Tag Archives: Clay Shirky

Four takeaways from new owner John Henry’s message to readers of The Boston Globe

John Henry at celebration of the Red Sox' 2007 World Series victory.

John Henry in October 2007

This article was published earlier in the Nieman Journalism Lab and The Huffington Post.

John Henry’s nearly 2,900-word message to readers of The Boston Globe could have been little more than an exercise in public relations, standing up for what is good and deploring what is bad.

There’s a lot of that, of course. We’re only into the second paragraph before he dutifully informs us that the Globe “is the eyes and ears of the region in some ways, the heartbeat in many others.” But Henry, a billionaire financier who is the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, is also unexpectedly revealing about himself and how he intends to run the Globe. (Henry purchased the Globe, its BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com websites, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and several smaller properties from the New York Times Co. for $70 million. The sale, announced in August, closed last week following a brief delay over a labor dispute at the T&G. Henry also made a bit of news when folks at the T&G noticed that his message omitted Worcester entirely.)

Henry’s piece, headlined “Why I bought the Globe,” takes up a full page in the Opinion section of Sunday’s paper. It’s teased on the front page as well. He writes about his life, the Red Sox, the financially struggling news business and what he thinks needs to be done to set it on a sustainable path. Here are what I think are the most important takeaways.

1. He plans to be an activist owner. Just the atmospherics of the essay itself are a pretty strong indication that Henry does not see this as a passive investment. He wants to be the face of the Globe.

To counter his image as a reserved, slightly eccentric rich guy who dabbles in sports, Henry goes into some detail about his involvement in the civil-rights movement and his subsequent retreat “into what most of my friends thought was my primary talent at the time — writing and performing rock music.”

Somewhere along the way he made a lot of money, but he writes about that only briefly. Instead, he describes his stewardship of the Red Sox as a possible model for what he intends to do with the Globe:

When we acquired the Red Sox, profit was literally at the bottom of our list of goals. We were determined to do whatever it took to win.

Now I see The Boston Globe and all that it represents as another great Boston institution that is worth fighting for.

Here’s another intriguing example of what sort of profile Henry intends for himself as the Globe’s owner: Recently the Boston Business Journal reported that toxic waste at the Globe’s Dorchester property could complicate any plans Henry might have to develop the site and move the paper to a cheaper location. Henry used his Twitter feed to dispute the BBJ’s story and slam an earlier piece about the Globe’s break-up with a classified-ad site called Cars.com:

A feisty newspaper owner who fights back in public? Bring it on. That’s certainly an improvement over the gray management style of the Times Co.

2. He’s looking for advice in all the right places. If the Globe and other large regional dailies are going to survive and prosper, they need to develop new ways of doing business. So it’s encouraging that Henry mentions alliances the paper already has with Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, the MIT Media Lab and the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Henry also gives a shout-out to Clay Shirky, which I take as a signal that Henry is reading and talking to the right people. It doesn’t sound like he intends to take the approach adopted by Aaron Kushner, a one-time Globe suitor who’s winning plaudits for trying to revive the Orange County Register by focusing on the print edition. The Globe has been a leader in digital journalism. So it’s good news that Henry sounds like he’s going to double down on innovation.

3. He has some retro ideas about paid content. Near the top of his commentary, Henry repeats an old trope, writing that newspapers have been losing money because “Readers were flocking from the papers to the Internet, consuming expensive journalism for free.”

Now, I’ve got nothing against charging for digital subscriptions, and the Globe has had some success with that — 39,000 at last count. But it’s important to keep in mind what newspaper owners are up against in asking readers to pay for online access.

As has often been said, newspaper readers never paid for the news — they paid for the expense of printing and delivering the paper, with advertisers picking up the rest. These days, readers are paying — a lot — for their own printing presses (computers, tablets and smartphones) and their own delivery (broadband and cellular access). It’s perfectly understandable that they don’t want to pay more.

What went wrong was not that newspapers started giving away their content but, rather, that the advertising model collapsed, especially from classifieds. Henry understands this, writing, “I feel strongly that newspapers and their news sites are going to rely upon the support of subscribers to a large extent in order to provide what readers want.”

I wish any newspaper owner well in persuading readers to pay for journalism. But we have to understand that we are asking them to do something they’ve never done before: pay for news in addition to paying for printing and delivery. We need to be humble about how much we’re asking of our audience.

4. He wants the Globe to act as a guide to the larger conversation. One of the most important roles professional journalism can play is to aggregate and curate the torrent of information — not just when big news breaks, but on a daily basis.

The New York Times does this with The Lede; the Globe does it from time to time, as it did following the Boston Marathon bombing. The idea is to become the go-to place for trustworthy links to other news sources, blogs and citizen media. Henry clearly gets that, writing:

We will provide what we will call the Globe Standard when it comes to curated links that will ensure our readers do not waste their time when they click on news, reviews, writers, columnists, ecommerce, events, opportunities, and social engagement from any of our platforms.

One thing Henry gets absolutely right is that the newspaper business is not now and never was compatible with ownership by publicly traded corporations and the quarterly demands of Wall Street. For more than a generation, corporate chains slashed newsrooms, first to drive up profit margins, later to stave off mounting losses. The debt they took on to build their chains is one of the prime reasons for their inability to set themselves on a new path. Henry understands that.

“I soon realized that one of the key things the paper needed in order to prosper was private, local ownership, passionate about its mission,” Henry writes. Farther down, he adds: “But this investment isn’t about profit at all. It’s about sustainability. Any great paper, the Globe included, must generate enough revenue to support its vital mission.”

Leaving aside the obvious fact that profit is a key to sustainability, Henry articulates a vision in which journalism comes first — which is another way of saying the customer comes first. Too many newspaper owners have forgotten that.

Photo (cc) by Patrick Mannion and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Local journalism, civic life and “The Wired City”

Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent's 10th-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010.

Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent’s fifth-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010. Yes, that’s two-time U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon in the background.

This article appeared previously at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The star attraction was supposed to be Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of education reform. But the real stars were the audience members themselves.

I had driven to New Haven on this day in late November 2010 to see if Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, could pull off an audacious experiment in civic engagement. The Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization, is the principal subject of my new book, “The Wired City.” The subtitle — “Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age” — reflects my belief that news can’t survive without public participation. What we got that night was full immersion.

Stage right, Ravitch sat with 11 other people — principals, teachers, school officials, a high school student, a board of education member and the like. Stage left, a half-dozen media folks and elected officials, including Mayor John DeStefano, were live-blogging the event. The forum was webcast on television and radio, as well as on the websites of the Independent and the New Haven Register, the city’s daily newspaper. Viewers at home — and, for that matter, those in the auditorium who had laptops — were able to engage in a real-time, online conversation with the live-bloggers. Afterwards, readers posted a total of 53 comments to the two stories the Independent published (here and here). The archived video was posted as well. Finally, in a touch that seemed almost old-fashioned, the 200 or so people who attended were invited to line up at two microphones during an extended question-and-answer period.

Among the myriad crises facing journalism, perhaps none is more vexing than civic illiteracy. Starting in the 1990s, leading thinkers such as New York University’s Jay Rosen began sketching out ways for news organizations to listen to their audience’s concerns and to shape their coverage accordingly. This “public journalism” movement, as it became known, fizzled as newsroom budget cuts and criticism from traditional journalists took their toll.

But if the audience doesn’t care about the public-interest aspects of journalism, then there really isn’t much hope for a revival. Over the years, newspaper publishers have responded to the decline of civic life by loading up on celebrity gossip and so-called news you can use, such as personal finance and cooking tips. It’s a losing game, because there are always going to be better sources of such information than the local newspaper.

More than a dozen years ago the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, in his classic book “Bowling Alone,” found that people who were engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services or participating in any number of other activities — were also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Trouble is, Putnam’s machers and schmoozers were aging even then. And so it is up to news organizations not merely to serve the public, but to nurture and educate the public so that it is engaged with civic life, and thus with the fundamental purpose of journalism.

C.W. Anderson, in his book “Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age,” writes that “journalists [report] the news in order to call a particular form of public into being.” Along similar lines, I argue in “The Wired City” that creating a public is at least as important as reporting on its behalf. No longer can it be taken for granted that there is a public ready to engage with news about last night’s city council meeting, a speech by the mayor or plans by a developer to tear down a neighborhood landmark and replace it with yet another convenience store.

Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit site in western New York that I also write about in my book, once put it this way:

Local community news is currently only a niche product. Entrepreneurs need to think about not only “how am I going to appeal to the people who care now, but how am I going to get more people to care about their community so I can grow my audience?”

In researching “The Wired City,” I learned that the readership for the New Haven Independent comprises a wide swath — elected officials, city employees (especially police officers and teachers), leaders and activists in the African-American community, dedicated localists and members of what struck me as a surprisingly large and politically aware group of bicycling advocates.

Though the Independent’s audience is not as large as that of the New Haven Register, its concentration inside the city limits and its popularity among opinion leaders — “the grassroots and grasstops circles,” as Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described it to me in an interview — gives the site outsize influence. Indeed, it was the Independent’s relentless coverage of a controversy over the video-recording of police actions by members of the public that led to a clarification from the police chief that such recording was legal. It also led to mandatory training for all officers.

Thus what we see in New Haven, in Batavia and in other places where news organizations are trying new methods of bridging the divide between journalism and the public is a revival of the ideas Jay Rosen and others first began championing two decades ago. “What we today call ‘engagement’ was a central feature of many civic-journalism experiments, but in a way we were working with very crude tools then,” Rosen told me in 2011. “It’s almost like we were trying to do civic engagement with heavy machinery instead of the infinitely lighter and cheaper tools we have now.”

The “wired city” that I argue the New Haven Independent brought into being is a community built around local news, empowered by the “lighter and cheaper tools” that have become available during the past decade and a half. Through events like the Diane Ravitch forum, through carefully (if not perfectly) curated user comments and through the now-taken-for-granted convenience of always being just a few clicks away, the Independent has succeeded not so much as an entity unto itself but as the hub of a civic ecosystem.

As Clay Shirky has observed, with local newspapers slowly fading away, no single alternative will replace what they once provided. We need a variety of experiments — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative ownership and voluntary efforts. The challenge all of them face is that serving the public is no longer enough. Rather, the public they serve must first be assembled — and given a voice.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The Daily was on the Internet — but not of the Internet

dailyRupert Murdoch this week killed off The Daily, the tablet-centric electronic newspaper that he unveiled nearly two years ago to great fanfare and even greater skepticism.

It’s no exaggeration to say this was one experiment that was dead on arrival. Very few observers believed there was a market for a middlebrow paid digital news product aimed at a general audience. And those few were proved wrong.

It so happens that The Daily died just as I was reading “Post-Industrial Journalism,” a new report by Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The authors, C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky, argue that digital technology has ended the industrial model of journalism — an approach to news built around the industrial processes (printing plants, fleets of trucks and the like) needed to produce and distribute it. They credit the phrase “post-industrial journalism” to the redoubtable Doc Searls, who in 2001 defined it as “journalism no longer organized around the norms of proximity to the machinery of production.”

The problem with The Daily — or, at least, one of the problems — was that Murdoch followed the industrial model of news despite his reliance on post-industrial technology. The Daily was a centralized operation built around a daily cycle when it should have taken advantage of not being tied down to a print edition. It was essentially an electronic version of a print newspaper that offered none of the advantages of either format.

The Daily was not part of the broader Web. Social sharing was difficult if not impossible. The Daily was, well, a daily — it came out once a day, you downloaded it and that was that. No updating until the next day’s edition. At first, you could only read it on an iPad, although it eventually migrated to other tablets and to the iPhone.

With print, people are willing to put up with some of these shortcomings because of the convenience and aesthetics of ink on paper, which still haven’t lost their appeal. An online news source simply has to offer more. The Daily was on the Internet, but it wasn’t of the Internet. Its demise was inevitable.

Tracing the arc of the narrative

By Bill Kirtz

As media analysts dissect the latest example of fabrication presented as fact, top narrative writers agree that nothing — however creative the writing process — can be made up.

Their comments came at last weekend’s Narrative Arc conference hosted by Boston University’s School of Journalism and co-sponsored by the Poynter Institute.

Conference organizer and BU journalism professor Mark Kramer, author of several non-fiction books and editor of “Telling True Stories,” said that as narrative journalism has developed into a genre, standards have gotten tighter. His often-repeated rules: make nothing up, no “tweaking” time sequences and be straight with sources.

When memoirists and others violate these standards, he added, they hurt the credibility of all non-fiction practitioners.

“An accumulation of bad examples has moved me from skepticism to cynicism about memoirs,” said Roy Peter Clark, a Poynter senior scholar and prominent writing coach and author. He and other speakers said non-fiction writers should spell out their techniques at the outset.

“Creative non-fiction is not a license to steal,” said Mitchell Zukoff, a BU journalism professor whose most recent book is “Lost in Shangri-La.” “Anything between quotes has to be what someone actually said.”

Zukoff acknowledges that in probing into long-past events, there are things you simply can’t know for certain. But you can describe a centuries-old figure by writing something like “paintings of the time show him with thick, wavy hair.”

Adam Hochschild, whose most book of historical non-fiction is “To End All Wars,” will reconstruct events but insists that everything “has to be true.” To bring the past to life, he focuses on scenes. “I try to think like a filmmaker. Where do I put my camera?”

Instead of interviewing someone, Hochschild advises reporters to follow them around and see how they interact with others.

Tom French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer and Poynter writing fellow, made a similar point. Before you start — and even on deadline — think about whose experience is most important. Figure out which character in your story has the most at stake. In a story about a proposed ban on lap-dancing, for example, a St. Petersburg Times reporter accompanied the dancers to the hearing. Rather than simply quoting politicians, they got such detail as body glitter and the dancers on city council chairs.

“Open strong and build to better,” French urged. Contrary to standard beliefs, he said the lede is the second most important part of a story. The ending is the most important. So he said a reporter should ask herself: what do you want the reader to remember most?

French said stories can come alive when they shift between opposites: in an Occupy story, alternating a protester and a shop owner’s points of view; long and short sentences, external and internal action.

How to spark such vivid writing? Jan Winburn, a well-known newspaper editor and writing coach now senior editor for enterprise at CNN.com, said reporters need editors with “infectious enthusiasm” who will encourage them with “tell me more” comments. She said editors should be good listeners, letting writers test ideas by saying them out loud.

“Stay surprisable,” she said. “You want the writer to find out what the story is, not what you think the story is.”

As Winburn helps bring long-form storytelling to a website known for breaking news, two multimedia editors detailed their experience blending narrative and visual elements.

Christian Science Monitor senior editor Clara Germani supervised an award-winning project that followed a Congolese third-grader and his family for a school year in Atlanta.

The series, which has 33 multi-media elements, won acclaim. But Germani said, “Multi-media on the Web doesn’t pay.” Reporter Mary Wiltenburg got a small monthly stipend and received two Pulitzer Center grants to go to Tanzania, while Germani had to handle the project besides her regular job supervising in-depth stories.

Amy O’Leary, a reporter in the “How We Live” group at the New York Times, has found that throwing too many elements into a series can produce confusion. She said “The Debt Trap” lost the audience because the story was too complex for the format, she said.

The Times had better results with “Flipped.” Showing how private equity dealmakers win while their companies lose, The Times implanted a narrative question early in the piece to make viewers and readers curious. “We kept it simple, limited choices and gave people the incentive to keep on,” O’Leary said.

Surveying the multi-media universe, Dean Starkman wrote a much-discussed Columbia Journalism Review article urging publishers to give staffers the time and space to do what he considers journalism’s core duty, public interest reporting.

In a keynote talk at the BU conference, Starkman, part of a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporting team and managing editor of CJR’s business press section, described “a hole in the peer-produced [amateurs doing professional work] model for news: there’s no way to produce great stories.”

To Starkman, authorship is needed: In his book “Here Comes Everybody,” New York University professor and prominent new media commentator Clay Shirky sees great promise in crowdsourcing and collaborative media efforts. But Starkman notes that “Here Comes Everybody” wasn’t written by everybody but by one person.

Saying the muckrakers of a century ago should still challenge us, Starkman believes their “towering ambition is missing today. We have to hang on to [their] values: going after huge targets without fear.”

Starkman doesn’t see the need for the journalism industry to make a stark choice between professional reporting for many and netcitizens providing information for each other.

“The two cultures have to come together, and if they do there’s amazing potential,” he said.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.

Death, life and the future of news

Robert McChesney (left) and John Nichols

What role should the government have in preserving public-interest journalism? If you’re a First Amendment absolutist (and I consider myself to be pretty close), you might immediately respond with a resounding “none.” Yet such purity has never been the reality in American life.

Heavy postal subsidies from the earliest days of the republic helped create the most vibrant newspaper and magazine industry in the world. To bring matters up to the present, media corporations are now given virtually free use of the broadcast airwaves, theoretically owned by all of us, with little expectation that they will fulfill the public-interest obligations that were once required of them.

Earlier today, John Nichols and Robert McChesney visited Northeastern to promote their new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.” (You can read excerpts of it here and here.) I won’t pretend to write an objective account — I introduced them, and we all said nice things about each other. Rather, I want to discuss briefly their idea that at a time when journalism is in crisis, government ought to step in and prop it up to the tune of some $30 billion a year — a number they say correlates, in 2010 dollars, with what was spent on postal subsidies in the 1840s.

To their credit, they do not propose taking taxpayer funds and handing them to Rupert Murdoch and Arthur Sulzberger. Instead, they would like to see a variety of initiatives that, properly implemented, would bolster journalism without raising the specter of government interference: greatly expanded support for public broadcasting with an arm’s-length funding mechanism; an AmeriCorps for young journalists; even a $200 tax credit for every family to spend on the news media of their choice.

And they are correct in asserting that other Western democracies, particularly the Scandinavian countries, subsidize their media to a far greater extent than we do without suffering any loss of freedom.

Yet I still worry that theirs is the wrong solution. Consider, for example, that non-profit organizations, including news operations, are forbidden from endorsing political candidates — a ban on free speech that dates back to 1954, when then-Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson acted to silence the opposition back home in Texas. That underscores what I think is the real problem with government assistance: once you start relying on it, you are forever subject to the vagaries of the political moment.

Afterward I asked McChesney about an idea recently proposed by Dan Gillmor, best known as the author of “We the Media,” to emulate the original idea of postal subsidies by using government funds to pay for universal broadband access. As Gillmor sees it, that, combined with a guarantee of net neutrality, should be enough to allow market forces to do the rest.

“I think we need that no matter what,” McChesney replied. But he added there was “not a shred of evidence” that universal broadband access and net neutrality would be sufficient to guarantee a vibrant press.

Nichols and McChesney’s presentation combined gloom-and-doom with optimism for the future of journalism, if only the public can be mobilized. Like Clay Shirky, they think we have entered a post-advertising era in which it will prove impossible sustain journalism as a commercial enterprise. But whereas Shirky has called for a variety of commercial, non-profit and volunteer-driven experiments, Nichols and McChesney believe the public ought to pay more directly for what it needs to govern itself.

“We are at a 1776 moment,” Nichols said “It is your democracy that is threatened.”

Nichols and McChesney are co-founders of Free Press, an organization that is fighting the good fight on behalf of local ownership of radio and television stations and government guarantees for net neutrality. My reservations aside, Nichols and McChesney are making an important contribution to the discussion over paying for news, and I look forward to reading their book.

Clay Shirky’s bracing dystopianism

Clay Shirky (left) and Alex Jones. At far right is Peter Kadzis, executive editor of the Phoenix newspapers.

Clay Shirky (left) and Alex Jones at the Shorenstein Center. (Click for larger image.)

This past March, the author and media futurist Clay Shirky wrote a provocative blog post that encapsulated and defined the dilemma facing professional journalism, and especially the newspaper business: On the one hand, civil society as we know it would be much the poorer without newspapers. On the other hand, there’s probably nothing that can be done to save them.

Earlier today Shirky, intense, bald and bespectacled, turned up at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center to expound on his views. And though he made it clear that he is no utopian (or even much of an optimist), he nevertheless laid out some directions that ought to be pursued in order to preserve “accountability journalism” — a phrase that encompasses investigative reporting, public-interest journalism and other expensive undertakings that require long, hard labor with no guarantee of the result.

From the rise of the penny press in the 1830s until just a few years ago, Shirky said, accountability journalism was financed by commercial interests whose advertising options were both limited and expensive. The insurmountable challenge facing newspapers today, he added, is that the Internet has freed advertisers from having to subsidize such public goods as, say, a Baghdad bureau, or an investigation into local corruption.

“It may be that we’re seeing advertising priced at its real value for the first time in history,” Shirky said — and that value, he added, is a “tiny fraction” of what newspapers traditionally charged.

With newspapers supplying about 85 percent of accountability journalism, Shirky said that what we need are a large number of small experiments to try to make up some of the gap. He divided those experiments into three parts:

  • Commercial: The traditional advertising model for newspapers, magazines and broadcasters.
  • Public: News organizations funded by money unconnected to commerce, the prime examples being public radio and non-profit news sites.
  • Social: Journalism produced mainly through donated time, including certain pro/am crowdsourcing initiatives such as Off the Bus, a citizen-journalism project that covered the 2008 presidential campaign for the Huffington Post.

“No one is smart enough to get it right, which is why we need a lot of experimentation,” Shirky said.

Even with that experimentation, he added, the ongoing shrinkage of newspapers is likely to create a “giant hole” that will not be filled for some time. He said he has a vision of communities of 10,000 people or fewer becoming rife with “casual endemic corruption,” as newspapers are no longer able to fulfill their traditional watchdog roles.

Nor does Shirky see any good coming out of proposals to charge for online content, thus making it more difficult for readers to share important journalism. Shirky noted that the reason the Boston Globe’s reporting on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church several years ago had so much more resonance than did similar reporting a decade earlier was that the Internet enabled readers to forward stories and turn a regional scandal into a matter of national and international concern.

Indeed, Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones pointed out the Boston Phoenix had already broken parts of the story before the Globe began its work. The difference, Jones said, was that the Globe had a superior platform that enabled it to become part of the Internet conversation.

So what does Shirky have to offer for those of us trying to make sense of the newspaper crisis? Certainly not much in the way of new information. His now-famous blog post is essentially a summary of what many people have been saying for the past decade.

But Shirky has a way of synthesizing that information into a coherent whole that is at once bleak and bracing. He’s right to say that newspapers will continue to shrink, though surely the best of them will continue in some form, with a limited mission and published mostly or entirely online.

And he’s also right to say that, no, newspapers really can’t be replaced. When you think through the dilemma on his terms, it’s clear why that can’t happen — never again will commercial enterprises be compelled through scarcity to subsidize journalism at a high cost and at little benefit to them.

More than anything, though, he’s right that we have to try. It won’t be one big thing; it will be many little things. We’ll fall short. But it’s better than doing nothing. And the challenge couldn’t be more exciting or important.

More: Ethan Zuckerman covers Shirky’s talk here.