Long Live Long Form

In a Mediabeat Interview (click image to view) with Michael Wolff, founder of Newser (“Read Less, Know More”), a news aggregator, Wolff explains: “We take lots of content and make it short, without ripping of someone’s headline or lead. We take a full story and very carefully reduce it to 65-200 words, using editorial skills. People have a need for shorter, faster information. We have to absorb more. The New York Times is a bore; they write for an older world.”

I agree that there is a need for places to get news fast and as a quick, easily digestible read. But reading long-form journalism is not “a bore” or meant for an “older world” (whatever that means) and far from obsolete. And I am sure, Mr. Wolff, that many of the articles that you reduce are written by these “old-world” journalists.

Want proof that long-form journalism is on the rise? Take as an example the news site ProPublica. Its readers like to read long stories, according to the results of ProPublica’s 2011 Reader Survey. Steve Meyers concludes in Poynter that “ProPublica’s not alone here. Long-form journalism is benefiting from new technologies (the iPad) and Web services (Instapaper, Read It Later), curating services (Longreads, Longform) and products (Kindle Singles, Byliner, The Atavist).”

So, Newser, your days might be numbered. Just skimming the surface is becoming the new bore.

We increasingly chose to read content, not just snippets, online. And tablets are exhilarating that pace. Not only do they entice online readers to read longer articles, but they also have an ever-growing impact on users’ willingness to pay for that content.

On that bright note, Happy New Year!

E-Publishing — A Revolution?

 

Got your Kindle/Nook/iPad? Happy?

I love gadgets. I am usually the first to try out a new electronic thingy. I bought a cell phone when they were still as large as a brick; my first PC was a DOS-based IBM XT computer with a floppy disk slot, a 10 MB hard disk drive and 56 KB of memory. Remember DIR [drive:][path][filename] [/P] [/W] [/A[[:]attributes]] [/O[[:]sortorder]] [/S] [/B] [/L] [/V]? I do. I built my first website when it wasn’t fashionable yet to promote one’s personal brand digitally (and not on a blogging-platform, mind you, where you copy and paste and that’s all there’s to it, but by painstakingly hand-coding.)

But using an e-reader? Hmpff.

I like the printed book too much. I like the smell of books. I like dedications in books, authors’ signatures and the memory where I bought the book or who gave it to me. I like to feel the weight of the book, see exactly how much more there is to go before I’m done, before I snap it shut to give it away; or before I write my name in it and put it on my shelf to re-read, where it awaits its turn next to the colorful spines of many other books. I like hardcover books that have their own sewn-in book mark. I like cheap paperbacks with stains, like the one from the memorable flight to Europe, when my daughter spilled Bloody Mary mix all over my bag. The book still smells like a cocktail shaker. Memories like that. And no e-reader can give me that.

But regardless of my nostalgic digging into old times, I am aware, and at awe, that the e-book revolution has arrived! This might be good news for print media in general. Fascinating.

U.S. e-book sales grew from $3 million in 2005 to $88.7 million in the second quarter of 2010. According to the International Digital Publishing Forum, by the end of the third quarter, it had reached $119.7 million. It’s a phenomenon that redefines the nature of reading itself. We are close to the tipping point of forever changing the publishing industry.

New York Women in Communications recently hosted a fascinating panel that gave a glimpse into what publishing will have in store for us. The panelists included Ray Pearce, vice-president, Circulation & Reader Applications at The New York Times; Lauren Indvik, assistant editor at Mashable.com; Matt DeVirgiliis, e-book manager, Digital Rights & Alliances at McGraw Hill Digital; and Sujata Gosalia, associate partner at Oliver Wyman. The moderator was Tim Carmody, a writer at Snarkmarket.com and the founder of Bookfuturism.com.

Now that the iPad and various simpler e-readers have become the must-have gadgets for the avid reader, Google launched its own cross-platform initiative “Google Editions” or simply Goggle eBooks — a hub for purchasing and accessing more than 3 million e-books on various platforms (computer, mobile, e-reader and tablet), giving consumers a choice where, on what platform they read and at what expense. Their initiative is shaping up to be, according to MediaBeat, “the world’s largest library of titles.”

With Google introducing the new purchasing model, there is no more device-restricted downloading; readers freely share content and read it on any device they own in the “cloud,” or pay for downloads in one centralized marketplace, thus taking control away from the e-reader manufacturers that are still vying to curb the distribution of free content.

“For newspapers, Google is ‘very interesting’,” admits Ray. Still, he says, “we, at the newspaper, decide what we want to keep control of, namely our customer care. We want you as a New York Times reader; we want to know who you are. We want to determine a consistent pricing model, no matter the device you read the newspaper on. We need to structure the payment that meets our needs.” And newspaper content online, after the reader exceeds a pre-set amount of downloads will soon disappear behind a pay wall.

Google’s arrival at the e-publishing forefront, “shows how important search is to finding content,” adds Sujata. “They’re a lot of players to influence what users see first and respond to. Now, the end consumer owns the content and thus takes the power away from the manufacturers of the devices.”

But in the new world of publishing and sharing, who has the rights to the content? “We need to find the happy middle,” says Matt. “Keep your customers and your clients in mind and strike a balance; be also careful to safeguard the content for the author.” Adds Ray: “Publishers start to bundle in packages to meet the customers’ needs, like “buy once — access anywhere” wherever it fits me at the time. Most publishers are on that track.”

The publishing industry is met with a growing consumer demand that content ought to be customized to a specific platform. Reading is not a one-size-fits-all experience any longer; depending on the device, readers expect the content, the level of interaction and the ease of accessibility to change across the various platforms.

The average consumer has now changed dramatically: “When the first e-readers hit the market, about 75% of the average readers were young and female,” says Lauren. “The e-publishing market has grown to a billion readers [worldwide, who access content electronically]. Now, the split is even, with shiny devices preferred by men.” But interestingly, readers who use their iPad to access newspapers use these devices almost as they would use their print newspapers: they tend to use their gadgets early in the morning, in the evening and on weekends. According to Ray, during the day, mobile devices and computers are used more frequently to access The New York Times. “E-readers are in between mobile and computers. And size matters: The e-reader wants to conquer your bag; the mobile wants to conquer your pocket and the iPad wants to sit on your coffee table.”

What’s next in e-publishing? “Screen sizes!” predicts Matt. “TVs will use the same apps that are on your mobile. Everything that’s electronic will soon be talking to each other.” “The line of what is publishing, media and technology will blur and interact,” believes Sujata. “For consumer technology and content creators, this is scary but exciting!”

Book authors will rethink their works to fit a certain digital platform. “The criteria for how to judge a ‘good’ novel will change to ‘is it interactive?’” adds Lauren. “Not only how the book is written but how engaging it is. Authors will rethink what they can do with content to reach more consumers.”

Traditional publishers will have to assess how they produce their content and what kind of interactivity and freedom they want to give the reader. “We still need to understand the brand process and how it is accessed, where and by whom,” says Sujata. “How do we rethink the workflow of content creation, layout and how it looks on the various screens and screen sizes?”

In the end, however, all agreed that there will always be a place for printed books, magazines and newspapers in the world. “Overnight, the idea that you cannot charge for digital content evaporated when it became clear that there is no ad revenue online,” concludes Ray. “Customers now expect to pay for content on their gadgets. No more free for all.”

 

WikiLeaks to Old Media’s Rescue!

The implications for journalism could be immense. After WikiLeaks unveiled yet another batch of secret and not so secret documents — this time revealing the State Department’s pretty tame musings about foreign dignitaries — the public led out a collective cyber-gasp (at left, the cover of the German news-magazine Der Spiegel with its headline “Revealed: How America Sees the World”).

Was this just a tempest in the usually rather tepid teapot or a poisonous arrow in the quiver of new media enthusiasts aimed at top-down journalism? It may have been both.

The fact that we can upload everything, anytime and anywhere onto the web has stark repercussions for all media, old and new: Now, more than ever, we need old-time editors and investigative journalists, who can weed through the vast amount of data and hunt for the relevant among the irrelevant, filter the important scraps from the noise and the fluff. The ability to find any type of data, classified or not, on the internet and to dump every piece of information into cyberspace still doesn’t make it factual. That’s why the New York Times, the only U.S. newspaper, and four other foreign print publications, among them the British Guardian, were given first-access to the more than 250,000 documents, maybe in an attempt to give the data credibility. Not the blogs, or the ever-present Huffington Post, but old-fashioned print media were the first to have a go at the information. How ironic.

The New York Times explained why it decided to publish the secret diplomatic documents (under the headline State’s Secrets), saying that they represent “a mammoth cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables, most of them from the last three years [that] provides an unprecedented look at bargaining by embassies, candid views of foreign leaders and assessments of threats”. The Times also devoted a page on its website to answering readers’ questions about the publication. And it went on:

“The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.”

Investigative journalism is back with a vengeance, and sites like WikiLeaks are a new, cheap and increasingly important tool in its tool box. Seems the watchdogs that were asleep at the wheel are barking again. The Genie is out of its classified bottle, and as long as no lives are endangered or people are put at risk, I believe that is a good thing. But what does that mean for the free flow of information?

The limitless dumping of information and data will make old-school journalists and old-time journalism ethics relevant again. We still need someone who is trained to dissect the truth from the lies, the substantiated from the irrelevant. Nothing can stay secret, yes, but at what price? Is info-dumping good for a democracy and a society or could it backfire? Will soon all news stem from hearsay and gossip, from pieces of documents that someone secretly scanned, faxed or uploaded? Someone who may have a hidden agenda? How will that affect the exchange of information in the future and people’s willingness to be named a source or to give an eye-witness account? How do you assess what is true and what is manipulation in this free-for-all? How do you verify sources? And should we care, as long as it is entertaining?

I am all for revealing the truth. But I want to cut through the hype and the sensation and be sure that what I read is authentic. I don’t like to be manipulated. As a journalist, I like to do the editing and fact-checking myself. But others may not be able or willing to do so. Should they be protected from the information overload? By whom? And when does censorship really begin? With a government’s calculated release of data to the press corps — or with an editor’s decision to run a story or not? Too many readers or bloggers still don’t see the difference. Many are indifferent, but established journalists and many bloggers and pundits are not. Let’s use their knowledge and skills and get to the point.

That said, I think the following viewpoint given by Huffington Post contributor Derrick Ashong has merit:

“The saddest thing to me about this latest WikiLeaks disclosure is that it diminishes the value of “whistle-blowing” itself. As I tweeted yesterday “you blow the whistle to spread the truth, not to hear the sound.” By publishing these emails not only has WikiLeaks compromised the privacy of state department officials and the trust within important diplomatic networks, it has also undermined its own credibility as a resource for people who have genuinely important information to share with the global community. There is a distinction between truth tellers and high-tech gossip-peddlers. Unfortunately, it looks like this time WikiLeaks has crossed that line too.”

Good point. I agree. WikiLeaks will have to learn that crying “wolf” each time someone somewhere spills something is getting us nowhere.

In July 2010, when WikiLeaks published classified military data on the Afghanistan war, Mashable.com gathered the opinions of journalists under the headline The WikiLeaks Debate: Journalists Weigh In:

“We need people to leak and people to dig and people to consume and explain, and people who care enough to find the documents and bring them to light,” Mike Sager, a respected writer for Esquire, Rolling Stone and The Washington Post was quoted. “WikiLeaks, like most other Internet “news” organizations, doesn’t provide the perspective and understanding the public actually needs,” according to author and University of Chicago and Northwestern University writer-in-residence Alex Kotlowitz. “We need to be careful that we don’t confuse platform with content,” Kotlowitz said.

A bit condescending, but basically I agree.

Mashable also published another article that same month with a similar topic: Why WikiLeaks and the Mainstream Media Still Need Each Other. The gist:

“These leaks signal a seminal change for investigative journalism. The new collaboration model between prominent publications and WikiLeaks is a tactical marriage. WikiLeaks needs the press so that its leaks can rise to the top of public conversation. The press can use WikiLeaks for its unparalleled scoops. Furthermore, because WikiLeaks isn’t entirely understood or trusted by the public, a partnership with established news sources like The New York Times gives its leaks legitimacy. This “asymmetrical journalism,” as David Carr calls it, is a natural evolution for WikiLeaks. […] [A]ssuming there is news to be broken — it’s best if WikiLeaks and the press are on good terms.”

The German writer Rudolf Arnheim wrote in the 1930s: “Human beings will come to confuse the world perceived by their senses and the world interpreted by thought. They will believe that seeing is understanding.”

It seems like his predictions were right. WikiLeaks as media’s wake-up call? You bet.

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The Guardian has a very informative infographic, showing where the diplomatic cables were sent from (click picture to enlarge).

Summer Laziness and Mob Mentality

For this one lone August post, I can blame summer laziness, not media fatigue, even though I have many times come close to just giving up on the state of the media and where we’re headed.

My tagline reads “Old Media and New Media Meet”, and that is sometimes hard to come by. Old and new are still behaving like third graders who compare the size of their ice cream cones. It’s not either-or; neither will get far without the other. So, here is a small list of the positive things that each side will bring to the table. Merging these will lead to better communications, no matter the platform.

Old media bring depth, when needed, tight control over the quality of the writing (editors, copy editors, proof readers), sincere fact checking and an army (or what was once an army) of investigative reporters and writers who know their beat, have the right connections and get out there to cover the news. Oh, yes, and they get paid and have the resources to follow their noses. Old media still adhere mostly to the rule that one needs more than one source to get the story right and that you draw a distinctive line between reporting, commentary and advertising. Old media raise issues that readers are not always aware of, or don’t think they need to know but should.

New media bring immediacy, the collaboration of many to a story, the interaction with the readers, the ability to constantly update and supplement a story with new facts, links, info graphics, audio and video. It is a many-to-many approach, and as such rather democratic: no matter where you are and who you are, your voice is part of the whole. You can decide what you want to read and customize your daily media intake. You become the editor.

I, for one, need both, the old and the new.

Many of us in media, however, see only doom and gloom lurking around us. We’ve lost our jobs, our self-esteem and careers, and our work is being taken for granted by young web editors, who crash with their parents but then tell us our hour’s work of writing should be worth less than what they get babysitting their neighbor’s kid to supplement their own meager income. Now, they say, everyone is a journalist, a photographer, an editor and writer, or so it seems. Content should be free, they beam, and they advise us old timers to be happy to get a byline and a thumbs up on Digg.

I want to share with you a moving blog post from the blog Headlines and Deadlines. The writer muses about her “blogging breakdown” amid the state of old media:

“Lately I haven’t had many thoughts about journalism or newspapers, at least not any that would stand sharing. Because recently, Blog, I have found it increasingly hard to negotiate the choppy waters of ‘changing times’; I have, if you like, lost my compass. I have striven to be optimistic about newspapers and the future but sometimes the words rang very hollow indeed.”

I hear you. But no, it’s not all downhill from here. One way or another, people will come to realize that words and content still matter. They will miss getting lost in a story, once they’re left with only snippets of bullet-pointed search-engine-friendly written content; “voices drowning one another out”, as Jaron Lanier wrote in an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “World Wide Mush.” And he continues: “When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull, average outcome in all things. You don’t get innovation […] creativity and excellence.”

Admit it, new and social media by themselves are not enough to get the whole picture. Surely you’ve come to the same conclusion, when you got lost in a Google search the other day and ended up spending hours on Facebook before you picked up a magazine or a paper.

I believe, we still have a choice: to become a numb collective with a short attention span, that regurgitates what advertisers, public relations people or celebrities want us to talk about. Or we could merge old media’s values with new media’s possibilities and not get lost in the crowd.

The Glass is Still Half Empty…In New Media

I just came across this picture of the New York Times’ copy editing team hard at work at the paper’s foreign desk, ca. 1942.

Notice the amount of editors working. White men and All the News That’s Fit to Print. Don’t sneer. In that regard, not much has changed, because mostly white men are still deciding what is considered newsworthy to print or broadcast.

But if you take a good look at new media, there, too, the good old times are still with us: Most influential political bloggers are male.

You want to change the media landscape, ditch the old ways, be all new and trendy and interactive and many to many while wagging a finger at mainstream media/old media/dead media? Why not shatter the glass ceiling once and for all in your approach to citizen journalism, counter the indifference toward women writers, put the social in social media and hire female executives while you’re at it.

I am not holding my breath though.

So ladies, take the matter in your own hands. Start writing about hard news. Submit op-eds. Analyze and comment and be heard. And don’t take no for an answer.

The McCormick Foundation New Media Women Entrepreneurs has more facts to consider. Among them:

  • Women comprise nearly two-thirds of journalism school students but only make up one-third of the full-time journalism workforce. That proportion has not changed for more than 25 years.
  • Only 3 percent of clout positions in mainstream media are held by women.

“What we don’t know – and aim to find out is how the explosion of new media is changing the news landscape for women,” states the foundation. “In the face of media consolidation and mega-buyouts, the rise of citizen journalism and multimedia reporting, are more women journalists leaving traditional news operations to launch and lead their own news businesses? Is cyberspace a more welcoming place for women journalists? Are women bringing different news judgment as they conceive new Web sites? What do these trends mean for women consumers of news?”

Here’s another disturbing trend:

“Women are used to being paid less, doing more for less. Men want more. And unless you’re on staff, the pay [in new media] is miserable,” writes Luisita Lopez Torregrosa in Politics Daily under the headline Women in New Media: At the Top or in the Trenches? “The highly prized jobs of web developers — the thinkers, the innovators, the ground breakers — are all held by men.” And Torregrosa points to a NYTimes article in the Sunday Magazine a while back that ran several pictures of the people it chose as the 21st century leaders at The Times: They were all young, all of them new-media whizzes, and all were men.

Indeed, according to another NYTimes article, “Out of the Loop in Silicon Valley” (April 16), according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women account for just 6 percent of the chief executives of the top 100 tech companies, and 22 percent of the software engineers at tech companies over all.

Even The Huffington Post, launched and run by a woman, Arianna Huffington, is not immune. FAIR Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting discovered in a 2008 study that the Huffington Post had far fewer female bloggers than one would think.  FAIR discovered during a 9-week period that only 23 percent of the “13 featured blog posts” on the home page belonged to women.

When I interviewed Arianna Huffington in 2009, she told me, “The caricature that women just want to sit around reading People magazine and watching soap operas is very moldy. And as we move forward, I believe more and more women will challenge our cultural labeling and speak out more.”

Let’s take her by her word and send blog post pitches her way and speak out more.

For more info, visit the Op-Ed Project; get more facts from my post on the glass ceiling in media; read this 2007 study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology; take a look at this listing of Top 100 Female Bloggers; and read The End of Men from the July/August issue of The Atlantic.

If Print Is Dead, Why Quote It Online?

The gist of this entire blog is my belief that old media and new media are neither clashing nor colliding, nor that new media will soon replace print. They need to meet, especially since most of the material found online is still either a rehashing of what’s been published in print, a commentary on something that was first written for print media, or an “online exclusive” by an old school journalist, who has discovered the wide world behind the newsroom, and then, ahem, social media, and now applies long-established, tried and true old media work ethics online. First those old media folks laughed uneasily about Twitter, now they don’t miss a beat with their tweets. And that is as it should be.

But take away print publications entirely — and with it (albeit shrinking budgets) their readiness to uncover and investigate hard news, to dispatch correspondents abroad and to cover the government branches and the judiciary tirelessly — the information out there on the web would be much shallower and much less.

Most of what’s been blogged about is heavily backed up by extensive links to print articles (as it should be). Take those away and you’ll feel a void. Old media help new media generate content. Nothing bad about that.

But don’t argue that print is dead.

“To take an analogy from renewable energy sources vis-a-vis fossil fuels, citizen journalism can only do so much to meet our entire information needs as a free society. Finding the right mix will be the challenge of the next decade,” read a post on the “New Media” Blog under the headline “Breaking News! New Media Depends On Old Media” a while back. And further, “If new media kill vast swathes of old media publications, our society may find itself at least temporarily unable to get the information it needs to make informed decisions. Even if plenty of new media news sites rise in the wake of the defeated publications, it is difficult to see how genuine sources of hard investigative journalism will replace the old paid models.”

A study released in the beginning of the year by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, “How News Happens — Still,” offered support for the argument often made by the traditional media “that, so far, most of what digital news outlets offer is repetition and commentary, not new information” (see above graphic). This flow of media sources, the evolution of a news report, how information spreads and who among the media outlets — old and new — set the agenda, can be visualized using Media Cloud, an interactive, user-customizable database launched by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.

The same concept is used by Cornell Universities MemeTracker.

New York Magazine published last October a lengthy article “Where News Comes From — Walking Back a Single Day’s Top Stories” by Jeff VanDam that featured a 4-pages long info graphic (Part I and Part II) with a time line on how seven stories traveled from source to source, from print to web and back again.

Nothing more to add, but this compilation is truly fascinating: According to the Technorati Attention Index, the most frequently used sources for bloggers as well as Google News are mainstream newspapers, and traditional news organizations like the Associated Press, the New York Times (rank 1 last year), The Guardian (2) and the Wall Street Journal(3).

More on the ratings can be found at NewsKnife, a website that rates the top sources for Google News in any given month.

And yet, these sources have been shrinking fast, and one can argue that the web is giving them new life — again, collaboration and not collision (click to enlarge graphic; data from 2008 by mint):