The Mother City

On Lion's Head, overlooking Sea Point



In my family, Christmas is, in some ways, just another day. We don’t entertain dreams of being more misanthropic than any other family out there. But, sometimes, the actual day of Christmas is as innocuous as the weekdays that preceded it, and that’s because of people’s work schedules. My uncle, a paramedic, often has work on Christmas Day. My brother’s job permits him to be scheduled on Christmas Day. So, for us, Christmas Eve, or the day after Christmas, is the real family celebration.

This made the night of Christmas Day the opportune time to tell my parents I’m going to South Africa next summer. I found an internship program in Cape Town, and I was already set up to be an editorial intern at The Big Issue magazine. I had the paperwork all printed out, and I handed my mom and my dad a stapled packet of what the program is, where it was, what I would be doing, when I would be leaving, and how much it would cost.

And then my mom rolled her eyes and handed me back the papers.

That was three years ago. I ended up going to Cape Town the summer of 2009. The day after Christmas, everyone in my family knew (and were, somewhat surprisingly, rather supportive, if a bit perplexed).

Christmas lasts for twelve days (sort of), and not just because some song says so. Plenty of time to tell mom what you’d like to do next summer.

Digital … It Ain’t Dirty

I’m working my way through The Digital Divide, a collection of essays devoted to debating the influence social media and networking has on our 21st-century world, edited by The Dumbest Generation author Mark Bauerlein. Instead of starting from page one, however, I jumped to Clay Shirky’s essay in the back, a piece adapted from his book Cognitive Surplus. Shirky, who teaches in the graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, is something of a digital luminary. His mission, it seems, doesn’t seem to be one of conversion to new media for its own sake; rather, it’s more of a focus on why the digital sphere—and, specifically, social networking and the myriad manifestations of it—radically alters the definition of media in today’s world.

What we’ve experienced over the decade is the democratization of publishing. Actually, it’s something we’ve been experiencing for little more than half a millennium. Shirky’s essay notes how, in the aftermath of Gutenberg’s innovation of moveable type, it became dramatically easier to publish books. In economic parlance, barriers to entry were, and have been ever since, steadily removed from the world of publishing. (Shirky calls it “Gutenberg economics.”) What that meant was a deep shift in how we philosophically understood publishing—and that deep shift, for perhaps the last decade, but especially since 2008, has altered the way we view and do journalism. In short, publishing became easy. In fact, it always was. It just appeared more difficult because of the economic costs incurred. But as the economy of publishing becomes more manageable for “average people” (my term), the conceit that publishing is something best left to professionals—the romanticism of it, if you will—rapidly evaporates. As it relates specifically to mass media, Shirky describes this as a rethinking of media as not just something people consume, but something that everyone uses. One-click publishing, literally, means that society is no longer segmented into people who make content and people who consume it.

For journalism, this breakdown in distinction has become clearer: journalists are no longer the only people who produce news. I touched on this a bit with my post about The Atlantic’s great successes in navigating a digital-first publishing environment, but the broader implications of Shirky’s argument have yet to reverberate across the journalistic spectrum. Generally speaking, we still look at journalism as something only “gatekeepers” can do, regardless of how many people are doing journalism. “Citizen journalists,” “bloggers,” people posting on comment boards—these are dirty words, with equally unflattering connotations. (We’re all guilty of it, regardless of how digitally native we are: I bristle upon hearing people who don’t write professionally pronouncing themselves “writers.”) Indeed, many who make the argument against blogging, for instance, point out that it allows novices, people of no talent—idiots—to share their thoughts almost instantaneously to an Internet environment ready to lap up the tattered scraps from the hallowed Table of Publishing.

But—and let’s just stick with the term—idiots aren’t some new phenomena to the 21st century. What’s new is the ability for anyone to share thoughts easily. And while, yes, that makes it more difficult to sift through content to find the bits most reliable and valuable, what it does on a fundamental level is allow for true participation. People with worthwhile thoughts are no longer relegated to dinner-table conversations. (Just look at The New Inquiry, or Thought Catalog.) Journalists, and the industry as a whole, should embrace this concept. (Joy Mayer calls this news as “a conversation rather than a series of stories.”) At its base, journalism is about making connections with communities of people, sharing information, analyzing what we learn and know, and assisting others in making thoughtful decisions about the world. Why should we be turned off from any technology that makes this easier?

Raise A Brow

John McIntyre has an excellent post today on why it’s important to know what the hell words actually mean. He calls out Atlantic Wire writer Adam Clark Estes for claiming that GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul “furrowed his eyebrows” during a CNN interview prior to “storming off completely.” The video of the interview is embedded within the story in question, which was published by the National Journal.

You should read McIntyre’s post, as he does a better job than I could at explaining precisely why “furrowing the brow” is impossible (by way of pointing out exactly what “furrow” means). But the real lesson here is one all reporters—irrespective of publication medium—would do well to write on a Post-It note, carry around with us, and stick above our computer monitors prior to beginning any article.

Reporters report what happened. Sometimes what happened is boring. That’s OK. As you’ll see in the CNN interview, Paul gets agitated after fielding questions about newsletters he once published in the early nineties. At one point, the exchange between CNN’s Gloria Borger and Paul becomes visibly uncomfortable. For the most part, though, it’s a standard interview. It needs to happen, because journalists are tasked with holding political figures accountable, but the interview itself isn’t going off like fireworks on July 4th.

But at no time is Paul furrowing his eyebrows; and while it isn’t clear (from the video clip) if Paul abruptly ended the interview, or if Borger was finished with her questions, it is clear that he didn’t “storm off”—that is, angrily, suddenly, and hurriedly leave the room (possibly with the microphone still attached to the lapel of his jacket). To say he did is sloppy reporting, primarily because of the imprecision, and especially because writing it in such a way attaches a connotation—unfavorable to Paul—to the entire exchange.

Reporting, at times, can be boring. But accuracy is paramount. If all a person did was leave the room, it’s best to just say so.

What “Digital-First” Really Means

The Atlantic, reports Mashable, made $1.8 million in 2010, marking that year as the magazine’s first profitable one in decades. The news also represents a marked turnaround from how The Atlantic had been existing—with a generous splash of red ink on its balance sheet—especially in the years preceding James Bennett’s hiring as editor in chief in 2006 and Justin Smith’s hiring in 2007. As the story says, it was Smith, as president of Atlantic Consumer Media, who announced that The Atlantic was going to adopt a digital-first strategy. Mashable staffer Lauren Indvik includes this quote from Smith: “We decided to prioritize digital over everything else. We were no longer going to be ‘The Atlantic, which happens to do digital.’ We were going to be a digital media company that also published The Atlantic magazine.”

Kudos to Indvik for including that quote, because Smith’s determinedly different focus away from print and toward digital—and in October 2007, a full year before the housing market would bottom out and, along with it, the American economy and the print media model—is, as the data suggests, the very thing that saved The Atlantic.

In all likelihood, not shifting to a digital-first mentality wouldn’t have spelled imminent doom for the publication. But let’s be clear about what the convergence of digital media with traditional reporting means for journalism as a whole: the 21st century is the era of true accountability journalism. It used to be that journalists and news organizations acted as arbitrary keepers of information; journalists, by the power they wielded at large metropolitan newspapers or respected national consumer magazines, outlined the agenda for local communities, big cities, and the entire country. No longer is this case. Consider what John Paton, the CEO of the Journal Register Company, says of news reporting today:

“…[W]e no longer see our job as the old-fashioned agenda-setter or gatekeepers of information for our communities. Clearly communities know what they want and can organize themselves around issues and activities.”

This is the type of bottom-up accountability not typically seen in journalism. It’s the very real sense that we—journalists—write for audiences. And we always have, of course. But while journalistic enterprises used to dictate the importance, flow, and type of information that readers received, in today’s age of digitally-charged media, that model no longer exists. Readers will be—and already are—shunning news that doesn’t accurately reflect their concerns or what they consider important. By extension, journalists have suddenly realized that they produce a product, and, as is the case with all products, people don’t buy things they think have little value to them.  The Atlantic, by its actions—creating new verticals with the Atlantic Wire and Atlantic Cities, opening up the editorial process of the Wire to allow readers to pitch stories, removing TheAtlantic.com‘s paywall, curating a Twitter feed, etc.—has recognized this, and that’s what is making that particular publication stronger than ever before.*

And this, ultimately, is what is so important about a digital-first approach to journalism today. Not only does it encourage innovation—bridging divides between developers and journalists so that the two groups can come together to figure out how to make journalism profitable—but it also places emphasis on the importance of reader engagement. For a long time, prestigious publications could remain as insulated from and isolated of their readers as they wanted to be. Facebook, Twitter, other forms of social media, blogging, Instagram—these are just some of the myriad ways that no longer allow that sort of isolation to take place. Inclusivity, not exclusivity, is the new journalistic paradigm. Hierarchy, for better or for worse, is out. And while we’ll always need journalists—people who intentionally spend large swaths of time combing through records, conducting interviews, thinking, analyzing, reporting, and writing—readers won’t always necessarily need journalism as we’ve traditionally known it.

Embracing this new paradigm is the way newsrooms must go in 2012 and beyond. To prop up the traditional model will only sow the seeds of failure.

*Lest you think I’m another disrespectful youth, I’m aware that the likes of Mark Twain and Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the damn thing.

Programmers, Here’s What I Want

This month’s Carnival of Journalism has graciously asked for my opinion on what gift I’d most enjoy from a programmer or developer, which is a relief, since Mother has informed me that my no longer being a ward of her home un-entitles me to things like Legos wrapped in reindeer-covered colored paper.

It’s an uncomplicated gift, and one I think many journalists of the digital age would like to find waiting for them underneath their Festivus poles: a design for an online newspaper or magazine site that not only looks great, but makes it easy for editors to categorize and organize stories online while being simple for users to find the latest news first.

Essentially, I’m reiterating the point Joshua Benton made over at Nieman Lab back in July—in response to Andy Rutledge’s proposed redesign of The New York Times’s homepage—which was: “the problems of large-scale information architecture for news sites are really hard problems.”

Which, well, sucks. It’s difficult to envision how an aesthetically-pleasing website—something that looks like Rutledge’s proposed redesign, which is now available as the WooTheme “Currents”—would alleviate the main problems still existing on newspaper websites. (For a great primer on some of these problems, check out Lauren Rabaino’s post on the life cycle of a newspaper story on 10,000 Words.) The first is how to give editorial staff ultimate control of which stories are populated to specific sections of the website; the second is how to ensure that readers can view breaking news without burying related articles or other news items; and the third, as I see it, is how you do this automatically so teams of editors don’t need to babysit the back-end of a content management system all day.

On smaller-scale sites, something like a weekly college newspaper, using some sort of CMS that forces editors to drag and drop stories into specific locations on the homepage and section pages (I’m thinking of my experiences with Polopoly’s College Publisher 5) makes sense: the editorial staff has ultimate control of where stories are populated on site (problem one), and because problem one is solved, problem two becomes easy to navigate, since editors can move latest news to the top of the homepage. Of course, performing these tasks manually means problem three still exists.

What makes the overarching problem particularly vexing is that smaller-scale iterations of such a phantom site are in use and mitigate all three issues. So, by way of example a la Benton, let’s stick with the website for The New York Times. That site is updated with lots of stories all day, and stories are accompanied by photos, slideshows, videos, blog posts, and user comments, among other things. Taken individually, it’s easy to point to aesthetically-pleasing sites that solve my aforementioned three problems. Blog posts? Look at Mashable. Photos? How about ThemeForest’s “Classica” or “Gridlocked” themes.

But how do we combine a multitude of elements into a large-scale news operation’s website so that editors can maintain control of where stories populate—in the print world, where stories are placed—without preventing readers from finding the breaking news and frees up editors from finagling with article placement on a site ad nauseum?

Programmers/developers … that’s what I want. I can’t promise lavish pay. I can’t even promise milk and cookies. Bourbon, though, I can do.