A compendium of tweets about David Carr’s death

David Carr, the irrepressible media writer for the New York Times, died on Thursday night at the age of 58, after a long career that saw him rise from the weekly papers in Minneapolis — where he worked while fighting a cocaine addiction — to the highest perch in the media industry. He was a friend to almost all who knew him, and mentored an entire generation of young journalists. I’ve written a personal remembrance of him, but here I’ve collected some of the thoughts and memories of his friends and peers. There are more of them in a Storify module I made.

Why we need social media: Press freedom is in decline around the world

We see the pressure that journalism and the media are under from governments around the world when journalists are jailed in countries like Egypt, or murdered, or silenced in various other ways. But it’s not until we get a global picture from something like the annual World Press Freedom Index that it becomes obvious how endangered a free press has become — even in the United States, which has fallen steadily in the media-freedom rankings every year.

If nothing else, this kind of overview reinforces one thing: Namely, the necessity and importance of having alternative forms of media and speech, whether it’s Twitter and YouTube and Instagram or a media entity like WikiLeaks. These can be blocked and content can be banned by governments, but it is harder to do. In effect, it forces repressive governments to play a giant game of Whack-A-Mole by going after every individual user who posts a photo or uploads a video.

Difficult to ban

Turkey, for example, has been trying very hard over the past year to get content removed from and/or blocked by Twitter — including an account belonging to an opposition newspaper — and the government’s court orders for personal information have skyrocketed. To Twitter’s credit, the company has resisted these orders, and is fighting others in court, and the social network remains a crucial lifeline for many citizens who are trying to keep track of what their government is doing.

Photo by Carolina Georgatou

Photo by Carolina Georgatou

And why would something like WikiLeaks be important, despite the various well-documented flaws in that organization and its leader Julian Assange? Because press freedom in the United States has been declining for years. According to the index, the U.S. is now in 49th place — behind the tiny Polynesian nation of Tonga — compared with just five years ago, when it was in 20th place. The government’s ongoing campaign against WikiLeaks is part of that, as is the action taken against journalists like James Risen, who has resisted attempts to get him to reveal his sources.

A drastic decline

The Press Freedom index is compiled every year by the group Reporters Without Borders, which was founded in 1985 and campaigns on behalf of journalists around the world, as well as tracking abuse and repression directed towards the media. And the latest survey comes to a rather grim conclusion: press freedom has declined dramatically around the world, with more than half of the 180 countries ranking lower than in 2013.

“There was a drastic decline in freedom of information in 2014. Two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed for the 2015 World Press Freedom Index performed less well than in the previous year. The annual global indicator, which measures the overall level of violations of freedom of information in 180 countries year by year, has risen to 3,719, an 8 percent increase over 2014 and almost 10 percent compared with 2013.”

In the most recent survey, many of the usual suspects show up in the negative column: Libya, where journalists continue to be kidnapped and in some cases murdered, and of course Russia — where the government has blocked websites and even shut down alternative media outlets that were critical of the administration. Also in the bad-and-getting-worse column are countries like South Sudan, Venezuela and even Italy, where journalists have been threatened by criminal groups like the Mafia.

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New media is everywhere

Reporters Without Borders also mentions how some areas of the world are effectively “black holes” when it comes to measuring the freedom of the press, and many of these dark spots appear in the region that is at the bottom of the global index — North Africa and the Middle East. Many areas, the group says, “are controlled by non-state groups in which independent information simply does not exist.”

Obviously, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram — or even entities like WikiLeaks — aren’t a solution to these kinds of systemic problems. But the simple fact that individuals around the world now have access to some or all of the same tools that journalists do means that we can get information directly from places like Egypt or Iran or Turkey, without having to rely on a professional press that has been muzzled or brought to heel.

That’s why some of the new-media efforts I think are the most interesting and important are the ones that are trying to harness this vast volunteer workforce in some way, whether it’s through verification tools like Storyful, or online community efforts like Reportedly from First Look Media, or crowdsourcing efforts like the Ukraine Vehicle database project that British blogger Eliot Higgins recently launched.

The viral content problem: Many people don’t care whether it’s true or not

Craig Silverman, the author of a book about journalism and fact-checking called Regret The Error and a column by the same name at the Poynter Institute, has come out with a major report on the problem of online hoaxes and misinformation, a study he did for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. It is an impressive survey of how the desire for pageviews and online “engagement” compels many online media outlets and even individual journalists to distribute untrue or dubious content.

In the pre-amble to his report, Craig (who I should note is a friend) points out that while we usually expect news organizations to disseminate “quality, accurate information” about the world around us, many media companies — and not just digital upstarts but traditional ones as well — persist in distributing questionable information, even when they likely know it is false:

“News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors. Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement.”

A human need to share

Recent examples of hoaxes are legion, and many of them have been debunked on a site that Craig started called Emergent.info — an attempt to create a kind of crowdsourced verification engine that can latch onto hoaxes and determine quickly whether they are true or not. From snow on the pyramids in Egypt to a woman who allegedly had three breasts, every month or so seems to spawn a fresh batch of questionable news reports, many of which show up on some of the leading news websites such as CNN and even Reuters.

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As Craig notes in his report (which I encourage you to read if you care about this topic), hoaxes and rumors are not new to journalism — there have been outlets that specialize in that for as long as there have been newspapers, whether it’s the British tabloids or the National Enquirer. But a combination of factors have led to an explosion of misinformation, including the rise of the social web and the 24-hour news cycle. Silverman uses the example of the disappearance of Malaysian flight 370:

“The drive to fill the empty space with something — particularly on cable news — was partly human nature, and also partly dependent on the need to meet the public’s insatiable demand for information. All of us — journalists and the public — sought to understand what had happened. But facts were sparse. So we engaged in collective sensemaking and rumor propagation to fill the void.”

Fake news goes viral

In effect, we are all CNN now: Every website that wants to attract an audience, no matter how large or how small, feels the overwhelming pressure to be first with a news report — regardless of how questionable it might be. And the more salacious or titillating that report is, the more likely an editor is to hit the publish button, and to hide his or her doubts behind a question-mark headline or the phrase “reports say.”

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Occasionally, the tension between wanting to be first with a report that people might click on and wanting to be accurate bursts out into the open, as it did in 2013 during a conversation between Gawker founder Nick Denton and one of his then-writers, viral specialist Neetzan Zimmerman — who at the time was responsible for posts that drove tens of millions of unique visitors to the site, by reporting on whatever was going viral on dozens of social networks. At one point, Zimmerman says:

“Most viral content demands from its audience a certain suspension of disbelief. The fact is that viral content warehouses like BuzzFeed trade in unverifiable schmaltz exactly because that is the kind of content that goes viral. People don’t look to these stories for hard facts and shoe-leather reporting. They look to them for fleeting instances of joy or comfort. That is the part they play in the Internet news hole.”

Who cares if it’s true?

As part of his report, Silverman talks about the psychology behind why we all participate in distributing hoaxes and rumors and questionable information — and we definitely all do it, even journalists. I freely confess that I have retweeted news stories or headlines or reports that I haven’t verified, even though I am regularly humiliated for having done so when they turn out not to be true. Usually it’s because I am in a hurry, and the report seems so interesting or believable that I don’t bother to check.

In many cases, we re-publish and distribute these reports because on some level we want them to be true. We want to believe that a woman who posed for a photo in Iraq with a rifle is single-handedly leading a battalion against the forces of ISIS. Why? Because it would make a great story. And that’s why the single best advice for journalists or anyone else is “If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”

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In other cases, however — and I would argue that this is a much larger problem than media companies redistributing false information or questionable reports — the vast majority of people simply don’t care whether a report is true or not. They are going to share it anyway, because it is funny, or touching, or creepy, or disturbing. In other words, it sparks some kind of human emotion. Fusion writer and former Reuters columnist Felix Salmon described this well in a piece he wrote in 2013:

“The reasons that people share basically have nothing to do with whether or not the thing being shared is true. If your company was built from day one to produce stuff which people want to share, then that will always end up including certain things which aren’t true.”

The lines have blurred

This is the one big issue with attempts at crowdsourced verification, whether it’s Emergent.info or Facebook’s recent announcement that it is trying to crack down on hoaxes that get spread via the social network: Facebook’s attempt in particular relies on people to click a button and flag something as a potential hoax — but most people are never going to do this, not just because it takes effort on their part, but because they may not even care whether the report is true or not. They will share it anyway.

In the old days, when media came to us via certain distinct channels — a newspaper, a TV network, a magazine, etc. — it was easy to distinguish fact from entertainment, or gossip and rumor from the truth. Certain outlets could be trusted, and others couldn’t. But now, the media we consume comes at us from all directions, after being shared and re-shared, and the original source isn’t always obvious. And factual news content blurs into entertainment content until everything looks the same.

In effect, we are all engaged in trying to figure out whom to trust and when, and the barriers between us and the sausage-making process known as journalism have been largely removed. That means it’s not just up to media organizations to fix this problem, although they definitely play a major role — it’s up to all of us as news consumers.

Flipboard bucks the tide and embraces the web

If there’s one word that sums up where most media entities are looking for the future, it’s “mobile” — almost every news service and website is focusing on mobile because that’s where the younger users are, and therefore that’s where the growth is. In fact, NowThis just finished getting rid of its website altogether because it said there was no purpose in having one.

Flipboard, however, is going in the opposite direction: On Tuesday, the company said it is finally embracing the web, with a full-featured site that not only reproduces what the app offers, but builds on top of it.

So why is Flipboard going in the opposite direction to almost everyone else? In an interview, co-founder and CEO Mike McCue said there’s a simple answer, which is that Flipboard was mobile before almost anyone else — in fact, the app was one of the first to show the real possibilities of the brand new Apple iPad when it first launched in 2010. So being mobile is not really an issue for the company. But what Flipboard was missing, McCue said, was a way to tie together the web and mobile easily. The original website the company debuted in 2013 allowed users to read articles, but didn’t let them do much else.

Lessons from mobile

The launch of Flipboard’s web version fixes that, he said: it allows users who have built profiles and curated magazines and share content through the app to reproduce all of that behavior on the web and more. And in a sense, the Flipboard CEO said the web version has been in the works for almost as long as the company itself:

“Originally, we were going to build Flipboard on the web. Having been at Netscape for a while, I had a passion for the web, but when I thought about it, the web just wasn’t as capable — browsers weren’t as capable, they didn’t have as much horsepower. But we had heard rumors about the tablet coming from Apple, and we realized that would be the right first-launch platform for us.”

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McCue said the web version of Flipboard has a number of features that the news-reading and recommendation platform wouldn’t have been able to build if it wasn’t for years of developing the mobile app and learning how to sort and format content for different devices. So for example, he said, Flipboard can recognize when the content it is displaying would look better as a photo gallery, and automatically resize the images for full-width, or figure out where to put the headline text.

My first thought was that Flipboard might have decided to focus on the web because growth in the app is slowing, but McCue says that’s not the case — in fact, he said, “everything is up, anywhere from 50 to 300 percent, depending on what stat you look at.” According to recent estimates, the company has over 100 million registered users, and it recently confirmed that 50 million of those are monthly average users, up from 30 million last year.

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Flipboard has been through several iterations now, as it has evolved from just a mobile app for reading RSS feeds and websites: the first big launch for the company after its birth came in 2013, when it added the ability for users to curate articles from their streams into their own “magazines.” There are now 15 million magazines that have been created by users, McCue said, up from about 10 million last year. And the second big launch gave users much more choice in terms of what to follow in the app — using recommendation software developed by Zite, which Flipboard acquired last year.

Better monetization

As with its mobile version, part of what Flipboard feels it offers to publishers is the ability to display their content in a beautiful way, and also to display advertising in the same way, McCue says, which theoretically should lead to better monetization than the typical web banner ad. So the company is working with a select group of publishers to host their content and custom advertising inside the web version, and share that revenue.

In the past, Flipboard has been criticized by some publishers and media companies for aggregating their content without paying for it — in much the same way that Google has been criticized for doing with Google News. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo took aim at Flipboard for this in 2013, and said he was pulling his content from the platform. For many publishers, Flipboard opens links inside a browser rather than displaying the full content, and McCue said that will happen on the web as well. But he hopes publishers will choose to work with the platform instead of fighting it:

“For the moment, links on the web will just go to the publisher’s website, but we are working on some deals with publishing partners where we can do the same on the web as we do on the mobile app — show magazine-style content and serve ads and share that revenue. We can generate formats and layouts like the NYT’s Snowfall, a really visual magazine style, and we are hoping to do that for a number of publishers.”

Forget everything you thought you knew about the homepage

For all of the upheaval and turmoil that the internet has created in the media industry, and the explosion of new formats and birth of new companies like BuzzFeed and Vox and First Look Media, there are some things that have remained almost impervious to change, and one of those is the “homepage.” Even some digital-only news sites have opted for something not that far removed from the traditional newspaper or magazine homepage, with a curated selection of stories chosen by editors, or a chronological blog style.

Is that really the best we can do? Melody Kramer doesn’t think it is — or at least she would like people to think a little more outside the box, as it were. A former digital strategist at National Public Radio, she developed a devoted following via the Social Media Desk blog she set up for NPR on Tumblr and has since left for a job with a federal government skunkworks called 18F (she also has a newsletter in which collects all sorts of fascinating things).

In a recent post on Medium, entitled “64 Ways to Think About a News Homepage,” Kramer enlisted a number of friends, many of whom have nothing to do with the news business (which in itself is kind of an extension of a recurring feature she does, called “How Do You Get Your News?,” in which she interviews people from outside the news industry about how they get their news). And each suggestion is illustrated with what appears to be the actual hand-written or hand-drawn version of that idea.

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The result is fairly crude, like someone videotaped a whiteboard session over a few beers with some smart friends. But for me at least, the value isn’t in any one single idea — since there is no “silver bullet” answer to what a homepage should be — but more in the approach itself, which tries to forget everything we knew about a news homepage and come up with better or different ideas about how we could organize information. Here are some of the themes that jumped out at me when I read the post:

Customization: One concept that connects many of the ideas in Kramer’s post is personalization. So, for example, one idea is to turn a news homepage into a “Choose Your Own Adventure” kind of story, in which readers choose which threads to follow and the story is ultimately constructed by them through those choices; another idea sees the homepage as a “treasure map” that lets readers pick different spots to dig or drill down into a topic; and a third lets readers choose how much time they have and how much they want to know about a story, and then tries to deliver that.

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Other views: Some of the ideas Kramer’s group mentioned are clearly an attempt to get out of the so-called “filter bubble,” in which we spend too much time focused on topics or stories that are already of interest to our social network. So one proposal is for a homepage that allows a reader to see the news through someone else’s eyes; another would show news that was read or shared by people far away from the user; and a third proposes that the homepage be set up to show news that surprises the reader (although it’s not clear how it would do that, unless it knew you very well).

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More depth: A number of the ideas in the list seemed to be oriented around the kind of market that Vox was set up to serve — namely, a market of readers looking for more depth and context and background for the stories that are flowing past them all the time. So one idea would have a homepage where each story came with links to background articles, stories on a similar topic, etc. (probably the closest to a traditional news-site approach), while another would have each story include links to the sources the reporter used to put the story together, and background articles he or she used.

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Some of the ideas suggested by Kramer’s group, like the one that recommends background links for each piece — or the one that would allow users to zoom in and out to see the broader context for an issue-based story — are at least close to what traditional digital and print news outlets are doing, or trying to do. But some are refreshingly bizarre, like the one that suggests a homepage where the selection of news is driven by some action the reader takes, like a “spin the wheel” kind of approach; or the one where news reading becomes a game and if you don’t win then you lose your “life” and have to come back later.

Many of these are unworkable, or ill-advised, or just plain loony — but what I admire about them is that they are trying to rethink what it means to even have a homepage at all. Why do we do it the way we do? What is good and bad about that? Kramer also mentions some existing sites that are trying to do this in one way or another: so, for example, Quartz’s homepage is basically its email newsletter of headlines, and Mashable’s homepage is entirely driven by algorithms.

Reading through Kramer’s post, I couldn’t help but think about when I worked at a newspaper and was on a task force devoted to rethinking the home page: I suggested that the site have three home pages — one where it showed you what stories the editors thought were important, one where it showed you stories that the site knew you might be interested in (based on its knowledge of your behavior) and one where you could see what other readers liked, based on what they clicked on or shared or commented on.

At this point, we have plenty of sites that give us the first of those, some that try to give you the second now and then — and social media has more or less taken care of the third one, although it is still too cumbersome for many people to use regularly as a news-discovery engine. Even after a decade and a half online, media outlets still have a long way to go before they really reinvent themselves.