‘Democrats argue. Republicans contend. We have no idea.’ A he said, she said at the Times.

Classic forms of he said, she said are not so much a "sin" against high practice as an increasingly crappy level of service for what is supposed to be a high end product: New York Times reporting.

11 May 2014 7:39 pm 33 Comments

Saturday the New York Times published on its front page an article by reporter Jeremy W. Peters about Republican Senator Rand Paul criticizing his party for backing laws that make it harder for some people to vote by requiring forms of identification they may not have. Unquestionably, this was news. The Times report included this paragraph:

Few issues ignite such passion among the base of both parties. Democrats argue that the laws are intended to keep poor voters away from the polls because they often have difficulty obtaining identification. Republicans contend cheating is rife in today’s elections.

Excuse me: Would you happen to know, New York Times, whether fraud at the polls is “rife in today’s elections?” Is that something I should expect you to know, seeing as you are the high-end product in the national news marketplace? Or is Democrats argue/Republicans contend/We have no idea a good enough standard, and it is my expectations that are out of scale?

In this article, at least, the Times does not know whether cheating is rife in today’s elections. But it knows of a passion for polarizing the issue among the bases of both parties. This helps makes it a classic in the “he said, she said” genre.

Look, we have no idea who’s right. How would we? Figure it out for yourselves! Don’t be asking us to sort out what’s real from what’s fiction. We’re just New York Times journalists. We don’t do “there’s no basis for that.” We do “Republicans contend…”

I’m satirizing but to make a point: this standard isn’t good enough. At least since the launch of Politifact.com in 2007 — which does do “sorry, there’s no basis for that,” sometimes — it’s been made clear to mainstream practitioners in the U.S. that the classic forms of he said, she said are not so much a “sin” against high practice as an increasingly crappy level of service for what is supposed to be an upscale product: New York Times reporting. If you can say (reliably) there’s no evidence for… and you don’t, how well have you done by Times authority?

Here I hand the mic to a fellow blogger of this one sad but (we think) telling paragraph, Felix Salmon, now of Fusion. Felix broke it down proposition by proposition: False equivalency in the NYT. (“How Jeremy Peters’s voter ID reporting is even more wrong than you think.”) I urge you to read his post and come back to this one.

Meanwhile, this report from — hey! — the New York Times in 2007 testifies:

Five years after the Bush administration began a crackdown on voter fraud, the Justice Department has turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to court records and interviews.

Also this from Politifact/Georgia rating as “mostly true” the claim that in-person voter fraud is a very rare phenomenon, so rare that “only 10 cases of in-person voter fraud have been proven nationally.”

Or this in 2013 from Politifact/Texas: “By our reading of the attorney general’s records, 18 instances of voter fraud have been confirmed in Texas since 2002.” That’s an average of 1.6 cases per year. In a state where more than a million votes are cast in an off year. Rife?

Or read what law professor and election law scholar Richard L. Hasen, author of The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown (Yale University Press: 2012) has to say on how “rife” it is:

Federal Judge Lynn Adelman looked at the evidence from Wisconsin and reached a conclusion unsurprising to those of us who study how elections are run. “Virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin,” Adelman wrote, “and it is exceedingly unlikely that voter impersonation will become a problem in Wisconsin in the foreseeable future.”

Wisconsin is not alone in lacking such evidence. When the United States Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of Indiana’s voter ID law in 2008, the state conceded there was no evidence, ever, of impersonation fraud in the entire state.

As Salmon says, you don’t have to pretend that there is a lot of fraud to be in favor of more controls. “In fact, you don’t even need to think that cheating exists in order to support such measures. It’s entirely rational to support a voter ID law even if cheating is rare or nonexistent, on the grounds that cheating is just too easy right now and that you want to make it harder.”

So what is that exceedingly crappy paragraph doing there on the newspaper-of-record’s front page? Salmon says it’s laziness. (“He-said-she-said is so easy, for a journalist on deadline, that both journalists and editors tend not to really thinking about exactly what they’re saying.”) Certainly ease-of-use is part of the device’s fading delights.

Here’s how I described the appeal of he said, she said in 2009. It makes the story writable on deadline when you don’t know enough to sort things out. In a “he said, she said” classic:

* No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)

* The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.

* The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter [and the user] in the middle between polarized extremes.

I question whether that between-two-extremes territory, the “you figure it out/for us partisan polarization rules” space is valuable turf in the news business. I doubt that it’s “safe,” either, if you mean by safe: won’t do the brand harm. I think it’s likely to corrode trust over time. A conventional explanation for he said, she said says: it may be lazy or incomplete, but it is also a safe middle ground place to land so you can get the damn paper out!

But it’s not that safe. Democrats argue/Republicans contend/We have No Idea… increasingly won’t cut it for the Times, or its competitors like the FT, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Bloomberg. The upscale, high-information readers the Times wants to charge more money to, the core loyalists who are being asked to finance more of the operation— these users are increasingly likely to know about various preponderance-of-evidence calls independent of whether the Times knows enough to include that review in its reporting. When this kind of reader comes upon he said, she said reporting on a big story where it’s CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE, as with the right to vote: bad moment for the Times brand.

My sense: What was acceptably lame under market conditions that Bill Keller began with is a more corrosive practice today. I think The Masthead knows it. This is one of the reasons they created the Upshot, where preponderance of evidence, not a summary of partisan talking points, is supposed to be the baseline practice.

A good way to prove it: The Upshot looks at the evidence and makes a call on “Republicans contend cheating is rife in today’s elections.”


To the Snowden story system a crowning Pulitzer might have gone

The Washington Post and the Guardian won the big prize: the Pulitzer for public service. There's no prize for the network of journalists and newsrooms that brought the surveillance story forward.

14 Apr 2014 3:45 pm 7 Comments

As the New York Times reported:

Though the citation did not name specific reporters, the work was led by Barton Gellman at the Washington Post and Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill at the Guardian, and Laura Poitras, a filmmaker and journalist who worked with both newspapers.

And people will debate that— not naming the reporters. Just as they debate the handling of the Snowden documents by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. (Disclosure: I am an advisor to First Look Media.)

Here I share some thoughts about the Snowden story — or story system — that go beyond what the prizes can recognize.

The Pulitzers are first national (they honor U.S. journalism), second institutional (the entries are submitted by a newspaper or online newsroom) and third individual (writers with bylines are typically named, though not always.)

The Snowden story is an international enterprise, involving the press, and press law, in the UK, Germany, France, Brazil, Canada and the United States for starters. It involves collaboration and alliance among freelance journalists with their own standing (Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras especially, but also to a degree Barton Gellman) who are contracting with institutions and their unique strengths: the Guardian and the Washington Post won the Pulitzer but there are many others: the New York Times and ProPublica (with whom The Guardian shared some of the Snowden documents) Der Spiegel in Germany, O Globo in Brazil, CBC in Canada— and more. There’s no Pulitzer for that.

“Closest to those whose privacy has been invaded.”

Greenwald has said this about the strategy that he and Poitras followed in reporting out the Snowden files:

I reported on most of them under a freelance contract with the Guardian, and she has reported on most under similar contracts with the NYT, the Washington Post, the Guardian and especially der Spiegel. But we also have partnered with multiple media outlets around the world – in Germany, Brazil, Canada, France, India, Spain, Holland, Mexico, and Norway, with more shortly to come – to ensure that the documents are reported on in those places where the interest level is highest and are closest to those individuals whose privacy has been invaded.

In my view that decision — through collaboration, release stories in the press vehicle “closest to those individuals whose privacy has been invaded” — won the Pulitzer today.

“We did not have to do our reporting from London.”

At crucial moments, the “networked” part of the surveillance story kept it from being contained by the authorities. The most dramatic is when Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian told the men from the UK government that he would comply with their demands to destroy the computer hard drives containing the Snowden files. But:

I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?

In a sense it’s that moment that deserved the Pulitzer today.

The international press sphere

When the Guardian shared some of the Snowden documents with ProPublica and the New York Times, there was a logic to spreading the wealth and joining forces in this way. They had worked it out over Wikileaks. Rusbridger:

[It] happened just after we took possession of the first tranche of WikiLeaks documents in 2010. I strongly suspected that our ability to research and publish anything to do with this trove of secret material would be severely constrained in the UK. America, for all its own problems with media laws and whistleblowers, at least has press freedom enshrined in a written constitution. It is also, I hope, unthinkable that any US government would attempt prior restraint against a news organisation planning to publish material that informed an important public debate, however troublesome or embarrassing.

In a sense it has been the international press sphere, an alliance of newsrooms on several continents, operating as publisher of the Snowden files. And that way of doing it won a Pulitzer today.

“I wish Snowden had come to me.”

In its entirety the Snowden story system is a hard thing to hang a prize on. But we know what some of its principles are. In November of last year Bob Woodward of the Washington Post (there is no larger figure in Pulitzer lore) complained about the way the story system was working. Snowden had made a mistake by not coming to him, Woodward said. He, Bob, would have known how to bring order and narrative to the material. Incredibly, he argued for keeping Snowden’s identity a secret, as if this was up to the great reporter with his prize source to rule upon and not Snowden as a public actor himself.

Gellman reacted swiftly to Woodward’s Sun King delusiuons. He did it in public, with no hesitation about taking on an icon of the Post:

“I can’t explain why Bob would insult the source who brought us this extraordinary story or the exemplary work of his colleagues in pursuing it,” Gellman said in an email to HuffPost Thursday.

“The ‘others’ he dismissed include [The Washington Post’s] Greg Miller, Julie Tate, Carol Leonnig, Ellen Nakashima, Craig Whitlock, Craig Timberg, Steven Rich and Ashkan Soltani — all of whom are building on the Snowden archive with me to land scoop after scoop,” Gellman continued. “I won’t get into why Snowden came to me or didn’t come to Bob. But the idea of keeping Snowden anonymous, or of waiting for one ‘coherent’ story, suggests that Bob does not understand my source or the world he lived in.”

Gellman knew that for this story only coalitions of journalists with sources could get it done. For me, that moment of push back also got a Pulitzer today.

Giving good advice: my keynote presentation to #ISOJ. Plus: a new project that may not work.

My presentation to the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) in Austin this weekend was called: "Giving Good Advice: Reflections of an academic on 25 years of advising journalists and media companies." I composed it using an outlining tool, Dave Winer's Fargo. You can find the results here. Click on the arrows to display the notes that are "hiding" underneath.

6 Apr 2014 10:40 am 10 Comments

The final part of my keynote was the first reading of something new I have been working on for a while. 13651044224_117390f9f7_bIt’s intended to be a performance piece: PressThink in front of a live audience. Whether I will ever have a completed work good enough to present “live” I do not know. My idea is to develop the work in five-minute sections that are the performance equivalent of blog posts. A complete “show” would be 12-15 of those. (A cultural reference and wow point for the project: the great Spaulding Gray monologues of the 1980s and 90s, which I still love…) You can see the PressThink Live idea in rough form in this video, based on a post I wrote in 2005.

There’s more to it, but this is all I want to say for now because my plan may not work at all! Meaning: I may not be a good enough writer of scripts for myself, or a good enough performer to actually pull it off live even once. But the reaction in Austin to this little section was good. Good enough to convince me to keep going.

Why Aren’t They Asking for My Advice?

It’s one of my clearest and more potent memories from childhood. I am sitting on a hard wooden bench outside the office of a family therapist and child psychologist. Dr. Horowitz. Inside the office, my mother, two older brothers and an older sister are trying to figure out why they keep fighting and making each other miserable. It’s hard to believe now, but they used to call households like ours — single mom, raising five kids on a schoolteacher’s salary — “broken homes.” And there was something broken about it: everyone was constantly fighting!

All I wanted was peace, and green grass to play on. But at nine years old I had no power to make peace. My options were two and I exercised both. First: I declined to participate in the warring. This made me invisible. But that’s an advantage! When you’re invisible no one throws an ashtray at you. Second: I took notes. Invisible notes. I saw exactly what he did to needle her, and how she over-reacted, which only encouraged him. I felt the interlocking genius of their misery. I knew what co-dependence was 20 years before I knew the name for it. And I did feel a kind of awe at the power and efficiency of human denial. It’s all in my notes.

So there they were, around 1965: inside the consultation room with Dr. Horowitz. And there I was: working on my pattern recognition skills, alone, on that hard wooden bench. And I remember the feeling: “This is crazy. They’re locked away with their problems. All I do every day is study their problems. Why aren’t they asking for my advice?”

Well, the answer is obvious now. I was invisible to my own family. And from that another writer was born.

I’ve asked a lot of journalists over the years: why did you choose journalism as your life’s work? The answers fall into patterns: I love to write. Something new every day. I wanted to tell stories, expose bad guys and make a difference. I wanted to take that magic carpet ride and see the world.

One thing you never hear when you ask journalists that question: “I got into journalism because I have a passion for being… objective!” Or: I’m into detachment, that’s my thing. So I figured this would be a good field for me.

No one ever says that, but they do say: we don’t take sides, so we can’t use the word “torture” to refer to torture in the news pages. Now calling deeds of torture “enhanced interrogation” in the news pages of the New York Times is not why people decide to become journalists. They learn that after they join. Their pressthink gets in the way of what got them into the press in the first place. Which is the kind of thing I point out at my blog, called PressThink.

In 1965 it was: why aren’t they listening to my advice? Today it’s like this:

You want my advice?
—Not particularly.
Great! Well, here it is…

That’s blogging. It feels a lot better than the bench.

Photo: Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Creative Commons.

Here’s the video from the conference. My keynote starts around minute 39 and goes to 1:27.

When starting from zero in journalism go for a niche site serving a narrow news interest well

In 1994 we would not have advised beginners in journalism: start your own trade magazine! Here in 2014 I do advise something like that.

26 Mar 2014 6:29 pm 8 Comments

My colleague Lisa Williams speaks of narrow comprehensiveness— “everything about something.” Keep that image in mind.

When people entirely new to it ask me what’s the best way to get going in journalism — if you are starting as an outsider, with no credentials or experience — I always give the same advice, and I know other people give this advice too. It’s obvious enough. Start a niche news service on a subject some people care a lot about. (He did. Now he hosts a show on CNN.)

One of the best niche sites I know is Search Engine Land by Danny Sullivan and crew. It goes for the granular on search engine news. That’s a tight subject some people care expansively about. There has always been a trade press that carried “niche” news, so that’s nothing new. But in 1994 we would not have advised beginners in journalism: start your own trade magazine! In 2014 I do advise it: a niche site that serves a narrow news interest well.

Of course, it does not have to be a “site.” It might be a stream, ‘cast or mobile-first feed. “Research it first. Then try to build your own niche news product from scratch.” — the advice, updated. I don’t know why others recommend it. My reasoning: Most everything you learn in trying to serve a narrow but interested news niche is elementary instruction in online journalism.

The solids. The basics, like… It’s a two-way transaction between niche users and journalists. Metrics tell you what’s working, but only to a point. The audience knows more than you do on some subjects so be social, ask for help and correct quickly. People love watching “niche” video if you can find some or make it. Your headline counts hugely in whether good work spreads, but it won’t turn bad work to good. Niche audiences are demanding. If you don’t have your reax post up, if you don’t live blog the big events, they will stop relying on you for coverage they want. That’s bad. If you have the data and make it easier to use, people will come to you. No matter how good you are, you have to promote your stuff…

And so on. These are a few of the simple virtues and basic lessons that a good niche blogger acquires by building a service from scratch. You don’t need permission to do it. Initial investment: less than $1000 for design, hosting. It’s a free country, a free press. And at first, you will probably be doing it for free.

Building a niche site is hard work, turning it into a business harder. But it’s a plausible route for someone starting from zero. An extreme example of it working:

The reason Henry Abbott started writing a blog was simple: It seemed like the only viable route he had to being a sports writer.

That was almost a decade ago. Now the founder of the NBA blog TrueHoop will be taking over the reins of basketball coverage on ESPN.com.

The second reason I give this advice is explained well by Ben Thompson in his post, FiveThirtyEight and the end of average. Read the whole series and it should clarify the “shifting media landscape” argument for “…start a niche site that serves a narrow news interest well.”

Part 1: FiveThirtyEight and the End of Average
Part 2: The Stages of Newspapers’ Decline
Part 3: Newspapers are dead; long live journalism

Ben did the larger context well. Why should I repeat it?

A third reason I give this advice: it just happened. News Deeply, the company started by Lara Setrakian, a former ABC News correspondent… publishers of the flagship project Syria Deeply, a “single subject site” that combines journalism and technology to better cover a complex, ongoing story… said it will give birth to Arctic Deeply, the same idea “deeply” spread over a second, and different kind of niche: what’s happening to the Arctic as climate change overtakes it… all sponsored by the World Policy Institute, a New York-based think tank with this mission.

After you build your niche site, see if you can build a niche site generator. That’s what Lara Setrakian is up to with her company, News Deeply. “Everything about something…”

Finally, I try to practice niche journalism a bit at my specialty site, PressThink: “Current events in the way American journalism explains itself to itself.” That’s the niche you’re at now. When something lands that is dead center for the niche, you do a round-up post, in which opinion at key points around the discussion field is sampled and the writer takes a view. That’s niche blogging 101. Last week Nate Silver debuted the new FiveThirtyEight for ESPN, and with it an essay laying out some of his pressthink. That event is dead center for this site.

So here’s my round-up post: Review and comment on the launch of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com for ESPN. More than most readers want. But it wasn’t made for them, was it?

Review and comment on the launch of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com for ESPN.

Not the most experienced editor but he's had an experience other editors have not had. He's successfully said to the U.S press: "Current practices could be better. These are better. Here, let me show you."

20 Mar 2014 7:23 pm 22 Comments

The protoblogger and software maker Dave Winer, a friend of mine, recently wrote, “Blogging needs your help. There’s cobwebs in the blogosphere.” His cri de coeur

The mission of blogging is to empower all of us to go directly to each other with our expertise. So if you know something as well as anyone else, or you learn something or know something that should be shared, then you should share it on your blog.

This is my niche blog, PressThink: Current events in the way American journalism explains itself to itself. Nate Silver’s new site for ESPN, the re-born FiveThirtyEight, launched this week. That was a current event for my niche.

First the review:

Economics blogger Tyler Cowen (“so far I don’t think this is working”) was not impressed. Paul Krugman (“hoping that Nate Silver and company up their game, soon”) was underwhelmed. Kevin Drum (“its first day didn’t do much for me”) was skeptical that demand for Silver’s goods would ever prove out. Via Mathew Ingram’s assessment comes this tweet, summing up:

Others were more than “mildly disappointed.”

In The Guardian, my colleague Emily Bell argued that sites like fivethirtyeight, Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, and Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media (alert: I am on their team, see this for disclosure purposes…) these brave new start-ups weren’t going to change much if they couldn’t manage a more diverse pool of initial hires. See: Journalism startups aren’t a revolution if they’re filled with all these white men.

An interviewer for New York magazine asked Nate Silver about this.

…The idea that we’re bro-y people just couldn’t be more off. We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically. And so we have people who are gay, people of different backgrounds. I don’t know. I found the piece reaaaally, really frustrating. And that’s as much as I’ll say.

Picking up from that remark, Zeynep Tufekci gave a brilliant explanation for how the self-conscious “outs” can become the less-conscious “ins,” drawing on her knowledge of nerdom (girl programmer) and sociology (Pierre Bourdieu fan.) Her piece: No, Nate, brogrammers may not be macho, but that’s not all there is to it.

“Building A Diverse Newsroom Is Work,” said Shani O. Hilton, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of BuzzFeed, in another good response to Emily Bell’s provocation.

Any newsroom in which the black staffer is expected to speak up for blackness while the white staffers only have to speak for themselves is a newsroom that’s failing.

Getting to that level of diversity takes work. It’s something BuzzFeed is OK at — and we’re working on improving. The undercurrent to much of the criticism of Silver and Klein et al. is an assumption that it’s easy to hire a diverse staff if you try, but white dudes just aren’t trying. I’m not a white dude, so I can only speak to the first part of that sentence, as someone who’s done a fair amount of hiring in my year at BuzzFeed. So here goes: It actually isn’t easy to build a diverse newsroom.

One reason this matters even more for FiveThirtyEight: if the newsroom’s “cuts” on the data aren’t diverse enough, that’s a potential source of error… right?

Speaking of error:

But two days was long enough for Leon Weiseltier, who runs the back of the book at the New Republic and always has, to figure out what FiveThirtyEight has wrong: The Emptiness of Data Journalism: Nate Silver could learn a lot from those op-ed columnists he maligns.

The new technology, which produces numbers the way plants produce oxygen, has inspired a new positivism, and he is one of its princes. He dignifies only facts. He honors only investigative journalism, explanatory journalism, and data journalism. He does not take a side, except the side of no side. He does not recognize the calling of, or grasp the need for, public reason; or rather, he cannot conceive of public reason except as an exercise in statistical analysis and data visualization. He is the hedgehog who knows only one big thing. And his thing may not be as big as he thinks it is.

“He does not take a side, except the side of no side.” Ryan L. Cooper in The Week made a similar point: Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, and the dangers of being ideologically neutral. NateSilverpreso2“By claiming the mantle of pure analysis, Silver is falling into a familiar journalistic trap…” Cooper brings in my own writing to make this point: “Everyone, without exception, has some kind of ideological-theoretical perspective that informs the way they interpret the evidence they see.”

Silver has ripped into lazy columnists for consulting their “ideological priors” first, but he’s not saying he has no priors… is he? Cooper’s warning: failure to answer that leads directly to Slate-style contrarianism.

And that would be disappointing! My own view of FiveThirtyEight’s launch is different from these, but that’s because my “launch object” is different. I take it for granted that the product will be weak at first. What interests me — initially — is the argument for practical improvement on which the new service is launched. You start with some (poorly informed) hunches about what would be worth a try, based on some (firmly held) convictions about what’s presently done badly or not at all in the practices you are trying to make better.

When Bloomberg View (the opinion section of Bloomberg News) launched in 2011, it didn’t launch behind an argument identifying defects in the opinion publishing system that Bloomberg View was just itching to address. It wasn’t like that. Rather, the editors thought they could have a strong entrant in an existing op-ed and editorial page competition. “Get the best people, pay them good money…” is all the strategy you need. Bloomberg had a successful brand, it had the money, and a boss, Mike Bloomberg, who wanted the influence. Great editors sign up the brilliant writers they know. Voilà! Bloomberg View is born. One of the “name” writers they signed, Ezra Klein, had already proven himself at the Washington Post.

So that’s one way of introducing a product: make it like the other products, but try to find better people.

Nate Silver and ESPN aren’t doing that. Neither is Ezra Klein with Vox, or Pierre Omidyar with First Look, or Jessica Lessin with The Information. These ventures may go nowhere. Their work will have to compete with what’s online already, a huge flow of blogging and journalism about politics, technology, sport, economy, world affairs. It is harder — way harder — to come out with something different than it is to describe the different thing you envision making. To illuminate a different starting point is easy. To practice differently by starting from that point: difficult.

As your guide to its pressthink I’m trying to understand the nature of the bet FiveThirtyEight is making. Nate Silver wrote a manifesto, What the Fox Knows, about that. It spells out his pressthink at launch. This is blogging: “If you learn something or know something that should be shared, then you should share it on your blog.” (Dave Winer.)

Why Do We Expect So Much From Nate Silver? by Benjamin Wallace-Wells of New York Magazine— this should be shared, especially for its conclusion:

The hope invested in these projects is that as the industry shrank, perhaps, at the very least, what was left might become smarter. The profession has retreated, but maybe it has retreated to higher ground. Which explains, I think, some of the big talk that has accompanied their introduction. And it may explain too the very slight sense of letdown that accompanied the launch of FiveThirtyEight this week.

For a lot of people in journalism, “big talk” and launch manifestos are on their face ridiculous. What matters is the work you can publish and defend. No one needs to know about your grand intentions. Let the journalism carry the message. It will anyway! That view has a healthy constituency in newsland and after my first five months as a part-time adviser to Omidyar’s First Look, the wisdom in it is… a lot clearer. But Ben Wallace is right, too. There are thousands and thousands of journalists (and young people hungry to be journalists) who know that the news industry is going to be smaller in the years ahead, but it can be way, way smarter. And make better products.

For those people, I think it’s fair to say, the rise of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has been an important marker of… we can be way smarter. He’s not the most experienced editor, but he’s had an experience that almost no other editor has had. He has successfully said to a particular cohort in the U.S. press: “Your current practices could be better. These methods are better. I am going to show you that they work.”

The part of journalism in which he made this intervention — predicting what’s likely to happen in presidential elections — is an easier problem than you might think, a point that Silver frequently has to make in his public appearances. In What the Fox Knows he isolates three “your practices are weak, I have a better way” opportunities:

* what counts as explanation in advanced news writing today;
* the making of generalizations by journalists steeped in the particulars;
* the art of prediction, the science of likelihood, and products in between.

In these areas he thinks he can make improvements by bringing the discipline of data science to the topsy turvy of news. Whether that will make a big enough difference is the unknown. That’s why we run these experiments.

Finally: My colleague at NYU, Mitchell Stephens, author of a forthcoming book, Beyond News: The Future of Journalism, thinks “explanation” may be a mistaken path to user satisfaction because it takes the fun out of following the news.

[Margaret] Sullivan sounds a bit condescending when she maintains that “the reasonable reader” requires a prominent news summary because that reader can’t be expected to have been keeping up with the news. Can’t that “reasonable reader” just check Google News, or one of a hundred other sites, if momentarily perplexed? There also strikes me as something potentially condescending in Klein’s infatuation with explanation. If readers remain a bit weak on what, say, the debt ceiling is, can’t they just click around the Web a bit and find out? (Siri, on my iPhone, comes up with a pretty good answer.) Do journalists have to spoon feed? Wasn’t an insistence upon aiming at the least common denominator—with a simplified vocabulary and three paragraphs of background in each story—part of what was wrong with traditional journalism? Aren’t the best television shows, the best films, now doing less not more explaining – in part because figuring stuff out on your own is fun?

Stephens is onto something. Past a certain point “explanation” can become a substitute for participation, a barrier to engagement. Another way to say it: The quest to understand is even more involving than a need to know. And mystery is the most engaging metric of all. Explanation that invites participation: what are the odds that with the new FiveThirtyEight we could wind up with something like that?

“I want it to be 25 years ago!” Newsweek’s blown cover story on bitcoin.

"How was some guy in a basement who happens to have an obsessive interest in your subject going to bust into your peer group and start shooting up your journalism in a way that raises doubts about you and your magazine? Never going to happen... in 1989."

10 Mar 2014 2:46 pm 25 Comments

Students of cultural lag in American professional life should find their way to Felix Salmon’s latest post on the Newsweek cover story that went awry. There they will find — these students of cultural lag — a wonderful example of accomplished journalists living in a vanished world that they insist is quite present.

The Newsweek story, by Leah McGrath Goodman, tried to solve one of the mysteries surrounding bitcoin, the digital currency that some geeks follow with a passion. (Why such interest in bitcoin? Chris Dixon explains his.) Newsweek claimed to have located the founder of bitcoin living a modest life in California. “The reclusive inventor of the troubled virtual currency has been hiding in plain sight,” the teaser said. But many people online thought the case implausible. Then the guy Newsweek discovered, Dorian Nakamoto, told the AP he was not the inventor of bitcoin. Since then it’s been a brutal time for Newsweek and Goodman, as the best and the worst of online forensics are practiced upon them.

Felix Salmon already wrote a very good post on this controversy, March 7th. His conclusion:

…The responsible thing to do, from Newsweek’s perspective, would have been to present a thesis, rather than a fact. For instance, when Ted Nelson attempted to reveal Satoshi’s identity last May, he put together a video where he put forward a theory which he said was “consistent, plausible, and, I believe, compelling”. He then took a step back, and let the bitcoin community more generally come to their own conclusions about whether or not to believe him; in the end, they (generally) didn’t.

Newsweek could have done that. It could have said “here’s a theory”, and then let the world decide.

It could have, but it didn’t. Why? Because Newsweek believes in the strong, proud and continuous existence of something called “the magazine cover story,” which can still be reported, written, edited, published and defended as if our calendars say 1989, rather than 2014. “I want it to be 25 years ago!” is not an attractive attitude in a journalist, but that is what you hear between the lines in Salmon’s latest post, which is based on his interview with Leah McGrath Goodman.

Salmon calls Goodman “a proud journalist, who gets personally offended whenever anybody raises questions about her journalism, her techniques, or her reporting.” Sorry, that was 25 years ago. Today when someone raises questions about your reporting there’s almost an equal chance that a.) they know a great deal more than you, and you will have to listen carefully because your story may turn on it; b.) they’re a troll causing trouble because they can; c.) they’re completely naive on the subject and just coming to the story. Finding out which of these is the case can be difficult. But if you’re offended at having to sort a.) from b.) from c.) you are in the wrong business. Salmon:

Goodman feels that her own personal reputation, combined with the institutional reputation of Newsweek, should count for something — that if Newsweek and Goodman stand behind a story, then the rest of us should assume that they have good reason to do so.

Sorry, that was 25 years ago, when the people who counted in the game of “my reputation” were: colleagues at Newsweek, Time and US News, editors who had hired you or might hire you in the future, other reporters on the beat that you’re on, non-fiction book editors who could offer a contract, and judges for the National Magazine Awards or similar prizes. Reputation-wise, that’s who counted, 25 years ago. And when someone raised a rude question like, “did that feel like a piped quote to you?” your reputation could answer. Because how was some guy in a basement who happens to have an obsessive interest in your subject going to bust into your peer group and start shooting up your journnalism in a way that raises doubts about you and your magazine?

Never going to happen— in 1989. Today: there are many ways for people who know nothing about the reputation system that nominated you for the 2011 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award to weaken your story while damaging the reputation of Newsweek. Just by getting to the top of one of these stacks they’ve pulled part of it off. Salmon:

In aggregate, says Goodman, an enormous amount of evidence, including evidence which is not public, persuaded her that Dorian Nakamoto was her man. Goodman has not decided whether or how she might publish that evidence.

Sorry, that was 25 years ago. Today: Show your work. Don’t tell us how much work went into it. You publish your story, you know it’s going to come under attack, you prepare for battle and when the time is right you release the evidence you have. Instead: “Goodman feels that she should be given the respect due a serious and reputable investigative journalist, working for a serious and reputable publication.”

That’s not “show your work.” That’s, “You didn’t hear us. We are Newsweek magazine.” They heard you. They don’t care. And they know that Newsweek sold for $1 a few years ago. Here’s Salmon on Goodman and her editor, Jim Impoco.

Both have been largely absent from Twitter and Reddit and RapGenius and other online places where the debate is playing out; instead, they have been giving interviews to mainstream media organizations, which are often unhelpful. TV interviews devolve into stupid fights; interviews with print or online journalists result in just a couple of quotes.

Sorry, that was 25 years ago, when you do some interviews with other journalists and that’s called publicity. Today: publicity is what is actually happening to your story in real time as it gets shared, discussed and lampooned. If you want to intervene in that you go where it is happening. You make an appearance. It doesn’t mean you have to respond to every attack, or dignify the haters, but you do have to participate in the dialogue. This does not cut it. Salmon:

Impoco and Goodman are mainstream-media journalists producing mainstream content for a mass audience; Goodman’s article was probably already pushing the limits of what Impoco felt comfortable with, given that he couldn’t reasonably assume that most of his readers had even heard of bitcoin. Impoco was interested in creating a splashy magazine article, for the print reincarnation of a storied mass-market newsweekly. Of course, seeing as how this is 2014, the article would appear online, and would reach the people who care a lot about bitcoin, who were sure to make a lot of noise about it. But they weren’t the main audience that Impoco was aiming for.

Felix is trying to be polite. But his phrase, “seeing as how this is 2014…” gives the game away. In 1989, the “audience you were aiming for” and “the audience you would actually reach” by publishing a cover story for Newsweek were likely to match up. Who else would read Newsweek other than the subscribers of Newsweek and the small number who might buy it at the newsstand because the cover “got” to them? Today the situation is not that at all. People you weren’t thinking about when you wrote your article may be a majority of the users online. They’re comparing it to what else they know about bitcoin, not to other great cover packages from Newsweek’s National Magazine Award past.

You don’t get to decide to whom this article will spread. The people formerly known as the audience will do that. Other journalists writing about your screw-ups, like Felix Salmon, will do that. You can’t publish your work on the internet, then act like it was placed gingerly in some mailbox in New Rochelle.

Look, Newsweek. You decided to dig into a subject — bitcoin — about which there is a fairly large and obsessed online community. If you publish on the internet, where it lives, you don’t get to ignore that community anymore, no matter how many creeps, trolls and ignorant fools attack you and earn your disgust. As Felix Salmon is trying to explain: the very form you chose, the Great Newsmagazine Cover Story Chase, is ill-matched to the knowledge distribution and discussion climate around this subject. The thing might have worked as a quest: let’s put our heads together and find the founder of bitcoin! It might have worked as a thesis with evidence attached: show your work! But you don’t know from these forms because you want it to be 25 years ago in journalism time… and it’s not.

UPDATE. Newsweek’s editor did respond to this post. Sort of.

UPDATE, II. Dorian Nakamoto’s lawyer emails a statement to Felix Salmon. This is from The Guardian’s coverage of it.

Issued through his Los Angeles-based lawyer, Ethan Kirschner, the statement “unconditionally” denies the Newsweek report, adding that Nakamoto “did not create, invent or otherwise work on Bitcoin”.

“The first time I heard the term ‘bitcoin’ was from my son in mid-February 2014,” the statement continues. “After being contacted by a reporter, my son called me and used the word, which I had never before heard. Shortly thereafter, the reporter confronted me at my home. I called the police. I never consented to speak with the reporter. In an ensuing discussion with a reporter from the Associated Press, I called the technology ‘bitcom’. I was still unfamiliar with the term.”

UPDATE, III. Ars Technica calls for a retraction.