David Skok: Why we need to separate our stories from our storytelling tools

Edward R. Murrow was a pioneer in television who has shaped the way we tell stories in that medium for over 60 years. He has been immortalized in film and even has a J-school named in his honor. But Murrow’s career began not in TV, where he is most celebrated, but in radio, where he cut his teeth as a war correspondent, broadcasting live from the rooftops as the Blitz rained down on London. Throughout his years in television, Murrow applied the journalistic principles he’d honed through experience to the new medium of sound, pictures, and, eventually, color. You’ll see his legacy in any HD television newscast today.

Murrow found himself at a precipice, and chose to look back to find his way forward.

We are now at another precipice in journalism: The decisions we make about news’ direction in the digital world have the potential to shape how stories will be told for decades to come. So who will be our Murrow?

The problem is that the answer may be more about “what” rather than “who.” In the digital world, the tools we use to tell the world’s stories — Twitter, Google, Facebook — control us as much as we control them. I am a digital journalist, and I’m enthusiastic about what our new platforms can provide us in terms of telling stories. But I also wonder whether we’re letting our tools define, rather than serve, the stories we tell. I wonder whether digital journalism’s Murrow won’t be a journalist, but rather a tool that journalists use.

In this age of crowdsourcing and participatory journalism — this age in which, to some degree, everyone can be a journalist — some would argue that those concerns are moot points: that we don’t need a Murrow anymore. They might say that “transparency is the new objectivity” and that it’s perfectly justifiable for the editor of a technology news site to also run a venture fund. But principles are principles only if they can withstand the changing of circumstances. And dismissing the links to our storytelling past can set digital journalism on a dangerous path.

Mark Coatney, the Tumblr evangelist who left his job at Newsweek to help bridge the gap between journalists and his new parent company, pointed out during the Online News Association conference last week that 105,000 jobs were lost in newspapers between 2001 and 2008. One upshot of that grim stat, as Coatney put it in the talk: “We’re all our own best agents” now.

That may be true for Coatney and for the handful of other journalists who’ve found ways to make names for themselves in this new age, but here’s the unfortunate reality: When those 105,000 reporters, producers, editors, and managers left the profession, they took with them 105,000 versions of professional experience: the experience that comes from covering news events in environments ranging from small towns to war zones. Those 105,000 reporters, producers, editors, and managers, in another time, could have acted as mentors for the new generation of reporters — the young people still predominantly employed by traditional media outlets — that will likely mature in the industry without obvious role models.

Given the changing state of our craft, though, those trends aren’t irreversible. Here are some ideas to get us back on a course that would make Murrow proud.

Put the “digital” back in digital journalism

Twitter, Google, and Facebook – to take the most prominent examples – are wonderful tools that open up a whole new universe of communication, interaction, and reporting. But that’s all that they are: tools. And they are tools, of course, that are provided by profit-driven companies whose interest lies as much in their own benefit as our own. Google News got applause at ONA this weekend when it announced Standout, the new tag that will allow publishers the chance to get a better ranking in their news search results. The line between “journalism organization” and “technology company” has never been thinner. And that may be because we aren’t asking the right questions.

War correspondents are experts in covering war. Health correspondents are experts in covering health. It seems fitting, then, that digital journalists should be experts in covering digital technology news. So the next time you’re at the “launch” of a new product, even one that could be beneficial to the news industry, don’t be afraid to ask questions not just about the product itself, but also about the company’s overall take on privacy, competition, and security. Or about the implications all these tools are having on journalism and on the First Amendment.

If digital journalists – who understand the technology better than most reporters — won’t ask these questions, who will?

Seek facts…but also seek verification

By now we’ve all heard that social media and the Internet in general are magnets for hoaxes, fake photos, and errant reports. It’s not that these things didn’t exist before the digital age, but that now, with social media, these reports can be spread rapidly and then be immediately amplified. It’s unrealistic to suggest that inaccuracies can be fully debunked during the initial germination phase, so the responsibility lies with social media editors and producers to fact-check and verify information before amplifying false reports.

For their ONA panel, “B.S. Detection for Digital Journalists,” Craig Silverman and Mandy Jenkins created a terrific slideshow with some tips on how you can detect incorrect information before reposting it online. And of course, the inimitable Andy Carvin is leading the verification charge via his consistent — and very public — attempts to fact-check the information he curates on Twitter.

Those are good starts, but they’re also efforts that need more systematic adoption. As Murrow knew: No matter what the medium, nothing kills credibility faster than reporting false information.

Foster dynamic mentorships

Traditional journalists often trot over to their (often newly-hired) social media editors and digital aggregators and ask those journalists for practical advice: how to use Twitter, how to navigate Facebook, how to mine data for stories. What once felt like a war between traditional and digital journalism has now settled into a somewhat uneasy truce – and into a (sometimes grudging) recognition that, increasingly, “digital” and “journalism” are inextricably connected.

But we’re all in this together, of course. And the onus is on digital journalists to welcome veteran reporters into the future’s fold — to help them navigate the new tools that will inform, if not define, the shape journalism takes going forward.

But the onus is also on digital journalists to learn from the veterans – to learn reporting methods and narrative techniques and skills that have nothing to do with Google or Facebook or Twitter, and everything to do with journalism as it’s been practiced throughout its history. The veterans may not be able to show you how to create Fusion tables, but I can promise that, from them, you’ll learn something new that will help your reporting more than the latest tools ever could.

Image of Edward R. Murrow via the Prelinger Archive used under a Creative Commons license.

The Boston Globe’s new paywall strategy: A Nieman Journalism Lab discussion

On Monday night, we were happy to host a discussion with some top execs at The Boston Globe on their new two-site paywall strategy. Thanks to all of you who either came to Lippmann House for the event, watched the livestream, or followed along on Twitter. We’ve now got video of the full event, which got into some meaty issues around paid content, the merits of a “print-like” experience, and how newspapers are evolving.

Above, you’ll see, from left to right, me; Michael Manning, Globe product manager; Lisa DeSisto, Globe chief advertising officer; Marty Baron, Globe editor; and Chris Mayer, Globe publisher. Enjoy.

Can lessons from Thomson Reuters’ data business help transform its journalism?

As a company, Thomson Reuters is perched high atop a mountain of information. It’s what they do — information in the form of “actionable data” for lawyers, accountants, and financial professionals, but also information in the form of news. You could call them information traffickers.

That fundamental act of packaging and imparting information is what Reg Chua is concerned with. Since being hired as data editor for Thomson Reuters, Chua has set his sights on what Reuters’ journalists on the media side of the fence could learn from the more product-izable business side — namely that people have a willingness, and appetite, for new forms of expressing and delivering information. As data editor, Chua wants Reuters to think bigger than simply using databases in reporting, or building expressive visualizations to partner with stories. What if the data itself, decoupled from the trappings of newswriting, were the story?

“There’s a whole bunch of proprietary databases we don’t use as effectively as we could in terms of reporting and stories,” Chua told me. “More broadly, my job is to get us to use data more effectively in journalism.”

To be clear, Chua isn’t advocating some kind of weird Reuters-synergy where you get fed bits of Westlaw or any other database as news. It’s more about the structure and delivery of information: finding the most effective way of using current technology to meet customers needs. Which is why Chua points to outlets like EveryBlock or PolitiFact, which present non-traditional forms of information as news. PolitiFact, Chua says, “is a good example of when you take a newsroom and rethink what they do, turn it into data, and create a new kind of — for lack of a better word — news product.”

The PolitiFact method is a kind of component journalism, or, as Chua calls it, “a disaggregated story”: It’s broken down according to constituent parts, the collection of statements to be vetted and information to be assessed. It’s not written or reported like a “traditional” story: It cuts out narrative, characterizations, and location in favor of simply conveying facts. “It looks like a story but it’s actually a series of structured information,” Chua said.

Chua’s interest in the infrastructure of journalism stems from his curiosity about technology and business, and it spans his time working at the South China Morning Post and the Wall Street Journal. Last fall, he took to writing his own blog, (Re)Structuring Journalism, which explores the the transformation of news in changing times.

But why does journalism need such a fundamental rethinking? Because journalists have to be able to make the case to readers that the work they do is important — and prove that they’re willing to adapt. “We can’t do that by insisting we get paid for doing more and more of the same thing, especially in the face of a business model that doesn’t make much sense (or at least is unraveling),” Chua said.

So it worked out quite nicely that Chua wound up at an organization that looks like it’s growing more each day and appears to be open to experimentation. What he imagines is beefing up the use of databases in reporting at Reuters and making more kinds of information available for the public to play with. One big area of opportunity for news companies, Chua says, is in what he calls “data exhaust,” or the information that is a byproduct of other, larger data sets — which can lead to things like mapping the location-tracking data from your smartphone. “Previously, you would use data to report a story and it would end. You could only print so much,” Chua said. “You can now build a whole front end for people to dive in and immerse themselves in.”

In that way, data could make journalism a little more persistent, as Chua would say, giving it a shelf life that reaches far beyond one or two days. The next big hurdle for news companies, at least as Chua sees it, is to give news longevity and usefulness over time — through (what else?) better formatting and structure. In that way, a news product (a dreadful-sounding, but accurate name) that emphasizes data and information could be more useful to readers who are, say, Googling something in the future.

What Chua is talking about is, in a sense, the sustainability of news — not in a pay-the-bills way but in a make-journalism-endlessly-useful way. Achieving that could also involve, for example, capturing all the notes and information journalists collect for stories. How much more useful would news be, Chua asks, if the notes, which are often discarded once a story goes live, became another form of data available to the public? “Leave aside that the business model is unraveling: We’re at a real, new age in journalism and information presentation,” Chua said. “The possibilities are really wide open and we can do really interesting things with technology, online distribution, and interactivity. We should be grasping these things with enthusiasm.”

Photo by Jeroen Bennink used under a Creative Commons license

Localore aims to shake up public media, pairing producers with ‘incubators’ across the country

Public radio has come a long way from its days as the indie alternative to mega-wattage commercial news. It’s a mainstream, mature news operation now, at least in most large markets.

Localore logo

Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio, is worried about public radio (and television) losing touch with its experimental roots. That’s why a new $2 million AIR initiative called Localore is out to create new kinds of public media, pairing up 10 independent producers with “incubator” stations across the country.

“We’re at a point in the history of this industry where those stations, radio and television…are at full tilt just doing the day-to-day,” Schardt told me. “They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the money — and, in many ways, even though the heart may be there, there’s not a mindset that allows them to experiment, to try new things, and to really have the space and the means to reinvent themselves.”

Twenty participating stations, including Chicago’s WBEZ, Santa Monica’s KCRW, Cleveland’s Ideastream, and a number of smaller outlets, are themselves competing to house the 10 chosen producers for nine to 12 months. Stations must strut their stuff on AIR’s public-facing “Station Runway” to qualify. Then producers have until Nov. 10 to team up with a station and submit a proposal.

Why the name? “It riffs off of this sort of contemporary notion of ‘locavore,’ which says, ‘Pay attention to where you’re getting your sustenance.’ In that case, it has to do with food, good food,” Schardt said. “Localore, likewise: Pay attention to where you get your news, where your stories come from — source them close to home.”

Localore is a sequel to Makers Quest 2.0, a similar initiative in 2008 to push public radio into public media. Eight producers were given five months and $40,000 apiece to create new, multiplatform models for storytelling. Every one of them assembled something on time and on budget, Schardt said.

One such project was The Corner at KUOW Seattle. The Corner, in this case, is 23rd & Union, a once-Jewish, predominantly black, increasingly gentrified neighborhood at the geographical center of the city. Producer Jenny Asarnow opened a phone line for people to share stories of the neighborhood; she received more than 200 messages. Some of those stories aired on the radio, many more of them in a multimedia package on the web. The project inspired an improvisational art installation, featuring larger-than-life photographs of the locals, and barbecues in the neighborhood.

“With the lessons we took from MQ2, one of the core takeaways was that we now understand that we have the capacity — AIR has this ability — to identify talent and throw it at a problem or an idea,” Schardt said. “So the question became: What are we going to direct this energy towards this time? And more deeply, how can we truly have a more significant impact on the system itself?”

Anyone is eligible to be a Localore producer, Schardt said. The project is funded by a $1.25 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which will cover producers’ salaries and expenses, as well as grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Wyncote Foundation.

LIVE: Watch a discussion with leaders of The Boston Globe

Tonight we’re hosting a discussion with leaders of The Boston Globe to talk about their new two-site paywall strategy. And we’re streaming video of the event here live.

It’s scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. Eastern, which works out to 2:30 p.m. on the West Coast and 22:30 in London. In attendance and on stage from the Globe will be: Chris Mayer, the newspaper’s publisher; Marty Baron, its editor; Michael Manning, product director; and Lisa DeSisto, the paper’s chief advertising officer.

The live event has concluded.

Vadim Lavrusik: What Facebook’s latest updates mean for journalists

Editor’s Note: Vadim Lavrusik, Facebook’s Journalist Program Manager, is responsible for building and managing programs that help journalists, in various ways, make use of Facebook in their work. Below, he explains Facebook’s recent design changes.

Facebook has released several updates in the last month that will affect how journalists use the platform for reporting and storytelling. Many of these new features will make it easier for journalists to distribute their content and keep up with sources of information.

Some of the relevant changes for journalists include Subscribe, which enables readers to subscribe to journalists’ public updates, and a redesigned News Feed — complete with a newly introduced Ticker for real-time updates that makes it easier to keep up with the news that’s most important to you. The new lists also make it easier for you to target updates to a specific group of people, and to see a customized stream of news from them.

The updates also include Timeline, which showcases not only the most recent stories from a single user, but also contextualizes who that user is through a historic timeline. Timeline has the potential to create a “face book” that truly serves as a digital representation of a the self: an authentic identity that has been molded over time through life experiences, personal interests, and the people we share our lives with — the people for whom we aren’t afraid to reveal our authentic identity.

With all that in mind, we wanted to provide a breakdown of what these new updates mean for journalists and how journalists can use some of the new features in their reporting.

Subscribe: Subscribe enables journalists to update their broader community of readers and sources, while reserving personal updates for friends only. It also allows journalists to keep up with sources without having to friend them, which can often give rise to conflicts of interest. Because the feature is opt-in, journalists who want to enable readers to subscribe to them have to turn on the feature.

Since its launch, the feature has been adopted by journalists from around the world and includes the likes of NBC’s Ann Curry and Lydia Polgreen, The New York Times’ South Asia correspondent.

Subscribe enables journalists to separate their personal updates and connections from their professional without having to create a professional Page. You’re able to use your profile to do everything from contacting sources you want to interview, to distributing content to subscribers, to keeping up with personal friends. And your audience, for their part, can connect with you and keep up with your content without having to add you as a friend. They can simply subscribe.

You can also have an unlimited number of subscribers, and easily update them on-the-go (from your mobile phone or from the web) simply by setting the update to “public.”

Subscribe is also an easy way for journalists to keep up with sources by subscribing to their updates. After you subscribe to particular sources, you will start getting their updates in your News Feed. Also, you can customize what kind of updates you get from each individual source within your News Feed.

Timeline: Timeline, which is going to be phased in as the new profile, enables users to access their historical content and to fill in their life experiences retroactively, on a digital timeline. People now have the opportunity to share their stories not only with those who are in their lives now, but also with the generations to come — by creating a digital and historical footprint. This means that journalists who are trying to locate sources on Facebook will be able to learn more about those people through the historical context depicted on their timeline of public posts.

Aside from that historical information and the fuller picture of sources that comes with it, journalists will also be able to use the timeline feature to access their own archived content that they’ve shared. Up until Timeline, it was difficult to go back and find a story you’ve shared in the past — one that you may want to, for example, reference in an article you’re writing. The feature will serve as a better bookmarking tool.

News Feed & the Real-Time Ticker: The new layout puts top news and most recent stories into one stream. The idea is to simplify how users keep track of the news that’s important to them. If you haven’t visited Facebook for a few days, for example, you’re probably interested in the top news. If you’ve already looked at your News Feed recently, on the other hand, you probably want to see only recent stories. The News Feed now functions more like your own personalized newspaper with a real-time twist. The top news stories first show up at the top of the feed; after you’ve seen them, you’ll be able to see recent stories based on what your connections are sharing and doing on Facebook.

The content within the main feed is still filtered for quality, and the overall amount of top stories that are being shown to visitors hasn’t decreased. For news organizations and journalists sharing their content, this means that their quality content is still showcased, front and center.

The biggest change in how users consume journalists’ content will come with the Ticker, which shows you activity in real-time. This means that breaking news is more likely to be seen, and more quickly, by users. When a user hovers over something in their ticker, they can interact with the story and share it with their friends. Because the ticker is real-time, news organizations may have to reconsider how often they publish content.

The bottom line: The News Feed continues to reward quality content by surfacing it as a top story within the main News Feed, but it also provides greater exposure to timely and breaking stories.

New Character Limit for Status Updates: The new 5,000-character limit for status updates enables journalists to post more in-depth and detailed micro stories as they report on-the-go. Though journalists have used the Notes feature to write longer posts in the past (and sometimes as a blogging tool, as well), the new character limit enables journalists to write in-depth updates when rich formatting is unnecessary.

Friend Lists: The newly re-launched lists enable journalists to better organize their sources on Facebook and to have better control of whom they publish to. Lists enable you to better categorize your connections, which includes your friends, those you’re subscribed to, and Pages you have liked.

For example, a journalist could create a list for his local politics beat and add any sources he’s subscribed to as well as any relevant Pages. After he creates it, he’ll see the list as a tab in his left-hand navigation under “lists.” When he clicks on the list he’s created, he’ll see a stream of updates from those in the list. This makes it easy to keep up with content from a specific group of sources.

After you create a list, as well, it also becomes a publishing option, which means that you can choose to publish something that only a select list of people will see. (You can do that by selecting the list in your publishing composer or by going to the list and create a status update there.) Anyone who is also subscribed to your updates will get the post in their News Feeds. Journalists can always add and remove people and pages from the list, and only the creator of the custom list can see it. (Smart lists, which are created for you, work differently.)

With its Standout tag, Google News is giving publishers a new incentive to credit the competition

This weekend, in a session at the Online News Association conference in Boston, Google News announced a new content tag for its US edition: the “standout” tag, meant to give publishers a new way to signal their best content to Google. And to give, as Google News likes to say, “even more credit where credit is due.”

The tag has so far gotten some comparisons to Editors’ Picks, the Google News feature that lets selected publishers share hand-curated content in a standalone section of the Google News page. And with good reason: The standout tag is definitely another small step in the overall, if incremental, humanification of the Google News algorithm. But the more direct antecedents of the standout tag are, of course, Google News’ previously-rolled-out content tags: its original-source and syndication-source (now: canonical-source) tags.

While those other tags have been about claiming ownership — about telling Google, behind the scenes, “This is my stuff, and this is the stuff that’s informed it” — the standout tag has a broader mandate: It’s about claiming not only ownership, but excellence. “Every day,” Google’s David Smydra and Justin Kosslyn explain in a blog post announcing the tag, “news organizations and journalists around the world dedicate significant time and resources toward some of the most critical types of coverage: exceptional original reporting, deep investigative work, scoops and exclusives, and various special projects that quite clearly stand out.” The newest tag, they write, “will help us better feature this ‘standout’ content.”

Standout is only one signal among many — it won’t on its own influence stories’ placement on Google News — but it’s one way for news orgs to tell Google, essentially, “This is our best stuff.” (And then to ask Google: “Um, could you please highlight it?”)

Standout’s trying to collapse news outlets’ self-interest into the communal needs of the news ecosystem.

Publisher-provided tags can be a convenient method of sending signals to Google’s algorithm. But cyborgian statements have some pretty significant drawbacks, as well. Martin Moore, commenting on Google News’ original tags, put it like so: “Meta tags are clunky and likely to be gamed.” And while Moore may have a dog in the fight — as the director of the UK’s Media Standards Trust, he’s helping to develop hNews, a competing microformat — he makes a good point: Metatags can be problematic as signals not despite their reliance on humans, but because of it.

The problem with the tags as they’ve existed so far is that publishers haven’t had much incentive to use them to give credit unless they’re actually hoping to use them to get credit. Why tip your hat to competitors who might not, in turn, tip their hats to you? Especially when the credit (and thus the good deed) isn’t public-facing? The news industry is full of nice, kind, generous people; on the business level, though, it’s hard to imagine those people giving credit to competitors — which is to say, sending competitors a share of the worldwide billion clicks a month that come from placement on Google News — simply to be nice, and kind, and generous.

Then again, though, it’s not impossible to imagine that. As we noted when Google News rolled out its first pair of content tags, the whole proposition of systematized credit-giving offers some valuable insight into publishers’ willingness to act not just in their own interest, but in the interest of the ecosystem. Can linking out to fellow publishers — which, as Smydra and Kosslyn note, “is well recognized as a best practice on the web” — be divested of its prisoner’s dilemma-driven overtones? Especially in a news economy that maintains clicks as currency?

The standout tag says yes. Standout’s not just about highlighting extra-good content; it’s also trying to collapse news outlets’ self-interest into the communal needs of the news ecosystem. It’s trying to turn the link economy — a social space — into something more like an actual economy. It’s trying to bring economic incentives (and disincentives) to the social currency of the hat-tip.

Standout, most obviously, carries a penalty for excessive self-promotion: If a publisher claims more than seven stories a week as standouts, “it may find that its tags are less recognized, or ignored altogether,” Smydra and Kosslyn write. (And yet! Tellingly! “A news organization may cite standout stories from other news sources any number of times each week.”)

So that’s the negative-reinforcement side of things. The positive? The standout tag explicitly rewards community-mindedness. “The way we’ve designed standout is that when it’s used both ways — for calling out their own work and calling out the work of others — that builds our trust in that source,” Smydra
at ONA. The tag, in other words, in trying to systematize credit-giving, is trying to incentivize credit-giving. And it’s doing that not on a story-by-story basis, but on the broader level of publisher reputation: It’s treating a news outlet’s willingness to link to others as an overall vector of trust. (And, presumably, the more trusted the source, the more algorithmic authority it carries in Google’s eyes — and, thus, the better placement its stories get in the aggregate.) Essentially, a hat-tip to fellow publishers becomes a signal unto itself. Generosity becomes commodified.

“We want to enable publishers to build this news ecosystem,” Smydra later told ONA student journalist Anum Hussein, describing the dynamic give-and-take of citation he’s hoping will come with the new tag. He added: “Our algorithms will be able to detect which publishers are using the standout tag as good contributors, good citizens.”

It’s a smart scheme that will, for better or for worse, depend entirely on publishers’ willingness to adopt it. Competition (again, for better or for worse) can be a more powerful force than collaboration, particularly in an environment that finds news organizations struggling — mostly against each other — to subsist on a diet of clicks. “We recognize the importance of giving credit where credit is due,” Smydra and Kosslyn note, “and believe this tag can be a step in the right direction.” And yet: “It will only succeed if the publisher community helps it succeed.”

Image by flickr_lisa used under a Creative Commons license.