Opinion/editorial writing


Opinion network State launches with goal of democratizing online conversations

Today marks the public launch of State, the “global opinion network” from Jawbone founder Alexander Asseily.

Sounds like just what the Internet needs, right? Another place for people you don’t know to opine about anything and everything.

But it’s what State does with those opinions that Asseily hopes will set the platform apart.

Asseily explained to Poynter via phone that the goal of his new service — on browsers at State.com and on iOS starting today — is to connect users to people and content in meaningful, deep ways. “You can think about State as elevating the structure of the network from people to opinions and points of view,” he said.

Users “state” about a topic by choose from among 25 million topics already in the system (they can also add their own). Then, they pick up to three reaction words from State’s database of 10,000 expressions (or add their own). Those keywords get mapped and compared with other users’ opinions, resulting in a snapshot of where you stand and recommendations to engage with other users who agree or disagree with you. (The platform also allows for freeflowing conversation beyond the connecting keywords.)

To make those connections, the site has to understand what each of those 10,000 expressions really means — a big technical challenge. Semantic architecture is what Asseily says has been missing from web communication from early Usenet to today’s Quora.

“We don’t want to create another silo system,” he said. “The goal is actually to break down the silos.”

Users can “tune” in to broad areas of interest — usual suspects like music, tech and sports — to come across ideas for what to offer opinions on. They can also tune in to friends imported from Facebook or Twitter, or people whose views they come across while using the site.

Mapping out opinions

While the site has been invite-only until this point, resulting in a tech-heavy user base, it’s still pretty fascinating to browse the site and get a sense for prevailing opinions on everything from “House of Cards” to Flappy Bird to Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp.

Something that stood out for me: Opinions about Facebook as a whole tend toward the negative, while views on the company’s new Paper app are glowing:

Among other insights State has highlighted: some common ground between views on capitalism and socialism (“misunderstood” was a word frequently used by people weighing in on both), and a pretty overwhelming distaste for genetically modified food.

Still, State’s ability to beautifully collect and make sense of so many disparate opinions will only be useful to the extent that it can scale and acquire a critical mass of users. Until then, opinions won’t be representative of much at all, but Asseily said State is seeking out users from around the world.

Revolutions and recommended content

State has some high-minded goals for the site. In a blog post, Asseily alluded to revolution and democratic ideals:

My brother Mark and I recruited a world class team to create State. We believe that everyone deserves a powerful voice online, no one should be left out, and when everyone’s opinions count, a more complete picture emerges and good things happen.

But on a micro level, State could simply be another useful platform for stumbling across content tailored for you. As the network grows, it will be able to use each user’s opinions to offer more content suggestions — both conversations taking place inside State and articles and information outside it.

Among the sharing tools: a “Stateclip” button for the browser bookmarks bars, allowing users to instantly share content from around the web. Once the content is clipped, State crawls the page for topics, and you can either state about the story itself or about any of the related topics State chose. It’s a potentially powerful way to share and discover links.

The State app is available for iOS today.

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Pew: Opinion gets less and less space in print


Print newspapers are allocating less space to opinion content, Jodi Enda writes:

There is no formal tally of reductions in editorials and commentary, but Pew Research Center interviews with editors across the country have confirmed a gradual shift both in the amount of space given over to opinion and in the missions of editorial and op-ed pages. Some papers have tried to compensate by running more editorials and columns online and launching more opinion-driven blogs. Some have shifted away from one of the historic missions of newspapers—influencing public opinion—and instead seek to foment community conversations online.

One thing that can be more easily measured is membership in the Association of Opinion Journalists:

Related: Inquirer editor protests cuts to opinion pages | Robert Vickers: ‘The wall of opinion and hard news’ fell long before he endorsed Romney Read more


New York Times editorial defends Rolling Stone cover

The New York Times | The Huffington Post

The New York Times has published an editorial defending Rolling Stone’s controversial cover featuring alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The editorial, published Friday morning, says:

Singling out one magazine issue for shunning is over the top, especially since the photo has already appeared in a lot of prominent places, including the front page of this newspaper, without an outcry. As any seasoned reader should know, magazine covers are not endorsements.

Time magazine, for example, had quite a few covers featuring Adolf Hitler during the war years. Less than a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Time featured a less-than-demonic photo of Osama bin Laden. Charles Manson appeared on Rolling Stone’s cover 40-some years ago for a jailhouse interview that was as chilling as it was revealing. We could go on.

Others have shared similar sentiments:

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George Zimmerman, Shellie Zimmerman

Can stories like the Zimmerman trial point to a better journalism?

The verdict in the George Zimmerman trial and juror B-37’s interview with CNN reveal what may be the greatest challenge to modern newsrooms on socially divisive issues: how best to get different communities to engage with each other.

Since Trayvon Martin’s death became a flashpoint in early 2012, news organizations have excelled at highlighting poignant, diverse voices offering up their analysis and personal experience. Fabulous writers penned passionate arguments. Social media gave rise to creative commentary. We all participated in the debate — the most committed of us by demonstrating, the rest of us by talking with each other face-to-face and sharing and commenting on social media. Now, the revelations about one juror’s point of view are sparking even more conversations about how our individual experiences inform our views.

And yet, we are as divided as ever. By democratizing publishing, the Internet and social media promised that we could all have a platform. But all those platforms seem to have made us even less likely to listen to those with whom we disagree.

Can journalism do anything to bridge this great divide? As the news media evolve, will newsrooms embrace the tasks of bringing people together and helping them talk things out as a way of distinguishing journalism from other sources of information? The challenge will be to do so in a way that invites diversity, even while our newsrooms are more willing to embrace reporting and writing from a particular point of view.

Pew Research Center tells us that only 26 percent of Americans say they prefer their news from a point of view on a regular basis. Yet that doesn’t seem to hold true for issues as polarizing as the Zimmerman trial. Consumption of information about the trial tracked much higher among black people than white people. Interest peaked after the verdict was announced, with 44 percent of a sample of Americans tracking the coverage on Sunday.

At the same time, the conversation about media has become an unfortunate referendum on whether most newsrooms are liberal and capable of fairness or even basic accuracy. While these are fair questions to ask, it’s overly simplistic to suggest that all newsrooms were inadequate in the Zimmerman trial because a few newsrooms made mistakes both big and small.

Critics suggested that every news organization that made room for a black voice talking about the danger young black men face was guilty of liberal bias. Or even that every newsroom that framed the story as one of race was incapable of fairness.

While there are certainly debates to be had about story frames, today’s flood of opinion is here to stay. On most news sites, articles written from a point of view and personal narratives dominate the lists of most-shared stories — and they’re easier and cheaper to produce for 24-hour cable newsrooms and digital and print outlets alike.

By embracing community as a core guiding principle, newsrooms could use coverage of divisive moments such as Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s trial to create a more robust exchange of ideas, a search for common ground, or some other measurable improvement for a community.

The best articulation of this expression of journalism came during a symposium last October at the Paley Center in New York, where Poynter gathered thought leaders to help shape a new set of Guiding Principles for Journalists.

Here’s how Mónica Guzmán, Seattle Times columnist and GeekWire contributor, described her vision of newsroom evolution:

Forever, the product of journalism has been the article, the photo, the essay, the content. The digital ecosystem today is asking us why can’t the product of journalism be the community? Why can’t that be the space where we do our work? If the mission of journalism is to inform the public for the civic good, but citizens are showing us they can inform themselves with the right tools and the right guidance, then the community should be as much a product of what we do, as much an end, as anything else. The differentiator for other industries is they think of the community as a means to an end. But for journal­ism, the community should be an end.

What would that vision look like? It would be different for every community and every newsroom, but certainly there would be more virtual chats, more moderated conversations, and more live events hosted by journalists.

Maybe it would look more like The Orlando Sentinel’s series In the Shadow of Race, which included a live community forum.

“Rather than think almost exclusively about serving [readers] with content, what else can [newsrooms] be doing to help them become more self-empowered information seekers and sharers?” Guzmán asked by email this week.

Guzmán and many others who have embraced this idea believe that it will be particularly effective and helpful for local newsrooms to go beyond just providing information.

“Innovators must now create tools that will help strengthen geographically bounded communities,” Steven Waldman writes in The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century, the book that grew out of last fall’s gathering. Waldman was a founder of Beliefnet, one of the first sites built around the idea that content would help communities interact and grow. In 1999, he notes, getting audiences organized around and involved in content was controversial. Now, it’s a legitimate model for news.

But the next steps in serving communities aren’t as clear or obvious.

“People expect to participate, and media managers must make it easier for readers to interact with each other, the news organization and other institutions in the community,” Waldman writes. “News organizations will become, in effect, community service organizations of a new kind and the process will become truly valuable.”

Just as the rise of opinion has transformed our content, serving communities will transform our newsrooms and ultimately our communities. We see glimpses of this in news start-ups that routinely pull off effective events, such as the Texas Tribune or MinnPost.

But the real experiments with community have yet to begin in earnest. Now is as good a time as any for that experimentation to start. And this issue of race and justice is a topic that cries out for something more than what we have.

The Poynter Institute’s book The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century will be available Aug. 1. This compilation of essays is edited by Poynter’s Kelly McBride and The American Press Institute’s Tom Rosenstiel. The book features a new framework for ethical decision-making among journalists and those who care about democracy. On August 15, McBride will host a News University Webinar about the book. Read more

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Robert Vickers: ‘The wall of opinion and hard news’ fell long before he endorsed Romney

Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News politics writer Robert Vickers published a column Friday about why he’s voting for Mitt Romney. In a chat with readers, he talked about the decision, still unusual for a newspaper reporter, to publicly disclose his vote. It wasn’t a suicide mission, apparently: In the chat, a reader asked whether he would remain with the paper after it reduces staff and print frequency next year. “I’ve been asked to stay on and have agreed to do so,” Vickers wrote. Some more excerpts: Read more


One month in, Margaret Sullivan talks about the changing role of New York Times Public Editor

A little over a month into her job, Margaret Sullivan has been transforming the traditional role of The New York Times public editor — by blogging almost every weekday and using social media to add a mix of voices and viewpoints to her posts.

Her new role, she says, has reminded her how much she enjoys writing on a regular basis and responding to the news of the day.

“Almost every day I come in and I say, ‘I’m not going to blog today,’ … But I always find something that seems compelling and then I end up writing something,” Sullivan said in a phone interview. “That’s how I feel the most engaged and the most satisfied — if I’m working on something that’s immediate and if I can get it out there on a daily basis, which is certainly something that was true of me when I was a reporter.”

Sullivan said she’s been approaching her coverage of The New York Times as if she were a beat reporter with an opinion to share. She’s written about issues like the Times’ decision not to acknowledge the 11th anniversary of 9/11 on its front page, its new stance on quote approval, and its reasons for using the term “illegal immigrant.”

She’s been praised for her quick responsiveness to such issues and, in New York Magazine’s words, has received a “rapturous reception.” But she’s also been criticized for being “too shy” when disagreeing with Times staffers in her blog.

Public editor as outside critic and inside reporter

Sullivan’s office is on the main floor of the Times newsroom, which gives her greater access to staffers.

“I’m in the newsroom, so if people have a gripe with me, they can find me very easily. And I can go up to someone and say, ‘I’m writing about this, can we talk?’ My approach is to not surprise anyone,” said Sullivan, who typically interviews the Times journalists she’s writing about. “…I’ve also tried to make it a point to follow up with people afterward to see if they have any further thoughts, and sometimes I’ve come back to the subject with the thoughts they share.”

While Sullivan’s presence in the newsroom makes her more accessible, it also poses a challenge: How does the public editor maintain the distance she needs to render judgement?

“I’m aware, every day, that I need to keep some distance,” said Sullivan, who signed up for a four-year term as public editor with an option to renew for two more years. “It’s a little bit like covering the police beat from a desk in the cop shop. You can be friendly, you can get to know people, but you probably can’t really be true friends. So far, I think everybody is striking a good balance.”

Sullivan’s desk is near the obituary department, which is bit removed from the news desk area. “It’s a perfect vantage point, because I can easily find the people I need to talk to, but it’s not as if I’m sitting within earshot of reporters and editors,” she said.

New York Times Spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and Executive Editor Jill Abramson wanted Sullivan’s office to be on the main floor of the newsroom.

“Both thought it was important to have Margaret located where it would be easiest for her to interact on a frequent basis with editors and reporters and have proximity to decision making,” Murphy said via email. “This was particularly important given the nature of her daily blog.”

Not all previous public editors have been so centrally located. Sullivan’s predecessor, Arthur Brisbane, was based out of his home in Massachusetts but would spend a couple of days a week at the Times. His office was on the floor above Sullivan’s. “I think it’s an advantage to be in the newsroom,” Brisbane told my colleague Craig Silverman in an exit interview. “That’s based on kind of a gut feeling.”

By contrast, Daniel Okrent, the Times’ first public editor, said he wanted to be distant from the newsroom.

“I was very far away, on the floor with the editorial page editors and writers, many floors away from the newsroom. My office was at the very end of the corridor, on the way from nowhere to nowhere,” Okrent said by phone. “I didn’t want to be in the newsroom, probably because I was a coward; I wanted to stay far away from the people I would be criticizing.”

I don’t think Sullivan has been very critical of the Times yet, and I’m curious to see if that will change as she gets more acclimated to the role. Increasingly, she said, she’s seen the value in sharing her opinion.

“I’ve come to realize that it’s not enough to simply report something out and leave it to the reader to decide from the various things you’ve written what you think,” Sullivan said. “I have the strong sense that people expect the public editor to have an opinion and to say what that opinion is.”

Engaging with readers

Every day, Sullivan gets about 200 emails from readers. “That number can spike dramatically, though, depending on what hot topic is in the news or if there’s intense reaction to something I’ve written,” Sullivan said. She and her assistant Joe Burgess read the emails throughout the day and respond personally to relevant ones.

When she was applying for the public editor position, Sullivan highlighted two roles from the book “Blur” that she wanted to embrace: “smart aggregator” and “forum organizer.”

Her goal, she says, is to “bring in a lot of different voices and pieces of reporting” while blogging. So far, she’s done a pretty good job of that; her posts often include links to  blogs and news sites, and she occasionally quotes from them. She’s also been using social media and her blog as conversation starters. (By contrast, Brisbane told Poynter in his exit interview that social media was “an alien realm for me” and that the public editor role is “not a conversation.”)

In one of her blog posts about the Times’ use of “illegal immigrant,” Sullivan asked readers to share their thoughts on the Times’ policy by commenting on the post, emailing her, or responding on Twitter. She also reached out to readers after the first presidential debate to hear their thoughts on the Times’ fact-checking efforts — and then featured some of them a related blog post.

“New York Times readers are very engaged readers; they read the paper actively, they are opinionated, they’re smart, and they have a lot to say,” Sullivan said. “I knew that coming in, but I still have been struck by how true it is.”

Sullivan has maintained the public editor’s print column, which appears in the paper every other Sunday — largely because she wants to cater to both print and online readers. She also likes having an opportunity to write a mix of shorter and longer pieces.

“It was important to me to address the print readers because I know there are many people who don’t read the Times online,” Sullivan said. “The column is more of a polished and complete piece of work. The blog can be immediate and it doesn’t have to be the final word on the subject.”

As part of her independence from the newsroom, Sullivan chooses what she wants to write about without consulting an editor. She says she tries to gauge how she’s doing by looking at how readers — and other journalists — are responding to her work.

The first female public editor

Last week, Sullivan got some attention for calling out Times freelancer Andrew Goldman after he tweeted an offensive comment about author Jennifer Weiner. Sullivan’s column about the Goldman controversy was what you would hope to see from a public editor — she laid out the issue, did reporting to advance the story, and took a stance, saying Goldman is “highly replaceable.”

This response reminded of a piece I wrote about why it matters that Sullivan is the New York Times’ first female public editor. In it, I argued that women bring a different sensibility to the newsroom than men do, and expressed my hope that Sullivan’s experiences as a woman and a mother would inform her reporting.

Though she’s written about a few gender-related issues — the naming of a rape victim in the Times, pay equity and the Goldman tweet — Sullivan downplays the idea that she wrote about them because she’s a woman. Abramson shared similar sentiments when asked about her role as the Times’ first female executive editor, saying: “The idea that women journalists bring a different taste in stories or sensibility isn’t true.”

Sullivan told me that as a woman, she “may be” more attuned to gender-related subjects.

“Of course, you don’t have to be a woman to appreciate gender issues. A lot of men are savvy and sensitive about all of this — and some women aren’t,” Sullivan said.

“We all bring our experiences and our background to what we do. So, being the only woman in many conference rooms full of men, or being the first woman to have various roles such as managing editor and editor, has helped form who I am. But as a mother of a son, a sister of two brothers, and someone happy to have some wonderful male friends, I care about guys, too.” Read more


Kristof: ‘The U.S. is losing interest’ in foreign reporting

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof answered readers’ questions on Reddit Monday. Here are some highlights:

• Kristof tries to produce as much copy as he can from his trips abroad: “[G]iven how long it takes to get to the places I go, I need to be sure that if I get there, I can do several different columns from that destination.” And he thinks the appetite for foreign reporting is waning:

The big challenge for foreign reporting is that I think the U.S. is losing interest. For a decade or so after 9/11, the U.S. was quite interested in the world, an aberration in our history of insularity. Now I think we’re reverting the more normal situation where we’re quite inward looking. That also poses huge problems for those of us who care about global poverty.

• He admits he likes making the “most emailed” list. (Here are some tips for doing that.) Read more


Seattle Times’ editorial board launches social media campaign to support same-sex marriage

The Seattle Times | Association of Opinion Journalists | The New York Times | On the Media
A Seattle Times editorial published Monday asks for help from readers who approve of the editorial board’s support of a Washington state referendum that will enshrine same-sex marriage in state law.

The editorial directs readers to a photo of a sign published in the Sunday print paper and a link to the photo. It then asks them to:

Take a photo of you, your partner or your family holding this sign and share it on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #IDo74. You can also email the photo to ido@seattletimes.com.

The paper has a photo gallery of people holding the sign. The Seattle Times’ editorial section, which is a finalist for 2012 the Online News Association awards, has been experimenting with new ways of approaching editorials. Earlier this year, it published a “rap op-ed” in response to local shootings. Read more


The Goldman Sachs op-ed: Journalism loves a burnt bridge

Goldman Sachs executive director Greg Smith proved Wednesday morning that few things send up a stronger smoke signal on the Internet than the flames of a burning bridge. Storify follows: Read more


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