Dec.
19

When to quit your journalism job

When the sales people are happy to sell what the newsroom is happy to make, there you have a well-run editorial company. So measure your own newsroom’s misery by its distance from that (ideal) state.

These notes were inspired by recent events at the New Republic and First Look Media, articles like this one, and some not-for-publication talks I’ve had lately with young staffers who were troubled by what they saw happening at their place of employment. It also builds on this series of tweets about “product” and on conversations I have with my students all the time.

1. If you work in any kind of editorial organization, it is your job to understand the business model. If you feel you can’t do that, you should quit. By “understand the business model,” I mean you can (confidently) answer this question: What is the plan to bring in enough money to sustain the enterprise and permit it to grow? Can’t answer? You have the wrong job.

2. If your instinct is to say, “that’s the business side’s problem,” sorry: your instinct is wrong. That whole way of talking, in which the business “side” takes care of the business model so the journalists can just do their journalism… that’s wrong, too. It’s infantilizing you. The more you believe it, the more likely you are to be placed at the kids table— organizationally speaking. And properly so, because you’re a dependent.

3. The business model is not the business only of the business “side” (a wretched metaphor) because a vital part of any such model is the way in which the editorial staff creates value, earns audience, wins mind share, generates influence, builds brand. These are the sorts of goods a good sales staff sells. It’s your job to understand the business model, because you have to know what kind of good you’re being asked to create, or you won’t be any good at creating it.

4. Take Politico. One part of its business model is a print edition distributed for free on Capitol Hill, but only when Congress is in session. Those who have business before Congress advertise to reach the people who work on Capitol Hill, especially the ones who work for members of Congress. The famous “metabolism” of the Politico newsroom and its “all politics, all the time” coverage make it a must-read among Washington insiders, which Congressional staffers aspire to be. The editorial staff creates value by being relentlessly “inside” DC politics. (Which is also what makes Politico so annoying to outsiders.) The sales staff — get ready for a word you hate — then monetizes the newsroom’s creation by selling ads in the print edition.

5. If either staff misunderstands the other’s work, Politico is in grave trouble. But Politico is not in grave trouble. It is expanding, conquering new worlds— lately, it’s Brussels and the EU. The journalists who work there understand what kind of value they’re being asked to create. The sales people are happy to sell what the newsroom is happy to make. This describes a well-founded and well-run editorial company. So measure your newsroom’s misery by its distance from that (ideal) state.

6. Speaking of words you hate: get over it. Understanding the business model may require you to learn some terms to which you don’t immediately cotton. BFD. Since when are journalists allowed to back away from language they don’t instantly understand? That was never the deal. If you report on corporate finance, you can’t say: don’t give me this debt-to-equity bullshit. No way. It’s your job to understand what is meant by these terms. That requirement doesn’t disappear just because it’s your own business at stake.

7. When I see journalists throw up their hands at new media or Silicon Valley “buzzwords,” I smile. Because my students aren’t permitted to do that, and they’re going to eat your lunch. I teach them to find out what terms like pivot, native advertising, microtargeting, value-added and, yes, “vertical integration” mean. They aren’t allowed to cry “buzzword!” unless they understand what was originally intended by the phrase before it was degraded by overuse or picked up by poseurs. If they blanche at the word “brand” I make fun of them.

8. “Product” is one of those terms. What technology people mean by product is something editorial types have to learn. Product is the built thing that users actually interact with, which includes the front-end technology, the editorial content, any ads or commercial material that users encounter, plus the experience of using the thing. It’s all that. When Steve Jobs said design is not how it looks, design is how it works he was talking about products.

9. In tech, “what should the product be?” is a hard question, and the answer is constantly shifting as technology advances, platforms rise and fall, and user behavior shifts. What works keeps changing, so you have to keep asking yourself “what should the product be?” For journalists, “what should the product be?” is an easy question to answer. The product should be great journalism! Break news, lead the pack on big stories, find brilliant writers and pay them so they don’t go to someone else. That’s how you make a great product. It’s hard to do, but easy to define.

10. Make fun of Buzzfeed and Vox all you want (though I would advise against it.) One thing those companies have accomplished: everyone is on the same page about product. This is a huge advantage for them. For if the tech people keep using “product” the way they define it, and the journalism people hear it the way they understand it, the news organization that employs those people will eventually come to grief. So if you work in a company like that, I have a link for you.

11. There is a person who is supposed to prevent that. Traditionally, that person is called “the editor.” Nothing has yet been invented to take The Editor’s place, so if your site doesn’t have one — which is said to be the case at boston.com — your site is dysfunctional. Most people think The Editor’s job is to hire, fire and supervise the editorial staff, set standards, direct coverage and be the final word on what is published. And that’s correct, but there is more.

12. The Editor has to come to a clear agreement with the publisher and commercial staff on: a.) what the business model is, meaning: how are we going to sustain ourselves and grow? b.) exactly how — in that model — the editorial team creates value for the business, and c.) the zone of independence the editorial team will need to meet those expectations. Not only does The Editor have to secure that agreement, he or she must agree with it, as well. And be able to explain it to anyone who asks. There can never be a situation where The Editor doesn’t know what the business model is, doesn’t accept it as appropriate and doable, or can’t articulate it. A situation like that cannot last, as Franklin Foer of the New Republic learned this month.

13. Every successful publication that does journalism operates with a kind of contract between The Editor and the people who own the joint. (Unless they’re the same people.) If the contract is unclear, if different people have different ideas about what it says, if the staff doesn’t understand it, then neuroses will set in. The result will be an unhappy place to work.

14. But what about separation of church and state? I already said: the editorial team requires an agreed-upon zone of independence to do its work. That’s a separation. But separation of church and state has no value as an intellectual principle. Meaning: it’s a dumb and risky situation for you when you don’t understand how your organization plans to sustain itself. Want more? Separation of church and state — for all the good it did in a previous media era — also meant “no seat at the table when the key decisions were made.” Is that really what you want?

Dec.
6

“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

Many years ago I was sitting around in a hotel bar with some journalists who were telling tales, and one of them started an anecdote this way:

“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

I stopped listening at that point, but not because he was boring. Something struck me about that phrase, “I needed a story.”

I knew what he meant, of course. He had an editor. His editor would want to know: now that you’re all settled in Chicago, when can I expect some production from you? But a good reporter doesn’t need to be told told this. I’m new on the beat and I need a story. Completely reasonable, from the journalist’s point of view. But from the public’s point of view — or even a truthtelling point of view — the same phrase sounds kind of weird.

“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

Okay, you needed a story. But was there a story that needed to be told?

Or, less charitably: Who cares if you need a story? What we need is a good signaling system to know what’s going on. If it fits the shape of a story that can be counted toward your production quota and keep your editor in New York happy, great! But keep this in mind: your need for a story may clash with the public’s need to be alerted only when there is a story.

I don’t have a big point to make here. It’s a small point. A need for story is something that journalists should watch out for. It could be a trap.

Here are two passages from Eric Wemple’s analysis of the Rolling Stone story about rape on campus. The editors now say they have lost confidence in its primary source, a woman called Jackie who described a horrific gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house:

On Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast last month, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely explained why she had settled on the University of Virginia as the focus for her investigative story on a horrific 2012 gang rape of a freshman named Jackie at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. “First I looked around at a number of different campuses,” said Erdely. “It took me a while to figure out where I wanted to focus on. But when I finally decided on the University of Virginia — one of the compelling reasons that made me focus on the University of Virginia was when I found Jackie. I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me a lot about the culture of the school — that was one of the important things, sort of criteria that I wanted when I was looking for the right school to focus on.”

Doesn’t it sound like she needed a story, which fit certain “criteria?” Does to me.

Wemple also quotes from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post, for which he interviewed the author:

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

Wemple comments: “A perfect place, in other words, to set a story about a gang rape.” A Rolling Stone story about campus rape needs to be set somewhere. But think about it: is this need legitimate?

Judith Shulevitz in CJR:

Erdely told Rosin that she’d gone all around the country looking for rape survivors and was delighted when she stumbled on Jackie. She was obviously traumatized, and her story illustrated everything Erdely knew to be true—that frat boys rape girls and universities are indifferent to rape survivors.

In non-fiction a need for story and what the story “needs” in order to work — to sing, to have a hook, to jump off the page, to fit genre requirements — these are all danger zones.

Almost no word has more prestige in journalism than “story.” It also has way too many referents. Story = the thing that appears in the newspaper, the thing that you chase not knowing if it will appear in the newspaper, the thing you drop when it turns out “there’s no story,” the larger thing (the #Ferguson story) made up of many stories, the exposé plus the controversy about the exposé, the ongoing thing that over years generates multiple articles, the thing you try keep alive by finding another angle, another reason to update, the two inch item, the twenty-two inch item.

When all are represented by a single word, which is fused to professional identity — as in journalist as storyteller, a sacred equation — confusion, hidden danger and fatal fuzziness are likely. Watch out, journalists. You need story. We need truth.

Nov.
13

“Republicans have to show they can govern.” No, they don’t. Please stop saying that.

A reporter’s wish masquerading as an accepted fact.

NPR’s Congressional reporter, Ailsa Chang, did it Wednesday morning. About Mitch McConnell, soon to be Senate leader, she said:

If he wants to see the Republicans retain the majority beyond 2016, he has to be able to prove that his party can be more than just the party of no. That means reasonable legislation that they can realistically expect the president to sign.

Peter Foster, Washington editor for The Telegraph (UK) did it too: Winning was easy: now Republicans must show they can govern.

To have a chance [in 2016] Republicans must use the next two years to show they are a party of government, not obstruction and ideology.

Jeremy Peters in the Washington bureau of the New York Times did it over the weekend. He reported that Republicans are in transition: “from being the opposition party to being one that has to show it can govern.”

These are false statements. I don’t know how they got past the editors. You can’t simply assert, like it’s some sort of natural fact, that Republicans “must show they can govern” when an alternative course is available. Not only is it not a secret — this other direction — but it’s being strongly urged upon the party by people who are a key part of its coalition.

The alternative to “show you can govern” is to keep President Obama from governing. Right? Keep him from accomplishing what he wants to get done in his final two years and then “go to the country,” as Karl Rove used to say, with a simple message: time for a change! This is not only a valid way to proceed, it’s a pretty likely outcome. Rush Limbaugh, certainly a player in the coalition, put it this way. The Republicans, he said, emerged from the 2014 election with

the biggest, and perhaps the most important mandate a political party has had in the recent era. And it is very simple what that mandate is. It is to stop Barack Obama. It is to stop the Democrat Party. There is no other reason why Republicans were elected yesterday.

Republicans were not elected to govern. How can you govern with a president that disobeys the constitution? How can you govern with a president that is demonstrably lawless when he thinks he has to be?

Limbaugh represents the populist wing of the party. How about the establishment? In a widely-cited editorial called “the Governing Trap,” National Review magazine was even more explicit.

The desire to prove Republicans can govern also makes them hostage to their opponents in the Democratic party and the media. It empowers Senator Harry Reid, whose dethroning was in large measure the point of the election. If Republicans proclaim that they have to govern now that they run Congress, they maximize the incentive for the Democrats to filibuster everything they can — and for President Obama to veto the remainder. Then the Democrats will explain that the Republicans are too extreme to get anything done.

Among the recommendations the editors had: “putting up legislation that Senate Democrats filibuster.” That’s not governing. That’s gridlock with intention.

As Paul Waldman noted on the Washington Post site, “this isn’t bad advice, politically speaking.”

After all, following the path of obstruction instead of governing has worked out pretty darn well for Republicans over the last six years. When Barack Obama took office, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress; now Republicans do.

Exactly. There is simply no factual basis for NPR’s Ailsa Chang to be telling listeners that Mitch McConnell “has to be able to prove that his party can be more than just the party of no.” He doesn’t have to do that.

Now keep in mind that for NPR correspondents like Chang, a “factual basis” is everything. They aren’t supposed to be sharing their views. They don’t do here’s-my-take analysis. NPR has “analysts” for that. It has commentators who are free to say on air: “I think the Republicans have to show they can govern.” Chang, a Congressional correspondent, was trying to put over as a natural fact an extremely debatable proposition that divides the Republican party. She spoke falsely, and no one at NPR (which reviews these scripts carefully) stopped her.

Similarly, Jeremy Peters of the New York Times has no business observing in passing that the Republicans are now a party “that has to show it can govern.” They don’t! They have other choices. It’s fine with me if the New York Times wants to loosen up and let reporters say in the news columns: “My take is that it’s going to be awfully hard for the Republicans to regain the White House if they don’t show they can govern during these two years.” But that’s not what Peters did. He went the natural fact route: the Republicans have to show they can govern because… because they do!

Why does this matter? Because reporters shouldn’t be editorializing in the news section? No. That’s not why.

Asserted as a fact of political life, “Republicans must show they can govern” is a failure of imagination, and a sentimentalism. It refuses to grapple with other equally plausible possibilities. For example: that declining to govern will produce so much confusion about lines of responsibility and alienation from a broken political system that voters can’t, won’t, or in any case don’t “punish” the people who went for obstruction. Behind a statement like Peter Foster’s: “Republicans must use the next two years to show they are a party of government…” is a prediction about price-paying that does not necessarily apply in a hyper-partisan and super-polarized era. Political journalists are supposed to know that. They are supposed to know that better than anyone else.

In raw ballot box terms, being against was successful in 2014. It could easily be successful in 2016. To declare otherwise is mushy, indulgent, insulated and lame. A reporter’s wish masquerading as an accepted fact.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links


I had a frank exchange of views with NPR’s Steve Inskeep about this post. He accused me of withholding key facts from my readers.

Jonathan Capehart in the Washington Post:

This is vital for the GOP since it will have to run on a record of accomplishment at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue if it hopes to be entrusted with the keys to the White House at the other end.

No, it won’t “have” to. Stop saying that.

At NewYorker.com right now it says: “The Republicans figured out how to win. Now they need to show that they can govern.” Click that headline and you find that the piece by George Packer (from the Nov. 24 print edition) is slightly more nuanced. But that’s the point: “now they need to show they can govern” is a headset widely shared in journalism.

National Review likes this post. So does Digby. Need I tell you how rare an event that is?

The Brazilian press wants in on this. “Obama wants to leave a legacy and Republicans want to prove they can govern.” (Hat tip, Vinod Sreeharsha)

Associated Press, two days after the election:

Democrats suffered a drubbing in Tuesday’s midterm elections, and Republicans regained control of the Senate and widely expanded their majority in the House. In command in both chambers in January, Republicans maintained that they have to show they can govern or else voters will show them the door.

At least that one has Republicans saying “they have to show they can govern,” but I thought reporters are supposed to be more skeptical, more informed. As Politico observed the same day, the Republicans big win in 2014 “sets up a running argument within the party that’s sure to last through Obama’s final two years: Should Republicans prove they can govern? Or should they set up as many fights as possible, and settle them in the 2016 presidential election?”

Exactly. It’s a fight, not a fact.

Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog comments on this post: Republicans have no incentive to moderate or govern.

Frank Rich for New York magazine the day after the election: “Now that the Republicans have won Washington, they own it, and if it continues to be broken, they’ll be punished next time. As the maxim goes, they have to prove they can govern. Or prove they can do something other than bitch and moan.”

Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) comments on this post. “This stuff gets past the editors because they share the reporters’ sensibilities. And because they like a formulation that puts an additional burden on the GOP.”

John F. Harris, the editor in chief of Politico, feels he must

ruefully acknowledge the reality: A lot of what political journalists write as we try to divine larger meaning from election results involves a whiff of bovine byproducts. At least, that is, when we issue oracular pronouncements about how one party or the other is either poised for either dominance or irrelevance ‘for the next generation or more.”

“Much of what is served up as political insight in modern media—as articulated by reporters, political operatives, academics and assorted gurus—is likewise B.S.,” Harris writes. Look, he said it. I’m just reporting what he said.

Nov.
9

How to be literate in what’s changing journalism

In my ‘digital thinking’ class, the goal is for students to emerge fully literate in the changes affecting journalism. Here are the main currents and trends that I expect them to master by the close of the term.

For each, they should understand: What it means, why it’s important, and where things are going with it. I’ve added a link or two to help get you started. And I’m happy to receive your comments about what’s missing from this list.

1. The social media habit and sharing-as-distribution. As social platforms take greater command of the relationship with users, especially Facebook. (Link.)

2. The shift to mobile devices and on mobile to apps. Now happening with stunning speed. (Link.)

3. New business models for news. Beyond the usual method of generating audience to sell subscriptions and ads, including:

* Capturing data… to better target ads and personalize products.
* Selling specialized research… by subscription as Giga Om does or via conversation as Techdirt does.
* Events… leveraging a news brand into convening power. (One link.) (Another.)
* Native advertising and the agency model… The way Buzzfeed and Vice do it. (Link.)
* Non-profit models… as with ProPublica, Minn Post and Texas Tribune. (Link.)
* Crowd funding and membership… as with Beacon, De Correspondent, The Guardian, Voice of San Diego.
* Go it alone… One-person operations can work.

4. Analytics in news production. Learning from audience behavior without becoming enslaved to the numbers. (Link.)

workingwithproduct5. The “product” focus in news companies. Bringing tech, editorial, business and user experience together. (Link.)

6. Interaction design and improving user experience (UX). Toward an ergonomics for news. (Link.)

7. Data journalism. In all senses: collecting data sets, connecting to data through API’s, data visualization, finding stories in the data, making cleaned-up and searchable databases available to users, sensors in news work. (Link.)

8. Continuous improvement in content management systems and thus in work flow. As an engineering culture takes hold in some news companies. (Link.) (Another.)

9. Structured data. To capture more value from the routine production of news. (One link.) (Another.)

10. Personalization in news products. Why send everyone the same report? (Link.)

11. Transparency and trust. As “trust us, we’re professionals” gives way to “show your work.” (Link.)

12. Open journalism Including: the verification of user-generated content, networked journalism, crowd sourcing, and social media as reporting tool. The people formerly known as the audience in fruitful collaboration with journalists across the production arc— from story idea to sourcing to finished work. (Link.)

13. Automation and “robot journalism.” If machines can do it cheaper and better, human journalists can move up the value chain. (Link.)

14. Creating an agile culture in newsrooms. So that adaptation, collaboration and experiment are not such an ordeal. (Link.)

15. The personal franchise model in news. Based around an individual journalist’s online following. (Link.)

16. News verticals and niche journalism. Doing one thing well and finding a market for it, as the unbundling of omnibus media continues. (Link.)

17. The future of context and explainer journalism. Providing the background needed to understand the updates. (Link.)

18. “News as a service.” Rather than a product appearing on the news company’s schedule, a service that helps a user do something. (Link.)

19. From scarcity to abundance. Used to be that journalists added value by publishing new material. Now they can also serve users by rescuing and organizing the best stuff from a daily flood of cheap content. Sometimes called curation.

20. Fact-checking and rumor control. The press used to deal with false information simply by not letting it through the gate. Now there’s an affirmative duty to track and call out false stories. (Link.) (Another.)

21. “We’re not in charge.” Back then, media companies produced the news and owned the distribution channels. Now other, larger players — platform companies and governments — get in the middle between users and journalists. Journalistic work circulates on sites that editors do not control. The publishers of news have to “go where the people are,” yet they often don’t know what is being done to those people. The public has to be alerted to that. (Link.)

What’s missing? If you know, hit the comment button and let me know.

UPDATE, Nov. 13: Items 19 to 21 came from suggestions I received after this was first published. Also see Steve Buttry’s annotated response to my list. He adds a great many more resources for understanding these changes.

This post is international. It has been translated into Italian and Spanish as well as French, German, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian and Arabic.

Photo credit: Jessica Strelitz and Catanify at #ONACamp. Used by permission.

Nov.
1

Chris Quinn, vice president for content at the Northeast Ohio Media Group… What’s up?

There is something going on at the news organization formerly known as the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the world should know about.

It’s not hard to describe but it is hard to explain, especially because the guy who made the call has put up a stone wall since. That would be Chris Quinn, vice president for content at the Northeast Ohio Media Group, the digital arm of what used to be the Plain Dealer newsroom, and the operators of Cleveland.com (“covering northeast Ohio.”)

Quinn is the one who:

* A week before the election took down a newsworthy video that his own organization made, which shows Ohio Governor John Kasich behaving disdainfully toward his opponent during an endorsement interview— for example, by refusing to acknowledge Ed FitzGerald’s existence and acting like a question FitzGerald’s asked never happened until it was repeated by a Plain Dealer person. (An audio clip was substituted. Some of the video can be seen here.)

* Threatened with a lawsuit a six-person political blog, Plunderbund, that posted a clip from the interview. (UPDATE: Plunderbund reposted this clip.)

* Refused to answer any questions about his actions, or explain his reasoning when contacted by Jim Romenesko, the media reporter whom everyone in the business knows, by Cleveland scene, the local weekly, by the Sandusky Register, a small daily nearby, and by Crain’s, a local business publication, all of whom received no reply.

* Let stand as the campaign wound down the credibility-crushing embarrassment of removing a clip that reflected poorly on the candidate the Plain Dealer had endorsed for governor.

* Decreed that the Plain Dealer’s ombudsman and reader’s representative would also answer no questions about the take down, which involves video of the only face-to-face debate between the two candidates during the campaign. (I deduce this because Ted Diadiun told me: “I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to ask Chris Quinn for the answers.” I also emailed editorial page editor Elizabeth Sullivan and got no reply, as did Romenesko, as did a local newspaper. So Quinn’s the man and he ain’t talking.)

Steve Benen at the Rachel Maddow blog summarizes why this matters:

Keep in mind, Kasich refused to participate in any debates this year, so this editorial-board meeting was literally the only opportunity for Ohio voters to see their gubernatorial candidates talk about their ideas. It made the discussion, hosted by the Plain Dealer’s editors, arguably one of the more important political events in Ohio this campaign season.

And initially, the newspaper did publish the video of the gathering online. But then the paper pulled the clip, posted an audio-only version, and threatened legal action against an Ohio-based news site that offered readers a YouTube version of the discussion.

Tim Cushing at techdirt chimes in:

Why would it remove its own video? If PlunderBund’s account of the video’s content is accurate, John Kasich’s behavior during this session bordered on the insolently childish. Watching a politicial candidate exude boredom and disdain is hundreds of times more effective (and potentially damaging) than hearing it. An audio version of this “interview” is a defanged version.

Let me summarize it. The leading news organization in the state sponsors the only event of the campaign when the two major candidates for governor meet face-to-face to discuss the issues. The candidate it endorses behaves contemptuously toward his opponent and tries not to acknowledge his existence. These events are captured on video. The video is posted at the news organization’s own site, then abruptly removed without explanation. Lawsuits are threatened if others post clips. Calls to explain these actions are ignored. National media attention is given to the missing video. The readers representative is prevented from commenting. The editor in charge of the debate goes silent. The election is three days away.

Or think of it this way. Why is one of Ohio’s leading news organizations willing to sue to keep its own newsworthy video from voters, and how can it afford to let that question go unanswered during the final week of the campaign?

Nice job, Chris Quinn, vice president for content at the Northeast Ohio Media Group. Google page rank for PressThink.org: 7. Google page rank for http://www.neohiomediagroup.com: 6.

I like my chances. (Search.)

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Nov. 5, morning after the election. The mystery is more or less solved in this column by readers rep Ted Diadiun. Here’s why Chris Quinn took down the interview video of John Kasich, Ed FitzGerald and Anita Rios.

The gist: No one told the candidates they would be video taped. “When the governor’s staff saw the video on cleveland.com later that day, they were chagrined, and contacted NEOMG to ask what happened.” Quinn then decided it was unfair to post the video. He wouldn’t explain any of that because:

“I thought that if I stated my reasons, the obvious next step would be people going to the candidates and asking them if they had any objection to putting the video back up,” Quinn said. “That would mean my error could put people into an uncomfortable situation. That’s not fair. I figured that if someone had to be uncomfortable because of my error, it should be me, so I stayed quiet and took the beating that ensued.”

And the ombudsman didn’t write about it because Quinn wouldn’t explain. “I would look ridiculous trying to read Quinn’s mind, and would look ridiculous writing about something else.” So Diadiun stayed silent too.

Some things worth pointing out about this explanation:

* Notice how the stoic, the man who took the heat and suffered for the good of… well, for fairness, is Chris Quinn.

* That would be fairness to a powerful governor, John Kasich, a possible presidential candidate in 2016. Fairness to readers and voters could wait. Until after the election, after their decision. Fairness to Plain Dealer and NEOMG journalists tainted by this: not a factor.

* Which is more persuasive to you? That a big league politician like Kasich is due deference because he truly didn’t expect the videotape to be posted (although the camera was staring him in the face…) Or, the Kasich campaign freaked when it saw what the video showed and Quinn backed down? Pick one.

* If Chris Quinn is a man who can take the heat for the protection of principle, which is how he is painting this, then what about the principle that voters deserve to see their governor in action during the only face-to-face meeting of candidates? Quinn could have stood his ground and taken the heat from the Kasich camp. Instead, he chose different ground – less information for voters, fair warning to candidates – and took the heat from readers, local journalists and national media critics over that. Why did he make this choice of heats? We don’t know why. “I knew this would get some buzz but I didn’t expect it to get this much,” Quinn said.

* Choosing silence over transparency injures trust, but it also begets more silence, which hurts trust even more. Thus, Quinn’s stonewalling also injured the reputation of the ombudsman, who also failed in the clutch.

* As Jill Miller Zimon, a former candidate for public office, said on her Facebook page: “Every endorsement interview starts with the editorial board telling us that we’re being recorded. Did they omit mentioning that during this unique, rare and newsworthy gathering?”

Nov. 5, afternoon. Reading the hundreds of comments at Connie Schultz’s Facebook page convinces you: readers get it, they care, they are angry. I think the problem with NEOMG’s explanation is this: Neither Chris Quinn nor Ted Diadiun is saying: As a news organization serving the public, our fundamental compact is with the readers, not the candidates, even though we strive always to be fair to candidates and others who figure in the news. NEOMG lost track of a very basic fact about community journalism. So in my view, this is what Chris Quinn should have said:

“…We made a mistake. We lost sight of that fundamental compact, and then we compounded the error by refusing to explain ourselves. Today I am ordering that the video be re-posted and I apologize to our readers for taking it down in the first place. It was an error in judgment because it gambled with something fundamental — your trust. The good terms we hope to maintain with candidates and governors are not fundamental to what we’re about. Your confidence in us as a news provder is. I hope the NEOMG can learn from this because I certainly have.”

Nov. 7. Chris Quinn appeared on WCPN this morning and faced questions from the host, other journalists and listeners. Jump to 12:45 and listen:

Here is some of what he said:

* They had not mentioned video in negotiations with the candidates for fear that one — obviously Governor Kasich — would drop out.

* After the video was posted the Kasich campaign called Quinn and asked, “What are you going to do if others use this for political purposes?” (In other words: they saw the video, and freaked about the possibility of it going viral or becoming an attack ad in 2016. The Kasich camp didn’t have to ask for it to be taken down. “What are you going to do…?” served the same end. And it worked.)

* The host, Rick Jackson, asked about my point above: that Quinn was more concerned about being fair to the Governor than being fair to readers and voters. To this he said the issue was “how you collect your information.” Q. But aren’t you supposed to put readers first? A. “You put your ethics first.”

* So why the week of silence about the reasons for the take down? Quinn said he was hugely concerned that if he publicly explained the screw-up in not notifying the campaigns about video taping, unspecified “people” would ask the candidates if they had any objection to releasing the video— and that would be unfair. (Because Kasich would have to say NO, even though he felt YES.) “It puts the incumbent in a difficult position,” Quinn said. He didn’t explain himself when asked “because the consequences of that decision would have added to the injury.”

* The WCPN host said: well, now you’ve lost the respect of the community. Talk about consequences! Quinn: “I don’t agree we’ve lost that respect.” Here, he launched a classic maneuver more common to politicians. Facing widespread criticism, he framed it as the views of an overheated minority. The name given to this tiny, screeching group: the bloggers. Quinn said they were “shrill,” partisan, plus “humorless” and “over-reacting.” Quinn: “I don’t think the bloggers are the audience we are appealing to.” The incident had been blown “way out of proportion.”

* Quinn denied that the case of the missing video had done any serious harm to the reputation of his news organization. He portrayed himself as a stoic, willing to take the heat. And also slightly bemused that “people” had made such a big deal out of this.

* His fellow panelists were mildly skeptical, the host more doubtful and the callers mostly expressed disbelief, except one. Turned out she knew Quinn before as a source and PR person, and press aide to a former mayor.

UPDATES, NOV. 1-4.

In the comments, I have a hypothesis about what happened. It’s just speculation, probably not worth much.

Monday, 11:15 am. I was just interviewed by WCPN about this story and learned one thing. A Kasich campaign spokesman told WCPN that the Governor did not expect to be video taped. Here’s the story WCPN produced, with some of my comments.

I originally called Plunderbund a “tiny” site but it has six bloggers writing for it, so I changed it.

Plunderbund is not backing down.

Cleveland Scene, a local weekly, covers the story and posts the video. This is now officially another instance of the Streisand effect.

The Sandusky Register takes aim at the ombudsman’s performance in this messs. “Diadiun has some explaining to do.”

In the comments a reporter with state house credentials tells of being ruthlessly cut off from access to Kasich, which is relevant only because some threat like that might be behind Chris Quinn’s panicked decision to remove the video clip and stone wall from then on.

Probably Cleveland journalism’s biggest name:


Jill Miller Zimon alerted me to this story. At her blog she writes:

Whether we like it or not, NEOMG is the only news outlet of its size covering Northeast Ohio. We have numerous other, excellent sources – WCPN, State Impact Ohio, Ohio Statehouse News Bureau, Crain’s Cleveland Business, Cleveland Scene. And nearly all of them have indicated their interest in learning why NEOMG removed the video. So it’s not just us – it’s numerous other relevant players in the NE Ohio media ecosystem.

We want to trust and believe. Just as no one wakes up asking to be poor, no one wakes up hoping that their news provider will fail to be transparent or less than editorially honest with us.

WCPN, the NPR affiliate in Cleveland, does a weekly radio show on which Chris Quinn is a regular guest. The upcoming election was the first topic on October 31, and several low-level campaign controversies were mentioned, including this one involving the Governor’s race, but host Rick Jackson did not ask Quinn about the missing video, although it had been an issue for three days by then.

Of anyone in the local or national media, Jackson had the best chance to get an answer from Quinn but he chose not to. Maybe there were other, more important issues. But that’s not the end of it. WCPN can still get answers. It has reporters. They know about the issue. It obviously had a working relationship with Chris Quinn. I would be shocked if they don’t have his cell phone number. WCP could do the news ecosystem a favor by asking its frequent on-air guest why the video was taken down. They’re in the best position to enforce some basic accountability here. Will they?


This must be some secret:

WAKR, a local radio station out of Akron, editorializes about the mystery of the vanished video. “The editorial decision to post, then remove, content such as this video within the space of days without explanation does require an explanation. If not as a courtesy to readers, then at least as a best practice from a company living by the value of transparent public discourse.”

Columbia Journalism Review: “It should be a straightforward thing for a news organization—especially one that prides itself on engagement!—to offer an explanation.”

John Kasich: The GOP’s Hobbled 2016 Dark Horse. Profile in the Daily Beast.

Here is the email exchange I had with Ted Diadiun, the readers representative for the Plain Dealer and NEOMG.

From: Jay Rosen
Sent: Friday, October 31, 2014 11:17 AM
To: Ted Diadiun
Subject: The Plain Dealer looks really bad here

Hi, Ted. Questions for you in your capacity as a reader’s rep.

I’d like to write about this.

What is going on with un-publishing a newsworthy video, and refusing to comment on why?

You’re getting national attention in the political sphere and in journalism:

My questions are:

1. Why did the company take down the video?
2. Who made the decision?
3. What was the logic of refusing to explain as national attention came to the Plain Dealer and NEOMG for the decision?

Many thanks,

JR

Jay,

Thanks for your e-mail.

I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to ask Chris Quinn for the answers to questions 1 and 3.

Chris is the vice president for content at the Northeast Ohio Media Group, and the one who has made the decisions on this matter.

Ted Diadiun

For context in understanding this reply, the normal task of an ombudsman or readers representative is to field questions from readers and then navigate the newsroom or company bureaucracy to get answers. Ted Diadiun certainly understands the job the way. He’s done it before. Here’s a good example:

…Editors at the Northeast Ohio Media Group agreed that showing the video might help identify the rapist, and were in the process of posting it on cleveland.com, but then quickly pulled it back. Chris Quinn, NEOMG vice president for content, had seen in the blurry image what looked like the attacker pulling up his pants, and was horrified to think that he might be linking to a video of the actual rape.

“You don’t see her, you don’t see the actual act, or anything other than him being down and standing back up and pulling up his pants,” said Quinn. “But no matter how hazy it is, if you really have a video of a rape, that’s something we’ve never had or dealt with before. Even though you can’t really see it, you know what’s happening, you know there’s a woman on the ground there.”

See what I mean? There are questions about journalistic practice. The readers rep finds the person in the company who has responsibility and gets answers. Posting video? Let’s ask Chris Quinn. That’s the normal situation. But it didn’t happen here. Ted Diadiun didn’t go and get answers. He said I will have to go to Quinn myself and get answers. That’s not how the readers rep functions. Diadiun normally writes a Sunday column. No column this week. Diadiun declined to write about an issue that has been covered extensively in the local ecosystem.

I’ve contacted the Kasich campaign to see if they know anything about the take down. I’ve also called Quinn, of course.

UPDATE, Nov. 4. Election Day. Tensions in the Cleveland newsroom are bursting into public view. At Jim Romenesko’s site, Plain Dealer Newspaper Guild unit chair Wendy McManamon criticizes reader representative Ted Diadiun for not getting answers about the video’s removal, when that is what he is supposed to do as readers rep. Diadiun works for both the Plain Dealer and the Northeast Ohio Media Group.

Incredibly (to me, at least) Diadiun says in reply, “I have not written about this or given out quotes because I felt I was in an untenable position and could do nothing to help the situation.” Really, why is that? Sunlight disinfects. Isn’t that a core belief in newsrooms? Then he adds — mysteriously! — “Stay tuned however, if you continue to be interested in this issue.”

What’s he saying? I wasn’t able to do my job before, but soon I will be? Like… after the election, maybe? New York to Cleveland: Adding to the mystery, making things more opaque when it is within your power to explain them, is pretty much the opposite of journalism.

Chris Quinn, September, 2014: “Once we publish something, we’ve got to have a real good reason to remove it.”

Oct.
27

Facebook’s phony claim that “you’re in charge.”

It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. That assertion melts on contact, and a New York Times reporter who receives such a claim from a Facebook engineer should somehow signal to us that he knows how bogus it is.

In today’s New York Times, media reporter Ravi Somaiya visits with Facebook to talk about the company’s growing influence over the news industry, especially with News Feed’s dominance on mobile devices. Greg Marra, a 26 year-old Facebook engineer who heads the team that writes the code for News Feed, was interviewed. Marra is “fast becoming one of the most influential people in the news business,” Somaiya writes.

Mr. Marra said he did not think too much about his impact on journalism.

“We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors,” he said. “We don’t want to have editorial judgment over the content that’s in your feed. You’ve made your friends, you’ve connected to the pages that you want to connect to and you’re the best decider for the things that you care about.”

In Facebook’s work on its users’ news feeds, Mr. Marra said, “we’re saying, ‘We think that of all the stuff you’ve connected yourself to, this is the stuff you’d be most interested in reading.’ ”

It’s not us exercising judgment, it’s you. We’re not the editors, you are. If this is what Facebook is saying — and I think it’s a fair summary of Marra’s comments to the New York Times — the statement is a lie.

I say a lie, not just an untruth, because anyone who works day-to-day on the code for News Feed knows how much judgment goes into it. It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. It’s an assertion that melts on contact. No one smart enough to work at Facebook could believe it. And I’m not sure why it’s sitting there unchallenged in a New York Times story. For that doesn’t even rise to the level of “he said, she said.” It’s just: he said, poof!

Now, if Greg Marra and his team want to make the point that in perfecting their algorithm they’re not trying to pick the day’s most important stories and feature them in the News Feed, the way an old fashioned front page or home page editor would, and so in that sense they are not really “editors” and don’t think in journalistic terms, fine, okay, that’s a defensible point. But don’t try to suggest that the power has thereby shifted to the users, and the designers are just channeling your choices. (If I’m the editor of my News Feed, where are my controls?)

A more plausible description would go something like this:

The algorithm isn’t picking stories the way a home page or front page editor would. It’s not mimicking the trained judgment of experienced journalists. Instead, it’s processing a great variety of signals from users and recommending stories based on Facebook’s overrrding decision rule for the design of an editorial filter: maximizing time on site, minimizing the effort required to “get” a constant flow of personal and public news. The end-in-view isn’t an informed public or an entertained audience but a user base in constant contact with Facebook. As programmers we have to use our judgment — and a rigorous testing regime —to make that happen. We think it results in a satisfying experience.

That would be a more truthful way of putting it. But it doesn’t sound as good as “you’re in charge, treasured user.” And here is where journalists have to do their job better. It’s not just calling out BS statements like “you’re the best decider.” It’s recognizing that Facebook has chosen to go with “thin” legitimacy as its operating style, in contrast with “thicker” forms. (For more on this distinction go here.)

By “thin” I mean Facebook is operating within the law. The users are not completely powerless or kept wholly in the dark. They have to check the box on Facebook’s terms of service and that provides some cover. The company has pages like this one on data use that at least gesture toward some transparency. But as this summer’s controversy over the “mood manipulation” study showed, Facebook experiments on people without them knowing about it. That’s thin.

Jeff Hancock, the Cornell researcher who worked on the mood manipulation study, said this last week: One of his big discoveries was that most users don’t grasp the basic fact that the Facebook algorithm is a filter. They think it’s just an “objective window into their social world.” That’s thin too. (See my post about Hancock and his choices, Why do they give us tenure?) The company doesn’t level with users about the intensity of its drive to maximize time on site. Thin.

Thick legitimacy is where informed consent, active choice and clear communication prevail between a platform and its public, the coders and the users. Facebook simply does not operate that way. Many would argue that it can’t operate with thick legitimacy and run a successful business at scale. Exactly! As I said, the business model incorporates “thin” legitimacy as the normal operating style. For better or for worse, that’s how Facebook works. Reporters should know that, and learn how to handle attempts by Facebook speakers to evade this basic fact— especially from “one of the most influential people in the news business.”

Oct.
25

Why do they give us tenure?

That’s what I asked Jeff Hancock, the Cornell University professor who collaborated with Facebook on its ‘emotional contagion’ study, which subtly manipulated the news feeds of users to see if happier inputs made for sadder outputs. I also listened closely as he spoke of being in the center of an internet storm. Conclusion: I am not convinced.

The event was put on by the Data & Society think/do tank in New York, organized by danah boyd. Hancock’s talk was on-the-record, and I took a few notes. His remarks tracked closely with what he said in July at a Microsoft “faculty summit,” so I will use that text to help me represent what he said.

Summary of his presentation

Hancock told us he wanted to devote the next few years of his work to moving this discussion forward, by which he meant the ethics and transparency of big data research. He said he was especially concerned about the mistrust of science that the Facebook controversy had kicked up, “which I regret very deeply.” He said he didn’t want others to go through what he went through, a reference to the hate mail and threats directed at him once the study became famous on the internet.

The Facebook happy/sad study (my shorthand) had its origins in Hancock’s earlier work attempting to disprove a thesis in psychology: that “emotional contagion” — where one person “catches” an emotional mood from another without being aware of it — was unlikely to happen through text communication. He disagreed with that thesis. Facebook, he said, had followed his research because text updates are so important to the company.

In 2012 researchers at the company decided to test a claim commonly heard: that when users share happy news on Facebook (“I got a new job!” “We’re getting married!”) it makes others feel down about their own shabby lives. They got in touch with Hancock because they figured he would be interested in collaborating. (As Facebook’s Adam Kramer would later put it: “We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out.”)

You can see this history reflected in the abstract of the scientific paper that Kramer, Hancock and Jamie Guillory later published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.

And in this finding:

…the fact that people were more emotionally positive in response to positive emotion updates from their friends, stands in contrast to theories that suggest viewing positive posts by friends on Facebook may somehow affect us negatively, for example, via social comparison

By the way, that number, N = 689,003, tells you a lot about why an academic researcher might want to collaborate with Facebook. Any study with 700,000 participants — actually, “subjects” is a better term because they didn’t know they were participating — is bound to look impressive because the large number of people whose reactions are being tested means extra validity for the results.

After reviewing the research design and the findings (showing a “contagion” effect but a very small one) Hancock turned to the reactions he received after news of the study broke on social media and in the press over the weekend of June 27-29, 2014, as well as his own reasoning for why he felt that doing the study was “okay.”

Here, his main point was that he didn’t anticipate the storm to come because in his mind the very slight manipulation of the News Feed met the “minimal risk of harm” test that permits academic researchers to proceed with an experiment even when subjects have not been informed about what is happening. It was minimal, he reasoned, because the Facebook algorithm manipulates News Feeds all the time, in far more dramatic ways than the “contagion” experiment.

The problem, he told us, was that users don’t know how the Facebook algorithm works. They are unaware that Facebook is manipulating and changing it constantly. They think they’re getting everything their friends and family are sending. As he said at the Microsoft event:

I’m not sure whether this means we need to bring in an education component to help people understand that their news feeds are altered all the time by Facebook? But the huge number of e-mails about people’s frustration that researchers would change the news feed indicates that there’s just no sense that the news feed was anything other than an objective window into their social world.

The other thing that stood out for him was just how personally people were taking this! The reactions he got made it clear to Hancock that the Facebook News Feed wasn’t just entertainment or trivia but… something bigger, deeper. Here he drew a contrast between media depictions making fun of social media as “what I had for lunch today,” and what angry emailers told him during the storm. Here’s how he put it in July:

This surfaced a theme that the news isn’t just about what people are having for breakfast or all the typical mass media put-downs of Twitter and Facebook. Rather, this thing that emerged about seven years ago [Facebook] is now really important to people’s lives. It’s central and integrated in their lives. And that was really important for me to understand. That was one of the things that caught me off guard, even though maybe in hindsight it shouldn’t have.

Later, during the question period, Hancock said that if he a “do-over,” he would not choose to do this study again. His reasoning in July:

I think our study violated people’s sense of autonomy and the fact that they do not want their emotions manipulated or mood controlled. And I think it’s a separate issue whether we think emotions are being manipulated all the time, through advertising, etc. What became very clear in the e-mail was that emotions are special… If we work on one of these special classes or categories of human experience, like emotion, without informed consent, without debriefing, we could do larger harm than just harm to participants.

Hancock described a harrowing experience at the center of the storm. The police came to his home to tell him, “we have to figure out how to keep you safe.” The president of Cornell University received calls demanding that he be fired. His family in Canada was contacted by Russian journalists who were trying to get to Hancock through them. He couldn’t sleep. He wondered if he had done something deeply wrong. The academic journal that published his study was considering whether to withdraw it, which would have been a huge blow to his reputation. He said he began to breathe more freely when a panel of scholarly peers split on whether the study violated research protocol, which said to him: These are tough issues. There is no consensus.

My impressions and reactions.

Now I’m going to shift from summarizing what Hancock said to telling you what I think— and what I asked him during the question period.

Disclosure: I have been critical of Jeff Hancock (see here and here.) And while I did gain more sympathy for him by hearing about his experience, and a better understanding of his work by learning about his scholarly background, I’m not at all convinced. More on that in a moment.

Still, I give Hancock a lot of credit for coming to talk to skeptical colleagues, for permitting the session to be on-the-record, for admitting that he wouldn’t do the “contagion” study again, for acknowledging other failures of imagination, for being personable and contrite, and for recognizing that lots of people have lots of problems with what he and Facebook did. No one should have to experience threats to personal for safety for having conducted an academic study, and none of us can predict how we would react in that situation.

As fellow faculty, a colleague, I feel I owe Jeff Hancock my considered opinion about his public performance and scholarly reasoning, even as I recognize that in the center of an internet storm we are not only professionals in a field, but human beings with fears for ourselves and our families. So here is what I think: I’m not convinced.

I’m not convinced that Hancock knew enough about Facebook and its users to even wander into this territory. It’s really kind of shocking to hear a social psychologist and scholar of communication express surprise that users of Facebook take their News Feeds very personally. That’s like saying: “I learned something from my experience. People are serious about this ‘friends and family’ thing. It’s not just a phone company slogan!” We expect you to know that about people before you start experimenting on them.

The relevant contrast is not between emailers informing Jeff Hancock that their News Feed feels quite personal to them and ill-informed press accounts making fun of social media, which is how he framed it, but between a nuanced and studied understanding of something, a pre-condition for scholarly work, and a lazy, person-on-the-street level of knowledge, which is what he essentially admitted to.

I’m also not convinced that Hancock is the man to be “leading a series of discussions among academics, corporate researchers and government agencies” about putting right what was revealed to be wrong by the Facebook study. His experience may be a case study in the need for change. It does not qualify him to convene the change discussion.

Part of the reason I say that involves his decision-making in the six-week interval between the weekend when the controversy broke, June 27-29, and August 12, when he surfaced as a reformer in this New York Times article. Hancock disappeared from the public sphere during this time, while other players made statements and answered at least some of the questions that angry users and alert journalists were asking. That’s not leadership. That’s the opposite of leadership. And this is what I asked him about.

My question to Hancock

I’m going to reproduce my question here. It’s not verbatim, I have added a few details and links, but it’s essentially the same thing I said in the Union Square Ventures conference room October 23rd.

Thanks for doing this, Jeff. My question is simple: why do they give us tenure? But it requires some explanation. In June, Cornell sent out a press release about your study. (“‘Emotional contagion’ sweeps Facebook.”) Clearly it was proud of the work one of its faculty members had done. By definition, the purpose of a press release is to invite publicity and discussion in the public sphere. I’m sure no one anticipated how much attention your study would receive, but still: the invitation was there.

When the world heard about your study, finding a lot to question in it, you absented yourself from that debate for more than six weeks. But this is the very discussion that you told us — today — you want to lead! One of your co-authors, Adam Kramer, tried to address some of the questions in a Facebook post. The editor of the article you published, Susan Fiske, spoke to the press about her decision-making. Cornell addressed the controversy in a statement it released on June 30. But you said nothing on Facebook, the platform where the research was done. You were silent on Twitter. (I was checking.) You wrote nothing on any blog. You cancelled interviews with journalists.

The issues you say you want to work on over the next few years were very much alive in that six week period. People were paying attention to them! Now I recognize that a lot of the attention was ill-intentioned, over-the-top, angry and threatening and very far from the ideal of a calm and rational discussion. I recognize that you felt under attack. But still: I don’t understand your decision-making.

So I ask again: why do they give us tenure? What’s the deal? Is it just: we can’t lose our jobs if people hate what we say? Or do they give us tenure precisely so we can participate in the debate when our work comes under scrutiny and a white hot controversy erupts in the public sphere?

In reply to me, Jeff Hancock said he had never really thought about what tenure was for before all this happened. Beyond that, his response came down to: I was freaked out, I had no training or experience with this, and didn’t know what to do. So I kept quiet. He said he asked some colleagues about whether to respond publicly, including danah boyd. He got requests to go on TV but turned them down. He added that he could have posted a public note that he would not be commenting for a while but didn’t.

I can understand all that. I can sympathize with it. I can recognize — as I’ve tried to do so several times in this post — that he was in a difficult spot, undergoing a trial that few of us can imagine. Nonetheless, I’m not convinced. Based on what I heard last week, I don’t think he knew what to say back to people who had said to him: “How dare you manipulate my news feed!” (Hancock’s paraphrase.) His thoughts on the matter (how did I dare to…?) were superficial— and unfortunately they still are. He has an account, but didn’t go on Facebook to explain, as Adam Kramer (untenured) did. Perhaps because his own ignorance of lived experience on the platform would have been revealed. He was happy to promote his work on Twitter…

…Unhappy when Twitter turned against him. I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is the deal for professors with tenure and academic freedom operating in the public sphere and conducting research about social media. Unlike most of the American work force, we can’t lose our jobs for speaking up. So we speak up when our work is questioned. If people don’t understand how we do our studies, we try to explain how we operate. When the press is suddenly interested in our research, we pick the right forum and answer the questions as best we can. If a lot of the attacks are in bad faith, we find the critics acting in good faith and respond to them.

And if we don’t have answers when the lights are on and reputations are made, well, maybe we’re not the best people to be leading a public discussion about big data and modern society.

(Other participants who were there may want to add their notes about what Jeff Hancock said or give their impressions. Please use the comments for that. And if you want to correct me about anything, please do.)

Oct.
10

First Look Media: a personal update

In November of last year, I said that I was joining First Look Media, Pierre Omidyar’s start-up, as a (paid) advisor. Today, I am announcing that I am no longer involved in First Look.

There is no drama and not much of a story to it. After the first six months of giving shape to the new company, the founders and editors simply didn’t have a lot for me to do. Meanwhile, it was difficult for me to comment or write about First Look because I was officially involved in it. I had joined in confidential discussions and was occasionally paid for my participation in planning. Over the summer that kind of work trailed off because First Look has a much clearer sense of where it is going now.

What did not change is the atmosphere of mutual respect between me and Pierre Omidyar, Glenn Greenwald, John Temple, Dan Froomkin, Bill Gannon, Andy Carvin and many others employed by this growing enterprise. I was never an employee, only an advisor but I felt honored to be there as it took shape. I recently concluded that I could do more for First Look by writing about it from the outside, and I met with John Temple — president of the company — to let him know that.

So this parting is entirely amicable. And it was my initiative. Now I am eager to see what First Look becomes as it emerges into fuller form. Special thanks to Pierre Omidyar for letting me hang around and contribute to his idea for a new kind of news organization. I wish him and everyone he brings on board the best of luck as they bring that (still fascinating) idea to life.

UPDATE, Oct. 30, 2014: Yesterday, Matt Taibbi left First Look Media. He was supposed to debut soon his new site about corruption in finance and politics called Racket. Today, The Intercept published The Inside Story of Matt Taibbi’s Departure from First Look Media. I am glad this happened. It shows that editorial independence is not just a concept, but a reality. I agree with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Schahill and John Cook that “the departure of the popular former Rolling Stone writer is a serious setback for First Look in its first year of operations.”

As a former adviser to the company, I want to take slight issue with one part of that post, while welcoming the rest as a much needed act of transparency. This is the part I mean:

A few months later, over the summer, Omidyar told employees that he was “re-tooling” the company’s focus and building a laboratory environment to foster the development of new technologies for delivering and consuming news—the idea, he said at the time, was to orient the company more toward “products,” as opposed to “content.”

I don’t think the relevant distinction was “products” vs. “content,” although it’s possible those terms were used. Rather, the key difference is between starting with the journalism that deserves to be done, then finding the maximum number of users for it, and starting with a community of users that is poorly served, then figuring out what kind of journalism — what sort of news product — might best meet their needs. In both cases, the quality of the editorial work is vital to success. But the content is derived in a different way. For more on this distinction, go here.

I could be wrong, but I think Pierre Omidyar and John Temple want both approaches to characterize First Look.

Oct.
9

“Talk to the critics…” The Chuck Todd plan to restore trust in Meet the Press.

A disgusted viewer and longtime critic of the Sunday shows — that would be me — interviews NBC’s Chuck Todd about his attempt to remake the most famous of those shows.

1. PressThink: You told Breitbart that your interview with them was “a step in the rehabilitation of my business… Talk to the critics. Talk to the skeptics.” We’ll get to the other steps in that rehabilitation later, but what’s the thinking behind this step? What are you hoping will happen if you do “talk to the critics, talk to the skeptics?”

Meet the Press - Season 67Chuck Todd: I think there are too many folks in my business who are too defensive and desperately hope things return to the so-called “good old days.” The media landscape has changed. We need to adapt. We need to acknowledge new players. When I say it’s time to talk to the critics and the skeptics, it means engaging, hearing new ideas. Perhaps incorporating some or dismissing some but at least explaining why. Have the two-way conversation. A lot of media critics don’t know what happens behind the scenes and sometimes that does matter. For instance, just because we don’t air a story, doesn’t mean we didn’t report it out. Just didn’t deem it worth airing.

2. PressThink: You mean the “good old days” of one-way media without a lot of choice for the users?

Chuck Todd: Exactly. Look, I have an incredible platform, I get that. But that doesn’t mean we are the only game in town. We have to acknowledge the entire landscape, maybe even change how we report. For instance, in the “good old days,” not reporting a story that didn’t pan out was enough to make sure an untrue story didn’t make it into the eco-system. Now, there are a number of ways untrue stories can go public. We in the so-called MSM should be willing to report what is not true, rather than ignoring and claiming that “well, we didn’t deem it worthy” and therefore don’t have a responsibility for debunking someone else’s rumor. I’m not sure we can defend not sharing publicly what we know is true and false.

3. PressThink: Would you agree with me that “he said, she said” reporting (and “he said, she said” roundtables!) have been a disaster for public confidence in the press?

Chuck Todd: Of course. I think there is no such thing as “fair and balanced.” It’s simply “fair.” As for whether it is a disaster? I think the disaster is how the politicians play into this. It’s a two-way street. My philosophy is trying to make sure different perspectives are represented when it comes to opinion about the political landscape, but this should not get in the way of facts.

4. PressThink: The words are said to be Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s, “You have a right to your own opinion. You do not have a right to your own facts.” But if there’s one place on the dial where it seems that important people do have a right to their own facts, it’s the Sunday morning talk shows. How did that happen? Where did it go wrong? What was the fatal moment or crossing point?

Chuck Todd: Where to begin. I think the advent of advocacy TV interviewers being available helped accelerate this a bit. Then you have the coordinated campaigns on the left and right to pressure news organizations on balance. ChuckMTP3And too many executives in general felt the heat enough to then decide “make everything he said, she said” because it was deemed politically safe. Realize: there is an industry out there that feels their job is to try and create doubt about the MSM with partisans, and it really is a business decision in order to drive folks to their own POV programming.

I think there are some true disagreements over facts that we shouldn’t pretend don’t exist. For instance, when it comes to tax policy, the disagreement on facts comes from assumptions about consumer behavior that can change over time and not be something you can pin down as factually accurate. And let me add one more thing. As for the change on Sundays over time, I think the overall pressure from cable when cable went daily with political discussions pushed folks in charge of Sunday shows to emulate cable.

5. PressThink: Which is how Jon Stewart became your most effective critic. His show is essentially about the excesses and stupidity of the cable news formula.

Chuck Todd: Cable news has become an easy target, that’s for sure. I prided myself on how little my cable show ended up as an example. Of course, you don’t get credit for that.

6. PressThink: You said this to the Daily Beast:

I think there is this perception that the American public has about Washington right now—and they’ve thrown all of us in the media with it—that we’re out of touch. We don’t understand what’s going on. We’re all caught up in the process of the Acela Corridor. Being in Washington, we’re not experiencing what the folks ‘between the Fives’ are experiencing. We got caught up in that Washington-New York mind-set.

From what I can tell by doing my homework and by watching the show you have four answers to this problem:

One is: you’re not a Washington insider yourself, by background at least. Middle class kid from Miami, not a creature of the Acela corridor. “I’ve got my own kitchen cabinet of relatives who’ve had to live through some of the hard realities of this recession,” you have said.

Second answer: Political journalists can regain credibility by showing that they “get it,” which for you means listening to people beyond the Fives (Interstate 95 on the East Coast, I-5 in California) and then translating — that’s the key word for you, translating — their anxiety and frustration into tough questions for public officials.

A third answer is to hear more often from people involved in politics “out there” between the Fives, who are not close at hand in Washington, as with your conversation with three mayors from other cities about what’s working elsewhere.

Fourth answer: Diversify the guest list. No more “elected pundits,” office holders who are simply repeating what they read on the op-ed page. Broaden the mix, as with John Stanton of Buzzfeed or Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas.

So I have several questions about the Chuck Todd plan to restore trust in Sunday morning political television. First. What did I miss?

Chuck Todd: You have done your homework. Relevancy— that’s the only other thing I’d add. Try to make sure we’re relevant to what the country should be understanding about what’s going on.

7. PressThink: How do you think political journalism, your profession, became over-identified with the politicians and insiders themselves? You’ve said that voters and viewers now lump you and your colleagues in with the people who have made a mess of politics. How did that happen?

Chuck Todd: The one-two punch of the Iraq War and the recession. Basically two huge things that the folks in charge blew and we in “the media” appeared to go along in only explaining the government’s side of “why.” So Iraq started eroding trust, then the recession nearly finished the job on trust erosion, thanks to the glorification of Wall Street by the media in general over the ’90s and early 21st century. Toss in the fact that we in the media lived in the two areas of the country that did not experience the recession, and it’s a toxic stew. Since the folks who were at fault never got punished, the media didn’t appear to be on the public’s side, but instead looked to be collectively on the side of the elites.

8. PressThink: So if I understand that answer, smart people in political journalism should have realized that the near total lack of accountability for these huge disasters was going to come back on them, that they weren’t doing enough to perform in the watchdog role they hold out for themselves. Is that a fair summary?

Chuck Todd: Yes. And let me stipulate, perhaps it is easy for me to backseat drive. I wasn’t covering the White House at the time. I was covering the political landscape, covering elections for a trade publication, then behind the scenes here [at NBC News] doing similar work. I’d like to think that when given the opportunity, I would have been more skeptical; but sometimes for beat reporters, seeing the forest can be difficult, no matter how hard you try. I now have an opportunity to constantly be the person that is hopefully seeing the forest too.

9. PressThink: I would remind you that your predecessor, David Gregory, said several times that he thought the press did a fine job in the run-up to the Iraq War, that all the important questions were asked, that criticism including Washington journalists in the list of institutions that failed is misplaced. I found that astonishing, that he would continue to say that in retrospect. Did you?

Chuck Todd: He was a daily beat reporter. I’m sure he and others did ask plenty of skeptical questions. But that skepticism didn’t always make it on air or in print and then I don’t know how editors and producers were treating those questions once the reporters made it on air or in print. It’s not an excuse, just explaining that there is a way for both things to be true.

Let’s also remember, this doesn’t happen without a slew of political leaders all marching to the same drum, all using the same sources to justify their positions. But this is where the anger at the press began. We’re mad that the politicians lied or misled us either on purpose or accident. But sadly, maybe the public expects politicians to lie or mislead. What they want is a press corps to help them hold these folks accountable, especially after the fact.

10. PressThink: I have been a faithful viewer of the Sunday shows for more than 20 years, and I felt my own frustration grow during that span. One thing that jumps out at me as a critic who switches among them is the unbelievable uniformity of these shows, not only in basic format but in the guest list, the questions, the topics. When Fox and CNN entered this derby with Chris Wallace and Candy Crowley, their shows were almost carbon copies of Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and This Week on ABC. It’s like a single mind is producing them, but it has 50 pairs of feet. If you’re going to change that, it seems to me the first step is to figure out: how does that happen, that kind of group think. So why do you think it happened?

Chuck Todd: Well, TV has a history of copying what works. When CNN and Fox came along, they looked at what was working (in this case MTP was number 1) and that became the formula to copy. This has happened in the radio and TV biz (both news side and entertainment) since the day after Marconi invented it (I kid, sort of.) Now, the issue of booking has become a lot more complicated, even more than I realized before I took this job. An amazing number of folks simply are afraid to go out on the Sunday shows, so there’s that.

As for the topics, I am trying to change that. I think there is an expectation (and as a viewer, I would have it) that the Sunday shows delve into the most important issue of the day or week, and we are living in a big news period so I imagine you won’t see the diversity of topics for the leads of these shows. ChuckMTP4But where I’m trying to do things differently is at least have diversity of topics in the middle of the show. Use that space, frankly, to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. But to not be afraid. I did the tax cuts segment (using Kansas as the backdrop) a few weeks back, about a week before the New York Times and others did. Don’t think any other show has even done it yet. Specifically, the issue of how the Kansas governor’s race could actually change the tax debate. That’s a big deal and could change the tax debate in Washington and all 50 states.

11. PressThink: Here’s another thing that really puzzles me about the Sunday shows. I get why you have the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee on when Obama is about to go to Congress for authorization. He’s a player. I don’t get why a certain class of insiders — professional operatives, paid manipulators, official mouthpieces, “party strategists” — are regularly invited on. I don’t think they should ever be on.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Reince Priebus. Mike Murphy. Bob Shrum. Four names that stand for many more. We know going in they’re not going to be anything but boosters for their side. I mean, if you wanted to stoke people’s frustration with politics, a perfect medium for that would be a “he said, she said” segment with Wasserman Schultz and Priebus, which has happened in past years on Meet the Press. You just had Priebus and Murphy on last month. I don’t get it, Chuck. The whole practice makes no sense to me. Can you explain?

Chuck Todd: I think it’s unfair to lump some of these folks into one category. Priebus is the head of the GOP; he attempted to release a series of principles that I think was designed to be the GOP’s message for the midterms. He’s the head of the party. The party is trying to win the senate, so it seemed appropriate to probe that. He was relevant that week. I agree, you don’t just put him on because, well, “I need a GOPer,” why not him? There has to be a reason. He unveiled something that appeared to be an attempt to be a sequel to the 1994 Contract with America. So it’s worth questioning him.

As for the use of political strategists, some are good and plugged in and have information that will help the viewer understand the why. For instance, why a party or a candidate is doing something. Murphy is someone who isn’t predictable when it comes to assessing his own party. And he understands campaigns at a granular level that can be helpful to the viewer who wants clarity and the answer to the question “why.” I understand your larger complaint, and that is, folks who spout the most predictable answers. If I thought Murphy was doing that, I wouldn’t use him.

12. PressThink: Do you think you are part of the professional political class? Would you include yourself in it?

Chuck Todd: I don’t think any political reporters should be categorized in that, and I wouldn’t want to be classified in that group. I’m not an operative. I’m a reporter and analyst.

13. PressThink: Amy Davidson of the New Yorker said something I found interesting in a review of your first show:

“Meet the Press” has been on the air since 1947; Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan each appeared on it seven times, Obama a dozen. It trades in a sense that it’s an important thing for important people to do. Todd, too, has probably been reminded more than once that a large part of his job is theatre. And Todd is good at it, in a character-actor sort of way, which is probably the best approach; it leaves open the possibility of acting up.

What I found interesting is her suggestion that Meet the Press is theatre, not in the negative sense of “show business” when it should be serious, but more in the positive sense of: drama, urgency and an acting out of the country’s passions through politics. So my question is: can Meet the Press be good theatre and how do you make it so?

Chuck Todd: I can’t escape the fact that most folks will only judge the show’s success by numbers, not by content. I happen to think the content will drive the numbers over time; so that’s my bet and clearly my bosses are making that bet. I’m not exactly someone who was created in a TV lab. But right now, there is a tendency to try and be splashy and so urgent that it risks actually under-cutting what a Sunday show should be and what viewers actually want, which is content and clarity. That said, you have to be watchable.

Mary Poppins had it right: just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. I love politics and I respect the potential our democracy provides us. I want more folks to care about what’s happening. Part of that is to help them understand the game (when necessary) and then help connect the game to the impact on their lives and on the Republic as a whole. So, I want to make the show watchable and fulfilling. Does that mean some will think we are creating “good theater?” Perhaps, but if that so-called theater helps give context and clarity, then it’s worth it.

14. PressThink: It seems to me that one of the most powerful things a show like your could do is bring into legitimate debate people, causes, ideas and problems that have been placed in the “sphere of deviance” or marginalized by the rest of the political class and by journalists. As in literally never spoken of in power circles. Is this something that has occurred to you, since you are overhauling Meet the Press?

Chuck Todd: 1,000 percent. I have a list of these issues that I want to get to. It is why I keep bringing up the middle of the show concept. So the show doesn’t change at the top with the important news of the day/week, but [we] use the platform to also introduce topics that haven’t been touched (or dealt with in a while.)

Look, on this, you are preaching to the choir. The challenge I’m discovering: it takes time to produce the show you want. This is an aircraft carrier. I’m turning it. Come back in six months and let’s assess how I’ve done.

PressThink: Fair enough!

* * *

My commentary: I think you have to give Chuck Todd some credit. He realizes the Sunday shows have failed. He knows they have to change. If he doesn’t change Meet the Press enough, he can be criticized for that. He understands that viewers and voters regard Washington journalists as part of the political class, even though he does not see himself that way. What interested me most was his reply to question 7. Journalists as a class failed to appreciate how they participated in the utter lack of accountability for the failures in Iraq and after the financial crisis, he said. Most people in his profession are still in denial about that. Chuck Todd is not. I was disappointed in his answer to No. 11 on the “professional operatives, paid manipulators, official mouthpieces, and party strategists.” I think that’s where he showed himself to be trapped in his professional skin. He didn’t understand my question about “good theatre” (no. 13.) He treated it as: how do you get viewers to eat their vegetables? (Spoon full of sugar, natch.) But that was my fault. I should have clarified it, and re-asked. Slipped up there. He had a robust reply to No. 14 on “the sphere of deviance,” pledging to — in effect — give voice to the voiceless. That’s impressive, and something we can hold him accountable for. Amy Davidson’s characterization is right on. Chuck Todd is more of a character actor than a “leading man” type. That makes him less predictable. But it leaves open the question of what kind of character he intends to be.

Photo credit: Pete Williams, NBC. Used by permission.

Sep.
6

Some old-fashioned blogging in the link-and-comment style

Bring back the fun. Scott Rosenberg — who literally wrote the book on it — says blogging is enjoying something of a revival lately.

Nicholas Carr senses a mood of exhaustion with what he calls Big Internet.

By Big Internet, I mean the platform- and plantation-based internet, the one centered around giants like Google and Facebook and Twitter and Amazon and Apple. Maybe these companies were insurgents at one point, but now they’re fat and bland and obsessed with expanding or defending their empires. They’ve become the Henry VIIIs of the web. And it’s starting to feel a little gross to be in their presence.

“Bring back personal blogs. Bring back RSS. Bring back the fun. Screw Big Internet,” Carr writes. In a follow-up post, Rosenberg speculates that as “waves of smart people hit the limits of their frustration with Twitter and Facebook, many will look around and realize, hey, this blogging thing still makes a great deal of sense.”

After this episode — Twitter flirting with a filtered feed — I am feeling that way myself. One good thing about a revival, as against a trend: fewer journalists rushing to declare the revival “over.”

Hit piece bombs. Almost everyone who has tried to “take down” Glenn Greenwald, as opposed to just criticizing him, has wound up looking bad in front of his journalistic colleagues. Memorable examples include David Gregory and Andrew Ross Sorkin. This week Politico published an embarrassing attempt at a take down by Michael Hirsh. Has Greenwald, Inc. Peaked?

“Politico Magazine’s Michael Hirsh has written a hit piece on Glenn Greenwald. It is terrible,” wrote the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple. For example, the headline “signals that Hirsh doesn’t want to stand behind his convictions but just wants to trial-balloon them for clicks.” Gawker’s Tom Scocca explained what Politico was up to:

Under the rules of the buzz process, once a person or entity—Mike Huckabee, The Help, the panoptical security state—has been established as the subject of sustained public attention, the eventual next step is to inform the public that the public is no longer interested. This generates new attention. Ups and downs.

Just as Politico wants to be the first to say something is a trend, it wants to be first to notice what’s “over.” This is rather different from trying to figure out what’s actually going on. (Disclosure.)

You cannot be serious. I’ve been marveling at this all week. On Sep. 1, Frank Bruni, who occupies expensive real estate on the op-ed page of the New York Times for no reason I can detect, dropped on us a column claiming that Obama was weak in responding to the threat from ISIS. Nothing remarkable in that; dozens of other columnists were saying the same thing. But watch:

He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that “America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything”; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.

This is all true. It’s in tune with our awareness of our limits. And it reflects a prudent disinclination to repeat past mistakes and overreach.

But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R.

Dig it: Obama is speaking truthfully, treating us as adults, and being prudent, but there’s a problem because Bruni wants better P.R. Is this what we need journalists for? He quotes two other journalists, Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz of the Washington Post, making the same point. Obama, they said, was speaking candidly but in no way projected “an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness.”

This style of analysis is so common among American journalists that it passed by without comment. As your blogger, I cannot allow that. Worrying about image projection and the degree of savviness in the Administration’s P.R., asking “Where are your infantilization skills, Mr. President?”— these are signs of a press corps that can be deeply unserious about international politics.

And there’s another problem. Bruni’s column, which couldn’t have taken more than 45 minutes to produce, is a sign that people at the New York Times still don’t get it. By “it” I mean the economic age they are living through. The value added for this kind of writing is essentially zero. It does not bring a new perspective. It does not add any previously unknown facts. There is nothing distinctive in the analysis. It is all professional reflex (which is why I wrote about it.) The New York Times thinks it can still afford commodity opinion on its op-ed page. That is incorrect.