Monthly Archives: December 2008

Why journalists need to stop playing catch-up, start focusing on the next news model

News organizations won’t stay afloat and continue to provide an essential service to democracy because the public suddenly values what they’ve been selling.

They’ll stay afloat because forward-thinking leaders will make sure the news organizations are damn good at the next news model, and the next one after that. Someone is going to figure out every new model for news distribution, whether it’s tomorrow’s model or 2050’s model.

Who will figure it out? I’d much prefer it be the the journalists who have the ethical standards and story-telling skills that have long thrived. I’d much prefer it be the organizations that can maintain journalism as a decently-paid profession, attracting intelligent people to the career.

But that’s not a given, and that’s not such a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing for the public that Twitter is better for breaking news than a newspaper; it’s just a bad thing for journalists that they didn’t create Twitter first.

So journalists: Let’s stop complaining about the fact that we’re getting our asses whooped at today’s news model.

Let’s just get on top of the next one.

I’ve come to see that catch-up is a silly game to play. I’m tired of reading blogs that don’t engage the readers in conversation, of breaking news that isn’t really breaking, of static storytelling when two-way storytelling is desperately needed. These are all concepts that the Internet public has mastered without the help of news organizations.

This round is over. Journalists lost.

But lucky for journalists, there are plenty more rounds to come. Time to invest our money and expertise into focusing on the next ones.

You know, while we still have some money and expertise left.

This is far from an anti-blogger screed, or any indication of journalistic arrogance. The next news model will utilize what the bloggers have done well (immediacy, diversity, voice) and lend to it what the institution of journalism has historically done well (accuracy, authority, ethics). Then we’ll add some new virtues into the fold (aggregation, curation, community-building).

What that next news model will be is a question for people far smarter than I, but I personally believe the prize will go to whoever can master those new virtues. And there’s no reason why news organizations, with their deep pockets, highly skilled journalists and histories in their communities, can’t lead the way.

Here’s the good news: This doesn’t require massive firings that suck the life out of the print product, and it doesn’t even require you to sell your entire newsroom on these new models. Those who have been carelessly labeled as “curmudgeons” can keep their opinions of the Web as long as they keep doing what they do best: Supporting the print product that still pays everyone else’s salary.

This works as long as you have others at the newspaper who are focused on innovation. Those people ought to be identified (or hired), given the space and time they need, then set loose to experiment.

The focus on today’s news model — and quite often yesterday’s — can at best slow the decline of news organizations. It’s not even doing that particularly well. When every newspaper of every size places innovation at a higher priority, even if it slightly dents the print product, we’ll have a collection of minds that’d have to be considered the favorite to find the next model.

Thought exercise: What if the public didn’t care about truth?

Truth is one of the bedrock principles of journalism, as it should be.

But what if the public decided it placed zero value in truth? What if the public decided it sought nothing more than affirmation of existing beliefs, even if it came at the expense of truth? What if the audience cared about truth as much as they care about how the newspaper tastes?

Would the news media then adjust how it values truth? Would it stubbornly hold tight to truth as a bedrock principle, even as the public decided it would no longer support that kind of product? Would it shift along with the public, giving them what they want by doing away with fact-checking and ethical responsibilities?

Which would be the right decision?

This is an intentionally absurd, heretical question. I’m curious to see how journalists and non-journalists respond, and I hope there’s some good action in the comment thread.

Defending the underlying principles of crowdsourcing

“One thing we don’t get with online sourcing : verification of the source. When you have a nickname and a maybe-fake email addy, how can you resist manipulation and ill will ? Are virtual witnesses as valuable as real ones ? How can we backup our stories with sources we can’t really identify ?”

— Someone named “JPF” on my first post about crowdsourcing

This is a point worth fleshing out. And it doesn’t bother me that I don’t know who JPF is because he/she provides valuable content.

There have been some legitimate arguments against some forms of crowdsourcing. Many have been expressed in the comments on my last two entries (Part 1 made the argument that crowdsourcing can help ease the pain of shrinking staffs, Part 2 gave some specific examples in which it can be easily, immediately and responsibly deployed.)

Virtual, pseudonymous sources are not equal to verified ones. No one has ever disputed that.

But the skeptics of crowdsourcing tend to ignore what those sources do ably provide, overstate the likelihood and significance of vandalism, and understate the value of when it’s done well.

There also seems to be a fear, which JPF expressed, that it will totally replace standard reporting practices. Nope. I’m just talking about replacing specific, wasteful forms of reporting that no reporter will miss: Traffic, gas prices, Man on the Street stories. I’m not turning over council coverage to the crowd.

Generally, the crowdsourcing skeptics tend to go directly to the council scenario and other forms of hard news. So let’s refocus the argument on the more benign uses of the crowd and show why the newsroom and the community benefit.

Legitimate source verification won’t suffer: We must remember that every deployment of crowdsourcing requires varying levels of source verification, just like the journalism we do now.

Let’s take your average Man on the Street story. You’re a reporter, and you approached a man at Riverfront Park to ask him about his opinion on the economy. You ask him for his name and his hometown, and he gives it to you.

How often does the reporter ask to see his driver’s license? How often does the reporter check that against the phone book or LexisNexis once back in the office?

For most reporters: Not very often. That’s rightly because there’s a significant gap between a man on the street and someone e-mailing you leaks and claiming to be an insider at a company.

When it comes to sources that obviously need to be strictly verified: Do you really know any reporters dumb enough to use information from an anonymous person just because it was read on the Internet? Really? Think about the mindless cariacature of a reporter that would be.

No one is talking about compromising core journalistic values. To JPF’s point: No one is backing up significant stories with sources we can’t identify. That won’t happen and it’s not part of the discussion.

Crowdsourcing creates a better product: But remember: Only in specific areas where the crowd’s collective wisdom far trumps the newsroom’s ability to make phone calls and drive out to scenes.

Part 2 covers this in-depth. I understand there will be some hesitations on gas prices and MOTS stories, but I’m trying to anticipate the opposite arguments on crowdsourced traffic updates and I just can’t conjure any up. The information will be far more current than we typically get now, and it’ll be done with zero staff input.

Crowdsourcing saves the newsroom time: A good MOTS story can take up a reporter’s entire day. No longer would a reporter have to call each individual gas station for a weekly roundup.

We don’t have as much time as we used to before the attrition and buyouts and layoffs. It’s an absolute necessity to find areas of greater efficiency, or core community stories and significant enterprise will continue to evaporate at the expense of some easily outsourced stories.

Crowdsourcing gives the readers a small sense of satisfaction: Some will get a thrill out of knowing they helped people save time by avoiding I-83 because of that ill-timed construction.

Crowdsourcing is already happening, you just haven’t been calling it that: At my paper, The Fan Line is one of the most popular features. It allows people to anonymously call in and share their thoughts on the sports news of the day.

It’s awful. It’s wonderful. You can’t look away. It even caused a local reader to start up a blog criticizing and mocking the people who call in.

When I interned for The Wichita Eagle, they had a similar feature about news that ran daily on the Opinion page. I’m sure there are countless others around the country that have figured out that people love reading candid thoughts, and they’re not concerned about where they come from.

Crowdsourcing is fundamental to the Web: And haven’t you heard? The Web is kinda important these days.

It’s part of the participatory culture that people expect out of the Web. Our we-tell-you-and-you-listen model that’s served us well since the printing press is crumbling.

Adjusting to the Web isn’t just a matter of shoveling our fantastic material so our loyal readers can experience it on their monitors. It requires a shift in all of our processes, including the new gathering process.

Easy, immediate, responsible deployments of crowdsourcing

(This is Part 2 on my series about crowdsourcing. Part 1 argued the crowd can help ease the pain of a shrinking staff, and Part 3 defended the underlying principles of crowdsourcing.)

I understand that crowdsourcing is a scary word to a lot of journalists. So I thought it would help to offer some specific examples of how it could be utilized.

When you read this, keep in mind: Staff resources are very limited, and becoming more limited by the day. We’re searching for newsroom inefficiencies, old practices we can cut or change that will open up time for the core enterprise that will keep news organizations relevant.

Something’s gotta give, and I’ve targeted these traditional story genres as areas that can be overhauled by utilizing the crowd:

Traffic: When big traffic events happen, the local Twitter community goes into action without anyone commanding it to.

About a month ago, the search for bank robbers shut down a major interstate, and the local Twitter users were sharing back-road detours. I told Twitter when I was on a jammed-up North Front Street, and one of the users said she took a different route because of it.

This is an outfit of several dozen. Now imagine if an army of the entire community could contribute to something like this, even if they’re not on Twitter. Imagine if any Pennlive reader stuck in a traffic jam could send a single text message, and alert everyone in the community to stay away from I-81 northbound.

You’d get immediate updates from every corner of the region, and you wouldn’t need to invest staff resources into calling busy police dispatchers who are just as far away from the scene and often have old information.

It could be presented in its own area, with the standard disclaimers that it’s provided by the community and not verified by The Patriot-News. And no one would care about that disclaimer, and they’d probably check it often before driving home for the day.

The risk of vandalism is minimal, you’re saving staff time, and producing a much more comprehensive product than the staff can anyway.

Gas prices: The argument I hear often is that station owners would provide false information on competitors.

But taking that scenario just a few minutes or hours down the road shows the wonderful self-policing nature of crowdsourcing. That competitor would see the false price, then offer the real price. He’d then keep an eye on the price of his station. The site could ban the fraudulent user.

I tend to think that kind of vandalism would be far more rare than the skeptics fear. But regardless of the outcome of that scenario, you’d have to consider it an outlier. Sites like GasBuddy have thrived on this model.

And as we’re searching for our own inefficiencies as staffs get smaller, the more important question to ask is: Does the slight risk of vandalism outweigh what would be a more comprehensive product for the readers, and the elimination of a time-consuming task for reporters? It’s a minimal price I’m willing to pay as we’re forced to make tough decisions.

Man on the Street: Reporters complain about these stories more than any others. And with good reason. You can’t get a mathematically representative sample and it often takes a lot of interviews to get valuable insight.

That’s a lot of staff time spent on stories that don’t add much more than the comment thread below a story on Pennlive. There’s a lot of static in those comment threads, but you’ll also occasionally find some valuable insight.

No, you don’t know the identity of hbgmom233. But when you want opinions on how Penn State will fare in the Rose Bowl, no one cares who she is except maybe journalists.

Indeed, surrounding her comments with background on her PSU fandom and follow-up questions is better than just reprinting her comments. But again, the real question is: Does that extra context outweigh a greater quantity of opinions and a considerable expenditure of time by a reporter?

Notice that this list doesn’t include council meetings. I’m a crowdsourcing centrist — I’m not sold on a responsible way to crowdsource those without making too many journalistic compromises.

We may get to that point, but I list these three now as immediate examples of ways the crowd can be responsibly deployed. These are very minimal compromises, and it just takes a cost/benefit analysis to start saving reporters’ time and producing a better product.

Crowdsourcing can lead newspapers through buyout blues

(This is Part 1 of a three-part series on crowdsourcing. Read Part 2 for specific examples of ways the crowd can be responsibly deployed, and Part 3 for a defense of the underlying principles of it.)

Last week, my newspaper said goodbye to nine journalists, a combined 227 years of experience between them.

In the coming weeks, we’ll say goodbye to another load. By January 1, the reporters in the cubicles to the front, left and right of me will be gone.

As the entire newsroom gathered around the city desk to pay tribute to the departed, you couldn’t help but be struck by how much more real, how much more human it all seems when it hits your own newsroom. We’re fortunate that these nine were all bought out, not laid off, so for them it seemed an awkward mix of emotions that falls somewhere between sadness, exhaustion and relief.

Until now, those of us Left Behind just had to shoulder through the nagging pain of attrition, responsibilities piled upon responsibilities. Now, with an estimated 25 percent of the newsroom leaving, it’s become unavoidably clear that stacking can no longer be part of our newsroom model. Not when we’re losing this many people; no one can stack that high.

The only possibility is to drastically cut open and operate on every practice we know. Eliminate inefficiencies. Find new opportunities of strength. Sacrifice the sacred cows that don’t deserve to be sacred anymore. Refocus our priorities.

I’m annoyingly stubborn in believing that despite the devastating cuts, The Patriot-News can redefine itself and serve the community better than it ever has.

It’s a simple formula: As the number of reporters decreases, the importance of efficient sourcing increases.

And it just so happens there’s a wildly efficient pool of sources just waiting for us to tap into it: It’s time for a wider embrace of crowdsourcing in its many forms. All it would require is a sledgehammer to the institutional arrogance rooted deeply in the newspaper industry.

There’s an active base of readers, even in central Pennsylvania, who would be perfectly willing to chip in when it comes to reporting traffic or gas prices. Given easy access to reporters, they like to share news tips.

It requires a newsroom-wide commitment that sees the benefit of turning over tasks to the community when it will open up time for reporters to spend on significant stories.

It requires a Web operation that doesn’t just shovel our content to the masses, but actively curates the information out there and promotes useful Web activity in the area.

For the resistant reporter, it requires an acknowledgment that reading a forum posting from DerryDynamo isn’t any different than talking to her after the board meeting or answering a phone call, a willingness to sift through the crap for the wealth of valuable information out there, and the ability to develop an online presence in all forms necessary.

And let’s get this straight: The buyouts get us nowhere closer to these goals. There’s a misconception out there that buyouts tend to filter out those who “don’t get the Web,” but that simplistic logic just didn’t bear out here. Among our losses are two journalists on Twitter, our best computer-assisted reporter, and a reporter who’s been blogging since long before it was fashionable. All of the journalists leaving are big losses for the community.

I hold tight to this annoying optimism because we have no choice but to consider this a turning point of some sort, so we might as well make it as positive as possible. Here’s hoping a culture change is very much a part of it.