Nate Silver, the writer/statistician behind the very fine FiveThirtyEight blog, has found himself in a number of crosshairs of late. His politically motivated attackers are risible zealots unworthy of discussion, but things are more interesting when you consider the attacks and the passive-aggressive grumbles from political journalists. (Oh, and the New York Times’ public editor called him on the carpet for a Twitter bet, though as a fellow ombudsman I’m not touching that one.)
The argument within journalism is almost an exact replay of one that’s exceedingly familiar to Silver: the “Moneyball” scouts vs. stats debate within baseball.
If you’ve followed baseball over the last decade or so, you’ll instantly see it’s the exact same debate.
For the old baseball scouts who trust their eyes and their guts, sub “the savvy,” the journalists who assemble narratives from interviews, observations and their own experience — their ears and their guts, if you will. For the baseball stats guys, sub folks like Silver who wade into polls and try to weigh bias, calculate probabilities and make predictions.
Here’s the thing, though: This debate actually ended a long time ago in baseball. Every front office has people who mine advanced stats and try to value players objectively. Some front offices give it more weight than others, but all of them understand the value of the Moneyball approach and take at least some heed of its lessons. The debate only continues among hack columnists and announcers, intellectual refusenik fans and people who know better but can’t resist fighting with them.
So what about journalism? Well, I suppose it’s progress that FiveThirtyEight now appears under the umbrella of the New York Times. But some elbows are getting thrown beneath its shelter. Here’s Silver today, turning a merciless eye on the latest batch of battleground state polls and explaining what has to be wrong with their methodology for Mitt Romney to be elected on Tuesday night. And here are Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg, opening with a breathless fusillade of words about “a stubborn landscape of competitive states that right to the end are producing equal shares of hope and fear amid conflicting signals about the outcome.”
The intellectual disconnect is startling, to say the least. The mission of both articles is to inform readers of one of the world’s marquee newspapers about the state of the race. But their conclusions are diametrically opposed. And the fact that they’re sitting side by side tells me that journalism has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to baseball in terms of how to measure what matters.
The thing is, measuring what matters is much harder in baseball. Even a bright child understands that the popular vote has nothing to do with the Electoral College. To be fair, Zeleny and Rutenberg don’t mention the popular vote — they focus on the battleground states. But their story is almost entirely the stuff of the savvy: a narrative about the race so far, details of travel schedules and snippets from speeches, and windows into the hopes and fears of well-placed campaign insiders. It’s a compelling narrative, but one built almost entirely of qualification with precious little quantification — and in the end, Election Day is nothing but quantification.
Perhaps Silver has been more annoyed by his critics than he’s let on, because he closes today’s post with a devastating critique of the kind of journalism his colleagues are practicing: “If the state polls are right, then Mr. Obama will win the Electoral College. If you can’t acknowledge that after a day when Mr. Obama leads 19 out of 20 swing-state polls, then you should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public.”
(Cross-posted from my Tumblr.)
I can see a lot of folks are coming here because they’re searching for Bruce Nolan. I mention Bruce down below — he taught me a ton when I was a kid, and I’m grateful to him — but I suspect you’re looking for the audio of Bruce’s passionate, angry, broken-hearted speech about the changes at the Times-Picayune. You can find that here, via David Carr in the New York Times. You should hear it — everyone in journalism should. After you do, I hope you’ll come back and read this.
This fall, the New Orleans Times-Picayune will cease publishing print papers daily and move to three print days a week, stepping up 24-7 operations on its web site. According to the New York Times’ David Carr, editor Jim Amoss will leave once the transition is complete, along with two managing editors. There will be staff cuts, size to be determined, at a paper that’s already seen its newsroom shrink in the aftermath of Katrina.
Which makes this a sad day for newspapers, and for me personally.
I’ll get the me stuff out of the way first: My first professional journalism job was at the Times-Picayune as a summer intern in 1989, and I may possibly have been the greenest intern in the history of green interns — not to mention one of the most mouthy, arrogant and generally obnoxious.
I was redeemed, to the extent that was possible, by attention and instruction and firm correction from a lot of folks at the Times-Picayune: Besides Jim, who took a chance on me, there were Peter Kovacs, Bruce Nolan, Jed Horne, Keith Woods, Paul Bartels, Jeannette Hardy, Chris Cooper, John Pope, Jonathan Eig and others I’ve shamefully neglected to mention because of age and time elapsed. Most of all, there was Kris Gilger, my first bureau chief and the kind of mentor every kid should pray to get. Kris was formidable and not to be crossed — I was terrified of her — but she also had your back, no matter what.
My two summers at the Times-Picayune put me on the right road as a journalist, and I’m forever grateful to the folks who pointed the way and taught me to steer. It’s heartbreaking to think of that newsroom being much reduced, particularly in a city whose peculiar institutions need aggressive, tough, full-time watchdogs.
Yet at the same time, I object to the reflexive view among news observers that fewer days in print is the same as the death of the Times-Picayune. That’s unfair to those who must keep the paper going as more of its operations shift to digital, and it’s unwise given the tidal wave of change remaking the news industry.
The signs of trouble for the newspaper industry have been abundantly clear for years. The print business is disappearing, to be replaced by a flock of digital experiments whose most optimistic outcome still guarantees smaller newsrooms. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not, and that’s been obvious for a long time. Yes, I mourn the news about the Picayune. But that isn’t the same as thinking Newhouse is wrong — in broad outline — about what needs to be done.
The question, then, is exactly what Newhouse will do. And that makes me worried all over again. The Times-Picayune was profitable — which doesn’t exempt it from the overall industry’s future, but ought to have argued for less-radical surgery. Instead, that surgery reportedly will follow the procedure Newhouse used in Ann Arbor, Mich. It’s a plan I thought was unfortunate but sound when announced, but I had to revise that once I saw how thin and generic AnnArbor.com felt — it’s journalism on the cheap, with crummy materials making blueprint irrelevant. NOLA.com, the Times-Picayune’s website, has always looked and felt cookie-cutter despite repeated redesigns — a crying shame given it represents America’s liveliest city. And the disrespect shown for T-P staff, most of whom learned about their paper’s future through the New York Times, is deplorable.
Given all that, I can’t think of any particular reason for optimism that Newhouse will get it right this time. And that’s a double dose of unhappiness.
Time to make what was all too obvious official: This blog is going on semi-permanent hiatus.
Reinventing the Newsroom began as part of my work for EidosMedia, as my place to explore trends in digital journalism. But I no longer work for Eidos (though I continue to hold them and their work in high esteem), and I’ve largely moved on from digital-journalism explorations as well.
The reasons? There are several.
The major reason is that I’m increasingly focused on my own writing. I started writing Star Wars books when I was still at The Wall Street Journal Online, and what began as a hobby has become more of a career, or at least I’m trying to make it one. I write stories set in various established universes, as well as ones that spring entirely from my own head, not to mention essays about music, baseball, travel or anything else that catches my eye. Give me a chance to tell a story — fiction or non — and I’m happy.
If this is a change, it’s a change back to what brought me into journalism in the first place. My rather odd digital-journalism career was something of an accident. I joined WSJ.com when it was still a free, standalone section (the Money & Investing Update), and I was in the right place to take on a variety of responsibilities as the site grew and changed. I became an editor, columnist and blogs guru, as well as the editorial guy in meetings about technology projects and business-side initiatives, because I was able to understand what the developers and marketers wanted and assess that in terms of what the newsroom could deliver. That hybrid existence was useful for the Online Journal and useful for me, but it took me further and further from what I’d originally wanted to do, which was to find things out and write stories about what I’d found. Few of us pick our career paths, but when we can choose directions, it’s good to remember what originally made us so passionate.
I also came to accept something else that I’d been trying to ignore for a while: As a full-time pursuit, being an unaffiliated guide on the side was just too frustrating for me.
Part of this was the head-against-the-wall feeling that most newspapers aren’t going to change in the way they need to — not necessarily because they don’t want to, but because they simply can’t.
I say that with sympathy, not disdain.
The traditional newspaper is a compendium of news, information and entertainment intended to make use of expensive printing-and-distribution infrastructure and tailored for a general, approximately defined audience restricted by geography. Now, think how much has changed in that sentence: Printing and distribution costs are now trivial, geography no longer limits readership, and audiences can be defined — or define themselves — with great precision. As a result, the very model of the traditional newspaper has been called into question.
Traditional newspapers now have to defend every part of their rather amorphous businesses against a host of small, digital-first competitors focused on taking one small part of that business and doing it better. They’ve been beaten time and time again in that competition, and I think they will continue to be. The outlook is brighter for small local papers and the big entities with glittering brand names, but in other cases I’ve come to doubt how much consultants like me can help.
While I was slowly coming to that realization, I was also increasingly focusing on sports news in the digital world. That began with a weekly digital-sportswriting column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, and has continued in my role as an ombudsman for ESPN as part of the Poynter Review Project, ESPN’s partnership with the Poynter Institute. Digital gurus who don’t understand sports are missing essential trends and experiments they need to know about: There is no longer any serious argument within sports departments about the need to be digital-first, the rhythms and metabolism of sports coverage and consumption are now almost wholly digital, and the audience demand for up-to-the-minute sports information and analysis is off the charts compared with any other aspect of the news industry. If you want to know where the future of news is brightest, it’s right here.
Assessing my first couple of years as a digital guru/consultant/what-have-you, it was obvious to me that a role working with ESPN and Poynter would be a much more effective use of my time than what I’d been doing. ESPN has used its considerable resources to nurture long-form sportswriting, storytelling through video and infographics, and old-fashioned local beat coverage in more and more cities. These are exactly the kind of endeavors I’d encouraged and celebrated on my own, and ESPN struck me as a far better bet than existing newspapers or independent blogs to be shaping those trends five years from now. I love independent blogs (I’m an indie blogger myself, after all) and I was raised as a newspaper true believer, but I saw I could have more impact standing up for journalistic values, spotlighting good work and helping diagnose issues in a relationship with ESPN than I could on my own.
I know this probably isn’t forever. My ombudsman tenure will end, the life of a fiction writer/essayist/freelance journalist is uncertain, and I continue to care deeply about what happens to the news industry. I’ve got pixels in my blood, as well as some ink. But if there’s a return to the news world in my future, it’ll be all in — as a member of a newsroom again, trying to help my organization navigate digital challenges and opportunities, and using that platform to find things out and tell stories about them. If a news organization I felt I could help came calling, I’d certainly listen.
And absent that, well, I’ve got plenty to do. I’m working on an interesting ESPN piece for Poynter Review, with a list of ideas beyond that. I’m excited to start chronicling the daily doings of the Mets again. I just sent a young-adult novel to my agent, and returned edits on a Star Wars project. I’ve got a long list of articles and essays I want to tear into. And hey, maybe someone will need a consultant, and I’ll think I can actually help. But for now, time to hang the Gone Writin’ sign on Reinventing the Newsroom’s door. Heartfelt thanks to everybody who stopped by over the years to read, comment, argue or link.
For reasons personal and professional (not to mention existential), I’ve largely taken a hiatus from discussing the future of news — more on that soon. But I can’t let Dean Starkman’s CJR examination of news today and the FON (that’s Future of News) crowd go by without a few comments.
For the most part, I thought Starkman’s critique was clear-eyed, smart and even-handed. (Disclosure: We were colleagues at different arms of the Wall Street Journal an age ago, and I know him and admire his work.)
I agree with all of his main points:
Like Dean, I’m worried that we’re in danger of losing a critical mass of accountability journalism, particularly given the difficulties smaller news outfits will face in trying to replace it – my take on this is here.
Like Dean, I worry about how local reporting will get done. There’s no shortage of people happy to cover the Red Sox out of love, but good luck getting the same folks to cover Pawtucket City Hall. (As Starkman notes in a good laugh line, he’s covered that august institution, and you had to pay him.) I sure as hell don’t want to see coverage of local government agencies left to the agencies themselves and local eccentrics armed with tin-foil hats and WordPress accounts.
Like Dean, I’m suspicious of many critiques of storytelling and the supposed hierarchy of authority implicit in it. A principle of reporting, nicely articulated by Jay Rosen and cited by Starkman, is “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” At least in terms of journalism, that’s where storytelling’s authority comes from. To this, add the reality that the vast majority of people want to consume content and have no interest in creating it — a point digerati often miss, dismiss, or see as a problem that needs solving. And we haven’t even touched questions about skills needed to tell a story responsibly and/or entertainingly.
Like Dean, I think many paywall criticisms have been myopic. (Disclosure: I’ve worked for WSJ.com and Press+.) I do think it’s critical to understand how newsrooms have been historically funded: For example, Clay Shirky’s explanation of how advertisers subsidized overseas war reporting by accident should be required reading. With this understanding, news organizations’ efforts to get readers to pay for this work have a better chance of succeeding; without it, those organizations often retreat into the comfortable trap of thinking of their reporting as a pillar of civil society, which might be true but carries no guarantee that anyone will pay for it. That said, however, I don’t get how journalism thinkers can wax rhapsodic about new digital tools and their earthshaking effect on society in one post, then tell us in another that readers’ habits about paying for things are fixed and immutable.
Like Dean, I think hamster-wheel journalism has led to a tragic lack of focus by overburdened reporters too tired or cowed to protest — my take on this is here, with a caveat down below.
And finally, like Dean, I hope that workable 21st-century journalism emerges from some combination of institutional efforts and the powers of networked readers.
I disagree with Dean, though, on a few points.
First off, I think his treatment of whether or not news is a commodity demanded more nuance. The fact is that not all news is created equal. Is an investigative story that took months to come together commodity news? Obviously not. Neither is a clear-eyed analysis of local budgetary policy, a lyrical feature, or a good column. (And this is why I think all of these forms are currently undervalued, and will return to prominence.) But with most papers, many articles remain much the same (if not identical) to ones you can find lots of other places. A generation ago this didn’t matter, as geography protected papers from competition. But with those geographical protections gone, every paper now competes with every other paper for readers, and a lot of me-too coverage has been revealed for what it is. (This is just one reason the AP is in trouble.) This state of affairs is forcing papers to ask hard questions — or rather, it should be. The classic example of such a question is how many movie critics we really need, but there are others. How many sportswriters do we need at the World Series? How many stories about spring gardening in the Northeast? How many Washington reporters? This is where Jeff Jarvis’s coinage “do what you do best and link to the rest” makes sense as a blueprint for news organizations in a networked system.
Speaking of that networked system of news, hasn’t it progressed pretty far? The idea that the New York Times would collaborate with a non-profit organization to publish a lengthy article under its own banner would have seemed the stuff of science fiction a decade ago; Sheri Fink’s epochal 2009 Katrina story won a Pulitzer, with no particular fuss over the arrangement. Rather than act as if rivals don’t exist, writers retweet competitors’ stories and curate them in roundups. Topic-specific Twitter feeds even put rival papers’ headlines on section fronts. We’re not at “do what you do best and link to the rest” yet, largely because of the conservatism of established, print-centric players, but we sure seem to be moving toward it. And these changes pale compared to what will be ushered in by the atomization of brands — rather than visit news organizations’ sites as destinations, I now get a huge amount of my news an article at a time, retrieved from a river of information created by my friends and peers. Forget arguing about paywalls — we better figure out how to pay for news as bits and pieces that travel, rather than as treasures locked away in destination-site vaults.
* Finally, there’s the hamster wheel. Dean thinks the years of panic are behind the news industry, but I’m not so sure about that — for panic is what keeps the hamster wheel spinning. Yes, too many journalists are stuck with a long multimedia checklist for each assignment — filing for multiple entities, chatting, commenting, promoting stories, gathering data, shooting video, doing podcasts, and so forth. All this frenetic generation of content arguably robs them of the chance to dig more deeply into stories and offer better analysis — the very things, ironically, that might make their articles signals amid the me-too noise. But I think this is less a blueprint for the future than it is a snapshot of current bad management. All of the skills on that checklist are useful, and today’s journalists should be conversant with all of them, or at least not hostile to learning. But, again, not all stories are created equal. A few stories are excellent candidates to serve as the centerpieces of packages including audio, video, data and robust debate, but most are just fine as simple articles — or short videos with minimal text, or what have you. Journalists — at least those not led by craven, unimaginative bosses — will learn to pick and choose, and regain some of their focus.
Or at least I sure hope they will.
* * *
Since we’re talking the future of news, I’ve collected 19 of my best National Sports Journalism Center columns into an e-book, Sportswriting in the Digital Age. It’s available for $2.99 from Amazon, BN.com, Smashwords, and the Apple store. Proceeds help pay my mortgage; feed, clothe and educate my kid; and support my love of beer and various geeky hobbies. Thank you!
Last week I wrote a column for Poynter looking back at my two years writing about digital sportswriting for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center. When I began writing my NSJC columns, I thought the clash between the mainstream media and indie bloggers would be a subject I’d come back to again and again. But that didn’t happen; instead, I came to see the MSM and bloggers as variations on the same theme. Something else struck as much more important to the future of journalism: namely, that teams, leagues, associations, athletes and agents were all beginning to bypass journalists and communicate directly with fans using digital tools that let anybody become a publisher. As I see it, those efforts will inevitably lead to teams and other sports entities regarding journalists as competitors, endangering the old, tacit bargain in which newspapers got access and readers and teams got publicity and customers. (You can read the rest of my argument here.)
The reactions were interesting — one objection I heard from multiple folks was that teams and other entities aren’t capable of reporting impartially on their own doings, and therefore sports fans won’t trust information from them.
The first part of this is undoubtedly true (as it is for any organization); it’s the second part that concerns me.
I’m certainly sympathetic to the argument. I don’t want to get my concussion news from the Saints, my NBA lockout updates from the Knicks and my Madoff analysis from the Mets. But I’m not so confident that I’m representative of all readers, or that most sports fans welcome the press serving as watchdogs. And I think even the best-case scenario in which teams are publishers and competitors will be a challenge for journalists.
First, the readership question. We should admit that a lot of information generated by sports doesn’t particularly need interpretation by journalists. Lineups, injury reports, signings, and results are relatively straightforward affairs; given the ability to see highlights whenever we want, the game story has largely outlived its usefulness in professional sports, particularly since today’s athletes are trained to offer little beyond carefully bland clichés. Teams also now have plenty of indie bloggers following them, who offer plenty of fan reaction, historical context, statistical analysis and other perspectives without the need to set foot in a locker room. That’s a lot of information for sports fans right there, without having discussed traditional journalism at all.
Sports, of course, is bigger than just game results and team news — really understanding what’s going on with your favorite team demands some awareness of economics, labor relations, health issues, drug testing and more. But now we’ve moved beyond more casual fans to a smaller audience. And every time sports reporting moves beyond the basics of the games and the sport to controversial subjects, you get objections from some fans that a certain issue isn’t sports, or ruins sports, strays into athlete’s private lives, etc. I don’t think that’s true of reporting on government or civic institutions, or at least it isn’t true nearly as often. As journalists, we see ourselves as watchdogs protecting the public interest, but plenty of readers see us as institutions with our own agendas. What we think of as a necessary mission may strike plenty of readers as special pleading.
So what will happen as teams explore the possibilities of being publishers in their own right? You’ll see a lot of experimentation — they won’t all take the same approach. But there will be a basic scenario underpinning those experiments: Teams will be competing with journalists for clicks, and will have unbeatable access to information. That’s a pretty good hand to be dealt, and they’ll certainly do something with it.
The good news? One best-case scenario for journalists would actually be a very positive development. Teams may continue to accept that the publicity they get from news accounts is worth the annoyance of reporters’ disruptive questions and occasional bad press — they’ll be more aggressive about being publishers in their own right, but also welcome whatever audience they can get from newspapers, TV and the web. Realizing they can’t compete with teams for a lot of basic information, traditional journalists will stop reporting minutiae, writing traditional game stories and churning out commodity stuff. Instead, they’ll focus their efforts on more interesting fare, forcing an evolution of sports journalism that should be good for publishers and fans alike.
There are other possibilities, though. I can see team coverage being handled at the league level, which would give leagues control, standardize coverage and account for teams that don’t want to cover themselves or would stink at it. (Every league has teams that are smart and progressive about digital possibilities and teams that are Neanderthals about them.) We’re not that far from this scenario: Leagues already saddle news organizations with restrictions on the use of highlights and other information they produce. And consider that MLB.com, for one, has a big roster of team reporters who do a pretty solid job providing relatively unvarnished accounts of team news. What if these league reporters were given preferential access to clubhouses? Or sole access?
Then there’s the worst-case scenario, in which teams shut out traditional reporters as competitors who aren’t worth the problems they bring. Some fans are upset, but most relatively casual fans still have lots of red meat. Relatively straightforward news comes from the teams, color comes from the athletes themselves, and lots of indie bloggers generate information from any number of perspectives. In-depth stories about labor, stadium funding, college scandals, injury patterns and other issues become harder to write and appear more rarely. So too do good features that give us better senses of individual players and teams.
I hope we’re headed for that first scenario. But even if it comes to pass, sports journalists are due for some wrenching cultural changes. And I can’t rule out the other scenarios.
* * *
I’ve collected 19 of my best Indiana columns into an e-book, Sportswriting in the Digital Age. It’s available for $2.99 from Amazon, BN.com, Smashwords, and the Apple store. Proceeds help pay my mortgage; feed, clothe and educate my kid; and support my love of beer and various geeky hobbies. Thank you!
I really like the comment moderation system used by Business Insider, for a number of reasons.
The skinny, as explained here: For about a year Business Insider has had a section of comments called the Bleachers, a dumping ground for comments that the editors find, to use Henry Blodget’s rather amusing formulation, “offensive, dumb, hateful, annoying, or otherwise value-less.” That’s been joined by the Bleachers’ opposite, the Board Room, a home for particularly good comments promoted by the editors. Comments worthy of neither the Board Room nor the Bleachers go in the Water Cooler.
Now, Business Insider has introduced something called the Penalty Box, which works like this: If you make a comment that gets booted to the Bleachers, you get a strike by your name. Each strike lasts a month. Accumulate three strikes and you get 24 hours in the Penalty Box, with every comment you make automatically landing in the Bleachers — unless you write something worthy of the Board Room, in which case your strikes are erased.
Is it a perfect system? No — not that it claims to be, or should be treated like it’s finished. I think 24 hours seems like too short of a time out to curb obnoxious behavior, and such a system would scale a lot better if other commenters could help police things, such as by being able to vote comments into the Bleachers and/or the Board Room. Blodget addresses the latter point in a comment of his own, noting that “the problem with leaving everything to the voting is that too often it is used as a ‘like’ system. If a reader agrees with a comment, it gets a thumbs up, and if the reader disagrees, it gets a thumbs down. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t separate valuable from value-less.”
But my objections are minor; there’s a lot to like here. I particularly like that Business Insider’s system feels loose and fun and has an identity. The whimsical names add some levity to the proceedings without eroding the purpose of the exercise, the Viking illustrations are entertaining, and the system feels like you’d want to spend time with it, which is the first step to creating habit. And perhaps most of all it’s theirs — you’re not going to mistake the Bleachers with its tomato-wielding Viking for a grayed-out comment on some other site, or get confused between the Board Room and the New York Times’s top comments.
Taming the fire-and-forget problems of web comments is an important task, and a tough job. But there’s no reason to be deadly serious about it from pillar to post. Business Insider has made it fun, and made it work for their brand and their identity. It’s an approach worth emulating.
* * *
I know posts have been scarce around here, for which I apologize — my lame excuse is that other writing projects that have sucked up a lot of my time, plus general exhaustion. That said, I’ve written a couple of columns for my Indiana University digital-sportswriting gig about Grantland, the new ESPN-backed sports-and-pop-culture site run by Bill Simmons, that touch on matters near and dear to RTN’s heart.
In the first, I decried that we insist on reviewing new magazines, columns and websites as if they sprang fully formed from their creators’ heads, with no need to find their footing. Every column, blog or site I’ve ever been a part of has needed a while to find ideal subjects, the right voice and the best way to connect with readers, and Grantland deserves that time just like everything else does. That said, I reviewed the site’s first three days of posts and concluded that by any reasonable measure Grantland was already a success.
In the second, I returned to a theme that I always find interesting: how to create digital brands in an era of brand fragmentation. Grantland isn’t a publication you pick up on a newsstand, choosing it over others, but something you’ll likely read in bits and pieces alongside bits and pieces of other publications, with daily habit, searches and peer recommendations determining which bits and pieces wind up in your particular filter. This is how we read now, and it makes building brands much harder than it used to be. Given that Grantland is already a loose collection of different subjects and well-known writers, it will be very interesting to see how the site does as a brand.