Some deep reading on journalism, its recent past and future: links, and stuff like that

  • Felix Salmon » Blog Archive »’s barbell strategy | Blogs |

    My feeling is that Murray’s latest bright idea is doomed. He’s giving away most of the stuff that people want to read, and he’s trying to make money from selling stuff people need to read. The problem is that for all the WSJ’s astonishing levels of self-regard, there’s precious little of that material out there. Open the paper and ask yourself how much of it really isn’t replicated, for free, anywhere online. The answer is that there’s very little — certainly not enough to persuade hundreds of thousands of people to pay good money for an online subscription.

    It seems like whatever strategy people have for charging for content online, it’s the wrong one. Charge for general news? Everyone can get it. Charge for niche content? Nobody will buy it. It’s like watching people trying to buy pots of striped paint.

  • How could 9,000 business reporters blow it?

    In May 1990, the Wall Street Journal published “The Reckoning,” a devastating, 7,000-word account by Susan Faludi, then a staff writer, of the human toll wrought by the leveraged buyout of the Safeway grocery chain. It is safe to say that that piece, which tied the Safeway lbo to workers’ suicides, heart attacks, and more, would never be proposed, let alone published, today.

    Faludi’s article was distinguished by more than its scope and length. It also took on a practice that at the time was at the very heart of Wall Street’s business model, not to mention one of the preeminent firms of the era, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. It then expanded the story’s scope to take into account the social costs of high finance. Similarly, the Journal’s Alix Freedman took on the tobacco industry at the height of its power in 1996, when she won a Pulitzer for stories exposing how ammonia additives heighten nicotine’s potency.

    By contrast, in the past few years, business-news outlets, increasingly burdened financially, less confident editorially, competing ever more fiercely among themselves, torn by the tradeoff between access and scrutiny, have slowly given away their sense of perspective. The result was an insiders’ conversation—journalism that, while well executed on Wall Street’s terms, in the end missed the point. There have been exceptions—a preliminary list would include Shawn Tully at Fortune, John Hechinger and others at the Journal, Mara Der Hovanesian at BusinessWeek, Diana Henriques and others at the New York Times, and Scott Reckard at the LA Times. But to this day, and even after the collapse, the most complete accounts of the mortgage mess have been provided not by the mainstream business press, but by This American Life’s “Giant Pool of Money,” and Chain of Blame, a book published last year by reporters for the Orange County Register and National Mortgage News.

    ….and further down….

    The rise of M&A [mergers and acquisitions, when companies buy other companies] coverage represents the triumph of Wall Street insiderism. It is the opposite of Faludi’s vision. Significantly, M&A has become a business-press career launching pad: Andrew Ross Sorkin, who writes the Times’ DealBook column, and former Wall Street Journal M&A reporter Nik Deogun are among the field’s superstars……
    … Predatory lending happened in plain sight; it didn’t take a muckraker to see what was wrong. Yet business journalism kept its blinders on, played it safe, fixated on stock market concerns, and allowed its BS detector to atrophy just when it was needed most.

    Fascinating analysis by a former Wall Street Journal staffer of how everyone – well, pretty much every business reporter – got caught up in the personality-driven stories and share price twiddles, rather than getting down and dirty with the balance sheets and earnings reporst (and derivatives). A long but hugely worthwhile read. And the incredibly ranty comments (basically, “bloggers all said this endlessly”) are intriguing… though the very last one, pointing out that there had been an article about Madoff in 2001 in Barrons, shows that it wasn’t all one-way traffic.

    Just a motorway, with a footpath in the other direction.

  • The “Lack of Vision” thing? Well, here’s a hopeful vision for you

    So you’re on an ocean liner and it sinks. Step No. 1 is: Tread water. Step No. 2: Grab the first floating thing that happens by.
    That’s where the newspaper industry is located today — desperately grabbing at whatever debris is available

    OK, nice that you noticed. So what have you got?

    The old way:
    Dan the reporter covers a house fire in 2005. He gives the street address, the date and time, who was victimized, who put it out, how extensive the fire was and what investigators think might have caused it. He files the story, sits with an editor as it’s reviewed, then goes home. Later, he takes a phone call from another editor. This editor wants to know the value of the property damaged in the fire, but nobody has done that estimate yet, so the editor adds a statement to that effect. The story is published and stored in an electronic archive, where it is searchable by keyword.

    The new way:
    Dan the reporter covers a house fire in 2010. In addition to a street address, he records a six-digit grid coordinate that isn’t intended for publication. His word-processing program captures the date and time he writes in his story and converts it to a Zulu time signature, which is also appended to the file.

    Basically, the new way is data-driven – and more flexible in all sorts of ways for that. It’s the journalist as data wrangler, which I’ve argued before is exactly where we need to move to.

    Why this matters
    The 2005 story can be found by archive search, but the labor cost of reacquiring and sorting for relevance every story listed under the search term “fire” is expensive and inaccurate. Consequently, its commercial value approaches zero.
    On the other hand, the 2010 “story” is only a subset of a much more complex and valuable data set, which exists within a data structure that allows its information to be retrieved accurately and reconfigured in useful ways.

    Get it? Some don’t.

    So I understand my curmudgeonly colleagues when they scoff behind my back at the word “metadata.” They don’t see its value, so they mock it. The beancounters? I expect even less from them. And the newspaper management class? Don’t get me started.

    Actually, it’s different at The Guardian – can you say Open Platform? – where the management class does have an acute realisation (sometimes driven at them by the journalists) of the importance of all this stuff.

  • tynan wood: my job and welcome to it

    What gets under my skin are the comments that invariably accompany these screeds about the future/death of journalism. It’s amazing to me how many people out there firmly believe they know how to do my job better than I do, despite the fact they have no idea what I actually do. So I thought I’d try explaining what I do, and how it’s changed as a result of the blogosphere, in an effort to clear up some misconceptions and, hopefully, shut some people up.

    Another long read. And worthwhile too for its description of how an article gets written and then….

    Popular blogs that do nothing but write a quick summary and link to the original may end up getting more traffic – and by extension more ad revenue — than the folks who paid me to do it.
    This is fucked up.

    Now there are some (notably Dave Winer) who say journalists will disappear and be replaced by sources. In other words, why should anyone bothering reading my story when they can go directly to the 8 or 12 people I interviewed, or 8 or 12 others of their own choosing? Why let me or my editors be the filter?

    My response is, why shop at the grocery store? Why not hunt and kill your own food? All you need is a gun and a hunting license. Why not farm your own vegetables or, for that matter, build your own cars? All you need are tillable land and the right parts (though you’d need someone to make those, I suppose). Why not write your own software code – there’s plenty out there for the tweaking. Why rely on professionals for anything?

    The answer? Because most of us are lousy shots. We don’t know how to raise our own food or hoist an engine block. We’re not coders and don’t want to be. Because there is a difference between amateurs and professionals, and it is easier and faster to rely on people who already know how to do these things.

    Seems like a good point to me. But maybe we were all happier as hunter-gatherers…

1 Comment

  1. Ah. I see we have data driven comments in the new world, too …

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