Tag Archives: newspaper

How the WSJ's former owners could REALLY screw Rupert Murdoch

When the News of the World scandal began to really explode at the beginning of the month some intrepid reporter went and tracked down members of the Bancroft family – the former owners of the Wall Street Journal – and asked them if they regretted selling their controlling stock of the newspaper to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Many did.

Since then, there has been some talk about the recourse available to the Bancrofts with an emphasis on a toothless special committee – which is supposed to ensure editorial independence – and how it could create some headaches for News Corp. I doubt it will matter.

But if the Bancrofts really do care about the Journal – or if a sub-segment of them do – there is something much more powerful they could do to screw Murdoch.

Offer to buy it back.

Remember, News Corporation paid $60 per share to the Bancrofts for their stake of Dow Jones & Company (the publisher of the Wall Street Journal). This represented an enormous 67% premium, or $2.24 billion, over the market valuation. In 2009, a mere 14 months later, News Corp wrote down the value of the purchase by almost half, accepting a loss of $2.8 billion. In other words, the value of Dow Jones is now back to, or even below the $35 a share it was at when the Bancrofts sold it.

Why not offer to buy it back at a theoretical valuation of $40 a share? The Bancrofts (or the members of the family that want to) certainly have some of the capital. They would essentially be using Murdoch’s own money to regain control of the WSJ at 2/3’s the price they paid for it. Clearly they would need to find other investors to be part of the group. But they couldn’t form the core of a new investor group.

Of course, you would say: Rupert Murdoch would never sell his crown jewel. But that’s the fun of it.

This week’s Economist references Nomura investment analyst Michael Nathanson’s assessment of News Corporation after the scandal:

Michael Nathanson, an analyst at Nomura, separated News Corporation into three hypothetical companies: a good one, based on television; a bad one, which makes films; and a downright toxic one, which runs newspapers. He suggests investors focus on the former.

An offer by the Bancrofts would force Murdoch to tell investors what type of company he intends to run. Refusing to sell the Wall Street Journal could confirm investors worst fears that Murdoch intends to cling to his newspapers empire. Worse, he would have to do this at a moment when defending that option is the most difficult for him. It could further weaken him as CEO in the eyes of investors and potentially speed up efforts to replace him. So even if the Bancrofts were rebuffed, it would allow them to extract some revenge for how Murdoch treated the Journal after their departure. On the flip side, if accepted, the Bancrofts would recapture their prized asset at a fraction of what they paid for it.

Of course, in The Man who Owns the News biographer Michael Wolff hardly paints the Bancrofts as a united group. Quite the opposite. So I’ll admit the above scenario does not feel all that likely: the Bancroft capital is no longer sufficiently concentrated. But it would have made for an interesting power play to observe.

Lazy Journalist Revealer. This. Is. Awesome.

Everybody keeps thinking that transparency and improved access to content is something that is only going to affect government, or, maybe some corporations.

I’ve tried to argue differently in places like this blog post and in Taylor and I’s chapter in The New Journalist.

Here’s a wonderful example of how new tools could start to lay more bare the poor performance of many newspapers in actually reporting news and not simple regurgiatating press releases.

Check out the site – called Churnalism.com – that allows you to compare any UK news story against a database of UK press releases. Brilliant!

Wish we had one of these here in North America.

Found this via the Future Journalism Project, which also links to a story on the Guardian website.

How the Globe Editorial Board is Misleading You About Journalism

It was completely fascinating to read the Globe and Mail’s editorial board crow over its “victory” last week regarding the protection of confidential news sources.

Standing up for newshounds!” screamed the headlines, with a bold opening paragraph proclaiming:

The Supreme Court of Canada demonstrated respect and understanding on Friday for news reporting that depends on confidential sources. It set an appropriately high bar for judges who may wish to order journalists to reveal those sources, in civil or criminal cases. The court has in effect given the organized news media the tools to do investigative journalism in the public interest. [Emphasis mine.]

Wow, organized media has been *given tools* to protect the public interest? Yes! (According to the G&M…) Well, if this is true… Cue self-congratulatory text that plays into the trope (and myth) that traditional news media is essential for democracy!

In an era in which every blogger is a self-proclaimed journalist, the court clearly puts great stock in the organized media’s ability to probe behind the closed doors of powerful institutions. [Emphasis mine.]

The Supreme Court – again, according to the G&M – has ruled. Only journalists for the big news companies are real journalists that can enjoy the protection of the court.

This, if it were true, would be really big news. It might even justify such self-congratulatory rhetoric. The ruling however, is not this cut and dry. In truth, it provides no real new tools; the Globe‘s lawyers extracted little from the courts in the form of new protections; and the protections that do exist exist for everyone, not just journalists.

As a result, what is really disappointing about all this is that the Globe‘s editorial is at best misleading, attempting to lure Canadians into believing that traditional news media companies enjoy rights that are special and unique to them (and further, implies those rights are new). At worst, the piece suggests the editorial board clings to a world before the web – confined to an outdated worldview where “creators” who could legitimately report on or talk about the news were separated from “consumers” who passively absorb it. Previously, this worldview was made possible by the technology of the printing press, which kept production in the hands of a few; now that publishing is available to virtually anyone, the Globe‘s editorial board seems interested in finding a new way to limit this freedom – when they should be expanding it – by attempting to cast the law as a restrictive force whose benefits are enjoyed by only a few (them) and not everyone (us). It’s a dark perspective for the country’s leading editorial board to take.

Intrigued? I hope so, because what the ruling did say matters.

So what did the ruling say and what does it actually mean? Let’s look closer.

This Was a Draw, Not a Win.

Conversing with the eaves.ca legal team*, the consensus is that the ruling is a draw, not a win for the media. Very little has changed. Prior to the ruling, ascertaining if a confidential source deserved protection was up to the courts who used the four part Wigmore framework to make their assessment:

  1. the relationship must originate in a confidence that the source’s identity will not be disclosed;
  2. anonymity must be essential to the relationship in which the communication arises;
  3. the relationship must be one that should be sedulously fostered in the public interest; and
  4. the public interest served by protecting the identity of the informant must outweigh the public interest in getting at the truth.

Nothing about this case changes this framework. Courts, not the media, continue to determine if a source should be confidential, and the criteria have not changed. In short, the media has not been given “new” tools. Essentially the same tools as before apply.

Indeed, this case is at best a draw (albeit an important one) for the Globe‘s lawyers. This is because they were arguing for new and special rights, specifically the recognition that “the basis of the journalist-source privilege is a constitutional one.” In other words, they wanted to court to state that journalists have an inherent right to protect sources in the same way lawyers have a special solicitor-client privilege or medical doctors have doctor-patient confidentiality privilege. However, as the decision states:

the Court was unprepared “[t]o throw a constitutional immunity around the interactions of such a heterogeneous and ill-defined group of writers and speakers and whichever ‘sources’ they deem worthy of a promise of confidentiality and on whatever terms they may choose to offer it.”

Ouch. That’s not a victory, it’s outright defeat. Indeed, the court doesn’t even think journalists are a group with any unique rights as it:

also rejected the existence of a class-based privilege, on the basis that there is no formal accreditation or licensing process for journalists in place, as there is for lawyers for example, and no professional organization regulates the profession and maintains professional standards.

But that’s not it. On the fourth Wigmore criteria – the question of public interest – the Globe‘s lawyers also wanted the onus to shift to the party seeking production/testimony. In other words, to keep a source secret it shouldn’t be up to the Globe to persuade the courts that the story IS in the public interest, but up to the other party (person, corporation and government) to persuade the courts that it ISN’T in the public interest.

But the court did not agree with this request either:

The Court rejected this argument. Given that the evidence is presumptively compellable and admissible, the burden of persuasion remains on the media to show that the public interest in protecting a secret source outweighs the public interest in criminal investigations. The Court ultimately concluded that every claim to journalist-source privilege — be it in the face of testimonial compulsion or the production of documents — is situation specific, with the public’s interest in the freedom of expression always weighing heavily in the court’s balancing exercise. [my bold/italics]

Strike two.

So, to recap so far: First, the court has not made journalists a special class.  We all enjoy the rights to publish content and if that content were tested legally, the Wigmore framework would be applied to our sources. Second, the court essentially preserved the Wigmore test, so it has not “given media the tools”; it has simply preserved and reaffirmed the tools that already existed. Essentially the courts mostly sustained the status quo that existed before the lower court upset the apple cart.

I don’t want to belittle this outcome. This is an important victory for all Canadians as it preserves everyone’s ability to engage in investigative journalism if they so choose.

So what’s with the language in the Globe‘s editorial? Why claim a big victory and dump on bloggers? What you are really reading is a lot of spin. Which is part of what makes the editorial so frustrating – I hold the editorial board to a high standard, and I expect them to not spin stories, especially about themselves and a subject as serious as freedom of speech.

So let’s unpack that spin…

Mixed Messages

The first is the effort to qualify the victory.

As we previously saw, the Globe‘s lawyers argued that journalists should be a protected class and journalist-source relationships should enjoy constitutional protection. As we also saw, however, the Supreme Court did not agree. But look at the quote from the piece below:

“Bearing in mind the high societal interest in investigative journalism, it might be that he [Mr. Leblanc] could only be compelled to speak if his response was vital to the integrity of the administration of justice.” That is a high bar, indeed. The protection of sources should never be absolute, but the Quebec Superior Court will have to give it full consideration, in light of the important public interest at stake, when it ultimately decides the matter.

So first, the bar did not really move. Yes, the court overturned the lower court, but it essentially re-affirmed the Wigmore framework. Again, this is great news, but this is something preserved, not gained.

But more intriguing was the editorial board saying that the protection of sources should never be absolute. A constitutionally protected journalist-source relationship either is absolute, or if I understand it correctly, pretty close to absolute. So why say it shouldn’t be absolute when this is what your legal team was essentially asking for? One suspects that had the court given journalists a special, constitutionally protected relationship with sources (which really would have demanded a dramatic editorial) than the paper would have argued that the journalists sources had finally achieved the absolute protection they so richly deserve and need.

Burying the Lead

But what is particularly interesting about the Globe‘s editorial piece is its treatment of pretty much everyone who isn’t employed by the mainstream media. The entire framing of the piece is that this is a win for journalists and the media, even though the court goes out of its way to say they are not a protected or even recognized class.

Indeed the real story is that important rights that belong to all Canadians have been preserved! But that story is buried.

Rather, the Globe seems very keen to divide the country into two groups – creators (that’s them) and (passive) consumers (that’s you).  Coming back to the first quote from the piece, the Globe notes that.

In an era in which every blogger is a self-proclaimed journalist, the court clearly puts great stock in the organized media’s ability to probe behind the closed doors of powerful institutions.

In fact, the court does no such thing. First, the Wigmore framework applies to anyone who publishes. That would include people like myself who blog. That also means you (since really anyone can blog, or tweet, or publish something these days).

Second – and this is where it feels like the editorial board really misleads the public – the court did not put great stock in organized media. Indeed, if anything, it went out of its way to say it put very little stock in it.

The basis of the above line in the editorial is, I presume, this part of the ruling:

Justice Binnie put particular emphasis on the significance of the third and fourth factors [of the Wigmore framework], in the journalist-source context. The third factor, whether the relationship is one that the community should sedulously foster (para. 57), introduces a certain degree of flexibility in the evaluation of the different types of sources and different types of journalists. He suggested that whether the relationship is between a source and a blogger, or between a source and a professional journalist, will impact upon the court’s weighing exercise.

So yes, the credibility of the person will matter. But this also means a fly-by-night newspaper may not enjoy the same protection as an established blogger. But even here the wording is quite conservative – “a certain degree of flexibility” and the difference is “suggested.” This is all pretty qualified, and hardly a sign of the court putting “great stock” in established media.

Of course, what little there is gets watered down even further in the next line of the ruling:

But, according to Justice Binnie, the fourth factor [of the Wigmore framework] does the lion’s share of the work, and the court’s task is to “achieve proportionality in striking a balance among the competing interests” (para. 59).

So the public interest is what really matters – not who (e.g. blogger or newspaper) is seeking to preserve the confidentiality of the source.

In Conclusion

This piece is, in many way, a continuation to a piece I wrote in December after a previous Supreme Court ruling which the court went out of its way to put journalists, bloggers and citizens on a equal footing. In the same vein, my problem with the editorial board’s piece isn’t that they played up the significance of their victory – it is still an important victory. It’s that the piece suggests the victory is the (large) news industry’s to enjoy exclusively (or at least, that we ordinary citizens may only enjoy its benefits through them). This is not the case and it does a disservice to citizens, bloggers and journalists to suggest as such.

The Globe and Mail will likely have a long and illustrious reign as the newspaper of record of Canada – but that reign is more likely to continue if it provides credible insights into both the technological and legal realities of the digital world. This editorial suggests that it does not; and I believe that the country, and the paper, are weaker for it.

*Thank you for those who helped me with the legal legwork on this piece, and for those who’ve stuck through to the end; I know this is an unusually long post.

Twitter is my Newspaper: explaining twitter to newbies

I’m frequently asked about technology, the internet and web 2.0 and in the course of the discussion the subject of Twitter inevitably arises. People are frequently curious, often judgmental, and almost always bewildered by the service. This isn’t surprising, Twitter is poorly understood despite its relative success (and its success is still small in the grand scheme of internet related things). Part of this is because people (even early adopters) are still figuring twitter out, and part of this is because those frequently explaining it don’t understand it themselves (I’m looking at you newspaper columnists).

Most often I sense people misunderstand Twitter because they compare it to a text based internet tool they do know: e-mail. This reference point shapes their assumptions about Twitters purpose and leads them to ask questions like: how can you read all those tweets? or how can you “follow” 250 people? If the unsaid assumption is that twitter creates 2000 new emails a day to read – well no surprise they’re running for the hills! This is doubly true if you believe the myth that all people tweet about (and thus read) is their breakfast menu, or what they are doing in a given moment.

Twitter is not email and while it has many (evolving) uses I’ve found the best metaphor for explaining how my friends and I use it is a much simpler technology: the newspaper.

Few people read every (or even most) articles in a newspaper – indeed most of us just scan the headlines when we see a newspaper. Likewise, very few people read all their tweets. Indeed, many of us go days (guilt free) without ever looking at the newspaper – same with Twitter, many people go days without looking at their twitter feed. The difference is that your newspaper’s headlines only change once a day and it is awkward to carry the thing around with you. Twitter’s headlines are always changing, and its located on your blackberry or iphone.

Now the difference from email becomes more clear. There is no obligation – or even expectation – of readership with Twitter. Emails you have to (or are supposed to) read and, let’s face it, are often a chore to get through. Newspaper articles you choose to read, often for pleasure or consumption.

Indeed, as Taylor and I outlined in Missing the Link, Twitter is better than a newspaper in many ways since you get to choose the columnists whose headlines you’ll scanning. Whereas a newspaper brings together articles, ideas and information someone else thinks you should care about Twitter brings together the ideas, articles and information by people you care about. I follow a number of “thought leaders” people like Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Andrew Potter, Tim O’Reilly, David Weinberger, etc… along with some friends and colleagues. While they occasionally say short pithy things, they are usually linking to articles that they find interesting. In short, some of the smartest people I know, and some I don’t, are essentially creating a vetted reading list for me. This virtual community is my news editor.

Better still, I don’t always have a newspaper on me. But an endless stream of articles vetted by smart people is always just a click away so whenever I have a spare moment – on the bus, in line at the grocery store, or waiting for a taxi – I can pull up some interesting reading material I would otherwise never have read.

I don’t claim this is Twitter’s only use, so it’s not complete, comprehensive explanation, but I’ve found this explanation has helped a number of my non-web savvy friends to “get” Twitter.

The Valpy Social Media debate

So a few days ago I posted this response (a cleaner version to be found here at The Mark) to a piece Michael Valpy wrote in the Globe about how social media threatened the social cohesion of the country. My problem with Mr. Valpy’s piece is that it framed the question in the most negative light – seeing only the downside (and in some cases imagined) consequences of social media and none its positives. I was reminded of Steven Johnson’s delightful and intelligent counter-factual that describes a world where video games precede, and are then displaced by, books. One senses that if we lived in a universe where social media preceded main stream media Mr. Valpy would be writing columns worrying about the loss of the country’s small, rich and diverse conversations, crushed by the emergence a dominant agenda, curated by a small elite.

I was initially excited to hear that Mr. Valpy was writing a response in The Mark. Sadly, his piece wasn’t really a response. It addressed none of my critiques. Instead it focused primarily on repeating his original argument, but more slowly, and with bigger words.

I’ve re-read all three pieces and still feel good about my contribution. My main concern is that when reading the counterfactual at the end of my piece, many people have come to assume I look forward to the decline of main stream media (MSM). Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I believe in the potential of social media and, when I stepin  my counterparts shoes, I also see that MSM offers us a great deal. At the same time, I don’t believe MSM is the sole generator of social cohesion, national identity, or democracy. All three existed before the arrival of MSM and, should it come to pass, will survive its decline.

As a newspaper columnist I can imagine it is frightening to see your audience splintered into smaller fragments. At the same time however, I am surprised that a national commentator can’t see how unhealthy this imaginary social cohesion was, and how unsafe the public space was for many people. Remember, this is an article that paints, in a concerning tone, the passing of a world where people, to paraphrase Mr. Valpy, attended a modern version of Mass to become aware of what others thought they should be aware of. That is not a description of an active and engaged citizenry. That is a description of sheep. Well now the sheep are awakening. Yes it is scary, yes there are unknowns, and yes there is fragmentation. But there are also enormous positives, positives I wish Mr. Valpy and others at the Globe would include in their commentary. If they did they and their readers might see what I and those I work with see: the opportunity for something that it is better than what was on offer before, no matter how rosy a picture he paints of the past.

Ultimately, I think Mr. Valpy and I do share common ground. He sees “A glorious objective” in Michale Ignatieff”s call for a public space:

“Isaiah Berlin described this sense of belonging well. He said that to feel at home is to feel that people understand not only what you say, but also what you mean.”

I too believe this is a noble aim. But, while we stand on common ground, I fear Mr. Valpy and I look away in different directions (I would be interested in trying to reconcile these views – and have said as much to him). My reading of his piece leads me to believe that he looks into the past and posits that not only is such a state possible, but suggests we once achieved it. That there was a  Canada where people understood what one another were saying and meant, but that it is slipping away.

For me, I think any such past was more illusion than mirror.

I look forward and see not the realization of Ignatieff’s glorious objective, but an enhanced ability to pursue it. There are no countries where  people understand what each other say and mean. Only countries where citizens are good or bad at committing to try to understand what each other say and mean. In other words, home isn’t where you are understood, it is where others are prepared to go out of their way to understand you.

The opportunity of social media is it gives citizens – The People Formerly Known as the Audience – the ability to increase the range of views about which they want to be understood. This can lead to disagreements (such as the one the Valpy and I are having now) but it also forces us to face the fact that others do not understand, or agree, with what we say or mean. Whether it is disagreeing or agreeing however, the hall mark of social media has been its ability to expose us to new communities – to connect people with others who share interests and care about issues we’ve both long cared for ourselves, or have just discovered. As much as I like my country when its citizens are held to together by a common passport and newspaper, I like it even more when it is held together by a dense weave of overlapping, interconnected, conflicting and ever changing communities around hobbies, politics, personal interests, books, culture, and a million other things. Communities where new voices can be heard and new expressions of the Canadian identity can be manifested.

The promise of social media is its ability to complexify our story, and our relationships with one another. Ultimately, I see that complexity being much more interesting than illusions cast by crude mirrors reflecting only what their holders decide should be seen. Will social media be able to hold up some new “mirror”? I suspect yes, but ultimately don’t know. But whether it can or cannot, I feel optimistic that the ascendancy of social media doesn’t mean the end of our social cohesion.

Dear Valpy: social media isn't killing democracy, it's making it stronger

So I’m really worried I’m becoming the one man rant show about the Globe, but as long as their columnists keep writing stuff that completely misunderstand the intersection between technology and politics, I feel bound to say something.

First it was Martin Lawrence, who was worried about the future of the country since his profile of young people was (as my friend put it) limited to “an unthinking, entitled drain on the country I call home and pillage without contribution…”

Now Michael Valpy is worried. He’s actually worried about a lot of things (which don’t all seem to hang together, but the part that has him most worried is that Canadians are becoming segmented into smaller groups and that this threatens the fabric of our democracy and country.

The premise goes something like this: the decline of main stream media and the rise of social media means Canadians are suffering from a social cohesion deficit. Increasingly we will have less in common with one another and engage in narrower and smaller conversations. As a result, there will no longer be a “political agenda” we all agree we should be talking about. It is all summed with a quote from a Carleton University Professor:

“The thing about newspapers is that you always find things you didn’t know you were looking for. You come across views that you don’t agree with or don’t like,” says Christopher Waddell, director of Carleton University’s school of journalism. “When you’re searching for things on the Internet, I think it’s much less likely that you’re searching for things that challenge you. You’re much more likely to be searching for positive reinforcement.”

and it goes on…

“Society is always better when someone is trying to undermine your views. And particularly, social cohesion is better, because being challenged forces you to think through why you believe what you believe. It’s the stimulus for debate and discussion and a recognition of multiple others.”

What’s so frustrating is that Waddell and Valpy arrive to the debate both 3 years late and with the wrong conclusion. As Steven B Johnson, who wrote one of many fantastic pieces on “serendipity,” might ask: “Does Michael Valpy even use the internet?” But of course a main stream media columnist and a professor who trains them would naturally see a diminishing role for main stream media as a threat to democracy and the very fabric of the country. This argument has been tried, and frankly, it doesn’t have legs. Democracy and Canada will survive the decline of mainstream media – just as it survived before it existed.

Indeed, the decline of mainstream media may actually be healthy for our democracy. Here are two thoughts for Valpy to stew on:

First, comes from Missing the Link, a piece Taylor and I wrote ages ago which keeps proving to be handy:

The “necessary for democracy” argument also assumes that readers are less civically engaged if they digest their news online. How absurd. Gen Y is likely far more knowledgeable about their world than Boomers were. The problem is that Boomers appeared more knowledgeable to one another because they all knew the same things. The limited array of media meant people were generally civically minded about the same things and evaluated one another based on how much of the same media they’d seen. The diversity available in today’s media—facilitated greatly by the internet—means it is hard to evaluate someone’s civic mindedness because they may be deeply knowledgeable and engaged in a set of issues you are completely unfamiliar with. Diversity of content and access to it, made possible by the internet, has strengthened our civic engagement.

This strikes at the core of how Valpy and I disagree. To be harsh, but I believe fair, he is essentially arguing that we may be better off not only if we are dumber, but if we are collectively so. The country is better, stabler and safer if we all talk about the same thing (which really means… what does Toronto/Ottawa/Ontario insert favourite centralist scape goat here, want). Hogwash I say! Diversity is what makes Canada great, and it is, paradoxically, the thing that binds us. Certainly for my tribe the value of Canada is that you can come here and can be what you want. There is a common value set, but it is minimalist. The central value – now protected by the charter – is that you can be who you want to be. And that is something many of us cherish. Indeed, don’t underestimate the fact that that is pretty strong glue, especially in a world where there are many countries in which such a right does not exist.

Second, I think there is compelling case to be made that it is main stream media that is killing democracy. Virtually every political analyst agrees that ever since Trudeau the power of the Prime Minister’s office has been steadily increasing, more recently to a degree that arguably threatens the role and function of parliament. Do Committees matter any more? Not really. Oh, and name a regional MP who has real weight – someone on par to John Crosbie in his hey day. Pretty hard. What about Ministers? There authority (and accountability) is not even a slice of what it used to. And cabinet? Even it toes the line of the mighty all powerful PM.

What parallels this rise in the PMs absolute power? The increased used of modern technologies. TV and polls. With TVs the Prime Minister can speak directly to Canadians everywhere – without having to be mediated by pesky local MPs or representatives. And with polls, the prime minister doesn’t even need local MPs to give him or her the “sense on the ground.”  But imagine a world where the two very things that Valpy fears are in decline – polling and mainstream media – actually do disappear? With a citizenry fractured along hundreds of conversations there are all sorts of information niches for MPs to fill and play important roles within. More importantly, without effective polling MPs local knowledge and local community connections (enhanced by social media) suddenly becomes relevant again.

If anything polling and mainstream media (especially TV) were killing our democracy. Social media may be the reason we get it back.

How an old media drudge's actions explain the death of newspapers

Taylor and I have received a lot of link love, comments, and emails since posting the piece Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy not a symptom of its death, but one commentator has been the standard bearer in the defense of the traditional newspaper: copy editor and blogger for the Baltimore Sun John McIntyre.

John and I are are involved in a healthy debate over the future of newspapers. In addition to commenting here at eaves.ca, he’s written two critical piece on his own blog. What is most interesting however is that while John disagrees with us in his comments and blog, his actions demonstrate our point. Democracy is better served by the rise of the internet – even if that comes at the cost of the physical newspaper. Why? Because our audiences are better served – and informed – by observing (and participating) in our debate.

Consider our exchange in the abstract. Here are two differing perspectives (mine and John’s), which would never share the pages of even his newspaper. Not only are they directly engaged with one another, but we link to one another – sending readers to one another! We may disagree, but the act of linking requires us (and asks our readers) to acknowledge and engage the other.

But consider too, the very practical. The centerpiece of John McIntyre’s attack on our post was his claim that the US constitution does protect the freedom of the press. In countering our assertion that “Newspapers are not a precondition for democracy—free speech is” John argues that:

“The Constitution does in fact protect newspapers. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Or of the press. Newspapers. Over the past couple of centuries, the legal understanding of the press has been expanded to include, for example, broadcast. But it is clear in the text that the authors of the Bill of Rights foresaw a need to protect the press — what we could now understand as organized journalism — in specific language beyond the protection of the individual right.”

But this is actually a misreading of the constitution. The term “the press” wasn’t referring to newspapers or claiming that they are necessary for democracy (or that even journalism is for that matter). It was stating that Americans have the freedom of expression both in speech and in writing. In this manner, the constitution could have said “abridging the freedom of speech, or of blogs, or word documents, or PDFs.” Indeed, it was one of John’s own reader’s (slugwell) that supplied the legal analysis from Princeton University that confirmed his misinterpretation:

“Despite popular misunderstanding the right to freedom of the press guaranteed by the first amendment is not very different from the right to freedom of speech. It allows an individual to express themselves through publication and dissemination. It is part of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression. It does not afford members of the media any special rights or privileges not afforded to citizens in general.”

This back and forth – this focusing of the argument, the identification of errors and misunderstandings – is physically impossible in the traditional newspaper, and for reasons of culture and pride, remain rare in online editions. And yet, this is what makes blogs so compelling to their readers. Readers are able to learn more, dive deeper and participate in the evolving product (there is no final product on the internet). Alternatively, if they aren’t interested (as many readers of both John and my blog probably aren’t) they move on.

In his second post, John decries Wikipedia because “it advises its readers not to rely on the accuracy of its entries.” At least it advises its readers! But John himself benefited from (or was victim to) the very forces that make Wikipedia trustworthy – others came to point out the errors of his analysis. This is, paradoxically, what makes Wikipedia so trustworthy (and the Baltimore Sun less so – their retractions and errors are printed discretely, away from the prying eyes of readers). Even as he decries “new media” he enjoys and takes part in its benefits.

But let me finally return to this notion of respect. I don’t agree with John, but I respect him – which is why I link to and write about him. More importantly, I think we agree on more than we disagree. John states that he was responding to “a Canadian blogger’s post rejoicing in the death of the newspaper.” Let me concede that our tone sometimes makes it seem we are gleeful about the decline of newspapers, this is not the case. Let us be clear, Taylor and I aren’t celebrating the death of the newspapers. While we take issue with the industry’s argument (and hubris) that they are a precondition or necessary for democracy, anyone who reads our piece, Missing the Link will note this line:

“However, unlike the work of our techno-utopian contemporaries, our critique should not be seen as a jubilant celebration of a dying industry. Traditional media has served society well, and with the right attitude and adjustments, could continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”

As avid newsreaders and commentators, our problem is with how newspapers – and the news industry in general – has been profoundly unimaginative, blind, angry and reactionary towards new technology and possibilities. Our goal in bursting bubbles is to focus the debate on what’s possible and what’s next. Above all, we want news writers to once again talk about how they can better serve the public, not on how the public should serve them.

Background on Missing the Link

Two years ago the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) hosted a panel (audio available here) with Steven Rattner, Jim Brady, Amanda Bennett, Jill Abramson, and Robert Kuttner (with Nicholas Lemann moderating). The purpose was to discuss an article the CJR had commissioned Robert Kuttner’s to write on the future of print media where he essentially argued that the then status quo of print-digital hybrids would ensure newspapers’ survival.

The CJR however, interested in the perspective of bloggers, invited my colleague Taylor Owen to write a response. We ended up collaborating and wrote Missing the Link: Why Old Media Doesn’t get the Internet.

Ultimately we ended up writing a much longer piece, one that was critical of Kuttner and the print-hybrid model. In addition to the CJR we got a couple of sniffs from some other print journals/magazines (Wired for example) but they eventually could not get it published.

Ironically, we were more concerned with getting published (in print or digitally) than simply releasing it on our blogs. Part of this had to do with the piece’s length, but, if we are really honest with ourselves, we got trapped in an institutional mindset and began thinking like priests, not entrepreneurs. Eventually we got busy with other exciting projects and forgot about it (except for this op-ed we wrote in the toronto star).

Two years later the piece could do with some updating but sadly it is just as salient, if not more so, today as it was then. So we are pulling it out of the C drive and sharing it. Better late than never.

Of course, we aren’t devoid of our desire for a better channel. If anyone out there (Slate? Huffington Post?) finds the piece interesting and knows a home for it – print or digital – we would be happy to update it. Mostly, we just want it read.

Here again is a link to the full version of Missing the Link: Why Old Media Still Doesn’t Get the Internet.

Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy's health, not a symptom of its death

Two years ago Taylor and I wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review (which they opted not to publish) critical of Kuttner and the CJR’s faith in the print-hybrid model for media.

After having it sit on our hard drives all this time we are putting it up for download (back story on my next post). It is, sadly, more or less as relevant today as it was when we wrote it.

Here is a link to the full version of Missing the Link: Why Old Media Still Doesn’t Get the Internet.

And here’s one of my favourite passages:

Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy, not a symptom of its death

A recent Columbia Journalism School panel on the future of the newspaper industry ended with a solemn and bold pronouncement: “If print newspapers disappear, it will be a fundamental threat to our democracy.”

Such statements made many of New Media participants roll their eyes—and for good reason. Are newspapers really a precondition for democracy?

This type of irrational hyperbole discredits traditional media’s claim to rational objectivity. Newspapers are not a precondition for democracy—free speech is. This is why the constitution protects the latter and not the former. It is also what makes the internet important—it provides a powerful new medium through which free speech can be transmitted. As we argued earlier, the internet offers its own democratic way of filtering content, allowing what people think is important, relevant and interesting to be aggregated and heard. It may be messy and far from perfect, but then, so is democracy.

Newspapers, in contrast, are many things, but they are not democratic. They are hierarchical authoritarian structures designed to control and shape information. This is not to say they don’t provide a societal benefit—their content contributes to the public discourse. However, how is having a few major media outlets deciding “what is news” democratic, or even good for democracy? The newspaper model isn’t about expanding free speech; it is about limiting it to force readers to listen to what the editor prescribes. When is the last time you had an opinion piece or letter published in a newspaper? There are many more voices in America that deserve to be heard aside from Ivy League educated editors and journalists.

The “necessary for democracy” argument also assumes that readers are less civically engaged if they digest their news online. How absurd. Gen Y is likely far more knowledgeable about their world than Boomers were. The problem is that Boomers appeared more knowledgeable to one another because they all knew the same things. The limited array of media meant people were generally civically minded about the same things and evaluated one another based on how much of the same media they’d seen. The diversity available in today’s media—facilitated greatly by the internet—means it is hard to evaluate someone’s civic mindedness because they may be deeply knowledgeable and engaged in a set of issues you are completely unfamiliar with. Diversity of content and access to it, made possible by the internet, has strengthened our civic engagement.

Far from a prerequisite, traditional media is to democracy what commercial banks are to capitalism. Are banks necessary for capitalism? No. Have they sped up its growth and made it more effective? Definitely. But could some better model emerge that performs their functions more effectively? Absolutely. Much like claiming “you’ll never get by without me” rarely reignites a relationship, fear mongering and threatening your customers won’t bring readers back. This approach merely demonstrates how scared old media has become of its readers, their free speech, and the type of democracy they want to build.

The Death of Journalism? (or journalism in the era of open)

For those that missed them two of my favourite authors – Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson – posted brilliant pieces on the future of the news industry this week. I’ve pulled some of the best lines from both so you can glimpse at why these to writers are models for me. These relevant paragraphs also reveal a further analysis, one I think both authors stop shy of but that both pieces hint at: the Death of Journalism.

…in the long run, we’re going to look back at many facets of old media and realize that we were living in a desert disguised as a rain forest. Local news may be the best example of this. When people talk about the civic damage that a community suffers by losing its newspaper, one of the key things that people point to is the loss of local news coverage… I adore the City section of the New York Times, but every Sunday when I pick it up, there are only three or four stories in the whole section that I find interesting or relevant to my life – out of probably twenty stories total. And yet every week in my neighborhood there are easily twenty stories that I would be interested in reading: a mugging three blocks from my house;

But of course, that’s what the web can do. That’s one of the main reasons we created outside.in, because I found myself waking up in the morning and turning to local Brooklyn bloggers like Brownstoner, who were suddenly covering local news with a granularity that the Times had never attempted. Two years later, there are close to a thousand bloggers writing about Brooklyn: there are multiple blogs devoted to the Atlantic Yards real estate development; dozens following the Brooklyn foodie scene; music blogs, politics blogs, parenting blogs. [A veritable rain forest of information where there was once a desert]

Steven B Johnson

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

Clay Shirky

Both Shirky and Johnson’s pieces acknowledge that the trends hitting the news industry are hitting every part of society but – because they have written articles and not books – they deal with the changes to the news industry ecosystem in isolation. As a result, their analyses account for the death of the newspaper in its current form. However, both shy away from explicitly looking over that bigger cliff – are we seeing the death of Journalism? I for one, hope so, as it will mean a more profound change may be upon us.

Step back and look at the relationship between news gathering institutions and the organizations they report on. A large piece of “investigative news” has been about one set of opaque institutions – the news organization – covertly gathering information on another set of opaque institutions – government, corporations or non-profits – so as to shine a light on some malfeasance.

What if it isn’t just the business model newspapers and TV news that is faulty. What if it is the underlying structure and values are eroding not only among news institutions but also among the entities they normally cover? What if the belief in objectivity and trust in opaque structures are dying? This would mean that the public’s confidence in products, ideas, services, policies and news created behind a curtain – within any opaque institutions – is slowly crumble. In his Bertha Bassam lecture, this is precisely what David Weinberger brilliantly argues is already taking place:

“Wikipedia is far more credible because it shows us how the sausage is made makes Wikipedia far more credible. Yet this is exactly the stuff that the Britannica wont show us because they think it would make them look amateurish and take away from their credibility. But in fact transparency – which is what this is – is the new objectivity. We are not going to trust objectivity, we are not going to trust objectivity unless we can see the discussion that lead to it.”

Such a transformation, a reshaping of credibility from objectivity to transparency, would have profound implications for every organization – corporate, non-profit and governmental – in our society.

The trends Shirky and Johnson describe as killing newspapers – the fact there are more eyes, able to create more information, that is able to flow faster, and freer than ever before – may be making openness and transparency a strategically salient choice for an increasing number of organizations. Firstly, it is simply becoming harder and harder to keep secrets. More and more organizations may decide that, rather than devote energy to hiding secrets that will inevitable see the light of day, why not devote energy to solving the underlying problems that are creating them? More importantly, by being transparent allows these organizations to access the long tail of analyses an additional powerful incentive to being open. Those who share information and invite criticism and analysis may be better positioned to survive crises and challenges than those who don’t. Many eyes makes the bugs in any institution more likely to be shallow.

As a result we may see an organizational ecosystem emerging that strongly favours transparency. This is not to say that every organization will instantaneously become “open” overnight… but there would be increasing pressure, and more powerfully the adoption of the naked corporation as the default model in the new system.

Such a shift would forever change journalism. The first is that opaque news entities – those that don’t make clear the bargain with their readers, that fail to spell out their editorial decisions and philosophy and allow readers to hold them to account, will themselves be at risk. I suspect this will be true even if some magical financial solution (like the terrible idea of subsidizing news with an internet access tax) were to emerge. The problem would simply shift from being a financial crisis to a credibility crisis. If journalism prides itself on objectivity – then it had better find ways to be transparent. This means news sites had better engage with legitimate critics: and this means doing more than having columnists who ignore commenters that poke large holes in their arguments or electing to publish retractions on the bottom corner of page 8 or on some lost webpage.

More profound however may be that journalism in a transparent ecosystem could look very different than it does today. If investigative journalism has been about uncovering the dirty secrets within opaque institutions – what does it do if an increasing number of institutions have no secrets?

I suspect the ideal of good journalism will shift from being what Gladwell calls puzzle solving to mystery solving. In the former you must find a critical piece of the puzzle – one that is hidden to you – in order to explain an event. This is the Woodward and Bernstein model of journalism – the current ideal. But in a transparent landscape where huge amounts of information about most organizations is being generated and shared the critical role of the journalist will be that of mystery solving – figuring out how to analyze, synthesize and discover the mystery within the vast quantity of information. As Gladwell recounts this was ironically the very type of journalism that brought down Enron (an organization that was open, albeit deeply  flawed). All of the pieces of that lead to the story that “exposed” Enron were freely, voluntarily and happily given to reports by Enron. It’s just a pity it didn’t happen much, much sooner.

I for one would celebrate the rise of this mystery focused style of “journalism.” It has been sorely needed over the past few years. Indeed, the housing crises that lead to the current financial crises is a perfect example of case where we needed mystery solving not puzzle solving, journalism. The fact that sub-prime mortgages were being sold and re-packaged was not a secret, what was lacking was enough people willing to analyze and write about this complex mystery and its dangerous implications.

Interestingly this is precisely what many blogs – alone or as part of an emergent network – already do. They take large complex stories, break them down and, by linking back and forth to one another, create a collective analysis that slowly allows the mystery to be decoded. I hope this post is part of such a mystery solving exercise – I’m trying to build off of, and extend, the brilliant analyses of Johnson and Shirky.

Does this mean the death of journalism? Well, in a world where everybody can be a journalists… is anyone a journalist? I don’t know. I’m sure there will always be some professional journalists, but in a world where people distrust opaque institutions I’m not certain they will reside in organizations that look even remotely like the news institutions of today. Most importantly, in a world of mysteries perhaps citizen journalist and bloggers, and their role in the news ecoysystem, will be less frightening than the one most present day pundits (especially newspaper columnists) would have us believe.