Joy’s Law for journalism

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

22 Jan 2014 2:24 pm 25 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

In slightly more technical terms:

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

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

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

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

Odds for this method: unlikely.


About all the editors checking the article, you might want to read this take:

Jay, sometimes the crowd is wrong, very wrong.

I’ve seen it happen many times.

That’s the flipside of this. Maybe diversity isn’t the answer, maybe the blocking approach works better.

It’s much closer to the way I deal with shitstorms, and I’ve been doing that for 30 years or so. They pass. People learn they can’t kill you and move on to someone else who will yield to their will.

Also I haven’t yet read a convincing story that explains why this is cause and effect that this work resulted in the suicide. Not saying it didn’t.

ALso what kind of journalism do you look forward to, when people don’t cover stories because someone involved threatened suicide.

There’s a very well-known tech person who used to do that, to scare people off stories. I had it happen with me once, and I pulled the story for fear that the person might actually do it. Of course the guy didn’t. Was it a bluff? Probably.

I don’t have a lot of respect for online crowds, I guess is the bottom line.

Joe Louis says:

Lots of DERP here.

I’ve tried — not saying I’ve succeeded — to cure my writing of any romanticizing of crowd wisdom. I try to avoid idealized images and deal with harder truths. Sometimes, on some kinds of stories, there’s knowledge kicked up by the Twitter storm that should have been made available to the piece… Sometimes “the users in the aggregate and some users in particular know way more than the journalist.” There are risks to turning the hearing aide off, though I understand why it happens when there’s heavy and extreme incoming. Thus:

Here’s a blog post I wrote expanding on this..


That said — Joy’s Law, which I had not heard before, is right on — very wise, very true, a common mistake people make when getting tangled up in the internal story.

Did Caleb Hannan and Bill Simmons kill anyone today?

I also like the analogy to a garden … It’s better, Joy said, to create an ecology that gets all the world’s smartest people toiling in your garden for your goals. If you rely solely on your own employees, you’ll never solve all your customers’ needs.
However, some of us do not have green fingers some some blocking might be justified …

It is not the wisdom of crowds. It is finding the well of knowledge person in and outside your garden 😉


More diversity on editorial staffs isn’t a bad thing, but what was needed here was more compassion. The existence of compassion shouldn’t be dependent on diversity. The writer equated fraudulent business credentials with the subject’s choice to change genders. The writer made the assumption that changing genders was merely a choice made by a troubled man who needed a so-called new life — rather than necessity. The writer and the editors could have had a perfectly decent little curtain raiser on their hands by simply exposing Dr V’s bogus credentials, although that likely would have inspired others to investigate and learn about Dr V’s past gender. Sure, the editors all had the same “sense of smell” (they sound about as compassionate as the characters on Veep). But in this case, that sense of smell is a euphemism for a lack of compassion for a population of people who still, sadly, bear the label of circus freak. I wonder: If Dr. V were had been a regular white male or female, and Hannan learned she or he was lesbian/gay and in the closet, would a chill have run down his spine? Would he have outed Dr V? Would he have conflated his sexuality with his fraudulent business claims? It’s hard to imagine he would, and maybe that’s b/c he doesn’t have an understanding of the T portion of GLBT. But it’s his job, as a journalist, to exercise compassion. To understand the power he wields. To decide what’s worth publishing. Someone above me commented that we shouldn’t fall for the old “suicide threat by the subject” trick. Of course we shouldn’t. But that’s not what this debate is about; it’s about a perfect stranger taking the liberty of outing someone for no valid reason. Had Dr V changed genders b/c she was outrunning the law for some horrid crime, then fine. But she wasn’t. She changed genders. She didn’t do it for the purpose of inventing a golf putter; she did for reasons that are none of our business.

I don’t think I was suggesting that a more diverse editorial crew was the only was to get to a better result. I think it would have helped. But Grantland could have gotten there by other means, too. Like asking someone from the right community to weigh in, or, as you say, by using real compassion.

Clay Shirky says:

Mike, you say “More diversity on editorial staffs isn’t a bad thing, but what was needed here was more compassion. The existence of compassion shouldn’t be dependent on diversity.”

This is a wonderful sentiment, and I think a lot of us would happily co-sign if it were true. But it isn’t true.

Compassion, in a fairly literal translation, means shared suffering. It’s nice to think that a group of people could have compassion for others whose life experiences are outside their ken, but in practice that capacity has turned out to be vanishingly rare.

Take, by way of example, the recent, substantial and historically sudden reversal on the social bargain to deny gays and lesbians the ability to marry. The thing that correlated most strongly with a change of heart wasn’t whether any given citizen was exposed to gay role models on TV, or to coherent legal arguments against this form of discrimination. It was whether the citizen knew a gay person personally, with the effect being stronger the closer the relationship was, and strongest for a close family member.

It’s a lovely thought that a group of The Usual Suspects (old, straight, white, cis, male, et hoc genus omne) could empathize with a woman who used to be a man, or with anyone whose life experience differs substantially from their own, but men like that are rare. This leaves places like Grantland with three choices, if they want to acquire the requisite sense of compassion: they can be saints, which in the journalism profession is a non-starter, for the obvious reasons, they could hire a resident saint, which is tough on HR, or they could just hire regular people who have different life experiences than they do.

Both experimental results (Scott Page’s The Difference is the book to read) and sheer practicality suggest that wider compassion requires a more diverse newsroom. Perhaps, in some ethereal contemplation of a human ideal, we could say “compassion shouldn’t be dependent on diversity”, but in practice compassion is dependent on diversity.

Well put, Clay. Thank you. I guess I’m an idealist (though no saint), and have been lucky enough to have worked on nondiverse editorial staffs (and by this I mean my Ashkenazi Jewish b/g made me a veritable non-white) comprised of people who would not have let such a thing happen. I’ve been lucky. But, generally speaking, I suppose you’re right, and dare I say that I stand corrected.

Is there a 4th option besides saints in the newsroom and hiring every form of sinner to achieve comprehensive compassionate diversity?

In other words, leveraging the “potential user base” before a breakdown or screw up becomes a cross-over hit?

Clay Shirky says:

Mike, that is indeed lucky, and more newsrooms should have those values, but what we know from institutions as widespread as Ivy League colleges and the Army is that compassion is more tightly coupled to diversity than to any other step an organization could take.

Consider, for example the Catholic Church’s harboring of serial child rapists. Can you imagine such a thing taking place in as widespread a fashion in an organization that had any fathers among the Fathers? Or any women in decision-making positions at all? The great work on the subject, I think, is Richard Rorty’s “Justice as larger loyalty”

And Tim, they did leverage the potential user base. They showed it to a small group of people, and the problems didn’t show up, and then they showed it to a larger group, and the problems did show up. (Many eyes make even social bugs shallow…)

Their problem was that the small group was 15 and the large group was 1 million.

So any organization that wants feedback while they can still correct the story is going to have to have tighter relations with some diverse group of people than their current “Ship it an see if anyone notices anything wrong” model. Because otherwise, the identification of the problems becomes the very thing that makes it a cross-over hit.

I agree with needing “tighter relations with some diverse group of people”.

I would like to see journalists leverage “the potential user base” before resorting to a “Ship it and see if anyone notices anything wrong” model.

I think there is a way to reach beyond a small internal group of 15 (editors/lawyers) before releasing externally to 1 million for feedback. It’s not a new idea. Andy tried to set something up back in 2004 along these lines.


One more thing: It appears that you took half of Potter’s paragraph to Limpert…

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

Cut the second part…

“And, seems to me, we still have this (white) male dominated journalism elite, with their myopic, pseudo-macho ideas of what truth and the pursuit of it means. And … this is what we get.”

…then put forth the idea from the second part as your own…

“Here is what can happen when you are not diverse enough. Like it?”

… yet said that Potter was “way off.”

Why not just use the whole graph and second what Potter says?

Just sayin’.


Let me tell you my thinking, since you asked.

What I wrote is: “That turned out to be way off.”

I didn’t say that Max Potter in his entire analysis was way off. I said that thought, the one I quoted and the one I also tended to believe myself before the Simmons Letter appeared, the idea that the author was lightly edited and barely supervised… this turned out not to be the case. It was “off” as a guess about what happened.

I quoted that part because I was talking about that part, not rendering judgment on Max Potter, whose name I did not use, even though it was easily discoverable by clicking the link, because I was not focusing on a wrong person but rather a plausible idea that turned out to be incorrect.

One of the payoffs of belonging to any kind of status group is not having to know the things that aren’t convenient for that group to know. And what we don’t have to know we may never get around to knowing. Diversity, in cases like this, helps us get to know the contours of our own ignorance.

This post on diversity ties in nicely with previous discussions on PressThink. It made me think of a comment from you on humility and from me on brain surgery.


Sperling says:

” And they all thought alike on some things, even the “outside” help. This is the big reveal for journalists in the Dr. V episode…”

‘ ‘


Same old…Same olddd Story

Mark J. McPherson says:

Thanks Jay, for shedding a thoughtful light on a tragic story.

Bill Simmons admits to “one” error: “That mistake: Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft”. But by the time more than a dozen people at Grantland had signed off on the article, Dr. V had been dead for months and thus beyond Grantland’s ability to inflict more harm to her, although publishing the article likely delivered an additional toxic payload to Dr. V’s friends and family. The article certainly was a mistake from the P.O.V. of Grantland’s journalistic reputation.

Simmons acknowledged that, “Caleb’s reporting had become so intertwined with the last year of Dr. V’s life” yet he continues to resist recognizing Grantland’s role in her death, even though the article describes her increasing desperation over the prospect of being outed and recounts her prior suicide attempt in detail.

The tragic end is foreshadowed in the article, when Caleb, brandishing the unsublimated bias that must be systemic at Grantland, outs Dr. V during an interview with an investor in her company. Caleb takes pains to note that the investor vividly recalled Dr. V and her mundane, human idiosyncrasies, her penchant for dubious exaggeration, all of which he conveyed before Caleb ‘dropped the bomb’ on him by informing him of Dr. V’s gender identity.

Caleb identifies this interview with the investor as the point where he stopped thinking of Dr. V’s prevarications were “ultimately harmless”. Yet the investor had no knowledge of Dr. V’s gender identity. He seems to have treated Dr. V and recall her as another human being, and he retains in his belief in the merit of the club she invented and seemed philosophical about prospects of return on his investment. That someone could still think that way after unknowingly being exposed by a transgendered person was unthinkable to Caleb and to Grantland, “[M]aybe the most surprising thing about my conversation with Kinney [the investor] was how calmly he took the news that the woman he thought was an aerospace engineer had once been a man, and a mechanic.” Caleb’s disclosure doesn’t illicit gasps, shock or a scintilla of material information, other than as it reflects on Grantland.

Simmons’ letter carefully obscures the chronology, so it is not possible to know in detail how pointedly Grantland directed Caleb to play up the transgender issues. But Simmons, in an apparent demonstration of Grantland’s journalistic rigor, states that it was their advisement that they wouldn’t publish the story without more, (“ Sorry, Caleb, you need to keep reporting this one. It’s not there.”) that spurred Caleb to press Dr. V and his significant other to respond to his ‘charges’ that she had concealed her gender identity. In Simmons’ telling, this exchange was where Dr. V unfairly threatened Caleb and Grantland, as if they were the wounded party in all this. But then you read the article itself, which again bares this same utter lack of self-awareness. The harrowing exchange, as written by Caleb and edited by Grantland, long after they had knowledge of her subsequent suicide, describes a women in a state of desperate unravelling under the prospect of being outed. Yet her tormented gyrations serve only to offend Grantland’s sensibilities, that they might not be allowed to print what they had so cleverly unearthed, “[T]he “deal” was one I could not accept” and that trying to question her was like “yelling into a wind tunnel.” And then Dr. V took her own life. Grantland became aware of this, and had Caleb do a re-write, incorporating her death into the story, which they do by including a cruel and gratuitous stomping on her grave, from an estranged in-law with an old axe to bare. Caleb actually writes that it seemed like a cruel way to break the news, to him, yet somehow finds a way to publish the remark to the world.

Simmons writes that Caleb “never, at any time, threatened to out her on Grantland” yet he did precisely that, first to the investor and then to the rest of the world in published form, and the article itself recounts in detail Dr. V’s increasingly unhinged reaction to Caleb’s pressing her to verify private information. In an article about a putter. Anyone who’s been around knows that part of this is a newshound story, a young reporter sensing, and his editors smelling, something juicy and lurid. Quick, tell me the name of another inventor of a putter. Tell me the last article you read about an info-mercial for a piece of sporting goods.

I read Grantland, I like a portion of what they do, admire their ambition to elevate their trade. This caused me to think about why they would go so badly off the tracks, and again, I think the tell is right there in the source material, the awful assumption that transgender identity is so freakishly bizarre that they had license to go as low as they dared. I don’t think of Grantland as being a repository of that kind of mindset, even if it occasionally glories in political incorrectedness. Because at base, the article and its editing lacks a sense of minimal human decency. You really don’t need to consult a transgender spokesperson or group to recognize in the sad story of Dr. V, a human being who struggled with the truth of her own identity throughout her life. The people of Grantland don’t strike me as indecent or callous in their daily work. How could that many people not recognize the potential consequences of their efforts?

The benefit of diversity isn’t only that you’d have a broader pool of ethnicity, background and experience to inform your work, it is you gain some deeper understanding of otherness and the forces that operate across demographics, nationalities, religions and race. The way people live. Was Caleb or Simmons capable of envisioning, for a moment, that Dr. V was a relative of theirs? You do not need first-hand experience of the kind of challenges Dr. V faced to have some empathy for how fragile such a life can be.

Jay’s description of “newsroom group think” made me think also, of the recent double-teaming of the Kellers’ against cancer patient and blogger Lisa Adams. Simmons is only a few years into a new variant of reporting/commenting, and Caleb is relatively young. The Kellers are as seasoned and as connected as they come, yet seemed almost as divorced from human experience and frailty.

Nice to have you back in the comments section at PressThink, Mark. Thanks for this.

That thing with the Kellers was weird.

“How could that many people not recognize the potential consequences of their efforts?” I think there’s still a mystery there. We don’t know the full answer to that.

I think it has something to do with the way journalists see “story,” and what happens to their judgment when the parts of a story snap together like a kit, but that is hard to disentangle from the particulars of this story.

Richard Aubrey says:

Full disclosure: I find golf so boring it’s offensive. Pretty much the same with going on about somebody else’s genitalia and how they’re put to use.
So what was the point about the trans thing? Was it going to affect the putting? The ROI? So…?
WRT compassion. That’s unnecessary. You figure A leads to B, more than likely, B leads to C, probably, and then D’s a sure thing. D is unacceptable–and in the instant case irrelevant–so let’s not start. Shared life experiences are unnecessary. Everybody knows D is unacceptable. If you are completely lacking in compassion, you still know it because you’ve grown up knowing it as an intellectual piece of knowledge.
So don’t freaking start.
Problem is that some stuff you need to know you find actively unpleasant. Nobody would want Jason van Steenwyk on his Rolodex. Or, to be found by colleagues with the guy’s number handy.