The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down…

You can’t let go and you can’t hold on. – Garcia/Hunter

Piece Work, William Gropper (1953-56)

Piece Work, William Gropper (1953-56)

When my father, who’s now retired, started in the textiles industry almost four decades ago, he was quick to the see the drawbacks of the dominant compensation scheme at the time – known as “piecework” – which paid sewing machine operators based on the number of items they could crank out in a given day.

Piecework may encourage people to work harder, he observed, but it doesn’t encourage them to work smarter. By creating a system that values quantity over quality, paying by the piece leads to more mistakes and, over time, a less reliable product. As an entrepreneur seeking to differentiate himself in an industry increasingly dominated by cheap, low-quality imports, that didn’t sit well; so he broke ranks and started paying his employees a competitive hourly wage, even if it meant less bang for the buck in the short term.

Since then the value of piecework has been largely discredited and the practice is now most closely associated with sweatshop labor. Sadly, that message has been lost on the digital media sector – which has been advancing its own bastardized version of the piecework system under the guise of “incentivized” pay.

As David Carr reported this week, at least four major new-media outlets – and one established newspaper publisher – have begun limited transitions to a pay-per-click model that compensates journalists not by how many stories they break or the amount of actual reporting work that goes into them, but by how many readers they can lure behind the headline.

In the language of textiles, reporters at those outfits will now get paid based on how many people they can get to try on their clothes; the quality of the stitch, the durability of the fabric, the craftsmanship of the work – none of that really matters. The clothes don’t even have to fit. You just need to entice lots of people to squeeze into them for a few seconds and watch the pennies start rolling in.

The deficiency of this model hardly needs articulating. At best it will force journalists to make a financial sacrifice to cover stories that lack sex appeal but are still vital to an informed citizenry (“boring but important,” to journalists of a certain age). But more likely it will encourage them to avoid writing those kinds of stories altogether.

As CJR.org’s Ryan Chittum keenly predicts: “The logical end point…is sensationalist and thinly reported news. Period. Full stop.”

That’s because instead of rewarding good journalism, the new model incentivizes the look at me-ism that is already endemic to modern media and culture. From under our noses, the last bastion of thoughtful public discourse, the venerable Fourth Estate, is being auctioned off to the loudest voice in the room — or the first person to find the Rob Ford crack tape — under the guise of progress. Remember when viral meant something icky and treacherous?

That’s not to say “news porn” hasn’t always existed. It has. But it was relegated to the checkout aisle at the grocery store, the Maury Povich show, and the 30 minutes following the national news each weeknight. It didn’t compete for space on Nightline.

At no other time in the history of modern journalism would a story about the governor of Michigan suspending 300 same-sex marriage licenses show up on the same page — let alone directly next to — a headline that reads “Watch This Man Eat Every Single Burger On The Burger King Menu In One Sitting.” (Thanks for that BuzzFeed.)

For decades newspapers and networks enforced a strict separation of powers between real news and fluff. Each operated under a different mandate with their own budgets and metrics. News, it was understood, occupied its own unique domain, and its value was measured using terms like “credibility” and “integrity” rather than “page views” and “click-through rates.” There was no “news business” in any modern sense of the word. Journalism was a public service — or if you go back far enough (Hearst, Pulitzer) a more personal one. But it was never simply a mechanism for maximizing revenues.

As Marc Gunther observed in 1999:

Back then, the networks earned enough money from entertainment programming that they could afford to run their news operations at a loss. And so they did. Former CBS correspondent Marvin Kalb recalls Owner and Chairman William Paley instructing news reporters at a meeting in the early 1960’s that they shouldn’t be concerned about costs. “I have Jack Benny to make money,” he told them.

That barrier has been gradually dissolving for years under the pressure of market forces tied largely to digitization. But until recently at least, there was still an understanding that journalists performed a service so important that it rendered their valuation impervious to the whims of armchair voyeurs. Or at least publishers tried pretty damn hard to maintain the illusion that they did. Not any more. Now real reporters are being forced to sing for their supper in the same key as tabloid hacks.  Journalism is going Top-40.

If pay-per-click isn’t bad enough on its own, the new piecework model is being coupled with new initiatives designed to eke even more work from overtaxed writers.

The Oregonian, writes Carr:

“…will require reporters to post new articles three times a day, and to post the first comment under any significant article…Beyond that, reporters are expected to increase their average number of daily posts by 25 percent by the middle of the year and an additional 15 percent in the second half of the year.

If that sounds like it won’t leave much time for serious work, the new initiative also calls for reporters to ‘produce top-flight journalistic and digitally oriented enterprise as measured by two major projects a quarter,’ which will include ‘goals by projects on page views and engagement.’ In the more-with-less annals of corporate mandates, this one is a doozy.

(Remember what I said earlier about sweatshop labor?)

In simple terms this means Oregonian reporters will be required to factor potential click rates into their enterprise story pitches before they even start working on them. What could possibly go wrong?

These so called “incentive” efforts that value quantity over quality (and by extension image over substance) announce that a paradigm shift is underway in the field of journalism.

The evidence of this transition can be seen in two separate but tangentially-related events: the rejection of the low- (or no-) pay internship by young journalists and Ezra Klein’s decision to hire Brandon Ambrosino — a young gay essayist who’s made a name for himself writing contrarian opinion pieces based on his personal experiences that seem intentionally framed to incite the gay community (and Reza Aslan).

Ambrosino’s been writing semi-professionally for less than two years. His work is mediocre at best, and there is no evidence he’s ever actually practiced journalism (from what I can tell he has never interviewed anyone who doesn’t share his last name). His work reads like it came out of the worn moleskin journal of any one of a thousand recent college grads who have turned to the pen to work out their youthful angst. I’d be willing to bet some of it probably has.

There is nothing unique or wrong with that. I have a few of those journals myself somewhere. The difference is that someone had the good sense to deny my 20-something self a megaphone at a high-profile new venture dedicated to revolutionizing the craft of journalism. Call me curmudgeonly, but if the goal is to make the profession better, it should probably be a prerequisite to have actually done journalism first. (Would you hire someone to redo your kitchen that’s never handled a power drill?)

Writing personal missives about how your father is coming to terms with your homosexuality — no matter how heartfelt and honest — does not a journalist make.

Klein defended the hire by saying that while Ambrosino’s writing is not exactly a fit for Project X, he’s eager to learn. Okay, I’ll buy that; and I wish him the best of luck. But the same thing could be said about nearly every single kid coming out of Northwestern’s J-school this spring. And I’d bet my house there were dozens if not hundreds of better qualified candidates for Ambrosino’s post (full disclosure, I was NOT one of them).  But the difference is those applicants probably weren’t also walking click-bait. (Sorry Ezra, I dig you I really do, but I have to call it like I see it).

Don’t get me wrong, being a journalist doesn’t require a college degree, let alone one in journalism; but like any craft or profession, to perform good journalism — and most certainly to revolutionize it — requires what Adam Gurri recently described as “practical wisdom,” which is “something developed by being inculcated into the conventions of a practice, and through sheer experience.

This inculcation and experience used to be acquired from the ground up with your feet in the trenches — usually by starting off in a low-level apprenticeship or internship and spending a lot of time nodding and listening.  But while today’s aspiring media professionals will gladly put themselves thousands of dollars into debt for four years of college, many have come to view four additional months of free on-the-job training subsidized by nights waiting tables as exploitative.

One can hardly blame them. How do you sell a new graduate on the value and necessity of paying their dues when all it takes is a free personal blog, one well-timed essay, and a smattering of orchestrated controversy to launch yourself into the journalism limelight?

Carr sums it up best when he writes: “Journalism’s status as a profession is up for grabs.”

I find that tragic. And it’s not just because journalism is my job. I’ll be just fine. I’m almost midway through my career and have earned the luxury of fully reporting a story out before I commit it to print. No, my heart goes out to the news consumers who will be forced to glean worthwhile knowledge from the drivel that’s destined to spew from this new pay-per-click regime and the suffering young journalists competing for a chance to write it. They will be the real losers.

 

Chopped Salad, Bad Sex and the Journalist as Social Scientist

hookupcultureScattered amidst the vociferous backlash to Kate Taylor’s July 12 New York Times piece on Ivy League women and hookup culture (and the notably muted outrage over a Times trend story on chopped salad) was this short but thoughtful posting from NYU journalism professor and new-media guru Jay Rosen, who cut through the myriad of individual issues readers took with Taylor’s article to call into question its very existence:

“These kinds of stories try to generalize about trends that involve hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people. But even after spending FIVE MONTHS full time on a story like “sex on campus,” the reporter talks to maybe a couple hundred people at most.

Rosen’s conclusion?

“[T]his particular genre of journalism, the newspaper trend story, was made for a world in which it was difficult for people to share reactions and compare their experience to the journalist’s generalizations and the handful of examples that inevitably have to stand for a complex whole. What looks to the reporter and editor like a thorough and professional job was never really a thorough job, but the atomization of the audience and the one-way nature of the media platform prevented this fact from being widely known. Now it is made known as soon as the trend story hits the internet.”

Rosen’s post intrigued me, and led to the following exchange:

I was happy to see that Rosen wasn’t dismissing the very idea of trend pieces, just how we report them. Having a foundation in the social sciences (B.S. Sociology) has given me an innate respect for the power of broad-based societal trends to reveal cultural truths that are too easily dismissed when experienced only at ground level.

I have a 24-year-old stepdaughter in college and live a few subway stops from the University of Pennsylvania, where Taylor did her reporting; from where I stand, it’s hardly a revelation that modern college courtship — to the extent it exists — is more likely to begin with condoms and beer than roses and chocolates. However the larger implications of this intuitive knowledge remain invisible without placing them within the context of “American college students” rather than “Philadelphia 20-somethings who my stepdaughter knows and happens to talk about.”

Social science offers a time-tested foundation for adding that context; but all it takes is a few semesters around statisticians to learn that the ability to milk trends from data speaks nothing of the nuance required to package it for delivery and reception.  (For more on the nuances of good statistical reporting check out Ezra Klein’s piece on Nate Silver.)

Journalism is a wonderful medium for adding an element of humane warmth to cold, hard data. But as Rosen rightly points out, the immediacy and infinite reach of the social Web shot a hole in whatever illusion we ever had that the data of humanity — with all its quirks and tics — can be captured, processed and accurately presented by the work of a single reporter with a notebook.  Is it even possible to do the thorough job that Rosen laments is lacking in Taylor’s reportage?  I think so. With digital reporting tools at our disposal, journalists are more equipped than ever to mimic social science in their pursuit of source material. Thanks to e-mail, chat, and social media we now have the ability to simultaneously engage thousands of college students on their sexual habits without ever leaving the office.

Of course to purists, to even suggest such a thing is heresy.

Publishers have developed all kinds of hacky interactive tricks to flex their digital muscles (two that come to mind: Buzzfeed’s “React with an animated GIF” feature, and the Guardian’s MadLibs-style tribute to Glenn Greenwald).  But when it comes to interacting with sources, any technology developed after 1900 is too often dismissed as inauthentic.

Indeed, writing in April for the American Journalism Review, Mark Lisheron reported that a number of college newspapers are banning e-mail interviews altogether:

Veteran reporters who benefit from e-mail every day think too many of their colleagues are relying too often on e-mail interviewing. They think it’s lazy. They think readers are cheated. They think they are cheated by sources who want an advantage in an interview situation.

Editors worry that giving sources the time to draft responses to questions in writing will deny reporters the advantage of surprise and remove serendipity from the mix. I agree that this is a legitimate concern — in some cases. But not all reporting is inherently adversarial (trend pieces on college sex and chopped salad probably fall into this category). Would a piece on college hookup culture sourced from 3,000 emails sent to verified students at a dozen colleges really be any less authentic than one based on 200 sit-down interviews? On the contrary; I think if she had conducted a handful of in-depth interviews and augmented them with crowdsourced responses drawn from a mass e-mail campaign — and made that process transparent — Taylor’s piece would not only have been more thorough and accurate, but by engaging a wider array of voices she probably could have avoided some criticism (perhaps even Rosen’s).

If the method for getting at trend stories is no longer adequate — in fact never was adequate — perhaps we need better methods. I think we already have them, but we are afraid of what our peers will think if we use them. Are electronic, text-based platforms the right choice for every interview? God no. I can think of a number of circumstances where I would recoil at the very thought of using them.  But rather than devaluing any engagement with a source that doesn’t start with a handshake or end with a phone call, maybe it’s time to accept that not every tool is right for every job and that there are better ways than Taylor’s to decipher cultural trends.

Yes Virginia, there are journalists

Media geeks took to their keyboards this week to pontificate on a column posted over the weekend by New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan under the headline “Who is a journalist?”  Begging your pardon, but I’m about to join them.

The impetus for Sullivan’s commentary was an article on WikiLeaks that ran in the Tuesday edition of the paper citing a source named Alexa O’Brien, who has been serving as a sort of “people’s stenographer” at the trial of Army private-turned-whistleblower Bradley Manning.

Here’s the Huffington Post’s take on how O’Brien spends her time:

“An IT professional-turned-independent journalist in her 30s, O’Brien has been a player in a number of major protests against the Obama administration. She’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit launched by journalist Chris Hedges against the Obama administration over a law mandating indefinite military detention for suspected terrorists. Starting in January 2011, she covered WikiLeaks’ release of the State Department cables.”

The Times reporters did their own assessment of O’Brien’s career and chose to refer to her as an “activist” in their article, dropping any reference to her role as a journalist. O’Brien was understandably peeved and wrote the paper to request a correction — which was approved by the Times‘ resident expert on such matters and published in the next day’s edition.

According to Sullivan, the series of events — as well as an earlier Times article that referred to Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald as a “blogger” — calls into question the very definition of a journalist in an atmosphere in which anyone with an Internet connection now has the ability to call themselves one.

In answering her own question, Sullivan offers this simplistic, and to my mind severely wanting, definition:

“A real journalist is one who understands, at a cellular level, and doesn’t shy away from, the adversarial relationship between government and press — the very tension that America’s founders had in mind with the First Amendment.”

In his response to Sullivan’s column, media pundit and J-school professor Jeff Jarvis took an even broader approach, with a column titled “There are no journalists” that proposes doing away with the term altogether. According to Jarvis, “anything that reliably serves the end of an informed community is journalism,” and the urge to elevate those who practice it to some specially recognized status only complicates things.

While there is nothing semantically wrong with either of those positions, I find myself wary of the notion that journalism a.) is inherently adversarial, and b.) if left to its own devices will morph into existence by the sheer will of our collective desire for truth and justice.  To be fair, Jarvis envisions a role for some form of expert to “add value” to the journalistic process, but he is uncomfortable with the “baggage” the term “journalist” carries with it.

What Jarvis sees as impedimenta, however, I recognize as containing a seed of value for the continuity of a craft so vital to our democracy that the framers deemed it necessary to include it in the Bill of Rights. In my mind, responsible or “reliable” journalism embodies respect for the ethical tradition of the craft. Can that tradition be transmitted without a framework of professionalism? Absolutely. But it’s hit or miss, and I’m not comfortable with those odds. As a journalism professor, Jarvis isn’t either, which is something he confirms every time he shows up in class to impart his wisdom to a new crop of students.

That being said, addressing the rise of citizen journalists by attempting to codify the profession with a grocery list of increasingly obsolete caveats is even more problematic.

It just so happens that in 2011 a federal judge laid out some legal precedent on the definition of a journalist in the case of a Montana-based blogger accused of defamation. According to court records and media reports, the defendant in the case, Crystal Cox, perpetrated a sort of journalistic extortion scam, writing disparaging (and highly inventive) articles about an Oregon-based company called Obsidian Finance Group and then offering them her services as a paid reputation management specialist.

When called to task in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, Cox claimed that her “work” fell under the rubric of investigative journalism and sought the protection of Oregon’s journalism shield law. In ruling against Cox, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez listed seven reasons why Cox is not a journalist, and, to many observers, seemed to set a pretty high bar for what it takes to qualify as one:

(1) Cox lacked any education in journalism; (2) she had no credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) there was no proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) she did not keep notes of conversations and interviews conducted; (5) she failed to adhere to a mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality with her sources; (6) her work was based on assembling writings and postings of others; (7) she didn’t contact “the other side” to get both sides of a story.

“Without evidence of this nature,” the judge wrote, the “defendant is not ‘media.’”

For the record, I agree with Hernandez’s assertion that Cox is not a journalist (and the judge did eventually clarify his ruling to indicate it was specifically tailored to the defendant); but there are a number of problems with the list he created.  For one thing there are plenty of real reporters who have no formal journalism training, and there are bona fide independent journalists who have no formal affiliation with a “recognized news entity.”  As for creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings of others, aggregation has emerged as a valuable source of information, and if conducted in the spirit of journalism it certainly qualifies as such. A caveat requiring journalists to always contact the other side, meanwhile, would negate all editorial and opinion writers from the journalistic profession.

If there is a single variable on Judge Hernandez’s list that differentiates real journalists from the blooming crop of wannabes, it’s number 3, establishing a requirement for embracing journalistic standards.  In a representative democracy, foremost among these standards is a dedication to the conscientious search for truth, wherever the trail may lead, and — at least to some degree — a willingness to put one’s own neck on the line in the interest of creating an informed citizenry. It is important to be impartial and open to new ideas, even if they challenge your own prejudices (yes, even journalists have them); but we should avoid the false god of objectivity, and his bastard son false equivalence. And in case it isn’t obvious, you don’t publish vitriolic hyperbole about people and their businesses and then charge them money to rectify the damage you’ve caused.

If nothing else, the transmission of professional standards justifies the continued existence of the professional journalist. Letting people make the rules up as they go along and hoping they get it right — or assuming that media consumers will naturally gravitate towards the people who do — is an ineffectual method for ensuring the continuity of journalistic ethics.  Instead we need people like Jarvis, Sullivan, Jay Rosen, Stephen J.A. Ward, and the myriad of J-school professors, reporters, editors, photographers, etc. who embody that ethic to pass it on. I personally have no problem calling those people journalists.

Why we still need reporters, Part II

In a post today at Poynter.org, Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, adds his voice to the discussion covered in my prior post — that of the future of journalists in a digital world where “facts” seem to be only a mouse click away.  According to Rosenstiel, it’s dangerously short-sighted to disengage the role of reporter from the process of gathering and synthesizing information, even when so much of it seems to be so freely available. In response to Jonathan Stray’s — and to a lesser extent my own — assertion that in today’s connected 24-hour news cycle journalism’s value resides more in its ability to give meaning to information than to deliver it, Rosenstiel counters:

“Knowing the facts of an event is a multi-dimensional process of discovery — an official action, an event, followed by inquiry, reaction and observation, new questions, then more inquiry. It’s a process that repeats itself and involves shoe-leather reporting and the ability to make sense of the streams produced by officials and the public.”

Rosenstiel rejects the “displacement” theory of journalism, and argues that rather than accepting the evolution of media distribution into parallel channels represented by unfiltered information on the one hand (YouTube, Twitter) and interpretative analysis on the other (real, live, expert reporters), the industry needs to seek a sweet spot where these channels flow together. In this way he challenges both digital purists who believe citizen journalists can replace professional ones and neo-luddites who worry that the rise of crowdsourcing will be the death knell for quality reporting. (I tend to fall somewhere in the latter camp, so I find Rosenstiel’s take on things both refreshing and encouraging):

“Machines bring the capacity to count. Citizens bring expertise, experience and an expanded capacity to observe events from more vantage points. Journalists bring access, the ability to interrogate people in power, to dig, to translate and triangulate incoming information, and a traditional discipline of an open-minded pursuit of truth. They work best in concert.

Rosenstiel continues:

We need journalists, in other words, to embrace the potential of the network and vet and organize its input, while also providing the elements that skilled journalists at any given moment are best disposed to offer. This is the way to a deeper and wider foundation of facts and community understanding.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Thanks for the insight Tom!

“Narrative Collapse” and the threat to quality reporting

youtubeIn Sunday’s New York Times columnist Frank Bruni ran a piece under the ominous headline  “Who Needs Reporters” in response to Michelle Bachmann’s decision to skip the news conference and announce her decision not to seek reelection via a self-produced online video (he mentions similar approaches employed by Hillary Clinton and Anthony Weiner). The piece calls into question the continued relevance of the news media in an age when sources have direct access to their constituents.

Bruni writes:

“[O]ur role and relevance are arguably even more imperiled by politicians’ ability, in this newly wired world of ours, to go around us and present themselves in packages that we can’t simultaneously unwrap. To get a message out, they don’t have to beseech a network’s indulgence. They don’t have to rely on a newspaper’s attention. The Bachmann, Weiner and Clinton videos are especially vivid examples of that, reflections and harbingers of an era in which YouTube is the public square, and the fourth estate is a borderline obsolescent one.”

I agree with Bruni that the fourth estate is imperiled, but I’m not sure the example he uses is the most compelling. For one thing, the news media serves as something much bigger than a mere messaging platform for politicos to make their case to the public, even if it is usually an interactive one. And while it’s true that unlike self-produced videos, press conferences don’t allow for second takes, beyond the danger of working without a net, there’s not necessarily much difference between the two. For one thing, the media has the same access to these videos as the public, and can therefore add context to the story as fast as they can write up a reaction piece. As for the ability to “simultaneously unwrap” politicians’ messages during a press conference – by which I assume Bruni means engage the presenter with questions in real time – there is no guarantee a news conference will be a two-way engagement.  Politicians reserve the option of refusing to answer questions after making a statement, and they regularly do.

But I’m not here to contradict Bruni’s assertion that this “newly wired world of ours” is upending the profession of journalism. Hell, the very fact that this blog exists is evidence Bruni and I are in agreement about that.  Rather the story got me thinking about how technology really is changing journalism, and how those changes are deeply impacting the way news consumers relate to information.

I recently finished Douglas Rushkoff’s new book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now,” and the author’s insights into the news media are particularly relevant to this discussion. In a chapter titled “Narrative Collapse” Rushkoff explains how presentism – referring to the metamorphosis of human ontological perception in the digital age – is reshaping the worlds of media, culture, politics and commerce by forcing us to become less introspective and more reactionary as we deal with a near constant influx of actionable intelligence.  The shift is compounded by the absence of the concise story lines that we’ve relied on for centuries to help explain the world around us through anecdote, story arc and critical analysis.  In a 24-hour news cycle, consumers have little time for formalities, and resource-starved publishers are happy to skip them. By contrast:

“The daily news cycle gave everyone, from editors to politicians, the opportunity to spin and contextualize news into stories…A presentist mediascape may prevent the construction of false and misleading narratives by elites who mean us no good, but it also tends to leave everyone looking for direction and responding or over-responding to every bump in the road.”

According to Rushkoff, the unrestrained ascendency of amateur journalism has led to a world where a majority of online commentary is derivative, contrarian and polemical – where “most of us are simply making comments about the columns written by other bloggers, who are commenting still on others.” Even worse, he writes, is the decline of “what used to be professional journalism into professional opining” – a trend that perpetuates “the sense that there is no objective truth.

This is a potentially perilous place for a real shoe-to-the-pavement reporter to find himself. With so many “facts” floating around, it’s become harder to distinguish good reporting from bad. (An entire industry of media fact-checkers has emerged to try to play referee). Long gone are the days when the man on TV could tell you “That’s the way it is” and you could be fairly certain you knew the way it was.

There is a school of thought that believes that given time the market will weed out the bad information, leaving only the accurate, meaningful stuff behind; but I’m not convinced. Consider, as Rushkoff does, that from 1985 to 2005, the number of Americans unsure about evolution increased from 7 percent to 21 percent; and between 1997 and 2010, the number of people questioning climate change rose from 31-48 percent. In the world of information, the cream does not always rise to the top. And when it comes to facts, too many of us are playing a game of pick and choose.

As far as many readers are concerned, Rushkoff writes:

“An op-ed in the New York Times may as well be a column on the Huffington Post, which may as well be a personal blog or Twitter stream. Everyone’s opinion may as well matter as much as everyone else’s, resulting in a population who believes its uninformed opinions are as valid as those of experts who have actually studied a particular problem.”

And therein lies the real threat to journalism (and, dare I say, our democratic republic — which relies on an informed citizenry). Bruni focused on political news conferences, but most news consumers stopped trusting politicians long ago. There’s probably not much of a risk we’re going to start taking them at face value because they employ good lighting and a neatly packaged video stream. More worrisome is how the always-on hum of information, both quality and crap, is changing the way people become informed. The easier it is to acquire information, the more confident the average consumer becomes in her ability to adequately process it and the less she is willing to trust the people who actually can.

The job of the journalist is to turn noise into news. Having access to information is one thing, knowing what to do with it is something else entirely. There was and always will be a need for expert filters to “evaluate messaging…with some level of expertise in ascertaining the truth.”  If that sounds elitist, I can accept that.  News is too critical to freedom to risk getting it wrong.

News in the fast lane

fastlaneInteresting new data from McKinsey & Co. suggests that while people are getting a lot more news from digital sources, they’re probably not spending enough time with it to actually be engaged and informed.  According to the report, cited here by Poynter, when measured by actual consumption time, digital accounts for just 8 percent of the total media pie, a meager helping that tastes good going down but probably offers little sustenance.

As Poynter’s Rick Edmonds notes,  newspaper and magazine consumers are more inclined to savor and digest what they are reading, making them more likely to absorb its value.

“Newspaper readers ‘lean back,’ as the current lingo goes, and probably spend 20 to 40 minutes over morning coffee or catching up in the evening,” he writes. “The legions of NPR listeners could easily log an hour of commuting drive time getting news that way. Television, while it may not get undivided attention, is on for long periods.”

By contrast, the average digital news consumer commits as little as two minutes a day to reading news (four minutes if they are on a PC) — compared to 35 minutes for newspapers and 41 minutes for TV.

Of course, these mediums are not mutually exclusive; most consumers probably get their news from some combination of all three sources. But the data does seem to confirm that digital mediums are not conducive to the kind of attentive, contemplative consumption that is usually required to develop insight into a particular topic.  

Edmonds insists there are benefits to the type of media “snacking” digital consumers engage in. Shorter sessions “may be a more efficient way of consuming news and also lead to participation via comments and social media,” he writes. I’ll buy that.  But we must accept there is a tipping point over which gains in efficiency begin producing diminishing returns.  After all, how far can consumer engagement advance civic dialogue if it not informed?  Absent critical insight, “participation” quickly devolves into the mindless, and often vitriolic, chatter that injects so many article comment streams.

Sticking with the metaphor, is it possible to be engaged and informed by forgoing wholesome meals in favor of small bites of news taken often and repeatedly over the course of a day? The answer is probably yes. But not until our “digestive tracts” have evolved to a point where we can consume, absorb and critically assess important information in mere minutes — a process that for the history of learning has required considerably more effort.  New digital platforms that don’t simply mirror legacy ones are a good place to start.

“The trouble isn’t that we have too much information at our fingertips,” wrote futurologist Jamais Cascio, in 2009, “but that our tools for managing it are still in their infancy.”

A few pioneering platforms — Buzzfeed comes to mind — are attuned to this new snacking mentality and are developing their tools accordingly — mostly by repackaging their content to make ample use of large, bolded typeface, super-sized imagery and lots and lots of listicles. It’s all very catchy. Still, I can’t help but worry that we’ll lose out on something in a world where our news delivery platforms look more like billboards on a highway — designed to get the point across at 60mph — than mediums for thoughtful reflection.

Why photo purists are wrong about “Gaza Burial”

This is a bit off topic for The Hamster Wheel, but given that it deals with journalism in the digital age I’d argue that it is relevant. Also, as both a photographer and a writer, I felt there was a perspective on this story that has been missing from the commentary that is circulating this week. I felt compelled to offer that perspective. A version of this originally appeared at Phillymag.com.

On Tuesday, Swedish photographer Paul Hansen, winner of the 2012 World Press Photo award for best picture, was vindicated of charges that his winning image was a “fraudulent forgery” following weeks of mudslinging by a handful of photo-purists who took issue with the way the picture was created.  The striking photograph, which depicts a group of Palestinians mourning two young victims of an Israeli missile strike, raised a stink due to its creative use of toning and Hansen’s reliance on post-production processing techniques to add an emotive quality to the work.

worldpressphoto hansen-1

In a strongly worded rebuke published on the photography blog Petapixel just days after Hansen’s image was singled out by an international panel of jurists (including the director of photography for The Associated Press), Allen Murabayashi—co-founder of PhotoShelter, which builds websites for photographers—criticized the illustrative quality of Hansen’s and other winners’ work, claiming that it is indicative of the declining standards of documentary photography.

“When an award-winning photojournalism photo has been toned to look like a movie poster, you are signaling to next year’s entrants that the bar has moved,” Murabayashi wrote. “Find the best retoucher you can, and heighten the drama as much as possible. We don’t care about factual statements. We care about visceral reaction and entertainment value. Make us feel something! Truth be damned.”

Debate over Hansen’s photo percolated for weeks following Murabayashi’s post—mostly confined to the photography community; but it was rekindled this past Sunday when forensic image analyst Neal Krawetz—who achieved semi-fame in 2007 for exposing doctored al-Qaeda propaganda videos—published the results of an analysis of Hansen’s award-winning photo on his blog that purports to show the photographer combined several images to make his picture.

“This year’s ‘World Press Photo Award’ wasn’t given for a photograph. It was awarded to a digital composite that was significantly reworked,” Krawetz wrote.

World Press Foundation organizers quickly came to Hansen’s defense and conducted an independent analysis that appears to prove the photo’s authenticity. In a statement issued on May 14 the foundation calls Krawetz’s findings “misleading” and “deeply flawed” and concludes that while the tone, color and contrast of Hansen’s image were manipulated through processing, it is not a composite and conforms to the “accepted practices of the profession.”

Case closed, but not really. The kerfuffle over “Gaza Burial”  has renewed an age-old argument over the use of post-processing in photojournalism that has intensified considerably since the advent of digital editing software. For some purists, even so much as cropping an image crosses the line; however, most news outlets—The Associated Press, for instance—provide more flexibility and draw the line at allowing any digital manipulation that would have been possible in a traditional darkroom (a threshold Hansen’s image would be unlikely to meet given the complexity of the adjustments). On the other side of the equation is a generation of photographers raised on Photoshop who recognize few boundaries in the making of a good picture.

As a documentary photographer I can sympathize with the position of purists like Murabayashi. There is no doubt that media and news outlets are increasingly obsessed with getting a visceral reaction from viewers/readers—mostly because there is so much more competition for eyeballs.  Plus, these days everyone with an Instagram account thinks they are a photographer (and unfortunately for those of us who really are, they have the tools to make pics that look pretty spectacular with the click of a button). So there is the issue of a lowering bar, and the risk that professional standards will decline with it. I believe this is a valid concern and one that I share with critics of Hansen’s image.

However, as a writer I would urge caution against implying that “emotionalizing” news with the creative devices at our disposal necessarily devalues it. More than any other news professional, photographers are forced to bear the burden of this unreasonable presumption.

Print journalists (by which, in this case, I mean those whose medium is text) regularly use creative literary devices—narrative, anecdote and/or emotionally engaging headlines—to make their stories “pop.”  We use catchy ledes to draw readers in (Murabayashi uses one of his own in his piece criticizing Hansen. Take a look.) We cut quotes from different parts of interviews and we decide which ones to spotlight as pull-quotes in magazine pieces. I wonder, would those who are opposed to cropping in editorial photography argue that the only truthful way to present an interview is to publish the full transcript?  After a story is finished, another creative professional — the editor — goes over it again, to tweak it, snip it, shape it and polish the rough edges of the original.

The process of text journalism is one of revision — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Photographers, on the other hand, are expected to get it right the first time; they are discouraged from tweaking or polishing at all and held to exceedingly high scrutiny when they do. How is this any different than asking a writer to sit down, bang out a draft, and send it right to print?

The whole process of journalistic writing involves manipulating a bunch of facts in a compelling way to tell an honest story. The threshold for print reporters is whether a story accurately represents the truth on the ground and that whatever dramatic effect he or she uses to tell the story is not gratuitous, but rather contributes to enlightening the reader to a reality of which they are not personally privy. For writers, drama is regularly a part of this process, and discerning readers are usually able to tell when the line has been crossed.

I don’t believe Hansen crossed that line with “Gaza Burial.” I’ve seen the RAW file depicting the original version, as have many others. Is the edited one more dramatic? Definitely. Is it inauthentic? No. The problem with Murabayashi’s argument—and that advanced by other purists—is that it confuses facts with honesty. As any first-year J-school student can tell you, journalism is about more than simply throwing a bunch of facts on a page and seeing where they land; it’s about telling stories that matter.  A camera is a tool just as a keyboard is a tool; but it’s the journalist using it that ultimately tells the story. Prohibiting a professional from using his or her creative toolkit just because that tool kit is more technologically advanced than it used to be is unfairly austere and reactionary. That’s not to say there aren’t limits.  Most professional journalists and editors know what they are, and we retreat from them. At least those of us that matter. We give writers broad leeway to use their creative skills to sift through the “facts” and present us the “truth.” Do photojournalists deserve any less?

News on the Cheap

victorianpayThe U.K.’s National Association of Press Agencies  is calling out online publications for their abysmal pay policies, equating the compensation packages for digital copy with “Victorian-era wages.”  Hyperbole aside, as the Press Gazette reports,  most British newspapers that buy online copy from third party agencies (Britain’s version of a wire service) pay a fraction of what they’d shell out for a print piece, and typically offer a flat fee regardless of length. According to the report, The Daily Telegraph and Mail Online pay an average of about $50 per story, which in my experience is about right for a typical blog post unless you happen to be writing for The Huffington Post (though well below what I would accept for a reported piece).

Said NAPA chairman Matthew Bell: “We accepted long ago that the rates would be lower and we continued to provide copy to help them grow their sites. Some newspapers, to their credit, have increased payments as their sites have become more successful. Others, however, have not.”

To hear the industry folks tell it, in 2013 journalists should take heart in the fact that we’re getting paid at all. Responding to Nate Thayer’s justifiable hissy fit about being asked to re-purpose a piece for the Atlantic.com for free, senior editor Alexis Madrigal used more than 4,000 words to basically tell freelancers: you guys are fucked.

“Some people reading this might say: This new world of digital journalism sucks. Hey, I agree sometimes!” Madrigal wrote.

The problem is one of simple economics. When it comes to digital content, we’re in a state of hyperinflation. There’s so much of it in circulation that it’s value is sinking fast, and is usually incommensurate to the work that goes into its production.  What happens when the value sinks so low that no self-respecting American journalist can afford to create it anymore (and still eat, that is)? I’ll answer that with a question: Ever hear of Journatic?

Tony Gallagher, editor of the Telegraph, recently calculated how much content his organization is churning out. On an average day, the paper produces 600 articles, 40 videos, 25 picture galleries and 25 concurrently updated blogs — at least two-thirds of it digital only.  In the 24 hours following Margaret Thatcher’s death, the Telegraph ran 75 articles, 26 commentaries, 19 videos, eight picture galleries, and three graphics on the former Prime Minister. I mean, how many different ways can you write an obituary? More importantly, how many do readers really need? We’re literally drowning in copy. Is it any wonder few digital publishers can (or are willing to) pay a fair price for it?  Over the past five years the content glut has hit journalists (both freelancers and staffers) where it hurts. Between 2007 and 2012, journalists went from making 4 percent more than the average American to making 8 percent less, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.

The fear among some quarters is that commoditized content will so fundamentally alter the nature of news media that it will eventually undermine its democratic mission. In a March blog post titled “3 ways to save journalism from extinction,” George F. Snell offers his ideas about how to fix the problem, such as pricing digital content at the same rate as print and forcing major content aggregators to cough up some of their ad dollars to content creators. He also suggests serious news outlets — those that truly care about producing a quality product — consider adopting the nonprofit model. But even if all that happens, it’s doubtful any money will trickle back down to journalists at the bottom.  After all, it’s hard to retake ground that’s already been lost.

The problem with celebrity journalists

howard-kurtz(Hint: They spend too much time being celebrities and not enough time being journalists)

The twitter-verse is abuzz today over Howard Kurtz’s “separation” from The Daily Beast following his jumbled attempt to cover his ass after insinuating that Jason Collins had omitted the fact that he’d been engaged from his Sports Illustrated coming-out cover story. It turns out Collins had mentioned the engagement (would it really matter if he hadn’t?) But instead of issuing a contrite mea culpa and promising to do better next time, Kurtz decided to take the arrogant route:

https://twitter.com/HowardKurtz/statuses/329704758665412609

And it looks like it just might have gotten him canned.

It’s none too surprising given his bloated stature and (rumored) bloated paycheck that the new-media hounds (I among them) are fast on Kurtz’s scent, chasing down every embarrassing quirk and tick, wondering aloud how a guy with such perfect hair can be so, well, imperfect.  As for me, I chalk it up to simple hubris, which is in abundant supply in an era where the value of a journo’s life work is gauged in numbers of Twitter followers and how many places he can be at once.

Kurtz — who by his own admission works “a zillion hours a week” — counts himself a member of a boisterous gaggle of new-media journos reveling in the spotlight of digital stardom. (I’ll refrain from naming names, but with all the tweeting some of them do it’s a wonder they find any time at all to report actual stories). Now before you call me lazy, disingenuous or simply bitter, I value the Protestant work ethic as much as the next guy; and I wouldn’t shake a stick at a little well-deserved fame, either. I have been known to pull a few 14-hour days too; but I work for myself and literally bite and scratch for every paying byline. Call me antediluvian, but I say a six-figure paycheck and carte blanche to write anything you want for just about anyone you want without an editor so much as questioning a questionable factoid demands a certain level of discipline, humility, discerning and quiet reflection — not to mention actual legwork (you know, like actually reading a story before commenting on it). But that’s probably asking too much from someone whose main concern is how many social media streams their byline can cut across in a given hour.

It goes without saying there are plenty of big name new-media giants who are doing thoughtful and important work. And I am well aware that the days when all a journalist needed was a pencil, a steno book and a pack of Chesterfields are long gone. Unfortunately, in The Hamster Wheel, every minute you’re not publishing, tweeting, blogging, Pinteresting, Storifying or yacking it up on camera for a live Internet audience is a minute you don’t exist. It doesn’t have to be that way. Some of us need to scramble wildly to maintain our tenuous toehold in the digital newsroom. Those who don’t should count their lucky stars and get back to some good old-fashioned muckraking. Minus the Chesterfields if you can help it. (Hell, isn’t it time you switched to filters?)

And the youth shall set us free

The Hamster Wheel is happy to see the next generation of journalists — those intrepid cub reporters churning out copy for the nation’s college newspapers — have been assessing the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath as a tale of caution on the perils of the 24-hour news cycle. For students mulling a future in journalism, coverage of Boston offered an abject lesson in how a single tweet has the power to shape entire broadcasts, and every piece of information — no matter how tangential or fragmentary — has become justification for a breaking headline. It seems the kids have been getting the message.

Andy Taylor, Editor in Chief of the Patriot Talon at The University of Texas at Tyler, writes:

“There was a time when a news outlet’s reputation was based on its accuracy. The best reporters were the ones who told the whole story without bias or dishonesty. That paradigm has shifted to one that values expediency above all else. ‘Get it right’ sadly has become ‘Get it first.'”

Writing for University of Southern California’s Daily Trojan, Sonali Chanchani, an English major, found inspiration in journalist David Grann’s April 17 tweet:

Carrie Hausman, in commentary published today in Creighton University’s The Creightonian, understands that breaking news is important for media outlets, but insists that it’s “the crave for information that, hypothetically, drives a media outlet to do the things that, two hours later, are clearly over-the-line.”

She writes:

“When you’re in the moment, when you have information that needs to be shared, it’s hard to resist the urge to send it off without double-checking it. Add in the pressure of being expected to fill-up dead air with something that people will watch for ratings, and it’s easy to see how things like CNN having an hour of build up for exclusive information that didn’t exist on the Boston Marathon bombings can happen, but it shouldn’t. News should be for the sake of news, not for the sake of ratings.

The future of the craft has spoken.