In his own words: A selection of Matt Thompson’s blog entries Part 1

The timing of local news cycles

May 13, 2009

Howard Weaver writes a sweet, short paean to the dailyness of the newspaper:

I’ve been arguing for years that newspapers — yes, printed, daily newspapers — have a good long horizon on the value curve if they shift their focus to the value they already do best: summary, briefings, orientation, authentication. If a printed product did that well, the fact that it’s a once-a-day product would be a strength: a starting point, presumably first thing in the morning, which helped readers orient their day and prepare to parse and interpret all the fact-clotted data that would wash over them ceaselessly for the rest of the day.

I replied by asking why daily was the ideal cycle. “I might be part of a tiny minority in this regard,” I said, “but a weekly local news product would be even more valuable to me than a daily one, so valuable I’d probably even pay for it, if it was good enough.”

Howard’s response to me makes sense. Each of us, of course, has a routine that more-or-less repeats each day. It’s perfectly sensible that this routine should include a news component. And I wholeheartedly agree with him on this point:

I don’t think there’s any either/or here; let a thousand flowers bloom. A weekly compilation of quotidian news (tee hee) might be the best format for it. Other news, we all recognize, needs to be displayed as quickly as possible. A newsless, process-oriented news report should be timeless.

I agree that we should be working towards a news report online that serves the monthly visitor just as well as the hourly one. But cycles still drive how we produce the news. And many local journalists have to wedge their work into one of two cycles — either the rapid rotations that require updates every few minutes, especially favored by news sites in the morning and during the lunch hour, or the daily rotation driven by each day’s newspaper or broadcast.

I still wonder whether some news topics (and consumers) don’t demand different cycles entirely. In Columbia, for example, headlines on municipal matters often crescendo around the City Council meetings that take place on the first and third Mondays of the month. So news on this topic roughly corresponds to a biweekly cycle. And the biweekly publishing schedule of the Columbia Business Times, the local news publication that focuses on these municipal issues, suggests that this pace is well-matched to the topic. We often fret that these municipal stories don’t find much of an audience, but the Business Times is mailed to 6,300 local subscribers, which just about matches the daily circulation of the Columbia Missourian.

I suspect the Business Times audience might also have more of an appetite and expectation for deeper, more contextual stories than the general-interest Missourian audience. The cover story of the most recent issue of theBusiness Times was a massive series on transportation development districts that actually ran first in the Missourian. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that CBT readers ate that story up, while many Missourian readers skipped it.

Sure, topical newspaper sections in most places publish on a less-than-daily schedule. A typical newspaper might feature a Tuesday food section, a Wednesday business section, a Thursday arts-and-entertainment section, etc. These sections might even approximate the production cycle of a weekly more closely than a daily. But by bundling these sections into a daily product, mightn’t we be restricting their appeal to an audience who just wants that information, and doesn’t need it every day?

I gather niche publishing hasn’t been a silver bullet for those news orgs that have wandered into this territory. (Having spent three years as the online editor of a niche publication, I’m familiar with some of the problems.) But I have only the dimmest sense of what’s been tried in this regard. I’d love to see more experiments that paired the depth of a Columbia Tomorrow with the pace of a Columbia Business Times.

The Newsroom: Where alternate workflows go to die

April 7, 2009

Martin Langeveld has written up a great description of how a newsroom might reimagine its workflow to create a much richer, more contextual news site.

Why should a reporter have a quota measured in “stories,” whether it’s two courts-and-cops reports a day or one in-depth investigative masterpiece a week? In the cascade model of content management, every reporter follows a portfolio of issues, topics, trends, trials, personalities, businesses, governmental entities, towns, streets, buildings, non-profits — and a day’s work may consist of finishing a major investigative piece on one of these, while blogging about new developments touching on a handful of others, and adding new facts to the wiki entries for a bunch more. And the process of augmenting or correcting the wiki never really ends.

If you’re a newspaper editor, I’ve learned, it’s really difficult to imagine this workflow in practice. Your entire job is structured around defined products (stories, pages and sections), not floofy things like “cascades” folks like Martin and I keep harping on. I suspect the biggest reason workflows like this haven’t taken off in newsrooms is that the work of editors would have to change as dramatically as that of reporters. Instead of spending more time planning pages and sections, creating budgets for stories and visuals, and processing copy and images for print, section editors would have to make a fundamental shift towards synthesizing the best of the reporter’s work into printable material. It means having to take a longer-term view of a reporter’s work. It’s almost a completely different art, requiring entirely different skills.

Among the things I’ve come to appreciate about newspaper section editors is their view of the product they create. They are responsible for composing a page or a section to suit an overlapping variety of audiences, day after day. This means planning far enough ahead that you know today what mix of stories and art you’ll have in hand and finished by next Monday to go to press on Tuesday, while being flexible enough to accommodate the news that’s likely to occur as the pages are coming together. Meanwhile, you’re reviewing copy for stories set to publish tomorrow or the day after, keeping one eye on the massive Sunday piece your reporter’s been working on for three weeks, and juggling promos to and from other sections and the Web. At any moment, the A1 editor might come by your desk to tell you that Sunday centerpiece has been pulled instead for the paper’s Friday cover, so you’ll have to do some quick thinking to rescue your weekend section front from mediocrity. Among your only tools for managing this mess are the fleet of earnest, quick reporters at your command.

Martin’s workflow, which I love, upends the fragile chaos of an editor’s life. When people like us talk about being “Web-centric,” we’re telling these editors that their new prerogative is to sift the borderless dumping-grounds of a reporter’s whimsy for shards of insight and curiosity that they might glue together into some recycled wreck of a page. All the while knowing that this page and the ads it contains are what pay the vast bulk of that reporter’s paycheck, when you get right down to it. If I were a print editor in these conditions, I would probably nod vigorously when my executive editor handed down the order, then do whatever I could to preserve my precious workflow just as it is.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reorganization of a few years ago aimed for a workflow that might have made a process like Martin’s possible. The editorial division was rearranged into four quadrants: News and Information, Enterprise, Print and Digital. The two former divisions were content-focused, charged with finding and creating good stories and pitching them to the two latter divisions, which were product- and audience-focused. N&I, it was thought, would have a slight bias towards pitching to digital, while Enterprise would be more print-centric.

I’m not sure how well it’s working, but it was a bold and imaginative arrangement. When I think of the print editor’s workflow, what strikes me is how vastly different it is from the ideal Web workflow Martin imagines. It’s worth acknowledging up front the breadth of the gulf between these two media.

Hic Stunt Dracones

March 26, 2009

As part of a fascinating conversation on “Sense-making” at the Poynter Institute, I had to write an essay describing the work I’m doing and the role I hope this work will play in the emerging media firmament. Thought I’d share.

December 16, 2008:

I’m meeting with two grizzled editors at the Missourian who seem to eye me with a weariness borne of decades managing an endless semesterly churn of young reporters-in-training while trying to fill a daily news product. Because their newsroom is part of a university, I am among a similarly constant stream of folks who breeze through their offices promising to remake their business in the image of Google or Facebook or Twitter or Wikipedia or whatever the kids are on about these days. So I try to exude humility and earnestness as I ask them the most stupidly broad question they’ve ever heard: “What should I know about growth and development in this town?”

After a moment of complicated blinking and throat-clearing (code, I figured, for “Is this dude serious?” “‘Fraid so.”), they begin to speak. What ensues is brilliant — an hour-and-a-half stream-of-consciousness firehose of names, infrastructure financing mechanisms, development projects, ballot initiatives, and the like. Picture a cinematization of the game SimCity scripted by David Foster Wallace and David Mamet, and you’ll sort of get it. I take furious notes, and leave the office to begin assembling what will become more than 800 pages of dossiers on what I just heard.

January 23, 2009:

I’m back at the Missourian newsroom after some scintillating holiday reading about storm-water runoff and transportation development districts. I’m giving the editors a sort of book report, outlining what I see as the major themes and unresolved questions in a body of literature they were instrumental in creating. We have a thrillingly enlightening conversation. And then one of the editors says something extraordinary. Matt, he says (in paraphrase),I’m just wondering when you’re going to figure out how much about all this we don’t know.

* * *

Journalism has long been described as a sort of cartography. But in news, local news especially, we almost never actually draw a map. Instead, we furnish a daily series of notable waypoints: at this intersection, you’ll find company layoffs; go down that road a stretch and you’ll bump into some public corruption.

Between those two moments at the Missourian, we sketched out the rough contours of a world composed of two equally important hemispheres — what we know, and what we do not know. Part of my goal is to help chart in ever-greater detail the former terrain — capturing the accumulated wisdom of our editors and reporters, our mayor and councilpersons, our developers, our activists, our supermarket clerks, our postal workers, our opera singers. And what I hope becomes the goal of my profession is to dispatch that body of explorers into the hemisphere of the unknown, toward the infinite task of claiming land from the wilderness.

News as a hook for content

Februrary 19, 2009

I’m often asked, “Do people really want context? Say you build out all these neat-o topic pages laying out the context behind the headlines. Do you really think anyone’s going to read that stuff?” I say I don’t look at it as a matter of whether people want context, but when.

If you told me in July of 2007 that one of the hottest articles on would be a detailed explanation of the workings of gusset plates and roller bearings in bridge engineering, I would have raised a very quizzical eyebrow. But when that bridge fell in August, gusset plates were the new Britney Spears.

Traffic to any given Wikipedia topic probably accrues over a long tail of time. Today, most folks probably have no interest in knowing about people who’ve had pies thrown at them. But chances are that over the years — probably in beer-friendly settings — a reasonable crowd of people will find themselves looking up that time Thomas Friedmandodged a pie at Brown University. Likewise, the Sarah Palin page that drew only a quiet, steady stream of interest for years suddenly lit up one day in August ’08, for obvious reasons.

Road infrastructure financing isn’t a sexy topic. Headlines on bonds for road projects may languish unread while cute puppy photos get all the pageviews. But we’ll build and tend that road financing topic page anyway. And one day, when a bumpy ride or flattened tire has you wondering why your city has all these #$%@! potholes, we’ll be ready for you.

I’m not arguing that news organizations should create repositories of useless topics in the hope that one day some calamity will make those topics relevant. I’m saying journalists should ask themselves what’s most important for their communities to know, and cover it diligently. Not with the expectation that the coverage will draw an instant wave of traffic, but with the understanding that if it’s truly important, it will spark enough relevant news to draw a significant audience over time. And the more of that context we lay out, the more relevant we can be at any given moment. This is how we’ll begin to build relationships that matter with our communities.

By creating information assets, we make it likelier that our information will find our audiences when they want it. Consider the story of Jacqueline Dupree. One day, Jacqueline decided to start taking pictures of her a nearby neighborhood to put on her website. She knew she wanted to document how the neighborhood was changing. Before long, the site had become a living history of an area in transition. Eventually, Jacqueline “reluctantly” found herself covering public meetings, publishing local data feeds, and generally creating a deeply comprehensive contextual record of the place.

Twenty months after Jacqueline began working on the site in earnest, the city announced it was building a stadium in the neighborhood. The site took off, and won a Batten Award for Innovation last year. Take a look, it’s not hard to see why.

Context as an engine for news

A focus on context also changes the definition of what we consider news. As my team creates these topic pages, we’re finding gaps in our understanding, stories that have fallen off our radar, and an infinite well of other fodder for further reporting. It turns out that when you attempt to assemble the most important information you have on a place, you begin to realize there’s no such thing as a slow news day. As I’ve said before:

Not two weeks ago, the Star Tribune’s reader representative was complaining about the midsummer absence of news. If we committed to providing regular updates on those important stories, we would be unearthing legitimate news that too often gets buried by the tyranny of recency. “Still No Action On Strengthening Levees,” the headlines might have said. “Bridges Languish in Need of Repair.” And if the warnings aren’t heeded, at least we will have traced the progress of a possible disaster before the fact, giving us unprecedented insight into what went wrong and when.

If truth is an asymptote, great journalism has no end.

The other day, Howard Weaver left a comment that seems appropriate to mention here:

For years I’ve warned newsrooms against the kind of thinking that led an educator to pronounce, “I was teaching, but they weren’t learning.” Impossible. And I think we need to embrace a similar responsibility: if 50% of the public still thinks Saddam was involved in 9-11, or that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, journalism has failed. Even if we did everything right, perfectly, by established standards, we have to be judged by the outcomes, not the inputs.

The upshot of my entire argument in this blog is that journalism’s highest purpose is delivering understanding. We don’t just cover the news for the sake of telling people what happened; we cover the news to help our communities understand themselves better, so they can improve. A story about a homicide might have some intrinsic value, but the greater value emerges when that story teaches its audience something about why homicide happens in a community and how the next one might be prevented. If we’re doing our jobs right, every such tragedy in a community becomes another hook to the larger story about how these tragedies might be stopped.

Using the news as a hook for context doesn’t mean running versions of the same story over and over again. It means reporting until we’ve exposed enough of the broader context of an issue for it to reach an audience. And when it finds that audience, it means giving them a means to discuss and debate and extend the story.

After New York Times reporter David Barstow unloaded a massive, months-long investigation into the Pentagon’s deployment of “military analysts” on television news shows last April, the news networks said nary a word. The story has since proceeded along a familiar path: Barstow wrote a follow-up story in November, trying to keep the issue in the spotlight. Another follow-up last month (the Defense Dept’s inspector general found no wrongdoing in the Pentagon propaganda program) was downgraded from the front page to A11. Any rage that boiled amongst the American people after the publication of the initial story has cooled to a simmer over time. And if someday the government is found to have launched another more insidious propaganda campaign, the New York Times will say, “We taught, but they didn’t learn.”

I remember my own anger and disbelief when I read that original story in on on the evening of April 19th, reciting aloud some of the sordid revelations to my boyfriend. I scanned the Sunday talk show transcripts the next day for mentions of the story, certain it was only a matter of time before it snowballed into a giant scandal. And when the networks were silent, I wanted more. Maybe a wiki that would trace the ongoing television appearances of all these well-compensated former generals and their connections to the defense industry. Or a Firefox plugin that could slip in a message on any page I viewed that mentioned one of the exposed “analysts” — talk about relevance.

A focus on delivering context means that the news is never the endpoint. The giant investigation doesn’t conclude with the Sunday A1 story, it erupts into something bigger. And the trail of a story doesn’t end with the passage of a bill or the resignation of an official. It doesn’t end at all. It merely connects with more and more dots that form an ever-clearer picture of a better society.

Why we’re not creating a wiki

Februrary 12, 2009

My research proposal was called “Wikipedia-ing the News.” I’ve spent many posts chronicling the wonders of Wikipedia. Yet, as I’ve mentioned, the news site I’m creating to illustrate the arguments I’ve been advancing here will not be a wiki. Why am I such a hypocrite?

I decided early on that given the time and resource constraints on my fellowship project, I would have to keep the site’s scope tight. As a result, there are tons of components of journalism’s evolution that this project will not significantly touch on — things like business models, social networking, and the world of mobile.

One of the things we heard loud and clear from the folks who led local wiki projects was that wikis are like gardens. They require a sustained investment of time and energy up front to make them truly valuable over the long term. Once the wiki is live, the community has to be nurtured, and goals and expectations must be set before the value of public editing starts to become plain. According to Mike Ivanov, one of creators of DavisWiki, he and the site’s other founding contributors spent months seeding the wiki with hundreds of articles on Davis before opening the site up to the public. I realized early that we probably wouldn’t have enough time to put in the investment to make the wiki worth it.

A lesser consideration in my decision to forgo the wiki was the feature set of available software. Playing around with open-source wiki packages such as MediaWiki and Expression Engine, I found that support for multimedia wasn’t the best out of the box. (The subject we’re covering — growth and development in Columbia, MO — will require a fair amount of multimedia to present effectively.) I also had some worries about how much flexibility the software would give us with the site design.

Finally, one of the things I most hope to demonstrate is that there’s nothing magical about a particular piece of software that enables the principles of journalism I’m arguing for. Focusing on delivering context doesn’t require a wiki, it requires a shift in purpose.

All that said, if this were an open-ended project, I absolutely would have made it a wiki. With enough time, we would have figured out design and multimedia. And if we succeeded in convening a community invested in the site, public contributions could be invaluable. I had a brief love affair with a little software package called Bitweaver, before deciding against using it in production. I’m tremendously intrigued about the possibilities for projects such asSemantic MediaWiki. Wiki software is only going to get more robust and interesting in the years to come. It’s awesome to see news organizations such as the Washington Post and experimenting with it. I’m sure one of my departing recommendations to the Missourian when I complete this fellowship will be to investigate transitioning the site to a wiki over the long term.

On “bad journalism”

January 26, 2009

The other day’s post on following the news started up a meaty little discussion. I considered posting this in that thread, but my thoughts were coalescing into a post of their own, so here it is.

I think it’s worth quoting Bill Dunphy’s reply at length:

What you’re describing is, plain and simply, bad journalism. A failure to test critical assertions in an important ongoing public issue is simply a failure to do your job as a journalist. … The failure you’re pointing to, while common, has nothing to do with the medium really, or the concept of daily (or weekly) journalism. The failure is one of quality of work. You don’t need a damn new taxonomy or community wiki. You just need a journalist who gives a damn, and editor who cares and a paper that earns enough money that they can employ otherwise non-revenue producing people like that.

Sadly we have been failing on the first two conditions for years — and decades — and now we’re failing on the third.

I hear a contradiction here, worth highlighting because I think it’s a common contradiction in our industry’s conversation with itself. On the one hand, Bill argues that these problems in coverage are particular to the situation, not systemic — a failure of individual journalists to do their jobs. On the other hand, Bill implies that the problems are, in fact, systemic — “we” are all agents of a decades-long, system-wide failure.

Part of the reason I don’t find the individual failure argument compelling is that I just don’t think it’s true. I’m working with these editors. One of the reporters involved in the coverage showed up in the earlier thread. They are as talented and dedicated a set of professionals as any I’ve seen.

Convene a jury of decorated editors and ask them to evaluate any of the coverage I read, and I think they’d say the stories were well-written on the whole, perspectives were typically well-balanced, and the reporting was tenacious. They’d be asking themselves, “How well did the newspapers cover that sewer issue?” And they’d be answering, as would I, “Pretty well.” By the standards of the system, it was good journalism.

What I’m saying is that I think those standards — the benchmarks of success systemic to journalism — are misguided. I’m asking broader questions, such as, “How well are we advancing the debate this community is having with itself?” And by those standards, the journalism fell far short.

Look at the current debate over the financial press’ coverage leading up to the economic meltdown, and you’ll find the exact same dynamic. In this casting, the American Journalism Review plays the role of my hypothetical jury of editors. The magazine examined the work of the financial press and issued a resounding thumbs-up. Numerous stories warned of the dangers of subprime lending and collateralized debt obligations. Business journalists widely acknowledged the existence of a housing bubble. By these standards, the business press should be commended for having done excellent journalism.

I’ll leave the rebuttal to CJR:

But assembling a list of good stories strikes me as a little too simple. This isn’t about individuals, after all, but news organizations and the business press as an institution. Any fair measure of press performance will have to take some measure of the record in its entirety. What was the business-press narrative about, generally speaking? What else was written about Wall Street and the financial-services industry? Who was on the covers?

Were the good stories the rule or the exception that proves it?

Like me, CJR has broadened the questions, and like me, so far they seem to find the journalism wanting. On the individual level, reporters and editors were performing splendidly. The failure is in the system.

The sunny side to systemic failures is that they pave the way for systemic solutions. I actually believe the forms that have contained journalism — the article, the general-interest news product, the “24-hour news cycle” — have made it easier for these failures to occur. I believe our attention to scoops rather than synthesis and our preference for immediacy over importance weakens our journalism. I believe our unwillingness to facilitate our communities’ conversations beyond the occasional article weakens the impact of our journalism.

But I’m hopeful some of the forms that are emerging, such as wikis and blogs, begin to introduce a sort of purpose and flexibility that might make journalism fundamentally better. Of course you don’t need a wiki to provide context. But it presents a greater bias towards context than that 9-inch news hole that’s gotta get filled this afternoon.

Systematic Knowledge accumulation on Journalism

January 8, 2009

It sounds jargon-y, but there aren’t too many ways to make this pop. If you haven’t noticed, I’m all about the systematic accumulation of knowledge. I think it’s something the Web does really, really well.

Of course, my research project concerns knowledge accumulation. But as I’ve been saying more and more recently, I also want us to get much more systematic about compiling information on how to evolve journalism. And a growing chorus of voices seem to be converging on this point.

For example: after coming to Mizzou in December, David Westphal put out a call for information to create a database of independent news sites. (He started creating that database in October, profiling a number of independent news start-ups in a week-long series.) When it’s live, if it’s well taken-care-of, this database will become a spectacular resource.

I posted another example recently, Chris Amico’s stellar compendium of tools for news.

Can we also start compiling different approaches to funding, from micro-patronage to flyerboards to ad auction networks, along with some information about how different approaches are working?

Earlier, I mentioned that I was searching for great questions. We definitely need more of those, as Mark Hamilton argues in a post today. And these projects demonstrate how I’d like to see those questions answered — systematically, transparently, comprehensively and collaboratively. And this probably isn’t the last you’ll hear from me on this.

Zac Echola’s on board

January 6, 2009

I’m working my way through a few hundred pages of reading on growth and development in Columbia, so forgive the quiet. Meanwhile, I haven’t done a consensus post in a while. But I happened upon this post from Zac Echola in my RSS reader today:

I’m going to be blunt, so pardon my French (again): Yes, I’m suggesting we may be completely fucking wrong with the entire system of news. Right now, when a story breaks, it breaks like a wave. Over a period of time, it rises in interest and discussion, peaks and then drops down until the next break comes. We do this over and over again, forcing readers to surf these waves, be they big national stories or be they hyperlocal news breaks, it doesn’t matter. The format is the same: A never ending flow of new information. Nobody questions its validity as a methodology. But it is, in fact, a staple of old media systems.

I hope to type up a few thoughts later today that are popping up as I do my reading. For now, welcome Zac to the growing chorus of voices calling for much more attention to context.

In Search of Great Questions

December 8, 2008

Earlier this year, I posted that I wanted to see more focused discussions about journalism’s future:

If what we want to ask is “How can we save serious, detailed, local investigative journalism?” then I suspect we can have a more focused and productive conversation if we actually asked that question. Ditto if the question is “How can we make sure the local school board meeting is covered?” When folks rightly say that there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all answer to the problems plaguing journalism, it’s because we lack even a one-size-fits-all question. “How do we save The Newspaper?” certainly isn’t it.

I’ve been hearing fewer how-do-we-save-the-newspaper-ish questions recently, but I’m still picking up conversations like, “What’s the business model for journalism?” So I figure that instead of railing against the questions I’m not impressed by, I’ll volunteer some questions that do nag at me.

I’m interested in being somewhat methodical about this. Again, journalism isn’t science. But an effort to quantify what we might be missing (or in danger of missing) could help us focus our efforts to provide it.

What are the most valuable functions currently performed by news organizations that are imperiled by the transition to digital?

We shall bicker about the “most valuable” component of this question, but I think a little bickering now-and-then is good. More on that in a second. Meanwhile, I’m especially keen on a focus on functions, rather than institutions or processes.

How might we measure the value of these functions?

I’m very curious about this. It seems distastefully clinical, but nonetheless really intriguing. Have there been efforts to measure the value of different journalistic functions? We know a free press correlates strongly with lower corruption. Do we know whether more journalists equals less corruption? If so, is there a sort of margin of diminishing results beyond which the number of journalists per capita doesn’t matter? Does journalism training affect the equation? Is publicly-funded journalism as effective at suppressing corruption as privately-funded journalism?

Outside of corruption, are there other measurable advantages of journalism? What effect do crime reporters have on crime? Does art criticism beget better art? Without the business press, would the meltdown have been worse?

If we could begin to quantify the value journalism provides, I think we could more effectively support it. The current prevailing argument — “Without news organization X, you wouldn’t have had investigation Y” — is acquiring the flavor of Senator McCain’s POW story circa September. If we could make the case that crime coverage tends to suppress crime, we’ve got a great marketing pitch for a community to come together and find some way to support a crime reporter.

What functions have been neglected by news organizations that we should account for in this transition?

I think we digital triumphalists have done a pretty good job of pointing out many of these. Someone should start cataloguing the sorts of brand-new functions tomorrow’s journalism is already starting to perform: like creating a place for communities to coalesce around the news and helping communities organize in the midst of a crisis.

What models of support might map well to each of these functions?

If we’re serious about building a sustainable journalistic infrastructure, I think this question will get us further than almost any other. We have plenty of evidence that different journalistic functions will map better to particular support models. Investigative journalism is already beginning to incline towards a non-profit, philanthropic model. Education reporting might be given to an advertising model of some kind. If we can begin to catalogue different models functioning effectively in different situations, we might be able to answer questions like, “What options should a health industry reporter in Minneapolis pursue to acquire support?”

How should these functions evolve to meet the opportunities afforded by digital media?

Plenty of experimentation on this front is already occurring, of course. As more beats start moving online in force, I cannot wait to see what results. Crime journalism saw the beginnings of a revolution with the dawn Talking Points Memo broke new ground in investigative journalism. Which niches remain untransformed? How do we transform them?

Update: Will tweets along a couple of questions: “Is what journalists value the same thing as what ‘readers’ value?” “How can we monetize it online without it sucking, or whats the next Craigslist?”

Comments, community, conversation, coverage and context

November 26, 2008

Today, approx. 40 years after the rest of the Web figured out how to do good discussions, general-interest news site comment threads mostly remain abysmal. On their best days. They are also the biggest thorn in the side of many an editor.

Many have enumerated where news site discussions often go the way of the suck (including, most helpfully, Derek Powazek):

  • Anonymous posting.
  • Non-threaded discussions.
  • No newsroom participation.
  • Forum ghettos.
  • Hot-button issues.
  • No reputation/ranking/filtering.

Folks are having thoughtful conversations about whether general-interest news can even support communities. I think they can. I’d argue that most of the problems identified above are symptoms of a single underlying affliction:News sites lack persistent, manageable points of focus around which communities can coalesce.

The best communities online all have the feeling of a semi-exclusive club. They cohere around distinctive goals, topics or personalities; they acquire in-jokes, shorthand, traditions; they’re open to newcomers, but oldtimers command respect. They sometimes sprout, like sidewalk grass, in the unlikeliest places, but often grow to resemble each other.

Most online editors have a fond story to tell about a close-knit community that sprung up improbably in a poorly-tended ’90s-era bulletin board in some abandoned crevice of their site. Or a popular blog with a good crowd of commenters.

But ask about the discussions in the news sections and their features will darken, their voices will coarsen, and you’ll be treated to a spittle-flecked recounting of racist rants, libelous tirades, comments mocking murder victims, and the like. The Internet’s id is not a pretty thing, and news story comments are its cavern.

News comments resemble graffiti more than discourse. Largely anonymous taggers come by and leave their marks. Sometimes their work is in response to another tagger, but most often, it’s a subtle variation on “I was here.” Like graffiti, comments are sometimes brilliant, but more frequently are garish and crude.

Unlike Gawker, I think we can fix comments. It is possible to have phenomenal discussions online. Even on general-interest news sites. In the course of my research, I’m considering some of the problems and mulling how my model might offer potential solutions. Derek Powazek’s contribution on this front was fantastic. I’d like to extend his thinking in a couple directions. Here’s what I got so far.

The ephemera problem

Issue: News articles and audiences are too short-lived to generate real conversation/community. You might come to the site, see an article that hits a nerve, and post a comment, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll encounter any of your fellow commenters again. This presents 1) no incentive for commenters to treat each other nicely, and 2) no time for comments to get beyond the superficial and obvious.

Solutions? A shift towards treating stories as persistent topics rather than ephemeral articles should help foster better opportunities for real conversation, in theory. Really, we’ll be moving from “story comments” to “story forums.” But the forum experience has to be well-designed to maximize its potential.

As with any niche forum, there’s a danger these could easily turn into ghettos, unless we put some thought into how we can regularly promote them to audiences interested in the topic. One of the lessons I learned from was that you should create thoughtful mechanisms to allow conversations in obscure corners of your site to bubble up to areas that draw a larger audience. For example, all posts on stories in a given category could appear on the main page for that category.

Also, building more sophisticated reputation systems should help deal with the ephemeral-audience problem. Profiles, avatars, and comment histories should be the default commenting experience. And we should do more experimenting with point systems, award systems and the like.

The vacuum-of-leadership problem

Issue: News editors tend to approach story comments with a deeply laissez-faire attitude. They’ll wander in to ward off trolls, but otherwise, they’re hands off. Commenters quickly discover that as long as they don’t employ threats or profanity, they can be as rude and destructive as they want.

Solutions? Every successful online community I can think of has leaders — engaged, empowered individuals who can guide conversation and set the tone. A switch to “story forums” should make it easier for reporters to participate in conversations that involve their beats, and it should be incumbent on them to perform that role. Communities form around personalities.

This is a matter where an investment of time and attention up front can reap huge benefits later. Over time, online communities tend to develop emergent voices who reinforce the tone set by the initial leader. That’s how self-policing works.

The filtering problem

Issue: A “robust conversation” on a news site often just means 763 YouTube-caliber comments. Without good filters, 763 comments isn’t a conversation, it’s a landfill.

Solutions? Threading comments is one good starting point for bringing order to chaos. Allowing users to rate comments is another. (As long as you then also allow comments to be sorted by rating. I’m talking to you, Pluck.) MetaFilter allows users to mark comments as favorites, which is all kinds of useful. I constantly find myself scrolling through long MeFi discussions looking out for comments with high numbers of favorites.

If it isn’t clear, I think nurturing community is the silver bullet for improving the discourse on news sites. This may be obvi, but every time I mention this to one of the poor PTSD-ravaged online editors, they treat it as a revelation. As an industry, we seem to think the only way we’re ever going to create online communities is to make moms sites. I think if we alter the structures that contain our journalism, we can form communities around the news. At least it’s something to try.

Community Contributions

Oct. 24, 2008

It rarely fails. When I’m talking about my project, whether I introduce it or not, the word “wiki” will always pop up in the discussion. Sometimes I try to preempt it — “I called my project ‘Wikipedia-ing the News,’ but that’s a misnomer, since the prototype probably won’t be publicly editable …” — but even then, folks invariably come away convinced that the core idea of my project is that news sites should be open to public editing. I’m definitely not saying they shouldn’t, mind you, but the whole issue is askance of my focus with this research project.

Partly to illustrate that point, and partly to get some dialogue going, let me outline a few possible community contribution models a news site could follow, if a traditional news organization were to start it:

Closed to non-newsroom contributions: All edits to stories are made by newsroom staff, just the way they are on most big-media news sites today. For better or worse, this is the model we’ll likely use for the prototype, though I do want to make sure we provide a robust forum for community engagement.

Completely open to non-newsroom contributions: A straight-up wiki, through and through.

A mix of closed and open sections: The Wikipedia model. Particularly controversial topics could be placed under edit restrictions, while lower-intensity subjects could be open to public editing.

Community contributions are moderated: There are many ways that could work. For example, here are two:

The newsroom controls a “final” version of the site, and a “draft” version is open to the community. Similar to the way most open-source software projects work. In the default view, all content has been vetted by authorized editors, but if you wanted to contribute information, you could add it to the draft version of any page. At regular intervals, editors vet new contributions to the draft site and commit valid changes to the core site.

Community members’ edits are held in moderation until approved. Similar to the one above, but there’s only one version of the site. Another twist on this approach is that you might allow good contributors to gain automatic edit rights if their edits are consistently approved.

Many potential approaches, each with certain tradeoffs and advantages. Any of them could work with the structural transformation in journalism we’re outlining here.

Transparency: Part 2

Oct. 22, 2008

I was all set to jump in and make some points in the comments to yesterday’s post, but you guys covered all the points I would have made, and set me up for another couple of posts today. Thanks, hive mind! So, to summarize, synthesize, and hopefully extend:

Transparency involves reporting what you don’t know. R.S. asked a great question — “Isn’t the role of journalist to process whatever doubts they have about a situation internally, gather more information, and then report the story?”

Tim gave an elegant answer:

It’s worth noting that in the early stages of reporting the attorney scandal, TPM didn’t say, “clearly there’s a political scandal of monumentous proportions at work, orchestrated by Karl Rove as part of a widespread attempt to legitimate charges of voter fraud to disenfranchise Democratic voters and win elections.” They reported the facts as known — with the full story incomplete and unfinished — plus a question mark.

Exactly. One of the striking elements of the TPM coverage is how restrained the editors were (despite their ideological motivations) about speculating or drawing conclusions. Instead, they ask good, fair, pointed questions, then dig for the answers to those questions. In this case, “Why did all these highly competent U.S. attorneys get fired?” was an excellent question.

I don’t think most people are naturally good at asking fair-but-provocative questions, or separating inquiry from speculation and insinuation. I include many journalists in this assessment. Earlier this fall, for example, Andrew Sullivan packaged a host of barely-baked questions about Sarah and Trig Palin into a rather embarrassing innuendo-fest.

That’s all the more reason why the Josh Marshalls and Renee Fergusons of the world, who have a knack for this sort of thing, should help clue the rest of us in on when a nagging question rises to the level of an investigative treasure map. TPM-like transparency is a great way to do that

Transparency: Part 1

October 21, 2008

I’ve been mum for the past week because I’ve been working through some thoughts on transparency that have been threatening to turn into one spiraling, omnibus post. But I think these thoughts might cohere better if I break them up. So here’s a start:

Assumption: Whatever the information ecosystem of the future looks like, it will involve more people taking more responsibility for producing and filtering their own media.

Consequently, let’s posit that these folks might benefit from knowing some of the better techniques journalists have refined for evaluating and presenting information. Let’s also suppose that this knowledge is not already widespread, largely because we’ve muddied it up with a lot of pointless conventions that obscure some of the best components of the journalistic process.

What I’m getting at is the notion that journalists are acquiring a growing responsibility to let our communities in on how we do our work, for reasons that have little to do with the transparency battles of yesteryear. Increasingly, transparency is an instrument not just for enhancing the credibility of our journalism, but especially for informing an audience that might want to extend or repeat or improve it.

One of the least-remarked-upon aspects of the best journalistic blogging is how much it demystifies the process of journalism. The work that earned Josh Marshall and company a Polk Award seems so humble and accessible in retrospect. Follow the dots the TPM crew connects as they start to unearth the extent of the story, and you might just begin to believe you could do something like this yourself. The very tone of the coverage invites participation. From 1/15/07:

Strange days? Less than a week after news broke that the Bush administration has forced the resignation of San Diego U.S. attorney Carole Lam, we learn that it has done the same to Daniel Bogden, U.S. attorney for Nevada.

According to today’s Las Vegas Review-Journal, no one seems to know why he’s been asked to leave before his term expires in 2008. As in Lam’s ouster, there appear to be no charges of wrongdoing against Bogden.

There’s a question mark here. There’s an implied mystery — “no one seems to know.” The blogger has told us why the story piques his curiosity, what he knows and where he learned it, and what he hopes to find out next. Meanwhile, his fellow muckrakers — in the best muckrakish tradition — are breathlessly promising “More soon!”

Notice that transparency doesn’t obfuscate narrative here, it facilitates it. The way the TPM reporters frame?their work makes you want to know what happens next. In the past, we’ve envisioned transparency as a cumbersome add-on to the reporting and storytelling process (e.g. a “How we reported the story” sidebar). Bloggers have shown that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Contrast the TPM blogging with the first New York Times story to hint at the scandal, published five days after Josh Marshall’s muckrakers started to smell a rat. That story is a black box, arriving as a seamless package of factory-assembled facts, with no history or future.

My hunch is that journalists will do ourselves and our societies a favor by building on the approach demonstrated by TPM and other bloggers inside and outside of Big Media. If we do our part to spread knowledge about how we acquire and evaluate information, we make it likelier that our audiences will consider that knowledge as they do the same. Exposing our methods in a more open fashion might allow them to be criticized, but who’s to say those critiques won’t help us improve those methods?

For these reasons and others, I intend to ask the reporters working on the prototype to blog their progress as they gather and filter information for the site. Of course, the blog will also be a forum (not the only one, I think) for the community of people deeply interested in the topics we’ll be covering.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect that just because we blog transparently, folks will magically start turning into journalistic savants right and left. But I do think it’s an important piece of how journalism should change. More (!) on this forthcoming.

The Business Side

Oct. 8, 2008

You might have noticed that I’ve said nary a word about the business model. I would love to be able to ignore the business side of this equation and focus all my attention on fixing the journalism, but the content model I’m proposing will certainly have implications for the business model online (positive ones, I think). And as segments of the economy crash around us, it might just be a good time to set up my thinking on that.

I’ll frame the discussion this way: The news product has lessened in value for each of our two key stakeholders — audiences and advertisers. Why? I’m sure you already know this part:

For audiences, an overabundance in the supply of information makes news less valuable. Much of the info news organizations publish — national and international news, recipes, opinions, gardening tips, movie reviews, etc. — can now be found in greater quality and greater supply elsewhere. And our main franchise, local news, isn’t valuable enough to support our large reporting, editing and production staffs.

For advertisers, meanwhile, our products are increasingly no longer the best gateway to an audience interested in their products. If you want to sell a car, you use Craigslist or list it on a car-shopping site.

This one-two punch seems like a hopeless situation for publishers. Reasonable people are asking, How are we ever going to fix the news if we can’t pay for it?

I’ve got few answers, but I do have a pair of assumptions to match my pair of stakeholders.

Assumption #1: “Where attention flows, money follows.”

Kevin Kelly’s contention that attention can always be monetized is the article of faith that keeps many a publisher in the business, I think. It’s certainly the reason Google acquired YouTube and Murdoch purchased MySpace. The cheaper information becomes, the more scarce and valuable attention becomes. That value can be converted into money. Newspapers, for example, have always sold a portion of the attention we attract to advertisers.

Assumption #2: Not all attention is created equal.

People looking for products to buy compose some massive share of Google’s giant stockpile of attention. Many businesses will pay good money for a portion of that share. But much of the attention news websites attract is difficult to sell to advertisers. We’ve had trouble monetizing sports stories, for example, although they typically bring a large percentage of traffic on your standard metro daily newspaper site. And just try finding a (non-political) advertiser for your politics site.

Among the reasons news companies put out so much commodity content — the aforementioned recipes, gardening tips, and movie reviews — is that advertisers love the attention this content attracts. But it can be tough to find buyers for the attention garnered from “serious” journalism.

Of course, any amount of attention can be monetized to some degree, with remnant advertising or Google AdSense. But unless we’re talking huge amounts of traffic, publishers tend to find the returns on those forms of advertising insufficient to cover the cost of providing the content in the first place.

So when we talk about figuring out our business woes, I think we’re actually asking two questions:

How do we increase the amount or intensity of attention we draw?

How do we sustainably convert that attention into money?

Fair warning — most of my research is going to focus on the first question. But I’ll also be sniffing for insight on the latter.


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