Monthly Archives: May 2014

Journalism “Innovation” Will Require More Than Technology

The New York Times’ “innovation report” leaked earlier this month has caused quite a stir. After all, it recommends a “digital first” strategy, breaking down the “wall of separation” between the newsroom and the business office, and proposals for “audience engagement.” Just the thing to stir up journalists threatened by digital change to the legacy media business model.



The report was well received by many (; ), condemned by some ( ; and tolerated as a good prescription for the inevitable by most (

Columbia University’s Emily Bell argued in Columbia Journalism Review ( that the report underemphasized the requirements to change newsroom journalists’ thinking. The report, she says, “is an earnest and laudable attempt to square the circle of introducing a rapid and lasting culture of change whilst remaining, at core, the same. How can it be more like BuzzFeed but not actually BuzzFeed?

“Swapping story thinking for platform thinking is a critical challenge for the best journalists,” she says. It creates “explanation fatigue…. you have to explain the original wheel’s reinvention every day, in different ways, to every person who is not ‘up to speed.’”

I think she is right. But, to me, the entire discussion, by admirers and critics alike, misses a deeper, more urgent story at the heart of the change journalism faces:

Digital is the symptom, not the problem.

Reader dissatisfaction with journalism has grown since the 1970s. Newspaper readers have been fleeing to television, cable, specialized magazines, and even the trade press for decades. Digital provides only the last, best alternative for readers searching for connection, while newspapers steadily aligned themselves more and more closely to their sources, their sponsors, and their economic interests.

The story of 20th century journalism was to improve quality reporting at the expense of reader connections. The result was a steep decline at the end of the century in credibility, relevance, and trust among readers.

The New York Times Innovation Report hints at the problem, audience engagement, while missing the underlying demand, interactive discourse. “A more reader-centric approach to packaging and surfacing our journalism offers a huge opportunity to extend our reach,” the report asserts. “Exploiting better web and mobile tools will also help us get each story to every reader who might want to see it.”

The thrust of the report’s recommendations to “grow the audience” focuses on getting what the Times produces to that audience more efficiently, not on reexamining what the Times produces or how it decides what to produce. This misses the digital lesson. The audience has fled newspapers for other media forms, including digital, because it wants to participate in the conversation about what news is and how it is covered.

Discourse is a two-way conversation, even when it is mediated. The tremendous resources and talent at The New York Times could engage readers in that conversation better than any other medium. But it would need to open itself to real discourse is its readers. Digital platforms can power that discourse. But that means far more than “reaching” the audience. It must be more about “listening” and “hearing” the audience–engaging in discourse with the audience.

The “explanation” the Innovation Report needs to offer newsroom journalists is not just an education in digital tools, it is a fundamental reorientation to substantive engagement in discourse and shared decision making with the Times’ most important partners: its readers.

It’s a lesson the “innovation report” would do well to offer the field.

Social Media Discourse: Policy Solutions or Moral Panic?

Here is the issue: can Internet and Twitter campaigns produce the urge for good public policy or do they encourage moral panic?



The last several weeks have offered lots of evidence that social networking sites can command the attention of the public and institutional leadership.

The outrage on social media about racist remarks by Clippers owner Donald Sterling dominated the Internet and traditional news and brought decisive action by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

The outrange on Twitter over the abductions by the terrorist organization Boko Haram of almost 300 girls from a school in Nigeria grew more slowly but ultimately commanded a response by the United States and other governments and produced belated pledges from the country’s President Goodluck Jonathan to rescue the girls.

Clearly the effects of social media can dominate the public agenda. It is less clear that these effects produce real policy changes or grass roots discourse to find viable solutions to important social problems revealed in such crises.

Discussions of social media “effects” are hauntingly familiar. Legacy media “effects” also centered on the public agenda. They went by names like agenda-setting, CNN effect, priming, conditioning, socialization and dozens of other variants. They claimed that media shaped public issues and individual behavior.

But changing policy is complex. Some policy makers claim media agendas siphon resources from long-term planning to solve problems. They say resources are diverted to create an appearance of responding to crises. That leaves longer-term efforts to control crises were under funded.

The Lede’s Robert Mackey ( has examined whether “hashtag activism” can work. His sources, particularly Teju Cole (@tejucole), point out difficulties glossed over by “the fervor of our hashtags.”

The latest examples have created action. The deeper question is whether they have produced policies to prevent future cases of such crises. Does banning Donald Sterling improve racial understanding? Does sending a team of experts to Nigeria stop religious violence?

American philosopher John Dewey has argued that informed public discourse among the people affected by problems generates the best solutions to social problems. It is not yet clear that social media produce that kind of discourse. It seems that in many cases social media generate something more akin to “moral panic.” It’s the same kind of problem typified by the “effects” of legacy media.

Renewal, Explainer Sites, and Civic Discourse



May 2, 2014

It’s May. A time for renewal in nature. A great time for renewal in journalism.

The New York Times did its part last week. It launched its latest digital innovation, “The Upshot.” The new site sets out to explain the news by offering data based reviews of news. It joins other “explainer sites,” such as Vox and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.

I think it’s a great addition to digital journalism, although its niche is a bit hazy. As digital guru Jay Rosen said, journalism gets better when more people do it (

The move to explain news on the Internet certainly is not new. Depth and investigative sites such as the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica, Truthout, and also set out to probe beyond the headlines.

Partnerships like California Watch, Oklahoma Watch, the Rocky Mountain PBS I-News Network, and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism also dig deeper at more local levels.

Many online columnists, editors and bloggers say they are doing something similar. In fact, Jim Romenesko ( linked to a Twitter thread by Heidi N. Moore of The Guardian that made just that point.

<blockquote data-conversation=”none” data-cards=”hidden” lang=”en”><p><a href=””>@helpareporter</a> Open Forum Judge Moskowitz &amp; Maine&#39;s Corrupt Courts. <a href=””></a>  Pls RT. Thxs!</p>&mdash; Lori Handrahan (@LoriHandrahan2) <a href=”″>April 29, 2014</a></blockquote>
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Of course, lots of us say we want context and depth and investigation.  We don’t like to think we are manipulated by news sources and paid information advocates. We want honest, impartial facts. We want to think news isn’t being manipulated by money and influence.

Still, I think the jury is out on the new explainer sites. Will they succumb to cheap data provided by advocates? Real discourse is hard to produce. It is not yet clear that the stories on these sites have created the kind of grass root conversations that yield change.

So far, the sites have explored mostly stories vaulted to the top of the news agenda by advocates and government action. Few stories have emerged on these sites that focus on previously unheralded problems faced by ordinary readers and emerging off the news grid.

Today’s media ecology offers lots of information, if you have the time fortitude to dig for it. For the last 70 years, journalism has been more about information than about civic discourse. So far, the “explainer” sites fit right in by offering a top-quality menu of information.

What’s harder for journalism today is to create honest, informed discourse not cultivated by well paid strategic planners.

The new explainer sites are well worth watching.