Journalism, civic engagement and AP’s “A New Model for News” report

I started writing this as a comment on John Robinson’s blog, and then I realised that this is what blogging is really for, a distributed conversation. The comment grew a little too long so I decided to post it here.

John Robinson, a veteran reporter and editor in the US, highlighted how audiences in the US were distracted from President Obama’s State of the Union address by the manhunt for a former policeman in California. After getting past my initial reaction of ’twas ever thus’, I was quickly reminded of an excellent study commissioned by the Associated Press and carried out by the Context-based Research Group. They spoke to young news consumers around the world about how and why they consumed news. (The full report is still on Slideshare):

John offers up solutions, but sadly, you’ll have to file this post in evidence supporting his main premise rather than offering new solutions. For a couple of years, quotes from the study were a mainstay of talks I gave about how journalism can win the battle for attention.The New Model for News report said that the “essential finding” of the report was:

“The subjects were overloaded with facts and updates and were having trouble moving more deeply into the background and resolution of news stories.”

What’s really fascinating is the importance of the issue of resolution. The participants liked sports and entertainment stories, not because they were shallow, cotton candy stories but because of “the level of resolution that this type of news offers. Stories tend to have a beginning, middle and end or clear next steps.”

As for in-depth stories, they wanted to follow them but found the current formats didn’t give the social currency they were looking for.

This flags up all kinds of issues. For one, is the chronic paralysis in US politics intimately linked to issues around the coverage? Is there a way to change the coverage to present possible resolutions to engage people in the civic process and provide some way for people to weigh up these resolutions? The study found:

Participants in this study showed signs of news fatigue; that is, they appeared debilitated by information overload and unsatisfying news experiences. Many consumers in the study were so overwhelmed and inundated by news that they just did not know what to do. Participants with news fatigue would try to ascertain whole news stories, but they regularly and repeatedly were left unsatisfied. Ultimately, news fatigue brought many of the participants to a learned helplessness response. The more overwhelmed or unsatisfied they were, the less effort they were willing to put in.

I have my own theories about failings in political coverage. I worked in Washington as a reporter for seven years, and so much coverage of politics is about covering politics as a business, rather than as a democratic function with wider opportunities for engagement. Outside of Washington, as well as outside the Westminster bubble of British politics, too much coverage of politics is about policy as drama. I think the latter response is to inject some narrative into politics that might satisfy the need for resolution that news consumers want, but I often find it lacking.

The research was and still is fascinating, and I don’t think much has changed. Sadly, the report came out in June 2008, just as the world was plunged into economic crisis, and I think a lot of deeper thinking about it was lost. Now, as the world continues to struggle with the fallout from that crisis, I’d argue that we need to revisit the report and see what it means not only for coverage of civics, public policy and global affairs but “wicked problems”.

Print and digital: Managing the crocodile and the mammal separately

I used to be a big booster of print-digital editorial integration, but I’ve had a change of heart for a lot of reasons, reasons which I’ll outline more broadly at some point. When I first got into online journalism in the mid-90s, to be honest, I probably was suffering from a little of resource envy. The legacy business just had a lot more money, but it also made a lot more money. However, I’ve changed my mind. Simply put, I think that print and digital are two entirely different sets of products, and they often have different audiences.

I was just summarising a Pew report on successful revenue models for local newspapers for Knowledge Bridge, the site that I edit for the Media Development Investment Fund, and I found this eloquent and excellent metaphor for managing media disruption from former Harvard business professor Clark Gilbert who is now head of Deseret Management Corporation, owner of The Deseret News in Salt Lake City. He said:

In Gilbert’s theory of media evolution, the Deseret News print product is the crocodile, a prehistoric creature that survives today, albeit as a smaller animal. He believes the News, which has already shrunk significantly, is not doomed to extinction if properly managed. Deseret Digital Media is the mammal, the new life form designed to dominate the future. Armed with graphics, charts and a whiteboard that looks like it belongs in an advanced physics class, Gilbert speaks with the zeal of the cultural transition evangelist he has become. He argues that the path ahead does not involve merging the crocodile and mammal cultures, but maintaining them separately.

That makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s a sensible starting point. The next step, he admits, is the challenging part, which is to execute that strategy, which involves a lot of wrenching cultural change. However, he’s already got some success to show for his strategy. Digital revenue has grown on average 44 percent annually since 2010, and it now makes up 25 percent of the groups revenue. For those on the crocodile side of the equation, while print revenue dropped 5 percent in 2012, at least circulation numbers are headed in the right direction. Circulation is up 33 percent for the daily newspaper, and it’s up a stunning 90 percent for Sundays, due in large part to a new national edition.

It sounds like his excellent metaphor and smart strategy also is backed with some very good execution.

Jonah Lehrer is a smug git who should never work in journalism again

Disgraced science writer Jonah Lehrer had a forum to explain himself and his serial violations of core ethical standards of journalism at a Knight Foundation event. He wants a second chance, but clearly, he hasn’t learned enough about himself to prevent him from plagiarising and fabricating again.

Jeff Bercovici of Forbes wrote that Lehrer blamed his downfall on arrogance and “carelessness matched with an ability to explain my carelessness away”. It’s clear that he’s still leaning on the crutch of self-perceived eloquence to shift the blame and make his case for professional forgiveness. Bercovici said:

Lehrer used several analogies to make his case. At one point, he likened himself to the FBI, which adopted new failsafes after a case involving fingerprint misidentification revealed systemic problems. He compared his new “standard operating procedures” — a phrase he must have used at least 10 times — to the “forcing functions” that software designers employ to guide users away from accidents.

Bercovici said that the difference between Lehrer and his analogies was one of intention. That’s too generous of a reading for what Lehrer is trying to do. The mea culpa was in fact just another indictment of Lehrer and another example his self-identified failing of trying to “explain (his) carelessness away”.

Let’s take the FBI analogy. In the case, FBI and Spanish authorities based on current criminal investigative standards thought they had matched a fingerprint. They hadn’t, and the standard for matching fingerprints had to be changed. If we take this analogy and apply it to Lehrer, then he is saying that the failing wasn’t his but rather a failing in the fact-checking process.   It’s a silver-tongued attempt to shift the blame from the failures he won’t own to the institutions he failed.

I don’t say this with any joy, but he needs some more sleepless nights bolt awake at 3 am before he accepts responsibility for what he’s done. He’s a long way from earning a second chance in journalism.

I just finished reading the rest of of Bercovici’s write-up of Lehrer’s talk. Apart from the headline above (I sadly have no copy editor to blame), I’ve been diplomatic up to this point, but now I’m just hopping mad. To put it bluntly, the smug, self-serving git deserves to never work in journalism again. During his talk, he considered why he had done it, and his answers show that arrogance is not a past failing but one very much still present. He blamed his ethical failings on his intelligence and his busyness. Please! This isn’t a direct quote from Lehrer in Bercovici’s piece, but he wrote that Lehrer went on to explain just how busy he was:

Another is just how in demand he was as a writer, speaker and all-around public intellectual. Why consider yesterday’s mistakes, he suggested, when you can contemplate tomorrow’s $20,000 speech?  ”For me, the busyness was a way to avoid the reckoning,” he said.

Considering that $20,000 was not a figure that he just pulled out of thin air but the honorarium that the Knight Foundation paid for his speech, to me, it shows he’s still trying to avoid the reckoning. He hasn’t learned his lesson, only that he thinks he can get away with what he’s done. Is any editor foolish or delusional enough to give this fantasist, self-publicist and narcissist a second chance? That the answer is yes worries me.