First Look Media shifts direction some

And has none of this figured out.

28 Jul 2014 3:23 pm 8 Comments

Pierre Omidyar published a blog post today that gave an update on First Look Media, the company he started with Glenn Greenwald and others and backed with $250 million of his own money. Nine Months in, First Look is Still Very Much a Startup.

As regular readers of PressThink and my Twitter feed know, I am an occasional adviser to First Look, but not an employee. So factor that in. I am not a spokesman for First Look and did not clear this interpretation with them.

In my opinion, this was the most important part of Pierre’s post today:

…rather than building one big flagship website, we’ve concluded that we will have greater positive impact if we test more ideas and grow them based on what we learn. We are unwavering in our desire to reach a mass audience, but the best way to do that may be through multiple experiments with existing digital communities rather than trying to draw a large audience to yet another omnibus site…

For First Look the way to a large user base isn’t “one big flagship website” or an “everything you need to know” news app to go up against, say, the Guardian or npr.org. That kind of “omnibus” product will not be forthcoming anytime soon, today’s announcement said. Instead:

We’ll test an approach to journalism that starts with being part of well-defined communities of interest, understanding the people in them and serving their needs and aspirations in new ways. The digital world gives us unprecedented opportunities to meet this vision.

You begin with the users of news in a few well-defined communities of interest. By understanding their “needs and aspirations” better, you try try to generate more trials, more fruitful errors, and — if the method works — products and services that mesh with people’s lives more effectively.

This is not a part of Pierre’s thinking, so don’t use it to characterize First Look’s approach, but the argument is similar to my PressThink post from March: When starting from zero in journalism go for a niche site serving a narrow news interest well.

That’s my advice to individuals starting in journalism. Get yourself into a journalistic situation, first. A “journalistic situation,” as I define it, is when a group of people who share a common interest are actually depending on you for news. From there the rest will flow. What you learn by trying to provide a living community with news instructs you in what to try next. But you have to succeed in becoming their provider.

First Look will test an approach that “starts with being part of well-defined communities of interest.” Begin with a journalistic situation. From there a distinct approach may grow. Of course, journalists who are distinct and talented enough can sometimes create their own community of users through a unique mix of investigation, commentary, reportage— and personality. First Look has been testing this proposition too.

Which leads to the second item of news in Pierre’s blog post. Combined with a doubling of the editorial staff to 50, it was this:

…rather than immediately launching a large collection of digital “magazines” based on strong, expert journalists with their own followings, as we imagined earlier, we’ll begin by building out the two we’ve started and then explore adding new ones as we learn. Whatever direction our experiments lead us, we will continue to invest in our journalists and support their commitment to fearless, fact-based reporting. We will continue to fund deep investigative reporting and back it up with the travel and research budgets necessary to support it.

Building out The Intercept and the Matt Taibbi venture will be the primary publishing project for now as First Look turns one of its founding phrases, “fearless, fact-based reporting” into actual journalism (and other projects.) When key learnings from The Intercept and Taibbi come in, the collection may be filled out. Or not. Also: There doesn’t have to be an editorial brand called First Look, and there may never be.

This was the third bit of news:

I expect we’ll be in this planning, startup and experimental mode for at least the next few years as we explore how to become integrated into people’s lives in meaningful ways.

In other words, First Look has none of this figured out.

 

NPR downgrades and disables its ombudsman

"NPR is far stronger than this short-sighted and half-assed decision suggests. It has nothing to fear from an empowered ombudsman."

14 Jul 2014 10:38 pm 18 Comments

UPDATED Five times, JULY 15 TO 31

I always read job descriptions for open positions in journalism. They tell you a lot about which way the field is headed. Last week I came across this opening for the NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor position. Two phrases jumped out at me:

The primary responsibility of NPR’s Ombudsman/Public Editor is to connect NPR’s audience to NPR and to provide a forum for audience views. The Ombudsman/Public Editor serves as an independent reporter on behalf of the public.

The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor focuses on fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment.

Here it is again:

In addressing audience complaints about journalistic errors in NPR News coverage, the Ombudsman/Public Editor will gather facts and can interview key news managers. The Ombudsman/Public Editor will then explain any errors without passing judgment

What is going on with these phrases in bold, which appear to prohibit the ombudsman from criticizing the performance of NPR journalists?

Well, it’s a change in policy. In the past, the NPR ombudsman has routinely come to judgment in addressing complaints. A typical example from 2011, when Alicia Shepard held the position:

Lots of things drive NPR’s audience crazy. One I totally agree with is this: NPR often does a lousy job of identifying the background of think tanks or other groups when quoting their experts.

Here, Shepard is picking up on a complaint she’s heard from listeners and making a judgment: NPR is doing a lousy job! Until now, this was a normal part of the position.

As you may recall, NPR incorrectly reported that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had died when she was shot at a public appearance in her district. The ombudsman gathered facts and explained what happened. She also came to several conclusions:

At the point the hospital confirmed Giffords was in surgery around 2:30 p.m, NPR should have done two things: sent out another e-mail alert correcting its mistake and when it next broadcast at 3 p.m., it should have said that NPR mistakenly reported Giffords’ death and given the new, correct information.

Neither of these things was done that day….

What NPR should have done it did not do. That isn’t fact-gathering or explanation or representing the listeners. That’s making a judgment. Again:

NPR had two sources, though neither was identified in any way, and should have been. And the newscast should have put the news in context, explaining that a tragedy had just occurred, the story was changing quickly, and this was what NPR knew at that moment.

Making a judgment doesn’t necessarily mean slamming NPR. Here’s the current ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, evaluating complaints about NPR reporter Mara Liasson appearing on Fox News.

My conclusion on Liasson’s work is simple:

Applaud her.

I find that her NPR stories were straightforward and based on solid reporting. Her Fox contributions were the same. She was smartly analytical, but did not take a position on issues or veer into opinion. Just as important, she did not tilt or load her characterizations of political figures such as President Barack Obama or Republican leaders.

Much of the complaints about Liasson, it seems to me, are really about Fox. The complaining listeners do not like Fox’s rightward stance, and especially the incendiary views of some of its prime time talk show hosts such as Bill O’Reilly. They tar Liasson by association.

I looked at her work. In my assessment she does not tilt one way or the other. I think complaints from listeners about her appearing on Fox are really about Fox, not her. That’s the ombudsman coming to a judgment, after investigation. Under the new rules, he couldn’t do that. He could explain how NPR views Liasson and gather facts about NPR’s guidelines but he could not comment on her performance or assess the validity of the listeners’ complaint, which was the whole point of his November 2013 column.

A further clue to the changes is in the new title. The ombudsman has become Ombudsman/Public Editor in NPR’s usage. Thus: “The primary responsibility of NPR’s Ombudsman/Public Editor is to connect NPR’s audience to NPR and to provide a forum for audience views.” I asked Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s first ombudsman, what he thought. Dvorkin, who is now a journalism academic, helped create the position back in 2000. He said he was concerned that “the Washington Post weakened model of ‘readers’ representative’ is working its way into or even infecting NPR.”

In March of 2013 the Post announced that it would no longer employ an ombudsman who was independent of the newsroom and empowered “to critique the newspaper’s journalism and field readers’ questions.” Instead it would have a reader representative, “a staff member who will answer questions and respond to complaints.”

The journalist who took the position later said, “My primary mission is to respond to readers… I’m not [charged with] holding the newsroom accountable.” Dvorkin said that his job as NPR’s first ombudsman “was to evaluate and adjudicate NPR’s reporting.” That’s gone now. “A media organization that values its reputation should not be in a defensive crouch,” he added. NPR “may be opting for a safer harbor in which the ombudsman/public editor plays less of the lightening rod role.”

I was able to reach former NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who is now working for a news start-up in Afghanistan, to ask about the changes. “To not comment diminishes the role,” she said to me via email. “The new job description appears to defeat the purpose of having an ombudsman.” I agree with that.

I also asked Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, about the “no passing judgment” rule in the NPR job description. She said:

My experience at The Times tells me that readers do seem to want the public editor to weigh in with a verdict, at least most of the time. Sometimes, of course, it’s appropriate just to present findings, or an explanation, or editors’ opinions. But I certainly appreciate the option to express my point of view and it’s always been central to the way The Times and its public editors have interpreted the role.

Seeking comment from NPR, I contacted their spokesperson, Isabel Lara. Our brief Q & A:

What were the concerns that led NPR to emphasize in the new job description that the ombudsman/public editor does not comment or pass judgment?

There were no concerns. We’re looking for someone who can offer a rigorous, independent account of our work. The ombudsman is positioned to help the audience understand how we approached our coverage and whether our reporting meets NPR’s journalistic and ethical standards. The ombudsman may reach certain conclusions based on a careful examination of that work, but should not be perceived as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong.

Where in the organization did those concerns originate?

The changes were based on discussions with outside experts, senior news leadership and the President and CEO, to whom the ombudsman ultimately reports.

Who made the decision to include those phrases in bold and why?

The job description was approved by the President and CEO.

That the ombudsman should “not be perceived as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong” is behind language which says: just gather facts and explain them, DO NOT JUDGE. Okay, NPR. If that’s your story….

My conclusions: NPR has downgraded the ombudsman position. Two former ombudsman agree with this. To understand why, just think about the effect that “your job is not to pass judgment” has on the pool of potential applicants. It’s likely that similar moves by the Washington Post helped clear the way. It’s possible also that dissatisfaction with the performance of previous ombudsmen contributed to the decision, along with a feeling that criticism rains down from all sides nowadays, so why do we need an in-house critic?

In my view, NPR is far stronger than this short-sighted and half-assed decision suggests. It has nothing to fear from an empowered ombudsman. Its own internal standards are much improved since the position was created. Its ethics handbook — a public document — is a model of transparency and accountability. Whoever is responsible for the downgrade made a bad call.

UPDATE I, July 15. Many people are suggesting to me that the reason the ombudsman position was clipped was in reaction to this massive investigation by Edward Schumacher-Matos. It’s known that NPR executives were exasperated with the ombudsman over it. So maybe it was a factor:


That’s plausible. However, if NPR executives wanted to steer the next ombudsman away from investigations like that one they could have written into the job description: “The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor does not re-report NPR stories.” They went far beyond that.

UPDATE II, July 16: NPR changed its mind. It says the part about “not providing commentary or passing judgment” was a mistake to include. The job description will be changed. (Check: it is changed.) The new CEO, Jarl Mohn, issued this statement to Media Matters:

The Ombudsman is a critically important role at NPR and the expectations of the job have not changed. The Ombudsman must be fully independent and fully transparent in order to do their job on behalf of the public. The language in the current job description about not providing commentary or passing judgment is a mistake and we are removing it. I take this position very seriously and am committed to recruiting an outstanding journalist for the job and ensuring he or she has the resources required.

Good move. Former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller comments:


UPDATE III, July 18. In a conference call with affiliates before the CEO’s decision and statement, top NPR executives lash out at me, call my reporting “lazy” and ask public radio colleagues to give them the benefit of the doubt. Link.

UPDATE IV, July 19. Jeffrey Dvorkin, the original NPR ombudsman (and a believer in the position, an active member of this organization) asked me for comment on the conference call with affiliates at his post: NPR Learns About (New) Media Accountability – the Hard Way. I re-print it here with some tiny changes.

It was my understanding that ‘fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment’ is an idea well known in the public radio community. There is not a lot of ambiguity about what it means. But just to make sure, I asked some people with NPR experience. So I like the chances for my interpretation over Kinsey Wilson’s ‘The job description was in no way meant to diminish the role, limit the independence or handcuff them.’

Here’s what I did in reporting my post. I will leave it to you to decide if I was being ‘lazy.’

* To make sure my impression (that NPR ombudsmen routinely comment and make judgments) was correct, I reviewed dozens of past columns and found some typical examples.

* I contacted several former NPR ombudsmen for comment and quoted two who would go on the record. From one I got an earlier job description for the position.

*I contacted several ombudsmen or former ombudsmen at other national news organizations and quoted one who went on the record.

*I know more than a few people who work at NPR and they know me. I knew they wouldn’t comment on the record but I talked with them to check my assessment against theirs and make sure I wasn’t crazy.

* I contacted NPR’s spokesperson around 10:30 am July 14, and said I wanted to post the piece that evening, so could she please get back to me by 5 pm. I also told her that two former ombudsmen interpreted the language the way I did, so there was zero chance that NPR would be surprised by my take. I later spoke to the NPR spokesperson by phone to clarify what I was asking about.

* I received the NPR statement around 5:30 pm July 14 and published it in full later that night.

UPDATE V, JULY 31. NPR CEO CEO Jarl Mohn is interviewed about his decision on NPR. He leaves no doubt. “I thought it was a mistake. I don’t think it was the right decision. [Holders of the position] need to reach conclusions. And that’s what we’re paying them to do. I think that role, public editor, is hugely important to the credibility and integrity of this organization. Anything that we do that diminishes that is wrong. We reversed that decision.” (Go to 10:22 on the clip to hear his answer.)

‘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?