I’ve always thought that one way you know you’re learning is you’re surprised a lot. If I’m right about that, I’ve learned quite a bit in the last few weeks.
There was the moment I got Twitter lists by seeing what the Texas Tribune was up to with Tweetwire — a moment that was equal parts “A-ha!” and whatever sound your hand makes impacting your forehead in frustration. I’d gotten used to Twitter as a way of delivering news and to it as a way of promoting a brand (whether personal or corporate), but it hadn’t occurred to me that a news organization ould use Twitter lists as simple but powerful aggregation, putting together a mix of sources from its own ranks, other news organizations, bloggers, readers and public figures/organizations and sharing that as a real-time news feed. That was exactly what I did with Twitter as a user, but I missed the simple idea that a news organization could do it to. Hand to forehead.
Then there was the moment the light went on while I was reading the Abernathy/Foster report, with their note that print papers defined community (and prepared content accordingly) based largely on geographical and political boundaries, while the Web’s aggregators define the boundaries by special interests. That was interesting; soon after that came their advice that newspapers rebuild around specialized audiences and communities, including hyperlocal. It was that last part that really made me sit up. I’d been talking up hyperlocal because I’m keenly interested in the increasing intersection of the global Web with real-time information and locations, and in what newspapers can do to reclaim a more vital role in civic life. But in focusing on hyperlocal so specifically, I’d lost sight of the fact that it’s a kind of specialized audience. Hyperlocal’s very important — we all live somewhere — but it’s not necessarily the only way to build community, and in some situations it might not be the best way. Hand to forehead once again.
I think this is why I had such a strong reaction to the dust-up over the Columbia Journalism Review’s critique of the Spot.Us garbage-patch story: I thought some of the early criticism was defensive and dogmatic. That’s never good, and it’s particularly unfortunate given how new all the digital-journalism initiatives are. We can’t be closing ranks behind the merits of alternating current or direct current when we’re still just trying to keep a fragile carbon filament lit. We’re experimenting, and that means ruthlessly poking and prodding and questioning and critiquing, iterating and borrowing and discarding. Strong opinions are productive and essential; orthodoxies are counterproductive and distracting.
I’ve learned an enormous amount, and it’s embarrassing to look back and realize how stuck I was in a certain well-worn groove when I wrote something, or how I didn’t see you could do something slightly differently at the start and get a very different result. But given the tumult all around us, it would be worse to look back and find my opinions are exactly the same as they were when I started writing this blog, or three months ago, or even a month ago. So I hope I keep hearing that hand-to-forehead sound, even if the slap sometimes hurts.
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In discussing why Wikipedia was beating newspapers as an information source when news breaks, I used the example of health care in illustrating how upside-down storytelling leaves readers struggling to put new developments into context, something Wikipedia handles much better by giving you the basics of the narrative. (Though as David Gerard pointed out in the comments, Wikipedia does draw on “a certain amount” of inverted pyramid — “The first sentence should be good standalone, the first paragraph should be good standalone, the lead section should be good standalone. Then you can get into a structured article. That way you’ve got something useful for everyone who comes by.”)
Here’s a more-specific example of what’s so frustrating, from this morning’s New York Times. The news is that a federal appeals court panel upheld the conviction of Lynne F. Stewart, a defense lawyer found guilty in 2005 of assisting terrorism by smuggling information from an imprisoned client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, to his violent followers in Egypt. You can read it here.
I remembered this case, partly because Ms. Stewart is from my Brooklyn neighborhood, but mostly because of the controversy over what she’d done and whether she’d done something clearly wrong, or run afoul of post-9/11 terrorism fears. That was all I remembered. The news that her conviction had been upheld wasn’t particularly interesting, but I was interested in revisiting what exactly she’d done, and what the arguments were on both sides.
After reading the Times story, I still didn’t know.
The Times story is 23 paragraphs long. Here’s what those paragraphs contain (my apologies for where my frustration shows through):
- News — Conviction is upheld, general reminder of who Stewart is, legalese that just confuses me (what’s a federal appeals court panel?) location (“in Manhattan”) that I don’t care about.
- News — Stewart’s bond is ordered revoked and she must begin serving her sentence. More baffling legalese — it’s a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. As a reader I tripped over that and still don’t understand what it means.
- News — Trial judge must consider whether she deserves a longer sentence.
- Reaction from Stewart.
- News — Trial judge orders Stewart and co-defendant to prepare to surrender when their bond is revoked.
- What’s Next — It’s not clear when they’ll have to do that.
- Analysis/Context — The judge who wrote the ruling rejected her claim. I’m told the ruling is 125 pages. (There’s no link to it.) Her client is named. I’m told she “passed messages for him” and that she “has denied seeking to incite violence among his militant followers.”
- Quote from judge.
- More reaction from Stewart, making reference to prisoners at Guantanamo.
- Context — A note that Guantanamo detainees will be tried in New York.
- More Stewart reaction.
- What’s Next — Her lawyer says they’ll keep fighting. Spokeswoman for other side has no comment.
- Context — I’m told that prosecutors charged Stewart with conspiring “with two others to break strict rules that barred Mr. Abdel Rahman … from communicating with outsiders.”
- Context — I’m told that prosecutors charged Stewart, a translator and a third man with helping the sheik pass messages to the Islamic Group, an Egyptian terrorist organization.
- News — Two other judges joined the ruling.
- Reaction from translator.
- No comment from lawyer for third man.
- Quotes by judge from ruling explaining decision.
- More quotes from judge.
- Quote from another judge who partially dissented from ruling.
The conviction being upheld and the imminent revocation of Stewart’s bond is the news, with the context for the news what the judges on the panel said. I get that, and while I’m not qualified to judge, I’ll assume the Times reporters did a good job with that. (Though why can’t I read the ruling?) But that’s going to be of interest to a fairly small subset of legal-minded readers. The interesting news for most readers will be what I wanted to know — what did Stewart do, and was it wrong?
I’m told that in the lead, but the description is so general that it doesn’t help me. I’m not told about it again until the seventh paragraph, which is the first time I learn who her client was. And then I get nothing until the 15th and 16th grafs, in which I learn the name of the terrorist group, and that (according to prosecutors) Stewart and two other men helped the sheik pass messages. This is what I want to know — but again, I’m only given cursory information that’s of no help to me in forming an opinion.
I know what the institutional reasons for the lack of explanation is — it’s old news, and was covered by the Times at an earlier date. Stewart’s name was hyperlinked, so I followed that to a Times topic page, hoping for at-a-glance background information on the case. This wouldn’t have eased my frustration about upside-down storytelling, but it would at least have answered my question. What i found was an automated archive of articles about Stewart — and, eventually, the explanation I’d been searching for. It was on the second page of the 25th article linked, on the third page of search results. (By the way, Wikipedia’s page for Stewart wasn’t much more help — it’s slapdash and vague, though if the case were more high-profile I’m sure it would have attracted more editors. I went to Wikipedia in frustration halfway through the Times article, when it was obvious I wouldn’t be told what I really wanted to know.)
The Times article and approach is broken. It’s broken for print readers who only have that day’s Times article available to them. It’s broken online, where ferreting out the information I wanted to know turned into a frustrating scavenger hunt that I stuck with only to prove a point. As news it misjudges the audience for the story and ignores what that audience wants to know, and as storytelling it’s incoherent. And this is coverage from one of the world’s best newspapers, and one of online news’ best innovators.
We can do better than this. We have to do better than this.
Update: You might be interested in the follow-up to this post: An Example of Searching for the News Decoder Ring.
Maybe I’m just getting cranky, but over the weekend and into today I’ve found myself thinking about some building blocks of journalism and thinking, “You know, this is broken.” Not broken as in “this really needs to be recast for the Web” or “some kind of digital adjunct would help here,” but broken as in “this no longer works, and we need to stop doing it.”
My latest sportswriting column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center looks at ways to reinvent game stories — the day-after accounts of sporting events that tell you who won, how they won and (hopefully) why they won. In discussing how the game story could be re-prioritized, reimagined or reinvigorated, I talked with four very smart sportswriters (Buster Olney, Joe Posnanski, Chico Harlan and Jason McIntyre), and kept in mind the opinion of a fifth, my co-columnist Dave Kindred, whose plea for game stories can be found here.
I hope I surveyed the potential alternatives fairly, but re-reading my own column this morning, I realized I’d made up my own mind on the question: The game story is broken. Its time has passed, and it is an anachronism in a world of Web-first journalism. We should stop writing them. Now. (I wish I’d come to this realization a day earlier, but sometimes you’ve got to take the journey to figure out where you’ve ended up.)
The sportswriters I talked to discussed the terrible deadline pressures of game stories — pressures that can result in the familiar, tired game-story formula of lots of play-by-play and some paint-by-numbers quotes. They discussed how game stories get in the way of old-fashioned reporting — building relationships with players and coaches and other sources, allowing for more interesting reactions and sharper analysis. Their love for the form came through loud and clear, yes — but so did their enumeration of its flaws.
The question to ask about game stories is the same question to ask about everything we do in journalism: If we were starting today, would we do this? That’s the question. Not whether we’ve spent a lot of money on the infrastructure of producing something a certain way, or whether a journalistic form is a cherished tradition, or whether it still works for a niche audience, or whether it can still be done very well by the best practitioners of the craft. All of those questions are distractions from the real business at hand.
If we were starting today, would we do this?
So: If I were starting a sports site (or a sports section on a general-news Web site), would I pay a reporter or some third-party source for a summary of yesterday’s game, knowing that today my audience is much more likely to have watched the game, can get a recap on SportsCenter once an hour during the morning, can see the highlights on demand from a team or league site, and can watch a condensed game on the iPhone?
Depending what budget you gave me, I would pay for the best box score I could get, get a graph of win probability or some other interesting visual metric, and try to offer a slideshow of key photos and/or video highlights. But I wouldn’t run game stories. Instead, I would tell my reporters to write something that a reader who knows what happened would still want to read the next morning. I would work with my reporters to find a new starting point. Maybe that starting point is this idea from Chico Harlan, a quote that wound up on the cutting-room floor of my column: “Maybe there’s a way to interpret [game stories] not as the story about the game, but as being about the most interesting thing to happen to the team that day.”
Maybe this wouldn’t be an enormous epiphany, but this morning I read Steve Myers’ interview with Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, which Jay Rosen described aptly as “a lesson in how the Web works, disguised as a Q & A about topic pages and such.”
Asked if he sees Wikipedia as a news destination, Wales replied that “people do often come to Wikipedia when major news is breaking. This is not our primary intention, but of course it happens. The reason that it happens is that the traditional news organizations are not doing a good job of filling people in on background information. People come to us because we do a better job at meeting their informational needs.”
It’s a quietly devastating indictment of journalism. And Wales is absolutely right, for reasons explored very capably a couple of months back by Matt Thompson. Arrive at the latest newspaper story about, say, the health-care debate and you’ll be told what’s new at the top, then given various snippets of background that you’re supposed to use to orient yourself. Which is serviceable if you’ve been following the story (though in that case you’ll know the background and stop reading), but if you’re new you’ll be utterly lost — you’ll need, to quote Thompson, “a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns”. On Wikipedia, breaking news gets put into context — and not in some upside-down format that tells you the very latest development that may or may not affect the larger narrative before it gives you the basics of that narrative so you can understand what that news means.
There are historical reasons for this upside-down storytelling in print, but it makes no sense online. The form is broken. Yet our Web newspapers have largely kept shoveling it into pixels — if you’re lucky there will be a link (if you can find it) to a topic page that’s built along Wikipedia’s lines. But odds are you already went off to Wikipedia before you saw that page.
Why didn’t we change? Journalists are masters at filtering, synthesizing and presenting information, yet we’ve spent more than a decade repurposing a 19th-century form of specialized storytelling instead of starting fresh with the possibilities of a new medium. Newspapers could have been Wikipedia, instead of being left to try and learn from it. And what are we learning? The news article is in some fundamental ways just as broken as the game story — if it weren’t, Jimmy Wales wouldn’t see a surge of traffic to Wikipedia in the wake of any big news event. We need to rethink the basics: If we were starting today, would we do this? But when will we unshackle ourselves from print and really ask the question? And at what point will the answer come too late to matter?
A follow-up to this post is here.
The latest attempt to summarize the challenges facing newspapers and recommend a course of action is out, with the alarm bells being sounded this time by veteran media executive Penelope Muse Abernathy and former McKinsey director Richard Foster.
The study (linked from Bill Mitchell’s overview as a PDF) struck me as a fairly familiar overview, though the writer/editor in me appreciated that it’s admirably succinct, and written with a welcome bite. (And I laughed out loud at the examination of Hindu and Judeo-Christian demises.) Certainly Abernathy and Foster find the right targets and hit them hard.
For instance, they nail the industry’s major disadvantages in the digital era:
- the high cost of printing and distribution
- the loss of geographically protected market dominance
- the loss of high-margin advertising to online competitors
And their proposed plan of action seems sound as well:
- shed legacy costs as quickly as possible
- recreate community online in an effort to regain pricing leverage
- build new online ad revenue streams
For me the best section of the plan is the one concerned with community, particularly how it’s defined and how it should be approached. A theme of the report is that news organizations keep using new digital tools in an effort to repurpose old models, when they ought to be reinventing things from the ground up. For instance, Abernathy and Foster note that pre-digital newspapers aggregated content and defined community largely based on geographical and political boundaries, but the new aggregators — search engines and commerce sites — do so around special interests. That simple, essential shift may be obvious to Web-business types, but I think it’s a blind spot for newspaper veterans.
Their advice: Rebuild newspapers around specialized audiences and communities (including hyperlocal), instead of continuing to try and reach a single mass audience or community. Start with niche audiences that papers are already serving. Become their aggregators, and customize stories for them — for example, instead of writing one big story about the health-care debate, write different versions tailored for those different specialty audiences. Such reinvented papers, they say, might be able to charge advertisers a premium to reach those communities, and charge customers for unique information.
An interesting point I hadn’t encountered before is that Abernathy and Foster say there’s a precedent for this — magazines responded to the threat posed by television by migrating to serve specialized niches or interest groups and charging advertisers a premium to reach them. Newspapers, on the other hand, have largely reached for eyeballs, putting themselves in competition with better aggregators such as Google.
There are some rather searing quotes in the report. Here’s one: “Unless news organizations simultaneously invest in re-imagining and re-inventing the online edition, there is no transformation of the traditional newspaper and the industry dies with its aging loyal readers, who pay an ever-increasing price to receive the ‘last’ printed copy of the newspaper.”
Ouch. And the report is nicely short on Pollyanna-ism, as this warning makes plain: “[a]n enterprising executive may accomplish all three goals … and not achieve the operating margins typical of news companies in the last quarter of the 20th century, since those profit levels were largely the result of being de facto geographic monopolies.”
Abernathy and Foster are sympathetic to companies that know they need to change, but find those changes difficult to implement. As an example of how to escape that trap, they cite Intel, and its change from making DRAMs to microprocessors. That difficult transition was finally made, they write, when Gordon Moore and Andy Grove asked themselves a brutally simple question: “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?”
It’s a good question. Here’s hoping it gets newspaper executives nodding, and causes them to take action.
Update: Lindsey Hoshaw has published a wise and gracious blog post about her Spot.Us story, the blog vs. the Times, and the CJR criticism. Recommended. Regarding the Times story, she writes that “I wrote what I believed the Times wanted though they never specified the type of article they expected.”
If so, that takes the Times off the hook somewhat, though I still think a potentially rich story was made very flat. Whatever the reason, that’s a shame.
Original post is below.
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I’m late to this party, and something tells me I’m going to regret weighing in, but the furor over Megan Garber’s Columbia Journalism Review critique of the New York Times/Spot.Us garbage-patch story keeps bothering me, and maybe getting some thoughts about it down here will help with that.
To briefly review, on Tuesday the Times ran a story about the Pacific garbage patch written by Lindsey Hoshaw and funded in part through the Spot.Us model. That afternoon, CJR’s Garber offered a critique of the Times story, which she found disappointing. Garber’s chief criticism was that other than some color and some nice photography by Hoshaw, the Times story leveraged little of Hoshaw’s experience spending a month at sea. The idea of a garbage patch that may be twice the size of Texas is a difficult one to get your arms around, and the Times story doesn’t capture that — Garber notes that much of the reporting is of the “could-be-done-from-anywhere variety: reporting, in other words, that could have been done over the phone or via email”.
Part of Garber’s frustration is that there’s a vehicle that delivers that: Hoshaw’s own blog (linked above) delves into the trip, the garbage patch and more. It does a better job of giving you a sense of the problem, and the dropoff from it to the stolid, by-the-numbers Times take is unfortunate.
Garber offered her criticism and promptly got pilloried for it. Spot.Us founder David Cohn didn’t even read the entire article (it’s only 1,300 words) before ripping into Garber and asking how many Pulitzers she’d won. Others piled on, criticizing Garber for burying her lead, for using a “standard journalistic frame,” and all but demanding that she do a wholesale rewrite, complete with a condescending lesson about the use of strikethrough and italics. The tone of the early criticism ranged from thin-skinned and defensive to bullying and insulting.
Cooler heads have since prevailed, and as most involved have noted, the conversation is well worth having even with some bumps and bruises. But as it unfolded, it sure left a nasty taste in the mouth.
I did agree with a couple of criticisms of Garber’s critique. Her take was improved by adding a note about Hoshaw’s blog higher in the piece, though griping that it originally came “after the jump” was an oddly printy criticism — my brain doesn’t shut down if I have to click on 2 or “single page.” And her summary — “The NYT’s ‘Pacific garbage patch’ story: a Spot.us ‘deliverable’ that doesn’t quite deliver” — puts the onus on Spot.Us in a way that the critique itself does not. It’s often thus — in my columnist career I suffered far more agita as a result of headlines, summaries and subheds that were slightly off the mark than I did because of missteps in the actual reporting or writing. This stuff gets left for last and done when you’re tired, and it can undermine everything else you’ve tried to do.
But Spot.Us and its partisans seemed to want to have it both ways, starting out by claiming the story for the group (Cohn first referred to it as “our NYT story” in tweets) and then backing away from it (later it’s “the NYT piece”) in favor of Hoshaw’s blog and the overall effort. Cohn emphasized that Spot.Us is a platform, not a news organization, but that emphasis came after criticisms of the Times story — as Chris Anderson notes lower in the comments, if Hoshaw’s story won a Pulitzer the group would certainly take credit for it as if it were a news organization.
The excitement and the muddied message is understandable given the circumstances — a Spot.Us story in the New York Times is big news for the model, and it’s great to find the Times as part of an innovative experiment in funding and producing stories. I think it’s safe to say that everybody wants Cohn and Spot.Us to succeed. Certainly I do. But excitement can’t lead to closing ranks against anybody who dares to be critical about the final product, and interest in experimentation can’t harden into dogma about the outcome.
And now I’m going to risk getting told that I buried my own lead. (I’m not writing this as an inverted pyramid, but whatever.) The real problem here seems to lie with the New York Times — and it feels like nobody wants to talk about that.
It’s great that the Times worked with Spot.Us. But reading Hoshaw’s blog and looking at her photographs, you get the feeling that the Paper of Record took an interesting square peg of a story and made it fit into a rather dull round hole. The only interactive component is the slideshow, and it’s lame — as Times slideshows too often are. (I want to throw things every time I find captions that are just bits plucked from the story.) The paper’s interactive wizards do wonderful things, but none of them are visible here. The sheer scope of the garbage-patch problem cries out for a different way of approaching the narrative, for the personality and shifting point of view evident on Hoshaw’s blog. The Times story doesn’t even offer a link to that blog, which would at least help readers unacquainted with the inside baseball of new media uncover this rich material. That’s not the fault of Hoshaw or Cohn or Garber.
The Times gets well-deserved credit for an enormous amount of Web innovation, from its open APIs to its rich, addicting interactives. But it doesn’t get a free ride either. Hoshaw’s final product shows that the basics of how stories are produced and executed could really use an infusion of that same spirit of Web innovation.
This isn’t to say that the Times should have approached the garbage-patch story differently just because Spot.Us was involved. That would be a different way to make the mistake of conflating the journalism with the business model. Rather, it’s to wish that the Times had taken a different approach, because a journalist had a richer story to tell. From what I can see, Hoshaw gave the paper a lot, and fairly little was made of it.