Feb.
6

Brian Williams has not led. What’s an anchor for?

Why wasn’t Williams the one interviewing the military veterans who could help him correct his faulty account? That’s what a leader of a news division would do— I mean, if he is really a leader.

Part One: Feb. 6, 2015

I figured out what’s bothering me about the story that has engulfed NBC News, “after the public symbol of the network, anchor Brian Williams, faced a torrent of derision and criticism for telling a story about his wartime reporting that has proved to be untrue.” (Washington Post.) I don’t know that he deliberately lied to puff himself up and receive “stolen valor.” Nor do I know that ordinary “could happen to anyone” memory failure accounts for it. Both interpretations are popular online. I’m not persuaded of either one, but I can’t disprove them.

I do know this: since it became clear that Williams had created big problems for himself and his network by telling a false story, he has not led. Brian_Williams_by_David_ShankboneAnd that is the job of an anchorman, if the anchorman really is what he is supposed to be— not just a news reader, celebrity and Jon Stewart guest but a kind of super-journalist, able to host the nightly news (a job in itself), act as managing editor of the broadcast (a job in itself), report stories from the field, preside over special events like election night and serve as the embodiment of the news division’s mystical compact with the viewing public, the person in whom trust is lodged and then expressed to the rest of the reporting and producing corps. That’s the job: face of the brand, human figure in a whole architecture of trust. Williams reveled in it, and spoke many times of what an awesome responsibility it was for a kid from Jersey.

And then he created an anchorman crisis. “The trustworthiness of one of America’s best-known and most revered TV journalists has been damaged, [and] the moral authority of the nightly network news anchor, already diminished in the modern media era, has been dealt another blow.” (New York York Times. Video recap here.)

Since the news broke on February 4 that Williams had been forced to admit that parts of his story were untrue, other journalists have been tracking down participants — people who were there — to ask what they recall of those events. Stars and Stripes, CNN, the New York Times, Page Six have all been involved in re-reporting the story.

But where is NBC News? For that matter: why isn’t Brian Williams the one interviewing the military veterans who can help him correct his faulty account? Why isn’t he putting his prestige and instant name recognition to work in getting to the bottom of what actually happened? Sure, it might be humbling. And there might be credibility problems since he would be investigating himself, in a way. But going right at those problems — and emerging on the other side with something that the audience, his colleagues and other journalists can trust — is exactly what’s called for in this situation.

I mean, that’s what a leader of a news division would do— if he’s really a leader, and not a figurehead, air head, talking head or swollen head. A leader of a network news division that is still dependent, for better or worse, on the archaic anchorman system would recognize that the architecture of trust that places the lead anchor in both the glamour and the “stress” positions — head of state and prime minister, as it were — can crumble instantly if the anchorman himself cannot be trusted in telling the story of his own experience. That affects not only Williams but everyone who works for NBC News.

Think about it: The Face of the Brand lets other news organizations re-report his faulty stories? Journalistically speaking, how does that work? It doesn’t. Too late now, though. The apology Williams gave has been called into grave question. Other newsrooms have led the charge on the story. NBC has an internal investigation underway to figure out how bad the situation is. And Politico is reporting: “Brian Williams is in serious trouble.”

The trouble has been caused not only by his fictionalizing of a helicopter ride 12 years ago, but by a failure actually to be what the anchorman position calls for. Not a great talk show guest, but a great leader.

Part Two: February 7, 2015.

Last night I went back and re-watched the clips where Brian Williams tells his story. I also re-read a lot of the coverage. It’s good that NBC is investigating because some things are pretty disturbing when you start thinking them through.

One has been mentioned in the comments here and by Erik Wemple of the Washington Post. Brian Williams didn’t fly in that helicopter by himself. He had an NBC crew with him. The chances that crew members would misremember the flight the same way Williams did seem pretty slim. They’re journalists too. But we haven’t heard from them. Why? Wemple:

A production crew accompanied Williams on the helicopter outing. The Erik Wemple Blog has asked NBC News who and how many people were on that crew. But where have they been as Williams has gone about misremembering the episode in media appearances in recent years? Upon the 10th anniversary of the incident, the anchor visited David Letterman and couldn’t have been more unequivocal about having ridden in the ‘copter under attack: “Two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47,” Williams told the “Late Show” host.

Also in March 2013, Williams told Alec Baldwin in an interview on WNYC’s “Here’s The Thing.” Speaking of his tendency to say “I’ve got this” in sticky situations, he said, “And I’ve done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe,” Williams said.

Again: Where were Williams’s crew members, who surely knew that Williams had either “conflated” his Chinook with another Chinook — his explanation — or was using the passage of time to embellish his own exploits — another explanation. And what of other NBC News employees who worked on the story? Why did they remain silent on these matters? Are they still with NBC News?

That’s a big deal. Potentially, you have people in NBC News silencing themselves while Bigfoot tells tall tales. Or worse: they make their discomfort known and no one does anything because Bigfoot is too big to be challenged. Even worse: Williams is at some point warned to cut the crap and he doesn’t. That’s a corporate crisis. (See this post from Hot Air about the 2003 report.)

But there’s something else. When you watch these clips there’s a troubling ambiguity to them now. One frame around them is: Williams pays tribute to the troops who fought the war and protected him in the desert. He does a lot to make that message explicit, and this part of the performance requires expressions of humility. I’m no solider, I’m no war correspondent, I had no business being there, I’m so grateful for these brave men and women.

When you watch it now, though, you may wonder: Why does this story keep coming up? How is it getting in front of audiences repeatedly over the years?

Let’s take the Lettermen appearance in 2013. Did the show’s producers say, “Hey, it’s the tenth anniversary of Brian almost getting shot out of the sky in the helicopter, let’s have him on…”? Seems unlikely. Letterman says in the clip he either forgot or never knew about the episode. More likely: Williams wanted to talk about it, so they programmed it in. That’s not so modest.

Why is Madison Square Garden halting a hockey game and directing the attention of fans to Brian Williams and his military buddy being “reunited?” Because they knew about this story and thought it would be nice to revisit it 12 years later? Or because NBC promotion people alerted them and asked for the story to be re-told over the PA system?

You see, it’s not just that Williams misremembered or embellished the story, or, as some believe, deliberately lied. He seems to have looked for opportunities to re-tell it, and involved NBC personnel in that quest, along with other institutions: The Late Show on CBS, Madison Square Garden.

To the people who were enlisted in them, these maneuvers didn’t seem self-glorifying because of the presence of the soldiers in the “Brian Williams gets shot at” story— the real heroes, as he is careful to say. But when you learn that he wasn’t shot at, that his pilot says he was in a different helicopter formation that took no fire, the minimizing tactics don’t sound modest anymore. They sound like tricks. Consider this part of the transcript from Alec Baldwin’s radio show:

And I’ve done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe…

The words say: Williams had no business being there. He was doing something stupid. Behaving recklessly, perhaps. Those silly civilians with their clueless antics in a war zone! But Williams cannot mean that. In reality, he was accompanying U.S. Army General Wayne A. Downing as a big shot correspondent, hardly a prank or stunt. Williams and Baldwin are clowning. The words don’t mean what they say. They are there to deliver the payload: with rounds coming into the airframe…

Whatever that is, it’s not misremembering. It’s more active than that. So is getting David Letterman to ask him about an episode from ten years ago. And getting Madison Square garden to honor one of the soldiers who protected him in the desert, which created footage that could be packaged into a story for NBC Nightly News, where Williams is managing editor.

You can see why the soldiers who were there got fed up with this and took to Facebook. It’s more than misremembering or embellishing. It’s looking for opportunities to tell the story and, in the telling of it, switching the focus to the military while an accidental payload — Brian Williams under fire in Iraq — is dropped. “You’re a true journalistic war hero, and I’m just a dumb ass,” Letterman says as they clown about it before one of the commercial breaks. Earlier in the show, Williams had protested when Letterman expressed admiration for his courage under fire, re-directing attention to the brave volunteers in the U.S. army. By the second time, he says nothing. He just accepts hero status. In good fun.

If people from NBC were enlisted in the mounting of these fictions, if they had doubts but swallowed them, if they protested but were not heard — all questions for the investigation — then Brian Williams may not be the only one in peril. Watch:

See my new post on this: The “conflation” that Brian Williams confessed to began in 2003.

Photo credit: David Shankbone.

Jan.
21

A brief sketch of the “full stack” (intellectually speaking…) news and information company.

Meaning: it has its own way of doing things, its own ideas about what is worth doing, and it implements them from end to end.

I was talking to a media executive the other day and he mentioned his ambition to create a “full stack” company. This is a software term. Full stack refers to the different layers of tech that when combined make for a workable product. A full stack developer is competent at all these levels, from server technology to user experience. According to this Chris Dixon’s post, a “full stack start-up” is one that tries to control all the interlocking pieces. He names Buzzfeed and Netflix as two examples of successful full stack companies.

“Suppose you develop a new technology that is valuable to some industry,” Dixon writes. “The old approach was to sell or license your technology to the existing companies in that industry. The new approach is to build a complete, end-to-end product or service that bypasses existing companies.” A full stack start-up can “completely control the customer experience, and capture a greater portion of the economic benefits.” The hard part is that you have to be good at so many different things:

Software, hardware, design, consumer marketing, supply chain management, sales, partnerships, regulation, etc. The good news is that if you can pull this off, it is very hard for competitors to replicate so many interlocking pieces. (More on Dixon’s concept.)

As I listened to my media executive talk about owning the content management system, and the content itself, and the analytics tool that tells you how users are interacting with it, and the user experience layer, I thought: “full stack company… what a great metaphor.”

So let’s do that: Let’s push the metaphor. OriginalPancakesImagine a newsroom and information company, a journalism site, that is full stack, intellectually speaking. Meaning: it has its own way of doing things and thinking things, its own ideas about what is worth doing, and it implements them from end to end. From defining the editorial mission to deciding what constitutes “news” to designing the look and feel. Instead of borrowing what the industry does, it makes these products itself, and not just at one layer of the enterprise, but at all the “thought” layers.

Bear with me as I try to explain.

Grantland: what is the niche? You tell me! You can’t say “sports” because it’s more than sports. You can’t say “popular culture” because it’s so heavily grounded in sports. It’s more like: sports, plus what shows up when you map the gravitational pull of sports. That’s the niche. But that niche isn’t borrowed from anyone. The industry didn’t make it. Grantland made it. This is the beginning of a full stack company in news: not a borrowed beat, but an original one.

ProPublica: what is the mission? Not to be “the number one provider and news and information” in blah, blah, blah region. Not: everything you need to know about… Or “all the news that’s…” No. It’s more tightly defined than that:

Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

From whom is that statement of purpose rented? No one! They made it themselves. “Journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong” is a piece of pressthink original to the editors and reporters at ProPublica. People who work for the Associated Press or the Washington Post might like to think that they got into the business to “shine a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong,” but that is not how their responsibilities are defined.

So imagine if every (intellectual) layer in the newsroom “stack” were made that way: original to the editors and reporters involved. What would that even look like? Here it helps to imagine the extreme opposite, where every layer of coverage is derived from the industry standard, from current practice, from the way things have always been done, from what others are thinking or will soon think. Pack journalism, in other words.

A good example is Bloomberg’s new politics vertical. It’s almost impossible to find a more consensus mind than the mind of Mark Halperin, co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics. (With an annual salary said to be north of $1 million.) His stock-in-trade is conventional wisdom, packaged for easy consumption. Halperin is like the first essential layer in a “collapsed stack” newsroom: the guy you would go out and get if you wanted to do exactly what everyone else would later think of doing.

The “full stack” (intellectually speaking) newsroom is populated by anti-Halperins: People who have their own ideas about what is worth covering. They command beats and produce stories that don’t obey pre-existing industry categories. The mission is different, too. The sections of a full stack news site will section off the news in a way you isn’t familiar to you from your grandfather’s newspaper. In a full stack newsroom, the code of conduct that prescribes and proscribes what individual journalists can do contains a lot of original programming— different from what students might learn in a typical J-school.

My point is: if you want to succeed in news and information provision, a smart play is to go “full stack” on all your competitors, intellectually speaking. That means defining the beat the way no one else defines it, and coming up with a mission that differs from the industry standard. If you’re not willing to go it alone, your best bet is to admit to this up front and then compete for scoops with dozens of others who are trying to score in the same way that you are trying to score. If that’s your game, then own it.

Photo credit: Jack and Jason’s Pancakes.

Jan.
16

A (brief) banking theory of newsroom trust.

The less help you give me in the tricky act of extending my trust to you, the more likely you are to wind up with a negative balance.

In this short post I want to clear something up about how trust operates in a news operation. I am going to use examples from the New York Times, which is risky — because the Times is singular — but I don’t believe the calculus is much different at the Los Angles Times, the Times of India or the Times of Trenton in Central New Jersey.

I will introduce a quick “banking” theory of trust, in which some acts of publishing deposit trust in the newsroom bank, while others are more revenue neutral and still others draw trust from previous deposits. To frame the same point another way, some decisions that editors make put stress on accumulated reserves of trust, while others add to those reserves. From this point of view, trust — credibility! — is not something you have or don’t have as a news provider. Rather, the way you operate can build up or draw down the “reserves” of trust.

Let me sketch three simplified trust scenarios, not because they represent the full range of possibilities but only to get the basic point across. They are presented in order: from most transparent to most opaque, and therefore from trust-producing to trust-consuming.

1. “Don’t take our word for it. Judge for yourself.”

This is when a news organization renders a judgment, and then provides the users with the tools and information to “check” that judgment by conducting essentially the same operation themselves. If I summarize what Senator Rand Paul said on ‘Face the Nation’ this week, and then link to the transcript so you can assess for yourself whether my summary is fair and accurate, I’m not asking you to take my word for it. I’m allowing you to discover on your own how faithful my summary is to the original. If my paraphrase is tendentious, you have everything you need to find me out and dock me points for distorting what Senator Paul said. But if my description is confirmed by the transcript I showed you, that’s points for me.

This is what I mean by a trust deposit. The manner in which the news is presented allows for trust to accumulate in the presenter. A good example from the New York Times is this feature by the Upshot: who will win the Senate? It’s a forecasting model. Not only does the Times show its work by linking to the code and data on Github, but it also allows users to create their own forecast. Here, the Times is so confident in its calculations, it allows readers to re-run those calculations and compare what they get to what the Times concluded.

That’s trust-building— unless, of course, you’ve cooked the books. Then it can be devastating. Which is another way of saying: there is risk in being transparent.

2. “We had to make a call. Here is our reasoning.”

A busy news operation is full of judgment calls. That is what editors get paid to do. Wise editors will explain themselves when their judgment is called into question. If they level with the users (readers, viewers, listeners) and lay out their reasoning, they won’t satisfy or convince everyone, but they can at least achieve a “trust neutral” result. Meaning: we can see how the decision was made, even if we do not agree with it.

A good example is Times editor Dean Baquet’s recent decision not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Lots of disagreement about that. But through the intervention of the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, Baquet had to explain himself, which is good.

Mr. Baquet told me that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression.

He said he had spent “about half of my day” on the question, seeking out the views of senior editors and reaching out to reporters and editors in some of The Times’s international bureaus. They told him they would not feel endangered if The Times reproduced the images, he told me, but he remained concerned about staff safety.

“I sought out a lot of views, and I changed my mind twice,” he said. “It had to be my decision alone.”

Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious; those that are meant to mock even more so. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”

“At what point does news value override our standards?” Mr. Baquet asked. “You would have to show the most incendiary images” from the newspaper; and that was something he deemed unacceptable.

Even after this, a great many users are going to find themselves in tension with the New York Times over its judgment call. But they are able to see what the reasoning is. They know it was considered carefully. This I am calling trust neutral. No deposit, no withdrawal.

3. “Look, you’re just going to have to trust us.”

When the newsroom can’t provide the data and tools so that we can re-run the experiment and see what we get, when it can’t explain its reasoning so that even if we disagree we can see where the editors are coming from, when it has to conceal how it came to its conclusions and simply gesture at the complications involved without permitting us to enter into them… under conditions like these, the operation is drawing on deposits of trust put there by earlier acts of journalism that turned out to be trust-worthy.

Two examples from this recent front-page story in the Times:

American counterterrorism officials said on Wednesday that they now believed that Chérif Kouachi, the younger brother, was the aggressor in the attacks — not Saïd Kouachi, the older brother, as they first thought — but that Saïd may also have traveled to Yemen, as American and French authorities have said.

Who are these officials? We don’t know. What evidence leads them to this conclusion? We don’t know. That’s “trust us” journalism. Risky, in a different way.

A member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who spoke to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity, said the joint timing of the two operations was a result of the friendship between Mr. Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, not of common planning between the Qaeda group and the Islamic State.

Wait: an Al Qaeda source was granted anonymity? How did that happen? From this account we do not know. What makes the Times think this source speaks for Al Qaeda? Again, we don’t know. “Look, you’re just going to have to trust us.” That’s a withdrawal slip.

By operating this way, the Times is drawing on the reserves of trust built up by operating in a more transparent and believable fashion on other occasions. For if we are to trust the account, we have little to go on that is given by the account itself. If it materializes at all, our trust draws on previous reportage by the Times that earned our trust.

I’m not questioning whether the Times has a track record that can be trusted. In many ways it does. I’m trying to point out that some news stories put a heavy strain on the trust I extend to the Times, while others add to that feeling of confidence. Smart editors will avoid putting undue strain on my trust— like when anonymity is extended to sources for trivial reasons.

As it happens, the public editor took a look at this story, as well. And the editors tried to say: “Here is our reasoning.” Standards editor Philip B. Corbett explained:

“It is not as if we are allowing Al Qaeda to spew propaganda or make threats,” Mr. Corbett said. He told me that “the bar is set very high” for using any such information and that it requires particular skepticism and efforts to corroborate.

The bar is set high, but we don’t find out what those special efforts were. So this is “you’re just going to have to trust us…” in slightly different form.

The banking theory of newsroom trust draws attention to the fact that some acts of journalism are easier to trust in than others. The harder you make it for us to trust you, the more likely you are to wind up with a negative balance. The solution is to build up your reserves by operating in a transparent fashion most of the time. In other words: Journalists, show your work.

Dec.
19

When to quit your journalism job

When the sales people are happy to sell what the newsroom is happy to make, there you have a well-run editorial company. So measure your own newsroom’s misery by its distance from that (ideal) state.

These notes were inspired by recent events at the New Republic and First Look Media, articles like this one, and some not-for-publication talks I’ve had lately with young staffers who were troubled by what they saw happening at their place of employment. They also build on this series of tweets about “product” and on conversations I have with my students all the time.

1. If you work in any kind of editorial organization, it is your job to understand the business model. If you feel you can’t do that, you should quit. By “understand the business model,” I mean you can (confidently) answer this question: What is the plan to bring in enough money to sustain the enterprise and permit it to grow? Can’t answer? You have the wrong job.

2. If your instinct is to say, “that’s the business side’s problem,” sorry: your instinct is wrong. That whole way of talking, in which the business “side” takes care of the business model so the journalists can just do their journalism… that’s wrong, too. It’s infantilizing you. The more you believe it, the more likely you are to be placed at the kids table— organizationally speaking. And properly so, because you’re a dependent.

3. The business model is not the business only of the business “side” (a wretched metaphor) because a vital part of any such model is the way in which the editorial staff creates value, earns audience, wins mind share, generates influence, builds brand. These are the sorts of goods a good sales staff sells. It’s your job to understand the business model, because you have to know what kind of good you’re being asked to create, or you won’t be any good at creating it.

4. Take Politico. One part of its business model is a print edition distributed for free on Capitol Hill, but only when Congress is in session. Those who have business before Congress advertise to reach the people who work on Capitol Hill, especially the ones who work for members of Congress. The famous “metabolism” of the Politico newsroom and its “all politics, all the time” coverage make it a must-read among Washington insiders, which Congressional staffers aspire to be. The editorial staff creates value by being relentlessly “inside” DC politics. (Which is also what makes Politico so annoying to outsiders.) The sales staff — get ready for a word you hate — then monetizes the newsroom’s creation by selling ads in the print edition.

5. If either staff misunderstands the other’s work, Politico is in grave trouble. But Politico is not in grave trouble. It is expanding, conquering new worlds— lately, it’s Brussels and the EU. The journalists who work there understand what kind of value they’re being asked to create. The sales people are happy to sell what the newsroom is happy to make. This describes a well-founded and well-run editorial company. So measure your newsroom’s misery by its distance from that (ideal) state.

6. Speaking of words you hate: get over it. Understanding the business model may require you to learn some terms to which you don’t immediately cotton. BFD. Since when are journalists allowed to back away from language they don’t instantly understand? That was never the deal. If you report on corporate finance, you can’t say: don’t give me this debt-to-equity bullshit. No way. It’s your job to understand what is meant by these terms. That requirement doesn’t disappear just because it’s your own business at stake.

7. When I see journalists throw up their hands at new media or Silicon Valley “buzzwords,” I smile. Because my students aren’t permitted to do that, and they’re going to eat your lunch. I teach them to find out what terms like pivot, native advertising, microtargeting, value-added and, yes, “vertical integration” mean. They aren’t allowed to cry “buzzword!” unless they understand what was originally intended by the phrase before it was degraded by overuse or picked up by poseurs. If they blanche at the word “brand” I make fun of them.

8. “Product” is one of those terms. What technology people mean by product is something editorial types have to learn. Product is the built thing that users actually interact with, which includes the front-end technology, the editorial content, any ads or commercial material that users encounter, plus the experience of using the thing. It’s all that. When Steve Jobs said design is not how it looks, design is how it works… he was talking about products.

9. In tech, “what should the product be?” is a hard question, and the answer is constantly shifting as technology advances, platforms rise and fall, and user behavior shifts. What works keeps changing, so you have to keep asking yourself “what should the product be?” For journalists, “what should the product be?” is an easy question to answer. The product should be great journalism! Break news, lead the pack on big stories, find brilliant writers and pay them so they don’t go to someone else. That’s how you make a great product. It’s hard to do, but easy to define.

10. Make fun of Buzzfeed and Vox all you want (though I would advise against it.) One thing those companies have accomplished: everyone is on the same page about product. This is a huge advantage for them. For if the tech people keep using “product” the way they define it, and the journalism people hear it the way they understand it, the news organization that employs those people will eventually come to grief. So if you work in a company like that, I have a link for you.

11. There is a person who is supposed to prevent that. Traditionally, that person is called “the editor.” Nothing has yet been invented to take The Editor’s place, so if your site doesn’t have one — which is said to be the case at boston.com — your site is dysfunctional. Most people think The Editor’s job is to hire, fire and supervise the editorial staff, set standards, direct coverage and be the final word on what is published. And that’s correct, but there is more.

12. The Editor has to come to a clear agreement with the publisher and commercial staff on: a.) what the business model is, meaning: how are we going to sustain ourselves and grow? b.) exactly how — in that model — the editorial team creates value for the business, and c.) the zone of independence the editorial team will need to meet those expectations. Not only does The Editor have to secure that agreement, he or she must agree with it, as well. And be able to explain it to anyone who asks. There can never be a situation where The Editor doesn’t know what the business model is, doesn’t accept it as appropriate and doable, or can’t articulate it. A situation like that cannot last, as Franklin Foer of the New Republic learned this month.

13. Every successful publication that does journalism operates with a kind of contract between The Editor and the people who own the joint. (Unless they’re the same people.) If the contract is unclear, if different people have different ideas about what it says, if the staff doesn’t understand it, then neuroses will set in. The result will be an unhappy place to work.

14. If you work on the commercial “side” (misleading image) of an editorial company and you cannot explain the kind of value the journalists have to add for the business model to click on all cylinders, or if you see them as merely an expense item — and a whiny, entitled one at that — then you too are in the wrong job. Please leave as soon as possible.

15. But what about separation of church and state? I already said: the editorial team requires an agreed-upon zone of independence to do its work. That’s a key separation. But separation of church and state has no value as an intellectual principle. Meaning: it’s a dumb and risky situation for you when you don’t understand how your organization plans to sustain itself. Want more? Separation of church and state — for all the good it did in a previous media era — also meant “no seat at the table when the key decisions were made.” Is that really what you want?

Updated from the original to add number 14.

Dec.
6

“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

Many years ago I was sitting around in a hotel bar with some journalists who were telling tales, and one of them started an anecdote this way:

“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

I stopped listening at that point, but not because he was boring. Something struck me about that phrase, “I needed a story.”

I knew what he meant, of course. He had an editor. His editor would want to know: now that you’re all settled in Chicago, when can I expect some production from you? But a good reporter doesn’t need to be told told this. I’m new on the beat and I need a story. Completely reasonable, from the journalist’s point of view. But from the public’s point of view — or even a truthtelling point of view — the same phrase sounds kind of weird.

“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

Okay, you needed a story. But was there a story that needed to be told?

Or, less charitably: Who cares if you need a story? What we need is a good signaling system to know what’s going on. If it fits the shape of a story that can be counted toward your production quota and keep your editor in New York happy, great! But keep this in mind: your need for a story may clash with the public’s need to be alerted only when there is a story.

I don’t have a big point to make here. It’s a small point. A need for story is something that journalists should watch out for. It could be a trap.

Here are two passages from Eric Wemple’s analysis of the Rolling Stone story about rape on campus. The editors now say they have lost confidence in its primary source, a woman called Jackie who described a horrific gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house:

On Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast last month, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely explained why she had settled on the University of Virginia as the focus for her investigative story on a horrific 2012 gang rape of a freshman named Jackie at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. “First I looked around at a number of different campuses,” said Erdely. “It took me a while to figure out where I wanted to focus on. But when I finally decided on the University of Virginia — one of the compelling reasons that made me focus on the University of Virginia was when I found Jackie. I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me a lot about the culture of the school — that was one of the important things, sort of criteria that I wanted when I was looking for the right school to focus on.”

Doesn’t it sound like she needed a story, which fit certain “criteria?” Does to me.

Wemple also quotes from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post, for which he interviewed the author:

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

Wemple comments: “A perfect place, in other words, to set a story about a gang rape.” A Rolling Stone story about campus rape needs to be set somewhere. But think about it: is this need legitimate?

Judith Shulevitz in CJR:

Erdely told Rosin that she’d gone all around the country looking for rape survivors and was delighted when she stumbled on Jackie. She was obviously traumatized, and her story illustrated everything Erdely knew to be true—that frat boys rape girls and universities are indifferent to rape survivors.

In non-fiction a need for story and what the story “needs” in order to work — to sing, to have a hook, to jump off the page, to fit genre requirements — these are all danger zones.

Almost no word has more prestige in journalism than “story.” It also has way too many referents. Story = the thing that appears in the newspaper, the thing that you chase not knowing if it will appear in the newspaper, the thing you drop when it turns out “there’s no story,” the larger thing (the #Ferguson story) made up of many stories, the exposé plus the controversy about the exposé, the ongoing thing that over years generates multiple articles, the thing you try to keep alive by finding another angle, another reason to update, the two inch item, the twenty-two inch item.

When all are represented by a single word, story, which is fused to professional identity — as in journalist as storyteller, a sacred equation — confusion, hidden danger and fatal fuzziness are likely. Watch out, journalists. You need story. We need truth.

Nov.
13

“Republicans have to show they can govern.” No, they don’t. Please stop saying that.

A reporter’s wish masquerading as an accepted fact.

NPR’s Congressional reporter, Ailsa Chang, did it Wednesday morning. About Mitch McConnell, soon to be Senate leader, she said:

If he wants to see the Republicans retain the majority beyond 2016, he has to be able to prove that his party can be more than just the party of no. That means reasonable legislation that they can realistically expect the president to sign.

Peter Foster, Washington editor for The Telegraph (UK) did it too: Winning was easy: now Republicans must show they can govern.

To have a chance [in 2016] Republicans must use the next two years to show they are a party of government, not obstruction and ideology.

Jeremy Peters in the Washington bureau of the New York Times did it over the weekend. He reported that Republicans are in transition: “from being the opposition party to being one that has to show it can govern.”

These are false statements. I don’t know how they got past the editors. You can’t simply assert, like it’s some sort of natural fact, that Republicans “must show they can govern” when an alternative course is available. Not only is it not a secret — this other direction — but it’s being strongly urged upon the party by people who are a key part of its coalition.

The alternative to “show you can govern” is to keep President Obama from governing. Right? Keep him from accomplishing what he wants to get done in his final two years and then “go to the country,” as Karl Rove used to say, with a simple message: time for a change! This is not only a valid way to proceed, it’s a pretty likely outcome. Rush Limbaugh, certainly a player in the coalition, put it this way. The Republicans, he said, emerged from the 2014 election with

the biggest, and perhaps the most important mandate a political party has had in the recent era. And it is very simple what that mandate is. It is to stop Barack Obama. It is to stop the Democrat Party. There is no other reason why Republicans were elected yesterday.

Republicans were not elected to govern. How can you govern with a president that disobeys the constitution? How can you govern with a president that is demonstrably lawless when he thinks he has to be?

Limbaugh represents the populist wing of the party. How about the establishment? In a widely-cited editorial called “the Governing Trap,” National Review magazine was even more explicit.

The desire to prove Republicans can govern also makes them hostage to their opponents in the Democratic party and the media. It empowers Senator Harry Reid, whose dethroning was in large measure the point of the election. If Republicans proclaim that they have to govern now that they run Congress, they maximize the incentive for the Democrats to filibuster everything they can — and for President Obama to veto the remainder. Then the Democrats will explain that the Republicans are too extreme to get anything done.

Among the recommendations the editors had: “putting up legislation that Senate Democrats filibuster.” That’s not governing. That’s gridlock with intention.

As Paul Waldman noted on the Washington Post site, “this isn’t bad advice, politically speaking.”

After all, following the path of obstruction instead of governing has worked out pretty darn well for Republicans over the last six years. When Barack Obama took office, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress; now Republicans do.

Exactly. There is simply no factual basis for NPR’s Ailsa Chang to be telling listeners that Mitch McConnell “has to be able to prove that his party can be more than just the party of no.” He doesn’t have to do that.

Now keep in mind that for NPR correspondents like Chang, a “factual basis” is everything. They aren’t supposed to be sharing their views. They don’t do here’s-my-take analysis. NPR has “analysts” for that. It has commentators who are free to say on air: “I think the Republicans have to show they can govern.” Chang, a Congressional correspondent, was trying to put over as a natural fact an extremely debatable proposition that divides the Republican party. She spoke falsely, and no one at NPR (which reviews these scripts carefully) stopped her.

Similarly, Jeremy Peters of the New York Times has no business observing in passing that the Republicans are now a party “that has to show it can govern.” They don’t! They have other choices. It’s fine with me if the New York Times wants to loosen up and let reporters say in the news columns: “My take is that it’s going to be awfully hard for the Republicans to regain the White House if they don’t show they can govern during these two years.” But that’s not what Peters did. He went the natural fact route: the Republicans have to show they can govern because… because they do!

Why does this matter? Because reporters shouldn’t be editorializing in the news section? No. That’s not why.

Asserted as a fact of political life, “Republicans must show they can govern” is a failure of imagination, and a sentimentalism. It refuses to grapple with other equally plausible possibilities. For example: that declining to govern will produce so much confusion about lines of responsibility and alienation from a broken political system that voters can’t, won’t, or in any case don’t “punish” the people who went for obstruction. Behind a statement like Peter Foster’s: “Republicans must use the next two years to show they are a party of government…” is a prediction about price-paying that does not necessarily apply in a hyper-partisan and super-polarized era. Political journalists are supposed to know that. They are supposed to know that better than anyone else.

In raw ballot box terms, being against was successful in 2014. It could easily be successful in 2016. To declare otherwise is mushy, indulgent, insulated and lame. A reporter’s wish masquerading as an accepted fact.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links


I had a frank exchange of views with NPR’s Steve Inskeep about this post. He accused me of withholding key facts from my readers.

Jonathan Capehart in the Washington Post:

This is vital for the GOP since it will have to run on a record of accomplishment at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue if it hopes to be entrusted with the keys to the White House at the other end.

No, it won’t “have” to. Stop saying that.

At NewYorker.com right now it says: “The Republicans figured out how to win. Now they need to show that they can govern.” Click that headline and you find that the piece by George Packer (from the Nov. 24 print edition) is slightly more nuanced. But that’s the point: “now they need to show they can govern” is a headset widely shared in journalism.

National Review likes this post. So does Digby. Need I tell you how rare an event that is?

The Brazilian press wants in on this. “Obama wants to leave a legacy and Republicans want to prove they can govern.” (Hat tip, Vinod Sreeharsha)

Associated Press, two days after the election:

Democrats suffered a drubbing in Tuesday’s midterm elections, and Republicans regained control of the Senate and widely expanded their majority in the House. In command in both chambers in January, Republicans maintained that they have to show they can govern or else voters will show them the door.

At least that one has Republicans saying “they have to show they can govern,” but I thought reporters are supposed to be more skeptical, more informed. As Politico observed the same day, the Republicans big win in 2014 “sets up a running argument within the party that’s sure to last through Obama’s final two years: Should Republicans prove they can govern? Or should they set up as many fights as possible, and settle them in the 2016 presidential election?”

Exactly. It’s a fight, not a fact.

Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog comments on this post: Republicans have no incentive to moderate or govern.

Frank Rich for New York magazine the day after the election: “Now that the Republicans have won Washington, they own it, and if it continues to be broken, they’ll be punished next time. As the maxim goes, they have to prove they can govern. Or prove they can do something other than bitch and moan.”

Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) comments on this post. “This stuff gets past the editors because they share the reporters’ sensibilities. And because they like a formulation that puts an additional burden on the GOP.”

John F. Harris, the editor in chief of Politico, feels he must

ruefully acknowledge the reality: A lot of what political journalists write as we try to divine larger meaning from election results involves a whiff of bovine byproducts. At least, that is, when we issue oracular pronouncements about how one party or the other is either poised for either dominance or irrelevance ‘for the next generation or more.”

“Much of what is served up as political insight in modern media—as articulated by reporters, political operatives, academics and assorted gurus—is likewise B.S.,” Harris writes. Look, he said it. I’m just reporting what he said.

“It may seem counterintuitive, but political science research suggests that Republicans have a stronger incentive to ensure gridlock on economic issues ahead of the 2016 presidential election, rather than pass legislation that President Barack Obama is willing to sign into law.” —Talking Points Memo, Jan. 6, 2015

Nov.
9

How to be literate in what’s changing journalism

In my ‘digital thinking’ class, the goal is for students to emerge fully literate in the changes affecting journalism. Here are the main currents and trends that I expect them to master by the close of the term.

For each, they should understand: What it means, why it’s important, and where things are going with it. I’ve added a link or two to help get you started. And I’m happy to receive your comments about what’s missing from this list.

1. The social media habit and sharing-as-distribution. As social platforms take greater command of the relationship with users, especially Facebook. (Link.)

2. The shift to mobile devices and on mobile to apps. Now happening with stunning speed. (Link.)

3. New business models for news. Beyond the usual method of generating audience to sell subscriptions and ads, including:

* Capturing data… to better target ads and personalize products.
* Selling specialized research… by subscription as Giga Om does or via conversation as Techdirt does.
* Events… leveraging a news brand into convening power. (One link.) (Another.)
* Native advertising and the agency model… The way Buzzfeed and Vice do it. (Link.)
* Non-profit models… as with ProPublica, Minn Post and Texas Tribune. (Link.)
* Crowd funding and membership… as with Beacon, De Correspondent, The Guardian, Voice of San Diego.
* Go it alone… One-person operations can work.

4. Analytics in news production. Learning from audience behavior without becoming enslaved to the numbers. (Link.)

workingwithproduct5. The “product” focus in news companies. Bringing tech, editorial, business and user experience together. (Link.)

6. Interaction design and improving user experience (UX). Toward an ergonomics for news. (Link.)

7. Data journalism. In all senses: collecting data sets, connecting to data through API’s, data visualization, finding stories in the data, making cleaned-up and searchable databases available to users, sensors in news work. (Link.)

8. Continuous improvement in content management systems and thus in work flow. As an engineering culture takes hold in some news companies. (Link.) (Another.)

9. Structured data. To capture more value from the routine production of news. (One link.) (Another.)

10. Personalization in news products. Why send everyone the same report? (Link.)

11. Transparency and trust. As “trust us, we’re professionals” gives way to “show your work.” (Link.)

12. Open journalism Including: the verification of user-generated content, networked journalism, crowd sourcing, and social media as reporting tool. The people formerly known as the audience in fruitful collaboration with journalists across the production arc— from story idea to sourcing to finished work. (Link.)

13. Automation and “robot journalism.” If machines can do it cheaper and better, human journalists can move up the value chain. (Link.)

14. Creating an agile culture in newsrooms. So that adaptation, collaboration and experiment are not such an ordeal. (Link.)

15. The personal franchise model in news. Based around an individual journalist’s online following. (Link.)

16. News verticals and niche journalism. Doing one thing well and finding a market for it, as the unbundling of omnibus media continues. (Link.)

17. The future of context and explainer journalism. Providing the background needed to understand the updates. (Link.)

18. “News as a service.” Rather than a product appearing on the news company’s schedule, a service that helps a user do something. (Link.)

19. From scarcity to abundance. Used to be that journalists added value by publishing new material. Now they can also serve users by rescuing and organizing the best stuff from a daily flood of cheap content. Sometimes called curation.

20. Fact-checking and rumor control. The press used to deal with false information simply by not letting it through the gate. Now there’s an affirmative duty to track and call out false stories. (Link.) (Another.)

21. “We’re not in charge.” Back then, media companies produced the news and owned the distribution channels. Now other, larger players — platform companies and governments — get in the middle between users and journalists. Journalistic work circulates on sites that editors do not control. The publishers of news have to “go where the people are,” yet they often don’t know what is being done to those people. The public has to be alerted to that. (Link.)

What’s missing? If you know, hit the comment button and let me know.

UPDATE, Nov. 13: Items 19 to 21 came from suggestions I received after this was first published. Also see Steve Buttry’s annotated response to my list. He adds a great many more resources for understanding these changes.

This post is international. It has been translated into Italian and Spanish as well as French, German, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian and Arabic.

Photo credit: Jessica Strelitz and Catanify at #ONACamp. Used by permission.

Nov.
1

Chris Quinn, vice president for content at the Northeast Ohio Media Group… What’s up?

There is something going on at the news organization formerly known as the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the world should know about.

It’s not hard to describe but it is hard to explain, especially because the guy who made the call has put up a stone wall since. That would be Chris Quinn, vice president for content at the Northeast Ohio Media Group, the digital arm of what used to be the Plain Dealer newsroom, and the operators of Cleveland.com (“covering northeast Ohio.”)

Quinn is the one who:

* A week before the election took down a newsworthy video that his own organization made, which shows Ohio Governor John Kasich behaving disdainfully toward his opponent during an endorsement interview— for example, by refusing to acknowledge Ed FitzGerald’s existence and acting like a question FitzGerald’s asked never happened until it was repeated by a Plain Dealer person. (An audio clip was substituted. Some of the video can be seen here.)

* Threatened with a lawsuit a six-person political blog, Plunderbund, that posted a clip from the interview. (UPDATE: Plunderbund reposted this clip.)

* Refused to answer any questions about his actions, or explain his reasoning when contacted by Jim Romenesko, the media reporter whom everyone in the business knows, by Cleveland scene, the local weekly, by the Sandusky Register, a small daily nearby, and by Crain’s, a local business publication, all of whom received no reply.

* Let stand as the campaign wound down the credibility-crushing embarrassment of removing a clip that reflected poorly on the candidate the Plain Dealer had endorsed for governor.

* Decreed that the Plain Dealer’s ombudsman and reader’s representative would also answer no questions about the take down, which involves video of the only face-to-face debate between the two candidates during the campaign. (I deduce this because Ted Diadiun told me: “I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to ask Chris Quinn for the answers.” I also emailed editorial page editor Elizabeth Sullivan and got no reply, as did Romenesko, as did a local newspaper. So Quinn’s the man and he ain’t talking.)

Steve Benen at the Rachel Maddow blog summarizes why this matters:

Keep in mind, Kasich refused to participate in any debates this year, so this editorial-board meeting was literally the only opportunity for Ohio voters to see their gubernatorial candidates talk about their ideas. It made the discussion, hosted by the Plain Dealer’s editors, arguably one of the more important political events in Ohio this campaign season.

And initially, the newspaper did publish the video of the gathering online. But then the paper pulled the clip, posted an audio-only version, and threatened legal action against an Ohio-based news site that offered readers a YouTube version of the discussion.

Tim Cushing at techdirt chimes in:

Why would it remove its own video? If PlunderBund’s account of the video’s content is accurate, John Kasich’s behavior during this session bordered on the insolently childish. Watching a politicial candidate exude boredom and disdain is hundreds of times more effective (and potentially damaging) than hearing it. An audio version of this “interview” is a defanged version.

Let me summarize it. The leading news organization in the state sponsors the only event of the campaign when the two major candidates for governor meet face-to-face to discuss the issues. The candidate it endorses behaves contemptuously toward his opponent and tries not to acknowledge his existence. These events are captured on video. The video is posted at the news organization’s own site, then abruptly removed without explanation. Lawsuits are threatened if others post clips. Calls to explain these actions are ignored. National media attention is given to the missing video. The readers representative is prevented from commenting. The editor in charge of the debate goes silent. The election is three days away.

Or think of it this way. Why is one of Ohio’s leading news organizations willing to sue to keep its own newsworthy video from voters, and how can it afford to let that question go unanswered during the final week of the campaign?

Nice job, Chris Quinn, vice president for content at the Northeast Ohio Media Group. Google page rank for PressThink.org: 7. Google page rank for http://www.neohiomediagroup.com: 6.

I like my chances. (Search.)

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Nov. 5, morning after the election. The mystery is more or less solved in this column by readers rep Ted Diadiun. Here’s why Chris Quinn took down the interview video of John Kasich, Ed FitzGerald and Anita Rios.

The gist: No one told the candidates they would be video taped. “When the governor’s staff saw the video on cleveland.com later that day, they were chagrined, and contacted NEOMG to ask what happened.” Quinn then decided it was unfair to post the video. He wouldn’t explain any of that because:

“I thought that if I stated my reasons, the obvious next step would be people going to the candidates and asking them if they had any objection to putting the video back up,” Quinn said. “That would mean my error could put people into an uncomfortable situation. That’s not fair. I figured that if someone had to be uncomfortable because of my error, it should be me, so I stayed quiet and took the beating that ensued.”

And the ombudsman didn’t write about it because Quinn wouldn’t explain. “I would look ridiculous trying to read Quinn’s mind, and would look ridiculous writing about something else.” So Diadiun stayed silent too.

Some things worth pointing out about this explanation:

* Notice how the stoic, the man who took the heat and suffered for the good of… well, for fairness, is Chris Quinn.

* That would be fairness to a powerful governor, John Kasich, a possible presidential candidate in 2016. Fairness to readers and voters could wait. Until after the election, after their decision. Fairness to Plain Dealer and NEOMG journalists tainted by this: not a factor.

* Which is more persuasive to you? That a big league politician like Kasich is due deference because he truly didn’t expect the videotape to be posted (although the camera was staring him in the face…) Or, the Kasich campaign freaked when it saw what the video showed and Quinn backed down? Pick one.

* If Chris Quinn is a man who can take the heat for the protection of principle, which is how he is painting this, then what about the principle that voters deserve to see their governor in action during the only face-to-face meeting of candidates? Quinn could have stood his ground and taken the heat from the Kasich camp. Instead, he chose different ground – less information for voters, fair warning to candidates – and took the heat from readers, local journalists and national media critics over that. Why did he make this choice of heats? We don’t know why. “I knew this would get some buzz but I didn’t expect it to get this much,” Quinn said.

* Choosing silence over transparency injures trust, but it also begets more silence, which hurts trust even more. Thus, Quinn’s stonewalling also injured the reputation of the ombudsman, who also failed in the clutch.

* As Jill Miller Zimon, a former candidate for public office, said on her Facebook page: “Every endorsement interview starts with the editorial board telling us that we’re being recorded. Did they omit mentioning that during this unique, rare and newsworthy gathering?”

Nov. 5, afternoon. Reading the hundreds of comments at Connie Schultz’s Facebook page convinces you: readers get it, they care, they are angry. I think the problem with NEOMG’s explanation is this: Neither Chris Quinn nor Ted Diadiun is saying: As a news organization serving the public, our fundamental compact is with the readers, not the candidates, even though we strive always to be fair to candidates and others who figure in the news. NEOMG lost track of a very basic fact about community journalism. So in my view, this is what Chris Quinn should have said:

“…We made a mistake. We lost sight of that fundamental compact, and then we compounded the error by refusing to explain ourselves. Today I am ordering that the video be re-posted and I apologize to our readers for taking it down in the first place. It was an error in judgment because it gambled with something fundamental — your trust. The good terms we hope to maintain with candidates and governors are not fundamental to what we’re about. Your confidence in us as a news provder is. I hope the NEOMG can learn from this because I certainly have.”

Nov. 7. Chris Quinn appeared on WCPN this morning and faced questions from the host, other journalists and listeners. Jump to 12:45 and listen:

Here is some of what he said:

* They had not mentioned video in negotiations with the candidates for fear that one — obviously Governor Kasich — would drop out.

* After the video was posted the Kasich campaign called Quinn and asked, “What are you going to do if others use this for political purposes?” (In other words: they saw the video, and freaked about the possibility of it going viral or becoming an attack ad in 2016. The Kasich camp didn’t have to ask for it to be taken down. “What are you going to do…?” served the same end. And it worked.)

* The host, Rick Jackson, asked about my point above: that Quinn was more concerned about being fair to the Governor than being fair to readers and voters. To this he said the issue was “how you collect your information.” Q. But aren’t you supposed to put readers first? A. “You put your ethics first.”

* So why the week of silence about the reasons for the take down? Quinn said he was hugely concerned that if he publicly explained the screw-up in not notifying the campaigns about video taping, unspecified “people” would ask the candidates if they had any objection to releasing the video— and that would be unfair. (Because Kasich would have to say NO, even though he felt YES.) “It puts the incumbent in a difficult position,” Quinn said. He didn’t explain himself when asked “because the consequences of that decision would have added to the injury.”

* The WCPN host said: well, now you’ve lost the respect of the community. Talk about consequences! Quinn: “I don’t agree we’ve lost that respect.” Here, he launched a classic maneuver more common to politicians. Facing widespread criticism, he framed it as the views of an overheated minority. The name given to this tiny, screeching group: the bloggers. Quinn said they were “shrill,” partisan, plus “humorless” and “over-reacting.” Quinn: “I don’t think the bloggers are the audience we are appealing to.” The incident had been blown “way out of proportion.”

* Quinn denied that the case of the missing video had done any serious harm to the reputation of his news organization. He portrayed himself as a stoic, willing to take the heat. And also slightly bemused that “people” had made such a big deal out of this.

* His fellow panelists were mildly skeptical, the host more doubtful and the callers mostly expressed disbelief, except one. Turned out she knew Quinn before as a source and PR person, and press aide to a former mayor.

UPDATES, NOV. 1-4.

In the comments, I have a hypothesis about what happened. It’s just speculation, probably not worth much.

Monday, 11:15 am. I was just interviewed by WCPN about this story and learned one thing. A Kasich campaign spokesman told WCPN that the Governor did not expect to be video taped. Here’s the story WCPN produced, with some of my comments.

I originally called Plunderbund a “tiny” site but it has six bloggers writing for it, so I changed it.

Plunderbund is not backing down.

Cleveland Scene, a local weekly, covers the story and posts the video. This is now officially another instance of the Streisand effect.

The Sandusky Register takes aim at the ombudsman’s performance in this messs. “Diadiun has some explaining to do.”

In the comments a reporter with state house credentials tells of being ruthlessly cut off from access to Kasich, which is relevant only because some threat like that might be behind Chris Quinn’s panicked decision to remove the video clip and stone wall from then on.

Probably Cleveland journalism’s biggest name:


Jill Miller Zimon alerted me to this story. At her blog she writes:

Whether we like it or not, NEOMG is the only news outlet of its size covering Northeast Ohio. We have numerous other, excellent sources – WCPN, State Impact Ohio, Ohio Statehouse News Bureau, Crain’s Cleveland Business, Cleveland Scene. And nearly all of them have indicated their interest in learning why NEOMG removed the video. So it’s not just us – it’s numerous other relevant players in the NE Ohio media ecosystem.

We want to trust and believe. Just as no one wakes up asking to be poor, no one wakes up hoping that their news provider will fail to be transparent or less than editorially honest with us.

WCPN, the NPR affiliate in Cleveland, does a weekly radio show on which Chris Quinn is a regular guest. The upcoming election was the first topic on October 31, and several low-level campaign controversies were mentioned, including this one involving the Governor’s race, but host Rick Jackson did not ask Quinn about the missing video, although it had been an issue for three days by then.

Of anyone in the local or national media, Jackson had the best chance to get an answer from Quinn but he chose not to. Maybe there were other, more important issues. But that’s not the end of it. WCPN can still get answers. It has reporters. They know about the issue. It obviously had a working relationship with Chris Quinn. I would be shocked if they don’t have his cell phone number. WCP could do the news ecosystem a favor by asking its frequent on-air guest why the video was taken down. They’re in the best position to enforce some basic accountability here. Will they?


This must be some secret:

WAKR, a local radio station out of Akron, editorializes about the mystery of the vanished video. “The editorial decision to post, then remove, content such as this video within the space of days without explanation does require an explanation. If not as a courtesy to readers, then at least as a best practice from a company living by the value of transparent public discourse.”

Columbia Journalism Review: “It should be a straightforward thing for a news organization—especially one that prides itself on engagement!—to offer an explanation.”

John Kasich: The GOP’s Hobbled 2016 Dark Horse. Profile in the Daily Beast.

Here is the email exchange I had with Ted Diadiun, the readers representative for the Plain Dealer and NEOMG.

From: Jay Rosen
Sent: Friday, October 31, 2014 11:17 AM
To: Ted Diadiun
Subject: The Plain Dealer looks really bad here

Hi, Ted. Questions for you in your capacity as a reader’s rep.

I’d like to write about this.

What is going on with un-publishing a newsworthy video, and refusing to comment on why?

You’re getting national attention in the political sphere and in journalism:

My questions are:

1. Why did the company take down the video?
2. Who made the decision?
3. What was the logic of refusing to explain as national attention came to the Plain Dealer and NEOMG for the decision?

Many thanks,

JR

Jay,

Thanks for your e-mail.

I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to ask Chris Quinn for the answers to questions 1 and 3.

Chris is the vice president for content at the Northeast Ohio Media Group, and the one who has made the decisions on this matter.

Ted Diadiun

For context in understanding this reply, the normal task of an ombudsman or readers representative is to field questions from readers and then navigate the newsroom or company bureaucracy to get answers. Ted Diadiun certainly understands the job the way. He’s done it before. Here’s a good example:

…Editors at the Northeast Ohio Media Group agreed that showing the video might help identify the rapist, and were in the process of posting it on cleveland.com, but then quickly pulled it back. Chris Quinn, NEOMG vice president for content, had seen in the blurry image what looked like the attacker pulling up his pants, and was horrified to think that he might be linking to a video of the actual rape.

“You don’t see her, you don’t see the actual act, or anything other than him being down and standing back up and pulling up his pants,” said Quinn. “But no matter how hazy it is, if you really have a video of a rape, that’s something we’ve never had or dealt with before. Even though you can’t really see it, you know what’s happening, you know there’s a woman on the ground there.”

See what I mean? There are questions about journalistic practice. The readers rep finds the person in the company who has responsibility and gets answers. Posting video? Let’s ask Chris Quinn. That’s the normal situation. But it didn’t happen here. Ted Diadiun didn’t go and get answers. He said I will have to go to Quinn myself and get answers. That’s not how the readers rep functions. Diadiun normally writes a Sunday column. No column this week. Diadiun declined to write about an issue that has been covered extensively in the local ecosystem.

I’ve contacted the Kasich campaign to see if they know anything about the take down. I’ve also called Quinn, of course.

UPDATE, Nov. 4. Election Day. Tensions in the Cleveland newsroom are bursting into public view. At Jim Romenesko’s site, Plain Dealer Newspaper Guild unit chair Wendy McManamon criticizes reader representative Ted Diadiun for not getting answers about the video’s removal, when that is what he is supposed to do as readers rep. Diadiun works for both the Plain Dealer and the Northeast Ohio Media Group.

Incredibly (to me, at least) Diadiun says in reply, “I have not written about this or given out quotes because I felt I was in an untenable position and could do nothing to help the situation.” Really, why is that? Sunlight disinfects. Isn’t that a core belief in newsrooms? Then he adds — mysteriously! — “Stay tuned however, if you continue to be interested in this issue.”

What’s he saying? I wasn’t able to do my job before, but soon I will be? Like… after the election, maybe? New York to Cleveland: Adding to the mystery, making things more opaque when it is within your power to explain them, is pretty much the opposite of journalism.

Chris Quinn, September, 2014: “Once we publish something, we’ve got to have a real good reason to remove it.”

Oct.
27

Facebook’s phony claim that “you’re in charge.”

It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. That assertion melts on contact, and a New York Times reporter who receives such a claim from a Facebook engineer should somehow signal to us that he knows how bogus it is.

In today’s New York Times, media reporter Ravi Somaiya visits with Facebook to talk about the company’s growing influence over the news industry, especially with News Feed’s dominance on mobile devices. Greg Marra, a 26 year-old Facebook engineer who heads the team that writes the code for News Feed, was interviewed. Marra is “fast becoming one of the most influential people in the news business,” Somaiya writes.

Mr. Marra said he did not think too much about his impact on journalism.

“We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors,” he said. “We don’t want to have editorial judgment over the content that’s in your feed. You’ve made your friends, you’ve connected to the pages that you want to connect to and you’re the best decider for the things that you care about.”

In Facebook’s work on its users’ news feeds, Mr. Marra said, “we’re saying, ‘We think that of all the stuff you’ve connected yourself to, this is the stuff you’d be most interested in reading.’ ”

It’s not us exercising judgment, it’s you. We’re not the editors, you are. If this is what Facebook is saying — and I think it’s a fair summary of Marra’s comments to the New York Times — the statement is a lie.

I say a lie, not just an untruth, because anyone who works day-to-day on the code for News Feed knows how much judgment goes into it. It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. It’s an assertion that melts on contact. No one smart enough to work at Facebook could believe it. And I’m not sure why it’s sitting there unchallenged in a New York Times story. For that doesn’t even rise to the level of “he said, she said.” It’s just: he said, poof!

Now, if Greg Marra and his team want to make the point that in perfecting their algorithm they’re not trying to pick the day’s most important stories and feature them in the News Feed, the way an old fashioned front page or home page editor would, and so in that sense they are not really “editors” and don’t think in journalistic terms, fine, okay, that’s a defensible point. But don’t try to suggest that the power has thereby shifted to the users, and the designers are just channeling your choices. (If I’m the editor of my News Feed, where are my controls?)

A more plausible description would go something like this:

The algorithm isn’t picking stories the way a home page or front page editor would. It’s not mimicking the trained judgment of experienced journalists. Instead, it’s processing a great variety of signals from users and recommending stories based on Facebook’s overrrding decision rule for the design of an editorial filter: maximizing time on site, minimizing the effort required to “get” a constant flow of personal and public news. The end-in-view isn’t an informed public or an entertained audience but a user base in constant contact with Facebook. As programmers we have to use our judgment — and a rigorous testing regime —to make that happen. We think it results in a satisfying experience.

That would be a more truthful way of putting it. But it doesn’t sound as good as “you’re in charge, treasured user.” And here is where journalists have to do their job better. It’s not just calling out BS statements like “you’re the best decider.” It’s recognizing that Facebook has chosen to go with “thin” legitimacy as its operating style, in contrast with “thicker” forms. (For more on this distinction go here.)

By “thin” I mean Facebook is operating within the law. The users are not completely powerless or kept wholly in the dark. They have to check the box on Facebook’s terms of service and that provides some cover. The company has pages like this one on data use that at least gesture toward some transparency. But as this summer’s controversy over the “mood manipulation” study showed, Facebook experiments on people without them knowing about it. That’s thin.

Jeff Hancock, the Cornell researcher who worked on the mood manipulation study, said this last week: One of his big discoveries was that most users don’t grasp the basic fact that the Facebook algorithm is a filter. They think it’s just an “objective window into their social world.” That’s thin too. (See my post about Hancock and his choices, Why do they give us tenure?) The company doesn’t level with users about the intensity of its drive to maximize time on site. Thin.

Thick legitimacy is where informed consent, active choice and clear communication prevail between a platform and its public, the coders and the users. Facebook simply does not operate that way. Many would argue that it can’t operate with thick legitimacy and run a successful business at scale. Exactly! As I said, the business model incorporates “thin” legitimacy as the normal operating style. For better or for worse, that’s how Facebook works. Reporters should know that, and learn how to handle attempts by Facebook speakers to evade this basic fact— especially from “one of the most influential people in the news business.”

Oct.
25

Why do they give us tenure?

That’s what I asked Jeff Hancock, the Cornell University professor who collaborated with Facebook on its ’emotional contagion’ study, which subtly manipulated the news feeds of users to see if happier inputs made for sadder outputs. I also listened closely as he spoke of being in the center of an internet storm. Conclusion: I am not convinced.

The event was put on by the Data & Society think/do tank in New York, organized by danah boyd. Hancock’s talk was on-the-record, and I took a few notes. His remarks tracked closely with what he said in July at a Microsoft “faculty summit,” so I will use that text to help me represent what he said.

Summary of his presentation

Hancock told us he wanted to devote the next few years of his work to moving this discussion forward, by which he meant the ethics and transparency of big data research. He said he was especially concerned about the mistrust of science that the Facebook controversy had kicked up, “which I regret very deeply.” He said he didn’t want others to go through what he went through, a reference to the hate mail and threats directed at him once the study became famous on the internet.

The Facebook happy/sad study (my shorthand) had its origins in Hancock’s earlier work attempting to disprove a thesis in psychology: that “emotional contagion” — where one person “catches” an emotional mood from another without being aware of it — was unlikely to happen through text communication. He disagreed with that thesis. Facebook, he said, had followed his research because text updates are so important to the company.

In 2012 researchers at the company decided to test a claim commonly heard: that when users share happy news on Facebook (“I got a new job!” “We’re getting married!”) it makes others feel down about their own shabby lives. They got in touch with Hancock because they figured he would be interested in collaborating. (As Facebook’s Adam Kramer would later put it: “We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out.”)

You can see this history reflected in the abstract of the scientific paper that Kramer, Hancock and Jamie Guillory later published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.

And in this finding:

…the fact that people were more emotionally positive in response to positive emotion updates from their friends, stands in contrast to theories that suggest viewing positive posts by friends on Facebook may somehow affect us negatively, for example, via social comparison

By the way, that number, N = 689,003, tells you a lot about why an academic researcher might want to collaborate with Facebook. Any study with 700,000 participants — actually, “subjects” is a better term because they didn’t know they were participating — is bound to look impressive because the large number of people whose reactions are being tested means extra validity for the results.

After reviewing the research design and the findings (showing a “contagion” effect but a very small one) Hancock turned to the reactions he received after news of the study broke on social media and in the press over the weekend of June 27-29, 2014, as well as his own reasoning for why he felt that doing the study was “okay.”

Here, his main point was that he didn’t anticipate the storm to come because in his mind the very slight manipulation of the News Feed met the “minimal risk of harm” test that permits academic researchers to proceed with an experiment even when subjects have not been informed about what is happening. It was minimal, he reasoned, because the Facebook algorithm manipulates News Feeds all the time, in far more dramatic ways than the “contagion” experiment.

The problem, he told us, was that users don’t know how the Facebook algorithm works. They are unaware that Facebook is manipulating and changing it constantly. They think they’re getting everything their friends and family are sending. As he said at the Microsoft event:

I’m not sure whether this means we need to bring in an education component to help people understand that their news feeds are altered all the time by Facebook? But the huge number of e-mails about people’s frustration that researchers would change the news feed indicates that there’s just no sense that the news feed was anything other than an objective window into their social world.

The other thing that stood out for him was just how personally people were taking this! The reactions he got made it clear to Hancock that the Facebook News Feed wasn’t just entertainment or trivia but… something bigger, deeper. Here he drew a contrast between media depictions making fun of social media as “what I had for lunch today,” and what angry emailers told him during the storm. Here’s how he put it in July:

This surfaced a theme that the news isn’t just about what people are having for breakfast or all the typical mass media put-downs of Twitter and Facebook. Rather, this thing that emerged about seven years ago [Facebook] is now really important to people’s lives. It’s central and integrated in their lives. And that was really important for me to understand. That was one of the things that caught me off guard, even though maybe in hindsight it shouldn’t have.

Later, during the question period, Hancock said that if he a “do-over,” he would not choose to do this study again. His reasoning in July:

I think our study violated people’s sense of autonomy and the fact that they do not want their emotions manipulated or mood controlled. And I think it’s a separate issue whether we think emotions are being manipulated all the time, through advertising, etc. What became very clear in the e-mail was that emotions are special… If we work on one of these special classes or categories of human experience, like emotion, without informed consent, without debriefing, we could do larger harm than just harm to participants.

Hancock described a harrowing experience at the center of the storm. The police came to his home to tell him, “we have to figure out how to keep you safe.” The president of Cornell University received calls demanding that he be fired. His family in Canada was contacted by Russian journalists who were trying to get to Hancock through them. He couldn’t sleep. He wondered if he had done something deeply wrong. The academic journal that published his study was considering whether to withdraw it, which would have been a huge blow to his reputation. He said he began to breathe more freely when a panel of scholarly peers split on whether the study violated research protocol, which said to him: These are tough issues. There is no consensus.

My impressions and reactions.

Now I’m going to shift from summarizing what Hancock said to telling you what I think— and what I asked him during the question period.

Disclosure: I have been critical of Jeff Hancock (see here and here.) And while I did gain more sympathy for him by hearing about his experience, and a better understanding of his work by learning about his scholarly background, I’m not at all convinced. More on that in a moment.

Still, I give Hancock a lot of credit for coming to talk to skeptical colleagues, for permitting the session to be on-the-record, for admitting that he wouldn’t do the “contagion” study again, for acknowledging other failures of imagination, for being personable and contrite, and for recognizing that lots of people have lots of problems with what he and Facebook did. No one should have to experience threats to personal for safety for having conducted an academic study, and none of us can predict how we would react in that situation.

As fellow faculty, a colleague, I feel I owe Jeff Hancock my considered opinion about his public performance and scholarly reasoning, even as I recognize that in the center of an internet storm we are not only professionals in a field, but human beings with fears for ourselves and our families. So here is what I think: I’m not convinced.

I’m not convinced that Hancock knew enough about Facebook and its users to even wander into this territory. It’s really kind of shocking to hear a social psychologist and scholar of communication express surprise that users of Facebook take their News Feeds very personally. That’s like saying: “I learned something from my experience. People are serious about this ‘friends and family’ thing. It’s not just a phone company slogan!” We expect you to know that about people before you start experimenting on them.

The relevant contrast is not between emailers informing Jeff Hancock that their News Feed feels quite personal to them and ill-informed press accounts making fun of social media, which is how he framed it, but between a nuanced and studied understanding of something, a pre-condition for scholarly work, and a lazy, person-on-the-street level of knowledge, which is what he essentially admitted to.

I’m also not convinced that Hancock is the man to be “leading a series of discussions among academics, corporate researchers and government agencies” about putting right what was revealed to be wrong by the Facebook study. His experience may be a case study in the need for change. It does not qualify him to convene the change discussion.

Part of the reason I say that involves his decision-making in the six-week interval between the weekend when the controversy broke, June 27-29, and August 12, when he surfaced as a reformer in this New York Times article. Hancock disappeared from the public sphere during this time, while other players made statements and answered at least some of the questions that angry users and alert journalists were asking. That’s not leadership. That’s the opposite of leadership. And this is what I asked him about.

My question to Hancock

I’m going to reproduce my question here. It’s not verbatim, I have added a few details and links, but it’s essentially the same thing I said in the Union Square Ventures conference room October 23rd.

Thanks for doing this, Jeff. My question is simple: why do they give us tenure? But it requires some explanation. In June, Cornell sent out a press release about your study. (“‘Emotional contagion’ sweeps Facebook.”) Clearly it was proud of the work one of its faculty members had done. By definition, the purpose of a press release is to invite publicity and discussion in the public sphere. I’m sure no one anticipated how much attention your study would receive, but still: the invitation was there.

When the world heard about your study, finding a lot to question in it, you absented yourself from that debate for more than six weeks. But this is the very discussion that you told us — today — you want to lead! One of your co-authors, Adam Kramer, tried to address some of the questions in a Facebook post. The editor of the article you published, Susan Fiske, spoke to the press about her decision-making. Cornell addressed the controversy in a statement it released on June 30. But you said nothing on Facebook, the platform where the research was done. You were silent on Twitter. (I was checking.) You wrote nothing on any blog. You cancelled interviews with journalists.

The issues you say you want to work on over the next few years were very much alive in that six week period. People were paying attention to them! Now I recognize that a lot of the attention was ill-intentioned, over-the-top, angry and threatening and very far from the ideal of a calm and rational discussion. I recognize that you felt under attack. But still: I don’t understand your decision-making.

So I ask again: why do they give us tenure? What’s the deal? Is it just: we can’t lose our jobs if people hate what we say? Or do they give us tenure precisely so we can participate in the debate when our work comes under scrutiny and a white hot controversy erupts in the public sphere?

In reply to me, Jeff Hancock said he had never really thought about what tenure was for before all this happened. Beyond that, his response came down to: I was freaked out, I had no training or experience with this, and didn’t know what to do. So I kept quiet. He said he asked some colleagues about whether to respond publicly, including danah boyd. He got requests to go on TV but turned them down. He added that he could have posted a public note that he would not be commenting for a while but didn’t.

I can understand all that. I can sympathize with it. I can recognize — as I’ve tried to do so several times in this post — that he was in a difficult spot, undergoing a trial that few of us can imagine. Nonetheless, I’m not convinced. Based on what I heard last week, I don’t think he knew what to say back to people who had said to him: “How dare you manipulate my news feed!” (Hancock’s paraphrase.) His thoughts on the matter (how did I dare to…?) were superficial— and unfortunately they still are. He has an account, but didn’t go on Facebook to explain, as Adam Kramer (untenured) did. Perhaps because his own ignorance of lived experience on the platform would have been revealed. He was happy to promote his work on Twitter…

…Unhappy when Twitter turned against him. I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is the deal for professors with tenure and academic freedom operating in the public sphere and conducting research about social media. Unlike most of the American work force, we can’t lose our jobs for speaking up. So we speak up when our work is questioned. If people don’t understand how we do our studies, we try to explain how we operate. When the press is suddenly interested in our research, we pick the right forum and answer the questions as best we can. If a lot of the attacks are in bad faith, we find the critics acting in good faith and respond to them.

And if we don’t have answers when the lights are on and reputations are made, well, maybe we’re not the best people to be leading a public discussion about big data and modern society.

(Other participants who were there may want to add their notes about what Jeff Hancock said or give their impressions. Please use the comments for that. And if you want to correct me about anything, please do.)