Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times, misinforms Columbia B-school about The Meter

No one knew if it would work when the Times started to charge regular visitors to its site. There were no experts. But there was a reasonably well-informed debate among people who followed it closely. Here is what they said then.

3 Jun 2013 11:39 pm 25 Comments

In a recent speech to the Columbia University business school graduates, the new CEO of the New York Times, Mark Thompson, said this:

Two years ago The Times launched a new digital pay model, essentially asking users of The Times on digital to do what more than a million print users of the newspaper were already doing, which is to pay a regular subscription in return for extensive access to our journalism.

The consensus among the experts was that it wouldn’t work, was foolhardy in fact and not needed. People just weren’t prepared to pay for high quality content on the internet and, besides, wasn’t digital advertising enough – wouldn’t it grow until, just as with print advertising in the golden age of physical newspapers, it alone was enough to support America’s newsrooms?

The part I put in bold is bad information. In my view it should not have been passed along by Mark Thompson to the graduates of one of the world’s leading business schools. It is bad information in four or five ways, which I will describe, but before I do that I have to admit that there is one sense in which Thompson’s “consensus among the experts” is plausibly stated.

If he was using the term “experts” with pure derision, as in “people speaking LOUDLY with all of the confidence but none of the knowledge…” then, YES, there were such people. Definitely. Yelling (reflexively) at the New York Times: Readers won’t pay for news on the internet! Because… because they won’t!

So if in citing “the experts” Thompson was speaking sarcastically about this sort of display, he is unquestionably right: some said that, and probably chuckled among themselves at the cluelessness of the Times. But since when is the opinion of internet yahoos relevant to decision-making at a cultural powerhouse like the New York Times? If the business school students were handed this case–and it is a good case for them–how much time would they spend on propositions like, “you can’t charge for news on the internet because you can’t” and “digital ads will save the day.” Five minutes, maybe?

For all other senses of the term “expert,” Thompson’s statement about the consensus opinion is distorted or just wrong. Bad information, as I will try to show.

Overview: Two years ago The New York Times launched a new digital pay model: The Meter. Along with the people I will be quoting, I had a professional interest in the matter. The sustainability puzzle in the press is the number one problem in journalism at the moment. Therefore The Meter was a big deal for everyone who followed the fortunes of the news business. Mark Thompson was Director General of the BBC at the time. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., CEO Janet Robinson, editor Bill Keller and digital publisher Martin Nisenholtz were the executives in charge at the Times.

The Meter is a leaky paywall. You get a certain number of articles free per month; after that you pay. It’s an attempt to capture revenue from the heaviest users and allow casual visitors to come by freely. With this mixed system you try try to retain the advantages of the open web and gain a new revenue stream. Setting the number of free views, and the cost of a subscription can only be done experimentally: pick a number, see what happens, adjust to that.

The metered system wasn’t entirely new–the Financial Times already had one working–but trying it with a general interest news product like the Times was different. Certain lessons from earlier attempts to charge–especially Times Select— seem to have been learned, but would that make a difference? Impossible to say.

1. There were no experts in what would happen when the New York Times flipped the switch on its pay meter in March, 2011: inside or outside the building. You could try to bring knowledge to bear. (The Times spent $40 million researching it.) You could not say what the users would do with enough precision to make a firm call.

Still, a reasonably well-informed debate about the wisdom of the Times move took place among reporters in the specialist press, bloggers who kept track of paywall news, media writers and journalism professors, working journalists who understood the stakes, and other, perhaps harder-to-classify observers who tried to master the details of the various pay and meter plans and grasp how they work. These people cared how the big experiment of 2011 turned out. Some of them speculated about likely outcomes. Some put pen to paper and tried to calculate the payoff.

2. There was no consensus. People predicted failure for The Meter. Other people stood and applauded the Times for finally doing it. Others were primarily in a mood of uncertainty: they hedged. (I will bring you all these points of view.) To its credit, the team at the Times went ahead despite this confusion. And the Meter is now an estimated $100 million revenue stream. Paid digital subscribers: around 700,000. When Thompson took the podium at Columbia, there was no need to create a cartoon debate for the Times decision-making to stand out. The real story is bold enough.

3. The median view or center line in the debate was not, “It will never work.” If there was no consensus but a range of views, we can still try to identify the center line, where the sample is divided in half. Here’s how I would summarize it.

This is a big gamble. It might work or it might not. The Times meter seems to be intelligently designed, with an awareness of most of the risks. Whether it will pay off cannot be known until the numbers come in– not just how many sign up, but what The Meter does to advertising rates, what it costs to market the product, whether it slows the erosion in print subscribers.

4. Opinion within the Times was split along similar lines. Because no one knew what the users would do. This split was reported in the press at the time. (I will bring it to you.) That Thompson declines to menton it is… odd.

5. No one thought digital advertising alone would solve the problem. Thompson is simply wrong when he paraphrases the experts:

Wasn’t digital advertising enough – wouldn’t it grow until, just as with print advertising in the golden age of physical newspapers, it alone was enough to support America’s newsrooms?

By 2010, when the Times announced The Meter, it was well known (again, to anyone following the story but maybe not to assorted internet yahoos) that digital advertising was not about to replace lost revenues for the print press. Knowing this fact was basic to participating in the debate at all.

When I say Thompson gave bad information to the graduates of the Columbia Business School–and he did–I don’t expect you to take my word for it. I am going to link you to the evidence for my propositions 1 to 5 above. Interspersed with quotations from 2010 and 2011, I bring you commentary from people who were following it even more closely that I was.

Don’t have time for those details? Then just click and browse these two links: Nieman Lab’s round-up on Dec, 13, 2010 and a similar forum in March 17, 2011. Josh Benton, director of the Lab and one of the people I sought recollections from, comments on the 2010 round-up:

To paraphrase each, ranked roughly in order of pro- to anti-:

Brill: It makes a lot of sense.
Kennedy: A smart and nuanced approach.
Overholser: It seems like an informed attempt.
Webb: I agree with the paywall, but subscribers will want fewer ads.
Fry: It’s too restrictive in some ways and too loose in others.
Langeveld: It’s confusing, but they’ll tighten it over time.
Cohn: Happy to see them try, not very optimistic.
Stray: It won’t change the NYT’s revenue in an earth-shaking way.
Dash: It’s too complicated a setup.
McCarthy: It’s short-sighted and doomed.
Buttry: It’s ridiculous on multiple levels.

These are all smart people. Some thought it was a good idea, some didn’t.

You can see the same spread in this weekly review post by Mark Coddington. (“There was no consensus of initial opinion about the plan…”) Benton’s reflections:

My general thought at the time was happiness that someone was taking the paywall leap — because we’d spend all of 2008/09/10 talking about paywalls and their prospects, usually in ideological ways, but we had precious little data on what worked and what doesn’t. My expectation was that it would do better than TimesSelect had done —
— because people were more willing to pay for content in 2011 than they were in 2005
— because the value proposition was more clear (all news content vs. just columnist and a grab bag of other stuff)
— because the Times’ digital presence, always good, had kept improving over that span
— because the web had grown so much outside the United States among elite potential Times digital subscribers
but that it was unclear whether the growth curve would flatten out as it did for TimesSelect, and if so, at what level it would flatten out.

That’s what the debate was about: the nitty gritty of such projections. You can hear Josh wrestling with those details here. Why couldn’t Mark Thompson do the same?

Let’s listen to some other voices, keeping in mind Thompson’s capsule summary: The consensus among the experts was that it wouldn’t work, was foolhardy in fact and not needed…

Alan Mutter, Reflections of a Newsosaur: NYT.Com pay scheme can succeed, but…

The long-awaited, much-delayed digital pay scheme at the New York Times should work just fine, but that doesn’t mean it can be replicated successfully in other markets. Accordingly, other publishers should proceed with caution.

Rick Edmonds, Poynter: New York Times paywall could increase circulation and ad revenue while protecting print

The New York Times new metered paywall corrects the mistake it made in its first foray into charging for online content — blocking search. At the same time, the paywall represents a calculated risk on maintaining and ultimately growing digital ad revenues.

Megan McCarthy, at the time editor of Mediagazer, Nieman roundtable, Dec. 2010.

I think the New York Times’s paywall is short-sighted and doomed. If they want to make the Times more valuable, they need to focus on changing their model of digital advertising to be as profitable as their print side. The Times has the clout to help Madison Avenue realize the value of online advertising. I’m not sure why they’d rather deal with the intricacies of custom subscriptions and meters instead of charging brands and agencies which hold much more money and can get much more value (exposure) from the Times in return.

Ken Doctor, Newsonomics and Nieman Lab:

March 14, 2011, NYT’s good timing on pay launch, amid news chaos.

Charging for digital news is no panacea. It’s a platform for a growth, and the beginning of a new business model. Most newspaper company CEOs have done the math, and with the current trajectory of print ad decline, modest digital ad growth and no digital circulation money, they have no hope of sustaining their businesses into 2015. That’s a bleak, but fair, conclusion.

So, as we approach the proliferation of pay models, consider the Times’ and other moves as getting up on a bicycle and learning to ride it. For 15 years, newspaper companies have been careening around on unicycles, trying to make digital ad revenue, in and of itself and with too little attention to core readers, work. Now, they are trading in those unicycles for bicycles. 2011 is the year of training wheels, before the tough road work — tablet-focused product renewal — consumes their attention.

March 17, 2011, The Newsonomics of The New York Times’ pay fence

It’s a high price, a gamble, and a big hedge — see Test 5 below — against print subscribers migrating too quickly to the tablet. Since it is not charging print subs, it’s going to be an uphill battle to get non-print people to pay a minimum of $195 a year for something that was free, and it eschews conventional wisdom that $9.95 a month is a consumer limit on many digital items. The lack of an annual offer is glaring, and makes it far less friendly to expense accounts for business readers.

Though the FT and the Wall Street Journal have long operated successful pay models, the Times’ leap is a big one: The Times isn’t mainly a business newspaper. If it can succeed charging readers for “general news,” that’s a milestone for newspapers around the world. Most fundamentally, it adds a second leg — digital circulation revenue — to the new business model for newspaper companies. Fifteen years into the Internet, they’ve proven to themselves that digital advertising money alone won’t sustain their newsrooms in the years ahead, as print continues its inevitable decline

Ryan Chittum, Columbia Journalism Review: The New York Times Paywall Looks Good.

The New York Times paywall is here, and it’s about time. Don’t ask me why it took so long and why it cost $40 million to build, the point is after a decade and a half of giving away its expensive journalism online, the Times is saying it’s worth something: Pay us, please.

Chittum has continued to follow the paywall debate with intensity, as you can see here and here.

Joseph Tartakoff, paidContent.org: How Much Revenue Can The New York Times Paywall Generate?

We believe at least 500,000 people (or more than 10 percent of those heavy users) may be willing to pay up — and here’s how we get to that number. TimesSelect, the 2007 initiative that charged online-only readers $7.95 a month to accessNYTimes‘ columnists and some original content attracted 227,000 paid subscribers, or about 1.17 percent of the 13 million people who were reading NYTimes.com at the time.

If that same percentage agrees to pay for the new digital subscriptions, that would amount to about 527,000 subscribers in the U.S. alone. The minimum price of $15 for NYTimes.com plus smartphone access would generate about $100 million in additional annual revenue for the newspaper. A blend of subscriptions would push sales higher. And, the number of subscribers could be significantly greater, as well, considering that a higher percentage of people might be willing to pay for all of the Times‘ digital content [rather] than for just a piece of it — even though the price is higher too.

Staci Kramer, paidContent.org:  The NYT Pay Plan’s Most Dangerous Foe: Perception.

For all this research and all the effort, the digital subscription space is a work in progress and this particular plan, is still experimental. Nothing is frozen in place. Prices can change. Plans can change. Consumer behavior in research and reality may not match. The Times invested tens of millions ($40-to-$50 million, according to Bloomberg) to build the system to be as flexible as possible, including the ability to allow universal access for major news events. Sulzberger and company need to stand fast enough to see if it works — TimesSelect lasted for two years — and be nimble enough to fix what doesn’t.

Along with Ken Doctor (quoted above) Staci Kramer of paidcontent.org was probably the closest student of the Times paywall. She did the kind of reporting that tries to nail down every detail, so I especially wanted to know what she thought:

I think Mark Thompson is very bright but he’s wrong about the “expert concensus,” particularly on his last two points.

The majority of knowledgeable observers, industry analysts and insiders have known for years [that] digital advertising alone wouldn’t be enough and that just as is the case with print, which relies on advertising and subscriptions, multiple revenue streams would be needed. Ditto for relying only on subscriptions to make up the difference during/after the print-digital transition. I also recognized — and contended — early on that making full online access a value-add for print subscribers versus charging extra for it was needed to keep that revenue stream healthy.

As options to reach news and info have grown — smartphones, tablets, smart TV, etc — so have the opportunities for subscriptions (cross-platform access as a lure), advertising, sponsorships, content licensing (NYT Crosswrods, for example), ebooks and more. The TimesCenter provides a steady stream of revenue from tickets for NYT events as well as fees from outside conferences or events.

(Even The Guardian, the champion of open-access web news, charges for apps and has been working on additional revenue streams.)

Many have consistently opposed charging for access to online news, particularly switching existing ad-supported sites to subscription for all or some access. In the case of the Times, the biggest argument centered on loss of influence when TimesSelect made opinions and columnists subscription only.

Kramer makes an important point. Among some of those who said “don’t do it” the argument was not, “because it will never work.” They were pointing at a subtler danger: The Meter might work and yet diminish the Times as an influence machine and public service. That seems to have been the concern of Emily Bell, now at Columbia J-school, but before that digital editor at The Guardian, which had to struggle with the same uncertainties.

Emily Bell in The Guardian, The Times’s paywall move does not begin to tackle the wider challenge.

So the challenge for the Times, and the rest of us, in a world of fragmented media is not principally to make journalism pay, but to keep it relevant. The paywall debate at heart is partly pragmatic, as the risk of implementing the strategy is high and the rewards are unknown; but also philosophical, about whether journalism is viewed as a commodity or a democratic necessity.

Those of us who have been around the paywall block a few times, and there have been many guided tours over the past decade, see it as a very risky and sometimes philosophically unpalatable option. The paywall may address the issue of newspaper circulation decline, but it does not begin to tackle the far greater challenge of telling effective stories and creating activities and audiences in a constantly changing digital landscape.

To stimulate a market for news, you need an engaged population, so perhaps the news business needs to think harder about creating engagement rather than merely encouraging consumption. I am happy to be proved wrong, but I still find it hard to understand how deliberately downsizing your audience is ever going to help with the broader problem.

“I think I was sceptical about the ultimate return on investment from the Times paywall and remain troubled that ultimately bundling and charging for news and information across the board is problematic,” Bell told me last week. “I am not and have never been opposed to payment mechanisms on news sites but have been consistent in my view that the paywall is not a panacea.” The Meter is not by itself going to solve the problem. But nether is digital advertising. That’s why Bell focuses on a third factor: creating engagement.

When I asked her, Megan Garber, then of Nieman Lab, now of the Atlantic, recalled “a concern about the Times’ place within the social web, and within the social sphere more broadly.”

The Times had been not just a newspaper or a news product, but also, in the Arthur Miller sense, a conversation. It had played an important role in the digital public square. I know one of my concerns about the meter — and one of the things, as a media-watcher, that I was paying a lot of attention to when it came to the model’s outcomes — was what would happen to that role when the meter was in effect. Would people be disincentivized from sharing a Times link, not wanting to add to their friends’ and followers’ monthly tallies? Or would the meter prove malleable enough that those concerns would be mitigated? Could the Times — to use the jargon of 2010 — really be a walled garden and public square at the same time?

Felix Salmon, Reuters: The NYT paywall arrives

Emily Bell reckons that the number of people who’ll even hit the paywall in the first place is only about 5% of the NYT’s 33 million or so unique visitors. That’s 1.6 million people — compare the 1.3 million people who already subscribe to the paper on Sundays. The former is not a perfect superset of the latter, of course, but there’s a big overlap; let’s say that realistically the NYT is going after a universe of no more than 800,000 people that it’s going to ask to subscribe. And let’s be generous and say that 15% of them do so, paying an average of $200 per year apiece. That’s extra revenues of $24 million per year.

$24 million is a minuscule amount for the New York Times company as a whole; it’s dwarfed not only by total revenues but even by those total digital advertising revenues of more than $300 million a year. This is what counts as a major strategic move within the NYT?

…I just can’t see how this move makes any kind of financial sense for the NYT. The upside is limited; the downside is that it ceases to be the paper of record for the world. Who would take that bet?

Mathew Ingram, GigaOm: Grey Lady’s Troubles With the P-Word.

So what will become of the NYT if and when it actually launches a pay system? The response from many observers seems to be binary — either it will succeed or it will fail. But the real danger is that it will be somewhere in between: neither a runaway success, nor an abject failure, but a slow and steady decline (Jeff Jarvis thinks it will likely be the latter).

The paper’s previous paywall experiment, Times Select, which was dismantled in 2007, arguably fell into that chasm too; plenty of people paid the monthly subscription, but not enough to make a real difference to the bottom line (for what it’s worth, the newspaper I used to work for had much the same experience with its own version of Times Select), and eventually the number of people paying leveled off. In the end, the paper decided (as my former employer did) that it just wasn’t worth it.

Will a metered model produce a different outcome? Perhaps. On the other hand, someone once said that insanity consists of “doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.”

Nicholas Carr, Rough Type: The Times delayed, leaky paywall.

The Times subscription plan may fail. It may be built on a misreading of the marketplace. But it’s not super weird, and it’s not cockeyed. It’s a reasonable, thoughtful plan, and the company may discover that a delayed, leaky paywall is the kind of paywall that pays.

Frédéric Filloux, Monday Note: The numbers behind the paywall.

A carefully set up paywall significantly increases revenue as long as:
* it doesn’t block access for the general audience (minimum traffic loss)
* it doesn’t discourage linking from other sites (preservation of the page rank)
* it targets only the heaviest users, those willing to pay $6.00 rather than $2.00 per month, and those ready to be charged for ad-free content on mobile. Or on a Tablet.

 Jean-Louis Gassée, Monday Note: The NY Times: Un-Free At Last!

On March 28th, after much handwringing, the New York Times will finally deploy a paywall. NYT fans, your author included, rejoice: We see this as a necessary condition for the newspaper’s survival. Necessary…but not sufficient.

Lauren Kirchner, Columbia Journalism Review: “Information Wants to Be Free”; The NYT Does Not

There’s a big misunderstanding here. Journalism is not mere “information”; it is a product, created by people at some expense. No one would say “groceries want to be free” and use that as an excuse to steal steaks. Or I guess some people might, but those people would be jerks, and also criminals. “Information wants to be free” does not mean “journalism wants to be free,” or, more to the point, “journalists want to work for free.”

I like the way the Free Software Foundation puts it: “Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.”

If we want to keep getting quality news, someone has to pay for it. We, as readers, don’t have a “right” to free anything. Journalists, though, do have a right to get paid for their intellectual labor. If simple traffic and advertising isn’t doing the trick, then that money has to come from somewhere else. No aphorism is going to deliver us from that basic truth.

Jeff Jarvis, CUNY and Buzzmachine:

January 17, 2010, The cockeyed economics of metering reading

The irony of the report that The New York Times is going to start metering readers and charging those who come back more often is this: They would would end up charging — and, they should fear, sending away — the readers who are worth the most while serving free those who are worth least.

…Clay Shirky has ridiculed micropayments, saying that we don’t like being nickel-and-dimed. I’ll ridicule metering, reminding those who contemplate it to remember what we think of meter maids. We curse them.

There is only one thing that can happen should The TImes put a meter on us. It will shrink.

December 19, 2011: Why not a reverse meter?

Imagine that you pay to get access to The Times. Everyone does. You pay for one article. Or you pay $20 as a deposit so you’re not bothered every time you come. But whenever you add value to The Times, you earn a credit that delays the next bill.

* You see ads, you get credit.
* You click: more credit.
* You come back often and read many pages: credit.
* You promote The Times on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or your blog: credit. The more folks share what you’ve shared, the more credit you get.
* You buy merchandise via Times e-commerce: credit.
* You buy tickets to a Times event: credit.
* You hand over data that makes you more valuable to The Times and its advertisers (e.g., revealing where you’re going on your next trip): credit.
* You add pithy comment to articles that other readers appreciate: credit.
* You take on tasks in crowdsourced journalistic endeavors: credit.
* You answer a reporter’s question on Twitter and the reporter uses your information: credit.
* You correct an error in a story: credit.
* You give a news tip or an idea for an article The Times publishes: credit.

Maybe you never pay for The Times again because The Times has gained more value out of its relationship with you. If, on the other hand, you hardly do any of those things, then you have to pay for using The Times.

Jarvis told me that he has since recanted his conclusion: “it will shrink.” He said: “I fear it will not grow as it could have.”

Clay Shirky, NYU. I was unable to find anything Shirky had written or said about the likelihood of New York Times meter succeeding in either January, 2010, when it was announced, or spring 2011, when it was launched. I include him only because his name is sometimes mentioned among those who predicted that the Times experiment would fail. As far as I can tell, this claim is untrue. I asked him about it and he told me this:

The meaning of the word “paywall” has changed.

The model whose failure I have consistently predicted is the “If you don’t pay us any money, we won’t let you look at any ads!” We used to call this model — require payment from 100% of the audience, for access to 100% of the content  — a paywall, and it does not work for general-interest news online. (Indeed, almost by definition, a publication that pursues this model becomes a newsletter.)

Sometime around the turn of the decade, though, what we used to call metered billing (and which is more accurately labeled a threshold payment) started to be labeled paywalls as well. So now we have a word that describes both models that lock out 100% of non-paying readers *and* models that allow something like 97% of non-paying readers in.So almost nothing anyone said about paywalls, sense one, has any predictive value for the behavior of paywalls, sense two. (Indeed, I’ve stopped using that word, for that reason.)

What I did say at the time of the NYT announcement was that I didn’t know where that system would end up on the spectrum of ‘donation’ to ‘loyalty tax’. But I certainly didn’t tar it with the same brush as ‘lock out all the users’ schemes (including QPass and TimesSelect), which have always been disastrous, but whose design is radically different from threshold-billing models.

Jay Rosen, NYU. You might wonder, what did the author of this post think? I didn’t write anything about the prospects for the Times meter, except for this about one puzzling detail, but I did give an interview to NPR about it. There I said it was a “difficult choice” and that it was understandable that they agonized for a year about what to do.

There’s really no way to tell yet. It’s a gamble by the New York Times. I don’t think they know if it’s going to work. And we still have a lot of details missing from their plan…

The people who work for the New York Times believe that their journalism should be addressed to the public at large. And one of the things that happens when you start to charge is, you’re in effect cutting yourself off from the widest possible public your journalism can reach. And if the real product of the New York Times is its influence, then this is a very risky move with the very heart and soul of the newspaper, which is its ability to affect and influence public conversation.

I hedged. And I worried, as Megan Garber did: would the Times be the same force?

A final observation about the ways in which Thompson was passing bad information to the graduates of Columbia’s B-school. Inside the building, there was tremendous anxiety about whether the decision the Times took was a wise and necessary move, or slow motion suicide. No one knew! Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine, who broke the story about the decision to go with a metered system, found the same thing:

The decision to go paid is monumental for the Times, and culminates a yearlong debate that grew contentious, people close to the talks say. In favor of a paid model were Keller and managing editor Jill Abramson. [Martin] Nisenholtz and former deputy managing editor Jon Landman, who was until recently in charge of nytimes.com, advocated for a free site.

The argument for remaining free was based on the belief that nytimes.com is growing into an English-language global newspaper of record, with a vast audience — 20 million unique readers — that, Nisenholtz and others believed, would prove lucrative as web advertising matured. (The nytimes.com homepage, for example, has sold out on numerous occasions in the past year.) As other papers failed to survive the massive migration to the web, the Times would be the last man standing and emerge with even more readers. Going paid would capture more circulation revenue, but risk losing significant traffic and with it ad dollars. At an investor conference this fall, Nisenholtz alluded to this tension: “At the end of the day, if we don’t get this right, a lot of money falls out of the system.”

The Times itself later confirmed this basic portrait. “The risks were manifold,” wrote reporter Jeremy Peters. “The company might jeopardize its huge online reach, and no one could predict what would happen to digital advertising, which had gone from being a drop in the bucket to more than a quarter of The New York Times Company’s overall advertising revenue.” Jim Roberts was the assistant managing editor for digital at the time. He later recalled his thinking:

I argued against it. It was a position that wasn’t extremely popular throughout our newsroom but I really worried a lot that our audience which we had worked so aggressively to build would shrink a lot.

I really worried that we’d lose a lot of our younger readers who we had really aggressively courted with a bunch of innovative ideas, social media use etc. I worried deeply they would flee, worried there would be an impact on our advertisers, if our readership shrank.

“I’m here to tell you I was wrong,” Roberts said in October, 2011.

If Mark Thompson has said this to the graduates of Columbia B-school…

Times people were quite nervous about it, but determined to get the decision right. Opinion outside the Times was uncertain– and often uninformed. Opinion inside the building was very well informed, but still uncertain.

… I could rate him as truthful. But he did not, and that is unfortunate, as well as weird for a news executive. Giving a commencement speech. To a new class of MBAs. Who could check up on him.

 

Jon Karl got played by a confidential source and now ABC News has a big Benghazi problem

"His colleagues at other news organizations know it. His friends at the network, were they real friends, would try to talk him out of this disastrous state of denial."

18 May 2013 4:30 pm 73 Comments

[With four updates below: May 19, 20, 22.]

I am going to be brief here because for anyone closely following the story of the Benghazi talking points these facts are well known. And if you’re not following the story closely, you probably don’t care. If you do care, but aren’t following it, just click the links below and you can get caught up.

1. On May 10th ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported a source’s description of a White House advisor’s email about the Benghazi talking points:

“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation. We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”

2. That turned out to be misleading and inaccurate, as revealed initially by CNN’s Jake Tapper and later confirmed by the release of all the emails in question. Karl’s source, said Tapper, “seemingly invented the notion that Rhodes wanted the concerns of the State Department specifically addressed.” Tapper had obtained the text of the email in question. It simply didn’t say what Karl said it said on one key point. Karl, it appeared, was relying on a source’s quotation.

3. Tapper is a former colleague of Karl’s at ABC News, and a former guest host of ABC’s This Week, a duty Karl also takes on from time to time. The two men are in the same business. Both have covered the White House for ABC. If one says the other’s source “invented” evidence that was passed along to ABC’s audience, that is a serious matter.

4. Karl responded to Tapper’s report by obfuscating without backing off, and claiming that the release of the full email chain would clear this up. So how about it, White House? ABC News also doubled down. It’s spokesperson told Erik Wemple of the Washington Post that Tapper’s report was consistent with Karl’s.

5. The White House said Karl’s source had “fabricated” the email in question. Here, the Obama Administration was warning ABC News that Jon Karl got played. Again, a serious matter. Also: news.

6. Karl’s colleagues weren’t buying his defense, as can be seen from this post by NPR’s Scott Neuman and Mark Memmott. They were bothered, as well, by the way Karl created confusion about whether he had obtained the email in question or just heard its contents described by a source. This too counts as a serious matter.

7. Later, when the full email chain was released, the news was bad for Karl. The originals show that Karl’s source was wrong about the White House protecting the State Department’s concerns over other agencies. Jon Karl had called for this evidence to be released. It was released. The results only cast more doubt on his defense of the original story, and strongly suggested he had been played.

8. Yesterday, Taking Points Memo reported that members of Congress and their staffs were briefed on the emails and their contents. That’s how Karl’s source knew about them.

The ABC report was based on notes taken by a still-unnamed source, presumably a Republican, in attendance at one of two briefings the administration held for members and senior staffers of the Senate and House intelligence committees and top leadership offices in February and March of this year. The ABC report contained a great deal of the information the White House would ultimately reveal itself this week when it released all of the inter- and intra-agency email communication that ultimately resulted in the talking points Susan Rice used in a now-infamous series of appearances on network news shows on the Sunday after the attack.

But it got one big part about the White House’s role wrong…

Again: serious business.

9. I had been following all this and last night I said on Twitter: “Jon Karl got played. But he refuses to admit it. Every ABC anchor who doesn’t ask him about it is complicit, too.” I was anticipating Karl’s appearance on ABC’s signature political program, This Week with George Stephanopoulos. jonathan_karl2-620x4121 He had appeared on May 12th, two days after his original report, to talk about Benghazi with guest host Martha Raddatz. There had been big news in the intervening week: the release of the original emails. I figured that ABC News would have him on again, if they believed so strongly in his original report. He is, after all, ABC’s Chief White House Correspondent; the story that dominated Washington all week was the re-emergence of a scandal narrative. A typical headline: Obama Pivots to Jobs Tour at End of Scandal Filled Week. (That’s from The Note, the politics blog at ABCNews.com, to which Karl is a major contributor.) Well, here’s the line-up for This Week with George Stephanopoulos. No Jon Karl. Instead, ABC News Senior Washington Correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

10. When a confidential source burns a reporter, a reporter is within his rights to burn–that is, “out”–that source. But it almost never happens because reporters are concerned that potential sources will take it as a sign that the reporter cannot be trusted to keep their names secret. That’s bad enough. But this is worse. Karl had a chance to limit the damage to ABC News from his faulty reporting when he first responded to Jake Tapper’s report. He blew that. Inexplicably, an ABC News spokesperson then doubled down on Karl’s original reporting: strike two. They had a chance to recover by asking Karl to explain how he got misled on This Week. They blew that when they chickened out and asked Jeff Zeleny to appear instead.

11. None of the major networks–ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN–has an ombudsman. This is mystifying to me. They don’t seem to realize that since the rise of the Internet, their reporting is called into question far more easily and far more effectively. This case was especially likely to blow-up in ABC’s face once Jake Tapper’s report appeared online. When one reporter pisses on another reporter’s scoop, the first reporter enters a danger zone. The overwhelming temptation is to defend the story and treat the critique of it by another reporter as professional jealousy. A wise editor would intervene. (Attention: Rick Klein.) That did not happen. When the newsroom hierarchy fails, as it did here, the ombudsman can step in and force an accounting. But there is no ombudsman at ABC.

Jon Karl has dragged the entire news division at ABC (and now George Stephanopoulos) into his self-dug pit. He got played. His colleagues at other news organizations know it. His friends at the network, were they real friends, would try to talk him out of this disastrous state of denial.

* * *

Update, May 19. Today, Jonathan Karl, feeling the heat from peers, decided to make a statement to Howard Kurtz of CNN, who read it on the air. The statement says:

Clearly, I regret the email was quoted incorrectly and I regret that it’s become a distraction from the story, which still entirely stands. I should have been clearer about the attribution. We updated our story immediately.

In the statement he did not apologize. On Twitter he did— for failing to make clear that his reporting was based on a summary provided by a source. My favorite part of his statement is: “Clearly, I regret…” That’s exactly what he and ABC News, through its spokesperson, were refusing to be clear about!

Media Matters has many more quotes from former journalists calling Karl’s actions into question. Also see Josh Marshall’s analysis at Talking Points Memo.

Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, which tracks television news, sends this:

On Thursday’s CBS Evening News, Major Garrett spelled out how Jonathan Karl’s Republican source had misrepresented the content of the e-mails in his Exclusive on the previous Friday. But Garrett did not mention Karl by name as the one who disseminated the falsity.

On Wednesday, when Karl covered the publication of the actual e-mails by the White House on ABC World News, he resorted to a post hoc, propter hoc sleight of hand to suggest that they vindicated his previous reporting. Garrett, also on Wednesday, reported the opposite: that the relationship between the State Department’s comments and the CIA’s wording changes were coincidental, not causative.

Per Garrett, the CIA redacted its talking points in response to the FBI’s need not to compromise its investigation, not in response to the State Department’s need to avoid Congressional criticism.

Update II, May 19: After thinking about it some more, here’s the problem for ABC:

If a reporter for your network tells the public he has “exclusively” obtained evidence he has not in fact obtained, causing other reporters for the network to repeat that untruth, and part of his report turns out to be wrong, in a way that a.) is politically consequential and b.) would have been avoided if the evidence was actually in the reporter’s possession… what is the proper penalty?

ABC’s current position: The reporter has to say that he regrets the misreport, and apologize for not being clearer, while benefitting from the confusion he created across multiple reports by sometimes being accurate (that he had summaries of emails read to him) and sometimes misleading us with the claim that he had “obtained” the originals. (Link.)

Can that stand? We will see this week, I guess.

Update III, May 20: Looks like we have our answer. There is now an editor’s note attached to the original “exclusive” by Karl. It reads:

Editor’s Note: There were differences between ABC News’ original reporting on an email by Ben Rhodes, below, and the actual wording of that email which have now been corrected. ABC News should have been more precise in its sourcing of those quotes, attributing them to handwritten copies of the emails taken by a Congressional source. We regret that error. The remainder of the report stands as accurate.

I would have retracted the report, both the online and and on air versions. Not only because of the sourcing problems. The entire story seeks to make a scandal out of the fact that that the talking points were edited, or as Karl says on air “dramatically edited!” But how else do you get inter-agency agreement on what to say? Karl says on the air that many of the changes were “directed” by the State Department, but State didn’t have the power to direct anything. With the editor’s note and Karl’s updates attempting to rescue his “exclusive,” the thing is now a mess. All to avoid confessing error and protect a misbegotten scoop.

Academic opinion as surveyed by Salon is strongly against Karl and ABC for flunking the basics of transparency.

Here’s NPR’s report, quoting this one.

The Washington Post fact checker takes on this episode, in particular the White House’s claim that Karl’s Republican sources must have fabricated and “doctored” the emails they talked about with him. He is not impressed with this claim, awarding it Three Pinocchios (significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.) “We see little evidence that much was at play here besides imprecise wordsmithing or editing errors by journalists.”

Update IV, May 22: It is in the nature of these disputes that they get more granular as they go on. Andrew Tyndall, who monitors TV News at the Tyndall Report, has been thinking it through. He sends me an after-action report that I am publishing here. Tyndall effectively isolates the layer of Jon Karl’s report that was, yes, a genuine scoop but also an important part of the story, if you really want to know what happened with the Benghazi talking points: The precise steps through which interagency drafting weakened the text into something opaque and, eventually, deceptive and wrong. That additional detail advances the story, as the Weekly Standard’s earlier reports did. No doubt this is why Karl and ABC are insisting their story “stands.”

But as Tyndall says, Karl’s report also tried to explain these changes–it went into the who and the why–by vaguely suggesting that the White House rep and the State Department rep directed them to be made, or somehow controlled the process. He wants to establish a kind of authorship or custody by State and the White House because he is aiming at another prize, beyond his “precise steps” scoop: catching Jay Carney in a lie or bald misstatement of fact.

The statement he was aiming at was the closer for his Good Morning America report on May 10. “They [the White House] initially said only one word had been changed.” He’s trying to show us that together, State and the White House changed a lot of words. Karl wanted to go beyond his exclusive. He wanted a scoop and a nailed lie too. But he mis-nailed it by getting a bum quote, and by failing to establish the undue authorship claim.

With that in mind, read Andrew Tyndall’s take:

The essence of Jonathan Karl’s scoop in the Benghazi Consulate story on ABC on May 10th, was his exclusive revelation that the talking points prepared for members of the Intelligence Committee by the CIA (the ones that also guided Ambassador Susan Rice on those Sunday morning shows) had gone through a series of 12 drafts, each one more vague and less informative, with the end result that their imprecision turned out to be deceptive. Specifically, the decisions not to redact the point about the anti-blasphemy protests, but to redact the point about the al-Qaeda-connected Ansar al-Sharia militia, amounted to misleading the public.

It is that process of deception-by-redaction that Karl has defended as the central point of his exclusive, and has led him to stand by it. Karl never actually uses the term “deceit” but his implication is clear.

There are two subsidiary elements to the story, which Karl either stated or implied, that do not contradict his deception-by-redaction thesis, yet do cast it in a different light. First, who made the changes? Second, what was the motive for the changes?

1. Who made the changes? Karl’s exclusive on May 10th asserted that either the White House or the State Department made at least some of the changes. The story leads with Jay Carney’s claim that those two institutions only changed one word, a claim that Karl contradicts. He later, on May 15th, reported that the final changes were made by the CIA. He remains silent about which of the intermediary changes were made by the White House or by State instead, yet he stands by his premise that some of them were.

2. What was the motive for the changes? In his exclusive report, Karl focuses on the State Department, with its concerns not to open itself to criticism from members of Congress, as the motivator for the redactions. Subsequently a memo has surfaced, written by Ben Rhodes at the White House, that casts doubt on the State Department’s influence over the CIA. First, Rhodes never singles out State’s concerns; second, he does single out the FBI’s concerns that its investigation should not be compromised, as is standard procedure.

The fact that Karl’s reporting relied on an incorrect paraphrase of Rhodes’ memo, which inaccurately did spell out State’s particular concerns, makes Karl’s decision to point to State as the motivator less convincing. In Karl’s defense, he did not report on World News, either on the 10th or the 15th, that the changes were made to the talking points because of State’s input; only that they were made after State’s input. This distinction between “after” and “because of” is never spelled out for viewers.

On the other hand, as said, he did report that some of the intermediary changes were in fact made by either State or the White House, and earlier on the 10th, on Good Morning America, he quoted from an e-mail (again, one he had not seen but had been read to him) that the CIA changed some words after being “directed” to do so by State (later that day on World News, Karl made no stronger claim than “input” from State).

So, Karl’s scoop about the fact of the changes in the talking points was a genuine one. His reporting on who made the changes and why they were made is vague or shifting or absent.

Designs for a Networked Beat

"When the users know more than the journalists, what are good journalists supposed to do?" These are lecture notes and links from my presentation to the editors of Quartz, May 13, 2013.

13 May 2013 6:30 pm 16 Comments

The ideas that I share with you tonight originate in a personal obsession of mine that is now 14 years old. It dates back to 1999 when I read this article by Andrew Leonard in Salon: “Open Source Journalism.”

Leonard’s piece is not a manifesto. It tells the story of a specialty site, Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, which lacked confidence that its draft article about cyber-terrorism was good enough. So Jane’s decided to consult the readers of Slashdot, who knew a lot about the subject. And they made the article better. (Here’s the original Slashdot thread.)

This, I felt, had implications for beat reporting.

Also in 1999, Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News, the first newspaper journalist to have a blog, strung these simple words together. “My readers know more than I do.” It was one of the discoveries he made covering Silicon Valley during the first internet boom. DanGillmor2Of course this would have been true in 1959. Gillmor was one of the first to see what was different about 1999. The people who knew more than he did could easily reach him with that knowledge. They were more connected: to the reporter and each other.

This too had implications for beat reporting.

* * *

In 1999, that fateful year, Dave Winer published his seminal post, Edit this Page, in which he said: “Writing for the Web is too damn hard.” He and others were then working on blogging tools that would explode over the next year or so: Winer’s Frontier, blogger.com, Live Journal, and later Movable Type.

To me, Edit This Page is the moment just before the web goes from Read Only to Read/Write. (Later, of course, it would become read/write/share.) In 2009, Winer put the consequences as clearly as he could: “The sources go direct.” They can now publish directly to the users.

This had further implications for beat reporting.

Behold, then, the spirit of 1999:

* “My readers know more than I do.”
* Open source journalism can work.
* Edit This Page, which became blogging
* “The sources can go direct.” (And they do.)

The spirit of ’99 affected me personally. These are projects I undertook in the same spirit:

2003 PressThink
2006 Assignment Zero
2007 Beatbloging.org
2008 Off The Bus.

So this is my obsession, distilled down:

When the users know more than the journalists, what are good journalists supposed to do?

Many people who are here tonight do this kind of work every day. A good name for it is networked reporting, which is by now an established practice. Consider:

* Live blogging as demonstrated by The Guardian and the New York Times Lede blog is an inherently networked practice.

* So is Andy Carvin’s “twitter anchor”.

* CNN’s i-Report is a network of contributors that can be activated when there is breaking news.

* Web forms as used by ProPublica, The Guardian and other sites allow for collecting data from those very users who know more than journalists.

And, of course, it is routine for journalists to find sources through social media.

We’ve made a lot of progress since 1999! But not nearly enough. So this year I shared my obsession with my graduate students in NYU’s Studio 20 program. We began with a simple definition of networked reporting:

When the many contribute (easily) to reporting that is completed by a few… that’s networked reporting.

Our aim was to make incremental progress on that problem by doing small projects with six partners using 2-3 person teams. Here’s the list of projects. My partner was Quartz, Atlantic Media’s new business publication. I wanted to work with Quartz because their concept of editorial obsessions intrigued me. I proposed that we work together on designing a networked approach to covering what they call an “obsession.” They would give me the specs, I would reply with my designs.

The specs from Quartz are here. (“Put together a suite of tools and techniques for quickly booting up a network around a fast-moving, ongoing global news story that cuts across traditional beat boundaries and is worth obsessing about…”) The tools were researched and tested by Anna Callaghan, a journalism grad student at NYU. We decided to use covering bitcoin as window into digital money as the “fast-moving, ongoing global news story” that we would design a networked approach for.

* * *

Warning: These ideas are 100% synthetic. They are not original to me. They have emerged from the practice of networked reporting and the use of social media tools by thousands of journalists since 1999. So if your instinct is to reply, “we did that four years ago!” you’re right. You probably did.

Pro tip before we begin: It’s smart to treat the One Percent Rule as a design principle for a networked beat.

Thus, a networked beat…

√ makes better products for the 90 percent who will only consume…

√ from efficient interaction with the 10% who will possibly engage, while

√ recruiting the best of the 1% into co-production.

My eight steps to a networked beat follow:

Step 1: Define the right combination of news flows for this particular beat.

Step 2: Put an intelligent filter, made for multiple uses, on the combined flow.

Step 3: From smart filters on combined streams, make a series of simple and useful products.

Step 4: Start to register, verify and make contact with the best independent sources on the beat.

Step 5: When they’re good enough hook the filtering tools up to the work flow for beat coverage.

Step 6: Launch your “inbox on steroids” and prove to the users that it works.

Step 7: Bring key sources (from step 4) and fellow obsessives into co-production. And be prepared to compensate.

Step 8: Go pro-am. Try some campaigns. Crowdsource from an earned crowd.

Another way to display the same design is to describe the different levels of investment in networked reporting. You could also call them stages of development. I see three:

Level One (steps 1-4): Minimum viable product. It includes:

* Bot for the beat: an automated Quartz Twitter feed for bitcoin news
* People to follow: a list of people who converse and share links about bitcoin.
* Rock solid explainer: original content by Quartz explaining background to bitcoin for its users.
* Preferred sources list: the best of the best, selected and vetted by Quartz
* River of news: An automated feed of bitcoin news via select sources curated by Quartz.(Like this one for tech.)

* Register as a Quartz bitcoin source: (Legal name or pen name allowed. This is one way people can raise their hand as a fellow obsessive, and get vetted.)

* Good alert systems for writers and editors, making assignments easier and coverage better
* Newsroom talent ready to do stories when signals are strong.

Level Two (steps 5-6). Committing to the beat.

* Twitter feed for beat, handmade and a human voice

* Link and comment blog fed by Quartz filters.

* Inbox on steroids

* Beat journalism made clearly distinct from commodity coverage

Level Three (steps 7-8). Turn to the community

* Engage key contributors in co-production, similar to the moment when a successful blog becomes a group blog by hiring from the comments.

* Launch a sources poll. A weekly survey of obsessives, carefully designed to consume a finite amount of time per week, which takes the temperature of the beat but also provides clues to what the beat should be covering by asking the people who care the most. (Sort of like this.)

* Crowdsourced investigations. By now a known practice.

* “Quest journalism,” an example of which is here.

Summing up: My recommendations for Quartz.

Recommendation 1. Invest now in Level One development: unique news flows and intelligent filters– something Quartz should try to become good at. Very good. This is my primary recommendation.

Recommendation 2. “Filtered by Quartz.” We think there are brand opportunities for Quartz in making its own: Intelligent filters, Preferred sources, Rivers of News (another Dave Winer concept.)

Recommendation 3. Influence the development of tool companies that make your filters smarter and your work easier. Little Bird and Storyful are two we especially recommend.

Recommendation 4. Pick your spots for fuller investment in a beat via metrics that flow from the minimum viable product. An obvious example: where the alert systems are spitting out very good story ideas, the beat is ready for more investment.

Recommendation 5. Put all tools and practices to the “enterprise journalism” and “unique signature” tests. Meaning: you’ll know it’s working if the tools and methods recommended here help Quartz transcend commodity coverage and produce journalism with a unique signature. If they don’t help with that, drop this approach.

Recommendation 6. Quartz Pro. There’s a possible business opportunity in monetizing signaling systems that you know from Quartz experience work. That’s why its crucial to bring some of the obssessives in from the cold, so to speak.

Recommendation 7. Campaigns can be good punctuation points. Once they’re over, fold your tent and move on to other beats.

Recommendation 8. Stage Three beats are an insight community, as Techdirt’s Mike Masnick calls it. Some will pay to know what a crowd earned this way thinks.

Some shifts in power visible in journalism today

"To some degree they have achieved what Tim Russert of NBC News had when he was host of Meet the Press. Sitting down for an interview with Swisher and Mossberg is a thing you do to show that you are a serious player..."

18 Feb 2013 12:12 am 21 Comments

Quick: How many shifts in power can you spot in this one report? From Reuters:

AllThingsD, the widely read technology blog run by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, has begun discussions with owner News Corp about extending or ending their partnership, sources familiar with the situation told Reuters. According to these sources, AllThingsD‘s contract with News Corp expires at the end of the year…

Sources said the website is receiving a lot of “inbound interest” from potential buyers parallel to its talks with News Corp. Among the names mentioned as having reached out to AllThingsD were Conde Nast, where Swisher recently signed to work as a contributing writer for Vanity Fair, and Hearst.

… While AllThingsD is recognized as the brainchild of Swisher and Mossberg, News Corp actually owns the website and its name. However, according to provisions in their contract, Swisher and Mossberg have approval authority over any sale, the first source said.

I count five power shifts. Now I’m not claiming that any of these are new this year, so don’t freak out! Several have been watchable trends since before Barack Obama ran for president. But they continue to alter what is possible for journalists, so it’s worth going over them one by one.

* Writers ascendant over publishers. Not completely. Just: relatively speaking. The brainchild of Swisher and Mossberg… Swisher and Mossberg have approval… It’s their franchise, not News Corp’s. AllThingsD is built around their talents as reporters, interviewers, reviewers and occasional breakers of news. Robert Cottrell, editor of The Browser, an aggregation site, put it this way in a recent essay for the Financial Times:

Think back to the days when print media ruled. Your basic unit of consumption was not the article, nor the writer, but the publication. You bought the publication in the hope or expectation that it would contain good writing. The publisher was the guarantor of quality.

Professional writers still see value in having publishers online, not so much as guarantors of quality, but because publishers pay for writing – or, increasingly, if they do not pay for it, they do at least publish it in a place where it will get read.

Readers, on the other hand, have less of a need for publishers. One striking trend I have noticed in the past five years is the way in which individual articles uncouple themselves from the places where they are first published, to lead their own lives across the internet, passed from hand to hand between readers.

Right: readers have less need of publishers. That is one reason writers are in the ascendant. Another is what my friend Clay Shirky said: “There’s a button that says ‘publish,’ and when you press it, it’s done.” The internet does much of what publishers used to do: bring the goods to the users.

* Shifting modes of scarcity. Technology news isn’t scarce. The ability instantly to distribute technology news: that isn’t scarce. (The internet does it.) The capital required to begin providing technology news is extremely low, so that isn’t scarce. Genuine news is scarce. Talent and experience–and scoops, of course, which come from being well-sourced–are scarce. Kara Swisher, Walt Mossberg and their colleagues at AllThingsD are good at what they do. By now it is primarily this, not the fact that they did it under the banner of Dow Jones (owned by News Corp) that makes a difference. Even a 19 year-old kid can be a player in technology reporting if he has the (scarce) goods. And check out the way Mark Gurman is compensated:

Despite the fact that his work is only part-time, his pay check from 9to5Mac is not. Weintraub [his boss] tells us, “I have an unorthodox model where I give my writers ad space on their posts and on the homepage. For Mark in particular, it has been very successful because his exclusives get a lot of attention.”

How successful? Weintraub says he “makes enough money to buy a Tesla every year (he hasn’t…yet) with change left over.” Teslas generally sell for ~$100,000 a pop.

* The economics of human presence. AllThingsD began in 2003 as a conference. The site was created for people who could not be there. It grew from that to become a daily source of news and views. The conference is still the soul of the enterprise. Here it is, sold out in February, though it doesn’t happen until May. Speakers haven’t even been announced yet! News isn’t scarce, commentary isn’t scarce, but an opportunity to watch Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, think on stage? That is scarce; people will pay for it. The site boasts:

D is different from other conferences: no canned speeches, no marketing pitches, and no bull. Instead, creators and executive producers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher put the industry’s top players to the test during unscripted conversations about the impact digital technology will have on our lives now and in the future.

Swisher and Mossberg were smart to make the conference about the interviews, rather than speeches, panels or presentations. That way it is their presence, as well as Tim Cook’s or Marissa Mayer’s, that makes the event go. To some degree they have achieved what Tim Russert of NBC News had when he was host of Meet the Press. Sitting down for an interview with Swisher and Mossberg is a thing you do to show that you are a serious player. That’s the economics of human presence. Which is why the Atlantic, The Economist, the New York Times and the Washington Post (among others) are trying to make events part of their business model. There is no “save as” command for events.

* The renewed importance of voice. Kara Swisher is fast on her feet, witty and sarcastic, hyper-informed about the tech industry and she’ll try to cut you to pieces on Twitter if you challenge her, especially one of her scoops. Walt Mossberg is like a graybeard of tech, part of its institutional memory, someone who has seen it all and cannot easily be snowed. These personas are part of what they have to sell, and they emerge especially in conversation with industry leaders at their annual conference. If they were View from Nowhere journalists their franchise would not be nearly as strong as it is.

From Mossberg’s “ethics statement” on the AllThingsD site: “I am not an objective news reporter, and am not responsible for business coverage of technology companies. I am a subjective opinion columnist, a reviewer of consumer technology products and a commentator on technology issues.” From Swisher’s: “While I still intend to break news on this site, as with my previous print column, I will make subjective comments on the business and strategies of technology companies and issues.”

They know where the value lies.

* The rise of niche journalism. It’s not called “all things newsy,” or “all things business.” The business that Swisher and Mossberg built is about “digital technology meets consumer capitalism.” And that is all. This is the logic of niche jounalism. The writer Nicholas Carr summarized it five years ago:

A print newspaper provides an array of content—local stories, national and international reports, news analyses, editorials and opinion columns, photographs, sports scores, stock tables, TV listings, cartoons, and a variety of classified and display advertising—all bundled together into a single product. People subscribe to the bundle, or buy it at a newsstand, and advertisers pay to catch readers’ eyes as they thumb through the pages. The publisher’s goal is to make the entire package as attractive as possible to a broad set of readers and advertisers. The newspaper as a whole is what matters, and as a product it’s worth more than the sum of its parts.

When a newspaper moves online, the bundle falls apart. Readers don’t flip through a mix of stories, advertisements, and other bits of content. They go directly to a particular story that interests them, often ignoring everything else.

“The bundle falls apart.” That’s a power shift. And it leads directly to: Sources said the website is receiving a lot of “inbound interest” from potential buyers…

Look, you’re right, okay? But you’re also wrong.

A post that arises from a certain image I have of disaffected newsroom "traditionalists," who look upon changes in journalism since the rise of the web with fear and loathing. It is not addressed to particular people but to a climate of mind I've encountered a lot in blogging about all this since 2003.

3 Feb 2013 9:26 am 62 Comments

Look, you’re right. About a lot of things.

Editing by click rate is stupid and unethical. Chasing traffic is an abyss. The hamsterization of journalism is degrading the work environment for news professionals. Expecting reporters to report, write, blog, tweet, shoot video, sift the web, raise their metabolism, and produce more without time and training is guaranteed to fail. Trading in print dollars for digital dimes has been an economic disaster for newsrooms that ran on those dollars. Online advertising will never replace what was lost. The editorial staff is the engine that makes the whole thing go. You cannot cut your way to the future. The term “content” is a barbarism that bit by bit devalues what journalists do. Pure aggregation is parasitic on original reporting. Untended, online comment sections have become sewers, protectorates for the deranged, depraved and deluded. That we have fewer eyes on power, fewer journalists at the capital or city hall watching what goes on, almost guarantees that there will be more corruption. Bloggers and citizen journalists cannot fill the gap. Experienced beat reporters are the community’s institutional memory. Everyone needs an editor. It’s absurd to claim that “anyone” can be a journalist if we mean by that someone who knows how to find the right sources and ask the right questions, dig for information, counter the spin, produce a fair, accurate and unflinching account without libeling anybody– and do it all on deadline.

But you’re wrong about a lot of things too.

Being ignorant and uninvolved in “the business side” has been a disaster for the newsroom. For all its strengths, separation of church and state also meant no seat at the table when the big decisions were made. Anyone who doesn’t want to know what the numbers say should not be trusted with editorial decisions. Listening to demand is smart journalism, so is giving people what they have no way to demand because they don’t know about it yet. If you are good at one, the other goes better. “Do what you do best and link to the rest” isn’t a slogan, it’s your only hope for comprehensive coverage. Figuring out how to make things happen at lower cost is intrinsic to quality journalism today. Pack journalism and duplicative coverage mock your claims of crisis. In the aggregate, the users know more than you do about most things. They are in many more places than you can be. They also help distribute your stuff. Therefore talking with them is basic to your job. Google isn’t the source of your troubles; it sends you traffic. Digitally, the original sin wasn’t failing to charge when the first news sites came online; it was re-purposing the old platform’s material. A journalist is just a heightened case of an informed citizen, not a special class. The First Amendment doesn’t mention your occupation; it refers to everyone’s right to publish. “Who’s a journalist?” leads nowhere so drop it.

“Even about your Lie of the Year there is doubt.”

Romney's chief strategist Stu Stevens is trying to re-litigate a campaign ad suggesting that Jeep was shipping factory jobs to China. Why? I speculate.

27 Jan 2013 9:46 am 19 Comments

“Lie of the Year,” people in the establishment press called it. As bad as it gets.

To which professional strategist Stu Stevens, head thinker for the Romney campaign in 2012, says: Nonsense, gentleman, our work on this ad was pristine. A model of accuracy, upholding a standard in verification beyond what is normally seen in politics.

Surreal exchange, right? But it happened the other day, as I will soon explain.

But first, a brief check-in with common sense.

1. Standard deviation from the verifiable fact

To some extent all political campaigns are run against reality. No mystery lies about it. There is a tendency to portray the opponent as the embodiment of everything wrong in the country. There is a tendency to portray your own candidate as right about everything, and a great husband and father or wife and mother to boot. There is a thing called confirmation bias. We may safely posit a kind of standard deviation from the verifiable fact that is part of the messy carnival of politics. It is juvenile to make too much of it, or to get worked up about its appearance on one side of the ledger, while minimizing or ignoring its solid presence on the other.

However, it can also happen, and here we drift out of “common sense” and into a political argument with consequences for press treatment… It can also happen that a political party works itself into a position where it has to run against reality in a more serious way, beyond some standard range of distortion. Because, for example, a substantial portion of its base is committed to propositions that aren’t so, like: Obama is for sure a socialist and probably a Muslim. Or: what unites the various factions is thinning, and so a demonized other and paranoid charges serve as the “glue” keeping parts of the coalition together. Non-standard deviation from verifiable facts becomes normal politics for the party in such a weakened state. Wilder charges must be made for reasons internal to the party’s malfunctioning state of denial.

2. Agreed upon untruths.

For this thesis (in which I join) Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s April 27, 2012 Op Ed in the Washington Post is the standard text. Part of the reason for that is Mann of the Brookings Institution and Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute are establishment figures par excellence, think tank centrists and students of How Washington Works who for that reason have been among the most quoted men in political journalism over the span of their influence. So when they say it, the meaning is somewhat different:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

One of the flash points during the campaign–and one I wrote about–was the tension between Romney aides doing what it takes to win and fact-checkers in the press, who had to cope with distortions that sometimes went beyond the normal range. These tensions led to the now famous statement by Romney pollster Neil Newhouse: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

That was a true statement. If they had to bend more facts beyond the sort of breaking point that establishment journalists had set up, it was not because they were professional liars or more mendacious than your average campaign Joe, but because political fictions — agreed-upon untruths — were doing more of the work in holding the Republican Party together, even though the Democrats and the Obama campaign relied on distortions too, sometimes outrageously so. (A list of the ones that concerned me, written during the campaign.)

That’s what Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann were trying to try say to the sober-minded political professionals they wanted to reach. It’s not you, Stu: your party has become an outlier. Of course Stuart Stevens didn’t want to hear that. He didn’t believe it, and never accepted it.

3. Re-litigating the Lie of the Year.

The campaign has been over for almost three months. Here and there, the Republican Party has started the confrontation with its ruling fictions that it could not have afforded during the struggle to get Romney elected. But for at least one of the guys who ran the Romney campaign, the tourniquet of denial has tightened since the election returns came in.

Witness the letter Stevens recently sent to the Washington Post fact checker column, asking to re-litigate a Romney campaign ad that had suggested, using weasel wording, that Jeep was shipping American jobs to China. (Romney said this on the campaign trail too: “Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China.”) Stevens thinks that new facts announced recently show that the original ad was true. “I would hope that you would take another look at this and stress test it for accuracy away from the heat of a campaign,” he wrote to the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler.

Kessler agreed. He took another look and re-awarded the ad Four Pinnocchios, the highest level of mendacity the Post system registers. Keep in mind: this is the same ad that won Politifact’s Lie of the Year award. The Politifact researchers noted that not only did Romney make the false claim himself, and then work it into an ad, but the campaign then “stood by the claim, even as the media and the public expressed collective outrage against something so obviously false.” (The Weekly Standard’s take: a pathetic case of liberal bias; the ad is true.)

But it gets even more strange. For Stu Stevens isn’t saying, “Oh come on, fact checkers, it was bad, but it wasn’t that bad.” He’s not trying to make an outrageously false claim seem routine– within the standard deviation for campaign rhetoric. No, he’s upholding the “Jeep shipping jobs to China” statement as exceptionally well-founded, a kind of model for people in his business. “I believe that the ad and Romney’s statement were completely accurate, unusually so by any standards,” he wrote to Kessler. Thus we have:

Lie of the year!

(Folds arms.) “Unusually accurate.”

We double checked. Still a total lie.

(Stamps foot) “I shall not hear of it!”

Why is this a conversation that Stuart Stevens wants to have? He’s initiating these events, after all. For what reason? Is there even a strategy here?

4. Both sides do it most of the time.

It’s worth nothing that Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact checker, and Michael Scherer of Time magazine, along with others who do fact checking or cover politics full time, are convinced that it’s simply too hard to say which side is distorting the facts more in a hard fought campaign. Both sides do it most of the time, they say. People tend to see mendacity in the other guy and forgive their own side’s BS, as Scherer explained at some length in Time. This is from Scherer’s Fact Checking and the False Equivalence Dilemma:

Kessler at the Washington Post has what he calls the Pinocchio tracker, which gives you the average number of Pinocchio’s for a given politician for the statements he has reviewed. Obama gets an average of 2.04 Pinocchios out of 4, while Romney gets an average of 2.35 Pinocchios out of 4. Romney has had 10 statements that received the maximum [number of] Pinocchios, compared to six statements for Obama that received the maximum. Does this mean anything? According to Kessler, not really.

Kessler has repeatedly said that he thinks all politicians “will twist or spin information if they believe it will advance their political interests.” To him that’s the right starting point. He has “a both sides do it” thesis, born of experience, and unfriendly to… The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. Stevens should be happy with Kessler, who is willing to slap Four Pinocchios on a particularly bad ad but usually resists conclusions like “The GOP is a party unmoved by conventional understanding of facts.”

5. Embrace asymmetry, avoid distortion.

Look at Mann and Ornstein’s op-ed, again:

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

After the campaign they assessed the news media’s performance in meeting this challenge.

“The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth,” said Mann, who has spent nearly three decades as a congressional scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution.

Mann and Ornstein had this advice for the press: “Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?”

Embrace asymmetry, in other words. That’s the way to avoid distortion.

6. Danger, journalists

Here I speculate: In his attempt to re-litigate a campaign ad that everyone else had nearly forgotten about, Stu Stevens is fighting Mann and Ornstein’s advice to the press, which comes from a key part of the Washington establishment. He has some advice of his own:

Danger, press corps. Don’t switch out of your symmetry-making machinery just yet. And don’t be so quick to declare “unbalanced phenomenon” conditions. For there is doubt. Even about your Lie of the Year, Four Pinocchios and all that– there is doubt. My advice: do seek professional safety. You are risking a lot when you try to declare: Which politician is telling the truth?

“Fierce arguments still rage over…” That’s the sentence you should bet on if you care about being right and avoiding distortion. Allow me to demonstrate…

And thus we have Stuart’s fierce argument, raging at a kind of consensus verdict in the political press about the mendacity of the Jeep ad.

“A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality,” Mann and Ornstein had advised the press. Along with: “The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth.”

“Even about your Lie of the Year there is doubt. So don’t try anything.” That’s what I hear Stuart Stevens saying back.