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April 19 2012

13:17

The newsonomics of risking it all

Alfredo Corchado was used to getting mortal threats.

He received three in Mexico, but now he was in a Laredo bar, north of the border.

You better stop what you’re doing, or you’ll end with a bullet in your head and your body in a vat of acid, he was told. And then we’ll deliver the bones to your family in El Paso.

It was a chilling warning, or at least we’d expect it to put a chill into Corchado. An investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News (and a former Nieman Fellow), he’s been covering the ravages of drug trafficking for years, much to the concern of his parents living, as the traffickers plainly know, in El Paso. Yet Corchado goes on with his work — as do Adela Navarro Bello of Tijuana’s Zeta news magazine, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Ramita Navai of the U.K.’s Channel 4. As Navarro Bello explained of her paper’s coverage of the drug trafficking that has consumed at 50,000 Mexican lives, “If we don’t publish this information, we are part of the problem.” (Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz has captured Zeta’s struggle — including the murder of two of its journalists — with a new movie.)

Each is an investigative reporter who put their lives on the line to reveal stories they think readers must know about. They spoke on the “When the Story Bites Back” panel this weekend, at UC Berkeley, part of the sixth annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium (live blogging of the conference, here, with a #Logan12 Twitter feed).

That panel and the entire spirited weekend, organized and led by esteemed investigative producer Lowell Bergman, tells us a fair amount about the business of journalism. Though it is not — like most of my work — concerned with the dollars and cents of the business, in its very essence, it describes why the current crazy-quilt economics of the business matters. Funding the journalism business isn’t like funding Sears and Kodak (“The newsonomics of the long good-bye”) or other fading institutions. It’s not even about saving a perhaps-vital American industry, like the auto industry.

It’s about keeping a lifeline of funding open so that our best reporters can do their jobs.

I’ll call it the newsonomics of risking it all because that’s what these reporters do. Many of the other Logan participants and attendees, thankfully, do less life-threatening work. Yet those represented at the conference — from ProPublica, the Washington Post, and New York Times to ABC, NBC, and NPR — are among the cream of the crop of investigative work and produce work with real public interest impact.

As we endlessly debate pay models, whether or not to work with Facebook, how to deal with Apple and Amazon and multi-platform journalism, the Logan Symposium is good tonic — certainly for those of us who attended, but really for all of us who know why this business matters to democracy. Whether and how the economics of the new news business work out isn’t an arcane question; it’s central to our collective future. The value of good, deep reporting is truly priceless.

So what about the state of investigative reporting? Look at the glass as half full and half cloudy.

What emerged from the conference, surprising to some, is that national investigative reporting is keeping its head above water. Both NBC and ABC talked about their expansions in the investigative area, while companies like NPR and Bloomberg have put new resources in as well. Units at the Post, L.A. Times, and New York Times may not be growing much, but seem to be sustaining themselves, for now.

“For now” is an important qualifier, and New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet’s opening interview at Logan, in its over-the-top self-assurance, bothered many of the conference participants with whom I talked.

Washington Post investigative editor Jeff Leen suggested that there were 200 investigative reporters paid by news media in the U.S., which I calculate as one for every 1.5 million Americans. That’s not a ratio that’s going to hold many big institutions — government, business, labor — to account. Maybe that’s why as Logan participant and new-media vet Neil Budde tweeted, “How many times will ‘existential’ be used this weekend? I think count is six so far.”

Importantly, it is largely the largest news media — mainly national and global ones — that continue to put money into investigative work; these are the Digital Dozen companies I identified in my Newsonomics book. For them, as NBC senior executive producer David Corvo put it, investigative work is a “differentiator,” important to distinguishing big news brands from one another in the digital age.

What’s going on regionally is more of a patchwork.

Dozens of people like the Logan family are using their wealth to fund investigative enterprises from coast to coast, most with little fanfare. The Knight Foundation, represented at the conference by its senior advisor and grant-giver extraordinaire Eric Newton, has put $20 million into investigative journalism. With the decline in newspaper budgets, and thus in funding of investigative teams at many regional papers, such private funding has been a lifeline, though there’s a profound sense that significantly less in-depth work is being done at former powerhouse regional papers.

This Logan conference lacked the always-odd spontaneity of a Julian Assange appearance, but it offered intriguing emphases:

  • Front and center, though not appearing in person was Rupert Murdoch. After screening “Murdoch’s Scandal,” Bergman’s Frontline documentary that aired March 27, “The Murdoch Effect: News At Any Price,” made for a raucous panel. Milly Dowler attorney Mark Lewis told how the phone hacking scandal had consumed his life and spoke of the “commercial despotism of Murdochracy” in the U.K., given the News Corp. CEO’s multi-party, decades-long influence. Big questions: What next, and if and how this tale plays out in the U.S.
  • “If it’s not on TV, the American public doesn’t know it,” observed Diana Henriques, the New York Times financial investigative reporter. Yes, we may be on the brink of this multi-platform age, where old newspapers like the Times and the Journal do video alongside print, but still — in terms of notice and public action — there’s nothing like the impact of TV documentary.
  • This is a generational challenge. Journalism has always had its challenges, but never has there been more uncertainty about how one generation can pass along its best practices to the next. Through that foundation funding, a couple of dozen younger journalists and students had their way paid into the conference. Surveying the group on the last day, Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, summed his baby-boomer generation’s role: “I’m a bridge — we’re all bridges to the future.”

Bridging is, in part, what Lowell Bergman’s program does. UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program is a partner in the new Collaboration Central project, along with PBS MediaShift. With new funding, IRP will soon move into a new permanent office. It provides lots of training and fellowships, bringing along new generations to work alongside people like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bergman, whose career has spanned from early Ramparts through CBS, The New York Times, and Frontline, and who was played by Al Pacino in the tobacco industry exposé The Insider.

Bergman paid tribute to his one-time CBS colleague Mike Wallace, underscoring Wallace’s storied tenacity. That tenacity, based on Wallace’s fierce journalistic power (highlighted at CBS, in story and video), is what it took a non-journalist to highlight in Berkeley.

Jules Kroll, who led the invention of the modern intelligence and security industry, gave the trade good, pointed advice. Saying he had heard a lot of journalists talking about how beleaguered they are, he noted, “You have a big impact.” His shared his inside view of the power of a good investigation. Colloquial translation: Stop whining and get on with it.

And that’s always good advice. As ProPublica managing editor Steve Engelberg aptly said, “They were whining in 1989, when times were good.” That’s true. There may be more to whine about these days than in 1989, but the power of great public service work, sometimes when lives are on the line, is one of the things that must propel the trade forward.

Photo of Alfredo Corchado by the U.S. embassy in Paraguay used under a Creative Commons license.

March 28 2012

14:00

Best Practices for Collaborative Investigative Reporting

My first professional job out of college was surprisingly relevant to what I've been doing of late. I started as a program analyst at the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General in the Office of Evaluation and Inspections. In federal government parlance, that would be the OEI in the OIG at DHHS.

Our mandate was to identify "fraud, waste and abuse" within the department's programs. With unfettered access to vast data sets, we conducted national studies to evaluate various regulations and the ways they were being applied. We were data reporters without my knowing what a data reporter was. It was a lot like investigative journalism, but with bigger budgets and a dress code. It was also a lot like identifying best practices for collaborative investigative reporting.

"Best practices" is a highfalutin' term we used in our proposal to the Knight Foundation just as our office, the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism (IRP), was about to launch into "Post Mortem," a collaboration about death investigation in America with PBS Frontline, ProPublica and NPR. In retrospect, "blueprint" would have been a better term to use than "best practices," since we all know that there's rarely one draft of a blueprint.

Documenting Collaboration

When "Post Mortem" launched in the spring of 2010, the combination of partners -- national public television, national public radio and a nonprofit digital publication -- was a first, to the best of my knowledge, and we guessed we'd learn much from this ambitious undertaking. When I've described the project to other editors and reporters over the last year, some have voiced skepticism about how "Post Mortem" reflects other collaborations cropping up around the country. Of course Frontline, NPR and ProPublica can pull off a collaboration like "Post Mortem," the skeptics have said, but how does that experience relate to media organizations collaborating at the state or local level?

The answer is that while investigative collaborations vary, a number of decisions and sticking points remain constant, regardless of the organizations involved.

We learned, for example, that collaboration impacts each phase of the reporting process -- from planning and reporting to publication; sometimes the impact of collaboration is obvious, sometimes not. Our Knight Foundation funding provided for an embedded reporter (me) to cover the collaboration; this was an evaluator's dream, giving us the ability to document the process as it unfolded. After all, if you're a journalist in the midst of a collaboration, your goal is not to understand or refine the process of collaborating -- it's to report and publish or broadcast your story. (Though, based on my experience with "Post Mortem," I'd recommend that those spearheading journalistic collaborations do take the time to document the process to some extent, because the unexpected always happens, and there are good lessons in the unexpected.)

Lessons in the Unexpected

In "Post Mortem" there were plenty of revelations. Everyone involved in the project had a basic understanding of television, radio and the web. But when you report for multiple platforms simultaneously, each medium's differences rise to the surface. It was challenging, for example, to get the project's television correspondent to ask questions of subjects that would evoke answers that translated well for both television and radio.

Other challenges were fairly straightforward, like figuring out how to describe the collaboration within the PBS Frontline documentary. NPR and ProPublica reporters weren't on camera, so how could we introduce them in a visual medium?FL_PM.jpg We also couldn't anticipate the possibility that an event like the Arab Spring would bump an NPR "Post Mortem" story for good.

The best practices (PDF) that we at the IRP have drafted are drawn from our own lessons learned, as well as input from others in the field who've tackled collaborative work. Many of the document's observations come straight from the mouths of the "Post Mortem" collaborators, whom I interviewed during and after the project. It's all good stuff, but the ultimate value of these best practices will be if we view them as a collaborative, open-source document: a starting point for more formalized and smoother collaborating.

The Non-Negotiables

Here are a few of the lessons included in our best practices that I think are especially worthy of emphasis:

  • Plan, plan, plan. You can read my recent post about planning on Collaboration Central. I'll say it again. Plan.
  • Take the time to understand your partner's requirements: What do they need to produce the best possible stories for their media? Where might there be conflicting needs, and how can those conflicts be addressed?
  • Understand your partners' organizational culture and structure. This will help throughout the process and at least offer some insight into burning questions like: Why can't they commit to a publication date? Can we get something in writing? And how much time do we need for the editorial process?
  • Finally, whether you're collaborating with other media outfits or working within your own newsroom, a focus on teamwork and leadership skills is imperative to fostering a culture that can sustain collaborative work; without it, people will burn out and collaboration will falter. Journalism professors Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown-Smith wrote in a recent Neiman Journalism Lab article: "Changing a culture is not a top-down or bottom-up proposition: It's a dance between leaders and their organizations." I couldn't agree more. Let's dance.

Take a look at the best practices (PDF) we wrote and share your tips, thoughts and ideas about working collectively.

Carrie Lozano is a Bay-Area based journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is currently the project director for "Collective Work" a Knight-funded project about collaborative, multiplatform investigative reporting at the Investigative Reporting Program, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also directing and producing a documentary film with Charlotte Lagarde about jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch. You can follow her at @carrielozano or reach her at clozano at berkeley.edu.

"Collective Work" is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Copyright 2012, The University of California at Berkeley.

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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.”

June 02 2011

08:30

PBS hacked - Judy Woodruff: what are the costs of an attempt to silence the press?

PBS :: Senior correspondent Judy Woodruff writes about this week's hacking attacks on PBS websites and overcoming efforts to silence a free press. "If we were a newspaper and someone threw a small bomb through the window, crippling our printing press and shutting down operations until we could get a replacement, we'd call the police. But what's the equivalent ... when a cyber attack happens?"

[Judy Woodruff:] At Frontline and at the NewsHour, everyone is focused on getting on with their jobs covering the news, the most important developments in the nation and in the world. But we do so feeling violated by a stranger. I guess that makes us wiser, determined to work harder to protect the work we do. And I hope it doesn't make us, or any other news organization, more cautious.

I added a comment to Judy Woodruff's article (moderated; I guess it will take some time for them to approve it). Well "comment" might be wrong, better: I asked two questions. First: I wanted to know more about the experience they made with the "emergency plan", to switch to tumblr. Second: what are their learnings? Can such (damaging) activities be avoided by offering instruments to disagree with their news coverage?

Her answer Judy Woodruff, www.pbs.org

May 03 2011

14:30

PBS plays Google’s word game, transcribing thousands of hours of video into crawler-friendly text

PBS' new video search engine

Blogs and newspaper sites enjoy a built-in advantage when it comes to search-engine optimization. They deal in words. But a whole universe of audio and video content is practically invisible to Google.

Say I want to do research on Osama bin Laden. A web search would return news articles about his assassination, a flurry of tweets, the Wikipedia pageMichael Scheuer’s biography, and an old Frontline documentary, “Hunting Bin Laden.” I might then take my search to Lexis Nexis and academic journals. But I would never find, for example, Frontline’s recent reporting on the Egyptian revolution, where bin Laden makes an appearance, or any number of other video stories in which the name is mentioned.

While video and audio transcripts are rich for Google mining, they’re also time-consuming and expensive. PBS is out to fix that by building a better search engine. The network has transcribed and tagged, automatically, more than 2,000 hours of video using software called MediaCloud.

“Video is now more Google-friendly,” said Jon Brendsel, the network’s vice president of product development. Normally, automatic transcription is laughably bad — Google Voice users know this — but Brendsel is satisfied with the results of PBS’ transcription efforts. He said the accuracy rate is about 80 to 90 percent. That’s “much better than the quality that I normally attribute to closed captioning,” he said. The software can get away with mistakes because the transcripts are being read by computers, not people. (For a hefty fee, the content-optimization platform RAMP will put its humans to work to review and refine the auto-generated transcripts.)

Query “Osama bin Laden” at PBS’ video portal, and the new search engine returns videos in which the phrase appears, including time codes. ”Osama bin Laden found at 33:32,” reads one result. (So that’s where he was?) Mouse over the text to see the keyword in context; click it to be deposited at the precise moment the keyword is spoken. (Notice the text “Osama bin Laden” appears nowhere on the resulting page.)

PBS’ radio cousin, NPR, still relies on humans for transcription, paying a third-party service to capture 51 hours of audio a week. In-house editors do a final sweep to ensure accuracy of proper names and unusual words. It’s expensive, though NPR does not disclose how much, and time-consuming, with a turnaround time of four to six hours.

“We continue to keep an eye on automated solutions, which have gradually improved over time, but are not of sufficiently high quality yet to be suitable for licensing and other public distribution,” said Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s head of digital media.

Despite the expense, NPR decided to make all transcripts available for free when relaunching its website in July 2009. ”Transcripts were once largely the province of librarians and other specialists whose job was to find archival content, often for professional purposes,” Wilson said at the time. “As Web content becomes easier to share and distribute, and search and social media have become important drivers of audience engagement, archival content — whether in the form of stories or transcripts — has an entirely different value than it did in the past.”

Put another way: Readers today (kids today!) are accustomed to search as a shortcut to obtaining information. If Google doesn’t index your content, it might as well not exist. (And there are other emerging platforms in the layering-text-on-video game — Universal Subtitles, for example, which essentially crowdsources captioning efforts.) Brendsel said mass indexing is a much more complicated project for PBS, because PBS does not own its content, unlike NPR. The network has to work out rights with multiple producers. And the transcription software is also expensive, he said. PBS is still working out a financial model for extending this service to local stations.

Brendsel plans to offer human-readable transcripts on story pages soon, when the video portal gets a design refresh. That will be the final step in making PBS video truly Google-friendly, allowing search engines to to crawl its text.

April 10 2011

17:36

Collective, Non-Profit Investigative Journalism Takes Spotlight at Logan

BERKELEY, CALIF. -- I am back at Day 2 at the 5th Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium, a gathering of the top investigative journalists and thinkers at University of California at Berkeley. Day 1 coverage is here, including an appearance by Skype by Julian Assange. Day 2 is shorter, but more focused on new models of journalism, including "collective work" and non-profit journalism.

Collective Work

Carrie Lovano, UC Berkeley: We are in a huge period of transition. The Guardian wants to do stories that will engage readers and make them take action. We wanted to get a technologist in here to talk about these things. Matt McAlister is an early adopter of social media, and will talk about what the Guardian is doing with open technology

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Matt McAlister, head of technology at Guardian, former Yahoo and Industry Standard: It's about the network and the platform. I'm going to talk about business stuff, which is unusual for this event. I have trouble separating content from business and they all have to move toward a common purpose. Everyone understands that an open, collaborative approach is how we all should go.

What we've failed to do is make the open, connected model of journalism work. In that space, there's new thinking like Google Android, Twitter, Facebook and even Wikipedia. The Daily will feel even further behind.

We've been doing live blogs for awhile, and they've been hugely successful for us. The sports guys really worked this out, telling stories minute-by-minute -- we call them "Minute-By-Minutes" not live blogs. They do it in a Twitter-like way but Twitter has limits to it, and our website doesn't have limits. The protests in the Middle East were perfect for this. We realized it had to be in Arabic too, so we took people away from their jobs to translate for us, and we got some translation services. Collaboration was necessary for us to do our job.

If all of this was behind the pay wall, how could we have the same effect?

Slide shows comparison of Rupert Murdoch and The Daily as being closed, with Ev Williams of Twitter being open:

murdochev.jpg

For the Times UK, they had very British experts on their site, and for the Times, that's OK, because those are the people who are paying for their site.

Q: Your correspondent mentioned that the advantage you had was being open and in Arabic, but how did you verify things?

McAlister: I wish I knew, I didn't have insight into the editorial process for that.

Q: Were you translating Arabic into English too, so both audiences could understand? Not just text, but video too?

McAlister: Yes, we translated both ways, and we did translate Twitter feeds, or we would post on our live-blog a Twitter feed in Arabic and translate it into English. They would do a screen capture of a tweet and put it in the live blog and the translator would translate that in a caption.

Q: How do you manage your Twitter feeds?

McAlister: We use Twitter much much more than Facebook, but our structure is very loose. Our reporters might use Twitter in very imaginative ways. We have guidelines for using Twitter but we don't have a commitment to using it one way or the other. The downside is that people don't always do the same thing, but it lets people invent new ways of using them.

During the G-20 protests in London, a newsstand worker was pushed down to the ground by the police and had a heart attack. The police report seemed unsatisfactory, and Paul Lewis our reporter put out a call asking if anyone was there. Someone had taken a video of it, and found out we were looking for it via Twitter, and sent it to us in a secure way. It's a fantastic story about how you can pull in sources with social media.

Another case, there was a man who died on a plane and he asked for photos or images, and he got a plane list of passengers and started tweeting them, and found people who were on the plane. He started a network of people, and someone was killed on the plane, and the police covered it up.

More Examples at Guardian

McAlister: The MP expense reports from UK Parliament - There are different ways to tell that story. The Telegraph did their analysis of this big pile of data. We took PDFs and put them on the website, we're talking hundreds of thousands of documents. We made a game of it, asking people to find things and let us know. There were buttons to say something was interesting or not. It happened again for a second year.

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Some lessons from it: The problem with the first one was our progress bar showing all the documents people had looked at. People wondered what happened to all the other documents, plus it was just too much, overwhelming. So we broke down the data, so people could find expenses relevant to your own MP.

Your user name was ranked, among all the other readers. You could compare and contrast. Another case was when the Dept. of Treasury spending was put online. We had our engineers work on it, and asked other software/journalist types to come to our office to work it out. We used open source tools to build something dead simple to find things. We spent 3 or 4 days with eight developers total to build this database. Anyone could put it into Excel, and it took about 5 minutes before people found things. It was fascinating.

One person asked why we spend 100,000 pounds on flag waving? We immediately put that out and asked the question -- we got an unsatisfying answer, but at least we got an answer.

We publish things on Google Docs without licensing it at all. We set up a group on Flickr and sent out a tweet about it and have all these people doing storytelling around our data projects.

Another big initiative is our Open Platform at the Guardian. There are a million or so articles that you can post in full using this toolset. It's been great for building mobile apps, but the intent was for partners to use our stuff. One example is that we got this Wordpress plug-in, a Guardian plug-in that looks like a news feed right in your Wordpress blog. And you see an ad in the article as it's syndicated.

We also created a timeline of social media reactions during a World Cup game, so you could relive the game in a different way.

Q: What about the trust at the Guardian?

McAlister: It's hugely helpful for letting us experiment, and it's there in perpetuity. Collaboration with other partners who have these tools is step one. There are hack days out there. If you have a developer, you might get more out of them from hack days than having them finish whatever they're working on it.

The State of Non-Profit Investigative Journalism

Moderator: Charles Lewis, Investigative Reporting Workshop

Panel: Robert Rosenthal, Raney Aronson-Rath, Calvin Sims, Richard Tofel, Mc Nelly Torres, Gary Bostwick, Margaret Drain.

Charles Lewis: About a third of newspaper newsrooms have disappeared and the number of PR people doubled. This is not good. In a social revolution, many journalists started non-profit outfits, by rank and file reporters. Many were frustrated with the owners of their news organizations. This group, who never ran anything, became entrepreneurs, which is astonishing.

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We looked at 60 groups, some new some not so new. OpenSecrets, TRACK, sites that were never considered investigative reporting sites, but should be. We created a database with all these sites. Of these sites, 40 started in the past few years. And there are many outside the U.S. and we'll be looking at them as well. Total operating budget was $85 million, and half of them won awards.

One thing we must bear in mind is that non-profit journalism is not new. The Associated Press did work more than a century ago, and NPR has been around since 1970 and it's the only news organization to double its audience in the past 10 years. We all know about the Guardian, which has done more innovative work than any other newspaper in the world. The non-profits have more time to do more serious work, and that's why ProPublica has won awards recently, and the Center for Public Integrity won IRE awards, too.

My Investigative Reporting Workshop is the biggest one at a university. We did Bank Tracker, putting all the data online with MSNBC, and there have been millions of page views, a lot of traffic. Using technology, multimedia, and Kat Aaron is the project editor for a 40-year look at what's happened with employment and workers in America, with a special website. It's a multi-million-dollar project.

It's getting blurry out there. For-profits are asking for memberships and donations, and ProPublica has ads. The non-profit space is changing basically every hour.

Q: Is there hope for PBS?

Margaret Drain of WGBH: We don't have a trust, but should have a trust. When I first came to PBS, I came to WGBH, which is the largest producer of content for PBS. I have quite a large portfolio of projects and shows. Early on, I found out we had to do fundraising, to raise several million dollars, because PBS didn't give us enough money. We had to produce content and do fundraising.

We get between 20% to 100% funding from PBS for our shows. It's generally about 40% for each show.

I was not very optimistic about the future of PBS, and then I got an email from someone at Capitol Hill and heard we weren't going to get cut for fiscal 2011, but there's still 2012. The problem that PBS faces is the blurring between commercial and non-commercial broadcasting. I think we need to protect the non-commercial part of broadcasting. And it's all in the perception. We do take ads on our websites because monetization is an issue, but we don't want commercialization to foul our nest.

Why have PBS? Everyone's got out of investigative journalism. It's very difficult to get my head around this. We need help from big donors, but where we're going to forming trusts based around genres. We've started the Frontline Investigative Journalism Trust. The other is a documentary film fund and another is for science and "Nova." And we'd like to recruit donors who have interest.

We also have the digital side to fund, and curation to do. We are dependent on the kindness of Congress but can't depend on that.

Robert Rosenthal, Center for Investigative Reporting: We are charging for our content. We put out a series this week, On Shaky Ground, and I estimate the audience we will reach in California will be 8 million to 10 million people. Distribution with ethnic media, broadcast, radio, newspapers and even 100+ Patch.com websites, as well as PBS Newshour and KQED. It's a tremendous audience and the feedback we've had from the audience is remarkable.

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That cost us, as a 19-month investigation that cost $750,000, and our revenue is about $40,000 to $50,000. Some of our funders have great rapport with us others don't talk much to us. We have advertising on our site but our goal isn't to be a destination website. It's incredibly complicated to measure distribution. We put out a children's coloring book. It wasn't my idea but it's been very successful. We're not charging for it. We are at the center of innovation and collaboration but I can't sit here and say it's sustainable.

Sharon Tiller came back to do video for us at CIR. There's also a mobile app to find fault lines in California.

Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline: We don't see corporate funding as being a big part of our funding. We are in a huge period of reinvention, just went to a full-year of programming. We got a big grant from the Logans, so we want to thank them. We're a legacy series, we have a look and feel and do investigative reporting. We're increasingly looking at going to more multimedia and doing more on the iPad -- and not just to put video there. What we want to do is have a more vibrant offering in the digital space.

We hired Andrew Golis from Yahoo and before that TPM. We want to add more materials on our website, more addendum material. We want to do things in that space that are as strong editorially as on broadcast. It's a big transition for us. We're focused less on our website and more on our tablet and digital spaces. So people can hold the iPad in their hands and have more of a multimedia experience.

So what does collaboration look like right now? It's getting hard-hitting investigative work in all our reports. So we have to rely on more people, because we only have a handful of producers. So we work with ProPublica and CIR and others. It's an exciting era now for us. We hired a new managing editor who comes from a big-time newspaper and believes in narrative journalism.

Calvin Sims, Ford Foundation: We have historically been big funders of investigative reporting, and we'll continue in that space. We are a social justice organization, and things that affect minorities and poor all over the world. We don't fund advocacy journalism because we think the public that supports strong journalism will take action. How do we decide what to fund?

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We just announced a $50 million initiative for documentary funds, and we'll continue to fund the sector of public media and journalism, but we want to think more like a venture capital fund. We're looking for big influence and impact. More importantly we want to know if your content advances the public discussion on a topic, are you reaching an influential audience and how do you quantify that impact?

We want to bet on people who are going to still be around.

Richard Tofel, ProPublica: We're making enormous progress in sustainability. Ads and sponsorships are part of it, money from partners is part of it. We've had some interesting experiences with Kindle Singles, but philanthropy is how these non-profits are sustained. Smaller donors can be a very important part too. But do people see the need? That's why I'm optimistic. There's been a market failure in producing high value journalism that's crucial to democratic governments. They need to be funded as public good.

I'm very optimistic and think we've made enormous progress in 4 years since we launched at ProPulica.

Mc Nelly Torres, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting: We are doing OK. We decided to focus on Florida for fundraising. There are a lot of groups, but we don't want to have to reinvent the wheel. There are so many groups competing for funds from national groups like the Ford Foundation. We don't have a person dedicated to raise money. I'm raising money, and I also write stories. We just won our first national award. [applause]

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Our website is growing, we are getting 60% more traffic on our site each month. All the mainstream newspapers are all my clients, you have to think that way. You need to have many sources of revenue, and think about ways to experiment with it. But the sky is the limit. The passion here is investigative journalism an we are providing something that has virtually disappeared from mainstream outlets. I'd rather spend my time in Florida and raise money there than waste my time and energy elsewhere where I'm competing with ProPublicas and others.

Gary Bostwick, Bostwick & Jassy LLP, part of legal support network for non-profit outlets: I was here a few years ago talking about this, it's amazing to see Chuck Lewis detail all the people doing it now. I am thrilled to hear everything from people on the panel, including CIR and everyone else. You're not going to be different in who will attack you as if you were a mainstream news organization. We are trained as lawyers to look out for issues. We want you to get your content on the air, but we won't always say yes, and we don't always say no. We usually say, "yes, but..." You are not in a risk-free environment.

I give constant education to clients who don't have a strong journalism background.

So why not get a group policy to cover CIR, ProPublica and all these groups for libel lawsuits? I just started thinking about that. I planted a small land mine out in the courtyard, but the chances of you stepping on it are small. I am trying to avoid the small risk of a cataclysmic disaster. We all do it because we believe in you and we want this to succeed.

**Q: Is there an issue with undercutting the price of doing commercial journalism?

Rosenthal: I think it's something we think about, many people in commercial journalism are now working in non-profit journalism. But we're talking about investigative journalism, and there's so much less of that now, and I think we have to keep it going. I wish it wasn't that way, but I've seen downsizing in commercial journalism. Our sustainability is whether we are having an effect on society, that's what fuels us.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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March 15 2011

14:00

News portal, super aggregator, and mega-curator: PBS builds a new site from scratch with PBSNews.org

PBS finds itself with what could be the definition of a “good” problem. (Well, not that defunding problem, but another one.) Here’s the scenario: Under the PBS umbrella you’ll find news shows like PBS Newshour, Frontline, and Nightly Business Report, among others, all producing content that lives primarily on air and on individual websites. While video clips and stories are pulled into PBS.org, that site’s primary function is not to be a news source like, say, its cousin NPR.org.

With all that news and information swirling around PBS, though, it makes sense to have a sort of super aggregator, something to pull together the threads from various shows around news or topics. Think about it: What if on a broad story like the economic crisis, you could pull together a NewsHour interview with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on changes to borrowing policies for US banks along with a Frontline clip from “Breaking the Bank” on the merger of Bank of America and Merill Lynch? Of course what we’re talking about is not simply aggregation, but also curation — and actually, considering the hours of shows PBS has at its disposal, mega-curation.

Consider all of this and you’ll know where the team behind the PBS News Blog is coming from. It’s PBS’ effort to launch a new site that is both a news portal for readers and a new channel for PBS programming. The new site, which should launch soon, will be called PBSNews.org: The News Navigator.

When I spoke with Tom Davidson, PBS.org’s senior director and publisher for news and public affairs, he told me the new project will essentially start from scratch, partly because a central news division has never been part of PBS, but also because PBS wants to take advantage of the opportunity to build a smarter news site. “Historically PBS has tended to not create content itself — it was founded as a programming service” that would pool member stations’ financial resources “to allow other independent producers to make that content,” Davidson said.

Over the years, PBS has built out a universe of news and current events programming — and in recent years, that’s been matched by further investment in digital tools and websites starting with PBS.org, Davidson said. Again, they’ve created a good problem.

Instead of offering another site for breaking news, the News Navigator team wants to build a site that moves past daily headlines and offers more comprehensive coverage on news or topics — the kind that can come to bear when you have a satellite staff of journalists, producers, and documentarians working on pieces. That staff will rotate around a central hub, the News Navigator staff (which is growing as we speak), which will include producers, data specialists, writers, and editors.

So what could the News Navigator look like? Davidson said the mission will be to present “the knowledge that defines what’s going on on a story behind the headline.”

More specifically they want to meet the balance of context and timeliness in news by having something similar to topic pages that would provide news, raw data sets, timelines, video and other background from across PBS programs. These deep dives, as they call them, will include areas like Afghanistan, same sex marriage, health care, and Congress.

The point in all this context-focused curation isn’t to out-NYT the NYT, but rather to add value by finding new angles on big stories. “I will try lots of crazy things,” Davidson said. “But I’m not going to try and take on CNN.com, CBS.com or NYTimes.com. We lost that battle 15 years ago. Let’s not fight that battle now.”

PBS is also creating issue clashes — an adaptation of a familiar feature of many PBS news shows, the two-analyst, head-to-head debate, adapted for online. Think Shields and Brooks, only on the web — and with the audience empowered not only to vote on the winner, but also to add their own arguments.

Of course, there are hurdles in building out a new news site, particularly one that will need to pull news and videos from across a multitude of other sites, each of those operating off of different frameworks and content management systems. It’s not as easy as connecting tube A to slot B. Instead of trying to put all its programs under one system, PBS instead decided to build the equivalent of a massive card catalog, naming it Merlin. Merlin is essentially a database of PBS content tagged with metadata to allow sites, either from programs or member stations, to pull up material they would like to use. (Merlin was a contributing factor in PBS.org’s recent redesign and iPad offering.)

Jason Seiken, senior vice president of Interactive, Product Development and Innovation for PBS, told me that Merlin came from the need for something that could act as a publisher and distributor of content that would benefit both programs and stations. Once stories or videos are tagged, they can be pulled up on PBS.org, the News Navigator, or WGBH, as an example. “Merlin is in essence a distribution channel,” Seiken said. “It turns PBS.org into a distribution network for local stations.”

Along with Merlin, PBS rolled out a standalone video player and management system called COVE. (While it may seem like online video is ubiquitous, in the past there was no quick, easy, or unified way for stations and programs to share video on their sites, Seiken said.) COVE allows sites to pull together video from across PBS in the same player, meaning a piece from KQED could be coupled with a feature from Need to Know or Sesame Street.

After PBSNews.org makes its debut, Davidson said it will still be in something of a rolling beta. He sees the site as a startup whose features PBS will constantly adjust. The challenge for PBSNews.org, Davidson said, will be growing an audience for it while also finding its place within the PBS family. Its job won’t be to recreate what others have done, but instead to complement and synthesize it. “We don’t see ourselves competing with NewsHour on reporting the news of the day,” Davidson said. Instead, “we see ourselves first and foremost as translators for the consumers.”

February 23 2011

16:42

Awards season begins: narrative highlights from ASNE and Polk awards; announcement of CRMA finalists

Looking for some quality narrative journalism you might not have noticed before? As awards season for newspapers and magazines gets underway, we wanted to share links to stories recognized for their writing and storytelling. Here are some of the more narrative categories and entries from the 2010 Polk Awards in Journalism, the list of finalists for the 2011 City and Regional Magazine Awards, and the winners of the American Society of News Editors awards for the best journalism of 2010.

Earlier this month, the City and Regional Magazine Association and the Missouri School of Journalism announced the 2011 National City and Regional Magazine Awards Finalists. There are a lot of narrative contenders in many of the categories, but here are the candidates for feature story and for writer of the year. Winners will be announced at the CRMA 35th Annual Conference to be held April 30-May 2 at The Drake Hotel in Chicago. (Click on the article titles to read the stories.)

Feature Story

  • 5280 Magazine – Lindsey Koehler “Gone
  • Atlanta Magazine – Thomas Lake “The Golden Boy
  • Chicago Magazine – Bryan Smith “The Long Fall
  • Philadelphia Magazine – Ralph Cipriano “The Hitman
  • Texas Monthly – Michael Hall “The Soul of a Man” (link is to excerpt only)

Writer of the Year (specific stories were not mentioned, but we have included a link to a story from each writer)

The American Society of News Editors last week announced the winners of its annual awards for outstanding writing and photography for 2010. Some of the stories are projects that we’ve covered before, but here are a few with a strong element of storytelling that you might not have seen yet.

The staff of The New York Times won the Online Storytelling award, for “A Year at War,” which recounts the life of a battalion with “intimacy and deep understanding.” Michael Kruse won the Distinguished Writing Award for Nondeadline Writing for a collection of stories, including his celebrated monkey piece. Barbara Davidson of the Los Angeles Times won the Community Service Photojournalism award for her exploration of the effects of gang violence on the innocent: “those wounded or killed because of a quarrel in which they had no part, victims lying in hospital beds or relatives and friends standing by their loved ones’ coffins or sitting all alone asking, ‘Why?’ ”

William Wan of The Washington Post won the Freedom Forum/ASNE Award for Distinguished Writing on Diversity for “his stories that provide insights that add to readers’ understanding and awareness of diverse issues shaping society and culture. Wan writes about a proud U.S. Army soldier whose Islamic faith is the target of ongoing hostility within his own ranks. Another piece details unusual Saturday afternoon church services at a Giant supermarket, where worshipping occurs in the community room and sometimes in the aisles. He also reports on Major League Baseball’s quixotic training program in China.”

And just this week, Long Island University announced the 2010 George Polk Awards in Journalism. Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone won the award for Magazine Reporting for “The Runaway General,” the story of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal and America’s conflicted mission in Afghanistan. The Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” project, spearheaded by Dana Priest and William Arkin, took the prize for National Reporting. The “Law and Disorder” collaboration between PBS’ “Frontline,” ProPublica and The Times-Picayune covered suspicious shootings by police in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and won the award for Television Reporting.

For more, see the complete list of ASNE winners, the Polk Awards press release, and all the 2011 CRMA finalists.

January 10 2011

16:30

The year ahead in narrative: Little piggies, extraterrestrial life, and how we’ll tell each other stories in 2011

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we asked a bunch of smart people for their predictions of what 2011 would bring for the evolving world of journalism. But because of an editing error, we forgot to post one set of predictions.

Here’s Andrea Pitzer, editor of our terrific sister site Nieman Storyboard, on what 2011 will bring for narrative and storytelling.

In the coming year, long-form text/print narratives will continue at a handful of U.S. newspapers, and we’ll still see stories from talented writers who will manage to cobble a career (sometimes a stellar one) out of their teaching and books or magazine articles. Aspiring storytellers will get less personal coaching, even as a broader range of people will be able to access information on craft via YouTube and writers’ networks.

Digital stories will continue to nibble away at print’s dominance of fabulous narrative—look for more things like Jay Caspian Kang’s “The High Is Always the Pain, and the Pain Is Always the High,” or Jake Bogoch’s “School of Fight” to introduce you to talented writers you’ve never heard of. A few places, like Slate, Frontline, and nonprofit journalism orgs, will continue their savvy commitment to carving out digital space for storytelling with news value that takes time or space to unfold.

These are all extensions of existing trends. So what will be new in 2011? I predict that the shift to visual narrative will pick up the pace a little, with at least one new storyteller producing surprising short-form nonfiction narrative video that will grab and hold an audience in the millions about an important issue. (By this, I mean a constructed story, not the situational video records like the death of Neda Soltan or the innovative testimonials of the “It Gets Better” campaign.)

And we’ll see social media reflected more and more in our story constructs and in the stories themselves. Curation tools are beginning to make it possible to tell stories in new forms that can make use of literary techniques — I’m still thinking about the way that Mandy Jenkins of TBD managed to recreate the moment-by-moment suspense and confusion in the wake of a death outside a D.C. nightclub. These kinds of tools for gathering and presenting social media will make it possible for new epistolary models like Slate’s mock presidential Facebook feed or collaborative Twitter efforts to serve as inspiration for nonfiction narratives.

Still, this new storytelling will likely be pretty messy through 2011. Telling a story depends on building a compelling arc, but it also relies on an audience finding a way to engage with the narrative. Quality work may fail to connect to audiences; other new-style narratives that have innovative, exciting aspects may not yet work as a whole.

I also believe that the future is often a surprise, and so it’s possible that Geico commercials, the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or something that we can’t even imagine right now might play an important role in how we’ll tell stories in the future. But I wouldn’t give up on Instapaper and long-form stories just yet.

November 17 2010

19:30

The neverending broadcast: Frontline looks to expand its docs into a continual conversation

Frontline, PBS’s public affairs documentary series, has one of the best reputations in the business for the things that journalism values most highly: courageous reporting, artful storytelling, the kind of context-heavy narrative that treats stories not simply as stories, but as vehicles of wisdom. It’s a “news magazine” in the most meaningful sense of the term.

But even an institution like Frontline isn’t immune to the disruptions of the web. Which is to say, even an institution like Frontline stands to benefit from smart leveraging of the web. The program’s leadership team is rethinking its identity to marry what it’s always done well — produce fantastic broadcasts — with something that represents new territory: joining the continuous conversation of the web. To that end, Frontline will supplement its long-form documentaries with shorter, magazine-style pieces — which require a shorter turnaround time to produce — and with online-only investigations. (The site’s motto: “Thought-provoking journalism on air and online.”)

But it’s also expanding its editorial efforts beyond packaged investigations, hoping to shift its content in a more discursive direction. Which leads to a familiar question, but one that each organization has to tackle in its own way: How do you preserve your brand and your value while expanding your presence in the online world?

One tool Frontline is hoping can help answer that question: Twitter. And not just Twitter, the conversational medium — though “we really want to be part of the journalism conversation,” Frontline’s senior producer, Raney Aronson-Rath, told me — but also Twitter, the aggregator. This afternoon, Frontline rolled out four topic-focused Twitter accounts — “micro-feeds,” it’s calling them:

Conflict Zones & Critical Threats (@FrontlineCZCT), which covers national security and shares the series’ conflict-zone reporting;

Media Watchers (@FrontlineMW), which tracks news innovation and the changing landscape of journalism;

Investigations (@FrontlineINVSTG), which covers true crime, corruption, and justice — spotlighting the best investigative reporting by Frontline and other outlets; and

World (@FrontlineWRLD), which covers international affairs.

The topic-focused feeds are basically a beat system, applied to Twitter. They’re a way of leveraging one of the core strengths of Frontline’s journalism: its depth. Which is something that would be almost impossible for Frontline, Aronson-Rath notes, to achieve with a single feed. So “we decided that the best thing for us was to be really intentional about who we were going to reach out to and what kind of topics we were going to tweet about — and not just have it be a promotional tool.”

Each feed will be run by two-person teams, one from the editorial side and the other from the promotional — under the broad logic, Aronson-Rath notes, that those two broad fields are increasingly collapsing into each other. And, even more importantly, that “all the work that we do in the social media landscape is, by its very essence, editorial.” Even something as simple as a retweet is the result of an editorial decision — and one that requires the kind of contextual judgment that comes from deep knowledge of a given topic.

So Frontline’s feed runners, Aronson-Rath notes, “are also the people who have, historically, been working in those beats in Frontline’s broadcast work.” (Frontline communications manager Jessica Smith, for example, who’ll be helping to run the “Conflict Zones” feed, covered that area previously, in cultivating the conversation between Frontline and the national security blogosphere as a component of the program’s earlier web efforts.) In other words: “These guys know what they’re doing on these beats.”

To that end, the teams’ members will be charged with leveraging their knowledge to curate content from the collective resources of all of Frontline’s contributors — from reporters to producers, public media partners to internal staff — and, of course, from the contributors across the web. The teams will work collaboratively to produce their tweets (they’ll even sit next to each other to maximize the teamwork). And some feeds will contain not just curated content, but original reporting, as well. Frontline reporters Stephen Grey and Murray Smith are about to dispatch to Afghanistan; while they’re there, they’ll tweet from @FrontlineCZCT. (They’ll tweet from personal feeds, as well, which @FrontlineCZCT curators will pull into the Frontline-branded feed.)

The broad idea behind the new approach is that audiences identify with topics as much as they do with brands. And there’s also, of course, the recognition of the sea of material out there which is of interest to consumers, but which ends up, documentary filmmaking being what it is, on the cutting-room floor. The new approach, it’s hoped, will give Frontline fans a behind-the-scenes look into the film production process. “You wouldn’t actually know where Frontline’s reporting teams are right now,” Aronson-Rath points out. “You only know when we show up.” Now, though, “when a team goes into Afghanistan, we’re going to let you know where they are. We’re going to give you some intelligence about what they’re doing. And it’ll be a completely different level of a conversation, we’re hoping.”

It’ll also be a different level of engagement — for Frontline’s producers and its consumers. It’s a small way of expanding the idea of what a public affairs documentary is, and can be, in the digital world: a process, indeed, as much as a product. “We think,” Aronson-Rath says, “that this is going to help keep our stories alive.”

July 23 2010

10:53

#cnnfrontline Mobile and journalism: Part one- some clarification

Big cameras at the Frontline

Big cameras at the Frontline

Last night I found myself at the infamous (and very pleasant) Frontline club to sit on a panel talking about Mobile technology in newsgathering and journalism (Disclosure: It was an invite from CNN and Edleman who bought me tea and put me up in a hotel, which was very nice of them).
The event was a chance for CNNi to launch their new iphone app and, if the chat on twitter was anything to go by, the audience to be a bit frustrated.
One commentator noted the white, male flavour of the panel. I agree and I’ll not go next time. But for many the problem was we didn’t really get round to what a lot of people wanted to know – what are the business models for mobile?
@thevideoreport report tweeted that it was all “a bit 2002” and @adamwestbrook noted that, lovely though the panel was, nothing new was learned.
I understand the frustration. The conversation ranged round some of the usual subjects – citizen journalism vs. journalism, big cameras vs. little cameras (a subject I’ve blogged in repeatedly) – and it seemed only vaguely touched on mobile itself.
I suppose I should apologise for that, I was on the panel when all is said and done. But I just wanted to clarify some points and maybe develop the conversation a little more in to the areas people felt we missed. As I was drafting this post it started to get a little long so I’m going to do it in a couple of parts.  So,to start, some clarification.
One point I wanted to pick up was the brief kick around of the ‘attitude’ of students to news and opinion. I was quoted as saying that “journalism students come in thinking everything they think is news” It’s not quite what I said but the point is worth amplifying.
Students do come in with very strong opinions and ideas. Opinions about what journalism is, what they will be as journalists, right and wrong etc. As they should and, as I always say, that’s brilliant – not that they need my permission or approval. I love opinionated people and I love the passion that brings. But the reality is that for most jobbing journalists expressing their opinion is a luxury. It isn’t what journalism is about. It’s my job to help them understand that framework perhaps to frame expectations. But it doesn’t mean I don’t thing they should have opinions or that they are wrong (or that journalism is wrong or right for that matter). It’s just there is a time, place and form.
What takes time is building a professional identity that separates that opinion and journalism in a visible and transparent way. I suppose the web blurs that slightly as we still labour under the distinctions of journalists and bloggers for example. But the truth is journalism works a certain way and if you want to be ‘in journalism’ its worth learning how to bend to that when required.
The issue of citizen journalists also came up. I said that I kind of liked the term because it described what the person was and what they did. They were a citizen, concerned and motivated by what was happening around them and they wanted to tell the world about that. The discussion prompted a question from the floor asking why, if it was so good,  it hadn’t taken over from traditional news sources?
For me that isn’t it’s job. It’s there to amplyfy the concerens and interests of a collection of people; hyperlocal, niche, whatever. In that sense it doesn’t aim to replace the mainstream media, just live in the gaps. And, I might add, there is a nice opportunity for a business model there. Not, as I have said before, for the big guys. But big enough to support the  community it amplifies.
That’s a challenge for mainstream media. Not the threat itself but the fact that it’s happening because of them as they seemingly ignore or having only a passing interest in those communities.
I’m going to stop there because I’ve blogged on all of these areas at length before.

March 26 2010

17:00

Collaboration in action: Frontline, Planet Money, NewsHour team up for multimedia project on Haiti

Today marks the launch of a new public media series on Haiti — an experimental collaboration among public media partners Frontline (WGBH), Planet Money (NPR), and the NewsHour (PBS) to document life in the country after January’s devastating earthquake.

Though the project will culminate in Tuesday’s hour-long Frontline documentary, “The Quake” — an in-depth examination of the current state of Haiti and the world’s response to the disaster — it represents a group effort, not only among several different outlets, but also across several different platforms. The project is another attempt to achieve an increasingly common goal: to maximize reportorial resources during a time when they’re dwindling — and to find ways to collaborate during a time when competition can be an impediment to good journalism as much as a boon to it.

I spoke with David Fanning, Frontline’s producer (and recent Goldsmith career award winner) to learn more about the project.

It came from “one of those impetuous moments,” Fanning explains. “We’d had conversations well over a year ago with Planet Money and Adam Davidson about ways to collaborate on financial reporting, but we weren’t able to put anything together at the time. We were all doing our own programs.” Then, this spring, they continued that conversation, discussing the possibility of a big collaboration this summer. “And then Adam said, ‘Well, actually, I’m going to Haiti next week,’” Fanning says. “And we said, ‘Well, we have a team there filming, as well. So why don’t we see if we can get someone to go with you?’”

They did. They recruited Travis Fox, who had worked for ten years at The Washington Post — most recently, as a reporter/producer/videographer for washingtonpost.com — to shoot video that would be available not only for Frontline productions, but also to the NewsHour and NPR. “The theory is open-ended — this is an experiment — to see if you can collaborate with a reporter working in the field, without getting him off-course from what he’s doing,” Fanning says.

Another experiment: the terms of the collaboration itself. “We talk about collaborations in high-flung terms,” Fanning points out, but on the molecular level, teamwork can be a series of negotiations: who takes the lead on what, who makes editorial decisions, and so on. “My instinct on this — and it was Adam’s, as well — was: ‘Let’s just try something. Let’s just do it. If we don’t like it at the end of the day, we don’t have to do it again.’”

Ultimately, the success of the project — this one, and others like it — depends on the interactions between the individuals who are producing it. “Co-productions are never between institutions,” Fanning points out; “they’re only really between the people who work together and trust each other.” Still, those people work for institutions; and institutions — even those of public media — tend to care about things like return-on-investment, and eyeballs, and traffic. When it comes to the project’s web products, who hosts the stories? Who gets the pageviews?

“In the case of Planet Money and Frontline, we’re essentially driving traffic back to the Frontline website,” Fannings says. “We’re also carrying the NPR logo. And NPR, in turn, is going to credit Frontline — and vice versa. The important thing for Planet Money and NPR is that they’ll have the video stories for themselves, and they’ll have them produced at a level that’s not as easy for them to do.”

And, more broadly, everyone will benefit from the impact of the network. “If you marry that to really good reporting in the other platforms, which could be radio and print on the web, if you bring those together and present them in a common matrix” — though it’s an open question whether that reporting is best housed on a single, shared website, or on separate ones, Fanning acknowledges — “then you’re creating something of value in a society where so much of the information is really disposable. And if it’s made in such a way that it’s very transportable, and it’s an embeddable, widgetized commodity, then it can go out and you can put it on your Facebook page and you can send it to your favorite 500 people. If you can share it in that way — and if it carries with it its connections back to those upper partnerships — then that’s just a very valuable object.”

But while the journalism should be portable and embeddable, so should the core values that underscore it: intelligence, context, quality. Fanning mentions the reporting Davidson produces for Planet Money. “If it’s done to that high degree of intelligence, then it really has currency,” he says. “Then people say, ‘You should really hear this one.’” Productions like, for example, “The Giant Pool of Money,” the much-praised and uber-trafficked collaboration with This American Life: “Those are the pieces that become memorable,” Fanning notes. “The thing you want to do is the memorable telling. Then it becomes valuable for always, in a way. And that’s the amazing promise of this new medium.”

December 17 2009

18:44

Lessons on Collaboration from EconomyStory, Election Projects

"Online: Content is king. I don't disagree. But collaboration is queen. In chess the king is the most important, but the queen is the most powerful." 
- David Cohn

We in public media produce a lot of content, but historically we haven't had a lot of collaboration. That's been changing recently, and I'm fortunate enough to have a front row seat.

I'm the project manager for public media's collaboration about the economy, EconomyStory, a project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that brings together 12 public media organizations to cover the current economic crisis, online and on-air. The idea was straightforward: By coordinating efforts across newsrooms, we can deliver to the American public news coverage and resources that are greater than the sum of their parts, and that leverage each organization's strengths. (For a list of partners and their contributions, see EconomyStory.org).

I previously managed a similar effort, also funded by CPB, around the 2008 election. Eight organizations were involved in that project. Over the course of these two projects, I've witnessed a series of triumphs and frustrations that are deeply relevant to the current conversation among journalists, and those interested in journalism, regarding the future of news. Below are my top three lessons learned. I hope other organizations can benefit from our experience, and build on what we've learned. I'd also love to hear what you've learned from similar projects.

Lesson #1: Collaboration Isn't Efficient, But Still Worth It



At the outset of the election project, I expected collaboration to create efficiencies. After all, instead of eight organizations having eight conversations about how to cover the same story, we were having one conversation. Certainly, the thinking went, this would reduce, if not eliminate, redundancies. But reducing redundancies, it turns out, doesn't necessarily mean reducing effort; coordinating with people at other organizations that have different ways of doing things takes time -- lots of it.

For example, during the 2008 election, NPR and PBS NewsHour jointly developed an interactive map that was featured on each of their websites, as well as on over 150 local station sites. With a curator assigned at both NPR and NewsHour, the map fused local and national coverage -- in text, audio and video -- from across public media. Having a collaborative map was convenient for stations, and, in my opinion, yielded a superior end product, which better served the public.

Both NPR and NewsHour could have launched the map earlier in the election cycle if they'd pursued individual products. Instead, they took the time to jointly develop the feature's specifications and select a vendor, among other tasks -- all of which lengthened the production process.

nprnewshourmap.jpg

Was this strategic? Absolutely. Efficient? Not really. Yes, the public media system as a whole was focusing its resources more effectively; but individuals were not producing results as quickly as they would have if they'd worked alone.

Of course, collaboration doesn't always increase effort. It depends on the nature and timing of the project, and whether the partners have worked together before. My point is simply this: Don't assume that working together means saving time -- that's not the value proposition of collaboration. The value proposition is about quality, to the extent that you're equipped to turn quality into revenue.

In other words: Working together yields a superior and more distinctive end product; more distinctive end products, when promoted effectively, build audiences; bigger audiences are the raw material from which revenue may be extracted.

Lesson #2: You Need the Muckety-Mucks

The web department still operates as something of a ghetto at many media organizations. Despite pockets of leadership and innovation, public media organizations are, for the most part, no exception.

Sure, everyone knows the future's in digital, but, more often than not, the people with power and influence work in the organization's legacy media area, such as print or broadcast. I witnessed this directly during the election collaboration, which primarily involved web managers and producers at partner organizations. This hampered the project's impact, either by limiting promotion or preventing more meaningful editorial collaboration. (Much of our "collaboration" during election 2008, aside from the NPR/NewsHour map, took the form of cross-promotion -- a type of collaboration, to be sure, but not the deepest type.)

Having learned our lesson, the kickoff meeting for EconomyStory included multi-disciplinary teams from each partner organization. We then broke off into strands for in-depth brainstorming sessions. At one point, producers of several blue-chip public media programs locked eyes and admitted they didn't trust each other. Then they laughed about it. Then they started talking.

The immediate result? At least one co-production, which aired on both radio and TV, with related web content. The longer-term impact is that the channels of communication are open between these organizations, including at the executive level. This sets the tone and empowers people at every level to explore creative ways of working together. Now it seems I hear each week about a new collaborative effort between some subset of our project's partners.

Lest you think the lesson here is that change only comes from the top down, I'll underscore that the idea to collaborate for the election and the economic crisis was largely hatched within public media's web community. This community just needed to engage the right executives in order to begin realizing the full power of its vision.

Lesson #3: Autopilot? I Don't Think So.

People were enthusiastic when they left the kick-off meeting, but then they returned to busy offices, overflowing inboxes, and lengthy to-do lists. In other words, it was going to take more than goodwill to drive the project forward. Specifically, success was going to require:

> Formal Communication Channels: For the election project, partners relied on the phone and email to stay in touch with each other, and with me. This time around, I introduced Basecamp, a project management tool from 37 Signals. I made it clear at the outset (and in partner contracts) that participation on Basecamp was a requirement. Sound harsh? Yes, but I knew I was dealing with busy people who needed extra prodding to remember to share information outside of their own shops.

It's been a huge success because it's far more effective for partners to share information with each other, than for information to flow only from them to me. Why rely on a switchboard operator in the digital age? 


One success story: near the beginning of the economy project, a producer at PBS posted a programming pipeline, including information about an upcoming Frontline special called "The Warning." It was about a lone regulator who warned of the potential for economic meltdown in the late 1990s. A producer at Marketplace saw this information and ended up commissioning a series of original radio reports, including an interview with the regulator, Brooksley Born.

This may not sound like rocket science (and it isn't), but without this project, and without a central information-sharing hub, it wouldn't have happened.

frontlinemktplc.jpg

> Strong Central Staff: After the election project, it was clear that there were central project functions beyond project management that needed attention. For one thing, we needed to actually promote the partners' work, both to the general public and to public media stations. After all, it's hard to provide a public service when the public doesn't know what you're doing.

Also, in order to maximize editorial collaboration between partners, we needed someone with a bird's eye view of the project, as well as a journalist's sensibility, who could look for specific opportunities for partners to team up. We added these roles to the mix, bringing on freelancer and public media vet Katie Kemple to head up marketing; Public Radio International managed station outreach; and Lee Banville from NewsHour served as "editorial facilitator."

The combination of Basecamp and additional project staff has spurred more informal collaboration on EconomyStory compared to what we saw during the election project. The Frontline/Marketplace example above is just the tip of the iceberg. It's critical to have a central team that works to keep partners focused and engaged. In addition, those of us at the center of the project are then able to identify strategic successes and areas for improvement.

Conclusion

Learning to collaborate is a lot like learning to manage. A junior manager often thinks it's easier to do things herself, rather than take time to train someone on her team. While this approach may allow her to deliver results more quickly in the short term, it's not sustainable over time. Similarly, collaboration between news organizations is often time consuming at first -- but it's essential to their long-term success.

As more and more news organizations shut their doors, or reduce operations, lean organizations and newly freelance journalists need to learn to work together in new ways if they're going to survive. They need to be scrappy -- and public media organizations are nothing if not scrappy. There may be hope for us yet.

Amanda Hirsch is a consultant to independent media companies and non-profits, and the former editorial director of PBS Interactive (as well as MediaShift's former editor). She is also a writer and performer. You can follow Amanda online on her website and on Twitter at @publicmediagirl.

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