Archive for the 'Nick Carr' Category

Not by Links Alone

At this unthinkably late hour, many of even the most recalcitrant journalists and newsy curmudgeons have given themselves over, painfully, to the fundamentally important fact that the economics of abundance now govern their world.

For many, of course, stemming that tide is still paramount. Their goal, as David Carr writes, is to squelch the “new competition for ads and minds.” Thus Walter Isaacson’s “E-ZPass digital wallet” and Alan Mutter’s “Original Sin.” Thus Michael Moran’s obnoxious “NOPEC.” Thus Journalism Online. And, of course, thus we have David Simon’s recent call for Congress to “consider relaxing certain anti-trust prohibitions” or this call in the Washington Post to rework fair use. I wish them all good luck, but mostly good night.

There are others, though, who think it’s great that the Internet and Google are opening up the news to competition. In fact, “Google is good” strikes me as nearly orthodox among the basically Internet-savvy set of news talkers. Marissa Mayer crows about how Google delivers newspapers’ Web sites one billion clicks a month, and Arianna Huffington insists that the future of news is to be found in a “linked economy” and “search engines” like Google.

In this narrative, Google’s the great leveler, ushering the world of journalism out of the dark, dank ages of monopoly and into the light, bright days of competition, where all news articles and blog posts stand on their own pagerank before the multitude of users who judge with their links and their clicks. Its ablest defender is probably Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? Jarvis was relatively early in pointing out that “Google commodifies the world’s content by making it all available on a level playing field in its search.” In that and other posts at Buzz Machine, his widely read blog, Jarvis allows that Google “can make life difficult” but insists, “that’s not Google’s fault.” The reverence for Google is thick: “The smart guys are hiring search-engine optimization experts and trying to figure out how to get more people to their stuff thanks to Google.”

But defenders of Google’s influence on the broader market for news and newspapers themselves make a striking error in believing that the market for content is competitive. That belief is wrong—not just a little bit or on the margin, but fundamentally, and importantly, wrong.

Which is not to say that news publishers aren’t competing for readers’ eyeballs and attention. Publishers compete with one another all day long, every day—with some local exceptions, the news has always been competitive like a race, and is now more competitive like a market than ever before. But the market for that news—the place where consumers decide what to read, paying with their attention—is not competitive. Google may well be the great leveler, but down to how low a field?

To be very clear, this is far from a neo-classical purist’s critique that picks nits by abusing uselessly theoretical definitions. I am not a purist, an economist, or a jerk. This is reality, as best as I know it. Nevertheless, to say that the market for content is competitive is just to misunderstand what a competitive market actually entails. The market for news content as it currently stands, with Google in the middle, is a profoundly blurry, deeply uncompetitive space.

*    *    *

“The difficulty of distinguishing good quality from bad is inherent in the business world,” Nobel laureate George Akerlof wrote in the kicker of his most famous paper, published in 1970. “This may indeed explain many economic institutions and may in fact be one of the more important aspects of uncertainty.”

Akerlof fired an early shot in a scholarly marathon to study the effects of asymmetric information in markets. What do parties to a potential transaction do when they know different sets of facts? Maybe that seems like an obvious question, but economists in the middle of the twentieth century had been pretty busy worrying about perfecting complicated models despite their grossly simplistic assumptions.

So Akerlof set about to write about how markets can fail when some of those assumptions turn out to be bunk. The assumption he tested first, in “The Market for ‘Lemons,'” was certainty, and he showed that when sellers know more about the goods being sold than the buyers do, sellers abuse their privileged position and buyers leave the market.

Writing in the same year, the economist Phillip Nelson studied the differences between what he called “search goods” and “experience goods.” Search goods and experience goods express a certain kind of asymmetry. For search goods, consumers can overcome the asymmetry before the point of purchase by doing their homework, while for experience goods, consumers must take their time and invest.

A pair of pants, for instance, is a search good—you can try before you buy, and shop around for the pants that fit you best. An apple, on the other hand, is an experience good—you don’t know whether you’ll like one until you consume it, and you can’t really try before you buy.

News articles are experience goods. Just as with an apple, you need to consume the story, reading the article or watching the video or so on, in order to judge its quality. “Stories can vary in length, accuracy, style of presentation, and focus,” writes economist James Hamilton in All the News That’s Fit to Sell. “For a given day’s events, widely divergent news products are offered to answer the questions of who, what, where, when, and why.” We can’t know which one’s best till we’ve read them all, and who’s got time for that?

Moreover, a multitude of subjective editorial decisions produce the news. Each reporter’s practices and habits influence what’s news and what’s not. Their learned methods, their assigned beats, and even their inverted pyramids shape what we read and how. Reporters’ and editors’ tastes, their histories, or their cultures matter, as do their professional ethics. Each article of news is a nuanced human document—situated aesthetically, historically, culturally, and ethically.

Ultimately, the news is afflicted with the problem of being an experience good more than even apples are. At least Granny Smiths don’t vary wildly from farmer to farmer or from produce bin to produce bin. Sure, some may be organic, while others are conventional. One may be tarter or crispier than another, but tremendous differences from the mean are very unlikely. With the news, though, it’s hard even to think of what the mean might be. It may seem obvious, but articles, essays, and reports are complex products of complex writerly psychologies.

For a long time, however, as readers, we were unaware of these nuances of production. That was, in some sense, the upshot: our experience of this journalism was relatively uncomplicated. This profound lack of context mattered much less.

Call it the myth of objectivity maybe, but what NYU professor Jay Rosen has labeled the “mask of professional distance” meant that we didn’t have much of a chance to bother with a whole world complexities. Because everyone usually wore a mask, and because everyone’s masked looked about the same, we ignored—indeed, we were largely necessarily ignorant of—all the unique faces.

For a long time, therefore, the orthodox goal of American newspapers virtually everywhere was news that really wasn’t an experience good. When news existed only on paper, it hardly mattered what news was, because we had so few seemingly monochrome choices about what to read. We returned to the same newspapers and reporters behind the same masks over and over again, and through that repetition, we came subtly to understand the meaning and implications of their limited degrees of “length, accuracy, style of presentation, and focus.”

As a result, we often grew to love our newspaper—or to love to hate it. But even if we didn’t like our newspaper, it was ours, and we accepted it, surrendering our affection either way, even begrudgingly. The world of news was just much simpler, a more homogeneous, predictable place—there were fewer thorny questions, fewer observable choices. There was less risk by design. Our news was simpler, or it seemed to be, and we had little choice but to become familiar with it anyhow. One benefit of the View from Nowhere, after all, is that basically everyone adopted it—that it basically became a standard, reducing risk.

But a funny thing happened in this cloistered world. Because it seemed only natural, we didn’t realize the accidental nature of the understanding and affection between readers and their newspapers. If, as the economists would have it, the cost of a thing is what we’ve sacrificed in order to achieve it, then our understanding and affection were free. We gave nothing up for them—for there was scarcely another alternative. As a result, both readers and publishers took those things for granted. This point is important because publishers are still taking those things for granted, assuming that all people of good faith still appreciate and love all the good things that a newspaper puts on offer.

*    *    *

But when our informational options explode, we can plainly, and sometimes painfully, see that our newspapers aren’t everything. Different newspapers are better at answering different questions, and some answers—some as simple as what we should talk about at work tomorrow—don’t come from newspapers at all. So we go hunting on the Internet. So we gather. So we Google.

We have now spent about a decade Googling. We have spent years indulging in information, and they have been wonderful years. We are overawed by our ability to answer questions online. Wikipedia has helped immensely in our efforts to answer those questions, but pagerank elevated even it. Newspapers compose just one kind of Web site to have plunged into the scrum of search engine optimization. Everyone’s hungry for links and clicks.

And Google represents the Internet at large for two reasons. For one, the engine largely structures our experience of the overall vehicle. More importantly, though, Google’s organization of the Internet changes the Internet itself. The Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization estimates, in this PDF report, that North American spending on organic SEO in 2008 was about $1.5 billion. But that number is surely just the tip of the iceberg. Google wields massive power over the shape and structure of the Internet’s general landscape of Web pages, Web applications, and the links among them. Virtually no one builds even a semi-serious Web site without considering whether it will be indexed optimally. For journalism, most of the time, the effects are either irrelevant or benign.

But think about Marissa Mayer’s Senate testimony about the “living story.” Newspaper Web sites, she said, “frequently publish several articles on the same topic, sometimes with identical or closely related content.” Because those similar pages share links from around the Web, neither one has the pagerank that a single one would have. Mayer would have news Web sites structure their content more like Wikipedia: “Consider how the authoritativeness of news articles might grow if an evolving story were published under a permanent, single URL as a living, changing, updating entity.”

Setting aside for the moment whatever merits Mayer’s idea might have, imagine the broader implications. She’s encouraging newspapers to change not just their marketing or distribution strategies but their journalism because Google doesn’t have an algorithm smart enough to determine that they should share the “authoritativeness.”

At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s style of following a story over a string of blog posts, poking and prodding an issue from multiple angles, publishing those posts in a stream, and letting the story grow incrementally, cumulatively might be disadvantaged because those posts are, naturally, found at different URLs. His posts would compete for pagerank.

And maybe it would be better for journalism if bloggers adopted the “living story” model of reporting. Maybe journalism schools should start teaching it. Or maybe not—maybe there is something important about what the structure of content means for context. The point here isn’t to offer substantive answer to this question, but rather to point out that Mayer seems unaware of the question in the first place. It’s natural that Mayer would think that what’s good for Google is good for Internet users at large. For most domestic Internet users, after all, Google, which serves about two-thirds of all searches, essentially is their homepage for news.

But most news articles, of course, simply aren’t like entries in an encyclopedia. An article of news—in both senses of the term—is substantially deeper than the facts it contains. An article of news, a human document, means substantially more to us than its literal words—or the pageranked bag of words that Google more or less regards it as.

Google can shine no small amount of light on whether we want to read an article of news. And, importantly, Google’s great at telling you when others have found an article of news to be valuable. But the tastes of anonymous crowds—of everyone—are not terribly good at determining whether we want to read some particular article of news, particularly situated, among all the very many alternatives, each particularly situated unto itself.

Maybe it all comes down to a battle between whether Google encourages “hit-and-run” visits or “qualified leads.” I don’t doubt that searchers from Google often stick around after they alight on a page. But I doubt they stick around sufficiently often. In that sense, I think Daniel Tunkelang is precisely correct: “Google’s approach to content aggregation and search encourages people to see news…through a very narrow lens in which it’s hard to tell things apart. The result is ultimately self-fulfilling: it becomes more important to publications to invest in search engine optimization than to create more valuable content.”

*    *    *

The future-of-news doomsayers are so often wrong. A lot of what they said at Kerry’s hearing was wrong. It’s woefully wrongheaded to call Google parasitic simply because it the Internet without it would be a distinctly worse place. There would be, I suspect, seriously fewer net pageviews for news. And so it’s easy to think that they’re wrong about everything—because it seems that they fundamentally misunderstand the Internet.

But they don’t hold a monopoly on misunderstanding. “When Google News lists one of ours stories in a prominent position,” writes Henry Blodget, “we don’t wail and moan about those sleazy thieves at Google. We shout, ‘Yeah, baby,’ and start high-fiving all around.” To Blodget, “Google is advertising our stories for free.”

But life is about alternatives. There’s what is, and there’s what could be. And sometimes what could be is better than what is—sometimes realistically so. So however misguided some news executives may have been or may still be about their paywalls and buyouts, they also sense that Google’s approach to the Web can’t reproduce the important connection the news once had with readers. Google just doesn’t fit layered, subtle, multi-dimensional products—experience goods—like articles of serious journalism. Because news is an experience good, we need really good recommendations about whether we’re going to enjoy it. And the Google-centered link economy just won’t do. It doesn’t add quite enough value. We need to know more about the news before we sink our time into reading it than pagerank can tell us. We need the news organized not by links alone.

What we need is a search experience that let’s us discover the news in ways that fit why we actually care about it. We need a search experience built around concretely identifiable sources and writers. We need a search experience built around our friends and, lest we dwell too snugly in our own comfort zones, other expert readers we trust. These are all people—and their reputations or degrees of authority matter to us in much the same ways.

We need a search experience built around beats and topics that are concrete—not hierarchical, but miscellaneous and semantically well defined. We need a search experience built around dates, events, and locations. We need a search experience that’s multi-faceted and persistent, a stream of news. Ultimately, we need a powerful, flexible search experience that merges automatization and human judgment—that is sensitive to the very particular and personal reasons we care about news in the first place.

The people at Senator Kerry’s hearing last week seemed either to want to dam the river and let nothing through or to whip its flow up into a tidal wave. But the real problem is that they’re both talking about the wrong river. News has changed its course, to be sure, so in most cases, dams are moot at best. At the same time, though, chasing links and clicks, with everyone pouring scarce resources into an arms race of pagerank while aggregators direct traffic and skim a few page views, isn’t sufficiently imaginative either.

UPDATE: This post originally slipped out the door before it was fully dressed. Embarrassing, yes. My apologies to those who read the original draft of this thing and were frustrated by the unfinished sentences and goofy notes to self, and my thanks to those who read it all it the same.

What the Structure of Content Means for Context

My hero was perched high up in journalism. The writing he left behind is deep and broad. In so many ways, to read his writing is just to think and see more clearly.

Journalists, it seems to me, fancy themselves explainers. They are great synthesizers of the world—at length. It is a wonderful calling for those who choose it.

Print was a great boon to that self-image. Print may even have allowed it. It was a fine world, mostly.

But then came the interwebs and google and adversarial search, which foisted on journalists the great tyranny of pageviews. Click.

Suddenly, it seems, the world moves faster. Its pieces are smaller. Its harried citizens’ attentions are diced or crushed or pointed only inward. We are distracted.

Chasing after readers as only they know how, cheered along by SEOs, journalists and publishers of news are looking for content that fits the new us, distracted. It’s an arms race to the bottom.

But we are not at the bottom. Nor are we at the top. For the news doesn’t so simply fit us, as we don’t so simply fit the news or so thoroughly morph our minds to information or its forms or media. Were it only that simple!

*     *     *

The Least Publishable Unit is funny thing. The concept refers to a thing that’s in fact publishable—but only barely.

Here’s the contrasting picture, set up by Michael Scherer of TIME: “Once upon a time, the incentive of a print reporter at a major news organization was to create a comprehensive, incisive account of an event.” Again, that was their calling, enabled by print.

What matters now, however, is “the news nugget, the blurb, the linkable atom of information.” Why? Because “a click is a click, after all.” News “is increasingly no longer consumed in the context of a full article, or even a full accounting of an event, but rather as Twitter-sized feeds.”

Are the interwebs, ineluctably, making the news shallow and narrow? The answer is unequivocally yes and also no. We now have more choice, a vastly wider, and growing, array of options for publishing. Our once-private gossip, carried in spoken words from neighbor to neighbor, is now online, in text, inviting misinterpretation from strangers. This song is not about you.

As certain as humans are petty, narcissistic beings, so impressed with their own lives and confident in their supreme ability to take it all so seriously, the news will be shallow and narrow. Please don’t read it, unless its brevity is the soul of wit.

But so, too, as certain as humans are profound, altruistic beings, so inspired by the world around them and hopeful of their modest ability to take it all so seriously, the news will be deep and broad. Please do read it, unless its length is the apppetite of self-infatuation.

Here’s the nut: The news will also be deep and narrow. And it will be shallow and broad.

The interwebs give us those options too. Let’s not forget about them, or forget that they are different from their purer counterparts of longing and loathing.

*     *     *

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, inspired by @mthomps and this and other posts at and by this post of @jayrosen_nyu‘s. Of course, the critical piece of the backdrop is a spectacular story by This American Life, called The Giant Pool of Money.

I agree with Jay that “Explanation leads to information, not the other way around.” I certainly agree that news often misses the forest for the trees. If I were a student at j-school, I’d want my profs showing me how to create omnibus stories like this. All writers—no, many writers!—pine for that awesome control over structure and narrative.

Cutting somewhat against the grain, however, I don’t think “Giant Pool of Money” should be the aim of all our ambitions. Which is certainly not to belittle it. Quite to the contrary, its status as masterwork is what makes it really, really hard for us to emulate. That’s asking too much—being a “national explainer” is too tough. Even the brightest among us, in memoriam, perform such dazzling feats of synthesis only occasionally. That’s not good enough for those of us who like important, responsible, thoughtful news all the time. And even This American Life’s story came after the disaster. Warning of the dangers of wildly complex securities and derivatives before they come crashing down is an even taller order—on the level of the GAO, for instance.

Here’s my chart illustrating why “national explainer” is really hard.


“Deep” and “shallow”? “Broad” and “narrow”? Huh? We’re talking scope here, folks.

“The Giant Pool of Money,” in the lower-right quadrant, is “broad” in its subject and “deep” in its container.

When something is “broad” in subject, it engages a complex, multi-faceted, sweeping subject. It’s a work of synthesis, taking multiple angles on and bridging between and weaving different constituent subjects. It aims to be comprehensive—the stuff of the glory days, however real or imagined they may be, of print journalism.

When something is “deep” in its container, there’s something a bit more prosaic going on. Essentially, each discrete work is thorough unto itself. One document—whether it’s text, audio, or video—aims to say more or less all there is to be said about its subject—to connect all the dots in one place. If there’s very much to be said about a subject, as in “The Giant Pool of Money,” the document will be long.

Consider the alternative: shallow containers. They’re not an insult! When we say something is “shallow” in its container, we mean simply that one document doesn’t attempt to say all there is to be said about a subject. Josh Marshall’s reporting, especially on the US Attorney Scandal, is a high-profile example that bloggers invented.

“We have kind of broken free of the model of discrete articles that have a beginning and end,” Marshall said, talking to the New York Times about the Polk Award. “Instead, there are an ongoing series of dispatches.”

Each dispatch isn’t comprehensive. They catch the reader up on past reporting with a few links to previous posts. Or they start off with a link or two to others’ posts or articles, promising to pick up the issue where they left off. Then they take a deep look at a small set of questions, teasing out contradictions, and end up with a set of conclusions or a new, more pointed set of questions for the next post.

The point is that the containers are small—shallow in the sense that they’re often only exposing a few dots at a time and not necessarily always trying to connect them all up as they go along. These posts don’t feign omniscience the way some, though certainly not all, traditional journalistic pieces do; they admit doubt and highlight confusion. The goal is to isolate facts, issues, and relationships, not always synthesize them.

But a critical characteristic of the form is that Josh Marshall’s dispatches on fired USAs compose a series. Each post extends previous ones or adds more to the same canvas. They’re all part of some bigger picture; they’re cumulative. And that is why, taken together, they amount to journalism that’s broad in subject. The bits of content may be fractured over author, space, and perspective, but they’re one work—one “text” in the fancy sense. Josh Marshall’s infusion of himself and his joys and outrages into his blog do the human work of pulling together the moral logic that invites readers to be patient while he unfolds the political logic one small piece at a time.

The last of the three interesting quadrants contains Wikipedia. Here again, “narrow” is not an insult. More than anyone, Wikipedians know “What Wikipedia Is Not.” It’s not for original research or reporting. It’s not for opinion or analysis. It’s for documenting these things. It’s domain is facts—but not nearly all facts. It’s not a directory or a guidebook or a textbook. Wikipedia works because it factors out, as much as possible, the kind of human reason that we colloquially call “wisdom” or “insight.”

As Farhad Manjoo explains in his Slate piece, “perspective and style don’t scale.” So you may “learn much more from David Foster Wallace’s appreciation of the star athlete than from the Wikipedia entry” on Roger Federer, but “writing is hard even for the world’s greatest wordsmiths.” Metaphorical reasoning, subtle thought, subjective analysis, and artful synthesis—these are happily banned from Wikipedia.

For Wikipedia, NPOV is hard enough to enforce. Disputes over NPOV erupt every day, probably many times a day. Multiple people collaborating, mostly strangers, often anonymous, are woefully inefficient writers of an encyclopedia. Revert wars abound. So does self-promotion. Vandalism is rampant. All manner of muddy, crummy, and scattered contributions insist their way into Wikipedia, every day, thousands upon thousands of times a day. There is a popular myth, too, that Wikipedia is a flat organization that reaches consensus among co-equal members. In fact, Wikipedia has a wildly complex hierarchy of admins, mediators, and an arbitration committee. It’s not hard to get lost extraordinarily quickly poking around the various administrative, advisory, and community groups, like the now-inactive Esperanza.

And yet, as Manjoo writes, the Wikipedia whose fluid articles we know so well “works amazingly well.” I hope that’s not controversial. Wikipedia is a profoundly inspiring testament to human knowledge, warts and all. Hierarchies haven’t vanished, squabbles have multiplied, and all the messiness may be incredibly salient to the average person who pays a bit of attention to Wikipedia. Aside from the inventing a technology that makes cleaning up vandalism cheaper than to creating it, Wikipedia’s central success is discovering both that its subjects must be wickedly narrow and that wickedly narrow articles are wildly informative. As we’ve found with twitter, sometimes constraints set us free.

*     *     *

It’s extraordinarily important to remember the virtues of the deep and narrow and the shallow and broad. The Politico’s snack-sized news may be cheaper than the New Yorker’s longer fare. But the Politico can’t compete on price with Wikipedia or on community with Josh Marshall. It turns out, as well, that there’s more than one way to put an explanation on offer to the world. The fact that we associate the role of the “great expainer” with the long-form narrative, contra the Least Publishable Unit, grows out of the fact that we overlook hybrid forms.

Josh Marshall’s won’t be the last shallow and broad news. Storymaps and the Las Vegas Sun’s topic page on water are experiments. Wikipedia won’t be the last we hear of narrow and deep news and content.

Reduced, but not that much!

I’m cross-posting my comment left on Nick Carr’s lengthy and good thoughts on the paywall for news:

While I agree that the supply of news is greater than it will be when more than a few smaller papers go dark, I’m not at all sure that the long-term supply of news will be radically reduced. That’s a big reduction!

You write that amateurs and part-timers “can’t do all of the work, and they certainly can’t do all of the most valuable work. The news business will remain a fundamentally commercial operation.” I agree, but I don’t think it has all the purchase you’d like.

The current explosion of content is not just “an illusion born of the current supply-demand imbalance.” It’s not enough that “the labor costs remain high” despite the fact that “the capital requirements for an online news operation are certainly lower than for a print one.”

A more or less intelligent armchair blogger’s take on some news event may be worth only a fraction of a pro’s account. It may me more prone to error. It may be published later. It may hide more bias. But it also may be free and therefore good enough. We now have the option of satisficing our news, and that will likely never go away. (Of course, let’s not deny that an amateur expert’s take on the news might also be more valuable.)

So, fine, “it ain’t going to a purely social production model,” but I’m afraid that might not be enough to protect pure paid content. Even if we settle back to a world in which we have only one-tenth of what we have now, that world will still have hundreds of times more news and opinion than we had when buying a subscription to the newspaper was de rigeur.

Fow what it’s worth, however, I too believe there’s a model according to which we will pay those who create our news. But I see us buying not the content itself but value-added interaction with the content and with the writers and editors.

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