Adam Penenberg. If you call yourself an online journalist, and yet that name doesn’t immediately prompt a nod of recognition – a smile, even – then it’s time to close your laptop and bow your head in shame. Or at least head over to Netflix.
It was Adam Penenberg who, back in 1998, first forced traditional journalists to sit up and take online reporting seriously. And he did so with a double whammy: scooping them on a big story – a scandal that went to the heart of one of America’s journalistic institutions – while also exposing a rising star of print journalism as a hack and a liar.
The lying hack was New Republic wunderkind Stephen Glass and the story of how Penenberg – then a reporter for ‘Forbes Digital Tool’ (now sadly swallowed by the execrable Forbes.com) – exposed Glass’ fabricated reporting was subsequently made into a movie. (Penenberg was portrayed in the movie by Steve Zahn while Glass was played by Hayden Christensen. Weirdly, Jonathan Chait was played by Chloë Sevigny.)
Penenberg, then, is one of the founding fathers of digital journalism. His expose – ‘Lies, damn lies and fiction’ – sent a clear message to print journalists: “digital journalism is more than just an underpaid, under-skilled subset of real reporting. We web guys are breaking stories and – FEAR US – we’re fact checking your sorry asses.”
Twelve years later, of course, none of this is news. Digital journalism is a recognised branch of the 5th Estate, particularly when it comes to fact-checking the [sic] mainstream media, and planting the first seeds of reporting, ready to be picked up by print and television. Thanks to the Internet, the traditional news cycle has become a cyclone; a churning, chewing machine that sucks in every fact or rumour that flits past its peripheral vision, before spitting it out – often undigested – in the form of minute-by-minute, second-by-second BREAKING NEWS headlines. Compared to today’s digital news output, 24 hour cable news seems almost narcoleptically relaxed.
The idea, then, that a huge story could go unreported in today’s news environment – where everyone and his cellphone is a ‘citizen journalist’ and where one moment’s tweet is the next moment’s “BLOGGERS CLAIM THAT…” headline on CNN – is slightly ridiculous.
And yet, three days ago that’s exactly what happened.
On Thursday, a Mississippi jury awarded $131 million in compensatory damages to the family of ‘star New York Mets prospect’, Brian Cole, who was killed in 2001 when his Ford Explorer flipped as he drove home from spring training. Although the damages in the Cole case were the largest Ford has paid in relation to the Explorer (they were based on predictions of Cole’s future earnings), it is far from the only such incident: of the Explorers built between 1990 and 2001, a staggering one in 2700 has been involved in a rollover incident where at least one person in the vehicle has died.
Read that again. One in 2700 Explorers made between 1990 and 2001 flipped over and killed at least one person.
And yet, despite the size of the damages, and the inherent newsworthiness of the story – a sports star, a centimillion dollar verdict and one of America’s largest corporations – not one news outlet covered Thursday’s verdict. No wire service, no national newspaper, no cable channel, not even the local Mississippi press.
Fortunately, though, a lone reporter was paying attention: a contributing writer for Fast Company who, back in 2003, wrote a book called ‘Tragic Indifference’ about Ford’s negligence over the safety of their SUVs. The book (since optioned as a movie by Michael Douglas) told the true story of Arkansas Trial Attorney, Tab Turner, whose client Donna Bailey, who was almost killed in a similar accident to the one that killed Cole. In fact Turner is now representing Cole’s family and, moments after the verdict, a source close to his office called the Fast Company reporter to give him a heads up.
No longer involved in day-to-day breaking news, the reporter nevertheless wanted to flag up the verdict to his 2900 Twitter followers. So he went online, and began hitting refresh on all the major wire services, expecting the story to break any moment.
Hours of refreshing later; still nothing.
And that’s when he decided: if no one else was going to break the story, he’d have to do it himself. Firing up Twitter, the reporter started to do his job, in dozens of 140 character bursts – starting with the lede: the sports star and the $131 million damages – before moving on to the background, the implications for Ford and finally a play by play of the Donna Bailey accident and how – incredibly – Ford had apparently decided it was cheaper for them to settle the lawsuits brought against them than it was to retool the Explorer so it didn’t kill any more people.
Sure enough, as the tweets went on, other journalists started to take notice, starting with Felix Salmon at Reuters and then David Folkenflik at NPR and someone at the New York Daily News. Finally the story began to appear; first on the AP wire and then… and then…. By this afternoon Google News was listing 277 stories about the verdict.
The similarities between the Ford story and Adam Penenberg’s Stephen Glass expose are stark. In both cases, the mainstream media was caught napping. In both cases it took a lone reporter, using the oft-maligned tools of digital journalism, to break the story and shame his peers in print. In both cases the result was much wailing and gnashing and playing catch-up by traditional reports – and crowing by online hacks that finally – this time – new media has shown itself to be a legitimate platform for breaking news.
But the biggest similarity of all between the two stories? The $64,000 headfuck? That would be the identity of the latter-day Penenberg 2.0 who broke the Ford / Cole story on Twitter.
Step forward, Adam Penenberg.
Much as it pains me to do independent reporting, I have to ask Penenberg (right) what gives.
“What gives?” I ask when he answers the phone at his home in New York. I mean, what’s wrong with traditional journalism that – twelve years later – he is still the one having to draw attention to its deficiencies?
I’m expecting him to shrug: this was just another example of how lazy the print media has got. How newsroom headcounts have been slashed how no one is searching for stories any more. How this one just slipped under the radar. But no. The story he tells is far more sinister.
“Ford is a scary company.”
He says that like a man who knows. And, turns out, he does know: “A few years back I got into a dustup with a magazine – I’d better not name it – over Tragic Indifference. I won a reader contest and they were going to write about the book. But then just before publication, they pulled the plug.” In fact, an editor called Penenberg to explain that Ford had bought a majority of the ad pages in that month’s issue, and running such an anti-Ford review would be commercial suicide. The review was pulled; the ads remained.
“Jesus,” I say.
“Yeah,” says Pennenberg. Then he pauses. “Ok, I’ll name the magazine – it was Fast Company.” His current some-time employer – although he takes pains to say that the censorship episode occurred under the previous regime. “It wouldn’t happen now.”
Judging by the initial lack of media reaction to the Cole judgment, though, the attitude seems to still prevail in the rest of the media. Once again, in scooping his print rivals, Penenberg has drawn attention to a malignant cancer at the heart of old media. Last time it was a lack of fact-checking, this time it’s the relationship between advertisers and editorial. Ford is one of the world’s biggest advertisers at a time when print advertising is declining and magazines and news publications are bleeding red ink.
But, says Penenberg (only slightly prompted by me) that’s not all that’s wrong with mainstream journalism today. “What’s discouraging,” he says, “is the he-said-she-said… this so-called objective journalism”. He points out that even when the rest of the media finally reported the Cole story, they still felt obliged to give equal prominence to a denial from Ford:
“Brian Cole had been driving over 80 mph when he drifted off road for unknown reasons, suddenly turned his steering wheel 295 degrees, lost control, and caused the vehicle to roll over more than three times… He was not wearing his safety belt and died after being ejected from the vehicle. His passenger, who was properly belted, walked away from the accident.”
Simply not true, says Penenberg. Yes, Cole was thrown from the vehicle “but he was wearing his seatbelt at the time of the accident…. the problem is, it didn’t lock.” Indeed, he adds: “in the Donna Bailey case, it was found that her seatbelt had eight inches of ‘give’”.
“No wonder you’re such a fan of online journalism,” I suggest. No-one would ever accuse bloggers – or Matt Drudge – of balance. Wisely, Penenberg ignores my fatuous point and instead continues his point. Another problem with the state of journalism today – both online and off – he says “is this obsession with being first – wanting to beat your rival to the story by two minutes. Is it really that important to be first?”
This is something that really bugs Penenberg. And it bugs me too. So much so, I forget to take notes for the next few minutes as we rail against how today’s news journalists are expected to churn out half a dozen stories a day, often with little-to-no fact checking, simply to make sure they’re first with every tiny development. Whether they’re right, or whether they’re missing a wider, bigger, more important, story becomes secondary. Fuck it, we can always go back and edit.
Except they never get the chance to go back and edit: not when that have five more stories to file that day. Look at the 277 stories about the Cole case. See how many reporters just rehashed the lede – the size of the damages – and Ford’s response, without asking a single new question, or presenting so much as half a new fact. But then again, how would they? That would have involved a single fucking phone call.
Which brings us to the question of mentorship. “When you started out in journalism, new reporters had editors as mentors,” I said. “Today, reporters are often their own editors. Who is teaching tomorrow’s Adam Penenbergs?”
“Well, we’re trying,” replies Penenberg, referring to his current gig as a journalism professor at NYU.
“Of course,” I say, “but we both know that, after they graduate, your students are going to end up at Associated Content, churning out shit like everyone else.”
Pausing briefly to defend against the slur – pointing out that his students all go on to jobs with respectable media companies (“but then again, there are only, like, 15 students in our class – you’re right generally”) – Penenberg says he has faith that good journalists will come to the fore, even without mentorship. “I really believe quality rises to the top,” he says.
So, has he created a new kind of hybrid journalism with his Ford tweets – somewhere between breaking news and long-form journalism. We’ve become used to seeing stories unfolding in real time through social media – are we now seeing the potential for professional journalists to use Twitter to tell properly researched news stories, in a way that makes the events feel very personal, and even more dramatic? (After getting off the phone, it occurs to me that what I was describing is similar to how Jules Verne first published 80 Days Around The World in daily installments in major newspapers around the world. Even though the story was already completed before the first installment was published, the format meant that readers felt they were watching it happen in real time.)
“I have no idea,” says Penenberg, “I’d be lying if I said I did.. but I’ll definitely use [the format] more from now on.” Certainly if Penenberg has invented a new journalistic form – New New New Journalism? – then he’s one of the few reporters with both the chops and the freedom to practice it. Getting under the skin of a story like the Ford one can take months of research, and involves countless sources. Says Penenberg: “I know a lot about this shit – I wrote the book on it.” And yet, he acknowledges, “If you work for the New York Times you can’t do this.” There’s a process, there are editors, there’s a cycle.
So one last question: are we now at the point where online journalism is on a level playing field with “traditional” journalism?
Pennenberg laughs. “I’m sure certain journalists would prefer to write for the New York Times, [in print, rather than online]. But the truth it doesn’t matter any more. The only question is are you a good journalist or a bad journalist?”
I laugh too. Penenberg was, perhaps inadvertently, quoting himself: the final lines of his Stephen Glass expose back in 1998. Words which served as a rallying cry for a whole new generation of online reporters that followed in his wake. And words that are just as relevant today.
“It is ironic that online journalists have received bad press from the print media for shoddy reporting. But the truth is, bad journalism can be found anywhere. It is not the medium; it is the writer.”
In print, or on Twitter, Penenberg is one of the good guys.