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September 20 2010

17:30

In a hamster-wheel world, is there room for journalistic creativity? Evidence from The New York Times

The essential question facing newsrooms today is this one: Does more speed and more content come at the cost of creativity? Does the “hamster wheel,” as described by Dean Starkman in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review cover story, reduce journalists’ capacity to move stories forward instead of playing catch-up online? And does the demand for speed and the hunger for clicks come at the cost of thoughtful editing and crafting of stories?

This question is at the core of my (almost written) dissertation — when news is made in an online newsroom, what happens to the invention process? But it is my contention, after having the privilege to spend five months, day-in and day-out at Business Day at The New York Times, is that even though many journalists there often feel like wire reporters, many also feel that writing a story five times actually makes their work better.

But that division in sentiment is not the heart of the argument. My sense so far is that there are five factors that encourage creativity in newsrooms even at a time when journalists are producing more with less.

— Newsrooms, recognizing that news is everywhere, need to differentiate their content.

What makes a story in The New York Times business section — even if it the third time it is written by a staffer — different from the same story in The Wall Street Journal? The hope and aspirations by editors, at least, and the goal expressed to me by the close to 50 journalists I interviewed on the business desk, was that the intention of every story was to provide “added value” — something that other newsrooms wouldn’t have.

Most journalists referred to the news that everyone else has as “commodity news” — the news that you can get anywhere. But if newsrooms are to survive, newsrooms as they produce multiple iterations of the same story throughout the day must provide something different than their competitors. This challenges the journalist further to provide a different take, and the most successful journalists will be able to distinguish their content. Those who win that battle will also win the click battle, eventually.

— Newsrooms that still have a print cycle have to pause and think about the day ahead.

If print newsrooms are to remain competitive, there is necessarily a point at which journalists must think about what’s going to be in the paper. If a developing news story has been up on the web all day for readers, newspapers won’t maximize their return by just plopping that story into the next day’s paper. At The Times, the story in the print paper was viewed much more as a “second-day story” — even if the event had taken place the same day the story was written. A few staffers said that The Times in print was become more like a daily news magazine than a daily paper, giving people a step back from the daily hubbub of the news to provide a deeper and richer story.

Take, for instance, a Goldman Sachs earnings report. In the morning, it might be a routine earnings story with the numbers. Over the course of the day, a reporter might differentiate that story with different questions asked to bigwigs at Goldman, different snippets of life from the trading floor, and perhaps proprietary reporting gleaned from sources, or even takes on the earnings from academics. At a certain point in the day, the rewriting of the story stops and it becomes time to look for the big picture — there has to be enough that people who haven’t been following the story all day have enough to understand the story, but there will be a larger tale, perhaps about the broader significance of the numbers, or what larger trends at the bank might mean, or other take-outs that make the story different from competitors.

And don’t forget: This final print story is the final story that ends up online.

— Speed only applies to certain kinds of stories.

Only certain stories lend themselves to the kind of developing coverage that would require multiple rewrites. Hearings on Capitol Hill might lend themselves to something like the attention of a live-blogger plus the attention of a reporter tasked with covering the take-out stories as they develop, from pre-written statements to the actual question and answer period. On the day Apple’s iPad was introduced, I saw multiple stories being written as the story developed — and the attention of everything from a live-blog to all-hands on deck with Twitter and The Times’ Bits blog. These stories require constant updates because something new is happening as the day develops. There is more to add to the story. And determining which updates are worth including is the careful task of editors and reporters who must again decide where added value comes in.

But it is my thinking that newsrooms, even those with increasingly limited resources, also understand the importance of pacing and managing staff. A newsroom that has everyone devoted to playing catch-up will not have the substantive stories that will distinguish their news from all the other products out there. Thus some reporters have to be taken off the breaking news bandwagon — this may be for particular days, or it may be that some reporters simply do not have to do regular breaking news. This is one way to keep coverage fresh and inventive. A newsroom that can figure out how to allocate resources will be a newsroom that continues to remain creative and one that ultimately will keep readers coming back.

— The audience does want more, now more than ever. And journalists can listen, too.

Presuming a developing story will go through multiple iterations, it is reasonable to suspect that audiences will be checking back. Or that since the audience is fragmented, there are different audiences checking in at different points of the day. Shouldn’t we have something for audiences that choose to follow the story over the course of the day? And shouldn’t we have something for audiences that choose to read just once, say at 3 p.m., instead of the moment that the news is breaking? My thinking is that the audience wants more from journalists because journalists can provide more; the voracious news consumer (and ultimately the news consumer who will be most valuable when news organizations switch to paywalls or meter models) will be checking the site frequently. And for those drop-in audiences, people who maybe check once in the morning and once in the evening, don’t they also deserve something new?

But there’s another element here: Developing stories also are also the ones, I’ve observed, to be most likely to be open to comments. Though not all journalists have gotten the hang of reading comments or monitoring Twitter, they are definitely reading reader email as it comes in. And this audience feedback provides journalists with new opportunities for direction for stories, and a sense of how their stories are being received in a way that they never could have had before. This sense of instant feedback on a story’s progression has the opportunity to shape reporting. This is still early in its development, and at this point most likely to affect reporters who can monitor Twitter and check comments as part of their regular routine. But I see great opportunity for audience feedback shaping developing news in the future.

— Speed also means more attention has to be devoted to more than just the text of the story.

If a story is going to be big enough to merit multiple rewrites — if it is a developing story all over the web — you better hope that the story isn’t just text. The room for creativity does depend on the capacity of newsrooms. At The Times, the newsroom is privileged to have an amazing staff of web producers, graphics folks, photo staff, and videographers who can create a multimedia package to go along with a developing story to make that story stand out. But the lesson is true for newsrooms that do not have the same depth of resources as The Times (which, it must be said, often can’t do everything it wants, either).

There are other ways for stories to become more than just stories. Without multimedia, reporters even as they go about collecting their moment-by-moment updates, can also be engaged with conversations on social media platforms. This is an adjustment for reporters, and it certainly adds another layer to the concern about speed and burnout, but it inspires, as I noted before, creativity — and it adds further interest to the story. I have seen reporters working on intense deadline pressure on competitive stories use social media to enhance their work — extending the story beyond text. For those looking for some inspiration, check out what Michael de la Merced, Brian Stelter, and Micki Maynard (who has since left the paper) have been able to do on big stories.

So am I setting up an unfair example?

Certainly you could argue that a place like The Times is an outlier and an unfair place to start talking about creativity under pressure. But I don’t think that The Times is doing anything that other newsrooms aren’t, except for perhaps the amazing multimedia opportunities. The Times is still in fierce competition to distinguish coverage, reporters are still writing multiple times during a day on developing stories, and the challenges on journalists to do ever more are common to all newsrooms. But I see incredible opportunities for the hamster wheel to produce even better journalism — it just might take some time to figure out.

June 09 2010

16:00

Making connections: How major news organizations talk about links

Links can add a lot of value to stories, but the journalism profession as a whole has been surprisingly slow to take them seriously. That’s my conclusion from several months of talking to organizations and reporters about their linking practices, and from counting the number and type of links from hundreds of stories.

Wikipedia has a 5,000 word linking style guide. That might be excessive, but at least it’s thorough. I wondered what professional newsrooms thought of linking, so I contacted a number of them and asked how they were directing their reporters to use links. I got answers — but sometimes vague answers.

In this post I’ll report those answers, and in the next post I’ll discuss the results of my look into how links are actually being used in the published work of a dozen news outlets.

The BBC made its linking intentions public in a March 19 post by website editor Steve Herrmann.

Related links matter: They are part of the value you add to your story — take them seriously and do them well; always provide the link to the source of your story when you can; if you mention or quote other publications, newspapers, websites — link to them; you can, where appropriate, deep-link; that is, link to the specific, relevant page of a website.

I asked Herrmann for details and reported his responses previously. Then I sent this paragraph to other news organizations and asked about their linking policies. A spokesperson for The New York Times wrote:

Yes, the guidance we offer to our journalists is very similar to that of the BBC, in that we encourage them to provide links, where appropriate, to sources and other relevant information.

Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti made similar remarks, but emphasized that the Post encourages “deep linking.”

While we don’t have a formal policy yet on linking, we are actively encouraging our reporters, especially our bloggers, to link to relevant and reliable online sources outside washingtonpost.com and in doing so, to be contextual, as in to link to specific content [rather] than to a generic site so that our readers get where they need to get quickly.

Why would anyone not link to the exact page of interest? In the news publishing world, the issue of deep linking has a history of controversy, starting with the Shetland Times vs. Shetland News case in 1996.

The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires wouldn’t discuss their linking policy, as a spokesperson wrote to me:

As you can see from the site, we do link to many outside news organizations and sources. But unfortunately, we don’t publicly discuss our policies, so we won’t have anyone to elaborate on this.

From observation, I did confirm that Dow Jones Newswires don’t reliably link to source documents even when publicly available online. I found a simple story about a corporate disclosure, tracked down the disclosure document on the stock exchange web site, then called the Dow Jones reporter and confirmed that this was the source of the story. But it’s unfair to single out Dow Jones, because wire services don’t do linking generally.

The Associated Press does not include inline links in stories, though they sometimes append links in an “On the Net” section at the bottom of stories. A spokesperson explained why there is no inline linking:

In short, a technical constraint. We experimented with inline linking a year or so ago but had difficulties given the huge variety of downstream systems, at AP and subscriber locations, that handle our copy. The AP serves 1,500 member U.S. papers, as well as thousands of commercial Web sites and ones operated by the papers, radio and TV stations, and so on.

Reuters links in various ways from stories viewed within its professional desktop products, including links to source documents and previous Reuters stories, though these links are not always standard URLs. Their newswire product does not include links. A spokesperson asked not to be quoted directly, but explained that, like the Associated Press, many of their customers could not handle inline links — and no copy editor wants to be forced to manually remove embedded HTML. She also said that Reuters sees itself as providing an authoritative news source that can be used without further verification. I get her point, but I don’t see it as a reason to not point to public sources.

The wire services are in a tricky position. Not only are many of their customers unable to handle HTML, but it’s often not possible for the wires to link to their previous stories — either because they aren’t posted online or they’re posted on many subscriber websites. This illuminates an unsolved problem with syndication and linking generally: if every user of syndicated material posts copy independently on their own site, there is no canonical URL that can be used by the content creator to refer to a particular story. (The AP’s been thinking about this.)

These sorts of technical issues are definitely a barrier, and staff from several newsrooms told me that their print-era content management systems don’t handle links well. There’s also no standard format for filing a story with hyperlinks — copy might be drafted in Microsoft Word, but links are unlikely to survive being repeatedly emailed, cut and pasted, and squeeze through any number of different systems.

But technical obstacles don’t much matter if reporters don’t value links enough to write them into their stories. In conversations with staff members from various newsrooms, I’ve frequently heard that cultural issues are a barrier. When paper is seen as the primary product, adding good links feels like extra work for the reporter, rather than an essential part of the storytelling form. Some publishers are also suspicious that links to other sites will “send readers away” — a view that would seem to contradict the suspicion of inbound links from aggregators.

Reading between the lines, it seems that most newsrooms have yet to make a strong commitment to linking. This would explain the mushiness of some of the answers I received, where news organizations “encourage” their reporters or offer “guidance” on linking. If, as I believe, links are an essential part of online journalism, then the profession has a way to go to exploit the digital medium. In my next post, I’ll break down some numbers on how different news organizations are using links today.

June 08 2010

13:30

Why link out? Four journalistic purposes of the noble hyperlink

[To link or not to link? It's about as ancient as questions get in online journalism; Nick Carr's links-as-distraction argument is only the latest incarnation. Yesterday, Jason Fry tried to contextualize the linking debate around credibility, readability, and connectivity. Here, Jonathan Stray tries out his own, more pragmatically focused four-part division. Tomorrow, we'll have the result of Jonathan's analysis of how major news organizations link out and talk about linking out. —Josh]

You don’t need links for great journalism — the profession got along fine for hundreds of years without them. And yet most news outlets have at least a website, which means that links are now (in theory, at least) available to the majority of working journalists. What can links give to online journalism? I see four main answers.

Links are good for storytelling.

Links give journalists a way to tell complex stories concisely.

In print, readers can’t click elsewhere for background. They can’t look up an unfamiliar term or check another source. That means print stories must be self-contained, which leads to conventions such as context paragraphs and mini-definitions (“Goldman Sachs, the embattled American investment bank.”) The entire world of the story has to be packed into one linear narrative.

This verbosity doesn’t translate well to digital, and arguments rage over the viability of “long form” journalism online. Most web writing guides suggest that online writing needs to be shorter, sharper, and snappier than print, while others argue that good long form work still kills in any medium.

Links can sidestep this debate by seamlessly offering context and depth. The journalist can break a complex story into a non-linear narrative, with links to important sub-stories and background. Readers who are already familiar with certain material, or simply not interested, can skip lightly over the story. Readers who want more can dive deeper at any point. That ability can open up new modes of storytelling unavailable in a linear, start-to-finish medium.

Links keep the audience informed.

Professional journalists are paid to know what is going on in their beat. Writing stories isn’t the only way they can pass this knowledge to their audience.

Although discussions of journalism usually center around original reporting, working journalists have always depended heavily on the reporting of others. Some newsrooms feel that verifying stories is part of the value they add, and require reporters to “call and confirm” before they re-report a fact. But lots of newsrooms simply rewrite copy without adding anything.

Rewriting is required for print, where copyright prevents direct use of someone else’s words. Online, no such waste is necessary: A link is a magnificently efficient way for a journalist to pass a good story to the audience. Picking and choosing the best content from other places has become fashionably known as “curation,” but it’s a core part of what journalists have always done.

Some publishers are reluctant to “send readers away” to other work. But readers will always prefer a comprehensive source, and as the quantity of available information explodes, the relative value of filtering it increases.

Links are a currency of collaboration.

When journalists use links to “pay” people for their useful contributions to a story, they encourage and coordinate the production of journalism.

Anyone who’s seen their traffic spike from a mention on a high-profile site knows that links can have immediate monetary impact. But links also have subtler long term value, both tangible (search rankings) and intangible (reputation and status.)  One way or another, a link is generally valuable to the receiver.

A complex, ongoing, non-linear story doesn’t have to be told by a single organization. In line with the theory of comparative advantage, it probably shouldn’t be. Of course journalists can (and should) collaborate formally. But links are an irresistible glue that can coordinate journalistic production across newsrooms and bloggers alike.

This is an economy that is interwoven with the cash economy in complex ways. It may not make business sense to pay another news organization for publishing a crucial sub-story or a useful tip, but a link gives credit where credit is due — and traffic. Along this line, I wonder if the BBC’s policy of not always linking to users who supply content is misguided.

Links enable transparency.

In theory, every statement in news writing needs to be attributed. “According to documents” or “as reported by” may have been as far as print could go, but that’s not good enough when the sources are online.

I can’t see any reason why readers shouldn’t demand, and journalists shouldn’t supply, links to all online resources used in writing a story. Government documents and corporate financial disclosures are increasingly online, but too rarely linked. There are some issues with links to pages behind paywalls and within academic journals, but nothing that seems insurmountable.

Opinion and analysis pieces can also benefit from transparency. It’s unfair — and suspect — to critique someone’s position without linking to it.

Of course, reporters must also rely on sources that don’t have a URL, such as people and paper documents. But even here I would like to see more links, for transparency and context: If the journalist conducted a phone interview, can we listen to the recording? If they went to city hall and saw the records, can they scan them for us? There is already infrastructure for journalists who want to do this. A link is the simplest, most comprehensive, and most transparent method of attribution.

Photo by Wendell used under a Creative Commons license.

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