Whistleblowing, transparency and the future of journalism: Q&A with Ira Stoll

Ira Stoll is a man with a pretty unique idea — putting media credibility into the hands of the online public. His weapon of choice: a new project he calls NewsTransparency.com — a Wikipedia-style site that aims to help readers hold journalists accountable for their actions. The site is born partially out of Stoll’s interest in media criticism and partially out of the wide disparity in the quality of journalistic copy he came across during his time as editor of the now defunct New York Sun.

Stoll has been involved in the media since his student days at Harvard University. In 1994 he was president of the Ivy League university’s prestigious Harvard Crimson daily newspaper. From there, he rose through the ranks to become editor Sun from 2002 until its closure in 2008, before starting up an economic news site called “The Future of Capitalism”. As such, he has both observed, and been part of, the rapid rise of online media.

Memeburn spoke to Stoll about News Transparency, the influence of the blog on traditional media, Occupy Wall Street, and what a journalist might look like in the next decade.

Memeburn: How has social media affected journalism?

Ira Stoll: Journalists use Twitter and Facebook to find out about incoming information and to promote their stories online by sharing them. And readers use these tools to find out about articles that their friends are reading. I’m hoping that my new NewsTransparency.com site will be a place for readers to find out more about the people who produce the news and to hold them accountable by posting reviews and sharing information.

MB: What is the future of news?

IS: I don’t know for sure. Anyone who claims to know for sure is probably making it up, or fooling himself or herself. I do think that the future of news will in some ways be similar to the present and past of news, in that the highest value news will be the news that is accurate and independent-minded and that is the product of an appropriately skeptical attitude by the journalist rather than a reflexively hostile attitude or a gullible attitude. News Transparency is an attempt, in part, to reinforce those values of high-quality journalism.

MB: Everyone thought the blog would kill traditional media, it seems like we’re a long way from that. Why do you think that is?

IS: In part because the “traditional media” started blogging in an attempt to stay relevant. There isn’t much “traditional media” left anymore. Almost every newspaper and TV station and radio station has a website, and for a lot of them it’s where the growth in their businesses are. Plenty of “traditional media” has gone out of business — there are plenty of print newspapers in America that have gone out of businesses, plenty of two-newspaper towns that are now one newspaper towns and plenty of one-newspaper towns that are now no-newspaper towns. I wouldn’t necessarily blame blogs alone. There are other factors, such as the economic downturn and non-blog advertising competition like free classified ads websites and Web-based advertising that appears on sites other than blogs.

MB: Is the blog dead? Why, or why not?

IS: No. Some people are using Google+ or Facebook or Twitter to post links instead, but for time-sensitive combinations of news and opinion, it’s hard to beat a blog.

MB: What will a journalist look like in ten year’s time?

IS: The successful ones will probably be more entrepreneurial and be more comfortable in a range of different media — web, books, video. They may be more open about their opinions. They will have profiles on NewsTransparency.com. The unsuccessful ones will probably be unemployed, retired, or have switched into some more rapidly growing or more lucrative field.

MB: Do you think sites like yours will affect this image?

IS: I hope the News Transparency site will improve the image and standing of journalists as a whole by providing a feedback mechanism to improve the quality of journalism overall and by providing readers a tool to distinguish between journalists of varying quality.

MB: Is trust in traditional media falling and why?

IS: Yes. Trust in most big institutions — government, big business — has fallen because those institutions have had some high-profile failures with the financial crisis.

MB: Can we actually trust traditional media?

IS: There are some reporters I trust, but I try to read everything with an independent mind and some healthy skepticism. That applies equally to traditional media, new media, politicians, businesses, and advocacy groups.

MB: How did the idea for the News Transparency site come about?

IS: I’ve been interested in media criticism for a long time, dating back to at least 2000-2001 when I had a site called Smartertimes.com that was a daily critique of the New York Times. More recently, I’ve been interested in the wisdom of crowds and in user-generated content of the sort available on Wikipedia, Facebook, Linked In, the restaurant review site Zagat.com and the hotel review site TripAdvisor. The idea at NewsTransparency.com is to combine media criticism with user-generated reviews, profiles, and content.

MB: Was there a single incident that inspired News Transparency or did you notice a general slip in the quality of reporting?

IS: There was no single incident, but some of the news coverage of the New York Sun, which I was a founder of and managing editor of from its inception in 2002 until it ceased daily print publication in 2008, certainly brought home to me the variety of quality.

MB: News Transparency is at least in part about exposing inaccurate reporting. To what degree do you think those inaccuracies are down to an over-reliance on social media as a reporting tool?

IS: I’ve had very old-fashioned reporters show up in person with a pen and a reporter’s notebook and get things wrong and very new-fashioned reporters send me direct messages on Twitter or Facebook from their mobile devices and get things right. I think it’s less about the tools, and more about the skills and values of the journalist.

MB: Do you think journalists have overestimated the role of social media during events like the Arab Spring and the post-election protests in Iran?

IS:I don’t know.

MB: You say that the site aims to celebrate good journalism as well as exposing poor reporting. To what degree is that about distancing yourself from typical whistleblowing sites?

IS: I don’t know what typical whistle-blowing sites you have in mind. I haven’t really set out to distance . NewsTransparency.com from any other sites because I don’t know of any others that offer a similar ability for users to post links and reviews and profile information for individual journalists. If there were other such sites out there, I wouldn’t have bothered to start another one.

MB: The site seems to model itself quite closely on Wikipedia. To what extent will it rely on community moderation and will you have any dedicated moderators and editors?

IS: At this point I am the only moderator/editor. I hope NewsTransparency.com catches on enough that I have to hire someone to help. I have been pleased with the initial response, and in the initial burst of attention around the launch one of the biggest challenges has been struggling to keep up with approving all the newly created profiles and newly entered data.

MB: In an age where everyone is producing media, is there a role for traditional media?

IS: I don’t know what you mean by “traditional media.” If it’s news or books or music produced by professional, full-time journalists or authors or musicians, I think the answer is yes, there is a role, because those professionals have skills and time they can bring to bear than aren’t necessarily widely available among non-professionals. As to whether the professional journalists or authors or musicians will be working for “legacy” or long-established news organizations, publishing houses, or record labels, or for startups, or for themselves, I think the talent market will sort that out based on choices that the talent makes about risks and rewards.

MB: If so, what is it?

IS: Some of the established organisations have marketing and sales capacity or reputation that individuals and startups don’t have and that can be costly to build. But they may also have other problems, like high fixed costs or bad habits.

MB: Some might describe your other site, Future of Capitalism, as “Wall Street Apologist” in nature. Is that a fair assessment?

IS: No. FutureOfCapitalism.com is a site with a free-market orientation but it doesn’t hesitate to criticise banks or other businesses when they seek special treatment or influence from the government. For an example see The Long Goldman Post.

MB: That kind of assessment would seemingly place you in direct opposition to the Occupy Wall Street movement. What do you think some of the movement’s biggest problems are?

IS: Their biggest problems right now are that 1. Mayor Bloomberg agreed to a request from a landlord of the park they were camping in to clean them out of there and 2. That they’ve acquired an image, deserved or not, of being dirty, violent, or self-indulgent and 3. When people really focus on their message of blaming Wall Street or the one percent or bankers for all of our problems, the message will be rejected, because it is inaccurate. There are a lot of others to blame, including consumers and regulators and politicians and businesses other than banks.

MB: Certain elements within the Occupy Wall Street movement speak about reimagining capitalism. What do you think reporting on the web would look like under that kind of reimagined capitalism?

IS: I don’t know. I don’t think capitalism needs to be reimagined. I think where America got into trouble is when it got away from capitalism and into subsidies, cronyism, and statism. One of the reasons good journalism is so important is to make sense of what has happened.

MB: Having played a major role in traditional media before moving to online, do you think there’s still a place for large media houses in the online space, or is it more ideally suited to small-scale disruptors?

IS: Yahoo! News and Google, which are large companies, seem to drive a lot of traffic. But so do PJ Media and the Drudge Report, which are smaller. So I don’t know. As a reader, I care more about who the author of an article is and what the article says than about who owns the website on which the article appears and whether the owning company is long-established or an upstart, large or small.

MB: Even if there is space for traditional media, do you think small operations are less inhibited by traditional media practices?

IS: Probably they are less inhibited, though that can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.



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