Credit: DieElchin/pixabay

To watch ‘The Post’

I read a few reviews of The Post. Based on what the critics are saying, it seems the film has at least the potential to raise the spirits of many journalists today who could use a leg up. That said, I do resent that some of my friends and peers think I should be more excited about the film. This is how my conversations with them have generally gone.

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Have you watched The Post?

No.

OMG, why not?!

You mean you’d like me to be excited about watching a film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out but about which you don’t give a damn unless it’s brought to life by a pair of pompous (not to mention white) Hollywood actors while also blissfully ignorant of the fact that dangerous and consequential choices of the kind the journalists probably make in the film are made on a daily basis by journalists in many parts of the world?

… yeah.

Or do you mean have I watched the film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out and I’m quite likely to know about but you wouldn’t acknowledge that until I joined the rest of you, went to the movies and finally walked away feeling its makers had mangled both the spirit of what had actually happened and reduced it down to the valour of a few people, when in fact a lot more hearts and minds went into achieving what they had, just so a small group of well-established actors could draw all the attention – while you walk away feeling the film was how things had actually happened and that I’m the cynic whose cynicism won’t switch off?

I’m going to walk away from you now.

Featured image credit: DieElchin/pixabay.

Science journalism as an institutional undertaking

“The paper has been through many financial crises and Science Times has not been affected.” These were the words of David Corcoran, Editor, NYT Science Times, who’d dropped by my NYU SHERP class today for a short presentation and some Q&A. David said that in response to the question “How easy or difficult is it to make money off the science section on nytimes.com and the newspaper?” that I’d asked him. His reply in full went like this:

Not something the Times has been worried out. Going back to 1978 [when Science Times was launched], the paper was facing a lot of pressure. The top management came up with publishing special sections every day and the hope was to attract more advertising. [Once the other days were decided,] There was a question about what to do about Tuesday. There was a lively debate between the news and business sides. The business side wanted fashion but the top news editors said that’s not The New York Times and they came up with the idea of a science section. They knew it wouldn’t be a big money maker – it never has been. We have a big ad on the last page today but that’s unusual.

The future of newspapers is very much in doubt and the reason is that the old business model which was selling those newspaper ads is rapidly going away. They’re still a significant source of revenue but much, much smaller than they were even 10 years ago, even five years ago. So the question is how we’re going to replace that source of revenue. The ads in videos don’t bring in nearly as much money, and I don’t know why. Science Times is very central to the identity of the newspaper, and it’s not going to go away. The paper has been through many financial crises and Science Times has not been affected.

In response to someone else’s question, he said: Wrapping your mind around a subject like stem cells is not what [editors of other desks] have a lot of time for, so we get to do our own thing most of the time.

Sounds like the science section of The New York Times in print (much like at The Hindu) exists in order to fulfill some kind of institutional ambition more than being a logical conclusion backed by the commensurate resources. If only to me, this sounds like a precarious position to be in for many reasons. Foremost, depending on ideological over business interests means the science section is susceptible to ideological over business forces. And ideological forces are often much less rational, unpredictable and, most importantly, accountable.

Could it be that science editors are reluctant to acknowledge that their department in a publication is situated in a bubble that protects them from financial pressures? There’s no doubt that The New York Times does some excellent science reporting and analysis, and wins many awards doing it, but there’s a part of me wondering how much – and in what ways – this would change if science editors were pulled up and asked to start showing profits from their work. It’d be a brutal thing to do, no doubt, asking such gentle creatures to figure out a business model that even political editors are confused about. But it would also level the playing field, give the science department some bargaining power, and let journalists explore if there’s any way to eliminate the subsidization of science news.

Cutting back: my classmates as such had a lot of questions for David Corcoran. I’d like to reproduce his answers to two that pertained to specific stories that appeared today (September 16).

How do you decide if it’s time to reintroduce an issue in the news, like with Karen Weintraub’s piece today [on stem cells research]?

It’s an important subject and it’s overdue for an update. There’d been a lot of hype but not been many major breakthroughs yet. We brainstormed with the writer and photo editor and art director and figured out the best way to show this. We went to researchers and got a striking picture. The picture inside would’ve given a false impression because not everybody comes from stem cells treatment and the next day, be break-dancing.

How did the Peter Higgs interview work out?

Dennis [Overbye] went to England and ended up having lunch with Peter Higgs. I let him write it, he was a little starstruck. And he turned it in without any fanfare, he just sent it to me. I did a wordcount, it was 1,600 words, 600 words more than [we could fit]. But then I read it and said, “Wow, that’s fabulous”. Dennis’s strongpoint is explaining these difficult ideas. So we held another piece and included Dennis’s piece in the cover. [When asked about the staid choice of picture] With that particular columnist, there’s an artist, and they like each other’s work, so we let them go with it.

Overall, David comes across as an unassuming, deliberative and very helpful person in his role as the editor of Science Times. I say helpful because, when asked how much time he spends mentoring freelancers, he said, “I spend quite a bit more time working with [promising freelancers] because there are lots of people like you who are just starting out and how are they going to start out if nobody takes them seriously? I would hope there are lots of other editors doing a similar thing.” Thanks very much for dropping by, David, and it’s good to know a newspaper as daunting as The New York Times has someone like you who makes people like me feel less intimidated.

No country for new journalism

(Formatting issues fixed.)

TwitterNgoodThrough an oped in Nieman Lab, Ken Doctor makes a timely case for explanatory – or explainer – journalism being far from a passing fad. Across the many factors that he argues contribute to its rise and persistence in western markets, there is evidence that he believes explainer journalism’s historical basis is more relevant than its technological one, most simply by virtue of having been necessitated by traditional journalism no longer connecting the dots well enough.

Second, his argument that explainer journalism is helped by the success of digital journalism takes for granted the resources that have helped it succeed in the west and not so much in countries like India.

So these points make me wonder if explainer journalism can expect to be adopted with similar enthusiasm here – where, unsurprisingly, it is most relevant. Thinking of journalism as an “imported” enterprise in the country, differences both cultural and historical become apparent between mainstream English-language journalism and regional local-language journalism. They cater to different interests and are shaped by different forces. For example, English-language establishments cater to an audience whose news sources are worldwide, who can always switch channels or newspapers and not be worried about running out of options. For such establishments, How/Why journalism is a way to differentiate itself.

Local v. regional

On the other hand, local-language establishments cater to an audience that is not spoiled for options and that is dependent profoundly on Who/What/When/Where journalism no matter where its ‘reading diaspora’. For them, How/Why journalism is an add-on. In this sense, the localism that Ken Doctor probes in his piece has no counterpart. It is substituted with a more fragmented regionalism whose players are interested in an expanding readership over that of their own scope. In this context, let’s revisit one of his statements:

Local daily newspapers have traditionally been disproportionately in the Who/What/When/Where column, but some of that now-lost local knowledge edged its ways into How/Why stories, or at least How/Why explanations within stories. Understanding of local policy and local news players has been lost; lots of local b.s. detection has vanished almost overnight.

Because of explainer journalism’s reliance on digital and digital’s compliance with the economics of scale (especially in a market where purchasing power is low), what Doctor calls small, local players are not in a position to adopt explainer journalism as an exclusive storytelling mode. As a result of this exclusion, Doctor argues that what digital makes accessible – i.e. what is found online – often lacks the local angle. But it remains to be seen if this issue’s Indian counterpart – digital vs. the unique regional as opposed to digital vs. the small local – is even likely to be relevant. In other words, do smaller regional players see the need to take the explainer route?

Local-level journalism (not to be confused with what is practiced by local establishments) in India is bifocal. On the one hand, there are regional players who cover the Who/What/When/Where thoroughly. On the other, there are the bigger English-language mainstreamers who don’t each have enough reporters to cover a region like India thanks, of course, to its profuse fragmentation, compensating instead by covering local stories in two distinct ways:

as single-column 150-word pieces that report a minor story (Who/What/When/Where) or

as six-column 1,500-word pieces where the regional story informs a national plot (How/Why),

—as if regional connect-the-dots journalism surfaces as a result of mainstream failures to bridge an acknowledged gap between conventional and contextualizing journalism. Where academicians, scholars and other experts do what journalists should have done – rather, in fact, they help journalists do what they must do. Therefore, readers of the mainstream publications have access to How/Why journalism because, counter-intuitively, it is made available in order to repair its unavailability. This is an unavailability that many mainstreamers believe they have license to further because they think the ‘profuse fragmentation’ is an insurmountable barrier.

There’s no history

The Hindu and The Indian Express are two Indian newspapers that have carved a space for themselves by being outstanding purveyors of such How/Why journalism, and in the same vein can’t be thought of as having succumbed to the historical basis that makes the case for its revival—“Why fix something that ain’t broken?”. And the “top-drawer” publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post that Doctor mentions that find a need to conspicuously assert this renewal are doing so on the back of the technology that they think has finally made the renewal economically feasible. And that the Times stands to be able to charge a premium for packaging Upshot and its other offerings together is not something Hindu or Express can also do now because, for the latter couple, How/Why isn’t new, hasn’t been for some time.

Therefore, whereupon the time has come in the western mainstream media to “readopt” explainer journalism, its Indian counterpart can’t claim to do that any time soon because it has neither the west’s historical nor technological bases. Our motivation has to come from elsewhere.

Blogging at NYTimes and The Hindu

I’m going to draw some parallels here between the The New York Times and The Hindu in the context of Times’s decision to shut or merge up to half of its blogs (Disclosure: I launched The Hindu Blogs in December 2012 and coordinated the network until May 2014). This is not about money-making, at least not directly, as much as about two newspapers faced with similar economic problems at vastly different scales confronting the challenges of multi-modal publishing. Times’ decision to move away from blogs, which was brought to wider attention when Green went offline in March 2013, is not to be confused with its rejection of blogging. In fact, it’s the opposite, as Andrew Beaujon wrote for Poynter:

Assistant Managing Editor Ian Fisher told Poynter in a phone call: “We’re going to continue to provide bloggy content with a more conversational tone,” he said. “We’re just not going to do them as much in standard reverse-chronological blogs.”

This is mixed news for blogs. The experimental quality in the early days of blogging – which blogs both fed and fed off – is what inspired many post formats to emerge over the years and compete with each other. This competition was intensified as more news-publishers came online and, sometime in the late 2000s, digital journalism knew it was time for itself to take shape. The blog may have been fluidly defined but its many mutations weren’t and they were able to take root – most recognizably in the form of Facebook, whose integrated support for a variety of publishing modes and forums made the fluidity of blogging look cumbersome.

The stage was set for blogs to die but in a very specific sense: It is the container that is dying. This is good for blogs because the styles and practices of blogging live on, just the name doesn’t. This isn’t only a conceptual but also a technical redefinition because what killed blogs is also what might keep the digital news-publishing industry alive. It’s called modularization.

The modular newsroom

While I was at The Hindu, I sometimes found it difficult to think like the reader because it was not easy to forget the production process. The CMS is necessarily convoluted because if it aspires to make the journalist’s life easier, it has to be ‘department’-agnostic: print, online, design and production have to work seamlessly on it, and each of those departments has a markedly distinguished workflow. There is that obvious downside of ponderousness but on such issues you have to take a side.

One reason Beaujon cites for Times’ decision is their blogs’ CMS’s reluctance to play along with the rest of the site’s (which recently received a big redesign). I can’t say the problem is very different at The Hindu. In either institution, the management’s call will be to focus the CMS on whichever product/department/service is making the biggest profits (assuming one of them does that by a large margin) – and blogs, despite often being the scene of “cool” content, are not prioritized. The Schulzbergers have already done this by choosing to focus on one product while, at The Hindu, Editor Malini Parthasarathy has in the last two months ramped up her commitment to its digital platform with the same urgency as could have been asked of Siddharth Varadarajan had he been around.

The reason I said the demise of the container was also technical because, in order to keep a department-agnostic CMS both lightweight and seamless (not to mention affordable), larger organizations must ensure they eliminate redundant tasks by, say, getting a “print” journalist to publish his/her story online as well. Second, the org. must also build a CMS focused on interoperability as much as intra-operability. Technically speaking, each department should be an island that communicates with another by exchanging information formatted in a particular way or according to some standards.

Fragmenting the news

This is similar to blogs because the fragmentation that helped make it popular is also what has helped establish its biggest competitors, like tumblelogs, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc., and each of these modes in turn are inspiring new ways to tell stories. A more modularized newsroom in the same vein will be able to tell different kinds of stories and be more adaptive to change and shock, not to mention better positioned to serve the fragmenting news. Better yet, this will also give journalists the opportunity to develop unique workflows and ethos to deal specifically with their work. That’s one thing that doesn’t bode well for the unfortunate blogs at the Times: “reintegration” is always accompanied by some losses.

Through all of this, anyway, the good name of “news-site” might become lost but we mustn’t underestimate our readers to not be able to spot the news under any other name.

However, this is where the similarities between the two organizations do end because they operate in drastically different markets. While traffic on both sites mostly entered ‘sideways’, i.e. from a link shared on the social media or on the site homepage instead of from the blogs landing page, what it did for the site itself is different. For one, among the people The Hindu calls its audience, purchasing power is way lower, so the symmetry that the Times might enjoy in terms of ad rates in print and on the web is just almost-impossible to achieve in India. This makes the battle to optimize UX with income grittier within Indian publications. The quality of the news is also nothing to write home about, although there is reason to believe that is changing as it’s less shackled by infrastructural considerations. Consider Scroll.in or Homegrown.

These are, of course, nascent thoughts, the knee-jerk inspired by learning that the Times was shutting The Lede. But let’s not lament the passing of the blog, it was meant to happen. On the other hand, the blog’s ability to preserve its legacy by killing itself could have many lessons for the newsroom.