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Jun 24 / Richard Leivenberg

When defining journalism “quality,” we can’t let the tail wag the dog

Note: This is a response to yesterday’s B/R Blog post, Does the definition of quality journalism ever change?

The question of quality journalism looms over our industry due to the rapid rise of new technology. Newspapers never had an issue with this subject when their papers were delivered by newspaper boys on bikes.

I have lived through the various stages of the technology revolution. From manual typewriters to the introduction of fax machines into the newsroom right up to the integration of computers.

Writing for B/R changed everything I knew about how to gather information for a story. Instead of talking directly with a source, I now gather information online to back up or formulate a story. As a former newspaper editor, I am sure King Kaufman would never have let an article be published without the strict verification of facts and sources.

That is one thing I admire about B/R’s evolution. As a featured columnist, I am pushed by my B/R editors to link as many sources as possible for the facts and quotes I publish. In the old days, we would have to have very specific notes regarding statements by our sources. Today, we rely on articles and facts we find on the internet to substantiate our stories.

That is, of course, why B/R came under so much criticism early on. No self-respecting journalist would rely on the “facts” gathered by someone else. You always had to be the direct contact.

King writes that high quality journalism should “be the coverage and analysis our readers are looking for, delivered in formats and on devices that they want to use.”

The difficulty with this idea is whether the dog is wagging the tail or the other way around. As journalists, we should not let the delivery system dictate the message, but that is sometimes how it feels. We definitely want readers to read what we have written and that is where the quandary lies with the need to deliver information on “formats and on devices that they want to use.”

It is a tricky balancing act, especially for the old guard. They are late to the table and can learn a lot from B/R’s standards and approach.

At the same time, we cannot diminish the quality of our journalism no matter how the information is delivered.

* * *

Richard Leivenberg is a B/R Featured Columnist.

Jun 23 / King Kaufman

Does the definition of “quality journalism” ever change?

Author, publisher and media analyst Thomas Baekdal asks a good question about that leaked New York Times innovation report from a few weeks ago that I can’t seem to stop writing about:

What if Quality Journalism Isn’t?

It’s a question not just for the Times, but for any media organization. Here’s what he means: The innovation report says that “The New York Times is winning at journalism,” but “we are falling behind in a second critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers.” Baekdal says this is a contradiction:

This is something I hear from every single newspaper that I talk with. They are saying the same thing, which is that their journalistic work is top of the line and amazing. The problem is “only” with the secondary thing of how it is presented to the reader.

And we have been hearing this for the past five to ten years, and yet the problem still remains. There is a complete and total blind spot in the newspaper industry that, just maybe, part of the problem is also the journalism itself.

Emphasis in the original.

Baekdal is writing about newspapers, but I think the question fits for anyone creating content: “If their daily report is ‘smart and engaging’ [quoting the innovation report], why are they failing to get its journalism to its readers?”

The question reminds me of conversations that happened a lot in my early days at Bleacher Report as we were working to transform the site from its rough-and-tumble origins to one at which excellent content was the top priority.

At one meeting I was prattling on about the hurdles that lay between us and the kind of high-quality stories one might find in the best newspapers or the top professional sports websites. Someone said, “We have to redefine what’s meant by ‘high-quality story.’”

That didn’t mean lowering standards so that what once would have been considered mediocre would now be “high quality.” What this person meant, further conversation revealed, was that our definition of high-quality content should be the coverage and analysis our readers are looking for, delivered in formats and on devices that they want to use.

That has turned out to be a damned good definition. It’s a profoundly different one than “stories that meet journalism and aesthetic standards that have been in place for decades.”

There’s nothing wrong with defining quality in that way. It’s just not the only way. And, as Baekdal argues, it’s a way that can be limiting.

As the media changes, technology changes, consumption habits change, we all have to make sure we’re working with a definition of “high quality” that’s changing appropriately. Because rest assured: At least some competitors are, and your readers will probably find them.

Jun 20 / King Kaufman

Friday reads: Anonymous sources, shoe-leather reporting … Oxford comma

I’m thinking of making this a regular, or semi-regular, Friday feature: Gathering up some interesting pieces that I haven’t otherwise commented on in the B/R Blog and offering them up as weekend reading for you.

Politico’s reporting disaster by Dana Milbank, Washington Post

Former PaidContent editor Staci D. Kramer tweeted that Milbank’s column “should be [required] j school reading: not for the masterful takedown, but for the reporting lesson.”

Backstory: Milbank wrote a column about a Heritage Foundation gathering on Benghazi that, he wrote, “deteriorated into the ugly taunting of a woman in the room who wore an Islamic head covering.” Politico blogger Dylan Byers published a post headlined “Dana Milbank’s Heritage disaster” in which he wrote that, based on a video he’d seen, “Milbank grossly misrepresented the nature of that exchange.”

Milbank’s reply, the piece linked above, accuses Byers of “armchair journalism,” drawing conclusions from nine minutes of video from a 65-minute event, which, Milbank writes, doesn’t capture the nastiness toward the Islamic woman that Milbank heard, and recorded, while sitting in the audience:

It’s possible, of course, that Byers could have sat at my side for the entire event and still thought I misjudged it; such interpretations are subjective. But had he witnessed all these remarks, and heard the hisses in the audience and observed the moderator’s sneers, he might have understood better the exchange with Ahmed that followed. That’s why there is no substitute for shoe-leather reporting.

Even if it’s Milbank who’s mischaracterizing the exchange, he still offers an important lesson in jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information.

The source may be anonymous, but the shame is all yours by Jack Shafer, Reuters

AnonyWatch: When Unnamed Sources Are Flat Wrong by Margaret Sullivan, public editor, New York Times

Shafer gives the New York Times hell for two recent stories that relied on anonymous sources and were flat wrong. Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, largely agrees, writing that while she believes anonymous sources are sometimes necessary, “In my view, they are allowed too often and for reasons that don’t clear the bar of acceptability, which should be set very high.”

More from the Times, which has been getting a lot of attention in this space lately:

What Makes a Great Editor, Part 1 by Insider Staff, New York Times

What Makes a Great Editor, Part 2 by Insider Staff, New York Times

Various Times people answer this question. You might run into the paywall trying to read these.

Elitist, Superfluous, Or Popular? We Polled Americans on the Oxford Comma by Walt Hickey, FiveThirtyEight

Don’t get me started on this. Let’s just say I wasn’t surprised by the suggestion that those who favor the Oxford, or serial, comma tend to think their grammar is excellent. As grammar expert Merrill Perlman puts it in the piece, “Many people who think they are good at grammar are good at following what they think are the rules.”

Jun 19 / King Kaufman

A look inside the guts of the New York Times’ CMS

It’s not every day you get a chance to look at the inner workings of the New York Times. But Luke Vnenchak, the paper’s director of technology, gave us just such an opportunity this week on the Times’ Open blog.

And by inner workings, I really mean the guts of the operation. Vnenchak described, in great detail, how the Times’ content management system, called Scoop, works, why it works the way it does, and how the Times hopes to continue to develop the CMS in the future.

It’s a little dense, but as the Times’ David Carr wrote in his recent profile of Medium:

Sitting behind all the work you see on the Internet are so-called content management systems. It’s plumbing, boring, really, but sites like FiveThirtyEight and Vox.com are building something interesting because they have great, innovative tools.

Not to go all nerdy on it — well, a little — the content management system is destiny.

It’s interesting to read about how some of the issues discussed in the leaked Times innovation report are playing out in the development of Scoop. Even the venerable New York Times is trying to think of the web as a medium on par, at least, with print.

Even more interesting to me, though, is the idea that the Times wants to create a CMS that will work with any kind of platform:

Unlike many commercial systems, Scoop does not render our website or provide community tools to our readers. Rather, it is a system for managing content and publishing data so that other applications can render the content across our platforms. This separation of functions gives development teams at The Times the freedom to build solutions on top of that data independently, allowing us to move faster than if Scoop were one monolithic system.

It strikes me that that’s a pretty good way for us to think as individuals too. Master whatever tools and systems we’re working with today, but the really important skills are the ones we can use on whatever tools and systems are developed in the future.

Jun 18 / King Kaufman

Tony Gwynn learned something new every day: How about you?

Tyler Kepner’s tribute to Tony Gwynn in the New York Times is worth your time because it’s a great piece, full of great stories about a great player who, by all accounts including Kepner’s, was a wonderful person as well.

But since I’m talking about it you’ve probably guessed already that I think there’s something in it that us scribbling types can make use of. A clue is in the head and subhead: “In a .338 Lifetime Average, Every Day Counted: Tony Gwynn’s 2 Hitting Secrets: Work and More Work.”

It’s nice to read Kepner’s stories about how nice Gwynn was. The Vanderbilt-Buster Olney story is really something if you’ve ever been around big-league baseball players and know how self-absorbed they tend to be. But this is what made my ears prick up: “Gwynn, a San Diego Padres right fielder who retired in 2001, said proudly that he learned something new at the ballpark every day.”

An acknowledged master of his art, possibly the best pure hitter since his friend Ted Williams, and Gwynn said he learned something new at the ballpark every day. And you can’t do that by accident. If you’re going to the same place every day, you’re going to get comfortable after a while. If you want to keep learning, you have to try. You have to be looking for things to learn.

Gwynn went to the same place every day, the ballpark, for 21 years in pro ball. A baseball season is a grind over seven-and-a-half, or, if you’re lucky, eight-and-a-half months, with rare days off. But Kepner writes that Gwynn never focused on the drudgery, always searching for new frontiers. Here, Kepner writes about him talking in 1994, at the age of 34, about younger players:

“They just feel like stuff is supposed to happen to them,” he said. “They’re not going to have to work for it. And that bugs me because I know how hard I had to work to get where I got. Sometimes they sit there in amazement at why I come out here every day. But I cannot let their way of thinking into my head.”

For Gwynn, the thrill was in the pursuit of perfection in a job built around failure. He tried to leave nothing to chance. Years before laptops and iPads, Gwynn would lug video equipment around the league, meticulously combing through his at-bats, discarding the rare clunkers and studying the gems.

He didn’t have to do that. Gwynn won his last batting title at the age of 37, when he hit .372. His swing was so good I bet he could have saved himself a ton of time and all that lugging of heavy equipment around and taken the same approach as everyone else and hit maybe .330. He’d have finished fifth in the league in hitting. Still awfully good for a 37-year-old!

You can fall into the same trap in this racket, thinking that because you’ve made it—to wherever it is you’ve made it to—you’re at cruising altitude and you no longer have to scratch and claw and grind like you did when you were just starting out.

That’s a good idea if you want to watch those young grinders scratch and claw their way past you.

Jun 17 / King Kaufman

Are you managing the stock and flow of your media portfolio?

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted a link Monday to a blog post headlined “stock and flow” by bestselling author Robin Sloane.

The post is 4 years old. I’d never read it before, but I could see right away why Rosen calls it the “Eames chair of blog posts.”

Well, not right away. First I had to Google “Eames chair.”

Stock and flow, Sloane explains, is a concept he learned about as an econ major in college:

There are two kinds of quantities in the world. Stock is a static value: money in the bank, or trees in the forest. Flow is a rate of change: fifteen dollars an hour, or three thousand toothpicks a day. Easy. Too easy.

What does all this have to do with the subjects we talk about around here?

I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

Flow was ascendant at the time Sloane wrote his post, and it still is. But his advice then, still wise, was to pay attention to the stock, the lasting things. You don’t want to get off the flow treadmill years down the line and find that you have nothing substantial to show for all that hard work. And yet:

“Don’t ignore the flow!”

If you woodshed for months or years at a time working on some big project, how is anybody supposed to know that you or it exist once it’s ready. Sloane points out that the successful artists and media people who seem to avoid the flow side of the equation—he brings up movie director Wes Anderson as an example—have others handling flow for them. PR and advertising, Sloane writes, are simply flow for hire.

For those of us who don’t have PR teams:

The real magic trick in 2010 is to put them both together. To keep the ball bouncing with your flow—to maintain that open channel of communication—while you work on some kick-ass stock in the background. Sacrifice neither. It’s the hybrid strategy.

That seems every bit as true in 2014 as it was in 2010.

Jun 16 / King Kaufman

Shoutouts: Why we’ve stopped doing them on the B/R Blog

Regular readers of the B/R Blog are familiar with the Shoutouts category, and may be wondering where it’s gone.

I decided to discontinue it.

I started posting Shoutouts—links and praise for particularly good Bleacher Report stories—in the early days of this blog, in April 2011. The idea was to give a pat on the back and some recognition to those among B/R’s hundreds of writers who were standing out from the crowd.

Also, because reputations always lag behind reality, B/R was still often criticized for having nothing but poor content, even though the level of the writing had begun to rise, and some genuinely good pieces were being published, like green chutes of quality. When defending Bleacher Report against charges that it was a content farm, or “nothing but babe slideshows,” I wanted a single link I could point the haters to. “Read these pieces,” I’d say, “and then tell me that B/R has nothing good to offer.”

It was pretty effective. I won a lot of converts that way, a lot of “I’ll have to give B/R another chance”s.

Three years later, Bleacher Report is the second-biggest sports website in the United States, trailing only ESPN. The site’s top writers and video talent are no longer overachieving early-career heroes but talented and recognized veterans of CBS Sports, the Worldwide Leader, the New York Times and other top newspapers and websites. They don’t need pats on the back from this blog.

More importantly, these days, if someone criticizes Bleacher Report as “nothing but” … whatever … I know they haven’t been paying attention. All I have to do is point them to the front page of the website or tell them to download Team Stream. They’ll figure it out on their own.

There’s still the matter of getting a little bit of recognition for those B/R writers who aren’t stars. We’re going to use the B/R Writer HQ Twitter feed to point to the finest B/R content, and I’d love to hear any ideas you might have about how to promote the best of what Bleacher Report has to offer.

Jun 13 / King Kaufman

Planning to have a rest of your career? Might want to read this report

If you’ve got more than a few months ahead of you in a journalism career, it’s a good idea to stay current on trends in media, especially trends in how people use the media. Because whatever you know to be true now is likely to change quickly, and often.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) has just published its third annual digital news report, which has some insights into what’s going on out there.

Here’s a blog post about it by Roy Greenslade in the Guardian. You can
download the full report here, or read the executive summary and key findings here.

Some interesting points from that executive summary by Digital News Report editor Nic Newman:

  • The use of smartphones and tablets has jumped significantly in the past year, with fewer people using their computers for news.

  • Facebook is by far the most important network for news everywhere. Although Twitter is widely used in the US, Spain, and the UK, it is far less influential in many other European countries. Google+ is emerging as increasingly important for news, along with messaging application WhatsApp.

  • European respondents remain strongly committed to news that tries to be neutral (or impartial) but Americans are more interested in hearing from brands and reporters that are open about their own views and biases.

And here’s a key point that Greenslade makes in the Guardian:

Smartphones, which are favoured by young people, are encouraging users to consume news more frequently throughout the day, thereby reducing the dependence on appointment-to-view television and printed newspaper issues.

The readers and viewers of tomorrow prefer to receive news through mobile devices and consequently tend to “snack” more in terms of both the time spent on sites and the type of content they consume.

Bone up on these findings … and be prepared for them to be made obsolete by new findings within a few years.

Jun 12 / King Kaufman

Using math to be right, and backs of baseball cards as writing teachers

Some interesting reading for you today:

“How Not to Be Wrong”: What the literary world can learn from math by Laura Miller, Salon.com

Miller reviews Jordan Ellenberg’s book, “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking,” pointing out how the math popularizer can be a useful study for non-mathematicians who have to deal with data. Like, for example, journalists. And can you think of a subject within journalism that deals with numbers and their meaning quite a bit?

Ellenberg’s tone is by turns anecdotal and computational, but this book’s most essential chapters have to do with probability and statistics, the spookier and more counterintuitive precincts of mathematical thinking pertaining to what might happen and how likely something is to be true. In an age of big data and slapdash science reporting, all of us need to be better skilled with these brain-twisting conceptual tools if we want to apply the proper skepticism to everything from drug company claims to mutual fund returns.

I would add: Not to mention dubious statistical arguments made by sportswriters and broadcasters.

How Don Zimmer’s baseball card inspired my book on short writing By Roy Peter Clark, Poynter.org

I recently wrote a book about the power of short writing, and I say with confidence that whoever designed the back of the 1954 baseball card for Topps would have been a genius in the digital age. The amount of information contained in about six square inches of space is truly phenomenal; not to mention the efficient use of multiple forms of communication. This is, by any definition, a multi-media production, and multi-sensory, if you include the bubble gum.

A larger point that Clark makes: Concision is a powerful tool. The familiar advice is to read a lot, but Clark says read everything. Ads, backs of product packages. Note how, with both language and design, a lot of information can be conveyed in small spaces or short times.

Jun 11 / King Kaufman

Politics site PolicyMic’s editor-in-chief on how to appeal to millennials

When I met PolicyMic co-founder and CEO Chris Altchek a few years ago, he described the site as “Bleacher Report for politics,” so I’ve kept an eye on it ever since. The site focuses on news for the “millennial” generation, which is also B/R’s core audience, though unlike PolicyMic, we don’t state that as an explicit goal.

Altchek’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, Jake Horowitz published a post on the Knight Blog this week headlined PolicyMic offers lessons on delivering compelling news for millennials. It’s packed with smart ideas and good advice.

After dismissing some media stereotypes about millennials as lazy, spoiled and self-obsessed with stats about the generation’s levels of education and political engagement, Horowitz writes:

We started PolicyMic with a desire to empower young people to have smart conversations about important topics. We offer incisive news and analysis to an audience of millennials who are too often ignored and mischaracterized by other media outlets …

Gone are the days of cut-and-dried wire stories reprinted in newspapers around the country. To succeed in the crowded digital space, news outlets need to distinguish themselves with a distinct, consistent voice. A clear understanding of who your audience is, and how to talk to them, sets you apart from the many outlets cluttering readers’ social media feeds.

At PolicyMic, Horowitz writes, that means a “relentless” commitment to young people. “We propel conversations taking place on social media or offline among our peers.”

For a different organization focused on a different subject or audience, the commitment will be to something else. But relentless commitment to a core idea, to creating distinction between a site and “the many outlets cluttering readers’ social media feeds,” is key.

For PolicyMic, Horowitz writes, that means three things:

  • Resist the temptation for empty calories

  • It’s all about social and mobile
  • Experiment: Pivot, shift and adapt strategy as needed

What is it for you?