What Does A ‘Crazier’ Fox News Even Mean?

This news, or news or rumors, immediately made me think of Big Red Son*, a non-fiction David Foster Wallace piece about the Adult Video News Awards, which are like the Oscars for porn. Stay with me.

Wallace’s style is heavy with footnotes. (Someone once admitted to me she DIDN’T READ THE FOOTNOTES, which I found shocking because well, they are the best.) Despite reading this essay collection nine years, four cats and three children ago, one of the footnotes in Big Red Son never left me. It was about how porn defined itself by being subversive, and the more acceptable it became, the more depraved it would have to get in order to keep its status.

When I saw the headlines about a possibly “crazier” version of Fox News, my mind jumped right to that old footnote:

“Respectability creates a paradox. The more acceptable in modern culture it becomes, the farther porn will have to go in order to preserve the sense of unacceptability that’s so essential to its appeal. As should be evidence, the industry’s already gone pretty far … it’s not hard to see where porn is eventually going to have to go in order to retain its edge of disrepute.”

I’m pretty worried that since we’re in an age when Nazis are up for debate, where would a “crazier” Fox News even go with its discourse? You know what, don’t answer that question.

*The piece is found in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, a collection I recommend wholeheartedly.

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On The State Of The News Media, And The Reporter Who Quit

This week, the fine folks at Pew released their annual State of the News Media report and the findings were grim (again) for those of us who still want to make a living doing journalism. One third of Americans surveyed said they abandoned a news outlet because it failed to provide “information they had grown accustomed to,” a majority of those people aren’t aware of the business-side meltdown of the news industry, and meltdown is not an exaggeration — budget cuts and layoffs “put the industry down 30 percent since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978,” Pew reports. Local TV news is being kept alive by traffic and weather, but that’s not expected to last long. A full 85 percent of MSNBC programming is talk — commentary rather than produced pieces of reporting and interviewing.

In response, Slate’s Matt Yglesias made a compelling argument that while the producer-side/revenue problem still exists, the abundance of choices for news and information outside of the realm of “traditional media” makes this a better time than ever for consumers.

“Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago? The answer is, clearly, more…

The recent improvements in news distribution are astonishing. You don’t need to go to a specialty shop to find out-of-town newspapers or foreign magazines. Just open a browser. You can check on Israeli news sites when a new government is formed or during an American presidential visit and ignore them the rest of the year. The Internet also brings the enormous back catalog of journalism to life.”

Yes, Yglesias ignores the effects of a vastly downsized professional journalism workforce on state and local communities, where the disappearance of watchdog reporters is likely felt the most directly. That is the conceit on which we started NPR’s StateImpact network in 2011 and The Texas Tribune in 2009. (Good god, has it been THREE years!?) The local news problem continues to vex us and is worth its own post (or book), so I’m tabling that.

A few days after the report was released, the Twitterverse led me to the personal post of Allyson Bird, a former newspaper reporter, about why she left the news business on her own volition. She writes that the response was huge — 165,000 pageviews in the first day after posting — and sparked a raw conversation among other journalists, both still in the biz and out. As my friend Joey says, “No journalism gets more read and talked about by journalists than stories about journalists.” We are egotistical maniacs.

“I finally came to accept that the vanity of a byline was keeping me in a job that left me physically and emotionally exhausted, yet supremely unsatisfied,” Bird writes. Later, she hits on the notion many of us working journalists know well — that your good work is only rewarded by more work: “Everyone works so hard for so long and for such little compensation. The results are dangerous.”

Bird’s been lauded and lashed by fellow journalists, all who seem to have strong opinions about her piece. I have just a few thoughts to throw out in response, mainly cause I like that we’re having this collective conversation and hey, Friend Matt created WordPress so we could all be publishers, so, why not.

As a journalist who did sign up for that $16,500 salary out of school to work nights and weekends and face constant condescension from a misogynist GM in Waco, Texas, I and many others like her empathize with the part about dissatisfaction. For me it was temporary, but what constitutes satisfaction differs from person to person. Being able to feed and house yourself comes before bylines, and in conversations about declining diversity numbers in newsrooms, one reason that comes up is salaries so low that entry level folks would need wealthy families or second jobs to support.

Bird partially blames the 24 hour news cycle for overworking reporters, but we’re beyond a survival of the fittest phase in the news biz — it’s mutation of the species. There’s no point in lamenting the multitasking required of reporters today, because most have proven they’ve mutated as necessary to keep up.

The wide readership of and thoughtful social response to Bird’s piece, one she published without the distribution platform of a mainstream news brand, is “Exhibit A” in favor of the digital revolution that is blamed for killing mainstream news. That Bird wrote a single post, published it herself, and it led to a national conversation is Yglesias’ point:

“A traditional newspaper used to compete with a single cross-town rival. Time would compete with NewsweekTime doesn’t compete with Newsweek anymore: Instead it competes with every single English-language website on the planet. It’s tough, but it merely underscores the extent of the enormous advances in productivity that are transforming the industry.”

Incidentally, for the writer herself, this kind of exposure could lead her right back into paid journalism. Already she’s booked on WYNC’s The Takeaway, which will only lead to more exposure.

I want to think journalism is a meritocracy and that I work not-demanding hours a fantastic national news organization because of my skills and hard work, but just as it is in life, who makes it and who doesn’t can be quite capricious. Those of us who have jobs we love and get paid for it should be grateful, strive to keep growing and pay it forward, as our predecessors did.

The exciting thing about journalism today is it calls for a kind of entrepreneurial spirit and creative thinking that it didn’t back when finances were more stable. But it is an entrepreneurial spirit that led to amazing startup news organizations like the one I’m proud to have helped launch, creation of new storytelling methods or projects that streamline data journalism  and the invention and funding of simple tools to provide greater context, like DocumentCloud. 

Newsrooms will keep contracting. But the wheels of invention and progress keep moving forward. For their sake and ours, I hope the creators and problem solvers out there will still want to create and solve problems even if the prospect of profit remains unseen. Allyson did, and it’s proven anything but unsatisfying.

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Stuff I Love: Creative News Interactives

On Saturday after I spoke on a panel called “News as Infotainment,” two lovely ladies from Frontline (FRONTLINE!) came up and asked me for examples of interactive and “infotainmenty” news presentations I really loved. I didn’t have time to go over them in person, so here you go, ladies:

New York Magazine: It’s Time to Play ‘Sheen, Beck, or Qaddafi?’


The ramblings and rantings of the actor, the pundit and the dictator have collectively compelled us as a nation, and while the three men are from vastly different backgrounds, the words that come out of their mouths are strangely similar. As the magazine wrote, “To demonstrate just what a struggle it is to distinguish between the mad ramblings of an entertainer, a despot, and a newsman another entertainer, we’ve put together this quiz. If you get them all right, you are some kind of savant.”

 

Vanity Fair: Qad Libs

Qaddafi is leading to all sorts of creative inspiration. Vanity Fair’s “Qad Libs,” based on the childhood word game “Mad Libs”, allowed readers to “create a realistic hard-line speech by inserting your own bizarre words into the colonel’s actual defiant address.” The magazine allowed readers to fill in a string of nouns, adverbs and adjectives in their interactive form to create their own Qaddafi rants. Amazingly, every customizable rant seemed right on.

 

Budget Puzzles, by The New York Times, Sacramento Bee, American Public Media, and more


In response to the nations gazillion trillion dollar deficit, and the frightening shortfalls of state governments around the country, media companies have followed in The Times’ footsteps with interactive budget puzzles that allow the user to find ways to balance the budget. Poynter’s recent piece discusses the limitations of these puzzles (the game writers get to set the parameters of what to cut or revenue to increase) but this is a great way to make real the budget troubles of governments, teach readers about the decisions that have to be made and allow for audiences to prioritize what they think is important.

 

The Chillout Song, by Ze Frank (my hero)

Frank’s project teaches us a beautiful lesson about how technology and social sharing can enable human connection. As you’ll read in the story he lays out, he received an email from a girl named Laura who was stressed out and felt hopeless; she asked for a song to help calm her nerves. Frank asked her to describe her feelings, which then led to a sketch of a song that he then asked his audience to record themselves singing. It led to a gorgeous result, no pitch correction required, that you can now purchase online.

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AAJA 2010: Present/Future of Online News

“This is the most exciting time ever, to be in journalism. More people are consuming more content in more ways than ever.” -Mike Allen

This morning’s conversation featured Manav Tanneeru, wearer of many hats at CNN.com, Dave Morgan, Executive Editor of Yahoo! North America, Mike Allen of Politico and John Bracken, Director of New Media at Knight Foundation (Knight is one of Tribune’s generous benefactors, and we love Knight. Shoutout.)

Create Content with Value, Cause It’s Competitive Out There

The success of Politico (which started with 30 employees and is now nearing 200), is based on the premise, “What if we did a paper with only interesting stories?” The changing habits of consuming news (less loyalty to the major papers, brands) has been a benefit.

“Traffic is one of the attributes we consider, we don’t even tell our reporters our traffic because we dont want them to value that above our audience. We’re not there to serve a mass audience,” said Allen. “Think about ‘if i didnt write this story, or made this video, would I read it?” It’s amazing how many things in our news orgs dont meet that test. Before you invest time producing something, would someone email this, blog about it, would i book segment based on this? If you’re hitting a couple of those, you’re breaking through and creating value for your audience.”

Yahoo’s thinking about original content as well.  It’s aiming to change the content they provide. “Yahoo is traditionally a good aggregator, but if all we’re doing is distributing great partner content, then we’ll be replaced,” said Morgan. The company’s web strategy is moving more toward reporting for the audience and not just hosting the audience. A lot of people can do commodity information – score of the game, who won the election – what do you add to that? What is the unique content you provide.

“Everyone can do their job on a laptop, which means anyone else can too. If we can’t do it shorter and sooner, someone else will and should. That’s the great part about the way people consume news now, it’s almost completely a meritocracy. it used to be if you were the Miami Herald, LA Times, you had a guaranteed audience. We don’t have guaranteed time with the audience anymore,” said Allen.

It’s Not All About the Pageviews
Remarkable ideas are remarked on, remarkable content moves up. It’s wrong for traditional companies to think, how can I move up in search rankings instead of, what can i do to make irresistible content?

When we get too obsessed with what people want to know, are we shortchanging them on what they NEED to know? There’s little interest in non-US news in the US, but the world’s more connected than ever. Will there still be outlets to provide the important stuff that the audience isn’t naturally hungry for?

SEO Today

“In the foundation world, we get grant applications that say, our web traffic is this, this number of Twitter followers, etc… What are web metrics that matter? What does that really mean?”

If you’re a reporter you should not be thinking about SEO first, but still, everyone in the newsroom should have general understanding of core principles that allow something to be elevated. CNN chooses slugs very carefully, Daily beast used tags in URLs, etc.

Future Considerations

If you’re starting something, you’re a lot better off to start in niche because you have a more obvious revenue stream. You have a specific audience to target, i.e. Politico’s focus is on serving Washington insiders.

The two major considerations of Politico as they head into the future:

1.) Sideways traffic, and how to maximize it. (Audiences don’t go to homepages as much as specific story pages, much of the readership consumes content without typing in politico.com)

2.) Fewer people with desktops/laptops – how to move to mobile.

Generally, part of our task is to think about the holes being created at the same time all this exciting change is happening. “When there’s a news gap, it’s very significant. The newspaper has been the closest thing we have had to a community forum, and when that goes away, what replaces it?
Is the frame we have for local news still appropriate for the digital age? How do we carry it over to the web, when people are going to their own places for news?” said Bracken.

Local news is an area most ripe for innovation.. using tools already available is empowering. But news experiments won’t fill all holes. If Brooklyn was reported with just blogs and Twitter, there would be huge gaps in its portrayal. How do we dig deeper?

“If youve arrived at a winning model, enjoy it because it’s already changed.” -Yahoo!’s Dave Morgan

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#newsfuture

Stiles, Reeve and I went with boss Evan to Texas Tech University in flat, windy Lubbock this week for the first stop in the Texas Tribune College Tour. The day included a civic engagement fair, a debate between two statewide candidates (who traveled to Lubbock together, actually), and an afternoon session on the future of journalism featuring us reporters. It reminded me that I forgot to post my notes from a much meatier future of journalism panel, the one at SXSW in Austin last month. So, to recap:

THE PANEL:

Andrew Huff, editor of Gapers Block, a digglike, crowd-sourced zine in Chicago

Jeff Jarvis, media futurist, professor, blogger at BuzzMachine.com and author, “What Would Google Do?”

Brad Flora, WindyCitizen.com

Jeremy Zilar, blog specialist at the NYTimes

Adrian Holovaty, web developer, WashingtonPost.com, co-developer of web programming language Django (which we use for the TT) and creator of EveryBlock.com.

BIGGEST CHALLENGES AHEAD

Jarvis: Biggest challenge is getting ourselves out of old models – the page based, product based world. Because we’re now in a screen based, process based world. Content curation is as important as content creation.

Engagement is a challenge (the belief that if news is that important, it will find me), efficiency is a challenge (we’re still way over bloated).

In an ecosystem of overabundant creation you need more help finding stuff. Everything should get turned on its head. Don’t operate under “old industrial age assumptions”. Turn those upside down to rethink what we do, how we do, how we communicate and collaborate.

Flora: Staying above, rising above the noise floor has value for future. We aren’t there yet in the physics of how the internet works right now such that the re-writer (content farms) get much more SEO than a curator who provides links. Challenge for news organizations is to keep staying ahead of content farms “stealing” search results while still providing original information is tricky. Newspapers will likely fall back on personalities – people who are able to bring a cult of personality to work are getting more attention, visibility.

Holovaty: Biggest challenge is the business model. But another issue is our current/traditional reporting process. Journalists gather all kinds of information that they just “throw away.” All the data, all the input collected during the reporting of an issue is typically just compressed into one big blob of text, when we simply write a story about it. It’s rarely “how can I take this data and do cool things with it”?

“I’m really interested in journalists who are actually taking all this data we mine and treating it with respect,” Holovaty said. He wants to see more publicly accessible databases. and more people taking the data, and then doing a story based on the data.

“We struggle with how to teach data as news. Should journalists learn computer programming? Not necessarily. But journalists should know how to communicate with developers just as they know how to communicate with photographers. There’s a wealth of stuff there, we’ve got to get at it, plumb it better, help audience get at it,” said Holovaty.

HOW TO RISE ABOVE WHEN AUDIENCES ARE DROWNING IN NEWS?

Pull it together, piece it together in an interesting way that can convey information to citizens. Windy Citizen is essentially just a front page for Chicago that can point people to the good stuff. Crowd power is used to recommend good bits of information to others. Readers/consumers are smart. Give people a way to leverage that knowledge and contribute back, weigh in on things. How can we encourage the community to better create, and get them to curate… Top stories and who’s linking to them, such that evetything’s really related.

Other suggestions: Crowdsourced wikis, wiki-based reporting structure, rethinking how we use data to create millions of watchdogs.

“We aren’t storytellers anymore,” said Jarvis. “That’s a one-way perspective to look at things. It’s not my story to tell you… we are story enablers.”

The panel argued collaborative forms are better. While many of us can be gatherers of information, editors, and marketers/distributors, the place journalists add value where distribution’s going on already is by adding deeper reporting, context and vetting.

BUSINESS MODEL FUTURE

JARVIS: The NY Times won’t die, but Boston Globe might. Newspapers should just move into the future. Newspapers are being replaced by an ecosystem, not a single company. News will become the providence of many different players who are supported by many different business models. “One becomes many,” Jarvis said. Bloggers can and have been making revenue. Optimize that by saving money, improve what you’re selling to advertisers and creating networks. Hyper local advertising is a building block. Jarvis envisions some measure of publicly-supported journalism that the market won’t meet, “the broccoli journalism”. He projects that a hypothetical market for journalism in the future, which will be a mix of publicly-supported, commercial and individual models, is an ecosystem worth about $45 million annually. “We will have an equivalent number of journalists, who are more answerable to the community, closer to community,” Jarvis said.  ” The amount of waste in the current structure still gargantuan.”

Build networks. The marginal cost of news online is zero. Journalists should add unique value. We need to ask ourselves –  how do you combine people who create good content/stories with people who can sell?

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