The Future of Journalism is Beyoncé

Jenna Wortham, a technology reporter for The New York Times, writes in Nieman Journalism Lab that the future of journalism is Beyoncé. Say what? As she says, stick with her:

Beyoncé completely upended the conventional model by which major album releases are released by the sheer amount of material that she airdropped simultaneously — more than a dozen new songs and videos for each — is unprecedented.

Her strategy, and its success, could shine a light on what consumers want and what is possible for all content creators, entertainers and publishers alike, in the future. It’s important to note that Bey’s strategy isn’t popular in a commercial sense — brick-and-mortar retailers like Target have promised not going to sell her album because it was available digitally before it was made available physically, which feels like an egregious error on their part, given the overall popularity of the album — but Bey’s earns points with me for not afraid to upset the incumbents to experiment with something new…

Her fans weren’t barraged by a series of advertisement and reminders about her coming album for months before it saw the light of day. They were thrilled by the surprise and can’t get enough of it.

I saw the news of Beyoncé’s release of the album shortly after midnight on Thursday. It took me a few days, but I downloaded the album this week and have been listening to it as I work out in the gym. It is very good. It’s also the most I’ve ever spent on an album, but the inclusion of a number of videos was the selling point for me (and made it worth the cost).

Shane Bauer on Solitary Confinement and American Prisons

Shane Bauer was one of the three American hikers imprisoned in Iran after being apprehended on the Iraqi border in 2009. He spent 26 months in Tehran’s Evin Prison, 4 of them in solitary confinement. In his latest feature for Mother Jones, Shane Bauer writes a powerful piece on his experience of solitary confinement in that Iranian prison:

“There was a window,” I say. I don’t quite know how to tell him what I mean by that answer. “Just having that light come in, seeing the light move across the cell, seeing what time of day it was—” Without those windows, I wouldn’t have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes, or the drops of rain that I let wash over my face some nights. My world would have been utterly restricted to my concrete box, to watching the miniature ocean waves I made by sloshing water back and forth in a bottle; to marveling at ants; to calculating the mean, median, and mode of the tick marks on the wall; to talking to myself without realizing it. For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through those barred and grated windows. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.

But then he goes to an American prison, and the experience is much, much worse:

Acosta, Pelican Bay’s public information officer, is giving me a tour of the Security Housing Unit. Inmates deemed a threat to the security of any of California’s 33 prisons are shipped to one of the state’s five SHUs (pronounced “shoes”), which hold nearly 4,000 people in long-term isolation. In the Pelican Bay SHU, 94 percent of prisoners are celled alone; overcrowding has forced the prison to double up the rest. Statewide, about 32 percent of SHU cells—hardly large enough for one person—are crammed with two inmates.

The cell I am standing in is one of eight in a “pod,” a large concrete room with cells along one side and only one exit, which leads to the guards’ control room. A guard watches over us, rifle in hand, through a set of bars in the wall. He can easily shoot into any one of six pods around him. He communicates with prisoners through speakers and opens their steel grated cell doors via remote. That is how they are let out to the dog run, where they exercise for an hour a day, alone. They don’t leave the cell to eat. If they ever leave the pod, they have to strip naked, pass their hands through a food slot to be handcuffed, then wait for the door to open and be bellycuffed.

You should read the entire story here.

On Louis C.K. and His Comedy Show

Adam Wilson’s Los Angeles Review of Books piece on Louis C.K.’s comedy show is a brilliant piece of journalism. It’s entertaining and highly informative:

The format of the American sitcom held steady for almost 40 years. The most noteworthy innovation was a negation; in the early nineties, HBO comedies like the short-lived Dream On ditched the pervasive canned laugh track, paving the way for the so-called cringe comedy of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm. On Curb, the absence of a laugh track makes it difficult for viewers to know when to laugh. We cringe because we’re holding in laughter, waiting for a cue that it’s okay to release. But there is always a breaking point, an explosion into an absurdity so deep — Larry rushing into the water to “save” a baptismal candidate from drowning, for example — that the tension is relieved, and the laughter is released.

Louie both reacts to the failure of Lucky Louie and advances on Curb’s cringe comedy by creating something tenser, more tonally ambiguous. Louie’s singularity lies in its ability to further confound viewers by setting up jokes, and then providing pathos instead of punch lines. Not only does Louie’s audience not know when to laugh, they don’t even know if what they’re watching is supposed to be funny. For the Laptop Loner, this ambiguity is made all the more palpable by the absence of viewing partners; we use other people’s reactions to gauge the correctness of our own. But it also makes the ambiguity less assaulting. Alone, we can be comfortable in our discomfort.

I recommend reading the whole thing. I didn’t really know anything about the guy until his $5 comedy show hit the Internet last year. I bought it and enjoyed it.

Should You Sign That Donor Card?

Dick Teresi is the author of soon to-be released The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating-Heart Cadavers—How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death. Writing an op-ed titled “What You Lose When You Sign That Donor Card” in The Wall Street Journal, he makes the case that you’re giving up a lot more than your organs when you check that donor mark on your driver’s license:

Becoming an organ donor seems like a win-win situation. Some 3.3 people on the transplant waiting list will have their lives extended by your gift (3.3 is the average yield of solid organs per donor). You’re a hero, and at no real cost, apparently.

But what are you giving up when you check the donor box on your license? Your organs, of course—but much more. You’re also giving up your right to informed consent. Doctors don’t have to tell you or your relatives what they will do to your body during an organ harvest operation because you’ll be dead, with no legal rights.

I suggest reading the whole thing in order to understand Teresi’s conclusion of “It is possible that not being a donor on your license can give you more bargaining power. If you leave instructions with your next of kin, they can perhaps negotiate a better deal.” There is a lot of pushback in the comments, such as this one from an “Robert Taylor, MD”:

This is the most irresponsible journalism I have ever seen. This superficial treatment of a complex issue could unnecessarily frighten someone or their family from donating life saving organs and tissue. This author should be held accountable for the deaths that could be caused by this article. The Wall Street Journal should formally retract this article, apologize to the thousands of people waiting for a transplant, and disassociate from this author. This is far worse than than hate speech. This is speech that will literally cause people to die.

Remembering Anthony Shadid

It is with great sadness that I learned of Anthony Shadid’s death yesterday. He was an intrepid, extraordinary reporter for publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting twice: in 2004 for his coverage of the United States invasion of Iraq and the occupation that followed and in 2010 for his coverage of Iraq as the United States began its withdrawal.

His obituary in The New York Times appears here, but I wanted to highlight pieces about/by him below, all of which are a must-read:

1) “Libya Struggles to Curb Militias as Chaos Grows” [The New York Times; published February 2012] — the last piece Shadid filed for The New York Times.

2) “Syria’s Sons of No One” [The New York Times; published: August 2011]

3) “4 Times Journalists Held Captive in Libya Faced Days of Brutality” [The New York Times; published March 2011]

All of us had had close calls over the years. Lynsey was kidnapped in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004; Steve in Afghanistan in 2009. Tyler had more scrapes than he could count, from Chechnya to Sudan, and Anthony was shot in the back in 2002 by a man he believed to be an Israeli soldier. At that moment, though, none of us thought we were going to live. Steve tried to keep eye contact until they pulled the trigger. The rest of us felt the powerlessness of resignation. You feel empty when you know that it’s almost over.

They bound our hands and legs instead — with wire, fabric or cable. Lynsey was carried to a Toyota pickup, where she was punched in the face. Steve and Tyler were hit, and Anthony was headbutted.

Even that Tuesday, a pattern had begun to emerge. The beating was always fiercest in the first few minutes, an aggressiveness that Colonel Qaddafi’s bizarre and twisted four decades of rule inculcated in a society that feels disfigured. It didn’t matter that we were bound, or that Lynsey was a woman.

4) “What He Knew” [Columbia Journalism Review; published November 2011]

5) “A Boy Who Was ‘Like a Flower'” [The Washington Post; published March 2003]

He will be missed.


Update (2/18/2012): The New York Times has an excellent tribute to Anthony Shadid here. Turns out, Shadid filed another piece for the paper just before his death. It was published posthumously by The Times today.

The Future of News: Google

One of the most interesting pieces I’ve read recently is James Fallows’ “How To Save the News” in The Atlantic. It’s a fantastic piece of long-form journalism, and if you’re into journalism and the way news is delivered online, it’s definitely a must-read. The article explores Google’s delivery of news, whether customers would (or in what circumstances) pay for news, the customization of news tailored to specific users, how Google and traditional media companies rely on advertising, and quite a bit more. If you think the nearly 10,000 word piece isn’t worth your time, I want to point out the most interesting passages below:

The premise of the article is that there is “a larger vision for news coming out of Google” — that the world’s largest search engine company is more than that; according to Fallows, Google is the world’s most important media organization.

Who’s behind Google News? Interesting to learn that it was someone from Georgia Tech, my alma mater:

It was Krishna Bharat who identified a more profound form of inefficiency [in news delivery]. As a student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, Bharat had written for the campus newspaper while taking his computer-science degree. “In a second life, I would be a journalist,” he once told an Indian newspaper. (When the Indian newspaper asks me, I will say: In a second life, I would be a successful Google executive.) He got his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech and was an early Google hire, in 1999. After the 9/11 attacks two years later, he grew worried about the narrowness of news he was receiving through the U.S. media. “I felt that we really had to catch up with the world’s news,” he told me. “To get a broad understanding, you had to visit sites in Europe and Asia and the Middle East. I was wondering if Google could do something to make the world’s news information available.”

There are some people who claim that Google aggregating the news is bad for the news industry (because viewers wouldn’t click through the articles, occasionally). However, a rebuttal with which I strongly agree:

Google’s rebuttal to the claim of stealing is that it doesn’t sell ads on the Google News site, and moreover provides hardly any of the newspapers’ original content. Indeed, in this practice it is the opposite of “aggregators” like the Huffington Post, which often “excerpt” enough of someone else’s story that readers don’t bother to click through to the source. Google News gives only a set of headlines and two-line links meant to steer traffic (and therefore ad potential) to the news organization that first ran the story.

What grabbed my attention is how a piece of news could get thousands of “hits” on Google’s page. Is it a case of news organizations choosing to write on the same topic because it’s important, or is it a copycat effect at work?

The Google News front page is a kind of air-traffic-control center for the movement of stories across the world’s media, in real time. “Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” he told me. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.” He didn’t mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things. This could be reassuring, in indicating some consensus on what the “important” stories were. But Bharat said it also indicated a faddishness of coverage—when Michael Jackson dies, other things cease to matter—and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. “It makes you wonder, is there a better way?” he asked. “Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.”

On the three pillars of the new online business mode (distribution, engagement, and monetization):

[G]etting news to more people, and more people to news-oriented sites; making the presentation of news more interesting, varied, and involving; and converting these larger and more strongly committed audiences into revenue, through both subscription fees and ads. Conveniently, each calls on areas of Google’s expertise.

But the most insightful part of the article was my new understanding on how news can be incremental. What does that mean? For example, if you’ve never read The Wall Street Journal before, and you started reading it today, it might be a significant challenge to get into it. Why? Because some stories are built on what was reported yesterday, and the day before, and so on for quite some time. Here’s Fallows describing this incrementation:

News reporting is usually incremental. Something happens in Kabul today. It’s related to what happened there yesterday, plus 20 years ago, and further back. It has a bearing on what will happen a year from now. High-end news organizations reflect this continuous reality in hiring reporters and editors who (ideally) know the background of today’s news and in the way they present it, usually with modest additions to the sum of established knowledge day by day.

And so, prior to reading the article, this important facet of journalism didn’t really cross my mind (in the scope of Google aggregating news). So why is this incremental news important? Because a well-done journalistic piece, which took days and days of research, collaboration, interviewing, writing, and editing, might not be deemed “worthy” in the eyes of Google search (i.e., careful, insightful journalism is punished, while “tabloid-style” reporting rises to the top of Google search). To me, this is the most important take-away from the piece:

The modest daily updating of the news—another vote in Congress, another debate among political candidates—matches the cycle of papers and broadcasts very well, but matches the Internet very poorly, in terms of both speed and popularity rankings. The Financial Times might have given readers better sustained coverage of European economic troubles than any other paper. But precisely because it has done so many incremental stories, no one of them might rise to the top of a Google Web search, compared with an occasional overview story somewhere else. By the standards that currently generate online revenue, better journalism gets a worse result.

There is so much more in the article which I didn’t cover in this short post. If you have some time (more like an hour or two), this is an article definitely worth bookmarking for a later read.

Links of the Day (02/01/10)

Here’s what caught my attention today:

(1) “But Who’s Counting?” [Los Angeles Times] – a great op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the confusion that journalists make between the number million and the number billion. The author goes into some theories on why this mistake occurs so often (or, at least, more often than it should occur). According to the author:

I did some calculations and found that The [Los Angeles] Times’ mistakes totaled about $1.4 trillion, or about twice the amount the U.S. spent on the TARP bailout. Our brethren at the New York Times did even worse, making 38 million-billion mistakes in the same three years. Oddly, they were far more likely to overstate the case, doing so almost one time in four. The total of all their errors was $6.5 trillion, or more than half the amount of the national debt.

It’s a very interesting piece, and perhaps the most reasonable explanation for this error is that our brain can’t comprehend the sense of scale between one million and one billion. If I told you that I have a million paper clips vs. a billion paper clips, would you be able to tell the difference in the volume the two occupy? Probably not. Also, can you visualize one billion dollars? I found this infographic helpful. Also of note is how vastly different one billion dollars is from one trillion dollars; see this telling infographic, for instance. In any case, the author of the op-ed has a dismal conclusion:

More diligence would probably have prevented many of our million-billion slips, but after observing The Times newsroom for decades, I can’t avoid the conclusion that our collective numeric literacy — like that of most of America — is appallingly low.

(2) “News Photos, on the Move, Make News” [New York Times] – The Magnum photo collection (a massive archive of over 180,000 images) is moving to a permanent, public display at the University of Texas at Austin.

(3) “Risks Lurk for ETF Investors” [Wall Street Journal] – a short, informative piece which describes the risks (liquidity, pricing) inherent in investing in certain ETFs.

(4) “Timeline of the LOST Universe” [New York Times] – this isn’t an article, but a wonderful interactive graphic which lets you discover when the events in the LOST universe have occurred. It’s a must-see for any fan of the show.