Some shifts in power visible in journalism today

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

18 Feb 2013 12:12 am 21 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They know where the value lies.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

3 Feb 2013 9:26 am 62 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 Jan 2013 9:46 am 19 Comments

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

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

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

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

1. Standard deviation from the verifiable fact

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

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

2. Agreed upon untruths.

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

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

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

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

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

3. Re-litigating the Lie of the Year.

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

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

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

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

Lie of the year!

(Folds arms.) “Unusually accurate.”

We double checked. Still a total lie.

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

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

4. Both sides do it most of the time.

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

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

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

5. Embrace asymmetry, avoid distortion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Danger, journalists

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mounting costs for the default model of trust production in American newsrooms

The outlines of the new system are now coming into view. Accuracy and verification, fairness and intellectual honesty--traditional virtues for sure--join up with transparency, “show your work,” the re-voicing of individual journalists, fact-checking, calling BS when needed and avoiding false balance.

6 Jan 2013 11:14 am 26 Comments

For about 20 years (yikes!) I have been trying to move American journalists off their default view of newsroom “objectivity.” The default view goes like this:

There is something called “news,” another thing called “opinion,” and professional journalists can be trusted because they keep their opinions out of the news.

My primary objection to this safe, cozy and ultra-simplified view was that it imposed certain intellectual costs on journalists that could not be waved away. The costs lay in everything the default view rendered invisible– like, say, framing decisions. The news is rife with such, but it’s hard to call them opinions, and they certainly aren’t “objective.”

A nice illustration of that came the other day from The Atlantic’s James Fallows, who took note of an ordinary Wall Street Journal story that began like this:

Americans are using more gadgets, televisions and air conditioners than ever before. But, oddly, their electricity use is barely growing…

The story wound up framing this oddity as bad news for utility companies, rather than good news for climate change. His point was not to denounce the Journal for its pro-utility bias. Rather:

I mention this story because it’s as stark an example as you’ll find of the impossibility of presenting “objective” news, and of the power of the “frame” the writer and editor choose to place around the daily increment of information.

Exactly. And if there’s power in a frame, there’s trouble when framing patterns escape notice and become defaults themselves. Another example is what’s come to be known as false balance (or phony equivalence, fake symmetry) a form of distortion that arises from the pressure to demonstrate that the journalist doesn’t have an opinion and isn’t taking sides. Dubious framing decisions and false balance are invisible to the default view of objectivity, which makes it harder for journalists to fix these problems when they become chronic.

By now the default view comes with its own concession, which is intended to shore up the model by acknowledging a problem or two. The concession goes like this: “Of course no one can be totally objective, we’re all human. But we try to come as close as we can.” In an alternate version, the second sentence reads: “Maybe a better word is fairness.” (It is a better word, but in the concession speech it means pretty much the same thing as the term it replaces.)

For the last few years I have been using the phrase, the View from Nowhere, when I want to reference the default view and deny it the prestige it has accumulated in mainstream newsrooms. I’ve said that it’s getting harder and harder to trust the View from Nowhere (or in broadcast news, the Voice of God) but easier to trust a journalist who can somehow say, “here’s where I’m coming from.” (Example in this disclosure page.) Part of the reason for this is that finding multiple frames around the same facts is a normal occurrence for a consumer of news on the Internet. One thing the users know: those frames didn’t get there objectively.

More and more, the heaviest users of news are exercising a kind of veto over the default construction of newsroom objectivity. If the users don’t find “we keep our opinions out of the news” a credible statement, if they’re on to things like lazy frames and false balance, then not only will journalists hear these complaints with noisy regularity, but further assertions of objectivity aren’t going to reverse the trend and produce more trust. They will in fact produce less. And it doesn’t matter how many old school journalists stamp their feet and repeat the mantra. That’s what I mean by the users’ veto.

Over the weekend the Public Editor of the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, took on these issues without over-simplifying them. She also interviewed me for her column, for which I am grateful. Sullivan did not endorse my take. But she helped legitimize the argument about the costs of the default view. It’s easy to see why. The previous public editor had openly demonstrated his naiveté on the matter, to devastating effect. Sullivan hears a lot from readers about phony balance and calling bullshit on false claims, and so she writes about these things. On Sunday she said it plainly:

What readers really want is reporting that gets to the bottom of a story without having to give opposing sides equal weight. They also want reporters to state established truths clearly, without hedging or always putting the words in a source’s mouth. They’re most interested in truth.

Right. Truth telling is more important than a ritualized demonstration of viewlessness; Times readers are demanding it. Sullivan also shifted the ground a little, away from objectivity toward impartiality, which is also a constitutive term for the BBC in Great Britain. I find it hard to dismiss the struggle to remain impartial, because in some ways that’s what any truthteller is trying to do: get beyond a partial view and try see a bigger picture. Two years ago I put it this way:

If objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a “hard” reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, sign me up. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense. Don’t you? If it means trying to see things in that fuller perspective Thomas Nagel talked about-–pulling the camera back, revealing our previous position as only one of many–-I second the motion. If it means the struggle to get beyond the limited perspective that our experience and upbringing afford us: yeah, we need more of that, not less. I think there is value in acts of description that do not attempt to say whether the thing described is good or bad. Is that objectivity? If so, I’m all for it, and I do that myself sometimes.

The View from Nowhere is my attempt to isolate the element in objectivity that we don’t need, and call attention to it.

Sullivan began her column with the now forgotten tale of Farnaz Fassihi’s viral e-mail. She’s the Wall Street Journal reporter who was stationed in Baghdad and in 2004 wrote an email to friends giving her impressions of how miserably the war was going. The email, which was quite compelling, got passed around among friends and eventually became public, raising the question: why isn’t this the news? As I wrote at the time:

Her e-mail report can have references to what a friend of hers saw on a drive through Sadr City. Her Wall Street Journal report cannot. The “authorized knowers” in her Journal reporting tend to be experts and authorities, often government officials, or they are participants in events, people close to the action.

Fassihi was telling friends what she felt she knew. In her email she herself is the authorized knower, and she speaks directly, not through sources and quotes. As the Houston Chronicle put it in an editorial, “Though the missive apparently does not contradict her reportage, it is blunt, bleak and opinionated in a way that mainstream coverage generally avoids.”

Viewlessness as a means of trust production in news came with voicelessness for the individual author. That is now ebbing away, especially with social media and two-way interactions between journalists and users. But it’s not just that. As Eric Black of MinnPost put it three months ago:

After 35 years of doing my scribbling within the confines of the “objective journalism” paradigm, including objective journalism about perceptions of journalistic bias, I’ve about had it. Journalists’ worries about being brought up on bias charges do more to get in the way of good reporting and analysis than any benefit it delivers.

The costs of sticking with the default model in trust production are visible and mounting, and increasingly journalists are looking for a way out that doesn’t cause them more problems than the View from Nowhere already has. The outlines of the new system are coming into view. Accuracy and verification, fairness and intellectual honesty–traditional virtues for sure–join up with transparency, “show your work,” the re-voicing of individual journalists, fact-checking, calling BS when needed and avoiding false balance. Progress is slow, we’re not there yet, but this is the direction things are headed in.

Sullivan’s column is an important  marker in that struggle. So read it and let me know what you think in the comments.

Loyalty and obsession are intimates: Andrew Sullivan goes independent

"We, the journalists, have part of what it takes to create an informative and exciting site. You, the users, have the other part."

3 Jan 2013 6:51 pm 20 Comments

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan announced that he’s parting ways with the Daily Beast and taking his blog, The Daily Dish, independent. Truly independent: no advertisers! (Though he hasn’t ruled that out for the future.) Today he announced that he’s already raised a third of his $900,000 annual budget by asking loyal readers to pay $19.99– or more if they choose. I’m a big fan of the site, and a daily user, so I bought a membership on the first day. And I’m rooting for Sullivan and his team.

What interests me most about his gamble is what Andrew Sullivan is gambling on: the relationship between an obsessive blogger and his most loyal users. As Mathew Ingram puts it: “Sullivan is betting that his personal brand and goodwill with his readers is enough to convince a substantial proportion of them to fund his writing.”

Thus: “The only completely clear and transparent way to do this, we concluded, was to become totally independent of other media entities and rely entirely on you for our salaries, health insurance, and legal, technological and accounting expenses.”

Independence from big media = dependence on passionate users. Before they ran this calculation, Sullivan and his team (it totals seven people) had several indicators of how strong their relationship with the users actually was. For example: “The computers say the average Dish reader spends up to 17 minutes a day on the site – a massive investment of time and energy.”

Another indicator was the contents of the inbox. Conor Friedersdorf filled in on the staff of the Daily Dish when Sullivan and his team were employed by The Atlantic. He describes what it’s like to sift through the emails that come in to the Dish:

I finally saw the reader inbox in all its glory while guest blogging for Sullivan as he vacationed. It’s a gig I did several times, all of them while The Dish was hosted here at The Atlantic. I’ve never received so much delightful correspondence. The Dish readership is massive, highly educated, ideologically diverse, employed in a stunning array of fields, and spread out across the world. Of course, those same attributes characterize the readership here at The Atlantic, and I’ve gotten tons of wonderful emails in the course of my current job, but something about the blogger’s personal, informal tone inspires correspondence of a different character. Compare the comments on the average item here at The Atlantic with the loyal readers Ta-Nehisi Coates has cultivated in the comments section of his blog, where it’s more like an intimate community.

At The Daily Dish, I once asked readers in advance of a road trip across The South what I should see. I didn’t just get hundreds of suggestions; I didn’t just get extended essays on the geography, sociology, and competing styles of barbecue that characterize the region; I didn’t just get notes from people in eleven states; I also got invitations to stay overnight with Dish readers in a dozen cities, or to stop by for dinner at the houses of their parents, or to please write if I passed through where they live so they could at the very least buy me a cold beer. I was just a guest blogger. I don’t doubt that Sullivan could live rent free for five years if he asked nicely.

In other words, core users have been “giving” to Sullivan’s site for years. They have been giving their time, their persistent attention, their loyalty (meaning: a bond strong enough to withstand the moments when Sullivan offends the user with his opinions and unruly emotions) and such other contributions as can be seen only by sifting though the inbox.

Q. Can you charge for news and commentary on the web?

A. It depends.

It depends on how strong the relationship is between you and the regular users of your site. Sullivan and crew have ample reason to bet on that relationship– not only the stats, but the inbox, out of which emerges regular features like View from Your Window and the curated reader comment posts. The Daily Dish is mainly an aggregation site. The editors find some of the stuff, the users find the rest.

I know of no site that better fulfills Alan Rusbridger’s vision of “mutualised” journalism. (He’s the editor of The Guardian in the UK.) What Rusbridger means by that is simple, really: We, the journalists, have part of what it takes to create an informative and exciting site. You, the users, have the other part. You give to us so that we can we give to you.

This open and collaborative future for journalism – I have tried the word “mutualised” to describe something of the flavour of the relationship this new journalism has with our readers and sources and advertisers – is already looking different from the journalism that went before. The more we can involve others the more they will be engaged participants in the future, rather than observers or, worse, former readers. That’s not theory. It’s working now.

And, yes, we’ll charge for some of this – as we have in the past – while keeping the majority of it open. My commercial colleagues at the Guardian firmly believe that our mutualised approach is opening up options for making money, not closing them down.

I would never have given my twenty dollars to Sullivan if I couldn’t link to items on his site, knowing that any user of my Twitter feed could freely access them, regardless of whether they subscribed to the Daily Dish. Part of the intimacy between Sullivan and his core readership involves this (somewhat obscure) third party: the much larger group of web cruisers who will never pay but who will visit from time to time when something strikes their interest. If the core users understand and accept that they are, to some extent, subsidizing the more occasional visitors then their annual payment is more likely to be renewed.

Eliminating advertisers from the equation promotes this kind of clarity. My guess is that the more open Sullivan chooses to be about the finances of the site, the more successful he will be in raising money from the most loyal users. An advertiser-supported site has a harder time being completely transparent, for the simple reason that “part of what we sell is you, commoditized…” is not easily communicated to fully sentient beings.

One of the first things I teach my students about the transformation of journalism by digital means is the unbundling effect. Nicholas Carr summarizes it:

Readers don’t flip through a mix of stories, advertisements, and other bits of content. They go directly to a particular story that interests them, often ignoring everything else. In many cases, they bypass the newspaper’s “front page” altogether, using search engines, feed readers, or headline aggregators like Google News, Digg, and Daylife to leap directly to an individual story. They may not even be aware of which newspaper’s site they’ve arrived at. For the publisher, the newspaper as a whole becomes far less important. What matters are the parts. Each story becomes a separate product standing naked in the maketplace. It lives or dies on its own economic merits.

The unbundling effect–which is (sorry to use this term) a mega-trend in digital media–strongly favors niche journalism. So what is Sullivan’s niche? It would be awkward, but you could try to characterize it topically: gay rights including gay marriage, Obama’s “long view,” the coming crack-up of the Republican Party, decriminalizing pot, the struggle for freedom in Iran and the rest of the Muslim world, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and its discontents, all views of the world descendent from the philosopher Michael Oakeshott and the critic Christopher Hitchens…

But a better way to put it would be: Andrew’s own obsessions. That’s the real niche. This is the extreme opposite of the “all the news that’s fit to print.” I think Sullivan and his team are going to meet their goal. They will raise more than the $900,000 they need to run the site for the first year of their independent existence. They could never do it if they fell back on the View from Nowhere. Loyalty and obsession are intimates.

The vanishing moderator: Jim Lehrer answers your questions about his part in the first debate

"I was not there to question people. I was there to allow the candidates to question each other." Yeah, we saw that, Jim. Will Martha Raddatz of ABC News take the same approach in tonight's Vice Presidential debate?

11 Oct 2012 6:30 am 36 Comments

Warning! This is a synthetic product. All the answers are Jim Lehrer’s words quoted verbatim. Click on the red A. for the source and to check up on my scissoring. I crafted the questions myself as a way of stitching different interviews together, especially his appearance on WNYC radio and his interview with Politico. My purpose is to show how Jim Lehrer handles the doubts I have heard about his performance since last Wednesday. I did not interview Lehrer myself.

Q. It seemed to us, and a lot of other people, that you kind of lost control of the debate. Did you?

A. “It’s not my job to control the conversation. If the candidates gave me resistance, and I let them talk, to me that’s being an active moderator, not a passive moderator.”

Q. So letting them talk was what you were trying to do?

A. “I thought the format accomplished its purpose, which was to facilitate direct, extended exchanges between the candidates about issues of substance. Part of my moderator mission was to stay out of the way of the flow and I had no problems with doing so.”

Q. How did this format come about?

A. “The Commission came to me with this idea… Let’s see if we can try to have a real debate–not a moderated, simultaneous one-on-one interviews with the candidates, which is what they’ve been for all practical purposes–and set up a situation where the challenging is done not by the moderator, but is done by the candidates. And the candidates are either up to it or they’re not up to it. They’re either ready to go or not ready to go.”

Q. And if they’re reluctant to engage on the harder issues, which has been known to happen in politics, it would not be your job to prod or challenge them?

A. “I was not there to do the challenging. I was there to facilitate the challenging. If they didn’t want to do it, then I wasn’t going to do that work for them.”

Q. Okay, but does this extend even to keeping time? At several points in the debate, both candidates just rolled right over when you tried to enforce time limits. Was that part of the plan too?

A. “The first few times I said ‘let’s move on’ and they wanted to keep talking, the inclination of course is to stop them so I could cover all the subjects I wanted to cover. But I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wait a minute, they’re talking to each other, leave ’em alone.’ So I backed off.”

Q. And are you happy with how it turned out?

A. “Sitting here talking to you now, I have absolutely no second thoughts about it. I think it was a major development in the growth of presidential debates.”

Q. Major development: How so?

A. “This is the first time in the history of American political campaigning where an incumbent president of the United States stood eyeball to eyeball to a challenger and they talked at each other and they talked about things that mattered. That each was allowed to challenge the other and respond to that challenge.”

Q. If it’s candidate to candidate, eyeball to eyeball, then why have a moderator at all?

A. “I don’t know if I’d go that far. But I think we took a step in that direction on Wednesday night and I think that’s a very good thing. It’s not about a moderator following up and asking tough questions. You can do that in interviews.”

Q. Mitt’s Romney’s comments on the 47 percent of Americans who see themselves as victims and want the government to take care of them: do you think that should have been part of a debate on domestic policy? You could have asked about it, but you didn’t. Why?

A. “The reason I didn’t ask that is because I felt those were the questions the two candidates were to ask. I was not there to question people. I was there to allow the candidates to question each other. Certainly I could have brought up the 47 percent. All kinds of things I could have brought up.”

Q. Were you bothered at all by the way Governor Romney at times bullied and interrupted you?

A. “Everybody saw it. If somebody was turned off by the way Romney interrupted me, then they saw it… Judge it and react accordingly.”

Q. What about a situation where a candidate lies or distorts the record, and his opponent is reluctant to go after him for his own reasons? The American people in that situation won’t even get a shot at the truth. That’s a problem, isn’t it?

A. “No, I couldn’t disagree with you more. This is ninety minutes in a campaign that’s already been underway for a year… This was ninety minutes of the two candidates showing who they are and what they were willing– if Obama made a decision, he didn’t want to do that, alright, now we know that.”

Q. So you’re not moved by any of the criticism since the debate?

A. I’ve heard some of the criticism, but it’s not keeeping me awake at night. My conscience is clear.”

* * *
Five comments of my own about Jim Lehrer’s responses:

1. They have integrity, in the sense that they form a coherent vision to which he held: Raise some big topics and get out of the way. Leave the follow-ups and the fact-checking to the candidates themselves. Don’t challenge them; instead, invite them to challenge each other. Lehrer unquestionably believes in this approach. He thinks it’s the right way to go for all the debates.

Dylan Byers of Politico reports: “Though criticism remains, many are beginning to warm to the idea — advocated by Lehrer and by the Commission on Presidential Debates — that the PBS Newshour veteran was actually setting a new standard for debate moderation by making himself all but invisible.”

2. It was not clear to anyone before the debate that we should expect the vanishing moderator, whose responsibility is reduced to a minimum. If Lehrer’s account is correct, the Commission kind of sprung it on us without warning. Byers, for example, wrote this in an extensively reported preview of the debate:

But at a time when the electorate is as divided as ever, and when media scrutiny is more intense than ever, his is a task that carries unprecedented responsibility. Lehrer, colleagues and campaign strategists say, must ask tough, substantive questions and yet maintain total impartiality. He must shepherd the candidates through a range of topics while allowing them to drive the debate. And he must push Obama and Romney for genuine responses without injecting himself into the conversation.

There was talk of the new format, including the eleven minutes of open conversation in each segment, but “Lehrer will actually play a more active role than ever,” Byers reported. Bill Wheatley, a former NBC executive vice president who has produced presidential debates, had this exchange with Nieman Lab, published October 1.

LaFrance: But, theoretically, with the continuity of one moderator and the opportunity for longer back-and-forths, the moderators are better positioned to challenge candidates in real time, call them out on misleading spin.

Wheatley: You would think so. And of course there’s lots of spin. It’s up to the moderator to decide when to interrupt — when to say, “That doesn’t square with the facts,” or something like that if a candidate goes that far. They’re generally pretty careful in the presidential debate not to make errors of fact, but they can.

Neither had any clue that the Commission had agreed to the vanishing moderator and that “calling them out on misleading spin” had been written out of the job description.

Here’s the executive director of the debate commission, Janet Brown, explaining the new format to the Washington Post: “Each debate will cover six topics lasting 15 minutes, picked by the moderator and announced ahead of time. That places a big burden on the moderator to use the time wisely to craft a good exchange. You can lob up names of accomplished journalists ‘til the cows come home, but it’s very hard to find someone who can do that.”

See what I mean? Nothing about: “I was not there to question people. I was there to allow the candidates to question each other.”

3. None of this lessens in any way President Obama’s responsibility for a listless and passive performance. In fact, it makes Obama’s failure look even larger. If Lehrer’s account is correct, then Obama and his team knew he could not count on Jim Lehrer to correct anything or raise uncomfortable issues. “The challenging is done not by the moderator,” as Lehrer put it. Romney got that memo. Obama did not.

4. Let’s see if Martha Raddatz of ABC News takes the same approach in tonight’s VP debate. Based on this Politico profile, it does not seem in character for her, but who knows? If she does toss them a topic and get out of the way, it will validate Jim Lehrer’s explanation: the Commission’s plan all along was to install the vanishing moderator. (“I was not there to question people…”) If she does not take his approach, the story gets more interesting because then the opacity of the Debate Commission becomes even more outrageous.

5. For me it’s impossible to overlook the congruence or fit between these two things: 1.) Lehrer’s vanishing moderator who does not challenge or correct but merely “facilitates” the exchange between party leaders and 2.) the weakness of the PBS system itself, especially the Newshour, it’s flagship program best known for those non-confrontational interviews that allow the talking points on both sides to pour forth. The problem for PBS is not the imperative to remain impartial. It’s the assumption that impartiality is well served by the genteel style. There are more muscular forms of impartial journalism but you rarely see them in action on the Newshour, which is still dominated by Lehrer’s presence even though he is mostly retired.

I note, as well, that the imperative at PBS to avoid criticism (even when they know that the culture war attacks are coming) is congruent with Lehrer’s approach. He knew he would get a lot of criticism after the debate. But since he defined his primary job as “get out of the way,” the only valid criticism–by his lights–is that he did not get out of the way fast enough. As far as I know, no one has made that point about Jim Lehrer.

Post-script: October 12, the morning after the Vice Presidential debate.
Jim Lehrer has said that the new format put in place by the Commission on Presidential Debates included what I have called the Vanishing Moderator. As he put it, “I was not there to question people. I was there to allow the candidates to question each other.” He presented this approach as part of the Commission’s plan to advance the art of presidential debates, a decision he agreed with and embraced.

But now those explanations look kind of strange because it would appear that Martha Raddatz of ABC News undid the shift to the Vanishing Moderator in last night’s Vice Presidential debate. As Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times wrote:

Mr. Biden was not the only one in the room intent on rectifying his predecessor’s mistakes. Martha Raddatz of ABC News was the moderator, and she made a point of speaking forcefully, pushing the candidates to be specific and changing subjects abruptly. She seemed determined to be less passive and sleepy than Jim Lehrer of PBS was as moderator of the Obama-Romney debate.

Andrew Rosenthal of the Times opinion staff noted:

Ms. Raddatz showed a consistent willingness to call the candidates on their “malarkey,” as the Vice President put it. When Mr. Ryan said he could cut taxes without reducing the deficit by eliminating loopholes, but didn’t actually mention which loopholes, she drew attention to his evasiveness: “No specifics, again.”

And she refused to let Mr. Ryan ignore her question about his ticket’s plan to increase the defense budget. By my count, she returned to that point six times, culminating with the rather sharp: “I want to know how you do the math and have this increase in defense spending?”

With 15 minutes left, after dragging the candidates through taxes, Medicare, Social Security, the budget deficit, terrorism and Afghanistan, she raised a topic that didn’t come up at all last week: How did each of the candidates’ personal beliefs (they are both Catholic) affect their views on abortion.

This is the very opposite of the policy that Lehrer said the Commission had decided on, with his enthusiastic support. In the Vanishing Moderator scheme, interventions like refusing to let Paul Ryan ignore questions about the defense budget would be left up to the candidates. It would be Biden’s job. That Raddatz saw it as her job represented a shift in policy from the week before. Which leaves us with these questions: Did Martha Raddatz go off the reservation and simply ignore the Commission’s new Vanishing Moderator format? Was it never the Commission’s intention to make the Vanishing Moderator part of its debate scheme? (Lehrer said it was.) Did the Commission change its mind without telling anyone? Was Lehrer’s story (scroll up for the quotes) incorrect in some way? We don’t know.

UPDATE, Three months after the election: Lehrer, Raddatz disagree on debate role.