Get used to it. Find the opportunity in it.

LATER: On Facebook, appropriately, my friend Emily Bell asks five questions about the Facebook deal. OK, I’ll take the quiz:

1. How much revenue will this return to NYT vs its other distribution strategies?

First, given that Facebook allows publishers to place their own ads on their content and keep 100% of that revenue, then on an article-by-article basis, the revenue should be a wash. Except that if the paper recognizes a big bump in incremental circulation, then this is additional revenue. If the paper chooses to let Facebook sell the ad and take a revenue share, then I assume it does so because Facebook can get higher revenue and thus it’s a revenue increase.

But, of course, the value isn’t only in the direct ad sales. It is also in the potential to start a relationship with a new customer leading to other revenue: traffic to and ad revenue from visits to the publisher’s site and, in The Times’ case, subscriptions. This is more unknown. I recently spoke with a publisher who started putting videos on Facebook — no revenue yet — but found that they drastically increase the number of people who follow the publisher there, which, it’s hoped, leads to more business in the long run. We shall see.

All this is why I think it’s vital that we begin calculating the lifetime value of individual users and relationships, so we can calculate all this.

2. Who bears the publishing risk for the pieces FaceBook publishes?

That’s a different question in the U.S. than elsewhere. In the U.S., we are blessed with a First Amendment for digital, Section 230, which gives Facebook safe harbor.

Legalities aside, we know that Facebook does take responsibility for policing content, including that from publishers, according to its community standards [as if there could be one standard for one community in the world — but that’s another discussion]. At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, there was much discussion of Facebook penalizing the respected Scandinavian paper Berlinkse for photos with nudity appropriate both to its journalism and its culture. This, of course, is disturbing: Facebook as editor; Facebook as censor. This is why, as I suggest above, it is urgent that we have a substantive discussion with and about Facebook — and Google and Twitter — in regard to their roles potentially as gatekeepers. That is why they need to have more sophisticated voices inside their organizations to grapple with these significant issues.

3. How will it change the NYT’s digital journalism given that richer interactive presentations won’t work in this format?

But then again, Facebook is providing new functions appropriate to its platform. We must learn to present news appropriate to platforms, use cases, and user contexts. Katie Couric doesn’t do a thirty-minute show on Snapchat Discover; she delivers what is appropriate there. Same goes for this. The Times and these other publishers should find ways to present news in new ways for new uses.

4. How much data does the NYT get access to from FB?

This is *the* key question. As I made clear above and in earlier posts, I believe we in news *must* get information about our users that enables us to serve them with greater relevance and value and thus to extract greater economic value in return. Now I have heard people from *many* technology companies say in response to this idea that publishers wouldn’t know what to do with that data if they had it. True, tragically true. But therein lies an opportunity for these technologists: teach us in media how to build and serve and extract value from relationships with known individuals; cure us of our mass-media ways … please.

5. How much further is FB likely to go in turning itself from a platform to a publisher? Will it hire editors, other journalists etc?

Facebook, Google, Twitter, et should not and should not want to become publishers, in my view. It creates tremendous channel conflict. It invites antitrust scrutiny. It limits the scope of the content they can present.

That said, I do think that these companies need to import editorial sensibilities — particularly about professional standards and ethics and the issues outlined above. So far, that hasn’t worked terribly well. I do not think that editors should be imported as news cops or consultants. I think they should be integrated into the process of product development, where relevant, to bring a better sense of both the opportunities and the responsibilities.

And while I’m involved in a seminar with my friend, the good Prof. Bell, let me add this from her on Twitter:

My answer: Yes, or we are doomed.

Last weekend in the German magazine Focus, a guest commentator argued that publishers in Google’s friendship pact had made a Faustian deal with the devil. (I’d link to the article but I can’t because, like an riddle in an enigma, it’s trapped inside a paywall inside a PDF.) This professor is essentially urging journalists and publishers to become digital isolationists. I say that is both impossible and irresponsible. The means of production and distribution in media made a small oligopoly of rich and sometimes monopolistic owners sole proprietors of the entire chain of value, from reporting to presentation to production to distribution to sales. Well, my friends, those days are over. Over. Once again, we have no choice but to operate inside the new ecosystem of users’ choice and we have no choice but to find new ways to sustain our work. Somebody I know wrote a book about that.

ONE MORE THING: So Facebook’s Instant Articles are available only in iOS? Really, Facebook? Really? So what are the more than half of us using Android phones? Chopped liver? Shit. Here I defend the new product and I can’t even see it. Garg.