Archive for the ‘Publishing/media business’ Category
Have you ever read a banned book? If you read, you have. The list of books that have been challenged somewhere in the United States is astounding. It includes many classics. I knew that “The Catcher in the Rye” was challenged back in the 1960s. But I had no idea that it and many others I would not consider controversial continue to be the target of misguided censorship. Even the Bible appears on the American Library Association’s list of the 10 most frequently banned books of 2015.
This week (Sept. 25 to Oct. 1) is Banned Books Week. It began in 1982 in response to a surge in attempts to ban books in schools, bookstores and libraries. That year, representatives of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and other concerned groups held a read-in of banned books on the steps of New York Public Library. Since then, more than 11,300 books have been challenged.
This week hundreds of libraries, bookstores and concerned groups across the country are staging events to draw attention to these acts of censorship. Take a look through the Twitter feeds of literary and free speech organizations. There are some surprisingly relevant examples of censorship in history – such as this speech about refuges written by William Shakespeare. Others are having some fun with it. The Washington, D.C., public library is running a scavenger hunt, hiding banned books all over the city and posting clues about their locations on social media.
Such events draw attention to the issue, but not enough. We live in an age of polarization, where many people talk past, rather than listen to, each other and where agenda-driven groups try to quash ideas they don’t like. In the cacophony of the 24-hour news cycle, vapid talk radio and social media that shrink our attention spans to 140 characters, it’s increasingly hard to think critically. Reading a book takes time. It’s a private activity. We get to weigh the information presented, and perhaps reconsider our viewpoint.
Our diversity and our freedom to say, publish and read what we want is the heart of our democracy. “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. In today’s context, Neil Gaiman said it well: “If you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”
Writers, readers and citizens have a responsibility to use their freedom and defend it. So read a banned book this week, and pass it on.
Contracts. Not a riveting topic. But at a recent writers gathering – the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) – I was riveted to my chair by the frightening things I heard about how publishers are trying to push all liability onto freelancers.
The panel, “Indemnity Clauses and Who Really Owns Your Notes: Legalities That May Shock You,” consisted of two attorneys/authors who serve on ASJA’s contracts committee – Milton C. Toby and Joan M. Burda – and was moderated by Kim Kavin, author and chair of the committee. They presented the findings of an ASJA survey about indemnity clauses and highlighted recent legal developments that could further threaten writers’ livelihoods.
The survey results alone were shocking enough:
• 82 percent of the ASJA members who responded have been asked to sign a contract with an indemnity clause.
• 90 percent of the clauses were for full indemnity in any scenario, meaning the writer indemnifies the publisher against any claim, suit, action, proceeding, recovery or expense of any nature arising from any claim.
• 64 percent of ASJA members have tried to negotiate indemnity clauses; half the time the publisher won’t budge.
• Well-informed writers often know more than their editors about these clauses.
• 12 percent of the members who tried to get insurance to protect against indemnity clauses could not get coverage because the cost was so high.
• The clauses are having a chilling effect: 27 percent say the clauses and lack of insurance coverage have prevented them from doing investigative journalism.
If that doesn’t scare you, Toby and Burda discussed recent legal cases that further strip away protections for journalists. For example, who owns the copyright to your notes could depend on the medium used to make the notes. If you just take written notes, it’s possible the interviewee could claim to own them. But if you audio record the interview, you the interviewer probably own them. Then again, if the interviewee provides written answers in response to questions sent by e-mail, he or she might be able to claim copyright.
Another frightening development is publishers’ use of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to further dump all liability upon the writer. This law was intended to protect Internet service providers like Comcast from being liable if one of their users infringed on copyrights by, for example, illegally copying music. Now, some web publishers are claiming that they are simply providing a platform (like Internet service providers) and are not editing stories that journalists “contribute.” Therefore, liability for copyright infringement or other problems falls on the journalist, not the publisher.
“This establishes a brand new business model for publishers,” Toby said. “This is going to start showing up in contracts.”
As these threats increase, ASJA and its contracts committee are becoming an invaluable resource for freelancers who have to navigate the fast-changing, liability-dodging publishing business. If you’re an independent journalist, join ASJA, become an active member and attend its conferences. Only by becoming aware of these threats, spotting them in contracts and arming ourselves with negotiating tactics will we freelancers have a fighting chance to protect ourselves.
Back when print ruled the world, it was called custom publishing. Today, the terms custom content, content marketing, brand journalism and native advertising are in vogue. This proliferation of labels is not just a reflection of the explosion in media but also an illustration of a spectrum of new models in a publishing industry struggling to redefine itself.
Whatever you call it, in a world of dying traditional media with shrinking budgets, custom is a growing and high-paying market for freelancers.
That’s one thing all panelists agreed on at a Sept. 17 discussion of custom content sponsored by the National Press Club’s Freelance Committee. The panelists talked about what custom content is, what it is not and how writers can break into it. The three panelists represented the cream of the crop of custom content publishers:
Chris Blose, executive content editor at McMurry/TMG, the top independent custom content publisher in the United States.
Brock Meeks, executive editor of Atlantic Media Strategies (AMS), the custom content division of Atlantic Media, which publishes The Atlantic Magazine and National Journal.
Two NPC Freelance Committee members – Scott Sowers and I – moderated the panel.
The most interesting part of the discussion was when panelists gave different answers to questions about definitions and conflicts of interest.
Meeks described what AMS does as branded journalism. “That’s when you have a client that acts as the publisher, and it hires you to do the journalism.” For example, when AMS produces content for IdeaLabs, which is published by GE, it adheres to traditional journalism practices. GE does not influence the content, said Meeks. “Ninety percent of the articles published there have nothing to do with GE whatsoever,” he noted. “We’ve even run stories that were not in sync with the company’s message.”
He went on to describe a slightly different approach, sponsored content. That’s when AMS produces content on specific topics chosen by the client. The client is involved in editing those stories, he said. Some would call that native advertising, although Meeks didn’t agree with that label.
Blose said native advertising had more to do with the form the content takes, particularly how it appears on a page or website. It is a “unit of content” that is labeled as being sponsored by a particular client. That is different from content marketing, which is an overall strategy developed to help the client establish thought leadership and engage with readers and customers, he said.
Seibert noted that the term custom publishing had become somewhat of a dirty word because it was associated with print. His trade group illustrates the evolution of the industry. In the last several years, it changed its name from the Custom Publishing Council to the Custom Content Council and then to just the Content Council.
“There is a spectrum of types of custom content,” said Seibert. “It goes from totally hands off to where the client approves every word. Some of it is journalism, some of it is product-heavy and a sales pitch.”
When asked whether freelancers could do both traditional journalism and custom content, the answers ranged from stark black and white to subtle shades of gray.
Surprisingly, the one representative of the business side – Seibert – said there should be a clear delineation.
“It should be totally separate,” he said. “If a journalist is doing custom, then they have been paid by a client – GE for example. That could influence them when they go to write a straight story about GE.”
Meeks said he didn’t think that would be a conflict, although he admitted that view was not widely held. It’s up to the journalist to maintain integrity, he said. “If you’re a person that doesn’t have enough integrity to write a piece for a pharmaceutical company and then the next week turn around and do an investigative piece on the pharma industry, then you don’t belong in journalism,” he said. “If a $500 check influences how you’d do your regular job, then you have some serious soul-searching to do.”
Blose took a middle ground. “You have to use common sense,” he said. “If you are an investigative journalist covering the drug industry, you probably shouldn’t do a piece sponsored by a pharma company.”
The panel discussion illustrated just how confusing the world of publishing has become. All the rules are changing, and it’s up to individual freelancers to find their own paths. But everyone seems to agree that, for those willing to explore, this new world offers some remarkable opportunities.
You can read more about the panel discussion in this article on the National Press Club website.
To learn more about custom content, I recommend two upcoming conferences by the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA).
New Avenues in Journalism, Oct. 10-11 in San Francisco
Content Connections, Nov. 13-14 in Chicago
It’s no secret that companies are becoming their own publishers. More and more, companies are hiring journalists to write stories, create graphics, and produce video and audio for their websites. That’s creating a great new market and new opportunities for writers.
But there is a dark side of this trend. Namely, it’s killing the traditional communications channels between companies and journalists. It’s taking advantage of and probably hastening the death of traditional media. It gives companies an ever larger megaphone to shout out their news while shutting off communication in the other direction. Given the decimation of independent news publications, it’s getting harder and harder to find accurate information on a company.
If you’re an independent journalist, you may have noticed:
• Fewer press releases. Companies are putting out fewer releases, and some plan to stop altogether. The head of Coca Cola’s digital communications and social media strategy has a goal of phasing out all press releases by 2015. Instead, the company is relying on its own digital magazine, for which it has hired a complete editorial staff, to tell the stories it wants to tell. I won’t mourn the passing of the press release. Most of them are useless. But they do make it easier to check facts when a company makes a major announcement, such as an acquisition or earnings report.
• More corporate-generated “news.” Corporations have always tried to spin the news. But with the emergence of corporate news hubs and digital magazines, many companies are mixing press releases, articles by their own staff, articles by outside magazines, corporate videos, podcasts and blogs. Check out the “newsroom” at Cisco, for example. Unless I hover over the little icon, I don’t know whether it’s a press release, an outside article, or an audio/video clip. It peeves me that I have to spend a couple minutes sorting through a hodgepodge of material guessing what each icon means before I can search the material. Then I have to figure out where the hell the search/sort function is. On the Cisco site, there is no obvious way to call up all press releases and sort them by topic. The other material, with the exception of some of the outside articles, usually offers little value for reporters. And even if a video, webcast or podcast has good information, few reporters have the time to sit through a 30-minute (or longer) presentation just to find out.
• Less, and less independent, coverage of companies by traditional media. There used to be more magazines and newspapers that would report thoroughly and independently, presenting facts, opinions and insights that good reporting uncovers. Today, when I do my initial research for a story on a company, I find a dwindling number of independent articles. Much of what I find links back to the same news story from AP, Bloomberg or Reuters, or even back to a company press release or custom-published article.
• Disappearing media relations people. If I need to reach a company to request an interview, check a fact or just give it a chance to confirm or deny a published report, it’s hard to find the name of an actual person with an actual e-mail. It’s a rare golden day if I find a phone number for someone I can actually call. (They probably won’t answer, but I can at least leave a voice mail, usually.) This information used to be de rigueur, both on press releases and corporate websites, but it’s disappearing fast.
As more companies use their own publications and social media like Twitter as primary information channels, while ignoring phone calls and e-mails from outside writers, what will be the result? Will more writers need to do more old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting? If I can’t get someone from the company to respond, then maybe I go camp out at its headquarters and try to nab the CEO, 60-Minutes style. What do you do when you can’t get reach a live person at a company or even find a press release? What’s the best way to shake a company’s tree? I’m eager to hear about your stories and tips, and will share them in a future blog post. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week’s sale of two major American newspapers to billionaires outside of the traditional media industry was the death rattle of Industrial Age journalism. It has been sick for so long, it’s about time someone put it out of its misery. For years, the Internet has ravaged the dead-tree news industry – an industry based on old production and distribution methods that hadn’t a chance in the Digital Age (see “Journalism is dead; long live journalists” ), but most publishers were either in denial or at a loss about what they could do about it. The sales of The Washington Post and The Boston Globe are shocking only because they are a striking admission by traditional publishers that they just don’t know what to do. They have finally given up.
Fresh thinking by smart people experienced with Internet-based business models and unburdened by vested interests in the old ways are just what the newspaper industry – and journalism in general – needs. And it bodes well for freelancers. These new owners understand more than traditional publishers how to create valuable digital products that consumers are willing to pay for. And at least one of the new owners – Jeff Bezos – has a proven track record of forging new business models that directly compensate the individuals who create that value.
Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com and new owner of the Post, based his company on the disintermediation of distributing goods, including the media of books and movies. John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox and now of the Globe as well, brings less digital cred. But it’s worth noting that MLB.com, a property of MLB owners, is the most successful digital venture of all sports. And Henry is a patient, long-term investor like Bezos. “We think the management styles of these investors symbolize the kind of long-term view that the business badly needs,” writes Paul Gillin on his Newspaper Deathwatch site. Gillin, a veteran technology journalist and consultant, a New England native and a Red Sox fan, points out that Henry has patiently invested in the Red Sox for years, helping it break the 86-year Curse of the Bambino by winning the World Series in 2004. Henry also saved and renovated Fenway Park, rather than tearing it down as the previous owners had threatened to do.
Bezos understands that the Internet is a direct connection between reader and journalist. His book publishing operation lets writers publish themselves and keep more of the royalties. And he created Kindle Singles, which allows journalists to sell long-but-not-book-length articles directly to readers. This direct-publishing model could prove to be a great business model for enterprising freelancers. Similarly, Amazon is backing independent film and TV producers, giving them a way to go around the traditional Hollywood power structure to reach audiences. “Bezos isn’t trying to kill the media business,” says a recent Businessweek article. “He’s trying to reinvent it, racing against the likes of Apple and Google to build the most comprehensive array of devices and innovative online news and entertainment services.”
Both Bezos and Henry appreciate the value of data analysis. Henry was an early adopter of the “Moneyball” approach to baseball pioneered by Oakland A’s Manager Billy Beane, and even tried to hire him. Bezos’ Amazon is undisputedly among the most savvy innovators of data analytics. A large part of his business is based on crunching numbers on customer likes, dislikes and who knows what else. In his letter to the Post staff, Bezos alluded to the potential: “Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there.”
Nobody knows what lies ahead for the newspaper business. I’ve been excited for years about the way the digital revolution is opening up new doors for freelancers. It’s one of the reasons I decided to pursue a freelance career. Now, I’m even more excited about the prospect that smart, tech-savvy publishers will build new business models that help the news industry, and the people who work in it, not only survive but prosper.
A report from one of the country’s preemminent journalism schools has concluded that the news business as we know it is dead.
That may not be a big surprise to many reporters, including the younger generation who did not grow up in the “all the news that’s fit to print” era and the older generation that has been kicked out the door and can’t find a job. But it’s a striking admission from a traditional J-school, the Columbia Journalism School, albeit from its New Age arm, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
“Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present,” published last fall, is a long (126 pages) but fascinating read. Rather than bemoaning the past, the report faces reality and then looks at how we journalists can deal with it. “We have concluded that, no matter what model of subsidy the American journalism industry adopts, it will be unable to replicate the money generated by the mass-advertising subsidy of previous decades,” wrote Emily Bell, one of the report’s authors, in announcing its publication in the Columbia Journalism Review. In fact, the report admits in its introduction, “there is no such thing as the news industry anymore.” Rather than trying to figure out a new business model, as other reports on the state of the news business, not to mention every news organization in the world, are doing, the report focuses on how the craft of journalism is being revolutionized and what that means to practicing journalists.
The report’s analysis of the collapse of the news business is dead-on. It describes how the journalism of the 20th Century had become essentially an industrial manufacturing business – it took people who typed words on paper and a printing press to build the product and a distribution system to sell it to consumers. In post-industrial journalism, digital technologies and the Internet have blown much of that model away.
But the authors insist that “there are many opportunities for doing good work in new ways.” What it takes, however, is an understanding of and appreciation for what journalists can do with these new technologies, unbound by the old, serial process of writing, editing, printing and shipping a final product. On the Internet, after all, stories live forever, and indeed can evolve and grow as time goes by. This new life of content is key and something that many news organizations haven’t figured out. “Content is endlessly reusable and should be designed for perpetual levels of iteration,” says the report. “News products will have to be made as reusable as possible: on other platforms, on other devices, in new news stories, even by other news organizations.” But some news organizations still frown on linking to other stories from other sources or providing additional resources, out of ingrained, Industrial Age habits that no longer hold.
The report tries to predict what the news environment will be like in seven years, 2020, at least the broad trends. It will be highly variable and dynamic, rather than the standard packages we still see today. “We’re not shifting from big news organizations to small ones, or from slow reporting to fast. The dynamic range of journalism is increasing along several axes at once.” We’ll see the newsrooms of large media companies shrink (further), a plethora of niche publications focused on narrow audiences, non-profit subsidies supporting journalism, public-supported reporting like National Public Radio, crowd-sourced news using Twitter, and citizen reporting. While everyone can be a reporter, there will still be plenty of room for the professional journalist because there will be so much demand for good, verified information as well as insightful analysis and interpretation of the news. “The Internet has unleashed demand for more narrative and more data-driven news, for a wider range of real-time sources and wider distribution of long-form pieces.”
All this is good news for freelancers as well as all journalists who are eager to explore this new world and experiment to see what’s possible. A good mantra for individual journalists, the authors say, is “Proceed until apprehended.” As the old structures topple, journalists are being freed from the chains of institutional journalism. Journalism is important, and the work of individual journalists is becoming even more important. In today’s world, individual journalists can not only be more important than their publisher, they can become their own publisher. “Far too much of the conversation of the past decade has assumed that the survival of existing institutions is more important than the ability of anyone to take on the sacred task [of journalism], however it’s done.”
“The fate of journalism in the United States is now far more squarely in the hands of individual journalists than it is of the institutions that support them.” That’s tough for journalism institutions to hear, but it’s music to the ears of freelancers everywhere.
Last week brought news that another trade publisher was dropping print. Penton Technology Media Group announced that all of its magazines would go digital-only as of May 2012. . A quick Google search lists at least two other trade publishers – Ziff Davis Enterprise and Linux Journal – that have stopped printing magazines in the last six months.
By dropping their old distribution method, these magazines will cut their operating costs significantly. But I’m not sure that the raison d’être for trade magazines – to deliver hard-to-find, specialized information to a qualified readership – still exists.
I find myself relying less and less on traditional publishers to collect and package articles that meet my needs and preferences. This function – the buzzword for it is curation – is helpful, even essential. It’s just that I don’t need trade publishers to do it anymore.
If I’m looking for details of a specific news event or a feature article on a specific topic, I can usually find it quickly by using Google search. For more in-depth information, curated by an expert on a topic, I might search Apple’s app store. For example, in researching information for a trip to Costa Rica for later this year, I’ve become overwhelmed by information from Google searches. I needed a better filter, so I downloaded an iPad app based on a tour guide written by a respectable, though not necessarily widely known, travel writer. The reviews sounded good and, for four bucks, what did I have to lose? The app was very helpful.
For information that I’m not searching for but that would interest me, I rely on my social circles. Online, that means my social media – primarily Twitter and Facebook. After all, by their very nature of being my followers, followees and friends, these people share at least some of my interests. These folks, not some impersonal publisher, are my curators. And the more I plug into to them via social media, the better information I find. This realization crystalized for me last week when John Bethune, a journalist and new-media editorial consultant I follow on Twitter, tweeted about his “New-Media Survival Guide: For Journalists and Other Print-Era Refugees.” The self-published book is available from several sources, including Amazon.com, both as a paperback and an e-book.
I’m a print-era refugee (although I prefer the term bilingual – I speak both analog and digital), and I’m always scanning for information that’ll help me keep up with the latest in social media and digital publishing trends. But it takes a lot of time to wade through the information stream to find the most valuable golden nuggets. Bethune’s guide has done a lot of the panning for me already. It may not deliver all the gold, but it gives me a map that shows where some of the richest veins are.
Through his blog and social media activity, Bethune is building his own qualified circulation. A trade-publishing colleague of mine recently gave me an example of how social media can enable this. “With LinkedIn Groups, you have a self-qualifying, self-assembling and self-maintaining list of people with a common interest,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of a magazine’s mailing list, and you don’t pay a thing for it.”
Indeed. When individual writers can establish their own brands, build their own readership and publish their own apps and articles, what’s left for traditional publishers? Tell me, if you know.
Postscript: Interesting comments by Warren Bimblick, senior vp of strategy and business development at Penton Media, at a recent roundtable on “The New Influencers of Content Creation,” hosted by Folio Magazine:
“In fact the b-to-b controlled circulation model is all about a social community. What it really is about is finding 47,262 people who all qualify and about whom you know tons of information and you give them content in the way they want it, which means asking them. And for some reason yet again the industry is going out to Facebook and LinkedIn, when in fact we own these communities.
My soapbox right now is to keep the communities to ourselves, because we are the qualified people to run them. That said, if I were 30 years younger and an editor, I would be checking every day to see who is following me. It is fascinating what you can use social media for. Not just for pushing content out but for product research, and so on.”
With the explosion of online publishing, many people are now posting words on the web and calling themselves journalists. But a good proportion of them are more like plagiarists.
I recently got a first-hand lesson in this. While preparing to pitch a story idea to an editor, I googled “mainframes and private cloud computing.” Not the most interesting topic in the world, and not one that’s been widely covered. So I wasn’t surprised when a story that I’d done earlier in the year popped up several times on the first page of the search results. (My publisher owns lots of magazines and buys the rights to run my stories in all of them.)
But I was looking for fresh information, so I went to the second and third page of the search results. I clicked on a link at a website purporting to cover all-things-cloud. As I read the article I found there, I had a strong feeling of déjà vu. Here was an executive at IBM being quoted saying the exact same things about mainframe computers that he had told me. I know these guys are often coached on their “messaging,” but these were specific comments to specific questions that I’d asked during our interview. It was clear that the writer had lifted them from my article. There was no mention of my article nor the publication in which it appeared. It sounded as if the author had interviewed the IBM executive himself.
I notified my editor of the plagiarism and she kicked it to her higher ups to see what to do. The answer: not much.
“At any given time hundreds (possibly thousands) of Web sites are republishing entire stories [from our publications] without our permission,” says the response that my editor e-mailed to me. “About 50% of the time, we wind up doing nothing.” The publisher will take action under several circumstances, including when it’s a professional publisher’s site, when the site is running ads alongside the content, or when the site is plagiarizing entire stories repeatedly. But most of the people who do this “are lay publishers who’ve never heard of the Fair Use law and have no understanding of search engine optimization. They often think they’re doing us a favor, in fact.”
In other words, many of these so-called publishers think plagiarism is OK. How depressing.
Nevertheless, my publisher suggests that editors contact the offending site and nicely ask them to remove the story or at least acknowledge and link to the original source.
In my case, there was no contact information on the website for the writer, nor the editor. In fact, there was no information on who was publishing or funding the website. Clicking the “about” tab told me only that the site was launched in 2009, is done with “a team of content creators from around the globe” and “is one of the fastest growing cloud computing media sites on the Web.” I clicked on “contact,” and got only a form to fill out. There was no address, phone number or e-mail. This is not uncommon. Even when a publisher wants to take legal action against plagiarism, the lawyers sometimes can’t find anyone to which they can address a cease and desist order.
My editor and I tracked down the writer through LinkedIn – he happens to be an MBA student at a major U.S. university – and sent him an e-mail about the offense. Within an hour, we received a response from his publisher:
“After reviewing the article and discussing with [the writer], we have no problems citing your article regarding the quote. [The writer] had mentioned that he did not realize that this was an exclusive. Eitherway [sic], we’ll make the change to the article citing [your publication] as a source of the quote. We’ve also indicated to [the writer] to clearly define the source of any future quotes.”
It was not signed by an actual person, but rather with the name of the website itself, so we still do not know who runs the operation. Likewise, the return e-mail was the generic email@example.com.
Lay publisher, indeed. The fact that this publisher thinks that it’s OK to use any content that is not marked as “exclusive” shows his lack of publishing experience, not to say his disrespect of copyright law.
This whole thing piqued my curiosity, so I used an online plagiarism detector, called Duplichecker, to search for other sites that might be lifting the same article. I put in the quote from the IBM guy, and found that the entire story had been lifted, verbatim, unattributed to me or the original publication, in a Middle East computer news site as well. Just as I was working up a slow burn, however, I realized that it was affiliated with a sister publication of the original publication. Of course, my original publisher has the right to republish my story all over the world in its own related publications.
As I start 2012, I’m making a New Year’s resolution to launch my own little battle against online plagiarism. I plan to regularly use Duplichecker or something similar (googling “online plagiarism detector” brings up several free ones) to see where pieces of my stories are popping up. I may not be able to stop it, but I can at least try to educate the offenders, one plagiarist at a time.
It’s scary enough that technology, specifically the Internet, makes it easy for publishers to replace U.S. journalists with low-cost writers from developing countries. Reuters, for example, uses staff in India to write financial news reports. Now comes the next wave: software that might just replace journalists entirely.
A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times ran a story on Narrative Science, a Chicago startup that has written software that takes data like sports stats or earnings numbers and churns out articles. Then last week, Slate.com, ran a series by Farhad Manjoo titled “Will Robots Steal Your Job?” The series describes how artificial intelligence is starting to do the work of highly-skilled professionals, including pharmacists, doctors and journalists. To top it all off, the New America Foundation here in D.C. just hosted a panel discussion, led by Manjoo, on the same topic.
At least two companies are developing such technology: Narrative Science and
Automated Insights in Durham, N.C. Both companies seem to be targeting the market for local sports reporting, such as high school football games. Publishers can use the software to turn game stats into news reports, effectively covering hundreds of local games that they never had the time or staff to cover before. It’s like a “robotic sports writer,” said Robbie Allen, Automated Insights CEO and founder, at the New America Foundation event.
The software could be a useful tool. I’ve done my share of stories on economic data, earnings numbers and market statistics. The work of sifting through all the numbers trying to identify the important trends is time-consuming, mind-numbing and depends on a certain amount of luck and intuition. Why not use this software to do in a split second what teams of journalists working for years could never do – analyze terabytes worth of numbers and identify trends and nuggets that are worth noting and digging into?
There’s plenty of data that publishers could feed into such software. In some cases, the publishers would get stories that would not otherwise get written. In other cases, they’d identify interesting trends that real journalists can use to develop in-depth articles.
In an example of the former, trade publisher Hanley Wood is using Narrative Science to provide monthly reports on hundreds of local housing markets on its website, something that it did not have the manpower to do before, according to the Times article.
As for generating story ideas, no one seems to be using the software for that, yet. In fact, these companies sometimes sound like they intend to put journalists out of business.
“In five years, a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize — and I’ll be damned if it’s not our technology,” Kris Hammond, a founder of Narrative Science, told the Times. The comment is particularly disheartening because Hammond is a professor of journalism as well as computer science.
I doubt his claim. These products lack the creativity and imagination that professional journalists add to the equation. And I don’t think they’ll ever have that, because they are not human. People’s eyes glaze over when a story just reports numbers, even if those numbers are analyzed. Try reading an economic report from the federal government sometime.
This software may replace some reporters, and legitimately so, because some reporters don’t add any value. Writers, for example, who simply gather information, get a few comments from people and then regurgitate it onto the page, should probably start looking for another profession. As James W. Michaels, former editor of Forbes, was known to bellow: That is “not reporting, it’s stenography!”
These programs can even do sophisticated analysis that can match, or far surpass, our brain power when it comes to crunching numbers. “We can analyze and access more data than any one writer could ever do,” according to Allen.
What they cannot do, however, is include the human element. As every good journalist knows, a great story is just that – a story. About real people. Not about numbers. It includes the shades of gray that people must deal with in life. It illustrates their weakness and the pain of failure, the thrill and glory of achievement, the fear and depths of depression and disappointment.
The best business stories are not about how much profit a company made, but about the smart people that made the company so successful. The best sports writing is not about who won or lost the game, but how they did so and how the players and their fans reacted. Take a look at this piece from the Boston Globe, for example. Could a software program write this?
Can software conduct an effective interview? Good journalists ask probing questions and observe peoples’ reactions. They notice whether an interview subject is defensive, they sense when he may be lying or hiding something. They can get swept up by the excitement of an athlete describing how he pushed himself across the finish line, or feel the pain as a mother talks about how disease ravaged the health of her child. This affects not only what journalists write, but how they write it, in many subtle ways.
Maybe technology will ultimately be able to describe our complicated human condition as well as it crunches numbers. But for now, I think the journalism profession is relatively safe. Let’s welcome this software as another great tool in our toolbox, and use the extra time to concentrate on what we do best: telling great stories.
Recently, I sat through a 90-minute presentation on “Who Needs Newspapers?” at the National Press Club. The presenters, both retired journalists, never really answered that question. Rather, they spent the time telling the audience how they had toured the country, interviewing editors and publishers to find out how newspapers were changing. They showed videos of some of the interviews, presumably those they considered among the best. Predictably, the editors said newspapers aren’t dead, of course newspapers will survive, but none of them could say how.
I was amazed. The National Press Club is an insular place, but when I saw the provocative title of the presentation, I thought I might hear some interesting ideas. Instead, I heard last-century journalists preaching to the choir about how their industry was not dying. And how did they know this? They asked newspaper editors.
When the Q&A started, no one challenged the idea that you could get an accurate diagnosis from the patient. No one pointed out that the journalists in this case had not even attempted to get a balanced story. It’s obvious that those with a vested interest in the status quo are going to defend it. In fact, the president of the American Press Institute was the first to raise his hand, stand and defend the health of the industry. He proclaimed that the newspaper business is a $35-billion industry, while in the same breath admitting that only four years ago it was a $70-billion industry. No one batted an eye.
In fact, the latest figures I could find (by doing a quick Google search) reported that more than 15,000 newspaper jobs were cut in 2009 alone. That’s undoubtedly accelerated. A 2009 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put publishing and printing among the job categories with the biggest declines. Newspapers, periodicals and books are projected to lose 120,000 jobs between 2008 and 2018. The printing business is projected to lose 95,000 jobs.
The people at the Press Club meeting insisted that newspapers would survive, but I doubt that. The news will survive, but how the public consumes news has already changed radically. Certain news organizations may survive, if they can adapt to the new technologies and find new business models. Some will; some won’t. But news organizations have to get beyond the old assumptions that went along with the “print tradition.”
I asked one question during the Q&A session, pointing out how young people do not read newspapers (at least in paper form) and asking whether/how that threatens what’s left of the future of newspapers. Their answer meandered around the issue but didn’t address it. Frankly, I was reluctant to be more aggressive. No one else was asking any challenging questions, including the college journalism students sitting behind me. (After the meeting they told me they do read newspapers, but almost exclusively online.)
The experience reminded me of an essay in The Economist last month titled “Think again: Your competition is not who you think they are.” The author, tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain, points out that executives are often so busy fretting about what’s going on in their own industries that they are blindsided by larger forces at work in the world. “We live in transformative times, and we can thank exponentially powerful technology for this development,” he says.
That’s true in spades for the newspaper business. Unless newspaper executives broaden their perspective, they “may not see the stealth innovators who are quietly harnessing technology advances to displace your business,” writes Jain. While publishers fret about the future of newspapers, companies like Google and Apple are figuring out profitable business models for distributing information. In fact, during the Press Club meeting someone mentioned how Craigslist has decimated classified advertising. There was no discussion of how or why.
To overcome this insularity, news organizations and journalists should follow three suggestions by Jain. (I’ve taken the liberty of adding my own interpretation for the newspaper industry.)
• “Expand the circle of events you attend, or experts you consult, far outside of your market space. When you listen to the buzz only within your industry, you tend to hear about the same businesses and innovations over and over again.” Translation: pay more attention to how technology is changing the world. While you fret about how long real paper will be used to distribute the news, the smartphone and iPad are eating your lunch.
• “Go to visionary events that look at innovation from many different angles, and don’t restrict the discussion to a specific industry.” Translation: Stop focusing on how changes are hurting your business. Rather, look for new ideas and fresh minds that will broaden your perspective.
• “When you expose yourself to new concepts, think hard about how you can make them work for you.” Translation: New technology can be your friend. The biggest threat from technology comes from dismissing it or ignoring it.
Granted, the print business model is still producing revenue, in most cases more revenue than online advertising. But that’s ultimately irrelevant when the entire business model is dying. If news organizations want to survive, they need to reinvent themselves. The Knight Foundation is one place to look for examples in innovation. At Knightgarage, you can hear about the projects of the 2011 John S. Knight Fellows. In particular, I recommend the talk by Jeremy Adam Smith, who explains how individual journalists (many of whom were laid off after years with newspapers) are becoming publishing entrepreneurs.
How ironic that journalists who’ve been booted out of the newspaper industry are at the forefront of the New Age of Journalism. And they are doing it without the paper.