Wikipedia Is No Authority–By Design

MUD day 13:

In an interview in Foreign Policy, published on its website earlier this month, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was asked if he’s shocked to hear that people, including journalists, “use Wikipedia all the time.” His response is worth repeating to any journalist that either uses Wikipedia unthinkingly or unthinkingly refuses to use Wikipedia:

Journalists all use Wikipedia. The bad journalist gets in trouble because they use it incorrectly; the good journalist knows it’s a place to get oriented and to find out what questions to ask.

Wales goes on to say the Wikipedia is actually quite old-fashioned in its approach, looking for “reliable sources” rather than “something in a blog somewhere.”

What I find most interesting about Wikipedia, though, is the way it undercuts the old-fashioned notion of authority. Once you start thinking in any depth about why you should or shouldn’t use Wikipedia as a source, you start to realize how vulnerable to criticism the authority of any source is.

This, I take it, is the position of one of Wikipedia’s biggest fans in journalism, Dan Gillmor. In his book, Mediactive, he argues that the audience for news and other media must change from passive to active consumers, that they have a responsibility to be skeptical and exercise judgment.

Wikipedia, I think, operates on this principle. In telling its users, “don’t trust us; decide for yourself,” it is passing responsibility for judgment back to the individual reader. By handing any user who wants it the key to authorship, Wikipedia is enacting a radical idea: that authority is a shared responsibility.

Social Media and the Clash of Brands

MUD day 10:

On his new blog today, UK journalist Tony Hallett considered a question raised indirectly by my Tuesday post on destination versus identity. His concern was with personal identity versus publication identity, or, if you prefer, personal versus corporate branding.

In traditional print or broadcast media, the corporate brand controls the personal brand—except in a few rare cases, writers are expected to adapt their voice to that of their venue, and publication editors make sure that happens. But as he noted, social media largely defies such control. Like it or not, social media tends to emphasize personal identity and to amplify personal voice.

This is a tricky issue for media organizations. On the one hand, they want to encourage the individual voices of their contributors. On the other, they don’t want to be eclipsed by them. It’s still true, as Hallett put it, that the corporate brand has the final say. But as traditional forms of media morph increasingly into new, more social forms, this may change. In chats, live blogging, and other types of instant publishing, there is no active editorial control, no formal restraint on the personal voice.

The conflict might be even more problematic for content marketers than for independent publishers. Traditional publishing brands have always been perceived, to a degree, as the sum of their individual voices. That’s not the case, I think, for most product and service brands. To control the corporate brand message, must the individual voice be restrained?

In any event, as the atomization of media proceeds, the individual voice will get louder. Media venues may become something more like an ever-shifting alliance of individuals than a stable and unitary identity. The tribe, perhaps, will supplant the brand.

The Future of Content Is Not Destination but Identity

MUD day 8:

There’s been a lot of excitement in the past week about the new Web publication The Verge. Founded by Joshua Topolsky and several other former Engadget staff, it’s been praised for its dynamic design and for features like StoryStream, which aggregates the site’s content into timelines. But if it succeeds, will it be due to great design, or inherently great stories? Does its future lie in becoming a great destination site, or in creating a unique identity for its content?

The Verge

When Topolsky appeared last Sunday on This Week in Tech, host Leo Laporte asked a key question. After suggesting that The Verge is what magazine design should be on the Web, or rather, what should replace magazine design, he asked whether it mattered. “You’ve made a great destination, but I just wonder: Do destinations matter anymore?” How he and many others now read content, he argued, was in aggregation: “So if there’s a great Verge article on the Jawbone Up, I will see it in my Twitter stream or in my RSS feed, I’ll read the article, but then I’ll leave the site.”

Though the design, usability, and coherence of site or publication design are still important, they matter less to the success of content than they used to. In an era when content is increasingly atomized and ubiquitous, the identity of that content becomes increasingly important. Traditionally, magazines were a collection of disparate items that relied on the container to give them a coherent identity. But containment doesn’t work on the Web. So how then can content serve its publishers?

The answer, I think, is that identity must be stamped into the content itself. More than ever, to rise above anonymous commodity content, it must be personal, individual, unique. People must be able to see immediately, for instance, that this content, wherever they find it, could only be from The Verge. The content must be imbued with the brand.

It seems to me that this is the biggest challenge for traditional publishers in adapting to new media is to rethink the value of their publications as destinations. Consider, for instance, what Ziff Davis Enterprise CEO Steve Weitzner recently told Folio: about his company’s move to digital-only publication: “”We will publish [eWeek] in the same way—it will go through the same editorial process, the stories will get vetted, they’ll be laid out by art, we just won’t print it or mail it.” Is that the way to go digital? To simply plop the magazine model into a digital space? Somehow, I doubt it. The container doesn’t matter anymore. Only the content counts.

A Month of “Um” Days

As writers go, I am slow and deliberate. Though I don’t often find it, I can spend hours looking for le mot juste. It’s not the ideal approach for a blogger, needless to say. So this month, as I hoard my psychic energies for a major writing and editing project (more about that later), I’ve had to make what is, for me, a difficult decision about this blog.

No, this is not a farewell to blogging, or even an announcement of a hiatus. Rather, it’s an explanation and an apology for what’s about to happen here for the next month. You see, rather than just give up on writing the weekly, well-crafted post and go dark for 30 days, I’m going to do just the opposite. I will write a post a day (or more) until the end of November. But the writing of each post will be subject to a strict and, for me, highly challenging time limit—one half hour.

It won’t be pretty. I would expect that there will be more than a few grammatical gaffes, a bunch of stylistic infelicities, and the writerly equivalent of tons of “ums” (that’s “erms” for you Brits). Compared to my usual work, whatever you think of it, this month’s posts will be:

  • More personally revealing, less socially useful.
  • Suggestive rather than definitive.
  • Based on what I remember rather than what I research.
  • Written directly in WordPress rather than drafted in MacJournal.

My rules are pretty simple. I have only half-an-hour from start to finish to write the post. I will allow myself to mull the post topic over in advance, and make a few notes, but no advance writing. And I will try to stay more or less on topic—no reflections on my misspent youth, no sports commentary, no streams of consciousness.

Well, there you have it. My time is up, and for better or worse, this post is done.

 

Swabbing the Decks of the Titanic: Why You Should Learn Programming

Image of the Titanic sinkingLast week journalism professor Matt Waite wrote a blog post worrying about the typical defeatist reaction of journalism students when faced with a coding challenge, whether in HTML, JavaScript, or other language: “I can’t do this,” they tell him. “This is impossible. I’ll never get this.” When I tweeted a link to the article, I wrote “”Journos: If you fear coding, you fear the future.”

That prompted a response from a practicing trade journalist and former colleague, who asked “I can see why knowing things like HTML and CSS can be helpful but do most journos need more than that?”

His question wasn’t one I could answer easily on Twitter, because for me, at least, there’s no clear and simple answer. Does a typical mid-career editor on a print publication today need to learn software programming? From that perspective, it’s hard to come up with a compelling argument for it, though I’ve certainly tried.

Waite’s blog post, however, wasn’t about veteran editors but about the journalists of the future. Those journalists, he says, must be able to “construct, manipulate, and advance digital distribution of content and information.” If they don’t have a positive, can-do attitude towards programming, they won’t succeed.

Does this mean that most journalists will need to be experts in one or more specific programming languages? I don’t think so. My guess is that while the ranks of programmer-journalists like Jonathan Stray, Michelle Minkoff, and Lisa Williams will continue to swell, most journalists won’t become similarly hyphenated. There will always be some degree of specialization in journalism. But in the new-media era, to be a good journalist, to master your craft, you must at the very least learn enough about programming to understand it.

As my former colleague implied, even for veteran journalists there’s a benefit to understanding code like HTML and CSS if they do any work online. There’s nothing new about needing to comprehend the means of your production in order to perfect your message.

As an analog example, consider how easily in the traditional print world you can lose control of your editorial content if you don’t understand at least the basics of what your art director and your production manager do. The decisions they make can strongly influence your content, and if you don’t know what to ask for and to explain why you’re asking, your content will suffer.

Likewise, in the digital medium, studying what’s under the hood gives you greater flexibility in presenting and distributing your content. If you work with web developers and programmers, you’ll have a better idea of what to ask for, and better chances of getting it. And if it’s just you and WordPress, you’ll be better able to customize the code yourself to get the result you want.

But there’s another reason that journalists of the future should want to get their hands dirty in code. The value of learning how to program is not just in better understanding their jobs, but also in better understanding the world they write about. As Roland Legrand puts it,

“Every year, the digital universe around us becomes deeper and more complex. Companies, governments, organizations and individuals are constantly putting more data online: Text, videos, audio files, animations, statistics, news reports, chatter on social networks. . . . Can professional communicators such as journalists really do their job without learning how the digital world works?”

This trend toward digitization in all human endeavors has given rise to another journalistic specialty, computer-assisted reporting or data journalism. Though it may never account for the bulk of what most journalists do, knowing how to extract, manipulate, and present data will be an increasingly valuable skill. Even today, it’s possible that you’re sitting on a rich lode of data that, if you just knew a little programming, you could help mine.

If you are well advanced in your career as a journalist, maybe you don’t need to learn anything about programming. You’re set, right? But that’s probably what the crew thought as they swabbed the decks and polished the brightwork of the Titanic.

Why not play it safe? Your job as a journalist may not require you to have any familiarity with programming today. But one day, perhaps sooner than you think, it will. Why not prepare yourself by finding out more about data journalism,  by learning some programming basics at as site like Codecademy, or by joining a cross-disciplinary group like Hacks/Hackers?

As I’ve noted recently on this blog, some journalists are worried that their role will one day be eclipsed by software. If you don’t want to become an algorithm’s slave, you have only one choice. You must become its master.