Posts about News

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.

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.