Leveraging Pro Talent for Better Journalistic Digging

One of the fun events at the Knight News Challenge conference at MIT this week has been spur-of-the-moment ideas for new projects, products and services. The project ideas are listed here — and the list is proof that good ideas are in surplus these days.

Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, and I came up with the following proposal:

Circuit Rider Project: Community accountability via circuit-riding forensic accountant.

Using Arizona and metropolitan Phoenix as a test bed and template, we will hire a forensic accountant. (Forensic accounting is to accounting as investigative journalism is to journalism.) He or she will dig into state and regional governmental spending, with the help of crowd-sourced tips from citizens and bureaucrats, to spot any malfeasance (and to prevent it by virtue of watchdog deterrent effect).

We will bring this person together with journalists and potential media partners — while making findings open to all — to promote coverage that members of the community will see and act on. This fills a growing gap in Arizona and, if this test works as envisioned, in other states, metro areas and non-metro regions.

This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and Bill’s support means that we’re a lot more likely to try it. I’ll let you know if and how we proceed.

Making Reputation Measurable, Usable in Emerging Media Ecosystem

In an era where we have nearly unlimited amounts of information, one of the key issues is how to separate the good from the bad, the reliable from the unreliable, the trustworthy from the untrustworthy, the useful from the irrelevant. Unless we get this right, the emerging diverse media ecosystem won’t work well, if at all.

I’ve long believed that we’ll need to find ways to combine popularity — a valuable metric in itself — with reputation. This sounds easier than it is, because reputation is an enormously complex problem. But whoever gets this right is going to be a huge winner in the marketplace.

What do we mean by reputation? In this context, we mean many things. If someone points to a news article, for example, we have to consider reputation at many levels. Among them:

  • What “media outlet” — traditional, blog, whatever — is behind the article? If it’s the Economist, the reputation starts at a high level. If it’s Joe’s Blog, and I have no idea who Joe is or what he’s (if the poster is a he) has been doing for the past few years, the reputation starts lower, much lower.
  • What is the reputation of the writer/video-maker/etc.? I give a generally high rating to New York Times reporters, but I can name a few who’ve wrecked their credibility with me over the past few years. This can vary even within organizations.
  • How about the sources of the information cited in the article or broadcast or whatever? When the Times quotes unnamed sources who have clear axes to grind, I actively disbelieve what the Times is reporting. When it quotes a person I believe to be generally trustworthy, I put it in a different place on my credibility scale. Too bad newspapers don’t use footnotes; and way too bad they are so reluctant to link on their websites to more directly relevant source material. Bloggers don’t have this problem.
  • Then there’s the reputation of the person recommending that I pay attention to the report. If David Weinberger suggests that I read something, I have much more reason to trust that it’ll at least be interesting, because I trust David so much, and this trust goes exponentially higher when he’s recommending something about which I know he has domain expertise.
  • Other reputations of interest in this sphere could include the collective reputation of the readers or followers of the publication or person. The readers of the Economist know a lot about a lot of things the magazine covers, and the fact that they pay the high subscription price tells me I should give the publication more of my trust.

Measuring reputation is another rub. It’s incredibly hard, and currently the tools for measuring are at best crude.

In a world of Web APIs and other emerging tools, however, there are glimmerings of hope. I’ve been begging people at eBay for years — to no avail — to make people’s reputations as buyers and sellers portable. By that I mean let people create a badge of some kind, with some real data behind it, and let them post that badge on their own work and make the data available in a granular way.

Your eBay reputation is not an exact proxy for your general trustworthiness, as a person or as an information creator. For one thing, we know that people are constantly gaming eBay’s system. For another, how you behave in buying and selling goods online doesn’t say how you’ll behave in other situations. But at the very least it’s a useful thing to know.

Your Karma at Slashdot are another useful metric. So are the individual users’ contributions in the collaborative filtering at Digg and Reddit. Useful, but clearly not sufficient by themselves to let you make big decisions about someone’s overall integrity.

But combine a bunch of reputation systems and you’re getting somewhere — and a world of APIs and interactive data suggest at least the possibility of finding a way to blend various measures into something that is more useful than what we have. At least I hope so.

Metrotwin: Why Every Company is a Media Company

Metrotwin Consider British Airways’ Metrotwin – London & New York, a site that has information about London and New York, the airline’s two most important cities. It’s the best evidence yet that all companies with a public presence — which is to say almost all companies, period — are becoming media companies in addition to their core businesses

At his New Media Education Summit, Richard Edelman, CEO of the PR company that bears his family’s name, made the key observation any business can boost its value by using new media. Among the projects he cited as evidence was Metrotwin, an Edelman client..

The site incorporates information of various kinds, including ratings, from various sources including users. I wonder if it can possibly attain any kind of critical mass. It seeks to serve a niche, but to do so in a deep way.

The site notably asks for contributors: “We are looking for people to become contributing editors. We will reward you with BA Miles.” Now that’s a reward capable of drawing people.

It’ll be fascinating to see how this develops.

New Media Academic Summit

Call it social media, new media or just plain media. The state of media today is not as grim as you’ve been hearing.

That’s what I’m planning to tell the Edelman New Media Academic Summit tomorrow in Washington, where Richard Edelman and his team at the largest privately held PR agency in the world are continuing to break ground in their field. They’re hosting a group of educators from America’s journalism schools. The gathering’s purpose is to discuss

how companies, organizations and media effectively engage all their stakeholders through social media; to help academics inform their curricula with insights into the rapidly evolving communications landscape; and to identify the skills students need to pursue a career in the communications industry.

The students I teach leave our course with some understanding of this, or at least I hope they do. But it’s fair to say that schools of journalism and communication, which typically are the places that teach PR and advertising, are somewhat behind the curve when it comes to helping students take what they already know — social media participation — and apply it to the world of persuasion that they’re going to enter.

I told our panel moderator, Shelby Coffey, the former LA Times executive editor who’s now a Senior Fellow and Trustee at the Newseum in Washington, that my approach to the panel title, “The State of the Media: Today and Tomorrow,” would be slightly contrarian in that I don’t think things are as bad as so many people are saying, and I’m confident (though not certain) that we’re going to get this right in the long run.

So I’m going to say the following:

First, let’s not mourn newspapers and local news broadcasts, though they clearly are dying, at least in the forms they once took in a media era of monopoly and oligopoly. I don’t necessarily cheer this development. It’s clearly leading to some loss, at least temporarily, of journalism that has shown great value in the past. But I do celebrate the growing diversity of the news ecosystem, which will be more resilient and healthy than the relative monoculture of the recent past.

Second, as noted in the post below this one, we’re seeing a slew of experiments and development of new media forms and business models, accompanied by an entrepreneurial spirit — spurred in part by the demise of what we’ve had — that is truly new in recent times. We will surely have enough “content” in the future, and lots of it will be excellent content at that.

Third, all the great new journalism and information won’t matter if we don’t fix the even bigger problem. It’s not so much a supply problem but a demand issue going forward. We have created a lazy society when it comes to having trustworthy information, and our cultural laziness will lead us to even deeper ruin if we don’t turn the passive consumers of the past half-century into active users of media in the future. As noted here before, that is a major goal of the Mediactive project.

Finally, journalism and communications education needs to incorporate this shift into our core curriculum. In many respects, our students are way ahead of us, namely, as noted, their implicit understanding of social media. In our programs, and in others, understanding how to use media will be a skill that pays off during their entire lifetimes.

Saving Journalism, One Idea at a Time

True/Slant’s hybrid model (some* reporters find their own advertising sponsors) will save journalism! Or not.

The Huffington Post is creating tomorrow’s business model for journalism! Or not…

Northwestern University’s “computer nerds” will save journalism! Really?

Ultra-cheap netbooks could save the media industry! Umm…

Journalism Online LLC will save newspapers (!) by helping them charge for what they’ve been essentially giving away for 50 years. Could be.

The iPhone will revolutionize mobile journalism! Or not.

The recent panic over the demise of newspapers has led to a predictable flurry of omigod, now-what speculation. We’re being treated to one hype-filled piece after another about this or that startup or project that has the potential to save, revolutionize or do something really, really special to move us into the future of news and information.

Let’s take a deep breath, calm down and understand what’s going on here. There’s no way of knowing which of these worthy enterprises, products and projects — and hundreds or thousands more like them that already exist or will soon — will be around in a decade. The fact of their existence is what’s exciting, not their individual prospects.

We’ve become accustomed to a media world dominated by monopolies and oligopolies. So we — and especially the paid journalists who remain in the craft — tend to imagine that just a few big institutions will rise from the sad rubble of the journalism business.

That’s not where it’s going, at least not anytime soon. We’re heading into an incredibly messy but also wonderful period of innovation and experimentation that combines technology and people and pushes great and outlandish ideas into the real world. The result will a huge number of failures but also a large number of successes.

This is why I’ve grown more and more certain that we will not lack for a supply of quality news and information. This comes with two caveats. First, we need a solid supply of people who are willing to take some responsibility for getting quality news and information. Second, we can’t let government and/or big media take away the freedoms we now have to experiment.

Meanwhile, the next time you see or hear a story about this or that magic wand that someone is waving to save journalism, appreciate the entrepreneurial or technical or journalistic imagination that its founders have shown. But consider it just one small step along a long, long road to our future.

Make that ‘Prisoners’ — not ‘Detainees’

Something interesting appeared in a recent New York Times “Editor’s Note” and today’s Public Editor column— an honest word to describe a group of people, not the Orwellian word the paper and virtually all other journalistic outlets have used in the past.

The topic of the editor’s note and column was the newspaper’s abysmal journalism in an earlier story about a Pentagon report that made claims the newspaper wrote down and reported in the typically stenographic style of Washington journalists. Then the paper made things worse by overstating the military’s unverifiable claims.

The honest word in the note and column was “prisoners” — describing the people we have been holding for years at Guantanamo: terror suspects who include some guilty men and some who are not guilty of anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The word the paper’s editors didn’t use (though their news columns have been littered with it in recent years) is the one the government favors: “detainees.”

The difference is profound. Being detained has two common meanings. Being held involuntarily is one of them, and even in that context the holding is usually for a short period. The other meaning is to be delayed, a kind of inconvenience.

The people we’re holding indefinitely in the Guantanamo prison – with few or no rights, and no proof of their bad acts, yet in many cases with little or no hope of ever being freed – are not merely being detained. They are prisoners. Period. We shame ourselves not to call them that, but if we did they’d certainly have more rights, because prisoners of war do have rights.

“Detainee” is one of those words governments have come to deploy in their Orwellian efforts to justify their own worst behavior. Thus torture becomes “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and “waterboarding” has the ring, not coincidentally, of a theme-park ride despite the fact that the World War II allies won war-crimes convictions against people who’d used that very method of torture.

You expect this abuse of language from government. What we should expect from journalists is truth.

America has tortured people. Journalism should have the honor to use the word and not let government lie with such impunity.

We have imprisoned people — many of them quite innocent of wrongdoing, by our own account — at Guantanamo, not detained them by any common-sense definition. Journalists should use the word “prisoner” because it would be the truth, and the Times deserves a small kudo for doing it this time. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a trend.

Note: I’ve asked the Times’ public editor whether this represents a change in policy and, if so, whether it applies to the news columns as well as editorial pages and notes. I’ll let you know if he responds.

(A short portion of this posting comes from a piece I wrote in 2007 for PR Week magazine.)

Murdoch Claims News Corp. Wouldn’t Take Govt. Money; Half-Truth

Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp., says no to U.S. government newspaper bailout but pretends that his company is free of government assistance:

“Nothing that News owns will ever take money from the government and I don’t believe even the New York Times would. I don’t think the government would even do it. They’d realize this would be the end of it.”

Rupert Murdoch

This is true but deeply, and no doubt deliberately, misleading. The reality is that his company has received all kinds of special favors from the government over the years, favors that translated into cash.  

An obvious one, among many, is the gift News Corp.’s broadcasting properties have received in the form of free use of the airwaves. The estimates vary widely on what that’s been worth, but certainly it’s in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

As noted in a prior posting, the US government has a long history of supporting the press, as do state and local governments. There’s no serious likelihood of a direct bailout now, as Murdoch well knows, so it’s easy for him to say he wouldn’t take it.

Will he give back what he’s already gotten from government — from taxpayers? We won’t hold our collective breath on this one.

Oh, Please: USA Today’s Ridiculous Twitter Experiment

USA Twitter OK, the Twitter media bubble has now reached an apex. Today’s USA Today has a Money section cover story that it touts in this way: “Reporting cover story for USA Today entirely on Twitter.

The piece collects quotes from some important business people, including some CEOs, and purports to be a great and valuable example of how the latest hyped media tool is being used. The reporter wondered whether the executives believed that America is “drifting away from capitalism toward a European-style hybrid of capitalism and socialism” — and used Twitter to ask.

I think Twitter has enormous potential, and it’s already shown great value in many ways. There’s an amazing ecosystem forming around the tool, and Twitter (and, one hopes, its competitors in the space) are helping to redefine how networked communications will work.

But USA Today’s experiment is more than a little ridiculous. Why? Because collecting quotes that run 140 or fewer characters provides nothing but a collection of tiny sound bytes — and the issue of whether America is sliding into a form of capitalism (or whatever this is) that will change the nature of our society deserves better. Even the follow-up questions by the reporter don’t elicit much more than sound-byte replies.

Again, I’m a huge fan of Twitter. But this story in a respectable national newspaper — a story that spends a lot of time wondering why some CEOs didn’t answer the reporter’s tweets — doesn’t advance online collaboration, or journalism.

Google Co-Founder Claims Newspapers Have Time to ‘Figure it Out’

ZDNet reports that Sergey Brin believes newspapers can still prosper. Quote:

If newspapers take the time during the transition, to figure out what the next model might be, they can have a “strong sustainable form of revenue” for the future.

News racks

Nope. It’s too late for almost all of them, particularly the regional papers in cities of any size. They make no sense economically.

They may be sustainable in some form. But they have almost no chance, at this point, of any strength in their markets. They blew whatever opportunity they had a long time ago, by failing to recognize reality or, even if they understood what was happening, by failing to do anything serious to change while they had the chance.

When Brin, Eric Schimdt and other Googlers make these kinds of statements, are they trying to smooth the rocky relations they have with the industry? Or do they really believe this stuff? I suspect the former. They’re too smart to buy what they’re saying.

(Photo by Kamoteus (A Better Way) via Flickr)