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May 29 2013

14:00

Scott Lewis: Learning from social platforms to build a better news site

About four years ago, I nervously sat on a roundtable between Madeline Albright and Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the Knight Foundation. Next to Ibarguen was Marissa Mayer, then an executive at Google. She was co-chair of a commission Knight put together to study the information needs of communities at the height of what seemed like a crisis for news and civics.

During the discussion, Mayer described her vision of a hyper-personalized news stream. News publishers, she said, needed to learn from what social media and YouTube were doing. Here’s how a writeup of the gathering later paraphrased her remarks about a new type of news publishing:

Users could get a constant stream of content based on their interests, on what is good for them or on the popular ethos. They could also introduce serendipity. These streams could be available by subscription. They could also involve hyper-personalized, well-targeted advertising that would be engaging.

While Mayer spoke, Ibarguen leaned over to me. He quietly said I should do that on the Voice of San Diego’s website. He would help if I gave it a go.

And that’s when I got the old same feeling I’ve gotten for years: dread. Once again, I would have to reveal how truly far behind on technology we were. We were almost imposters. Counterparts and leaders in our industry across the nation had called Voice of San Diego digital pioneers. Yet we knew next to nothing about technology and had put a paltry amount of resources into it.

Four years later, Mayer runs Yahoo and now Tumblr. I’d like to think she is heading furiously toward her vision of a hyper-personalized news and content experience. I’d like to think I finally am, too. I just couldn’t afford Tumblr. Or anything.

A mission to educate

Because of how Voice of San Diego started and how we’ve grown, we’ve never built up the kind of capital to make a major investment in technology. If we added resources, it was always writers. Then, the focus was on sustainability, and diversifying the money coming in to make the organization stronger and, frankly, to make payroll.

In fact, resource strain has defined us, and in some ways has been an asset. To do cool things, we needed partners. We created innovative relationships that became national standards. Our paucity obligated us to focus. A focused reporting staff distinguished Voice of San Diego for its investigative work.

Thrift, however, also pushed us to use an affordable content management system to run our website. It was Blox, the main product of the well-run, customer service-oriented TownNews.com in Moline, Ill.

I love TownNews.com. Without TownNews.com, we would not have achieved anything we did. The team there truly made the barrier to entry low and we turned the opportunity it provided us into a local institution. But we were only one of a couple of web-native clients for TownNews.com, which mainly services many hundreds of newspapers. Those newspaper publishers are still focused on one primary mission for their websites: Display daily posts and sell advertising next to them.

That’s not Voice of San Diego’s mission. Our mission is to help people get information. It is an educational mission. That’s why we have the nonprofit status we do.

If your job is to help people get educated, you can’t just display stories. Imagine a university that simply invited students into a room with huge posters and pictures and expected them to find everything they needed. Everywhere I look, news sites remain committed to simply displaying their stories and images. At the same time, social sites keep working on how to serve users.

And we’re watching social media eat news sites’ lunch. We’re gawking at an act of bullying taking place right before our eyes. When newspapers write about Mayer’s dream of well-targeted, engaging advertising and her visions for Tumblr, do they realize that’s money newspapers are not going to get?

Falling short

We’ve fallen many years behind social media platforms in serving users. Some news publishers have ceded the ground completely. They let Facebook run their social layer or rely on YouTube for their video sharing.

I’ve been watching this develop for years. Two years ago, I was positively despondent. I went so far as to dream that Facebook itself would create a content management system for news publishers. I’d be the first to sign up.

How far are we from actual Facebook or Tumblr-based news organization? Are you a news publisher? Ask yourself what your CMS does that Tumblr doesn’t. Mayer’s vision of a hyper-personalized news stream isn’t just something she thinks should happen. It is something that will happen. Are news organizations going to be a part of it?

If so, we have to stop working solely to display our content well and start working to serve our users well. Those are not mutually exclusive, but they are different.

Let me rephrase: If we think our community is going to pay for our services (as many, including Voice of San Diego, The New York Times, and Andrew Sullivan do), then we absolutely have to learn how to serve users.

It doesn’t mean that we compete with social media platforms. That ship has sailed. But social is as much about a way of doing things as it is a technology. Social platforms, for instance, have taught us a few things that users now expect. Here are three:

  • You should expect to be notified if something you “follow” is updated.
  • Anyone should be allowed to submit content. It should be easy to do and its success is dependent on the community.
  • You should be able to relentlessly tailor your feed of information, bringing it closer and closer to what Mayer might call a “hyper-personalized” experience.

So you can see why I was despondent. I was nowhere near being able to be part of this. The best I could hope for was to continue displaying content. Then maybe I could master social media, somehow weaving it all together to serve our users and build a loyal, grateful community.

Making the switch

This is where I was last year when I met Kelly Abbott, who runs Realtidbits, a company that provides the commenting and social layer for sites like ESPN, Cleveland.com, the Irish Times and even Lady Gaga. Abbott went from not knowing about us to one of our most loyal readers and donating members. And then he decided he wanted to help more.

He recommended we switch content management systems. The thought made me nauseous. Anyone who knows CMS transitions knows why. But Abbott persisted. He had the same vision I did and he wanted to tackle it. Voice of San Diego was lucky enough to be a part of a great discussion in this country about the future of local news. We had an obligation to bring our technology up to speed.

Abbott created what he called an “engineer-free zone” for me. We would first solve basic website frustrations I had about mobile, search engine optimization, and commenting. But then we would dream. What would I create if I could?

I wanted to switch from an effort to display content well to one focused on serving users. Sure, our stories, photographs, and images needed to look good but my mission was to get people educated and to raise money to make the service stronger. A local foundation, Price Charities, came aboard to help us with the initiative. Then, we brought along another partner: Idea Melt, a company working to help publishers “imagine and thread beautiful, holistic, and engaging social experiences for your community.” And we chose to switch to WordPress.

Finally, last week we launched. Our stories and images look better. Our search engine indexing is much improved and our mobile experience is improved with a new responsive design. We also added three new features.

  • Notifications: Users can now follow storylines, or “narratives,” on the site. If there’s a new update, they don’t need to search for a section heading, they should see a notification.
  • Peer-to-peer and reader-to-author following: They can also follow individual writers, or even their peers.
  • The Plaza: Here, users can submit text, photos, links or video and their peers can vote on it to buoy it above other submissions. Yes, it’s a lot like Reddit.

All of these features need work and we’re moving furiously on a massive to-do list. But I look at everything with different eyes now. Soon, we’ll begin building our membership system into the site. Our 1,600 members will be able to check their status, learn about events they might want to attend, and get special alerts.

What we have is a new future. We can spend it constantly evolving to serve the community more in line with our mission and our business model.

We’re a long way from the vision Mayer described. But at least we started walking.

Scott Lewis is the CEO of Voice of San Diego. You can reach him at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or on Twitter at @vosdscott.

May 21 2013

18:44

Internet Archive plans to grow its TV news catalog

Thanks to new funding from Knight Foundation, the Internet Archive is expanding its collection of TV news broadcasts. The archive also plans to build a better search and user experience around the clips, which can only be viewed online and not downloaded.

The expansion plan is being supported by $1 million in funding from Knight Foundation. With this support, we will grow our TV News Search & Borrow service, which currently includes more than 400,000 broadcasts dating back to June 2009, to add hundreds of thousands of new broadcasts. This means helping inform and engage communities by strengthening the work of journalists, scholars, teachers, librarians, documentarians, civic organizations and others dedicated to public benefit.With TV News Search & Borrow, these folks can use closed captioning that accompany news programs to search for information. They can then browse short-streamed video clips and share links to specific ones.

September 05 2012

15:48

August 21 2012

14:30

Inside the Star Chamber: How PolitiFact tries to find truth in a world of make-believe

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair in the Star Chamber

WASHINGTON — PolitiFact’s “Star Chamber” is like Air Force One: It’s not an actual room, just the name of wherever Bill Adair happens to be sitting when it’s time to break out the Truth-O-Meter and pass judgment on the words of politicians. Today it’s his office.

Three judges preside, usually the same three: Adair, Washington bureau chief of the Tampa Bay (née St. Petersburg) Times; Angie Drobnic Holan, his deputy; and Amy Hollyfield, his boss.

For this ruling — one of four I sat in on over two days last month — Holan and Hollyfield are on the phone. Staff writer Louis Jacobson is sitting in. He is recommending a rating of False for this claim, from Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), but Hollyfield wants to at least consider something stronger:

83% of doctors have considered leaving the profession because of #Obamacare #repealandreplace

— Jeff Duncan (@Duncan4Congress) July 10, 2012

Hollyfield: Is there any movement for a Pants on Fire?

Adair: I thought about it, but I didn’t feel like it was far enough off to be a Pants on Fire. What did you think, Lou?

Jacobson: I would agree. Basically it was a case I think of his staff blindly taking basically what was in Drudge and Daily Caller. Should they have been more diligent about checking the fine print of the poll? Yes, they should have. Were they being really reckless in what they did? No. It was pretty garden-variety sloppiness, I would say. I don’t think it rises to the level of flagrancy that I would think of a Pants on Fire.

Adair: It’s just not quite ridiculous. It’s definitely false, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous.

This scene has played out 6,000 times before, but not in public view. Like the original Court of Star Chamber, PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter rulings have always been secret. The Star Chamber was a symbol of Tudor power, a 15th-century invention of Henry VII to try people he didn’t much care for. While the history is fuzzy, Wikipedia’s synopsis fits the chamber’s present-day reputation: “Court sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, no right of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses.”

PolitiFact turns five on Wednesday. Adair founded the site to cover the 2008 election, but the inspiration came one cycle earlier, when a turncoat Democrat named Zell Miller told tens of thousands of Republicans that Sen. John Kerry had voted to weaken the U.S. military. “Miller was really distorting his record,” Adair says, “and yet I didn’t do anything about it.”

The team won a Pulitzer Prize for the election coverage. The site’s basic idea — rate the veracity of political statements on a six-point scale — has modernized and mainstreamed the old art of fact-checking. The PolitiFact national team just hired its fourth full-time fact checker, and 36 journalists work for PolitiFact’s 11 licensed state sites. This week PolitiFact launches its second, free mobile app for iPhone and Android, “Settle It!,” which provides a clever keyword-based interface to help resolve arguments at the dinner table. (PolitiFact’s original mobile app, at $1.99, has sold more than 24,000 copies.) The site attracts about 100,000 pageviews per day, Adair told me, and that number will certainly rise as the election draws closer and politicians get weirder.

PolitiFact's "I Brake for Pants on Fire" bumper sticker

If your job is to call people liars, and you’re on a roll doing it, you can expect a steady barrage of criticism. PolitiFact has been under fire practically as long as it has existed, but things intensified earlier this year, when Rachel Maddow criticized PolitiFact for, in her view, botching a series of rulings.

In public, Adair responded cooly: “We don’t expect our readers to agree with every ruling we make,” is his refrain. In private, it struck a nerve.

“I think the criticism in January and February, added to some of the criticism we’ve gotten from conservatives over the months, persuaded us that we needed to make some improvements in our process,” Adair told me. “We directed our reporters to slow down and not try to rush fact-checks. We directed all of our reporters and editors to make sure that [they're] clear in the ruling statement.”

Adair made a series of small changes to tighten up the journalism. And for the first time he invited a reporter — me — to watch the truth sausage get made.

The paradox of fact-checking

To understand fact-checking is to accept a paradox: “Words matter,” as PolitiFact’s core principles go, and “context matters.”

Consider this incident recently all over the news: Harry Reid says some guy told him Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. It’s probably true. Some guy probably did say that to Harry Reid. But we can’t know for sure. To evaluate that statement is almost impossible without cooperative witnesses to the conversation.

Now, is Reid’s implication true? We can’t know that, either, not until someone produces evidence. So how does a fact checker handle this claim?

The Truth-O-Meter gave Reid its harshest ruling, “Pants on Fire,” a PolitiFact trademark reserved for claims it considers not only false but absurd. In the Star Chamber, judges ruled that Reid had no evidence to back up his claim.

“It is now possible to get called a liar by PolitiFact for saying something true,” complained James Poniewozik and others. But True certainly would not have sufficed, here not even Half True.

Maybe the Truth-O-Meter needs an “Unsubstantiated” rating. They considered it, but decided against it, Adair told me, “because of fears that we’d end up rating many, many things ‘unsubstantiated.’”

Whereas truth is complicated, elastic, subjective… the Truth-O-Meter is simple, fixed, unambiguous. In a way, this overly simplistic device embodies the problem PolitiFact is trying to solve.

“The fundamental irony is that the same technological changes and changes in the media system that make organizations like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org possible also make their work less effective, in that we do have this highly fragmented media environment,” said Lucas Graves, who recently defended his dissertation on fact-checking at Columbia University.

So the Truth-O-Meter is the ultimate webby invention: bite-sized, viral-ready. Whether that Pants on Fire for Reid was warranted or not, 4,300 shares on Facebook is pretty good. PolitiFact is not the only fact checker in town, but the Truth-O-Meter is everywhere; the same simplicity in its rating system that opens it to so much criticism also helps it spread, tweet by tweet.

“PolitiFact exists to be cited. It exists to be quoted,” Graves said. “Every Truth-O-Meter piece packages really easily and neatly into a five-minute broadcast segment for CNN or for MSNBC.” (In fact, Adair told me, he has appeared on CNN alone at least 300 times.)

PolitiFact political cartoon

Stories get “chambered,” in PolitiFact parlance, 10-15 times a week. Adair begins by reading the ruling statement — that is, the precise phrase or claim being evaluated — aloud. Then — and this is new, post-criticism — Adair asks four questions, highlighted in bold. (“Sounds like something from Passover, but the four questions really helps get us focused,” he says.)

Adair: We are ready to rule on the Jeff Duncan item. So the ruling statement is: “83 percent of doctors have considered leaving the profession because of ObamaCare.” Lou is recommending a False. Let’s go through the questions.

Is the claim literally true?

Adair: No.

Jacobson: No, using Obamacare.

Is the claim open to interpretation? Is there another way to read the claim?

Jacobson: I don’t think so.

Adair: I don’t think so.

Does the speaker prove the claim to be true?

Adair: No. Did you get in touch with Duncan?

Jacobson: Yes, and his office declined to speak. Politely declined.

Did we check to see how we handled similar claims in the past?

Adair: Yes, we looked at the — and this didn’t actually get included in the item…

Jacobson:The Glenn Beck item.

Adair: Was it Glenn Beck?

Jacobson: Two years ago.

Adair: I thought it was the editorial in the Financial Times or whatever. What was that?

Jacobson: Well, Beck was quoted citing a poll by Investors Business Daily.

Adair: Investors Business Daily, right.

Jacobson: We gave that a False too, I think. But similar issues, basically.

Adair: Okay. So we have checked how we handled similar things in the past. Lou is recommending a false. How do we feel about false?

Angie: I feel good.

Hollyfield: Yup.

Adair: Good. All right, not a lot of discussion on this one!

After briefly considering Pants on Fire, they agree on False.

Question No. 3 — Does the speaker prove the claim to be true? — ensures the reporter always talks to the person who made the statement. Among Maddow’s complaints was that she was never contacted for a False ruling on one of her claims.

Another change in the last year has created a lot of grief for PoitiFact: Fact checkers now lean more heavily on context when politicians appear to take credit or give blame. Which brings us to Rachel Maddow’s complaint. In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said:

In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.

PolitiFact rated that Half True, saying an executive can only take so much credit for job creation. But did he take credit? Would the claim have been 100 percent true if not for the speaker? Under criticism, PolitiFact revised the ruling up to Mostly True. Maddow was not satisfied:

You are a mess! You are fired! You are undermining the definition of the word “fact” in the English language by pretending to it in your name. The English language wants its word back. You are an embarrassment. You sully the reputation of anyone who cites you as an authority on “factishness,” let alone fact. You are fired.

Maddow (in addition to many, many liberals) was already mad about PolitiFact’s pick for 2011 Lie of the Year, that Republicans had voted, through the Ryan budget, to end Medicare. Of course, her criticism then was that PolitiFact was too literal.

“Forget about right or wrong,” Graves said. “There’s no right answer if you define ‘right’ as coming up with a ruling that everybody will agree with, especially when it comes to the question of interpreting things literally or taking an account out of context.” Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Graves, who identifies himself as falling “pretty left” on the spectrum, has observed PolitiFact twice: for a week last year and again for a three-day training session with one of PolitiFact’s state sites.

“One of the things that comes through clearest when you spend time with fact checkers…is that they have a very healthy sense that these are imperfect judgments that they’re making, but at the same time they’re going to strive to do them as fairly as possible. It’s a human endeavor. And like all human endeavors, it’s not infallible.”

A real live Truth-O-Meter

The truth is that fact-checking, and fact checkers, are kinda boring. What I witnessed was fair and fastidious; methodical, not mercurial. (That includes the other three (uneventful) rulings I watched.) I could uncover no evidence of PolitiFact’s evil scheme to slander either Republicans or Democrats. Adair says he’s a registered independent. He won’t tell me which candidate he voted for last election, and he protects his staff members’ privacy in the voting booth. In Virginia, where he lives, Adair abstains from open primary elections. Revealing his own politics would “suggest a bias that I don’t think is there,” Adair says.

“In a hyper-partisan world, that information would get distorted, and it would obscure the reality, which is that I think political journalists do a good job of leaving their personal beliefs at home and doing impartial journalism,” he says.

Does all of this effort make a dent in the net truth of the universe? Is moving from he-said-she-said to some form of judgment, simplified as it may be, “working?” Last month, David Brooks wrote:

A few years ago, newspapers and nonprofits set up fact-checking squads, rating campaign statements with Pinocchios and such. The hope was that if nonpartisan outfits exposed campaign deception, the campaigns would be too ashamed to lie so much.

This hope was naive. As John Dickerson of Slate has said, the campaigns want the Pinocchios. They want to show how tough they are.

“I don’t think we were naive. I’ve always said anyone who imagines we can change the behavior of candidates is bound to be disappointed,” said Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org. He was a pioneer of modern political fact-checking for CNN in the 1990s. “I suspect it is a fact that the junior woodchucks on the campaign staffs have now perversely come to value our criticism as some sort of merit badge, as though lying is a virtue, and a recognized lie is a bigger virtue.”

Rarely is there is a high political cost to lying. All the explainers in the world couldn’t completely blunt the impact of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s campaign to denigrate John Kerry’s military service. More recently, in July, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claimed Chinese prostitution money helped finance the campaign of a Republican Congressman in Ohio. PolitiFact rated it Pants on Fire.

That didn’t stop the DCCC from rolling out identical claims in Wisconsin and Tennessee. The DCCC eventually apologized. But which made more of an impression on voters, the original lie or the eventual apology from an amorphous nationwide organization?

Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College, has done a lot of research on the effects of fact-checking on the public. As he wrote for CJR:

It is true that corrective information may not change readers’ minds. My research with Georgia State’s Jason Reifler finds that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the most vulnerable ideological group and can even make them worse (PDF). Other research has reached similarly discouraging conclusions — at this point, we know much more about what journalists should not do than how they can respond effectively to false statements (PDF).

If the objective of fact-checking is to get politicians to stop lying, then no, fact-checking is not working. “My goal is not to get politicians to stop lying,” is another of Adair’s refrains. “Our goal is…to give people the information they need to make decisions.”

Unlike The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, who awards Pinocchios for lies, or PolitiFact, which rates claims on a Truth-O-Meter, Jackson’s FactCheck.org doesn’t reduce its findings to a simple measurement. “I think you are telling people we can tell the difference between something that is 45 percent true and 57 percent true — and some negative number,” he said, referring to Pants on Fire. “There isn’t any scientific objective way to measure the degree of mendacity to any particular statement.”

“I think it’s fascinating that they chose to call it a Truth-O-Meter instead of a Truth Meter,” Graves said. Truth-O-Meter sounds like a kitchen gadget, or a toy. “That ‘O’ is sort of acknowledging that this is a human endeavor. There’s no such thing as a machine for perfectly and accurately making judgments of truth.”

Political cartoon by Chip Bok used with permission.

August 17 2012

14:00

Next Knight News Challenge Calls for Mobile Visionaries

The Knight Foundation, which now offers three rounds of its News Challenge instead of one competition per year, just announced the theme of its next contest: mobile. This round focuses on funding innovators who are using mobile to change the face of the media industry.

iphone sky.jpg

Considerable growth in mobile Internet usage over the past few years has meant the way in which people consume news is undoubtedly shifting -- so it's not much of a surprise that mobile would be the theme of one of this year's rounds. In fact, several mobile players have already been the recipients of past News Challenge awards -- think MobileActive, FrontlineSMS, as well as Watchup, Behavio and Peepol.tv, which were winners of the round on networks.

"We know that we (and our kids) have grown attached to our mobile devices," Knight's John Bracken and Christopher Sopher wrote in a blog post announcing the round, "but we have less clarity about the ways people are using them, or might use them, as citizens, content producers and consumers to tell, share and receive stories."

move over, data

The announcement of the next theme comes as round 2, which focuses on data, moves onto the next stage. The round is now closed for submissions, and Knight's team of advisers has selected 16 finalists. They'll be doing interviews and video chats with the finalists over the next couple of weeks. Winners of the data round will be announced in September.

"We've focused the News Challenge this year on big opportunities in news and information -- networks, data and now mobile," Bracken and Sopher wrote in their post. "In some ways, mobile represents both the greatest need and greatest potential for individual citizens and news organizations."

The mobile round will be open to applicants starting on August 29, and Knight will accept entries until September 10.

August 13 2012

14:02

April 25 2012

14:00

52 Applicants Move to Next Round of Knight News Challenge

The Knight Foundation has selected 52 applicants that will move onto the next stage of its News Challenge.

klogo.jpg

There's a theme you'll see running through the proposals that have made it thus far -- namely, networking. That's because networks are the focus of this year's first round. (The Knight News Challenge now offers three rounds instead of one competition per year.)

What sort of networks? "The Internet, and the mini-computers in our pockets, enable us to connect with one another, friends and strangers, in new ways," Knight's John Bracken wrote in a release when the round was first announced. "We're looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools -- that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon."

Consultant Ryan Jacoby wrote further about some of the trends he saw among applicants. You can read more about that here.

Here's the list of who's moving onward to the next round of the challenge (49 are listed because two were closed entries so we're not able to share them):

Amauta (Eric French)

Asia Beat (Jeffrey Wasserstrom/Angilee Shah)

Bridging the Big Data Digital Divide (Dan Brickley)

Change the Ratio (Rachel Sklar)

CitJo (Sarah Wali/Mahamad El Tanahy)

Connecting the global Hacks/Hackers network (Burt Herman, Hacks/Hackers)

Connecting the World with Rural India (Brian Conley)

Cont3nt.com (Anton Gelman/Daniel Shaw)

Cowbird (Jonathan Harris/Aaron Huey)

Data Networks are Local (Erik Gundersen, Development Seed)

DifferentFeather (Elana Berkowitz/Amina Sow)

DIY drone fleets (Ben Moskowitz/Jack Labarba)

Docs to WordPress to InDesign (William Davis, Bangor Daily News)

Electoral College of Me (John Keefe/Ron Williams)

EnviroFact (Beth Parke/Chris Marstall)

Funf.org: Open Mobile Sourcing (Nadav Aharony/Alan Gardner; MIT)

Global Censorship Monitoring System (Ruben Bloemgarten, James Burke, Chris Pinchen)

Google News for the Social Web (Sachim Kandar, Andrew Montalenti, Parse.ly)

Hawaii Eco-Net (Jay April, Maui Community Television)

Hypothes.is (Dan Whaley/Randall Leeds)

IAVA New GI Bill Veterans Alumni Network Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (Paul Rieckhoff)

m.health.news.network (Marcus Messner and Yan Jin)

MediaReputations.com (Anton Gelman/Daniel Shaw)

Mesh Potato 2.0 (Steve Song/David Rowe)

Mobile Publishing for Everyone (David Jacobs/Blake Eskin/Natalie Podrazik)

NOULA (Tayana Etienne)

Peepol.tv (Eduardo Hauser/Jeff Warren)

PreScouter (Dinesh Ganesarajah)

Prozr (Pueng Vongs/Sherbeam Wright)

Rbutr (Shane Greenup/Craig O'Shannessy)

Recovers.org (Caitria O'Neill/Alvin Liang)

Secure, Anonymous Journalism Toolkit (Karen Reilly)

Sensor Networks for News (Matt Waite, University of Nebraska)

Shareable (Seth Schneider and Neal Gorenflo)

Tethr (Aaron Huslage/Roger Weeks)

The PressForward Dashboard (Dan Cohen/ Joan Fragaszy Troyano, George Mason University)

ThinkUpApp (Gina Trapani/Anil Dash)

Tracks News Stories (David Burrows, designsuperbuild.com)

Truth Goggles (Dan Schultz)

Truth Teller (Cory Haik/Steven Ginsberg, Washington Post)

Unconsumption Project (Rob Walker/Molly Block)

UNICEF GIS (Joseph Agoada, UNICEF)

Watchup (Adriano Farrano/Jonathan Lundell)

Water Canary (Sonaar Luthra/Zach Eveland)

A Bridge Between WordPress and Git (Robert McMillan / Evan Hansen)

In the Life (Joe Miloscia, American Public Media)

Get to the Source (Joanna S. Kao/MIT)

Farm-to-Table School Lunch (Leonardo Bonanni, Sourcemap)

Partisans.org (Michael Trice)

Protecting Journalists (Diego Mendiburu and Ela Stapley)

What do you think about the finalists? Who are your favorites and who do you think should win?

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.

April 10 2012

14:00

Mercer Center for Collaborative Journalism Aims to Put the 'Lab' in 'Collaboration'

April 1 marked my first month on the job as director of Mercer University's new Center for Collaborative Journalism. While the center doesn't open its doors until August, and the bulk of the program starts in late 2013, I already feel the pressure.

The vision established by Mercer, the Knight Foundation, and our media partners, The (Macon) Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting, could hardly be loftier -- not only establishing a new model for journalism education but also helping to transform local communities and save democracy itself. But it is the very audacity of that vision that, in two weeks' time, spun me around from plans to move to New York with my favorite magazine conglomerate to accepting an offer in Macon, Ga. (not long after telling my wife that Atlanta was "just too small" for me).

The ambition of the program is backed by $4.6 million in grants from the Knight Foundation and enabled by a unique collaborative arrangement between a liberal arts program, a public broadcaster and a daily newspaper. The center itself occupies the ground floor of a new development and houses the newsroom of The Telegraph, a McClatchy paper serving the region, and radio and television facilities for GPB. Students will take classes in the midst of a daily newsroom and radio station; some will even live in housing set aside for them above the center.

Students Embedded in Newsrooms

At the heart of the academic program is an adaptation of the medical school model of education. Students will train in a working newsroom, alongside professional journalists, throughout all four years of the program. Class projects will be integrated with the work of our media partners and the center's own digital news outlet (modeled after the University of North Carolina's reesenews).

Students will contribute to background research, shadow reporters, file reports, engage the community with social media, and perform most duties expected of a professional journalist. They will leave the program with a full portfolio of professional bylines, radio reports, and multimedia stories. This clinical model and high degree of collaboration offers students a truly unique experience.

Media Partners Working Together

Out of the gate, the community will benefit from the collaboration fostered in the center. GPB is tripling its local reporter presence and launching Macon Public Radio, making Macon the only community in Georgia, outside of Atlanta, to have significant locally focused public-radio programming. The university's journalism department is doubling its size and bringing in professionals skilled in digital media. And the combined efforts of The Telegraph and GPB allow for improved coverage.

The benefits of having a combined radio/newspaper newsroom were reinforced in a meeting with Dan Grech, news director at WLRN, which has a similar collaboration with The Miami Herald. (I believe we're the second outlet in the country to pursue this model.) Dan credits that collaboration with transforming WLRN's news department, allowing them to cover the area much better, with up to a four-fold increase in productivity. With all of the resources brought together by the center, we expect similarly transformational results.

Collaborating with the Citizens of Macon

While the collaboration of media partners and the university will fuel the center, I believe much of its success will depend on extending that collaboration. Students will need to leave the "Mercer bubble" to engage the community in new ways. Fortunately, that process began years ago, when Mercer went from an institution isolated by fences to a partner in the revitalization of, and a force for social justice in, Macon. The College of Liberal Arts implemented an experiential requirement, which often involves community service.

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For our student journalists to provide value and learn the real work of local journalism, they will need to view Macon as more than a stopping point on their way elsewhere. It will need to be their home and its citizens their collaborators in providing information, highlighting issues, and crafting solutions. Part of the center's grant provides for and requires two major community engagement projects each year -- projects where we seek the community's input on the issues most important to it and then work with our partners to investigate and report on those issues in depth.

The center will utilize tools such as the Public Insight Network, as well as low-tech, high-touch approaches, to engage the community in dialog. Various other community groups -- from a local television affiliate to the local arts alliance -- have already reached out to work with the center. Additionally, I envision working with local religious and civic organizations to get information to neglected segments of the community and to train their members in digital technology and media consumption.

Macon remains deeply divided along socioeconomic lines, with significant gaps in information dissemination and community attachment. By collaborating with existing organizations, the center has a real opportunity to help bridge the digital divide, close the information gap, and increase attachment.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

The center is housed in Mercer's College of Liberal Arts, which offers many key resources for collaboration. When I was an undergrad, several journalists advised my fellow students and me to find specific disciplines to study and use journalism as a way to explore and talk about those subjects. That mindset will undergird our new curriculum, where various tracks will train students to be environmental journalists, business reporters, or critics of the arts.

Proper training goes beyond simple double majors. It requires joint efforts from the faculty to not only train students in the substance of these fields but also in the nuances of conveying specific knowledge to a general public and of staying on top of controversies and advancements in those fields. My vision for this type of integration tracks closely with the yearlong seminars that form the core of Columbia University's M.A. in Journalism.

Beyond those core curricular structures, I envision particularly close collaboration with schools and departments in areas at the heart of the disruption in, and the way forward for, journalism: computer science and engineering, design, business, and social entrepreneurship (another exciting new program at Mercer). In addition to formal training across these disciplines, faculty and students will work together to constantly experiment with new technology, designs, and business models.

The center aims to put the "lab" in "collaboration." Imagine a journalism graduate who understands the core terminology of web and mobile technologies, how to experiment with various solutions, and how to evaluate various business models -- or a computer science graduate who understands the language and needs of journalism and the core drivers of its economic models. Add to that, exposure to agile methodologies and a continuous deployment environment where experiments are routinely pushed out and evaluated. I can think of nothing more valuable to a graduating student or a potential employer.

Transformation

When I started a month ago, I wondered if our moniker was broad enough (and modern enough) to contain our vision. Perhaps it should focus on "media" or "digital media" and point to innovation as its core. But I've come to regard "journalism" as capturing the civic responsibility at the core of our mission and "collaboration" as something much broader than the partnership between the university and our primary media partners.

Collaboration is the modus operandi that will power the transformation we seek.

Much of this vision has yet to be fleshed out in operational detail, and much work remains to actualize it. Success is not guaranteed. We need sharp students, willing partners, and the right structure. It seems we have the first two and are on our way to the last element. Undergirding all of this are remarkable energy and excitement throughout the university, our partners, and the community. It will take decades for our students to filter out into society and impact democracy, but it seems that a small transformation of those directly involved has already begun.

What are some examples of innovation in journalism education or media collaboration that we should examine as we build toward the vision I've outlined above?

Above photo by Flickr user Taber Andrew Bain.

Tim Regan-Porter is the inaugural director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University. Previously, he was co-founder and president of Paste Magazine, where he created Obamicon.Me and the Paste mPlayer. Prior to Paste, he spent a decade in web development as solutions architect at IBM's e-Business national practice and director of development at Enterpulse.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly described April 1 as the author's first day on the job.







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February 27 2012

22:09

New Knight News Challenge puts emphasis on pragmatists and builders

Now that the first new round of the Knight News Challenge is up and running there are a couple of things that seem to stand out, the biggest being the emphasis on speed and simplicity.

The speed part is not a surprise, given the fact that the $5 million innovation contest now takes place three times a year, with a gestation period of a little more than three months. (The application period runs from now till St. Patrick’s day. Winners are announced in June.) No, the interesting thing in today’s announcement was the dead simplicity of it all: A finished application will round out to about 450 words. And you can send it via Tumblr. (And, as you can see above, they’re also back with MOAR Michael Maness on the Internets. Also, a bewildered chihuahua.)

It seems like less of a start-up pitch session and more like a call for bids for a general contractor. And that may not be a bad thing.

As we’ve written before, Knight has a clear interest in improving the funding process for these projects. It has as much to do with their desire to get a social — or monetary — return in the investments they are making, as well as their mission to help transform journalism. What Knight is doing now is trying to shake out the best way to do that, and concise and complimentary are the guide words. Here’s John Bracken on the Knight blog:

We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools — that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon. Anyone — businesses, nonprofits, individuals — can apply.

That’s why I come back to the contractor idea (that, or too much HGTV). What Knight is saying, especially with the networks theme, is don’t design us a house, just make a better kitchen. We don’t need architects and entrepreneurs, we want plumbers and engineers. I may be reading too much into the word “build,” but the application seem to emphasize clarity, skill and a focused knowledge, rather than a grand vision for saving journalism.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with entrepreneurs or visionaries, and by no stretch will the eventual winners not be big thinkers. But in streamlining their funding process, diversifying the funding mechanisms (grants, loans or investment capital are now on the table), and hanging the first challenge on the concept of networks, Knight is saying journalism needs people whose creative vision is critical and tempered with pragmatism. There’s no shortage of dreamers and thinkers wanting to tackle the big problems in journalism — and there probably never will be — but Knight appears to be designing a contest that can get builders working on the basics today.

Clock’s ticking. Make sure to read more about the application process before the March 17 deadline.

Disclaimer: The Knight Foundation is a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab

06:50

Introducing Collaboration Central, a New Website From MediaShift

I still remember the feeling when my son, Julian, was born nearly 10 years ago -- a newborn, barely blinking, crying and groping his way through his young life. I think about all the preparation that went into his birth: the parenting classes, the baby manuals, buying all the gear. And then all that pain his mom went through. Oy!

Today, I'm happy to share a different kind of birth announcement: a new website from MediaShift called Collaboration Central. It's got all 10 fingers and toes, and an ambitious mission: to figure out how journalists can work together better in the digital age.

We have a culture as journalists to fight our competition for scoops, to get there first, to beat everyone else. But with the devastating cuts that have hit traditional news organizations, combined with the power of new technologies, more journalists are finding strength in numbers -- working together to cover more ground, tell better stories, and extend those stories onto multiple platforms in compelling ways.

Not Just 'Kumbaya'

We don't expect this to be a soft-focus campfire scene with people singing "Kumbaya" and holding hands. Collaboration is a matter of survival for many journalistic organizations struggling to find a business model in the age of the Internet. The surge of non-profit journalism outlets has been a proving ground for collaboration, and as the Texas Tribune's CEO Evan Smith told me late last year:

"We're going to either hang separately or survive together."

In Texas-speak, that means news orgs need to stay together if they want to live another day. Collaboration Central will be the roadmap to that very survival, with case studies on how others have handled collaborations, lessons learned, and what's gone right (and wrong). We've already built up coverage of the topic over the past couple years, largely about how public media outlets have collaborated with each other and with their communities.

We'll have original research from the "Collective Work" project that was embedded in the Post Mortem collaboration of ProPublica, NPR and Frontline for more than a year. We'll also have the aforementioned case studies, along with first-person accounts, best practices, helpful resources, and an upcoming hands-on Collaboration Central/Investigative Reporting Program event at UC Berkeley in April.

Plus, with Amanda Hirsch as editor of the site, we'll be looking beyond journalistic collaborations, and dig for lessons in other fields of interest, including technology, arts, science and beyond.

It Takes a Village

Just like my son's birth, the birth of Collaboration Central took a lot of preparation. We've been discussing and planning the site for quite some time. Getting it off the ground involved a partnership with the "Collective Work" project at the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, funding from the Knight Foundation, design by Vega Project, and development work by our tech guru Dan Schultz. ... not to mention the foresight and vision of editor Amanda Hirsch, the editing support of Desiree Everts, and sales and marketing strategy from Dorian Benkoil.

The last piece of the puzzle is you, the MediaShift community. We want to hear about your own triumphs in collaboration, the questions you might have, or tips you can share with everyone else. Our hope is that we will be able to grow the site with more interactive features, a database of case studies, and even a match-making service for collaborators.

But first ... let's let this new baby open its eyes and take its first few steps.

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. and Circle him on Google+

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February 10 2012

18:00

Still shaping the way people think about news innovation? A few reflections on the new KNC 2.0

As someone who probably has spent more time thinking about the Knight News Challenge than anyone outside of Knight Foundation headquarters — doing a dissertation on the subject will do that to you! — I can’t help but follow its evolution, even after my major research ended in 2010. And evolve it has: from an initial focus on citizen journalism and bloggy kinds of initiatives (all the rage circa 2007, right?) to a later emphasis on business models, visualizations, and data-focused projects (like this one) — among a whole host of other projects including news games, SMS tools for the developing world, crowdsourcing applications, and more.

Now, after five years and $27 million in its first incarnation, Knight News Challenge 2.0 has been announced for 2012, emphasizing speed and agility (three contests a year, eight-week turnarounds on entries) and a new topical focus (the first round is focused on leveraging existing networks). While more information will be coming ahead of the February 27 launch, here are three questions to chew on now.

Does the Knight News Challenge still dominate this space?

The short answer is yes (and I’m not just saying that because, full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Lab). As I’ve argued before, in the news innovation scene, at this crossroads of journalism and technology communities, the KNC has served an agenda-setting kind of function — perhaps not telling news hipsters what to think regarding the future of journalism, but rather telling them what to think about. So while folks might disagree on the Next Big Thing for News, there’s little question that the KNC has helped to shape the substance and culture of the debate and the parameters in which it occurs.

Some evidence for this comes from the contest itself: Whatever theme/trend got funded one year would trigger a wave of repetitive proposals the next. (As Knight said yesterday: “Our concern is that once we describe what we think we might see, we receive proposals crafted to meet our preconception.”)

And yet the longer answer to this question is slightly more nuanced. When the KNC began in 2006, with the first winners named in 2007, it truly was the only game in town — a forum for showing “what news innovation looks like” unlike any other. Nowadays, a flourishing ecosystem of websites (ahem, like this one), aggregators (like MediaGazer), and social media platforms is making the storyline of journalism’s reboot all the more apparent. It’s easier than ever to track who’s trying what, which experiments are working, and so on — and seemingly in real time, as opposed to a once-a-year unveiling. Hence the Knight Foundation’s move to three quick-fire contests a year, “as we try to bring our work closer to Internet speed.”

How should we define the “news” in News Challenge?

One of the striking things I found in my research (discussed in a previous Lab post) was that Knight, in its overall emphasis, has pivoted away from focusing mostly on journalism professionalism (questions like “how do we train/educate better journalists?”) and moved toward a broader concern for “information.” This entails far less regard for who’s doing the creating, filtering, or distributing — rather, it’s more about ensuring that people are informed at the local community level. This shift from journalism to information, reflected in the Knight Foundation’s own transformation and its efforts to shape the field, can be seen, perhaps, like worrying less about doctors (the means) and more about public health (the ends) — even if this pursuit of health outcomes sometimes sidesteps doctors and traditional medicine along the way.

This is not to say that Knight doesn’t care about journalism. Not at all. It still pours millions upon millions of dollars into clearly “newsy” projects — including investigative reporting, the grist of shoe-leather journalism. Rather, this is about Knight trying to rejigger the boundaries of journalism: opening them up to let other fields, actors, and ideas inside.

So, how should you define “news” in your application? My suggestion: broadly.

What will be the defining ethos of KNC 2.0?

This is the big, open, and most interesting question to me. My research on the first two years of KNC 1.0, using a regression analysis, found that contest submissions emphasizing participation and distributed knowledge (like crowdsourcing) were more likely to advance, all things being equal. My followup interviews with KNC winners confirmed this widely shared desire for participation — a feeling that the news process not only could be shared with users, but in fact should be.

I called this an “ethic of participation,” a founding doctrine of news innovation that challenges journalism’s traditional norm of professional control. But perhaps, to some extent, that was a function of the times, during the roughly 2007-2010 heyday of citizen media, with the attendant buzz around user-generated content as the hot early-adopter thing in news — even if news organizations then, as now, struggled to reconcile and incorporate a participatory audience. Even while participation has become more mainstream in journalism, there are still frequent flare-ups, like this week’s flap over breaking news on Twitter, revealing enduring tensions at the “collision of two worlds — when a hierarchical media system in the hands of the few collides with a networked media system open to all,” as Alfred Hermida wrote.

So what about this time around? Perhaps KNC 2.0 will have an underlying emphasis on Big Data, algorithms, news apps, and other things bubbling up at the growing intersection of computer science and journalism. It’s true that Knight is already underwriting a significant push in this area through the (also just-revised) Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project (formerly called the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership — which Nikki Usher and I have written about for the Lab). To what extent is there overlap or synergy here? OpenNews, for 2012, is trying to build on the burgeoning “community around code” in journalism — leveraging the momentum of Hacks/Hackers, NICAR, and ONA with hackfests, code-swapping, and online learning. KNC 2.0, meanwhile, talks about embracing The Hacker Way described by Mark Zuckerberg — but at the same time backs away a bit from its previous emphasis on open source as a prerequisite. It’ll be interesting to see how computational journalism — explained well in this forthcoming paper (PDF here) by Terry Flew et al. in Journalism Practice — figures into KNC 2.0.

Regardless, the Knight News Challenge is worth watching for what it reveals about the way people — journalists and technologists, organizations and individuals, everybody working in this space — talk about and make sense of “news innovation”: what it means, where it’s taking us, and why that matters for the future of journalism.

February 09 2012

22:36

KNC 2.0: The Knight News Challenge revamps to quicken the pace of journalism innovation

Since last year we’ve known the Knight Foundation would be revamping their annual innovation contest to better meet the pace of change in technology and information. After completing its initial five-year run — which saw 12,000 applications and $27 million in funding to journalism and information projects — Knight said they would pull back and examine how they could continue to fund that kind of experimentation in the future.

Today we know a lot more about what that will look like. The biggest change is to the calendar: Instead of one big competition a year, there’ll be three in 2012. The new News Challenge is more topic-focused: Two of this year’s contests will seek projects on specific themes, with the third remaining a catchall. And Knight is going farther than ever before to widen the kinds of people who might apply: removing its requirement to open-source the project’s work and emphasizing it will take appeals from individuals, nonprofits, for-profits, and presumably any organizational structure on land or sea. (You can get an idea of the kind of, er, stylistic freedom they’re preaching in the 1992-fever-dream video above.)

The emphasis is on speed — competitions will last no more than 8-10 weeks each, rather than the October-to-June cycle of some previous iterations. The total amount of money at stake remains about the same as before: a total of $5 million in this first year of the new model, Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation told me.

In the first installment of the new-look News Challenge, which opens Feb. 27 and closes on St. Patrick’s Day, the focus is on networks, a topic that’s purposefully broad. As they explained in the blog post introducing the new challenge:

There are a lot of vibrant networks and platforms, on- and off-line, that can be used to connect us with the news and information we need to make decisions about our lives. This challenge will not fund new networks. Rather, we’re asking you to describe ways you might use existing platforms to drive innovation in media and journalism.

When I asked Maness what that means, he said applicants should focus on how existing systems can be used to deliver information in new ways. Instead of coming to Knight with a pitch for the next Facebook, talk about how your proposal could use it better. “We’re saying there are already robust tools on the internet. Let’s use those,” Maness said. (Sorry, aspiring Zuckerbergs.)

For Knight, the networks that matter aren’t just your Facebooks and Twitters and Pinterests and LinkedIns. There’s also the network of Knight-funded projects, initiatives, and people. (A network that, full disclosure, includes this site, a Knight grantee.) Last year’s class of News Challenge winners included a number of projects that built on early News Challenge winners, and efforts like Knight’s “test kitchen” at Northwestern are aimed in part at assembling and recombining the pieces of other innovative efforts.

Other Knight grantees have long been a source of support and information for News Challenge winners, Maness said. But more broadly, those networks of existing technology and other platforms can be a stepping stone to success, and ultimately sustainability, he said. What Knight is saying, to a point, is your chances of making it increase if you aren’t starting from the ground floor, building something that might not have the momentum to survive once the funding runs out. “If something can grow and fend for itself it can have a broader impact,” Maness said.

By dropping the open-source requirement, Maness said the foundation can better help people on all ends of the spectrum, from early-stage projects to those that are already established. One example: a company that might need a nudge to get to the next level but don’t want to show their code just yet. But Maness said Knight still wants to encourage open-source development because that can help future projects and, on a philosophical level, is good for the web. “Ultimately our goal is social return on what we do, so [a project] has to be something that makes sense to what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.

The overarching message seems to be a desire to cast as wide a net as possible to spur innovation in journalism and community information. By pulling back on past restrictions, while emphasizing things like impact and scalability, Knight is also trying to be a smarter, more agile organization that can ensure a return (even if its not a monetary one) on their investments. In that same way, they also want to leverage the institutions, people, and technology that are already available in the world of journalism — especially those Knight helped lay the groundwork for.

And they want to do it fast — faster than a year at a time. “Over the course of five years, what started as being radical at the time…the speed of the Internet and disruption happened so much faster,” Maness said. “We wanted to focus on making a contest that was faster and more nimble.”

January 19 2012

15:20

Why PRX, Knight Created an Accelerator for Public Media

We announced PRX's partnership with the Knight Foundation to create the Public Media Accelerator about a month ago. Since then, it's become clear that the accelerator concept is new to many people in the non-profit and public media worlds, even as tech folks fret that accelerators have jumped the shark.

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Our tagline for the Public Media Accelerator is "seeking mission-driven entrepreneurs changing media for good." We're in a time of remarkable technology innovation, and our goal is to channel the forces driving that growth towards public service media.

The two forces, the tech sector and public media, need each other: The tech sector will gain from public media's high-quality content, commitment to community, and public service mission; and public media will gain from technology's network efficiencies, professional and social connections, and radical new distribution paths.

As we spend the early weeks of this venture fleshing out our thinking and surveying the landscape, I thought I'd share both a snapshot of the accelerator scene and some of the issues triggering discussion at the Public Media Accelerator.

What's an accelerator?

Accelerators are organizations focused on early stage investment in technology startups, providing a mix of financing, mentorship and other support to help launch new companies with the potential for explosive growth.

Most accelerators boil down to a few essentials:

  1. Funding -- Typically for-profit accelerators provide $20k-$50k and take approximately 5% in equity.
  2. Founding teams -- The participants are small teams, often 2-3 people, who are proto-founders of a company organized around a product/service vision.
  3. Program and process -- The accelerator creates a structure and curriculum, typically offered in an intensive residential 2-3 month sprint.
  4. Networking and expertise -- There's enormous value in the accelerator's ability to match teams with experienced mentors, advisers and investors who assist the teams on design, product, marketing, business development, and more.
  5. Space and logistical support -- Often there is co-working space and light infrastructure support for the teams during the in-person sessions.
  6. Demo day -- The process culminates in a showcase of the team's products at a "demo day" for investors and press.

Accelerators are popping up all over. TechStars, one of the leaders in the field, has even franchised the model to support new accelerators around the world. Xconomy tracks 64 of them in its latest annual report. Budding entrepreneurs, faced with so many options, can use the "Unified Seed Accelerator Application" form to apply to numerous accelerators in one fell swoop.

A growing trend that includes the Public Media Accelerator is "vertical" accelerators that focus on a particular industry, platform or other niche. Examples include Rockhealth, which targets startups in health care and FinTech for financial tech. There are a growing number with social missions, including one of my favorites, the Unreasonable Institute. And just last week Code for America announced a forthcoming accelerator targeting "civic startups."

accelerators shifting into high gear

With so many groups with money and advice to give, are there enough takers? The answer is yes -- plenty, in fact -- although there is growing competition for the best teams and ideas. The fact is that today the costs of creating a startup are much lower by virtue of cloud computing and other tech efficiencies; the growth of Internet and mobile access has created a global market and means of distribution; entrepreneurial culture has taken root among enterprising developers; the high-profile successes of Internet startups and Y Combinator/TechStars alumni have inspired follow-on models.

The most obvious and meaningful benchmark of success is the number of companies in the accelerator's portfolio that secure follow-on financing, and, further downstream, a successful "exit" in an acquisition, IPO or profitability.

While the ingredients for what goes into an accelerator can be broken out and reassembled, the special sauce is the unique mix of the accelerator management team's judgment, talent, relationships, experience, and pure luck of the draw in shepherding companies through to further funding, growth and profit.

It's clear that public media needs its own accelerator -- attuned to the needs and assets of the industry and connected to the talent and energy in the broader technology and media world.

The PRX Knight team has our own special sauce, but our measure of success is not profits and exits per se -- it's furthering the values and impact of public service media, with sustainability and revenue being critical to create a lasting effect. We decided early on that the Public Media Accelerator would look for both for-profit and non-profit opportunities (something Knight Foundation has started to explore recently through its Enterprise Fund).

There are a number of for-profit organizations in public media -- production companies, service providers, subsidiaries, etc. But the vast majority of the system -- local stations, distributors, and national networks including PRX itself -- are non-profits. And many of the sources of revenue are contingent upon non-profit status -- CPB grants, foundation and government funding, individual donations, FCC-regulated broadcast sponsorship. To my knowledge, there are no venture-backed companies focused on public media, in part because a traditional definition of the market is too small to target.

finding the right mix of for-profit and non-profit

So why would the Public Media Accelerator be open to for-profit investments? Would the same ingredients hold together in a purely non-profit context? How do we harness the for-profit energy that attracts top talent and aligns incentives in the standard accelerator model, while advancing the mission-driven principles at the core of the venture?

First, while we will not restrict the accelerator to one funding path, we recognize that for-profits and non-profits require different structures and approaches to be effective. In some cases we will help pioneer new hybrid models that straddle both.

Second, we want to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the grant-driven, project-based funding that has been the means of innovation funding in the industry to date. These efforts tend to be incremental, short-lived, and at best result in "sustaining" rather than "disruptive" innovation (using Clayton Christensen's well-known construct). It's not hard to see why disruptive innovations tend to come from outside successful organizations and industries rather than from within. The Public Media Accelerator has the opportunity to change this dynamic: Knight and PRX have significant standing and relationships in public media, but are also accomplished risk-takers without the legacies and limits of many public media institutions.

Third, we see the accelerator model as a way to attract new talent into the field. While we anticipate working with a number of the current forward-leaning teams within the industry, our opportunity is to expand the pool, and inspire and enable a new cadre of public media entrepreneurs (also address the developer gap I blogged about here recently). We take our own inspiration from Mozilla, Wikipedia, Code for America, and the growing number of mission-driven technology efforts that aspire to and achieve success on an Internet scale. Technologists and entrepreneurs want to make meaningful things, and public media should embrace them.

What are we looking for?

We've said two areas of interest are mobile and monetization, but we are also intentionally leaving a wide open door for ideas that break the mold. Our evolving list of criteria includes:

Mission-driven: The ideas should encompass public media's mission and values as an impact goal, not merely a side effect.

Disruptive: We're excited about ideas that change the game through some systemic or business model insight, more so than smart improvements to the way things already work.

Scalable/replicable: Ideas should have the potential to scale to significant impact and business sustainability or be replicable by others.

The Public Media Accelerator is not a content fund, but we'll seek to connect content in ways that deepen its value and impact and address the business model of its production and distribution.

We still have a number of open questions as we get underway, but rather than attempt to answer them all, we're taking our own advice and launching the Public Media Accelerator as a lean startup of its own -- building as we go, trusting in a talented team, being ready to pivot, actively networking and learning from advisers and mentors, and relentlessly focused on the mission of transforming public media. (We are still accepting applications for the director position, a terrific opportunity to help lead the media revolution.)

Follow us on Twitter (@publicmediax and on the Public Media Accelerator site.

January 11 2012

19:00

The Philadelphia Experiment: Why a media company wants to be a tech incubator

One side effect of downsizing at most newspapers: a surplus of office space. That may be a cold blooded way of seeing the empty desks that haunt newsrooms and advertising departments, but in an era where newspapers get bought largely for the value of their underlying real estate, the fact is that’s square footage that could be put to use.

Consider the example of the Philadelphia Media Network, owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, which has welcomed three startups inside their walls with the launch of the Project Liberty Digital Incubator. Thanks to some funds from the Knight Foundation the media company is offering itself up as a rent-free test kitchen for six months to CloudMine, SnipSnap, and ElectNext, early-stage tech companies starting out in Philly.

PMN isn’t offering up a couch to crash on purely out of the kindness of its heart: As a condition of the incubator they get an early look at whatever apps, tools, or projects the teams are working on. That would be great in itself, particularly because the companies are focused on markets that align with newspapers: SnipSnap is working on an app to scan and save coupons for mobile, ElectNext is building an app to help better connect voters to candidates, and CloudMine is creating a platform for seamless app development.

But what PMN wants more is to better expose their staffs to the world of startups and tech. There are clear lessons for journalism from people whose work emphasizes identifying audiences, monetization, and rapid iteration. If the journalists and geeks can bump into one another, there’s potential for some beneficial cross-pollination, Philadelphia Media Network CEO Gregory Osberg told me. The media network is working on its own digital offerings (Remember, this is the same company offering Android tablets to readers) and the best way to get that process to speed up is through learning from companies operating in markets like e-commerce and mobile, Osberg said. The three companies each signed non-disclosure agreements to gain access to PMN data that might be helpful as they progress their work. That means within the next few months, we could see apps from the three companies branded under the Inquirer, Daily News, or Philly.com.

It’s like having a skunkworks without paying full retail price. In the media world, that’s a bonus considering the length of time it takes to recruit and build a team of developers, producers, and others who want to work in journalism. Even better: After this six-month period, they’ll bring in a fresh group of tech companies for a new round. “This takes us to market much quicker than if we were to staff up, which takes a big investment but takes a long time in the product development cycle,” Osberg said.

One thing Osberg is clear about is that while CloudMine, ElectNext, and SnipSnap are in the building and sharing the elevator with the rest of the staff of the media network, they’re not employees — their work is their property. And that’s a good thing. “We’re rooting for their success,” Osberg said. “We’re not here to absorb their companies or slow them down. We’re here to stimulate and become a catalyst for them.”

Lots of media companies are trying to adopt the methods, philosophy and talent of the independent (read: non-journalism related) tech community. In some cases, it’s through straight-up acquisitions (CNN and Zite, Financial Times and Assanka). Other times, it’s investment, as with Digital First Media, which runs the Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group, announcing its own plans to invest in startups that align with corners of the journalism business like advertising, content, and audience development.

The Boston Globe has an informal incubator with people from a half-dozen small firms at various stages of development, all working out of the Globe’s headquaters. Jeff Moriarty, vice president of digital products for the Globe, told me over email “We had extra space here at the Globe and wanted to create an environment around our digital lab and digital development area where we have smart people working on interesting things.” The companies (Twine, Muckrock, Schedit, among others), work in areas like video and social media, were a natural fit, and could provide support to the Globe’s own products in the future. “We figure that the more smart people we have in the room, the better our opportunities to test and explore new ideas and also to expand our network of contacts in the digital space in Boston,” he said.

In many cases, media companies are taking a quieter approach, offering hack day events like those at the Globe and The New York Times. Or it’s through grant-funded collaborations like the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Fellows, which dropped developers right in the middle of newsrooms at places like Al Jazeera English, Zeit Online, The Guardian, and the Globe.

When I asked Osberg what would the best outcome for the project, he talked in terms of the impact to the Philadelphia community, not just his media properties. “Success would be that we would have some of their technology utilitized in our product offerings, and that they were able to leverage the success of that offering in the marketplace to take their company to the next level,” he said.

Image by the University of Iowa Libraries used under a Creative Commons license

December 08 2011

15:00

A Y Combinator for public media: PRX, Knight launch a $2.5 million accelerator

A new Public Media Accelerator, funded by $2.5 million from the Knight Foundation, will rapidly fund disruptive ideas in public media, PRX announced today.

Public Media Accelerator logoThe final details are still being worked out, but the accelerator is modeled on successful startup-focused initiatives like TechStars and Y Combinator. Technologists and digital storytellers will compete for cash to build their ideas. Winners will come to Cambridge for intensive, 12-week development cycles, under the guidance of mentors with deep experience in the field, all culminating in a demo day and the chance to win additional rounds of funding.

“In the digital domain we’re not setting the pace for innovation in the same way we did in the broadcast world,” said Jake Shapiro, the executive director of PRX. The accelerator is welcoming both nonprofit and for-profit ventures, unusual for public media. Shapiro said he wants to attract top talent, people who might never consider the field otherwise.

Last week, writing for Idea Lab, Shapiro said he observed a “worrisome gap” between coders and storytellers, estimating that fewer than 100 of the 15,000 people in public broadcasting are developers :

As public broadcasting goes through its own turbulent transition to a new Internet and mobile world, the technology talent gap is a risk that looms large. Yes, there are many other challenges…But the twin coins of the new digital realm are code and design, and with a few notable exceptions, public media is seriously lacking in both.

A shortage of innovation is not unique to public media, he told me. Nonprofits suffer constraints on financing ideas to scale, a lack of risk capital, and a lack of investment in deep R&D and technology, Shapiro said. The accelerator “gives license to risk in a more intentional way, and we definitely need more of that.”

The Public Media Accelerator is also another sign the Knight Foundation is taking cues from Silicon Valley’s startup culture. Knight will retain a financial stake in for-profit ventures that receive seed money, moving away from its traditional role as pure philanthropist. Earlier this year, Knight launched a venture-capital enterprise fund. And in October, senior adviser Eric Newton said the annual Knight News Challenge, a five-year experiment, will speed up to three times per year, starting in 2012.

“As we’ve started funding more smaller entities and startups, that model makes a lot more sense for us,” said Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation. “That model allows us to go smaller, faster, more nimble.”

Even the program came together fast: Shapiro approached Maness and Knight’s John Bracken with the idea in July. Board approval came in September, and the project will formally get underway at SXSW Interactive in March.

So if for-profits are making public media and funders are buying stakes in startups, is it “public media” anymore? What is public media, anyway?

“It’s about intent and values and goals and impact,” Shapiro said. “I’ve been in endless philosophical conversations about ‘what is public media’ over the years, and in some cases there are examples of pub media that are completely outside our field. I think on good days The Daily Show is public media…I think Wikipedia is public media. I’d rather just claim them than have to reinvent them,” he said, half-joking.

The Public Media Accelerator immediately begins searching for a director to administer the fund and an advisory board. Shapiro, Manness, and Bracken will remain as advisers.

September 15 2011

20:46
18:23

8 Ways Tech-Based Foundations Are Changing Philanthropy

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Not so long ago, most major U.S. foundations fit the image of the giant East Coast institution, rooted in fortunes made by titans of the manufacturing and extractive industries. For decades, the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller foundations carried out sweeping programs on a scale that rivaled those of governments. Many public reforms and institutions were buoyed by their efforts, including public broadcasting, public libraries, and the Green Revolution.


But in recent years that primacy has been challenged by a host of new foundations, rooted in the digital communications and technology sector, that are rewriting the rules of American philanthropy. They don't always march in lockstep or speak with one voice, but they are generating a new philanthropic culture nonetheless.

Here are eight ways in which the new tech philanthropies are making their mark:

1. Their footprint is large and growing. In fact, tech-based donors represent the fastest-growing sector in U.S. philanthropy today. This claim could be based on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alone. Founded in 1994 with an endowment of $94 million in Microsoft stock, it immediately experienced dramatic growth. This was further galvanized by Warren Buffett's 2006 contribution equivalent to $30 billion, which was to be paid out over a number of years.

The Foundation Center's list of last available audited statements (as of July 2011 at this writing) places the Gates Foundation's assets at nearly $34 billion at the end of 2009. This is more than the assets of the three next largest U.S. foundations listed (Ford, J. Paul Getty, and Robert Wood Johnson) combined.

In recent years, Gates has been joined by a number of other donors from the tech community, among them eBay's Pierre and Pam Omidyar, founders of the Omidyar Network; eBay's Jeffrey Skoll, founder of the Skoll Foundation; and the Google philanthropic arm known as google.org. Not only are these organizations built on vast new fortunes, their assets are also often neutral or even counter-cyclical compared with traditional foundations' portfolios.

2. They are generating new organizational cultures. Institutions tend to mirror the dominant administrative cultures of their origins, and foundations are no different. The new tech-based philanthropies, rooted in startup culture, tend to be distrustful of big bureaucracy and admiring of innovation. The Gates Foundation began in Seattle with a bare-bones staff that had to be doubled in 2006 when the Warren Buffett contribution arrived. The Omidyar Network dispensed with traditional titles to indicate its idiosyncratic approach to the funding process. (This decision included the word "foundation." One of the network's alternate labels is "philanthropic investment firm.") Omidyar programs are shaped by individuals whose titles include "principal" and "managing partner." The network collaborates with "partners" rather than funding grantees. The Omidyar Network is also pioneering the use of social investment, investing in for-profit companies for the sake of social impact, at times acquiring equity in the process.


Thumbnail image for omidyarnetwork.png Many of the new foundations favor a "venture capital" approach to their grants, in which many new projects are seeded with the expectation that a number of them will fail, and the successful models will proceed to the next level of support. This approach often places a heavy emphasis on project monitoring and evaluation as part of the ongoing funding process.

3. They promote a global perspective. The Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation were deeply involved with the architecture of the Marshall Plan that rescued Europe from the ashes of World War II. Now the Gates Foundation and its counterparts are taking a close look at the developing world, and at Africa and India in particular. The Gates Foundation's three program areas are global health, global development (with a strong emphasis on Africa and India), and U.S. programs (with a primary focus on education). The Omidyar Network's portfolio includes a number of projects in India and Africa. Google's philanthropy has experimented with a number of different approaches, among them pro bono tech projects and public health initiatives in Africa. Some of these global initiatives include surprising new approaches, such as Jeff Skoll's Participant Media, which finances films to advance public education on critical global issues. Participant's most recent project is Contagion, a feature film that portrays the world in the grip of a rapid-fire pandemic. The project features a public education website, and its advisors included public health expert Dr. Larry Brilliant, formerly the head of Google's philanthropy and currently president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund.

JeffSkoll-low-res-276x300.jpg

4. They're still in motion. Some of the older technology-based foundations include the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (founded in 1964) and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (founded in 1967). These foundations have been around long enough to define their portfolios and institutional approaches, and bear a stronger resemblance to traditional East Coast foundations. But their younger cousins are far from set in their ways. The Case Foundation was founded by former AOL CEO Steve Case and his wife Jean in 1997. Google was only launched as a project in 1996, and google.org wasn't formed until 2004. Google is still adapting the administrative structures for philanthropy, with an increasing role played by various policy and regional offices.

Google has made a habit of experimentation in philanthropy as it has elsewhere. It has included traditional grant-making, staff volunteer projects, and the creation of online platforms for worthy causes, such as online crisis mapping to help disaster victims locate missing friends and relatives. (Google's philanthropic projects include the Google Foundation, a subset of google.org.)

case-foundation.jpg

5. They believe in "social entrepreneurship." Digital media celebrates a culture of grassroots participation, so it's no surprise that many of their foundation portfolios feature projects in micro-finance, anti-censorship, and public participation in good governance. The Case Foundation has experimented with the Make It Your Own Awards, in which individuals are invited to suggest "citizen centered" solutions to their community problems and compete for $25,000 grants to implement them -- chosen by a public online voting process. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is based in Miami with origins in the newspaper industry, but it has moved decisively into the spheres of digital media and tech-based philanthropy. Knight has not only pioneered its News Challenge as an online public competition for digital media grants; it has also forged new approaches to collaboration among philanthropies with shared goals.

6. Their funding interests often reflect their core businesses. It's only natural that foundations that arose from the digital revolution would take a strong interest in innovators in the field. The Omidyar Network and Google have recently made major grants to the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization that supports Wikipedia, as well as to Global Voices, an international blogging community, and its academic birthplace, the Berkman Center at Harvard. Tech-based philanthropy also displays a strong affinity for other areas of science and technology, especially medical science and public health. The Gates Foundation has undertaken massive public health campaigns involving vaccinations, malaria eradication and nutrition in the developing world; the Omidyar Network and google.org have also made important contributions.

7. Individual and institutional philanthropy are both significant, and are sometimes carried out simultaneously. Pierre Omidyar's wife Pam was a co-founder of the Omidyar Network, and also founded two other philanthropic enterprises, Humanity United and HopeLabs. A large community of individual philanthropists is taking shape in the tech sector, and their influence is certain to be felt in coming years. Nor will they all be American. Skype, which was founded by Scandinavians and is based in Luxembourg, has been exploring new philanthropic avenues, including technological support on behalf of social good. A new generation of Indian philanthropists has emerged in recent years, such as Dr. Abraham George, a technology entrepreneur who created the George Foundation to promote projects in health, education, and poverty alleviation.

8. They're West Coast-oriented. This point is less obvious than it may seem. For decades, much U.S. foundation activity was concentrated in the Northeast Corridor, running from Washington through New York to Boston. This route involved heavy traffic with the federal government, New York media and cultural institutions, and northeastern universities. The new corridor involves Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. (It is noteworthy that while the Case foundation is based in Washington, D.C., and the Gates Foundation has a Washington office, none of the organizations mentioned in this article maintain a foundation office in New York.)

Many Americans can describe themselves as "bi-coastal," but important cultural distinctions still exist. The West Coast elite have a different relationship to the news media than their East Coast counterparts. To start with, they read different newspapers -- and may not look for their news in newspapers at all. They naturally have more ties to Stanford and Berkeley and fewer to Harvard and Yale. They will be more attentive to Asian and Latin American culture and less concerned with Europe than their East Coast counterparts. Most importantly, theirs is a technology-driven environment that still carries the expectation that innovation can fuel growth.

This is not to say that East Coast foundations have disappeared from the media scene. The Open Society Foundations, based on the fortune of financier George Soros, has major offices in New York and London. It provides some $50 million a year to media projects, many of them devoted to freedom of expression and grassroots digital democracy efforts around the world. The Ford Foundation also plays a major role in supporting freedom of expression and international media development. The MacArthur Foundation funds an innovative array of programs in which media, human rights, and international development converge.

But other traditional players of the past have receded from the field. The New York Times Foundation has closed its doors and the Tribune Foundation has retrenched, while the Freedom Forum has dedicated much of its recent funding activity to the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

These trends have increased the relative influence of the West Coast donor community, but there have also been signs of increased consultation and collaboration among the various donors. Ideally, the surge of the tech-based donor activity can usher in a new age of American philanthropy, combining the energy of the new institutions with the experience of traditional foundations, to offer the world a much-needed array of innovative solutions.

This article is adapted from forthcoming issue of Anthony Knerr & Associates' publication, Strategy Matters

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). She consults on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. Her most recent book is Red Orchestra. She tweets as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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18:00

Community PlanIt turns civic engagement into a game — and the prize is better discourse

If you’ve ever attended a Boston school committee meeting, you know that it can be the opposite of “bowling alone.”

Community PlanIt logoThis community is not only engaged but raucous: At one meeting, protestors carried in a casket and tombstone to symbolize budget cuts. At another, parents fought with police trying to block a packed chamber. Fed up with the booing and shouting and constant interruptions, the committee drafted a code of conduct to try to keep people in line.

But along with trying to curb negative behavior, the committee is trying a civic-media experiment aimed at generating positive behavior. Today the Boston Public Schools is adopting Community PlanIt, a web-based social network that turns planning — in this case, designing standards for gauging school performance — into a big game. Teachers, students, parents, and administrators alike are encouraged to play (nicely), and participation is rewarded with virtual currency. It’s an attempt to apply game dynamics to the pedestrian world of public comment.

The platform was created by Eric Gordon, an Emerson College professor who has done a lot of work with civic media and gameification at his Engagement Game Lab. (See also: Participatory Chinatown.) It’s a nonprofit, Knight Foundation-funded project that Gordon plans to make open-source. He walked me through the project a few days ahead of the launch.

Users log in to find a familiar social dashboard that displays recent activity. Every few days, BPS assigns a new “mission” that includes dozens of thought exercises based around one of the ways local schools are evaluated. For example, a mission called “Proficiency” leads with a secret-agent-style video introducing the concept (which will be broadcast in homerooms at Boston’s English High every week).

Participants are asked to answer cerebral multiple-choice questions and essays, some with graphics and maps. An example: “How much do you agree with the following statement: Some students should get more than 4 years to graduate — and schools should be given credit for getting these students to graduate eventually? Explain your answer in a comment.”

Users earn “tokens” for completing activities. The more tokens you earn, the higher you ascend on the community leaderboard. (Kids love racking up points, Gordon said, even if there’s no actual prize.) You spend the tokens on the values you support, such as “School Environment and Safety” or “Family and Community Engagement.”

At the end of a 35-day trial, all of the participants will gather at a special meeting — in real life — to talk about what they learned. At that point, Gordon hopes, the issues will have been explained and hashed out, and people will already know each other. A pie chart of aggregate token spending will demonstrate visually how the community prioritizes its values.

Gordon said 600 people have pre-registered.

The key to making this work, he says, is student involvement. Kids don’t necessarily like to hang out online where the adults are. Those kids in the secret-agent video? They are being paid small stipends to serve as “technology interpreters,” sort of the educational equivalent of guerilla marketers. They are spreading the word about the platform and helping people use it.

“The youth are the ones who are going to know how to use this thing without even thinking, and they’re going to be much more savvy, even though the content may not be as interesting to them,” Gordon said. “Setting up a place where the adults rely on the youth to make this process meaningful is really what we want to do.”

The students will attend the meeting at the end of the trial, and Gordon said BPS will make a point of highlighting the most interesting contributions to come from youth. And to make sure everyone has a shot, BPS has contributed about $5,000 to the project to translate all of the content into Spanish and Haitian Creole, the other languages most commonly spoken at home.

“What you often see at a meeting is, ‘Write your public comments on a sticky.’ And you have no idea what happens to those things.”

The first Community PlanIt pilot happened earlier this year in Lowell, Mass., which sought community input on that city’s master plan. In that nine-day trial, 175 participants contributed more than 1,000 comments and spent more than 400 tokens, he said.

Gordon has since redesigned the user interface in response to user feedback and made other adjustments. For example, Lowell did not require participants to provide demographic data such as race, ethnicity, geographic location, and income. Hardly anyone filled it out, and the city said much of the data was unusable as a result. On the Boston Public Schools site, users will have to fill that out upfront — which could deter participation. That’s the trade-off, Gordon says: low barriers to participation versus high-quality data.

So what if the Boston project is wildly successful? Might Gordon have a wonderful problem — too much community feedback? It might sound cynical, he says, but a lot of city planners don’t want a lot of community feedback. Too many cooks in the kitchen. I mean, Apple makes great products and never does focus groups. So there can be resistance at the government level to projects like his.

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Gordon does not see his platform as more so much as better. “What you often see at a meeting is, ‘Write your public comments on a sticky.’ And you have no idea what happens to those things. So this does a couple of things: It creates a public record of those comments so that they’re there and they will continue to be there, and then it has a clear sort of path between conversation and values.”  Community PlanIt is a like a long pre-meeting, a place to separate the wheat from the chaff, a place to filter out the back-chatter and squabbling that steamrolls progress. Gordon said he is “under no illusions this will absolve the vitriol” at school committee meetings, but it’s a start.

There are some websites doing similar work, such as Change By Us, which is live in New York and expanding soon to Seattle and Philadelphia, and the Nebraska for-profit MindMixer. Gordon said he is in talks with Boston’s southern neighbor, Quincy, to bring Community PlanIt to that city.

August 03 2011

14:00

Transparency, iteration, standards: Knight-Mozilla’s learning lab offers journalism lessons of open source

This spring, the Knight Foundation and Mozilla took the premise of hacks and hackers collaboration and pushed it a step further, creating a contest to encourage journalists, developers, programmers, and anyone else so inclined to put together ideas to innovate news.

Informally called “MoJo,” the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership has been run as a challenge, the ultimate prize being a one-year paid fellowship in one of five news organizations: Al Jazeera English, the BBC, the Guardian, Boston.com, and Zeit Online.

We’ve been following the challenge from contest entries to its second phase, an online learning lab, where some 60 participants were selected on the basis of their proposal to take part in four weeks of intense lectures. At the end, they were required to pitch a software prototype designed to make news, well, better.

Through the learning lab, we heard from a super cast of web experts, like Chris Heilmann, one of the guys behind the HTML5 effort; Aza Raskin, the person responsible for Firefox’s tabbed browsing; and John Resig, who basically invented the jQuery JavaScript library; among other tech luminaries. (See the full lineup.)

There was a theme running through the talks: openness. Not only were the lectures meant to get participants thinking about how to make their projects well-designed and up to web standards, but they also generally stressed the importance of open-source code. (“News should be universally accessible across phones, tablets, and computers,” MoJo’s site explains. “It should be multilingual. It should be rich with audio, video, and elegant data visualization. It should enlighten, inform, and entertain people, and it should make them part of the story. All of that work will be open source, and available for others to use and build upon.”)

We also heard from journalists: Discussing the opportunities and challenges for technology and journalism were, among other luminaries, Evan Hansen, editor-in-chief of Wired.com; Amanda Cox, graphics editor of The New York Times; Shazna Nessa, director of interactive at the AP; Mohamed Nanabhay, head of new media at Al Jazeera English; and Jeff Jarvis.

In other words, over the four weeks of the learning lab’s lectures, we heard from a great group of some of the smartest journalists and programmers who are thinking about — and designing — the future of news. So, after all that, what can we begin to see about the common threads emerging between the open source movement and journalism? What can open source teach journalism? And journalism open source?

Finding 1:
* Open source is about transparency.
* Journalism has traditionally not been about transparency, instead keeping projects under wraps — the art of making the sausage and then keeping it stored inside newsrooms.

Because open-source software development often occurs among widely distributed and mostly volunteer participants who tinker with the code ad-hoc, transparency is a must. Discussion threads, version histories, bug-tracking tools, and task lists lay bare the process underlying the development — what’s been done, who’s done it, and what yet needs tweaking. There’s a basic assumption of openness and collaboration achieving a greater good.

Ergo: In a participatory news world, can we journalists be challenged by the ethics of open source to make the sausage-making more visible, even collaborative?

No one is advocating making investigative reporting an open book, but sharing how journalists work might be a start. As Hansen pointed out, journalists are already swimming in information overload from the data they gather in reporting; why not make some of that more accessible to others? And giving people greater space for commenting and offering correction when they think journalists have gone wrong — therein lies another opportunity for transparency.

Finding 2:
* Open source is iterative.
* Journalism is iterative, but news organizations generally aren’t (yet).

Software development moves quickly. Particularly in the open source realm, developers aren’t afraid to make mistakes and make those mistakes public as they work through the bugs in a perpetual beta mode rather than wait until ideas are perfected. The group dynamic means that participants feel free to share ideas and try new things, with a “freedom to fail” attitude that emphasizes freedom much more than failure. Failure, in fact, is embraced as a step forward, a bug identified, rather than backward. This cyclical process of iterative software development — continuous improvement based on rapid testing — stands in contrast to the waterfall method of slower, more centralized planning and deployment.

On the one hand, journalism has iterative elements, like breaking news. As work, journalism is designed for agility. But journalism within legacy news organizations is often much harder to change, and tends to be more “waterfall” in orientation: The bureaucracy and business models and organizational structures can take a long time to adapt. Trying new things, being willing to fail (a lot) along the way, and being more iterative in general are something we can learn from open-source software.

Finding 3:
* Open source is about standards.
* So is journalism.

We were surprised to find that, despite its emphasis on openness and collaboration, the wide world of open source is also a codified world with strict standards for implementation and use. Programming languages have documentation for how they are used, and there is generally consensus among developers about what looks good on the web and what makes for good code.

Journalism is also about standards, though of a different kind: shared values about newsgathering, news judgment, and ethics. But even while journalism tends to get done within hierarchical organizations and open-source development doesn’t, journalism and open source share essentially the same ideals about making things that serve the public interest. In one case, it’s programming; in the other case, it’s telling stories. But there’s increasingly overlap between those two goals, and a common purpose that tends to rise above mere profit motive in favor of a broader sense of public good.

However, when it comes to standards, a big difference between the the open-source movement and journalism is that journalists, across the board, aren’t generally cooperating to achieve common goals. While programmers might work together to make a programming language easier to use, news organizations tend to go at their own development in isolation from each other. For example, The Times went about building its pay meter fairly secretly: While in development, even those in the newsroom didn’t know the details about the meter’s structure. Adopting a more open-source attitude could teach journalists, within news organizations and across them, to think more collaboratively when it comes to solving common industry problems.

Finding 4:
* Open-source development is collaborative, free, and flexible.
* Producing news costs money, and open source may not get to the heart of journalism’s business problems.

Open-source software development is premised on the idea of coders working together, for free, without seeking to make a profit at the expense of someone else’s intellectual property. Bit by bit, this labor is rewarded by the creation of sophisticated programming languages, better-and-better software, and the like.

But there’s a problem: Journalism can’t run on an open source model alone. Open source doesn’t give journalism any guidance for how to harness a business model that pays for the news. Maybe open-source projects are the kind of work that will keep people engaged in the news, thus bulking up traditional forms of subsidy, such as ad revenue. (Or, as in the case of the “open R&D” approach of open APIs, news organizations might use openness techniques to find new revenue opportunities. Maybe.)

Then again, the business model question isn’t, specifically, the point. The goal of MoJo’s learning lab, and the innovation challenge it’s part of, is simply to make the news better technologically — by making it more user-friendly, more participatory, etc. It’s not about helping news organizations succeed financially. In all, the MoJo project has been more about what open source can teach journalism, not vice versa. And that’s not surprising, given that the MoJo ethos has been about using open technologies to help reboot the news — rather than the reverse.

But as the 60 learning lab participants hone their final projects this week, in hopes of being one of the 15 who will win a next-stage invite to a hackathon in Berlin, they have been encouraged to collaborate with each other to fill out their skill set — by, say, a hack partnering with a hacker, and so forth. From those collaborations may come ideas not only for reinventing online journalism, but also for contributing to the iteration of open-source work as a whole.

So keep an eye out: Those final projects are due on Friday.

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