Look like a winner

Yesterday I had the privilege to attend an informative talk about effective communication by my friend and colleague Kevin Leahy, aka Knowledge Advocate. One point among many in Kevin’s talk: the content of a communication doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. Kevin, an attorney, said that post-trial conversations with jurors finds that they often recall little about what was said, but much about how they felt about witnesses, based quite a bit on their perception of body language. Coincidentally this morning I find an article about research, conducted by MIT political scientists, that shows how the appearances of politicians strongly influence voters, that people around the world have similar ideas about what a good politician looks like. [Link to the paper “Looking Like a Winner”  (pdf)] 

Sounds like you can take this to the bank: how you LOOK is important, and your BODY LANGUAGE is also important. What you think and what you say? Not such a big deal.

Another point, reading between the lines of the MIT Study: you’re better off if how you look is congruent with people’s perception of your role – there are definite stereotypes. If you don’t look like a politician but you have political ambitions, it’s better to work behind the scenes. (I think politicians already know this).

Arianna Huffington – interviewed by Evan Smith

May 4, 2010 – As part of the Texas Monthly Talks series, Evan Smith interviewed Arianna Huffington, in town to speak at a benefit for the Texas Freedom Network. Huffington’s flight arrived late, so the talk was abbreviated. Much of the discussion was about the current state of journalism and Huffington Post’s (HuffPo’s) success as new media hybrid journalism – a combination of user-generated and professional content.

Huffington led with the observation that people want contgent, but they also want engagement – they want “to be part of the story of our time.” That’s the essence of participatory journalism. She said that self-experssion has become the new entertainment. Evan: “It all counts.”

Huffington Post has been successful, has a readership apporaching that of the New York Times, and leaving other major online publishing venues in the dust. She says part of the secret of HuffPo’s success is that “we’re not just talking to people who agree with us.”

HuffPo has a thriving community and “human moderators” that maintain the civility of the conversations – “we don’t want it to be the Glenn Beck Show.” When Rick Perry shot the coyote and it was reported at HuffPo, there was an immediate surge of interst – 1,000 comments within a day. In addition to moderators, the Post’s readers police the site – they wouldn’t be able to manage the conversations without help from the community.

Evan: “What happened to journalism?” Why is for-profit legacy journalism failing? Have they lost sight of their mission, or is it that new media approaches are more compelling. “Are they down, or are you up?”

Huffington responds that they just didn’t get it. When HuffPo launched, legacy media were still skeptical of new approaches (participatory media/social media), but now they’re moving online, moving toward a hybrid model. Pay walls haven’t worked – worked for Wall Street Journal initially, but their subscriptions are down. In this context, she mentioned that traditional tenets of journalism should prevail – meaning that fundamental journalistic ethics and standards will necessarily be maintained in new media. [I’ve been thinking about this, and want to be involved in training news bloggers and citizen journalists. Matt Glazer of Burnt Orange Report and I have been instigating a conference for this purpose.]

Digital natives consume all their news online. We can’t go back to old ways of doing journalism – can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The Internet has a culture of free content that can be monetized [she didn’t specify how, but I suspect she was thinking of advertising and some other mix of revenues associated with brand].

You have to be prepared to take your content to the readers, rather than expecting them to come to you. [This is a 101 new media concept, but always worth repeating.] Evan notes that this implies a “disintermediation of content from the source.” Arianna: “ubiquity is the new exclusivity.”

HuffPo includes content contributed by unpaid bloggers, paying only editors and reporters. Is Huffington building an empire on the backs of unpaid contributors? Not at all – bloggers are leveraging HuffPo’s visibility, finding and building audiences, getting book deals, etc.

HuffPo aggregates content from other sites, too – is this leveraging others’ content? Huffington notes that they strictly follow fair use guidelines and have never been sued for infringement. Aggregation and curation of content are essential parts of an Internet information service. Curation means identify what’s important and elevate it, give it visibility. Put flesh and blood on data.

Evan: “Obama – how is it going?” Huffington says she is very glad he was elected, that he inherited a huge crisis. One problem: he’s surrounded himself with Clintonites like Larry Summers, and did everything humanly possible to save Wall Street, but nothing to save Main Street. Huffington is writing a book on the decline of the middle class, and is very concerned that there is no effort to reverse the decline, which has been going on for thirty years. So Obama’s administration should be doing dramatic things to save the middle class – though he may have done a lot already, he’s not necessarily taking the right approach, making bold moves that he should be making to support those in the middle. Some say he saved the economy, but he didn’t – he just saved Wall Street. We still have 25 million people out of work, and escalating foreclosures.

It also bothers her that no strings were attached to the salvation of Wall Street.

Otherwise, Obama is an extaordinary communicator and has improved U.S. standing in the world community – those are real pluses. “I will definitely vote for him again. What’s the alternative?” The “loyal opposition” is not talking today’s issues seriously. They treat governing like it was a debating club.

The administration’s attempts to be bipartisan are wasted effort, she says. She compares it to guys hitting non Ellen Degeneres “and not being told you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Redefining journalism: the International Symposium on Online Journalism

Journalists have been curious, and often anxious, about prospects for the future of news in an era of user generated content, fragmented abundant media, and cheap or free web-based advertising platforms. Nobody doubts the importance of in-depth news reporting, but the business model’s unclear. Many publications are moving online, which may reduce some physical costs but also reduces advertising revenues. There’s still the cost of content development. Sure, you can leverage user-generated free content, which can be very good, but the time and attention required for excellent reporting can’t be free. Said another way, to the extent writing is done without compensation, it tends to be shallow and incomplete. And reporting without editorial process and fact checking is subjective, not authoritative. Reporters may try to be objective and fair, but that’s very hard to do outside a process of vetting, checks and balances.

Academics that study journalism are studying and thinking about the changing present and the future. Several gathered in Austin last week for the International Symposium on Online Journalism. I was there the second day. It was a great event; I came away with my brain churning – though I’ve had an interesting thread of complementary career paths in my life, my original goal was to be a journalist, and I’m most passionate about writing.

You can see my complete tweets (over 250, I think, in one day) here. I also jotted down some notes just after the conference; here are some thoughts based on those notes:

I felt I was hearing a consensus that news is a public good, and news reporting will increasingly be funded, coordinated, and curated through nonprofit entities. I’ve been focused quite a bit lately on Texas Tribune, which is an innovative Texas news organization operating as a nonprofit. Its CEO and editor, Evan Smith, told me at the conference that he’s feeling positive and excited about the future of journalism and the kinds of experiments we were hearing about at the conference.

Former for-profit newspapers are focusing more on infotainment to build and sustain attention and revenue – it’s harder for them to fund hard, in-depth reporting. One potential model would be for nonprofits to report in depth, and provide reporting through content syndication partnerships with for-profits. That may be one wave of the future.

Another interesting experiment presented at the conference: Spot.us, a site set up to source public funding for news stories suggested by – I think the best word to use here is particpants. We were talking a lot about participatory journalism, which could manifest in any number of ways. Anyone who can read, write, and has access to a computer can potentially report news. What works as journalism is, I think, a matter of context. Is the reporting feeding into a journalistic process of some sort, and what sort of analysis/vetting do you have within that process? I’m all for broader sourcing of facts and perspectives, but how that mix becomes journalism in today’s world of social and collaborative media is still being defined.

Information/culture wars

In creating with a history of the “climate fight,” Dr. Spencer Weart has created a history with interesting points about the democratization of knowledge. [Link] He talks about a decline in the prestige of all authorities, expansion of the scientific community with greater interdisciplinarity, and a decline of science journalism.

These trends had been exacerbated since the 1990s by the fragmentation of media (Internet, talk radio), which promoted counter-scientific beliefs such as fear of vaccines among even educated people, by providing facile elaborations of false arguments and a ceaseless repetition of allegations.

Mike Hulme’s response:

I think Spencer is helpful by suggesting there is a much bigger story happening in the world of science, knowledge and cultural authority of which the climate change incidents of this moment are just part. These are going to be increasingly difficult challenges for many areas of science in the future – how is scientific knowledge recognized, how is it spoken and who speaks for it, and how does scientific knowledge relate to other forms of cultural authority. It’s not just about the politicization of public knowledge, but also about its fragmentation, privatization and/or democratization.

In comments, Bob Potter says

The key phrase is “expert public relations apparatus”. In the mid 20th century scientists had the luxury of public respect. People believed what they said. As public confidence in authority figures of all types waned, scientists took no notice. When global climate change became a serious issue scientists still assumed that a “word from the wise” would be sufficient, and that is all they brought to the fight. They lost the war because industry had a public relations army and they did not.

All great points: we’re in the midst of culture and information wars, and the concept of “authoritative voice” is less meaningful, if not lost. We can’t fix this by going backwards… as so many of us have said before, we have to focus more than ever on media literacy. Should be right up there with reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Slow news is good news

We’ve talked about slow (vs fast) food, and earlier today I heard about the new slow money movement. Now I’m hearing the best case for friction yet – slow news, which is about reporting the news after you’ve checked it out, not before. Internet immediacy was a rush for the longest time, and journalists have felt increasingly compelled to report first, ask questions later. Recent symptoms: misreporting of various facts around the Fort Hood shootings last week. My friend Ethan Zuckerman coined the “slow news” phrase, reported by another friend, Dan Gillmor. Dan’s talking about a slow news movement, where journalists reclaim accuracy and leave news that is both breaking and broken to bloggers as first responders. Wish I’d heard this before I spoke at the National College Media Conference a couple of weeks ago. I could’ve said “slow news is the new black.”

Obama’s cloud

Read Write Web compares word clouds of Obama’s inaugural speech to those by Bush, Clinton, Reagan, and Lincoln. Interesting comparison. (RWW’s other inauguration day posts were underwhelming. You don’t really have to post about the inauguration if you don’t have something new and useful to add to the general noise.)

We set up an ad hoc chat room to hang out and discuss the Inauguration while it was happening, and I was reminded that chat feels more like coherent conversation than Twitter. The Inauguration was meaningful, an historic event, but I’m more interested in the real work that starts today.

The alarms were working, but nobody was hearing

I was surprised that anyone else was surprised at the economic meltdown, because I thought I’d been hearing for many, many months that the fan was spinning hard and the shit was in the air, hurtling fanward. It seemed that that the alarms were firing full blast, but everybody was listening to very loud, very pleasant music through earbuds planted deep in their ears, and they couldn’t quite hear.

Jay Rosen on Twitter just posted a link to an article in American Journalism Review called “Unheeded Warnings,” which says “well before this year’s economic collapse, business journalists shined a spotlight on serious problems in the U.S. economy. But regulators and members of the public didn’t pay much attention.”

The business media in 2008 serve as a welcome scapegoat for those who simply want to ignore their own culpability in the financial meltdown. But it’s a bad rap. Gone since the tech bubble burst in 2000 are the flattering CEO profiles and the touting of Internet companies with no revenue. The business media have done yeoman’s work during the past decade-plus to expose wrongdoing in corporate America. In fact, a review of the top business publications in the country shows that they blanketed the major issues, from subprime loans to adjustable-rate mortgages to credit derivatives, that caused so much economic pain.

This is followed by an overview of some of the coverage. A bazillion stories referenced the “housing bubble” The Wall Street Journal warned for years about potential problems with Fannie and Freddie, such as a story in 2003 that included this bit of intelligence: “Far from the sleepy mortgage company of its carefully cultivated reputation, Freddie Mac in recent years has evolved into a giant, sophisticated investment company, running a business laden with volatility and complexity. That change has sent risks soaring, not just for investors but for U.S. taxpayers, who likely would be on the hook if the federally chartered company stumbled.” The New York Times had a 2004 piece called “A Coming Nightmare of Home Ownership?” that said “the most damaging legacy of Fannie Mae’s years of unchecked growth may not be evident until the next significant economic slump,” and another that said “If the company encounters serious setbacks, the impact on homeowners and the world’s financial markets could be unpleasant.”

Quite a bit more in the article, which gets to the key question – why after all this did the collapse of the housing market seem so shocking?

Andrew Leckey, director of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University, compares the situation to an unwanted Christmas present wrapped in shiny paper and a bow: Nobody wants to open it up to see what’s inside. The reading public wants to read only what it wants to believe. Brauchli agrees: “The notion that the business press wasn’t paying attention is wrong, and the assertion that we were asleep at the switch is wrong. We were attentive. We were aggressive. We were aware. We wrote abundantly. But it is very hard to get the public’s attention for stories warning of complex financial risks in the middle of a roaring, populist bull market.”

More on Mumbai/Twitter

I posted earlier about Mumbai/social media. Svetlana Gladkova says more about Twitter as a source of news and conversation about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Svetlana references an excellent piece by Mathew Ingram, who addresses the question whether Twitter can be trusted as a news source since “messages posted to Twitter aren’t verified in any sense of the word, and in many cases could be wrong, or could perpetuate misunderstandings or factual inaccuracies” (thought inaccuracies are often if not usually corrected in other messages). He notes that traditional media sources also often make reports that are incorrect. I think this became more common with the advent of cable news channels, then the Internet – news stories are more likely to be broken as they happen, and there’s less time for analysis and verification. Now we can all get the raw data, correct or incorrect, and we’re learning to interpret for ourselves what’s real, helped by evolving layers of analysis added by the journalists and experts that used to have sole ownership of the data.

Svetlana doesn’t

know why it should be important at all if Twitter is a good source of news or not – it is good in what it does and you can call it news since this is exactly what people share with us – news. And I don’t really think that people sending updates from their cell phones to let the world know what was going on were really trying to act like journalists – they wanted to share the news with anyone who was interested and that’s it.

She goes on to say that

Twitter is just the right place to get the information – and get it quick. When mainstream media takes time to bring reporters to site or at least find and verify a couple of sources and even bloggers taking a few minutes to type a post and hit that “Publish” button, Twitter is already here with multiple reports from people witnessing the entire situation directly where the situation is. And no, hardly all the facts will be correct but you will get to know something is happening – and you will have at least some understanding of what is going on. Besides, the wrong facts will probably be corrected soon right there on Twitter and if you watch with attention enough, you will get a more or less comprehensive picture.

That’s not just true of Twitter – we said the same about blogs before Twitter appeared, and we said the same about other forms computer-mediated communication, like email lists and online discussion forums, before blogs appeared.

Svetlana acknowledges that there are many levels of “noise” in the Twitter feeds, a combination of direct reports and quotes from media sources, facts and opinions.

But while noise at this level is typical mainly for Twitter only, there is another problem that Twitter shares with media outlets. The thing is that at crazy times like this you can never really trust anyone – be it a tweet from a person in the thick of things or a report from a reputable news organization. Simply because even news professionals can be wrong because their reporters can hardly get the full picture on site and often report mainly what they see themselves – which is not very different from what simple bystanders get to know. And we need to understand that when everything is equally disorganized and chaotic you will hardly find any source that will be actually reliable.

I found this especially interesting because it reminds me what I was thinking when I left journalism school for the English department 35 years ago (ouch! I’m getting grey). However hard you try as a journalist, you’re always presenting a limited set of facts and a limited interpretation. However well you try to adhere to standards of objectivity, in every piece you write you’re applying your particular cultural filters and biases, and you’re always working from a limited set of facts, even if you’re close to the story, sometimes even if you were in the middle of it.

This has been reinforced for me over and over through the years. In every case where I’ve been close to a news story, the published version was always inconsistent in some way with my awareness of the facts. It wasn’t that the reporter was “wrong” or I was missing something – we just had different perspectives. If you want to get closer to the truth, better to present the multiple perspectives, and the facts as ‘raw’ as you can make them. Journalists add context, and that’s valuable – we can’t all pore over the details of every story – but it’s good to know that we have the opportunity.

When I shifted my focus from journalism to literature, it was because I thought literature was better at capturing the truth. I was especially interested in the novel, which at its best presents a story from many perspectives in an attempt to capture what’s real. In the late 80s and 90s I was drawn to the Internet’s potential to do this – to provide the whole complexity of the narrative – around any subject or event. I made a career commitment to the web and social media because I could see the potential for the kind of writing I’d been interested in when I had wanted to be a journalist years before.

So now we have a complex narrative, nobody owns the truth, and everyone has the opportunity to think through the meaning of events like Mumbai. You can draw your own conclusions, and that’s powerful. As with everything that’s powerful, it carries responsibility: we should all learn to be far more media literate than broadcast media ever allowed us to be. But I see that happening, and I see in my many younger friends who have been living and breathing the Internet since grade school a better grasp of this democratization of knowledge, this opportunity to create a shared narrative.

The way we’re responding to Mumbai brings this into focus, but this is the new world of knowledge, and it’s the right evolution for the times we’re in – because our need to live sustainably is met with solutions built on knowledge as the key natural resource. Knowledge as a process is as vital in today’s world as industrial heavy equipment was in the industrial world of resource extraction and heavy infrastructure construction.

So what’s happening on Twitter – not just where Mumbai is concerned, but every day – is critical evolution, in my opinion.

Mumbai via social media

Though I spent Thanksgiving on a plane of existence where the concept of “news” just didn’t make sense, I did occasionally check in with my own slice of Twitter, and saw an interesting mashup of I’m-too-stuffed-to-live posts and ongoing Mumbai coverage and commentary. The same loose coalition that supported online repsonses to the Southeast Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina quickly set up “Mumbai Help” to coordinate information, including helpful phone numbers an information about the injured and deceased. CNN has an article about the social media response, noting that “social media sites like Twitter were inundated with a huge volume of messages.” The quote a Twitter user who said “Mumbai is not a city under attack as much as it is a social media experiment in action.” CNN notes a down side to the social media response, noting that “a vast number of the posts on Twitter amounted to unsubstantiated rumors and wild inaccuracies.”

As blogger Tim Mallon put it, “I started to see and (sic) ugly side to Twitter, far from being a crowd-sourced version of the news it was actually an incoherent, rumour-fueled mob operating in a mad echo chamber of tweets, re-tweets and re-re-tweets.

“During the hour or so I followed on Twitter there were wildly differing estimates of the numbers killed and injured – ranging up to 1,000.”

What is clear that although Twitter remains a useful tool for mobilizing efforts and gaining eyewitness accounts during a disaster, the sourcing of most of the news cannot be trusted.

In the next paragraph, CNN notes that most tweets “were sourced from mainstream media.”

On the other hand, I see a tweet from Mrinal Wadhwa that says “mainstream Indian media has been absolutely Irresposible during this whole episode.” I suspect that in some locales the best information available was crowdsourced, mostly via Twitter. You can see for yourself – relevant Twitter posts have the #mumbai hashtag and are viewable via Twitter search. (While I wrote that last sentence, there were 18 new posts.)