The Best Formats Are Invisible

MUD day 18:

It’s a new dawn and I’ve awakened with my usual optimism and generosity of spirit restored. Today I see things a bit differently. Magazines aren’t dying, they’re simply transmigrating.

You see, the soul of a magazine is not to be found in its format. LIke every other kind of communication, a magazine is expression, transported in a vehicle. If you pay undue attention to the vehicle, the format, you’ll miss the important thing being expressed.

When new-media thinkers talk about transparency, they’re usually thinking about ethics. We need to think of it in terms of expression and formats as well. The point of new media is immediacy, direct connection, and that works best when the format recedes into the background of your attention and becomes virtually invisible. This is one reason for Twitter’s success. The pared-down simplicity of its vehicle doesn’t get in the way; you focus on the words, the expression, not the technology or format.

That highlights the problems with digital magazine formats so far. When you have to spend too much of your time clicking and zooming, you become too conscious of the medium, and lose sight of the message.

Eventually, expression will have its way. The various urges to communicate that constitute what we think of as the magazine will find the transparency that suits them best.

Attribution and Linking Are Essential to Transparency

MUD day 4:

If you’re a B2B journalist or a journalistically inclined content marketer, you should be faithfully following Steve Buttry’s blog. Although he’s a died-in-the-wool (UPDATE: um . . . I meant “dyed-in-the-wool”) newspaper guy, he deals frequently and insightfully with issues that also plague trade editors and reporters. A good example is from Buttry’s post on Monday, in which he offers advice on attribution. It’s an age-old issue for trade journalists that has only intensified in the online era.

Though by all means you should read his entire post, I want to cover a few of his points that particularly apply in the trade press. The first is the thorny issue of press releases. As Buttry says, the idea of a press release is that you can freely crib from it—the company that sent it to you will be perfectly happy if you do. But you may do your reader a disservice if you don’t explicitly attribute the copy to the press release.

This is particularly true of quotes within the press release. Too often editors pick up the quote and attribute it directly to the speaker, as though they had interviewed the source or attended a press briefing. But instead of “… CEO Smith said,” it should be ” … CEO Smith said in a press release.

A related issue that Buttry brings up has to do with what he calls recycled quotes. As he says, “If you didn’t hear the person say something, you should probably attribute the quote not only to the speaker but to the medium that reported it.”

A few years ago, I had an editor who handed in a story with fantastic quotes from a variety of C-level executives. Thinking he had interviewed them all, I complimented him on being able to get through to so many elusive sources. He blanched, then told me he’d taken the quotes from various sources on the Internet. Needless to say, he rewrote the story with proper attribution.

Some writers have the opposite problem, and turn guidelines into fetishes. Rather than focus their lead on the story, they focus it on the attribution. More frequently than I liked, our writers would start a story with a sentence such as “Ellis Q. Stone, Assistant Vice President for Research and Development at Mondo Widget Corp. (New Paltz, NY), said ….” That would be followed all too often by other background information before the key point of the story would be raised. As Buttry suggests, “If you start a story with attribution, consider whether the person speaking is more important to the reader than what he or she is saying.”

In theory, attribution is easier and more useful online because you can link readers to the source. In practice, though, the trade press doesn’t link nearly enough. They should do better. As Buttry argues,

Linking is an essential part of attribution in online journalism. Linking lets people see the full context of the information you are citing. Even when readers don’t click links, the fact that you are linking tells them that you are backing up what you have written, that you are attributing and showing your sources.

If you want to see some examples of this shortcoming, you only need to read through a few stories from the leading publication for the magazine industry, Folio:. In an article entitled “Editors Share Best Practices for Twitter,” for instance, you might expect at least a link to each of the Twitter pages for the four editors profiled, if not also links to their magazines. But there’s not a single link in the story.

In the new-media era of journalism, the arguably most important ethical principle is transparency. As Steve Buttry reminds us, attribution and linking are essential tools for achieving it.

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.

Three Stock Photography Pitfalls to Avoid

I’ve written recently about the need to use meaningful visuals to accompany your text. In passing, I mentioned the downsides of that frequent last resort, stock photography, but left it to an article by Heather Rubesch, elsewhere on the web, to provide details.

Photo of dragon © istockphoto/zlisjak

Stock photo: Here be a dragon

The controversy in the last week over the use—or misuse—of stock photographs by VegNews magazine suggests that a deeper examination of the pitfalls of stock photography is in order.

The magazine has evidently been in the habit of taking stock shots of meat-based meals and using them to illustrate articles about vegan dishes. In at least one case, they have acknowledged using Photoshop to eliminate the bones from an image of what they wished were vegan ribs but weren’t. Some vegans have been deeply offended by this practice. One vegetarian and editor even went so far as to call for the editorial awards VegNews received from Folio: magazine to be rescinded. That might be ever-so-slightly extreme, but it illustrates the strong feelings that stock photography can inadvertently generate.

Rather than dwell on the VegNews example, which has been exhaustively covered on the web, let’s look at a couple of other recent instances of stock-art misuse. They point out three common pitfalls of stock photography.

One of those pitfalls is when a strong relationship is implied between the subject of the stock art and the subject being illustrated. That’s what happened on a website touting the presidential potential of Newt Gingrich.  On its front page, an image of Gingrich and his wife is superimposed over a photograph of a racially diverse group of men and women waving American flags.  Though to the naive eye it might appear that the people pictured are actual Gingrich supporters, the shot in fact comes from Getty Images.  The effect, as Rubesch cautiously puts it, is “to make Newt’s supporters look more multi-cultural and diverse than perhaps they are in actuality.”  Did the site designer intend the people pictured to be seen as real Gingrich supporters? Probably not. But they were surely meant to reflect the kind of people who support him.

Gingrich 2012 Screen shot If the shot had conformed to the picture most people have of Gingrich’s supporters, its stock-house origins would probably have gone unremarked. But because the the association looked so unlikely, it triggered doubts (and some amusing parodies). The lesson here is to respect the generic nature of stock photography. The people in that picture aren’t real people—they were effectively turned into icons by Getty Images. But the way the designer used the photo, they have been reanimated into specific human beings: real, live supporters. This wouldn’t have happened with a drawing because the iconic nature of the art would be too obvious. But with a photograph, it’s all too easy to slip into deception.

Statue of Liberty Forever stampA second pitfall can open up when stock photographs are not in fact generic, but very specific—or seem to be. When the U.S. Postal Service went looking recently for a close-up of the Statue of Liberty to illustrate a Forever stamp, they went to a stock art supplier for the image. The only problem, as the USPS discovered too late, was that the close-up was not of the actual Statue of Liberty, but of a replica in Las Vegas.

Needless to say, it helps to read the fine print. The Getty Images page for the photo, by photographer Raimund Linke, clearly states (now, at least) that the shot is of a replica statue in Las Vegas. If the website didn’t make the location of the statue clear when the postal service saw it, wouldn’t checking with Getty Images or Linke have been a good idea? No doubt the service would think so now.

The Gingrich site also highlights a third potential pitfall of stock shots: other people can use the same shots you do. This sometimes leads to memorable embarrassments: As the Wall Street Journal points out, the Gingrich crowd shot first appeared on a website for the late liberal democrat Ted Kennedy, accompanied by the phrase “we are the democratic majority.” The mind reels.

You can’t control who else uses stock images, so before you make your selection, ask yourself: What if your competitor, whether political or commercial, uses the same one? If that’s a concern, you may want to find an alternative to stock art.

In a perfect and well-funded world, stock art would never be needed. But the reality is that, from time to time, you will need to use it, and all too often when you’re on a critical deadline and can’t think clearly.  Tread carefully: As my own use of stock art above demonstrates, here be dragons.

UPDATE – April 26: As Paul Conley pointed out today via Twitter, when a stock photo is reused by enough people, it morphs from an embarrassment into a meme, as in the curious case of the Everywhere Girl.

Do You Need a Personal Ethics Statement?

In an age when transparency is becoming the accepted norm for ethical reporting, is it enough to disclose your potential conflicts of interest only when you think the need arises? Or should writers, whether journalists, bloggers, or content marketers, go on the record with a preemptive announcement of their ethical beliefs and possible biases?

In an article published earlier this week on the Knight Digital Media Center, Amy Gahran looks at how the writers and editors for Dow Jones’s All Things Digital Web site answered this question.  As she reports, each of them has included a personal ethics statement on an “about me” page. In that statement, the writer discloses potential conflicts of interest and how he or she deals with them.

Gahran recommends this approach to others. Transparency, she says, “is not just about disclosure, but about visibility”. The problem with relying only on disclosure in passing, in an article where you think it’s relevant, she argues, is that “you’re less likely to gain the visibility needed to make transparency effective.”  Building a page devoted to those disclosures helps ensure visibility.

To me, at least, it’s an appealing theory. There is something refreshing about not relying on a corporate or professional code, but stating for all to see, “This is who I am, these are my biases and allegiances, judge my work accordingly.”

But in practice, how important are such statements to building a reader’s trust? The answer, I think, depends very much on the writer’s ethical circumstances.

In the case of Kara Swisher, All Things Digital co-executive editor and the focus of Gahran’s story, the statement is critically important. (I’d guess, in fact, that the idea for the ethics statements began with her.) Why is it critical? Because of a potential conflict so huge that it could influence virtually every story she writes.

As Swisher explains in her statement, she is married to a senior executive at Google. Ordinarily, this fact would run afoul of Dow Jones’s policy against reporters covering a company in which an immediate family member has a financial interest. What makes an exception possible is the high visibility of her disclosure enabled by the nature of online media. So “while some may raise objections, Dow Jones feels the transparency will give readers a chance to judge my work on its merits.”

Swisher’s circumstances are extraordinary, and her statement essential. But for at least some of her colleagues, the value of their statements is not so clear. For them, as they write, there is “little . . . to report” or “not much to reveal.”  If Swisher hadn’t needed to write one, they would surely not have bothered.

Personal ethics statements do no harm, and can do much good. But for many writers, they probably aren’t necessary. As Swisher says, the ultimate goal is to earn a reader’s trust. That isn’t achieved by a single statement, but by a consistent and reliable body of work.