Joho the Blog » journalism

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&A

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.

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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 CNN.com. 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 NYTimes.com 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 LATimes.com. She’s been at CNN for 5 years. Digital CNN includes CNN.com, 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&A

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 CNN.com. 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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February 17, 2015

[shorenstein][2b2k] Wesley Lowery on covering Ferguson and the effect of social media on the reporting ecosystem

Wesley Lowery is a Washington Post reporter, recently ex of the Boston Globe. He’s giving a Shorenstein Center lunchtime talk on covering Ferguson. [Afterwards: It was great.]

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.

Wesley’s reflections on the effect of social media on his ability to cover Ferguson seem to me to be especially insightful and nuanced. He does not cede all ground to social media, but instead uses it to do his job as a reporter, and sees its effect on every facet of his role.

Afterwards I asked him if the detailed view he gets from social media’s ability to let people tell their own story has affected his idea of what it means to “cover” an event. In particular, I asked him in our very compressed conversation whether he be satisfied if someone where to say to him, “I read you in every medium, and you’re the only person I need to read to get the Ferguson story.” He said he would be ok with that but only because so much of his social media contribution consists of references to other sources and other people, including to reports by other newspapers. Wesley is himself a web.


Wesley says he’s been covering the activities of Congress (“An easy workload,” he says to laughter). He was on social media on his phone as always when he started seeing Instagram videos of a shooting. “I jump over to Twitter and I see it’s getting traction among people who cover race.” The next day he’s getting off a flight to DC, checks his phone, and sees a fight has broken out, a gas station is about to burn down. “And I’m thinking, what’s happening in this place I never heard of?” He’s interested in race and ethnicity, so he decides to go to Missouri for a day. He’s there for six months (Aug. 11 – Dec. 11). “It became apparent really quickly that this was a story about more than an 18 yr old boy who got shot.”

He went to a NAACP town hall. He’s been to many, but over a thousand people were inside, and hundreds were waiting in the parking lot to hear what was going on. That’s when he knew that this was about something bigger.

Two days after the shooting, he meets up with someone who turned out to be important in the movement. [Didn’t get her name.] She agrees to guide him. Ferguson is a suburban town, he explains. He and she were walking up a side street when they heard the noise of a police-protestor standoff. They go to it and are hit with the first teargas of the protests. Lots of people who were just curious were caught in it — people coming out to see what the hubub was about, etc.

We see Ferguson through our own lenses, he says. But each state has its own history, own demographic issues, etc. “As I learned more about Missouri, I realized so much of the distrust is not about this shooting, but about the guy who was pulled over the week before.” Wesley interviewed a kid who later was in an iconic photo of him throwing a teargas canister back at the police. The kid said, “Look, when this is all over, you’ll go back home, but we’ll still be here.” [approx.]

Boston, Wesley says, has a perpetual middle child syndrome. “We’re as good as NYC!” we keep insisting. To be a reporter in Boston, Wesley had to go to extra lengths to understand Boston’s cultural and civic history. It’s easy for reporters to fall into reporting about places they don’t know, and do so in giant swooping gestures. Wesley’s aim was seek out local people who could inform him about the reality of the place. And maybe after writing two pieces a day for months he’d be in a position to write a swooping piece.

So he used social media extensively, mainly to show people things. If you are sitting in NY or Wyoming and want to know what Ferguson is, here are the images and voices. The newspapers tend to show us the same images. But here’s a photo of the block past the iconic burning gas station that you’ve seen a thousand times. “If you don’t tackle stories this way, you’ll lose your role as essential to understanding the story.”

Before social media, people couldn’t tell their own stories. Now they can. “I won’t forget the person who watched the shooting and live tweeted it. He said something like, ‘Fuck, the police just shot a guy outside my apartment.’ I could write about that, but he can now tell his own story.” And people now can take journalists to task for particular lines in a story. It used to be that we’d decide what’s newsworthy, says Wesley. The people who are there would have to wait until 6 o’clock to see if we deem it as newsworthy. Now the people participating in the event can shame the news media into showing up. It empowers people in a way that they’ve never been before.

We saw in Ferguson the depth and nuance of the stories being told. The reporters who were able to excel were able to engage in a two-way conversation, not a publishing conversation. That changed the tenor and the depth of our coverage.

We’re now having a large-scale conversation across America about policing practices. That may be a legacy of Ferguson, but we can’t tell yet.

For the medium, the legacy is: You have to engage people where they are and recognize they can tell their own stories. And we have to be in conversation with people, ineract them. The people we cover now have more voice than ever about our coverage, which means we have to be more interactive with them. Every story I write I wonder what the response will be. We have to be responsive.

Q&A

Why did you become a journalist?

I’m not exactly sure. My dad was a journalist. My family valued it. But we clashed all the time. Even so, the first person awake brought in the newspaper, and that was the dinner conversation. That instilled a sense of the nobility of this craft that people today don’t grow up with. You became a journalist if you had some ability to take care of yourself economically, not to get out of poverty. It was for idealists. Now it frequently draws people who want to tell the story of the people they grew up with. And now there are fewer barriers to entry. You can be blogging on the side. I encourage people to go into the field It’s an amazing moment now. Everything is undecided.

Q: Are you a denizen of the Jeff Bezos wing of the Washington Post?

I don’t think that quite exists yet. A lot of Amazon is designed to make cognitive decisions lower, less friction. Now that people have so many more media choices, we have to be much more about giving readers access to the content they want. The people we’re bringing in are young, innovative thinkers, and it’s as if they’re saying, “We haven’t figured this out yet, but in three years we’re going to be awesome!” That’s the team I want to be on.

Q: How important do you think Ferguson will be ultimately?

A: It’s so hard in the moment to figure out what the moment is. In 30 yrs, Ferguson will be a linchpin, but it’s part of a whole line of events, including Katrina, the election of a black President, etc. We’ve been locked in a perpetual dialogue on race since the election of Obama. Ferguson turned a corner into action, for better or worse. This prompted the elected officials and the society to say that we can’t continue just talking about this. We have to do something. We’re still seeing demonstrations in a dozen cities every day.

Q: How does one live in a community all your life and not notice and do something about the racial imblance in the police force, for example?

A: The community is transient because it’s somewhat upwardly mobile. Few have lived in Ferguson their whole lives. [He talks about a popular African-American school superintendent fired by a mainly white school board.] The Brown shooting is part of a larger context.

Q: How do you manage pressure in the midst of such a heated environment? The community and the cops each feel unheard.

A: It’s remarkably tough. We get the feedback in real time while we’re doing it. We’re getting teargassed and someone is criticizing a word I used on Twitter. It creates this remarkable pressure. I tried to use the platform to amplify whatever anyone was telling me. But it’s hard to get the cops to speak. When they did, I’d tried to get out that word, too.

Q: What are the impacts of the coverage on the community?

A: The Internet makes us think we know about the news. We see the FB post about Ebola, but we don’t read the article. The deep saturation of media coverage often drowns out the depth of media coverage. Ferguson sorely missed having a newspaper there that was asking hard questions. There are places that really need someone to come in, notice that things are really messed up, make some information requests, etc. On the other hand, watching Ferguson on CNN burning for days and days has an impact. Our job, which we largely failed at, was to provide spatial context. Three blocks of Ferguson burned. It’s a big suburb.

Q: [missed it]

A: You’re no longer a mysterious person who’s name is at the top of the article. People read articles sometimes because they find the personality of the reporter attractive. As a reporter, who you are as a person is open to scrutiny and criticism and to feedback about things that aren’t about your work. It’s an occupational hazard now, but it’s also a positive thing: I have a lot of meaningful relationships via social media with people I don’t know. Huge pros and cons. Since Ferguson, I try to be more siloed. I take long periods of time when I’m not on Twitter — like for a day and a half.

Q: Why haven’t the mayor and police chief felt the need to step down in the face of the criticism? And how about your arrest?

A: It’s stunning that they weathered it. In part it’s because what people on the Internet say doesn’t matter. It’s the constituents who count. Also, if you’ve been taking a group of people for granted for so long, why start now? Media don’t have as much power as they think they do.

A: About the arrest: Me and a friend were the first journalists arrested in Ferguson. We were in a McD’s for the wifi. A SWAT suggested they leave because of imminent conflict. “Do we have to leave?” The police got impatient. [That’s my gross TLDR. Here’s Wesley’s news report, with video.]

Q: I start following you when you were live-tweeting the Marathon bombing. At some point, you became the story. How does that change your responsibility?

A: The “personal branding” — he hates that phrase — makes you as a reporter part of the story. In some ways it’s a more transparent interaction. You can gauge for yourself whether I’m handling it properly. We have an obligation to be fair, honest, and transparent. You have to recognize that the Internet world is very different from your real, personal life.

Q: What were the effective platforms that were getting it right? And who?

A: When the entire media show up, I look for the people who are telling the story a little differently. I had to do a bit of both. [He gives a list of reporters. I missed it entirely.]

Q: An interesting narrative was built up around Ron Johnson, African-American Highway Patrol captainm who was portrayed as a savior…

A: The media wanted a savior. Johnson was a soothing factor for a day and a half. But when a community is actually upset, it’s not appeased by the black state trooper who the media says is going to solve all the problems. It’s bigger than that.

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February 11, 2015

Church and State merge, resulting in

Time Magazine has erased the line between editorial and advertising. Explicitly. Proudly.


The result? The current issue has a total of three pages of ads.


Plus, the cover story is a paean to Starbucks, making readers suspect that someone bribed a priest.

So, Time fails and journalism is made a little less trustworthy. Nice job, Time!

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January 25, 2015

[2b2k] Inside.com’s updates: A new rhetorical form for journalism?

Inside.com is working hard to take the Web down a notch — the notch where, say, an announcement by NASA that they’ve discovered a possibly habitable planet in another galaxy gets the headline “Scientists find another Earth…and you won’t believe what it’s going to do to the value of your home!”

Jason Calacanis, the founder of the site, and someone I hadn’t talked with since the glory days of blogging, emphasized the site’s commitment to the “atomic unit” of journalism, a particular type of summary that he calls an “update.” It’s not often you get a new rhetorical form, especially for something as important as journalism. But does it work? Does it serve a role we need or want?

It’s an interesting exercise: If you had the opportunity to design a new rhetorical form that will fit news onto a mobile device — that’s where people will read most of their news, Jason is convinced — and will do the best job possible of conveying information without sensationalizing it, what would you come up with? Something longer than a tweet, or a headline crawling under Wolf Blitzer? Full sentences? Definitely free of clickbait. But would you use bullet points?would the headline try to summarize or capture interest? Would you have a headline at all?

Inside.com has its answer to the question, and it follows the form quite rigorously. An “update” — a name I find misleading since there may not be an original story it’s updating — starts with a sentence of 12-15 words in boldface that express the basic news. That’s followed by another sentence or two telling you what you most need to know next. There’s a relevant graphic element, but no headline, so there’s no need to try to flag the reader’s interest in just a few screaming words.

 

Screencapture of an update

An update also contains a link to the original article — the actual source article, not one that another site has aggregated — the author’s name, and the name of the person who curated the article. And tags: embedded as links in the article, and one at the bottom if needed. This seems to me to be the Minimum Right Stuff to include.Updates are written by the fifty people around the world Inside.com has hired for $12/hour.

So, how does this human-crafted rhetorical form hold up against the snippets Google News algorithmically derives and features under its headlines?

Here’s Google’s report on what is the top story at Inside.com as I write this:

Yemen’s President, Cabinet resign
Yemen’s President resigned Thursday night shortly after his Prime Minister and the Cabinet stepped down — seismic changes in the country’s political scene that come just one day after the government and Houthi rebels struck a …

And Inside.com:

A report from close to Yemen’s prime minister says the government has offered its resignation. There is no word yet on whether the president will accept the resignation. Houthi rebels still hold the capital, and the president is still a virtual prisoner in his home.

Inside.com’s seems obviously preferable. Google (which is summarizing a post at CNN.com in this case) squanders most of its space simply telling us that it’s a big deal. Inside.com tells us four things, which is three more than Google’s summary.

Another example, this time for the second article at Inside.com (for which you have to do an explicit search at Google News). Google News:

Pentagon Scolds Air Force for Wasting Nearly $9 Billion on 
Drones are expensive. Aircraft like General Atomics’s MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper cost millions of dollars piece, while the cost of …

Inside.com:

A memo from the Pentagon says the U.S. Air Force’s investment in drones is extravagant. The memo suggests that the Air Force is wasting as much as $8.8 billion in maintaining 46 Reaper drones. The memo says the Air Force has not justified the expanding drone fleet.

Inside.com hands down. Plus, the Google News snippet comes from Gizmodo, which seems to have based its post heavily on an article in The Guardian. Inside.com links its update directly to The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with what Gizmodo has done; it’s explicit about its use of info from The Guardian and adds its own commentary and links. But I’d rather have Google News snip directly from the source.

One more example, the third item at Inside.com. Google News:

AirAsia flight QZ8501: black box reveals final moments
The cockpit voice recorder from AirAsia flight QZ8501 has revealed that “screaming alarms” warned the pilots of immediate danger before the …

Inside.com:

Divers find six bodies from AirAsia flight QZ8501 but are unable to enter the fuselage. It is believed the majority of victims will be found there. Indonesia’s Rear Admiral Widodo says the wreckage will be lifted to the surface Friday. So far, 59 bodies have been found.

The score is 3:0 in favor of Inside.com as far as I’m concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that Inside.com is a superior news service. Google News covers many more items at this point, and refreshes more often. In fact, in the time it took me to copy and paste these examples, Google News had a posted a fresher story about the events in Yemen. Also, Google News lets you browse among many newspapers’ coverage of the same event. (Jason responds that Inside.com gets posts up in 2-7 mins after an event hits the Web, and it immediately posts submitted links even before a human has written an update for it.)

But when it comes to the actual content the two services provide, Inside.com’s human-crafted text does the job of educating us quickly far better. Google News doesn’t even try that hard; it aims at giving us enough that we can see if we’re interested enough to click on the link and read the whole story.

Then there is the broader difference in what we’d like such services to do. Google News is a form of headline news. If we only read the Google News page without clicking into any stories, we’ll have very thin knowledge of what’s going on. In fact, it couldn’t get any thinner. With Inside.com, if we just read the boldfaced first sentences, we’ll come out knowing more than if we read the Google News headlines. We do want to be sure that people understand that three sentences are never the whole story. Unless the first sentence contains the word “Kardashian,” of course.

I don’t know if Inside.com can scale the way it needs to in order to survive; Jason is very focused on that now. Also, I don’t have confidence yet that Inside.com is giving me a reliable overview of the moments’ news — and, no, I don’t know what a “reliable overview” means or how to recognize one. But I do like the update as a rhetorical form. And since Jason says that Inside.com will have an API, perhaps it can survive at least as a service feeding other news sites … maybe even Google News if Google could overcome its bias in favor of the algorithmic.

In any case, the update form Inside.com has created seems to me to be a worthwhile addition to the rhetoric of journalism.

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December 14, 2014

Jeff Jarvis on journalism as a service

My wife and I had breakfast with Jeff Jarvis on Thursday, so I took the opportunity to do a quick podcast with him about his new book Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News.

I like the book a lot. It proposes that we understand journalism as a provider of services rather than of content. Jeff then dissolves journalism into its component parts and asks us to imagine how they could be envisioned as sustainable services designed to help readers (or viewers) accomplish their goals. It’s more a brainstorming session (as Jeff confirms in the podcast) than a “10 steps to save journalism” tract, and some of the possibilities seem more plausible — and more journalistic — than others, but that’s the point.

If I were teaching a course on the future of journalism, or if I were convening my newspaper’s staff to think about the future of our newspaper, I’d have them read Geeks Bearing Gifts if only to blow up some calcified assumptions.

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September 12, 2014

Springtime at Shorenstein

The Shorenstein Center is part of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The rest of the Center’s name — “On Media, Politics, and Public Policy” — tells more about its focus. Generally, its fellows are journalists or other media folk who are taking a semester to work on some topic in a community of colleagues.

To my surprise, I’m going to spend the spring there. I’m thrilled.

I lied. I’m *\\*THRILLED*//*.

The Shorenstein Center is an amazing place. It is a residential program so that a community will develop, so I expect to learn a tremendous amount and in general to be over-stimulated.

The topic I’ll be working on has to do with the effect of open data platforms on journalism. There are a few angles to this, but I’m particularly interested in ways open platforms may be shaping our expectations for how news should be made accessible and delivered. But I’ll tell you more about this once I understand more.

I’ll have some other news about a part-time teaching engagement in this Spring, but I think I’d better make sure it’s ok with the school to say so.

I also probably should point out that as of last week I left the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. I’ll get around to explaining that eventually.

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September 9, 2014

[liveblog] Robin Sproul, ABC News

I’m at a Shorenstein Center brownbag talk. Robin Sproul is talking about journalism in the changing media landscape. She’s been Washington Bureau Chief of ABC News for 20 years, and now is VP of Public Affairs for that network. (Her last name rhymes with “owl,” by the way.)

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.

This is an “incredibly exciting time,” Robin begins. The pace has been fast and is only getting faster. E.g., David Plouffe says that Obama’s digital infrastructure from 2008 didn’t apply in 2012, and the 2012 infrastructure won’t apply in 2016.

A few years ago, news media were worried about how to reach you wherever you are. Now it’s how to reach you in a way that makes you want to pay attention. “How do we get inside your brain, through the firehose, in a way that will break through everything you’re exposed to?” We’re all adapting to getting more and smaller bites. “Digital natives swerve differently than the older generation, from one topic to another.”

In this social media world, “each of us is a news reporter.” Half of people on social networks repost news videos, and one in ten post news videos they’ve recorded themselves.

David Carr: “If the Vietnam War brought war into our living rooms,” now “it’s at our fingertips.” But we see the world through narrow straws. We’re not going back from that, but we need to get better at curating them and making sure they’re accurate and contextualized.

On the positive side: “I was so moved by a Ferguson coverage: how a community of color, in this case, could tell their own story” and connect with people around the country, in real-time. “The people of that community were ahead of the cables.” Sure, some of the info was wrong, but we could watch people bearing witness to history. Also, the Ray Rice video has stimulated conversations on domestic violence around the country. How do you tap into these discussions? Sort them? Curate them? “A lot of it comes down to curation.”

People are not coming into ABCnews.com directly. “They’re coming in through side doors.” “And the big stories we do compete with the animal stories, the recipes,” etc. “We see a place like Buzzfeed” that now has 200 employees. They’ve hired someone from The Guardian, they’ve been reporting from the ground in Liberia. Yahoo’s hired Katie Couric. Vice. Michael Isikoff. Reddit’s AMAs. Fusion has just hired Tim Pool from Vice Media. “All of these things are competing in a rapidly shifting universe.”

ABC is creating partnerships, e.g., with Facebook for identifying what’s trending which is then discussed on their Sunday morning show. [See Ethan Zuckerman’s recent post on why Twitter is a better news source than Facebook. Also, John McDermott’s Why Facebook is for ice buckets, Twitter is for Ferguson. Both suggest that ABC maybe should rethink its source for what’s trending.] ABC uses various software platforms to evaluate video coming in of breaking news. “We need help, so we’re partnering.” ABC now has a social desk. “During a big story, we activate a team…and they are in a deep deep dive of social media,” vetting it for accuracy and providing context. “Six in ten of Americans watch videos on line and half of those watch news videos. This is a big growth area.” But, she adds ruefully, it’s “not a big revenue growth area.”

So, ABC is tapping into social media, but is wary of those who have their own aims. E.g., Whitehouse.gov does reports that look like news reports but are not. The photos the White House hands out never show a yawning, exhausted, or weeping president. “I joke with the press secretary that we’re one step away from North Korea.” We’re heading toward each candidate having their own network, in effect, a closed circle.

Q&A

Q: You’ve describe the fragmentation in the supply of news. But how about the demand? “Are you getting a sense of your audience?” What circulates? What sticks? What sets the agenda? etc.

A: We do a lot of audience research. Our mainstream TV shows attract an aging audience. No matter what we do, they’re not bringing in a new audience. Pretty much the older the audience, the more they like hard news. We’ve changed the pace of the Sunday shows. We think people want a broader lens from us. “We’re not as focused on horse race politics, or what John McCain thinks of every single issue. We’re open to new voices.”

Q: The future of health reporting? I’m disappointed with what I see. E.g., there’s little regard to the optics of how we’re treating Ebola, particular with regard to the physicians getting treated back in the US.

A: Dr. Richard Besser, who ran the CDC, is at ABC and has reported from Africa. But it’s hit or miss. We did cover the white doctors getting the serum, but it’s hard to find in the firehose.

Q: How do you balance quality news with short attention spans?

A: For the Sunday shows we’ve tried to maintain a balance.

Q: Does ABC try to maintain its own pace, or go with the new pace? If the latter, how do you maintain quality?

A: We used to make a ton of money producing the news and could afford to go anywhere. Now we have the same number of hours of news on TV, but the audiences are shrinking and we’re trying to grow. It’s not as deep. It’s broader. We will want to find you…but you have to be willing to be found.

Q: How do you think about the segmentation of your news audience? And what are the differences in what you provide them?

A: We know which of our shows skew older (Sunday shows), or more female (Good Morning America), etc. We don’t want to leave any segment behind. We want our White House reporter to go into depth, but he also has to tweet all day, does a Yahoo show, does radio, accompanies Nancy Pelosi on a fast-walk, etc.

Q: Some of your audiences matter from a business point of view. But historically ABC has tried to supply news to policy makers etc. The 11 year old kids may give you large numbers, but…

A: When we sit in our morning editorial mornings we never say that we will do a story because the 18-24 year olds are interested. The need to know, what we think is important, drives decisions. We used to be programming for “people like us” who want the news. Then we started getting thousands of “nutjob” emails. [I’m doing a bad job paraphrasing here. Sorry] Sam Donaldson was shocked. “This digital age has made us much more aware of all those different audiences.” We’re in more contact with our audience now. E.g., when the media were accused of pulling their punches in the run-up to the Iraq War, we’d get pushback saying we’re anti-American. Before, we didn’t get these waves.

Q: A fast-walk with Nancy Pelosi, really?

A: [laughs] It got a lot of hits.

Q: Can you elaborate on your audience polling? And do people not watch negative stories?

A: A Harvard prof told me last night that s/he doesn’t like watching the news any more because it’s just so depressing. But that’s a fact of life. Anyway, it used to be that the posted comments were very negative, and sometimes from really crazy people. We learned to put that into perspective. Now Twitter provides instant feedback. We’re slammed whatever we do. So we try to come up with a mix. For World News Tonight, people with different backgrounds talk about the stories, how they play off the story before it, etc. Recenty we’ve been criticized for doing too much “news you can use”, how to live your life, etc. We want to give people news that isn’t always just terrible. There’s a lot of negative stuff that we’re exposed to now. [Again, sorry for the choppiness. My fault.]

Q: TV has always had the challenge of the limited time for news. With digital, how are you linking the on-screen reporting with the in-depth online stories, given the cutbacks? How do you avoid answering every tweet? [Not sure I got that right.]

A: We have a mix of products.

Q: What is the number one barrier to investigative journalism? How have new media changed that balance?

A: There are investigative reporting non-profits springing up all the time. There’s an appetite from the user for it. All of the major news orgs still have units doing it. But what is the business model? How much money do you apportion to each vertical in your news division? It’s driven by the appetite for it, how much money you have, what you’re taking it away from. Investigative is a growth industry.

Q: I was a spokesperson for Healthcare.gov and was interested in your comments about this Administration being more closed to the media.

A: They are more closed than prior admins. There’s always a message. When the President went out the other day to talk, no other admin members were allowed to talk with the media. I think it’s a response to how many inquiries are coming and how out of control info is, and how hard it is to respond to inaccuracies that pop up. The Obama administration has clamped down a little more because of that.

Q: You can think of Vice in Liberia as an example of boutique reporting: they do that one story. But ABC News has to cover everything. Do you see a viable future for us?

A: As we go further down this path and it becomes more overwhelming, there are some brands that stand for something. Curation is what we do well. Cyclically, people will go back to these brands.

Q: In the last couple of years, there’s a trend away from narrative to Gestalt. They were called news stories because they had a plot. Recent news events like Ferguson or Gaza were more like just random things. Very little story.

A: Twitter is a tool, a platform. It’s not really driving stories. Maybe it’s the nature of the stories. It’ll be interesting to see how social media are used by the candidates in the 2016 campaign.

Q: Why splitting the nightly news anchor from …

A: Traditionally the evening news anchor has been the chief anchor for the network. George Stephanopoulos anchors GMA, which makes most of the money. So no one wanted to move him to the evening news. And the evening news has become a little less relevant to our network. There’s been a diminishment in the stature of the evening news anchor. And it plays to GS’s strengths.

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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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