jarvis

Losing value in the “Process”

Digital media zealots are confused: they mistake news activity for the health of the news business. Unfortunately, the two are not correlated. What they promote as a new kind of journalism carries almost no economic value. As great as they are from a user standpoint, live blogging / tweeting, crowdsourcing and hosting “experts” blogs bring very little money – if any, to the news organization that operates them. Advertising-wise and on a per page basis, these services yield only a fraction of what a premium content fetches. On some markets, a blog page will carry a CPM (Cost per Thousand page views) of one, while premium content will get 10 or 15 (euros or dollars). In net terms, the value can even be negative, as many such contents consume manpower in order to manage, moderate, curate or edit them.

More realistically, these contents also carry some indirect but worthy value: in a powerful way, they connect the brand to the user. Therefore, I still believe news organization should do more, no less of such coverage. But we should not blind ourselves: the economic value isn’t there. It lies in the genuine and unique added value of original journalism deployed by organizations of varying size and scope, ranging from traditional media painfully switching to the new world, to pure online players — all abiding by proven standards.

What’s behind the word standard is another area of disagreement with Jeff Jarvis, as he opposes the notion of standards to what he calls “process”, or “journalism in beta” (see his interesting post Product v. process journalism; The myth of perfection v. beta culture).  Personally, I’d rather stick to the quest for perfection rather than embrace the celebration of the “process”. The former is inherently more difficult to reach, more prone to the occasional ridicule (cf. the often quoted list of mishaps by large newspapers). As for the latter, it amounts to shielding behind the comfortable “We say this, but we are not sure; don’t worry, we’ll correct it over time”.

To some extent, such position condones mediocrity. It’s one thing to acknowledge live reporting or covering developing stories bear the risk of factual errors. But it is another to defend inaccuracies as a journalistic genre, as a French site did (until recently): it labeled its content with tags like “Verified”, “Readers’ info”, etc.

Approximation must remain accidental, it should not be advocated as a normal journalistic way.

In the digital world, the rise of the guesstimate is also a byproduct of the structure in which a professional reporter finds himself competing with the compulsive blogger or twitterer. Sometimes, the former will feel direct pressure from the latter (“Hey, Twitter is boiling with XY, could you quickly do something about it? — Not yet, I’m unable to verify… — Look pal, we need to do something, right?). Admittedly, such competition can be a good thing: we’ll never say enough how much the irruption of the reader benefited and stimulated the journalistic crowd.

Unfortunately, the craze of instant “churnalism” tends to accommodate all the trade’s deviances. Today, J-Schools consider following market demands and teaching the use of Twitter or live-blogging at the expense of learning more complex types of journalism. Twenty years ago, we were still hoping the trade of narrative writing could be taught in newsrooms populated with great editors, but this is no longer the case. Now, most of the 30-40 something who plunged into the live digital frenzy have already become unable to produce long form journalism. And the obsessive productivism of digital serfdom won’t make things better (as an illustration, see this tale of a burned-out AOL writer in Faster Times).

The business model will play an important role in solving this problem. Online organizations will soon realize there is little money to be made in “process-journalism”. But, as they find it is a formidable vector to drive traffic and to promote in-depth reporting, they will see it deserves careful strategizing.

Take Twitter. Its extraordinary growth makes it one of the most potent news referral engines. Two weeks ago, at the D9 conference, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo  (video here) released a stunning statistic: it took three years to send the first billion tweets; today, one billion tweets are send every six days.

No wonder many high profile journalists or writers enjoy tweeter audiences higher than many news organizations, or became a brand on their own, largely thanks to Twitter. The twice Pulitzer prize winner and NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has 1.1m followers, that is one third of the New York Times’ official Twitter accounts followers.  And Nobel Prize economist Paul Kurgman, who also writes for the New York Times, has more than 610,000 followers. Not bad for specialized writing.

In some cases, the journalist will have a larger Twitter audience that the section where he/she writes: again for the NY Times, the business reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin has 20 times more followers (370,000) than Dealbook, the sub-site he edits. According to its CEO Arthur Sulzberger, a NY Times story is tweeted every four seconds, and all Times Twitter accounts have four times more followers that any other paper in America. Similarly, the tech writer Kara Swisher has 50 times more Twitter followers (757,000) that her employer, the WSJ tech site AllThingsD .

There are several ways to read this. One can marvel at the power of a personal branding that thrives to the mother ship’s benefit. Then, on the bean counter floor, someone else will object this stream of  tweets is an unmonetized waste of time. Others, at the traffic analytic desk, will retort Twitter’s incoming traffic represents a sizable part of the audience, and can therefore be measured in hard currency. Well… your pick.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com


Jazz Is not a Byproduct of Rap Music

Defining article as a “luxury or a byproduct” as Jeff Jarvis did last month, is like suggesting jazz is secondary to rap music, or saying literature is a Deluxe version of slamming. Reading Jarvis’ Buzz Machine blog is always interesting, often entertaining and more than occasionally grating. His May 28th blog post titled The article as luxury or byproduct reverberated across the media sphere – as provocative pieces are meant to, regardless of the argument’s actual connection with facts. Quite frankly, I didn’t pay attention to Jarvis’ latest taunt until the issue was raised in a conference I was invited to.

Let’s take a closer look – in a gracious and constructive manner.

What Jarvis said:

  • Tweeting and retweetting events as they unfold is a far more superior way of reporting than painstakingly gathering the facts and going through a tedious writing and editing process.
  • Background can be done easily with links.
  • The article is: “An extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps”.
  • “An article can be a byproduct of the process”.

In fairness to the City University of New York journalism professor, he fell short of saying that articles are useless or dead (we can breathe a sigh of relief).

To support his position, Jarvis mentions Brian Settler’s coverage of the Joplin tornado: the abundant stream-of-consciousness tweets provided raw material for good reporting. He also refers to the Arab Spring where legions of witnesses fed the social cauldron with an endless current of instant accounts, often supplementing the work of journalists.

Let’s get this straight: I’m not going to join the collective glorification of approximate journalism. Like Jeff Jarvis (but on a smaller scale), I teach journalism. In doing so, I’m careful to remind aspiring reporters that live blogging or compulsive tweeting is not the essence of journalism, merely a tool – sometimes an incredibly efficient one – created by modern internet technology.

The article actually is the essence of journalism. And by no means a “byproduct of the process”.

Two and a half years ago, the Airbus landing in the Hudson became the poster-child for crowd-powered breaking news. Then, the only true visual document was a cell phone picture taken by a ferry passenger. Today, the same event would have been live-tweeted by a dozen of witnesses using all the digital nomad firepower you can think of, from hi-res pics to HD video. And, by the time the genuine reporters show up, all relevant material would have been broadcast to the entire world.
Then, if we follow the Jarvis Doctrine, any additional reporting – let alone narrative reconstruction – would become extraneous or useless. (OK, I’m slightly over the top here).

Still, this “extraneous or useless” byproduct is precisely when and where the real craft enters the media stage. For me, William Langewiesche’s 11,000 words article in Vanity Fair became one of the most compelling stories ever written about this spectacular event.

Similarly, tweets about the Arab revolution are great, but I’m still awaiting for an in-depth profile of Mohamed Bouazizi, the individual who set himself on fire, thus triggering a cluster of unprecedented civil unrest events in the region. Similarly, no social media flow can explain why Western diplomacy is so indulgent towards Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

“Articles are no longer necessary for every event”, states Jarvis. As a matter of fact, I think exactly the opposite. Articles are more necessary than ever to understand and to correct excesses and mistakes resulting from an ever expanding flurry of instant coverage. The substitution from one genre, article, to the other, tweets and the like, can only be done in a marginal way. Daily newspapers become increasingly unable to deal with breaking news or developing  stories. Publishers’ heads remain deeply buried into the sand; they don’t see their costly publications scream their irrelevancy every morning when hitting the streets. They still haven’t come to terms with the need for bold moves such as really separating what belongs to digital media from what works best on paper. (Practically, this means transforming daily newspapers into biweeklies offering strong value-added reporting and perspectives, and using electronic media for the rest.)

My biggest disagreement with Jarvis lies in his lack of appreciation for a story’s background. Don’t bother with the context, he said, just link to it:

In a do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest ecosystem, if someone else has written a good article (or background wiki), isn’t it often more efficient to link than to write? Isn’t it more valuable to add reporting, filling in missing facts or correcting mistakes or adding perspectives, than to rewrite what someone else has already written?

Come on Jeff. You are way too smart to seriously believe what you’re saying. Or maybe you need clicks on the Buzz Machine to cash in on your AdSenses… You can’t ignore that  good journalistic coverage cannot exist without serious background. Are you suggesting background work ought to be subcontracted to third party providers?  On what criteria? What about the notion (outdated, I know) of accuracy, of fact-checking? Is this your vision of modern journalism?

Actually, Jarvis ‘piece doesn’t make any reference to the notion of journalistic sources. Weirdly enough, the most essential part of the reporting process – finding sources, determining who is reliable and who is not, who is genuine and who is manipulative – is completely absent from his pronouncements (not from his teaching, I hope).

The problem is not Jarvis’ views of journalism. He’s a talented provocateur who sometimes smokes his own exhaust. But punditry isn’t reporting or analysis. Still, his talks, books, multiple appearances and knack for self-promotion are quite influential with many young journalists. They shouldn’t be misled. It’s not because news organizations tend to spend less and less on original reporting or on expertise, that those assets ought to be declared unimportant. Also, it’s not because a growing proportion of journalists are actually unable to produce high value stories or articles that the genre is no longer needed. On these matters, Jarvis is reversing cause and effect.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com