Clearing away the confusion

It’s all so confusing to traditional media folks, this thing called “new” news. Permit me the chance to provide a little clarity.

Mathew Ingram (The future of news and why Digital First matters) points to a piece by Seattle Times associate producer and blogger Lauren Rabaino with nine questions:

The big questions I see popping up in newsrooms like my own are:

  1. Do we tweet if we don’t have a link to direct users to?
  2. Do we send an email alert if we don’t have a link to direct users to?
  3. When do we write a story as a blog post vs. a web story?
  4. When do we append an update to the top of a post vs. writing a new post?
  5. When do we stop writing blog post updates and switch over to the print story?
  6. After switching to a print story, do subsequent updates go to the print story or in the blog?
  7. How do we update the blog posts to direct users to the newest information in the print story?
  8. How do we institutionalize the act of adding hyperlinks within previous coverage to newest coverage?
  9. How the hell do we make this all make sense to our users?

To begin with, these questions become easier to answer if we separate our thinking into two streams: continuous news and finished product news. These are two different animals entirely and require different kinds of thinking. If we’re a newspaper, our finished product is the paper and our brand-extension, traditional website. Our continuous news efforts (Web, Twitter, Facebook) are separate, because the nature of the medium suits them better than finished product news. Most importantly, we must not assume that the business model for each is the same. This assumption is the mother of all online mistakes (and confusion) by traditional media companies. I’m not sure we’ve found the right business model for continuous news just yet, but we’re working on it here at AR&D. A traditional media company can do both, but the point is that they must be approached differently.

With that in mind, let’s address these nine questions.

  1. Do we tweet if we don’t have a link to direct users to? Yes, of course. Always. We’re in the news business, not the linking back business. Linking back is a finished product strategy. Remember: separate the two. Speed is what matters in the net. Don’t wait until you have a link. That can come later. This is especially important during breaking news events.
  2. Do we send an email alert if we don’t have a link to direct users to? Not unless it’s the second coming, because you can provide a link to your Twitter or Facebook stream. Link to continuous news.
  3. When do we write a story as a blog post vs. a web story? The question assumes it’s either/or. The answer is both, and to the extent that blogs are a part of your continuous news strategy, then the blog would come first.
  4. When do we append an update to the top of a post vs. writing a new post? It’s always, always, always a new post. Google news doesn’t “see” updates, but it sees new posts and ranks you accordingly. Software can handle “full coverage” — a link to all the pieces relating to a topic — so don’t worry about updating. Save the finished work for your finished product(s).
  5. share of device use by daypartWhen do we stop writing blog post updates and switch over to the print story? Watch traffic to your efforts during the day, and your own users will tip you as to when this “should” occur. Again, I don’t view this as either/or, because it all depends on the situation. The time for finished product online stuff increasingly appears to be late evening (see the chart from comScore) while the continuous news audience is mostly a daytime phenomenon.
  6. After switching to a print story, do subsequent updates go to the print story or in the blog? Again, the answer is easy if you view these as two separate services. This is especially important when the story originated in the continuous news service, so the correct answer is both.
  7. How do we update the blog posts to direct users to the newest information in the print story? You don’t, as long as you view the services as separate with separate audiences.
  8. How do we institutionalize the act of adding hyperlinks within previous coverage to newest coverage? This kind of question flows from the earlier traditions of “guiding” readers/viewers (because they’re too stupid to guide themselves). I’d argue that this is unnecessary, as long as you separate continuous from finished product. Where it is necessary, let software do it for you.
  9. How the hell do we make this all make sense to our users? Again, I think they make sense of it easier than you think, and the question itself is actually pretty insulting. Regardless, clients of ours who practice continuous news AND finished product news find that the most important thing to emphasize is a commitment to “if it’s happening now, we’ll bring it to you.” The rest is intuitive or requires a very short learning curve.

Just remember that these are two separate forms of serving the community. Continuous news precedes finished product news, because it is actually the news-gathering process made public.

Stop complaining and do your job!

I was surprised in two ways when I read bureau reporter Gary Sinderson’s editorial “Why The Penn State Scandal Stayed Secret” in TVNewsCheck this morning. Surprise number one was that Mr. Sinderson’s employer, Cox Media Group, would permit this, and the second surprise was the cavalier manner in which he excused not doing his job.

In a nutshell, the piece is defensive rubbish about how he got scooped by a Harrisburg newspaper writer (Sara Ganim) and how tough it is to work as a TV guy in a restricted environment such as Penn State University. The key graph for me comes as Mr. Sinderson is congratulating Ms. Ganim while at the same time acknowledging that he had basically the same information.

We compared notes on the Sandusky issue. She did fine work and deserves the boatload of awards that will probably be coming her way. We both knew the truth of the story was in Harrisburg with the grand jury. The Patriot-News, to its credit, gave her the time necessary to work on the story.

Why couldn’t I report it? I didn’t have the time to get the needed verification to move the story ahead or to convince my bosses it’s not a rumor, but a real story. It’s just the nature of my particular job. I’m a one-man band, expected to crank out several stories a day. I may get a day or two to work on a large story, but not the time afforded to Ganim.

Let me say, as a veteran news manager in “the biz” and now as an observer of media trends that this is nonsense designed to shift blame to managers who either didn’t believe him or wouldn’t give him the time and resources he felt he needed. It also taps into the misleading and empty jargon from certain industry types who (perhaps even sincerely) believe that more resources is the solution to the problems of TV news. It’s the greedy corporations or the demanding producers who just don’t understand what it’s like out here. Poor me.

I’ve personally worked with “one-man-band” bureau chiefs who’ve worked tirelessly to uncover deep and provocative misdeeds while at the same time maintaining the daily needs of the content machines. These people never complained. Never. They felt it was a privilege to hold such a position, and they worked their butts off to prove it. In a bureau where you’re the Lone Ranger, you’re also the king. You are the master of your own reputation, more so than in any other job within the TV news industry. On behalf of all of those hard-working people everywhere, I deeply resent Mr. Sinderson’s suggestion that he was somehow blocked from this story by his institution or the difficulty of finding people to go “on the record” with him on such a story.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in the news business in Milwaukee in the 70s. We had a major who refused to talk to the press and a police chief with dictatorial powers who designated the chief of detectives as the only person who could speak with the media. Being seen speaking with a reporter, whether on duty or off, was grounds for dismissal. It was impossible to do our jobs without determination (never take “no” for an answer) and ingenuity, of which we had bundles. It all depends on how badly you want it.

That was then, and this is now, but the principle is the same. Cox might want to look into its resources in State College but not to “give more time” to what it already has in place.

 

Marketing in the Net

Believe me, because I'm on TV!One of the things I love about the Internet is the access it provides to utterly transparent, unvarnished and fully-rationalized crap. If you have a point-of-view — and who doesn’t? — then you can find both validation and nullification on the same good old Web. Sometimes, the validation is complete, while other times it’s very subtle and partial. Same with opposing viewpoints, but the beauty here is that when it’s complete nonsense, it’s an amazing and hilarious thing to behold.

One human being’s obvious truth is another’s crap, I guess.

Much has been written here over the years, for example, on the topic of authenticity. Among other things, it’s one of the new values of journalism. People want to hear from those directly involved in the story or to be taken as close as possible to the scene/source, so they can judge for themselves. Authenticity is also smart for 21st Century businesses, because in the network, it’s much more about what you do than what you say. That’s because the other participants in the market conversation — the people formerly known as the consumers — not only see through BS, but they’re capable of calling it out in such a way that others can see it. You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into, as Steven Covey says.

Which brings me to Lisa Barone, Co-Founder and Chief Branding Officer of SEO consulting firm Outspoken Media. I don’t know Ms. Barone, and I can’t even remember how I found her piece at Blogworld. She’s a marketer, and the article is called Why Authenticity Is A Lie (Bad) Marketers Tell.

…What your customers want is the best version of you. The version of you that allows them to see themselves, where they want to be, and which helps them achieve their goals.

That’s what marketing is — Using yourself to show people their desired outcome. Even if that outcome is just your customer with a finally-working dishwasher.

As a marketer, you provide that experience by giving up the hokey authenticity act and creating a characterized version of yourself that exudes who your audience wants to be.

This is utterly astonishing to me. It’s trickery and manipulation. “What your customers want is the best version of you.” Huh? And if that best “version” is false, that’s okay — even desired — by customers, because a “characterized version” is better than the “hokey authenticity act.” Really? How does Ms. Barone know what customers want? Most marketers know a lot about what “works” for them but little about what people really want. This is gimmickry, all of it, and it’s a lame relic of the mass marketing fed industrial age.

What I love most about this is the authoritative nature of its advice. Marketing is defined as “using yourself to show people their desired outcome.” Right. Show white teeth instead of tooth decay. I get that. But it’s as if she’s quoting scripture in her effort to belittle authenticity. Hell, maybe what she’s talking about needs belittling, because if the best you can offer is this “authentic self” meme, I think you’ve missed the point on authenticity. We’re hyperconnected, in the network today. There is no (zero, zip, nada) demand here for messages that “show the desired outcome.” What people want is the truth, not sales pitches.

The advertising industry must be very, very careful about this kind of stuff, because anything that smacks of manipulation will have automatic and drastic consequences in the network. What’s proposed here is a very slippy slope, that the wearing of masks is acceptable in a horizontal world. I don’t object to picking and choosing the best character traits, if that’s a choice, but the line must be drawn at pretending, and I’m not convinced that this is something companies can resist when it comes to profit.

This is not the old world where you can say one thing and do another, because the barriers to entry into the communications world are so low. Anybody can challenge anything, and as Umair Haque so brilliantly notes, in the 21st Century, it’s all about the product you produce, not what you say about that product.

Authenticity is the most misunderstood value of new media, and we shouldn’t be surprised that marketers have mistaken it for a hokey gimmick that makes their sophisticated gimmickry look good. Authenticity is hard for businesses who’ve spent lifetimes perpetuating “the best version of you,” because the unintended consquence is you end up believing your own crap. Hyperconnectivity exposes this, and the only option is to be real.

Insofar as sports is an analogue of war, marketing draws its language from the arenas, stadiums and fields of the world. Ries and Trout’s popular and influential books, Positioning, The Battle For Your Mind and Marketing Warfare suggest that sellers of anything are engaged in a real war with customers and potential customers. Likewise, John Man’s popular book The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan puts business leaders in the shoes of a barbarian conducting war on his neighbors. At stake in this analogue is money, big money gained through market share. It’s all there in black and white: kill your competition, enslave those you conquer, and live on with the spoils of victory. It’s the stuff of pride for anyone with an MBA.

There’s just one small problem that the world of Mad Men overlooked: unlike toy soldiers (or real ones) on a battlefield where one is defending the land and the other is trying to take it, this battlefield doesn’t belong to either, and the owner of the playing field today has the power to say, “Get lost!” When this happens, marketers are trained to ignore the signals, because they feel they have an inherent right — an entitlement, if you will — to play where they don’t belong.

This illusion is what’s being dismantled by technology, because, when given the choice of shutting down the battlefield, guess what? We do it with vigor.

It used to be that, if you had enough money, you could tilt the scales of believability in your favor. That was the gift of mass marketing, and it made a whole bunch of people rich. In today’s increasingly meritocratic culture, performance and product are what count, and this has only begun. “Marketing” is a dirty word in the network.

This is why authenticity is neither hokey nor a gimmick; it’s the narrow path to success in the 21st Century.

Driving traffic (that doesn’t want the ride)

Nobody wants to be drivenThe new Pew study revealing that media companies use Twitter almost exclusively for spreading links to their own content comes as no surprise.

…mainstream news organizations primarily use Twitter to move information and push content to readers. For these organizations, Twitter functions as an RSS feed or headline service for news consumers, with links ideally driving traffic to the organization’s website.

Back when Twitter first came along, I predicted that media companies would immediately become big users, because they could easily see it’s one-to-many functionality. It’s what we know and what we practice. The strategy became:

  1. Get a lot of followers
  2. Feed them breaking news and weather
  3. Feed them promotional content
  4. Feed them stories, many stories
  5. Put a link in everything

Twitter is a terrific notification system, so it’s hard to blame media companies for this practice, but it points to a serious weakness that media has today: its mission can’t help but come across as hypocritical. What appears to be one of disseminating information and being society’s watchdog is actually a commercial mission to make money. There’s nothing inherently evil about that, but think about it. If influencing public life is the goal, then readership is what matters, and there are many ways to efficiently deliver unbundled content via the Web. When forcing people to read our content within our infrastructure, then it’s clear that monetizing that content is more important than anything else.

Using Twitter this way is easy, but it’s also lazy and sells short a tool for newsgathering and news dissemination. When I talk to clients about Twitter, the stumbling block question is always “How many people do YOU follow?” The answer is simple — none or very few. This means that Twitter is to them, in fact, nothing more than a notification system.

However, some individual employees of news organizations use Twitter in a myriad of ways, including to participate in its unique discussions. These employees seem aware of the new reality that their personal brands are everything in the world that’s ahead, so they participate in social media. These smart people may include links to their work as well, but that isn’t necessarily the sole purpose of their accounts. It gets very tricky for some media companies when they try to control the personal accounts of employees, because they cling to the notification system paradigm and the ethical (and profitable) mechanism of an opinion-less stage.

Twitter is also very useful on mobile device, so the practice of only spreading links — that then lead to a fully-packed website and not an HTML5 landing page — is ultimately self-defeating. This is a different playing field with different rules, and we risk our own relevancy by insisting that it’s best used to drive traffic to our advertiser-fed websites.

And nobody ever asked to be driven to such a place in the first place.

What credibility?

Here’s a quote today from Ted Diadium of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in a piece arguing on behalf of journalists keeping their beliefs to themselves:

The most precious thing that any news organization has to sell is its credibility, and that sometimes gets into the shadowy territory of the perceptions that readers and listeners have of their news source. If they see that reporters and editors and Web producers are political activists, our news consumers can easily begin to suspect that the stories are slanted to conform with those political views. Once that faith is lost, so is the reader.

A couple of things to consider. Firstly, what credibility? Here, again, is the Gallup chart:

Gallup press trust, 1973-2011

Secondly, let’s be clear about what Diadium is actually saying when he says “sell” our credibility. He’s talking about maintaining a sterile environment into which they can place advertisements. Therefore, what is presented as an argument for journalism is actually an argument for mass marketing, and this is the great illusion under which many journalists function today. Ignorance of the truth doesn’t make it any less disingenious.

The Poynter conundrum

As hierarchical institutions begin to lose their grip on our culture, a great many things we used to take for granted are now up in the air. This is a permanent fruit of what Jay Rosen calls “the Great Horizontal,” and we really have no idea where it’s taking us. Our culture is based upon hierarchical layers of “expertise,” some of it licensed by the state. This produces order, which Henry Adams called “the dream of man.”

It also produces elites, the governing class, those who call the shots for others not so fortunate as to occupy the higher altitudes. This is the 1% against which the occupiers bring their protests, their dis-order.

We used to think that elites and hierarchical order were necessary for the well-being of all, but that idea is being challenged as knowledge — the protected source of power (and elevation) — is being spread sideways along the Great Horizontal. It’s not that we’re so much smarter than we used to be; it’s that the experts don’t seem so “expert” anymore, because the knowledge that gave them their status isn’t protected today. Anybody can access it with the touch of a finger.

This is giving institutions fits, and each one is fighting for its very life against the inevitable flattening that’s taking place. Medicine wants no part of smart and informed patients and neither does the insurance industry. The legal world scoffs at the notion that they’re in it for themselves as they occupy legislatures and create the laws that work on their behalf. Higher education increasingly touts the campus experience over what’s being learned, because they all know that the Web has unlimited teaching capacity. Government needs its silos to sustain its bureaucracy, but the Great Horizontal cuts across them all.

And then there’s the media, which brings me to The Poynter Institute.

Exercising its position as the arbiter of institutional journalistic ethics, Poynter publicly chided one of its most valuable treasures, Jim Romenesko, over what it called “incomplete attribution” of some of his source material. That’s their way of saying he failed to put quotes around some pieces of copy that were lifted from the articles for which he was providing links. That’s what Romenesko has done for Poynter since 1999 — provide links to content about journalism that he felt was worth reading. He’s held in high esteem by most within the profession, and has received nearly unanimous support over the suggestion — not an actual accusation — that he was practicing plagiarism. Romenesko didn’t just drive traffic to websites; he had his eye on the cutting edge of the institutional changes hammering journalism. His RSS feed has been in my reader since he first provided one. Before that, it was a newsletter.

Romenesko was going to retire at the end of the year, but after the public hand slap from his employer, he resigned this week. He said his heart was “no longer in the job.” I don’t blame him a bit.

Plagiarism, to be sure, is a serious ethical issue for journalism. By failing to provide quotation marks, wrote Poynter editor Julie Moos, those sections “may appear to belong to Jim when they in fact belong to another.”

We are in uncharted territory, marked by uncertainty, which suggests caution. We will continue to evaluate this situation and to be as transparent as possible about what we learn and decide.”

Integrity isn’t determined by pedantic adherence to a set of rules. That’s the bedrock of hierarchical order, where he who is in charge makes the rules. Integrity is a complex (honesty, truthfulness, accuracy) but simple internal character attribute, the virtue of which lies in its consistency. The problem comes in judging it entirely on external appearances, for it’s the full weight of a person’s heart that determines integrity. From my limited view, Jim Romenesko hasn’t a dishonest bone in his body and is respected for his integrity, so this harsh and public suggestion is based on the “appearance” of hypocrisy. As it turns out, Poynter says they were reacting to an inquiry by a reporter from the Columbia Journalism Review, so they acted to spank Romenesko publicly ahead of what they expected would be a “look what I found” piece from the CJR. If that’s indeed the case, it’s especially pathetic.

But Jim Romenesko isn’t Poynter’s problem. The organization’s real conundrum is that it has no choice but to defend the indefensible, journalistic poppycock disguised as the self-governance of an institution in disruption. As a non-profit organization, Poynter must raise funds from a variety of people and organizations, and those who feel under attack are more likely to give a buck than those who aren’t. It’s why every 501.c.3 has an “enemy” that they must overcome and why they deal with crises four times a year.

Here’s a line from the fundraising section of the Poynter site:

Your support of Poynter makes clear your belief that the work of our democracy is too complex and too important for us to be informed by anything less than the very best journalism we can get.

I don’t question the sincerity of those who believe this, but it’s extremely narrow and represents only those who benefit from what it preaches — a group of “qualified” elites who, by virtue of their supreme knowledge, training and skill, are able to figure things out for us poor, stupid morons from main street. It rings hollow, because the people it’s supposed to serve stopped trusting in it in the mid 70s, and now many more people distrust the press than have any faith in it at all. It’s the stuff of the 1%, which the whole occupy movement is resisting, a hegemony that greases the wheels of those who manipulate it so that it can remain atop its self-created pedestal.

This doesn’t do the institution of journalism a lick of good, but it’s wonderful fundraising fodder. One of the complaints that the pros have about so-called “amateur” journalism is its sloppiness when it comes to the sacred canons, so Poynter is in the inevitable position — as defenders of the canons — to ALWAYS act on their behalf and avoid even the appearance of a violation. It finds itself between a rock and a hard place here, unable to bring the enemy of common sense into any argument.

If Poynter was really concerned about the future of journalism, it would take the lead in its reinvention. That is impossible, however, if your core funding mission is the protection of the crumbling status quo.

Most of the stuff I’ve read from Poynter has come through Jim Romenesko. Now that he’s gone, I’ve deleted the RSS feed to make room for the one from jimromenesko.com.

I can’t imagine I’m alone.