I have a personal announcement.
I am joining up with the new venture in news that Pierre Omidyar, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill are creating, along with Liliana Segura, Dan Froomkin, Eric Bates and others who are coming on board to give shape to this thing, which we are calling NewCo until we are ready to release the name.
Because it doesn’t exist yet, NewCo could take many forms. Only a handful of those possible paths will lead to a strong and sustainable company that meets a public need. Figuring that out is a hard problem, to which I am deeply attracted. So I signed up to be part of the launch team. This post explains why I made that decision and what I hope to contribute.
One voice at the table
About a month ago, I told readers of PressThink about Pierre Omidyar’s plans for a new venture in news, based on my interview with him and an earlier consultation when he was gathering advice. These, I thought, were the key points:
Omidyar believes that if independent, ferocious, investigative journalism isn’t brought to the attention of general audiences it can never have the effect that actually creates a check on power. Therefore the new entity — they have a name but they’re not releasing it, so I will just call it NewCo — will have to serve the interest of all kinds of news consumers. It cannot be a niche product. It will have to cover sports, business, entertainment, technology: everything that users demand.
At the core of Newco will be a different plan for how to build a large news organization. It resembles what I called in an earlier post “the personal franchise model” in news. You start with individual journalists who have their own reputations, deep subject matter expertise, clear points of view, an independent and outsider spirit, a dedicated online following, and their own way of working. The idea is to attract these people to NewCo, or find young journalists capable of working in this way, and then support them well.
“Support” means a powerful publishing platform that talented journalists can bend to their will. It means an up-to-date technology company resting inside the news company. It means editors to save writers from their errors, and maintain high standards. It means first class security and encryption for reporting on sensitive stories. A legal team for when trouble calls. Training and development for young journalists who are learning the NewCo style. Ownership that has pledged to invest it all in the journalism if and when revenues exceed expenses.
“Support” also means: “when you have a big story we bring a large audience to it.” Perhaps the most challenging part of the plan is this: Not a niche product. Has to serve a more general market for news.
“And how are they going to do that?…” is the one question I got more than any other in talking to people after my first post on Omidyar’s plan. Runner-up: what’s going to make this different from other ways to get news online? Those are good questions. So good that when Dan Froomkin and Glenn Greenwald called to ask me if I wanted to help create NewCo, I had to listen.
I also had to ask myself: what could I contribute? I don’t have credentials as an editor or a reporter and I have never started a business. Instead, I’ve been watching journalism evolve with the web since 2003. I’ve been trying to explain what makes it different in the digital era, paying close attention to problems of trust, shifts in authority and the pro-am or participatory forms that have slowly emerged since the rise of blogging around 2000. To put it another way, I have been all over this discussion: “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?” I’ve also been advising media companies on adapting to the web and teaching young journalists — my graduate students at NYU — how to contribute to innovation in their craft.
Nobody has titles at NewCo yet. The agreement I have with Pierre Omidyar is that I will advise on building the company and participate in planning discussions as NewCo takes shape. One voice at the table, in other words. I will also explain its approach to journalism in written pieces that resemble my essays for PressThink. I am especially interested in the civic engagement and user participation puzzle, which is one part of …And how are they going to do that?
Also important: building a learning culture within the organization. (NewCo has to be its own J-school or it cannot succeed.) The contract I signed — yes, I am getting paid — is part time for the remainder of 2013. By luck I am on leave from NYU for the spring 2014 term. After the new year I can devote much more time to this venture, which I intend to do.
NYU, where I have made my home since 1986, is a research university. The purpose of that institution is to produce new knowledge. For me and the things I write and care about, NewCo is the most exciting project in journalism today. To be involved from the beginning in the birth of a company based on these ideas is the best test of my learning that I could devise. And I’m sure it will produce new knowledge, which I will share.
Things are going to change around here.
A simpler way to put it: This is PressThink come to life. The second part of this post (which is for the most interested readers…) explains what I mean by that. But first: my involvement in NewCo changes things between me and you, meaning: the people who read my writing and follow me on Twitter or Facebook.
Up to this point, I have observed upon — and criticized! — the press from a position outside and independent of it. The only exceptions to that are these (previously disclosed) positions: Advisory board, Digital First Media; consultant, Post Media Network of Canada; director, Gazette Company of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Today’s announcement is different. From here on, I am a player in NewCo. I’m not just giving advice to a company that pre-dated my involvement. I am involved in the effort to create something. I am being paid $ for my participation. Unlike an “advisory” position there is no real separation between me and the people who are building NewCo from scratch. Therefore I have to publicly abandon any position as an observer or independent analyst of Pierre Omidyar’s new venture in news. Out of the press box and onto the field.
And so when I speak about it you are entitled to apply whatever discount rate you find appropriate. About the intentions of Pierre Omidyar, the journalism of Glenn Greenwald and the eventual product of NewCo I am no longer an independent analyst rendering judgment. Criticism will have to come from others. And I am sure it will.
I cannot say “Can’t wait to get started” because I have already started. And I don’t want to hear anything about “saving journalism” (a phrase I detest) because it doesn’t need saving and anyway that is not the plan. The plan is to build something that can sustain itself and produce excellent work.
Part Two: PressThink come to life.
Here are some posts I’ve written, selected from hundreds, that will meet their test as NewCo comes to life.
The View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance
The View from Nowhere won’t be a requirement for our journalists. Nor will a single ideology prevail. NewCo itself will have a view of the world: Accountability journalism, exposing abuses of power, revealing injustices will no doubt be part of it. Under that banner many “views from somewhere” can fit.
If you want to appear equally sympathetic to all potential sources, politics: none is the way to go. If you want to avoid pissing off the maximum number of users, politics: none gets it done. (This has commercial implications. They are obvious.) But: if you’re persuaded that transparency is the better route to trust, politics: some is the better choice. And if you want to attract sources who themselves have a political commitment or have come to a conclusion about matters contested within the political community, being open about your politics can be an advantage. That is the lesson that Glenn Greenwald has been teaching the profession of journalism for the last week. Edward Snowden went to him because of his commitments. This has implications for reporters committed to the “no commitments” style.
Just as we wouldn’t force a point of view on people or expect them to fall in line, NewCo is not going to insist that everyone follow Greenwald’s lead. That’s not the point of a View from Somewhere approach. Rather: we think the way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to let individual journalists shine in a way that works for them.
Features of the personal franchise site:
* Star journalist at the center with a large online following and cross-platform presence.
* Editorial control rests largely or entirely with the founder and personality at the center.
* Part of a larger media company with a negotiated balance of power between the two states.
* Identifiable niche or niches; no attempt to be comprehensive.
* Plenty of voice, attitude and personal expression allowed.
* Mix of news, opinion, analysis without a lot of fuss about categorizing each.
Authority in journalism is shifting to the individual with a voice, subject matter expertise, and a following online. The structure and operating style of the company will attempt to solve for that. We don’t know exactly how yet but that is part of the adventure.
The people formerly known as the audience are those who were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, with high entry fees and a few firms competing to speak very loudly while the rest of the population listened in isolation from one another— and who today are not in a situation like that at all.
We haven’t talked about this much yet, but one of my goals as an adviser is to have built into the platform a more active role for the people formerly known as the audience. Something more than comment threads and share buttons.
It took me a while to understand this myself, but I want to isolate an important fact at the outset.Professional journalism has been optimized for low participation. Up until a few years ago, the “job” of the user was simply to receive the news and maybe send a letter to the editor. There was a logic to this. Journalists built their practices on top of a one-way, one-to-many, broadcasting system. Most of us understand that by now. What we haven’t quite appreciated is how the logic of the one way, one-to-many pipes sunk deeply, not only into professional practice, but into professional selves.
What if you optimized for three possibilities: high participation, light involvement and none— just consumption? That would be the lesson of the one percent rule of online life, which says that if 100 people gather at your site, 90 will just use the product, ten will occasionally interact and one will become a core contributor. I want to see if we can build systems for that.
When I explained this move to my 12 year-old son, he said: Are you having a mid-life crisis? Nooooo, I replied, but as you get older (I’m 57) you have to find new challenges. “That’s cool,” he said, and went back to his waffles.
UPDATE: Dec. 4, 2013: For more see this interview with me on the Atlantic site: A News Organization That Rejects the View From Nowhere.