My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center begs sportswriters to slow down and do less — and it seems to have hit a nerve. (As always with my sportswriting columns, the lessons apply equally to any other journalist.)
The genesis of this column came back in the fall, when Nieman Reports published a look at beat writing in the digital age, including my own somewhat emo musings on being caught between indie blogging and fandom on the one hand and professional journalism and neutrality on the other. Elsewhere in the report, I read my NSJC colleague Dave Kindred’s exploration of how sportswriters’ beats had changed because of the web and Twitter. Kindred opened with Wally Matthews, now of ESPN New York, explaining how the beat writers would race to be first to tweet the lineup once a team posted it on the dugout wall. A Denver Post Broncos beat writer, Lindsay Jones, was able to top that bit of ridiculousness: Reporters can’t use cellphones from the Broncos’ practice facility, so they have to run out of the stadium to be first to tweet something. (By the way, fans watching practice can tweet their thumbs off. Is there an organization more in love with stupid rules than the NFL?)
Some things send you rushing to the keyboard, inspired or indignant; others have to simmer. The two Nieman pieces nagged at me all fall and winter, until I finally was able to articulate what bothered me. Those beat writers weren’t technology rejectionists: They’d embraced new tools, and were working their butts off. Yet their lives were worse — web publishing, blogs and Twitter had only added to the burdens of an already tough job. Why? Because they were using those new tools to do things the old way. Someone had sold them a bill of goods.
I don’t follow one Mets beat writer or another on Twitter — I follow all of them. They’re part of a collective flow of news, one I dip into to get news when I need it. Do I want to know tonight’s lineup? Of course. Do I care who had it first? No. Do I notice who had it first? No. With Twitter the question’s faintly ridiculous, in fact. Twitter embodies The And World, in which I get news from as many sources as I can take in and the flow is the important thing, not the component streams. I’d like to think I chose a crummy metaphor on purpose — there really aren’t individual elements of a flow, are there?
Those beat writers were using Twitter as if this were still The Or World, in which I’m going to buy Paper A or Paper B based on who has a scoop on the front page. Today I consume Papers A, B, C, D and so on. And as for scoops, 99% of them have shelf lives so short that for all intents and purposes they no longer exist.
Too much of what Kindred found those beat writers doing is a waste of time. So why are they doing it? I suspect it’s a combination of things. There’s a culture of competitiveness and adrenaline, which isn’t a bad thing so much as it’s a good impulse wastefully channeled. Habit and tradition are part of it too, I’m sure. I suspect it’s also fear, on multiple levels — higher-ups shoved writers down new media pathways, writers were too intimidated by desperate times in the news business who question whether that was the best use of their time, and working harder is always easier to demonstrate than working smarter.
What should those beat writers do instead of competing for mayfly-lived scoops? My advice came down to “Worry a lot less about being first with the news and worry a lot more about being first with what the news means.” Then my column elicited a sharp, smart follow-up from Craig Calcaterra of HardballTalk — and one of Calcaterra’s commenters absolutely nailed it, far better than I did.
Like you said, I don’t care who told me first. It’s not like I wasn’t going to find out. Whenever I get a bit of news, whether it’s at ESPN, HBT, Twitter, or any of the other places where you can get news, one of my first reactions is usually “Hey, I wonder what that goofball Calceterra has to say about that.”
And then I come here.
BANG. There it is — the elusive sweet spot. Be the place readers turn to find out what that bit of news means. Do that, and you’ll have an audience and a brand. And a future.
This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab, where it sparked a lively conversation not reproduced here:
The humble, ubiquitous link found itself at the center of a firestorm last week, with the spark provided by Nicholas Carr, who wrote about hyperlinks as one element (among many) he thinks contribute to distracted, hurried thinking online. With that in mind, Carr explored the idea of delinkification — removing links from the main body of the text.
The heat that greeted Carr’s proposals struck me (and CJR’s Ryan Chittum) as a disproportionate response. Carr wasn’t suggesting we stop linking, but asking if putting hyperlinks at the end of the text makes that text more readable and makes us less likely to get distracted. But of course the tinder has been around for a while. There’s the furor over iPad news apps without links to the web, which has angered and/or worried some who see the iPad as a new walled garden for content. There’s the continuing discontent with “old media” and their linking habits as newsrooms continue their sometimes technologically and culturally bumpy transition to becoming web-first operations. And then there’s Carr’s provocative thesis, explored in The Atlantic and his new book The Shallows, that the Internet is rewiring our brains to make us better at skimming and multitasking but worse at deep thinking.
I think the recent arguments about the role and presentation of links revolve around three potentially different things: credibility, readability and connectivity. And those arguments get intense when those factors are mistaken for each other or are seen as blurring together. Let’s take them one by one and see if they can be teased apart again.
A bedrock requirement of making a fair argument in any medium is that you summarize the opposing viewpoint accurately. The link provides an ideal way to let readers check how you did, and alerts the person you’re arguing with that you’ve written a response. This is the kind of thing the web allows us to do instantly and obviously better than before; given that, providing links has gone from handy addition to requirement when advancing an argument online. As Mathew Ingram put it in a post critical of Carr, “I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else’s, and is hoping that no one will notice.”
That’s no longer a particularly effective strategy. Witness the recent dustup between NYU media professor Jay Rosen and Gwen Ifill, the host of PBS’s Washington Week. Early last month, Rosen — a longtime critic of clubby political journalism — offered Washington Week as his pick for something the world could do without. Ifill’s response sought to diminish Rosen and his argument by not deigning to mention him by name. This would have been a tacky rhetorical ploy even in print, but online it fails doubly: The reader, already suspicious by Ifill’s anonymizing and belittling a critic, registers the lack of a link and is even less likely to trust her account. (Unfortunately for Ifill, the web self-corrects: Several commenters on her post supplied Rosen’s name, and were sharply critical of her in ways a wiser argument probably wouldn’t have provoked.)
Linking to demonstrate credibility is good practice, and solidly noncontroversial. Thing is, Carr didn’t oppose the basic idea of links. He called them “wonderful conveniences,” but added that “they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions — we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head.”
Chittum, for his part, noted that “reading on the web takes more self-discipline than it does offline. How many browser tabs do you have open right now? How many are from links embedded in another piece your were reading and how many of them will you end up closing without reading since you don’t have the time to read Everything On the Internets? The analog parallel would be your New Yorker pile, but even that — no matter how backed up — has an endpoint.”
When I read Chittum’s question about tabs, my eyes flicked guiltily from his post to the top of my browser. (The answer was 11.) Like a lot of people, when I encounter a promising link, I right-click it, open it in a new tab, and read the new material later. I’ve also gotten pretty good at assessing links by their URLs, because not all links are created equal: They can be used for balance, further explanation and edification, but also to show off, logroll and name-drop.
I’ve trained myself to read this way, and think it’s only minimally invasive. But as Carr notes, “even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters.” I’m not sure about the matters part, but I’ll concede the point about the extra cognitive load. I read those linked items later because I want to pay attention to the argument being made. If I stopped in the middle for every link, I’d have little chance of following the argument through to its conclusion. Does the fact that I pause in the middle to load up something to read later detract from my ability to follow that argument? I bet it does.
Carr’s experiment was to put the links at the end. (Given that, calling that approach “delinkification” was either unwise or intentionally provocative.) In a comment to Carr’s post, Salon writer Laura Miller (who’s experimented with the endlinks approach), asked a good question: Is opening links in new tabs “really so different from links at the end of the piece? I mean, if you’re reading the main text all the way through, and then moving on to the linked sources through a series of tabs, then it’s not as if you’re retaining the original context of the link.”
Carr was discussing links in terms of readability, but some responses have dealt more with the merits of something else — connectivity. Rosen — who’s described the ethic of the web persuasively as “to connect people and knowledge,” described Carr’s effort as an attempt to “unbuild the web.” And it’s a perceived assault on connectivity that inflames some critics of the iPad. John Batelle recently said the iPad is “a revelation for millions and counting, because, like Steve Case before him, Steve Jobs has managed to render the noise of the world wide web into a pure, easily consumed signal. The problem, of course, is that Case’s AOL, while wildly successful for a while, ultimately failed as a model. Why? Because a better one emerged — one that let consumers of information also be creators of information. And the single most important product of that interaction? The link. It was the link that killed AOL — and gave birth to Google.”
Broadly speaking, this is the same criticism of the iPad offered bracingly by Cory Doctorow: It’s a infantilizing vehicle for consumption, not creation. Which strikes me now as it did then as too simplistic. I create plenty of information, love the iPad, and see no contradiction between the two. I now do things — like read books, watch movies and casually surf the web — with the iPad instead of with my laptop, desktop or smartphone because the iPad provides a better experience for those activities. But that’s not the same as saying the iPad has replaced those devices, or eliminated my ability or desire to create.
When it comes to creating content, no, I don’t use the iPad for anything more complex than a Facebook status update. If I want to create something, I’ll go to my laptop or desktop. But I’m not creating content all the time. (And I don’t find it baffling or tragic that plenty of people don’t want to create it at all.) If I want to consume — to sit back and watch something, or read something — I’ll pick up the iPad. Granted, if I’m using a news app instead of a news website, I won’t find hyperlinks to follow, at least not yet. But that’s a difference between two modes of consumption, not between consumption and creation. And the iPad browser is always an icon away — as I’ve written before, so far the device’s killer app is the browser.
Now that the flames have died down a bit, it might be useful to look at links more calmly. Given the link’s value in establishing credibility, we can dismiss those who advocate true delinkification or choose not to link as an attempt to short-cut arguments. But I think that’s an extreme case. Instead, let’s have a conversation about credibility, readability and connectivity: As long as links are supplied, does presenting them outside of the main text diminish their credibility? Does that presentation increase readability, supporting the ethic of the web by creating better conversations and connections? Is there a slippery slope between enhancing readability and diminishing connectivity? If so, are there trade-offs we should accept, or new presentations that beg to be explored?
Nieman Reports’ latest issue focuses on journalism and social media, and it’s terrific, full of thought-provoking stuff from smart writers and thinkers.
There’s an enormous amount to mull over here, but here are some reactions to two articles that really grabbed me:
Richard Gordon‘s discussion of News Mixer is a great account of a Web-site prototype put together by a Medill class taught by Gordon and Jeremy Gilbert. News Mixer uses Facebook Connect, as I think all newspaper sites soon will, and lets readers annotate paragraphs with questions and answers, offer contextual quips, and post letters to the editor that are given the status of mini-articles. There’s a sense of play with News Mixer that I think is sorely lacking in most comments areas. Yes, readers comment because they have something to say. But they also like to build up profiles, interact with other users (including in relatively passive ways such as following, blocking or “ignoring” them) and do things such as vote comments up or down — all activities that make readers more likely to return to a newspaper’s site, engage and over time become habitual readers.
Gordon also takes himself to task for treating the Web as a one-way broadcasting medium during his time with the Miami Herald:
Our team created discussion boards but hoped they’d require no attention from our staff. We didn’t think that cultivating community or moderating discussions were appropriate or necessary roles for a journalist. And we ignored evidence right in front of us—our own behavior as online users—that the most powerful and persistent driver of Internet usage was the value of connecting with other people.
It’s that last part that brought my palm to my forehead. Because I’ve been guilty of that in my own career — I’d spend days and nights avidly consuming, sharing and commenting on news, then put on my journalist hat and shut that part of my brain off. Ascending Mount Journalism, I’d become an aloof figure who’d hand down stone tablets, making at best half-hearted efforts to connect with readers who were doing the very things I did so enthusiastically … whenever I took my journalist hat off.
We know we have to shed this broadcaster mentality as a business, but that doesn’t mean waiting for the guys in the corner offices to come around to that. It means shedding it as individuals, too. As Gordon notes, the best way to do that is to look at your own behavior as a reader, and figure out how to help and reward that.
(By the way, I looked for Gordon on Twitter and couldn’t find him. Can anybody help?)
This blog has admired Matt Thompson‘s work before, and I really liked his explanation for Nieman of why readers love Wikipedia. Journalists like to crab about Wikipedia mistakes and vandalism, mostly because we feel conflicted about shamelessly cribbing from it. Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s defenders tend to get a case of the Webby vapors exalting its DIY nature and distributed expertise. Besides being tedious, both positions miss why Wikipedia works so well for readers. Thompson nails it:
[T]here was also something quite remarkable about how stories are structured on the site, how breaking news gets folded into an elegant, cohesive record, enabling site visitors to quickly catch up on a topic without having to sort through a torrent of disparate articles and headlines.
If you’re looking for a way to combat information overload, to distill the universe of topics covered by the local newspaper into a manageable stream, it’s difficult to find a more perfect invention than the format Wikipedia has pioneered.
Contrast that, he says, with the way newspapers typically approach complex, ongoing stories: They stick the new events at the top, then stick in snippets of background that only serve to confuse readers, making them feel, in Thompson’s words, like understanding the news required “a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns, accumulating knowledge like so many cereal box tops I could someday cash in for the prize of basic understanding.”
More tomorrow. In the meantime, get reading!
Over at Poynter, Matt Thompson has some interesting thoughts (slightly changed from an earlier appearance at Newsless.org) about the traditional news story and how it fails readers. Thompson argues, using the current health-care furor as his example, that a news story has four key parts: what just happened; the longstanding facts; how journalists know what they know; and the things we don’t know. Unfortunately, most stories appearing in the paper leave out the last three key parts, or stuff the longstanding facts into a single paragraph low in the story. All we get is the wildly spinning weather vane of what just happened.
It’s an approach that touches a lot of issues bubbling beneath the surface. From the perspective Thompson explores, for instance, you can easily see why speechifying and trial balloons and endless spin are so effective: With the underlying story rarely explored, different sides of an issue only have to win the day’s news cycle and keep the weather vane spinning.
So what are Thompson’s proposed solutions? For the question of how we know what we know, he offers up this excellent Atul Gawande story about health care from the New Yorker. Gawande, he notes, structures his story as a quest narrative: He begins the story looking for answers, and lets us follow along with him as he tries to find those answers from Texas doctors and health-care experts. It’s indeed a winning form, for a number of reasons. For one thing it’s transparent. Gawande doesn’t begin claiming to be an expert but gradually reveals his expertise and experiences — he’s a medical doctor himself, and he shares a frightening anecdote about an injury to his infant son that’s not entirely to his credit. The quest narrative also makes us root for him — we want to find out the answers too, so when Gawande runs across a plain-talking cardiac surgeon who helps make things clearer, we share his satisfaction. (On the subject of tackling what we don’t know, Thompson passes along a very fine explainer from Politifact, which neatly lays out what’s yet to be decided in the health-care debate.)
It’s an interesting discussion; my question is how newspapers can put some of the potential answers into practice. Background explainers, topic pages and the like are becoming increasingly common in newspapers, and when they’re done well — which is to say, written and curated by an actual human being — they can be quite effective. The New York Times is particularly good at this — here’s the Times’s topic page on health-care reform. I rarely run across good, clear-eyed explainers about what isn’t known, like the Politifact article, and agree they’d be terrific additions to news coverage. (Martin Langeveld has explored similar territory in calling for a “content cascade” of news.)
But how do we integrate these things with the ephemeral news of the day? In my early days at WSJ.com, I specialized in rewrites of breaking news to add context drawn from the Journal archives — an attempt to address the problem Thompson explores. (Or at least part of it.) But I’m not sure how successful my lovingly detailed rewrites were — they tended to turn every story into a wannabe goat-choker. The Times’s topic page is quite good, but just try and reach it from this health-care story. (Go on. I double-dog dare you.) Topic pages, explainers, wikis and content cascades are excellent tools that could put ephemeral news stories into a larger context, but they won’t work if they’re afterthoughts in the presentation of a story, only reached by the lucky few who find the correct link in a sea of blue type. For me, the key point here is the need to experiment with new ways to use basic news stories to drive readers to the larger narratives that give them more-useful information.
And, of course, not every news story can be a quest narrative: Gawande’s Texas adventures are compelling, but your City Council reporter doesn’t have the time or space for a quest narrative, and readers would probably want to kill him if he tried it. I think the lesson here is to let reporters and writers be real people. Let readers see them through video and hear them through podcasts. Have them interact with readers through discussions and social media. Get them to offer further expertise and background through beatblogging. Be transparent and real, and perhaps their larger beats can become quest narratives, with the reader along for the ride.