Yesterday the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach explored narrative in the digital age, beginning with the great Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith and wending his way through the distractions of Facebook, Twitter and the rapidly changing newspaper business.
It’s a rather tortured, ambivalent read. (That’s not meant as a criticism — discomfort and ambivalence are part of figuring stuff out.) On the one hand, Achenbach has faith in the power of narrative to survive amid distractions and fads, writing that it’s not “merely a technique for communicating; it’s how we make sense of the world. The storytellers know this. They know that the story is the original killer app.” On the other, he frets that “narrative these days competes against incrementalized information — data, chatter, noise” and worries about newspapers’ embrace of charticles, content creation and aggregation — as well as readers’ love of blogs and Facebook. (“It’s hard to sustain a story on a page designed to put you in contact with your 1,374 close personal friends.”)
There are some overgeneralizations here — I could have done without Achenbach’s dismissal that “to a remarkable degree, bloggers aren’t storytellers.” (Read most anything by Joe Posnanski. Or, if I may be horribly self-promotional, one of my own attempts at blog storytelling.) And after firing somewhat random shots at Facebook and aggregators, he notes that the Internet can send good stories winging from user to user — which is one of the things I love most about social media and aggregation done right.
I think Achenbach nails it when he notes that “the Internet can be, for the very best stories, an accelerant, not a retardant, of great narrative. But mediocre stories need not apply.” That’s right — but it skips over the fact that long, mediocre stories never worked in print — or in any other medium. (Picture a bunch of ancient Greeks walking out of a tavern in the middle of a dull tale, leaving behind a blind storyteller you’ve never heard of.) If the Web has put more pressure on long-form narratives to pull their considerable weight and engage readers, that’s not a bad thing.
Yes, there’s a lot of noise in the digital world. But good storytelling is signal. Done skillfully, long-form narrative works online — just as it does anywhere else. Gary Smith works. And so does Joel Achenbach, ambivalence and all.
Ah, but there’s a rather important question worrying Achenbach that I’ve left out: Who’s going to pay for those long stories?
I don’t know that — nobody does. But I do stubbornly maintain that long-form journalism will be a big part of whatever answer emerges.
One of the engines of hopefully creative destruction for the newspaper industry is that the Web has destroyed papers’ old geographical protections, throwing them all into a common pool. That pool is full of commodity journalism, which is useless for enhancing a newspaper’s brand and impossible to charge for. On top of that, the lifespan of a scoop has dwindled from days to minutes. Too many newspapers have been revealed as a veneer of local news over a lot of me-too stories you can read done better elsewhere — and endless rounds of cost-cutting have just made papers thinner and poorer.
But slowly but surely, papers are waking up to the idea that they have to stop doing what everybody else is doing and find ways to be unique. (This is one factor driving the renewed interest in local news — the old geographical protections still apply.) And this is why I maintain long-form journalism — whether it’s investigative journalism or just superb storytelling — will not only survive but emerge as more important than it is today. Unlike a lot of other news stories, long-form journalism can’t be copied quickly or easily. That will make it valuable.
* * *
From the MinnPost’s Joel Kramer, here’s more evidence of the trend for publishers to value the loyal few over the empty many. (See also Slate’s David Plotz on core readers vs. drive-bys, and my own conversation about traffic stats with Greg Harmon.)
After I tweeted about this, a friend of mine raised an objection: How you can sell the “loyal few” to advertisers, given agencies’ struggles with understanding digital as it is? My answer was that different advertisers want different things. Publishers are only now realizing that big traffic numbers piled up by non-local drive-by readers are useless to local advertisers — they need real numbers about local loyalists who might actually buy something. There are global/national advertisers for whom pure reach is important, but they’re not the only game in town — and probably not the most valuable one.
One of the more fascinating ventures to watch over the next few months will be the new local-news site in Washington, D.C. run by Allbritton, the parent company of Politico. Allbritton will launch the as-yet-unnamed site with a few built-in advantages: the lessons learned turning Politico into a Web success story; material from the company’s two TV station Web sites; a staff of as many as 50 (a kingly number in these cut-to-the-bone days); and the leadership of Jim Brady, the former head of the Washington Post’s Web unit.
PaidContent’s David Kaplan has an interview up with Brady that offers a number of interesting and amusing takes on the business of Web news, from hyperlocal (“I’m kind of terrified of the term … I never know what that means anymore”) to the size of the operation (“You can’t take 10 people and create a local site as a business) and the search for a business model (“You have to be as aggressive on the business side in exploring new advertising opportunities as you are on the editorial side exploring new content strategies”).
What really interested me, though, was Brady’s comments about section fronts and home pages. Brady notes that the Guardian — where he’s just ending a post-Post stint as a consultant — recently shut down its Guardian America page. Brady notes that “a lot of us who have worked on the Web a long time believe that the section front has become an irrelevant part of the Web navigation scheme. You have a home page and you have articles, and 99 percent of your traffic is going to head to one of those two forms.” To Brady, it’s a better bet putting stories up on Twitter, Digg, Facebook and blogs than “posting them on a section front that’s getting no traffic anyway.” And, he adds, “you have to get away from the idea of getting people to simply come to your home page. You have to get your home page to the people.”
Brady is preaching to the choir on section pages, but I increasingly wonder about the value of home pages, too — at least in the form they take for most fair-sized news organizations. How important are they, really?
Home pages have long had two missions — one noble, the other not so much. The noble one is to gather relevant news at a glance, as print front pages have done for more than a century. But this mission is eroding. Increasingly, consumers either aggregate individual articles from a host of sources into their own “bundle” of news — which will always be preferable to a general-interest news site’s bundle — or else they find that their peers do it for them, a development whose ramifications for news organizations are only beginning to be understood. The now-famous college student who told a focus-group researcher that “if the news is that important, it will find me” wasn’t lazy or jaded, just describing the news ecosystem without the distraction of comparisons to how things used to be.
The more the news-at-a-glance mission of the home page erodes, the more we’ll be left with that other mission — which, unfortunately, is to be a corporate camel built by a committee of competing internal constituencies.
Yes, there’s a lot of news on your average home page. There are also features — ambassadors of the various section fronts fighting for promo space or taking their turn within a carousel. In too many cases there are also nods to video and/or community and/or topics, not as a natural part of the news but as entities in themselves. There’s search and data and ads. And then there’s a blizzard of links from various interests with the clout to get themselves on the home page — outmoded business units in their red-giant phase, reader-loyalty experiments, customer-service links for other media, nods to partners who have nothing to do with the news organization except be owned by the same people, irrelevant branding for corporate cousins, and so forth. It’s a dog’s breakfast of links that instantly blurs into noise for readers who’ve been trained by other lousy Web pages to zero ruthlessly in on signal.
None of this is anybody’s fault, really — home pages are notoriously difficult beasts for designers, editors and business people alike. But at this point, I think the home-page question isn’t so much how to reform them but how much they still matter. If readers are increasingly arriving through shared links or search or some other vehicle, the important thing is how they arrived, and how that context can be leveraged by the news organization. Followed a most-popular link? Here are enticing snippets of the other most-popular stories. Arrived through search? Here’s what else we have relevant to those search terms. Followed a friend’s link? Here’s what else your friends are reading.
There’s no longer a single bundle, but an ever-shifting succession of them — and those bundles are increasingly assembled not by an editor or a news organization, but by readers themselves. Is there a place for home pages in that world? I’m not sure there is.
Having slept on the ideas raised by Cody Brown’s latest thought-provoking essay, I find an enormous amount to like, but one big question that still nags at me: Is there still a role for traditional reporters, backed by traditional newsrooms?
Hold the torches and pitchforks. By asking that, I’m not trying to restore reporters to their status as a priestly caste ordained by j-schools, sustained by newsroom sacraments and beset by infidels. I’m not implying that I think Brown’s idea of a news ecosystem based on the “direct method” of sharing and disseminating news will be the death of democracy or anything like that. I’m not arguing that the traditional, print-first newspaper model can be saved, or particularly needs to be. (To the contrary, in fact.) I’d be sad to see some cherished news institutions go, but that’s nostalgia talking, not a lack of faith in the alternatives. For the most part I agree that alternatives will appear, and that we need to be patient as a wealth of experiments are tried and assessed and retried.
This isn’t a traditionalist’s defense of legacy news methods — or at least I don’t think it is. Rather, I think my questions are a little different: In this new news ecosystem, do we need professional reporters and newsrooms? If so, for what? And where will they come from?
Perhaps my favorite thing in Brown’s essay is the way he traces the evolution of the “trustee method” of creating and organizing news that’s factual, neutral and fair from a 19th-century market strategy of New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs into an article of journalistic faith. Brown rightly notes that the Ochs strategy was so successful that we now get confused between the method and the desired outcome. And he points out that a lot of our Web success stories — the Huffington Post, Gawker and their ilk — can be viewed as just trustee-method organizations without presses and delivery trucks. The zinger is a pair of graphics with a cheekily labeled “Magic Journalism Box” on the left and a public cloud on the right. In the Ochs model the box and the cloud are connected through the agency of reporters and a single red line of reader reaction; in the New Media model the only difference is there are more red lines.
In discussing public discourse online, Brown brings the graphic back, with a twist — the Magic Journalism Box and the reporters are blurred, not part of the equation, and the red lines connect points in the crowd.
OK, but where’s the Box in the direct-method ecosystem? Do we still need it? And what should it be called? (Magic Journalism Box is a nice rhetorical device, but I’m not sure it’s entirely fair.)
Some would say the Box is no longer needed: Professional reporters will be replaced by users creating and sharing their own news and by sources themselves, speaking directly to readers without journalists as intermediaries. (See Dave Winer on the latter point.) For the most part, I agree. Yes, it’s true that a lot of conversation in the blogosphere begins with news stories produced in the traditional manner — but that’s because there’s still a lot of that news, from sources that still have a lot of influence. I’m sure the conversation will be just as robust as new sources of news arise and gain their own influence. (And actually, I’ve always thought the City Council would get covered.)
But does that leave anything out? The part that worries me is what’s sometimes called accountability journalism. Not all sources want to speak to the public — some don’t want the public to see them as sources at all. And some sources are too vulnerable or damaged to tell their own stories in ways that will be heard or believed. The public can’t discuss stories it doesn’t know exist.
Brown does a good job discussing how fluid public leverage (a vigorous retweet campaign on Twitter, for instance) can replace institutional brand leverage. But can fluid public leverage find and hold to account sources that are trying to remain hidden? Can it advocate for the voiceless? Can the direct method ferret out information about and tell the story of, say, the care of veterans at Walter Reed or the LIRR disability scandal? Or is this one aspect of journalism that does require “professional” journalists, backed by a certain amount of institutional clout? Brown references a clever Clay Shirky metaphor about how we’ve forgotten that a few daring “amateur” drivers of the first cars fired their “professional” chauffeurs/mechanics and took the wheel themselves. But it strikes me that the question isn’t about learning to drive, but how you drive to places that are behind locked gates or in areas powerful people don’t want mapped.
One thing I thought the recent Downie/Schudson report zeroed in on effectively was the value of newsrooms — not print newspapers, but newsrooms — in supporting the infrastructure required for accountability journalism. This isn’t a disparagement of the direct method or a defense of the trustee method, but a question: Can the public produce such accountability journalism on a significant scale? Can individual reporters do it? Do you need newsrooms of a certain size to accomplish it? If so, where do they come from? Or do they no longer exist?
As part of that, I wonder if Brown doesn’t conflate news production and news dissemination. I absolutely agree with his conclusion that the public no longer needs to be told what’s news, and can share and disseminate it on its own — like a lot of people, I increasingly create my own “bundle” of news, and the idea of accepting one produced by a single news organization now seems strange. As those bundles fall apart, news will be increasingly decentralized and decoupled from news organizations, replaced by a public that carves out its own beats within which news is shared, iterated, commented on and corrected. All to the good. But I maintain those news organizations may have a valuable role to play in news production.
If so, where do they fit? Brown’s Magic Journalism Box also appeared in his equally evocative dissection of “batch” processing vs. real-time processing. (His essay is here, and here’s my reaction.) Papers have to make that process more open, turning the Magic Journalism Box into an Marvelous Glass Box, with an occasional opaque panel to shield internal disputes, sources that need protecting and off-the-record material. If big news organizations can do that, perhaps they have a place in the new ecosystem, alongside a huge host of new boxes of all shapes and sizes, producing news that a public will organize and share as it sees fit.
The most interesting read on a pretty interesting day in Newspaperland? It’s this analysis from Cody Brown of the “trustee method” of media, exemplified by the New York Times, and how many supposed reinventions of journalism are really just working at the edges of that model, leaving its basic workings untouched. Brown imagines a more fundamental shift to what he calls the “direct method,” and his central insight is this: “Instead of telling a public what is news, the role of a direct news organization is to create a space where the people in that public can tell each other.”
Brown is always intriguing to read, with a curiosity about journalism and its history that keeps him from getting hung up on supposedly eternal journalistic truths that turn out to be a lot more ephemeral than we might think. (I definitely include myself on the list of those sometimes ensnared.) I need to think a bit more about his latest effort to give it the reaction it deserves, but I think I can bring one old-school journalistic convention to bear: He sure did bury the lead!
Some other interesting things to read today:
- It’s not news that the newspaper industry is in trouble, but look at these circulation figures gathered by E&P. If you could have shown these to newspaper execs 10 years ago, they would have started hoarding canned goods, convinced that the numbers meant 2009 was the year the United States collapsed into civil war or was ravaged by some kind of superflu. Not really surprising — and with all the interesting things bubbling under the surface of traditional journalism, it shouldn’t be the stuff of terror — but still stark and sobering to review.
- This Stephanie Clifford article in the New York Times looks at how Mercedes Benz used Web advertising on newspaper sites to tout an update of its E-class cars last summer, but is expected to sidestep newspapers when it rolls out Web ads for its more basic models early in 2010, turning instead to Web ad networks and exchanges. Clifford writes that “newspaper sites are the patent-leather stilettos of the online world: they get used for special occasions, but other shoes get much more daily wear.” Interesting evidence of the eclipse of newspapers as general-purpose vehicles for consumer communications, and the slow process of finding new niches.
- Sticking with talk of niches, Knight Digital Media Center’s Michele McLellan covers a talk by Slate editor David Plotz in which he discusses his site’s future as depending not on its seven million unique visitors, but on a subset of that — some 500,000 loyal users who want the kind of journalism in which Slate specializes. That took me back to my recent discussion with Greg Harmon about traffic numbers and how newspaper audiences may be a lot smaller than publishers think, but much more valuable.
- This is fairly amazing. Yes, Virginia, the Chicago Sun-Times still has six workers with lifetime guaranteed jobs who make around $45,000 a year to set some last-minute pages in hot type. And those six workers’ union had the ability to scuttle a deal to keep the paper from extinction. Beats me why this industry is in trouble.
Because I can’t end on that sour note, I came across a headline in the New York Times over the weekend that made me click because it just seemed so improbable: “Ignacio Ponseti, Hero to Many With Clubfoot, Dies at 95.” That sounded like an outtake from The Onion, but it turned out to be a beautifully written record of the remarkable life of an extraordinary man. I don’t know what the emerging ecosystem for news will look like, but I do know it needs a place for quietly amazing stories like this one.
Nic Newman, a BBC journalist, has written a paper for Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism that’s a pretty great overview of how social media is changing the daily practice of journalism and how it may be changing readers’ habits.
The paper, available here in PDF format, will take a while to go through but is well worth the effort, surveying social-media efforts from the likes of the BBC, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the New York Times and CNN and drawing a number of interesting conclusions.
These were some of the highlights for me:
- Newman’s examination of the BBC’s efforts to mix live user comments with the news, which began with BBC Sport and is now being extended into the news. Newman calls this a new style of journalism based around live events, taking the form of “an unfolding conversation in partnership with audiences.”
- This intriguing quote from the Daily Telegraph’s Shane Richmond: “The real question in a social-media context is not whether content is good or bad, but whether it is relevant to the audience.” I’d hate to see the hay a Wikipedia hater would make with that quote, but it made me think back to the locals, which never got much credit as journalism but might be more valuable in building engagement with readers than another Pulitzer Prize in the lobby.
- The Telegraph’s My Telegraph experiment with giving readers space to blog is often discussed as a foray into user-generated content, but Newman discusses one benefit that might be more valuable: Those platforms make readers who are already active and highly engaged identify themselves even more strongly as Telegraph readers, potentially turning them into “super-advocates” for the brand.
- This wise quote from Reuters’ Mark Jones, on stories such as the Iranian elections and how news organizations’ duties are changing: “Our job now is packaging raw feeds from many sources and filtering it to prove audience big enough to make a difference.”
- The BBC’s Mark Thompson, on the line between the personal and the professional for journalists engaging with readers (and building up their own brands) through social media: “There really isn’t a Chinese wall … What you can’t do easily is take off the cloak of the BBC and put it back on at will.” That’s good advice on a subject I struggled with earlier this week.
- Hitwise’s observation that automated Twitter feeds from news organizations get the most followers, but the least clickthroughs. What drives clickthroughs? It’s journalists who authentically engage on Twitter.
There’s also a very intriguing section about the concept of “participation inequality,” but I need to think about that part a bit more — I can feel it crying out to become its own post. At any rate, the paper is highly recommended. Read it!
My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center calls on sportswriters to join the conversation, urging them to break out of their cloister and engage readers in comments, on other blogs and via Twitter.
It’s a column aimed at sports media, but I could have written it about any department in any newsroom. Commenters are paying writers the compliment of reading what they’ve written, and the additional compliment of responding to it. It’s just good business — for news organizations and individual writers alike — to keep the conversation going.
(But stay away from politics, as I urged yesterday.)
After a couple of initial tweets, I largely stayed out of the argument about journalists and the wisdom of sharing political opinions through social media. But then an old colleague and friend posted a link about the subject on my Facebook page, writing that “it seems like it would be hard for journalists to create a ‘brand’ if they aren’t permitted to use social media in any way that shows their opinions/analysis/etc. So what can they do? … Also, the guidelines seem to bar them from having opinions even in their personal social media lives, just in case it gets out. Where do you draw the line?”
Good question. And why had I been silent? The biggest reason was that I’d been struggling with the line between my opinions about journalism best practices and my personal feelings about wise conversational topics, and I was worried that anything I wrote would be similarly muddled.
But this debate has legs, as they say in newsrooms, and my friend’s question convinced me to get off the sidelines.
The latest front in the debate is this article by Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post’s ombudsman. Alexander’s article offers a useful overview of what sparked the debate: new Post social-media guidelines from Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli that reporters and editors not “express views that can be construed as political, nor should they take sides in public debates.” As Alexander notes, Post managing editor Raju Narisetti closed his personal Twitter account amid questions in the newsroom about whether his personal tweets might be perceived as political bias. (Disclosures: The Post is a customer of my employer, EidosMedia, whose opinions are distinct from my own. I know both Brauchli and Narisetti from our Wall Street Journal days — and admire them, for the record. And I remain grateful for a firm, fair and much-needed scolding Raju gave me when I was young and given to shooting from the hip.)
The ensuing debate has been fierce. On one side are new-media advocates who are passionate about the need for reporters and editors to bridge the gap between newsrooms and readers, with social media an ideal tool for engagement. In their view, that effort will fall short if reporters and editors don’t open up personally, letting readers see them as people with opinions and personalities and points of view. On the other side stand people (some of them also new-media advocates) who don’t necessarily disagree with that, but argue that reporters can be personal and engage without expressing political opinions.
This has turned into a larger debate about transparency vs. objectivity. Transparency’s fiercest advocates argue for ditching journalism’s enshrinement of objectivity, contending that objectivity flies in the face of human nature and has produced far too much mealy-mouthed he-said/she-said journalism. Better, they argue, for reporters and editors to be transparent, an ethos sought by many bloggers and online writers. Rather than strain at objectivity, they should be up front about their positions and biases and let the reader assess their work based on that.
That’s a healthy debate. But it becomes unhealthy when it’s polarized as a showdown between Web values and print values, as if one’s choice of medium demands adherence to a full slate of principles. I don’t see why transparency has to be absolute and can’t co-exist with continuing to strive for objectivity. Nor do I accept that journalists can’t be personal and conversational with readers while keeping their political views private. (If you want to argue that transparency is by definition absolute, then we need a new term.)
Yes, transparency helps us connect with someone and is useful in judging their work. But politics is a subject that arouses such passions in readers that I think disclosing political positions would be more of a distraction than a benefit — particularly since journalists are trained (either formally or through experience) to subsume their biases in pursuit of fair-minded reporting. I acknowledge the counter-argument: Being only human, journalists have biases anyway, so if we disclose them readers will be able to judge their work fairly. But I think this is an elegant blueprint that would yield a shaky structure. It’s a stretch to say readers would judge fairly — I think too many of them would reject a reporter’s work out of hand based on what they’d revealed in hopes of getting a fairer hearing.
And what of sources? If I’m a reporter who’s revealed that I’m against all restrictions on owning guns, isn’t my interview with an advocate of longer waiting periods going to unfold differently? Is that person even going to agree to talk with me when he can use Google to discover that another reporter wants to ban all firearms? Once again, I think absolute transparency would lead not to fairer judgments, but to quicker prejudgments.
The wiser move, I believe, is to keep politics offline — and to warn that private accounts aren’t protection enough, as they tend to become public. Besides, I think drawing a distinction between personal and professional social-media identities is more damaging to engagement than keeping your politics under wraps. I’m insulted by Facebook requests to be someone’s fan — why am I not worthy of being a friend?
Does eschewing politics mean reporters and editors aren’t truly engaging? This is where things get murky for me. I keep my politics and religious views largely to myself in both my professional and personal life, and at this point I couldn’t tell you whether that’s a product of old-school journalistic training or accumulated regrets about too many fights about those subjects. You’ll find out plenty about me on Facebook or Twitter — for starters, that I’m a Mets fan, a Star Wars dork, and a partisan Brooklynite. But I doubt you’ll be able to figure out how I voted or how I worship.
Folks who are more politically or religiously minded than I am may see that as being opaque and closed, and perhaps they’re right. But I disagree. I love social media and can no longer imagine my personal or professional life without it. I think it’s incumbent on every journalist to step out of the cloister and embrace social media. (More about this here.) I think news organizations ought to encourage journalists’ efforts to engage and tolerate their mistakes. But I also think journalists, their news organizations and readers will be better served by keeping politics out of the mix. And I don’t see a contradiction between those two positions.
Update: Interesting takes on this issue keep on coming. Here’s a thought-provoking piece by Steve Buttry exploring objectivity and neutrality. And Mark Coddington ponders whether both sides of this debate are right depending on whether you’re thinking short-term or long-term.