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December 30 2011

16:11

Nieman Storyboard’s top 10 posts for 2011

During the last days of December, we’ve been tweeting down Storyboard’s top 10 posts for the year. In case you haven’t been following along, here they are, all in one place (in reverse order):

10. Internet phenom Maud Newton’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Raymond Chandler sticks it to Hollywood.”

9. Chris Jones, Esquire writer at large, talks with Nieman narrative instructor Paige Williams:

On reporting for detail, the case against outlining and the power of donuts.”

8. Storyboard editor Andrea Pitzer’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Gene Weingarten peels the Great Zucchini.”

7. Peter Ginna, publisher and editorial director of Bloomsbury Press, with

When journalists become authors: a few cautionary tips.”

6. Science and culture writer David Dobbs’ “Why’s this so good?”:

Michael Lewis’ Greek odyssey.”

5. Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Truman Capote keeps time with Marlon Brando.”

4. Science writer Carl Zimmer’s “Why’s this so good?”:

McPhee takes on the Mississippi.”

3. Two celebrated Esquire writers visit Harvard:

Gay Talese has a Coke: reflections of a narrative legend in conversation with Chris Jones.”

2. Nieman Lab assistant editor Megan Garber’s “Why’s this so good?”:

David Foster Wallace on the vagaries of cruising.”

1. Pedro Monteiro’s look at storytelling in the tablet and app future:

Story, interrupted: why we need new approaches to digital narrative.”

Thanks for your support in 2011. We’ve had a banner year here, with a lot of new contributors and record numbers of visitors. We look forward to bringing you even better coverage of new narrative projects and ideas in 2012. Happy New Year!

July 29 2011

19:31

3rd issue Longshot Magazine: 48 hours for a 60-page book - now with what tools?

The Atlantic :: At 3 pm on Friday, the Longshot Magazine team will begin work on their third issue. 48 hours later, they'll close the 60-page book. Longshot is a crazy project that Alexis Madrigal cofounded with Sarah Rich and Mat Honan about a year and a half ago.

[Alexis Madrigal:] We wanted to marry the networked speed of the Internet with the coherent beauty of print. Amazingly, we realized that almost all of the tools we needed were already available and free; we could create a real, glossy magazine in two days out of nothing but will, goodwill and good luck. So we did.

Experimentation is a major part of the Longshot spirit. "We like trying new things," writes Madrigal. This time they like to share their experience. Here are the tools the team will be using this weekend.

Continue to read Alexis Madrigal, www.theatlantic.com

June 27 2011

14:11

“Why’s this so good?” No. 1: Truman Capote keeps time with Marlon Brando

Truman Capote’s profile of the depressive, incoherent, brilliant Marlon Brando is one of the greatest of all time. Published in 1957 in The New Yorker, it nominally takes place one evening in the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto.

One could point out many things about craft in the piece. The descriptions of characters are finely observed and sticky. A director “is a man balanced on enthusiasm, as a bird is balanced on air.” Or check out his description of how Brando transforms into Kowalski: “with what chameleon ease Brando acquired the character’s cruel and gaudy colors, how superbly, like a guileful salamander, he slithered into the part, how his own persona evaporated – just as, in this Kyoto hotel room 10 years afterward, my 1947 memory of Brando receded, disappeared into his 1957 self.”

But all that verbiage needed some infrastructure on which to run. Rhythm, narrative or otherwise, is a pleasing regularity in time, and Capote bangs away like a drum major to keep it.

There are two Russian critical terms that are helpful here: fabula and syuzhet. The fabula is the real chronology of a narrative: Brando was born at such and such a time, grew up, and meets up with Capote in 1957. The syuzhet is how the story is told, its internal narrative time. How you convert fabula into syuzhet is storytelling, and Capote is dazzling. He weaves big time (a life) into little time (the hours), always working at two scales. For all its descriptive frippery and meandering actor monologues, the profile is set in reassuring 4/4 time. We never really leave that room in Kyoto even though Capote sweeps across Brando’s entire life.

The first layer of structure is simple, and it’s the one most of us take when we approach long form. Capote starts and ends in the same place. The first graf is knocking on Brando’s door; the last graf is leaving the hotel and walking home. OK, 101. Much of the rest of the work, particularly in the latter half of the story, is done through a remarkably clever rhetorical gadget. Here’s how it works.

About 1,000 words into the 14,000-word profile, Brando’s nominal screenplay co-writer, the pseudonymous Murray, leaves to go to dinner with a promise to call three hours later to do some work.

Murray shook his head; he was intent on obtaining Brando’s promise to meet with him again at ten-thirty. “Give me a ring around then,” Brando said, finally. “We’ll see what’s happening.”

By Chekhovian logic, we know the phone will ring before the story is over; such a call might even end the story, so we’re watching for it. The telephone actually rings four times in the course of the rest of the piece, and each time, we zoom back from wherever we were to the room where Brando is sitting with Capote. The first ring whips us back from the strange James Dean-Marlon Brando relationship. The second ring interrupts Brando’s detailed, inarticulate descriptions of his acting. The third ends an inquisition into whether Brando makes real connections with anyone. And the fourth stops Capote’s masterful description of the actor’s family.

If you plotted the movements with time on the x-axis and distance from Brando on the y-axis, Capote’s perambulations would resemble the elliptical orbit of comets, reaching away from the dinner to various distances, but always returning to late 1957.

That’s how Capote handles big time, always grounding us back into his narrative present and giving his piece the reassuring rhythm that he’s got all Brando’s history firmly under control.

But there’s another aspect to his ploy. Each time the phone rings, some nearly arbitrary amount of time has passed. The first time Murray calls, we know it’s been three hours, though clearly three hours haven’t been described or felt by the reader. In another instance, “an hour seemed to have passed,” in the course of a thousand words. The passage of time roughly tracks with the word length, but not precisely so. And that’s the real trick. By forcing us to pay attention to the real time (the fabula) every so often, Capote is free to play with narrative time (syuzhet) at will, tunneling back to childhood, zooming in on Brando on the stage or on film, stopping, starting, reversing, slow-mo-ing. He’s like a magician distracting us with unnecessary information so that we don’t notice the mechanics of how he pulls the trick off.

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic and author of “Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.”

March 01 2011

00:30

Punk’s not dead, it’s just tweeting: Dan Sinker, @MayorEmanuel, and the punk power of basic tools

Perhaps the greatest piece of Twitter performance we’ve seen — up past Dan Baum recounting his New Yorker firing, or last year’s in-real-time reenactment of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — came to a close a week ago when @MayorEmanuel fell silent after a brief but profanity-stuffed spree as the most fun place on Twitter. Tim Carmody best explains the genius of @MayorEmanuel — a fake version of former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, sprinting bull-headed toward election as Chicago’s mayor — over at Snarkmarket, here and here. (Be sure to read that second link to experience the glorious metafiction payoff.)

At The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal has a great long piece on @MayorEmanuel and reveals for the first time the man behind the expletives: Dan Sinker, founder of the great zine Punk Planet and a professor at Columbia College Chicago.

Alexis’ piece hits at part of the punk ethos underlying @MayorEmanuel:

Sinker described the punk rock mindset in his introduction to a 2001 book that collected interviews from the zine. “[Punk] is about looking at the world around you and asking, ‘Why are things as fucked up as they are?’” he wrote. “And then it’s about looking inwards at yourself and asking, “Why aren’t I doing anything about this?”

But punk is also about the tools you end up doing that “anything” with. The promise of punk is that you don’t need anything fancy to do something great. You don’t need to be Jimmy Page or Steve F’in Howe to play guitar; you just need three chords. You don’t need fancy technique to be an artist; stencils and spray paint will work. And you don’t need a desk in a newsroom to be a journalist; the Xerox machines at your copy shop will do.

And that brings me to the above video, which was shot by ex-Lab writer Ted Delaney in 2009. In it, Sinker almost gives a two-year-ahead preview of what would become @MayorEmanuel, not to mention a great piece of advice for the future of journalism: Use simple tools and platforms, then breathe life into them. Don’t accept that something basic can’t be used to create something beautiful and creative.

Even something as basic as a box that only takes 140 characters. Or, to take one of Sinker’s other projects, a simple web-based way to tell stories for cell phones.

May that slogan be pasted (hell, maybe spray-painted) on the walls of every news organization where creative ideas get lost in meetings and committees and Gantt charts. It sums up just about everything good about the DIY web, and it’s a spirit — innovation with simple tools and a little human creativity — that can lead a simple Twitter account to become something beautiful.

Here’s a transcript:

One of the things that I really try to emphasize to students is this idea that the tools that exist now are so simple. You know — I actually refer to it as we’re in this magic moment. Because the tools are so easy, but the people making hiring decisions, the people making purchasing decisions — they don’t actually know that yet.

And so we’re able to really demonstrate these incredible skills and these hugely robust websites that didn’t actually take a lot of work — right? In terms of effort to get it to screen. But it looks — I mean, we look like magicians.

This stuff is so easy, and so you can teach at a level that you couldn’t have done five years ago, you know — or even two years ago, one year ago sometimes — where you don’t have to teach them the heavy lifting. Instead you can show them, “Hey, look at this, you can do a couple of little modifications, you can copy this code out, you can paste it in, and suddenly you have amazing functionality, for no effort.”

And so instead what you can do is think about, “What can I do with this?” You know, you’re no longer having to teach “this is how it works” — you can jump to the great part, which is, “What can I do with this that would be amazing? What can I do with this that would enable me to bring meaning and content and create something lasting into the world?” And that’s great.

Photo of Sinker by Daniel X. O’Neil used under a Creative Commons license.

December 17 2010

16:00

DDoS attacks on the U.S. media, Twitter history searching, and a big blog deal: More predictions for 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Below are predictions from Michael Schudson, Alexis Madrigal, Markos Moulitsas, Joy Mayer, Nicco Mele, Nikki Usher, Steve Buttry, Paddy Hirsch, John Davidow, Ethan Zuckerman, Richard Lee Colvin, and Kevin Kelly.

We also want to hear your predictions: Today’s the last day we’ll be accepting entries in our Lab reader poll, where you tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results in a couple days.

Michael Schudson, historian and sociologist, Columbia Journalism School

Prognosticating about the news media in these times is a risky business, but I’ll try one nonetheless: In 2011, none of the 250 largest U.S. cities will stop publishing (on paper) its last remaining daily newspaper. Cities with more than one daily newspaper may be reduced to one survivor.

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic and co-founder, Longshot Magazine

One of the truly important big city papers will go digital-only.

Kevin Kelly, author and founder, Wired Magazine

Twitter will go down for 36 hours. The ensuing media attention will prompt a 10 percent increase in signups in the months following.

I’ll offer a slightly technical prediction. Denial of service attacks — DDoS — have already become a serious concern for independent media sites in countries like Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. And DDoS has been a massive problem for WikiLeaks. I expect to see at least one major U.S. media site affected by DDoS and taken offline for a day or more in 2011. I also expect we’ll see one or more publications move from their own infrastructure to host with someone like Amazon, despite the concerns that the company hosting content might prevent its distribution.

I predict that next year’s most exciting media experiments will involve collaboration between journalists and audiences. The divide will grow between journalists who do and do not fundamentally understand and respect the value of conversation and contribution with users.

I also predict that we will we see the death of at least one traditional newspaper in a town with a vibrant community news startup.

WhiteHouse.gov will get more unique daily visitors than WashingtonPost.com by the end of 2011. WhiteHouse.gov is already competitive with MSNBC.com — and the WhiteHouse.gov operation continues to become more sophisticated and wide-reaching, covering the White House on a daily basis with photos, videos, podcasts, and blog posts.

Mobile devices — especially in the form of tablets like the iPad and Blackberry’s forthcoming Playbook — will become the dominant news delivery device in 2011.

Sarah Palin will run for president in the Republican Party’s presidential primary communicating with the public exclusively through Twitter, Facebook, email, personal appearances, and Fox News. She will eschew all other major media and be a viable candidate for president of the United States.

Social news will continue to become more and more important — and traditional news organizations will turn to trying to understand how news spreads socially.

More downsizing in the news biz, with potentially another major metropolitan newspaper or two to close or to severely reduce print publication.

CNN will solidify its campaign for the “middle,” MSNBC the left, and Fox the right, with all three becoming more blatant about their intended audience.

Steve Buttry, director of community engagement, TBD

Twitter will make some notable upgrades, including targeting and editing of tweets, historical searching, and some innovative commercial uses.

A leader will emerge in location-based news, social media, and commerce.

We will see some major realignment of journalism and news-industry organizations. Most likely: the merger of ASNE and APME, mergers of some state press associations, mergers of at least two national press organizations, mergers of some reporter-beat associations. One or more journalism organizations will close.

At least one high-profile news organization will drop its paywall.

My prediction for 2011 is a raft of data analysis and visualisation tools, as various parties try to solve the problems raised by large datasets from governments. In the longer term, I think real-time information, contextual information, and intelligent devices will play an increasingly important role.

I said that things would get ugly in 2010 and have been sadly proved right. I think they’ll get even uglier in 2011 as the reaction against the shift in power grows and the fallout from WikiLeaks continues. Expect a lot of rushed-through legislation against the invisible threats of the web, which has implications for journalists and publishers.

Paddy Hirsch, senior editor, public radio’s Marketplace

I think WikiLeaks will be stamped out by one or more governments, and we’ll see a slew of copycats pop up in its place, hosted by outraged freedom-of-speechers, on secure servers, in out of the way places. Think The Pirate Bay but with government material instead of movies.

John Davidow, executive editor, WBUR Boston

Our revenue models continue to weaken. Radio and television face extreme technological changes. IP radio is coming to our morning commute, threatening commercial and public radio alike. Television programming will continue to atomize and migrate seamlessly from screen to screen in our daily lives. Newspapers large and small face continued pressure on their bottoms lines. Despite all the major disruptions ahead, I believe the spirit of innovation and collaboration in our industry is up to the challenges ahead.

Heading into 2011, examples of innovation and new strategies are everywhere. On the public media front, NPR, CPB, and the Knight Foundation head into 2011 with Project Argo getting up to speed. This deep vertical strategy that will hit its stride in the coming year has the potential to add more depth and user engagement while at the same time helping local station bottom lines.

Major newspapers are taking dramatic steps to find sustainability models from their online products. In the coming year The New York Times will test the metered waters and The Boston Globe will be splitting its juggernaut website Boston.com into two sites, one free and one behind a paywall. Maybe a year from now we’ll have a better sense of what direction the newspaper industry should be going. I’m also encouraged by the emergence of increased local coverage and not just by Patch, but on citizen media sites like Placeblogger.com. Initiatives like these mean more jobs and more opportunity for our younger journalists. And it is those young journalists just starting out who, not just next year but in the years ahead, will provide the ideas and energy that will regenerate and redefine our industry.

Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher, Daily Kos

One of the newsweeklies will fold operations, or at least become web-only. Same thing will happen to at least one top-20 circulation metropolitan newspaper. At least one independent blog network will be acquired in a nine-digit deal.

The sports leagues will work to bring more games onto their cable networks, like the NFL Network’s Thursday night games.

Consumer dissatisfaction with the media will continue to rise. In politics, conservatives will be even more convinced the media is out to get them, and will retreat deeper into their Fox News/Rush Limbaugh media cocoon. Progressives will realize that the media is basing their political stories on RNC press releases — just watch them treat every Sarah Palin tweet as “news,” while pretending the GOP actually cares about the deficit during the battle to raise the debt ceiling, despite their desperate fight for budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy this lame-duck session.

More and more news content will be gathered and distributed through collaborations between for-profits and nonprofit print, online, and broadcast news outlets. This will be especially true for coverage of specialized areas such as education, science, medicine, the environment, and health.

December 14 2010

17:00

Smartphone growth, Murdoch’s Daily, and journalism for the poor: Predictions for mobile news in 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

One of the common threads through many of their predictions was mobile — the impact smartphones and tablets and apps will have on how news is reported, produced, distributed, and consumed. (Not to mention how it’s paid for.) Here are Vivian Schiller, Keith Hopper, Jakob Nielsen, Alexis Madrigal, Michael Andersen, Richard Lee Colvin, Megan McCarthy, David Cohn, and David Fanning on what 2011 will bring for the mobile space.

Vivian Schiller, president and CEO, NPR

After two decades of saying that “this is the year of mobile,” 2011 really will be the year of mobile.

My wild prediction: 2011 will be the year of media initiatives that serve poor and middle-income people.

For 20 years, almost all native Internet content has been made for the niche interests — often the professional interests — of people who make more than the median household income of $50,000 or so. But one of the best things about the mobile Internet is that it’s finally killing (or even reversing) the digital divide.

Poor folks may not have broadband, but they’ve got cell phones. African Americans and Latinos are more likely than white people to use phones for the web, pictures, texts, emails, games, videos, and social networking. As hardware prices keep falling, we’ll see more and more demand for information that is useful to the lower-income half of the population — and thanks to low marginal costs, people will be creating products that fill that need. It’s about damn time, wouldn’t you say?

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic and co-founder, Longshot Magazine

Murdoch’s iPad Daily will be surprisingly successful. I say it gets mid-six figure subscribers by the end of the year.

The iPad newspaper will launch and, while it won’t fall flat on its face, it will be exactly what is described at the end of EPIC 2015 — a newsletter for the elite. Odd that it will be digital but suffer the end fate of newspapers as described in that video.

Keith Hopper, director of product strategy and development, NPR

I predict smartphone penetration will break 50 percent in the U.S., creating a tipping point in mobile web traffic. The web folks will then finally wake up and smell the mobile. Ubiquitous support for HTML5 and geolocation will sweeten the deal, and we’ll see some exciting new news experiences delivering proximally-relevant immediacy to your mobile devices in 2011.

The cost of creating dedicated apps for mobile phones and iPads will continue to fall and some news executives may conclude that the apps are an end in themselves, and that they can continue to provide their audiences with the same content they’ve always given them. But it will become clear over the next 12 months that delivering old, worn content in a new package will not be enough to keep traditional news organizations profitable over the long term.

Jakob Nielsen, veteran web usability expert

1. Growth in for-pay content.

2. Strong growth in mobile content.

3. Mobile often means short, so need to find ways to be interesting and brief beyond simply being snarky.

iPad magazines/newspapers will figure out a way to display across platforms or else they be considered an elite novelty.

David Fanning, executive producer, Frontline

The tablet reader — the iPad et al — is the big game-changer. Not only is it going to revitalize print and launch an exciting new era of editorial design and execution, it is the real promise of convergence we’ve been talking about for so long. It’s going to be a wonderful challenge to create the new publications. It’s also a device that seems to offer a subscription or pay model that is quite natural and acceptable to readers and viewers.

For Frontline it is the bright hope. As broadcast appointment viewing declines, we’ve seen more and more viewers go to our website (we’ve been streaming our films since 2000), but also worried that with shorter and shorter attention spans, we were sowing the seeds of our own destruction. Now I can see a future for this idea we’ve defended for so long — intelligent narrative documentary journalism — and it’s on my lap. I can comfortably watch at length without a twitchy finger on a mouse threatening to pull me away. I can pause and see the film wrapped together with the best of literary journalism. I can experience the resurgence of great documentary photography, and of course I can connect to the living, pulsing web (if I have to). I can decide to throw my film up onto my widescreen TV, and sit back and watch, but most of all, I will have it all on my virtual bookshelf. That means I will have to be making journalism that lasts, that is not disposable, that is so well made it’s worth keeping. It’ll sit next to my ebooks; in fact it will be a form of ebook.

As magazine publishers rush onto this new platform, photographers and filmmakers are already embedding their video in the pages. Books like Sebastian Junger’s War are scattering short pieces of video actuality in the narrative, and there is at least one chapter that is a longer mini-documentary, on Sal Giunta, the Medal of Honor winner. But these are more illustrations than longer narrative works. Our challenge at Frontline will be to publish our longer films and embed within them other terrific journalism that both echoes and complements our stories. That’s going to be fun to design and edit.

So this new technology, the tablet, will expand our editorial horizons, force us to make new partnerships, collaborate with more writers and photographers, and find ways to invent a new kind of publication, while holding onto some old ideas about the appeal and strength of good journalism.

September 14 2010

18:30

“Squeezing humanity through a straw”: The long-term consequences of using metrics in journalism

[Here's C.W. Anderson responding to the same subject Nikki Usher wrote about: the impact of audience data on how news organizations operate. Sort of a debate. —Josh]

One way to think about the growing use of online metrics in newsrooms (a practice that has been going on forever but seems to have finally been noticed of late) is to think about it as part of a general democratization of journalism. And it’s tempting to portray the two sides to the debate as (in this corner!) the young, tech-savvy newsroom manager who is finally listening to the audience, and (in this corner!) the fading fuddy-duddy-cum-elitist more concerned with outdated professional snobbery than with what the audience wants.

Fortunately, actual working journalists rarely truck in such simplistic stereotypes, arguing rightly that there isn’t a binary divide between smart measurement and good journalism. As Washington Post executive producer and head of digital news products Katharine Zaleski told Howard Kurtz:

There’s news we know people should read — because it’s important and originates with our reporting — and that’s our primary function…But we also have to be very aware of what people are searching for out there and want more information on…If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our jobs.

Or as Lab contributor Nikki Usher put it: “[I]f used properly, SEO and audience tracking make newsrooms more accountable to their readers without dictating bad content decisions — and it can help newsrooms focus on reader needs.”

At the level of short-term newsroom practices, I agree with Usher, Zaleski, and every other journalist and pundit who takes a nuanced view of the role played by newsroom metrics. So if you’re worried about whether audience tracking is going to eliminate quality journalism, the quick answer is no.

My own concerns with the increased organizational reliance on metrics are more long-term and abstract. They have as much to do with society than with journalism per se. They center around:

— the manner in which metrics can serve as a form of newsroom discipline;
— the squishiness of algorithmically-afforded audience understanding;
— the often-oversimpistic ways we talk about the audience (under the assumption that we’re all talking about the same thing); and, finally
— the way that online quantification simplifies our understanding of what it means to “want” information.

Big topics, I admit. Each of these points could be the subject of its own blog post, so for the sake of space, I want to frame what I’m talking about by dissecting this seemingly innocuous phrase:

“We know what the audience wants.”

Let’s look at the words in this sentence, one at a time. Each of them bundles in a lot of assumptions, which, when examined together, might shed light on the uses and the potential long-term pitfalls of newsroom quantification.

“We”: Who is the “we” that knows what kind of journalism the audience wants? Often, I’d argue, it’s executives in our increasingly digitized newsrooms that now have a powerful tool through which to manage and discipline their employees. In my own research, I’ve discovered that the biggest factor in determining the relationship between metrics and editorial practices are the ways that these metrics are utilized by management, rather the presence or absence of a particular technology. Philosopher Michel Foucault called these types of practices disciplinary practices, and argued that they involved three primary types of control: “hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination.” Perhaps this is fine when we’re trying to salvage a functional news industry out of the wreckage of a failed business model, but we should at least keep these complications in mind — metrics are a newsroom enforcement mechanism.

“Know”: Actually, we don’t know a whole lot about our audiences — but there’s a lot of power in claiming that we know everything. In other words, the more data we have, paradoxically, the less we know, and the more it behooves us to claim exactitude. While smart thinkers have been writing about the problem of poor web metrics for years, a major new report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia has thrown the issue into stark relief. As report researcher (and, full disclosure, friend and colleague) Lucas Graves writes:

The Web has been hailed as the most measurable medium ever, and it lives up to the hype. The mistake was to assume that everyone measuring everything would produce clarity. On the contrary, clear media standards emerge where there’s a shortage of real data about audiences…The only way to imbue an audience number with anything like the authority of the old TV ratings is with a new monopoly — if either Nielsen or comScore folds or, more likely, they merge. That kind of authority won’t mean greater accuracy, just less argument.

There’s a circular relationship here between increased measurement, less meaningful knowledge, and greater institutional power. When we forget this, we can be uncritical about what it is metrics actually allow us to do.

“The Audience”: What’s this thing we insist we know so much about? We call it the audience, but sometimes we slip and call it “the public.” But audiences are not publics, and it’s dangerous to claim that they are. Groups of people connected by the media can be connected in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons, and can be called all sorts of things; they can be citizens united by common purpose, or by public deliberation. They can be activists, united around a shared political goal. They can be a community, or a society. Or they can be called an audience.

I don’t have anything at all against the notion of the audience, per se — but I am concerned that journalists are increasingly equating the measurable audience (a statistical aggregate connected by technology, though consumption) with something bigger and more important. The fact that we know the desires and preferences and this formerly shadowy and hidden group of strangers is seductive, and it’s often wrong.

“Wants”: Finally, what does it mean to want a particular piece of information? As Alexis Madrigal notes in this short but smart post at The Atlantic, informational want is a complicated emotion that runs the risk of being oversimplified by algorithms. Paradoxically, web metrics have become increasingly complex at the same time they’ve posited increasingly simplistic outcomes. They’re complex in terms of their techniques, but simple in terms of what it is we claim they provide us and in the ultimate goal that they serve. Time on site, engagement, pageviews, uniques, eye movement, mouse movement — all of these ultimately boil down to tracking a base-level consumer desire via the click of a mouse or the movement of the eye.

But what do we “want”? We want to love a story, to be angry about it it, to fight with it, to be politically engaged by it, to feel politically apathetic towards it, to let it join us together in a common cause, for it make us laugh, and for it to make us cry. All of these wants are hard to capture quantitatively, and in our rush to capture audience data, we run the risk of oversimplifying the notion of informational desire. We run the risk of squeezing humanity through a digital straw.

So — will an increasing use of online metrics give us bad journalism? No.

Will they play a role in facilitating, over the long term, the emergence of a communicative world that is a little flatter, a little more squeezed, a little more quantitative, more disciplinary, more predictive, and less interesting? They might. But take hope: Such an outcome is likely only if we lose sight of what it is that metrics can do, and what it is about human beings that they leave out.

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