Joho the Blog » journalism

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?

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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 doesn’t have nuthin’ from the Globe site during that week.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.


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 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.

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 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 ( and a paywall site ( This was set up before his time. relative to its size as a website business has a remarkable amount of revenue via advertising. 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.


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?

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: 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,, and

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.]


April 7, 2015

[shorenstein][liveblog] Phillip Martin on reporting poverty, and Boston’s racist image

Phillip Martin of WGBH is giving a Shorenstein Center lunch. He is a Boston-based investigative reporter who (says Alex Jones) “tries to explain the city to itself.”

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.

Phillip starts “at the intersection of memory, history and symbolism.” The first image that comes to his mind is the instersection where he came of age in Detroit. It’s now considered to be one of the most dangerous in the area, which masks the complexity of the place. Coverage of poor people oversimplifies matters all too often. His neighborhood was composed of “full-bodied individuals.” His mom and step-dad had third grad educations but were very smart and pushed the children into watching thew news every night. And to the library, where they found The Detroit Free Press.

Later in 1967 the Detroit Riots occurred, which is political neighbors called “The Detroit Uprising.” An image that always sticks in his mind is of a kid nicknamed Bobo. He was a bully, but Phillip remembers his parents’ anguish as Bobo was pushed up against a tree and was beaten by the National Guard and police for violating the curfew. “There’s no excuse for this,” said Phillip’s father, even though he didn’t much like Bobo either.

Phillip saw that the images in the news didn’t match the reality in the streets. One radio newsman referred to the people in the streets as “wild animals.” But Phillip didn’t see any “wild animals” at the church fish fry the week before. “They were people and they were sinners, and they were enjoying themselves.”

He was working on the docks of a newspaper. A labor reporter (Steve Orr [?]) liked to talk with him. He was reporting on the UAW and plants closing across Detroit. The coverage by this reporter did jibe with what Phillip saw happening and what his cousin Cyrus said about his experience working in an auto plant. Phillip started talking with this reporter about journalism.

At Wayne State he joined the student newspaper briefly. He “was not enamored with the structure” of journalistic reporting and push back against the edicts of the paper.

From Detroit, Boston seemed exotic. In 1974 he was hearing about: A Haitian man being pulled out of his van and beaten in South Boston. School buses being stoned when they drove through white neighborhoods. A woman being set on fire. That was a different vision of Boston than his next door neighbor Willy had painted. So Phillip decided he’d like to write about Boston.

In 1975 he came out here with other students. “It was much worse” than he imagined when it came to race relations. Boston was almost equated with Birmingham, Mississippi. There was a demonstration in Carson Beach to keep blacks and Latinos off the beach. This was in response to court ordered desegregation and busing. The more he learned, the deeper it got. The people protesting blacks and Latinos were in the same economic class as they people they were objecting to. Phillip wrote a few pieces that “did not land me a job in journalism.” But it did increase his curiosity bout Boston. “And it scared me. I didn’t know if I could live in a place like this.”

When he went back to Detroit he realized that the city had become much worse in the course of a single summer. So he went to San Francisco, but found it too cold [laughter]. Detroit’s economy was deteriorating further. So he tried Boston again.

In Boston he heard Danny Schechter (“The News Dissector”) on WBCN doing a report on the poor that didn’t rely on stick figures, that let people speak for themselves. Phillip approached him out of the blue and asked to be an intern.

Years later, after trying to broaden his worldview through self-education and the Fletcher School of Law Diplomacy, he started working for Oxfam America. Oxfam’s notion of self-development was very important to him. He was in charge of Oxfam’s “hunger banquets,” but he didn’t think he was doing enough to change journalism’s “framework of assumption” about poverty. He was interested in how race frames so many aspects of our society.

In 1992 he went to South Africa. Apartheid was still in place. He picked up an Afrikaner hitchhiker who said that Americans know nothing about South Africa. Phillip was thinking, “This is amazing! I’d never get this perspective if I were a black South African.” The perspective was complex. Ridding South Africa of apartheid will be difficult because you have individuals who fully believe that a black government would be terrorist and communist. He wrote about this for the Boston Globe, which led to more work for them.

In 1994 he was back in South Africa for the election and was in Johannesburg when a bomb went off on April 24. NPR asked him to come on broad as a commentator. In 1995 he wrote a commentary after the Oklahoma City bombing that compared the two bombings and about what the proliferation of guns means to him as a black man.

He was conflicted about journalism because he wasn’t sure that news media would let him explore beyond the standard framework. But then PRI’s The World came up and he was asked to help put it together. He started to cover the intersection of international relations and race.

He went from there to a Japan fellowship looking at disaffected minorities in Japan. The themes he’d cared about all his life were resonating internationally.

After a Niemann Fellowship, he was hired as NPR’s first race relations correspondent, looking at race in terms of ethnicity and hue and tone. “We all know that race is a false construct,” but hue and tone are nevertheless used worldwide to discriminate.

His interest drifted to Europe at the end of the Cold War. He was talking with a right-wing friend from Romania who, when the wall came down, said that the neo-Nazis are going to come out of the woodwork. He went to Germany on a Marshall fellowship in 2003, and saw some of that happening, as well counter movements…


Q: [alex jones] You’ve come across the fundamental truth about American journalism that journalists don’t know poor people and thus don’t do much reporting on poverty. How do we break through that? The reporting on gays has been better because reporters do know gay people.

A: Let people speak for themselves. There have been some great series that do that. When experts interpret information, they often allow their expertise to be the proxy for how people are really feeling. That’s problematic. Journalism has to go deeper.

Q: Whenever I have friends visit me from other cities, they’re always struck by the degree of segregation in Boston — particularly on the T where there will be a car of white people, another of minorities… [Really? I’ve never seen this. I’m mainly on the Green and Red lines,] How does Boston look to you these days?

A: I’m a middle class guy. The city has changed in extraordinary, fundamental ways. I once went to the North End and when I came back, my windows were smashed. I went into South Boston in the 1980s and got into a scuffle on a train platform. I remember being afraid to be in Charlestown. Gentrification has made some of these neighborhoods palatable for people of color. They opened up but also closed: you can go to certain neighborhoods but are unable to live in those neighborhoods. True both for whites and for people of color.

He recently asked Julian Bondwhat he thinks of Boston. Bond said that he’s still afraid of the city. He’s afraid to go to a baseball game. Phillip told him that the city has changed. Bond admitted that this is simply how he perceives Boston. Boston just got a milllion dollar grant to change the perception of race in Boston. Many people across the country still think of Boston in terms of the 1970s pro-racism actions. Now Boston is demarcated by economic classes.

Q: Are media orgs doing enough to diversify their staffs?

A: NPR has made a major effort and some of those have seen fruit. NPR works on the use of words that carry racial meaning. Michele Norris [in the audience, which Phillip just discovers; Phillip has a totally delightful reaction] has done extraordinary work on race.

A: Michele Norris: The member stations are the feeder system for reporters. The staffs of the member stations are overwhelmingly white. The pipeline is not sufficiently diverse.

Q: My sister is a documentary film maker who made a film called “Daddy Don’t Go.” You come away understanding that the dads in it have made a lot of mistakes, but they love their children. The reception she’s getting is disturbing: everyone is telling her that it’s too dark, too sad. It really lets these guys speak for themselves.

A: Maybe she should join forces. E.g., Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” Both want to have their voices amplified.

A: Michele Norris: Also try to get it in front of African-American audiences.

A: Jackie Calmes: For the past 35 yrs I’ve seen a regression of the efforts in journalism to hire women and minorities, and it’s worse for minorities in my experience. But, in covering poverty the mistake that’s made too often is equating poverty with black people.

A: Phillip: I agree 100%. A filmmaker at the CBC asked me to work on a series about a black man traveling through poor white America. The idea is to show how structurally problematic poverty is in this country. It engenders a view that this is America. It’s a false picture. White people need to understand the problems in terms not only of race but also of income inequality. We need to bring the contradictions in our understanding to the fore.

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March 25, 2015

[shorenstein] Farnaz Fassihi on Reporting from the Middle East

I’m at a Shorenstein lunchtime talk where Farnaz Fassihi is giving a talk titled “Reporting from the Middle East.” Farnaz writes for the Wall Street Journal. Among other achievements (and there are a lot), she is the author of an email in 2004 that was at the time a shockingly frank and dire assessment of how things were going in Iraq.

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.

She was a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger on 9/11. She insisted that her editor assign her to the Afghan war. “I always wanted to cover wars. I don’t know why.” She thinks that she wanted to make sense of events in her own life, including the revolution in Iran when she was 8. She was sent to Afghanistan, covered the second Intifada, the Iraq invasion, became WSJ’s Beirut bureau chief, covered Arab Spring, etc. She has only recently returned to the US.

“How we approach reporting has significantly changed” since she first went to Afghanistan she says. In part this is because journalists are more at risk than ever. Before 9/11, it would have been fine for her to pack a backpack and a satellite phone, and head off into Afghanistan. Now journalists have security guards, and there are zones into which journalists simply don’t go. “That’s taken some of the serendipity” out of the coverage and has made it harder to cover what’s happening on the ground. You have to rely on sources “and most of them have an agenda.” Also, now it’s visual first and mobile first, “putting even more pressure on journalists to turn things around quickly.” As a result, reporting is less original than before: when all the journalists are covering Syria from Beirut, they’re using the same Youtube feeds, tweets, etc. It makes it harder to make readers care by “putting a human face” on the tragedies and horrors. As a result, readers in the US have grown tired of reading about these events.

On the other hand, “the invasion of Iraq has gotten the US to where it is today.” There’s thus even more of an obligation to have reporters on the ground. E.g., Al Qaeda didn’t have a presence in Iraq until the invasion. “We no longer have an isolated crisis in Syria but an entire region up in arms.” We need journalists in place because, e.g., Yemen is a very tribal society that is difficult to understand. “When I started out, even in Iraq, I’d get in a car with translator, go out and talk to people. Much of my coverage in the past 13 yrs has been to put a human face on war.” She’s written a book about this. “I have a very hard time now replicating that when it comes to Syria or Yemen because I’m not there. It can be extremely frustrating as a reporter. Not just for me but for all my colleagues.”

As the result of not being on the ground, journalists sometimes miss where things are heading. “We all missed the takeover of Mosul.” “I think that was because of our lack of access.”

“In terms of where the Middle East is going, I’m not optimistic at all.” “The same forces seem to be going in cycles.” “I don’t have an answer about the right way out of this, but I do feel there is some level of responsibility that the US has.”


Q: [alex jones] If you were advising the US President about what to do, what would you suggest, if only to have the least worst path?

A: We missed the window when we could have had real influence on the Syrian rebels. We were so traumatized by Iraq that we didn’t want to be blamed for another Arab state’s disintegration. At this point I don’t know what we can do. America’s involvement is always a double-edged sword. If you don’t go in, you get blamed for letting the radicals win. If you do, you get blamed for radicalizing moderates.

Q: [alex] If we do nothing, what happens?

A: Countries in the Middle East will turn into what Afghanistan was before the US invasion: institutional breakdown of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya. The conflict might spread. And that’s a region the US has a lot of interests in in: oil, Israel. And we’ll have to accept that the Islamic Republic will become a major power player. It already is one. If we do nothing, our influence will even further diminish.

Q: [alex] Why aren’t other Arab states as fearful of ISIS as we are?

A: They are.

Q: [alex] Why aren’t they fighting ISIS?

A: Many Saudi and Kuwaiti businessmen have funded ISIS. A lot of private donations. But local countries are fighting in different ways. Iran is fearful and leading the show. Saudi Arabia knows that now it has a very real rival.

Q: [alex] Why do the Saudis allow their citizens to support ISIS?

A: The Saudis are fearful of Shia dominance, and Iran gaining power, as well as of ISIS. After the US invasion we saw a Shia revival which was a real threat to Sunni dominance of the Middle East. These are rivalries that are thousands of years old.

Q: [alex] Why do these Shia and Sunni cultures have such incredible animosity? If you’re a Moslem do you feel a primary identity to Shia or Sunni instead of to Islam?

A: Sectarian identity is very important in the Middle East. And the Shia were oppressed for many many years. It’s a political and social organization as well as religious; it rebuilds the villages that Israel bombs when the government does not. “I don’t think we can necessarily crush” ISIS. With all of the effort in Iraq we were unable to keep Al Qaeda in check. The question is: what are we trying to accomplish? Will aerial bombardment turn it around? I don’t think so.

Q: [alex] So we’re just headed to genocide?

A: We’re already seeing that. 100,000 killed in Syria. Chemical weapons.

Q: [alex] So there’s nothing to be done.

Q: I was with the Yemen Times. How do you maintain your sanity as a reporter in a war zone. And how do your own balance your own agenda?

A: I don’t think we have an agenda. But we are human beings. It depends on the info we’re getting. Sometimes our sources are unbalanced, and that can reflect in the story. I write about Yemen with a Yemeni stringer, and we have a trust relationship. But if I’m talking with a source, I have to be very aware of what their agenda is, which can be hard when you’re on deadline.

A: 9/11 created a new generation of war correspondents. There are maybe 40 of us and we go from zone to zone. We’ve formed intense bonds. Those friendships are the most important thing. But if you spend that much time in the Middle East, you have scars. It’s difficult to continuously put yourself at risk and hear the stories of what people are going through.

Q: Covering ISIS reflects the problems of journalistic cutbacks. How do we cover these issues given the cutbacks and the dangers?

A: Security comes first. I discourage new journalists from going to rebel-controlled territory. But people do. If our paper is not sending staff, we don’t send freelancers. The idea is that no story is worth your life. We try to fill the gap by having more experienced regional reporters who understand the context. So you mainly have seasoned reporters writing the analytic pieces. But the unique and amazing reporting usually comes from freelancers who take those risks.

Q: Charlie Sennott‘s GroundTruth project tries to set up guidelines for coverage. Is it having an effect?

A: Too soon to tell. But no matter how much security you have, if you’re surrounded by militants who are determined to behead you, you can’t really protect yourself. When I went to Afghanistan I didn’t get any training. Now journalists are trained. The more training the better, but nothing can fully protect you.

Q: Talk about Iranian domestic politics?

A: Grand policies in Iran such as nuclear negotiations or its goals in Syria are determined by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. From everything we can gather, he’s given the green light for a deal. I think the reality of sanctions and falling oil prices is making it very difficult for the Iranian regime to sustain itself. They also know that there’s real dissent in the country. The regime is trying to hold off by the working class. Getting a nuclear deal is essential for that. It seems that for the first time Iran genuinely wants a deal. But just like in the US there are hardliners that don’t. As Pres. Obama said, it’s very odd that those 47 US Senators have such much in common with the Iranian hardliners.

Q: When you were 4 yrs old, I was a guest of the empress of Iran for two weeks. At this Meeting of 100 Leaders, no one anticipated that the change would come from the right. Now my source is Anthony Bourdain. His program on Iran is spectacular and says that the public is nowhere near the leaders.

A: You’d be very surprised if you went to Iran now. It’s become very urban — 70%. 60% of university students are women. Women are big part of the workforce. The Iranian Republic has pushed to modernize rural areas, with healthcare, and modern roles for women. Women are a force of change from within. Iran is also very connected: one of the top users of the Internet. The young generation is very eager to be in touch. It’s probably the most pro-American population in the Middle East. Iranians are not extremists by nature. Change will not occur there the way it’s occurred in Syria. They want change through moderate means.

Q: The bombing in Yemen and Tunisia?

A: Tunisia was the one example of where Arab Spring worked. I don’t want to rush to judgment and say Tunisia is a failed enterprise, but it does make one worry that ISIS is gaining momentum there. The conflicts are no longer localized.

Q: Couldn’t the US help bolster Tunisia. Are we?

A: I don’t know.

Q: It’s ironic that the French Defense Minister lost her job at the beginning of the revolution by suggesting France could help. Tunisia is tiny and unable to defend itself. But back to Iran: the Supreme Leader is apparently ill. Could Pres. Rouhani become the Supreme Leader?

A: He’s lacking the right credentials, although exceptions can be made. But the council that picks the next Leader just appointed a very conservative council head.

Q: Anything positive?

A: Some of the most gratifying moments have been encountering the resilience of human beings in war zones. Even in those circumstances, people still try to find a way to live a dignified life. E.g., a wedding in Baghdad was made enormously difficult because of security. Car bombs were going off but people were dancing. Or the women in Afghanistan. I interviewed a teacher who had been banned because women were not allowed in the workforce. She turned her basement into a classroom for neighborhood girls, staggering their hours so the Taliban wouldn’t notice the stream of children.

Q: In addition to all of the dangers there’s the incredible apparatus of the US military’s PR machine. What’s it like dealing with the US military?

A: If you embed you have to follow guidelines: your PR person stays with you, if you’re in an attack you can’t send photos of injured or dead soldiers, etc. If you violate the rules, you’re kicked off the embed. Because they take you on the embed and protect you, they expect you to write something positive. Sometimes you don’t. And then you and your organization are in the doghouse. They didn’t like what I wrote about the capturing Saddam Hussein and for three months the WSJ couldn’t get an embed.

Q: [me] A few times in my life I’ve seen an about-face in coverage of villified countries. Are we likely to see this with Iran?

A: I think we’re already seeing it. Since Ahmadinejad left, it’s been quite positive coverage.

Q: Why are there no gay people in Iran? (laughter)

A: [audience member] It’s a world leader in sex change operations.

A: I know many gay Iranians.

Q: What is Iran’s real attitude toward Israel?

A: Despite the rhetoric, I don’t think Iran has any plans to eradicate Israel. But they do support the Palestinian cause, and arm Hezbollah and Hamas. So I don’t think those tensions will go away. Netanyahu would like to derail the talks because then Israel loses its puppet enemy.

Q: If there’s no deal?

A: I think Iran will open up their centrifuges and continue with the program.

Q: A Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian has been jailed in Iran. Why? Also: The former head of Mossad said that Iranians are the most well-educated, brilliant people in the the world.

A: Journalists are arrested all the time in Iran. He mostly wrote features, not investigative reports that would anger the govt. But reports, especially Americans, are always at risk. Sometimes Iran wants a bargaining chip, or a prisoner exchange, or domestic politics. It’s very seldom because the person is a real threat.


March 3, 2015

[liveblog] David Sanger on cybersecurity. And Netanyahu

David Sanger of the NY Times is giving a Shorenstein Center lunchtime talk about covering security.

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.

David begins by honoring Alex Jones, the retiring head of the Shorenstein Center with whom he worked at the Times.

David tells us that he wrote his news analysis of the Netanyahu speech to Congress last night, before the talk, because people now wake up and expect it to read about it. His articles says that a semantic difference has turned into a strategic chasm: we’ve gone from preventing Iran from having the capability of building a weapon to preventing Iran from building a weapon. Pres. Obama dodged this question when David asked him about it in 2010. If the Iran deal goes through, says David, it will be the biggest diplomatic step since Nixon went to China.

Probably six years ago David had just come back from writing The Inheritance, which disclosed that GW Bush had engaged in the first computer attacks on Iran. He came back to the newsroom saying that we need to start thinking about the strategic uses of cyber as a weapon, beyond worrying about kids in a basement hacking into your bank account. This was an uphill struggle because it’s extremely difficult to get editors to think about a nontraditional form of warfare. Drones we understand: it’s an unmanned aircraft with familiar consquences when it goes wrong. We all understand nuclear weapons because we saw Hiroshima. Cyber is much harder to get people to understand. To make matters worse, there are so many different kinds of cyber attacks.

When you think about cyber you have to think about three elements, he says. 1. Cyber for espionage, by states or by thieves. 2. Cyber for economic advantage, on the cusp between business and govt. E.g., Chinese steal IP via operations run out of the Chinese Army. The US thinks that’s out of bounds but the Chinese think “What’s more important to our national interest than our economy? Of course we’ll steal IP!” 3. Cyber for political coercion, e.g. Stuxnet. This tech is spreading faster than ever, and it’s not just in the hands of states. We have no early concept of how we’re going to control this. We now claim Iran was behind cyberattacks on Las Vegas casinos. And, of course, the Sony hack. [He recounts the story.] “This was not a little drive-by attack.”

He says he would have predicted that if we got into a cyber war with another country, it would be an attack on the grid or some such, not an attempt to stop the release of a “terrible” commercial movie. “We’re in a new era of somewhat constant conflict.” Only now is the govt starting to think about how this affects how we interact with other companies. Also, it’s widened the divide Snowden has opened between Silicon Valley and the govt. Post-Snowden, companies are racing to show that they’re not going to cooperate with the US govt for fear that it will kill their ability to sell overseas. E.g., iPhone software throws away the keys that would have enabled Apple to turn over your decrypted data if the FBI comes along with a warrant. The head of the FBI has objected to this for fear that we’re entering a new era in which we cannot get data needed to keep us secure.

The govt itself can’t decide how to deal with the secrecy around its own development of cyber weapons. The Administration won’t talk about our offensive capabilities, even though we’re spending billions on this. “We can’t have a conversation about how to control them until you admit that you have them and describe the circumstances under which you might use them.”


Q: [alex jones] Laypeople assume that there are no secrets and no privacy any more. True?

A: By and large. There’s no system that can’t be defeated. (Hillary Clinton must have come to be so suspicious of the State Dept. email system that she decided to entrust it to gmail.) There’s no guaranteed system. We’d have to completely redesign the Internet to make it secure.

Q: [alex] What’s the state of forensics in this situation?

A: It’s not a sure thing. All govts and law enforcement agencies are putting a lot of money into cyber forensics. In the nuclear age, you could see where the missiles are coming from. Cybercrime is more like terrorism: you don’t know who’s responsibile. It’s easy to route a cyberattack through many computers to mask where it’s coming from. When the NYT was hacked by the Chinese govt, the last hop came from a university in the South. It wouldn’t have been so nice to have assumed that that little university was actually the source.

The best way to make forensics work is to have implants in foreign computing systems that are like little radar stations. This is what the NSA spends a lot of its time doing. You can use the same implant for espionage, to explore the computer, or to launch an attack. The US govt is very sensitive about our questions about implants. E.g., suppose the NSA tells the president that they’ve seen a major attack massing. The president has to decide about reacting proactively. If you cyber-attack a foreign computer, it looks like you struck first. In the Sony case, the President blamed North Korea but the intelligence agencies wouldn’t let him say what the evidence was. Eventually they let out a little info and we ran a story on the inserts in NK. An agency head called and officially complained about this info being published but said more personally that releasing the fact that the govt can track attacks back to the source has probably helped the cause of cybersecurity.

Q: Are there stories that you’re not prepared to publish yet?

A: We’ve held some stuff back. E.g., e were wondering how we attacked Iran computers that were disconnected from the Net (“air gap”). If you can insert some tech onto the motherboard before the product has been shipped you can get access to it. A Snowden document shows the packaging of computers going to Syria being intercepted, opened, and modified. Der Spiegel showed that this would enable you to control an off-line computer from 7 miles away. I withheld that from the book, and a year or two later all that info was in the Snowden docs.

Q: [nick sinai] Why haven’t the attacks on the White House and State Dept. been a bigger story?

A: Because they were mainly on the unclassified side. We think it was a Russian attack, but we don’t know if was state-sponsored.

Q: How does the Times make tradeoffs between security and openness?

A: I’m not sure we get it right. We have a set of standards. If it would threaten a life or an imminent military or intelligence operation we’re likely not to publish it. Every case is individual. An editor I know says that in every case he’s withheld info, he’s sorry that he did. “I don’t blame the government” for this, says David. They’re working hard to prevent an attack, and along comes a newspaper article, and a program they’ve been working on for years blows up. On the other hand, we can’t debate the use of this tech until we know what it can do. As James Clapper said recently, maybe we’re not headed toward a cyber Pearl Harbor but toward a corrosive series of attacks, institution by institution.

Q: At what point do cyberattacks turn into cyberwarfare?

“Cyberwarfare” is often an overstated term. It implies that it might turn into a real-world war, and usually they don’t. Newspapers have to decide which ones to cover, because if you tried to cover them all, that’s all you’d cover. So the threshold keeps going up. It’s got to be more than stealing money or standard espionage.

Q: Will companies have to create cyber militias? And how will that affect your coverage?

A: Most companies don’t like to report cyber attacks because it drives down their stock market valuation. There’s a proposed law that would require a company to report cyber attacks within a month. The federal govt wants cybersecurity to come from private companies. E.g., JP Morgan spends half a billion dollars on cyber security. But there are some state-sponsored attacks that no private company could protect itself against.

Q: How does US compare with our enemies? And in 30 yrs how will we remember Snowden?

A: The usual ranking puts US on top, the British, the Israelis. The Chinese are very good; their method seems to be: attack everyone and see what you get. The Russians are stealthier. The Iranians and North Koreans are further down the list. A year ago if you’d told me that the NKs would have done something as sophisticated as the Sony attack, I would have said you’re crazy.

I have no problem believing both that Snowden violated every oath he took and multiple laws, and that the debates started by the docs that he released is a healthy one to have. E.g., Obama had authorized the re-upping of the collection of metadata. After Snowden, the burden has been put on private companies, none of which have taken it up. Also, Obama didn’t know we were listening in on Angela Merkel. Now all those programs are being reviewed. I think that’s a healthy kind of tradeoff.

Q: What enduring damage has Snowden done?

A: The damage lies between immediate to enduring. Immediately, there were lots of intelligence programs that had to be redone. I don’t see any real damage outside of a 5 year frame.

Q: Might there be a deal that lets Snowden come home?

A: A year ago there was interest in this in order to find out what Snowden knows. But now the intelligence services feel they have a handle on this.

Q: Netanyahu speech?

A: Politically he probably did a little more damage to his cause than good. Some Dems feel coerced. On the substance of it, I think he made the best case you can make for the two biggest weaknesses in the deal: 1. It doesn’t dismantle very much equipment, so when the deal’s term is over, they’ll be up and running. 2. We’re taking a bet that the Iranian govt will be much easier to deal with in 10-15 yrs, and we have no idea if that’s true. But Netanyahu has not put forward a strategy that does not take you down the road to military confrontation.


February 24, 2015

[shorenstein] CNN Digital’s New Rules for Modern Journalists

Meredith Artley , editor in chief of CNN Digital, is s giving a Shorenstein Center talk on “new rules for modern journalists.” [Disclosure: I sometimes write for I don’t know Meredith and she doesn’t know me.]

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.

Meredith started at where most of the work was copying and pasting into online. She left as second in charge. Then she spent five hears in Paris for the International Herald Tribune. Then exec. ed of She’s been at CNN for 5 years. Digital CNN includes, CNN Money on desktops and mobile, and more. There are 300 people on the digital team. Part of her remit is also to tap into the rest of CNN.

Rule #1: Slow down a bit.

For journalists, there’s more to consider than ever: writing, choosing images, building your personal brand across media. You need the discipline to be the best at what you’re doing.

For example, CNN had a story about this relentless winter. At first the headline was “Boston braces for more snow.” But that headline didn’t do very well; CNN tracks the clicks and other online responses. That headline tells you “Boston: More of the same.” So they came up with the headline “Boston would wave a white flag if it could see it.” That story went straight through the roof. A little emotion, a little wink.

#2: The best and brightest modern journalists pick a measure of success that matters to them.

Some video journalists pick completion rates: how many people make it through the entire 3-4 min video. Or time-spent on text stories. People viewed the story about the woman luring three young women into ISIS for an average of 6.5 minutes, which is a lot. “That’s powerful.” That tells CNN that maybe they can go long on that story. “We’re using the audience data to help steer us into our assignments.”

Another example: CNN gets a lot of reports of what posts are doing well. They had a lede that explained what’s at stake in the clash of powers in Ukraine rather than starting with that day’s developments. That got people into the story far more effectively

#3 Pick a social platform that suits you and suits your story — those are two separate things.

Facebook is good for several kinds of stories: for video, for evening publishing. Twitter is really good at reaching an influencer audience and having a connection to TV. Certain stories lend themselves to certain platforms.

Example: A correspondent was in a beseiged city. He did a Reddit AMA. The numbers weren’t astronomical, but the quality and caliber of the conversation was fantastic.

#4: Publishing is not the end.

The old model was that you hope your story gets posted prominently, and once it’s out, you’re done. The best and brightest rockstar journalists now know that publishing is the moment where you start to engage audiences, look at how it’s performing, thinking about how you might reach out to social media to get it seen, listen to the conversation around the story to see if there are followups….

E.g. At CNN Money they pore through data and find the best jobs in America based on particular criteria. Being a dentist made the list one year. CNN tweeted this out to the American Dental Association. “This is a great way to reach the people you’re talking about.” “It really isn’t enough these days to put it on a site, or tweet it and walk away.”

#5: Beware of the big and shiny objects.

There’s a lot of conversation about Snowfall. There’s a temptation to do big and beautiful things like that. But you have to pick and choose carefully. You can start slow: publish a little bit and see if there’s interest, and then add to it.

Example: A columnist, John Sutter, asked audiences to vote on the issues that matter to them. From child poverty to climate change, etc. He said they’d find stories to cover the top five. They thought about doing big multimedia productions. He did a story on the most endangered river. He tweeted during the process — very casual and low cost, not at all like a major multimedia production. “I like that iterative approach.”


Q: [alex jones] Your points #2-4, and maybe #5, are contrary to #1. Do you really want people to slow down?

A: I don’t find them contradictory at all. The point is to pick and choose. Otherwise there’s too much to do. Discipline is key. Otherwise it all becomes overwhelming.

Q: CNN on air’s strategy seems very different from On air the strategy is to pick one or two things and beat the hell out of them. Why doesn’t CNN make you the editor of the broadcast portion and have it be more reflective of what’s happening on the digital side?

A: Give me a few years. [laughter] At every morning’s meeting for all of CNN, we start with digital. When we framed the Ukraine story as an East-West proxy war, that becomes the on-air approach as well. CNN Air is a linear thing. That’s the nature of the medium. Most people watch CNN on air a bit at a time. So there was an intentional strategy to cover 4-5 stories and go deep. But because of the digital, we can go broader.

Q: How do you avoid feeling like you’re pandering when you make data so integral to the process? Not everything important is going to get the clicks, and not everything that gets clicks is important.

A: What’s important is what we’re going to do. We wouldn’t drop the Ukraine story if it didn’t get clicks. We use the data to make the story as strong as possible.

Q: Are there differences in how international audiences consumer digital news?

A: We’re seeing that the international audiences use social differently, and more actively. They share more. We’re not sure why. And, we see a lot of video usage in certain parts of Asia Pacific.

Q: How do you create synergies with traditional news media? Or do you?

A: You can’t keep TV separate from digital. Even within DNN Digital we have different pockets these days.

Q: Isn’t there some danger in media outlets sensationalizing headlines, turning them into clickbait? How can you best tread that line?

A: Clickbait is the scourge of the Internet. We don’t do it. We shouldn’t simplify into “Data bad, journalism good.” These are people who have training and instincts. We use data to help guide you to what resonates with the audience. We do it in service of the story.

Q: Can you talk about A/B testing of headlines? And we’re seeing software that turns structured data into stories. Is that the future?

A: We do A/B test headlines, all in service of the story, especially across the home pages. At CNN Money we’re A/B testing a photo with a headline above or below it. I’ve seen some examples of automated writing, but, meh. Maybe around a box score at this point.

Q: How do you see the relation between professionals and amateur journalists/bloggers?

A: CNN was early into this with I-reports. We also have the biggest social media footprint. (We check submitted reports.)

Q: The Ukraine report’s lede is more like what a newsmagazine would have done than like a newspaper lede.

A: Strategically that’s a shift we’re making. For any event there are a lot of stories that sounds the same. Commoditized news.So I’ve been asking our team to go deeper on the color and the context. We try to put it together and frame it a bit.

Q: Facebook has been emphasiszing native video. How you feel about that as opposed to linking to your page?

A: Its an ongoing discussion with Facebook.

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