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Oct 1 / King Kaufman

The innovators’ secret? Thinking of journalism as a service, not an art form

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM could have included Bleacher Report as an example in this recent piece about how successful digital media outlets like Gawker, Buzzfeed and Quartz think about news as a service, rather than as something they create and then distribute to a waiting audience.

With or without B/R, the piece is excellent, and worth reading. Ingram writes:

Many media companies and publishers do occasional customer surveys or focus groups. But these tend to be primarily marketing exercises, and ultimately just reinforce existing design and content decisions that have already been made by editors. For the most part, such organizations see their job as coming up with great ideas and producing great content—a process that usually takes place with zero input from readers—and then delivering that content on a variety of platforms. In effect, a one-way relationship …

Thinking about news or journalism as a service or product, however—especially a digital one—changes the way you think about your job. [In that case], you are thinking about how to understand what it is that readers want from you, and how to provide it to them in the best way possible.

In order to do that properly, you have to experiment, and iterate rapidly, and most of all use data to watch what your users (or readers, or customers, whatever you choose to call them) are doing with your product.

I tell this story a lot, and in fact just told it this week to a UC-Berkeley School of Journalism class that was visiting Bleacher Report’s office: When I came to B/R after more than two decades in the business, the biggest difference for me between Bleacher Report and every other media outlet I knew about was that B/R acted like, and thought of itself, as a product company.

I, and everyone I ever worked with, had always thought about journalism as an art form, though none of us ever would have described it that way. But we acted like it. As Ingram describes it:

Journalists often seem to believe that their job is to tell the reader what they think is important or relevant, rather than thinking of journalism as a service that they are providing, one in which the reader’s needs or desires are paramount, rather than the journalistic instincts of the author.

He also describes Snow Fall, the New York Times’ famous innovative multimedia project released in 2012, as “a great piece of content that the NYT dreamed up and then pushed out the door.” That’s pretty much how artists do it, right? You dream up the work, create it, release it, and then try to market it as best you can, or better yet let the marketing people market it.

That’s not how content works anymore. Ask B/R bigwigs what business Bleacher Report is in and they’ll say something like: Providing the best experience for sports fans around the teams and topics they’re interested in. That sounds like journalism as a product or a service.

I’m not one of those bigwigs, in case you’re wondering. But that’s how I answer too.

Sep 30 / King Kaufman

Some strange reactions to Fareed Zakaria plagiarism charges

Newsweek has posted an extraordinary note on the top of its author page for Fareed Zakaria, the global policy expert who has been accused of plagiarism on several occasions. It reads:

Fareed Zakaria worked for Newsweek when it was under previous ownership. Readers are advised that some of his articles have been the subject of complaints claiming that they contain material that should have been attributed to others. In addition, readers with information about articles by Mr. Zakaria that may purportedly lack proper attribution are asked to e-mail Newsweek at corrections@newsweek.com.

Zakaria’s most recent Newsweek article was published in September 2010. IBT Media, the current owner, announced its acquisition of Newsweek from IAC/InterActive in August 2013.

It’s a nice use of the medium that Newsweek wants to crowdsource its plagiarism check, asking the audience to find any instances of Zakaria copying content from others without attributing it. On the other hand, it’s a little strange. Doesn’t it seem like Newsweek is saying, “We think there’s plagiarism in here, but it didn’t happen on our watch, so don’t blame us, and we’re not going to look for it. You can though!”?

And believe it or not, that’s not even the strangest Zakaria response this week. That honor goes to Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” who defended Zakaria on the show over the weekend. Referring to the anonymous bloggers at Our Bad Media, who have repeatedly pointed out Zakaria’s plagiarism, with clear citations and examples, for months, Stelter said:

It is clear to me that these anonymous people are waging a campaign against Zakaria, not just against his CNN work, but his columns and books, too. I believe that most of their claims about [Zakaria's CNN show] “GPS”—26 total—do not hold up under close scrutiny. The closer you look, the less it looks like capital-P plagiarism.

But when you zoom out, there’s a perception problem. The perception is that, as Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute told Politico, “It seems obvious that Fareed was overly reliant on his source material.”

McBride called some of the examples low-level plagiarism. Politico reporter Dylan Byers likened them to misdemeanors.

Stelter doesn’t ever go into detail about how the claims “do not hold up under close scrutiny.” He also doesn’t say why it’s “clear” to him that Our Bad Media are “waging a campaign against Zakaria,” as opposed to simply reporting what they’ve found, having looked into his work following earlier plagiarism charges. Judge for yourself if Our Bad Media’s findings are “low-level plagiarism,” whatever that is.

Journalist and journalism professor Steve Buttry argues: “Journalism has no such sin as low-level plagiarism.”

Responding to the idea that Zakaria, by fiddling with word order here and there, had maybe not done enough, but hadn’t committed the cardinal sin of plagiarizing because he didn’t copy passages exactly, Buttry writes, “The very act of rewriting stolen material makes a theft more sinister and deliberate than the stupid plagiarists who steal whole paragraphs, passages or stories verbatim.” He continues:

Zakaria was sneaky in his plagiarism. He rewrote his passages, changing a few words, fiddling with the order of facts and points but clearly—again and again—stealing the research and the conclusions and some of the words of other sources, but making it look a bit different. That works if you’re attributing and putting quotes around the words that come from the other source. But without attribution, it’s plagiarism.

Attribute everything. As Buttry has written elsewhere, “Linking is a matter of journalism ethics.” Here are Bleacher Report’s Attribution Guidelines.

Disclosure note: CNN, like Turner Sports, which owns Bleacher Report, is a Time-Warner company.

Sep 29 / King Kaufman

Derek Jeter teaches a class on media relations and interviewing

It took me a while to get around to reading the much-discussed New York Magazine profile of Derek Jeter, but I think there are some nice insights about the media from the famously opaque shortstop who played his last game Sunday.

The story, headlined “Derek Jeter opens the door,” features relatively intimate pictures of Jeter, many of them taken in his homes in New York and Tampa by Christopher Anderson, whom Jeter commissioned to photograph his final year in baseball.

I found the passages where the Captain talks about his interactions with the media particularly interesting. Jeter is obviously a private person by nature—he mentions this at one point in the story—but he also has job-related reasons for not opening up. His job, and reporters’ jobs. New York’s Chris Smith writes:

“In New York there’s a lot of attention off the field, a lot of distractions,” he says. “My job on our team all along is to try to limit distractions and try to keep it about the game. I think a lot of times players get in trouble when they’re asked questions and they think they have to find a way to answer it. If you ask me a question and I say, ‘I don’t know,’ there’s really no follow-up.”

Pretty shrewd, but it’s also one of the reasons writers say Jeter can be a boring interview. “If I was giving them headlines all the time, I wouldn’t have been here for 20 years,” he says. “But they ask boring questions. Give me a different question, and I’ll give you a different answer.”

Jeter has been so committed to the first part of that equation that it’s hard to imagine things would have been different if the media had asked brilliant, fascinating questions, rather than the ones he calls boring. It’s also hard to imagine that in 20 years, all of the questions were boring. In two decades of daily talking, even sportswriters can come up with an interesting question from time to time, just by accident.

Still, I’m OK taking Jeter’s advice to ask more interesting questions. One thing I try to do is picture how I would react if I were on the receiving end of my question. Would I want to answer it? Would I be interested in engaging with it? Or would it be something I’ve heard a million times before, or wouldn’t want anything to do with?

I once got a lesson in this from Tony La Russa, when he was managing the Cardinals. I was talking to him near the batting cage before a game and I asked him some question or other about bullpen usage. “Now, that’s a bad question,” he said, and then he explained to me why it was a bad question: He had no way of answering it without saying something that would hurt the feelings of at least one of his pitchers, and he wasn’t going to do that. The question was a dead end.

I don’t know why he didn’t just blow the question off. I guess he was feeling expansive that day. But I appreciated the lesson and I still think of it often, not in the sense of “How can I ask a question that won’t put the subject in a bad spot?” but more like “How can I ask a question that will make this person say something interesting?” That approach might be different for different interview subjects.

There’s one other little gem in that answer from Jeter: “I think a lot of times players get in trouble when they’re asked questions and they think they have to find a way to answer it.”

I agree, and thank goodness for that, right? A related point is that one of the greatest tools an interviewer has is silence. Most people hate silence in a conversation, and will make an effort to fill it by speaking. Sometimes the best question is simply an interested look at the end of an answer, a social cue that says, “Yes? Go on. I’m listening.” On the phone, good old silence can do the trick.

At that point, clearly, Jeter’s done talking. Most people aren’t.

Sep 26 / King Kaufman

Storytelling still at the center of journalism, Storyful founder says

A little follow-up to yesterday’s examination of a beer commercial for storytelling tips.

Mark Little, the founder of Storyful, a global news agency that collects and verifies content from social media, says, “This is the golden age of storytelling.” He would say that, what with story being part of the name of his business. But he made some good points in a discussion at the University of Florida chronicled by UF Journalism Department interim chair Ted Spiker at PBS’s Mediashift.

Spiker writes that he lectures a lot about stories, to help students understand story in ways other than in the negative ways that word is sometimes used around journalism: “Just out to get a story. Trying to drum up a story. Anything for the story.”

I try to reinforce that stories—whether the message is good or bad (or more likely somewhere in between)—are inherently good because they have the power to connect us all in a way that other forms of communication do not. I worry about stories, though, because of all of today’s noise, because of the emphasis on immediacy, because of our click-click-click-funny-kitty habits.

Spiker writes that he “did a mental fist pump” when he heard Little talk about a golden age for storytelling:

It is for many reasons—because traditional media outlets don’t hold exclusive rights to stories anymore, because of the potential to tell richer and deeper stories with sources closer to the center of action than any media member could be as news breaks, because so many brands are redefining how they will use storytelling to share their messages.

There’s a video of Little’s talk on Florida’s Innovators site.

Sep 25 / King Kaufman

A man, his puppy, a night of drinking—and a writing lesson

I love it when media consultant Al Tomkins does his close reads of TV commercials for storytelling tips on Poynter.org. I don’t know why they always seem to be about Budweiser ads, but I like them all the same.

This time, Tompkins is looking at Bud’s minute-long viral video “Friends Are Waiting,” which has more than 13.5 million views on YouTube. It’s an anti-drunk-driving spot, with the relationship between a young man and his dog at the center of it.

Tompkins shows how the video quickly unfolds the story of the man and puppy falling in love—”In just nine seconds, the story builds the relationship,” he writes—which sets up the context for the dog, now grown, anxiously waiting for his “friend,” who has gone out drinking with friends and stayed out all night.

“We can learn so much about news writing from watching, listening to and reading great stories of all kinds,” Tompkins writes.

Short stories like commercials are especially useful models to study because they are short, like most news stories. This spot never wastes my time, builds emotions and connections quickly, makes a clear solid point and leads to a resolution. We don’t know the dog’s name or the man’s name because we didn’t need to. The production is subtle and never competes with the message. The natural sound punctuates the story. Seemingly small things like lighting are not small.

In a news story, or a sports story, you’re probably going to need the names of the leading “characters.” But the lesson is to focus on the details that are essential, and keep your story moving forward, while offering telling details. In this case, for example, the dog both playfully running away with his leash but also gently comforting the man when he’s sick gives shape to their relationship. The dog perking up at headlights shining through the window, then sadly lowering his head again when they pass shows how anxious he is as he waits.

With the possible exception of an artful shot of the dog playing with a chew toy in a beam of light, there’s nothing in the video that couldn’t have been conveyed in text. And I bet you could make me see that chew toy moment if you really worked at it.

Sep 24 / King Kaufman

A test for writers: When should you write without pay?

Paywall Parkour: How to Rip Off Your Friends is the first post on the new Dealbreakers blog at Scratch Magazine, a site “about the relationship between writing, money, and life”—and one that has nothing to do with the defunct hip-hop magazine of the same name.

Dealbreakers, an editor’s note reads, “address a personal, behavioral ‘bottom line,’ or what you won’t do (or what you absolutely insist on doing) when it comes to the business of writing and publishing.”

In the first entry, veteran journalist Porter Anderson argues that writers should not pull stories from behind paywalls and share them, because that hurts all writers and it hurts coverage. Paywalls are good, Anderson writes. If readers are paying the freight, Anderson argues, readers are more likely to get “honest, untainted” reporting than if the sensibilities of advertisers must be catered to.

But all that’s not the most interesting thing for me in this interesting post. What I found interesting was a tangent consisting of Anderson’s cogent advice to writers who might be considering writing for free.

The decision to work free for such a medium, which can afford to pay its contributors, is up to each writer, of course. But many of us cringe when we see writers churning out work as free laborers. It undercuts the rest of us who want to hold out for the rightful place of all writers as fully compensated producers. And the Huffington Post example also offers, to my mind, the clearest test of what to do: if a medium has revenue, then it should pay.

I should note that he could just as easily have used Bleacher Report as an example, as B/R, like Huffington Post, has some unpaid writers.

Anderson continues that writing for the site of a friend or a nonprofit or some other situation where funds are clearly not available is a different story, and that he believes fledgling for-profit sites should pay at least a token amount as a show of faith that they’ll pay better when they’re able: “I’m much more likely to work with such an outfit than the Huffington Post, which is, to my mind, simply shirking its corporate duty to a workforce that can be come-hithered by ‘exposure.’”

Here’s where the really good advice comes in. Anderson proposes that writers should ask an important question to help them decide when to write without pay:

Yes, ‘exposure’ may be a worthy substitute for payment in some instances. But this requires a test: How much can you gain by working free? While I’d still rather see you paid for your article, you may decide the trade-off is fair. But writers should never lose sight of the fact that their business goal is to be paid. If there’s a reason for you to work free for one medium or another, be sure you’re asking yourself, ‘Exposure to whom? Who will see my free work here and, I hope, decide I’m worth paying for it? Is there actually a funded medium waiting?’

If the answer is yes, target your every word carefully to that funded medium. Make every freebie truly an attention getter. Don’t let your head be turned by the flattery of being ‘invited’ to write free. And set a time limit for yourself: how long can this go on?

That’s good stuff. As Anderson notes, it should be obvious stuff for any writer. But the obvious isn’t always so obvious.

Sep 23 / King Kaufman

Football Writers Week: B/R presents secrets of the top soccer scribes

It’s Football Writers Week at Bleacher Report, meaning the World Football team is presenting pieces all week about the world of football writing and writers.

It started Monday with Duncan Castles’ piece on covering the transfer window and the launch of the #classicmatchplot contest. The latter will continue all week, with Guillem Balague deciding on Friday who did the best job of describing a classic match in 140 characters—including that hashtag.

Today, Kristian Sturt, known on Twitter as @FootieWriter, spills the secrets of a freelancer’s success while Ollie Holt writes about interviewing the biggest names in the game and Karl Matchett serves up a slideshow of 50 football writers to follow on Twitter.

Later in the week, we’ll have Balague on researching Leonel Messi’s book, Jonathan Wilson on how covering tactics became cool, B/R writers Balague, Stan Collymore, Sam Tighe, Janusz Michallik, Ryan Bailey and James McNicholas, on video, with their most important tip for football writers, and a big B/R Football Writers Survey.

It looks like a fascinating week for anyone interested in soccer, writing or both.

Sep 19 / King Kaufman

Quick housekeeping note

This blog will be on a short vacation through Monday. The next post will appear on Tuesday. For Bleacher Report writers, next week’s Writer HQ Newsletter will go out on Tuesday rather than Monday.

Sep 18 / King Kaufman

Sportswriter Jay Busbee’s dream of a form-letter response to angry commenters

Sportswriter Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports has written a tongue-in-cheek form letter in response to commenters on his pieces, and anyone who’s ever had an online audience can relate.

The letter, published on his site and headlined “A Letter For the Angry Fan Who Just Wants a Little Attention,” has something for people who liked what he wrote, and something for, as Busbee writes, “as is the more likely scenario, you didn’t like what I wrote.” Since there are more of the latter, he spends more time on those replies, and that’s where the fun is:

4. Journalism can be “biased” in the sense that I get paid to offer my opinion on certain stories. If you disagree with my opinion, that’s your right, of course. But offering my opinion doesn’t make me a bad journalist, just like offering yours doesn’t make you a bad reader …

7. There’s (not theirs) a decent chance your (not you’re) writing is a writhing, poorly spelled, ungrammatical mess. If that’s the case, I’d love to take your points seriously, but I’m laughing too hard at you.

When I worked in a newspaper circulation department, taking calls from people whose morning paper was missing or in a puddle—sometimes people astonishingly angry over a 25-cent item!—my co-workers and I would fantasize about what we would say to callers on our last day at the job. Things like, “Sir, do you realize you’re screaming your lungs out over a 25-cent newspaper?” To be fair, that 25 cents would be worth about 60 cents today.

I’ve similarly fantasized about how I would answer apoplectic and abusive commenters and emailers if I were less professional, or maybe just less inhibited. I’ve never—OK, rarely—given in to these impulses. If you haven’t either, you might find Busbee’s form letter cathartic. You might even want to write one of your own. And never send it.

Sep 17 / King Kaufman

Stafan Fatsis on how access is playing out in the NFL’s troubles

This Slate piece by Stefan Fatsis is about how the NFL’s recent actions have caused the league to lose “its most loyal reporters,” but it also has some insights into the meaning of access, a subject we’ve discussed a lot in this space.

“Roger Goodell and the NFL thought they had the press under control,” the story’s display text reads. “Not anymore.”

Fatsis writes about the league’s strategy, similar to that of other big sports leagues, of hiring top writers like Judy Battista and Michael Silver away from prestigious media outfits for its branded media outlets, in this case NFL.com or the NFL Network. That serves “to reduce the amount of critical daily reporting and commentary.” But, Fatsis writes, even those reporters who don’t work for the NFL can get paid, in a way, in access:

In his book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman describes two conflicting strains of American journalism: access reporting and accountability reporting. The former involves getting inside information from powerful institutions, the latter telling inside stories about them …

Meanwhile, it looks like some NFL beat reporters were used and abused by the hands that typically feed them news about free agent signings and coaches on the hot seat. The problem with access journalism comes when reporters serve as mere pass-throughs for information, especially when that information is a lot weightier than the Chargers planning to sign Doug Legursky. In July, [Peter] King reported that “the NFL and some Ravens officials have seen” the video of [Ray] Rice punching out his then-fiancée Janay Palmer inside a New Jersey casino hotel elevator. But then the NFL denied having seen the video, and King explained that he hadn’t done due diligence, posting a statement saying his source had told him that he had only “assumed” the NFL had seen the video.

Fatsis points out that the NFL’s strategy could turn out to be a double-edged sword. By not giving these “insiders” the straight dope, the NFL has left them embarrassed by revelations from outsiders, such as TMZ, which obtained and released the Ray Rice elevator video.

“Now, the writers who once bowed before the commissioner’s throne are mad as hell,” Fatsis writes, “and they’re not going to take it anymore. Well, maybe.”

But for our purposes, it’s always good to be reminded that access can be a double-edged sword for reporters too. It always pays to remember why access is being granted. The most important quote in Fatsis’ piece comes from Pulitzer Prize–winning financial reporter Jesse Eisinger, who told the New York Times that he always reminds himself why sources are talking to him: “It’s not because I’m good looking or a nice person,” he said. “They’re all talking to push an agenda.”