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.


Bloggers: Feel Free to Repeat Yourself


Big ideas justify repetition

Imagine: After days of writer’s block, you’re suddenly inspired to write a long and insightful blog post. You’ve found the perfect illustration, and your headline is brilliant. You’re crushing it. Then, just before you click the publish button, a small blip of doubt appears on your radar. Somehow, what you’ve written sounds so familiar.

In a flash you remember: you’ve already covered this topic. The words are  different, the examples are new, but the case you’re making is more or less the same.

So what do you do now? As I’ve suggested before, a concern that someone else has already made your point shouldn’t stop you from publishing. But what if the person who made the point was you?

Fear not: There may be very good reasons to publish anyway.

In the right circumstances, there is a strong rationale for repeating yourself. But before we leap blindly into the upside of repetition, let’s consider the downside.

1. You may be subtracting value, not adding it. Once in a while, the first time you express an idea, it’s so well put that any subsequent efforts diminish the impact of the original. If you can’t improve on it or extend it, just link to it.

2. You may be using your desire to repeat yourself as an excuse. You may have other topics or ideas that you know you need to address, but it’s hard work. Going back to your old idea is so much easier. If that’s the case, put it on hold and focus on the new ones. The old one will always be there if you need it.

3. You may lack new ideas. Maybe you need to get out more. If you aren’t actively engaging with your community by reading, asking, and listening, your ideas, old or new, won’t be relevant.

If your urge to repeat yourself survives these three arguments against it, take heart. There are at least three equally compelling arguments in favor of it:

1. If you’ve forgotten what you said before, so has your reader. So say it again. What makes ideas grow on people is repetition. One of the findings of Edelman’s 2011 “Trust Barometer” is, as Krishna De puts it, that “the more we hear something, the more likely we are to believe it—59% of respondents will believe the information they receive if they hear it 3 – 5 times.”

Last week, Ardath Albee suggested that even more repetition may be required for maximum retention: “Here’s the dirty little secret about repetition: It takes 5 – 12 repetitions of an idea to make it stick.”

2. You’re not repeating, you’re refining. Most ideas aren’t hermetically sealed packages of eternal truth. Instead, they evolve and grow. The blog format is ideal not only for documenting this growth process, but also for enhancing it through interactions with and feedback from others.

Do all those earlier iterations of an idea in a blog become disposable the moment the latest version is published? Not at all. In fact, for me, one of the glories of the blog format is the way it allows readers to go back and follow the development of an idea over time. In blogs like Joe Pulizzi’s Junta42 blog or Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine, to cite two very different examples, going back to their earliest posts and reading forward through time reveals the detail and depth in their ideas that wouldn’t exist without repetition and reworking.

3. Your idea is so important that it’s all you need. There’s nothing wrong with one-trick ponies if the trick is really good. Long ago, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a short book on Tolstoy called The Hedgehog and the Fox. The title was inspired by an ancient Greek fragment that says “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

The insight Berlin drew from this was that there are two kinds of thinkers. One, the fox, gets his brilliance from the many different ideas he throws out for consideration. The brilliance of the other, the hedgehog, is based on one very big, complex idea that he devotes himself to exploring and explaining. If you’re a hedgehog, repetition is an asset, not a liability.

There are probably more than these three reasons not to fear repetition in your blog posts. If you can add one in the comments here, please do. But otherwise, feel free to paraphrase Walt Whitman and repeat after me:  “Do I repeat myself? Very well then I repeat myself.”


Editorial Wall, or Prison Wall?

There’s been some fervent debate in recent days about the risks of an entrepreneurial role for editors. (Note: By the term editor I mean any journalist, whether writer, reporter, or editor.) Does being involved in the business side of a media enterprise mean being involved in sales? And does breaking down the sacred wall between editorial and sales mean that editorial must be tainted?

What set off this latest skirmish was an article in the Guardian by Roy Greenslade (lately a fecund source of inspiration for B2B Memes) concerning UK editor and blogger Marc Reeves. In a speech last June, he argued that editors should get involved in all sides of a business, even if that meant selling advertising. The way Reeves put it was particularly blunt:

“And to all of you who are saying ‘Sorry I’m just a journalist, I don’t sell advertising or organise events…’ I say: tough: that’s just the way it will be from now on.”

I admire the plain speaking, but my first reaction was, Are you nuts? Realistically, the average editor is probably the last person you would want to sell advertising. Compared with the average salesperson, he or she is a relative introvert. Taking advertising orders is one thing, but actively selling is quite another.

But even if this practical objection is sound, the theoretical one—that any involvement by an editor in sales necessarily influences editorial content—is not. Is it really so difficult to honor editorial ethics and pursue business interests at the same time?

Historically, most publishing enterprises have replied that it is, and have discouraged editorial involvement in business. This was the point of a comment in an ongoing discussion of Greenslade’s article on in a LinkedIn group sponsored by The Media Briefing (you’ll need to join the group to see the discussion). Therein, Martin Cloake argued that content creators have been deliberately kept on the sidelines:

“Traditionally, it’s been people from the ad/sales side who have risen to top positions in media companies. They in turn have pushed the view that journalists aren’t commercially savvy. In many cases they are the people who see content as just the stuff between the ads.”

Indeed, you could make the case, twisted though it may sound, that editors did not so much create their codes of conduct as have those codes imposed on them by the business side; that those codes were not about editorial freedom as much as editorial constraint; and that the editorial wall is just as much a prison wall.

My point is not to disparage editorial codes of ethics. I’m a big fan. But we should think of them not as editorial codes but publishing codes. And editors can help make that happen not by remaining imprisoned in their ivory towers but by getting involved in business.

One commenter on Greenslade’s article argued that there is considerable appeal to editors in being able to tell pissed-off advertisers, “I’m nothing to do with advertising.”  I’ve used variations of that line in the past myself. But, really, it’s lame. The advertiser knows it and the editor knows it. Worse, it can sound weak, ignorant, and arrogant. As a representative of your company, you’re telling customers that you couldn’t care less about their business. Spoken from a business point of view, the gist of the answer should be the same (i.e., no bending to advertiser pressure on editorial). But that answer should also be informed by an understanding and appreciation of business, both the editor’s and the advertiser’s.

In another response to Greenslade, Jeff Jarvis argued that editorial codes and walls “turn out to be translucent and leaky moral condoms.” When journalists have key business roles in their enterprises, he said, “they can and must navigate” ethical conflicts and “are in a better position to do so” precisely because they are qualified in business. “Whether or not they sell the ad, the conflict and choices are the same.”

And though he didn’t explicitly make the same conspiratorial argument I’m toying with here, he seemed to suggest that the business deck was deliberately stacked against him in his editorial past:

“I learned this lesson when I started Entertainment Weekly in an industry full of standards and codes and walls and even so found my managers (editorial as well as business) trying to profoundly corrupt the enterprise for the sake of business ends and I did not have sufficient business cred to fight them down.”

I understand why editors have been shackled for so long. By their nature, they are disruptive. In a traditional media business, that was a problem. But in a new-media world that thrives on disruption, editors may at last be breaking through their prison walls.

Will the Web Have A Past?

Stone Tablet

Photo by Jennifer Dickert

Though Wired has declared it dead, I think the Web has a future. I’m not so sure it will have a past.

A while back, I spent a few idle hours trying to explore the archives of Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine blog, in search of some legendary Dell Hell and early insights from the master. As you pass backward through the abysm of time, all’s well until July 2005, when the monthly navigational links give out, and you have to keep pressing “older” over and over. (I know, Jeff, we’re all aging, but do you have to remind us so remorselessly?) And then you bang up against the immovable doors of July 1, 2005, and there’s no going further.

Unless you happen to have the key that opens them.

But then, as you dig downward in time, things start to get pretty ugly. The surprisingly bad design has a charm of sorts, but the spam links at the end of every paragraph do not. And when you get to the very bottom, there’s no design at all—just raw code.

When he switched to WordPress in July 2005, Jarvis promised he would preserve his site’s past:

“I plan to leave the old Buzzmachine (ugly design, extra colons, and all) in place just as it is, though I’ll cut off the ability to post comments there in a few days. From June 2005 back to the beginning, the old site and its permalinks will stay intact.”

True to his word so far, the BuzzMachine past is still there—but it’s fading.  Would anyone be surprised if one day it just quietly disappeared?

Last month there was a flurry of declarations from the likes of Paul Carr and Leo Laporte that microblogging on the ephemeral canvases of Twitter and Buzz was robbing them of their pasts. As Laporte put it, and Carr quoted sympathetically,

“I should have been posting [on his blog] all along. Had I been doing so I’d have something to show for it. A record of my life for the last few years at the very least. But I ignored my blog and ran off with the sexy, shiny microblogs.”

Both have resolved to go back to their blogs, with the expectation that all will be preserved for posterity. But can even blogs reliably preserve the past? It all depends on the owners, and while they may remain steadfast until death, what happens then?

And all this assumes that someone who cares is in charge of your history, and not some corporate entity with no interest in remembering its past. I once worked for such a corporation, and to my dismay, though for no doubt perfectly valid reasons, it recently zapped the pioneering Web site I cofounded and spent years building.

Now, my patient and clever reader, I know you’ve been restlessly bouncing up and down on your chair for the last few minutes, interjecting, “What about the Internet Archive?”

You are correct. It is an extraordinary resource we should all be grateful for. You can find there clean, well-lighted versions of BuzzMachine and my late lamented site. But the Web is still a teenager, and this is a slender reed on which to rest the coming century of Web content. Can we count on the Internet Archive to grow and prosper, and keep our pasts intact? I hope so, but I lack some, if not all, conviction.

Perhaps this is why, as Dwight Silverman noted on Laporte’s This Week in Tech a few weeks ago, the digerati love to see their names in print:

“What’s funny is digital people who are really into using the Web and apps to get their news, when their name appears in the newspaper, they go crazy!  So print still carries some power.”

As fellow panelist Robert Scoble added, it’s the permanence of print that gives it such power:

“It’s still fun to have a newspaper with your name in it and keep that for your family. It’s something permanent. In fact, when I was [quoted] in The Economist, I had it framed up here.”

This heartfelt appreciation for the durability of print on paper is ironic in the context of the history of media formats. As Tim Carmody wrote last month in The Atlantic in an article on “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books,” paper has not always seemed so permanent.

“Communications legend Harold Innis suggested that the history of culture itself was characterized by a balance between media that persisted in time—think stone inscriptions and heavy parchment books—and those offering the greatest portability across space, like paper, radio, and television. Not only does this offer a grand scheme to think about media, it also suggested (for Innis at least) that modernity, for good or ill, had tipped the balance toward the ephemeral-but-portable.”

But in the aftermath of the Web, it seems, paper has become the new stone.

Let’s face it, the Internet is all about currency, not permanency; about now, not then.

Maybe that’s one reason why Jarvis is hard at work on his second book. And I don’t know about you, but personally, I have my chisel in hand, and am off to find a nice slab of granite for next week’s post.

UPDATE April 16, 2012: Though it’s broken several of the links above, I’m happy to say that Jarvis not only finished his book, but as of today, rescued his blog’s past.

Managing Your Career in the Social Media Era: Sources

As part of a webinar for B2B editors on September 23, 2010, I’m speaking on “Managing Your Career in the Social Media Era.” (The webinar, “Enhancing Your Career in the B2B Press,” is sponsored by the American Society of Business Press Editors.)

Since the webinar format isn’t particularly conducive to embedded links, I’ve listed here the main sources cited in my talk. I’ve included key quotes from most of the sources below in the hopes that even if you haven’t heard my presentation, you’ll be interested in exploring the originals on your own.

Future of news: Insider Dave Morgan touts new media

“Tomorrow’s companies will build empires based on the value that they deliver to their users and advertisers every day, not on their ability to finance and manage scarce bandwidth or expensive printing presses or exclusive distribution networks.”

“No longer is the media world one of a publishers-top editor-section editor-subeditor-journalist hierarchy. Today, audiences are in charge and they want direct access to, and interaction with, journalists.”

What Would Google Do?, by Jeff Jarvis

“Even if the Wall Street Journal reports a scoop behind its paywall, once that information comes out—quoted, linked, blogged, aggregated, remixed, and e-mailed all over—it’s no longer exclusive and rare.”

Gary Hamel: Hierarchy of Employee Traits for the Creative Economy

In discussing the employee traits valued by old media and new media respectively, I invoke Hamel’s “commodity” traits of obedience, diligence, and intellect and his “creative economy” traits of initiative, creativity, and passion.

The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model

“‘You can take something that is thought of as a creative process and turn it into a manufacturing process.’”

Can Robots Run the News?

“To the chagrin of sports reporters everywhere, a team from Northwestern University’s engineering and journalism schools has created a program that automatically generates sports news stories. Stats Monkey uses the box score and play-by-play—even quotes, if they’re available online—to compile articles that follow one of the system’s pre-defined narrative arcs.”

Paul Conley: The seasons, they go round and round

“My working life is now completely consumed by content marketing. As recently as December, most of my income derived from traditional publishers practicing traditional B2B journalism (although mostly on the Web, rather than print.) That is no longer true.”

Crush It!, by Gary Vaynerchuk.

“Everyone—EVERYONE—needs to start thinking of themselves as a brand. It is no longer an option; it is a necessity.” “Your latest tweet and comment on Facebook and most recent blog post? That’s your résumé now.”

Joe Pulizzi’s Blog: Seven Ways to Position Yourself for Unlimited Work

“I don’t hire anyone that doesn’t blog.”

A Brief Guide to World Domination, by Chris Guillebeau (PDF here)

I cited Guillebeau’s personal manifesto as an example of one kind of e-book B2B editors could aspire to.

Book Notes: An Interview with Seth Godin.  (On the publication of Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?.)

“Cogs see a job, linchpins see a platform. Every interaction, every assignment is a chance to make a change, a chance to delight or surprise or to touch someone.”