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.

Jeff Jarvis Strikes A Blow for Web History

Buzz Machine Sept 2011

Nearly two years ago, I wrote that while the Web has a future, it may not have a past. Exhibit A in my argument was the lamentable state of Jeff Jarvis’s influential blog, BuzzMachine. Started in the aftermath of 9/11, its archives offer an invaluable chronicle of the development of new media in the 21st century. But as I noted, trying to dig through those archives was nearly as arduous as excavating Troy. Links to the first few years of posts were hard to find, and when you did, they were encrusted with spam advertisements.

A year and a half later, thanks to son Jake Jarvis, the archives have been restored. Though it means quite a few of the links in my article have been broken, I’m happy at how easy it now is to read through those early posts. True, they don’t have the original look and feel, and they have squirreled away somewhere the ominous old blog title, “WarLog: World War III.” But you can always find samples of the original on the Internet Archive.

In all, it’s a good day for the history of the Web, one I wasn’t sure was coming. Now if Filloux will just correct that typo….

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.

Introducing the New-Media Survival Guide

New-Media Survival Guide

Today I’m both pleased and relieved to announce the publication of my first e-book, the New-Media Survival Guide. (If you just can’t wait to buy a copy at the bargain price of $2.99, click here now. Not that impulsive? Then you might want to read more about it here.)

My goal in writing this e-book was to give people trained in traditional media—journalists in particular, but also people from public relations, marketing, and other areas—an easy-to-read, practical, and concise introduction to the new-media revolution. If it’s successful, readers will understand that the ways of new media are not be be feared, but to be welcomed.

If you’re skeptical or concerned about new media but want to understand it better, this is a great starting point for you. And if you’re a social-media maven, you may not need this book, but you probably know someone who does. Here are a few reasons why you may want to read or recommend it.

  • It can be read in one sitting.
  • Though it’s short, it provides numerous sources for further reading.
  • To my knowledge, there’s nothing else quite like it (or if there is, please note it in the comments—this is an equal-opportunity blog!).
  • For the moment, at least, it’s very up to date.

In coming days, I’ll be reflecting on the process of writing and self-publishing an e-book and why I recommend it. In the meantime, I hope you’ll learn more about the New-Media Survival Guide and let me know what you think of it.

Lytro Photography and the Advance of Data Journalism

The Lytro camera

The Lytro camera

Until this weekend, when I came across Rob Walker’s brief article about it in the December Atlantic, I had figured the new Lytro camera was more cool gimmick than serious game changer. You’ve probably heard about the technology already. Rather than focusing when you take the picture, you let others focus it later, when they view the image, by clicking on the area they want to see clearly. (Confused? See Lytro’s examples.)

This effect is made possible by capturing far more data than a typical camera. One way to achieve it, Walker writes, is to use “hundreds of cameras to capture all the visual information in a scene,” then use a computer to process the results “into a many-layered digital object.” Another is what the Lytro does: squeeze “hundreds of micro lenses into a single device.”

As technological advances go it’s impressive. But to a photographer, it’s not a big deal. Autofocus usually works just fine.

But Walker’s article made me realize who really benefits from the Lytro: not the photographer, but the viewer. The technology takes part of the artistic decision away from the artist and gives it to the audience. Likewise in journalism, the technology may help shift control of content from the producer to the consumer, as UC Berkeley new-media professor Richard Koci Hernandez told Walker:

Imagine, he suggests, a photojournalist covering a presidential speech whose audience includes a clutch of protesters. Using a traditional camera, he says, “I could easily set my controls so that what’s in focus is just the president, with the background blurred. Or I could do the opposite, and focus on the protesters.” A Lytro capture, by contrast, will include both focal points, and many others. Distribute that image, he continues, and “the viewer can choose—I don’t want to sound professorial—but can choose the truth.”

I’m still not convinced that the Lytro technology by itself is, as Walker says, revolutionary. But it is yet another development that hands more power to the consumers of journalism by giving them more data.

Journalism, of course, has always involved data. Even when you tell a story about an event, as in narrative journalism or photojournalism, you’re presenting the viewer with data. But those data are limited and selective, in the service of a particular point of view about the reality you’re describing. If you choose to focus on the president, that’s what your audience sees. With the Lytro, however, you give them access to far more data; now they, not you, choose what to focus on.

If you don’t think data journalism is going to be a big deal, consider the Lytro and the trend it represents. Technology will not stop here. As it evolves, it will enable everyone to capture and distribute increasingly large amounts of data. And in response, journalism’s role will correspondingly shift from telling stories to giving its audience the data they need to tell their own.