Journalism

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The blizzard hit coastal New England, not New York City. In fact, it’s still hitting. Wish I was there, because I love snow. Here in New York City we got pffft: about eight inches in Central Park: an average winter snowstorm. No big deal.

I was set up with my GoPro to time-lapse accumulations on the balcony outside our front window. I had two other cameras ready to go, and multiple devices tuned in to streams of news stories, tweets and posts. Instead the story I got was an old and familiar one of misplaced sensationalism. Nothing happening, non-stop. At least here.

The real news was happening in Boston, Providence, Worcester, Montauk, Scituate, the Cape and Islands. But I didn’t have anything useful to add to what thousands of others were showing, posting, tweeting and blogging. Back during Sandy, I had a lot to blog because important stuff wasn’t being said on media major and minor. For example I predicted, correctly, that many radio and TV stations would be knocked off the air by flooding. I also thought, correctly, that New York was under-prepared for the storm.
Not so this time, for any of the places the storm has hit.

With the snow still falling over New England…

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 8.17.02 PM… there’s a good chance that it will break old records (and probably already has in some places). But the cable news system is a still a broken record: endless pronouncements by undersecretaries of the overstate.

As more cords get cut, and more of us inform each other directly, new and better forms of aggregation and intermediation will emerge. To some extent the major media are already adapting, showing videos, tweets and posts from the Long Tail. But I suspect that the next major shift will be to something different than anything we have now.

I suspect the biggest innovations will be around discovery — of each other. Who has the information I want, now? Who or what is being fully useful, rather than just noisy or repetitive? Search from Google and Bing, while good in many ways, seems hidebound and stale to me. Its personalization is mostly about guesswork that’s hard to figure or control, and is jiggered for advertising as well.

For example, right now I’d like to know more about the breached sea wall in Scituate. Here’s a Yahoo (Bing) search. Most of the top results are at boston.com, which says to me — before I even look at any of them — “Oh, boston.com is the Boston Globe, and I’ve already run out the five views it gives me on this browser before it thows up the paywall.” In fact there is no paywall for some of the local stories, but I’ve seen it so many times that I don’t want to go there. The second thing I notice is that they’re all old: from 2014 and 2013. When I look for the same thing at Google News, the top results are the paywalled Globe ones. So I search for Scituate on Twitter, which is more helpful, but not fine-grained enough. What if I want to read only people who live there and are reporting from there?

Try to think outside of the search and social media boxes for a minute. Think all the way outside the Web.

Just think Internet, which is nothing more than a way for anybody or anything to connect to anybody or anything. Let’s find a way to do discovery there. We have some crude beginnings with stuff like this. But we need something much more natural, distributed and outside the control of any company or government — as is the Internet, by nature.

Once we have that, all kinds of amazing stuff will start to open up.

11:31pm — Nobody is saying it, but so far the #BlizzardOf2015 in #NYC is a dud. I mean, yeah there’s snow. But it’s not a real blizzard yet. At least not here, and not in Boston, where it’s supposed to be far worse. “A little bit more than a dusting” says the CNN reporter on the street in Boston, sweeping a thin layer of snow off some pavement. The anchor on the street in New York stands in front of a bare wet sidewalks while the street behind is covered with a couple inches of slush.

Apparently the only vehicle on the streets is CNN’s Blizzardmobile:

Blizzardmobile

(Why is it that my mind drops the B and calls that thing LIZZARDMOBILE?)

Meanwhile, WNYC‘s listeners are weighing in with snow totals that look a lot deeper…

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 11.42.16 PM…than what I’m seeing out my window:

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 11.49.00 PM

But the wind is getting stronger now. Maybe this thing will be as big as they’ve been predicting. But I’m not seeing it yet.

And I do want to see it, because I love snow. A sampling:

Plus everythjing else I’ve tagged “snow.”

Enjoy. I’ll check back in the morning. I should be putting up fresh photos then.

 

Check out this map:

deflationgate-mapThis isn’t new. Way back in 2008, after the Patriots’ undefeated season ended with a Super Bowl loss to the Giants, The Onion wrote Patriots Season Perfect for Rest of Nation. It’s easy to hate an overdog.

Sports is an emotional thing. We care about teams, games and players because we care about them. And, because we care, we have inventories of sports knowledge that we enjoy enlarging through reading, watching, listening and talking to others who care about the same stuff.

Sports also holds us together. When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s, there were four topics everybody talked about: the Depression, the War, sports and TV. The first two are long gone, and TV is shattering into a zillion sub-breeds of video. In fact the only breed of TV programming that still needs to be seen live, on schedule, is sports. Thus sports rules what’s left of broadcasting. It’s also what keeps newspapers alive.

When games aren’t on, about all you can do with sports is talk about it. Subjects come and go, but all are fueled by the need to talk about something, or anything. Hence the big topic of the moment: #deflationgate.

I’ll put my loyalty cards on the table: I like the New England Patriots. But I’m not hard core, or a lifer. I’ve hung out in New England for the last eight and a half years, and I’ve come to favor the teams there. But I also grew up in New Jersey, just across the river from New York, where I am right now. When I was a kid I cared a lot more about the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Mets, Giants and Knicks than I do now about the Patriots or the Celtics. During my twenty years in North Carolina, I became a Duke basketball fan. (I also like Carolina, Wake, State and Virginia, in roughly that order.) When I lived in the Bay Area, for more than a decade and a half, I became a fan of the Giants, 49ers and Warriors. In fact I had season tickets to Warriors games for several years. So mostly I like sports, and that’s my main point. Can’t help it.

Yet something I care about more than any team or sport is journalism. That’s been my vocation or avocation for all my adult life, and I take its virtues seriously. I also see those virtues lacking in most coverage of #deflationgate. Sure, sports coverage is mostly about opinion, the best of which is “analysis.” But how about just some actual journalism here?

I mean, wtf are the facts? Do we actually know the ones that matter, for sure? We know some of the rules and official procedures, and that’s cool. But as for who did what, when and how, we have nothing. From Bill Belichick and Tom Brady we have denials of knowing anything about the under-inflated balls used by the Patriots in their last game, against the Colts. (Note that I don’t say “deflated,” because I’ve read or heard nothing from anybody about deflation of the balls; but we all know they had to have been inflated at some point.) Those denials, even if they prove wrong, are facts. As for the rest of the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How Much, the ratio of fact to opinion in coverage of the topic runs about one in a thousand, or worse. Who inflated and/or deflated the footballs, when, where, and how? Who inspected them — where, when and how? Perhaps by now the league knows. But the rest of us haven’t heard much more than speculation.

The most unhelpful speculations are ad hominem arguments made against the Pats, Belichick and Brady. Yes, the Belichick and the Pats were caught cheating once. That doesn’t mean they cheated this time. Matt Leinart tweets that every team tampers with their footballs. Presumably that’s an informed opinion, but it’s still just an opinion. Where’s the proof? The same question survives John Madden fingering Brady as the buck-stopper. It’s just opinion. No facts there.

But sentiment runs strong, especially against overdogs. I hated the New York Yankees when I was growing up, even though I liked Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and other Yankees players. It’s easy to hate the Patriots, with their pretty-boy quarterback and their coach who bathes in a tub full of warm entrails. But we need facts here.

Credit where due: CBS Sports, Heavy. Got any others? Love to see ‘em.

On Saturday I invited Serial listeners to recall the Edgar Smith case. Smith got away, literally, with murder. He did it by convincing the media and the public (and to a lesser degree the courts) that he was innocent man, falsely convicted of brutally killing a teenage girl. After he was released he attempted another murder, confessed to the original one and went back to prison.

Now I invite Serial listeners to recall a counter example: the West Memphis Three, who were convicted as teenagers in 1994 for the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. One was sentenced to death and the other two were given life sentences. It was alleged, on debatable evidence gained by poor police work, that the victims were killed in a Satanic ritual.

All three are now free, having given Alford pleas. These are “guilty” pleas in which innocence is still maintained. (It’s complicated. Look it up.) To make a long story too short, it is now clear that they got bum raps and that other persons are the more likely perps. The miscarriage of justice in the case is so extreme that the dad of one of the victims has taken up the Three’s cause.

I met two of the Three, plus the dad, in 2012 after a screening of the documentary West of Memphis at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. I’m sure they are innocent.

The Memphis Three’s case, like Edgar Smith’s, is irrelevant to Adnan Syed’s. (He’s serving time for murder in the case Serial explores). The jury is still in for that one, and Adnan is still officially guilty. But maybe keeping these other cases in mind will help us all keep our minds open.

Meanwhile, HuffPo has a nice set of takes by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

I’m now four episodes into Serial, the hugely popular reality podcast from WBEZ and This American Life. In it reporter Sarah Koenig episodically tugs together many loose ends around the murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore teenager, in 1999. The perp, said the cops and the proscecutor at the time, was former boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was convicted by a jury of first degree murder. They deliberated about as long as it takes for an afternoon nap. He’s been in prison ever since.

My provisional conclusion is that the court was right to find Adnan guilty. My case for that conviction (or vice versa) is an ad hominem one: the whole thing is eerily eminiscent (for me) of Edgar Smithedgar-smith, (that’s his mug photo on the right) who served a record length of time on death row before successfully arguing for a retrial, which resulted in a lesser conviction and his release — after which he kidnapped and tried to kill someone else, confessing as well to the original crime. He’s an old man now, serving time for the second crime.

While still in jail for the first crime, Smith earned a high degree of media attention and celebrity with his book Brief Against Death, which was a bestseller at the time. I read it and believed him. So did William F. Buckley Jr., who befriended Smith, and was instrumental in getting Smith’s case reconsidered, by both the courts and the public. Buckley even wrote the introduction to Smith’s book.

Think of the media-intensive Smith case as the Serial of its time.

Back then a good friend of mine was studying at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and interviewed Smith. “He’s guilty,” my friend said. “The guy is brilliant, but he’s also a liar.” Later Bill Buckley said the same thing.

It haunts me that I was snookered by Smith, and comforts me none to know I wasn’t alone.

This of course makes no case at all against Adnan Syed. He might be innocent as a lamb. And I’d like to say he’s innocent until proven guilty. But his guilt has already been decided by a court of law, so now it’s the other way around: he needs to prove his innocence. Or at least raise the shadow of doubt to a height under which he can be sprung.

I worry about what will happen if all the current interest in this case results in Adnan’s release. What if he really did kill Hae — meaning he’s as remorseless and manipulative as Edgar Smith?

With the case headed to an appeals court, this now appears possible.

I’ll keep my mind open as I listen through the rest of Series. It’s outstanding radio. And I also invite the @Serial team to look at the Smith case as well — if they haven’t already.* It may not be relevant, but it is similar.

Bonus case: Jack Henry Abbott.

* (14 December) Have they? I’ve now listened through Episode 7 and so far they haven’t mentioned it.

gaudifaceIn an email today I was asked by a PR person if I wanted to talk with somebody at a major newspaper about its foray into “native” advertising — a euphemism for ads made to look like editorial matter. Among other things they asked if native advertising would “signify the death of credible journalism.” Here was my response:

I think tricking up advertising to look like journalism crosses a line I wish (name of paper) would keep up as a thick wall.

In publishing, editorial is church and advertising is state. The difference should be clear, and the latter should not be confused with the former. For nearly all its history, this was the case with (name of paper), and all serious publications.

While native ads don’t signify the death of credible journalism, they do signify a sell-out by publishers using them.

If (person at the paper) wants to try convincing me otherwise, I’m game. But be warned that the likelihood that I’ll give native ads a positive spin — for any pub — is close to nil.

Bonus link — Andrew Sullivan on Native Ads: Journalism has surrendered. Great interview.

While doing research on another topic, I ran across this post by Amy Gahran (@agahran) in Poynter, riffing off a March 2007 post on my old blog titled Giant Zero Journalism.

Reading it, I feel like I just opened a time capsule — especially when I also just finished reading Robinson Meyer‘s Atlantic piece, And Just Like That, Facebook Became the Most Important Entity in Web Journalism — In one chart! (from Peter Kafka) and A Eulogy for Twitter The beloved social publishing platform enters its twilight, which Robinson co-wrote with Adrienne LaFrance.

Twitter and Facebook were still their old (young) selves way back then, and not the social media giants they’ve become since then. (Oh, and Google still mattered too. Remember them? Just half-kidding.)

Some of what I wrote holds up, however, as does what Amy adds about credibility — which always meant everything, or damn close.

Here’s the post:

We’ll start with Corporations Co-opt Citizen Journalism, by Frank Beacham, who concludes,
I predict that in a world overflowing with dreadful citizen-made images, talented photographers and videographers will survive. Perhaps they will not be on the payroll of the traditional news organizations. Yet, they will always be in demand by a group of discriminating consumers who will pay for their services.
News dominated by citizen journalists will be just like the neighbor who makes you sit through a viewing of his 300 vacation snapshots or baby pictures from Costco. Your eyes will begin to glaze over, followed by an urge to scream.
Beware of news organizations that think they can replace professionals with citizen-made free content. It will stink. Always has, always will.
I found that through The Fatal Attraction of Free, by Dan Kennedy, who says,
There is, however, a significant flaw in the corporate-defined citizen-journalism model. Good journalism may be hard, but technology is easy. And rather than giving it away to Yahoo, Reuters et al., most citizen journalists are doing it themselves.
Dan also points to Citizen Media: Fad or the Future of News? — The rise and prospects of hyperlocal journalism, from the Knight Citizen News Network. It’s a big report. A press release about the report begins,
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Local news web sites offering content generated by users are securing a valuable place in the media landscape and are likely to continue as important sources of community news, according to a report released today by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism.
“Citizen sites are developing as new forms of bridge media, linking traditional news with forms of civic participation,” said J-Lab director, Jan Schaffer, author of the report, which was funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.
These sites, which take many forms, have rapidly emerged since 2004. But rather than delivering comprehensive news and “finished stories,” most sites are “forming as fusions of news and schmooze” that pay particular attention to key issues in their communities, Schaffer said…
Most citizen media ventures are shoestring labors of love, funded out of the founders’ own pockets, and staffed by volunteer content contributors. While they¹d like more readers and revenues, site founders nevertheless professed a solid resolve to continue: 51% said they didn’t need to make money to keep going; 82% said they planned to continue “indefinitely.” Nearly all would welcome reinforcements and the ability to make even token payments to writers.
Kudos to KCNN: the whole report is in .html rather than .pdf. (Kevin Marks:HTML is now the default document format. Exactly.) My only complaint: they apparently didn’t talk to Edhat.
Dan’s bottom lines:
I think it’s likely — or at least I hope — that the very real problem identified by Beacham will turn out to be self-correcting. Corporate media executives who genuinely want to use citizen-media tools to build community and experiment with new business models will be rewarded for their efforts.
But those who think they can profit by suckering amateurs into giving away their content will soon discover that what they’ve created a host of new competitors.
A commenter under Dan’s piece pionts to NY Times publisher: Our goal is to manage the transition from print to internet, by By Eytan Avriel in Haaretz. An irony-packed excerpt:
Will it be free?
No, Sulzberger says. If you want to read the New York Times online, you will have to pay.
In the age of bloggers, what is the future of online newspapers and the profession in general? There are millions of bloggers out there, and if the Times forgets who and what they are, it will lose the war, and rightly so, according to Sulzberger. “We are curators, curators of news. People don’t click onto the New York Times to read blogs. They want reliable news that they can trust,” he says.
“We aren’t ignoring what’s happening. We understand that the newspaper is not the focal point of city life as it was 10 years ago.
“Once upon a time, people had to read the paper to find out what was going on in theater. Today there are hundreds of forums and sites with that information,” he says. “But the paper can integrate material from bloggers and external writers. We need to be part of that community and to have dialogue with the online world.”
Then there’s Mark Glaser’s report on We Media, at PBS’s MediaShift. Sez Mark,
My personal definition of “we media” is the movement toward an empowered audience, who can customize their media experience and create their own media, leaving behind the old model of the mainstream media control.
Later he points out,
The conference was marketed as being a conversation among various players in the media industry. As the conference site put it: “The program includes a series of roundtable discussions and a variety of participatory activities involving communities, individuals and organizations to help participants understand and address the challenges of a changing multi-media world.”
But some individuals, who wrote complaints on the We Media website, were put off by the $1,000+ walk-up registration fee...
It’s true that there are other low-cost unconferences such as BloggerCon, where there are no fees and no sponsors, and the space is donated. But this is not what We Media is aiming for. I chatted with the conference organizers, Dale Peskin and Andrew Nachison (a.k.a. the new media Blues Brothers), this morning before the confab started, and they explained the high cost of We Media...
Nachison said that registration fees only pay for 20% of the costs to put on the conference, with sponsor money making up the rest of the income. Their group, iFocos, is non-profit, but they obviously aren¹t looking for charity here. This is about business, and how the media business is changing, and it¹s not just the army of citizen media people.
I got to Dan and all the other stuff above through We are the Web, at howardowens.com. Howard, looking at all the above, offers this summary:
There’s a book end of attitudes about big media companies and distributed media. On one end is the suggestion that MSM’s only interest in UGC is as free content, and on the other end, the meme that MSM is just big, dumb media that somehow stands apart from social media instead of a part of we media.
He concludes,
If people didn’t get something out of their contributions, they wouldn’t write, shoot and submit. Not all compensation is monetary. MSM companies that make available a distribution channel for UGC assume the financial risk associated with the effort (a risk not shared by contributors), and provide a valuable service to contributors looking to reach a wider audience than might be available to a solo act. Yes, MSM getting into UGC are hoping that the effort will generate audience, and hence revenue, but it¹s a complete misunderstanding of the economics of the matter to say the whole process is just a rip off. You¹ve got to start some place, and maybe some day UGC will generate sufficient revenue to justify monetary compensation for contributors, but for most newspapers still incubating UGC, that just isn¹t possible right now.
Of course, I’m one of those corporate MSM guys who believes in UGC, so you might think I have a conflict of interest here.
Here¹s the thing though: As I watched the Web 2.0 video, I revisited a thought: “We are the media.” And by We, I don¹t just mean the so-called citizens of citizen journalism. We also includes the MSM. Like it or not, every MSM outlet is part of the conversation. Some are reluctant or even resistant contributors to the conversation, but every report in MSM is ripe for citizens to expand on, comment on or react to.
Those of us who work on the MSM side of the conversation also believe that in building the means of participation we aren¹t just looking for free content — we believe in the conversation. That should mean something.
I found Howard through I, Reporter, which I found through a search for Gannett+citizen+journalists, because I was wondering what happened with Gannett’s CJ (or crowdsourcing) efforts since I last wrote about it.* I was doing that as part of an offline dialog with Sheila Lennon, who has been working for some time at the juncture of newspapering and blogging.
All this was also on the front of my mind, since several people had spoken or written to me about a Frontline piece — I’m guessing it’s either the whole Newswar series, or Part III: What’s Happening To News. One of my correspondents, Dave Winer, makes a point he says Frontline misses: we are the sources, going direct.
Exactly. That brings me to a related point, which is about the Net as an environment.
This is what I told the public media conference in my closing remarks there:The Net is a giant zero. It puts everybody zero distance from everybody and everything else. And it supports publishing and broadcasting at costs that round to zero as well.
It is essential for the mainstream media to understand that the larger information ecosystem is one that grows wild on the Net and supports everybody who wants to inform anybody else. It no longer grows inside the mainstream media’s walled gardens. Those gardens will continue to thrive only to the degree that they do two things: 1) open up; and 2) live symbiotically with individuals outside who want to work together for common purposes.
Framing is a huge issue here. We have readers and viewers, not just “audiences” and “consumers”. We write articles and essays and posts, not just “generate content”. “User-generated content”, or UGC, is an ugly, insulting and misleading label.
“Content” is inert. It isn’t alive. It doesn’t grow, or catch fire, or go viral. Ideas and insights do that. Interesting facts do that. “Audiences” are passive. They sit still, clap and leave. That might be what happened with newspapers and radio and TV in the old MSM-controlled world, but it’s not what happens on The Giant Zero. It’s not what happens with blogging, or with citizen journalism. Here it’s all about contribution, participation. It involves conversation, but it goes beyond that into relationship — with readers, with viewers, with the larger ecosystem by which we all inform each other.
As I’ve said before (and I said it again at the conference), we don’t just “deliver information” like it’s a Fedex package. We inform each other. That is, we literally form what other people know. If you tell me something I didn’t know before, I’m changed by that. I am not merely in receipt of a box of facts. I am enlarged by knowing more than I did before. Enlarging each other is the deepest calling of journalism, whether it’s done by bloggers, anchors or editors.
We are all authors of each other. What we call authority is the right we give others to author us, to make us who we are. That right is one we no longer give only to our newspapers, our magazines, our TV and radio stations. We give it to anybody who helps us learn and understand What’s Going On in the world. In that world the number of amateur informants goes up while the number of editors on newspaper staffs goes down. Between these two facts are many opportunities for symbiosis.
“Curation” and “curative” are words tradition-bound journalists like to use when they defend their institutions. But these are museum words. They suggest collections of artifacts behind locked doors in basement collections. The New York Times may have a financial success with Times Select, its online paper. But Time Select is a walled garden with a locked gate. You can’t look up anything there in Google, because its “conent” is trapped behind a paywall. Only subscribers can see it, and there’s a limit on how much archival material they can see without paying more.
The majority of papers today still lock up their archives. It’s time to stop that, for the simple reason that it insults the nature of the Giant Zero environment on which they now reside. They can make as much or more money by exposing those archives to Google’s and Yahoo’s indexing spiders, by placing advertising on them, by linking to them and bringing interest and visitors to them, by making them useful to other journalists (many of whom will be bloggers) seeking to write authoritatively about their communities and their communities’ histories.
Established media institutions have enormous advantages. But they can’t use them if they continue to live in denial of the nature of their new world — and of the interests, talents and natural independence of the other inhabitants there.
[Later...] *Greg writes,
Re: Gannett’s “crowd sourcing,” here in Poughkeepsie, the Journal keeps bugging readers to blog for its site on its terms, but doesn’t seem interested in acknowledging local bloggers who are already covering these area/issues on their own. Community opinion matters only to the extent that it’s expressed under the Gannett roof.
Our own Daily Nexus at UCSB (where I am a research fellow) just published a piece today that covered placeblogging, with narry a link and hardly a mention of Edhat, which has been doing an awesome job for years as both supplement and alternative to the daily paper here in Santa Barbara. Credit where due: The piece does give props to the excellent work being done by the Independent, our local weekly.

 

Bonus link: Remembering Peter Sklar, placeblogging pioneer. Peter was the founder, publisher and main writer for Edhat. In character with Peter’s lack of self-aggrandizement, he remains an unsung hero. But placeblogging, by whatever name we use, would not be the same without him. He was a true original and in that sense alone (plus many others) he was an exemplary journalist.

…all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end…

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Ulysses

Here’s how dull that pause — that end we call the front page — has become:

front-page-trendAnd yet every newspaper needs one. So it’s not going away. But to stay current — literally — papers need something else as well — something Net-native that bridges the static page and the live flow of actual news.

Twitter isn’t it.

Yes, these days it’s pro forma for news media to post notifications of stories and other editorial on Twitter, but Twitter is a closed and silo’d corporation, not an institutional convention on the order of the front page, the editorial page, the section, the insert. Most of all, Twitter is somebody else’s system. It’s not any paper’s own.

But Twitter does normalize a model that Dave Winer called a river, long before Twitter existed. You might think of a river as a paper’s own Twitter. And also the reader’s.

In the early days Twitter was called a “microblogging” platform. What made it micro was its 140-character limit on posts. What made it blogging was its format: latest stuff on top and a “permalink” to every post. (Alas, Twitter posts tend to be snow on the water, flowing to near-oblivion and lacking syndication through RSS —though there are hacks.)

Dave created RSS — Really Simple Syndication — as we know it today, and got The New York Times and other publications (including many papers and nearly all Web publishers) to adopt it as well. Today a search for “RSS” on Google brings up over two billion results.

Now Dave has convened a hackathon for creating a new river-based home page for newspapers, starting once again with The New York Times. On his blog he explains how a river of news aggregator works. And in a post at Nieman Journalism Lab he explains Why every news organization should have a river. There he unpacks a series of observations and recommendations:

  1. News organizations are shrinking, but readers’ demand for news is exploding.
  2. The tools of news are available to more people all the time.
  3. News organizations have to redefine themselves.
  4. Users have a special kind of insight that most news orgs don’t tap.
  5. Therefore, the challenge for news organizations has been, for the last couple of decades, to learn how to incorporate the experience of these users and their new publishing tools, into their product — the news.
  6. Like anything else related to technology, this will happen slowly and iteratively.
  7. The first thing you can do is show the readers what you’re reading.
  8. Having the river will also focus your mind.
  9. Then, once your river is up and running for a while, have a meeting with all your bloggers.

— and then offers real help for getting set up.

I want to expand the reach of this work to broadcasting: a business that has always been live, has always had flow, and has been just as challenged as print in adapting to the live-networked world.

I want to focus first on the BBC, not just because they’re an institution with the same great heft as the Times, but because they’ve invited me to visit with them and talk about this kind of stuff. I’ll be doing that in a couple of weeks. By coincidence Neil Midgley in Forbes yesterday reported that the BBC News Division would be cutting five hundred jobs over the next two years. I’m hoping this might open minds at the Beeb toward opportunity around news rivers.

In the traditional model, reporting works something like hunting and gathering. A reporter hunts on his or her beat, gathers details for stories, and then serves up meals that whet and fill the appetites of readers, viewers and listeners. This model won’t go away. In some ways it’s being improved. Here in the U.S. ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity are good examples of that. But it will become part of a larger flow, drawing from a wider conceptual and operational net.

A river for media as major as the Times and the BBC flows in the center of a vast watershed, with sources flowing inward through tributaries. Each of those sources can be lakes, streams and rivers as well. At their best, all of them sustain life, culture and commerce along their banks and in the areas surrounding them.

For institutions such as the Times and the BBC, what matters is maintaining their attraction to sources, destinations, and lives sustained in the process. That attraction is flow itself. That’s why rivers are essential as both metaphor and method.

To help with this, let’s look at a watershed in the physical world that works on roughly the scale that the Times and the BBC do in the journalistic regions they serve:

CD06_Amazon_River_NetworkThat’s the Amazon River basin. Every stream and river in that basin flows down a slope toward the Amazon River. While much of the rain that falls on the basin sinks into the earth and sustains life right there, an excess flows downstream. Some of the water and the material it carries is used and re-used along the way. Much of the activity within each body operates in its own local or regional ecosystem. But much of it flows to the main river before spilling into the sea. The entire system is shaped by its boundaries, the ridges and plateaus farthest upstream. Its influence extends outside those boundaries, of course, but what makes the whole watershed unitary is inward flow toward the central river.

In his Nieman piece, Dave identifies bloggers as essential sources. (Remember that blogs have a river format of their own: they flow, from the tops to the bottoms of their own pages.) Email is another source. So are comments on a news organization’s own stories. So are other publications. So are news agencies such as the Associated Press. So are think tanks, industry experts and investigative organizations such as the Center for Public Integrity.

Missing from that list are ordinary people. All of those people are in position to be sources for stories, and many already contribute to news flow through the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Every one of those intermediary systems cries out for improvement or replacement, both of which will be happen naturally if they feel the by the gravitational pull of rivers at central journalistic institutions such as the Times and the BBC.

But the most important challenge is leveraging what Dan Gillmor famously said many years ago, when he was still at the San Jose Mercury News: “My readers know more than I do.”

As a visiting scholar in Journalism at NYU for the last two years, I have participated in many classes led by Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky. (Most of those were in the Studio 20 program, which Jay describes as “a consultancy paid in problems.”) One subject that often came up in these classes was the institutionalized power asymmetry between news media on one hand and people they serve on the other — even as the preponderance of power to provide news material clearly resides on the side of the people, rather than the media.  You can see this asymmetry in the way comments tend to work. Think about the weakness one feels when writing a letter to the editor, or to comment under a story on a news site — and how lame both often tend to be.

This last semester I worked for awhile with a small group of students in one of Clay’s classes, consulting The Guardian — one of the world’s most innovative news organizations. What the students contemplated for awhile was finding ways for readers with subject expertise or useful knowledge to bypass the comment process and get straight to reporters. I would like to see future classes look toward rivers as one way (or context within which) this can be done.

The Guardian is far more clueful than the average paper, but it would still benefit hugely from looking at itself as a river rather than … well, I’m not sure what. It used to be that http://guardian.co.uk went to the paper itself, but now it detects my location and redirects me to http://www.theguardian.com/us. And when I click on the “About us” link, it goes to this front-page-ish thing. In other words, packed with lots of stuff, as front pages of newspaper websites tend to be these days. Which is fine. They have to do something, and this is what they’re doing now. Live and learn, always. But one thing they’re learning that I don’t like — as a reader and possible contributor — is made clear by several items that appear on the page. One is the little progress thingie at the bottom, which shows stuff behind the page that is still trying to load (no kidding) long after I went to the page ten minutes ago:Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.05.48 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.05.55 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.10.38 AMAnother is this item at the bottom of the page:Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.13.23 AMAnd another is this piece — one among (let’s see…) 24 items with a headline and text under it:

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.14.29 AMThe operative word here is content.

John Perry Barlow once said, “I didn’t start hearing about ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.” But fear isn’t the problem here. It’s the implication that stories, posts and other editorial matter are all just cargo. Stuff.

The mind-shift going on here is that’s a huge value-subtract for both paper and reader alike. (Yes, I know there is no substitute for content, other than the abandoned “editorial,” and that’s a problem too.)

Speaking as a reader of the Guardian — and one who reads it in the UK, the US and many other countries on  the World Wide Freaking Web — I hate being blindered by national borders, and regarded as just an “audience” member valued mostly as an “influential” instrument to be “engaged” by “branded content,” even it’s laundered through a “Lab.”

This kind of jive is the sound an industry makes when it’s talking to itself. Or worse, of editorial and publishing factota dancing on the rubble of the Chinese wall that long stood between them, supporting independence and integrity on both sides.

If the Guardian saw itself as a river, and not as a cargo delivery system, it might not have made the moves in the U.S. that it has so far. To fully grok how big a problem these moves have been (again, so far), read The Guardian at the Gate, by Michael Wolff in GQ.

Newspapers and broadcast networks tend to be regional things: geographically, culturally, and politically. The Guardian’s position — what Reis and Trout (in Positioning: the Battle for Your Mind) call a creneau — has been its preëminence as the leading newspaper for culture and leftish politics in the UK. Creating something new and separate in the U.S. was, and remains, weird. It would be even more weird if the BBC tried the same thing. (Instead, wisely, it’s just another program source for U.S. public radio. And its voice is clearly a UK one.)

Another term from the marketing world that’s making its way over to the production side of media (including news) is “personalization.” At the literal level this isn’t a bad thing. One might like to personalize, or have personalized, some of the stuff one reads, hears or watches. But the way marketers think about it, personalization is something done by algorithms that direct content toward individuals, guided by the crunchings of surveillance-gathered Big Data.

Some of that stuff isn’t bad. Some might actually be good. But the better thing would be to start with the role of the paper, or the broadcast system, as a river that flows through the heart of an ecosystem that it also defines. That role is not just to barge content downstream, but to collect and grow shared knowledge.

We’re at the beginning of the process of discovering all the things a river can be. This is why Dave’s hackathon is so important.

RSS gave newspapers a new lease on life at a time when the old one was running out. Rivers will do the same if newspapers, broadcasters and other essential media leverage them with the same gusto.

It helps that, at the heart of both RSS and rivers, there are old and well-understood concepts. For RSS it’s syndication. For rivers it’s publishing. Both RSS and rivers use these old concepts in new ways that work for everybody, and not just for the media themselves.

Curation is another one. It comes up nearly every time I talk to a news organization about what only it can do, or what it can do better than any other institution. Some curation should be done by the media themselves. But it should be done in the context of the new world defined by the Net and the Web. That’s why I suggest flowing  rivers into the free and open Web. Don’t lock them behind paywalls. My one-liner for this is Sell the news and give away the olds. It’s off-topic for rivers, syndication and the Live Web, but it’s a topic worth pursuing, because old news can always have new value, if it’s free.

And that’s what the Net and the Web were born to be — for everybody and everything: free. Just like the sea into which all rivers flow.

Back to Tennyson:

Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

nytimesriverDave says “The New York Times home page needs a re-think.” But he doesn’t stop there, because thinking isn’t enough and complaining is worse than useless. (As I’ve often found. For example, here.)

We need to hack up something new, different, better and — most of all — simpler and easier to implement than anything the Times can do on its own.

(The Times is kinda busy now anyway. And it’s not inclined to simplicity, especially on the Web. That’s not a knock. We’re talking DNA here. But the Times can listen and act, as it did back when Martin Nisenholtz and his team followed Dave’s lead and adopted RSS, reforming and reinvigorating the whole publishing business in the process. We want the same kind of adoption and effects again this time.)

The simplest thing you can do as a programmer is leverage something Dave came up with years ago called river of news. As a reader you can blog, tweet and otherwise submit to the world your suggestions.

Hashtag: #timesriver.

Tagline: All the news that’s fit to flow.

Here’s Dave’s own current set of rivers.

That’s a handy model, but neither Dave nor I want that to restrict your thinking or your coding. We want new thinking, new hacking, new (and renewed) heads on the case and fingers on keyboards.

For that Dave has convened a hackathon. Here’s how he got it rolling:

Here’s an OPML file with all the NYT feeds I could find, in Oct 2012.#

Your task: Build a website using the flow of these feeds. A new way to sample the flow of news from the NYT.#

Here’s what I’m using now, designed years ago. Surely you can do better!#

Share a pointer to your work with this hashtag: #nytfeedfun.#

There’s a lot of data flowing through there. #

A picture of a slice of cheese cake.

PS: Deadline? We’re having an RSS meetup in NYC in mid-June.#

Guidance from my (non-programming) corner:::

Think about turning the Times from a static thing to a live one* — literally, from a paper to a river.

Think about how a river forms. Its sources are tributaries: branches that flow in, not out. The biggest rivers sustain life in their waters and alongside their banks. They are at the very core of culture and civilization. And they pour out through a delta to the ocean. The ocean is the Web. The delta is whatever we make it.

I’ll be writing more about this topic in the coming days and weeks, both in service to journalism’s cause (whatever it is — and I mean that seriously) and to wrap my tour of duty as a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter,Journalism Institute. (In that I’m following the large footsteps of Dave, who served in the same post under our friend and mentor Jay Rosen.)

So hack away. I’m very eager to see the results — but not as eager as I hope the Times itself will be — for everybody’s sake. (I’m serious about that too. The Times is the anchor institution for civilization as well as journalism. Helping it adapt may be the highest calling we have.)

* Some background on the static/live distinction, written almost a decade ago, and now more relevant than ever.

black holeMost of what we call news is filler. The practice of filling space and time — stuffing “content” into a “news hole” — is a relic of an era when printing and broadcast space and time were limited, privately held, and paid for mostly by advertising, which requires ears and eyeballs showing up predictably and in fixed places.

The Internet obsoleted all of it, including the frame of news as filler.

There is no hole.

The river is a good metaphor for what news is, and should be. Sometimes it’s a trickle, sometimes a flood. But it always flows.

With news rivers, destinations are personal. So are many sources. Individual people are the first and best discoverers and producers of it. And also its only consumers.

They can also be customers. But no news publisher has come up with an optimal way to charge for news that works across all of them. The best they’ve come up with is their own private silos, each with paywalls and counters on them. And those all suck.

There is no centralized service that has done news right yet, and I don’t expect there to be. News is naturally distributed in both supply and demand. Some routes between the two are better than others. But they are all limited by the hole-filling frame in which they still operate.

Of all the publishing concepts we have, including publishing itself (around since Gutenberg), the one with the best leverage for the Internet is syndication. This is why RSS works so well.

Let’s build from there.

(Note: The first draft of this post appears as a comment under Dave Winer‘s Middle-of-the-night’s thoughts on news, with which I agree. Dave invented syndication and rivers as we know both today. His fingerprints are also on blogging, outlining and much else.)

More: Dave’s hackathon idea.

Bonus link, from Jay Rosen. Another from Jeff Jarvis.

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