Journalism and the braintrust
'Sources Go Direct' described a phenomenon that relates to journalism without relating it to journalism. The idea of a braintrust helps the idea settle into the way we think about journalism going forward.
by Dave Winer Friday, April 14, 2017

I had a brief Skype chat with Chris Lydon and Mary McGrath earlier this week. We talked about the usual thing tech people and journalists talk about when we get together. What's the future of journalism on the Internet? I have some strong ideas about that, all based on the Sources Go Direct philosophy, but I was surprised to find that Chris and Mary were totally on board. 

Here's the idea.

Chris and Mary do a weekly NPR show that's also a podcast. (Chris is the host, Mary the producer.) Since the election they've been talking with scholars and political insiders about the state of government in the US. 

I wasn't listening to it, sad to say, until a friend told me I should, that it's the best thing out there on politics in the US. I started listening, and enthusiastically concur. It's the adult stuff, reality-based, not the mush you get on the cable networks, or the investigative details you get from the Washington Post and the NY Times (these are valuable but they don't provide a big picture that Chris's collaborators do). 

Okay, so if you were trying to figure out where the value is in Chris's program, you'd have to put the Chris/Mary combo at the top of the pyramid. It's their rolodex that makes it work. It's the extensive reading and listening they've done, over twenty  years, that means they know who to call and can ask the right questions. 

Next level down the pyramid are the people in their rolodex. They know their shit because they've spent a lifetime studying the history of kleptocracies, the Soviet Union, Russia, fascist movements around the world and in the US. Or they've been inside politics for a long time and have memory of Nixon and perhaps even McCarthy. Watergate and Iran-Contra. The buildup to the war in Iraq. People who knew the people with the levers of power. 

One more level down the pyramid, where the greatest value is, by sheer volume, are the people who are smart enough to be listening to Chris's show. Probably a very large number of them are in Boston, because his show is broadcast on WBUR. But because it's 2017 and his show is distributed as a podcast, his braintrust, as I call it, is distributed around the world. 

To summarize, Chris/Mary orchestrate, the people in the rolodex opine, and the braintrust listens. 

Let's imagine a number that represents the quality of the Chris Lydon braintrust. That number would be very high. And another number that represents the size of the braintrust. That number would be low because most of the smart people in the world don't know about it. (And of course it's their goal to change that.)

Now let's take the Washington Post and NY Times. They probably have relatively high quality numbers, and large size numbers, compared to Radio Open Source. The product of these values is large. Another publication that I think of in these terms is The Economist. Their readership is really powerful, intelligent, educated. Their quotient would be high. 

So here's the question this thinking raises, given the new distribution medium. How can a podcast like Chris's or a pub like the NYT, WP or Economist, take advantage of the breadth and depth of their braintrust to improve the product, make it more relevant and more profitable? I have some ideas about that. We'll discuss it at the Unplugged Soul conference, where Chris and I are doing the keynote interview tonight. :balloon:

PS: Last night on Maddow for the first time I heard her use the term "open source" to refer to reporting about the Trump/Russia scandal. Fascinating. She used it many times, so it was deliberate. I wonder if I missed something in the week I was traveling and if she's explained how she's using the term. Clearly it's not the way we use it in the tech world. I must ask Chris how they arrived at that as the name for his podcast. 

PPS: I've noticed that the NY Times is accepting the bombasticity of the Trump personna, even encouraging it. It came out in an interview with Trump, when they pressed for details about whether or not Susan Rice had committed a crime. There's no question the reporters knew this was bogus, yet they accepted what the president said as legit. When they do that, I as a seeker of truth, and believer in the values of the US, am betrayed.