Posts tagged ‘Columbia Journalism School’

A poor blueprint for digital journalism

By , 19 May, 2011, No Comment

I wrote a post yesterday for the Public Business blog about the disappointing research on digital journalism that Columbia Journalism School put out last week. It speaks to a number of the business model issues I’ve written about here – the niche-ification of news, the mismatch of supply and demand in digital advertising, the pros and cons of paywalls – but not in a way that I found sufficiently detailed or comprehensive:

It explores a handful of strategies for making news pay online, but it emphasizes that each one must be accompanied by bean counting on the editorial side, beyond what will come naturally from crashing production costs.

While it takes note of sites that have managed to eke out profits on a teensy budget, its business-side focus means there’s not enough evaluation of the content these sites have produced. It asks, for example, whether the hyperlocal model can support ‘serious accountability journalism’ but then fails to establish which – if any – of the hyperlocal sites profiled (TBD, Baristanet, The Batavian, Patch) qualifies as providing ‘serious accountability journalism.’

In failing to answer that question, this report doesn’t do much to challenge the contention made by last year’s reports from both Columbia Journalism School and the F.T.C. that certain types of public interest reporting are too fundamentally expensive to fit in the new market, that they will have to be supported by the public and nonprofit sectors. [More on these proposals here.]

We believe strongly that on the business beat, there is a unique case, both ethically and financially, to be made for nonprofit funding for certain types of stories, which is why we’re doing it.

But we would still like to see more discussion of the public-interest potential of for-profit media models. There is lots of good discussion about how to make news profitable, and lots of good discussion about how to make news better, but there is not enough discussion and research that tackles these questions together. That can’t be a good thing, for the media or the public.

You can read the whole post here.

I’m going to be doing most of my blogging on media industry issues for Public Business, and cross-posting or excerpting them here. But if you’re following this blog specifically for media industry coverage, you might want to follow Public Business too.

Apocalypse 26: Lights at the End of the Tunnel

By , 22 May, 2009, No Comment

On Wednesday, I graduated from Columbia’s Business and Economics Journalism master’s program, which I’ve been blogging about a bit this year. As you might imagine, the two day Commencement was full of speeches about the value of journalism, and laden with allusions to the crisis we face now.

One surprise was that at the University-wide Commencement, Columbia President Lee Bollinger focused his address to the undergrad class primarily on the future of news, even though there are no undergraduate journalism students at the University. Bollinger seemed to be making some of the First Amendment arguments I’ve been making on this blog and elsewhere.

a crisis of journalism is a crisis of democracy. No one should assume that the institutions committed to a professional culture of journalism or scholarship can be replaced by thousands of individual, citizen-journalists, just as you cannot replace our great universities with multiple individual websites each offering specialized knowledge in an atomized way. Sometimes you need big, strong news organizations to challenge the vast powers of government, corporations and other large institutions

As I’ve been articulating similar notions, however, I have become more convinced that this idealist argument for media is unlikely to stick with the vast majority of the public.

What the public wants and needs is tangible evidence of why professional media matters. They need more hardhitting investigative reporting at precisely the moment when that kind of reporting is becoming impossible to finance. So another highlight of our Commencement cermony was when the J-school’s Commencement Speaker, Mexico’s newspaper revolutionary Alejandro Junco de la Vega, proposed his model for how to make media profitable. To paraphrase: Put down the phone and go back to basic, gumshoe-on-the-streets reporting; then cede the horse race to the Internet and become experts (his papers are partnering with academic institutions to research policy ideas and implications in a broad, sociological way). Advertisers, online or off, will never pay for this kind of Gonzo journalism, but that was Junco’s point–if you walk amongst your readers, showing them that you can identify trends in THEIR lives that they themselves cannot see or make sense of, that you can offer solutions to THEIR problems that they themselves cannot devise, if you do this in person, it is readers who will pay for content. My instinct is that this is a model for a media economy that is still mostly in print, and therefore for a developing, rather than a developed nation. I don’t know if it would work here, but I thought it was new and bold of him to suggest it. The speech, which was beautiful and intelligent on many other points, is here.

Our other Commencement Speaker was Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, most recently of Dowd-plagiarism fame. Marshall is certainly a cause journalist but unlike other web evangelists, he did not spend his time on the stand chastising “old” media or pooh-poohing the value of professionalism. His tone–staid and respectful–suggested that the realignment has begun, with the forces of reporting marshalling against the forces of spam. Josh Marshall realizes, as do we at the J-school, that he has more in common with us than any of us does with A. Maureen Dowd or B. Gawker.

How to Deal with Google

By , 17 April, 2009, 5 Comments

When I posted my concerns about the market power of Google a few weeks ago, I got the following arguments in response:

–what Google offers the ordinary computer user is the opposite of a monopolized experience: free innovate products. Let’s call this argument “Google is not evil.”
–what Google offers the buyers of ad space and data is also the opposite of a monopolized experience: innovative services that cost less than their competitors. Let’s call this argument “Google is not greedy.”
–Google has achieved its dominance of search-based advertising and data-aggregation on the merits of its algorithms. Let’s call this argument “Google is not cheating”
–Google plays in many fields but doesn’t own any of them, since there’s still all that TV, radio and yes, print advertising still out there that Google hasn’t yet taken over. Let’s call this argument “Google is not that big.”

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Apocalypse 21: Arts and Crafts

By , 8 April, 2009, 3 Comments

In this ongoing series on news business models, I’ve maintained that journalism is a profession. To me, a profession means work with a public value, a defined code of conduct or methodology, and a mentality of prizing institutional goals over individual ones. Journalists in the mainstream media made the mistake of eroding the first criterion over the last two decades with lots of non-public-interest infotainment; citizen-media activists are eroding the other two by thumbing their nose at codes of conduct and staking their business models on individual permalancers.


One of my professors, Jonathan Knee, has written about the downgrading of banking from a professional calling to a trade with the rise of transactional over client models of doing business and defines a profession by the same three metrics I do:


“A profession is a job that owes obligations to society at large...It is the antithesis of the idea of a profession to argue that the standards to which investment banks once held themselves was simply an attribute of a grand financial bargain…our society’s increasing emphasis on celebrity, self-realization and personal wealth over more communal callings has reduced the social benefits associated with pursuing a higher professional calling.” (x)

I asked Knee the other day if he thought journalism was a profession and he, a media banker, said “No.” He thought it was an art, which I might define as self-realization that explicitly defies codes of conduct, and which might have some social benefits that are external to the purpose with which it is pursued. We fund the arts because we like to see art in museums, but the artists don’t produce explicitly for society’s benefit or according to professional norms. The models for journalism we hear floated most often these days–nonprofit trusts, licensing fees or micropayments–all mimic the way we finance the arts.

Not only is this conceptually problematic, but financially, it won’t work. Because the arts are non-professional, most artists do something else on the side to pay their bills, unless they are among the lucky few to get a big break (see above: individual self-realization over communal goals). Having every journalist do something else on the side would overtime erode their expertise about their beat and their commitment to journalistic codes of conduct; because good reporting (which, see above, is a public good) depends on those practices, turning journalists into artists is bad news.

There is perhaps a third way: journalism as craft, journalist as artisan. A craft is a job with a defined skill set, some training/apprenticeship and some social utility, but no obligation towards institutions. That’s a pretty solid conceptualization of how reporting should work, but I’m not yet sure what it means as a business model. My hunch is that it leads us to finance individual stories, instead of publications, but to finance stories by journalists who do reporting all the time, even if they migrate from outlet to outlet. As always, any thoughts on where this leads are most welcome.

The Generation Gap

By , 24 March, 2009, No Comment

Now that it all appears to have blown over, I want to say a few more words about the AIG bonuses, and the media role in stirring the pot of fury. We had a long discussion about this in my core business journalism seminar last night.

Here’s where I come down: it was and is good journalism to comb through the government’s agreements with AIG and the company’s SEC filings, to try to find out who was getting paid for what and to probe the possibility of backscratching when it came to Goldman Sachs. [Though, as we determined in my seminar, there isn’t actually any backscratching involved. GS, it seems, really was smarter than the others.] Anyway, it was good journalism to ask these questions. Once. And report the answers. Once.

It was and is bad journalism to report, on the top right hand column of the A1 page of every major newspaper over two weeks, what various regulatory and elected officials had to say about these bonuses as though it were ACTUALLY the most important event of each day’s news cycle, when any number of other items needed that space. This is info-tainment at work.

Such poor editorial judgment is pernicious. The bonus rage not only derailed politicians from doing the important work of sorting out a real bank plan and a budget; it squandered the political will to have a real bank plan. Now that everyone in the country is out with their pitchforks for the bankers, how is the administration going to sell spending more money on this industry?

If the press had been doing its job, the last two weeks might have produced stories explaining that Wall Street funds Main Street, that even venal AIG insurers are worth your tax dollar right now. Or we might have read on page A1 about the strange phenomenon of Americans ranting against the pursuit of profit and how absurd that is. Such circumspect and constructive items appeared, but only on the inside pages of our newspapers, and in elite pockets of the wonkosphere.

I have a hunch as to why it wound up this way: it’s generational. (Note: Dan Drezner is talking the generations meme today too) The bulk of voters are over 50, close enough to retirement that even a superhero’s bank plan won’t bring back their 401K’s. The bulk of editors are the same age. Most of the time, such people are capable of putting enormous national emergencies above their own interests when the national emergency is framed as securing the future for their children.

This weekend, my mother, generally the type to lie down before moving buses for my sister and myself, said leaving her children to careers in a depressed, deflated, Japan’s-Lost-Decade economy might be worth it to get a pound of flesh from those who destroyed her retirement. I post this not as an indictment of her per se but as an example of the level the rage has reached and an explanation for why young people I know, even soak-the-rich liberals, are far less incensed by the whole bonus question than their parents. Unfortunately, elected officials won’t take any real steps on the banks until such policy polls well among our parents’ generation.

Spring Cleaning Post

By , 15 March, 2009, 1 Comment

Thank God Ban Ki-Moon hasn’t heard of me, because I know I’d be on his list of deadbeats for the appalling lapse of Cappuccino-making I’ve been doing of late. I have a handful of weak excuses:

Excuse 1. It was crunch time on the Forbes Billionaires report, for which we’ll be continuing to roll out content all this week and next on our website. Right now, the big focus of reader feedback has been the controversial listing of a Mexican drug baron–how does Forbes know where he got his money? How come criminal activity gets Allen Stanford knocked off the list but not El Chapo? My personal opinion is that there’s real money in the black market, and covering ugly realities is part of journalism, but I do think we ought to be critical, not adulatory in our description of what he does. My own story for the report (link to come) is on two Nigerian billionaires, and I’ve tried to take my own advice. [Updated: My story‘s up now]
Excuse 2. It was midterm season at Columbia and I’ve been swamped with work. One assignment may be of interest to readers: for my computers and the law class, which I blogged about before, I wrote about the shield bill now floating in Congress, that would protect journalists’ anonymous sources. I blogged my basic take on the bill a while back and got some useful feedback in the comment section; in my essay, I took up one suggestion, to define journalism as reporting, and combined with my desire to maintain journalism as a profession, to try to block out a 21st century interpretation of the 1st amendment. Any thoughts on the essay would be much appreciated, since I’ll be rewriting it in the coming weeks.
One thing that I’ve been thinking about while writing that essay, and indeed, over the last few weeks, is where I actually fall on the political spectrum. Many lefty friends who usually regard me as an ally have been writing to me asking why I keep linking to conservative thinkers, praising centralized power and waxing nostalgic for old values. Have I, one commenter wrote in an email, gone over to the dark side? No, I haven’t, but the concern suggests my hunch about partisan sea change was correct: as the left goes liberaltarian, I’m falling out of it. As the center goes Hamiltonian, I’m falling into it. And as the right goes silly, I’m shedding not a tear at all.
It’s not yet a perfect shift: David Brooks, who has been rejoicing alongside me about the rise of Hamiltonianism, still hasn’t made his break from the traditional right–he has high praise for Alexander Hamilton (duh) and Teddy Roosevelt, but also David Cameron. News flash, Mr. Brooks: David Cameron is the opposite of an institutionalist; his first move will be the evisceration of Britain’s health care system. But it’s a real shift: witness the hiring of Ross Douthat to the NYT opinion page this week, consolidating Brooks and Douthat as pro-government conservatives (who like social spending) and putting them in the same room with pro-government liberals like Krugman (who likes markets, but wants them aggressively regulated) and liberal hawks like Friedman who likes big geostrategic initiatives. This is the institutionalist, Hamiltonian coalition. Conveniently, I already have a subscription.

The End of Forgetting

By , 29 January, 2009, 3 Comments

I’m back at school at Columbia, and one of my electives this spring is a seminar on “Computers, Privacy and the Constitution” with noted intellectual property lawyer and free software, copyleft advocate Eben Moglen. I have my qualms about the politics of the open source crowd but I will admit that Moglen is sharp as nails and I’m psyched to be studying with him. This course actually focuses on the aspect of the open web question that brings me closest to Prof. Moglen: the issue of privacy. Free access to information may sound like a plus when its free mp3s we’re debating, but not such a plus when it’s unrestricted government access to your phone lines.

Eben Moglen is the first person in the free software movement I’ve heard admit and take ownership for the link between the two, and for this he gets major points. To paraphrase his introductory lecture for the course [I was taking notes, not tape-recording], “We who promoted these technologies to trick capitalism into undermining itself and to empower those at the bottom who could not afford to pay for knowledge enabled the surveillance society we live in today.” And of course, it’s big corporations who are teamed up with big government to operate that surveillance. Whether you’re a hippie anti-capitalist or a libertarian wingnut, you have much to fear from that collaboration.

At the worst extreme, there’s the Moglen paranoia scenario in which the Internet brings us free culture fascism. As Moglen sees it, (and there’s some logic to this), the fundamental ideological front in America’s war on 20th century totalitarianism was not the question of its violence, nor of state control of private sector institutions [though we spoke a lot about those]. Our problem, our fear, was the state’s control of individual minds, the ability to police dreams and ambitions. Data-mining our internet searches and Facebook walls does just that.

Now, Moglen continues, what eventually brings down any regime is “the destruction of its instruction sets.” [He’s really a poet in lawyer’s clothing] Totalitarianism, to extend the example, failed because its machinery started to creak under its own weight. Moglen’s fear about any contemporary state is not that it is evil but that if it turns out to be, it will be impossible to challenge because the government has purchased all our data and that data can never be destroyed or changed. Everything that is uttered or sent in what we perceive as a transitory medium–the phone, the web–is actually recorded and made permanent. This is what Moglen calls “The End of Forgetting.” It’s a tragically beautiful concept, but it’s one I somewhat differ with: sometimes, the ability to Always Remember can be good. But by and large, I’ll admit Moglen is right to be alarmed about our privacy.

If nothing else, his concerns are topical. A few relevant stories from this week alone:

–the British government is going to release a new plan to help internet service providers police privacy. How? By the creation of a new agency which “will decide what level of illegal activity is required before an internet user can be spied upon.” In an Orwellian twist, the agency [to be funded by the telecom firms] is called the Rights Agency. How big brotherly.

–to Moglen’s point about the overlap of free culture with surveillance culture, the British government is also announcing an expansion of its open government policies, shortening the statute of limitations after which journalists can get access to classified documents

–Swiss cops used Google Earth to find a marijuana farm. These kinds of collaborations bring into question any government attempts to regulate these companies. Sometimes, I think the government doesn’t realize how much it is dependent on these firms–last week, the Obama administration signed its staffers up for Gmail when the White House email system crashed, calling the arrangement temporary. Do they not realize they’ve just given a bunch of engineers in California PERMANENT access to what, in the analog age, would have been highly classified correspondence? Do they not know that Google datamines email? Can’t be, because they often buy such data. Do they honestly think Google deletes any info the government doesn’t use? Ha.

–As Moglen concedes, free software has at least thus far failed to undermine capitalism. But capitalism might be the last weapon in the battle to undermine digital surveillance: it’s other companies’ fear of Google’s power that will motivate them to join with civil libertarians in defending privacy. That’s the gist of this article in WIRED, and the case made by the author in the video interview below.

Plus ca change…

By , 26 September, 2008, No Comment

In my history of media course, we had a guest lecture by a young scholar of 18th century European print culture the other day. Dr. Will Slaughter is a protege of pioneering cultural historian Robert Darnton. Darnton basically maintains that there has always been a news media, because any spreading of information counts as news. The transitions from people gossiping in living rooms (c. 1700), to gossiping in streets (c. 1750), to writing down their gossip (c.1800), to videotaping that gossip (c. 1950) are technological superficialities. He denies that there’s any historical moment where mass media is born (and thus, denies any theories that link mass media to the rise of mass/democratic politics in the mid-19th century).

Slaugther applies Darnton’s theory to the present:

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The Reader Column

By , 2 September, 2008, 1 Comment


Today was my first day of school in a nifty new(ish) program at Columbia, a Journalism MA that is as much about training journalists in a particular field (business, politics, arts or science coverage) as it is about training them to think about journalism as an entity.

In our first class discussion, we tried to map out the journalistic method–dividing up the tricks of the trade into two columns, “research” and “presentation.” Then we shared stories about times where we have compromised that method to make a flashier story: by taking an atypical example and building it up to signify a broader trend or subsuming factual accuracy to the flow of a narrative. One professor, Nick Lemann, added as an aside that this model won’t fully apply in the future, since the Internet has a journalistic model all its own.

I disagree. One of the problems the news media faces in making the transition to the Internet age is this sense that somehow all the core principles of the field no longer apply, that the blogosphere and the e-zine are some wilderness where only tribal natives can survive. Instead, we need to start treating the web as a way to solve the ethical dilemmas of old media journalism, and seek other scapegoats besides technology for the dilemmas that remain.

First, amend the model by adding a third column: the readers. To most old media hands, that means a group of tech savvy consumers apathetic about serious news and a voracious appetite for junk. The recent squabbles between sportswriter Buzz Bissinger and sportsblogger Will Leitch are a good example: Leitch says he deals in sports gossip because it’s what readers want.

And in digital reporting, it’s even more tempting to write the story that sells. In an old newspaper, reporters wrote and only the guys in the subscription office knew how their words sold. Today, every reporter sees the number of comments or diggs a story gets.

But, it’s silly to blame the technology. It is not that Google is making us stupid, but rather that we are choosing to use Google in stupid ways. Technological advances and a vapid news media, are symptoms, as another professor (Evan Cornog) reminded me, of a much broader social unraveling, the collapse of our sense of civic duty and communal ties. Fix our social fabric, and I assure you, media will return to its role as a component of what Cornog calls “responsible citizenship.”

Moreover, the Internet, when used correctly, can be a boon for the journalistic method on the ethics front. Web journalism, as Jeff Jarvis reminds us daily, is a conversation where readers have a say in shaping content. That means readers wind up checking reporters when we stretch an example or overdo the storytelling. And because we can upload our sources along with our analysis, even an overblown story can be brought into context.

Finally, and this is what heartens me most, making readers part of our model of journalistic practice can encourage reporters to be more, not less, responsible. In the best case scenario, that focus on readers reminds us that we write for society, that we are businesspeople and creative minds, but public servants, the ‘fourth estate,’ too. Once we’re done marveling at the flashy gadgets of today’s newsroom, I hope we’ll see that our mission is unchanged.