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Two Thoughts On The State Of Freelance Journalism

Journalist Nate Thayer kicked things off by published an e-mail exchange between him and an The Atlantic editor in which he was asked to rewrite an article he had written elsewhere for free. The editor also wrote that she could only pay $100 for original pieces.

Alexis Madrigal, of The Atlantic, responded pointing out that this was a new editor.

Andrew Sulivan points out the damage this does to The Atlantic‘s brand following the recent Church of Scientology sponsored content fiasco.

Paul Carr outlined some of the reasons that journalists need to get paid and called on publishers to reject advertising in favor of permeable pay walls and ad-free print editions.

A couple things that occur to me that I haven’t seen elsewhere:

1. There may be a certain amount of rosy retrospection going on here. I don’t doubt that it’s harder now for journalists, freelance or otherwise. But I’m not sure there’s any golden age to go back to. I’m too young to have any real perspective on this. But I do remember hearing an interview with Seymour Hersh on Democracy Now (though I can’t find the transcript for this episode) talking about how he actually had a hard time finding someone to publish his story on the My Lai Massacre. If I recall correctly, he’d already written the story. He wasn’t looking for someone to finance the story, just to pay him and publish it. Eventually the Dispatch News Service published it, a few newspapers picked it up and, as they say, is history. But I take it the Dispatch wasn’t exactly his first choice of publishers for the story that went on to earn him a Pulitzer.

2. Among the various reasons that journalists need to get paid — most of which are covered by Carr above — is the reason that we pay congress people so well. That is, you want them to be financially independent enough that they don’t need outside streams of income. Journalists shouldn’t have to choose between making rent or taking a side gig that might introduce a conflict of interest. No, a $60k a year salary sure as hell doesn’t guarantee that a journo won’t be temped by the opportunity to make some compromising money on the side. I’m sure Malcolm Gladwell has handsome salary at the New Yorker and that doesn’t stop him from earning big money giving talks to big corporations.

But if you can’t make rent or put food on the table, then you’ve got to find money somewhere. It could just be a good honest day job or moonlighting gig. But with every white paper for a political organization, every guest blog post for a tech startup and every corporate consulting gig makes you just a that much less independent of faction.

Newspapers vs. Blogs in an Information Diet

I recently read Clay Johnson‘s book Information Diet and it’s changing the way I think about my consumption, production and sharing of media. I’m still trying to figure out what’s best for me as a media professional. How can I have a healthy media intake and remain gainfully employed? I need to keep up with what others are writing on my beats, what’s going on the tech industry as a whole and in the world in general. I also need to keep up with what’s going on in the journalism profession. Plus I have other interests I like to follow. All the while I need to avoid filter bubbles and expose myself to serendipity for the chance to make new connections and find new angles on beats.

As I try to work it all out, I enjoy reading about other writers’ media diets. Earlier this month Warren Ellis wrote that he reads about 100 blogs on various subjects, and indirectly addressed the issue of filter bubbles and serendipity.

“I read a newspaper every day, and I watch a well-produced, intelligent news analysis programme every night, and I have been known to leave 24-hour news running in a video window all day, and that still doesn’t give me a world picture in the way that my blog capture does,” Ellis writes. “The only way to find interesting things to talk about is to be open to the world as possible, and tune your machinery to bring as much of it to you as possible, without getting to the point where you’re getting no time to process it.”

I found that to be an interesting counter perspective to the notion that we get less, not more, variety from blogs than we get from a daily paper – the idea that, as expressed by Cass Sunstein, newspapers provide a better architecture for seredipity. Abe Burmeister called the suburbanization of information:

Physical newspapers play a similar mixing role, especially those that strive towards mass market audience. The more people they try to attract, the broader the mix of news stories. Turning the pages and sorting the sections is a constant reinforcement of the diversity of information in the world. We may ignore large chunks of it, but somewhere inside we know that other people actually do care about the sports section, science section, international affairs or the local stories.

As more and more people go online for news, we are losing site of the mix. News aggregators, blogs, email alerts and customizable websites give us a tremendous ability to focus our information. We surround ourselves with the news that we want to hear/see/feel. We can zip around in snug little information cocoons, isolated from the harsh reality of different ways of thinking. Those nasty conflicting viewpoints are relegated to trashbin of somebody else’s RSS feed.

William Gibson told Richard Metzger that Twitter is the greatest aggregator of novelty and that following the right 70 people is like a shopping bag full of imported magazines. Of course 70 is a really small number of people to follow on Twitter (and Gibson is now following over 100 as of this writing). And as Ellis points out, 100 blogs isn’t an astronomical number compared to some media junkies intake. Personally, I rely mostly on Twitter now for information aggregation and don’t use an RSS reader much anymore. I follow 402 people or publications on Twitter (down from about 600 before I read Information Diet). I’m trying to cut that number down further, hopefully to 200.

Of course Ellis and Gibson are professional writers of fiction, not journalists on a particular beat or citizens just trying to stay informed. I’m sure Ellis, and possibly Gibson as well, is also very consciously choosing people and publications to follow to avoid filter bubble and ensure some measure of serendipity.

I’ve often wanted some sort of “seredipity engine” that could show me random posts from a large pool of blogs – not too much stuff, just a small water fountain split off from a firehose, not filtered by what other people I follow read, not what’s popular with the world in general, and not sorted by what some algorithm thinks I want to read – just a nearly random list of articles outside my usual bubble. (I say nearly random because I would want it somewhat controlled to reduce the number of articles on the same topic, and to keep publications that publish multiple times a day to flood out publications on a less hectic schedule.)

The Four Types of Scoops

Jay Rosen recently presented his own theory of scoops:

Type One: The enterprise scoop. “Where the news would not have come out without the enterprising work of the reporter who dug it out.”

Type Two: The ego scoop. “This is where the news would have come out anyway–typically because it was announced or would have been announced–but some reporter managed to get ahead of the field and break it before anyone else.”

Type Three: The traders scoop. “This is the most ambiguous of my categories. It recognizes that there can be situations in which, for the general public, ‘who got it first?’ is next-to meaningless, but for a special category of user–the traders, investors, arbitrageurs–minutes and even seconds can count.”

Type Four: The thought scoop. “The most under-recognized type of scoop is the intellectual scoop: ‘stories with new insights’ that coin terms, define trends, or apprehend–name and frame–something that’s happening out there… before anyone else recognizes it.”

In my rant Getting Scoops Is Not (Necessarily) the Same as “Doing Journalism”., I’m basically talking about the difference between what Rosen calls “enterprise scoops” and “ego scoops.” The thing is, ego scoops do matter financially to tech publications – the first blog to get a story will generally be rewarded with more traffic. Because of that, I don’t judge my fellow tech reporters chasing these sorts of scoops, in fact I do it myself. The unfortunate thing though is that the tech journalism community seems to have lost track of the difference between enterprise and ego scoops (as have quit a few other journalistic communities, I take it).

There can be a degree of luck involved in getting enterprise scoops as well. Being the in the right place at the right time when someone mentions something. A lot of the dirty work is actually done by non-profit “wachdog” organizations. But it also means recognizing a real story, and doing the digging and fact checking to turn it into something substantial and not just a quick hit gossip piece. It means developing sources so that you’re the person that gets a tip.

Notes from a William Gibson Q&A Session (9/08/10)

These are my notes from William Gibson’s Q&A session after his Zero History reading at Powells Books in Portland, OR on 9/08/2010 (here are some photographs from the evening). I thought initially that most of this would come up in other interviews, but I recently reviewed my notes and realized that although some of it has come up elsewhere, some of it is either unique or unusual. So I decided to type up my notes.

Gibson started off saying “Powells is the best book store in the world. It’s not even a book store, it’s a genre all to its own,” before reading the first chapter of Zero History. After the reading he said “The reason I write opening chapters the way I do is to get rid of all the people who won’t ‘get’ the book. They’re all fairly easy to read after the first chapter.” He then opened up to questions. Most, probably all, of these answers are incomplete – but close to direct quotes from larger answers. I didn’t ask most of these questions and didn’t get down the exact questions asked.

Q: What’s next?

Gibson: I have no idea. I have to have no idea. I know no one believes me, but I never intended to make trilogies. When I was learning about writing, I was told that trilogy was a long novel with a boring middle published separately. I think the books could be read in any order. I think I would be interesting to read these backwards. But maybe that’s too advanced.

[of course now he's said that his next novel will probably be about the future]

Where do you go for inspiration?

I’m not a globe trotting writer/researcher. Wherever I happen to go usually ends up in the book. For example, I happened to go to Myrtle Beach a few months before I wrote the book and I thought it was suitably weird.

Asked about predictions.

I’m not interested in the sort of sci-fi that does or doesn’t predict the iPad. I’m interested in how people behave.

Asked about the intelligence communities in his books

I don’t want anyone to think I’ve gone “Tom Clancy” but what you find is that you have fans in every line of work. How reliable those narrators are I don’t know, but they tell a good story.

Asked about humor in his work.

Neuromancer was not without a comedic edge. My cyberpunk colleagues and I back in our cyberpunk rat hole sniggered mightily as we slapped our knees.

But writers can’t have more than two hooks. “Gritty, punky,” sure. “Gritty, punky, funny” doesn’t work.

I asked him about the slogan “Never in fashion, always in style” because I read that slogan on his blog and never found out what company that slogan actually belonged to.

Aero Leathers in Scotland. But they weight too much. You wouldn’t tour in a WWII motorcyle jacket unless of course you were on a WWII motorcycle. [Gibson reportedly wore an Acronym jacket on the Zero History tour]

Asked about Twitter

Twitter is the best aggregator of novelty anywhere. There’s more weird shit there than anywhere. It’s the equivalent value of $300 worth of imported magazines for free every day.

Asked about hypertext/electronic media and how it is changing his work.

The book is a cloud of hyperlinks. You can Google any unfamiliar phrase and you will be sort of walking in my shoes, going where I did in my research. The links are there, and there’s even some easter eggs.

I’m not sure what question this was in response to

I large part of my narrative comes from growing up in a particularly backwards part of the south, which had a particularly spoken culture.

Asked about his favorite contemporary writers

[Anything by Iian Sinclair, Zoo City by Lauren Bach, Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which he found "wounding."]

Asked about the punk influence on his work.

It wasn’t the Sex Pistols, it was Waylon and Willy.

Asked what sci-fi influenced him.

Certain sci-fi that never had much impact on the mainstream of the genre. My novels have had very little impact as well. If you don’t believe me, go down to a sci-fi specialist shop. Cyberpunk has become a descriptor – cyberpunk albums, cyberpunk pants.

Asked about cyberpunk’s legacy.

Anything with a manifesto ends up looking silly.

Asked what he thinks of the post-cyberpunk writers, Cory Doctorow et al.

I think the original cyberpunks were a little thin on the ground.

See also: William Gibson dossier.

Good Interview with The Net Delusion Author Evgeny Morozov

Good interview with The Net Delusion author Evgeny Morozov:

You once tweeted that ‘the term censorship has become meaningless’. Why? And what does it mean exactly?

I have? Half of my tweets are not meant to be serious. But, sure, I do find that a lot of debates about censorship – and especially Internet censorship – operate in very binary terms – i.e. people just look at whether a given site is blocked or not. This may have worked ten years ago but now we have much more sophisticated methods of control, ranging from cyber-attacks (which knock out a site for a short period – but the timing might be crucial) to self-policing by Internet companies to massive trolling. We need to find ways to conceptually allow for those new methods of control as well. [...]

Did the ‘Arab Spring’ and Occupy movements lower your skepticism about ‘hashtag activism’?

I’ve never used the term “hashtag activism” but the short answer is “no”. Furthermore, I’m not sure that my position here adds up to “skepticism”; as I state in the book and in the afterword, I have no problem acknowledging that Twitter and Facebook can be great for spreading information and mobilizing people. My concerns – and these are purely normative concerns – are that these tools may also be giving some budding social movements false hopes of being able to transcend the ugliness of political life and simply fight the man from within their Facebook profiles. The less it happens, the better – I’m not arguing that this is an inherent feature of all campaigns that take place online, only that this is one possible outcome and that participants (and especially policymakers who may be thinking of how to invest their money and attention) need to be aware of this possible outcome.

Journalism Festival: @evgenymorozov: openness always good, control always bad? crazy!

(via Justin)

See also:

Morozov’s TED talk How the Net aids dictatorships

Birthers and the democratization of media

Getting Scoops Is Not (Necessarily) the Same as “Doing Journalism”

There’s been a bit of a shitstorm the past few days over TechCrunch blogger turned venture capitalist M.G Siegler’s defense of Path, a social networking company that the CrunchFund (a VC firm where Siegler is a partner) invested in. Dan Lyons (probably best known for his alter ego Fake Steve Jobs) skewered Siegler well enough. Siegler’s rant about the failings of tech journalists is mostly a distraction, a cover for the real issue: the cavalier attitude startups, including one that Siegler’s firm invested in, have towards privacy and security of its users (who are, generally, the product and not the customer).

But Siegler did touch a nerve when he talked about the poor quality of so much tech journalism. It’s nothing new, the problem has been there for everyone to see for the past few years. AOL’s official policy was exposed a year ago by Business Insider, a company notorious for following a similar content farming model. There’s even an entire book now dedicated to helping people create reasonable “info diets” (a subject near and dear to my heart, though I’ve not yet had time to read it).

It’s a real problem, and Siegler, to his credit, admits that he was was one of the worst offenders during his time at TechCrunch. Now he’s part of a whole new problem exemplified by the CrunchFund and PandoDaily, but that’s not what I want to write about today. Nor do I want to focus on the high speed production of numerous low quality blog posts. That’s a long standing problem that’s been plain to see for quite a while, a product of a flawed business model for journalism and “content” in general. We’re trying to solve the business model problem at SiliconAngle, but I think there’s a deeper issue at play here.

Since The Verge published its best tech writing of 2011 list I’ve been thinking about the fact that no tech blogs actually made this list, unless you count VC Dave Pell’s blog. But none of the usual suspects – TechCrunch, VentureBeat, ReadWriteWeb, GigaOM, etc. Why is this? Part of it may be the pressure to constantly pump out new posts, multiple times a day, which leaves little time for writers to do in-depth journalism and quality writing. But I think there’s something else to it. Jay Rosen has written about the ideology of the mainstream political press. I think there’s an ideology of tech blogging, and I think that ideology reduces the overall quality of reporting. I think it’s the ideology of “the scoop.”

There are huge pressures to post a story first. Not only does it get you on TechMeme, but probably more importantly it gets your story more traction in social media, from Twitter to Reddit to Hacker News. Speed is the name of the game. It’s tempting to blame speed itself as the problem, but I think it’s this scoop mentality itself.

Adrianne Jeffries of BetaBeat (who I worked with briefly at ReadWriteWeb) put it best to me a while back: most of these “scoops” are things that everyone is going to know about soon anyway. The Kindle Fire, a new Google feature, the latest round of funding for a startup – all of this this is stuff these companies actually pay people to promote eventually. By racing to be the first to tell the world about some companies future announcement, we’re actually competing to serve as PR people for the companies we’re reporting on.

Update: Jay Rosen has helpfully categorized four types of scoop. What I’m talking about here is the different between “enterprise scoops” and “ego scoops.”
I’m not opposed to chasing this sort of scoop – I do it too. But it’s not the end all be all of doing journalism. In fact, in many cases there’s little to no journalism being done. The easiest way to be first is simply to break a news embargo – something that used to be an official policy at TechCrunch (I’m not sure whether it still is). I’m not sure this really counts as a “scoop,” but it’s one quick and dirty way to approximate one, and it’s one that requires nothing but re-writing a press release and publishing before any one else does.

Most of what we think of as “scoops” are at least a bit more involved than breaking an embargo. Unless the journalist gets lucky and overhears some execs talking about something in line at a Silicon Valley burrito joint, there’s some measure of source development going on behind the scenes of a scoop. Source development is one dimension of journalism, and it’s a very important one. Still, most of the scoops I see are still pretty shallow. A source inside a company tells a journalist about a forthcoming product, service or other announcement coming from the company. The journalist writes down what the source said and publishes it. There’s little other research or fact checking going on (Mike Arrington allegedly went to great pains to verify that his scoops were legit, but that’s apparently not common practice, and I have my doubts about how he actually sourced his scoops). Maybe there’s some speculation about whether this product will actually be competitive against a comparable product from Apple, but that’ll be it. Once the source spills the beans, this sort of post can be done very quickly, in hours or even minutes. There are a few counter examples, like when bloggers dogpile on a company that makes a mistake – I guess that helps us feel like we’re fulfilling our “watchdog” role. But the vast majority of scoops are product announcements. It’s still a far cry from the “muckracking” we expect from political journalists.

Why is this a problem? It creates an artificially low expectation of the time it takes to do journalism (if you can write a post about some forthcoming Twitter function in an hour based on a scoop from an insider, why spend more than that on a “non-scoop”?), it limits tech journalists ideas of what stories are and are not worth covering and it limits the role of the tech journalist to shilling for the companies they cover. It makes our role into professional waiters-for-something-happen rather than professional investigators or explainers.

Now let’s take a story from The Verge’s list as an example: Ken Auletta’s New Yorker story on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. There’s no “scoop” here. No new Facebook features, no juicy gossip about Mark Zuckerberg, no IPO date. But there’s tons of insight into Sandberg, into what women experience in corporate America, and into Facebook as a company. Auletta likely spent days, probably weeks, researching and writing this piece. It’s the sort of quality stuff we all say we want to see more of, but few of us actually do. Partially of course because we don’t have the time, we’ve got posts to write and post TODAY. But partially, I think, because we don’t recognize the *story* here because it doesn’t fit with our ideology of the scoop.

It might not be fair to ask daily tech blogs to do the same sort of long form journalism that high brow magazines do, any more than it would be fair to ask a local daily newspaper to be Harper’s. But I think the contrast between scoop-driven tech blogs and the way other publications handle tech stories is illuminating because it shows a difference not just in the number of words or time spent on a story, but a difference in the type of story. There’s actually an opportunity for PR here, which I talked a bit about this in an interview on Sam Whitmore’s Mediasurvey (it’s behind a paywall, alas), and have a half-written blog post waiting to be finished.

The thing I’d like to see is a greater variety in the type of story, and a shift from the scoop mindset of quick hits about a new product to a mindset that sees technology journalism as more encompassing.

Has the Cost of Books Gone Up, Adjusted for Inflation?

The answer, apparently, is no. The Awl looked through the cost of different New York Times best sellers from the past seven decades and comparing the costs using a tool from Bureau of Labor Statistics to convert all the costs into 2011 money. The conclusion? Hardcover books have cost roughly $30 2011 money since 1951, with the exception of some large outliers in 1971.

The article concludes:

And it’s good that we’re doing this now, as the uncertainty looming over the publishing industry is unimaginably big. Both the competitive pricing and release patterns of e-books and the ascendance of Amazon and similar e-tailers (okay, just Amazon, really) threaten to change the business of book publishing into something that will be completely unrecognizable on an historical basis. All this at a time when even members of the Fourth Estate are railing against the horrors of bookstores, even the independent ones. (Needless to say, I disagree with him in a manner that involves the use of profanities: support your local bookstore.) I hope this is not the case, but maybe only James Patterson can save us.

The Owl: How Much More Do Books Cost Today?

(via Matt Staggs)

Creators Are Caught in the Cross-Fire Between Publishers and Comic Shops

Demo by Brian Wood

Brian Wood, of Channel Zero and DMZ fame:

Everyone I know loves comic shops. Everyone I know who makes comics, especially creator-owned comics, is hurting, financially. EVERYONE is bleeding, its a bad time. So to what extent does digital as a publishing format represent an additional revenue stream, one on top of print sales through shops, one that can ease some of the suffering? [...]

Over the last few days Dark Horse was compelled to clarify what their digital plan was, in terms of pricing, correcting the perception that their comics would be sold digitally at 1.99, much less than the print versions. I have access to the CBIA, a retailers forum, and the pushback was intense, and included overt threats of drastically lowered orders and even total boycotts of the line. Did I mention everyone is bleeding? I get the frustration. [...]

Not sure if this plan is scrapped or not, but I am not the boogeyman here, and when I see these boycott threats, still being issued even after Dark Horse clarified their plans… well, its hard not to feel like an innocent bystander, a bit of collateral damage. My new books at risk even before they launch. Christ, I’m just trying to make it all work out for everyone.

Brian Wood: The digital question mark

Boing Boing’s David Pescovitz Interviewed on the Future of Attention

David Pescovitz

Media Magazine is running an interview with David “Pesco” Pescovitz on the subject of the future of attention:

What do you think about the ability to process more concurrent streams? Do you think we’re adapting our brains to be able to process more at the same time?

I don’t think our brains are necessarily changing. But I think we do develop new skills. It started with wanting more information, and being forced to deal with it and make sense of this onslaught that has led to a habit, basically, where we want more and more of it. Or, we think we want more and more of it. I actually think that, as we spend more time in these sort of fast-paced, virtually mediated experiences, there’s going to be this quest for authentic, visceral, focused, immersive and, in many ways, singular experiences. I don’t think sitting down and reading a book or watching a two-and-a-half hour art film are going away any time. I actually think that we’re going to see a renewed appreciation for those kinds of experiences, as they become more rarified.

Are we becoming addicted to information supply?

I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what addiction really means. That’s within the realm of psychology and medicine. I can certainly say that I feel a sense of twitchiness when I don’t have access to my email during long meetings. And I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing. So, I guess you could probably argue that that’s a form of addiction in some way. Then again, maybe it’s also what was once an addiction. I mean, I think things change. As technology changes, the mores surrounding that technology change. Usages change. And it adds up to the way the world turns.

Media Magazine: The Future of Attention: A Conversation with David Pescovitz

My interview with Pesco is here.

China’s Freemium Self-Publishing System is Working

… at least for serialized genre fiction writers:

These aren’t Authonomy-esque, publish-and-be-encouraged-by-fellow-writers sorts of sites, though, or even collections of self-published novels. The websites host what is being dubbed “freemium” publishing. Publishing Perspectives has more details: a growing number of self-publishing websites host thousands of free-to-read web serials – anything from historical epics to sci-fi – posted by their authors. As a serial gathers critical mass, the author is invited to become a “VIP”, and readers have to pay for the new instalments – only a few yuan, but these micropayments from readers can number in the millions: China Daily reports that one author, the 26-year-old Huang Wei, makes more than more than Y1m a year (£100,000).

The Guardian: Has China found the future of publishing?

See also: Writers: you can make a living selling e-books on the Kindle

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