Question for Jarvis: How will we pay for NYT’s Foxconn coverage?

Chinese manufacturing giant Foxconn claims to be raising its wages and cutting overtime, and it seems fair to attribute at least some of that to NYT’s excellent coverage of Apple’s manufacturing there, which put some pressure on them. Elsewhere on the internet Jeff Jarvis explains why he insists that news become profitable, rather than relying on nonprofit models. Jarvis:

I am certain that there is not enough charity in the nation to support the journalism it needs… I also believe they are more likely to build better journalistic products, services, and platforms if they are accountable to the marketplace.

So my question – a genuine one – is how Jarvis thinks the NYT’s iPhone manufacturing coverage fits into this. I can think of a few possibilities of how it might.

1. He believes the market will directly support this kind of work

I find this hard to believe. Shirky has written that this kind of investigative work never made money, but back before news was un-bundled, ads that were sold against articles about sports, the classifieds, coupons, etc. and could help subsidize this sort of stuff.

No doubt many people read the NYT pieces, but they must have cost a ridiculous amount to produce. So I’m skeptical of this one, but perhaps Jarvis disagrees.

2. He believes the market will indirectly subsidize this kind of work via branding

In my mind, the best retort to Shirky’s point that the news was always subsidized is to argue that papers like NYT gain an indirect benefit with their credible reporting. Sure, when readers got the paper they looked at sports and lighter stuff, but they chose to buy such a premier paper in the first place in part to associate themselves with the seriousness of the brand.

That gets harder in the current un-bundled environment, but it may still hold. Maybe I mostly go to Vanity Fair to read celebrity profiles, but the reason I can justify it is because they do serious journalism too. Jarvis could argue that this kind of indirect brand subsidy will make the Foxconn reporting a market necessity.

3. The market won’t support it, so this is one of the things nonprofits should do

Jarvis isn’t against nonprofit news. He just doesn’t want to be over reliant on it. So he could say “yep, this is one of those things that ProPublica is going to do. Just don’t think that model props up all of journalism.”

4. ???

Of course, it’s quite likely that Jarvis’s answer is none of these things. But I’d love to hear it.

Why we need journalists (good ones)

I’m in the middle of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. From Chapter 16:

Nisbett and Borgida found that when they presented their students with a surprising statistical fact, the students managed to learn nothing at all. But when the students were surprised by individual cases – two nice people who had not helped – they immediately made the generalization and inferred that helping is more diffuclt than they thought. Nisbett and Bordiga summarize the results in a memorable sentence:

Subjects’ unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular.

Consider this the psychological case for man-on-the-street stories. Humanizing data with individual examples is essential to helping people absorb information.

But journalists aren’t themselves immune to this phenomenon. It’s essential that reporters assess the evidence behind their stories, and consciously try to overcome their bias to react more strongly to individual anecdotes than to data. But if journalists are able to overcome this bias and base their stories on good data, then their ability to apply individual cases to explain larger trends can be a crucial mechanism for informing the public.


Nieman Lab on Journalism and Open Source

Nieman Lab – far and away the best resource for tracking the evolution of journalism – has a good post up the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, and on what lessons journalism can learn from open source. Overall it’s characteristally excellent, but I have to take issue with this:

Finding 4:
* Open-source development is collaborative, free, and flexible.
* Producing news costs money, and open source may not get to the heart of journalism’s business problems.

Open-source software development is premised on the idea of coders working together, for free, without seeking to make a profit at the expense of someone else’s intellectual property. Bit by bit, this labor is rewarded by the creation of sophisticated programming languages, better-and-better software, and the like.

But there’s a problem: Journalism can’t run on an open source model alone. Open source doesn’t give journalism any guidance for how to harness a business model that pays for the news.

I think this ignores the rich mixture of motivations, business models, etc. that comprise the open source movement. Take the line “Producing news costs money.” Someone might say the same about software. Doesn’t producing software cost money? Well, the history of open source tells us, basically, not always in the ways you would think. The big shift for the software community has been to question very basic assumptions like “producing software costs money” or “producing software requires organization by firms.” For journalism to truly adopt the lessons of open source software, it must question those basic assumptions as well.

Well, ok, fine. But at the end of the day doesn’t producing news cost money? Sure. But even here it seems that the Nieman summary is missing an appreciation for the richness of the open source model. Specifically, the line “Open source doesn’t give journalism any guidance for how to harness a business model that pays for the news” ignores the great number of for profit entities operating in the open source software space. Companies like IBM and Red Hat play a huge role in the development in open source software because their involvement brings strategic and financial benefits. Coders in the employ of companies like IBM are crucial to the development of open source projects like Linux; it is a mistake to ignore these contributors when thinking about open source. And Red Hat operates on a service model, making it easier for customers to successfully adopt open source software in their businesses.

Maybe these sorts of arrangements transfer into the journalism space and maybe they don’t. But to act as if open source software offers no lessons on how to make money is to ignore a significant piece of the open source landscape.

Most journalism isn’t worth saving

In a lengthy new post, Clay Shirky hits on a point that I think doesn’t get mentioned enough:

Here’s what the newspaper business sounds like: the modestly talented son of the founder can generate double-digit margins based on little more than the happy accident that there are people who like football and buy cars living within 30 miles of his house.

That’s the newspaper business, or at least it was until recently. The average US paper runs more soft than hard news, uses more third-party content than anything created by their own staff, and reaches more people who care about local teams than local zoning.

Much public worry about newspapers concerns a relative handful of excellent dailies with national or international ambitions. Most papers, however, aren’t like that. The New York Times and the Enid, OklahomaNews and Eagle occupy different parts of the news ecosystem, and they face different stresses and fates, but more papers—many more—exist at the News and Eagle end of the spectrum.*

Buy a newspaper. Cut it up. Throw away the ads. Sort the remaining stories into piles. Now, describe the editorial logic holding those piles together.

If you’ve picked a general interest paper, this will be hard. I recently learned, from a single day’s paper, that a bombing in Kirkuk killed 27, that Penelope Cruz has only good memories of filming Pirates of the Caribbean while pregnant, that many U.S. business hotels are switching to ‘shower-only’ bathrooms, and that 30-year fixed mortgages fell from 4.63% to 4.61% the week before.

Writing about the Dallas Cowboys in order to take money from Ford and give it to the guy on the City Desk never made much sense, but at least it worked.

The point here is that not all that much of what “journalism” produces is actually civically important. There’s only a very small slice that is democratically necessary. That fact gets lost in part because many of the people writing about the problems of journalism are journalists, and so many of them write the content that isn’t essential. They tend to lump themselves all in together. But not all of their jobs are equally important. It’s a small slice that needs to be saved, for the sake of democracy.

As I put it in a post a while back:

When I talk about how we will finance news/journalism I’m interested in only a very small subset of all journalism which I’d refer to as that which provides core civic knowledge.  In other words, the information that we feel is vital to a functioning democracy.*  By this measure, most of what we see in the newspapers is not an issue.  Go through a newspaper sometime and look.  We’re not talking about how to fund the sports section, the travel section, the style section, that article on some writer’s quest for the perfect espresso.  That is beyond the scope of what we, as a society, need to ensure exists going forward.

[Side note: I happen to think the network/the blogosphere is pretty good at providing much of this “feature” content but even if it isn’t, if people want it, let them pay.  If they won’t pay, it’s no great civic loss for it not to exist.]

No pun intended

At The Atlantic Tech David Wheeler has a piece on the decline of witty headline writing:

In a widely circulated 2010 article criticizing SEO practices, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten made the same point by citing a Post article about Conan O’Brien’s refusal to accept a later time slot on NBC. The print headline: “Better never than late.” Online: “Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot to make room for Jay Leno.”

The dearth of witty headlines on the Web is enough to make a copy editor cry. But rather than settle for a humorless future, some online editors are fighting back by refusing to embrace SEO guidelines for every story.

Why is headline word play under threat? It’s not just “because Google doesn’t laugh” although that’s a great line. Yes, SEO is obviously a major reason but I’d argue it’s more than that: it’s about competition.

There is simply more competition for eyeballs than every before. I know I come across more interesting content each day than I could ever hope to read. I’m constantly bookmarking and instapapering and starring stuff and trying to carve out time to read it all. It’s overwhelming.

So when I’m skimming through Google Reader, I want headlines that make it clear what the story is about. “Better never than late” is likely to just get Marked Read. Who has time to figure out what that’s all about?

I don’t mind the nostalgia here; clever headlines are an art, and I’ll miss them if they do end up disappearing. But I’m also pretty sympathetic to no-nonsense headlines, and not just because of SEO. The bottom line is that they save time. And that matters in the attention economy.

(You may have noticed that my “headlines” on this blog are neither useful nor clever, not optimized for search or wit.)

Technology journalism and moral force

One of the things I love about ProPublica, the relatively young investigative journalism nonprofit, is that it states as its focus “stories with ‘moral force.'” But what kind of journalism fits this category? Upton Sinclair? Nick Kristof? My fear is that if we drafted a list of what and who comes to mind, it would contain far too little technology journalism.

I was in a meeting last week with a Massachusetts state senator who was explaining how a major portion of his constituents lack broadband access. They’re dealing with – not kidding – phone service failing when it rains. This is in Massachusetts. I think when most of us think about pockets of the country without broadband we think West Virginia, Mississippi, etc. But even here in Massachusetts the digital divide is all too real.

We have a great wealth of journalism on the consumer and business aspects of technology. If you want reviews of the latest gadget or the inside scoop on Facebook’s latest round there’s no shortage of information. But what about technology from a justice perspective? Certainly these topics get touched on (and there is lots of great academic work on the subject). But my sense is that they are under-served.

It is, of course, quite possible that far more writers and outlets on this subject are out there, and that I just haven’t found them. Is there someone out there today who can claim the mantle of Tech Upton Sinclair?

Yochai Benkler had a line at some point (failing to find the video at present) where, in speaking about his book’s thesis that commons-based peer production had positive moral implications, he said roughly The problem is it takes 500 pages to explain why. Tech journalists should take that as a direct challenge. Technology journalism with moral force is not only possible; it’s socially necessary.

The problem with political journalism

George Packer may not be right about Twitter, but he’s right on in his assessment of political journalism.  In this blog post he calls out specific writers in specific pieces for focusing entirely on political performance and perception.

Importantly, he puts this sort of empty journalism side-by-side substantive reporting on other issues in order to better illustrate its uselessness:

A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt.

It’s not a very long post and it’s worth reading the whole thing.  In a previous post I noted that “Much of what we today consider ‘political journalism’ is junk and not very useful from a civic perspective.”

This is an entirely unoriginal sentiment, echoed constantly throughout the blogosphere, particularly during election cycles.  But it’s true.  And Packer does a nice job calling out specific examples.

For a lengthier assessment of the problem, James Fallows’ 1996 Atlantic piece Why Americans Hate the Media is a great read.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen has a nice related post titled The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism.  Definitely worth a read.

Future of news – various thoughts

I may not own an NBA team, but since everyone and their grandmother seems to be weighing in on the future of news and journalism, I figured I’d share some thoughts.  That’s a big part of what this blog is supposed to be about, after all.

It’s not intended to be a unified theory and the points don’t necessarily even relate to one another.  But they are all things I stress whenever I discuss the topic with anyone.

So here we go…a very rough overview of my thoughts on the future of news and journalism…

Continue reading →