The Struggle to Ban Alex Jones + Membership Models for News Organizations
There’s so much to unpack in this extremely timely chat with Jay Rosen. Jay teaches journalism at New York University and on this episode of Community Signal, he discusses an era of journalism where readers hold the power. The power of choice, the power to talk back to journalists and media organizations, and the power to rally with their fellow readers. And with this shift in power comes a (positive) shift in responsibilities for journalists.
Interestingly enough, technology platforms like Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and YouTube, are being met with similar calls to action and Jay cites their inability to listen to their users as a clear absence of business culture and principles. But is the recent removal of Alex Jones and Infowars from a few of these sites a sign of an internal crisis of conscience? This journalism student and community pro sure hopes so.
Patrick and Jay also talk about:
- Why audience engagement managers are in such high demand
- The role that media organizations and journalists play in protecting journalism and the democracy
- The benefits that a membership model could bring to journalism
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“I was very interested in the way [Alex Jones being banned from social media platforms] unfolded with Apple’s Tim Cook making the decision and then Facebook and YouTube following his lead, in effect. To me, that’s very interesting because these platform companies don’t really have principles that apply to this situation. They would prefer that these kinds of judgement calls don’t come up because they don’t really have principles and decision-making routines and any tradition, any culture, that would allow them to make smart editorial calls, which is essentially what this is. It’s an editorial decision. This belongs on our platform, this doesn’t. I think they have tried to avoid making these kinds of judgments. Then when Tim Cook at Apple just said, ‘We’re not going to host this guy anymore,’ that was enough for Zuckerberg and for YouTube to say, ‘Us, neither.’ Which is funny because it indicates an inability to think for themselves.” –@jayrosen_nyu
“When you talk about ‘asymmetrical bulls***,’ it just reminds me about one of the core principles of community that I adhere to, which is the idea that I serve the community that I manage, whatever that is. I don’t serve one person in it. If I have to spend an inordinate amount of time on one person because they are Alex Jones, or because they’re just in some other way problematic, destructive, damaging, harmful to the community, what it stands for, what it is, the standards it has, then something is wrong. You have to cut that out of the equation. Otherwise, you can get sucked into just serving one person instead of the community as a whole.” –@patrickokeefe
“Media companies, the employees of those companies who are journalists, newsrooms as professional communities; they should not be in the business of trying to defeat Donald Trump or make sure he loses his next election or elect Democrats, or anything like that. They have to find a way to oppose a political style that erodes democratic institutions and makes it impossible for a democratic public to function. I don’t think that’s an easy distinction to put into practice … but I do think that that is the germ of the distinction that we need.” –@jayrosen_nyu
“Solving these riddles of participation [tied to the membership model], which is definitely an adventure in online community, is, I think, a really important challenge to journalism now. Because if everything goes to a subscription model, what we’re going to have is a class of people who can afford to pay, who are very well informed, and then crap for everybody else, and that just isn’t acceptable.” –@jayrosen_nyu
About Jay Rosen
Jay Rosen has been teaching journalism at New York University since 1986. From 1999 to 2005, he served as chair of the program. Rosen is the author of PressThink, a blog about journalism and its ordeals, which he introduced in September 2003. In 1999, Yale University Press published his book, What Are Journalists For?, which is about the rise of the civic journalism movement during the pre-internet era.
In 2008, he was the co-publisher, with Arianna Huffington, of OffTheBus.net, which allowed anyone who was interested to sign up and contribute to campaign coverage for the Huffington Post. He is currently serving as ambassador to the American market for the Dutch site, De Correspondent as it looks to expand to the U.S. In 2017 he became director of the Membership Puzzle Project, funded by the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund. It studies membership models for sustainability in news. Rosen is also an active press critic with a focus on problems in the coverage of politics.
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Jay Rosen on Twitter
- New York University’s journalism program
- PressThink, Jay’s blog about journalism and its ordeals
- What Are Journalists For?
- De Correspondent
- Membership Puzzle Project
- Adam Sharp, former head of news at Twitter
- Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
- President Trump Just Made a Direct Threat to Online Communities, by Patrick about the threats to Section 230
- How Journalists Should Not Cover an Online Conspiracy Theory, by Whitney Phillps
- The Upshot, NYT’s website with data analysis and visualizations about politics, on Github
- Sociologist C. Wright Mills
- The Membership Models in News database
Jay also references and recommends these readings:
- The people formerly known as the audience, 2006
- What I learned from assignment zero, 2007
- From “write us a post” to “fill out this form:” Progress in pro-am journalism., 2011
- This is what a news organization built on reader trust looks like, 2017
- Introducing Join the Beat, a force multiplier for beat reporting, 2018
- Pricing access to the Trump White House: the strange case of the Times social media policy, 2018
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:28] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and welcome to Community Signal. Our guest is NYU journalism professor, Jay Rosen. Jay is a well-known and widely respected media critic who has been a consistent proponent of deeper engagement between news organizations, journalists, and their readers. He’s running the circles of online community pros and veterans including various guests of this program. On this episode, we’re talking about Alex Jones, audience and engagement in the age of Donald Trump, and how community should fit in news media membership programs.
Speaking of membership programs, thank you to everyone who supports our show on Patreon including Marjorie Anderson, Serena Snoad, and Jules Standen. If you’d like to support Community Signal, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Jay Rosen has been teaching journalism at New York University since 1986. From 1999 to 2005, he served as chair of the program. Rosen is the author of PressThink, a blog about journalism and its ordeals, which he introduced in September 2003. In 1999, Yale University Press published his book, What Are Journalists For? which is about the rise of the civic journalism movement during the pre-internet era.
In 2008, he was the co-publisher with Arianna Huffington of offthebus.net which allowed anyone who is interested to sign up and contribute to campaign coverage for the Huffington Post. He’s currently serving as ambassador to the American market for the Dutch site De Correspondent, as it looks to expand to the US. In 2017, he became director of the Membership Puzzle Project funded by the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund. It studies membership models for sustainability in news. Rosen is also an active press critic with a focus on problems in the coverage of politics. Jay, welcome to the show.
[00:02:00] Jay Rosen: Thank you very much, Patrick.
[00:02:02] Patrick: We’re talking just two days after Apple, Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube have opted to remove all or the vast majority of content by Alex Jones and Infowars on their platforms, and Twitter continues to allow both Jones and Infowars. Just due to the nature of timeliness, I’d love to get your perspective on this. There is a conversation going on about the power of these platforms and their right to self-govern. There’s also this thought especially with Jones’ supporters that the media should stand with him on principle, not because they agree with what he says but because it’s supposedly a slippery slope to ban someone like Jones. I know you’re talking about this on Twitter. What’s your perspective?
[00:02:42] Jay: Well, I was very interested in the way it unfolded with Apple’s Tim Cook making the decision and then Facebook and YouTube following his lead, in effect. To me, that’s very interesting because these platform companies don’t really have principles that apply to this situation. They would prefer that these kinds of judgement calls don’t come up because they don’t really have principles and decision-making routines and any tradition, any culture, that would allow them to make smart editorial calls which is essentially what this is. It’s an editorial decision.
This belongs on our platform, this doesn’t. I think they have tried to avoid making these kinds of judgements. Then when Tim Cook at Apple just said, “We’re not going to host this guy anymore,” that was enough for Zuckerberg and for YouTube to say, “Us, neither.” [chuckles] which is funny because it indicates an inability to think for themselves.
[00:03:51] Patrick: That’s such a great point because when I read that, that it was essentially a Tim Cook call, you think about how valuable Apple is, right? How big it is, yet the decision on whether or not to kick off Alex Jones has to escalate and involve the CEO of the company. To me, that’s just so odd and I guess it does also speak to what you said about principles because having managed communities for so long, and now I have a day job for the last year where I report to someone and they have our CEO above them.
I don’t think of content moderation calls as involving the CEO because we do have guidelines that we apply consistently every single day, because, to your point, we do have principles and some culture internally where we know that we don’t want X, Y, and Z and so when we see X, Y, and Z no matter who it’s from, we get rid of it. In turn, if it has to be, that person goes with it too.
That’s a really interesting thing that they needed to go that high because– especially, if you look at something like Facebook and how many people they have on moderation now, of course, a lot of those people are overseas or people who may not be trained as well as a moderator should be or someone who’s reviewing those sort of reports should be, but we’re in an interesting time where that kind of call needs to go all the way up to the CEO. Essentially, the call of whether or not to block someone based upon content standards.
It seems clear that, objectively, that, in some cases, they have violated those standards over and over again but have continued to kick the ball down the field and avoided making that call to the point where, now, the people they serve in many ways have become that thing because they allowed him to exist. Now, more people are like him.
[00:05:34] Jay: They have to go to the CEO because they’ve been trying to avoid making this judgement call for so long. Part of the reason that they’re trying to avoid making the decision is that they don’t want to get involved in the culture wars and national politics but they’re inevitably involved. They’re just, in my view, immature companies especially Facebook, it’s an extremely immature company that is not really capable of making these decisions. They want them to go away, or if they don’t go away, they want to be able to say something like, “We’re committed to balance and neutrality and equal treatment of both sides.”
The reason that has to be decided by a Tim Cook or a Mark Zuckerberg is that they’ve tried to avoid these judgements and they have tried to deny that they are editorial companies. Editorial companies, in my view of it, are built to withstand these controversies. They’re structured in a way that everyone understands that they’re going to occasionally piss people off. A technology company, a platform company, is built in a different way but they have been so successful at overtaking the attention economy that they now are editorial companies, media companies in addition to being technology platforms. It’s just taking them a long time to adjust to that fact. They may not ever adjust to that fact.
Speaking, by the way, of the 10,000 moderators that they added in the last year or so, the very presence of all of those people shows that there’s something flawed in the whole model for a Facebook because the whole idea of Facebook is that you don’t hire people. The whole advantage of that company, as a platform, is that it can be run by itself. The users operate it, they don’t need any employees to help them.
There’s no customer service at Facebook. There’s no customer service even for the advertisers. It’s supposed to be doable without any intervention by people. The whole idea of a technology company is that you don’t have to hire 10,000 people. The fact that they did, indicates that the original concept of the company was flawed to begin with.
[00:08:02] Patrick: Having been watching these things for so long, I’m sure that you see cyclical trends, as I do in community, where when I listen to you talk about them not making a decision or avoiding making the decision, I hope that the next wave of companies who try to do this, take that lesson to heart and make those decisions from the start because it’s always so much easier to set a culture in place at the start and then moderate against it than to decide when you get to a billion plus users, whatever it is, to then say, “Now, we’re going to kick this person off.”
Because that culture has already been set largely and this is such a huge stress, problem, issue, challenge that, if it had just been set from the start, it would be a totally different thing. It’s a much easier situation to make this decision on day one. Of course, money. [laughs] The other side of this is just them wanting money at the start and wanting to say, “We should be open to anything. We should be open to as much as we can and allow as much as we can because we don’t know where this is going to go. We don’t know where the revenue, the funding is going to come from necessarily.”
[00:09:06] Jay: Let me tell you a little story about that. Three years ago, I interviewed in a public forum Twitter’s head of news. Sharp, at the time. He’s no longer in that job. Today, I alerted Jack on Twitter to this conversation. It was right when Twitter was announcing the debut of what became Moments, the feature they have that allows you to curate Tweets and present a collection of them on a single page.
They were going to hire journalists to create Moments for the Twitter audience. They went and advertised for people with this journalistic background and they hired a team. I felt that when they did that, when they created that product and hired that team, that they were crossing the line of becoming an editorial company. I asked the head of news for Twitter, “You’re now becoming the editorial company, what are going to be the editorial principles that you follow in this product and where are you going to get an editorial culture from because that’s really an important part of a media company, if you have a history as a technology company?
Where are you going to get the editorial philosophy that you’re going to follow in creating a product like Moments? I eventually wrote a blog post about it, but essentially, the head of news for Twitter had no answers to these questions. Didn’t really understand the questions. His answers were things like, “Well, we’re going to hire professional journalists.” As if professionals themselves answered the question of what your priorities or philosophy would be, and I thought they would be further along.
I thought, for example, that they would factor things like human rights into their editorial philosophy as a priority of Twitter, or the same spirit that led Twitter to say we’re the free speech wing, free speech party, whatever that was to the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. That sort of sensibility would be part of the answer, but they essentially had no answer.
[00:11:17] Patrick: Well…
[00:11:18] Jay: Because it’s easier to just claim, “Well, we’re a platform. We’re a platform from everyone. We want everyone to be on our platform. We don’t anyone to feel constrained by our platform.” It’s just easier or to go on and on like that. Eventually what happens, and this is what happened to Facebook is massive problems and trust can result from that default of responsibility.
[00:11:45] Patrick: It’s just throwing more people at it and not changing anything.
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You brought up Jack Dorsey, the Twitter CEO and I wanted to mention something that he actually said today because in his initial statement on this whole Alex Jones thing, he said that, I will just quote him, “Accounts like Jones can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors. It’s critical journalists document, validate and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best.”
Then, in his follow-up today he felt a need to clarify and added that, “One of the most important constituencies we serve is our journalist population, has been since day one. We don’t need to shift the work here. We must build tools to help and need to work together to do that. We can’t be a useful service without the integrity journalists bring.” Do you think Twitter is shifting the work?
[00:13:07] Jay: I wrote about this today, on Twitter, quite a bit. The exact exchanges that you mentioned. I think Jack’s statement is a sort of statement there that is really important for journalists to investigate and call out and verify in response to an Alex Jones, was a kind of a naive statement in the sense that, as I wrote during the day, there’s something called the symmetrical bullshit which says that, “The energy required to refute bullshit exceeds the energy required to create it by order of magnitude.”
This wise and insightful remark, it’s not mine. There’s a lot of truth in that. It’s also that if Twitter allows lying and made up statements, conspiracy theories and crazy wild claims to factuality that have no basis and they spread and they become viral, they expect that journalists are responsible for cleaning that up is a little bit unfair. I think that’s why he ended up clarifying that. It’s a kind of a naive statement that he made. We can’t afford naivete at that level of executive control.
[00:14:22] Patrick: When you talk about asymmetrical bullshit, it just reminds me about one of the core principles of community that I adhere to, which is the idea that I serve the community that I manage, whatever that is, I don’t serve one person in it. If I have to spend an inordinate amount of time on one person because they are Alex Jones, or because they’re just in some other way, problematic, destructive, damaging, harmful to the community, what it stands for, what it is, the standards it has. Then something is wrong, you have to cut that out of the equation. Otherwise, you can get sucked into just serving one person instead of the community as a whole.
[00:14:57] Jay: Yes, good principle. I think that’s very smart.
[00:14:59] Patrick: In an interview, just published with Zeit Online, you were asked about the rise of right-wing populism in Germany and if there were any lessons to learn from the US? You said there wasn’t, they were warnings. That, “If you simply report on right-wing populism, you become a part of it.” Do you think that is also true for platforms that host speech, i.e if you give a home to right-wing populism, do you become a part of it?
[00:15:22] Jay: I don’t think that there’s a problem with right-wing populism itself that hosting it is somehow that you can’t do that. I think that’s far too broad, too sweeping. Problem comes when populace of any variety start to attack the institutions of democracy and start to erode the things that make it possible for a diverse nation to exist as a public and as a political community with a representative system. The easiest way to make this point is to reference our current president, he does this when he says that elections are rigged. He does this when he says you can’t trust anything that the press says. He does this when he disrespects and sidelines the diplomatic core. He does this when he says that our institutions are corrupt and they don’t work. That’s different than just a politician making an argument for the priorities he has, that’s eroding the institutions that make it possible for us to live together as a diverse public. That’s the issue is right-wing populism the way it’s developed in United States in the last 10 years, has become a threat to things like a common world of fact, basic civility, any sort of true standards in public discourse.
In many ways it’s become a hate movement, so it’s those problems, it’s when right-wing populism starts undermining our institutions that you have these difficult judgment calls to be made. Certainly, somebody like Alex Jones spreading conspiracy theories, paranoia, attacking entirely innocent people, just creating fictions that people start to live within, he is a problem. That’s the issue. It’s not right-wing populism, it’s the tendency of right-wing populism to begin to undermine the foundation of a democratic society.
[00:17:32] Patrick: It’s interesting. I think that when I see a platform and let’s talk about something that’s not Twitter, Reddit for example. When you see something like Reddit, for a long time, like I’m not a big fan of Reddit, I’ve criticized Reddit just for proper disclosure background there. I feel like moderation-wise and management-wise, they’ve done exceptionally poor. One of the things they’ve done poorly is, this idea that we’ve already talked about. It’s sort of kicking the football down the field and avoiding making any really serious decision to where you get sections of the community that a large popular chunk of the traffic that have racial slurs in the title, and that are just super super racist.
I would say that if you do allow that in such a visible way and you don’t come out against it, then you become a part of it for whatever it is better or worse. Because in the US, we are afforded a great freedom given to us through the Communications Decency Act Section 230 as online community builders, as people who host speech in the US, that essentially gives us the legal framework through which to moderate. It says that we can moderate our communities and the person who made that post is responsible for their words. We can remove things without saying, “Everything else, for it legally responsible for.”
Many platforms have taken that as a license to not do anything, and have you section 230 to say, “We don’t have to do anything because we’re not liable for the speech.” For years, people have tried to weaken section 230. There’ve been whispers and outright stories and different politicians bringing up the idea of weakening it in some way and it has been weakened in small ways, but one of the co-authors of section 230, Senator Wyden brought up recently the idea that if people want to see, people being platforms, online communities, whatever, want to see section 230 stay strong and be maintained then it’s time tend your garden.
Otherwise, there could be consequences. For him to say that, I think is somewhat of a dire perspective.
[00:19:23] Jay: I do think 230 is important. I think it was a stroke of genius or necessity and the warning is apt. I want to go back to something that we overlooked. When you are in these situations where you have a speaker who is ordinarily should be entitled to free speech but they start hating up or they start eroding the institutions of democracy, they start spreading conspiracy theories. They do things that are harmful to the community as a whole, it does start to appear that action has to be taken against that. On the other hand, when you do that, if you, for example start choking off that kind of speech, we have to recognize that there’s a substantial danger that will be driven underground, that it’ll actually grow in strength because it is forbidden. I don’t think that’s just a debating point. I think that’s a real danger. We need really creative solutions to that.
We need subtle thoughts and methods that account for the fact that we can’t allow our institutions to be undermined. We can’t allow hate movements to spread, but we also have to be aware that forbidding them and driving them from the public sphere can, in some ways, embolden them. Now, in this connection, there was a great solution to a problem like this years ago. You probably know about it because you’re an online community person. I’m not sure who came up with it, you may know, but it was called Disemvoweling.
[00:20:54] Patrick: [laughs] Right.
[00:20:54] Jay: Remember that?
[00:20:55] Patrick: Yes.
[00:20:55] Jay: Disemvoweling was a solution to the troll problem in comment threads where you don’t want to completely ban the person, but you also want to make it known that what they’re doing violates the community rules. What online moderators did was take the vowels out of the person’s words so that you could read it if you tried super hard, but there was a penalty. It was a brilliant compromise, in my opinion, because you couldn’t say that the person was being censored, but there was a cost to violating the community guidelines. I’m just mentioning that, even though it’s 20 years old, because it’s that kind of creative solution that we need in these situations.
[00:21:42] Patrick: It’s tough because to disemvowel takes a second. It takes time to do that. Moderator hours are so limited, similar to journalism. When we talked about Twitter, that’s not a journalist’s job to fix Twitter, to fact-check Twitter. I think it’s fun in certain instances and you could even program that into software. You could say, “Mark this post as this.” People can be antagonized by that stuff too. This is really such a big challenge because it’s the idea that, I, personally, would say that people will have this speech. This speech will exist. No matter what I do. I don’t want it in my space.
There is a risk to that. You drive people. You give them that Streisand effect, in some cases, because if they’re following in small– Not in an Alex Jones case because I think he’s just a blanket sale promoter and anything that happens, he’ll promote. Someone with a small following, you legitimize them in some ways. You create that Streisand effect where you drive more attention to them than they would otherwise have and legitimize them in a way.
[00:22:39] Jay: How about QAnon conspiracy or theory, as in mainstream news coverage of it?
[00:22:45] Patrick: Yes. It’s a good point. I was just reading an article last night. I think it was the article you linked to on Twitter or linked to me privately, one way or another, about the delicacy of covering that and the new standards required.
[00:22:56] Jay: There was a very good article by Whitney Philips in The Guardian about it. She wrote a terrific study of the difficulty of covering online trolls and hate movements and all the ways that the normal journalistic routines for covering these things can actually feed them.
[00:23:19] Patrick: You brought up Trump and talked a little bit about his impact on discourse which I think is interesting because prior to the emergence of candidate Trump as a serious person years ago, it was already a common thing. I’m sure a common talking point for you, in your circles, and also in community circles as sort of how bad on-site community was for news organizations. Never read the comments, is the thing that came out of that. Whatever. There are all these bad pockets of community. That was already happening.
Then, here comes Trump. [laughs] I feel like his impact on news media community and…We talk about the stress that he’s put on the media on how his calls of enemy of the people and all that, all this ridiculous stuff, and how that could lead to violence and how it creates this extra burden on what are otherwise the normal practices and standards of journalism, but when I see these things, I think about the people I know who work in audience engagement at The New York Times or at The Washington Post or at CNN that have to work in the, it’s more than the comments, but let’s just simplify, let’s just say they work in the comments. I think about what they have to deal with in their jobs and the extra burden that’s been cast upon them by Trump. It’s really something that’s felt not just by the journalists, not just by the on-air people, the on-camera people, but also, I would think by the people who are behind the scenes, keeping these organizations working in a productive way.
[00:24:46] Jay: Yes, let’s go back a bit. Major news organizations began their online sites around ’95, ’96, ’97, and eventually added comment threads to their news articles. They were entering into a history online that already stretched some 20 years. There was a lot known about online forums and what made them work, what made them break down. The internet had a lot of experience with this question, and when the major news organizations created their websites and created and further their comments sections, they didn’t look at any of that history. They didn’t even know about it. Part of the reason for that is that in journalism, it is very common for one newsroom to ask what other newsrooms are doing, what their peers are doing. They really look outside of news and journalism to look at what other people know. If they had investigated a little bit, they would have learned that there’s already a lot of knowledge about how online discussion breaks down and how it works. For example, it was already known that if the author is absent from the comment threads and there’s no supervision and no moderation, you’re going to get a pretty awful result. That was a known fact.
The simple fact that this industry had to learn all these things that were already known, is part of the history that now brings us up to the present with this new fact that news organizations now have to grapple with which is that they either have to get rid of comments or they have to moderate them. Moderating them is a big expense and it requires rules and principles, but also it requires technology. It requires hiring people, it requires round the clock attention, and those could have been known in ’95 and ’96 but is simply not the way the news industry operates. They have to screw it up first and moan about it and complain. Many of them are already up for the task. They’re just so unable to deal with the situation that they just get rid of comments, and they just push it to Facebook or something like that. Which is like giving up.
[00:27:10] Patrick: It’s such a fascinating point because I’ve seen it before myself too. It reminds me of when I was looking around for different roles and opportunities when I decided I wanted to take a job before I ended up where I am. Like I said, I have friends in media orgs and I was like, “I know about community. I think that this would be useful.” Basically, the answer was, “You don’t have a chance, you don’t have a journalism degree.”
I applied for a couple of jobs but I didn’t get considered at all. There maybe a number of reasons for that, beyond just that. That was a common theme is that when they would ask for these jobs that really didn’t necessarily require a journalism degree, in my view, and I could be wrong, they would require it. I understand why, but then I was like, “I think I can help but I guess I couldn’t.”
[00:27:56] Jay: Did that really happen that they required a journalism degree for an online community operation?
[00:28:00] Patrick: Yes. I mean, they often called audience engagement, but yes, audience engagement, online community, the role that was moderating and being in charge of onsite community were readers interact with one another, yes. I’ve definitely seen multiple job posts that required a journalism degree, which I thought was odd but then been talking to some friends they were like, “Well, that’s common.”
[00:28:19] Jay: Well, that’s a very unwise news company that would do that. Part of the reason I say that is that one of the best things that’s happened to news companies is that when they had to hire tech people, people who were digital people, people with experience online or people who were programmers which has been a major trend in newsrooms for 10-15 years now. Those people brought with them a different culture and it had different values. Open source itself, for example, is a different culture. The idea that you share what you know, you make it available to everyone and you do side projects because it’s fun, and you create things for public benefit. In one sense, journalism is all about that. It’s all about public knowledge and public goods, but in another way journalism is not like that because you keep your story to yourself in case somebody else could steal it. You keep your sources to yourself because they are your stock and trade and the entrance of programmers and digital people and nerds into journalism, into newsrooms from outside the culture of journalism has been a huge benefit and has changed those organizations in many ways.
For example, when you see the Upshot which is The New York Times stated journalism feature put its data up online at GitHub so anyone can remix it, that’s the sort of thing that The New York Times never did any thing like that years ago so asking for a journalism degree is not a very smart move, because the rise of the digital world has benefited journalism hugely by bringing new kinds of people into the newsroom.
[00:30:17] Patrick: I feel a little better. [laughs] No, I’m just kidding. It was a fun kind of thing, because I really do have a lot of respect for journalism and the work that’s done there, that’s what’s interesting to me and what I thought about those sorts of roles.
I want to move on from Trump and I want to talk about one other point. It’s sort of two things brought together, which on one hand, I told a friend of mine who works in the media that I was going to have you on the show, I asked his input like, “From your perspective, what do you see?” Because he works at a very high level, high visibility media org. I said, “What’s worth discussing?”
He said to me there is this tension in online communities between becoming insular and boring, and allowing the president supporters to sight the presidents miss-information as truth, while also offering fraudulent evidence that the president has, in many cases, publicly supported. He says, “Resources aside, should media sites ideally take the responsibility of directly combating those false claims or do you think it’s more healthy for readers to have open discourse with every prominent stream of political opinion even when the political system may be broken?”
I want to bookend that by saying that I think it relates to something else that you wrote recently in June, which is, you mentioned that it was time for the press to suspend “normal relations with Trump”. I wondered if there was something in that point that might also apply to the work that we do in the community, where it’s time to take a look at how we would normally moderate, and if you want you can extrapolate this to Twitter. Here are Twitter’s rules, and here are Twitter’s rules being stressed, or whatever platform, by this new wave of XYZ.
Is there something in there? Do we need to look at how we normally approach politicians before in our comment sections, for lack of a better term, with the introduction of Trump, do we need to change that perspective?
[00:31:57] Jay: Well, it’s an extremely difficult issue. The closest that I have come to an answer is something I wrote in my New York Review of Books piece about why Trump is winning his war against the press. What I said there was that it isn’t smart for journalists to become the political opponents of Donald Trump, it isn’t their role to oppose him as a political leader or to oppose his movement, that’s not what journalist should be doing. However, they have to find a way to oppose a political style that erodes democratic institutions and erodes a common world effect, because without those things journalism can’t even operate and it can’t do its job.
That’s my answer, is that the media companies, the employees of those companies who are journalists, newsrooms as professional communities, they should not be in the business of trying to defeat Donald Trump or make sure he loses his next election or elect Democrats, or anything like that. They have to find a way to oppose a political style that erodes democratic institutions and makes it impossible for a democratic public to function. I don’t think that’s an easy distinction to put into practice, and I know exactly how to do that but I do think that that is the germ of the distinction that we need. That’s the best I can do on that question.
[00:33:40] Patrick: Yes, I appreciate it. I think it’s so tough. It’s such a tough challenge, but when I listen to you and when I read some of the things you’ve written about this, what I gather is that, as you said, it’s not to the defeat, it’s not to be against, it’s not to be adversarial, it’s to define standards and then adhere to those standards and to make sure that they’re followed.
[00:33:59] Jay: Also, another really important thing that I think our press has to do is even the portions of the public, the parts of America that are enraged at the media and who are inclined to agree with the president that it’s fake news, and who project a lot of resentment at journalists like the people at Trump’s rallies who almost threatened the press that’s there. It’s very important for a journalist to follow those people as they drift away from journalism, that is, don’t leave them to their own culture. You have to keep reporting on them, you have to keep trying to understand them.
It’s really important to keep talking to them. It’s important to be able to paraphrase how they think and what their views are, even if they are against you. It really takes enormous discipline and I guess, in a way, empathy to do that especially with people who are hating on you. That’s part of the puzzle. Another part of the puzzle goes to the distinction that sociologist C. Wright Mills employed a long time ago. He was a famous sociologist in 1950s who wrote a lot about American society, American elites, the power structure of the country.
He used to distinguish between troubles on the one hand, and issues on the other. Troubles, he said were things that bother people in their daily lives, things they talk about with their families, things that worry them actively, and that they might discuss over the kitchen table at night. Issues are the things the political system is fighting about. The reason he made this distinction is to warn us that when issues become disconnected from people’s troubles, or when people’s troubles don’t show up in the political system as issues, you have a crisis in democracy.
This is one area where journalists, especially political journalists, especially political journalists at the national level really allowed that disaster to happen because they became over time, before the internet and during it, obsessed with the game of politics, with the inside world of how you win in politics. They began to focus their reporting on the political class and they the way that it maneuvered and the way that it tried to win elections and polls and tactics and strategy, ”Who’s up? who’s down?”
That whole perspective which is very familiar to anybody who watches cable television or reads the political press had the effect of tutoring the attentive audience in regarding the voters, the public, as an object to be manipulated. I think that long term trend in political journalism helped create the current situation. I think that was a wrong turn the political press took before the internet and that became exacerbated by the internet.
[00:37:12] Patrick: That’s why I like having someone who calls themselves a critic on the show because I actually get critical [laughs] of things. A lot of guests are a little afraid. They have a job somewhere, they can’t be as critical as they’d like. It’s really, really interesting and really insightful.
[00:37:24] Jay: I have a very privileged position in our society. That’s all right in my role, nobody can tell me what to think, nobody can fire me, unless I do steal some money from the university or something. If I can’t stop, who can?
[00:37:39] Patrick: I love it. You mentioned actually the word puzzle, and I want to talk a little bit about the Membership Puzzle Project which I think is a great resource for certainly the media, but also outside the media. One of the pieces of data that you’ve published over there that I find really interesting is the membership models and news database which I think is just really an easy to understand and grasp way of quickly visualizing what goes into a good membership program, maybe what goes into one that isn’t as good. What people like, what people don’t.
I think that applies to a lot of things beyond media, online communities. We’re talking about Twitter and Facebook, but the reality is that, as you know the vast majority of online communities are much smaller and have loyal audiences or loyal communities dedicated to XYZ, this interest, that profession, cooking, baking, knitting, boating, whatever. They need ways to survive just like legacy media or just like media orgs do as well. Often times, they do turn to a membership model, some sort of premium member model, paying for extras, paying for extra access, more features, and what have you. I think this data here is really interesting, so thank you for that.
I’ve read the article where you revealed that database. You made a distinction between a subscription and membership. You said a subscription is when you pay your money and receive a product. Where as membership is when you join a cause, because you believe in the importance of the work being done. To me, when I read that it made it sound almost more like the money you give to PBS or your church or a charity as opposed to the money you might give to The Washington Post or Netflix or Sirius XM. Is that part of the point? Is it really to make people identify more with those categories instead of looking at it as just another product or just another business?
[00:39:18] Jay: I think they’re very different ways of supporting a news organization. Subscription, as I said, is a product relationship. You pay the money, you get the product. You don’t pay, you don’t get the product. If you’re dissatisfied with the product, you stop paying. That can work, it does work, it’s a proven method of supporting news.
Membership is different in that it’s not a product relationship. You join the cause because you can believe in it and has one very important consequence for digital communities which is, membership does not imply or require a paywall. That’s extremely important in journalism because the reason people become journalists is not because they’ve always wanted to inform a small group of wealthy people who can pay thousands of dollars in subscription. That’s not what motivates people to become journalists. What motivates people to become journalists is to inform the world. To inform the public, to let the people know. Even though paywalls and strict subscriber models can be very effective as business models, that doesn’t mean that they are ideal as journalistic models. I am fascinated by the possibilities of the membership model because as we know from public radio, which has the most experience with this, you can often find enough members to sustain something that even non-members can benefit from. Everybody who supports their public radio station knows that. They know that there’s lots of people listening who aren’t members. It’s the same thing with other news sites that are following this model.
In addition to that, I have always believed it’s been the one thread throughout my career, which now is 32 years as a journalism professor. I have always believed that the more people participate in the press, the stronger the press will be. Membership is a more participatory model than subscription. Now, when you say that, we also have to add that the 10% rule of online life applies, which you probably know about. The 10% rule says, 90% of the people who are drawn to your site will only consume the product, that’s all they’ll ever do. The 10% of the people might interact with you in some way by leaving a comment or registering for the site and giving you information, and 1% of that 10 will become core contributors.
A lot of membership in news is figuring out how you can engage the 1%, create good opportunities for the 10%, and improve the journalism for the 90%. Solving these riddles of participation, which is definitely an adventure in online community, is, I think, a really important challenge to journalism now. Because if everything goes to a subscription model, what we’re going to have is a class of people who can afford to pay, who are very well informed, and then, crap for everybody else, and that just isn’t acceptable. The potential of the membership model to support a newsroom that is available to everyone is, I think, really important. That’s why we started the Membership Puzzle Project.
[00:42:43] Patrick: The last thing I have for you, I wanted to tie it back because, again, this is a show for community pros, and when I look at that great Membership Models in News Database, it shows the various features of these membership programs, what they cost, et cetera. One of the benefits that is sometimes offered is access to an online community, or a forum, or a Facebook group. I was curious, how important do you think that is to a membership program, i.e., having a way for readers to interact with one another online? Is your default position to advocate for outlets to give members a way to talk to one another and not just with the publication and the staff, or how do you view that?
[00:43:21] Jay: Part of the reason that I started the Membership Puzzle Project is that I got very excited by this Dutch startup that I’m working with called The Correspondent, which is five years old now, launched in 2013 in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. They are member-funded. They have no ads. They have no billionaires, no click-bait, no traffic goals, no sensational headlines, 85% of the revenue that supports the organization comes directly from their 60,000 members, who pay about $70 a year because they believe in the product. One of the key decisions they made at The Correspondent was that you have to be a member to comment, and I think this is a very good policy.
It, first of all, gives a reason to become a member. It also means that members use their own names. It allowed The Correspondent to begin creating their own culture of membership at their site. One of the key tenets of that culture is, “We don’t really need your opinion or your reaction so much to what we’re publishing, but we do need your knowledge and your expertise.”
The Correspondent is building a model of journalism in which the individual journalists who are full-time there, they have 21 full-time correspondents, are allowed to define their own beach, pick their own reporting projects, but they have to, in exchange for that freedom, devote 30-40% of their time to interacting with members and they’re supposed to draw from members their knowledge and expertise in order to make the journalism better.
I think that was a very smart decision on their part, it leads to better conversations at the site and it’s one of the things that you can give to members that is special. It is a kind of access but it doesn’t change the core product which is available to anybody.
[00:45:28] Patrick: As a follow-up to that, and I don’t know if you’ve done any research on this yet. I don’t think you have but you might have. Do you think that a program where there are different benefits, obviously. Some can be just, you are supporting the program or you can go to in-person events once in a while or whatever, there’s a whole ocean of benefits that can exist in a membership program. Do you think that a program where readers are allowed to connect to one another is likely to be more successful than one who is not or is that premature to say? I mean, is it better to connect readers with one another than to not as far as the sustainability of such a program?
[00:46:04] Jay: I don’t think I have a position on that. I don’t necessarily think you have to have this or you have to have that. I mean, you need ways of listening to and engaging with your members but I don’t think it has to necessarily be this method or that method. For example when people say, “Jay, do you think news sites have to have comments sections?
[00:46:28] Patrick: I hate that this is my voice probably. [laughs]
[00:46:32] Jay: Where they’re not even part of the Internet. Is that your view?” I say, “No, I don’t look at it that way.” If you decide that you don’t have comments, for example if you’re going to close that feature, then you better be launching at the same time a different way to listen to your readers and to get feedback from them because you need something. That’s my attitude; not so much that if you don’t do this, you’re under a real interactive site.
It’s that you should find out the method that works for you but you have to be able to listen, you have to be able to back in intelligence from the community and you have to some way of showing people that they are being heard. Just to add a finer point on this. One of the reasons why this subject that we’re discussing, the online community is becoming more and more important in journalism is that there has been a power shift in the news industry in the journalism profession. The users, the viewers, listeners, readers, have more power now. They have more power because they have more choices. They have more power because they could talk back, the internet is two-way. They have more power because they can locate each other and discover that, “Hey, we’re all equally dissatisfied with the news media.” And, they have more power because they are paying more of the costs.
When people have more power than they had before, you have to listen to them. You have to engage with them in a different way and that’s the situation in journalism now. The reason why audience engagement is such a hot job title in newsrooms is precisely that the audience has more power and they cannot be ignored anymore and newsrooms have to work on that relationship. That’s a very important thing to keep in mind because this is something that journalists are doing because just they think it’s a good idea. It really is a very important shift in power.
[00:48:52] Patrick: Awesome. Jay, thank you so much for taking the time with us today. I really enjoy the conversation.
[00:48:56] Jay: Well, you’re so welcome. The kind of people who listen to your podcast are the kind of people that I like to talk to. It’s my pleasure.
[00:49:03] Patrick: We have been talking with Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University. Find out more about the Membership Puzzle Project at membershippuzzle.org. Read Jay’s writing at PressThink.org and follow him on Twitter @jayrosen_ nyu.
For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. We’ll see you next episode.
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