Joho the Blog » journalism

November 15, 2013

[liveblog] Noam Chomsky and Bart Gellman at Engaging Data

I’m at the Engaging Data 2013conference where Noam Chomsky and Pulitzer Prize winner (twice!) Barton Gellman are going to talk about Big Data in the Snowden Age, moderated by Ludwig Siegele of the Economist. (Gellman is one of the three people Snowden vouchsafed his documents with.) The conference aims at having us rethink how we use Big Data and how it’s used.

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.

LS: Prof. Chomsky, what’s your next book about?

NC: Philosophy of mind and language. I’ve been writing articles that are pretty skeptical about Big Data. [Please read the orange disclaimer: I'm paraphrasing and making errors of every sort.]

LS: You’ve said that Big Data is for people who want to do the easy stuff. But shouldn’t you be thrilled as a linguist?

NC: When I got to MIT at 1955, I was hired to work on a machine translation program. But I refused to work on it. “The only way to deal with machine translation at the current stage of understanding was by brute force, which after 30-40 years is how it’s being done.” A principled understanding based on human cognition is far off. Machine translation is useful but you learn precisely nothing about human thought, cognition, language, anything else from it. I use the Internet. Glad to have it. It’s easier to push some buttons on your desk than to walk across the street to use the library. But the transition from no libraries to libraries was vastly greater than the transition from librarites to Internet. [Cool idea and great phrase! But I think I disagree. It depends.] We can find lots of data; the problem is understanding it. And a lot of data around us go through a filter so it doesn’t reach us. E.g., the foreign press reports that Wikileaks released a chapter about the secret TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership). It was front page news in Australia and Europe. You can learn about it on the Net but it’s not news. The chapter was on Intellectual Property rights, which means higher prices for less access to pharmaceuticals, and rams through what SOPA tried to do, restricting use of the Net and access to data.

LS: For you Big Data is useless?

NC: Big data is very useful. If you want to find out about biology, e.g. But why no news about TPP? As Sam Huntington said, power remains strongest in the dark. [approximate] We should be aware of the long history of surveillance.

LS: Bart, as a journalist what do you make of Big Data?

BG: It’s extraordinarily valuable, especially in combination with shoe-leather, person-to-person reporting. E.g., a colleague used traditional reporting skills to get the entire data set of applicants for presidential pardons. Took a sample. More reporting. Used standard analytics techniques to find that white people are 4x more likely to get pardons, that campaign contributors are also more likely. It would be likely in urban planning [which is Senseable City Labs' remit]. But all this leads to more surveillance. E.g., I could make the case that if I had full data about everyone’s calls, I could do some significant reporting, but that wouldn’t justify it. We’ve failed to have the debate we need because of the claim of secrecy by the institutions in power. We become more transparent to the gov’t and to commercial entities while they become more opaque to us.

LS: Does the availability of Big Data and the Internet automatically mean we’ll get surveillance? Were you surprised by the Snowden revelations>

NC: I was surprised at the scale, but it’s been going on for 100 years. We need to read history. E.g., the counter-insurgency “pacification” of the Philippines by the US. See the book by McCoy [maybe this. The operation used the most sophisticated tech at the time to get info about the population to control and undermine them. That tech was immediately used by the US and Britain to control their own populations, .g., Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare. Any system of power — the state, Google, Amazon — will use the best available tech to control, dominate, and maximize their power. And they’ll want to do it in secret. Assange, Snowden and Manning, and Ellsberg before them, are doing the duty of citizens.

BG: I’m surprised how far you can get into this discussion without assuming bad faith on the part of the government. For the most part what’s happening is that these security institutions genuinely believe most of the time that what they’re doing is protecting us from big threats that we don’t understand. The opposition comes when they don’t want you to know what they’re doing because they’re afraid you’d call it off if you knew. Keith Alexander said that he wishes that he could bring all Americans into this huddle, but then all the bad guys would know. True, but he’s also worried that we won’t like the plays he’s calling.

LS: Bruce Schneier says that the NSA is copying what Google and Yahoo, etc. are doing. If the tech leads to snooping, what can we do about it?

NC: Govts have been doing this for a century, using the best tech they had. I’m sure Gen. Alexander believes what he’s saying, but if you interviewed the Stasi, they would have said the same thing. Russian archives show that these monstrous thugs were talking very passionately to one another about defending democracy in Eastern Europe from the fascist threat coming from the West. Forty years ago, RAND released Japanese docs about the invasion of China, showing that the Japanese had heavenly intentions. They believed everything they were saying. I believe these are universals. We’d probably find it for Genghis Khan as well. I have yet to find any system of power that thought it was doing the wrong thing. They justify what they’re doing for the noblest of objectives, and they believe it. The CEOs of corporations as well. People find ways of justifying things. That’s why you should be extremely cautious when you hear an appeal to security. It literally carries no information, even in the technical sense: it’s completely predictable and thus carries no info. I don’t doubt that the US security folks believe it, but it is without meaning. The Nazis had their own internal justifications.

BG: The capacity to rationalize may be universal, but you’ll take the conversation off track if you compare what’s happening here to the Stasi. The Stasi were blackmailing people, jailing them, preventing dissent. As a journalist I’d be very happy to find that our govt is spying on NGOs or using this power for corrupt self-enriching purposes.

NC: I completely agree with that, but that’s not the point: The same appeal is made in the most monstrous of circumstances. The freedom we’ve won sharply restricts state power to control and dominate, but they’ll do whatever they can, and they’ll use the same appeals that monstrous systems do.

LS: Aren’t we all complicit? We use the same tech. E.g., Prof. Chomsky, you’re the father of natural language processing, which is used by the NSA.

NC: We’re more complicit because we let them do it. In this country we’re very free, so we have more responsibility to try to control our govt. If we do not expose the plea of security and separate out the parts that might be valid from the vast amount that’s not valid, then we’re complicit because we have the oppty and the freedom.

LS: Does it bug you that the NSA uses your research?

NC: To some extent, but you can’t control that. Systems of power will use whatever is available to them. E.g., they use the Internet, much of which was developed right here at MIT by scientists who wanted to communicate freely. You can’t prevent the powers from using it for bad goals.

BG: Yes, if you use a free online service, you’re the product. But if you use a for-pay service, you’re still the product. My phone tracks me and my social network. I’m paying Verizon about $1,000/year for the service, and VZ is now collecting and selling my info. The NSA couldn’t do its job as well if the commercial entities weren’t collecting and selling personal data. The NSA has been tapping into the links between their data centers. Google is racing to fix this, but a cynical way of putting this is that Google is saying “No one gets to spy on our customers except us.”

LS: Is there a way to solve this?

BG: I have great faith that transparency will enable the development of good policy. The more we know, the more we can design policies to keep power in place. Before this, you couldn’t shop for privacy. Now a free market for privacy is developing as the providers now are telling us more about what they’re doing. Transparency allows legislation and regulation to be debated. The House Repubs came within 8 votes of prohibiting call data collection, which would have been unthinkable before Snowden. And there’s hope in the judiciary.

NC: We can do much more than transparency. We can make use of the available info to prevent surveillance. E.g., we can demand the defeat of TPP. And now hardware in computers is being designed to detect your every keystroke, leading some Americans to be wary of Chinese-made computers, but the US manufacturers are probably doing it better. And manufacturers for years have been trying to dsign fly-sized drones to collect info; that’ll be around soon. Drones are a perfect device for terrorists. We can learn about this and do something about it. We don’t have to wait until it’s exposed by Wikileaks. It’s right there in mainstream journals.

LS: Are you calling for a political movement?

NC: Yes. We’re going to need mass action.

BG: A few months ago I noticed a small gray box with an EPA logo on it outside my apartment in NYC. It monitors energy usage, useful to preventing brown outs. But it measures down to the apartment level, which could be useful to the police trying to establish your personal patterns. There’s no legislation or judicial review of the use of this data. We can’t turn back the clock. We can try to draw boundaries, and then have sufficient openness so that we can tell if they’ve crossed those boundaries.

LS: Bart, how do you manage the flow of info from Snowden?

BG: Snowden does not manage the release of the data. He gave it to three journalists and asked us to use your best judgment — he asked us to correct for his bias about what the most important stories are — and to avoid direct damage to security. The documents are difficult. They’re often incomplete and can be hard to interpret.

Q&A

Q: What would be a first step in forming a popular movement?

NC: Same as always. E.g., the women’s movement began in the 1960s (at least in the modern movement) with consciousness-raising groups.

Q: Where do we draw the line between transparency and privacy, given that we have real enemies?

BG: First you have to acknowledge that there is a line. There are dangerous people who want to do dangerous things, and some of these tools are helpful in preventing that. I’ve been looking for stories that elucidate big policy decisions without giving away specifics that would harm legitimate action.

Q: Have you changed the tools you use?

BG: Yes. I keep notes encrypted. I’ve learn to use the tools for anonymous communication. But I can’t go off the grid and be a journalist, so I’ve accepted certain trade-offs. I’m working much less efficiently than I used to. E.g., I sometimes use computers that have never touched the Net.

Q: In the women’s movement, at least 50% of the population stood to benefit. But probably a large majority of today’s population would exchange their freedom for convenience.

NC: The trade-off is presented as being for security. But if you read the documents, the security issue is how to keep the govt secure from its citizens. E.g., Ellsberg kept a volume of the Pentagon Papers secret to avoid affecting the Vietnam negotiations, although I thought the volume really only would have embarrassed the govt. Security is in fact not a high priority for govts. The US govt is now involved in the greatest global terrorist campaign that has ever been carried out: the drone campaign. Large regions of the world are now being terrorized. If you don’t know if the guy across the street is about to be blown away, along with everyone around, you’re terrorized. Every time you kill an Al Qaeda terrorist, you create 40 more. It’s just not a concern to the govt. In 1950, the US had incomparable security; there was only one potential threat: the creation of ICBM’s with nuclear warheads. We could have entered into a treaty with Russia to ban them. See McGeorge Bundy’s history. It says that he was unable to find a single paper, even a draft, suggesting that we do something to try to ban this threat of total instantaneous destruction. E.g., Reagan tested Russian nuclear defenses that could have led to horrible consequences. Those are the real security threats. And it’s true not just of the United States.

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October 10, 2013

[2b2k] Erik Martin on Reddit and journalism

Erik Martin is giving a talk at the Nieman Foundation. He’s the general manager of Reddit.com. (Disclosure: We’re friendly.) He tells us that Reddit gets 5 billion page views per month, and 70 million unique visitors.

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.

Erik gives us a tour and some background. Every morning he clicks on the “Random” button and visits the subreddits (= topically-based pages within the site) the button gives him. He does so now, hitting subreddits such as bitch, i’m a bus, ukele, battlestations (office desks), and what’s this plant. Reddit, he says, is like a giant message board. You can create a board (subreddit) about anything. There are over 100,000 that get at least a post a day, and 6,000 that have substantial activity. All the subreddits are created by users, who also can create the page design. All the posts are voted up or down by users. Users also set the rules for subreddits. For example, at the Coversong subreddit, users have apparently decided all posts have to be videos.

Now he’s interviewed by Justin Ellis.

JE: How did you get to Reddit?

EM: He worked for Mammoth Records. It got bought by Disney. Then hecame a documentary filmmaker. Then marketing films and distributing them online. He read Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham) [great book]. He then read about Paul Graham’s Y Combinator incubator. He applied to do a documentary about it, but was rejected. Still, he was hooked. Reddit came out of the first round of projects. He saw Reddit and loved the unpredictability of it. “Every link as a rabbit hole you might go down.” He got to know the cofounders and said “IU want to find a way to work with Reddit because that’s what I’m doing with all my time.” Alexis Ohanian asked him to work on a TV pilot that was going to incorporate Reddit into a news show. But it didn’t work; the Internet part was an add-on. Then he got hired as a community manager at Reddit.

JE: Reddit has a lot of geography. What does it mean to be a community manager?

EM: He looked at it as being the manager of a band. He’d promote promising items. He’d try to keep things functioning. And he tried to make sure that the community didn’t get taken advantage of, e.g., when people didn’t link back to Reddit.

JE: When you create a subreddit and a crowd shows up, how does that happen?

EM: Sometimes it’s obvious why. But others we can’t figure it out. One of our most popular subreddits is Explain Like I’m Five. That one you know what you’re going to get. Same for Ask Me Anything. Those explode when hot topics arise.

JE: How does this community stay together so long?

EM: Some of it is the customization of subreddits.

JE: Because anyone can create a subreddit, Reddit has gotten into trouble from time to time. There have been some very creepy subreddits. What’s the guiding principle for what is allowable?

EM: Our philosophy is that it’s a site that has 5B page views, and we have 35 employees [so we can’t moderate everything]. If you’re going to function you have to have some rules, but they have to be relatively finite, relatively easy to understand, and relatively self-enforceable. So, we have six rules. We have added one or two throughout the years. We try to keep them simple. No spam. You can’t try to break the site. You can’t try to cheat. You can’t put people’s personal info up. You can’t have anything illegal. We added that you can’t have material that sexualizes minors. If we had one that said “Don’t be a jerk,” it wouldn’t be enfrceable. No one would agree about how it applies. So there’s tons of stuff on the site that we find horrible and offensive, but the site works best when we keep it open and governed by those simple rules.

JE: What responsibility do you think you have if you see something that you personally feel is wrong?

EM: What I find offensive is different from others around the world or other positions. People don’t come here because they think we have the best judgment about what’s offensive. Plus, you have all the context. E.g., people complain about the PicsOfDeadChildren subreddit. That’s obviously very offensive. But what if it were called “Child Autopsy Photos” and it put itself forward as presenting medical training photos. Or a subreddit about death. Or a subreddit about combat video. It’s beyond offensive. It’s people being killed. It gets very tricky.

JE: There have been 3 major stories illustrative of Reddit and citizen journalism: The Aurora movie theater shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the shooting at the Navy Yard in DC. In the first, there was first person reporting. With the second, there was that but also the spreading of info from elsewhere and then the misidentification of one of the suspects in the bombing. With the third, someone created a subreddit to investigate what was happening, but you guys shut that down. What have you learned?

EM: In those three situations, the response of the community was the same as what you’d see offline: People trying to figure out what went on. Telling their story. Making jokes. Speculating about all kinds of things. Trying to make sense of what happened. Later on they were trying to help in some way. With Boston, it was different because the authorities wanted help from the public: they said if you have photos, upload them, etc. There was a subreddit where people were trying to identify the bombers, and that got a lot of attention. The actual subreddit where the Brown Univ. student was misidentified by name was actually the normal Boston subreddit, and it was removed after about an hour. That wasn’t good enough. That led to horrible consequences for that family.

So, what have we learned? We learned that people want to share, to talk, to help, to be a part of these huge events any way they can. We learned people can be callous and cavalier by mentioning people’s name. The vast majority were careful and thoughtful, but some were not. The Navy Yard subreddit was a joke. It had six posts, most from journalists satirizing the Boston bombing subreddit. It went against our rules and we shut it down after an hour.

JE: But you apologized after the Boston bombings…

EM: Absolutely. We do post-mortems and followsup. We did one when President Obama came on. So, yes, we apologized and talked aout what we can do better. And we also talked about the amazing things people did: people bringing their pets to parks in case people needed cute animal therapy, the sending of pizzas to EMTs and the police… We are an open source site in policy as well as code.

JE: Is it enough to do a post mortem? Newspapers issue corrections.

EM: There are thousands of subreddts, so there isn’t a way to reach everyone. We’re a platform, not a newspaper. We’re like Twitter or Youtube or WordPress. We don’t have a position on the veracity of one thing or another. I hope people learn to be more empathetic nandlearn that what you say on line has repercussions. But I don’t think we’re like a publication, and we’re not an editorial team.

JE: How do you see the role of journalism on Reddit? Why are people doing self-reporting?

EM: They want to be part of the story. They don’t want to be passie about what’s happening in the world. Even if
it’s uploading a meme. They’ve seen something start and then get big in a single day. Of course they want to share what’s happening in their neighborhood or share their thoughts about what’s going on in their govt Redditors vote 20M time a day.

JE: What’s the relation of journalisms and Reddit?

EM: We’re agnostic about what you’re linking to. But original reporting is more important than ever because people can find an audience. What’s happening on Reddit and what’s happening in the mainstream media happen to be in different hemispheres now but ultimately it’s the same thing. I hope people doing reporting will be active in a comment thread on Reddit or elsewhere.

JE: But you are creating content in some way, e.g., the Ask Me Anything’s where anyone can come in answer questions from the community. It’s very much like what media companies do.

EM: And in other Reddits people share recipes or workout routines. It’s like what you get in the media. It’s communicating, it’s story telling.

JE: How do you make money? You have ads and Reddit gold memberships.

EN: We don’t need to make a lot of money. We’re very lean. Our NY office is in a coworking space. We basically have ads for big movies, mobile phones, etc. We also have ads from mom and pop companies. Reddit Gold is a premium membership, $24.99/year. You get some extra features but most people do it to support the site. We have a secret Santa program (Reddit Gifts) that has an e-commerce site to help those exchanges and to make money.

JE: Reddit was purchased by Conde Nast and then spun off in 2011. How is it different?

EM: We started in 2005. Bought by Conde Nast in 2006. I started in 2008. Reddit was basically neglected by Conde: we were growing but there was a hiring freeze. OTOH, no one told us what to do. An example of how it made a difference: Before we were spun out, our ad operations was done through Conde, which is great for major magazines, not for a weird site where all you need is $5 to run an ad. So it didn’t make sense for us. We wanted an ad server that was fast and open source, which now we have.

Q&A

Q: Any trends in the type of content being produced? Trending toward the absurd? Or what?

A: It gets harder and harder to think about overall trends because the site is becoming more fractious and disparate each day. I think people are really motivated by the unexpected. Our audience is increasingly cynical. We also have an audience that is increasingly idealistic. You see trends were people are more connected across national and geographical boundaries; if there’s a discussion on healthcare the top comments will be from people around the globe. And it’s always been possible to have the serious next to the ridiculous; the last remaining bulkheads are being whittled away.

Q: Can you remain content agnostic?

A: No, it’s not possible. We’re not content agnostic towards spam or personal information. We try to be as close to agnosstic as we can.

Q: How much does porn account for your content?

A: About 85% of the subreddits are safe for work. (The Trees subreddit is not because you could get in trouble looking at pictures of weed.) Porn is maybe 5-10%. Our biggest subreddits are the video subreddits, As Reddit, etc.

Q: Terrorists radicalize by looking at pictures of dead babies. Have you had to hand over who your users are to agencies trying to track people on Reddit trying to radicalize people?

A: User privacy is core but we comply with what we have to comply with.

Q: [me] Reddit used to have a strong culture. People knew the same references, were playing the same games, had the same general politics, etc. But that shared culture seems to be weakening as Reddit becomes more popular. Does this concern you??

A: Yes, there is a certain sense of shared community that’s being fractured. But it’s being migrated down the subreddits the way you’re more loyal to community or borough.

Q: [me] Can you say more about IAMA’s, which at their best are a quite remarkable journalist form of collaborative interview?

A: The exciting thing for me is to see that format seep into other subreddits. We actively are trying to encourage that. E.g., mayoral candidates should do AMAs in their city’s subreddit. Or scifi authors are doing them in the sf subreddits. It goes back to that idea of so much of the word being predictable. If you waatch watch an interview on even some of the great programs — Charlie Rose, for example — even if they’re really good, you know what to expect. With the Reddit AMA’s not only do you not know what sort of questions are going to be asked, since you can answer a question at any length, it ends up taking this unexpected terms. If you look at the calendar of upcoming IAMA’s, you don’t even know which ones are going to be popular, outside of a Bill Gates or Tom Hanks, but if you look at the top AMAs for a week it will be a celebrity, subway driver, person with a weird disease, and way down the list will be someone with a household name. It’s unpredictable, and it’s unpredictable to the person being interviewed. It’s very different from what you get on a press junket where people go into robot mode. The AMA format can be more fun for them the standard press interview.

Q: Tumbler did a lot of active outreach to media. You don’t go out to, say, Newsweek and ask if they want a subreddit.

A: Yes. It’s difficult for us to do. Tech News Today is a great subreddit. They don’t directly flog their content. PBS has done one. But it’s hard.

Q: A newspaper could have its own subreddit where their folks are doing AMA’s etc.

A: Yes. But curating and cultivating a subreddit is a lot of work. It’s hard enough getting journalists to participate in comments on their own site.

Q: Companies you wouldn’t expect have made editorial plays. E.g., Twitter has being hiring editorial staff. Why are they doing that?

A: We’ve done some of that to prime the pump. E.g., Adam Savage’s publicist would probably say no to a request for an AMA at a site that looks like it’s from the 1990s [like ours], but if I go out with a camera and ask him to respond to the top ten questions, they might say yes. But then they see that the AMA works. So we only do editorial work for pump priming.

Q: What’s up with the design?

A: Look at the big sites. Minimal but flexible platforms. When you start doing a more professional and complex design, you suddenly needing 10x more people, and then you need 10x the money…But subreddits can monkey with the CSS. They can even change the Gold button, our “buy” button. Rich text works.

Q: For a traditional news org, the misidentification of the Boston Bomber would have been very expensive. Who owns the error from a legal perspective, in the US and elsewhere?

A: In the US, platforms are not responsible for what people say. The person who says it is responsible. I don’t know if Reddit could exist as a Canadian company. People give us a non-exclusive contract to display their words.

Q: But because you have some rules, doesn’t that make you responsible?

A: The more you monitor, the more responsible you are. But everything on the site is determined by human behavior. We are a platform for people discussing things. We’re not a publication. We don’t have editorial control.

Q: Is one of your 35 people a lawyer?

A: No.

Q: So when you get subpoenas…?

A: We’ve had to learn more than we want. We also have very good lawyers we consult with when we need to.

Q: The site in 5 years?

A: I don’t know. The users have better ideas than we do. All we try to do is take ideas they develop and help make them happen. So, in 5 years I think Reddit will be in more countries, more cross-country conversation. We have great engineers so we’ll be doing more interesting things. In 5 years I hope there will be 1,000 Reddit apps, using Reddit in novel ways that I couldn’t come up with. I never imagined that Reddit would be useful for live events. People are using our “edit” button 50/hour for this, which is not what the button is intended for, and Reddit’s not even very good at. People have created a site that reorganizes Reddit in chronological order and they can do that because we’re open source and don’t send lawyers after them. If we evolve in 5 yrs it will be because people in the community take it in those new directions.

Q: Venture capitalists?

A: Y-Combinator’s original investment was $20K. We were self-sustaining until Conde Nast bought us. We also had a very small angel round in the past year, around $1M. Very small. We’ve never spent a lot of money so we’ve never had to raise a lot. We’re close to break even now.

Q: Have any news events truly originated with Reddit?

A: As far as I know, one of the first reports on the Aurora story was from someone at the theater, before there was anything known to the media. The biggest story where Reddit was involved in the story was probably the SOPA/PIPA blackouts. Someone started to go after GoDaddy: “I’m moving 75 domains from GoDaddy” and it grew, and the next day GoDaddy flipped its position. Also, someone went after Paul Ryan and he ended up changing his mind.

Q: How can I troll Reddit for news stories?

A: When a new Android comes out, reporters go to Reddit to see what’s new in that version. I don’t know why more reporters don’t go to the relevant subreddits and ask for help on a story.

Q: We reporters are competitive.

A: In the sports world, you routinely see stories getting updated based upon information at Reddit.

Q: News orgs are trying to figure out how to engage with their audiences via social media. Advice?

A: Popular Science killed comments. Fine. You don’t have to have comments. But if you have them, you should pay attention to them. E.g., Roger Ebert would edit your comment as an admin, which is a terrible practice, but people didn’t mind because he was doing so to respond to their comments. I don’t understand why in general comments in 2013 are not all threaded and vote-able. Most are still in reverse chron, highlighting the latest. And most seem to be trying to hide their comments.

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September 10, 2013

Future of journalism

I’m at a Riptide forum at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the “digital disruption of the news.” The place is packed. Digital Riptide consists of 60 interviews. The panel discussion is with Tim Armstrong, AOL; Caroline Little, Newspaper Association of America; Arthur Sulzberger Jr., The New York Times. It’s moderated by Martin Nisenholtz.

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.

[I came in a few minutes late...]

Caroline Little: Audiences aren’t the problem. They’re growing. Revenue is the challenge.

Arthur Sulzberg: “We’re losing our first teeth and growing our new teeth. It’s painful. But what’s coming will be bigger” in reach and impact.

Q [Martin Nisenholtz]: Tim, you paid $315M for The Huffington Post. Jeff Bezos paid $250M for The Washington Post. Did Bezos get a better deal than you?

Tim Armstrong: No, Huffpo is worth more than people thought. It’s gone from 0 to 100M video views, for example. It’s got 100% digital DNA. I once owned a Boston newspaper, but saw Mosaic at MIT and knew I had to get out of that business. “I think I got a great deal with Huffpo and I think Jeff got a good deal on the WaPo, depending on what he does with it.”

Q: Caroline, you ran the WaPo digital division. Was it inevitable that they’d sell to Bezos or could they have done someting to change that future?

CL: It wasn’t inevitable. Now newspapers really have to understand their audiences. Taking it private will remove some pressure. The Grahams were trying to put the WaPo in the best possible place for the future, and that took courage.

Q: What is the nature of authority in a world where there are tens of thousands of verticalized publications on every conceivable topic?

AS: Authority is still about accuracy, breadth, calling out your own mistakes, and having experienced people on the ground, not parachuting them in. Few news organizations have bureaus around the world or even the country. The joy of the digital era is the speed and the reach, and the ability to take in points of view very quickly and bring them into a story line. It’s a remarkable opportunity. The downside is clear. Suddenly everyone is looking at the photo of the Boston bomber. Everyone knows it’s him. But it’s not. That kind of accuracy is critical. [I think AS thinks his characterization of authority bolsters the newspaper's case, but I don't think it does. I trust the specialized bloggers/sites on particular topics more than I trust the newspaper. E.g., I get far more in depth and more authoritative coverage of telecom policy from blogs and mailing lists than I do from the NYT. As for Reddit's misidentification of the Boston bomber: Yes, it was a dreadful mistake. But it was done transparently in public and was immediately corrected. <cough>Judith Miller</cough>.]

Q: Tim, you were interviewed and spoke enthusiastically about Patch. Since then you’ve downsized it. What’s so hard about local journalism?

Tim: We rolled it out to 900 of the best GDP [I think] communities in the US. It was about the authoritative nature of local journalism. Patch’s expansion was rapid. This summer we realized there are 500 Patches that work, and 400 with traffic but we’re not part of that business model. Patch will continue to go one post-partnerships because there’s such an acute need for local info. We’ll probably do partnerships. AOL will own some, and traditional media companies will own some.

Caroline: 85% of all media coverage of stories starts with newspapers.

Q: There’s never been a large, truly international paper. What’s the model for going global with a US news brand?

AS: The International Herald Tribune is owned by the NYT. We’re re-branding it in October as the International NYT. This is just a step. We’re fixing things; e.g., we didn’t used to let you subscribe using Euro currency. But: I met with aa Chinese general. She began by talking in an angry way. We had just begun to charge for Web access, and every morning she’d go to the NYT site but it wouldn’t accept her credit card. We fixed it, but the point is that a Chinese general was going to the NYT site the first thing in the morning. What an opportunity!

Q: Young people don’t seem to be willing to pay for media on the Web. As they mature, will they be willing to pay to for a digital subscription to the NYT?

AS: More and more young people, and all people, are willing to pay for an experience they value on the Web. Thank you, Steve Jobs! But it’s not as if 14 yr olds were ever buying newspapers.

Q: Tim, you create some content, and you do deals to provide access to your audience. How do you decide what you’ll cover and what others will?

TA: Our theory is that people care about a limited amount of things. As they get older, they spend more time with things that matter. We want to be the most human-based company in terms of what people care about. E.g., we’re running TechCrunch Disrupt now. 3,000 people. Just about all the major figures in the tech space. This is an influencer space that we have a major major major amount of mindshare in. The second generation of our strategy is to build out massive content partnerships. And a giant B2B strategy; we service about 40K other publishers with video, ads and content-sharing. Our content theory: let’s invest in the most important areas of journalism and content, build B2B, and have relationships with people in the most important areas of their lives. HuffPo is an influencer. It’s a global info source. It’s a trusted brand. E.g., see our coverage of the selection of the new Pope.

Q&A

Q: Will reporters inevitably have less time to research a story?

AS: The pace has certainly picked up. But we’re still engaged in long form journalism. E.g., Snowfall.

TA: 30-40% of the traffic is on mobiles. Mobile adds consumption, typically about 30%. This changes how news works: If you don’t have a brand like the NYT, you’ll mix low appeal with high appeal

CL: Newsrooms are smaller, but they’d send 15 people to cover the Olympics. Do you really need that? Many newspapers now are investing in longer-form reporting.

Q: What makes global journalism work? The size of the city?

CL: Trust and authenticity. People still trust newspapers.

Q: What do you look for in journalists’ skills?

AS: We didn’t focus fast enough on hiring engineers to build systems and tools.

Q: TV broadcasters are using time efficiently. E.g., Netflix released an entire series at once. How are you experimenting with how to bundle and release investigative reporting?

AS: We’re always experimenting. E.g., We printed Snowfall as a full section, but the experience on the Web was so immensely powerful because of the video, the sound, etc.

TA: We look at how you disrupt readers’ behavior. I always say you can’t beat ESPN Sports Center by being 5% better. You have to be 75% better. Also you need distribution partnerships; that disrupts when your content is released.

Q: [couldn't hear]

TA: If you look at how people use phones and tablets, the fact is that the average TV is 22 mins of content and 8 mins of commercial. When you watch how people use content, you’ll see trusted brands and faster content. [I had trouble hearing this.] People want to be told what they want to see. The future will be very curated and disruptively time-based.

Q: How do you view social media? Does the capacity to share overcome the limitations of 140 characters?

CL: I think Twitter is like a caption to a photograph. If it’s engaging, you’ll go find more about it.

AS: Twitter is a powerful tool, both in and out.

TA: Twitter is best known for short content, but they’re going to be changing that.

CL: Twitter is great for sources.

AS: This isn’t new. People said you can’t trust what people would say over a telephone wire. Telegrams were thought by some to be the death of newspapers. Twitter is a tool that we’re all getting better and better at using.

Q: From Twitter: How do you choose your political angle?

TA: We have a news chooser that lets you customize the news. HuffPo started more with a political angle. Now there are lots of forums set up for people with different political views. But we [AOL? HuffPo?] have our own voice.

AS: The Net is bringing us back to the written word. Radio, TV, telephone all took us away from that. We’re learning that using any single method will fail.

Q: Tim, you said “not just everyone can be a journalist.” How about bloggers who steal content?

TA: Anyone can be a journalist if they want to be. But consumers are smart. They know who’s stealing information and who isn’t. What you see happening in the blogging community are people taking advantage of situations to be disruptive to gain audience. I would not undercut the ability of people building blogs on specific topics disrupting newspapers.

Q: 5B people may be coming on line in the next decades. How does that change the target audience for online journalism?

The possibilities of our growth and the value of the quality of the info we can provide are immense.

TA: As the developing world comes online, they’ll come online with higher bandwidth.

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August 9, 2013

[2b2k] Can Bezos beat 1:25?

I am a big fan of Reddit, as a reader, an occasional participant, and as an observer. As a reader, Reddit has gone downhill for me. Or perhaps I should say “as a lazy reader.” I don’t stray much from the home page which shows the top posts from a default set of sub-reddits, i.e., topically clustered posts. These days, there’s usual one post among the 25 on the home page that I find interesting in a way that matters, although maybe a half dozen I find click-worthy. Those half dozen are usually memes, or discussions of something in pop or Internet culture. The one in 25 that matters to me introduces me to an idea I hadn’t considered, with a discussion that goes pretty deeply into it — while always laced with glancing sub-threads and banter. But for a page that can be quickly skimmed, a 1:25 ratio is enough to bring me back several times a day.

One in 25 is probably about the ratio I find in The New York Times when I come upon a printed copy of it. That ratio goes higher if you count the sections that I skip entirely. For example, I apparently entirely lack the sports gene. The articles I read are usually ones that offer an interesting viewpoint on a topic I already care about, or that for some unpredictable reason stimulate my interest in something I didn’t know I cared about. I know this is very different from the behavior I’m supposed to exhibit. As a responsible citizen, I should be reading all the articles the paper tells me are important. But that’s how I am, that’s how I’ve always been, and I think it’s the way that most of us were even during the decades when reading the newspaper every day was our civic duty.

So, it worries me that Jeff Bezos may bring to the Washington Post the theory of reading that he has brought to Amazon. Amazon’s personalization works very well for me. The books it suggests are often in fact very appealing to me. It’s one reason I keep going back to Amazon. The suggestions don’t often take me far afield, but books are such a big investment of time and money that I don’t intuitively react against that. Intellectually I react against it, but my intuition and the finger that clicks the “buy” button don’t seem to mind at all.

Besides, I read most books as a matter of recreation. (Actually, that’s entirely false. In terms of numbers, I read most books as research that’s dictated by whatever project I’m working on. But we’re talking here about discretionary reading.) And here the Washington Post is different. We need it to help us learn what we need to know to be better citizens in a world that is increasingly inhospitable. A newspaper that works like Amazon would be intentionally creating a filter bubble, in Eli Pariser’s phrase. (And Eli Pariser’s book by that name is thoroughly worth reading, especially if you follow it up with Ethan Zuckerman’s Rewire.)

Bezos has a tremendous opportunity with the Washington Post. He can choose to restructure it so that it becomes the first truly networked newspaper, retaining the traditional virtues of a great newspaper while opening it up to the new virtues of our global participatory network. It can become a uniquely well-webbed supplier of news to the networked ecology, although the idea that any newspaper can “cover” all the “major” news has long ago gone pining for the fjords.

But this new webby news platform will miss the big chance to improve the ecosystem if Bezos applies to the Washington Post what he knows about personalization. The world doesn’t need another way to have our beliefs confirmed and our interests titilated. We don’t need The Daily Everyone Sucks But Us, and we really really don’t need The Washington Post and Sideboob.

What we instead need is personalization that doesn’t pander to our interests but expands them. That requires starting from where we are; posting lots of articles that are so outside our interests that we won’t read them won’t help. But the genius of Amazon’s personalization can be tuned so that we are presented with what pushes our interests forward without abandoning them. There’s lots of room for improvement in my current 1:25 ratio. In fact, there’s a statistical possibility of a 24x improvement.

We have billions of dollars’ worth of evidence that Jeff Bezos is one of the great business entrepreneurs of our era. But we also have good evidence that he has interests beyond maximizing corporate value. His taking the Washington Post private is a very good sign. I’m hopeful that something very good for us all is going to come out of his purchase — but only if Bezos can unlearn much of what Amazon has taught him about how to succeed.

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July 11, 2013

Apple e-books decision explained – mainstream and Reddit

A judge has ruled that Apple is guilty of price-fixing in its attempt to get the major publishers to unite against Amazon’s discounting of e-books.

Now, that’s not a very helpful — and possibly not entirely accurate — explanation. If you want more, there’s a thread at Reddit that has some terrific explanations at various level of detail (e.g., this one), as well as bunches of questions asked and answered. And, of course, some digressions, hip shots, and smug wrongnesses.

There are certainly some helpful analyses and explanations from the mainstream: e.g., WSJ, Wired, Bloomberg. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to choose among those three and the Reddit comment I linked to above. But the Reddit thread is — at least to my taste — a better way to explore the issue: a variety of views expressed at appropriate lengths, with questions posed at various levels of sophistication, and with a conversation that goes where it wants to without a fear of dead ends.

Now, I’m aware that if you go to the Reddit thread, you’ll be appalled by how much there is wrong with it. Yeah, I’m not blind to it. But consider what an amazing emergent artifact that thread is. It combines in one flow “explainers” and analysis as good as you’ll find from professionals, Q&A, and a a social froth that you can easily ignore if it is not to your liking. This is what journalism looks like — one of the ways it looks — when the old constraints of space, authorial ownership, and editorial process are lifted, and a larger We gets our hands on it. Pretty fascinating.

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March 13, 2013

[2b2k] Events are not the facts

The Tunisian newspaper Tunis Afrique Presse ran a story on the four priorities announced by that country’s new prime minister. It’s a straightforward story, and it is told in a factual, straightforward way.

But now I want to understand it. I know that some of the people involved in the revolution were disappointed that the new government was so Islamist. I know a moderate politician was assassinated there recently, which has destabalized the coalition government. But that’s about it for me. (I’m an American.) So, I read the four priorities of the new prime minister in the Tunisian article, and they seem positive from my point of view. But are they? Perhaps they are disappointing, or fail to address some key point, or are code for repressive policies. I don’t have enough context to know.

So, I go to Google and find a BBC article that fills in much of the context that I need. For example, I didn’t know the country has both a president and a prime minister. I couldn’t have told you anything at all about the coalition government, other than that it’s led by an Islamist party. To understand, we have to be just far enough away.

But what I really needed came from an “analysis” by Jim Muir embedded in the BBC article. Muir’s first paragraph says:

There was little in the announcement from Prime Minister-designate Ali Larayedh to inspire Ennahda’s [the ruling party] many critics to drop their opposition to the Islamist-led establishment in Tunisia.

Aha! Now I understand!

Of course, I’m assuming that Muir and I share some basic values, and that he’s attempting to give a sincere and honest assessment. I assume that based on cues: It’s the BBC, it’s marked as “analysis” and not “opinion,” the rhetoric isn’t obviously skewed away from my own views. To understand we need to have a lot in common with the person we’re learning from. I would thus be foolish to seek out, say, a Jihadist as my first source, although it might be quite interesting to read such a source as a second source.

We are right to learn what happened from people with whom we share values and assumptions because that way we don’t have to initially dig through a whole bunch of stuff that is either wrong from our point of view or incomprehensible to that point of view. But there’s also another reason:

I want to know what happened. But what happened in Tunisia was not that some personage uttered some words. What happened was that the Islamist party failed to forge a coalition that is likely to bring that country stability. In the same way, what happened last November was not the aggregated sum of factual accounts of how people marked X’s on ballots, and was not even the county-by-county vote tallies. If you started to tell me all of that, I’d be shouting until blue in the face, “But who won the election????” because that’s what happened. Events happen, and events have meaning, which means they only show up from a point of view. Events at the level of knowledge are not a mere recital of facts.

Newspapers for a long time have realized that much of their continuing value comes from the analyses they provide, not just the reportage. But the newspapers’ culture still tends in the other direction. And if you’re not sure that’s right, ask yourself why the analysis was a sidebar to the reportage, instead of the other way around.

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February 23, 2013

[2b2k] Why it’s ok to get your news through people who share your beliefs

I was steeling myself a couple of days ago to say something in a talk that believe but don’t want to: We shouldn’t feel guilty about relying on sources with whom we agree to contextualize breaking news. It’s ok. It’s even rational.

For example, if the Supreme Court hands down a ruling I don’t understand, or the FCC issues a policy that sounds like goobledygook to my ears, I turn to sites whose politics I basically agree with. On the one hand, I know that that’s wrong on echo chamber grounds: I’m getting reconfirmed in beliefs that I instead should be challenging. On the other hand, if I want to understand a new finding in evolutionary biology I’m not going to go to a creationist site, and if I want to understand the implications of a change in Obamacare, I’m not going to go to a Tea Party site. [Hint: I'm a liberal.] Oh, I might go afterwards to see what Those Folks are thinking, but to understand something, I’m going to go first to people with whom I basically agree.

Unfortunately, saying that in my talk meant I’d have to acknowledge that if I can to go to, say, DailyKos for primary contextualization, then it’s fine for right-wingers go to Fox News. Then I was going to have to explain how Fox and DailyKos are not truly equivalent, since Kos acknowledges facts that are unpleasant for their beliefs, and because Kos allows lots and lots of community participation. But that’s a distraction: If it’s ok for me to go to a lefty site to contextualize my news, it’s ok for you to go to your righty site. That feels wrong to me, and not only because I think right sites are wrong.

I finally realized that I’ m using the wrong sort of sites for my example. I do feel queasy about recommending that people get news interpreted for them by going to sites that operate in the broadcast mode. Fox News is like that. So are Slate and Salon, although to a lesser extent because they allow comments and because they present themselves as opinion sites, not news sites. Kos much less so because of the prominence of blogs and community. But I have no bad feelings whatsoever about taking my questions about the news to my social networks.

Because I’m old, much of social networking occurs on mailing lists. Some of the lists are based on topic, and contain people who broadly agree, but who disagree about most of the particulars; that’s what conversations are for. For example, a couple of the lists I’m on this morning are talking about what it would mean if Tom Wheeler [someone give that man a Wikipedia page!] were appointed as Chair of the FCC as seems increasingly likely. Tom comes out of the cable TV industry, which raises suspicions on my side of the swimming pool. So there has been an active set of discussions on my mailing lists among people who know much more than I do. The opinions range from he’s likely to be relatively centrist (although veering to the wrong side, where “wrong” is generally agreed upon by the list) to he’s never once stood up for users or for increasing competition and openness. Along the way, people have pointed out the occasional good point about him, although overall the tenor is negative and depressed.

Now, do I need to hear from the cable and telecoms industry about what a wonderful choice Tom would be? Sure, at some point. I even need to have my more fundamental views challenged. At some point. But not when I’m trying to find out about who this Tom Wheeler guy is. If we take understanding as a tool used for a purpose, it becomes a wildly inefficient tool — a hammer that’s all handle — if we have to go back to first principles in order to understand anything. Understanding is an efficient tool because it’s incremental: Given that I favor a wildly open Internet and given that I favor achieving this via vigorous competition, then what should I make of a Tom Wheeler FCC chairmanship? That’s my question this morning, not whether an wildly open Internet is a good thing and not whether the best way to achieve this is by increasing competition. Those are fine questions for another morning, but if I have to ask those questions every time I hear something about the FCC, then understanding has failed at its job.

So, I don’t feel bad about consulting my social network for help understanding the news.

And now, like the fine print in an offer that’s too good to be true, here are the caveats: My social networks may not be typical. Some types of news need more fundamental challenge than others. Reliance exclusively on social networks for news may put you into an impenetrable filter bubble. I acknowledge the risks, but given the situatedness of understanding, every act of interpretation is risky.

And yet there is something right in what I’m saying. I know this because going to “opposition” sites to understand the meaning of particular FCC appointments would require me to uncertainly translate out of their own unstated assumptions, and sites that try for objectivity don’t have the nuanced conversations enabled by shared, unstated assumptions. So, there is something right in what I’m saying, as well as risk and wrongness.

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February 15, 2013

[2b2] Data, facts, and the comfort of decisions

Just a quick note updating my post yesterday about the musky Tesla-Times affair. [('m in an airport with just a few minutes before boarding.)

Times Man John Broder has posted his step-by-step rebuttal-explanation-apologia of Elon Musk's data-driven accusations that Broder purposefully drove a Tesla S into a full stop. Looked at purely as a drama of argument, it just gets more and more fascinating. But it is of course not merely a drama or an example; reputations of people are at stake, and reputations determine careers and livelihoods.

Broder's overall defense is that he was on the phone with Tesla support at most of the turning points, and followed instructions scrupulously. As a result, just about every dimension of this story is now in play and in question: Were the data accurate or did Broder misremember turning on cruise control? Were the initial conditions accounted for (e.g., different size wheels)? Were the calculations based on that data accurate, or are the Tesla algorithms off when the weather is cold? Does being a first-time driver count as a normal instance? Does being 100% reliant on the judgment of support technicians make a test optimal or atypical? Should Broder have relied on what the instruments in the car said or what Support told him? If a charging pump is in a service area but no one sees it, does it exist?

And then there's the next level. We humans live with this sort of uncertainty — multi-certainty? — all the time. It's mainly what we talk about when given a chance. For most of us, it's idle chatter — you get to rail against the NY Times, I get to write about data and knowledge, and Tesla car owners get to pronounce in high dudgeon. Fun for all. But John Broder's boss is going to have to decide how to respond. It's quite likely that that decision is going to reflect the murky epistemology of the situation. Evidence will be weighed and announced to be probabilistic. Policy guidelines will be consulted. Ultimately the decision is likely to be pegged to a single point of policy, phrased as something like, "In order to maintain the NYT's reputation against even unlikely accusations, we have decided to ..." or "Because our reviewer followed every instruction given him by Tesla..." Or some such; I'm not trying to predict the actual decision, but only that it will prioritize one principle from among dozens of possibilities.

Thus, as is usually the case, the decision will force a false sense of closure. It will pick one principle, and over time, the decision will push an even grosser simplification, for people will remember which way the bit flipped — fired, suspended, backed fully, whatever — but not the principle, not the doubt, not the unredeemable uncertainty. This case will become yet one more example of something simple &mdash masking the fathomless complexity revealed even by a single review of a car.

That complexity is now permanently captured in the web of blue underlined text. We can always revisit it. But, we won't, because the matter was decided, and decisions betray complexity.

[Damn. Wish I had time to re-read this before posting! Forgive typos, thinkos, etc.?]

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February 14, 2013

[2b2k] The public ombudsman (or Facts don’t work the way we want)

I don’t care about expensive electric sports cars, but I’m fascinated by the dustup between Elon Musk and the New York Times.

On Sunday, the Times ran an article by John Broder on driving the Tesla S, an all-electric car made by Musk’s company, Tesla. The article was titled “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway,” which captured the point quite concisely.

Musk on Wednesday in a post on the Tesla site contested Broder’s account, and revealed that every car Tesla lends to a reviewer has its telemetry recorders set to 11. Thus, Musk had the data that proved that Broder was driving in a way that could have no conceivable purpose except to make the Tesla S perform below spec: Broder drove faster than he claimed, drove circles in a parking lot for a while, and didn’t recharge the car to full capacity.

Boom! Broder was caught red-handed, and it was data that brung him down. The only two questions left were why did Broder set out to tank the Tesla, and would it take hours or days for him to be fired?

Except…

Rebecca Greenfield at Atlantic Wire took a close look at the data — at least at the charts and maps that express the data — and evaluated how well they support each of Musk’s claims. Overall, not so much. The car’s logs do seem to contradict Broder’s claim to have used cruise control. But the mystery of why Broder drove in circles in a parking lot seems to have a reasonable explanation: he was trying to find exactly where the charging station was in the service center.

But we’re not done. Commenters on the Atlantic piece have both taken it to task and provided some explanatory hypotheses. Greenfield has interpolated some of the more helpful ones, as well as updating her piece with testimony from the tow-truck driver, and more.

But we’re still not done. Margaret Sullivan [twitter:sulliview] , the NYT “public editor” — a new take on what in the 1960s we started calling “ombudspeople” (although actually in the ’60s we called them “ombudsmen”) — has jumped into the fray with a blog post that I admire. She’s acting like a responsible adult by witholding judgment, and she’s acting like a responsible webby adult by talking to us even before all the results are in, acknowledging what she doesn’t know. She’s also been using social media to discuss the topic, and even to try to get Musk to return her calls.

Now, this whole affair is both typical and remarkable:

It’s a confusing mix of assertions and hypotheses, many of which are dependent on what one would like the narrative to be. You’re up for some Big Newspaper Schadenfreude? Then John Broder was out to do dirt to Tesla for some reason your own narrative can supply. You want to believe that old dinosaurs like the NYT are behind the curve in grasping the power of ubiquitous data? Yup, you can do that narrative, too. You think Elon Musk is a thin-skinned capitalist who’s willing to destroy a man’s reputation in order to protect the Tesla brand? Yup. Or substitute “idealist” or “world-saving environmentally-aware genius,” and, yup, you can have that narrative too.

Not all of these narratives are equally supported by the data, of course — assuming you trust the data, which you may not if your narrative is strong enough. Data signals but never captures intention: Was Broder driving around the parking lot to run down the battery or to find a charging station? Nevertheless, the data do tell us how many miles Broder drove (apparently just about the amount that he said) and do nail down (except under the most bizarre conspiracy theories) the actual route. Responsible adults like you and me are going to accept the data and try to form the story that “makes the most sense” around them, a story that likely is going to avoid attributing evil motives to John Broder and evil conspiratorial actions by the NYT.

But the data are not going to settle the hash. In fact, we already have the relevant numbers (er, probably) and yet we’re still arguing. Musk produced the numbers thinking that they’d bring us to accept his account. Greenfield went through those numbers and gave us a different account. The commenters on Greenfield’s post are arguing yet more, sometimes casting new light on what the data mean. We’re not even close to done with this, because it turns out that facts mean less than we’d thought and do a far worse job of settling matters than we’d hoped.

That’s depressing. As always, I am not saying there are no facts, nor that they don’t matter. I’m just reporting empirically that facts don’t settle arguments the way we were told they would. Yet there is something profoundly wonderful and even hopeful about this case that is so typical and so remarkable.

Margaret Sulllivan’s job is difficult in the best of circumstances. But before the Web, it must have been so much more terrifying. She would have been the single point of inquiry as the Times tried to assess a situation in which it has deep, strong vested interests. She would have interviewed Broder and Musk. She would have tried to find someone at the NYT or externally to go over the data Musk supplied. She would have pronounced as fairly as she could. But it would have all been on her. That’s bad not just for the person who occupies that position, it’s a bad way to get at the truth. But it was the best we could do. In fact, most of the purpose of the public editor/ombudsperson position before the Web was simply to reassure us that the Times does not think it’s above reproach.

Now every day we can see just how inadequate any single investigator is for any issue that involves human intentions, especially when money and reputations are at stake. We know this for sure because we can see what an inquiry looks like when it’s done in public and at scale. Of course lots of people who don’t even know that they’re grinding axes say all sorts of mean and stupid things on the Web. But there are also conversations that bring to bear specialized expertise and unusual perspectives, that let us turn the matter over in our hands, hold it up to the light, shake it to hear the peculiar rattle it makes, roll it on the floor to gauge its wobble, sniff at it, and run it through sophisticated equipment perhaps used for other purposes. We do this in public — I applaud Sullivan’s call for Musk to open source the data — and in response to one another.

Our old idea was that the thoroughness of an investigation would lead us to a conclusion. Sadly, it often does not. We are likely to disagree about what went on in Broder’s review, and how well the Tesla S actually performed. But we are smarter in our differences than we ever could be when truth was a lonelier affair. The intelligence isn’t in a single conclusion that we all come to — if only — but in the linked network of views from everywhere.

There is a frustrating beauty in the way that knowledge scales.

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February 12, 2013

[2b2k] Margaret Sullivan on Objectivity

Magaret Sullivan [twitter:Sulliview] is the public editor of the New York Times. She’s giving a lunchtime talk at the Harvard Shorenstein Center [twitter:ShorensteinCtr] . Her topic is: how is social media is changing journalism? She says she’s open to any other topic during the Q&A as well.

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.

Margaret says she’s going to talk about Tom Kent, the standards editor for the Association Press, and Jay Rosen [twitter:jayrosen_nyu] . She begins by saying she respects them both. [Disclosure: Jay is a friend] She cites Tom [which I'm only getting roughly]: At heart, objective journalism sets out to establish the facts, state the range of opinions, and take a first cut at which arguments are the most rigorous. Journalists should show their commitment to balance by keeping their opinions to themselves. Tom wrote a memo to his staff (leaked to Romenesca
) about expressing personal opinions on social networks. [Margaret wrote an excellent column about this a month ago.]

Jay Rosen, she says, thinks that objectivity is an outdated concept. Journalists should tell their readers where they’re coming from so you can judge their output based on that. “The grounds for trust are slowly shifting. The view from nowhere is getting harder to trust, and ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ is become more trustworthy.” [approx] Objectivity is a cop out, says Jay.

Margaret says that these are the two poles, although both are very reasonable people.

Now she’s going to look at two real situations. The NYT Jerusalem bureau chief Jody Rudoren is relatively new. It is one of the most difficult positions. Within a few weeks she had sent some “twitter messages” (NYT won’t allow the word “tweets,” she says, although when I tweeted this, some people disagreed; Alex Jones and Margaret bantered about this, so she was pretty clear about the policy.). She was criticized for who she praised in the tweets, e.g., Peter Beinart. She also linked without comment to a pro-Hezbollah newspaper. The NYT had an editor “work with her” on her social media; that is, she no longer had free access to those media. Margaret notes that many believe “this is against the entire ethos of social media. If you’re going to be on social media, you don’t want a NYT editor sitting next to you.”

The early reporting from Newtown was “pretty bad” across the entire media, she says. In the first few hours, a shooter was named — Ryan Lanza — and a Facebook photo of him was shown. But it was the wrong Ryan Lanza. And then it turned out it was that other Ryan Lanza’s brother. The NYT in its early Web reporting said “according to early Web reports” the shooter was Ryan Lanza. Lots of other wrong information was floated, and got into early Web reports (although generally not into the N YT). “Social media was a double edged sword because it perpetuated these inaccuracies and then worked to correct them.” It often happens that way, she says.

So, where’s the right place to be on the spectrum between Tom and Jay? “It’s no longer possible to be completely faceless. Journalists are on social media. They’re honing their personal brands. Their newspapers are there…They’re trying to use the Web to get their message out, and in that process they’re exposing who they are. Is that a bad thing? Is it a bad thing for us to know what a political reporter’s politics are? I don’t think that question is easily answerable now. I come down a little closer to where Tom Kent is. I think that it makes a lot of sense for hard news reporters … for the White House reporter, I think it makes a lot of sense to keep their politics under wraps. I don’t see how it helps for people to be prejudging and distrusting them because ‘You’re in the tank for so-and-so.’” Phil Corbett, the standards editor for the NYT, rejects the idea there is no impartial journalism. He rejects that it’s a pretense or charade.

Margaret says, “The one thing I’m very sure of is that this business of impartiality and balance should no longer mean” going down the middle in a he-said-she-said. That’s false equivalence. “That’s changing and should change.” There are facts that we fully believe are true. Evolution and Creationism are not equivalents.

Q&A

Q: Alex Jones: It used to be that the NYT wouldn’t let you cite an anonymous negative comment, along the lines of “This or that person sucks.”

A: Everyone agrees doing so is bad, but I still see it from time to time.

Q: Alex Jones: The NYT policy used to be that you must avoid an appearance of conflict of interest. E.g., a reporter’s son was in the Israeli Army. Should that reporter be forbidden from covering Israel?

A: WhenEthan Bronner went to cover Israel, his son wasn’t in the military. But then his son decided to go join up. “It certainly wasn’t ideal.” Should Ethan have been yanked out the moment his son joined? I’m not sure, Margaret says. It’s certainly problematic. I don’t know the answer.

Q: Objectivity doesn’t always draw a clear line. How do you engage with people whose ideas are diametrically opposed to yours?

A: Some issues are extremely difficult and you’re probably not going to come to a meeting of the minds on it. Be respectful. Accept that you’re not going to make much headway.

Q: Wouldn’t transparency fragment the sources? People will only listen to sources that agree.

A: Yes, this further fractures a fractured environment. It’s useful to have some news sources that set out to be in neither camp. The DC bureau chief of the NYT knows a lot about economics. For him to tell us about his views on that is helpful, but it doesn’t help to know who he voted for.

Q: Martin Nisenholz] The NYT audience is smart but it hasn’t lit up the NYT web site. Do you think the NYT should be a place where people can freely offer their opinions/reviews even if they’re biased? E.g., at Yelp you don’t know if the reviewer is the owner, a competitor… How do you feel about this central notion of user ID and the intersection with commentary?

A: I disagree that readers haven’t lit up the web site. The commentary beneath stories is amazing…

Q: I meant in reviews, not hard news…

A: A real ID policy improves the tenor.

Q: How about the snarkiness of twitter?

A: The best way to be mocked on Twitter is to be earnest. It’s a place to be snarky. It’s regrettable. Reporters should be very careful before they hit the “tweet” button. The tone is a problem.

Q: If you want to build a community — and we reporters are constantly pushed to do that — you have to engage your readers. How can you do that without disclosing your stands? We all have opinions, and we share them with a circle we feel safe in. But sometimes those leak. I’d hope that my paper would protect me.

A: I find Twitter to be invaluable. Incredible news source. Great way to get your message out. The best thing for me is not people’s sarcastic comments. It’s the link to a story. It’s “Hey, did you see this?” To me that’s the most useful part. Even though I describe it as snarky, I’ve also found it to be a very supportive place. When you take a stand, as I did on Sunday about the press not holding things back for national security reasons, you can get a lot of support there. You just have to be careful. Use it for th best possible reasons: to disseminate info, rather than to comment sarcastically.

Q: Between Kent and Rosen, I don’t think there is some higher power of morality that decides this. It depends on where you sit and what you own. If you own NYT, you have billions of dollars in good will you’ve built up. Your audience comes to you with a certain expectation. There’s an inherent bias in what they cover, but also expectations about an effort toward objectivity. Social media is a distribution channel, not a place to bear your soul. A foreign correspondent for Time made a late-night blog post. (“I’d put a breathalyzer on keyboards,” he says.) A seasoned reporter said offhandedly that maybe the victim of some tragedy deserved it. This got distributed via social media as Time Mag’s position. Reporters’ tweets should be edited first. The institution has every right to have a policy that constrains what reporters say on social media. But now there are legal cases. Social media has become an inalienable right. In the old days, the WSJ fired a reporter for handing out political leaflets in a subway station. If you’re Jay Rosen and your business is to throw bombs at the institutional media, and to say everything you do is wrong [!], then that’s ok. But if you own a newspaper, you have to stand up for objectivity.

A: I don’t disagree, although I think Jay is a thoughtful person.

Q: I blog on the HuffPo. But at Harvard, blogging is not considered professional. It’s thought of as tossed off…

A: A blog is just a delivery system. It’s not inherently good or bad, slapdash or well-researched. It’s a way to get your message out.

A: [Alex Jones] Actually there’s a fair number of people who blog at Harvard. The Berkman Center, places like that. [Thank you, Alex :)]

Q: How do you think about the evolution of your job as public editor? Are you thinking about how you interact with the readers and the rhythm of how you publish?

A: When I was brought in 5 months ago, they wanted to take it to the new media world. I was very interested in that. The original idea was to get rid of the print column all together. But I wanted to do both. I’ve been doing both. It’s turned into a conversation with readers.

Q: People are deeply convinced of wrong ideas. Goebbels’ diaries show an upside down world in which Churchill is a gangster. How do you know what counts as fact?

A: Some things are just wrong. Paul Ryan was wrong about criticizing Obama for allowing a particular GM plant to close. The plant closed before Obama took office. That’s a correctable. When it’s more complex, we have to hear both sides out.


Then I got to ask the last question, which I asked so clumsily that it practically forced Margaret to respond, “Then you’re locking yourself into a single point of view, and that’s a bad way to become educated.” Ack.

I was trying to ask the same question as the prior one, but to get past the sorts of facts that Margaret noted. I think it’d be helpful to talk about the accuracy of facts (about which there are their own questions, of course) and focus the discussion of objectivity at least one level up the hermeneutic stack. I tried to say that I don’t feel bad about turning to partisan social networks when I need an explanation of the meaning of an event. For my primary understanding I’m going to turn to people with whom I share first principles, just as I’m not going to look to a Creationism site to understand some new paper about evolution. But I put this so poorly that I drew the Echo Chamber rebuke.

What it really comes down to, for me, is the theory of understanding and knowledge that underlies the pursuit of objectivity. Objectivity imagines a world in which we understand things by considering all sides from a fresh, open start. But in fact understanding is far more incremental, far more situated, and far more pragmatic than that. We understand from a point of view and a set of commitments. This isn’t a flaw in understanding. It is what enables understanding.

Nor does this free us from the responsibility to think through our opinions, to sympathetically understand opposing views, and to be open to the possibility that we are wrong. It’s just to say that understanding has a job to do. In most cases, it does that job by absorbing the new into our existing context. There is a time and place for revolution in our understanding. But that’s not the job we need to do as we try to make sense of the world pressing in on us. Reason can’t function in the world the way objectivity would like it to.


I’m glad the NY Times is taking these questions seriously,and Margaret is impressive (and not just because she takes Jay Rosen very seriously). I’m a little surprised that we’re still talking about objectivity, however. I thought that the discussion had usefully broken the concept up into questions of accuracy, balance, and fairness — with “balance” coming into question because of the cowardly he-said-she-said dodges that have become all too common, and that Margaret decries. I’m not sure what the concept of objectivity itself adds to this mix except a set of difficult assumptions.

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