On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court handed down its decision on the legality of the individual health care mandate contained in President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA). Coming in an election year, with the incumbent president faced with having his policy centerpiece ruled unconstitutional, the significance of the decision went beyond health care: It was a major political story.
Every major media outlet focused on the story in the days leading up to the decision. It was finally announced at 10:07 a.m. CNN reported that the individual mandate had been rejected. SCOTUSblog reported that the individual mandate had in fact been upheld.
The cable news network’s embarrassment in reporting the decision erroneously was exceeded only by the breakthrough moment for what was until then a little-known specialist website whose sole beat is the Supreme Court. On that day, SCOTUSblog became the key source for must-read breaking context and analysis of the court’s ACA opinion. The Atlantic later broke down the progress of SCOTUSblog’s coverage, reporting that by 10:22, 15 minutes after the decision was delivered, the site had close to a million visitors; it had to install extra server capacity for the surge in traffic.
SCOTUSblog was founded in 2003 by the husband-and-wife team of Tom Goldstein and Amy Howe. Neither was a journalist; they were partners in a law practice and lectured at Harvard and Stanford law schools. On the morning of the decision, Goldstein covered the whole process live; this live-blogging became C-SPAN 3’s source of coverage. Goldstein described the ruling as ‘our Superbowl,’ and said his goal was to provide the best analysis of the ruling, at the most appropriate moment for the audience.
SCOTUSblog demonstrates that journalism can be done outside traditional newsrooms, by individuals free of traditional demands of both commerce and process. In an environment of what journalism professor Jeff Jarvis describes as ‘do what you do best and link to the rest,’ the SCOTUSblog model delivers the most consistent coverage of the Supreme Court and aims to deliver the best coverage as well. SCOTUSblog will not rush 25 journalists into Haiti in the event of an earthquake (or assign any to Lindsay Lohan’s DUI hearing), so it is not replacing CNN. But it doesn’t have to. SCOTUSblog has found its niche and knows what its role is.
Journalists exist because people need to know what has happened and why. The way news is most effectively and reliably relayed is by those with a combination of deep knowledge of the subject and a responsiveness to audience requirements. On this occasion, SCOTUSblog managed to achieve both goals. While CNN corrected its erroneous reporting after several critical minutes, it was initially deficient on the most basic metric: reporting what the court had actually decided.
The SCOTUSblog breakthrough is just one example of how the customary territory of traditional journalists is being eroded. Surveying the new news ecosystem brings up examples far more radical than SCOTUSblog, which employs reporters alongside its lawyer-blogger founders. In some cases, nonprofessional journalists have proven they can do journalism at as high a level as professional journalists, and sometimes higher. Experts, whether economist Nouriel Roubini on the housing bubble, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci on riots in the Middle East, or financial analyst Susan Webber at Naked Capitalism, are producing contextual pieces that outstrip many of the efforts produced by traditional journalists. This is more than just individuals being able to publish their views directly; the Lance Armstrong doping case was covered better and far earlier by NY Velocity, a specialist bike-racing blog, than it was by the professional (and decidedly unskeptical) sports press.
An interesting question about direct access to the public by experts arose after the exposure of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The most notable aspect of that fraud was the failure of the Securities and Exchange Commission to heed the prescient, detailed and accurate warnings of wrongdoing provided by the investor Harry Markopolos. Ray Pellecchia at the investment blog Seeking Alpha asked, ‘Could a Markopolos Blog Have Stopped Madoff?’ Could the SEC have remained inattentive if, instead of going to the agency, Markopolos had gone public with a blog posting over the improbability of Madoff’s trades? It’s impossible to run this experiment, of course, but it’s easy to imagine that public analysis of Madoff’s trades would have had greater effect than leaving the matter to the professionals.
We have also reached a point where the ‘crowd’ is publishing its own information in real time to each other and the world. Data on any type of measurable change are more cheaply gathered today than ever, and algorithms are developing that are able to reassemble this information in fractions of a second and produce accounts of events that have passed the Turing test of being indistinguishable from those written by humans. All of this is done without any intervention from a journalist.
The changes in the news ecosystem are not just a story about erosion, however. Even as the old monopolies vanish, there is an increase in the amount of journalistically useful work to be achieved through collaboration with amateurs, crowds and machines. Commodities traders, for example, do not need a reporter to stand by a wheat field and interview a farmer. Satellites can take real-time images of the crops and interpret the visual data, turning it into useful data in the blink of an eye. Narrative Science generates reports on quarterly results for Forbes.com. Journatic causes both intrigue and distress with remotely compiled ‘local’ reporting. Verification of ordnance dropped in market squares in the Middle East occurs through networks of witnesses with mobile phones and military experts on Twitter, publishing firsthand accounts and their analyses in real time.
The list of what a journalist can do grows daily, as the plasticity of communications technology changes both reporting capabilities and audience behaviors. AP journalist and news innovator Jonathan Stray noted in a post:
Each of the acts that make up journalism might best be done inside or outside the newsroom, by professionals or amateurs or partners or specialists. It all depends upon the economics of the ecosystem and, ultimately, the needs of the users.
Understanding the disruption to news production and journalism, and deciding where human effort can be most effectively applied, will be vital for all journalists. Figuring out the most useful role a journalist can play in the new news ecosystem requires asking two related questions: What can new entrants in the news ecosystem now do better than journalists could do under the old model, and what roles can journalists themselves best play?
What Social Media Does Better: Amateurs
The journalistic value of the social media exists on a spectrum, from the individual person with a key piece of information–the eyewitness, the inside observer–all the way through the large collective. Bradley Manning, the private in Army intelligence charged with divulging hundreds of thousands of State Department documents to the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, occupied a position of singular importance, while the BBC’s documentation of debris scattered after the space shuttle Columbia exploded required multiple independent observers. Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project in 2008 occupied a similar spectrum; blogger Mayhill Fowler’s coverage of Obama’s remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser about people who ‘cling to guns and religion’ came from a sole source, while coverage of the Iowa caucuses relied on a crowd.
When the Navy SEALs took down Osama bin Laden, the first public ‘report’ came from Sohaib Athar (Twitter name @reallyvirtual) or, in his own words, ‘uh oh I’m the guy who live blogged the Osama raid without knowing it.’ Sohaib Athar is not a journalist (he’s an IT consultant in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where the raid took place) and might not even have known he was practicing journalism, but as Steve Myers, then at the Poynter Institute, said ‘he acted like a journalist.’ Athar tweeted about hearing a helicopter and a blast, then responded to inquiries, added information when he thought he had it, followed the thread of the story and created context for it. Athar became a resource for journalists who were reconstructing a timeline of the events–a part of the verification system that could be compared in real time against the official version.
For many newsworthy events, it’s increasingly more likely that the first available description will be produced by a connected citizen than by a professional journalist. For some kinds of events–natural disasters, mass murders–the transition is complete.
In that sense, as with so many of the changes in journalism, the erosion of the old way of doing things is accompanied by an increase in new opportunities and new needs for journalistically important work. The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.
‘Original reporting’ occupies pride of place within journalistic self-conception–it is at the core of what journalists do that they say cannot be done by others; it is the aspect of their work that requires the most tacit skill; it is the function that most directly serves the public good. The importance of original reporting is reflected in many of the more perennial battles that have been fought around journalism over the past decade and a half, from the seemingly endless struggle of ‘bloggers vs. journalists’ to the conflict over news aggregation vs. original reporting.
Because original reporting is so often perceived as simplistic or methodologically naive, it is frequently misunderstood by outside observers. Getting key bits of descriptive information out of an eyewitness, aggressively challenging the verbal responses of a seasoned government bureaucrat, knowing exactly where to find a key document, or navigating the routines and idiosyncrasies of complex modern organizations is a non-trivial intellectual endeavor, and a public good to boot. In many instances, the most important aspects of individual journalistic work remain what they’ve always been at their best: interviewing, making direct observations and analyzing individual documents.
And yet, many of the strategies we advocate do not easily map onto the original reporting paradigm. Most journalists, and journalistic institutions, have failed to take advantage of the explosion in potentially newsworthy content facilitated by the growth in digital communication. The reality is that most journalists at most newspapers do not spend most of their time conducting anything like empirically robust forms of evidence gathering. Like the historical fallacy of a journalistic ‘golden age,’ the belief in the value of original reporting often exceeds the volume at which it is actually produced.
Too many reporters remain locked into a mindset where a relatively limited list of sources is still relied on to gather evidence for most important stories, with the occasional rewritten press release or direct observation thrown in. This insider-centric idea of original reporting excludes social media, the explosion of digital data, algorithmically generated sources of information, and many other new strategies of information gathering that we emphasize here.
There should be more original reporting, not less, and this original reporting should learn to live alongside newer forms of journalistic evidence gathering. We acknowledge the very real threat to original reporting posed by the economic collapse of newspapers; solving this dilemma requires new attention to journalistic institutions, which we will address more fully in the next section, on institutions.
What Social Media Does Better: Crowds
When you aggregate enough individual participants, you get a crowd. One thing that crowds do better than journalists is collect data. When Japan was hit by an earthquake in March 2011, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered a leak, frustration around the lack of availability of up-to-date data on radiation levels led to individuals with Geiger counters filming the readings and streaming them to UStream.
Platforms for sharing real-time data, such as Cosm, rely on activist groups of businesses or simply interested individuals gathering whatever information they are interested in–air quality, traffic speed, energy efficiency–and sharing it through low-cost sensors. These sites provide a range, depth and accuracy of data that simply cannot be matched by individual reporters.
Citizens also photograph events, film important pieces of news, and sometimes, as Off the Bus did for the Huffington Post in 2008, get political scoops. Social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter recognize that gathering all information now available and interpreting it is a task beyond human scale. Built in to all social platforms and search engines are algorithmic capabilities helping to analyze what subjects are being shared, which topics are most discussed by whom, and when information emerges and how it moves.
The availability of resources like citizen photos doesn’t obviate the need for journalism or journalists, but it does change the job from being the source of the initial capture of an image or observation to being the person who can make relevant requests, and then filter and contextualize the results. The word ‘crowdsourcing’ itself implies a ‘one to many’ relationship for the journalist: asking a question or deriving an answer from a large group of people. But the ‘crowd’ is also a series of individuals performing networked activities, which can be interrogated and used for a more complete version of events or to discover things that were not easily or quickly obtained through traditional shoe-leather reporting.
What Machines Do Better
One thing machines do better is create value from large amounts of data at high speed. Automation of process and content is the most under-explored territory for reducing costs of journalism and improving editorial output. Within five to 10 years, we will see cheaply produced information monitored on networks of wireless devices. Their output, from telling people the optimum time to use water to avoid polluting rivers, to when to cross the road, raise questions of data ethics, ownership and use.
With a staff of 30, two-thirds engineers and one-third editorial, Narrative Science ‘takes raw numerical data and generates full narratives,’ as chief technology officer Kris Hammond describes it. He and his team of computer scientists work on identifying what constitute the key elements of a story, and how this might vary for a recap from a baseball game or a financial earnings report. They then write code that allows streams of data to be turned into words. Clients for the low-cost content range from commercial businesses to traditional media outlets.
Narrative Science proposes to automate production of standard stories such as ordinary financial statements and capsule game summaries. This approach reduces the human inputs required for repetitious work, freeing up labor for more complex or interpretive tasks, rather than describing basically uneventful occurrences.
And, as always, commodification expands the number of participants beyond the traditional professional cadre. If your child plays in a Little League baseball game and you use an iPhone app called GameChanger to record the scores, Narrative Science will process those data instantaneously into a written description of the game. More than a million such game reports will be generated this year.
Hammond said in an interview with Wired that he anticipated that 80 to 90 percent of stories in the future will be algorithmically generated. We asked him for his rationale, and he explained that the high levels of localized and personal data likely to be collected and made available online will greatly expand the type of ‘story’ that can be generated. The 90 percent figure thus assumes not just more granular data, but a much larger universe of stories or content being published, by a much larger collection of reporters, most of whom are amateurs. Anywhere data are available in this digital format will be suitable for this type of reporting, and anywhere there are no such data, like the local town hall meeting, will need a reporter to record the data.
Hammond says the machines his team builds must ‘think like journalists'; his interest is looking at what journalists do, and then replicating it through programming. ‘We want the machine to come to people–humanize the machine and make human insight at tremendous and outrageous scale.’
Reporters and editors find this scenario terrifying. Journalists and programmers (or journalists who are computer scientists) very rarely work on this kind of replication process. As Reg Chua, head of data and innovation for Thomson Reuters, commented, ‘We don’t have the understanding in place, there are only a handful of news organizations that have the capabilities at the moment.’
If the answer to the question ‘what do algorithms do better?’ is that they produce stories that come from structured data, and if the world of structured data of a personal, local, national and international nature is exponentially increasing, then an estimate of 90 percent of the universe of ‘stories’ being automated is not farfetched.
What Journalists Do Better
Prior to the spread of the steam engine, all cloth was ‘artisanal,’ in the sense of being made by artisans. It was not, however, very well made; humans were making cloth not because of their superior skill but because there was no alternative. The steam engine displaced production of low-end woven materials, which ended the use of human beings for most of the raw production of cloth but created a raft of new jobs for high-quality artisans, as well as designers of new patterns and managers of mills.
We believe that something similar is happening to journalism–the rise of what we think of as ‘the press’ coincided with the industrialization of reproduction and distribution of printed matter. When the cost of sending a column inch of writing to a thousand people began falling, news organizations could swing more of their resources to the daily production of content. Now we are witnessing a related change–the gathering and dissemination of facts, and even of basic analysis, is being automated. This obviously disrupts those jobs that employed journalists, not as artisans but simply as bodies, people who did the work because no machine could. It also allows news organizations, traditional and new, to swing more of their resources to the kind of investigative and interpretive work that only humans, not algorithms, can do.
A recurring question that society asks and demands to have answered–usually when things go wrong–is: ‘Who is responsible?’ If journalism has an impact and part of its role is to force accountability in other institutions, then it must be able to produce accountability of its own. The two government inquiries, one police inquiry and series of charges into the News of the World’s widely publicized phone hacking case in the United Kingdom demonstrate rather vividly that while journalists should have the freedom to publish, they also have to account personally for their actions.
Identifying who bears publishing risk is legally important and will become more so, both in the field of prosecutions and protections.
The construction of programs and algorithms that replace human reporting is made by a series of decisions that needs to be explicable and accountable to those affected. Journalists write algorithms at Narrative Science; at Google News, engineers have to understand what makes a story ‘better’ to improve an algorithm. Data and algorithms are as political as cartoons and op-ed pieces, but seldom carry the same transparency.
New areas of accountability are emerging. One question journalists and news institutions need to involve themselves in is: ‘What are you doing with my data?’ It might not matter who is a journalist, except to the person disclosing information to a journalist.
Equally, protections and defenses afforded to journalists must be made available to everyone who is making information available in the public interest. If a journalist or news organization owns your data, then you might reasonably expect them not to be handed over to the police.
We know what happens when sensitive information, such as the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, is hosted on a platform that is inherently commercial but not inherently journalistic. Those services can be withdrawn; both an arm of Amazon that provided web services to WikiLeaks, and PayPal, the online payment mechanism, severed their ties to the organization. Platforms that engage in censorship for commercial expediency are often less easy to spot. Rebecca MacKinnon, a New America Foundation fellow and author of ‘Consent of the Networked,’ points out that Apple’s approval process of products for its popular app store is opaque and arbitrary, and the rejection of some of the material amounts to censorship, as with its famously opaque decision to reject developer Joshua Begley’s interactive map of drone strikes. Therefore, just in choosing an Apple product to use, journalists participate in shaping a future of the internet that engages in censorship.
Self-evident as it is, journalists can be much more efficient than machines at obtaining and disseminating certain types of information. Access and ‘exclusivity’ or ‘ownership’ of a story is created through interviewing people. Making phone calls to the White House or the school board, showing up at meetings and being receptive to feedback, sharing views and expressing doubt all make news more of the ‘drama’ that James Carey identified as central to the concept of a newspaper. These very personal and human activities mark journalism as a form of information performance rather than simply a dissemination of facts.
The origination of ideas, algorithms, the formation of movements, and innovations to practices all require originality of thought. Journalists should be provoking change, initiating experimentation and instigating activity. Recognizing what is important about those credit default swaps or why Mitt Romney’s tax affairs needed to be pursued relies on a complexity of understanding about the world for which it is still difficult to build and maintain machines. Cultural literacy skills distinguish reporters, editors, designers and other journalists from other systems of data gathering and dissemination.
People follow people, and therefore just by ‘being human’ journalists create a more powerful role for themselves. It is a device personality-driven television has long relied on, but only in a one-way medium. In a networked world, the ability to inform, entertain and respond to feedback intelligently is a journalistic skill. As Paul Berry, the former chief technology officer at Huffington Post, said, ‘There is really only one question for a journalist at an interview now: How many followers?’ Influence being a better metric than sheer mass, one might refine this to ‘Who are your followers?’ But the point remains: A journalist’s individual agency, which is to say the journalist’s means and freedom, is growing outside the brand and the audience of the newsroom.
Working between the crowd and the algorithm in the information ecosystem is where a journalist is able to have most effect, by serving as an investigator, a translator, a storyteller. Without leveraging the possibilities of either the crowd or the algorithm, some kinds of journalism become unsustainable, falling behind the real-time world of data and networks available to audiences through everything from the sensor on their waste bin to the trending list on their Twitter stream. The journalism layer within the ecosystem thus becomes about humanizing the data and not about the mechanizing process.
Adapting to this environment is a stretch for journalists who developed their skills in newsrooms where precision and security were the key demands of the product, and where there was unity and clarity around a small set of processes–talking, writing, editing. The ability to recognize, find and tell a story, in the most appropriate format and for a specific audience, remains a constant requirement, but the number of formats and variability of the audiences have grown. Beyond this, the craft skills that will help journalists define and redefine their future roles and the business in which they work, are changing.
What Does a Journalist Need to Know?
When Laura and Chris Amico moved to Washington, D.C., from California as a result of Chris’ getting a job as a news developer at NPR, they did not know their neighborhood, they did not know the community, and they did not know where Laura, a crime beat reporter, was likely to find work.
‘People were just not hiring,’ says Laura. The boredom of unemployment and a shared interest in public service journalism led the Amicos to kick ideas around about what to do. ‘We thought a lot about what was not being covered,’ says Laura, who is the kind of reporter who keeps a police scanner where most would have an alarm clock.
What was not being covered in the crime pages of the local metro papers and even the Washington Post, they realized, was every homicide in the city. The Amicos responded to this gap in coverage with a startup online site they called Homicide Watch D.C. ‘We deliberately thought about doing things that others would not,’ says Chris. In effect the most radical act was to put every part of the reporter’s notebook online, and using ‘the whole pig,’ every aspect of the available data. Homicide Watch D.C. is built around ‘objects’-incident, victim, suspect, case-and uses structured information about location, age and race to build a very detailed picture of this one type of crime in one city. The comprehensive nature of the service to citizens helps the reporting process: If someone visits the site looking for an unfamiliar name, it is a cue to Laura to investigate if the person being sought is a victim. In one case, this is how the site reported a killing and the victim’s identity before the police had even confirmed the incident.
There is no authorial ‘voice’ of the site, everything is written in AP style, and the comments of the victims’ families or others in the community are given high prominence against the very factual accounts of the homicides. But by recording and making visible every homicide in D.C., the site serves a very clear and distinct journalistic purpose: It is possible by glancing at the home page to deduce that homicide crime is overwhelmingly male, black and often young. Within a few clicks, a visitor can see detailed statistics that confirm this theory.
Homicide Watch is an example of what Chris and Laura were sure they would not have been allowed to do in a newsroom. Their statistics-driven reporting approach and a site that prioritizes victims and incidents over stories are alien to many newsroom priorities.
Reporting is the heart of journalism but the tools for reporting, as we see from Homicide Watch, can be used in very different ways. A database that takes every part of the reporter’s notebook and turns it into structured information with the intention of producing more stories is a good example of this. A commenting system that allows users to better highlight and filter useful comments is another example. Not every journalist will be skilled in every area of work. We assume the centrality of reporting, so we are focusing more here on the new capabilities that are already required for better reporting but that exist in too short a supply.
It is undoubtedly the case that the hard skills Laura and Chris possess are the bedrock of the site’s success; she is a crime reporter, and he has developer skills. If there were to be one valuable lesson learned, however, it is not just the ‘hard’ skills that made Homicide Watch viable, but rather the ‘soft skills’ that make their application possible.
The ‘Soft Skills’ of Journalism
What Laura and Chris Amico possess, alongside skills as a crime reporter and a news developer, is a mindset that wants to improve journalism, not simply replicate or salvage it. As Shazna Nessa, head of the AP’s interactive newsroom, notes: ‘We need to get young journalists to understand that they can change organizations. Indeed, they are often expected to be the people who change things.’
The institutional appeal for those possessing this mindset is limited. Very few companies follow the example of John Paton at Digital First Media, inviting disruption, expecting change and making no guarantees.
So talent like the Amicos, or Leela de Kretser of DNAinfo, or Lissa Harris of the Watershed Post, or Burt Herman of Storify, or Pete Cashmore of Mashable and hundreds of others like them, struck out in a direction chartered by Nick Denton, Arianna Huffington and Josh Marshall before them, to try to do better by forming a new institution.
Having the desire and motivation to exercise personal influence over journalism at the level of both the story and the institution requires a mix of awareness, confidence, imagination and ability.
Not all of these qualities might be teachable, but they are not optional. It is important to recruit and develop journalists, whether in newsrooms or through journalism schools, who engage with persistent change. For some of these institutions, which by their very nature represent stability, a substantial readjustment will be required.
The idea of the ‘entrepreneurial’ journalist is becoming a familiar one and is increasingly encouraged in both teaching programs and within certain news institutions. Its associations of judging quality of innovation by creation of profit are not always helpful, as the pursuit of profit has to be preceded by the creation of relevance. Individual journalists in whatever area of expertise need to think of experimentation with the aim of innovation as something they practice rather than endure.
All journalists carry with them a network and always have, whether it is a network of sources and contacts, or a network of those with similar professional knowledge, or a network of a community that follows and helps them. As the individual connectedness of each member of their network increases, journalists with effective network skills can leverage more help or efficiency. Editing, assigning and reporting all become tasks wholly or partially delegated to the network.
Creating and maintaining an effective network is a soft skill, with hard edges. It requires time, thought and process. It requires judgment, not least because networks imply proximity and journalism requires distance, so building for both is hard.
In the notorious leaked 2011 strategy document ‘The AOL Way,’ the blunt assumption made by the portal business was that journalists with larger followings or networks were of higher value. Much about the document was thought to be crass or wrongheaded, but the impact that a large and visible following has on a journalist’s career is undeniable. When a writer such as Andrew Sullivan moves from the Atlantic to the Daily Beast, the recruitment happens with the expectation that his readership moves, too. The credibility of individual reporters and their reliability and expertise are already judged through the composition of their network.
Every individual, subject or location has the potential of a visible network around it. Services such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Orkut and Weibo publish vastly more every day than the aggregate output of the world’s professional media, so mining the relationships, conversations and stories will only become more central to information gathering. The aggregational tool Storify and the Irish journalism startup Storyful, which extracts stories and verification from social media streams, are forms of social news agencies, offering more journalistic protection and filtering than the platforms that host them, but reliant on making sense out of scattered and often confusing information.
Paul Lewis, a reporter for the Guardian, used the techniques of a networked reporter to break a number of significant stories, including analyzing user-captured footage of protests around the G-20 protests in London in 2009. Ian Tomlinson, a man with pre-existing health problems, collapsed and died at the G-20 march, but the police version of the incident seemed inconsistent to Lewis, who continued to interview march participants and tried to establish the order of events. Days after Tomlinson’s death, video footage taken by a bystander with a camera phone was sent to the Guardian, which claims ‘openness’ as a central tenet of its journalism. The video showed conclusively that the police had scuffled with Tomlinson before his death. The importance of the story, the impulse of the witness and the techniques of the journalist led to an outcome that might be seen as the exemplification of accountability journalism.
Personal presence, accessibility and accountability are important components of journalism. So, too, is the narrative ability. We can all look at figures documenting the decline of the press, but we can also read David Carr telling us in the New York Times what he thinks the important factors are. In fact, we want to read Carr because he is a talented prose stylist. The more we feel engaged with a journalist through his persona, the more we want to hear what he has to say about the world.
Public persona was once the exclusive territory of the high-profile columnist. Now it is part of the job of every journalist; editors and reporters, designers, photographers, videographers, data scientists and social media specialists all have their own perspectives and accountability for storytelling. This requires judgment exercised consistently and publicly; whatever the medium of publication, information is now instantly shared, discussed, annotated, criticized and praised in a live, uncontrolled environment.
Integrity and judgment are attributes that journalists carry with them, as part of their public persona. These are not so much soft skills as values. The nature of search and continual publication means these attributes can be established more easily, but once lost are hard to regain. Plagiarism, dishonesty and covert bias are harder to conceal, while factual inaccuracies, self-copying of material and rudeness can erode reputation quickly and irreparably. By contrast, good journalism, in whatever realm, can gain authority without institutional endorsement.
How a journalist constructs a good reputation–by maintaining integrity, adding value to information for an audience, demonstrating knowledge, linking to sources and explaining methodologies–now has to be done in a public, real-time realm. The old model of a handshake around source protection is no longer enough; journalists who want to work with confidential sources must be able to provide enough information security to prevent their sources from being identified by determined attackers, both governmental and non-governmental.
News institutions need to balance the needs of the individual journalists with the default mechanisms set to safeguard institutional reputation. These mechanisms are not necessarily inimical to building individual reputations, but the requirements of publishing securely, accurately, coherently and to a schedule or within a product can be in tension with how journalists work most effectively.
This is something we will look at more closely under the process part of this section.
The extent to which a journalist now needs to have in-depth knowledge about something other than journalism is increasing. Exposed by the wider availability and quality specialist commentary and knowledge, a deficit in skills in professional journalism is all the more obvious. In areas such as economics, science, international affairs and business, the complexity of information and the speed at which people wish to have it explained and contextualized leaves little room for the average generalist.
The cost of employing highly knowledgeable specialists means more expert journalism is likely to come from those who see journalism as only part of what they do–whether it is the SCOTUSblog founders, through their law firm, or the economists Nouriel Roubini and Brad DeLong through consultancy and teaching. Knowledge can be geographic, linguistic, or in a certain discipline or area of study.
The value of specialization can reside in communication and presentational techniques or skills; outstanding writers or photographers, audio or video specialists or social media editors will create audiences for their work through an ability to identify and address a market.
The Guardian’s head of digital engagement, Meg Pickard, describes the phenomenon of individual creating niche communities of interest around areas of knowledge as generating ‘contextual micro fame.’ Journalists need to know how to create communities of knowledge and interest that serve their own specialization.
Sara Ganim, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who investigated a story about child sexual abuse by retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, was able to produce such astonishing results because of her journalistic skills, central to which was her understanding of the college community she was investigating.
Data and Statistics
The basic data literacy of those engaged in journalism will have to improve for the field to maintain relevance. As individuals, corporations and governments create data and release them in increasing quantities, we see that the availability and accessibility of data are not the same thing. Understanding the nature of what large-scale data sets offer, how to write stories and how to extract meaning that makes sense of information which can be flawed or partial, is important work. Just as journalism needs those with a more profound understanding of communications technologies and information science, so it needs data scientists and statisticians as a core competency within the field.
There is a tight and symbiotic relationship between networks of users and journalists and data. Journalists should be able to analyze the data and metrics that accompany their own work, have a familiarity with the idea that metrics represent human activity. They should also know how to understand this feedback and interpret it sensibly, so that they can improve the reach and content of their stories.
In 1979, the security expert Susan Landau drew a distinction between secrets and mysteries. Surveying the way that the Iranian Revolution had taken the United States completely by surprise, she noted that the intelligence community was focused on secrets–trying to understand the things the shah’s government was hiding–rather than on mysteries–what was happening in various public but not widely visible groups loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In journalistic terms, the most famous news story in living memory–Watergate–was based on the acquisition of secrets. Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI official, delivered insider information to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, essential to the reporting he did with Carl Bernstein on the Nixon White House. Watergate’s hold on the self-conception of the traditional U.S. press remains significant, even as many of the stories of the last decade have hinged on mysteries instead of secrets. The faked business dealings of Enron and Madoff, and Barclay’s manipulation of the LIBOR rates, were all detected by outsiders. (Indeed, one of the reasons that Bethany McLean, who broke the Enron story in Fortune magazine, has not been widely lionized is that offering her accolades for correctly interpreting and following up on publicly available data would mean admitting how few members of the business press operate that way.)
Even as the world itself has become more complex, the volume of available data on many of the important actors–businesses, politicians, priests, criminals–has grown dramatically. One of the key tools for understanding mysteries is the ability to examine data for patterns that may be hiding in plain sight.
Understanding Metrics and Audiences
A startling number of newsrooms we studied still do not implement ‘live’ metric dashboards such as Chartbeat or Google Analytics or, more often, do not create access to these tools for all journalists. Understanding how journalism is received, understanding what causes virality in content, and being able to see what is read, heard or viewed by whom is an important aspect of journalism. It can, but does not necessarily, entail increasing page views or unique visitors by manipulating content, although there is something to be said for the approach of Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio, who circulated a memo making clear that ‘traffic whoring’ would be a rotational part of staff members’ duties. An honesty in identifying targets and goals, a sensitivity to relevant and irrelevant data, and a willingness to respond to feedback are not anathema to sustainable journalism but part of it.
The following of technical trends and traffic leads to tedious practices that do not necessarily burnish the brand of journalism, such as search engine optimization (the practice of making pieces perform as well as they can on Google through testing links and headlines). At the same time, making journalism easily discoverable by audiences who are faced with a filter problem is a service. The fact that audiences increasingly reach news stories through links shared on social networks rather than through news aggregators has implications for reporters and editors. General ignorance of how people consume information was not an issue when the industrial model prevailed, but in today’s fragmented and fraying world, knowledge of how audiences consume information, and whether what you write, record, or shoot reaches the people whom you want to see it, becomes critical.
If there are two significant language barriers that journalism needs to traverse, one is statistics and data skills and the other is technical aptitude. Journalists should learn to code. It’s true that to be fluent and useful in many programming languages requires very highly developed skills; not every journalist will be able to do this, and not every journalist should do this. But every journalist needs to understand at a basic literacy level what code is, what it can do, and how to communicate with those who are more proficient. John Keefe, who leads a small team of newsroom developers at WNYC, makes the point that the entry-level skills for tools and applications of code are falling all the time.
One journalist, who works in a more technical environment than most, identified the lack of engineering expertise as a major barrier to news organizations’ ability to make progress: ‘Even the most well-resourced newsroom has a ratio of developers that is no more than one developer to 10 journalists, [and] that ratio is far too low. And the quality of many newsroom developers is also far below that of people working for engineering companies like Facebook and Twitter.’
Leadership at the board level in most institutions is biased toward business and editorial skills and light on engineering knowledge. This is a cause for some concern as we see an increasing reliance on third-party platforms that might provide an excellent set of tools for journalists (Twitter is arguably the most useful tool for journalism since the telephone), but which are not inherently journalistic. Even for journalists who never end up writing a line of code meant for daily use, basic technology literacy is as important a skill as basic business literacy.
Writing, filming, editing, recording, interviewing, designing and producing remain the bedrock of what journalists do. We focus less on these skills because we do not expect the basic skills of being able to identify and report a story to change, and they remain central to a journalist’s skill set. As part of technical literacy, journalists need to understand how each of these skills might be affected by a development in technology or a shift in human behavior. Narrative can be created by the new skills of aggregation, which implies understanding sources and verification of disparate material. One aspect of working with networks and crowds is the journalistic skill of aggregation.
Even though it is an example to make many journalists wince, when Jonah Peretti of BuzzFeed talks about the ‘disappointed animal’ slideshows that power the site’s traffic, he makes the point that a great deal of skill is directed toward what makes a piece of content appealing for others to share. More cerebral curatorial and aggregational exercises, such as Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, may prove the point in a more highbrow way, surfacing essays on the nature of beauty rather than dogs that look like world leaders, but the underlying skills are analogous.
As we see more effective models of journalism emerge from a remaking of the existing process, one widely held observation is that journalists are having to move from a world where the sole focus of their activity was their own stories to a host of different concerns. Steve Buttry, who blogs frequently on newsroom change and leads the training and skills program for Digital First Media, identifies this as ‘project management skills–being able to keep across all parts of the process and understand how they can be brought together to produce something that works.’
An editorial idea no longer has the dominance it once had in a fixed product like a newspaper or news bulletin. Now the idea must also work according to a large number of variables, often with the input of others, and in a way that is technologically viable and responsive to audiences. The story format becomes less like a unit and more like a stream of activity. As human resources in the newsroom continue to be reduced, planning how a story ‘scales,’ or why a piece of code is being written, or what the imagined outcome, goal or impact of a piece of journalism is, becomes important, and finding metrics to accompany that internal target becomes equally important. The diminution of newsroom resources accompanied by the increase in coverage of already well-covered events, such as the U.S. presidential primaries or the Olympic Games, creates an inequality in coverage and wastes money on duplicated efforts.
One of the central themes in this essay is how journalists have to become more skilled at collaboration, with technologies, crowds and partnerships, to help scale the considerable task of reporting events. Working collaboratively and across disciplines should start in the newsroom, which is where this organizational skill set should flow from. This in itself requires journalists to be freer to think about and improve the overall processes of journalism.
Hamster Wheels and the Flat Earth News
The process of journalism is so being radically remade by the forces of technology and economics that there is no longer anything that might be described as ‘an industry’ for the individual journalist to enter.
There is no standardized career path, set of tools and templates for production, or category of employers that are stable and predictable. A job at the Washington Post used to carry with it a certain set of career assumptions, in the same way that a job at General Motors might. An entry-level job on a copy desk or as a junior beat reporter could be plotted in a trajectory that mirrored the product itself. What a journalist did in the industrial age was defined by the product: a headline writer, a reporter, a desk editor, a columnist, an editor. As deadlines melt, and we are in an age where the story as the ‘atomic value of news’ is in question, what journalists do all day is more defined by the requirements of the unfolding events and the audiences consuming them.
In both car manufacturing and legacy news organizations, the available jobs are markedly fewer and often different. While sharing many of the same characteristics of disrupted industries like car manufacturing, news journalism has undergone a much more profound shift in its constitution. General Motors still produces cars, and for the moment they still have four wheels, an engine and a chassis. But what journalism can be and what the output of a working journalist might look like is far more fluid, by the very nature of information and distribution technologies.
As we see a migration from journalism as an activity that required industrial machinery and resulted in a fixed product to one where individual freedom and means increases and responds to user needs, how will individual journalists influence the process of their work? The key differences in processes are clear:
These technologies have, as we know, also undermined the existing business models for journalism. The conditions within the news industry have led to individual journalists feeling disempowered rather than having more influence over their working lives. What Dean Starkman describes as the spinning of the hamster wheel and what investigative journalist Nick Davies outlines in his book ‘Flat Earth News’ are both descriptions of this phenomenon.
The recycling of press releases, the production of more with less without a fundamental change to process are, we would agree, the enemy of good journalism. We would, however, contend that this is unlikely to be the dominant model for journalism in the future, as the economics of paying journalists to produce low-value information will not hold. If there is a role and business model for hastily assembled duplicate material, then this is likely to be most successfully pursued by companies such as Demand Media or Journatic that employ algorithms and cheap, outsourced labor.
Individual journalists who create high-quality journalism, regardless of how it is supported, will exercise more autonomy and creative control over their work. Larger and more diverse audiences will be available to them at low or no cost.
Perhaps the best recent example of how a journalist exploited the opportunities of technology outside the process of the newsroom is that of Andy Carvin at NPR. Carvin’s voracious tweeting from Washington about the events of the Arab Spring in 2011 put him at the center of a network for U.S. audiences and other journalists following the narratives. The essence of what Carvin achieved was not to replicate the reporting secondhand, like a reporter sucking up wire copy and spitting out stories, but that he made public the kind of behind-the-scenes processes that specialist desk editors bring to stories. Instead of this knowledge and process remaining between the editor and journalists at NPR, feeding their stories, it was published onto the real-time social media. One reason Carvin thinks he was able to pursue a new avenue of activity is that his day job, as head of NPR’s social media strategy, was not seen as journalistic in the first place.
Other examples of individuals who have disrupted the processes of journalism are numerous but it is rare that the best exponents of it have, like Andy Carvin, found adequate freedom within their own institutions to develop their work. Burt Herman left the Associated Press to develop Storify. Ory Okolloh put together the team that built Ushahidi and subsequently licensed crowd mapping software back to newsrooms when her weblog, Kenyan Pundit, proved inadequate as a platform to convey to the outside world the ethnic violence that was occurring in the aftermath of the 2007 Kenyan election.
It is worth noting that in 2012, during a presidential election year, several of the most keenly watched journalists at the most traditional news outlets emerged not through reporting ranks but through relatively experimental routes of self-publication. Nate Silver’s career focused on economic consultancy and modeling of baseball statistics. As a part-time, and largely anonymous, political blogger, Silver developed his FiveThirtyEight.com blog which, in 2010, was licensed by the New York Times.
Parallels exist with Ezra Klein, the economics and political commentator who started his first blog at 19, moving the eponymous Ezra Klein platform to the American Prospect and later to the Washington Post. In both instances, the experimental risk and the laborious business of building audiences and figuring out a unique position for themselves was done by individuals with free blogging software, to be bought out by news brands that, for all their superior resource and journalistic luster, had failed to incubate such bright stars.
The next phase of development will see similar bursts of individual brilliance and enterprise in emerging areas, perhaps of visualizations, of data creation, sharing and aggregation. Newsrooms no longer treat blogging, or tweeting, or live coverage with the same caution and bafflement they once did (‘once’ being just five years ago).
In five years’ time, owning live data feeds from distributed sensor networks, developing automated content, choosing or building technologies that reflect journalistic values, holding partnerships with different specialists and institutions, and experimenting with superstar aggregators, animators and performers could be as commonplace as licensing a blog.
How Will a Journalist’s Work Change?
It is difficult to say exactly what the smaller newsroom will look like, but there are ways the average journalist’s work will change over the next few years. Again, there are gradations of change: the role of a copy editor at the New Yorker and the process of production there might change less over the next few years than that of a community manager or data reporter at Nola.com.
Journalists will still be working in immersive environments, adapting their working patterns to a world of continual live conversation and information, which can be both exhausting and distracting. The ultimate goal of continual engagement, however, is to produce journalism that is of high quality, and significant insight and impact. Measures for the aims and outcome of journalism will be routine, and public.
The presence of metrics and data, relating to both the outside world and their own work, will become a daily reality. Feeds of information delivered in real time–a Twitter of data–will play a greater part in shaping editorial decisions and stories. Defining the ownership of these data, deciding what can be outsourced to other commercial technologies but what needs to be kept, will be the job of journalists. So will writing algorithms.
Specialist journalists, whether they are animators, interactive cartoonists, writers, videographers, psephologists or engagement specialists, will spend time understanding the technological changes to their field of practice and experimenting with new tools and techniques. Publishing developments will move at the speed of the web, not at the speed of online newsrooms.
Individual journalists will spend more time in collaborative relationships. This might be with technologists, working out better systems; with specialists or academics in their field; or with other journalists to develop stories or software and in editing and aggregating the output of others.
Although journalists should already spend time following up stories and engaging in public discussion on social networks or in comment threads, their ability to add value for users with these techniques will increasingly become part of their value.
Every journalist can now be a publisher. One very obvious side effect of newsroom automation is the lowering in value and utility of the role of editors. Visionaries at the top of organizations will still set the tone and editorial direction for brands, and perhaps each topic will have a specialist editor. Time saved by the automatic organization and editing of pieces, however, dramatically reduces the need for editors to oversee every part of the process. Newsrooms can no longer afford senior staff who do not produce content. Every new desk editor should at least be aggregating and linking to work both inside and outside his or her organization, providing meta-analysis of the process and sources, following stories through cultivating and recommending sources in public.