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Working on spec: On the power of hard data, bad product reviews, and Jim Romenesko

When it comes to aggregation, right and wrong can come down to how it feels.

There was a bit of a battle last week in the tech-writing world about specs — meaning specifications, or the concrete data points that can be used to describe any piece of tech. You know what I mean — as in, this Dell XPS 14z has an Intel Core i7-2640M processor running at 2.8 GHz, 8GB of dual channel DDR3 SDRAM running at 1333MHz, a GeForce GT 520M 1GB graphics card from Nvidia, an 8x CD/DVD burner, a 5x turbotoaster, 12 tripaflops of lobster thermidor, and so on.

Steve Jobs liked to call them “speeds and feeds,” and he never liked them much. Here he is talking in 1997, just after his return to Apple, about how the company’s marketing needed to change. (This was the introduction of the famous Think Different campaign.)

To me, marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world, it’s a very noisy world. And we’re not gonna get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. And so we have to be really clear about what we want them to know about us…

The way to do that is not to talk about speeds and feeds. It’s not to talk about MIPS and megahertz.

(Jobs’ disdain for speeds and feeds was arrived at honestly — although it didn’t hurt that for years Macs had fallen behind Windows PCs in many of those key numbers.)

The battle I’m talking about is a tension around the right way to review or evaluate a new piece of technology. If you’re comparing two products, the fact that one has a clock speed of 2.4 GHz and the other only 2.2 GHz — does that go in the “win” column for Gadget A over Gadget B? Is the fact that the iPhone 4S has 512 MB of RAM enough to make it worse than Android phones that have twice as much? Are products fairly evaluated or compared through ordered charts of numbers and data points, or is something more holistic better?

Obviously these are artificial extremes, and both the raw data and the subjective experience are important in evaluating a product — just as the feel of driving a well made sports car can’t be summed up in horsepower or foot-pounds of torque. But for those folks who are paid to tell us about technology, that tension is very real — just as it is for those who build technology, who are sometimes torn between focusing on user experience and focusing on completing a checklist of features. (“My checklist’s longer: I win!”)

I was reading Gizmodo’s review of the Kindle Fire — which leans more toward the user-experience end of the spectrum — and was surprised to see this comment: “I’m disappointed there isn’t more of a spec vs spec comparison at the bottom of this article…More spec comparisons.”

M.G. Siegler wrote about this last Monday at TechCrunch (“The Death Of The Spec”) and cited a tweet from Dustin Curtis that summed it up nicely: “The section headings for a Kindle Fire review should not be ‘battery, internals, screen;’ they should be ‘reading, surfing the web,’ etc.” Here’s M.G.:

We’re starting to see backlash against reviews of products that just do spec-by-spec rundown. Because really, who cares how the device sounds on paper? It’s how it feels that matters. Is the Kindle Fire smooth? Is the Nook Tablet fast? Is the iPad a joy to use?

The thing is, it’s easy to understand why specs are appealing. They’re objective, and as such they’re low risk. If you review a product and note the precise speed of its processor, you’re not going to be wrong. It’s right there on the press release! And specs are pleasingly defined: it’s a known fact how they compare to the competition, which has its own press releases, and they help lay down a journalistically useful, if not quite accurate, framework for comparison. (“This year’s model has twice the RAM” is an objective comparison. “This year’s model feels a little bit faster than I remember last year’s” is subjective and tied to the individual reviewer’s personal experience.)

The problems arise when there’s a disconnect between the specs and lived reality. Anyone still buying digital cameras hopefully knows about the megapixel myth by now — the fact that a camera with more megapixels could be substantially worse than one with fewer, because while higher numbers sound better in ads and reviews, they actually can reduce sensor sizes to the point that they worsen the quality of the image. Or that a device with a higher clockspeed might feel slower than one with a lower one because it has other chokepoints in the design. Or its software might be buggy. Or its interface might be terrible. That all comes out of something other than raw, chartable numbers.

The work of evaluating a subjective experience — the work of the critic — is stressful! I used to be a Professional Rock Critic, and let me tell you, that’s a job filled with the risk of humiliation. I praised albums that, in retrospect, I find embarrassing and slammed others that, a decade later, I now know were amazing. (I think I got more right than wrong, but on net I was a less than 100% trustworthy guide to indie rock in 1998.) Luckily, no one reviews records based on hard metrics like “songs per CD” or “minutes per track,” but I have no doubt some critics would flock to raw numbers if it were culturally acceptable to do so.

Jay Rosen may not realize he’s secretly been a technology-journalism critic all these years, but I think this preference for hard specs isn’t too distant from what he calls The View from Nowhere. Many journalists’ self-identities are bound up in not making a subjective call, Rosen argues — in leaving the he said, she said dialogue unresolved. Is “he” (e.g. Obama, Tea Partiers, whoever) wrong? Is “she” right? Addressing those questions requires leaving the comfortable role the journalist has carved out for himself as the neutral, above-it-all observer. When “CNN leaves it there,” they do so to remain outside the arena, which is the comfortable place to be. Just like it can be comfortable to rely on clean numbers like hardware specs and not dive into fuzzier areas like user experience, interface design, and responsiveness.

But this post isn’t about technology reporting, or Dell laptops, or Steve Jobs. It’s about Jim Romenesko.

Specifically, the remarkable saga we witnessed earlier this month in which Romenesko, the ur-media blogger, was criticized by his employer, Poynter, for “incomplete attribution” in his posts. That led Romenesko to resign and the journalism world to explode — mostly with people defending Romenesko from the charges.

What Romenesko was criticized for was sometimes taking phrases directly from the stories he was linking to and putting them into the brief story summaries he wrote, without surrounding them with quotation marks. So instead of:

The paper found that the kinds of records it wants from Emanuel are “routinely available — in many cases with a phone call or an email request — in Atlanta, Boston, Hartford, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Seattle.”

Romenesko skipped the quotes around “routinely…Seattle,” which come straight from the linked story. Poynter’s Julie Moos said: “If only for quotation marks, it would be exactly right. Without those quotation marks, it is incomplete and inconsistent with our publishing practices and standards on Poynter.org.”

Journalists erupted in his defense in part because they like Romenesko, who gives every indication of being a mensch and whose work had been a part of their web habits for about as long as they’d had web habits. We don’t care about quotation marks, they said. We knew what Jim was doing. Nobody complained. To which others responded: But they’re someone else’s words, and there weren’t quotation marks around them. That’s a rule.

In a sense, it’s the same tension between hard specs and user experience. The quotation marks are the spec: their presence or absence is hard data. It’s binary, 1 or 0; either they’re there or they’re not. The problem is, the hard data of that spec conflicted in many journalists’ minds with the feel of the situation, the user experience — which was that Romenesko was a fair-minded, generous-with-his-credit, positive contributor to the world of news. The point of getting attribution right is to avoid pretending someone else’s work is your own — and it’s hard to say that passages studded with “The paper reports…” and “Smith writes…,” with a big prominent link up top to the source, are pretending that someone else’s work is your own. Specs should be in service to the user experience, and in Romenesko’s case, the user experience was good.

This is the central problem around aggregation these days: the specs don’t line up with the user experience. You can follow the rules, as traditionally defined, and end up coming off as a jerk. Or you can flout the rules, as traditionally defined, and be seen as generous with your credit.

Here’s an example. Nouveau tech site The Verge does a lot of aggregation. But The Verge, like its spiritual predecessor Engadget, almost always avoids linking to the material it’s aggregating in the body of its one-paragraph summaries. Instead, the site pushes the crediting link to a small box at the bottom of the post, like so:

That sort of aggregation doesn’t send much traffic anyone’s way. When I complained about it in my otherwise highly laudatory post about The Verge, managing editor Nilay Patel defended it in the comments:

I will defend our decision to break out vias and sources, though — we think it’s incredibly important to consistently and canonically show people where our stories come from, where are primary sources are, and how they fit together. A reader who comes to a post on The Verge can immediately trace our steps and check our work against the primary source, since we put that information in the same place every time. It might not be the “standard” across the web, but we think it’s much cleaner and clearer for people.

To which I responded:

Re: source credits, I agree with you it’s a good idea to be consistent in how you show where you’re getting your stories from. My complaint would be that that admirable consistency is no reason to avoid also linking to the source story in the actual text of the post, which, let’s be honest, is much more valuable real estate than a 22px-high box the eye jumps right over.

I just pulled up your five most recent stories. Each of them is aggregated from another site, but none of them provide a link to the original story in the body copy. Meanwhile, they do find room to link to three other Verge stories and six Verge product pages. I just think it would be good sportsmanship if the obvious places for credit within the body copy (e.g., “GSMArena reports,” “Engadget has gotten a photo,” “according to CNET’s sources,” etc.) had links.

And, in response to a separate comment about Engadget, which does much the same thing:

As it is, just about the only time Engadget ever links to anything in the body copy of a post is when they can link to one of their own posts, so they can drive up pageviews and time on site. Just glancing at Engadget’s home page now, in the 15 full posts on it, all that body copy has a total of 46 links. And every single one of them is to another Engadget story or tag page. To me, for a site build heavily on aggregation, that just strikes me as rude.

Rude — not unethical, but rude. This isn’t a Verge problem or an Engadget problem — lots of sites do it. Talking Points Memo, a site I greatly admire in many ways, used to link out from its front page. Now the vast majority of those links go to its own staff-written summaries of the stories it used to link to directly. (Although it does link to the source from within the body copy of those summaries.)

I don’t begrudge anyone their pageviews. Aggregation performs a very real and very valuable service; summarizing other people’s work has been a part of journalism since Jonathan Swift. Just as newspapers used to have to run a lot of box scores, recipes, and fluffy features to support their investigative journalism, websites have to mix in pageview-drawing aggregation to support the original work they do.

And, to go one step further, I’m not sure I even buy the argument that the primary measure of good aggregation is its ability to pass along traffic to the story’s originators. If that’s true, traditional news outlets are far worse offenders than just about anyone online; newspaper stories are filled with other people’s work, whether in quotation marks or not, and there’s rarely a link to the originating source to be found. Links are valuable because they help the reader, not because they pass X number of pageviews down a level in the Great Traffic Pyramid.

But none of that changes the fact that some methods come off as more friendly-to-content-producers than others.

The Nieman Journalism Lab is just over three years old. In 2008 and 2009, a link from Romenesko was worth a minimum of 400-500 pageviews — more frequently, 700-1,000. That’s when headlines on Romenesko items linked directly to the source material.

Yesterday, Steve Myers was nice enough to write up the short piece I wrote about Google backtracking a hair on charging for its Maps API. Steve’s writeup was 116 words and summarized the key points I made. Now, I don’t have any problem with that at all — heck, my post was mostly summarizing a Google blog post! and I don’t have to sell ads! — but the end result was that barely anyone clicked through to my post. In all, Steve’s post generated 21 pageviews yesterday, Google Analytics tells me.

To look at it another way, here’s the total Nieman Lab traffic trend, from October 2008 to the present:

And here, over the same period of time, is the amount of traffic we’ve gotten from poynter.org. (Note the scales are different here — it’s the trend line that matters.)

Now, this is very noisy data — maybe we were just doing better work three years ago! And in the meantime, there’s been a huge change in social media that’s allowed people to put Twitter in the slot that Romenesko used to occupy in their media diet. But the result is that a link on Romenesko generated a lot less traffic to us in 2011 than it did in 2008.

Again, that’s fine. Playing Aggregation Police is incredibly tiresome, and from a reader’s point of view, saving clicks by providing fuller summaries is probably on net a good thing. But the point is that this sort of behavior can’t be simply declared good/ethical if there are quotation marks or bad/unethical if there aren’t. The totality of the user experience brings in issues of design, of code, of fair use, of promotion — it’s a lot more complicated than merely whether a box gets checked on a feature checklist.

Remember when the iPod came out, and a guy at Slashdot famously derided it because it didn’t have the specs he wanted? “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.”

Or remember when the iPhone came out and the big complaints were it didn’t have a removable battery and you couldn’t install an extra memory card?

What happened was that people actually used iPods and iPhones and found that they’re delightful little devices that are easy to understand, fun to use, and filled with pleasant little surprises. And the checklists fell away, and the human race collectively decided to buy a gajillion of them.

That’s why the journalism world blew up in defense of Romenesko. Because they knew what the Romensko user experience, at its best, was like, and once you know that, the checklist falls away.

                                   
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  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Your tech comparison is a complete flop. You must be pulling a page from the Tony Kornheiser strategy — use contrast/compare no matter what, even if the subjects are not related at all, and then repeat your point at the end as if you have somehow proved something.

    All Romenesko had to do was to paraphrase the material. You and far too many others seem unwilling and unable to grasp this basic concept. It’s not just about pretending someone else’s work is your own — you and the hordes don’t get it. It’s about doing your own work.

    If you would bother to do some research, you would probably find that many of the people defending Romenesko do so because they are guilty of similar transgressions. Most of those people are too gutless to use a name, but one guy had apparently been copying editorial cartoons straight into his site. You and the hordes probably have no problem with that, either, or you might say he was crediting the source there, too.

  • Tms020348

    Generally I agree with what you have identified as a problem in technical journalism (Feeds and Speeds comparisons) and plagiarism.  Part of the problem is the geekiness of technology (how fast is my computer), and part, the accessibility of  so-called “market intelligence” through the Internet.  Moreover, I acknowledge my own predilections to spec everything down to the last pixel, because my budget is low and my requirements are for devices to last as long as possible.  But, in my ideal world, I would want to get the best bang for the buck, and hope to find an honest broker in the press who is – essentially – me, writing my review of a selected product, in use as I would use the device.  Of course, this will never happen, and so it’s a hopeless challenge. But then, wait a minute, another device has just been announced; belay that purchase; Google the model number; start the spec-tacle once again.
    Nevertheless, what Steve Jobs did for Apple was an exercise in marketing desperation.   Apple, as a company, was at death’s door when he came back to the president’s office.  Its devices were incompatible, poorly engineered, and grossly over-priced. He couldn’t play the spec game, and so he chose to change the argument. Instead of making his customers smarter, he decided he had to make them appear smarter.  “Think Different” in my mind was the equivalent of the old Mad Magazine motto “What Me Worry?”  Instead of educating his customers, he changed the focus on berating his engineers so that his customers wouldn’t complain.  Instead of opening up his platforms to increase the creativity of his users, he encircled them in a proprietary garden where only he was permitted to apply his marketing fertilizer.  Jobs was a perfectionist – a madman – and over time this strategy worked in the marketplace.  The fragmentation of the PC platform was exactly the chaos that Jobs needed to create a dome over his tiny planet of devices.  And the market responded to this strategy.
    But in my ideal world, I’m not looking for a perfect computer that has been harassed out of overworked engineers.  In my ideal world I actually want choice with machines measured against other machines, marked with prices that are levied against features identified as “Good for the heavy-duty writer” or “Perfect for the occasional programming task”, etc.  It’s a different world than what Apple has provided to date, and more appropriate for a manufacturer who is trying to put me into a demographic.  In other words, a larger number of domains, perhaps with fewer individual customers applying their own nutrients to the particular platform where they work.
    If choice is the journey, then Apple is the least likely place to live.  The fact that so many customers feel that computing has become a commodity is, in large part, a reflection of the success of Job’s transformation of the industry.  The brand following has never been greater.  We are both richer and poorer as a result.

  • Bill Mitchell

    Thanks for this good analysis, Josh. It seems to apply not only to the most recent dispute but to earlier firestorms that I managed to set off with redesigns of Poynter.org (and the Romenesko page) when I was running the site. Your framing of the issue as one of user experience (as opposed to more specific issues of standards or site design) helps explain the emotion among people whose useful, enjoyable personal experience was altered in ways that diminished their experience. 

    But here’s the challenge: Setting standards (and designing for) not just long-time, loyal readers but occasional and new users as well. This attachment to experience-as-it’s-been may explain the outcry that almost always accompanies redesigns on any platform. Satisfying hardcore users who relied on the presentation-just-as-it-was can be next to impossible.

    As you point out, though, this is not a binary process. It’s not a matter of respecting the wishes of core users OR designing (or setting standards) for the future. It’s more a matter of creating the best possible experience for all.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    You’re right, Bill, that’s the challenge — as you sometimes hear it in the UX world, improving the NUX (new user experience).

    I know with my redesign of this site in August, which was aimed in part at creating a better NUX, what complaints we did get (not many, thankfully) were from some of our hardest-core readers — the ones who check in multiple times per day who wanted reverse chronological order on the front page. The problem with reverse chronological was that it sometimes buried our best stuff below our most recent stuff — which meant new users were often seeing less important posts first.

    Both sides have a good point, and I’m hoping to tweak things a bit over the holidays to try to better serve both of their interests.

    One other point: Aggregation sites like Poynter’s are typically dealing with two distinct groups — the content producers who are being aggregated and the readers for whom aggregation is a service. They have distinct interests: The content producers want as many clickthroughs as possible; the readers are probably happier with quick summaries that eliminate the need for a clickthrough.

    The unique challenge for Poynter and other sites about media is that those two groups are, in spirit at least, the same group. When your audience is largely made up of content producers, they don’t always see aggregation/summary as a service in the same way a general audience might — they’re keenly aware of how the original work (maybe not theirs, but someone they can identify with’s) is being fed into the aggregation blender. I think that fed part of the reaction here, and it’s something all media-about-media sites need to be aware of (including us).

  • http://twitter.com/TheFree_Lance Jeff A. Taylor

    Joshua, no.

    Quote marks are not benchmarkable tech specs. No.

    Sorry.

    More sorry though for the editor that greenlit this stretch.  To him or her: Wow. 

  • http://twitter.com/GlennF Glenn Fleishman

    I have identified what I call an “engineer” profile, which is a gross oversimplification (like engineers like) of the personality type you see constantly in comments on Web sites. This is a person without any real ability to see allegory or accept that a personal, subjective experience (even one backed up by data that aggregates individual experiences to draw conclusions) makes any sense.

    Thus, the first comment on my Economist item about Rosanne Cash’s requests-from-Twitter concert in her living room complained that the title, ‘Play “Freebird”!’ didn’t literally refer to a request by a Twitter follower of Ms. Cash to play Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous tune.

    The same comes up in technology writing regularly. The obsession about specs comes from those who cannot use experience (their own or others) as a guide to whether a given product or service may meet or exceed their needs unless they have arbitrary measures that can be independently quantified by them on which to establish a basis. Editors see tons of comments complaining about a lack of discussion of specs, and sometimes respond to them as if they’re relevant.

    If you recall the fast-declining Research in Motion co-CEO babbling like a crazy person on stage at the D conference last spring in which he explained that tablets weren’t viable until dual-core processors were available, ignoring all other issues about their disastrous strategy. (Dual-core CPUs are great, and all the good current generation mobile hardware people seem to like have two cores. But the first iPad did not.)

    I sometimes wish, a la Slashdot’s moderation system, one could put special warning labels on engineer comments to help prevent other people from taking them too seriously.

  • Tms020348

    I think a major part of the problem is that there is no one calling out the inaccuracies in specs that are published.  Then the aggregators pick up the errors and fan the misinformation.  Editing by real editors is almost non-existent.  Worse, those that do edit seldom fact-check the specs, and instead check for spelling errors. 
    Aggregation does NOT serve a valuable function in an environment of free access to publication on the Internet.  Attribution should be required so that source info – especially specifications – can be verified.  BUT the argument that personal “feel” is as important is a cogent point.  “It’s running at 2.5 megahertz, but if FEELS like its running at 5.1! Wow!” What’s a statement like that mean?  Does it mean that they actually clocked it at 2.5? Or are they saying that they were stoned, and everything was flying past them at a perceived 5.1?  How can you trust this “user experience” report?  Where does real hype come from?  Are we talking about real and repeatable experience, or are we talking about hype?
    If you speak to real old techies – like me – they will tell you that 60% of the success of a product is the user experience. But they will also tell you that 60% of a user’s experience can be massaged and manipulated by marketing cues and techniques.  It’s the rumor mill, gone commercial. 
    The only solution that I can see is to provide full attribution for everything that is published: specs, opinion, etc.  (there is, after all a “footnote font”. It just doesn’t look pretty on the web page). 
    If PCs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, we might be a bit more particular about  journalistic plagiarism. But these stories have almost as short a lifespan as the products that they are describing. So what’s the value if the access to the stories is free?  The answer is page views, which in my estimation is like building a business plan around sub-prime mortgages.  It’s transforming actions (page views by readers) into views of ads. 
    The solution, in my estimation, to the page view business model is to revert back to subscription-based information where the publisher will hang his/her hat on the accuracy of the reporting. 
    But are we even talking about reporting? Or are we just talking about publishing for the moment? If so, why not use twitter?  In fact, why do it at all?

  • http://brainwane.dreamwidth.org/ Sumana Harihareswara

    Yeah, the new user experience is what I kept thinking about as well as I read this post.  I’m sure Romenesko’s hardcore fans understood what he was doing in terms of omitting the quotemarks, but as a new visitor to his site, would I have understood that?

  • http://twitter.com/dancow Dan Nguyen

    Yes, this reminds me of some journalists, when seeing how a front page investigation in a rival publication results in massive reform, immediately say: “Whoopie. We reported that last year…look at the 8th paragraph of the brief on B3!”

  • http://twitter.com/myersnews Steve Myers

    Josh,

    I have a couple thoughts on usability vs. specs, including some background on when we changed the headline links on the blog, and an explanation of the post you referred to.

    I agree that user experience is more important than specs. But I don’t see how quotation marks are specs rather than devices that enhance the usability of written language. Isn’t the purpose of punctuation to help someone understand what he reads? That’s the difference between “eats shoots and leaves” and “eats, shoots and leaves.” 

    I don’t know how a website would convey to new and occasional users that standard conventions of written language don’t apply on a particular part of the site. Sure, longtime readers of a site or blog may be comfortable with the “feel,” but the measure of usability is how things work out of the box, like with an iPod. Apple doesn’t enclose user manuals with their products, and neither do websites.

    You say that in 2008-09, you got much more traffic from Romenesko links, “when headlines on Romenesko items linked directly to the source material.” But headlines linked through to the source well beyond then — until last April. 

    Actually, the change in Poynter’s headline linking is an issue of usability. I argued when we were redesigning the site last year that Jim’s headlines should not link to the source when all the other headline links on the site went to the article URL. From a usability point of view, it didn’t make sense to have headlines behave in different ways depending on what part of the site they appear on. Julie, more experienced than I in the pushback that follows a redesign, decided not to change the headline style because she didn’t want to disturb a convention that longtime Romenesko readers were used to.

    In April, when I subbed for Romenesko, we were supposed to have set the headlines to link out, but we forgot. We didn’t realize for a few days. Oddly, no one complained or commented. Julie and I concluded that people hadn’t noticed or were simply clicking on the source links below the headlines. Only recently has anyone brought up this up as one of the changes that irked them. (The usability idealists may say that we should’ve tested this change and checked clickthrough heatmaps; I’d counter with something about the realities of daily publishing.) 

    As for the post I aggregated, don’t take that post or any others to reflect any shift to writing longer summaries that eliminate incentive for readers to click through to the original story. I aggregated your Google Maps post because I thought it would serve my readers, considering that I had blogged the initial news too. I aimed not to not over-aggregate your post, especially because it was shorter than most of those on Nieman Lab. But your post was itself an aggregation of another post, as you noted, and there were basically two key points. I genuinely am not sure of the solution here. Skip it entirely? Tweet it? Aggregate the Google post rather than giving you credit for spotting it? (Some people do that; is that wrong?) I tried to thread the needle — serve my audience and respect your editorial work — but I accept your criticism that this was not my best work. 

    However, I think it’s a mistake to use this post as a barometer of pass-through traffic — which, I agree, is not necessarily the measure of a success for aggregation. The reason: Both of our posts were utilitarian. They are not the sort of posts that garner much clickthrough traffic, unlike a post that highlights something interesting within a much larger article. My post probably did tell readers what they needed to know. If they wanted more, they probably would have clicked on the Google link.

    There is so much to discuss regarding aggregation, generally and on Poynter.org. We’ve talked about it a lot this year, first as we subbed for Romenesko and then as we have contributed to the blog. And now, of course, we’re doing it full-time. Blogging MediaWire reminds me of working the cops shift at my first newspaper job — you learn a lot quickly by doing similar work many times a day. I’m sure we’ll write about what we learn on Poynter.org, and I hope you and your folks keep writing about it here. I believe, like others, that aggregation is a legitimate, emerging form of journalism (not just “content”), and that there are best practices in this niche as in all others. We’re all figuring those out, just as we’re all figuring out the best practices of fact-checking and real-time social media reporting, neither of which existed a few years ago as discrete niches of journalism. 

    Glad to talk about it.

    Steve

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Hey Steve! You’re right, this stuff is complicated. A few thoughts:

    — I don’t for a minute think it was Poynter’s or your or Julie’s desire to reduce clickthroughs to linked stories by writing longer summaries. I wouldn’t even describe my stance as criticism — I have no problem with what you did. I think you did it because you wanted to be more useful to your readers, which is admirable.

    The particular difficulty arises, as I replied to Bill yesterday, when the class of people being aggregated (journalists) are also your audience.

    The readership of Gawker, to take one example, probably doesn’t get riled up when Gawker writes multi-graf summaries of NYT stories. They’re fine with it because they’re being served by it — they (a) don’t have to click through to get the gist of the story, and (b) didn’t have to read the NYT that morning to get the story. But if the readership of Gawker were 100% NYT reporters, they’d probably be more pissed.

    Personally, I’m something of a radical on this issue in the pro-aggregation direction. I gave a talk at Harvard Law last year that tried to argue that nearly all journalism is, at its root, aggregation, and that journalists need to get beyond their scriptural belief that they are the sole point in the editorial food chain where creativity and agency take place:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inXaKU6Q7Q4

    So I’m being completely honest in saying I was 100% fine with your post on my post, both because you were doing your readers a service and because I was already part of that aggregation food chain, as most journalism is. (It also probably helps that I don’t rely on ad revenue for anything.)

    — On headlines, I get the UX issue of different headlines pointing in different directions. But that difference isn’t that unusual on a lot of non-institutional sites. Daring Fireball, for instance, which separates out “linked list” items (where headlines link directly to the source item) from longer pieces (where the headline is a permalink to the piece itself). I’m planning on doing something similar soon on the Lab. For us, the distinction is easier, because all our “aggregation” stuff is on Twitter (where we link to the source piece) and all our “original” stuff is on niemanlab.org. (Acknowledging that “aggregation” and “original” aren’t as clear cut as some would like them to be.)

    I think this works better when there’s a stronger editorial voice behind the linking (as at Daring Fireball, for instance) — that makes it more clear that the selection of links and the act of linking is a voice-y editorial choice. And you’d have to make the distinction clear visually. But I don’t think it’s an impossible UX task.

    — Re: quotes, it’s interesting you cite “eats shoots and leaves” vs. “eats, shoots and leaves.” Because if I wrote that here, we’d add an extra comma: “eats, shoots, and leaves.” It’s an incredibly minor distinction, but I decided a long time ago I like the serial comma, and I’ve imposed my preference on the site as house style. 

    I think that we’re living in a world where there are multiple standards living comfortably among one another. For instance, take our new little project Fuego:

    http://www.niemanlab.org/fuego/

    Fuego automatically grabs the headline of the story being linked and a tweet that links to it. All done by robots, no human intervention. There are no quotation marks around anything. The headline is taken word-for-word from the source material; the tweet is identified with the username and a colon (“@myersnews:”). The headline comes via Embedly, a company that exists purely to grab headlines and excerpts from publicly available web pages.

    Now, might someone assume that there was a real person writing those headlines on Fuego? Maybe. Is it kosher to just be lifting these headlines? I think so, but maybe someone disagrees. Is “@myersnews:” sufficient attribution? I think so, but again, no quotes to be found, and there’s at least a little kinship between that format and Romenesko’s “The paper reports…” or “Smith writes…” 

    This came up, actually, in the lawsuit between GateHouse Media and the NYT Co. over Boston.com’s automated aggregation of headlines and ledes from GateHouse’s suburban Boston papers. GateHouse said that the use of the text from headlines was a violation of GateHouse’s intellectual property.

    That seemed wrong to me, and the case was settled before there was a ruling. But I think it’s fair to say that the automation of content distribution — whether that’s through the Twitter API or YouTube embeds — has changed what it means to “properly” cite or quote someone else’s work. A tool like Twitter’s Blackbird Pie lets you embed someone else’s tweet (without their permission, of course) on your site in a little box:

    http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/twitter-blackbird-pie/screenshots/

    There are no quotation marks — but the Twitter user’s name is prominent below the tweet and the presentation is distinct enough that I can’t imagine anyone getting riled up about a lack of attribution.

    I can embed a YouTube video in my site and have no indication whether that video was made by me or by some other YouTube user I’ve never met. (Or, more likely, some third party, like a movie studio or a TV channel.) People don’t get too riled up about that because we know what a YouTube embed is and how to think about it. Quotation marks, or even any formal attribution, can disappear and we don’t feel confused.

    Now, Romenesko isn’t an automated bot (as far as we know!), but I’d argue that just as with Twitter and YouTube embeds or with Fuego, readers of Poynter were comfortable that the appropriate credit was being given, even without quotation marks.

    To take it to a different extreme, look at Mediagazer — which gets a fraction of the traffic that Poynter.org but which generates significantly more clickthroughs (in our experience, at least). Mediagazer grabs the first couple of sentences from the stories it links to, word for word. No quotes. (Mediagazer’s driven in part by robots and in part by humans; I don’t know which part is responsible for the selection and/or cleaning up of those excerpts.) But no one’s up in arms about the lack of quotes because (I think) it’s clear from the context that those are direct excerpts and because Mediagazer is constructed completely around pushing traffic to the source sites — the headlines link directly to them, and the excerpts are nowhere near long enough to sum up the main points of the story.

    Now, I’m not saying the Mediagazer model is “right” and the Poynter model is “wrong” — I think they’re both fine and valuable. But it does point at how the perceived generosity of the model will influence how important people consider the specifics of quote marks or other attributive elements. 

    (I honestly didn’t mean to write 1,100 words about this, but that’s what I did, apparently.)

  • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

    Thanks for this, Josh. Thought provoking all the way. Sometimes it’s better to explain one thing by comparing it to another. The Romenesko saga was a tough one all around. Glad I read this.

  • Guest

    I’d be very interested in reading the statistics that back up your claims.