Process vs. Product: Six New-Media Principles, No. 6

The new-media principles of transparency and openness discussed in my last two posts mean that readers can both see and participate in the process of journalism itself. They are no longer handed the finished product in the form of an article and asked to move along. For both reader and writer the change can be liberating, exciting, and rewarding.

The downside, of course, is that the process is messy and prone to mistakes. Behind every fact-checked and edited story is a tale of false leads, dead ends, and empty promises. Letting their audience in on that ugly and wayward process seems unwise to many traditional journalists.

But the benefits of journalism as a process ultimately outweigh the drawbacks. By turning the process itself into the product, formerly behind-the-scenes editorial judgments can be discussed and validated, news and other information can be shared more rapidly, and inevitable errors can be more quickly identified and corrected.

The controversial aspects of putting process ahead of product are obvious even in older forms of online media such as blogs. But they are far more dramatic in real-time formats such as live-blogging or Twitter. Traditionalists might contend that such real-time publishing leads to a fragmentary and confusing picture. But to new-media proponents, it is a truer picture than that painted by a traditional journalistic product like the self-contained and superficially coherent news article. Rather than imposing a neat narrative structure on events, real-time journalism acknowledges that the information is as yet fragmentary and its meaning still unresolved.

As Jeff Jarvis puts it, changes in the nature of media create effective new ways to communicate: “No longer do the means of production and distribution of media necessitate boxing the world into neat, squared-off spaces published once a day and well after the fact. Freed of print’s strictures, we are finding many new and sometimes better ways to gather and share information.”

The process is not pretty. But hiding it benefits no one. Only by sharing the process as widely as possible can we reach the closest approximation of the truth.

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.


The Perils of Corporate-Personal Twitter Names

In a post today on The Wall, Tom Callow addressed the tricky question of ownership of journalists’ Twitter accounts. If employees use a Twitter ID that combines their names with those of their employers’ brands, whose account is it? The issue is more complicated than you might think, and isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon.  Until journalists and their employers alike see Twitter and other social media accounts as equivalent in importance to other brand channels and manage them accordingly, the friction will only increase.Laura Kuennsberg on Twitter

What prompted Callow’s post was the news last month that the BBC’s departing chief political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg, soon to join BBC’s rival ITV, has renamed her Twitter account from “@BBCLauraK” to “@ITVLauraK.” Along with its reporter, the BBC has now lost her 60,000 Twitter followers as well.

As Callow noted in a previous and prescient post on ownership of Twitter names, there are essentially three account-naming options for someone who tweets in connection with an employer:

  1. Tweet under a corporate name, like @comcastcares.
  2. Tweet under a personal name, like @johnbethune.
  3. Tweet under a hybrid name that combines personal and corporate brands, like @BBCLauraK.

There’s little controversy about the first option—it’s obviously a corporate brand that no sensible individual would claim. The second might seem so clearly personal that, as Callow says, “there is no way a brand could seek to claim ownership of such a profile.”

The third option—both personal and corporate—may turn out to be a rich field for litigation. If ownership isn’t specified by contract, can either employer or employee say with authority who owns the Twitter handle? Or who, more specifically, owns the right to its followers? Kuenssberg clearly believes she does. By changing the name of the account, she may not be claiming ownership of the hybrid name, but her assumption appears to be that she owns the account. Callow, however, thinks the BBC has a “decent ownership claim” to it. To judge from the fascinating variety of comments on his post, there is little consensus either way. (And the BBC itself, so far as I can determine, has raised no objections.)

In her coverage of the matter last month, The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss rightly remarked that “setting up an account that blends professional and personal is a risky move.” But blending the professional and personal is exactly what social media is all about. If a brand wants to remain relevant, and its editors want to have successful careers, both sides will have to come to terms with that risk and learn to manage it.

The first step might be to think of a Twitter account not as a marketing tool or some supplementary appendage to a publication, but as a separate channel for the brand in the same way a magazine is. Now suppose that a publisher named a magazine after one of its editors—the John Bethune magazine, say. I can guarantee you that the editor, in this case at least, would negotiate a detailed agreement on the use of and the rights to his name. I’m certain Readers Digest and Rachael Ray did just that when launching Every Day with Rachael Ray (thanks to @Glenn1126 for the real-life example).

A Twitter account should be treated the same way. While extensive contract negotiations over a hybrid Twitter name would be overkill, both editor and employer should come to a clear agreement about who owns what rights. A smart employer will not claim all of them. Without some ownership, an employee won’t be inclined to put heart and soul into it. By the same token, a wise employee will understand that part of the appeal of a hybrid identity comes from the employer’s brand, and that the employer should have meaningful rights as well.

That’s one less-than-elegant solution. A better one, I think, is this: don’t use hybrid Twitter names. Like a magazine, a Twitter account needs a clear and unambiguous identity. Brands that want total control can use functional names like @BBCPoliticalCorr, as one of Callow’s commenters suggested. Brands that want the greatest value from Twitter accounts will give up control and encourage the use of personal accounts. Trying to have it both ways is a sure way of getting neither.

Innocent and Malignant Typos and the Case of Filloux v. Jarvis

Picture of a fainting heroine

Overdosed on typos?

As one who cares more than he should about such things, I’ve been spending way too much time today mulling over Rob O’Regan’s recent post on eMedia Vitals, “Can you spare 15 minutes in the battle against typos?”.

Like O’Regan, I suspect, I have an unhealthy sensitivity to typographical errors. To this day, I’m still suffering post-typographic stress from the discovery 27 years ago that in my first published book review, for the Nashville Tennessean, I asserted that the novel’s protagonist died from an overdose of “heroine.”

Much of the pain of that error came from the fact that it was permanent. That day’s press run was done forever. The only comfort I could take was in the knowledge that few people would read the review, fewer would notice the mistake, and all would throw the paper out a few days later.

In today’s online media, of course,  it’s easy to repair such mistakes (as I’ve done in my archived version of that fateful book review). What’s odd is how few people bother. Though O’Regan is too nice to name the writers or publications, he notes that three of the four errors he cites have yet to be corrected, several days after publication. (Me, I’m not so nice: Come on, Stefanie Botelho and Folio: magazineSilicone Valley is almost as embarrassing as heroine.)

In those rare moments when I can look at them dispassionately, I can see that most typos are innocent. Some people will be amused by Silicone Valley; no one is hurt by it.

But there’s another class of typos that, left uncorrected, suggest a subtle malignity. For the reader, they are indications that the writer’s argument might not be trustworthy. A recent example, for me, is Frédéric Filloux’s critique earlier this month of a Jeff Jarvis blog post on the status of the article in journalism.

In my opinion, Filloux simply gets it wrong. I could respect his view, however, if I thought he was actually trying to get it right. But a critical typo, uncorrected now for nearly two weeks, suggests that he isn’t trying, and worse, that he doesn’t care to. “To support his position,” Filloux writes, “Jarvis mentions Brian Settler’s coverage of the Joplin tornado.”

Settler? Nope. The New York Times reporter’s last name, of course, is Stelter.

Is failing to spell Stelter’s name correctly an innocent mistake? Maybe at first (though even then it’s a sign of carelessness). But after two weeks, it starts to fester. It would undercut even the most thoughtful argument, not just Filloux’s impulsive rant.

In a subsequent attack on Jarvis’s advocacy of process journalism, Filloux says, “personally, I’d rather stick to the quest for perfection rather than embrace the celebration of the ‘process.’” I would suggest to M. Filloux that the quest for perfection begins at home.

Fortunately, it’s not too late. As Jarvis says in a comment on Filloux’s post, “publish first and correct later has *always* been the rule, except now we can publish earlier and correct sooner.”

Should you care as much as I do about typos? I don’t recommend it. To be a productive writer, you need a tolerance for innocent slip-ups. But if you care about the truth—not to mention perfection—you’ll make sure they don’t turn into malignant ones.

Rethinking the Article as the Basic Unit of Journalism

A spate of recent blog posts have, independently it seems, questioned the traditional preeminence of the article as the basic unit of journalism.

The first of these, chronologically, is a liveblogged review by Adam Tinworth of a News:Rewired conference session on liveblogging. In it, Tinworth summarizes a point made by presenter Matt Wells of the Guardian:

Matt thinks that liveblogs are one of the best ways of covering stories that don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. The inverse pyramid story may be the single biggest reason that journalists are mistrusted. It encourages sensationalism.

A day later, Jeff Jarvis cited a number of examples of real-time news coverage that are leading him, as he put it, to

think of the article not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process.

Then Monday Jenn Webb interviewed Cheezburger’s Ben Huh about his recently announced project to revitalize news coverage. Her final question focused on the article:

Do you think the “article,” as a form, needs to be reinvented?

Ben Huh: I think it should be augmented and, in some cases, tossed out entirely.

While Jarvis stays neutral on the value of the article form (despite Matthew Ingram’s reaction that he doesn’t), Wells, as channeled by Tinworth, sees it as a potentially misleading one. By forcing a “clear beginning, middle and end” on a set of events, Wells suggests, the meaning of those events may be exaggerated or otherwise distorted.

I don’t think that articles always mold a narrative structure onto events, but we generally expect them to do so. And it’s certainly the nature of any narrative to impose meaning on formlessness. That’s why we like narratives and use them so often.

But liveblogging, tweeting, and other real-time modes of expression don’t really abandon narrative. Rather, they give greater control to someone other than the writer or assembler in the process of creating the story. Those co-creators include the various people whose statements and data are being aggregated as well as the reader trying to make sense of it all.

As Jarvis strives to make clear, the rise of real-time formats doesn’t eliminate the article as an important mode of presentation. But it does suggest that other forms of expression or units of information are gaining power and prominence in journalism.

I’ve argued elsewhere recently that freelance writers should stop thinking of the word as their primary unit of value. In the same way, journalists in general may want to stop thinking of the article as their basic unit of output. That’s not to not say that freelancers should stop using words, or that journalists should stop producing articles. Those items are still essential to the craft. But they are not the only or necessarily the best way to help people understand the world. If journalists aren’t open to real-time formats like liveblogging and Twitter, they are failing both themselves and their audience.