Monthly Archives: September 2014

Yes, it matters if senior staff at your institution use social media. Here’s why.

Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram asks whether it matters whether some editors and reporters at the New York Times tweet or not, riffing on the “Twitter graveyard” that Charlie Warzel dug up at Buzzfeed. As Warzel notes, dozens of Times staff are dormant or are “eggs,” with default accounts. My answer is simple: yes, it matters, and as I clarified to Patrick LaForge, a long-time, active Twitter user who I think uses it quite well, this isn’t about how they tweet but whether they do it at all.

Full disclosure: I gave the Times a much longer, richer answer regarding social media when their researcher interviewed me for the innovation report that leaked earlier this year. I was constructively critical then and will try to be now, as well.

It’s true that Twitter is being actively used by a smaller percentage of American adults online (19%) than other platforms, like Facebook. While I think that underbills Twitter’s influence and reach, I would be interested to see Charlie Warzel or a media reporter audit the NYTimes use & participation on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+ Hangouts with readers, Reddit, or comment sections. That would be more representative of total commitment and action on reader engagement, as opposed to a Buzzfeed post that may feel like a potshot to people internally. As someone who has watched and participated in discussion about Times content on all of those channels, I can say with some certainty that there is a gradient of demonstrated use & active listening. As long as @deanbaquet is silent, though, folks at 620 Eight Avenue should be prepared for negative comparisons to Alan Rusbridger (@arusbridger) at the Guardian and external analysts wondering whether he understands how the top editor acts sets the bar, high or low, for a media organization. Reasonable editors can differ, as Lydia Polgreen does:

I’ve consulted for a number of people on this front over the years and done internal training at past gigs. Showing you are listening with a favorite or retweeting a reply that advanced a story is valuable; it’s the first step to ‘tweeting your beat.’ For instance, for Baquet, retweeting a different reporter sharing her or his big story once every day would demonstrate that he was reading his own staff and using the audience that he has accumulated to amplify stories would be a safe approach. From where I sit, leading a media organization now includes a profoundly public component, and as the “sources have gone direct,” top editors are ceding ground by not using social media to get their perspective into discussion; posting a press release online or emailing statements is a limited and limiting approach. As for whether someone can lead a newsroom effectively or not without paying attention to Twitter, knowing what your staff or those you respect in the industry are saying about you or your leadership, or how they are responding to public critique or your journalism, is relevant to understanding what their challenges or needs are.

I don’t understand some arguments I see elsewhere online that engaging with readers, across platforms and email, doesn’t make the product better or make someone a better editors. The best reporters I know have active inboxes, busy phones and are constantly vetting stories with sources. The idea that products and services don’t get better through exposure to the customers, clients, readers, buyers or users and listening to their responses goes against the grain of everything we’ve learned about iterative, user-centric design over the last decade, in media organizations or out. I find that many comments, @replies, email or calls I get about my journalism makes it better — not all, by any stretch, but a lot, particularly by people who do research in the space, who do what I’m describing, who report on it or are affected by it. If you don’t think so, that’s fine. It’s been my impression that Margaret Sullivan (@sulliview) is a great public editor because she is an active listener online, not just in her inbox.

I understand that some people may still feel that Twitter is dumb, inane, hobbled by a character limit or not a valuable place for senior staff to spend time. In response, I would suggest looking at how another executive editor at a towering media institution in the United States that’s also working to transform from a print-centric model is handling Twitter: Marty Baron, at the Washington Post: @PostBaron. It sure seems like Marty Baron has quite similar working conditions and roles and constraints as Baquet, and yet manages to approach public communication in a different way.

Time is not the issue at the Times or elsewhere. It’s culture. It takes 10 minutes a day to log on to Twitter, read replies, search for responses to your stories (just put in URL) and send a tweet and RT another one. Anyone in government, media, academia or nonprofits who portrays doing that as a bigger time commitment is being disingenuous, perhaps because they simply don’t want to use the platform, given years of negative media reports about how people act there. It’s certainly true that building and engaging an audience takes time, training or experiential learning, but it’s also worth noting that former Timesman Brian Stelter reported his heart out daily and managed to balance building large, engaged social networks. This isn’t the false dichotomy that I keep seeing, where it’s either you report or you use social media: it’s both/and.

Creating an account on a two-way platform and then walking away, ignoring people talking to you, is like going to a cocktail party with strangers and spending your time looking at your phone and ignoring people — or occasionally saying something at dinner and ignoring what people around the table say in response. It may be better strategically, from my standpoint, not to create an account at all than to do so and then abandon it. Your mileage, as ever, may vary.

UPDATE: Folks who said critiquing the lack of tweets by Dean Baquet wasn’t reasonable, take note: the NYT executive editor responded to Steve Buttry, writing that “the fact that I have made so little use of Twitter is fair game for criticism.” I’d take this as tacit acknowledgement that it’s fair game to critique other folks in the media, too. (In other news, I should have asked him for comment on this post, too.)

As Steve notes, though, Baquet adds an observation that I suspect will create more concern than it tamps down:

“One of the biggest criticisms aimed at my generation of editors is that we created a priesthood, that we decided who was a journalist and who was not. If you hadn’t done cops and courts you weren’t a journalist, etc. That characterization was right on. We deserved the hit.

As I observe the criticism nowadays, you will forgive me for noting that it sounds like a new priesthood is being created, with new rules for entry. Don’t take that as saying I should not tweet more. I should. Just a warning that each generation of journalists seems so certain they know what it takes to be a journalist.”

As it happens, the metaphor is one I know well: Back in 2009, when I met Arianna Huffington for the first time at the FTC, she asked me to write up our conversation for her site. So, I did. Its title? “Is Journalism Going Through Its Own Reformation?

Maybe I’ve misread the criticism of Baquet that I’ve seen elsewhere, but my view is exactly the opposite: the smartest young journalists coming up and the Generation X-ers (ahem) that preceded them, along with their wise elders, understand at visceral level that social media, online video and smartphones have shifted how newsgathering works, democratizing publishing to all and enabling any connected person to report and commit acts of journalism.

The people formerly known as the audience, per NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, certainly know and experiences this during every breaking news situation, with all the confusion and misinformation it creates For much of the public, a top editor publicly choosing not to participate in the hurly burly of online conversation, even to the point of not contributing, much less demonstrating listening or acting as a hub to redistribute confirmed reports, might look like he or she is remaining aloof, choosing to preach from in front of the cathedral, not minister to a circle of friends.

Personally, I look forward to Baquet joining these conversations. I have faith they will be better for having him in it.

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Reports of Twitter shifting to an algorithmic timeline raise concerns about user control and experience

Twitter is signaling that it’s going to change how it shows the timeline to users, or at least experiment with it. Here’s what the company CFO actually said yesterday, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“Twitter’s timeline is organized in reverse chronological order, a delivery system that has not changed since the product was created eight years ago and one that some early adopters consider sacred to the core Twitter experience. But this “isn’t the most relevant experience for a user,” Noto said. Timely tweets can get buried at the bottom of the feed if the user doesn’t have the app open, for example. “Putting that content in front of the person at that moment in time is a way to organize that content better.”

Mathew Ingram read the WSJ report and interpreted it to mean that a “Facebook-style feed is coming, whether you like it or not.” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo objected to that headline and characterization:

After Ingram’s post, both Mashable’s Karissa Bell suggested and Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel have suggested that users shouldn’t freak out about a filtered feed because Twitter isn’t turning into Facebook — yet. Like Ingram, Warzel notes that this change to product might be an improvement for normal or new users:

For average Twitter users, an algorithmic feed might be just the incentive to head to Twitter for breaking news like so many journalists and news fiends. Given the newsgathering makeup of the social network, the content is already there. And this would certainly help expose a great number of tweets to a larger audience.
Of course this is a terrifying prospect for Twitter’s most obsessive crowd. The ones who live on Twitter. And for good reason! For plenty of journalists Twitter is a key tool in their day to day work and, for some, an integral platform in advancing their careers. But there’s nothing in Noto’s comments to suggest that this incarnation of Twitter — the core component of the social network that’s led to the platform’s meteoric rise, IPO, and global success — can’t co-exist with an algorithmically-driven timeline.

At the risk of giving Twitter too much credit, it seems preposterous that the company’s executives and product team would toss out the very core of the site and almost maliciously alienate its most ardent supporters and users. Sure, there’s wide concerns that Twitter’s product team doesn’t have the same relationship to the product as most intense newsgatherers, but it seems odd that the company, which employs a Head of News executive and frequently touts the importance of the raw feed during live events, would be clueless as to the platform’s standing in the news community.

Still, even the possibility of the change has riled a lot of people up, particularly media, and for good reason: the defaults do matter, particularly when the vast majority of users access the service using Twitter.com, m.twitter.com or the official mobile applications. There’s good reason to be concerned, as Ingram highlighted:

The most recent example of how stark the differences can be between a filtered feed and an unfiltered one was the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. and how that showed up so dramatically on Twitter but was barely present for most users of Facebook. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci noted, that kind of filtering has social consequences — and journalism professor Emily Bell pointed out that doing this makes Facebook and Twitter into information gatekeepers in much the same way newspapers used to be.

Tufecki holds that Twitter should not algorithmically curate users’ timelines, even if algorithms will always serve tweets:

It’s simple: Twitter’s uncurated feed certainly has some downsides, and I can see some algorithmic improvements that would make it easier for early users to adopt the service, but they’d potentially be chopping off the very—sometimes magical—ability of mature Twitter to surface from the network. And the key to this power isn’t the reverse chronology but rather the fact that the network allows humans to exercise free judgment on the worth of content, without strong algorithmic biases. That cumulative, networked freedom is what extends the range of what Twitter can value and surface, and provides some of the best experiences of Twitter.

I’m inclined to take these concerns seriously but I’ll keep my powder dry just yet, with respect to upset. My take (yeah, I know) is that if Twitter experiments with giving users of its website an algorithmically curated stream to improve the relevance of what they see, OK… new users may appreciate that product. Or not. Either way, I hope that the company preserves API access for 3rd party clients, like Tweetbot. I hope Twitter preserves user’s ability to use Tweetdeck to view the timeline of people you follow and lists in reverse chronological order. I want to be able to decide, just as I do on the Facebook newsfeed with “Most Recent” vs “Top News,” and just as I want to know that I see every tweet from the people I’ve chosen to follow or put on the list.

If any of that access or control actually changes, then you’ll see me getting genuinely upset about Twitter breaking Twitter, just as I was when they crippled the free flow of information over the service in the name of spam and phishing prevention. Ironically, the Wall Street Journal also reported that Twitter is going to put more emphasis on messaging after it neglecting it for years, perhaps enabling “group chats” after adding pictures earlier this year. If so, I hope the company adds more domains to the small white list it currently allows. Tufecki, for her part, has an even longer wish list for improvements:

…there are many, many things Twitter could do to address all of that without breaking its networked, human-prioritizing logic. Much much better tutorials seems like such an obvious step (I have hardly seen good ones). Better suggestions for users to follow, perhaps a dozen at a time, and better ways of trying following groups of people. Right now, it’s all individual and arduous, and that should remain the core option, but the entry ramp could be much faster. Better filtering, too, especially of mentions would be very welcome. I’m craving a timed mute, for example—let me mute out someone who I don’t happen to want to listen that day or that week, without having to mute them permanently. Group chat for DM? Woohoo. DM is among Twitter’s most powerful features because it only allows contact from people one chooses to follow which is a better filter than email, but not as strict a one as Facebook which operates differently. Also, brevity makes DM more powerful. And lists! Twitter can do so much more to make lists more useful to its users to let users decide how to deal with signal/noise and interest ratios.

There is so much Twitter can do try to improve the user experience, for both the experienced and the beginner. But I hope that it does not algorithmically curate the feed, not because I love the chronology per se, but because I value people’s judgement. Yes, Twitter can make it easier to access that judgment in more varied ways but stepping between people I choose to follow and me is not the answer.

Asked for comment on these reports, Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser pointed me to Costolo’s reply to an analyst during Twitter’s earning call this July:

Vis-à-vis the additional products we could see I mentioned that I really again the kinds of experiences we created around topics and live events during the World Cup. We will run a number of experiments to that broader audience those unique visitors I talked about and I wouldn’t want to be specific about the sequence with which roll those out or when you would see those. On your second question, algorithmic timelines for example versus manually curated follow lists I think it’s fair to say that we are not ruling out any kinds of changes that we might deliver in the product in service to bridging that gap between signing up for Twitter and receiving immediate value and you will see a number of kinds of experiments that we produce there.

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

Alexis Sobel Fitts wrote a great cover story for the Columbia Journalism Review this week, as measured by its narrative coverage of the rise of the I f*cking love science (IFLS) Facebook page or its creator, Elise Andrew. Unfortunately, the piece was hobbled by a false title and embedded premise: that this was the first time a journalist 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.

Andrew also took 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 has now 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 IFLS;s Facebook page “journalism,” which I’d 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 this Facebook account has been “a new form of journalism or even journalism at all is debatable,” Fitts acknowledged 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 unsure how the issues in this article got by an editor. 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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