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—

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.

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!”


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.


“I need people who can make good decisions without tilting it toward the forms they learned on or the skills they identify themselves with.”

I often ask editors and executives at news companies what kind of people they’re looking to hire. These two answers I get a lot.

The first: “Know any developers who want to work in news?” (No, sorry.) The second is a little more complicated. The conversation goes something like this:

“You know what I need?” person who hires journalists will say. “I need people who can look at the news and information situation they are handed, look at what we know about our users and how they behave, look at what we say and believe about our brand, look at all the digital tools we have now… and just make good decisions.” This one is photos and captions, that one is a timeline and a 1,500-word backgrounder. This is a video explainer with some animation, that is a chart with a graceful introduction. Let’s live blog it. “Audio clip with a good headline.” Quick commentary piece that makes one point.

“And if they can make a lot of these things themselves, they’re hired.”

Me to person who hires journalists: “I hear this from editors a lot: First figure out what the story is. Then decide what combination of media best tells the story.”

Person who hires journalists: “But maybe it’s not a story. Maybe it’s an interactive where you can look up the data on your neighborhood. That’s not ‘story.’ I need people who can make good decisions without tilting it toward the forms they learned on, or the skills they identify themselves with. Some very good editors can’t do that. Some very good writers can’t do that. Anyway, that’s what I need.”

Right. What’s the name for that talent?

UPDATE: Michele McLellan builds on this post with some observations of her own about the same problem. “True digital expertise takes much more than multimedia skills.”


The announcement that NBC did not make about Brian Williams getting a second chance there.

They had an opportunity to rid themselves of toxic anchorman syndrome and credibility collapse via celebrity behavior. But no…

This from Jonathan Mahler is dead on:

NBC’s handling of Mr. Williams suggests that the network is still clinging to an increasingly anachronistic vision of the anchor’s chair as a sacred throne, and the anchor as the voice of moral authority. It’s a response that seems in many ways tone-deaf to the striking changes in the way we consume information — changes that are reshaping the relationship between newscasters and consumers. The news anchor is no longer the embodiment of reason and truth; his voice is now just one of many. And network TV is just another platform.

Likewise: this from Frank Rich in April. (“Like the cockroach, the anchorman has outlasted countless changes in the ecosystem around him.”) In recognition of these facts, I took the liberty of composing a news release that did not happen this week. It’s my way of commenting on an opportunity missed by NBC.

Brian_Williams_and_wife_Jane_WilliamsThe announcement that Brian Williams would return to the newsroom — but Lester Holt would take over his old job — was a gift to NBC executives because it allowed them to retire an overgrown and ill-fitting job description (lead anchor as face of the brand, “anchor’s chair as a sacred throne…”) that is not only outmoded and hard to believe but actively harmful to the news division— and to the person who is is installed in that creaking chair.

They had a chance to rid themselves of toxic anchorman syndrome and credibility collapse via celebrity behavior. But they couldn’t grasp it. They refused the gift.

Here, then, is the press release they never wrote, but should have.

Imaginary press release starts here: don’t quote it out of context. I made this up!

NBC News announced today the eventual return of its suspended broadcaster, Brian Williams, to active duty and his replacement as anchor of NBC Nightly News by Lester Holt, NBC veteran and Weekend Anchor, who had been filling in for Williams during an investigation of misstatements he made about his reporting work for NBC.

“Lester stepped into the anchor chair in a trying time and has really come through for us,” said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. ‘We are lucky to have him and I know he will continue to do great things at NBC News for years to come.”

Brian Williams, the network announced, will re-join MSNBC as anchor of breaking news and special reports. He will occasionally anchor “live special reports” on NBC when Holt is unable to or better used elsewhere. “Brian now has the chance to earn back everyone’s trust,” said NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack. “His excellent work over twenty-two years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity.”

Previous anchors had been named managing editor of the NBC Nightly News and were considered responsible for the final program. In a note to staff, Lack announced that this tradition would end, and the anchor’s job would be right-sized for a different era in journalistic authority. “Brian himself has said that ego got in his way, with disastrous results,” Lack said. “We do not think that was just a personal failing.”

After its internal review of Williams past misstatements, NBC and Comcast executives engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of possible remedies. Leadership came to the conclusion that a management decision by its top executives, not one or two but a succession of them, had allowed the lead anchor position to evolve into a principality of its own, ruled by one voice: the anchor’s.

The review also found that NBC and Comcast had encouraged Williams to play up his celebrity status and devote more of his after-work hours to appearing on entertainment television. This was part of a plan to appeal to younger viewers by making the face of the NBC News brand a friendly and familiar one with obvious standing in cultural venues outside of news.

“Face of the brand, ambassador for the news division in other media spaces, managing editor of the flagship broadcast, hard working anchor for NBC Nightly News, symbolic leader of the news troops at NBC, globe-trotting reporter when a big story hits, charming and funny celebrity for the talk show set, trusted on-air guide when a crisis requires the network to go live— that is far too much for any person, any position,” said Andrew Lack in his note to staff. “We allowed it to get out of hand.”

NBC said that the lead anchor position would still exist, that its salary would stay the same or rise, and that Lester Holt, a popular figure inside and outside NBC, would not only anchor the NBC Nightly News but also preside over the network’s live coverage, such as elections, a president’s speech to the nation, or a major news event like Hurricane Katrina.

“Lester Holt is our lead anchor,” said Comcast CEO Steve Burke. “We want him to focus on the news and maintaining the trust of our viewers, not his own celebrity in a cultural space outside the news.”

Andrew Lack, in his note to NBC staff, said: “When we go live, Lester Holt will preside over the broadcast, introducing and connecting the work of NBC journalists while explaining to viewers what is going on. Anchoring ‘Nightly’ and sliding into the hot seat for live coverage: these will be the core duties of NBC’s lead anchor going forward. We are reducing a bloated job description to two key elements, and re-setting everyone’s expectations.”

Lack made it clear that the executive producer of NBC Nightly News — not the anchor — would have the final word on all editorial decisions. “We are going to eliminate any ambiguity about that.”

NBC also announced that the “roving anchor” model, in which the entire broadcast shifts to a breaking news location so the anchor can be visible on scene, would be retired and the dollar savings used to put more reporting resources on the ground at major news events. “The anchorman as ‘voice of god,’ if it ever did exist, does not describe the media world of today,” Lack said. “By right-sizing the position we plan to give Lester Holt everything he needs to succeed for many years to come.”

— Imaginary press release ends here: don’t quote it out of context. I made it all up! —

Earlier from me on the Brian Williams mess:

* NBC would be insane to let Brian Williams return (March 14, 2015.)

* Brian Williams has not led. What’s an anchor for? (Feb. 6, 2015.)

Here is Brian Williams interviewed by NBC’s Matt Lauer about his return to the network.


Campaign reporters: you are granted no “role in the process.” It is your powers against theirs.

Forget it: there is no guaranteed “role.” That’s a fiction you and your colleagues created to keep the game the same every four years.

So Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post — whose mission in life is to explain to us how things really work in politics — is rolling along in his “Hillary Clinton is shamefully avoiding the press” column when he cries out to us:

Do you not think it is of value to know how Hillary Clinton spent her time since leaving the State Department? And how the Clinton Foundation handled its business with various donors who would, undoubtedly, still be in the picture if she was elected president? Or what she thinks of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the fight currently happening in Congress? Or Iran? Or the Middle East?

You get the idea. The role of the media in this process is to show voters who these people are, really, and to explain how these people would govern the country if elected. Like the media or not, that’s a very important role — and one that is essential to a functioning democracy. (My italics.)

The role of the media in this process? What on earth are you talking about, Chris?

You’re supposed to be our super-savvy guide to the way things are in the power game that is national politics. You are the least sentimental creature to walk that system’s halls… remember? No one can out-realism you! You’re Mister “let me tell you how it really works.” That’s your whole franchise. And yet here you are, bawling about “the role of the media” as if it had some sort of guaranteed status within what reporters (mindlessly) call the process.

Who could possibly be the guarantor of this role? The Constitution? (Grow up.) The Federal Election Commission? (Get real.) The political parties? (They’re too busy communicating over the top.) The voters? (I don’t think so.) Role in the process… Says who? The political system evolves, man. You’re supposed to track that for us. (Link!)

Check this out, savvy class:

Yahoo PR has not called me back in three years, and somehow I write. Kara Swisher isn’t lecturing Yahoo executives, users of Yahoo, or readers of tech coverage about some imaginary “role in the process.” She knows that it’s up to Yahoo executives to decide whether they want to talk to her. And it’s up to her to find out what’s happening at Yahoo, regardless of whether the company decides to talk.

“Yahoo has not called me back in three years, and somehow I write…” is a true statement about power relationships. They have the power to shut me out. I have the power to keep reporting, regardless of their efforts to shut me out. They can refuse comment. But if my stories are good enough, people will talk about them and Yahoo will be voiceless in that conversation. Is that what you want, Marissa Mayer? Game on! Swisher’s “role in the process” doesn’t enter into it.

Political reporters: You have no guaranteed “role.” That’s a fiction you and your colleagues created to keep the game the same every four years so you don’t have to go to school on how to be useful and powerful in the election system as it evolves. The fiction works if you can get the right people to believe it, but when they clearly don’t care about your “role in the process” how are you going to make ’em care? Got a plan for that?

I doubt it. I base my conclusion on columns like this from Ruth Marcus of the same Washington Post. She’s also complaining that the candidates won’t answer questions. (My italics.)

Question time, campaign officials soothe, will come. Meanwhile, why step on her message — criminal justice, immigration — by taking questions?

Um, because that’s part of the process. You can’t tweet your way to the presidency. Because reporters have different — sometimes better and more pointed — questions than voters. Because there are growing areas of legitimate inquiry — Clinton’s position on trade, for one — that merit answers. (The New York Times’ Amy Chozick offered an excellent example on immigration: “How could you stretch the law further than the president . . . says it can go?”)

Because how you behave on the trail augurs what you’ll do in office, including how accessible you’ll be. I have forebodings of future columns lamenting President Clinton’s umpty-umpth day without a news conference.

“Because that’s part of the process.” Seriously, Ruth? Your “because” is only a cuz if candidates decide that to reach the people they want to reach, or persuade the people they need to persuade, or avoid some damage they wish to avoid they now need to engage with the journalists who cover the campaign.

Reporters ask better questions than voters? Well, part the waters, here comes the press.7403734608_7c3291e44a_z

I have a better idea, journalists. Figure out what the voters want the candidates to talk about. (And when they’re ready to listen.) Persuade the voters that in your coverage you’re on their side— so many of them that the campaigns have to take notice. Then leverage your superior connection to the people the candidates want to reach. (That’s what Univision and Jorge Ramos plan to do, I’d bet.) It’s a power game, not a frozen process in which you are granted some role by the mighty hand of James Carville or Ed Rollins.

In 1992, the Charlotte Observer played it that way. They determined what the voters in North Carolina wanted statewide candidates to talk about. Then they asked about that. The opposite of “reporters have better and more pointed questions than voters.” I wrote about the Observer’s approach in my 1999 book, What Are Journalists For? Here’s the former editor of the Observer, Richard Oppel:

Voters were intensely interested in the environment… So our reporters went out to senatorial candidates and said, “here are the voters’ questions.” Terry Sanford, the incumbent senator, called me up from Washington and said, “Rich, I have these questions from your reporter and I’m not going to answer them because we are not going to talk about the environment until after the general election.” This was the primary. I said, “Well, the voters want to know about the environment now, Terry.” He said, “Well, that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” I said, “Fine, I will run the questions and leave a space under it for you to answer. If you choose not to, we will just say ‘would not respond’ or we will leave it blank.” We ended the conversation. In about ten days he sent the answers down.

Compare: “We’ll just leave a big block of white space next to your name, okay?” vs. “Answer our questions because that’s part of the process.” Or Swisher’s “somehow I write” vs. “Hey, the role of the media in this process is…”

Look: I think candidates should engage with the press and answer tough questions, reducing the importance of any single encounter with journalists by having lots of them. The fact that they increasingly don’t is partly a sign of the news media’s diminished hold on the audience and partly a sign of weak and overly cautious candidates intimidated by a staff that preserves its own power by controlling access and message. A more freewheeling style might serve some candidates equally well, but the handlers would become less important that way so they argue against it. Shutting off almost all access has become the accepted way to win. It is not necessarily a better way to win, but it is far better for a risk-averse staff, and consultants who make money off advertising. It also persuades weak candidates that they’re fine as they are. Of course none of that matters, because timid candidates, controlling staff and an over-the-top messaging system is what we have.

Nothing about the political press makes it an inherent “part of the process.” The sooner that fiction is abandoned the better off producers of campaign coverage will be. You have to compete. Or as Jack Nicholson says in The Departed: “No one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

This has been edited from the original. I toned it down a little. —JR


On the deep grammar of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner

“The Washington press corps is like that big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion ever got real.”

Have you ever come to know members of a family who collaborate in staying silent about something bad that happened in the past, something no one wants to talk about because to talk about it would probably tear the family apart?

The innocent would have to accuse the guilty. The guilty to defend themselves would find a way to spread responsibility around— or just lie about what happened. Which would then enrage people who were there because it rewrites history and erases their experience. If you have ever come to know such a family — or been part of one, as I have — then you know how participants in the conspiracy share a signaling system that can instantly warn an incautious member: you are three, four hops away from violating the pact of silence… if you don’t want to bring the whole structure down, then I suggest you change the subject… or switch to one of the harmless work-arounds we have provided for the purpose of never getting too close to the source of our dread.

None of that has to be said, of course. It’s all done by antennae. The result is that serious talk about certain subjects is off limits. Key routes into that subject are closed off, because the signaling system activates itself three or four rings out from dread center. To an outsider this manifests itself as an inexplicable weirdness or empty quality, difficult to name. To insiders it becomes: this is who we are… the people who route around—

I mention this because I think it helps in interpreting a bizarre event that unfolds tonight in Washington and on many a media platform: the White House Correspondents Association dinner. How bizarre? Well, look at the evidence of compulsion:

It’s not like they don’t realize it. This is from Politico, house organ for the insider class in DC.

Everyone knows the White House Correspondents Association dinner is broken. What started off decades ago as a stately formal celebration of the best of presidential reporting has morphed into a four-day orgy of everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway— now it’s not just one night of clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful, it’s four full days of signature cocktails and inside jokes that just underscore how out of step the Washington elite is with the rest of the country. It’s not us (journalists) versus them (government officials); it’s us (Washington) versus them (the rest of America)

“Everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway.” True! And yet they keep doing it. Why?

I’m sure you have your ideas. Here is mine. I know it will sound crazy (and provide a few chuckles) to those in the room tonight at the Washington Hilton, but I don’t care because the event is itself one gigantic neurotic symptom that begs for some interpretation.

The Washington press corps is like that big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion ever got real. The event at the center of this neurotic system: the failure to detect a phony case for war in 2002 and 2003 and more generally to challenge the Bush forces after 9/11. And this wasn’t just any failure. For a press that imagines itself a watchdog, failing to detect a faulty case for war, then watching the war unfold into the biggest foreign policy disaster in memory… that is an event so huge and deflating that it amounts to an identity crisis.

Now add to that very specific failure a larger lesson that is also too painful to face: in Washington access journalism has been a bust. It doesn’t work. Its practices made possible the spectacular fall down in the run-up to the Iraq War. (Under Obama it’s been so thin that Politico is this week asking: is the White House press corps becoming obsolete?) After a maximal failure like 2002-04 there needed to be a critical reckoning with the whole idea of “access to inside sources as reliable route to scoops.” You can’t maintain that idea and think of yourself as a watchdog, an adversarial force. Not with what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war.

But what if you still want both? Your scoop system, and your self-image as a watchdog. Your insider status, and the critical distance that with the right story could make you a hero of the republic. What if you want your parties with the powerful, and your check on power. What if you have to choose between these alternatives, but you can’t choose because the family has no history of making difficult choices like that. In circumstances like this, you are going to pick denial. And here we find a subterranean route into the Washington Hilton tonight.

3518728500_8159e78919_zThe Washington press corps needed the equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to sort through these glaringly obvious conflicts. Instead they just moved on. No one made that decision consciously. But it happened. Access journalism did not have to answer for its sins. Judith Miller did. That’s the simplest way I can put it. And because that event — which was a massive, wrenching and psychological event — did happen the access orgy that is called the White House Correspondents Association dinner can today go on.

There is access to the dinner itself. There is access to the parties that surround the dinner. There is access to the celebrities and power players who show up at the dinner. But access is the god that failed, with terrible consequences that no one in Washington journalism can reckon with. Instead, they party the pain away. And that is one thing tonight is “about.”

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That tweet was deleted.

(Photo: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes at the WHCA dinner, 2009. Creative Commons license.)


“It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed…” Facebook: please stop with this.

Of course Facebook doesn’t “edit” NewsFeed in the same way that a newspaper editor once edited the front page. It’s a very different way. That’s why we’re asking about it!

I’ve met some of the people at Facebook whose job it is to work with journalists and media companies. They’re good people, smart people. They seem to care about the future of news. Some of my students, now graduated, work with them. I like that.

What I have to say in this post isn’t personal. It’s professional. Please stop doing this. Here’s what I mean:

Last week, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, Facebook’s Andy Mitchell​, director of news and media partnerships, was asked how the company sees its role as a new kind of editorial filter or influence on the news— an important question, now that Facebook has become such an important part of the news ecosystem. He was also asked what kind of accountability Facebook felt it had as a player in that system. Mitchell had three answers to these questions.

1. “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed by what you tell us that you’re interested in.” You send us signals. We respond.

2. Facebook should not be anyone’s primary news source or experience. It should be a supplement to seeking out news yourself with direct suppliers. “Complementary” was the word he used several times. Meaning: complement to, not substitute for.

3. Facebook is accountable to its users for creating a great experience. That describes the kind of accountability it has. End of story.

To find these answers go to 45:50 in the video clip and watch to the end.

George Brock, journalism professor in the UK, was the one who asked about accountability. He comments:

Facebook is not, and knows quite well it is not, a neutral machine passing on news. Its algorithm chooses what people see, it has ‘community standards’ that material must meet and it has to operate within the laws of many countries.

The claim that Facebook doesn’t think about journalism has to be false. And, at least in the long run, it won’t work; in the end these issues have to faced. Facebook is a private company which has grown and made billions by very successfully keeping more people on its site for longer and longer. I can imagine that any suggestion that there are responsibilities which distract from that mission must seem like a nuisance.

Google once claimed something similar. Its executives would sit in newspaper offices and claim, with perfectly straight faces, that Google was not a media company. As this stance gradually looked more and more absurd, Google grew up and began to discuss its own power in the media.

I would put it differently: Facebook has to start recognizing that our questions are real— not error messages. We are not suggesting that it “edits” NewsFeed in the same way that a newspaper editor once edited the front page. It’s a very different way. That’s why we’re asking about it! We are not suggesting that algorithms work in the same way that elites deciding what’s news once operated. It’s a different way. That’s why we’re asking about it!

No one is being simple-minded here and demanding that Facebook describe editorial criteria it clearly does not have— like reaching for a nice mix of foreign and domestic news. We get it. You want not to be making those decisions. You want user interest to drive those decisions. We’re capable of understanding the basics of machine learning, collaborative filtering and algorithmic authority. We know that to reveal all would encourage gaming of the system. We’re capable of accepting: this is what the users are choosing to use now. We’re not platform idiots. Stop treating us like children at a Passover seder who don’t know enough to ask a good question.

But precisely because we do “get it” — at least at a basic level — we want to know: what are you optimizing for, along with user interest? How do you see your role within a news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? In news, you have power now. It is growing. Help us understand how you intend to use it. What kind of filter will you be? What kind of player… playing for what?

These are not outrageous or ignorant questions. They do not misstate how Facebook works. They are not attempts to turn the clock back to a time when editors chose and readers read. We don’t need your answers to babysit us. We’re awake and alive in the algorithmic age and exercising our critical faculties just fine. If you can’t answer, then say that: We are not here to answer your questions because we can’t.

Andy Mitchell’s three replies are not adequate— for us or for Facebook.

Q. What are you optimizing for, along with user interest? A. “It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed.” No, sorry. As I wrote before: It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. The assertion melts on contact.

Q. How do you see your role in the news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? A. Facebook should not be anyone’s primary news source or news experience. No, sorry. On mobile, especially, “primary” is exactly what’s happening. And everyone who pays attention knows how strenuously Facebook tries to keep users engaged with Facebook. So “we don’t want to be primary” is… I’m trying to be nice here… a little insulting.

Q. In news you have a lot of power now. How do you intend to use that power? A. We just want to create a great experience for users. No, sorry, that’s not an answer because you just said the users have the power, not Facebook, so what you’re really saying is: power? us? whatever do you mean?

Facebook’s smart, capable and caring-about-news people should be disappointed that this is as far as the company has gotten in being real with itself and with us.

(This started as a Facebook post. If you want to see it spread on that platform, I’m confident you know what to do.)

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Now here’s a good example of what I mean. In an update at a company blog, Facebook tells us:

Facebook is constantly evaluating what’s the right mix of content in News Feed and we want to let you know about a change that may affect referral traffic for publishers…

Stop the tape! Notice how Facebook is the one evaluating. Facebook is the one changing things up. This is not a scandal or a surprise. But it’s also not: “you control NewsFeed, we don’t control NewsFeed.” They control NewsFeed too. User choice is real. But code is destiny.

Mathew Ingram of Fortune magazine writes about the same announcement. Facebook, he says, “wants to have its cake and eat it too: it wants to tweak the news-feed in order to promote content that serves its purposes—whether that’s news content or baby pictures—but it also wants to pretend that it isn’t a gatekeeper, because then media companies might not play ball. So it tries to portray the algorithm as just a harmless extension of its users’ interests, when in fact it is anything but.”

David Holmes at Pando.com comments, as well:

I don’t blame Facebook for wanting to squeeze ever-increasing amounts of money from publishers and the content they produce. Facebook is a for-profit corporation and that’s what corporations do: make money. And it certainly doesn’t owe journalists or their organizations anything.

But it’s phenomenally disingenuous of the company to insist that its every strategic decision is part of some “user-first” mentality. Users don’t even pay to use Facebook — so how could they be its core constituency?

Good question.

Also on the “phenomenally disingenuous” beat. Andy Mitchell’s “we’re just a supplement, not the main source” line is reality-denying in the extreme. From the Pew Research center: “Some of our 2014 research revealed that nearly half of Web-using adults report getting news about politics and government in the past week on Facebook alone, a platform where influence is driven to a strong degree by friends and algorithms.” (My italics.) So don’t tell us you’re just a supplement. It insults our intelligence. [Correction: Jesse Holcomb of the Pew Center says via Twitter: “1) Didn’t intend to imply that half of web adults get news from FB & no other source. 2) Rather, FB alone gets nearly half of web adults going there for news abt gov’t/politics.” That’s different. The Pew report has now been re-written to say: “Some of our 2014 research revealed that nearly half of Web-using adults report getting news about politics and government in the past week on Facebook, a platform where influence is driven to a strong degree by friends and algorithms.” Hat tip, Constantin Basturea.]

A distinction I have tried to import into this debate is between “thick” and “thin” legitimacy. From my piece in the Washington Post about Facebook’s mood manipulation study.

Thin legitimacy is when the experiments conducted on human beings are: fully legal and completely normal, as in common practice across the industry, but there is no way to know if they are minimally ethical, because companies have no duty to think such matters through or share with us their methods.

Thick legitimacy: when experiments conducted on human beings are not only legal under U.S. law and common in practice but also attuned to the dark history of abuse in experimental situations and thus able to meet certain standards for transparency and ethical conduct— like, say, the American Psychological Association’s “informed consent” provision.

For purposes of establishing at least some legitimacy Facebook relies on its “terms of service,” which is 9,000 words of legalese that users have no choice but to accept. That’s thin.

Facebook thinks “thin” legitimacy will work just fine. That is why it can give journalists and academics the royal run around at conferences. But what if that assessment is wrong, not from some moral perspective but as a business case? The question turns on this: To what degree does Facebook’s success depend on trust — user trust, social trust, partner trust — vs. power: market power, monopoly power, the power of an overwhelming mind share. I don’t know the answer, but I don’t trust anyone who says the answer is obvious. It’s not obvious. The more the company’s fortunes turn on trust, the greater the business case for “thick” legitimacy.

I wrote about the same issue last year. This is the description I recommended if Facebook ever decided to (I know it sounds crazy) optimize for truth.

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

Ben Thompson at his invaluable site, Stratechery. “It is increasingly clear that it is Facebook — not iOS or Android — that is the most important mobile platform.”

Andy Mitchell’s answers at Perugia insulted a lot of people. Here’s an account in Italian by a student, Enrico Bergamini, who asked Mitchell about the NewsFeed alogorithm. It includes an interview with George Brock. On my Facebook page he writes: “I was at the conference, I’m the student asking the question at 45:42, and I was obviously disappointed with the empty answer Mr Mitchell gave me.” Other comments at my Facebook page from people who were there:

Mindy McAdams: “The answers Andy Mitchell gave to questions asked after his talk in Perugia were pure spin and obfuscation… The mood was sullen as he continued answering questions with non-answers.”

Eric Sherer: “I attended this conference, Jay. It was a shame. And yes, he treated [us] like children!”


Good Old Fashioned Shoe Leather Reporting

“The scenes in All the President’s Men that show Woodward and Bernstein crisscrossing Washington on foot and ringing doorbells at night are shoe leather mythology in its most concentrated form. Making calls is good, but one stepped removed from what is most holy…”

(This post began as an email to Megan Garber of the Atlantic, who was writing about “hot takes.” She published some of what I told her.)

I can’t speak for British, Canadian, European or Latin American systems but in the U.S. press there is thought to be a single source of virtue. The mythical term for it is “shoe leather reporting.” There can never be enough of it. Only good derives from it. Anything that eclipses it is bad. Anything that eludes it is suspect. Anything that permits more of it is holy.

Good Old Fashioned Shoe Leather Reporting is the one god an American journalist can officially pray to. Fine writing, great storytelling, aggressive questioning, toughness in the face of attacks: these are universally admired. Amusing and inventive word play, quick and biting sarcasm, superior crap detection: these will win you points in any newsroom or press bus. But godliness is reserved for shoe leather reporting, which is often preceded by terms like “basic” (because everything else is based on it) or “traditional” (because the importance of it never changes) or “original” (because it is the origin of all things good in journalism.) 2330323726_61b725b577_z

Here’s William Bastone, co-founder of the Smoking Gun website and a reporter by trade, describing what the staff does: “The reporting for the site hasn’t changed. I don’t think it ever will. It’s basic shoe leather reporting, hunting down sources and documents and confirming authenticity. That’s always been our thing.”

It’s called “shoe leather” reporting because in its classic form, the journalist is literally on foot, walking from office to office, source to source, conducting interviews, pulling documents, hunting down facts no one else has confirmed yet. So much walking is required to break a big story that the soles of the shoes grind down. Want respect, young journalist? Break some big stories. How is it done? Same way it’s always been done: Shoe leather reporting.

Here’s Tom Friedman of the New York Times talking about one of his mentors in journalism and giving us that old time religion:

Leon taught me that whether you’re writing news, opinion or analysis, if it isn’t based on shoe-leather reporting, it isn’t worth a bucket of beans.

To this day, whenever I hear a reporter say, “I don’t do reporting — I just do opinion and analysis,” I always think of the reporting basics that Leon pounded into me and want to say, “I doubt that your analysis is very good, because the best analysis always comes from spotting trends that can usually only be spotted by reporting a story day in and day out.” I like blogs, but the only bloggers who appeal to me are those who do reporting and aren’t just sitting at home in their pajamas firing off digital mortars.

Notice how there are different forms worth mastering — news, opinion, “analysis,” even blogging — but a single virtue creates value.

In this text I found, which is actually called Good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, editors at the AP are giving an award to one of their reporters. “Denver’s Ivan Moreno started pursuing the issue of voter fraud in Colorado after nearly 4,000 voters received letters from the secretary of state challenging their citizenship and, therefore, their right to cast ballots.”

He pressed state government for the names. The more he asked, the smaller the number of fraud cases got, shrinking “from 4,000 to 1,400 to just 141 – and Moreno was the first to report that the authenticity of only 141 voters was being challenged.” He finally got the state to cough up 35 names of people it accused of trying to vote fraudulently. “Moreno called every one he could find, confirming independently that they were citizens.” Then he broke the story:

All of Moreno’s reporting came together in a comprehensive piece that looked at the efforts of Republican officials to purge voter rolls in Colorado and other states. In each case, officials found almost no voter fraud, despite heavily publicized investigations and the use of a federal immigration database. It was the first national look at GOP efforts to attribute voter fraud to non-citizens in key election states.

The lesson: “Investigative stories often stem from Freedom of Information requests. But, just as often, it’s from good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting.”

The scenes in All the President’s Men that show Woodward and Bernstein crisscrossing Washington on foot or ringing doorbells at night: they are shoe leather mythology in its most concentrated form. Making calls is good, but one stepped removed from what is most holy. (Get out of the office!) Reporting on the internet is okay, but one step removed from making calls. (Pick up the phone, damnit!) Aggregating stuff is lame. Reading and thinking about what you read, then writing about it: highly suspect. But it is virtuous to show contempt for that.

Some common terms for this contempt: navel gazing, thumb sucker. (Infantalism, narcissism.) The term “hot takes” participates in this. Hot takes are a joke, the lowest possible form, a professional embarrassment, because “these swift, provocative, and socially shareable reaction posts” are at the furthest remove from shoe leather reporting and often parasitic upon it, as bloggers were said to be parasitic back when it was important to say they weren’t journalists.

As a source of virtue in journalism shoe leather has such high status that it’s hard to generate respect for other skills and disciplines, even when they deserve it. We see this especially with news anchors in broadcast journalism. They’re always emphasizing that, though they have an important-sounding title — “anchor” of the program — they are really just reporters at heart. (Dan Rather after he retired. “I’m just a reporter who got lucky.”) Being an anchor can make you rich, famous and vital to the company’s bottom line, but it cannot make you virtuous as a journalist. Thus:

“He was always a wire service reporter in his heart,” said Sanford Socolow, a former executive producer for Mr. Cronkite. “He always lived by the wire service adage,” which he described as “Get it first, but get it right.”

Last week John Dickerson was named the new anchor for CBS’s Sunday talk show, Face the Nation. Here’s how CBS News announced it:

“John is first and foremost a reporter–and that’s what he’ll be as anchor of Face the Nation,” said CBS News President David Rhodes. “His work in the studio will always be informed by what he’s learned in Iowa, in New Hampshire, on Capitol Hill–anywhere there’s news. He has earned the respect of newsmakers across the political spectrum. With all our correspondents John will present comprehensive coverage on all our platforms.”

See what I mean? You don’t say of your new anchor, “He will be a great anchor!” You don’t even refer to any skills he will need in that role. You describe him as a great reporter, because that’s what a good anchor really is, anyway. It was the potency of this myth that got Brian Williams into such trouble earlier this year. He tried to jack up his boots-on-the-ground reporting cred to win the admiration he craved. But he got caught.

It’s true that reading news off the teleprompter is not much of a talent. But that’s not true of anchoring live coverage when big news breaks. And it’s not true of interviewing powerful people on live TV. These are demanding disciplines. They are deeply journalistic. As Tina Brown once wrote in the Washington Post: “When Peter Jennings is anchoring a breaking news story for ABC, he’s a human hyperlink to the world, seemingly able to absorb and process information through the cheeks of his behind.”

Of all things journalists do, on-the-ground reporting is, I think, the most important. I would not quarrel with that. It fully deserves the esteem in which it is held. “Want respect? Break some big stories” is very sound advice. However, it is not true that a single virtue creates value in journalism. Efficiency creates value too. Contributions from elsewhere — synthesizing known facts, explaining complex issues, putting dots together, reviewing, fact checking, writing about the public world beautifully, anchoring a live broadcast, asking questions that are of moment — are just as basic to good journalism as good old fashioned shoe leather reporting.

What these forms lack in mystique they make up for in simple utility.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

Steve Buttry responds to this post with some detailed testimony from his career as a reporter and editor. He shows that shoe leather reporting was sometimes crucial to getting the story and sometimes other methods succeeded where “shoe leather” would not have. He writes:

Nearly all the best stories of my career came in whole or part because I was out of the office, interviewing people face-to-face, digging through courthouse records, seeing disaster damage myself, showing empathy in a way that persuaded people to trust me with their intimate stories, seeing important details in the setting where the story took place.

I believe in the importance of shoe leather.

But I also know that shoe leather is just one of many paths to a good story.

Read the rest. It’s valuable.

Journalism scholar Chris Anderson:

That screen works dominates in practice could be the reason why shoe leather dominates in mythology.

From the Pulitzer Prize nominations:

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Photo credit: Roger H. Goun. Creative Commons license.


Rolling Stone’s ‘A Rape on Campus.’ Notes and comment on Columbia J-school’s investigation.

The key decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative — indifference to campus rape — and then go off in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.

First, some essential links:

Here is the text itself: Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report: An anatomy of a journalistic failure.

The author’s apology: Statement From Writer of Rolling Stone Rape Article, Sabrina Erdely.

CJR: Interview with Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel, lead authors of the Columbia report.

New York Times account: Rolling Stone Article on Rape at University of Virginia Failed All Basics, Report Says

Huffington Post’s summary. Rolling Stone’s UVA Rape Story Was A ‘Journalistic Failure’ That Could’ve Been Avoided, Columbia Finds

Listen to many of the players talk about this story in David Folkenflik’s report for NPR.

Poynter.org, The journalism community reacts to the review of ‘A Rape On Campus’

Second, a few disclaimers:

The authors, Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs, and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia, took this on voluntarily. Rolling Stone did not pay them. They did it as a public service and a gift to the profession of journalism. They did it because they thought it was important. As a journalism professor, I am grateful to them for this work. Thank you!

I teach in a competing program at NYU. Factor that in as you evaluate what I have to say, some of which is critical.

Overall, I think the report is impressively reported and soundly reasoned. It’s a hugely valuable record from which journalists and students of journalism will draw lessons for years. I wish we had studies just like it for other big screw-ups, like this one.

My notes and commentary:

1. Asking “how could this happen?” is not the same as asking, “what could have prevented it?” The authors chose to focus their study on prevention — steps not taken that would have avoided disaster — rather than tracing those mistakes to their origins, which might include, for example, bad ideas or rotten assumptions. It’s a defensible decision, but it does have consequences. These ripple through the report.

2. This is an amazing passage:

Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”

It’s amazing because it leaves Rolling Stone editors with a tautological explanation. How could we have screwed up so badly? Because this time we screwed up really badly. The way to prevent another mistake like this is to make sure we don’t make this mistake again. A remarkable conclusion, considering the stakes. To their credit, the authors of the report don’t buy this one bit.

3. “The editors invested Rolling Stone’s reputation in a single source,” say the authors of the report. I think they’re right. Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, says they’re wrong:

Mr. Dana said he had reached many of the same conclusions as the Columbia report in his own efforts to examine the article, but he disagreed with the report’s assertion that the magazine had staked its reputation on the word of one source. “I think if you take a step back, our reputation rests on a lot more than this one story,” he said.

The point is not that your reputation accumulated over time rests on one story, but that one story at the wrong time can ruin it. I’d want my managing editor to understand that. Wouldn’t you?

4. “In hindsight,” the report says, “the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.” What the authors mean is not “most consequential decision.” They mean “easiest route to preventing disaster.” You were so close! Contact the friends and the story falls apart. That’s what they mean.

5. The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term is emblematic. The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem.

6. Not that it’s entirely missing. The basic facts are there:

Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.

Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.

7. This is from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post:

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

None of those schools felt quite right. What kind of “feel” is this? It’s feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior — given — narrative.

8. “Mr. Dana said the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story,” read Ravi Somaiya’s Dec. 7 report in the New York Times. There’s the prior narrative I mentioned. It didn’t start with Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was sent on a search for where to set it.

9. This is from Erik Wemple’s Dec. 5 column for the Post:

Observe how Erdely responded to a question about the accused parties in Jackie’s alleged gang rape. In that Slate podcast, when asked who these people were, she responded, “I don’t want to say much about them as individuals but I’ll just say that this particular fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi — it’s really emblematic in a lot of ways of sort of like elitist fraternity culture. It’s considered to be a kind of top-tier fraternity at University of Virginia.”

I don’t want to say much about them as individuals. In fact, she didn’t know anything about them “as individuals” and never located them — a major criticism in the report. Asked about contacting these people, she answers with their fitness as an emblem.

10. It is therefore striking that Erdely’s public apology did not extend itself to Phi Kappa Psi. I think it should have.

11. The alternative to starting with a narrative and searching for a campus, a frat and a survivor’s story that can serve as your emblem was pointed out by Reason magazine’s Robby Soave: Start with a proven case: two former Vanderbilt University football players convicted of gang raping a female student during a night of drinking and drug use. Dig in on that. Then find another and dig in on that. It’s true that “you always try to contact the accused” is very, very basic to good journalism. But let your reporting drive the narrative, rather than the other way around— this is also very basic. Yet it doesn’t get framed that way (as a basic error) in the report.

12. Sometimes the Rolling Stone journalists quoted in the Columbia report appear to be saying this was “Jackie’s story.” It was told from Jackie’s point of view, they say. Because it was so powerful, because they found her credible. Then at other times they give the impression that it was not about Jackie at all. It’s about the culture of indifference that greets women who try to report rape on college campuses. They could have dropped Jackie and told many other stories, Will Dana says in the report. This is Erdely responding to the Post’s nagging questions in December:

“I could address many of [the questions] individually… but by dwelling on this, you’re getting sidetracked,” she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post’s inquiry. “As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”

This was Jackie’s story. No, it’s about the culture of indifference. How can both be true? If she’s the perfect emblem then both are true. This is the belief that overtook the Rolling Stone staff. But what made them vulnerable to that belief?

13. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” says deputy managing editor Sean Woods in the report. This is Rolling Stone’s Maginot Line. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”

Erdely added: “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently… Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.” Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.

Indeed. None was.

14. Part of what made Rolling Stone editors vulnerable to the “emblem of…” problem was some seriously dated thinking about credibility, in which it’s said to be sort of like charisma. You have charisma or you don’t. You “have” credibility or you don’t. If a source is felt to be credible, the entire story can ride on that. Your colleagues are credible, so it doesn’t occur you to ask if they could all be missing something.

A dramatic high point for this kind of thinking comes during Hanna Rosin’s incredible podcast interview with Sabrina Erdely. Rosin asks near the end of it: If you were Jackie’s lawyer, how would you prove her case? (Go to 6:35 on this clip and listen.) The author’s reply: “I found her story to be very— I found her to be very credible.”

15. It’s almost like, if you have credibility you don’t need proof. That’s an absurd statement, of course, but here’s how they got there (without realizing it.) Instead of asking: what have we done in telling Jackie’s story to earn the skeptical user’s belief? you say: I’m a skeptical journalist, I found her story believable, so will the users. Voilà! Credibility. Will Dana is one of the best editors in New York. Who “has” more credibility than him? No one! He finds her story believable. Doesn’t that “give” it credibility too?

16. Bit by bit the readers get eclipsed from this view. Don’t take our word for it, see for yourself: that logic gets eclipsed too. (Don’t take her word for it, listen to Jackie’s friends talk about the attacks. Rolling Stone dispensed with that.) In fact, credibility isn’t like charisma, which you have or don’t. It’s a transaction between journalists and readers. Readers have to trust, yes, but journalists have to realize that they cannot put too great a strain on the reader’s trust. “A Rape on Campus” did that, repeatedly. But the journalists involved didn’t realize what they were doing. Why not?

I wish the Columbia report, as good as it is, told us more than it does about that. “How could this happen?” is harder to answer than “what would have prevented it?” This was our best chance to find out.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links

A lot has been written about the Columbia report. (Naturally I hope you’ve read my post.) For those seeking further understanding, the five best things I found are:

Richard Bradley at his site: In the End, It’s All About Rape Culture—or the Lack Thereof. Bradley is a a former George magazine editor who was duped by Stephen Glass, a famous fabricator of stories at the New Republic. He was the first journalist to raise serious doubts about the Rolling Stone story. (See Is the Rolling Stone Story True?, Nov. 24, 2014.) He should be listened to on the report.

Leah Finnegan at Gawker. Jann Wenner Is a Big Dumb Idiot. “Here’s what happened at Rolling Stone: pathological conflict-avoidance. Every workaround deployed in this story, from not securing the alleged rapist’s name before publication to not interviewing the rape victim’s friends, was put in place in order to avoid a difficult, uncomfortable situation.”

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View, Rolling Stone Can’t Even Apologize Right. “The same extraordinary features that made this story so potent also made it unlikely that anyone was going to be able to offer a convincing defense; you can claim that a one-on-one date rape was actually consensual, but that’s not a plausible explanation for a gang rape that took place on top of a bed of broken glass. So if you start by assuming the story is true, you also assume that you’re not going to get much worth printing from the perpetrators.”

Clay Shirky in the New Republic, Skeptical review isn’t a step in some journalistic production line: It’s the product. My NYU colleague Clay Shirky says the report could have been three sentences long: “We investigated the matter thoroughly. We found no extenuating circumstances. The writers, editors, and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone abdicated the skepticism required by their profession.” The rest could have gone into a appendix.

Rosin interviews Erdely. Anyone who wishes truly to understand this episode should, after absorbing Columbia report, go back and listen to the podcast interview Hanna Rosin of Slate did with Rolling Stone author Sabrina Erdely, Nov. 27, 2014. It’s all “in” there, if you listen closely enough. Rosin’s rising incredulity, Erdely’s lack of confidence in her own story are both palpable— and deeply telling.