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.
I fear I’m being typecast as the guy who rants about content farms, which I never wanted. But every time I think it’s time to leave this debate alone, something happens that gets me worked up all over again.
A number of folks writing about content farms have asked me why Demand Media seems to have stopped responding to writers digging into what they do. I can’t speak for Demand, but my guess is they’ve decided it isn’t worth it — they’re doing just fine attracting new media partners and potential backers, so why get distracted duking it out with their critics? Which is pretty smart. But Demand hasn’t remained completely silent. Here’s a recent blog post from Jeremy Reed, Demand’s senior vice president for content and editorial, that answers his company’s critics. It’s a remarkable exercise in misdirection, one that is worth responding to.
Reed thanks the Demand writers who have answered the critics on various Web outposts, and says he’s unhappy that Demand’s writers are being attacked: “in spite of what people are writing about us, all of us here at Demand Media and the vast majority of you, do care about the writing craft and for the reader. The editorial rigor and process for creating content is just part of the equation; the other important piece is the pride in what we do and pride in the articles you touch.”
Reed adds that “tonight, I will read my new issues of the New Yorker and Texas Monthly that showed up in my mailbox and that I look to for inspiration. Our hope and intent is to fulfill the needs of our best writers, copy editors, titlers, and filmmakers. We hope to continue to improve the content in order to be the standard upon which other content is judged.” And near the end, he says that “when we’re being criticized, you’re being criticized as well.”
Well, actually no. When I criticize Demand Media and its ilk, I’m not criticizing the people who write or copy-edit for them. A lot of those people love to write, something I certainly understand. Some of them are people who have been laid off from jobs in journalism, just like I was. They’re trying to make ends meet, or keep their writing muscles toned, and those are worthy things. I’m not aiming my slings and arrows at them at all. Rather, I’m criticizing the people who created the business model those writers have to work within — a business model that hollows out caring about the craft of writing and undermines pride of authorship by making it very difficult for writers to do good work.
Your average Demand Media writer makes $15 an article. To make a semi-decent wage, that writer has to write an article in half an hour. Copy editors get paid $3.50 an article. To make a decent wage, they have about seven minutes per copy-edit. Unless you’re writing a very straightforward tutorial on a relatively simple process (an aspect of content farms that doesn’t bother me), it is not possible to write an article of any substance in half an hour. Nor is it possible to copy-edit such an article effectively in seven minutes.
Put these two things together and you compound the mess. You get articles that read like first drafts — haphazardly organized, superficial messes. You get things like this, and this, and this — all Demand content selected as Editor’s Picks for USA Today’s Travel Tips section. These are lousy articles, and USA Today editors should ask hard questions about what being associated with them is doing to their brand. But I’m not saying the writers of those pieces are lousy writers, because it’s not a fair test. Criticizing those writers for creating subpar content in such a situation would be like criticizing auto workers for creating a crummy car when the assembly line’s moving at 40 miles per hour. The poor quality of the writing isn’t the fault of the writers, but a predictable outcome of the business model.
Given this, Jeremy Reed looking for inspiration in the New Yorker and Texas Monthly is simultaneously infuriating and really funny. How much does Reed think a New Yorker copy editor gets paid? How long does he think it takes a Texas Monthly writer to craft an article? Does he ever stop to think what those magazines would be like if they were produced according to his own company’s business model?
Demand either needs to stick to just-the-facts tutorials or change its business model to support its ambitions. If it’s going to do the former, it should stop calling itself a media company, making high-minded references to storytelling, and invoking the name of magazines its business model could never produce. If it’s going to do the latter, well, it’s got its work cut out for it.
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.
Recently I’ve been quoted a fair amount about Demand Media and other so-called content farms, and come to accept that my initial description of Demand Media as “how our profession ends” will follow me around forever. (The Web is the end of forgetting, after all.) My views of content farms and what they do has become more nuanced since then, but so be it — I wrote it, after all.
That said, there’s one thing about content-farming I don’t object to in the least, and that’s their use of algorithms to create story ideas. News organizations are beginning to use the same tools and taking flak for it, which is reactionary and silly.
The “algorithm-as-editor” meme started with this article by the New York Times’ Jeremy W. Peters about how Yahoo is using search queries to help guide its writing and reporting for The Upshot. Peters’ take on what Yahoo is doing and how such efforts are shaping editorial agendas is pretty nuanced overall, but that got lost because of his rather breathless lede: “Welcome to the era of the algorithm as editor. For as long as hot lead has been used to make metal type, the model for generating news has been top-down: editors determined what information was important and then shared it with the masses. But with the advent of technology that allows media companies to identify what kind of content readers want, that model is becoming inverted.”
Beyond the fact that that’s not true — the article explores algorithms as a tool used side-by-side with traditional brainstorming — the emphasis angered Upshot editor Andrew Golis and writer Michael Calderone, who took their grievances to Twitter, as chronicled by Business Insider’s Joe Pompeo. (Sample tweet from Golis: “OMG, online journos periodically use data to figure out what readers are actually interested in! PANIC! HANDWRING!”) Today, Lacey Rose of Forbes chatted with Yahoo’s Jimmy Pitaro about the issue. “First off, the algorithm and the automated approach are one component of how we’re identifying topics and programming sites,” Pitaro told her. “We’re sitting on all of this [audience] data where our users are telling us specifically what they want and we need to take all of it into consideration as we program both video and text on our site. The way I look at it is we need to be feeding our users both what they want and what they need. If you cover both then I think users will be kept well informed.”
Pitaro is exactly right. That top-down model of news discussed by Peters — “editors determined what information was important and then shared it with the masses” — is obsolete, a product of an age in which we couldn’t know what readers thought was important in any timely way. And good riddance to it. Seeing that top-down model as a hallmark of journalism instead of as a technological limitation was a trap, as the implicit arrogance of that model won us few friends among readers and obscured plenty of the good work we do.
Journalists worry themselves, sometimes to distraction, about the idea that traffic and studying search queries will wind up driving editorial priorities and assignments, squeezing out substantive stories in favor of, I don’t know, lurid tales, gadget reviews and pet pictures. Peters quotes Perfect Market’s Robertson Barrett as saying that “there’s obviously an embedded negative view [in newsrooms] toward using any type of outside information to influence coverage.” Which there is. But which possibility is more likely, and thus more damaging to journalism: That a news organization given search queries will be run with them and devolve into Funny Cat Pictures Daily Times, or that worrying about that will lead editors to reject valuable insights into what their readers are looking for? It may strike an editor as noble to stop his ears to the guy from some outside service who’s crunched the numbers on search terms, but what that editor is really doing is refusing to listen to his own readers.
Pitaro tells Peters of one Yahoo story that emerged from looking at traffic: Why do Olympic divers shower after they get out of the water? You know what? It’s a good question.
In his Wired portrait of Demand Media, Daniel Roth asked Demand Media’s Byron Reese, creator of the algorithm the company uses to generate story ideas, what Demand’s most valuable query was. Reese’s answer: “Where can I donate a car in Dallas?” Reese didn’t know why so many people in Dallas were looking to donate cars, but if I were a Dallas-area editor, I’d sure want to know — and I’d be glad for whatever mechanism had brought a good story idea to my attention.
In the spring, I spoke on a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and ESPN.com Editor-in-Chief Rob King told a funny story about one of his first days on the job. (You can listen in here, starting at 47:50 in the video.) Listening to the radio in the car on his way to work, King heard India and Pakistan were playing a big cricket match. So he asked about it in the morning meeting — where it hadn’t come up — and said ESPN ought to do something. Later in the meeting, a staffer ran through a list of sports search terms were trending, and something called “20 20″ was at the top of the list. What was 20 20? Nobody knew. It turned out to be the India-Pakistan match — in fact, King said, cricket-mad ESPN employees were holding a big party elsewhere on campus to watch. King’s reaction? “That was the moment where I thought, ‘We really need to pay attention to what our audiences are into, because they’re telling us where the traffic is.’ “
My issue with content farms has to do with their business model, which I think all but ensures the production of low-quality content when they stray from generating simple, straightforward tutorials. But it doesn’t bother me that they comb through search terms or make use of algorithms that point out potential story ideas. Why would it? Those tools work for any newsroom, and using them will help us serve our readers better.
I’m quoted in Dylan Stableford’s very good piece about Demand Media and other so-called content farms over at TheWrap. (There’s some very smart stuff in the comments as well.)
For those who’ve arrived here because of that article, you can read my first post on Demand Media here, and a more-nuanced take looking at articles it supplied to USA Today here. I also did a roundup of posts about content farms here that may be useful for further reading.
Anyway, a few more thoughts.
I don’t think what Demand and its ilk do is “evil” — “unfortunate” is a better word. And my concern isn’t that companies like Demand and Associated Content will drive down writers’ salaries or that the compensation built into their model is “too low,” whatever “too low” means. That’s unfortunate, sure, but it’s just the pitiless economics of supply and demand at work — there would have been some other actor if Demand had never existed. Rather, what bugs me is the quality of the stuff these companies produce, and what it does to search. (See Daniel Roth’s Wired article for a deeper exploration of that.)
Nor does it bug me that content-farm bosses and writers aren’t journalists, which is a charge you’ll find tossed around here and there. First off, a lot of their writers actually are journalists who are trying to get by in extremely trying times for the profession. Second, I think it’s elitist nonsense to say you need some fancy degree or seal of approval to practice journalism. Third, the captains of the news industry don’t exactly have a glittering record when it comes to figuring out their own business.
Demand and AC produce some helpful articles, particularly step-by-step processes and tutorials. I can never remember how to take a screen shot on my Mac, for instance, and inevitably wind up at the same eHow article reminding me how to do it. That’s valuable information that I’m happy to get from them, and that could complement news organizations’ offerings nicely.
My objection is that when you get beyond tutorials and simple how-tos, the quality of the content produced by Demand, AC and others is mostly poor. (That’s my opinion — your mileage may vary of course. Go look at the USA Today travel tips and draw your own conclusions.) Granted, there’s a lot of poor content out there — but content-farm stuff is specifically shaped and molded to game Google and appear higher in search results, which wastes people’s time. And the real problem, as I told Stableford, is that the business model makes it very difficult to produce good content. There just isn’t time to do it profitably.
A commenter on Stableford’s article raised a good question: “Has anyone read copy with an editor’s eye in small- and medium-sized newspapers? With the exception of the NY Times and the Washington Post (the LA Times can’t even compare these days), most of the stories read as first drafts. They’re poorly written and grossly undersourced. The quality of writing and reporting has gone down the toilet.”
Sadly, this is too often true. But I’d say that’s an unfortunate product of years of cost-cutting and an industry in terrible distress — it’s not supposed to be that way. With the economics of Demand and its ilk, though, it’s the logical outcome.