Crossing the Channel

Some people wonder why I go to Germany so often. It’s to meet some brilliant people who are doing amazing things there, among them Wolfgang Blau, for almost five years the editor-in-chief of Zeit Online. Now I won’t have to go as far to see him as Wolfgang is moving to London to become director of digital strategy at the Guardian. Don’t you love it when friends marry?

I’m reminded of John Paton, who was executing much of his strategy for digital-first news in the U.S., but no one saw it because it occurred in Spanish, at Impremedia, a roll-up he engineered with publications he then re-engineered. Only when he took over two English-language newspaper companies under Digital First Media did our world take note of what he was doing. Same for Wolfgang: At Zeit Online he did phenomenal things, complementing a still-successful (!) print paper in Germany with an innovative journalism online, growing the site and its audience tremendously. But my friends over here couldn’t see it because he did it in German.

Now Wolfgang comes to my favorite newspaper in the world to extend its digital lead. The Guardian — under another friend, Emily Bell, now a friendly competitor at Columbia’s j-school — showed the way for news online. Now, in my view, the Guardian will be competing with The New York Times (under its new ex-BBC CEO) and the BBC and perhaps the Wall Street Journal to become the leading English-language news brand online. That battle is just underway and the battleground is digital.

As I was writing this post, someone in Twitter noted the timing of the Guardian getting ready to launch a next round of layoffs. My view: newspapers have to finish the process of shrinking so they can grow again, and they’ll grow digitally.

Wolfgang is a dear friend and I’m delighted for him and for Alan Rusbridger and company at the Guardian. (And disclosures: I’m on the Digital First advisory board and I have consulted and written for the Guardian over the years.)

Here’s the Guardian announcement in English and here’s the Zeit announcement in German.

Start the presses

A set of very happy announcements from the CUNY Journalism School and the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism:

* First, we are opening the new Cuny Journalism Press. Yes, I said press. On paper. And screen. Working with the innovative OR Books and John Oakes, we are creating a press that will produce print books and e-books about journalism and by journalists with new business models (starting with a higher share of revenue to authors). Just as we are working here at CUNY on new business models for newspapers and magazines and other denizens of the printed page, so do we want to see new models come to book publishing. So my dean, Steve Shepard, my colleague Tim Harper — who is heading up the press — and others here thought it would be a great idea to start this enterprise. We’ll be announcing some other related activities with Oakes soon.

* Second, I’m thrilled to announce that the first book to be published is by none other than @acarvin, aka Andy Carvin, the man who tweeted the Arab Spring and showed us all a new way to think of journalism and how it must add value to the flow of information the net now enables. Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution, will be released later this year (and available for pre-order soon). I recommend the book to you all. I’ve had the privilege to read it — and write its foreword. A snippet:

Andy is a prototype for a new kind of journalist. He also turns out to be a masterful storyteller. He has taken all he witnessed from afar in the Arab Spring and crafted it into a dramatic, compelling, informative page-turner. He has combed his archive of more than 100,000 tweets and sifted through the rapid-fire, staccato progression of the voices to find a narrative sense and create a cohesive saga….

Yes, we still need reporters on the ground to ask and answer the questions. We need them to bring us perspective and context. Andy does not replace them. He and his nodes and networks of witnesses, participants and experts add to the news in ways not possible before. Journalism is not shrinking. Through Andy’s example, as well as through experiments in data journalism, crowdsourcing, hyperlocal sites and innovations yet to come, journalism is growing. Andy Carvin is proof of that.

* Tim Harper announced another three titles: Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers, by former New York Times chief counsel James Goodale; Investigative Journalism in America: A History, by Steve Weinberg, a member of the University of Missouri Journalism School faculty and co-founder of IRE, the leading association of investigative reporters and editors; and The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Nat Hentoff’s Life in Journalism, Jazz and the First Amendment, by CUNY Journalism Professor David L. Lewis, a former Daily News reporter and “60 Minutes” producer and associate producer who is also directing a feature-length documentary on Hentoff.

If I manage to get off my duff and get moving on a project I’ve been working on, I might add to that bookshelf myself.

Just as CUNY saw an opportunity for a new journalism school when others thought journalism was dying, so did we see an opportunity to start a new press about journalism even though others declared books dying. At Tow-Knight, I believe we must not only study and teach new models but we must also help incubate them. The CUNY Journalism Press is one such effort.

The Argo election

The release of Argo — a wonderful film — comes ever so coincidentally a month before the presidential election and a month after the murders of our diplomats in Bengazi.

It’s timing that can be exploited. I half wonder whether that helped inspire Romney’s campaign to double down on its attacks regarding Bengazi, trying to make Obama look like Carter (for those of us old enough to remember) and himself like Reagan (well, there is the hair).

But it could go the other way. Tonight in the crowded theater, the audience needed to let out applause after the Americans arrived safely home (no spoiler there) and even again at the end of the credits. In the long, awful saga of American involvement in the Middle East, there was only one other time when I remembered hearing such a release of pride and overdue relief: when Obama announced that we’d gotten Osama Bin Laden.

So will Argo — which undoubtedly will do well at the box office — make more Americans mindful of the morass in the Middle East or of one victory there? Of course, I have no idea. But I do expect it to be exploited, since anything and everything — even Big Bird — has been in this election.

* * *

I do recommend seeing Argo. It doesn’t try to do much more than tell an amazing tale that couldn’t be told for years. That’s enough. It’s plenty. Ben Affleck, the star and director, passes up innumerable opportunities to play for cheers (the audience tonight wasn’t sure when to applaud, only that it wanted to) or to shove us to the edge of the seat (we do know how it turns out, after all) or to go for an exploitive political message (many others will do that for him). It’s just good story-telling.

* * *

Another note: In April 2003, a bit more than a year after I started blogging, I happened upon news of the arrest of an Iranian blogger named Sina Motalebi, revealed by another Iranian blogger, then in Canada, named Hossein Derakhshan and also known as Hoder, who is given more or less credit for helping start the blogging scene in Iran.

From them both, I learned much about Iran and about the power and potential of blogging. I marveled then at how this new medium made connections possible even to a country that I had envisioned mainly from TV reports in the ’70s of those 444 captive days and of angry Iranians in black chanting for our downfall. Argo brings back those memories. It also reminds me that Hoder — who in charming naiveté once declared his candidacy for the Iranian parliament on his blog and who went through some strange times later — is now in prison in Iran for 19 and a half years. It is still a frightening place.

Sina made it out of jail and out of Iran. He found his way to London, where he now works for the BBC and where last April — nine years after I first heard of him online — Sina’s 9-year-old son resurrected his father’s original blog, called Webgard, with this message: “My dad was originally the creator of this blog so this post is partly to say that, how much the Iranian government try, they will never stop bloggers like me and my dad, how much they harass, torture, and basically make the fear into normal people… They will never take our freedom.”

Recommended: A book by my boss

My dean, dear friend, and mentor, Steve Shepard, has just published his memoirs, Deadlines and Disruptions, recounting his path into our business, his two decades as editor-in-chief of Business Week, and the launch of our journalism school — with an examination of the future and sustainability of journalism (often a topic of our conversations).

It is a deeply personal story as Steve tells of his anxiety over selecting this career. It is also an important story of what journalism can be at its best, as Business Week under his leadership was a great magazine, one I admired immensely (reading it got me interested in something I hadn’t thought I’d ever find interesting: business). And it is a hopeful but realistic view of where journalism can go next.

Steve and I had many conversations about the book and its title. I’m glad the word “disruptions” ended up there, for that’s what he’s really writing about. He embraces that change, as I wish more in our businesses — journalism and teaching — would do. But that’s Steve. He dared to start a leading journalism school at a time when some said he was nuts to try. He takes on new technologies and new ideas with the skepticism of a journalism and the openness of a visionary.

And, hell, he dared to hire me. He even recounts that tale — including how I quit the job the day I started and how, not for the last time, he had to talk me down from the ledge, or better put, make me more comfortable standing there.

I am incredibly lucky to know this man, to work for him, to learn from him, and to count him as a friend. I got to know him even better by reading his book. I urge you to take the opportunity to do that yourself.

Advice to media & Muslims: Don’t feed the trolls

The jerk who made that video, the one that supposedly incited rioting and murder in Egypt and Libya, is the very definition of a troll: He made it to elicit the reaction he was sure he’d cause. That is what trolls do.

Those who reacted are trolls, too, but of course worse: murderers. They exploited just any excuse — an obviously cheesy, fake movie seen by no one — to stir up their band of fanatics into visible outrage and violence.

The media who cover these trolls — the trolls who make the bait and the trolls who look for bait — are dupes themselves, just continuing a cycle that will only rev faster and faster until someone says: Stop. Stop feeding the trolls.

We’ve learned that online, haven’t we all? Oh, I sometimes have to relearn the lesson when one of my trolls dangles some shiny object in front of me and I snap. I just pulled the food bowl away from one troll: no reaction for you. I was just delighted to see another troll get his comeuppance and said so. But as a rule, a good rule, one should never, never feed the trolls. They only spit it up on you. Starving them of the attention they crave and the upset they hunger for and feed on is the only answer.

But still, there’s no controlling the trolls. Some still think the trolls can be stopped. An Australian newspaper just started a #stopthetrolls campaign to bring the ride miscreants to justice and silence. Good luck with that. In a sense, the rioters and murderers in Libya and Egypt and now elsewhere are demanding that someone stop the trolls they are choosing to get heated up about.

But, of course, there is no stopping them. Neither do I want to stop them. I believe in protecting free speech, which must include protecting even bad, even noxious speech.

Zeynep Tufecki, a brilliant observer of matters media, digital, and social, cautioned on Twitter that we must understand a key difference in attitudes toward speech here and elsewhere in the world: “Forget Middle East, in most of Europe you could not convince most people that *all* speech should be protected. That is uniquely American,” she tweeted yesterday. “In most places, including Europe, ‘hate-speech’ –however defined — is regulated, prosecuted. Hence, folks assume not prosecuted=promoted…. US free speech absolutism already hard to comprehend for many. Add citizen media to mix, it gets messy. Then, killers exploit this vagueness.” Excellent points and important perspective for the current situation.

But the internet is built to American specifications of speech: anyone can speak and it is difficult unto impossible to stop them as bits and the messages they carry are designed to go around blocks and detours. The internet *is* the First Amendment. We can argue about whether that is the right architecture — as an American free-speech absolutist, I think it is — but that wouldn’t change the fact that we are going to hear more and more speech, including brilliance and including bile. There’s no stopping it. Indeed, I want to protect it.

So we’d best understand how to adapt society to that new reality. We’ve done it before. This from Public Parts about the introduction of the printing press:

“This cultural outlook of openness in printing’s early days could just as easily have gone the other way. The explosion of the printed word — and the lack of control over it — disturbed the elite, including Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus. ‘To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?’ he complained. ‘[T]he very multitude of them is hurtful to scholarship, because it creates a glut and even in good things satiety is most harmful.’ He feared, according to [Elizabeth] Eisenstein, that the minds of men ‘flighty and curious of anything new’ would be distracted from ‘the study of old authors.’ After the English Civil War, Richard Atkyns, an early writer on printing, longed for the days of royal control over presses. Printers, he lamented, had ‘filled the Kingdom with so many Books, and the Brains of the People with so many contrary Opinions, that these Paper-pellets become as dangerous as Bullets.’ In the early modern period a few ‘humanists called for a system of censorship, never implemented, to guarantee that only high-quality editions be printed,’ Ann Blair writes in Agent of Change. Often today I hear publishers, editors, and academics long for a way to ensure standards of quality on the internet, as if it were a medium like theirs rather than a public space for open conversation.”

There is a desire to *control* conversation, to *civilize* it, to *cleanse* it. God help us, I don’t want anyone cleaning my mouth out. I don’t want anyone telling me what I cannot say. I don’t want a society that silences anything that could offend anyone.

I understand why Google decided to take down That Video from YouTube in Libya and Egypt, given how it is being used, while also arguing that it meets YouTube’s standards and will stay up elsewhere. But YouTube thus gives itself a dangerous precedent as some will expect it to cleanse other bad speech from its platform. YouTube is in a better position in Afghanistan, where the government blocked all of YouTube but then it’s the government that is acting as the censor and it’s the government that must be answerable to its people.

But in any case, blocking this video is no more the answer than rioting and murdering over it. All this will only egg on the trolls to make more bad speech and in turn egg on trolls on the other side to exploit it.

The only answer is to learn how to deal with speech and to value it sufficiently to acknowledge that good speech will come with bad. What we have to learn is how to ignore the bad. We have to learn that every sane and civilized human knows that bad speech is bad. We don’t need nannies to tell us that. We don’t need censors to protect it from us. We certainly don’t need fanatics to fight us for it. We need the respect of our fellow man to believe that we as civilized men and women know the difference. We need to grow up.

The 11th 11th

This year, for the first time, I feel nothing drawing me to go to the World Trade Center on the anniversary of the attacks. Perhaps that’s because, after last year’s anniversary, I went to the finally opened 9/11 memorial, and that was enough for a hundred anniversaries. I feel no need to return to it because it is so big, too big.

Yes, we must remember. That is why I had insisted on returning in years past: so I could remember and give thanks for surviving that day. But the memorial does more than just remember. It closes up the open wound on the city but leaves the scar there. It refuses to let life return to the place where death occurred. Worse, it creates a new fortress of fear with security and scanners around it. Worse yet, one exits that fortress and returns to life through the gift shop.

Since when did we insist that the place where someone died is sacred? We see that idea reflected in the makeshift memorials on highways’ sides or on stoops where someone is gunned down. I understand that reflex. But eventually, the flowers and pictures and candles are swept away and life returns. Memorials are elsewhere: on gravestones and statues and in museums. We build those things for memories.

As far as I am concerned, personally, the flowers and pictures and candles are gone from the World Trade Center. Life is returning. Memories live elsewhere.

The news we can afford

I want to see news organizations grow again. But first, they must finish shrinking. They must decide what they can afford to be.

That is what is happening with Advance reducing publication schedules and resources in New Orleans and other of its markets. That is what happening with Journal Register as it declares bankruptcy to restructure its liabilities given present reality. I recommend you read Josh Benton’s and Rick Edmonds’ analyses of this latest business move.

Now please take what I say here not just with a grain of salt but with a salt lick as I advise both Journal Register and Advance, where I also worked for a dozen years. I was not part of these decisions. But I support them because I want to see newspaper companies find their water level of sustainability so they can again invest in the future.

Of course, there is not one answer to the question of what they can afford. In his statement on Journal Register’s move, CEO John Paton said that legacy costs undertaken under different circumstances are now unsustainable. Bankruptcy presents an opportunity to renegotiate many of those costs, including leases, contracts, and pensions.

These are hard decisions with difficult consequences for many people. But not addressing the issue will only turn out worse, squandering dollars every day the tough decisions are put off.

After too many years in denial, we all know now that newspapers, no longer monopolies and having lost their pricing power in the face of abundant competition, must be smaller if they have any hope to survive; there is no magic bullet that will set things “right” and return the business to what it was. They must find new efficiencies through consolidation (see Digital First’s Project Thunderdome and other companies bringing together shared work), collaboration (with the community and a larger news ecosystem), and specialization (do what you do best — in the case of local newspapers, that is being local — and link to the rest). They must reconsider their business models, looking for new opportunities, and also their relationships with the public.

I do believe that newspapers, rethought, can be sustainable — that is, profitable. The first step is to make hard financial decisions such as the ones discussed here. The next is to make the transition to digital, to put digital first, to become sustainable digital enterprises.

But all that gets us is survival. Then comes the real work: rethinking what a newspaper is, what its relationship with its community can be, where it adds value and how it may then — and only then — extract value. That is why I also spend my time trying to challenge assumptions about the forms, relationships, and models of news, asking unpopular questions such as whether we should even consider ourselves a content business. That is why I teach entrepreneurial journalism: to empower students to start new businesses based on new visions without the drag of legacy assumptions and obligations. But I do believe that newspaper companies can also find their sustainable future. That’s why I work with them as well. I want to see them survive and once again prosper, innovate, and grow.

None of this is easy. Much of it is unpleasant. But it is necessary.

Reporters: Why are you in Tampa?

I challenge every journalist in Tampa for the Republican convention — every one of the 15-16,000 of you — to answer this:
* Why are you there?
* What will we learn from you?
* What actual reporting can you possibly do that delivers anything of value more than the infomercial — light on the info, heavy on the ‘mercial — that the conventions have become?
* Would you be better off back at home covering voters and their issues?
* Can we in the strapped news business afford this luxury?

Figure that those 15k journos spend $300 a night each on a hotel room times five nights, plus $500 for transportion. That’s $2,000. And I’m figuring they’ll be slurping up free meals and drinks. So $2,000 is probably (pardon me) conservative. That’s $30,000,000. Now multiply that times two conventions. That’s $60,000,000.

Why? For what?

Note that even while newspapers and news organizations have shrunken drastically, we are sending the same number of journalists to the conventions that we sent in 2008 and 2004.

Why? Editorial ego: It’s fun to be there, in the pack. It’s fun for a paper or station to say, “We have our man/woman in Tampa/Charlotte.” Well goody for you.

It’s a waste.

Take that $60,000,000 and divide it by a fully loaded labor cost of, say, $100,000 per head and it would pay for 600 reporters for a year. At $50,000 for a hyperlocal reporter, we’d get 1,200 towns covered — more than Patch! What could they do versus what you will do in Tampa and Charlotte transcribing marketing messages and horrid memes?

Or we could pay for Homicide Watch 1,500 times over, instead of just paying attention to a shooting that happens where tourists wander.

Those 15,000 journos will — three-to-one — cover 2,286 delegates (6,000 for those spendthrift Democrats) wearing funny hats, saying nothing new.

At least 3,775 newspaper jobs were lost last year; 39,806 since mid-2007; one in three newsroom jobs have been eliminated since 1989. How’s that make you feel, convention press corps?

We can see whatever we want to see on C-SPAN (and I don’t begrudge the networks for giving us America’s Got Talent instead of the conventions since at least AGT has surprises; the conventions are scripted).

Commentary? There’ll be more than we can possibly use this year on Twitter and Google+ and blogs and everywhere. We don’t need to pundits’ palaver. Citizens will comment this year.

So enjoy yourself, hacks. You’re living off the last dollars of your business. And for what? Tradition? Where has that gotten us?

Please prove me wrong. In a week, show me the amazing reporting we couldn’t have gotten if you weren’t there.