You may have noticed — you could hardly miss it — the current blizzard of one-year anniversary stories about the fall of Lehman Brothers, an event that helped spark last fall’s financial meltdown. The coverage mainly reminds me that journalists failed to do their jobs before last fall’s crisis emerged, and have continued to fail since then.
It also reminds me of a few pet peeves about the way traditional journalists operate. So here’s a list of 11 things I’d insist on, just for starters, if I ran a news organization. Why 11? See the last item.
1. We would not run anniversary stories and commentary except in the rarest of circumstances. They are a refuge for lazy and unimaginative journalists.
2. We would invite our audience to participate in the journalism process, in a variety of ways that included crowdsourcing, audience blogging, wikis and many other techniques. We’d make it clear that we’re not looking for free labor — and will work to create a system that rewards contributors beyond a pat on the back — but want above all to promote a multi-directional flow of news and information in which the audience plays a vital role.
3. To that end, transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One example of many: Every print article would have an accompanying box called “Things We Don’t Know” — a list of questions our journalists couldn’t answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organization’s website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes, which exist in every story.
4. We would create a service to notify online readers, should they choose to sign up for it, of errors we’ve learned about in our journalism. Users of this service could choose to be notified of major errors only (in our judgement) or all errors, however insignificant we may believe them to be.
5. We’d make conversation an essential element of our mission. Among other things:
- If we were a local newspaper, the editorial and op-ed pages would publish the best of, and be a guide to, the conversation the community was having with itself online and in other public forums, whether hosted by the news organization or someone else. Our website would link to a variety of commentary from the usual suspects, but syndicated columns would almost never appear in the print edition.
- Editorials would appear in blog format, as would letters to the editor.
- We would encourage comments and forums, but in moderated spaces that a) encouraged the use of real names and b) insisted on (and enforced) civility.
- Comments from people using verified real names would be listed first.
6. We would refuse to do stenography and call it journalism. If one faction or party to a dispute is lying, we would say so, with the accompanying evidence. If we learned that a significant number of people in our community believed a lie about an important person or issue, we would make it part of an ongoing mission to help them understand the truth.
7. We would replace certain Orwellian and PR-speakish words and expressions with more neutral, precise language. If someone we interview misused language, we would paraphrase instead of running direct quotes. Examples, among many others:
- So and so is not worth some amount of money. He has financial holdings of that amount, or his wealth is such and such.
- The activity that takes place in casinos is gambling, not gaming.
- There are no death taxes. There can be inheritance or estate taxes.
- Health care paid for by taxpayers is not free.
- Practices for which this nation and its allies have successfully prosecuted others on war-crimes charges are torture, not “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
- A person who pays to stay in a hotel is not a guest. She is a customer. A guest, by definition, is not billed for the privilege.
- Piracy is what people carrying guns on the high seas do: capturing ships, stealing cargo and turning crews and passengers into hostages, sometimes murdering them. Piracy does not describe what people do when they post digital music on file-sharing networks.
8. We would embrace the hyperlink in every possible way. Our website would include the most comprehensive possible listing of other media in our community, whether we were a community of geography or interest. We’d link to all relevant blogs, photo-streams, video channels, database services and other material we could find, and use our editorial judgement to highlight the ones we consider best for the members of the community. And we’d liberally link from our journalism to other work and source material relevant to what we’re discussing, recognizing that we are not oracles but guides.
9. Our archives would be freely available, with permalinks on every single thing we’ve published as far back as possible, with APIs to help other people use our journalism in ways we haven’t considered ourselves.
10. A core mission of our work would be to help people in the community become informed users of media, not passive consumers — to understand why and how they can do this. We would work with schools and other institutions that recognize the necessity of critical thinking.
11. We would never publish lists of 10. They’re a prop for lazy and unimaginative people.
Welcome to BoingBoing readers. And here are 11 More Things I’d Do (a follow-up post).
146 thoughts on “Eleven Things I’d Do If I Ran a News Organization”
Dan, you might be the smartest man in journalism. This list is great!
No. 1 is something I have thought for many years. What’s even worse is sometimes editors make the staff cook up one of these dull anniversary things on deadline (doh!).
In No. 2, “make it clear that we’re not looking for free labor” is HUGE. So much of newspapers’ efforts in UGC seems directed at making the site look as if it has some local content. I also love No. 3 – it reinforces the sincerity in No. 2.
No. 7: Some others are “dead civilians” (not “collateral damage”) and “ethnically motivated massacres” (not “ethnic cleansing”). You get bonus points for the piracy bullet.
No. 10 is a tall order, yes? I agree this would be a big step in the right direction, but wow, the organization would need quite a commitment to get that working and keep it going over time.
What’s missing: While it’s implied throughout your list, respect for the public is significant, and I find it lacking in many newsrooms that I visit. Journalists often make derisive comments about what the audience wants, what the readers view or e-mail the most, and they do it with an obvious air of superiority — “we” are so much better than “them.” No wonder “they” don’t want what we’re selling.
Would be interested in your view on the media property that comes closest to involving its reader
P.S. I actually thought your 25th anniversary piece on the microprocessor way back when was well done.
Lou, that property doesn’t exist, sad to say…
IMHO No. 6 is key – mealy mouthed MSM journalism has created a mile-wide gap that blogs have exploited. Its not just “conversation” that differentiates blogs, its the willingness to say unpalatable things and call a spade a spade.
I’d also add “Declare our interests”. In British papers, we often see “XYZ film (released by our parent company)” but we rarely see “ABC pharmacuticals who paid our journalist to attend a seminar in Hawaii”.
Terence, I’d put that under the transparency theme, absolutely.
I agree with most of what you recommend. But please don’t just aim these generically at journalists. Editors are the ones who really need to be convinced. It’s editors who make reporters write anniversary stories. Editors decide on descriptive terminology. Editors decide whether to embrace or shun hyperlinks.
And above the editors are the executives at the companies who own the newspapers. These are not journalists, but they dictate the infrastructure journalists will use, the computers, the software to write the stories and to post to the Web.
If you don’t change their minds, mere reporters can’t do much about your recommendations.
Bradley, I consider editors journalists too. At least most of them. Sometimes the executives are former journalists, but I get your point.
I agree with all you say but especially love
I’ve always thought of it as lazy and unimaginative journalism. Not just the anniversary articles/columns.
Here we have 4 dailies and what you see in one paper most stories you can read about in the other three as well. Just a different(their biased)view(in articles NOT columns).
I’ve always thought a better way would be for a paper with ALL different news not reporting the same thing as the others(unless it’s major need-to-know-stuff…usually isn’t).
Lazy and unimaginative is trying to be like the other one(publishing/reporting the same stories) instead of coming up with something new and original.
And, #2. Free labour(Canadian spelling). Be it TV, papers or what-have-you I’ve been telling everyone I know that they should be getting paid for what they submit to the paper or TV news outlet and not doing a free job for the media.
I’ve always said if the media(I’m specifically referring to newspapers), really wanted to hear from the ordinary citizen(as they repeatedly tell us), then they’d hire a Citizen Journalist and put them on the payroll.
(why pay a Citizen Journalist? Because “free” doesn’t pay the bills and while knowing you can afford to live, you can focus 110% of your energy on the Citizen Journalism job).
As a 30-year veteran journalist (TV, newspapers, radio, national Web news, before running an online neighborhood-news service) I agree thoroughly and passionately with so much of what you have written. We have already done our best to espouse some of these ideals in what we do with our service – which IS a news organization, albeit a small one – not enough but we’re trying, and it pains us to see the promise and responsibility of the connected world ignored and/or squandered by those who don’t.
I could remark on each one but I want to thank you in particular for #7. As the style-guide keeper for almost every newsroom in which I worked, I evangelized this like mad, and still do. Why does it matter? If you don’t use precise, neutral, descriptive language, the euphemisms may eventually just worm their way into common usage. A huge example – the terms that the two major sides of the abortion issue settled on long ago – pro-life and pro-choice. As I explained in a comment-section discussion on our site recently (something EVERY journalist should be participating in – talk with your commenters!) – it’s one thing if you need to use an organization’s name and that name happens to be, oh, say Pro-Choice Whatever or Pro-Life Whatever. But when you write about the people, be descriptive – abortion opponents, abortion-rights supporters. Just one example of many.
To that end, I wish my fellow blog-format publishers/authors would quit letting themselves be described as “bloggers,” which I think is no more useful a term than oh say “newspaperers.” Blog is just a format. What do you DO in that format? Call yourself – and insist that others use the right term – what you are: Neighborhood journalist, diarist, humor writer, environmental activist, food critic, photographer, public information officer, whatever. That will endure beyond the format. And it makes a difference in how you are perceived and received.
I realize it’s not part of this post and perhaps you’ve touched on it in the past, but how do you see an organization like this earning enough money to survive? Or do you believe the subscription/advertising model still has legs?
Mike, there’s a huge amount of experimentation taking place now in the business-model category. I’m confident that it’ll be sorted out. I do think that subscriptions and advertising have some legs, but not obviously so for the daily newspapers that have squandered the chance to move from monopoly to competitive status. They’ve hung onto what used to work — in every way, it seems — long after it stopped working. Still, it wouldn’t hurt them to do any of these things, even now.
The “things we don’t know” box is the least useful of this otherwise interesting list. You’d lose a lot of time just listing questions in it and you’d lose readers who’d simply say, “why don’t you know these things?”You’re overreaching here – let this stuff come out in the conversation; making the reporters/editors do this would weigh them down considerably.
Some of these suggestions seem to be based on the idea that news organizations can print the truth. In many instances, we only print what people tell us. So, instead of a section called “what we don’t know” I’d have a section that evaluated the sources of the information. Surely in this internet age we could somehow give sources a “reliability” rating, i.e. like on eBay where sellers of things earn a rating based, I guess, on the number of transactions they reliably complete. (This must be already being done, right?) I’m reminded of this from an email exchange I had with a guy just before the presidential election last year. He insisted Obama couldn’t beat McCain based on his analysis of the polls heading into the last week of October. I told him he was insane, that Obama was clearly heading to victory and I based my comments purely on a few polling websites. In my system, that guy would have a low reliability score and if he was being cited in a report, I’d reveal that. This index could be quite revealing, too: The police are often sources quoted for their reports. I’d love to see how many arrests police make in a given jurisdiction actually lead to prosecutions… Anyhow, one plus side to this would be you’d have sources maybe, possibly think carefully about what they are asserting because they’d think about their reliability score…. And, if they could stomach it, why not rate the reporters, too? Reporters who have to run corrections often should be identified as “frequently corrected.”
No. 11 won’t ever fly. Lists, including yours, drive Web traffic.
Where are how you would be financed and how you would reveal your finances. Also, where is the information of how you would get over media boycotts related to actually reporting the news – boycotts lead by public figures that you would otherwise want to interview.
As we embark on developing a new News Service (with the assistance of several traditional outlets), your enlightening list provides us with a baseline manifesto that is sure to rapidly make an impression on our reader base (which is anxiously awaiting to see our product).
I also am not too comfortable with #11, but do see the need to leave open the opportunity for corrections, additions and updates contributed by non-staff members (and preferrably the readership).
I’ll get back to you in 30 days after we’ve completed our launch. In the meanwhile, thank you for this thought-provoking and direction setting post. Grazie tanto!
What you can’t do with an audience participation model is ensure that the audience adheres to the same standards of evidence that we’d expect of a reporter. Establishing a claim as more than a claim… as being in some priviliged relation to reality, relative to other people’s claims… takes a hell of a lot of work, and it is more than I for one would be willing to do for free, even in my various areas of expertise.
I think soliciting commentary is fine… ON THE SIDE… so long as the commentary is not a replacement for the news. Treat community input as what it is… OPINION… and not, for that matter, representative opinion, because the readership of any one news source is never representative of anything more general than that.
And for gods sake, no polls >< Jon Stewart’s critique of the use of polls on “mainstream” news channels is a fantastic example of the echo chamber which every interactive news community quickly devolves into.
You’d be out of business in a week. Your ideas are good, but too labor intensive to be realistically workable.
There is a big problem with your neutral language, which is that very little language is neutral, and if one side of an issue is using different words then the act of using the more popular words is in itself a political act.
this list would be far more complete with a mention a point around how you would remain profitable while doing all these great things.
Maybe there’s a way to involve the public — participatory culture — in a not-for-profit model that embraces these ideals.
All of these points would be just as appropriate for a not-for-profit entity as for any for-profit one.
“If I ran the zoo” – Dr. Seuss
My New Zoo, McGrew Zoo, will make people talk.
My New Zoo, McGrew Zoo, will make people gawk
At the strangest odd creatures that ever did walk.
I’ll get, for my zoo, a new sort-of-a-hen
Who roosts in another hen’s topknot, and then
Another one roosts in the topknot of his,
And another in his, and another in HIS,
And so forth and upward and onward, gee whizz!
I’ll hunt in the Jungles of Hippo-no-Hungus
And bring back a flock of wild Bippo-no-Bungus!
The Bippo-no-Bungus from Hippo-no-Hungus
Are better than those down in Dippo-no-Dungus
And smarter than those out in Nippo-no-Nungus.
And that’s why I’ll catch’em in Hippo-no-Hungus
Instead of those others in Nungus and Dungus.
And people will say when they see these Bips bounding,
“This Zoo Keeper, New Keeper’s simply astounding!
He travels so far that you’d think he would drop!
When do you suppose this young fellow will stop?”
Feeling better, Seth?
No, actually. I think Seth makes a fantastic point.
It’s all very well to say this is how I’d run a paper. in ever more fantastical and elaborate ways, but at the same time, he doesn’t run a paper, any more than Mcgrew runs a zoo.
It’s a nice idea. Now let’s see you put it into practice. People still have to want to read it. and your sanctimony against those who currently work as journalists is pathetic.
Sigh. I should know better, that implication-based humor doesn’t work on the Net, everything must be painfully spelled out.
The point was to draw a parallel between the list of items “… if I ran a news organization” and the list of items in the Dr. Seuss book “If I ran the zoo” – implying a certain equivalence of fantastical elements, and so saying the situations of coming up with a big list is fun, but not much more than that. But I attempted to do that in light-hearted way, by just quoting some of the verse, as I thought that might help the criticism be accepted.
Again, sorry, I shouldn’t have tried something like that, and I am duly chastised with the obvious counter-reply :-(.
I got the humor, and understand that for most news orgs the list sounds Suess-ian. But nothing in my list is fantasy. It’s all doable.
This a useful list. My one quibble is with you set up: “The coverage mainly reminds me that journalists failed to do their jobs before last fall’s crisis emerged, and have continued to fail since then.”
My issue there is that in the cutbacks, business journalists have been particulary whacked hard, from the Wash Post on down. Who is that we think are watching big financial stories like these today? Maybe the WSJ or FT. Even the New York Times doesn’t have the depth of staff to being cover the various pieces of this massively unregulated financial system. And wire services people people in narrow niches to pound out breaking news (aka, “press releases rewrites.”)
And even if someone had covered it, I’m not sure where people would have read about it. Almost every every daily metro paper has discontinued a daily, stand alone business section.
When people ask me where were the business journalists on this story, I reply: “Working at Starbucks.”
Chris, the failures started when newspapers were making their some of their highest profits earlier in the decade (and earlier). The failure was comprehensive, and it was very much like the one that occurred before the Iraq War and in a number of other cases. The fact that there aren’t enough people out there now covering this stuff makes things worse, but the journalism debacle was well under way before the journalism-business debacle hit critical mass.
I would add that all the media today is biased, and the wall between journalism and activism is gone.
I really like the idea of journalists laying out the facts when one side is lying, which they do now only if its the side which disagrees.
And having a bias doesn’t mean lying. Most often, a bias is shown by the stories that are selected to run.
Dan, I appreciate that you’ve put down in text what so many of us feel so strongly about.
Some things, however, are much easier said than done! Many of these problems are technology issues in need of a developed software or web server solution. Software costs money, and too many people in news are worried about the green lining in their pockets or those of the marketing middle-culture. Also, I have yet to see a vibrant (self supporting) news organization whose core mission is “journalism” – especially one which espouses “improving community” as well… The community is too broad – they want sports, entertainment, classifieds, chitty-chat, and all the other necessities of community AS WELL AS the excellent journalism. Yin & Yang.
Anyway, I founded EmpireReport.org over a year ago to try and tackle some of these things for the North SF Bay area – and I’d love it more forward thinking people wanted to actually put their time & money where their mouths are. Anyone want to lend a hand? There is a hitch. Making a change means you get to work a little for free before the gig can support a salary.
So, lets dispel this myth: You CAN run a news organization. And you CAN do it right.
I interrupted drafting a post to read “11 things I’d do. . .”
My post is about the irony of the words used by traditional media to describe their audience: e.g., “User” “Hits” and Jeff Jarvis says they are “Dead.”
When media adopts your “11 things,” these words will be replaced by: e.g., “contributors” “members” and “Live”
I’ll just have to point that out.
Katherine Warman Kern
Excellent post, and “Things We Don’t Know” is a great idea.
Sound like Wikipedia for current events. Great concept!
Agree on anniversary stories. Editors love them because to the casual reader, they look and feel like news, but they can be prepackaged ahead of time and come with none of those unruly surprises that accompany real news and force people to work past 5 p.m.
Brilliant list, Dan. Love it. My favorite has to be #3, which is, as Jay Rosen said, the most revolutionary.
It’d be a difficult thing for reporters to latch onto, given the embarrassment they’d likely feel at their deficiencies being so naked before the public. But we would find out so much more information than we do now–I can just imagine the deluge of phone calls, emails and blog posts after a story is published, all people saying, “I know where to find that out!”
Dan–Great list. I chuckled at your objection to anniversary stories. In 35 years as an editor, I failed miserably at eliminating anniversary pieces. They are like cockroaches and will live far longer than we will. Incidentally, your idea to teach media literacy to the community is not as difficult as it might sound; many schools, including ours, have plans for such courses. Jerry Ceppos, Dean, Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno
Jerry, software robots can write these anniversary stories, so they’ll definitely live longer than we do. Maybe even longer than cockroaches…
Good list, Dan. I’d love to see the “Things We Don’t Know Box” used as an “Advance This Story” invitation. Different only in that instead of simply listing what remains unknown you’d zero in on dimensions of the story most in need of gap-filling by people somebody or other has characterized so well as the group formerly known as the audience.
I took a stab at conceptualizing this kind of “Next Step Journalism” — via acts of journalism committed by people of various backgrounds — on the death of Neda story: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=131&aid=165662. I bet there would have been even more interesting and useful next steps taken had news organizations invited them along the way.
#1A: Even lazier more worthless are the inevitable stories done on the first Sunday after some tragedy where a camera crew & reporter are sent out to a church to get the shots of people crying who most of the time weren’t eve personally affected by it!
Every TV station & network does them.
If in #7, you had asked to replace every instance of the word “investor” with “speculator” except when making an initial infusion of capital to a company, you’d have been on more solid ground, at least according to my personal prejudice. But . . .
We know you think file-sharing is okay, even though it’s not. But “piracy,” as the OED shows, has been the term of art for “infringement of rights conferred by patent or copyright” since 1797. It’s doublespeak for you to declare otherwise. And “guest,” says OED, has been used for paying customers since, uh, at least 1390 (might be 1290–ink on my Compact print edition is fuzzy there).
Agreed on anniversary journalism. But it might have more bite from somebody who had not participated in a 35th Anniversary of the Internet symposium and one for the 30th Anniversary of the Center for Rural Studies. Not to mention being quoted in an article on the tenth anniversary of blogs and writing a column hailing the first anniversary of . . . Skype: “The more important milestone, on Sunday, was the one-year anniversary of the Windows software, the first time Skype had been available to the public. And what a year it’s been, noted Niklas Zennstrom . . .” etc.
Dunno which is worse, the gushing from your Mainstream Media days or the poor etymological research from today.
X, I don’t have any problem with holding anniversary celebrations and other events. I was discussing this in the context of journalism and the lazy use of these dates to generate semi-evergreen stories. As to my having done some of of this journalism myself, mea culpa…
Peer-to-peer technology has valuable and entirely non-infringing uses. My point, which seems to have eluded you, was that posting a song on the net, which can be an act of infringement if someone downloads it, is not in any kind of league with the violent acts of actual pirates. And I don’t care how long the word “guest” has been used in this context; it’s still a contradiction in terms that’s easy to avoid.
So, you’re replacing one set of dogma with your own in terms of the “guest” and “piracy” items? Why is it fine for you to mess with or ignore the meanings of items but not for others?
Funny thing is I agree with everything you say except when you get into this, which is just as bad as the “enhanced interrogation techniques” stuff.
Here’s what you initially wrote: “Piracy does not describe what people do when they post digital music on file-sharing networks.”
Now you weasel it down to: “Peer-to-peer technology has valuable and entirely non-infringing uses. My point, which seems to have eluded you, was that posting a song on the net, which can be an act of infringement if someone downloads it, is not in any kind of league with the violent acts of actual pirates.”
Excuse me: Nobody was talking about those non-infringing uses. Posting a song on a public “sharing” network is purely for the purpose of infringing. And nobody was talking about “violent acts.” The term “piracy” for such nefarious deeds–infringin’ on what ain’t your’n–has been in use for more than 300 years. It’s called “figurative speech,” and your prissiness won’t make it go away. Hey, your convicted Swedish buddies made it an excuse for a party. Aaaaaarh, matey!
As for “guest,” 600 or 700 years of common usage makes you flat out wrong. It’s like saying you’re not a whore if you don’t get paid for it, which OED shows has not been the case for about 800 years.
Give me a break. Equating copyright infringement with actual piracy is beyond absurd.
Granting the common usage, I’ll stick with the first definition in any dictionary, which includes the basic notion that a guest isn’t paying for the privilege.
By the way, how about using your actual name, and not giving a bogus email address (which doesn’t get shown publicly but is an indicator to me of who’s being honest here and who isn’t)? Why are you not willing to stand behind your words in any way?
“Equating copyright infringement with actual piracy is beyond absurd.”
Some words can have more than one meaning with different levels of “oompf” so to speak. Equating my penis with a farm animal is just as absurd but the English language allows it. Saying something is flammable and inflammable, when normally “in” indicates “not” is also true. Piracy refers to two different acts with different levels of seriousness… it’s just the way the English language works.
Why do you assume that those who wish to be anonymous are dishonest? Is this an easy way to ignore the points for you?
Many dictionaries list definitions in earliest-citation order, so your “first definition” rule is frankly ridiculous. Language doesn’t work that way. (It’s not the only ridiculous thing you’ve said in this post by a long shot, but if you’re going to make an appeal to authority, you had best learn how to read same.
great list here. Still #7 made we wince. I’d never accept a journalist altering direct quotes (whatever the idea behind it would be), that’s censorship and a no-go for me.
Your discussion with X is stressing my point: usage of language is not binary (that’s right and this is wrong) and I don’t want journalists to control it. I would alter #7 somehow…
GuramC, a journalist can’t censor. That can only be done by government. And I’m not suggesting altering quotes. I’m suggesting not using the direct quote in those circumstances, but rather accurately paraphrasing what the person said.
Very good points here, Dan… As the editor of a small-circulation business-oriented mag, I would subscribe to them (de-PR-ing language, for instance…. I have long had it up to my nib with some CEO calling a problem a challenge…). Of course, we still do everything on paper, so the interactive stuff is not as relevant. Though I have had long discussions with the publisher about this, but to no avail.
About the anniversaries…. come on! We need some sort of filling. And besides, as a freelancer, it is one of the ways for me to open the door a little. This year, I queried 54 news organizations and newspapers with an exclusive interview with a top European politician: I got 1 answer. Had an interview with Hans Blix later: 37 queries, 0 answer. I have since queried stories about 120 times (I have been in the biz for about 25 years): 0 answers. (I am not talking about negatives, I am talking about unanswered mails).
So I would add point 12: hire someone to really sort out queries from freelancers, who are often much more knowledgeable about what’s going on locally, and use and cultivate them a little, not as sources of cheap labor, but rather as eyes and ears abroad. Americans news readers might have a different understanding of international politics if they would be properly informed about what really goes on in the world. Even the NYT is asleep on the job.
I followed this link from my friend’s facebook post. I am not familiar with your work but this was great! Kudos!
In a way, I think “anniversary” coverage would be best used for the smaller stories–the ones that hit the front page briefly and then disappeared despite being an on-going issue.
There’s been plenty of coverage and analyzing the economic fallout, so we don’t really need the anniversary of Lehman Bros. collapse as an excuse to pile on more coverage.
It’d be more interesting to take a look at, say, some at-the-time controversial Supreme Court decision 12 months later and see what the ramifications have been, if any.
I agree with just about every item on your list. So are you ready to walk the walk, or is this just talk?
Yes, that is exactly how a news organization should be run. At the very least it’s a lot better way to run a news organization than the way most are being run right now. But doing all of the stuff you say it a lot of work. A LOT of work.
You’re going to need a lot of people to devote a lot of time to get it done. Even if you do it on a non-profit basis, you’re going to need a lot of money to get enough time out of enough people with the talent and skills to make it happen. Unless some wealthy investors decide to run your organization as a charity, I don’t think you’ve got a revenue stream big enough.
The only long-run practical model for news that I can imagine right now is a distributed one. There can’t be a news organization. Even a good organization is too big and clumsy. It has to be distributed. Lots of small incredibly focused news-gatherers filtered through better and better aggregators and searches.
Scott, my guess is that a lot of this could be done without much expense (though several of the items would take real development that would be useful in lots of other places). I totally agree that the long-range model is distributed, but it’s going to be complicated getting there, for sure.
Very nice list, I think if we could just get more mainstream media outlets to adopt this kind of approach we’d be living in a lot better informed world… *sigh*… a man can dream…
Kind of cool. I would add one more thing, probabilities. Having a report on violent crimes is part of giving out news, but also giving out the chances (say the year before’s crime rate per 1,000 or per 10,000) would give a better perspective on how likely that is going to happen. There is something about a shooting death when the chance is 2 in 10,000 verses 238 in 10,000.
D, you are soooo right about that. Reporting about risks is a constant problem — we inflate the smaller risks and minimize the larger ones by what we cover (and don’t cover).
It’s not just inflating and minimizing risks, but reporting statistics in different ways, because of an agenda on the part of the organization passing on statistics:
If the fictional American Hairpiece Association reports that 7 of 10 wearers of hairpieces have better sex lives (sounds wonderful! Where do I get one?), do you report that without putting it in the context of 1 of 5,000 people wear a hairpiece which means 7 out of 50,000 people have better sex lives (hmm, not so important now?) ?
@Scott Rubin: I don’t see how these changes would require so much work and investment. Any newspaper I know of already has a website, blogs and an electronic archive. I think by far the biggest obstacle is getting over the exclusionary mindset. Dan’s points about transparency and public inclusion can’t be overstated.
Besides that, a family friend gave his local newspaper some all-telling feedback about why he canceled his subscription: it’s no longer thick enough to line his dogs’ cages. :D
Agree with every item but the piracy one. It’s the accepted term by everyone from PirateBay to the RIAA. What term would replace it?
Digital Theft? – Theft is the illegal removal of property. Copying is not theft.
Illegal Copying? – I like this: clear and unambiguous.
Actually I would think that the best way to call it is the actual crime that is committed – Copyright Infringement in most cases.
Of course, it doesn’t sounds as good as ‘pirating’
From what I see, here in the UK, “Piracy” is a little less prominent in the context of illicit copying. It’s not going to disappear, but it wasn’t obviously used in the anti-copying video I had to sit through when I put a current DVD in my player.
They would have stolen some of my time with all the warnings and the trailers, if I hadn’t gone off to make coffee.
For the most part, great list with some really great ideas.
Didnt see many comments on #7 though. It seems that rather than de-spinning the language used, you are just re-spinning it with a liberal bias. To be a credible news source you need to keep it neutral.
Jonathan, I don’t consider it a liberal bias to use language that reflects reality. I’m just saying how I’d handle the words, and I’d have an explanation on the organization’s website explaining why we used the terminology we do (adding this now in the piece).
In every instance that was listed the suggested alternitive was accurate while the currently used language is inherently misleading. A Death Tax is phrasing intentionally designed to invoke an emotional response and is absolutely misleading – the government does not have a tax for a person dying. What they tax is income, in the form of inheritence, hence inheritence tax being accurate.
Yes, it targets mostly conservative phrasings, but truthfully that is because the right is FAR better than the left at creating marketable, if misleeding, phrases. If the left was capable of effective double speak I am sure there would be plenty of attacks against it up there as well, but Nancy Pelosi is not clever enough to come up with something as good as Death Tax.
This seems like a heads-we-win, tails-you-lose argument to me. If not using right-wing spin terminology is “re-spinning it with a liberal bias,” what terminology *do* you consider to be neutral? Could you provide some counter-examples of how you would word the issues Dan presents in #7?
Points 6, 7, and 8 would be enough to get me subscribe, site unseen. And as a subscriber to The Economist, I’m one of those people already willing to pay well for quality news converage.
You should call it “Fix News”..
..an answer to Rupert Murdoch’s organization which seems to have an odd interpretation of “Fair & Balanced”.
I really like #5.
Sounds excellent, I’m on board. Truthiness requires a lot of research and in today’s insane news cycle, you might be perpetually scooped and miss your core audience, and spend more time on #6.
I eschew manager-speak and all that fancy talk as a rule as well. I could be your film critic. I am NOT a movie reviewer, because they itemize plot points.
I agree with most of this, except number 9. We’re a niche news organization and have been charging for content, including archived content, for 11 years. We feel that content should be paid for we feel our stance is vindicated as journalismonline.com is signing up members at a steady clip.
From your keyboard to the publishers monitor.
Another good thing to include would be for science reporting: “correlation is not causation”.
While most anniversaries are meaningless, as you note, others are not. The one-year anniversary of the global credit crash seems newsworthy to me for at least three reasons: the magnitude of the event, the ongoing revelations—some of them produced by journalists—of how events unfolded and the roles played by persons still in positions of power, and the now quickening pace of regulatory and legislative activity and litigation. Your other nine proclamations are all very worthy and urgent, but I am not sure they would resolve the problem you assert at the beginning of the post: Your judgment that journalists have failed to cover the financial crisis adequately. None points to the need for the kind of aggressive and knowledgeable coverage of complex matters that can be provided by full-time professional journalists. Greater conversation and audience participation, for example, are not guaranteed to produce enlightenment when the crowd, intoxicated with speculation, is racing towards a cliff. Greater transparency, the use of hyperlinks and your other recommendations for improved journalistic expression certainly can make an important difference. But, to ensure better coverage of our dismal times, this is number one on my wish list: We need more original in-depth reporting, the kind of reporting that is the essential starting point for enterprise and explanatory journalism, the kind of reporting that has the power to expose and inform.
Items 6 and 7 seem to me blanket excuses for whatever sort of bias the journalist wants to introduce. I’d much rather hear both (or all) sides of any controversial issue, even if my mind’s made up, than have to hear repeated statements that only a very biased person could believe, such as Krugman’s assertion that global-warming skepticism is “treason” or that DNC staffer’s statement that the Tea Parties are “astroturf”, the participants anger is faked, and supporting them is racism.
On the other hand, I’ve got a few nominations for Newspeak words that should be eliminated, and their replacements:
* Terrorists and other criminals do not “execute” anyone, they murder them. They do not take “credit” for criminal actions, they admit blame.
(And in most cases, terrorists’ aim is publicity for their cause/demands, so journalists should refuse to show or mention either. Ever. Just call them criminals and make fun of them. Hat tip: “Soft Targets” by Dean Ing, which predicted the problem in 1970!)
* “Suspect” means a person who is suspected of a crime. It is not a synonym for criminal. (This one shows up in a variety of ways, usually in press releases of police departments. For instance, “the police don’t yet know who the suspect is” cannot possibly be true; if they haven’t identified anyone they think is the criminal, then there is no suspect.)
* Government does not pay for anything; taxpayers do. Enterprises of any kind are not “private” or “public”: they are tax-funded or voluntarily funded.
* As you said, “piracy” is the armed takeover of a ship or aircraft. The illegal copying or transfer of intellectual property is “infringement”.
* Folks on President Obama’s side of things are not “liberal” or even “centrist”, they’re “leftist” (if we’re being nice to them). “Liberal” needs to be restored to its original meaning, the adjective of liberty. It might help if we bring the antonym, “illiberal”, back into wide use.
I would also add:
12. Use correct grammar, including complete sentences. “The Senate announcing today that …” is not only wrong, but stupid, and anyone in the business of informing the public should be a role model. Similarly, shun the use of “ebonics”, and of non-words such as “orientate” and “competency”.
“John David Galt” — your note on “suspect” reminds us all that media tend to assume guilt. When the police frog-walk someone handcuffed into the station, and call the TV stations to capture the event, they do more to influence jury pools than anything a defense lawyer could ever do. Even though most people who are charged are guilty in the end, we’ve seen enough cases of wrongly accused and convicted people that we should want to be more fair than we are.
When you talk about public and private enterprises, we need to keep in mind the confusing-to-many complication of publicly held versus government-run, among other things.
I would also pay to subscribe, which means a lot as i “post digital music on file-sharing networks”.
It’d suggest you throw in “practice good journalism”. It would be nice if there was more than a token amount of that in the mainstream media.
To add to 12. above – don’t just run the article through a spell-checker, check it for sense too. “Families meat with Senator” is spelled correctly but makes no sense.
My other suggestions:
A. could we possibly find a way to do reporting without ‘unnamed sources’? If the source won’t admit to their statement, it shouldn’t be considered a fact, it should be reported in a section called “allegations from sources to cowardly to be named”
B. Similarly, don’t report as “fact” things only supplied by one source. I would rather have facts I can trust, than fast news.
And, of course I have a typo in section where I mention spell-checking! Duh. It should be “sources TOO cowardly to be named”.
I like reporting if someone is lying but here is the problem. Take for instance the claim that public health care under Obama would not go to illegal immigrants. The GOP says he is lying. Who is right? Yes the bill does bar illegal immigrants from getting health benefits but the Democrats have stopped any attempt at making it a law that someone’s citizenship is checked before receiving health benefits. Thus, someone who is not a citizen could in fact get benefits despite what the law says. So a good journalist would point both these things out.
How is it that “journalists failed to do their jobs” before the crisis, Dan?
Do you mean journalists failed to write stories that warned of the dangers inherent in the ultra-low interest rates being offered to U.S. consumers, failed to point out that the global imbalances (low U.S. savings rates, high Asian trade surpluses) were unsustainable, failed to notice that the mortgage securitization business was getting out of hand?
I’m a financial journalist (formerly with The Wall Street Journal) and I remember reading and writing stories on all those topics in the years prior to Lehman’s failure. I’m sure you have Lexus-Nexis or Factiva, do a search and see for yourself.
In fact, there were few people paying attention who didn’t realize long before Lehmans fell that a crunch was coming.
Unfortunately, people didn’t seem all that interested in hearing that their 0%-interest car loans, ultra-easy mortgages terms and cheap Chinese products were reliant on a system that would not last forever.
You are a journalist with access to the masses; how often were these your subjects prior to the failure of Lehmans?
Sorry to sound so defensive but those of us who did write about these subjects not only were ignored for the most part before the crisis, now we are blamed for not raising the alarm bells before it happened. We rang the bells, you guys weren’t listening.
Phil, there was occasional journalism on the topic, but not the relentless coverage it absolutely demanded. Here’s a piece I wrote for Talking Points Memo, explaining more about what I mean when I say that. Dean Starkman also makes a persuasive case in CJR that the media were not on the case in the ways that counted.
By the way, I was a broken record on the housing bubble starting early in the decade, so I’m going to claim a personal exemption in this case.
Fair enough. The TPC piece makes the point well. I still blame the audience at least partially on this, especially the non-financial audience. People don’t want to listen to anything that smacks of complication. Even now, how many think the story is that greedy bankers basically siphoned off money and that’s what led to the crisis? “Relentless” coverage is difficult when few are willing to listen and bad news that hits people personally is always the hardest to sell. Nobody wants to hear there is no such thing as a free lunch when their mouth is full.
Uh, TPM, I mean.
7. Will not work. Questions can be asked, things can be explained later on. But what the heck is paraphrasing the spoken word anything else than pretty bad journalism?
Journalists paraphrase all the time, often in service of better journalism (when the paraphrase is clearer than the quote).
So who’s going to help make it happen?
A great list from the journalist’s perspective… but how would you make money?
This same model, if adopted by one of the most stupidly run organizations on earth, General Motors, would put them into a profit situation in about 2 years. There are people in the organization who know hot to fix “the problem.” No one ever asked them.
This methodology should not just be restricted to news. Actually I don’t think there is anything that could be called “news.” All of the major MSMs are owned and totally controlled by the 1 per cent of all people who are “rich.” “News” is just propaganda. I quit reading “news”papers and magazines about thirty years ago. When I was in college the first time in the 1960s, I took Russian language classes. I had to read the two biggest Soviet Union papers – Pravda and Izvestia. I, always, knew there was something that was not being told in those papers. They shrieked Propaganda. Now all “news” organizations are all propaganda every day.
Be interesting to tap into some of the major blogs and ask them to try the format for three days to a week. Spread word over the blogosphere (I believe Skippy the Bush Kangaroo coined that name) and this will drive people to that site. It would be very very interesting to lurk around if someone cared to experiment with this model.
Williams, I agree about the Economist, it is the one of its kind that I read for the honesty.
Replacing healthcare paid for by insurance policy holders with healthcare paid for by taxes raised progressively according to income might as well be free to 98% of the people (it’s a cost to the richest 2%, which is why they hate it). Here in the socialist countries, we call it “free at the point of delivery” to get across the idea that there’s no bill, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.
I’ve got an appointment at the hospital this afternoon, and as usual there’ll be no forms and no bill. Go, communism!
I’d like to second the point about probabilities. Very few people understand statistics, so journalists just blurt out arithmetic means, as though they meant anything. They don’t. Any statistical information ought to be complete, AND come with a quick way of thinking about the number that makes sense. Humans are very, very bad at working with abstract quantities. The challenge is to get them understanding the abstract quantities, not just giving them a number out of a hundred that makes them comfortable.
One thing you miss and I’m only saying because I used to run a news organization and am now getting “the missing skillset”, is how this will all be paid for. I have worked in non-profit media for a while and I know there is a market for high quality journalism but I think a lot of media reformers tend to push away the problem of financial performance in the name of access and this is fundamentally the wrong approach. What it ends up creating in my own experience is small silos of high performing media that is generally closed off to those who lack the ideological wherewithal to deal with this community. That in turn creates a lack of civility and destroys meaningful structures that could develop with better oversight.
John, as noted above, I believe a lot of this could be done with little or no additional investment. Yes, orgs would have to move some people around and maybe stop doing some things they’re doing now. But what they’re doing now is failing, rapidly.
Thanks for this — quite a good read.
You are too late on “piracy.” In the early ’80s, when I was in middle school and high school, the word was already being used to describe unauthorized duplication of computer software. I don’t know who coined it — it might well have been the pirates, who avidly used the term to refer to themselves — but it has been a widely-understood synonym for copyright infringement for nearly thirty years. You might as well decree that a mouse is a rodent that makes squeaking noises and the thing on your desk next to your keyboard should, for accuracy, be referred to in newspapers as the pointer-moving device. It will just make you look dumb and out-of-touch.
please consider this. You are not watching NEWS, you are watching “Infotainment”. News, as desired and described in this blog would be boring or worst yet, a compilation of consumer complaints. Inherently, it is my observation (from inside the business) that people say one thing about their expectation of news and behave completely different.
Example: The average car chase or police standoff, you may hate it on your television, but you certainly are hard pressed to change the channel or turn off your TV.
To fix news is quite simple….if it airs something you hate, stop watching. In the age of “meters”, your viewing habits are recorded every 15 mins and then reported back for the Neilson crowd every morning. The lower the number, the less money they can charge for their airtime for commercials. Simple..right!
In short, viewers are 50% of the problem, but have 100% of the power to force change. A news organization with half a brain will follow the ratings and pay very little attention to suggestion…it’s a numbers game to them.
For the record, I agree with 90% of this blog post, the problem is that it would cause business failure for this particular business…and this is a business, with shareholders, etc, etc. So their would be NO news organization to run once these policies were enacted.
“Bad news is easy, it writes itself. Viewers are compelled to watch the destruction of others to validate their own situation. Good news however, leaves us fulfilled…it is also quite boring”
Dan, when do you plan to start applying for publisher jobs?
Viewers have 100% of the power to change things, sure. And probably 90% of them think that Brawndo has what plants need.
Give it up and start going around strapped, bubba.
Great stuff! Music to my ears this :-)
I really agree with yor points! Your posts have to be read by the editors… or I have to become one! hehe…
Best from Chile!
Now I’m a editor! And the points will be my guide!
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