Feb.
11

First Look Media and the personal franchise

The bet is that a news brand can be both: its own thing and the thing that talented, driven, fully-voiced individuals want to do in journalism

First Look Media, where I’m an advisor, launched its first “digital magazine” yesterday. It’s called The Intercept. (A name I like.) The Intercept is led by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. It has a masthead, a mission, its own look and feel and the following URL: http://firstlook.org/theintercept.

Attention should properly focus on the journalism that The Intercept launched with. It’s a story by Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Schahill that essentially says: the U.S. doesn’t know who it’s killing with some of its drone attacks because the targeting is done by tracking SMS cards in phones. The article is based in part on the Snowden documents and also on the testimony of a new source: “a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA,” and who cooperated with The Intercept without revealing his name.

Read the story. Read how it departs from consensus judgment in the press. And about the public service, troublemaking tradition it is a part of. I just want to make one point here for those who are following First Look’s development from the concept I wrote about in October, to the initial sketch of its structure, to the video where Pierre Omidyar described his intentions in more detail, to this week’s developments (“Glenn Greenwald’s new website launches with fresh NSA revelations.”)

Recently I have been writing about the “personal franchise model” in digital journalism:

There are lots of sites built around individuals, like almost every blog in the world. There are lots of born-on-the-web news companies, and they were all begun by individuals. By “personal franchise” I mean something more: a central figure or personality has given birth to a newsroom, a larger operation. But the larger operation still feels like an individual’s site.

First Look has been structured so that it can support the emergence of any number of such sites. The Intercept is just the first. It is grounded not in a topical niche as much as an editorial approach, and some convictions that three editors share, like

The prime value of journalism is that it imposes transparency, and thus accountability, on those who wield the greatest governmental and corporate power.

When Ezra Klein proposed to the Washington Post a newsroom built around his interest in explanatory journalism and the sort of background knowledge that breaking news coverage often leaves out, Katharine Weymouth, the publisher, received his proposal and concluded that it was a poor fit. Her exact words: “It seemed to be potentially a bigger distraction that would take resources without building the Post.” And so Klein left to try his idea with Vox Media.

All Things Digital was a personal franchise site and conference brand owned by the Wall Street Journal, and run by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, two exceptionally talented technology journalists. When their contracts were up, they negotiated with the Journal but wound up leaving, along with their staff, for a new venture: Recode.net. The Wall Street Journal then folded the All Things D site into the Journal’s souped-up technology coverage. The old URL, allthingsd.com, now forwards to WSJ: D, the Journal’s technology section.

The logic is pretty clear: why have two brands when the Wall Street Journal is such a strong name in business coverage?

But what if this conflict — between a franchise built around a few individuals’ editorial ambitions and the requirements of the larger newsroom brand — didn’t exist, because the larger newsroom brand acknowledged the strengths of the personal model from the start? This is a key feature of First Look’s design. It accepts and incorporates the personal franchise style, treating it as no threat to the editorial ambitions that First Look has for itself.

In fact, the hope is to attract others who can launch sites like The Intercept, and to offer a common core of services — data skills, design help, good publishing tools, strong legal advice, marketing muscle — that the founders will need to succeed. (And the quality of the services keeps centrifugal forces in check.) Under this model, the diverse paths that such sites may take are not a “distraction” from the core business or a subtraction from the editorial brand but a vital part of both.

First Look will also do curation (sometimes called continuous news) and it will have its own staff of investigative journalists digging and publishing under the First Look name. The bet is that a news brand can be both: its own thing and the thing that talented, driven, fully-voiced individuals want to do in journalism.

Feb.
7

Behold how badly our political journalists have lost the freakin’ plot

I read hundreds of bylined works of journalism a week. Every so often one of them forces me to go back and read it over and over…

This is usually because the writing contains within it a density of pressthink — my subject here — that cannot be gotten through in one or two tries. It happened this week with a post by Chris Cillizza, one of the Washington Post’s franchise players on the national politics beat: Why the CBO report is (still) bad news for Democrats.

Ordinarily I would summarize what Cillizza was writing about, quote from his piece, and try to isolate what’s screwy or revealing about it. But Dave Wiegel did that at Slate already. And I did it for a very similar piece published on Cillizza’s site in 2012. See my post: Everything That’s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item.

Instead, I have written a short reader’s guide to Cillizza’s post. Your instructions are to absorb the guide, then click the link at the end and re-read what @TheFix wrote. Got it? Alright then…

Nobody knows exactly when it happened. But at some point between Teddy White’s The Making of the President, 1960 and the Willie Horton ads in 1988, political journalism in this country lost the plot. When it got overly interested in the inside game, it turned you and me and everyone who has to go into the voting booth and make a decision into an object of technique, which it then tried to assess. We became the people on whom the masters of politics practiced their craft. Then political journalism tried to recover an audience from the people it had turned into poll numbers and respondents to packaged stimuli. Tricky maneuver.

This is what led to the cult of the savvy, my term for the ideology and political style that journalists like Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin spread through their work. The savvy severs any lingering solidarity between journalists as the providers of information, and voters as decision-makers in need of it. The savvy sets up — so it can speak to and cultivate — a third group between these two: close followers of the game. The most common term for them is “political junkies.” The site that Cillizza runs was created by that term. It’s called The Fix because that’s what political junkies need: their fix of inside-the-game news.

Junkies are not normal, but they accept their deformed status because it comes with compensations. They get to feel superior to ordinary voters, who are the objects of technique and of the savvy analyst’s smart read on what is likely to work in the next election. For while the junkies can hope to understand the game and how it operates, the voters are merely operated on. Not only does the savvy sever any solidarity between political journalists and the public they were once supposed to inform, it also draws a portion of the attentive public into emotional alliance with the ad makers, poll takers, claim fakers and buck rakers within the political class— the people who, as Max Weber put it in his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation,” live off politics.

But we’re not done. The savvy sets up a fifth group. (The first four: savvy journalists, political junkies, masters of the game, and an abstraction, The Voters.) These are the people who, as Weber put it, live for politics. They are involved as determined participants, not just occasional voters. Whereas the junkies can hope for admission to the secrets of the game (by taking cues from Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin and the guys at Politico) the activists are hopelessly deluded, always placing their own ideology before the cold hard facts.

If you follow the Twitter feeds of Ron Fournier of National Journal and Chuck Todd of NBC News you routinely see a category they call “partisans” described as silly, insane, overheated, unreasonable, absurd. Click here for Fournier doing it and here for Todd. Somewhere in their dinosaur brains those who “live off” politics understand that the people who live for it could steal their constituency and turn the savvy into the absurd creatures. Thus the constant ridicule of partisans. Thus the self-description on Ron Fournier’s Twitter bio. Political affiliation: Agnostic.

So this is what the savvy in the press do. Cultivate the political junkies. Dismiss and ridicule the activists, the “partisans.” Assess the tactics by which the masters of the game struggle to win. Turn the voters into an object, the behavior of which is subject to a kind of law that savvy journalists feel entitled to write. Here’s Cillizza, writing one:

Remember that most voters — people who don’t follow this stuff as closely as me, you or, likely, most people we know — make their decisions based on 30-second TV ads.”

I’ll remember, Chris. Your assignment: Inhale that sentence, click this link and behold how badly our political journalists have lost the plot.

Feb.
4

Features and details of the personal franchise model in digital journalism, with 11 examples

These are my notes for a talk I’m giving today at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno

What I’m calling the personal franchise model in journalism is not new. I.F. Stone’s Weekly was a personal franchise — it fit the definition I am about to give you — and he started that in 1953. Also, I’m not trying to be comprehensive in this analysis. There are instances of the personal franchise model that I am not going to mention.

There are lots of sites built around individuals, like almost every blog in the world. There are lots of born-on-the-web news companies, and they were all begun by individuals. By “personal franchise” I mean something more: a central figure or personality has given birth to a newsroom, a larger operation. But the larger operation still feels like an individual’s site.

The personal franchise model in digital journalism, simple definition:

A news and commentary site built around the talent and sensibility of an individual journalist with a unique voice and a following online.

Key features:

* Charismatic journalist — and founder — at the center, joined by a staff hand picked by the founder.

* Editorial control rests with the founder, even when ownership does not.

* Stands in contrast to the more institutional news brands — like BusinessWeek, The Washington Post, NPR, or Politico — where talented people come and go while reputation attaches to the name, product (and logo!) of the institution.

* Talking Points Memo doesn’t really exist without its founder, Josh Marshall, but the Washington Post definitely exists — and persists — without Marty Baron, its current editor.

* Identifiable niche or approach. No attempt to be comprehensive or to offer “all news to all people.”

* Mix of news, opinion, analysis, data without a lot of fuss about separating these categories. Plenty of voice, attitude and style mixed in.

* Business model (or subsidy system) varies from site to site. There is no one best way to do it.

Eleven examples of the personal franchise model in news:

1. Dealbook, Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times
2. Grantland, Bill Simmons, ESPN
3. Five thirty eight, Nate Silver, ESPN.
4. xoJane, Jane Pratt, Say Media
5. GigaOm, Om Malik, independent
6. Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall, independent
7. Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan, independent
8. Recode.net, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, independent
9. Tech Dirt, Mike Masnick, independent
10. Project X, Ezra Klein, Vox Media
11. The Information, Jessica Lessin, independent

Other possibilities not included: Drudge Report, Huffington Post, MMQB.

1. Dealbook, Andrew Ross Sorkin

Copy_of_sorkincnbcBegun: 2001.

Beat: Deal making on Wall Street among the major players in finance.

Built around: The reporting skills, source network, “inside” approach and television presence of Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Founder is: A business reporter and columnist for the New York Times, book author, television pundit for CNBC.

Background: Mergers and acquisitions reporter for the Times.

Ownership: Wholly owned by the New York Times.

Business model: Email newsletter, advertising, sponsorship, conferences.

2. Grantland, Bill Simmons

bill_simmons_bs_report_espnBegun: 2011.

Beat: Sports and popular culture

Built around: The writing style, audience intimacy and editorial vision of Bill Simmons.

Founder is: Writer, columnist, podcaster, interviewer, occasional TV commentator and Boston sports guy.

Background: Local sports columnist who went national.

Ownership: Owned and operated by ESPN.

Business model: Advertising, sponsorship.

3. Five thirty eight, Nate Silver

440px-Nate_Silver_2009Begun: 2014.

Beat: Data journalism and quantitative analysis of sports, politics, economics, science.

Built around: The data literacy, writing talent, online following and nerdy charisma of Nate Silver.

Founder is: Statistician, forecaster, blogger, book author.

Background: Sports stats geek, Daily Kos diarist, New York Times beat blogger.

Ownership: Owned and operated by ESPN, which bought the fivethirtyeight.com domain.

Business model: Advertising, sponsorship.

4. xoJane, Jane Pratt

jane-pratt-051311Begun: 2011.

Beat: Women 18-49, lives and lifestyles

Built around: The editorial eye, confessional sensibility and overall charisma of the entrepreneurial Jane Pratt

Founder is: Editor, writer, publisher

Background: Founding editor of Sassy, beloved magazine for teenage girls

Ownership: Say Media

Business model: Advertising

5. GigaOm, Om Malik

Om_MalikBegun: 2001.

Beat: Intersection of business and technology, digital media

Built around: The tech moxy, analytical gifts and entrepreneurial spirit of Om Malik.

Founder is: Tech reporter, editor, investor

Background: Technology reporter and writer for Forbes and Business 2.0

Ownership: Independent

Business model: advertising, research by subscription, conferences

6. Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall

joshBegun: 2000

Beat: National politics from a left liberal perspective

Built around: The knowledge and sophistication of Josh Marhall, observer of American politics.

Founder is: Writer, blogger, editor, web publisher

Background: History PhD, writer for the American Prospect

Ownership: Independent

Business model: Advertising and premium subscription

7. Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan

Andrew_Sullivan_croppedBegun: 2000.

Beat: Politics and public debate, culture and literature seen through the lens of a gay, Catholic, British-born, lapsed conservative writer.

Built around: The live out loud voice and roving eye of Andrew Sullivan.

Founder is: Blogger, writer, columnist, editor

Background: Editor of the New Republic, 1991-96

Ownership: Independent

Business model: Subscription, metered model, no advertising

8. Recode.net, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher

101303934-mossberg_swisher.530x298Begun: 2014

Beat: Breaking news and views about the technology industry centered in Silicon Valley

Built around: The reviewing talents, reporting skills and industry-wide reputation of Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher

Founders are: Technology reviewers and reporters, editors, entrepreneurs

Background: Technology journalists, Wall Street Journal

Ownership: Independent

Business model: Advertising, sponsorship and industry conferences

9. Tech Dirt, Mike Masnick

1200px-Mike_MasnickBegun: 1997

Beat: Intellectual property, civil liberties, digital economics, public policy in the technology sector

Built around: The analytical skills and personal voice of Mike Masnick

Founder is: Writer, blogger, analyst, entrepreneur

Background: Business development and marketing

Ownership: Independent

Business model: Sponsorship, “insight community,” a focus group method employing knowledgable members of the user base and the Insider Shop for fans.

10.Project X, Ezra Klein

downloadBegun: 2014

Beat: Explanatory journalism and background knowledge of politics, economics, science, tech.

Built around: All around wonkery, explanatory skills and multi-platform charisma of Ezra Klein

Founder is: Writer, blogger, editor, television host and pundit.

Background: Blogging with an emphasis on public policy

Ownership: Vox Media

Business model: High value advertising plus…

11. The Information, Jessica Lessin

ad3551a78e293d565ee801a7ea79012cBegun: 2013

Beat: Tech news for “professionals in technology and in industries being upended by it.”

Built around: The reporting chops and entrepreneurial energy of Jessica Lessin

Founder is: A technology journalist

Background: Covered Silicon Valley for the Wall Street Journal.

Ownership: Independent

Business model: Subscription only, $400 per year.

Key factors in the rise of the personal franchise model

* Audiences can more easily attach themselves to individuals and “stay” with them, as with Andrew Sullivan’s travels from Time.com to Atlantic.com (2007) to Daily Beast (2011) to independence (2013).

* Users can more easily “follow” individual journalists and get alerts when they have something new to offer.

* The nature of authority and trust in journalism is changing. It’s easier to have confidence in “here’s where I’m coming from…” compared to the view from nowhere and its institutional voice.

* Institutional inertia and the need to protect the brand create a risk-adverse culture toward which the founders of personal franchise sites feel a radical impatience.

* Genre constraints, tired conventions, artificial divisions between news and opinion, top down decision-making, weak tech frustrate the ambitions of talented and entrepreneurial journalists.

* The personal franchise site is the rationalization (or in Josh Marshall’s terms, the domestication) of blogging. This is blogging, regularized and made into a sustainable business.

* Successful niche blogs become group blogs, a natural succession. Successful group blogs become businesses. The personal franchise model follows upon this path.

* It’s easier to solve the difficult and complex problems of adaptation-to-digital by letting a smart, able and “with it” person try his or her hunches, as compared to the difficulties of management-by-committee. That is what Ezra Klein is going to do.

And here’s the video of the talk:

Jay Rosen – CAMS Talk from Reynolds School of Journalism on Vimeo.

High quality audio of a different presentation I made on the same subject to the University of British Columbia School of Journalism.

Jan.
30

Keep me informed: parsing the logic of Ezra Klein’s move to Vox Media

“We don’t have a news system that keeps us informed and helps us grasp the stories we care deeply about. We have one that floods us with reports on a schedule that makes sense for the manufacturers.”

I am going to make one point in this post and get out. Have you ever said to someone: “keep me informed?”

Of course you have. And what did you mean when you said that? You probably meant: let me know when something important happens.

Boss: Okay, keep me informed.

Employee: Will do. You’ll have three updates a day.

Boss: That’s not what I asked for…

Employee: Sorry, I could put it all into one report at the end of the day. Does that work?

Boss: No. When something big happens I may need ten updates that day. At other times: none. Can you do that?

Employee: I think so. Let me make sure I understand…

These are two different perspectives on information provision, which is the business that journalists claim to be in. These views are in tension. The writer of the reports finds it easier to send updates on some regular schedule because that organizes the act of production. The employee can predict when the boss wants the product (“…one report at the end of the day?”) and create a work routine for gathering and packaging information around that.

The boss defines “product” in a different way. It’s not a stream of reports arriving at regular intervals but the steady state of being kept well informed. Reasonable from the user’s point of view, this demand plays havoc with the producer’s schedule and quest for efficiency. Efficiency for the user is: don’t bother me with an update when there’s nothing new for me to know. That’s not only irregular — and disruptive — for the employee but riskier, too. Everything depends on good judgment. The “product” is essentially that.

Reader: I’m feeling overwhelmed. Help me understand this story!

Reporter: Here’s the link to my archive. It’s all in there.

Reader: That’s not really what I need…

Reporter: We have a topic page for this story. Does that work?

Nobody has that conversation, of course. And it’s true that the need for timelines and explainers (“context!”) has finally penetrated into quality newsrooms. Good journalists know they should be doing that. Meanwhile, start-ups like Circa (tag line: Save Time. Stay Informed.) try to deliver “push” updates only when there’s something important for me to know, which is smart. And I will concede the point that some of you are silently making in your head: that for some users sometimes a package of updates at regular intervals is exactly what they want.

And yet… What I don’t think we appreciate is the extent to which the news system we have is still organized around definitions of “product” and “efficiency” that assume supply side supremacy, meaning: a media universe in which we took what companies offered at the regular intervals they offered it, and a news-o-sphere in which the updates keep coming, whether or not they improve our understanding.

We don’t have a news system that keeps us informed and helps us grasp the stories we care deeply about. We have one that floods us with reports on a schedule that makes sense for the manufacturers of news. Individual journalists are aware of this problem, but they are working within a system that is not set up to address it. There’s been a power shift in media. We don’t watch TV anymore when the networks decide to put their shows on. The users are more like the boss in my “keep me informed” parable. But in news this shift has been incompletely carried through.

So why am I telling you now? Because it helps if you want to understand why Ezra Klein left the Washington Post for his new partner, Vox Media. Look at these phrases from his announcement tour. They are all signaling the same thing: a shift from supply side logic in the production of news to demand-side: Keep me informed. Help me understand this. Don’t give me updates when you have them, but when I need them to stay on top of things. Missing background often prevents me from understanding the news; solve that problem for me and I will rely on you for my information. Here’s Klein:

New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic.

We are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as an important virtue rather than a painful compromise.

The news business, however, is just a subset of the informing-our-audience business  —  and that’s the business we aim to be in.

The product is not “news” but understanding and that steady state of feeling well informed. The news system that today’s journalists inherited is simply not organized that way. And so it’s no surprise to me that Ezra Klein had to leave the Washington Post to find backers who understood what he wanted to do.

Jan.
26

If we’re investing in a “networked beat,” which beat should we invest in first?

I’m in Canada next week for Post Media Network (I’m a consultant) to conduct a discussion with the Montreal Gazette’s newsroom team. The next day it’s the Ottawa Citizen. This is what I am going to ask them.

I often try to combine blogging and public presentations. Example. Last year I published this attempt to find common ground with newsroom traditionalists: Look, you’re right, okay? But you’re also wrong. (Feb. 3, 2013.) I then presented that post in person to journalists in five Post Media cities: Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa.

This time I am bringing to Montreal and Ottawa a question, and blogging it before I get on the plane, as I did with “Look, you’re right…” So here’s my question:

I’ve been writing for some time about the concept of a “networked beat.” (Here’s a presentation and blog post I did on it, where I described some ways I thought I could work: Designs for a Networked Beat.) It all starts with the discovery Dan Gillmor made when he was covering Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury news in 1999. Gillmor may have been the first newspaper journalist to have a blog, and it was the experience of doing the blog that convinced him: “My readers know more than I do.”

That isn’t true for all stories. It isn’t true for all beats. Sometimes only four or five people know what’s going on, and the reporter’s job is to find those people and turn them into sources. But if your job is to cover, say, traffic and transportation in a metropolitan region like Montreal, the people using the system often know more than the “insiders” running it. Covering public education is like that. So is covering a “scene” like the music scene in Austin, Texas, or covering military families in Norfolk, Virgina, where there are a lot of them.

A few years ago I came across this ad for a reporter’s position at the Seattle Times. The job was to cover Microsoft. “One of our premier beats,” the ad said. You can see why. The Seattle Times has to excel at Microsoft coverage for people in the Puget Sound area and for the community of interest in Microsoft news that is scattered around the world. If the Times cannot distinguish itself on this beat, with Mircosoft in its back yard, then the whole value proposition for that newsroom goes soft. You can hear these facts in the job posting:

Seeking a hard-driving, enterprising reporter to cover one of the most influential corporations in the world: Microsoft. This reporter should have considerable experience [and] take pride at being ahead of not only local competitors, but the national media as well… Skilled at working with financial documents, understanding technology, building sources and breaking through a PR machine second to none… Skilled at anticipating events, putting together stories that connect the dots and [explaining] to our readers why these events are important. Writing abilities must be sharp and wide-ranging enough to appear regularly on A1, the Business section cover and above the fold online….He or she will be principally responsible for daily and enterprise coverage of Microsoft’s corporate affairs, strategies, core products, personnel and workplace issues, and software industry trends…

Whew! That is a hard job. The most the Seattle Times can devote to it is two experienced and highly proficient reporters dedicated to the Microsoft story, plus spot coverage from other desks. But when you look across the story — the life and times of Microsoft for all the people who care about its fortunes in Seattle and for those involved with the company elsewhere — it is a massive reporting task. Even the most skilled reporter can only do so much. But reporter plus network, acting as force multiplier…?

I don’t think we know as much about that as we should. We should be much further along than we are in building out a networked beat. Quick definition: A networked beat is when many people with useful knowledge can easily contribute and add value to a reporting pattern that is the ongoing responsibility of a few.

So imagine the Seattle Times had said this in its ad:

Seeking an ambitious and entrepreneurial journalist to help develop a networked approach to one of our premier beats: covering Microsoft.

The Times identifies the key user groups for its Microsoft coverage as 1.) MS employees and those who work in the larger Microsoft ecosystem, 2.) buyers and users of Microsoft products, and 3.) investors who need to know how MSFT is doing. According to this study published in 2010 by an economist at the University of Washington, Microsoft accounted for 28.5% of total jobs added in the state of Washington since 1990. It employed 41,000 people in the state. Its multiplier effect as an employer is large: 6.81 jobs created for every Microsoft employee. That’s about 282,000 jobs directly and indirectly tied to Microsoft, according to the 2010 study.

The holders of those jobs are all potential readers, sources and contributors. They are the people Dan Gillmor was talking about. (“My readers know more than I do.”) Likewise with the heaviest users of Microsoft products, the Windows fans and Xbox freaks. Total it up, that’s a lot of people who know more than the Seattle Times does.

Still, getting them to contribute is another story. We need a source of realism for what we can expect from readers if reader-assisted beat reporting is going to work. Fortunately I have one. It’s called the one percent rule in online participation. It says that:

…if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will “interact” with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.

Here a design rule we can incorporate into plans for a networked beat, thusly:

* Assume that 90 percent of the users attracted to the Seattle Times Microsoft coverage will be “read only.” Meaning: they are just consumers of it. For them, the beat makes news and information products. These products have to do the job they were “hired” for, especially: save the user time in trying to keep up with Mircosoft news.

* Assume that ten percent maximum will interact with the beat on any level. For them, we need easy, efficient systems for commenting, contacting, suggesting, referring links, speaking up. Of course the ten percent is a ceiling, not a guarantee. If you’re successful at engaging and enticing them, maybe 10 percent of the users will interact with the beat in some useful way.

* One percent at most will contribute ideas or material that actually improves the products for other 99. For this group we need to worry about the give-get bargain and their incentive to share knowledge with journalists, but also about compensation if they become regular and valuable contributors. Ultimately there has to be a business model for the networked beat, but I think we can find that.

Let’s review: When the many contribute (easily) to reporting that is completed by a few, that’s networked reporting. Lots of journalists practice this in one way or another, from finding sources on social media to using web forms to gather knowledge. When networked reporting is fully incorporated into a beat — by design — that’s a networked beat. The best kind of beat to try it with is one where “the readers know more than we do,” where knowledge of what’s really happening on that beat is widely distributed, not closely held by a few inside sources, and where succeeding with the beat is critically important to the newsroom we’re trying to improve.

Now I’m ready to ask the question I came here to ask: suppose we were to invest in a networked beat in Montreal at the Gazette, or in Ottawa at the Citizen, which beat would be the smart one to start with… and why?

I look forward to our discussion.

Jan.
22

Joy’s Law for journalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In slightly more technical terms:

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

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

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

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

Odds for this method: unlikely.

Jan.
21

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

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

1. Ideological renovation to the house style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. “How could we ALL blow it?”

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

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

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

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

These points stands out for me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The scale of their ambition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan.
7

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

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

This is from the official press release:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Gannon: Exactly…

JR: Jarvis described it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Gannon: Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Gannon: Precisely.

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

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

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

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

But I’m not saying you should ignore flow!

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

Dec.
29

Three things I learned from the Snowden files

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec.
19

A First Look at NewCo’s structure

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

First, the official release:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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