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CHAPTER II - Changes for Journalism

The Changing Operations of Journalism in the Age of Networks
Printed newspapers and broadcast news used to have a near monopoly on selling advertising to local audiences. Today, 85 cents of every dollar of ad spending is going to Facebook and Google.

To continue to bring traffic to its advertising platform, Facebook is actively courting media companies to publish content directly on Facebook’s owned and operated platform, putting articles in Facebook Instant Articles and streaming video broadcasts through Facebook Live.

“A lot of publishers think about social as marketing. Now it’s a distribution tool — it’s where the audiences are consuming content,” said Athan Stephanopoulos, President of the social content company, NowThis.

Consider the evolution of how people read the Internet. In the 1990s, it was direct. The sports fan would type in ESPN.com. In the 2000s, it was the Age of Google where you searched for the team you liked. The 2010s is about social referrals — attracting people from social media platforms like Facebook back to their websites. Facebook has been courting media companies to produce content directly on Facebook’s network, with text stories publishing on Facebook Instant Articles and video streaming on Facebook Live.

NowThis doesn't even have a website. It produces platform appropriate content across the social web — issue based videos for Facebook, visually compelling stories for Instagram, breaking news for Twitter, animated GIFs for Tumblr, ephemeral videos for Snapchat and instant messaging stories for Chinese social platforms like Weibo. “You've got to produce content that is frictionless and conducive to the platform in which it is consumed,” said Stephanopoulos. “We live in a scrolling economy where we only have a matter of seconds to capture the audience’s attention.”

The way media is consumed on social networks now shapes how the content is produced. Ryot Media was doing a traditional feature-length documentary about prison reform. While making the film, the director started posting two-minute videos on Facebook. After these short videos racked up eight million views, Ryot started wondering whether it would even be worth making the feature-length documentary.

Access to Audience Data. More than 40 percent of American adults get their news from Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center.

The 20 best-performing fake election stories on Facebook had a higher reach than the top 20 election stories from news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others, according to Buzzfeed News analysis.

“Speaking as a news consumer, I would like to find a way to signal to news platforms like Facebook and Apple, ‘Hey, these other website guys seem to be doing nothing but producing fake news,’” said Craig Newmark, Founder of craigslist.

But is it even possible to know the consumer when platforms like Facebook, Apple and Google have disintermediated the news organizations from the audience?

The lack of access to audience data creates major business risk for news organizations. News content creators feel they don’t know who their customer is, how their customers are consuming their news, and how to contact them. Podcasting companies do not have access to data about who is listening to their shows on Apple iTunes. Broadcast news sites do not have access about who is watching the Facebook Live broadcasts they are streaming on the social media platform. News sites have no idea who is reading their headlines aggregated by Google News.

“One of the things that concerns publishers of content on Facebook, Google and Apple is we don’t get enough data from those platforms and risk losing connections with our customers,” said Eve Burton, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for the Hearst Corporation. “When you start to create machines to chase traffic, you really don’t know who your readers or watchers are.”

“It’s more dangerous today if 80 percent of your traffic is coming from Facebook,” Burton said. “A turn of the wheel” by Facebook can bulldoze the global social newsstand.

The news organizations failed to secure access to data as each platform, search engine and marketplace came calling to distribute content. Google, Apple and Facebook do not provide personally identifiable information about users to third parties. News content drove the growth of those spaces. And before the news organizations knew it, the social media network, the search engine and the marketplace were calling the shots.

What responsibility do the platforms have to the content companies? “If it’s not mutually beneficial, it won’t work. If it’s just guilt, it won’t work,” said Jeff Jarvis. This continues to be a point of heated debate as Congress recently voted to repeal privacy rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission in October 2016, which required Internet service providers to explicitly gain consent before sharing or selling sensitive consumer data (e.g. financial or health information, or browsing history).

The Changing Nature of Journalism
Some of the most powerful journalists in America are not even journalists — they are entertainers. For the second time in two years, HBO show host John Oliver single-handedly fired up the American public about the issues of net neutrality, overloading the Federal Communication Commissions’ Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) after each segment. While Oliver may not see himself as a journalist, many of his followers see him as one. While Oliver may not see himself as a journalist, many his followers see him as one.

What does this mean about the value of journalism? As Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

The Internet has fragmented media into thousands of shards, all pointed at different audiences. One may appeal by pandering. Another just to have an argument to make. And, yet to another just for entertainment like John Oliver. This flowering of varied approaches has influenced the mainstream media’s undertaking of journalism.

These are the nine main principles that journalists agree on, as laid out in the book “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel:i

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
  2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.
  3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
  7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
  8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
  9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

Dealing with fake news. It can be argued that the coverage of the 2016 presidential election calls into question No. 1 and 3. The concept of “truth” and “verification” appeared irrelevant, even as fact checkers worked overtime to report campaign claims based on falsehoods.

“For a long time there was this mindset that facts are a drug. You shoot them in your bloodstream, and they have the right effect on you,” said Tom Rosenstiel. That “hypodermic theory of journalism,” Rosenstiel says, has been repudiated. We know from research the media can't tell people what to think. Its only effect is that it can tell people what to think about.

While the Dialogue convened prior to the election results, post-election reflection positions Reed Hundt’s statement as prescient. “Is the precept of journalism not really functional anymore?” he asked. “Peter Drucker said culture eats strategy for breakfast. I would say culture eats journalism for breakfast.”

Perhaps the problem is the “on the one hand and the other”-ism approach to covering politics. “When is it time for journalists to take a stand? You don’t know the moment you’re living in. I find myself thinking, ‘How would today’s journalists cover Krystallnacht?’” said Heather Chaplin, Chair of Journalism + Design at The New School. Would it be, “Well the Jews said this, but the Nazis said they’re dirty vermin.”

There are still people who don’t believe any news they read because the news are either the liberal media or the corporate media, depending on whether they come from the right or the left.

“There is a huge gulf between how people perceive the world around them, largely driven by news coverage of anomalistic events (bombings, catastrophes), and how people conflate those fears, often inaccurately, into perceptions about the communities they live in,” said Richard Gingras, Vice President of Google News and Co-founder of The Trust Project with Sally Lehrman. The point is we need more readily-available data-driven metrics that show the accurate state of our communities (crimes rates, air quality indexes, housing costs, etc), he added.

The top fake news stories outperformed the top news stories from fact-based news organizations on Facebook in the final months of the election.

Points of View in Stories. Nikole Hannah-Jones, investigative reporter for The New York Times’ Sunday magazine, has a clear stance on school segregation, which she’s written about almost exclusively for the past four years.

“Reporting the facts is that re-segregation exists and it’s okay,” Hannah-Jones said. “I felt that was bad journalism. I felt we needed to say segregation is bad. The reason we do journalism is to reduce harm. This is hurting children. That’s been the problem with reporting all these years.”

So she started to report on segregation with that angle. “Nobody can read what I write and not see my position on this issue,” Hannah-Jones said. “What they can’t argue with are the facts in my reporting.”

“We live in this time of incredible richness and diversity of points of view when all kinds of people can commit acts of journalism; but, the part that’s really what’s uncomfortable is it leads to an environment where everyone has their own set of facts,” said J.J. Yore of WAMU. “This incredible richness has led to a situation where we’re more polarized than ever. People believe things to be true that are completely in conflict.”

A Question of Trust. Pew Research Center surveys show that people don’t believe that even fact-based media get the facts right. When you ask people, “Do you think media gets facts right?” only 30 percent respond yes, according to Tom Rosenstiel. “The idea of trust is a panoply of many things — clarity, quality, fairness, even motive,” said Rosenstiel. “‘Did it load fast?’ along with, ‘Did they waste my time?’ The question is: How can journalism rebuild the sense of trust and relevance?”

“I get a whole lot less interested in the shiny new object when we don’t have the root foundation pieces thought out and properly in place,” said Richard Gingras. “Right now, until we figure out the foundations of journalism, we are just attaching tablets to the deck chairs of the Titanic.”

How does the news organization define its value proposition to the reader, viewer and listener? Even legitimate news sites are crowded with clickbait stories that contain little public value.

“We’re hitting it wrong at all levels. We’re not rethinking journalism at its core level. Worse, we do things that make it worse,” said Gingras. “I go to an L.A. Times article (or many other major news sites), and before I click on another article, what’s on that page? Outbrain or Taboola modules touting stories like ‘The ugliest spouses of Hollywood celebrities!’ But, I’m supposed to come to the conclusion that the L.A. Times is a brand that I can trust.”

Mentioned above, a confounding factor includes news organizations failings to tell the stories about the full diversity of voices, backgrounds, opinions and experiences.

Minority representation in legacy newspaper and digital newsrooms is 11 percent, according to the 2016 newsroom survey conducted by the American Society of News Editors. The total minority representation in the U.S. population is 37 percent.

“Why people don’t trust us is because we don’t look like them,” said Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times Sunday magazine. “Why is the media so surprised by a rise of Trump? We have not covered the working class. We don’t understand them. We’re going to solve it by hiring more people who look like them on the ground.”

Early reflections from the election suggest that working class whites did not feel heard, so they vented their frustration at the ballot box. Where was the reporting about their frustration in the decade leading up to this election as the pathways to the middle class disappeared? Their stories were neither validated nor verified by news media as manufacturing jobs disappeared, pensions were frozen and the Great Recession eliminated full-time employment.

One of the findings from The Trust Project was that people trusted reporting from people who they related to. “The strength of the affinity with the reporter: Women would trust women reporters more. People of color would trust people-of-color reporters,” Gingras said. “It wasn’t so much about the brand than it was about the reporter.”

The work of diversity extends beyond hiring and news coverage. To rebuild trust, news organizations need to engage communities of all backgrounds. The financial success of newspapers through the 20th century created an insular, ivory-tower mentality. The only opportunity the community had to engage was to write a letter to the editor. Whether it was print, television or radio, journalism was delivered as a monologue to the audience. News companies approached the Internet the same way, using it as another channel to distribute its monologue. But the Internet is an interactive medium, and users expect to do more than consume news — they expect to inform, shape and amplify the news.

“We have to reach for a relationship-based business,” Jeff Jarvis said. “To do that we have to know [our readers]. To do that we have to interact with them all over the damn Web.”

Still, most news organizations retain the walls of an elitist institution. Hitting publish, the very moment the audience has just begun to engage, is also the moment when the journalist punches out, and moves on to the next story.

ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, welcomes engagement. Where most investigative journalists zealously guard the secrecy of their projects in fear of getting scooped by a competitor, ProPublica’s journalists set up crowdsourcing forms that inform its investigative reporting on specific topics such as Agent Orange. After a story is published, its journalists respond to questions about the accuracy and story premise by publishing follow-ups.

“We relentlessly show our work. We get people behind the curtain to let us know how we got what we got,” said Robin Fields, Managing Editor of ProPublica. “When people challenge our work, we engage with them. I spent a lot of time at newspapers, and we just often refused to do that. You got your letter in the paper, maybe.”

The Seattle Times Education Lab is a journalism initiative to create solutions-oriented community conversations about the biggest challenges to public education by doing the journalism in a solutions-oriented way. For the past three years, the team has been working to create a loop where the journalism sparks conversations among readers, and the conversation and work of readers then informs where the journalism goes. For instance, Education Lab spent a year exploring school discipline by reporting on innovative solutions, organizing an unconference, a town hall and a Facebook group to engage stakeholders. The engagement of parents and education leaders on social media and in person, in turn, seeded more stories that were then published.

“What you’ve seen is a steady reduction of a diversity of voices and the volume of them. From my standpoint, the real discussion here is how do we embrace these new voices? How do we encourage them, embrace them, feed them?” said Frank Blethen of The Seattle Times. “How do we nurture voices instead of stifling them?”

Reaching the community requires experimenting and building new partnerships. The Center for Investigative Reporting was working with youth media and trying to connect with parents.

“We would send pamphlets home and you might as well set them on fire,” said Joaquin Alvarado. “So then we set up text [messaging]. The wireless carriers would only allow you to send them texts from entertainment brands. I got on the phone a senior MetroPCS executive and asked, ‘Could you give us a pass?’ And he said, ‘Sounds good. Let’s do it.’

ENDNOTES
iKovach, Bill and Tom Rosenstiel. Introduction. (2001). The Elements of Journalism.

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