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Naysayers are swarming on Clayton Christensen and his “gospel of innovation”

Clayton Christensen

Updated 6-24.

If business school professors were pop stars, Clayton Christensen would be Beyonce. His 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, is wildly influential — in particular, it has been both the theoretical underpinning and rallying banner for would-be digital disruptors of legacy media.

Most recently, Christensen’s thinking is central (and repeatedly cited) in the leaked 2014 Innovation Report young digital staffers of the New York Times produced this spring.  They argue that the print newspaper on which the company built its reputation needs to be de-emphasized and that, borrowing from upstarts like BuzzFeed, the Times should embrace a newsroom culture of aggressive digital development.

This month, however, Christensen has begun to gather some formidable detractors as well as acolytes.  The lead critic is fellow Harvard professor Jill Lepore who unloads a long debunking article in the current issue of The New Yorker.

The core of Christensen’s view is that big and established companies often go wrong trying to improve their dominant premium-priced product as nimble challengers whittle away at market share with much cheaper alternatives. Lepore concedes that this “dilemma” — the frequent futility of sustaining improvements — explains some business failures.  But that’s all she concedes.

Otherwise she finds Christensen building a broad general theory on the back of a few  handpicked case studies, many of which are factually and logically flawed. Thus the disruption framework is not a reliable predictor for success and failure, either for incumbent companies trying to survive and prosper or for hot new ventures crashing into a market.

Turning to the example of the Times’ Innovation Report, she writes:

It includes graphs inspired by Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma,” along with a lengthy, glowing summary of the book’s key arguments. The report explains, “Disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players (think Toyota taking on Detroit decades ago). Today, a pack of news startups are hoping to ‘disrupt’ our industry by attacking the strongest incumbent—The New York Times.”

A pack of attacking startups sounds something like a pack of ravenous hyenas, but, generally, the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up. Don’t think of Toyota taking on Detroit. Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.

The New Yorker piece is getting broad pickup (“The emperor of ‘disruptive theory’ is wearing no clothes,” headlines Salon).

The New York Times led its business section June 1 with an article on the Harvard Business School’s forays into online instruction.  How best to do that is cast as a strategy battle between Christensen and Michael Porter, another faculty star, who thinks a best-of-the-best company “must stay the course.” For the business school that would mean offering limited high-end online courses — a pattern the school is so far following.

Christensen, predictably, thinks the long-established on-campus instruction model is expensive and dated, so he would prefer the b-school wholeheartedly “disrupt itself,”  specifically offering free MOOCs (massive open online courses).  “Do it cheap and simple,” the Times quotes Christensen as saying. “Get it out there.”

Concurrently with Lepore’s article, the business blog Statechery (hat tip to Millie Tran of the American Press Institute) offered a similar rebuttal.  Author Ben Thompson dwells particularly on the number of times Christensen has been wrong in predicting that Apple and its high-end, elegant digital devices are heading for a fall.

Christensen, to my knowledge has not yet replied to the critics, and I doubt he will.  As the week goes on, however, writers for Vox and Slate have weighed in critiquing Lepore’s critique.

For his part Christensen steams along with his work, which in recent years has been done with co-authors and applies the disruption theory analysis to broad fields.  That began when Christensen, who has had a number of serious illnesses, spent his considerable time in hospitals on a theory for fixing the health care business.

In the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, he and a co-author take on capitalism itself.  They say that the world is suffering a glut of capital and that, especially in large corporations, investments are much more likely to go to money-saving process improvements rather than bold new product development  (“trying to cut your way to prosperity” as we often say in the news business).

In an admiring profile in Harvard Magazine (“Disruptive Genius”), Christensen even stands his ground on Apple.  Less expensive Android-based systems are now slowing the sales growth  iPhones and iPads and “killing Apple,” he claims.  “So I got it wrong; then I got it right,” he tells his interviewer.

My own take (regular readers won’t be stunned) is a sort of middle ground.  Big thinkers, even if they may be over-generalizing, are valuable in shaking up assumptions  — in Christensen’s case, the conviction that top companies with smart managers will stay strong and crush competitors.

Newspapers and, to a lesser extent, magazines had that sort of market dominance in the golden years of the 20th century.  Now both are fighting for their lives in the digital era, lest they become as Richard Nixon put it in the context of the wind-down of the Vietnam War “a pitiful, helpless giant.”

But I will applaud Lepore too, on the grounds that big thinkers and their big ideas need to be challenged and debated.  Christensen has mostly been lionized, leave it at that.

His skills as a writer help explain that level of acceptance.  While dealing in difficult concepts and occasionally slipping into business theory jargon, his writing is typically confident, clear and accessible.  That can sweep a reader along without a lot of pauses to  reflect on what Christensen may be leaving out.

Slowing down to analyze his paper applying disruption theory to the news business, for instance, I thought Christensen made the common mistake of an exclusive focus on holding and building audience with only passing attention to the importance of finding new ways to serve advertisers well.

At a Nieman seminar in 2013, Christensen said that he had been thinking about just what journalism and news does for its consumers.  He came up with three benefits: (1) find out what is true among competing claims. (2) help busy people unwind at the end of the day and, especially with ethnic publications, (3) generate pride, recognition and respect for a community.

The list is good but narrow.  It doesn’t really hit on the powerful appeal to users of being “in the know” (an old marketing slogan for my hometown Tampa Bay Times) whether for water cooler conversation or one’s own satisfaction.

I think Lepore misportrays Christensen as a dogmatist.  His less noticed follow-up book, “The Innovator’s Solution,” explores an obvious question left dangllng from The Innovator’s Dilemma.  How exactly do you makes an established organization good at innovation? Christensen explicates essential best practices like leadership from the top or heterogeneous project teams.

Also Christensen has started to consider instances in which disruptive theory may not be relevant. Hotels, for example, he told Harvard magazine, are not vulnerable to technological challenges and may occupy a particular spot in the basic-to-luxury spectrum indefinitely if management is attentive to sustaining improvements.

As for newspapers and the future of journalism debate, Christensen remains a justly  influential figure. His consulting firm, Innosight, worked on the American Press Institute’s 2005 Newspaper Next report – a disrupt-yourself wakeup call touting new business models that got a respectful hearing but not much action at the time.

The report has aged well, and a decade later the need for rapid digital transformation has become more orthodoxy than heresy. Though foot-dragging remains an issue.  Just this week, my favorite media analyst, Frederic Filloux, slammed French news organizations for half-hearted stabs at digital, and a lingering view that because their work is important, print newspapers will endure as businesses indefinitely.

The demography, technology and business pressures driving massive change in journalism (and journalism education too) are not going away.  Figuring how to put Christensen’s theory to practice will remain essential, though I will grant Lepore that his big idea is better treated critically than as gospel.

Update:  Christensen did reply in an interview with Bloomberg/Business week, published June 21.  Also Clark Gilbert, CEO of Deseret Digital Media and a former colleague of Christensen’s, critiqued Lepore’s article in a post on Forbes.com.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Upworthy

Top 8 Secrets of How to Write an Upworthy Headline

The best thing I’ve read about the story sharing network Upworthy was written by Katy Waldman for Slate and was republished in my local newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. I had been alerted earlier by colleagues to a now famous trademark of Upworthy’s approach to information sharing: its three-line headline style.

That style…

See Why We Have An Absolutely
Ridiculous Standard of Beauty In
Just 37 Seconds

…has been praised for being irresistibly attractive and attacked for being cynically exploitative. For the moment, I don’t have a dog in that fight.

My angle is on the writing front. I spent some time on Upworthy and paid special attention to the headlines to determine not just what the writers were trying to do, but how they were trying to do it. If you, dear reader, want to master this mini-genre, take a look at the recurring moves and strategies:

Screenshot of Upworthy.com’s page Monday, June 16.

1. Be outraged by injustice. A high percentage of the headlines I read signify a story or video describing an injustice, or showing an inspiring challenge or remedy to that injustice. It is an old move in journalism to attract eyeballs by provoking outrage. (Recently on the local news was a video of a bus driver slapping an autistic boy.) In some cases people do what the writer considers the right thing. Or they do the wrong thing. The key is that the reader recognizes that the writer feels a sense of injustice and invites readers to feel the same way.

2. Be amazed or inspired. There is a kind of traditional news story that goes by the crude title, “Holy shit, Martha, take a look at this.” It describes that moment at breakfast when one member of the family reads something bizarre, funny, or off-beat, as a recent case in which a family cat saved a toddler from an attack by a neighbor’s dog. Earlier in the morning my wife Karen is usually checking her Facebook page when she will call out, “Roy, come here, you’ve got to see this.” That is the Facebook-sharing instinct that Upworthy is determined to provoke.

3. Build an engine. Author and teacher Tom French was the first to use the word “engine” to describe a fundamental motif that energizes a narrative. By definition, the engine is a question that can only be answered by reading the story. The classic engines are “who done it?” or “guilty or not guilty?” But there are smaller engines as well, as simple as “You do not want to miss this video,” which inspires reader curiosity. What is in this video that I do not want to miss?

4. Use numbers to suggest the reader is getting a lot of stuff in a little time. If you want to write for Upworthy, you need numbers, numbers, numbers. The numbers can be big or small, but they have to predict the reading experience. What you will learn in 37 seconds. The six questions that will reveal something shocking about new moms.

5. Don’t be afraid of classic attractors: sex, celebrity, miracle cures. This is not the cover of Cosmopolitan with its inevitable lists and teasers about the dozen reliable ways you can please your man in bed. But Upworthy, in spite of its loftier mission and purpose, recognizes the universal attraction of certain Pavlovian stimulants. If you can combine these elements: a celebrity who, since he began walking his dog along the beach, has improved his sex life: Bingo.

6. Play with language and don’t feel squeezed by the traditional boundaries of headlines. None of the traditional headline taboos seem to matter at Upworthy. At three lines, these heads are longer than the standard. They ask questions. They use the first person. They repeat words. The play with language beyond the traditional tabloid puns. Beneath the content of the story is the underlying message: we are dedicated and curious people who really care about the world and want to share its wonderful diversity with you.

7. Put odd and interesting things next to each other. Elsewhere I have noted how authors will take two elements that do not belong together and juxtapose them, creating a tension that generates interest and light. Everything from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “The Glamour of Grammar.” Put the word Alaska in a headline about the Amazon. Put the word Doughnut in a story about the Homeless.

8. Tell the story in the headline. The three lines in an Upworthy head are often capable of explaining the narrative in a nutshell. That efficient use of language “tells” the reader what the story is about, then the video “shows” that story, fulfilling the promise of the headline.

What follows are 15 recent Upworthy headlines with my glosses underneath:

Most Of These People Do The Right Thing, But The Guys At The End? I Wish I Could Yell At Them.
Create an engine. Hint at outrage. Don’t be afraid to use the first person.


She Didn’t Think She Had A Problem With Gay People, But Anderson Cooper Cleared That Right Up

Use the name of a celebrity – either for good or for bad. Expose bias or hypocrisy.

This Is The Most Inspiring Yet Depressing Yet Hilarious Yet Horrifying Yet Heartwarming Grad Speech

Use pronouns provocatively. What is “this”? Never use one adjective when you can use four. Refer to a genre (a grad speech) that often creates interesting, outrageous, embarrassing, yet revealing effects.

When You Sexualize Men And Women Equally, It’s Amazing How Much Fun You Can Have

Sex sells. Amazing sells. Gender equality sells. Sex and Fun together sell.

WHOA: 4 Questions That Got 120 Rapists To Admit They Were Rapists
Lists work. Numbers work. “Rapists” is sensationalism, which is repeated. WHOA is demotic speech, the dialect of the common person. Holy shit, Martha, effect.

America Has A Dirty Little Secret, And This Congressman Just Exposed It
The word “secret” almost always works in a headline because readers turn it into an engine. What is the secret? “Dirty little” secret adds an outlaw element. We know that some Congressmen expose themselves, so those two words together feel like scandal. And what is IT?

A Man Slams Down A Bigoted Question So Hard He Brings Down The House

A little misdirection and double entendre helps. The first time I read this, I thought a man would ask another man an insensitive question, and that man would be slammed down by a witty or passionate rejoinder. But the man in question is a poet involved in a poetry “slam,” and he asked the question to himself as part of his routine. Just a hint of bait and switch.

A Dude Trying To Ban Abortions Is Asked A Question He Never Considered. It’s So Obvious It Hurts.

More speech of the common man by calling a politician “dude.” What is the question? We need to know.

Here’s What Happens When You Put A Few Little Kids In A Room With 2 Dolls In 2 Different Colors

Numbers seem to matter: a few little kids, a room, 2 dolls, 2 colors. We seem to like social experiments, candid camera exposes.

Matt Damon Asked A Cheery 13-Year-Old What She’ll Do With Her Free Time. Her Answer Gave Him Pause.

This may be the least successful. Story turned out to be much more interesting than the headline. Matt helped give access to clean water to a village in Haiti. The girl no longer has to hustle three hours a day for clean water. Her answer was “play.”

How about:
Matt Damon learns life lesson from cheery Haitian girl who no longer must hustle for clean water. What she will do with her free time with surprise and touch you.

1/3 Of The Fish We Buy And Eat Is Not What It Says It Is

Hint of scandal and outrage here. Numbers count again. If it is not fish, then what can it be? I love a head in which all 14 words are one syllable.

You Won’t Guess How One Ingredient In Your Doughnuts Could Be Leaving Thousands Of People Homeless

This is an old trick: put two things together that don’t quite belong, and then suggest causality between them. One thing in your doughnut leaves thousands homeless.

It’s Twice The Size Of Alaska And Might Hold The Cure For Cancer. So Why Are We Destroying It?
The answer to the riddle may be obvious to some: the Amazon jungle. Even so, there is a second part of the riddle that is not so obvious, and serves as an engine: How does something that’s bigger than Alaska provide an opportunity for a miracle cure? And how do you destroy something that big?. Question upon question.

Why Is a City That Can Barely Keep Its Schools Open Giving Millions to A Mega Corporation?
Outrage, generated by the seeming exploitation of a vulnerable institution (the schools) by a powerful one (corporation). City government to blame. Always hate the bully.

Watch This On A Day When The Earth Feels Broken. It Proves We Can Find Beauty in Broken Things.
Emotional, poetic language. Healing wisdom. Repetition of word “broken,” but shifting of context from broken to beauty. Which things? Read more

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Monday, Sep. 16, 2013

Ethics - Dictionary Series

Why ‘be transparent’ has replaced ‘act independently’ as a guiding journalism principle

Whenever people discuss how journalism is changing, one of the most common questions is: “Who is a journalist today and who isn’t?

It’s the wrong question.

In an age when publishing has gone from being an industry to a button, as theorist Clay Shirky has put it, anyone might commit an act of journalism given the right circumstances.

The more pertinent question, then, is what constitutes an act of journalism.

Bill Kovach and I have considered this question in several of our books together, particularly “The Elements of Journalism” (a thoroughly new edition is coming next spring). Now, Poynter’s Kelly McBride and I, along with a dozen other thinkers, have taken up this issue in a new book called “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.”

The work explicitly attempts to update a set of ethical guidelines, “Guiding Principles for Journalists,” developed by The Poynter Institute in the 1990s under the leadership of Bob Steele.

Those principles were built around three concepts about what those who wanted to produce ethical acts of journalism should do:

  • Seek truth and report it as fully as possible
  • Act independently
  • Minimize harm

As we worked with our co-authors, listened to others and watched the contemporary circumstances, the first concept — seek truth and report it as fully as possible — remained primary.

But the second principle — act independently — was problematic. Journalism is no longer the province of a homogenous group, once dubbed “the working press,” whose financing is generated to produce journalism for its own sake. In the 21st century, journalism may come from think tanks and corporations, from advocacy groups and passionate advocates, from accidental witnesses and curious beginners, and more.

Some of this work is propaganda that should not be called journalism, even if it tries to imitate the voice and tenor of journalistic work. Some of it falls squarely inside the best traditions of journalism.

Some of the work also merges the source reporter relationship, sometimes for political reasons. Edward Snowden is not just a leaker providing documents; he is setting terms of engagement. His contact at The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald, is a political activist and blogger who works in association with a superb news organization, The Guardian.

As McBride and I note in the book: “The concept of journalists as clearly independent of those they cover will be more complex because the opening of the information system to all means those who make the news will also cover it.”

Thus, the most striking change in our new guidelines is that the second overarching concept, “act independently,” has been replaced by a new one: “be transparent.” (Transparency is also one of the core ideas that has run through “The Elements of Journalism” since its first publication in 2001 as a recapturing and redefining of the original intention behind objectivity.)

McBride and I offer three sub headings that offer more detail. The first is “show how the reporting was done and why people should believe it.” This is largely about technique. Who are your sources? What is your evidence? Reveal what you cannot know. Make intellectual honesty your guide.

The second subhead under transparency involves a greater burden. It demands that you clearly articulate your journalistic approach, including “whether you strive for independence or approach information from a political or philosophical point of view.” In other words, acknowledge your intentions, and be honest about how that might impact what you report and how.

This level of transparency is more subtle but just as critical as talking about how you gathered the news. Acknowledging your relationship to the information is an essential step in establishing why people should believe you. Without it, they should be suspicious.

Even though anyone can publish, that doesn’t mean what everyone has to say will strike people as credible. Despite the public’s declining trust in the news media, audiences recognize journalism as something distinct from propaganda. The goal of journalism is to provoke public consideration and discussion. The goal of propaganda is persuasion toward a particular political outcome.

Even if a work of journalism is financed by an advocacy group wishing to push an issue, what will distinguish it from activism is not just fidelity to accuracy and completeness, but also whether the authors have come clean about motives and have let other views have their best say.

In this way, transparency will pull publishers of information toward best practices and also toward the most important kind of independence — intellectual independence. Indeed, if the work comes from advocates, the suspicion will naturally be higher and the proof of honesty will have to be even more complete. (In the new edition of “Elements of Journalism,” in the same vein, independence from faction remains one of the core intellectual principles.)

This notion of independence as an intellectual concept, rather than a commercial one, deepens what independence means in a journalistic context. In the age of a strictly independent press, intellectually sloppy reporters and intellectually dishonest ones would wrap biased reporting in the clothing of neutral presentation. In the age of transparency, that will be harder to do. Journalistic integrity must be evident in the work, not assumed in the publisher.

Properly understood, in other words, journalistic independence hasn’t disappeared. It has deepened and gained resonance.

The third guiding principle in the book is also new, though like transparency, it really expands and deepens the concept that it replaced. “Minimize harm” has become “engage community as an end rather than as a means.” This commitment to fellow citizens, too, enriches the notion that it has replaced.

Not only should journalists avoid harm. They should actively create journalism to help their follow citizens understand and engage. In short, journalism must be accurate, transparent and should serve citizens, not simply leverage them for commercial reasons.

Put another way, in our new digital century, journalism is the act of observation on behalf of fellow citizens. Who practices that, and how they practice it, is changing. And both of those statements could have been said in the previous century, too.

Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, is an author, journalist, media researcher, and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter at tbr1.

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here. Read more

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Facts

The danger of journalism that moves too quickly beyond fact

The best thinking about journalism’s future benefits from its being in touch with technology’s potential. But it can get in its own way when it simplifies and repudiates the intelligence of journalism’s past.

That is happening, to a degree, in a discussion gaining momentum lately that journalism should now largely move beyond fact gathering and toward synthesis and interpretation.

The NSA story is just the latest case that shows the importance, and the elusiveness, of simply knowing what has really happened.

In a Nieman Journalism Lab post, Jonathan Stray made the case recently for moving beyond facts, or what might be called The Displacement Theory of Journalism. “The Internet has solved the basic distribution of event-based facts in a variety of ways; no one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means.”

In their manifesto on Post Industrial Journalism, C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky argued something similar, though more inclusively. “The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.”

We need to be careful with our language. Technology has not “solved” the problem of knowing the essential facts of public events. We need journalists to do more than bring sense to the streams produced by the public. The act of monitoring powerful institutions is messier and more complex than that.

The fact that the White House has a YouTube channel, Twitter feed and Tumblr account should not be mistaken for it being open or transparent. Nor is journalism enhanced if journalists begin to limit themselves largely to material officially released rather than going out and digging. That puts far too much control of the flow of information in the hands of powerful institutions.

The real process of journalistic discovery

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

The NSA story is an example: the initial leak by Edward Snowden was only the beginning of the journalistic and public process. Consider how we come to understand events in Afghanistan, or how the Affordable Health Care Act will play out in the delivery of medical services, or the effects of a breaking news event such as Hurricane Sandy.

Even many of the decisions revealed at public meetings are actually made away from public view. If more of our civic proceedings were on YouTube — and they should be — we also should realize more of the decision making will move further behind closed doors. It is the nature of how powerful institutions behave: C-Span did not magically make Congress more transparent or efficient.

More inclusive coverage

The discussion about factual reporting also tends to focus on a limited range of topics, often national affairs. “Not all journalism matters,” Anderson, Bell and Shirky wrote, indicating a broad range of arts, sports, lifestyle reporting and more in the lesser category. “Much of what is produced today is simply entertainment or diversion. … Hard news is what matters in the current crisis.”

This leaves too much out. We need our journalism to portray the whole community, and do so in proportion, including culture, social, trends, sports, etc. This is how we come to understand ourselves and navigate our lives. Journalism that narrows itself to accountability of government agencies will limit its value, its engagement and its chance to sustain itself.

It is equally a mistake to be overly suspicious of the contribution made by technology and citizens, or to romanticize old methods. “The civic labor performed by journalists on the ground cannot be replicated by legions of bloggers sitting hunched over their computer screens,” The New York Times’ Bill Keller famously told a public lecture in London. (Keller might not say it today as he put it in 2007, but the worry about the wisdom of the crowd has hardly disappeared).

Collaborative intelligence, not displacement

The future of journalism, I believe, resides in the middle between both the skeptics and the utopians. Journalism’s future must be a collaboration in which citizens, technology and professional journalists work together to create a public intelligence that is deeper and wider than any of these could produce alone.

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

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

In this sense, journalists are not displaced, replicated or elevated to synthesizers of meaning. This view does not denigrate what journalism historically has offered, or the importance of finding out what has happened. Nor does it relegate the public to be a passive audience, or new technology as a threat to the old way of doing things. It calls for the embrace of all of these tools.

It calls on journalism to perform many functions. At the center is the pursuit of what my colleague Bill Kovach and I called in the “Elements of Journalism” functional or practical truth. The means of pursuit, however, have expanded tremendously — which is an opportunity that must be seized as traditional newsroom resources have shrunk.

History’s useful path

None of this is as new as it might seem. Nieman’s Stray dates the move toward analysis and beyond straight reporting to the 1960s (the beginning of modern TV news). In reality, it has been the core of much of journalism’s evolution since the advent of radio.

The Wall Street Journal was reinvented in the late 1940s on the idea that its financial audience already knew the basic news of the day earlier from the ticker. The Hutchins Commission on a free and responsible press declared in 1947: “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.”

Seen in context, in other words, journalism is not being toppled by the Web — though certainly the financial model has been profoundly disrupted. Instead, technology is deepening journalism’s potential to do what it always has: find out what is really happening that we cannot see directly, and help make our lives better by connecting us to one another.

Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, is an author, journalist, media researcher, and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter at tbr1. Read more

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Friday, May 03, 2013

Key to Leadership

5 qualities of innovative leaders in today’s media

In “The Boys on the Bus,” Timothy Crouse’s fabled book about the press and the 1972 presidential campaign, Jim Naughton was the quiet and contemplative New York Times reporter who toiled alongside the outsized and flamboyant Johnny Apple.

After he left The Times 1977, Naughton became known to another two generations of journalists as a manager and leader — first as a top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer in its ascent to becoming one of the country’s great papers, and later as president of the Poynter Institute. (Poynter’s annual Leadership Academy, one of its signature events, begins each year with a lecture in Naughton’s name.)

Naughton, who passed away last year, led in a style ahead of his time — by listening, shielding creative people from bureaucracy, pushing power down and more — concepts better recognized today for their value than when Naughton subtly advanced them.

What qualities distinguish successful leaders in media today?

I see five qualities common among the current crop of innovators — at a time when it’s perhaps even harder to lead, given all the challenges the industry faces. As I distilled these qualities, I also realized they are distinctly Naughtonian.

Innovators run at what is growing.

The strongest pull in the news industry, as in any disrupted business, can be to preserve the part of the business that, though shrinking, provides the biggest share of revenue. Innovators, such Clark Gilbert at Deseret Media, know this is a seductive mistake and focusing most of your energy on preserving what is shrinking is a strategy for slow death.

The innovators I see behave differently. While they work to preserve the legacy, they focus more energy on the part of their business that is growing, even if it’s small. They work on how to create the space and the forgiveness in the company to do that.

Focusing on growth, rather than on slowing decline, is hard. It means innovating rather than reacting. But if you don’t focus on growth, you’re hoping someone else will invent the future while you tread water. In your market, that someone may well be an organization providing services to businesses that don’t subsidize journalism.

Successful innovators create a culture of optimism.

John Gardner, the extraordinary social innovator who created Common Cause, Civic Ventures and other programs, wrote about personal renewal, saying: “The future belongs to people who believe in the future.” Innovators, he also argued, needed to be hard-headed optimists who expected to fail and would not be daunted by it. These were people, Gardner said, who believed in a future others could not see.

Seeing around corners and having a vision you cannot prove, engenders doubters. Believing against the crowd requires armor. But in an era of disruption you cannot lead any other way. Who would want to follow a pessimist? To make other people invent the future, they have to believe you that it will be better.

In a disrupted industry, this is partly a matter of which way you want to look. Do you look back at what is not there anymore? Do you look at the fact that your newsroom has shrunk 30 percent and bemoan what you cannot do?

Or do you look forward and see the possibilities? We now can more easily tap the expertise of our community to inform our work and engage in a more robust discussion of the news. Optimists see technology as an opportunity. So do those who will exploit technology to shape the future.

Those who see technology as only disruption will be overrun by it.

Innovators lead with a garage mentality.

In Philadelphia, Naughton barely had a budget for foreign news. Yet he and editor Gene Roberts kept the gifted Richard Ben Cramer in the Middle East with funds earmarked for building maintenance — among other items. Cramer won a Pulitzer for his trouble.

Leaders find ways to try, not reasons to say no. They see obstacles as challenges to work around and crises as opportunities. I have come across executives who have asked for demotions so they could have the freedom to experiment; others have found ways to get budget forgiveness in their companies to buy themselves time. They have tried ideas others said would never work (but that no one had tried) and tried them figuring they would learn no matter what. These types of leaders find a way.

Successful leaders also believe that the only way to succeed is to fail, that failing is how you learn and innovate. Robyn Tomlin, who is editor of Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, shared this message with me when we met during a leadership conference: She would fail and learn and fail and eventually succeed. It was one of the first messages she heard from CEO John Paton and executive editor Jim Brady. It liberated her.

Twitter was born out of the failure of a podcasting company called Odeo. The New York Times would probably never have created its metered pay model had it not failed with and learned from Times Select. You can’t afford to fail? No, you can’t afford not to.

Innovators look further down the road.

Unafraid to fail, using guerrilla tactics to succeed, innovators also operate with their heads up so they can see further out and around. They are not just focused on the next quarter or the next year. They are not just looking within the news industry for answers. (Gilbert in Deseret benchmarks various different companies, only three of which are traditional media, and adapted his social-media strategy from a Brazilian airline. Steve Jobs looked everywhere for inspiration, far afield from technology.)

Innovators also recognize that they don’t know everything. So they lead as much by listening as by teaching. (Naughton, again, disbanded the morning planning meeting by editors at the Inquirer, believing reporters calling in were better able to determine what should be in the next day’s paper.) This is a more modern kind of leadership, one that is absorbing and learning. It is a kind of leadership that believes leading is more than just repeating yourself.

Innovators know the essentials that should not change.

Peter Drucker, the management theorist whose ideas never seem to age, said the organizations that adapt best to a changing world know first and foremost what they should not abandon.

For any institution, that essential purpose is “the value you provide” to your various customers. In news, this starts with readers, viewers and listeners, but every business has many different kinds of customers. Your value is not what you do — your practices and routines — but the value you provide to people’s lives. Knowing your value — the essential service you provide — is the difference between being in the transportation business rather than the railroad business. But it’s also a matter of institutional values. Many in news confuse values with practices. I have also met executives who are giving up on what distinguishes journalism from all other media.

If the future belongs to those who believe in the future, it seems just as clear that the future of journalism will belong to those who believe in journalism.

Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, is an author, journalist, researcher and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter at tbr1.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Robyn Tomlin’s name. Read more

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Monday, Apr. 15, 2013

Conversation2

Why we need a better conversation about the future of journalism education

Two New York writers exchanged misfire recently about journalism education, and almost all of it was misdirected. Then the conversation they started died with damning faint praise.

We should have that conversation, only a better one.

The brouhaha began when media pugilist Michael Wolff in USA Today attacked the Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism as a “disgrace” and “an intellectual failure” largely because President Lee Bollinger had appointed a traditional journalist as new dean, ex-Washington Post managing editor and New Yorker writer Steve Coll.

The New York Times’ David Carr rose to praise Columbia and Coll, but in the process he tarred almost everyone else. “Journalism education is something of a confidence game,” he tossed off. Given a shrinking job base, “many journalism programs … are escalators to nowhere.”

This is a critical juncture in the history of how we teach the next generation of journalists– whether they work in conventional newsrooms or elsewhere. Some schools, including the University of Colorado, Indiana University and Emory University, have made the decision to do away with their standalone journalism programs. The reason, oversimplified, is that the trade school model of teaching journalism, which has never fit comfortably in research universities, falters when the jobs supporting it are shrinking.

The universities, however, are walking away at exactly the wrong moment. The trade school model is giving way to something better, a change many of us have been advocating for years. In the process, research universities now have a larger responsibility and role to play in helping rethink and revive civic discourse and ensuring journalism has a sustainable and ethical role in that. The opportunity will require new approaches. But it is not the time to leave the field because it doesn’t ring the cash register the way it used to.

But Wolff and Carr got several things wrong. First, they fundamentally mis-defined the universe. Nick Lemann estimated by phone that roughly 200,000 students take communication and journalism classes in the United States, the majority of them undergraduates studying public relations, communications or other fields, many learning basic skills in writing, grammar, information theory. There is no market failure there.

Lemann, Columbia journalism school’s outgoing dean, noted that only about 2,000 students are in “professional” graduate journalism programs like Columbia’s (my alma mater). And none of them is all that similar. USC’s Geneva Overholser told me by phone that many students are getting better jobs out of school than previous generations ever did because they have digital skills now in demand (and newsrooms are shifting to less costly workers).

Wolff and Carr, In Lemann’s words, were also evaluating journalism school “by the metrics of a Monroe College placard on a New York subway car that the investment should be equal to the salary of an entry level job in the field.”

If journalism has value to democratic society that makes it more than another form of commerce, then licensed or not, it has the qualities of a profession and should be evaluated as we evaluate other professional schools.

A few months ago, a group of foundation funders wrote to an open letter to nearly 500 college presidents arguing that journalism and mass communication education was not changing fast enough and advocating a move to a “teaching hospital” model.

The letter is too easily misinterpreted. In the teaching hospital metaphor, students produce journalism for public rather than classroom consumption under the watch of a skilled professional editor teacher. In so doing, the journalism they produce is better, more digital, more connected to the community, and helps make up for some of what’s disappearing from commercial newsrooms.

But as a central idea for modernizing journalism education, the teaching hospital concept is too limited. In many ways, it’s an extension of the trade school approach, Tom Goldstein, one of the most thoughtful educators of the era (a former Berkeley and Columbia dean) pointed out in a phone interview. There are limits to what students are capable of producing. (Medical students don’t start to practice until they have been in school for years). It works far better under the careful tutelage of an extraordinary practitioner such as former Washington Post Editor Len Downie at Arizona State University than some others.

The approach also misses the fact that given the pace of change and the uncertainty about journalism going forward, a range of experiments is better than a single solution.

The biggest thing missing in this conversation is that those experiments are now occurring.

At the University of Missouri, scholars such as Esther Thorson and others at the Reynolds Institute are pushing toward economic research for the news industry to operate more scientifically. At Columbia, the first double degree majors in computer science and journalism will soon graduate.

At the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, Robert Steiner has developed a wholly new approach (which I hope I’ve helped him refine) of recruiting subject matter experts — academics and professions — to become journalists in their own disciplines. Steiner’s idea connects to the scholarship of Matthew Nisbet at American University about what he calls Knowledge Journalists, reporters who move beyond simply covering events to creating new knowledge through their own expertise.

Scholars such as George Washington’s Matthew Hindman are pioneering understanding of metrics and audiences. At USC, Robert Hernandez is pioneering concepts in peer learning, students creating their own curriculum, with teachers as Socratic coaches. Poynter’s Howard Finberg has written about distance learning, and Rosental Alves at the University of Texas is at the cutting edge of using MOOCs to reach across international borders. I am barely scratching the surface.

Hernandez and scores of others are examples of a new model of journalism educator — young dynamic thinkers who have moved to teaching because they want to invent and rethink, and because universities are better incubators now than shrinking newsrooms. PolitiFact’s creator Bill Adair, for instance, is leaving for Duke. These innovators can be found a lot of places, not just “top” schools.

For years, journalism was marred by an ugly streak of anti-intellectualism — the denial of theory, the exaltation of craft, the repudiation professional identity, ignorance of scholarship. One byproduct of the crisis in journalism is that anti-intellectualism is giving way to something better at schools where practitioners and scholars work together to create a new curriculum.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I think there are four essential components to the new curriculum for teaching news and communication.

1. Teaching of technical skills (how to use different platforms and technology). A critical dimension of this teaching is computer science, so journalists can invent new ways of reporting. But given the pace of technology change, technology and platform skill cannot be the singular core they once were. The key is to teach students enough that learn they can master these tools themselves on their own as the tools change.

2. Journalistic responsibility (including history, values, ethics, community, material that always made journalists better). Now that journalism is more than whatever journalists do, knowing what the public requires of a responsible journalism is even more important.

3. Understanding of business (how to understand audience metrics, revenue, entrepreneurship). Journalists are hamstrung if they are illiterate on these matters.

4. The intellectual discipline of verification, what some call evidence and inference,  or what might better be understood as social empiricism. It is a more conscious, disciplined and clinical approach to what we once called knowing how to report, think and write. At its best, journalistic inquiry is a rigorous, numerically literate, skeptical and independent way of thinking, in the same way we describe law, engineering and medicine as teaching a way of thinking. As Jack Hamilton, the former provost and dean at LSU told me on the phone, these were always the core of the best journalism.

The curriculum for this more fully realized vision of journalism as intellectual discipline rather than a set of techniques isn’t complete. It must be built out further from other parts of the university, from anthropology and sociology, computer science, and beyond. It will require a range of scholarship, from applied to theoretical. And it will require a range of scholars and practitioners to invent it.

Does that sound a bit academic for journalism education? It should.

Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, is an author, journalist, researcher and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter at tbr1.

Related: News University is surveying readers on the future of journalism education | Join us for Teachapalooza 2013.
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Wednesday, Mar. 13, 2013

mobilenews

New studies offer 5 ways publishers can capitalize on mobile trends now

As Cory Bergman explored in a thoughtful piece here last month, mobile connectivity– people linked to the Web via smart phones and tablets — is poised to thoroughly disrupt news all over again.

News publishers must deeply understand the contours of the shift or risk mobile becoming “digital hesitation 2.0.” The market research firm comScore recently released its annual major mobile report. A dive into the data distills lessons for journalism right now, some of them counterintuitive.

Move aggressively to mobile immediately — don’t wait for revenue to materialize

Smartphone ownership grew 30% in 2012 to surpass the 50% mark of units owned. Americans also own 50 million tablets — a penetration in three years that took a decade for smartphones.

One in three minutes spent online (37%) is now on mobile devices — and growing. And news is a major part of the activity — close to two-thirds of tablet owners use the devices for news and half for smart phones.

(A separate report by Adobe Digital finds the level of engagement on tablets is so deep that globally minutes on tablets have surpassed those on smartphones.)

The impact on news sites is huge. Buzzfeed reported this week at South by Southwest that 45% of its traffic comes from mobile. ESPN in 2012 increased mobile traffic by 59% and that now rivals desktop computer traffic. Gannett, a local news company, grew mobile traffic by 32%.

Mobile deepens engagement

Mobile means people engaging with content more often, more conveniently — it adds to your brand not threatens it. And media companies will need to figure out how to monetize the hard way, building users first.

“An overall increase in media engagement … means more monetization opportunities for media companies and a greater ability for marketers to optimize campaigns across platforms,” comScore concludes. “Those who fail to devise an effective multi-platform strategy will likely be left behind.”

Mobile is deeply local. At the Borrell conference last week on local online advertising, Mike Ghaffary of Yelp noted, “Local is all about walking around. So is mobile phone technology.”

Think app — especially for the phone

This is not a Web browser world, especially on phones. Four out of every five minutes in mobile is spent on apps rather than on the browser-based Web. There is also limited real estate on smart phone home pages and on tablets. News operations should become one of those brands while they have the chance.

Consumers turn to “task-specific” apps, not brand portals

News companies also should consider building separate mobile apps for different tasks. Google and Apple are examples. Google’s task specific apps (Google Maps, followed by Google Play, Google Search, Gmail and YouTube) are four of the top five Droid Apps. The top five on iPhones are iTunes, Facebook, Yahoo! Stocks, Google Maps, and Yahoo! Weather.

Don’t make users enter your domain and then navigate with fat fingers on tiny screens to the task they want. Build apps around tasks, make them easy to use. This is what the Web rewards.

This may mean an app for a sports team, neighborhoods, shopping, real estate, and other core content or tasks — in addition to the news home page. There is a fair amount of inventing to be done.

Content must match the strengths and time of day for each platform

For all the popularity of “responsive” design — the idea that your content automatically fits each screen — the data suggest something else: Don’t simply put the same content on each device in the same way. The apps and the content should match how and when people use them.

Mobile news consumption varies throughout the day, just as afternoon newspapers are written for a different audience and a different point in the news cycle than morning papers, or early morning TV news is different than early evening newscasts.

Smartphone usage peaks during travel hours. By contrast, people use tablets most heavily in the evening, after 5 p.m. and particularly from 8 to 11 p.m. There is a smaller but significant spike in tablet usage first thing in the morning. People also read long form content on their tablets — more than they do on any other digital devices.

Tablet apps, it follows, should deliver more content that comes for the evening, after the headlines are known. It should offer more analysis, context and depth. The level of real-time updating might be limited. Much of it might populate after 4 p.m. Knowing this has real consequences for newsroom organization.

On smartphones, content would involve heavier updates at three points of the daily cycle when people are in transit, including lunch. In a converged newsroom, maybe there should be an audio news update. Again, experiment.

Some news leaders love the term “platform agnostic.” Mobile proves again that “agnosticism” is a mistake. Content must be designed to be platform orthodox — or specific to how and when people use devices.

Local publishers must act to help local retailers

The growth in mobile is drastically reshaping shopping, too. One of the biggest changes is called “showrooming,” a phenomenon in which a customer walks into a store, tries on or tries out an item in person, and then while still in the store goes on a smartphone to see if they can buy it cheaper somewhere else or online. Nearly four in 10 Americans (36%) tell comScore they have “showroomed” and nearly half (46%) of smartphone owners.

This challenge for local retailers is a huge opportunity for local news publishers. As a knowledge leader about consumer behavior in town, local publishers should help businesses in their communities remain relevant to showrooming customers. Can they offer price matching programs, local shopping discount clubs or something else?

This is also a way to keep those local businesses from shifting their online business away to non-news publishers who are coming hard at local search and display.

In other words, if publishers wait, Google and Facebook are coming fast — again.

Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, is an author, journalist, researcher and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter at tbr1. Read more

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Friday, Feb. 22, 2013

pressbriefing

The dangerous delusions of the White House press corps and the president

The White House press corps became a story this week, which is almost always bad news.

In a piece entitled “Obama the puppet master,” Politico reported that the Obama Administration had put media manipulation “on steroids.” It was using social media and technology in new ways to bypass the press and target access. By doing so, the White House had embarked on a “transformational” path that tipped power “unmistakably toward government.”

What’s really occurring, however, is something less novel but actually more important — and it may be making our leaders less honest and less credible.

Presidents and the press

Presidents have grumped about reporters since Thomas Jefferson complained about the licentiousness of the press in 1809. And every competent president has adopted the newest technology to bypass them, from Roosevelt talking directly to Americans on radio in the 1930s, to Clinton using satellite hookups with local TV reporters.

Martha Kumar of Towson University in Maryland has studied presidential communications for decades; she recalled this week that when Dwight Eisenhower’s people broke the ban on allowing television cameras in press conferences — the disruptive technology of the 1950s — Ike’s press secretary Jim Haggerty wrote in his diary: “To hell with slanted reporters. We’ll go directly to the people….”

Politico suggested this week that Obama is shutting out traditional media in favor of social media, direct communication and by issuing official images from the White House photographer (a job launched a half century ago). The numbers say something else. Obama granted 674 interviews to reporters in his first term — the most of any president on record, according to Kumar’s records.

Interviews by 1st Term Presidents
Barack Obama 674
George H. W. Bush 382
Ronald Reagan 243
George W. Bush 217
Bill Clinton 191

What has changed is the calculus about where to spend the effort. Most of these 674 interviews were with local TV reporters (a Clinton era specialty, though one Reagan and  both Bush’s experimented with, too). As Michael Calderone pointed out, Obama has not given a one-on-one interview to The New York Times since 2010 or to The Washington Post since 2009. His network interviews are usually with “60 Minutes,” where he is granted more time and reaches a significantly bigger audience (about 11 million viewers).

Obama isn’t simply dodging tough questions in favor of softballs from out-of-town neophytes. The more salient fact is presidents get more bang from these interviews in a crowded media environment.

One of the eight stations that interviewed Obama this week, KFOR from Oklahoma City, has a 10-minute interview it plans to run for several days, with pieces on every one of the station’s shows, Kumar found. That will have more impact in that market than any national media hit. Obama also has targeted exactly how the budgetary showdown over sequestration will affect people in Oklahoma.

And the lawyerly president, Kumar argues, is better at longer interviews than the short Q&A format of White House photo ops. Consider he recently did a 50-minute press conference and only answered eight questions.

Media management models

In classic press management, there are two basic approaches. At one end of the spectrum is the “Conduit Model” in which newsmakers use the press (or their technology) as a vehicle to deliver messages. The other is the “Constituent Model” in which officials and aides try to woo and persuade reporters that their case is just.

Republicans historically lean more toward the conduit end of the spectrum and Democrats toward the constituent (though skilled and underfunded insurgents in all parties — think John McCain or Newt Gingrich — tend to lean constituent).

All presidents, however use both models. The only distinction is where they land on the spectrum.

More technologies exist today for presidents to deliver messages directly. And it is easier and more efficient to target local media. All this pushes officials closer to the conduit end of the press management spectrum.

Press secretaries see changes

“When I was there some of this would have been considered government propaganda,” George W. Bush’s first press secretary Ari Fleischer said in an interview. “That seems a quaint notion now.”

But the greater number of tools for direct messaging is where the risk comes in. The old media are hardly irrelevant. And there are some significant limitations to using social media, bypass and direct messaging. Facebook followers and email subscribers are not the American public whose minds you need to change. They are your supporters. The Web remains more a tool for organizing than persuasion.

“The Obama team has used digital technology fairly effectively to organize during the campaign but it has not figured out how, or if you can, govern using it,” Kumar observed. They have particularly stumbled at creating a sustained narrative.

More importantly, lost in the discussion of technology is something significant about honesty and government. This is what concerns two former press secretaries who were among the most successful at the job.

“One of the most dangerous consequences of the Obama media strategy [of avoiding the White House press corps] is that it allows the president and other high officials to believe they can speak, or even mislead with impunity,” said Marlin Fitzwater, who was press secretary for both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Fitzwater said in an email interview that he doesn’t believe the president would make such statements as “we don’t have a spending problem” or “we are the most transparent administration in history” if “he believed he would be personally questioned about his meaning.”

Even writers sympathetic to the president, such as Matt Miller, this week have gagged over the absurdity of some of the sequestration rhetoric.

Former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry shares the concern that respect for the press is a form of respecting the public’s right to know. “Both sides in this adversarial relationship suffer when there is not some relationship of basic trust,” some recognition each has a job to do and so should do it professionally, McCurry emailed.

“Public briefings at the White House need to be about public information, not spin. White House reporting needs to be about reporting hard news on what the President is up to, not endless analysis and opinion.”

Dangerous delusions

In other words, it is a self-defeating delusion for government officials to think they can force feed and bypass the press that covers them each day. It is also a delusion for the press to think it is a singular gatekeeper. Both delusions, in turn, hurt the public. A president is less effective and less persuasive who doesn’t seriously engage with the toughest and most knowledgeable White House reporters.

Presidents certainly must now communicate directly in the digital space. Their opponents surely will, and that will only grow. That is one reason why this is not a shift simply toward government control.

But even in a competitive media environment, the reporters following you every day are not a constituency serving only their own interests. They are also responding to their sense of broad public concern and asking questions they imagine their communities want to hear. And precisely because they are a kind of adversary, the White House reporters who bear witness to a President’s actions offer a reality check to the one thing all leaders are most vulnerable to — the polarizing isolation of listening only to those who agree with them.

Correction: Ronald Reagan did 243 interviews in his first year as president, not 273 as this story originally said.

Tom Rosenstiel is Executive Director of the American Press Institute, an author, journalist and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter @tbr1. Read more

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Thursday, Feb. 07, 2013

mainstreetsmall

The Next Journalism will be a service that helps build community

This column, launching today, will be about where news media culture is heading. We are calling it The Next Journalism.

The subject matter will range widely. The search for new revenue to subsidize the mission of journalism will be part of the focus. So will experiments in how to use new technologies and platforms to gather and report news. The ethics and values that make news useful and reliable will be another topic. And a central goal will always be to understand the changing nature of how the public consumes and shares news. The column will not shy away from debate, though argument will not be the prime purpose.

It will be a reported column, one grounded in facts and offering new information. But it will be a column with a point of view.

With that in mind, readers are owed a few disclosures about the assumptions and predilections that will inform that opinions found here.

I believe that in some quarters too much of the conversation about the future of news leans toward the theological rather than the empirical. That may be understandable during a moment of change because it helps move people to think in new ways. Yet as the digital revolution matures, it can also become less helpful. It is important — and will become more important — to understand the world as it is, not only as we theorize it or wish it to be. In this space I will strive to approach topics with a cold eye and an open mind.

The ideas in this space will be grounded in history — not nostalgia. I’ve been a press critic, reporting on media, since the mid-1980s. The digital transformation is profound. It is also not unprecedented. One of those precedents is that many of the predictions about the future prove mistaken.

I also believe that having a point of view requires reporting and fidelity to facts. That means listening, looking at data, and letting people make their strongest case. Perhaps the best definition I’ve ever heard of objectivity came from the editor of an alternative newspaper who was denouncing it — or at least the shallower idea of neutrality.  At her paper, she said, you cannot have an informed point of view until you have listened to all the other points of view.

Finally, I believe in the public and the power of community. The news has never belonged to journalists. It has always been the public’s.

As a formal idea, journalism was forged from the enlightenment and technology — first the printing press and then lowering cost of production. Periodicals were the means by which information and argument were made transparent to more people so that they could self govern. The first newspapers emerged from the coffeehouses of Europe located near shipping ports and published the manifests of the goods on board the ships and retold the tales from foreign lands revealed by those who disembarked.

In other words, journalism has always been conversation made public. And its function has always been what today’s technologists have come to call “social flow,” that range of action and reaction in a community as people discover and share new information and ideas, argue and try to resolve problems.

As new technologies formed — paper costs dropped and commercial advertising propelled by the industrial revolution spread — there came new ways to subsidize that social flow. Since 2000, the commercial equation that subsidized newspapers in particular has substantially collapsed. Display and classified advertising revenue did not migrate to the Web along with the audience. One of the great questions now is whether a new commercial equation will form to replace it.

The future of news, and to a degree civic life, will be partly determined by how we answer the existential question about the purpose of journalism: What is its real function? What is its essential social value? Or put another way, what new form should the social flow take today? (Thinking about these questions is also part of the mission of the American Press Institute where I work). 

Journalism was never simply printing articles or assembling newscasts and selling advertising around them, though some thought of it that way. Journalism has always been a service connecting people to one another, to government, to goods and services, to social institutions and more — in other words, the creation of communities. Looked at that way, technology is no threat to journalism’s future. It is its opportunity. It is a new dazzling set of tools. It is, as it has always been, the next journalism.

Tom Rosenstiel is Executive Director of the American Press Institute, an author, journalist and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter @tbr1. Read more

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