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August 21 2012

14:00

Why Did So Many News Outlets Not Link to Pussy Riot Video?

The Russian punk band Pussy Riot must have done something really bad to merit a possible seven years in prison, I figured. Finding all descriptions of their behavior to be filled with euphemism, I wanted to see their offensive behavior myself.

Who do you turn to when you want to see the world as it is, rather than the world as others tell you it is? My parents would have turned on network television. Or read the Progress-Bulletin or Daily Report. I went to YouTube and searched for "PussyRiot" and watched what struck me as the video of the actions I had heard about second- and third-hand. The video, I thought, was edited in such a way that made both the church and the band look like victims, depending on your point of view. To me, that was a good indication of its authenticity.

But I don't really know, and I trust sources like the New York Times, and especially its reporters on the ground in Moscow, to tell me whether what I'm really seeing is accurate. So I next went to nytimes.com and its story. The Times had links to videos. But a quick look around the other five top news sites in the U.S showed that it was the only popular publication that linked to the videos of the band's action that landed it in prison for three months while awaiting trial. So why was the Times the only source to have linked to the video? And what does that news organization's unusual behavior mean?

a lack of links

The other sites -- Yahoo News, Huffington Post, ABC News, NBC News and USA Today -- failed me. These are sites that are both praised and vilified as "aggregators" or "MSM." But all made the same editorial decision -- and didn't help their audience see the key fact of this case for itself.

But I wonder why the link wasn't made? The people who work there are professionals. And I have no reason to believe they are more or less immoral than I am.

Going back more than a decade, academic studies have found that few news stories actually link to source information. In 2001, one in 23 stories about the Timothy McVeigh execution linked to external sources. And a 2010 study indicates that U.S. journalists are less inclined to link to foreign sources than domestic sources, with fewer than 1 percent of foreign new stories on U.S. news sites containing links in their stories.

So, why?

Two prominent academic studies seem to indicate that the presence of inbound and outbound links increase credibility in both professional and amateur sites. Are professional journalists unaware of those studies? Are they aware, but think they're bunk?

One study indicates that journalists don't link because they are concerned about the financial implications -- that users who leave the site will not return to drive up ad impressions. Another seems to indicate that U.S. journalists are particularly skeptical of foreign sources of news because they are less confident of their own ability to judge the credibility of foreign sources.

enhancing credibility

From my experience in online newsrooms, both those findings seem plausible. But they also seem incomplete. My own additional hypothesis is that hyperlinking has been left primarily to automation and that editors and reporters who've been asked for the last decade to "do more with less" have decided that links to original source material -- which, at least according to a few studies, enhance their credibility, are not worth their time.

But other studies have shown that hyperlinks in the text of a story distract readers -- even the small percentage of readers who click on the links -- and reduce reading comprehension. That said, I suspect the journalists who didn't include links to the Pussy Riots videos are completely unaware of such studies (which are summarized nicely throughout Nicholas Carr's book "The Shallows."

If there's credit to be given in The New York Times' decision to include the links in the story, then it goes to the reporter in Moscow, David Herzenhorn, according to three sources who work at the Times. The role that Herzenhorn played is important. This was a task not left to an editor or producer in New York, but one that the Moscow correspondent took upon himself. The links add to his credibility.

"I have to say I am completely floored that other news organizations would not link to the videos, since they explain so much about the story," Kyle Crichton, the editor who worked on the story, wrote to me in response to an email query.

My rather slack Friday afternoon efforts to obtain comment from other news organizations that didn't link to the videos yielded no responses. I still hope to hear from them in hopes of understanding whether the lack of links was merely an oversight or a conscious omission. Herzenhorn also did not reply to my email on late Friday.

The reporter -- and at this point he, rather than his employer, deserves credit for the links -- selected the more popular Russian-language versions on YouTube rather than the English subtitled versions, which had fewer views but would be more useful to the Times' English-language audience.

"There is some profanity on the soundtrack, so I presume that is why David chose not to include [the videos with English subtitles]," Crichton said in his email to me. "That strikes me as fair, since the text isn't as important as the overall spectacle of their 'performance.'"

the political impact of linking

I also wondered what the political impact of including such links might be. I've had
newsroom conversations about whether linking to a source constitutes endorsement. The modern version of this is manifested in newsroom social media policies that discourage journalists from re-tweeting information from sources and in Twitter bios that say "RT ≠ endorsement."

I teach my students, and write in Chapter 7 of "Producing Online News," that links in a story are akin to quotes. You're responsible for the facts of the source's statement, but not the opinions. And stories without links today seem as incomplete as stories without quotes from named sources have always been.

In foreign stories, though, links to banned material could have an effect on both the news
organization's ability to distribute news and on its reporters' ability to collect it. Crichton wasn't concerned.

"I don't think our including the videos will have any impact on our future ability to report in Russia," Crichton said in his email to me. "If it were Iran, maybe, but Russia isn't like that, yet."

What discussion to you have in your newsroom about including or excluding links? If you aren't having any, consider consulting with -- and funding -- the mass communication researchers who can help you make your journalism more credible, more memorable and more useful.

Related links:

August 09 2012

05:46

NYPD subpoenaed Twitter: Identifies source of Twitter shooting threats

Three news sources and three opinions. CBS News had a closer look at the problem behind. Watch the embedded video as well.

ABCNews :: The New York Police Department, or NYPD, has identified the person whose Twitter account issued threats of an attack "just like in Aurora" on the Broadway theater where Mike Tyson's one-man show is playing. The NYPD subpoenaed Twitter Tuesday for the user's identity after the social media giant refused authorities' emergency request for the information.

A report by Christina Ng, Richard Esposito, abcnews.go.com

CBS News :: The social network Twitter is in the middle of a dispute pitting counter-terrorism and security against privacy and free speech. The issue is how far authorities can go when lives could be at risk.

[CBS News:] Twitter wants "to cooperate with law enforcement, but they have to make sure they're respecting their users' privacy, as well," says St. John's University Associate Dean Larry Cunningham, a former New York City prosecutor.

A report by Seth Doane, www.cbsnews.com

Discussed here: "Twitter’s arrogance threatens us all" by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, foxnews.com

August 02 2012

13:50

'The I Files' on YouTube: The best investigative videos from around the world

CIR on YouTube :: Programmed by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), The I Files selects and showcases the best investigative videos from around the world. Major contributors include The New York Times, ABC, BBC, Al-Jazeera and Investigative News Network.

Visit the site here www.youtube.com/user/theifilestv

July 27 2012

14:04

This Week in Review: Reddit and news orgs’ shooting coverage, and Yahoo and Twitter’s identities

The Aurora shooting, Reddit, and citizen journalism’s value: Much of this week’s news has been related to last week’s shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater that killed 12 and injured dozens. Poynter tracked the spread of the news of the late-night shooting, and the site that got the most recognition for thorough reporting of the news as it broke was the social-news site Reddit. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon rounded up the range of coverage on Reddit, which included photos, comment threads with people who were in the theater, and comprehensive, continually updated timelines.

Those timelines drew particular attention from media observers: The Atlantic’s Megan Garber marveled at their empathy through thoroughness, and BuzzFeed’s John Herrman and NPR’s Elise Hu talked to the timelines’ author — an 18-year-old named Morgan Jones — with Herrman calling him “the go-to source in the story,” and Poynter’s Alan Stamm held him up as a model for aspiring journalists.

As The New York Times described, the site’s users also unearthed some details about the alleged shooter that the traditional news media missed. Adweek talked about Reddit’s reporting capabilities with the site’s general manager, Erik Martin, who said Reddit wasn’t designed to be a breaking-news source, but its users have used its tools for journalistic purposes anyway.

Several writers praised Reddit’s ability to cover breaking news collaboratively in such an effective way. Keith Wagstaff of Time wrote that “no news organization or social media site currently offers an experience that’s concurrently as immediate, engaging and thorough as the one offered by Reddit,” and in a pair of posts, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram remarked on Reddit’s ability to act as a verification hub and to allow readers to interact with people involved in news stories, and offered a defense of “citizen journalism” such as Reddit’s.

At Salon, Michael Barthel took issue with the praise for Reddit and citizen journalism, arguing that it isn’t immune from the same criticism the traditional media and that it’s “doing more or less the exact same thing that traditional journalism has always done, except not as reliably or sustainably.” J-prof Jay Rosen countered the piece with a Salon post of his own arguing that no one is saying citizen journalism will replace professional journalism.

Some traditional media organizations were also recognized for their skill in covering the story — the Denver Post’s Twitter coverage was run in part by its Digital First new curation team, and Digital First’s Steve Buttry drew tips for news organizations from the Post’s Twitter coverage, while Poynter looked at how the Post covered the news without a copy desk. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple also highlighted the coverage of Denver’s 9News TV.

How to cover tragedy carefully and sensibly: But traditional news organizations were also responsible for some serious missteps and some eyeroll-inducing coverage of the Aurora shooting, too. ABC News’ Brian Ross misidentified the shooter as a Tea Party member who had the same name, a mistake which Poynter’s Craig Silverman said the network made insufficient efforts to correct and apologize for.

Rem Rieder of the American Journalism Review and Steve Myers of Poynter pinned the blame for Ross’ and similar errors on the practice of incremental or “process” reporting, in which news is reported, bit by bit, as it comes in, then later confirmed or corrected. Rieder said he doesn’t find the practice “a very confidence-inducing or satisfying approach to journalism,” and Myers described how disclaimers and corrections can be separated from initial reports on Twitter.

Beyond that specific error, coverage of the event and its aftermath followed a predictable path of sensational coverage and unfounded speculation. The New York Times’ David Carr lamented that pattern in shooting coverage, concluding that many of the problems stem from the news media’s desire to answer the question that can’t be answered: “Why?”

The Atlantic’s J.J. Gould urged media outlets and consumers to start shaming organizations that cover such events exploitatively, and numerous people circulated a 2009 video by the BBC’s Charlie Brooker that illustrated how to (and how not to) cover a mass shooting properly, which New Statesman compared to Britain’s newspapers. Jay Rosen, meanwhile, criticized the excitement that characterized so much of the coverage.

The ethics of quote approval and draft sharing: Following last week’s New York Times story on news organizations allowing candidates and their staffs to approve their quotes, more news orgs were establishing or reiterating their policies barring those practices this week, including Bloomberg, McClatchy, and National Journal. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple parsed through a few common quoting and negotiation practices, and the Journal’s Ron Fournier told him the key element differentiating what’s OK from what’s not is who has control.

Meanwhile, a Washington Post journalist caught some flak after the Texas Observer reported that he shared drafts of a story with University of Texas officials and allowed them to suggest edits that ended up in the story. Post editor Marcus Brauchli ultimately decreed that future draft-sharing would have to be approved by an editor.

In the ensuing discussion on draft sharing, the reporter had some defenders, including Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride in the Observer story. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon noted that the story contained quite a bit information that was unfavorable to the university, while the Post’s Erik Wemple defended the practice of draft sharing in general, saying that a refusal to do so affirms journalists’ arrogance. “It’s a convention built on the idea that journalists are so brilliant that they can get a complicated set of facts and circumstances dead-bang right on the first try without feedback from the people who know the topic best.”

What exactly is Yahoo?: A week after ex-Googler Marissa Mayer took over as Yahoo CEO, she’s begun to inspire confidence in the troops there, according to All Things D’s Kara Swisher, while Wired’s Steven Levy reported on the army of ex-Google managers Mayer could lure to Yahoo. The New York Times’ David Carr said the key question for Yahoo — as it has been for so many web companies before it — is, what is it, exactly? He concluded that Yahoo is (among other things) in the news business, but by accident more than anything.

Tim Carmody of The Verge said that question — especially whether it’s a media or tech company — could be shaped in part by where it moves most of its operations. He reported that Mayer may move many of Yahoo’s media execs to New York, making it a place where it could pursue both its media and tech sides. Ad Age’s Jason Del Rey and Michael Learmonth said Yahoo’s future is in creating more high-quality products, an area in which it hasn’t spent much money recently.

Twitter moves further toward media: We were also asking the “What is it?” question this week about another company: Twitter. The Wall Street Journal reported (paywalled) on Twitter’s plans to build out around big events, as Twitter announced the first of those partnerships — a hub for curating conversation about the Olympics with NBCUniversal. Meanwhile, Adweek reported that Twitter is in talks with Hollywood producers about launching original web shows a la “The Real World.”

In a series of posts, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram wrote about Twitter’s move toward being a media outlet, saying that it doesn’t really need media outlets such as NBCUniversal to coordinate event-based coverage, that Twitter is moving toward an Apple- or Facebook-esque “walled garden” approach with regard to developers, and that producing ad-driven content like web shows gets away from Twitter’s core aims.

Meanwhile, The New York Times’ Nick Bilton asked whether Twitter is a media or tech company, concluding that it looks an awful lot like a media company. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen posed that Twitter is “a new kind of media company that doesn’t make any content.” Slate’s Matt Yglesias said the media/tech distinction isn’t a good one — the real distinction is between companies that sell a product and ones that sell an audience, and Twitter is quite clearly the latter.

Reading roundup: Here are the most interesting smaller stories going on this week:

— A couple of updates on the ongoing News Corp. saga: Rupert Murdoch resigned from the board of News International, his British newspaper division, and Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast explained why Murdoch is loosening his grip on his newspapers. Meanwhile, former News International head Rebekah Brooks was charged in the phone hacking scandal, and the Telegraph wondered if the charges could lead to a deeper U.S. investigation. The New York Times wrote about the case’s impact on British newspaper culture.

— A few WikiLeaks developments: A judge ruled that the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks are still secret, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that U.S. government officials are now talking about the possibility of prosecuting news organizations like The New York Times in addition to WikiLeaks for publishing classified information. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram urged journalists to support WikiLeaks’ First Amendment rights, and the Times’ Bill Keller followed suit.

— Barry Diller, whose IAC now owns most of the Newsweek/Daily Beast partnership, said in an earnings call that he might eliminate part or all of Newsweek’s print edition as soon as the end of this year. Newsweek editor Tina Brown tried to calm her staff down, and the New York Observer’s Foster Kamer detailed the now-ended Sidney Harman era at the magazine.

— The New York Times Co. released its second-quarter figures this week and posted a loss, thanks to declining digital ad sales, even as digital subscriptions for the Times and its Boston Globe are up. As New York magazine’s Joe Coscarelli put up, the Times is beginning to be supported by its readers more than its advertisers.

— Finally, a very thoughtful piece here at the Lab from Jonathan Stray, who suggested three principles by which to design personalized news experiences: interest, effects, and agency.

Photos of Aurora theater by Algr, quotation mark by Quinn Dombrowski, and Yahoo ice sculpture by Randy Stewart used under a Creative Commons license.

07:52

ABC News chief apologizes for Aurora mistake by Brian Ross

Los Angeles Times :: ABC News President Ben Sherwood said reporter Brian Ross' speculation that James Holmes, the suspect in the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., could be linked to the tea party "did not live up to the standards and practices of ABC News." "We put something on the air that we did not know to be true and the part that we needed to be true was not germane to the story we were covering," Sherwood told reporters at the semiannual Television Critics Assn. press tour in Beverly Hills.

A report by Joe Flint, www.latimes.com

Tags: ABC News

April 27 2012

14:39

Kevin Sack on kidney transplants, kickers, the myth of the daily/narrative disconnect and “The Little Mermaid”

For our latest Notable Narrative we chose Kevin Sack’s “60 Lives, 30 Kidneys, All Linked,” a New York Times story about an unprecedented chain of kidney transplants. We admired the story as a deft and moving example of explanatory narrative, and because Sack, a two-time Pulitzer winner, chose an unlikely protagonist, with deeply touching consequences. How did he pull it off? Here’s our recent telephone conversation, edited for length and clarity:

You were dealing with a huge amount of complicated information. Could you talk a bit about how you organized it, and how you presented it in such a graceful, moving way?

To report “60 Lives,” the New York Times’ Sean Patrick Ferrell, Kevin Sack and Nicole Bengiveno scrubbed in for six surgeries.

It sounds a little silly to say that a story like this wrote itself, but to some extent the material was so compelling that it made the job a little bit easier. There were certain things that I knew were going to have to be included in the roughly 5,000 words I was allotted. Pretty much from the beginning I felt there was going to be a certain logic to writing it in a roughly chronological way, or at least with an emphasis on the first link in the chain and the last link, and with the rest of the story composed of equal parts explanation of how the chains work – the medicine, and what I witnessed in the operating rooms – and the history of these chains, and the best human stories that I could find from within the chain. Before I started reporting, I assumed that at every link there would be a great narrative tale. By definition there had to be: Somebody’s giving up a part of themselves for a loved one. How uninteresting could it be? The challenge was gonna be to find out about as many of those links as possible in the time allotted, given the other things I was going to have to accomplish, and then picking out the best tales. When you look at the story there’s only a handful of stories in it, out of the 30 transplants. There were a lot of great stories left on the cutting room floor on this one, sort of by necessity.

The biggest decision I had to make in terms of how to structure and write it – I longed to simplify the story by focusing on a smaller number of people. I was concerned all along that even if I minimized the number of characters there would be too many characters. I didn’t want it to get bogged down in a long list of names. People wouldn’t be able to keep it straight. And the stories would start to dilute each other. Ultimately I decided that that was wrongheaded.

What do you mean?

The central character was the chain itself. And by definition the chain consisted not of a handful of people but of 60 people. What made it miraculous was that there were 60 participants and that these kidneys flowed relatively seamlessly from one link to the next. And so I decided that to focus on a central character kind of undercut what the story was all about. Once I wrapped my head around that, I think I got more comfortable with the notion of doing it the way I did, with a number of central characters. I kind of dip in and out of each of their tales rather quickly, mainly because I have to. As I was reporting the story, Amy Harmon’s great piece about the autistic couple in love ran, and I was envious because she was able to tell a story that essentially was about the socialization of autistic people through the eyes of a single couple. I was a little jealous and wanted to find a way to do that, but then quickly decided that the point of the (kidney) story is that there were 60 characters, not that there were two.

Where did this story come from?

I’m certainly not the first person to write about these chains. There was a New England Journal of Medicine article in, I think, ’09 that was about the first of these chains that were structured this way, with a Good Samaritan starting a donation to the waiting list and then non-simultaneous operations. So there was a flurry of stories after that, about these chains. I was covering Obamacare at the time. We were sort of in the thick of legislative battle, and it wasn’t something I was going to be able to get to at that point but I filed it away as being interesting.

I had a change of jobs back in the fall, where I got assigned to this new team of reporters created by Jill Abramson to do enterprise stuff on lifestyles. It was sort of broadly defined, and my part was that I going to continue to write about health-related issues. I had a list of story ideas that I put in front of my new editor, Adam Bryant, and he quickly got interested in the kidney-chain story. So I went out to see sort of what had been written, whether there was any room left to do something interesting, looking for, you know, an angle that would sort of give us a reason to do it, and to do it in a big way. My third or fourth call was to Garet Hil, whom I’d started to hear about and read about. He was in the middle of what was going to be the longest chain ever constructed. So I suddenly had my angle. I took it back to Adam and to others at the paper and there was a lot of enthusiasm about it and resources put into it quickly.

Such as?

A very quick decision to make it a big multimedia project. So: photographers assigned, graphic artists assigned, interactive designers assigned, a video journalist assigned. And sort of involvement from people on the masthead at the paper in terms of getting their attention and early signoff, an assumption that we’d probably do it at two pages long. All those things were in place pretty quickly.

Where in the chain was the transplant process at that point?

They were exactly halfway through. I found out about it in early November, and they were in the middle of this long bridge, as they call it, between donations. This was a point where a recipient had been transplanted – their paired donor had yet to donate, typically for some sort of logistical reason. This was the longest pause in the chain. It was from I think late September to early December, almost two months.

Which people in the chain? Could we look at it that way?

Identify which ones?

Yeah.

I think it was No. 16, Rebecca Clark. Yeah. John Clark, No. 15, had received his transplant, and his wife, Rebecca Clark, did not donate until Dec. 5. He had been transplanted on Sept. 28. My initial concern was, Well I’m not gonna be in on the beginning of this and that’s gonna be awkward, to do a narrative that way, because I’m gonna have some stuff that’s much more vivid than the rest of it. In retrospect, I think it ended up being an advantage. First of all, it cut the time of the project in half. For a project like this it was relatively quick: 3 1/2 months from conception to publication.

Wow.

And also, it made what I did see fresher, I think. It wasn’t that difficult to go back and reconstruct the first half of it. And the timing worked out kind of just right, because once I found out about the chain from Garet it gave me a month to get my ducks in a row before surgeries actually started again. So I was able to spend that time reconstructing the first half. I went to New York and spent a day with him at his office on Long Island. I interviewed a lot of doctors and people in the field, read a lot of journal articles, and also was able to get the rest of our team up and moving. They started collecting names and IDs and photos of people in the first half of the chain. Which was a process. So the timing worked out nicely.

I spent most of December kind of running. We had a sort of interesting decision to make: We had a meeting in New York with all the people involved – we had to make decisions about where we were gonna go in terms of actually being at the hospital and watching procedures and interviewing patients. Part of that was gonna be driven by who we thought was interesting given what I knew at that point about the chain, and part of it was gonna be driven by pure logistics. I knew that I wanted to be present for the end of it because I was going to highlight the last recipient. And there also was this great flurry of procedures on the penultimate day at UCLA. There were six surgeries from dawn to dusk that day. So I figured that would be a great place to be, and then fly with the last kidney to Chicago for transplant. But I was worried that what if the chain breaks before we get there, which definitely was possible.

One of the first things I did the first month was, Garet shared all the emails that he sent and received relative to the first part of the chain, and you could see all these different points where things had broken down for one reason or another, and he had had to repair breaches. So I knew that this chain that’s supposed to be 30 transplants long could end up being 17 transplants long and if I was going to be there for the last three or four I’d have nothing to write about. So we decided to pick a surgery early in December, when the chain first started back up, to go and eyewitness, and to focus on those participants so that if disaster struck we’d have something.

I don’t know if you’ve looked at all the stuff online or not –

It’s killer.

We ended up doing a video piece about Cesare and Josephine Bonventre – he’s from Brooklyn, she’s from Toronto, they’re mentioned briefly in the print story because they’re the only example in the chain of a compatible pair, meaning she could’ve donated to cousins, she could’ve donated directly to him, but by donating down the line instead he was able to get an even better matched kidney. Which is kind of the next wave in these chains: It expands matching potential by including compatible pairs. So the day before the surgery I went with a photographer (Nicole Bengiveno) and videographer (Sean Patrick Ferrell) to his place in Bensonhurst and interviewed the two of them at length, went with him to his final dialysis treatment at a clinic in Brooklyn – again, with cameras in tow – and the next morning we all showed up at the hospital at 4:30 in the morning and watched them from the beginning of the day to the end of the day, including both their surgeries. Then we had something in the can that we could use to construct the story if we had to. They’re sort of highlighted on the interactive graphic.

You guys do interactive so well.

It’s great to work with them. It’s real value added to what we do, particularly for a story like this that’s so graphic in nature.

The permissions on this must have been tricky, getting all 60 to participate – well, 59 – for their names to be used, for their photographs to be used. How did you handle that logistically? And why didn’t that 60th person, the one in silhouette in the grid, want to do it?

HIPAA obviously prohibits hospitals from releasing these names or anything about these folks without their express permission in the form of a signed, written waiver. There are 17 hospitals involved. So I went to each of the hospitals. From Garet, I had sort of a spreadsheet that showed the course of the chain with some detail: the gender of the donor and recipient, the year of their birth, a code name – no real names – and the hospital that they were gonna be at on the day of the surgery. That’s pretty much what I had. So I was then able to go to the hospitals, explain the story to them, get them to go to the patients, get the waivers and then put me in touch with the patients.

Wait a minute, though. It’s a miracle that you got any of these people, much less 60. Anytime you have other people asking permission for you, you know how that goes –

Right. The one advantage that I had in this case was that the people doing the asking had incentive to get people to yes. If they got people to yes it meant that their hospital might be mentioned in the story. And these were the PR people who were usually involved. So most of the hospitals were eager to pursue it. And I obviously did some coaching, to fully explain the story to people and what we were doing and how the information would be used. The other advantage that we had, a lot of people who go through this process become real zealots about it – they want to spread the word. They feel that they’re saving lives and that (Good Samaritan donation is) an underutilized strategy and if more people knew about it more lives could be saved.

The person that said no was one of the first that I pursued, because I was basically going in order. I called this hospital in New Jersey, Saint Barnabas, and they were just sort of stunned that this person had declined. They thought maybe he was just having a bad day. They thought it was uncharacteristic and unexpected that he would say no, so I sort of maintained hope. We continued on and you can imagine what it’s like – it’s sort of clerical. You send out these requests and some come back pretty quickly and others you have to follow up on three and four times and eventually they started to come through. But yeah there are 59 pictures and one blank.

It does speak to some people’s reluctance and fear about this whole thing –

Right. I mean, obviously I have no sense for his reasoning for not wanting to disclose. It could be any of a number of things; I respect all of them. I was surprising that such a high percentage of people were willing to put their names and faces out there. Sometimes people just don’t want others to know that they’ve been ill or – I mean there are all kinds of reasons for them to not join in. They just cherish their privacy and understandably so. But there was a bit of a mission-oriented feeling for this, I think, for a lot of the participants.

Beautiful writing. There’s this one sentence: “On and on the chain extended, with kidneys flying from coast to coast, iced down in cardboard boxes equipped with GPS devices and stowed on commercial aircraft.” That’s a whole procedure that you just managed to collapse as one gorgeous sentence. You’ve collapsed time, you’ve made procedure easy for the reader to follow.

one of Sack's notebooks

One thing I did that I don’t always do, even for long narrative projects like this, is, I outlined. I sort of methodically over a period of days went through my notes, kind of made a list of key points and key scenes and key characters, and then roughly organized them. And pretty much followed that structure. It certainly was deliberate, to try to write it in a restrained manner because the material itself was so strong and emotional and so potentially prone to purple prose. You do enough of those and you come to realize that if your material’s good enough you just don’t need to overwrite it. Not that there’s ever a reason to overwrite anything, but you know what I’m saying. Beyond that, I really do feel like I just sort of followed the outline and constructed these scenes. I had to show discipline in terms of what we included and excluded. The original draft was not that much longer than the final one – I think just a few hundred words, and lots and lots of editors touched it before it got in the paper. I must say, all made really good suggestions and improved the story.

There’s one interesting tale about all this. The last line of editing is (Executive Editor) Jill Abramson. On the Friday before publication – and I think it was the Friday that she was rushing out the door to fly to Beirut to console Anthony Shadid’s widow and children – but before she got on the plane she ordered that I change the kicker on the story.

Oh!

So here we are, it’s been through umpteen levels of editing at this point and everybody’s signed off on it, and the executive editor is ordering up a change at the last minute. The issue was – the initial kicker had to do with this story that the final recipient, Don Terry, tells, that I just found irresistible, about how in late November, before he knows that he’s getting this kidney, he’s out with his cousin and her two young children, and they go to this sporting good store because they know Santa is gonna be there for photographs with kids. And the kids get on Santa’s lap and then as a goof Don and the cousin get on Santa’s lap and Santa says, “So, young man, what do you want for Christmas?” And Don says, “Well, Santa, the only thing that I want is a kidney. That’s all I want.” And Santa sort of plays along, looks him in the eye and says, “I think you’ve been a good boy this year. I think you’re gonna get that kidney.”

Ugh.

And two weeks later he gets the phone call from the transplant surgeon saying: “You’ve got the kidney.” Jill thought it was too much, that it was over the top and melodramatic, even though it happened and was real. Her point was exactly yours. The rest of the story had been written in this restrained sort of underwritten way, to some extent, and this was going to be jarring to the reader. This was all communicated to me through deputies but I think her sense was that I’d just sort of gotten to the end and I just couldn’t help myself.

(laughter)

I just couldn’t get all the way through without letting one rip.

That’s awesome.

So I sort of resisted and kicked the dirt a little bit, but in the end it didn’t matter because she’s the executive editor and I’m not. But in retrospect I think she was probably right.

I think so too.

And we found a decent alternate.

You found a great alternate. It’s forward-looking, whereas a Santa ending would’ve been a dead end.

I hate to say it but sometimes the executive editor of the New York Times can be a smart person.

So, the response to this piece – what has been the impact so far?

Well, they got a nice surge of offers of Good Samaritan donors both at the National Kidney Registry and at transplant centers individually. The National Kidney Registry had 426 donor registrations, Good Samaritan donors, in February, when the story ran. That compares to 120 in January, 81 in December, 79 in November, 70 in October. And then they had 300 patient referrals to member centers. These are patients coming in with paired donors, and that was more than three times the usual number. There was lots of sort of media follow-up. Diane Sawyer did a big piece on ABC. Lots of local TV. BBC did a piece.

And then there was a recent conference involving the debate about whether to create a national registry.

There was this consensus conference near D.C. where a bunch of specialists got together – surgeons, transplant coordinators, nurses, patients, insurers – to discuss the future of the field and look at ways to increase the number who get transplants this way. One of the key things on the table is whether there should be a single national registry, which the mathematicians and to some extent common sense tell us would presumably increase the number of transplants made possible. The bigger your pool the more potential matches you can make. A committee of this group recommended doing exactly that, which for the moment is likely to mean exactly nothing. It’s purely a recommendation. It’s a sense of direction of a committee of this group.

There’s a lot of transplant politics involved. These different registries compete with each other. They have different philosophies. They’re all virtually unregulated by the government at this point and there’s nothing constraining them from operating the way they want to. It’s not my sense that there’s going to be much change anytime soon. Garet Hil, the guy that’s featured in my story, has the most successful of these registries and he doesn’t see much of a reason to change the way his is working. He feels like he’s got a model that’s getting transplants done, and he’s concerned that any sort of merger, particularly a merger that puts him more at the mercy of government regulation and oversight, is going to decrease the number of transplants he can accomplish.

Speaking of Hil, this isn’t a traditional narrative in that we’re not following one or two main characters, we’re not using a ton of dialogue, but you are following, as you said, the arc of the chain itself and then looking at these little narratives along the curve. But there’s this sort of overarching hero in Hil – the former Marine recon ranger with a background in quantitative math, who started the registry after his own kid got sick. Another writer might’ve decided that that guy was the narrative and folded the chain around his story. It was a riskier and much more complicated piece of storytelling, what you did.

I think I was driven by my interests – and they were varied – in this subject. I was completely captivated by him. I think he’s a fascinating guy. But I thought there were other fascinating parts to the chain. And to some extent, because he very much deliberately distances himself for ethical and legal reasons from the participants in the chain, if the story had focused more on him it would’ve been at the cost of the other parts of the process, which were all pretty darn compelling. I mean, until I wrote the piece he didn’t have names for these people, for the most part. So more of a focus on him would’ve meant it would’ve been harder to humanize the chain. It would’ve been more about the math of what he does and his personal story.

When you described him as “Disney-hero handsome” which Disney character did you have in mind?

The one that I really had in mind – it ends up being the wrong one to have had in mind because as I thought about it more, he’s not a hero, he’s an oaf. In “Beauty and the Beast” I’m thinking Gaston, who is Belle’s pursuer. I’m extremely familiar with the story right now because I’ve just watched three performances of my stepdaughter in a middle-school production. But yeah, he’s got the same sort of cleft chin. Lots of hair. And he’s not heroic at all – he’s an anti-intellectual. Surely there were other heroes. Prince Eric maybe? In “The Little Mermaid?” I don’t know. Don’t you find Hil Disney-hero handsome?

Uh-huh.

He’s happily married.

Good for her, is what I can say about that. I love how you de-glorified Ruzzamenti by mentioning his carousing, and his “unsmiling presence at work,” and his “surliness,” and his inattention to his parents and grandmother. He’s real.

That’s what I loved about him. He’s such a quirky guy and would be the first to tell you so. We had a really good time interviewing him. I talked to him a couple of times by phone and then spoke to him at his home when we flew out to UCLA for the last part of the chain. He lives in Riverside, which is an hour or two away, so it was convenient. He’s just a real character. I’m not sure that I give the reader a real way to understand him because I’m not sure that I completely understand why somebody, who by his own admission may not be the sunniest or most giving person every moment of every day, becomes an incredibly giving person at this one moment.

Maybe it’s redemption. Maybe if you’re an ass your whole life and you get the chance not to be, you take it.

Yeah. I think there’s certainly – he didn’t want me to overemphasize the notion of his Buddhism and its impact on his decision, because I think he feels he had this in him before he discovered Buddhism, but there’s a certain karma for him. I don’t think he felt, “I’m gonna go do a good thing and it’ll pay off in the next life,” but I do think he has a sense that the good things you do in life at some point have an impact.

The play-by-play of Conor Bidelspach’s kidney removal was so descriptively written: “The slush in the blue bowl turned fruit-punch pink.” And you wrote about a plastic bag knotted shut “like a goldfish brought home from the pet store.” Clearly you’re the father of young children.

(laughter)

You were there for that, though, obviously. You scrubbed in?

Yeah, from beginning to end I saw six different procedures at three different hospitals: the nephrectomies, which is the kidney recovery, and then the transplants. In each case I had photographers and video journalists in the O.R. with us. We scrubbed in, we were in scrubs, with masks and hairnets and note pads and cameras. The doctors seemed to be completely unfazed by the fact that we were there. They’ve done the procedure 100 times a year. And I think two of the hospitals required that we have TB tests. One of them required us to sign various waivers in case there was any havoc in the operating room, any trouble that we caused. But it was all fairly smooth. We just sort of took turns stepping up on a little stepstool just behind the surgeons, peering over into the abdomens as they did their work. With the nephrectomies, there were these screens all around the operating room, showing what’s going on, because it’s all done laparoscopically and there’s cameras inside the cavity, showing what’s happening.

Interesting that you wrote that someone “poured” a kidney. Interesting verb.

I’ve got this vague recollection that that wasn’t the first word I used. An editor may have come up with that choice. I may have said “emptied” or something like that.

“Poured,” with reference to a human organ, is odd in a good way. Unexpected in a good way.

It definitely helped to see the procedures multiple times. The first time out you’re just sort of absorbing it and each time you see it you may think a little more in metaphor and imagery.

Getting back to a conversation you and I were having earlier: We were talking about long-form narrative versus daily reporting.

I’ve never seen the disconnect between hard news writing and narrative reporting and writing. I try to use the same skills. If I’m covering a hard-news story I’m looking for the same narrative elements and the same imagery and the same way of describing something metaphorically that I would when I’m reporting a narrative. I mean, I have the same opportunities to use it, depending on the story and how much space I’ve got. It’s always seemed to me that even the hardest news story is helped by narrative elements. Obviously you deal with them in different ways depending on your format. But I’ve just never seen the distinction. Both ways of telling a story are equally credible in terms of getting at the truth, which is ultimately our goal and our mission.

*Photos courtesy of Kevin Sack

April 25 2012

17:43

'News' loses its top digital editor, Scott Cohen, to startup Vocativ

Capital New York :: The Daily News has lost its executive editor for digital, Scott Cohen, who's headed to a news startup called Vocativ in another few weeks, Capital has learned. Cohen is a well-liked though somewhat divisive figure at the paper, which he joined in 2008 following a stint at ABC News. He has also worked at Interview.

Continue to read Joe Pompeo, www.capitalnewyork.com

Tags: ABC News

April 14 2012

15:16

ABC’s ‘Don’t Trust the B’ becomes TV’s latest online-first success

paidContent :: The Internet is supposed to be cannibalizing traditional TV viewership, not offering marketing support for its premieres. But the latter seems to be happening this television season. On Wednesday night, new ABC comedy Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23 became the latest new show to seemingly benefit from an emerging strategy in which shows debut online before their network premiere.

Continue to read Daniel Frankel, paidcontent.org

February 09 2012

22:02

Yahoo! News alliance: ABC News Digital hits 100 million video starts in January

Broadcasting & Cable :: Since starting its alliance with Yahoo! News in Oct. of 2011, ABC News Digital has seen some significant increases in video streaming, traffic, social media and mobile usage, according to the news organization. In January digital videos were streamed more than 100 million times, up 179% compared to the Sept. 2011 figures.

Continue to read George Winslow, www.broadcastingcable.com

Tags: ABC News Yahoo

January 19 2012

07:02

Drudge throws political world into chaos with exclusive on Gingrich ex interview

Mediaite :: Earlier this evening, the Drudge Report teased an exclusive with the single most vague headline in modern journalism history: “Network Holds Bombshell Campaign Interview.” Accompanied with the legendary “Drudge siren,” the headline left all of political Twitter waiting on bated breath, until another little tidbit was added: “Civil War at ABC News.” It took a while before the media received any more details, but it was worth it: “Newt Ex Unloads on America; Net Debates ‘Ethics’ of Airing Before Primary.

The details - Continue to read Frances Martel, www.mediaite.com

January 11 2012

21:03

PBS ‘Frontline’ planning News Corp. exposé? How far will a friend be willing to go?

TVNewser :: Fox News Channel’s Geraldo Rivera was out to dinner with his old friend and colleague from ABC News, Lowell Bergman, when things turned quite sour. Bergman is an esteemed journalist, having produced the now-infamous exposé of the tobacco companies for “60 Minutes.” According to a Facebook post from Rivera, Bergman’s latest target is News Corp. and Fox News.

Continue to read Alex Weprin, www.mediabistro.com

January 09 2012

07:20

Big three newscasts ABC, CBS, NBC, are changing the state of play

New York Times :: There was a time when each of the Big Three nightly newscasts, ABC, CBS, NBC on American television tended to open with the same story — the latest campaign speech, a new government study or perhaps a big snowstorm. That time is gone.

Continue to read Brian Stelter, www.nytimes.com

Tags: ABC News CBS NBC

January 05 2012

21:39

Study: MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, CBS ignore controversial SOPA legislation

Ben Dimiero reviewed Lexis-Nexis transcripts since October 1, 2011 for any references to the Stop Online Piracy Act, the PROTECT IP Act, and related terms. His search focused on broadcasts at 5pm or later that are available in the database.

MediaMatters :: Controversial legislation that the co-founder of Google has warned "would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world" has received virtually no coverage from major American television news outlets during their evening newscasts and opinion programming. The parent companies of most of these networks, as well as two of the networks themselves, are listed as official "supporters" of this legislation on the U.S. House of Representatives' website.  

Continue to read Ben Dimiero, mediamatters.org

December 06 2011

20:59

abc News - Barbara Walters to interview Syria’s Al-Assad: "Did you give the order for the crackdown?"

Mediabistro | TVNewser :: In his first TV interview with an American outlet since the uprising began in his country earlier this year, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad will speak to ABC’s Barbara Walters. Walters questioned Syria’s leader on the human rights violations the UN has said his government is committing, as well as the harsh treatment and crackdown of protestors. The interview will air across all of the ABC News platforms on Wednesday, December 7, including a special edition of “Nightline” dedicated solely to Syria.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Continue to read Alex Weprin, www.mediabistro.com

October 07 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: Remembering Steve Jobs, and a new-old media partnership

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

A man who thought different: The tech, media, and business worlds lost one of their brightest minds this week: Steve Jobs, the visionary who co-founded Apple and helped transform virtually every industry this site touches on, died Wednesday at age 56. Thousands of people have been pouring out their thanks and remembrances online over the past couple of days; I’ll try to highlight some of the most insightful reflections here.

First, the obituaries: The New York Times and Wall Street Journal memorialized Jobs in their formal, definitive style, while Wired’s Steven Levy took a more interpretive angle on Jobs’ life and work. The Times offered a fantastic interactive guide to Jobs’ 317 patents, and All Things Digital remembered Jobs with a collection of his own words. One of his most well-known public statements is a 2005 commencement speech that included some profound thoughts about death, including the statement, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

The New York Times and the Lab’s Megan Garber have good summaries of the ways people remembered and honored Jobs on Wednesday. Several pieces on Jobs’ legacy, by the LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, and Reuters’ Kevin Kelleher, centered on a similar point: Jobs’ expertise wasn’t in technical advancements so much as it was in his uncanny ability to recognize what made technologies frustrating for people to use and then to develop brilliant solution after brilliant solution. As the AP’s Ted Anthony put it, “He realized what we wanted before we understood it ourselves.”

Others remembered Jobs for what tech blogger Dave Winer called “the integrity of his vision.” For the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, that vision meant a distinctive devotion to work for pure self-fulfillment, and that devotion led to, as Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb pointed out, a corporate culture uniquely predicated on accountability and direct responsibility. Berkman Center fellow Doc Searls brought up some old insights about Jobs’ dedication to innovation, and at the Guardian, Dan Gillmor wrote on the juxtaposition between his awe of Jobs’ genius and his concern about Apple’s growing control. Horace Dediu gave the contrarian’s remembrance, challenging the idea of Jobs as an otherworldly visionary and coming up with some poetic insight in the process.

A few people looked specifically at Steve Jobs’ impact on the media industry — GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram looked at the ways Apple has continued to disrupt media, especially with the iPhone, which definitively turned the phone into a media consumption device. Jeff Sonderman of Poynter republished a piece on Jobs’ relationship with the news industry, and the New York Times’ David Carr said Jobs made business journalism cool for the first time.

Then there were the personal stories: Fast Company collected bunches of accounts of tech execs, writers, and students’ first meetings with Jobs, and the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg shared several Jobs stories of his own. Tech blogger John Gruber wrote on the grass-stained sneakers Jobs wore to his keynote address at a conference in June — “the product of limited time, well spent.” And former Gizmodo writer Brian Lam, who had a notorious run-in with Apple last year over a lost iPhone prototype, reflected on Jobs’ kindness and forgiveness amid that incident.

My favorite takeaway came from journalism professor Jeremy Littau’s summary of his lecture on Jobs to his students: “Go create stuff. Lots of stuff. Don’t wait for me to tell you to do it and —  for the love of God — don’t wait for it to be assigned in a class or be for credit on the student newspaper. The great ones are never off the clock. They create stuff because it matters, not because they’re told to.”

Two media giants jump in together: ABC News and Yahoo announced a major partnership for online news, agreeing to share web content, count traffic together, and produce web video series. It’s not a full-fledged merger: The two organizations will remain independent, but they’ll share news bureaus and sell ads together as ABC produces web series for Yahoo and Yahoo maintains the web operations of shows like Good Morning America.

These two companies have done something like this before — as Poynter noted, their announcement this week was strikingly similar to an announcement between the two orgs back in 2000. Still, The New York Times said it’s the deepest partnership of its kind since NBC and Microsoft in the mid-’90s. The basic reasons for the move seem to make sense: As the Times and TV Newser pointed out, ABC News has plenty of corporate muscle behind it via Disney, but has lagged behind its competitors in web traffic. Yahoo, on the other hand, is swimming in traffic but has had some serious difficulty figuring where to go from there.

Still, the deal got a lukewarm reception from many online media analysts. One of them told Ad Age that for ABC News, Yahoo was “the last life vest on the Titanic.” Wired’s Tim Carmody said ABC and Yahoo could have some quite interesting opportunities for cooperation, but instead, they’re “both left chasing The Huffington Post — a fast-growing, web-native and increasingly multimedia-savvy and professional-journalism-driven site.” Mathew Ingram of GigaOM described the move as a doomed, retrograde portal strategy: What these organizations need, he said, is not more eyeballs, but more targeted audiences and well-produced niche content.

But here at the Lab, media professor Josh Braun said that while the partnership is far from a slam dunk, it’s still an ambitious move with the potential to give ABC News a foothold into round-the-clock content and some demographic niches highly coveted by advertisers. On Yahoo’s side, Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici wondered whether they’re moving away from producing original content.

Apple drops the next iPhone: The news of Steve Jobs’ death dwarfed what had been a significant development for Apple-philes: the unveiling, earlier this week, of the next iteration of the iPhone, the iPhone 4S. As the New York Times explained, the new iPhone doesn’t look much different from the current one, but most of its improvements are below the surface, most notably the addition of a voice-activated personal assistant named Siri.

This was not what everyone was expecting; for weeks, the tech press had wrongly predicted an iPhone 5, only to see upgrades that were smaller and more incremental than they expected. The result was disappointment for many, summed up well by Henry Blodget of Business Insider and Farhad Manjoo of Slate. Others, like tech writer Dan Frommer and The New York Times’ Nick Bilton, said there was plenty to like about the iPhone 4S, including faster download speeds and a more powerful camera.

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman looked at several aspects of the new iPhone of interest to journalists, focusing specifically on Apple’s new Newsstand section for newspaper and magazine apps. He expressed some concern that the Newsstand locks publishers into Apple’s 30-percent-cut pay system while duplicating the old print news-buying experience, rather than creating something new.

Reading roundup: This week was a busy one outside of the big stories, too. Here’s what else people were talking about:

— Some conversation that continues to trickle out about Facebook’s overhaul: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” is where the web is headed next, the Lab’s Ken Doctor and Gina Chen looked at what’s in this for news orgs, and at The Atlantic, Ben Zimmer looked at what Facebook has done to the way we use language.

— Commentary about last week’s Kindle announcement also continued this week, with Frederic Filloux explaining why he’s excited about the Kindle Fire’s potential for news media and magazine publishers, saying the Fire could help spark some big revenue in tablets. Meanwhile, Nate Hoffelder noted that there’s a lot that you can’t do with the Kindle and its apps, and Mathew Ingram wondered what will happen to the book industry when Kindle prices drop to zero.

— Jonathan Stray’s thoughtful post a couple of weeks ago about journalism for makers has led to a slow-burning discussion: Grad student Blair Hickman proposed a model for solution-based journalism, while journalism professor C.W. Anderson questioned whether journalists have the authority for such an approach. Meanwhile, Josh Stearns of Free Press mused on applying “systems thinking” to journalism.

— This month’s Carnival of Journalism produced a solid set of posts that examined a variety of aspects of online video, from technique to philosophy to business. Here’s the roundup.

— Two useful pieces of advice from Poynter: a guide for news sites to partnering with local blogs, and for journalists to get started with data journalism.

— Former New York Times editor Bill Keller offered a (surprisingly) bullish take on the potential for a sustainable business model in online news, and the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal gave a thorough, up-close look at what that means for a single news org in his four-part report on making CIR and California Watch sustainable. Here’s part one and the bullet-point version.

August 03 2011

17:00

California Watch expands south with a new partnership

The nonprofit California Watch, just shy of its second birthday, opens its new Southern California bureau today — and the location says something about the evolution of the news business.

A reporter and community engagement manager will be leaving the outfit’s Berkeley headquarters and taking up residence in the newsroom of the Orange County Register. And the rent is unbeatable: free.

“As traditional newsrooms have cut back, they have been left with vast stretches of open space inside their newsrooms or buildings,” said Mark Katches, editorial director for California Watch and its parent organization, the making the announcement last month. “We are able to capitalize in a way that benefits our organization and our hosts.”

A couple of years ago, when California Watch was new and unknown, the outlook for this kind of team-up might not have been so sunny. The O.C. (don’t call it that) Register, for one thing, might have viewed California Watch simply as a competitor encroaching on its turf. Other reporters setting up shop here, digging for the same dirt?

No longer, though: Now, they’re teammates. (The Register already pays annual licensing fees to run California Watch stories in its own pages.) “There’s just so much news in California that, two years in, there really has not been a case where we have overlapped,” says Robert Salladay, California Watch’s senior editor. “I think that alleviated a lot of fear on the part of reporters and our partners.”

Not everyone they talked to was as receptive to a team-up as the Register, Salladay said, but at the same time, California Watch was actually getting partnership invitations from some papers. “The situation with newspapers is so critical. I think everyone’s happy for the copy, happy that stories are getting done. It is a much more collaborative industry now,” Salladay told me. “I can imagine that, 10 years ago, this model just wouldn’t have flown at all.”

The Center for Investigative Reporting launched California Watch in fall 2009 to do the kind of time-consuming, data-driven reporting that many newspapers can’t afford anymore. Since then, the site has launched its own initiatives: a statewide distribution network, a radio partnership with public broadcasting giant KQED, and a television unit that works in collaboration with WGBH’s Frontline and ABC News. In addition to more than 1,200 news posts last year, the site pumps out, on average, three investigative pieces a month, Salladay told me — and a half-dozen major series a year.

Financially, California Watch continues to subsist on grants from foundations, but the organization is raising some revenue, as well. In January, the outfit changed the way it charges for its content. Members of the California Watch Media Network — among them the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, and, yes, the Orange County Register — now choose from a menu of stories each year and pay membership fees that vary according to their circulation and audience reach. (Previously, California Watch negotiated the price of each story, a la carte.) Salladay would not disclose the membership rates, but he said it can’t be so much that a newspaper can’t afford it. Newspapers’ financial struggles, after all, are the reason California Watch exists in the first place.

California Watch’s move into Southern California is overdue, Salladay said — especially because it’s where most Californians live. “One of the reasons we want to be in Southern California is that here are a lot of neglected communities that don’t get a lot of coverage, so we’re hoping to get out to some of the smaller communities to do a lot of work on low-income people, disadvantaged communities, work on the border, work on migrant farmworkers. You’d be surprised how many small towns there are down there that aren’t being watched. I think with what the L.A. Times found with the city of Bell, there’s a lot of fruitful work that can be done.”

Looking beyond Orange County, Salladay would also like to get a reporter in Los Angeles, add a border bureau in San Diego or Imperial County, and maybe hire a staff photographer. In just two years, now with 25 employees, California Watch has become the largest investigative reporting team in the state. The organization’s biggest challenge now, Salladay said, is staying on mission.

“We have to constantly remind ourselves that the mission is investigative reporting — looking at waste, fraud, and abuse,” he noted. “There’s a great temptation to pull ourselves away for some great mini-scandal somewhere or some great enterprise story about a social issue. We want to do those, but I think it’s important for us to stay focused.”

July 26 2011

06:09

"Not for money" - ABC News bans paying news subjects for photos

The Daily Beast :: After the embarrassment of giving Casey Anthony a huge payday, the network is effectively ending the practice of paying news subjects in connection with exclusive interviews. With no public announcement or fanfare, the news division’s president, Ben Sherwood, has effectively taken ABC out of what had become a competitive bidding war for hot bookings.

Howard Kurtz on why ABC is breaking from the pack. 

Continue to read Howard Kurtz, www.thedailybeast.com

June 26 2011

19:19

ABC News Teams produces a Vook or video book for iPad, Android, Nook Color

Beet.TV :: ABC News is producing a multimedia offering of text and video reporting in the form of a video book, or "vook" for the Apple iOS devices, Android and Nook Color. ABC is working with the Emeryville, California based company Vook to create the publications around major news events including the capture of Osama Bin Laden and England's Royal Wedding.

Last week, Beet.TV spoke with Vook's head of product Matthew Cavnar.

Watch the interview by Andy Plesser, www.beet.tv

August 26 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of news orgs surrounded by non-news

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

The Washington Post Company has been much in the news recently, but not because of its flagship paper. It’s making news around its other holdings. It has shed Newsweek, staunching a $30 million annual bleed. More importantly to the company’s finances, its Kaplan “subsidiary” has been much in the spotlight, under investigation by the feds, along with other for-profit educators, for fraud around student loans.  Those inquiries have rocked The Washington Post Co.’s share price, sending it to a year-to-date low.

The Post’s case has also refocused public attention on how much the company is dependent on Kaplan revenues. Those revenues now amount to 62 percent of revenues, and 67 percent of profits. It became clear to even those who hadn’t been watching closely that the Post was more an education company than a newspaper one, though the family ownership of the Grahams clearly intend to use that positioning to protect and sustain the flagship paper.

The Post case is not an isolated one. Fewer news companies are, well, “news” companies in the way we used to think of them. More news operations find themselves within larger enterprises these days, and I believe that will be a continuing trend. It could be good for journalism — buffering news operations in times of changing business models — or it could be bad for journalism, as companies whose values don’t include the “without fear or favor” gene increasingly house journalists. That push and pull will play out dramatically over the next five years.

Let’s look, though, at the changing newsonomics of the companies that own large news enterprises.

Here’s a chart of selected companies, showing what approximate (revenue definitions vary significantly company to company) percentage of their overall annual revenues are derived from news:

News Corp.: 19 percent (newspapers and information services); 31 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Gannett: 94.3 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
New York Times: 93 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Washington Post: 21 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Thomson Reuters: 2.3 percent (Media segment)
Bloomberg: <15 percent (non-terminal media businesses)
AP: 100 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
McClatchy: 100 percent (newspapers and broadcast)
Disney (ABC News): <14 percent (broadcast)
Guardian Media Group: 46 percent (newspapers)

The non-news revenues may be a surprise, but here’s one further fact to ponder: News, over the past several years, has continued to decline in its percentage contribution to most diversified companies. Given all the trends we know, it will continue to do so. Movies, cable, satellite, and even broadcasting all have challenges, structural and cyclical, but overall are all doing better than print and text revenues.

News Corp., the largest company by news revenue in the world with publications on three continents, is a great example. After all, although it is eponymously named, it is not really a “news company.” With only one in five of its overall dollars coming directly from traditional news, it’s much more dependent on the success of the latest Ben Stiller comedy or the fortunes of a blockbuster than on the digital advertising growth of The Wall Street Journal or the paid-content successes — or failures — of The Times of London. These matter, of course, but let’s consider the context.

In February, I wrote about the “Avatar Advantage” that News Corp.’s Wall Street Journal held in its increasingly head-to-head battle with The New York Times. At that point, Avatar had brought in $2 billion in gross receipts for News Corp., whose 20th Century Fox produced and distributed the movie. Now that number has grown by $750 million, to $2.75 billion in total. News Corp. shares that revenue with lots of hands, but what it keeps will make an impressive difference to its bottom line — and to what it can pour into The Wall Street Journal, as CEO Rupert Murdoch desires.

Compare that financial flexibility with the Times, and it’s night and day. The Times Co.’s total 2009 revenues: $2.4 billion, less than Avatar itself has produced. The Times is all but a newspaper pure play, deriving about 5.5 percent of its revenue from non-news Internet businesses, like About.com, after shedding TV and radio stations and its share of the Boston Red Sox.

It may be a one-of-a-kind pure play, in that it is the leading standalone news site and reaches vast audiences globally. Yet its pure-play nature can feel like a noose, which was tightening in the depth of the recession and only feels a lot looser now. The Times’ planned paid-content metering system, for instance, is a nervous-making strategy for a company with relatively little margin of error. Compare that to the revenue trajectories that News Corp.’s London papers may see after their paywalls have been in place for a year. Whatever the results, they’ll have de minimis impact to News Corp. fortunes.

Likewise, McClatchy — another newspaper pure play, like MediaNews, A.H. Belo, Lee, and a few others — is now betting wholly on newspapers and their torturous transition to digital.

While Gannett is heavily dependent on print newspapers, in the U.S. and UK, it has been benefited by the 13 percent of its revenues that come from broadcast. Broadcast revenues — buoyed by Olympics and election-year advertising — were up 18.6 percent for the first half of 2010, while newspapers were down 6.5 percent for Gannett. Broadcast may be a largely mature medium, too, but for the print news companies that haven’t jettisoned properties gained in an earlier foray into broadcast diversification, it has provided some balm. In addition to Gannett, MediaGeneral and Scripps are among those holding on to broadcast properties.

For the bigger companies, the consequences are more nuanced. I call these large, now globally oriented (in news coverage, in audience reach and, coming, in advertising sales) The Digital Dozen, twelve-plus companies that are trying to harness the real scale value of digital distribution.

The Digital Dozen’s Thomson Reuters is a great example. Until 2007, Reuters was a standalone, a 160-year-old news service struggling with its own business models in this changing world. Then, with its merger with financial services giant Thomson, it now contributes less than a tenth of TR’s annual revenue. That kind of insulation can be a good thing, both as it figures out how to synergize the Reuters and Thomson business lines (a complex work-in-progress) and to allow investment in Reuters products and staffing, even as news revenues find tough sledding. Meanwhile, its main competitor, AP, may have a strong commercial business (broadcast and print) worldwide — but it’s a news business, with no other revenue lines to provide breathing room.

National broadcast news, too, has seen rapid change, and much staff reduction in the past few years. GE, one behemoth of a diversified company, is turning over the NBC News operation to another giant, Comcast. ABC News is found within the major entertainment conglomerate Disney.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg — getting more than eight out of 10 of its dollars via the terminal rental business — is moving aggressively to build a greater news brand; witness the Business Week acquisition, and its push into government news coverage, formally announcing the hiring of 100 journalists for its Bloomberg Government new business unit. Non-news revenue — largely meaning non-advertising dependence — is what may increasingly separate “news” companies going forward. So we see the Guardian Media Group selling off its regional newspapers to focus, as its annual report proudly announces, on “a strong portfolio [of non-news companies and investments] to support our journalism.]

Journalism must be fed — but inky hands will be doing less and less of the feeding.

Image by John Cooper used under a Creative Commons license.

July 08 2010

10:36

ABC News advertises new 24-hour news channel for Australia

ABC news has released a video to advertise their impending 24-hour news channel, ABC 24, in Australia.

According to a report by mUmbrella.com.au, the national broadcaster is keeping quiet about the launch date of the all day news channel, although rumours include 14 July as a potential deadline.

The trailer is being played on ABC’s HD channel, which will eventually host News 24, aiming to deliver “ABC news and current affairs around the clock, so it suits the viewer’s schedule, not ours.”

ABC News 24 claims it will offer news coverage from across 12 foreign bureaus and 60 regional newsrooms.

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