Tag Archives: journalism

From search to discovery

We are in the middle of a shift, from an age where Google and others enabled us to quickly search online for things we wanted to know more about, to an age where we are increasingly able to discover the most relevant, delightful and useful information–even when we aren’t sure how to search for it. This shift is in large part a shift in costs: from the sender to the consumer. Senders used to pay to reach us. Now they can do so instantaneously and virtually for free, so the costs have shifted to us, the receivers, creating more demand for tools that help us find signal in the noise of the Internet.

So says Andreas Weigend, former Chief Scientist at Amazon and currently a lecturer at Stanford and UC Berkeley in this video.

It may seem like a subtle shift, but it involves a different set of rules; a new physics, if you will.

The age of search required new and sophisticated ways to tell computers what it was we were looking for, and to be served up a huge range of possibly relevant, possibly irrelevant, content. Now search is ubiquitous.

But we are now overwhelmed with choices of content, and are left to sift and filter through the many possibilities to find the information that serves our needs. This process of sifting and filtering is the search for relevance; and we don’t always know what it is we’re looking for when we’re searching. We are looking to discover something–about the world, about ourselves.

Whereas algorithms ruled in the age of search, Weigend says the new age of discovery requires a different set of rules. Those rules, he argues, can be formulated when the system (be that Google, content providers, or our friends on Facebook) knows more about us. The age of discovery, he says requires that those hoping to facilitate the search for relevance find powerful ways to convince people to share personal data that then allows us to serve up more relevant content.

So we must now understand what compels people to share personal data. Weigend says it’s the desire to spread memes and genes.

I believe that, whereas algorithms ruled in the age of search, human values such as trust, empathy and credibility will rule in this new age of discovery.

We must build trust so people feel comfortable sharing personal data with us; be credible so that when we use that personal data people see that we’re doing so towards a valuable end; and show empathy by serving people’s deeply held needs, creating deeper engagement that leads to deep focus and attention.

And it’s in that last measure, the degree to which people reward us with their attention, that we’ll understand whether or not we’ve succeeded.

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The future of news: In the driver’s seat

The fall of many once stalwart news organizations like the Boston Globe has sparked a panicky sense of urgency around finding models to sustain journalism into the future. But we don’t think clearly when we’re panicking. If we did, we’d be talking less to other journalists and more to people like Eric.

I’m attending a small conclave at Duke University this week put together to explore new models for nonprofit media. I may be the least seasoned of all the luminaries invited (Len Downie from the Washington Post; Chuck Lewis, founder of Center for Public Integrity; MinnPost founder Joel Kramer, and more). I was reflecting on what I could contribute in the car service ride from the airport to the hotel when Eric, the driver, asked me about the state of journalism.

Eric is probably 64 or 65 and possesses a nimble, curious mind. He seems perfectly content in a job that allows him to learn, 15 minutes at a time, from academics, students and the odd journalist riding in the back of his minivan. I shared my boilerplate on the future of news (we have to try lots of things, who knows what the industry’s going to look like, etc.) and then asked him for his take. I know when to shut up and listen. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Eric is an avid news consumer. He reads the Christian Science Monitor and listens to the BBC and NPR (which means he likes what he hears on his local radio station WUNC, and thinks of it all as NPR). He thought for a moment and said, “I like NPR, and if anything I want more of it.” More of what? I asked. Well, you know, he said, “What I find exciting is I guess what you’d call interactivity.” He found it amazing that people like himself, average people who know things, are now able to share with a wider audience.

In this environment, if the media don’t open up, he said (and I paraphrase), there’s a tendency to feel like you’re the smartest one in the room, and that nobody else has anything to offer. Right on.

In simple, homespun logic Eric captured what I’ve seeking to express in five years of building the Public Insight Network, and a year at Stanford thinking about the next generation of that project. “What you’re doing,” he said, “is the only answer I’ve heard that could work.”

I’ve been to a dozen or more journalism conferences, each trying in its own way to address the changes rocking journalism. But not a single one of them has welcomed in the very people we are meant to be serving. People like Eric. So this week it’s my job to make sure Eric has a seat at the table.

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Lessons for journalists from a physics teacher

After no shortage of mental floundering and existential groping, I’ve distilled the “problem” I set out to take on here at Stanford to a single question: Just what is it we journalists are trying to do?

It’s a deceptively complicated question, and at least in me, one that creates great uneasiness. Ask a doctor the same question and they’ll say, very simply, “save lives” or “cure sickness” or some such. Ask a lawyer, and you might hear some version of “seek justice” or “be a zealous advocate for my client.”

But ask a journalist this question and you might hear “enable democratic life,” “speak truth to power,” or “write the first draft of history.” But any or all of these needs some heavy duty unpacking to get to a point where you can arrive at some goal or mission for journalism that can actually be measured. So, as a journalist do you wait with bated breath for voter participation stats to be released (as good of a measure of citizen engagement as any)? Or how might you measure whether or not you’re speaking truth to power?

For my purposes, and understanding that the word “journalism” is a mushy, all-encompassing term that lumps together disparate forms, from Steve Coll’s in-depth journalism for the New Yorker to Anderson Cooper‘s commentaries on CNN. Each of these has vastly different goals, do they not? They might be on opposite ends of a sort of Maslow’s hierarchy of journalism (which I’ll put more thought to later).

Say what he will about holding politicians feet to the fire, Cooper is more than anything interested in inflaming passions, or warning of dangers lurking in our midst. Kind of a Pleistocene journalism, meant to alert the tribe to approaching woolly mammoths. Coll on the other hand is equally interested in warning of danger (in his case, of terrorist threats), but he does so with an added goal of creating understanding or sensemaking that transcends current threats and gives us tools for navigating our day-to-day lives. It’s journalism that informs and warns, but also seeks to enable a sort of Maslowian self-actualization through nuanced and dispassionate analysis and elegant writing.

For my purposes, then, the highest and best goal of journalism tends more toward the New Yorker side of the spectrum: To create understanding that enables people to make enlightened decisions. But what journalists among us have the wherewithal to gauge whether or not we’re doing our job according to this measure? We send stories out into the void, and what comes back? In most cases, we have no idea if what we’re telling people is having any impact whatsoever, except for perhaps the occasional and inevitably cranky letter to the editor.

Such were my thoughts today as I listened to a wonderful talk by renowned Harvard physics instructor Eric Mazur. Mazur told about an epiphany he came to after realizing that his students, Harvard students no less, understood few of the fundamental principles of physics, despite being able to solve the most complicated of problems. But his students tested well, and rated him highly. So what was the problem?

He tested kids as they came into class on basic physics principles (a test I would fail) and then retested them after the class, and found that there was shockingly little progress in their understanding. That forced a very serious question on him: What, exactly, was he trying to accomplish as a teacher? Was it to memorize and then later spit out formulas and equations? Was it to train future professors?

No, his goal was to create understanding of the principles of physics as well as the problems and how to solve them. As he says, understanding the concepts makes for better problem solving. But better problem solving doesn’t necessarily enable an understanding of the concepts.

With that goal in mind, he tried something different. He asked students in class to consider a problem (after having handed out the lecture notes before class so he wouldn’t need to reference them during class) and then select the best answer using an electronic voting device. He’d instantly see where the class was distributed in relation to the right answer.

That’s when things got interesting. Prof. Mazur would then ask his students to turn to one another and try to convince their classmates that their answer was the right one. If the group agreed on the answer, they would then seek someone with a different answer and try to convince that person. Then Mazur would re-ask the question. If the class was mostly getting the answer right, he’d move on. If not, he’d ask another similar question.

The result of this seemingly subtle shift in teaching tactics? A dramatic increase in his students’ understanding of basic physics concepts.

So what, if any, relevance does this have for journalism? I would imagine stories about candidate health plans or credit default swaps are journalism’s equivalents to a Harvard physics lecture. Not easy concepts to grasp. But if, as a journalist, you’re not satisfied with just transmitting information to a passive audience, but really truly hoping that they’ll take it, work with it and understand it, what do you do?

Here are two ideas, neither of which I have tried, but would like to:

– FOR RADIO OR TV: Invite 10 people from different background and ages into your studio and play the piece before you air it. Record the group listening to it, and then ask them to convince each other what the main point of the piece is. Air salient bits of that  conversation after the piece in question. To make it worth watching, see to it that it’s lively. Capture the life and the texture of the conversation.

– ONLINE: Before you run a story, create and administer a quiz to a random group of people about their attitudes toward a certain subject. Then present to them the content that you have produced with the intent of increasing understanding. Then poll them again. See if you’ve succeeded in moving the needle at all. (For more on this, see Jim Fishkin’s work on deliberative polling.)

There is, still, a problem here. Students have a big incentive to be in class and participate: Their grade depends on it. But what obligation does your audience have to stick around as you try new and creative and time-consuming ways to impart your wisdom? Nothing.

It’s even more important, then, that this sort of journalism be engaging and fun to experience–not just for the New Yorker crowd. Done poorly, I could hardly think of anything duller than a story about people being polled and then being polled again. Or publishing a piece about the “making of” this process of understanding. To make the content sing, you will have to highlight the tensions between ignorance and knowing, between those who know and those who don’t, the reasons for the gap, and the implications of not knowing.

Another tension: What happens to the news beast while you’re off trying to create understanding? The day-to-day news cycle demands rapidity and discourages reflection, especially as the number of people devoted to journalism shrinks. And not every story demands this sort of treatment. Sure enough. Keep on feeding the beast. But start house-training it: Take a stand and start skipping news conferences where your reporters are spoon fed quotes. Kill story ideas that don’t seek to make an impact.

And then when you seek to make an impact, make damn sure you’re succeeding. What if you owned a restaurant and every night you sent out plates of food, and every night they came back untouched? You’d have to quickly adjust or you’d be sunk. But in journalism all you have to go by is circulation and audience numbers and web impressions. While that gives you some top-level sense of whether or not people are eating what you serve, it does nothing to confirm that you’re actually doing your job.

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get the truth & print (broadcast/blog/tweet/facebook) it

the funny thing about the internet is that you can stumble on something, read it, think it the freshest most original thing you ever read, and then realize it’s three years old.

such was my reaction upon finding a 2005 post by tim porter dissecting philip meyer’s book the vanishing newspaper. in the final of a series of posts, porter offers this alternative ending to the book (not being satisfied with meyer’s conclusion):

My ending lies in Meyer’s beginning of this chapter, words spoken by John S. Knight to “summarize the essential mission of traditional reporting.” They are: “Get the truth and print it.”

I believe the path to journalism’s future lies through its past, its roots, its “essential mission” of speaking truth to power, of being a champion for the community, of enabling conversation, of airing differences in society in order encourage commonality.

Sadly, I believe it is the very professionalism Meyer urges journalists to embrace further that has diminished newspapers’ capacity to fulfill those core purposes. Most newspapers bred the spirit and the fire and the spit out of themselves as they attempted to become all things to all readers and in the process became necessary to very few of them.

Professionalism, as Meyer points out, is a “conservative force against innovation,” which journalists need more of, not less.

If there is an “ism” journalists should embrace to ensure they have future vehicles to support John Knight’s “essential mission, then it is entrepreneurism. Don’t wait for new forms of media to emerge – build them yourselves.

That’s what David Talbot did when he left a newspaper to create Salon. That’s what Larry Kramer did when he left a newspaper to start MarketWatch.

That’s what former newspaperman Mark Potts is doing building Backfence.

And, that’s why Dan Gillmor left the San Jose Mercury News to found a new business for grassroots journalism.

There are examples, as well, of newspapers attempting to rebuild themselves. Some, like the Chicago Tribune with RedEye or the Dallas Morning News with Al Dia, are using traditional methods (newspapers) to reach niche audiences (young people and Spanish speakers.). Others, like the Bakersfield Californian with Northwest Voice, are breaking with tradition altogether and allowing the community to help create the news product.

I wish Meyer had ended with a call for action instead of a call to prepare for action. He could have paraphrased Scoop Nisker and made this his last sentence: If you don’t like the newspaper, go out and make your own.

That’s better.

i couldn’t agree more, with porter, or with john s. knight. somewhere along the line the pursuit of truth has ceased to be the lodestone for newsrooms. what’s replaced it? in some cases, pandering to public fear and superstition and received wisdom; in others, false objectivity. the main force behind it all is a certain pervasive acculturation or professionalization of the press that impels journalists to write for each other and not for the audience or the public; that nudges reporters to cozy up to sources and become part of the power structure they were meant to critique. it’s the force the compels journalists to get on the bus, and the social pressure that makes them snicker in cynical unison once they’re proudly ensconced there.

i think here of william whyte’s famous book the organization man.

the only solution, of course (as huffpo is so admirably is doing) is to avoid the bus, leave the pack, live among the people you’re covering, and use every tool at your disposal to find the truth.

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