Tag Archives: journalism

On Columbia Journalism Review’s curiously ahistorical cover story about online journalism

I read the cover story in the Columbia Journalism Review this week. Alexis Sobel Fitts wrote a great feature, as measured by its narrative coverage of the rise of the I f*cking love science (IFLS) Facebook page or its creator, Elise Andrew, but the piece was hobbled by a false title and embedded premise: that this was the first time a journalism or her journalism were entirely self-made, without the help of an existing network or media company.

Journalists have been creating self-made brands for many decades, long before media went online. Even if we limited consideration to when journalism started being produced natively on the Internet, much less using social media, there are many media pioneers who were self-made online long before Andrew, with no assistance from mainstream media.

I’m a relative late-comer to in that kind of effort, but I’ll note proudly that the media brand I started last year has now been cited numerous times by NPR, Wikipedia and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. I’m not looking for credit from CJR or others: I’m simply noting that by putting up a masthead online and publishing on it, I’m following in the digital footsteps of people who started blogging and putting up websites decades ago, including original journalism and media creation. Boing Boing has been online for some 15 years old now, for instance, but is far from the only such enterprise.

What was novel to me about this story was not that aspect — the bold, unsupportable claim that IFLS was this was “journalism’s first self-made brand,” a statement that the author of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” might dispute — but rather how a Facebook page enabled a twentysomething student to build a huge engaged audience without the cost of reporters, marketing, advertising, distribution, taxes or any of the operational costs that a publisher would have had to bear in past decades.

She also bore some risks: if Facebook had changed how it showed her content, the page would have suffered. That’s no longer the case: As CJR reported, IFLS launched a website, iflscience.com.

If you read the comments on the CJR article, you’ll also see many voices calling out a genuinely problematic issue with calling the Facebook page “journalism,” which I define as text, photography or video that includes:

1) context (who/what/when/where/how/why)
2) attribution and sourcing, and
3) fact-checking the veracity of 1) and 2).

Whether what this Facebook posted has been “a new form of journalism or even journalism at all is debatable,” Fitts notes in CJR, but as she also reported, IFLS now has four writers, two of whom have journalism backgrounds. Visitors to the site find an engaging mix of colorful photography, articles, animations and videos, organized into taxonomies.

Most of the posts I browsed today featured a big photo and a few paragraphs summarizing a report or other news and link to the original source, along with a caption sourcing the media. As I explored, I stumbled upon a lovely piece of longform writing, on strange sailor jellyfish — and that it had originally been published elsewhere. Most are 300-500 words long and link out, which is to say they look and read like many of the blogs in the networks that Gawker Media or Vox Media or that routine end up atop TechMeme. They post are also, on average, incredibly popular on Facebook.

The flaws in the CJR cover story are not just about semantics or definitions, at least with respect to an upstart media entity bootstrapping itself without tapping into an existing broadcast power by using digital tools to find new audiences. That’s been happening for a long time, with each succession of media technology, from newspapers to radio to TV to cable news to the Internet.

I generally like reading CJR, but the way the publications covers the Internet is occasionally painful, from social media to technology the history of the Web. I’m insure how the issues in this article got by an editor, though I suspect an editor may well have written the headline, as is common at many publications.

I was also struck by two unanswered questions on revenue (how much, if any, revenue did she receive from Facebook or sponsors How much traffic does her website receive) and wondered the absence of some big news for the site’s creator: a TV show. If CJR decides to do a followup or digest of responses to reader questions, I’d be interested in reading answers.

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What responsibilities does Facebook have to share great journalism?

This past week, I wrote about Mile Hudack’s frustrated Facebook update about Vox and the general state of the media  on Facebook, along with many others, and then posted an edited version on Tumblr, which then hit Mediagazer, the Pew Research Center’s daily briefing and the Nieman Lab’s weekly digest of the week in news. It all felt a bit meta and unexpected for a short piece of quick analysis. What follows is an edited version of that initial update.

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Before reacting to Hudack’s update, I’d found and shared a great feature on the passage of The DATA Act over on Facebook, after reading Matt Yglesias’s reply to Hudack, an advertising product manager at Facebook. That’s not uncommon: I discover great posts, analysis, research and even new data on Facebook frequently in 2014, both shared by friends and family and on various lists I’ve built. I’ve found that a lot of important news will find me, but not all of it, so I intentionally use other methods to discover it, from Twitter to RSS to Google News to reading print magazines and newspapers, listening to NPR and watching the PBS Newshour. I think about social media and the news differently than the average, though, and I use Facebook and Twitter differently than other folks, too, sharing public updates across multiple platforms much more frequently than the average user. That means you should take the following with a grain of salt or two.

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Hudack took the newly launched Vox Media to task for not producing more stories like the one about The DATA Act, a historic open government bill that’s now law, as opposed to a story about jeans.

I’m sympathetic to his frustration: I’ve followed and written about the DATA Act for three years, during which time I saw negligible mainstream coverage of it, much like the current lack of coverage regarding the bipartisan FOIA Reform Act, which passed the House of Representatives unanimously this spring, despite the miserable state of Freedom of Information Act compliance in the federal government.

Vox’s jeans story, Yglesias points out, has been shared four times as much on Facebook as the one about how a bill became law in 2014, which suggests that what’s popular on the world’s biggest social network is a result of decisions its users are making, not the media site that originated them. Reasonable people may differ on this point.

I’m on the media producer side of this equation, given my work, which makes me much more sympathetic to Vox’s side of the debate, along with the situation that faces many other media outlets. To Hudack’s point: yes, there’s a lot of dreck in the vast number of media outlets publishing today, from cable to broadcast to online. There’s also fantastic work from a number of outlets that Hudack didn’t list, many of which can be found attached to Pulitzer prizes and nominated for data journalism awards:

Here’s what Atlantic Media senior editor Alexis Madrigal said about it:

“My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified. I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, ‘They work on Facebook.’ And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’ This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don’t have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook’s social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.”

Like Google, Facebook can send vast amounts of traffic and readers to content producers, which creates a natural incentive to learn how to get the attention of those readers, create incentives for them to click and share, and how to game those systems as well, from search engine optimization (SEO) to social media optimization (SMO). (On the latter count, the reasons people *share* stories can differ from the reasons they *read* them, and the rate at which they share may diverge as a result.)

In both cases, however, a powerful and inscrutable, closely held algorithm is showing stories to people when they visit the platforms. On Google.com, the algorithm shows you links in response to a directed search. If you’re not anonymized, Google will personalize those results.

On Facebook’s newsfeed, the default environment that users spend time browsing every day, they’re likely to now see a mix of ads, lists, updates from brands and pages you’ve liked, and updates from close friends.

Unless Facebook users take specific steps to create a list of them, they won’t find the clean line of chronological updates from friends and family *to* friends and family that they enjoyed back in 2007.

Today, even if we enjoy and benefit from interaction on the platforms, we’re very much living in Facebook’s world, on its terms.

If a director of advertising products for Facebook wants there to be better journalism online, in general, here’s a suggestion: as Facebook builds more mobile products like Paper and develops its online product more, it could also consider partnerships with news organizations on content and revenue. That might make some publishers uncomfortable or balk, but others would experiment. (It sounds like Liz Heron might already be exploring some of those possibilities.)

My colleague at the Tow Center, Andy Carvin, commenting on my initial Facebook post, suggested that Hudack’s career and perspective shouldn’t be viewed only through the prism of Facebook:

Andy Carvin: Mike isn’t director of product at fb. He actually works on ad products for fb. And I know where his frustration is coming from – he founded blip.tv, which became just another content site after he sold it, but prior to that was one of the Net’s first bastions of citizen journalism. He’s also been posting for months about the sorry state of online reporting about Ukraine and other international crises. So I totally get where he’s coming from. Even if fb is driving a lot of content providers to lowest common denominator content, it seems unfair to put this on his shoulders. And ultimately, it’s still the content providers who choose to publish stuff they think will get the most eyeballs, whether via fb or any other vector.

That’s a fair point, and I’m glad he added that context. There’s research from Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism for those who want to dig more.

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That said, if Facebook and its leaders wanted to do more to support investigative journalism that isn’t driven by advertising considerations and shareability on social media, the company and/or newly wealthy senior staff might consider investing a portion of the billions in revenue that Facebook is making annually in improving the supply of it.

Specifically, they might support whatever comes after the newspapers that have traditionally housed the investigative journalists that create it. For instance, they could donate revenue to the foundations that have already been investing in news startups, platforms and education (The Knight Foundation News Challenge comes to mind, but there are others, from Sloan to Ford to Gates to Bloomberg to CIMA, which has published a global strategy to support investigative journalism) or establish Facebook scholarships and build out charitable arm focused on the media, akin to Google.org. The total doesn’t have to be much, relative to the annual revenues, but even tens of millions of dollars annually would make a difference to a lot of outlets and startups.

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When speech becomes text, what happens to writing?

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I successfully put down the baby for her late morning nap half an a hour ago. After running quietly around in sock feet trying to do things while she was out cold, I sat down to answer email and messages. As I entered this post into WordPress, she awoke again.)

It’s not easy to respond quickly and at volume using one hand or thumb, though I’ve gotten much better at both over the past five months with a baby daughter.

Over that time, I’ve been struck by how good the voice recognition in iOS on my iPhone has become. I’ve been able to successfully dictate a rough draft of a long article into the email interface and respond to any number of inbound inquiries that way.

That said, neither the soft keyboard nor voice-to-text on the device are a substitute yet for the 15″ keyboard in my MacBook Pro when I want to write at length.

It’s mostly a matter of numbers: I can still type away at more than eighty words per minute on the full-size keyboard, far faster than I can produce accurate text through any method on my smartphone.

Capturing and sharing anything other than text on the powerful device, however, has become trivially easy, from images to video to audio recordings.

The process of “writing” has long since escaped the boundaries of tabulas, slate and papyrus, moving from pens and paper to explode onto typewriters, personal computers and tablets.

Today, I’m thinking about how the bards of today will  be able to reclaim the oldest form of storytelling — the spoken word — and apply it in a new context.

As we enter the next decade of rapidly improving gestural and tactile interfaces for connected mobile devices, I wonder how long until the generations that preceded me will be able to leave decades of experience with keyboards behind and simply speak naturally to connected devices to share what they thinking or seeing with family, friends and coworkers.

Economist Paul Krugman seemed to be thinking about something similar this morning, in a blog post on “techno-optimism”, when he commented on the differences between economic and technological stagnation:

…I know it doesn’t show in the productivity numbers yet, but anyone who tracks technology has a strong sense that something big has been happening the past few years, that seemingly intractable problems — like speech recognition, adequate translation, self-driving cars, etc. — are suddenly becoming tractable. Basically, smart machines are getting much better at interacting with the natural environment in all its complexity. And that suggests that Skynet will soon kill us all a real transformative leap is somewhere over the horizon, maybe not this decade, but this generation.

Still, what do I know? But Brynjolfsson and McAfee have a new book — not yet out, but I have a manuscript — making this point with many examples and a lot of analysis.

There remain big questions about how the benefits of this technological surge, if it’s coming, will be distributed. But I think this kind of thing has to be taken into account when we try to imagine the future; I’m a great Gordon admirer, but his techniques necessarily involve extrapolating from the past, and aren’t well suited to picking up what could be a major inflection point.

That future feels much closer this morning.

[Image Credit: Navneet Alang, “Sci-Fi Fantasies, Real-Life Disappointments]

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Al Jazeera America bets on an American audience for serious journalism

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I’m watching the launch of Al Jazeera America here in DC, on Channel 107*. (No HD in this media market, from what I can tell.) It’s the biggest launch in broadcast media since Fox News, in 1996, and in media since Politico, in 2007.

Goodbye Current TV, hello Al Jazeera America.

It remains to be seen whether Americans will tune into to a 24-hour news channel that is, like Brian Stelter notes in his piece on Al Jazeera America’s approach to the news, something akin to a journalism professor’s dream, with 14 hours of news daily, documentaries and an aspiration to cover all of the U.S.A. Andrew Beaujon wrote a good primer on the Al Jazeera America launch over at Poynter, from its hiring to its talent to the big question about whether people want straight news.

At launch, I’m optimistic about Al Jazeera America’s programming, at least based upon my experience appearing on Al Jazeera English this winter. From data mining the U.S. election to covering the debates online, I met bright, professional journalists who demonstrated humor, integrity, a commitment to high standards, both technically and editorially, and a willingness to experiment with the incredible new tools that now exist for newsgathering and publishing.

I’ve long since accepted, however, that I may be an outlier in some ways. There are no shortage of Americans who watch and criticize media in 2013. Given 8 hours/day of television and the ease of a tweet or a Facebook update about what we’re watching, we’re all amateur media critics now. The fraction of that viewership who will shift their habits and tune into another channel for this kind of serious journalism isn’t something we know yet.

The modern information diet includes a huge amount of infotainment, advertorial, sports, reality TV and partisan opinion shows. When the ratings come in for Al Jazeera America, six months from now, we’ll have more of a sense of whether there is an audience for this kind of approach and programming, and what that says about us as a people.

I’ll be watching.

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In defense of Twitter’s role as a social media watchdog

Mike Rosenwald is concerned that overzealous critics will make Twitter boring.

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Rosenwald, who has distinguished himself in articles and excellent enterprise reporting at the Washington Post, appears to have strayed into a well-trodden cul de sac of social media criticism.

Writing in the Post, he quotes from series of sources and highlights a couple of Twitter users to arrive at a grand thesis: online mobs taking tweets out of context could chill speech. Rosenwald’s point was amplified by Politico chief economic correspondent Ben White, whose tweet is embedded below:

When I went to grab the embed code for the tweet above, however, I found something curious: I couldn’t generate it. Why? After I strongly but politely challenged White’s point twice on Twitter, he’d blocked me.

Here’s what I said: I am disappointed that the democratization of publishing and speech continues to be resented by the press. Celebrities, media and politicians will be criticized online by the public for inaccuracy and bias. It’s not 1950 anymore. And for that, a journalist blocked me.

Irony aside, I wish White hadn’t taken the nuclear option. I’m no absolutist: when George Packer slammed Twitter 3 years ago, I suggested that he take another look at what was happening there:

Twitter, like so many other things, is what you make of it. Some might go to a cocktail party and talk about fashion, who kissed whom, where the next hot bar is or any number of other superficial topics. Others might hone in on politics, news, technology, media, art, philosophy or any of the other subjects that the New Yorker covers. If you search and listen, it’s not hard to find others sharing news and opinion that’s relevant to your own interests.

Using intelligent filters for information, it’s quite easy to subscribe and digest them at leisure. And it’s as easy as unfollowing someone to winnow out “babble” or a steady stream of mundanity. The impression that one is forced to listen to pabulum, as if obligated to sit through a dreary dinner party or interminable plane ride next to a boring boor, is far from the reality of the actual experience of Twitter or elsewhere.

Packer clearly read my post but didn’t link or reply to it.

Given his public persona, I suspect Rosenwald will be much more open to criticism than Packer or White have proven to be, although I see he hasn’t waded into the vitriolic comments on his story at the Washington Post, which slam Twitter or the article — or both. Here’s what I’ve seen other journalists and Twitter users tweet about the piece:

For my part, I tend to lean towards more speech, not less. Twitter has given millions of people a voice around the world, including the capacity to scrutinize the tweets of members of the media for inaccuracy, bias or ignorance.

That’s not to say that a networked public can’t turn to an online mob and engage in online vigilantism, but the causality that Politico chief White House correspondent Mike Allen trumpeted regarding Twitter use in yesterday’s Playbook was painful to read on Saturday morning.

Twitter makes people online vigilantes? Come on. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and other social media platforms have taken nearly all of the friction out of commenting on public affairs but it’s up to people to decide what to do with them.

As we’ve seen during natural disasters and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, including protests in Turkey this weekend, an increasingly networked public is now acting as reporters and sensors wherever and whenever they are connected, creating an ad hoc system of accountability for governments and filling the gaps where mainstream media outlets are censored or fear to tread.

That emergence still strikes me as positive, on balance, and while I acknowledge the point that White and the sources that Rosenwald quotes make about the potential for self-censorship, I vastly prefer the communications systems of today to the one-to-many broadcasts from last century. If you feel differently, comments — and Twitter — are open.

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Can journalists change their social media avatars to political symbols?

Nisha Chittal asked a number of journalists (including me) about where they stand for on using same-sex marriage symbols on their social media profiles.

Here’s what she found: “The answer is a multi-layered one: it depends on the journalist, the outlet they work for, the social media platform, and whether the journalist is covering this week’s Supreme Court hearings.”

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I was honored to see that Nisha gave me the “kicker quote” at the end. If you’d like to weigh in on your stance on this ethical issue, comment away.

Here’s the statement I submitted to her inquiry:

In general, the consensus answer amongst the journalists I respect is that changing your avatar to a symbol like this is not OK, based upon the ethics policies of places like the AP, WSJ, NYT, PBS or NPR.

I think the capacity to demonstrate support for one side of a contentious social issue like this varies, depending upon the masthead a journalist is working under, the ethics policy of that masthead, the role of the journalist and the coverage area of the journalist. Staking out positions on a reporter’s beat is generally frowned upon.

Opinion journalists who regularly take positions on the issues of the day as columnists have often already made it clear where they stand on a policy or law. Advocacy journalism has an established place in the marketplace for ideas. Readers know where a writer stands and are left to judge the strength of an argument and the evidence presented to back it.

If a reporter takes on overt, implicit position on an issue that she is reporting on, however, will it be possible to interview sources who oppose it?

On the other hand, there are a number of social issues that may have had “sides” in past public discourse but have now become viewpoints that few journalists would find tenable to support today.

How many journalists were able to remain neutral or objective in their coverage of slavery in the 1860s? Womens’ suffrage in the early 20th century? Civil rights in the 1960s? Child slavery, sex trafficking, so-called “honor rape” or the impression of child soldiers in the present?

Interracial marriage was illegal in some states in the Union, not so many years ago. That is not the case any longer. It seems to me that gay marriage is on the same trajectory. The arc of the moral universe is long indeed, but I tend to agree with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on its trajectory: it bends towards justice.

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Hacks at Twitter, New York Times, WSJ and Washington Post highlight need for better security hygiene

email_header_710Earlier tonight, I received an email I would just as soon not have gotten from Twitter, along with 250,000 Twitter users who had their password reset. Twitter security director Bob Lord explained why I’d received the email on the company blog:

“This week, we detected unusual access patterns that led to us identifying unauthorized access attempts to Twitter user data. We discovered one live attack and were able to shut it down in process moments later. However, our investigation has thus far indicated that the attackers may have had access to limited user information – usernames, email addresses, session tokens and encrypted/salted versions of passwords – for approximately 250,000 users.”

Mike Isaac has been following the story the hack at Twitter at AllThingsD, if you want the latest news tonight.

After the password reset, I went through revoked Twitter authorization access to a number of unused apps, something I’ve been doing periodically for years now. That habit is among Twitter’s security recommendations.

I’m thinking about other social media accounts now, too. Shortly after Nicole Perloth began covering IT security for the New York Times, she shifted her practices:

“Within weeks, I set up unique, complex passwords for every Web site, enabled two-step authentication for my e-mail accounts, and even covered up my computer’s Web camera with a piece of masking tape — a precaution that invited ridicule from friends and co-workers who suggested it was time to get my head checked.”

She talked to two top-notch security experts and wrote up a useful list of good digital security practices. Unfortunately, it may be that it takes getting hacked and embarrassed (as I was on Twitter, on Christmas Eve a couple years ago) to change what how people approach securing their digital lives.

I don’t recommend that sort of experience to anyone. I was lucky, was tipped nearly right away and was able to quickly get help from the remarkable Del Harvey, head of the Twitter Safety team.

It could have been much, much worse. I’m thinking of Mat Honan, a Wired journalist who experienced an epic hacking that came about through a chain of  compromised accounts at Amazon, iTunes, Gmail and Twitter. After a lot of work, Honan managed to recover his data, including some precious pictures of his child. In the wake of the hack, he turned on 2-factor authentication on Google and Facebook, turned off “Find my” Apple device, and set up dedicated, secret accounts for password management. Honan isn’t alone in the tech journalist ranks: he just happens to have a bigger platform than most and was willing to make his own painful experience the subject of an extensive story.

A jarring reality is that even people who are practicing reasonably good security hygiene can and do get p0wned. Unfortunately, the weakest point in many networks are the humans — that’s reportedly how Google ran into trouble, when key employees were “spear phished” during “Operation Aurora,” targeted with social engineering attacks that enabled hackers to access the networks.

The last paragraph of Lord’s post suggests that a similar expertise was at work at Twitter, although he does not specify a source.

“This attack was not the work of amateurs, and we do not believe it was an isolated incident. The attackers were extremely sophisticated, and we believe other companies and organizations have also been recently similarly attacked. For that reason we felt that it was important to publicize this attack while we still gather information, and we are helping government and federal law enforcement in their effort to find and prosecute these attackers to make the Internet safer for all users.”

It’s been true for a decade but it’s even clearer in the second month of 2013: practicing basic information security hygiene is now a baseline for anyone else online, particularly those entrusted with handling confidential sources or sensitive information.

Chris Soghoian was clear about the importance of journalists and media companies getting smarter about keeping sources and information safe in 2011. Tonight, I am not sanguine about how much has changed since in the news industry and beyond.

Two days ago, the New York Times disclosed that hackers had infiltrated …the New York Times. The next day, The Wall Street Journal has disclosed similar intrusions. Earlier today, Brian Krebs reported that the Washington Post was broadly infiltrated by Chinese hackers in 2012. The Post confirmed the broad outlines of an attack on its computers.

If you’re a journalist & you’re not using a password manager+unique, long random passwords per website: stop, install and configure one now.

— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) February 2, 2013

If you have a moment this weekend, think through how you’re securing your devices, networks and information. If you use Twitter, visit Twitter.com and update your password. If you haven’t turned on 2-factor authentication for Facebook and Gmail, do so. Update your Web browser and use HTTPS to connect to websites. disable Java in your Web browser. Think through what would happen if you were hacked, in terms of what numbers you would call and where and how your data is backed up. Come up with tough passwords that aren’t easily subject to automated cracking software.

And then hope that researchers figure out a better way to handle authentication for all of the places that require a string of characters we struggle to remember and protect.

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