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.”
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.
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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.
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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!
My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center begs sportswriters to slow down and do less — and it seems to have hit a nerve. (As always with my sportswriting columns, the lessons apply equally to any other journalist.)
The genesis of this column came back in the fall, when Nieman Reports published a look at beat writing in the digital age, including my own somewhat emo musings on being caught between indie blogging and fandom on the one hand and professional journalism and neutrality on the other. Elsewhere in the report, I read my NSJC colleague Dave Kindred’s exploration of how sportswriters’ beats had changed because of the web and Twitter. Kindred opened with Wally Matthews, now of ESPN New York, explaining how the beat writers would race to be first to tweet the lineup once a team posted it on the dugout wall. A Denver Post Broncos beat writer, Lindsay Jones, was able to top that bit of ridiculousness: Reporters can’t use cellphones from the Broncos’ practice facility, so they have to run out of the stadium to be first to tweet something. (By the way, fans watching practice can tweet their thumbs off. Is there an organization more in love with stupid rules than the NFL?)
Some things send you rushing to the keyboard, inspired or indignant; others have to simmer. The two Nieman pieces nagged at me all fall and winter, until I finally was able to articulate what bothered me. Those beat writers weren’t technology rejectionists: They’d embraced new tools, and were working their butts off. Yet their lives were worse — web publishing, blogs and Twitter had only added to the burdens of an already tough job. Why? Because they were using those new tools to do things the old way. Someone had sold them a bill of goods.
I don’t follow one Mets beat writer or another on Twitter — I follow all of them. They’re part of a collective flow of news, one I dip into to get news when I need it. Do I want to know tonight’s lineup? Of course. Do I care who had it first? No. Do I notice who had it first? No. With Twitter the question’s faintly ridiculous, in fact. Twitter embodies The And World, in which I get news from as many sources as I can take in and the flow is the important thing, not the component streams. I’d like to think I chose a crummy metaphor on purpose — there really aren’t individual elements of a flow, are there?
Those beat writers were using Twitter as if this were still The Or World, in which I’m going to buy Paper A or Paper B based on who has a scoop on the front page. Today I consume Papers A, B, C, D and so on. And as for scoops, 99% of them have shelf lives so short that for all intents and purposes they no longer exist.
Too much of what Kindred found those beat writers doing is a waste of time. So why are they doing it? I suspect it’s a combination of things. There’s a culture of competitiveness and adrenaline, which isn’t a bad thing so much as it’s a good impulse wastefully channeled. Habit and tradition are part of it too, I’m sure. I suspect it’s also fear, on multiple levels — higher-ups shoved writers down new media pathways, writers were too intimidated by desperate times in the news business who question whether that was the best use of their time, and working harder is always easier to demonstrate than working smarter.
What should those beat writers do instead of competing for mayfly-lived scoops? My advice came down to “Worry a lot less about being first with the news and worry a lot more about being first with what the news means.” Then my column elicited a sharp, smart follow-up from Craig Calcaterra of HardballTalk — and one of Calcaterra’s commenters absolutely nailed it, far better than I did.
Like you said, I don’t care who told me first. It’s not like I wasn’t going to find out. Whenever I get a bit of news, whether it’s at ESPN, HBT, Twitter, or any of the other places where you can get news, one of my first reactions is usually “Hey, I wonder what that goofball Calceterra has to say about that.”
And then I come here.
BANG. There it is — the elusive sweet spot. Be the place readers turn to find out what that bit of news means. Do that, and you’ll have an audience and a brand. And a future.
Before Christmas, the New York Times set off a web firestorm with a Vows column that was highly controversial, to say the least: It told the story of TV reporter Carol Anne Riddell and ad executive John Partilla, who divorced their spouses and split up their families to wed. The two acknowledged the pain they’d caused — Partilla said that “I did a terrible thing as honorably as I could” — but Times readers for the most part found the two selfish and self-centered, and lacerated the couple in comments before the Times closed them. The reaction was similar on other websites and blogs, making for a spectacle that was simultaneously cringeworthy and fascinating. Internet shamings are always striking, but relatively few of them are so thoroughly self-inflicted.
But the column raised journalistic questions as well — and offered a valuable lesson in why news organizations need to be more open about the reporting and editing process.
In his blog for Forbes, Jeff Bercovici began with a pointed question: “Why were the ex-spouses of the newlyweds not mentioned by name in the story? Did the reporter call them for comment, as basic journalistic practice would dictate?” Asked that question, Riddell — perhaps beginning to understand she’d aimed both barrels at her own feet – declined to say, telling Bercovici that “I really don’t want to wade into this any further than we already have. It’s not helpful to anybody.” But she did say that the paper had been free to tell their story without preconditions: “They made their own decisions on that front.”
So Bercovici asked a Times spokeswoman, who said that “we do not comment on the process of editing and reporting including who was and was not contacted for interviews related to a specific story. The Vows/Wedding column adheres to the standards of the Times.”
Bercovici kept digging, and reached Riddell’s ex-husband, media executive Bob Ennis. Ennis said he hadn’t been contacted, and then lowered the boom on his ex and the Times. “The primary story here is not that interesting. People lie and cheat and steal all the time. That’s a fact of life. But rarely does a national news organization give them an unverified megaphone to whitewash it.” Ennis said he didn’t expect the Times to fact-check a style story, but added that “there’s a difference between that and publishing a choreographed, self-serving piece of revisionist history for two people who are both members of the media industry.”
Ennis was absolutely right — and the Times spokeswoman, asked to answer for the paper’s reporting, did the Times no favors by climbing atop a high horse and delivering a statement that only things made worse. The Times’ response reminded me of Cody Brown’s “magic journalism box,” an opaque structure inside which sources, information and everything else get turned into a finished newspaper story. With this model, Brown notes, a paper develops its brand “as the voice of god. … The community does not own the paper, an average person has little ability to influence it and because of this the paper is under constant scrutiny. … When they drop a story, it is designed to be read as fact.”
The problem with that opaque box, as Brown notes, is that it invites constant scrutiny — and when “newspapers publish something wrong, it doesn’t take more than a few careless edits for a newspaper brand to fall to pieces.” And in recent years, of course, the Times has had a couple of disasters emerge from its opaque box, leading to internal turmoil and giving its critics ample ammunition.
But you sure don’t see any evidence of lessons learned in how the paper handled this particular mess. The Times spokeswoman’s response is voice-of-god stuff — it’s not exactly illuminating (bad) and reveals this particular god as somewhat less than infallible (worse). For the Times clearly didn’t adhere to its own standards, telling one side of a painful story that obviously had another. Worse, it opened itself to charges that the story existed because a member of the media was doing a favor for another member of the media, as Ennis insinuated.
So what are the lessons here? I see three:
1. Innovation isn’t everything: Many commenters remarked that they expected feel-good stories from Vows. This is the kind of reader mindset that drives newspaper editors crazy, and often leads to ill-advised attempts to shake things up. (Ask anybody who’s ever tried to improve the comics page by turfing out ancient, boring strips. Beware the wrath of Mark Trail fans!) Yes, the newspaper’s job includes giving readers spinach to eat — but don’t try to get readers to eat it by mixing it into their ice cream. Familiar routines and comforting features are an important part of serving readers, too.
2. If you start open, stay open: The Times took the rare step of allowing comments on the Riddell/Partilla Vows column — but then closed them after about 24 hours, with the torch-wielding mob still in full cry. That looks like a second-guess. Think twice about changing course, and if you do so, explain why you’re doing it.
3. Remember that readers assume the worst: It’s an unhappy truth of journalism that in the absence of information, readers assume conspiracies, bias and agendas. The magic journalism box does us no favors here, allowing readers to imagine all sorts of malfeasance taking place out of their view. If they could see more of what actually occurs (within the bounds of propriety and responsibility to sources), I think we’d look far better than we do — readers would see that most reporters try to represent subjects and people fairly, and have a better understanding of why some sources aren’t identified. Rather than the opaque magic journalism box, give readers the marvelous journalism box, which is clear except for a few small areas shielded from view, with explanations for why those places are out of bounds.
When mistakes are made, this level of openness would give readers a better understanding of what went wrong, and let them see how often things went right. Is Ennis right that the Riddell/Partilla Vows column was a product of media ties? I’d like to think he isn’t, but the Times spokeswoman’s stonewalling response sure didn’t reassure me.
Some quick thoughts on recent topics making the digital-journalism rounds:
Gawker is changing the template for its sites, and a while back Nick Denton explained the thinking behind the new look. As always with Denton, he makes a lot of very smart points and dresses them up in a fair amount of showmanship.
The foundation of the Gawker redesign is that it’s ditching the traditional reverse-chronological blog design. Now there’s a splash story presented in full on the left and a scrollable series of headlines on the right. Denton notes that “every inside page will hew to the same template as the front page. No matter whether the visitor keys in the site address or arrives from the side by a link on Facebook or elsewhere, he or she will be greeted not just by a story but by an index of other recent items.”
In other words, depending on your philosophical bent you could say there will be no home page, every page will be a home page, or both. (The waning importance of home pages is a subject of longstanding interest to me.) I discussed what this means for sports sections in my weekly column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, but the basic lesson is the same for any news organization: Any article can be a window into a site, and in our era of search and social media, the model built around a homepage and navigation is increasingly out of step with the fragmented nature of how we find and read news. As Denton himself notes, “referrals from Facebook have increased sixfold since the start of the year; and audience spikes appear to be larger than ever before. We can turn more of those drive-by visitors into regulars by turning every page into a front page.”
It’s hard to imagine this trend reversing as social media becomes more and more ubiquitous, which means all the sweat and pain going into site redesigns is increasingly a misallocated effort. In a funny way, news people are a poor choice to design newspapers: We tend to be news junkies, and as such we have a well-honed understanding of how to navigate a newspaper in physical or digital form. But a lot of casual readers aren’t like us. Their home page is increasingly likely to be Facebook, and they may never see the front page of Gawker or the New York Times or whatever organization is the source of a story.
The reaction to Denton’s explainer was interesting. Reuters’ Felix Salmon broke down the likely effects of the new format on Gawker’s page views, predicting it will lead to a decline in views (because there will be fewer clicks to reach what you want to read) and kill Gawker’s sponsored posts, since the flow of reverse-chron news is marginalized, making it less likely that sponsored posts will be encountered within the flow. “There’s a whopping irony here,” he noted. “Denton was the first person to turn blogging into a large-scale commercial venture: he bet on the potential of the blog medium earlier than anybody else, and to a large degree he’s personally responsible for the reputation that blogs have among the population at large. He then brought on [Chris] Batty to try to sell ads against this strange new reverse-chronological stream of disparate posts. Now, however, it’s Batty who is fighting for what he calls the ‘narrative carrying capacity’ of that reverse-chronological stream: it’s Batty, the ad guy, fighting to preserve what you might call the essence of blog. And it’s Denton, the original Blogfather, who’s aggressively throwing it away.”
And in the New York Times, Nick Bilton started off with a very interesting historical parallel, showing a century-old NYT front page that’s a hopeless jumble of text and fonts, without the cues of modern newspaper design that help us navigate. “This change happened at The Times — and at other newspapers — over a number of decades as designers and editors figured out that readers didn’t want more news, but instead wanted a more concise culling of news,” he writes. “Now we’re starting to see these types of design and editorial changes take place with blogs and Web sites online.”
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Earlier this month, Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton walked an audience at the INMA Transformation of News summit through his blueprint for digital-first newspapers and tackling the necessary organizational and cultural change. I can’t do better than the 140 characters I used to call it out on Twitter, so here it is again: “If someone could only read one thing on changing the future of #newspapers, I’d have them read this.”
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Finally, here’s my take (also from NSJC) on whether the web is changing the rules for how news organizations deal with profanity.
My latest National Sports Journalism Center column began with this post on The Changing Newsroom, the excellent blog by the University of Memphis’s Carrie Brown-Smith, in which Brown-Smith and Drury University’s Jonathan Groves identified sports departments as homes for newspaper’s Web innovators. Asked on Twitter if I thought that were true, I said that I did — and then spent some time thinking about why.
Here’s the answer — or rather, five answers. All of which really come back to the same answer, which is that unlike lots of other subjects in the paper, there is an enormous appetite for sports news, analysis and conversation. In-depth stories about civics, politics or science often get discussed as spinach readers feel compelled to eat, but sports is nothing like that — plenty of fans will happy scarf down everything a newspaper can offer and then go looking for more. Sports departments began responding to that demand before their colleagues in other departments did, meaning they’ve had more time to adapt to innovations. Sports departments accepted long ago that news is a real-time endeavor, embraced Twitter, and have been arguably helped by becoming part of an ecosystem of papers, sports-news sites, and independent blogs.
The lesson for me is that the days of deriding sports as the Toy Department should be long gone. Sports have gone digital-first; newspaper departments that are struggling with doing the same could do a lot worse than spending a couple of weeks on the sports desk.
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For a superb example of using Twitter as a journalistic tool, look at how Joanna Smith of the Toronto Star is handling reporting from the court proceedings against Col. Russell Williams, a Canadian air force officer who has confessed to brutal rapes and murders. Smith has been letting the story unfold 140 characters at a time, mixing the evidence presented with reactions from the courtroom — and sometimes firmly telling us that she’s going to elide some details. At the same time, Smith is smoothly answering readers’ tweets, some of them challenging or hostile. There’s a lot to learn from here — Smith is doing several very difficult things simultaneously, and doing all of them well. (Warning: The details of the Williams case are horrifying.)
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My apologies for scarce posts — I am working as senior editor for MSG.com through the end of the year, and trying to finish a book that’s due at the end of the month. I will try to be a better correspondent once I can breathe a bit.
Like everybody else, I’ve been following the drama of Wikileaks, billed as “the world’s first stateless news organization,” and what the documents leaked through the service reveal about the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Few stories could more dramatically show how the press is changing. As Jay Rosen notes at the above link, “in media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new.”
A smaller part of what Wikileaks does also strikes me as new — and enormously smart. Back in October, Computerworld’s Dan Nystedt wrote about Wikileaks and talked with Julien Assange, a member of its advisory board. Assange told Nystedt that Wikileaks planned to create a form that publishers could put on their Web sites allowing readers to “upload a disclosure” to the publisher using the online clearinghouse. Wikileaks would take care of protecting the source and any legal risks related to publishing the document, as well as confirming that it’s real. Once confirmed, Wikileaks passes it on to the publisher and gives that publisher an embargo period during which the information is exclusive. After that, it’s available to the world. (I’m trying to figure out if the disclosure form has become a reality yet — Wikileaks, understandably, is a bit overloaded right now.)
As Assange explained last fall, Wikileaks needs that period of publisher exclusivity to guarantee a leaked document gets attention: “It’s counterintuitive. You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”
That’s smart, but what’s even smarter is the clever way this arrangement simultaneously serves a publisher and puts pressure on that publisher. Exclusives are precious commodities — many an organization or source has tried to interest a reporter in something and been asked, “Who else has this?” Wikileaks’ disclosure form allows a source to effectively say, “No one — but that will soon change.” As long as a leaked document proves legitimate, the countdown begins and the pressure for publishers to do something with it starts to grow. Sources can favor publishers, but also automatically have a Plan B, with no jousting or negotiating required.
Think how astonishing the little ecosystem that’s been created is compared to how things worked a generation ago. Not so long ago, newspapers, magazines and their ilk were effectively the only ones who could publish and distribute something to a world-wide audience. Now, sources can use a clearinghouse to release that information, with the clearinghouse employing a savvy understanding of publishers’ priorities to maximize the impact of that information. The publisher that once held all the power now plays a lesser role as part of a bigger bargain between three parties.
Not so long ago, that would have seemed like something snatched from a Neal Stephenson plot. Now, it’s new but makes perfect sense. Before too long, it will just be the way the world works.