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).

Good Old Days?

Here is a video find “How to Be an Old School Journalist.” A real gem from the late 1930s/early 1940s that teaches kids what it’s like to be a journalist. Especially watch minute 5:06 and on. What journalism is like for women. Society pages and balls.

If only they could see us now.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9E4xDq8IR4]

But don’t gloat. We still have a long way to go in print media, especially book publishing: According to She Writes, under the headline “Not A Balanced Breakfast: Gender Stats in Publishing for…2009?” you’ll read this:

“There are more women writing today than ever before, but what kind of recognition are they receiving? Well, not as much as you might think: in terms of prominent book awards and “best of” lists, gender equality hasn’t changed at all.”

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.

Media Behaving Badly

You remember the pillars of old media, you know the ones that many now proclaim being obsolete, old-fashioned and slow: objectivity, using more than one source, digging deeper and not falling for people who proclaim they know the truth without questioning their motives? Oh, how all circuit breakers have failed this week.

After a conservative blogger posted an edited version of a speech given by a federal official, Shirley Sherrod, that was meant to prove that she practiced reverse racism against a white client, all media outlets, old and new and mainstream and what not, were up in arms about her alleged misconduct. The White House even fired the woman. But they were wrong, they apologized, the full video was shown and she was offered her job back. Apologies accepted?

Not so fast. The frenzy to stay on top of the news, to be the first to raise issues, forced the media to throw away again a few good old values of old media of days past: present the entire story, dig deeper, provide background, question every claim, use more than one source, and, above all, stay credible.

Was it really so hard for bloggers, reporters, editors and armchair commentators to watch the 45 minute video in its entirety and only then to report on it? Did they really have to rely on a short, edited clip, taken out of context to form an opinion? Was that too time consuming? Even a 24/7 news cycle needs to abide by and honor fairness, credibility and objectivity (at least in news gathering). Otherwise, it’ll turn into mere content mush without much substance. And nobody would want to pay for that. Oh, wait. We don’t pay for online news. Maybe we got what we bargained for.

Poynter published a timeline of how the story spread and engulfed the media sphere:

“Welcome to the modern news cycle, Shirley Sherrod. Even in today’s fast-paced media cycle, your trip has been more jarring than most. In a few weeks, most people won’t remember your name. They may, however, remember something about you. What, exactly? Well, that depends on when and where they heard about you. […] What’s left after all these waves? Not much news. Just another day at the beach, watching the media surf the breakers.”

And here is how PBS Newshour’s executive producer summarized what had happened:

“In our judgment, this story was about how a combination of supposedly responsible organizations and institutions handled a misleading piece of information that first surfaced on a website with an avowed political agenda. The press, the administration and the interest groups involved all have blame to share for prejudging Ms. Sherrod’s words before understanding their original intent and full context.”

So, for all those who haven’t seen the entire speech (and dear editors: a simple YouTube search would have helped you get the facts), here you go. Judge for yourself and point fingers at the right direction: The media, old and new, conservative or not. Now, go, cover the other issues at hand.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9NcCa_KjXk&hl=en_US&fs=1?rel=0&color1=0x2b405b&color2=0x6b8ab6]

Top illustration: John Cuneo, Wired Magazine.

Paper Cuts

In case you were wondering and worrying about the fate of U.S. newspapers, keep an eye on this blog: Paper Cuts by Erica Smith, a journalist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  According to Smith’s research, in 2010 alone, almost 1,900 newspaper jobs were eliminated and/or lost to layoffs and buyouts.

The blog monitors recent job cuts and newspaper closings, and you can submit job cuts and newspaper closings that you know of as well. Keep it bookmarked.

The Blog Shaping the Future of the Newspaper, quoted Paper Cuts, saying that since 2008, 166 newspapers in the United States have been shut or stopped publishing a print edition. So far this year, more than 18 newspapers have folded or stopped their print editions. The numbers are based on a report titled “Million Dollar Strategies for Newspapers,” published by the World Association of Newspapers. The losses were mainly caused by a steep decline in ad revenues, fueled by the Great Recession.

According to the German press service, PressText, the US newspaper crisis has cost 35,000 journalists their jobs. German newspapers fare much better, according to PressText: In Germany, newspapers are only up to 50% financed by advertisements and the rest of the revenue comes from subscriptions and newsstand sales.

Seventy percent of adult Germans still read newspapers — far less than among Americans.

Tweeting is for Birds

“Some social-media fans may disagree, but outside of ornithological contexts, ‘tweet’ has not yet achieved the status of standard English,” wrote Phil Corbett, New York Times standards editor, to NYT staffers recently. More than that:

“Except for special effect, we try to avoid colloquialisms, neologisms and jargon. And “tweet” — as a noun or a verb, referring to messages on Twitter — is all three. Yet it has appeared 18 times in articles in the past month, in a range of sections. […] “Tweet” may be acceptable occasionally for special effect. But let’s look for deft, English alternatives: use Twitter, post to or on Twitter, write on Twitter, a Twitter message, a Twitter update. Or, once you’ve established that Twitter is the medium, simply use “say” or “write.”

Now, here’s the fallout from the Times’ new policy and what they’ve come up with to keep “tweet” out of the paper’s esteemed pages. In this article on LeBron James’ decision to move to Miami and the ensuing Twitter buzz, the paper went all out not to use the word “tweet”. It seems, the editors had their Thesaurus handy.

Old media being ridiculous. Pity.

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 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):

US Newspapers “Not Dead Yet”

Under the uplifting headline “Not Dead Yet”, the Economist mulled over the pitiful state of the newspaper industry in the United States (June 12, 2010), and provided a pretty gloomy picture, starting with this sentence “Newspaper have cut their way out of crisis. More radical surgery will be needed.”

“Many papers stayed afloat by pushing journalists overboard. The American Society of News Editors reckons that 13,500 newsroom jobs have gone since 2007. […] Yet these desperate measures have proved the right ones and, sadly for many journalists, they can be pushed further. […] The whirlwind that swept through newsrooms harmed everybody, but much of the damage has been concentrated in areas where newspapers are least distinctive. Car and film reviewers have gone. So have science and general business reporters. Foreign bureaus have been savagely pruned. Newspapers are less complete as a result. But completeness is no longer a virtue in the newspaper business.”

1939I suggest a massive intervention on the scale of F.D.R.’s Federal Writers Project, part of the new Deal that helped struggling and unemployed writers (see a poster from that period, ca. 1939). “The Federal Writers Project was a product of one of the most ambitious research and writing undertakings in American History. The project put authors to work preparing state guidebooks, writing historical pamphlets, and recording the points of interest of each state that had decided to partake in the undertaking.” (via asma.org).

NY subway 2009A sign in the New York subway “We Need FDR Again” from last year seems to mirror that sentiment. The Federal Trade Commission has published a draft with recommendations on how to rescue the industry, if at all possible, including subsidies and taxes. Its final study will be made public at the end of the year.

But don’t hold your breath yet. According to the New York Times, the F.T.C. is on a “somewhat quixotic journey of trying to identify ways to save journalism as we know it from possible extinction. […] Critics [to the F.T.C.’s proposals] have taken a free-market approach: let the market, not the government, determine what outlets survive.”

One thing is for sure, according to the Economist (and I tend to agree): “New technologies like Apple’s iPad only [stress that] [t]he mere acquisition of a smooth block of metal and glass does not magically persuade people that they should start paying for news. They will pay for news if they think it has value. Newspapers need to focus relentlessly on that.”

More on that to follow. Stay tuned.

European Newspapers In Much Better Shape

“The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based group of wealthy free-market democracies, has examined the state of the news business in the 31 O.E.C.D. member states and the kinds of bailouts that are under way or up for discussion. One thing that comes across starkly in the report is just how much worse the newspaper business is faring in the United States than in other O.E.C.D. countries. From 2007 to 2009, industry revenue fell 30 percent in the United States; the second-biggest decline was 21 percent, in Britain. Countries like Germany (down 10 percent), South Korea (down 6 percent), Australia (down 3 percent) and Austria (down a mere 2 percent) fared better. So did France, which posted a decline of 3 percent, though from an already low level.” (via the European Journalism Center)

old newspaper stand 1935More on this can be found in this New York Times article “Preserving Journalism, if Not Papers” (June 13, 2010). And read more here on the OECD’s government analysis on the Future of News. The 2009 coverage can be found on the editorsweblog: “Looking at the future of news at the OECD (2009)

The picture shows how typical  newspaper stands — in the US and in Europe — looked like in 1935. Those days are definitely gone.