Category Archives: Journalism

The struggles of a news civilian, cont’d: Three views on politics and tech news

My struggles as a news civilian largely fit into two categories:

First, as a civilian who lacks salary-supported info-consumption time, I struggle to get through the never-ending queue of smart/worthwhile/interesting news. And it feels like news soldiers, who do have that time and are otherwise consumed by info consumption, don’t understand that people outside the industry might be like me.

Second, there is also a never-ending queue of pointless/time-suck news, but many news organizations and journalists don’t distinguish worthwhile news from pointless news. (Or industry economics don’t allow them to distinguish the two.)

I’m not talking about TMZ and celebrity gossip. I’m talking about the extremely high percentage of “news” — from the AP, NPR’s daily news shows, tech news orgs, almost every news org that covers politics, etc. — that to the average person is literally trivia, as useful (and useless) to their everyday lives and thoughts as a game of Trivial Pursuit. As a news civilian, I don’t know why I’m supposed to care.

Because news orgs continue to shovel this trivia toward me without explaining why it’s important or rethinking whether they should be producing it, I grow to suspect and resent them and feel less bad about my lack of info-consumption time. Or I continue to waste time on this news  and grow to resent myself. Down that road lies some combination of info-numbness, self-hatred, and a (further) tuned-out citizenry.

Three recent blog posts illustrate my second struggle.

Here’s Brian Lam, in his awesome post about reducing “the overage of technology and noise” in our lives to increase happiness:

I stopped reading the stupid hyped up news stories that are press releases or rants about things that will get fixed in a week. I stopped reading the junk and about the junk that was new, but not good. I stopped reading blogs that write stories like “top 17 photos of awesome clouds by iphone” and “EXCLUSIVE ANGRY BIRDS COMING TO FACEBOOK ON VALENTINES DAY.” And corporate news that only affects the 1%. Most days, I feel like most internet writers and editors are engaging in the kind of vapid conversation you find at parties that is neither enlightening or entertaining, and where everyone is shouting and no one is saying anything. I don’t have time for this.

Ezra Klein, on the “tornado of idiocy that is American politics“:

“Most people don’t care about politics,” [UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck] said. “They’re not running around with these preformed opinions in their head. They worry about what they’ll make for dinner and how to get their kids to bed. And that hasn’t changed. For us, that’s an alien world. We think about politics all the time. But we’re not normal. The 24-hour news cycle has not really affected the average American who isn’t into politics. And that’s really important to remember.”

I think most people in Washington believe voters would make better decisions if they spent more time following politics. But I spend a lot of time following politics, and quite often, I couldn’t be happier that voters are tuning out the inanities that obsess this town.

And Om Malik, reflecting on recent news about tech executives changing jobs (via Alexis Madrigal’s awesome essay on app/tech stagnation):

Sure, these are some great people and everyone including me is happy for their new gigs and future success. But when I read these posts and often wonder to myself that have we run out of things to say and write that actually are about technology and the companies behind them? Or do we feel compelled to fill the white space between what matters? Sort of like talk radio?

Something’s percolating here. Can anything be done about it on more than an individual level?

Confessions of a news civilian

I used to be a news soldier.

By day, I read dozens of news stories for my job as an editor. By night, I read dozens more for my then-current or assumed-future writing gigs, and for my perpetual gig as deputy assistant knowledge dilettante.

I read 90 percent of the Atlantic, New Republic, and New Yorker issues (front- and middle-of-the-book sections, at least) from 2002 to 2009. I religiously followed Talking Points Memo during the Bush years. Slate, video game blogs, why-am-I-still-reading-this runs of Rolling Stone — anything to fill my professionally and dopaminically mandated info quotas.

But I’m out of the game now. Been out for a couple of years1. I’m a news civilian. And I am lost.

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Data journalism needs to be more than external data sets

Paul Bradshaw has a good column at Poynter about how the increasing availability of data will force journalists and news organizations to change:

Data journalism takes in a huge range of disciplines, from Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) and programming, to visualisation and statistics. If you are a journalist with a strength in one of those areas, you are currently exceptional. This cannot last for long: The industry will have to skill up, or it will have nothing left to sell. …

So on a commercial level, if nothing else, publishing will need to establish where the value lies in this new environment, and where new efficiencies can make journalism viable. Data journalism is one of those areas.

Journalists should read and heed everything Bradshaw writes. But it’s important to make sure the discussion of data doesn’t get too narrowly confined to external data, without considering how journalism itself fits holistically into the data-centric future.

The big challenge for news organizations isn’t just how to better ingest, analyze, and present extant external (if sometimes hard-to-access) data sets. Inculcating a new skill set industrywide may be non-trivial as a matter of scale and institutional-cultural inertia, but at least that skill set is pretty well defined.

Rather, the trickier and less-addressed challenge for news organizations is how to turn the raw materials and finished products of non-database journalism into data.

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How the Sunlight Foundation and PolitiFact can make ALL political coverage better

Today’s 2010 Knight-Batten Symposium gave me visions of political debates and speeches transformed from exercises in sound-bitery and emotion into civic lessons and conversations.

It gave me visions of political news stories that provide context not just about the issue at hand, but also context about the people at hand.

(Also, it gave me the vapors. But mostly just visions.)

Here’s one vision:

On TV, political debates display a fact-check tally for each candidate (how many true, truthy, lying-liar, etc. statements each candidate has made). Fact-check details about a particular statement are displayed as soon as they’re available.

No more useless meters showing allegedly uncommitted voters’ emotional reactions:

Instead, imagine if the debate screen looked like this (well, imagine a non-crappy-mockup version that looked vaguely like this):

Here’s another vision:

Online, any streamed speech, debate, or hearing displays a combination of fact-checking material, aggregated contextual material, real-time commentary and public reaction. Any story or video that mentions politicians displays some combination of:

  • Fact-checking details for that person’s recent statements (any of their statements and/or recent statements related to the story being viewed)
  • Campaign contributions to that person from individuals/organizations related to the story’s subject.
  • The candidate’s biggest contributors (individuals/organizations and industries).
  • Lobbying information for the person and/or their staffers
  • If in office, recent votes the person has taken related to the story’s subject.
  • Biographical information about the person.

Now here’s the great thing about these visions: The Sunlight Foundation and PolitiFact have pretty much already fulfilled them!

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In defense of the Pulitzer Prizes

A few hours before the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday, Albritton’s Jeff Sonderman tweeted: “Food for thought: Is journalists’ pursuit of journalism awards (Pulitzers) bad for journalism? Does it mislead priorities?”

The question reflects a percolating cynicism toward, if not outright backlash against, the prizes and journalism awards in general over the past few years.

Journalism-sacred-cow-tipper Jeff Jarvis has written several posts criticizing various aspects of the Pulitzer Prizes and culture (distilled: they turn “the profession into a circle-jerk of mutual self-love”). Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton wrote an anti-Pulitzer post on the occasion of the 2008 Pulitzer announcement, arguing that “these self-congratulating awards, and the attention devoted to them, are symptomatic of the decline of the newspaper industry.” The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus joined the parade last year with an essay in Columbia Journalism Review titled “Newspaper Narcissism” (subscription required to read more than a preview; I don’t have a CJR subscription, but read a slightly longer bootlegged preview).

I’m a world-class cynic, and I’m all for tipping sacred cows when warranted. But I just can’t hop on this bandwagon (or bandtricycle — I don’t want to fall into the false-trend trap, either). While the list of the news industry’s problems and self-inflicted wounds is long, I don’t think the Pulitzer Prizes belong on it.

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Objectivity isn’t truthful — it’s pathological

I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Objectivity is dead, maaan” club since 2002*, when Jonathan Chait’s TNR essay about Bernard Goldberg’s Bias and “liberal bias” blew my young mind. Since then, I’ve read many more arguments for why objectivity is outdated, including a spate of 2009 posts. (Obligatory caveat: Good intentions and common sense underpin the objectivity enterprise. The problem is rigid adherence to a specific, previously unquestioned strain of objectivity.)

But I’ve never read a rethink-objectivity argument quite like Steve Buttry’s recent post on the subject. The language he uses is unexpected — and gets at the heart of why objectivity-at-all-costs is ultimately misguided.

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The journalist as curator, revisited: Curating your own content

The idea of journalists, particularly editors, as curators has gained traction as forward-thinking news organizations realize the value of being a trusted filter for readers. (Though there are definitely detractors.) And while more news orgs still need to get comfortable aggregating content produced elsewhere, I think we’ve been missing a big part of the curation discussion: the growing importance of journalists as curators of their own newsroom’s content.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading (*cough* back in the spring *cough*) Martin Langeveld’s vision of how content will flow in future newsrooms, and Matt Thompson’s imagining the difficulties of implementing the alternative workflows such “content cascades” will require.

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