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July 29 2011

15:00

Questions for Baratunde Thurston: What The Onion can teach real news organizations about social media

Baratunde Thurston, Director of Digital, The Onion

The Onion is funny because it looks and feels like real news. To do that well, The Onion has to act like a real news organization.

So when Baratunde Thurston, the newspaper’s 30-something digital director who “resides in Brooklyn and lives in Twitter,” describes the evolution of the Onion’s social-media strategy, it sounds pretty familiar.

“The Onion can be, in some ways, a creatively conservative place when it comes to process,” Thurston told me. “It was born out of a weekly print production and creative process. Breaking that down and reassembling it in a way that doesn’t destroy everything we’ve built has been a part of the journey.”

Over the past four years, Thurston has worked to bring both structure and experimentation to social media. The success is enviable: nearly 3 million Twitter followers, nearly 2 million Facebook fans, and an unusually loyal and engaged audience.

“When we look at social media we’re also borrowing from — or in some cases leading — what the news industry itself would do, or is doing, or should do to promote its presence on these new digital platforms,” Thurston said.

I met Thurston last month at MIT’s Civic Media Conference, where he was a featured speaker and a judge for the 2011 Knight News Challenge. I was surprised to see a stand-up comic who works at The Onion address a group of journalists — that is, until it became clear that The Onion is dead serious about civic media. (Thurston himself will be delivering the keynote at the next SXSW festival.)

In a recent phone interview, Thurston outlined his three-pronged approach to live event “coverage,” hinted at The Onion’s state-of-the-art predictive news technology, and discussed the making of a 500-foot Osama bin Laden. What follows are lightly edited excerpts (long excerpts!) from our conversation.

Baratunde Thurston: It’s important to remember that The Onion is, overall, a satirical news organization. That extends across everything the organization does, not just social media. It starts with the content. The Onion works, and it’s funny, because it reads like real news, it looks like real news, and it promotes itself like a real news organization. So when you think about, you know, a story that The Onion does and think, “Oh, that’s really realistic!” that’s part of the joke. When we look at social media, we’re also borrowing from — or in some cases leading — what the news industry itself would do, or is doing, or should do to promote its presence on these new digital platforms.

With social media, we started with promoting our material. “Let’s set up an RSS feed that points to Twitter that lets those people know what we’re doing.” That wasn’t revolutionary, it was just a basic plug-and-play, let’s-not-ignore-this-community kind of thing.

Over time, though, what’s become more fun, more interesting, more creative, is: “How do we take the unique thing that we do and sprinkle our own little Onion voice and fairy dust into this world?” Where we start to differ from actual news is that we’re not actually reporting actual news. What we’re often doing is building a parallel universe that people like to play with, and we are giving them more of an opportunity to play in that world than they previously had when we were just in print….

The approach we’ve taken that’s most interesting is in the area of rapid-response news creation and promotion. We look at it in three levels. The first is, How do we get our take on actual breaking-news events out quickly? (And sometimes even before other media organizations.) So you look at a situation like Tiger Woods — this is obviously a while ago now — and he announces there’s going to be a press conference Friday at 11 a.m. So the whole world — a big chunk of the wealthy, developing world, at least — pauses and waits for what Tiger Woods has to say. And people are at their offices literally not working because it’s, like, a State of the Union for Tiger Woods address, and both houses of Congress convene to listen to Tiger.

And there’s a big, gaping news hole — and we shoot into it using social media as a rapid-delivery system to publish a story that says: Tiger Woods Announces Return To Sex. And that becomes, for awhile, the news, because no one else knows what’s going to happen, and we have predictive news technology, which allows us to get ahead of that story and dominate, for a term, the interest in what Tiger Woods has to say.

Andrew Phelps: I’m sorry, predictive news technology? Is that an Onion “technology” or is that a real thing?
BT: No, it’s Onion technology. We built it, yeah. It’s proprietary, so….
AP: Right, right, can’t get into too much detail about that. So while the world is in suspended-animation waiting, The Onion dominates the conversation.
BT: People, when they’re in search of information, will violently and radically attach themselves to the first hint of it. And they help spread that message. Our most successful example of that is with Donald Trump and the day that President Obama released his birth certificate. We immediately published just a photo with a headline: Trump Unable To Produce Certificate Proving He’s Not… um…
AP: Festering Pile Of S—?
BT: Festering Pile Of S—, yeah. So that got almost 800,000 likes on Facebook, which is absurd. That’s just ridiculous. And it got retweeted tens of thousands of times. We got over a million pageviews to that thing, because it struck a chord with the real world.

The second thing I think we’ve pushed the envelope on is live event coverage. This is just fun. And it’s slightly insane. One of the things that we have done as a society is become more fragmented, more atomized — more selfish, to some degree — and our society is somewhat predicated on everyone having their own version of a thing. “I want my own car, my own driveway, my own pool, my own home theater system, my own music delivery system.” So shared experiences are harder to come by. People also work more, they don’t see their families as much. The water cooler is dying as a common ground for discussion of anything together. Social media helps reconstruct that water cooler and that shared experience. You see it on television shows, you see it around big news stories, you see it around celebrity silliness, and you especially see it around major cultural events like the Super Bowl, like the award shows, State of the Union addresses.

And what we’ve done is lend our voice and our massive platform in service of covering those events in real time — and so experimenting with a real-time flavor of journalism. Whenever there’s a big event like the Oscars — I think we do about five a year at this point, in a major way — we will live-tweet the hell out of that event. And that’s been a good way for us to increase our reach and our audience, because we’re attaching ourselves to an existing conversation and often — always, I’d say at this point — dominating it. Having the “top tweets” on a trending topic is a valuable thing and a low-cost thing if you have good material. So we’re exposing new people to what we have to say, and we’re giving people who already know us another way of finding us and hearing us and seeing us. And it’s also creatively fun. It gives the writer a different way to think about writing and about “journalism” (in big quotation marks).

AP: With Tiger Woods, no one knew what the news was yet, so you could make it up and make a little bit of a point. But when it’s live, everyone’s watching what’s really happening in real life. So what does The Onion do? Does it add more of a spin, or does it pretend to report facts as though they are happening even though they aren’t?
BT: In general, The Onion is not Daily Show-ish. We don’t cover the real world, per se. We often comment on things that feel like the real world. In the live event world, part of what we have as our advantage is 22 years of coverage already. And a lot of what we’ve written in the past is still relevant today. Because most of what is written in The Onion is written in kind of an evergreen fashion. So it’s about digging those things up.

For example, we started covering the Oscars by me doing a personal live-tweet session of the Oscars through my account. Just being silly, being funny, whatever; I wasn’t thinking about the Onion. And then I saw a celebrity (I think it was Queen Latifah) take to the stage to present something, and I was like, “Wait, The Onion has a story about Queen Latifah. And the story is really just a headline and a photo that says ‘King Latifah returns to claim queen.’ And that’s funny.”

I tweeted it out as The Onion, and people reacted very positively, and I thought, “I wonder if I can just keep doing this.” And so I was kind of watching the TV screen, listening for key words, searching the Onion website, manually digging up the story, tweeting it through our custom Bit.ly link, and you start to see the reaction, like, “Oh, wow, The Onion’s live-tweeting the Oscars!” And it’s like, well, sort of. We’re live archive-reposting the Oscars.

That was the first version of it. And then second version was, “Why don’t we actually intentionally prepare for this?” And so we gathered all the material we had that would be related to the films or the actors or the actual event of the Oscars itself and then we actually wrote for the event, things you know are going to happen.

And then there’s actually live stuff. With the Super Bowl, a sporting event is much more difficult to cover in advance, so you write for conditions, you write for, “Well, if there’s an interception, if there’s a kickoff return, if there’s a safety…” and then it’s a matter of mentally connecting what actually happens with what you’ve written for possibly happening and getting it out quickly enough. And then the layer beyond that is actually writing in the moment. So you have a sort of real-time writers’ room — at someone’s apartment, in some cases, or just over e-mail and instant messaging — that allows you to react truly in real time. And so I think the combination of those things lends itself to a feeling of comprehensive, real-event coverage.

AP: It’s funny, because it doesn’t sound all that different from what an old-school wire reporter would do to cover the outcome of a big trial or some live event that he needs to file quickly.
BT: Exactly. News organizations have troves of obituaries for people who haven’t died yet. We’re doing the same thing. Even if it’s not a formal process in a newsroom or a news organization, you are prewriting. You do have conditional headlines. We’ve just, in some cases, formalized that process and made it much, much funnier.

The third way that I think we have learned to play with this is to apply what we’ve learned from those first two completely to the world of news that we’ve created. And in this case, it’s about, OK, if we do a story, if we know we have a story coming up, how do we stretch it out? How do we massage it and promote it and tease it as if it were an actual breaking-news event?

The recent case where we did this pretty well was a story we had of a 500-foot Osama bin Laden returning from the sea to destroy America. And I was like OK, this is a Big Story. What does a Big Story deserve? Big coverage. You don’t just want to just put that out there; you spend weeks thinking about this stuff. Our graphics department — I’m sorry, our photojournalists — but our graphics department has done some impressive work to make this look super-realistic, so let’s give the story the big coverage it deserves. So in that case we are applying the lessons especially of the last event coverage in the breaking news to the alternate reality. So we start that story with a rumor: “BREAKING: Seismic activity detected in the Indian Ocean near site of bin Laden burial. More coming.”

And it’s like, What? And people see that tweet and that Facebook post and think, What’s going on here? Some people already get where it’s going, because their minds move more quickly. Others are just totally confused. And then we start adding in a layer of more commentary than coverage. We have our character Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles… “I’m just getting in word that the Air Force whatever unit has been deployed off the East Coast of the states… We’ll give you more… Unconfirmed reports of missiles fired… Spotting of bin Laden figure emerging from…” You’re like, What is–? So then it’s really starting to roll out. We have a layer of quotes that we’re attributing to generals and citizens and merchant marines out on the ocean. And then finally you get a version of the story with a link back saying, “Confirmed: 500-foot bin Laden spotted off the coast head towards Atlantic region of U.S.,” and there’s this big picture of bin Laden emerging from the sea.

And then we’ve got people reporting what they’re seeing. And this is all under the hash tag #500FootBinLaden. And where I think this differs from the breaking-news coverage and the live event coverage is, this is more open-ended. This is treated as, like, We don’t really know what’s going on here, we need your help. This is calling on the community to help fill in the blanks. And so we’re asking, actively, People, tell us what you’re seeing where you are. Have you spotted #500FootBinLaden? And people love to play along. They love to play along with real news, they love to play along with ours even more, because it doesn’t require actual fact-finding. And so people are Photoshopping Osama Bin Laden in the Boston Harbor, saying, “He’s in Boston right now, oh my God!” and adding their own flavor to it and using Twitpic and what not, and that is super satisfying. It becomes a collaborative news event. It has a full arc and life, just like “real news.”

You see another example of this, even when it’s not prompted, in our story about Planned Parenthood building an $8 billion Abortionplex.

AP: …which really happened.
BT: Right. And we didn’t really build any layers around it, we just put the story out, but the community wants to play along. Also, people want to write for The Onion (that’s probably not going to happen; it’s a very small team), but they can help build out this world that was previously limited to our writers’ individual creativity and minds. So someone on Yelp created an Abortionplex “venue” in Topeka, Kan., where the story said it existed, and they took details from the story and added it, and then the world just ran with it. There are, at this point, over 400 reviews of this thing we created. And it’s been inspiring. That’s a different level, when you don’t even prompt the collaboration with the audience, they just run with it, because they can. And it doesn’t require your permission, but it also doesn’t undermine your mission.
AP: I think a lot of news organizations would hear this interview and think: “Well, great, The Onion is very successful at engaging people, but they have the advantage of being hilarious and not having to talk about real news. The debt ceiling might not be so interesting, but it’s really important. So what are we supposed to do?” I just wonder if you have any kind of advice for real news organizations who are struggling a little bit.
BT: Think flexibly. Think loosely. I think there’s a lot of fear and conservatism — not political conservatism, but brand conservatism — around letting loose your team or your voice in this new environment. We’ve done journalism this way for a really long time, we’re really nervous about breaking it up. Not everybody thinks this way, but a lot do, and you can see it reflected. Sometimes you see the social media policy of Media Organization X, and it’s like the 20-point bullet list of “don’ts.” It doesn’t leave much room for what you can do. I don’t remember the organization, but one of them had a very fun post, like, “Our social media policy” — and it was just blank. That’s the kind of open-ended attitude that lends itself to finding value in this space.

For us, what’s been fun over the past few years is seeing the writers and the editors actually embrace social media and get inspired themselves and come to us and say, “Hey, can we do this?” And we’re like, “Yeah! Great — by George, you can do that! We didn’t think of that.” When Brooke Alvarez, the host of Onion News Network on IFC, live-tweets, that’s the writers of that show just doing it. It was a very, very proud moment for me. The way we used to do it, we would ask, “Hey can we get a batch of tweets from you guys around this thing?” And we’d kind of schedule it out and manually post it or use a tool to do it.

The Onion's Brooke Alvarez

Now, we run a training session with them. We say, “Look, people are talking to Brooke. She should have something to say back to them.” Basically give them a kind of framework, and they’re like, “Oh, that could be kind of fun.” And we literally handed over the keys. It was like a ceremony: “I give you the keys to the social media city.”

AP: That’s really funny, because once again you sound like a real news organization, having won over the journalists, so to speak, to social media. I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect writers at The Onion to have any kind of resistance to new media the way you might see at newspapers.
BT: The Onion can be, in some ways, a creatively conservative place when it comes to process. It was born out of a weekly print production and creative process. Breaking that down and reassembling it in a way that doesn’t destroy everything we’ve built has been a part of the journey. I come in here like, “TWITTER! FACEBOOK! YAY, STREAMING!” And everybody’s like, “Whoa, slow down, Twitter dude! We’ve got 20 years of awesome here, let’s not just destroy it for the sake of the latest trend.” And I think there’s some healthy tension that allows us to get to a good place.

And what we do does apply to so many news organizations. When you think about live event coverage and how you try to add some kind of value — get your sports writer to cover the Oscars. Mix it up a little bit and do something a little different. It doesn’t have to be funny, but it can be fun. It can be unique. I think the point is not to be funny, but to have a unique voice that stands out in an increasingly commoditized environment and space.

And then there’s exploiting your archives. A lot of media organizations are decades old. You’ve actually been there and done that. This debt ceiling conversation isn’t new. Unemployment isn’t new. Isolationism versus expansionism isn’t new. The role of religion in a democracy isn’t new. When it comes down to it, there’s not much new under the sun. So what have you already done? Basically, get more return on your existing investment. And the advantage that a deep media organization has over just the commentariat layer of cable news and the blogosphere is that you’ve actually done reporting, you’ve actually dug into records, so starting to think about your trove of data and analysis, and How do you slice that up? and How do you make it quotable and Facebookable and Tumblrable? is not exceedingly difficult. It takes some dedication, but it doesn’t take that much money. It’s not that expensive in terms of people and machine hours. That is something that we’re doing, and we’re not breaking the bank to do it.

And lastly, news organizations can open up to their community in some way. I’m not saying you’re going to have your audience become, like, investigative reporters. But there are really interesting things happening on the edges of journalism. You see the Knight Foundation investing through these grant awards in some really cool ways of, not seeing your readers or this digital layer of people as competitors but as collaborators. The fact is, the world is too big for any one news organization to cover comprehensively. And maybe you’re not going to ask your commenters to expose Watergate, but you might ask them to fact-check. You might ask them to help spot a pattern. You can have this sort of distributed research pool that can assist you in your journalistic mission to create an informed public.

We do it in a tongue-in-cheek way. We do it in a way which ultimately isn’t building real institutions. It’s building some intelligence, it’s building a lot of fun, but I think what we’re doing is even more important for an actual journalistic organization. And that’s where we hand off the stick. It’s like, “OK, our work here is done, but dear actual media organization, hey, give it a shot, you might just help our democracy.”

July 25 2011

16:00

For the Texas Tribune, “events are journalism” — and money makers

Texas Tribune Festival logo

When Evan Smith helped launch the nonprofit Texas Tribune in 2009, he set out to get people engaged in their government again, especially in places where newspaper coverage has dwindled. The Tribune introduced blogs, multimedia, troves of government data, and something old-fashioned for an online news startup: face-to-face conversations.

The Tribune has hosted more than 60 public events — all free — attracting top influencers, big audiences, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate sponsorships. Now the Tribune is blowing up the event and throwing The Texas Tribune Festival, a weekend of ideas for policy wonks, lobbyists, and anyone else invested enough in local government to pay $125 for a ticket.

“Events are journalism — events are content. And in this new world, content comes to you and you create it in many forms,” says Smith, the Tribune’s chief editor and chief executive.

One goal: to combat low levels of public engagement on a lot of the issues the event will address. “We think much of the technology world embraces ‘push’ as opposed to ‘pull’ as a way to reach people,” Smith says. “We are taking a ‘push’ approach to content, and that means going to people with content where they live.”

The speaker list includes top names in the universe of Texas politics: energy tycoon T. Boone Pickins, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. And the topics covered are also the Tribune’s core coverage areas: health and human services, energy and the environment, public and higher education, and race and immigration.

Evan Smith

If that all sounds familiar, it’s because the idea is modeled on the New Yorker Festival. In 2009, Smith hired the person who created that festival, Tanya Erlach, the former senior talent manager for The New Yorker. (“She’s not reinventing the wheel; this is her wheel,” Smith says.) Erlach handles everything from programming to logistics.

Smith is the first to admit that events don’t only produce journalism. They also produce revenue. And even the free events, including the TribLive speaker series, have been money-makers. They are cheap to produce, for one thing, and often underwritten by corporate sponsors. Smith estimates the Tribune raised about $650,000 in corporate support last year, which includes events. He expects to raise $1.3 million this year. While major gifts from philanthropists represented almost all of the Tribune’s revenue in 2009, Smith expects more financial diversity in 2011, with income from philanthropy, corporations, and events evenly split. Altogether, the Tribune has raised $9.3 million in barely two years — far more than like-minded nonprofit startups elsewhere.

“A lot of better established nonprofit news organizations — and I’m not counting the public broadcasting TV and radio stations but the sites that are similar to ours, ones that have been in existence longer — really have not approached the task of soliciting corporate support, underwriting, and sponsorships. We’ve just not seen other folks approach this, and they started to call us and ask us and our folks, you know, ‘How are you doing this?’”

If journalism is to survive, Smith says, business must be in the DNA. It’s in the Tribune’s DNA. Another Tribune co-founder was a venture capitalist, John Thornton, who initially raised $4 million in startup funding, including $1 million of his own cash and a large grant from the Knight Foundation. While Smith does not handle fundraising, he does reach out to executives personally to solicit their support.

Is Smith sheepish about that? “Hell, no.” Is there a conflict of interest? “Our only bias is in favor of Texas.” Public radio and television, he points out, rely heavily on corporate underwriting. The Tribune is neither paying people to speak at the festival nor covering their expenses. And the only reward for a corporate sponsorship is “a handshake and a tax letter,” he says.

“The work we do is important. And it needs to be paid for,” Smith explains. “There are appropriate sources of revenue out there. There is nothing to be ashamed of when putting a ‘for sale’ sign on as much stuff as possible, provided that it doesn’t have a negative impact on the work that you do or doesn’t create a negative perception of your integrity.”

Besides the financial value of the Tribune’s events, Smith says, there’s also value in the B word — you know, the word that tends to be uncomfortable in journalism circles. “Just as some other organizations may shrink from associating with corporate interests, there are some organizations, I suspect…that don’t fully appreciate the value of branding,” he says. A big festival is a platform for the Tribune to present itself as a grown-up operation, to build credibility and attract new readers.

Tickets went on sale July 11, with a discount for Texas Tribune contributors. Smith is working out a deal with sponsors to make admission free for college students.

July 21 2011

14:55

VIDEOS: Should the MIT-Knight Civic Media Confab Get Supersized?

One of the things we at MIT are very quietly considering -- quietly in the same sense that I first considered getting a creative writing degree, as in, seduced by the prospect while overawed by the reality -- is holding a large, public civic media conference as part of, or in addition to, our invitation-only Civic Media Conference with the Knight Foundation.

We last discussed it as videos from this year's Civic Media Conference came online, and I'd like to share those videos, not just for their own sake, but for you to ask yourself: Would you travel to Boston to be a part of these kinds of talks if we had 2,000 people rather than 250? Hearing your thoughts might just push us in the big-conference direction.

Crowdsourcing Crisis: How Civic Media Informs Breaking News

The first half of 2011 has seen dramatic events -- some tragic, others encouraging -- take place across the globe. From revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia to an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, breaking news has been reported by individual citizens as well as professional journalists. And explaining the complex nuances of unfolding events has shown the power of civic media in informing local communities and the wider world.

In this session, we talked with two individuals who've been part of efforts to share perspectives from civic media with a global audience. Mohamed Nanabhay, head of New Media at the AlJazeera Network, helped unpack the North African revolutions using video from Facebook and other online sources. And Joi Ito, the new head of MIT's Media Lab, has worked with a group of civic reporters and citizen scientists in Japan to document the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The two discuss the emerging media environment, where professional and civic media interact to produce a richer and more inclusive picture of global events.



MIT Tech TV

Download Crowdsourcing Crisis (.mp4)


Civic Media Mobilization

Successful civic media tools -- especially ones designed by this conference's attendees -- re-engineer how mass-mobilization happens. But does that mean we should turn the page on old lessons?

Originally envisioned as a way to connect like-minded people across borders, civic media is proving just as powerful at mobilizing neighbors, in their towns, where they vote. So even for national issues, is all civic media really local? From the Wisconsin protests to presidential campaigns, civic media is playing a larger role in organizing communities and defining political arenas. This conversation between an organizer and activist explores how online activism differs from face-to-face.

Chris Faulkner, a member of the Tea Party, spends much of his time organizing online. Yesenia Sanchez, from P.A.S.O.-West Suburban Action Project 52, works street-level to drive community participation. Together with moderator Damian Thorman, the two discussed ways organizers can use online and offline strategies to their advantage and debate situations in which one is more effective than the other.



MIT Tech TV

Download Civic Media Mobilization (.mp4)


Mobile Storytelling in Real Time



MIT Tech TV

  • Andy Carvin, National Public Radio
  • Liz Henry, BlogHer
  • Dan Sinker, Columbia College Chicago, @mayoremanuel

Download Mobile Storytelling in Real Time (.mp4)


The Future of Civic Media



MIT Tech TV

  • Sasha Costanza-Chock, MIT Comparative Media Studies
  • Chris Csikszentmihályi, MIT Center for Civic Media
  • Ethan Zuckerman, Berkman Center/MIT Center for Civic Media

Download The Future of Civic Media (.mp4)

So after checking out these videos, what do you think? Should we should take the Civic Media Conference to the next level?

July 19 2011

17:30

Knight Foundation expands into investment with an Enterprise Fund

It’s easy to use the word invest a lot when talking about how the Knight Foundation funds journalism and information-needs-of-communities projects. Less than a month ago, we were talking about how Knight invests in media innovation with the recent round of the Knight News Challenge winners.

Turns out Knight now actually is in the business of investing in media companies — specifically with the Knight Enterprise Fund, a $10-million chunk of the foundation’s endowment set aside for early investment in companies that promise media innovation.

In some ways, the Enterprise Fund seems like a spin-off of the News Challenge, but aimed specifically at supporting for-profit companies that are compatible with Knight’s mission. The Enterprise Fund, which was officially approved in December, will be investing $25,000 to $500,000 in individual companies — roughly the same scale as what most News Challenge winners received. And the News Challenge allowed for-profit companies to apply for grants. But the Enterprise Fund comes with the potential benefit of a return on investment — which, if all goes well, could have the cyclical effect of boosting more Knight projects.

By investing in for-profits, Knight hopes to create a pipeline to new kinds of projects.

“God willing, we get a huge winner here and it would expand. If we’re lucky enough for that to occur, we would expand the endowment, which would allow us to make more contributions,” said Juan Martinez, vice president and chief financial officer for the Knight Foundation.

Knight already supports a large stable of projects — not just News Challenge winners but grants to organizations like NPR, the Online News Association, and journalism programs at universities (including, it should be noted, us here at the Nieman Journalism Lab). By investing in for-profit endeavors, they can create a pipeline to new projects and systems that could be of use to people through Knight’s network, Martinez said. The Enterprise Fund also could mean an injection of fresh blood into the sometimes insular media innovation community.

“This allows the program staff to get a view for what new companies are out there and what new innovations are being created,” Martinez said. “I think in the long run this will help us understand those kind of market drivers better.”

It will also allow them to shepherd News Challenge projects into the next stage of their development. The sale of EveryBlock to MSNBC in 2009 is an example of how News Challenge projects sometimes transition from grant-funded to the for-profit world. With the Enterprise Fund, Knight will be able to continue to support these projects and potentially see a return on the foundation’s long-term investment. “Venture capitalist provide networks and expertise needed for those companies to expand,” Martinez said. “So as they transition out of the Knight News Challenge and into a VC space, this is a platform to help expose that process for them.”

An example is BookBrewer, one of the first companies Knight has invested in, which began life as 2008 News Challenge winner Printcasting. (Knight also is investing in Snag Films, a documentary film platform, and OwnLocal, which creates advertising, deals, and shopping systems for news organizations.) The initial idea of Printcasting was to create a platform for low-cost, on-demand publishing. Remade as BookBrewer, their focus has shifted from print and PDFs to ebooks to try and tap into the growing demand for content on tablets and smartphones.

But entering the investment game is not without some risks for Knight, which is why they are not working alone, said Ben Wirz, Knight’s director of business consulting. “We’re not leading these investments ourselves,” he said. “We look for early-stage companies that are mission-aligned, do due diligence, and the business side is done by angels and venture capitalists.”

Martinez said Knight knows they don’t exist in a vacuum, that there is a world of experimentation and entrepreneurship in media and technology that could be beneficial to the people the foundation is trying to help. If they can act as a conduit, hooking up for-profit and nonprofit to help support and sustain journalism, that’s what matters most, he asid. “Ultimately what Knight cares about is impact, that our dollars go towards promoting informed and engaged communities,” he said.

July 05 2011

18:30

With its newest round of Knight funding, DocCloud will figure out how to scale reader annotations

Two years ago, DocumentCloud received $719,500 from the Knight News Challenge to build a tool that news organizations could use to upload, share, and then collaboratively read and analyze documents. Since then, the project has not only made good on its promise to “turn documents into data,” introducing its tool into the workflows of investigative reporters in newsrooms across the country, but it’s also found a way to ensure the tool’s sustainment, at least into the near future: In early June, DocCloud’s staff announced that the project would merge operations with, appropriately enough, Investigative Reporters and Editors. And more good news for DocCloud came later in June, when Knight made it a rare double-winner in its News Challenge, granting the project $320,000 to develop an additional feature: reader annotations.

The idea for an annotation mechanism actually originated, indirectly, with the Online News Association, says Amanda Hickman, DocCloud’s program director. She and the team had been thinking about how to include readers more broadly in the process of collaborative document-parsing; at last year’s ONA conference, Hickman began talking with the Public Insight Network‘s Andrew Haeg about how DocCloud might integrate what it already had — an interface that allows a small group of registered users to upload documents and make annotations — with what Public Insight has been up to: finding, and then tracking, a large group of potential story sources. Their conversations, Hickman told me in an email, resulted in “a very whittled down tool for identifying specific experts and asking them to review specific documents, pre-publication.”

That tool is currently in place in the DocCloud system — with the important caveat that, to use it, you have to be invited by a newsroom to do so. From the news organization’s perspective, “there’s a practical limit to who you can invite,” Hickman points out, and “there’s a certain degree of trust involved,” since a public document means, also, public annotations. “It’s a tool that makes sense,” she notes, “if you’re dealing with a few people who aren’t part of your newsroom who need to look over a document.”

It’s a tool that makes less sense, though, if you want broader public input in a given document — which, increasingly, news orgs do. So the reader annotations project faces a tricky task: taking the interplay between expertise and trust that has worked so well in the invite-only annotations system…and building it, somehow, to scale.

And that’s where the Knight funding comes in. With it, DocCloud will figure out how, exactly, to build out the tool’s existing efficiencies to facilitate, and encourage, broader public participation. The goal is pretty much the same as it was when Hickman and Haeg first chatted: to marry DocCloud’s existing annotations infrastructure with the Public Insight approach that helps newsrooms to connect with more sources, more diverse sources, and untapped sources of expertise.

An added twist, though: Whatever system the DocCloud team builds will likely need to interface with outlets’ existing comments infrastructures. Which is both practical and problematic. “We’re not here to reinvent anyone’s moderation system,” Hickman noted in a phone call, “so we’ll have to sort out how to let newsrooms moderate reader annotations,” she says — in basically the same way they already moderate comments. They’ll have to build flexibility, in other words, into a single system to accommodate different outlets’ different approaches to reader commentary.

And they’ll also have to figure out a UI that leverages both the (hoped for) abundance of contributions and the (definite) need for operational efficiency. Visual and otherwise. “If one or two reporters annotate a document, they can make their own decision about how cluttered or uncluttered a page should be,” Hickman points out; with reader annotations, on the other hand, “there’s going to have to be some way to access an uncluttered page if you just want to read the document.”

And that necessity will only expand as the tool’s document set does — especially since a document whose content is meaningful in one way, at one point in time, might take on an entirely different relevance later on, in a different context. So DocCloud will be tasked in part with “figuring out how you present a document that’s annotated in a different context,” Hickman notes. “It’s a really interesting puzzle.”

June 30 2011

16:00

With News Challenge funding, The Tiziano Project will expand training and tools for community journalism

We’ve reached a point where debates over citizen journalism have been washed over by a torrent of online video, blogs, and other media created by people who, while they may not identify themselves as journalists, are nevertheless documenting what’s happening in their communities. Sometimes that’s a political uprising, other times it’s a devastating tornado. Often, the documentations get picked up by mainstream sources — or, based on the power of the stories they tell, go viral all on their own.

What that’s done is give equal weight to the impact of video and multimedia produced by individuals to that of the content created by professional journalists. The key difference now is quality, not in the sense of refined storytelling, but in the sense of the equipment and tools used to produce multimedia narratives.

In its pilot effort documenting the lives of residents in Kurdistan, The Tiziano Project — named for an Italian journalist “who liked to go where he shouldn’t” — attempted to close that gap through offering better tools and training to regular folks. Now, with the help of a $200,000 Knight News Challenge grant, the project will try to refine its technology and expand its scope.

Jon Vidar, executive director of The Tiziano Project, said the project will develop a suite of tools that will help community journalists produce and showcase their work — effectively a content management system designed specifically for multimedia storytelling. Vidar and his team will be building that system off the template of their 360 Kurdistan project, which featured personal accounts of Iraqis coupled with work from professional photojournalists. Vidar expects they’ll move quickly, using the one-year grant to build a beta in 6 months, then test and tweak the project for the rest of the year.

“The grant itself is a technology-only development grant for us to take the 360 platform we built in Iraq and use the funding to make it scalable and usable by other organizations,” Vidar told me. Part of that also includes designing a new interface that will include an interactive map to display an array of 360 projects from various communities. (To get an idea of what those projects look like, check out the interface The Tiziano Project created for the Kurdistan project, which combines still photography with audio as well as video segments.)

In many ways, Vidar said, the original 360 project was a proof-of-concept, showing that with sufficient tools and support, people can tell compelling, visually arresting stories about their community, the kind that may otherwise go unnoticed. Taken together, those stories have a great impact and can change perceptions about a group of people and where they live, Vidar said.

But those stories don’t happen automatically. “Back in 2006, 2007, when we were starting up, “community journalism” was a buzzword, like hyperlocal is today,” Vidar said. “A lot of those programs failed. They went into communities and handed out Flip video cameras and thought they were going to get amazing, high-quality video content.”

One of the big hurdles in the Kurdistan project was funding, which was provided through a $25,000 grant from the JP Morgan Chase Community Giving program. That helped to provide the basics, Vidar said: a team of photographers to offer guidance and a Flash developer to build out the site.

Part of their focus now will be developing a front end for the project, something that works across multiple platforms, from desktop to mobile and tablets. The original project was built in Flash, but Vidar said they’re now looking at using HTML5 to build a flexible site. That too can provide complications, though, and Vidar and his team want to make sure they’re using the right technology for the job. If you’re dealing with photography and video, the design and usability experience is key to getting people to engage with your work, Vidar said. “We don’t want to take the quality of the experience down just to make it cross compatible.”

What the 360s could provide is a new avenue for local journalism, something that is a hybrid between pure amateur cellphone video and packages developed by professionals.

“There’s three types of content producers now,” Vidar said. “The professional journalist; the citizen producer — the everyday guy uploading to YouTube; and then there’s the intermediate. They’re not professional journalists, but active commentators, people who use [video] in an in-depth way. We want to elevate the people who are taking cellphone video and posting it to YouTube — elevate them to the next level.”

14:00

FrontlineSMS, a News Challenge winner, connects people in places where the web is out of reach

Sean Martin McDonald, FrontlineSMS

There are more than 5 billion mobile phone connections on earth, by some estimates, far more than the number of people who have access to clean water. In much of the developing world, however, Internet access is either scarce or prohibitively expensive.

Knight News Challenge winner FrontlineSMS is open-source software that tries to plug the resulting information gap. The platform, which has until now focused on the communications needs of NGOs, has already found success in medicine, agriculture, and election monitoring. Now, with help from KNC’s three-year, $250,000 grant, FrontlineSMS plans to expand its focus to include journalists.

FrontlineSMS is a free download for Windows, Mac OS, or Linux. It requires a computer and a cell phone — a cheap one will do — but, importantly, no Internet connection. “It enables people to have complex digital communications with people who may live beyond the reach of the Internet,” said Sean Martin McDonald, the director of operations, Americas, for FrontlineSMS.

The software allows for mass communication over SMS, akin to an email blast, and it supports complex, two-way communication. So a health care worker in India, for example, coud text an appointment reminder to a patient and request a response to find out whether the doctor showed up. The software can capture and store these responses programmatically, which is essential in situations that find you seeking input from dozens or hundreds or thousands of people.

A real-world example is Rien que la Vérité, a fictionalized, documentary-style television series about current events in Kinshasa. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger, McDonald said, and viewers are polled via SMS about where to take the conversation next. Community radio stations, too, use the FrontlineSMS software to interact with listeners and solicit public opinion. Sure, American Idol does the same thing, but SMS is connecting people who might not otherwise have a chance to talk.

The Knight grant will enable the organization to build upon its FrontlineSMS:Radio spinoff and develop tools specifically tailored for journalists. The idea is still hazy at this stage: Before solidifying any plans, McDonald wants to survey the needs of people who work in countries where journalism is hard to carry out. A significant chunk of the grant project, he said, will be devoted to research.

“The amount of interest and demand that we get from journalism organizations is pretty intense. There’s a lot of need out there. We’re hoping definitely to work with Knight and their network and be able to get useful software into the hands of some people,” McDonald said.

FrontlineSMS developers are also improving support for MMS, which allows citizens people to share audio, video, and photos over standard cellular connections. The lingering problem: While there are plenty of reporting apps out there, there are none that work without an Internet connection.

Another challenge: The mission of FrontlineSMS can be tricky to carry out in countries with regimes that feel threatened by informed citizens and inquisitive reporters. “We’re not necessarily bringing an anti-censorship angle to this — although I think everybody’s anti-censorship,” McDonald said. “Our focus is really on helping bridge information gaps. There are lots and lots of things with SMS that can expose people to danger if they’re taking up positions that are contrary to government, so that’s not really the operational focus of what we’re doing.”

McDonald said the FrontlineSMS software has already been downloaded 15,000 times in more than 60 countries. It’s in the midst of a total redesign that should be be finished in the “not-too-distant future,” he said. Because the software is available on GitHub, anyone can download the code and improve it right now.

June 27 2011

17:30

Deeper into data: U.K.-based ScraperWiki plans new tools and U.S. expansion with News Challenge

Looking over the scope of the Knight News Challenge, from its beginning to the winners announced this year, it’s clear data is king. From this year’s data-mining projects alone — whether inside the confines of the newsroom, posting public records in rural areas, or delivering vital information on clean water — we can safely say that the Knight Foundation sees data as a big part of the future for journalism and communities.

But Francis Irving says we’ve only scratched the surface on how data is delivered, displayed and consumed. “It’s an unexplored area,” said Irving, CEO of ScraperWiki. “We’re right at the beginning of this.”

As you may have guessed from the name, ScraperWiki is a tool to help people collect and publish data through a simple online interface that also serves as a repository for code. (Equal dose scraper and wiki.)

As a winner of this year’s Knight News Challenge, ScraperWiki plans to use their three-year, $280,000 grant to expand both their product and their reach. With a home base in Liverpool, ScraperWiki also hopes to cross the Atlantic and replicate their work helping journalists and ordinary citizens uncover data. “We want to lower the barrier for someone to do general purpose programming,” he said.

Irving told me a number of reporters and programmers in the U.K. have teamed up to use ScraperWiki to find stories and give new life to old data. James Ball, an investigative reporter for The Guardian, used ScraperWiki to write a story on the influence and spending of lobbyist on members of Parliament. ScraperWiki was also used by U.K. officials to create a search site for services provided by the government.

One of the reasons for ScraperWiki’s success, Irving said, is the meetups they throw to bring journalists and programmers face to face. Part of their expansion plans under the News Challenge grant is launching similar, Hacks/Hackers-style events here in the U.S., which will also serve as an introduction to ScraperWiki. Irving said the meetups are less about serving up punch and pie, but instead a way of fostering the kind of talk that happens when you bring different perspectives to talk about a shared interest.

“The value is in gathering, structuring, and building things people haven’t thought of yet,” he said.

More broadly, they plan to build out a new set of features for ScraperWiki, including an embargo tool that would allow journalists to create structured datasets that would be released on publication of a story; an on-demand tool for a seamless process for finding and releasing records; and alerts which could signal journalists on changes related to databases they follow.

And that gets to Irving’s larger hopes for uses of data, either in storytelling or surfacing vital information for the public’s use. Data journalism, he said, can serve a great purpose, but has to expand beyond simply accessing and assessing government records for stories. That’s why Irving is interested in the new generation of news apps that step outside of the article or investigative series, that take a different approach to visualization and display.

Irving said they’re happy to have a partner like Knight who has knowledge and connections in the world of journalism, which will be a help when ScraperWiki comes to these shores. The key ingredient, he said, is partnering the creative expertise of programmers, who can see new angles for code, and journalists, who can curate what’s important to the community.

“There’s going to be lots of things happening when you combine professional journalists with computer programs and they can supercharge each other,” he said.

16:00

More Awesome: News Challenge grantee Awesome Foundation wants to fund journalism at the micro level

There’s something inherently meta about the Awesome Foundation winning a grant from the Knight Foundation in order to…give grants. Also, something kinda awesome.

The Awesome Foundation: News Task Force, a winner of this year’s Knight News Challenge, wants to seed hundreds of projects to encourage new ventures in news and information for communities.

In essence, they’ll be acting as a mini-Knight Foundation, offering up support for journalism entrepreneurship and reinvention, one micro-grant at a time. Using the two-year, $244,000 grant, the Awesome Foundation’s new Institute on Higher Awesome Studies will specifically fund local journalism programs, events, apps, and prototypes.

But the news task force will be an experiment in how best to funding new media projects, as much as an exercise in supporting innovation. New funding models are on Knight’s collective mind these days, with the Knight News Challenge wrapping up and the foundation planning its next steps.

“We can help a foundation like Knight give money away in smaller increments to we can see what’s working and not working,” said Christina Xu, who will be overseeing the news task force project.

Tim Hwang, the founder of the Awesome Foundation, told me their structure, as much as there is one, is designed to build community and find the most effective uses for grants. “The Awesome Foundation proper is not a foundation at all,” Hwang said. “It’s an agreement between groups of 10 people to give money to cool projects.”

The Awesome Foundation model, small grants awarded in a quick fashion, is a departure from how nonprofit institutional support traditionally works in journalism, with multi-year, multi-zero checks. While that method certainly has its merits, the Awesome model, Hwang said, produces quicker results and can show whether a project is feasible. Ideally what the task force will do is combine the best of both worlds, making an Awesome Knight Foundation of sorts.

“One of the things we’re interested in, this project is an interesting experiment in bridging the gap from emerging platforms and foundations,” Hwang said.

Until now the Awesome Foundation’s work has primarily been more general purpose, focusing on geography, with chapters in cities around the U.S. and the world. Xu said following last year’s earthquakes in Haiti, the foundation wanted to find ways to broaden their kind of philanthropy. That took shape in the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies, which, while still being awesome, would try to direct funds to more serious causes. Xu said the News Challenge goals for community information were a good fit with the types of proposals the Awesome Foundation receives.

The task force will first set up shop in Detroit and, following Awesome Foundation protocol, they’ll hire a “Dean of Awesome” who will act as a local administrator. The dean, with help from Knight, will identify 10-15 members of the community coming from media, government, technology or civic groups, who will serve as trustees, the group ultimately responsible for awarding grants. Xu said the project could be expanded in a similar model to cities like New Orleans and Miami. Aside from the cost of a stipend for the local administrator the bulk of the money from Knight would be used for grants.

The most obvious difference between the foundations Awesome and Knight is scale, which is something the news task force will try to use to its advantage as it provides grants. Xu and Hwang said the size of grants and the scope of work will attract an audience that may have gone under Knight’s radar. But the other benefit of scale could be the creation of a farm system for journalism and information ideas. After landing a task force microgrant, finessing a proposal or building a beta, the next possible step could be a larger grant from the Knight Foundation, Xu said.

“In the future, [microgrant winners] could be a great pool to be funded, something the Knight News Challenge might want to fund later on,” she said.

April 21 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of a single investigative story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 31 2011

19:14

Quicker, smaller, more transparent: What Knight should do next? #JCARN

This month’s Carnival of Journalism is about “driving innovation” – in the wake of the end of the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge five year run, among other things. Here’s my take:

Driving innovation needs to be quick

Any innovative idea needs to be able to deploy and iterate quickly – and any scheme to fund innovation needs to support that.

Having been through the Knight News Challenge three times, and reached the final shortlist twice, I was struck each time by how much changed in the online world between the initial submission and final award: If an internet year is worth 4.7 normal years, this process was taking over 3 ‘years’ in internet time. So much changed during that period that by the time I had reached the second or third stage, I wanted to re-write the whole thing.

In contrast, when I entered Channel 4′s 4iP fund (far from perfect, but certainly faster), the time from application to approval was swift. This allowed us to spend a few months working with the funders in addressing the issues the project raised (in Help Me Investigate’s case, largely legal ones) and still being able to start work before the Knight awards had even been shortlisted.

Why the difference? Perhaps because of the next point.

Innovation thrives on limitations

One of the reasons the internet has been so disruptive is that it has lowered the barriers to entry. Multinational media organisations have thrown millions at their own solutions, and yet most of them fail. One of the problems that funds such as Knight’s and Channel 4′s aim to solve is of access to funds – but those funds don’t have to be large.

The median value of a News Challenge award has ranged from $200,000 to $326,000 during its four years of existence, and I suspect one of the problems with Channel 4′s 4iP fund was that its £50m pot was based on television-scale budgets.

You don’t need a large amount of money to innovate online, and the best research and development comes after launch, because you can see how users are using it, and what they tell you they want it to do, or indeed what they build themselves for you.

So instead of funding to the hilt a dozen or so ideas that have to jump through several on-paper hoops to prove their theoretical viability, I would suggest this: spread small amounts of innovation funding wider across 100 pilot projects, and see how they jump through real-life hoops instead.

Projects that jump through those hoops could perhaps then apply to a second fund specifically aimed at the separate problem of scalability. I can speak from experience that running a pilot project gives you a much stronger sense of what you’ll need to do to scale up, than doing the same exercise on paper.

This second fund could even provide rapid access to servers or customer support staff or legal advice while the application is being considered (otherwise the customer experience becomes so bad that by the time funds are released, the project has no users left).

Separating funding innovation from funding scaling allows you to first fund projects that take bigger risks, and generate a bigger pool of innovators with experience of launching and managing an innovative product. And that leads on to the third point:

Support innovation, not projects

Every fund that I’ve been involved in neglected what could have been potentially their biggest value: the process itself of vetting applications and monitoring progress.

(It’s also the biggest source of resentment: there will always be accusations that funds are given to the ‘in-crowd’)

“Driving innovation” should go beyond “funding innovative projects”. Simply opening up the application process so that everyone can see how ideas develop – and what the ‘experts’ think about the detail of proposals – can help contribute to a culture of innovation. Seeing other great ideas being developed makes people feel a whole lot more innovative – and produce better ideas – than getting an opaque email saying “Proposal not accepted” and seeing a disappointing-on-the-surface winners’ list 5 months later.

For the funders this represents a lot of admin, but tough: that’s their job. And there are creative possibilities here: when you move the focus from funding innovative projects to supporting innovation you can start to broaden the focus towards building a network of innovators and aspiring innovators, towards creating a supportive ecology. That also spreads the costs, lowers risk, and increases benefits.

Ultimately, just as networked models are allowing us to revisit ways of doing things without physical limitations, the funding process should reflect that change too. It should be quicker, smaller scale, and more transparent.

February 25 2011

17:00

Ushahidi Takes First Steps in Evaluating Kenya Projects

This post was written by Melissa Tully and Jennifer Chan. It is the first in a series of blog posts documenting a 9-month Ushahidi evaluation project in partnership with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and supported by the Knight Foundation. A version of the post below was originally published on the Ushahidi blog

During the first two weeks of January, we traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to begin phase one of a 9-month evaluation of Ushahidi's Kenya projects. Ushahidi is a web application created to map the reported incidents of violence during the post-election crisis in Kenya.

As part of a team, Jennifer and I met with individuals and groups who have incorporated the Ushahidi software into their programming as well as other partners to better understand how organizations have implemented and used the platform to improve their programming and organizational goals.

This evaluation has multiple purposes. In addition to writing case studies of some interesting and dynamic projects that use the Ushahidi platform: Unsung Peace Heroes and Building Bridges, and Uchaguzi in both Kenya and Tanzania; we plan to document our progress through a series of blog posts and to create practical and interactive tools.

Tracking Progress

These resources can help organizations decide if Ushahidi is right for them through a self-assessment and evaluation process. Implementers can use these resources throughout the entire project period to track their progress and strengthen monitoring and evaluation.

We're in the very early stages of development, but based on discussions with people in Kenya who have used Ushahidi and members of the Ushahidi team and community, we think we're developing some very useful stuff. Currently, we're focusing on the "pre-implementation assessment" and "implementation" resources so that we can get feedback from current and future deployments on these key areas.

We're working closely with the Ushahidi team and others involved in developing the Ushahidi Community page to integrate the case studies and tools into this part of the site and to add to the already existing resources for Ushahidi users.

Another goal is to link to guides, case studies, tips, and tricks -- or anything else out there created by the vast Ushahidi community worldwide -- to better serve the entire user community. Let us know in the comments what you think about our service and how we might better improve it.

February 10 2011

19:42

Basetrack in Limbo as Embeds Removed Due to Map Concerns

Over the weekend we learned that someone, somewhere, decided that Basetrack's journalists would have to go. So after we posted up the letter, we scratched our heads and wondered why. Actually, we're still wondering, especially since we received this note from the Marine Corps public affairs office in Afghanistan:

Teru,

Good chatting with you.  As discussed, we very much appreciate the Knight Foundation's efforts in highlighting the important work of our Marines and Sailors of First Battalion, Eighth Marines over the past six months in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.  Your team has not been disembedded; media ground rules were not violated.  Instead, the unit made the decision to not entertain the next team of Basetrack.org members, since many of the Marines and Sailors were beginning turnover preparation for redeployment.  There had been concerns by a number of individuals on the use of online maps to portray service members' positions.  I understand that you deliberately off-set actual locations in order to safeguard force protection.  Additionally, First Battalion, Eight Marines' Executive Officer (Maj Ansel) verified each post to basetrack.org. 

This close partnership between the command's leadership and Knight Foundation members is important to note.  While most media embeds last only two weeks, this unit committed to assisting with this project in order to better connect the public to what their service members are doing each day in Afghanistan. 

I think the project was incredibly worthwhile and the relationships you forged with our Marines and Sailors impressive; I heard nothing but positive things from the unit. 

Please know that the unit is hoping you will attend their homecoming.  Also, we welcome you back to Regional Command Southwest and Helmand Province in the future. 
 
Regards,
Gabrielle M. Chapin
Major, U.S. Marine Corps
Director, Regional Command Southwest Public Affairs
First Marine Expeditionary Force (FWD)
Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan

Not Sure of Next Steps

The public head-scratching continued on our Facebook page and through interviews with PRI's The World and elsewhere.

Some of the comments were touching:

To be honest not sure what y'all do..but I do know that my brother is in the Marines and we haven't seen him in a very long time...and I see my mother posting on here and even called me when you did a wonderful piece on him...since you make my mother smile and bring those happy tears to her eyes I thank you...We love you Nenish..come home safe to us and my prayers go out to the basetrack family and all those involved...

Some were heated, particularly when discussing Operational Security and legitimate safety concerns.

Some were just confused. The most interesting thing about the project is watching the audience -- a very small, but committed and diverse group of people -- grapple with the complexities and nuances of a very difficult subject, war, that is also incredibly personal. If you had told me a year ago that I would be discussing the The Hidden War: a Russian journalist's account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan with a group of civilians, who asked probing, complex questions about the policy in Afghanistan that puts most of the public debate I've seen on television or read in a newspaper or heard on the radio to shame, I wouldn't have believed you.

Yet now, here we are, planning the next stage. I wonder where it will go.

February 08 2011

14:00

Knight, Mozilla Partner to Boost Tech-Journalism Collaboration

I'm excited to announce the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, a Mozilla Drumbeat project supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Journalism Program.

For the next three years, we will have the opportunity to engage a huge community, bring people together for trainings and in-person events, and ultimately build software and thought leadership to address the challenges that news organizations are facing today.

We'll be working with some amazing news partners: BBC, Boston.com, The Guardian, and Zeit Online, who are launching the partnership with us, and many more who we will invite to join the initiative.

If you're excited about the challenges and opportunities facing journalism, we want you to be part of this: If you're interested, please join the project mailing list.

We are creating a major new opportunity for the growing community of news innovators, sometimes called news hackers. Every phase of the partnership, from the innovation challenges to our online courses and in-person news hacking events, will help participants learn, network and build a community around their interests, develop their careers, and take leadership at the intersection of news and technology.

Over the course of the partnership, we'll be awarding at least 15 year-long fellowships to participants who demonstrate passion, great ideas and collaborative skills. This fellowship cohort might include software developers, user experience designers and statisticians. We're open to many types of candidates. The fellows will be embedded within the news partner organizations, where they will work side-by-side with newsmakers, producing experimental news applications based on open-source, open-web technologies.

In the coming months, as we get the partnership going, I will be sharing more of our thinking, announcing new partners, and so on. In the next few weeks, we'll be asking some big questions that will help to refine the plan for the project.

We're aiming to formally launch the program with a design challenge in the spring -- aimed at finding great ideas, and great people -- so, if you haven't already, please join the project mailing list and follow along with our thinking on the project wiki.

Also check out the Knight Foundation's blog post here and a post from our news innovation consultant, Phillip Smith, here.

I will be writing about the project extensively here on Idea Lab and at my site: www.nathanieljames.org. Let us know what you think of the idea in the comments.

February 07 2011

18:04

Councilpedia Follows the Money in New York City Politics

More than two years since the idea first began buzzing in our collective brains, Gotham Gazette yesterday finally launched its Councilpedia site.

Councilpedia, funded in part with a News Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation, is a unique new tool that will let people track the influence of money in New York City politics and help New Yorkers monitor their public officials. To accomplish this it does three main things.

First, it brings together an array of information about two citywide elected officials and the members of the New York City Council: legislative records, campaign finance information, and places to go to find out more. Most -- not all -- of this exists elsewhere, but it is scattered about -- on Gotham Gazette, on the city Campaign Finance Board website and elsewhere. We've put it all in one place. This will help people easily go back and forth between the money -- who helped fund the official's campaign -- and the politics. And in the process find out how the official vote on matters might affect those contributors.

Second it expands upon the campaign finance information previously available. New York City has a tough campaign finance law with public financing of campaigns (unless you're a billionaire and so choose to opt out). As part of that, the Campaign Finance Board pulls together a formidable array of information and makes it readily available to all who come to its site. But the amount of information is overwhelming -- long lists of names of people who gave to a candidate -- and hard to digest. We've taken those lists of contributors and broken them down by categories: labor, for example, people in the real estate industry and so on.

Reader Input

And finally, we've asked our readers to connect the dots for us. Readers are encouraged, urged (even begged) to tell us what they know about contributors and their interests or about council members. If Contributor Z gave money to Candidate X who then proposed a zoning change that boosted the value of Z's property, we want to know. Gotham Gazette reporters will try to check the allegations out; we'll mark those that we can verify and take down ones we determine to be false or abusive.

We hope to have a lively online conversation that will inform New Yorkers and help them become more involved in the politics of their city. This is an experiment in crowdsourcing on local issues. We'll keep you posted on how it develops -- in case some of you want to try something similar in your communities. (And our City Hall editor Courtney Gross and technical manager JaVon Rice, who together did the lion's share of the work on this, can warn you of some of the problems and issue you might face along the way.)

So far, we have received a lot of praise and coverage for Councilpedia. (For a sample go here, here and here for a video). People already are urging us to expand it -- to judges, to state officials, to candidates as well a incumbents. One person even wanted us to delve into records of a past governor. Given how long it took us to get this far -- and given the months of data coding, checking and re-entry, we're gong to pause for now and watch what happens, fine tune what we have, see what kind of discussion develops and, we hope, follow up on some hot tips from readers.

So if you know about New York, tell us what you know. And even if you don't know New York, tell us what you think about the project.

February 03 2011

12:00

Medill and McCormick launch a news innovation lab with $4.2 million in Knight funding

In 2009, while announcing that year’s Knight News Challenge winners at a conference at MIT, Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen mentioned the foundation’s desire to launch “test kitchens” for journalistic tools: laboratories where innovative ideas for news production, distribution, and financial sustenance might be devised, improved, and put to use.

Today, Knight is announcing a definitive step in the test-kitchen direction. It’s giving a grant — $4.2 million over four years — to Northwestern University to establish the Knight News Innovation Laboratory. The Knight Lab will be a joint initiative of the Medill School of Journalism and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern — at its core, a partnership between journalism and computer science. It’ll be populated by Northwestern faculty and students, as well as, possibly, technologists and members of the media at large. And it will aim to help build and bolster the digital infrastructure that will guide journalism into its next phase.

“Speeding up” media innovation

“This is a significant step forward in terms of collaboration between journalism and computer science,” says Rich Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at Medill (and one of the Knight Lab’s four faculty overseers). The Knight Lab joins a smattering of similar hacker-journalist-oriented programs popping up at J-schools across the country — Studio 20 at NYU, the joint Journalism/Computer Science M.S. at Columbia, Medill’s own journalist/developer scholarship, and on and on — all of them responses to the recognition that the content of journalism will increasingly be connected to the tools we use to create it.

Indeed, “to advance journalism excellence in the digital age, we must use the tools of the digital age,” Eric Newton, vice president of Knight’s journalism program, put it. “We hope this pioneering partnership between a school of journalism and a school of engineering will demonstrate how a major university can speed up media innovation in its surrounding community.”

One of the ways the Knight Lab is unique, though, is in its focus on outcomes. Though the Knight Lab is set in a school, its goal is pretty much to escape the ivory tower. And, to an extent, to topple it. The Knight Lab will team up with Chicago-area news outlets — partners so far include The Tribune Company, Chicago Public Media, The Daily Herald, the Chicago Community News Trust, and the Chicago News Cooperative — with the goal of improving the information available to the communities those outlets serve. In that, the Knight Lab’s mission is aligned with the general mission of journalism, Gordon says: to “accelerate media innovation in ways that advance the interests of journalism and well-informed communities.”

The Lab’s initial focus is the Chicago area simply because, Gordon notes, the Evanston-based Medill already has connections with the Chicago community and the publishers who serve it. “It makes sense,” he notes, ” to focus our energy on the community that we understand best.” That doesn’t mean that expansion won’t be a possibility for later on, though. “We assume that if we find ways to create things that are valuable to Chicago, it’ll be available to everybody.”

Closing the loop

One of the intriguing aspects of the Knight Lab project is its connection to the Knight News Challenge. The Knight Lab will make it a point to work with the technologies that have been created by News Challenge winners. News Challenge projects have generated myriad journalistic tools with large amounts of back-end code; one of the Knight Lab’s goals is to ensure that those technologies remain relevant even after their Knight funding runs out. It hopes to maximize the use of the code that’s been developed through the News Challenge, refining it and improving it and making it as helpful as possible to the media outlets who might put it to use.

Some of the plans for doing that include:

  • Cataloging and organizing software projects that have been supported by Knight Foundation grants to date;
  • Evaluating the software and determine if there are technical reasons why these systems have not been more widely adopted;
  • Determining which features of larger systems can be abstracted into freestanding tools that might have a greater chance of being adopted;
  • Looking for feature overlap that argues for the integration of multiple systems – and, if warranted, do that technology integration; and
  • Integrating these tools with existing publishing platforms as needed – for instance by creating plug-ins for popular content management systems.
  • There’s a strong component of pragmatism to all this: The goal isn’t just to improve code in general, but to improve it, in particular, according to the value it could present for media users. (And then, Gordon says, to “do whatever we have to do to get that code more widely adopted.”) In some sense, to be ultra-nerdy about it, Knight Lab : Knight News Challenge :: OpenBlock : EveryBlock.

    Another noteworthy aspect of the Knight Lab is its focus on information as its own kind of platform for innovation. Medill has departments not only in journalism, but also in Integrated Marketing Communications — and Chicago, with its storied national newspaper and its buzzing field of niche news sites, offers a particularly vibrant landscape to study. Part of the work of the Knight Lab will be to analyze, in detail, how people actually consume news: what they want from news, what they need from news. “There are opportunities to better undestand both how and why technologies are adapted by real people looking for news and information,” Owen Youngman, Medill’s Knight Chair in digital media strategy (and another Knight Lab faculty overseer), told me. The overall mission, he notes, is akin to journalism’s more broadly: to ensure that citizens and the communities they live in get the news and information they need.

    Oh! And they’re hiring

    Medill-McCormick is looking for a full-time executive director to run the Knight Lab’s day-to-day operations. It’s also looking for a director of software engineering and several full-time software developers. If you want to learn more — about the job openings, about the Knight Lab in general — Knight and Northwestern will be formally announcing the project later today. And at 4pm CST, they’ll be hosting a “virtual Q&A” session about it here.

    [Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab.]

    February 01 2011

    15:30

    Could BiblioBouts, an online sourcing game for academia, offer lessons for media literacy?

    Karen Markey had a fairly straightforward idea: Teach students to steer clear of unreliable sources of information through the use of a game.

    What the University of Michigan professor wants her students to focus on navigating is academic research. But instead of citing credible references on the rise of the Medici family, what if we could apply a similar game to distinguishing the credibility of news sources?

    “The problem is today’s students still don’t know where to go for authoritative, good information that is trustworthy,” said Markey. “But they sure do know how to go to the web.”

    If we swapped out “students” for “readers,” you’d have the basis of an argument for media literacy and the importance of finding a way for readers (and journalists themselves) to find good information.

    The game Markey created, BiblioBouts, could potentially be an example to educators, j-schools or nonprofits on how to teach media literacy. It’s an idea that’s getting investment, like the Knight Foundation’s funding of the expansion of a civics and news literacy program in West Virginia called Globaloria.

    In BiblioBouts, students gather citations from library databases or online sources and rank them against each other based on credibility, content, and relevance to assigned topics. The game is built off Zotero, an open-source online citation tool that lets users organize and share research. In a way, the game is a little like the academic equivalent of Final Fantasy or World of Warcraft: You assemble the best team possible and hope to come out on top. Though maybe it’s a little like the Legend of Zelda in a “gather the tools you’ll need for the journey” way. (Then again, I may just be a big nerd.)

    Through rating and tagging each other’s citations, students evaluate what makes a good source, with (hopefully) the more thorough and useful sources rising to the top. If competitiveness is any kind of factor students will look at the winning sources and want to emulate that process, Markey said. “It puts people in situations where the game-like features encourage them to continue playing,” she said. “And if they continue playing, hopefully they’ll learn more.”

    It’s arguable that doing research has never been easier, thanks to the likes of Google and Wikipedia. Markey said professors aren’t surprised by studies saying students lend too much credence to search rankings in Google rather than relevance or authority. But Markey is clear that she’s not entrenched in an anti-Internet camp when it comes to research. She said there are plenty of good tools (Google Scholar, for instance), as well as sources for surfacing information — but students need to learn to be more discerning and know when to look deeper.

    BiblioBouts may seem like a technology solution to a technology problem, in that you’re using one system to try and bring order to another (solving the “there’s too much information” problem, or perhaps the filter failure problem). But Markey thinks making more critical readers is the answer, and in that way BiblioBouts is just a tool.

    “I think we need to teach people methodologies,” she said. “When you retrieve something on the web, you need to ask questions about what I am looking at and whether the information can be trusted.”

    Markey can see a ready analog in journalism and the idea of media literacy. A similar game, call it truth-squading or BS-detecting, could be used either in training would-be journalists how to ferret out information, or creating more shrewd news consumers. “We need to be critical consumers of information to make decisions that impact our lives,” she said.

    Image by Kimli used under a Creative Commons license.

    January 20 2011

    09:37

    January 13 2011

    15:30

    The Newsonomics of 2011 news metrics to watch

    [Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

    In the digital business, the old aphorism — “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” — is rapidly moving from article of faith to fundamental operating principle. Measurement systems are just getting better and better.

    Yes, there are still quite a few naysayers in the digital news business, those who believe that editorial discretion is superior to any metric the digital combines can kick out. They’ll say you can’t measure the quality of journalism created — and, of course, they are partly right. The truth of the moment is that good (to great) editors, armed with good (to great) analytics, will be in the winners in the next web wars. The same is true for digital marketers working for news companies. Unless they combine their knowledge of markets, customers, and advertisers with often real-time numbers about performance, they’ll lose business to those who do.

    The counting of numbers, though, is tricky. So many numbers, so little time, as 24/7 digital keystrokes stoke endless reams of data. Which ones to count, and which to pay closest attention? Meaningful numbers, of course, are called metrics, and meaningful interpretation of those numbers we now call analytics. These analytics, discovered or undiscovered, then drive the business, and they are particularly important in great times of change, when whole industries move profoundly digital. As that old investigative reporter Sherlock Holmes said, “Data. Data. Data. I can’t make bricks without clay.”

    In the spirit of the new year, let me suggest some of the more valuable emerging metrics for those in the news business in 2011. Further, in that spirit, let’s pick 11 of them. These aren’t intended to be the most important ones — the mundane price of newsprint, trending up recently, still is a hugely influential number — but ones that are moving center stage in 2011.

    1. How much are news companies getting for tablet advertising? Or, in more numerical terms, what’s the effective CPM, or cost-per-thousand readers? In 2010, those with tablet news products reaped a small windfall, gaining rates as high as $150 per thousand readers, which would be 20 times what many of them get for their website ads. Much of that business was “sponsorship,” meaning that advertisers paid simply for placement, not actually based on number of readers. It was the blush of the new, and the association with it, that drove that kind of money. While early 2011 pricing is still very good, as the tablet market goes mass, what will happen to the rates news companies can charge advertisers? This is a huge question, especially if tablet news reading does hasten movement from ad-rich newsprint (see “The Newsonomics of tablets replacing newspapers“).

    2. What percentage of unique visitors will actually pay for online access? It’s going to be a tiny percentage — maybe one to five percent of all those uniques, the majority tossed onto sites by search. If it’s less than one percent, paid metered models may be of little consequence. At two percent, especially for the big guys, like The New York Times with its imminent launch, the numbers gets meaningful and model-setting.

    3. Where are the news reading minutes going? The Pew study showing that Americans are reading news 13 minutes a day more, probably given smartphone usage, was a thunderbolt — a potential sign of growth for a news industry that has felt itself melting away. With tablet news reading joining even more smartphone reading (only 20 percent of cellphones are “smart” right now), each news company will have to look at its logs to see which readers are reading what with what kind of device — which will tell where reading is increasing and where (let’s guess, print) it is decreasing. Then comes the job to adjust products accordingly.

    4. How good are the margins in the fast-developing marketing services business? Tribune’s 435 Digital, GannettLocal, and Advance Internet are among the leaders selling everything from search engine marketing and optimization to mobile and social to local merchants. It’s a big shift for big newspaper companies used to selling larger ticket ads to relatively few customers. There is no doubt that local merchants want help in digital marketing. The number to watch for the newspaper companies is their margin on sales — after paying off technology partners from Google to Bing to WebVisible. Once we see how those margins settle in, we’ll know whether marketing services is a big, or small, play to find local news company profit growth.

    5. How much of digital revenue is being driven by digital-only ad sales? McClatchy has been a leader in unbundling print/online sales, with digital-only now approaching 50 percent. That’s a big number for all media companies to watch. Not only is the market pushing them to offer unbundled products, but the sooner they sell digital separately on its own merits, the faster they grasp the growing business and slowly cut the cord to the declining one.

    6. How much of news traffic is now being driven by Facebook and Twitter? A few companies, including The Washington Post, know daily how much of their traffic is driven by social media; many others have little clue. Those that do watch the number know that Facebook and Twitter are the number one growth driver for news “referral” traffic, and that social traffic (friends don’t let friends read bad news) converts better to more regular readership than does search traffic. This metric then pushes newsrooms to more greatly, and more quickly, participate in the social whirl.

    7. How much will membership grow at the highest-quality, online-only local news start-ups? MinnPost just hit 2,300, an impressive number, but it’s been a three-year road to get there. It is hiring a membership director and trying to better convert regular readers to members. The Texas Tribune is pushing toward 2,000 and Bay Citizen 1,500. Can membership be a significant, and ramping, piece of the new news business model, or will it have to look elsewhere — advertising, syndication, events, more grants — to find sustainable futures?

    8. How many titles — and readers — is Journalism Online able to bring into its Press+ network? Journalism Online has moved from a question mark to a well-situated player in the iPad-fueled universe of paid content. Its Press+ network offers the promise of that elusive “network effect” — but only if it gets real scale.

    9. How much “extra” do news companies charge for digital access? Okay, every publisher wants to be paid for news content. But as they test out pricing, they’re all over the board in how much to charge. Some want to charge as much for digital as for print; others are willing to throw in digital access for “free” if readers maintain print. The number to watch is one probably about 10-20 percent higher than print alone — as an opt-out upsell — and see how much that sticks with print readers. If that works, new “circulation” revenue helps replaces some of that disappearing ad money — and provide a route to a time of mainly digital, partially paid access.

    10. What’s your cost of content? No journalist likes to be thought of as a widget producer, but news is a manufacturing trade, as the Demand Media model has shown us. How can news companies lower the cost of content while creating more? That’s why we see new Reuters America deals, Demand partnerships, more user-gen, more staff blogging. Editors are more needed than ever to make quality judgments about new content, but they and their business leaders must understand what content — high-end and low — really costs to produce.

    11. How much do you spend on analytics? Ultimately, investing in the collection and interpretation of data is a big test of news companies’ ability to play digital. I’ve noted (“The Newsonomics of the FT as an Internet retailer“) how the Financial Times has set the pace for the industry in establishing a new team of (non-newspaper) people to run its analytics arm. That operation now numbers 11, up from nine last year. A good beginning metric for any news company to ask: How much money are we investing in understanding our business with the tools of the day?

    January 11 2011

    16:00

    A year later, lessons for media from Haiti earthquake response

    Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, as well as the anniversary of one of the largest humanitarian responses to a natural disaster, with almost $3.8 billion in aid given or pledged. The international response required coordination between the Haitian government, foreign governments, NGOs, and the people directly affected by the disaster, becoming a real-world laboratory for testing new tools — from SMS short messaging to crowdsourced crisis mapping with Ushahidi — according to a new report from the Knight Foundation. And the response’s successes and failures could prove valuable lessons both for responding to the next crisis and for better understanding mass media.

    Three innovations in particular, the report says, were put to the test: Broadcasting crisis information with SMS, crowdsourcing data into actionable information, and using open mapping tools to meet humanitarian needs.

    The report found that none of them, however, would have been as effective without one very low-tech tool: radio.

    Radio still Haiti’s dominant medium

    In a country with a literacy rate of just 52 percent, traditional newspapers and Internet access would have been of low value even if the presses and power lines hadn’t been knocked out of commission. Inexpensive, resilient, and nearly universal radio access, however, cut past literacy and economic boundaries, particularly since one station, Signal FM, managed to continue operation throughout the crisis. Signal FM, and other stations as they returned to broadcasting, served as vital information sources, detailing aid and emergency procedures and helping connecting survivors with other resources.

    “Although much of the attention has been paid to new media technologies, radio was the most effective tool for serving the needs of the public,” the report notes. But while radio provided the first line of communications, new technologies were critically in actually connecting communities with the aid they needed.

    For help, text 4636

    Despite erratic cellular service (cell towers would often go live for a few hours, followed by hours of silence), SMS text messaging proved an invaluable tool: Even when coverage was down, messages could be queued and then sent when access returned. The Knight report states that the first usage was informal: Local journalists received pleas for help or reports from the ground. But local service provider Digicel, collaborating with non-profit InSTEDD, set up a dedicated, free short code service at the number 4636, which was up and running four days after the quake and allowed Haitians to text in reports and even requests for emergency help — even as the system was used by Thomson Reuters Foundation to broadcast basic shelter, hygiene and security alerts to roughly 26,000 subscribers.

    Across the Atlantic, SMS messages were also playing a very important relief role: raising money. SMS was widely used by the Red Cross and other organizations in the United States to spur convenient giving, helping raise $30 million in the 10 days after the earthquake. In fact, more people donated via text messaging (14 percent) than telephone (12 percent) or e-mail (5 percent).

    Despite the invaluable data in the flood of wireless bits, though, the mix of languages, formats, and levels of urgency sent in to relief workers also posed serious logistical hurdles.

    Crowdsourcing through the diaspora

    Critical to parsing through all the data were centers far outside of Haiti, like one group in Boston that helped geolocate emergency texts, information that was then passed along to relief workers on location. Groups of Haitian expatriates helped translate the flood of data from Creole, French, and Spanish into English, passing it along to the most appropriate aid organizations as well as the U.S. Marines, who often served as the basis for search-and-rescue missions.

    In Haiti, the report found the use crowdsourced emergency information had hit a turning point, helping inform real-time decision-making.

    “In most previous efforts, information was collected mostly to understand when, where and why events were occurring. It had been relatively rare for such information to be useful for actual response to a specific problem,” the report states. “In Haiti, by contrast, limited numbers of humanitarian responders attempted to include crowdsourced information to help form their decisions about where to respond, to send search-andrescue teams, to identify collapsed structures and to deliver resources. While these efforts were not systemic in nature, they were nonetheless groundbreaking.”

    Ushahidi mapping provides real-time relief

    The report also highlights the use of crowdmapping tool Ushahidi, which volunteers used to map many of the incoming pleas for help to determine trouble “hot spots” and inform rescue operations where they were needed. Haiti.ushahidi.com served as one focal point for cataloging submitted public health, security and other dangers, making it easy to quickly see what problems a particular area was facing and quickly deploy help there.

    While the report is careful to note that these efforts were limited, it highlighted the potential noted that even these early efforts were making a difference. According to a Ushahidi team leader at Tufts, “On the third day, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) called us to say keep mapping no matter what people say – it’s saving lives.”

    The changed role of media in crisis

    While the report focuses on primarily local and “humanitarian media,” it notes that journalists often played an important role in not just documenting the damage and recovery, but in connecting the local communities with information when traditional lines of communication were severely disrupted. Trusted on-air radio personalities switched from delivering hit music to health bulletins, while reporters passed along reports of danger and distress. Radio host Cedre Paul, the host of “Radio One Haiti,” sent out “prolific Twitter messages that provided real-time updates to his many followers,” the report noted.

    While the blurred role of NGOs in media serve is by no means new, Haiti served as powerful reminder of the dual role — both documenting and aiding — that news organizations can serve. Even traditional outlets, like CNN and the New York Times, served in relief capacities by partnering with NGOs and Google to create a unified Haitian people finder.

    Unmet potential

    While the report focuses on the successes, it recognizes that many barriers still needed to be deal with in order for the highlighted technologies to have a maximum impact, particularly in regards to education and policies within more traditiona aid and government organizations, which often have strict privacy rules, for example, that often conflict with the transparency required by crowdsourced projects like Ushahidi. Still, both sides, the technologists and the aid organizations, are realized that gains made clear from cooperation, the report states, and strides are being made towards better integration of these technologies into traditional response plans.

    “This process of creating new forms of collaboration between different organizational cultures will not be quick or easy,” the report concludes. “However, the promise of such collaboration is recognized by many of those involved, on both sides of the equation. The question is not whether this process will advance, but how.”

    The full Knight report and related materials are available for download.

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