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Serious Journalism in the Age of Digital Networks: What’s Different?

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These are the notes for my talk today to the Center for Public Intergrity.

What’s different for people who want do serious journalism in the age of digital networks?

I have boiled it down to six things:

1. The subsidy system has been destroyed.

2. Audience atomization has been overcome.

3. Distribution has been democratized.

4. A power shift has taken place…

The audience

The sources

The platforms

…. all have more power.

5. Barriers to entry–and invention–have fallen decisively.

6. The nature of trust is changing.

What’s worse for journalists about all this?

1. A crisis of employment.

2. Institutions have to rescale and some won’t make it.

3. Far more noise and crap in the system.

4. The means for uninforming the public are greater than ever.

What’s better about the emerging system?

1. Demand for serious journalism is very high.

2. The need is greater than ever.

3. The tools are better than ever.

4. The data is better than ever.

5. Creativity in journalism has a new lease on life.

6. The generation dynamics are healthier, with young people more able to contribute their talents.

7. To do journalism today you have to be really committed to it.

8. The more people who participate in it, the stronger the press will be.

 

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The three different kinds of context we’re missing in the news system as it stands

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Last week I participated in a one-day conference at Stanford called the Moby Dick Project. It originated with this blog post by Ben Huh: Why Are We Still Consuming News Like It’s 1989? The conference was an attempt to think through why the user experience for news still sucks, and to get started on solutions.

The 75 or so people who were there were a mix of technologists, designers, start-up people and journalists. In the group I was placed in, we had an a geek who worked at the Center for American Progress, a journalism professor, the founder of a small online education firm, someone from Crosscut, a news site in Seattle, and the principal of a start-up that provides analytics to publishers.

The event was held at the Design school at Stanford. There were no speakers, no panels. A working session, it was called. Facilitators from the school forced us to move at a rapid pace from a statement of the problem to brainstorming solutions to sketching something that could be built and trying it out on other groups. At the end of the day all the groups presented their solutions. There were no breakthroughs, but it was better than a future-of-journalism conference where participants sit around saying, “Interesting… how would you monetize that?”

One of the problems that arose again and again (and the reason for this short post) is something I have spent a good deal of time on since I wrote National Explainer three years ago. The news flows to us without the context we need to understand it, or even to understand why we’re getting it. In fact, this problem came up so often (“we need to know the context!”) that Ben Huh, the organizer and master of ceremonies, banned use of the term unless the speaker could specify what was meant.

As it happens, myself and a few colleagues (Matt Thompson of NPR, Tristan Harris of Apture, Staci Kramer of paidcontent.org) organized a South by Southwest event on the future of context in 2010. (See my post for additional background.) In the preparation for the SXSW event and the discussion after, I was forced to think through the different meanings we attach to “context” when we complain about it being missing in the news system as it stands. I think there are three big ones:

1. Background knowledge. The knowledge needed to understand the news that is being reported now. This is analogous to pre-requisites in a college course: the stuff you need to know to “get” why an item of news is news. If you don’t understand what a Collateralized Debt Obligation is, you are not going to understand the new report issued on the role that CDO’s played in the financial crisis. A typical solution to this problem is an explainer article, an FAQ, or Wikipedia.

2. The story so far. This is vaguely similar to 1.) but not the same. The story so far is what’s happened since before you started paying attention to the story. Or: where we are in the narrative. Analogous to joining a college course in week 5: you need to know what happened in weeks 1-4. That’s different from pre-requisites. If there has been a committee investigating the financial crisis for a year and it finally fell into fighting over how to prevent another crisis, there is a “story so far” there. For many big stories, a majority of the users are coming in the middle of the movie. A typical solution to this problem is a timeline. You can see a “story so far” button here.

3.) Related material. Not the most evocative name, I know, but the best I could think of. This is context in the sense of the phrase, “the larger context.” Not the news, the longer narrative into which it fits, or the background knowledge needed to get it (categories 1 and 2) but the different points of view that develop off the news, the deep historial context (financial bubbles in the history of the U.S., for example) the discussion of implications and consequences, the arguments emerging as the battle of interpretations gets underway. Analogous to “for further reading” in a college course. A typical solution to this problem is quality curation and a linkfest.

It helps to keep these straight, otherwise the cry for more context gets confusing because people are talking about different things using the same term. How to provide these different kinds of context is obviously an unsolved in the news system as it stands. 

There was one other meaning of “context” that came up during the Moby Dick discussion, but it is relatively technical. When parts of an article (headlines, key quotes, summary paragraphs) are lifted out of the original frame they are in and float around the system, frame-free, we sometimes talk about their “original context.”

To conclude this, a little quote from my National Explainer 2008 post

In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing current information, as with prices, weather reports and ball scores. We think of “analysis,” “interpretation,” and also “explanation” as higher order acts. They come after the news has been reported, building upon a base of factual information laid down by prior reports.

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena, and make note it. (“”Subprime lenders in trouble: check.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye on the story. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market (their frequency serving as a signal that something is truly up) I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps a roundtable with experts on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That’s the way it works… right?

Wrong! For there are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.

Anatomy of a Twitter Screw-up: My Own

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“Twitter invites casualness, yet it demands extra care.” — Science writer Carl Zimmer.

Yesterday I made a serious error on Twitter. Here is what happened. 

TechCrunch ran this story: AOL Asks Us If We Can Tone It Down. It said that a writer for TechCrunch, owned by AOL, had gotten an email from someone at Moviefone, also owned by AOL, asking for changes to a review of a movie that ran at TechCrunch. The writer for TechCrunch, Alexia Tsotsis, included the email in her post, leaving out the name of the person who had sent it. I saw the TechCrunch piece in the afternoon, and I wanted to send it out over Twitter, but I also wanted to say something about why this little incident was vexing to AOL. It took me a few hours to figure out a way to do that. Around 4:20 pm I posted this:

Techcrunch: AOL Asks Us If We Can Tone It Down.  Problem for AOL is the Moviephone guy doesn’t know he did anything wrong.

So far so good. Well, almost. I didn’t actually know whether the Moviefone person was a guy. And I misspelled Moviefone. These were like little warm-up errors for what came next. 

A few hours later I was making dinner for my kids. They were doing their homework. While I waited for the meal to cook I was glancing at my laptop, and on Mediagazer I saw this post from film writer Scott Weinberg, whom I do not know.

Effective immediately, I no longer work for @. Here’s why:  I will always love @.

Wow, I thought to myself. The story is a few hours old and he’s already gone! AOL must be serious about creating a cultural divide between editorial and promotion. Just before serving dinner, I posted this to Twitter:

Looks like that Moviephone guy who told Techcrunch to tone it down is already gone from the company. 

Looking at it now, I recognize that I put “looks like” in there because in fact I wasn’t sure of the causality. What I should have done is ask myself: well, Jay, what is the connection between Scott Weinberg leaving Moviefone and the Tech Crunch story he linked to? Do you even know? This I did not do. Instead I served dinner and watched a documentary on Nile River crocodiles with my kids. Big mistake. Because I didn’t see this when it went up:

Scott Weinberg
@ This is factually inaccurate. Please don’t assume such things.
And I also missed this from the TechCrunch writer when it was posted: 

Alexia Tsotsis
@ @ Without being able to say much more, @ didn’t send the email in my post.

Which is definitive proof that I was wrong. I also hadn’t seen that Jeff Jarvis (65,000 followers) and Henry Blodget (27,000), among others, had passed along my erroneous, “Looks like that Moviephone guy is gone” post. My screw-up spread a lot faster because of that.

All this became clear to me when I sat down at my computer more than an hour after posting the misbegotten Tweet. There were people denouncing me for drawing an incorrect conclusion, and mocking me for claiming to be a journalism professor but failing accuracy 101. And they were right. So I set about correcting myself, first to my subscribers, then to Henry Blodget, Alexia Tsotsis and Scott Weinberg, to whom I apoolgized. You can see that flurry of correctives here. (Thanks to Philip Aittkin for collecting them.) 

A few reflections: This was the most serious error I have made in 15,000 Twitter posts. I’ve screwed up before, of course, usually by passing along something I should have been more skeptical of, or by making a factual error in a statement I should have checked. This was different. It involved a person’s reputation and a false charge. And I was the originator of an error that others were passing along. Lucky for me, Scott Weinberg graciously accepted my apology (thanks, Scott!) while Blodget, Jarvis and others quickly noted the correction. Repairs were made within an hour or two, but still: it should not have happened.

My mistakes: Doing more than one thing at once. Moving far too quickly from an inference to an assertion. Failing to fact check myself. Failing to ask in the first place: what do you actually know, Rosen? Usually, I write a Twitter post and let it set for a while, even if I’ve checked it and it’s perfect. Here, I didn’t do that.

Perhaps another, less conscious factor was involved: the urge for quick narrative resolution, as in: “Wow, he’s gone already? That was quick!” I definitely remember thinking that a fast resignation or firing would make the story more interesting to Twitter subscribers who had read the first link. In this sense I wanted it to be true. Which is what people mean when they call a story “too good to check.”

Another little lesson: most of the time I benefit from being a professor of the subject I Tweet about, and from having NYU in my handle on Twitter. But if you seriously screw-up, those advantages flip around and make the mistake worse. 

This whole story was a bit snakebitten. Tech Crunch had to back off from its headline the next day because it too was wrong. (Which I also should have noticed.) AOL hadn’t asked TechCrunch to tone it down. Moviefone had. “I kinda feel like we owe AOL an apology,” wrote Paul Carr. “Moviefone is no more a representative of AOL Corp than we are. As such, the headline could just as accurately have read “Moviefone asks AOL to tone it down.”

A Theme in Responses to Critics Found in the Twitter Feed of Matthew Franklin of The Australian

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I think it’s clear what that theme is. So I present the following without comment. Matthew Franklin on Twitter.

Sep. 7 @johnvacy ah come on you conspiracy theorists. U get more depth in political coverage from the Oz than any other paper.

Sep. 26 @oneplanetmikey So Gamut exists only as a counter to the Oz? Absurd. I like Gamut. But your Oz conspiracy theory is pathetic

October 1. @Pollytics Also sometimes wrong, not based on facts and often motivated by hatred or irrational conspiracy theories.

October 2. @thewetmale agreed. This is why people who attack Oz journos as tho we r all part of some conspiracy r wrong.

October 2 @thewetmale fair enuff. But the oz’ harshest critics constantly misrepresent, verbal and fall for the great conspiracy theory.

October 3. @silvermullet Correct. Time to dump the bullying, bile and conspiracy theories.

October 6 @jayrosen_nyu You don’t really buy into the big News ltd conspiracy theory do you? Don’t you know how newspapers work?

October 6: @beardoc There is nothing for us to fear dude. That’s just a conspiracy theory. What do I care? why would I care?

Finally, Matthew Franklin, October 6: Actually, I don’t go for conspiracies and am not into attacking critics. U don’t know me, do u

UPDATE, Dec. 6: There were some replies from the account of Matthew Franklin. 

Dec. 5  @jayrosen_nyu happy to stand by those comments. They weren’t discourteous. Pity u won’t engage on issues.

Dec. 5 @jayrosen_nyu I only urge u to engage on fact. If anyone calls u on that, u attck them.

(I had asked Franklin, “Would such be an example of the courteous, unassuming reply to criticism you urge upon me?” with a link to the post you are reading now. You see, to Matthew Franklin a post like this is an “attack,” just as normal criticism of the Oz is a charge of conspiracy. There, now I have commented.)

 

 

Julian Assange Ducks the Question A Lot of Us Have About Wikileaks

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It happened in a Q and A with readers of The Guardian. I am posting it to here to provide a place to comment, since it is clear from my Twitter feed that not everyone agrees. My own view is that he should have provided a serious, by which I mean a morally serious, response to JAnthony’s question. That he did not disturbs me.  

What do you think?

JAnthony

Julian.

 I am a former British diplomat. In the course of my former duties I helped to coordinate multilateral action against a brutal regime in the Balkans, impose sanctions on a renegade state threatening ethnic cleansing, and negotiate a debt relief programme for an impoverished nation. None of this would have been possible without the security and secrecy of diplomatic correspondence, and the protection of that correspondence from publication under the laws of the UK and many other liberal and democratic states. An embassy which cannot securely offer advice or pass messages back to London is an embassy which cannot operate. Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the protection of sources. This applies to the UK and the UN as much as the US.

In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, Wikileaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of diplomacy. If you can publish US cables then you can publish UK telegrams and UN emails.

My question to you is: why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function.

Julian Assange:

If you trim the vast editorial letter to the singular question actually asked, I would be happy to give it my attention.

… And if you haven’t seen it yet, here is my 14-minute video, The Watchdog Press Died; Instead We Have Wikileaks.

The Grown Ups Have Arrived on the TSA Story and They Want Us All to Grow Up.

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Time magazine journalist says, “Oh, grow up.”

Politico journalist says, “Oh, grow up.”

Daily Beast journalist says, “Oh, grow up.”

Washington Post journalist says, “Oh, grow up.”  (We mean it!)

Slate journalist says, “Oh, grow up.”

Mother Jones journalist says, “Oh, grow up.”

Business Insider journalist says, “Oh, grow up.”

CNN journalist says, “Oh, grow up.” (Correspondent Richard Quest: “Grow up and get over it has to be part of the rule for any adult person…”)

Journalist at PBS.org says, “Oh, grow up.”

Louisville Courier-Journal journalist says, “Oh, grow up.”

Journalist at The Economist says, “Oh, grow up.”

 

Put any similar examples you’ve found in the comments and if they qualify I will add them to the list. 

The critic Thomas Frank misled the readers of Harpers about my interview with Demand Media’s CEO. And when I say “misled” I am being polite.

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In the December issue of Harpers (a magazine I have been published in, though it was years ago) the acerbic and frequently brilliant cultural critic Thomas Frank has an essay about the collapse of professional journalism’s economic foundations. His piece is also about the cluelessness of journalism educators and the satanic mills that some call “content farms.” Frank’s general thesis is that the failure of the business model in journalism has been met by a “cognitive failure” among people like Jeff Jarvis and myself. We are too impressed by the wonders of technology–or too stupid–to notice what is happening.

This might be the worst time ever to attend journalism school. And yet if you cast about in those high places where the flame of the profession is supposed to be guarded, you will discover that almost no one has an idea for tackling the big problems in a way that stands a chance of preserving journalism. The looming catastrophe has merely furnished an opportunity for repeating, in an ever-higher register, the management theory cliches of the past two decades. Years from now, only a handful of professional newsgathering organizations may remain, but you can rest assured that the leaders of the nation’s J-schools will still be talking about the need to “listen to the audience,” trilling wondrously that we must “embrace change,” and writing ecstatic little odes to “entrepreneurship.”

And:

So powerful is our desire to believe in the benevolent divinity of technology that it cancels out our caution, forces us to dismiss doubt as so much simple-minded Luddism. We have trouble grasping that the Internet might not bring only good; that an unparalleled tool for enlightenment and research and transparency might also bring unprecedented down-dumbing; that something that empowers the individual might also wreck the structures that have protected the individual for decades.

Of course, Frank doesn’t have a solution, either. (Not his fault; no one does.) It’s odd, though, that he would go after Jarvis for introducing entrepreneurship into J-school, since the point of that exercise is to turn at least some journalists into owners rather than hired hands. Maybe Frank thinks that’s hopeless, and what we really need is state funding for journalism. If so, he doesn’t try to make that case. In fact there’s not a word about what should be done. Whereas Jarvis has written tens of thousands of words about what should be done.

I would provide a link to Frank’s essay so you can assess the argument for yourself, but it is not online. Harper’s doesn’t believe in that. Only subscribers have online access. The December issue is out; the November issue is the one available for download at harpers.org. This is a print magazine. 

Now when Frank’s eye falls upon me, he is not entirely unkind. He says that I am intelligent and energetic and that I can be “satisfyingly vicious” in my disdain for newsroom curmudgeons.

But put Mr. Rosen face to virtual face with a master of the new-media world–say, Richard Rosenblatt, CEO of Demand Media–and a more conciliatory man seems to take his place. Mr. Rosen had been calling Demand nasty names before interviewing Mr. Rosenballt online in December of 2009, and this was his opportunity to smite the villainous organization. Here was his most direct question:

Someone who follows my work and knew I was interviewing you told me to ask you this: Do you love the Web? The implied question there is: if you love the Web, then why are you doing this, running these content farms…

Do you love the Web. Because if your love was true–if your heart was pure–you couldn’t possibly do such a thing. This is the sentimental check-and-balance, that safety catch that is supposed to protect us. All it will really protect, of course, is the Web itself.

Here’s what I think. Thomas Frank could only write that because he is not writing on the web, and his essay will never appear online the way that essays in, say, The Atlantic will. Were he writing on the web, he would have to link to my interview with Richard Rosenblatt, and readers who are alert would find his characterizations misleading.

And that’s being polite. But you be the judge: Frank says I was conciliatory toward Rosenblatt. Well, was I? He says my most direct question was: “Do you love the Web?” Was it really? He implies that I am squishy and sentimental in coming face to face with Demand Media. Am I? Here are five other questions I asked Rosenblatt, which the readers of Harpers will of course never know about:

1. …As I understand it, the mission is to make a ton of money on the Web by using data mining to understand demand and then cutting costs in this way Roth described. Do I have it wrong?

2. Here’s what I think Demand Media has right. It’s important to know what people are interested in. It’s good to have tools that tell us what they wish to know. Using that knowledge to guide production is innovation, too, which we need– precisely because production is so easy and cheap and the tools are so good.But here’s what I think bothers a lot of people, and leads to a description of your firm as a “content farm” or “factory.” I read about the 11 people – and 15 different roles – involved in the production of articles and video in Demand Studios. I get your idea that “quality is based on relevance.” But if you’re trying to match costs to the available revenue for a given piece of content, what happens when editorial quality requires costs greater that what’s available in search revenue? And who’s watching out for that point?

(Rosenblatt didn’t answer me when I asked him that so I asked him again.)

3. Okay I got that but I am not sure it answers this part of my question: …if you’re trying to match costs to the available revenue for a given piece of content, what happens when editorial quality requires costs greater that what’s available in search revenue? And who’s watching out for that point?

4. Does the description of your company as a “content farm,” content mill, factory (or even digital sweatshop) seem to you inaccurate or point missing in some way? I mean I know these are not nice terms or polite descriptions but are they wrong headed?

5. When you’re trying to build trust in an editorial brand, you pay those costs when they exceed available revenues, which I talked about. But it seems to me that Demand isn’t trying to build trust in that way, it’s trying to create content that meets demand, stays relevant and grabs the available search revenue. Why doesn’t Demand Media create the bulk of its content under the Demand brand, like Reuters, say?

Read the interview. I say Thomas Frank could only write what he wrote because he is not writing on the web. What do you say?

UPDATE, Dec. 17, 2010:

John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harpers, decided to respond. He reveals the correspondence one of his editors had with me about this post. His column is (literally) an anti-Interent screed:

Somehow, the passion that drives successful political crusades is attenuated when it’s reflected on the computer screen. All those millions of eyeballs glued to Facebook do not a revolution make, or even a reform movement. The energy devoted to the Net is an astonishing waste. This is time that obviously could be better spent talking to a friend or a child, reading a good book, or marching in a political demonstration.

Included in his indictment is a re-telling of the events in this post– and my half of the correspondence I had with one of MacArthur’s editors. Now it is so like Harper’s to leave half the exchange out, and, though MacArthur’s column was placed online, to refuse to link to this post even though it is directly referenced by MacArthur, and even though linkless publishing is the issue under discussion, as it were. This is what his column says:

Among the most insistent Internet salesmen in my world is Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University. In keeping with the “democratic” Web, he promotes so-called “public journalism,” which some editors take to mean journalism ordered up by readers instead of assigned by editors.

Tom Frank gently mocks Rosen in this month’s Harper’s Magazine for being too easy on Richard Rosenblatt, CEO of a content mill called Demand Media. Rosen objected — in his blog. But what really made him mad was that “Frank could only write that because he is not writing on the Web. . . . Were he writing on the Web he would have to link to my interview” with Rosenblatt, which would show how “misleading” were Frank’s “characterizations.”

Since we at Harper’s are not free content/free traders (you have to pay to read the magazine online), we asked Rosen to write a letter to the editor. His reply: “Harper’s has decided it doesn’t want to be part of the Web, and for that reason I don’t want to be part of Harper’s. Which is sad, all around.” Now, there’s the democratic spirit at work.

Actually, I haven’t worked on public journalism for ten years; it was a pre-Web development. But we no longer expect Harpers to be well informed. So you have the full context, here is the exchange:

From Harpers:

Dear Mr. Rosen,

My name is Justin Stone; I edit the Letters section of Harper’s. Your post in response to Tom Frank’s article addresses the possibility that an essay written for print is (or can be) fundamentally different from its web-published counterpart (e.g., in its link-less argumentation). I like your idea, and I think it would be especially interesting to the readers of an essentially print-only publication—those who you point out are unlikely to find your blog. A letter may also be an opportunity to tackle Frank’s misrepresentation of your interview with Rosenblatt. In any case, please let me know if you’re interested.

Cheers,

Justin Stone

Harper’s Magazine

From Me:

Harpers has decided it doesn’t want to be part of the web, and for that reason I do not want to be part of Harpers. Which is sad, all around. Good luck.

Harpers doesn’t believe in free content, except when it does. Enjoy MacArthur’s column.

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