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December 14 2010

15:00

Better curation on Twitter, pushback against anonymity, and more new startups: Predictions for 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Below are predictions from Bob Giles, Alan Murray, David Beard, Geneva Overholser, Alan D. Mutter, Melissa Ludtke, Brooke Kroeger, Jan Schaffer, and Ory Okolloh.

We also want to hear your predictions: take our Lab reader poll and tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results later this week.

Newspaper companies will regret the deep cutting of newsgathering resources as the economy recovers and advertisers conclude that local newspapers are no longer vital sources of community coverage. Moreover, newspapers will follow their historical pattern of being slow to adapt to what’s new — in this case, opportunities offered by the iPad and other tablets.

This will be the year when collaboration finally, truly, really takes hold. Smart legacy media leaders will determine what they and they alone can do best, then ally themselves with others who can supply the rest. Radio, TV, web-based publications, print publications, bloggers, international and national news providers, journalism schools, nonprofits, and commercial media — the smart ones will figure out their niche and how to partner (strategically) with others to be sure their work is seen. The public will be the biggest beneficiary.

This will be the year we finally realize how big a mistake it was to relinquish our time-honored aversion to anonymity when we went on the web. Having been persuaded that we had to adapt to the culture we were joining, we lost one of the key distinctions that differentiates journalism from other info sources. Bring naming names back, and vanquish the trolls!

1. The emergence of a great WebSocket live-blogger: working from livecasts, using text on the right rail, an articulate, knowledgeable, irreverent commenter can deconstruct and add background as events go on, in a step up from current chat technology. Others might employ VH1 Pop-Up Video or Mystery Science Theater 3000 styles, with fact bubbles on livecasts.

2. A really organized Twitter wire service — or a use of Twitter for a really valuable compilation that might move beyond a Twitter list or paper.li. A favorite of mine for journalists — Muck Rack Daily.

Alan Murray, deputy managing editor and executive editor, online, The Wall Street Journal

2011 will be the year of the tablet — dozens of them coming out, and some might even be good. Because each one requires a different build, it may also be the year in which the techies outnumber the journalists!

But 2011 won’t be the year of WebTV. Cable companies can’t hold back the tide forever — but they can hold it back for a few more years.

The major trends to watch in 2011 will be same as those we saw this year — just more intense:

Mobile: A growing amount of information will be consumed on smartphones and tablets vs. PCs, laptops, TV, radio, or print. Static content will feel stiff, suffocating, and subliminally inauthentic in an age of near-epidemic skepticism toward almost every institution of society — particularly the media.

Transactional: Consumers actively will shop for news, entertainment, commercial information, and, of course, actual goods and services. As they gain confidence in themselves and their peers to judge everything from Federal Reserve policy to the best place for a burrito, the time, attention, and importance they attach to conventional news and advertising will decline.

Social: Facebook, YouTube, WikiLeaks, and other consumer-driven media will assert greater control over what is covered, how it’s covered and what it means. (See also: “Don’t touch my junk.”) News, entertainment, and advertising are destined to increasingly blur together into something you might call info-tainment-ising. The shrinking authority of conventional news and advertising in this environment will devalue legacy media and commercial brands.

Denial: Deeply invested in their traditionally lucrative business models, legacy media companies for the most part will not move fast enough to create fresh news, entertainment, and advertising products to respond to the prodigiously empowered, self-actuated consumer. If the mainstream media companies continue to nibble cautiously around the edges of innovation, then dozens of daring competitors will merrily fill the void to build shockingly efficient businesses to poach what’s left of the once-fat legacy franchises.

The word “new” will show up less and less as an attached-at-the-hip adjective describing media.

What constitutes “value” in the work journalists do will be a question much pondered — with answers leading to greater awareness of its essential contextual and curatorial role in the era of information overload.

Redesigns in newsrooms’ seating plans will happen more often as editors mesh the tech folks with the journalists and find ways they can work together to feed news and information to the web, mobile phones, tablets, and print — and do so with storytelling techniques offering greater visual appeal.

The word “eyeballs” will send ones like “circulation” and “subscription” to the same place where typewriters now reside.

Audience fragmentation will continue apace, while at the same time media and tech powerhouses will look to consolidate their influence by acquiring social-media pieces they don’t already have.

Jan Schaffer, executive director, J-Lab

Collaboration will be the new competition. News startups within metro areas and between metro areas will increasingly work together to share content, trade links, connect silos and possible seek group support.

The conversation about sustaining news startups will move beyond ad sales and into such possibilities as stewardship models for journalism.

More statewide investigative news startups will launch.

We will begin to develop a deeper conversation about innovations in journalism itself, not just the delivery systems for journalism.

Alas, 2011 will not be the year we divine the ultimate profit, nonprofit, and/or combination model for sustaining high quality journalism. But by December, we will know substantially more than we do now about what does — and does not — have real potential to work.

Ory Okolloh, co-founder and executive director, Ushahidi

Wikileaks/Cablegate will remind us of the important curation role that journalists/newspapers play and will encourage more collaborative and investigative journalism based on open data.

October 22 2010

16:00

Using the power of publishing to influence: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s entry into the news biz

On the front page of today’s New York Times is a story on the prodigious corporate funding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the tax-exempt group that supports business-friendly policies and has been an aggressive spender in recent (and upcoming) elections. The story, by Eric Lipton, Mike McIntire, and Don Van Natta Jr., focuses on the secrecy surrounding donors to the Chamber, which the group is not required by law to report.

But money isn’t the only area where associations can be kept quiet. For the past several years, the Chamber has also invested in its own publishing platform, running a network of local publications (print and online) that focus on legal issues in areas where business interests have been critical of the decisions of local courts. It also runs an online-only national publication called Legal Newsline.

“We’re beginning to see advocacy groups, nonprofit groups, mission-directed groups, not always evil by any means, having a particular truth that they see and a particular lens through which they look at news and they want to report news through that lens,” Jan Schaffer told me. She’s executive director of J-Lab at American University, and she pointed to Kaiser Health News, owned by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Foreign Affairs, owned by the Council on Foreign Relations, as examples.

But there’s a big difference between the sites Schaffer mentioned — which happily promote their nonprofit parents — and the Chamber’s sites, which are published by a subsidiary called the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. Nowhere on the main pages of the Chamber sites is the Institute or Chamber mentioned. In 2008, the most recent year available, the Institute spent $41 million (pdf) on various activities pushing for the cause of tort reform. At the same time, the Institute’s reporters are covering civil cases with large settlements and other tort reform-related news — and working for news outlets set up in some of the nation’s most tort-friendly jurisdictions.

Local publications in allegedly business-unfriendly jurisdictions

Along with the national site, the Chamber-affiliated local publications are all set in areas where plaintiffs’ attorneys have had success with class-action suits and other litigation. There’s little else that would connect the states of Louisiana and West Virginia and the areas around East St. Louis, Illinois (Madison and St. Clair counties) and Beaumont, Texas. To give an idea of the flavor of the publications, here’s the about page for the Louisiana site, the Louisiana Record:

To be sure, whether one agrees or disagrees with the happenings at our courthouses, no one should believe that what happens at them is the norm. This year, Louisiana’s courts were ranked among the most unfair in the nation, according to a survey (Harris Interactive) of top corporate lawyers and business executives.

Many accomplished local plaintiffs’ attorneys and erstwhile activists would argue that, in fact, they are the great leaders of their time, holding that Louisiana has it right and everyone else has it wrong.

On the flipside, many who drive this country’s economic engine — small businessmen, medical professionals and corporate executives — argue the opposite. They hold that plaintiffs’ attorneys use frivolous lawsuits to game the system and pillage private property. If every state were like ours, they say, America would be out of business.

At The Louisiana Record, we hope to provide an objective view of the playing field as well as an active forum for both sides of the argument so that all of us can decide for ourselves.

Similar phrasing appears at the West Virginia, Madison, and Southeast Texas sites. (The Madison site says a “welcome mat to class action filings and lottery-like awards have helped create a ‘judicial hellhole’ reputation.”)

The mention of a Harris Interactive survey refers to the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform’s annual State Liability Systems Ranking Study, which gave low marks to the jurisdictions where the Chamber publications are based.

Chamber says it does not interfere editorially

The publisher of the sites, Brian Timpone, says the Chamber is no different than any other parent company. “The Chamber is like most media owners — it stays out of editorial operations,” Timpone told me over email. “That was the deal upon which we agreed when I started the first Record in 2004 (I was a community newspaper publisher then) and it remains the deal today. Myself and my editorial team have full editorial control. There is no direction from ownership — thematic or otherwise.”

Timpone called his disclosure policy — explaining who owns the publication when the Chamber is specifically mentioned in the story — fair. He said in an email that that is when it is the best time to tell readers because it is “communicated in a useful, proper context.”

When asked for comment, a Chamber spokesperson said in a statement that it “has great respect for the norms of professional journalism. Our professional publisher, editors and reporters have strong journalistic backgrounds and skills, and operate under the highest professional standards and conduct.” The Chamber statement said it is not involved in the day-to-day of the operations, and is hands off when it comes to editorial control.

Legal Newsline has the look and feel of a trade publication, the kind read by members of the legal community, lawmakers, and traditional reporters looking for story ideas. Several journalists I spoke with said they thought the Chamber should be more upfront about its connection, even if the journalists working for them publish accurate stories.

“I think they should just put on the site that they’re the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” Mary Jacoby, the editor-in-chief of a legal publication called Main Justice, told me. (I wrote about Main Justice in May.) Jacoby is particularly irked because story subjects on the Chamber’s sites sometimes overlap with hers, which covers the Justice Department. Several of her reporters linked to Legal Newsline in their stories before she was aware that the site wasn’t an independent trade publication. “It’s news, it’s true that they have real news and they have real reporters, but they’re writing it from an agenda and trying to underline certain ideas that they have,” she said.

The importance of disclosure

For example, the current top story at the Southeast Texas Record is “With retirement announced, tort reform groups praise Judge Jack’s impact.” An excerpt:

[Retiring U.S. District Judge Janis Graham] Jack’s 2005 decision also “laid a corner stone for future investigations of abuse of the civil justice system,” according to Darren McKinney, spokesperson for the American Tort Reform Association.

“We here at ATRA…are admiring of Judge Jack’s impact in Texas, which has long been known to be a judicial hellhole,” McKinney said. “Her decision reverberated throughout the nation.”

ATRA is the group that publishes an annual list of “Judicial Hellholes,” which it describes as “America’s most unfair jurisdictions.” Each of the areas covered by the Chamber publications is mentioned in the executive summary of the list — West Virginia as a “Hellhole,” Madison County, Ill., and the Gulf Coast of Texas on a Hellhole “Watch List,” and Louisiana’s Orleans and Jefferson parishes as “other areas to watch.”

The Southeast Texas Record story also features approving quotes from Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse, two groups that share the Chamber’s perspective on tort reform. But because the story does not mention the Chamber specifically, it carries no disclosure.

On the web, disclosure is perhaps even more important than in print. Readers aren’t necessarily making an active choice to consume information on Legal Newsline; as with any site on the web, visitors often arrive via search or a link from a mainstream source. USA Today, for example, has linked to articles on the site on its automatically aggregated topic pages. USA Today’s online editor Chet Czarniak said he’d take a look at the Chamber sites to see if the reader needs more of a heads up. “It’s been a while since we’ve done a full review” of the sources used in the topic pages, Czarniak said. “I think frankly, I’m now curious about the sites we have out there.”

This isn’t the first time the disclosure policy has come into question. In 2007, the Southeast Texas Record came under fire from plaintiff attorneys who said the print edition, which is distributed at the local courthouse, was a dubious attempt to influence jurors.

Nonprofit journalism is booming, at the local and national level. When our Jim Barnett was trying to suss out what makes a nonprofit news outlet “legit” in his eyes, he cited financial transparency as a key element. Looking at the front page of one of the Chamber’s publications, that transparency is sometimes hard to see.

August 18 2010

16:30

Seeking Sustainability, Part 2: John Thornton and others on strategies for nonprofit revenue generation

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: the sustainability of nonprofit news organizations. This week, we’re passing along some videos of the conversations that resulted (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section). We posted Part 1 of the series, a talk focused on business-model viability over time, yesterday. And in today’s pair of videos, John Thornton, chairman of the excitement-inducing Texas Tribune, leads a discussion about a topic near and dear to the hearts of even, yes, nonprofit news outlets: revenue generation.

“It is nowhere in the mid-life venture capital playbook to start a nonprofit news organization,” Thornton noted; “and so none of us would be doing this if the central mission weren’t about public service.”

Thornton’s introduction is above; below is a discussion that it sparked among the nonprofit all-stars Knight brought together for the occasion — among them The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Jim O’Shea and Peter Osnos, the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis, The Atlantic PhilanthropiesJack Rosenthal, Seattle CrossCut’s David Brewster, the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass, California Watch’s Mark Katches, J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, and the St. Louis Beacon’s Nicole Hollway. The group discussed finance-crucial issues like publicity, community, membership incentives, collaboration, demographic measurement, branding, corporate sponsorship, and more…not from a theoretical perspective, but from the point of view of practitioners who spend their days thinking about how to keep their organizations thriving.

The conversation, by the way, is well worth watching all the way to the end: The video closes with group members discussing some of their more outlandish — and, so, intriguing — ideas for revenue-generation.

August 17 2010

20:00

Seeking Sustainability, Part 1: Voice of San Diego’s Woolley and others on the role of the “venture mindset”

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: sustaining nonprofit news organizations after an initial injection of funding gets them off the ground. The Seeking Sustainability conversation sought to examine nonprofit outfits not just as recipients of philanthropic funding, but also — and more so — as businesses that share many of the same concerns that their for-profit counterparts do.

“Traditional media companies have been particularly distressed by shifts in the markets and business models that historically supported them — and the conversation about how to ’save’ or ‘reinvent’ journalism has been largely focused on their concerns,” Knight noted in its summary of the roundtable. But

to a growing group of practitioners, funders and observers…the challenge is not saving traditional news organizations or traditional forms of journalism. The challenge is creating, strengthening and protecting informed communities and local information ecosystems, of which journalism is a necessary component.

Thus enters the nonprofit model, which allows organizations to pursue a journalistic mission without the competing demands of operating a for-profit business. Nonprofit news startups have been created in communities across the country, most with funding from major donors or foundations. The Knight Foundation alone has funded more than 200 experiments with what it calls a “build to learn” approach.

To benefit from the education those startups have been receiving, the foundation convened a group of experts to share practical insights about improving and sustaining nonprofit journalism. It also, thankfully, recorded the conversation that resulted. In a series this week, we’ll pass along the videos of those conversations (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section).

In today’s first pair of videos, Buzz Woolley, chairman of Voice of San Diego, discusses the power of what he calls the “venture mindset” in journalism (above). In the second video (below), he is joined by an all-star panel of nonprofit startup leaders, including — in general order of appearance — J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Peter Osnos and Jim O’Shea, the St. Louis Beacon’s Margaret Wolf Freivogel, Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Andrew Donohue and Scott Lewis, Knight president Alberto Ibargüen, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal, the Connecticut Mirror’s James Cutie, The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, Oakland Local’s Susan Mernit, and the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass.

February 26 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: The Times’ blogs behind the wall, paid news on the iPad, and a new local news co-op

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A meter for the Times’ blogs: Plenty of stuff happened at the intersection of journalism and new media this week, and for whatever reason, a lot of it had something to do with The New York Times. We’ll start with the most in-depth piece of information from the Times itself: A 35-minute Q&A session with the three executives most responsible for the Times’ coming paywall (or, more specifically and as they prefer to call it, a metered model) at last Friday’s paidContent 2010 conference. No bombshells were dropped — paidContent has a short summary to go with the video — but it did provide the best glimpse yet into the Times’ thinking behind and approach to their paywall plans.

The Times execs said they believe the paper can maintain its reach despite the meter while adding another valuable source of revenue. Meghan Keane of Econsultancy was skeptical about those plans, saying that the metered model could turn the Times into a niche newspaper.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon started one of the more perplexing exchanges of the session (starting at about 18:10 on the video) when he asked whether the Times would put blogs behind its paywall. The initial response, from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., was “stay tuned,” followed shortly, from digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, by “our intention is to keep blogs behind the wall.” A Times spokeswoman clarified the statements later (yes, blogs would be part of the metered model), and Salmon blogged about his concern with the Times’ execs’ response. He was not the only one who thought this might not be a good idea.

My take: Salmon has some valid concerns, and, piggybacking off of the ideas he wrote after the paywall’s initial announcement, even the Times’ most regular online readers will be quite hesitant to use their limited meter counts on, say, two-paragraph blog posts on the economics of valet parking. Times blogs like Freakonomics and Bits are a huge part of their cachet on the web, and including them in the meter could do them significant damage.

The iPad and paid content: We also saw another aspect of the Times’ paid-content plans at a conference in Australia, where Marc Frons, the paper’s chief technology officer, talked about the Times’ in-progress iPad app. Frederic Filloux, another one of the conference’s speakers, provided a useful summary of publishers’ attitudes and concerns about creating apps for the iPad, including their expectation that Apple will provide some sort of news store built on the iTunes framework.

Two media vets offered a word of caution to news organizations excited about the iPad’s possibilities for gaining revenue for news: Kara Swisher of The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital blog said that “with their hands on none of the key technology and innovation levers online … media giants continue to be without even a pair sticks to rub together to make digital fire.” And citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor wondered whether news orgs “should get in bed with a company that makes unilateral and non-transparent decisions” like the ones Apple’s been making for years.

For those following the future of paid news content, we have a few other new data points to consider: The stats-heavy sports publication The Sporting News will begin charging for its daily digital edition, and a small daily newspaper in Washington State says the first year of their paywall has been a tentative success, with less effect on traffic than expected. Also, Alistair Bruce of Microsoft has a thorough breakdown of who’s charging for what online in a slideshow posted last week. It’s a wonderful resource you’ll want to keep for future reference.

NYT, NYU team up on local journalism: The Times also had one of the week’s big future-of-journalism announcements — a partnership with New York University to create and run a news site devoted to New York’s East Village, where NYU has several buildings. NYU professor Jay Rosen has all the details you’ll need, including who’s providing what. (NYT: publishing platform, editorial oversight, data sources, inspiration. NYU: editor’s salary, student and faculty labor, offices.)

The partnership raised a few media-critic eyebrows, mostly over the issue of the Times using free (to them, at least) student labor after buying out and laying off 100 paid reporters. The Awl, BNETThe New York Observer, and Econsultancy all have short but acerbic reactions making just that point, with The Awl making a quick note about the professionalization of journalism and BNET speculating about the profit margins the Times will make off of this project.

Innocence, objectivity and reality in journalism: Jay Rosen kicked off some conversation in another corner of the future-of-journalism discussion this week, bringing his influential PressThink blog out of a 10-month hiatus with a post on a theme he’s been pushing hard on Twitter over the past year: Political journalists’ efforts to appear innocent in their reporting at the expense of the truth.

Rosen seizes on a line in a lengthy Times Tea Party feature on “a narrative of impending tyranny” and wonders why the Times wouldn’t tell us whether that narrative was grounded in reality. Journalistic behavior like this, Rosen says, is grounded in the desire to appear innocent, “meaning a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved.” That drive for innocence leads savviness to supplant reality in political journalism, Rosen said.

The argument’s been made before, by Rosen and others such as James Fallows, and Joey Baker sums it up well in a post building off of Rosen’s. But Rosen’s post drew a bit of criticism — in his comments, from the left (Mother Jones), from the libertarian right (Reason), and from tech blogger Stephen Baker. The general strain running through these responses was the idea that the Times’ readers are smart enough to determine the veracity of the claims being made in the article. (Rosen calls that a dodge.) The whole discussion is a fresh, thoughtful iteration of the long-running debate over objectivity in news coverage.

Where do reporting and aggregation fit?: We got some particularly valuable data and discussion on one of journalism’s central conversations right now — how reporting will work in a new ecosystem of news. Here at the Lab, Jonathan Stray examined how that new landscape looked in one story about charges of Chinese schools’ connections to hacks into Google. He has a fairly thorough summary of the results, headlined by the finding that just 13 of the 121 versions of the story on Google News involved original reporting. “When I think of how much human effort when into re-writing those hundred other unique stories that contained no original reporting, I cringe,” Stray writes. “That’s a huge amount of journalistic effort that could have gone into reporting other deserving stories. Why are we doing this?”

Also at the Lab, CUNY professor C.W. Anderson spun off of Stray’s study with his own musings on the definition and meaning of original reporting and aggregation. He concludes that aggregation/curation/filtering isn’t quite original reporting, but it does provide journalistic value that should be taken into consideration.

Two other interesting pieces on the related subjects of citizen journalism and hyperlocal journalism: PR/tech blogger Darren Barefoot raises concerns about citizen journalism’s ability to do investigative journalism, and J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer makes a strong case for the importance of entrepreneurs and citizen journalists in the new system of news.

Reading roundup: I’ve got two news developments and two thoughtful pieces for you. First, BusinessWeek reported on AOL’s efforts to build “the newsroom of the future,” a model largely driven by traffic and advertising data, not unlike the controversial Demand Media model, only with full-time journalists.

Editors Weblog raises some questions about such an openly traffic-driven setup, and media/tech watcher Tom Foremski says AOL should be focusing on creating smart news analysis. Social media guru Chris Brogan likes the arrangement, noting that there’s a difference between journalism and publishing.

The second news item is ABC News’ announcement that they’re looking to cut 300 to 400 of its 1,400 positions and move toward a more streamlined operation built around “one-man band” digital journalists. The best examinations of what this means for ABC and TV journalism are at the Los Angeles Times and the Poynter Institute.

The first thoughtful piece is theoretical: CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis’ overview of the evolution of the media’s “spheres of discovery,” from brands to algorithms to human links to predictive creation. It’s a good big-picture look at where new media stand and where they might be going.

The second is more practical: In a Q&A, Howard Owens of the award-winning upstate New York hyperlocal startup The Batavian gives an illuminating glimpse into life in hyperlocal journalism. He touches on everything from advertising to work hours to digital equipment. Building off of Owens’ comments of the personal nature of online news, Jason Fry muses about the uphill battle that news faces to win our attention online. But if that battle is won, Fry says, the loyalty and engagement is so much greater online: “I chose this. I’m investing in it. This doesn’t work and wastes my investment — next. This does work and rewards my investment — I’m staying.”

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