Talking about blogging and journalism at Harvard

I’m looking forward to meeting with folks at Harvard’s Kennedy School at 11:40 a.m. today to talk about blogging and journalism. Not to give too much away, but I’ll be using this slideshow as a framework. I’ll also be sharing some thoughts I sketched out last summer in this essay for Medium.

Alex Jones to depart Harvard’s Shorenstein Center

Alex Jones
Alex Jones

Best wishes to Alex Jones, who’s leaving as director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy after 15 years at the helm. The center, part of the Kennedy School, is one of Harvard’s two major journalistic endeavors, the other being the Nieman Foundation.

Alex has enjoyed a long and accomplishment-filled career. He may be best known for co-writing with his wife, the late Susan Tifft, “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times” (1999), the definitive biography of the Ochs-Sulzberger family.

Under Jones’ leadership, Shorenstein has been an important part of the conversation about journalism both locally and nationally. He’ll be missed — but I hope he’s planning on being around often enough that he won’t be missed too much.

Ethan Zuckerman on the limits of interconnectedness

Ethan Zuckerberg at Northeastern on Wednesday.
Ethan Zuckerman at Northeastern on Wednesday

The promise of the Internet was that it would break down social, cultural and national barriers, bringing people of diverse backgrounds together in ways that were never before possible. The reality is that online communities have reinforced those barriers.

That was the message of a talk Wednesday evening by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. Zuckerman, who spoke at Northeastern, is the author of the 2013 book “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.” He is also the co-founder of Global Voices Online, a project begun at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society that tracks citizen media around the world.

I’ve seen Ethan talk on several occasions, and I always learn something new from him. Here is some live-tweeting I did on Wednesday.

One of the most interesting graphics Zuckerman showed was a map of San Francisco based on GPS-tracked cab drivers. Unlike a street map, which shows infrastructure, the taxi map showed flow — where people are actually traveling. Among other things, we could see that the African-American neighborhood of Hunters Point didn’t even appear on the flow map, suggesting that cab drivers do not travel in or out of that neighborhood (reinforcing the oft-stated complaint by African-Americans that cab drivers discriminate against them).

Since we can all be tracked via the GPS in our smartphones, flow maps such as the one Zuckerman demonstrated raise serious privacy implications as well.

We may actually be less cosmopolitan than we were 100 years ago.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to show a map suggesting that Facebook fosters interconnectedness around the world. In fact, upon closer examination the map mainly shows interconnectedness within a country. The United Arab Emirates demonstrates the highest level of international interconnectedness, but that’s because the UAE has an extraordinary number of guest workers who use the Internet to stay in touch with people back home. That leads Ethan Zuckerman to argue that maps often tell us what their designers want us to believe.

This final tweet seems out of context, but I’m including it because I like what Zuckerman said. It explains perfectly why I prefer Twitter to Facebook, even though I’m a heavy user of both. And it explains why many of us, including Zuckerman, rely on Twitter to bring us much of our news and information.

Disruptive innovation and the future of news

type_cabinets
Photo via ElationPress.com.

Previously published at Medium.

Toward the end of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen’s influential 1997 book about why good companies sometimes fail, he writes, “I have found that many of life’s most useful insights are often quite simple.”

Indeed, the fundamental ideas at the heart of his book are so blindingly self-evident that, in retrospect, it is hard to imagine it took a Harvard Business School professor to describe them for the first time. And that poses a problem for Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who recently wrote a scathingly critical essay about Christensen’s theories for the New Yorker titled “The Disruption Machine.” Call it the Skeptic’s Dilemma.

Christensen offers reams of data and graphs to support his claims, but his argument is easy to understand. Companies generally succeed by improving their products, upgrading their technology, and listening to their customers — processes that are at the heart of what Christensen calls “sustaining innovations.” What destroys some of those companies are “disruptive innovations” — crude, cheap at first, attacking from below, and gradually (or not) moving up the food chain. The “innovator’s dilemma” is that companies sometimes fail not in spite of doing everything right, but because they did everything right.

Some examples of this phenomenon make it easy to understand. Kodak, focusing its efforts on improving photographic film and paper, paid no attention to digital technology (invented by one of its own engineers), which at first could not compete on quality but which later swallowed the entire industry. Manufacturers of mainframe computers like IBM could not be bothered with the minicomputer market developed by companies like Digital Equipment Corporation; and DEC, in turn, failed to adapt to the personal computer revolution led by the likes of Apple and, yes, IBM. (Christensen shows how the success of the IBM PC actually validates his ideas: the company set up a separate, autonomous division, far from the mothership, to develop its once-ubiquitous personal computer.)

Clay Christensen in 2011. Photo (cc) by Betsy Weber. Some rights reserved.
Clay Christensen in 2011. Photo (cc) by Betsy Weber. Some rights reserved.

Christensen has applied his theories to journalism as well. In 2012 he wrote a long essay for Nieman Reports in collaboration with David Skok, a Canadian journalist who was then a Nieman Fellow and is now the digital adviser to Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, and James Allworth, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review. In the essay, titled “Breaking News,” they describe how Time magazine began in the 1920s as a cheaply produced aggregator, full of “rip-and-read copy from the day’s major publications,” and gradually moved up the journalistic chain by hiring reporters and producing original reportage. Today, they note, websites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, which began as little more than aggregators, have begun “their march up the value network” in much the same way as Time some 90 years ago.

And though Christensen, Skok, and Allworth don’t say it explicitly, Time magazine, once a disruptive innovator and long since ensconced as a crown jewel of the quality press, is now on the ropes — cast out of the Time Warner empire, as David Carr describes it in the New York Times, with little hope of long-term survival.

***

INTO THIS SEA of obviousness sails Lepore, an award-winning historian and an accomplished journalist. I am an admirer of her 1998 book The Name of War: King Philip’s War and American Identity. Her 2010 New Yorker article on the Tea Party stands as a particularly astute, historically aware examination of a movement that waxes and wanes but that will not (as Eric Cantor recently learned) go away.

Lepore pursues two approaches in her attempted takedown of Christensen. The first is to look at The Innovator’s Dilemma as a cultural critic would, arguing that Christensen popularized a concept — “disruption” — that resonates in an era when we are all fearful of our place in an uncertain, rapidly changing economy. In the face of that uncertainty, notions such as disruption offer a possible way out, provided you can find a way to be the disruptor. She writes:

The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.

The second approach Lepore pursues is more daring, as she takes the fight from her turf — history and culture — to Christensen’s. According to Lepore, Christensen made some key mistakes. The disk-drive companies that were supposedly done in by disruptive innovators eating away at their businesses from below actually did quite well, she writes. And she claims that his analysis of the steel industry is flawed by his failure to take into account the effects of labor strife. “Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable,” Lepore argues.

Jill Lepore. Publicity photo from her Harvard bio.
Jill Lepore. Publicity photo from her Harvard bio.

But Lepore saves her real venom for the dubious effects she says the cult of disruption has had on society, from financial services (“it led to a global financial crisis”) to higher education (she partly blames a book Christensen co-authored, The Innovative University, for the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, of which she takes a dim view) to journalism (one of several fields, she writes, with “obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings”).

Christensen has not yet written a response; perhaps he will, perhaps he won’t. But in an interview with Drake Bennett of Bloomberg Businessweek, he asserts that it was hardly his fault if the term “disruption” has become overused and misunderstood:

I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years. And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking — in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways.

As for the “egregious” behavior of which he accuses Lepore, Christensen is especially worked up that she read The Innovator’s Dilemma, published 17 years ago, yet seems not to have read any of his subsequent books — books in which he says he continued to develop and refine his theories about disruptive innovation. He defends his data. And he explains his prediction that Apple’s iPhone would fail (a prediction mocked by Lepore) by saying that he initially thought it was a sustaining innovation that built on less expensive smartphones. Only later, he says, did he realize that it was a disruptive innovation aimed at laptops — less capable than laptops, but also cheaper and easier to carry.

“I just missed that,” he tells Bennett. “And it really helped me with the theory, because I had to figure out: Who are you disrupting?”

Christensen also refers to Lepore as “Jill” so many times that Bennett finally asks him if he knows her. His response: “I’ve never met her in my life.”

***

CHRISTENSEN’S DESCRIPTION of how his understanding of the iPhone evolved demonstrates a weakness of disruption theory: It’s far easier to explain the rise and fall of companies in terms of sustaining and disruptive innovations after the fact, when you can pick them apart and make them the subject of case studies.

Continue reading “Disruptive innovation and the future of news”

A compelling case for ‘knowledge-based journalism’

9780345806604This review was previously published in The Huffington Post.

In the early 1990s the media identified an existential threat: violent crime. Sparked by high-profile cases such as the murder of a 12-year-old girl, Polly Klaas, and the fatal shooting of six passengers on a train in Long Island, news outlets from local television to Time magazine elevated criminal carnage above all other issues.

Such relentlessness brought results. By mid-1994, 40 percent of Americans were telling Gallup that crime was the country’s leading problem. Elected officials responded by passing laws mandating tougher prison sentences and by building new prisons. Within 10 years, the United States was locking up a higher proportion of its population than other country.

But there was something fundamentally wrong with all this. As Thomas E. Patterson describes it in his new book, “Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage), violent crime was actually on the decline in the early ’90s — including a 4 percent drop from 1993 to ’94. Thus journalistic malpractice led to policy malpractice, with consequences we continue to live with today.

Patterson is a longtime journalism and media observer as well as the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. (Disclosure: He is also a friendly acquaintance.) The essence of his  argument is that it’s no longer enough (if it ever was) for journalists to describe what they learn from interviews and direct observation. They also need to know what’s true and what’s false, and to incorporate such knowledge into what they convey to the public.

“Today’s journalists,” Patterson writes, “use reporting tools that were developed more than a century ago and were better suited to the demands of that age than to those of today, where manufactured consent, clever fabrications, and pumped-up claims are everyday assaults on the public’s sense of reality. … Knowledge-based journalism would provide the steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news that Americans now lack, but sorely need.”

As the example of violent crime suggests, knowledge-based journalism should be grounded in a way of thinking. It’s never been a secret that the U.S. Department of Justice compiles crime statistics, and of course today those numbers are far easier to access than they were 20 years ago. Thus the key is for reporters, editors and news directors to seek out the truth and resist the urge to pander. Obviously that’s easier said than done. The spirit of Walter Lippmann’s quest for scientific journalism permeates “Informing the News,” but as Patterson notes, it has never pervaded more than a fraction of the news media.

Patterson is especially strong in describing the confluence of mindless objectivity and a lack of knowledge. When a journalist doesn’t understand the truth of what he is covering, it’s all too easy simply to present different viewpoints and leave it up to the reader, the viewer or the listener to decide. “The objective model of American journalism offers a weak defense against factual distortions,” Patterson writes. “Not only does the commitment to balance invite such distortions, it allows them to pass unchecked.”

Yet even an empiricist like Patterson can’t overcome human psychology. And one of the obstacles to knowledge-based journalism is that we are wired to adhere closely to our beliefs, regardless of whether they are grounded in reality. Patterson presents research by the Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan showing that we tend to cling to misinformation even more tightly after our errors have been pointed out to us.

In a world in which comfortingly false information is never more than a click of the mouse or the cable box away, it is unclear how knowledge-based journalism would reach an audience larger than the one that already seeks reliable news. It is, after all, the genius of the right that it has managed to convince large swaths of the public that The New York Times and NPR are merely liberal equivalents of the Fox News Channel and Rush Limbaugh. Patterson describes the problem, but he doesn’t propose a solution. And it’s hard to imagine what a solution would look like.

So how are we to move in the direction of knowledge-based journalism? Patterson writes that “the university rather than the newsroom is the logical place to develop it,” and he calls for reforms in journalism education along the lines proposed by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education — the most relevant being “expertise in the specific subjects to be reported on.” At the very least, journalists should make use of nonpartisan repositories such as the Shorenstein Center’s own Journalist’s Resource, which compiles data and studies in areas ranging from human rights to climate change.

Patterson has made a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of what we should expect of journalism at a time when media outlets are multiplying, revenues are shrinking and opinion is elevated over fact-based reporting. Whether we actually embrace knowledge-based journalism or not, he has underscored journalism’s basic mission: to provide the public with the information it needs to govern itself in a democratic society.

It’s going to be a long campaign

From today’s Boston Globe: “Harvard link could aid, hinder Warren.” Hmmm … does that mean we can rule out the possibility that being a Harvard professor will neither aid nor hinder Elizabeth Warren? Wouldn’t want to go out on a limb.

Jim Smith leaves Globe for Harvard

Jim Smith

Boston Globe reporter and editor Jim Smith is leaving the paper in order to become director of communications at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Last August, Smith won the 2009 International Perspective Award from the Associated Press Managing Editors Association.

What follows is an internal e-mail from deputy managing editor Mark Morrow, sent on behalf of himself and editor Marty Baron. Media Nation obtained a copy a little while ago.

All: Hard news today — Jim Smith, who brought his remarkable talent and humane presence to the Globe eight years ago, will be leaving us this month for a new foreign posting — in Cambridge. Jim has just been named the director of communications at the JFK School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the school’s global policy issues hub, joining the growing Globe ex-pat community at Harvard.

Jim came to the Globe, from the LA Times Mexico City bureau, in March 2002, which meant that he started as foreign editor at a time of maximum tumult, complexity, danger and opportunity. It was one of the finest hours for our small but astonishingly gifted team of foreign correspondents, and a time when the Globe, under Jim’s leadership, extended itself to the limit to bring thoughtful, nuanced, enterprising and brave coverage of the Afghan and Iraq wars to our readers. By early 2003, 14 reporters and photographers were covering the conflict, not to mention terrorist attacks in London, Madrid and 2006 war in Lebanon.

Near disaster, and unthinkable loss also marked his tenure. Within weeks of Jim’s start as foreign editor, Anthony Shadid was shot in the shoulder in Ramallah. Two months later came one of the greatest tragedies ever suffered by the Globe staff, when Elizabeth Neuffer, one of the most brilliant, resourceful and courageous reporters ever to work here, died in Samarra, north of Baghdad. Jim’s gift of humanity and personal connection helped his staff, and helped us all, to make it through and eventually out of the darkness.

With the closure of our foreign bureaus in 2007, Jim took on another extraordinarily demanding challenge, working side-by-side with Peter Canellos in managing our standout coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign, right up through an Extra Edition on the morning of Obama’s inauguration. And then it was on to his latest endeavor, creating out of whole-cloth a new beat mining Boston’s many remarkable connections to the world, and the world to it. This meant not only penning a stream of enterprising pieces, but also mastering a newer art form, the blog.

To say Jim made a swift success in his new beat would be to understate the case. Within six months, he won the Associated Press Managing Editors award for international perspective. It was, in fact, the second time the Globe won that prize for work in which Jim played a central role. The first was for the Lives Lost project, a 16-page special section focused on the 24,000 people around the world who die every day for want of basic medical care. Searching, smart, compassionate and richly readable work — that, start to finish, was Jim’s gift to us.

We’ll find just the right way to say good-bye and make Jim blush one day — and evening — soon. But in the meantime, wish him well and book your place on his lunch schedule soon. It gets lonely on the other side of the Charles.

Mark and Marty

Waterboarding and the T-word

A recent study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School, shows that our largest newspapers invariably referred to waterboarding as torture before the Bush-Cheney administration began using it on terrorism suspects — and almost never thereafter.

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that the media’s failure to call waterboarding by its proper name helped contribute to a dishonest conversation about what was done in our name during the darkest years of the Bush presidency.

Orwell, waterboarding and torture

Before the Bush-Cheney years, the New York Times and other large newspapers regularly referred to waterboarding as “torture.” After it was revealed that the United States was waterboarding terrorism suspects, those papers largely stopped. After all, President Bush explained in 2005, “This government does not torture people.”

So in true Orwellian fashion, editors decided that to describe waterboarding as torture would amount to a breach of objectivity, for no reason except that, all of a sudden, there were powerful people who disputed that characterization.

That is the conclusion of a paper released earlier this year by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Titled “Torture at the Times: Waterboarding in the Media” (pdf), the study includes the following findings:

  • From the early 1930s until 1999, the New York Times characterized waterboarding as torture in 44 of 54 articles on the subject (81.5 percent), and the Los Angeles Times in 26 of 27 articles (96.3 percent).
  • From 2002 to 2008, the New York Times referred to waterboarding as torture in just two of 143 articles (1.4 percent); the Los Angeles Times, three of 63 (4.8 percent); the Wall Street Journal, one of 63 (1.6 percent); and USA Today, not at all.
  • “[T]he newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.”

The study also finds that opinion writers at those papers were more likely to associate waterboarding with the T-word than were the news columns — further evidence that news editors deviated from the long-established understanding of what waterboarding really is in order to avoid being accused of anti-administration bias.

The study concludes:

The results of this study demonstrate that there was a sudden, significant, shift in major print media’s treatment of waterboarding at the beginning of the 21st century. The media’s modern coverage of waterboarding did not begin in earnest until 2004, when the first stories about abuses at Abu Ghraib were released. After this point, articles most often used words such as “harsh” or “coercive” to describe waterboarding or simply gave the practice no treatment, rather than labeling it torture as they had done for the previous seven decades.

The Shorenstein Center has documented a shocking abrogation of duty by our top newspapers in helping Americans understand what the Bush-Cheney administration was doing in their name.

The study came out in April. I’m writing about it now because the redoubtable Jay Rosen tweeted about it yesterday. This is important stuff, and I hope Rosen has given it the push it needs to become more widely discussed.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The future of journalism and the law

This Friday I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion titled “The Future of Journalism: Law and Ethics in a Changing Media Ecosystem.” It’s part of an all-day conference called “Journalism’s Digital Transition: Unique Legal Challenges and Opportunities,” sponsored by the Citizen Media Law Project and to be held at Harvard Law School.

Our panel, to be held from 3:10 to 5 p.m., will focus on issues such as whether shield laws can be crafted so that bloggers and citizen journalists can protect their confidential sources, and if the shift toward nonprofit journalism means fewer First Amendment rights. (Among other things, non-profit organizations may not endorse political candidates.)

The other panelists:

The moderator will be Phil Malone, clinical professor of law and director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.