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A trade journal of a still-emerging field, written by Adam Tinworth.

Posts tagged journalists

I have discovered – much to my surprise – that I am not a journalist.

This comes as something of a shock, as that’s exactly what I’ve though of myself as for a quarter of a century now. From the latter days of my student life, working on student magazines, through to my recent career, helping national – and international – newspapers do better digital publishing, journalism is at the very heart of my working life.

Cub editor Adam Tinworth circa 1993

Portrait of the author as a young student magazine editor.

But I am not a journalist. So says Twitter and Facebook. And, as they are now the arbitrators of who is a journalist and who isn’t – I cannot be a journalist.

Twitter says: you’re not a journalist, Tinworth

Twitter declared its verdict first. I popped off a speculative application, once it opened up verification to all comers. The criteria are pretty clear:

We approve account types maintained by users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas.

Well, I’m clearly in both journalism and media, so an easy accept, right?

Wrong:

Twitter verified denied

I am not a journalist. Or in media. Twitter says so.

Now, I’m not that bothered on a personal level – sure, it would have been handy to show my students, many of whom go on to be verified users very quickly, some of the tools that verified status gives you access to. But I can appreciate that I’m an edge case, because I train journalists more than I produce journalism right now.

But when I posted about my rejection on Facebook, many of my journalism friends reported the same experience. It became very clear that Twitter only counts those on national newspapers as journalists. In consumer or business press? Forget it. You are not a real journalist. Twitter says so.

Look at that description above:

We approve account types maintained by users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas.

(Emphasis mine.) There’s no qualification there of “national” or “newspaper” journalism. Just “journalism” and “media”. Twitter has set itself up and an arbiter of who counts as a journalist – and who doesn’t – and most of us don’t count.

Are journalists journalists? Ask a microblogger.

Those with long memories might remember the seemingly endless debates a decade ago about whether bloggers were journalists. There’s not small irony in the fact, that Twitter, a direct descendent of blogging (it was described as “microblogging” in its early days) has now set itself up as an arbiter of who is a journalist and who isn’t. And it’s chosen a very, very tight definition of that. I suspect that has been done to make the verification process easier – and certainly much journalism verification is done directly between social media editors and their liaisons at Twitter – but once they opened up verification, that needed to be rethought. And it wasn’t.

Would any other social networks do something similar? Like, say, Facebook?

A couple of weeks ago, the spawn of Zuckerberg announced that it was helpfully going to educate journalists. (But it’s not a media company, remember)

The social network has created an learning environment, to help journalists use Facebook better. Handy. That’s part of what I do for a living, but having tools like that to support our work. Great.

As part of this journalists are invited to join the News, Media & Publishing group on Facebook. So, I applied:

Applied to Facebook

And that’s how the group looked for a few days. I waited patiently – confident of inclusion, as I could see a friend who works for Twitter and another who runs a technology company were members, surely both more marginal than my case. Hell, there’s other lecturers in there, so I’m at least as qualified as them. Oh, foolish me.

Facebook: denied

And, after a few days, that Pending button turned into:

Denied

Denied. And silently denied, at that.

Yes, Facebook, also now apparently an arbiter of who is a journalist and who isn’t, has declared that I am not a journalist, either. Nor am I in media. Nor publishing, apparently.

So, we might never have solved the question of whether bloggers are journalists. But apparently, I’ve been deluded for the past 25 years that I am a journalist. I’m not. I’m just a blogger, because Facebook and Twitter tell me so.

The power of social networks to define journalism

Given how much power Twitter and, especially, Facebook, have in driving traffic to our sites and mediating our relationships with our readers – are we comfortable with this? Are we happy for them to give a subset of journalists special privileges over others? Because that’s the situation right now. If you’re not a mainstream journalists, working on a know large news site, forget it. Freelancer? Go away. Trade press? You and your professional readers don’t count. Consumer press? No important. That’s just interest not news.

Once upon a time, in the UK at least, the NUJ was pretty much the arbiter of who was a journalist and who wasn’t. I’ve had my issues with the NUJ in the past, but at least they took a wide and thoughtful view on who was entitled to a press card. As the “verfified” tick becomes an de facto mark of journalistic status, we’re now being assessed by people who active claim not to be media companies – and yet who control our traffic and our access to readers.

And the implications of that should give us pause.

life in the algorithm

Gizmodo‘s Michael Nunez delved into the lives of Facebook’s contract journalists in a well-shared piece:

Over time, the work became increasingly demanding, and Facebook’s trending news team started to look more and more like the worst stereotypes of a digital media content farm. Managers gave curators aggressive quotas for how many summaries and headlines to write, and timed how long it took curators to write a post. The general standard was 20 posts a day. “We shared documents to see how fast everyone was working,” said one former curator. “They tried to foster inter-office competition to see how many topics we could complete every day.”

Rough work conditions? Incredible pressure? Contractors not employees? That doesn’t sound like the young, hipster Facebook workplace we normally hear about. It almost suggests that… journalists aren’t really important to Facebook?

That said, many former employees suspect that Facebook’s eventual goal is to replace its human curators with a robotic one. The former curators Gizmodo interviewed started to feel like they were training a machine, one that would eventually take their jobs. Managers began referring to a “more streamlined process” in meetings. As one former contractor put it: “We felt like we were part of an experiment that, as the algorithm got better, there was a sense that at some point the humans would be replaced.”

It would certainly make sense to keep employees you have no long-term plans for on short-term contracts, right?

Facebook: threat or menace?

An instant article, fodder for the algorithm

Facebook is not a friend of journalism. That’s the mistake too many publishers are making. Yes, Instant Articles are sexy and monetisable – but they’re an excellent way of Facebook keeping people in Facebook when they read our stories, rather than exploring our sites. Yes, Facebook is a hugely important route to readers, but the more dependent we get on them, the more they’ll be able to charge us to access that audience.

And, if you’re not already concerned, the news that Facebook is seeing an alarming (to them) drop in sharing of personal information should be ringing warning bells:

Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has spoken at Facebook staff meetings this year about the need to inspire personal sharing, the people said. Facebook has tried several tactics to encourage more of these posts, such as an “On This Day” feature launched last year that brings up memories from past years that users might want to talk about again, or reminders about special occasions like Mother’s Day. Facebook has also prompted users to post the most recent photos and other recently accessed content from their phones.

One likely implication of that is that we’ll see Facebook start to turn down the organic reach of news posts and up the reach of more personal posts again. That’s a dual win for Facebook:

  1. Encourage more people to share personal information. It’s Facebook’s heart blood – a news links sharing site is a commodity, a place to catch up with your fiends is not.
  2. It opens up the opportunity to charge publishers for the reach they’ve lost.

If the latter case sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly what happened to brand marketing pages a couple of years ago.

I’ve warned of this in the past – the case for it now seems clearer.

As Teddy Amenabar, comments editor on The Washington Post’s audience engagement team wrote:

Facebook wants to become “the” Internet.

We really don’t want that – because then we are all beholden to it for audiences.

The algorithmic view from nowhere

Facebook’s deep and abiding respect for journalism can also be seen in both the ways it treats its journalist “employees” and in the sweet candies it puts in the platform trap it is creating for us.

But can journalists’ news judgement really be billed down to an algorithm? Surely the human gut instinct for a story is something mere software can’t replicate.

Jon Gruber of Daring Fireball has some thoughts on that:

Progress in the industrialized world has always involved previously labor-intensive jobs being replaced by automated machinery. We’ve gotten to the point now where some of this work is white collar, not blue collar, and some journalists seem offended by the notion. Their downfall is their dogmatic belief in not having a point-of-view, of contorting themselves to appear not to have a point of view — which, as Jay Rosen has forcefully argued, is effectively a “view from nowhere”. The irony is that machines don’t have a point of view — they are “objective”. Over the last half century or so, mainstream U.S. journalism has evolved in a way that has writers and editors acting like machines. They’ve made it easier for themselves to be replaced by algorithms. Most readers won’t even notice.

This implies that journalism as a profession has an interesting – and narrow – line to walk.

On the one hand, being a “just the facts” reporter makes you commoditised. You’re easily replaced by an algorithm. We’ve already seen that emerging in sports and financial journalism.

On the other hand, the internet has made opinion writing so widely available that it really isn’t a valuable commodity any more – unless you’re in the very top rank whom people will actively pay to read. Part of The Times‘s secret paywall sauce is opinion writers on the level of Caitlin Moran whom people will pay for.

The PoV Path

So where does that leave us? Reporting – but with a strong point of view. We can’t just provide the facts, we have to contextualise them, explain them – and perhaps make them entertaining. This is, in essence, a challenge to up our game.

This shouldn’t be a surprise.

In an era when anyone can publish, standing out from the crowd is harder than it’s ever been. And that means the diversity of skills – research, writing, storytelling, multimedia – you need is growing.

Gruber again:

My job then, is to be a better writer — smarter, funnier, keener, more surprising — than an algorithm could be. When I can’t do that, it’ll be time to hang up the keyboard.

Over the weekend, I headed down to Wiltshire for the kick-off meeting of a new project, and it was a wonderful experience. Over the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of training, and a fair bit of consulting, but I’ve had less and less opportunity to actually do the things I’ve been talking about.

Well, I got to spend Sunday with a bunch of very smart, very experienced and very knowledgeable people, who are about to do something really challenging. And I’m looking forwards to helping tell their story over the next 18 months or so.

It’s not about you

Making an (engineering) proposal
It reminded me of why I’ve come to love journalism so much: the process of finding people doing interesting things, in fields you have to learn about rapidly, while bringing their story to a wider audience is something I love – and find profoundly satisfying.

There’s a fundemental truth to journalism (in the majority of cases, at least) – it’s not about you, the journalist. It’s about the people you’re reporting on and the people you’re reporting for. This is something I see many students struggle with, caught up (as they often are) with notions of columnists and “star” reporters. Being a good journalist requires some degree of self-suppression, as you see yourself as a conduit between people with something interesting to say – and the people who would benefit from hearing that.

Telling Tools

A room full of engineers
That’s not to say that things like gonzo journalism aren’t great and useful techniques. But inserting yourself into the story isn’t quite the same thing as making yourself the story. The characters aren’t the plot.

Tell the story, using the best tools for the job. That’s as true online as it is in print – we just have a winder range of tools.

Oh, and more about the project that triggered these thoughts later in the week, as its online presence starts to go live…

Twitter’s head of news Vivian Schiller is stepping down:

Vivian Schiller, the high-profile NBC and NPR exec whom Twitter hired to run its news unit, is leaving the company as part of a consolidation. Adam Sharp will now be in charge of both news and government at the social messaging company, as part of a larger consolidation across the media division by its new head Katie Jacobs Stanton.

Here’s Schiller’s own tweet about it:

There’s been an interesting trend of social-savvy journalists finding their way into the social networks – think Joanna Geary at Twitter in the UK, Hannah Waldram at Instagram and Liz Heron at Facebook – but the path is clearly more rocky than you’d think. The Tumblr newsroom was an early example of that.

Twitter drives a tenth of the traffic that Facebook does to news sites. So why are journalists so obsessed with Twitter?

Well, there’s a good reason:

The reason, I think, is that Twitter is simply more useful for our jobs. For better or worse, it’s where news breaks today. It’s also where a lot of real-time reporting happens.

And a bad one:

The fact that so many journalists are on Twitter has made Twitter incredibly professionally valuable to journalists. Tweeting your articles ensures they’re seen — and discussed, and retweeted — within a community that includes not just your friends and peers, but the people who might hire you someday.

There’s also one he doesn’t mention: Facebook is harder to use than Twitter. To get maximum return from it journalistically, you have to cultivate a subscriber community, understand how the algorithm-that-replaced-Edgerank works, and be prepared to maintain a community so that your posts keep appearing in news feeds. Twitter looks broadcast-y enough that journalists can get their heads around it easily.

Still, missed opportunity…

A Digiday post on volume of content per full-time staff member has been doing the rounds today:

Digiday looked at several publications — from stalwarts like the New York Times and Forbes to upstarts like Buzzfeed and The Awl — to see how much content they pump out on a daily basis compared to the size of their full-time editorial staffs. Here are the numbers:

New York Times: 1,100 newsroom: 350 pieces of content per day (per September 2010): 17.4 million pageviews per day.

Huffington Post: 532 full-time editorial staff: 1,200 pieces of editorial content per day. 28 full-time blog editors: 400 blog posts per day: 43.4 million pageviews per day.

Buzzfeed: 100 full-time editorial staff: 373 pieces of editorial content per day: 6.4 million pageviews per day.

It’s an interesting piece of analysis undermined by a poor first paragraph that is just wrong:

Winning in digital media now boils down to a simple equation: figure out a way to produce the most content at as low a cost as possible.

And then reinforced by a later sentence:

The quality vs. quantity debate will never subside in certain media theory circles. But it’s clear quantity does matter; otherwise, brands wouldn’t waste their time spending precious dollars across the beefed-up traffic sites as well as the higher-brow sites, like the New York Times or Slate.

These statements are made without much supporting fact. Certainly there’s no benefit to the sites that derive the majority of their income from paywalls or membership to just producing ever-greater volumes of content. It mainly works where there’s a clear link between traffic volumes and revenues – and that’s principally page impression-based generalist ad models. That’s a brutal and competitive space, and one characterised by thin and thinning margins. I wish you the very best of luck if you want to compete there. You’ll need it.

The social media editor is dead:

The fracas has left veterans of the social web feeling both vindicated and a little bemused. On the one hand, social media has become so central to a newsroom’s mission that dedicated functionaries may be obsolete. On the other, doesn’t every outlet need a boy or girl wonder to lend a human touch to the Twitter handle? Whether it’s a day of reckoning or a sign of maturity for the social media editor, the role has never before been more embattled.
As one senior editor at a leading news outlet told me, “I both agree that the social media editor is dead and I just hired a social media editor.”

There was an awful lot of noise and very little signal around this discussion. The end state is pretty obvious:

  • Social media skills will be integral to all journalists’ work
  • The specialised social media editor will disappear
  • The need for dedicated community-centric editors will remain, but their role will be larger than just social media

Agree? Disagree?

Roy Greenslade, talking about Trinity Mirror:

But nothing I have heard has changed my thinking. Kelly’s going is part of a pattern, confirming that a company that publishes newspapers and news websites has no respect for journalism… and certainly none for journalists.

I’m always surprised by how many people who reach the higher ranks of news publishing businesses seem to actively dislike journalists and journalism. It’s like a vegetarian running a butcher’s – you have to wonder why they do it. 

John L. Robinson spots a great observation about journalism by Stijn Debrouwere:

Because the entire point is that journalism is not being disrupted by better journalism but by things that are hardly recognizable as journalism at all. Stepping up your game is always a good idea, but it won’t save you.

It’s a spot on observation. 

The trick is going to be ways of finding the core values and skills of what we call journalism, and finding whole new ways of expressing them in a totally different medium.

You up to that?

Citizen reporting at work

Laurie Penny:

As more and more ordinary men, women and children without degrees in journalism acquire the skills and technology to broadcast text and video, the media has become another cultural territory which is gradually being re-occupied. Those on the ground do not have to wait for the BBC and MSNBC to turn up with cameras: they make the news and the reporters follow. They have grown up in a world of branding and they know how to create a craze and set the agenda. They occupy the media. And the media is starting to worry.

I only disagree with that last sentence. The media has been worrying for years.