Posts about News

Building trust in news

In their Trust Project, Richard Gingras, head of Google News, and Sally Lehrman, a fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, argue the need to rebuild trust in news and they propose a set of practical tactics. I want to suggest further steps to support their campaign.

The reforms Gingras and Lehrman propose:
* News organizations and journalists should craft and publish statements of mission and ethics.
* Journalists should disclose their background to reveal both levels of expertise and areas of personal interest and conflict.
* For disclosure and accountability (and credit, I’d add), news organizations should reveal all the hands that work on content: researchers, editors, “even lawyers.”
* News organizations should aspire to an academic ethic of citations (links=footnotes) and corrections. They would also be wise to disclose their methodology — i.e., whom they interviewed, what they researched.

I agree with all that and with their contention that greater trust will yield greater value for news (through greater loyalty, engagement, attention, and promotion for worthwhile work).

A few added suggestions:

Google itself — particularly Google News — can encourage these behaviors by favoring news organizations, journalists, and other sources that follow standards such as these. This is not a manipulation of search. It is a proper use of legitimate signals of quality. Over the years, I’ve spoken with Google News creator Krishna Bharat and, on This Week in Google, with Google spam-killer Matt Cutts about their constant quest to find signals of originality and authority to improve search results and news ranking. For example, to avoid putting the 187th AP rewrite of a Washington Post story atop a cluster of articles, Google looks for citations referencing the Post, thus indicating that the Post has done original reporting and should get higher priority.

In particular, Google can encourage news organizations to cite sources through linking. News organizations and writers should be adhering to stricter standards for citation through linking: show us your sources; show us your work; let us judge those sources and that work for ourselves. This has clear benefit for the public. Journalists will learn that scrupulous linking can build trust, as Gingras and Lehrman argue. Rigorous citations through links will give Google more signals to judge quality and will give us all more data — which Google should publish — about what sources are cited across news organizations, so we can identify journalistic echo chambers.

Google’s prioritizing of original work over diluted rehashes has a further economic benefit: it supports the work of original journalism and reduces the traffic rewards everyone and his uncle gets today for deciding to publish his own “take” on someone else’s original reporting and work.

To encourage statements of disclosure, Google could revive its recently killed author program, this time giving prominent links not to the picture of the writer but to the writer’s disclosure statement when and if one exists. I’m not sure a statement of mission is necessary for every writer on the web (what’s my mission past truth, justice, and the internet way?). But disclosures are beneficial. Here are mine. (There you’ll find that I own shares of Google and have had my travel paid to speak at Google events but do not take fees from the company.)

Google can also support, encourage, and help distribute better corrections. Eight years ago, I wished for a means to subscribe to corrections related to news I’ve read — and, more importantly, stories I’ve written or linked to on my Twitter or Facebook feed or blog. Google is getting close to a means of doing that. Consider how good Google Now has become at recommending news to me based on the stories and topics I’ve been following on Chrome. (Calm your privacy panic; it’s fine with me; it’s a service that brings me relevance and value.) For example, Google knows I’m interested in the LG R watch and so it shows me news about when the gadget is going to be released. Why can’t Google also recommend that I read corrections that have been posted to stories since I read them?

I’m not suggesting that Google can or should do all this on its own. But as Gingras and Lehrman lead as individuals, Google can lead as a corporation, promulgating open standards that support better behavior and greater trust. With those standards, every curator could improve its recommendations.

Journalism schools should take a leadership role, too. At CUNY and most journalism schools, we require courses in law and ethics. We could help support these standards by having our students adhere to rigorous standards of linking and citation in their reporting and by having them publish disclosure statements. We can also help by fostering broader discussion of and research in trust. I’ll volunteer for that.

At a much higher level, trust is also a matter of business models. On the plus side, trust builds economic value, as Gingras and Lehrman contend. On the negative side, mass-media economics have had a significant role in corrupting media, news, and trust in them. As I will argue in my new book, Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News (out next month), importing mass-media models built on reach and frequency to digital news has resulted in the commodification of media and our epidemic of clickbait, cats, cynical manipulation (this link will change your life!), and endless takes on takes to scrounge up pageviews and ad impressions even as their value plummets toward zero.

Chartbeat’s Tony Haile has been beating the attention drum, arguing that selling time over space will lead to greater engagement, higher quality content, greater performance for advertisers, and greater value for media. Rewarding media for value over volume would be a big step in the right direction. I argue in Geeks Bearing Gifts that knowing the public we serve not as a mass but as individuals and communities and serving them with greater relevance as a result will also yield greater value for them and thus for media. I further argue that seeing journalism as a service that helps people and communities meet their goals — and measures its effectiveness that way — rather than as a content factory that merely assaults their eyeballs stories and messages will result in more meaningful relationships and greater accountability and thus greater trust and value.

There are other threats to trust rooted in business, of course. Cable TV’s continued reliance on mass-media economics is what leads to missing-jet-mania and ebola-panic-mongering. This is why I find promise in Reuters new TV news service, which will no longer fill a clock and pimp for viewers but will instead offer personalized, relevant, up-to-the-minute, and nonrepetitive newscasts for individuals.

I worry greatly about native advertising/sponsored content/brand journalism’s potential to poison trust, confusing readers as to the source of content and devaluing news and media brands. This is why we must have serious discussions about the ethics and standards of native advertising (I hope to hold a summit on the topic at CUNY next year). Here, too, Google is already helping by warning that poor disclosure of sponsors’ involvement in the creation of content will lower its status in search.

Finally, I always tell my entrepreneurial students that when they see a problem like the one that Gingras and Lehrman identify, they should not stop at pointing to it (as journalists usually do) but should find the opportunity in it. The proliferation of content and confusion and the crisis in journalistic trust can lead to many entrepreneurial opportunities. The king of corrections, Craig Silverman, is developing Emergent, a new tool to help identify misinformation on the web, and is building a business around it. Storyful developed systems to find and verify witnesses’ accounts of news events and News Corp. bought it.

I see more opportunities in building systems and companies around:
* gathering and analyzing signals of authority;
* building relationship data and analysis for media companies to increase their relevance;
* membership structures for media organizations to give clients — the public — greater voice in the use of journalistic resources;
* establishing new metrics for news as a service (did we improve your life and your community?), enhancing accountability;
* creating the means for trusted, recipient-controlled communication that is free of trolls and other online plagues (as opposed to email, Twitter, et al, which are sender controlled);
* advertising and revenue models that value quality over volume;
* new forms of TV news that do not rely on cheap tricks to fill time and build volume but instead get rewarded for delivering value; and on and on.
Technology companies — not just Google — and investors, media companies, universities, and foundations can invest in and support such innovation to build trust.

To rebuild journalism, news, and media around trust means rebuilding not just some behaviors but more fundamentally journalism’s business models, metrics, forms, and fundamental relationship with the public. That work is in the interest of members of the media ecosystem: news organizations, media companies, journalists, advertising agencies, networks, brands, and, again, Google and other internet companies. Project Trust is a start.

Cross-posted from Medium.

Absolution? Hell, no

sarducciovalThe good Reverend David Carr grants us absolution. “So whose fault is it?” he asks after chronicling the excommunication of newspapers and magazines from media companies casting off their old, print ancestors to starve and die. “No one’s,” Carr decrees.

Not so fast, preacher. It is our fault. Who else could be at fault? We journalists, publishers, and journalism schools have turned out to be irresponsible stewards of journalism. We squandered our trust and our cash flow. This was was our institution to nurture and protect and Carr says it’s all but dead.

Wait a minute, Father David. That depends on what you define as our institution. He sees it as print. Well, hell, I’ve spent years now begging my journalistic coreligionists to stop defining themselves by their medium — by their means of production and distribution — otherwise they’d all end up just where they are today: the baby swirling down the drain with the holy water.

But there was good news for media companies this weekend, wasn’t there? BuzzFeed got a $50 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz. I thought venture capitalists didn’t invest in content because it has cooties, no? But its new board member, Chris Dixon, says that’s because BuzzFeed’s not a media company. “We think of BuzzFeed as more of a technology company.”

cat baptismWell, hold on, you moneychanger in the temple, you (and mind you, sir, we’re glad to have you here; please make yourself at home). BuzzFeed is still a mass media company because it still operates by mass-media economics based on volume: the more people it can tempt into its harem with the siren call of its cats, the more people it can serve to advertisers (no matter what it calls its advertising). It is a last-gasp, clever (some might say cynical) exploitation of those old-media ways, grabbing the last dollars from the cold, dead hands of Carr’s congregation. It is the newest old-media company.

But I have faith that BuzzFeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti, can invent his way out of this — that’s why Andreessen Horowitz is not nuts to invest in him. He can use the cash flow the old ways bring him to invent something new. But he hasn’t yet. And that’s the point: There’s still time. Old media companies still have cash flow they, too, should be using to reinvent themselves.

But Brother Carr has renounced his vows right from inside the old scriptorium. Fucking Gutenberg. “Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense,” he writes. “A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.” Or how about asking Netflix?

No, market forces are not an excuse for fatalism and ultimately suicide. Market forces are an opportunity for — forgive me, for I do know I’m getting carried away with this religion thing — resurrection. There is still time as no one has yet challenged all our old-media assumptions about content and print and reinvented journalism as what it should be.

I’ve warned you that I’m about done with a 55,000-word tome about that reinvention. I’ll give you the tl;dr now: Journalism needs to rebuild itself as a service to individuals and communities, which requires having relationships with them as people, not a mass, helping them reach their own goals in new ways — not just with content — and sustaining this work with business models built on value over volume.

That’s not what newspapers — even the digital-first among them — are yet. That’s not what BuzzFeed or Huffington Post or Business Insider or Vox is … yet. I don’t know what that is yet (thus my tome is no prophecy) but I suggest a few paths to the promised land.

At the end of his eulogy, Carr writes: “It’s a measure of the basic problem that many people haven’t cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage. Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether? I’m not optimistic about that.” Ah, but it’s a poor shepherd who blames his sheep.

So I’ll end this as good sermons should, with a charge to the congregation: Go forth and figure it out, people. Stop whining. Stop looking for excuses and forgiveness. Stop giving up. Your flock needs informing. Go find new ways to do that. And I don’t want to see your prodigal asses back in these pews until you do. That goes for us in the seminary, too.

Amen.

Listen: They do exist

My two recent posts about philanthropy and the news touched a nerve among not-for-profit news gatherers, leading to a podcast conversation with Scott Lewis, head of Voice of San Diego (starting at about :22), and a response by Steve Waldman. Laura Walker, the CEO of New York Public Radio, also asked to respond here. Laura is a brilliant businesswoman who could run rings around any for-profit media executive. She also made a big announcement today about a $10 million grant to fund digital innovation. I don’t usually hand this space over to anyone else, but I happily give it to Laura here:

logo-wnycYour post “Philanthropy and News” and related tweets have sparked an important conversation about the role of philanthropy in journalism. I wholeheartedly agree with you that philanthropy should help build sustainable models in journalism that have diverse revenue streams. As you often point out, business thinking and revenue generation are critical to the future of our industry.

But, I don’t agree at all with your statement: “Every time a rich person gives to a news nonprofit, a journalism startup loses its wings.” Philanthropic giving to nonprofit news doesn’t compete with investment in for-profit news startups. It’s not “an either/or” scenario as to who will survive. More importantly, philanthropic support for journalism has provided seed funding for successful models of nonprofit journalism, including public radio. Models of success do exist!

Here’s how I see it:

• Philanthropic grants are not taking away capital from startups. The motivations and reasons for venture funding are fundamentally different from philanthropy. Both can be an investment in the future of news and work together to enhance overall quality in journalism.

• Investment in nonprofit journalism can be an investment in sustainable journalism. Already today, philanthropy is seed funding important work and sustainability in journalism; just look at public radio, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. To be sure, many nonprofit journalism enterprises have failed, and many don’t have business leadership. Just as with a for-profit investment, it is critical that philanthropic investors “kick the tires” on the leadership of nonprofits to make sure that a business plan has been created and sustainability can be achieved.

• Hands down, the most successful sustainable nonprofit model is public radio, and it is too often overlooked by you and others. Public radio, with some 1,200 reporters including NPR and stations around the country, has diverse revenue streams, uses venture philanthropy, and through collaboration offers national scale, local relevance and powerful enterprise journalism.

Let’s take New York Public Radio as an example:

Diverse Revenue Streams

• Our journalism and radio programs are sustained through the contributions of 175,000+ members, corporate underwriting, events, fees from other public radio stations, as well as institutional giving and major donor gifts.

• Institutional giving and major donor gifts are just pieces of a diversified revenue model that is built to promote long-term sustainability and impact.

Venture Philanthropy

• Philanthropy often seeds new ideas and helps create an infrastructure for them.Then, we sustain these efforts over time in concert with other diverse revenue sources. Philanthropic contributions from the Charles H. Revson Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Jerome L. Greene Foundation, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and others have acted as venture funding to seed projects like our Stop and Frisk coverage, our Data News unit,Radiolab, The Takeaway, and our New Jersey news unit, as well as the creation of digital apps that are designed for how people consume news today.

• This approach fuels just the type of innovation you are calling for and has resulted in journalism that has won many awards, including three Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards and seven George Foster Peabody Awards in the last several years.

Collaboration

• “Philanthropy and News” also highlighted the need for collaboration within the news ecosystem – to both innovate and best serve audiences. At its heart, the public radio system is based on a collaborative reporting model – stations working with NPR and other national outlets to cover breaking news and to offer an expansive national report.

• Then, there are projects and efforts within the system like Fronteras along the border, The Takeaway and the New Jersey News Commons, in which our New Jersey Public Radio service plays a leading role, working with NJ Spotlight, Montclair State University’s journalism program and other news providers, small and large, new and established.

• Sometimes we compete and sometimes we collaborate, but as a recent J-Lab study noted: “Public media outlets play an important role for news startups. A partnership with a public broadcaster amplifies their journalism and validates their efforts in ways that can help their sustainability.”

We both agree that building sustainability in journalism is essential. We should learn from all the models before us – the ones that failed, the successful ones that currently exist, and the experiments being taken up by for-profit startups and fueled by philanthropy in the nonprofit sector. For an example of sustainable nonprofit journalism, just listen to your radio.

Viral bullshit as the new classifieds

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A very well-done post about viral bullshit on Gawker (et al) by Mathew Ingram really comes down to this: Journalism used to be subsidized by classifieds and fluff, now it is built atop viral bullshit. The argument: Sure, we serve crap — or cats — but that’s what brings in the traffic for the good stuff.

Quoting Gawker’s editor in chief, John Cook: “Part of our job is to make sure we’re writing about things that people are talking about on the internet, and the incentive structure of this company is organized to make sure that we are on top of things that are going viral… we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been — ruthless honesty — and be reliably and speedily on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.”

Of course, that is a bankrupt model, for soon it becomes impossible to find the diamond in the sewage: the one decent, worthwhile, true report buried amid native advertising, viral bullshit, trolls’ comments, breaking rumors, and staff’s snark. Soon, the brand’s value is nil — but, hey, the traffic is humongous. And the advertisers still pay because we gave them a home for their bullshit and the faint though fraudulent promise that we can make them viral, too.

I think a new business model emerges from the swamp: the news outlet that tries, at least, to deliver the truth. That’s what all journalism fancies itself to be, of course, but the field would suffer in an audit of how much of that claim is true. I’m biased, but I’d say the Guardian is one outlet that is trying to live by that goal, though many will quickly point out that it won’t live if it can’t also have a goal of making profit.

At my journalism school, I was having a discussion about an unrelated matter the other day and as I railed on about a certain faux-news outlet that appeared to be all offal, a colleague smiled and said, “I love it, Jarvis, when *you* launch into a conservative rant about journalism.” Yes, I’m known as the guy who wants to open up media to the world to hear more voices and the cacophony of democracy, to equip anyone to commit an act of journalism, to confess our fallibility and admit that news is always in beta.

But I have long believed that the real job of journalism is to add value to what a community knows — real value in the form of confirmation and debunking and context and explanation and most of all *reporting* to ask the questions and get the answers — the facts — that aren’t already in the flow. The journalist’s and journalism organization’s ability to do that depends on trust over traffic.

In the earlier days of the web, I’ve argued that many made the mistake of thinking of the net as a medium and so whenever they saw a comment or mistake from a civilian, they thought the entire enterprise had been ruined as if The New York Times had published porn. No, I said, don’t expect the web to be a medium that’s published and packaged and polished. It’s just another streetcorner. At Broadway and 40th, you might overhear an idiot or see a drooler but you don’t propose to reject all New York because of that.

Too many would-be journalistic outlets today are making the mistake of thinking that they want to *be* the web, to hitch onto every speeding meme, riding it to … where? I think we can see where: to the oblivion where memes go to fizzle and die. Journalists would make a fatal mistake to think that they are viruses when what they should be are the leukocytes that kill them.

Media, left out of the relationship

Note who’s missing in Tanzina Vega’s New York Times story today about the monster merger of ad agencies Publicis and Omnicom.

Media — TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, online — are nowhere to be seen. This merger, they all say, is about the ad agencies joining together to defend at the 11th hours against the real behemoth in the business, Google, as well as Facebook and Twitter. And the battleground is Big Data (when did that become a proper noun?) — that is, knowing about people, or having a relationship with them.

I’ve been arguing that media should stop thinking they’re in the content business and start believing they are in — or should be in — the relationship business. But we don’t know jack about people. We see people as a mass. We lived for a glorious century by the myth of mass media: that all readers see all ads so we can charge all advertisers for all readers. Thus we simply wanted *more* readers (or unique users, whatever you prefer to call us). Media companies are proud when they learn our email addresses but, of course, that is nothing but an excuse to spam us. My email address says *nothing* about me.

Media companies could know a great deal about us as individuals. Our content interests are a good signal — Google understands that and so does the NSA (says prior whistleblower Thomas Drake, “content is gold for determining intent”). But we in media have no good means to gather, analyze, act on, and exploit that signal beyond simple behavioral targeting.

I argue that media companies should be able to get people to build the trust to reveal themselves because media companies can give them value in return. Provide me traffic help and you’ll learn where I live and work and then you can target your content and advertising to my locale, delivering greater relevance and value. Right?

No. Google, Facebook, and Twitter listen to our signals. Omnicom and Publicis realize the value of those signals. They all understand the worth of relationships. And what do we do in media? We put up paywalls and scream about copyright. Garg.

LATER: Here’s Om Malik’s take on the merger. I agree that the net deflates.

Since 1920, US advertising industry revenues have hovered between 1 percent to 3 percent of the US gross domestic product. This pie is now shared between television, newspapers, magazines, radio, cable with Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and thousands of other digital outlets. Of course, Internet often brings measurability, targeting and interactivity — which leads to a sort of deflationary pressure on industries that have traditionally benefited from ambiguity. Stock brokerages and travel industry were the first two industry to be baffled by this new reality.