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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.