Bill Adair

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The winners and losers of Serial’s first season (Ira Glass is on both lists)

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Spoiler alert: If you haven’t listened to all 12 episodes of Serial, there are many spoilers below.

As the debate rages on Reddit and Twitter about whether Serial ended with a whimper or a wallop, perhaps we can find more agreement about the winners and losers of the remarkably successful podcast.

Here are my picks:


Adnan Syed — Even though host Sarah Koenig stopped short of saying she believes Syed is innocent of killing Hae Min Lee, Koenig said she would have voted to acquit Syed. His hopes for an appeal clearly got a boost from the series.

To many of us, Syed came across as humble and appealing. He’s not even bitter about his defense attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, who clearly fumbled his case. If his appeal goes forward, his good demeanor can only help.

Mail Chimp — Whatever the company paid for the sponsorship, it was a bargain. The catchy “Mail Chimp-Mail Chimp-Mail…Kimp” at the start of every show elevated the ad campaign to “Got Milk?” status.

Podcasting – Many of us hadn’t downloaded a podcast since the iPod era, when you had to go through the hassle of syncing with your desktop computer to get a new episode. Serial showed that in the days of Wi-Fi, it’s easy to subscribe and download.

Serial is something of a gateway drug, leading many of us to other podcasts. I signed up for the Slate Spoiler series about Serial, as well as Startup, Alex Blumberg’s honest and funny account of his effort to start a new podcasting company.

The Innocence Project — The legal team at the University of Virginia emerged as an interesting group and could be an important player if Syed is successful with his appeals. The head of the Innocence Project, Deirdre Enright, sounds like a cool lady.

Ira Glass — The creator of This American Life and the editorial advisor for Serial has a voice that I find nearly as grating as that of Gutierrez, Syed’s attorney. But he’s a tremendous talent in public radio and digital media. He deserves credit for bringing Serial to life and bringing new energy to podcasting.

Sarah Koenig — Her relentless digging and smart storytelling created a compelling tale that made people set their alarms to hear the newest episode. She’s been criticized by some listeners for being wishy-washy, but I see that as honest reporting.

Transparency in reporting — Serial showed the twists and dead ends of Koenig’s reporting, which made listeners appreciate the challenge of a journalist trying to find the truth. Koenig’s quest provided the narrative backbone for the series even more than the events she was investigating.

Crab Crib — The restaurant on Johnnycake Road was mentioned in a random comment by Koenig’s producer Dana Chivvis, who said as an aside, “There’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib.” It became an Internet meme and even spawned T-shirts.


The Baltimore PD — Can anyone listen to all 12 episodes and come away with the belief that the Baltimore police did a thorough job investigating the case? I doubt it. Koenig conducted the kind of investigation the cops should have done. Where are Bunk and McNulty when we need them?

Cristina Gutierrez — Syed’s lawyer emerged as the most interesting character of the series, even though many questions about the late attorney (she died in 2004) are still unanswered. Why didn’t she talk with the witness who said that Syed was in the library at the time of the crime? And how can you explain her bizarre behavior, such as her urgent demand for a large sum of cash?

Using lots of interviews, powerful anecdotes and recordings of Gutierrez’s screeching voice, Koenig showed the attorney did a poor job defending Syed.

Conventional broadcasting — Serial would have been a great weekly radio show, but other than its premiere, which aired on This American Life, it was only available in the United States as a podcast. That’s a reminder that the on-demand/streaming revolution that is beginning to rock television will soon impact radio. Listeners don’t want to wait for a show — and Serial showed they don’t have to.

Ira Glass — Koenig is now a superstar and he’s going to have to give her a raise.

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and the creator and a contributing editor of PolitiFact. Read more


Ben Smith, @crushingbort and @blippoblappo talk about plagiarism

I teach a journalism ethics class at Duke University that focuses on issues of trust. I spend about half the semester exploring the pros and cons of anonymous sourcing, the other half on plagiarism and fabrication.

The plagiarism by Benny Johnson at BuzzFeed has not only prompted a new round of discussion about copying and pasting in the digital age, it involves an anonymous posse — two bloggers who call themselves @blippoblappo and @crushingbort. After BuzzFeed fired Johnson for 41 incidents of plagiarism, Blippo and Bort have been on a relentless crusade against columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria.

On Tuesday, BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, Blippo and Bort spoke with my class in two separate conversations. Smith spoke first by Skype; Blippo and Bort opted for a Google chat to protect their identities.



Smith was forthright about the firing of Johnson, saying it was clearly plagiarism. “Presenting someone else’s words as your own is such a basic form of dishonesty,” he said. He also said BuzzFeed should have been more forthcoming about the deletion of old posts (a fact uncovered by Gawker, which said there were roughly 4,000 that disappeared from BuzzFeed’s site).

“BuzzFeed, before I started, was more of a content lab … kind of curating the hot conversations from the web, using algorithms to find them,” Smith said. That resulted in “tons and tons of stuff that was in that era were lists of broken links and broken images and broken videos. And we kind of really sloppily said to editors, like ‘Hey we have all this old stuff. You can’t edit it anymore because we’ve changed our CMS, it’s a huge effort to fix it. … If there’s stuff you care about, we’ll save it. We’re gonna go ahead and get rid of everything else, because we don’t want to be serving pages that have broken links.’ ”

The mistake, Smith said, was “instead of thinking, ‘Won’t it be weird for readers when they pull up a page, and it vanished?’ we thought like ‘Oh, this is a convenient way to deal with all these old things,’ which was incredibly untransparent, and not very well thought through. Gawker noticed, and wrote a good story about it, and that’s good. I’m all for that. That’s how you learn.”

Smith told the class that BuzzFeed was in the process of writing an ethics manual. “As we’ve grown, and now that we have 250 editorial staffers, sometimes it’s helpful to have specific rules,” he said.

The policy “isn’t like a set of bright-line rules, because I think those can be very misleading, and if you have clear bright lines without real principles, people find ways to game them. But to have a sense of what’s appropriate around sourcing, to define plagiarism really clearly because we had one guy who seems not to have really understood that. Things like that.”

When I pressed for details, he declined to say much about manual, saying that “we’re still working on it. We want to kick it around internally a little bit more.”

@blippoblappo's icon

@blippoblappo’s icon

After Smith came our Google chat with the anonymous bloggers, an unusual way to talk with guest speakers. Blippo’s avatar was a fish swallowing a pill; Bort, who was going by the name Horton Atonto, had an avatar of a mean-looking robot. Here’s a lightly edited transcript. I’ve cleaned up typos and reordered a few responses when we talked over each other.

Hey Blippo and, uh, Horton? Thought we were getting Bort. Man, these pseudonyms throw me off.

Bort: Apologies!

Thanks for doing this. Here with me today are 30 students in my journalism ethics class. How about we start with you guys – gals? – telling us what you can about yourselves and why you’ve been spending so much time on this. It’s clear this takes a lot of research!

Blippo: I’ll take this one. So you’ve all read up on the BuzzFeed Benny saga.

In fact, our guest speaker last hour was Ben Smith.

Bort: Oh boy.

Blippo: That’s incredible…So, we’d been reading Benny’s “journalism” for a while. And, at some point, he started ridiculing another outlet for “plagiarizing” one of his posts on H.W. Bush’s socks. We thought it would be funny if Benny had ever plagiarized, because – well, boy, wouldn’t that be hubris if a serial plagiarist was calling out people for plagiarism? So over a big bowl of Chinese takeout I just started entering phrases from his articles into Google, and voila.

Good journalistic instincts. But you have said you’re not journalists, right?

Bort: We’re not, which is the funny thing about it. They were readily available on Google.

Blippo: It doesn’t take J-school education to read an article and know that BuzzFeed Benny doesn’t have offhand knowledge about North Korea’s cell phone manufacturing industry.

Why remain anonymous?

Bort: We’ve always said that we’re not the focus of the story, outside of a human interest.

Well, at least you’re confirming you are human.

Blippo: True – we are not, in fact, a drug-taking fish and a robot.

Bort: Our work is available to the public and independently verifiable. The reaction we’ve seen from some reporters is that absent our identities, someone’s plagiarism somehow doesn’t count or matter.

Do you feel like you are making yourselves a part of the story by remaining anonymous? Sort of like Batman?

Blippo: Exactly. At this point, our anonymity is a challenge to reporters – when you have a prima facie case of plagiarism, will you let the fact that it comes from the depths of Twitter prevent you from doing the right thing and calling it out?

Bort: I think for some reporters it’s easier to ask who we are then to step on some very big toes in the industry.

The reaction by Slate Group Editor-in-Chief Jacob Weisberg was particularly strong against you. What do you make of that? (He said their “bullying vigilantism is pure J. Edgar Hoover”)

Blippo: I made a name tag out of it. “J. Edgar Hoover” is about the best honorific one can get.

Weisberg’s point — shared to some extent by some in our class — was that you are too strict in your definition of plagiarism.

Bort: Weisberg is a former classmate of Zakaria’s and it seems as if he has some pretty strong personal feelings about it, but as was pointed out early on by Elon Green he was once very unforgiving towards plagiarism when it concerned his own work.

Blippo: Mmm, now that point about being “too strict” is an important one for us to address. Look, I think if you read up on “patch writing” and other “low-level” plagiarism charges, it kind of confuses the idea of why plagiarism is so bad. Plagiarism is theft — it’s stealing someone else’s hard work, even if that hard work is merely summarizing a report. How hard is it to use quotations and cite properly? All we’re asking is for a very, very baseline level of attribution — “Hey, I read this fact in Bloomberg.”

Bort: We were alerted to some quotes Zakaria gave in 2012 concerning his first scandal and he said he didn’t think it was important to cite quotes others had gotten because it would “interrupt the flow for the reader” and because his book wasn’t an “academic work.” That ends up giving readers the idea that Zakaria did the work here, or that somehow giving credit is something best left in medical journals and the like.

Blippo: But if you still don’t agree with all of our examples — with regards to Zakaria — you have to look at the broader picture — out of the dozens and dozens of examples, does it add up to someone with a serious pattern of misattribution? To wit – this isn’t a case of someone having a good-faith effort at attribution.

The consensus here in the class is that there are definitely some instances of Zakaria lifting things word for word. But several students asked if you hurt your case by adding examples that are not so solid.

Blippo: If I had to do it again, I would have spent 3 months researching all of Zakaria’s work and then released the strongest examples all at once, alongside the less-obvious ones. But we’re not professional journalists – we’re two people who do this in our free time. The real question shouldn’t be, “Why didn’t these two random Twitter people do a better job policing Zakaria.” It should be, “Why didn’t an editor catch ANY of these examples ever?”

Bort: Even we differed on which ones were slam dunks and which ones were so-so, but the examples that weren’t as convincing as others shouldn’t mitigate the biggest offenses.

Blippo: Exactly. And even the “so-so” cases should have sent a flag up for editors. At the very least.

Bort: If Zakaria stole two Ferraris and five tricycles, he wouldn’t get easier charges on account of the latter.

Blippo: Hahaha nice.

Okay, good point. How much do you think editors are responsible to catch mistakes and plagiarism?

Blippo: We can’t expect editors to spend hours and hours doing what we do to every article that comes across their desk. We know how time consuming it is, and considering how few resources editors have, it’s simply not a reasonable request. So what we need is a journalism that gets the incentives correct through strong collective consequences for those who DO plagiarize. For example, if Zakaria can get away with impunity, what will make the next Zakaria any more likely to not lift improperly? If editors want to save themselves hassle in the future, they should enforce tough standards to bad actors now.

Bort: I think editors inherently have some responsibility when it comes to catching mistakes, like when FZ got annual trade between the US and Mexico wrong because he was lifting from a year-old article. Or confirming that interviews actually took place with the sources being quoted.

It seems that the reporters who cover the media haven’t been doing much original reporting on this; they are relying on you. What do you make of that?

Blippo: It’s frustrating.

Bort: They’re playing it safe.

Blippo: This ties back into the earlier comment about us presenting “so-so” examples: we wouldn’t have to be throwing the sink at Zakaria if a real journalist was picking up the slack here. That being said, hat tip to Dylan Byers and the folks at Poynter (who have been covering it).

Today’s post on the changes in Zakaria’s Wikipedia page was smart journalism. But I wondered if there was enough evidence to say it was “apparently Zakaria.”

Blippo: A few things. First, who else on earth besides a woman’s son would fix a misspelling of their mother’s name on a Wikipedia entry?

Bort: That was really the clincher. Fareed Zakaria hasn’t had very many defenders who didn’t employ him.

Blippo: I think we really tried to hedge here by not saying “it was Zakaria.” But considering how few reporters are aggressively covering this story, I think it merits a fun, push-the-envelope story. Again, the evidence is there for people to judge themselves. It’s not like we’re relying on sources that can’t be independently verified.

Yes, that one was fun. One last question: Where do you go from here? What is your goal?

Blippo Bort will give an answer here. But I would love to know what your class thinks we should do.

Bort: We started this for fun and it ended up becoming way bigger than we thought. One of the funnier things we’ve noticed is that we’ve mentioned several times that we’ve found other instances (that) could kindly be called questionable attribution, yet no reporters have pushed for more information. We get the impression that people are afraid their outlet is next.

Blippo: Yeah, we’ve literally teased our other stories to no end and no one has reached out.

Okay, I’ll ask: What other outlets? Which writers?

Blippo: Walked into that one. Uh…wait, what were those interesting ideas from the class?

Bort: We’re deciding at the moment whether or not to send that information to the outlet in question. Because we’re curious to find out what happens if there’s no public calling out.

(Now responding to Blippo’s question about what the students think they should do next) Some interesting ideas from the class: 1. Keep going as the anonymous posse of plagiarism; 2. Write your own interpretation of plagiarism; 3. Broaden Our Bad Media to crowdsourcing; 4. Expand to other ethical areas such as anon. sources.

Bort: I like those ideas, particularly the use of anonymous sources

Blippo: Yeah, the anonymous sources one is really compelling

Thanks for doing this — even though you ducked the question about other news outlets!

Bort: We want to make sure (the evidence) is all in order!

Blippo: We’re really in the 22nd century now, huh. And yeah, thanks for having us. … Feel free to tweet at us, students, we will make fun of your avi’s.

Hard to beat a fish eating a pill, though.

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. Read more


Lessons from London: fact-checkers have passion, but need more checks

Poynter’s inaugural Global Fact-Checking Summit attracted a diverse group of journalists to a London classroom this week.

Two Italians explained their creative ideas for earning money from their work. An energetic editor from Argentina talked about how she uses crowdsourcing to help her reporters. And two young journalists from Ukraine showed how they’ve used digital tools to find manipulated photographs in the Russian media.

Attendees at the Poynter’s Global Fact-Checking Summit in London. (Photo by Shannon Beckham)

The journalists shared something big in common: a passion for fact-checking.

As international conferences go, the Global Fact-Checking Summit was a small one — about 40 fact-checkers, a half-dozen academics who study this growing new form of journalism, plus a handful of representatives from the foundations that paid for the conference. But what it lacked it size, it made up in spirit.

They came from across the globe — India, South Africa, Serbia, Poland, Italy, France, the United States and Chile. Russell Skelton, the head of the ABC Fact Check in Australia, endured a 22-hour flight from Sydney and won the conference prize for the longest trip — a kitschy Barack Obama snow globe.

The two-day conference at the London School of Economics showed fact-checkers are a unique breed. They’re smart and can do sophisticated reporting. They’ve disrupted the status quo by challenging the accuracy of their political leaders. And they’ve developed thick skin to withstand frequent criticism. They are eagle-eyed and even caught a mistake in their Poynter certificates, which said the conference was held in July.

The big news from the meeting was the unanimous decision to form an international association that will hold future conferences, promote fact-checking and help the journalists exchange best practices.

As the organizer of the conference, my big takeaway was the realization that in some countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, impartial fact-checking can’t be done by newspapers and television networks because they are often controlled by the government or political parties. In those countries, it is being done by “media NGOs” — independent groups that play the role of the non-partisan media.

The meeting allowed the fact-checkers to exchange ideas and tips. Italians Alberto Puoti and Alexios Mantzarlis showed a glitzy TV fact-checking segment that reminded many of us of Dancing with the Stars. Paata Gaprindashvili of the GRASS FactCheck in Georgia played a video that used a wonderfully simple animation to explain a complicated subject.

But for all the great highlight-reel moments, there were plenty of reminders about some big challenges facing the London attendees:

  • Although fact-checking is flourishing in the United States and Europe, there are only a few sites in Africa and South America.
  • In many countries, fact-checking can be difficult because of the lack of reliable government data.
  • No one has found a sustainable business model for fact-checking.

That looms as the biggest challenge. Fact-checking sites don’t typically draw enough traffic to be commercially successful, so they have to get substantial support from large news organizations and foundations.

One of the most popular panels at the London conference was about finding new revenue sources. It began with gloomy comments from editors saying they were facing big funding cuts in the near future. But the conversation turned hopeful as the panelists offered some creative ideas to raise money.

Chequeado, a site in Argentina, hosts a big fund-raiser called “The Night of Chequeado.” in the United States raises about $80,000 a year from individual donations. Pagella Politica, a site in Italy, is exploring offering a variety of services that could bring in revenue, including selling its data and writing background briefs for television hosts about the fact-check records of politicians.

Mantzarlis, co-creator of Pagella Politica, said fact-checking takes a lot of time and effort, which means “there is definitely value in it.” So why not try to recoup some of that value?

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the fact-checkers is changing their mindset, something the new association is likely to address. They are not just journalists any more, they are managers and entrepreneurs who must find a way to keep their ventures sustainable.

Laura Zommer, the executive director of Chequeado, said fundraising required a big change in her approach.

“The most important thing,” she said, “is not to be shy.”

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Poynter and is the creator of PolitiFact.
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Poynter to hold Global Fact-Checking Summit in London

With fact-checking growing around the world, the Poynter Institute will convene the first Global Fact-Checking Summit, to be held in June in London.

The conference, at the London School of Economics on June 9-10, will bring together about 40 fact-checkers from places such as South Africa, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, India, the United States, South America and Eastern Europe.

Fact-checking is expanding rapidly around the globe, according to a new analysis from the Duke University Reporters’ Lab. The Duke study found 59 sites that have been active in the last few years, including 44 currently in operation.

About half of the sites are affiliated with newspapers, television networks or other legacy media organizations. The other half are run by startup companies or not-for-profit groups. Twenty-seven have started in the past two years.

The Global Fact-Checking Summit is sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Ford Foundation, Omidyar Network, the Duke Reporters’ Lab, the British fact-checking site Full Fact, and craigconnects, the Web-based initiative to support philanthropy and public service run by Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist.

Topics will include the growth and challenges of fact-checking, the best techniques for researching claims, the pros and cons of rating systems, the use of crowdsourcing and the need to find sustainable business models.

“Fact-checking is quickly becoming an important new form of accountability journalism,” said Poynter President Tim Franklin. “Poynter will play a leading role to help journalists do their best work and foster the growth of fact checking, which is vital to democracies around the world.”

The conference also represents Poynter’s strategy to greatly expand its training initiatives across the globe. Last month, Poynter led a series of seminars for journalists in India. Later this month, the institute will formally announce the launch of a training project for Turkish journalists. The project includes e-learning courses through NewsU Turkiye, a certificate program and a fellowship that will bring up to 20 Turkish journalists to Poynter in the fall.

Presenters at the fact-checking conference will include editors from PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning site in the United States, and Chequeado, an independent fact-checking site in Argentina, as well as Lucas Graves, a University of Wisconsin professor who is writing a book about the rise of fact-checking, and Bill Adair, a Duke University professor and adjunct faculty member at Poynter.

For more information about the conference, contact Bill Adair at

Related training: Getting it Right: Accuracy and Verification in the Digital Age | Don’t Get Fooled Again: Best Practices for Online Verification | How to Keep Misinformation from Spreading | Growing Trust and Engagement With Local News Audiences | Making the Case for Fact-Checking in Your Newsroom | Political Fact-Checking: Tips and Tricks for the 2012 Election Read more


Creating new forms of journalism that put readers in charge

It’s been 20 years since the Internet began to disrupt journalism. It has turned our business upside down, but it’s also given us a new canvas to invent different ways of presenting information. It’s time to start reimagining the news story.

Last week, four of us gathered in a windowless conference room in New York to explore what we can do to nudge things along.

The participants were the creators of three projects that rely on new forms:

  • Laura and Chris Amico, the founders of Homicide Watch, the highly acclaimed reporting venture that tracks homicide victims and suspects in Washington, Chicago and Trenton, N.J.

All three projects use a structured approach to present content in different ways. The animated diagrams of Connected China show you the family and government relationships that determine who has clout in that country; the lists and maps of Homicide Watch show who has been killed and where; the PolitiFact report cards reveal which politicians have earned the most Pants on Fires.

Homicide Watch, Connected China and PolitiFact are known as structured journalism because the articles contain fields of information that can be sorted and tallied. They provide readers with many ways to explore the content, both through individual articles and the data the articles create. Structured journalism puts the reader in charge.

“It’s a way of reporting that builds a comprehensive reporter’s notebook and then opens that notebook up to the public,” said Laura Amico. “There is no ‘old news’ in structured journalism, there is cumulative news. It is reporting that increases in value over time.”

There are a few other ventures that are experimenting with similar new forms, such as Circa, the app that atomizes the news into digestible chunks. But by and large, story forms are stuck in the past. We want more news organizations to experiment with structured journalism.

We began our New York meeting by trying to understand why media companies have largely failed to take advantage of the incredible power of the Web and mobile devices. We identified four forces that have stymied innovation:

  • Content Management Systems. They are designed to convert old media into new media and they provide little flexibility to experiment with new journalistic forms.

  • Newsroom culture. The rhythm in most newsrooms is based on a well-established work flow that produces predictable content. It’s not easy to suggest a wholesale change.

  • Product managers on the business side. They’re accustomed to selling the old recipe and often seem perplexed by new approaches.

  • Editors/news directors. They’ve got other priorities — such as having to choose people for another round of layoffs — and often don’t have the resources for a new venture.

Chua said editors need to get beyond the idea that “what’s new is what’s valuable. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s accumulated information and knowledge that is valuable.”

We then turned to the need for evangelism. What can the four of us do to get more news organizations to try innovative story forms?

We agreed to host a mini-conference in September before the Online News Association meeting in Chicago. It will allow us to demonstrate the promise of new story forms for industry leaders and innovators.

In the meantime, we’ll be writing and speaking about the new forms and encouraging organizations to do more experimentation. We invite you to join in these conversations by sharing your projects, ideas and hopes. #structuredjournalism

Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact, is the Knight Chair for Computational Journalism at Duke University and an adjunct faculty member at Poynter. Read more

Smart Spending Winning the eBook War

Unfulfilled promise of e-books offers lessons for news organizations

I spent my vacation reading from pixels instead of paper.

I read e-book versions of “Bruce,” a Springsteen biography by Peter Ames Carlin, and Dan Brown’s bestselling novel “Inferno.” Both had great potential for extra audio and video that could have created a much richer experience. But the e-books offered no more than the ink-on-paper versions.

My disappointing experience offers a lesson for news organizations that are considering selling e-books because its shows how legacy media is still thinking like … legacy media. Book publishers still have an old-school mentality —  like many newspaper editors.

E-books offer great opportunities for magazine and newspaper editors because the digital versions can include video, audio and other content that will enrich a story. Newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are publishing e-books because they can bring in extra revenue and new audiences. Consumers are accustomed to paying for books, and there are established stores (Amazon and Apple’s iBooks) that will market and sell them. But to do e-books right, editors and book publishers should take advantage of their multimedia features.

I read the iBook versions of Bruce and Inferno on my iPad, but the experience would have been pretty much the same if I’d used the Kindle versions. Here’s what they were like and how they could have been better:

Peter Ames Carlin’s “Bruce”

I’m a longtime Springsteen fan and was happy to find a biography that presented an honest account of his rise to stardom. Carlin shows Bruce warts and all — his petty behavior with girlfriends and his creative struggles as he recorded great albums such as “Born to Run.”

But while music is central to the story, you’ll have to be satisfied with Carlin’s words because the e-book doesn’t have any audio. There undoubtedly are hours and hours of video and audio that would complement Carlin’s smart prose. It would be easy to mix them into the e-book at key points to give the reader (listener? viewer?) a more fulfilling experience.

Instead, all we get is prose and some old Springsteen family snapshots.

Carlin told me by email that an enhanced multimedia version “is something I’ve definitely mused upon, dreamed about, etc. But it’s also very tricky terrain, given the verities of who owns what recordings and/or song publishing, and the costs of clearing rights for publication, and so on. I’m sure such enhanced books will soon be commonplace, but most likely as artist-approved projects, I think.”

I see his point, but I think it would be worth exploring more. Sure, there would be some licensing challenges, but Springsteen’s managers cooperated with him and might have allowed iTunes-length snippets or short compilations.

I was so frustrated with the lack of music that I downloaded several Springsteen albums to my iPad and played them in the background, so I could hear “Thunder Road” as I read how Bruce recorded it. I had to create my own multimedia e-book because the publisher, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, didn’t.

Dan Brown’s “Inferno”

Inferno is part thriller, part travelogue.

As protagonist Robert Langdon and his sultry companion Sienna Brooks (Langdon’s companions always seem to be sultry) flee the villains, they duck into touristy sites in Florence and Venice, Italy, as well as Istanbul, Turkey. Brown does a decent job describing them with his workmanlike prose, but I often wanted to see photos and maps.

The e-book let me down. Despite an author’s note that promised authenticity — “All artwork, literature, science and historical references in this novel are real” — the e-book didn’t have any photos or maps, let alone animations that might have tracked the progress of Langdon and Dr. Brooks. I’m not saying Doubleday, the publisher, should have turned it into a Saturday morning cartoon, but some photos and a little animation would have enhanced my experience.

Just as I had done with the Springsteen book, I created my own multimedia experience for “Inferno.” I found a website compiled by historian Sanford Holst that features collected photos and maps of the book’s locations. I kept it open in Safari and referred to it every time Langdon and Brooks arrived at a new location.

Enhanced e-books are in their infancy, so I haven’t read many that take advantage of multimedia features. But I’ve seen a few, such as Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” a powerful account of poverty in Mumbai that includes video. Hollywood also has seen the potential, using free e-books with video and interactive features to promote the TV show “The Bridge” and the film version of “Les Miserables.”

Some of the big publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin and Simon & Schuster have begun selling more enhanced e-books. But they represent a small portion of all e-books. (I emailed a Doubleday spokeswoman but did not hear back.)

Newspaper and magazine editors should pay attention to the opportunity here. Enhanced e-books are not only a new way to tell stories, they’re also a way to make money. But editors have to think beyond ink on paper.

Related: What news organizations are learning from their e-book efforts | Star Tribune publishes serialized novel in paper, turns it into an e-book | In the year of the e-book, five lessons from — and for — news organizations

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. He also serves an adjunct faculty member at Poynter and is a contributing editor for PolitiFact, which is run by the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times. Read more


Bezos has what The Washington Post needs: imagination and patience

The front page of today’s Washington Post print edition was dominated by coverage of the paper’s sale to Jeff Bezos. But a small story squeezed onto the bottom of the page, about the world’s first lab-grown hamburger, also gave some insight into what’s ahead for the legendary paper — and perhaps the rest of the news business.

The story recounted the taste test of the first lab-burger, which was described as “surprisingly crunchy.” The story noted who bankrolled the newfangled beef: Google’s Sergey Brin.

The Post — like the hamburger — will now be owned by a rich guy with a spirit of experimentation. Using just a tiny fraction of his tremendous wealth to buy the paper, Bezos made clear that he wants to tinker with the Post and explore the future of journalism.

“We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment,” he wrote in a letter to Post employees. “Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about — government local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports — and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.”

It has been difficult for newspaper editors to do much inventing in the past few years because they have been too busy cutting. It’s hard to dream up new forms of journalism when you’re not sure you have enough reporters to cover the school board.

Just as Brin is paying to reimagine fast food (the beef-free beef burger holds lots of promise for the environment), Bezos has the resources to help reinvent the news business. He is well-suited for this because he isn’t a product of its ink-and-paper past.

The emergence of wealthy tinkerers such as Bezos is a promising trend because they can give the news business some stability and a fresh perspective. As the Post notes in its profile of Bezos, he has remarkable patience: He launched Amazon in 1994, but it didn’t turn a profit until 2001.

And Bezos has shown he has great imagination. His other investments include a company that will send people into space (the company, Blue Origin, says “accomplishing this mission will take time, and we’re working on it methodically”) and a clock that will tick for 10,000 years. Likewise, he’s grown Amazon into a behemoth by relentlessly trying new products and services.

After getting a foothold in books, clothing, e-books and many other consumer products, he’s venturing into groceries and even streaming video. (Last week, I caught up with the first episodes of “Under the Dome” by watching them on Amazon.)

We need more investors like Bezos. He’ll bring fresh thinking to a company that is still largely dependent on an ink-on-paper business model. (Even better: Maybe Brin will develop the same interest in papers that he has in beef! Consumers can read the news while they munch on their  lab-grown double cheeseburgers!)

Chris Taylor, a former writer for Time magazine who has covered Bezos, wrote in Mashable that he is “the best thing to happen to old-school journalism in a long time. He understands its values. He has no agenda, other than making sure customers are happy with the product. He is used to businesses that operate at razor-thin profit margins. He gets new media in a way the Grahams never could, and opens up new distribution channels they hadn’t even considered.”

A hallmark of our digital era has been the speed of progress. But Bezos has been a successful pioneer because he’s got imagination, deep pockets and is willing to give things a chance to grow.

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. He also serves an adjunct faculty member at Poynter and is a contributing editor for PolitiFact, which is run by the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times. Read more


Let’s blow up the news story and build new forms of journalism

American journalism is suffering from a lack of imagination.

We’re at a transformational moment in how we publish and broadcast our work — a time of great promise when we can reinvent how we tell stories.

And yet, we are still doing things the same way we’ve done them for decades. Take a look at any newspaper’s website and you’ll see the same old story form — just in pixels. It’s the same for television stations. Their websites post the same video packages that were on the 6 o’clock news.

We are stuck in the ’90s. I remember one of the first conferences on computer assisted reporting in the mid-’90s when they showed us this thing called “the Web” and demonstrated a website for the “Late Show with David Letterman.” It was very cool and very promising. It showed how the Web gave us a new canvas to create new forms of journalism.

And yet here we are, almost 20 years later, and the content we’re putting on the Web has hardly changed.

What’s taking so long?

It’s partly an infrastructure problem. At newspapers, we’re hamstrung by the editing and content management systems that are used to publish our work. They were built for putting ink on paper. Then, as something of an afterthought, we added the ability to publish on the Web. But they are so rigid and constrained by our old templates that we have little flexibility to create new story forms.

Another problem is old media thinking. Editors and reporters haven’t stopped to invent new forms of storytelling — or even consider how they might do things differently on the Web and mobile devices. Their automatic response is to do the same basic thing they’ve always done: “Go write a news story about that.”

So let’s blow up the news story.

It’s time to rethink the unit of journalism. If we want to re-imagine how we tell stories, we need to consider alternatives to the traditional inverted pyramid story. So let’s tear it up. Let’s reinvent how we tell stories and create some new forms.

We should start by figuring out what we can do with the Web and mobile devices that aren’t possible with ink on paper.

For one thing, the Web and mobile devices can tally and sort. A lot of what we do in journalism is counting, and telling stories through counting. Our devices can now do that for us. They can also sort, telling us what’s important for us based on our location or our interests and they can tell the backstory more effectively.

We need to invent new units of journalism. In our old way of thinking, the unit was simply The Story, anything from a four-inch account of a burglary to a long narrative.

With the new platforms, we don’t have to repeat the backstory every time because the Web and mobile devices provide us easier and more creative ways to bring people up to date. If you haven’t been following a long-running tale, you could click to read the backstory, like at the beginning of a TV show when they say, “Previously, on ‘The Wire’…”

I was looking at a trial story recently, and I wanted to read what we had written when the crime first occurred. But in our content management system there was no way to easily link to that previous installment, to the original chapter. You should be able to get that with one click.

Devices can also allow readers to explore. A lot of what we do in journalism is with the attitude, “We’re gonna give it to you because we think it’s what you should have.” But we don’t provide enough opportunities for readers to explore, to take the raw materials of our journalism and find their own stories.

For example, check out Homicide Watch, a fascinating website in Washington, D.C. Instead of using the old story form, editors Chris and Laura Amico use a homicide as their unit of journalism. Laura writes descriptions of the homicides and then includes entries for victims and suspects. They can also be plotted on a map.

At PolitiFact, we’ve created two new forms. Instead of traditional articles, our Truth-O-Meter fact-checks are a new form that allows you to see a politician’s report card, to see all fact-checks on a subject or see all the Pants on Fire ratings. We can make larger journalistic points through the automatic tallies and summaries of our work.

We’ve done the same thing with the Obameter and the other meters we use for tracking campaign promises. The unit of journalism is the promise and then we write updates and rate whether the promise is kept or broken. The promises also get tallied so you can see how the politician is doing.

Here’s another possible new form: the bill in a legislature. We could start off with an explanation of the bill, who’s for it and who’s against it. We could provide updates for the introduction of the bill, hearings, floor debate, passage, and enactment. We could even automate it by tapping into the website of a state legislature or Congress. Then we could add journalism when it becomes a significant bill. We could identify the most significant bills and even localize them so you could see how your representative voted.

I am optimistic about the future of journalism. I see this as a moment of promise when we can take advantage of these new platforms. But to do it, we really need to blow up the old forms.

Bill Adair is the editor of PolitiFact, the Washington bureau chief of  Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times and an adjunct faculty member at the Poynter Institute.This article is adapted from a presentation at TEDxPoynter on June 1, 2012. Read more


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