Judging by my peers, it's possible that I'm the only journalist in America who didn't absolutely love Spotlight. I thought it was a serviceable movie, but when it comes to this year's Best Picture award I still harbor a fantasy that there's an Oscar waiting in Valhalla, shiny and chrome, for Fury Road (or for Creed, if push came to shove).
But I'm not upset to see Spotlight win, either. The movie may have been underwhelming for me, but its subject deserves all the attention it gets (whether or not, as former NYT designer Khoi Vinh wonders, the Globe fully capitalizes on it). My only real concern is that soon it'll be mostly valuable as a historical document, with the kind of deep reporting that it portrays either dying or dead.
To recap: Spotlight centers on the Boston Globe's investigation into the Catholic Church's pedophilia scandals in the 1990s — and specifically, into how the church covered up for abusive priests by moving them around or assigning them to useless "rehabilitation" sessions. The paper not only proved the fact that the church was aware of the problem, but also demonstrated that it was far more common than anyone suspected. It's one of the most important, influential works of journalism in modern memory, done by a local newsroom.
It's also a story of successful data journalism, which I feel is often rare: while my industry niche likes to talk itself up, our track record is shorter than many of us like to admit. The data in question isn't complex — the team used spreadsheets and data entry, not scripting languages or visualizations — but it represents long hours of carefully entering, cleaning, and checking data to discover priests that were shuffled out of public view after reports of abuse. Matt Carroll, the team's "data geek," writes about that experience here, including notes on what he'd do differently now.
So it's very cool to see the film getting acclaim. At the same time, it's a love letter to an increasingly small part of the news industry. Investigative teams are rare these days, and many local papers don't have them anymore. We're lucky that we still have them at the Seattle Times — it's one of the things I really like about working there.
Why do investigative teams vanish? They're expensive, for one thing: a team may spend months, or even a year working on a story. They may need legal help to pursue evidence, or legal protection once a story is published. And investigative stories are not huge traffic winners, certainly not proportional to the effort they take. They're one of the things newsrooms do on principle, and when budget gets tight, those principles often start to look more negotiable than they used to.
In this void, there are still a few national publishers pursuing investigations, both among the startups (Buzzfeed, which partnered on our mobile home stories) and the non-profits (Pro Publica and the Marshall Project). I'm a big fan of the work they're doing. Still, they're spread thin trying to cover the whole country, or a particular topic, leaving a lot of shadows at the local level that could use a little sun.
It's nice to imagine that the success of Spotlight the movie will lead to a resurgence in funding for Spotlight the investigative department, and others like them. I suspect that's wishful thinking, though. In the end, that Oscar isn't going to pay for more reporters or editors. If even Hollywood glamor can't get reporters and editors funded, can anything?
This morning, you can read my opinions (plus three other newsroom developers) on AMP, Google's proposed ultra-fast publishing format. I'm the most optimistic of the the four, even though I wouldn't say that I'm enthusiastic. I think it's an interesting format, and possibly a kick in the pants for the business side of the industry.
In the last question of the interview, I talk a little bit about how I don't think site performance is a topic of actual discussion for product managers at news organizations, and as a result speed is still not a priority for them. What I didn't get in, but wish I had, is that I'm not sure they're wrong about that. Certainly, performance is important and third party code has run rampant on mobile pages. But is that really what's killing us?
I think it's worth remembering that this whole conversation started, in part, because Facebook decided that they want to be a publisher. Of course, nobody with a firm grasp on reality would think that handing full control of all their content over to Facebook is a good idea, so Zuckerberg's posse needed to create an incentive. Instant Articles ensued: in a burst of publicity, Facebook announced that the web was "slow" (with a lot of highly suspect numbers quantifying that slowness) and proposing their publication system as a way to speed it up.
Since in general we like nothing more than talking about how awful our industry is, journalists leapt to join in: why yes, now that you mention it, look how slow our sites are! Clearly, that's the problem (and not, say, the fact that Facebook holds our referral traffic hostage). It's the same reaction the industry has every time Apple releases a new device — cue exhaustive (and exhausting) ruminations on how to create compelling smartwatch content. Yuck.
This is not the first time that Facebook has created panic around the open web in order to make its social racket seem more appealing. In 2011, Anil Dash wrote his infamous post Facebook is gaslighting the web, documenting their practice of putting scary warnings on outgoing links while privileging their (short-lived) "seamless sharing" program. I think we should be careful about accepting their premises, even when they seem to jibe with the larger conversations around web technology.
Which brings us back to the question: should we care that news sites are slow?
My thought is that from a technical side, we should obviously care. Everyone on the web cares about speed. It has a proven effect on things like purchases and on-site time. It's an important metric, and one we should absolutely take seriously. But from a product standpoint, is it the most important thing? No. It's a Product X, and Product X will not save journalism (that post is from 2010, and sure enough, I think I've linked to it once a year since). It's easier to pitch a silver bullet than to admit the harder truth: that the key to our success is putting out journalism that is good enough that people will pay for it, one way or another.
It's possible, unfortunately, that there is no general-audience journalism good enough to make people pay for it anymore. And in that case, we are all doomed, with the possible exception of the NYT and whatever hipster media startups can get Comcast to cough up $200 million in funding. So it goes. But if we're going to be doomed, I'd rather be honest about why that is. It's not because we're slow. It's not because the ads are horrible. It's because our readers didn't think what we put out was important enough to pay for. That's enough of a tragedy on it's own.
The math is even starker for smaller publications and individual bloggers, who rely more heavily on display advertising—and who have already been battered by shifts in the advertising market; some longtime professional bloggers, like Heather Armstrong, have given up writing their blogs full-time. The Awl's publisher Michael Macher told me that "the percentage of the network’s revenue that is blockable by adblocking technology hovers around seventy-five to eighty-five percent." Currently, readers use an ad blocker on around twenty-five percent of all pageviews. Nicole Cliffe, one of the founders of The Toast, said that "adblocker is brutal for us. And people always break out the 'Subscribers model! I donate twenty bucks a year!' thing but it doesn’t add up."
I'm finding myself thinking about adblocking a lot this week, and about publishing platforms. I spend a lot of time thinking about this in general, because I enjoy working for a Seattle newspaper and I would like it to still be here (in one form or another) fifteen years from now (at least), something which was never guaranteed but looks noticeably more tenuous these days. And the upcoming launch of easy, widespread mobile ad-block software is a big part of that.
You can't say that the ad industry has not done anything to deserve this, because of course they have. Online advertising has always been the place where incompetent programming and delusional management meet in a nexus of terrible. You're not a bad person if you work in ads, but you work for a bad business and in all seriousness I will help you go work somewhere else if you get in touch with me. Contact info is on the right.
The problems that advertising causes for web pages are well documented. Ads slow pages down. They're heavy and disruptive. They cause security risks and drive-by hacks. There is a strong argument that a lot of the (admittedly welcome) improvements in web programming technique comes from having to work around these issues: lazy-loading content, async scripts, module systems that can't be stomped by leaky ad code globals.
As a side note, in these discussions, one of the big elephants in the room is that Google (and Facebook, and Apple, and Twitter) are all ad companies. Which is true, but it's true in the way that we might say that insects are a good source of protein — you're still not going to sell me a grasshopper sandwich. Lumping Google in with the average fly-by-night agency may be technically correct, but anyone who has interacted with regular ad code will tell you that the two are miles apart. If Google were actually the people writing the ads you see on an average media site, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion.
Well, we might. Apple might still have decided to stick their thumb in Google's eye out of pure spite, because they're a nasty little gang of capitalists, and that's kind of what they do. But it doesn't matter, because the really smart people at Google aren't writing actual ads. They write very elegant, high-performing auction software that distributes other people's horrible, horrible code, thus undermining quite a bit of their moral high ground. It's a little hard to get mad at readers who want to run content blockers or Greasemonkey scripts or whatever. Of course you want to block these ads! Who wouldn't?
We have a bad habit in the news industry, which is that we have no faith in our ability to run a business, even though we speculate on it endlessly. Allison Hantschel has been writing posts like this for literally a decade now as a result. One word for the embrace of clear management-led self-sabotage is "trusting." Another word is "suckers."
Newsrooms are very good at grilling other organizations about their plans, and very bad at interrogating our own, in part because we're supposed to have a "wall" between the business and editorial sides of the enterprise. These days that wall is often porous, but the tradition is still there. So when the business half of a paper tells editors and reporters that running obnoxious ads are necessary, we don't often push back, even though we don't want to run them any more than readers want to see them.
This is an explanation, not an excuse. That said, it is inescapably true that the business models we chose, as an industry, are not proving to be as solid as they once were — and it is worth remembering that journalism really was (and in many cases, still is) wildly profitable. Craigslist killed off the classifieds, and content blockers will probably suck all the profit out of the banner-ad revenue stream. Ironically, the one strategy that's still surprisingly sound is printing the previous day's events into a complicated stack of folded paper and selling it for a buck or two. It's not a growth industry, but it seems to be relatively disruption-proof so far. Nobody seems very clear on how to take that model online, though, except by digitizing old people a la Kurzweil and counting on them to pay for content (probably a long shot).
The thing about Silicon Valley's lust for disruption is that, absent of any principles other than a libertarian belief in market power, it tends to just recentralize or recreate the pre-disruption problems. So instead of having a corrupt taxi bureacracy, now we have a corrupt Uber oligarchy, where half the cars you see in the app are fake and they're probably selling your ride history to data merchants in Russia for pennies on the dollar. You don't have to like the taxi system to think that this is kind of a bum deal. Similarly, you don't have to be a fan of advertising, or of advertising-supported journalism, to think that the inevitable outcomes of blocking display will range from bad to worse.
Personally, I think it's healthy to feel wildly uneasy with this entire dynamic, in which tech companies decide to target one bad actor and inflict collatoral damage on an entire industry with a nonchalant wave of their hand. I think it's normal to believe that publishers are getting what they deserve for decades of bad management, and still feel like wiping them out is overkill. It's reasonable to think we should have control over the experience as users, while also arguing that media companies need to pay the bills somehow. But then, I'm not exactly disinterested, myself.
I have a post that's been incubating for about two months now, about riot grrrl and open source. I started thinking about it when I watched The Punk Singer, a shockingly-good documentary about Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. And the story of the whole movement that she founded (along with a number of other influential women) is fascinating, because it's based on an entire ethic of self-publication and self-determination. They didn't like the commercial media that they had, so they made new media of their own and taught people how to do the same. To me, that's how open source should feel: undermining centralized power and giving the means of production back to the people.
But there's another way of looking at that, which is to say that riot grrrl zines never changed much of anything and the old open web got lost in the shuffle. We can romanticize both of them as much as we want, but at the end of the day they weren't capable of surviving against moneyed interests, and no amount of self-mythologizing is going to change that. That doesn't mean we should give up, but we need to be realistic about the gap between "should be" and "is," because we're in the middle of it now: readers should pay for journalism; they actively don't want to do so.
Here's one difficult truth: if you are a reporter, editor, or other news human in the year of our lord 2015, your fate is almost certainly on the web. The New York Times and the hot youth flavor of the day (Vox, Vice, Buzzfeed) may get invited into Instant Articles or Apple News, but everyone else is on their own. App-only publications have been tried, and failed, even with the force of Rupert Murdoch behind them. That leaves the web as the place where a diverse, free press can exist, especially once those print revenues finally dry up.
Here's another: the web is always going to grapple with hostile ads, because it's a platform built on remixing and embedding third-party content. The same things that let advertisers abuse your mobile connection also allow us to host comments via Disqus, or embed media from Twitter or Youtube, or create neat interactive features. Open platforms are messier, which is part of why they grow so effectively, and also why they have a hard time competing with closed, curated platforms. Nobody's going to make it easy for us.
Between those two difficult truths is a spectrum of uncomfortable options, ranging from paywalls to subscriptions to (most likely) bankruptcy. As Casey Johnston says in the Awl piece that opens this post, the likely outcome is the rapid eradication of many sites that currently scrape by on Doubleclick revenue. The small and the quirky are going to take the hit here, even if they're not so small: The Dissolve was shuttered earlier this year, despite a pretty impressive stable of contributors and support, and they won't be the last.
In the very long term, we all die alone. I hesitate to make any other predictions. But I suspect that the eventual fallout of these changes is the hollowing-out of the American media: two big national papers at the top; a horde of niche publications clinging, white-knuckled, to subsistence at the bottom; and not very much in the middle except the non-profits who have opted out of the entire rat race. That this arrangement parallels our national economic inequality is probably not a coincidence, but we're long past the point where anyone wants to hear a systemic critique. Will your favorite publication survive? It's time to spin the wheel and find out.
It's a low bar to clear, but I think I can honestly say that journalism has a better diversity record compared to tech. If there were a newsroom the size of Facebook, chances are high it would have hired more than 7 black people last year. But that doesn't mean we can't do better. And if we're going to talk about hiring in journalism, we need to talk about interns.
NPR's visuals team has decided to try making internships more diverse, by being transparent about their requirements. Basically, they want to be clear about the expectations around cover letters and interviewing, so that people from non-privileged backgrounds know to prepare for them. I know and like several members of the team there, so I'm going to give them the benefit of a doubt when they say that there's more to come, but as a diversity program this seems a bit thin.
Firstly, a post on a little-trafficked blog is not exactly a high-visibility broadcast (said post isn't linked from any of the open internship positions as far as I could tell). It's easy for people to miss. More importantly, if the team is finding that cover letters and interviews are excluding good candidates, maybe the point should be to change the way that those are evaluated (or drop them entirely). Perhaps cover letters are not a great criteria for picking interns, or the way you're looking at them is biased in some way.
My own thoughts on this are complicated, not least because I see the playing field being artificially manipulated from all sides. I'm always amazed when I teach workshops at UW and hear that students may be on their fourth or fifth internship. They're behaving rationally — a lot of journalism careers are founded on student internships — but it's still bizarre to think that the path to a newsroom job might require literally years of unpaid or low-paying labor. If nothing else, there are a lot of people for whom that's just not an option.
Perhaps this is why, as CJR noted in a just-published report, minority journalists aren't finding jobs at rates proportional to graduation. In fact, minorities who graduate with a degree in journalism were 17% less likely to find a print journalism job compared to their white counterparts, compared to only 2% difference in advertising. As Alex Williams states:
Overall, only 49 percent of minority graduates that specialized in print or broadcasting found a full-time job, compared to 66 percent of white graduates. These staggering job placement figures help explain the low number of minority journalists. The number of minorities graduating from journalism programs and applying for jobs doesn’t seem to be the problem after all. The problem is that these candidates are not being hired.
I think the lessons from this are two-fold. First, I think we should be better about spreading internships out to a wider range of students. That's partly about selecting more diverse candidates, but it's also about turning down interns many-times-over in favor of candidates who need more of a boost. Internships are about experience, but they're also a way of pre-selecting who we want in the newsrooms of the future by burnishing their resumes. It's great to see NPR taking some responsibility, small or not, for their role in the pipeline. Hopefully other organizations will follow suit.
Additionally, maybe we should be less interested in internships as hiring criteria in the first place. Although my corner of the field is a little atypical, many of the best digital journalists I know didn't enter the field through a traditional career path (myself included). If our goal is to diversify our newsrooms, being accepting of a variety of different backgrounds and experiences is part of how we get there. So a candidate didn't have an internship. So what? Can they write? Can they edit? Can they code?
I often worry about over-stressing credentials in journalism. Sure, it helps separate the wheat and the chaff, but it also brushes over the fact that what we do just isn't that hard. We go places, talk to people, and then write it down and give to other people to read. You don't need a degree from that (as Michael Lewis aptly chronicled more than 20 years ago), and you shouldn't necessarily need an internship. As a community, we mourned the passing of David Carr, but we haven't learned the lessons he taught to writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, about hiring "knuckleheads" and molding them into the industry we want to be. And until we do, we will still struggle to find newsrooms that reflect modern American diversity.
Like all Facebook's attempts to absorb the news industry, there's a probable timeline their new Instant Articles will follow, and it basically looks like this:
Instant Articles is not the first time Facebook has tried to take over the web, and it won't be the last. They're very bad at it, probably because they're the original kings of empty promises: working with Facebook is a constant stream of exasperation, until either you realize that they're incapable of maintaining a stable API/business relationship, or you slit your wrists. They've done it to game developers (goodbye, Farmville), to other newsrooms (remember Washington Post Social Reader?), and to anyone else who's tried to build on the various Facebook "platforms."
Lots of people have written very smart reactions to the Instant Articles announcement — I'm partial to Josh Marshall's behind-the-scenes take, John Herrman's spiral of bemused horror, and Zeynep Tufekci's reminder that Facebook cannot be trusted to engage honestly with its role as gatekeeper.
It's probably more fun to engage with the self-proclaimed "controversial" opinions, like this profoundly dumb thought-leadering from MG Siegler:
With Instant Articles, Facebook has not only done a 180 from what Mark Zuckerberg has called the company's biggest mistake, they've now done another lap just to prove a point.
They did a 180, and then took a lap, so... they ran the race backwards, which is a good thing? Somewhere, Tom Friedman feels a twinge of jealousy.
Not only is the web not fast enough for apps, it's not fast enough for text either. And you know what, they're right.
"They're right" that an app loading pre-cached text can be faster than a web browser downloading that same text from the network, yes. Apparently our plan now is just to restrict your reading material to what Facebook can download ahead of time. I hope you like Upworthy lists.
Though, in a way, Facebook itself really is just a web browser. It's just a different, newfangled one for a new era. A mobile era.
A different, newfangled web browser that only goes to Facebook, apparently. Who would want to read anything else? In the future, all websites are Facebook. (Ironically, according to the Instant Articles FAQ, they're fed from HTML anyway, so they're not even really that "new." But it's probably too much to expect Siegler to do research.)
Even without without bringing in ideology, the "native apps instead of the web" idea faces a tremendous number of problems once you think about it for more than thirty seconds. How do new publications like The Toast or FiveThirtyEight get traction when you have to manually download them from an app store to read them? If they get popular through the web first, why bother transitioning to native? Nobody makes "reader" apps for desktops and laptops, so what happens to them? Does anyone really want to write long-form on Facebook, a service that only recently added an "edit post" button? Who cares: punditry is hard, let's go shopping!
It's easy to pick on shallow people who think Instant Articles represent a grand utopian state, but I'd also like to celebrate people who are actually building in the opposite direction. This weekend, I went to a Knight-Mozilla code convening in Portland, which included a ticket to the Write the Docs convention. I'm not a documentation writer, really, so most of the conference went right past me. But the keynote on the second day was by Ward Cunningham, inventor of the wiki, and it was a fascinating look at what it would really look like to reinvent the web.
For the past few years, Cunningham's been working on "federated" wikis, which store content on multiple servers instead of using a single database. If you link to another person's wiki page and you want to change the content, you fork it a la GitHub, and edit the new local copy (which remembers its origin) right there in your browser. You can also drag-and-drop content into a new page, if you want to merge text from multiple sources. It's pretty neat. The talk isn't online, but he did another presentation at New Relic that covers similar material.
Parts of Cunningham's pitch can sound kind of crankish, although I'm sure I would have said the same thing for the original wiki. But other parts are really interesting, such as the idea of creating a forkable attribution trail for data and reporting. Federated wikis are another attempt to decentralize and diversify the Internet, instead of walling it up behind a corporation's control. And a lot of it is inspired by the main insight that wikis had in the first place: on a wiki, you create a page by first creating a hyperlink to it, then following that link.
And that's why it's ultimately ridiculous to act like some pre-cached news articles are the herald of a new media age. What the web gives us — a freedom for anyone to publish to everyone, a wildly cross-platform programming environment, a rich multimedia container where your plain-text article can live right next to my complex news app — is not going to be superceded by a bunch of native apps, and certainly not by Facebook. Instant Articles won't even be the future of news. Future of the web? Give me a break.
This week, if you want to be horrified by our grim meathook future, check out these posts from Seattle Times news librarian Gene Balk on vaccination rates at Washington State schools. There's a searchable data table and a map, but I'll spoil it for you: a large proportion of parents should probably pack surgical masks and antibiotics with their kids' lunches, because herd immunity is basically a thing of the past.
This kind of database-driven reporting is a staple of Gene's "FYI Guy" blog, and readers seem to enjoy it. Done right, it can help flesh out local coverage in interesting ways, explore topics that are off the beaten path, and find connections that we might otherwise miss. That said, I don't think you can stress enough how much of that depends on the quality of the reporter: Gene is a great researcher, and not everyone has his skills and experience.
By coincidence, yesterday Melissa Bell at Vox announced that they're (re)entering the field of data journalism in a almost parodically-titled post. I'm a little confused about the timing, since I thought data journalism was a part of their whole raison d'etre, but maybe I'm confusing them with a different scrappy, SEO-oriented news startup. Regardless, welcome to the party! After name-checking Philip Meyer's Precision Journalism, Bell adds a list of nine basic guidelines they plan to use. It's not a bad list, although several items are inoffensively bland (has anyone ever aspired to produce content that isn't "relevant and useful?").
- Vox will work to provide the most relevant and useful data behind the news, when you need it, in ways that help you understand the stories that matter most.
- We will work to make all the data behind our stories available to you to download and play with for yourself.
- We want you to improve on what we’ve done, to play with the data, visualize it, and help us analyze it — and make our work better.
- We will prioritize building data sets that can feed many stories, rather than focusing on one-off projects.
- Our data visualizations will be clear, concise, and deep — to help you understand our editorial better. They will adhere to design rules which ensure their accuracy and transparency.
- In the event we make a mistake (they do happen), we will swiftly and clearly clarify, correct, and communicate that as transparently as we can.
- We will curate and showcase the best data infographics and visualizations on the web.
- Visualizations we produce in-house will work well on as many platforms as possible: if you view it on a smartphone, it will function as well as it does on web.
- We will curate and publish the best content that our community of readers produces. Our data journalism is as much about you, the community, as it is about us: this is a partnership.
Some of these goals are particularly strong, and we share them at the Seattle Times. Take #2, for example: not only do I think it's important that we publish the data on which our visualizations are built whenever possible, but we also open-source our graphics so that people can see the methodology we used. It's also just good sense to be mobile-friendly (#8), although I personally believe that there are some times when a story simply can't be fully told on a 4" screen.
I'm less sure about curation, either from readers (#9) or around the web(#7), particularly in conjunction with accuracy and corrections (#6). One of the strengths of a newsroom is supposed to be fact-checking, but it's not clear to me what the process is for verification of third-party visualizations, or if Vox plans to do so at all (it hasn't been evident to me as a reader that they do it now). Which is too bad, because I think a kind of real-time "Snopes for bad reporting" is a site I'd definitely support.
But I'm really most skeptical of #4, which Bell elsewhere refers to as "finding, cleaning, and setting up data streams so that they can be the source for repeated stories." It's not that I think it's necessarily a stupid idea. I'm just not sure that it's effective, based on my experience. Data stories are just reporting. Data streams are reporting on top of engineering on top of reporting.
CQ's Economy Tracker, for example, was my team's attempt at a reusable data API, but it turned out to be a frustrating experience to keep it topped off with up-to-date content, the architecture was a hard problem to solve, and the number of stories we pulled out of it probably didn't justify the effort. It turns out that it's hard to find a data set that can actually support a series of articles.
(You may say, at this point, hang on a minute: wasn't Congressional Quarterly an example of exactly what we're talking about? It's a large, data-oriented news organization that sold access to data streams, and maintained datasets that were used to build stories and interactives via the multimedia team. Which is true, but it elides a number of factors: CQ was a single-purpose news site — congress and legislation only — with a huge number of reporters feeding the beast and a large technical staff to tend to it. Vox does not have those advantages, since it's a general-audience, international news site with a much smaller staff.)
More importantly, a "data stream," like an API, demands maintenance which quickly becomes a drag on the amount of time that can be spent on efforts outside those streams. That's doubly true if you make them public, and people start relying on them. Will will Vox sunset these data streams, if they stop being useful internally? What are the cutoff criteria? How will they let people know before the source is shut down? Most importantly, how much time will be taken away from reporting to maintain the data products?
When I joined at the Seattle Times, I made a pitch to editors that was a little different: instead of designing long-running services, we generally build news apps that are scoped to a specific point in time. In other words, we make stories, the same as the rest of the newsroom does. And just as you wouldn't normally ask a reporter to go back and update all their old stories when new events happen, we don't maintain news apps more than a week or two after publication (barring, of course, normal corrections and serious bug-fixes). Our entire development stack, in fact, is based on this assumption — that's why we publish static files to S3 (which is cheap and easy), instead of running a Rails/Laravel/Node server (which is expensive and hard).
Maybe for Vox, this isn't a problem. After all, they're the people with the "poor man's Wikipedia" card stacks that they maintain for topics over many months, and the evergreen experiments. At the very least, though, it does highlight a very real distinction that goes (in my opinion) beyond "data journalism" and to the core of the digital news mission. Are we building general systems and tools to cover unique stories? Or are we optimizing for semi-predictable products built around APIs and data sources? I'm leaning toward the former because I think it's a better match for a messy, unpredictable, human world. But best of luck to Vox with the latter.
I think most of us can imagine the frustrating experience of sharing a newspaper with the New York Times op-ed page. It must burn to do good reporting work, knowing that it'll all be lumped in with Friedman's Mighty Mustache of Commerce and his latest taxi driver. Let's face it: the op-ed section is long overdue for amputation, given that there's an entire Internet of opinion out there for free, and almost all of it is more coherent than whatever white-bread panic David Brooks is in this week.
But even I was surprised by the story in the New York Observer last week, detailing just how bad the anger between the journalists and the pundits has gotten:
The Times declined to provide exact staffing numbers, but that too is a source of resentment. Said one staffer, “Andy’s got 14 or 15 people plus a whole bevy of assistants working on these three unsigned editorials every day. They’re completely reflexively liberal, utterly predictable, usually poorly written and totally ineffectual. I mean, just try and remember the last time that anybody was talking about one of those editorials. You know, I can think of one time recently, which is with the [Edward] Snowden stuff, but mostly nobody pays attention, and millions of dollars is being spent on that stuff.”
First of all, the Times still runs unsigned editorials? And it takes more than ten people to write them? Sweet mother of mercy, that's insane. I thought the only outlet these days with an actual "from the editors" editorial was the Onion, and even they think it's an old joke. You might as well include an AOL keyword at the end.
And yet it's worth reading on, once you pick your jaw up off the floor, to see the weird, awkward cronyism that's not just the visible portions of the op-ed page, but its entire structure. Why is the editorial section so bad? In part, apparently, because it's ruled by the entitled, petty son of a former managing editor, who reports directly to the paper's publisher (and not the executive editor) because of a family debt. Could anything be more appropriate? As The Baffler notes:
What a perfect way to boil tapioca. Dynasties kill flavor. A page edited by a son because dad was kind of a big deal is a page edited with an eye to status and credentials. Hey, Friedman must be good—he won some Pulitzers. That’s a prize, you see, that Pulitzer thing. Big, big prize. We put it up on the wall. (Pause) Anyway, ready for a cocktail?
The Observer argues that the complaints from the newsroom at large are professional, not budgetary: reporters are angry about shoddy work being published under the same masthead as their stories. But it's hard to imagine that money doesn't enter into it at all. A staff of ten or more people, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars for each of the featured op-ed writers, would translate into serious money for journalism. It would hire a lot of staff, pay for a lot of equipment. You could use it to give interns a living wage, or institute a program for boosting minority participation in media. Arguably, you could put it into a sack and sink it into the Hudson, and still end up ahead of what it's currently funding.
Of course, most papers don't maintain a costly op-ed section, so it's not like this is an industry-wide problem. I don't know that I would even care, normally, beyond the sense of schadenfreude, except for the fact that it's such a perfect little chunk of journalistic mismanagement: when finances get strained, the cuts don't get made from politically-connected fiefdoms, or from upper-level salaries. They get taken from the one place that should be protected, which is the newsroom itself.
Call me an anarchist, but the most depressing part of the whole debate is that it's focused on how big the op-ed budget should be, or how it should be run, instead of whether it should exist at all. What's the point of keeping it around? Or, at the very least, why populate it with the same bland, predictable voices every day? One of the things I respect about the New York Times is the paper's forays into bucking conventional wisdom, from the porous subscription paywall to its legitimately innovative interactive storytelling. There's a lot of romance and tradition in the newsroom, but the op-ed page shouldn't be a part of it. I say burn it to the ground, and let's see what we can grow on the ashes.
They always want the writer to work for nothing. And the problem is that there's so goddamn many writers who have no idea that they're supposed to be paid every time they do something, they do it for nothing! ... I get so angry about this, because you're undercut by all the amateurs. It's the amateurs who make it tough for the professionals, because when you act professional, these people are so used to getting it for nothing, and for mooching...
Last week, Nate Thayer wrote a well-linked post about being asked to write for The Atlantic for free--well, for "exposure," which is free in a funny hat. It's gotten a lot of attention in the journalism community, including a good piece on the economics of web-scale journalism by Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal.
I read this kind of stuff and think that I have never been happier to find a niche within journalism that makes me marketable. I mean, not that marketable: I had to switch industries when I moved out of DC, after all. But inside the beltway, I didn't have to freelance anymore, and I would have had plenty of options if I decided to leave CQ and head somewhere else. Data journalism was good to me, and I can't imagine having to go back to the scramble of being just a writer again.
But beneath that relief, I feel angry. And the fact that Madrigal can write a well-reasoned piece about why they're asking people to write for free doesn't make me any less angry. The fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates, who I respect greatly, can write about how writing for free launched the best part of his career, doesn't make me feel any less annoyed. I'm getting older but I'm still punk enough that when someone tells me the system is keeping us down, my response isn't to say, "well, I guess that's just how it is." The system needs to change.
Let's be clear: I don't expect writers to make a lot of money. They never have. People don't get into journalism because they expect to be rich. But writing--serious writing, not just randomly blogging on your pet peeves like I do here 90% of the time--is hard work. The long-form pieces that I've done have been drawn-out, time-consuming affairs: research, interviews, collecting notes, writing, rewriting, editing, trimming, and rewriting again. People think that writing is easy, but it's not, and it should be a paid job. (Even when it's not paid, it's not easy: I've been editing this post for three days now.)
As Ellison says, when publications can get the work for free, it makes it really hard to be paid for your writing. I'm not sure I'd phrase it with the same antipathy for "amateurs" (let's be clear: Ellison is a terrifying human being that I happen to agree with in this particular case), but it's certainly true that the glut of people willing to write for free causes a serious problem for those of us who write (or have written) for a living. They're scabs, in the union sense: they take work that should be paid, and drive down the cost of labor (see also: unpaid musicians).
All in all, the creative landscape is starting to look more toxic than it's been in our lifetimes: Artists with million-dollar checks in their pockets are telling other artists that they shouldn't expect to get paid; publications are telling writers that they shouldn't expect to get paid, either; and meanwhile everyone wonders why we can't get more diversity in the creative ranks. One obvious way to reverse media's glut of wealthy white people would be to stop making it so few others but wealthy white people can afford to get into media. But in the age of dramatic newsroom layoffs and folding publications, nobody wants to hear that.When your publishing model depends on people writing for free, there are a lot of people who aren't going to get published. I couldn't afford internships during college, meaning that I had a hard time breaking in--but I was still relatively lucky. I worked in office jobs with flexible hours and understanding bosses. If I wanted to take an early lunch break in order to do a phone interview, I could. I had evenings free to work on writing and research. I could take jobs that paid 10¢ a word, because I only had a day job. A lot of people don't have that chance, including a disproportionate number of minorities.
It adds insult to injury when you look at some of the people who are published precisely because they could afford internships and writing for free. Sure, it's wrong to base an argument on a few highly-visible outliers. But it's hard not to be a little furious to see the NYT sending good money to Tom Friedman (the obvious travesty), or Roger Cohen, or David Brooks when the industry claims it can't offer new writers recompense. It burns to see The Atlantic insisting that paying people isn't sustainable when they gave Megan McArdle (a hack's hack if there ever was one) a career for years, not to mention running propaganda for the Church of Scientology. If you're going to claim that you're trying as hard as you can to uphold a long-standing journalistic legacy in tough economic times, you'd better make sure your hands are clean before you hold them out in supplication.
I am skeptical, personally, of claims that the industry as a whole can't afford to pay writers. I have heard newsroom financials and profit margins, both for my own employer and for others. The news is no longer a business that prints money, but it remains profitable, as far as I can tell--if not as profitable as management would often like. Perhaps that's not true of The Atlantic: I don't know the details of their balance sheet, although this 2010 NYT article says they made "a tidy profit of $1.8 million this year" and this 2012 article credits them with three years of profitability. That's an impressive bankroll for someone who claims they don't have the budget to pay writers for feature work.
That said, let's accept that I am not an industry expert. It's entirely possible that I'm wrong, and these are desparate times for publications. I can't solve this problem for them. But I can choose a place to stand on my end. I don't work for free, unless it's explicitly for myself under terms that I completely control (i.e., this blog and the others that I fail to maintain as diligently), the same way that I don't take gigs from paying musicians just because I like playing in front of an audience.
Coates may defend working for free, because it got him a guest spot at the publication where he now works. But to me, the most important part of the story is that he got that spot on the strength of his blogging, which drew the attention of other writers and editors. You want exposure? There's nothing wrong with making it for yourself. Please start a blog, and hustle for it like crazy. But don't let other people tell you that it's the same as a paycheck--especially when they're not working for "exposure." They're on salary.
Is there a chance that, as with Coates and so many others, that exposure could lead to better gigs? Sure, the same way that a musician might get discovered while playing folk covers at a Potbelly sandwich shop. But it's a lottery, and pointing to successful writers who came up that way ignores the order of magnitude more that wrote for exposure and promptly sank into obscurity. You can't pay your rent with publicity, and you never could. We're professionals, and we should demand to be treated that way.
Last week, Rupert Murdoch's iPad-only tabloid The Daily announced that it was closing its doors on Thursday, giving it a total lifespan of just under one year. Lots of people have written interesting things about this, because the schadenfreude is irresistable. Felix Salmon makes a good case against its format, while former staffer Peter Ha noted that its publication system was unaccountably terrible. Dean Starkman at CJR believes, perhaps rightly, that it will take more than a Murdoch rag going under to form any real conclusions.
Around the same time, Nieman Lab published a mind-bogglingly silly pitch piece for 29th Street Publishing, a middleman that republishes magazine content as mobile apps. "What if getting a magazine into Apple's Newsstand was as easy as pushing the publish button on a blog?" Nieman asked on Twitter, demonstrating once again that the business side of the news industry will let nothing stand between it and the wrong questions.
The problem publications face is not that getting into Apple's storefront is too hard--it's that they have a perfectly good (cross-platform) publishing system right in front of them in HTML ("as easy as pushing the publish button on a blog," one might say) and they're completely unwilling to find a business model for it other than throwing up their hands and ceding 30% of their income (and control of their future) to a third party in another industry with a completely different set of priorities. (Not to mention the barriers to search, sharing, and portability that apps throw up.)
What publishers need to be doing is finding a way to monetize the content that they've already got and can already publish using tools that are--well, probably not quite as easy as blogging, but undoubtably far easier than becoming a mobile software developer. One way to do that is with a leaky paywall: it's been a definite success for the NYT, and the Washington Post is considering one. I suspect that when calmer heads prevail, this will become a lot more common. The problem with paywalls is mobile: even if consumers were not conditioned to want "apps," sign-in on mobile is a frustrating user experience problem.
But let's say apps remain a hot topic in news boardrooms. I've been thinking about this for a few days: how could the news industry build a revenue model out of the best of both worlds, with clean mobile HTML deployed everywhere but leveraging the easy payment mechanism of an app store--assuming, in fact, that "payment is hard" is actually a problem the industry has, and given the NYT's success, I'm not honestly sure that it is. My best solution takes inspiration from two-factor authentication (which everyone should be using).
My plan goes like this: just like today, you visit the app store on your platform of choice. You download a yearly "subscription key" application, pay for it in the usual way, and then open it. Behind the scenes, the app talks to the content server and generates a one-time password, then opens a corresponding URL in the default site browser, setting a cookie so that further browser visits will always be signed in--but you as the user don't see any of that. All you see is that the content has been unlocked for you without any sign-in hassle. Next year, you renew your subscription the same way.
In an ideal world, there would be a standard for this that platform authors could implement. Your phone would have one "site key" application (not without precedent), and content publishers could just plug add-on apps into it for both purchasing and authentication. Everyone wins. But of course, that's not a sexy startup idea for milking thousands of dollars from gullible editors. Nor is it helpful for computer companies looking to keep you from leaving their platform: I'm pretty sure an application like this violates Apple's store rules. Personally, that's reason enough for me to consider them unacceptable, because I don't believe the correct response to exploitation is capitulation. That's probably why nobody lets me make business decisions for a major paper.
Assume we can't publish an app: two-factor auth still works in lots of ways that are mobile-friendly, post-purchase. You could visit the website, click a big "unlock" button and be sent a URL via text message, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever else you'd like. A site built in HTML and monetized this way works everywhere, instead of locking you into the iPad or another single platform. It lets the publisher, not a third party, retain control of billing and access. And it can be layered onto your existing system, not developed from scratch. Is it absolutely secure? No, of course not. But who cares? As the Times has proven, all you need to do is monetize the people who are willing to pay, not the pirates.
This is just one sane solution that lets news organizations control their own content, and their destiny. Will it happen? Probably not: the platform owners won't let them, and news organizations don't seem to care about having a platform that they themselves own. To me this is a terrible shame: after years of complaining that the Internet made everyone a publisher, news organizations don't seem to be interested in learning that same lesson when the shoe is on the other foot. But perhaps there's an upside: for every crappy app conversion startup funded by desparate magazine companies, there are jobs being created in a recovering economy. Thanks for taking one for the team, journalism.
I have argued vociferously in the recent past that the journalistic craze for native clients--an enthusiasm seemingly rekindled by Rupert Murdoch's ridiculous Daily iPad publication--is a bad idea from a technical standpoint. They're clumsy, require a lot of platform-specific work, and they're not exactly burning up the newstands. It continues to amaze me that, despite the ubiquity of Webkit as a capable cross-platform hypertext runtime, people are still excited about recreating the Multimedia CD-ROM.
But beyond the technical barriers, publishing your news in a walled-garden application market raises some serious questions of professional journalistic ethics. Curation (read: a mandatory, arbitrary approval process) exacerbates the dilemma, but even relatively open app stores are, in my opinion, on shaky ground. These problems emerge along three axes: accountability, editorial independence, and (perhaps most importantly) the ideology of good journalism.
One of the hallmarks of the modern web is intercommunication based on a set of simple, high-level protocols. From a system of URLs and HTTP, a whole Internet culture of blog commentary, trackbacks, Rickrolls, mashups, and embedded video emerged. Most recently, Twitter created a new version of the linkblog (and added a layer of indirection via link shortening). For a journalist, this should be exciting: it's a rich soup of comments and community swarming around your work. More importantly, it's a constant source of accountability. What, you thought corrections went away when we went online?
But that whole ecosystem of viral sharing and review gets disconnected when you lock your content into a native client. At least on Android, you can send content to other applications via the powerful Intent mechanism (the iOS situation is much less well-constructed, and I have no idea how Windows Mobile now handles this), but even that has unpredictable results--what are you sharing, after all? A URL to the web version? The article text? Can the user choose? And when it comes to submitting corrections or feedback, native apps default to difficult: of the five major news clients I tried on Android this morning (NPR, CBS, Fox, New York Times, and USA Today), not one of them had an in-app way to submit a correction. Regret the error, indeed.
Accountability is an important part of professional ethics in journalism. But so is editorial independence, and in both cases the perception of misbehavior can be even more damaging than any actual foul play. The issue as I see it is: how independent can you be, if your software must be approved during each update by a single, fickle gatekeeper?
As Dan Gillmor points out, selling journalism through an app store is a partnership, and that raises serious questions of independence. Are news organizations less likely to be critical of Google, Apple, and Microsoft when their access to the platform could be pulled at any time from the virtual shelves? Do the content-restrictions on both mobile app stores change the stories that they're likely to publish? Will app stores stand behind journalists operating under governments with low press freedom, or will they buckle to a "terms of service" attack? On the web, a paper or media outlet can largely write whatever they want. Physical distribution is so diverse, a single retail entity can't really shut you down. But in an app store, you publish at the pleasure of the platform owner--terms subject to revision. That kind of scenario should give journalists pause.
Ideology and Solidarity
Organizing the news industry is like herding cats: it's a cutthroat business traditionally fueled by intra-city competition, and it naturally attracts argumentative, over-critical personality types. But it's time that newsrooms start to stick up for the basic ideology of journalism. That means that when the owners of an app store start censoring applications based on content, as happened to political cartoonist Mark Fiore or the Eucalyptus e-book reader, we need to make it clear that we consider that behavior unacceptable--pulling apps, refusing to partner for big launch events, and pursuing alternative publication channels.
There's a reason that freedom of the press is included next to speech, religion, and assembly in the Bill of Rights' first amendment. It's an important part of the feedback loop between people, events, and government in a democracy. And journalists have traditionally been pretty hardcore about freedom of the press: see, for example, the lawsuit over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, as well as the entirety of Reporters Without Borders. If the App Store were a country, its ranking for press freedom would be middling at best, and newspapers wouldn't be nearly as eager to jump into bed with it. The fact that these curated markets retain widespread publication support, despite their history of censorship and instability, is an shame for the industry as a whole.
Act, Don't React
Journalists have a responsibility to react against censorship when they see it, but we should also consider going on the offensive. While I don't actually think native news clients make sense when compared to a good mobile web experience, it is still possible to minimize or eliminate some of the ethical concerns they raise, through careful design and developer lobbying.
While it's unlikely that a native application could easily offer the same kind of open engagement as a website, designers can at least address accountability. News clients should offer a way to either leave comments or send corrections to the editors entirely within the application. A side effect of this would be cross-industry innovation in computerized correction tracking and display, something that few publications are really taking advantage of right now.
Simultaneously, journalists should be using their access to tech companies (who love to use newspapers and networks as keynote demos) to push for better policies. This includes more open, uncensored app stores, but it also means pushing for tools that make web apps first-class citizens in an app-centric world, such as:
We have so many interesting debates surrounding the business of American journalism--paywalls, ad revenue, user-generated content--can't we just call this one off? The HTML document, originally designed to publish academic papers, may be a frustrating technology for rich UIs, but it's perfectly suited for the task of presenting the news. It's as close as you can get to write-once-run-anywhere, making it the cheapest and most efficient option for mobile development. And it's ethically sound! Isn't it time we stood up for ourselves, and as an industry backed a platform that doesn't leave us feeling like we've sold out our principles for short-term gains? Come on, folks: let's leave that to the op-ed writers.