Category: Journalism

Happy Bloomsday!

The inscription page from the first edition of Ulysses by James Joyce, published in Paris by Shakespeare and Company in 1922. The book was banned for a decade in the United States on obscenity charges.

 

By Mike Kuczkowski

Today marks the 111th anniversary of the day on which James Joyce first went strolling around Dublin with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Also, the date on which Joyce imagined a short story taking place that would follow an ad man, Leopold Bloom, around Dublin. Which, Joyce later expanded into the 18-chapter, 768-page epic novel “Ulysses.” Which, according to the Modern Library, is considered the greatest English-language novel of the 20th century. Which, was modeled after Homer’s Odyssey. Which means there will be Bloomsday breakfasts and walking tours around Dublin and dances in Croatia and Irish music in Brazil and dramatic readings, surely more than one enunciating the book’s final poetic words with vigor.

Which, of course, served as the inspiration for the name of our humble communications consultancy last year.

I first read “Ulysses” as a kind of protest. It was 1994, and I was a reporter at the Springfield Union-News. I covered the police beat four nights a week.

The cops in town had been feuding with the newspaper after a series of articles about the shooting of an unarmed black motorist by a white policeman. In particular, a story about a party the police had thrown for the officer, who had been placed on a paid leave of absence while the shooting was being investigated.

The night cop reporter’s job had usually involved checking in at the police station, reviewing the arrest book, following up on any bigger news items, and filing stories before the paper’s midnight deadline. Given the discord between the paper and the police, however, I would often find myself sitting in the dimly lit lobby of the police station for hours at a time, waiting for the arrest log. Often, the police would claim to have forgotten I was waiting.

And so, I purchased “Ulysses,” the thickest book I could lay my hands on.

Did I read it out of literary curiosity? Partly. Did I want to be able to tell people I’d read “Ulysses?” Maybe. Did I hope the cops saw that I was reading a massive book while they tried to freeze me out from doing my job? Unquestionably.

My waits became delightful respites. The novel was not what I had expected. It shifted styles constantly. One chapter would be typically early 20th Century, hard-to-penetrate prose. Another would be a parody. Still another would be an uninterrupted river of stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry that seemed to articulate the flow of my very own mind. My thought process, something I of course felt was uniquely mine, was there poured out on the page, thoughtful, painful, at times funny. I laughed out loud, echoes reverberating in the capacious police lobby.

As time wore on the book became less a symbol of my resoluteness and more of a joyful distraction. One night, three months and about three-quarters of the way through, a senior copyeditor spotted me in the newspaper’s break room eating my dinner, the book in hand.

— Have you read the final passage yet?
— No.
He outstretched his hand for the book. I handed it to him and he flipped to the backpages.
— May I?
— Sure.
He stood upright, cleared his throat and proceeded to read six or so lines from the final paragraph, a paragraph that stretches for page after page, ending triumphantly
— “…and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

I was blown away.

* * *

I am often asked why Orangefiery, and I do wish I had a shorter answer. It’s a word that, as far as I know, Joyce invented – one in a lexicon of more than 30,000 words used in “Ulysses.” It appears in a paragraph to do with communication between two characters, in the Cyclops passage, which is close enough to our domain of work. (“Communication was effected through the pituitary body and also by means of the orangefiery and scarlet rays emanating from the sacral region and solar plexus.”) I could have chosen hundreds of other words from the book, or from somewhere else, but I liked this one. It’s familiar, but different. It’s more interesting to me than Kuczkowski Associates or Partners or Group or Consulting. My kids like it. And, happily, the domain name was available.

* * *

I’ve been reading Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.” In it, Birmingham chronicles the publication history of Ulysses, which was banned in the United States for obscenity from 1922 to 1934.

It’s an amazing story. Prior to reading Birmingham’s book, I always judged Ulysses by its content. I could see what would have been regarded as obscene, of course, but I never quite grasped why it would ever have been banned, or what was so remarkable about it. So much music, film and literature in our modern world similarly conveys the inner thoughts and vices of its subjects, we’ve come to take it for granted in our art.

As Birmingham argues, the legal case against Ulysses, its success as an underground sensation, and ultimately the legal decision that it was, in fact, art and not pornography — helped reshape literature. It established new boundaries for what modernist literature could be. Or more correctly, what modernist literature could be published.

In the 1920s, vice squads patrolled bookstore shelves, ferreting out lewd publications. Books were banned. The entire attitude about obscenity seems counterintuitive from today’s perspective: If Joyce’s novel today seems descriptive of human thought processes, the fear of the 1920s was that it would inspire lewd thoughts among the innocent.

The institutions that supported censorship were surprising. The U.S. Postal Service did not just deliver the mail; it often sat in judgment of what was acceptable content. (For a decade, while Ulysses was banned in the U.S., the postal service intercepted published copies of the book in the mail and burned them. Unknown numbers of the first thousand copies of Ulysses were turned to ash by postal clerks.)

In 1920, while three New York judges were ruling on obscenity charges brought against the publishers of The Little Review, which had serialized chapters of Ulysses, Joyce was still revising the book. The case was lost, the women were fined $100 and the book was banned, even prior to its publication. A decade later, in a decision that is reprinted in my copy of “Ulysses,” Judge John Woolsey declared that he had read “Ulysses” and “in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.” The book was permitted to be sold openly in the United States.

The mechanics of publishing play a larger role in the history of Ulysses than I’d realized. Literally dozens of printers refused to print the book, because of its reputation. It’s staggering to consider, particularly from the vantage point of our digital age. I will cut and past this blog into a WordPress theme and click on a button that says “Publish.” In the 1920s, it was a far more complex task. Sylvia Beach, the courageous American in Paris and owner of the bookstore Shakespeare & Company, who ultimately published Joyce’s first edition in 1922 had to scour the French countryside for a printer willing to put Joyce’s words on paper.

And as with so many histories, we can see the antecedents of modernity. Birmingham’s description of Beach’s efforts to market the book bear a remarkable resemblance to a Kickstarter campaign. Beach had flyers drawn up (“ULYSSES suppressed four times during serial publication in ‘The Little Review’ will be published by ‘SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY’ complete as written). Prices were fixed, far above market rates. The first 100 buyers were promised copies signed by the author. A thousand copies were quickly purchased, prior to printing.

Finally, the “influencers” of Ulysses were Joyce’s fellow scribes. WB Yeats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf and many others acquired copies of the book. They bought it, read it, talked about it. Many wrote reviews, some glowing, some critical. T.S. Elliot wrote Ulysses was “a step toward making the modern world possible for art.”

Think about that, it’s an immense statement.

And there it is. Ulysses, both personally and historically, is all about change. Change centered on expression. Change that is about communication. And art. And connection.

* * *

This weekend, in anticipation of Bloomsday, The New York Times Book Review published two pieces asking the question “How would Ulysses be received today?”

Charles McGrath, a former editor of the Book Review, said that Ulysses ‘seems pretty tame’ by today’s standards, and that it was remarkable for the range of styles and techniques it employed. Rivka Galchen, a writer unknown to me who holds a number of literary awards, reviews the reviews of Ulysses on Amazon, noting that none of them describe Ulysses as obscene. Ultimately, she suggests reading the book yourself, which I would also recommend.

I’m no literary critic. My experience with Ulysses was and is personal. But, I happen to think The Book Review asked the wrong question. The question we can all learn lessons from is actually about how Ulysses was received in its day.

Ulysses is without question an imperfect book. It’s not for everyone, and even for those who love it, it has its boring parts.

But Ulysses is not best understood as just a book. It is not merely a chronicle of one man’s journey through Dublin. Ulysses, in both its creation and its publication, was an act of courage.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, Ulysses made a dent in the universe.

The Sports Guy Returns! Long Live the Sports Guy!

By Mike Kuczkowski

He’s baaaack!

Bill Simmons, the bad boy of podcasting, has returned to the studio and is churning out his commentary on Vegas’ National Football League lines again, along with podcasts on basketball and various other pop culture topics.

I feel like Don Imus has returned to WFAN after racist comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, or Billy Martin is back in the Yankee dugout.

Actually, I don’t feel that way at all. Simmons is nothing like those guys. (And I confess to loving both Imus and Martin, despite their mistakes.) Simmons is probably the most middlebrow commentator the interwebs have yet produced.

Yet Simmons managed to get himself suspended for three weeks, after saying on his B.S. Report podcast that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was “a liar.” That description, which many observers would agree holds at least the possibility of being true, apparently ran afoul ESPN’s editorial standards.

The suspension itself became a cause célèbre. Simmons’ loyal followers (he has nearly 3 million Twitter followers and his B.S. Report podcast is consistently among the most downloaded in the iTunes store) were outraged and launched a #FreeSimmons hashtag campaign. Domestic violence supporters spoke out in his defense. Commentators quickly pointed out the multi-billion dollar relationship between ESPN and the NFL, which presides over the premier league of America’s most popular sport, was probably the main reason for the suspension.

Neither ESPN nor the NFL looked good. (Here’s our crisis scorecard of both organizations.)

Simmons, on the other hand, presents a more complicated picture. Yes, he possesses a bit of a martyr halo here, for being suspended for speaking his mind. But he also was, what’s the word… stupid.

In life and in journalism, when you hear the words “I dare you” leaving your lips, you are literally asking for trouble. So, in a way, Simmons got what he was asking for.

What disappoints me is that Simmons was pontificating rather than offering the kind of nuanced, insightful analysis of which he’s capable. The analytical side of Simmons is what’s mostly on display on Grantland, with thoughtful, long-form news and commentary from his stable of writers. As I wrote in “The New Digital Journalists” these guys are bringing all the tools of the digital journalist — stats, links, YouTube clips, infographics and replay gifs — into their reporting. It’s exciting to witness.

The dark side of this is they are their own brands, and they know it. At his best, as with his interview with legendary screenwriter William Goldman, Simmons asks excellent questions and listens well. He’s witty, thoughtful and observant. At other times, he sounds like a frat boy, full of braggadocio.

Monday, Simmons returned to the BS Report, talking about the NFL’s Week 7 games and Week 8 betting lines. His only reference to the controversy was to say he was glad to be back and to thank fans for their kind emails and tweets of support. It is perhaps the most winning moment in this entire scandal. Striking a reasonable tone in his first podcast underscores the degree to which ESPN acted unreasonably.

There’s a lot of ballgame yet to be played. Grantland itself has come under scrutiny, and it’s still evolving as a platform. There are whispers that Simmons will look to walk away from ESPN at the end of his current contract, in which case he’s likely to have many suitors. Let’s hope that wherever he goes, he stays true to the thoughtful side of the brand and persona he’s created, with a lesser dose of pontification. It would be his ultimate victory.

The Least-Heralded Greatest Actor of His Generation

Photo Credit: Andrea Raffin / Shutterstock.com

Did the Media Hype Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Life at his Death, or Did It Miss The Story?

By Mike Kuczkowski

 

There he is, as vital as ever, impossibly alive in character: Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a John LeCarré spymaster in “A Most Wanted Man.” Another great Hoffman performance, punctuating our loss of his presence in cinema.

In February, when I heard Hoffman had died, I experienced that odd range of emotions reserved for those who have touched us but with whom we have no personal relationship. Surprise. Shock. Sadness. A sense of loss. A sense that something pained and vulnerable must have been behind those pained and vulnerable characters he played with such consistent excellence on the big screen.

I recalled his turns as the bratty snitch in “Scent of A Woman.” And as Ben Stiller’s gross sidekick in “Along Came Polly.” And Scotty J., Lester Bangs, Father Flynn, Capote, The Master… a long line of characters, all of whom were made more remarkable by the craft Hoffman brought to the roles.

Then came the claim “the greatest actor of his generation.”  Was he? Maybe so. He was a fine actor, no question about it. But the greatest of his generation? I really didn’t know.

As someone who sees a fair number of movies each year and consumes even more movie reviews and film industry media coverage, I felt like I should have known the answer to that question. Had I missed the memo from the critics, or was this something that was just unsaid before his too-early passing. And, if it was the latter, how does that square with our relentless, 24/7, gossip-tinged media coverage of Hollywood, in which the least significant celebrity sighting can get top billing from TMZ.com?

Rating a Generation

Let’s break it down. The first step is to define what constitutes Hoffman’s ”generation” of actors. This is trickier than it might appear. He’s clearly not part of the Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino cohort, all of whom are 70+. Is he in the same generation as George Clooney? Or Leonardo DiCaprio? If so, how does he compare?

I looked at the 66 actors who have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Performance as an Actor in a Leading Role from 1997. Of those, 21 actors are between the ages of 39 and 50. Let’s say that’s Hoffman’s “generation.” (Clooney, at 53, misses the cut.)

Using data from IMDB.com, I looked at how many awards these actors have been nominated for and won. I created a metric, which I’ll call “Awardscore.” The Awardscore gives each star 10 points for an Oscar win – whether in a supporting or leading role – and five for an acting Oscar nomination. Wins and nominations for less prestigious awards were given two and one points, respectively.

The results (see chart below) make a strong case that Philip Seymour Hoffman was indeed the greatest, or at least the most decorated, actor of his generation.

Best Actors of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Generation

Actor Age Noms Wins Oscar Noms Oscar Wins Awardscore
Philip Seymour Hoffman 46 64 88 4 1 270
Javier Bardem 45 53 91 3 1 260
Leonardo DiCaprio 39 122 50 4 0 242
Brad Pitt 50 84 54 3 0 207
Johnny Depp 51 80 54 3 0 203
Heath Ledger 35 36 71 2 1 198
Will Smith 46 87 48 2 0 193
Christian Bale 40 56 58 2 1 192
Jamie Foxx 46 58 49 2 1 176
Russell Crowe 50 52 43 3 1 163
Matt Damon 43 80 33 2 0 156
Chiwetel Ejiofor 37 52 47 1 0 151
Joaquin Phoenix 40 70 32 3 0 149
Robert Downey Jr. 49 69 33 2 0 145
Nicolas Cage 50 45 39 2 1 143
Don Cheadle 50 77 30 1 0 142
Matthew McConaughey 45 38 40 1 1 133

SOURCE: Orangefiery analysis of data from imdb.com, search conducted Aug. 4, 2014, updated Aug. 23.

I also looked at Metascore, from the review aggregator site “Metacritic.” On this metric, which measures the quality of the films in which he appeared, Hoffman again outperformed his peers with a lifetime Metascore of 67, five points ahead of Bardem, Damon and Renner, who lead the rest of the pack. Given the volume and range of films in which he appeared, from “Almost Famous” to the forgettable “Patch Adams,” I was surprised that his lead was so pronounced. He’s a full 11 points above the average, 20% better than the mean. This suggests Hoffman took the films he was in and made them better.

Assessing the Critics

So, there is a strong case that Hoffman was his generation’s greatest actor. Which leads to my last question: Was this something unsaid, or something I had missed?

The Factiva media database shows were 338 articles published between January 1, 2000 and January 31, 2014 using the phrase “greatest actor of his generation”. Of those, most referred to Sir Laurence Olivier (20+), Marlon Brando (20+ times, mostly focused on his death in 2004), Robert DeNiro (15), Sean Penn (12) and Daniel Day-Lewis (8). (Note: Day-Lewis, at 57, has a very strong claim to being today’s greatest actor with five Oscar nominations and a record three wins and an Awardscore of 332 in just 29 credited roles).

Of Hoffman’s contemporaries, DiCaprio was mentioned eight times. Robert Downey Jr. also had eight articles mention him with that phrase, often immediately contrasted with his drug problems. Russell Crowe received five mentions, including two lengthy examinations of his career in his native Australian press. Ryan Gosling was associated with the phrase four times. Ed Norton and Kevin Spacey, three each.

Hoffman was mentioned in four articles, always in passing. Once by Sean Penn, in an interview with Piers Morgan (Morgan replied, “Really?”). Once James Corden, in his 2012 Tony Award acceptance speech (Hoffman had been nominated for his performance in “Death of a Salesman.”) New York Times critic A.O. Scott mentions Hoffman as the second-greatest working actor, behind Day-Lewis, in a 2013 Oscar preview with Charlie Rose. No in-depth appreciation, no feature piece on his body of work in a major publication. It’s as though he was appreciated by his peers as a great actor, but the media just wasn’t interested.

A similar search for the phrase “best actor of his generation” yielded 278 articles. Many more mentions for Norton, Crowe, Spacey, DiCaprio. New mentions of Johnny Depp and Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman? Not a single one.

Perhaps the most prescient, if not ironic, piece of coverage is a 2012 New York Times blog that asked the question, “Is Mark Wahlberg the Greatest Actor of His Generation?” The piece explores how many Oscar-worthy roles Wahlberg had, compared with the likes of Matt Damon, DiCaprio, Paul Giamatti and (describing him as the “big gun”) Hoffman. Tongue firmly in cheek, author Adam Sternbergh says “raise your hand if you thought the Greatest Actor of His Generation title bout would come down to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mark Wahlberg.” Huh.

So there it is, like a needle in a haystack. The clearest declaration that Hoffman was the best of his time came at 4:12 pm on February 2, 2014, when The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson declared, “Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Greatest Actor of His Generation.” Just less than 6 hours after the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Hoffman had died in his Manhattan apartment. After that, 17 additional unique pieces echoed the sentiment. Suddenly, a critical consensus had formed.

Parting Thoughts

So, yes, Hoffman was one of the greatest actors of his generation. And, no, we didn’t say so while he might have heard us. One wonders if it would have made a difference. To Hoffman, and equally to us. I suppose it’s an unfortunate human tendency, to save the kindest words and most meaningful critical appraisals for obituaries.

It’s also easy, but accurate, to say that media coverage of an actor’s untimely death represents us at our worst. The media said so little when it might have mattered, and then pried so much when tragedy struck. It’s a phenomenon best described by the singer-songwriter Marc Mulcahy in “Where’s the Indifference Now?” — a song inspired by media coverage surrounding the death of Heath Ledger:

Get a picture of his girlfriend crying

Flowers strewn around the entrance

His parents are asking for some time to grieve

Even better can’t just everybody leave

Still, it does make me feel as though we could do better when it comes to appreciating the cumulative contributions being made by our great artists. Some stars, like Crowe or Downey Jr., seem to attract media star treatment, perhaps because they are bold enough to declare their ambitions aloud. Others gain coverage for their striking handsomeness, if not their public trials and travails. Perhaps Hoffman was overlooked because he was not as attractive, generally, as others on this list. One way or the other, we missed a big story.

One thing I would urge the media to do: assign a major piece on Javier Bardem. He wasn’t mentioned a single time with the phrase “greatest actor of his generation.” And with Hoffman gone, there’s a compelling case that he is.

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Six Truths About The New York Times’ Innovation Report

By Mike Kuczkowski

On May 15, someone leaked a copy of The New York Times’ Innovation Report, a 96-page internal memorandum examining why the Times is falling behind in the digital journalism game to the likes of Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Politico.

It was a meta-media moment, the leak of a key internal document from The New York Times, published first by Buzzfeed, then by Mashable and amplified by the whole digital media pack. Media prognosticators combusted with a combination of shock and awe. Shock, because it was a strikingly candid assessment, with a sharply critical tone, that may have explained the unexpected departure of Executive Editor Jill Abramson (it did not). Awe, because, well… it was a strikingly candid assessment with a sharply critical tone, written by New York Times staffers themselves.

The Neiman Lab at Harvard called the report “one of the key artifacts of the digital media age.” The debate that has followed has been wide-ranging, from praise of the report’s brilliant distillation of the concept of disruptive innovation, to Jill Lepore’s deconstruction and dismissal of the entire genre of disruptive innovation (most notably the work by Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christenson, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma) in The New Yorker.

The Times’ Innovation Report is a great read. There’s only one problem: It offers very little in the way of innovation.

The bulk of the report focuses on the Times’ cultural barriers to innovation, notably the wall of “Church and State” that exists between the business side (focused historically on advertisers, the report said) and the editorial side (focused on readers). There are fulsome examples of cases, like the Times’ Upshot, where innovation failed to tap all the resources it might have in order to be successful. (For an excellent summary of all the issues tied to the Times’ report, check out Vox’s storystream on the subject.)

[Disclosure: In 1998, I freelanced briefly for The Times’ Connecticut Bureau. I am a huge fan of the Times and have been an avid reader for my entire adult life.]

The Times’ Innovation Report fails to offer a compelling case for how the Times will compete in the future as the leading media property, regardless of channel. Here are the key issues, as I see them:

1/ Problem definition: The Times claims it is “winning” in journalism. I won’t dispute this claim, and it is supportable. But, it is also the heart of the issue. The definition of successful journalism is evolving, and everyone is struggling to keep up – including readers. That is the central problem The Times’ leadership should be addressing. What the Innovation Report offers up instead as its core problem is “the art and science of getting our journalism to readers.” This suggests better systems and training in content distribution and promotion, a manageable task. But, the report’s recommendations reach far beyond that solution set. I think they failed to confront the toughest reality: That the definition of great journalism is evolving, and the business model to support it is even harder to pin down.

2/ Audience insights: For all the talk about audience development and engagement, The Times’ report contains no data or insights whatsoever about its audiences, current or aspirational. This has always been the key to success for any journalistic – or commercial — enterprise. The Times has become the newspaper of record by delivering a definitive daily news report to its readers, satisfying their desire to be well-informed, on a general basis, about the events of the day. The playing field of that issue has changed dramatically due to the rise of digital competitors and a host of other factors. It may be that a host of other internal study groups are tracking audience desires and behaviors, cracking the code on the complexities of online, social and mobile personas. But the lack of mention here is glaring, and concerning.

3/  The Competition: I’ve got news for the leadership of The Gray Lady… Buzzfeed is not your competition. It may have a massive audience, but if The Times went head to head with BuzzFeed on “The 23 People Who Should Stay Away From The Beach For A While”, I think readers of both The Times and BuzzFeed will be quite confused. The Times must compete with upstarts from a position of strength. Can it do more to offer readers the level of context for important global stories? Absolutely. Does it have the resources and archives with which to do so? Unquestionably. The Times never went head to head with The Daily News and the Post in the tabloid circulation wars of the ’70s and ’80s, I don’t think a different strategy is warranted today.

4/ The Brand: The Times still does not appear to understand that its biggest asset is not its print edition, its talent or its content – it’s The Times’ brand. Few brands in the world are as instantly recognizable or as deeply understood. We readers have come to expect the most definitive, contextual, well-reported — if slightly left-leaning — journalism available. Period. The brand is far more valuable, in terms of its leadership, reputation for quality, credibility and tone, than any other media brand. The Innovation Report makes a reference to this, recommending a larger investment in Times-branded events, but this is presented as a tactic in search of a strategy. The strategy is, build and capitalize on the value of The Times’ brand, through a variety of available channels, experiments and revenue-developing activities.

5/ Defining Innovation: The report talks about innovation (and even gives a neat graphic treatment of disruptive innovation.) But it doesn’t actually define the term. And that’s challenging, because the Times has been innovative on a number of fronts, including data journalism, design and products. (Snow Fall, which has been widely praised, was a piece of beautiful journalism, from reporting to presentation.) It has not, in my view, done an excellent job of sustaining those innovations. The report goes into great detail on how The Times has failed to innovate – and how others have succeeded. It is likely that innovation at The Times means something other than a popular listicle. By failing to define the connected, agile, interactive and user-driven traits that The Times does value, the report leaves staffers and readers to wonder what innovation means in The Times’ eyes.

6/ Strategic Experiments: Ultimately, the business of innovation – particularly the kind of innovations meant to help a successful business change its business model in the face of uncertainty — is a matter of strategic experiments. Most organizations fail at this, which is why in the list of the world’s top 100 companies in 1912, only 19 remained on that list by 1995. I strongly urge The Times leadership to read 10 Rules for Strategic Innovators, by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. They recommend setting up strategic experiments that are explicitly charged not with generating profits, but with learning how to succeed in new, hostile business environments. If their rules can be distilled to a mantra, it is this: forget, borrow and learn. Tough medicine for an operation as focused on profits as The Times, but good medicine nonetheless.

What does this all mean? There is little question that The Times is struggling to adapt to a world of online journalism that is rapidly evolving and unpredictable. I have no doubt that the internal barriers to innovation and experimentation are substantial.

I suspect the problem that The Times is trying to solve is far more complex and nuanced than the one outlined in the Innovation Report. I believe The Times wants to continue to be the definition of quality among general-interest, mass audience media outlets, in an age in which interests are ever more specialized, and audiences are fickle.

If The Times relies on the brand values that have brought them this far, I’m confident they can succeed. But, my faith is rooted more in my belief in The Times’ leadership and the strength of its journalism and staff, rather than any insights gleaned from its Innovation Report. In the end, The Times will succeed or fail based on its ability to evolve and innovate its journalism and related products for the needs of its audience. And, we’ll read all about it, most likely in The New York Times, but maybe in Buzzfeed, too.

A full copy of the NY Times Innovation Report, via Mashable

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The New Digital Journalists

Source: www.grantland.com

With Grantland, Vox and Fivethirtyeight.com, a new breed of digital media properties emerges

By Mike Kuczkowski

Over the past six months, I’ve been closely observing three web sites: Grantland, Fivethirtyeight.com and Vox. These three sites represent a vision of digital journalism that holds great promise. They’re lively, they make great use of their online platforms. They aren’t afraid to go long, which I love. They weave in multimedia, multi-channel content fluidly, whether via animated gifs, infographics, interactive charts or Youtube clips. They showcase the talents of their staff in multichannel formats, whether that’s a podcast, Youtube videos or traditional print-style article drenched in links, infographics and multimedia.

These outlets are giving voice to a new breed of journalist that is thoughtful and expert, just like the old shoe-leather types. Yet, just as Tom Wolfe declared his generation of reporters “The New Journalists,” this online gang is empowering a new generation of reporters who can tell stories with a full toolbelt of digital content tools. The New Digital Journalists are steeped in their beats, highly analytical and willing to put forth a prediction or two — and willing to admit when their predictions were wrong.

All in all, it’s gripping journalism, and signals a major evolutionary step in online reporting.

The one thing that gives me pause is, the editors at these sites appear to have removed the quotation keys from their reporters’ keyboards. They run right up to the line between analysis and authority, which may come to haunt them over time.

More on that later. First, here’s a quick overview of the three media properties:

GrantlandGGrantland is the brainchild of ESPN basketball columnist and commentator Bill Simmons. Simmons is an everyman commentator on a wide range of sports and pop culture topics, with a particular passion and expertise in basketball. Listening to his podcast (the BS Report) is almost always a treat. He’s smart, humble, and insightful. The author of the best-selling The Book of Basketball, Simmons goes out of his way to pay tribute to ABA legends onto his podcast, and talk about how the game has changed. He’s willing to go out on a limb on predictions, and he’s often entertainingly wrong. He does not hide his Boston sports allegiances – he even has his father as a regular guest on his podcast – and his listeners are the better for it. He humanizes sports, without dumbing it down.

Beyond Simmons, Grantland features analytics-friendly reporting on all manner of sports and pop culture. It’s good stuff, by and large. Sometimes it gets wrapped up in its own particular perspective on what’s important, but the team has a good ear for what’s important. Writers post news and analysis, they do Youtube videos on their own Grantland Channel and podcasts, and they are very, very smart on what they cover.

FFoxFivethirtyeight.com, also owned by ESPN, is the brainchild of Nate Silver, formerly of the New York Times and before that, a blogger on politics and economics. Silver is smart, and his site is at its most interesting when it takes a fresh look at some kind of spreadsheet – whether it’s children’s naming patterns over time or how old we can expect elite tennis players to be and still win Grand Slam titles. Silver’s vision for data-analytics in journalism is expansive, and his site is appropriately broad as well. While his greatest strength is on display in features on electoral college or baseball, there is a breadth to the site that is thought-provoking and engaging. I particularly like the way so many of the articles take pains to explain even mildly complicated statistical analysis. This is a real strength for Silver, which in turn makes his site accessible but not reductive.

VoxVVox is the brainchild of Ezra Klein, formerly of the Washington Post. What distinguishes Vox is its use of ‘storystreams’, which are snippets of reporting displayed in web-based card stacks (think post-it notes), with embedded objects (tweets, video, documents, links to other news articles, etc.) that comprise different elements of a story. I love, love, love this approach. It’s as though a reporter has handed us her notebook and allowed us to flip through it. The effect is that we explore the stories based on our own curiosity. It’s ‘discover, don’t sell’ journalism, which very subtly upends the traditional top-down tendencies of most news organizations to tell readers what’s important. The format is pure genius, pure digital genius, that no one at the NY Times was going to come up with looking at things from a print-driven perspective. I thought the high point of Vox’s journalism was the storystream on L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, which allowed readers to venture down the path directly to the TMZ audio recording of Sterling’s alleged racist comments, but then also made it equally easy to stay current on the Clipper’s team protest and other breaking news. Occasionally, a storystream “card” felt a bit thin, but more often than not, it provided just the right level of definitive reportage and links to external sources.

A couple of notable things about all three sites:

1/ The Branded Journalist: Simmons, Silver and Klein are each journalists AND brands. Their sites showcase their individual talents, but not (at least in my view) in an ego-centric manner. There’s plenty of room for other voices, and Simmons in particular uses his personal brand to promote the personal brands of his team. Klein conducts video interviews with prominent sources on his site.

2/ Brand support: All three sites appear to be willing to integrate brands in a ‘native’ or nearly native way. Vox has a partnerhsip with GE called ‘pressing’ that offers expository videos on a variety of news topics. Grantland’s YouTube Channel is sponsored by Jeep, and their podcasts are sponsored as well. This suggests that a classic publishing model — advertisers sponsoring content to get a corporate brand/reputational lift (a la a public radio model) rather than flight specific product ads. (Though they do that too.)

3/ Willingness to take risks: The sites are at their best when they go out on a limb, whether it’s FiveThirtyEight.com’s use of Yelp reviews to create a “Value Over Replacement Burrito” metric, as part of its ‘Burrito Bracket’ feature. Or when Simmons and his NBA analyst pal Jalen Rose, an ex-player who speaks with wisened authority, lay out their power rankings of NBA teams (note: the Chicago Bulls were #1 this year, and even Rose protested that the list was Simmons’s).

That’s what’s good about these new properties. Here’s what’s not so good:

1/ The Loss of Attribution: Nobody quotes anyone anymore. Which I find incredibly irritating. As a reporter, I always thought it was absurd when an editor required me to find someone to quote something that was a provable fact. I mean, there is actually no reason one should need to quote a meteorologist on the days’ temperature. One can simply look at a thermometer, positioned in a reasonable outdoor position, and read it. But, that’s not the same thing as taking an innovative approach to a data set and reporting it without including any critical views from economists saying whether that’s a valid way of reporting something, or not. I don’t mean to clip the wings of these very smart reporters, but it’s an issue.

2/ The Editorial Judgment Learning Curve: In the case of both Grantland and Fivethirtyeight.com, they’ve screwed up a couple of things. On Grantland, there was this piece, which handled transgender issues with ham-fisted insensitivity, and on Fivethirtyeight.com, there was this piece on climate science that was, by Silver’s own admission, lacking in balance. Yet, even in this criticism, which is potentially the most damning, I find seeds of salvation. Both sites showed a level of transparency and genuine apologia that was admirable. Grantland dedicated a significant editor’s note, and a podcast with a transgender sports reporter, to explain what went wrong. Fivethirtyeight commissioned someone to critique its own article to review the controversy around its first author’s piece. To me, this represents a kind of digital new-world order that is instructive for media organizations – and potentially all kinds of content-generating organizations (including corporations). These editors are willing to say, we should have asked tougher questions, and in the future we will. Meanwhile, we’ll tell you everything we can about what went wrong. It would be fascinating to consider how the NY Times would handle the Jayson Blair scandal in today’s hyper-transparent news era.

3/ The Stretch. I’ve noticed that in a few cases, particularly on fivethirtyeight.com, but potentially on all three sites, there is a tendency to take an interesting analytical point and stretch it beyond the accuracy of the data. One example, for me, was when Silver wrote about fan allegiance across America based on a Facebook data feed on location-based ‘likes’ of Major League Baseball teams. It was a great, fun data set to analyze, but as I said in a comment at the time, it really only tells you what people who click ‘like’ on a team’s Facebook page think. It does not illustrate what is happening in real life. And while that may seem like a subtle point, it may ultimately prove to be a significant one. (NOTE: Silver made his name by looking at historic voting patterns and weighting them more than many pollsters did, so it may well be that he is predisposed to think about real-world data and context in his journalism.)

On balance, I believe these news sites are fine additions to the journalistic canon. I think they represent a significant evolutionary step in the world of online/digital journalism. They’re smart vehicles for a range of long/short, predictive, reportage, opinion and analytical journalism. They make great use of their digital media, offering multiple entry points into the properties. They are led by people who have a strong sense of editorial direction – and aren’t afraid to make mistakes.

Moreover, they are likely to continue to evolve, which bodes well for the future of journalism. For people in communications like myself, these trends suggest we should look at new ways to tell our clients’ stories, through data, analytics and multi-channel content. It’s clear that these reporters will be open to persuasion and compelling perspectives about the news of the day, but they aren’t going to fall for glib publicity stunts, thinly researched pitches or experts whose expertise does not exceed that of the reporters themselves. Listening to Zach Lowe interview Jeff Van Gundy is a damned fine interview, in part because they both know their stuff.

So here it is, the new digital journalism. I can’t wait to see where this is headed next.

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