Reinventing the Newsroom

How Breaking News Is Changing

Posted in Social Media, The And World, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on April 16, 2013

I’ve been doing some work with my old friends and colleagues at Poynter, and wound up pitching in with their coverage of yesterday’s terrible events in Boston. Which got me thinking about breaking news and how it’s changing with readers seeing each step of the newsgathering process. My take is here.

For anyone who stumbles across this, this blog is now updated fairly rarely. You can keep up with my adventures writing, editing and (occasionally) consulting over at my Tumblr, Jason Fry’s Dorkery. Or follow me on Twitter.

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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.

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.

* * *

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.)

* * *

My apologies for scarce posts — I am working as senior editor for MSG.com 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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Houston, We Have a Twitter Strategy (and Other Tuesday Reads)

Posted in Branding, Communities, Going Local, IPad, Paid Content, Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 25, 2010

For a look at a great way to use Twitter and Twitter lists, check out the Houston Chronicle’s efforts, as explained by blog editor Dwight Silverman. (And found through Steve Buttry’s excellent post on the subject, which includes a terrific slide show of Twitter advice.) The Chronicle has had a fair amount of success getting local Twitter users to use a #hounews hashtag for local breaking news, and now they’re expanding that idea to Twitter lists — tweets from members of the lists appear on the Chronicle’s homepage, but only if the #hounews tag is included.

That strikes me as a smart way to filter out noise from the Twitter feed without a lot of work on the Chronicle’s side, though it does require members of the Twitter list to be proactive about including the hashtag. In his blog post, Silverman asks readers who want to be part of the list to email him, and says he’ll look at their feeds to see if they make sense for inclusion. He’s also set up a Twitter list of his own that includes people he’d like to have in the group — which is a clever way of flattering people and publicly asking them to help.

Sticking with the techie side of things, here’s the New York Times explaining how it built a better submission form for reader photos. Beyond being like catnip for coders, think of the message this sends to readers, potential advertisers, business partners and anybody else: The Times is willing to hand over its blueprints because its confidence in its own technological abilities is a lot bigger than any worries that its competitors might steal a step from it. The Times knows that smarts are like sunshine — you don’t run out of them. Giving away an idea or two is worth it if it means you get to keep people’s attention.

In discussing the prospects of the iPad and other e-readers, Meredith Corp.’s CEO noted that a migration of 20% of readers of Meredith titles to e-readers could save the company $30 million in paper, $16 million in printing costs and $16 million in mailing costs each year. There’s an assumption in there that’s by no means assured — namely, that people will pay for Meredith paid apps — and without it, these cost-savings are tantamount to being happy you’re spending less on gas now that you no longer have to drive to the workplace where you’re no longer employed. But if people will pay for apps, it’s a useful reminder of the potential savings to be had from a migration to digital.

Finally, Mike Pesca of NPR chatted with me about a recent Faith and Fear in Flushing blog post in which I wrote what I learned sorting through baseball cards that belonged to my neighbor’s late brother. I think Mike did a great job making this story work in audio form for “All Things Considered,” which was interesting for a word guy like me to be a part of. And I was amused to find myself trying to speak in the “NPR voice.” It just comes from knowing where you are, apparently.

Is Twitter a Social Network?

Posted in Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 7, 2010

This post originally appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab.

Information Week posted an interesting account of an academic paper presented at the International World Wide Web Conference last month. The paper, written by four Korean researchers, analyzed 41.7 million Twitter user profiles, 1.47 billion social relations, 4,262 trending topics and 106 million tweets to examine the relationships between tweeters and the distribution of information across the microblogging network. (The paper is available here as a PDF.)

Their conclusions: Twitter isn’t a social network, but something more akin to traditional news media.

Twitter logoWhy isn’t Twitter a social network? The researchers noted that Twitter relationships don’t have to be reciprocal — there’s no need to follow someone back who is following you, while Facebook relationships are two-way “friendships.” (Though that’s changing with the capability to “like” something.) Only 22.1% of Twitter user pairs follow each other, the researchers said. Moreover, they noted that most follower-followed relationships on Twitter are more akin to traditional-media relationships between subscribers to information and distributors of that information, with subscribers consuming information but having little contact with distributors. A relatively small number of users are the primary sources of news, with others redistributing that news; most tweets are related to timely topics; and retweets typically come very quickly — 35% in the first 10 minutes.

The researchers’ rationale for saying Twitter isn’t a social network strikes me as more a question of definitions than anything else, but it’s an intriguing discussion nonetheless — one I think touches on deeper questions. Is a social network still a social network if reciprocity is largely theoretical? Does that untapped reciprocity undermine its value? Will any large grouping of people exchanging information settle into a pattern akin to that of traditional media?

I have nearly 700 Facebook friends, but I’ve never communicated with the majority of them. They’re folks who walk in the same digital-journalism circles, or know my writing about sportswriting, baseball or even Star Wars. I’m happy to have them as friends (I could never get past the squick factor of setting up a fan page for myself) and I respond to their messages and comments. But I don’t get very many of those — those relationships are largely one-way. I’ve initiated such relationships myself, reaching out to be Facebook friends with people whose activities interest me, but whom I’ve never contacted. Yes, we’re linked in a social network. But in many cases the friendship is really just a vehicle that allows information to flow, and that flow is largely one-way.

Moreover, that’s a pattern on all social networks — and probably all networks, period. Last summer, a Harvard Business Review study found that 10% of Twitter users accounted for more than 90% of tweets. The researchers noted that was a more concentrated level of activity than is typical for social networks, in which the top 10% of users produce 30% of content. But again, the difference strikes me as one of degree, not kind: When you put people together in a network and let them create information, you get a few producers and a lot of consumers, just as discussions get a handful of engaged commentors and a lot of silent (but interested) lurkers. Social networks may move the percentage needle this way or that way depending on their parameters, but the pattern holds.

This can strike us as a shame: Why should two-way media produce mostly one-way interactions? But I don’t think it’s anything of the sort — because “mostly” is not the same as “entirely.” Social media carries with it the potential for reciprocation, replies and for conversation and connection. That potential lies fallow, waiting to be used — but it can be used instantly. And social media carries with it the expectation of response or at least acknowledgment — perhaps not to everybody, but to enough people to demonstrate that one is listening and not just talking. That’s a sea change from traditional-media information flows, even though they may look the same when transposed to social networks.

I’m still amazed at how thoroughly 140 characters and an @ sign level the playing field on Twitter, erasing relative status and power. When I think of my Twitter and Facebook experiences, I think not of the many relationships that haven’t yielded conversation and relationships, but of the few that have — and I know that those other relationships have that potential too.

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An Announcement

Posted in Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 7, 2010

My first post for Nieman Journalism Lab appears today. Starting now, selected posts from Reinventing the Newsroom will appear at Nieman before they run here, and I’ll provide links to them when they do. Other posts will remain unique to Reinventing the Newsroom.

I’ve been an admirer of the Nieman folks and their work for some time, so I’m honored to be considered worthy of joining their ranks, and look forward to working with them.

Thoughts on Twitter and Personality

Posted in Social Media, The Journalist as Brand, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 4, 2010

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center looks at the question of Twitter and whether personal tweets are a welcome bit of color in a news feed or noise that threatens to crowd out signal.

The genesis of the column was something odd that happened in Major League Baseball last week: A number of beat writers for MLB.com tweeted that they’d been told to limit their tweets to baseball. Those tweets were then deleted — as were tweets by some of the writers pointing out that they’d created personal accounts. That touched off a row about heavyhanded control, with MLB officials insisting that an email reminder had been mistaken for a change in policy.

Whatever the case, the furor did get at an issue that journalists and news organizations will have to grapple with: How much personality is too much in someone’s Twitter stream? (Particularly now that tweets are often funneled into news feeds based on lists or hashtags, exposing them to people who don’t necessarily follow a given journalist.) I wish I had answers, but I don’t: Twitter is so new that there isn’t broad agreement about best practices. It will be fascinating to see what accepted standards emerge, and why.

Any opinions about the right mix of news and personality in one’s Twitter feed? I’d love to hear from you in the comments or via email. Or what the heck, let me know on Twitter.

The Huffington Post Experiments With Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly. I wish I saw such experiments everywhere.

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When Social Media Says Too Much

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on March 17, 2010

It seems like every time a media organization releases a social-media policy, it gets pilloried by digital-journalism thinkers for telling its writers what they can’t do instead of making suggestions about what they could do. I’ve piled on a time or two myself.

But next time one of these memos makes the rounds, I’m going to hold my fire for a bit. Social media has remade my life, in ways I find gratifying and exciting and fascinating. But as I realized recently, it’s also eroded some boundaries that were put up for a reason.

Wait Until Dark image

Damn, forgot about the scrobbling.

Last week I hopped on a train for an overnight trip to write a freelance story. As per usual, I was posting Facebook status updates and Tweeting away the whole time. If you’re a friend of mine on Facebook, you knew I was headed for Providence, R.I. If you follow me on Twitter, you learned that I was eating old-school Italian on Federal Hill. And if you’re a friend of mine on Foursquare, you knew I was eating at Andino’s.

While I never stated explicitly where I was going (my formative years at The Wall Street Journal have given me an almost-visceral aversion to discussing work in progress), I knew I’d said enough for some people who know me or what I write about to figure out what I was up to. I thought about it, but I wasn’t too concerned: It wasn’t a sensitive assignment, and nobody was going to scoop me. So my guard was down a bit.

But I hadn’t realized the other ways in which I was telegraphing what I was doing — and revealing more than I meant to.

I recorded a couple of group interviews and came back home to Brooklyn. Now, I needed to transcribe the interviews. I decided to use Mechanical Turk, the Amazon service — an experiment I’d wanted to try since learning the folks at Nieman Journalism Lab use it to cheaply transcribe their video interviews. (Another reason to use Mechanical Turk: Having the interviews transcribed by a traditional service or doing the job myself would have eaten up so much money or time that my assignment would no longer pay for itself.)

Using Mechanical Turk meant putting up my recorded interviews online. That gave me pause, but I figured there was security in obscurity — the sheer volume of such material would mean nobody would notice those files, and they’d be gone soon enough. Then I realized the file names I’d assigned to the MP3s of my interviews included the company name. Oops. Fortunately, I changed them before posting them for Mechanical Turk’s transcribers. Lesson learned, I thought.

Well, not quite. I’d offered enough money for transcription services that a Twitter account dedicated to Mechanical Turk opportunities broadcast the job, complete with my name. Then I needed to reboot my Mac, and when it came back up Last.fm started demanding attention about something or other.

Put a sock in it, Last.fm, I thought. Hey, wait a minute.

When the MP3s of the interviews still had their full, identifying filenames, they’d played through iTunes as I reviewed them. My iTunes is connected to Last.fm. And what I’m listening to — MP3s of interviews, for example — automatically gets “scrobbled” to my Last.fm profile. I was dumbstruck — it was like stumbling across the social-media equivalent of the light inside the refrigerator in “Wait Until Dark.”

I still have a lot to learn about social media, the way software and digital services are increasingly connected to our identities, and the fact that those identities are increasingly public. (We all do. Anyone who says otherwise either isn’t learning or is trying to fleece you.) But I’m not a newbie, either. And for better or worse, my Journal background has lent me a certain caution in thinking about how these new services intersect journalism.

Neither of these things mattered during my recent trip. I wound up revealing far more about what I was doing than I thought I was. As far as I can tell, no harm was done. But if I were covering something sensitive, or working a fiercely competitive beat, I could have created a real mess for myself and my news organization.

I still think news organizations need to embrace social media. I still believe greater transparency will make readers see news providers as more trustworthy. And I still would advise reporters to step outside of their cloister and engage with readers. And I’m not saying social-media tools don’t work — I leaked what I was doing because they do, and I’m comfortable with them.

But from now on, I’ll have more sympathy for news organizations when they express doubts and worries about those tools. What makes “Wait Until Dark” frightening isn’t that Audrey Hepburn forgets the refrigerator light. It’s realizing that you’d forget it too.

Sports, Linking and the New Competitive Advantage

Posted in Cultural Change, Social Media, The And World, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on March 9, 2010

In my latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center, I look at the diminishing value of scoops in the era of links and retweets. Sports fans now get information not just from destination sites, but from emails, Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds. Meanwhile, at least on Twitter, sportswriters now routinely acknowledge news broken by their rivals. (And increasingly by athletes, agents and leagues that don’t need middlemen in the first place.)

The result is that scoops — at least of the routine, I-learned-this-a-little-before-you-did variety — have almost no value anymore. Linking and Twitter acknowledgments have blurred the once-inviolate boundaries between news organizations, and those boundaries have been erased by fans’ use of social media to gather and consume information from many different news organizations at once. The life expectancy of “routine scoops” has dwindled from a day in the paper era to minutes in the Web era to seconds in the Twitter era. Given this mayfly life, few sports fans notice where routine scoops come from anymore, and fewer sports fans care.

This, I argue over at NSJC, is ultimately good for sportswriters, because it makes being smart and fast more valuable than just being fast and makes writing me-too stories pointless. Reader and brand loyalty is now won by being first to offer analysis, predictions, and historical context, as well as by creating “true scoops” that aren’t easy to match. What links that seemingly different material is that it’s hard to copy, and its value is difficult to capture through links and retweets. This restores some of the competitive advantage of being first, which is good for the publisher. For the writer, doesn’t working on this stuff sound a lot more fun than turning out commodity stories more and more fans have already read?

Which brings me to Zachary Kouwe and the New York Times. What went wrong and led to Kouwe’s departure from the Times for plagiarism has been dissected from several points of view. There have been questions about the punishing pace of being a young reporter who has to turn out tweets and blog posts and Web stories and print stories. And the Times (and by extension the rest of the mainstream press) has been lambasted for not embracing the culture of the link that underpins the Web. (For three good takes on what happened, see Felix Salmon at Reuters, Paul Smalera on True/Slant and Mathew Ingram at GigaOM.)

Both Ingram and Smalera wonder why Kouwe spent so much time re-reporting when he could have just linked, and wonder if competitive concerns were at the heart of that decision. Ingram observes that links are bridges that “can also take readers elsewhere, and if your business depends (or you think it depends) on keeping those readers on your island, you might think twice about building that bridge.” And Smalera writes that “editors of certain stripe do get annoyed/upset when you attribute reporting to a competitor, especially if they’re of the opinion that you could report the same details yourself if you’d quit being so lazy and pick up the damn phone. … I would bet, with no inside knowledge, that the fiercely competitive Times, especially its Business section, especially DealBook, is loath to credit competitors, because it looks weak. So editors push for original-sounding reporting, and Kouwe massaged wire copy and blog posts to meet deadlines and word counts.”

I don’t have any inside knowledge either, but I’d bet Ingram and Smalera have found the crux of the problem — which I see less as a deliberate rejection of Web values than as an unthinking perpetuation of print values that are past their sell-by date.

Let’s go back to sports. What Kouwe was doing was re-reporting “routine scoops.” This is a waste of time on the Web anyway — as Felix Salmon notes, “there are surely higher and better uses of your valuable time than going back to rewrite a story which already exists elsewhere.”

I agree absolutely — particularly when fewer and fewer readers care. The prescription for business news is the same as it is for sports: Link to and retweet the news your competitor broke, then beat your competitor to the punch of explaining what it means and why it matters. That’s where the competitive advantage lies now.

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