Planet Jeffro

Product Owner for Grockit (a Kaplan company).
Email me at jeffnovich [] gmail

Companies/Products I created:
Patient Communicator | half patient portal half CRM for doctors (was part of the Blueprint Health accelerator)
Poachbase | find talent at floundering startups
Fare/Share | iOS app for sharing taxis
VocabSushi | learn vocab from news
Cnvrge | meet people via SMS
Supermarket Classroom | teach your child while shopping | foursquare for the 99% | online SAT prep
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Image representing GroundReport as depicted in...
Image via CrunchBase

I just watched this screencast by Rachel Sterne of Ground Report, given to Michael Cervieri’s class at Columbia’s SIPA.

I want to stress that I love websites and services that contribute to the greater good and have positive social impacts.  I think too many startups are all about wasting your time on dumb shit.  Still, I have to call this out for what it is.

I’ve written previously about why I think “citizen journalism” is essentially a useless tool for the public, and it certainly is not a proxy or “early warning system” for much of anything.  I haven’t seen any evidence of this, and items that are ballyhooed are not particularly exceptional.  I’ve seen Rachel speak and I deeply respect her intentions and she’s quite a convincing presenter.  I love the idea of participatory journalism, but frankly, I think it’s bullshit.  I don’t like knocking these sorts of things down, but I’m going to be totally honest because this is the future of journalism we’re talking about.

In a nutshell: GroundReport et al. gather “info” from average people who submit stories.  I appreciate the “participatory” nature of it, but that info is largely garbage and can never do what real journalism has and will continue to do.

What is “Citizen Journalism”

I call it “see, snap, post" reporting, or simply a "public status update”, because essentially it’s when anyone with a phone sees something, tweets it or takes a picture of it, and posts it.  That’s basically a status update that we are now calling news.  A picture requires context.  And anything that’s even remotely newsworthy will be (or should be) covered by working journalists.

The typical examples cited as revolutionary examples of this new era of citizen journalism are the plane in the Hudson, India bombings, and Iran elections.  In the case of the Hudson plane and India bombings, I don’t see how twitter revolutionized anything here except that for a few minutes, the status updates of random people were valuable and “scooped” mainstream news.  These stories were immediately covered in depth by experienced reporters.

Most people don’t understand the tenets of journalism

I went through J-school but obviously you don’t need a masters to understand how journalism works.  It helps, though, because I often see critical problems with even my very smart friends.  They are not very skeptical or critical of stuff they read.  They have a minimal understanding of what constitutes a conflict of interest or why “advocacy journalism” needs further investigation.  They gravitate towards certain publications and rarely dive in and try to fact check stories themselves.  The public seems to think that because a film is non-fiction (and called a “documentary”) it is a reliable source of information.  People barely even understand how careful video editing can create a fabricated story, and that his is often used by “real” news sources like Fox.  We all know they are fair and balanced, but what about other groups that actually advocate for things?

Phrases like “news gathering” and “fact checking" are not things a novice can do very well.  Or at the very least, the news gathering a random person on the street might do as compared to any reporter at any newspaper is quite different.

The “magic journalism box”

Rachel shows before and after slides: the first is the box of mainstream news pushing content to the masses, the second is basically the web, where the masses inform each other and the box is blurred and in the background. The trouble with this comparison is that it isn’t remotely comparable.  The news that mainstream media does is quite different than the news that Joe 6 pack “reports” to his buddies.

That distinction is important because journalism is not what happens when you share information.  Sharing information is what happens.  And there is nothing magical about that in a journalistic sense.

A fact check on mainstream media? The Fourth Estate?

It’s laughable to think that citizen journalism can “fact check” mainstream media or check the government.  In some rare cases an overeager person will look into campaign finance documents or meet a whistle-blower or publish classified documents - but I would love to see a real accountability investigation by a regular joe and not, say, a paid reporter for ProPublica who spent 6 months working and drawing from his or her network and experience.

It is insane to me to jump from calling citizen journalism the “fourth estate" that will "fact check mainstream media that often gets things wrong”, and then cite the following examples to back up that claim.  Are you ready for the hard hitting examples?

1) a tweeted photo of plane in the Hudson

2) Facebook as an organizing tool for protests - this isn’t journalism, it’s a communication tool, oh and it’s mostly bullshit, (according to Malcolm Gladwell)

3) video of wildfires in California

That’s some hard hitting, breaking news right there.  Where are the millions of examples.  The Daily Show seems to do more fact checking of Fox than any citizen journalist could of any news outlet.

Of course the internet and phones have enabled an amazing opportunity to share more stuff.  But I don’t see the correlation to why that leads to increased journalism opportunities.  The distribution channels are fast and cheap.  And plenty of shitty content has filled those channels.

You get what you pay for

Examples are given of “local” reporting.  Yeah.  Patch has hyperlocal coverage - they pay $40 for a story.  HuffPo doesn’t even pay most of their “contributors”.  It’s cheap to create stuff when you don’t pay.  But worse, you get what you pay for.  Or don’t pay for.  The quality of $40/article reporting isn’t just in the grammar or sentence creation.  It’s in how much shoe leather reporting was done.

Darfur is an intriguing example.  But having amateurs report what they see in a chaotic place like that is about as useful as sending amateurs into a crime scene to take evidence.  You’ll get lots of “information” but very little of it will contain proper context.  The leads may not be followed at all.  There is probably a really long and detailed story behind a particular photo you shoot, but you only got another spectator’s account of it, and never went in to interview the people involved, the police statements and documents, etc.

I am by no means saying I know how to do this.  I’ve never been to a dangerous country.  But I have friends who have, and it takes a certain skillset to do this stuff well.  Simply being a member of the audience or a spectator does not make you a (useful) reporter.  Perhaps a stringer.  Though the quality and reliability for even that type of content is questionable.  Again, you get what you pay for.

The tenets of Ground Report (and other citizen journalist sites):

1) Create engaging content through personal perspectives:  Ok, this isn’t helpful to a fact-based discussion.  Hearing a first person account of someone who was fired from GM isn’t really that helpful.  On the other hand, a reporter who gets several interviews, corroborates them, and conveys a more thorough context would be creating worthwhile news.

2) Participation: When anyone can participate you get 99% shit, which is what you see when you look at blogs and tweets.

3) Cover the little guys: I think “cover” is a strong word that should only describe a certain minimum level of reporting.  You aren’t “covering” an issue by taking a picture of an abortion clinic and tweeting it.  Or seeing some trees on fire and posting it with a series of responses by residents.  That’s not coverage.  I think what Rachel means here is “advocacy” for certain issues and regions.  We will look at some of the content later.

4) Remove spin and bias: Curiously, almost all of the articles I read on GroundReport had excessive adjective use in nearly every sentence, indicating a very high dose of opinion. IE, a “magnificent” event or “glamorous” festivities.  If you look carefully you find that most of these “reporters” are advocates for some cause (which IS NOT A BAD THING, it just means it is not unbiased at all and requires a healthy bit of skepticism.)

5) Financially viable: yes by not paying anyone.  Great business model.  She mentions $50/mo for “great contributors”.  Right, that’ll attract talent.

9,000 “global reporters” = tweeters

80,000 “news reports" = status updates or cut and paste jobs of junk or press releases, often never exceeding the quality you’d find at an average person’s blog.  Many of these "reports" actually cite mainstream media!

23 editors = the gatekeepers who I thought were the biased “bad guys” of mainstream media?  What are their credentials and why are they letting in so much bad content?

But it worked on Wikipedia… it’ll work with journalism!

The two cannot be compared.  Wikipedia is awesome, yes, and is a great success, yes, but it isn’t relevant here:

1) Wikipedia contains encyclopedic facts (like math equations and history).  In other words, almost nothing on Wikipedia is currently happening as news.  Most of what you find is easily fact checked by experts, in books, etc.  Stuff that just happened in Pakistan can’t possibly be fact checked in the same way.  People can chip away and correct and tweak and improve Wikis over time, each time improving what’s there.  That persistence and luxury of time along with experts who can assess the validity of statements and facts simply doesn’t exist in the “see click post” streaming news firehose.  The content is completely different.

2) Anyone can post to Wiki, and anyone can edit.  Anyone can post to GR, but only editors can edit.

3) How do you fact check an interview that a “citizen journalist” did with a cop at the scene of a crime?  Or check that any of the report is factual?  Wikipedia always cites its sources for quotes and facts and figures to other, more reliable outlets like government sites, scientific journals, and, that’s right, mainstream media!

Participation in news should be facilitated, yes, but not fully democratic… kind of like our own system of government! (It’s why we don’t all vote on all issues all the time. We elect people to focus on that stuff.  Sure it may not work out that well, but it’s a billion times better than the alternative.)

American voters upload video of their experiences

I’m struggling to find the value of this by itself.  GR gave cameras to people.  So they facilitated what people already do on YouTube.  So a lot of info was “gathered”.  Was any of it useful?  What was the context?  Was there any analysis of this or is it just a bunch of random people talking about voting (which is entertaining and to some extent newsworthy but absolutely does not serve as a proxy for regular news).

Raised money to pay for medical costs

GR had little to do with this.  There are plenty of sites that serve this need much better and are far less prone to fraud.

Beat the mainstream news by X hours

1) Yeah, which stories were those?  I don’t see the value in knowing that a plane crashed in the Hudson 10 minutes before the media gets there with helicopters and cameras.  Why is that immediacy so much more valuable than depth and context?  Speed means virtually nothing in the kinds of stories (call them “public status updates”) where citizen journalism would beat out the press by some amount of time.

2) The list of GR articles that “scooped” the NYT is probably right.  But were the GR stories even remotely as well researched as the NYT?  Did GR scoop the local reporting outlets?  Possible, but not probable.  And what would anyone do with a GR story?  I highly doubt that lead to a NYT reporter saying “hmm, this would be great, let me go and do a story on this”.  No, it’s more likely they had someone there.  Let’s not forget that the NYT isn’t the only news outlet in the world.  Did any of this scoop the BBC or other outlets?

3) Yes, these are important stories… and it would make sense for GR to bubble up the, say, 5 stories that are well documented and important.  I’d guess that about 99% of their content is drivel.  Yes, you could say “but 1% is awesome” and that’s good, but what value does a site so heavily weighted to crap have?

4) Yes, GR “fits in” to the mainstream media because MM utilizes the drivel to uncover a good source or two and then they do their own reporting.  This happens in television news in the opposite way - TV journalists just poach content from news stories and go out and re-report it themselves, usually poorly and with less context, so dumb TV watchers can “get” it.  The NYT reporters go out and find sources to interview.  GR makes this easier to uncover those sources, but those sources still need to be interviewed and carefully vetted.  I guarantee that the NYT did not simply “cite” a GR story.  There has to be more to that claim.

Early warning system

Rachel cites Pakistan as an example of where GR can serve as an early warning system.  I can’t imagine amateur reporters get any meaningful “early warning” information on, say, Pakistan’s nuclear potential.  Shit that happens “on the ground” (ie in plain sight) is rarely where the actual shit takes place (behind closed doors, beneath stacks of documents…).

What frustrates me is that the press talks around how Ground Report is revolutionizing things and shaking things up, but doesn’t ever get shaken up by it.  Everyone is so eager to say how amazing it is, but no one seems to be reading the content.  Go ahead and read it.  Right now.  Just click on a few articles and see if any of it would pass RWI (the first course we took in journalism school).  See if it sounds like it was well reported and written without bias.  Also, look at where the bylines are from, where the articles were originally published, oh, and how often you find that the article actually references mainstream news.

Reasons why people post shit to the web

You call it “citizen journalism”.  I call it “status updates” and “generic blogging” and “tweeting pictures”.  When you properly call out the vast majority of this stuff for what it is, the reasons why people post stuff to the web is no longer an interesting question.

Rachel says 10% of users create 90% of content (then corrects herself and says perhaps it’s closer to 1% creates 99%).  That’s not very impressive and sounds an awful lot like regular news outlets.

She says “we should pay the top 1% of contributors”, but they can’t afford to.  Hmm, so this isn’t a business model that makes sense either!  Sounds a lot like the problem every news company is facing these days.

Establishing trust

This is a very important piece of the puzzle since I trust the NYT reporters, but I definitely do not trust the random people who write Yelp reviews, so why should I trust the same people writing “user generated articles” about stuff on the ground?  Oh, because there’s a trusted “human network” overseeing things.  That would be a convincing argument if the content on GR were actually good.

I want to believe anyone can “do journalism.”  I know a J-school degree is bullshit and unnecessary - you don’t need it like you would need an MD to practice medicine.  But GR essentially inverts the trust you would normally have in an institution like The Boston Globe where there are levels of editors, lawyers checking if you’ve corroborated the story before publishing it, other journalists helping with leads, investigations going on, etc etc.  With GR, you get none of that trustworthy backend.  Truly, none.  I don’t even have trust in the editors at GR.

Asked if anyone does long-form/investigative pieces, Rachel cites someone writing a series about eminent domain, a particularly interesting topic for analysis and opinion… this is the hard hitting article she’s talking about.

And dare I ask, would any self respecting journalist (or rather would you ever put your trust in a journalist who would) say something like this:

I have tried in vain to Google a quote from him on eminent domain except with regard to Carl Paladino’s call for eminent domain to block the so-called World Trade Center mosque.

Are you joking?  You tried to google a quote.  But worse, you tried to uncover a particular quote to suit your argument.  Why not try to get an interview like every journalism student who has ever been turned away from officials?

A huge chunk of this stuff is either advocacy opinion, derivative from other mainstream sources on the web (sounds like bloggers in their pajamas all over again), or worse, cited from advocacy blogs that are bullshit to begin with.  Our eminent domain expert says:

My own activities have included opposition to the New York Times headquarters scheme I labelled Time$cam

It’s open to submissions, we decide what to publish

If you are a freelance journalist and you want to write for any self-respecting publication, it’s hard to do this.  For good reason.  The NY Daily News, for example, has a reputation to uphold.  That was where I got my first real clip.  The editors for the section you want to write for have a reputation.  They absolutely won’t print stuff unless you’ve been thoroughly vetted in one way or another either because you have great clips from other publications (which is sort of a Catch 22 but not an insurmountable obstacle) or you come highly recommended.  I can tell you just having a J-school degree doesn’t get you in anywhere.

So this is a really interesting difference.  Mainstream media is like a really exclusive club that you aren’t invited into.  You have to work hard to get into those circles.  There are plenty of articles I wrote in school and afterwards that I thought were definitely top clips and should be published.  These were well researched pieces with a range of great interviews.  So why the hell won’t they publish my work??

This is the frustrating reality of “breaking in”, and yes, it shouldn’t be that hard to get published, but better that it’s hard than get rid of the gatekeeper altogether.  That’s what GR is.  They’ll basically publish anything with virtually no vetting.  Oh, you say you’re an expert, what are your credentials, looks good to me.  You’re a student or you work at a non profit, great, write anything you want about this topic.  We won’t fact check a single word of it because, unlike mainstream media, we have no fact-checkers.  Maybe this makes sense from a blog platform perspective, or for twitter, of course, but as a “news” organization, your reputation means everything.  Without it, you fail.  That’s why we have ombudsmen (plural?) and letters to the editor are taken very seriously.

Amusingly, Rachel says GR puts “opinion” pieces into the opinion category.  Unfortunately, you don’t need to dive too far into the site to find highly opinionated stuff listed in all the other categories that would make Fox News cringe.

Using SEO in news has created a race to the bottom

This is not specific to GR.  Most news sites have basically started pushing out content that is super popular and trending or that uses keywords that are searched most often.  What does this mean for news?  Britney Spears becomes a front page story, and the whole reason GR came about (to expose the stories that weren’t being told) is mostly compromised.  And this is happening everywhere.

Michael Arrington highlights this alarming problem in a fantastic post last year.

So what really scares me? It’s the rise of fast food content that will surely, over time, destroy the mom and pop operations that hand craft their content today. It’s the rise of cheap, disposable content on a mass scale, force fed to us by the portals and search engines.

On one end you have AOL and their Toyota Strategy of building thousand of niche content sites via the work of cast-offs from old media. That leads to a whole lot of really, really crappy content being highlighted right on the massive AOL home page.

Rachel would agree with this, and says people can stick to their ethics and not just write what’s hot… but while this answers the question of “how do you get people to come to your site,” it still begs the question “how will you make money if people aren’t coming for your great original, non-trending stuff about Zimbabwe.”  HuffPo is fun, but it’s not the future of journalism.  Or, if it is, that’s going to be a really shitty, derivative, keyword-laden future.

My ideal world

In my world, the jobs to be teachers and journalists would be the most coveted and highest paid in the country.  Teachers shape the future and journalists shape our present.  When each new crop of students is smarter than the last, our world will get better.  Problem is, kids aren’t learning how to process information from the web and how to read skeptically and cross reference and fact check on their own.  Basic journalism skills, I think, are a fundamental part of a real-world education so these kids can block out bullshit and think critically about things.

Good, accountability journalism is necessary for democracy.  We get the opposite of that - what I call “scratch the surface and move on" reporting - from most trashy "news" outlets and a lot of TV.  GR is built on this type of reporting.  But we need journalists to be paid to do what they do, so they can dig, and explore, and uncover things they didn’t originally set out to find.  That’s how real reporting is done, but amateurs would never know this because they’ve never dug in for 3 or 6 months.  Almost all of the major exposes of our time were discovered by accident - just like many of the amazing scientific discoveries.

So what is the correct path for the future of journalism?

I sound like a curmudgeon and I swear I don’t mean to be.  It just upsets me to see a lot of potential wasted.

First of all, the democratization of news is already well underway.  I read dozens of reputable blogs for my news about technology, cleantech, enviro problems and other things.  Many do original reporting.  For example, TechCrunch is the source for all things tech startup related.  They break news.  They are real journalists with real jobs and real experience.  Their connections in the industry are unbeatable and they interview the shit out of their sources.  You should see Arrington work his magic.  He’s a dick, yes, but he’s amazing to watch.  The NYT reads TechCrunch for tech stories.  The “Tech Section” and Pogue simply can’t touch what TC has built.  The reason this happened is because of specialization and because of trust.  I trust Arrington and Shoenfeld to seek out news because they have crazy networks of people and they get tips and they corroborate and they correct and update themselves.  They are transparent.  Oh, and they make money.

Treehugger does more of the “cite and analyze” reporting and relies a lot on published stories elsewhere, but they also do a bunch of original reporting.  That is, they get on the phone and call people.  They are basically advocates, yes, but I don’t find their writing particularly biased.

Secondly, there are ways to engage citizens as sources.  I saw John Keefe from WNYC talk (at NYT hosted event) about how they created the “citizen sources” program where average people could text things to the reporter network and serve as sources for producing pieces.

…connecting public media journalists with citizen-sources to access more authentic intelligence, better understand hyper-local perspectives, and uncover meaningful if underreported stories – particularly in communities that public radio does not yet reach.

This is interesting because here they retain the reporter-source relationship, but enhance it and allow the source to be more accessible and play a contributor role, but not an authorship role.  Tons of people in these developing countries can text.  That would be the smarter way to harness their collective reporting abilities.

Finally, ProPublica employs seasoned reporters who produce in depth investigative stories and gives these stories to outlets to publish for free.  It is a non profit and funded by donations.  It produces amazing work because it has about 3 or 4 Pulitzer winners on staff and only hires the most experienced, best journalists around.

My advice to mainstream news to stay afloat is very simple.  Don’t charge for “street knowledge” shit, like the Hudson plane, or a glorified press release about Apple.  Charge $1-$2 for in-depth, exclusive stuff like the Vanity Fair profile on Sarah Palin (and incredibly captivating read), or the New Yorker piece on Zuckerberg.  I would have paid for those.

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