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July 25 2011

14:30

Vadim Lavrusik: Five key building blocks to incorporate as we’re rethinking the structure of stories

Editor’s Note: Vadim Lavrusik is Facebook’s first Journalist Program Manager, where he is responsible for, among other things, helping journalists to create new ways to tell stories. (You may remember him from his work at Mashable.) In the article below, he provides an wide-angle overview of the key forces that are re-shaping the news article for the digital age.

If we could re-envision today’s story format — beyond the text, photographs, and occasional multimedia or interactive graphics — what would the story look like? How would the audience consume it?

Today’s web “article” format is in many ways a descendent from the golden age of print. The article is mostly a recreation of print page design applied to the web. Stories, for the most part, are coded with a styled font for the headline, byline, and body — with some divs separating complementary elements such as photographs, share buttons, multimedia items, advertising, and a comments thread, which is often so displaced from the story that it’s hard to find. It is only scratching the surface of the storytelling that is possible on the web.

In the last few years, we’ve seen some progress in new approaches to the story format on the web, but much of it has included widgets and tools tacked on for experimentation. And it doesn’t fully account for changes in user behavior and the proliferation of simple publishing tools and platforms on the web. As the Huffington Post’s Saul Hansell recently put it, “There are a lot more people saying things than there is stuff to say in this world.” Tools like Storify and Storyful enable journalists to curate the conversation that’s taking place on the social web, turning ephemeral comments into enduring narratives. A story, Jeff Jarvis notes, can be the byproduct of the process of newsgathering — the conversation.

And the conversation around the story has become, at this point, almost as important as the story itself. The decisions we make now — of design and of content creation — will inform the evolution of the story itself. So it’s worth stepping back and wondering: How can we hack today’s story into something that reflects the needs of today’s news consumers and publishers, integrates the vast amounts of content and data being created online, and generally leverages the opportunities the web has created? Below are some of the most crucial elements of online storytelling; think of it as a starting point for a conversation about the pieces tomorrow’s story format could include.

1. Context

Context wears many hats in a story. It could mean representing historical context through an interactive timeline or presenting contextualized information that puts the story in perspective. It could be an infographic, a subhead with information — or cumulative bits of information that run through a narrative. When the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was published, many of its stories were only a few sentences in length. Most of its stories were reports that were gathered through word of mouth. But because of the infrequency of the publication and short length of the stories, it failed to provide the reader with adequate context in its stories. Haphazard newsgathering led to a somewhat chaotic experience for readers.

Today, though, with publication happening every millisecond, the overflow of information presents a different kind of challenge: presenting short stories in a way that still provides the consumer with context instead of just disparate pieces of information. We’ve seen a piece of the solution with the use of Storify, which enables journalists to organize the social story puzzle pieces together to suggest a bigger picture. But how can this approach be scaled? How can we provide context in a way that is not only comprehensive, but inclusive?

2. Social

Social platforms have, in short, changed the way we consume news. Over the last decade, we consumers spent a big portion of our time searching for news and seeking it out on portals and news sites. Now news finds us. We discover it from friends, colleagues, and people with whom we share intellectual interests. It’s as if on every corner one of our friends is a 1900s paperboy shouting headlines along with their personal take on the news in question. The news is delivered right to us in our personalized feeds and streams.

Social design makes the web feel more familiar. We tend to refer to readers and viewers as consumers, and that’s not only because they consume the content that is presented or pay for it as customers; it’s also because they’re consumed by the noise that the news creates. Social design adds a layer that acts as a filter for the noise.

Stories have certainly integrated social components so far, whether it’s the ability of a consumer to share a story with friends or contribute her two cents in the comments section. But how can social design be integrated into the structure of a story? Being able to share news or see what your friends have said about the piece is only scratching the surface. More importantly, how can social design play nice with other components discussed here? How do you make stories that are not just social, but also contextual — and, importantly, personal?

3. Personalization

One of the benefits of social layering on the web is the ability to personalize news delivery and provide social context for a user reading a story. A user can be presented with stories based on what their social connections have shared using applications like Flipboard, Zite, Trove, and many others. Those services incorporate social data to learn what it is you may be interested in reading about, adding a layer of cusomtization to news consumption. Based on your personal interests, you are able to get your own version of the news. It’s like being able to customize a newscast with only segments you’re interested in, or only have the sports section of the local newspaper delivered to your porch…times ten.

How can we serve consumers’ needs by delivering a story in a format they prefer, while avoiding the danger of creating news consumers who only read about things they want know (and not news they should know)? Those are big questions. One answer could have to do with format: enabling users to consume news in a format or style they prefer, enabling them to create their own personalized article design that suits their needs. Whatever it looks like, personalization is not only important in enabling users to get content in a compelling format. It’s also crucial from the business perspective: It enables publishers to learn more about their audiences to better serve them through forms of advertising, deals, and services that are just as relevant and personalized.

4. Mobile

Tomorrow’s story will be designed for the mobile news consumer. Growing accessibility to smartphones is only going to continue to increase, and the story design and format will likely increasingly cater to mobile users. They will also take into account the features of the platform the consumer is on and their behavior when they are consuming the content. The design will take into account how users interact with stories from their mobile devices, using touch-screen technology and actions. We’re already seeing mobile and tablet design influence web design.

These are challenges not only of design, but of content creation. Journalists may begin to produce more abbreviated pieces for small-screen devices, while enabling longform to thrive on tablet-sized screens. Though journalists have produced content from the field for years, the advancement of mobile technology will continue to streamline this process. Mobile publication is already integrated into content management platforms, and companies like the BBC are working on applications that will enable users to broadcast live from their mobile phones.

5. Participation

Citizens enabled by social platforms are covering revolutions on mobile devices. Users are also able to easily contribute to a story by snapping a picture or video and uploading it with their mobile devices to a platform like iReport. Tomorrow’s article will enable people to be equal participants in the story creation process.

Increasingly, participation will mean far more than simply consumption, being cast aside as a passive audience that can contribute to the conversation only by filing a comment below a published story (pending moderator approval). The likes of iReport, The Huffington Post’s “contribute” feature, or The New York Daily News’ recent uPhoto Olapic integration — which enables people to easily upload their photos to a story slideshow and share photos they’ve already uploaded to Facebook, Flickr, and elsewhere — are just the beginning. To harness participatory journalism, these features should no longer be an afterthought in the design, but a core component of it. As Jay Rosen recently put it, “It isn’t true that everyone is a journalist. But a lot more people are involved.”

Image by Holger Zscheyge used under a Creative Commons license.

July 20 2011

16:00

Webs and whirligigs: Marshall McLuhan in his time and ours

Thursday, July 21 would have been the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media theorists who was one of the most influential — or at least one of the most quoted — media thinkers of the 20th century. (And certainly the only one to feature, memorably, in Annie Hall, above.) To celebrate, we’re having a mini McLuhan Week here at the Lab. To kick us off, here’s our own Megan Garber.

Marshall McLuhan is generally best known — and to some extent exclusively known — for a single maxim: “The medium is the message.” This is mostly unfortunate. McLuhan was the author of several books of varying forms, a pioneering intellectual celebrity, and the founder of a field; five words, plump and alliterative though they may be, are wildly inadequate. But McLuhan had, in his way, a sense of humor, and appreciated as much as anyone the absurdity of his own meta-maxim (M.M. = (M=M)), and ended up feeding and fighting his own reductive celebrity in pretty much equal measure. A lover of poetry, probes, and extremely bad puns, he named one of his later books The Medium Is the Massage.

Today, 100 years after his birth and nearly 50 after he gave us language that made “media” into a thing, McLuhan is a Media Guru of the first order, which is to say that he is often quoted and rarely read. (The second-most-famous McLuhanism: “You know nothing of my work!”) When he died in late 1980, obituaries remembered him, with no apparent irony, as the “apostle of the electronic age.” But what will he be for the digital? Do his insights, focused as they were on the vagaries of television, apply equally well to the brave new world of bytes and bits?

For all the “visionary” status we confer on him today, it’s worth remembering that McLuhan was constrained by his time as much as we are to our own: He wrote not just about Tribal Man and Graphic Man, about the cultural and cognitive effects of communication as they sweep the span of human history, but also about jukeboxes and miniskirts and magazines and hosiery. Women, to him, were accessories to men. And his thinking (to repeat: Tribal Man) was pretty much implicitly paternalistic. When he talked about a “global village” — another maybe-claim to web-visionary fame — he wasn’t talking about a world community where New Yorkers go jeans-shopping with Londoners and Guineans share sugar with Laotians and everyone finally meets at a communal table to sip artisanal tea and discuss newly localized world events; he was talking about an encroaching dystopia that renders Tribal Man — or, more accurately, re-tribalized humanity — increasingly connected to, and yet actually disconnected from, each other via the barely-contained buzz of electric wires. A global village, McLuhan feared, was one that would be populated by automatons.

But writing, as it filled us with notions of our own narrative nobility, inspired in us something else, too: a need — a desire, an impulse — for containment.

“What if he is right”? Tom Wolfe asked, ominously. “What…if…he…is…right”?

And: He was right, about not everything but a lot, which is why today he is a Media Guru and a YouTube sensation and a ubiquitous subject of biographies both cheeky and earnest and a fixture of culture both nerd and pop, which are increasingly the same thing. He is the patron saint of Wired. Today, as the “electronic” age zips and zaps into the digital, as we are spun by the centrifugal forces of a nascent revolution that we can’t fully perceive because we’re the ones doing the spinning, McLuhan’s theories seem epic and urgent and obvious all at the same time. And McLuhan himself — the teacher, the thinker, the darling of the media he both measured and mocked — seems both more relevant, and less so, than ever before.

More, because, as the tale goes, McLuhan pretty much foresaw this whole Internet business. But less, too, because whatever foreseeing he did arrived, as foresight often does, prematurely. In the ’60s, at the height of his fame, McLuhan’s ideas were thrilling and shocking and, more generously, radical. Fifty years later, tempered by time, those same ideas have coalesced into conventionality (less generously: cliché). “The medium is the message” has been used to describe everything from cars to computers. I’m pretty sure I remember Bart Simpson writing it on a blackboard. McLuhan, controversial in his own time, has mainstreamed; the basic tenets of his thought — to the extent that his “thought,” an impressionistic assemblage of ideas that sweep and swoop and sometimes snap with self-contradiction, are a unit at all — have been, basically, accepted. We shape our tools, and afterward our tools shape us. Yeah, definitely. But…now what?

McLuhan wasn’t a journalistic thinker; he was a media theorist, and is most interesting when he’s talking not about the news itself, but about more theory-y things — modes and nodes and all the rest. (Though: If you want a treat, check out The Mechanical Bride, the collection of essays that formed his first book and that feature McLuhan before he became, fully, McLuhan — McLuhan not as an enigmatic intellect so much as a classic critic, trenchant and crotchety and indignant and delightful.) One feature of McLuhan’s thought that is newly relevant, though — to the world of the web, and to the new forms of journalism that live within it — is the one that is both core and corollary to the medium is the message: the basic tenet that our communications tools aren’t actually tools at all, but forces that disrupt human culture by way of human psychology. And vice versa.

Before print came along, McLuhan argues, we were, as a species, “ear-oriented”: Human culture was oral culture, with everything — community, ephemerality, memory — that that implies. Print changed all that, pretty much: It changed us, certainly — cultural evolution can take place approximately 1.5 million times faster than genetic evolution can — by imbuing in us a newly “graphic” orientation. Which brought with it literacy, which brought with it the easy outsourcing of memory, which brought with it an increased, if not wholly novel, notion of human individuality. Print captured and conjured the world at the same time, giving us a new kind of power over our environment that was almost — almost — mystical. Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing, was also the god of magic.

Online, the wonder of the whirligig — the cheerful circuity of oral culture — is returning to us, and we to it.

But writing, as it filled us with notions of our own narrative nobility, inspired in us something else, too: a need — a desire, an impulse — for containment. With print’s easy ubiquity, the default tumult of oral culture gave way to something more linear, more ordered — something that aspired to a sense of completeness. Communicating became not so much about interpreting the world as about capturing it.

And — here’s where things get especially relevant for our purposes — the media (“media,” now, in the daily-journalism sense) have been key agents of that shift. What journalism has been as much as anything else, on the mass-and-macro level of culture, is a collective attempt to commodify time. Not just in its staccatoed stories of human events, but in its measurements and mechanics: the daily paper. The weekly magazine. The nightly news. “The Epiphanator,” Paul Ford has called it. So journalism, for everything else it has done, has also carved out a social space — the newshole, the object that results when you attempt to stanch the flood of history with a beanbag — from the stretches of time. The newshole has been the graphic-man version of Mumford’s clock, a revolution in words and images and increments, implying if not imposing human agency, ticking and tocking to the beat of human events.

And the sense it has engendered of time as an episodic thing has translated, as well, to the content of journalism. Stories, in short, have endings. And they have beginnings. That is, in fact, what makes them stories. A Mumfordian media is one that is composed of a series of episodes, modular events that can be figured and configured and then reconfigured for our narrative needs. Frank Kermode looked at the sweep of literary history and saw within it a pattern of “end-determined fictions” — stories that were defined by arbitration and apocalypse and, overall, “the sense of an ending”; the kind of structural eschatology he describes, though, isn’t limited to literature. Nonfiction stories, too, have been defined by the sense — actually, the assumption — of an ending.

But! The web. The web, with its feeds and flows and rivers and streams. The web, which has endowed us with — and the phrase is, of course, telling — “real time.” Online, publishing schedules (and, increasingly, broadcasting schedules), byproducts of the industrial world, are increasingly out of place. Online, we are time-shifters. Online, the wonder of the whirligig — the cheerful circuity of oral culture — is returning to us, and we to it. The Gutenberg Parenthesis is quickly closing. The web is de-incrementalizing history. “Real time” is real precisely because it is timeless. It lacks a schedule. It is incessant.

And so are our media, made newly social. Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and all the rest swim with time’s flow, rather than attempting to stanch it. And they are, despite that but mostly because of it, increasingly defining our journalism. They are also, as it were, McLuhanesque. (Google+: extension of man.) Because if McLuhan is to be believed, the much-discussed and often-assumed human need for narrative — or, at least, our need for narrative that has explicit beginnings and endings — may be contingent rather than implicit. Which means that as conditions change, so may — so will — we. We may evolve past our need, in other words, for containment, for conclusions, for answers.

McLuhan’s vision is, finally, of a world of frayed ends rather than neat endings, one in which stock loses out to flow — a media environment, which is to say simply an environment, in which all that is solid melts…and then, finally, floods. And for journalism and journalists, of course, that represents a tension of rather epic, and certainly existential, dimensions. Paul Ford:

We’ll still need professionals to organize the events of the world into narratives, and our story-craving brains will still need the narrative hooks, the cold opens, the dramatic climaxes, and that all-important “■” to help us make sense of the great glut of recent history that is dumped over us every morning. No matter what comes along streams, feeds, and walls, we will still have need of an ending.

To which McLuhan whispers, ominously: “No, Paul, no. No, we may not….”

Images by Leo Reynolds and Phil Hollman used under a Creative Commons license.

15:00
04:30

Facebook and the narrative of real-time status updates - there is non

New York Magazine :: Last year I watched a friend struggle through breast cancer treatment in front of hundreds of friends. She broadcast her news with caution, training her crowd in how to react: no drama, please; good vibes. In the world of social media and real-time updates, it can feel bizarre that potent evidence of grieving from one friend is followed so quickly by pictures of oven-fresh cookies from another. But Facebook is generated by algorithms without feelings. It's not a narrative.

[Paul Ford:] (Facebook) has no understanding of anything aside from the connections between individuals and the ceaseless flow of time: No beginnings, and no endings.

These disparate threads of human existence alternately fascinate and horrify that part of the media world that grew up on topic sentences and strong conclusions. This world of old media is like a giant steampunk machine that organizes time into stories. I call it the Epiphanator, ...

Continue to read Paul Ford, nymag.com

June 11 2011

13:54

War and peace - Sebastian Junger on Tim Hetherington's death

Los Angeles Times :: Last Oscar season, author Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington walked the red carpet together. Barely two months after the Oscars, on April 20, Hetherington was killed in a mortar attack in Misurata, Libya, where he was covering the rebel uprising against Moammar Kadafi's regime.

[Sebastian Junger:] War remains one of humanity's master narratives.

In the months since, Junger has resolved to pull back from combat journalism. "I'm not going to do any more front-line reporting, because I don't want to put my wife through what I went through with Tim," he said during a recent stopover in Los Angeles to promote the new paperback edition of his 2010 book "War,"

An interview by Reed Johnson, www.latimes.com

June 03 2011

16:00

The news/analysis divorce: Who gets custody of the cash?

Editor’s Note: Lab contributor Lois Beckett is a freelance journalist who focuses on meta-media reporting and the future of long-form journalism. Here, in a response to a much-discussed article predicting a “divorce” between news and analysis, she considers the economic aspects of longform. 

One of the must-read articles of the week is “The News Article is Breaking Up,” by Sulia CEO Jonathan Glick.

Glick makes the pretty standard evaluation that the traditional news article is an outdated medium for conveying information. Consumers, he argues, want either a quick, tweet-sized update — something that they can take in as part of the stream, particularly on increasingly ubiquitous smartphone platforms — or an immersive longform experience that puts those bits of information into context.

Unlike Jeff Jarvis, who argues that “the most precious resource in news is reporting,” Glick argues that “the news” should be given away for free, as a loss leader for analysis. “Long-form writing will survive and will do so by abandoning news nuggets,” he writes. Furthermore: “The good news for writers is that this dovetails with their financial and intellectual interests.”

Via a variety of social-mobile platforms, they will pass along facts and pictures as soon as they obtain them — or verify them, depending on the writer’s journalistic standards. Writers who are especially good at doing this real-time reporting will develop audiences who are attentive to their mobile alerts. News nuggets are highly viral, so successful reporters will very quickly be introduced to huge numbers of readers.

Through this loss-leading channel, writers will then be able to notify their readers about longer-form articles they have created…. These pieces will written to be saved to read later — for that time when the reader takes a moment to relax, learn, and enjoy resting by the side of the stream. Social and mobile platforms make payment much easier, so it will be practical to charge a small fee. Fifty cents for thoughtful analysis is inexpensive, and yet it is the cost of an entire newspaper today.

Let’s put aside the question of whether charging “fifty cents for thoughtful analysis” is a realistic price point. The problem with Glick’s proposed business model is that it misrepresents the relationship between explanation and appetite.

Consumers have an appetite for updates about stories they’re already following (industry news, celebrity relationships) or for big events whose importance is easy to grasp (tornadoes, sex scandals, revolutions). But for many issues, consumers develop an interest in ”news nuggets” about a topic only after reading a long-form story about it. This can be true of investigative journalism, and of almost every long-form story that isn’t about a celebrity or a piece of major breaking news. Explanatory journalism creates the appetite for news updates on many subjects, not the other way around.

For that kind of longform, Glick’s business model is nonsensical. The pieces of many stories — the chronologically gathered details — have little value, economically or otherwise, without relevant context. As a reporter, how can I tweet observations about a source my readers don’t know about, or new wrinkles in an investigation that is still a mass of contradictory evidence?

Glick also creates a dichotomy between Twitter’s raw “nuggets” of news and highly crafted long-form stories. But Twitter, as a reportorial form, is actually much richer and more flexible than that either/or framing would suggest.

Take Mother Jones human rights reporter Mac McClelland, who gained a larger audience through her vividly tweeted coverage of the BP oil spill. Her tweets aren’t exactly “highly viral news nuggets.” Some of them have a breaking-news quality, but the central appeal of her Twitter feed is cumulative. It’s a crafted narrative, with McClelland as the questing, sometimes outraged, protagonist. Her feed is a long-form story that lives inside the news stream. To break it down to atomic elements seems, somehow, to miss the point.

That’s not to say that Glick’s notion of reporters propelling themselves to long-form stardom might not work for certain types of reporting — about big political campaigns, or revolutions, or natural disasters. These are situations in which readers have enough of a grasp of what’s going on to want real-time “news nuggets,” and enough questions to be willing (maybe) to pay for a well-crafted explainer that puts the updates together. In these cases, the loss-leaders might be tweets, or they might be the long-form stories themselves, which, in turn, might attract readers to pay for access to journalists’ live updates. Or, as Gerry Marzorati suggested earlier this year, nonfiction writing itself might become a loss-leader for another form of economic sustainment: book tours, events, and other direct encounters with the public.

Glick may not arrive at the right answer, but he is asking the right question: If short articles, once the journalist’s daily bread, can indeed be replaced in part by snappier, tweeted updates, how will reporters make money?

Image by Jez used under a Creative Commons license.

March 01 2011

19:30

A hive of long-form journalists: Gerry Marzorati and Mark Danner on a new model for long form

Yesterday at the Berkeley School of Journalism, former NYT Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati and author and former New Yorker writer Mark Danner sat down to talk about the “the fate of long-form journalism in a new media age.”

Their conversation came on the heels of Virginia Heffernan’s paen to long-form journalism and the possibilities of the new Kindle Singles platform, designed for “Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length.”

Marzorati argued that the Internet has not shortened readers’ attention spans, and that the audience for long-form journalism is large, enthusiastic, and happy to read long pieces that are actually long. (He noted that, during his tenure, cover stories at the Times Magazine didn’t shrink, but actually grew from an average of 4,000 to 5,000 words to at least 8,000 words.) For him, the crisis of the form isn’t the audience, but the expense: Who is going to pay for  the necessary months of reporting, fact-checking, and editing — not to mention the legal protection that intensive pieces often require? (Marzorati has said previously that NYT Times cover stories regularly cost upwards of $40,000.)

Marzorati’s comments reinforce a trend Megan highlighted this January: In a world where magazine editors are increasingly unwilling to invest in a big, intriguing story before it’s finished, long-form journalists are often turning to nonprofits to finance their reporting. Nonprofits are the “lifeboats,” as Megan put it. They keep important stories afloat until they’re close enough to publication that editors will take them on.

But the most intriguing part of yesterday’s conversation came when Danner asked Marzorati to imagine how he would build a long form-focused organization from scratch, if he had $10 or $12 million to do it.

The first step, Marzorati replied, would be to attract a lot of big-name writers who already have their own audiences. Then, he said, he would “surround, immerse each of these writers in a lot of the tools — social media tools. The writers would sort of be the hive, and the experience people would be coming for would be not only to read and encounter the writers, but also the community that this writer had created.

Danner, liking this idea, said it might appeal to the writers by providing “one-stop shopping” for editing, publishing, literary representation, and more, so that writers could spend less time managing their professional lives, and more time writing.

An edited partial transcript of the pair’s conversation is below.

Mark Danner: Are we right in worrying about the survival of long-form journalism? Is it really threatened?

Gerry Marzorati: I do think it is threatened. I don’t think it’s a technological problem, I don’t think it’s an audience problem. I think the conventional wisdom about long-form journalism — that people’s attention spans have lessened to such a degree that they no longer have the time, or they’re too distracted to read long form, or the medium itself is non-conducive to that sort of longer read (the 45-minute, hour-long read) — I think all of those things are not true.

We have metrics at The New York Times that show that people absolutely click the 23 clicks through to the end of the story. When I was at the magazine, the longest pieces in the magazine were the best-read, the most-read, the most-emailed. The pieces also tended to be, at the end of the year, the pieces that got the most pageviews of anything the Times ran…. People figured out their own sorts of behavior. They printed out the story — on the subway, you would see a printed-out version. Or Instapaper. People are reading these things, and they still become conversation pieces. I don’t know how many of you read Larry Wright’s [New Yorker] piece on Scientology, but a lot of people have read that piece…. [That] you can comment on them, you can blog about them, actually brings more readers to these long-form pieces.

The problem is who’s going to pay to have these pieces reported. That’s the problem. That’s really the crisis. You have  fewer and fewer news outlets, you have fewer and fewer magazines, willing to have a journalist report for five or six or eight months, or send them to the edge of the world — and then have the edifice in place to edit and fact-check these pieces. There is a feeling among these magazines that they don’t have to fund these pieces to create readership. It’s a really, really big problem.

At The New York Times Magazine, the number of magazines that were competing with us was just a handful, and none of these magazines makes money. If you go back to the heyday of long-form journalism in the ’60s and ’70s, the publications were also making money —

MD: You’re talking about Esquire, Harper’s —

GM: There were city magazines, The Atlantic, Harper’s, the New Yorker. There were a lot of places that were making money publishing long-form journalism.

MD:  For many magazines, whose identities have been formed with the reputation of funding this kind of work, do they have an alternative? Are they having the possibility that “we can’t do this stuff anymore, we can just stop doing long form, period”?

GM: I think that’s what’s happened. I cannot believe that Rolling Stone’s newsstand sales, or what have you, that that’s being driven by whether they have long-form journalism or not. It’s a crisis of the expense of reporting.

MD: What does long form bring to a publication? [With Rolling Stone], the McChrystal piece, which earned them a great deal not only of attention but news chops…is this Tina Brown’s notion of  “the mix”? Take a glossy magazine, give it credibility by inserting long-form journalism? What do you have left if you pull this stuff away? [Do they think], “I’m going to cut this stuff, but we’ll be fine without it”?

GM: …Or we’ll take book excerpts rather than funding the original reporting ourselves.

In part, you’re seeing things like ProPublica rise up. When I was at the magazine, we won a Pulitzer Prize partnering with them on a long reported piece…and here’s  interesting story. [The author, Sheri Fink] had come to magazine with this pitch years before. She had really no experience as a magazine writer, but it was a really interesting idea. We just weren’t in a position to fund what we knew was going to take a year or two of reporting — and we especially weren’t in a position to make the case to make the money available to someone who didn’t have that experience. I think she started with a grant from Knight, and eventually ProPublica funded her reporting, and we got involved about a year before the piece was published, and began shaping the story, and getting our legal team involved, and that sort of thing.

MD: What was the economic model? Most of her travel and reporting was funded off-site?

GM: ProPublica funded most of her reporting, and did a lot of the initial editing and that sort of directional editing. Steve Engelberg, who had been the Times’ investigative editor in the 1990s, is the managing editor at ProPublica. We knew each other and had a good working relationship. It wasn’t without a fair amount of back-ing and forth-ing. It’s very unusual to be involved in a project like that, where you have so many editors. It turned out to be a great experience in the end.

I suspect you’re going to see more of these kinds of organizations springing up, which is not without its own problems. ProPublica has its own best practices. I imagine there will be organizations in the future who have a specific message they want to get out, or a specific line of inquiry to pursue, and what’s the Times’ relationship with them going to be? You need to know the agenda of everyone before you leap into bed with these things.

MD: From the point of view of a young writer who is looking at long form and trying to make a life of it…is the landscape from that point of view worse? Are their fewer outlets at the end of the day? Fewer chances to make a living?

GM: I d0n’t think we know yet. We’re at a very early moment in web journalism. It changes year to year just so rapidly. Obviously the tablet is going to have a bigger impact than we can even imagine. I think there is something about reading on the tablet that is just more conducive. I also think Steve Jobs has figured out a way, brilliantly, to get people to pay through the iTunes store. People will pay for things…. Could you imagine paying 99 cents for a piece of journalism that you really want to read? Probably, yes. If you now have these sorts of models in place, through some startup money and foundation money, someone coming along and creating these kinds of pieces…yeah, I think it could happen, there’s a good chance it will happen. I don’t think we’ll know what it’s going to be until we have the first Harold Ross of Web 2.0.

MD:  Maybe Kindle Singles are an early sign. But there’s  nothing in here about the editing method, nothing in here about if you have an idea for a story, how you end up published. It simply seems to be a place where writers of some reputation already can publish.

GM: Whether the metaphor is a magazine or a clearinghouse of some kind, there’s a few projects, Longreads, Longform.org — but I don’t know if they pay. A lot of them are just collecting pieces from various publications. The problem is discovery — search.

One of the things that’s really taken off in the last 10-15 years: The public has a hunger to actually encounter the writers who are writing these pieces. One of the ways nonfiction writers are able to make money — not all nonfiction writers, but a fair number of them — is on the lecture tour. A kind of 19th century idea, the book as a loss leader for actually going out and encountering people.

[On the web] there are costs that you do eliminate, physical paper costs, which are considerable. You could imagine that someone could pull together a cadre of writers, fund them through foundation money, raise some kind of venture capital money, have some combination of lecturing and writing. If I were in that position, one of the things I would be very interested in experimenting with is: Is there a way to make more transparent the work-in-progress, which you have the possibility of doing online? We’re experimenting somewhat with this in the Times. If you have Nick Kristof in the main square in Cairo and he’s tweeting, can you get people interested in the story through that, and the story comes later? And part of what he’s doing through tweeting is explaining how he’s gathering the story. You’ve got some added value, which you don’t have in print.

Maybe that’s one of the things that will make this work. You subscribe to this place, and you know you’re going to get a story in six months, from some war correspondent, that’s really going to be a big narrative — but along the way, that reporter is tweeting and posting about what he or she is doing.

MD: It’s really an amazing “back to the future” thing. Tolstoy did War and Peace by subscription, and finally, with publication in full, the earlier volumes were substantially changed. You signed up for the beginning and you basically did see it in progress.

If you were going to set something like this up — you had a few million dollars in venture capital — given the obstacles now and the advantages, how would you go about doing it? If I handed you $10 million, $12 million.

GM: You’d have to start by attracting some big-name authors. One of the things the Internet has reinforced is the individual brand of a writer, and it’s to those writers that people go. I was having this discussion with Michael Lewis. He publishes his pieces in Vanity Fair, but most of his readers don’t read Vanity Fair — they just read it because he’s attached the link to a tweet and sent it out.

MD: Most of his readers are not paying readers —

GM: Those writers in some ways have transcended the publication. I think it’s going to be harder online to set up this kind of “publication”” feel, this kind of magazine, front of the book/back of the book/feature well, that was there to serve advertisers — to some extent, anyway. That sort of thing will disappear.

You will have to at least start by building the brand around a handful of these writers, and then, how I would go about it, would be just: Surround, immerse each of these writers in a lot of the tools, social media tools. The writers would sort of be the hive, and the experience people would be coming for would be not only to read and encounter the writer, but also the community that this writer had created.

MD: So are we talking to them, paying to get onto the community, or paying for a Kindle —

GM: You’d probably give them different options. You could subscribe to all the people, you could subscribe to one writers. I’d probably use social gaming mechanics to actually get people returning to the particular place, by which I mean: You become the most important commenter on Mark Danner, you are recognized, because your comments are the most read of all the comments. We badge you. We give you the title and you are now badged.

This has an enormous effect on keeping people coming back. It’s the same thing as in those shoot-em-up Mafia Wars: You work your way up, you kill more and more mobsters. You keep coming back. You have a place in the game. You become a super commenter, your comments are flagged in some way. Maybe you do it in color shades. The blue overlaid comment is the one that’s teh most read. Your comment on Michael Lewis’ recent piece is the most important. Or you get badged by bringing other commenters to the site, bringing 20 of your Facebook fans to the site. [Marzorati is the Times' Assistant Managing Editor for New Products and Strategies, but when I asked him about that strategy after the talk, he said the Times is not planning to implement a badge system any time soon — it's just something he finds interesting.]

GM: How would you attract writers? Editors attract writers by some combination of paying them the going rate or force of personality.

MD:  What are you offering them as a lure?

GM: The promise of getting them more readers than they would otherwise have. You could work out deals with print magazines that you also reverse publish into, form partnerships with Amazon and other distributors…. Ultimately, what these writers want is the best readership they can have, and if you figure out a way to pull that off, the promise of the Internet is gigantic. The reach — The New York Times, on any given weekday, sells 800,000 copies, and you know, we have more than 60 million unique visitors a month. It’s gigantic. It’s international.

MD: There’s also an irony here. The Internet has made long form writers entrepreneurs. You have a website, you have speaking tours, you have a publisher and a literary agent…. It’s more time-consuming for the author. Maybe what you’re offering is one-stop shopping: We are your publisher, we are your editor, we are your literary agent.

During the Q&A session, Michael Pollan, who is also a professor at the journalism school, asked Marzorati:  “What should we teach these kids, especially as long form writers?

GM: I position myself on the more conservative side. I don’t think journalism school is a place to  learn how to write computer code. I think a lot of the tool kit you’ll need, you’ll get on the job. I think our job, if you want to be a long form journalist, is to read a lot of really great long-form journalism and learn how to write it…. Reading is my own particular hobby horse. I think in a lot of programs there isn’t a lot of time built in just to read, to read the people who did it really well.

February 09 2011

14:00

3 Key Topics for the NetSquared Community: Part 3, Network Narrative

Over the last two weeks, we have posted parts 1 and 2 in a 3-part series, sharing some of our observations and planning concepts, and hoping to gather feedback and ideas from you. The first part in the series focused on Local and Gloal and the second highlighted opportunities to Expand our Impact. This week, we want to examine the ideas and framing for a Network Narrative - a topic we really think you can help with! As we share our early thinking about these areas of our work, we hope you’ll help to shape our thinking and direction by sharing your ideas, feedback and questions in the comments, or directly with us at net2@techsoup.org

Creating a Compelling Narrative

There’s lots going on and lots to talk about - whether it’s Project ideas that emerge and change the world, or Local groups that create the first opportunity to share and collaborate in diverse regions around the world. So, how do we pull it all together into a compelling narrative? One for funders vs one for techies, one for activists and one for organizations, and beyond? What’s the story that supports our work? And, from a strategic development perspective, maybe we need to further explore the difference between the overarching narrative and the various stories that support it and match the different groups within the network. Your story is the one we want to tell and we would love to hear how you see the NetSquared programs helping you change the world!

We are so thankful to have members willing to make time to share, ask questions, and dream with us. And we are so thankful to community members like you who share your ideas here! We are looking forward to continuing this conversation and can’t wait to see what ideas you share.

Some questions to get you started:

  • What is the story you see of this sector and your work?
  • How can we capture a compelling narrative that empowers you to get involved?
  • How would you tell the NetSquared story - how are the community-driven programs helping you change the world?

January 10 2011

16:30

The year ahead in narrative: Little piggies, extraterrestrial life, and how we’ll tell each other stories in 2011

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we asked a bunch of smart people for their predictions of what 2011 would bring for the evolving world of journalism. But because of an editing error, we forgot to post one set of predictions.

Here’s Andrea Pitzer, editor of our terrific sister site Nieman Storyboard, on what 2011 will bring for narrative and storytelling.

In the coming year, long-form text/print narratives will continue at a handful of U.S. newspapers, and we’ll still see stories from talented writers who will manage to cobble a career (sometimes a stellar one) out of their teaching and books or magazine articles. Aspiring storytellers will get less personal coaching, even as a broader range of people will be able to access information on craft via YouTube and writers’ networks.

Digital stories will continue to nibble away at print’s dominance of fabulous narrative—look for more things like Jay Caspian Kang’s “The High Is Always the Pain, and the Pain Is Always the High,” or Jake Bogoch’s “School of Fight” to introduce you to talented writers you’ve never heard of. A few places, like Slate, Frontline, and nonprofit journalism orgs, will continue their savvy commitment to carving out digital space for storytelling with news value that takes time or space to unfold.

These are all extensions of existing trends. So what will be new in 2011? I predict that the shift to visual narrative will pick up the pace a little, with at least one new storyteller producing surprising short-form nonfiction narrative video that will grab and hold an audience in the millions about an important issue. (By this, I mean a constructed story, not the situational video records like the death of Neda Soltan or the innovative testimonials of the “It Gets Better” campaign.)

And we’ll see social media reflected more and more in our story constructs and in the stories themselves. Curation tools are beginning to make it possible to tell stories in new forms that can make use of literary techniques — I’m still thinking about the way that Mandy Jenkins of TBD managed to recreate the moment-by-moment suspense and confusion in the wake of a death outside a D.C. nightclub. These kinds of tools for gathering and presenting social media will make it possible for new epistolary models like Slate’s mock presidential Facebook feed or collaborative Twitter efforts to serve as inspiration for nonfiction narratives.

Still, this new storytelling will likely be pretty messy through 2011. Telling a story depends on building a compelling arc, but it also relies on an audience finding a way to engage with the narrative. Quality work may fail to connect to audiences; other new-style narratives that have innovative, exciting aspects may not yet work as a whole.

I also believe that the future is often a surprise, and so it’s possible that Geico commercials, the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or something that we can’t even imagine right now might play an important role in how we’ll tell stories in the future. But I wouldn’t give up on Instapaper and long-form stories just yet.

September 29 2010

15:30

Margaret Atwood on Twitter-as-performance, and why you should keep your Kindle in a lead-lined box

Continuing our impromptu series Literary Figures Talk About Twitter: The terrific Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood did an interview with Big Think about (among other things) her usage of and thoughts about Twitter. Atwood’s long been an investigator of technology both in her fiction and in real life. (Who can forget the LongPen, her freakishly awesome tool for doing book signings via long-distance robot arm?)

Like New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, whom we interviewed earlier this month, Atwood has found a lot of connections between Twitter and other forms of human communication. (Atwood currently leads Orlean in Twitter followers, 88,000 to 81,000. That would make for a much classier version of Ashton Kutcher vs. CNN.) Here’s some of what Atwood had to say:

Well, it is just an extension of the diary. And there is a wonderful book called The Assassin’s Cloak, which takes diary entries from all centuries and arranges them according to day of the year. So you can turn to January the 1st and there will be an entry from Lord Byron, and there will be one from somebody during World War II, and there will be one from Brian Eno. And then on January 2, there will be somebody else.

People used to perform their lives this way to themselves in their diaries, and also through letters to other people. So for me, anything that happens in social media is an extension of stuff we were already doing in some other way. So, it’s all human communication. And the form that most closely resembles the “tweet” is the telegram of old, which also was limited because you paid by the letter. And so short communications very rapidly sent.

So all of these things, the postal service, et cetera, they’re all improvements, if you like, or modernizations of things that already existed earlier in some other form. Even African tribal drums, for instance, could send very complex messages over great distances. They were very rapid, they were very well-worked out and communications could just go like wildfire using that medium of communications.

So all of this stuff is what we do now, but it’s not different in nature from what we have always done, which is communicate with one another, send messages to one another, and perform our lives. We’ve been doing that for a long time.

Atwood also gets into the performative aspects of social media: “And if you think that what goes up on people’s blogs is really the full content of their lives, of course, you’re quite wrong. It’s what they’re doing in the spotlight. It’s their turn. And this spotlight they can shine it on themselves and they can go in there and sort of dance about and create a persona for themselves. Of course it’s not the whole story.”

She talks about Twitter in the videos above and immediately below; in the third video, she talks about the rise of ebooks and why you should keep your Kindle in a lead-lined box. You can find the entire interview (which covers topics like speculative fiction and “the neurology of reading”) here.

14:00

Meta! Here’s how Storify looks telling the story of Storify

At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference this week, one of the new tools to emerge — besides, that is, Lark, the new app that wakes you “silently, without a jarring alarm” — was Storify. Founded by Burt Herman (a former AP reporter and founder of the journotech meetup group Hacks/Hackers) and developer/entrepreneur Xavier Damman, the platform promises a new way to leverage the real-time power of social media for creating stories. It’s doubling down on the increasingly common assumption that the future of news will demand curation on the part of news producers.

How does it work? With the caveat that the platform’s still in closed beta, it seems only appropriate to write the rest of this story using Storify.

Conclusion? The platform, at least in its current beta stage, might not be ideal for longer, text-heavy stories: The text field is a bit clunky, and the modular system lends itself more to narrative interruption than to flow. Still, the multimedia presentation aspect, used smartly, could be a refreshing counterpart to more traditional, text-heavy stories. (See for example, Penn professor and Wired blogger Tim Carmody’s engagingly Storified tale of a follower (re)quest.) And, for breaking news, where journalists might just be interested in the quick curation of tweets and videos, Storify’s drag-and-drop simplicity could be amazingly useful. It’s a simple mechanism for curating and contextualizing the atomized tumult that is the web — a little lifesaver for selected bits of information that otherwise might be lost to the news river’s rapids. Because, as Herman puts it, “stories are what last.”

September 14 2010

14:00

Twitter queen Susan Orlean on the mini-medium, the interactive narrative, and the writing persona

Susan Orlean is proof that being the consummate narrative journalist doesn’t conflict with becoming the consummate Twitterer. In her feed, currently 78,000-plus followers strong, the author and longtime New Yorker writer inverts the Jay Rosenian “not lifecasting, but mindcasting” approach to the platform: Orlean’s Twitter feed is focused on her life, from her writing, to her chicken-raising, to even — meta-tweets! — her use of Twitter itself. Rather than curating the web worldwide, Orlean (a former Nieman Fellow) curates the web of her own experience and her own (enviable) life. The feed is, in all, personal and whimsical and delightful — a memoir unfolding in real time. But if it’s a memoir, it’s an interactive one: To follow Orlean’s feed is to follow countless conversations between the author and her readers.

I spoke with Orlean about the way she interacts with this most interactive of media; she explained how writers can use Twitter to connect with their readers, why using Twitter makes financial sense for narrative journalists — and why it took Tweetdeck to make her a convert. The transcript below is lightly edited.

Megan Garber: So, first things first: How did you get started on Twitter?

Susan Orlean: I had an assistant who is quite a bit younger than I am, and one day she said to me, “You know, you really ought to be on Twitter.” I think her feeling was just: “Writers should be on Twitter.” So I opened an account — and I really didn’t do anything with it at first. It took a while before I “got it,” and began using it, and appreciating it as a part of my writing life.

MG: Was there a particular event or exchange that made it click for you — or was that appreciation more of a gradual process?

SO: It was gradual. When I was following a particular narrative in my life (when I was talking about one of my chickens being sick, for example), and seeing people respond to it — that made me think, “Interesting. Maybe this is a different way of talking to readers.” But it took a while. Twitter was something I didn’t quite “get” until I was actively using it — and until I was looking at it in a different way, rather than just on Twitter.com. It’s hard to appreciate the way it works if you don’t look at it on other services.

MG: Which platform were you using when things clicked?

SO: Tweetdeck. I’ve urged people — anybody I know who’s been using Twitter, but not understanding it — to use Tweetdeck, or some other interface. Twitter makes so much more sense that way. It’s really hard to understand it until you look at it in a different way — literally.

MG: That’s true. There’s something powerful in having the flow of Twitter — the conversations and interactivity, in particular — visualized, and then centralized. Speaking of that, I love the description of Twitter you used in your “What I Read” feature on The Atlantic’s site: “a tendril of my writing persona.” Do you think of your feed as narrative in the classic sense?

SO: I do. For one thing, you’re creating and supporting and embellishing a persona. That fosters a narrative of who you are and what you feel is worth commenting on. And if you’re a person who already has a public presence, you’re enhancing people’s understanding of where that’s coming from. In many cases, you’re following stories; you’re telling stories that have an ongoing narrative. There have been a number of instances where I’ve told stories and followed them — mainly personal stories, since I’m not using Twitter as a reporting medium — and people reading my feed have seen those stories unfolding. They’re generally fairly short stories, but they’re stories nevertheless.

MG: I love it when snippets of those stories — little Twitter nuggets — make their way into your more traditionally structured pieces: the work published in the magazine and even on your blog. It feels almost subversive, in the sense that we’re getting peeks into the background of the author’s life, and the background of particular narratives, that we wouldn’t have been privy to before.

SO: It’s an enhancement. You’re in control of how much you do or don’t want to reveal, but, yes, there’s also the pleasure that a reader might find in watching a story being born, so to speak — or even in hearing me thinking out loud about a story as I go along.

When I first started writing, I was working for a small, alternative news weekly in a smallish city [Willamette Week in Portland], and I knew who was reading my stories. I would see them, I would talk with them, I would get reactions from them — and I had an ongoing sense of who was reading my work and how they were experiencing it. When I first started writing for national magazines, it felt very strange. Suddenly my readership seemed really removed. I did run into people who’d say, “I just read your story” — but it’s very different from writing for a paper that’s in a smaller city, where you just see the reaction, and you know exactly who’s reading your work and why, and they know you, and there’s an intimate relationship between the writer and the audience.

I feel like Twitter is bringing that back, a little bit. It’s intimate in a very different way, but I once again have a sense of who my readers are, for the first time in a long time. They know what I’m working on, and they know when I’m flailing. It just creates a different sort of connection between a writer and a readership.

MG: That’s true. And I like, too, that Twitter creates another size option, I guess, for narrative: small (Twitter feed), medium (blog), large (magazine) — all radiating from, and feeding back to, that one central story.

SO: Yeah. For me, it was particularly nice to get engaged with Twitter at a time when I was working on a book. You go for this long, long, long stretch of being in a rabbit hole with this piece of work that’s taken years to do, and it can feel like, “AARGH! Is anyone out there?” I’ve found it enormously encouraging to think that there are a lot of people out there who are an audience — whom I can encourage to listen up and be prepared for the project when it’s out and ready to be read. I like being connected to readers.

You can also use Twitter to feel your audience. As I’ve been working on stories, sometimes I’ll mention something I’m working on — and I’m very interested in the reaction. I love doing readings, and to me Twitter is actually very much like doing a reading — in the way that doing a reading in front of a live audience gives you a chance to see, “Gee, people didn’t respond to that line,” or “People seem puzzled by this part of what I’ve read.” Twitter hasn’t changed anything I’ve written as much as it’s been an interesting way to gauge an audience.

It’s also been useful for building up interest in a story. It’s a way to say to people, “I’m working on this now. Keep an eye out for it” — without being annoying or using the medium purely promotionally. It gives people a glimpse of a story in advance, and a chance to anticipate something — which is nice for readers, I think. There’s never any reason not to get people interested in a story ahead of time.

MG: Definitely. And that process also gives readers a sense, I think, of being more intimately involved in the story simply by familiarity with it. Even just a bit of background knowledge — that sense of being clued into the creation and the dynamism of a piece — invests you in it.

SO: I think so. I think Twitter’s really important in that sense, frankly. In a world where we’re worrying about people’s commitment to reading, the more engaged readers feel in your work, the more likely they are to follow it — and to pay for it. It’s marketing in the best sense, because it’s finding the people who are interested in work and keeping them involved in it in a way that they’ve never been able to be before. I think it’s all to the good.

MG: Have you found that being on Twitter has affected your writing, style-wise?

SO: Yeah, I think that’s inevitable. I think the economy of expression, if nothing else, reminds you that it is entirely possible to say something of substance in extremely few words. If nothing else, Twitter is just a very useful reminder that you don’t have to go on ad nauseam to make a point or even to say something of real emotion. I’m not sure that I’m writing my book in 140-character spurts, but I do think that I’ve been reminded of how efficiently you can really make points. And I think that it has an effect — as you sit down to write something considerably longer, you appreciate how well you can telegraph something.

I think, for a writer, any writing you do, whether it’s an email or anything else, exercises the same muscles that are going to be used when you sit down to write your magnum opus. You’re always learning, and you’re always trying things out, and you’re always practicing. Any form, with its limitations, gives you a new set of parameters to work within. And I think every writer can benefit from that. Because there are always limits; there are always parameters. Whether it’s that you’re a reporter, and the limits are the truth of the situation, or that you’re a fiction writer, and the limit is the length that your editor is going to permit you — there are always restrictions. So learning to write in yet another restricted form is just great practice. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you put into play the ways you write with Twitter. But I think that every time you write, you’re learning something. You should be learning.

June 03 2010

16:00

Jeff Israely: The line between “content” and “journalism,” and deciding which side I want to be on

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first, second, and third installments. —Josh]

The digital information revolution is changing both the meaning and value of words. By now, we know a “friend” isn’t always a friend, and clouds and graphs don’t bring rain and spreadsheets.

After years of resisting, I’ve thrown myself into the new-media verbiage with relative gusto as I attempt to conquer my own modest corner of the digital landscape. Still, my brain/language synapses can sometimes misfire: When I saw Robert Scoble’s link last week to “one of the social services I am using a lot more lately,” I expected to click open details of his favorite new welfare program or rehab center.

The fluidity of what we say and hear when we write and read on the web may prompt an ironic LOL (annoying acronym) or old-fashioned harrumph (cool grandpa). But stopping to listen to ourselves may also help us better understand both what we might want to create in the new realm of information, and how to make it economically viable. As for my efforts, and just for fun, let me start by trying to define this very piece in two sentences or less: “This is an unpaid monthly “public diary” of shared professional experiences and observations and self-promotion (not necessarily in that order), written in fits and starts over two days at my home in Paris, with more attitude and less grammar than the stuff I’m paid to do, sweating (always) every word, inserting links to some though not all of my sources/inspiration, to be edited and distributed — with the press of a “Publish” button in Cambridge, Mass. — as far and long as its tail will carry it via a high-profile nonprofit website founded to help the news industry figure out how to be economically sustainable. While doing good journalism.”

Does the bad grammar — at Harvard, no less!? — and poor pay make this a blog post? My smart-ass hack colleagues would say good pay and good grammar have never been part of the journalist’s profile. The new media gurus would say the distinction is ultimately irrelevant. But rather than directly tackling this running dialectic between the j-word and b-word, let’s cut straight to the c-word: content, which may help us understand where the current meaning and value (economic and otherwise) of words intersect.

I don’t know when I first uttered this term in its internet guise, but I now use it constantly in talking about the media business in general, and in pitching my particular project. There is actually a rather linear linguistic path from its original off-line meaning (something contained — usually used in plural [the jar's contents]; [the drawer's contents]). It is matter that occupies a certain space; its particular characteristics (and value) are left to be (or not to be) defined. In Cyberville, it can be conceived of as the opposite, or complement, of a platform. We’re either building platforms and applications or producing content, or some combination thereof. Declaring that “I provide content” in today’s news business advertises one of two characteristics, or both: (a) I am capable of working in all media, any form or length; or (b) I am focused most of all on speed and technological innovation and maximizing human efficiency, rather than seeking depth and quality. We have seen in just the past few days how much the current market likes this latter approach.

“Journalism” instead has the air of something weighty, belabored, and — most of all — expensive to produce. Others talk about “storytelling,” which has a nice sound to it, but apparently leaves optional the integral relationship with breaking news and events — the news cycle — that traditional journalistic outlets (and Twitter!) are expected to provide.

Though I always make sure to slap the adjectives “quality” or “branded” on what our project will offer, I too have tended to opt for the content catch-all word as a way of talking the talk. But to walk the walk — September beta launch!? — forces me to think and speak for myself. And that means listening harder than ever. And that goes not just for language for language’s sake, but also specifically for the purpose of business.

Two conversations I’ve had in the past two weeks have brought clarity to the project’s revenue model: the first was a Skype to Atlanta with veteran CNN producer David Clinch, another traditional-media dude breaking off and doing his own global news thing; the second was a Montmartre coffee with former Orange executive and France director of Ask.com Irene Toporkoff, who I am now busy trying to woo (here too!?) to become a co-founder on the project. Both from what David is aiming to do and from Irene’s most recent experience as director general at Angie Interactive — and considering the nature of our product — it has become clear that the way to launch this project is what is generically known as B2B, that is, selling directly to other businesses, in this case, other major brands or web portals. “B2B,” Irene kept repeating. “It is an interesting project. But it has to be B2B…” In France, they call it an agence, which is an all-encompassing term that includes the wires (AFP), but also smaller and more niche content providers. In the new digital world, it can mean many things.

What we must make clear is that our product’s professionalism, (i.e., the economic exchange and oversight that go with paying for time plus labor) comes at a cost, but offers real value. It also has a name, and “content” just doesn’t cut it. With all the old-world pomposity we can muster, let’s just agree to call it journalism, mes amis. That label will continue to scare off some investors…and even some journalists. But to take on-the-ground, informed reporting and toss it in with the rest of the, er, stuff that’s out there undersells our product, both to the platforms and readers we hope will buy/consume it.

Some digital mavens will find this entire post a conceit, or just wrong-headed. All bets -– I mean all bets -– may in fact be off. Fifteen or 50 years from now, the big media outlets may all be gone, basic journalistic practices might go the way of the Tridentine mass, and people could be getting and giving all their relevant news and data via some sort of solar-powered informatron. Or more modestly, “journalism” will simply and slowly devolve into the mix of “content.” I’m betting that’s not the case, even as I rapidly try to prepare for no less than the revolution that is coming in one form or another.

But enough of my high-falutin’ ramblings. Blogs and journalism and the content of our lives should always make room for some fun, which brings to my most entertaining digital exchange of the past month. Though I’m not apt to pick fights on the web, late one night I gave in to Twitter snark temptation. More tales of Gerald Posner’s alleged plagiarism were popping up, so I fired off the following tweet: Gerald Posner didnt plagiarize…. he AGGREGATED!

About 10 minutes later, I followed that up with a couple of jabby tweets aimed directly at hyper-sly aggregator Newser and flagged the site’s founder-provocateur Michael Wolff.

The truth is that, though I think Newser is basically cheating (though not plagiarizing), and Wolff can be more nasty than snarky, I like watching him call the bluff of big media companies that clearly don’t know which way is up. Most of all, I was engaging him that evening because he’s funny as hell, so why not see him take a snarky swing at me? And right on time came his short and tweet response, showing how much communication can occur well short of the 140-character limit: “you sound so old fart-ish.” Nice! I’m pretty sure that means the same thing on- and offline. And Twitter, regardless of which content prevails, is a platform for the ages.

April 12 2010

21:40

ProPublica’s expensive story and deserved Pulitzer

Congratulations to ProPublica’s Sheri Fink, who just won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for her story about a New Orleans hospital in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (She shared it with Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News.)

We wrote about Fink’s terrific piece twice last fall. First, Zach Seward noted the huge cost of producing the story — $400,000 by one estimate — and the unusual cost-sharing between ProPublica, the Kaiser Foundation, The New York Times Magazine, and Fink herself. And I (gently!) tweaked the piece’s online presentation for not being as reader-friendly as it could have been.

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Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl