Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Reality-based reporting

CNN is laying off 50 journalists and replacing them with just regular folks called “iReporters,” who apparently will provide compelling and probing journalism for free.
In other news, Disney has announced that it will no longer pay people to make movies for its film division, relying instead on YouTube videos spliced together in random sequence. And, book publisher Random House will stop paying authors to write for them -- it will republish free blogs.
Those last two, of course, are false. They make as much sense, however, as CNN’s “all in” move toward citizen journalism. There’s a trend here, of course -- journalism produced by the people about the people.
It’s tempting to get all “the First Amendment, blah, blah, blah” about this, but that would make me sound like an ivory tower, out-of-touch dinosaur of an old-fashioned journalist. Instead, let’s turn to satirist Stephen Colbert, whose riff on CNN’s move is both funny and unsparing.
Announcing his new project, “me Reporters” (remember, he’s a satirist), he says, “Why buy the cow when you can have it shakily videotape its own milk for free?”
Using unpaid “iReporters,” Colbert suggests, is like an internship: “If you work for free, put in your time, and your work is good enough, maybe one day you could be laid off by CNN.”
Colbert sums up his piece on “me Reporters” thusly: “Bravo, CNN, for getting rid of all those pesky professionals. Hopefully this bold move will help you get rid of your remaining viewers.”
Really, you should see the whole thing.
No, even now I’m not going to launch into a sermon on the importance of real journalism, the obvious dangers of “citizen journalism,” or the various directions journalism is headed in this, the Age of Entertainment. I leave it to you dear reader, to draw your own conclusions. 

I will, however, make some predictions:

--This trend among legitimate and ostensible news organizations across the country will continue, if not increase in pace.

--For many people the changes will go unnoticed, as the line between YouTube “journalism” and the real thing has been obliterated for a lot of people. For an increasing number of the media, journalism is more closely related to reality TV than serious reporting of the news. This strategy appears to be highly profitable.

--There will be increasing instances of “news” that will turn out to be fiction, blatantly misleading or otherwise skewed by people who have a particular ax to grind or lack fundamental newsgathering skills. Whether this will compel a move away from citizen journalism remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, let’s just call it reality-based reporting.

Monday, November 28, 2011

SOPA is the wrong answer, but the question remains.

Backed and prodded by the motion picture industry, Congress is trying, once again, to allow content providers to protect themselves and build sustainable online business models.

Unfortunately, like other past attempts, the Stop Online Piracy Act goes too far, giving the government unnecessary and unhealthy control of the Internet and otherwise putting too much power in the hands of too few people and corporations.

What the law is trying to get at are web sites that enable or assist in copyright infringement. One would think this is a good and obvious objective, but the law is breathlessly being called censorship by a lot of organizations. As written, the law’s critics might have a point.
But something must be done. As it now stands, if someone streams a copyrighted movie (or allows it to be done) on his or her web site, the process of trying to stop the theft (after all, isn’t that really what it is?) is cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive. In trying to streamline that process SOPA goes too far, giving the U.S. Department of Justice unnecessarily broad powers.
Some also convincingly argue that the law’s language circumvents the due process rights of the accused. Beyond that, there are compelling concerns that the bill has various technical flaws and is at odds with the fundamental architecture of the Internet.
So, SOPA isn’t the answer. But something needs to be done, and not every attempt to come to the aid of content providers can be seen as censorship. In the long run, the Internet will flourish if content providers, large and small, have free market incentives to produce content and make it available. That means they need to be able to make some money.
It’s not just Hollywood that has an interest in this. Newspapers like the Post Register have a stake in our country’s Internet laws.
The quality of content, more or less, often is proportionate to how much it costs to create. If a content provider – say, a newspaper – goes to significant expense to create some unique content (what we used to call “news”), it needs to have a way to earn that money back, plus a little (what we still call “profit”).
Advertising alone does not pay those sorts of bills. Subscriptions alone won’t do it, either (unless, of course, you have exceptionally high-quality or high-demand content – so far, only the pornography industry has succeeded there). Some kind of combined advertising/subscription model is the most likely.
Such a model, however, doesn’t work if anyone can take your content and post it for free as they wish. That’s what SOPA is trying to address. It’s the wrong answer, but the current situation isn’t sustainable.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Romenesko affair

Among journalists, Jim Romenesko's blog has been a go-to source for what's happening in our business, and there's been plenty to talk about.

This week, Romenesko resigned his post at the Poynter Institute about six weeks short of his previously announced his "semi-retirement." His crime was what appears to have been an increasing failure to use quotation marks when quoting directly from other sources, relying instead on the common practice of using links to imply the source. To many, the forced resignation was a spectacular over-reaction.

With regard to the resignation, I agree -- it was a spectacular over-reaction. With regard to how sourcing is handled on the Internet, I hope this is a watershed moment. There's no small irony in the fact that Romenesko's resignation comes the same week in which we learned that a Utah mayor has been publishing material on the Deseret News' "community journalism" site under a pen name (see my previous post for more outrage on that).

Romenesko worked at the Poynter Institute, as close to a think tank as there is in journalism. It's populated by experienced, smart, serious, thoughtful people. For those who want to dig into the guts of the Romenesko controversy, just Google his name and find a comfortable spot to rest with your laptop or other device of choice.

The larger issue is, what does journalism require of its adherents nowadays? To that, I answer; pretty much the same as it has for the past several generations. To me, it's more than a matter of ethics. It's a simple business proposition.

I've written about this ad nauseum on this blog and in the yellowing pages of the Post Register. The Age of Entertainment has not just blurred the lines between journalism and whatever else is going on in the name of journalism, it's obliterated them. Discerning facts from fiction is becoming increasingly difficult, if not darn near impossible.

Practitioners of journalism must differentiate themselves from the blogs, the talk shows and the rest. The only way to do that is to establish firm principles and unfailingly follow them. Romenesko, and most others who manage blogs that chiefly rely on aggregating other sources, haven't been hitting that standard. I wouldn't have known this about Romenesko's blog had it not for the reporting of the Columbia Journalism review. My own blog, this very one, includes a link to Romensko's work, and I've relied on it often. I'm supposed to be able to sniff this stuff out.

I don't know Jim Romenesko, but I know enough about him to be confident that he didn't need this job and his reputation will survive intact, which is easy for me to say from my seat well outside the fray. People who care about journalism need to take this as an opportunity to consider the fundamentals of our craft. We have plenty of issues to deal with, but none is more important than this one.

Newspapers will survive -- dare I say, thrive -- by holding fast to standards of journalism, even while embracing the new reporting techniques made possible by technology. If we do that, I cling to what may seem like the naive faith that thoughtful people will be drawn to our work. If they aren't, I fear greatly for all of us.

Journalism matters, and it has received a lot of black eyes lately. In the scheme of things, the Romenesko issue might seem pretty minor. It isn't. Our reporting and sourcing need to be more pristine than ever. The Internet hasn't made it less important -- just the opposite.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Another oxymoron is biting the dust

UPDATED 11/11/11:

The mayor of a significant Utah city has admitted that he's been writing stories about his town under a "pen name" and submitting them to the Deseret News' citizen journalism site, where they've been published. Mayor Mike Winder's response goes something like this (I've taken some license): "What? Ben Franklin did it. Alexander Hamilton did it."

Mr. mayor, look around. Does it look like the turn of the 19th century to you? Do you want to bring duels back, too? (That didn't work out so well for Hamilton.)

While the mayor should be censured for this behavior -- perhaps tossed out of office -- the real fault lies with the Deseret News, which shirked its journalistic responsibility by not only not vetting the mayor's submissions, but for encouraging such submissions in the first place. The mayor himself concluded that, with 2,000 contributors, there are probably "some holes in the Deseret Connect system." Ya think?

The Deseret News, it can be hoped, is learning what other newspapers have already discovered -- that new journalism needs to look a whole lot like the old journalism.

Five or six years ago, the new thing that was going to "save journalism" was the use of "citizen journalists." The idea was pretty simple -- recruit just plain folks in neighborhoods all across the market, give them some basic tools (maybe a spell-check program and a new e-mail address), and have them report on the important goings-on in their world.

Of course, a few immediate issues come to mind:

1. This presents a perfect opportunity for people, companies, organizations and causes to get their own word out there, unfiltered and unedited, under the guise of "community journalism." (Mayor Winder, the floor is yours.)

2. Since these community journalists are unpaid, they aren't exactly consistent in sending material to the mother ship for uploading and dissemination.

3. Even the most well-meaning citizen journalist lacks the training and experience to pursue the "who, what, when, where, why and how" of basic reporting. They lack the basic writing skills to put that information into coherent form. They are not committed to even the most fundamental set of journalism ethics and principles.

Otherwise, it's a great idea. Except it doesn't -- can't -- work. Some updates from the cutting edge of citizen journalism, reported by Tom Grubisich in a column on the blog Street Fight:

“You can’t depend on citizen journalists. I’ve got 12 reliable contributors from a community of 60,000. I’m the  mule, producing 80% of the editorial content. I’ve done 1,700 pieces in our two years, two months of existence, and my wife Jane has supplied a lot of the photos.” -- Patrick Boylan, Welles Park Bulldog (north Chicago)

We have NEVER had a ‘pro-am’ strategy. I don’t believe in asking people to work for free and think it unconscionable that moneyed enterprises like some huge corporations do. WSB is a professional, commercial news organization." --Tracy Record, West Seattle Blog

“All of our news content is original reporting and is paid for. We have paid freelance reporters in each town who have a specific beat. These are all veteran journalists." Mike Shapiro, Alternative Press, New Jersey

“I think the rubric of ‘citizen journalism’ has become outdated. A lot of the new activity is coming from people who have some kind of journalistic background. And they bring some of those core values to their efforts … The fact is that reporting is hard work and is rarely undertaken consistently by citizen-journalism volunteering on an episodic basis.” -- Jan Schaffer, New Voices

The exception appears to be AOL's massive venture, "Patch," which is attempting to repeat a Microsoft experiment of the 1990s called "Sidewalk" by creating hyperlocal sites throughout the country, coordinated from a main office. Now at 890 sites, Patch  is reducing ballooning costs by cutting back on freelancers, who back up multi-tasking editors. Each site also has a clutch of unpaid bloggers to provide "community flavor," Grubisich reports.

I've said it before -- citizen journalism isn't exactly like citizen rocket science, but not just anybody can "do" journalism, any more than any of us can fly to the moon. A better analogy might be teaching -- it takes four years of college and more years of experience, plus a good deal of hard work, to become a good teacher. Journalism is no different, except that a lot of journalists get paid less than teachers.

The Internet does a good many things, but it doesn't magically turn anyone with a computer into a journalist. The only hard thing to figure out is why that wasn't obvious from the start.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

World peace is next

The Post Register is partnering with the Eastern Idaho Entrepreneurial Center on a task so daunting that, should we succeed, we are contemplating taking on world peace as our next project.

Indeed, the name of the email group for this project is “whirledpeas” (“world peace,” get it?).

What could possibly be so fraught with peril? Essentially, EIEC’s assignment, in collaboration with our staff, is to find a business model for the Post Register that includes journalism, advertising, the Internet, people under the age of 35, and the potential for profit. So far, this combination has proven toxic. Our main attention will be to handheld devices.

“The brief history of the Internet,” writes British author and thinker John Lanchester, “is dominated by wishful thinking about turning internet traffic into revenue; companies that have managed to do it are vastly outnumbered by those who have learned the cruel new information era twist on ‘if you build it, they will come.’ The modern form of that now runs: ‘if you build it, they may well come, but only as long as it’s free.’ That is why, as Warren Buffett observed, the internet is probably a ‘net negative for capitalists’.”

Succinctly, here’s the problem:

1. With some exceptions, people pay precious little attention to most Internet advertising.

2. People under the age of 35 have grown up with the unfortunate and blatantly false assumption that real journalism can be delivered to their electronic devices for free.

3. Good journalism is expensive and can’t be done using “community journalists,” by rewriting press releases or by steam-of-consciousness blogging.

What you have here is a recipe for the ultimate disappearance of real journalism.

So far, there remains enough interest by readers and advertisers in the old-fashioned, printed-on-dead-trees form that it’s still profitable.

The Internet is the greatest, most efficient medium for exchanging data the world has ever seen, by an infinite factor. Unfortunately, as both Lanchester and Buffet make so clear, it’s not a great business tool. For every high-publicity success story, there are a thousand failures that go unnoticed.

Some newspapers have thrown in the towel when it comes to the Internet. In early 2011, the Newport (Rhode Island) Daily News set its annual price for print and online to $157, or a dollar a month above the print-only fee. But online-only access is $345 – a price that Publisher William Lucey III told Columbia University researchers “is more of a deterrent.” The amount was based on a scenario in which, “if everyone wanted only a digital product, this is what it would cost.”

Even Google loses money on every single venture (YouTube, owned by Google, loses $500 million a year), save one – targeted Internet advertising. This works not because Google’s ads are any better than others, but because there are, quite simply, so many of them. They scale on a global level – anything less than that doesn’t have the volume to work.

So newspapers have become hybrids, using the profits of print to subsidize experiments online. Based on current trends, at some point a good share of print readers will have quite literally died off, not to be replaced by the generation raised during the Age of Entertainment.

There are several potential outcomes:

1. Young readers will eventually migrate to print.

2. Young readers will be willing to pay some sort of reasonable but significant subscription fee for information provided by real journalism sources.

3. We will find a model that requires significantly less revenue to generate a profit than current models, and we’ll be able to generate enough revenue through a combination of advertising and subscriptions (or some heretofore unrecognized revenue source) to be sustainable.

4. Real journalism will become the realm of the non-profit and daily community newspapers will become a fond (or not so fond) memory.

To be clear, none of these scenarios is imminent. Predictions of the end of legacy media – newspapers, television and radio – have been wrong now for going on 20 years. They continue to be wrong. We’re talking about a transition that is likely to take anywhere from 10 to 25 years, maybe even longer.

Meanwhile, what to do? We hope to have the answer by the end of the winter term at Brigham Young University-Idaho and Idaho State University, whose students provide the resources for EIEC. If we’re successful, expect the end to all world conflict within six months of that.