Posts about nytimes

Toward a journalistic ethic of citation

After The New York Times published its extensive report on the history of Haiti’s impoverishment at the hands of its overthrown colonial overlords, a robust debate broke out between academic and journalistic Twitter about inadequate citation and sourcing. Journalism must do better.

The gist of it: The Times did include a narrative bibliography in the project, which is unusual. But some academics — including Harvard’s Mary Lewis — said they had helped reporters but were neither quoted nor credited. This thread by Pittsburgh Prof. Keisha Blain brings together other threads; read them all. Many said The Times was derelict in not quoting and citing current research but also in ignoring the seminal work of Eric Williams in his 1944 book, Capitalism and Slavery — columbusing in, of all subjects, Haiti. Joseph Rezek, a BU professor, said the real problem was that The Times acted as if it had discovered something new when much research on the topic came before:

After three days, The Times reported on the citation controversy but some said it still didn’t give credit where it is due. Some journalists — notably Adam Davidson — pleaded for citational slack in telling stories for general audiences, sparking more controversy. I entered in more than once to argue that journalists must practice better discipline of citation, sourcing, and transparency: showing our work.

There are so many lessons here for journalists and journalism students that I think it is important to try to catalog them, to examine the journalistic presumptions and problems at work, and to propose standards.

Don’t blame your tools. First, let me call bullshit on the usual excuses that journalists do not have the space, time, or appropriate CMS frippery to cite sources. We now have the internet, with unlimited space and time. And we have the best possible tool for citation — the link. If any news organization cared, it would take next to no effort to also update tools to accommodate footnotes, endnotes, or notes that are revealed at a user’s option; to compile bibliographies of sources; and to create open repositories for source material. What is standing in the way of responsible citation is not tools but ethical will.

Journalists must always cite their sources. I don’t just mean attributing quotes. Let’s be honest that too often, quotes in stories are a form of extraction: I (the reporter) got you (the expert) to fill in our (the news organization’s) preconceived narrative. Anyone who has ever been interviewed knows the experience of seeing a long conversation reduced to one out-of-context line included to exploit the expert’s reputation and to make the reporter’s point, not the speaker’s.

What’s more troubling in the case of the Haiti story is what Yasmin Nair calls soft plagiarism: not a direct quote lifted but instead the coopting of ideas, background, context, perspective, and most of all an academic’s research and expertise.

I have sometimes spent an hour or two on the phone with a reporter explaining concepts, context, or history: educating them, with nothing to show for it. Far worse is Siva Vaidhyanathan’s tale of being used and discarded by a PBS series. There are a million such tales.

So, journalists, in your story or in a supplemental bibliography — try it — find a way to cite your sources, all those who, through interviews or literature, gave you the gift of education. To do anything less is intellectual and reportorial theft.

Screw the scoop. The Haiti episode exposes a grave journalistic weakness: the addiction to the scoop, to the idea that everything we report must be new, thus news. That is presumed to be one reason The Times’ Haiti story did not acknowledge much prior research. Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted an explanation: “Simply pitching the story as ‘this happened but many people don’t know about it[’] would likely have meant the piece didn’t get done & certainly that it wouldn’t have gotten all the resources.” She is, as ever, correct. But that indicates something seriously wrong with news organizations’ priorities. Shouldn’t serving what “many people don’t know” be more important than bragging about being the first to know it?

Look, too, at how journalists treat each other, not just academics. Here, NBC reporter Mike Hixenbaugh laments that neither The Times nor The Washington Post credited local Texas reporters with the reporting that led to the devastating report on Southern Baptist evangelical sex abuse.

There is no shame in acknowledging that others came before and in giving them — academics or journalists — recognition for their contributions. The shame is in not doing so.

The story corrupts. The story is not everything. The story is merely one form, one tool to inform the public. Failing to credit sources and experts because doing so would get in the way of the flow of one’s persuasive narrative is no excuse. I have long warned of the seduction of the story, as it grants too much power to the storyteller over the story’s subject. Keeping a narrative going while imparting information and crediting sources is simply our job.

It’s the business model, stupid. So much of this current kerfuffle revolves around the media economy requiring that news organizations to be destinations, to sell subscriptions, or (less and less) to sell attention to advertisers. As Jordan Taylor put it:

In the end, this is not about ethics or credibility but about the fight we’ve been having since the internet entered newsrooms: Journalists and publishers don’t want to link out; they don’t want to give credit; they want to convince themselves and the people they still consider an audience that they are selling a unique, exclusive, valuable commodity called content.

Wrong. Journalism is a service. When we credit our sources and show our work, we enhance our credibility and value. When we exploit and extract the work of academics — particularly academics of color — we extend inequity and injustice. When we value our own journalistic egos over the reputations of our sources and the education of the public, we do harm.

So stop. Find every way you can to cite and credit the sources who make your stories — your articles, your reporting, your informational service — possible. If you do not, you are thieves.

Another thing. I hate it when journalists say academics cannot write well. Yes, it is easy to find academic papers intended for small audiences inside a discipline that use baffling jargon. This writing is not intended for a broad audience. But behind me I have bookshelves filled with wonderfully written books by academics filled with not only engaging narrative but also responsible citation of rich sets of sources. So let’s cut out our intramural sniping about who’s a better writer.

To the contrary, it is vital — urgent — that we bring academics and journalists closer together so that news organizations are exposed to, use, and cite academic research relevant to their reporting. This is one of the reasons why I started an Initiative in Internet Studies at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School — in full disclosure, funded by Google — to highlight research on internet impact for journalists and policymakers. (The Initiative is also bringing researchers together to discuss their agendas and I’m working to develop an educational program; my colleague Douglas Rushkoff and I just completed teaching a course in (re)Designing the Internet).

Diara J. Townes, who has worked with First Draft and the Aspen Institute and is a graduate of our school, is leading the effort to find, highlight, summarize, and share relevant research on internet impact. Here is the Twitter account where she is sharing research — and please send her more. Here is her Medium site and here you can sign up for her newsletter.

We in journalism mustn’t build walls to exclude academics by ignoring their prior research, by extracting their work without credit, and by mocking their writing (there is plenty to mock in news writing, folks). Instead, in a time when debate is devoid of fact and data, we must come closer together.

Just as I hit “publish” on this post, a colleague sent me a very good piece by Jonathan Katz, a “Haiti-head” — alongside his wife, Claire Payton, who holds a Ph.D. in Haitian history. Katz examines what is new in The Times project. He concludes:

My journalism-school superego says that a more honest thing for them to do would have been to package the story as what it was — a significant but incremental advance in the understanding of a historical event that scholars and Haitians know about and that much of the rest of the world does not.

But would a single front-page story with a headline like France Stole Over $500 Million from Haiti In 19th Century, Times Analysis Shows — or maybe In an Impoverished County, a Legacy of Theft — have gotten the magnitude of attention that this reporting has so far? Probably not.

Attention from The Times’ editors? I agree; probably not. But attention from the audience? That’s up to The Times’ editors. Nothing would have stopped The Times from doing just what Katz does here, saying: Here’s a story you probably don’t know; let us tell it to you and then let us tell you some new facts we uncovered in our research. Journalism is never the first-draft of history; that is our worst and most inexcusable hubris. Journalism is always another chapter in history.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Paywalls

Screenshot 2015-04-14 at 7.49.54 AMSorry. Haven’t uploaded a new chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts in two weeks. Busy, you know. So here’s the latest, on paywalls. Uh-oh. The start of it:

There is no more emotion-laden topic, no fiercer battleground in the hunt for new business models for news than the discussion of paywalls. I have personally been taken to task in the once-august Columbia Journalism Review and by no less than The New York Times’ media critic, David Carr, to name only a few, for challenging the wisdom of the wall. The arguments in favor of paywalls are apparent: Readers used to pay for content when they bought newspapers and magazines and so they should still. It was an original sin for content ever to have been given away for free online. The people who use news sites the most value the content there and would be willing to pay for it, and so they should. News organizations should have multiple revenue streams so they are not so dependent on advertising alone (see: doomsday, above). And news — quality news — is expensive. Who should pay to maintain the newsroom and the Baghdad bureau? Besides, it’s working at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, why shouldn’t it work elsewhere?

My responses: I have never seen a business model built on the verb “should.” Customers pay for products and services based on the value to them in a competitive market. The arguments in favor of maintaining paywalls around content tend to ignore the new reality of a media ecosystem built on abundance, no longer on a scarcity controlled by media proprietors who have long since lost their pricing power. In such a market, someone will always be able to sell a product like yours cheaper than you. Some spoiler might even figure out a way to make that product free, and it’s impossible to compete with free. Nevermind that the competitor’s product may not be as good. In the market, what matters in the end is this: Is it good enough? In such an ecosystem of abundance, I say it was wise, not sinful, for news organizations to open up and build an audience — bigger online than ever in print — before it could be stolen away by more efficient new competitors: from CompuServe to Yahoo, from a million bloggers to Huffington Post, from Business Insider to BuzzFeed. I will argue in a moment that if we’re going to charge anyone, perhaps it should not be our most loyal, engaged, and valuable customers on whom we make money through advertising, but instead the occasional visitor and freeloader. As for the argument that news is expensive: Well, yes, it was, but we know it can be more efficient today. Besides, thanks to advertisers’ support and subsidies, the truth is that readers never truly paid for news, never fully supported the cost of the newsroom. And in a competitive market, one cannot price one’s offerings based on cost plus profit; that works only in a monopoly, which news organizations have now lost.

Read the rest here.

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

The newest New York Times

Screenshot 2014-01-10 at 8.49.59 AMThe Guardian asked me to turn a series of tweets about the new New York Times site design into a review:

A web-site redesign is often an expensive, time-consuming, over-hyped exercise in media navel-gazing: an expression of institutional ego over user need. So I will confess a preemptive shrug at news of the newest New York Times online.

But I retract my shrug. As I explored the new site and tweeted my reaction, I quickly warmed to this new haircut on an old friend. It’s neither revolutionary nor terribly disruptive and leaves me feeling as if the paper online has tried to pay tribute to the paper as paper (why did they feel the need to resurrect the mix of italic and roman headlines that was de rigueur a half-century ago?). Still, The Times does much right.

The redesign kills the irritating news-site habit of cutting stories into multiple parts. In print, we newspaper folk called that “jumping” from, say, the front page to one inside, and every reader survey ever performed told editors that their customers hated that. Newspapers continued to do it online not because scarce space forced us to but instead because we wanted to pump up our pageviews: The more pages you viewed, the more ads you saw, the more money we made — or so went the myth of old mass media carried over to online. That is also the economic genesis of sites’ slideshow disease.

The Times now lets us scroll through a story without clicking. But there could be an economic rationale for that, too. Web analytics company Chartbeat found that readers tend to let their eyes skip right past the banners atop pages — usually sold as the most valuable ads — and end up spending more time exposed to the ads embedded down within longer tomes. Time engaged can build greater value than pages clicked.

In an effort to increase said engagement, The Times has tried to make it as easy as licking your finger and turning the page to move to the next story … and the next. There’s an arrow on the right of every story that moves the reader to the following story displayed in a horizontal menu above. Once I figured the system out — I’ll confess it took me a few clicks to associate the arrow with the preview in the bar — I found it, well, engaging. But I also found this feature, like the ability to read today’s paper — that is, the stories as packaged in the physical artifact — a bit too nostalgic for the idea of editorial presentation and control.

Nonetheless, I salute The Times for putting less effort into its home page (which on The Times attracts more than half of its readers in a day but on many news sites draws as few as 10 percent) than into creating a satisfying experience around the meat of the matter: the article.

I’m also relieved that The Times did not follow the example of its much-ballyhooed — and so-often-aped“snowfall” format, injecting animations and videos and sound and every manner of media into a simple text tale. There’s no digital Rococo in sight.

The new Times uses what geeks call the “hamburger button” (three parallel lines — two sandwiching the third) to get rid of the time-worn left-hand navigation bar. Speaking from experience running news sites, the nav bar became the basis of political turf wars, with editorial and commercial departments battling for more signage. With all that obvious information tucked away, there’s more room for what should be in a news site: news.

Screenshot 2014-01-08 at 9.01.29 AMI’ll quibble that once one does mouse-over the hamburger (oh, what has become of our language?) the resulting menu is three layers wide (e.g., arts to books to best sellers) and can require the manual dexterity of a pianist to play it. But as I confessed, I quibble.

One other important change in this redesign is The Times’ ability to accommodate the next supposed media messiah after the pay wall: native advertising, which is code for fooling readers into thinking that marketing messages are actual content. We used to call these things advertorials — you know, those things you skipped past. Now media mythology has it that every brand should be media and all media need content. But the real question is: Do you find value in reading an opus from Dell about “Reaching Across the Office from Marketing to IT“? I don’t. I go to Dell to buy hardware, not words. As I recently warned a roomful of PR people itching to advertise natively: Content is a shitty business. Stay away! I predict that the fad will soon lose its luster.

Screenshot 2014-01-08 at 8.59.09 AM
But in the meantime, let’s at least give credit to The Times for doing native advertising right — that is, for being scrupulous about labeling it for what it is. “Paid for and posted by Dell,” says the warning atop every piece. “Written by Dell,” it says at the byline. “More paid posts from Dell,” it says to the right. Short of using the A-word — advertising — it can’t get much clearer than that. Now the question is: Will readers click and care? Will a 13-paragraph essay asking, “Can the Government Become Entrepreneurial?” sell more computers than a well-targeted coupon?

As former Times wunderkind Brian Stelter writes at, much of the import of The Times redesign occurs behind the scenes in a new content management system that the paper says will make it easier to iterate with new technologies, obsoleting not the present site but instead the concept of the redesign. I argue that CMSes — like redesigns — are another expression of editorial ego. I’ll be egotistical enough to quote what I blogged on the topic:

It’s all about us, about our content, about how we want to make it, how we want to present it to you, how we organize it, how we make money on it, how we protect it. What we should be doing instead is turning our attention outward, from the content we make (surely after 600 years, we know how to do that) to our relationship with the public we serve and the ecosystems in which we operate.

The one thing missing from The Times redesign is me — or to put that less egotistically, you. I wish a news site would move away from its mass-production roots and devote just some proportion of its presentation to personal relevance, reducing noise and increasing engagement not through user interfaces but through delivering value. I’d like The Times to learn that I never read sports and often read about movies and devour media news and live in New Jersey and thus give me more relevance. Netflix knows what I like but my newspaper does not. Google knows where I live and work but my newspaper does not. Shouldn’t it?

This shift won’t require a redesign of pages and pixels or systems. It will require a rethinking of newsroom culture and commercial business models to emphasize service over content, outcomes over presentation, relationships over mass.

Oh, be warned: The Guardian is working on its own new systems and redesign.

Theft v. sharing

Surely New York Times columnist and former editor Bill Keller understands how specious his comparison between Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg is.

What’s the difference, I asked a tech-writer friend, between the billionaire media mogul Mark Zuckerberg and the billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch?
When Rupert invades your privacy, my friend e-mailed back, it’s against the law. When Mark does, it’s the future.
There is truth in that riposte: we deplore the violations exposed in the phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch’s British tabloids, while we surrender our privacy on a far grander scale to Facebook and call it “community.”

Oh, come now. Murdoch’s henchmen steal private information through hacking phones and other nefarious means to splash it on the front pages of their rags. Facebook creates a platform that enables people to share with each other at their will, to connect, and to gather together to do anything from meeting for dinner to organizing a revolution. Surely Mr. Keller understands the difference between journalistic high crimes and felonies and providing a community with the means to organize itself — which, I argue, is what journalists should see as their mission.

Bill, I’ll send you a copy of my book, which explores the differences between privacy violated and publicness enabled.

So much for the penny press

The New York Times raised its daily price to $2.50 today. I thought back to the penny press at the turn of the last century and wondered what such a paper would cost today, inflation adjusted. Answer: a quarter.

Screen shot 2012-01-02 at 11.09.10 AM

So, in inflation-adjusted current pennies, The New York Times today costs 10 times more than a newspaper in 1890. Granted, Today’s Times is better than a product of the penny press. But is it worth 10x? Should it cost 10x?

In the meantime, labor rates have risen (a Timesman today lives better than a Timesman then) but production technology has become far more automated and efficient (no more typesetters, proofreaders, compositors, engravers, stereographers, mailrooms, or “rubber rooms” filled with unneeded pressmen). And the advertising value of newspapers has increased exponentially.

On the one hand, there’s less competition today. The New York Times is essentially a national newspaper monopoly (the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are different beasts). That should enable it to raise its price to such a premium. On the other hand, what’s really at work, of course, is that there’s much more competition today: the entire web. That would drive the paper to lower its price.

Instead, today it raises its price — by a whopping 25% over its old daily price of $2. That’s because it is trying to support an outmoded economic model. The myth of legacy media — rich while it lasted — was that every reader saw every ad so the paper charged every advertiser for every reader. That’s how scale paid off. Those are the economics that led to the rise of the penny press.

Online, that myth has been punctured: (a) every reader does not see every ad, and (b) advertisers pay only for the ads readers see (or in Google click on), and (c) there’s abundant competition. That’s what confounds legacy media folks: “If I get more audience and have more effective advertising, why am I not being paid more?” Because you’re operating by media laws that are now outmoded. You’re still operating under an industrial economy built on scarcity. That’s what makes you think you still have pricing power.

You need to find opportunity in entirely new models, in the new scale, in abundance. Google finds value in scale by taking on risk for the advertiser (who pays only for clicks) and by increasing relevance by putting ads everywhere. Facebook finds value in relationships and data about them and it doesn’t sell content but does use content as a tool to generate more data about users and their interests.

In their day — a century ago — newspapers found new ways to exploit scale. Today, net companies exploit scale in new ways. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are the penny press of today. Only they cost even less.

BTW, thanks to the very good Times Machine, we can see that The Times started life at a penny, which rose to four cents and then back down to a penny by 1900 — because it wanted scale.