Reinventing the Newsroom

A ‘Yes, But’ for Bill Keller on Narrative

Posted in Going Local, IPad, Long-Form Journalism, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on April 28, 2010

Last weekend New York Times editor Bill Keller spoke at Boston University’s 2010 narrative conference, and offered a rigorous defense of long-form stories. (As well as saying the Times wants to “kick the shit out of Rupert Murdoch.” Well then.)

As I’ve written before, I’m on Keller’s side in this one: I maintain that there will be renewed interest in long-form journalism, principally because it’s hard to copy or briefly summarize. Yet, for all that, I think Keller’s attempts to shoot down three “perceived existential threats” to narrative writing missed the mark a bit. (Caveats: I’d expect Keller to be in rally-the-troops mode at such a conference, and I’m not working off his actual remarks.)

Keller’s first threat: the decline of publishing and economic stresses that have shrunk newsrooms and dumbed down copy. His proof that this isn’t true is the Times’ collaboration with ProPublica on its Pulitzer-winning investigative story of death in post-Katrina New Orleans. I’m glad that wonderful story exists, and applaud ProPublica’s work not just to tell great stories but to create great tools for other news organizations. But if I’d told you 10 years ago that the Times would win a Pulitzer in partnership with a non-profit news organization, your reaction probably wouldn’t have been, “What a great new avenue for journalism!” Rather, I bet it would have been something along the lines of “What’s happened that the Times needs to partner with someone?” ProPublica exists because the Sandlers saw that accountability journalism was imperiled.

Keller’s second threat is the idea that people don’t read anymore, a statement made two years ago by Steve Jobs. Keller notes that the Times’ long-form stories are mainstays of the paper’s list of most emailed articles, and gets off a great line to that effect: “Not only has the Web not killed narrative, but it’s pushed it out to people who don’t have home delivery.” Now, laying this at Jobs’s feet is good for an ironic twist, given the hopes people have for the iPad, but it’s worth remembering that Jobs made those comments as part of an attack on the Kindle. Denigrating not just a product but an entire product category is pretty much SOP for Jobs when a new Apple product has reached the twinkle-in-his-eye phase. And while I stubbornly maintain people will read great stories in any medium — ink, pixels, skywriting, cuneiform — it is true that the Web has made people into ruthless readers, with fingers hovering over the back button. As Keller notes, the iPad, the Kindle and the Nook all encourage more intimate, leisurely reading, but they aren’t going to unwind that basic ruthlessness.

Keller’s third threat is that crowdsourcing and user-generated content is degrading newspapers’ authority. Here, I think Keller undermined his case by saying that “if I need my appendix out, I’m not going to go to a citizen surgeon.” That’s a lazy metaphor that Keller’s too smart for: A lot of journalism isn’t surgery. I wouldn’t go to a citizen surgeon, but I do rely on some very talented citizen journalists for my Brooklyn news, and while I like the Times’ Mets beat writer, citizen journalists are my first stop for Mets news. (Heck, I’m one of them.) Those are parts of the Times franchise where professional journalists have been superseded and must share authority, respectively. And saying Wikipedia and Digg can’t compare to a writer’s voice that “no algorithm can imitate” is pretty wide of the mark — people are the engine that drives Wikipedia and Digg.

I don’t mean to make too much of this: I agree with Keller in most respects. But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and only succeeds — regardless of the medium — in the hands of expert practitioners. Newsrooms are smaller, people read ruthlessly online, and plenty of terrific writing and even reporting is being created by people outside the traditional journalism ranks. In championing long-form narrative, we need to keep these things in mind.

* * *

Speaking of long-form narrative, here’s something I wrote at Faith and Fear in Flushing about the untimely death of my neighbor’s brother, and what I discovered sorting through his baseball-card collection. Hope you like it.

Some Good Facebook Reads

Posted in Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on April 22, 2010

As a companion to my own initial, admittedly still-disjointed thoughts on Facebook’s announcements, here’s a roundup of articles I found particularly insightful or helpful in starting to make sense of things.

Chris O’Brien of the San Jose Mercury News has an overall take that’s a great place to start.

Robert Scoble captures what Facebook’s ambitions amount to here, notes that Facebook just built the social Web version of the transcontinental railroad for the social Web, and digs into some technical aspects of the plan. Very smart, not instantly paranoid, and he talked to Zuck.

This is interesting about Facebook Credits, Facebook’s embryonic payment system. Remember Dave McClure’s prediction that Facebook would become the default payment system for (among many other things) subscriptions because of the lack of sign-on friction? Here’s how it starts.

Paul Gillin has a great take on why the new Facebook features will be good for average Web users.

ReadWriteWeb explains the dangers of one company having this much power. Like everything else, this will be explored extensively in the coming weeks and months. Privacy advocates need time to sift through everything that got announced yesterday, too.

On Mediate, Philip Bump puts the privacy concerns in perspective, connecting them back to Facebook’s ill-fated Beacon. Valuable context for thinking along with Facebook as they plot their strategy.

First Thoughts on Facebook’s Big Day

Posted in Communities, Cultural Change, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on April 22, 2010

For a roundup of articles I found helpful and insightful about Facebook’s announcements, go here.

So yesterday was one of the more interesting days to be a Web guy in a long, long time. Reading about what Facebook had rolled out, I had to fight a sense of frustration that there was no way to take it all in and reach even a tentative conclusion — things are going to change so thoroughly that it will take weeks or probably months to even start sorting through all this.

I know what Facebook plans worries a lot of really smart people, but at first glance it doesn’t particularly bother me. If anything, I was excited to see it.

As I’ve dived deeper and deeper into social media I’ve seen a curious split in how I think of my Web habits: There’s time I spend on the wild, ever-changing, dynamic social Web and time I spend on the essentially static non-social Web. I know on some level it’s ridiculous to talk about Web sites websites as static, particularly in comparison with newspapers or books, but after Twitter that’s the way they feel. I increasingly find myself spending more time in the social precincts of the Web, and have eagerly adopted most everything that pushes the static Web that way. (When I’m searching, it’s now practically second nature for me to set “Latest” or “Past 24 Hours” instead of doing a default search.) This is a logical and welcome next step. (And in case you didn’t think Facebook is poised to eat the consumer Web, it has the infrastructure in place for location-based services and a payments system. This is going to get bigger.)

As a Web user, I love the idea of “socializing” the static Web so that my friends and peers essentially ride along with me. I’d be happy to see which of my friends and peers liked or have read something on the Washington Post or the New Yorker or most anywhere else. I didn’t get a lot of use out of that functionality on Huffington Post, which pioneered it, but that’s because I’m not a HuffPo loyalist. Though to that I’ll add that I would demand the ability to manicure my history — I remember the moment when I realized I’d just broadcast reading some HuffPo slideshow about half-dressed starlets and immediately went looking for how to make that vanish. (Dishonest? Sure. But it should no longer be news to anybody that our social-media selves aren’t the same as our real selves.)

A jolt of Facebook makes a service such as Yelp much more valuable — like anybody else, I find recommendations much more useful (or at least more compelling) when they come from a smaller group of friends and peers. Ditto for music — Pandora is a great music-discovery engine, but feeding my friends’ listening habits into it makes it far better. I don’t shop socially, but I see how a lot of people would have the same reaction to socializing their shopping habits.

Privacy is obviously a big concern here — I was amused by EPIC counsel Ginger McCall’s reaction, as given to TechNewsWorld: “this gives me lots of interesting work in the days ahead.” But perhaps this is naive, but I don’t get up in arms about being the target of behavioral advertising. Or rather, what I dislike is when that targeting done badly or dishonestly: The former wastes my attention, and the latter angers me. Truly well-targeted ads would be fine with me — a band I’ve been listening to a lot just announced a gig in Brooklyn, there’s a new throwback Mets jersey I might like, and so on. More complete information would help that along, as — again — would the ability to prune things from my history, as I do with TiVo and Amazon recommendations. (Yes, this is tending an idealized self-image once more. I know that. Marketers are learning it too.) If the targeting doesn’t work, I’ll just tune it out — the last decade has given us all superb filters for marketing bullshit.

As for the perils of centralizing so much of this information, acknowledged. But to that, I’ll note two things. One is that Facebook has been responsive to users’ complaints — it pushes users, yes, but it also can be pushed back. Another is that I’d rather have a single place where I can see what’s being shared and with whom than have to monitor that across hundreds or thousands of websites and services, similar to how there’s now one site for accessing the various credit-report agencies.

As a publisher, meanwhile, I’m eager to use all this stuff here and on my baseball blog. I want to add Like buttons and Facebook sidebars and all these things. (And I’m sure publishers big and small feel the same way — this stuff is going to spread really quickly.) Partially that’s because I of course want to see more about who’s reading and better understand how things are connecting. But it’s also because I like the idea as a reader and think a lot of readers will feel the same way. There’s a lot more to understand about how Facebook will use this information, how accessible and visible it will be to us and how much control we’ll have over how it’s shared and used. It may be that I don’t like the answers as I begin to discover them. But for right now, I’m excited about all this as a publisher and as a reader. That seems like an encouraging sign.

Exploring the Myth of the Average Blogger

Posted in Cultural Change, Social Media, Social Search by reinventingthenewsroom on April 19, 2010

David Eaves has a terrific post up about what he sees as myths held up by “old media” about new media. It’s well worth reading for seeing all the different places we’re talking past each other and the intersections where fear, uncertainty and doubt are choking off brighter possibilities.

What really jumped out at me was the first myth Eaves tackled — the myth of the “average blogger.” As he sees it, print journalists think they are competing against the average quality of online content, and when they see that most of that content is frankly poor, they are lulled into a false sense of security. In Missing the Link, a collaboration with Taylor Owen, Eaves wrote that “those in the print media who dismiss online writing because of its low average quality are missing an important point. No one reads the average blog.”

This is a critical insight, and I agree with Eaves that it leads to all sorts of misapprehensions. He cites a false sense of security. To that, I would add a retinue of sins imagined and overblown: Bloggers making errors that go uncorrected, Web writers driven by antisocial behavior and personal animosity, and the idea that these peddlers of hateful, subpar content are leading legions of readers astray.

The world has profoundly changed. Not so long ago, gatekeepers determined what would be published in newspapers, magazines and books, and if you didn’t pass muster with those gatekeepers, it was very difficult to reach an audience of any real size. This didn’t ensure that all content was excellent, or even good — insert the name of whatever trashy novel you thought foretold the death of literature here — but it did have the effect of confining a lot of dreck to fliers and mimeographs. Today, it’s child’s play to publish, and anyone who publishes has a huge potential audience awaiting them.

But the key word there isn’t huge or audience — it’s potential. As Eaves notes and many an eager new blogger has discovered to his or her dismay, no one reads the average blog. As Eaves notes, print media aren’t competing against the average blogs, but against the best ones. Writers of average blogs have discovered a hard truth: Publication does not guarantee an audience, and the existence of something online does not mean anyone is reading it. And the failure to grasp this drives a lot of the hand-wringing about blogs and the Web.

One reason this misapprehension is hard to shake is basic human nature: We always think our enemies are united, powerful and implacable, when in fact most of them are every bit as divided, inefficient and careworn as we are. But as I’ve written before, another reason has do with the way search works online.

In the physical world, commonly accepted information that a lot of people consume is easy to find, while obscure or problematic information is hard to find. But online, it’s all one. If what you search for is out there, you will find it very quickly, no matter how wrongheaded or cruel or otherwise flawed it is. And this instant response leads us to an error borrowed from our real-world experience: Because we quickly find what we’re looking for, we assume many other people are looking for that information too, and are reading it. (Particularly when it’s something erroneous or cruel about ourselves or something we care about.) But this isn’t necessarily true: It’s often the case that no one is reading that information at all. It is only our search that fit the lock that plucked it momentarily out of obscurity.

You can now do an end run around the old gatekeepers, but people don’t have substantially more time to consume information than they ever did. And so there are new gatekeepers springing up everywhere, to reduce the torrent of information to a manageable flow. Readers make use of technological tools to help them filter information. With the rise of the social Web, they are increasingly able to make the collective judgment of their peers serve as filters and gatekeepers. And journalists and other experts have an invaluable role to play here as well, curating information and bringing the good stuff to a wider audience. The gatekeepers now operate downstream of publication, but they still exist. If anything, their roles are more important than ever.

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A Ridiculous Foursquare Mission and Its Possibilities

Posted in Branding, Communities, Creating Context, Digital Experiments, Going Local, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on April 16, 2010

So I just got back from doing something more than a little ridiculous.

It’s Foursquare Day (4/16, get it?) and this morning I saw via Twitter that people were unlocking a Foursquare Day badge somehow. I’ve become mildly addicted to Foursquare, to the extent that a 40-year-old father who can’t handle too many late nights in a row anymore can be, so of course I was immediately curious to see if I could get this badge. A quick Google search revealed that I could get it by checking in somewhere and shouting (i.e. sending a quick message to my Foursquare friends) “Happy foursquare day!”

Before I quite realized what I was doing, I was tallying up some errands. I decided I’d go down to Dumbo, the next neighborhood over from mine, where I’d mail something, go to the bank and get something to drink at Starbucks — where I could check in and claim my Foursquare Day badge. (I could have just cheated and checked in somewhere remotely, but that seemed wrong.)

There’s another Starbucks closer to my house. So why did I go to the one in Dumbo? Because among other things, if you visit five different Starbucks you get a Barista badge from Foursquare. The Dumbo one would be my second.

Here’s the thing: I don’t particularly like Starbucks.

In fact, I don’t even drink coffee.

You’re thinking this is insane behavior, and I have to agree. Yes, I’m mildly OCD and have a collector’s mentality. But I’m far from unique: Foursquare has been adding 50,000 users a week of late. This is insane behavior that’s worth taking notice of.

Look what I did to earn a badge that is nothing but colored pixels: I left my house when I hadn’t planned to, walked 10 minutes in a direction I wouldn’t normally have chosen, and bought a hot chocolate ($3.21) from a place I don’t normally patronize. One of the surest tests of a valuable product or service is if people will change their habits to use it, and Foursquare just passed that test with flying colors. (The trip wasn’t entirely silly: Near Starbucks I discovered an excellent Mac store I’d never seen before and stopped in to take a look. I’ll be back. Of course I checked in via Foursquare there, too and left a tip for other users that it looks like a good place.)

If I were a news organization, I would look to take advantage of behavior like mine posthaste. One of the ways news organizations can reconnect with valuable local audiences is to try to reclaim their places as the default places to find out what’s going on — to build out really great event calendars, guides to restaurants and bars, and so forth. Social media has emerged as a key player in how people decide what to do and where to go, and news organizations can leverage that.

Suppose your news organization partnered with Foursquare to create local badges based around food, shopping, nightlife, tourism and other things: For example, people who followed your organization on Foursquare and visited five restaurants recommended (or just reviewed) by you got a special badge. You’d get a bevy of people willing to have a relationship with you, as well as demographic information about them. By establishing that relationship, you’d have an opportunity to get those people to visit your site and engage with you. You’d have a chance to build loyalty and create value. All because people want little badges.

This isn’t new: The New York Times experimented with Foursquare during the Vancouver Olympics. Foursquare has deals with Zagat, Bravo and HBO along the lines I described. I’m not particularly loyal to any of those three companies, but I follow them on Foursquare so I can get their badges. Am I more receptive to their offerings because I’ve done that? Well, I just changed my daily habits and walked to another neighborhood to spend more than $3 at a coffee place when I don’t drink coffee. You tell me.

Weingarten’s Win

Posted in Long-Form Journalism by reinventingthenewsroom on April 15, 2010

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer for his story about parents who accidentally leave their children shut inside hot cars. Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction” is one of the most-haunting stories I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the best-told. And it’s a model for how journalism can work online.

When I first read it, I wrote a post here about why I think Web-first newsrooms will look beyond the overly broad advice that Web writing has to be short and be reminded of the value of long-form journalism. The quick version: It can’t be copied or have its full value extracted by an aggregator’s sentence. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony that Weingarten’s article likely wouldn’t have a home in the redesigned Post magazine.)

To that I’d like add a couple of things: Weingarten’s follow-up chat to the original story should be read as well, because it contains an extraordinary personal anecdote that explains what drove him to write the story, and is a perfect example of how disclosing something simply and directly to readers is much more powerful, and ultimately drives much more trust, than an attempted retreat to mealy-mouthed objectivity.

On Tuesday Weingarten discussed his win with Post readers. Amid the self-deprecation, he said something that ought to be front and center in every newsroom and displayed above every writer’s desk. I’ve altered it slightly so it would read better engraved in stone:

Dispassionately search for the truth, and then passionately tell the truth. I have no patience for stories that are quote dumps, obscuring the truth with bogus moral equivalencies, giving equal weight to unequally valid opinions, and doing it all in the name of objectivity.

Those are words to live by, whatever medium you work in.

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Sound and Fury Between the Times and the Journal

Posted in Paid Content, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on April 14, 2010

In today’s New York Observer, John Koblin offers an entertaining preview of the coming newspaper war between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which will unveil its New York edition on April 26. (Disclosure: I spent nearly 13 years as a writer, columnist, editor, cat herder etc. at the Online Journal before they laid me off in the summer of 2008.)

On one level, this will be a lot of fun.

Robert Thomson, the Journal’s editor, is apparently incapable of speaking without saying something barbed and provocative. Witness his infamous description of content aggregators as tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet, or the advice for Times readers that he passes along via Koblin: “cancel your subscription, read it on the Web for free and buy the Journal.” Thomson is a smart guy and a character, and journalism could use more of both. As for his boss, Rupert Murdoch needs no introduction.

The Times has stayed mostly above the fray, which is what you’d expect from an institution that still generally sticks to the Gray Lady script in its public statements. But there’s an undercurrent of nastiness on its part, too — particularly given how many former Journal people now work for the Times. Koblin notes that the Journal remains furious at the Times’s poaching of arts reporter Kate Taylor, who apparently was very familiar with the New York edition plans. And there’s the fact that Times spokesman Bob Christie was until very recently a Journal spokesman, which lends statements like this added zing: “The readers and employees of The Wall Street Journal deserve much better than this type of juvenile behavior from its editor in chief.” That’s not quite getting to tell the boss exactly what you think of him, but it’s pretty close.

So anyway, pass the popcorn!

But on another level it all seems quaint, like a Broadway revival. Thomson in particular talks mostly as if this were a print drama, discussing pages and jumps and saying Times readers are frustrated by the act of reading. His statements about the online side of this fight are startling.

Asked what Journal offerings will be free to readers online, Thomson told Koblin “nothing,” then amended that to “virtually nothing.” If so, that seems like an awfully big missed opportunity to peel off the Times’ online readers. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out it isn’t so — Thomson is good at strategic misdirection. (Besides, Murdoch himself hasn’t always seemed clear on how his paper’s paywall works.) Moreover, such a strategy would ignore the success the Journal has had with a much more nuanced approach to paywalls. The Journal has long understood that you can do well giving away individual articles to spark awareness through search and social media but still charging for the product as a whole.

Then there’s Thomson’s belief that there are no second reads any more — you’ll buy one paper only. That’s Koblin’s paraphrase, but assuming it captures what Thomson said, I’m dumbstruck.

You could counter that on the Web there are second and third and fourth and nth reads, but the entire concept is faintly ridiculous online. Readers consume information in fragments from a vast array of news sources — some encountered because they’re part of daily habits, but many more discovered through search and social recommendations. For the online audience, there aren’t reads at all anymore — at least not in the way Thomson seems to be thinking of them.

Koblin describes the imminent dustup in New York as “an old-fashioned, honest-to-God press war,” and judging from Thomson’s comments, I’d put the emphasis on “old-fashioned.” Today’s press wars are fought at a far more atomized level than this, decided not by surveys of subway cars but by millions of clicks on Twitter and Facebook and Google. Finding a principal in this drama discussing second reads is a little like stumbling upon a Juarez narco-smuggler wearing a fedora and brandishing a tommy gun.

But what the hell, I’m sure they’ll sell a lot of tickets for the revival.

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Putting Demand Media to the Test

Posted in Branding, Content Farms, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on April 12, 2010

Last week I read in the Los Angeles Times that Demand Media is now supplying text and video to USA Today, creating a new section called Travel Tips.

I’ve gone on record as not exactly being a fan of Demand Media, though I think my perspective is a little different than that of some of the company’s other critics. It doesn’t bother me that Demand Media’s bosses and writers aren’t exclusively journalists, as I reflexively bristle at the idea that journalism can only be practiced by members of some anointed class. (Besides, a fair number of Demand’s writers are journalists.) Heck, I think Demand has come up with smart algorithms for understanding what people are searching for, and too many newsrooms seem depressingly indifferent to questions like that.

Nor does my opposition have to do with Demand paying very little for content — as a professional writer I of course find that worrisome, but those low wages are just a consequence of the pitiless laws of supply and demand. The phenomenon makes me unhappy, but it’s not a miscarriage of justice.

What bugs me about Demand Media is what I fear it does to the quality of information on the Web. Here’s Wired’s Daniel Roth with a metaphor: “Imagine a classroom where one kid raises his hand after every question and screams out the answer. He may not be smart or even right, but he makes it difficult to hear anybody else.” Demand uses SEO to game Google, shooting its content to the top of search results where it’s more likely to be clicked. Whether or not that content is valuable to the reader is beside the point.

This isn’t the way the Web is supposed to work, and that’s what made me mad. But was that fair? Hearing that Demand was now working with USA Today seemed like a good chance to challenge my assumptions. It might be a very good fit, after all: Demand’s algorithm could be put to good use, and its content used as raw material by a reputable news organization whose mission is to help its readers.

So I dropped by Travel Tips, and decided to assess Demand’s work based on the stories selected as Editor’s Picks. As a reader, I’d expect this to be valuable content hand-selected by someone. There were three such stories — How to Protect Your Home When Traveling, Least Crowded Times to Go to Disney World, and How to Prevent Altitude Sickness.

So how’d Demand do?

By my lights, not well: The stories are slapdash constructions, poorly organized and at best indifferently written, and by turns not particularly helpful or overly credulous about suspect advice. (Your mileage may vary, of course — go check for yourself.)

“How to Protect Your Home” begins with an anecdote about a photographer whose home studio flooded while he was traveling, and how the damage was minimized because he’d made preparations. I was heartened to find an anecdotal lead that might draw in a reader, but the writer walked us through the entire situation before translating that to a checklist of how to protect your own home. That construction makes two mistakes at once: It kills the drama of the story and makes the reader wait around impatiently for the advice. Better by far to introduce the situation, run through the checklist of how to keep your home safe, and then return to the anecdote to reward the reader with the end of the story and amplify the lessons learned.

As for the rest of the piece, it has some good tips (I didn’t know many police departments will do “vacation checks” of your property if you ask), but misses obvious opportunities to further help readers. For example, there’s a mention that insurers offer online forms for making home inventories, but there’s only a link (buried at the bottom of the story) to Allstate’s. The writer suggests you consider an iPhone app for home inventories, but doesn’t give any examples.

“Least Crowded Times to Go to Disney World” opens like this: “Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., is rarely quiet, but the crowds do vary by a surprising amount.” Reading that, I immediately felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation with an SEO algorithm — in a lot of writing by content mills the SEO-centric construction is a maddening hum drowning out information for an actual human reader. Like the first article, this one does have some useful nuggets — I didn’t know that Disney calls slower times “Value Season,” that the weekend of Jan. 7 is crowded because of Disney Marathon, or that you can enjoy Mickey’s Christmas Party during the quiet time between Thanksgiving and Dec. 16. On the other hand, the writer doesn’t tell me what Mickey’s Christmas Party is, and the useful nuggets sink in stuff like this: “Holiday time in Walt Disney World is truly a spectacular show. Every park and resort is decorated, special events occur and the holiday spirit can be felt all around.” This one felt like about three sentences and a lot of padding; what would have worked better would be to tell me exactly when Value Season is (for those scanning, “Between Holidays” isn’t helpful) and then give me specifics about what to do if I visit then.

The final piece, “How to Prevent Altitude Sickness,” isn’t clear about what it wants to be. In the first sentence it mentions Mexico City tourists, skiers in the Rockies and Everest climbers, and then veers around trying to offer advice for people in all three groups. So in less than 320 words you go from being told not to party hard the night before skiing to learning about hyperbaric oxygen units. But what really jumped out at me was advice from a Sacramento orthopedic surgeon to consider a drug called acetazolamide, followed by the same surgeon’s warning that “it’s unclear if it actually works.” If so, this is potentially dangerous advice. No responsible editor should have let that into the article, and if I worked for USA Today, I would not be happy to see that published under my banner.

I don’t mean to be hard on the writers of these pieces — they may have done far better work elsewhere. Which leads me to one of Demand’s fatal flaws.

As a freelancer, I’ve had to learn to budget my time, saying no to assignments that pay too little for the hours they’ll require. The three Demand pieces I read — and again, these were the Editor’s Picks — read like they were dashed off in a half-hour or so and given a quick line edit by someone who didn’t have time to consider story organization, further resources for helping readers, or whether some of the advice met an editorial sniff test. And given what Demand pays, this is a perfectly rational approach to creating this content: No one involved has the time to make things better and stay profitable.

I don’t think Demand or its writers deliberately try to make subpar content. But the intent doesn’t matter, because subpar content is a logical consequence of Demand’s business model as it’s presently constructed. The question for me is why anyone would want to read this content, or why USA Today would put its name on it.

The Huffington Post Experiments With Twitter

Posted in Communities, Digital Experiments, Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on April 8, 2010

Here’s interesting news, via David Kaplan at paidContent: The Huffington Post now has “Twitter editions” for its sections, maintained by the section editors. Here’s technology, for example.

What’s a Twitter edition? It’s a little bit of everything: Some traffic bait (top stories and some stories that are currently hot on Twitter), real-time news, a pair of Twitter lists, and some tools — you can tweet directly from the page (the default tweet is to check out whatever HuffPo Twitter edition you’re on, which is clever and endearingly cheesy), follow Twitterers on lists, and so forth. For folks who follow a certain HuffPo subject it’s a potentially handy resource, and the Twitter-uninitiated will find it a pretty good introduction to the service, which can be a bewildering blank slate at first. And of course, those who follow HuffPo’s lead into the Twitterverse will likely make HuffPo tweeters key building blocks of whatever feeds they construct.

The Twitter editions fit pretty well with HuffPo’s Social News endeavor (here’s my rather unutilized slice of it), its attempt to bring Facebook into the Huffington Post instead of surrendering its own site to Facebook. But most of all it feels like an experiment, and this spaghetti-at-the-wall quality is what I like best of all.

There’s no Twitter edition home page, Arriana Huffington tells Kaplan, because they want to see how people use the editions first. And then there’s this, from CEO Greg Eric Hippeau: “We’re one part social network, one part news content site. So for us, the question has always been how to use Facebook, Twitter and other social networking tools and our content and integrate it with our advertisers. There’s a number of different ways we can do this. But for right now, along with everyone else, we’re still in the experimental stage and we’re testing a variety of methods and ideas.”

Exactly. I wish I saw such experiments everywhere.

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Comments and Anonymity

Posted in Communities by reinventingthenewsroom on April 2, 2010

Like a lot of people concerned with digital news, I followed the debate between Howard Owens and Mathew Ingram about comments and anonymity with great interest. I spent it listening, thinking and letting the two arguments test my assumptions — a process that culminated with posts from Owens and Ingram that nicely sum up two poles of the debate.

Owens offers an excellent justification for his position that anonymous comments not only degrade community but run counter to newspaper ethics; Ingram’s summation of his position is also excellent, acknowledging the unhappy side effects of anonymity but urging us to remember how it can drive more engagement, and arguing that healthy communities rely more on enforcing standards of behavior than with policies on anonymity.

After reading those two posts and thinking about them some more, I think I’m finally ready to jump in with my own thoughts, including a few things I’ve changed my mind about.

After mulling Owens’ points, I decided my position on anonymous comments had gotten tangled up with my thoughts on the bigger issue of anonymity itself, and that I’d fallen prey to some lazy thinking. My default position has always been that you hold your nose about anonymous comments because while anonymity may lead to bad behavior in discussing a proposed shopping mall, toddlers in bars or the merits of middle relievers, the lack of it will almost certainly preclude discussion of Chinese dissent, corporate malfeasance or the struggles of gay teens.

That’s probably true, but it’s also simplistic. Owens notes that the Batavian still gets anonymous tips — they just don’t come through anonymous comments. (Which really isn’t a surprise — why did I assume they would?) And do comment rules have to be the same for every topic? You should put up with hourly headaches policing the Kids in Bars forum because one day you might do something on Chinese dissent? I’ve urged news organizations to get much more sophisticated about understanding how readers came to an article and trying to drive loyalty by showing them relevant stories based on that information, which isn’t a trivial undertaking. So I think they can do that, but haven’t thought beyond a one-size-fits-all comment policy? Really?

Owens also offers a passionate case that anonymous comments run counter to newspaper ethics against anonymous letters to the editor and sources. I found that a welcome reminder that it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming practices of the embryonic consumer Web are somehow laws of physics. Anonymous comments aren’t some intrinsic part of the Web that automatically trump decades of newsroom values. To see them that way — which is a temptation when surveying the whole mess — is to let technology lead you around by the nose. We shouldn’t let that happen.

That said, the newspaper-ethics argument against anonymous comments feels a bit forced to me. I think it also conflates anonymous comments with the larger issue of anonymity, only from the other side of the issue. It also feels a bit too much like the old newspaper model of top-down control. I think a key to the transformation of a news organization is letting go of the idea that everything is controlled, of accepting the value of becoming a gateway to information and a key node within a loose network of news sources. At a fundamental level, you give up control when you link out, when you admit that part of curation is linking to the story your rival has that you don’t, when you aggregate community Twitter feeds into Twitter lists. Insisting on real names isn’t the same as deciding whose letter gets printed, I know, but reader comments feel like they fit better on the loose links/curation/community axis than they do on the rigid sources/letters to the editor axis.

Something Ingram said made me nod my head vigorously: “I believe that one of the principles of running a media site is that you should open up interaction to as many people as possible.” Agreed. But I bet Owens would agree too, without seeing that as in any way undermining his case. There are many potential commenters who see that anonymous commenters have turned a forum into a cesspool and immediately decide not to engage. We’ve all had that experience, and I think it’s a huge problem for news organizations. In those cases, anonymity has bred conditions that suppress the kind of interaction we all want. What good is a principle if it consistently leads to dismal practice?

But for some people, an insistence on real names will also suppress interaction. Diving into a forum as a newcomer can be intimidating even for people who are confident in their ability to write and argue, to say nothing of how it feels for people who don’t have that confidence. Anonymity or a pseudonym can take the fear out of that first step, letting people wade in. They feel like they can retreat if things don’t go well, and can go deeper if things do.

I use the name BklynJace to comment in some forums, and this debate made me think about why. Looking over what I’ve written under that name, it’s not because it’s a cover for crass behavior (with a lamentable exception or two). Rather, I’ve used that name on forums I follow but aren’t sure I want to commit to as a regular participant, with the full weight of my real identity. An insistence on real names would have made me less likely to post, and I’m sure that goes double for lots of other people. And as Ingram notes, there are very healthy communities — such as Metafilter and Slashdot — where the lack of real names hasn’t overriden the commenting mores in the least.

So there we are, chasing each other round and round. You can get anonymous comments too entangled with the larger issue of anonymity, whether you’re for them or against them. Anonymous comments can get in the way of maximizing interaction, but so can real names.

Which makes me wonder if the answer isn’t a middle ground.

First off, there is no one-size-fits-all rule: The commenting parameters for a locally focused small-business site wouldn’t work for Deadspin, or vice versa, and those parameters should be flexible from discussion to discussion. But generally speaking, I think we should encourage the use of real names, discourage pseudonyms, and discourage anonymous comments even more vigorously — without eliminating the latter two ways of posting. (It might be more practical to make this two categories instead of one.)

One sign of a healthy community is that it defends itself instead of leaving that to moderators, and I think that starts with giving participants tools to use in that defense. If you allow unverified comments, make the default that they’re hidden or shown in lighter type, while allowing readers to change those settings. (Gawker and the Wall Street Journal both offer variants of this.) Atop this foundation, let participants rate posts up or down, possibly allowing good but unverified stuff to break through the “verified” floor and bad but verified stuff to sink below it. Let participants report posts and either ignore or follow other participants.

My hope would be that those tools would allow a community to defend itself more easily and effectively, freeing moderators to deal with abuse reports and banning vandals. As a final check, I’d implement Lisa Williams‘ suggestion of moderating the first X comments from new users — few trolls can masquerade as decent sorts that long, particularly if their handiwork will be quickly removed afterwards anyway.

Perhaps I’ve fallen into the trap of equivocation, but I really feel like I see both sides. I think anonymity taxes moderators and breeds poor community experiences, yet I also think that real names run the risk of scaring away potentially valuable contributors. Perhaps there’s a technological solution that will let us explore the pluses and minuses from a better starting point.

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