Joy’s Law for journalism

"Events by which 'Dr. V’s Magical Putter' came to be published are now the best argument I have for you on diversity in the newsroom. Here is what can happen when you are not diverse enough. Like it?"

22 Jan 2014 2:24 pm 25 Comments

The most striking fact for me in this rousing apology letter from Bill Simmons: (I wrote about it in my last post, which provides the context for this one…) was the number of editors who pored over the piece, Dr. V’s Magical Putter, without seeing anything amiss. Some 13 to 15 pro journalists read it before publication and no one saw the problems for which Simmons, pro journalist, founder of Grantland, later had to apologize.

This is significant information. Before Grantland described the editing, it seemed like thin performance by inexperienced or distracted people. They just weren’t paying attention. At Nieman Storyboard, where narrative non-fiction is dissected, I came across this exchange about Dr. V between two experienced editors:

I think that piece is emblematic of so much of what I think is wrong with what’s happening in journalism today. We’ve got journalism and journalists struggling more than ever before to make a name and a living, and thereby more and more pressure on landing an amazing story. We’ve got less and less staff and experience, fewer and fewer “adults” around, more and more talented kids desperate to make a name and very little mentoring.

That turned out to be way off. Not a case of too little adult supervision. The editors were on it. They were all over it. They had been through it a hundred times. They had agonized and called in help. And they all thought alike on some things, even the “outside” help. This is the big reveal for journalists in the Dr. V episode. Events by which “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” came to be published are now the best argument I have for you about diversity — real intellectual and intercultural diversity — in the newsroom. “Here is what can happen when you are not diverse enough. Like it?”

There can be stories where it can be made almost invisible to you: just what you are publishing— and committing to. This happens when you can’t read your own work well enough to edit it properly. Readers are going to notice before the editors know there’s something to notice. And notice: when you have missing knowledge at the editors’ table, more editors taking a look doesn’t help. All this happened to the editors of Grantland, a rising franchise in writerly journalism. They all had the same sense of smell, and for a time didn’t know what they were serving. Read the letter again. It’s in there.

As I followed these events over the weekend they broke (January 17-19, 2014) I thought: We need to adapt Joy’s Law to journalism. Joy’s Law is named for Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”

In slightly more technical terms:

this ‘law’ emphasizes the essential knowledge problem that faces many enterprises today, that is, that in any given sphere of activity most of the pertinent knowledge will reside outside the boundaries of any one organization, and the central challenge [is] to find ways to access that knowledge.

Adapted to journalism it reads something like this: “No matter how good you are, most of the smartest sources are untouched by your reporting and unknown by your people.” They’re in the potential user base, though. They can be attracted by their own networks to mistakes in what you published— or it’s success. Most of the smartest sources aren’t in your story, but they can be brought to it by break downs and screw ups that become crossover hits.

Joy’s Law for journalism doesn’t always apply. Some stories: four or five people know everything. They’re the sources. Try to get them. Some stories: the users in the aggregate and some users in particular know way more than the journalist. Consult the Editor’s Letter. First reactions come in from the brethren in journalism: great piece! Go Caleb! Second wave of reactions saw something the editors did not. When the editors looked, they saw something they could not defend.

On January 17-18 in online conversation and in emails to the office from readers, the smartest judges of the Grantland story worked for someone else. “Most of the pertinent knowledge will reside outside the boundaries of any one organization…” That’s why, if you’re one of the 13 to 15 who approved the story, you listen hard to the Twitter rage at you over the weekend, and try to make sense of it, even if you don’t “agree,” even if some of it is “extreme.” Because it’s probably picking up what your roundtable missed. Joy’s Law for journalism says that’s likely.

Odds for this method: unlikely.

 

Ezra Klein leaves the Washington Post and Bill Simmons apologizes in Grantland

Two developments in the rise of personal franchise site in news.

21 Jan 2014 2:16 pm 14 Comments

1. Ideological renovation to the house style.

Ezra Klein is leaving the Washington Post and taking two key staffers with him. We hardly know anything yet — and I don’t know anything you don’t — about Klein’s new venture. Today people will be asking about the worth of Ezra Klein’s franchise to the Washington Post, and that is a fair starting point.

In calculating what Klein is worth, I modify the normal measures — traffic, revenue, influence, expertise and the buzz needed to attract talent — by an additional factor not usually cited. He helped the Post change and update its journalism while avoiding a holy war over news vs. opinion. Or “good journalism” vs. “wonky academic research.”

A more relaxed and mixed style of writing and presentation was normalized. Boundaries between news and social science fell away. Explanation of the basics rose in importance, creating an installed user base for future updates by the national staff. Making things the rest of the Washington Post was reporting about clearer and easier to follow: what’s the value of that? Plus: pulling it off without forcing the Post into an expensive category crisis. This is the way I explained it in July:

Instead of trying to renovate the ideology of professional newswork, a huge task that invites grandstanding, it’s easier for the editors of the Washington Post to let Ezra Klein do his (already shifted) thing and then add people to that franchise. They avoid a holy war over news vs. opinion while quietly letting the distinction corrode. Note that Klein is one of the Post’s most important political journalists but within the newsroom he is officially classified as a opinion columnist for the business section. This is a recognition that the formal structure makes no sense. The personal franchise site allows for innovation without toppling certain fictions that editors and some reporters hold dear.

For a sense of the dangers avoided see this 2012 column by the Post’s last ombudsman:

Last Tuesday, for example, Ezra Klein, chief of the popular online Wonkblog, analyzed the risk of unsettling the economy in a showdown between President Obama and congressional Republicans over extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. The week before, Steven Pearlstein wrote a front-page news analysis that outlined the history of job outsourcing in the wake of the accusations between Obama and Mitt Romney over that subject.

Pearlstein and Klein are talented writers who make economics and complex policy issues clear, accessible and interesting. But should they be on the front page?

Yes, they should. Klein helped the Post get there. It may seem like modest progress to some — the newspaper should become more blog-like: pretty obvious by 2009-14 — but this underestimates the perils of the passage from an older way of doing things to the renovated one.

For example: In 2010 Dave Weigel had to resign from the Washington Post after someone leaked some emails of his, in which he complained about people on the political right whom he also had to cover. After he was gone, some staffers at the Post dumped on Weigel anonymously. One said:

“The sad truth is that the Washington Post, in its general desperation for page views, now hires people who came up in journalism without much adult supervision, and without the proper amount of toilet-training.”

Without the proper amount of toilet-training. That’s how some felt about Ezra Klein. But he prevailed, which was good for the Post newsroom. In asking about his value to the Post, a valid question, factor in the decisively overcome resistance to the changes in political journalism that his approach represented. I don’t know what “ideological renovation to the house style” is worth in dollar amounts, but it’s got to be something.

2. “How could we ALL blow it?”

I missed it when it first appeared on Wednesday but by Saturday people on Twitter had alerted me to Caleb Hannan’s feature for Grantland, Dr. V’s Magical Putter. (“The remarkable story behind a mysterious inventor who built a ‘scientifically superior’ golf club…”) Several people on Twitter wanted to know why I wasn’t saying more about it. So I caught up. Because I know by now… When there is a Twitter firestorm about a work of journalism there is usually — not in all cases — a good reason. Clarity about the reasons = takeaways from the storm.

In “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” the main character in the story is the inventor of a new golf club who was a.) a professional fraud, someone who inflated her credentials and b.) a transsexual woman. But the two became comingled in the way Grantland reported and presented the story. The inventor of the golf club committed suicide, we were told. The writer of the story had outed her to one of her business partners, we were told. Both facts were mentioned but not reckoned with. The suicide before publication of the subject of one’s reporting is a serious matter for any reporter. But in “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” there was almost no reflection on that death.

These things convinced me: Something had gone awry with this piece. On Sunday I was hopeful:

On Monday, they shined. With this letter of apology from the editor, founder and keeper of the franchise, Bill Simmons, and this critique (“Understanding the serious errors in ‘Dr. V’s Magical Putter'”) by Christina Kahrl, a journalist for ESPN who is herself transgender, Grantland came through with a response that is morally serious, informationally rich and intellectually honest.

These points stands out for me:

* It was a full apology, no trace of “sorry if anyone was offended.”

I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized that we definitely screwed up, but it happened sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning. On Sunday, ESPN apologized on our behalf. I am apologizing on our behalf right now. My condolences to Dr. V’s friends and family for any pain our mistakes may have caused….

When anyone criticizes the Dr. V feature for lacking empathy in the final few paragraphs, they’re right…

Whether you believe we were right or wrong, let’s at least agree that we made an indefensible mistake not to solicit input from ANYONE in the trans community.

* It was informative about how journalists at Grantland make decisions:

Somewhere between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all, including every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief. All of them were blown away by the piece. Everyone thought we should run it…

We made one massive mistake. I have thought about it for nearly three solid days, and I’ve run out of ways to kick myself about it. How did it never occur to any of us? How? How could we ALL blow it?

That mistake: Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up.

* A person, Bill Simmons, an editor with a human voice, took responsibility for these lapses:

Ultimately, it was my call. So if you want to rip anyone involved in this process, please, direct your anger and your invective at me. Don’t blame Caleb or anyone that works for me. It’s my site and anything this significant is my call. Blame me. I didn’t ask the biggest and most important question before we ran it — that’s my fault and only my fault.

* Grantland’s failures were not procedural or accidental — bad apples, or random lapses — but journalistic and intellectual weaknesses, flatly described:

We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough… We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.

“We weren’t sophisticated enough. We weren’t educated.” These are rare admissions for journalists who have made it to the top of their profession. It’s hard for them to say: we were out of out depth, unqualified for the assignment. Bill Simmons with Grantland has struck it big in sports journalism. His apology — comprised of his own statement plus the candid assessment of Christina Kahrl — was graceful, forceful, humble. But not complete.

For me the most inexplicable and damning lapse in “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” was the almost casual or incidental way in which the reporter revealed that the subject — and target — of his reporting had committed suicide. No pause for reflection, no moral accounting, no signs of a struggle. I did not find Bill Simmons convincing on this:

Caleb had spent the piece presenting himself as a curious reporter, nothing more. Had he shoehorned his own perspective/feelings/emotions into the ending, it could have been perceived as unnecessarily contrived. And that’s not a good outcome, either.

One of the strongest impressions Bill Simmons left with his apology and mea culpa is: experienced editor protecting younger writer. He says repeatedly that Grantland failed Caleb Hannan, rather than the other way around. I admire that. But Hannan also failed himself by boasting on Twitter about how good it felt to block people who had begun to rip into him for his piece. Simmons glosses over this, which is unfortunate. For he also admits that the Twitter firestorm is what alerted Grantland to fatal problems with the piece.

3. The scale of their ambition:

That goes for Bill Simmons too. What I mean is: They don’t just want their own site, and the freedom to be their own boss. They want to build operations that are ultimately bigger than the sites they left. They have ideas as well as ambitions. They want to do news differently and take over the space. Maybe that won’t happen, but don’t think you know what they want. They want more.

4. “Help! I want to catch up with this Dr. V controversy…”

Here are the five links you need. Read them all, in this order, and you will be caught up.

* First, read the original article by Caleb Hannan for Grantland, Dr. V’s Magical Putter.

* Then go to Deadspin’s round-up and explainer: How Grantland Screwed Up The Story Of Essay Anne Vanderbilt, Inventor. This will give you a sense of the whole controversy.

* Third: Absorb this post, one of the best critiques I found. Maria Dahvana Headley’s SINATRA’S COLD IS CONTAGIOUS: Hostile Subjects, Vulnerable Sources & The Ethics of Outing.

* Now you’re ready to assess Grantland’s response: The Dr. V Story: A Letter From the Editor
(“How ‘Dr. V’s Magical Putter’ came to be published”) by Bill Simmons, editor in chief, and…

* What Grantland Got Wrong: Understanding the serious errors in “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” by transgender ESPN journalist Christina Kahrl.

And if you’re thinking of doing a dissertation, this is an attempt to archive all the pieces about “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” by journalists and bloggers.

Bill Gannon joins First Look Media: My Q & A with him about intelligent aggregation in news

Today Pierre Omidyar announced a key hire: recently Bill was editor of Entertainment Weekly, before that boss of the Yahoo home page.

7 Jan 2014 12:03 pm 8 Comments

This is from the official press release:

I’m pleased to announce that Bill Gannon joins us as a member of our editorial leadership team from Time Inc.’s EntertainmentWeekly.com. Drawing on his extensive experience in digital media as well as his diverse background in developing new editorial strategies and creating great user experiences, Bill will leverage all of his talents to help us build a next-generation media platform for a broad audience.

…Bill’s expertise at pinpointing and presenting the Web’s most reliable and relevant content will provide readers with a fresh, “First Look” at the day’s rapidly shifting news and events…

As the editor of EntertainmentWeekly.com for the last three years, Bill owned editorial strategy and day-to-day operations for all content and digital platforms, including an overhaul of desktop and responsive mobile design…. Previously, Bill was Director of Digital Media at Lucasfilm Ltd., where he spent four years driving global digital strategies and operations across multiple business units and in support of a wide range of e-commerce, theatrical, television, and video game releases.

At Yahoo! Inc., Bill oversaw news and editorial strategy and content operations for the front page of Yahoo.com, drawing hundreds of millions of unique visitors monthly. His time in Silicon Valley also included development of digital media products for Financial Engines Inc., a financial services technology company when it was in its startup phase.

So far we have said First Look will be built around three things:

* Original reporting and investigative work, especially by “independent journalists with expertise, and a voice and a following” (in Pierre Omidyar’s words.)

* A continuous news operation serving broad audiences with up-to-date news on politics, business, technology, culture, entertainment, sports. This will be Bill Gannon’s primary responsibility. Intelligent aggregation will be a part of it.

* A technology company that can develop new media tools and better infrastructure for the news industry.

In between meetings and phone calls I caught up with Bill for a short interview about news aggregation. We stayed away from “what will First Look be doing that’s so new and different?” because a.) he just started so how would he know? and b.) it’s smarter to figure out a path to try first, then try it, and then talk about it when people have something in built form to react to. “Demos, not memos,” as newsroom developer Matt Waite said in a now-famous post.

JR: I wrote Out of the press box and onto to the Field about my reasons for joining up with Pierre Omidyar’s new venture in news. For me it involved crossing the street, so to speak, from an observer and academic to participant in a news start-up as an adviser. What did it involve for you? And what will be your primary duties?

Bill Gannon: I was initially attracted to the idea because it seemed to be a unique opportunity where my background in creating new editorial strategies and new user experiences could add value. Bill_Gannon12 I’ll be focusing on continuous news coverage and aggregation across a wide range of sections: world news, politics, business, entertainment, sports and more.

JR: When I teach graduate students about news aggregation they are often familiar with the controversies about it: complaints about over-aggregation and sucking up the traffic. Those things do happen, of course. Students are not as familiar with the arguments for it, like the maxim developed by Jeff Jarvis: Do what you do best and link to the rest. That’s where I start. Where do you start?

Bill Gannon: Aggregation done well — providing multiple brand “takes” or reporting on a story — can create tremendous value for end users who are desperate to find the best journalism on a specific topic.

JR: Offer the user of news multiple brands, not just one: good way of putting the argument for aggregation.

Bill Gannon: Exactly…

JR: Jarvis described it this way:

Instead of saying, “we should have that” (and replicating what is already out there) you say, “what do we do best?” [and] “can we do it better?” If not, then link. And devote your time to what you can do better.

There is brand proposition there: the brand that is happy to bring you multiple brands. As Dave Winer puts it: “People come back to places that send them away.”

Bill Gannon: When I was Editorial Director at Yahoo! we routinely “beat” great journalism digital brands with breaking news to the home page simply because our focus was to get the story up fast and service our users, regardless of if the source was a Yahoo News partner or a non-partner. But in the last five or so years we’ve seen some web sites “harvesting” nearly complete stories, even exclusive reporting, in the name of aggregation without providing real attribution or making a real effort to drive traffic back to those news sites.

JR: One of my big impressions as a consumer of the product, a user of aggregation, trying to inform myself by efficient use of many brands, is that too frequently the the concept of a “topic” seems left over from newspaper verticals and sections. The topics betray their origins as producer categories from an earlier era of distribution. “Topics” tend to be story bins that are efficient for the producers, not natural containers for our interest in news. The intelligence that we’ve put into “what’s a topic?” has not impressed me, as a user. Is my impression I wrong? Did I simply not know where to look?

Bill Gannon: I agree and I hope this is an opportunity where I hope we can do better at First Look by better understanding how users engage with news on digital platforms. It’s something great technology companies like eBay, Amazon and Netflix have already done at scale but journalism brands have not yet invested in or embraced.

JR: You’re saying recommendation systems in news have not kept place, correct?

Bill Gannon: Correct.

JR: When you were at Yahoo or EW, did you ever want to have a technology company in the same family making tools for news producers?

Bill Gannon: We had that exact team in place at Yahoo when I was there and that’s one reason why Yahoo News became a top news destination on the web and frequently out-performed major news brands on election nights or during the Olympics. And there are a number of great journalism brands complimented by top-notch tech teams out there right now.

JR: One of the questions I have been asked the most since my first post on First Look is this. People seem to get easily the idea of a news organization built around independent journalists with subject matter expertise and an online following, operating within their own orbit but with support from the center. But then they see Pierre’s statements that First Look will be a full service news provider, as well, and they say: huh? Where do those things “snap” together in your mind? What connects them?

Bill Gannon: The audience becomes aware of our our investigative journalism en route to their other news needs.

JR: Or the reverse: they become aware of the daily news product after being drawn in by the investigative work and a more personal kind of journalism.

Bill Gannon: Precisely.

A final observation of my own: Another key starting point for me in understanding online news is Robin Sloan’s great essay on stock and flow, which he called a “master metaphor for media today.”

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons— but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I’ve got nothing here.

But I’m not saying you should ignore flow!

You need both. Not just for First Look but for any news organization setting up shop today, Robin Sloan nails it.

Three things I learned from the Snowden files

Before the year ends, I wanted to capture a few points that stand out for me about what is unquestionably the biggest news story of 2013.

29 Dec 2013 9:22 pm 21 Comments

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing…

The moment I read that — it’s in Glenn Greenwald’s first report from the Snowden files on June 5th — I started following, closely, the story of the surveillance state’s unveiling by Edward Snowden and the journalists who received the documents he took.

I also wrote about it: a lot. I attended Eben Moglen’s lecture series, Snowden and the future. I watched countless television segments about the revelations. Over Thanksgiving, I talked to my brother, a computer engineer, about the NSA and encryption. And of course I have had hundreds of conversations with journalists, colleagues and friends about what is without question the biggest story of 2013.

Before the year ends, I wanted to capture a few points that stand out for me from all that.

1. It’s not “privacy” but freedom. In news coverage of the Snowden files you frequently see this shorthand: “privacy advocates say…” From an AP story:

Feinstein’s committee produced a bill last week that she says increases congressional oversight and limits some NSA powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Privacy advocates say the measure codifies the agency’s rights to scoop up millions of American’s telephone records.

So you have defenders of the NSA on one side, and this creature called “privacy advocates” on the other. But at stake is not just privacy. It’s freedom. This point was made by British philosopher Quentin Skinner in a July interview on opendemocracy.net:

The mere fact of there being surveillance takes away liberty. The response of those who are worried about surveillance has so far been too much couched, it seems to me, in terms of the violation of the right to privacy. Of course it’s true that my privacy has been violated if someone is reading my emails without my knowledge. But my point is that my liberty is also being violated, and not merely by the fact that someone is reading my emails but also by the fact that someone has the power to do so should they choose. We have to insist that this in itself takes away liberty because it leaves us at the mercy of arbitrary power. It’s no use those who have possession of this power promising that they won’t necessarily use it, or will use it only for the common good. What is offensive to liberty is the very existence of such arbitrary power.

The point holds for collecting phone records. Even if no one in the government reviews whom I’ve called or texted, my liberty is violated because “someone has the power to do so should they choose.” Thus: It’s not privacy; it’s freedom. But “freedom advocates” would be an awkward construction in a news story.

2. “Collect it all” was the decisive break. Over the summer, I told Glenn Greenwald that he should title the book he’s working on, “Collect it all.” Because that was the point of no return for the surveillance state. The Washington Post took note of it in this profile of NSA director Keith Alexander:

“Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’ ” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official who tracked the plan’s implementation. “Collect it all, tag it, store it. . . . And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”

This was the fateful decision. The people whom Eben Moglen calls “the listeners” passed some invisible barrier (invisible to them) when they decided to go for the whole haystack. The line they crossed separates the possibly legitimate, though dirty and distasteful tactics of spies from the impossible-to-justify, “let’s hope it never becomes public” stratagems of an out-of-control surveillance establishment.

Moglen calls Collect it All one of the “procedures of totalitarianism.” He’s not saying the U.S. has become a totalitarian state. He’s saying it adopted one of that state’s procedures. Legitimating such a move before a self-governing people is very, very difficult. And this is why the surveillance state is in such trouble, politically.

3. Snowden going public changed everything. I have written about them before, but for me these words from Edward Snowden are the most important he has uttered since his name became public. They are in Barton Gellman’s June 9th report:

Whistleblowers before him, he said, had been destroyed by the experience. Snowden wanted “to embolden others to step forward,” he wrote, by showing that “they can win.”

By deciding to go public — as the one who leaked the documents to journalists because he could no longer live with himself if he didn’t — Snowden ended the whodunit before it could start. It wasn’t only that he revealed his name, security clearance and position. It’s that he made arguments for why he did what he did. These arguments, the most important of which was that the public should decide if the surveillance state has gone too far, were met with a furious counter-attack, and of course many of his fellow citizens rejected them.

But this is precisely what he meant by “win.” Now there was a debate. It was easy to despise and reject Snowden. Much harder to despise and reject the discussion he touched off. (Obama couldn’t.) None of that would have happened if he hadn’t gone for the win by revealing himself and his motives for leaking the documents.

A First Look at NewCo’s structure

Today Pierre Omidyar announced some details about how his new venture in news will be organized. My summary and explanation...

19 Dec 2013 11:50 am 84 Comments

First, the official release:

PIERRE OMIDYAR PROVIDES INITIAL FUNDING OF $50M TO ESTABLISH FIRST LOOK MEDIA

Honolulu – Dec. 19, 2013 – The news organization created by Pierre Omidyar (formerly dubbed “NewCo”) has taken another step forward with an infusion of $50M in capital to fuel operations being established on both coasts.

Omidyar, who provided the funding, will also serve as the organization’s publisher. Omidyar’s first capital outlay represents 20 percent of his initial commitment to the media venture. First Look Media will publish robust coverage of politics, government, sports, entertainment and lifestyle, arts and culture, business, technology, and investigative news.

“This initial capital is the first step of many to bring the vision of this news organization to life,” said Omidyar. “I am deeply committed to the long-term effort to build a new and exciting platform for journalism — one that not only provides the innovation and infrastructure journalists need to do their best work, but that brings their reporting and storytelling to the widest possible audience.”

First Look Media is made up of several entities, including a company established to develop new media technology and a separate nonprofit journalism organization. The journalism operation, which will be incorporated as a 501(c)(3), will enjoy editorial independence, and any profits eventually earned by the technology company are committed to support First Look’s mission of independent journalism. The name of First Look Media’s initial digital publication is yet to be announced.

First Look Media is currently securing space and setting up operations in New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. The team is actively recruiting in all areas of its operations.

As I previously explained to readers of PressThink, I am an adviser to Omidyar’s company, so I can provide some further explanation and a view of what this announcement says.

1. The placeholder name, NewCo, is going away. First Look Media is the name of the new company. It has by the terms of today’s announcement received an initial capital infusion of $50 million from Pierre Omidyar.

2. The new company will consist of several legal entities. One is a technology company, a business run for profit, that will develop new media tools for First Look properties and other markets. Another is a 501(c)(3), a non-profit under U.S. law. Its mission will be to publish and support independent, public interest journalism.

3. The 501(c)(3) will house the journalism operation, which hasn’t given a name yet to its initial publication. It will have editorial independence.

4. Profits earned by the technology company will be used to support the mission: independent public interest journalism.

So that’s what the announcement says. Now I am going to provide some of my own observations that I hope will be helpful for those who are following news of the company formerly known as NewCo. This isn’t the company’s description, it’s mine.

5. As we figure out what the pieces of the company will be, we are announcing them. Today’s news settles one of the questions I have been asked a lot: “Is NewCo going to be a business or a non-profit?” Answer: both. The news and editorial operation will be a non-profit. The technology company will be a business run for profit. If the tech company is successful it can help fund the journalism mission, along with other possible sources of revenue.

6. There are other known combinations of business and non-profit in journalism land. The Poynter Institute is a non-profit school for journalists that owns a controlling interest in the Times Publishing Company, which publishes the Tampa Bay Times. The Guardian Media Group is a for-profit company in the UK that is owned by the Scott Trust, which exists solely to guarantee the independence and public service mission of the Guardian, in all of its forms. ProPublica is a non-profit investigative newsroom, donor supported, that sometimes shares its work with for-profit newspapers.

7. The First Look set-up is different. Here the journalism operation is a non-profit, housed within a parent company, which may have other entities inside it. The entire operation is designed to: 1.) support the mission of independent public service journalism, 2.) achieve sustainability and 3.) attract talent.

8. Another way to say it is: public service, mission-driven journalism, including investigative work, has always been subsidized by something: advertising, other kinds of news, donors to a non-profit (as with ProPublica) or a related and profitable business like the Bloomberg terminals that subsidize Bloomberg News. First Look Media is adding to the picture another possible source of support: profits from a company specifically focused on technology for producing, distributing and consuming news, views and information.

9. A good comparison point for that relationship is a company like the Atavist, which produces narrative non-fiction — also called long form journalism — and hopes to profit from a publishing platform, the Creativist, originally developed to publish the Atavist’s own work. Notice I said a “comparison point,” not: these two are the same.

Out of the press box and onto the field

I have a personal announcement.

17 Nov 2013 7:00 pm 116 Comments

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: Questions and Answers. (2010)

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.

Politics: some / Politics: none. Two ways to excel in political journalism. (2013)

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.

The rise of the personal franchise site in news. (2013)

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. (2006)

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.

From “write us a post” to “fill out this form:” Progress in pro-am journalism. (2011)

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.