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April 17 2012

13:32

Pay Walls and Social Media Could Shift the Public Agenda

If conversations around digital journalism have been dominated by anything in the first quarter of 2012, it's probably been about subscriptions, also known as pay walls. Walls are going up at the L.A. Times and Gannett papers, and getting higher at The New York Times. And the editor of The Guardian asked his readers, "What would you give the Guardian? Money, time or data?"

wall.jpg

At the end of last year, Raju Narisetti proposed a pay wall alternative he dubbed the "'Why don't we pay you?' pay wall" ... and then left the unwalled Washington Post for the walled Wall Street Journal.

The conversation all this time has been focused on whether the shift toward digital subscriptions will save the news business. But the more interesting and important question is whether and how it will change the news content and public discourse.

There's never been a question that people will pay for digital content. Give people information they need to profit professionally or enjoy personally, and they will pay for it. But what about all the boring and bad stuff? What about the kind of iron-butt reporting that has journalists cover legislative subcommittee meetings just so powerful people know the public is watching? And the quarter million-dollar investigations that find the hidden winners and losers?

That news doesn't entertain; it doesn't give me a competitive edge; and it doesn't save my family money in the short run. Those kind of stories make big waves every now and again, but no matter how high the pay wall, once the story is out, it spreads via broadcast news, social media and word of mouth. Even those who don't pay for it get to benefit from its impact.

social media's role

The role that social media plays in the subscription pay model isn't fully understood -- by me at least. I'd like to find the time to ask about whether paying subscribers share more or different stories than non-subscribers.

In any case, with a pay wall in place, subscribers will -- as always -- set the agenda more than non-subscribers. Some subscribers will be more influential than others, either because they have more followers or because they provide a better filter. In either case, the future of public discourse lies with subscribers. We need to know more about who they are and how their desired public agenda differs from non-subscribers.

It's easy to suspect that only the elite would pay for news -- only people whose personal social and economic decisions are determined by taxpayer money and public markets -- and that the topics that interest those folks may not be particularly populist.

But then I stumbled across a January 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center that seems to indicate that the willingness to pay for news may not be as elitist as I originally thought: African Americans and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to say that they would pay a monthly subscription fee if that was the only way to get full access to their local newspaper online. But there's no significant difference among any age groups under 65, nor is there a difference between men and women. On the other hand, college grads and people who make more than $75,000 a year are more likely to say they would pay for online local news than people who make less and have less education.

So does the public discourse look different if the people who subsidize original reporting -- and then share it -- are rich, educated, racial and ethnic minorities? After paying to see the news, what would they share? And who would they share it with?

the social distribution of news

The democratization of publishing means that alternative points of view would always be waiting in the on-deck circle anytime the paid-stream media misses a story its audience cares about. So it's also important to predict what kind of effect the audience's sharing patterns would have on journalists who want to make sure their pay walled reports remain valuable enough to make ends meet.

The social distribution of news has two benefits for news organizations -- they sell advertising against each unique visitor, and they have an opportunity to convert the social media samplers into paying subscribers. But if the role of advertising at news organizations becomes a significantly lower share of revenue, then eyeballs alone won't matter as much. News organizations might be less interested in running "water cooler" stories that are cute and fun alone. And they might be more inclined to run stories that target an audience that wants more than 140-character summaries.

Research collaborations between academics and industry could help us make better guesses -- and making good guesses on this topic will be important for any news organization that understands it doesn't sell ads or subscriptions, but trust and influence.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Aunty P.

March 01 2011

15:07

DocumentCloud Passes Major Milestone: 1 Million Pages Uploaded

DocumentCloud's Jeremy Ashkenas collaborated on this post.

It has been less than a year since DocumentCloud began adding users to our beta. Late Monday morning, a user uploaded our millionth page of primary source documents.

The thousands of documents in our catalog have arrived in small batches: five pages here, twenty there. The vast majority of the 65,000 documents that those million pages comprise remain private, but we're fast closing in on 10,000 public documents in our catalog.

Broad Appeal

Journalists are using DocumentCloud to publish all sorts of documents, including these:

Remaking History

Documents in our catalog reach back into the past, as well. In 1970 Ruben Salazar was killed by police while covering an anti-war protest in east Los Angeles. A story rife with controversy, questions, and suspicions, his death became a rallying point in the Mexican American civil rights movement. Forty years later -- after refusing a public records request for documents that might shed some light on the circumstances of his death -- the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department agreed to turn the files over to the Office of Independent Review.

While Los Angeles Times reporters waited for the report, they assembled their own folio of early clippings on Ruben Salazar. Readers can review FBI files obtained by the Times in 1999 and LAPD records on the department's repeated clashes with the journalist as well as a draft of the report prepared by the Office of Independent Review.

Join the Cloud

You can browse recently published documents by searching for "filter: published" or read up on other searches you might want to run. Here's hoping that the next year brings millions more pages, and more great document-driven reporting.

October 07 2010

14:00

Los Angeles Times collaborates across the newsroom and with readers to map neighborhood crime

There’s something about the immediacy of the web that makes interactive features seem effortless: One click and the information is there. But of course the feel of the end product is not the same as the process required to get it there. Just ask the Los Angeles Times.

Last week the Times unveiled a new stage in its ongoing mapping project, Mapping L.A. The latest piece lets users check out crime data by neighborhood, including individual crimes and crime trends. Ultimately, the goal is to give locals access to encyclopedia-style information about their neighborhoods, including demographic, crime, and school information. And for reporters, it’s a helpful tool to add context to a story or spot trends. Getting the project where it is now has been a two-year process, drawing on talent across the newsroom and tapping the expertise of the crowd. I spoke with Ben Welsh, the LAT developer working on the project, about what it’s taken to piece it together. Hint: collaboration.

“I was lucky to find some natural allies who had a vision for what we could find out,” Welsh told me. “In some sense it’s the older generation of geek reporters. There’s this whole kind of tradition of that. We talk the same language. They collect all this data — and I want data so we can do stuff online. Even though we don’t have the same bosses, we have this kind of ad hoc alliance.”

Before Welsh could start plotting information, like crime or demographics data, the Times had to back up to a much simpler question: What are the neighborhood boundaries in Los Angeles city and county?

“Because there are no official answers and there are just sort of consensus and history and these things together, we knew from the get-go it was going to be controversial,” Welsh said. “We designed it from the get-go to let people to tell us we suck.”

And people did. About 1,500 people weighed in on the first round of the Times’ mapping project. A tool allowed users to create their own boundary maps for neighborhoods. Between the first round and second round, the Times made 100 boundary changes. (Compare the original map to the current one.) “I continue to receive emails that we’re wrong,” more than a year later, Welsh said.

An offshoot project of the neighborhood project was a more targeted question that every Angeleno can answer: “What is the ‘West Side’?” Welsh said the hundreds of responses were impassioned and creative. The West Side project was recently named a finalist for the Online News Association’s annual awards in the community collaboration category.

Welsh has now layered census, school, and crime data into the project. Working with those varied government data set brings unique problems. “We put all kinds of hours in to clean the data,” Welsh said. “I think a lot of times journalists don’t talk about that part.” At one point, the Times discovered widespread errors in the Los Angeles Police Department data, for example. The department got an early look at the project and supports the Times’ efforts, and has actually abandoned its own mapping efforts, deciding to use the Times’ instead.

Welsh doesn’t talk about the project in terms of it ever being “finished.” “With everything you add, you hope to make it this living, breathing thing,” he said. In the long-run, he hopes the Times will figure out a way to offer a more sophisticated analysis of the data. “That’s a challenging thing,” he said. In the more immediate future, he hopes to expand the geographic footprint of the project.

August 24 2010

13:06

The New Online Journalists #10: Deborah Bonello

As part of an ongoing series, Deborah Bonello talks about a career that has taken her from business journalism in London to video journalism in South America, and a current role producing video at the FT.

What education and professional experience led to your current job?

After I graduated from Bristol University in 1998 (I wrote for my student newspaper Epigram for most of my time there), I moved up to London and started working for Newsline, an online news service run as part of the media database product Mediatel.

A year later I was taken on by New Media Age as a reporter, where I got to watch the dot com boom become the dot com crash and work with the then-editor, Mike Butcher, now the editor of TechCrunch Europe.

From there I moved to Campaign to edit their Campaign-i section, and when that got cut because of budgets after a year I spent the next few years freelancing on media business magazines (Campaign, Media Week, NMA, FT Creative Business) and watching how the traditional publishing industry took on the internet.

By then, I was fed up of London and business journalism, so I headed off to Latin America. After a year in Argentina as a print only journo, I moved to Mexico to launch NewCorrespondent.com, an experiment in digital journalism, with help from Mike Butcher.

The idea was to use free online tools – YouTube, WordPress, Twitter, Facebook, BlipTv and more – to publish multimedia journalistic content. NewCorrespondent.com became MexicoReporter.com and three months became three years. After my first six months of running the site in Mexico, I got taken on by the Mexico bureau of the Los Angeles Times, started shooting video and got trained in it by some of the best in the business (Scott Anger and Tim French). I contributed daily written and video dispatches to their Latin America blog, La Plaza, as well as latimes.com and the newspaper.

MexicoReporter.com became a go-to for English-speakers living in Mexico, as well as people around the world, and it was through the site that I also got commissioned to produce video pieces for the Guardian and Al Jazeera, amongst others, as well as for radio comment on breaking news such as the swine flu epidemic, violence against journalists and escalating drug-related violence in the country. The video caught the attention of the FT, and as the Los Angeles Times took their foot of the video pedal, it seemed like a good moment to move. I am currently working as a video producer and journalist in the FT’s London office.

What does your job involve?

I film, produce and edit video news, features and interviews for the Financial Times website, sometimes working as a one-man-band shooting operation, sometimes working with in-house camera operators and our correspondents around the UK and abroad.

Where do you see your career/job developing in future?

That all depends on how video journalism develops, but I am very excited about the potential of online journalism and video. TV and video are converging, which means new program formats and genres are emerging all the time, and everyone is experimenting with different styles of telling stories in video and multimedia.

I am especially interested in how the costs of technology have come down so dramatically that we should see a new generation of visual and text storytellers base themselves abroad at a fraction of the cost, tapping into the need for reduced costs in foreign reporting that the traditional media so desperately needs to survive to keep that content strand going.

Right now, if you’re a journalist that isn’t using new technologies to tell stories, you’re edging yourself out of the job market. Rather than the end of journalism as we know it, I think multimedia signifies a brave new world where our old disciplines still count but can manifest themselves across so many different platforms and media that your work is as creative and innovative as you want it to be. We just have to make sure we keep our eyes on the journalistic disciplines, and use technology as a means to an end rather than just for the sake of it.

In the long-term, I see myself based out in the Spanish-speaking world as a multimedia foreign correspondent.

August 16 2010

11:38

Murdoch’s new iPad newspaper: doomed already?

Predictions are already being made about the potential of Rupert Murdoch’s reported plans to produce a national newspaper available only on the iPad, as we discussed last month.

Over on Tech Crunch Paul Carr doesn’t mince his words, insisting that the concept is “doomed”. It is not about marketing the value of the contents but a simply money-making exercise he says, which is not a long term solution.

Of course the idea is doomed – that much should go without saying. Like so many of Murdoch’s recent forays into paid-for online news, it reflects less a bold strategy to convince a new generation of readers that good journalism is worth paying for and more the 79-year News Corp proprietor’s desperation to keep the cash flow coming until the company’s profitability becomes someone else’s problem.

But what’s remarkable about this current escapade is that Murdoch is actually proposing to sell a product that people have previously failed to even give away for free.

The LA Times, who also ran an editorial on the plans this weekend, added that News Corp is just another news organisation “scrambling to prop up their bottom lines with new sources of revenue”.

The initiative, which would directly compete with the New York Times, USA Today and other national publications, is the latest attempt by a major media organization to harness sexy new devices to reach readers who increasingly consume their news on the go. The development underscores how the iPad is transforming the reading habits of consumers much like the iPod changed how people listen to music.

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