“Influential news outlets have set aside traditional notions of balance…”

Something happened in journalism two weeks ago that I want to examine before we all forget about it and election season rolls on.

21 Dec 2015 2:22 am 11 Comments

On December 8, Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed and before that a political reporter, wrote a memo to his staff that he made public. This is a screenshot of the memo:

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 7.24.12 PM
The same day, NBC Nightly News broadcast what could only be called an editorial or “column” by Tom Brokaw, Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 1.49.52 PMalthough it was not described that way by NBC. Lester Holt simply tossed to Brokaw, the face of the brand for 22 years as lead anchor at NBC, for what Holt called “reflections” and “some perspective” on Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. (Watch.)

“Trump’s statement, even in a season of extremes, is a dangerous proposal that overrides history, the law and the foundation of America itself,” Brokaw said, speaking directly into the camera. “In my lifetime alone, we have been witness to the consequences of paranoia overriding reason.”

As CNN’s Dylan Byers reported on Dec. 10:

With Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, several of the nation’s most esteemed journalists and influential news outlets have set aside traditional notions of balance and given themselves license to label the Republican front-runner a liar, a demagogue, a racist and worse… news organizations are abandoning concerns about impartiality and evenhandedness and stating what they believe are objective truths about the Republican’s most popular presidential candidate.

“What Trump is doing is wildly outside American traditions and values, and that’s what we’re covering and responding to and I think you see that across major media outlets,” Smith told CNN. “I’ve never seen a candidate base his campaign on vilifying a minority group. So it would be misleading to characterize it any other way.”

What happened here?

On one level it’s simple: Trump went too far. As David Folkenflik of NPR put it on Dec. 11, Trump has been making pronouncements and taking positions “that are increasingly alien to mainstream American thought.” His proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. was denounced by leading Republicans (including Paul Ryan, speaker of the House) as well as Democrats, so journalists could feel comfortable joining in the condemnations. End of story.

But this tells us something about what Byers called “traditional notions of balance.” They are only partly about lending fairness and a sense of proportion to news reports. As journalism scholars have been observing since the 1970s, the practices that are variously known as “objectivity,” or in political coverage “neutrality” — or, as Folkenflik put it, the “non-ideological” approach — as well as workplace rules against expressing an opinion on social media… these practices have purposes beyond rendering the world in an accurate and truthful way.

Ben Smith in his memo referenced “the need not to needlessly undermine the work of reporters on the beat.” What is he talking about there? Well, reporters covering the presidential campaigns need certain things from those campaigns: information, interviews, phone calls returned, a minimal level of cooperation. If a stray comment on social media from a Buzzfeed staffer on a wholly different beat persuades the communications staff for a presidential campaign that Buzzfeed is “against” their candidate, that would amount to “needlessly undermining” the political reporter who has to deal day-to-day with those people. The reporter can protest: hey, I have always been fair with you. But the candidate’s people can answer: your publication is biased, look at this comment on social media. What does the reporter say then?

It may sound trivial but it’s exactly this, what people “can say” — for which there is no effective reply — that accounts for a lot of the rules and procedures that journalists associate with “credibility,” a term with no precise meaning that has outsized importance in their internal deliberations, and their automatic thinking.

Vulnerable to criticism

The way scholars of journalism look at these events is different. In 1972 sociologist Gaye Tuchman published her (justly) famous article, “Objectivity as strategic ritual.” In it she analyzed the behavior of journalists, whom she called newsmen, working within hierarchies that had to reproduce a report on the state of the world every 24 hours. Whereas a sociologist could take six months to study a situation, assemble the data, and draft a report, the journalist had to complete this act in a single day, often under enormous pressure.

Inevitably mistakes happen. The most serious of these could lead to a libel suit, which in turn could threaten the entire enterprise. There were editors charged with removing mistakes, and checking up on reporters in the field, but they too were human, and also under pressure. On top of that, the product that these “newsmen” made — news — was destined for wide distribution, including people who knew a lot more about the story than the reporter ever could.

A situation like this was made for second guessing. The city editor second guessed the beat reporter. The managing editor second guessed the city editor. The informed reader second guessed the editors. (And the ignorant reader too!)

Improvised, imperfect, incomplete, telling of events that are still in motion, but then broadcast widely, the daily news report was vulnerable to criticism on a hundred and one counts. This vulnerability had to be managed somehow, the risks of it systematically reduced. In Tuchman’s eyes, that’s what “objectivity” in newsrooms was: a way of coping with the criticism that was sure to descend on a product that was hastily made.

The people who made it needed some kind of protection against charges that would inevitably come their way: that they didn’t know what they were talking about, that they were unqualified to say what was true, that they misunderstood. And today of course we would add: that they are biased, “against us,” part of an opposing camp. Tuchman in 1972 wrote:

The newsmen cope with these dangers by emphasizing “objectivity,” arguing that dangers can be minimized if newsmen follow strategies of newswork they identify with “objective stories.” They assume that, if every reporter gathers and structures “facts” in a detached, unbiased, impersonal manner, deadlines will be met and libel suits avoided.

Probably the best example of a “strategic ritual” that meets the journalist’s vulnerability to criticism and provides a veneer of objectivity is the use of quotation to say: Hey, I’m not saying this is true, but it is definitely a fact that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said today when he met with reporters….

Bring it on

Which brings us back to Trump and his “plan” to ban Muslims who are not already citizens from entering the United States. The ritual would say: report what Trump said, report what his critics said in reply, let people draw their own conclusions. And many news organizations did exactly that. But others made a different call: Objectively speaking, Trump is a racist and if you work for us you are free to say that. (Buzzfeed) Objectively speaking, this is a dangerous proposal that goes against what America is about. (NBC News) They didn’t think they were vulnerable to criticism for calling him out. Or they didn’t care. Of course there is a big difference between those two.

Trying to protect yourself against criticism, against what people “can say…” is perhaps understandable — Gaye Tuchman understood it exceptionally well in 1972 — but that does not make it legitimate.

A different approach would be to accept with equanimity: Yes, as journalists charged with reporting things that are complex and still in motion we are uniquely vulnerable to criticism. Bring it on! Protection will come from being specialists in verification who are allergic to any party line. Accountability journalism blows “balance” out of the water. Intellectual honesty is far more important than a ritualized objectivity. Recover your voice and people will have reason to listen. But journalists must listen also, and stand ready to correct.

During that odd interval, December 8-11 of 2015, we caught a small glimpse of a different press. To let it fade would be an error in pressthink that I cannot in good conscience allow my readers to make.


Tone poem for the “leave it there” press

When journalists try to distance themselves from our hyper-polarized politics something has to be said. Here is my little attempt to say it.

6 Dec 2015 10:38 am 41 Comments

This person — a political journalist: intelligent, informed — appears on my TV screen regularly during those roundtables where pundits try to dissect the news:

Over at the ‘Meet the Press’ site, where NBC’s Chuck Todd holds forth, this question was recently asked:

Why the selective political outrage?

It says something about our current polarized politics, as well as the sheer number of violent killings in this country, when the left and right are picking which mass shootings to exploit and fit into their own worldview. We saw it play out last week after a deranged man killed three people at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado. And we saw it play out yesterday after we learned a Muslim married couple killed 14 in San Bernadino, CA — though we’re still learning more about their actual motive. But here’s our question: Shouldn’t our national and political outrage be the same, whether the shooter cried out “No more baby parts” or whether the shooters were Muslim with Arabic-sounding names?

It’s hard to know how seriously to take their bewilderment. These are people who live daily with “the partisan divide,” a cliché they helped make into a cliché. But on the chance that they’re being sincere let me be equally straight with them…

Every time you had to “leave it there” after ideologies clashed mindlessly, fruitlessly. Every dubious truth claim you had to let pass because challenging it might interrupt the flow or make you sound too partisan. Every time you defaulted to “will it work?” when the bigger question was “is it so?” Every dutiful effort you made to “get the other side” without asking if the number of sides was really two. Every time you asked each other “what’s the politics of this?” so you could escape the tedium and complexity of public problem-solving. Every time you smiled weakly to say, “depends on who you ask” before launching into a description of public actors who dwell in separate worlds of fact. Every time you described political polarization as symmetrical when it isn’t. Every time you denied that being in the middle was a position so you didn’t have to ask if it was a defensible one. Every time you excluded yourselves from a faltering political class.

Every pox you put on both houses because it felt good to float above it all. Every eye you rolled at the humorless scolds who rage at the White House Correspondents dinner. Every time you jeered at the popularity of “partisan media” without reminding yourself “…there goes our audience.” Every time you laughed at the Daily Show’s treatment of you with no companion sense of dread. (They’re on to us.) Every time you said “the truth is probably somewhere in the middle” when you really had no clue. Every time you pointed with pride to the criticism you were getting from both sides, assuming it meant you were doing something right when you might have been doing everything wrong. Every operative you turned into an expert. Every unprincipled winner you admired for their savvy. Every time you thought it was not up to you to judge when it was on you — especially on you — to assess, weigh and, yes, judge.

All of it, every moment like that had the effect of implicating you in this mess.

Look: I am not saying journalists are the ones we should blame for American’s dysfunctional politics. So if that’s how you read me… well, you misread. But I do consider them active participants in the events that got us here. Instead of turning to us to ask, “why can’t you people get along with each other?” they should be trying to pinpoint it for themselves: Where did we go wrong?

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This post has a Creative Commons license. That means you are free to reprint it or use it at your site, as long as you link back to the original.

So I will try to explain why the Trump candidacy has been so confounding to our political press.

Those "laws of political gravity?" They were never really laws.

29 Nov 2015 8:05 pm 80 Comments

From a week ago on Twitter:

Not quite, Ben.

I was not a fan of the way the political press used its gatekeeping powers when they were more robust. I felt that political journalism had lost its way. Still do. But I never called for, or looked forward to a system in which journalists and journalism ceased to matter. A public service press is one way we can hold power to account. It helps prevent lying from being raised to a universal principle in politics. That is important work. We need to figure out how it can continue.

Now to Ben Smith’s point — media gatekeepers don’t have that kind of muscle any more — add these observations:

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post:

There was almost always a line that wasn’t crossed in years past, a sort of even-partisans-can-agree-on-this standard. Now, in large part because of Donald Trump’s candidacy, that line has been smudged out of existence. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quote that “you are entitled to your own opinion … but you are not entitled to your own facts” is no longer operative in this campaign.

Howard Kurtz, Fox News:

The media refs are really savaging him after a couple of misstatements and missteps, even as they struggle to understand why he pays no penalty when they blow the whistle. What they don’t quite grasp is that their attacks only make him stronger. This is not to let him off the hook for mistakes, just to recognize that Trump has completely rewritten the rule book, infuriating those who thought they enforced the rules.

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone:

Until recently, the narrative of stories like this has been predictable. If a candidate said something nuts, or seemingly not true, an army of humorless journalists quickly dug up all the facts, and the candidate ultimately was either vindicated, apologized, or suffered terrible agonies… That dynamic has broken down this election season. Politicians are quickly learning that they can say just about anything and get away with it. Along with vindication, apology and suffering, there now exists a fourth way forward for the politician spewing whoppers: Blame the backlash on media bias and walk away a hero.

NBC reporter Katy Tur (Via Greg Sargent.)

I spoke to a lot of his supporters who are waiting to come into this rally. And I asked them what they think of Donald Trump and whether or not they’re bothered by his inaccurate statements and whether they think they matter. And not a single one of them said that they thought it mattered. They said they like him because they think he’s going to be a strong leader, and they think he’s going to bring the change to Washington that they want. In fact, they blame the liberal media, as they say, on perpetrating lies against Donald Trump. They repeatedly asked, why don’t you ask this about Hillary Clinton, why don’t you ask this about President Obama? So there’s definitely a party line feeling among his supporters, that it is us-versus-them. And unfortunately, the media is very much the ‘them’ in this situation.

How should we interpret all this? Let me try my hand.

1. “The laws of political gravity” were never laws.

To an extent unrealized before this year, the role of the press in presidential campaigns relied on shared assumptions within the political class and election industry about what the rules were and what the penalty would be for violating them. This was the basis for familiar rituals like “the gaffe,” which in turn relied on assumptions about how a third party, the voters, would react once they found out about the violation. These assumptions were rarely tested because the risk seemed too high, and because risk-averse professionals — strategists, they’re called — were in charge of the campaigns.

The whole system rested on shared beliefs about what would happen if candidates went beyond the system as it stood cycle to cycle. Those beliefs have now collapsed because Trump “tested” and violated most of them— and he is still leading in the polls. (Rob Ford in Canada was there before Trump.) There has been a cascading effect as conventions that depended on one another give way. The political press is pretty stunned by these developments. It keeps asking: when will the “laws of political gravity” be restored? Or have they simply vanished?

“The question now is whether Candidate Trump is immune from the laws of political gravity or soon will be isolated and regarded as an object of scorn or curiosity rather than of presidential seriousness,” wrote the Washington Post’s Dan Balz back in July. (Other uses of that phrase here, here and here.) But what the press describes as “laws” were never really that. They were at best conventions among the political class, in which I include most Washington journalists— though they would not include themselves.

2. Isomorphism for the win!

“Institutional isomorphism,” a phrase only an academic could love, is the title of a famous paper in sociology (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983) that sought to explain why different institutions in the same field tend to resemble each other, even as they struggle to compete and to “win.” The authors observe that “organizations tend to model themselves after similar organizations that they perceive to be more legitimate or successful.” It’s not a coincidence. There are structural forces at work that appear again and again across vastly different industries and fields.

For example, if a firm is competing for talent it will want to offer the same kind of stage for talent to display itself. Meanwhile, the talent knows that if it cannot mesh well with competing firms it has no leverage over its current one. When Jeff Zeleny, a political reporter for ABC News, moved to CNN this year (to do the same thing he did at ABC) he did not have to assimilate a new view of politics or a different definition of the journalist’s role. Isomorphism had already taken care of that. No one thinks this the least bit remarkable.

Similarly, when in 2009 CNN created ‘State of the Union’ to compete with the likes of ‘Meet the Press’ and ‘Face the Nation,’ it simply copied those shows in almost every detail. Again, no one thinks that’s weird. It’s just what you do in TV news.

Highly structured organizational fields [presidential campaigns would qualify as one, but so would large news organizations] provide a context in which individual efforts to deal rationally with uncertainty and constraint often lead in the aggregate to homogeneity in structure, culture and output.

In other words, the more they try to compete at one level the more similar they become at all the others. (True for universities too.) But notice: Trump is not an institution. trumpairHe is really his own campaign manager, spokesman and chief strategist, which means that the chief strategist of the Trump campaign — Trump — doesn’t care if he ever gets hired by another campaign. Poof! There goes one of the little structural forces that tend toward isomorphism. Multiply by 100 and you have pundits asking: have the laws of political gravity been repealed?

3. Weak sense of purpose.

DiMaggio and Powell note that isomorphism is especially likely in institutions with ambiguous or unclear goals. That describes the teams of reporters, editors and producers who create most of the campaign coverage we see.

In May of this year I attended a two-day conference in Chicago for journalists covering the 2016 campaign. Among the panelists were established stars like Chuck Todd of NBC and Mark Halperin of Bloomberg, along with the chairs and communications directors of the two major parties. In the audience were young journalists assigned to election coverage from news organizations around the country. One of the striking things about the event (for me) was the complete vacuum of discussion around the ultimate aims of campaign coverage. No one even thought to ask: what are we trying to accomplish here? What’s the goal of our coverage in 2016? Everyone already knew the answer: We’re here to cover the campaign! To find great stories that readers will love! To be savvy analysts of what’s likely to happen. There’s a circularity to these answers that doesn’t register among the people working inside the circle.

Why does this matter? First, because it leads to a homogeneity in coverage that isn’t chosen but automatic. Second, another way to ask about ultimate goals is to put the question in a more threatening form: what’s your agenda in covering the campaign? To that question the political journalists at NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, PBS, NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Politico, Time magazine would all return the same non-answer. No agenda, just solid coverage. “We report, you decide.” (Fox News.) “The Only Side We Choose is Yours.” (CNN.)

In founding FNC, Roger Ailes understood the isomorphic factor and decided to ape the conventions of TV news, while shifting the product to appeal to an under-served market and thereby become a force in Republican politics. One of the conventions he aped is to keep silent on questions of purpose. Into that vacuum flow accusations of bias, which is fine with Ailes. (“I’ll tell you what your agenda is!”) That flow has now become a raging torrent, eroding trust, coarsening dialogue, fortifying bad habits like false balance, and acting as a wedge issue in the media sphere.

4.) Strong sense of purpose.

For a good contrast with punting on questions of purpose I offer you Univision and its lead anchor Jorge Ramos, who knows what he’s for and which public he represents.

“The Republican Party has been complaining lately about how some Latino journalists, including me, only ask them about immigration,” he said. “That is correct, but what Republicans don’t understand is that for us, the immigration issue is the most pressing symbolically and emotionally, and the stance a politician takes on this defines whether he is with us or against us.”jorgeramos

Ramos, who is one of the most trusted public figures among American Latinos, according to polls, has been an outspoken supporter of federal legislation that would pave a path to citizenship for those living in the country illegally.

He has pressed candidates from both parties on the issue. In the 2012 campaign, he hammered President Obama, who had promised but failed to deliver an immigration bill during his first term. More recently, he has criticized Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who as a senator from Florida helped write an immigration reform bill but dropped support for it after it drew conservative anger.

“Both parties now view him with trepidation,” said the New York Times in January. The example of Ramos shows that knowing what you’re for doesn’t have to mean joining the team or taking a party line. It’s possible to maintain your independence, win trust with your audience, and gain a clear sense of purpose when you’re out on the campaign trail. But you have to break with the pack.

And as I have written before there is a difference — a crucial difference — between doing politics and doing journalism:

If your job is to make the case, win the negotiations, decide what the community should do, or maintain morale, that is one kind of work. If your job is to tell people what’s going on, and equip them to participate without illusions, that is a very different kind of work. To put it a little more sharply, power-seeking and truth-seeking are different behaviors, and this is what creates the distinction between politics and journalism. The work of the journalist cannot be done without a commitment to the act of reporting, which means gathering information, talking to people who know, trying to verify and clarify what actually happened and to portray the range of views as they emerge from events.

A primary commitment to reporting therefore distinguishes the work of the journalist. Declining to express a view does not. Refusing to vote does not. Pretending to be ideology-free or “objective” on everything does not. Getting attacked from both sides? Nope.

Of course, everyone can’t be Jorge Ramos or take up the Latinos-in-America cause. That works for Univision and its English-language brand, Fusion. What would work for the mainstream media, as it is still called in the U.S.? Well, I don’t know. I tried to answer that question in 2010, and I think there may be some value in the approach I described there.

Probably the best thing that the major news organizations could do at this point is differentiate: that is, go right at the isomorphism. Try different approaches to untangling the mobius strip of Trump coverage, in which he attacks the news media, dominates its coverage, withstands its “checking” powers, astonishes its pundits, and feeds off the furor that all this creates. One thing I know. Tossing around terms like “post-truth” and then moving briskly on to other news — such as you see here — is not the sign of a serious press.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Photo credit: Donald Trump Boeing 727 by Andrew Cohen. Creative Commons license.

Disclosure: As reported by the Huffington Post, in 2016 my students and I will be collaborating with Fusion.net on different ways to do election journalism.

“Will Trump eventually cross a line — or do the lines no longer exist?” (Karen Tumulty, Washington Post, Nov. 25) That is another way to put the “laws of political gravity” question.

Outstanding treatment of this whole problem from David Roberts at Vox, reacting in part to this post.

What’s happened from (roughly) Gingrich forward is that the right has used coordinated institutional power and the explosion of new communications technology to sap the media’s power to do damage. This has been done in two ways. First is the unceasing attack on “liberal media bias,” which has left journalists terrified of passing judgment on any matter of controversy. And second is the development of a parallel intellectual infrastructure, a network of partisan think tanks, advocacy organizations, and media outlets that provide a kind of full-spectrum alternative to the mainstream.

Good point: “It’s difficult for journalists to successfully call politicians on their incorrect or misleading claims in the absence of political opponents who are doing the same.” Political scientist David A. Hopkins responds to this post.

Sharp analysis from New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait about what would happen to journalists in the so-called “mainstream” media if Trump wins the nomination. Currently, Chait writes, Trump “is the subject of withering attacks from many conservative commentators. This, in turn, frees up the mainstream media to assess Trump’s lies in fairly blunt terms. Rigorously down-the-middle reporters can call Trump a liar without fear of jeopardizing their nonpartisan credibility because they are echoing arguments made by many Republicans.” But if Trump becomes the nominee:

Conservatives who insisted during the primary they could never support him would see in their nominee a different, more sober and thoughtful figure than the demagogue they had lambasted months before. And because Republicans would now be rallying around him, Trump would enjoy far more latitude for his wild claims. Fear of partisan bias would then dissuade the media from labeling Trump’s lies as lies.

This is such an important point, from Maggie Haberman and Patrick Healy of the New York Times, who analyzed everything Trump said for a week:

Trump uses rhetoric to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, nuance, government and the news media, according to specialists in political rhetoric. “Nobody knows,” he likes to declare, where illegal immigrants are coming from or the rate of increase of health care premiums under the Affordable Care Act, even though government agencies collect and publish this information. He insists that Mr. Obama wants to accept 250,000 Syrian migrants, even though no such plan exists…

Right. Trump’s rhetoric erodes people’s trust in the news media and in facts themselves, which is one reason his ubiquity in the news media is so perplexing.

Donald Trump May Not Be a Fascist, But He is Leading Us Merrily Down That Path by David Neiwert is a careful and detailed examination by a writer who knows what he’s talking about.

From Jonathan Stray, It’s not you: political journalism really is broken:

“Think for a minute what you could do about ____ that isn’t reading political news, then think if the political news you are reading helps you do that.”

Ben Smith (now editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, formerly a political reporter) responds:

Well, I’m not sure what I said in this post that is contingent on Trump doing well, Ben.

Dec. 8: Ben Smith sends a note to Buzzfeed staff:

Trump is operating far outside the political campaigns to which [our] guidelines usually apply.

It is, for instance, entirely fair to call him a mendacious racist, as the politics team and others here have reported clearly and aggressively: He’s out there saying things that are false, and running an overtly anti-Muslim campaign. Buzzfeed News’s reporting is rooted in facts, not opinion; these are facts.

PressThink, four years ago:

The lines are usually attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts.”

But suppose there arose on the political scene a practical caucus for the opposite view. We are entitled to our own facts, and we will show you what we think of your attempt to “check” us. If that happened, would the press know what to do?

“Here’s what those of us trapped inside the gilded New York-Washington brain cage miss: Trump may not be telling the truth, but he’s sure as hell telling their truth. This allows him to shatter most conventions of presidential campaigning, especially the notion that you have to run a positive campaign (or at least outsource your vitriol to surrogates) in order to win.” —Glenn Thrush, Politico. (My italics.)

Responding to this post, Dan Kennedy says we should all calm down:

Trump is not winning, and he’s not going to win. Members of the political press may wring their hands over their inability to convince Trump’s supporters that his lies, his outrageous statements, and even his flirtation with fascism should disqualify him from the presidency. But the overwhelming majority of the public wants nothing to do with Trump.

I think it’s helpful to see Trump as akin to an independent supplier of programming to the big media companies. His candidacy for president is like a hit show, also called “Trump,” that performs better than the product made by the media company’s own people. That’s why he has barely has to spend anything on ads. That’s why he gets to call in to 4 out of 5 Sunday shows. Now add in the fact that in horse race journalism — or “who’s ahead?” coverage — the instructions start with: first establish a frontrunner…. The polls say that must be Trump. Put the two together: hit show, horse race, frontrunner. It’s doubtful the political press can think its way out of that box.

In a lighter vein, the way Jake Tapper says “Seriously?” to a Trump spokesperson in this clip is one of the highlights of the 2016 campaign. Click the clip; it won’t take long.

Interesting observation from Nate Silver.

Blogging is doing your work in public.

Fair warning: self-referential post. Don’t enjoy granular reflections on shifts in blogging practice? Best to turn back now! If you do, well—

1 Oct 2015 5:37 pm 6 Comments

Best I have seen at it is Melody Kramer, recently of NPR, Nieman Foundation and the Federal government. You should follow her. She’s fab. But lots of people work the same way. Maybe you do. This post started as a note on Facebook. Dave Winer told me to turn it into a PressThink entry. I’m in a long-term conversation with Dave about blogging. So here I am.

I define blogging as doing my work in public. I thought I would explain how I approach that.

When I was asked to moderate a public discussion with two executives from Twitter I said yes because that’s ‘doing your work in public.’ 11988634_10152957659491548_521727873635550800_nWhen I figured out my questions, I compressed them into tweets and posted them live as I put them to the guests. Doing your work in public.

I thought Twitter would soon face a problem that I have tried to alert Facebook about. (I posted my alerts on the Washington Post site, the Atlantic.com, and PressThink.) You have to learn to level with us about the kind of filter you’re becoming. Don’t hide behind mystifications like, “We don’t control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed.”

For Twitter: level with us about the kind of editorial company you plan to be. I wanted to not only put this to Twitter at a live event, but write about it later, because I felt too little attention had been paid to a “switch” moment when Twitter becomes an editorial brand with a curation product. I had to pose the question in a unique-to-me way, a compression that would have to travel across different platforms and reception points.

I asked the Twitter execs that: live. I rephrased and reframed the question so there could be no doubt what I was driving at. The clip of our exchange became the “text” I would later blog about. I took my time writing it because no one else wanted the clip, no one else had put the question in that way, and — as a writer in my conceit I believed — no one else was seeing this crossover moment for Twitter in the way that I was. So I revised it until I was satisfied.

Then I took a week to figure out how to distribute the thing. A couple of online publications turned me down, probably because the piece doesn’t read like an article. It reads like a blog post. One thing that’s different about blogging today compared to when I started in 2003: now you have to “go where the people are” online. You can’t rely on them coming to you just because you published something new.

For discussing the moves Twitter was about to make with Project Lightning, one of the best online spaces I could imagine was the comments at Fred Wilson’s blog, AVC.com. That’s where (some of) the people are. So I asked him, over Twitter: Do you allow guest posts? He said not typically, why? “I have something that would be perfect for your commenter community,” I said. He said post it and send me the link, maybe I will blog about it. Deal! (He did and it was excellent.)

Months ago I had been asked to cross-post on LinkedIn something I wrote for my own site. The people who run the publishing wing of LinkedIn said if I cross-posted they would guarantee me some promotional juice. I turned them down, but for this ‘Twitter soul’ post I contacted the same editors and asked if the deal was still on. After they read the post, they said: sure. Editor’s Pick and morning newsletter placement the next day. And I could publish it on PressThink at the same time, an important principle for me. Deal. (The final product on LinkedIn.)

LinkedIn would, yes, get me more traffic than I could get on my own. (34,000 page views so far. Modest numbers but this is niche publishing. Accuracy counts more.) Traffic alone does me little good. But LinkedIn + the AVC.com post + pushing the piece out through my own network on Twitter and Facebook = pretty good. The next day they read it inside Twitter. The people working on Project Lightning read it. A lot of people who didn’t know about Twitter becoming an editorial company now do. And the public cry, “level with us about what kind of editorial company you intend to be…” has been joined a little. (We still don’t know.)

My point in telling you this? Blogging is not the post I wrote that appears at PressThink or on LinkedIn— or Atlantic.com if they pick me up. “Blogging” is the whole thing: accepting the invitation, tweeting the questions, creating a clip by asking what is good to blog about later, publishing the step-back explainer, crafting a distribution plan and negotiating for a make-shift guest shot at AVC.com, participating in the comment section at Fred Wilson’s site.

All of that is blogging. ‘Doing your work in public.’

With its curation product Twitter becomes an editorial beast. Does this beast have a soul?

At a recent event produced by the NY Daily News Innovation Lab, I had a chance to interview Adam Sharp, head of news, government and elections at Twitter, and Niketa Patel, news partnerships manager.

29 Sep 2015 2:21 pm 2 Comments

The part I bring to your attention — and ask you to watch if you have a special interest — is in reply to this question:

Going into this event we knew that Project Lightning — a Twitter improvement scheme that launches this fall — will curate best-of-Twitter streams on big topics and big events. We knew it would hire professional journalists to create that product. We knew it was meant to solve problems of discovery for users who are not experts.

Things we did not know: Twitter’s editorial idea here is… what?

Or does it even need one at this stage? Is it better off without? That is part of what I meant by asking Twitter’s News and Government team: does this new beast — curation Twitter, editorial Twitter — have a soul yet? Would a platform company already have that kind of thing ghosting around within itself? Or does it go outside and obtain it somehow?

Here’s the clip, about eleven minutes including follow-ups. (Excerpted from this video by the Daily News Innovation Lab.) Specialists: watch the whole thing. Generalists and the time-starved: read my commentary on the other side.

from Studio 20 on Vimeo.

A summary of what Twitter said in reply. (Q. “How do we know this beast has a soul?”)

* People at Twitter love news. They’re obsessed. You may not realize how deep this runs.
* We’re hiring professional journalists to curate for us. They come with souls, right? (Right.)
* Anyone can check up on us as selectors in the stream. Anyone can critique our selections.
* We equip our partners and users with good curation tools so our voice isn’t the only voice.
* We have a vocal user base. They will let us know if we’re somehow drifting off course.
* Twitter has a lot of experience in resisting commercial pressures and protecting the product.
* The curation team is working on a set of principles. They’re not done yet.

Pieces of a solid answer. “Anyone” cannot access the firehose or use the tools that company curators will use to tame the stream, so “checking up” in that sense is not really possible. But Twitter has a point. The materials from which it is sifting are themselves public: zillions of tweets. It will be easy to argue with their choices.

As I sifted through Twitter’s answers I came to one they should have given:

* Fighting attempted shutdowns by hostile states in situations where Twitter is most needed takes a First Amendent heart. Is that what you meant?

Yes! That is what I meant. When Twitter starts curating, where does the juice factor come from? Are there any animating ideas? Should we expect Twitter to debut with editorial passions that will find strong expression in its curation product? Human rights, for example. Foundation topic for editorial Twitter, or ‘cover when newsworthy, curate when called for?’ View from somewhere, to start off? Or a more generic product, with borrowed verticals — news, sports, business, entertainment — signaling “the approach of having no distinct approach.”

To me these are fair questions. They are of interest to people who use Twitter in their daily routines (as I do.) It’s fair too for Twitter not to have very good answers yet, as they have yet to launch Project Lightning. But we know a little. Buzzfeed’s glimpse came in June 2015:

On Twitter’s mobile app, there will be a new button in the center of the home row. Press it and you’ll be taken to a screen that will show various events taking place that people are tweeting about. These could be based on prescheduled events like Coachella, the Grammys, or the NBA Finals. But they might also focus on breaking news and ongoing events, like the Nepalese earthquake or Ferguson, Missouri. Essentially, if it’s an event that a lot of people are tweeting about, Twitter could create an experience around it.

…What kind of experience? “A team of editors, working under Katie Jacobs Stanton, who runs Twitter’s global media operations, will select what it thinks are the best and most relevant tweets and package them into a collection.”

I turned my interest dial up to 11 at that point. ‘Journalism’ had been struck.

No one knows if these new screens or tabs will grow to become the main way people access Twitter. (More about them here.) No one knows if they will have any significant effect. The problem they were intended to solve is that Twitter can be a confusing mess with lots of noise, especially for new users. By creating a curated, best-of version of itself Twitter Inc. wants to make it easier for people to find value in Twitter the service, especially around big events. This is from The Verge’s very good Q and A with Kevin Weil, Twitter’s head of product.

One of the things we’ve talked about with Project Lightning is the idea of a temporary or an event-based follow. The idea is that as the VMAs conversation is playing out, in Project Lightning, you’re getting the best of this particular conversation. You’re seeing it curated live, so you can go and flip through it in a very immersive view of this conversation. You can also follow it, and when you follow the best tweets from that conversation or that event or that location or the game or whatever, it will be added to your home timeline as they happen… It’s instant, it’s immersive, and you can immediately understand what’s going on in your world as it plays out on Twitter. It will give you an entirely new appreciation for the richness and the depth of content on Twitter, but there’s also a beautiful connection between the home timeline and Project Lightning via this idea of a temporary follow.

Makes sense to me. But notice these terms: “the best of…” “the best tweets from that conversation.” We understand what he’s saying but there’s any number of ways to judge “best.” Which is yours, Twitter? “Pick the best” doesn’t say anything: on purpose. (A group of my graduate students were there and they all reacted harshly to this part.)

But Twitter is saying a lot by launching Project Lightning.

It will offer us media-rich best-of feeds that are hand picked by its own hand picked editors— assisted by machines. It will recommend them to users and make them easy to find. Here, I think, Twitter steps into another line of work. It is becoming in one part of itself an editorial company, a maker of news products. It is also starting to compete with power users and news companies that make similar “curation” products. This is from a job description for one of the editors:

We’re looking for a skilled editorial mind to lead a small team that will identify the best Tweets, photos, Vines and videos around the biggest real-world events and high profile opportunities. The ideal candidate has experience managing editorial teams in a digital newsroom and is familiar with using Twitter content to craft stories. Candidates should have experience leading editorial in one or more mainstream content verticals such as news, sports, entertainment, etc.

See? An editorial company now in one part of itself.

If Twitter’s streams catch on big then maybe getting yourself into one starts to become the point of posting a lot on Twitter. Which in turn means figuring out what Twitter’s editors want. But we already have that situation with Facebook. Which is why I asked the News and Government team: on what points of continued differentiation will Twitter be counting? (Go to 9:18 on this clip.)

Of the answers Twitter gave to the soul question the one I like the most is: People at Twitter love news. They’re obsessed. I believe it. And I think it will influence the curation product. This is from the New Yorker’s 2013 profile of Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder and current CEO. As a kid he fell hard for police radio and ambulance movements, which he saw as status updates.

He was thrilled by the police scanner, and still remembers its staccato transmissions. “They were reporting constantly, and they’re reporting three things usually. No. 1, where they are. No. 2, where they’re going. And, No. 3, what they’re doing. So, for an ambulance in St. Louis: ‘I’m at Fifth and Broadway, I’m going to St. John’s Mercy, patient in cardiac arrest.’ ”

1110156608_d859f17f54_mDorsey wanted to chart these movements. In 1984, when he was eight, his father bought him an I.B.M. PC Jr.; three years later, he was given a Macintosh. St. Louis was a technologically advanced city then, home to McDonnell Douglas and Southwestern Bell. Phrack, an online magazine for hackers, was based there. Washington University let locals use its computer network, and Dorsey tapped in so that he could gain access to the Internet.”

With Twitter Dorsey got to chart the movements of the ambulances— and a lot more. Twitter was born of a love for news systems. I know it’s pretentious and everything and I do apologize for that, but editorial Twitter needs its own (incorruptible) soul, related to the love of news for sure but equally about independence, truthelling and giving the mic to people: picking who has voice.

A lot rides on Project Lightning. Let’s see it before we assess. (UPDATE: it launched.) And the curation principles: let’s seem them when they’re ready. If I were a VC, a shareholder or an employee with a big stake in Twitter getting this right, I would be slightly concerned if the choice is simply to import consensus practice and “apply” it to make Lightning happen. “We have a professional newsroom now” you can proudly say, skipping over the part where you say what a technology company uses one of those for.

(Published simultaneously on LinkedIn. Photo credit: Mai Le.)

Huffington Post says it will frame Trump’s campaign as entertainment. I support that.

"Newsrooms should be more up front with us about how they classify the candidates. Can't even take the guy seriously? Tell us!"

19 Jul 2015 10:23 am 18 Comments


This was the entire announcement. Lets look at it again:

[Huff Post Politics] A Note About Our Coverage Of Donald Trump’s ‘Campaign’

Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post
Danny Shea, Editorial Director, The Huffington Post

After watching and listening to Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president, we have decided we won’t report on Trump’s campaign as part of The Huffington Post’s political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.

That’s concise. But there was no bill of particulars for the claim, “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow.” Huffington Post made a statement. It made no attempt to persuade people to it. Presumably the editors thought the evidence sufficiently clear for the basic equation: Trump campaign = entertainment.

I might have done it differently — I would have added a bill of particulars — but I support what Huffington Post did.

1. In that missing bill of particulars might have appeared this, heard on Meet the Press two weeks ago. I could show you hundreds of statements just like it from learned pundits and campaign correspondents. Here is the tireless author of the Washington Post’s The Fix blog (it’s for political junkies.)

CHRIS CILLIZZA: I certainly agree that Trump loves being anyone’s foil because it means we’re talking about him, right? And then I think this is a car accident candidacy, Donald Trump, which is essentially there’s a car accident. You don’t want to slow down. You don’t want to look. But there’s always traffic because everybody slows down and everybody looks, right? And that’s Donald Trump.

Right: that’s Trump. So to classify his campaign as entertainment is to share in — but extend a little bit — what Chris Cillizza and his colleagues have done hundreds of times in their columns and on air. There’s a different logic operating here, they have told us. The logic of… person who is a walking car wreck. A more innocent term for it is “showman.” An even milder, vaguer term is entertainment.

2. A car wreck is entertainment only in this sense: it produces attention from gruesome spectacle alone, not by persuading you of its goodness or fitness or information value. Anything that compels a look or gets ’em talking can be entertaining. 512px-Donald_Trump_by_Gage_SkidmoreWe know this from social life and media life. If you’re willing to be that person who is a walking car wreck, the attention problem is easier to solve. Trump is willing. Other candidates are not. Whatever “issue” he’s talking about at the moment, the problem he’s trying to solve is continuity of attention for the figurine Trump. You can’t assess that sort of campaign in the same way, even though it might affect The Race. Even though it might have political consequences that are quite real.

3. ‘There’s a different logic driving Trump’s campaign. So we re-classified it.’ This is what I understand the Huffington Post to be saying. To me it is a sensible proposition. (Trump’s response.)

4. Yes, I think journalists should be involved in such judgments. Exactly so. What is the logic of this candidacy? Who is a serious candidate for president? Who is not capable? These are exactly the assessments editors and reporters have to be making as they review the field and decide how to “spend” scarce coverage units. They’re not deciding who we vote for. They’re deciding how best to render the field. Who is a serious foreign policy candidate? Who has proposals for addressing inequality that are worthy of more discussion? Campaign journalists should be able to tell us, and then point to the record so we can check our judgment against theirs.

Part of the reason I support what Huff Post did with its Trump coverage is that I think newsrooms should be more up front with us about how they classify the candidates. Can’t even take the guy seriously? Tell us why! It will help in evaluating your coverage. Huff Post struck a blow for editorial transparency when it said: For us, Trump’s campaign is best classified as entertainment.

5. A “symbolic” blow it was, however. From what I can tell, not that much will be different in the way the Huffington Post reports on Trump. It’s not going to ignore the Trump phenomenon. Journalistically speaking, it can’t. The big summer project from Trump studios is affecting the other candidates. It could affect the fortunes of the Republican party. (We don’t know this yet.) It says something about the GOP’s current state that Trump could get this far. And there’s clearly commercial demand for the show among readers and viewers, as well as cable bookers. So let’s be clear: the Huffington Post will still be reporting on Trump’s campaign. But as Ryan Grim said Saturday on Twitter: “It’s reported on first as entertainment. The distinction is symbolic.”

6. As rendered here:

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 2.27.51 PM

“The distinction is symbolic.” Yes. Also difficult to observe in a wholly consistent way.

7. I asked Ryan Grim: If the move Huff Post made is symbolic — not a big shift in practice so much as a statement — what are you trying to say? He told me:

The media aren’t passive bystanders to history, but very much active participants, whether we like it or not. Polls at the early stages are largely a function of name ID. And since Trump entered the race, he has consumed the bulk of coverage and unsurprisingly he is rising in the polls, a phenomenon the media point to to justify even more coverage. It’s self-fulfilling absurdity. And we can choose to do it differently. That’s the message we’re sending.

Especially in the early stages of campaigns what appears to be significant is often a reflection of patterns in media coverage. Patterns in media coverage are a reflection of… well, that’s the problem. Huff Post is saying: We know we’re participants, as well as observers. In our role as framer of coverage and classifier of candidates we stand thusly on Trump’s 2016 campaign: its first logic is entertainment. Don’t agree with us? Fine. You know where we’re coming from.

To me that is progress. “The media aren’t passive bystanders, but participants…” is progress.

8. The opposing position was put forward by… Chris Cillizza, reacting to Huffington Post’s announcement:

Who are we to decide who’s serious and who’s not in an election? Trump’s polling suggests that, whether you like him or not and whether you think his campaign is a sideshow or not, plenty of people who identify as both Republicans and likely voters don’t see him that way. It’s not up to me, The Washington Post or the Huffington Post to decide the relative merits of people feeling that way. It’s our job to understand why they feel that way, analyze how long they might feel that way and figure out what it means for everyone else running for president that they feel that way.

In other words: We don’t know we’re participants. Maybe we’re just observers!

Other reactions I saw from journalists took a similar tack. If you dismiss Trump as entertainment you are telling the voters who support him that they are clowns and asses and dupes. But these are real voters! You can’t say that about them. (Real voters don’t show up until January 2016, of course, but never mind…)

Who are we to decide who’s serious and who’s not? The obvious trouble for journalists is they’re already doing that— but by default. As Ryan Grim said. “[Trump] has consumed the bulk of coverage and unsurprisingly he is rising in the polls, a phenomenon the media point to to justify even more coverage.”

9. I would have done it differently. I would have announced the policy with a detailed work of analysis that gives chapter and verse about early primary polls and media coverage. (Some of that started to emerge here.) I would have made sure that Trump-made news really doesn’t appear in the Politics section. (“We were ironing out kinks yesterday, but that’ll be how we handle it going forward,” Grim said Sunday morning.) And instead of asking political journalists to struggle with the entertainment logic of the Trump candidacy, I’d also ask entertainment journalists to struggle with the political consequences of the Trump production.

10. “That Trump has any support at all is a genuine phenomenon and has implications that are serious,” Grim told me. “That should be covered seriously. What we’re saying is that Trump himself shouldn’t be.” Again, seems sensible to me. And there are signs this weekend of peak Trump so maybe the problem will go away.

But what the Huffington Post did should be recalled as a slip in solidarity that revealed something about the campaign press: it likes the default settings and the circularity they create. It does not like dissent from them. That’s grandstanding. (Politico.) That’s childish. (Bloomberg.) I disagree: “We will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section…” is the work of fed-up and free-thinking adults.

Photo credits: Neelex and Gage Skidmore.