David Carr, the irrepressible media writer for the New York Times, died on Thursday night at the age of 58, after a long career that saw him rise from the weekly papers in Minneapolis — where he worked while fighting a cocaine addiction — to the highest perch in the media industry. He was a friend to almost all who knew him, and mentored an entire generation of young journalists. I’ve written a personal remembrance of him, but here I’ve collected some of the thoughts and memories of his friends and peers. There are more of them in a Storify module I made.
The NYT is now confirming that David Carr has died. This is unfathomably sad news. He had so many things still to tell us.
We see the pressure that journalism and the media are under from governments around the world when journalists are jailed in countries like Egypt, or murdered, or silenced in various other ways. But it’s not until we get a global picture from something like the annual World Press Freedom Index that it becomes obvious how endangered a free press has become — even in the United States, which has fallen steadily in the media-freedom rankings every year.
If nothing else, this kind of overview reinforces one thing: Namely, the necessity and importance of having alternative forms of media and speech, whether it’s Twitter and YouTube and Instagram or a media entity like WikiLeaks. These can be blocked and content can be banned by governments, but it is harder to do. In effect, it forces repressive governments to play a giant game of Whack-A-Mole by going after every individual user who posts a photo or uploads a video.
Difficult to ban
Turkey, for example, has been trying very hard over the past year to get content removed from and/or blocked by Twitter — including an account belonging to an opposition newspaper — and the government’s court orders for personal information have skyrocketed. To Twitter’s credit, the company has resisted these orders, and is fighting others in court, and the social network remains a crucial lifeline for many citizens who are trying to keep track of what their government is doing.
And why would something like WikiLeaks be important, despite the various well-documented flaws in that organization and its leader Julian Assange? Because press freedom in the United States has been declining for years. According to the index, the U.S. is now in 49th place — behind the tiny Polynesian nation of Tonga — compared with just five years ago, when it was in 20th place. The government’s ongoing campaign against WikiLeaks is part of that, as is the action taken against journalists like James Risen, who has resisted attempts to get him to reveal his sources.
A drastic decline
The Press Freedom index is compiled every year by the group Reporters Without Borders, which was founded in 1985 and campaigns on behalf of journalists around the world, as well as tracking abuse and repression directed towards the media. And the latest survey comes to a rather grim conclusion: press freedom has declined dramatically around the world, with more than half of the 180 countries ranking lower than in 2013.
“There was a drastic decline in freedom of information in 2014. Two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed for the 2015 World Press Freedom Index performed less well than in the previous year. The annual global indicator, which measures the overall level of violations of freedom of information in 180 countries year by year, has risen to 3,719, an 8 percent increase over 2014 and almost 10 percent compared with 2013.”
In the most recent survey, many of the usual suspects show up in the negative column: Libya, where journalists continue to be kidnapped and in some cases murdered, and of course Russia — where the government has blocked websites and even shut down alternative media outlets that were critical of the administration. Also in the bad-and-getting-worse column are countries like South Sudan, Venezuela and even Italy, where journalists have been threatened by criminal groups like the Mafia.
New media is everywhere
Reporters Without Borders also mentions how some areas of the world are effectively “black holes” when it comes to measuring the freedom of the press, and many of these dark spots appear in the region that is at the bottom of the global index — North Africa and the Middle East. Many areas, the group says, “are controlled by non-state groups in which independent information simply does not exist.”
Obviously, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram — or even entities like WikiLeaks — aren’t a solution to these kinds of systemic problems. But the simple fact that individuals around the world now have access to some or all of the same tools that journalists do means that we can get information directly from places like Egypt or Iran or Turkey, without having to rely on a professional press that has been muzzled or brought to heel.
That’s why some of the new-media efforts I think are the most interesting and important are the ones that are trying to harness this vast volunteer workforce in some way, whether it’s through verification tools like Storyful, or online community efforts like Reportedly from First Look Media, or crowdsourcing efforts like the Ukraine Vehicle database project that British blogger Eliot Higgins recently launched.
Craig Silverman, the author of a book about journalism and fact-checking called Regret The Error and a column by the same name at the Poynter Institute, has come out with a major report on the problem of online hoaxes and misinformation, a study he did for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. It is an impressive survey of how the desire for pageviews and online “engagement” compels many online media outlets and even individual journalists to distribute untrue or dubious content.
In the pre-amble to his report, Craig (who I should note is a friend) points out that while we usually expect news organizations to disseminate “quality, accurate information” about the world around us, many media companies — and not just digital upstarts but traditional ones as well — persist in distributing questionable information, even when they likely know it is false:
“News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors. Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement.”
A human need to share
Recent examples of hoaxes are legion, and many of them have been debunked on a site that Craig started called Emergent.info — an attempt to create a kind of crowdsourced verification engine that can latch onto hoaxes and determine quickly whether they are true or not. From snow on the pyramids in Egypt to a woman who allegedly had three breasts, every month or so seems to spawn a fresh batch of questionable news reports, many of which show up on some of the leading news websites such as CNN and even Reuters.
As Craig notes in his report (which I encourage you to read if you care about this topic), hoaxes and rumors are not new to journalism — there have been outlets that specialize in that for as long as there have been newspapers, whether it’s the British tabloids or the National Enquirer. But a combination of factors have led to an explosion of misinformation, including the rise of the social web and the 24-hour news cycle. Silverman uses the example of the disappearance of Malaysian flight 370:
“The drive to fill the empty space with something — particularly on cable news — was partly human nature, and also partly dependent on the need to meet the public’s insatiable demand for information. All of us — journalists and the public — sought to understand what had happened. But facts were sparse. So we engaged in collective sensemaking and rumor propagation to fill the void.”
Fake news goes viral
In effect, we are all CNN now: Every website that wants to attract an audience, no matter how large or how small, feels the overwhelming pressure to be first with a news report — regardless of how questionable it might be. And the more salacious or titillating that report is, the more likely an editor is to hit the publish button, and to hide his or her doubts behind a question-mark headline or the phrase “reports say.”
Occasionally, the tension between wanting to be first with a report that people might click on and wanting to be accurate bursts out into the open, as it did in 2013 during a conversation between Gawker founder Nick Denton and one of his then-writers, viral specialist Neetzan Zimmerman — who at the time was responsible for posts that drove tens of millions of unique visitors to the site, by reporting on whatever was going viral on dozens of social networks. At one point, Zimmerman says:
“Most viral content demands from its audience a certain suspension of disbelief. The fact is that viral content warehouses like BuzzFeed trade in unverifiable schmaltz exactly because that is the kind of content that goes viral. People don’t look to these stories for hard facts and shoe-leather reporting. They look to them for fleeting instances of joy or comfort. That is the part they play in the Internet news hole.”
Who cares if it’s true?
As part of his report, Silverman talks about the psychology behind why we all participate in distributing hoaxes and rumors and questionable information — and we definitely all do it, even journalists. I freely confess that I have retweeted news stories or headlines or reports that I haven’t verified, even though I am regularly humiliated for having done so when they turn out not to be true. Usually it’s because I am in a hurry, and the report seems so interesting or believable that I don’t bother to check.
In many cases, we re-publish and distribute these reports because on some level we want them to be true. We want to believe that a woman who posed for a photo in Iraq with a rifle is single-handedly leading a battalion against the forces of ISIS. Why? Because it would make a great story. And that’s why the single best advice for journalists or anyone else is “If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”
In other cases, however — and I would argue that this is a much larger problem than media companies redistributing false information or questionable reports — the vast majority of people simply don’t care whether a report is true or not. They are going to share it anyway, because it is funny, or touching, or creepy, or disturbing. In other words, it sparks some kind of human emotion. Fusion writer and former Reuters columnist Felix Salmon described this well in a piece he wrote in 2013:
“The reasons that people share basically have nothing to do with whether or not the thing being shared is true. If your company was built from day one to produce stuff which people want to share, then that will always end up including certain things which aren’t true.”
The lines have blurred
This is the one big issue with attempts at crowdsourced verification, whether it’s Emergent.info or Facebook’s recent announcement that it is trying to crack down on hoaxes that get spread via the social network: Facebook’s attempt in particular relies on people to click a button and flag something as a potential hoax — but most people are never going to do this, not just because it takes effort on their part, but because they may not even care whether the report is true or not. They will share it anyway.
In the old days, when media came to us via certain distinct channels — a newspaper, a TV network, a magazine, etc. — it was easy to distinguish fact from entertainment, or gossip and rumor from the truth. Certain outlets could be trusted, and others couldn’t. But now, the media we consume comes at us from all directions, after being shared and re-shared, and the original source isn’t always obvious. And factual news content blurs into entertainment content until everything looks the same.
In effect, we are all engaged in trying to figure out whom to trust and when, and the barriers between us and the sausage-making process known as journalism have been largely removed. That means it’s not just up to media organizations to fix this problem, although they definitely play a major role — it’s up to all of us as news consumers.
If there’s one word that sums up where most media entities are looking for the future, it’s “mobile” — almost every news service and website is focusing on mobile because that’s where the younger users are, and therefore that’s where the growth is. In fact, NowThis just finished getting rid of its website altogether because it said there was no purpose in having one.
Flipboard, however, is going in the opposite direction: On Tuesday, the company said it is finally embracing the web, with a full-featured site that not only reproduces what the app offers, but builds on top of it.
So why is Flipboard going in the opposite direction to almost everyone else? In an interview, co-founder and CEO Mike McCue said there’s a simple answer, which is that Flipboard was mobile before almost anyone else — in fact, the app was one of the first to show the real possibilities of the brand new Apple iPad when it first launched in 2010. So being mobile is not really an issue for the company. But what Flipboard was missing, McCue said, was a way to tie together the web and mobile easily. The original website the company debuted in 2013 allowed users to read articles, but didn’t let them do much else.
Lessons from mobile
The launch of Flipboard’s web version fixes that, he said: it allows users who have built profiles and curated magazines and share content through the app to reproduce all of that behavior on the web and more. And in a sense, the Flipboard CEO said the web version has been in the works for almost as long as the company itself:
“Originally, we were going to build Flipboard on the web. Having been at Netscape for a while, I had a passion for the web, but when I thought about it, the web just wasn’t as capable — browsers weren’t as capable, they didn’t have as much horsepower. But we had heard rumors about the tablet coming from Apple, and we realized that would be the right first-launch platform for us.”
McCue said the web version of Flipboard has a number of features that the news-reading and recommendation platform wouldn’t have been able to build if it wasn’t for years of developing the mobile app and learning how to sort and format content for different devices. So for example, he said, Flipboard can recognize when the content it is displaying would look better as a photo gallery, and automatically resize the images for full-width, or figure out where to put the headline text.
My first thought was that Flipboard might have decided to focus on the web because growth in the app is slowing, but McCue says that’s not the case — in fact, he said, “everything is up, anywhere from 50 to 300 percent, depending on what stat you look at.” According to recent estimates, the company has over 100 million registered users, and it recently confirmed that 50 million of those are monthly average users, up from 30 million last year.
Flipboard has been through several iterations now, as it has evolved from just a mobile app for reading RSS feeds and websites: the first big launch for the company after its birth came in 2013, when it added the ability for users to curate articles from their streams into their own “magazines.” There are now 15 million magazines that have been created by users, McCue said, up from about 10 million last year. And the second big launch gave users much more choice in terms of what to follow in the app — using recommendation software developed by Zite, which Flipboard acquired last year.
As with its mobile version, part of what Flipboard feels it offers to publishers is the ability to display their content in a beautiful way, and also to display advertising in the same way, McCue says, which theoretically should lead to better monetization than the typical web banner ad. So the company is working with a select group of publishers to host their content and custom advertising inside the web version, and share that revenue.
In the past, Flipboard has been criticized by some publishers and media companies for aggregating their content without paying for it — in much the same way that Google has been criticized for doing with Google News. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo took aim at Flipboard for this in 2013, and said he was pulling his content from the platform. For many publishers, Flipboard opens links inside a browser rather than displaying the full content, and McCue said that will happen on the web as well. But he hopes publishers will choose to work with the platform instead of fighting it:
“For the moment, links on the web will just go to the publisher’s website, but we are working on some deals with publishing partners where we can do the same on the web as we do on the mobile app — show magazine-style content and serve ads and share that revenue. We can generate formats and layouts like the NYT’s Snowfall, a really visual magazine style, and we are hoping to do that for a number of publishers.”
For all of the upheaval and turmoil that the internet has created in the media industry, and the explosion of new formats and birth of new companies like BuzzFeed and Vox and First Look Media, there are some things that have remained almost impervious to change, and one of those is the “homepage.” Even some digital-only news sites have opted for something not that far removed from the traditional newspaper or magazine homepage, with a curated selection of stories chosen by editors, or a chronological blog style.
Is that really the best we can do? Melody Kramer doesn’t think it is — or at least she would like people to think a little more outside the box, as it were. A former digital strategist at National Public Radio, she developed a devoted following via the Social Media Desk blog she set up for NPR on Tumblr and has since left for a job with a federal government skunkworks called 18F (she also has a newsletter in which collects all sorts of fascinating things).
In a recent post on Medium, entitled “64 Ways to Think About a News Homepage,” Kramer enlisted a number of friends, many of whom have nothing to do with the news business (which in itself is kind of an extension of a recurring feature she does, called “How Do You Get Your News?,” in which she interviews people from outside the news industry about how they get their news). And each suggestion is illustrated with what appears to be the actual hand-written or hand-drawn version of that idea.
The result is fairly crude, like someone videotaped a whiteboard session over a few beers with some smart friends. But for me at least, the value isn’t in any one single idea — since there is no “silver bullet” answer to what a homepage should be — but more in the approach itself, which tries to forget everything we knew about a news homepage and come up with better or different ideas about how we could organize information. Here are some of the themes that jumped out at me when I read the post:
Customization: One concept that connects many of the ideas in Kramer’s post is personalization. So, for example, one idea is to turn a news homepage into a “Choose Your Own Adventure” kind of story, in which readers choose which threads to follow and the story is ultimately constructed by them through those choices; another idea sees the homepage as a “treasure map” that lets readers pick different spots to dig or drill down into a topic; and a third lets readers choose how much time they have and how much they want to know about a story, and then tries to deliver that.
Other views: Some of the ideas Kramer’s group mentioned are clearly an attempt to get out of the so-called “filter bubble,” in which we spend too much time focused on topics or stories that are already of interest to our social network. So one proposal is for a homepage that allows a reader to see the news through someone else’s eyes; another would show news that was read or shared by people far away from the user; and a third proposes that the homepage be set up to show news that surprises the reader (although it’s not clear how it would do that, unless it knew you very well).
More depth: A number of the ideas in the list seemed to be oriented around the kind of market that Vox was set up to serve — namely, a market of readers looking for more depth and context and background for the stories that are flowing past them all the time. So one idea would have a homepage where each story came with links to background articles, stories on a similar topic, etc. (probably the closest to a traditional news-site approach), while another would have each story include links to the sources the reporter used to put the story together, and background articles he or she used.
Some of the ideas suggested by Kramer’s group, like the one that recommends background links for each piece — or the one that would allow users to zoom in and out to see the broader context for an issue-based story — are at least close to what traditional digital and print news outlets are doing, or trying to do. But some are refreshingly bizarre, like the one that suggests a homepage where the selection of news is driven by some action the reader takes, like a “spin the wheel” kind of approach; or the one where news reading becomes a game and if you don’t win then you lose your “life” and have to come back later.
Many of these are unworkable, or ill-advised, or just plain loony — but what I admire about them is that they are trying to rethink what it means to even have a homepage at all. Why do we do it the way we do? What is good and bad about that? Kramer also mentions some existing sites that are trying to do this in one way or another: so, for example, Quartz’s homepage is basically its email newsletter of headlines, and Mashable’s homepage is entirely driven by algorithms.
Reading through Kramer’s post, I couldn’t help but think about when I worked at a newspaper and was on a task force devoted to rethinking the home page: I suggested that the site have three home pages — one where it showed you what stories the editors thought were important, one where it showed you stories that the site knew you might be interested in (based on its knowledge of your behavior) and one where you could see what other readers liked, based on what they clicked on or shared or commented on.
At this point, we have plenty of sites that give us the first of those, some that try to give you the second now and then — and social media has more or less taken care of the third one, although it is still too cumbersome for many people to use regularly as a news-discovery engine. Even after a decade and a half online, media outlets still have a long way to go before they really reinvent themselves.
Almost every week, it seems, we have a new case in which social platforms and media outlets — which are increasingly becoming the same thing, in many ways — are faced with a difficult choice: Should they post that video of someone being beheaded, or some other horrible thing? Or should they save users and viewers from seeing it by never publishing it, or taking it down? In the most recent case, YouTube chose to remove a video of a Jordanian pilot being set on fire by ISIS, while Fox News published it.
The argument in favor of not publishing such videos — or taking them down when they are posted on a platform like YouTube — is fairly obvious: Namely, that it’s horrific, and many people will be offended by seeing it, especially the family and friends of the victim. Also, these videos are essentially recruiting tools for ISIS, and so many argue that by publishing them, Fox News and others are aiding the enemy.
Assuming these things are true, what justification could there be for arguing that media outlets should publish them, or that YouTube and Twitter and Facebook are wrong to remove them? At the risk of agreeing with Fox News, I think there are a couple of good reasons. One is that there’s a public interest in allowing free speech, even speech we disagree with or find abhorrent. In fact, the real test of our commitment to this principle is whether we defend someone’s right to say offensive things.
Freedom of speech
One common response to the free-speech argument is that platforms like Twitter and YouTube and Facebook are private companies, and therefore they don’t really have any commitment to uphold free speech, because the First Amendment only applies to actions taken by the government. But this doesn’t really hold water for a number of reasons: for one thing, freedom of speech is a principle many believe is worth upholding even when it doesn’t apply to government — that’s why there were “Je Suis Charlie” marches.
Also, media outlets like the New York Times are private companies just the same as Facebook is, and yet most people see these traditional media entities as having a public duty to freedom of information and free speech. So why doesn’t YouTube have the same duty? Why do we complain when the New York Times hides important information, but we don’t see it as a breach of social responsibility when Facebook takes down pages with information about Syrian chemical weapon attacks?
There’s a clear risk to handing over much of our free-speech rights to private platforms like Facebook, or even Twitter — a risk that critics like Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Rebecca MacKinnon of Global Voices have written about. How do we know what they are removing, or why? You may agree with their decision to not show a beheading video, or to filter Google searches so that “How do I join ISIS?” doesn’t come up, but what else are they hiding from you for your own good?
A duty to be informed
But free speech isn’t the only reason why I think we should be pressuring YouTube and Facebook not to remove this kind of content. The second reason was summed up well by former journalist Sylvie Barak — when I asked on Twitter whether such videos should be banned. She (and several others) argued that it is our duty as citizens to be as informed as we can be about the behavior of groups like ISIS, especially when we are committing significant military resources to fighting them:
Piers Morgan made essentially the same argument in a post he wrote about why he forced himself to watch the video of the Jordanian pilot being set on fire: he said he felt it was necessary in order to fully appreciate the barbaric nature of ISIS — something he said wouldn’t be accomplished by just reading a description of the incident. A writer with the Times of Israel made a very similar case in a piece she wrote.
My friend Andy Carvin wrote a post recently in which he talked about wrestling with the issue of whether to link to or embed this kind of content — something he ran up against during his time reporting on the Arab Spring uprisings. Such behavior is horrific, he said, and yet there are dozens of cases in which media entities have made the decision to show similar things: naked children running from U.S. napalm attacks on Vietnam, for example, or American soldiers dead on a beach.
The argument in these cases is that there is a social duty that trumps the digust such images produce: that people need to see this kind of behavior in order to appreciate what is happening in the world — either what is being done to our citizens by others, or what we are doing to someone else. Isn’t that a duty that should apply to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube as well as the New York Times? And if not, why not? If you want to see the video in question, there’s a Fox News version here.
If you’ve been following the Brian Williams story over the past few days, you know that the formerly respected NBC News anchor was caught in a lie recently: a rather large one, in which he has repeatedly talked about being in a U.S. Army helicopter when it got shot down during the Iraq war in 2003, something that apparently never happened. This has sparked much debate in media circles about whether Williams has lost — or deserves to lose — his place at the peak of American journalism. But he lost that place a long time ago.
When Williams took over as NBC News anchor in 2004, he was widely seen as one of the modern successors to legendary TV newsman Walter Cronkite, and in fact by 2010 some were arguing that Williams was the country’s premier TV anchor, and had earned the trust of millions. Marketwatch columnist Jon Friedman said that despite the rise of the internet and the 24/7 news cycle, Williams remained relevant and was the “Walter Cronkite of the 21st century.”
In reality, of course, the NBC anchor and other lesser-known TV personalities had already lost a lot of their god-like image even by 2010, and they have lost even more since. Not because of personal peccadilloes or false memories like the one Williams is accused of manufacturing, but because there are so many other sources of real-time news available now — just as we no longer have to rely on one or two newspapers, we no longer have to look to a single anchorman to be the “voice of the people” or to filter news events for us.
Anchormen are everywhere
I tried to make the same point when Walt Mossberg left the Wall Street Journal in order to continue running what became Re/code with Kara Swisher (which switched from being owned by the WSJ to being owned by Comcast). “Who is going to be “the next Walt Mossberg?” people asked. The short answer is no one — or rather, everyone.
If I want to find out what’s really happening in Iraq or anywhere else, I and many others are going to look to dozens or even hundreds of different news sources, including the videos and photos and other social-media reports of people who are directly involved — or at least more involved than a TV anchorman who flies into the country and stays at the Hilton, so he can do a news report in front of a palm tree with a flak jacket on.
Venrock partner and media investor David Pakman made a related point in a recent blog post entitled “Brian Williams and Abundance Vs. Scarcity in Media,” about the Williams’ scandal and how it might affect NBC: In effect, he said, NBC is being hoisted by its own petard, because it put so much of its faith (and money) into a single individual as the face of its news brand. That kind of approach might have made sense when news and media were scarce, he says — in other words, before the internet came along — but it no longer works at a time when trusted news and information sources are everywhere.
“NBC chose, in a scarcity-based media world, to build their entire news brand around him. And now he has significantly tarnished this brand. This will have a real economic effect on NBC as a result. Brands built in the age of scarcity take significant risks when they use celebrities (or any one individual) to act as a proxy for their products.”
Maybe Williams will come out of this incident looking a bit more humble — a bit more human, a little more flawed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, while many criticize the internet and the social web for their flaws when it comes to accurate reporting of the news, you could argue we were actually worse off when a single individual like Brian Williams or Walter Cronkite was seen as infallible. And our trust in the New York Times certainly seemed misplaced at one point when it misled us about the cause of the Iraq war.
If there’s an “It Girl” in the online-media space right now — a single company that sums up the current landscape and the current mood, for better or worse — it would have to be SnapChat. The four-year-old company is the platform everyone wants to be seen with, whether it’s Vice News using it to post a 10-minute documentary on Bitcoin, or Madonna featuring a video from her new album.
But what exactly do media companies get out of this arrangement? Is it a potential share of future revenues (since SnapChat has no actual revenues)? Is it exposure to new users, and especially the much-sought-after millennial generation? And are those returns going to be worth it, or are they building another house of cards on someone else’s land?
The big story right now is SnapChat’s new Discover feature, which launched last month with partners like Vice, CNN and Yahoo News, and more expected in the near future (BuzzFeed, which you might think would be a natural fit with the somewhat ephemeral nature of SnapChat content, reportedly backed out of a deal, citing creative differences). Media companies both large and small have been jockeying to be part of the new offering.
More eyeballs and clicks
And what is the payoff? Everyone who has talked about their decision to play ball with SnapChat mentions the platform’s reach, how it has more than 200 million active users (and reportedly growing quickly) and how they are trying to expand their audience. And the engagement levels are apparently off the charts, according to some media execs: One told Digiday that “I can’t tell you what the numbers are, but they’re f***ing incredible.”
The publishing executive quoted by Digiday didn’t specify what exactly was so incredible about SnapChat’s numbers, but presumably it was some combination of number of users and the time they spent with the media company’s content. In an era when the attention span of some web readers is measured in tenths of a second, anything more is worth celebrating.
So what if users are showing up in droves and clicking on those video links or text stories or photo galleries? SnapChat says that it is planning to offer advertising within the Discover content, and that it’s going to be good enough that it will generate revenue for everyone, including the content creators. But do we have any way of knowing whether that’s true? Not really. And are any readers being driven back to the actual websites of the content companies themselves? No one knows.
A full-fledged media entity
For a dystopian — but arguably not inaccurate — perspective on where this all could be leading us, check out John Herrman’s recent piece at The Awl on how the internet’s future appears to be much like TV: in other words, a cheap and cheerful attention factory designed to monetize eyeballs as efficiently as possible, regardless of the inherent value of the content. And chat apps are where the attention is.
“The only apps that people use in the way publications want their readers to behave — with growing loyalty that can be turned into money — are basically communications services. The near-future internet puts the publishing and communications industries in competition with each other for the same confused advertising dollars, and it’s not even close.”
If you had suggested even six months ago that SnapChat was going to become any kind of savior for media, you would have been laughed out of the room or committed somewhere for psychiatric observation. The service was known — if it was known at all — as a dodgy startup founded by a bunch of dude-bros, whose platform specialized in messages that self-destruct. It was widely seen as a “sexting” app and nothing more.
Fast forward to now, and SnapChat has become a full-fledged media entity: in addition to the ephemeral messaging that it launched with, it now has Discover, as well as SnapChat Stories, which are collections of photos and videos that users can share. The company has even launched its own original series, called “Literally Can’t Even.” And the service is apparently working with AT&T to find popular video stars from YouTube to create content.
Owning the game
Much like Twitter, SnapChat’s growth and expansion is a great example of a saying based on the disruption theories of Clay Christensen — that the next big thing always starts out looking like a toy. In the war for attention, SnapChat and other services are clearly winning, and traditional media companies seem to be losing. So it makes sense to play ball with them, in order to learn from them, and hopefully convert some of those ephemeral users into loyal readers or even potential customers.
This is the rationale behind BuzzFeed’s project, known as BuzzFeed Distributed, in which a team produces content of various kinds — photos, videos, text, cartoons — just for the specific platforms they appear on, whether it’s SnapChat and Instagram or Facebook. And there’s no question experimenting is good, and the principle of “promiscuous media” (as Fusion’s Felix Salmon has called it) has a lot going for it.
At the same time, however, the risk with SnapChat is the same as it is for media companies who play ball with Twitter or Facebook: Namely, that the main beneficiary of this deal is the platform itself, since it is the one that reaps most of the revenue and the attention, and theoretically the trust relationship that goes along with them. And they control not only the ball but the field, and the umpires, and the stadium — and they can change the rules whenever they want to. It’s awfully hard to win at a game like that.
I’ve been fascinated with the work of British investigative blogger Eliot “Brown Moses” Higgins for some time now, in part because he is a classic example of how someone with the right skills and motivation can use the social web to function as a journalist with little or no professional training. Last year, Eliot created a site called Bellingcat to build on the work that he and others have done, and now the team has launched a project designed to crowdsource a real-time picture of military activity in Ukraine.
Higgins and Bellingcat have been working on identifying and cataloguing movements of armored vehicles, troops and other activity in and around Ukraine ever since Russia started interfering in that country and then subsequently annexed the Crimean peninsula. In one of the site’s major efforts to date, it used social media and various other tools such as Google Earth to help confirm that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was taken down by Ukrainian separatists armed with a BUK M1 missile launcher.
The site did this in much the same way that Higgins (whom I consider a friend) was the first to confirm that the Syrian government had used cluster bombs against its own people in a series of attacks. By correlating images and video clips — which in many cases were posted by militant groups themselves — with locations from Google Earth and other sources with data about the area and military hardware, Higgins was able to establish how the attacks occurred, and the types of weapons involved.
For the Ukraine project, Bellingcat has created a real-time database of Russian and Ukrainian military movements, with photos and geographical location information, and has opened that database up for anyone to contribute to. For verification, the team is using its own expertise as well as a service called Checkdesk, a live-blogging platform that was started by social-technology group Meedan and won a Knight Fund challenge last year. And the data behind the project is all being hosted publicly through a site called Silk, which allows anyone to see, embed and potentially even modify the data.
As a blog post at Bellingcat describes, the project was jump-started with the data that Daniel Romein put together while trying to confirm when and how Flight MH17 was attacked. But Bellingcat team member Veli-Pekka Kivimäki says the site didn’t want to just post a photo or location every time there was a new confirmed sighting of troops or vehicles in Ukraine — it wanted to create a database that would grow and evolve with each new piece of information.
In an email message, Eliot said the project brings together a bunch of things he has been trying to do:
“By using Checkdesk, we hope to build a community of open source and social media investigators, helping them build their skills and knowledge by participating in a live, on-going project. We’re collecting, verifying, and presenting the information in an as open way as possible.”
Live updates and an open database
Using Silk as a data platform means the information about military activity and identification of vehicles and weaponry can be continually updated, Higgins said. And because of the way Silk works, anywhere the representations of that data are embedded via the platform — whether as maps or diagrams or tables — will automatically be updated with new information when it is added.
“There’s already a lot of people working on collecting and geolocating these videos, so we know there’s plenty of information out there already, it just needs to be collected in one place,” Higgins said, and the Bellingcat project is a way of doing that. As Kivimäki says in the site’s blog post, the hope is to “build a large data set that can be mined to make entirely new discoveries.” So, for example, a group of vehicles was seen travelling towards the Donetsk region, and similar vehicles were seen travelling through Ukrain later the same day — were they the same ones, or a different convoy?
The data hosted in Silk is broken down into three categories: Sightings contain links to whatever media is available — whether it’s photos or video — along with data like location, type of equipment, etc. These can also be grouped. Another category is equipment, which contains a list of the different kinds of weapons and vehicles that have been seen or confirmed. And the “unique units” category collects specific items that have been conclusively identified, via licence plate or other ID.
Checkdesk will be used to bring together a lot of the information already shared and discussed on Russian vehicles in Ukraine, and enable the information to be reviewed and verified openly. We also hope that by making the process as open as possible we encourage our readers to participate in the discovery and verification process, giving them the opportunity to learn about verification and giving those who already have experience verifying content chance to share their knowledge.
No one seems to like web comments any more, at least not in the traditional media anyway. Websites like Reuters and Re/code and Popular Science and Bloomberg have gotten rid of them, and plenty of media insiders have been cheering this movement on, since they see comment sections as cesspools full of trolls. So it’s nice to hear someone like Guardian digital editor Aron Pilhofer say killing off comments is a “monumental mistake.”
In a talk at the News:Rewired conference in London, Pilhofer — who used to run the digital team at the New York Times, before joining the Guardian last year — said that many traditional newsrooms are failing to take full advantage of the web’s ability to create a two-way relationship with readers, and that this is a crucial element of what journalism has become in a digital age. As he put it:
“I feel very strongly that digital journalism needs to be a conversation with readers. This is one, if not the most important area of emphasis that traditional newsrooms are actually ignoring. You see site after site killing comments and moving away from community – that’s a monumental mistake…. readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism.”
Truly open journalism
Pilhofer talked about how the Guardian looks at its audience, which is as a partner in its journalism, through projects like Guardian Witness — a site where readers can suggest story ideas and also become involved in the reporting of them — which emerged from its repeated experiments in “crowdsourcing.” For the British paper, the concept of “open journalism” as a dialogue between reporters and readers has been a central part of its mandate under outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.
The fact that I agree whole-heartedly with Pilhofer probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been reading me over the past few years: I’ve argued repeatedly that real and ongoing engagement with readers — which involves more than just a passive “Here’s our content, please click on it” kind of relationship — is a crucial part of what journalism is now, in part because this trusted relationship with readers is the only real asset that media companies have left to monetize.
Projects like Guardian Witness are the kinds of things that all media companies should be doing more of, Pilhofer said, because reader engagement is “a huge resource we are largely ignoring” as an industry. That’s the bottom line: not so much whether a newspaper or news site has comments or not, but whether it is trying to reach out to its readers in any real way and make them part of its journalism. Or are they just a click factory?
All readers matter
Whenever I try to make this point, someone inevitably says that of course they want to have a relationship with their readers, but comments aren’t the way to do it, because they are just a cesspool of bad behavior — and/or because the people who post in the comments aren’t their real readers, as Bloomberg editor Joshua Topolsky argued in an interview about the site’s redesign and why it has no comments:
“You’re really talking about less than one percent of the overall audience that’s engaged in commenting, even if it looks like a very active community. In the grand scheme of the audience, it doesn’t represent the readership.”
This is a classic response to comments: “Those people aren’t our real readers, so we can afford to ignore them, and pay attention only to the people who choose to be on the social networks that we frequent, like Twitter and Facebook.” But what about the people who don’t want to have their comments tied to their identity on Facebook — or the readers who choose not to belong to those social networks at all? They in effect become second-class citizens, whose opinions or input aren’t wanted or valued.
Comments can have value
On top of that problem, the readers who are on those networks still have to seek out the commentary on the stories they are interested in discussing. Tools exist to pull responses from Twitter and Facebook back into a comment section on a news site, but few publishers use them. It seems that most would rather outsource their commenting — and by extension, their relationship with their readers — to these third-party networks.
But comments are unfixable, right? Or at least, without spending huge amounts of time and resources on them. That’s the most common response when anyone proposes that they not be killed off. But some sites have shown that it is possible to improve them without an enormous resource commitment: Digiday wrote recently about how comments at Salon improved dramatically once someone started to pay attention to them, and took a few obvious steps to try and encourage good behavior.
Comments aren’t the ultimate expression of community or a relationship with readers by any means. Social networks are also very powerful tools in different ways. But if you can’t figure out how to engage with your readers and build a community of some kind on your own website — around your own content, on your own platform — how can you expect any of your readers to take your commitment to that relationship seriously?