Opinion

Felix Salmon

Why Twitter will get more annoying

Felix Salmon
Mar 22, 2012 05:21 UTC

Happy sixth birthday, Twitter! You’re the service which started off as a way for groups of friends to keep in touch with each other via text messages, and you’ve grown into a revolutionary platform for connecting and sharing with millions of people around the world.

And you’ve become more annoying, too.

For most of its history, Twitter was disliked overwhelmingly by people who weren’t on it, rather than people who were. It wasn’t enough not to join; if you weren’t on it, you had to kvetch incessantly about how you weren’t interested in what other people were eating for breakfast.

I’ve noticed a change, though, in the past year. The people who used to complain the most about Twitter have either capitulated and joined, or else they’ve quietened down — at least they know, now, how infrequently anybody tweets about what they are eating for breakfast. And now the primary source of complaints about Twitter is coming from people on Twitter, rather than off it.

During SXSW, for instance, there was a steady drumbeat of people on my timeline complaining about all the tweets from SXSW. (I was there, and even I got annoyed by the endless banal SXSW tweets; I’m sympathetic to their plight.)

We’re going to have to live with many more annoying tweets going forwards, if things like Amex’s “tweet your way to savings” campaign take off. The VentureBeat headline is “American Express transforms Twitter hashtags into savings for cardholders,” but another way to put it is that American Express is trying to make money by getting people to spam their friends with hashtags like #AmexWholeFoods which have no value to the reader whatsoever.

And then there are people like Porter Versfelt III, who will get annoyed if I dare to express a personal opinion on Twitter. For Mr Versfelt, I have a “core purpose” on Twitter, which is to provide him with financial news, and anything I do outside that purpose is annoying.

Going forwards, all of us are going to find Twitter increasingly annoying. The company has been in hyper-growth mode up until now, getting to its current astonishing scale. But it’s now getting serious about making money, which means selling us, the users, to people willing to pay lots of money to work their way into our timelines one way or another.

On top of that, Twitter is increasingly going to be a medium for following people you don’t know, rather than people you do. When that happens, it’s much easier to get annoyed at what they’re tweeting, especially when those tweets are somewhat personal in nature (check-ins, photographs, that kind of thing). We neither can nor should try to stop people from tweeting whatever they want — the way that Twitter works, if you don’t want to read someone’s tweets, that’s easy, just stop following them. But at the same time, nearly everybody’s follower count is rising steadily, and as one’s follower count goes up, the more that Twitter becomes a broadcast medium rather than a medium of conversation. And when you become a broadcaster, you have to be more careful about what you say, or risk annoying a large number of people.

Twitter’s still in its honeymoon period, but that won’t last forever. At some point, it’s going to be less of a wunderkammer, and more of a regrettable necessity. Which is probably the point at which it’s going to finally start making some real money.

COMMENT

I think the Amex campaign should have everyone worried. Twitter needs to make money and they’re trying to get creative, but I still feel even promoted tweets with actual “good” content vs. just “tweet to get this deal” can have both commercial and editorial value.

Also think how an influencer like Felix Salmon experiences Twitter is very different than people like the rest of us does. I still get excited about retweets and mentions, I still appreciate getting new followers, and I still get a tremendous amount of valuable information from people I don’t know but that I respect, every day.

Posted by asaramis | Report as abusive

Annals of dishonest attacks, Stephen Dubner edition

Felix Salmon
Mar 21, 2012 06:53 UTC

Super Freakonomics came out in 2009, and Ezra Klein was not impressed:

The problem with Super Freakonomics is it prefers an interesting story to an accurate one. This is evident from the very first story on the very first page of the book.

Under the heading “putting the freak in economics,” the book lays out its premise: Decisions that appear easy are actually hard. Take, for example, a night of drinking at a friend’s house. At the end of the night, you decide against driving home. This decision, the book says, seems “really, really easy.” As you might have guessed, we’re about to learn that it’s not so easy. At least if you mangle your statistics.

Klein then does a very good job of explaining where and how Super Freakonomics mangles its statistics.

So far so normal: Klein is far from alone in his bashing of the book. Indeed, American Scientist recently ran a column by Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung attacking the book’s m.o. And the book’s co-author, Stephen Dubner, has now responded to that column at astonishing and mind-numbing length (7,500 words).

Dubner says at the top of his post that he tends “to not reply to critiques”. But buried further down you’ll find this:

Gelman-Fung write that our argument was “picked apart by bloggers.” Their American Scientist article includes only a cursory bibliography and no footnotes or endnotes, nor do Gelman-Fung cite any specific sources in this case, so it’s unclear who those bloggers were and what they picked apart. From what I can tell, this is the main critique; its author is reputable but he has also written things like this (NSFW!), so he too seems to be in the business of attacking at any cost.

To be clear: Gelman and Fung accused Dubner of some slightly intellectually-dishonest practices. And in his self-defense, Dubner engages in some of the most egregious and blatant intellectual dishonesty I’ve ever seen on a blog.

There are lots of ways that Dubner might have responded to Klein; most of them involve mentioning him by name. Only one of them involves exhuming a drunken and deleted tweet from January 2008. If you look at the URL of the tweet (which is actually a screengrab of the tweet, since, you know, the original was deleted), you can tell that Dubner got there from this post. But Dubner doesn’t link to the post, just to the image of the tweet. Maybe because he knows that if he linked to the post, his readers would find this comment from Ezra Klein:

You’re absolutely correct that this was patently offensive. It was a private text message to friends, an inside joke we have because it’s so over-the-top obscene. It was never, ever meant to be public, and I’m deeply apologetic that it crossed that barrier. It’s not the sort of work I publish as a writer, and not what I seek to contribute to the discourse. The other examples of my writing, those that appear on my site, were meant to be in the sphere, to be argued with, even mocked. But the Twitter was ripped from my private life, and it was never meant to be brought out of the bar-like context in which it was born. Guess those privacy settings are more important than I realized.

In January 2008, Twitter was not the broadcasting platform it is today: it still felt much closer to its roots as a way for groups of friends to communicate with each other via text message. Today, we live in a world where the Freakonomics twitter account has 415,000 followers despite following nobody at all. But when Klein put out the tweet that Dubner’s linking to, the Freakonomics twitter account hadn’t even been created. In no sense at all was Klein “writing” something for public consumption and thereby demonstrating that he is “in the business of attacking at any cost”.

Now it’s possible that Dubner is unaware of Wonkblog, or of Klein’s Bloomberg View column, and therefore is unfamiliar with his actual mode of writing. Possible, but unlikely. What’s impossible is that Dubner believes that Klein’s rapidly-deleted tweet is in any way representative of his work as a whole.

It baffles me why Dubner would engage in a low and dirty and deeply dishonest ad hominem attack on Ezra Klein at all — let alone in the middle of a post in which he’s trying to defend his reputation. The only reason I can possibly think of is that, to coin a phrase, he seems to be in the business of attacking at any cost. Even when the cost paid is that people are sure to take him even less seriously now than they did before.

Update, 3/24: Dubner emails to say that he agrees the link was “unnecessary”, and that he has removed it from the post. In fact, he’s removed not only the link to the screengrab of the tweet, but also the link to Klein’s blog post, with the result that he now pretends to have no idea what the criticisms of his drunk-driving chapter are, even though he linked to them in an earlier version of the post.

COMMENT

The note by Sprizouse about deletion of posts by Freakonomics is important. They do this. They censor. I can say “censor” because they don’t moderate for bad words or abusive attacks but for material that reflects badly in any way on them. That’s just not right.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive

Fabulous journalism

Felix Salmon
Mar 17, 2012 20:27 UTC

Blaine Harden’s astonishing account of the life of Shin In Geun — a man born into a North Korean prison camp, who has lived pretty much the worst life imaginable — has received significantly less attention than the fact that This American Life has retracted its story about working conditions at Foxconn, which was based on Mike Daisey’s monologue. (If you don’t want to listen to the hour-long retraction, which is a masterpiece of the form, the transcript is available here.)

Daisey has attempted to defend his actions, using an end-justifies-the-means argument:

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.

Kevin Slavin has defended Daisey, too:

His skill in telling the story he told is responsible for the phenomenal amount of media around Chinese factory labor practices. Not the New York Times’ China bureau. Not Bloomberg Businessweek. Show me some reporters who were able to generate the same cultural engagement with the issue, will you?

Stories aren’t made out of facts. Storytellers use facts to reveal truth but they use a lot of other things too. And if ever I have to choose between facts and truth, I’ll take truth. It’s always a great story, and stories are the life inside the human mind.

It’s a lot easier to tell a great story if you don’t also need to be factual about things. Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are fiction; Richard III and Henry V are mostly fiction, albeit based on historical events. And it’s precisely because they’re fictional — because Shakespeare was always storyteller first and foremost — that they’re still performed so regularly, all over the world, and that they have had such powerful emotional resonance with billions of people over the centuries since they were written.

But here’s the thing: Shakespeare never lied. He never sat down in front of thousands of people to tell a first-person story, over and over again, about events which he had simply invented. He never ended that story with an exhortation which would carry no weight if his audience thought the story was fiction:

When Apple would call journalists who had spoken to me, and tell them, “You know, I don’t know if you want to be associated with him. He’s kind of unstable. You know, he does work in the theater.”

I would keep my head down. And I would tell my story.

And tonight—we know the truth.

At the end of Daisey’s show, every member of the audience is given a sheet of paper with the heading “CHANGE IS POSSIBLE”. It includes Tim Cook’s email address, and urges the audience to, among other things, “think different about upgrading”. And one of the reasons why Daisey’s show has proved so popular — his This American Life episode was the most downloaded in the show’s history, even more than the squirrel cop — is that it combined great storytelling with a feeling that this is happening now and we should do something about it. It’s exactly the same formula used by Kony 2012, a project which is equally problematic.

My friend and Reuters colleague Rebecca Hamilton has written a great book, Fighting for Darfur, which should be required reading for anybody who has been drawn in by the Kony 2012 campaign. Or, for that matter, by Daisey’s monologue. Here’s what she wrote to me:

To build a mass movement quickly, it helps to have an over-simplified, emotive narrative with a single demand. It also helps to tells people that by doing easy tasks – sharing a link on Facebook, buying a bracelet — they can save lives. Central to the formula is that the agency of local actors gets downplayed to hype up the importance of action by outsiders. But all those ingredients inevitably lead to eventual failure when the simple solutions can’t fix the complex reality. The movement walks away, disillusioned. And in the meantime untold resources have been expended on solutions that have been out of step with what local activists need.

The fact is that the chief beneficiary of the success of Daisey’s monologue has been Mike Daisey, much more than any group of factory workers or underground trades unionists in China. Similarly, the chief beneficiary of the success of Kony 2012 has been Invisible Children, a US non-profit which spends its money mostly on making movies.

And this is where the justifications coming from Daisey and Slavin really fall down — in the idea that if you get a lot of westerners riled up about what’s going on in some far-flung part of the world, then that is in and of itself a Good Thing. Daisey has managed to convince himself that his interests are perfectly aligned with those of the workers at Foxconn. Even when he presents himself as some kind of savior in a Hawaiian shirt, bringing wisdom to the workers just by asking the right questions:

I’m just ad-hoc-ing questions, I’m asking the questions you would expect: “What village in China are you from? How long have you been working at Foxconn? What do you do at the plant? How do you find your job? What would you change at Foxconn if you could change anything?”

That last question always gets them. They always react like a bee has flown into their faces and then they say something to Cathy and Cathy says, “He says he never thought of that before.” Every time. Every time.

Of course it’s ludicrous to believe that someone working 12-hour shifts at a Foxconn plant wouldn’t start thinking about how the plant might be better run. But that’s the power of theater: its conventions are designed to encourage us to suspend such disbelief. And so we walk away thinking that Mike Daisey is bold and wonderful, and really did ask that question of Foxconn workers under the glare of gun-toting Chinese guards. (We now know that no Foxconn guards are armed: that bit, too, was made up.) And we think that the Chinese workers are so beaten-down and resigned to their miserable fate that they never even stop to think about how things might be improved.

And this is why I believe the story of Shin In Geun, despite the fact that its format is inherently treacherous. Both Shin and Harden have every incentive to exaggerate and to make things seem worse than they are; what’s more, there’s absolutely no way of fact-checking the vast majority of what’s in the story. But what’s missing from their tale is the white man’s burden: the idea that a white American like Mike Daisey or Jason Russell (or Jeff Sachs, for that matter) is a selfless hero, doing good for the poor and exploited in other continents.

What Daisey should have done is what Dave Eggers did when he wrote What is the What: make no pretense that everything is true, and trust in the power of his storytelling to carry the audience along. Instead, he lied — both to This American Life and to his audience.

I am telling you that I do not speak Mandarin, I do not speak Cantonese, I have only a passing familiarity with Chinese culture and to call what I have a passing familiarity is an insult to Chinese culture—I don’t know fuck-all about Chinese culture.

But I do know that in my first two hours of my first day at that gate, I met workers who were fourteen years old,

I met workers who were thirteen years old,

I met workers who were twelve.

Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?

This had a lot of resonance for me, when I first heard it, not least because I understand statistics. In order to meet underage workers who are happy to talk about how old they are within two hours of turning up at a factory gate, there need to be a lot of those workers. Many more than the official numbers suggest. But in fact Daisey did not meet underage workers outside the factory gates. (He still claims that he did, but his translator, who’s a much more reliable source, says that he didn’t. And as Evan Osnos says, that whole episode defies credulity in the first place.)

Daisey’s m.o., it’s now clear, was to go to China, talk to some people, and then write a monologue in which he felt free to incorporate anything he’d read about the plight of workers anywhere in the country, presented as a direct piece of first-person reportage. And there’s a good reason why that’s an underhanded and unethical thing to do, which is that even if Apple did everything Daisey’s asking of them, he could still go to China and return with the exact same monologue. With hindsight, Apple was absolutely right not to engage with Daisey directly, because he created a game they could never win. The only winning move, for them, was not to play.

Jack Shafer, then, is right to come down hard on Daisey. He concludes with this, about fabulists generally:

I have my theory: 1) They lie because they don’t have the time or talent to tell the truth, 2) they lie because they think they can get away with it, and 3) they lie because they have no respect for the audience they claim to want to enlighten. That would be an ideal subject for a one-man theatrical performance.

The irony is that this subject has already been explored in a one-man theatrical performance — one by Mike Daisey, no less. Daisey, you won’t be surprised to hear, is gentler on James Frey and JT Leroy than Shafer is on Daisey, blaming in significant part “the demands of personal storytelling” for their sins.

In any case, it’s clear that theatrical events are bad places to look for unvarnished truth. And in the set of “theatrical events” I absolutely include things like TED talks. Many people have asked, of the hilarious TED 2012 autotune remix, whether it’s parody or not. The answer is that it’s not parody at all. Rather, it’s the work of someone who has been entranced by TED’s theater, and who hasn’t yet woken up to realize that statements like “we can change the world if we defy the impossible” are less stirring than they are just plain stupid.

Real life is messy. And as a general rule, the more theatrical the story you hear, and the more it divides the world into goodies vs baddies, the less reliable that story is going to be. I’ll be very interested to read Harden’s book about Shin In Geun, to see how the guards and teachers in the prison camp are portrayed — to see whether they’re monsters or whether they themselves are victims of the North Korean regime. As we know from Primo Levi, prison camps will twist and subvert the ethics of all concerned. And even in this excerpt we can see real moral problems: Shin himself behaves with astonishing heartlessness towards his own parents and brother.

One of the central problems with narrative nonfiction is that the best narratives aren’t messy and complicated, while nonfiction nearly always is. Daisey stepped way too far over the line when he started outright lying to his audience and to the producers of This American Life. But all of us in the narrative-nonfiction business (I’ve written such stuff myself) are faced at some point with a choice between telling the story and telling the whole truth, or the whole truth as best we understand it. Someone like Michael Lewis will concentrate with a laser focus on the story: what he writes is the truth, but it isn’t the whole truth. And when you have a storyteller like Mike Daisey who considers himself a monologist rather than a journalist, even outright lies can find their way in to the story very easily.

Ira Glass says that This American Life should have scrapped the idea of doing a Mike Daisey show the minute he told their fact-checkers that he had no way of contacting his translator. But maybe the mistake was made even earlier, when This American Life decided that a theatrical monologue could ever be held to standards of journalistic accuracy. This one certainly couldn’t, and in that I think it’s more the rule than the exception.

COMMENT

” I’m not one to claim that economic development necessarily causes democratic development, but they DO seem to be more than correlated.” (Walt French, last above)

Cool, Mr. French – you’ve found a fig leaf of allegedly ethical justification that gives us all the green light to pursue our personal financial self-interests without the need to even consider the consequences inflicted on others by the dragon our engagement feeds and nurtures. I’m sure we’re all ever so grateful.

If ever there is endowed a Nobel Prize for “Creative Contributions to the Art of Rationalization”, I’m nominating ….

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

The worst personal-finance video ever

Felix Salmon
Mar 14, 2012 21:39 UTC

Like many people, I’m fascinated by lottery tickets. In many ways they’re the purest speculative investment in the world: a piece of paper which is all but worthless today might be worth $200 million tomorrow. Literally. Lottery tickets are a bit like SWAG assets (silver, wine, art gold) in that you can only make money on them by giving them up and exchanging them for cash. They pay no dividends, and they have an asymmetrical payout: the most you can lose on any one ticket is a modest dollar, but the most you can gain is enormous.

On top of that, lotteries can be gamed, as Jonah Lehrer spelled out in a fantastic Wired story last year. And casinos can be gamed too, as Mark Bowden explains in the the latest issue of the Atlantic. Beating the odds is a staple of great narrative journalism for good reason, and of movies, too. Which is why it’s so incredibly depressing to see this being hosted at CNN Money, under the headline “Boost your odds of winning the lottery”.

Richard Lustig is a get-rich-quick hack with no idea at all of how to beat any lottery. Yes, he’s won an impressive number of jackpots. But he also advises that one third of all your winnings should be “reinvested” into lottery tickets — which means that he’s betting an enormous amount of money every week. He never gives any indication of what his ROI is; indeed, he never actually comes out and says that he’s a net winner. Neither can I see any indication that all the money he’s gambling is his own. Certainly Lustig’s bare-bones website, which seems like it was designed in 1997 and which features an ad for 995SunGlasses.com, gives the impression of someone who’s on a very tight budget. And the less said about his all-caps twitter feed, the better.

Lustig’s advice is simply bizarre: he reckons that you should buy lottery numbers in sequence, and that you should never buy “quick-pick” (randomly-generated) tickets. In fact, if you’re going to play the lottery, the rational way to play the lottery is to do the exact opposite of Lustig’s advice. Never pick your own numbers; always accept random numbers. The reason is that when lotteries have big prizes, those prizes are parcelled out between everybody who had the winning numbers. For instance, in August 2010, Lustig had a winning ticket in a draw where the jackpot was $197,985.84. But so did someone else — so he ended up winning only half that amount. And if you want to minimize your chances of overlapping with someone else, you’re much better off accepting a set of random numbers than you are using some kind of human-generated method. Remember when 110 people all had the winning numbers 22, 28, 32, 33, and 39, just because those numbers were printed in fortune cookies?

I have no problem with people spending small amounts of money on the lottery — in fact, sometimes it’s a positively good idea. But I do have a problem with anybody who’s shilling the idea that you can make money this way. And I have a huge problem with respected websites like CNN Money giving that person extremely positive publicity, without any hint of skepticism about the claims involved.

Let’s be clear about this: if you buy a lottery ticket, you should expect to lose all of your money. If you still want to buy a ticket knowing that you’re not going to get your money back, then go right ahead. But spending $40 on Richard Lustig’s book is a very, very, very bad idea, not least because you’ll probably end up spending many times that much money on tickets. And it’s downright unethical for CNN Money to implicitly encourage people to do so, by running dreck like this.

Update: CNN has taken the video down. “The CNNMoney newsroom takes great pride in its journalism, with consistently high standards for reporting,” says a CNN Money spokesperson. “This video fell short of that mark and we’ve chosen to remove it from our site.”

COMMENT

I love government-run lotteries. They are a tax that you can choose whether or not to pay, and I choose not to.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Why the micropayments business model matters

Felix Salmon
Mar 8, 2012 23:12 UTC

Kevin Drum has an interesting take on the Matter debate: if Matter does great journalism, it will succeed, and if it doesn’t, it will fail, and the business model doesn’t, well, matter.

I don’t have much of an opinion about Matter because I suspect their delivery mechanism is beside the point. It does have the benefit of keeping overhead costs low, but that’s probably a wash since they also have no advertising revenue. Basically, if they’re able to consistently produce spectacular pieces of journalism that generate a lot of online buzz, they’ll succeed. If they can’t, they won’t. But that would probably be true regardless of what kind of delivery model they choose.

I differ with Kevin here — I think the business model matters a lot, precisely because niche publications can’t support themselves online through advertising.

There are two ways of looking at this: the quantitative, and the practical. The quantitative goes something like this: let’s say that there are 2 million science nerds in America — that Matter’s potential audience is 2 million people. And let’s say that if Matter publishes a great piece online for free, it reaches 200,000 of them. If it manages a respectable RPM (that’s ad revenue per 1,000 pages) of $5, then that story will bring in 200 x $5 = $1,000. Even if it reaches a million science nerds it still only has revenues of $5,000 for that story. And then you have to back out the ad network’s take, the ad sales guy’s salary and commission, the time spent trying to do biz-dev deals, and in general the enormous publishing-side infrastructure that all successful ad-supported websites require. By the time you’ve done that, there’s literally nothing left for editorial.

The practical level is even simpler: a niche long-form science-journalism website is never going to get the kind of scale which advertisers want. Big-name brand advertisers want to reach lots of people lots of times. They’ll advertise on blogs, which can get audiences in the millions, but they’re not going to advertise on a site which only updates once a month or even once a week. In general, the amount of inventory online is growing fast, and websites need to be able to keep up with that growth or start seeing their advertisers fall away, one by one.

With subscriptions, though, the math is much more compelling: if you get 20,000 people paying a buck apiece for that story, that’s $20,000, with no sales overhead; most of that money can end up going to editorial.

What’s more, if you’re writing for a small audience rather than a mass audience, you massively increase the opportunity space with regard to the kind of journalism that’s possible. Drum is right that the best writers and reporters in the business are expensive. But they will also nearly always work for less money if they get to chase down really juicy stories, or write exactly what they want to write, in a medium which will give them all the space they need. I’m sure that Christopher Hitchens didn’t charge the New York Review of Books or even the Atlantic anything like the kind of money he was being paid by Vanity Fair.

Matter has a compelling pitch as far as writers are concerned. You don’t need to dumb down your story, or make it accessible to a mass audience: instead, you can be obsessive and geeky and so long as you end up with a fantastic investigative narrative at the end, that’s fine. What’s more, we won’t cut out half your story unless doing so really makes it better: we don’t have any space constraints.

Professional-quality nanopublishing has never really worked online, because the ad-supported business model can’t make it work. In a world of micropayments, however, everything changes. Matter’s early to this game; one of the reasons I’m excited about it and hope it succeeds — and one of the reasons that 1,881 people have pledged $108,470 to make it work — is that if it works, then it will blaze the way for many other publications, in other fields.

There are lots of things which are yet to be worked out, not least how content behind a paywall can be effectively shared on the increasingly social internet. (Which is one reason I hope the Matter paywall is at least a little bit porous.) And I’m sure that Matter will make mistakes: all startups do. But at some point, a publisher somewhere is going to crack the nanopublishing/micropayments nut. And when that happens, it will be revolutionary for the world of online journalism.

COMMENT

Yeah, they really should call $0.99 a minipayment; micro payments was supposed to be, like, 5¢ per strip for a webcomic, or something like that…

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

Can Matter succeed?

Felix Salmon
Mar 7, 2012 05:06 UTC

Stephen Morse doesn’t Matter. In fact, he calls the journalism startup — whose Kickstarter campaign broke past the $100,000 level in just nine days — “Snake Oil Salesmen 2.0″ and “a scam”. And after getting a smart explanation of exactly how Matter’s business model is, he doubled down on his position and said he would keep it even if they manage to raise $500,000. So I invited him up to Reuters for a little debate.

We disagreed about a few different things. The first is Morse’s idea that there’s so much great content out there for less than 99 cents that no one’s going to pay that whopping sum to read Matter’s stories. I, obviously, disagree. I think that the success of the Kickstarter campaign is proof that there’s huge untapped demand for this kind of material — demand which is not being met by the competitors Morse cites, like Scientific American or Popular Mechanics. I think that the success of books for the Kindle — for that matter, the success of decades of magazines and centuries of paper books — demonstrates that there’s real demand for quality content, even from people who don’t necessarily have the time to read it all. I think that mobile devices like phones and tablets have revolutionized where and how we consume a huge range of written content. And, most importantly, I think that trail blazers like the iTunes Store and the New York Times are changing the willingness of millions of people to pay for digital material.

“If I were a content consumer,” says Morse, lapsing into a rather odd conditional, “I wouldn’t pay 99 cents for one article” when magazine subscriptions amortize out at a lower per-article cost, and besides there’s lots of great content out there which is absolutely free. Such things, he says, are “a much better value” than Matter. But here I think Morse misses the great hope of the 99-cent price: it’s low enough that substantially everybody in Matter’s target audience can afford to pay it without any real effect on their wealth or cashflow whatsoever. It’s less than the amount you tip a cab driver, or a bartender; in fact, it’s less than the cost of just about anything you might buy in the physical world. 99 cents is low enough that, for hundreds of thousands of people, worries about value disappear. They pay that on text messages all the time, which have much lower value. Why not pay it for something great, if doing so allows that thing to exist in the first place?

Put it this way: if Matter found a way for people to pay them after they read a story, rather than before, on a purely voluntary basis, I’d still be optimistic about their ability to make money doing this. Think of a world where you got the New Yorker delivered for free every week, and then clicked a button paying them 99 cents every time you really liked one of the articles. I think they could get a lot of revenue that way, and I think the success of the porous New York Times paywall is strong evidence of that. Yes, there will always be people who don’t want to pay, and there will always be others who somehow find free samizdat versions of Matter’s stories. But those people aren’t important. What’s important is the number of honest people who are more than happy to pay when they find something good to read. And that number is extremely large, and growing.

Matter’s Kickstarter campaign proves that people want to give them their money. The task facing Matter is to create material that’s so unique, so great, that readers around the country and the world will be eager to buy subscriptions, or individual issues, in the knowledge that their money is going straight to the creators of that content. It’s an exercise in doing something which has historically been extremely rare, in the world of journalism: selling stories to readers, as opposed to selling readers to advertisers. But the internet makes it so easy to reach millions of potential readers that a small and enthusiastic subgroup can be big enough to sustain this kind of publication. Nanopublishing didn’t work when Nick Denton tried it on an ad-supported basis. But Matter is effectively running a publication at a CPM of $1,000 — and a lot of math starts working when the numbers get that big.

In our debate, Morse snarked that no one down below us, in Times Square, had heard of Jim Giles or Bobbie Johnson, the co-founders of Matter. And in saying that he revealed his broader mindset: that of a would-be internet entrepreneur who raises venture funding by using the words “platform” and “scale” a lot while promising things like “explosive growth”. It’s no great secret that Giles and Johnson have talked to VCs, many of whom have been very supportive. But what they’re building doesn’t lend itself to the VC business model, where you either have monster, multi-million-dollar success, or else you die trying.

Morse uses the fact that Matter doesn’t have VC funding as a count against them, when in fact it’s a great count in their favor. VCs provide two things: money and advice. And Matter’s getting the advice; it’s just doing so without having to sell its soul to people wanting a monster return on their investment. All it needs to do, at least in the first instance, is pay for itself. And at the end of our debate, Morse finally came up with a number: if Matter can get 20,000 paying customers each week, he said, then he sees a sustainable model there.

Morse also said that “even if every science nerd out there pays a dollar, this is not going to be something that will get the critical audience needed to be a financial success”. Which I think is plainly wrong: there are a lot more than 20,000 science nerds out there. Scientific American has a circulation of 475,000. Popular Mechanics and Popular Science both have a circulation of over 1.2 million. Smithsonian has a circulation of more than 2 million. And National Geographic has a circulation of over 4 million. Can Matter reach 20,000 paying customers? Of course it can. Here’s Johnson:

We don’t think it’s going to be a mainstream smash; we don’t think it’s going to change the world; we don’t think we’re going to out New Yorker the New Yorker; we don’t think we’re going to be billionaires. But we do think, done right, we can offer something valuable and remain sustainable in the medium term.

There’s nothing pie-in-the-sky about that idea; to the contrary, it’s eminently achievable. I think so, and 1,806 of Matter’s Kickstarter backers think so too. With 17 more days to go.

Gothamist gets its press pass

Felix Salmon
Mar 1, 2012 22:29 UTC

In August 2004, Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin applied for working-press credentials from the NYPD. An avid and ubiquitous news photographer, he clearly qualified for the credentials on any common-sense grounds. But the NYPD denied his request on the grounds that Gothamist was a website, and the NYPD didn’t consider anybody working for a website to be a journalist. (Seriously.) Thus did the saga of Gothamist’s press pass begin.

Eventually, in 2009, the NYPD was forced, thanks to a lawsuit, to start issuing credentials to bloggers. But it still clearly didn’t want to. And Gothamist still had zero press passes.

The story from then on in is a long one: Gothamist editor Chris Robbins’s post from last December on the subject runs to more than 2,700 words. But basically there are a few things you officially need a press pass for, including getting the NYPD’s “press wire” emails. And there are even more things that you unofficially need a press pass for, including being considered a journalist by the Mayor’s press secretary.

I’m with Dobkin on this one: the whole system of the NYPD making highly-secretive determinations as to who is and who isn’t press is broken, and the best outcome here would be to simply abolish the things altogether. But given that they do exist, Gothamist should clearly qualify for them: as Dobkin says, they’re a legitimate media organization with over 25 employees and more than 2.5 million unique readers in New York City. This isn’t some guy in his pajamas. “Next time someone accuses a blog of aggregating,” Dobkin tweeted the last time he was rejected, “ask yourself, how can they avoid aggregating without all the tools required to produce original posts?”

This story has a happy ending, of sorts. On February 28 — some 90 months after his initial application — Dobkin was told that his latest application had been approved. The pass arrived today.

Still, Dobkin’s fight is a timely reminder, as we remember one of the most influential online-media innovators of all time, that the real world can move astonishingly slowly by internet standards. Print still has a cachet that most online publications struggle to achieve, and uncontroversial news outlets like Gothamist get lumped in with provocateurs like Andrew Breitbart in the mind of information officers and PR people in New York and across the country. Breitbart and Dobkin both, in their own ways, made significant advances in terms of expanding the possibilities of online news. But Breitbart made a much bigger splash. And, in doing so, didn’t help Dobkin’s cause in the slightest.

Why journalists need to link

Felix Salmon
Feb 27, 2012 07:12 UTC

Jonathan Stray has a great essay up at Nieman Lab entitled “Why link out? Four journalistic purposes of the noble hyperlink”. I basically agree with all of it; links are wonderful things, and the more of them that we see in news stories — especially if they’re external rather than internal links — the better.

It’s very easy to agree that if a story refers to some other story or document, and if that other story or document is online, then it should be hyperlinked. But Stray goes further than that:

In theory, every statement in news writing needs to be attributed. “According to documents” or “as reported by” may have been as far as print could go, but that’s not good enough when the sources are online.

I can’t see any reason why readers shouldn’t demand, and journalists shouldn’t supply, links to all online resources used in writing a story.

Tellingly, Stray provides no hyperlinks at all for his assertion that “every statement in news writing needs to be attributed”. Is this really true? It certainly isn’t in the UK, where I come from. What’s more, even before the WSJ got taken over by foreign marauders like Rupert Murdoch and Robert Thomson, it followed this rule mostly just by inserting the stock phrase “according to people familiar with the situation” into any story. That phrase, of course, tells the reader exactly nothing.

In recent days, a debate has emerged online on what I consider to be two very different subjects, which are getting unhelpfully elided. The first question, raised by MG Siegler, is whether outlets like the WSJ have an obligation to say who first broke a piece of news, when they report that news. The second question, which is often mistaken for the first, is whether outlets like the WSJ should link to outside sources of information.

To the second question, my answer is simple: yes. But look at the story by Jessica Vascellaro about Apple acquiring Chomp. There’s only one part of that story which obviously needs a hyperlink, if such a thing were available, and that’s in the first sentence, where we’re told that Apple said it has acquired Chomp. If there’s some kind of public press release from Apple saying such a thing, then the WSJ should link to it. But there isn’t, so the lack of any link there is forgivable.

What Siegler wants is for extra text to be added in to Vascellaro’s story, saying that he first broke the news. And I’m pretty sure that Stray would want the same thing — after all, Vascellaro’s own tweet does imply that she first got wind of the story online, before confirming it with Apple. If it was Siegler’s article which caused Vascellaro to call Apple, then Siegler certainly counts as an online resource used in writing the WSJ story, and should therefore, by Stray’s formulation, be fully linked and credited.

On the other hand, if Stray agrees with Siegler, that doesn’t mean that Siegler agrees with Stray. Siegler cited no source at all, named or anonymous, for his scoop that Apple had bought Chomp: he simply asserted the fact. “Apple has bought the app search and discovery platform Chomp, we’ve learned.” If every statement in news writing needs to be attributed, then Siegler just failed that test.

But I don’t think it does. If you attribute a statement like that to “sources familiar with the situation”, or something along those lines, then the attribution looks a lot like a CYA move. Consider the difference between (a) “Apple has bought Chomp”, and (b) “Apple has bought Chomp, say sources familiar with the situation”. Technically speaking, if the sale falls through, then (a) is false, while (b) was actually true. In that sense, failing to provide attribution is a way of sticking your neck out and asserting news to be a fact. Here’s Siegler:

I reported the Apple acquisition of Chomp as a fact for good reason — It. Was. A. Fact. If I had reason to believe it may not be a done deal or not 100% certain, I would have said that. I did not because I didn’t need to.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a journalist who was adamantly sticking up for her story in the face of criticism. The story included a statement of the form “X, says Y”, where Y was an anonymous source. Various other people were saying that X was not, in fact, true. But the journalist was standing firm. I then asked her whether she was standing firm on the statement “X, says Y”, which she reported — or whether she was standing firm on the statement that X. And here’s the thing that struck me: it took her a long time to even understand the distinction. A lot of American journalists stick the sourcing in there because they have to — but they very much consider themselves to be reporting news, and if X turned out not to be true, they would never consider their story to be correct, even if it were true that Y had indeed said that X.

Elsewhere, however, those conventions don’t hold. In a lot of political reporting, you have one person saying “X”, and another person saying “not-X”, and it’s left to the reader to decide whether one or the other or neither is telling the truth. And even facts can end up being attributed to people, which is even more confusing. Consider this, for instance, from a recent NYT article by Motoko Rich:

The home ownership rate has been falling from its peak of 69.4 percent in 2004, according to census data. By the fourth quarter of 2011, it was down to 66 percent. That means about two million more households are renting, said Kenneth Rosen, an economist and professor of real estate at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

This is Rosen’s only appearance in the article, and he’s not being used to give an opinion, or an expert analysis: he’s being used to count rental households. And, at least on the face of things, he’s not particularly good at that. According to the 2010 census summary, there are 116,716,292 occupied housing units in America. So a basic back-of-the-envelope calculation would say that if the proportion of those units which went from owner-occupied to rented moved from 69.4% to 66%, then the increase in rental households would be 3.4% of 116,716,292, which comes to almost exactly 4 million. That’s double Rosen’s number.

Or, we can get more accurate, and go back to the 2005 American Community Survey, which showed 36,771,635 renter-occupied housing units in total. Contrast that with 2010, where there were 40,730,218 renter-occupied housing units. The difference, again, is almost exactly 4 million.

Most accurately of all, you can look directly at the Census Bureau’s quarterly estimates of the US housing inventory. According to that series, the number of renter-occupied houses in the US was 32,913,000 in the second quarter of 2004; it’s now 38,771,000. The difference there is not 2 million or 4 million but rather 5.9 million. (In the same time, the number of owner-occupied households has increased by 1.2 million.)

Now Rosen may or may not have good reason to believe that in fact the real increase in renting households is only 2 million rather than 4 million or 6 million. But if he does, that reason is not the drop in the homeownership rate from 69.4% to 66%. Not given the number of households in this country. (The homeownership data is here, by the way; it’s worth noting that Rich didn’t link to it.)

All of which housing wonkery is to say that even basic facts like the increase in US rental households can be non-trivial to pin down, and that both Rich and her readers would probably have been better off if she hadn’t bothered phoning Rosen at all, and had just got her numbers for the increase in rental households directly from the people measuring such things. Citing sources doesn’t help the reader at all, here: if Rich had been forced to assert the increase in rental households, rather than simply attributing the number to Rosen, then she would probably have got something closer to the truth.

The difference between linking and citing is the difference between showing and telling. I’m not a big fan of citing, mainly because it gets in the way: we might learn a lot about where the Haas School of Business might be, but at the same time we’ll learn nothing useful about the increase in the number of rental households. On the other hand, if Rich had simply said that “about six million more households are renting”, complete with hyperlink, that would have been shorter, more useful, and more accurate, even if there were no explicit citation.

Similarly, there’s a case to be made that Vascellaro could and should simply have put out a one-line story under the exact same headline (“Apple Acquires App-Search Engine Chomp”), saying “I’ve talked to Apple and they confirm this story is true.” Vascellaro had exactly one new piece of information: Apple’s confirmation of the news. In a world where TechCrunch is only a click away, why write out a lazy rehash of what Siegler had already written, rather than just linking to his story and moving on to breaking and writing something more interesting?

One reason is that the WSJ still has a hugely successful print product, and that therefore WSJ journalists’ pieces need to work in print as well as online. What’s more, as people increasingly read WSJ.com stories offline, on things like the WSJ iPad app, the need for those stories to be reasonably comprehensive remains. Even in the age of the hyperlink. Here’s Stray:

Rewriting is required for print, where copyright prevents direct use of someone else’s words. Online, no such waste is necessary: A link is a magnificently efficient way for a journalist to pass a good story to the audience.

The problem is that a journalist never really knows whether their work is going to be read online or offline, even if they’re writing solely for the web. The story might get downloaded into an RSS reader, to be consumed offline. It might be emailed to someone with a Blackberry who can’t possibly be expected to open a hyperlink in a web browser. It might even get printed out and read that way.

Besides, the simple fact is that even if people can follow links, most of the time they don’t. An art of writing online is to link to everything, but to still make your piece self-contained enough that it makes sense even if your reader clicks on no links at all. Cryptic sentences which make no sense until you click on them are arch and annoying.

What’s more, as Stray says, “online writing needs to be shorter, sharper, and snappier than print”; his link will take you to Michael Kinsley, moaning about how “newspaper stories are written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine”. In that context, does it really behoove reporters to build a long list of sources into all of their stories? Does every news story need to link to the organization which first broke the news? Does every journalist need to hat-tip the friend of theirs who retweeted the nugget which ultimately resulted in their story?

My feeling is that commodity news is a commodity: facts are in the public domain, and don’t belong to anybody. If you’re mentioning a fact which you sourced in a certain place, then it’s a great idea to link to that place. And if you’re matching a story which some other news organization got first, it’s friendly and polite to mention that fact in your piece, while linking to their story. But it’s always your reader who should be top of mind — and the fact is that readers almost never care who got the scoop.

There’s one big exception to that rule, however. Often, a reporter spends a long time getting a big and important scoop, which comes in the form of a long and deeply-reported story. When other news organizations cover that news, they really do have to link to the original story — the place which did it best. Otherwise, they shortchange their readers. A prime example came last August, with Matt Taibbi’s 5,000-word exposé of the SEC’s document-shredding. Anybody covering that story without linking to Taibbi was doing their readers a disservice.

As a result, like most things online, it’s very dangerous to try to come up with hard-and-fast rules about such things. In general, it’s good to link to as many different people and sources as possible, because the more links you have, the richer your story is. On the other hand, the journalistic web is full of garbage hyperlinks — automated links to irrelevant topic pages, for instance, or links to an organization’s home page when that organization is first mentioned.

As for crediting the news organization which broke some piece of news, that’s more of a journalistic convention than a necessary service to readers. It’s important enough within the journalism world, at least in the US, that it’s probably a good idea to do it when you can. But most of the time it’s pretty inside-baseball stuff. And in the pantheon of journalistic sins, failing to do it is not a particularly big deal. What’s much more important is that your reader get as much information as possible, as efficiently as possible. Which means that if you’re writing about a document or report, you link to that document or report. Failure to do that is a much greater sin than failure to link to some other journalist.

So while sometimes the failure to link is unavoidable, I look forward to a time when journalists face much more criticism for not linking to primary documents than they do for not linking to some other news organization which got the news first.

COMMENT

many problems could be avoided altogether if journalists remembered that the basic function of their job is to report. i am not surprised that far too many people have developed a blanket distrust of the news as reported; i think many realize instinctually that the article is not giving them the facts but a view that is filtered through the journo’s sensibilities.

reporting means stating facts, not speculating. when i assigned reporters to events i reminded them that “if it happens you report it” without embroidery. you also don’t leave anything out. because of the proliferation of talking heads it seems every journo thinks s/he is an analyst, a commentator, an interpreter.

too few journos nowadays think “reporter” has sufficient cachet and consequently fantasize themselves into a role where they overstep the bounds. in fact, the ability to separate and clearly present just the facts is more difficult than spewing one’s opinion – with the facts added for the sake of plausibility.

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Matter’s vision for long-form journalism

Felix Salmon
Feb 23, 2012 21:44 UTC

Yesterday morning, a very exciting new journalism project was launched on Kickstarter. It’s called Matter, and it’s going to be home to long-form investigative narrative journalism about science and technology. “No cheap reviews, no snarky opinion pieces, no top ten lists,” they promise. “Just one unmissable story.”

They hit a nerve: as I write this, some 31 hours after the Kickstarter campaign was launched, it has already reached $44,395 of its $50,000 goal, with 569 backers. That’s an average of almost $80 each. “People are giving way more than I thought they would,” said co-founder Jim Giles when I talked to him today. “We have tapped into frustration with the way the internet has promoted quick and cheap journalism and bashed longer-quality stuff, or at least undermined the business model that used to support that sort of thing.”

Matter will surely exceed its $50,000 goal, which is great news, because the more money it raises the better. In the first instance, the $50,000 will be enough to get a nice website up and running, and should also pay for the first three stories on the site. With more money, Matter can get more ambitious: commission more stories, for one thing, but also start building an iPad app which would live in the iOS Newsstand. Or maybe something on Android, or both. There’s a lot of opportunity out there.

This is an old-school Kickstarter campaign, where people are raising the money they need to create something great. It’s not one of those campaigns where donors are essentially pre-buying the product in advance: this isn’t about buying stories before they’re published, or buying subscriptions before the publication even exists. “We’re asking people to make an investment in a sustainable platform for really good journalism,” says Giles, “not to buy a whole bunch of articles in advance.” (That said, anybody pledging $10 or more will get the first three stories, $50 gets you the first six, $100 gets you the first ten, $300 gets you the first 50, and $1,000 gets you a lifetime subscription.)

Once Matter has launched, readers will have the option of buying individual stories for 99 cents each — the Kindle Single model, basically — or buying a subscription. It’ll be monthly at first, and then weekly, assuming everything goes according to plan.

The stories themselves are going to be really good, I think. Matter’s founders, Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson, are both first-rate journalists, and they’ve quietly amassed a list of really good writers and editors they want to work with. They have a smart model: rather than soliciting detailed pitches, they’re more interested in writers coming to them with vaguer ideas. The writer then gets matched to an editor very early on — before the piece is even formally commissioned — and the final article comes together as a collaboration between the writer, editor, and publishers.

I like this model, because one big weakness of long-form narrative journalism is that it has failed to embrace everything the web is capable of. Writers get commissioned to write X thousand words on Y; they then hand in a document written in Microsoft Word, which goes through a few rounds of editing before getting laid out to a greater or lesser degree. (Ben Hammersley is really good at diagnosing this problem and suggesting how to begin solving it.) I’m optimistic that Matter’s editing process will help its stories be much richer than most of what we’re seeing today.

Matter is coming into a world where companies like The Atavist and Byliner have already broken important ground, and where willingness to pay for content is clearly going up. It’s entirely natural, online, to disaggregate things like magazines, and have a blog over here be really good at what would in a magazine be the front-of-book stuff, while a subscription site over there specializes in features.

And while Matter is quite narrow in what it wants to publish — chiefly long-form, narrative, investigative news stories about science and technology — it’s quite broad in terms of how it intends to distribute that content, and what kind of models it might embrace along the way. For instance, Giles is very keen to work with newspapers, who might help underwrite some of the cost of reporting these stories, in return for being able to break the news in them. Matter would then give those stories the long-form narrative treatment. Or maybe the same story could just appear in both places, if the newspaper covered the costs of the reporting.

In any case, this is a great project, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of the readers of this blog would love to support it. Most long-form journalism these days is political, with much of the rest being in the art-and-literature field. There are thousands of amazing stories in science and technology; I can’t wait for Matter to start uncovering them.

COMMENT

I pay $149 a month for Rackspace cloud sites (cloud server solution) – its elastic and will expand and contract bandwidth according to the traffic volume hitting your site. My point is, I agree with the comment that said $50k is a ridiculous amount of money to build / launch a website.

WordPress = free / or a few hundred for premium theme
Customization: let’s say high end, $500
Cloudsites: $149 per month ($1788 yr)

Now what do I do with the other $47,500?

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