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December 14 2011

21:00

NPR’s StateImpact project explores regional topics through focused, data-driven journalism

Scott Detrow heard a rumor, and like any good reporter, he set out to determine whether it was true. Detrow, who has spent several years covering state politics and government for seven public radio member stations in Pennsylvania, had been told anecdotal claims that the expansion of drilling wells in recent years has drastically increased the burden on emergency service providers in the state. But the drilling industry, which opened 4,000 new wells in 2009 alone, is a controversial topic in Pennsylvania, and Detrow said both the opponents and proponents rarely agree on even the most basic facts.

“I figured 911 records were a good place to take a look at that,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “So we got the 911 totals from the 10 counties with the most drilling and we saw seven of them did, in fact, see their numbers go up. And we did that as a framework to get into what that meant in a couple communities.”

“We had to focus on what story we were trying to tell.”

The end result was a two-part story. In the first, Detrow reported that 911 calls spiked by at least 46 percent in one of the counties after the introduction of new wells. “We’re see­ing more acci­dents involv­ing large rigs,” the head of one 911 call center told the reporter. “Trac­tor trail­ers, dump trucks. Vehi­cles — trac­tor trail­ers haul­ing haz­ardous mate­ri­als. Those are things, two years ago, that we weren’t deal­ing with on a daily basis.” In the second piece, Detrow explored the impact the increased burden on emergency services had on local county governments, many of which were having a hard time finding the funds to hire new EMS employees. “[County Com­mis­sioner Mark] Hamil­ton, who serves as the pres­i­dent of the County Com­mis­sion­ers Asso­ci­a­tion of Penn­syl­va­nia, sup­ports an impact fee on gas drillers to help off­set the cost of more resources,” Detrow wrote.

Compiling all this data took extensive man hours, and it paid off; Detrow managed to break a major story that settled a contentious dispute. But if he had tried to hunt down the data just a few months before, he would have run into a significant barrier: time. That’s because, up until recently, the reporter had spent the majority of his work week reporting on lawmaking in the state’s capitol building. “[Drilling] is something I’ve been covering over the last few years and it’s something that’s steadily become more of a main issue that I was spending more time on, but I was doing so through the framework of multiple stories a day on my beat and also having to cover everything else in state government.” Much of his reporting involved simply recounting what lawmakers were saying — and there were few opportunities to dive deeper into longer-term issues.

In late June, though, Detrow joined NPR’s StateImpact. Billed as “station-based journalism covering the effect of government actions within every state,” StateImpact essentially takes the extensive resources of a national news organization and applies them to the local level. For its initial iteration, NPR member stations from around the country sent in applications, and from those eight were chosen to receive grants. The grants, in part, funded the hiring of two reporters for each state: one for broadcast and another for the web. NPR also hired a team of project managers, designers, and programmers to work at its D.C. headquarters; this team collaborates directly with each of the participating states to create platforms and other tools to mine deeper into a given topic. Because every state differs in its most important issues, each participating team focuses on a particular topic. The Pennsylvania StateImpact reporters, as you may have guessed, focus on energy, with a concentration on the impact of drilling. Three of the states (Florida, Indiana, and Ohio) cover education while the remaining ones (Idaho, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Texas) report on issues ranging from the local economy to state budgets.

“Why don’t we work together so we can get something that’s easy for us to use but also know it’s going to be accurate?”

To understand what the D.C.-based team brings to the equation, I visited them one morning at NPR’s headquarters. They started off the day with a meeting in which each member listed off his or her task for the week. In order to ensure the meeting didn’t stretch any longer than absolutely necessary, they all conducted it while standing. Afterward, I sat down with Matt Stiles, the database reporting coordinator, who walked me through a data-driven tool he and his colleagues had created to track the natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. The map allowed one to drill down (no pun intended) into individual counties and wells to determine both how much fuel is derived from an area and the number of regulatory violations a particular well has seen. From start to finish, it took about three weeks to build out. “I spent time with Scott figuring out what data was available,” Stiles told me, and then worked with Detrow to determine the overall scope of the tool. “We had to focus on what story we were trying to tell.”

Stiles has worked with government data for years, and so knew how to navigate the seemingly insurmountable barriers that can arise when trying to put it to use. “All of the data is available on the well,” he explained. “But it’s in these sort of awkwardly-formatted spreadsheets. There was a process of me looking at that, Scott looking at it, and then going back to the state and saying, ‘This format doesn’t really work for us. I could clean this data up and make it work with a lot of blunt force data cleansing, but why don’t we work together so we can get something that’s easy for us to use but also know it’s going to be accurate?’”

Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s senior vice president and general manager of digital media, said in a phone interview that NPR is launching StateImpact at a time when there’s an erosion of media coverage at the state level. “At the same time that a growing number of significant issues are moving through state governments as things have gotten somewhat more gridlocked at the federal level, we’re seeing a variety of issues — environmental regulation, education, and so forth — [becoming] the subject of state legislation,” he told me. While he sees a particular need for in-depth reporting around some of those issues, NPR didn’t simply want reporters to conduct statehouse legislative coverage: Plenty of local news outlets are still devoting resources to that. Instead, the network saw an opportunity with issues of consequence in selected states.

“We’ve armed them with skills that they’ll be able to use for the rest of their careers, we hope.”

StateImpact also signals a shift in how local NPR member stations operate. For years, they offered some local programming, but mostly acted as distributors for national NPR content. “In the digital era, if they are to continue to thrive and reach the kind of audiences they reach today, they’re by necessity going to have to offer a news package more directly relevant to their audience,” Wilson explained. “The national coverage can be obtained at any number of outlets directly, so the big picture in this effort is to help stations extend their local relevance. They’re uniquely positioned to do so. They’re among the few remaining genuinely locally-owned news institutions in most communities. They have real connections in the community.”

Elise Hu sees other benefits to the StateImpact platform. Hu, the editorial coordinator for the team, oversees the digital editorial vision for all the participating states, and also ensures that the project’s content management system aligns with the organization’s goal to “[give] our readers the Wikipedia-like introduction to the topics that they might be encountering.” Part of her job involves traveling from state to state to meet with reporters directly. In fact, when I spoke to her, she was sitting in an airport, about to head to Indianapolis for a convening of StateImpact’s three education states — Indiana, Florida, and Ohio.

“I think one of the great takeaways of this project, even if StateImpact goes away — which I hope it won’t, but even if it does go away — is that there are 17 member station reporters that might not have otherwise been exposed to this sort of training or this data-driven reporting,” she said. “We’ve armed them with skills that they’ll be able to use for the rest of their careers, we hope.”

Scott Detrow agreed with this notion. “My knowledge of Excel beforehand was pretty minimal, and we had several training sessions on just using that as a reporting tool,” he said. “That is just really helpful in covering an issue where there are all these enormous spreadsheets you have to go through with the reporting.”

Earlier today, Detrow and the team released an interactive web app that focuses on the state’s Mar­cel­lus Shale. An app like that, he said, is “not something we would have thought to have done beforehand, and being able to work with people who have the skills to put that together is just great.”

It will be interesting to see how StateImpact develops, especially as it opens up to more states. (It hopes to operate in every state in the country.) But perhaps even more interesting is seeing how NPR will continue to incorporate the lessons learned from this experiment into the rest of its news coverage. With the changing digital media landscape in journalism, fraught with declining revenues and fleeting audiences, no experiment is carried out in a vacuum. And, as Hu pointed out, many of the issues covered in these individual states are of national relevance. “StateImpact is essentially acting as a lab to see how agile we can be, how quickly we can churn out an app,” she said. “And the fact that we were able to go from concept to deployment within a month will be a good story to tell for other members of the digital team at NPR to push that forward as an organization in data app development.”

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 14 2011

14:00

Love me, love my NPR: Public radio listeners can show off their loyalty

NPR executives have been known to brag that theirs is just about the only news organization to show up in people’s personal ads. For example: “I am in need of some intelligent male company…I am an avid reader, npr listener, talkative, curious and always up for trying something new.”

Media companies salivate over that kind of loyalty and identification with the brand. “People not only have an affinity for NPR but an affinity for each other, as listeners,” Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s general manager of digital media told me. “We’re the only news organization where public trust has increased over the last decade.”

While there is as yet no dating site for public radio nerds — though Wilson said the idea has come up — his development team recently whipped up a way for listeners to show off their support and discover friends with similar passions. A new Facebook app called I Heart NPR asks fans to put themselves on a map with thousands of others. Users can play games, such as Name That NPR Theme Song (I earned four-of-four virtual tote bags, thank you), and then share the results with friends. Secret games will be “unlocked” with every 100,000 new users, Wilson said.

NPR is already among the most “liked” news organization on Facebook, with 1.4 1.6 million fans. So what’s different about this? “The NPR Facebook page is first and foremost an extension of our news brand,” Wilson said. The I Heart NPR app, he said, is for fans of the organization itself and what it represents to them — the NPR personalities, the weekend rituals, the shared values that bring together like-minded people on a first date.

At the top of the Facebook app is a Twitter-inspired #gopublic stamp, which the network uses as branding on all social platforms. Local stations can also use the stamp and embed the Facebook app on their own sites.

I Heart NPR was conceived, Wilson reassured me, prior to the controversy that forced out two NPR executives and intensified a debate about federal funding of public broadcasting. (It looks like that funding survived the 2011 budget, by the way.)

Wilson said this is a lighthearted experiment and he chose not to define any hard goals for it. “We’re not trying to promote this in an aggressive way. We’ve put it out there and if it takes off, fabulous.” A half-dozen programmers, working part-time, built the app in about two weeks.

NPR’s digital team works on a bold schedule: Programmers work on two-week coding cycles to encourage rapid development. These so-called sprints encourage both failure and innovation. It’s what allowed NPR to develop its iPad app in one month, or two sprints, just in time for the iPad’s launch in April 2010. (That app just surpassed one million downloads.)

I asked Wilson, who used to run digital operations at USA Today, why it can be so difficult for other large organizations to churn out new projects — and how he’s able to do it now. “From my perspective, it comes from long, hard experience doing it badly,” he said. “Resources are always tight and so there’s probably a fear of burning too many cycles on something that either doesn’t go right.” But he said the rapid-release schedule encourages unconventional projects like I Heart NPR, and very few ideas are swatted down.

“The digital media staff here is about half the size of the one I had at USA Today and probably produces twice the output,” he said.

March 09 2011

20:30

From Argo to R&D: Vivian Schiller’s legacy of innovation at NPR

With the departure of NPR CEO Vivian Schiller today, and the January resignation of Senior VP for News Ellen Weiss — not to mention threats of the loss of government funding that have been escalating in the past couple of months — things look like they could be pretty scary for NPR at the moment.

In the wake of all of this turmoil, though, it’s worth taking a look at Schiller’s and Weiss’s legacy. Under their leadership, NPR has been doing things that have been helping to set the standard for innovation across the industry — in broadcast and beyond.

I say this after being involved with NPR on the research end since 2008, after the Knight Foundation gave NPR $1.5 million to retrain 400 digital journalists, and gave USC $2.4 million and UC Berkeley $2.8 million to help the transformation happen. I worked with Knight Digital Media Center head Vikki Porter and USC professor Patricia Riley in studies of NPR that included field research, interviewing, and leadership workshops at USC.

Here are some of our findings about NPR under Schiller and Weiss:

• Continued audience growth, not just on traditional airwaves, but in on demand forms, such as through podcasting and streaming radio
• Exposure of large numbers of staff to multimedia training and digital news concepts
• The incorporation of digital news staff into the traditional radio newsroom
• The relaunch of the NPR website
• The opening of the NPR API for programmers and anyone else to experiment with — making it possible for a volunteer firefighter, who happens also to be an NPR fan, to create a streaming mobile app called NPR Addict
• The development of an active social media team, which can both create social media content from NPR and also harness everything from audience Flickr efforts to user comments
• The willingness to experiment with an in-house social media platform on NPR’s community page
• More followers on Facebook — 1.5 million at the moment — than any other media organization, Schiller has said
• The expansion of the NPR brand beyond radio to include visuals (such as flash graphics), video, photography, and — a challenge for any radio or broadcast organization — text
• The active presence of NPR Labs, an R&D team inside NPR that can bake new ideas into initiatives throughout the news organization and at other public radio stations
• The launch of project ARGO, a network of public radio digital sites, which represents a commitment by NPR not to leave member stations in the lurch as it moves forward

Now let’s take a look at the outlook for NPR, something I heard articulated by Schiller when she spoke at USC in November:

• NPR understands that its mission is to increase “interactivity,” as Schiller put it, and to be “more respectful of citizens” in its work — to continue, as she put it, to “put the audience first”
• NPR will continue to give people context and avoid tabloidization
• NPR wants to compete in new ways with other news outlets through new technology
• NPR wants to address the fact that “not all listeners are invited to the party” and to focus on making it more inclusive
• NPR wants to give people on-demand content
• NPR has a goal of “transparency through new technology” — an openness to giving people everything from access to its API to the ability to share and comment and provide feedback

In all of this, there has been something of a revolving door that never stopped in the plans for making NPR an innovator in digital news. In 2008, Ken Stern, NPR’s CEO, left the organization, in part because, some say, his vision for NPR digital news didn’t do enough to include member stations. Maria Thomas, Senior VP for Digital Media also left. Jay Kernis, the Senior VP for Program (and one of the creators of Morning Edition) departed, as well.

But in came fresh blood, such as Kinsey Wilson, who moved from USA Today to become the general manager of digital media, and NPR executive editor Dick Meyer, who helped Schiller and Weiss build their vision.

You can look to NPR’s work just over the past week to see that vision brought to life. And anyone who has been paying any attention to the uprisings in the Middle East knows that NPR is not just a radio station; it has become a curator for information around the world, thanks to Andy Carvin (@acarvin) and his efforts to curate for the rest of us the on-the-ground efforts.

NPR has been hailed by many media activists, scholars, and generally anyone concerned with the future of news as a model for both innovation and for quality reporting. The Downie and Schudson report from late 2009, for instance, praised NPR’s new website as well as its growing audience and its capacity to do journalism on a local, national, and international level — in a comprehensive way that few news organizations still can.

The question is whether all of this progress can continue, given today’s shakeup. But if all the revolving doors haven’t stopped NPR so far, it’s possible to continue to think that it will keep moving forward.

February 11 2011

19:30

#gave4andy: Andy Carvin and the ad hoc pledge drive

One of the winners of the January 25 uprisings in Egypt — besides, of course, the people of Egypt — has been Andy Carvin. NPR’s social media guru has been doing an exemplary job of curating social media to report on a weeks-long protest that seems to have transformed, today, into a democratic revolution.

Carvin’s work cultivating sources and sharing their updates has turned curation into an art form, and it’s provided a hint of what news can look like in an increasingly networked media environment. “It really has stood out as an alternative model of news,” says Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s senior vice president and general manager of digital media. It’s also led to earnest talk of a Pulitzer for social media curation (with Carvin, of course, as the prize’s first recipient) and to equally earnest discussions, among Jeff Jarvis and others, of how to translate Carvin’s curatorial prowess into a full-fledged business model.

It’s also led, Wilson told me, to more immediate questions of financial support among those who’ve been following, and benefiting from, Carvin’s coverage. How, they want to know, can they donate to it?

A few hours ago, Carvin hacked together an ad hoc response to that question. He sent out a non-news tweet to his Twitter stream: “Wanna support my #egypt tweeting? Pls donate to your NPR station http://n.pr/b7N0RZ then tweet amount & station w/ tag #gave4andy. PLS RT”

The tweet, so far, has been retweeted directly by 54 people. And, more to the point, it’s been responded to with actual donations to NPR stations. (NPR doesn’t take money directly through its listeners, but rather through its member stations.) So far, the on-the-fly pledge drive has raised over $2,000, by my rough count — $2,215, to be precise — for member stations both big (WNYC, WBUR) and small (WOUB from Athens, Ohio).

I should stress, of course, that the donation stats aren’t based on official, station-based pledge data. The info is cobbled together from the hashtag stream itself — by me, no less, not anything reliably automated — and, furthermore, it’s based on self-reported donation amounts and self-reported donation recipients. Some people who tweeted to the #gave4andy tag have indicated that they’ve donated, but haven’t included the amounts they’ve pledged (and so aren’t included in the total amount). Others have mentioned vague donation amounts — “monthly installments” and the like — and so, similarly, aren’t counted in the total. Still others may well have made donations without noting that they’ve done so on Twitter (or within the #gave4andy hashtag stream). So: Huge grain of salt.

Still, though, the tweet, the tag, and the response combine to form an intriguing example of what can happen when you harness the power of a particular event, and a particular moment — and translate that energy to financial support. People, as the tweets flooding Twitter and the updates flooding Facebook can attest, love to feel that they’re part of something — particularly when that something is the making of history. Contributing financially to the reporting of human events can be a small, but quite meaningful, way to be part of them.

The carpe hashtag approach is also an indication of what can come when news organizations give their individual staffers the power to experiment — even when it comes to the business side of the news. “This was spontaneous on his part — he did it on his own initiative,” Wilson notes of Carvin’s tweet. (Carvin himself, by the way, is still tweeting up a storm — and after that, we hope, will be #giving4andy some well-deserved downtime.)

Not only was Carvin’s seize-the-moment spontaneity not a rogue move; on the contrary, Wilson says, “it’s exactly the kind of initiative that we try to encourage people to take — to be nimble and smart and take what I’d classify as ‘prudent risks.’”

That’s significant, because Carvin’s curation could easily be a matter of tension. Carvin works closely with NPR’s news team, Wilson notes, and “there’s a lot of communication back and forth”; still, the work he’s been doing — with Egypt, and before that with Tunisia, and before that with Iran, etc. — has largely been done under the auspices of his personal Twitter account. To the extent that, when people think of “that awesomely curated Egypt stream,” they usually associate it with @acarvin, rather than @NPR or @NPRNews.

The hashtagged pledge drive, though, offers a kind of reconciliation for that personal/organizational disconnect: It’s a way to ensure that the exemplary work of an individual employee accrues, financially, to the employee’s organization. It’s also, more broadly, a way to ensure that work Carvin — and, by extension, NPR — is investing in generates reward beyond Twitterspheric plaudits. One of the questions NPR asks itself, Wilson notes, is what becomes of public radio’s traditional means of financial solicitation — the pledge drive — in a new and constantly shifting media landscape. With the ad hoc hashtag, “we may have stumbled onto a useful way” to rethink the pledge, Wilson says. It’s way too early to come to any concrete conclusions about event-specific solicitations, of course. Still, though: ”There may be a kernel in this.”

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