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November 16 2010

17:00

“That heady feeling of being totally integrated”: The elusive promise of community, flattened and “real”

In the future-of-journalism business, we’re obsessed with adoption: getting online, getting hip to the web, leaving old analog practices behind, embracing the interactivity of social media. For a long time, not getting online — not getting hip to the digital program — seemed the provenance of clueless curmudgeons, middle-aged city desk editors, and Andrew Keen. Rightly, I think, we’ve devoted most of our energy to figuring out the details of what Jay Rosen has called “the migration point of the press tribe.” Getting to the other side of the chasm means getting wired in.

One of the things I always loved about Scott Rosenberg’s book Say Everything was that it covered enough historical time that it was as much a book about blogs ending as it was a book about the adoption of blogging. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been lucky enough to read several fantastic pieces that I think speak to this question of “getting offline” in ways that go beyond the usual curmudgeonly prattle. Two writers went down this road voluntarily: Marc Ambinder wrote a farewell post called “I am a Blogger No Longer,” and Zadie Smith, in a review of The Social Network, referred to herself a 1.0 person living in a 2.0 world, a person who killed her Facebook page after a few weeks. A third blogger, however — Ruth Gledhill of The Times of London — was forced to shut down her blog when the newspaper she worked for went behind a paywall. No openness to the Internet, no point in running a blog.

For me, it was Gledhill’s comments about “life behind the paywall” that got me thinking. “In one sense,” she wrote:

I have my ‘life’ back as my blog took up all of my waking hours when I wasn’t writing news stories and I was neglecting our son and other areas of my life outside work. It was definitely an addiction. When I was wired up, I felt physically part of the internet, the blogosphere. I still miss that heady feeling of being totally integrated with the ‘ether’.

Ambinder’s comments about non-blog journalism being “ego free” may have garned the most attention on Twitter, but I think Robin Sloan of Snarkmarket is right when he flags this as the piece’s key point. Ambinder’s point intersects well with Gledhill’s:

The mere fact that online reporters feel they must participate in endless discussions about these subjects is something new, a consequence of the medium, and is one reason why it can be so exhausting to do primarily web journalism. The feedback loop is relentless, punishing.

The fact that one of these comments is primarily positive (“wired up,” “physically part of the internet,” “heady feeling,” “totally integrated”) while the other is negative (“endless discussions,” “exhausting,” “relentless,” “punishing”) makes it clear to me that both writers are talking about the same thing. They’re talking about an intensive process of speaking and listening, grounded in a social network that is itself embedded within a dynamic community. In both cases, the journalist is open, responsive, locked in…and open and responsive to a network of ultimately real people, not to some abstract entity that looms just over your left shoulder. This would be a hard feeling to describe to someone who had never Tweeted, blogged, surfed an RSS feed, or gotten lost on Facebook, but if you’ve gotten this far you probably have some idea of what I’m talking about. There’s a certain frisson there. I can actually feel it as I write this post.

Having spent many years teaching and befriending journalists, and having participated in some poorly defined acts of citizen journalism myself, it seems that people generally go into journalism for a number of reasons. I’ve found that my would-be journalism students are usually curious. They want to get to the bottom of things; they deal in practical reality, not theory; and they (let’s face it) love to snoop. They’re practical, inquisitive, fact-minded folks.

In addition to them, though, I know a number of journalists who went into the industry because their communicative work gave them the chance to ground themselves in a particular community, to be embed themselves within a particular public. They want to stand near the center of the communications circuit. They want to listen to people and tell them things, all at the same time. They want to learn new things, things that matter to individuals and groups, and then tell them about it. They want to know that they’ve made a difference, that the people have heard them.

One of the things I think you realize as a journalist, however, is that your “public” quickly gets reduced to your beat, and your community most often consists of folks we might call “sources” (an ugly phrase). In everyday terms, the best journalists spend most of their time talking to a rather limited group of people — and even when that circuit of people expands they’re still primarily dealing with people they usually refer to as a “source.” Journalists are workers, and as workers, they become attuned to practices that make the most logical sense, that help them do their job, and get them out the door headed towards home as quickly as possible. For journalists, the practical necessities of journalism narrow the scope of the public.

This is why I think so many journalists get so excited about the social possibilities of digital technology. In the most basic sense, “the shock of community” that the Internet provides gets represented by quantitative audience metrics. Whatever audience-tracking tools may or may not be doing to the editorial process, there’s no mistaking the fact that when reporters first encounter those heady sheets of Omniture data, it blows their minds. “Finally! The invisible audience has returned! These are the people I cared about when I first went into reporting…I forgot about them — but here they are!” In more poetic terms, it’s what Gledhill talks about when she writes that “I felt physically part of the internet, the blogosphere…totally integrated with the ‘ether’.” It’s not just metrics, but it’s comments, links, email, and conversation.

When I was doing research in Philadelphia, this is how a local journalist/blogger described the evolution of his blog:

…the key lesson is that my blog got picked up and accepted as being an authentic part of the blogging community, which in his case was the left-wing blogosphere. And the way I did that was to link to these other blogs, to engage with them, and to seek them out. Some of our other blogs that are run by journalists are struggling with how to gain that acceptance. I remember a moment in September 2003 when one of my posts was linked by the leftwing website Buzzflash [which was popular at the time]. Comments came rolling in. Emails to me went through the roof — that was the kind of national attention I was looking for!

Ambinder, on the other hand, points to the aftermath of that social-network high: the endless comment moderation, the exhaustion that digital immersion can cause. And Zadie Smith goes one step further. For Smith, the community journalists have been so excited to rediscover isn’t actually real. It’s limited. It’s flattened. On Facebook,

If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos…Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees.

Smith’s point is philosophical: digital technology reduces us. Like any grand philosophical point, it’s ultimately unprovable, which is why I’ve tried to come at it from an oblique angle, by talking about publics and journalism. Does online journalism give us a community that’s more real, or less real, than the one we leave behind? I think that digital technology does flatten people. But it flattens more than just people. It flattens objects, concepts, publics, and relationships as well. And it’s not just digital technology that flattens things; the daily act of working, of day-to-day practical living flattens things too.

Reporters may go into journalism to be with the public; they eventually find beats and sources and the daily grind instead. Reporters may go online to find a community more responsive than the one they encounter in their daily work, but it’s a community that can be exhausting, pummeling, and not quite real. So get offline if you wish. Get online if you can. But in either case, never make the mistake in thinking that you’ve found a community, a public, a reality, that’s more authentic than the one you’ve left behind. We can’t will authentic community into being. It sort of sneaks up on us. And just as quickly — as soon as we turn our heads — it’s gone.

Photo by Matthew Field used under a Creative Commons license.

November 12 2010

16:00

This Week in Review: An objectivity object lesson, a paywall is panned, and finding the blogger’s voice

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Olbermann and objectivity: Another week, another journalist or pundit disciplined for violating a news organization’s codes against appearances of bias: This week (actually, late last week) it was Keith Olbermann, liberal anchor and commentator for the cable news channel MSNBC, suspended for donating money to Democratic congressional candidates, in violation of NBC News policy. Olbermann issued an apology (though, as Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici noted, it was laced with animus toward MSNBC), and returned to the air Tuesday. There were several pertinent peripheral bits to this story — Olbermann was reportedly suspended for his refusal to apologize on air, it’s unclear whether NBC News’ rules have actually applied to MSNBC, numerous other journalists have done just what Olbermann did — but that’s the gist of it.

By now, we’ve all figured out what happens next: Scores of commentators weighed in on the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of Olbermann’s suspension and NBC’s ban on political contributions. The primary arguments boiled down to the ones expressed by Poynter’s Bob Steele and NYU’s Jay Rosen in this Los Angeles Times piece: On one side, donating to candidates means journalists are acting as political activists, which corrodes their role as fair, independent reporters in the public interest. On the other, being transparent is a better way for journalists to establish trust with audiences than putting on a mask of objectivity.

Generally falling in the first camp are fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (“We’re a news operation. The rules around here are part of how you know that.”), Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy (though he tempered his criticism of Olbermann in a second post), and The New York Times’ David Carr (“Why merely annotate events when you can tilt the playing field?”). The Columbia Journalism Review was somewhere in the middle, saying Olbermann shouldn’t be above the rules, but wondering if those rules need to change.

There were plenty of voices in the second camp, including the American Journalism Review’s Rem RiederMichael Kinsley at Politico, and Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau all arguing for transparency.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer used the flap to urge MSNBC to let Olbermann and Maddow fly free as well-reported, openly partisan shows in the vein of respected liberal and conservative political journals. Jay Rosen took the opportunity to explain his phrase “the view from nowhere,” which tweaks traditional journalism’s efforts to “advertise the viewlessness of the news producer” as a means of gaining trust. He advocates transparency instead, and Terry Heaton provided statistics showing that the majority of young adults don’t mind journalists’ bias, as long as they’re upfront about it.

On The Media’s Brooke Gladstone summed up the issue well: “Ultimately, it’s the reporting that matters, reporting that is undistorted by attempts to appear objective, reporting that calls a lie a lie right after the lie, not in a box labeled “analysis,” reporting that doesn’t distort truth by treating unequal arguments equally.”

Commodify your paywall: We talked quite a bit last week about the new numbers on the paywall at Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London, and new items in that discussion kept popping up this week. The Times released a few more details (flattering ones, naturally) about its post-paywall web audience. Among the most interesting figures is that the percentage of U.K.-based visitors to The Times’ site has more than doubled since February, rising to 75 percent. Post-paywall visitors are also visiting the website more frequently and are wealthier, according to News Corp.

Of course, the overall number of visitors is still way down, and the plan continued to draw heat. In a wide-ranging interview on Australian radio, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger expressed surprise at the fact that The Times’ print circulation dropped as their print-protectionist paywall went up. That, he said, “suggests to me that we overlook the degree to which the digital forms of our journalism act as a kind of sort of marketing device for the newspapers.” ResourceWebs’ Evan Britton gave five reasons why news paywalls won’t work, and Kachingle founder Cynthia Typaldos argued that future news paywalls will be tapping into a limited pool of people willing to pay for news on the web, squeezing each other out of the same small market.

Clay Shirky used The Times’ paywall as a basis for some smart thoughts about why newspaper paywalls don’t work in general. The Times’ paywall represents old thinking, Shirky wrote (and the standard argument against it has been around just as long), but The Times’ paywall feels differently because it’s being taken as a “referendum on the future.” Shirky said The Times is turning itself into a newsletter, without making any fundamental modifications to its product or the basic economics of the web. “Paywalls do indeed help newspapers escape commodification, but only by ejecting the readers who think of the product as a commodity. This is, invariably, most of them,” he wrote.

A conversation about blogging, voice, and ego: A singularly insightful conversation about blogging was sparked this week by Marc Ambinder, who wrote a thoughtful goodbye post at his long-running blog at The Atlantic. In it, Ambinder parsed out differences between good print journalism (ego-free, reliant on the unadorned facts for authority) and blogging (ego-intensive, requires the writer to inject himself into the narrative). With the switch from blogging to traditional reporting, Ambinder said, ”I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called ‘Marc Ambinder’ that people read because it’s ‘Marc Ambinder,’ rather than because it’s good or interesting.”

The folks at the fantastically written blog Snarkmarket used the post as a launching point for their own thoughts about the nature of blogging. Matt Thompson countered that Ambinder was reducing an incredibly diverse form into a single set of characteristics, taking particular exception to Ambinder’s ego dichotomy. Tim Carmody mused on blogging, voice, and authorship; and Robin Sloan defended Ambinder’s decision to leave the “Thunderdome of criticism” that is political blogging. If you care at all about blogging or writing for the web in general, make sure to give all four posts a thorough read.

TBD’s (possible) content/aggregation conflict: The new Washington-based local news site TBD has been very closely watched since it was launched in August, and it hit its first big bump in the road late last week, as founding general manager Jim Brady resigned in quite a surprising move. In a memo to TBD employees, TBD owner Robert Allbritton (who also launched Politico) said Brady left because of “stylistic differences” with Allbritton. Despite the falling-out, Brady, a washingtonpost.com veteran, spoke highly of where TBD is headed in an email to staff and a few tweets.

But the immediate questions centered on the nature of those differences between Allbritton and Brady. FishbowlDC reported and Business Insider’s Henry Blodget inferred from Allbritton’s memo that the conflict came down to an original-content-centric model (Allbritton) and a more aggregation-based model (Brady). Brady declared his affirmation of both pieces — he told Poynter’s Steve Myers he’s pro-original content and the conflict wasn’t old media/new media, but didn’t go into many more details — but that didn’t keep Blodget from taking the aggregation side: The web, he said, “has turned aggregation into a form of content–and a very valuable one at that.” Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman, meanwhile, noted that while creating content is expensive, Allbritton’s made the necessary investments and made it profitable before with Politico.

A new iPad app and competitor: There were two substantive pieces of tablet-related news this week: First, The Washington Post released its iPad app, accompanying its launch with a fun ad most everyone seemed to enjoy. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow wrote a quick summary of the app, which got a decent review from The Post’s Rob Pegoraro. For you design geeks, Sarah Sampsel wrote two good posts about the app design process.

The other tablet tidbit was the release of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, which runs on Google’s Android system. Kiesow rounded up a few of the initial reviews from All Things Digital (a real iPad competitor, though the iPad is better), The New York Times (beautiful with some frustrations), Wired (more convenient than the iPad, but has stability problems) and Gizmodo (“a grab bag of neglect, good intentions and poor execution”). Kiesow also added a few initial impressions of the Galaxy’s implications for publishers, predicting that as it takes off, it will put pressure on publishers to move to HTML5 mobile websites, rather than developing native apps.

In other tablet news, MediaWeek looked at the excitement the iPad is generating within the media industry, but ESPN exec John Skipper isn’t buying the hype, telling MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman, ”Whenever a new platform comes up, people want to take the old platform and transport it to the new platform.” It didn’t work on the Internet, Skipper said, it won’t work on the iPad either.

Reading roundup: More thoughtful stuff about news and the web was written this week than most normal people have time to get to. Here’s a sample:

— First, two pieces of news: First, word broke last night that Newsweek and The Daily Beast will be undergoing a 50-50 merger, with the Beast’s Tina Brown taking over editorship of the new news org. The initial news accounts started to roll out late last night and into this morning at The New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR, who posted an interview with Brown. Obviously, this is a big, big story, and I’m sure I’ll have much more commentary on it next week.

— Second, U.S. News & World Report announced last week that it’s dropping its regular print edition and going essentially online-only, only printing single-topic special issues for newsstand sales. The best analysis on the move was at Advertising Age.

— Two great pieces on journalism’s collaborative future: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in essay form, and UBC j-prof Alfred Hermida in audio and slide form.

— Poynter published an essay by NYU professor Clay Shirky on “the shock of inclusion” in journalism and the obsolescence of the term “consumer.” Techdirt’s Mike Masnick added a few quick thoughts of his own.

— Two cool posts on data journalism — an overview on its rise by The Columbia Journalism Review’s Janet Paskin, and a list of great tools by Michelle Minkoff.

— Finally, two long thinkpieces on Facebook that, quite honestly, I haven’t gotten to read yet — one by Zadie Smith at The New York Review of Books, and the other by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. I’m going to spend some time with them this weekend, and I have a feeling you probably should, too.

Olbermann photo by Kirsten used under a Creative Commons license.

September 29 2010

15:00

David Beard on leaving Boston for National Journal: “I just didn’t want to live my life managing decline”

Sad news for The Boston Globe today — but great news for the ever-expanding National Journal. David Beard, Boston.com’s editor for the past four years, is joining the National Journal Group as deputy editor-in-chief and online editor. He’ll start October 18.

Beard will be joining — and in many cases overseeing — a staff with an impressive, even daunting, journalistic resume. There’s Marc Ambinder from The Atlantic, Michael Hirsch from Newsweek, Matt Cooper from…tons of outlets, Major Garrett from Fox, and many, many more — all overseen, of course, by Ron Fournier, the former head of the AP’s Washington bureau. The term “Dream Team” comes to mind.

That stellar staff was part of the appeal of the move, Beard told me this morning. But another aspect of it was being part of an organization that, with its digital-first approach to news reporting, will focus on innovation. “It’s the hoariest of journalistic cliches to say, but I want to make a difference in my career and in my life,” Beard says. In America, “we’re talking about declining reporting capabilities on institutions and watchdog efforts.” A move to Washington is an attempt to be part of the solution.

The specifics are still being worked out — but one big aspect of Beard’s role at the Journal will be “in translation”: to facilitate dialogue between NationalJournal.com, the open web site, and the members-only, mobile-focused version of its product. He and his staff will focus on a live-blog model of news reporting, with an emphasis on social media — essentially, Beard says, “to take these enormous resources and get more of it out there in real time.”

One particularly nice resource: the Journal’s partnership with its fellow Atlantic Media-owned outlet, The Atlantic. “So if we see an Andrew Sullivan piece we like, we’ll put it on our site,” Beard points out. “And [Atlantic.com editor] Bob Cohn will put our stuff on his site.”

Community engagement, both direct and indirect, will be a big part of that. “Every community has its own personality,” Beard notes — “and you have to listen as well as lead.” At the Globe, “we’ve really tried to develop the sense that if you want to know Boston, you want to connect on Boston.com — because we speak the language,” he says. The site, he says, tried to explore the reasons “to live in a place with such crummy weather and high rents. We’d try to come up with a reason every day.”

He’ll try to apply that same reason-focused logic to the Journal, only with a narrower focus: politics. While, at the Globe, “we’ve been all things to all people,” the new gig will require, for the most part, being all-things-politics to politics junkies. Or, as Beard puts it: “It’s sort of like running a Benetton, not the whole department store.”

At Boston.com, Beard has been known for fostering young talent in the digital world — Amalie Benjamin, for example, with her Red Sox coverage, and Meredith Goldstein with her relationship-advice column — and he’s looking to continue that trend down in Washington. The focus, though, will be digital engagement, saying he’ll reward someone with top-notch social media skills “just as heavily as somebody who’s just going to trade on their thirty years of experience.”

As Beard sees it, the move to DC will represent something of a back-to-the-future move in his relationship with journalism. “In many ways, this was a dream job for me,” he notes. “It’s almost like being an editor 50 years ago” — one with the resources to make a difference and change journalism for the better. He read The Trust, Alex Jones’s book on the early days of the NYT “and I thought about the first Times owner…and how much he really dreamed up new ideas and thought like an entrepreneur — as opposed to a manager of an extant company,” Beard says. “I didn’t want to live my life managing decline.”

Still, “I’ve loved my four years on the job,” Beard says — “particularly the last two years, with the emphasis on building socially: building our audience ourselves, and responding to them.” And, having worked with Marty Baron for nine years, it’s a great thing, Beard says, to “come to work knowing that there’s a person who cares as deeply about the product as you do.” With Baron, “you knew every minute, every hour of the day that he cared.”

But in a time of tumult, the Journal is an organization whose relatively vast resources will, presumably, help it to be a voice of accountability during a time when watchdog journalism is challenged. It’s an outlet “with 100 sets of feet on the street,” Beard says, “covering government, policy — not just the horserace. It can give an answer to the question: ‘What’s government for?’”

August 26 2010

14:00

Project Argo blog is for participants, but an interesting read for outsiders

In the run-up to the launch of the D.C. local site TBD, the editors let future readers peek behind the curtain through a placeholder blog that teased new hires and plans for the project. The blog also did a great job of generating buzz; we tweeted quite a few links to the site.

So when Megan pointed me to a blog from another not-yet-launched project, NPR’s Argo Project, I assumed it would serve a similar marketing end. But this one’s different: The blog’s lead writer, editorial project manager Matt Thompson, is writing directly to the new Argo bloggers at 12 NPR member stations. Argo is a new cross-country network of reported blogs, and many of the journalists hired to run them need some tactical training in how to run a successful Argo site.

Think of it as an in-house blog that just happens to be open to the public; even though the blog is meant for NPR staff, it’s a useful read for anyone interested in the future of news or in best practices for launching a news blog. Here are a few of Thompson’s lessons:

1. You need a plan

One of the best posts on Thompson’s blog is a pre-launch checklist. (He’s since posted a revised version of the checklist on Argo’s impressive and useful docs site.) Thompson lays out a step-by-step guide for Argo participants, but it’s generally useful for anyone about to launch a new site could use (particularly if you’re using WordPress, which Argo is).

Some of the best: Do a “photowalk” for your beat (“try to capture images of things you’ll be posting about frequently”); build our your metadata beforehand (defining tags and categories before launch to straighten up your taxonomy); and reaching out to the best Creative Commons photographers on your beat (to ensure a happy group of free content providers).

2. Follow by example, steal from others

Blogging isn’t new, and Argo isn’t pretending it’s creating a new format. In fact, Thompson is urging bloggers to follow the examples of their best predecessors. He points readers to the work of trailblazers like Marc Ambinder, Nick Denton, and Andrew Sullivan. Ambinder gets a nod for his thoughts on journalism as an industry. A Nick Denton memo pushes for context (one of Thompson’s longstanding interests). And Andrew Sullivan gets praise for his pacing. The three writers certainly have different styles, different content focuses, and different missions, but Thompson has plucked out valuable advice for all of his bloggers.

3. Tactics are teachable

Thompson has a running series of posts called “dark secrets” that offer insight into how successful blogs engage an audience. Use photos. Watch your headlines. Where should you place that hyperlink? He’s got a good post on that. They’re the kinds of insights newspapers, magazines, and radio stations have compiled about their own media over time. But for this new-to-many platform, they make for helpful tips.

4. Blogging is a craft

The category Thompson posts to most frequently is “blogging technique.” His points are great: Find your morning routine, your rhythms, and your pace. Check out his post on “The blogger’s first month.” Blogging isn’t journalism for dummies — it’s a craft with its own set of practices and ways to excel.

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