Students of cultural lag in American professional life should find their way to Felix Salmon’s latest post on the Newsweek cover story that went awry. There they will find — these students of cultural lag — a wonderful example of accomplished journalists living in a vanished world that they insist is quite present.
The Newsweek story, by Leah McGrath Goodman, tried to solve one of the mysteries surrounding bitcoin, the digital currency that some geeks follow with a passion. (Why such interest in bitcoin? Chris Dixon explains his.) Newsweek claimed to have located the founder of bitcoin living a modest life in California. “The reclusive inventor of the troubled virtual currency has been hiding in plain sight,” the teaser said. But many people online thought the case implausible. Then the guy Newsweek discovered, Dorian Nakamoto, told the AP he was not the inventor of bitcoin. Since then it’s been a brutal time for Newsweek and Goodman, as the best and the worst of online forensics are practiced upon them.
Felix Salmon already wrote a very good post on this controversy, March 7th. His conclusion:
…The responsible thing to do, from Newsweek’s perspective, would have been to present a thesis, rather than a fact. For instance, when Ted Nelson attempted to reveal Satoshi’s identity last May, he put together a video where he put forward a theory which he said was “consistent, plausible, and, I believe, compelling”. He then took a step back, and let the bitcoin community more generally come to their own conclusions about whether or not to believe him; in the end, they (generally) didn’t.
Newsweek could have done that. It could have said “here’s a theory”, and then let the world decide.
It could have, but it didn’t. Why? Because Newsweek believes in the strong, proud and continuous existence of something called “the magazine cover story,” which can still be reported, written, edited, published and defended as if our calendars say 1989, rather than 2014. “I want it to be 25 years ago!” is not an attractive attitude in a journalist, but that is what you hear between the lines in Salmon’s latest post, which is based on his interview with Leah McGrath Goodman.
Salmon calls Goodman “a proud journalist, who gets personally offended whenever anybody raises questions about her journalism, her techniques, or her reporting.” Sorry, that was 25 years ago. Today when someone raises questions about your reporting there’s almost an equal chance that a.) they know a great deal more than you, and you will have to listen carefully because your story may turn on it; b.) they’re a troll causing trouble because they can; c.) they’re completely naive on the subject and just coming to the story. Finding out which of these is the case can be difficult. But if you’re offended at having to sort a.) from b.) from c.) you are in the wrong business. Salmon:
Goodman feels that her own personal reputation, combined with the institutional reputation of Newsweek, should count for something — that if Newsweek and Goodman stand behind a story, then the rest of us should assume that they have good reason to do so.
Sorry, that was 25 years ago, when the people who counted in the game of “my reputation” were: colleagues at Newsweek, Time and US News, editors who had hired you or might hire you in the future, other reporters on the beat that you’re on, non-fiction book editors who could offer a contract, and judges for the National Magazine Awards or similar prizes. Reputation-wise, that’s who counted, 25 years ago. And when someone raised a rude question like, “did that feel like a piped quote to you?” your reputation could answer. Because how was some guy in a basement who happens to have an obsessive interest in your subject going to bust into your peer group and start shooting up your journnalism in a way that raises doubts about you and your magazine?
Never going to happen— in 1989. Today: there are many ways for people who know nothing about the reputation system that nominated you for the 2011 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award to weaken your story while damaging the reputation of Newsweek. Just by getting to the top of one of these stacks they’ve pulled part of it off. Salmon:
In aggregate, says Goodman, an enormous amount of evidence, including evidence which is not public, persuaded her that Dorian Nakamoto was her man. Goodman has not decided whether or how she might publish that evidence.
Sorry, that was 25 years ago. Today: Show your work. Don’t tell us how much work went into it. You publish your story, you know it’s going to come under attack, you prepare for battle and when the time is right you release the evidence you have. Instead: “Goodman feels that she should be given the respect due a serious and reputable investigative journalist, working for a serious and reputable publication.”
That’s not “show your work.” That’s, “You didn’t hear us. We are Newsweek magazine.” They heard you. They don’t care. And they know that Newsweek sold for $1 a few years ago. Here’s Salmon on Goodman and her editor, Jim Impoco.
Both have been largely absent from Twitter and Reddit and RapGenius and other online places where the debate is playing out; instead, they have been giving interviews to mainstream media organizations, which are often unhelpful. TV interviews devolve into stupid fights; interviews with print or online journalists result in just a couple of quotes.
Sorry, that was 25 years ago, when you do some interviews with other journalists and that’s called publicity. Today: publicity is what is actually happening to your story in real time as it gets shared, discussed and lampooned. If you want to intervene in that you go where it is happening. You make an appearance. It doesn’t mean you have to respond to every attack, or dignify the haters, but you do have to participate in the dialogue. This does not cut it. Salmon:
Impoco and Goodman are mainstream-media journalists producing mainstream content for a mass audience; Goodman’s article was probably already pushing the limits of what Impoco felt comfortable with, given that he couldn’t reasonably assume that most of his readers had even heard of bitcoin. Impoco was interested in creating a splashy magazine article, for the print reincarnation of a storied mass-market newsweekly. Of course, seeing as how this is 2014, the article would appear online, and would reach the people who care a lot about bitcoin, who were sure to make a lot of noise about it. But they weren’t the main audience that Impoco was aiming for.
Felix is trying to be polite. But his phrase, “seeing as how this is 2014…” gives the game away. In 1989, the “audience you were aiming for” and “the audience you would actually reach” by publishing a cover story for Newsweek were likely to match up. Who else would read Newsweek other than the subscribers of Newsweek and the small number who might buy it at the newsstand because the cover “got” to them? Today the situation is not that at all. People you weren’t thinking about when you wrote your article may be a majority of the users online. They’re comparing it to what else they know about bitcoin, not to other great cover packages from Newsweek’s National Magazine Award past.
You don’t get to decide to whom this article will spread. The people formerly known as the audience will do that. Other journalists writing about your screw-ups, like Felix Salmon, will do that. You can’t publish your work on the internet, then act like it was placed gingerly in some mailbox in New Rochelle.
Look, Newsweek. You decided to dig into a subject — bitcoin — about which there is a fairly large and obsessed online community. If you publish on the internet, where it lives, you don’t get to ignore that community anymore, no matter how many creeps, trolls and ignorant fools attack you and earn your disgust. As Felix Salmon is trying to explain: the very form you chose, the Great Newsmagazine Cover Story Chase, is ill-matched to the knowledge distribution and discussion climate around this subject. The thing might have worked as a quest: let’s put our heads together and find the founder of bitcoin! It might have worked as a thesis with evidence attached: show your work! But you don’t know from these forms because you want it to be 25 years ago in journalism time… and it’s not.
UPDATE. Newsweek’s editor did respond to this post. Sort of.
— jim impoco (@jimpoco) March 10, 2014
UPDATE, II. Dorian Nakamoto’s lawyer emails a statement to Felix Salmon. This is from The Guardian’s coverage of it.
Issued through his Los Angeles-based lawyer, Ethan Kirschner, the statement “unconditionally” denies the Newsweek report, adding that Nakamoto “did not create, invent or otherwise work on Bitcoin”.
“The first time I heard the term ‘bitcoin’ was from my son in mid-February 2014,” the statement continues. “After being contacted by a reporter, my son called me and used the word, which I had never before heard. Shortly thereafter, the reporter confronted me at my home. I called the police. I never consented to speak with the reporter. In an ensuing discussion with a reporter from the Associated Press, I called the technology ‘bitcom’. I was still unfamiliar with the term.”
UPDATE, III. Ars Technica calls for a retraction.