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March 17, 2016

Public editing in and with the public

Mike Ananny has a post at Nieman Lab that I hope the NY Times editorial board reads. It argues that the next public editor (what we used to call an ombudsperson) is deeply versed in digital life, from algorithms to social media. Amen.

Thiis timely because the current public editor, Margaret Sullivan, is leaving the Times to become a columnist for the Washington Post. I think she has done an excellent job in a very difficult position, and I’m sorry to see her leave that position.

But that does make this a good time for the Times to re-think not just the competencies of a public editor, but also the modality of the position.

Currently the public sees the public editor as a columnist who stands between them and the editorial staff of the paper. She writes on behalf of the readers, explaining and adjudicating. It is a challenging job, to say the least.

But this role should be broadened so that it includes not just the public editor but the public at large. Let the public editor continue to write blog posts — Sullivan’s have been good examples of the form. But also let the public have its say in more than comments on the posts. As a blogger, the public editor can only discuss only a small percentage of the concerns that readers have.

To scale this, the Times could set up an open forum in which the public can raise topics that readers can discuss and upvote. Or, perhaps a Stackoverflow sort of board would work. No matter how it’s done, the public would get to raise issues, and the public would get to discuss and promote (or demote) issues . Most of the issues are likely to be handled by the readers talking amongst themselves, but the public editor would watch carefully to see where she needs to step in.

Maybe those implementations would fail or spin out of control. But there is very likely a way to scale the conversation so that readers are far more engaged in what they would increasingly see as their paper.

5 Comments »

July 13, 2015

What open APIs could do for the news

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

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

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

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

The full paper is available freely at the Shorenstein site.

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

1 Comment »

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.

1 Comment »

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 26, 2015

Searching for news media that support Schema.org

Let’s say you have the weird desire to see if a particular online news site is producing news articles that support the Schema.org standard. I just posted a tiny little site — even uglier than usual — that lets you search for a particular news media site. It will return the items on that site that have been classified by that site as newsArticles in the Schema.org standard.

Thanks to a suggestion from Dan Brickley, it’s using a custom search engine from Google. One of the parameters permitted by custom search engines is to only return items that are one of Schema.org’s types. (I’m sure I’m messing up the standards lingo.) All I’ve done is specify newsArticle as the type, and prepended “site:” to whatever search you’re doing, saving you five keystrokes. You’re welcome!

If you get back a bunch of articles, then presumably the site is supporting Schema.org. I think.

2 Comments »

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.

2 Comments »

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 26, 2015

[liveblog] Data & Technology in Government

I’m at a discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School listening to an awesome panel of Obama administration technologists. Part of the importance of this is that students at the Kennedy School are agitating for a much strong technology component to their education on the grounds that these days policy makers need to be deeply cognizant of the possibilities technology offers, and of the culture of our new technology development environment. Tomorrow there is an afternoon of discussions sponsored by the student-led Technology for Change group. I believe that tonight’s panel is a coincidence, but it is extraordinarily well-timed.

Here are the participants:

  • Aneesh Chopra, the first federal CTO (and a current Shorenstein Center fellow)

  • Todd Park, White House Technology Advisory

  • DJ Patil, the first US Chief Data Science, five days into his tenure

  • Lynn Overmann – Deputy Chief Data Officer, US Dept. of Commerce

  • Nick Sinai – former US Deputy Chief Technology Officer (and a current Shorenstein Center fellow)

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. PARTICULARLY LOOSE PARAPHRASING even when within quotes; these are geeks speaking quickly.
You are warned, people.

Todd Park: I’m now deeply involved in recruiting. The fundamental rule: “If you get the best people, you win.” E.g., the US Digital Service: “A network of elite technology development teams.” They want to address problems like improving veteran’s care, helping immigrants, etc. “If you go to the best talent in the country and ask them to serve, they will,” he says, pointing to DJ and Lynn.

DJ Patil: We’re building on the work of giants. I think of this as “mass times velocity.” The velocity is the support of the President who deeply believes in open data and technology. But we need more mass, more people. “The opportunity to have real world impact is massive.” Only a government could assemble such a talented set of people. And when people already in the govt are given the opportunity to act and grow, you get awesome results. Data scientists are force multipliers.

Lynn Overmann: “I’m a serial public servant.” She was a public defender at first. “There is literally no serious problem you’re concerned about that you can’t tackle from within the federal government.” The Commerce Dept. has huge amounts of data and needs help unlocking it. [In a previous session, Lynn explained that Commerce offers almost no public-facing servies except gathering and releasing data.]

Nick Sinai: Todd, you were the brains behind the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program

Todd: The government is not a lean start up but that approach applied to may problems work much better than if you apply traditional the waterfall approach to computing. Round 1 went well. In Round 2, they brought in about 40 people. There was a subset of the Round 2 who found the program “addictive.” So the Whitehouse used 18F, a digital consulting service provided by the GSA. Demand has now gone off the chart for these new style of consultants. Some of those folks then helped grow the new US Digital Sesrvice. It all started with the Innovation Fellows and grew organically. “The more people we attract people who are amazing into government, the more we energize amazing people already in government, the more air cover we give them” the more awesomeness there will be. Let them create results at 10x what anyone expected. “That methodology is the only replicable, reliable way to change government at scale, at speed, in a way that’s permanent.” “I can’t tell you how much fun this is.”

DJ Patil: My first encounters with the CIOs of existing agencies and departments have been amazing. They’re so open, so eager for disruption.

Aneesh Chopra: The line between public and private sector is becoming very porous. That means that the products of the teams being described are a new form of information that in the hands of entrepreneurs and innovators can be transformative. E.g., Uber wanted their drivers to make better healthcare choices. There’s now a hose of data about the healthcare signups. A startup — Stride Health — took that hose and customized it for Uber drivers; maybe drivers want better back care options. There’s an increasing portfolio of institutions extending these services. A handshake makes more and more of this datea interoperable, and there’s a hand off to entrepreneurs and innovators. “They may not be stamped .gov” but they’ll powered by data from the govt.

Nick: We have an opportunity to do smart wholesaling of data, as well as retailing it: Great services, but also enabling non-governmental groups to build great end-user services.

Lynn: At Commerce we’re trying to do Open Data 2.0. How do we get our data experts out into the world to talk with users ? How do we share data better? How do we create partnerships with the public sector? E.g., Uber shared its data on traffic patterns with the city of Boston.

Lynn: In the departments Todd has led, he has worked on the gender balance. Women were in the majority by the end of his HHS appointment. [I couldn’t hear all of this.]

Todd: I’ve learned that the more diverse the team is, the better the team is. We made it a real priority for the US Digital Service to have a team that looks like America. It’s also our hope that we’ll be minting people who become superstars in the tech world and will encourage more youths to enter STEM.

Aneesh: There were a few places we thought we could have done better. 1. Rethinking the role and nature of the infrastructure. Human capital is the infrastructure for the digital economy. 2. We make rules of the road — e.g., Net Neutrality today — that give people a more fair shot to compete. There are foundational investments to be made in the infrastructure and creating rules of the road. That’s part of how we affect policy.

Nick: What about the President’s new precision medicine initiative?

Todd: It’s a new way of thinking about how you get medical service. Increasingly Web sites provide tailored experiences. Why not with science? Should your aspirin dose be the same for someone with a different genetics, exposed to different things in your environment, etc.? Where it gets really phenomenal: The cost of genetic sequencing is dropping quickly. And tons of data are coming from sensors (e.g., FitBit). How do you start getting a handle on that to start getting better treatment? Another side of it: Bioinfomatics has been amazing at understanding genes. Combine that with clinical knowledge and we can begin to see that maybe that people who live near docks with diesel fumes have particular symptoms. We’ll be able to provide cohorts for test studies that look like America.

Nick: Aneesh and Todd, you both quote Joy’s Law: Most of the smartest people in the world work for someone else.

Aneesh: In many ways, the lessons learned from the innovation philosophy have had great effect in the public sector. The CEO of P&G said 50% of ideas will come from outside of P&G. This liberated him to find innovations in the military that resulted in $1B in cash flow for P&G. Also, we’ve learned from platform effects and what the team at Facebook has done. Sheryl Sandberg: There are 3,000 developers at FB, but a query at Google found 35,000 people with the title “FB developer,” because other companies were using the FB platform.

Todd: It’s important to remember Joy’s Law, and the more you can get those people in the world to care about what you do, the more successful you’ll be. I was asked what I would do with the vast amount of data that the govt has. My first thought was to build some services. But about 17 seconds later I realized that’s entirely the wrong approach. Rather, open it up in machine readable form. We invited four innovators into a room. At first they were highly skeptical. But then we showed them the data, and they got excited. Ninety days later we had a health care datapalooza, and it caught fire. Data owners were there who thought that opening up their data could only result in terribleness. At the end of the datapalooza they flipped. Within two years, the Health Datapalooza became a 2,000 person event, with thousands of people who couldn’t get tickets. Hundreds of new applications that could help individuals, hospitals, healthcare providers were created. But you have to have the humility to acknowledge that you don’t know the answer. And you have to embrace the principle that the answer is likely to come from someone who aren’t you. That’s the recipe for awesomeness to be released.

Aneesh: When Secty Sibelius saw the very first presentation, her jaw dropped. The question was what are the worst communities in the America for obesity and who can they talk to about improving it. In seven minutes they had an answer. She said that when she was Governor, it would have taken her staff seven months to come up with that answer.

Q: [a self-identified Republican technologist] President Obama got the right team together. What you do is awesome. How can we make sure what you’ve built stays a permanent part of the government?

Aneesh: Eric Cantor was doing much the same in Congress. These ideas of opening up data and engaging entrepreneurs, lean startups, open innovation have been genuinely bipartisan.

Todd: Mike Bracken from the UK Digital service says: The strategy is delivery. What will change govt is a growing set of precedents about how govt really should work. I could write an essay, but it’s more effective if I point to datapalooza and show the apps that were written for free. We have to create more and more examples. These examples are done in partnership with career civil servants who are now empowered to kick butt.

DJ: We can’t meet the demand for data scientists. Every agency needs them. We have to not only train those people up, but also slot them into the whole stack. A large part of our effort will be how to train them, find them great homes at work, and give them ways to progress.

Nick: It’s really hard to roll back transparency. There are constituencies for it, whether it’s accountability orgs, the press, etc.

Lynn: Civil servants are the most mission driven people I’ve met. They won’t stop.

Q: Everyone has talked about the need for common approaches. We need identities that are confidential and interoperable. I see lots of activities, but not a plan. You could do a moonshot here in the time you have left. It’d be a key part of the infrastructure.

Aneesh: When the precision medical provision was launched, a critical provision was that they’ll use every regulatory tool they have to connect consumers to their own data. In 2010 there was a report recommending that we move to healthcare APIs. This led to a privately funded initiative called Project Argonaut. Two days ago we held a discussion here at Harvard and got commitments for public-private efforts to create an open source solution in healthcare. Under Nick, the same went on for connecting consumers to their energy info. [I couldn’t capture all this. I’m not sure the above is right. And Aneesh was clear that he was speaking “as an outsider.”]

DJ: If you check the update to the Podesta Big Data report, it outlines the privacy aspects that we’ll be pushing on. Energy is going into these issues. These are thorny problems.

Q: Cybersecurity has become a high profile issue. How is the govt helping the private sector?

Aneesh: Early on the President offered a framework for a private-public partnership for recognigizing digital fingerprints, etc. This was the subject of a bipartisan effort. Healthcare has uniform data-breach standards. (The most common cause of breaches: bad passwords.) We need an act of Congress to [he went too fast … sorry].

Lynn: Cybersecurity requires an international framework for privacy and data security. That’s a major challenge.

Q: You talked about the importance of STEM. Students in astronomy and astrophysicists worry about getting jobs. What can I say to them?

DJ: I was one of those people. I lot of people I went to school with went on to Wall Street. If you look at the programs that train data scientists, the ones who are super successful in it are people who worked with a lot of messy data: astrophysicists, oceanographers, etc. They’re used to the ambiguity that the data starts with. But there’s a difference in the vocabulary so it’s hard for people to hit the ground running. With 4-6 weeks of training, these people crush it. Tell your students that there are great opportunities and they shouldn’t be dissuaded by having to pound the pavement and knock on doors. Tell them that they have the ability to be game changers.

Q: How many of us are from the college? [surprisingly few hands go up] Your msg about joining the govt sounds like it’s tailored for young professional, not for students. The students I know talk about working for Google or FB, but not for the govt.

Todd: You’re right. The US Digital Service people are young professionals who have had some experience. We will get to recruiting in college. We just haven’t gotten there yet.

Lynn: If you’re interested in really hard problems and having a direct impact on people’s lives, govt service is the best thing you can do.

Q: When you hire young tech people, what skills do they typically not have that they need?

Lynn: Problem solving. Understanding the problems and having the tech skills to solve them. Understanding how people are navigating our systems now and asking how we can leverage tech to make that process much much easier.

DJ: In Sillicon Valley, we’re training people via internships, teaching them what they don’t learn from an academic environment. We have to figure out how govt can do this, and how to develop the groups that can move you forward when you don’t know how to do something.

Aneesh: There is a mindset of product development, which is a muscle that we haven’t worked enough in the policy arena. Policy makers too often specify what goal they want and allocate money for it. But they don’t think about the product that would achieve that goal. (Nice shout out to Karim Lakhani. “He’s in the mind set.”)

Q: [leaders of the Kennedy School Tech for Change] Tech for Change has met with administrators, surveyed students, etc. Students care about this. There’s a summit tomorrow. [I’m going!] What are the three most important things a policy school could do to train students for this new ecosystem. How can HKS be the best in this field?

DJ: Arts and humanities, ethics, and humility.

Todd: One expression of humility is to learn the basics of lean startup innovation. These principles apply broadly

DJ: There’s nothing more humbling than putting your first product out there and watching what people say on Twitter.

Lynn: We should be moving to a world in which technology and policy aren’t separate. It’s a problem when the technologists are not at the table. E.g., we need to be able to track the data we need to measure the results of programs. This is not a separate thing. This is a critical thing that everyone in the school should learn about.

Todd: It’s encouraging that the geeks are being invited into the rooms, even into rooms where no one can imagine why tech would be possibly relevant. But that’s a short term hack. The whole idea that policy makers don’t need to know about tech is incredibly dangerous. Just like policy makers need a basic understanding of economics; they don’t have to be economists.If you don’t have that tech knowledge, you don’t graduate. There will be a direct correlation between the geek quotient and the efficiency of policy.

Nick: Panel, whats your quick actionable request of the Harvard JFK community?

Lynn: We need to make our laws easier to understand.

Todd: If you are an incredibly gifted, patriortic, high EQ designer, dev, devops, data scientists, or you know someone who is, go to whitehouse.gov/usds where you can learn about the Digital Service and apply to join this amazing band.

DJ: Step up by stepping in. And that doesn’t have to be at the federal level. Share ideas. Contribute. Help rally people to the cause.

1 Comment »

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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