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May 29 2013

13:27

In the End Was the Word and the Word Was the Sponsor’s

and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsor1
We used to know what ads were. They had borders around them — black lines in print, a rare millisecond of dead air on TV, the moment when the radio host’s voice became even friendlier, letting us know he was now being paid to peddle.

Today, under many ruses and many namessponsored content, native advertising, brand voice, thought leadership, content marketing, even brand journalism — advertisers are conspiring with desperate publishers to erase the black lines identifying ads.

When I started Entertainment Weekly, a sage editor sat me down and summarized in one sentence the magazine industry’s voluminous rules about labeling what we then called “advertorials”: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Confusing the audience is clearly the goal of native-sponsored-brand-content-voice-advertising. And the result has to be a dilution of the value of news brands.

Some say those brands are diminishing anyway. So sponsored content is just another way to milk the old cows as they die. Lately I’ve been shocked to hear some executives at news organizations, as well as some journalism students and even teachers, shrug at the risk. If I’m the guy who argues that news must find new paths to profitability, then what’s my problem?

Well, I fear that in the end we all become the Times of India, where paid advertising and news content are allegedly mixed so smoothly in some areas that readers can’t tell one from the other. Worse, at some news organizations, editorial staff do the work of writing this sponsored content. They become copywriters.

Mad Men Don Draper Peggy Olsen

At the same time, many of these news organizations are using their brands as candy to attract legions of new contributors, which can drastically lower the cost of content. Mind you, I’ve applauded that spirit of openness and collaboration as well as that newfound efficiency.

But here’s the issue: Some media properties have taught me to pause before following a link to them. Sometimes, I’ll find good information from a staffer or one of many contributors who brings real reporting or expertise. Sometimes, I’ll find a weak contributor — or staff — piece that adds no reporting or insight; it merely regurgitates what others have written when a link would be better. (Beware headlines that start with “how” or “why” or include the words “future of” or “death of” or end with a question mark; chances are, they add nothing.) And then sometimes I’ll find one of those sponsor-brand-native pieces only vaguely labeled to let me know its source.

My problems with these trends in news media:

Inconsistency. I no longer know what to expect from news organizations that do this. Yes, I’ve heard editors claim that they work with both contributors and sponsors to improve the quality of their submissions — but apparently, not enough.

Brands used to be selective both because the scarcity of paper or time forced them to be and because that became key to their value. Now they want more and more content. Making content to chase unique users and their page views rewards volume over value.

Conflict of interest. First, let me say that I think we in news became haughty and fetishistic about our church/state walls. The reason I teach entrepreneurial journalism is so that students learn about the business of journalism so they can become more responsible stewards of it. I argue that editors, too, must understand the business value and thus sustainability of what they produce.

That said, I worry about journalists who spend one day writing to serve the public and the next writing to serve sponsors. News organizations should never do that with staff, but I’m sorry to say that today, a few do. Freelance journalists are also turning to making sponsored content to pay the bills.

Thus, I hear of some journalism educators who wonder whether they should be teaching their students to write for brands. Please, no. My journalism school doesn’t do that. Others schools already include courses in PR and advertising, so I suppose the leap isn’t so far. In any case, brands will hire our students because of the media skills we teach them and we need to prepare them for the ethical challenge that brings.

Brand value. Some news companies are exchanging their brand equity for free or cheap content of questionable quality and advertising dollars of questionable intent. As someone who champions disruption in the news industry, you’d think I wouldn’t care about dying legacy media brands. But I do. I see how legacy news companies can bring value to the growing news ecosystem around them through sharing content and audience and someday soon, I hope, revenue. If the legacy institutions lose their value — their trust, their audience, their advertisers — then they have less to give, and if they die, there’s more to replace.

Now here’s the funny part: Brands are chasing the wrong goal. Marketers shouldn’t want to make content. Don’t they know that content is a lousy business? As adman Rishad Tobaccowala said to me in an email, content is not scalable for advertisers, either. He says the future of marketing isn’t advertising but utilities and services. I say the same for news: It is a service.

I’ve been arguing to news organizations that they should stop thinking of themselves as content businesses and start understanding that they are in a relationship business.

News organizations should not treat people as a mass now that they — like Google, Amazon, and Facebook — can learn to serve them as individuals. Can’t the same be said of the brands that are now rushing to make content? They’re listening to too many tweeted media aphorisms: that content is king, that brands are media. Bull.

A brand is a relationship. It signifies trust and value. Advertising and public relations disintermediated the relationship that commercial enterprises used to have with customers over the cracker barrel. Mass media helped them bring scale to marketing. But now the net enables brands to return to having direct relationships with customers. That’s what we see happening on Twitter. Smart companies are using it not to make content but to talk one-on-one with customers.

Here’s where I fear this lands: As news brands continue to believe in their content imperative, they dilute their equity by using cheap-content tricks to build volume and by handing their brand value to advertisers to replace lost ad revenue. Marketers help publishers milk those brands. And the public? We’re smarter than they think we are. We’ll understand when news organizations become paid shills. We understand that marketers would still rather force-feed us their messages than simply serve us.

What to do? The reflex in my industries — journalism and education — is to convene august groups to compose rules. But rules are made to be pushed, stretched, and broken. That is why that wise Time Inc. editor over me at Entertainment Weekly (as opposed to the oily ones who tried to force me to force my critics to write nicer reviews) summed up those rules as a statement of ethics. Again: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Well, if we’re not in the content business, then what is the ethic by which we should operate now? I think it’s even simpler: “We serve the public.”

If we’re doing what we do to fool the public, to sell them crappy content or a shill’s swill, to prioritize paying customers’ interests over readers’, then we will cannibalize whatever credibility, trust, and value our brands have until they dry up.

So am I merely drawing a black rule around advertising again? Don’t we hear contributors to a hundred news sites rewrite the same story every day — that advertising is dead? Well, yes, advertising as one-way messaging is as outmoded as one-way media. Oh, we in media will milk advertising as long as advertisers are willing to pay for it. But we know where this is headed.

Then do media companies have any commercial connection with brands? Can we still get money from them to support news? I think it’s possible for media companies to help brands understand how to use the net to build honest, open relationships with people as individuals. But we can teach them that only if we first learn how to do it ourselves.

Some will accuse me of chronic Google fanboyism for suggesting this, but we can learn that lesson from Google. It makes 98% of its fortune from advertising but it does so by serving us, each of us, first. It addresses its obvious conflict with the admonition, “Don’t be evil.” (When Google has failed to live up to that ethic — and it has — its fall came not from taking advertisers’ dollars but instead from seeking growth with the help of malevolent telcos or tyrannical governments.) Note well that Google sees the danger of sponsored content, which is why it has banned such content from Google News.

Whether you like Google or you don’t, know well that it provides service over content, enabling it to build relationships with each of us as individuals while also serving advertisers without creating confusion. Google is taking over huge swaths of the ad market by providing service to users and sharing risk with advertisers, not by selling its soul in exchange for this quarter’s revenue, as some news organizations are doing.

My advice to news organizations: Move out of the content — and sponsored content — business and get into the service business, where content is just one of your tools to serve the public.

downton1

(Crossposted from Medium.)

April 08 2013

16:00

#newsrw final session to discuss digital journalism ethics and standards

Journalism.co.uk’s one-day digital journalism conference news:rewired, which takes place later this month on Friday 19 April, will close with a joint discussion session looking at ethics and standards in online journalism, from social media etiquette to linking policies and online corrections.

The session will feature a panel of digital journalists who will share their advice and tips on best practice online:

  • Tom Standage, digital editor, the Economist
  • Jenny Rigby, social media and special projects producer, Channel 4 News
  • Sean Ingle, sports editor, Guardian.co.uk
  • Martin Bryant, managing editor, The Next Web

The session will be driven by discussion between the panel members and the audience.

The full agenda for the conference, which is being held at MSN UK’s offices in Victoria, London, is available online, and there are still tickets left for those who would like to attend on the day.

Tickets cost just £130+VAT and include lunch and refreshments during the day and networking drinks after the event. The conference usually sells out, so buy tickets now to avoid disappointment.

For those interested in an additional day, we also offer ‘news:rewired plus’ tickets for just £310, which include both a ticket to the news:rewired conference on Friday 19 April and a day of intensive training in either advanced online research or data visualisation the day before, Thursday 18 April. Space on these training courses is limited, so book now to secure a place.

March 28 2013

11:00

Fact-Checking Social Media: The Case of the Pope and the Dictator

Did Pope Francis play a major role in Argentina's Dirty War? Reporters claim they can substantiate this allegation. They published photos of dictator Jorge Videla with a cardinal, allegedly Jorge Bergoglio, the recently elected Pope Francis. But something was wrong with these findings.

Great find, Brad: pope's connivance with dictatorship RT @delong Hugh O'Shaughnessy: Sins of the Argentine church bit.ly/XuR7k0

— Matt Seaton (@mattseaton) March 13, 2013

The buzz started just two hours after the waiting for white smoke was over. Hundreds of people, including reporters, tweeted a link to a 2011 story in The Guardian: "The Sins of the Argentinian Church."

Blogs came up with similar stories. Documentary maker Michael Moore forwarded a link to a photo of Videla with a cardinal -- allegedly, the new pope. For some newspapers, like the Dutch Volkskrant, these tweets were sufficient to break the story. "Pope sparks controversy," the newspaper wrote.

ogg.jpg

In the end, everybody had to correct their stories. Moore withdrew his tweet, The Guardian corrected the 2-year-old article in which Bergoglio was mentioned, and Volkskrant apologized for using the wrong photos.

CORRECTION: New Pope too young, photo circulating not of him giving communion to Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla

— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) March 14, 2013

With the help of basic Internet research skills this never would have happened. Let's try to debunk all four clues:

1. The Guardian article

free.jpg The story came from the "Comment is free" section, the opinion corner of the newspaper.

It wasn't a factual story that was tweeted, but an opinion.

2. Enough people retweeted it

The number of retweets by itself, does not tell much about the credibility of a story. Take, for example, a look at a fake Amber Alert that was retweeted thousands of times:

henk2.jpg

But fact checking social media starts with numbers. How many people retweeted something? From which countries? How many clicked on the link? To make an educated guess, you need tools.

Tracking links

Type in the link to the story you want to investigate in Backtweets

backtweet.png

You see it is quoted 23 times, but that is the latest results. Search for March 13, 2013 and March 14, 2013. If you click on "More Tweets" you can access an archive of 5,840 tweets.

Keep in mind that you will miss tweets that use a shortened link service like bit.ly. You have to investigate each possible link separately in Backtweets. That's boring work, but somebody has to do this. Only then you'll see reporters who retweeted the link, like this Italian reporter:

italian.png

She deleted the tweet, but with Backtweet you can still find it.

Shortening services

If you type the plus sign behind any bit.ly link, you will get link statistics.

statistics.png

The trick with to

If you search in Twitter for: to (name of source) several concerns came up. Usually, followers are the first to correct false tweets. Therefore, it makes sense to use to:@mattseaton or _@to:MMflint (Michael Moore) to find out if somebody warned the source of the story. Here you see the same Italian reporter has some doubts after she posted and removed the link to the Guardian article:

did you counter factcheck this or is the source just #Horacio_Verbitsky's book? @mattseaton @delong

— Anna Masera (@annamasera) March 13, 2013

Another warning:

@mattseaton @annamasera Please fact check,Verbitsky was friend of Kirchners , accusations against Pope seem to be retaliation..

— Karen La Bretonne (@Lady_BZH) March 14, 2013

3. Blogs

Blogs broke the news, like Consortium News.stolen.jpg

Who is behind that source? I use this little Google trick to find sources who talk about
the blog, but are not affiliated with it. Here's how you do that:

perry.jpg

The writer is Robert Perry, who has a serious problem "with millions of Americans brainwashed by the waves of disinformation." His site wants to fight distortions of Fox News and "the hordes of other right-wing media outlets." The blog constitutes mostly activism rather than journalism.

4. The pictures

Michael Moore corrected his tweet several hours after he had posted the original. Without his correction, however, validation would have been possible too. You can upload the specific photo -- in this case, the alleged photo of the pope and Videla, to Google Images and try to find the original source:

amazng.jpg

Google now presents a list of most popular search words in conjunction with the image. When I tried this on the exact day the pope was presented, the words were different: "corruption," "Argentina" and "church." This indicated the person who found the image probably typed these words in Google to find the particular image that later sparked so much controversy.

To find the first date the photo was published or that Google indexed the photo, you can go back in time. You can order Google to show you only photos older than, say 2004:

travek.jpg

Now you get to the original source, Getty Images. In the caption it says that Videla visited a church in Buenos Aires in 1990. The new pope isn't mentioned:

getty.jpg

Compare this with Pope's Francis biography from the Vatican:

org.jpg

It says he was a spiritual director in Córdoba, 400 miles away from Buenos Aires. Sure, they have buses and trains and plains in Argentina, but still.

Another tip now: Always think "video" when you see a picture. Just type some words from the event in Google's search engine. This will lead to a YouTube video of the same event as captured on the Getty photo.

youtube2.jpg

Here's that YouTube video.

Now you see both people from the Getty image moving. This doesn't make sense. Pope Francis was born December 17, 1936. Videla was born August 2, 1925. He is more than 10 years older. In the YouTube video, the ages don't seem to match.

We have uncovered enough reason to doubt the original claim about Pope Francis, so now it's time to go for the final check. Probably more people discovered what you just found out. So, order Google to search for fake photos:

"false" OR "falsely" OR "fake photo" "jorge videla" "jorge bergoglio"

Don't search in English, but go for Spanish and French. You can type the words in English, and Google translates the keywords and the hits are translated back into English.

frencj.jpg

The first hit leads to sources who claim that the Michael Moore photo is false:

henf.jpg

Other keywords can be "not true," "hoax" or "blunder."

It's also a good idea to send a tweet to Storyful -- they even have a hashtag #dailydebunk.

deubnked.png

There you have it. The Guardian amended its story from 2011 on March 14, 2013.

@lady_bzh @annamasera @delong Correction coming shortly. Verbitsky book does deal with Bergoglio, but O'Shaughnessy misreported story

— Matt Seaton (@mattseaton) March 14, 2013

Nevertheless, some newspapers broke the story afterwards, as Volkskrant did on March 15. They apologized the next day:

correct.png

By doing some background research, this could have been avoided. Had proper fact checking taken place, this story should not have been written in the first place.

Dutch born Henk van Ess, currently chairs the VVOJ, the Association of Investigative Journalists for The Netherlands and Belgium. Van Ess teaches internet research & multimedia/cross media at universities and news media in Europe. He is founder of VVOJ Medialab and search engines, Inside Search, Cablesearch.org and Facing Facebook. His current projects include consultancy for news websites, fact checking of social media and internet research workshops.

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August 24 2012

14:35

This Week in Review: Twitter’s ongoing war with developers, and plagiarism and online credibility

[Since the review was off last week, this week's review covers the last two weeks.]

More Twitter restrictions for developers: Twitter continued to tighten the reins on developers building apps and services based on its platform with another change to its API rules last week. Most of it is pretty incomprehensible to non-developers, but Twitter did make itself plain at one point, saying it wants to limit development by engagement-based apps that market to consumers, rather than businesses. (Though a Twitter exec did clarify that at least two of those types of services, Storify and Favstar, were in the clear.)

The Next Web’s Matthew Panzarino clarified some of the technical jargon, and Marketing Land’s Danny Sullivan explained whom this announcement means Twitter likes and doesn’t like, and why. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Frommer gave the big-picture reason for Twitter’s increasing coldness toward developers — it needs to generate tons more advertising soon if it wants to stay independent, and the way to do that is to keep people on Twitter, rather than on Twitter-like apps and services. (Tech entrepreneur Nova Spivack said that rationale doesn’t fly, and came up with a few more open alternatives to allow Twitter to make significant money.)

That doesn’t mean developers were receptive of the news, though. Panzarino said these changes effectively kill the growth of third-party products built on Twitter’s platform, and Instapaper founder Marco Arment argued that Twitter has made itself even harder to work with than the famously draconian Apple. Eliza Kern and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM talked to developers about their ambivalence with Twitter’s policies and put Twitter’s desire for control in perspective, respectively.

Several observers saw these changes as a marker of Twitter’s shift from user-oriented service to cog in the big-media machine. Tech designer Stowe Boyd argued Twitter “is headed right into the central DNA of medialand,” and tech blogger Ben Brooks said Twitter is now preoccupied with securing big-media partnerships: “Twitter has sold out. They not only don’t care about the original users, but they don’t even seem to care much for the current users — there’s a very real sense that Twitter needs to make money, and they need to make that money yesterday.” Developer Rafe Colburn pointed out how many of Twitter’s functions were developed by its users, and developer Nick Bruun said many of the apps that Twitter is going after don’t mimic its user experience, but significantly improve it. Killing those apps and streamlining the experience, said GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, doesn’t help users, but hurts them.

Part of the problem, a few people said, was Twitter’s poor communication. Harry McCracken of Time urged Twitter to communicate more clearly and address its users alongside its developers. Tech entrepreneur Anil Dash offered a rewritten (and quite sympathetic) version of Twitter’s guidelines.

There’s another group of developers affected by this change — news developers. The Lab’s Andrew Phelps surveyed what the changes will entail for various Twitter-related news products (including a couple of the Lab’s own), and journalism professor Alfred Hermida warned that they don’t bode well for the continued development of open, networked forms of journalism.

Plagiarism, credibility, and the web: Our summer of plagiarism continues unabated: Wired decided to keep Jonah Lehrer on as a contributor after plagiarism scandal, though the magazine said it’s still reviewing his work and he has no current assignments. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post lamented the lack of consequences for Lehrer’s journalistic sins, and both he and Poynter’s Craig Silverman wondered how the fact-checking process for his articles would go. Meanwhile, Lehrer was accused by another source of fabricating quotes and also came under scrutiny for mischaracterizing scientific findings.

The other plagiarizer du jour, Time and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, has come out much better than Lehrer so far. Zakaria resigned as a Yale trustee, but Time, CNN, and The Washington Post (for whom he contributes columns) all reinstated him after reviewing his work for them, with Time declaring it was satisfied that his recent lapse was an unintentional error. However, a former Newsweek editor said he ghost-wrote a piece for Zakaria while he was an editor there, though he told the New York Observer and Poynter that he didn’t see it as a big deal.

Some defended Zakaria on a variety of grounds. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon evaluated a few of the arguments and found only one might have merit — that the plagiarism might have resulted from a research error by one of his assistants. The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer, meanwhile, argued that plagiarism has a long and storied history in American journalism, but hasn’t always been thought of as wrong.

Others saw the responses by news organizations toward both Zakaria and Lehrer as insufficient. Poynter’s Craig Silverman argued that those responses highlighted a lack of consistency and transparency (he and Kelly McBride also wrote a guide for news orgs on how to handle plagiarism), while journalism professor Mark Leccese said Zakaria’s employers should have recognized the seriousness of plagiarism and gone further, and Steven Brill at the Columbia Journalism Review called for more details about the nature of Zakaria’s error.

A New York Times account of Zakaria’s error focused on his hectic lifestyle, filled with the demands of being a 21st-century, multiplatform, personally branded pundit. At The Atlantic, book editor and former journalist Peter Osnos focused on that pressure for a pundit to publish on all platforms for all people as the root of Zakaria’s problem.

The Times’ David Carr pinpointed another factor — the availability of shortcuts to credibility on the web that allowed Lehrer to become a superstar before he learned the craft. (Carr found Lehrer’s problems far more concerning than Zakaria’s.) At Salon, Michael Barthel also highlighted the difference between traditional media and web culture, arguing that the problem for people like Zakaria is their desire to inhabit both worlds at once: “The way journalists demonstrate credibility on the Web isn’t better than how they do in legacy media. It’s just almost entirely different. For those journalists and institutions caught in the middle, that’s a real problem.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that linking is a big part of the web’s natural defenses against plagiarism.

Untruths and political fact-checking: The ongoing discussion about fact-checking and determining truth and falsehood in political discourse got some fresh fuel this week with a Newsweek cover story by Harvard professor Niall Ferguson arguing for President Obama’s ouster. The piece didn’t stand up well to numerous withering fact-checks (compiled fairly thoroughly by Newsweek partner The Daily Beast and synthesized a bit more by Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review).

Ferguson responded with a rebuttal in which he argued that his critics “claim to be engaged in ‘fact checking,’ whereas in nearly all cases they are merely offering alternative (often silly or skewed) interpretations of the facts.” Newsweek’s editor, Tina Brown, likewise referred to the story as opinion (though not one she necessarily agreed with) and said there isn’t “a clear delineation of right and wrong here.”

Aside from framing the criticism as a simple difference of opinion rather than an issue of factual (in)correctness, Newsweek also acknowledged to Politico that it doesn’t have fact-checkers — that its editors “rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material.”  Poynter’s Craig Silverman provided some of the history behind that decision, which prompted some rage from Charles Apple of the American Copy Editors Society. Apple asserted that any news organization that doesn’t respect its readers or public-service mission enough to ensure their work is factually accurate needs to leave the business. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates said the true value of fact-checkers comes in the culture of honesty they create.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM wondered if that fact-checking process might be better done in public, where readers can see the arguments and inform themselves. In an earlier piece on campaign rhetoric, Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic argued that in an era of willful, sustained political falsehood, fact-checking may be outliving its usefulness, saying, “One-off fact-checking is no match for the repeated lie.” The Lab’s Andrew Phelps, meanwhile, went deep inside the web’s leading fact-checking operation, PolitiFact.

The Times’ new CEO and incremental change: The New York Times Co. named a new CEO last week, and it was an intriguing choice — former BBC director general Mark Thompson. The Times’ article on Thompson focused on his digital expansion at the BBC (which was accompanied by a penchant for cost-cutting), as well as his transition from publicly funded to ad-supported news. According to the International Business Times, those issues were all sources of skepticism within the Times newsroom. Bloomberg noted that Thompson will still be subject to Arthur Sulzberger’s vision for the Times, and at the Guardian, Michael Wolff said Thompson should complement that vision well, as a more realistic and business-savvy counter to Sulzberger.

The Daily Beast’s Peter Jukes pointed out that many of the BBC’s most celebrated innovations during Thompson’s tenure were not his doing. Robert Andrews of paidContent also noted this, but said Thompson’s skill lay in being able to channel that bottom-up innovation to fit the BBC’s goals. Media analyst Ken Doctor argued that the BBC and the Times may be more alike than people think, and Thompson’s experience at the former may transfer over well to the latter: “Thompson brings the experience at moving, too slowly for some, too dramatically for others, a huge entity.” But Mathew Ingram of GigaOM said that kind of approach won’t be enough: “The bottom line is that a business-as-usual or custodial approach is not going to cut it at the NYT, not when revenues are declining as rapidly as they have been.”

Joe Pompeo of Capital New York laid out a thorough description of the Sulzberger-led strategy Thompson will be walking into: Focusing on investment in the Times, as opposed to the company’s other properties, but pushing into mobile, video, social, and global reach, rather than print. And Bloomberg’s Edmund Lee posited the idea that the Times could be in increasingly good position to go private.

The Assange case and free speech vs. women’s rights: WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange cleared another hurdle last week — for now — in his fight to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault accusations when Ecuador announced it would grant him asylum. Assange has been staying in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for two months, but British officials threatened to arrest Assange in the embassy. Ecuador’s decision gives him immunity from arrest on Ecuadorean soil (which includes the embassy).

Assange gave a typically defiant speech for the occasion, but the British government was undeterred, saying it plans to resolve the situation diplomatically and send Assange to Sweden. Ecuador’s president said an embassy raid would be diplomatic suicide for the U.K., and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick was appalled that Britain would even suggest it. Filmmakers Michael Moore and Oliver Stone argued in The New York Times that Assange deserves support as a free-speech advocate, while Gawker’s Adrian Chen said the sexual assault case has nothing to do with free speech. Laurie Penny of The Independent looked at the way free speech and women’s rights are being pitted against each other in this case. Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian excoriated the press for their animosity toward Assange.

Reading roundup: We’ve already covered a bunch of stuff over the past week and a half, and there’s lots more to get to, so here’s a quick rundown:

— Twitter and Blogger co-founder Evan Williams announced the launch of Medium, a publishing platform that falls somewhere between microblogging and blogging. The Lab’s Joshua Benton has the definitive post on what Medium might be, Dave Winer outlined his hopes for it, and The Awl’s Choire Sicha wrote about the anti-advertising bent at sites like it.

— A few social-news notes: Two features from the Huffington Post and the Lab on BuzzFeed’s ramped-up political news plans; TechCrunch’s comparison of BuzzFeed, Reddit, and Digg; and a feature from the Daily Dot on Reddit and the future of social journalism.

— The alt-weekly The Village Voice laid off staffers late last week, prompting Jim Romenesko to report that the paper is on the verge of collapse and Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray to chronicle its demise. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon said the paper still has plenty left, and The New York Times’ David Carr said the problem is that the information ecosystem has outgrown alt-weeklies.

— Finally, three great food-for-thought pieces, Jonathan Stray here at the Lab on determining proper metrics for journalism, media consultant Mark Potts on a newspaper exec’s 20-year-old view of the web, and Poynter’s Matt Thompson on the role of the quest narrative in journalism.

Photo of Jonah Lehrer by PopTech and drawing of Julian Assange by Robert Cadena used under a Creative Commons license.

July 27 2012

14:04

This Week in Review: Reddit and news orgs’ shooting coverage, and Yahoo and Twitter’s identities

The Aurora shooting, Reddit, and citizen journalism’s value: Much of this week’s news has been related to last week’s shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater that killed 12 and injured dozens. Poynter tracked the spread of the news of the late-night shooting, and the site that got the most recognition for thorough reporting of the news as it broke was the social-news site Reddit. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon rounded up the range of coverage on Reddit, which included photos, comment threads with people who were in the theater, and comprehensive, continually updated timelines.

Those timelines drew particular attention from media observers: The Atlantic’s Megan Garber marveled at their empathy through thoroughness, and BuzzFeed’s John Herrman and NPR’s Elise Hu talked to the timelines’ author — an 18-year-old named Morgan Jones — with Herrman calling him “the go-to source in the story,” and Poynter’s Alan Stamm held him up as a model for aspiring journalists.

As The New York Times described, the site’s users also unearthed some details about the alleged shooter that the traditional news media missed. Adweek talked about Reddit’s reporting capabilities with the site’s general manager, Erik Martin, who said Reddit wasn’t designed to be a breaking-news source, but its users have used its tools for journalistic purposes anyway.

Several writers praised Reddit’s ability to cover breaking news collaboratively in such an effective way. Keith Wagstaff of Time wrote that “no news organization or social media site currently offers an experience that’s concurrently as immediate, engaging and thorough as the one offered by Reddit,” and in a pair of posts, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram remarked on Reddit’s ability to act as a verification hub and to allow readers to interact with people involved in news stories, and offered a defense of “citizen journalism” such as Reddit’s.

At Salon, Michael Barthel took issue with the praise for Reddit and citizen journalism, arguing that it isn’t immune from the same criticism the traditional media and that it’s “doing more or less the exact same thing that traditional journalism has always done, except not as reliably or sustainably.” J-prof Jay Rosen countered the piece with a Salon post of his own arguing that no one is saying citizen journalism will replace professional journalism.

Some traditional media organizations were also recognized for their skill in covering the story — the Denver Post’s Twitter coverage was run in part by its Digital First new curation team, and Digital First’s Steve Buttry drew tips for news organizations from the Post’s Twitter coverage, while Poynter looked at how the Post covered the news without a copy desk. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple also highlighted the coverage of Denver’s 9News TV.

How to cover tragedy carefully and sensibly: But traditional news organizations were also responsible for some serious missteps and some eyeroll-inducing coverage of the Aurora shooting, too. ABC News’ Brian Ross misidentified the shooter as a Tea Party member who had the same name, a mistake which Poynter’s Craig Silverman said the network made insufficient efforts to correct and apologize for.

Rem Rieder of the American Journalism Review and Steve Myers of Poynter pinned the blame for Ross’ and similar errors on the practice of incremental or “process” reporting, in which news is reported, bit by bit, as it comes in, then later confirmed or corrected. Rieder said he doesn’t find the practice “a very confidence-inducing or satisfying approach to journalism,” and Myers described how disclaimers and corrections can be separated from initial reports on Twitter.

Beyond that specific error, coverage of the event and its aftermath followed a predictable path of sensational coverage and unfounded speculation. The New York Times’ David Carr lamented that pattern in shooting coverage, concluding that many of the problems stem from the news media’s desire to answer the question that can’t be answered: “Why?”

The Atlantic’s J.J. Gould urged media outlets and consumers to start shaming organizations that cover such events exploitatively, and numerous people circulated a 2009 video by the BBC’s Charlie Brooker that illustrated how to (and how not to) cover a mass shooting properly, which New Statesman compared to Britain’s newspapers. Jay Rosen, meanwhile, criticized the excitement that characterized so much of the coverage.

The ethics of quote approval and draft sharing: Following last week’s New York Times story on news organizations allowing candidates and their staffs to approve their quotes, more news orgs were establishing or reiterating their policies barring those practices this week, including Bloomberg, McClatchy, and National Journal. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple parsed through a few common quoting and negotiation practices, and the Journal’s Ron Fournier told him the key element differentiating what’s OK from what’s not is who has control.

Meanwhile, a Washington Post journalist caught some flak after the Texas Observer reported that he shared drafts of a story with University of Texas officials and allowed them to suggest edits that ended up in the story. Post editor Marcus Brauchli ultimately decreed that future draft-sharing would have to be approved by an editor.

In the ensuing discussion on draft sharing, the reporter had some defenders, including Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride in the Observer story. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon noted that the story contained quite a bit information that was unfavorable to the university, while the Post’s Erik Wemple defended the practice of draft sharing in general, saying that a refusal to do so affirms journalists’ arrogance. “It’s a convention built on the idea that journalists are so brilliant that they can get a complicated set of facts and circumstances dead-bang right on the first try without feedback from the people who know the topic best.”

What exactly is Yahoo?: A week after ex-Googler Marissa Mayer took over as Yahoo CEO, she’s begun to inspire confidence in the troops there, according to All Things D’s Kara Swisher, while Wired’s Steven Levy reported on the army of ex-Google managers Mayer could lure to Yahoo. The New York Times’ David Carr said the key question for Yahoo — as it has been for so many web companies before it — is, what is it, exactly? He concluded that Yahoo is (among other things) in the news business, but by accident more than anything.

Tim Carmody of The Verge said that question — especially whether it’s a media or tech company — could be shaped in part by where it moves most of its operations. He reported that Mayer may move many of Yahoo’s media execs to New York, making it a place where it could pursue both its media and tech sides. Ad Age’s Jason Del Rey and Michael Learmonth said Yahoo’s future is in creating more high-quality products, an area in which it hasn’t spent much money recently.

Twitter moves further toward media: We were also asking the “What is it?” question this week about another company: Twitter. The Wall Street Journal reported (paywalled) on Twitter’s plans to build out around big events, as Twitter announced the first of those partnerships — a hub for curating conversation about the Olympics with NBCUniversal. Meanwhile, Adweek reported that Twitter is in talks with Hollywood producers about launching original web shows a la “The Real World.”

In a series of posts, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram wrote about Twitter’s move toward being a media outlet, saying that it doesn’t really need media outlets such as NBCUniversal to coordinate event-based coverage, that Twitter is moving toward an Apple- or Facebook-esque “walled garden” approach with regard to developers, and that producing ad-driven content like web shows gets away from Twitter’s core aims.

Meanwhile, The New York Times’ Nick Bilton asked whether Twitter is a media or tech company, concluding that it looks an awful lot like a media company. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen posed that Twitter is “a new kind of media company that doesn’t make any content.” Slate’s Matt Yglesias said the media/tech distinction isn’t a good one — the real distinction is between companies that sell a product and ones that sell an audience, and Twitter is quite clearly the latter.

Reading roundup: Here are the most interesting smaller stories going on this week:

— A couple of updates on the ongoing News Corp. saga: Rupert Murdoch resigned from the board of News International, his British newspaper division, and Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast explained why Murdoch is loosening his grip on his newspapers. Meanwhile, former News International head Rebekah Brooks was charged in the phone hacking scandal, and the Telegraph wondered if the charges could lead to a deeper U.S. investigation. The New York Times wrote about the case’s impact on British newspaper culture.

— A few WikiLeaks developments: A judge ruled that the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks are still secret, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that U.S. government officials are now talking about the possibility of prosecuting news organizations like The New York Times in addition to WikiLeaks for publishing classified information. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram urged journalists to support WikiLeaks’ First Amendment rights, and the Times’ Bill Keller followed suit.

— Barry Diller, whose IAC now owns most of the Newsweek/Daily Beast partnership, said in an earnings call that he might eliminate part or all of Newsweek’s print edition as soon as the end of this year. Newsweek editor Tina Brown tried to calm her staff down, and the New York Observer’s Foster Kamer detailed the now-ended Sidney Harman era at the magazine.

— The New York Times Co. released its second-quarter figures this week and posted a loss, thanks to declining digital ad sales, even as digital subscriptions for the Times and its Boston Globe are up. As New York magazine’s Joe Coscarelli put up, the Times is beginning to be supported by its readers more than its advertisers.

— Finally, a very thoughtful piece here at the Lab from Jonathan Stray, who suggested three principles by which to design personalized news experiences: interest, effects, and agency.

Photos of Aurora theater by Algr, quotation mark by Quinn Dombrowski, and Yahoo ice sculpture by Randy Stewart used under a Creative Commons license.

January 11 2012

15:20

3 Laws for Journalists in a Data-Saturated World

At the Cyberspace Conference in London in November, Igor Shchegolev, the Russian minister of communications and mass media, referred to sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics:

robot_byra1000_flickrcc.jpg

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Earlier in 2011, after the phone-hacking scandal erupted in the U.K. and the level of criticism of the journalism profession soared, I started thinking about these three laws. Meanwhile, there is a daily deluge of excitement about data journalism - from Owni.eu to the Guardian, Telegraph and New York Times - and about hacking (enthusiasm for the white hat variety and frequent warnings about the black hat flavor).

Some sections of the media want, at least it may seem to some of us, a witch hunt against the rest for practices that have been long present in journalism, and British journalism in particular. Just this week, former editor of the Sun newspaper in Britain Kelvin McKenzie was giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry about events 20 years ago. Others want to drive so far toward data and ceaseless online information that some of us wonder what happened to the people we used to interview. And if you question either of those, you will be denounced as being part of the problem.

Obsess too much about the technology and you risk forgetting the human beings we report on, and the fact they can easily be trampled under the feet of hoards of reporters surging in their lust for immediate "information" without pause for second thought.

In an age in which "hacks and hackers" are merged into a confused space focused more on data than the people behind it, I want to see Asimov's laws rewritten.

Let me propose Three Laws for Journalists in the Digital World:

1. Digital systems must be designed to protect and ensure, to the fullest extent possible, personal data and its exchange and communication.

2. Journalists must pursue all stories deemed to be in the public interest, even where that may require challenging the security of digital systems.

3. Journalists must protect their sources as well as the innocent public to the same extent as the digital systems of the First Law, where it would otherwise render the impossibility of the Second Law.

The First Law

So-called "black hat" hackers, such as criminal gangs who attack companies for data on customers, obviously fall afoul of the First Law above. But the First Law also accommodates those hackers who deliberately challenge a system to ultimately make it safer.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario published in 2009 "The 7 Foundational Principles" of Privacy by Design, which included as No. 2: "Privacy as the Default Setting ... by ensuring that personal data are automatically protected in any given IT system or business practice. If an individual does nothing, their privacy still remains intact."

While it might be relatively straightforward for companies to protect private information, it is less so for society at large.

Michelle Govan, a lecturer in ethical hacking at Glasgow Caledonian University, teaches a course focusing on attacking systems to find the holes and then patching them. She explained that the key element of legal hacking is having the permission of the system owner or operator. For the rest of us, any information online is not private.

"Everybody has a responsibility for their own privacy," she said. "Where does privacy start? You create your own digital footprint online -- anything you put online is open to people using it maliciously.

"I always provide students with the understanding and experience of the application of legal aspects so they know they have to use these skills for good. It's all about the permission and knowledge of what limits the law sets," she added. "We have legal laws [and some] ethical laws -- it's down to a person's own values. You have to make people respect what they're doing."

There have been plenty of examples of going further with once private information as companies battle for control of as much data as possible.

Such was the recent case of Klout, which was accused of automatically creating profiles and assigning scores to minors. Klout argued that much of a user's information, such as name, sex and profile photo, is already public.

Newspaper or other media companies and their systems would also be governed by this First Law, either in protecting their own systems from criminal hacking, or their users who might be exposed to viruses or other online threats via news stories, etc.

The First Law does not exclude examples such as hackers diverting Internet connections when states crack down on civil liberties, such as in Syria. Because those hackers are ultimately aiming to protect individuals and not expose them to harm as they fight for greater democratic freedoms, they meet the requirements of the First Law.

The Second Law

One of the many flaws in the hacking of telephone voice-mail in the U.K. was that the actions were not in the public interest. There are legal precedents in the U.K. for how public interest is defined, but the behavior of celebrities would rarely fall within those categories, and certainly not when the press goes on a "fishing expedition" for scandal on any high-profile figure imaginable.

Hacking into the voice-mail of a murdered schoolgirl was not legal or ethical. But you could imagine a hypothetical case where if the police were not making adequate efforts to find the killer, or where Milly Dowler had been alive and police were not acting to help trace her; AND at the invitation of her parents, the press got involved and accessed her phone. But that is highly theoretical and was not the case.

If journalists must do investigations -- and there's a recognition we must, even if nobody knows how to pay for it -- then there will be instances where they do breach the security of digital systems.

They might need to prove, as an ethical hacker might, that a government or corporate system did not have sufficient protections of citizens' data.

The Second Law is relatively straightforward if you need to meet the standard of public interest first. There might still be legal challenges after publication, broadcast or posting online, but if you have to justify it internally first, that's a good start. Most reporters know and follow the Second Law intuitively.

The Third Law

The point of merger for these laws, and for the worlds of "hacks and hackers" is the Third Law.

Even if the hacking of telephone voice-mail wasn't illegal already in the U.K., a handful of reporters at the News of the World and potentially elsewhere were clearly not ethically protecting their sources. In that world, everyone is potentially fair game for worldwide exposure, on anything, however trivial.

Clare Harris, former editor of the Big Issue in Scotland magazine and now media and communications officer with the Scottish Refugee Council, said journalists and editors don't always think about the potential consequences to interviewees of their stories going online. While a refugee might be safe in the U.K., their family could still be at risk in the country of origin, where stories about human rights abuses could be easily accessed by government forces.

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"We have to be really clear if we are putting someone forward for interview that it is likely to go on the web and go worldwide, because we are dealing with people who are very vulnerable," she explained.

"In some cases, people would be more happy to speak to newspapers about their situation if they knew their stories won't be online. No journalist has ever asked us if it is safe to put the story online," she said.

But for Harris, bigger questions still have to be asked: about the nature of sources and the boundaries for "private" and "public."

"What is a source now? Is it someone who has tweeted something? Is everything online fair game?" she asked.

Harris' comments are echoed in the Wall Street Journal coverage last year of a Supreme Court case involving questions of how GPS technology is used by police.

During oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito said: "Maybe 10 years from now, 90% of the population will be using social networking sites, and they will have on average 500 friends, and they will have allowed their friends to monitor their location 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, through the use of their cell phones. What would the expectation of privacy be then?"

How technically difficult is it to protect sources in the digital age? Very.

Govan in Glasgow said information is so easy to extract now, that it can be eyebrow-raising for her students initially.

"If a reporter is trying to protect their sources online, it's limited when you can get Google to locate information for you," she said. "Google caches anything online so once online, it's essentially public. It becomes public data."

The need to look beyond data

Stephen Janis is an investigative reporter for Fox 45 in Baltimore and co-author of the book, "Why Do We Kill?" While data has become more important in journalism, Janis said he always tries to find the people at the heart of stories.

But the people you find also sometimes need protection. He said it is relatively easy to find people on Facebook, and the connections they have, which can expose who you're speaking to as a reporter.

"I've dealt with a lot of sources inside agencies who could get fired for speaking to me. We are all secretive about who our sources are. But my online social relationships could be used to ferret out some sources," he said.

So if it is so easy to get information about sources, what should reporters do?

Was WikiLeaks better at protecting its sources through military grade encryption on its "drop box"? Did they fail in protecting information of individuals contained within released documents when they published everything sans redaction?

Attempts by the Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera to entice whistleblowers to traditional media instead of WikiLeaks have been criticized for failing to ensure anonymity or guarantee information would not be handed to law enforcement agencies.

If Twitter has been compelled to release information by the courts on its accounts, how should media organizations encourage the flow of information via social media? Does it require, at the very least, warnings in advance so individuals make an informed choice to contact media companies that can't protect them?

Or would the media be better to advise their readers and users to apply Tor software to protect their systems from tracking before sending information?

In the pursuit of faster information and more readers/consumers, we may have forgotten the need to protect our sources, and how easily we leave trails exposing them to risk.

Does retweeting a comment from the "Arab Spring" expose the originator, however anonymous, to risk? Do the images we take from Twitter accounts include GPS tags?

Quite apart from the immorality and illegality of hacking the voice-mail of a murdered schoolgirl in the U.K., how are we using technology as reporters?

If we can't protect our sources, how can our work possibly be in the public interest? If you fail to do the Third Law, you make the Second Law impossible.

Why Three Laws and Why Now?

These questions matter. In obsessing about all the journalism practices used in the U.K. for the past 20 or 30 years, and in the rush for immediacy and intimacy with the digital world, there needs to be an underpinning of something for journalism. Every reporter knows they must protect their sources, even if we have not articulated that well to our citizen counterparts.

T. S. Eliot wrote in "The Rock," Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Data is fine. It can be beautiful and elegant and informative. But some data must be protected, and other data must be investigated. The drive to inform must have an ethical underpinning of some kind.

These three laws could be part of better guiding the professionals and those sources -- human or numeric -- with whom we interact.

Robot photo by Flickr user ra1000 and used here with Creative Commons license.

Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Glasgow, Scotland, operating as the W5 Press Agency.

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December 07 2011

15:20

Tear Down the Wall Between Business and Editorial!

For too long, reporters and editors have been unaware, even hostile to the business sides of their organizations. Those attitudes have helped push the news industry into its current dire state.

And that's why I say: Tear down the wall between business and editorial.

Before you start sharpening your pitchforks, hear me out.

I'm not proposing a free-for-all money-grab that destroys journalistic imperatives. I am calling for those who make the "product" to learn how it's sold so they can better do their jobs and contribute to the bottom line.

If editorial staff is the first to be pared in news organizations, perhaps that's in part because they haven't known enough to make a strong business case for what they contribute.

Jim Brady, the former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com, and now the editor in chief of Journal Register Company, seems to agree that journalists need to learn the business ropes.

Jim Brady

"We don't want to see people sent out into the world slaughtered by the wolves because they don't know anything about the business side," he said at this year's Online News Association conference when I asked his thoughts on journalists learning business principles.

MediaShift managing editor Courtney Lowery Cowgill, co-founder and former editor in chief of the now-defunct New West, was also encouraging. She told me that while she and others were building their sites, they were stymied while trying to get advice on how to support the news businesses while maintaining proper standards.

"Friends in similar startup situations were struggling with how to blur the lines in an intelligent and ethical way," she said. "There was nobody to help us with that. They were all just saying, 'No, no. Don't do it.' We all need a roadmap for how to do it, a good guide on how to do that ethically, intelligently and efficiently."

Here, I hope, is a start.

Remember: It's a Business

One place to start is attitude.

Can you name another business in which the people who make the key product are allowed, even encouraged, to be ignorant of how they make money?

I've found many journalists to be uncomfortable with money. But money is lifeblood. As much as you might labor to get a story in before deadline, you'll sweat bullets when you're responsible for payroll and the money isn't there.

A for-profit business is just that. That profit is what lets you not only continue another day, but also gives you the freedom to determine your own mission.

Yes, the news business is special, and has a special trust. But many businesses are, and some of them -- such as health care and food -- deal much more literally with issues of life and death. They, too, must juggle ethical and commercial imperatives while doing their work.

Keeping the public trust, even one protected by the Constitution, is not contradictory with the the idea of making your enterprise financially self-sustaining.

The more revenue you have, the more creative ways you can use it to produce a better product, and the more diverse the revenue is, the less beholden you will be to any single source.

Know the Business

The more you know about the business workings, the better arguments you'll be able to make to gain resources to do good work. You can point out the profits one section you're handling brings in that can support another effort you believe in.

You may be able to make a case that something that seems like a cost center will, over time, create new efficiencies or revenue-enhancements. You can note that an investigative story may not bring in advertising, but it could bring in page views that you can show lead to new advertising or subscription revenues.

Even better is if you can back up your case in a way a business person can understand, by using data to make a cogent case that applies to the bottom line.

Understand the Finances

The more literate you are about the finances, not just income, assets and depreciation, but also cost of capital and market conditions, the better you'll understand the reasoning behind some decisions.

The better grounding you have in the finances, the more respect you'll have for the business on both the income and expense sides -- and the more you'll want to control costs, or spend appropriately to get the job done.

You'll be able to see the company through a business lens. You'll put yourself in a cooperative, collegial position, rather than going begging to the money people with hand out.

If you're running your own operation, the better you'll know how close you are to meeting payroll, or how creative you can be to raise some funds.

If Sales Influences Editorial, It's OK

Do you think newspapers run separate real estate, car or fashion sections for editorial reasons? Or could it be because those sections generate healthy profits?

It's fine if commercial reasoning influences editorial projects, as long as the projects fit into your overall mission. Let me give an example from MediaShift.

We have sometimes adjusted timing on stories or special series if there was no good reason not to in order to accommodate a client who wanted to sponsor them.

Sometimes we've even extended a series by a couple more stories than we might have without the added funds. Producing that extra content can be additive and contribute to the richness of the site.

If we can serve our community and earn revenue at the same time, that's a home run.

We are mindful of the danger of working so hard to serve sponsors that we neglect the needs of the larger community. That's very important.

Create Things That Make Money

Sometimes, you'll package material in a way that garners interest from viewers and sponsors. Packaging and repackaging can be a great device.

It's easy to demean "link bait" such as "Top 10" or "How To" lists, but if your users like and share them, and they generate profitable page views, is there really harm? If there's sponsor interest, all the better.

You can also launch efforts to make money in order to support other operations that don't. I'll later be writing a column about news companies that have done everything from sell web consulting services to hand out sponsor postcards at local gatherings.

Try to Get to 'Yes'

A former managing editor at Newsweek (where I used to work) once told me proudly of throwing a salesperson for the magazine out of his office with harsh words.

Perhaps, instead, he could have worked to help craft a solution that met the advertiser's needs without violating Newsweek's core principles.newsweek_headroom_max4aa.jpg

There were times at ABCNews.com, where I was a liaison between the sales and editorial sides after having been a managing editor, when I created products the editorial team accepted while explaining justifiable limits to the sales team.

I have, as a journalist doing business deals, sometimes had to fight the urge to give a sponsor an outright "no" to one of their ideas, and instead tried to glean their ultimate goals and worked together to find an acceptable way to meet them.

Be Willing to Say "No"

You also have to be willing for the long-term health of the business to say "no." You may be asked to do things you consider unsavory. You have to have the spine to make a sponsor uncomfortable, as MediaTwits podcast co-host Rafat Ali did at his former site, PaidContent, when he reported on a sponsor in a way they didn't appreciate.

Advertisers rooted in your community (whether that's a community of professionals, of like-minded individuals, or of geographic proximity) will usually understand if you explain that a request they're making could damage the operation's credibility. That damage will also damage their ability to have their message in front of a happily engaged community you've worked hard to amass.

You do need core principles that can't be bent -- even if that means the business doesn't meet payroll. Remember the point above about diversified revenue streams? The more there are, the less any one sponsor can damage you.

Be Prepared for Uncomfortable Conversations

In smaller communities, the people who sponsor a news operation can be the ones being reported on. They'll ask for favors. You and people you work with have to be able to explain, even in the midst of reporting, what can and can't be done on their behalf.

At the risk of repeating: The more profit your company makes, the more leeway it has to do its work, to remain independent of government or other interference, and the more freedom to do good work.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

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October 07 2011

21:21

TrueTies.Org Wants to Increase Transparency on the Op-Ed Page

The following is a guest opinion from Gabe Elsner of The Checks and Balances Project, which recently launched a new project aimed at increasing transparency at news outlets.

Every day, Americans read the opinion and commentary of seemingly impartial "experts" from think tanks on critical subjects in the pages of the nation's newspapers.

What these readers don't know is that the authors of these opinion pieces work for think tanks and organizations funded by the same industries they are "impartially" writing about. Rarely -- if ever -- are readers informed that the so-called expert has received money from the industry he or she is championing or defending.

Why? All too often, top news outlets don't ask pundits about these conflicts, and so readers don't get the whole story.

That's why, starting Oct. 6, The Checks and Balances Project launched an online petition at TrueTies.org.

As the recession has ground on, many news media outlets went out of business or fled quality journalism. Fortunately, the New York Times did the opposite -- it doubled down. That's why we're asking the Times, as our nation's paper of record, to increase transparency on the opinion pages by beginning a practice of asking one basic question of every op-ed submission finalist: "Do you have direct or indirect ties to the industries you are writing about?" And, if the answer is yes, to tell their readers at the time the piece is published.

The case of the "senior fellow"

The Checks and Balances Project -- a startup watchdog organization committed to holding government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public -- decided to launch True Ties after reading a June 2011 op-ed in The New York Times by Robert Bryce.

Bryce, using the title "senior fellow" at the Manhattan Institute, claimed that renewable energy was bad for the environment and that natural gas was far preferable, despite widespread concerns about the gas industry's potential contamination of public drinking water supplies. What readers weren't told, while reading his argument in favor of fossil fuels, is that his host organization, the Manhattan Institute, received nearly $3 million from fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil and Koch Industries.

Wouldn't it have been better if someone from the Times' opinion page staff asked Bryce one question about his financial ties? Don't readers deserve to know that this columnist's paycheck is funded in part by fossil fuel-tied groups?

Sadly, the New York Times piece by Bryce is not an isolated incident. This problem is widespread -- in newspapers, cable television, radio and beyond. Bryce points out that his work has been seen by millions of Americans through "publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Counterpunch and Atlantic Monthly to Oklahoma Stripper." In addition, he's appeared on television shows ranging from the PBS "Newshour" to Fox News to "Energy Now."

Bryce is just one example in a growing industry of front groups and industry-sponsored pundits. These organizations are functionally serving as industry public relations firms, while carrying neutral-sounding names such as the Mercatus Center, Institute for Energy Research and the Cato Institute. They provide a platform not just for Bryce, but for other "experts," such as the Mercatus Center's Andrew P. Morriss, to spread fossil-fuel industry talking points while taking fossil-fuel money. Much of the funding for the Mercatus Center comes from the Koch Family Foundations, while the Institute for Energy Research is essentially a joint project of Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. And, similar to Bryce, Morriss, a fellow at the Mercatus Center, works for organizations with sponsors who remain hidden from readers and viewers.

These pundits have the right to be heard, but they shouldn't get to hide their industry funding. The New York Times, as the standard bearer of journalism, has a responsibility to ensure consumers know all the facts.

What do we do about it?

The clearest step forward is simple: The New York Times and other important media outlets can ask a basic question of anyone publishing opinions on their pages regarding financial conflicts of interest -- and then tell readers about the conflicts.

Full disclosure of these ties will increase transparency. More importantly, it will ensure that readers have the relevant information they need to put commentaries into proper context, and ultimately, help inform their opinions on vital issues. By asking contributors like Bryce to answer a short set of disclosure questions, the New York Times can set the industry standard and help their readers get the full story.

Gabe Elsner is a public interest advocate based in Washington, D.C. For the past five years, he has worked with a variety of non-profit organizations to elevate the voice of ordinary people in policy debates. Gabe understands that citizens need to stand up for true American values to restore democracy and to overcome the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups. He joined the Checks and Balances Project in June 2011 to help increase transparency and inform the public on critical issues, especially related to energy.

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September 16 2011

15:30

This Week in Review: A unique paywall plan in Boston, and ethics at TechCrunch and the Times

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Paid and free, side by side: The Boston Globe became the latest news organization to institute an online paywall this week, but it did so in an unprecedented way that should be interesting to watch: The newspaper created a separate paid site, BostonGlobe.com, to run alongside its existing free site, Boston.com. PaidContent has the pertinent details: A single price ($3.99 a week), and Boston.com gets most of the breaking news and sports, while BostonGlobe.com gets most of the newspaper content.

As the Globe told Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, the two sites were designed with two different types of readers in mind: One who has a deep appreciation for in-depth journalism and likes to read stories start-to-finish, and another who reads news casually and briefly and may be more concerned about entertainment or basic information than journalism per se.

The first thing that caught many people’s attention was new site’s design — simple, clean, and understated. Tech blogger John Gruber gave it a thumbs-up, and news design guru Mario Garcia called it ”probably the most significant new website design in a long time.” The Lab’s Joshua Benton identified the biggest reasons it looks so clean: Far fewer links and ads.

Benton (in the most comprehensive post on the new site) also emphasized a less noticeable but equally important aspect of BostonGlobe.com’s design: It adjusts to fit just about any browser size, which reduces the need for mobile apps, making life easier for programmers and, as j-prof Dan Kennedy noted at the Lab, a way around the cut of app fees required by Apple and others. If the Globe’s people “have figured out a way not to share their hard-earned revenues with gatekeepers such as Apple and Amazon, then they will have truly performed a service for the news business — and for journalism,” Kennedy said.

Of course, the Globe could launch the most brilliantly conceived news site on the web, but it won’t be a success unless enough people pay for it. Poynter’s Sonderman (like Kennedy) was skeptical of their ability to do that, though as the Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen pointed out, the Globe’s plan may be aimed as much at retaining print subscribers as making money off the web. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wondered if readers will find enough at BostonGlobe.com that’s not at Boston.com to make the site worth their money.

The TechCrunch conflict and changing ethical standardsLast week’s flap between AOL and TechCrunch over the tech site’s ethical conflicts came to an official resolution on Monday, when TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington parted ways with AOL, the site’s owner. But its full effects are going to be rippling for quite a while: Gawker’s Ryan Tate called the fiasco a black eye for everyone involved, but especially AOL, which had approved Arrington’s investments in some of the companies he covers just a few months ago. Fellow media mogul Barry Diller also ripped AOL’s handling of the situation.

At the Guardian, Dan Gillmor said that while he doesn’t trust TechCrunch much personally, it’s the audience’s job to sort out their trust with the help of transparency, rather than traditional journalism’s strictures. Others placed more of the blame on TechCrunch: Former Newsweek tech editor Dan Lyons said TechCrunch’s people should have expected this type of scenario when they sold to a big corporation, and media analyst Frederic Filloux said TechCrunch is a perfect example of the blogosphere’s vulnerability to unchecked conflicts of interest.

There was more fuel for those kinds of ethical concerns this week, as the winning company at TechCrunch’s annual Disrupt competition was one that Arrington invests in. But Arrington had an ethical accusation of his own to make at the conference, pointing out that the New York Times invests in a tech venture capital fund which has put $3.5 million into GigaOM, a TechCrunch competitor. Poynter’s Steve Myers detailed the Times’ run-ins between the companies it invests in and the ones it covers (and its spotty disclosure about those connections), concluding that even if the conflict is less direct than in blogging, it’s still worth examining more closely.

As it plunged further into its battle with TechCrunch late last week, AOL was also reported to be talking with Yahoo, which recently fired its CEO, about a merger between the two Internet giants. All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher said there’s no way the deal would actually happen; Wired’s Tim Carmody called it a “spectacularly crazy idea” and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram agreed, while Business Insider reminded us that they said a year ago that AOL and Yahoo should merge.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ David Carr homed in on the core problem that both companies are facing: The fact that people want information online from niche sites, not giant general-news portals. “As news surges on the Web, giant ocean liners like AOL and Yahoo are being outmaneuvered by the speedboats zipping around them, relatively small sites that have passionate audiences and sharply focused information,” he wrote.

Facebook opens to subscribers: It hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as some of its other moves, but Facebook took another step in Twitter’s direction this week by introducing the Subscribe Button, which allows users to see other people’s (and groups’) status updates without friending or becoming a fan of them.

As GeekWire’s Monica Guzman and many others noted, Facebook’s “subscribe” looks a heck of a lot like Twitter’s “follow.” When asked about similar Google+ features at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, a Facebook exec said it wasn’t a response to Google+.

Guzman said Facebook is putting down deeper roots by going beyond the limits of reciprocal friendship, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram pinpointed the reason why this could end up being a massive change for Facebook: It’s beginning to move Facebook from a symmetrical network to an asymmetrical one, which could fundamentally transform its dynamics. Still, Ingram said Twitter is much better oriented toward being an information network than Facebook is, even with a “Subscribe” button.

The change could have particularly interesting implications for journalists, as Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman explained in his brief outline of the feature. As he noted, it may eliminate the need for separate Facebook profiles and pages for journalists, and while Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman said that should be a welcome change for journalists who were trying to manage both, he noted that shows and organizations may want to stick with pages.

News Corp.’s scandal widens: An update on the ongoing scandal enveloping News Corp.: A group of U.S. banks and investment funds that own shares in News Corp. expanded a lawsuit to include allegations of stealing, hacking, and anti-competitive behavior by two of the company’s U.S. subsidiaries — an advertiser and a satellite TV hardware manufacturer. As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted, these are old cases, but they’re getting fresh attention, and that’s how scandals gain momentum.

James Murdoch, the son of News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, was also recalled to testify again before members of Britain’s Parliament later this fall, facing new questions about the breadth of News Corp.’s phone hacking scandal. The Wall Street Journal examined the scandal’s impact on the elder Murdoch’s succession plan for the conglomerate, especially as it involves James. The company’s executives also announced this week that they’ve found tens of thousands of documents that could shed more light on the phone hacking cases.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else went on this week:

— The biggest news story this week, of course, is actually 10 years old: Here’s a look at how newspapers marked the anniversary of 9/11, how news orgs used digital technology to tell the story, and a reflection on how 9/11 changed the media landscape.

— Twitter introduced a new web analytics tool to measure Twitter’s impact on websites. Here’s an analysis from Mathew Ingram of GigaOM.

— At an academic conference last weekend, Illinois j-prof Robert McChesney repeated his call for public funding for journalism. Here are a couple of good summaries of his talk from fellow j-profs Axel Bruns and Alfred Hermida.

— Finally, here’s a relatively short but insightful two-part interview between two digital media luminaries, Henry Jenkins and Dan Gillmor, about media literacy, citizen journalism and Gillmor’s latest book. Should make for a quick, thought-provoking weekend read.

July 27 2011

17:59

Rethinking Journalism Ethics, Objectivity in the Age of Social Media

In response to the rapidly changing media environment, many schools and academic programs are offering novel approaches to journalism education.

This seismic change creates tensions within programs, especially when it comes to how to teach ethics for this increasingly mixed media.

In an earlier column, I put forward some principles for teaching ethics amid this media revolution. But these principles do not address some specific problems.

Whither objectivity?

Today, students don't just learn how to report straight news on deadline. They not only learn to write reports that are neutral or objective; they also learn how to write blogs, use social media, write investigative pieces, and explore point-of-view journalism.

Schools of journalism have always taught, to some extent, what is called "opinion journalism," such as learning to write an editorial that supports a candidate for political office. But the amount of opinion and perspective journalism in programs today is much greater than in the past; and media formats for the expression of this journalism multiply.

One problem is whether the ideal of journalistic objectivity should be emphasized in these changing curricula.

The new journalism tends to be more personal. It prefers transparency to objectivity or self-effacing neutrality. Across journalism programs, there is a trend toward teaching a perspectival journalism that draws conclusions, and argues for interpretations. This challenges the previous dominance of objectivity as an ideal.

So the question is: Should educators maintain or abandon objectivity in their teaching?



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Redefining Objectivity

For starters, I think we should address this problem by doing two things: First, we should redefine, not abandon, objectivity as one of the principles that define responsible journalism. Second, we should develop ethical guidelines for specific forms of new media -- guidelines that are consistent with general principles such as truth-telling.


The traditional notion of journalistic objectivity, developed in the early 1900s, defined objectivity as a story that reported "just the facts" and eliminated all interpretation or opinion by the journalist. This notion of objectivity needs to be abandoned. It is an outdated idea that sees everything in black and white: A story is either factual -- and only factual -- or it is subjective opinion. We are given a choice between strict objectivity and un-rigorous subjectivity. This is a false dilemma.

Objectivity is not about perfect neutrality or the elimination of interpretation. Objectivity refers to a person's willingness to use objective methods to test interpretations for bias or inaccuracies. Objectivity as a method is compatible with journalism that interprets and takes perspectives. Every day, scientists adopt the objective stance when they use methods to test their hypotheses about phenomena. The same stance is available for journalists.


Why is the redefinition of objectivity necessary?

Traditional objectivity as just the facts is a false model of how journalists do their work. Journalism is interpretive through and through. It provides little guidance for many forms of journalism, such as point-of-view journalism. In addition, adherence to traditional objectivity can retard curriculum reform. The fear that teaching perspectival journalism entails teaching a "journalism without standards" is unfounded. Perspectival journalism can be more or less supported by the facts, well-argued, and respectful of counter views.

The ideal of objectivity should not be abandoned because it supports important journalistic attitudes such as a "disinterestedness" that follows the facts where they lead.

Guidelines for specific formats

My second suggestion is that educators should develop ethical guidelines aimed at specific forms of journalism.

The evolution of interactive, online media tells us something that journalists have known for years: Ethics of journalism is not monolithic; it's not "one size fits all." To be sure, general principles such as truth-telling, editorial independence, objectivity and accuracy apply across all forms of responsible journalism. However, in addition to these principles, more specific norms apply to certain types of journalistic practice. For instance, the aims and norms of satirical journalism are not the same as those of straight reporting; the aims and norms of column writing are not the same as those of a TV news anchor. What norms are appropriate depends on the form of communication in question.

How do these thoughts apply to the problem of changing journalism curricula?

It means that, while teaching should honor the general principles, ethics courses need to develop "best practices" guidelines for specific forms of journalism. For example, we need to specify what truth-telling and accuracy entail for the live-blogging of events. We need to develop guidelines for the responsible use of Twitter and other social media.

The issue is not whether certain media formats are inherently unethical. The issue is what norms are appropriate for any specific format. We need both comprehensive principles and specific guidelines that allow students to engage new media in a creative but responsible manner.

The first step, then, is to clear away old ways of thinking that act as obstacles to the redesign and the teaching of journalism ethics.

Only a fundamental redesign will allow journalism ethics to make the transition from an ethics constructed for a media from another era to an ethics relevant to today's mixed media.

More from photographer Roger H. Goun on Flickr.

Stephen J. A. Ward is director of the Center for Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists' (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC's Graduate School of Journalism's in Vancouver, B.C.

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July 13 2011

13:13

More ethical dilemmas…

Thanks to Amanda Emily (who loves to toss stuff into the gears of both large and small minds), we have yet another tool for ethical debate. Well, not so much debate – it’s wrong in oh so many ways. But interesting nonetheless.

According to a report in newscientist.com,

AN IMAGE processing system that obscures the position from which photographs are taken could help protestors in repressive regimes escape arrest – and give journalists “plausible deniability” over the provenance of leaked photos.

Simply put, if the bad guys can figure out where you were standing when you took the photo, they might be able to identify which person with a camera took photos of protestors. Then it’s good-bye cameraman.

Noble intent…but dangerous. An artificial image is created in an arbitrary location using information from several photos taken from other locations. A pretty white lie, intended to protect the innocent whose intent is to expose corruption and abuse. But who’s to say it wasn’t taken further and more manipulation was done?

Have fun with this one kiddos!


July 11 2011

13:19

Readers are our regulators

Here’s a post I put up on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (comment there).

Please resist the temptation to impose government regulation on journalism in the aftermath of phone-hacking. Oh, I know, it would be sweet justice for Murdoch pere et fils to be the cause of expanding government authority. But danger lies there. Regulation requires teeth and teeth carry power.

Let me begin by posing four questions:

What activities are to be regulated? Activities that are already criminal, like News Corp.’s, should be prosecuted as crimes. Then does speech itself become the target? In the United States, we grapple with this question in the one exception to our First Amendment, which is about to be tested in the Supreme Court. That loophole to the Bill of Rights gives the Federal Communications Commission authority to regulate and fine mere words on TV and radio. I have argued in the pages of the Guardian that “bullshit” is political speech but we are forbidden to speak it on our air — even about this regulation itself — under threat of a regulator’s chill and penalty. What we need today is more speech, not less.

What should a regulator do in the case of violations? Fine the offender into submission? Close the publication? Does that not give your government the same weapon used by dictators elsewhere against journalists? Doesn’t this return the UK to a regime of licensing the press? Remember that he who grants licenses may also not grant them or revoke them.

Who is the proper regulator? Clearly, it is not the industry. The Press Complaints Commission has proven to be nothing more than a diaphanous gown for the devil. But government? Is government the proper body to supervise the press, to set and oversee its standards? How could it be? The watched become the watchers’ watchers. Certainly government has shown itself to be incompetent and mightily conflicted in this case, as alleged overseers of the crimes at hand end up in high places and the police themselves are reported to be beneficiaries of corruption.

Finally, who is to be regulated? In other words, who is the press? That’s the key question raised here. Alan Rusbridger posed it in his forceful soliloquy on this amazing week: Is Huffington Post the press? Guido Fawkes? By extension, is any blogging citizen? Any YouTube commentator or Twitter witness-cum-reporter? Yes, we wrangle with this same question in the United States, but in the context of who should receive the rights and protections of the press — namely, shield laws — rather than who should be under the thumb of a government agency.

The goal must not be to further solidify the hegemony of the media-government complex but instead to bust it open. We have the tools at hand to do that: journalists, the public they serve, and their new tool of publicness, the internet.

As Rusbridger also said in that video, this was a week marked by the worst of journalism and the best of journalism. Reporting is wot did the bastards in. Nick Davies is the Woodward and Bernstein of the age though it’s a pity that his Nixon built his nearly absolute power — and nearly inevitable corruption — in our profession. The first and most important protection we will have against the likes of him is a business model for the Guardian to sustain Davies and support future generations like him. The second most important thing the Guardian can do is set an example for other journalists.

I was talking with Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, just yesterday about his cause and favorite obsession: fact-checking. There are scattered organizations that endeavor to check politicians’ and journalists mistakes and lies. But no organization can do it all. How do we scale fact-checking? My thought is that we should see every news organization place a box next to all its reports inviting fact-checking: readers flagging dubious assertions and journalists and readers picking up the challenge to investigate. The Washington Post and the Torrington (Connecticut) Register Citizen have them.

That small addition raises the standards and expectations for journalists’ work and, more importantly, opens the process of journalism to the public, inviting them to act as both watchers and collaborators.

I also think we must increase our diligence to all but eliminate the scourge of the anonymous source. Note that I left an opening for whistleblowers and victims and the too-rare true investigators like Davies. But if we had as an expectation that the News of the World should have told us where and how it learned what it learned about its 4,000 victims, it would have been less able to perpetrate its crimes of hacking and bribery.

The Guardian is making openness its hallmark and this is what it must mean: Rather than closing down journalism to some legislative definition of who may practice the craft, we must open its functions to all. Rather than enabling government and media to become even more entwined, we must explode their bonds and open up the business of both for all to see. Regulators, bureaucrats, politicians, and titans of a dying industry are not the ones to do that.

In researching my next book, Public Parts, I dared to read Jürgen Habermas and his theory of the public sphere. Habermas says the public sphere first emerged as a counterweight to the power of government in the rational, critical debate of the coffeehouses and salons of the 18th century. But almost as soon as this public sphere formed, Habermas laments, it was corrupted and overtaken by mass media. Now, at last, is our opportunity to reverse that flow and to recapture our public sphere.

There’s where this tale’s sweet irony lies: It’s Murdoch & Co. who set the charges to blow apart the very institutional power and cozy relationships they built.

April 01 2011

14:38

This Week in Review: Navigating the Times’ pay-plan loopholes, +1 for social search, and innovation ideas

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Putting the Times’ pay plan in place: If you read last week’s review, the first half of this week’s should feel like déjà vu — lots of back-and-forth about the wisdom of The New York Times’ new online pay plan, and some more hand-wringing about getting around that plan. If you want to skip that and get to the best stuff, I recommend Staci Kramer, David Cohn, and Megan Garber.

The Times launched its pay system Monday with a letter to its readers (snarkier version courtesy of Danny Sullivan), along with a 99-cent trial offer for the first four weeks and free access for people who subscribe to the Times on Kindle. Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz gave a launch-day talk to newspaper execs, highlighted by his assertion that the link economy is not a win-win for content producers and aggregators.

Meanwhile, the discussion about the paywall’s worth rolled on. You can find a good cross-section of opinions in this On Point conversation with Ken Doctor, the Journal Register’s John Paton, The Times’ David Carr, and NYTClean creator David Hayes. The plan continues to draw support from some corners, including The Onion (in its typically ironic style, of course) and PC Magazine’s Lance Ulanoff. Former Financial Times reporter Tom Foremski and Advertising Age columnist Simon Dumenco both made similar arguments about the value of the plan, with Foremski urging us to support the Times as a moral duty to quality journalism and Dumenco ripping the blogosphere’s paywall-bashers for not doing original reporting like the Times.

And though the opposition was expressed much more strongly the past two weeks, there was a smattering of dissent about the plan this week, too — some from the Times’ mobile users. One theme among the criticism was the cost of developing the plan: Philip Greenspun wondered how the heck the Times spent $40 million on planning and implementation, and former Guardian digital head Emily Bell wrote about the opportunity cost of that kind of investment. BNET’s Erik Sherman proposed that the Times should have invested the money in innovation instead.

A few other interesting thoughts about the Times’ pay plan before we get to the wall-jumping debate: Media consultant Judy Sims said the plan might actually make the Times more social by providing an incentive for subscribers to share articles on social networks to their non-subscribing friends. Spot.Us’ David Cohn argued that the plan is much closer to a donation model than a paywall and argued for the Times to offer membership incentives. And Reuters’ Felix Salmon talked about how the proposal is changing blogging at the Times.

PaidContent’s Staci Kramer said the Times is fighting an uphill battle in the realm of public perception, but that struggle is the Times’ own fault, created by its way-too-complicated pay system.

The ethics of paywall jumping: With the Times’ “pay fence” going into effect, all the talk about ways to get around that fence turned into a practical reality. Business Insider compiled seven of the methods that have been suggested: A browser extension, Twitter feeds, using different computers, NYTClean and a User Script’s coding magic, Google (for five articles a day), and browser-switching or cookie-deleting. Mashable came up with an even simpler one: delete “?gwh=numbers” from the Times page’s URL.

Despite such easy workarounds, the Times is still cracking down in other areas: As Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan noted, it blocks links from all Google sites after the five-articles-per-day limit is reached. The Times also quickly (and successfully) requested a shutdown of one of the more brazen free-riding schemes yet concocted — NYT for a Nickel, which charged to access Times articles without paywall restrictions. (It also established a pattern for unauthorized Twitter aggregators and bookmarklets: You’re fine, as long as you don’t use the Times’ name.)

So we all obviously can crawl through the Times’ loopholes, but should we? A few folks made efforts to hack through the ethical thicket of the Times’ intentional and unintentional loopholes: Times media critic James Poniewozik didn’t come down anywhere solid, but said the Times’ leaky strategy “makes the paywall something like a glorified tip jar, on a massive scale—something you choose to contribute to without compulsion because it is the right thing” — except unlike those enterprises, it’s for-profit. In a more philosophical take, the Lab’s Megan Garber said the ethical conundrum shows the difficulty of trying to graft the physical world’s ethical assumptions onto the digital world.

A possible +1 for publishers: Google made a big step in the direction of socially driven search this week with the introduction of +1, a new feature that allows users to vote up certain search results in actions that are visible to their social network. Here are two good explainers of the feature from TechCrunch and Search Engine Land, both of whom note that +1′s gold mine is in allowing Google to personalize ads more closely, and that it’s starting on search results and eventually moving to sites across the web.

The feature was immediately compared to Facebook’s “Like” and Twitter’s retweets, though it functions a bit differently from either. As GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram noted, because it’s Google, it’s intrinsically tied to search, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. As Ingram said, it’s smart to add more of a social component to search, but Google’s search-centricity makes the “social network” aspect of +1 awkward, just as Buzz and Wave were. To paraphrase the argument of Frederic Lardinois of NewsGrange: if your +1′s go into your Google Profile and no one sees them, do they really make a sound?

All this seems to be good news for media sites. Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman said that if they essentially become “improve the SEO of this site” buttons, media companies will be pretty motivated to add them to their sites. Likewise, Poynter’s Damon Kiesow reasoned that +1 could be a great way for media sites to more deeply involve visitors who arrive via Google, who have typically been less engaged than visitors from Facebook and Twitter.

Shrinking innovation to spur it: This month’s Carnival of Journalism focuses on how to drive innovation, specifically through the Knight News Challenge and Reynolds Journalism Institute. Most of the posts rolled in yesterday, and they contain a litany of quick, smart ideas of new directions for news innovation and how to encourage it.

A quick sampling: City University London and Birmingham City University j-prof Paul Bradshaw proposed a much broader, smaller-scale News Challenge fund, with a second fund aimed at making those initiatives scale. J-Lab Jan Schaffer said we need to quit looking at innovation so much solely in terms of tools and more in terms of processes and relationships. British journalist Mary Hamilton and Drury j-prof Jonathan Groves both focused on innovation in training, with Groves proposing “innovation change agents” funded by groups like Knight and the RJI to train and transform newsrooms.

Also, University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida opined on the role of theory in innovation, Lisa Williams of Placeblogger advocated a small-scale approach to innovation, and the University of Colorado’s Steve Outing had some suggestions for the RJI fellowship program.

The mechanics of Twitter’s information flow: Four researchers from Yahoo and Cornell released a study this week analyzing, as they called it, “who says what to whom on Twitter.” One of their major findings was that half the information consumed on Twitter comes from a group of 20,000 “elite” users — media companies, celebrities, organizations, and bloggers. As Mathew Ingram of GigaOM observed, that indicates that the power law that governs the blogosphere is also in effect on Twitter, and big brands are still important even on a user-directed platform.

The Lab’s Megan Garber noted a few other interesting implications of the study, delving into Twitter’s two-step flow from media to a layer of influential sources to the masses, as well as the social media longevity of multimedia and list-oriented articles. A couple of other research-oriented items about Twitter: a Lab post on Dan Zarrella’s data regarding timing and Twitter posts, and Maryland prof Zeynep Tufekci more theoretical exploration of NPR’s Andy Carvin and the process of news production on Twitter.

Reading roundup: Plenty of other bits and pieces around the future-of-news world this week:

— New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote a second column, and like his anti-aggregation piece a couple of weeks ago, this piece — about the value of the Times’ impartiality and fact-based reporting — didn’t go over well. Reuters’ Felix Salmon called him intellectually dishonest, Scott Rosenberg called him defensive, and the Huffington Post’s Peter Goodman (a former Times reporter) said Keller misrepresented him.

— A few notes on The Daily: Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici said it was downloaded 500,000 times during its trial period and has 70,000 regular users, and a study was conducted finding that it’s more popular with less tech-savvy, less content-concerned users.

— Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton talked about transforming newspapers at the Newspaper Association of America convention; he summarized what he had to say in 10 tweets, and Alan Mutter wrote a post about the panel. The moderator, Ken Doctor, followed up with a Lab post looking at how long, exactly, newspapers have left.

— I’ll send you off with Jonathan Stray’s thoughtful post on rethinking journalism as a system for informing people, rather than just a series of stories. It’s a lot to chew on, but a key piece to add to the future-of-news puzzle.

Image of a fence-jumper by like oh so zen used under a Creative Commons license.

March 30 2011

18:30

So, then…if you jump The New York Times’ paywall, are you stealing?

James Poniewozik has a great column this week asking a question we’ve been talking about here at the Lab: Given all the ways to avoid paying for a New York Times digital subscription — ways that the Times has purposely built into the pores of its paywall, and ways that clever techies have figured out — is it immoral to jump the wall? To what extent, essentially, is gaming the Times also stealing from it?

As Poniewozik said: “Calling the Ethicist!” And, totally. But — we checked — current Ethicist Ariel Kaminer is also currently employed by the Times, and so is indisposed on meta-ethical grounds…and Randy Cohen politely declined my request for a comment. So, for a bit of amateur Ethicism — buckle your seatbelts, everyone! — here are a few points to add to Poniewozik’s.

A Times kind of person

Here’s how Martin Nisenholtz explained wall-jumping to Peter Kafka:

I think the majority of people are honest and care about great journalism and the New York Times. When you look at the research that we’ve done, tons of people actually say, “Jeez, we’ve felt sort of guilty getting this for free all these years. We actually want to step up and pay, because we know we’re supporting a valuable institution.” At the same time we want to make sure that we’re not being gamed, to the extent that we can be.

This “honest people” attitude — the presumption being that if you bypass the wall, you are not one of those people — is echoed by Nisenholtz’s colleagues. At a Paley Center breakfast last week, Arthur Sulzberger acknowledged that wall-jumping, by Times mandate and otherwise, would happen. But: “Is it going to be done by the kind of people who buy the quality news and opinion of the New York Times? We don’t think so.” (And also: “It’ll be mostly high school kids and people out of work.” And also! “Just as if you run down Sixth Avenue right now and you pass a newsstand and grab the paper and keep running you can actually get the Times free.”)

It’s familiar logic — the same kind of analog-economics-for-digital-content thinking that fuels all those “People! Don’t you realize that X months of The New York Times is just X Starbucks lattes?” comments. What it overlooks, though, is the very real possibility that, not just physically but economically, atoms have different properties than bits. Whether bits-based products involve different ethical considerations than their atoms-based counterparts is an open question — and, in fact, the question. But it’s one the Times is begging — and possibly forcing — with the ethiconomical (to coin a horrible, sorry, but possibly useful term) logic of its wall. The paper’s public establishment of a certain “kind of people” — a class who not only read the Times, but pay for it — is interesting for several reasons, one of them being its suggestion that there is also a “kind of people” (potentially adolescent, probably unemployed, and possibly morally bankrupt) who wouldn’t pay but would still consume Times content beyond the newspaper’s stated bounds.

But how fair, really, is that suggestion? Is deleting cookies or URL characters from a web browser directly akin to stealing a physical product from a newsstand? (And, then, is ad-blocking software immoral? Is reading Times content, for free, on someone else’s computer?)

Don’t steal steaks

In the physical world, property and the ethics surrounding it are straightforward things: Basically, do not take something for which you are being asked to pay money. There is a necessary lack of nuance in this: Even if that something is free somewhere — anywhere, everywhere — else, and even if the price being asked for it is ridiculous, if the something’s owner asks for money in exchange for it, your choice as a consumer is pretty much either to pay up or shut up. As CJR’s Lauren Kirchner put it, discussing Stewart Brand’s intersection with paid content, “No one would say ‘groceries want to be free’ and use that as an excuse to steal steaks. Or I guess some people might, but those people would be jerks, and also criminals.”

Definitely. But, then, the obvious obviousness of Don’t Steal Steaks is also contingent and contextual; it’s based on the fact that steaks are things. The ethical boundaries we take for granted in the physical world of commerce are generally based on actual boundaries: spacial distinctions that define ownership, separating permission from perfidy. So you can cart that steak all around Safeway if you want — but you won’t get arrested unless you take the steak outside without paying for it. As a matter of cultural consensus, in the context of the grocery store — and in the context of the grocery store’s analogs — it is the space itself, the “in” versus the “out,” that defines the acceptable against the un-. And it is the universality of that definition — the fact that it applies to and is known by pretty much everyone, pretty much implicitly — that makes “don’t steal steaks” so obvious. In it, the ethical and cultural and legal coalesce into one easy mandate.

But online, where space is as infinite as the human capacity to create it — and where your consumption of a Times article doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t get to read it — the conveniently clear line between moral acceptability and moral depravity no longer holds. There’s no obvious “inside”; there’s no obvious “outside.” And the web’s broad wall-lessness, ironically, enforces a barrier between “obtaining” something and “owning” it. In a digital environment where so much is accessible and so little is own-able, what exactly — ethically, legally, pragmatically — is yours? And what, exactly, is mine?

Owning atoms, owning bits

These are legal issues that are being wrestled with every day — and by, you know, actual experts. But, for our purposes, it’s worth noting the broad cultural context in which the Times wall has been erected. The Internet, after all, is still young (in terms of widespread adoption, it’s just a tad older than one of Sulzberger’s high school kids), and so are the communal values that help us navigate it. The web’s “wild west” element — its newness, its rawness, its up-from-nothing-ness — also suggests its lawlessness. Legally and culturally. We simply haven’t had time yet, in this bizarre new environment we find ourselves in, to reach consensus about what’s stealing and what’s not, about what’s owned and what’s not. We’re figuring it out, sure, day by day. But the offline ethical assumptions whose convenience and communality we take for granted are also, it’s worth remembering, the products of centuries’ worth of friction. Consensus takes time.

The Times is part of a long continuum in attempting to graft the ethical assumptions of the physical world onto the economy of the digital. The iTunes Store, for example — the platform whose essential genius was that made it easier for people to pay for digital content than to pirate it — framed its introduction in vaguely ethical terms, as well. (As Steve Jobs said at the time: “Consumers don’t want to be treated like criminals and artists don’t want their valuable work stolen. The iTunes Music Store offers a groundbreaking solution for both.”)

But what makes the Times’ paywall pitch so interesting is that it’s less about the interplay between ethics, economics, and convenience, and more about the interplay between ethics, economics, and the communal good. Essentially, the paper is trying to define the communal good as an economic good that is — boldness! — implicit in its product. (This is the logic that merges Times journalists being kidnapped in Libya with “the Times should be paid for.” Which is implying something, actually, fairly revolutionary: that the practice of journalism is, economically, part of the product of journalism.) That’s not simply a matter of the NPRization of the NYT (although that’s one element of it); more interestingly, I think, it’s a matter of the commodity of news collapsing into the creation of news. You’re not paying for the thing, the Times is saying; you’re paying for the process that creates the thing.

Image by like oh so zen used under a Creative Commons license.

March 11 2011

15:00

Why Hasn't LA Weekly Corrected its Lara Logan Story?

On February 15 the LA Weekly published a post by Simone Wilson under the headline "Lara Logan, CBS Reporter and War Zone 'It Girl,' Raped Repeatedly Amid Egypt Celebration." The opening paragraph stated that Logan had been "brutally and repeatedly raped" -- with that phrase emphasized in bold type.

The LA Weekly apparently got the story wrong. Logan had suffered a horrifying sexual assault while working in Cairo's Tahrir Square, disturbing details of which came to light in subsequent media coverage. But according to reporting from three different news outlets
-- The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and IOL News of South Africa (Logan's native country) -- Logan was not raped. Those articles were cited in a MediaBugs error report posted last week by Tracy Clark-Flory, a journalist who covers women's issues. (Disclosure: Clark-Flory is a friend and former colleague of mine at Salon.) Since the report was posted, MediaBugs sent three emails to LA Weekly editors seeking a response. We've received none.

It's understandable how a news organization might have made this kind of mistake; while many initial reports about Logan's attack adhered to a statement from CBS News describing "a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating," LA Weekly wasn't the only outlet to make the leap to "rape." (See Jen Phillips' post on MotherJones.com for more on this.)

Still, it's troubling that more than three weeks later the LA Weekly has not posted a correction on its piece, or explained why it believes no correction is warranted. To say that accuracy is important to a news organization's credibility is stating the obvious -- but it seems particularly crucial when public understanding is distorted around a story as emotionally and politically fraught as Logan's.

The Central Fact Was Wrong

Here's one small anecdote showing why. Last weekend I described the issue to a friend who is well-read on current events. He said that he'd seen the LA Weekly piece, among others. When I told him that Logan apparently had not been raped, he was surprised -- he'd understood that to be a central fact of the story.

Logan3.pngThe LA Weekly's silence on the matter could in part be due to the withering criticism it came under for Wilson's piece, which ran with a curvaceous photo of Logan and used various sexualized descriptions of her, including "firecracker" and "gutsy stunner." Newsrooms tend to circle the wagons when under attack.

That uproar, ultimately, was a matter of editorial judgment and (brutally bad) taste, one that LA Weekly editors may or may not choose to address at some point. (Wilson did so, to some degree, in an update appended to her post on Feb. 16.)

But this issue is more straightforward. By not addressing the apparent factual mistakes brought to its attention, the LA Weekly not only damages its reputation but also does a disservice to Logan's story, which has cast a powerful light on a previously underreported problem faced by female journalists. The uncorrected errors take a piece that already comes across as insensitive and make it seem irresponsible, too.

February 15 2011

21:24

5 Principles for Teaching Journalism Ethics in the Digital Age







Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

Our global media ecology is a chaotic landscape evolving at a furious pace. Professional journalists share the journalistic sphere with tweeters, bloggers, citizen journalists and social media users around the world. The digital revolution poses a practical challenge to journalists: How can they use the new media tools responsibly?

There is, also, a second challenge for all of us who teach journalism ethics across this country and beyond: What to teach?

Teaching is difficult because a once-dominant traditional ethics, constructed for professional journalism a century ago, are being questioned. Journalism ethics is a field where old and new values clash.

On one side are traditional values such as those found in the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. These include: a commitment to professionalism, separation of news and opinion, methods to verify reports, a concern for accuracy, and the ideals of objectivity and minimizing harm.

On the other side are values of the "always on" universe of interactive media: immediacy, transparency, edgy opinion and partisan journalism, anonymity, and sharing. The speed of new media tempts many users to ignore the restricting methods of accuracy and verification.

Good-bye Consensus

Amid this din of differing views and controversy, we teach journalism ethics. We no longer teach from a framework of generally accepted ideas.

A decade or so ago, teaching journalism ethics was simpler. Few people wondered who was a journalist. In classrooms, instructors introduced principles from authoritative codes of ethics and textbooks, and showed how the principles applied to situations.

Today, we not only teach without a consensus, we lack an ethics that provides adequate guidance for the many new forms of mixed media.

No new canons of journalism have been written on how journalists should use social media on breaking stories, whether newsrooms should publish reports trending on Twitter, or whether mainstream sites should grant anonymity to commentators.

Mixed media ethics is a work in progress.

New Standards for Educators

How does one teach students about a topic in flux? Here are five features of a good journalism ethics course that every professor should implement:


1. Start from the students' media world.

Be experiential. Begin by discussing how they experience and use media; explore the tumult of opinion about journalism. If you downplay the debate and try to lay down the "laws" of journalism ethics ex cathedra, you will lose credibility in the eyes of your students.

2. Assist students with reflective engagement.
Once you've reviewed the context of journalism ethics, tell the students that -- while you can't provide all the answers -- you can help them think their way through the issues. You can help them engage reflectively on principles and you can provide methods for analyzing ethical situations. Also, give them perspective. Go back and look at what journalism has been down the centuries, and examine previous revolutions in journalism.

3. Insist on critical thinking, not what is fashionable.
Work against a tendency to dismiss principles simply because they are traditional and not trendy. For example, new media enthusiasts may rush to reject news objectivity as an ideal. They may use specious reasoning. In such situations, instructors need to ask for better reasons; to indicate areas where objectivity might be needed; and to introduce nuanced versions of objectivity that avoid the obvious objections.

4. Be transitional.
Teach the course so students can follow the transition from a traditional professional framework to current thinking.

studentbroadcast.jpg

Start with a fair assessment of professional journalism ethics. How did it arise and what are its essential features? Then compare this framework with the values that underlie mixed media today. The guiding question is: To what extent do traditional principles apply today? What editorial guidelines are needed to address new situations, new quandaries? Much of the teaching of journalism ethics should involve discussions on how journalism ethics might re-invent itself so it can guide journalists across multiple media platforms.

Show that the invention of new guidelines is possible. Examine how news organizations are constructing new guidelines on a range of problems -- from verifying citizen content to dealing with rumors on social media. Challenge them to write their own ethics policy on online anonymity or other burning issues.


5. Be global in your teaching.

The global impact of journalism requires students to think about their responsibility to inform a public that crosses borders. In a media-linked world, students should ponder whether journalists need to adopt a more globally minded view of themselves. They need to consider a global journalism ethics. Moreover, we should teach the plurality of approaches to journalism ethics from Scandinavia and Europe to Asia.

Revolutionize Thyself

Journalism ethics instruction, therefore, must revolutionize itself.

> Teaching should be dialectical -- helping students to move back and forth between alternate conceptions.

> Teaching should be holistic -- helping students to bring many kinds of facts and ideas to the discussion.

> Teaching should be Socratic. Through questioning and discussion, students formulate their own ethical framework.

Finally, the teaching should challenge, not discourage. Instructors should persuade students that ethics is worth studying even if there are no universal "answers." Students should see the turmoil in journalism as an exciting intellectual and practical challenge to develop a more adequate ethics for a new global mixed media.

Only if we teach in this manner will we prepare journalists for the future and the changing technologies it promises.

Ryerson University photo by Angie Torres via Flickr.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists' (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.







Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

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February 01 2011

14:35

Sources fight back: fabrication, complaints, and the Daily Mail

Juliet Shaw writes in a guest post on No Sleep ‘Til Brooklands about her experience of fighting The Daily Mail through the courts after they published an apparently fabricated article (her dissection of the article and its fictions is both painstaking and painful).

There is no happy ending, but there are almost 100 comments. And once again you are struck by the power of sources to tell their side of the story. For Juliet Shaw you could just as well read Melanie Schregardus, or the Dunblane Facebook Group.

Among the comments is Mail reader Elaine, who says

“I have always taken their stance and opinions with a large doze of salt. It will be even larger now. Thank goodness for the internet – as a balance to the Mail I can access the Guardian and the Independent to see their take on a particular world/UK event.”

But also in the comments are others who say they have suffered from being the subject of fabricated articles in the Mail – first Catherine Hughes:

“The article was so damaging to my freelance career that editors I was working with now no longer answer my emails. ‘Heartbroken, devastated and gutted’ doesn’t even come close to how I feel. It happened in September and I am still distraught.”

Then Pomona:

“[I have] been a victim of the Daily Fail’s “journalism” on two occasions: once when my first marriage broke up and they printed a lurid and utterly innaccurate story about me (I’m no celeb, just Jo Public), and more recently when one of their journalists lifted and printed a Facebook reply to their request for information (leaving out the bit where I told them I did not permit them to use or reprint any part of my post)”

And Anonymous:

“The Daily Mail said they were looking for a real life example of a similar case of teachers exploiting trust to complement a news story. They promised to protect my anonymity, use only a very small picture and as one of a number of case studies. A week later a double page spread – taken up mostly with a picture of me – bore the headline ‘Dear Sir, I think I Love you’. The quotes bore no resemblance to what I said and made it sound like I liked the teacher?! Instead of what really happened – a drunken shuffle in the back of a car and a feeling of abuse of trust and sadness the next day.”

Jon Morgan:

“When the article was published, my role as welfare officer was never mentioned, the average overdraft had become *my* overdraft, and I was apparently on the verge of jacking in my studies in despair.”

Anonymous:

“I applied as a case study, the photoshoot, the invasive questions. Took months to get my expenses after dozens of ignored emails. Thankfully the article never went to print. At the time I was annoyed but now I am thankful. I also work in PR and would feel extremely uncomfortable offering anyone as a case study for a client. No matter how large the exposure.”

Dirtypj:

“I complained to the editor. He insisted that all journalists identify themselves as such every time. And that his employee had done no wrong. In short, he was calling ME a liar. And as all interviews are recorded he could prove it. I said, Okay, listen to the recording then! He replied, No, I don’t need to. I stand by my writers.”

Other comments mention similar experiences, some with other newspapers. It’s a small point, driven home over and over again: power has shifted.

January 17 2011

20:12

Accuracy and accountability checklist for social media

Way back in the early fall, when the Online News Association conference was going on here in D.C., Craig Silverman of Regret the Error did a great accuracy workshop in conjunction with TBD. He created an accuracy checklist aimed at helping reporters avoid common errors. My boss, Steve Buttry, expanded on Silverman’s list at his own blog a couple of weeks ago. This checklist approach inspired me to think of ways to avoid accuracy and reporting errors in my own little corner of the journalism world.

In the rapid-fire world of social media, it’s easy for a journalist or news organization to make mistakes. Sometimes, these things happen in the heat of the moment, but more often than not the errors seem to stem from a widespread belief amongst journalists that Twitter carries less need for accuracy and accountability than the full-story medium. Recent events have told us otherwise.

I believe there is an ever-increasing need for accuracy and accountability in how we as journalists use social media. This inspired me to start my own accuracy checklist for the TBD staff, but I thought it may be better to share with a larger audience. Feel free to add your notes and additions in the comments. I consider this a work in progress.

Accuracy Checklist for Social Media

Before tweeting:

  • How do I know this information?
  • Is this information independently confirmed? Should it be first?
  • Do I know the location of the news event? Check a map.
  • Will this require follow-up tweets to better explain? Do I know this story well enough to follow-up?

When tweeting:

  • Are proper names spelled correctly?
  • Does the link go to the right place? Is it shortened properly?
  • Are any Twitter handles included? Do they go to the right accounts?
  • Does this tweet need a hat tip for another Twitter account/news outlet who had the info first?
  • Is a location included/necessary?
  • Is this tweet short enough to be easily re-tweeted?
  • Check to see if auto-correct changed the text intended.
  • Check your shorthand and contractions to make sure they make sense.

When re-tweeting:

  • Is it clear why I want to share this tweet, or does it need context?
  • Is this tweet reporting heretofore unknown information?
  • If so, is this source reliable enough to throw your name behind?
  • Is the original tweet written clearly enough to be passed on from me?

When sharing on Facebook:

  • Is the image that shows up in my link preview actually connected to the story?
  • Is the post text and headline reflective of the content of the story?
  • Are any tagged users in images/posts the correct people?

What’s missing here? Let me know. eventually, I’ll make this look spiffy and get it online as a lovely printable document.

December 29 2010

18:28

December 16 2010

21:00

Bill Keller: WikiLeaks isn’t my kind of news org, but they have evolved

During a wide-ranging conversation on government secrecy and the relationship between The New York Times and WikiLeaks, Times executive editor Bill Keller was asked whether he’d be bothered if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange were charged under the Espionage Act, as Senator Joe Lieberman recently suggested.

“Let me back into that question,” he said. “I don’t regard Julian Assange as a kindred spirit. If he’s a journalist, he’s not the kind of journalist that I am.

He said, though, that in some ways WikiLeaks has shifted in the direction of traditional journalism and away from the style of its earlier publications, which were largely just data, unredacted and without comment.

“They have moved to becoming an organization that is leaking out the documents in a more journalistic fashion,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve become my kind of news organization, but they have evolved.”

Keller spoke at the Nieman Foundation’s one-day conference on secrecy and journalism Thursday, where WikiLeaks was a common topic of discussion.

Strange bedfellows in a “new era”

Whatever reservations Keller has about Assange-as-journalist, The New York Times has been at the forefront of getting the organization’s materials to the public — as well as helping shape, at times indirectly, WikiLeaks’ own editorial policies even as the Times worked to decide which materials it would publish of the hundreds of thousands of available documents.

Keller took on critics of the Times’ publication of WikiLeaks’ documents, saying their critiques generally fell into three broad categories:

  • The leaks don’t contain any new information. “Ninety-nine percent of news doesn’t greatly impact our understanding of the world,” Keller said. “News generally works by advancing our knowledge by inches. For those that follow foreign policy, these documents provide nuance, texture, and drama. For these that don’t follow these stories closely, it allows them to learn more and learn in a more lively way.”
  • The leaks disclosed confidential informats or endanger international relationships. “In the end, I can only answer for what my paper has done, and I believe we have behaved responsibly” in editing the material, he said. And to the latter point: “Foreign leaders will continue to talk to us. It’s the way of power to brag.”
  • The collaboration compromised the Times’ impartiality and independence. “Wikileaks does not take guidance from The New York Times,” Keller said, while noting that the Times was actually cut out from direct access to the leaked State Department cables, partially as a result of articles the Times had published.

But despite differences between the newspaper and the organization, Keller said that the paper still provided leadership for the international press on how to handle the material and the organization providing it. He said that “in most cases” the international papers, such as Der Spiegel and the Guardian, followed The New York Times’ guidance and what materials to release or not to release, occasionally differing on materials of particular interest to a certain country (such as the Merkel cables with the Germany’s Der Spiegel). WikiLeaks itself has also followed many of the Times’ suggested redactions.

“Wikileaks, having been castigated for the first two rounds of document dumps, basically said that this time around they would take the redactions we gave them,” Keller said.

The vetting process

Keller also detailed the process by which The New York Times vetted and processed the vast amounts of information, saying that the Times and other news organizations had now finished publishing all the major stories based on the documents they expected to write.

  • “The first thing we would do is talk with the lawyers about if there’s a legal problem with using this material and, if so, is there a way around it.”
  • The Times then vetted the cables with reporters familiar with similar secret documents and quickly decided the trove was genuine.
  • The Times’ computer-assisted reporting team dumped the database into a searchable format, bringing in reporters and professionals to search for interesting keywords to begin reporting. “No news organization claims to have read all of those documents,” he said.
  • Reporters then dove into and developed deeper stories based on the cables, occasionally sharing interesting segments with their colleagues overseas.
  • The New York Times performed “common sense” redactions on the material, removing names of low-level informants and other sensitive material
  • The New York Times took its redactions to the U.S. government, occasionally taking feedback and redacting information it felt would needlessly endanger lives.

“We then basically agreed on a schedule where day one would be Pakistan day and day two would be Russia day, something like that,” Keller said. “We rolled out on that schedule, and we agreed to give WikiLeaks the documents we intended to publish on each day’s stories, with our redactions.”

Throughout it all, however, Keller said the Times kept a very clear view of what WikiLeaks was and was not in its reporting. “What I have said from the very beginning of this is WikiLeaks is a source, not a partner. The Guardian was kind of a partner in this, because we swapped data and thoughts back and forth saying, ‘Hey, look at this table.’ There was none of that back and forth with WikiLeaks.”

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