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April 14, 2015

[shorenstein] Managing digital disruption in the newsroom

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

Processes:

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


We do three types of journalism on our sites:


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


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


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

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


Priorities, Processes + Resources = organizational culture.

Q&A
Q: You’re optimistic…?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Q: How to monetize aggregators?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Q: Release schedule?


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

Q: What’s native to the print version?

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Q: Analytics?


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


[Really informative talk.]

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April 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 2, 2015

[shorenstein][liveblog] Juliette Kayyem on communicating about security

Juliette Kayyem, a former Boston Globe columnist, a commentator, Homeland Security advisor to Gov. Deval Patrick, and a former candidate for governor of Massachusetts, is giving a Shorenstein Center talk about how to talk with the public about security issues.

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.

Juliette oversaw the local Homeland Security response to the Marathon Bombing and had participated in the security planning. After the bombing, she became a CNN commentator on terrorism. She stresses her personal connection to the event: “It’s my home.” After she left the Obama administration, the Boston Globe asked her to be a columnist. She did not see herself as a professional writer. In her twice-weekly columns she tried to show how global events affect Boston locally. She took on topics she didn’t feel comfortable with, which she attributes to “woman insecurity.” [Do I need to mention that she is insanely qualified?]

In her column and on CNN her rules are: 1. Bring it home. 2. Don’t create strawmen. 3. Tell it to them as if you’re sitting with them at the kitchen table. She learned that last lesson from her security experience. Journalists and security experts have a common goal of engaging the public in ownership of something that matters to them and their children. “The security apparatus is to blame” for the failure to engage the public. “Stuff happens.” There’s no such thing as perfect security.

The security apparatus created with the media “a total lose-lose situation.” Two lessons about communications:

1. She got an email from her cousin on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. “Juliette, I am a little nervous now. Can you help?” Her daughter was heading to NYC, and had heard rumors about a planned attack. “Would you send your kids?” She wanted Juliette to just talk to her without jargon or defensiveness.

2. Juliette was director of the BP Oil Spill team, overseeing 70 people. There were two narratives, she says. First, the narrative we all heard. Second, we saved an ocean. That second narrative was not a foregone conclusion: “Much of our slowness at the start was due to our fear that the well would explode.” [Yikes!] The administration failed to “bring it home,” i.e., make it understandable and relatable.

“Never again!” about disasters is not possible. It’s delusional. E.g., we focused on never again letting 19 terrorists on planes, but we were hit by Katrina. Also, we tended to spend money on things — e.g., tanks — far more readily than on training, support, etc. Worse, the govt said “Never again!” but failed to involved the public. Worse still, it makes a narrative that says “Only 20 people died instead of 200″ very difficult to sell.

Here’s some of what she’s learned:

First, There are black swans — freakish events that cannot be predicted or stopped. But we should be able to learn lessons.

Second, you have to define success. During the BP Spill, the President should have said early on that oil will hit the shore so when some did, it didn’t look like failure. We should not define success or failure as binary.

Third, we need resilient, layered defenses and redundancy. We as a nation thankfully are getting away from “Never again!” to “Stuff happens.” The question is how these layered defenses are being built. And not just for terrorism but for pandemics, climate change…

Fourth, public engagement is an operational requirement. E.g., Occupy Sandy did great work, but it was reported in a binary way as a failure of FEMA.

Fifth, we need to tell these stories as you would tell your best friend at the kitchen table. There’s no such thing as no risk. Stuff happens. There are things we can do prepare ourselves at home.

Q & A

Q: [alex jones] Are you speaking for yourself or are you reporting on the lessons learned by the security establishment?

A: The apparatus is headed in this direction. The response agencies are better than the intelligence apparatus in this regard. It matters to have a separate director of resiliency. We can’t stop everything. Politically it’s incredibly hard. Obama has tried talking about resiliency. It goes better with governors and mayors. We’re starting to see political leadership saying that there’s a limit to what they can do for us. The public needs not to be asses, e.g., surfing during Sandy, so the public safety apparatus can be used to help people who really need it. The agencies need to acknowledge their own limits and errors. “Are you safe? Now, of course not? What world do you live in? We can make you a little safer, but …”

Q: [alex] If there’s a series of bombings at malls, what will happen?

A: We can’t prevent everything. We’re in a world of whack-a-mole. Part of the grip you saw during the manhunt in Boston was laid out in a series of prior decisions? Why did people in Boston feel “We got this”? That’s because of decisions that were made, planned out. The police immediately moved people off the street and began the process of family unification, which is really important. Also, the public health apparatus kicked in. Six hundred emergency patients and not one of them died. [I.e., if you made it to emergency care, you didn’t die.] You have to prepare for the disasters that will happen.

Q: [alex] At the Marathon the emergency apparatus was there already. But longer term, what would a mall bombing do to the economy?

A: It comes down to how political leadership communicates. And it’s important to prepare people so they’re not surprised.

Q: Where do you see some of the vulnerabilities? Are there plans underway?

A: The Boston Globe today has a story that the failure of the T during the snowstorms was not inevitable. We have an infinite number of vulnerabilities because we have infinite soft targets. We have them because we chose to make them soft, which is a totally reasonable choice. E.g., no security gates in the MBTA. Terrorism is a threat, but in my lifetime climate change will change the way we live in ways we’re not addressing. It’s about zoning, planning, getting people to live in particular ways. I’ve advocated changing how we compensate those who are harmed by disasters. They used to be rare and random. Not any more. We keep bailing out people who build on shorelines and are flooded out. We shouldn’t pay for the same behavior but should pay for altered behavior, e.g., building a sea wall.

Q: ?

A: Security apparatuses are inherently conservative. We can’t have systems that have single points of failure. Also, there’s something to closure to families that have suffered in disasters. Also, why can’t black boxes beam their info to someone on the ground.

Q: [nick sinai] People in OSTP in the White House worked on disaster relief, etc. From your point of view, what was working and what wasn’t?

A: It’s important to engage people, not for feel-good reasons but to help relieve the burden on the official apparatus. FEMA has only 3,700 employees. It’s a coordination agency. The shared economy is very exciting. E.g., AirBnB is helpful about housing in an emergency. Could Uber move first responders to centers? Also, using social media to communicate info. FEMA is doing a good job with this.

Q: [alex] JournalistResource.org was helpful during the BP crisis.

Q: Does Boston have the capacity to hold the Olympics? There’s no security in the transportation system.

A: I’m the senior security advisor to the Boston Olympics committee. Security in a complex system is about risk reduction but also being welcome. You can’t have an unwelcoming Olympics. The Olympics are one of the last forums on the globe in which people come together and don’t fight. Four major pieces of security for Boston: 1. Intelligence. Feds will run that. 2. Response. If something bad happens, can we minimize the harm? 3. Cyber attacks. London suffered 27K cyber attacks during the 2 wks of the Olympics. 4. It sucks to come into this country if you’re not an American. Can we have a safe and secure immigration system? And we’ll increase the security for the transportation system without creating a police state. BTW, it’s looking good for Boston getting the nod, although a growing majority of Bostonians are against it. If the populace favors it, it’s ours to lose. (She favors a referendum.)

Q: How successful were those 27,000 cyber attacks in London? And what about our infrastructure?

A: Cyber defenses for the Olympics were strong. Our infrastructure is at risk. We’re going to have to make a major commitment to, e.g., putting our wires underground. But we seem unwilling to make the investment.

Q: How about the Massachusetts infrastructure?

A: It’s not in great shape. We have to prioritize. Everyone has an equal voice but not all bridges are equal.

1 Comment »

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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March 3, 2015

[liveblog] David Sanger on cybersecurity. And Netanyahu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: At what point do cyberattacks turn into cyberwarfare?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What enduring damage has Snowden done?

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

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

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

Q: Netanyahu speech?

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

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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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November 24, 2014

[siu] Panel: Capturing the research lifecycle

It’s the first panel of the morning at Shaking It Up. Six men from six companies give brief overviews of their products. The session is led by Courtney Soderberg from the
Center for Open Science, which sounds great. [Six panelists means that I won’t be able to keep up. Or keep straight who is who, since there are no name plates. So, I’ll just distinguish them by referring to them as “Another White Guy,” ‘k?]

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.

Riffyn: “Manufacturing-grade quality in the R&D process.” This can easily double R&D productivity “because you stop missing those false negatives.” It starts with design

Github: “GitHub is a place where people do software development together.” 10M people. 15M software repositories. He points to Zenodo, a respository for research outputs. Open source communities are better at collaborating than most academic research communities are. The principles of open source can be applied to private projects as well. A key principle: everything has a URL. Also, the processes should be “lock-free” so they can be done in parallel and the decision about branching can be made later.

Texas Advanced Computing Center: Agave is a Science-as-a-Service platform. It’s a platform, that provides lots of services as well as APIs. “It’s SalesForce for science.”

CERN is partnering with GitHub. “GitHub meets Zenodo.” But it also exports the software into INSPIRE which links the paper with the software. [This
might be the INSPIRE he’s referring to. Sorry. I know I should know this.
]

Overleaf was inspired by etherpad, the collaborative editor. But Etherpad doesn’t do figures or equations. OverLeaf does that and much more.

Publiscize helps researchers translate their work into terms that a broader audience can understand. He sees three audiences: intradisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and the public. The site helps scientists create a version readable by the public, and helps them disseminate them through social networks.

Q&A

Some white guys provided answers I couldn’t quite hear to questions I couldn’t hear. They all seem to favor openness, standards, users owning their own data, and interoperability.

[They turned on the PA, so now I can hear. Yay. I missed the first couple of questions.]

Github: Libraries have uploaded 100,000 open access books, all for free. “Expect the unexpected. That happens a lot.” “Academics have been among the most abusive of our platform…in the best possible way.”

Zenodo: The most unusual uses are the ones who want to instal a copy at their local institutions. “We’re happy to help them fork off Zenodo.”

Q: Where do you see physical libraries fitting in?

AWG: We keep track of some people’s libraries.

AWG: People sometimes accidentally delete their entire company’s repos. We can get it back for you easily if you do.

AWG: Zenodo works with Chris Erdmann at Harvard Library.

AWG: We work with FigShare and others.

AWG: We can provide standard templates for Overleaf so, for example, your grad students’ theses can be managed easily.

AWG: We don’t do anything particular with libraries, but libraries are great.

Courtney:We’re working with ARL on a shared notification system

Q: Mr. GitHub (Arfon Smith), you said in your comments that reproducibility is a workflow issue?

GitHub: You get reproducibility as a by-product of using tools like the ones represented on this panel. [The other panelists agree. Reproducibility should be just part of the infrastructure that you don’t have to think about.]

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[siu] Geoff Bilder on getting the scholarly cyberinfrastructure right

I’m at “Shaking It Up: How to thrive in — and change — the research ecosystem,” an event co-sponsored by Digital Science, Microsoft, Harvard, and MIT. (I think, based on little, that Digital Science is the primary instigator.) I’m late to the opening talk, by Geoff Bilder [twitter:gbilder] , dir. of strategic initiatives at CrossRef. He’s also deeply involved in Orcid, an authority-base that provides a stable identity reference for scholars. He refers to Orcid’s principles as the basis of this talk.

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.

Geoff Bilder

Geoff is going through what he thinks is required for organizations contributing to a scholarly cyberinfrastructure. I missed the first few.


It should transcend disciplines and other boundaries.


An organization nees a living will: what will happen to it when it ends? That means there should be formal incentives to fulfill the mission and wind down.


Sustainability: time-limited funds should be used only for time-limited activities. You need other sources for sustaining fundamental operations. The goal should be to generate surplus so the organization isn’t brittle and can respond to new opportunities. There should be a contingency fund sufficient to keep it going for 12 months. This builds trust in the organization.

The revenues ought to be based on series, not on data. You certainly shouldn’t raise money by doing things that are against your mission.


But, he says, people are still wary about establishing a single organization that is central and worldwide. So people need the insurance of forkability. Make sure the data is open (within the limits of privacy) and is available in practical ways. “If we turn evil, you can take the code and the data and start up your own system. If you can bring the community with you, you will win.” It also helps to have a patent non-assertion so no one can tie it up.


He presents a version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a scholarly cyberinfrastructure: tools, safety, esteem, self-actualization.


He ends by pointing to Building 20, MIT’s temporary building for WW II researchers. It produced lots of great results but little infrastructure. “We have to stop asking researchers how to fund infrastructure.” They aren’t particularly good at it. We need to get people who are good at it and are eager to fund a research infrastructure independent of funding individual research projects.

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June 29, 2014

[aif] Government as platform

I’m at a Government as Platform session at Aspen Ideas Festival. Tim O’Reilly is moderating it with Jen Pahlka (Code for America and US Deputy Chief Technology Officer ) and Mike Bracken who heads the UK Government Digital Service.

Mike Backen begins with a short presentation. The Digital Service he heads sits at the center of govt. In 2011, they consolidated govt web sites that presented inconsistent policy explanations. The DS provides a central place that gives canonical answers. He says:

  • “Our strategy is delivery.” They created a platform for govt services: gov.uk. By having a unified platform, users know that they’re dealing with the govt. They won the Design of the Year award in 2013.

  • The DS also gives govt workers tools they can use.

  • They put measurements and analytics at the heart of what they do.

  • They are working on transforming the top 25 govt services.

They’re part of a group that saved 14.3B pounds last year.

Their vision goes back to James Brindley, who created a system of canals that transformed the economy. [Mike refers to “small pieces loosely joined.”] Also Joseph Bazalgette created the London sewers and made them beautiful.


(cc) James Pegrum

Here are five lessons that could be transferred to govt, he says:

1. Forget about the old structures. “Policy-led hierarchies make delivery impossible.” The future of govt will emerge from the places govt exists, i.e., where it is used. The drip drip drip of inadequate services undermine democracy more than does the failure of ideas.

2. Forget the old binaries. It’s not about public or private. It’s about focusing on your users.

3. No more Big IT. It’s no longer true that a big problems requires big system solutions.

4. This is a global idea. Sharing makes it stronger. New Zealand used gov.uk’s code, and gov.uk can then take advantage of their improvements.

5. It should always have a local flavour. They have the GovStack: hw, sw, apps. Anyone can use it, adapt it to their own situation, etc.

A provocation: “Govt as platform” is a fantastic idea, but when applied to govt without a public service ethos it becomes a mere buzzword. Public servants don’t “pivot.”

Jen Pahlka makes some remarks. “We need to realize that if we can’t implement our policies, we can’t govern.” She was running Code for America. She and the federal CTO, Todd Park, were visiting Mike in the UK “which was like Disneyland for a govt tech geek like me.” Todd asked her to help with the Presidential Innovation Fellows, but she replied that she really wanted to work on the sort of issues that Mike had been addressing. Fix publishing. Fix transactions. Go wholesale.

“We have 30-40,000 federal web sites,” she says. Tim adds, “Some of them have zero users.”

Todd wanted to make the data available so people could build services, but the iPhone ships with apps already in place. A platform without services is unlikely to take off. “We think $172B is being spent on govt IT in this country, including all levels.” Yet people aren’t feeling like they’re getting the services they need.

E.g., if we get immigration reform, there are lots of systems that would have to scale.

Tim: Mike, you have top-level support. You report directly to a cabinet member. You also have a native delivery system — you can shut down failed services, which is much harder in the US.

Mike: I asked for very little money — 50M pounds — a building, and the ability to hire who we want. People want to work on stuff that matters with stellar people. We tried to figure out what are the most important services. We asked people in a structured way which was more important, a drivers license or fishing license? Drivers license or passport? This gave us important data. And ?e retired about 40% of govt content. There was content that no one ever read. There’s never any feedback.

Tim: You have to be actually measuring things.

Jen: There are lots of boxes you have to check, but none of them are “Is it up? Do people like it?”

Mike: Govts think of themselves as big. But digital govt isn’t that big. Twelve people could make a good health care service. Govt needs to get over itself. Most of what govt does digitally is about the size of the average dating site. The site doesn’t have to get big for the usage of it to scale.

Jen: Steven Levy wrote recently about how the Health Care site got built. [Great article -dw] It was a small team. Also, at Code for America, we’ve seen that the experience middle class people had with HealthCare.gov is what poor people experience every day. [my emphasis – such an important point!]

Tim: Tell us about Code for America’s work in SF on food stamps.

Jen: We get folks from the tech world to work on civic projects. Last year they worked on the California food stamps program. One of our fellows enrolled in the program. Two months later, he got dropped off the roles. This happens frequently. Then you have to re-enroll, which is expensive. People get dropped because they get letters from the program that are incomprehensible. Our fellows couldn’t understand the language. And the Fellows weren’t allowed to change the language in the letter. So now people get text messages if there’s a problem with their account, expressed in simple clear language.

Q&A

Q: You’ve talked about services, but not about opening up data. Are UK policies changing about open data?

Mike: We’ve opened up a lot of data, but that’s just the first step. You don’t just open it up and expect great things to open. A couple of problems: We don’t have a good grip on our data. It’s not consistent, it lives in macros and spreadsheets, and contractually it’s often in the hands of the people giving the service. Recently we wanted to added an organ donation checkbox and six words on the drivers license online page. We were told it would cost $50K and take 100 days. It took us about 15 mins. But the data itself isn’t the stimulus for new services.

Q: How can we avoid this in the future?

Mike: One thing: Require the govt ministers to use the services.

Jen: People were watching HealthCare.gov but were asking the wrong questions. And the environment is very hierarchical. We have to change the conversation from tellling people what to do, to “Here’s what we think is going to work, can you try it?” We have to put policy people and geeks in conversation so they can say, no that isn’t going to work.

Q: The social security site worked well, except when I tried to change my address. It should be as easy as Yahoo. Is there any plan for post offices or voting?

Mike: In the UK, the post offices were spun out. And we just created a register-to-vote service. It took 20 people.

Q: Can you talk about the online to offline impact on public service, and measuring performance, and how this will affect govt? Where does the transformation start?

Jen: It starts with delivery. You deliver services and you’re a long way there. That’s what Code for America has done: show up and build something. In terms of the power dynamics, that’s hard to change. CGI [the contractor that “did” HealthCare.gov] called Mike’s Govt Digital Service “an impediment to innovation,” which I found laughable.

Tim: You make small advances, and get your foot in the door and it starts to spread.

Mike: I have a massive poster in my office: “Show the thing.” If you can’t create version of what you want to build, even just html pages, then your project shouldn’t go forward.

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June 28, 2014

[AIF] Beau Willimon on “House of Cards”

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, Michael Eisner is interviewing the creator of House of Cards, Beau Willimon. I’m not going to attempt to do comprehensive live-blogging.

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.

The point at which SPOILERS begin is clearly marked below.

Beau’s initial artistic expression was in painting. He was good but just not good enough. He wanted to try something he would fail at, and chose playwriting. He wrote a terrible play called “The Goat Herd.” But it won a prize at Columbia U., where he was a student. He still feels like a fraud as a writer “because you’re always grasping and never quite reaching what you’re after.”

He went to Estonia for a year, the East Village for a year, worked on the Sen. Schumer campaign doing whatever he was asked, worked on the Howard Dean campaign where he was head of press advance in Iowa. He was at the Dean Scream and explains that it was actually inaudible in the room because of all the screaming by Dean’s supporters. The media picked up on it because it confirmed their narrative that “Dean was a loose cannon and unelectable.”

Six months later, he wrote the play that became the movie The Ides of March. Originally it was about Phillip Hoffman’s character, but then it became about Ryan Gosling’s character, which was based on Beau’s friend, Jay Carson. He says that he doesn’t care about whether his characters are likeable; he wants us to be attracted to them, “which is entirely different.” “I can’t write the characters if I think of them as good or evil.” He doesn’t want to judge them. “I put myself in their shoes” and no one thinks of themselves as evil.

Beau had no interest in writing another political movie, but David Fincher, the director called. He watched the British version of House of Cards, which he lauds and says was more tongue in cheek. They worked for a year in complete secrecy on the first episode, and signed up the two stars. They went to HBO and asked for a full season guarantee. Then Netflix said they wanted House of Cards to be the first show they did, and they wanted two full seasons.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.

Beau says that House of Cards is quite tame compared to the language and violence on TV today. ([SPOILER:] He says internally they call the threesome scene with Agent Meechum “the Treechum.”) Eisner (who did Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Love Boat, etc.) says back in his day, all that counted was likability. He then cites a highly unlikeable action by Francis in House of Cards, involving a subway. But because it was being produced by Netflix, there was no censorship. Eisner recounts an example in which Netflix pushed to include a joke Eisner didn’t like in one of his own productions; that is, Netflix supported the writers against Eisner.

The third season is now being filmed. Half of the scripts are written.

“House of Cards has nothing to do with politics,” he says. “It’s about power.”

HBO has to please its subscribers. Netflix and other producers don’t have to reach all of their subscribers with any single show.

He explains that the shooting schedule has them editing the early episodes even while they’re filming later examples. They’ll go back to fix or change earlier episodes in order to produce a better whole; you can’t do that when you’re shooting normal tv.

Q&A

Q: Was it hard to kill Zooey?

A: It was in the plan from the beginning. Beau had worked out the plot for the first two seasons. “It was important to stick to our guns on that because one of the themes of the show is how much Francis [Kevin Spacey] is capable of.” The prior murder of the Congressman had been opportunistic. So we said, “Ok, we’re going to do this. It could be a total huge mistake … but fuck it, let’s do it.” Similarly, they were warned not to kill the dog in the first episode, but they figured that if a viewer couldn’t handle that, this was not the show for them. (It was a fake dog, of course.)

Q: [missed it]

A: I do have ideas about how it will end. But you never know. E.g., Rachel started out as a minor character, but she was so good that her part was expanded.

Q: The show lets us empathize with the characters. By working through such complex characters, how has that affected your view of people in real life?

A: “When my friends turn to the empty air and start speaking, I get it.” [laughter] He says writing is narcissistic. He only wants to please himself. You hope to learn something about yourself. “I don’t presume to know anything more than others do.” “My life is just a wonderful and screwed up as anyone else’s. I don’t benefit from the investigation of the soul except that when my life is screwed up, I’m acutely aware of it.”

Q: Isn’t politics about power?

A: Politics can be used to achieve practical ends that have nothing to do with power. Everything is power, but not everything is about politics. Although I would say all works of art are about politics. My Fair Lday is political. Happy Days is political. But when you think of power, if you just think of it in terms of politics, you’re doing it a misservice. There are all sorts of power dynamics. Most have to do with our interppersonal relationships. … Unrequited love? Some of these moments are very small: if a little kid throws a snowball at your windsheld and it cracks, what do you do? Do you pull over and speak to the parents, throw a snowball back, keep driving? In that moment a power dynamic is formed. And how you react esbalishes who is in power. All of our relationships are transactional…When you mix that up with characters whose job is to have mastery over power dynamics, it makes for great drama. But I’m far more interested in the power dynamaics in Francis and Claire’s marriage than in Congress. What you remember are Frances and Claire sitting in the window smoking…”

Q: Francis talks so poetically. What motivated you?

A: Because I didn’t want it to suck? Kevin had done 9 months of touring Richard III. I stole the BBC’s version’s direct address, and they stole it from Shakespeare. Done poorly — and we’ve done it poorly at times — it takes you out of the drama. Done right, it makes you complicit with your protagonist. Sometimes it’s heightened. Sometimes it’s a Gafneyism that doesn’t even make sense: ‘Down South we say never slap a man while he’s cvhewin’ tobacco.’ What does that even mean?” By turning to the camera, he’s made us his pal and we’re able to root for him.

 


A few stray points:

1. Beau is intensely likable.

2. I like House of Cards, even though making Francis a murderer shook my faith in the show. Regardless, my main beef with it is that it portrays all of politics as endemically more corrupt than we even think real world politics are. What lends the series such great drama therefore also discourages civic engagement. And since I am highly partisan, I also think it’s inaccurate. But Beau didn’t think to ask my opinion before writing this amazingly well-written and acted series.

3. I now expect to see a scene in Season 3 in which a kid breaks Francis’ windshield with a snowball.

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