The news industry and its problems

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An overview of the news industry's challenges, in a tightly condensed linkblog.

Journalism and the news industry face so many challenges, it’s difficult to keep track of them all. But let me try.

The value people in the industry attach to our work is consistently higher than the value readers seem to think it has. Why is that? Maybe it has to do with news grazing and the amount of news consumption that happens during quick five-minute breaks at work and waiting for the bus? Maybe we’re not doing what people are hiring us to do: “Too many of us are too focused on what we want to produce and how we expect people to consume news that we’re not spending enough time looking at how people’s behavior and consumption patterns are changing” as Reg Chua would put it.

Or maybe Nikki Usher is right when she says that “Local news, and in particular local news online, is not something people care about as much as local journalists might hope.” We definitely don’t spend a ton of time on news sites, certainly not as much as we spend on Facebook.

Can we ever get our young readers back or will our audience keep getting older?

Joris Luyendijk thinks the Cold War made it easy to get people to care about news from around the world: you could always give it a communism-versus-the-west angle. Now that we no longer have that overarching narrative, it’s not so clear anymore why we should care about elections in Romania or strife in Congo. We need to figure out new and better models for international reporting. And for crime reporting too, for that matter.

Especially in the English-speaking world, there’s just so much information out there. Major newspapers like The Guardian and The New York Times each publish over a thousand stories to their website a day. There are hundreds of thousands of blogs, magazines, newspapers and news websites out there, most of them free, and it makes you wonder whether we may be writing more than people care to read.

The Economist praises itself on its finishability – if you read this and this and this, that’s everything you need to know – and it’s not so weird to think that endless streams of content may be overwhelming to readers.

Glut has a profound impact on the industry. When demand doesn’t keep up with supply, news and features become cheap, perhaps too cheap to charge for online. It also means that writing a story is not always the best use of a reporter’s time anymore. It’d be better if we would just do what we’re best at and point to other sources for everything else – Jeff Jarvis’s famous motto.

There’s four kinds of aggregation – the “link to the rest” part – in addition to freestanding hyperlinks. Each model has its merits. Feeds, unfiltered streams of content. Algorithms, like BuzzFeed. Social, like Reddit. And then there’s curation, the human touch, like The Huffington Post or pretty much anyone’s Twitter feed. There are plenty of ways to not write our own stories when we don’t need to.

But if we wish to cure the not written here syndrome, we need to teach journalists how to read, that is, be better about harnessing that huge diversity of content on the web in service of kick-ass journalism. Says Felix Salmon:

The biggest shortage in journalism right now isn’t good writers, or even enlightened proprietors willing to fund investigations. It’s critical readers – journalists who can see when they’re being snowed, who can read between the lines, who can pick up information from across the blogosphere and the twittersphere and be able to judge it on its own merits rather than simply trusting the publisher.

And then there’s problems we’ve had since the dawn of journalism that we’ve never quite been able to solve, like how to confront slow violence: it’s very hard to keep people interested in society’s pervasive problems and long-running conflicts, but we should try.

Curation and the personalized news experience bring their own problems. We might end up living in our own filter bubbles, without the surprises and serendipitous discoveries that are so characteristic of reading a newspaper. The web allows us to infuse more variety into people’s reading instead of less, but do we?

We have to make sure that the work we do has impact, instead of just taking for granted that our innate news judgement always will show us the way. We haven’t quite figured out how to make sure that journalism doesn’t just lament problems but actually helps address them. Instead, we’re stuck with hindsight journalism which, as Josh Stearns notes, “serves as more of an autopsy than an antiseptic.”

There’s another problem in journalism that only recently got big enough to be worrying. Readers were never quite guaranteed to understand every single story and word a newspaper published, but you had more loyal readers and they followed the coverage of big issues in their newspaper, so journalists could write like they were talking to old friends. Now, readers go from site to site, reading a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and the result is that we can’t assume any prior knowledge from our readers.

Very knowledgeable readers will want more background and detail, new readers will want the minimum amount of information to understand a difficult story, and your average reader doesn’t want to read through a ton of explanations he’s read a thousand times before. So we need more context, and ideally, personalized context.

Danny Sullivan:

Online papers could be smarter. They could understand what you’ve read, where you left off and keep you informed with only the new material you need, because they’d understand your read state. But online news isn’t written this way. It continues to be produced as if people are reading offline.

As long as we stick to a one-size-fits-all, we shouldn’t be surprised that for so many people the news is starting to look like monkey screech. Researchers in charge of an Associated Press report in 2008 (PDF) went so far as to suggest that maybe that’s why celebrity and sports news is so popular: we’ve made everything else too hard to follow.

The daily news grind also leads us to emphasize stories over trends. In Scott Berkun’s words, we spend too much time talking about idiots doing something stupid:

Since there will always be important idiots in our population, these stories, as a collective, are not news. They do not express a new trend in idiot behavior, nor do they offer any context for how our view of the world should change simply because this particular important idiot did something stupid.

The biggest idiots unfortunately always tend to show up in our comment streams.

How do we design for the great conversation? I’d argue it’s an interaction design challenge, but part of it is just the fact that we don’t give comments the attention they deserve. As Mark Potts says:

Anytime a newspaper has problems with comments, it doesn’t take long to figure out why: It happens because the site managers allowed anonymity, or they didn’t think to employ a profanity filter, or they didn’t put “report abuse” buttons on the comments to let readers self-police the feature. Fail to do any one of these and you get chaos. Online community managers have known this for years.

If you’re too cheap to hire a social media manager and a community manager, don’t be surprised if the level of user engagement suffers.

Don’t forget that being nice applies not just to readers but to reporters too. Journalists sometimes have a hard time responding to criticism.

Then there’s the matter of whether to require real names or not.

The internet gives us so many different ways to publish our content. More than ever, journalists and editors need to become producers: people who know what to publish in which medium and on what platform, and which format best suits the story at hand. But very few reporters and editors take content strategy seriously.

The internet is also changing how we write. People like writing that’s more personal and direct but go overboard and you alienate people, so we need to find the right balance.

It’s not just journalists that can open up to their readers, it’s entire organizations too. Various newspapers are experimenting with opening up newsroom cafés and mobile newsrooms where readers can meet reporters. Others, like The Guardian, have opened up their story budget, asking people for advice on what they’d like to see covered and angles to consider for stories that are already planned.

The web changes how we write but also what we write and when. Journalism is not so much a product as it is a process nowadays – or it should be.

We need to be closer to the communities we cover. News publishers can be community organizers. Joy Mayer, especially, is doing some great and pioneering work on figuring out what community outreach can look like for news organizations.

The web is also teaching people how to deal with bias. People still prefer news media that are, ahem, fair and balanced, but news with an angle isn’t considered to be as deplorable as it once was. What readers do mind, though, is news media that try to trick us into thinking that their journalists have a view from nowhere. And we hate false neutrality. When the New York Times’ public editor asked readers whether the Times should be a Truth Vigilante, everybody responded with a resounding “Yes!” But it’s not always as easy as that. More and more news organizations are throwing away false neutrality and are are getting involved in regular fact-checking exercises, but it’s led to some sloppy journalism too.

Personal brands are becoming important. Play out your star journalists. Be a brand, because newspapers need heroes.

And make sure people trust what you do. Increasingly, they don’t. As Terry Heaton points out, we hesitate to link to our competitors’ coverage, we hardly ever give readers insight into the primary sources we used in crafting our story, and we pretend our angle is the only angle that is. Journalism is a black box, and that encourages suspicion.

With advertising down and corporate overlords breathing down our neck, journalists are pressured into producing ever more stories for ever more platforms, and that leads us to rehash the same boring content and PR fluff everywhere – known as churnalism – and it means we’re making more mistakes and publishing stories that are simply not true. It’s what British reporter Nick Davies calls flat earth news:

[Cardiff University researchers] discovered that the average Fleet Street journalist now is filling three times as much space as he or she was in 1985. In other words, as a crude average, they have only one-third of the time that they used to have to do their jobs. Generally, they don’t find their own stories, or check their content, because they simply don’t have the time.

But journalists have to assume some of the blame themselves. Journos are particularly bad at everything that has to do with science and stats, and newspapers get played by PR firms surprisingly often. Parachute journalism doesn’t help. People rarely notice our shortcomings when we’re talking about things they’re not intimately familiar with, but if they read a story about something they are an expert on and they smell sloppy reporting, it’s easy to start worrying: is every story so full of misinformation? Lazy journalism must go.

Accuracy in journalism is a big, big problem, but there’s some small steps we could take to be better. Jonathan Stray argues for a publicly visible, collaborative error reporting process. Scott Rosenberg spends a lot of time evangelizing MediaBugs, a platform to enable exactly that. Rosenberg’s three pillars of trust: links, revisions, and error buttons. Few organizations have a corrections process as meticulous as that of the New York Times, and if we do we don’t use it to drive improvement, but we should.

News becomes more conversational, we employ our audience as ersatz-editors and we will come to value transparency more than objectivity. That’s all fine, but we need to make sure we don’t give up the quest for accuracy. Because the trouble is, our brains don’t handle corrections that well:

Research shows that even when news reports have been retracted, and we are aware of the retraction, our beliefs are largely based on the initial erroneous version of the story. This is particularly true when we are motivated to approve of the initial account.

Even in a world where people are getting more used to hearing (and placing) biased reports, hopefully journalism can still provide a safe haven, a bullshit filter, a trustworthy source. At least, if we can regain the trust people used to place into journalism.

We will also have to wield our storytelling techniques with care. It is exceedingly easy to turn an anecdote into a trend story, and to see changes in society that simply aren’t there because you’re salivating at the prospect of writing a story about it.

We won’t be doing much more writing anymore if we don’t know how to pay for it all.

Why is that so hard to start with? Maybe because, as Robert Pickard says, despite what they claim legacy media companies are not really interested in new business models, they just want to make more money with the same old things. danah boyd makes the same argument about how we serve people, viz. not at all: “When I hear news agencies talk about wanting to get young people, they don’t want to figure out how to actually inform them — they want to hear how to monetize them. And that pisses me off.”

People sometimes blame the news industry for being bad innovators. Are we?

Well, yes, but not every newspaper company wants to be a technology company and not every news organization wants to be in the information business. Fair enough. But even if we don’t expect news organizations to invent the next Facebook or Google or Quora (which is a nonsensical request), we should at least be able to use the tools that do exist and put them to good use. That’s a plenty big creative achievement.

We’re not trying out new things, or when we do, they usually go nowhere. The trouble is that we’re always happy to share our successes and talk about freshly launched products that can’t yet be judged on their ultimate merits, but we never share our failures, and so survivorship bias leads us astray. We need a FailFaire for Journalism Startups.

You could also argue that our lack of innovation (or good products tout court) comes from the fact that newspapers, when compared to most other equally-sized businesses, have been awful at figuring out what makes our readers and listeners and viewers tick. We do hardly any customer relationship management (or we do it only for print). A survey here and there, at most. News organizations are not used to making decisions based on data.

Especially online, we need to go beyond pageviews or Facebook likes. We should avoid obsessing over vanity metrics. (And no, vanity metrics do not suddenly become useful if you put them up on a big monitor in the newsroom.) So, tell me, who’s your Chief Audience Officer?

The innovation we do get mostly happens in big cities and hyperlocal efforts have the best chance of survival in affluent neighborhoods. That’s where the ads are and the early adopters. We have to make sure we don’t end up in a world where the rich and urban get the news they need while the poor and the rural population live in news deserts.

In the end though, if there’s anything we know, it’s that pretty much every strategy under the sun has been shown to work in one fashion or another. But you need the right environment, the right people, and the right plan.

Don’t underestimate the effect tired executive blood is having on our industry. There’s no lack of ideas and no lack of experiments waiting to be done. But we’re not responding fast enough. Management is usually quick to pass the buck to hidebound journalists, but really, we all share the blame.

Clay Shirky is sympathetic but at the same time gloomy when he ruminates on why newspapers are having such a tough time to evolve and argues, in Clayton Christensen-esque fashion, that maybe they just can’t. Newspapers have scaled up to extract ever more value, which was easy, and now they have to scale down, which might be nigh impossible even if they wanted to. TV stations face the same fate. “In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change.”

If that’s true, the question is how do we rescue the reporters. Not everybody is a fan of nonprofit and subsidized journalism, as in a way it’s giving up on the news business. On the other hand, as Patrick Thornton of the nonprofit Texas Tribune submits, enterprise reporting, the iron core of news, was never very profitable, yet it is critically important to society, and that is exactly the sort of problem nonprofits were made to address. Co-operative news organizations are another model that hasn’t been fully explored.

Nonprofit journalism can only work if we’re careful that we’re not substituting one flawed business model for another. And that we have a business model at all. As Kevin Davis pithily summarizes the issue: “Being nonprofit is not a business model, it’s a tax status.”

Regardless of the business model you choose, news organizations need to start foraging and hunting for revenue and take it anywhere they can find it. Maybe it’s events or ebooks or maybe even master classes. And get used to selling your by-products – which starts by figuring out what those are.

There are some signs that even legacy newspaper companies are finally figuring out how to play online (PDF) – baby steps, frankly though. In any case, don’t expect it to be easy. It won’t be, not for the forseeable future.

Advertising is what made it easy and advertising isn’t working so well anymore. Media folk almost never get into the precise reasons as to why that is or why that should be, but the plain truth is that (with regards to web ads anyway) nobody ever looks at ads, are blind to them, and when they do they hate them with a vengeance.

Second, companies can buy cheaper and more targeted ads with Facebook and Google.

Third, companies have found better ways to reach their audience, like through permission marketing, content marketing and social media.

We can try to tackle the first problem and provide better ads (think of ads as content), more targeted ads, or ads that are slanted more towards intent harvesting than intent generation.

But if companies have really found better ways to reach their audience, we should also prepare ourselves for the post-advertising age. In a way, advertisers are now publishers themselves and don’t need us anymore.

Of course, you can’t talk about making money with journalism without talking about paywalls and getting readers to pay for journalism. I think we can credit the New York Times’ paywall with making the discussion a little bit more nuanced among future-of-newsies, though I fear it has made it more unreasonable among everyone else, who now assume that because the newspaper with possibly the biggest brand equity of any paper in the world can make some money with a porous paywall, it’s the future of the entire industry.

There are many valid concerns about paywalls, like those of Clay Shirky and Howard Owens, and there’s nothing wrong if you just plain don’t like them. But it pays to figure out the theory behind it all, to know when paywalls can work and when they can’t. Small countries with small language communities, for example. Financial news, like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Paywalls that exploit freemium dynamics.

Lastly, and then we’ll stop talking about money and business, be aware that what’s true in the US isn’t necessarily true in Europe, and it’s certainly not true in India or Brazil, where print is a growing industry.

More than one European news startup has faltered by getting their inspiration from American counterparts.

Newspaper publishers have always had a habit of clinging to the past. It shows in the design choices we make online. Still much too often, they’re driven by the aesthetics of print and the limitations of paper. Skeuomorphism, in the broad sense of the word.

When we do try to take digital news to the next level, technology usually fails us. Nobody, truly nobody likes their content management system. Some people hope we might move beyond the CMS and Matt Waite in particular imagines the future of the news website as a confederation of apps.

Dan Conover and myself would argue that a lack of metadata is another big problem: if we were more disciplined in thinking about stories as not just narrative but as information, we could create entirely new kinds of news products. Adrian Holovaty’s seminal A fundamental way newspaper sites need to change from 2006 was what first got people thinking about structured news, and it’s worth (re-)reading. Some think the semantic web holds the key. I’m fine with any approach that’s pragmatic and gets us beyond big blobs of text.

We’re already on our way to a post-CMS world, with all those widgets and third-party APIs that help power modern websites. But it’s a long and painful journey and until we get there, heed the words of Scott Klein: don’t mistake your CMS for a development platform.

To continue our little chat about technology, there’s also the apps vs. html discussion. Especially the old-timers in our industry are enamored with the iPad because it promises (promised?) a return to print economics in the digital sphere. But the results have been meager, especially because the development of a good mobile or iPad app or a digital magazine can be quite expensive. Some people just don’t like the fact that Apple is pushing its own walled garden: it just feels wrong somehow.

A good mobile strategy (or maybe even a mobile-first strategy?) can pay off. But do keep into account that mobile isn’t the platform we once thought it was. People don’t just use their phone on the move, they don’t just use it when they’re ready to make a decision (something advertisers love because it allows for intent harvesting) and they don’t just use it for information they need right now: all the things that make mobile such an enticing platform… but only when they’re true. So make sure you’re really good at inferring intent or adjust your expectations.

Reality always has a way of turning out to be more complex than we thought. But there is growing evidence that people do use tablets, mobile phones, desktops and laptops at different times of day, and it’s not rocket science to see that phones are more lean-forward and tablets more lean-back. (Hey, you there. Stop using your iPad as a photo camera during concerts. It’s tacky.)

Then there’s the question of the future of niche and hyperlocal. Everyone seems to agree that for publications to thrive, they must specialize and do one thing well. On the internet, after all, you’re not competing with your neighbors but with the best reporting everywhere. But it’s not clear that the money’s always there. In any case, hyperlocal doesn’t scale so it may be the future of news but it’s not likely to be the future of news organizations.

In order to get people to pay attention (let alone pay), it’s important to differentiate yourself from all the other news that’s out there. Seems like we’re not getting the message, though: news is becoming more homogenous, not less.

Lots of challenges and lots of new techniques and platforms and new ways of writing. How do we teach all of this stuff to aspiring journalists? And indeed, what do we teach?

Should journalists be entrepreneurial? Some, or all of them? Should they be programmers or is that too much to ask or stupid?

Universities are adapting to these new demands, but not always as thoroughly as they should. Aside from a couple of really smart programs like NYU‘s Studio 20 and CUNY‘s M.A. in Entrepreneurial Journalism, most universities that offer a joint program in journalism and business or journalism and computer science approach it pretty much like a double major: you study computer science, you study journalism, and if you’re lucky there’s one or two courses at the intersection, where most of the value is.

Regardless, it’s a lot to ask. Matt Waite, who teaches at the University of Nebraska, writes:

The number of things Journalism is asking its journalism schools to teach could fill three degrees plus a couple of minors. Business, law, economics, entrepreneurship, computer science, data science, and also all the journalism fundamentals. We have no idea what The Future is, other than that it’s wildly different from the past, so we’re tossing everything into What Journalism Schools Should Be Teaching and the list is starting to look a little silly.

It gets people to wonder whether maybe it makes more sense to return back to the basics and teach timeless skills how to provide “accurate, fair, authoritative, ethical and clear information” as Teresa Schmedding would encourage. But I’m more like Steve Buttry and join him in hoping that aspiring journalists can be skeptical enough to ask the question Why are you using ‘basics’ as an excuse to avoid teaching me what I need to learn?

Part of the trouble is that these entrepreneurial techno-journalists are increasingly starting to look like unicorns. Part of that is surely a branding problem: it all looks very hard and dreary. Simon Rogers from The Guardian wants to battle that idea: data journalism is like punk music. I’ll give you three chords and just get started. Some programming basics and a rudimentary, high-school level understanding of statistics is really not that much to ask. If we’re not finding those people, maybe it’s because of a more fundamental problem, namely the people journalism tends to attract. Adrian Holovaty, in an email interview from a while back:

I’ve only met a handful of people who became journalists because they like information. And I think that helps explain why there have been some major cultural issues in the journalism world in the age of the Internet

Matt Waite worries too, but for different reasons:

What is the career path for a developer in a newsroom? There isn’t one right now. Who will be the first to hire a developer as an assistant managing editor or above?

One thing is sure, journalism schools will have to keep up. Thus far, the vast majority of them has been too slow to respond to the changes in our industry. It might lead you to wonder whether we need J-schools at all.

Interships and writing for free can be real skill boosters, but journalists and colleges alike have to prevent internships from turning into turning into slave labor without any educational component.

And then there’s the big question: what is journalism? What should it be? What are journalists for? It’s the kind of question that, if you think about it long enough you’re prone to lose all common sense, but it’s still worth asking.

A well-read report (and follow-up recommendations) from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy suggests that journalism can help communities coordinate, solve problems, establish systems of public accountability and develop a sense of connectedness.

Tom Rosenstiel details a bunch of different roles reporters and editors need to fill: witness bearer, authenticator, sensemaker, watchdog, megaphone, aggregator, community builder.

Inversely, why do we read? To learn about our community and the world, sure, but that’s not all. As Steve Yelvington points out, dissecting the local newspaper and why we read it, we have many more competitors than we think:

Pleasant and entertaining activities? They abound. Something to talk about? It’s everywhere. Discovering what’s on sale at local stores? Besides radio and several dozen cable channels, there’s also the big box store’s website, where their whole weekly sales circular is reproduced online. […] People I know? Facebook. Feel like a part of a community? Ditto.

Publishers are becoming businesses, and businesses are becoming publishers. That’s leading to a lot of bland content marketing, but it’s also leading to news organizations that experiment with monetizing products and events instead of their writing, as well as innovative sort-of-journalism: companies that fill similar information needs to journalism except they’re not. It’s no longer newspapers and tv stations (even though those are still big), it’s a news ecosystem and it’s bigger than anything we’ve ever imagined. But maybe not bigger than it was before the advent of mass media. As The Economist mused in a recent report:

Until the early 19th century there was no technology for disseminating news to large numbers of people in a short space of time. It travelled as people chatted in marketplaces and taverns or exchanged letters with their friends. This phenomenon can be traced back to Roman times, when members of the elite kept each other informed with a torrent of letters, transcriptions of speeches and copies of the acta diurna, the official gazette that was posted in the forum each day. News travelled along social networks because there was no other conduit.

The upshot of which is that “technology is in many ways returning the industry to the more vibrant, freewheeling and discursive ways of the pre-industrial era.”

Maybe that’s not so bad.

Any big issues I’m forgetting?

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The news industry and its problems by @stdbrouw 

 writes about statistics, computer code and the future of journalism. Used to work at the Guardian, Fusion and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, now a data scientist for hire. Stijn is @stdbrouw on Twitter.