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All the News that's Fit for Digital
May 28, 2014 - 8:16pm

I’ve been meaning to read the New York Times’s Innovation Report, the one that was leaked to Buzzfeed just as its first woman editor was being fired. (I don’t know enough about the circumstances of that change in editorial leadership to comment on its wisdom, but the public humiliation of Jill Abramson was excruciating to watch and not befitting the dignity of a major newspaper.)  Yesterday, Joshua Kim reminded me of my intention. After all, it's called, by the Neiman Journalism Lab, “one of the key documents of this media age.” 

Joshua wants to know what the report can teach those of us in higher ed. I’m wondering what parallels it might have with academic libraries and how we talk about our futures. But I’m also deeply interested in what it has to say about the future of news.

To respond to Joshua’s question, I notice the report isn't all that innovative. It uses the very same annoying buzzwords that too many “thought leaders” in higher ed use: “we must evolve, and quickly” and “take it to the next level” are clichés I would have cut if I were editing this bit of news.

Thinking about academic libraries, there are certainly parallels in that workflows and positions developed in an age of print have to be rethought as library content is discovered online, a decreasing amount of printed material is acquired, and libraries develop new ways to support the creation and transfer of knowledge. We can’t afford to treat digital and print information separately, throwing everything new and digital at a few young librarians with impossible jobs (a problem that the Library Loon so aptly named “new hire messianism”). Dealing with digital information must now be every librarian’s work. At the same time, it’s essential that we hold onto values that are enduring. It’s important to square user metrics with the value of privacy, even if experts tell us that surveillance and data-aggregation improves the customer experience. We can figure out non-invasive ways to help readers out if we put our minds to it. Likewise, it’s important to square preservation and the public good with the licenses we sign. We need to value diversity even if our metrics suggest some content isn’t terribly popular and some market segments, er, people might not generate the most impressive use metrics. And so forth.

Thinking about this report as a vision of the future of news – which as both a librarian and a citizen matters to me – I understand the need to take digital seriously, but I am not happy with the way the report urges the paper to make the important wall between reporting and advertising more permeable. Of course, it makes sense to pay as much attention to online readership as editors once did to deciding what should go on page one and what belongs above the fold. Being able to connect with readers and find ways to get a story out is important. But I find it embarrassing to read gushing praise for how successfully the Huffington Post manages to attract readers. It’s practically a link farm running on cheap labor. Attracting clicks is its primary purpose. Yet an expert says it “crushes” the Times by repackaging Times stories with better headlines and lots of “social” (which is now, apparently, a noun). Huffpo’s “best practices” include not publishing a story until it has accompanying photo (often lifted randomly from the web, but if it's catchy, why not?), a “search headline” (I’m not sure what that is, but I’m guessing it’s finding a way to attract hits using trending words and hype), a Tweet, and a Facebook post ready to roll out. Dunno about you, but I don’t read tweets from Huffpo.

I read tweets from interesting people who I follow who, in most cases, have actually read what they are sharing.  Also, apparently, to encourage reader engagement, the Times should lighten up on the comment moderation and add more quizzes to get more reader engagement. Because Buzzfeed. (I just started reading a new report from Ithaka about metric-driven decision-making that asks whether libraries can "move away from collections-centric to engagement-centered models" to promote "academic productivity." We used to say "is this getting used? is it helping students learn?" which seemed fairly obvious questions to ask, but I guess now we can call it "engagement-centered" and sound more impressive.) 

One line in the Times report says a lot about where these innovators are coming from: "There is no reason that the space filled by TED Talks, with tickets costing $7,500, could not have  been created by The Times." Maybe that silly idea that they were in the news business rather than the attention business was holding them back.  

One of my concerns about the ham-fisted way these digital "engagement" measures are interpreted is that important news isn’t always retweeted, emailed, or commented on - but it’s still important. I may not tweet a link to a story on happenings in Ukraine because  my followers are more interested in libraries and digital humanities and whatnot. But I still care about what’s happening in Ukraine, and so do my friends, even if our interest registers one lousy click at a time instead of lots of retweets. The “most emailed” news stories are almost never news. They're the kind of stories you send to your aunt who’s a teacher, or share with foodies you know at work or post to Facebook because it’s either fun or infuriating. That doesn’t make it more important than actual news, which we still want to read.

When it comes to higher ed, libraries, and news, the lesson is clear to me. We need to figure out what’s important and why it’s still valuable even if “free” MOOCs enroll tens of thousands (and gather monetizable data in the process), Amazon seems to have absolutely everything (unless it’s books published by a company it's arguing with), and the Huffington Post is expert at going cheap by using other people’s labor for clicks while getting really good at clicks. We need to engage with the publics we serve, but not for the purposes of competition and attention. We need to remember why the public needs education and libraries and news – and figure out how to do it well even if the revenue streams we once depended on have been dammed up and diverted. 

 Because what we do is important, but the numbers social media has trained us to obsess over doesn't always tell us why.

 

 

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