Tag Archives: newspapers

Requiring Facebook for Your News Site (or website) – the Missed Opportunity

Last week I published I blog post titled Why Banning Anonymous Comments is Bad for Postmedia and Bad for Society in reaction to the fact that PostMedia’s newspapers( including the Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen, National Post, etc…) now requires readers to login with a Facebook account to make comments.

The piece had a number of thoughtful and additive comments – which is always rewarding for an author to read.

Two responses, however, came from those in the newspaper industry. One came from someone claiming to be the editor of a local newspaper. I actually believe that this person is such an editor and their comments were sincere and additive. That said, there is some irony that they did not comment using their real name, while talking about how helpful and important it is that real names/identities be used. Of course they did use an identity of sorts – their role – although this is harder to verify.

The other comment came from Alex Blonski the Social Media Director at Postmedia Network Inc.

Again, both comments were thoughtful sincere and engaging – exactly what you want from a comment, especially those that don’t entirely agree with post. I also felt like while they raised legitimate interests and concerns, they, in part, missed my point. Both ultimately ended up in the same place: that handing commenting over to Facebook made life easier for newspapers since it meant less spam and nonconstructive comments.

I agree – if the lens by which you are looking at the problem is one of management, Facebook is the easier route. No doubt. My point is that it also comes at a non-trivial cost, one that potentially sees power asymmetries in a society reinforced. Those with privilege, who have financial and social freedom to be critical, will do so. Those who may be more marginalized may not feel as safe. This tradeoff was barely addressed in these responses.

As I noted in my piece, other sites appear to have found ways to foster commenting communities that are positive and additive without requiring people to use their real identities (although giving them the freedom to do so if they wish). But of course these sites have invested in developing their community. And as I tried to stress in my last post – if you are unhappy with the comments on your website – you really have yourself to blame, it’s the community you created. Anil Dash has good thoughts on this too.

As a result, it is sometimes hard to hear of newspapers talk about people not willing to pay for the news and complain of diminishing revenue while at the same time appearing blind to recognizing that what makes for a great website is not just the content (which, especially in the news world be commoditized) but rather that community that gathers around and discusses it. Restricting that community to Facebook users (or more specifically, people willing to use their Facebook account to comment – a far smaller subset) essentially limits the part of your website that can be the most unique and the most attractive to users – the community. This is actually a place where brand loyalty and market opportunities could be built, and yet I believe PostMedia’s move will make it harder, not easier to capitalize on this asset.

I also found some of specific’s of PostMedia’s comments hard to agree with. Alex Blonski noted that they had commenters pretending to be columnists, that they were overwhelmed with spam, and claiming that Discus – the commenting system I use on my site has similar requirements to Facebook. The later is definitely not true (while you may use your real identity, I don’t require you to, I don’t even require a legit email address) and the former two comments feel eminently manageable by any half decent commenting system.

Indeed Alexander Howard – the Gov 2.0 journalist who uses the twitter handle @digiphile seems to manage just fine on his own. He recently updated his policies around moderation – and indeed his (and Mathew Ingram’s) opinions on commenting should be read by everyone in every newspaper – not just PostMedia. In the end, here is a single journalist who has more than three times the twitter followers of the Vancouver Sun (~151,000 vs. ~43,000) so is likely dealing with a non-trivial amount of comments and other social media traffic. If he can handle it, surely PostMedia can to?


Why Old Media and Social Media Don't Get Along

Earlier today I did a brief drop in phone interview on CPAC’s Goldhawk Live. The topic was “Have social media and technology changed the way Canadians get news?” and Christoper Waddell, the Director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Chris Dornan, Director of Carleton University’s Arthur Kroeger School of Public Affairs were Goldhawk’s panel of experts.

Watching the program prior to being brought in I couldn’t help but feel I live on a different planet from many who talk about the media. Ultimately, the debate was characterized by a reactive, negative view on the part of the mainstream media supporters. To them, threats are everywhere. The future is bleak, and everything, especially democratic institutions and civilization itself teeter on the edge. Meanwhile social media advocates such as myself are characterized as delusional techno-utopians. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Indeed, both sides share a lot in common. What distinguishes though, is that while traditionalists are doom and gloom, we are almost defined by the sense of the possible. New things, new ideas, new approaches are becoming available every day. Yes, there will be new problems, but there will also be new possibilities and, at least, we can invent and innovate.

I’m just soooooo tired of the doom and gloom. It really makes one want to give up on the main stream media (like many, many, many people under 30 have). But, we can’t. We’ve got to save these guys from themselves – the institutions and the brands matter (I think). So, in that pursuit, let’s tackle the beast head on, again.

Last, night the worse offender was Goldhawk, who tapped into every myth that surrounds this debate. Let’s review them one by one.

Myth 1: The average blog is not very good – so how can we rely on blogs for media?

For this myth, I’m going to first pull a little from Missing the Link, now about to be published as a chapter in a journalism textbook called “The New Journalist”:

The qualitative error made by print journalists is to assume that they are competing against the average quality of online content. There may be 1.5 million posts a day, but as anyone whose read a friend’s blog knows, even the average quality of this content is poor. But this has lulled the industry into a false sense of confidence. As Paul Graham describes: “In the old world of ‘channels’ (e.g. newspapers) it meant something to talk about average quality, because that’s what everyone was getting whether they liked it or not. But now you can read any writer you want. Consequently, print media isn’t competing against the average quality of online writing, they’re competing against the best writing online…Those in the print media who dismiss online writing because of its low average quality are missing an important point. No one reads the average blog.”

You know what though, I’m going to build on that. Goldhawk keeps talking about the average blog or average twitterer (which of course, no one follows, we all follow big names, like Clay Shirky and Tim O’Reilly). But you know what? They keep comparing the average blog to the best newspapers. The fact is, even the average newspaper sucks. The Globe represents the apex of the newspaper industry in Canada, not the average, so stop using it as an example. To get the average, go into any mid-sized town and grab a newspaper. It won’t be interesting. Especially to you – an outsider. It will have stories that will appeal to a narrow audience, and even then, many of these will not be particularly well written. More importantly still, there will little, and likely no, investigative journalism – that thing that allegedly separates blogs from newspapers. Indeed, even here in Vancouver, a large city, it is frightening how many times press releases get marginally touched up and then released as “a story.” This is the system that we are afraid of losing?

Myth 2: How will people sort good from low quality news?

I always love this myth. In short, it presumes that the one thing the internet has been fantastic at developing – filters – simple won’t evolve in a part of the media ecosystem (news) where people desperately want them. At best, this is naive. At worse, it is insulting. Filters will develop. They already have. Twitter is my favourite news filter – I probably get more news via it than any other source. Google is another. Nothing gets you to a post or article about a subject you are interested in like a good (old-fashioned?) google search. And yes, there is also going to be a market for branded content – people will look for that as short cut for figuring out what to read. But please people are smarter than you think at finding news sources.

Myth 3: People lack media savvy to know good from low quality news.

I love the elitist contempt the media industry sometimes has towards its readers. But, okay, let’s say this is true. Then the newspapers and mainstream media have only themselves to blame. If people don’t know what good news is, it is because they’ve never seen it (and by and large, they haven’t). The most devastating critique on this myth is actually delivered by one of my favourite newspaper men: Kenneth Whyte is his must listen-to Dalton Camp Lecture on journalism. In it Whyte talks about how, in the late 19th and early 20th century NYC had dozens and dozens of newspapers that fought for readership and people were media savvy, shifting from paper to paper depending on quality and perspective. That all changed with consolidation and a shift from paying for content to advertising for content. Advertisers want staid, plain, boring newspapers with big audiences. This means newspapers play to the lowest common denominator and are market oriented to be boring. It also leaves them beholden to corporate interests (when was the last time the Vancouver Sun really did a critical analysis of the housing industry – it’s biggest advertisement source?). If people are not media savvy it is, in part, because the media ecosystem demands so little of them. I suspect that social media can and will change this. Big newspapers may be what we know, but they may not be good for citizenship or democracy.

Myth 4: There will be no good (and certainly no investigative) journalism with mainstream media.

Possible. I think the investigative journalism concern is legitimate. That said, I’m also not convinced there is a ton of investigative journalism going on. There may also be more going on in the blogs than we might know. It could be that these stories a) don’t get prominence and b) even when they do, often newspapers don’t cite blogs, and so a story first broken by a blog may not be attributed. But investigative journalism comes in different shapes and sizes. As I wrote in one of my more viewed posts, The Death of Journalism:

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.

And finally, Myth 5: People only read stories that confirm their biases.

Rather than Goldhawk it was Christopher Waddell who kept bringing this point up. This problem, sometimes referred to as “the echo chamber” effect is often cited as a reason why online media is “bad.” I’d love to know Waddell’s sources (I’m confident he has some – he is very sharp). I’ve just not seen any myself. Indeed, Andrew Potter recently sent me a link to “Ideological Segregation Online and Offline.” What is it? A peer reviewed study that found no evidence the Internet is becoming more ideologically segregated. And the comparison is itself deeply flawed. How many conservatives read the Globe? How many liberals read the National Post? I love the idea that somehow main stream media doesn’t ideologically segregate an audience. Hasn’t any looked at Fox or MSNBC recently?

Ultimately, it is hard to watch (or participate) in these shows without attributing all sorts of motivations to those involved. I keep feeling like people are defending the status quo and trying to justify their role in the news ecosystem. To be fair, it is a frightening time to be in media.

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.

And I refuse to lie. It sucks to be a newscaster or a journalist or a columnist. Especially if you are older. Forget about the institutions (they’ve already been changing) but the culture of newsmedia, which many employed in the field cling strongly to, is evolving and changing. That is a painful process, especially to those who have dedicated their life to it. But that old world was far from perfect. Yes, the new world will have problems, but they will be new problems, and there may yet be solutions to them, what I do know is that there aren’t solutions to the old problems in the old system and frankly, I’m tired of those old problems. So let’s get on with it. Be critical, but please, stop spreading the myths and the fear mongering.

The Next News Media Metaphor – The Sports Team

Many things going on that I want to talk about… Excited about working on Mozilla Drumbeat, a project the Mozilla Foundation that is getting ready to launch. Open Data stuff at the City of Vancouver (some new things are afoot). Watching (in the background) In the Loop – amazing, hilarious and dark. But, for now ruminating on my conversation today with Mathew Ingram (currently of the Globe, soon to be with GigaOM) and an interview I did with a Ryerson Journalism Review writer on the future of media and newspapers.

One of the things that struck me about newspapers is that their conundrum is even greater than we think. Mathew and I were talking about how the “magic” and “mystique” of the newspaper has disappeared. There was a time when we could pretend that columnists in the Globe actually had 300,000 or 400,000 (saturday) readers. But this was in an era when we couldn’t actually measure readers. We pretended (and still do) that each newspaper got read, sometime multiple times.

It reminds me of the memorable opening scene from Googled: The End Of The World As We Know It by Ken Auletta and below described by Erick Schonfeld:

The first scene is a 2003 meeting with Mel Karmazin (then CEO of Viacom) at the Google campus with a sweaty Brin, Google’s other co-founder Larry Page, and CEO Eric Schmidt. At the end of a his visit, Karmazin tells them he is appalled that Google is “fucking with the magic” of the media business by actually telling advertisers which ads work and which ones don’t.

The internet is has fucked with the magic of newspapers. And that’s scary for anyone who grew up under the old model. Forget about the advertising (that’s the part google messed with). What about the simple ego bash and job justification crisis of suddenly being able to see exactly how many readers looked at your piece and how long they chose to stay. And what about discovering that that number is nowhere near what you’ve been telling yourself for years.

The era of collectively lying magic is over. The average globe weekday circulation is 330,145, the Star’s is 446,493 and the Post’s 209,211. How many of those papers got read? Half? (the morning was too busy, kids had early practice, didn’t have time for a coffee break today, no one grabbed it from the airport lounge or hotel room). Of the remaining papers, most readers skim the paper and maybe read one or two of their favourite columnists plus a news story or two that really catches there eye. In short I suspect most columnists maybe get read, in print, by 60K people. But we don’t know, cause there are no good metrics.

Online, the world is different. The editors know who is getting read and who isn’t. No ifs, ands or buts. Suddenly your value to the newspaper (financially) becomes very clear, very fast. Valuable columnists and reporters attract what website people call “uniques” (e.g. a unique person visiting your website – each unique visitor may click on several articles and thereby generate a number of pageviews). Advertisers care about the unique visits, since 100,000 different people seeing an ad is worth a lot more than one person clicking around the site 100,000 times and seeing their add over and over again.

And what attracts lots of unique visitors? The same things as what drives everything else on the internet. Reputation and thus… brand. The most successful writers (or, er… bloggers) are those that people wake up everyday saying… I want to read her! This is even more true today where there is SO MUCH content being created most readers simply cannot separate the noise from the signal (even with twitter, which is probably the best tool). So having a strong brand is essential. This should be a good news story for newspapers and media companies since they have established brands and so, in theory, should have a leg up on bloggers like me.

The problem is – I suspect – that the brand that matters doesn’t solely or even primarily reside with the newspaper. People need someone to connect with – a newspaper is a nice filter, but it offers no connection, no intimacy. The personal brand of columnists and journalists will likely become equally, if not more important than the newspaper.

But this doesn’t mean newspapers are dead. Just that they need to be sure they know how to manage talent in an era where that talent’s brand is more and more important.

And we have a model for that. Sports teams.

For years Sports Teams have had to increasingly co-manage their own team (media platform) brand with the brand of the players (writers). The rise of the sports superstar has altered how sports franchises work in much the same way they may the newspaper biz.

So the bad news is, the talent is going to consume more of the value generated by news organizations. The good news is threefold. First, good newspapers have always managed talent – so there is some skill and process already in place around this. Second, newspapers now have real tools by which to measure their columnists. Who’s being read and who isn’t? Essentially, every managing editor should pick up a copy of Moneyball stat. A good newspaper is going to have its senior talent – its stars, if you will. But it also needs to have a mix of people on the second and third line it is grooming for later – in case a star gets injured or, is simply too expensive to justify.

Finally, there is a larger and deeper talent pool to draw from. Not only are there the local papers and a number of niche community papers to look at, there are an army of bloggers (many of us aren’t that good, but what we lack in talent we make up for in sheer numbers). And successful bloggers come with established audiences and the advantage of maturing in the online world and not the “magic” pre-internet media environment. They are used to looking at the hard numbers of pageviews and unique visitors. The opportunity to write more seriously, get mentored, and access a platform that can deliver more eyeballs will be tempting to anyone who writes well.

But I suppose none of this is that shocking. In a world where human capital is increasingly the most important asset and where personal brands are more easily established, maybe every organization is going to look more and more like a sports franchise.

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.

Open Source Journalism at the Guardian

crowd sourcedA few months ago I wrote a piece called the Death of Journalism which talked about how – even if they find a new revenue model – newspapers are in trouble because they are fundamentally opaque institutions. This built on a piece Taylor Owen wrote called Missing the Link about why newspapers don’t understand (or effectively use) the internet.

Today Nicolas T.  sent me this great link that puts some of the ideas found in both pieces into practice. Apparently, in the wake of the MP expense scandal in the United Kingdom, the Guardian has obtained 700,000 documents of MPs’ expenses to identify individual claims. Most MPs probably imagined they can hide their expenses in the sea of data, for what newspaper could devote the resources to searching through them all?

No newspaper could, if by “newspaper” you mean only its staff and not its community of readers. The Guardian, interestingly, has taken on this larger community definition and has crowd sourced the problem by asking its readers to download and read one or a few documents and report back any relevant information.

What makes this exciting is it is one example of how – by being transparent and leveraging the interest and wisdom of their readership – newspapers and media outlets can do better, more indepth, cheaper and more effective journalism. Think of it. First, what was once an impossible journalist endeavor is now possible. Second, a level of accountability previously unimaginable has been created. And third, a constituency of traditional (and possibly new) Guardian readers has been engaged – likely increasing their loyalty.

Indeed, in effect the Guardian has deputizing its readers to be micro-journalists. This is the best example to date of a traditional (or mainstream) media institution warming (or even embracing) at least a limited concept of “the citizen journalists.” I suspect that as institutions find ways to leverage readers and citizen journalists and that the lines between journalist and reader will increasingly blur. Actually it will have to.

Why is that?

Because for the Guardian model to work, they had to strike an agreement (a bargain – as Clay Shirky calls it) with their community. I don’t think anyone would have been satisfied to do this work and then simply hand it back to the Guardian without the right to access their work, or the work of other micro-journalists. Indeed, following the open source model, the guardian has posted the results for every document read and analyzed. This means that the “raw data” and analysis is available to anyone. Anyone of these micro-journalists can now, in turn, read the assemblage of document reviews and write their own story about the MPs expenses. Indeed, I’m willing to wager the some of the most interesting stories about these 700,000 pages will not be written by staff of The Guardian but by other parties assessing the raw data.

So what does that make the Guardian? Is it a repository, a community coordinator, an editorial service…? And what does it make those who write those stories who aren’t employed by the Guardian? Caring about, or getting caught up in these terms and definitions is interesting, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that journalism is being reinvented and this is one compelling model of why the new model can tackle problems the old one couldn’t even contemplate.

Treating the web as an archive – or finding the financial crisis' ground zero online

Most often when people think of the web they think of it as a place to get new information. Companies are told they must constantly update their website while customers and citizens look for the latest updates. But because the web is relatively new, it is strongly biased towards digitally displaying and archiving “new” information.

What happens when the web gets older?

One possibility… it could change how we study history. Again, nothing is different per se – the same old research methods will be used – but what if it is 10 times easier to do, a 100 times faster and contains with a million time the quantity of information? With the archives of newspapers, blogs and other websites readily available to be searched the types of research once reserved for only the most diligent and patient might be more broadly accessible.

Consider this piece in the New York Times published on November 5th 1999. It essentially defines ground zero of the financial crisis:

Congress approved landmark legislation today that opens the door for a new era on Wall Street in which commercial banks, securities houses and insurers will find it easier and cheaper to enter one anothers businesses.

The measure, considered by many the most important banking legislation in 66 years, was approved in the Senate by a vote of 90 to 8 and in the House tonight by 362 to 57. The bill will now be sent to the president, who is expected to sign it, aides said. It would become one of the most significant achievements this year by the White House and the Republicans leading the 106th Congress.

”Today Congress voted to update the rules that have governed financial services since the Great Depression and replace them with a system for the 21st century,” Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers said. ”This historic legislation will better enable American companies to compete in the new economy.”

Here is what may be the defining starting point of the financial crisis. The moment when the tiny little snowball was gently pushed down the hill. It would take 10 years to gather the mass and momentum to destroy our economy, but it had a starting point. I sometimes wish that the New York Times had run this article again in the last few months, just so we could get reacquainted with the individuals – like Larry Summers – and political parties – both – that got Americans into this mess.

Indeed, as an aside, it’s worth noting the degree by which the legislation passed. 90 votes to 8 in the senate. 362 votes to 57 in the House. There was clearly a political price to pay to vote against this bill. Indeed, it fits in nicely with the thesis Simon Johnson outlined in his dark, but important, piece The Quiet Coup:

“…these various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector”

Still more fascinating is how accurately the legislation’s detractors predicted it’s dire consequences. Check out Senator Dorgan’s comments at the time:

”I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930’s is true in 2010,” said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota. ”I wasn’t around during the 1930’s or the debate over Glass-Steagall. But I was here in the early 1980’s when it was decided to allow the expansion of savings and loans. We have now decided in the name of modernization to forget the lessons of the past, of safety and of soundness.”

Or Senator Wellstone’s:

‘Scores of banks failed in the Great Depression as a result of unsound banking practices, and their failure only deepened the crisis,” Mr. Wellstone said. ”Glass-Steagall was intended to protect our financial system by insulating commercial banking from other forms of risk. It was one of several stabilizers designed to keep a similar tragedy from recurring. Now Congress is about to repeal that economic stabilizer without putting any comparable safeguard in its place.”

And of course, it worth remembering what the legislation’s supporters said in response:

Supporters of the legislation rejected those arguments. They responded that historians and economists have concluded that the Glass-Steagall Act was not the correct response to the banking crisis because it was the failure of the Federal Reserve in carrying out monetary policy, not speculation in the stock market, that caused the collapse of 11,000 banks. If anything, the supporters said, the new law will give financial companies the ability to diversify and therefore reduce their risks. The new law, they said, will also give regulators new tools to supervise shaky institutions.

”The concerns that we will have a meltdown like 1929 are dramatically overblown,” said Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska.”

What is most fascinating about this piece is that it shows us how the financial crisis wasn’t impossible to predict, that it didn’t come out of nowhere and that it could have been eminently preventable. We simply chose not to.

It also goes back to the type of journalism that I believe we are missing today and that I wrote about in my post on the Death of Journalism. Here is a slow moving crisis, one that is highly complex, but not impossible to see. And yet we chose not to “see it.”

This, I believe, has to do with the fact that today, much of our journalism is gotcha journalism (or what Gladwell refers to as mysteries). It looks to finding the insider or the smoking gun that will bust open the story. I suspect that in a networked world – one of increased complexity and interconnectedness – finding the smoking gun is irrelevant. For an increasing number of stories there simple is no smoking gun. There are whole series of cascading action that are what Galdwell calls open secrets. Our job is to “see them” and painstakingly connect the dots to show how our decisions are allowing for the scary and unpredictable event – the black swan event – to become a near certainty.

What the above article shows me is that while the very tools and forces that make these scary events more likely – the internet, globalization our interconnectedness – they may also make the the open secrets easier to identify.

who is going to cover city hall? we will…

More follow up on the future of democracy and the media. In the comments one reader – Karen – commented:

So….which of you brilliant Gen Y bloggers is going to sit at local park board meetings to find out how they are spending your tax money? Just wondering.

I don’t care whether newspapers live or die. It’s just a medium. (Yes, the singular of “media.”) It may well be it’s an outdated medium. It’s certainly a wasteful, expensive and environmentally harmful medium.

However, when newspapers die (so what? good riddance) the services that newspapers have traditionally supplied – such as serving as watchdogs for even the smallest municipalities, taxing bodies and so on – remain necessary to a functioning democracy. What happens when governments make decisions with no one watching?

And it’s tedious, people. Maybe some of you are experienced with this. Sitting through three-hour meeting of county commissioners, poring through stacks of facts and figures, following up to ask questions, finding alternate points of view – this is time consuming and not a whole lot of fun. When there are no reporters at these meetings, who will do this? Do you think it is no longer necessary? Will citizen journalists spend hours – unpaid – going line by line over the police board’s budget?

Well, according to Frances Bula, one of Vancouver’s finest journalist’s focused on local politics (she used to work at the Vancouver Sun, and now freelances for several publications, including the Globe and Mail) it is us who are covering this “small” stories. In a recent post entitled “When did civic politics get so interesting?” she states:

It’s hard to remember, but in those days, no one cared about city hall. It used to be me and a couple of Chinese-language-media reporters who would hang out in the pews at city council chambers on Tuesdays. When I went to the committee meetings on Thursday, I was usually the only reporter there. People coming to speak to council issues sometimes thought I was the recording secretary. And it was like that for quite a long time. Years and years, really, although Allen Garr started writing for the Courier after a while so then there was, thankfully, one more person.

This week in Vancouver, when city hall was stuffed like a turkey with news — the budget, cracking down on crummy SROs, whether to allow mixed martial arts events, police budgets being wrecked by gang investigations, Councillor Suzanne Anton grilling the mayor like he was a naughty boy about campaign financing — there were as many reporters and outlets covering the events as at any session of the provincial legislature…

…So, even though I now can’t get a seat at the media table these days if I come late to council, and it feels sometimes like everyone is falling over each other to get the latest little tidbit from the city, it’s okay — and even kind of fun — that it’s crowded.

But then this is what Shirly predicted would happen once the we understood the size of the cognitive surplus that is out there…

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.

Print Media: Nostalgia is not a growth model (or, on why being online is better than than paper)

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 reading and commenting. 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 another of my favourite passages, (written before the arrival of the kindle!):

Print Media: Nostalgia is not a growth model

Mostly, it is baby boomers who are nostalgic for newsprint, and they are not a growth industry. Sure, there are some, younger, holdouts. But these are generally students of the Columbia Journalism School, not those they hope to write for. Yes, the texture of a newspaper is nice – but the newspapers can’t afford to print and distribute them and, so far, you’ve been unwilling to pay a premium for it.

More seriously, media traditionalists often cite two examples— incidental reading and ideological objectivity—to explain why physical newspapers will and should remain the main distribution channel for print media. However, the purported value of physical newsprint simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Scanning the pages of a newspaper is indeed a virtue. It exposes readers to articles they might not seek out, broadening their range of news and opinion. However, this process is no different from what happens online. Links, aggregators and email steer readers to a far broader range of articles than they could conceivably imagine by simply flipping through a newspaper. Indeed, the internet enables this incidental reading better than newspapers. Take the BBC website, where any given article has links to related pieces both across the internet and in different sections of the site. A political article might cause a reader to click on a link to a related piece in the Science/Nature or Africa sections. Once there, they are confronted with an array of ‘incidental’ headlines. The tunnel syndrome argument simply doesn’t hold weight.

The other oft-cited example of the value of newspapers is that they prevent readers from falling into self-selected ideological silos. The argument follows that, when left to their own devices, innocent readers will gravitate towards the poles of their ideological bias. What they need, and should pay for, is a physical entity that provides them with a limited, but ‘healthy’, range of information.

This argument ignores the fact that many newspapers operate as ideological poles themselves. The New York Times clearly favors the left whereas the Wall Street Journal appeals to the right. More importantly the internet, unlike print media, provides tools to overcome these silos. Not all content delivered through an aggregator will be consistent with a reader’s perspective (indeed, one can imagine a customized aggregator that specifically targets news pieces that challenge its readers). More importantly, the internet gives readers the freedom (and safety) to select content from a broader range of perspectives. Most liberals wouldn’t be caught dead with an issue of the National Review in their hands, and when was the last time you saw a pinstriped Wall Streeter reading the Nation? But thousands of liberals read the Corner (the group blog of the National Review). This is because the ease, speed and anonymity of the web stimulates exploration that the physical world prohibits. In addition, many posts are written in response to other pieces, to whom they inevitably link (imagine the Nation sending readers to National Review!). Neither traditional nor New Media can single handedly mediate or resolve political difference, but at least New Media links the poles to one another, rather then creating isolated playgrounds where pundits can safely take shots at one another.

While sometimes seen as nostalgia, these arguments are simply a proxy for a deeper set of concerns felt by elites who fear the day the unkempt masses are finally freed to choose and read what they will. Controlling your customer has a never proven to be a sustainable business strategy, and for a business deeply concerned with freedom, it is disturbingly anti-democratic.

This piece is pulled from a longer piece we wrote called Missing The Link: Why Old Media still doesn’t get the Internet.

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.