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May 22 2013

15:00

Objectivity and the decades-long shift from “just the facts” to “what does it mean?”

1960S ART

If I had only one short sentence to describe it, I’d say that journalism is factual reports of current events. At least, that’s what I used to say, and I think it’s what most people imagine journalism is. But reports of events have been a shrinking part of American journalism for more than 100 years, as stories have shifted from facts to interpretation.

Interpretation: analysis, explanation, context, or “in-depth” reporting. Journalists are increasingly in the business of supplying meaning and narrative. It no longer makes sense to say that the press only publishes facts.

New research shows this change very clearly. In 1955, stories about events outnumbered other types of front page stories nearly 9 to 1. Now, about half of all stories are something else: a report that tries to explain why, not just what.

rise-of-context-over-events-chart

This chart is from a paper by Katharine Fink and Michael Schudson of Columbia University, which calls these types of stories “contextual journalism.” (The paper includes an extensive and readable history of all sorts of changes in journalism in the 20th century; recommended for news nerds.) The authors sampled front-page articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in five different years from 1955 to 2003, and handcoded each of 1,891 stories into one of four categories:

  • conventional: a simple report of an event which happened in the last 24 hours
  • contextual: a story containing significant analysis, interpretation, or explanation
  • investigative: extensive accountability or “watchdog” reporting
  • social empathy: a story about the lives of people unfamiliar to the reader

Investigative journalism picks up after the 1960s but is still only a small percentage of all front-page stories. Meanwhile, contextual journalism increases from under 10 percent to nearly half of all articles. The loser is classic “straight” news: event-centered, inverted-pyramid, who-what-when-how-but-not-so-much-why stories, which have become steadily less popular. All this in the decades before the modern Internet. In fact, previous work showed that the transition away from events began at the dawn of the 20th century.

Investigative journalism may have pride of place within the mythology of American news, but that’s not really what journalists have been up to, by and large. Instead, newspaper journalists have been producing ever more of a kind a work that is so little discussed it doesn’t really have a name. Fink and Schudson write:

…there is no standard terminology for this kind of journalism. It has been called interpretative reporting, depth reporting, long-form journalism, explanatory reporting, and analytical reporting. In his extensive interviewing of Washington journalists in the late 1970s, Stephen Hess called it ‘social science journalism’, a mode of reporting with ‘the accent on greater interpretation’ and a clear intention of focusing on causes, not on events as such. Although this category is, in quantitative terms, easily the most important change in reporting in the past half century, it is a form of journalism with no settled name and no hallowed, or even standardized, place in journalism’s understanding of its own recent past.

From this historical look, fast forward to the web era. The last several years have seen a broad conversation about “context” in news. From Matt Thompson’s key observation that a series of chronological updates don’t really inform, to Studio 20′s Explainer project, to a whole series of experiments and speculations around story form, context has been a hot topic for those trying to rethink Internet-era journalism.

I believe this type of contextual journalism is important, and I hope we will get better at understanding and teaching it. The Internet has solved the basic distribution of event-based facts in a variety of ways; no one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means. In other words, journalism must move up the information food chain — as, in fact, it has steadily been doing for five decades!

Why does this type of journalism not even have a name?

I have a suspicion. I think part of the problem is the professional code of “objectivity.” This a value system for journalism that has many parts: truth seeking, neutrality, ethics, credibility. But all of these things are different when the journalist’s job moves from describing events to creating interpretations.

There are usually multiple plausible ways to interpret any event, so what are our standards for saying which interpretations are right? Journalism has a long, sorry history of professional pundits whose analyses of politics and economics turn out to be no better than guessing. In concrete fields such as election forecasting, it may later be obvious who was right. In other cases, there may not be a “right” answer in the traditional, positivist sense of science. These are the classic problems of framing: Is a 0.3 percent drop in unemployment “small” or is it “better than expected”? True neutrality becomes impossible in such cases, because if something has been politicized, you’re going to piss someone off no matter how you interpret it. (See also: hostile media effect.) There may not be an objectively correct or currently knowable meaning for any particular set of factual events, but that won’t stop the fighting over the narrative.

This seems to be a tricky place for truth in journalism. Much easier to say that there are objective facts, knowably correct facts, and that that is all journalism reports. The messy complexity of providing real narratives in a real world is much less authoritative ground. Nonetheless, we all crave interpretation along with our facts. Explanation and analysis and storytelling have become prevalent in practice. We as audiences continue to demand certain types of experts, even when we can’t tell if what they’re saying is any good. We demand reasons why, even if there can be no singular truth. We demand narrative.

What this latest research says to me is that journalism has added interpretation to its core practice, but we’re not really talking about it. The profession still operates with a “just the facts, ma’am” disclaimer that no longer describes what it actually does. Perhaps this is part of why media credibility has been falling for decades.

Photo of Sol LeWitt’s “Objectivity” (1962) via AP/National Gallery of Art.

August 23 2012

14:17

October 29 2010

15:00

Roanoke Times wikifies a series about a highway

When a newspaper decides to dedicate months of a reporter’s time, plus the efforts of the tech team, to a project, there’s usually a whiff of scandal in the air. But in the case of The Roanoke Times’ package on Interstate Highway 81, I-81: Facts, Feat and the Future, it was more or less reporting for the sake of reporting.

“There is a rock in the field, let’s turn over the rock and see what’s under there,” reporter Jeff Sturgeon explained to me, describing how he approached the story. “We simply said, here’s this major community asset — how well is it working?”

The four-lane highway bisects the community of about 300,000 people. Almost 60,000 people drive the route everyday, 1 in 4 of whom are truckers — a source of anxiety for lay commuters. “Many people are scared to drive on the Interstate,” Sturgeon said. “Our goal was to find something newsworthy to tell our readers about our road.”

In the end, Sturgeon’s data-driven reporting revealed that, despite fears, the road is statistically safe and truckers are some of the best drivers on it. Where perhaps just a few years ago Sturgeon’s story would have come and gone in the print edition of the paper, it now lives on at its own context-rich online home. The Times created a hub for the series that lets users interact with the data, read all the stories easily, and leave comments. The web component is a finalist for a Knight Public Service Award, presented by the Online News Association. The winner will be announced Saturday at ONA’s annual conference.

The project is a traditional piece of journalism in the sense that it ran as a series in the print edition of the paper, written by a trained reporter. But both the topic and online presentation are ideal for a news environment steeped in the web. Sturgeon’s story isn’t a scandal-driven, passing tale, but a systematic look at an important local topic, updated as new public data is released. Rather than scattering information across the site, URLs are grouped alongside video, user comments, and an interactive map of accident data. It’s a nice example of the type of journalism Matt Thompson might call Wikipedia-style journalism.

Building the story overtime was valuable for readers and for Sturgeon as well. “We wanted the site to sort of grow with the series,” he said. “The commenters had several impacts on me. They were sort of cheering me on. They, in part, sustained me, over the almost one year to get this project done. It created a connection that kept me going as I slopped through months and months of research and writing and everything it takes to get a package together.”

As new accident data becomes available, Sturgeon says they’ll continue to publish it on the interactive and let users comment. “This road is in our future,” he said.

October 13 2010

18:00

Behind-the-scenes innovation: How NPR’s Project Argo is making life more efficient for its bloggers

Remember the days before the roundup post existed? Neither do I. [Laura's making me feel old. —Ed.] The roundup is a longstanding staple of the blogosphere, an expected post for loyal readers who want a rundown of the best new stuff around the web on a given topic. But can a staple still have room for innovation? Over at Argo Network, the new blog network at NPR, the leadership team is giving it a shot on the back end. They’ve designed a workflow that makes it easier for their bloggers to cull through links and produce a roundup post. The result: a simpler process for the blogger, and added benefit for the reader. It’s no technological revolution, but an example of the kind of small improvement that can make it easier to share work with the audience.

“We realized the workflow inefficiency of how a blogger would create a link roundup — copying and pasting URLs from places,” Matt Thompson, Argo editorial project manager, told me. “We were thinking about workflow and how can we make this as easy as possible. How do we take an action the blogger is making regularly and make it more efficient?”

Thompson puts workflow innovation in the broader context of the Argo Project, which NPR see as an experiment in form. The Argo team sees blogging — or online serial storytelling, as Thompson put it — as a medium still in its infancy. There’s still time, they say, to think about how it can be improved, including how to do it more efficiently. And they plan to release the new tools that come out of their experimentation to the general public. The team’s developer, Marc Lavallee, said they’re trying to create tools that fit the workflow of the lone blogger. “Most of what we build will be the type of thing a person running a solo site would find useful,” Lavallee said. “When you’re thinking about a product, it’s so much easier to say: ‘One person is behind this blog. Would I do that every day? No? Then let’s not build that.’”

The roundup tool is a good example of the Argo team’s thinking. As bloggers go through their links each day, scrolling through stories and posts looking for the most interesting stuff on their beat, they tag the links using Delicious. Their Delicious accounts are synced up with the Argo’s backend (WordPress modified using Django) to match up the tags. The backend pulls in the links, letting bloggers quickly put together a nice-looking post without all the copy/pasting and formatting. Thompson made a screen-capture video of the whole process, which you can check out below. Here’s a sample of what the roundup would look like published.

Using Delicious as a link-post builder isn’t new, of course, but Argo’s version integrates specifically into their sidebar, a special WordPress post type, and Lavallee’s code.

The tagging tool also feeds into the sites’ topic pages. Those of us who spend all day on the Internet encounter great links all the time that aren’t right for a full post, or maybe even for a spot in a roundup post — but for people interested in a particular topic, it could still be valuable. The Argo process lets bloggers make use of those links with the same tagging function, making the site’s content pages a bit better than a purely automated feed. Check out the ocean acidification page over at the Argo blog Climatide (covering issues related to climate change and the ocean on Cape Cod) — in the sidebar, “Latest Ocean Acidification Links” contains (at this writing, at least) links pulled in through the Delicious tagging process. Others are drawn from Daylife or handmade Twitter lists around certain topics.

Thompson is passionate about contextual news, so I asked him if his topic pages might serve, perhaps, a more noble function than driving search traffic, which is arguably why most news organizations have topic pages at all. Thompson was quick to point out that the Argo topic pages are still new; he’s working with bloggers on their “tagging hygiene,” he says. And he admits that others at Argo is a bit “skeptical of topics pages,” which “is probably a good thing.” But the pages have potential, when built out, to let readers drill down into narrow-but-important topics in line with the goal of the blog. “These pages aren’t just sort of random machine driven pages,” Thompson said. The humanized topic pages help Argo bloggers get their sites, as Thompson puts it, to be “an extension of their mind and their thinking.”

Photo by Benny Mazur used under a Creative Commons license.

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.

August 02 2010

15:00

Following up on the need for follow-up

Matt Thompson, currently of NPR and always of Snarkmarket, left a comment on my post from Friday about the need for follow-up journalism — including a link to a Snarkmarket post he’d written back in 2007. After reading that entry, and the very smart comments-section conversation it occasioned among Thompson and fellow-Snarkmarketeers Robin Sloan and Tim Carmody, I had what is probably the most common thought in the blogosphere: “Damn, I wish I’d seen that before I wrote my post.”

Thompson, who lived in Minneapolis in 2007, looks at the collapse of Minneapolis’ 35W bridge — which killed 13 people, and which was, tragically enough, all too predictable (and, thus, preventable). The press saw it coming; in the end, that didn’t matter. Because “even when our coverage anticipates disaster,” Thompson notes, “it often draws too little attention to avert it.”

I highly recommend reading Thompson’s post, and its comments section, in full; you’ll be hard-pressed to find smarter stuff. But if Instapaper you must, the nut of it is this: As journalism moves beyond physicality — as digitization allows our stories to transcend not just print and air, but atoms themselves — it is also free to move beyond temporality. Again, Thompson:

I think this may be one of the most important and underappreciated realities of journalism right now: Journalism can now exist outside of time. The only reason we’re constrained to promoting news on a minutely, hourly, daily or weekly basis is because we’ve inherited that notion from media that really do operate in fixed time cycles.

We tend to understand the news cycle in analog terms, and so to assume that journalists have basically one chance — via the daily paper, the nightly newscast, the monthly magazine — to share a particular piece of news with their audiences. And the chance to contextualize that news for audiences — to give them a sense of information’s importance compared with the other news of the minute, of the day, of the year — is even rarer. What results is a flattening: the stories of our day, big and small, silly and significant, are leveled to the same plane, occupying the same space, essentially, in the wobbly little IKEA bookshelf that is the modular news bundle. That collapsing of context occurs not just in print papers, but in broadcast and online, as well (as even the most cursory glance at the HuffPost’s homepage — Midterms! Palin! Afghanistan! LiLo! — will make clear). And yet we want perspective; we want to give the public a sense of the relative significance of our stories. So we’ve hacked a workaround: a code of assumption embedded in the stories we tell, a language whose grammar is visual (headline size, font) and whose syntax is graphical (page location).

Semantics, however, suggest sympathy; you have to understand those subtle signs in order to make sense of them. Many readers, for no other reason than that they haven’t gone to journalism school, don’t do the former — and therefore can’t do the latter. A better hack would be no hack at all — a system that doesn’t try to work around temporal constraints, but that, instead, restructures its relationship with the news cycle itself. There’s little implicit or necessary about that cycle; like so many other features of journalism’s core workings, it is for the most part an accident of history.

But as much as journalism has evolved with the web, its epistemology — the assumptions it makes about how best to structure and divide and filter lived experience — has remained fairly static. Even the most dashingly experimental of news outlets have generally cleaved to journalism’s traditional method of portioning the world for mass consumption: topical beats. Most reporters cover a particular, defined space — education, the arts, suburban Jersey — and they do so, significantly, from all angles: factual and conceptual, hard and soft, small-angle and wide-. (So when Brian Stelter, for example, covers “the media” for The New York Times, all the levels of complexity that that topic embodies — from nuggets of breaking news to business-deal analyses to step-back, thinkier pieces — fall under his aegis.) It’s a kind of Linnaean approach to our journalistic infrastructure — the same impulse that views a taxonomy of nature, with its neat families and phyla, not as an imposition of order, but as a metaphor for the one that already exists.

And that’s logical, of course; the most common complaint against digital news being its chaotic nature (and, for that matter, the most commonly accepted assumption about it being that we need better filters to keep it coherent), topic-based journalism makes sense. But it also has a side effect: Because we choose, essentially, topic over time as journalism’s core ordering principle, we don’t generally think about time as an order unto itself. Newness, and nowness, become our default settings, and our default objectives. The “tyranny of recency,” Thompson calls it.

Which ends up translating, less elegantly but more specifically, to the tyranny of the news peg. In our current approach to news, ideas and connections and continuities — context, more generally — often become subsidiary to “now” itself. Newness trumps all, to occasionally devastating effect. There’s an economic reason for that, sure (the core of it being that audiences like nowness just as much as journalists). But we also now have tools that invite an intriguing possibility: new taxonomies of time. We have Twitter’s real-time news flow. We have Wikipedia’s wide-angle perspective. We have, above all, the web itself, a platform that’s proven extraordinarily good at balancing urgency with memory. We’d do well to make more of it — if for no other reason than the fact that, as Thompson puts it, “a journalism unfettered by time would align much more closely with timeless reality.”

April 30 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: Gizmodo and the shield law, making sense of social data, and the WSJ’s local push

[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]

Apple and Gizmodo’s shield law test: The biggest tech story of the last couple of weeks has undoubtedly been the gadget blog Gizmodo’s photos of a prototype of Apple’s next iPhone that was allegedly left in a bar by an Apple employee. That story got a lot more interesting for journalism- and media-oriented folks this week, when we found out that police raided a Gizmodo blogger’s apartment based on a search warrant for theft.

What had been a leaked-gadget story turned into a case study on web journalism and the shield law. Mashable and Poynter did a fine job of laying out the facts of the case and the legal principles at stake: Was Gizmodo engaged in acts of journalism when it paid for the lost iPhone and published information about it? Social media consultant Simon Owens has a good roundup of opinions on the issue, including whether the situation would be different if Gizmodo hadn’t bought the iPhone.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, came out most strongly against the raid, arguing to Wired and Laptop magazine and in its own post that California law is clear that the Gizmodo blogger was acting as a reporter. The Citizen Media Law Project’s Sam Bayard agreed, backing the point up with a bit more case history. Not everyone had Gizmodo’s back, though: In a piece written before the raid, media critic Jeff Bercovici of Daily Finance said that Gizmodo was guilty of straight-up theft, journalistic motives or no.

J-prof Jay Rosen added a helpful clarification to the “are bloggers journalists” debate (it’s actually about whether Gizmodo was engaged in an act of journalism, he says) and ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg reached back to a piece he wrote five years ago to explain why that debate frustrates him so much. Meanwhile, the Columbia Journalism Review noted that the Gizmodo incident was just one in a long line of examples of Apple’s anti-press behavior.

Bridging the newsroom-academy gap: Texas j-prof Rosental Alves held his annual International Symposium on Online Journalism last weekend, and thanks to a lot of people’s work in documenting the conference, we have access to much of what was presented and discussed there. The conference site and Canadian professor Alfred Hermida devoted about 20 posts each to the event’s sessions and guests, so there’s loads of great stuff to peruse if you have time.

The conference included presentations on all kinds of stuff like Wikipedia, news site design, online comments, micropayments, and news innovation, but I want to highlight two sessions in particular. The first is the keynote by Demand Media’s Steven Kydd, who defended the company’s content and businessmodel from criticism that it’s a harmful “content farm.” Kydd described Demand Media as “service journalism,” providing content on subjects that people want to know about while giving freelancers another market. You can check summaries of his talk at the official site, Hermida’s blog, and in a live blog by Matt Thompson. The conference site also has video of the Q&A session and reflections on Kydd’s charisma and a disappointing audience reaction. The other session worth taking a closer look at was a panel on nonprofit journalism, which, judging from Hermida and the conference’s roundups, seemed especially rich with insight into particular organizations’ approaches.

The conference got Matt Thompson, a veteran of both the newsroom and the academy who’s currently working for NPR, thinking about what researchers can do to bring the two arenas closer together. “I saw a number of studies this weekend that working journalists would find fascinating and helpful,” he wrote. “Yet they’re not available in forms I’d feel comfortable sending around the newsroom.” He has some practical, doable tips that should be required reading for journalism researchers.

Making sense of social data: Most of the commentary on Facebook’s recent big announcements came out last week, but there’s still been plenty of good stuff since then. The tech blog ReadWriteWeb published the best explanation yet of what these moves mean, questioning whether publishers will be willing to give up ownership of their comments and ratings to Facebook. Writers at ReadWriteWeb and O’Reilly Radar also defended Facebook’s expansion against last week’s privacy concerns.

Three other folks did a little bit of thinking about the social effects of Facebook’s spread across the web: New media prof Jeff Jarvis said Facebook isn’t just identifying us throughout the web, it’s adding a valuable layer of data on places, things, ideas, everything. But, he cautions, that data isn’t worth much if it’s controlled by a company and the crowd isn’t able to create meaning out of it. Columbia grad student Vadim Lavrusik made the case for a “social nut graph” that gives context to this flood of data and allows people to do something more substantive than “like” things. PR blogger Paul Seaman wondered about how much people will trust Facebook with their data while knowing that they’re giving up some of their privacy rights for Facebook’s basic services. And social media researcher danah boyd had some insightful thoughts about the deeper issue of privacy in a world of “big data.”

The Wall Street Journal goes local: The Wall Street Journal made the big move in its war with The New York Times this week, launching its long-expected New York edition. The Times’ media columnist, David Carr, took a pretty thorough look at the first day’s offering and the fight in general, and Columbia j-prof Sree Sreenivasan liked what he saw from the Journal on day one.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer said the struggle between the Journal and the Times is a personal one for the Journal’s owner, Rupert Murdoch — he wants to own Manhattan, and he wants to see the Times go down in flames there. Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis stifled a yawn, calling it “two dinosaurs fighting over a dodo bird.”

Along with its local edition, the Journal also announced a partnership with the geolocation site Foursquare that gives users news tips or factoids when they check in at certain places around New York — a bit more of a hard-news angle than Foursquare’s other news partnerships so far. Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram applauded the Journal’s innovation but questioned whether it would help the paper much.

Apple and app control: The fury over Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s proposed iPhone app has largely died down, but there were a few more app-censorship developments this week to note. MSNBC.com cartoonist Daryl Cagle pointed out that despite Apple’s letup in Fiore’s case, they’re not reconsidering their rejection of his “Tiger Woods cartoons” app. Political satirist Daniel Kurtzman had two of his apps rejected, too, and an app of Michael Wolff’s Newser column — which frequently mocks Apple’s Steve Jobs — was nixed as well. Asked about the iPad at the aforementioned International Symposium on Online Journalism, renowned web scholar Ethan Zuckerman said Apple’s control over apps makes him “very nervous.”

The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta also went deep into the iPad’s implications for publishers this week in a piece on the iPad, the Kindle and the book industry. You can hear him delve into those issues in interviews with Charlie Rose and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.

Reading roundup: We had some great smaller conversations on a handful of news-related topics this week.

— Long-form journalism has been getting a lot of attention lately. Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote about longform.org, an effort to collect and link to the best narrative journalism on the web. Several journalistic heavyweights — Gay Talese, Buzz Bissinger, Bill Keller — sang the praises of narrative journalism during a Boston University conference on the subject.

Nieman Storyboard focused on Keller’s message, in which he expressed optimism that long-form journalism could thrive in the age of the web. Jason Fry agreed with Keller’s main thrust but took issue with the points he made to get there. Meanwhile, Jonathan Stray argued that “the web is more amenable to journalism of different levels of quality and completeness” and urges journalists not to cut on the web what they’re used to leaving out in print.

— FEED co-founder Steven Johnson gave a lecture at Columbia last week about the future of text, especially as it relates to tablets and e-readers. You can check it out here as an essay and here on video. Johnson criticizes the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for creating iPad apps that don’t let users manipulate text. The American Prospect’s Nancy Scola appreciates the argument, but says Johnson ignored the significant cultural impact of a closed app process.

— Two intriguing sets of ideas for news design online: Belgian designer Stijn Debrouwere has spent the last three weeks writing a thoughtful series of posts exploring a new set of principles for news design, and French media consultant Frederic Filloux argues that most news sites are an ineffective, restrictive funnel that cut users off from their most interesting content. Instead, he proposes a “serendipity test” for news sites.

— Finally, if you have 40 free minutes sometime, I highly recommend watching the Lab editor Joshua Benton’s recent lecture at Harvard’s Berkman Center on aggregation and journalism. Benton makes a compelling argument from history that all journalism is aggregation and says that if journalists don’t like the aggregation they’re seeing online, they need to do it better. It makes for a great introductory piece on journalism practices in transition on the web.

April 24 2010

17:36

Slides: From news to understanding

Since I didn’t blog about this, here are the slides of the presentation at the ISOJ by Matt Thompson, editorial product manager, Project Argo, National Public Radio.

Thompson talked about the need to shift from reporting the news to reporting understanding.

April 13 2010

14:30

Can explainers be the basis for a revenue stream? Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis thinks so

You may have seen Megan’s post a couple weeks ago about how lauded news nonprofit Voice of San Diego is trying to hire an “engagement editor” to help push its stories into social media and public consciousness. That piece references VOSD’s two-part mission:

To consistently deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism for the San Diego region.

To increase civic participation by giving residents the knowledge and in-depth analysis necessary to become advocates for good government and social progress.

It’s that second part that’s the subject of this video interview with Scott Lewis, VOSD’s CEO (whew, lots of initials there). Telling stories is one thing, but providing the analysis needed for public action is another. Led by Matt Thompson, the quest for context and explanation has been a hot topic for some time in future-of-journalism circles. But Scott explains here that he thinks explainers might be part of a business model, too: the kind of added value that convinces people to become a member of VOSD or otherwise contribute financially.

…if our mission is to help educate people about these issues so that they can become the advocates that the community needs to progress, then, perhaps, educating them means more than simply putting news up on the site. And that, perhaps, education means providing these explainers. Maybe it means providing a graphic novel on the top 10 stories of San Diego. Or maybe, it’s a book or a curriculum that they receive…We can have a rolling system of clinics from our reporters where they literally just say, “This is how the education system’s working right now.” And, maybe, for a fee or for a membership benefit, that’s something that you can participate in.

This interview is actually a few months old — our former staffer Zach Seward recorded it in October, back before he (and Megan! and Matt!) became “next generation digital visionaries.” I emailed Scott to see if anything he talked about in the interview needed an update; I’ve added those updates — including how VOSD has moved ahead with explainers on a big local platform — below the transcript.

Zach Seward: All right, I’m with Scott Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego. I was interested in what you were talking about explainers and context and a recent story sort of involved with that?

Scott Lewis: Yeah. Our mission is in two parts. One is to deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism. And by investigative, we mean stories that help people understand why things are the way they are, rather than just simply passing along information. And the second part of our mission, though, is broader. It actually says, “providing residents the information they need to become advocates for good government and social progress.” Well, I’ve embraced that latter part of the mission a lot more. And that means more than just simply putting out news and letting, you know, people make their own conclusions and figuring things out from what is available on the latest news.

What it might mean, we think, is also helping them understand San Diego better, understand how the government works better, understand how the education system works better. And we think that there’s a tool to do that in stories that are not just news and not just traditional investigative-type stories, but actually explainers, ways for people to understand these situations better. So, if we’re covering a complex topic, a story can go through the process of — even the first person, sometimes — of saying, “I don’t know how this works. Let’s go through this together and try to figure it out together. And I called this person, and he added this perspective. I called this person, they added this perspective. And this is a full presentation of everything I know about this topic.”

Because reporters have that, they have that experience and they have that. And a lot of times they’ll come up to me and they’ll say, “You know, we need, I want the inside scoop.” But what they really want when they say that, it seems like, is for you to break it down in plain English and help them understand, you know, the issue, the way that you might tell your girlfriend about or your friend about, in just words that help you paint a picture for them. So we think there’s incredible value in that that might actually transfer to a membership model, too.

Zach: Now, you just had a reporter go out and do that with a particular story?

Scott: Yeah. Liam Dillon covers government for us and politics. And there’s a big issue in San Diego about whether to expand the Convention Center. And the editor, Andrew Donohue, told him to, well, go find out about that and literally just explain what you find out. And he did it, and he did it in a first-person account, and he did it in a way that was really engaging as far as just explaining the entire situation, so that if you weren’t following it — you may have heard the debate. You may have heard updates about costs and about anger and conflict about the issue, but finding that story, it gave you everything that everyone had about where we were at with it, in a way that you could digest, and that was written in a conversational, easy-to-digest way.

And we received tons of comments and emails from people saying, “Wow, that was really. That was the best story yet about it.” They took it as a news story, and they took it really well. They said, “Wow, you really helped. This is the best, most comprehensive news story about this.” And in — I don’t know that in the past, a journalist would have thought of that as a news story, in particular, in the sense that it was really just an explanation. And I think there’s incredible power in that.

Zach: Did it pay off in terms of traffic?

Scott: Yeah, it was our most-read story for that week. It was a — and again, the engagement, the discussion level rose after that. We got letters and comments, and it was a powerful piece.

Zach: And you said also you’re having reporters be in charge of individual pages around subjects that they cover?

Scott: Oh, no.

Zach: No, okay.

Scott: No, that was Salon’s doing that. I took some. It seems cool.

Zach: Maybe, it’s a possibility in the future? Fair enough.

Scott: I’m trying to figure out. It seems like that issue, and you’ve been talking about it at Nieman, and Matt Thompson, and others have talked about it, about re-forming the news story around topic pages and that. I think there’s a design problem I’d love to help solve with that. And if we could figure out what that page looks like and why you would want to continue going to it and how you represent it on a front page or a home page. If we could help be part of what that looks like, I think there’s definite power in it, for sure.

Zach: So, the thing you mentioned earlier, understanding of course it’s entirely speculative, is the possibility that a membership model could include, you know, paying members of Voice of San Diego have special access to some of these kind of explainers? Is that the thought or…

Scott: Yeah, we’re thinking about if — and there’s a lot of things to work out — but if our mission is to help educate people about these issues so that they can become the advocates that the community needs to progress, then, perhaps, educating them means more than simply putting news up on the site. And that, perhaps, education means providing these explainers. Maybe it means providing a graphic novel on the top 10 stories of San Diego. Or maybe, it’s a book or a curriculum that they receive.

Zach: A one-hour, in-person class.

Scott: Exactly, exactly. We can have a rolling system of clinics from our reporters where they literally just say, “This is how the education system’s working right now.” And, maybe, for a fee or for a membership benefit, that’s something that you can participate in.

You know, what we want to do is learn from how these other organizations that have started to build their own membership programs, how some of them crossed the line that a lot of people felt was, you know, unethical with like what The Washington Post was thinking of doing as far as special events. But I think that if it’s just reporters talking and simply sharing, that this kind of explainer — it could be pretty powerful. Again, it’s just something to think about and work on. But the idea of membership having more benefit than simply a bumper sticker and then, maybe, even having some benefit as far as helping, you know, more clearly understand San Diego, that’d be really cool.

Right now, we do a thing somewhat like this. Every month we host a members’ coffee. So if you’ve given us money or if you’ve renewed your membership that month, then you’re invited to come to this thing. And, you know, between five and a dozen people usually show up, and they and tell us about what they’re interested in. We usually end up talking about city politics or city education issues or new media issues, mostly. And it’s fun for them. They enjoy getting that sort of in-plain-English explainer of both what we think is happening to the newspaper world and what we think’s happening to City Hall.

Zach: Sure. At this point, what are your current revenue streams?

Scott: Five. We have major donors, minor donors. And those are separate for a very good reason. I mean, they’re just completely different animals. Foundation grants and then corporate sponsors. And by corporate sponsors, we mean any organization that hosts an ad or a sponsorship message on the site. And so that can be a union or a nonprofit or whatever. We get a lot of that.

And then the fifth is a syndication revenue we’re trying to develop more and more. And this is — we realize we’re not just a website. We’re a source of information. So, if others want to package and distribute it better than we can, all the power to them.

Zach: You say that you’re ahead of revenue projections this year?

Scott: Yeah.

Zach: Is the largest chunks of those five sources still foundation support?

Scott: No, the largest chunk, I think, would be our two main major donors, which amount to about 35 percent of our budget right now. And that would be the two big donors. Then foundations are about that same level. And it’s all going to fall into place, I think, interestingly. And then the rest is split between the small donors and the corporate sponsors.

Zach: And, obviously, one goal is to grow the whole pie, but within the pie, is the goal to even that out? Like you’d like to have 20 percent from each, or is that too facile?

Scott: No, no, no — that’s exactly it. I don’t know what sustainability is. But to me, it means diversification to the point where, if one source falls or something, that it’s not crippling. And in that sense, then, I have two obsessions: One is to diversify the revenue inside those sources and then pursue other sources to diversify the sources. Do you know what I mean?

Zach: Sure, sure.

Scott: So, it’s a two-part obsession. And, yeah, I won’t be happy until we’ve gotten to the point where no single person has, or entity or grant has more than, you know, say, 10 or 15 percent of the budget responsibility. So that’s the goal. Ideally, it would be one percent over, you know, a thousand different types of sources. No, that wouldn’t —

Zach: Oh, yeah, well, that would be pretty good, in any event. [Laughter] That would be the future of news.

Scott: You know, ideally, it would get to — and it’s diversity, I think, that has the power. That if you have a lot of different sources of revenue, it provides for credibility and it provides for sustainability. And that’s why it’s such an obsession. And I think MinnPost and us and others are equally obsessed with that holy grail.

Zach: Sure. Well, thanks, Scott.

Scott: Yeah, thank you.

Updates and followups from Scott Lewis:

— Comments weren’t actually allowed on VOSD at the time Liam’s story ran, so by “comments” he meant direct feedback and what they called “letters” to the editor.

— Efforts to diversify VOSD’s revenue streams are ongoing. Scott: “We have begun to collect revenue from our content services or syndication effort, especially in regard to our new San Diego Explained series with the local NBC affiliate.”

So explainers might be a revenue source after all. But when it comes to a membership model, Scott typed this from his iPhone: “Finally, yes I believe that context explainers etc can serve as a basis for membership engagement but it’s a lot easier said than done and we’re still trying to figure it out. But haven’t abandoned it.”

March 19 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Loads of SXSW ideas, Pew’s state of the news, and a dire picture of local TV news

[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]

A raft of ideas at SXSW: The center of the journalism-and-tech world this week has been Austin, Texas, site of the annual conference South by Southwest. The part we’re most concerned about — SXSW Interactive — ran from last Friday to Tuesday. The New York Times’ David Carr gives us a good feel for the atmosphere, and Poynter’s Steve Myers asked 15 journalists what they took away from SXSW, and it makes for a good roundup. A handful of sessions there grabbed the attention of a lot of the journalism thinkers on the web, and I’ll try to take you on a semi-quick tour:

— We saw some conversation last week leading up to Matt Thompson’s panel on “The Future of Context,” and that discussion continued throughout this week. We had some great description of the session, between Steve Myers’ live blog and Elise Hu’s more narrative summary. As Hu explains, Thompson and his fellow panelists, NYU prof Jay Rosen and Apture founder Tristan Harris, looked at why much of our news lacks context, why our way of producing news doesn’t make sense (we’re still working with old values in a new ecosystem), and how we go about adding context to a largely episodic news system.

Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center echoes the panelists’ concerns, and Lehigh prof Jeremy Littau pushes the concept further, connecting it with social gaming. Littau doesn’t buy the idea that Americans don’t have time for news, since they obviously have plenty of time for games that center on collecting things, like Facebook’s Farmville. He’d like to see news organizations try to provide that missing context in a game environment, with the gamer’s choices informed by “blasts of information, ideally pulled from well reported news stories, that the user can actually apply to the situation in a way that increases both recall and understanding.”

— NYU’s web culture guru, Clay Shirky, gave a lecture on the value that can be squeezed out of public sharing. Matt Thompson has a wonderful live blog of the hourlong session, and Liz Gannes of GigaOM has a solid summary, complete with a few of the made-for-Twitter soundbites Shirky has a knack for, like “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does,” and “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

Once again, Jeremy Littau pulls Shirky’s ideas together and hones in on their implications for journalism in a thoughtful post, concluding that while the future of journalism is bright, its traditional players are clueless. “I just don’t see a future for them when they’re trying to protect information as a scarce commodity,” he writes. “The scarcity, in truth, is in media companies trying to create civic goods via user sharing.”

danah boyd, who studies social media and youth culture for Microsoft Research, gave a well-received talk on privacy and publicity online. It doesn’t have much to do directly with journalism, but it’s a brilliant, insightful glimpse into how web culture works. Here’s a rough crib of the talk from boyd, and a summary from TechCrunch. There’s a bunch of cool nuggets in there, like boyd’s description of the “inversion of defaults” in privacy and publicity online. Historically, conversations were private by default and public by effort, but conversations online have become public by default and private by effort.

— One of the big journalism-related stories from SXSW has been AOL and Seed’s efforts to employ a not-so-small army of freelancers to cover each of the 2,000 or so bands at the festival. The Daily Beast has the best summary of the project and its goals, and TechCrunch talks about it with former New York Times writer Saul Hansell, who’s directing the effort. Silicon Alley Insider noted midweek that they wouldn’t reach the goal of 2,000 interviews.

One of the big questions about AOL and Seed’s effort is whether they’re simply creating another kind of “content mill” that many corners of the web have been decrying over the past few months. Music writer Leor Galil criticized it as crass, complaining of the poor quality of some of the interviews: “AOL is shelling out cash and providing great space for potentially terrible content.” David Cohn of Spot.Us compared AOL to the most notorious content farm, Demand Media, concluding that journalists shouldn’t be worried about them exploiting writers, but should be worried about their threat to the journalism industry as a whole.

— One other session worth noting: “Cult of the Amateur” author and digital dystopian Andrew Keen gave a sobering talk called “Is Innovation Fair?” As Fast Company’s Francine Hardaway aptly summarized, he pointed to the downsides of our technological advances and argued that if SXSW is a gathering of the winners in the cultural shift, we have to remember that there are losers, too.

Pew’s paywall findings: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual “State of the News Media” study, and it’s a smorgasbord of statistics about every major area of journalism, from print to TV to the web. A summary of summaries: The study’s six major emerging trends (expanded on by Poynter’s Bill Mitchell), some of its key statistical findings, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s seven eye-popping statistics from the study.

The biggest headline for most people was the study’s finding that only seven percent of the Americans who get their news online say they’d spring for a favorite news source’s content if it went behind a paywall. (The AP writeup has a few more statistics and some analysis about online loyalty and advertising.) Jeff Jarvis, a longtime paywall opponent, wondered why newspapers are spending so much time on the paywall issue instead of their “dreadful” engagement and loyalty online. Former WSJer Jason Fry breaks down the study to conclude that the basic unit of online journalism is not the site but the article — thus undermining the primary mindset behind the paywall.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, who writes the study’s section on newspapers each year, said he’s done with dead-and-dying as an industry theme. Instead, he said, the problem with most newspapers is that they are becoming insubstantial, shells of their former selves. “They lack the heft to be thrown up the front porch or to satisfy those readers still willing to pay for a good print newspaper.” Editor & Publisher pulled some of the more depressing statistics from Edmonds’ chapter. Yet Lee Rainie, who co-authored the study’s section on online economics, said he was still optimistic about journalism’s future.

A bleak look at local TV news: Another fascinating journalism study was released late last week by USC researchers that found disappointing, though not necessarily surprising, trends in Los Angeles local TV news: Crime, sports, weather and teasers dominate, with very little time for business and government. USC’s press release has some highlights, and co-author Martin Kaplan offers a quick, pointed video overview of the report, concluding with a barb about wants and needs: “I want ice cream. I need a well-balanced meal. Apparently the people of Los Angeles want 22 seconds about their local government. Maybe if they got more than that, they’d want more than that.”

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was “flat-out alarmed” by the study and vowed some vague form of action. Jay Rosen was ruthless in his criticism on Twitter, and Los Angeles Times critic James Rainey used the study as the basis for a particularly well-written evisceration of local TV news. Rainey had the most promising suggestion, proposing that a cash-strapped TV station find a newspaper, nonprofit or j-school interested in partnering with it to build an audience around more substantive, in-depth TV news.

The iPad, magazines and advertising: As we expected, lots and lots of people have been ordering iPads since they went on sale — 50,000 in the first two hours and 152,000 in three days, according to estimates. We’re also continuing to get word of news organizations’ and publishers’ plans for apps; this week we heard that the AP will have an app when the iPad rolls out next month, and saw a nifty interactive feature for the digital Viv Mag. (The Guardian has a roundup of other video iPad demos that have come out so far.)

SXSW also had at least three sessions focusing on media companies and the iPad: 1) One on the iPad and the magazine industry focused largely on advertising — here’s a DigitalBeat summary and deeper thoughts by Reuters’ Felix Salmon on why advertising on the iPad could be more immersive and valuable than in print; 2) Another focusing on the iPad and Wired magazine, with Salmon opining on why the iPad is a step backwards in the open-web world; 3) And a third on iPad consumption habits and their effects on various industries.

Reading roundup: One ongoing discussion, two pieces of news and one smart analysis:

The conversation sparked by Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen’s advice for newspapers to forget the printed paper and go all-in with online news continued this week, with Frederic Filloux noting that “there are alternatives to envisioning the transformation of the print media as only a choice between euthanizing the paper product or putting it on life support.” Steve Yelvington looked at setting up separate print and online divisions (been there, done that, he says), Tim Kastelle spun Andreesen and Google’s Hal Varian off into more thoughtful suggestions for newspapers, and Dorian Benkoil took the opportunity to marvel at how much things have changed for the better.

The first piece of news was Twitter’s launch at SXSW of @anywhere, a simple program that allows other sites to implement some of Twitter’s features. TechCrunch gave a quick overview of what it could do, CNET’s Caroline McCarthy looked at its targeting of Facebook Connect, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram was unimpressed.

Second, ABC News execs revealed that they’re planning on putting up an online paywall by this summer. The Guardian and paidContent have detailed interviews with ABC News digital chief Paul Slavin.

And finally, newspaper vet Alan Mutter examines the often-heard assertion that small newspapers are weathering the industry’s storm better than their larger counterparts. He nails all the major issues at play for small papers, both the pluses (lack of competition and broadband access, loyal readership) and the minuses (rapidly aging population, some local economies lacking diversity). He ultimately advises small papers to ensure their future success by innovating in order to become indispensable to their communities: “To the degree publishers emphasize short-term profits over long-term engagement, they will damage their franchises — and open the way to low-cost online competitors.”

March 16 2010

09:13

Elise Hu: Future of context at SXSW

Elise Hu has written a thorough round-up of the ‘Future of Context’ panel at the SXSW Interactive conference in Texas.

Some great thinkers in media are leading what I’ll call the ‘context movement’, a push toward giving audiences more satisfying, better understanding of the worlds in which they live instead of simply presenting ephemeral, episodic stories as journalists always have.

Panellists included:

Matt Thompson, NPR and formerly of the Knight Foundation; Jay Rosen, author of PressThink and professor at NYU; Tristan Harris, CEO/Founder of Apture.

Full post at this link…

(Hat-tip: Jay Rosen on Twitter)

Also see:

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March 12 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Plagiarism and the link, location and context at SXSW, and advice for newspapers

[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]

The Times, plagiarism and the link: A few weeks ago, the resignations of two journalists from The Daily Beast and The New York Times accused of plagiarism had us talking about how the culture of the web affects that age-old journalistic sin. That discussion was revived this week by the Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, whose postmortem on the Zachery Kouwe scandal appeared Sunday. Hoyt concluded that the Times “owes readers a full accounting” of how Kouwe’s plagiarism occurred, and he also called out DealBook, the Times’ business blog for which Kouwe wrote, questioning its hyper-competitive nature and saying it needs more oversight. (In an accompanying blog post, Hoyt also said the Times needs to look closer at implementing plagiarism prevention software.)

Reuters’ Felix Salmon challenged Hoyt’s assertion, saying that the Times’ problem was not that its ethics were too steeped in the ethos of the blogosphere, but that they aren’t bloggy enough. Channeling CUNY prof Jeff Jarvis’ catchphrase “Do what you do best and link to the rest,” Salmon chastised Kouwe and other Times bloggers for rewriting stories that other online news organizations beat them to, rather than simply linking to them. “The problem, here, is that the bloggers at places like the NYT and the WSJ are print reporters, and aren’t really bloggers at heart,” Salmon wrote.

Michael Roston made a similar argument at True/Slant the first time this came up, and ex-newspaperman Mathew Ingram strode to Salmon’s defense this time with an eloquent defense of the link. It’s not just a practice for geeky insiders, he argues; it’s “a fundamental aspect of writing for the web.” (Also at True/Slant, Paul Smalera made a similar Jarvis-esque argument.) In a lengthy Twitter exchange with Salmon, Times editor Patrick LaForge countered that the Times does link more than most newspapers, and Kouwe was an exception.

Jason Fry, a former blogger for the Wall Street Journal, agreed with Ingram and Smalera, but theorizes that the Times’ linking problem is not so much a refusal to play by the web’s rules as “an unthinking perpetuation of print values that are past their sell-by date.” Those values, he says, are scoops, which, as he argued further in a more sports-centric column, readers on the web just don’t care about as much as they used to.

Location prepares for liftoff: The massive music/tech gathering South By Southwest (or, in webspeak, SXSW) starts today in Austin, Texas, so I’m sure you’ll see a lot of ideas making their way from Austin to next week’s review. If early predictions are any indication, one of the ideas we’ll be talking about is geolocation — services like Foursquare and Gowalla that use your mobile device to give and broadcast location-specific information to and about you. In anticipation of this geolocation hype, CNET has given us a pre-SXSW primer on location-based services.

Facebook jump-started the location buzz by apparently leaking word to The New York Times that it’s going to unveil a new location-based feature next month. Silicon Alley Insider does a quick pro-and-con rundown of the major location platforms, and ReadWriteWeb wonders whether Facebook’s typically privacy-guarding users will go for this.

The major implication of this development for news organizations, I think, is the fact that Facebook’s jump onto the location train is going to send it hurtling forward far, far faster than it’s been going. Within as little as a year, location could go from the domain of early-adopting smartphone addicts to being a mainstream staple of social media, similar to the boom that Facebook itself saw once it was opened beyond college campuses. That means news organizations have to be there, too, developing location-based methods of delivering news and information. We’ve known for a while that this was coming; now we know it’s close.

The future of context: South By Southwest also includes bunches of fascinating tech/media/journalism panels, and one of them that’s given us a sneak preview is Monday’s panel called “The Future of Context.” Two of the panelists, former web reporter and editor Matt Thompson and NYU professor Jay Rosen, have published versions of their opening statements online, and both pieces are great food for thought. Thompson’s is a must-read: He describes the difference between day-to-day headline- and development-oriented information about news stories that he calls “episodic” and the “systemic knowledge” that forms our fundamental framework for understanding an issue. Thompson notes how broken the traditional news system’s way of intertwining those two forms of knowledge are, and he asks us how we can do it better online.

Rosen’s post is in less of a finished format, but it has a number of interesting thoughts, including a quick rundown of reasons that newsrooms don’t do explanatory journalism better. Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls ties together both Rosen’s and Thompson’s thoughts and talks a bit more about the centrality of stories in pulling all that information together.

Tech execs’ advice for newspapers: Traditional news organizations got a couple of pieces of advice this week from two relatively big-time folks in the tech world. First, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen gave an interview with TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld in which he told newspaper execs to “burn the boats” and commit wholeheartedly to the web, rather than finding way to prop up modified print models. He used the iPad as a litmus test for this philosophy, noting that “All the new [web] companies are not spending a nanosecond on the iPad or thinking of ways to charge for content. The older companies, that is all they are thinking about.”

Not everyone agreed: Newspaper Death Watch’s Paul Gillin said publishers’ current strategy, which includes keeping the print model around, is an intelligent one: They’re milking the print-based profits they have while trying to manage their business down to a level where they can transfer it over to a web-based model. News business expert Alan Mutter offered a more pointed counterargument: “It doesn’t take a certifiable Silicon Valley genius to see that no business can walk away from some 90% of its revenue base without imploding.”

Second, Google chief economist Hal Varian spoke at a Federal Trade Commission hearing about the economics of newspapers, advising newspapers that rather than charging for online content, they should be experimenting like crazy. (Varian’s summary and audio are at Google’s Public Policy Blog, and the full text, slides and Martin Langeveld’s summary are here at the Lab. Sync ‘em up and you can pretty much recreate the presentation yourself.) After briefly outlining the status of newspaper circulation and its print and online advertising, Varian also suggests that newspapers make better use of the demographic information they have of their online readers. Over at GigaOM, Mathew Ingram seconds Varian’s comments on engagement, imploring newspapers to actually use the interactive tools that they already have at their sites.

Reading roundup: We’ll start with our now-weekly summary of iPad stuff: Apple announced last week that you can preorder iPads as of today, and they’ll be released April 3. That could be only the beginning — an exec with the semiconductor IP company ARM told ComputerWorld we could see 50 similar tablet devices out this year. Multimedia journalist Mark Luckie urged media outlets to develop iPad apps, and Mac and iPhone developer Matt Gemmell delved into the finer points of iPad app design. (It’s not “like an iPhone, only bigger,” he says.)

I have two long, thought-provoking pieces on journalism, both courtesy of the Columbia Journalism Review. First, Megan Garber (now with the Lab) has a sharp essay on the public’s growing fixation on authorship that’s led to so much mistrust in journalism — and how journalists helped bring that fixation on. It’s a long, deep-thinking piece, but it’s well worth reading all the way through Garber’s cogent argument. Her concluding suggestions for news orgs regarding authority and identity are particularly interesting, with nuggets like “Transparency may be the new objectivity; but we need to shift our definition of ‘transparency’: from ‘the revelation of potential biases,’ and toward ‘the revelation of the journalistic process.’”

Second, CJR has the text of Illinois professor Robert McChesney’s speech this week to the FTC, in which he makes the case for a government subsidy of news organizations. McChesney and The Nation’s John Nichols have made this case in several places with a new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” on the shelves, but it’s helpful to have a comprehensive version of it in one spot online.

Finally, the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has a simple tip for newspaper publishers looking to stave off their organizations’ decline: Learn to understand technology from the consumer’s perspective. That means, well, consuming technology. Niles provides a to-do list you can hand to your bosses to help get them started.

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