Full stack credibility

There are benefits to operating a news site that not only publishes journalism you can trust, but extends trust production all the way through the start-up “stack.”

16 Mar 2015 11:24 pm 2 Comments

Last week Jim Brady, founder and funder of the Philadelphia mobile-first news start-up, Billy Penn, published a progress report 18 weeks after launch. “Our philosophy has been simple,” Brady wrote. “Think of the user first, and then worry about everything else.” To illustrate he included this chart: bradychart
Brady’s point in releasing a column of zeroes was to show that Billy Penn’s growth curve was modest but real. It had not been goosed by page view gimmicks, like dividing up a single article into multiple screens just to force some extra clicks.

There’s a bigger idea there, which I would call full stack credibility. Brady obviously believes there are benefits to operating a news site that not only publishes journalism you can trust, but extends trust production all the way through the start-up “stack.” Thus: monthly traffic figures you can trust. Or the kind of aggregation you can trust. (Dave Winer once captured it with his phrase, “People come back to sites that send them away.”)

Brady writes:

That’s not to say we’ll never do a relevant slideshow. But we won’t do them just for page views, since slideshows are often relatively valueless to a local advertiser. And we won’t paginate, because — let’s be honest — that’s never done for the reader. We won’t rewrite someone else’s story in order to hijack page views. The site that produces the original work deserves the traffic. Plus, every minute the Billy Penn staff spends “aggregating” someone else’s story is a minute we’re not producing our own.

That word “deserves” suggests a kind of moral philosophy at work, a theory of online justice. “Thou shall strive for a just distribution of traffic.” Link unto others as you would have them link unto you. You may have no other gods before the users. But if it were just about moralizing, full stack credibility would not be of much interest. Brady thinks there are business benefits:

We want to earn every page view, and focus on increasing that number by relentlessly serving our users. By doing that, we think we’ll create a better environment for advertisers and marketers, since they’ll have a better sense of our audience and more confidence their ads will be seen by the right consumer. In a sense, we’re pursuing a strategy that treasures “time well spent” over any other metric.

Not time spent, but well spent. It’s that little difference I am pointing to.

Definition: When you try to make not just the journalism, but every layer of the operation trust-worthy — not because you’re saints in start-up clothes but because you believe an editorial business operates better that way — that’s full stack credibility.

Now, almost 20 years of writing on the internet has taught me the necessity of adding something here: I’m not claiming there is anything “new” in this philosophy, or that it is original to Jim Brady or Billy Penn. I’m not saying Brady and Co. always live up to it, or that they can’t be caught in a contradiction. I’m sure they can be. I’m sure they will be. I’m not saying no one has written about this before, or given other, fitter names to it.

Look: in some ways it’s the oldest (and sappiest) chapter in the business evangelism book: serve customers, make a good product, practice thrift, show integrity in all your dealings… and you will prosper. If only it were so simple, right?

Credibility in editorial work is harder than it looks. That’s what I am saying. It’s not enough to produce stories that hold up to scrutiny. It’s not enough to nail the facts, or justify the headline. Those are vital. But there are other factors involved.

In a recent post at Nieman Lab, Celeste LeCompte, previously managing editor and director of product for Gigaom Research, notes what many others have noted about the sudden demise of that site: the editorial staff was blindsided.

Gigaom, like most private media companies, didn’t share much detail about its finances with employees. Editorial teams, in particular, are often left out of any open discussions on such matters. Few journalists that I’ve met know much about the state of their company’s finances, except maybe the freelance and travel budgets — and that’s about as far as the knowledge runs. This lack of financial transparency is pervasive throughout the industry — and it’s a problem that media companies would be wise to fix.

LeCompte doesn’t leave it at that. She tells the story of a small media company she worked for that adopted open-book accounting for its staff.

It was a revelation. Sure, as a business journalist, I was used to asking companies about their numbers, looking at earnings statements and SEC filings every now and then. But companies are usually doing whatever they can to put their best foot forward, even in their published numbers. A front-row seat on the finances of my own employer was a different matter entirely.

The transparency made me both a better reporter and a better employee. I could see more clearly the real costs of running the business: how the cashflow cycles worked, how the different business units were related, and what was working — and what wasn’t — for our own products. That enabled me to ask better questions about why decisions were made — and sometimes to understand why big changes needed to happen, even if I didn’t like them.

Full stack credibility says that what you tell your employees about the state of the business also has to be credible. That’s no homily. “Sometimes the most difficult challenges you have in the business are interdisciplinary ones,” LeCompte’s ex-boss told her. (He’s still sharing the finances with his staff.) “You need people in different parts of the business to work on it.” They can’t do that if they are kept in the dark, as Gigaom’s writers and editors were.

Writing about the same events, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land described a class of successful niche publications that have credible business models.

Over at The Information, Jessica Lessin’s kick-ass crew has been producing some of the most outstanding tech coverage you’ve ever seen. That’s not for a mass audience, since most of the masses aren’t going to shell-out $400 per year for it. But it doesn’t matter to Jessica, because as long as she’s got the audience she needs paying the bills and producing profits for her company to do great journalism, she’s good.

That’s part of full stack credibility too. The business makes transparent sense. Where the journalism plugs into the model is clear. The case for quality is compelling. The scale is livable and smart. In the whole contraption one can trust.

Our reporting is truthful but our page view metrics lie: that does not compute. (Many sites have this problem.) We want transparency from the companies we cover but we leave our employees in the dark: sign of a weak business. (Gigaom showed us that.) OriginalPancakes (1)You can rely on us for hard information but we make it hard to reach us if you have information: not credible. (Reuters has this problem.) We’re fast to post but slow to correct: no good no matter who you are.

I know what you’re thinking: where is the limit? Must there be total transparency about everything or nothing works? Do you have to give away all your secrets, let employees know about every setback suffered or dime spent? Must you really be holier than your industry’s thou? This is not what I’m saying, though I realize I am risking that read. I’m just not a good enough writer to avoid it!

Last try: It’s not “are you credible?” It’s: how many layers are you credible at? Full stack credibility is a philosophy that says: we may need all of them for any of them to work well. Sure, it’s a demanding standard, but that doesn’t mean it’s impractical. It may be the best way to build a news company that lasts.

 

NBC would be insane to let Brian Williams return

"Put yourself in Steve Burke’s chair. You have learned that the guy to whom your company gave the top job doesn’t really desire it..."

14 Mar 2015 11:16 pm 46 Comments

Brian Stelter of CNN recently reported that Lester Holt, filling in as anchor of NBC Nightly News, was doing well in the ratings, so well that it would be hard for NBC to hand the job back to Brian Williams when he returns from his six-month suspension for making stuff up. According to Stelter’s sources, there is a lot of support for Holt among the rank and file at NBC News.

“This makes it impossible for them not to give it to Lester, if this continues,” one of them said.

I don’t make predictions and I have no sources inside NBC News telling me what is likely to happen, but looking at the whole episode (which I have written about before) there is no plausible way NBC News can restore Brian Williams to the job of anchoring the nightly news and serving as “face of the brand.” I’m not saying it won’t happen, only that NBC would be insane to do it.

Three reasons. Put them together, and I see no way Steve Burke, CEO of NBC Universal, can bring Williams back. By all accounts it will be Burke’s call. Here is what he has to get over:

1. Williams didn’t care if what he was saying about his experiences in Iraq was true. I think that’s the right way to put it. He did not have sufficient regard for truthtelling as the sacred duty of news people everywhere. He chose “makes a good story” (and “look at me, mom!”) over “what actually happened.” He did this not once but many times. For a journalist leading a network news division that by itself is a huge problem.

2. Williams dishonored the courage and sacrifice of NBC war correspondents. This violates another sacred duty in big league journalism. And that is to recognize that those who routinely place their lives on the line by basing themselves in conflict zones — reporters, producers, photographers, fixers — are in a different moral category from those who parachute in when there’s a big story, or those who, say, sacrifice their social lives by working long hours.Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 10.25.48 AM By imagining himself in more danger than he really was, Williams demonstrated that he did not have sufficient regard for these differences. That too is a huge factor weighing against him, especially within the peer culture at NBC, which he is supposed to lead and inspire.

Still, it’s at least conceivable that these two difficulties, serious though they are, could be surmounted with the right kind of apology and public reflection by Williams upon his return. He could show that he knows how badly he screwed up and try to restore himself to good standing through a searching self-examination, conducted in public through a speech, interview or broadcast report. There wasn’t any sign of that when the story broke (his initial apology was disastrous) but we haven’t heard from Williams since the gravity of the situation sunk in, so we don’t know how far reaching his self-reflections are.

But I see no way of surmounting…

3.) Williams doesn’t believe that anchoring the news is a big enough job for him. It’s been reported, it’s been chuckled about, but I don’t think we appreciate how damning this paragraph is. From Gabriel Sherman’s March 8 story in New York Magazine:

Comedy would have been a path out of [Tom] Brokaw’s shadow. A few years ago, Williams told Burke he wanted to take over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Burke dismissed the idea and instead offered Williams a weekly prime-time program called Rock Center. Williams hoped it might develop into a variety show. But Rock Center ended up more like a softer 60 Minutes, and it was canceled after two middling seasons. Undeterred, Williams pitched CBS CEO Les Moonves about succeeding David Letterman, according to a high-level source, but Moonves wasn’t interested.

Amazing. Twice Brian Williams tried to escape from the anchor’s job to a position more attractive to him— and, in his mind, more befitting his talents. Leaving aside his delusions about what it takes to succeed at comedy night after night, this attempt to defect from the state of news to the entertainment sphere is disqualifying on its face. Television news is full of ambitious people. The most ambitious want to be on camera. The most ambitious of those want to be anchors or show hosts. And the most ambitious of those want to anchor the nightly news for 7-10 million people per night plus $5 to $10 million a year.

In many more ways than one, the job Williams had is the top job in network news, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted a different job, at the summit of stand-up comedy, making and breaking the careers of all the strivers below while getting big laughs himself as the slick pro behind the fake desk. Like Letterman, like Leno, like Jon Stewart, his Jersey pal.

Put yourself in Steve Burke’s chair. You have learned that in news the guy to whom your company gave the top job doesn’t really desire it. He would rather be doing something else. Now you have to decide whether to bring him back from suspension. You have this report on your desk that documents how he made up stuff about himself, deeply embarrassing your network. And he insulted the courage of your most heroic employees by stealing some of it for personal aggrandizement. The rank and file is cheering for his replacement. Plus, he doesn’t want you. He wants late night comedy more.

Is that even a hard call?

Bill O’Reilly is a performance artist, and his genre is “resentment news.”

Sunday I appeared on CNN, trying, along with 'Reliable Sources' host Brian Stelter, to describe what's different about Fox News— and to explain why Bill O'Reilly isn't in trouble with his bosses for making stuff up. These are my notes.

2 Mar 2015 8:30 am 24 Comments

First, the clip:

And here are my notes, attempting to explicate what I said on CNN.

1. Fox News Channel is a niche product. A very successful niche product: news for people who don’t trust the rest of the news media. (Total audience for the three network evening newscasts: about 25-27 million. O’Reilly on his best night: 3.3 million.) If the rest of the news media is raising questions about Bill O’Reilly’s veracity, this is not only not a problem for Fox. It’s the sort of event that turns the gears of the machine. “Trust us: they’re not to be trusted.”

2. I hear this a lot from people on social media: ‘O’Reilly is an entertainer, not a journalist!’ I know what they mean. They’re not wrong. But I think it is more correct to say that O’Reilly is a performance artist. The medium is television. The genre is “resentment news.” I first wrote about it in 2003:

There’s never been a face-of-the-brand in network news who is deliberately styled hot (in McLuhan’s terms.) O’Reilly blows up a lot. He is wired for argument and controversy because he is willing to fight the spin of others with righteous spin of his own. And he has another advantage, for which he does not get enough notice. He’s willing to make fans by having active enemies. Indeed, making enemies is basic to his appeal, and that’s where Terry Gross and the rest of the establishment press factor themselves in. They supply what O’Reilly’s genre — resentment news — demands.

In 1989, Bill O’Reilly quit ABC and became host of Inside Edition, a syndicated news-derived program sold to local stations. In the Establishment’s view, this is like moving to the trailer park. Thus, it took an outsider — in fact, an outcast — to make the imaginative leap from cool to hot in evening news. Not that there weren’t models. One obvious reference point for O’Reilly’s success is Sidney Lumet’s Network, the movie classic, (1976) that projected so brilliantly what angry populism would look like if it one day seized hold of TV news.

3. Nick Lemann wrote this about O’Reilly in The New Yorker in 2006: “Like every artist, he has created a territory that is distinctively his, and under anyone else’s supervision would not cohere.” That is true. Lemann goes on:

Part of the pleasure of “The O’Reilly Factor” is knowing that O’Reilly is a guy with a temper, and he might lose it. He reddens, sits up, and presses the guest, who may begin to stammer helplessly (in which case O’Reilly usually pulls back), or to backpedal and make excuses… (in which case O’Reilly keeps boring in), or to insult O’Reilly (in which case O’Reilly may begin yelling—the big payoff). He’s the beat cop for the American neighborhood, who may have been a little excessive at times, may occasionally have run afoul of Internal Affairs, but law-abiding folks trust him because they know he’s on their side. His liberal guests are like suspects he’s pulled over: in the end, he’s probably just going to frisk them and let them go with a genial warning, but if they try anything, well, he carries a nightstick for a reason.

4. In resentment news there are different stories every day, but the narrative never changes. A corrupt elite is trying to put one over on the decent, hard-working people of this country, and to destroy the simple virtues that made America great. There are many symbols of that — the news cycle provides them — but only one thing is ever symbolized.

5. The urtext for all analyses of The O’Reilly Factor is Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics:

I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes… It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content… The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.

6. Roger Ailes made a fateful decision when he created Fox News in 1996. He could have marketed it as the conservative alternative in news, or news that respects traditional values. That would still call out the market segment Fox is made for, and draw a contrast with the establishment media. It would have the additional advantage of being true— more or less. But as everyone knows Ailes did not do that. Instead: Fair and balanced. We report, you decide. As O’Reilly puts it: a no-spin zone. This guaranteed that a state of war with the so-called liberal media would always prevail at Fox because the obvious differences between the news agenda at Fox and the news agenda at NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS and NPR could not be explained as our spin vs. their spin. It had to be the heroic truthtellers at Fox vs. the forces of darkness at the other networks.

7. Here, Roger Ailes exploited a weakness in establishment journalism that in 1996 was dimly understood by its practitioners— or not understood at all. There was a submerged ideology in American newsrooms, populated as they were by people who were more cosmopolitan than “country,” more secular than religious. Journalists in the U.S. were vaguely progressive in the sense of welcoming social change (up to a point) and identifying (up to a point) with those who had grievances against traditional authority. Certainly there weren’t many denizens of the American newsroom eager to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” or who had supported the Vietnam War, or who saw Ronald Reagan as a cultural hero. And there weren’t many alert to the ideological undertow in a mission statement still popular among journalists: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Critics on the left are correct to say that if this is liberalism it is very weak tea. But critics on the right are correct to say that it sure isn’t neutral professionalism. Roger Ailes understood that the “mainstream” journalists his network was built to attack had an ideology that they were unwilling to defend, because they had never recognized it as an ideology. Instead they used terms like “news values.” They talked about standards and credibility and objectivity and being a good professional. They still do this.

It’s not that these terms didn’t mean anything, but they couldn’t capture enough to account for the world view that did in fact prevail in American newsrooms and did in fact conflict with the way a portion of the country — the conservative portion — saw things. That is the conflict that gave rise to Fox News. It was partly due to a misrecognition by journalists of their own belief system. They aren’t as liberal as the cartoon characterizations that are now commonplace on the American right, but they aren’t successful at taking the view from nowhere, either.

8. Finally, as I said on Twitter:

The “conflation” that Brian Williams confessed to began in 2003

Other NBC people were involved from the beginning.

8 Feb 2015 10:35 pm 14 Comments

In his weekly column David Carr of the New York Times wrote this about NBC’s Brian Williams troubled tale of getting shot at in a helicopter over Iraq in 2003.

It’s useful to note that Mr. Williams initially reported the story fundamentally as it had happened — although the soldiers on hand say he exaggerated the danger to himself even then — and over time, as he retold it, he moved into the middle of it, so that the story became something that happened to him. All those 1 percent enhancements add up and can leave the teller a long way from the truth.

It’s true that over time Brian Williams moved himself closer to the center of the story so that it “became something that happened to him.” But this motion — the one percent enhancements — began earlier than most of the reporting has so far said. (For example, today on his CNN program Brian Stelter said that Williams began to embellish the story in 2007.)

Today, a PressThink reader sent me this link. It’s from a book NBC published in 2003: Operation Iraqi Freedom: the Insider story. On p. 71 we find a photo of Brian Williams with some soldiers. The caption reads:

With NBC anchor Brian Williams, producer Justin Balding, and analyst General Wayne Balding, retired, aboard, Army Chinook helicopters are forced to make a desert landing after being attacked by Iraqi Fedayeen. For two nights, the NBC crew and their Army unit waited out the fierce sandstorm in the desert.

That says: With Williams and crew aboard, Chinook helicopters were forced to land after being attacked from the ground. But what we know now from the pilots involved is different: The Chinook helicopters with Williams and crew aboard were forced to land after getting caught in a sandstorm. (See these interviews with the pilots by CNN’s Stelter.) So right there the “moving to the middle” that Carr wrote about began: in September of 2003.

On the page before that (p. 70) the text says:

Producer Justin Balding recalls, “One of the chopper crews ahead of us spotted a pickup truck. As the Iraqis waved, a man suddenly ripped off the tarpaulin to reveal another man armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He took aim and fired.”

This describes as one mission what we now know was two: one 15 to 30 minutes behind the other, according to the pilots.

I would not call these massive discrepancies, or startling discoveries. But they do bear on a point I made in my last post. The involvement of other NBC personnel in misdescribing what went on that day is part of what makes this episode so disturbing.

Now add to that a small detail that Ed Morrissey of Hot Air and Jake Tapper of CNN picked up on. The original report that aired on NBC in 2003 edits in audio from another mission in a way that almost makes it sound like the flight that carried Williams came under fire. Stars and Stripes reporter Travis Tritten explains:

I spoke with the flight engineer on Williams’ Chinook, Joseph Miller, and what he told me is that Williams and the NBC crew, actually, they’d been given a headset and they had taken a microphone, and they had put it in the earpiece of the headset so that they could pick up the radio communications between the company that they were in and another company of Chinooks that was flying a separate mission in the opposite direction. So what you’re hearing is that radio chatter from that other company that was coming under fire.

To hear the audio jump to 3:50 in this clip from Tapper’s show:

Again: this is not earth-shattering evidence of deception. I am trying not to make too much of it. What it shows, I think, is that the “conflation” that Brian Williams described in his apology last week began with the first report in 2003, and built from there. Other NBC people were involved from the beginning. The question is why.

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

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

6 Feb 2015 2:13 pm 79 Comments

Part One: Feb. 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two: February 7, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: David Shankbone.

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

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

21 Jan 2015 6:04 pm 12 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

Bear with me as I try to explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Jack and Jason’s Pancakes.