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May 31 2013

14:08

This Week in Review: Debating journalists’ role in DOJ seizures, and Facebook tackles hate speech

james-rosen-fox-news

Blame for both the DOJ and journalists: The story of the U.S. Department of Justice’s seizure of news organizations’ phone and email records moved into “who knew what and when” stage, especially regarding the case of Fox News reporter James Rosen. Fox didn’t know Rosen’s phone records and emails had been taken until it became public last week, but The Wall Street Journal reported this week that its parent company, News Corp., was notified by the DOJ in 2010 but didn’t tell Fox.

News Corp. issued some mixed signals in response, initially saying it had no record of notification from the DOJ but eventually conceding that it didn’t dispute the DOJ’s claim that notification was sent. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza put forward a theory as to why it’s in News Corp.’s interest to be more deferential to the Obama administration DOJ, but in Fox News’ interest to be more antagonistic. However, The Atlantic Wire’s Elspeth Reeve noted that Fox News doesn’t have a very good track record on advocating for journalists’ freedom in these cases.

The metastasizing issue — coupled with the DOJ’s seizure of what the Associated Press claims is “thousands and thousands” of its phone records — has led Attorney General Eric Holder to plan a meeting with the top representatives of several major news organizations to hash out guidelines for DOJ intrusion. Several news organizations, including The New York Times and AP, announced, however, that they wouldn’t attend the meeting because it’s set to be off the record. The Daily Beast’s Daniel Klaidman wrote a thorough piece on Holder’s regrets in these cases, saying that it’s not part of the progressive image in which he views himself, and Salon’s Alex Pareene explained why Holder’s likely to keep his job despite the outcry.

In a pair of stories, The New York Times reported on the remarkable scale of many of the Obama administration’s leak inquiries and journalists’ charges that such efforts are creating a chilling effect on investigative journalism on the federal government. Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian expressed his dismay at journalists’ lack of action against the administration’s actions: In the current climate, he said, “it’s very difficult to imagine the US press corps taking any meaningful steps to push back against these attacks. And as long as that’s true, it’s very hard to see why the Obama administration would possibly stop doing it.”

At the same time, several others argued that the press’s self-defense reaction is a bit too knee-jerk in this case. Slate’s Fred Kaplan and The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus both argued that Rosen’s source was not a whistleblower exposing corruption but someone simply breaking the law and revealing harmful information. And Reuters’ Jack Shafer contended that Obama has not declared war on the press, as his crusade against leaks has been much more on the supply side than the demand side.

Still others, including Peter Sterne of the New York Observer and Matthew Cooper of the National Journal, were concerned that the proposed shield law wouldn’t do enough to protect journalists. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones tried to find a middle way between their concern for journalists and the objections of those such as Pincus.

Facebook rape ad

Facebook, hate speech, and censorship: Yet another debate over Facebook’s control over its users’ content simmered this week, though it was a bit different from the privacy flaps of the past. A coalition of feminist groups called Women, Action, and the Media wrote an open letter to Facebook last week urging it to remove content that trivializes or glorifies violence against women, noting that Facebook already moderates what it considers hate speech and pornographic content.

The groups also campaigned to Facebook’s advertisers, succeeding in getting several of them to pull their advertising until Facebook took some action. Facebook ultimately responded by posting a statement saying it hadn’t policed gender-related hate speech as well as it should have and vowing to take several steps to more closely moderate such content. The New York Times has a good, quick summary tying together the advertiser campaign and Facebook’s response.

While Valleywag’s Sam Biddle argued that all Facebook did was try to placate those protesting rather than commit to any real action, while Forbes’ Kashmir Hill and Reuters’ Jack Shafer noted that Facebook probably didn’t do this out of any morally consistent concern over content, but simply because of advertiser pressure. Hill concluded that “the procedure appears to be that they will draw the line when advertisers start complaining to them,” and Shafer argued that Facebook has only pushed this discourse underground, further away from the voices of reason and shame.

And while everyone seemed to agree that Facebook’s well within its rights to police speech on its own platform (and that it’s clamping down on a particularly heinous form of speech in this case), they also wondered about the precedent. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM wondered about the slippery slope of what Facebook considers hate speech.

newsweek feature

Newsweek on the block (again): Variety reported that IAC is attempting to sell Newsweek, a month after its chairman, Barry Diller, called his purchase of the magazine a “mistake.” IAC shut down Newsweek’s print edition at the end of 2012, turning it into a web-only publication. As Variety noted, most every indicator at Newsweek — subscriptions, traffic, cash flow — is trending downward.

Newsweek confirmed the attempted sale with an internal memo, saying that Newsweek is drawing resources away from its sister site, The Daily Beast. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici offered a more detailed explanation: Diller bought Newsweek thinking he needed a print publication to supplement its digital ad base, but since it’s failed at that, it’s become a mere distraction (and drag on the bottom line). Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan urged prospective buyers to stay away, though Mathew Ingram of paidContent offered some tips for its new owner: drop the paywall, aggregate, go deep on particular topics, develop a strong voice, and embrace mobile.

Reading roundup: Despite the quiet week overall, there were several smaller stories to watch:

— Rob Fishman of BuzzFeed wrote a thoughtful piece questioning whether the social media editor might be an endangered species at news organizations, as engagement with social media becomes a deeper part of each journalists’ work and routines. Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa (more on him in a bit) said social media editors are more important than ever, and Digital First’s Mandy Jenkins countered that many news organizations (especially smaller ones) still have a need for someone dedicated to newsroom-wide social media integration and gave some useful advice about how to do it. Elsewhere in social media, Twitter said it wants to partner with media companies rather than become one of them, and Jeswin and Jesse Koepke talked on Medium about how undo Facebook’s massification of online social interaction.

— One of the news industry’s most prominent social media editors, Anthony De Rosa, announced he’s leaving Reuters to join Circa, the startup that summarizes top news stories by breaking them down into “atomic units.” PaidContent’s Mathew Ingram explained what Circa’s up to, and Fast Company’s Anjali Mullany published a Q&A with De Rosa about his plans there.

— A few News Corp. pieces: It announced it will officially split into a publishing company (called News Corp.) and an entertainment company (21st Century Fox) on June 28. It introduced its retooled News Corp. logo, and the new News Corp.’s head, Robert Thomson, declared that it would have “relentless” cuts in store after the split.

— BuzzFeed announced a new YouTube channel featuring video through a partnership with CNN. The Wall Street Journal explained what’s behind both companies’ move deeper into online video.

— Finally, a couple of smart pieces on the native advertising phenomenon: CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis made the case against news orgs getting into native advertising, and Publish2′s Scott Karp laid out some of the difficulties of making native advertising scale.

May 21 2013

15:00

Tuesday Q&A: CEO Baba Shetty talks Newsweek’s relaunch, user-first design, magazineness, and the business model

A brand guru. That’s what they called Baba Shetty when he was hired away from advertising agency Hill Holliday by The Daily Beast to be the new CEO of The Newsweek Daily Beast Company.

1348078198601.cachedLess than a month later, the company announced that Newsweek was putting an end to its print edition and going all-digital. Last week, Shetty released the beta version of the relaunched website, a simple, colorful, responsive, and easily navigable new home for the decades-old news brand.

Shetty began working with the magazine on a “Mad Men”-themed issue on retro advertising back in March 2012. So maybe it’s not surprising that the new site’s first feature article is an exploration of what makes contemporary television so addictive. Shetty has big plans for capitalizing on on the historically respected Newsweek name, blending a New York Times-like metered paywall approach with an ambitious sponsorship model that will see a lot of creative ad work coming off the Newsweek desk.

On Monday, Shetty and I spoke about how he sees that plan unfolding, as well as some of his favorite new design features, bringing classic Newsweek covers into the digital space, and why ad agencies should act more like newsrooms. Here’s our conversation:

O’Donovan: So let’s start with the redesign! Congrats, first of all — very exciting.
Shetty: Oh, thank you.
O’Donovan: I’m curious, first, who you were looking to for inspiration with the redesign and what your major goals were.
Shetty: The audience is a combination of the people who’ve always looked to Newsweek for its sense of authority, its sense of editorial authority and its stature — its ability to offer perspective on the happenings in the world. But we also wanted to really innovate around the narrative formats for longform publishing on the web.

The real story of the Newsweek relaunch is that it allowed us to think about innovation in a way that really hasn’t happened much for professional journalism. Actually, there’s been a ton of innovation in microblogging and other formats — look at the Tumblr news from the last couple days. Enormous value from thinking about beautiful user experience for content consumption.

But really, a lot of the professional editorial products kind of slavishly follow a set of conventions that are all about maximizing pageviews. You look at a long article that might require seven clicks and page reloads to get through — and then there’s a lot of display advertising that is competing for attention with the actual content. We thought there was an opportunity to do for professional journalism what Tumblr and Pinterest and Flipboard, so many of the other innovative new startups, have done for other kinds of content.

So what we see with Newsweek is the user first. I’ve been talking about it as user-first publishing. The idea is, let’s deconstruct the sense of magazineness — not as a physical thing, but as a concept. The sense of magazineness is about a beautiful user experience. You think about your favorite magazine and sitting in your favorite chair at home and reading it — there’s a sense of editorial coherence. You know — the cover communicates a sense of editorial priority, there’s a table of contents that lends a sense of coherence to the issue. It’s a beautiful package that results.

But when magazines go digital, so much of that’s lost because of the conventions I talked about before — you slice and dice content into the slivers that we call pageviews, and it’s not a very satisfying experience to read professional journalism on the web.

So we really wanted to take a leap forward with Newsweek. In addition to the idea of the editorial stature and credibility of Newsweek, also creating a radically creative user experience around that content. I can talk about a few of the features if you think that would be useful.

O’Donovan: Yes, but I’m still curious about other projects, other sites, other redesigns, that you might have taken something from, or tried to emulate at all. Or maybe this is a ground zero thing. But for example, The New Republic’s redesign, or maybe Quartz — is there a trend?
Shetty: There really weren’t — we didn’t really emulate anything. What we were trying to do was stay true to Newsweek and what the ideal user experience would be.

The cover — there actually is a cover, and it was static in the first issue, and in future issues it will be interactive, video-based multimedia. It’s this idea of drawing a reader in to something that has great editorial to prominence and priority, and we’re going to explore what the cover could be in the digital age. There is a persistent table of contents which is available to you at any part of the experience, and that lends a sense of completeness and coherence to this experience.

O’Donovan: Yeah, the table of contents gives an element of navigability — it helps you understand the fullness of the product.
Shetty: Exactly. It’s persistent. No matter where you are, in an article or on a page, when you mouse over the window, the table of contents dissolves into view, and you can access it. So there’s a sense of, again, an ideal concept of magazineness, and part of it is this sense of complete control over the content consumption experience. So we thought, we’d love to make that real in a natively digital format.

Of course, we took account of all the devices that people read on now, so the site is fully responsive and looks beautiful on a handset or tablet screen or — you should really try it on a 23-inch monitor. It’s gorgeous in large format screens. It gracefully apportions itself to whatever the screen happens to be.

O’Donovan: What would you say, right now, the focus is on in mobile, in building apps? I feel like there’s this turn back towards building cross-platform websites and away from apps. Where did apps fall into your priorities when you started compared to where you are now?
Shetty: Yes, you’re exactly right. I think 18 months ago, everybody was talking about native apps as absolutely the way to go. But there’s a lot of friction in the app experience, and what I mean by that is apps have to be downloaded, apps have to be used and accessed on a regular basis, apps sometimes make it a little more difficult to share content. People are sometimes not as adept at sharing content via apps as they are across the open web. So for us, it’s about giving consumers a choice. We’re going to parallel-path for a while — we’ll also have a Newsweek app available. But the open web launch we did last week we think is actually a beautiful experience across devices. It’s friction-free — there’s nothing to download, there’s nothing that prevents easy sharing. So it’s designed to kind of be — I don’t want to say post-app, but it’s post- the initial way of publishing thinking, that native apps are the only way to go. I think a well designed, thoughtfully engineered open web experience can be terrific for the user.
O’Donovan: You mentioned building an interactive cover page earlier — I’d be interested in knowing what other kinds of engagement you’re interested in building across the site. How did you think about structuring comments? How do you want people to respond to the site?
Shetty: We thought a lot about socially driven content, and if you actually look at an article called “The Way They Hook Us — For 13 Hours Straight,” which is about longform, binge-viewing, addictive TV shows — you know, “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” et cetera — if you look at that story, you can see how we handle social. Instead of having commentary being a thing that is relegated to the bottom of the page, there’s a set of functionality on the left side margin that moves along with the story. Right now, there’s 2,100 opinions listed — it’s a way to kind of over time have the idea that engagement opportunities are persistently available, no matter where you are reading these stories — it’s not just a thing that’s relegated ot the boot of a page. There’s a tray that actually slides out to reveal the social features. And there’s a lot of innovation we have planned in that area as well.

And while we’re talking about a long article page, you can kind of see the ability to use multimedia photography, video, infographics to help the journalistic storytelling of a longform piece. That’s another, I think, terrific step forward. It’s not the tyranny of the pageview, it’s not the conventions that are going to deliver more advertising properties — it’s thinking about he user first. What’s going to make for a great reading experience? in that way, I think it differs from a lot of the conventions that are in play across the web.

O’Donovan: So this is my understanding having read a couple things, so correct me if I’m wrong — but your strategy is first to build this product that people are going to want, and then slowly to introduce a paywall, and then later this sponsored content component. Can you explain how you see that unfolding and over what kind of timeline?
Shetty: I can talk a little bit about it — I probably can’t talk about all of our plans right now.

The metered access is going to be rolled out fairly soon, and that’s just the simple idea that, look, anybody can read any article on Newsweek, and initially that’s completely open and completely free. But only subscribers will be able to consume content over a certain number of articles. So it’s very similar to what The New York Times and others have done. Open access — we want a lot of social sharing, we want a lot of visibility of the content across the open web. But what we’re asking is, if people consume over a certain amount of content, that they subscribe. And that’s going to take place fairly soon.

The second question is how brands can participate. We have the same principles we’ve been talking about — thinking about the user first — applied to brand participation. What we’re going to do is limit the clutter — relatively few units, but really high impact — but stay with the design aesthetic of the site overall. They’re going to be beautiful, unignorable, but the value exchange with the reader is going to be very appropriate.

When you listen to a program on NPR, and there’s a sponsorship message before the program starts, you can kind of say, okay, well, I get that. I get how that works. It’s a reasonable exchange between the audience and the brand that sponsors the content. That’s really the model. It’s not as much about the standards of display advertising that have dominated the discussion on the web. It’s a sponsorship model — a different direction.

O’Donovan: From a structural standpoint, in terms of building the sponsorship and how closely married they may be to the content you have, I’m curious if it’s going to be an internal team and how closely they’ll work with the editorial team, or if it’s someone from outside. How does that all work?
Shetty: Oh, it’s all part of one organization in our company, and it’s a close partnership between the editorial and business sides.
O’Donovan: I was just reading earlier, you wrote, along with someone else, a piece for the Harvard Business Review about how advertising companies should act more like newsrooms. I was hoping you could explain that theory and maybe, I’d be curious to know if that was an idea that started to percolate for you having been in a newsroom for a little while.
Shetty: It actually started percolating for me well before I came into a newsroom. I think it actually a pretty clear direction that has been well represented by a lot of people. There’s a real opportunity for smart brands to publish content that’s useful, interesting, engaging, and helpful to their audience. It’s not a new idea — in fact I always talk about the fact that it’s an idea that’s been around for a very long time.

But what’s changed is all the tools that are available for content creation, distribution, measurement and all the channels that are available to brands. I think it’s a very powerful idea. I don’t think it’s one of these trend-of-the-season ideas. I think it’s a dramatic industry shift that we’re going to be tracking for years to come, through various iterations.

That was something I did with Jerry Wind, head of the Future of Advertising Program at Wharton. It was really based on the Wharton 2020 Project, which was asking a lot of advertisers about what they think about the future of advertising, and it was such a consistent theme — that it’s going to be less and less about what we think of advertising today, and more content that is voluntarily consumed by people because they view it as in some way useful or interesting.

O’Donovan: As we continue to see this trend toward sponsored content and cooperation between advertisers and news brands, I’m curious what your advice might be to other people who are following a path similar to yours — coming from the ad side and moving into newsroom, operating as the person who is trying to bring those two things together. Are there any specific challenges or surprises there? How would you tell someone to pursue that?
Shetty: I would just say think about the user first, and by the way, think about editorial standards. It doesn’t serve anyone to have editorial standards compromised. Users don’t want that, the consumer doesn’t want that, and certainly it doesn’t benefit the editorial side of things either. Nobody wants that. I think full transparency and good judgment are critical here.
O’Donovan: How do you telegraph that to the reader?
Shetty: Well, we don’t really — we haven’t really had any issues with telegraphing that. It’s just kind of clearly indicating where, what the source of a particular piece of content is. I think as long as you maintain these kind of standards, there really aren’t issues.
O’Donovan: And in terms of the user-centric experience you’re trying to build — you’re talking about how modern newsrooms have so many different kinds of metrics available to them now — when I hear people talk about building new products like this, they talk about building something light and flexible, and prototyping it so you can really respond to the audience’s initial reaction to it. I’d be curious to know how you’re tracking that, how you’re listening to the reader, and what kind of flexibility you’ve been able to build into the product.
Shetty: Absolutely. The iterative nature of web design development — or I should say, digital design development — is a terrific kind of approach for designing something that users really love and respond to. For us, it’s tools like Chartbeat, which we love, and other kind of leading-edge ways of getting real moment-to-moment feedback from not only what people are reading, but how they’re spending time with it, where they’re coming from, what kind of engagement they have with it. It’s all fed right back to the design and development process.

It’s a long way from the days of just building it and they will come. It’s really paying such close attention to what people actually respond to.

September 02 2012

04:44

‘Good Girls’ tells of women’s fight to be journalists at Newsweek

New York Times :: “The Good Girls Revolt” by Lynn Povich (PublicAffairs), scheduled for release next week, is the little-known story of how a small band of women at Newsweek successfully challenged the industrywide practice of sex discrimination. They fought the men of Newsweek in the early 1970s.

A report by Anne Eisenberg, www.nytimes.com

Lynn Povich on Twitter

HT: Jeff Jarvis, here:

Good Times review for friend Lynn Povich's book about the women's revolt at Newsweek: nytimes.com/2012/09/02/bus…

— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) September 2, 2012
Tags: Newsweek

August 25 2012

20:05

Jon Friedman: Newsweek depresses me

Market Watch :: Under Editor Tina Brown, Newsweek has become a procession of covers with seemingly one purpose in mind: to shock an observer, an age-old tactic of a tabloid newspaper. Do people still take Newsweek seriously? The next time its cover shocks us, we may shrug: It’s just Newsweek being Newsweek.

A commentary by Jon Friedman, www.marketwatch.com

Tags: Newsweek

August 23 2012

19:40

'Newsweek's Revolving Doors': Dirk Barnett is leaving

WWD :: Newsweek’s revolving doors keep on spinning. Dirk Barnett, creative director, is leaving to join the greener pastures of The New Republic. Barnett is a big loss following what have been already brutal back-to-back weeks of bad press for the newsweekly.

A report by Erik Maza, www.wwd.com

Tags: Newsweek

August 22 2012

14:44

Tina Brown stands by Niall Ferguson

Politico :: Newsweek editor Tina Brown is standing by Niall Ferguson following his controversial cover story about President Obama's handling of the economy, even as she said that she did not agree with many of the opinions he voiced in the article.

A report by Dylöan Byers, www.politico.com

Tags: Newsweek
07:36

Newsweek's anti-Obama cover story: Has the magazine lost all credibility?

The Week :: The conservative historian Niall Ferguson pens an error-filled tirade against Obama, and the struggling weekly concedes that it didn't fact-check the story

Note: Remarkable the disclosure at the end of the article: "Sir Harold Evans, editor-at-large of The Week, is married to Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast...."

A report by (Harald Evans), theweek.com

Also discussed here:

[Craig Silverman:] No, Newsweek does not do fact-checking. ... Today, it’s viewed as a luxury.

"Newsweek ditched its fact-checkers in 1996, then made a major error" - A summary by Craig Silverman, www.poynter.org

Tags: Newsweek

August 17 2012

14:42

Jeneen Interlandi on “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind”

We’ve chosen Jeneen Interlandi’s recent New York Times magazine cover story about her father’s mental illness as our latest Notable Narrative. “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind” follows a sobering episode in the bipolar history of Joseph Interlandi, revealing flaws in the nation’s mental health and criminal justice system. We caught up with Interlandi by email as she was preparing to transition from her native New Jersey to Cambridge, to begin her fellowship year at our mother ship, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

How did you decide to write this story?

Interlandi

Very impulsively! When the Arizona shooting happened, and the news broke that people who knew the gunman Jared Loughner had suspected he was seriously mentally ill, my family was in the middle of navigating our own situation. I remember being so frustrated by all the conversations taking place about how somebody should have taken the initiative and gotten (Loughner) committed to a psychiatric hospital, etc. One day, as both these stories were unfolding, I sent my editor a pitch memo, out of sheer indignation. Then when it came time to actually do the story, I panicked – like “Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?”

How did you report it? You used at least one court transcript from one of your father’s court hearings, and what else?

I tried to be as methodical as possible. I’d never written a first-person piece before and was very concerned about relying too much on my own memories, or letting my emotions overwhelm the larger points that I wanted to make.

So I started with the documents: several court transcripts – from the commitment hearing, the restraining order hearing, and the sentencing hearing; a dozen or so police reports, from all the various incidents; hundreds of pages of medical records; my own email exchanges with various social workers, etc.; and last but not least, both of my parents’ journals. From all of those I constructed a detailed timeline of what happened when, and what the doctors, police officers, psychiatrists, etc. were saying at each point along the way. Then I tracked down the other families. I talked to about 30 families in all. Some I found through this one nonprofit that advocates for stronger involuntary commitment statutes across the country. Others I found from newspaper archives and from congressional hearings where families like mine had testified in support of, or opposition to, various involuntary commitment laws that were being proposed in one state or another.

One of Joe's sketches. (courtesy Jeneen Interlandi)

After I had all of that, I looked into the research on involuntary commitment: talked to the academics and public health folks who were focused on the issues surrounding community mental health, mental illness and violence, etc. I saved the folks who worked directly with my father – the representatives of the specific agencies that we came into contact with – for last. I wanted to make sure I had all my ducks in a row before confronting them with anything. I also didn’t want the story to be overly focused on my parents’ hometown. I wanted it to be clear that these problems are national in scope. Also, I interviewed my parents, several times, throughout the reporting. And checked in with my siblings and with one childhood friend, to verify certain details against my own memory.

Hold on. How did you get your parents to let you read their journals?

I asked them, or rather told them, when they first agreed to do the story: “Hey, I will need all of your journals, both of you. Also, pop has to sign all these forms granting me access to all of his medical records.” (Also, “You won’t get to see what I write about you until the story is out in print. So you’ll just have to trust me until then.”) They didn’t even flinch. Of course, it helped that I am their daughter. It also helped that I had done this story on minimal consciousness a few months earlier that they both read. That piece had also come out of a personal experience with someone very close to me, and to my parents (not the person I focused on in the story). My parents knew from that piece what kind of story I was looking to write, and understood how it could maybe help other people to know about what we went through. So they were pretty fearless.

How did you choose not to include material from the journals, particularly your father’s?

I thought at first that I would. There is this big huge stack of them and even just looking at the writing, without reading the words, you can tell that it’s manic. But as I read through them, I found that they didn’t add any essential details. I wanted the reader to understand that my father was very sick at the time that the story takes place. But I didn’t want to, like, beat them over the head with it, or add a ton of gratuitous details just because I had access to them. Because ultimately this story is about the mental health system more than it’s about any one person’s particular psychosis. (I also admit to being protective of my father here. I think it’s enough to say that he was paranoid and delusional—that he hit my mother, and tried to jump out of a moving car, and threatened to kill himself. To include more than that felt exploitative).

How did your family ultimately feel about the piece and your decision to write it?

They were incredibly supportive. My mother especially, felt very strongly that other people should know what families like ours are going through. She said over and over that the story would help other families feel less alone, and that maybe it would trigger some changes in the way things are done (she’s an optimist!).  My father and siblings just trusted me implicitly to do right by them. I think I asked my parents every week, for like six months straight, “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” and every time they said, “Yes. We’re sure. Stop asking.” I didn’t show it to any of them before it closed, so I was super nervous when it finally went live. But they all had the same reaction: They laughed, they cried, they were proud. My father said, “You hit the nail on the nail!” Which is about as good as it gets.

What didn’t make it into the story?

The journals, for the reasons I just mentioned; and all but a small handful of the many families I spoke with whose experiences were so eerily similar to mine and to one another’s; and a whole article’s worth of anecdotes and descriptive details about my parents as characters (which I will resist the urge to include here).

Maybe just one?

We were teenagers, playing ball in the street in front of the house. And the ball goes into the neighbor’s yard. And the neighbor, who is like totally obsessed with his lawn, comes out and starts screaming at my brother,  calls him a racial epithet (remember we are Colombian, and my brother is pretty dark). My dad is standing nearby, and doesn’t really say anything. Just tells us to go inside or go play somewhere else, and lets it go. (Which is not like him at all). Late that night − like 2 a.m. − I happen to look out my bedroom window, and I see my dad sitting at the edge of our yard, in a lawn chair, facing the neighbor’s house. He’s drinking a beer, got a cigarette dangling from his lip, and a Super Soaker (one of those high-powered water guns that were so popular in the ’90s) sitting in his lap. And every couple minutes he pumps the thing up and sprays it all over the neighbor’s yard, and just sniggers to himself like a kid. It turned out he’d put bleach in the thing, and he was like destroying this guy’s precious lawn. The next morning it was all streaks of brown and yellow. I still can’t tell if that’s only funny to people that know my dad, but it cracks me up to think about, even to this day.

What was the writing process like? How do you organize? How do you work?

The overall workflow was the same as it usually is for me. I organize all my interviews and notes in an order that vaguely reflects the structure I’ve envisioned, then have them bound into a spiral book at the print shop (this one was something like 75 pages, which is about average). Then I read through it like a book and highlight what I am going to transfer into the outline (that will eventually become the first draft). By the time I’m done with that, I usually know how I want the story to start, and what the key contextual sections need to consist of. I did have many more throat-clearing drafts for this piece than I’ve had with any previous pieces. By that I mean, I wrote pages and pages – that my editor never even saw – describing my parents as parents, and going through all the anecdotes and incidents that have loomed so large in my mind for so many years. Then I walked away from it for like a week. And then came back and forced myself to whittle that section down from 2,000 words to like 500. I was very worried about being gratuitous in my descriptions; obviously I know these people so well that I could really weigh the piece down with all the details in my head. I was also worried about being too defensive, i.e., I tell you some unpleasant things about my dad, and to compensate, I want to tell you like 10 times as many good things. It took some time to get over that.

I admired the sectional cliffhangers, like this one:

We considered our options. We could lift the restraining order and bring him home. But if he spun out of control, we would have no way to protect our mother. Friends and relatives suggested that we offer no assistance and let him “hit rock bottom.” But it was now early January, and we could not bring ourselves to leave him with nothing in the biting cold. So we fashioned something of a compromise. We kept the restraining order but dropped off some money and a suitcase full of clean clothes at the front desk of the short-term facility. We crossed our fingers and waited. 

How did you arrive at the story’s structure?

I think this is the only piece I’ve done so far where the structure wasn’t a huge challenge and didn’t change much from first draft to last. It really came straight out of the timeline that I constructed from the documents. On one hand, there was all this monotony of, “He went to the hospital. Then he went to jail. Then he went to the hospital again,” and on and on. But on the other hand, there were a couple of really dramatic moments, like the commitment hearing, and when he called my mother threatening to kill himself. It was clear just from the timeline that those elements needed to balance each other out. And that if you wrote it any other way than chronologically, it would be unnecessarily confusing, because there was just so much to-ing and fro-ing.

How did you choose this particular episode to write about?

This particular episode happened to coincide with this horrible incident – the shooting in Arizona by Jared Loughner, who was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia – that had sparked a wave of national interest in the issues surrounding involuntary commitment. It also happened when I was in the process of leaving my staff writer job at Newsweek to freelance and to pursue longer-form narratives. More importantly, though, it was the first episode that I really saw up close (that we recognized as an episode, anyway). When my father was first diagnosed as bipolar, back in 2005, he went through a very similar cycle of repeated hospitalizations. But I was in the Arctic Circle, on Alaska’s North Slope, at the time, and so didn’t really grasp the forces that were shaping those events. I remember thinking that if only I had been there and had been proactive – made phone calls, sent out emails, confronted doctors and judges – things would have gone more smoothly. As it turns out, I was totally wrong.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered about the mental health system?

That my family’s experience was not even remotely exceptional. Before I started digging around, I really thought that we were somehow missing something (by) not contacting the right agencies, or not providing the right information to the right people. But after not very much time, it became clear that this was the norm, not just in New Jersey where my parents live but all across the country.

I found the ending to be exactly right for the subject matter, and full of tension. Did others agree? Did you or your editor worry that it was too open-ended?

That ending took a bit of work. Originally it was much more discreet. I just said, basically, “My dad is all better, we played cards, we forgave each other and that’s the end of it.” But fortunately, my editor, Vera Titunik, pushed me to rethink it. She kept saying, “You’re missing something here.” And she was right. Because bipolar disorder is obviously a lifelong condition, I think we actually wanted it to be more ope- ended. That’s the reality of it: You don’t know when or where another episode might occur, and beyond medication and therapy there is nothing to do with that uncertainty but live with it. For my parents, that means putting their characteristic spin on things: “Here is one more wacky misadventure for our personal archives. Now let’s eat some lasagna.”

How’s your dad?

He is great! Really back to himself right now, which means that my parents are back to themselves – growing old together and enjoying their grandkids and counting their blessings.

Jeneen Interlandi is a New Jersey-based health and science journalist who writes about biomedical research, public health and environmental science. She has written for the New York Times magazine and Scientific American, and spent four years as a staff writer at Newsweek. In 2009, she received a Kaiser Foundation Fellowship for global health reporting and traveled to Europe and Asia to cover outbreaks of drug-resistant tuberculosis. She has worked as a research assistant at Harvard Medical School and studied climate change in Alaska. She holds master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, both from Columbia University, and is an incoming Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

July 27 2012

16:11
14:04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07:59

Newsweek's The Daily Beast to launch live news broadcast

Politico :: The Daily Beast, the website of Newsweek magazine, will launch a live news broadcast next week. Starting Monday, the morning news and political roundup known as NewsBeast will be broadcast live from the magazine's Manhattan newsroom. John Avlon, Newsweek's senior politics writer and a CNN contributor, will continue to host.

Dylan Byers on Twitter

A report by Dylan Byers, www.politico.com

Tags: Newsweek

July 26 2012

16:05

May 03 2012

13:35

March 30 2012

14:59

Documentary photographer Lori Waselchuk’s “Grace Before Dying” and the ethics of narrative activism

Lori Waselchuk describes herself as a “documentary photographer and arts activist.” We’ve wanted to talk with her for a while about her latest project, “Grace Before Dying,” which focuses on a prison hospice program in Louisiana. In light of the recent discussions around visual documentary and accountability spurred by “Kony 2012,” we also thought she might address the ethical quagmire that documentary activists can fall into when creating stories in communities outside their own.

Waselchuk has worked as a freelance photojournalist for many major U.S. newspapers and magazines. In addition to “Grace Before Dying,” her long-term personal projects include years of gathering images in Africa and tracking the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We talked with her earlier this month by phone about how she approaches her work, and about simplicity vs. complexity in storytelling. What follows are excerpts from our conversation and images from “Grace Before Dying.”

You’ve done freelance photojournalism for Newsweek, Time, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times – and other Times that I’m probably not remembering. And then you have these portfolios of extended projects, like your work documenting a prison hospice program or a hurricane. How do you think of the short-term assignments vs. the long-term projects?

Usually, the short-term assignments are how I get out into the world and I get to learn more about what’s going on. I learn best when I’m face to face with things. And it affects me more deeply than reading about it. So usually my long-term projects come from assignments that I’ve done.

Hurricane Katrina was not just an assignment, it was my experience. So that work is coming from an entirely new place. Even though I did a lot of work for newspapers and magazines while I was working on longer-term projects about New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf, usually the assignments are where I can enrich what I know, and it provides access and introduction. And they also help me earn a living.

I’m particularly interested in “Grace Before Dying.” How did that project get started? Did it come from a photojournalism assignment? How long did you spend on it?

Yes, that started as an assignment. I was commissioned by Louisiana Magazine to do a story, which was unusual. They wanted a photo essay about this hospice program, and so that was my introduction. It took a while to get in, about three months. And then the deadline for the magazine was pushed back as far as they could push it back, but it still came up very shortly after I started working.

I realized after the magazine had published the project that I really wanted to do more work on this, so I asked for permission to come back, not with any publication waiting for work, but on my own to try to see how deeply I could tell this story that was incredibly beautiful and moving to experience and witness.

You did the short-term project, and then when you came back in a more free-form situation. Did you approach the people differently? Did you shift gears?

I didn’t come back as a different person or with a different attitude. I always had the same sort of goal, which was to try to say in photographs how important the work that the hospice volunteers were doing was, and to somehow show the complicated journey that these men were on, and the complicated space in which these men were doing this work.

So photographically, I went from a traditional 35 millimeter digital camera to using the panoramic camera as my main tool. I wanted to see if it could do close-up work. I think this camera is more traditionally thought of as a landscape camera, but I wanted to see how it would describe what I was trying to describe. I thought it worked very well, and so I changed completely how I was approaching the project photographically. I went to black and white film and pursued my personal vision of what the work could be.

Can you talk about exactly who you were photographing at Angola, and what Angola is?

Angola is the nickname given to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It was given that name when the land that the prison was built on was a plantation, for a century and a half. It was nicknamed after the people who were brought in as slaves. Most of the slaves came from the Angola slave port. And it kept that name, but it’s really the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Louisiana’s maximum security prison.

The program I was photographing was the hospice program, where both the patients and the volunteers are incarcerated. The volunteers are incarcerated serving either life sentences or very long-term sentences, as are the patients. I was really interested in how you get to that place of incredible humanity and love and selflessness in an environment that’s designed to punish and isolate. And also coming from a history that was most likely filled with violence or hurt, they are extraordinary examples of what we are capable of as human beings.

I don’t mean to put them on a pedestal, because they definitely have their problems. They’ve got their difficult days. And they’ve got a terrible history, most of them. In spite of all of that, what mattered at that moment was someone else.

You work the humanitarian side with your projects, and the journalism side of things, too. Do you see yourself as a storyteller, an advocate or something else entirely? What are you trying to do with your work?

This is a very crucial moment for me, because I’m in the middle of what’s possible, and what’s survivable. Right now, I consider myself a storyteller, and I feel like that’s my primary mission, but I’m interested in placing my work in community.

When I’m shooting, I’m in storyteller mode, and that to me is creatively wonderful and challenging. With the “Grace Before Dying” project, I think about how important it is to have the conversation around the work.

So through that I’ve built this traveling exhibit that was designed for prisons, initially, and it continues to tour the country in all kinds of venues. It moves around through grass-roots efforts. So small organizations can bring it to their community, and they move it around their community, and they then take charge of how this body of work inspires the conversation they’re interested in maintaining and putting in front of the public.

It’s been a powerful example to me in how I can really direct thoughtful and engaging conversations based on my own work. It’s also let me research how other photographers are trying to do this kind of work and getting their work out in the world.

I guess I’m both. The storytelling comes in the gathering of images, and the advocate comes in asking, “How do we then put this in community and encourage an intellectual or an emotional conversation, or both?” You want people to be smart, and also to feel.

When you think of a print story that’s a narrative, something in the story usually changes over time. Do you think of your work as having a narrative component? How do you think of visual storytelling?

In the book, the sequence had sort of a narrative structure. It’s not about the same people, but I had different ideas and aspects of the program that I wanted to show. So I brought people through the care part, and I also wanted to describe the prison and then (go) into the final days. It felt very sequential.

I think it was important for it not to be cryptic. It’s such an emotional story, I needed to ease people through it. I approached care, the final days, and then the dignified funeral. In the book, that’s the way it went.

It went almost the same way in the exhibition. The exhibition came first and broke down the different aspects of the program. I built it for other correctional facilities to host, because I really thought people could use the information to trigger conversations on “How can we incorporate some of these things in our end-of-life care program?” or “Can we start an end-of-life care for our prison population?” So I really broke it down into the different programs and how they helped the families of the prisoners, and how they did their own caregiving, the different aspects of it. The exhibition started out as an emotional but informational project.

The film “Kony 2012” has been in the news a lot this month.

I’ve been watching it.

It’s spurred a lot of discussions about voice and who gets to document stories. As someone who has gone many times to Africa, how do you weigh the question of telling someone else’s story in pictures?

It’s been a fundamental question I have continued to ask myself. I was based in Africa for 10 years. I have been asking myself that since the beginning, and it continues to push me. And I think that, more than anything, pushes my personal projects. I feel like my personal work – I don’t make it for anybody but myself. I can control how it moves in the world and how it’s seen.

The “Grace Before Dying” project has been transformative in a way, in that I have been able to do what I do, which is make photographs that focus on human connection and empathy and have an understanding of the way I am inspired by our best – the best in us.  I’ve been able to jump outside of the working world and create something that has its own life, has its own distribution qualities. It continues to resonate with audiences.

I feel like even the traveling exhibits are collaborative. The quilts that travel with the exhibit are made by the hospice volunteers. So their hands, their work, their own visual art are part of the photographic story. That collaboration will influence my future projects. And as I think about future work, collaboration with community is going to be part of how I work in the future. How the work is placed is fundamental to an ongoing conversation that I have with myself about telling other people’s stories.

Who does it benefit? What is the value of the information of the issue versus the empowerment of the actual community being affected by the story? All of these issues continue to be part of how I work.

I think when I’m working on my own projects, when I turn the story about the hospice program into a personal project, with nobody needing this work from me, I’m able to pursue a more honest line of thinking and produce work where I can slow down and have conversations with people, like the guys at the prison.

For people just coming up, who maybe haven’t had as much time to ponder these issues, one clear suggestion that rises out of what you just said is to think about what kind of role your work will have in the community and collaborate with the community. Do you have other tips for how people can approach something like a “Grace Before Dying” project?

Look outside the traditional field of journalism for inspirations on how to get your work out. Right now I’d say the Internet can be considered traditional. To me in journalism, your feet have to be on the ground. You have to be interacting with people. You can’t report without coming face to face with people and feeling as well as hearing as well as seeing. How can you honestly translate that in different ways?

Think of a way to get your project out in different directions. You can publish in a magazine. You can publish online. You can put prints up somewhere. You can have a conversation with your subjects about how they might want to see it.

Certainly “Grace before Dying” has been published around the world by magazines and newspapers, but nothing can compare to the way an exhibit creates conversation out in the community. It gathers people around a topic in different ways and inspires different kinds of conversations. But always the conversations are intense and, I think, enlightening.

Can you talk more about “Kony 2012”?

The great thing about it is that it’s an in-your-face example of so many things. I can list like 10 things off the top of my head.

Do you want to talk about some of those things?

I was alerted to this by my 13-year-old daughter, as it seems like many people out in the field were. She came to me and talked about it. Ten years ago I (had done) a story on the reintegration camps up in northern Uganda, so I told her about my experience.

Then the emails (about “Kony 2012”) started coming in, with all kinds of different conversations: “This is good,” because now everyone knows about him, or “This is bad,” because it doesn’t really represent the situation. It got very interesting. There were people who tried to look at it broadly.

Very few people talk about who’s funding the Invisible Children, besides all the people who want wristbands to demonstrate their concern for another continent’s conflict. The source of funding is always something that needs to be gone to first, but it still hasn’t reached that point. The self-serving documentary where the subject is not the actual issue, but the person who made the documentary is the issue – you can’t get a clearer example of having a documentarian incorporate himself in a story. That was to me truly bizarre.

I struggle with the viral video a lot. I don’t see a lot that’s helpful, except for how it helps this organization. And a lot of people disagree with me, but I think that part of the thing that I like to do with my work is to introduce complexity in a way that people can absorb it and maybe start to think about it and not decry a situation by making it simple, with a good guy and a bad guy.

I hope that’s what “Grace Before Dying” does, because these are the last guys on earth that we would consider to be heroes. They’re serving life sentences in Louisiana’s maximum security prison. So I think that trips people when they see this story – and angers some, but I really believe that we are more than our worst act. We have to be.

Here I’m coming into the advocacy thing – I think our prison system is unwieldy and overarching. We need to find a way to reduce sentences to make them more in line with international standards, reduce our incarceration rate and find a way to reintegrate felons and people who have served prison time, so our prison system gets reduced rather than continuing to grow.

What do you say to those people who argue that to convey a story to a big audience, you have to take off the rough edges of the complexity? That you have to tell the truth but not get lost in the complexity?

I do think you can take off some of the rough edges, but I also really think you can draw people in with a universal. We are connected to each other in really fundamental ways, and in order to tell stories that will connect with others you have to use those tools and look for common ground.

You can start with that, but you have to deepen the conversation, and you have to be honest about who this is serving, and what your goals are. If the goal is to inform people about the ongoing war and terror that the Lord’s Resistance Army is wielding against people in East Africa, you can certainly boil it down to a few facts, but you probably need to be more specific about what’s going on and clearer about those facts. One of the things that upsets me is that I don’t believe that their goal of capturing Joseph Kony is really their goal. I’m suspicious of it. The movie was just too self-serving. I think they themselves were surprised, but I think their goal was to continue to raise funds for their organization.

I’m kind of cynical, but I just can’t imagine creating a documentary without having the research and understanding the depth of the issue. It was built for the Internet, it wasn’t built for broadcast. It was built to be something they could put up without having any sort of scrutiny before it went out in the world. There was nobody it needed to pass by before it was published; they just put it online. It just makes me wonder what their real intentions were.

All images appear courtesy of Lori Waselchuk.

January 13 2012

16:30

January 09 2012

19:45

Why media outlets team up in an election year

We’ve reached the point in journalism where we barely bat an eye when two news organizations say they’re joining forces. Anything less than a merger is just not an earth mover these days, when egos, brands, unique audiences — all of the guarded, proprietary stuff that kept news companies at opposite ends of the sword — seem to matter less in the face of an uncertain journalism marketplace.

In that way the new partnership between NBC News and Newsweek/The Daily Beast to cover the 2012 election shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s a classic partnership of two organizations looking for a Doublemint effect: Double the resources, double the coverage, double the audience. The plan calls for campaign trail reporting from NBC (and a healthy dose of video) to appear in the pages of Newsweek and online at The Daily Beast. [UPDATE: See correction below.] Call it NBCWeekBeast. (NBeastCWeek?)

But there’s something about politics in particular that seems to bring out the hugging and sharing in news organizations. A presidential election brings out the heavy news artillery, and that means a flurry of scooplets coming from all directions — from the networks, from newspapers national and local, from blogs, from campaigns, and everywhere else. All that firepower pointed in the same direction makes the urge to team up more tempting than ever. (Take for example The New York Times’ Election 2012 iPhone app, which is built more on linking and aggregation than any Times product before it — this, despite the fact that the Times devotes enormous resources to its own coverage.)

History backs this instinct. After all, for years outlets — like the Times and CBS News or ABC News and The Washington Post — have linked up for the purposes of polling. At the same time debates, from the local legislative races up to the president level, have long been collaborations across media, whether it’s the local newspaper and public media, or CNN, Politico, and The Los Angeles Times.

What’s interesting is how many of these partnerships derive from cross-media competitors. Pre-web, The New York Times and CBS News had reporters chasing the same stories — but a broadcast nightly news show and a morning newspaper could comfortably share an audience without excluding either. With everyone competing on the same platforms these days — the web, your smartphone — the calculus is different. And it’s unclear how far these partnerships will extend beyond election season — a beat that is both extended (the presidential election will last a lot longer than mega-events like the Oscars or the Super Bowl) and predictable (that once-every-four-years scheduling means there’s time to align up multiple outlets’ interests).

As indicated by the number of media outlets launching (or relaunching) their politics offerings, we also know it’s an area that can spike pageviews and draw a reliable audience. (The New Yorker’s the latest, just today.) Readers are on the hunt for their election coverage earlier than ever, be it tracking polls, candidate gaffes, new endorsements, or daily overviews, and news organizations are jockeying for position. And it doesn’t hurt that once you have a politics vertical it’s that much easier to take advantage of the spending on political ads. But that underlying tension between the journalist’s desire for exclusivity and the brand’s desire to aggregate content will be something to keep watching from here to election day.

Correction: This piece originally said the sharing would go both ways, from Newsbeast to NBC and from NBC to Newsbeast. In fact, it’s only the latter — NBC content flowing to Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Sorry.

Image by Jiheffe used under a Creative Commons license.

December 07 2011

15:20

Tear Down the Wall Between Business and Editorial!

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

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

Before you start sharpening your pitchforks, hear me out.

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

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

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

Jim Brady

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

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

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

Here, I hope, is a start.

Remember: It's a Business

One place to start is attitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know the Business

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

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

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

Understand the Finances

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

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

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

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

If Sales Influences Editorial, It's OK

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

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

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

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

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

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

Create Things That Make Money

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

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

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

Try to Get to 'Yes'

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

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

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

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

Be Willing to Say "No"

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

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

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

Be Prepared for Uncomfortable Conversations

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

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

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

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March 11 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: NPR at a crossroads, hyperlocal’s personal issue, and keeping comments real

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

A bad week for NPR execs named Schiller: For the second time in five months, NPR has found itself in the middle of a controversy that’s forced it to wrestle with issues of objectivity, bias, and its own federal funding. This one started when the conservative prankster James O’Keefe orchestrated a hidden-camera video of a NPR fundraising exec bashing Tea Partiers and generally straying from the NPR party line while meeting with people pretending to represent a Muslim charity. (The “donors” also met with PBS, but their people didn’t take the bait.)

Reaction was mixed: The right, of course, was outraged, though others like Slate’s Jack Shafer and Gawker’s John Cook downplayed the significance of the video. NPR was outraged, too — “appalled,” actually, with 21 journalists condemning the remarks. CEO Vivian Schiller said she was upset and that the two execs had put on administrative leave, but within about 12 hours, however, Schiller herself had been forced out by NPR’s board. The New York Times has good background on the shocking turn of events, and Poynter summarized the six months of controversy that led up to this, stretching back to Juan Williams’ firing (the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder called Schiller’s ouster “Williams’ revenge”).

Reaction to NPR’s handling of the situation was decidedly less mixed — and a lot more scathing. In a chat and column, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard ripped just about all parties involved, and the online response from media-watchers was just as harsh. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen called it “profoundly unjust,” and several others blasted NPR’s leadership.

The Awl’s Choire Sicha called NPR’s management “wusses,” CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis called the NPR board “ballless” and said the episode exposes the difference between NPR and the stations who run it, ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg lamented NPR’s allowing the O’Keefes of the world to take over public discourse, and Rosen and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy told NPR to start fighting back. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares put it best, saying the fiasco “exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak — too concerned about its image to realize that ‘surrender’ is not always the best option.”

The episode also stoked the fires of the perpetual debate over whether public radio should keep its federal funding. The Atlantic’s Chris Good looked at the political aspects of the issue, and The Christian Science Monitor examined whether public radio stations would survive without federal money. A few calls to defund public radio came from outside the traditional (i.e. conservative) places, with Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan and media analyst Alan Mutter arguing that NPR will be in an untenable situation as a political football as long as they’re getting federal funds. Meanwhile, here at the Lab, USC’s Nikki Usher did give some encouraging information from the whole situation, looking at Schiller’s legacy of digital and local innovation during her NPR tenure.

Making hyperlocal news personal: AOL continued its move into local news late last week, as it bought the hyperlocal news aggregator Outside.in. In an excellent analysis at the Lab, Ken Doctor argued that the purchase is a way for AOL to get bigger quickly, particularly by bulking up Patch’s pageviews through cheap local aggregation tools. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick took the opportunity to ask why hyperlocal news technology services like Outside.in, Everyblock, and Fwix haven’t been as useful as we had hoped.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM posited an answer: Hyperlocal journalism only works if it’s deeply connected with the community it serves, and those technologies aren’t. Without that level of community, “AOL is pouring money into a bottomless pit,” he wrote. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran said that might be where local news organizations can step in, focusing less on creating news articles and more on using their community trust to make local information useful, relevant and findable.

Elsewhere on the cheap-content front: All Things Digital reported that AOL is laying off hundreds of employees (including the widely expected gutting of several of its news sites), and Business Insider snagged the memo. Wired talked to two Google engineers about its anti-content farm changes, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said good content is created either by passionate fans or by proper journalists being paid a fair amount. But, he said, “paying people a very low amount of money to write about stuff they don’t care about — that doesn’t work.” And Dan Conover at Xark warned against turning content — especially hyperlocal — into a franchise formula.

Accountability and authenticity in online comments: TechCrunch was one of the first companies to try out Facebook’s new commenting system, and after about a week, MG Siegler noted that the number of the site’s comments had decreased, and they’d also gone from nasty to warm and fuzzy. Entrepreneur Steve Cheney proposed a reason why the comments were so “sterile and neutered”: Facebook kills online authenticity, because everyone is self-censoring their statements to make sure their grandmas, ex-girlfriends, and entire social network won’t be offended.

Tech guru Robert Scoble disagreed, arguing that TechCrunch’s comments have improved, and people know real change and credibility only comes from using their real identities. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo made a somewhat similar argument, eloquently making the case for the elimination of anonymous commenting. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram weighed in by saying that Facebook can’t make or break comments — it all depends on being involved in an actual conversation with users. He pointed to a brilliant post by NPR’s Matt Thompson, who gave numerous tips on cultivating community in comments; much it went back to the idea that “The very best filter is an empowered, engaged adult.”

Meanwhile, Joy Mayer of the Reynolds Journalism Institute got some advice on cultivating online reader engagement from the Wall Street Journal’s (and formerly the Lab’s) Zach Seward, and the Lab’s Megan Garber reported on the results of some research into which stories are the most liked and shared on Facebook.

More paywall test cases: Newspapers continue to pound the paywall drumbeat, with the CEO of newspaper chain Gannett saying the company is experimenting with various pay models in anticipation of a potential one-time company-wide rollout and the Dallas Morning News rolling out its own paywall this week. Ken Doctor crunched the numbers to try to gauge the initiative’s chances, and media consultant Mike Orren disagreed with the News’ idea of how much a metro newspaper’s operation should cost.

Elsewhere, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case that Britain’s Financial Times’ paywall strategy has contributed to its decline, writing, “the FT strategy is exactly the strategy I would choose if I was faced with an industry in terminal decline, and wanted to extract as much money as possible from it before it died.” Meanwhile, The New York Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, chided the Times for not aggressively covering news of its own paywall, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM called paywalls a futile attempt to hold back the tide of free online content.

Reading roundup: Some things to read in between SXSW Interactive panels:

— New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote a rather odd little column taking shots at news and opinion aggregators, especially Arianna Huffington. Everyone then took shots at his column, including Huffington, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan.

— Newsweek published its first redesigned issue under The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown this week. The Society of Publication Designers had a look at the issue, which Slate’s Jack Shafer panned. The New York Times noted the issue’s familiar bylines.

— A few Apple-related notes: At MediaShift, Susan Currie Sivek looked at the impact of Apple’s 30-percent app subscription cut on small magazines, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow urged Apple-fighting publishers to move to the open web, not Android-powered tablets. GigaOM’s Om Malik joined the chorus of people calling for iPad apps to be reimagined.

— Two great posts at the Lab on search engine optimization: Richard J. Tofel on why the web will be better off with the decline of SEO, and Martin Langeveld on the SEO consequences of including paid links on sites.

— Former Guardian digital chief Emily Bell gave a fantastic interview to CBC Radio about various future-of-news issues, and Mathew Ingram summarized a talk she gave on newspapers and the web.

— Finally, two must-reads: The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a thoughtful essay arguing that we should take the contemporary journalism environment on its own terms, rather than unfairly comparing it to earlier eras. And at the Lab, former St. Pete Times journalist and current Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite called news developers to let the old systems go and “hack at the very core of the whole product.”

February 02 2011

20:41

Time’s David Von Drehle on narrating tragedy and the evolution of his Tucson story

Yesterday, we posted our first Editors’ Roundtable, in which a group of word wizards did their magic on a piece of narrative nonfiction. Our debut story for consideration was The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy,” written by Time magazine Editor-at-large David Von Drehle. While the prospect of having a group of editors poke around in a story might unsettle some writers, Von Drehle was curious to see what they would say and eager to talk with us about his piece. I interviewed him last week, before the editors’ comments had posted. What follows is a transcript of our talk, lightly edited for clarity.

Can you talk about how you got assigned this story and what reporting, if any, you did for it?

The shooting was on Saturday morning, and I would guess within an hour or so, I got a call or an e-mail – I think it must have been a call from Michael [Duffy]. He’s in Washington, and I live and work in the Kansas City area. He didn’t know what the story would be then, but he was pretty sure it would become big and important. He wanted me to be paying attention and getting myself ready to write.

By that Saturday night, I think he was pretty sure it would become the cover of the magazine. So that first day I was looking at that. And of course there was this enormous political firestorm among what I call “the cabal” in the article.

My reaction to that, the idea that this was a politically motivated act, was pretty extreme skepticism, just because I tend to believe in the Occam’s razor approach to events. The thing that happens most often is probably going to be the thing that happens again. Usually these kinds of mass shootings are products of mental illness rather than political motivation, and so I guess I spent a lot of Saturday going against the flow of where folks thought the story was going. Really that whole weekend was mostly spent just trying to sort out in my own mind what had happened, what it meant, and what was significant about it.

I did not go to Tucson. We did immediately send several people down there. My job in those first days was to figure out what had happened and what it really meant, what the takeaway should be. That was not an easy process. That was where being on a weekly deadline instead of a daily deadline was an advantage. I grew up in the newspaper business – I’ve only been in magazines for about four years. I definitely felt the advantage of not having to write my piece the first day.

You didn’t end up with a traditional news feature that says, “Here’s what happened.” But it’s also not a traditional narrative where you just build it from the inside out. It has a unique style. At what point did the story acquire that style?

This was a really interesting case in this ongoing figuring-out process that we’re doing at Time, trying to get clear in our own minds and for our readers “What is the function of a news magazine today?” Is it a digest of the past week’s news? Well, yes, it is a little bit a briefing. Is it a place for the tick-tock, the behind the scenes, the fly-on-the-wall stuff that was the meat and potatoes of Time and Newsweek for many years? Yes, a little bit of that, too – there still is some room for that. But where we really can bring value is in a story like this, where we can put the news and the meaning in a big frame with a new kind of angle, a new way of looking at it, and bring that all together in one place.

That was what I had in mind. That’s what I wanted to do. I knew it was not just going to be a tick-tock, though it needed to have some of that: “Here’s our sense of what happened there.” And it was not just going to be an analytical piece, but that it would have analysis in it. And that it would need to have a takeaway, where people would leave with an understanding of “What does this say about the times we live in and the meaning of life?”

That’s a big throwaway line, but one of my favorite editors that I’ve learned so much from over the years, Gene Weingarten, always taught us that really every good story should somehow be about the meaning of life. So I sort of tossed that off, but when you try to turn that into a real story, you are kind of  smashing several different genres, several different well-known styles, all into one. That’s kind of the challenge, the trick of it.

As part of that, you talk directly to the reader, using lines like “go ahead and cry.” That kind of second-person address can be a little dangerous. Can you talk about it as a srategy?

A couple of people have asked about this piece, “How long did it take you to write it?” One answer is that it took from Saturday morning to Wednesday night. But as far as the actual typing of words, the composing of sentences, it was really Tuesday before I started getting words on the screen. So it took all day Tuesday and then Wednesday morning finishing up the draft.

This theme emerged of “What is normal in America now, and why is our discourse distorting reality so much?” As I realized that was the theme, and that was what we were going to talk about, part of that was to speak to our readers. Time has a very broad cross-section of ordinary middle America, and the piece needed to enlist them in this idea that there is a normal American discourse that goes on where people are able to disagree civilly and are able to participate in a political process that is vigorous but not overheated and not violent.

As the writer, I was aware that people who buy our magazine and read it are basically – that’s them. They’re interested enough in events, but they’re not out on the political blogs 24/7. Most of them are not lighting up comment boards. So I decided that the way to kind of say to the readers, “I’m talking about you. You, my audience, are evidence of the case I’m trying to make,” was to come out from behind the curtain in a couple of places and speak directly to them.

I’m the father of a 9-year-old girl, and so the story of Christina Green spoke to me in some very emotional, powerful ways. That moment seemed like one where it just seemed right to momentarily erase the screen between the writer and the audience and say, “Look, of course I know what you’re feeling. You know what I’m feeling. Anybody would feel that way.”

Still, you’re right. It’s dangerous. It’s not a technique you would want to use all the time, but it seemed to me to underline the theme of the piece. That’s what you’re always trying to do as a writer: to get your sentences and structure to match your idea. It seemed to reinforce rather than distract from the theme. I actually wrote “Go ahead and shed a tear.” It was Duffy who made it, “Go ahead and cry,” which is so much better. In that vein of giving credit where it’s due to editors, he didn’t change much in the story, but he did change that, which made it a lot better.

What other edits did he make?

A few word changes. One paragraph was taken out, because it was biographical stuff about Loughner that was duplicated in another story in the package, but otherwise, no. A word here and there. That cry line was the biggest change.

If I recall correctly, in the lede, I said, “So much of the story is ugly and twisted that it’s best to start with something beautiful and good.” I had said that “So much is ugly and twisted that I want to start with something beautiful and good.” Duffy rightly suggested that since that was the only use of the first person, “Let’s take the first person out of the lede.” He was absolutely right about that, too. He’s an outstanding line editor.

Does he edit most of your work?

Yes. It changes if I’m moving into a different specialty. Mike runs the Washington bureau and is an assistant managing editor. So he runs my life, controls my schedule and edits the newsy stuff. But if I go off to do a science piece or a financial piece, I might end up being edited by someone else.

What exactly do you do at Time?

My title is editor-at-large. I don’t edit anything, so I don’t know why it’s editor instead of writer.  I am very much at large. Because of my background and Time’s appetite, probably about half of my time is spent on political stuff, broadly defined. Otherwise, I have always thought of myself as a generalist. So of the stories I’m working on right now, one is about neuroscience, one about history, one about monetary policy.

You were fed material for this piece. Do you usually do your own reporting?

I like to do all my own reporting. The Time tradition until just a few years ago was that there were people who reported and people who wrote, and they were two different things. Reporters would send files to New York, and then the writers in New York would write the stories.

For a variety of reasons, not least the very high cost of doing things that way, they’ve gone more and more in the direction of having people who report and write their own stories. And that’s part of the reason that I ended up at Time, because I like and can do both pieces of that puzzle.

In my newspaper career, being an anchor writer on a big breaking story was one of the skill sets that I developed and liked. So when we have a breaking news story, when we’ve got to pull in stuff from a number of places and people, I like doing that and know how to do it.

The reason I’m a journalist is that I have a short attention span, so variety is what I love. A long story this week, something 300 words next week, monetary policy, then going next to education, next to sports.

Is there anything else you want to say about the piece?

I’ve been pleased and a bit surprised. It did strike a chord. We got more mail on it than Time’s gotten on anything in years, so that’s intriguing to me. I think I did manage to put into words something that a lot of people were starting to feel. I wasn’t sure when I hit the done button what the reaction was going to be.

I’m never sure what the reaction is going to be, but after more than 30 years in the business, I know that sometimes it’ll be something that I like but it’s going to disappear without a ripple, because nobody else is going to care about it. There are other things that I think are completely benign and they set off a big firestorm because there’s something in there that I didn’t even realize was going to trip people up. This one I didn’t really know what to expect, and so I was surprised and pleased that a lot of people found it worthwhile.

I really had in mind lessons that I had learned from Gene Miller at The Miami Herald and then underlined for me by Mary McGrory at The Washington Post. Mary had the greatest line. She did this extraordinary work on the Kennedy assassination, and John Kennedy had been a friend of hers.

The line went something like “In the face of great emotion, write short sentences.” That’s a rule that’s served me well. Sentences get longer and longer when you’re working fast, when you’re working with a powerful story. The best thing you can do to get hold of what you’re doing, to get it under control, is to shorten your sentences.

In a later e-mail exchange, Von Drehle added a coda to an earlier answer:

I didn’t quite close the loop on a point I wanted to make. I started to say that people have asked how long the piece took to write, and that one way of answering that is to say I started Tuesday morning and finished Wednesday morning. But the main thing I’ve learned about writing is that you can’t have good writing without good thinking, and so the process of thinking through the piece, getting the idea clear in your head, is as much a part of the writing as the actual typing (or should I say keyboarding). Thinking may look to the outside world like sitting around, or cooking dinner, or driving to pick up the dry cleaning, or working out on the elliptical. But all those things may be part of the writing process if your brain is in gear.

January 03 2011

17:41

Nonny de la Peña on “Gone Gitmo,” Stroome and the future of interactive storytelling

I recently talked about journalism and storytelling with Nonny de la Peña, who is a senior research fellow in immersive journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, where she explores 3-D environments for news, nonfiction and documentary. She is also co-founder of Stroome.com, a community that allows online collaborative remixing of visual journalism. A graduate of Harvard University with 20 years of news experience, de la Peña is a former correspondent for Newsweek Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine and many other publications. Her award-winning documentary films have screened on national television and at theaters in more than 50 cities around the world.

I met de la Peña in London last summer and was particularly curious to hear her thoughts on “Gone Gitmo,” an immersive storytelling installation built as a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, “Gone Gitmo” was constructed inside Second Life and appeared in prototype at the Bay Area Video Coalition. Users who enter the project experience a virtual detention inside the prison camp, with documentary footage embedded to create spatial narrative. De la Peña and I connected again last month via Skype to discuss her work. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

You have explained that the main idea of immersive journalism “is to allow the participant, typically represented as a digital avatar, to actually enter a virtually recreated scenario representing the news story.” Immersive systems give the participant “access to the sights and sounds, and possibly feelings and emotions, that accompany the news.” How would you explain your main motivation to explore immersive journalism?

Immersive journalism really comes from understanding that there is a growing use of virtual and gaming platforms in which individuals are extremely comfortable with a virtual body. Using that as a starting point, I began to consider what that might mean for nonfiction. In the same way documentary grew in parallel with fiction film, I believe immersive journalism (which can also be considered as immersive documentary or immersive nonfiction) has an appropriate potential using new technologies. My journalistic work has often considered human rights issues, which makes it more likely such issues will be reflected in my immersive journalism work.

However, there are some very interesting questions that arise. For example, does the fact that the stories are accessed through a virtual body mean that they are necessarily subjective experiences? How do we ensure “objectivity?”

Our director of the journalism school at Annenberg, Geneva Overholser, really feels that transparency is the key here. If we can point to our sources, provide excellent research and be open to comment and criticism, immersive journalism can live up to its potential. In a sense, it’s simply about applying traditional journalistic principles to the new technologies.

Your work, as you say, is interrogating the phenomenology of narrative journalism. It seems to me that 3-D animation still presents a barrier to verisimilar storytelling in a way that “live action” or photographic realism does not…

I am not sure that is true. I think that “experience” can have value, especially given stories that are inaccessible. For example, Gitmo is off limits to most citizens and press, so we’ve made it accessible. You can read all you want to about the carbon markets, but when you literally follow the money, does that make the story better understood? And yet, the video released in the Baha Mousa case is extraordinarily disturbing, but when we built our piece in Mel Slater’s lab, that video had not yet been released. I would suggest we did a pretty good job considering that the information came from International Red Cross data and interrogation logs.

Now, what is the role of realism?  If the graphics get better, will the experiences become more comparable to the realism of video now? Mel’s work has shown that the video graphics don’t have to be great to work. Still, the last piece I saw in his lab on understanding violence used extremely good audio and dialogue (as well as very good voice actors). In terms of current technology, one thing I can say: If the audio is bad, forget it.

Yet that exact same premise holds true in documentary filmmaking. If you have bad lighting but good audio, the drama can still be pronounced. Without good audio, even the best sequences can fail.

So orality and sound still play a major role in storytelling…

Yes.

Are you concerned by the possible ethical implications? The proximity with video games, even serious games, the connotations of 3-D animation…

I am always concerned about ethical implications. I think the history of the use of propaganda makes it clear that we have to be ever vigilant.

I’m thinking of the widespread discourse of the first-person shooter for instance, in video games. Will people want to be in the place of the perpetrators? How would a journalist go about that, how to control the script?

I have gotten a lot of pushback on the Gitmo piece that we did not tell the story of the soldiers there. But as studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment make clear, giving people the role of the soldier can create some pretty intense scenarios. We decided it wasn’t appropriate for this project although we would be absolutely happy to have their experiences recounted in some way on the site. I would agree that the first-person shooter has to be considered carefully and ethically, but it would be a knee-jerk reaction to just shut down this avenue of storytelling based on that issue. For example, check out what happened with the Columbine game at Slamdance.

Would you say that in these exercises of immersive journalism or storytelling, the user, though he or she experiences situations physically, retains a level of passivity?

Very good question. The fact the user can move through the story raises a lot of issues. I have an earlier paper, when I was just starting to sort out the ideas about immersive journalism, which discusses such passive moments as the “embodied edit.” In “Gitmo,” that would be when we move the user along the “story” by teleporting them from place to place within the build. However, there are many moments when the user makes the decision where to go; still, they are within the context of the “news report” that is clearly consistent with reading about a story or watching it on TV.

A key aspect of your immersive journalism project is the blurring of boundaries between different fields, and one of the main elements in immersive experiences may be what you called the embodied edit. And Stroome allows users to remix, which is a form of editing…

Yes, considering how stories can be told differently in this new wave of technology. I consider immersive journalism still under development, but Stroome is about trying to give users a way to start telling stories today, collaboratively, journalistically and from different perspectives. For example, rather than write a letter to an editor or call up a TV station to dispute veracity, the audience member could just remix the story, telling it the way they see it.

Do you think that’s where journalism is headed, to giving users/readers the tools to re-tell the stories?

Once again, I quote Geneva (although I understand she borrowed it as well): The group formerly known as the audience, they are participants. Whether as sophisticated producers of content, or if they commit an “act of journalism” by capturing key footage on cell phones, Stroome supports both approaches.

How receptive do you think the major players in journalism are to this new form of storytelling, one open to empowering “the group formerly known as the audience”?

I think they are finding it very difficult. Even J-schools. I heard one major dean complain: “We are training professional journalists, not citizen journalists!” So they still aren’t recognizing how much this has all blurred. However, as Julian Assange explains in the “Wiki Rebels” documentary, at first he turned all of the data loose hoping that it would get vetted by the public, but ended up having to turn to journalists to analyze and distill and present to the public. However, what we are offering at Stroome offers really nice pillars of ways to collaborate and support. It is designed to consider how content is discoverable and not overwhelming.

And it is curated by a community and enabled by a specific platform…

Yes.

So, what you are suggesting is an important redefinition of the role of the nonfiction storyteller and therefore of the press…

Yes. In some ways both ends of the spectrum achieving the same goal. In one, similar editorial control present with news orgs now comes with having to design and build a 3-D immersive space. In the other, Stroome opens the landscape to all. Yet both focus on user participation with journalism that is unique to our technological present.

Where do you see written journalism going in this landscape?

We will always need good analysis.

Perhaps as ancillary material for the immersive or audiovisual experiences?

Yes, I agree. And sometimes the immersive component will be ancillary to the text.

—–

[Ernesto Priego is researching comics and narrative as a Ph.D. candidate in information studies in the U.K. at University College London. He has written previously for Nieman Storyboard on the death of Harvey Pekar, manga memoir and on comics as narrative journalism.]

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