Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

June 17 2013

20:20

All journalism is advocacy (or it isn’t)

Jay Rosen wrote a insightful post forking the practice of journalism into “politics: none” (that is, traditional American journalism: objective, it thinks) and “politics: some” (that is, the kind just practiced by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian). Jay catalogs the presumptions and advantages of each. As both he and The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan observe, Edward Snowden took his leaks to Greenwald and the Guardian because they exemplify “politics: some.”

I want to take this farther and argue first that what Greenwald and the Guardian were practicing was less politics than advocacy, and second that all journalism is advocacy (or is it journalism?).

To the first point: Greenwald and the Guardian were not bolstering their own politics in the NSA story. To the contrary, Greenwald and the Guardian both identify politically as liberal — the Guardian’s mission is to be nothing less than “the world’s leading liberal voice” — yet they attacked programs run and justified by a liberal American administration and no doubt caused that administration discomfort or worse. In so doing, Greenwald and the Guardian exhibited the highest value of journalism: intellectual honesty. That does not mean they were unbiased. It means they were willing to do damage to their political side in the name of truth. Greenwald and the Guardian were practicing advocacy not for politics — not for their team — but for principles: protection of privacy, government transparency and accountability, the balance of powers, and the public’s right to know.

Now to my second point: Seen this way, isn’t all journalism properly advocacy? And isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? As James Carey said: “The god term of journalism — the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public.”

When the Washington Post — whose former editor famously refused to vote to uphold his vision of Jay’s “politics: none” ethic — chooses to report on government secrecy or on abuse of veterans at a government hospital or, of course, on presidential malfeasance and coverups, it is, of course, advocating. When an editor assigns reporters to expose a consumer scam or Wall Street fraud or misappropriation of government funds, that’s advocacy. When a newspaper takes on the cause of the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the forgotten, or just the little guy against The Man, that’s advocacy. When health reporters tell you how to avoid cancer or even lose weight, that’s advocacy on your behalf. I might even argue that a critic reviewing a movie to save you from wasting your money on a turkey could be advocacy (though we don’t necessarily need critics for that anymore).

But what about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour, a tragic accident with no lesson to be learned? Is that advocacy? No. When a TV network — not to pick on TV — devotes hours and hours to the salacious details of, say, the Jodi Arias crime, which affects none of our lives, is that advocacy? No. When an online site collects pictures of cute cats, is that advocacy? Hardly. When a newspaper devotes resources to covering football games, is that advocacy? No. Is any of that journalism? Under the test I put forth here, no.

So what is it then, the stuff we call journalism that doesn’t advocate for people or principles, that doesn’t serve the public need? At worst, it’s exploitation — audience- or sales- or click- or ratings-bait — at best it’s entertainment. The first is pejorative, the second need not be, as entertainment — whether a journalistic narrative or a book or a show or movie — can still inform and enlighten. But if it doesn’t carry information that people can use to better organize their lives or their society, I’d say it fails the journalism test.

Journalism-as-advocacy has been bundled with journalism-as-entertainment for economic reasons: Entertainment can draw people to a media entity and help subsidize the cost of its journalism. But it was a mistake to then put an umbrella over it all: If a newspaper creates journalism then everything its journalists create in that newspaper is journalism, right? No. The corollary: People who are not journalists can do journalism. It’s a function of the value delivered, not the job title. (I’ll write another post later looking a pricing paradox embedded in this split.)

Why does what seems like definitional hair-splitting matter? Because when a whistleblower knocks on your door, you must decide not whose side you’re on but whom and what principles you serve. This is a way to recast the specific argument journalists are having now about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. Wrong question. As a journalistic organization, the Guardian had to ask whether the public had a right to the information Snowden carried, no matter which side it benefitted (so long as the public’s interests — in terms of security — were not harmed).

The next issue for the Guardian was whether and how it adds journalistic value. That is, of course, another journalistic test. Edward Snowden, like Wikileaks, delivered a bunch of raw and secret documents. In both cases, news organization added value by (1) using judgment to redact what could be harmful, (2) bringing audience to the revelation, and most important, (3) adding reporting to this raw information to verify and explain.

Based on his Q&A with the Guardian audience, I’d say that Snowden is proving to be big on rhetoric and perhaps guts but less so on specifics. I still am not clear how much direct operational knowledge he has or whether he — like Bradley Manning — simply had access to documents. So more reporting was and still is necessary. This Associated Press story is a good example of taking time to add reporting, context, and explanation to Snowden’s still-unclear and still-debated documents.

Both these organizations made their decisions about what to reveal and what to report based on their belief that we have a right and need to know. That’s journalism. That’s advocacy.

May 30 2013

10:50

Collaborative learning and journalism – event next week, with Jay Rosen

Next Thursday I’ll be speaking at an event looking at collaborative learning and collaborative journalism, hosted at Birmingham City University.

Also Skyping into the event will be Jay Rosen, who is exploring similar methods at New York University.

The event comes out of the ‘Stories and Streams’ project, which resulted in the ebook of the same name. One year on, I’ll be talking about my experiences of having used those methods a second time, what was changed, what worked and what didn’t, and what the plans are for next time.

To book onto the event (it’s free) email this booking form to seminar.series@heacademy.ac.uk

10:50

Collaborative learning and journalism – event next week, with Jay Rosen

Next Thursday I’ll be speaking at an event looking at collaborative learning and collaborative journalism, hosted at Birmingham City University.

Also Skyping into the event will be Jay Rosen, who is exploring similar methods at New York University.

The event comes out of the ‘Stories and Streams’ project, which resulted in the ebook of the same name. One year on, I’ll be talking about my experiences of having used those methods a second time, what was changed, what worked and what didn’t, and what the plans are for next time.

To book onto the event (it’s free) email this booking form to seminar.series@heacademy.ac.uk

August 13 2012

14:02

April 16 2012

15:28

Why the Huffington Post doesn’t equivocate on issues like global warming

The Huffington Post wants gobs of traffic. It also want reader engagement. But there are some things it just won’t do — like equivocate on whether climate change is real.

HuffPost Science recently featured a story on former astronauts and scientists upset with NASA’s position connecting carbon dioxide to climate change. It’s not new to see sides clash on the issue, and any editor knows it’s a debate that will predictably spill over into the comment thread on a story. HuffPost Science senior editor David Freeman offered up this question at the end of his piece: “What do you think? Is NASA pushing ‘unsettled science’ on global warming?”

One problem: The question violated one of the Huffington Post’s editorial policies. Not long after the piece was posted an editor’s note replaced the question, saying in part:

We’ve removed the question because HuffPost is not agnostic on the matter. Along with the overwhelming majority of the scientific community (including 98% of working climate scientists), we recognize that climate change is real and agree with the agencies and experts who are concerned about the role of carbon dioxide.

“The way the call for engagement was raised was as if we’re somehow agnostic about the reality of climate change,” Arianna Huffington told me.

Huffington framed the incident for me as one of editorial policy. But this isn’t a simple case of clashing stylebooks, of one outlet favoring the Oxford comma and another leaving it out. This is something more akin to a policy position: Within the editorial confines of HuffPost, issues like climate change and evolution are settled, Huffington told me. That doesn’t mean divergent viewpoints aren’t welcomed, she said — just that on certain issues the reporting won’t offer up a false equivalency.

“Where truth is ascertainable, we consider it our responsibility to make it very clear and not to — in the guise of some kind of fake objectivity, the media often pretend that every issue has two sides and that both sides deserve equal weight,” Huffington said. “That’s not the case, and that’s not our editorial stand.”

Traditionalists might find the idea of a mainstream, general-audience news organization staking out these kinds of stances in news stories radical. Huffington doesn’t see it that way, saying that traditional media spends far too much time trying to provide balance on issues that are, within certain facts and other data, settled. For her journalists, she said, that means doing reporting that assesses facts and doesn’t “pretend that the truth is supposed to be found in the middle,” she said.

“Editorially, we train our editors and reporters to basically not buy into what Jay Rosen calls the ‘View from Nowhere’ journalism,” she said. “We see our role more as doing everything we can to ferret out the truth, rather than be a kind of Pontius Pilate washing our hand of the possibility of truth.” That’s evocative of NPR’s new ethics guidelines, which make a similar distinction:

In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth…If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

Along with HuffPost’s internal editorial guidelines, this incident also demonstrates the value of comments and engagement to its brand. (Huffington told me the site had 7 million reader comments last month.) After all, this wasn’t about anything in the body of Freeman’s work — just his call-to-engagement question to readers.

Huffington Post standards editor Adam Rose told me they quickly added the editor’s note on Freeman’s story because they wanted to be transparent with readers about their editorial process. Instead of offering up a reworded question, they wanted to make it clear why the story had been changed. “I think it’s important that our readers know that and can trust that,” he said. “I think by being direct it develops a sense of trust with our readers who understand that we are not equivocating on the issue of climate change.”

The story’s racked up more than 3,300 comments and counting — not an unusual number by HuffPost standards but not an insignificant one either. Rose said he, Freeman, and Huffington were pleased with the quality of the conversation in the comments of the story.

This is where HuffPost’s stance on climate science and other issues has a practical element: The site is placing a marker to let readers know where it stands. Huffington says readers appreciate that kind of honesty and will reward news organizations for it. “Because we are clear about where we believe the truth lies, I believe we elicit a richer kind of response from our readers,” she said. It also helps in moving stories forward. The site already has a follow-up story to Freeman’s piece by reporter Lucia Graves that found that none of the former NASA personnel who signed the climate change letter actually worked in climate science.

Elevating the level of online comments is a fairly decent, if not constantly shifting, goal, but Huffington sees the editorial guidelines as promoting something broader. “To be able to see clearly where truth lies on on side or the other, as it happened in this particular instance, is not to abandon objectivity — it’s to, in fact, embrace a higher standard of journalism,” she said.

Image by JD Lasica used under a Creative Commons license.

January 16 2012

14:28

Comment call: Objectivity and impartiality – a newsroom policy for student projects

I’ve been updating a newsroom policy guide for a project some of my students will be working on, with a particular section on objectivity and impartiality. As this has coincided with the debate on fact-checking stirred by the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, I thought I would reproduce the guidelines here, and invite comments on whether you think it hits the right note:

Objectivity and impartiality: newsroom policy

Objectivity is a method, not an element of style. In other words:

  • Do not write stories that give equal weight to each ‘side’ of an argument if the evidence behind each side of the argument is not equal. Doing so misrepresents the balance of opinions or facts. Your obligation is to those facts, not to the different camps whose claims may be false.
  • Do not simply report the assertions of different camps. As a journalist your responsibility is to check those assertions. If someone misrepresents the facts, do not simply say someone else disagrees, make a statement along the lines of “However, the actual wording of the report…” or “The official statistics do not support her argument” or “Research into X contradict this.” And of course, link to that evidence and keep a copy for yourself (which is where transparency comes in).

Lazy reporting of assertions without evidence is called the ‘View From Nowhere’ – you can read Jay Rosen’s Q&A or the Wikipedia entry, which includes this useful explanation:

“A journalist who strives for objectivity may fail to exclude popular and/or widespread untrue claims and beliefs from the set of true facts. A journalist who has done this has taken The View From Nowhere. This harms the audience by allowing them to draw conclusions from a set of data that includes untrue possiblities. It can create confusion where none would otherwise exist.”

Impartiality is dependent on objectivity. It is not (as subjects of your stories may argue) giving equal coverage to all sides, but rather promising to tell the story based on objective evidence rather than based on your own bias or prejudice. All journalists will have opinions and preconceived ideas of what a story might be, but an impartial journalist is prepared to change those opinions, and change the angle of the story. In the process they might challenge strongly-held biases of the society they report on – but that’s your job.

The concept of objectivity comes from the sciences, and this provides a useful guideline: scientists don’t sit between two camps and repeat assertions without evaluating them. They identify a claim (hypothesis) and gather the evidence behind it – both primary and secondary.

Claims may, however, already be in the public domain and attracting a lot of attention and support. In those situations reporting should be open about the information the journalist does not have. For example:

  • “His office, however, were unable to direct us to the evidence quoted”, or
  • “As the report is yet to be published, it is not possible to evaluate the accuracy of these claims”, or
  • “When pushed, X could not provide any documentation to back up her claims”.

Thoughts?

January 13 2012

16:30

December 08 2011

17:26

Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012

Niemanlab :: Last August, Jay Rosen published a blog post arguing for “a citizens agenda in campaign coverage.” The idea, he wrote, “is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision.” And the method of doing that, he suggested, is simply to ask them: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?

Today, that idea gets one step closer to reality.

Continue to read Megan Garber, www.niemanlab.org

13:30

Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012

Last August, Jay Rosen published a blog post arguing for “a citizens agenda in campaign coverage.” The idea, he wrote, “is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision.” And the method of doing that, he suggested, is simply to ask them: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

Today, that idea gets one step closer to reality. Rosen and Amanda Michel — currently The Guardian US‘s open editor and formerly Rosen’s colleague at HuffPo’s 2008 OffTheBus project — are launching “the Citizens Agenda,” a collaboration between The Guardian and NYU’s Studio 20 program. Though the project will make use of some of the citizen-driven lessons of OffTheBus (and of The Guardian’s multiple experiments in mutualized journalism), the citizens agenda will be above all an experimental space dedicated to determining how to get people’s voices heard in campaigns that, though they purport to be concerned with the people’s interests, all too often ignore them.

The citizens agenda, the pair point out, is not a blanket attempt to end horserace coverage — campaigns are, fundamentally, races, and who’s winning them, you know, matters. Instead, they stress, it’s an attempt to disrupt the horserace as the “master narrative” of political reporting, to inject more perspective (and, for that matter, more data about the demand side of political journalism) into the conversation.

“When people complain about what’s wrong with the coverage, there’s an opportunity to find out…. well, what should the candidates be discussing?”

On the one hand, the citizens agenda is the digital — digitized — heir of civic journalism, the movement that (with Rosen at the helm) came to prominence in the 1990s and attempted to give individual members of communities more agency in the journalism that served them. On the other, though, while the citizen’s agenda is a kind of culmination of that movement — with, today, buy-in from one of the largest news organizations in the world — it’s also something entirely new. It will be, first and foremost, an experiment, Michel told me. They’re starting with an idea; they’re not sure exactly what will come of it. “It’s going to be an iterative process,” she says.

There are two basic goals for the effort, Michel notes: first, the need to understand what people want to learn from and about political candidates — to gain an appreciation, as Michel puts it, of “how the public wants to contextualize the debates and discussion.” Campaigns are notorious for, and in a large sense defined by, their attempts to control narratives; a citizens agenda is in large part an effort to provide a community-driven counter-narrative.

Studio 20′s role in the project, Rosen told me, will be in part to act as an interactive team that will help with the inflow and engagement of users; students in the program will also conduct research and analysis and think through — perhaps even invent — features and tools that can foster that engagement in new ways, testing them out on The Guardian’s U.S. site. (Michel calls the students a kind of “independent brain trust.”)

“We don’t think that the direct way of posing the question, What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012?, is always going to work,” Rosen notes. “Some answers to that question might have to come about indirectly: for example, in dissatisfaction with media coverage as it stands.” So “when people complain about what’s wrong with the coverage and campaign dialogue, there’s an opportunity to find out…. well, what should the candidates be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012?”

“I think there is a kind of authority to be won here,” Rosen points out — a kind of permission for reporters to deviate from the expectations of rankings-based, rather than idea-based, coverage. “Of course, you have to be right, you have to be accurate, you have be listening creatively and well,” he says, and “with some subtlety and an awareness that each method has weaknesses and missing data.” Sampling science will certainly come into play. “This isn’t just reading numbers off a chart,” Rosen notes. “There’s a lot of judgment involved, obviously.”

The second goal of the project is to figure out how to translate those findings into political coverage itself. Which is a challenge that could have fascinating implications — and not just for political reporting. Once you know what people want from political journalism, how do you go about creating that journalism? What’s the right balance between competition-based, and issue-based, coverage? What’s the right balance, for that matter, between journalists determining coverage and the public determining it?

Helping to answer those questions will be Jim Brady and the collection of community papers at Digital First Media, which is partnering with the project to tailor the national findings to the local. “The concepts that they’re applying at a national level certainly don’t become less relevant at a local level,” Brady notes. Figuring out what the public wants out of coverage — and then figuring out how to implement it — can be, in fact, particularly powerful in community news. (That’s part of the reason the project is hoping to bring more local collaborators on board.)

“There has to be a way to turn this into a full-circle feedback loop.”

Though much of the Guardian’s experiments will likely involve online conversation tools like hashtags and surveys and the like, “it’s not an online-only feature,” Brady notes. At the local level, in fact, papers may well experiment with a citizens agenda approach in their print products — and with the kind of in-person debates and forums that were a hallmark of the early days of civic journalism. “We’ll use all platforms,” Brady says — “as in everything we do.”

Still, though, there will be strategy involved, Brady points out. You have to be smart about both how you ask questions and how you make use of the answers. “It doesn’t work if it becomes citizens pouring out their hearts about the issues they want to hear about,” he notes, if “we can’t, as journalists, tie that to actual action by the candidates. Otherwise, it’s just like message boards that nobody responds to. There has to be a way to turn this into a full-circle feedback loop.”

Finding that way will be crucial — and it will require, above all, an openness to both the wisdom of crowds and the political agency of average citizens. Which hasn’t always been journalism’s strong suit. The project will be, Rosen puts it, “a creative act of listening.” And it will be, in that, Michel points out, “a fairly dramatic acceptance of the knowledge and expertise that the public has” — not to mention a fairly dramatic act of humility on the part of the journalistic establishment. “The approach,” Michel says, “is to ask the American public: ‘What is it that you need? What can we do to help?’”

Image by SpeakerBoehner used under a Creative Commons license.

September 18 2011

19:50

Jay Rosen: we have no idea who’s right: criticizing “he said, she said” journalism

PressThink :: A week ago Jay Rosen woke to this report about new rules for licensing abortion clinics in Kansas. The report stood out for him as an exquisite example of that dubious genre known as “he said, she said” journalism, which I’ve been complaining about for some time.

Jay Rosen: "Apparently, NPR people do not understand what the critique of he said, she said is all about. It’s not about editorializing. Or taking sides. It’s failing to do the reporting required to shed light on conflicting truth claims." 

Continue to read Jay Rosen, pressthink.org

July 28 2011

13:22

Political journalism fails: media blows U.S. debt crisis coverage with balance bias

The Nation :: This increasingly disorderly fight over raising the debt ceiling has not only exposed the petty dysfunctions of the US Congress, it has also revealed a core failure of American political journalism. The press has made the debt fight the top story for the last two weeks—even accounting for half of all stories on radio and cable news—but much of the coverage has failed to tell the very basics of what is happening. "Saying that 'Washington is broken' or 'both sides are squabbling' is easy. It is safe," writes Ari Melber, The Nation's Net movement correspondent.

[Ari Melber:] Let’s turn to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, a prolific media critic who has a theory, ..., that today’s political reporters are on a futile 'quest for innocence' when reporting political disputes ...

Continue to read Ari Melber, www.thenation.com

July 27 2011

10:43

The Me Media - is traditional media working hard to bend new media to their will?

What makes the new media interesting?

Huffington Post :: For some, it's the many new voices who can now find an audience. Whether it's a blog, podcast or Twitter feed, the new media is less about the consumption of content and aimed much closer to the reality that anyone who has something to say can now publish their thoughts -- in text, images, audio and video -- instantly for the world to see (and it costs next-to-nothing). Along with that comes an equalized back and forth with the audience.

It's that pure concept that drives the thinking and revision of definitions of media and journalism by people like Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and others.

But the real question about new media is this: Is new media really something new and different or is traditional media working hard to bend it to their will?

Continue to read Joel Mitch, www.huffingtonpost.com

Visit the site of Clay Shirky

Visit the site of Jay Rosen

Visit the site of Jeff Jarvis

June 02 2011

17:30

Is Twitter writing, or is it speech? Why we need a new paradigm for our social media platforms

New tools are at their most powerful, Clay Shirky says, once they’re ubiquitous enough to become invisible. Twitter may be increasingly pervasive — a Pew study released yesterday shows that 13 percent of online adults use the service, which is up from 8 percent six months ago — but it’s pretty much the opposite of invisible. We talk on Twitter, yes, but almost as much, it seems, we talk about it.

The big debates about Twitter’s overall efficacy as a medium — like the one launched by, say, Malcolm Gladwell and, more recently, Bill Keller, whose resignation from the New York Times editorship people have (jokingly, I think?) chalked up to his Twitter-take-on column — tend to devolve into contingents rather than resolve into consensus. An even more recent debate between Mathew Ingram and Jeff Jarvis, which comparatively nuanced, comparatively polite) ended with Ingram writing, “I guess we will have to agree to disagree.”

But why all the third-railiness? Twitter, like many other subjects of political pique, tends to be framed in extremes: On the one hand, there’s Twitter, the cheeky, geeky little platform — the perky Twitter bird! the collective of “tweets”! all the twee new words that have emerged with the advent of the tw-efix! — and on the other, there’s Twitter, the disruptor: the real-time reporting tool. The pseudo-enabler of democratic revolution. The existential threat to the narrative primacy of the news article. Twetcetera.

The dissonance here could be chalked up to the fact that Twitter is simply a medium like any other medium, and, in that, will make of itself (conversation-enabler, LOLCat passer-onner, rebellion-facilitator) whatever we, its users, make of it. But that doesn’t fully account for Twitter’s capacity to inspire so much angst (“Is Twitter making us ____?”), or, for that matter, to inspire so much joy. The McLuhany mindset toward Twitter — the assumption of a medium that is not only the message to, but the molder of, its users — seems to be rooted in a notion of what Twitter should be as much as what it is.

Which begs the question: What is Twitter, actually? (No, seriously!) And what type of communication is it, finally? If we’re wondering why heated debates about Twitter’s effect on information/politics/us tend to be at once so ubiquitous and so generally unsatisfying…the answer may be that, collectively, we have yet to come to consensus on a much more basic question: Is Twitter writing, or is it speech?

Twitter versus “Twitter”

The broader answer, sure, is that it shouldn’t matter. Twitter is…Twitter. It is what it is, and that should be enough. As a culture, though, we tend to insist on categorizing our communication, drawing thick lines between words that are spoken and words that are written. So libel is, legally, a different offense than slander; the written word, we assume, carries the heft of both deliberation and proliferation and therefore a moral weight that the spoken word does not. Text, we figure, is: conclusive, in that its words are the deliberate products of discourse; inclusive, in that it is available equally to anyone who happens to read it; exclusive, in that it filters those words selectively; archival, in that it preserves information for posterity; and static, in that, once published, its words are final.

And speech, while we’re at it, is discursive and ephemeral and, importantly, continual. A conversation will end, yes, but it is not the ending that defines it.

Those characteristics give way to categories. Writing is X; speaking is Y; and both have different normative dimensions that are based on, ultimately, the dynamics of power versus peer — the talking to versus the talking with. So when we talk about Twitter, we tend to base our assessments on its performance as a tool of either orality or textuality. Bill Keller seems to see Twitter as text that happens also to be conversation, and, in that, finds the form understandably lacking. His detractors, on the other hand, seem to see Twitter as conversation that happens also to be text, and, in that, find it understandably awesome.

Which would all be fine — nuanced, even! — were it not for the fact that Twitter-as-text and Twitter-as-conversation tend to be indicated by the same word: “Twitter.” In the manner of “blogger” and “journalist” and even “journalism” itself, “Twitter” has become emblematic of a certain psychology — or, more specifically, of several different psychologies packed awkwardly into a single signifier. And to the extent that it’s become a loaded word, “Twitter” has also become a problematic one: #Twittermakesyoustupid is unfair, but #”Twitter”makesyoustupid has a point. The framework of text and speech falls apart once we recognize that Twitter is both and neither at once. It’s its own thing, a new category.

Our language, however, doesn’t yet recognize that. Our rhetoric hasn’t yet caught up to our reality — for Twitter and, by extension, for other social media.

We might deem Twitter a text-based mechanism of orality, as the scholar Zeynep Tufekci has suggested, or of a “secondary orality,” as Walter Ong has argued, or of something else entirely (tweech? twext? something even more grating, if that’s possible?). It almost doesn’t matter. The point is to acknowledge, online, a new environment — indeed, a new culture — in which writing and speech, textuality and orality, collapse into each other. Speaking is no longer fully ephemeral. And text is no longer simply a repository of thought, composed by an author and bestowed upon the world in an ecstasy of self-containment. On the web, writing is newly dynamic. It talks. It twists. It has people on the other end of it. You read it, sure, but it reads you back.

“The Internet looking back at you”

In his social media-themed session at last year’s ONA conference, former Lab writer and current Wall Street Journal outreach editor Zach Seward talked about being, essentially, the voice of the outlet’s news feed on Twitter. When readers tweeted responses to news stories, @WSJ might respond in kind — possibly surprising them and probably delighting them and maybe, just for a second, sort of freaking them out.

The Journal’s readers were confronted, in other words, with text’s increasingly implicit mutuality. And their “whoa, it’s human!” experience — the Soylent Greenification of online news consumption — can bring, along with its obvious benefits, the same kind of momentary unease that accompanies the de-commodification of, basically, anything: the man behind the curtain, the ghost in the machine, etc. Concerns expressed about Twitter, from that perspective, may well be stand-ins for concerns about privacy and clickstream tracking and algorithmic recommendation and all the other bugs and features of the newly reciprocal reading experience. As the filmmaker Tze Chun noted to The New York Times this weekend, discussing the increasingly personalized workings of the web: “You are used to looking at the Internet voyeuristically. It’s weird to have the Internet looking back at you….”

So a Panoptic reading experience is also, it’s worth remembering, a revolutionary reading experience. Online, words themselves, once silent and still, are suddenly springing to life. And that can be, in every sense, a shock to the system. (Awesome! And also: Aaaah!) Text, after all, as an artifact and a construct, has generally been a noun rather than a verb, defined by its solidity, by its thingness — and, in that, by its passive willingness to be the object of interpretation by active human minds. Entire schools of literary criticism have been devoted to that assumption.

And in written words’ temporal capacity as both repositories and relics, in their power to colonize our collective past in the service of our collective future, they have suggested, ultimately, order. “The printed page,” Neil Postman had it, “revealed the world, line by line, page by page, to be a serious, coherent place, capable of management by reason, and of improvement by logical and relevant criticism.” In their architecture of sequentialism, neatly packaged in manuscripts of varying forms, written words have been bridges, solid and tangible, that have linked the past to the future. As such, they have carried an assurance of cultural continuity.

It’s that preservative function that, for the moment, Twitter is largely lacking. As a platform, it does a great job of connecting; it does, however, a significantly less-great job of conserving. It’s getting better every day; in the meantime, though, as a vessel of cultural memory, it carries legitimately entropic implications.

But, then, concerns about Twitter’s ephemerality are also generally based on a notion of Twitter-as-text. In that, they assume a zero-sum relationship between the writing published on Twitter and the writing published elsewhere. They see the written, printed word — the bridge, the badge of a kind of informational immortality — dissolving into the digital. They see back-end edits revising stories (which is to say, histories) in an instant. They see hacks erasing those stories altogether. They see links dying off at an alarming rate. They see all that is solid melting into bits.

And they have, in that perspective, a point: While new curatorial tools, Storify and its ilk, will become increasingly effective, they might not be able to recapture print’s assurance, tenacious if tenuous, of a neatly captured world. That’s partly because print’s promise of epistemic completeness has always been, to some extent, empty; but it’s also because those tools will be operating within a digital world that is increasingly — and actually kind of wonderfully — dynamic and discursive.

But what the concerns about Twitter tend to forget is that language is not, and has never been, solid. Expression allows itself room to expand. Twitter is emblematic, if not predictive, of the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the notion that, under the web’s influence, our text-ordered world is resolving back into something more traditionally oral — more conversational and, yes, more ephemeral. “Chaos is our lot,” Clay Shirky notes; “the best we can do is identify the various forces at work shaping various possible futures.” One of those forces — and, indeed, one of those futures — is the hybrid linguistic form that we are shaping online even as it shapes us. And so the digital sphere calls for a new paradigm of communication: one that is discursive as well as conservative, one that acquiesces to chaos even as it resists it, one that relies on text even as it sheds the mantle of textuality. A paradigm we might call “Twitter.”

Photos by olalindberg and Tony Hall used under a Creative Commons license.

May 26 2011

18:00

Sarah Palin’s 2009 “death panel” claims: How the media handled them, and why that matters

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the journalism-and-policy blog Lippmann Would Roll. Written by Matthew L. Schafer, the piece is a distillation of an academic study by Schafer and Dr. Regina G. Lawrence, the Kevin P. Reilly Sr. chair of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. They have kindly given us permission to republish the piece here.

It’s been almost two years now since Sarah Palin published to Facebook a post about “death panels.” In a study to be presented this week at the 61st Annual International Communications Association Conference, we analyzed over 700 stories placed in the top 50 newspapers around the country.

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide…whether they are worthy of health care,” Palin wrote at the time.

Only three days later, PolitiFact, an arm of the St. Petersburg Times, published its appraisal of Palin’s comment, stating, “We agree with Palin that such a system would be evil. But it’s definitely not what President Barack Obama or any other Democrat has proposed.”

FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenburg Public Policy Center, would also debunk the claim, and later PolitiFact users would later vote the death panel claim to the top spot of PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year ballot.

Despite this initial dismissal of the claim by non-partisan fact checkers, a cursory search of Google turns up 1,410,000 million results, showing just how powerful social media is in a fractured media climate.

Yet, the death panel claim — as we’re sure many will remember — lived not only online, but also in the newspapers, and on cable and network television. In the current study, which ran from August 8 (the day after Palin made the claim) to September 13 (the day of the last national poll about death panels) the top 50 newspapers in the country published over 700 articles about the claims, while the nightly network news ran about 20 stories on the topic.

At the time, many commentators both in and outside of the industry offered their views on the media’s performance in debunking the death panel claim. Some lauded the media for coming out and debunking the claim, while others questioned whether it was the media’s “job” to debunk the myth at all.

“The crackling, often angry debate over health-care reform has severely tested the media’s ability to untangle a story of immense complexity,” Howard Kurtz, who as then at the Washington Post, said. “In many ways, news organizations have risen to the occasion….”

Yet, Media Matters was less impressed, at times pointing out, for example, that “the New York Times portrayed the [death panel] issue as a he said/she said debate, noting that health care reform supporters ‘deny’ this charge and call the claim ‘a myth.’ But the Times did not note, as its own reporters and columnists have previously, that such claims are indeed a myth…”

So, who was right? Did the media debunk the claim? And, if so, did they sway public opinion in the process?

Strong debunking, but confused readers

Our data indicate that the mainstream news, particularly newspapers, debunked death panels early, fairly often, and in a variety of ways, though some were more direct than others. Nevertheless, a significant portion of the public accepted the claim as true or, perhaps, as “true enough.”

Initially, we viewed the data from 30,000 feet, and found that about 40 percent of the time journalists would call the death panel claim false in their own voice, which was especially surprising considering many journalists’ own conceptions that they act as neutral arbiters.

For example, on August 9, 2009, Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post said, “There are no such ‘death panels’ mentioned in any of the House bills.”

“[The death panel] charge, which has been widely disseminated, has no basis in any of the provisions of the legislative proposals under consideration,” The New York Times’ Helene Cooper wrote a few days after Connolly.

“The White House is letting Congress come up with the bill and that vacuum of information is getting filled by misinformation, such as those death panels,” Anne Thompson of NBC News said on August 11.

Nonetheless, in more than 60 percent of the cases it’s obvious that newspapers abstained from calling the death panels claim false. (We also looked at hundreds of editorials and letters to the editor, and it’s worth noting that almost 60 percent of those debunked the claim, while the rest abstained from debunking and just about 2 percent supported the claim.)

Additionally, of journalists who did debunk the claim, almost 75 percent of those articles contained no clarification as to why they were labeling the claim as false. Indeed, it was very much a “You either believe me, or you don’t” situation without contextual support.

As shown below, whether or not journalists debunked the claim, they often times approached the controversy by also quoting one side of the debate, quoting the other, and then letting the reader dissect the validity of each side’s stance. Thus, in 30 percent of cases where journalists reported in their own words that the claim was false, they nonetheless included either side’s arguments as to why their side was right. This often just confuses the reader.

This chart shows that whether journalists abstained from debunking the death panels claim or not, they still proceeded to give equal time to each side’s supporters.

Most important is the light that this study sheds on the age-old debate over the practical limitations surrounding objectivity. Indeed, questions are continually raised about whether journalists can be objective. Most recently, this led to a controversy at TechCrunch where founder Michael Arrington was left defending his disclosure policy.

“But the really important thing to remember, as a reader, is that there is no objectivity in journalism,” Arrington wrote to critics. “The guys that say they’re objective are just pretending.”

This view, however, is not entirely true. Indeed, in the study of death panels, we found two trends that could each fit under the broad banner of objectivity.

Objectivity: procedural and substantive

First, there is procedural objectivity — mentioned above — where journalists do their due diligence and quote competitors. Second, there is substantive objectivity where journalists actually go beyond reflexively reporting what key political actors say to engage in verifying the accuracy of those claims for their readers or viewers.

Of course, every journalist is — to some extent — influenced by their experiences, predilections, and political preferences, but these traits do not necessarily interfere with objectively reporting verifiable fact. Indeed, it seems that journalists could practice either form of objectivity without being biased. Nonetheless, questions and worries still abound.

“The fear seems to be that going deeper—checking out the facts behind the posturing and trying to sort out who’s right and who’s wrong—is somehow not ‘objective,’ not ‘straight down the middle,” Rem Reider of the American Journalism Review wrote in 2007.

Perhaps because of this, journalists in our sample attempted to practice at the same time both types of objectivity: one which, arguably, serves the public interest by presenting the facts of the matter, and one which allows the journalist a sliver of plausible deniability, because he follows the insular journalistic norm of both presenting both sides of the debate.

As such, we question New York University educator and critic Jay Rosen, who has argued that “neutrality and objectivity carry no instructions for how to react” to the rise of false but popular claims. We contend that the story is more complicated: Mainstream journalists’ figurative instruction manual contains contradictory “rules” for arbitrating the legitimacy of claims.

These contradictory rules are no doubt supported by public opinion polls taken during the August and September healthcare debates. Indeed, one poll released August 20 reported that 30 percent believed that proposed health care legislation would “create death panels.” Belief in this extreme type of government rationing of health care remained impressively high (41 percent) into mid-September.

More troubling, one survey found that the percentage calling the claim true (39 percent) among those who said they were paying very close attention to the health care debate was significantly higher than among those reporting they were following the debate fairly closely (23 percent) or not too closely (18 percent).

Yet, of course, our data does not allow us to say that these numbers are a direct result of the mainstream media’s death panel coverage. Nonetheless, because mainstream media content still powers so many websites’ and news organizations’ content, perhaps this coverage did have an impact on public opinions to some indeterminable degree.

Conclusion

One way of looking at the resilience of the death panels claim is as evidence that the mainstream media’s role in contemporary political discourse has been attenuated. But another way of looking at the controversy is to demonstrate that the mainstream media themselves bore some responsibility for the claim’s persistence.

Palin’s Facebook post, which popularized the death panel, catchphrase said nothing about any specific legislative provision. News outlets and fact-checkers could examine the language of currently debated bills to debunk the claim — and many did, as our data demonstrate. Nevertheless, it appears the nebulous “death panel bomb” reached its target in part because the mainstream media so often repeated it.

Thus, the dilemma for reporters playing by the rules of procedural objectivity is that repeating a claim reinforces a sense of its validity — or at least, enshrines its place as an important topic of public debate. Moreover, there is no clear evidence that journalism can correct misinformation once it has been widely publicized. Indeed, it didn’t seem to correct the death panels misinformation in our study.

Yet, there is promise in substantive objectivity. Indeed, today more than ever journalists are having to act as curators. The only way that they can effectively do so is by critically examining the surplusage of social media messages, and debunking or refusing to reinforce those messages that are verifiable. Indeed, as more politicians use the Internet to circumvent traditional media, this type of critical curation will become increasingly important.

This is — or should be journalists’ new focus. Journalists should verify information. Moreover, they should do so without including quotations from those taking a stance that is demonstrably false. This creates a factual jigsaw puzzle that the reader must untangle. Indeed, on the one hand, the journalist is calling the claim false, and on the other, he is giving inches quoting someone who believes it’s true.

Putting aside the raucous debates about objectivity for a moment, it is clear that journalists in many circumstances can research and relay to their readers information about verifiable fact. If we don’t see a greater degree of this substantive objectivity, the public is left largely at the mercy of the savviest online communicator. Indeed, if journalists refuse to critically curate new media, they are leaving both the public and themselves in a worse off position.

Image of Sarah Palin by Tom Prete used under a Creative Commons license.

April 29 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ forced hand, a Patch recruiting push, and two sets of news maxims

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

Leaking gets competitive: WikiLeaks made its first major document release in five months — during which time its founder, Julian Assange, was arrested, released on bail, and put under house arrest — this week, publishing 764 files regarding the Guantánamo Bay prison along with 10 media partners. (As always, The Nation’s Greg Mitchell’s WikiLeaks über-blogging is the place to go for every detail you could possibly need to know.)

That’s more media partners than WikiLeaks has worked with previously, and it includes several first-timers, such as the Washington Post and McClatchy. As the Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares noted, the list of partners doesn’t include the New York Times and the Guardian, the two English-language newspapers who worked with WikiLeaks in its first media collaboration last summer. Despite being shut out, those two organizations were still able to force WikiLeaks’ hand in publishing the leak, as the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone explained.

The Times got their hands on the documents independently, then passed them on to the Guardian and NPR. This meant that, unlike the news orgs that got the info from WikiLeaks, they were operating without an embargo. As they prepared to publish last Sunday, WikiLeaks lifted its embargo early for its own partners (though the first to publish was actually the Telegraph, a WikiLeaks partner).

The New York Times’ Brian Stelter and Noam Cohen said the episode was evidence that WikiLeaks “has become such a large player in journalism that some of its secrets are no longer its own to control.” But, as they reported, WikiLeaks itself didn’t seem particularly perturbed about it.

Patch’s reaches for more bloggers: AOL seems to be undergoing a different overhaul every week since it bought the Huffington Post earlier this year, and this week the changes are at its hyperlocal initiative Patch, which is hoping to add 8,000 community bloggers to its sites over the next week or two in what its editor-in-chief called a “full-on course correction.”

While talking to paidContent, AOL’s folks played down the degree of change it’s implementing, explaining that these new bloggers (who will be recruited from, among other sources, the sites’ frequent commenters) aren’t disrupting the basic Patch model of one full-time editor per site. In fact, they’ll be unpaid, something that’s been a bit of a headache for AOL and HuffPo lately.

Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson liked the plan, saying volunteer bloggers can become “extremely effective word-of-mouth marketers” and “excellent pageview machines” with, of course, “manageable” salaries. Others from MediaBistro and Wired were a little more skeptical of the no-pay factor. Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau took issue with a more systemic aspect of the new blogs, which will exist both on the writer’s own site and on Patch. Splitting up the conversation with that arrangement won’t be helpful for the individual blogs or for the local blogosphere as a whole, he said: “I see something developing that leads to less population in the local blogosphere and a walled-off system that operates on Patch. At worst, it will lead to parallel and fracture[d] conversations online, which is death when we’re talking about hyperlocal.”

Two new media manifestos: Two New York j-profs — and two of the more prominent future-of-news pundits online these days — both published manifestos of sorts this week, and both are worth a read. Jay Rosen summed up what he’s learned about journalism in 25 years of teaching and thinking about it at NYU, and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis gave a few dozen bullet points outlining his philosophy of news economics.

Rosen’s post touched on several of the themes that have colored his blog and Twitter feed over the past few years, including the value of increasing participation, the failure of “objectivity,” and the need for usefulness and context in news. But while the ideas weren’t exactly new, the conversation they generated was stimulating. The comments chase down some interesting tangents, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram expanded on Rosen’s point about participation, arguing that even if the number of users who want to participate is relatively low, opening up the process can still be immensely important in improving journalism. Rosen also inspired TBD’s Steve Buttry to write his own “what I know about the news business” post.

Like Rosen’s post, Jarvis’ wouldn’t break a whole lot of ground for those already familiar with his ideas, but it summed them up in a helpfully pithy format. He focused heavily on providing real value (“The only thing that matters to the market is value”), the importance of engagement, and finding efficiencies in infrastructure and collaboration. His post contains plenty of pessimism about the current newspaper business model, and Mathew Ingram and FishbowlNY’s Chris O’Shea defended him against the idea that he’s just a doomsayer.

Times paywall bits: The New York Times spent a reported $25 million to develop its paid-content system, and it will be spending another $13 million on the plan this year, mostly for promotion. Women’s Wear Daily detailed those promotional efforts, which include posters around New York as well as TV spots. PaidContent’s Robert Andrews compared the Times’ pay plan to that of the other Times (the one in London, owned by Rupert Murdoch), noting that the New York Times’ plan should allow them to draw more revenue while maintaining their significant online influence, something the Times of London hasn’t done at all (though it’s largely by choice).

Meanwhile, Terry Heaton found another (perhaps more convoluted) way around the Times’ system, tweeting links to Times stories that he can’t access. And elsewhere at the Times, the Lab’s Megan Garber explored the Times’ R&D Lab’s efforts to map the way Times stories are shared online.

And elsewhere in paywalls, the CEO of the McClatchy newspaper chain has reversed his anti-paywall stance and said this week the company is planning paywalls for some of its larger papers, and Business Insider introduced us to another online paid-content company, Tiny Pass.

Apps, news, and pay: In his outgoing post on Poynter’s Mobile Media blog, Damon Kiesow had a familiar critique for news organizations’ forays into mobile media — they’re too much like their print counterparts to be truly called innovative. But he did add a reason for optimism, pointing to the New York Times’ News.me and the Washington Post’s Trove: “Neither is a finished product or a perfect one. But both were created by newspaper companies that put resources into research and development.”

Media analyst Ken Doctor said local news needs to start moving toward mobile media to reach full effectiveness, laying out the model of an aggregated local news app pulling various types of media. For maximum engagement, that app had better include audio, according to some NPR statistics reported by the Lab’s Andrew Phelps.

There may a bigger place for paid apps than we’ve thought: Instapaper’s Marco Arment twice pulled the free version of the app for about a month and found that sales actually increased. He made the case against free apps, saying they bring low conversion rates, little revenue, and unnecessary image problems. Meanwhile, makers of one free app, Zite, said they’re releasing a new version to deal with complaints they’ve been getting from publishers about copyright issues.

Reading roundup: No big stories this week, but tons of little things to keep up on. Here’s a bit of the basics:

— On social media: Facebook launched a “Send” plugin among a few dozen websites (including a couple of news sites) that allows private content-sharing. The Next Web’s Lauren Fisher argued that journalists should spend more time using Facebook, and Canadian j-prof Alfred Hermida wrote about a study he helped conduct about social media and news consumption.

— The Guardian shut down a local-news project it launched last year, saying the local blogs were “not sustainable.” PaidContent’s Robert Andrews said that while the blogs were useful, there are few examples of sustainable local-news efforts, and Rachel McAthy of Journalism.co.uk rounded up some opinions to try to find the value in the Guardian’s experiment.

— The news filtering program Storify launched in public beta this week, prompting a New York Times profile and pieces by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran on the journalistic value of curation.

— Thanks to its most recent content-farm-oriented algorithm tweak, Google’s traffic to all Demand Media sites is down 40%, which caused Demand stock to slide this week. Google, meanwhile, added some more automatic personalization features to Google News.

— The Lab’s Andrew Phelps wrote a great piece expounding on the journalistic utility of the humble (well, kind of humble) smartphone.

— And for your deep-thinking weekend-reading piece, Harvard researcher Ethan Zuckerman’s thoughtful take on overcoming polarization by understanding each other’s values, rather than just facts.

March 25 2011

19:30

Journal Register’s open advisory meeting: Bell, Jarvis, and Rosen put those new media maxims to the test

We watchers of media — analysts, theorists, pundits, what you will — make assumptions about journalism that have become, along the way, tenets: Openness and transparency will engender trust…. The process of journalism matters as much as the product…. Engagement is everything…. Etc. We often treat those ideas as general truths, but more accurately they’re simply theories — notions that speak as much to the media environment we’re hoping to create as to the one we currently have.

In that respect, one of the most interesting media outfits to watch — in addition to, yes, the Googles and Twitters of the world — is a chain of community of newspapers dotted along the East Coast. The Journal Register Company, which declared bankruptcy in 2009, has been attempting over the past year to reverse its fortunes with a “digital first” approach to newsgathering that involves a healthy does of New Media Maxim: It’s using free, web-only publishing tools whenever possible. It’s established an “ideaLab,” a group of innovation-focused staffers to experiment with new tools and methods of reporting and engaging with readers. It’s been sharing profits with staff. And it’s convened a group of new media all-stars to serve as advisors as its papers plunge head-first into “digital first.”

Yesterday, those all-stars — Emily Bell, Jeff Jarvis, and Jay Rosen — gathered in the newsroom of JRC’s flagship paper, Torrington, CT’s Register Citizen (home of the famous newsroom cafe, the community media lab, and, as of this week, a used bookstore), to talk innovation strategy with Journal Register staffers. The confab was literally an inside-out version of a typical, closed-door Advisory Board session: Rather than taking place in a closed-off meeting space, the conversation happened around a desk smack in the middle of the Register Citizen’s open, airy newsroom, with the clacking of keyboards and the clicking of microfilm reels and the general hum of journalism being done serving as soundtrack to the discussion.

Most importantly, the meeting was open to the public. Community members (twenty or so of them, including librarians, an assistant schools superintendent, a UConn professor, a state senator, and a representative from the Chamber of Commerce) sat in chairs loosely situated around the advisory board’s oblong desk. (The atmosphere was casual: “We have a bit of an agenda today,” Journal Register CEO John Paton said during his introduction, “but the advisory broad usually works best when it’s just talking about issues.”) And to accommodate the members of the paper’s virtual community, the meeting was also live-streamed, both on the Register Citizen site and on UStream (370 total views). Situated directly above the meeting area was a wall-mounted screen that streamed tweeted questions and comments about the proceedings — from JRC employees and the broader community — via the #JRC hashtag.

As Bell tweeted after the confab concluded: “Never quite been to a meeting like that before.”

I highly recommend watching the archived video of the discussion (above or here): Rarely do journalism’s wide array of interested parties — journalists themselves, business-side executives, academics, analysts, and, of course, community members — come together in such direct dialogue. The conversation that resulted is both telling and, I think, fascinating. But if “Read Later” you must, here are some broad — but, be warned, not even close to summative! — takeaways from the proceedings.

The tension between journalism-as-process and journalism-as-product

During the board’s discussion of engagement and transparency, Emily Olson, the Register Citizen’s managing editor, described a recent experiment in which the editorial staff asked the paper’s readers what they would like the paper to fact-check. The responses, she noted, weren’t gratitude at being asked to participate in the process, but rather sarcasm and indignation: “Why do we have to do your jobs for you? What are you getting paid for?”

While the table generally agreed that a more targeted question — “What do you want us to fact-check about X?” — might have been more effective in terms of eliciting earnest responses, Olson’s experience also hints at one of the broad problems facing news outlets that have so many new engagement mechanisms available to them: How do you serve a wide array of audience interest, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of presentation? How do you accommodate different “levels” of audience, not only when it comes to background information about stories, but also when it comes to the desire for participation? To what extent do people want to participate in the process of journalism, and to what extent do they prefer information that is simply presented to them?

“People,” of course, is anything but monolithic — and that’s the point. Some folks are thrilled, cognitive surplus-style, to have new opportunities to participate in the creative process of journalism. Others, though, want a more sit-back experience of news consumption. They don’t want here’s-how-we-got-the-story or here’s-how-you-can-help; they simply want The News, the product. If you’re a media outlet, how do you enable participation from the former group…without annoying the latter?

The power of data

In a post-meeting discussion, the table agreed on the power of data — not only as a valuable journalistic offering, but also as a means of increasing JRC papers’ pageviews, and thus the company’s bottom line. Rosen noted the telling experience of the Texas Tribune, where a whopping two thirds of total site views come to its data pages.

Data presentations, Rosen noted, can be successful because they bridge the gap between what’s available and what’s accessible in terms of information. Sure, data sets are already out there, so in focusing on them, you might not be adding new information, strictly speaking, into the communal cache of knowledge; but “packaging, framing, explanation, user-friendliness: that’s the value added.”

The Register Citizen recently posted the county schools budget on its site, its publisher, Matt DeRienzo, noted — which was, the board agreed, a good first step in the data direction. The paper could try similar experiments, they suggested with any number of similar data sets, from the already-accessible to the need-to-be-FOIAed. Ultimately, “become the Big Data place,” Jarvis advised.

The benefit of hedged experimentation:

One of JRC’s chief infrastructural advantages — one shared, in various ways, by other media companies — is that it holds several different properties under its auspices. In other words, it has an entire chain of newspapers that it can experiment with, testing everything from those news-innovation-y tenets to more notional what-ifs. If Journal Register, as a whole, wants to figure out the best way to run comments, the Register Citizen could implement Facebook Comments, say, while the New Haven Register could experiment with a HuffPo-style community moderation approach, while the Troy Record could see what happens if comments are turned on for one type of story and disabled for another. For the company overall, risk can be essentially mitigated through experimental diversification — and, on the other hand, the lessons learned from the experiments can be applied company-wide. And, in that way, amplified.

The commenting conundrum

The board’s discussion — as happens a lot — spent a lot of time focused on the ideal way to run comments systems. How do you reward helpful participation while punishing — or, at least, discouraging — trolls and other conversation-killers? “Every community is going to have bozos,” Jarvis noted. “The Internet’s just a community; so it’s going to have bozos.”

A more productive approach than one focused on troll-fighting, the board suggested, might be to focus instead on rewarding good behavior — the Gawker/HuffPo approach that empowers community members to elevate the good comments and demote the bad. Utlimately, though, no one’s “figured out” how to do comments; and that’s partially because each community is different when it comes to the kinds of conversations it wants to conduct and convene online.

What the board — and, from the sounds of things, community members — did agree on, though, was that it’s a good idea to expand the notion of comments beyond the-things-that-follow-a-story. Reframing commentary from the reactive to the more productive — instead of “What did you think of this story?” something like, “How should we write this story?” — could be a useful exercise not only in terms of conversation, but also of engagement and transparency. And, of course, it could keep improving the overall quality of the journalism. “I’m going to be honest — it used to be a joke,” Melanie Macmillan, a reader who’d come to the meeting, noted of the Register Citizen. But now, with the strides it’s making toward openness and involvement, “it’s something I’m proud of.”

March 14 2011

21:02

IMA + SXSW = Major Discussion on Future of Public Media

Public media makers found a whole new crew to hang with at this year's Integrated Media Association (IMA) Conference on March 10 and 11. Joining the mix were attendees at a Knight Foundation-supported panel on news innovation and content strategy.

Adding a further dose of excitement was a new collaboration: The IMA preceded and then flowed into the interactive track of the SXSW festival on the 12th.

Despite looming cuts and recent controversies, participants seemed eager both to learn about a raft of recent public media experiments and collaborations, and to meet their online friends and followers in the flesh. This annual public media conference, IMA, has recently been revitalized with new leadership and strategy, and felt much hipper and more cohesive than the last iteration of the conference in 2009.

But don't just take my word for it. Here's a glimpse at the conversations through the eyes of attendees -- noted in bold -- and my own running Twitter coverage at @beyondbroadcast. You can follow a larger discussion of both conferences by going to the #imaconf and #sxsw hashtags on Twitter.

The run-up

Geez -- pack for IMA or glue myself to the screen to track blowback on Schiller's resignation? #pubmedia, I can't keep up!

@rbole (Robert Bole, CPB): Getting in the shute: first #imaconf re: #pubmedia analytics, then #SXSW on open APIs and finally #mediafuturenow on digital journalism

@nextgenradio (Doug Mitchell) : @beyondbroadcast Plenty to talk about amongst the faithful at SXSWi. Leaving today for Austin.

Opening panel: Innovation Anxiety

@martineric (Eric Michael Martin) : RT @LCKnapp: Jeannie Ericson encourages #pubmedia to adopt some Texas swagger while @ #sxsw2011 & #imaconf in Austin

@aschweig (Adam Schweigert, WOSU) : @joaquinalvarado: public service media seeks to identify need and engage with communities to solve problems

PBS and NPR Local/National Strategies

Kinsey Wilson (of NPR) at IMA conf: "I am here to tell you that NPR will keep moving forward."

PBS incubation lab is building directory of station tech staff for collab projects.

At #iMAConf, #pubcorps is announcing "America's Next Top Public Media Model" contest.

Learn more about these Top Model projects and the Kindred collaboration platform at publicmediacorps.org.

LaToya Jackson from #pubcorps says that "at this moment, #pubmedia needs drastic action if it's going to survive."

@rbole: @timolsonsf (Tim Olson, KQED) sending picture of Next Top Model at #imaconf

olsen.jpg

Beyond the Stream: Mobile Apps that Matter

mobile apps panel: Andrew Kuklewicz of PRX (@kookster), Colleen Wilson, Seth Lind, Demian Perry on which/how/why

Wilson: Interesting question re. geolocation app: "How can we get people lost?" Give people rich locative experience

Wilson: PBS/NPR already have streaming apps -- station apps need to take advantage of local assets/engagement

Seth Lind of This American Life: Exciting to be able to feature individual stories on iPad app, offer live content

Lind: "Thinking about mobile has pushed us to think about users way more actively, and it's just been great."


@kookster: Mobile is not as forgiving; you have to think about every pixel and what the user is seeing.

@kookster: variability of both networks and devices makes mobile development trickier than web by an order of magnitude.

@kookster: "people feel entitled to have amazing things in their pockets," & will tell you loudly if you fail to deliver

Lind: Users find push notifications offensive, especially when they are asking for donations

Wilson: proximity is key--finding what's near you now: discounts, stories, members

wm_logo.gif

Lunchtime Keynote

@mediaengage Top 10 #pubmedia Tech Trends, courtesy of @webbmedia at @IntMediaAssn #imaConf http://wp.me/pUN9X-a4

Re-thinking public TV

On the platform: Chris Hastings (@chrishast) and Bob Lyons from WGBH re. "Re-thinking Public TV" | http://www.worldcompass.org

Lyons: World is a national digital TV channel that is serving as a platform for independent and international #pubmedia makers

#worldchan website has a different take/voice than the channel -- younger, multicultural, multiplatform, participatory #pubmedia

#worldchan is arranged thematically, organizing a variety of content on the channel and online. Sample theme: Skin You're In #pubmedia

WorldCompass site just got redesigned for the 3rd time in 6 months; will rebrand again/ iterating on the fly #pubmedia #worldchan

(PBS MediaShift recently covered the redesign of WorldCompass.org.)

#worldchan is demonstrating multiplatform branding and cross-silo collaboration in #pubmedia; example: live video from The Takeaway on site

Lyons: the "visual vocabulary" of seeing the reporter unshaven and on the beat at 6:00 in the morning was exciting

Lyons: show's audio morphing into other things: audio slideshows, Snap Judgement multiplatform/animated storytelling, #pubmedia #worldchan

Lyons: #worldchan offering periodic "callouts" for public content. @chrishast elaborates. Goals: Incubate & support new creators #pubmedia

@chrishast: More goals for #worldchan--innovate new production models, bottom-up storytelling, solution-based civic discourse #pubmedia

@chrishast: Will be doing public callouts via WGBH Lab (lab.wgbh.org) to populate #worldchan #pubmedia

@chrishast current call is for videos re. gay rights, inspired by Stonewall anniversary #worldchan #pubmedia

@chrishast "In some ways we're creating a pipeline for independent makers that doesn't exist, in addition to PBS" #worldchan #pubmedia

@chrishast "It's not just about creating a platform for discourse, it's about solution-based discourse...not the rant" #pubmedia

@MediaFunders: Is it enough 4 public media 2 ask content makers to preformed mold? How can public truly enter the space?

@martineric: blog coverage of Re-Thinking Public TV: The World Channel from #SXSW Interactive http://worldcompass.org/blog

Open Wide: New Models for Public Media

Back at #SXSW -- at a panel on new models in #pubmedia, with Orlando Bagwell, Sue Schardt, Jacquie Jones and Greg Pak. How to innovate?


Bagwell: How to reinvent public service for a multiplatform environment?

Jones: describing trajectory of NBPC (National Black Programming Consortium)

Jones: every year that she's been at NBPC, there's been "a watershed event that galvanized an African-American public"

Jones: Began by supporting diverse producers, but then realized #pubmedia wasn't reaching minority audiences; how to create relationship?

Jones: realized there was no dedicated producer corps within #pubmedia creating content relevant to minority communities -- how to address?

Jones: next step was to create the #pubcorps in order to build linkages and skills among young producers and community/#pubmedia orgs

Learn more about the #pubcorps at publicmediacorps.org

Jones: "There's still a lot of opportunity to engage new voices and have a real impact in #pubmedia...even though we're in dicey times"

Jones: #pubmedia produced by young people may look very different: games, citizen journalism training, etc. Need to be reflected in content

Bagwell: Is there a possibility for young ideas to lead the future of #pubmedia? Jones: Yes, but it's really challenging, different process

Jones: "We learned that we have a lot more to learn"

Bagwell: a recurring issue in #pubmedia now is "how do you find the public where they are"

Sue Schardt (@Schardt) from Association of Independents in Radio (@AIRmedia) talking about vibrant, diversified universe of makers/content

@Schardt: "How in #pubmedia can we harness this invention and energy" of indy producers? MQ2 project: demo project exploring this

@Schardt: #pubmedia #sxsw You have to balance structure with creativity. Learn more about MQ2 here: http://bit.ly/Spreading_the_Zing

@Schardt: We don't throw out the existing infrastructure, but we have to reflect humanity in a relevant, meaningful way

@Schardt: It's a tremendous challege to produce authentic #pubmedia at this moment when many institutions are risk-averse

@Schardt: Every one of the MQ2 projects took themselves outside of the structure to deep into communities. #pubmedia led us there

Jay Rosen: Bloggers vs. Journalists Redux

Listening to @jayrosen_nyu deconstruct the psychology of journalists and bloggers & why they love to hate each other

@jayrosen_nyu: the "fantasy of replacement" is a phantom of journalists' fears re. waning business model.

jay rosen

@jayrosen_nyu: journalists dismiss bloggers as "compulsive," "random"--displaced anger at a public that doesn't value journalism

@jayrosen_nyu: what do journalists have against basements, anyway? pajamas? flies in the face of intrepid journalist stereotypes

@jayrosen_nyu: if it were self-evident that commercial model is better, drawing contrasts w/bloggers would be uneccessary, yes?

I always marvel at the skill with which @jayrosen_nyu brands himself and revisits his own crusades to clever effect

@jayrosen_nyu: bloggers turn critique around to claim that big media should be responsible so they can slack off. but press is us

@jayrosen_nyu: "discarded parts [of old news habits] live on in the subconscious...and have come roaring back with blogging"

@jayrosen_nyu: i.e.--Bloggers are the return of the repressed

@jayrosen_nyu: voice is what you take out of modern professional journalism--if you succeed you might one day earn a column

@jayrosen_nyu: "Bloggers disrupt the moral hierarchy" by jumping straight to voice without the discipline of flat reporting

@jayrosen_nyu: It's time for some psychiatry with journalists--to "get them to tell a better story" about themselves & the world

@jayrosen_nyu prescription: bloggers, learn some basic standards. journalists: get flexible. "mutualization"

@jayrosen_nyu: In psychology, you don't get over the things that have wounded you; instead you can open up space for motion

@jayrosen_nyu: "freedom of the press is a public possession," the right for citizens to print their opinions

@jayrosen_nyu Wants NPR to drop ideology of "view from nowhere" and replace it with pluralism & transparency

Editors' note: Read Jay Rosen's discussion of the attempts to defund public media.

@jayrosen_nyu: "so-called objectivity is a very expensive system to maintain" b/c anything that pierces it threatens outlet

@jayrosen_nyu: The only place we actuallly define journalists is via shield laws and velvet ropes

How PBS and NPR Can Support Local Journalism

Reporting from #sxswlocal panel on future of local w/ @kdando @tgdavidson @janjlab @amyshaw9net Photo: http://yfrog.com/gzfkcksj h/t @JLab

interactivepanel.jpg

Last #pubmedia panel of the day: On what PBS/NPR are doing in the local news space. @janjlab talking about variety in news ecosystem

@janjlab: lots of news innovation happening in silos; not networked in a way that can amplify news/info

Amy Shaw from the Nine Network in St. Louis talking about Homeland project, which we covered here: http://to.pbs.org/9Q6Ja0

Shaw: "I wish there was a more holistic perspective" about how to work in an community news ecosystem

Shaw: people need to "tuck their peacock feathers in at the door" and think about what's good for engaging community

Shaw: people need to be nudged around creating dialogue around stalled, intractable issues

RT @PatNarciso: Nine Network on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/STL9Network

@amyshaw9net: the master narrative about immigration is demonization and polarization of "undocumented"--wanted to deepen issue

@amyshaw9net: they are training people how to use flip cameras: young people get tech but not story; older folks the opposite

@pubmlicmic: Schaffer: Need to end mentality that once funding is over, project is over

@mediaengage: Great wisdom shared by @janjlab @kdando @amyshaw9net & @tgdavidson (and @nicolehollway!) at today's #SXSWlocal #pubmedia session

@JackLerner: "#pubmedia can help local news by being a hub, a partner, or an innovator." - @JLab's @janjlab #SXSWlocal #sxsw

And onwards...

@CJERICSON: Video or audio of #imaconf coming soon. Audio this weekend. Video next week. For all attendees & members.

@g5member: Great to meet so many of public media's creative and dedicated minds at #imaconf. Now, #sxsw time!

Full disclosure: In my role as the director of the Ford Foundation-funded Future of Public Media Project, I am working with the National Black Programing Consortium to incubate their Public Media Corps project via the Center for Social Media, and have also worked with PBS/NPR on the PubCamps and Association of Independents in Radio on a study of their MQ2 project. More details on all of these here: futureofpublicmedia.net.

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media Project at American University's Center for Social Media, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

March 07 2011

08:32

Culture Clash: Journalism’s ideology vs blog culture

Culture Clash: Journalism's ideology vs blog cultureIf you read the literature on journalism’s professional ideology – or just follow any argument about journalists-versus-the-rest-of-the-world – you’ll notice particular themes recurring.

Like any profession, journalism separates itself from other fields of work through articulating how it is different. Reading Mark Deuze’s book Media Work recently I was struck by how a similar, parallel, ideology is increasingly articulated by bloggers. And I wanted to sketch that out.

First, two disclaimers: I am not claiming that bloggers are a coherent body any more than journalists are. Blogging is of course not a profession, and many bloggers do not make any claims beyond their own personal beliefs.

What I am exploring here is a common ideology that a particular contingent of bloggers expresses when attacked by journalists, or when attacking professional journalism.

One of the reasons this parallels journalism’s professional ideology may be because the arguments are often made in response to that exact ideology: journalists argue that bloggers are not objective; bloggers counter by arguing that journalists are not transparent, and so on.

Secondly, this is not based on any systematic research, but rather reflecting on ongoing analysis over the past few years. I’m putting this up for discussion and as a basis for further research, rather than suggesting it is the finished article.

Ideology 1: Public service vs accountability

The journalist’s claim is that they are performing a public service, whether that is informing the public, holding power to account, giving a voice to the voiceless (or the ‘voice of the people’), providing a forum for public discussion, or something else.

Bloggers articulate a similar ideology: that they are directly accountable to the public through their comments and the ability of others to direct them in how they ‘serve’.

The journalist’s public service is top-down; the blogger’s, bottom-up.

Ideology 2: Objectivity vs transparency

This is a long-running debate that I barely have to articulate, as it is easily the most prominent ideological battle that has taken place between journalists and bloggers. But here it is: journalists say they are objective while bloggers are subjective. Bloggers argue that any claim to objectivity is flawed, that the grounds for it (limited access to publication) no longer apply, and that in the age of the link transparency is their own badge of honour. Journalists who do not link to their sources, who take credit for the work of others, and who fail to declare interests are all targets in this battle.

Ideology 3: Autonomy vs non-commercial

A part of journalism’s ideology that is employed much less often in defending the profession is its autonomy: the fact that journalists are independent of government and that there is a church/state separation between advertising and content.

Bloggers articulate a similar argument around their very non-professionalism: because we do not rely on advertising or cover sales, say the bloggers, we enjoy more independence than journalists. We do not need to chase ratings or circulations; we do not need to worry about the institutional voice, or offending advertisers.

Ideology 4: Immediacy vs ‘Publish then filter’

The fourth aspect of journalism’s ideology identified by Deuze is ‘immediacy’, that is, journalists’ desire to be first to report the news.

Bloggers have their own version of ‘immediacy’, however, which is that they ‘publish, then filter’, allowing users to act as their editors (or ‘curators’) rather than being constrained by any editorial production line.

It’s notable that as journalists’ claims to immediacy come under particular challenge in an age where anyone can publish and distribute information, some journalists and news organisations are re-orienting themselves towards a role of ‘curation’, and using the ideology of ‘editorial process’ to defend themselves against the new entrants.

Ideology 5: Ethics vs ethical

This is a line that has always fascinated me. Journalists frequently employ their professional ‘ethics’ as a defence against the incursion of the blogging barbarians. But if journalists were so ethical, why are they consistently one of the least trusted professions?

Journalistic ethics are explicitly declared in documents such as the NUJ’s Code of Conduct, individual organisations’ own statements of principles, and even journalists’ contracts, while organisations such as the PCC act to further enforce behaviour.

Similar attempts to create a code of ethics for bloggers have been met with objections – for reasons not too dissimilar to the reasons that journalists do not want their profession to be professionalised: it would limit access, and provide an opportunity for governments to control the medium.

But bloggers are fiercely ethical. How is difficult to pin down – the transparency ideology outlined above is part of that, and many elements are shared with the ethics asserted by journalism: protecting sources, for instance. But broadly this ideology is one that is held in opposition to the worst excesses of journalism: bloggers would argue that they do not resort to underhand tactics in pursuit of a story: exploiting vulnerable people, passing off others’ work as their own, or pretending to be someone else.

What have I missed?

There may be other themes that I have missed – or examples of the above (after I wrote a first draft of this, Jay Rosen published his own selection of quotes here, some of which I have linked to above). It may be that journalism’s own ideology is changing in response to these challenges (as it seems to be regarding immediacy vs curation). I’d love to know what you think – or if you know of any research in the area (some here and here).

February 18 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: Paying up with Apple and Google, Twitter and activism, free labor for HuffPo

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

Apple lays down its terms: Publishers have been quite anxiously awaiting word from Apple about the particulars of its subscription plan for mobile devices, including the iPad; they got it this week, but it wasn’t what a lot of them were hoping for. The New York Times summarized publishers’ initial reaction with a few of the basic details — Apple gets a 30-percent cut, owns subscriber data (whether to send data to publishers is up to the subscriber), and publishers’ options for subscription services outside Apple are limited.

The Lab’s Josh Benton aptly laid out some of the primary implications for news organizations: Apple is setting itself up as toll-taker on the new news highway and putting a heavy incentive on converting print readers to tablet readers, but not putting restrictions on browser access within its devices. Media analyst Ken Doctor offered two astute takes on what Apple’s proposal will entail; we’ll call them glass-half-full and glass-half-empty.

Most of the reaction to Apple’s deal, however, was overwhelmingly negative. Media consultant Alan Mutter pointed out a couple of gotchas for publishers; Dan Gillmor called Apple’s policy stunningly arrogant, and the publishers that sign up for it “insane, or desperate”; ITworld’s Ryan Faas accused it of “gouging content producers”; Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan dubbed it “evil”; developer Ryan Carson urged users to fight Apple’s  ”extortion”; and the Wall Street Journal raised possible antitrust issues.

The beef that most of these critics have with Apple is not so much the 30-percent cut (though that’s part of it) as it is Apple’s restrictions on publishers’ alternative subscription methods. Apple is requiring that publishers that want to have a non-App Store subscription method can’t charge less than their Apple-sanctioned route, and can’t show app users how to access it, either. This means that, as Buchanan states, “Effectively, all easy roads to getting content on the iPad now run through Apple.” (Plus, as TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld noted, those terms could easily become even worse once Apple has publishers and readers hooked.)

Of course, the system looks a bit different from the consumer’s perspective — it may be the most user-friendly subscription system ever, argued MG Siegler of TechCrunch. (Publishers, of course, disagreed about that.) As GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram pointed out, this may come down to how much publishers think it’s worth to have Apple handle their mobile sales for them.

We got some mixed early signs about how publishers might answer that question. PaidContent reported on publishers who felt Apple’s terms could have been much worse, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow talked to publishers who plan to offer multiple options. Popular Science became the first magazine to jump on board and Wired is following suit ASAP, but Time Inc. pre-emptively struck deals with Apple’s competitors, and another publishers’ group threatened to take its business elsewhere.

One Pass to rule them all?: As if to underscore that point, Google announced its own One Pass digital paid-content system the next day. Unlike Apple, Google will keep about 10 percent of publishers’ revenue and allow publishers to own their subscribers’ data, according to Advertising Age. Much of the commentary about Google’s plan positioned it in opposition to Apple’s proposal: The Wall Street Journal described it as a fired salvo at Apple; search guru John Battelle summed it up as “Hey Apple, we’ve got a better way;” Alan Mutter detailed the ways Google’s plan “trumps” Apple’s; and others from The Next Web, mocoNews, and Fast Company compared the two proposals.

But several others — particularly the Lab’s Josh Benton and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds — explained that while it might seem natural to compare Google’s system to Apple’s given the timing of their announcements, Google One Pass is focused far more on web access than app access, making the paid-content company Journalism Online a more direct competitor than Apple. Journalism Online’s Gordon Crovitz made the case to paidContent for his company over Google, highlighting its flexibility, and paidContent also noted that newspaper chain MediaGeneral is trying out both systems at different papers.

A couple of other notes on Google’s plan: TechCrunch’s MG Siegler argued that Google’s agreement to allow publishers ownership of subscribers’ data is at least as big of a deal to publishers as the revenue split, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram ripped One Pass, saying that as long as its clients’ content is on the open web without the exceptional user experience of the best apps, it’s just “a warmed-over content paywall.”

Parsing out the “social media and revolutions” debate: Despite having been declared “over” early this week by The Daily’s editor-in-chief, the protests in Egypt continued to dominate conversation, including in future-of-news circles. Via The New York Times, we got a glimpse into how Egyptian officials were able to shut down their country’s Internet and how Facebook is wrestling with its role in the protests. NPR’s Andy Carvin continued to earn plaudits (from The New York Times and PR exec Katie Delahaye), and the Lab’s Megan Garber looked at the way Carvin spontaneously launched a personalized Twitter pledge drive.

But the bulk of the discussion revolved around the same discussion that’s been on slow burn for the past few weeks: What role does social media play in social activism? Washington grad student Deen Freelon has once again produced a fantastic synopsis of what we know and what we have yet to learn in this arena, so consider this a supplement to his post.

The parade of articles arguing that Twitter doesn’t cause revolutions continued at a steady pace this week, prompting NYU j-prof Jay Rosen to profile the Twitter-debunking article as a genre, concluding that the argument  — along with the glib social media triumphalism it’s refuting — is a cheap detour around thoughtfully considering the complex issues involved in social change. Several others built on Rosen’s point: Aaron Bady delved deeper into the social media-debunking article’s function; CUNY j-profs Jeff Jarvis and C.W. Anderson focused on protecting those technological tools and opined on the difference between academic and popular discourse on cause-and-effect, respectively.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t substantive things to say about social media’s role in recent protests, of course. POLIS’ Charlie Beckett noted that newly adopted technologies (such as mobile phones) have helped create a more “networkable” power structure in the Middle East, and NDN’s Sam duPont looked at social media’s role as an organizing tool, news source, and public sphere in Egypt.

To pay or not to pay: With a few exceptions (Frederic Filloux’s short, fierce takedown of The Huffington Post as a “digital sand castle” is well worth a read), the second week of commentary on AOL’s purchase of The Huffington Post centered on the question of whether HuffPo’s thousands of unpaid contributors should start getting paychecks for their work.

At The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, Nate Silver attempted to calculate the worth of a typical HuffPo post, concluding that they follow a classic power law relationship and that most of them aren’t worth much. The New York Observer’s Ben Popper said Silver is undervaluing HuffPo’s contributors, and Gannett’s Ryan Sholin made the point that having those posts within a single platform is worth more than the posts themselves.

Most of the grist for this week’s conversation, though, came from Silver’s Times colleague, David Carr, who used HuffPo as an entree into some observations about creating online content for others for free through platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Quora. Paul Gillin of Newspaper Death Watch built on Carr and Silver’s analyses to make the case that in the face of devalued online content, demand for higher-quality material might bring us out of the basement of online pay.

Several others countered Carr with similar points: Web thinker Stowe Boyd, British j-prof Paul Bradshaw and HuffPo’s own Nico Pitney said that HuffPo bloggers have eminently legitimate non-monetary reasons for writing there; GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram pointed out that The Times’ op-ed system isn’t much different from HuffPo’s; and Jeff Jarvis said news folks should be thinking more about value than content.

Reading roundup: Some interesting bits and pieces to round out the week:

— Google unveiled the latest tool in its effort to fight content farms this week — an extension to its browser, Chrome, that allows users to block any site they choose from Google search results. TechCrunch called it “crowdsourcing” Google’s content farm detection, and Gizmodo said that it allows for the arresting possibility of “an Internet that never disagrees with you.”

— A few miscellaneous items regarding The Daily: Slate’s chairman, Jacob Weisberg, ripped it (“It’s just a bad version of a newspaper in electronic form with a very condescending view of the audience”); Scott Rosenberg wondered what’ll happen to its archives; and the publication updated its glitch-ridden app.

— A couple of great data journalism resources: Poynter’s Steve Myers broke down the difficulties in integrating data journalism into the newsroom, and ProPublica’s Dan Nguyen wrote a wonderful post encouraging journalists to get started with data analysis.

— The second blogging Carnival of Journalism, focusing on increasing the number of news sources within communities, began going up over the past day or so, so keep an eye out for those posts. I’ll have a roundup here next week.

— If you want a 30,000-foot summary of what’s happening on the leading edge of news right now, you really can’t do much better than Josh Benton’s speech to the Canadian Journalism Foundation posted here at the Lab. It’s a fantastic primer, no matter how initiated you already are.

January 28 2011

17:00

MoJo’s Egypt explainer: future-of-context ideas in action

This week’s unrest in Egypt brings new relevance to an old question: How do you cover an event about which most of your readers have little or no background knowledge?

Mother Jones has found one good way to do that. Its national reporter, Nick Baumann, has produced a kind of on-the-fly topic page about this week’s uprising, featuring a running description of events fleshed out with background explanation, historical context, multimedia features, and analysis. The page breaks itself down into several core categories:

The Basics
What’s Happening?
Why are Egyptians unhappy?
How did this all start?
Why is this more complicated for the US than Tunisia was?
How do I follow what’s happening in real-time?
What’s the latest?

The page also contains, as of this posting, 14 updates informing readers of new developments since the page was first started (at 1 p.m. on Tuesday) and pointing them to particularly helpful and read-worthy pieces of reporting and analysis on other sites.

In all, the MoJo page pretty much takes the Demand Media approach to the production of market-driven content — right down to its content-farm-tastic title: “What’s Happening in Egypt Explained.” The crucial difference, though, is that its content is curated by an expert journalist. In that, the page has a lot in common with the kind of curation done, by Andrew Sullivan and the HuffPost’s Nico Pitney and many others, during 2009’s uprising in Iran. That coverage, though, had an improvised, organic sense to it: We’re figuring this out as we go along. It felt frenzied. The MoJo page, on the other hand, conveys the opposite sensibility: It exudes calmness and control. Here’s what you need to know.

And that’s a significant distinction, because it’s one that can be attributed to something incredibly simple: the page’s layout. The basic design decision MoJo made in creating its Egypt explainer — breaking it down into categories, encyclopedia-style — imposes an order that more traditional attempts at dynamic coverage (liveblogs, Twitter lists, etc.) often lack.

At the same time, the page also extends the scope of traditional coverage. With their space constraints, traditional news narratives have generally had to find artful ways to cater, and appeal, to the widest possible swath of readers. (To wit: that nearly parenthetical explanation of a story’s context, usually tacked onto a text story’s lede or a nut graf.) The web’s limitless space, though, changes the whole narrative proposition of the explainer: The MoJo page rethinks explanation as “information” rather than “narrative.” It’s not trying to be a story so much as a summary. And what’s resulted is a fascinating fusion between a liveblog and a Wikipedia entry.

The MoJo page, of course, isn’t alone in producing creative, context-focused journalism: From topic pages to backgrounders, videos to video games, news organizations are experimenting with lost of exciting approaches to explanation. And it’s certainly not the only admirable explainer detailing the events in Egypt. What’s most noteworthy about MoJo’s Egypt coverage isn’t its novelty so much as its adaptability: It acknowledges, implicitly, that audience members might come into it armed with highly discrepant levels of background information. It’s casually broken down the explainer’s content according to tiers of expertise, as it explains at the top of the page:

This was originally posted at 1:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday. It is being updated and is being kept near the top of the blog. Some of the information near the top of the post may be outdated, and if you’ve been following the story closely, the information at the top will definitely seem very basic. So please scroll to the bottom of the post for the latest.

In a June episode of their “Rebooting the News” podcast, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer discussed the challenge of serving users who come into a story with varying levels of contextual knowledge. One solution they tossed around: a tiered system of news narrative, with Level 1, for example, being aimed at users who come into a story with little to no background knowledge, Level 4 for experts who simply want to learn of new developments in a story.

The MoJo page is a great example of that kind of thinking put to work. The sections Baumann’s used to organize the explainer’s content allow users to have a kind of choose-your-own adventure interaction with the information offered. They convey, overall, a sense of permissiveness. Know only a little about Egyptian politics? Hey, that’s cool. Know nothing at all? That’s cool, too.

And that’s another noteworthy element of MoJo’s Egypt explainer: It’s welcoming. And it doesn’t, you know, judge.

That’s not a minor thing, for the major reason that stories, when you lack the context to understand them, can be incredibly intimidating. If you don’t know much about Egypt’s current political landscape — or, for that matter, about the world financial system or the recent history of Afghanistan or the workings of Congress — you have very little incentive to read, let alone follow, a story about it. In news, one of the biggest barriers to entry can be simple intimidation. We talk a lot about “engagement” in journalism; one of the most fundamental ways to engage an audience, though, is by doing something incredibly simple: producing work that accommodates ignorance.

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl