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July 30 2010

18:00

WikiLeaks and continuity: What if we had a news outlet exclusively focused on follow-up journalism?

In his assessment of the journalistic implications of the WikiLeaked Afghanistan War Logs earlier this week, Jay Rosen made a provocative prediction:

Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect — not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget…. The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works…and often fails to work?

It’s early still, of course, but it’s all too likely that Rosen’s forecast — the leaked documents, having exploded, dissolving into a system ill-equipped to deal with them — will prove accurate. I hope we’ll be wrong. In the meantime, though, it’s worth adding another layer to Rosen’s analysis: the role of journalists themselves in the leaked documents’ framing and filtering. If, indeed, the massive tree that is WikiLeaks has fallen in an empty forest, that will be so not only because of the dynamic between public opinion and political elites who often evade it; it will also be because of the dynamic between public opinion and those who shape it. It will be because of assumptions (sometimes outdated assumptions) journalists make about their stories’ movement through, and life within, the world. The real challenge we face isn’t an empty forest; it’s a forest so full — so blooming with growth, so booming with noise — that we forget what a toppling tree sounds like in the first place.

Publication, publicity

It used to be that print and broadcast culture, in general, offered journalists a contained — which is to say, automatic — audience for their work. When you have subscribers and regular viewers, their loyalty insured by the narrowness of the media marketplace, you have the luxury of ignoring, essentially, the distribution side of journalism. The corollary being that you also have the luxury of assuming that your journalism, once published, will effect change in the world. Automatically.

And investigative journalism, in particular, whether conducted by Bly or Bernstein or Bogdanich, generally operated under the sunshine-as-Lysol theory of distribution: outrageous discoveries lead to outraged publics lead to chastened power brokers lead to social change. (For more on that, give a listen to the most recent Rebooting the News podcast.) Journalism was a lever of democracy; publication was publicity, and thus, as well, the end of an outlet’s commitment to its coverage. The matter of distribution, of a big story’s movement through the culture, wasn’t generally for journalists to address.

Which was a matter of practicality, sure — as a group, reporters are necessarily obsessed with newness, and have always been stalked by The Next Story — but also one of design. There’s a fine line, the thinking went, between amplification of a story and advocacy of it; the don’t-shoot-the-messenger rhetoric of institutional newsgathering holds up only so long as the messengers in question maintain the appropriate distance from the news they’re delivering. And one way to maintain that distance was a structured separation from stories via a framework of narrative containment. Produce, publish, move on.

The web, though, to repeat its ur-observation, is changing all that. Digital platforms — blogs, most explicitly, but also digital journalism vehicles as a collective — have introduced a more iterative form of storytelling that subtly challenges print and broadcast assumptions of conceptual confinement. For journalists like Josh Marshall and Glenn Greenwald and other modern-day muckrakers, to be a journalist is also, implicitly, to be an advocate. And, so, focusing on the follow-up aspect of journalism — not just starting fires, but keeping them alive — has been foundational to their work. Increasingly, in the digital media economy, good journalists find stories. The better ones keep them going. The best keep them burning.

And yet, to return to the WikiLeaks question, that ethos of continuity hasn’t generally caught on in the culture more broadly — among journalists or their audiences. And one reason for that is the matter of momentum, the editorial challenge of maintaining reader interest in a given subject over a long period of time. Political issues caught in congressional inertias, military campaigns that stretch from months to years, social issues that hide in plain sight — their temporality itself becomes a problem to be solved. There’s a reason why, to take the most infamous example, political campaigns are so often indistinguishable from an episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras“: campaigns being year-long affairs (longer now, actually: Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are probably digging into Maid-Rite loose-meats as I type), journalists often focus on their trivialities/conflicts/etc. not necessarily because they think that focus leads to good journalism, but because they think, probably correctly, that it sustains their audiences’ attention as election season slogs on.

Which is all to say — and not to put too expansive a point on it, but — time itself poses a challenge to the traditional notion of “the story.” Continuity and containment aren’t logical companions; stories end, but the world they cover goes on. The platform is ill-suited to the project.

Followupstories.org?

While addressing that problem head-on is no easy task — it’s both systemic and cultural, and thus extra-difficult to solve — I’d like to end with a thought experiment (albeit a small, tentative, just-thinking-out-loud one). What if we had an outlet dedicated to continuity journalism — a news organization whose sole purpose was to follow up on stories whose sheer magnitude precludes them from ongoing treatment by our existing media outlets? What if we took the PolitiFact model — a niche outfit dedicated not to a particular topic or region, but to a particular practice — and applied it to following up on facts, rather than checking them? What if we had an outlet dedicated to reporting, aggregating, and analyzing stories that deserve our sustained attention — a team of reporters and researchers and analysts and engagement experts whose entire professional existence is focused on keeping those deserving stories alive in the world?

Sure, you could say, bloggers both professional and amateur already do that kind of follow-up work; legacy news outlets themselves do, too. But: they don’t do it often enough, or systematically enough. (That’s a big reason why it’s so easy to forget that war still rages in Iraq, that 12.6 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, etc.) They often lack incentive to, say, localize a story like the War Logs for their readers. Or to contextualize it. Or to, in general, continue its existence. An independent outlet — and, hey, this being a thought experiment, “independent outlet” could also include a dedicated blog on a legacy outlet’s website — wouldn’t prevent other news shops from doing follow-up work on their own stories or anyone else’s, just as PolitiFact’s presence doesn’t preclude other outlets from engaging in fact-checking. A standalone shop would, however, serve as a kind of social safety net — an insurance policy against apathy.

As Lab contributor C.W. Anderson remarked on Monday: “I wonder what it would take for a story like the ‘War Logs’ bombshell to stick around in the public mind long enough for it to mean something.”

I do, too. I’d love to find out.

Photo of U.S. soldiers in Pana, Afghanistan, by the U.S. Army. Photo of Jay Rosen by Joi Ito. Both used under a Creative Commons license.

June 02 2010

13:00

The art of the (public) cover letter: Journal Register staff apply for ideaLab spots via blog comments

After last week’s successful completion of the Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project, CEO John Paton was looking for a new project that would keep the momentum of innovation going for the beleaguered newspaper network.

Enter the ideaLab, JRC’s new strategy to “equip 15 Journal Register Company staff members with the latest tools and give them the time and money to experiment with them.” Journal Register will carve out 10 hours a week from ideaLab members’ current jobs, Google-20-percent-time-style, “to allow them time to experiment with these tools and report back on how we can change our business for the better.” And, out of advance recognition that ideaLab commitments might seep into staffers’ free time, the company will ad an extra $500 per month to those staffers’ pay.

Paton is currently in the process of selecting the company’s ideaLab members — and, to do it, he’s asked Journal Register staff to apply for the positions. Publicly, if they choose:

In about 200 words or less, email me at jpaton@journalregister.com or post on my blog what you would do with the tools and time to improve our business. Any Journal Register Company employee in any division or any department – part-time or full-time – is eligible. I will involve our Advisory Board ( http://bit.ly/dyhkVK ) in the selection of the 15 staffers and we will make sure the ideas of those chosen will be posted on my blog and the Ben Franklin Project site.

Now, the ball is in your court. Over to you.

What happened next was pretty remarkable: Journal Register staffers took that ball — and ran with it. Paton’s post has received over 150 comments — nearly all of them from Journal Register employees, best I can tell — and nearly all of them lengthy, thoughtful, and earnest. Cover letters, in comment form.

Here’s one from Joe Cahill of the Montgomery News:

Despite just officially joining JRC as a part-time employee, I have spent the last five months interning with Montgomery Media in Pennsylvania. As a college student majoring in Communications, working in multimedia journalism has been the fulfillment of a life-long dream. I have always dreamed of working in the journalism industry, and having the ability to utilize my passion for new technologies and multimedia production while doing so has proven invaluable to me.

Since its inception, I have followed the Ben Franklin Project diligently. I’ve worked alongside one of the editors, Andy Stettler, for the past five months. Andy, a friend and former classmate of mine, has taught me volumes during my tenure at Montgomery Media, and I continue to work alongside him to produce the best possible content for the company.

I would like to humbly submit myself as a candidate for JRC’s ideaLab. If chosen, sir, I promise to spend every waking second as an innovator, and using the tools and time given to me to both better the company and better myself as a student of Communications. Thinking differently is what I do best, and working for the ideaLab would be my chosen calling.

And one from Marissa Raymo of The Oakland Press:

With the ideaLab technology, I would like to explore ways to develop mobile websites for our newspapers (in addition to the mobile apps that are already in development). For example, the New York Times has both a downloadable application for iPhone/Android/Blackberry platforms and a mobile website (mobile.nytimes.com) that can be accessed without any downloading.

I would also research additional revenue opportunities through online advertising, etc. I recently tested a new online revenue opportunity through backlinks on our newspaper website. Since newspaper sites are generally highly ranked pages, our advertisers may be able to increase both their websites’ page rank and traffic through direct links on our newspaper websites (which cannot be made through our banner ad serving software). With time and technology, I believe that this could be developed into a very profitable revenue opportunity.

Most importantly, I would use the ideaLab to find ways to make our entire internet presence more user-friendly to the generations that were not raised on this technology. I look forward to the innovations and renovations to come. Thank you for the opportunity to grow with this company!

And one from Victor Ciarrone of The Morning Journal:

John,

As an account executive for The Morning Journal, I am excited about the direction the company is heading as a multi media news company. The Ben Franklin Project is very intriguing.

One of the main roadblocks we run into, as reps, is ad production. The time from receiving the ad material to the final proof can take days, sometimes weeks. With a faster turnover on ad production, our time on the street may increase.

10 hours a week will be spent on incorporating the iPhone, iPad, and Netbook into the success of our sales staff. These three products can be utilized for the production of ads right in front of our clients. Using the iPhone to collect data, composing the ad with the iPAD, and delivering the final result with the net book. (Plus the Netbook weighs much less than the laptop I am carrying around – might save me from a hip replacement later on in life.) It will be a fun opportunity to find innovative ways to help our company succeed with the goals we have in place. Timed saved on production is more time on the street building relationships and contributing the success of where we as a company want to be in the near future.

Have a wonderful week and I hope to hear from you.

Victor Ciarrone
The Morning Journal
Retail Advertising

There’s much more in that vein. Anyone in the company can become part of the ideaLab, Paton told me — and while, “so far, one of the best applications is from an intern,” he’s also received applications from publishers of Journal Register papers. “It’s all departments, part-time, full-time. If you’re one of the 3,106 people on our payroll, you’re eligible.”

It’s pretty remarkable to see journalists essentially applying for jobs in the open (though the comments, Paton notes, don’t include the many emails he’s received containing similar cover-letter-like expositions). But the public-auditions phenomenon Paton’s post encouraged is of a piece with the transition toward transparency he’s been trying to inculcate at the company. “This was a crappy culture here before, at JRC, and hardly known for innovation,” Paton says. Staffers have “been screwed on pay, they’re been screwed on benefits” — trust in executives, understandably, has been low. But the ideaLab, both in its formulation and its application structure, is meant as a kind of crucible of cultural change. Like the Ben Franklin Project, “this is a way of making them think differently about the process.”

“The courage and tools to experiment”

It’s also a way of liberating Journal Register journalists. “When I started in this business in the ’70s — probably because we had more money than God — we weren’t afraid to experiment,” Paton notes. “Newsrooms used to be places where people hated to follow process, weren’t very good at rules, didn’t like authority, saw themselves as independent, and were generally anarchists — and proudly so.” Now, though, “dollars are challenged, and people are much more afraid to try new things.”

But giving journalists the freedom to experiment — reviving that spirit of independence and even rule-breaking — can be good business as well as good journalism. The Journal Register sites, Paton says, have gone from serving around 100,000 video streams this January 1, to, as of April — after the staff, later this winter, were given Flip cams and the mandate to use them — around 1 million. “So people can do this — if you give them the courage and tools to experiment.”

And how will the ideaLab leverage those goods? Basically, its members will be “free agents,” Paton says — they’ll be given tools and simply asked to experiment with them and find new ways to use them. There will be no real rules, “other than that we’re going to make sure you get 10 hours — so 25 percent of your work week — free.”

The idea for the ideaLab itself, Paton notes, actually came from Jay Rosen, a Journal Register Company advisory board member. (“As a CEO, my greatest gift is theft,” Paton says. “I used to be a rewrite man — I can take anybody’s good work and make it mine.”) Rosen sent Paton a note suggesting that the company put together a group of innovation-minded employees who could spearhead the company’s efforts at innovation. “And I thought it was a pretty good idea,” Paton says. But though it was the CEO who implemented the experiment, Paton notes — and here he loses some of his idea-thief cred — “all credit for the ideaLab goes to Jay Rosen.”

Of course, it’s not a given that the innovation-via-staffers approach the JRC’s ideaLab concept endorses is the best way to create value in a news organization. In the most recent episode of their Rebooting the News podcast, Rosen and Dave Winer discussed the idea — and Winer objected to the org-centric, supply-side-focused sensibility the ideaLab implicitly endorses. “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree,” Winer said. “I think these guys ought to go learn what their customers want. They ought to get on the other side of the fence — I think that’s where you’re going to find the answer.”

Still, there’s nothing to say that experiments oriented toward the demand side of news production couldn’t be part of the group’s mandate. In fact, when it comes to the ideaLab, pretty much anything is fair game, Paton says. The team will hold no regular meetings or conferences or check-ins; the idea is simply to give smart, knowledgeable, enthusiastic people the freedom to experiment, and see what happens. Paton, who ran news operations in Europe and Canada (as well as the U.S.) before taking the helm at Journal Register, has a farm in France; he’s learned, from cultivating it, the benefits of letting things bloom, organically. “I don’t want to manicure anything anymore,” he says. “I don’t want to be one of those guys on his John Deere, up on the lawn, making it cute. And I think that’s what this is going to be like: Think of it as wildflowers instead of a nice, clipped garden.”

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