Selling and Journalism

I’m sure there were at least a few journalists who took offense at  Gap marketing chief Seth Farbman telling an audience earlier this week that marketers are more honest than journalists. In his former life as a journalist, Farbman said, “I always had the sense that I was creating information, but the real purpose of that information was to sell something—to sell newspapers and ad space.”

There’s nothing particularly new or revolutionary about this sentiment, and I might have let it pass if not for something I came across last night. I’ve been reading the autobiography of the late novelist Mark Harris, Best Father Ever Invented. In it, he writes about the elation he felt in 1948 when he left journalism to enter college:

How impossible that I was now to spend a day at labor which never asked for the quick hook to catch the reader, never asked, “Is it news? Is it what the public wants?” but in the actual reading of books, in the actual discussion of text, in the actual pursuit of thoughts and conclusions not predetermined by newspaper policy or the interests of the advertising department.

Journalism has always been about selling things. That doesn’t invalidate it as an activity, any more than it invalidates marketing. But it does mean that journalists must acknowledge that limitation if they wish to overcome it.

What Is the Lifespan of an Error?

There has been much coverage lately of a new book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal called The Lifespan of a Fact. It relates the years-long debate between D’Agata, an essayist, and Fingal, a fact checker, about whether artistry and accuracy can cohabit in the same nonfiction essay. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the book itself, as Craig Silverman says, “isn’t, you know, factual.”

Picture of a Broken Window by Fen OswinWhat interests me here about the book, though, is the obverse question implied by the evocative title:  What is the lifespan of an error? Rightly or wrongly, we tend to believe that the truth is eternal, that facts live forever, and that, by contrast, mistakes sooner or later die off unaided. Hence our attitudes about errors tend to be lax. But on the Internet, at least, errors are surprisingly resilient.

Some online errors seem to be beyond fixing. In a compelling article yesterday, Ars Technica writer Nate Anderson told the story of how the owner of a Spanish campground has struggled to get Google to de-emphasize search results for the camp. Those results highlight grizzly photos from a disaster that struck the camp more than 30 years ago when a passing fuel tanker exploded, killing 200 campers.

The issue is particularly tricky because the event did happen and is historically important. But is it highly relevant to a search for a camping spot? No one seems to think so. For a variety of understandable reasons, however, the search results live on.

This example is not an error of fact, of course, but of emphasis and context. That’s why it’s hard to fix. Errors of fact should be, by comparison, easily righted. And yet too often they aren’t, mostly because no one cares enough.

There are, unfortunately, abundant examples of this problem, but I’ll restrict myself to just two.

As Rebecca Hoffman happened to remind me yesterday by linking to it from her blog, I wrote last June about the problem of malignant typos. In my post, I noted that prominent blogger and journalist Frédéric Filloux had left uncorrected for two weeks an egregious misspelling of New York Times reporter Brian Stelter’s last name as “Settler.” Yesterday, in a new post, Filloux wrote of the importance of “proper editing and proofing,” giving me hope that his own error might by now have been fixed. But no. A quick check showed that the misspelled “Settler” appears permanently settled.

Filloux’s careless typo is, I suspect, a lost cause. I have higher if slowly diminishing hopes for a more recent error that I noticed last Thursday and shared with its publisher. In a post comparing the print-on-demand services from CreateSpace with those from Lightning Source, the CreateSpace cost per page was stated to be 12 cents per page. If that were true, a 100-page book would cost at least $12.00 to print, and legacy publishers everywhere would be smiling. In fact, though, the cost is 1.2 cents per page, or $1.20 for a 100 page book (not counting the cover). After five days, the mistake has not been corrected. But it’s early yet.

Is it rude or petty of me to point out so publicly these seemingly minor errors? I’ll let you decide. But my belief is that the future of the Internet may depend on how we react to such small mistakes. The situation calls to mind the broken windows theory of the recently deceased James Q. Wilson, which posited that tolerance of small crimes leads inevitably to bigger ones.

Though controversial in criminology, Wilson’s theory may prove true on the Internet. The more complacent we are about small errors, the more likely it is that we will eventually be plagued by large ones.

Photo by Fen Oswin.

There Are Two Sides to Every Editorial Wall

In an article today on MediaShift, Dorian Benkoil makes a good case for why reporters and editors should be more involved in the business side of publishing. My only complaint is with what seems to be his guiding premise: that the fault is all theirs. And not only that—their refusal to sully their hands in the business side is contributing to the decline of the entire industry:

“For too long, reporters and editors have been unaware, even hostile to the business sides of their organizations. Those attitudes have helped push the news industry into its current dire state.”

As I’ve suggested before, the purpose of the editorial wall isn’t just to keep the business side out of editorial. It’s also to keep editorial out of the business side. Benkoil seems to recognize this when he writes (emphasis mine), “Can you name another business in which the people who make the key product are allowed, even encouraged, to be ignorant of how they make money?” But for the most part, he seems to feel that editors are the chief culprits in their own shackling.

Many editors I know have at some point or another made an effort to get involved in the business side. Most of the time, they’ve been shot down, patronized, and kicked back over the wall. Can you blame them for deciding not to get involved in business?

I applaud Benkoil’s exhortation to editors to tear down the wall. But, please Dorian, can you yell at those on the other side of it too?

Transparent vs. Opaque: Six New-Media Principles, No. 5

Because one of its foundational ideas is openness, as I described in yesterday’s post, new media encourages and rewards transparency. Traditional media organizations have tended to be opaque, aiming not to reveal much about the people and processes behind their product. But the nature of new media is to reveal everything, to make everything public. If the organizations don’t reveal their own inner workings, the increasing likelihood is that someone else will.

One of the ways new media encourages transparency is ethical, as represented by the popular expression, “transparency is the new objectivity.” One of the more recent considerations of the phrase came from Mathew Ingram last month. Traditional news organizations have wanted individual journalists to hide their subjective feelings and inclinations behind a veil of objectivity. As Ingram argues, this is an increasingly untenable stance in the new-media era. The only ethical strategy for journalists now is to be open about their biases and conflicts of interest, and to let readers judge their reliability as reporters for themselves.

Another mode of transparency is operational. Transparency doesn’t stop with individuals. To be seen as reliable, organizations themselves must practice media transparency in many, if not all, aspects of their operations. By showing how their process works—through methods such as sharing internal policy documents with readers, explaining how news subjects are selected and prioritized, or live-streaming editorial meetings—media producers will give their audience reason to trust them.

To work, transparency must be a committed, conscious choice. But it’s something of a Hobson’s choice. In the new-media era, there’s no long-term alternative to transparency.

Ethics Must Come from the Heart As Well As the Head

MUD day 11:

For anyone interested in the ethics of new-media journalism, the past 24 hours have been painfully instructive. For me, it’s been a reminder that in any ethical decision, you have to be guided by your heart as well as your head.

The episode began when, in response to an inquiry by a Columbia Journalism Review reporter, the Poynter Institute’s director of publications, Julie Moos, wrote a blog post criticizing Poynter’s celebrated columnist Jim Romenesko. According to Moos, Romenesko had a years-long habit of insufficiently attributing quoted comments. The episode concluded with Romenesko’s resignation, several months ahead of a planned retirement.

For those unfamiliar with these events, Nieman Lab’s Mark Coddington provides a superb overview. But the gist of the story is this: in summarizing what was written in other publications—essentially all he does or claims to do—Romenesko sometimes did not put quotation marks around verbatim quotes. For Moos, this was grounds not for dismissal, but a well-meaning but severe and public hand slapping. For almost everyone in journalism, her comments were an undeserved and self-important rebuke.

I admit to feeling some sympathy for Moos. The current climate of scandal mongering and blame placing make any public ethical decision difficult; no matter what she did, a large number of people would have second-guessed her.

I’m also very uncomfortable with the failure to use quotation marks around verbatim borrowings. When Steve Buttry, for whom I have boundless admiration and respect, argues that Romenesko’s fault was simply a punctuation problem, I find myself in the rare position of questioning his call. Leaving out a comma or semicolon can mean a difference between clarity and obscurity; leaving out a quotation mark can mean the difference between an original insight and blatant theft. I know that I’m nitpicking, and agree that Romenesko was absolutely not stealing. My point here is not to claim Buttry is wrong, but to demonstrate my mixed feelings.

I’m certain that Moos had similarly mixed feelings in deciding how to handle the discovery she was handed so unexpectedly. But it’s clear that she overreacted in reaching for what Theodore Bernstein used to call an atomic flyswatter. Like many a well-meaning but misguided official, she felt obliged to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for ethics. But in ethics, zero tolerance is, by its nature, unethical.

In a situation like this, the question that should be asked is not “What rules were broken?” but “Who was hurt?” The fact is, Romenesko’s occasional failure to use quotation marks hurts no one. It was not an issue of plagiarism, which does hurt people. As many of his supporters have pointed out, no one Romenesko ever covered has objected to his attribution habits. Their heart tells them that Moos’s reaction was wrong. I suspect hers does as well.

Neither the heart nor the head is an infallible guide; every moral decision involves some balance between the two. This time, Julie Moos got the balance wrong.