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November 16 2010

17:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Matthew Field used under a Creative Commons license.

November 12 2010

16:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olbermann photo by Kirsten used under a Creative Commons license.

August 02 2010

15:00

Following up on the need for follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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