Posts about News

And now the news: Here’s what we *don’t* know at this hour…

I often tell my students that where they see a problem, they should find the opportunity. Well, we’ve been told over and over this weekend that we had a big problem with misinformation after the Boston Marathon bombing. Breaking news, haven’t you heard, is broken.

So I see an opportunity, a big journalistic opportunity. I also tell my students this:

* Journalism should add value to a flow of information that can now occur without media’s mediation — verifying facts, vetting witnesses, debunking rumors, adding context, adding explanation, and most of all asking and answering the questions that aren’t in the flow, that aren’t being asked, i.e., reporting. Let’s acknowledge reality: There’s no stopping or fixing that flow. What witnesses see will be shared for all to see, which is good, along with rumors, rank speculation, and the work of the New York Fucking Post, which is bad.

* The key skill of journalism today is saying what we *don’t* know, issuing caveats and also inviting the public to tell us what they know. Note I didn’t say I want the public to tell us what they *think* or *guess.* I said *know*.

So the opportunity: If I ran a news organization, I would start a regular feature called, Here’s what you should know about what you’re hearing elsewhere.

Last week, that would have included nuggets such as these:

* You may have heard on CNN that an arrest was made. But you should know that no official confirmation has been made so you should doubt that, even if the report is repeated by the likes of the Associated Press.

* You may have heard reports repeated from police scanners about, for example, the remaining suspect vowing not to be taken alive. But you should know that police scanners are just people with microphones; they do not constitute official or confirmed police reports. Indeed, it may be important for those using police radio to repeat rumor or speculation — even from fake Twitter accounts created an hour ago — for they are the ones who need to verify whether these reports are true. Better safe than sorry is their motto.

* You may see on Reddit that people are speculating about who perpetrated these crimes, including speculation that it *could* be a missing college student. But you should know that these people are merely speculating and that is about as useful as a rumor, which is worthless. That’s not to say that the amateur sleuthing could not turn up a connection to the crime. But so far, it has not.

* You may have heard reports that there were more bombs. But you should know that we cannot track where these reports started and we have no official confirmation so you should not take those reports as credible. We are calling the police to find out whether they are true and we will let you know as soon as we know.

* You may have seen the New York Post report that there were 12 victims and you may have seen it publish a picture of men with backpacks, implicating them in this crime with no justification. But you should know that this is the New York Post. Need we say more?

That is journalism. That is what every news organization and site should be doing. That they don’t is only evidence of a major journalistic opportunity, perhaps even a business unto itself: The What We *Don’t* Know News, the only news show you can really trust. It doesn’t ignore breaking news or what you’re hearing. It adds value to that flow of both information and misinformation.

On Howie Kurtz’ CNN show this weekend, Erik Wemple said that news organizations should report nothing until it is confirmed. Lauren Ashburn countered that police did not confirm even the Marathon bombings until nearly an hour after they occurred, so clearly that’s untenable. She’s right. But this is easily solved if journalists say *how* they *know* what they *know*. We know a bomb went off because we saw it and we’re showing it to you over and over and over and over again. We don’t know whether a suspect has been arrested because we didn’t see it ourselves and police haven’t told us yet and hearing it on CNN isn’t good enough.

That is journalism.

Content vs. service in media & education

Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something.

Content starts with the desires of creators to make things. Service start with the needs of clients to achieve outcomes.

We think of media and news and content businesses. Education, too, runs as a content enterprise.

But shouldn’t both be seen as services?

“Now we can provide students with a course that mirrors our classroom experience,” the provost of Washington University, Edward S. Macias, said last week as 10 universities announced yet another consortium to provide online education. What struck me when I read that was how much it sounded like the early days of newspaper editors facing the web. They tried to replicate what they used to do, treating the net as merely a new means of distribution for their content.

Shovelware. Media did it. Education does it. Since those are the two fields I’m in, I’m finding parallels and lessons in both.

Education at least has some aptitude for thinking in outcomes, as that’s how we’re supposed to measure the success of programs: What should students learn and did they learn it? Still, to be honest, some of this process of determining outcomes is reverse-engineered, starting with the course and its content and backing into the results. (And one unfortunate side-effect of outcomes-thinking, I should add, is the teaching-to-the-test that now corrupts primary and high schools.)

Journalists are worse. I find a disease among students that continues into careers, starting a pitch for a story (or in my program, a business) with the phrase, “I want to…” Playing the curmudgeonly prof, I tell them no one, save perhaps their mothers, gives a damn what they want to do. The question they should be asking and answering is what the public needs them to do.

Outcomes.

If journalists started with outcomes, they’d measure their success not by unique users or page views or other such “audience” metrics adapted from mass media. They’d measure their success by how informed the public becomes: Did the public find out what it wants or needs to know because of what we’ve done? Is the electorate better informed? (How’re we doin’ with that?) Do New Jerseyans know where to find gas in a crisis? Today when we do research about news “consumers,” we ask them what they think of our products. Shouldn’t we ask them instead what they didn’t know and now know? If we want to reverse-engineer journalism, we need to start with a standard for an informed public and then examine how best to achieve that goal. A more informed public will not always come as the result of articles — content. It will also come via platforms where the public shares what they know without mediators (i.e., media) as well as data and analysis of data, with journalists trying to add value where they’re most needed.

If education were truly constructed around outcomes, it would start with researching the skills and knowledge students need to meet their goals — whether that is a job or an expertise — and then determine the best ways to accomplish that. And that won’t always come from delivering content in the form of the lecture, time-honored though that may be from the days of teachers reading scarce, scribal texts. I’m beginning to rethink journalism education that way: starting with outcomes, curating curricular materials, making all that open, then adding value for some students in the forms of tutoring, certification, and providing context for how tools and skills are used: service.

When we think of ourselves as services, then we strive not to own products but instead to add value to a process. When we provide service, we become more accountable for the outcomes our clients achieve. (When a teacher gives every student in a class bad grades, it’s the teacher who’s failing. When a community is ignorant, it’s the journalists who are failing.) How much better it would be to architect these industries — and they are industries — in reverse, giving clients the ability to set goals and then providing marketplaces of competing means by which they can meet those goals.

I went to an unfortunately off-the-record conference recently at which I asked a long-time leader in education and the founder of an online education startup about the fate of degrees. The long-timer said that from the moment IBM starts hiring engineers when they can show certificates of completion for some set of online courses, the degree will fade.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that is the way the new online startups are built, so far. They deliver courses: content. That’s understandable. It’s phase I of a process of transition: we take what we know and try it out in the new setting, as media have done. These education startups are also searching, as media have done (and still are), for a business model. Coursera is free but promotes its top-tier universities (and might sell a bunch of text books for profs). Udacity wants to make rock-star profs, I think. 2U is charging $4,000 a course for credit (!) in small classes; it’s the anti-MOOC. The University of the People has a mission to educate worldwide masses for free.

Just as I hope that education learns from the disruption of the news business, Clay Shirky hopes it learns from the disruption of music. For much of his post, Clay sees online education the way various of these enterprises do and the way I did when in What Would Google Do? I imagined a distributed Oxford/Cambridge system of international and digital lectures and in-person and local tutors.

But then, as is Clay’s habit, he noted what I think is a key question from these startups: “Meanwhile, they try to answer some new questions, questions that the traditional academy — me and my people — often don’t even recognize as legitimate, like ‘How do we spin up 10,000 competent programmers a year, all over the world, at a cost too cheap to meter?'” That was the same question put forward in what I still think of as a seminal meeting held by Union Square Ventures in 2009 called Hacking Education: They set the goal at making the marginal cost of education zero. That is what these MOOCs are trying to do. If they succeed, then education suddenly scales (and we stop bankrupting our children’s future).

Back again to the media parallel: The marginal cost of gathering and sharing information is already approaching zero. That’s what scares the media industry, built as it is on selling a scarcity called content. At that same off-the-record business conference last week, I heard one media executive say that his industry’s goal is soley to “protect the value of content.” That’s what the copyright wars are over. That is what is beginning to scare universities.

But what’s really scaring them is the the shifting value of content versus service. Google is a service. It delivers and extracts value through knowledge of its users. It doesn’t want to own content, only learn from it. Its highest aspiration is to intuit our intent and deliver what we want before we’ve even said it. Service. Media are factories. They gain value from selling content to customers they don’t know. Products. There’s the real conflict.

I ask us — in journalism and in education (and in journalism education) — to aspire to being services. That requires us to start by thinking of the ends.

News articles as assets and paths

This is the start of a new project I’m working on to brainstorm new forms, relationships, and (business) models for news. Responding to a current discussion on Twitter among @AntDeRosa, @felixsalmon, @jayrosn_nyu & @davewiner about the form of articles, I’m posting it here. The discussion started when Jay challenged Anthony, as a representative of Reuters, about the service’s article on the Facebook IPO: “Should be a sign on this story: ‘written so people who aren’t in the investor class cannot understand it.'” I said that the story needs a link to an explainer (which Jay has written about), because background paragraphs necessarily ill-serve everyone: too little for the novice, too much for the expert, they were an invention that fit the necessity of our means of production and distribution. I say we should link to more elements than just backgrounders. Let’s reinvent the article. To wit…

I come not to kill the article but to praise it. Machined to near-perfection over a century of production, the article is perfectly suited to its form: headline and lede imparting the latest — the news; nut graf delivering the essence of the story and telling us why we should bother reading the rest; background graf bringing us up to speed; timelines to set context; catalogues of issues and players; quotes from various perspectives; examples — all prioritized so readers can easily navigate the form and extract its value and so that printers with scarce time and limited space in the paper can lop off lines at the bottom without losing the heart of the matter. This is our inverted pyramid. It is the form we teach, including the skills of summary and abstraction (what is the story? — perhaps the most difficult skill a journalist learns), of evidence and example, of completeness and fairness, of narrative and engagement, of prioritization. This is the form that teaches the essential logic of journalism: that any event, issue, battle, or person can be packaged and delivered in so many lines of type. That is what we do.

Given the opportunities presented by new media technologies, we’ve added to the article, giving it not just photos but slideshows, and not just slideshows but video and audio. We’ve added graphics and graphics that move and interact to readers’ commands. We’ve curated related links to give readers more from our own archives or from anywhere on the web. For good and ill, we’ve added comments.

Now let’s subtract from the article, deconstructing it into its core assets. Draw that inverted pyramid and its constituent elements and then imagine each as a separate entity in its optimum form. Take the background paragraph. It ill serves everyone. If you know nothing about an ongoing story, it gives you too little history. If you know a story well, it merely wastes the paper’s space and your time. It is a compromise demanded by the one-size-fits-all constraints of news’ means of production and distribution.

Freed from those limitations, what should the background paragraph become? A link, of course: a link to an ongoing resource that is updated when necessary — not every time a related article is written. It is a resource a reader can explore at will, section by section to fill in knowledge, making it more personalized, efficient, and valuable for each reader. It can be created by the news organization that links to it or it can be created by anyone and still be only a link away. It can be a Wikipedia article. The background in an ongoing story becomes an asset of ongoing value.

A story can be made up of many assets. Once separated, the storyteller has the opportunity to present — and the reader to take — many paths through them. The expert in a story can go straight to what’s new and then leave, saving time having to look for the fresh nuggets among all all the space-filler that used to make up an article. The novice can start with the background, then read what’s new, then delve into the characters and timelines, then explore examples and arguments. The article becomes sets of assets and paths.

Think of how Prezi works: This PowerPoint replacement isn’t built just to make its viewers dizzy as one navigates through floating, weightless text. It forces the creator to organize ideas and then create appropriate paths through them. So imagine that what used to be an article becomes a set of assets — all those I listed above: what’s new, background, timeline, players, etc. — and that the journalist can create distinct paths among them: one for the novice, one for the expert, another for the professsional, another for the policymaker.

Of course, those assets themselves can be constantly updated as needed. And, again, they need not all be created and maintained by a single source. So if Wikipedia has a great backgrounder, why recreate it? Link to it. (Remember: Do what you do best and link to the rest.)

Perhaps we end up with news organizations that specialize not just in beats and topics but in kinds of assets: the latest (a wire service) or explainers (weekly publications like the Economist) or relationships (algorithms like Daylife’s) or data (e.g., Texas Tribune). Of course, the people formerly known as the audience (quoth Rosen) can also create assets. May the best assets win: Link to that which best explains a story. And may the best paths win: Curate the assets that best get the story across. Maybe the best editor becomes the best creator of paths. Maybe algorithms help create paths by finding the most recommended assets from the most trusted sources (data that readers create through their use).

Then articles become new molecules that bind atoms from an ecosystem of information.

What would it take to do this? As De Rosa said in the Twitter discussion, it would require new culture and procedures in a newsroom. Instead of thinking that we have to turn out a self-contained article for every event, we instead find assets and create paths. For that matter, instead of leaving the reader to dig through a live blog to discern the elements of an event, we also find assets and create paths (which may include posts in that live blog).

I can already hear people in newsrooms fret that we need a new CMS (content management system) to do this. Not really. It’s called the link. We can kludge that and then make it more elegant and efficient and automatic once we’ve figured it out. So I don’t think we need to start with a hackathon and new code, though coders can definitely help. I think we need to start with a new notion of the value of an article and how to create that value.

The end result is still an inverted pyramid — a prioritized set of assets that one can stop going through when one feels sated with information. But everyone’s pyramid can be different. And what fills those pyramids can come from various sources. The article is dead. Long live the article.

It was suggested in the Twitter conversation that we have a conference (let’s just say lunch) on this topic. Done. I’ll schedule it at CUNY.

LATER: Storify of the Twitter discussion referenced at the start of this post here.

This is bullshit: My TEDxNYED talk

Here is video of my TEDxNYED lecture about lectures as an outmoded form of education and news, in which I tweak TED.

Here are my notes (which won’t match my talk exactly). All the videos are now up at the TEDxNYED site.

Media after the site

Tweet: What does the post-page, post-site, post-media media world look like? @stephenfry, that’s what.

The next phase of media, I’ve been thinking, will be after the page and after the site. Media can’t expect us to go to it all the time. Media has to come to us. Media must insinuate itself into our streams.

I’ve been trying to imagine what that would be and then I was Skype-chatting with Nick Denton (an inspirational pastime I’ve had too little of lately) and he knew exactly what it looks like:

@stephenfry.

Spot on. Fry insinuated himself into my stream. He comes to us. We distribute him. He has been introduced to and acquired new fans. He now has a million followers, surely more than for any old web site of his. He did it by his wit(s) alone. His product is his ad, his readers his agency. How will he benefit? I have full faith that he of all people will find the way to turn this into a show and a book. He is media with no need for media. I was trying to avoid using Aston Kutcher as my example, but he’s on the cover of Fast Company making the same point: “He intends to become the first next-generation media mogul, using his own brand as a springboard…. ‘The algorithm is awesome,’ Kutcher says…”

That’s media post-media.

This view of the future makes it all the more silly and retrograde for publishers like Murdoch to complain about the value of the readers Google sends to them. Who says readers will or should come to us at all? We were warned of this future by that now-legendary college student who said in Brian Stelter’s New York Times story (which foretold the end of the medium in which it appeared): “If the news is that important, it will find me.”

If a page (and a site) become anything, it will be a repository, an archive, a collecting pool in which to gather permalinks and Googlejuice: an article plus links plus streams of comments and updates and tweets and collaboration via tools like Wave. Content will insinuate itself into streams and streams will insinuate themselves back into content. The great Mandala.

The notion of the stream takes on more importance when you think about your always-connected and always-on device, whatever the hell you call it (phone, tablet, netbook, eyeglasses, connector….). I recently saw a telecommunications technology exec show off a prototype of a screen he says will be here in a year or so that not only has color and full-motion video and can be seen in ambient light but that takes so little power that it can and will be on all the time. So rather than hitting that button on the iPhone to see what’s new, your post-phone post-PC device is always on and always connected. You don’t sneak it under the table to turn it on now and again. You leave it on the table and it constantly streams.

Is that stream news? Only a small portion of your stream – whatever you want, whatever you allow in – will be. Just as publishers’ news is only a small portion of the value of what Google returns in search, we mustn’t be so hubristic to think that the streams flowing by readers’ eyes will be owned, controlled, and filled by media with what they declare to be news. They will be filled with life.

The real value waiting to be created in the stream-based web is prioritization. That’s part of what Clay Shirky is driving at when he talks about algorithmic authority and what Marissa Mayer talks about when she says news streams will be hyperpersonal. The opportunity in news is not to try to mass-prioritize it for everyone at once – impossible! – but to help each of us do it. To make that work, it will have to be personal and personal will scale only if it’s algorithmic and the algorithm will work only if we trust and value what it delivers. So how do you learn enough about me, who I am, what I do, and what I need so you can solve my personal filter failure and show me the emails and tweet and updates and, yes, news I’ll most want to read? What tricks can you bring to bear, as Google did and Facebook did: the wisdom of a crowd – perhaps my crowd? the value of editors still?

So imagine this future without pages and sites, this future that’s all built on process over product. If you’re what used to be a content-creation – if you’re Stephen Fry, post-media – you’re all about insinuating yourself into that stream. If you’re about content curation – formerly known as editing – then you’re all about prioritizing streams for people; that’s how you add value now.

Getting people to come to you so you can tell them what you say they should know while showing them ads they didn’t want from advertisers who bear the cost and risk of the entire experience? That’s just so 2008. Now it’s time to go with the stream.