Tuesday, Jan 18, 2011 5:01 PM UTC

If I ran a news organization …

Book excerpt: Some rules for the road for 21st century journalism

If I ran a news organization ...

This is an excerpt from my new book, “Mediactive.” With this project, I hope to persuade media audiences to become active users, as consumers and participants.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe it’s possible to have a news organization that combines 21st-century tools and tactics with the timeless principles of excellence and honor. We are nearly free from the printing presses, the expensive broadcasting gear and especially the top-down approach of the past. Tomorrow’s great journalism practitioners and organizations will believe in — and work in — a culture that embraces the possibilities of our emergent conversational and collaborative space.

Although what follows are editorial suggestions, not business ones — I recognize that none of these ideas matters if the business fails — they are essential to my ideal journalistic enterprise. Besides, most of these could be implemented with little or no additional cost, and I’m absolutely convinced that they’d help create news product that’s worthy of audience support. A business that doesn’t respect and value its customers has no future.

So, here are some of the things I’d insist on if I ran a news organization.

First, we would invite our audience to participate in the journalism process in a broad variety of ways, including through crowdsourcing, audience blogging, wikis and many other means. We’d make it clear that we’re not looking for free labor — and work to create a system that rewards contributors beyond a mere pat on the back — and that we want above all to promote a multi-directional flow of news and information in which the audience plays a vital role.

To that end, transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One example of many: Every print article would have an accompanying box called “Things We Don’t Know” — a list of questions our journalists couldn’t answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organization’s website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes — and every story has holes.

We would embrace the hyperlink in every possible way. Our website would include the most comprehensive possible listing of other media in our community, whether we were a community of geography or interest. We’d link to all relevant blogs, photo streams, video channels, database services and other material we could find, and use our editorial judgment to highlight the ones we considered best for the members of the community. And we’d liberally link from our journalism to other work and source material relevant to the topic under discussion, recognizing that we are not oracles but guides.

We would create a service to notify online readers, should they choose to sign up for it, of errors we learned about in our journalism. Users of this service could choose to be notified of major errors only (in our judgment) or all errors, however insignificant we might believe them to be.

We’d make conversation an essential element of our mission. Among other things:

  • If we were a local newspaper, the editorial and Op-Ed pages would publish the best of, and be a guide to, the conversation the community was having with itself online and in other public forums, whether hosted by the news organization or someone else. Our website would link to a variety of commentary from the usual suspects, but syndicated columns would almost never appear in the print edition.
  • Editorials would appear in blog format, as would letters to the editor.
  • We would encourage comments and forums, but in moderated spaces that both encouraged the use of real names and insisted on (and enforced) civility.
  • Comments from people using verified real names would be listed first (i.e., given priority on the page).

We’d routinely point to our competitors’ work, including (and maybe especially) the best of the new entrants, e.g., bloggers who cover specific niches. When we’d covered the same topic, we’d link to other people’s work to enable our audience to gain more perspectives. We’d also talk about and point to competitors when they covered things we’d missed or ignored.

Beyond routinely pointing to competitors, we would make a special effort to cover and follow up on their most important work, in contrast to the common practice today of pretending it didn’t exist. As a basic rule, the more we wished we’d done the journalism ourselves, the more prominent would be the exposure we’d give the other folks’ work. This would have at least two beneficial effects. First, we’d help persuade our community of an issue’s importance. Second, we’d help people understand the value of solid journalism, no matter who does it.

The more we believed an issue was of importance to our community, the more relentlessly we’d stay on top of it ourselves. If we concluded that continuing down a current policy path was a danger, we’d actively campaign to persuade people to change course. This would have meant, for example, loud and persistent warnings about the danger of the blatantly obvious housing/financial bubble that inflated during the past decade.

We would refuse to do stenography and call it journalism. If one faction or party to a dispute were lying, we would say so, and provide the accompanying evidence. If we learned that a significant number of people in our community believed a lie about an important person or issue, we would make it part of our ongoing mission to help them understand the truth.

We would replace certain Orwellian and P.R.-speakish words and common expressions with more neutral, precise language. If someone we interviewed misused language, we would paraphrase instead of running direct quotes. Examples of phrasing we’d change include:

  • We would not write that someone “is worth” some amount of money. We’d say he or she has financial holdings of that amount, or that his or her wealth is such and such.
  • We wouldn’t say that healthcare paid for by taxpayers is free.
  • The activity that takes place in casinos is gambling, not gaming.
  • There are no death taxes. There can be inheritance or estate taxes.
  • Certain violent practices for which America and its allies have successfully prosecuted others on war-crimes charges are torture, not “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
  • Piracy is what people carrying guns on the high seas do: capturing ships, stealing cargo and turning crews and passengers into hostages, or sometimes murdering them. Piracy does not describe what people do when they post digital music on file-sharing networks.

We’d assess risks honestly. Journalists constantly use anecdotal evidence in ways that frighten the public into believing a problem is larger than it actually is. We would make it a habit a) not to extrapolate a wider threat from weird or tragic anecdotes, b) to regularly discuss the major risks we face and contrast them statistically with the minor ones, and c) to debunk the most egregious examples of horrible stories that spark unnecessary fear or even panic.

Our archives would be freely available, with permalinks — Web addresses that don’t change or disappear — on every single thing we’d published as far back as possible, and we would provide easy digital access to help other people use our journalism in ways we hadn’t considered ourselves.

A core mission of our work would be to help people in the community become informed users of media, not passive consumers — and to understand not just how they can do this, but why they should. We would work with schools and other institutions that recognize the necessity of critical thinking.

We would not run anniversary stories and commentary except in the rarest of circumstances. They are a refuge for lazy and unimaginative journalists.

We would never publish lists of 10. They’re a prop as well.

Except in the most dire of circumstances — such as a threat to a whistle-blower’s life, liberty or livelihood — we would not quote or paraphrase unnamed sources in any of our journalism. If we did, we would need persuasive evidence from the source as to why we should break this rule, and we’d explain why we had done it in our coverage. Moreover, when we did grant anonymity, we’d offer our audience the following guidance: We believe this is one of the rare times when anonymity is justified, but we urge you to exercise appropriate skepticism.

If we granted anonymity and learned that the source had lied to us, we would consider the confidentiality agreement to have been breached by that person and would expose his or her duplicity and identity. Sources would know of this policy before we published. We’d further look for examples where our competitors had been tricked by sources they didn’t name, and then do our best to expose them, too.

The word “must” — as in “the president must do this or that” — would be banned from editorials or other commentary from our own journalists, and we’d strongly discourage it from contributors. It is a hollow word and only emphasizes powerlessness. If we wanted someone to do something, we’d try persuasion instead, explaining why it’s a good idea (though almost certainly not one that originated with us) and what the consequences will be if the advice is ignored.

For any person or topic we covered regularly, we would provide a “baseline” — an article (or video, etc.) where people could start if they were new to the topic — and point prominently to that “start here” piece from any new coverage. We might use a modified Wikipedia approach to keep the article current with the most important updates. The point would be to offer context, giving unprepared readers a way to get up to speed quickly and others a way to recall the context of the issue.

For any coverage where this made sense, we’d tell our audience members how they could act on the information we’d just given them. This would typically take the form of a “What You Can Do” box or pointer.

We’d work in every possible way to help our audience know who’s behind the words and actions we reported. People and institutions frequently try to influence the rest of us in ways that hide their participation in the debate, and we’d do our best to reveal who’s spending the money and pulling the strings. When our competitors declined to reveal such things, or failed to ask obvious questions of their sources, we’d talk about their journalistic failures in our own coverage of the issues.

We’d publish no Op-Eds bylined by major politicians, executives or celebrities. These big names almost never actually write what appears under their bylines, and we’re being just as dishonest as they are by publishing it. If they want to pitch a policy or cause, they should post it on their own Web pages, and we’ll be happy to point to those pages.

I could offer dozens more suggestions, but the ones I’ve listed strike me as key. More than a recipe, they add up to a sense of duty to the communities we serve. Even for organizations bound up in a legacy of “the way we’ve always done things,” it’s not too late to try something with the potential to turn a trend around.

***

As I noted near the top, it obviously matters that journalism organizations have sound operating models as well. It seems obvious to me that entrepreneurship is key to the future of journalism.

Traditional news organizations have long had a low entrepreneurial quotient, for a wide variety of reasons. One of the main ones: The journalists have been walled off from business operations.

Management required them to keep away from the advertising department, as if they’d get a terminal disease if they had much contact. This separation of church and state, as we journalists called it with such hubris, came from good motives: to make sure the advertisers — the main customers of the newspaper, if the people who supply the most revenues are the main customers — don’t dictate or even influence news coverage. This separation was always something of a fiction, given publishers’ and broadcasting station managers’ business duties and influence over the people who worked for them, but it did serve a purpose.

My experiences on the business side of life — both early in my adulthood, when I ran a musical enterprise, and more recently as co-founder of a failed start-up, as an investor, and as co-founder of a successful start-up — have persuaded me that the so-called church-state wall has been one of 20th-century pro journalism’s cardinal flaws. By all means, tell advertisers that they don’t run the news operations (and mean it). But a journalist who has no idea how his industry really works from a business perspective is missing way too much of the big picture.

If I ran a news organization today, whether a start-up or part of an established company, I’d want to be sure that the journalists understood, appreciated and embraced the new arena we all inhabit. That emphatically includes how business works. I’d want them to understand the variety of financial models that support media — especially the organization that employed them — and to be versed in the lingo of CPM (cost of advertising per thousand impressions), SEO (search engine optimization) and the like. I would not ask journalists to grub for the most page views, a new trend that tends to bring out the worst in media, but would very much want them to know what was happening in all parts of their enterprise, not just the content area. Maybe — just maybe — if the journalists really understood their business, one of them would have one of the golden ideas it needs to prosper instead of crumble.

There aren’t all that many ways to make media enterprises sustainable. Among them are subscriptions, advertising, donations, memberships, voluntarism and ancillary services that cross-subsidize the journalism. Two examples: A law professor might run a legal blog that’s subsidized by her employer (and thus carries no advertising) and which advances her career. Or a journalistic enterprise might hold money-making conferences.

We’re seeing established media and start-ups alike trying all kinds of ideas. That’s great. Let thousands of experiments bloom. Most will wither. But the small percentage that succeeds, due to the law of big numbers, will still be a reasonably big number.

These are the early days of the remaking of journalism for the 21st century. There’s more reason for optimism than pessimism, by far.