Arianna Huffington is quickly becoming a famous, Greek-American version of Zelig for our moment in journalism history, finding herself in every major debate over the present and future of the trade. The latest kerfuffle has to do with ethics and, for this, she can thank her star employee over at Aol's growing news operation, TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington. His recent announcement that he'll be making investments in Silicon Valley startups, the business he happens to cover, immediately drew criticism from a number of different directions.
The most interesting look at the issue came from Kara Swisher, the All Things D blogger and drafter of one of the most intricate personal disclosure policies around. Ms. Swisher didn't dwell too long on Mr. Arrington's actions, hilariously dispatching him with this line: "[a]fter reading his latest post, I suddenly realized that it's pointless to give a turtle a hard time for not being a fish."(Her Seussian nickname for Mr. Arrington is Yertle the Turtle.) Instead she focused on Ms. Huffington's strange decision to make him the company's single exception from its policy forbidding editorial staff investing in companies they cover and her lack of participation in the public ethics discussion that the news business requires:
Huffington has certainly taken a lot of hits over the years as the HuffPo has grown, some deserved, but she has clearly led an impressive effort.
In fact, I think the cute-kitten and celebrity-loving angle played up by her detractors to dismiss her is silliness, because she and the Huffington Post are clearly more than that and are obviously having a major impact on the future direction of content in the digital age.
But that power she has sought also gives her a responsibility to say exactly what that means on a real and granular and consistent level, beyond the platitudes of wanting to make great journalism that she declares all the time now.
In other words, very specifically: What does Arianna Huffington stand for in regards to journalism? What are her rules and standards and codes? And, perhaps more importantly, what does she not stand up for?
While we're on the topic of ethics, Capital New York Editor Tom McGeveran continues with his lyrical, light-handed media criticism, with a generally bemused but not overly judgmental take on journalistic convention of the writearound, looking particularly about how it's framed -- sorry! -- in the conceit of the "portrait." The descriptor of the portrait tends to be code for a lot of things, as Mr. McGeveran writes:
A Nexis search on "portrait w/5 emerged OR portrait w/5 emerges" restricted to the Times brings up a ridiculous number of results. Instances of this cliche are opportunities to find the institutional insecurities and ideas, or more grandly maybe the ethos, of the Times. Sometimes it is deployed to congratulate the writers. Sometimes to scold them. Sometimes to hedge bets, to bring the voice of the story into the middle when it's obvious any sane person is firmly on one side. Sometimes it's used, self-immolatingly, to describe a sheaf of excellent reporting from which no clear portrait emerges at all without serious writerly intervention and interpretation, which depending on the instance is either entirely warranted or entirely unwarranted, but certainly not to be ruled out universally.
I wonder what some of the people Ken Doctor talked to for his column on the cost of individual news stories would say about the institution of the portrait -- folks like Clark Gilbert, a strategic consultant who as CEO of Utah's Deseret News has drilled down to find out how much his company has to pony up for various kinds of stories. This, warns Mr. Doctor, is the future:
Those numbers are bound to chill many a journalist. You think posting reader metrics in newsrooms is still a point of contention -- wait 'til story cost accounting becomes mainstream. And it will. It's just simple manufacturing, and like it or not, that's what the news business has long been. Manufacturing, with lots (New York Times, Wall Street Journal) of quality added or with (insert your favorite rag here) just enough to draw ads. News creation used to be a sunk cost, with headcount a small and usually polite battle between editors and publishers. That was in stable times. In these times, knowing business drivers, down to the dollar, is going to be part of the new world.
Marco Arment, creator of the indispensable Instapaper, gave us a meditation on his decision last year to dispense with his app's free version and a detailed rundown on why that was a smart move. This is content-model porn, basically:
It's important to reiterate how few people have noticed the Free app's absence in the nearly two months that it's been off the App Store. And almost nobody ever asked me for a free version on iPad, even though that's half of my business.
When there's no free option, and the only way to try an appealing app is to pay a small amount of money, people do. Not everyone will, but enough will.
I'm asking people who bought a $200-829 device (many of whom also pay monthly for data service) to take a $5 risk. People risk that much for a side-dish of mashed potatoes that might suck at a restaurant, or a tremendous milkshake at Starbucks that they'll finish in 30 minutes, without much consideration. iPad and iPhone owners often risk $30-70 on a case that they might break, lose, or get bored with after a few months.
In an Apple store, it's nearly impossible to spend less than $30 on anything. Apple's stance is clear: "This is how much our stuff costs. If you don't like our prices, that's fine. We don't need everyone to buy our stuff." That's roughly the stance I've chosen to take. My app costs $5. I understand that not everyone will like my price, and that's fine. I don't need every iOS-device owner to buy my app -- I'd do quite well even if only 1% of them did.4
Finally, I was particularly taken by the Atlantic Wire's "What I Read" feature this week, which included both Malcolm Gladwell and a Business Insider blogger, who described this job thus: "I actually think my job is like a video game -- like Whack-a-Mole or Asteroids. You get in your station and stuff's flying at you constantly and you have to blast it down." As you might expect, Mr. Gladwell has a rather austere media diet. He reads The New York Times, in print, and not much else:
I fear that I'm on the extreme low end of media consumption. I think that this is because I grew up in a family that didn't get a daily newspaper, didn't have a television, and never went to the movies. We just read books and went for walks. Not much has changed. I check in, every now and again, with The Awl,Espn.com and Crookedtimber.org but not much else. I subscribe to one person's Twitter feed: my friend Jacob's. I try and read whatever he links to. But long ago I decided that I would basically outsource my political opinions to him-so I'm always left with the question of why, if I've already signed over my thinking to him, I'm also reading the sources of his thinking. Isn't that inefficient?