Reinventing the Newsroom

Quick Thoughts on Bezos Buying the Post

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Fun With Metaphors by reinventingthenewsroom on August 5, 2013

(cross-posted from my Tumblr)

A couple of blocks from my house there’s a park where people play soccer. A few years ago the city put down artificial turf there, replacing what had been an expanse of dust and scattered scraggly grass. A few people raised a ruckus about this, complaining about the environment, aesthetics, and what have you. They wanted the city to maintain natural grass that could stand up to constant soccer, frisbee, families, etc. It didn’t deter them in the least that this was impossible — the only real choice was between artificial turf or dust.

Which brings me to the Washington Post. Yes, some people are concerned about the owner of Amazon controlling the paper that’s still the premier read in the nation’s capital, where lobbyists reign and laws are made. Some people have reacted to the news by decrying Amazon’s labor practices, economic models, effect on industries it’s subverted, etc.

All points worth making, but they ignore something fundamental: The choice for the Post — like the vast majority of legacy metro newspapers — was between artificial turf and dust. The Post wasn’t going to get bigger. It wasn’t going to turn nimbly to try new things. It wasn’t going to be able to reinvent itself against a fleet of smaller competitors, each zeroing in on a chunk of its business without having to worry about shoring up a larger enterprise. No, the Post was going to keep getting smaller and smaller while trying to bridge its own contradictions.

Now, assuming Jeff Bezos will spend more of his own money than the $250 million he’s already plunked down, the Post has money and time to experiment and try to become something new. Which means it has a chance to survive.

The Post no longer has to answer to shareholders, who have done enormous damage to newspapers by assuming that the profits from an anomalous period in history were the norm. And if Bezos brings the same acumen to the news business that he’s brought to every other business that’s now part of the Amazon empire, the Post will have a chance to radically reinvent itself in ways it wasn’t going to be able to explore so long as it was run as a publicly traded company or by career newspaper people.

That’s not an indictment of the Post’s previous owners; rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the enormous challenge facing today’s news organizations.

The modern newspaper is doomed, but it’s been living on borrowed time for decades. That’s because the traditional newspaper business isn’t really about information, let alone civics or democracy. It’s about printing and distribution within geographic protections. And the failure to understand that — or, more fairly, to be able to act on that understanding — is what’s devastated the news business.

For a couple of centuries, if you wanted to sell something — a bale of hay or a couch or a Chevy — the only practical way to do it was to pay your local printing-and-distribution monopolist for an ad.

Some people are happy reading nothing but bundles of ads, but most people aren’t. So the printing-and-distribution monopolists looked for other information to go around those ads. They hired people to write about sports and review movies and recount crimes and talk about who was visiting whom and opine about politics and sometimes to explain complicated stuff happening far away. The printing-and-distribution monopolists created bundles of information designed to appeal to people in the geographic area they controlled. Very few people in that area were interested in all of that information, but enough of them were interested in some of it to buy the paper and see the ads and keep the people who bought the ads happy.

That industry no longer exists. The printing and distribution monopoly has been shattered — it’s been replaced by my phone, of all things. Geography no longer limits the information available to me — that same phone will bring me information from the entire world. With the exception of small local papers, the newspaper industry continues to exist because of the habits and sentimental attachments of an ever-shrinking segment of aging readers. It’s not dead, but it’s doomed.

The news industry, on the other hand, is alive — in fact, it’s thriving. But it’s been forcibly separated from the revenue streams that allowed it to exist. New ones have to be discovered. We don’t know where they’ll be found or what they’ll pay for. But the people who are going to discover them will be the people who work in new digital industries, not the custodians of vanished ones.

They’ll be people like Jeff Bezos. At least let’s hope so.


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FiveThirtyEight on Horse-Race Journalism

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on November 3, 2012

(Cross-posted from my Tumblr)

Nate Silver, the writer/statistician behind the very fine FiveThirtyEight blog, has found himself in a number of crosshairs of late. His politically motivated attackers are risible zealots unworthy of discussion, but things are more interesting when you consider the attacks and the passive-aggressive grumbles from political journalists. (Oh, and the New York Times’ public editor called him on the carpet for a Twitter bet, though as a fellow ombudsman I’m not touching that one.)

The argument within journalism is almost an exact replay of one that’s exceedingly familiar to Silver: the “Moneyball” scouts vs. stats debate within baseball.

Deadspin’s David Roher connects the two debates in this post, which is gleefully profane and very sharp. And here’s Mark Coddington on the fault lines between Silver and political journalists.

If you’ve followed baseball over the last decade or so, you’ll instantly see it’s the exact same debate.

For the old baseball scouts who trust their eyes and their guts, sub “the savvy,” the journalists who assemble narratives from interviews, observations and their own experience — their ears and their guts, if you will. For the baseball stats guys, sub folks like Silver who wade into polls and try to weigh bias, calculate probabilities and make predictions.

Here’s the thing, though: This debate actually ended a long time ago in baseball. Every front office has people who mine advanced stats and try to value players objectively. Some front offices give it more weight than others, but all of them understand the value of the Moneyball approach and take at least some heed of its lessons. The debate only continues among hack columnists and announcers, intellectual refusenik fans and people who know better but can’t resist fighting with them.

So what about journalism? Well, I suppose it’s progress that FiveThirtyEight now appears under the umbrella of the New York Times. But some elbows are getting thrown beneath its shelter. Here’s Silver today, turning a merciless eye on the latest batch of battleground state polls and explaining what has to be wrong with their methodology for Mitt Romney to be elected on Tuesday night. And here are Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg, opening with a breathless fusillade of words about “a stubborn landscape of competitive states that right to the end are producing equal shares of hope and fear amid conflicting signals about the outcome.”

The intellectual disconnect is startling, to say the least. The mission of both articles is to inform readers of one of the world’s marquee newspapers about the state of the race. But their conclusions are diametrically opposed. And the fact that they’re sitting side by side tells me that journalism has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to baseball in terms of how to measure what matters.

The thing is, measuring what matters is much harder in baseball. Even a bright child understands that the popular vote has nothing to do with the Electoral College. To be fair, Zeleny and Rutenberg don’t mention the popular vote — they focus on the battleground states. But their story is almost entirely the stuff of the savvy: a narrative about the race so far, details of travel schedules and snippets from speeches, and windows into the hopes and fears of well-placed campaign insiders. It’s a compelling narrative, but one built almost entirely of qualification with precious little quantification — and in the end, Election Day is nothing but quantification.

Perhaps Silver has been more annoyed by his critics than he’s let on, because he closes today’s post with a devastating critique of the kind of journalism his colleagues are practicing: “If the state polls are right, then Mr. Obama will win the Electoral College. If you can’t acknowledge that after a day when Mr. Obama leads 19 out of 20 swing-state polls, then you should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public.”

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Dean Starkman and the Future of News

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on November 10, 2011

For reasons personal and professional (not to mention existential), I’ve largely taken a hiatus from discussing the future of news — more on that soon. But I can’t let Dean Starkman’s CJR examination of news today and the FON (that’s Future of News) crowd go by without a few comments.

For the most part, I thought Starkman’s critique was clear-eyed, smart and even-handed. (Disclosure: We were colleagues at different arms of the Wall Street Journal an age ago, and I know him and admire his work.)

I agree with all of his main points:

Like Dean, I’m worried that we’re in danger of losing a critical mass of accountability journalism, particularly given the difficulties smaller news outfits will face in trying to replace it — my take on this is here.

Like Dean, I worry about how local reporting will get done. There’s no shortage of people happy to cover the Red Sox out of love, but good luck getting the same folks to cover Pawtucket City Hall. (As Starkman notes in a good laugh line, he’s covered that august institution, and you had to pay him.) I sure as hell don’t want to see coverage of local government agencies left to the agencies themselves and local eccentrics armed with tin-foil hats and WordPress accounts.

Like Dean, I’m suspicious of many critiques of storytelling and the supposed hierarchy of authority implicit in it. A principle of reporting, nicely articulated by Jay Rosen and cited by Starkman, is “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” At least in terms of journalism, that’s where storytelling’s authority comes from. To this, add the reality that the vast majority of people want to consume content and have no interest in creating it — a point digerati often miss, dismiss, or see as a problem that needs solving. And we haven’t even touched questions about skills needed to tell a story responsibly and/or entertainingly.

Like Dean, I think many paywall criticisms have been myopic. (Disclosure: I’ve worked for and Press+.) I do think it’s critical to understand how newsrooms have been historically funded: For example, Clay Shirky’s explanation of how advertisers subsidized overseas war reporting by accident should be required reading. With this understanding, news organizations’ efforts to get readers to pay for this work have a better chance of succeeding; without it, those organizations often retreat into the comfortable trap of thinking of their reporting as a pillar of civil society, which might be true but carries no guarantee that anyone will pay for it. That said, however, I don’t get how journalism thinkers can wax rhapsodic about new digital tools and their earthshaking effect on society in one post, then tell us in another that readers’ habits about paying for things are fixed and immutable.

Like Dean, I think hamster-wheel journalism has led to a tragic lack of focus by overburdened reporters too tired or cowed to protest — my take on this is here, with a caveat down below.

And finally, like Dean, I hope that workable 21st-century journalism emerges from some combination of institutional efforts and the powers of networked readers.

I disagree with Dean, though, on a few points.

First off, I think his treatment of whether or not news is a commodity demanded more nuance. The fact is that not all news is created equal. Is an investigative story that took months to come together commodity news? Obviously not. Neither is a clear-eyed analysis of local budgetary policy, a lyrical feature, or a good column. (And this is why I think all of these forms are currently undervalued, and will return to prominence.) But with most papers, many articles remain much the same (if not identical) to ones you can find lots of other places. A generation ago this didn’t matter, as geography protected papers from competition. But with those geographical protections gone, every paper now competes with every other paper for readers, and a lot of me-too coverage has been revealed for what it is. (This is just one reason the AP is in trouble.) This state of affairs is forcing papers to ask hard questions — or rather, it should be. The classic example of such a question is how many movie critics we really need, but there are others. How many sportswriters do we need at the World Series? How many stories about spring gardening in the Northeast? How many Washington reporters? This is where Jeff Jarvis’s coinage “do what you do best and link to the rest” makes sense as a blueprint for news organizations in a networked system.

Speaking of that networked system of news, hasn’t it progressed pretty far? The idea that the New York Times would collaborate with a non-profit organization to publish a lengthy article under its own banner would have seemed the stuff of science fiction a decade ago; Sheri Fink’s epochal 2009 Katrina story won a Pulitzer, with no particular fuss over the arrangement. Rather than act as if rivals don’t exist, writers retweet competitors’ stories and curate them in roundups. Topic-specific Twitter feeds even put rival papers’ headlines on section fronts. We’re not at “do what you do best and link to the rest” yet, largely because of the conservatism of established, print-centric players, but we sure seem to be moving toward it. And these changes pale compared to what will be ushered in by the atomization of brands — rather than visit news organizations’ sites as destinations, I now get a huge amount of my news an article at a time, retrieved from a river of information created by my friends and peers. Forget arguing about paywalls — we better figure out how to pay for news as bits and pieces that travel, rather than as treasures locked away in destination-site vaults.

* Finally, there’s the hamster wheel. Dean thinks the years of panic are behind the news industry, but I’m not so sure about that — for panic is what keeps the hamster wheel spinning. Yes, too many journalists are stuck with a long multimedia checklist for each assignment — filing for multiple entities, chatting, commenting, promoting stories, gathering data, shooting video, doing podcasts, and so forth. All this frenetic generation of content arguably robs them of the chance to dig more deeply into stories and offer better analysis — the very things, ironically, that might make their articles signals amid the me-too noise. But I think this is less a blueprint for the future than it is a snapshot of current bad management. All of the skills on that checklist are useful, and today’s journalists should be conversant with all of them, or at least not hostile to learning. But, again, not all stories are created equal. A few stories are excellent candidates to serve as the centerpieces of packages including audio, video, data and robust debate, but most are just fine as simple articles — or short videos with minimal text, or what have you. Journalists — at least those not led by craven, unimaginative bosses — will learn to pick and choose, and regain some of their focus.

Or at least I sure hope they will.

* * *

Since we’re talking the future of news, I’ve collected 19 of my best National Sports Journalism Center columns into an e-book, Sportswriting in the Digital Age. It’s available for $2.99 from AmazonBN.comSmashwords, and the Apple store. Proceeds help pay my mortgage; feed, clothe and educate my kid; and support my love of beer and various geeky hobbies. Thank you!

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Further Thoughts on Teams as Publishers

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on September 18, 2011

Last week I wrote a column for Poynter looking back at my two years writing about digital sportswriting for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center. When I began writing my NSJC columns, I thought the clash between the mainstream media and indie bloggers would be a subject I’d come back to again and again. But that didn’t happen; instead, I came to see the MSM and bloggers as variations on the same theme. Something else struck as much more important to the future of journalism: namely, that teams, leagues, associations, athletes and agents were all beginning to bypass journalists and communicate directly with fans using digital tools that let anybody become a publisher. As I see it, those efforts will inevitably lead to teams and other sports entities regarding journalists as competitors, endangering the old, tacit bargain in which newspapers got access and readers and teams got publicity and customers. (You can read the rest of my argument here.)

The reactions were interesting — one objection I heard from multiple folks was that teams and other entities aren’t capable of reporting impartially on their own doings, and therefore sports fans won’t trust information from them.

The first part of this is undoubtedly true (as it is for any organization); it’s the second part that concerns me.

I’m certainly sympathetic to the argument. I don’t want to get my concussion news from the Saints, my NBA lockout updates from the Knicks and my Madoff analysis from the Mets. But I’m not so confident that I’m representative of all readers, or that most sports fans welcome the press serving as watchdogs. And I think even the best-case scenario in which teams are publishers and competitors will be a challenge for journalists.

First, the readership question. We should admit that a lot of information generated by sports doesn’t particularly need interpretation by journalists. Lineups, injury reports, signings, and results are relatively straightforward affairs; given the ability to see highlights whenever we want, the game story has largely outlived its usefulness in professional sports, particularly since today’s athletes are trained to offer little beyond carefully bland clichés. Teams also now have plenty of indie bloggers following them, who offer plenty of fan reaction, historical context, statistical analysis and other perspectives without the need to set foot in a locker room. That’s a lot of information for sports fans right there, without having discussed traditional journalism at all.

Sports, of course, is bigger than just game results and team news — really understanding what’s going on with your favorite team demands some awareness of economics, labor relations, health issues, drug testing and more. But now we’ve moved beyond more casual fans to a smaller audience. And every time sports reporting moves beyond the basics of the games and the sport to controversial subjects, you get objections from some fans that a certain issue isn’t sports, or ruins sports, strays into athlete’s private lives, etc. I don’t think that’s true of reporting on government or civic institutions, or at least it isn’t true nearly as often. As journalists, we see ourselves as watchdogs protecting the public interest, but plenty of readers see us as institutions with our own agendas. What we think of as a necessary mission may strike plenty of readers as special pleading.

So what will happen as teams explore the possibilities of being publishers in their own right? You’ll see a lot of experimentation — they won’t all take the same approach. But there will be a basic scenario underpinning those experiments: Teams will be competing with journalists for clicks, and will have unbeatable access to information. That’s a pretty good hand to be dealt, and they’ll certainly do something with it.

The good news? One best-case scenario for journalists would actually be a very positive development. Teams may continue to accept that the publicity they get from news accounts is worth the annoyance of reporters’ disruptive questions and occasional bad press — they’ll be more aggressive about being publishers in their own right, but also welcome whatever audience they can get from newspapers, TV and the web. Realizing they can’t compete with teams for a lot of basic information, traditional journalists will stop reporting minutiae, writing traditional game stories and churning out commodity stuff. Instead, they’ll focus their efforts on more interesting fare, forcing an evolution of sports journalism that should be good for publishers and fans alike.

There are other possibilities, though. I can see team coverage being handled at the league level, which would give leagues control, standardize coverage and account for teams that don’t want to cover themselves or would stink at it. (Every league has teams that are smart and progressive about digital possibilities and teams that are Neanderthals about them.) We’re not that far from this scenario: Leagues already saddle news organizations with restrictions on the use of highlights and other information they produce. And consider that, for one, has a big roster of team reporters who do a pretty solid job providing relatively unvarnished accounts of team news. What if these league reporters were given preferential access to clubhouses? Or sole access?

Then there’s the worst-case scenario, in which teams shut out traditional reporters as competitors who aren’t worth the problems they bring. Some fans are upset, but most relatively casual fans still have lots of red meat. Relatively straightforward news comes from the teams, color comes from the athletes themselves, and lots of indie bloggers generate information from any number of perspectives. In-depth stories about labor, stadium funding, college scandals, injury patterns and other issues become harder to write and appear more rarely. So too do good features that give us better senses of individual players and teams.

I hope we’re headed for that first scenario. But even if it comes to pass, sports journalists are due for some wrenching cultural changes. And I can’t rule out the other scenarios.

* * *

I’ve collected 19 of my best Indiana columns into an e-book, Sportswriting in the Digital Age. It’s available for $2.99 from Amazon,, Smashwords, and the Apple store. Proceeds help pay my mortgage; feed, clothe and educate my kid; and support my love of beer and various geeky hobbies. Thank you!

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Where Papers’ Linking Problems Begin

Posted in Cultural Change, Hyperlinks by reinventingthenewsroom on May 20, 2011

Why aren’t news organizations better about linking? That question reverberates in digital-journalism circles periodically, and since the link is one of the more fundamental tenets of the web, if not the fundamental tenet, a failure to link is often portrayed as a symptom of an anti-digital culture.

Here, for instance, is Doc Searls on the topic: “Even now, in 2011, [mainstream media are] still trying to shove the Web’s genie back in the old ink bottle. They do it with paywalls, with schemes to drag your eyes past pages and pages of advertising, and (perhaps worst of all) by leaving out hyperlinks. Never mind that the hyperlink is a perfect way to practice one of journalism’s prime responsibilities: citing sources. … Maybe they take too seriously ‘s “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy” thesis (#7) in , and want to stay on (or crawl to the) top of whatever heaps they occupy.”

(Normally I would have dropped those links as extraneous, but that doesn’t seem like a good idea for this post.)

There’s some very interesting commentary on Searls’ post, with the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Boyer noting that his paper’s “workflows and CMSs are print-centric” — and others noting other CMS troubles with linking. That kicked off the latest round in this long-running discussion, a Twitter exchange featuring (among others) Mathew Ingram, C.W. Anderson, Jacob Harris and Patrick LaForge, the last two from the New York Times. The Twitter back-and-forth was captured by Ingram (and Politico’s Alex Byers) using Storify — see it here.

Ingram is tired of the workflow argument, contending on Twitter that “the fact this is STILL a workflow issue is almost worse than not caring.” Harris, for his part, tried to defend the Times, asking (at various points) if most readers care about links, and noting that “we aim to inform, but why does it matter when we link if Google is there and offers more choice to the reader?” (To be fair, Harris stated upfront that he was playing devil’s advocate.)

The last piece to consider is this discussion of workflow at Strange Attractor. Kevin Anderson, a veteran of the Guardian, notes the problems the Guardian endured going from Movable Type to a less-friendly content-management system, and a larger issue it faced: “There was an internal conflict over whether to use the web tools or the print tools to create content, and in the end, the print tools won out. The politics of print versus the web played out even in the tools we used to create content. That was an even more jarring move. It was like trying to create a web story with movable type, and I’m not talking about the blogging platform. Most newspaper CMSes are more WordPerfect from the 1980s than WordPress.”

This hearkens back to something Boyer said in commenting on Searls’s post, which Anderson also quoted: “In our newsroom, a reporter writes in Microsoft Word that’s got some fancy hooks to a publishing workflow. It goes to an editor, then copy, etc., and finally to the pagination system for flowing into the paper. Only after that process is complete does a web producer see the content. They’ve got so many things to wrangle that it would be unfair to expect the producer to read and grok each and every story published to the web to add links. When I got here a couple years ago, a fresh-faced web native, I assumed many of the similar ideas proposed above. ‘Why don’t they link?? It’s so *easy* to link!’ I’m not saying this isn’t broken. It is terribly broken, but it’s the way things are. Until newspapers adopt web-first systems, we’re stuck.”

Bingo — except the solution depends on what you mean when you say “systems.”

I spent more than 12 years as a columnist, editor and cat-herder at The Wall Street Journal Online, during which time I was the editorial guy on numerous enhancements to our editing-and-publishing tools, culminating in a project to replace those tools entirely. We opted to replace our systems with editing-and-publishing tools from EidosMedia, where I worked after the Journal and I parted ways — and where I got to see a number of other newsrooms’ workflows. (Disclosure: I’m still an EidosMedia consultant, and they sponsor this blog.)

Having seen this issue from a couple of different perspectives, I think at this point it’s much more a people problem than it is a systems problem. I keep thinking back to a conversation I had with a reporter for the print Journal, when I was still there and we were pondering how to replace our editing-and-publishing tools, and how that would change our workflows and newsroom hierarchy.

We were down in the nitty-gritty, discussing the various content fields we’d ask reporters to enter when they filed stories. The print reporter was adamant that those should be stripped to the minimum — the text of the story, essentially. I was advocating (equally adamantly) that everything at least be available for reporters to enter, from headlines and summaries to links and supporting documents.

I noted that as a columnist for the web arm of the Journal, I wrote my own headlines, summaries and did all my own links — and frankly, I was goddamned if I was going to let somebody else touch that stuff. It was my work, bearing my name, and I would be the one judged on the results — not some copy editor or web producer whose name wasn’t on the story.

The print reporter looked at me like I was from Mars — which, essentially, I was.

That exchange went to the heart of a big question for our team. I advocated that the reporters not only be brought into the system, but also be forced (or at least strongly encouraged) to work within it, with as many of the story responsibilities as possible pushed “upstream” to them. That was the way we worked on the web, and the advantages of it seemed self-evident to me. Headlines and summaries would be more accurate. Interesting links or extra material was much less likely to get discarded as stories crossed from the print to the web side of the house, missed opportunities I was tired of bemoaning. Downstream, web workflows would be smarter and more humane — our night folks had a crushing workload, and were too busy putting out fires and fixing problems to read stories carefully and craft packages of links. And so on.

But this view wasn’t shared everywhere. Attitude-wise, the reporters didn’t fit into one box — some were enthusiastic webheads and agents for change, while others were digital refuseniks. Like the reporter I’d argued with, they wanted the complexity and perceived duties of the web kept as far away as possible. Sometimes this was because they were already extraordinarily busy with the difficult, demanding business of reporting and writing; other times it was because the digital world was intimidating. And they were supported — to my surprise — by some print editors and bureau chiefs, who didn’t want reporters bird-dogging their stories through the workflow. Plus there were union issues, and technology questions with reporters in the field, and a host of other reasons that supported the status quo. That was Word and email, which I objected vociferously would continue to support a text-only workflow that pushed linking and everything else downstream, to people who were too busy or removed from the story creation to do it effectively.

I suspect a lot of newsrooms have had similar debates — and the reasons are more mundane corporate or human stuff than part of some revanchist, anti-web strategy.

If I were running a newsroom and had a decent technology budget, I’d get my reporters and editors a good system, then tell them they were all working in it — and those who objected to that were welcome to explore the excellent opportunities available in corporate communications. Never waste a good crisis, as the saying goes — and that’s certainly what news organizations have. But the point is that improving systems isn’t enough. The biggest problem in most newsrooms I’ve seen is that Person X doesn’t talk to Person Y — because he can’t physically, or never has, or doesn’t want to, or has been discouraged from doing so. The killer app for those newsrooms isn’t something they can get from a vendor — it’s a better seating chart.

So it is with linking woes — in many cases, I suspect, these are people problems.

Finding Journalism’s New Sweet Spot

Posted in Creating Context, Cultural Change, The And World, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on February 11, 2011

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.

What the New York Times Could Learn From a Vows Column

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on December 29, 2010

Before Christmas, the New York Times set off a web firestorm with a Vows column that was highly controversial, to say the least: It told the story of TV reporter Carol Anne Riddell and ad executive John Partilla, who divorced their spouses and split up their families to wed. The two acknowledged the pain they’d caused — Partilla said that “I did a terrible thing as honorably as I could” — but Times readers for the most part found the two selfish and self-centered, and lacerated the couple in comments before the Times closed them. The reaction was similar on other websites and blogs, making for a spectacle that was simultaneously cringeworthy and fascinating. Internet shamings are always striking, but relatively few of them are so thoroughly self-inflicted.

But the column raised journalistic questions as well — and offered a valuable lesson in why news organizations need to be more open about the reporting and editing process.

In his blog for Forbes, Jeff Bercovici began with a pointed question: “Why were the ex-spouses of the newlyweds not mentioned by name in the story? Did the reporter call them for comment, as basic journalistic practice would dictate?” Asked that question, Riddell — perhaps beginning to understand she’d aimed both barrels at her own feet —  declined to say, telling Bercovici that “I really don’t want to wade into this any further than we already have. It’s not helpful to anybody.” But she did say that the paper had been free to tell their story without preconditions: “They made their own decisions on that front.”

So Bercovici asked a Times spokeswoman, who said that “we do not comment on the process of editing and reporting including who was and was not contacted for interviews related to a specific story. The Vows/Wedding column adheres to the standards of the Times.”

Bercovici kept digging, and reached Riddell’s ex-husband, media executive Bob Ennis. Ennis said he hadn’t been contacted, and then lowered the boom on his ex and the Times. “The primary story here is not that interesting. People lie and cheat and steal all the time. That’s a fact of life. But rarely does a national news organization give them an unverified megaphone to whitewash it.” Ennis said he didn’t expect the Times to fact-check a style story, but added that “there’s a difference between that and publishing a choreographed, self-serving piece of revisionist history for two people who are both members of the media industry.”

Ennis was absolutely right — and the Times spokeswoman, asked to answer for the paper’s reporting, did the Times no favors by climbing atop a high horse and delivering a statement that only things made worse. The Times’ response reminded me of Cody Brown’s “magic journalism box,” an opaque structure inside which sources, information and everything else get turned into a finished newspaper story. With this model, Brown notes, a paper develops its brand “as the voice of god. … The community does not own the paper, an average person has little ability to influence it and because of this the paper is under constant scrutiny. … When they drop a story, it is designed to be read as fact.”

The problem with that opaque box, as Brown notes, is that it invites constant scrutiny — and when “newspapers publish something wrong, it doesn’t take more than a few careless edits for a newspaper brand to fall to pieces.” And in recent years, of course, the Times has had a couple of disasters emerge from its opaque box, leading to internal turmoil and giving its critics ample ammunition.

But you sure don’t see any evidence of lessons learned in how the paper handled this particular mess. The Times spokeswoman’s response is voice-of-god stuff — it’s not exactly illuminating (bad) and reveals this particular god as somewhat less than infallible (worse). For the Times clearly didn’t adhere to its own standards, telling one side of a painful story that obviously had another. Worse, it opened itself to charges that the story existed because a member of the media was doing a favor for another member of the media, as Ennis insinuated.

So what are the lessons here? I see three:

1. Innovation isn’t everything: Many commenters remarked that they expected feel-good stories from Vows. This is the kind of reader mindset that drives newspaper editors crazy, and often leads to ill-advised attempts to shake things up. (Ask anybody who’s ever tried to improve the comics page by turfing out ancient, boring strips. Beware the wrath of Mark Trail fans!) Yes, the newspaper’s job includes giving readers spinach to eat — but don’t try to get readers to eat it by mixing it into their ice cream. Familiar routines and comforting features are an important part of serving readers, too.

2. If you start open, stay open: The Times took the rare step of allowing comments on the Riddell/Partilla Vows column — but then closed them after about 24 hours, with the torch-wielding mob still in full cry. That looks like a second-guess. Think twice about changing course, and if you do so, explain why you’re doing it.

3. Remember that readers assume the worst: It’s an unhappy truth of journalism that in the absence of information, readers assume conspiracies, bias and agendas. The magic journalism box does us no favors here, allowing readers to imagine all sorts of malfeasance taking place out of their view. If they could see more of what actually occurs (within the bounds of propriety and responsibility to sources), I think we’d look far better than we do — readers would see that most reporters try to represent subjects and people fairly, and have a better understanding of why some sources aren’t identified. Rather than the opaque magic journalism box, give readers the marvelous journalism box, which is clear except for a few small areas shielded from view, with explanations for why those places are out of bounds.

When mistakes are made, this level of openness would give readers a better understanding of what went wrong, and let them see how often things went right. Is Ennis right that the Riddell/Partilla Vows column was a product of media ties? I’d like to think he isn’t, but the Times spokeswoman’s stonewalling response sure didn’t reassure me.

On Denton, Paton, Profanity and Other Topics

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on December 13, 2010

Some quick thoughts on recent topics making the digital-journalism rounds:

Gawker is changing the template for its sites, and a while back Nick Denton explained the thinking behind the new look. As always with Denton, he makes a lot of very smart points and dresses them up in a fair amount of showmanship.

The foundation of the Gawker redesign is that it’s ditching the traditional reverse-chronological blog design. Now there’s a splash story presented in full on the left and a scrollable series of headlines on the right. Denton notes that “every inside page will hew to the same template as the front page. No matter whether the visitor keys in the site address or arrives from the side by a link on Facebook or elsewhere, he or she will be greeted not just by a story but by an index of other recent items.”

In other words, depending on your philosophical bent you could say there will be no home page, every page will be a home page, or both. (The waning importance of home pages is a subject of longstanding interest to me.) I discussed what this means for sports sections in my weekly column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, but the basic lesson is the same for any news organization: Any article can be a window into a site, and in our era of search and social media, the model built around a homepage and navigation is increasingly out of step with the fragmented nature of how we find and read news. As Denton himself notes, “referrals from Facebook have increased sixfold since the start of the year; and audience spikes appear to be larger than ever before. We can turn more of those drive-by visitors into regulars by turning every page into a front page.”

It’s hard to imagine this trend reversing as social media becomes more and more ubiquitous, which means all the sweat and pain going into site redesigns is increasingly a misallocated effort. In a funny way, news people are a poor choice to design newspapers: We tend to be news junkies, and as such we have a well-honed understanding of how to navigate a newspaper in physical or digital form. But a lot of casual readers aren’t like us. Their home page is increasingly likely to be Facebook, and they may never see the front page of Gawker or the New York Times or whatever organization is the source of a story.

The reaction to Denton’s explainer was interesting. Reuters’ Felix Salmon broke down the likely effects of the new format on Gawker’s page views, predicting it will lead to a decline in views (because there will be fewer clicks to reach what you want to read) and kill Gawker’s sponsored posts, since the flow of reverse-chron news is marginalized, making it less likely that sponsored posts will be encountered within the flow. “There’s a whopping irony here,” he noted. “Denton was the first person to turn blogging into a large-scale commercial venture: he bet on the potential of the blog medium earlier than anybody else, and to a large degree he’s personally responsible for the reputation that blogs have among the population at large. He then brought on [Chris] Batty to try to sell ads against this strange new reverse-chronological stream of disparate posts. Now, however, it’s Batty who is fighting for what he calls the ‘narrative carrying capacity’ of that reverse-chronological stream: it’s Batty, the ad guy, fighting to preserve what you might call the essence of blog. And it’s Denton, the original Blogfather, who’s aggressively throwing it away.”

And in the New York Times, Nick Bilton started off with a very interesting historical parallel, showing a century-old NYT front page that’s a hopeless jumble of text and fonts, without the cues of modern newspaper design that help us navigate. “This change happened at The Times — and at other newspapers — over a number of decades as designers and editors figured out that readers didn’t want more news, but instead wanted a more concise culling of news,” he writes. “Now we’re starting to see these types of design and editorial changes take place with blogs and Web sites online.”

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Earlier this month, Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton walked an audience at the INMA Transformation of News summit through his blueprint for digital-first newspapers and tackling the necessary organizational and cultural change. I can’t do better than the 140 characters I used to call it out on Twitter, so here it is again: “If someone could only read one thing on changing the future of #newspapers, I’d have them read this.”

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Finally, here’s my take (also from NSJC) on whether the web is changing the rules for how news organizations deal with profanity.

Sports Departments and Innovation

Posted in Cultural Change, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on October 20, 2010

My latest National Sports Journalism Center column began with this post on The Changing Newsroom, the excellent blog by the University of Memphis’s Carrie Brown-Smith, in which Brown-Smith and Drury University’s Jonathan Groves identified sports departments as homes for newspaper’s Web innovators. Asked on Twitter if I thought that were true, I said that I did — and then spent some time thinking about why.

Here’s the answer — or rather, five answers. All of which really come back to the same answer, which is that unlike lots of other subjects in the paper, there is an enormous appetite for sports news, analysis and conversation. In-depth stories about civics, politics or science often get discussed as spinach readers feel compelled to eat, but sports is nothing like that — plenty of fans will happy scarf down everything a newspaper can offer and then go looking for more. Sports departments began responding to that demand before their colleagues in other departments did, meaning they’ve had more time to adapt to innovations. Sports departments accepted long ago that news is a real-time endeavor, embraced Twitter, and have been arguably helped by becoming part of an ecosystem of papers, sports-news sites, and independent blogs.

The lesson for me is that the days of deriding sports as the Toy Department should be long gone. Sports have gone digital-first; newspaper departments that are struggling with doing the same could do a lot worse than spending a couple of weeks on the sports desk.

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For a superb example of using Twitter as a journalistic tool, look at how Joanna Smith of the Toronto Star is handling reporting from the court proceedings against Col. Russell Williams, a Canadian air force officer who has confessed to brutal rapes and murders. Smith has been letting the story unfold 140 characters at a time, mixing the evidence presented with reactions from the courtroom — and sometimes firmly telling us that she’s going to elide some details. At the same time, Smith is smoothly answering readers’ tweets, some of them challenging or hostile. There’s a lot to learn from here — Smith is doing several very difficult things simultaneously, and doing all of them well. (Warning: The details of the Williams case are horrifying.)

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My apologies for scarce posts — I am working as senior editor for through the end of the year, and trying to finish a book that’s due at the end of the month. I will try to be a better correspondent once I can breathe a bit.

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What Wired Left Out of Its Web Eulogy

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Fun With Metaphors, IPad, Social Search by reinventingthenewsroom on August 19, 2010

This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Maybe you heard: The web has been declared dead, and everybody’s mad about it.

I’ll get to checking the web’s vital signs in a moment, but one thing is clear: The hype and hucksterism of packaging, promoting, and presenting magazine articles is very much alive. I found Chris Anderson’s Wired article and Michael Wolff’s sidebar pretty nuanced and consistently interesting, which made for an awkward fit with the blaring headlines and full-bore PR push.

But looking past this annoyance, Anderson’s article makes a number of solid points — some I hadn’t thought of and some that are useful reminders of how much things have changed in the past few years. (For further reading, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has a terrific take on why the model of continuous technological revolution and replacement isn’t really correct and doesn’t serve us well, and Boing Boing nails why the graphic included in the Wired package is misleading.)

Still, Anderson almost lost me at hello. Yes, I like to use my iPad for email — and I frequently check out Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times on it. But for the latter three, I don’t use apps but the browser itself (in my case, AtomicWeb). As I’ve written before, so far the iPad’s killer app is the browser — more specifically, the chance to have a speedy, readable web experience that doesn’t require you to peer at a tiny screen or sit down in front of a laptop or desktop. So going by Anderson’s own opening examples, the web isn’t dead for me — better to say that apps are in the NICU.

But I couldn’t argue with this: “Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open web to semi-closed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display.” That’s absolutely correct, as is Anderson’s observation that this many-platform state of affairs is “the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen).”

That not-going-to-the-screen is critical, and — again — a big reason that the iPad has been a hit. But as my iPad habits show, that doesn’t necessarily imply a substitution of apps for the web. Nor, as Anderson himself notes, are such substitutions really a rejection of the web. It would have been less compelling but more accurate to say that the web isn’t dying but being joined by a lot of other contact points between the user and the sea of digital information, with points emerging for different settings, situations, and times of day. Sometimes a contact point is a different presentation of the web, and sometimes it’s something else entirely.

It’s also interesting to ask whether users of various devices care — and whether they should. Anderson brings up push technology and, with it, PointCast, a name that made me shudder reflexively. A long time ago, (like most every media company of the time) became infatuated with push, going as far as to appoint a full-time editor for it. It was tedious and horrible, a technology in search of an audience, and our entire newsroom was thrilled when the spell was broken and the damn thing went away. But Anderson notes that while PointCast didn’t work, push sure did. Push is now so ubiquitous that we only notice its absence: When I’m outside the U.S. and have to turn off push notifications to my phone, I have the same in-limbo feeling I used to get when I was away from my computer for a couple of days.

The problem with the first incarnation of push was that the only contact point was the computer screen, meaning information often wasn’t pushed close enough to you, or was being pushed down the same pipe you were trying to use for something else. Now, information is pushed to the web — and to smartphones and tablets and game consoles and social networks and everything else — and push has vanished into the fabric of How Things Are.

Generally, I think the same is true of the web vs. other methods of digital interaction — which is why the over-hyped delivery of the Wired article seemed so unfortunate. There isn’t a zero-sum game between the web and other ways of presenting information to customers — they all have their role in consumers’ lives, and increasingly form a spectrum to be tapped into as people choose. Even if apps and other methods of accessing and presenting that information take more parts of that spectrum away from the open web, I doubt content companies, telcos, or anybody else will kill the open web or even do it much damage.

Frankly, both Anderson and Wolff do a good job of showing how adherence to the idea of the open web has calcified into dogma. Before the iPad appeared, there was a lot of chatter about closed systems that I found elitist and tiresome, with people who ought to know better dismissing those who don’t want to tinker with settings or create content as fools or sheep. Near the end of his article, Anderson seems to briefly fall into this same trap, writing that “an entire generation has grown up in front of a browser. The exploration of a new world has turned into business as usual. We get the web. It’s part of our life. And we just want to use the services that make our life better. Our appetite for discovery slows as our familiarity with the status quo grows. Blame human nature. As much as we intellectually appreciate openness, at the end of the day we favor the easiest path.”

That’s smart, except for the “blame human nature” part. Of course we favor the easiest path. The easiest path to doing something you want to do has a lot to recommend it — particularly if it’s something you do every day! I’m writing this blog post — creating something — using open web tools. Since this post is getting kinda long, I might prefer to read it on my iPad, closed system and all. The two co-exist perfectly happily. Ultimately, the web, mobile and otherwise, else will blend in consumers’ minds, with the distinction between the web and other ways of accessing digital information of interest only to those who remember when such distinctions mattered and/or who have to dig into systems’ technological guts. There’s nothing wrong with that blending at all — frankly, it would be a little disappointing if we stayed so technologically silo’ed that these things remained separate.

Even if “big content” flows through delivery methods that are less open and more controlled, anybody with bandwidth will still be able to create marvelous things on the open web using an amazing selection of free tools. As various technological kinks are worked out, traffic and attention will flow seamlessly among the various ways of accessing digital information. And social search and discovery will increasingly counteract industrial search and discovery, providing alternate ways of finding and sharing content through algorithms that reward popularity and scale. People who create good content (as well as a lot of content that’s ephemeral but amusing or diverting) will still find themselves with an audience, ensuring a steady flow of unlikely YouTube hits, Twitter phenomena, and hot blogs. The web isn’t dead — it’s just finding its niche. But that niche is pretty huge. The web will remain vigorous and important, while apps and mobile notifications and social networks grow in importance alongside it.

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