A pale white man shows us what journalism is

My weekly Loose Wire Service column.

Is the Internet replacing journalism?

It’s a question that popped up as I gazed at the blurred, distorted web-stream of a press conference from London by the founder of WikiLeaks, a website designed to “protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public”.

On the podium there’s Julian Assange. You can’t make a guy like this up. White haired, articulate and defensive, aloof and grungy, specific and then sweepingly angry. Fascinating. In a world of people obsessed by the shininess of their iPhones, Assange is either a throwback to the past or a gulf of fresh air.

WikiLeaks, which has been around for a few years but has, with the release of mounds of classified data about the Afghan War, come center stage.

Assange doesn’t mince his words. He shrugs off questions he doesn’t like by pointing his face elsewhere and saying “I don’t find that question interesting.” He berates journalists for not doing their job — never

something to endear an interviewee to the writer.
But in some ways he’s right. We haven’t been doing our job. We’ve not chased down enough stories, put enough bad guys behind bars (celebrities don’t really count.) His broadsides may be more blunderbuss than surgical strike, but he does have a point. Journalism is a funny game. And it’s changing.

Asked why he chose to work with three major news outlets to release the Afghan data, he said it was the only way to get heard. He pointed out that he’d put out masses of interesting leaks on spending on the Afghan war previously and hardly a single journalist had picked it up.

Hence the — inspired — notion of creating a bit of noise around the material this time around. After all, any journalist can tell you the value of the material is less intrinsic than extrinsic: Who else is looking for it, who else has got it, and if so can we publish it before them.

Sad but true. We media tend to only value something if a competitor does. A bit like kids in the schoolyard. By giving it to three major outlets — New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel — Assange ensured there was not only a triple splash but also the matchers from their competitors.

So Assange is right. But that’s always been like that. Assange is part of — and has identified — a much deeper trend that may be more significant than all the hand-wringing about the future of the media.

You see, we’ve been looking at media at something that just needs a leg-up. We readily admit the business model of the media is imploding.

But very little discussion of journalism centers on whether journalism itself might be broken. Assange — and others – believe it is.

The argument goes like this.

The model whereby media made a lot of money as monopolistic enterprises — fleecing advertisers at one end, asking subscribers to pay out at the other, keeping a death grip on the spigot of public, official or company information in the middle — has gone. We know that.

But what we don’t perhaps realize is that the Internet itself has changed the way that information moves around. I’m not just talking about one person saying something on Twitter, and everyone else online reporting it.

I’m talking about what news is. We journalists define news in an odd way — as I said above, we attach value to it based on how others value it, meaning that we tend to see news as a kind of product to grab.

The Internet has changed that. It’s turned news into some more amorphous, that can be assembled from many parts.

Assange and his colleagues at WikiLeaks don’t just act as a clearing house for leaked data. They add extraordinary value to it.

Don’t believe me? Read a piece in The New Yorker in June, about the months spent on cracking the code on, and then editing video shot in Iraq.

In a more modest way this is being done every day by bloggers and folk online, who build news out of small parts they piece together —some data here, a report there, a graphic to make sense of it. None of these separate parts might be considered news, but they come together to make it so.

Assange calls WikiLeaks a stateless news organization. Dave Winer, an Internet guru, points out that this pretty much is what the blogosphere is as well. And he’s right. WikiLeaks works based on donations and collaborative effort. Crowd-sourcing, if you will.

I agree with all this, and I think it’s great. This is happening in lots of interesting places — such as Indonesia, where social media has mobilized public opinion in ways that traditional media has failed.

But what of journalism, then?

Jeff Jarvis, a future-of-media pundit, asked the editor of The Guardian, one of the three papers that WikiLeak gave the data too first, whether The Guardian should have been doing the digging.

He said no; his reporters add value by analyzing it. “I think the Afghan leaks make the case for journalism,” Alan Rusbridger told Jarvis. “We had the people and expertise to make sense of it.”

That’s true. As far as it goes. I tell my students, editors, colleagues, anyone who will listen, that our future lies not so much in reporting first but adding sense first. And no question, The Guardian has done some great stuff with the data. But this is a sad admission of failure — of The Guardian, of reporting, of our profession.

We should be looking at WikiLeaks and learning whatever lessons we can from it. WikiLeaks’ genius is manifold: It has somehow found a way to persuade people, at great risk to themselves, to send it reams of secrets. The WikiLeaks people do this by taking that data seriously, but they also maintain a healthy paranoia about everyone — including themselves — which ensures that sources are protected.

Then they work on adding value to that data. Rusbridger’s comments are, frankly, patronizing about WikiLeaks’ role in this and previous episodes.

We journalists need to go back to our drawing boards and think hard about how WikiLeaks and the Warholesque Assange have managed to not only shake up governments, but our industry, by leveraging the disparate and motivated forces of the Internet.

We could start by redefining the base currency of our profession — what news, what a scoop, what an exclusive is. Maybe it’s the small pieces around us, joined together.

News: Demise by Increment?

Is the problem with journalism that it always focuses on the increment?

Was reading Jeff Jarvis’ piece on the revolutionary impact of the iPhone — not, I hasten to add, about the iPhone as an item (the fetishism surrounding it may mark a lowpoint in our materialistic age) but about the citizen journalism coverage of the absurd lines forming outside shops by those eager to be an early buyer (yes, this, too, may mark a low-point in our cravenly submissive consumer culture, but let’s not go there. At least for now.)

No, Jarvis was more interested in this real-time coverage and what it represents. He rightly suggests this is real-time coverage on a par with the Virginia shootings — something that Duncan Riley, who writes good stuff at the usually puffy or snarky TechCrunch, has already called eventstreaming.

Jarvis is right: the subject matter aside (Virginia Tech shootings vs absurd consumer lines outside stores that don’t sell out) this is a good dry run for something more serious. But it’s Jarvis’ other point (if you’ve read this far, sorry for the wiggly lines getting here) that caught my attention: the tendency of media to pick holes in the potential of this:

Problems? Of course, there are. I never sit in a meeting with journalists without hearing them obsess about all the things that could go wrong; that is, sadly and inevitably, their starting point in any discussion about new opportunities. I blew my gasket Friday when I sat with a bunch of TV people doing just that.

Very true. Journalists do this all the time. That’s because we’re trained to. Not a bad thing, actually, being able to spot problems. But it has a downside. And quite a big one. It’s this:

Journalists are taught to identify “news”. In some situations, it’s obvious: A bomb goes off in Baghdad; two guys drive a flaming SUV into Glasgow Airport; Apple launches a cute phone. All news, and no one would disagree.

But it’s the rest of the stuff that gets problematic. Most journalists don’t have these kinds of stories to work with so they’re forced to look for them, and that mostly involves prying apart things, people, organizations, situations, points of view and seeing some incremental change or difference that merits a news story, such as U.S. family terrorized by possible phone hoax (Cellphones Terror Weapon Horror!)

So Wikipedia, for example, gets coverage not for the millions of great articles in there and the millions of people who go to it first for information, but the few articles that are wrong, badly written, libelous, mischievous or biased. That, for a journalist, is the news story. (Wikipedia Unreliable Shock!)

Some companies and PR folk know this tendency and exploit it: Several security companies base their business model on the idea that there are enough journalists out there to write scare stories about mobile phone viruses for an industry to emerge (I wrote what I thought was a piece somewhat mocking this scaremongery only to get another company in the same business email me thanking me for my article and suggesting that I write about their product, which rests on all the same scaremongery that I was trying to pooh-pooh.)

I am not saying journalists only write negative stories and not positive ones. I’m saying that we journalists tend to focus on kinks in the same picture, magnify them and then call it news. This is nothing new, but we should be smart enough to realize that if it’s not just us journalists making the news anymore, we have to be ready to accept the notion of “news” is changing.

Just as we can see lots of things going wrong with citizen journalism, and fixate on those to the exclusion of the bigger picture, we may well be missing the bigger picture that technology is giving us.

The Future of the Interview

There’s been a lot of talk about whether interviewees should insist on email interviews with journalists, to avoid their being misquoted, quoted out of context, ambushed with a question they were not ready for or whether an interview took place at all. In short, the likes of Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine believe that journalists have exerted power too long by conducting voice interviews and that interviewees are clawing back some control by insisting on email interviews.

This is what I think. I agree the game is too heavily tilted in favor of journalists, many of whom seem to think they have a God-given right to interview anyone they like when they like and on whatever they like. Interviewees decline interviews, they don’t refuse them.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Interviews aren’t just a series of questions. They are

  • an interaction between two or more people, where interviewees can be interrupted, asked to repeat things that are complicated, and where hand gestures and napkin-based demonstrations are part of the menu.
  • an exploration on the part of the journalist of the subject, the person, and anything else that may come up
  • a chance to not only understand but to capture the excitement, character and tone of the interviewee. Great quotes are not just about a fancy expression, but ones that capture the ideas of the story being expressed in the vernacular — short, pithy, eyecatching phrases that stand in beautiful contrast to the prose around it. These quotes, I find, often come outside the usual run of the interview, when the food arrives and the interview shifts to a more informal discussion, or when someone gets up to visit the bathroom. Unpredictable and unguarded, yes, but a good journalist will ensure the quote reflects the more thoroughly articulated points the interviewee has made.

So we should separate up what both sides want to keep and what they should give up. Interviewees fear being misquoted. Fair enough, and there’s no real excuse for this. But as I’ve blathered on about before, there’s being misquoted and being misquoted. Everyone thinks they’ve been misquoted, even if you show them the instant messaging text chat record. When people say they’ve been misquoted more often than not they mean the main idea they wanted to convey wasn’t what the journalist focused on or chose from the interview. That’s tough, but it’s not wrong. And it’s not misquoting.

This is where perhaps the problem lies. When the interviewee talks about control, are they talking about ensuring their words are not distorted, or are they talking about wanting the journalist to take a particular angle. If so, then they have to let go. Everyone has an agenda, and the piece is the journalist’s agenda (or, more likely, their editor’s.) I sometimes have no idea what my agenda/angle is until I’ve started writing, but don’t tell my editors that; they would assume the story is pretty much cut and dried from the get-go (this is what proposals are for.)

This is where interviewees, I think, want to have their cake and eat it. If they want an email interview, they will have just eschewed the opportunity of persuading the journalist of taking the story in another direction, since a journalist is much less likely to be persuaded by the written word than by a face to face interview. So demanding both an email interview and a chance to influence the journalist away from their preconceptions is asking for the impossible. You can’t have both.

What interviewees fear, above all, is the unpredictabilty of the interview. They want to rid themselves of the uncertainty and danger of talking to someone who will consider anything they say fair game. True. It’s unnerving, and I’ve had a taste of it myself in a mild dosage. But that brings me to what I think should happen: Recording.

Take this example from Lawrence Lessig’s blog:

After my debate last week at CISAC (at Google Video here), The Register published a piece (archived) about the event. I’ve received a bunch of angry email about what was reported in that piece. The relevant quotes offered in the Register’s article, however, are not correct.

First, The Register writes that I said: “I have two lives,” he said. “One is in Creative Commons…the other is in litigation against authors.”

In fact, I said: “I have two lives in this. One is leading Creative Commons. And the other [is leading] litigation which is , I’m sure, in conflict with the views of many people about copyright.” Listen to the clip here: mp3, ogg.

I don’t know whether The Register has a retraction to make here, or an apology, or a broadside. I can’t find anything on The Register to indicate they’re considering a response. But I do know Lessig’s version of things, and more importantly, I can listen to a recording of it.

This is what I think interviewees need to do: record their interviews. It’s simple enough, and I am surprised that someone as tech savvy as Jarvis doesn’t do it as a matter of course. It’s not just about defending yourself; sometimes your best ideas come out of a conversation — even one with a journalist.

Those Darn Thanksgiving Eve Pitches

 Jeff Jarvis has an amusing tirade against the lame Thanksgiving eve stories of TV (“The lead story is that the roads and airports will be crowded this morning. Now that’s news!”) to which I’d add: how about the lame PR pitches this time of year about the dangers of shopping online? I’ve had half a dozen this year and I don’t even pretend to live in the U.S. Here’s a sampling (all follow with pitch to talk to client, needless to say):

  • As Black Friday and Cyber Monday near and the holiday shopping season kicks into high gear, consumers still appear to have the jitters when shopping online through unfamiliar, lesser-known merchants. (Pitching online security software)
  • With approximately $56.6 billion stolen so far in 2006 as a result of personal ID theft, all shoppers should be aware of ways to make their online experience more secure. (pitching a fingerprint reader)
  • With recent research suggesting that 60% of consumers terminated or considered terminating a relationship due to mishandling of their private information and new laws in place that levy stiff fines against organizations that have consumer data slip through their networks, it is more important than ever for retailers and payment processors to secure and safeguard consumer data. (Pitching data privacy service)
  • As Black Friday approaches, identity theft is not the only concern keeping shoppers offline this holiday season – trustworthiness of the retailer, non-delivery, quality of merchandise, and shipping costs are all concerns, especially when buying from smaller, independent online retailers (pitching online security software; actually same product as the first one, different pitcher and angle)
  • The 2006 holiday shopping season kicks off today. This is also the high season for pick-pockets, department store thieves and Internet marauders. (pitching something or other, I’ve forgotten.)

Yadayadayada. It goes on. Not an interesting or original line among them. Admittedly, I’m not desperate for story ideas, but these are a) so lacking in imagination and b) so steeped in the assumption that us journalists write the same kind of story as each other, year in, year out, I want to weep.

So if you find yourself reading tired stories about the ‘dangers of shopping online’ stories in your mainstream media diet, you’ll know where the idea for them came from. I better start working on mine to be ahead of the rush.

Loose Bits, Nov 7 2006

  • Bleeding Edge, always worth a look, points to a new Firefox extension for saving material off the web: Zotero. It not only does a great job of storing globs of web pages or the whole thing but it has an academic bent too, allowing you to store bibiographic information too. That said, it’s not musty: It lets you assign tags to stuff you’ve saved, lets you relate one item to another, and makes exporting everything you’ve saved pretty easy too. Reminds me a little of the excellent ScrapBook, another clip-saving tool. Full, updated Loose Wire list of them here.
  • Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine pours a little cold water over Boratmania. Part of me agrees with him; I’ve only been able to take Ali G and Borat in small doses (though we do have all the DVDs.) The best bit is actually watching my wife laugh at his antics. Trust me: Cohen crosses most cultural boundaries.
  • Playing around with a newsreader called Omea, which I like. I have stuck with FeedDemon, but its lack of support for Firefox and memory appetite, has pushed me to find alternatives. What’s your favorite aggregator?

The Media Paradox

Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine hits the nail on the head again when he says, not for the first time: “The successful media companies of the new age will be the ones that enable media wherever it wants to be.” But in that phrase lurks an interesting paradox: Media companies (itself shorthand for mass media) are no longer about content, and all about the medium. For the past 80 years the mass media has been about leveraging the technologies available to deliver standardized content over as large an area/population as possible. Now it’s about using the technologies available to enable as large a population as possible to swap their own content.

The Journalist Dilemma

Jeff Jarvis over at BuzzMachine says there are too many journalists and newspapers would do well to cut back on reporters and reinvest digital interaction on the local level — in other words, to build connections with communities and have them report. Cheap/free local citizen Journalists, in other words, replace jet-setting, expensive correspondents:

So maybe the problem with journalism today isn’t that there are too few reporters and and editors but too many. I’ve talked before about the foolishness of sending 15,000 reporters to the political conventions, about papers sending TV critics to junkets or golf writers to tournaments. Inside the newsroom, too, there are overwrought processes. Meanwhile, of course, revenue is sinking and staff will follow.

But rather than treating this as an endless retrenchment, the ballsy editor would take this bull by the horns and undertake an aggressive reinvestment strategy. Why not cut that staff today? Find your essence — hint: it’s local, local, local. Streamline now to put out a better focused and better print product.

I definitely agree with the absurdity of having thousands of journalists all covering one single-dateline story, whether it’s a convention or a Michael Jackson trial. But I wonder, too, how this obsession with new approaches to media — citizen journalism, community interaction, local coverage vs non-local — is going to look a few years down the track. For sure, there’s a lot to be said for breaking down the barriers between newspaper and community between professional and amateur reporter/photographer/editor. But this movement will also have some heavy long term effects that aren’t really discussed in this blogocratic world.

  • “Going local” is nearly always going to mean narrowing horizons. Newspapers and their portals (and their successors) with thinner or nonexistent foreign pages, what coverage there is based on wire reports. Is this what we want?
  • I’m all for interactivity and respect for active reader/contributor participation. But to me it’s somewhat shortsighted an argument that goes “newspapers are less profitable so fire the people who actually differentiate, or should differentiate your product from everything else out there”. Surely we should be talking about how journalists might raise/alter their game to match this challenge? Since when was responding to a change in the market a question of throwing the value overboard and investing in fewer skills, not more?
  • The issue closest to my heart is international coverage. Baltimore Sun, LA Times etc are cutting back on international staff. Fine, people say, replace them with bloggers. No question bloggers are good, and have good things to say, but who is going to do the legwork to explain, in an objective and engaging style, the complexities of issues such as terrorism (al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah), disaster relief (earthquakes, tsunamis) to an international audience? There may be no interest in these issues right now, but when another disaster happens, who is going to do the coverage? 9/11, anyone?
  • Foreign coverage is only a “worthy” (rather than profitable) investment because it’s seen that way, not because it need be. I certainly agree with one commenter that journalists tend to hunt in packs, not because they lack imagination but because they tend to be rewarded by nervous editors looking for “matching” copy. The result is a foreign news page that tends to look similar from publication to publication. This needs to change; most foreign correspondents work their socks off satisfying editors’ hunger for matching copy (“Java Earthquake Kills Hundreds; Briton Forced to Cut Short Holiday”) and then, when everyone else goes home for the weekend, traipse off to the jungle to weave a telling story about environmental destruction/global warming/species extinction.

In short, I think we need to explore ways of reinvigorating coverage of news beyond our own local niche and recognise that the idea of the foreign correspondent, while dated and definitely in need of updating, has been around since the Boer War because it works. For sure there’s plenty of room for amateurs (some of my favorite writers about Indonesia aren’t journalists) but there’s also room, nay a need, for professional reporters to explore and report back on what they see. In an increasingly complicated world we need them more than ever.