Joho the Blogjournalism Archives - Joho the Blog

November 27, 2016

Fake news sucks but isn't the end of civilization

Because fake news only works if it captures our attention, and because presenting ideas that are outside the normal range is a very effective way to capture our attention, fake news will with some inevitably tend to present extreme positions.

Real news items often uses the same technique these days: serious news stories often will have clickbait headlines. “Clickbait, whether fake or real, thus tends to make us think that the world is full of extremes. The normal doesn’t seem very normal any more.”Clickbait, whether fake or real, thus tends to make us think that the world is full of extremes. The normal doesn’t seem very normal any more.

Of course, clickbait is nothing new. Tabloids have been using it forever. For the past thirty years, in the US, local TV stations have featured the latest stabbing or fire as the lead story on the news. (This is usually said to have begun in Miami
, and is characterized as “If it bleeds, it leads,” i.e., it is the first item in the news broadcast.)

At the same time, however, the Internet makes it easier than ever to find news that doesn’t simply try to set our nerves on fire. Fact checking abounds, at sites dedicated to the task and as one of the most common of distributed Internet activities. Even while we form echo chambers that reinforce our beliefs, “we are also more likely than ever before to come across contrary views”we are also more likely than ever before to come across contrary views. Indeed, I suspect (= I have no evidence) that one reason we seem so polarized is that we can now see the extremities of belief that have always been present in our culture — extremities that in the age of mass communication were hidden from us.

Now that there are economic reasons to promulgate fake news — you can make a good living at it — we need new mechanisms to help us identify it, just as the rise of “native advertising” (= ads that pose as news stories) has led to new norms about letting the reader know that they’re ads. The debate we’re currently having is the discussion that leads to new techniques and norms.

Some of the most important techniques can best be applied by the platforms through which fake news promulgates. We need to press those platforms to do the right thing, even if it means a marginal loss of revenues for them. The first step is to stop them from thinking, as I believe some of them genuinely do, that they are mere open platforms that cannot interfere with what people say and share on them. Baloney. As Zeynep Tufekci, among others, has repeatedly pointed out, these platforms already use algorithms to decide which items to show us from the torrent of possibilities. Because the major Western platforms genuinely hold to democratic ideals, they may well adjust their algorithms to achieve better social ends. I have some hope about this.

Just as with spam, “native advertising,” and popup ads, we are going to have to learn to live with fake news both by creating techniques that prevent it from being as effective as it would like to be and by accepting its inevitability. If part of this is that we learn to be more “meta” — not accepting all content at its face value — then fake news will be part of our moral and intellectual evolution.

Be the first to comment »

November 11, 2016

Life will, uh, find a way

Mike Ananny [twitter: ananny] had to guest-lecture a class about media, communications and news on Nov. 9. He recounts the session with an implicit sense of wonder that we can lift our head up from the dirt after that giant Monty Python jackboot dropped on us.

monty pyton foot

It’s a reminder that step by step, we’ll make some progress back to where we were and then beyond.

No, I don’t really believe that. Not yet.

But I will.

Thanks to you.

Be the first to comment »

July 2, 2016

Corrupting "Earned media"

The Intercept reports on several news media who are selling special services at the national political conventions — meetings, cocktail parties, and more. The services are corrosive. Some are explicitly corrupt, “…they make explicit the inevitable failure of the distinction between “paid” and “earned” content.”making explicit the inevitable failure of the distinction between “paid” and “earned” content.

The less controversial services are corrosive because they let the media take money from the people they cover. Having spent a few decades as a marketing communications guy, I can promise you that in every business considering these offers, the conversation includes someone saying, “It doesn’t matter if no one comes to the cocktail party. It’d still improve our relationship with the publication.” Why? Because it’s a way to pay the journal money. That’s corrosive.

Larry Lessig points out that it’s not much different from news organizations tuning their coverage to their ratings. But such tuning at least caters to perceived piopular interest. These new services let an organization or candidate buy coverage despite a decided lack of public interest. It is worse than buying ads because the news media have traditionally had a “Chinese wall” between the advertising and editorial departments. This has been a fairly effective way of protecting editorial content from the direct influence of the marketing needs of the journal, even though the wall is sometimes breached, and Time Magazine has shamefully torn it down.

Once the media started letting companies pay for phony news coverage, they pretended to honor the breach by distinguishing “earned” and “paid” content. “Earned content” is coverage provided by media of events they think are newsworthy. “Paid content” is, well, paid content. Non-sleazebag companies and their PR reps expect media to mark paid content as paid for. Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR company, created ethical guidelines that not only say that the paid content must be well marked, but that Edelman will have its own Chinese wall between the processes by which earned content is pitched (“Yo, I have a client who’s invented a time travel machine. Wanna an interview? How’s yesterday for you?”) and the negotiations that result in the placement of paid content. (Disclosure: I had a tiny hand — Trump-sized — in drafting those guidelines.)

That’s better than nothing, but paid content still makes me queasy. Companies are willing to pay for content precisely because it looks like real coverage and thus tends to be taken more seriously than obvious ads. This erodes the phenomenological line between news and ads, which is bad for democracy and culture. Indeed, “the point of paid content is to erode the line. ”the point of paid content is to erode the line.

But letting candidates pay for interviews takes this to a whole new level. This is what The Intercept says:

Sponsors who pay $200,000 are promised convention interviews with The Hill’s editorial staff for “up to three named executives or organization representatives of your choice,” according to a brochure obtained by The Intercept. “These interviews are pieces of earned media,” the brochure says, “and will be hosted on a dedicated page on thehill.com and promoted across The Hill’s digital and social media channels.”

The Hill says the resulting interviews will be earned media. Suppose the interview is stupid, boring, self-serving and non-newsworthy? If it weren’t, the client wouldn’t be paying for it. But The Hill is promising it’s going to run anyway because the client paid them $200,000. That is the very definition of paid content. So, by calling it “earned content,” The Hill can only mean that the article will not be marked as paid content, even though that is precisely what it is.

This corrupts the already corrosive practice of accepting paid content. It is disgraceful.

1 Comment »

March 19, 2016

Unfiltered.news: Fulfilling the promise of the Web

Jigsaw — the Big Ideas do-tank of Google — has created a site that wants to pop your filter bubble. It’s pretty awesome.

Unfiltered.news visualizes on a map the top topics in countries around the world. Click on a topic — all of them are translated into your langue — to see how it’s trending in different localities. Use a slider to go back in time. It’s all very slick and animated.

Best of all, it automatically shows you the topics that are not trending in your region. That makes it more MultiFiltered than Unfiltered, but that’s actually what we want. (HeteroFiltered? Nah, that sounds very wrong.)

The Web was supposed to enable the world to talk amongst itself. It has left us way ahead of where we were but far behind where we want to be. This is not a failure of the Web but the result of the way understanding and attention work: understanding is a semi-coherent context (AKA echo chamber) that works by assimilating the novel into the familiar. Attention notices the novel based upon its sense of the familiar. It’s impossible to break out of this cycle. Even G-d couldn’t do it, having to show Itself to Moses as a talking, burning bush — weird, but a weird combination of familiar elements.

(This “hermeneutic circle” may be inevitable, but as you traverse it you can still be open-minded and curious or a self-righteous a-hole.)

I would love to see an integration of Google News and Unfiltered so that it doesn’t require you to remember to go to the site after you’ve gone to Google News. If Google News were integrated into Unfiltered.news, we could make the latter our main news site. Even better, Unfiltered could be integrated into Google News so that everyone who uses that very popular site could have their curiosity piqued.

Until then, I hope to make Unfiltered a regular part of my news behavior.

5 Comments »

October 10, 2015

My morning paranoia: Bernie’s scream moment

My fear is that Bernie Sanders is going to have a bad moment during the upcoming debate, and the media will seize on it to make him look unfit for the presidency.

I fear this because I’ve seen it happen before. Remember the 2004 Dean Scream?

CNN has the nerve to title its posting of this video “2004: The scream that doomed Howard Dean.” But ’twasn’t the scream that killed Howard Dean’s campaign. It was the news media running it over and over and over:

…the cable and broadcast news networks aired Dean’s Iowa exclamation 633 times and that doesn’t include local news or talk shows in the four days after it was made, according to the Hotline, a Washington-based newsletter. [source
]

I believe I heard at the time that CNN played it almost 200 times in that first weekend.

The pattern has become familiar: the media seize on something irrelevant, play it over and over, trying to fathom why the nation is so obsessed with it. This is “…the media’s equivalent of a bully’s “Why do you keep hitting yourself?” routine.”the media’s equivalent of a bully’s “Why do you keep hitting yourself?” routine. (Not to mention that the clip under-mic’ed the cheering of the crowd that Dean was yelling over. Here’s what it sounded like from the audience’s point of view.)

Bernie Sanders’s position in the Democratic Party is much like Howard Dean’s was. The Party doesn’t know what to make of him and his success. It worries that he can’t win. And, not insignificantly, both Bernie and Dean have greatly loosened the grip of the Party’s purse strings. That makes them “wildcards” and “uncontrollable.”

So, I am waiting in fear for the media to seize on something small or on nothing at all, and loop it under titles that tell us over and over that we think he’s unfit for office.

Why don’t we stop hitting ourselves? Why don’t we stop hitting ourselves? Why don’t we stop hitting ourselves?


So here’s a grim game: What will the title be under the moment the media manufacture to bring Bernie down?

  • Is Bernie too erratic?

  • Bernie Sanders’ temper tantrm

  • Bernie’s fake laugh: too serious for public life?

  • Does Bernie love Denmark more than America?

  • Why can’t Bernie connect?

  • Bernie’s Creepy Uncle moment

What do you think?

Be the first to comment »

September 18, 2015

A blogger goes to the Democratic National Convention…9 years ago

I was cleaning up my office now that the transit of Venus has moved it into the House of Mercury, which only happens ever 17 years, and I came across this button:

Convention blogger button

(That’s me now, not nine years ago. Not that there’s any difference at all. None!, I tell you, just a tad too insistently.)

Yes, that’s an official button issued to the about thirty-five bloggers who were given press credentials for the Democratic National Convention of 2004, the one at which the Democrats insured their victory over the vastly unpopular, war-starting George W by nominating John Kerry instead of Howard Dean.

Well, anyway.

This was the first time bloggers had been given press credentials for a national political convention, and it was quite a thrill. Here’s a list of the bloggers from the Wall Street Journal.

And here’s a post of mine with some photos. They’re heavy on correspondents from The Daily Show because they were doing a piece about those durn bloggers. I declined to be interviewed because I am a coward.

Here’s my post about Kerry’s acceptance speech.

Here are some reflections about the experience.

But most of the posts are gone. I was blogging the DNC for the Boston Globe and the posts are gone from its site. Even Archive.org doesn’t have nuthin’ from the Globe site during that week.

So, yes, History, cry “Alackaday!” and stain your blank pages with salt.

Be the first to comment »

July 13, 2015

What open APIs could do for the news

In 2008-9, NPR, the NY Times, and The Guardian opened up public APIs, hoping that it would spur developers around the world to create wonderful and weird apps that would make use of their metadata and spread the availability of news.

Very few little happened. By any normal measure, the experiment would have to be deemed a failure.

These three news organizations are nevertheless fervid evangelists for the same APIs—for internal use. They provide an abstraction layer that makes the news media’s back ends far easier to maintain without disrupting their availability to users, they enable these organizations to adapt to new devices and workflows insanely quickly, they facilitate strategic partnerships, they lower the risk of experimentation, and more.

This was the topic of the paper I wrote during my fellowship at The Shorenstein Center. The paper then looks at ways we might still get to the open ecosystem for news that was first envisioned.

The full paper is available freely at the Shorenstein site.

There’s an op-ed length version at Nieman Reports.

1 Comment »

May 29, 2015

Reddit vs. CNN

I’ve posted at Medium a list of the 11 questions CNN asked Bernie Sanders and the top 11 questions at a Reddit AMA with him two days later.

There’s no question in my mind that Reddit’s questions are better in any relevant sense of the term. How typical was the godawful CNN interview? Based on my watching a lot of CNN, I’d say it was particularly bad, but not atypical.

The post has provoked some interesting comments by journalists and others.

1 Comment »

May 17, 2015

CNN’s side of the conversation

Bernie Sanders gave as good an interview as he could this morning on CNN, trying to stick to the issues as Brianna Keilar repeatedly goaded him to attack Hillary Clinton, or to comment on the horse race. She asked only two questions about policy matters, and they were as non-incisive as questions could be. Twice Sanders said that he would not personlly attack Clinton, and turned the question back to Keilar, asking if the news media would focus on the serious issues facing the American 99.9%.

Just listen to CNN’s side of the conversation, taken from the transcript:

  • You’ve acknowledged that you don’t have the cash, that you don’t have the campaign infrastructure that Hillary Clinton, say, has and certainly as you enter the race, she is the one that you have your sights set on. What’s your path to victory?

  • Hillary Clinton talks a lot about income inequality, how you differentiate yourself on this from her?

  • Your candidacy was assessed by “U.S. News and World Report” like this. It said, “Like Obama in 2008, Sanders can serve to help define Clinton and make her a stronger candidate. Unlike Obama, Sanders can keep Clinton on her game without getting her tossed out of it.” You look at that assessment. Are you a spoiler here? Are you aiming to be a shaper of the debate? Or do you think that you really have a pathway to victory?

  • I just wonder is this going to be a civil debate with Hillary Clinton? Even if you’re talking about issues and not personality or the fact that she’s establishment, you have to go after a leading candidate with a hard edge. Are you prepared to do that?

  • Trade a big issue –

  • in the Senate and now we’re looking towards the House, where Republicans, oddly enough, may not have the votes along with Democrats for this initiative of President Obama’s, something you oppose. You have come out and said this is a terrible idea. Hillary Clinton has not. She is on the fence. Should she take a position?

  • I want to ask you about George Stephanopoulos, the host of This Week, who has been in the news. You appeared on his show on May 3rd and on that program he asked you about your concerns over the money raised by The Clinton Foundation. You have said that The Clinton Foundation fundraising is a fair issue to discuss. He had donated $25,000 over three years or $75,000 in total, $25,000 each year. He didn’t disclose those donations. And to viewers, to superiors at ABC. He didn’t tell you either, even though you discussed it.

  • If you take her at her word, Elizabeth Warren’s not getting into this race; Are you looking to gain that pocket of support to Hillary Clinton’s left?

  • Overall, I don’t hear a lot of forcefulness from you; a lot of people who observe politics say this is a contact sport. You have to have sharp elbows. Even if it’s not going fully negative in character assassination

  • But are you prepared to sharply point out where your Democratic opponents have not, in your opinion?

  • Senator Bernie Sanders, thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate it.

I wish I had confidence that if CNN were to hear their side of the conversation, they’d be even a little bit ashamed of how they’re failing in their essential job.

But no. CNN’s post about the interview led with the most negative thing they could find in the interview: “Bernie Sanders casts Hillary Clinton as newcomer to income fight.”

Senator Sanders, you have your answer.


Seriously, Reddit would do a much better job interview Sanders.

3 Comments »

April 14, 2015

[shorenstein] Managing digital disruption in the newsroom

David Skok [twitter:dskok] is giving a Shorenstein Center lunchtime talk on managing digital disruption in the newsroom. He was the digital advisor to the editor of the Boston Globe. Today he was announced as the new managing editor of digital at the Globe. [Congrats!]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

As a Nieman fellow David audited a class at the Harvard Business School taught by Clay Christensen, of “creative destruction” fame. This gave him the sense that whether or not newspapers will survive, journalism will. Companies can be disrupted, but for journalism it means that for every legacy publisher that’s disrupted, there are new entrants that enter at the low end and move up market. E.g., Toyota started off at the low end and ended up making Lexuses. David wrote an article with Christensen [this one?] that said that you may start with aggregation and cute kittens, but as you move up market you need higher quality journalism that brings in higher-value advertising. “So I came out of the project doubly motivated as a journalist,” but also wanting to hold off the narrative that there is an inevitability to the demise of newspapers.


He helped started GlobalNews.ca and got recruited for the Globe. There he held to the RPP model: the Resources, Process, and Priorities you put in place to help frame an organizational culture. It’s important for legacy publishers to see that it isn’t just tech that’s bringing down newspapers; the culture and foundational structure of those organizations are also to blame.

Priorities:
If you take away the Internet, a traditional news organization is a print factory line. The Internet tasks were typically taken up by the equivalent groups with in the org. Ultimately, the publisher’s job is how to generate profit, so s/he picks the paths that lead most directly to short-term returns. But that means user experience gets shuffled down, as does the ability of the creators to do “frictionless journalism.” On the Internet, I can write the best lead but if you can’t read it on your phone in 0.1 seconds, it doesn’t exist. The human experience has to be the most important thing. The consumer is the most important person in this whole transaction. How are we making sure that person is pleased?


In the past 18 months David has done a restructuring of the Globe online. He’s been the general mgr of Boston.com. Every Monday he meets with all the group leads, including the sales team (which he does not manage for ethical journalism reasons). This lets them set priorities not at the publisher level where they are driven by profit, but by user and producer experience. The conceit is that if they produce good user and producer experiences, the journalism will be better, and that will ultimately drive more revenue in advertising and subscriptions.


The Globe had a free site (Boston.com) and a paywall site (bostonglobe.com). This was set up before his time. Boston.com relative to its size as a website business has a remarkable amount of revenue via advertising. BostonGlobe.com is a really healthy digital subscription business. It has more subscriptions in North America outside of the NYT and WSJ. These are separate businesses that had been smushed together. So David split them up.

Processes:

They’ve done a lot to change their newsroom processors. Engineers are now in the newsroom. They use agile processes. The newsroom is moving toward an 18-24 hour cycle as opposed to the print cycle.


We do three types of journalism on our sites:


1. Digital first — the “bloggy stuff.” How do we add something new to those conversations that provides the Globe’s unique perspective? We don’t want to be writing about things simply because everyone else is. We want to bring something new to it. We have three digital first writers.


2. The news of the day. We do a good job with this, as demonstrated during the Marathon bombing.


3. Enterprise stuff — long investigations, etc. Those stories get incredible engagement. “It’s heartening.” They’re experimenting with release schedules: how do you maximize the exposure of a piece?

Resources:
In terms of resources: We’re looking at our content management system (CMS). Ezra Klein went to Vox in part because of their CMS. You need a CMS that gives reporters what they need and want. We also need better realtime analytics.


Priorities, Processes + Resources = organizational culture.

Q&A
Q: You’re optimistic…?


A: We’re now entering the third generation of journalism on line. First: [missed it]. Second: SEO. Third: the social phase, the network effect. How are we engaging our readers so that they feel responsible to help us succeed? We’re not in the business of selling impressions [=page views, etc.] but experiences. E.g., we have a bracket competition (“Munch Madness“) for restaurant reviews. We tell advertisers that you’re getting not just views but experiences.


Q: [alex jones] And these revenues are enough to enable the Globe to continue…?


A: It would be foolish of me to say yes, but …


Q: [alex jones] How does the Globe attract an audience that’s excited but civil?


A: Part of it is thinking about new ways of doing journalism. E.g., for the Tsarnaev trial, we created cards that appear on every page that give you a synopsis of the day’s news and all the witnesses and evidence online. We made those cards available to any publisher who wanted them. They’re embeddable. We reached out to every publisher in New England that can’t cover it in the depth that the Globe can” and offered it to them for free. “We didn’t get as much uptake as we’d like,” perhaps because the competitive juices are still flowing.


Then there are the comments. When news orgs first put comments on their site, they thought about them as digital letters to the editor. Comments serve another purpose: they are a product and platform in and of themselves where your community can talk about your product. They’re not really tied to the article. Some comments “make me weep because they’re so beautiful.”


Q: As journalists are being asked to do much more, what do you think about the pay scale declining?


A: I can’t speak for the industry. The Globe pays competitively. We’re creating jobs now. And there are so many more outlets out there that didn’t exist five years ago. Journalists today aren’t just writers. They’re sw engineers, designers, etc.


I’m increasingly concerned about the lack of women engineers entering the field. Newspapers have as much responsibility as any other industry to address this issue.


Q: How to monetize aggregators?


A: If we were to try to go to every org that aggregates us, it’d be a fulltime job. We released a story online on a Feb. afternoon about Jeb Bush at Andover. [This one?] By Friday night, it was all over. I don’t view it as a threat. We have a meter. My job is to make sure that our reporting is good enough that you’ll use your credit card and sign up. I’m in awe in the number of people who sign up every day. We have churn issues as does everyone, but the meter business has been a success.


Q: [me] As you redo your CMS, have you thought about putting in an API? If so, would you consider opening it to the public?


A: When I’ve opened up API sets, there has been minimal takeup.


Q: What other newspapers are doing a good job addressing digital issues? And does the ownership structure matter?


A: The Washington Post, and they have a very similar ownership structure as the Globe.


Q: [alex] What’s Bezo’s effect on the WaPo?


A: Having the Post appear on every Kindle is something we’d all like for ourselves.


Q: Release schedule?


A: Our newsroom’s phenomenal editors are recognizing and believing that we are not a platform-specific business. We find only one in four of our print subscribers logged on to the web site with any frequency. We have two different audiences.We’ve had no evidence that releasing stories earlier on digital cannibalizes our print business. I love print. But when I get the Sunday edition, I feel guilty if I recycle it before I’ve read it all. So why not give people the opportunity to read it when they want? If it’s ready on a Wed., let them read it on Wed. Different platforms have different reader habits.

Q: What’s native to the print version?

A: Some of the enterprise reporting perhaps. But it’s more obvious in format issues. E.g., the print showed the 30 charges Tsarnaev was charged with. It had an emotional impact that digital did not.


Q: Is your print audience entirely over the age of 50?


A: No. It’s a little older than our overall numbers, but not that much.


Q: What are you doing to reduce the churn rate? What’s worked on getting print and digital folks to understand each other?


A: I’m a firm believer in data. We’re not pushing for digital change because we want to but because data backs up our claims. About frictionlessness: It’s so easy to buy goods. Uber. Even buying a necklace. We’re working with a backend database that is complex. We have to tie that into our digital product. The front end complexities on how users can pay come from the complexity of the back end.


Q: [nick sinai] I appreciate your comments about bringing designers, developers, UX into the newsroom. That’s what we’re trying to do in the govt. for digital services. How about data journalism.


A: Data journalism lets you tell stories you didn’t know where there. My one issue: We’ve reached a barrier: we’re reliant on what datasets are available.


Q: How many reporters work for print, Boston.com, and BostonGlobe.com


A: 250 journalists or so work for the Globe and they all work for all platforms.


Q: Are different devices attracting different stories? E.g., a long enterprise story may do better on particular devices. Where is contradiction, nuance, subtlety in this environment? How much is constrained by the device?


A: Yes, there are form-specific things. But there are also social-specific things. If you’re coming from Reddit, your behavior is different from your behavior coming from Facebook, etc. Each provides its own unique expectation of the reader. We’re trying to figure out how to be smarter in detecting where you’re coming from and what assets we should serve up to you. E.g., if you’re coming from Reddit and are going back to talk about the article, maybe you’re never going to subscribe, but could we provide a FB Like button, etc.?


Q: Analytics?


A: The most important metric for me is journalistic impact. That’s hard to measure. Sheer number? The three legislators who can change a law? More broadly: At the top of the funnel, it’s how to grow our audience: page views, shares, unique visitors, etc. As you get deeper into the funnel it’s about how much you engage with the site: bounce rate, path, page views per visit,time spent, etc. Third metric: return frequency. If you had a really good experience, did you come back: return visits, subscribers, etc.


[Really informative talk.]

2 Comments »

Next Page »