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April 21 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of a single investigative story

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

It’s a week to celebrate great investigative work. ProPublica made some history with its Pulitzer for online-only work about the financial meltdown, and the Los Angeles Times crowned its success with the larger-than-life Bell corruption tale, winning its own top prize. Both well deserved.

Meanwhile, as journalists sat around their terminals awaiting the Pulitzer bulletin, an investigative series broke across California, perhaps reaching more audience more quickly than any previous investigative piece. There were no bodies to count, nor billions or millions of ill-gotten gains to uncover.

Rather, California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground” series is aimed at preventing disaster, getting ahead of the Grim Reaper. The series took a big look at the likely safety issues in the state’s schools when (not if, right?) The Big One hits. It found, not surprisingly, that although state law mandated seismic preparations, all kinds of bureaucratic nonsense has contravened that intent. It found that about 1,100 schools had been red-flagged as in need of repair, with no work done, while tens of thousands of others were in questionable and possibly illegal shape. The so-what: Some of the very institutions providing for the kids of California have a certain likelihood of actually falling on top of them and killing them.

It’s old-fashioned, shoe-leather, box-opening, follow-the-string journalism, and it is well done.

While it’s fun to celebrate great journalism, anytime, it’s vital to look at the newsonomics of this kind of investigative journalism. What did it take to get it done? How much did it cost and who paid for it? And, to look at the plainly fundamental question: How do we get lots more of it done in the future?

The series took more than 20 months to complete. The interactive timeline, “On Shaky Ground: The story behind the story,” tells that tale with tongue in cheek; it’s a great primer for any beginning journalism class. Corey G. Johnson, freshly hired from North Carolina and part of a young reporting contingent that has been mixed and mentored well by veterans like editorial director Mark Katches, stumbles on a list of 7,500 “unsafe schools” as he’s doing a routine story on the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Along the way, the story grows in import and paperwork. California Watch, the less-than-two-year-old offshoot of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Journalism (CIR), adds other staff to the effort, including reporter Erica Perez, public engagement manager Ashley Alvarado, distribution manager Meghann Farnsworth, and director of technology Chase Davis, among other reporters.

In the end, the series rolled out in three parts — with maps, databases, historical photos, its own Twitter hashtag, a “My Quake” iPhone app — and a coloring book (“California Watch finds a new consumer group, kids“), intended to reach kids, the most important subject and object of the reporting. Already, the state legislature has scheduled hearings for April 27.

The reach of the roll-out is one of the new lessons here. Six major dailies ran at least some part of the series. ABC-affiliate broadcasters took the story statewide. Public radio news leaders KQED, in the Bay Area, and KPCC, in L.A. ran with it. KQED-TV. The ethnic press signed on: La Opinion ran two seismic stories Sunday and Monday, while at least two Korean papers, one Chinese paper, and one Chinese TV station included coverage as well. More than 125 Patch sites in the state (California is major Patch turf) participated.

A number of the distributors did more than distribute. They localized, using data from California Watch, and reporting on their local schools’ shape. KQED-TV produced a 30-minute special that is scheduled to air on at least 12 PBS affiliates in the state.

San Francisco Chronicle managing editor Steve Proctor is frank about how priorities and resource use have changed in the age of downsizing. When Proctor came to the paper in 2003, he says, the paper had five to seven people assigned to a full-time investigative team. Now there’s no team per se, with the Chronicle investing investigative resources in an “investigate and publish” strategy, getting stories out to the public more quickly and then following up on public-generated leads they create. It’s an adjustment in strategy and in resource allocation — and the California Watch relationship makes it even more workable. “We’ve been pretty sympatico with them from the beginning,” he said. “We’ve used the majority of what they’ve produced.”

So let’s get deeper into some numbers, informed by this series, and see where this kind of work can go:

  • “On Shaky Ground” cost about $550,000 to produce, most of that in staff time, as the project mushroomed. That’s now a huge sum of money to a newsroom, even a metro-sized one. Ask a publisher whether he or she is willing to spend a half a million on a story, and you know the answer you’ll usually get. It’s a sum few newsrooms can or will invest. Consequently, the economics of getting a well edited, well packaged series for a hundreth of that price is an offer few newsrooms can (or probably should) refuse.
  • California Watch, not yet two years old, runs on a budget of about $2.7 million a year. That budget supports 14 journalists, whose funding takes up about 70 percent of that $2.7 million number. That’s an intriguing percentage in and of itself; most daily newspaper newsrooms make up of 20 percent or less of their company’s overall expenses. So, disproportionately, the money spent on California Watch is spent on journalists — and journalism.

The project is about midway through its funding cycles. The ubiquitous Knight Foundation (which has contributed about $15 million to a number of investigative projects nationwide through its Investigative Reporting Initiative), the Irvine Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation, all of which have provided million-dollar-plus grants, are reviewing new proposals.

The key word, going forward here, is “sustaining.” Will foundations provide ongoing support of the “public good” of such journalism? There’s lots of talk among foundations, but no clear consensus among journalism-facing ones. “There really isn’t a foundation community that thinks with a common brain — same situation as in the news community,” Knight’s Eric Newton told me this week. “Each foundation makes its own decisions using different criteria. Some foundations see their role as launching new things and letting nature take its course.” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal is among those trying to find a new course. Although he’s a highly experienced editor, he finds that most of his time is found fund- and friend-raising.

  • California Watch is building a syndication business, feeling its way along. Already, six larger dailies — the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, the Orange County Register, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Fresno Bee, and the Bakersfield California — are becoming clients, paying a single price for the all-you-can-eat flow of daily and enterprise stories California Watch produces. They, a number of ABC affiliates (L.A.’s KABC, the Bay Area’s KGO, 10 News San Diego, 10 News Sacramento, KSFN in Fresno), and KQED public radio and TV in the Bay Area are also annual clients pay between $3,000 and $15,000 a year each. A la carte pricing for individual projects can run from $3,000 to $10,000. The California Watch media network, just launched in January, is an important building block of the evolving business model. It is clear that while syndication can be a good support, at those rates, it’s a secondary support.
  • So, if California Watch were to be totally supported by foundation money, it would take an endowment of $54 million to throw off $2.7 million a year, at a five percent spend rate. Now $54 million raised one time isn’t an impossible sum. Consider just one gift: Joan Kroc left NPR more than $200 million eight years ago. Consider that the billionaires’ club started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (encouraging their peers to give away half of their wealths) is talking about newly raising a half a trillion dollars for the public good. Last summer, I suggested the group tithe a single percentage point of the club’s treasury for news-as-a-public-good. It seems to me that stories like “On Shaky Ground” make that pivotal education/health/journalism connection; send “Shaky Ground” to your favorite billionaire and urge him to sign on.
  • Let’s do some cost-benefit analysis. How much is a single child’s life worth? How about a school of 250? We could consult a liability lawyer, who undoubtedly would put assign a six- and seven-figure number per life, and then tie up the courts, post-disaster, making the math work. So if California, bereft as it is of capital, were to invest in the infrastructure, per its own laws, wouldn’t it be ultimately cost-effective? Of course it would be, and in this case we see in microcosm, the question of American infrastructure writ large. Are we a country that will let more bridges fall into mighty rivers, more schools fall onto our children and more poor roads cause preventable injury and death? You don’t need my political rant here. Rather, let us just make the point that journalism — old-fashioned journalism, newly digitally enhanced — is a key part of forcing America to face its own issues, whatever the solutions.

In this project and in California Watch generally, we see the reconfiguring of local media. An owner — whether AOL, Hearst, or private equity — can hardly reject the offer of paying one-hundreth of the cost for space-filling, audience-interesting content. Welcome to a new kind of content farm, to use that perjorative for a moment. Yes, California Watch operates on the same Demand Media-like principle of create-once-distribute-many, realizing the digital cost of the second copy is nil. Let’s consider it the organic, cage-free content farm. It makes sense for a state the size of a country (California = Canada); smaller versions of it make equal sense for Ohio, North Carolina, or Illinois.

Older media outsources journalism and in-sources (affordable) passion. There are lots of lessons here (“3 Reasons to Watch California Watch“), but that fundamental rejiggering of who does the work and how it is distributed and customized is a key one. As Mark Katches points out, “They [distributing partners] put their voices on our story.” That’s a new system in the making.

Old(er) editors can learn new tricks. For a good show-and-tell of that principle, check out Rosenthal’s talk to TEDxPresidio two weeks ago. I first saw him give the talk at NewsFoo in Phoenix in December. Amid more tech-oriented talks, his stood out and was much applauded. It’s a clarifying call for real journalism, perfected for the digital age. Share it.

April 08 2010

16:00

The future is…fliers? California Watch experiments with a hyper-hyper-hyperlocal distribution model

Last month, California Watch published a big story. “Shaky Ground,” higher ed reporter Erica Perez’s investigation into seismic safety in the state’s public university system, found — among other things — that “nearly 180 public university buildings in California used by tens of thousands of people have been judged dangerous to occupy during a major earthquake.”

The Berkeley-based outfit accompanied the deep-dive investigation with a multimedia package that included maps of various UC campuses and an interactive history of earthquakes in California. They tweeted the story and sent it out on Facebook. They tailored versions of the story for publication in newspapers across the state, including The San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, The Bakersfield Californian, and The San Diego Union-Tribune. They arranged appearances for Perez on KQED radio in San Francisco and on TV stations in San Francisco and LA.

But they wanted to do more. They wanted to reach members of their immediate, physical community — in particular, the Berkeley students who, every day, attend class in buildings that may be unsafe in an earthquake. (As Perez reported: “No public university in California has more seismically unsafe structures than UC Berkeley.”)

So, as a complement to the story’s web-savvy, multi-platform distribution strategy, the outlet added something decidedly low-tech: fliers. Yep, fliers: the paper-based, interpersonal-interaction-reliant, social-media-before-there-was-social-media method of getting the word out.

Mark S. Luckie — who, in addition to his role as the proprietor of 10,000 Words, is also a multimedia producer at California Watch — designed the fliers, and staffers posted them on kiosks around campus. They also e-mailed PDF versions of the fliers to student groups on campus so they could pass them along to their members.

And then, last week, California Watch editorial director Mark Katches stood outside of the outfit’s offices, on the heavily foot-trafficked stretch of Center Street between the Berkeley mass-transit station and the entrance to campus (it’s “this one concentrated little block,” he says, “where everyone gets off BART, and jams to campus and back”), handing out fliers and spreading the word about the earthquake-safety story and its findings.

“It seemed like a complete no-brainer,” Katches told me. The outlet has made a priority of finding new ways to engage readers (setting up temporary “bureaus” in local coffee shops, rewarding quality comments with iPods, and so on), and sometimes the newest ways are simply tailored spins on the old. As Katches put it in a blog post: “It’s all about getting stories into the hands of people who are impacted by our journalism the most — one at a time, if need be.”

The flier idea was the brainchild of Sarah Terry-Cobo, a freelance reporter at California Watch and a recent Berkeley j-school grad. The outlet’s staff was thinking about how to engage the Berkeley community (“when we published our story on March 18, we hadn’t realized — until it was too late — that our distribution came right at the start of the spring recess,” Katches notes). And, as Terry-Cobo puts it, “I just thought: fliers.”

Fliers on college campuses, she points out, don’t have the in-your-face-and-then-in-the-trash reputation they do in a lot of other places: On campuses, fliers are common. And since colleges tend to be fairly tight-knit communities, there’s a good chance people will want to know the information printed on them. “I just graduated from Cal last year,” Terry-Cobo says, “and I’m the type of person that would take a flier if it were handed to me.”

Which doesn’t mean everyone took the bait when Terry-Cobo did her own flier-ing last week. “I handed out between two and three dozen fliers, in the span of about 45 minutes,” she says. “And for every person that took the flier, there were four or five people who ignored me. And I was expecting that.” Then again, she points out: “Every two or three people you can get to engage makes up for the ten people who blow you off.”

Fliers certainly won’t have impact on the level of, say, a reporter’s appearance on local TV. Still, the core idea here — essentially, that the web is a means for a story, rather than its end point — is, in its way, scalable. Katches points to “Toxic Treats,” a story he oversaw several years ago while he was editor of the Orange County Register. The project, which traced unsafe lead levels in over 100 brands of candy, many of them made in Mexico, was an important piece of investigative journalism by any stretch — it was a 2005 Public Service Pulitzer finalist — but one plagued by a common symptom: The people most directly affected by its findings weren’t necessarily Register, or even newspaper, readers. “So we made a high-gloss, full-color poster, one side in English, the other side in Spanish,” Katches recalls. “And I’ll tell you: That was the enduring legacy of the project.”

For months after the series was published in the paper, Katches notes, “if not years after,” the posters remained hanging in libraries, medical centers, and similar gathering spots around Orange County — a “way to reach people who might not have read it in the paper.”

The flier strategy employs the same kind of logic: get readers, literally, where they are. And it’s also of a piece with the outlet’s fiscal goals. Though California Watch is a foundation-supported nonprofit, its plan for long-term financial stability involves individual reader support. For the outlet, then, “community engagement” isn’t merely a broad, buzzy goal; it’s a specific, and urgent, one. And reaching it will require a willingness to rethink not only editorial models, but distributive ones, as well. “I love the idea of trying to reach an audience in a different way,” Katches says. “And we’re going to try to think of other ways to do that.”

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