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May 03 2012

20:48

Billionaire Eli Broad signals interest in buying L.A. Times

Los Angeles Times :: Five years after his partnership lost a bid to buy Tribune Co.and the Los Angeles Times, billionaire businessman Eli Broad said he remains interested in joining with others to restore local ownership to The Times.

Continue to read Mike Boehm | James Rainey, www.latimes.com

April 24 2012

13:57

Human-assisted reporting, mass intelligence, and mobile mobile mobile: What we learned at ISOJ

After attending a conference like the International Symposium on Online Journalism, it can be hard to pinpoint just one major takeaway. ISOJ features a mix of quantitative academic research, practical insights, and data from media companies like CNN, The Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, and Google News — all assembled by the ace team of Rosental Alves and Amy Schmitz Weiss.

You can check out our complete liveblog from the event; ISOJ has posted recaps of the symposium’s sessions; and Alf Hermida did his usual stellar job blogging everythign in sight. But we also wanted to distill some of what got us thinking.

A future of focused brands

What will newspapers and media companies look like in the future? Richard Gingras of Google News said news outlets will continue to move away from being general-interest publications and become more of a “stable of focused brands.” As alternative news channels like Twitter and Facebook continue to grow, and as more and more people get their information on-the-go, Gingras said news companies spend too much time worrying about their home pages and not enough about their article pages. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if there comes a time when a media company opts not to have a homepage at all. (Gingras’ comments echoed the themes in his TechRaking speech, which we shared on April 12.)

Embrace human-assisted reporting

Ben Welsh, who mans the Data Desk at The Los Angeles Times, is a big proponent of using computing power to make reporters’ lives easier. That includes letting robots do some of the writing. (Here’s an example of the kind of stories that algorithms write for the Times.) He also gave one of the most succinct and passionate calls to action of the conference. You can watch his talk here.

Appeal to “mass intelligence”

The Dallas Morning News is shifting the focus of its reporting to appeal to a “mass intelligence” audience rather than a general one, according to publisher Jim Moroney: “When I say a mass intelligence audience I don’t mean elite,” but instead a readership that wants daily intelligence about the community that fits specific interests. (Moroney credits this Economist article for the term.) The Morning News is trying to differentiate itself in two ways: By shifting its production to fit devices like tablets, and by shifting its reporting with a plan they call “PICA,” which stands for Perspective, Interpretation, Context and Analysis.

Take time to play in the news sandbox

Louis Gump, vice president for CNN Mobile, said the company was slow to launch its iPhone and iPad apps because it wanted to figure out the right way to use its vast collection of video and images. CNN provides widely differentiated experiences; consider how different the iPad app looks from the iPhone app from the mobile site from the desktop site. CNN’s iPad app is among the top 10 free downloaded apps, with more than 19.5 million U.S. users in February 2012. Even with that success, Gump said CNN sees the iPad app and other mobile apps as a “sandbox” to test how the audience responds: “You can’t choose between mobile web and apps — like two wheels on a bike, you need both.”

“Survival is success” in online news startups

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, who coauthored a report on the climate of online news startups in France, Germany, and Italy, found a culture similar to its U.S. equivalent. He said former reporters are trying to address perceived gaps in traditional media coverage but struggling to find and grow niche audiences, let alone generating enough revenue to thrive. For the companies he studied, the majority are not breaking even, and most operate at a loss. (Download the report, which goes deep on nine case studies, here.)

The Carvin Factor

In analyzing the tweets of NPR’s Andy Carvin during the Arab Spring, University of British Columbia professor Alfred Hermida found that Carvin overwhelmingly quoted activists, bloggers, and alternative voices. While almost half of Carvin’s tweets and retweets came from people on the ground, they made up just about a quarter of his sources, with the rest being mainstream media and official institutions. In other words, his tweets served as a major amplifier of lesser-known sources. Hermida questioned how this sourcing structure could have influenced the framing and coverage of the events of the Arab Spring.

Build something beautiful

Creating a tablet app is not just a box for news organizations to check. Many of the panelists at ISOJ talked about resisting the urge to transfer web-based design principles to smartphones and tablets. Pedro Doria, digital platforms editor at O Globo (Brazil), showed us how the paper reintroduced the concept of an “evening edition,” providing an update to tablet readers at the end of the day. It’s rich with videos and photos — that what tablets are good at, Doria said — which keeps people in the app longer, and it features content specially designed for a lean-back evening mode of reading. Since the launch of the p.m. edition, Doria said the average time spent daily in the O Globo iPad app jumped from 26 minutes to a staggering 77 minutes.

Don’t just build something beautiful

ISOJ’s all-star data panel made clear there’s a distinction between art and data that sometimes gets blurred at the expense of user experience. Pretty graphics must provide context and useful information to be journalism. Here’s an example that University of Miami lecturer Alberto Cairo gave of data that’s lovely but ultimately not useful.

Execution is key

It takes more than a killer idea to achieve greatness in the newsroom. As Moroney argued, “culture eats strategy,” and he acknowledged it as an area where his paper still had plenty of room for progress. Moroney said that means filling a newsroom with more Tiggers than Eeyores. That drew laughs and tons of retweets, although some said that wasn’t fair to Eeyore.

Mobile will just keep getting bigger

Okay, so we didn’t need a conference to tell us that. Just today we learned more than half of Facebook’s 901 million monthly active users uses it on a mobile device. The Dallas Morning News will shift more of its development resources to tablets, promising a groundbreaking app within a year. And while News Corp. was criticized for its single-platform strategy with The Daily, William Hurley — whose company helped design the iPad newspaper — said someone had to go first. Last year, The Daily was No. 3 on Apple’s list of top grossing apps, behind Smurfs’ Village and Angry Birds. Before diving into mobile, Hurley said, news organizations should consider their audience’s needs. Start with looking at access logs to see what devices people are most commonly using to visit a website.

There’s a big world out there

Conferences like ISOJ are a good reminder to sometimes-gloomy U.S. journalists that journalism is well, even thriving, in other markets. Globally, journalists face a slew of different challenges — fellow attendees from places like Argentina and the Philippines reminded us that FOIA protections aren’t universal. But it’s also an environment where international news companies with a bit of money to spare are doing interesting things — which means there’ll be interesting lessons for American companies to bring back from abroad.

January 10 2012

14:52

“Why’s this so good?” No. 27: Christopher Goffard tracks love in flight

One drawer of my desk – the largest – contains a mound of stories, the best I’ve found in newspapers and magazines over the last 20 years. In addition, three or four “great writing” folders float around the top of my work space; faux-wood fragments of the desktop are seldom visible.

Then there are a handful of individual stories I value enough to keep beside my keyboard at all times. When I’m struggling, when writing feels like running in mud, I go to one of these stories, start to read a page or two and then end up reading the whole thing. For some reason, it helps. Amazing work is possible, even if it feels beyond my own grasp.

Since I first read it in May 2009, Christopher Goffard’s narrative “Fleeing all but each other” from the L.A. Times has been among the treasured handful. I remember reading it, handing it to my wife and saying something like: You have to read this now.

So why do I reread it every few months, and why does it inspire me each time?

The story, about a young couple who hop trains together, seeking an alternative to an adult life of routine and responsibility, is tightly written – just 2,401 words. Early on, in just a few brush strokes, Goffard makes the two main characters, Adam Kuntz and Ashley Hughes, real:

He was 22, tall and rangy, with a goatee, wild black hair and a disarming smile. She was 18, with blue eyes and dishwater-blond hair. Crudely inked across her fingers was the word “sourpuss,” advertising the side she liked to show people: the rebel and sometime dope fiend who bristled with free-floating anger.

But he saw another side of her too: the frightened runaway who, like him, found a tramp’s dangerous, hand-to-mouth life less terrifying than the adult world.

Goffard jumps right from there into the first of several memorable scenes:

They were curving through the Tehachapi Pass, seriously drunk, when a feeling overcame him. The words were unplanned, like everything else in their life.

Hey, you should be my wife, he said.

OK, she replied.

It takes great discipline and skill to render a vivid moment in so few words.

Goffard ends the opening section of the story with a masterful cliff-hanger. The larger group of kids that includes Adam and Ashley decides to jump from the train while it’s still moving, so they can fill their water jugs at a Wal-Mart. The last line of the section is a great example of foreshadowing:

Naturally, it was Ashley who suggested they try it.

Most of the story maintains this spell, allowing you to forget it’s a newspaper article you’re reading. Only one paragraph departs briefly from the narrative. It’s the kind of nut graph, wide-angle view editors request in order to reassure the audience that a small story has some larger context. I’m not fond of such paragraphs, because they break that spell, but here Goffard slips it in so deftly and with such craftsmanship that none of the narrative momentum is lost:

Trains run right through the heart of the American story, a symbol of industrial prowess and physical vastness and unfettered movement. For the broke and the discontent and the wanted, they are also a place to disappear, a mobile refuge where nobody cares where you’re going or what your real name is.

The story walks a difficult line, explaining the appeal of this nomadic existence without glamorizing it. By quoting Ashley’s MySpace page, Goffard shows us what she liked about this life. He also shows us the letters she wrote that revealed her second thoughts, her regrets about the life she was trading away.

I admire the way Goffard shows in a short space the growth of the relationship between Adam and Ashley – the way he leaves his dog with her when he’s hauled away by the cops, the way she’s waiting with the dog when he’s released a week later, the fact that he gets her off heroin, yet what he loves most about her is her wildness. It isn’t by any means a perfect relationship, but it’s a real, loving relationship. It’s hard to write about love in a way that nods toward the messiness of it.

One final element that makes this story great is an underrated quality in reporting: patience. Patience on the part of both reporter and editors. I asked Goffard how the story came together. Like so many good narratives, it began with a newspaper brief. Another reporter had passed on it. It took months. Adam’s lifestyle made it almost impossible to track him down, Goffard said. He started with a police report that led him to Ashley’s grandmother, who sent Ashley’s diaries.

Goffard probably could have written a version of the story at that point, but it would have been missing so much. He needed to talk to Adam, but when he phoned Adam’s parents, month after month, the news was always the same: Adam was on the road, and they didn’t know when he’d be back. Goffard and his editors obviously made a decision that this story was worth waiting for. It was more important to tell the story right than to get it into the paper quickly. This is a lesson worth remembering whether you work at a small paper or a large paper, whether you’re a reporter, an editor or a photographer.

Goffard said he went through many drafts and changed the ending in a significant way. I won’t give away what happens, but when you read it, the saddest moment is the one Goffard originally intended to end with. I think where he chose to end was much better.

Mark Johnson is a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting as part of a five-person team telling the story of a boy with a rare genetic defect.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

January 03 2012

14:38

“Why’s this so good?” No. 26: Moehringer KO’s a mystery

The hell with my lede. Let’s start with his:

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, waiting for a call from a man who doesn’t trust me, hoping he’ll have answers about a man I don’t trust, which may clear the name of a man no one gives a damn about.

That’s how J.R. Moehringer begins “Resurrecting the Champ,” the greatest newspaper story ever written, and if you’re not hooked by the time the period slams that sentence shut, God knows why you’re here.

I’ve read this story at least 100 times since it appeared in the L.A. Times Magazine* in 1997, and my bones still ache with envy. Moehringer has command of all the storyteller’s tools here – rhythm, pacing, metaphor – and I’ve spent many an hour taking the story apart like an old radio.

But what I love about this story the most is a simple thing that shows up in far too few nonfiction narratives:

Mystery.

That lede echoes Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and all those noir movies of the ’40s (Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity”: I killed him for money. And for a woman. And I didn’t get the money. And I didn’t get the woman.)

Moehringer gets a tip: A former heavyweight contender named Bob Satterfield – known for jackhammer punches and a tinfoil chin – is walking the streets of Santa Ana, homeless. Moehringer goes looking for him, almost gives up, then sees an old man, toothless and filthy – but with hands so big they hang from his sides like bowling balls. Moehringer approaches him.

“You’re Bob Satterfield, aren’t you?” I said.

“Battlin’ Bob Satterfield!” he said, delighted at being recognized.

And then what happens is…

Well, here’s the problem. I can’t tell you.

Every great mystery has twists and turns. There are at least three places in this story where I still drop the printout (or now, the laptop) in disbelief. To paraphrase that great literary figure Rowdy Roddy Piper, just when you think you’ve got all the answers, the story changes the questions.

To explain the whole thing, I’d need spoiler alerts. When was the last time you read a story that required spoiler alerts?

I’ll tell you this much: To find out just who Bob Satterfield is, and to find out how that man ended up on the Santa Ana streets, Moehringer has to navigate false clues and blind alleys and several people who might or might not be lying to him. There’s a key conversation with Jake LaMotta (the boxer De Niro played in “Raging Bull”). There’s a meeting in that hotel in Columbus. There are things Moehringer wants to see that he doesn’t. There are things he doesn’t want to see that he does.

Moehringer is a main character, right there in the first person, dealing with (among other things) major daddy issues. One thing I’ve wondered over the years is if the story would work without him in it. I’ve decided he has to be in there – above all, this is a detective story, and he’s the gumshoe who bumbles through the story, trying to solve the mystery.

By God, he solves it.

And then – as in the very best mysteries – there’s one more scene. We’re back on the California streets, our two main characters are talking…

And the very last line of the story hits you like a left hook to the gut.

It’s the best last line I know of. Every time I read the story, it stays with me for days.

Journalists often work on different kinds of mysteries. We’re great at doing the forensics on a failed campaign and pinpointing just where it went sour. We’re great at dissecting a game-winning TD and showing exactly how the receiver got open.

But those are mysteries where the reader already knows the ending – we’re just revealing the why and the how. The best mysteries start with a what – or, more to the point, a WHAT!?! – and take readers from there to places they’d never expect.

It’s easier when you can make stuff up – whoever created  “Matlock” owns half of Malibu by now. But to pull it off in nonfiction – to find the story, track it down and write it – that’s jumping off the high dive.

J.R. Moehringer has done all right for himself. He won a Pulitzer. He wrote a well-loved memoir. He collaborated on a best-seller Andre Agassi’s autobiography.

But in my mind, he’s the guy who chased a tip, found a mystery, and ended up with the greatest newspaper story of all time.

They made a movie out of “Resurrecting the Champ,” starring Josh Hartnett and Samuel L. Jackson. I’ve never watched it. It’s not as good as the newspaper story. It can’t possibly be.

———

*Yeah, maybe it’s technically a magazine story – it does run nearly 12,000 words. But to me, if it comes bundled with the comics and the coupons, it’s a newspaper story.

Tommy Tomlinson (@tommytomlinson) is a storyteller for The Charlotte Observer, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and a former Nieman Fellow.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

September 03 2011

15:17

Forced vacation use ordered at L.A. Times

LA Observer :: More cost cutting: the same week that parent Tribune asked the bankruptcy judge to tapprove bonuses for 640 managers, Los Angeles Times employees received an email saying they will not accrue vacation for the rest of 2011. They also have to use up some of their banked vacation days, like it or not. LA Observer published the memo.

Continue to read Kevin Roderick, www.laobserved.com

August 03 2011

17:00

California Watch expands south with a new partnership

The nonprofit California Watch, just shy of its second birthday, opens its new Southern California bureau today — and the location says something about the evolution of the news business.

A reporter and community engagement manager will be leaving the outfit’s Berkeley headquarters and taking up residence in the newsroom of the Orange County Register. And the rent is unbeatable: free.

“As traditional newsrooms have cut back, they have been left with vast stretches of open space inside their newsrooms or buildings,” said Mark Katches, editorial director for California Watch and its parent organization, the making the announcement last month. “We are able to capitalize in a way that benefits our organization and our hosts.”

A couple of years ago, when California Watch was new and unknown, the outlook for this kind of team-up might not have been so sunny. The O.C. (don’t call it that) Register, for one thing, might have viewed California Watch simply as a competitor encroaching on its turf. Other reporters setting up shop here, digging for the same dirt?

No longer, though: Now, they’re teammates. (The Register already pays annual licensing fees to run California Watch stories in its own pages.) “There’s just so much news in California that, two years in, there really has not been a case where we have overlapped,” says Robert Salladay, California Watch’s senior editor. “I think that alleviated a lot of fear on the part of reporters and our partners.”

Not everyone they talked to was as receptive to a team-up as the Register, Salladay said, but at the same time, California Watch was actually getting partnership invitations from some papers. “The situation with newspapers is so critical. I think everyone’s happy for the copy, happy that stories are getting done. It is a much more collaborative industry now,” Salladay told me. “I can imagine that, 10 years ago, this model just wouldn’t have flown at all.”

The Center for Investigative Reporting launched California Watch in fall 2009 to do the kind of time-consuming, data-driven reporting that many newspapers can’t afford anymore. Since then, the site has launched its own initiatives: a statewide distribution network, a radio partnership with public broadcasting giant KQED, and a television unit that works in collaboration with WGBH’s Frontline and ABC News. In addition to more than 1,200 news posts last year, the site pumps out, on average, three investigative pieces a month, Salladay told me — and a half-dozen major series a year.

Financially, California Watch continues to subsist on grants from foundations, but the organization is raising some revenue, as well. In January, the outfit changed the way it charges for its content. Members of the California Watch Media Network — among them the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, and, yes, the Orange County Register — now choose from a menu of stories each year and pay membership fees that vary according to their circulation and audience reach. (Previously, California Watch negotiated the price of each story, a la carte.) Salladay would not disclose the membership rates, but he said it can’t be so much that a newspaper can’t afford it. Newspapers’ financial struggles, after all, are the reason California Watch exists in the first place.

California Watch’s move into Southern California is overdue, Salladay said — especially because it’s where most Californians live. “One of the reasons we want to be in Southern California is that here are a lot of neglected communities that don’t get a lot of coverage, so we’re hoping to get out to some of the smaller communities to do a lot of work on low-income people, disadvantaged communities, work on the border, work on migrant farmworkers. You’d be surprised how many small towns there are down there that aren’t being watched. I think with what the L.A. Times found with the city of Bell, there’s a lot of fruitful work that can be done.”

Looking beyond Orange County, Salladay would also like to get a reporter in Los Angeles, add a border bureau in San Diego or Imperial County, and maybe hire a staff photographer. In just two years, now with 25 employees, California Watch has become the largest investigative reporting team in the state. The organization’s biggest challenge now, Salladay said, is staying on mission.

“We have to constantly remind ourselves that the mission is investigative reporting — looking at waste, fraud, and abuse,” he noted. “There’s a great temptation to pull ourselves away for some great mini-scandal somewhere or some great enterprise story about a social issue. We want to do those, but I think it’s important for us to stay focused.”

July 26 2011

20:39

Facebook tells users how to opt out of facial recognition

Los Angeles Times :: Facebook has begun running ads to show users how to opt out of a controversial facial-recognitition feature for photographs after Connecticut Atty. Gen. George Jepsen raised privacy concerns. Jepsen said in a written statement (PDF download) that "Facebook has made significant changes that will provide better service and greater privacy protection to its users."

Update: Shall we be worried about face-recognition? - A video by Wall Street Journal (6/8/2011, 5:01:14 PM: "News Hub: Facebook Face-Recognition Stirs Concern")

News Hub: Facebook Face-Recognition Stirs Concern 6/8/2011 5:01:14 PM

Facebook stoked fresh concerns by rolling out technology that uses facial recognition to identify people in photos on its website. Geoffrey Fowler explains.

 

Continue to read Jessica Guynn, latimesblogs.latimes.com

May 18 2011

12:57

Dorothy Parvaz freed by Iran

We’re thrilled to hear this morning that Iran has freed detained journalist (and 2009 Nieman fellow) Dorothy Parvaz. Alan Cowell and J. David Goodman reported in The New York Times that, without advance notice, Dorothy called her fiancé, Todd Barker, from customs as she arrived back in Doha, Qatar. A wonderful surprise for him, no doubt, and we’re happy to read the good news again and again in accounts on Al Jazeera Englishthe Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times websites.

Thank you to those Storyboard readers who helped raise awareness of Dorothy’s detention worldwide.

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.

February 23 2011

16:42

Awards season begins: narrative highlights from ASNE and Polk awards; announcement of CRMA finalists

Looking for some quality narrative journalism you might not have noticed before? As awards season for newspapers and magazines gets underway, we wanted to share links to stories recognized for their writing and storytelling. Here are some of the more narrative categories and entries from the 2010 Polk Awards in Journalism, the list of finalists for the 2011 City and Regional Magazine Awards, and the winners of the American Society of News Editors awards for the best journalism of 2010.

Earlier this month, the City and Regional Magazine Association and the Missouri School of Journalism announced the 2011 National City and Regional Magazine Awards Finalists. There are a lot of narrative contenders in many of the categories, but here are the candidates for feature story and for writer of the year. Winners will be announced at the CRMA 35th Annual Conference to be held April 30-May 2 at The Drake Hotel in Chicago. (Click on the article titles to read the stories.)

Feature Story

  • 5280 Magazine – Lindsey Koehler “Gone
  • Atlanta Magazine – Thomas Lake “The Golden Boy
  • Chicago Magazine – Bryan Smith “The Long Fall
  • Philadelphia Magazine – Ralph Cipriano “The Hitman
  • Texas Monthly – Michael Hall “The Soul of a Man” (link is to excerpt only)

Writer of the Year (specific stories were not mentioned, but we have included a link to a story from each writer)

The American Society of News Editors last week announced the winners of its annual awards for outstanding writing and photography for 2010. Some of the stories are projects that we’ve covered before, but here are a few with a strong element of storytelling that you might not have seen yet.

The staff of The New York Times won the Online Storytelling award, for “A Year at War,” which recounts the life of a battalion with “intimacy and deep understanding.” Michael Kruse won the Distinguished Writing Award for Nondeadline Writing for a collection of stories, including his celebrated monkey piece. Barbara Davidson of the Los Angeles Times won the Community Service Photojournalism award for her exploration of the effects of gang violence on the innocent: “those wounded or killed because of a quarrel in which they had no part, victims lying in hospital beds or relatives and friends standing by their loved ones’ coffins or sitting all alone asking, ‘Why?’ ”

William Wan of The Washington Post won the Freedom Forum/ASNE Award for Distinguished Writing on Diversity for “his stories that provide insights that add to readers’ understanding and awareness of diverse issues shaping society and culture. Wan writes about a proud U.S. Army soldier whose Islamic faith is the target of ongoing hostility within his own ranks. Another piece details unusual Saturday afternoon church services at a Giant supermarket, where worshipping occurs in the community room and sometimes in the aisles. He also reports on Major League Baseball’s quixotic training program in China.”

And just this week, Long Island University announced the 2010 George Polk Awards in Journalism. Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone won the award for Magazine Reporting for “The Runaway General,” the story of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal and America’s conflicted mission in Afghanistan. The Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” project, spearheaded by Dana Priest and William Arkin, took the prize for National Reporting. The “Law and Disorder” collaboration between PBS’ “Frontline,” ProPublica and The Times-Picayune covered suspicious shootings by police in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and won the award for Television Reporting.

For more, see the complete list of ASNE winners, the Polk Awards press release, and all the 2011 CRMA finalists.

November 02 2010

16:00

It’s election night: Here’s what some news orgs (old & new) have planned

It’s election day in the United States, and with election day comes election day coverage. With more media players than ever aiming for their own slice of the audience, here are a few highlights of what they’ve got planned to help you sort through the abundance:

The Washington Post is now the first news organization to purchase a “promoted trend” on Twitter, sponsoring the term #Election. The “promoted trend” will appear at the top of the list of current trends on Twitter with a yellow label clearly marking it as “promoted.” In addition, anyone who does a search for the hashtag will find a tweet from the Post attached to the top of the stream. This is an intriguing and aggressive move for a news organization and it’ll certainly be interesting to see if they can take advantage of the increased election conversation on Twitter to drive traffic.

Twitter is also encouraging its users to report their experience at the polls by using the hashtag #votereport or #NYCvotes for those in New York City. NYC had a lot of trouble in September with the new voting system they unveiled for the primary election. Twitter is pulling together all of this information at TwitterVoteReport.com.

In addition to using Twitter the news startup TBD.com is encouraging its users to help map voting problems by using a piece of software called Crowdmap, as well as through email or submitting a tip directly to their website.

Increasingly social networking sites are creating ways for users to make the act of voting a social activity. Foursquare is offering up an “I Voted” badge for those who check in at their polling place or “shout” that they voted. Foursquare is then visualizing the data in order to “encourage civic participation, increase transparency in the voting process and develop a replicable system for the 2012 Presidential Election.” Twitter is encouraging its users to use the hashtag #ivoted to remind their peers to vote.

Facebook is joining in on the fun as well, reminding users 18 and older to vote today by posting a note in their news feeds and offering a polling place locator.

As usual, The New York Times is going big: Its election maps and charts are elegant, intuitive, and work on the iPad. The Times has also created a neat visualization for exploring election traffic on Twitter. The addition of Nate Silver and his blog FiveThirtyEight to the Times’ politics coverage is sure to be an additional draw to those interested in making sense of all the polling data. Talking Points Memo also has an excellent election results app that’s also not dependent on Flash. This is fitting given that the number of TPM readers on mobile devices is growing.

The Los Angeles Times has an intriguing news application that lets you explore the campaign contributions affiliated with Proposition 19, an initiative in California that would legalize possession and cultivation of marijuana. The app lets you explore the over $4 million in donations and figure out where it all came from.

The Huffington Post is trying to make the midterms even more fun with a “Predict the News” challenge where users can make predictions race by race and then earn points for those they get correct. You can of course challenge your friends through Facebook and Twitter and compare results.

In addition to their homepage, The Wall Street Journal is offering six hours of live video coverage on election night starting at 8 p.m. EST. The coverage will include “real-time news and analysis, live reports from key race locations, interactive maps, and features” and integrate with their iPad app.

And as always there are a wealth of options for election night viewers, especially with many big cable channels and networks supplementing their broadcast coverage with online streaming.

What else is out there? If your news organization has something exciting planned for tonight, let us know about it in the comments.

Photo by John C. Abell used under a Creative Commons license.

September 20 2010

14:00

L.A. Times’ controversial teacher database attracted traffic and got funding from a nontraditional source

Not so long ago, a hefty investigative series from the Los Angeles Times might have lived its life in print, starting on a Monday and culminating with abig package in the Sunday paper. But the web creates the potential for long-from and in-depth work to not just live on online, but but do so in a more useful way than a print-only story could. That’s certainly the case for the Times’ “Grading the Teachers,” a series based on the “value-added” performance of individual teachers and schools. On the Times’ site, users can review the value-added scores of 6,000 3rd- through 5th-grade teachers — by name — in the Los Angeles Unified School District as well as individual schools. The decision to run names of individual teachers and their performance was controversial.

The Times calculated the value-added scores from the 2002-2003 school year through 2008-2009 using standardized test data provided by the school district. The paper hired a researcher from RAND Corp. to run the analysis, though RAND was not involved. From there, in-house data expert and long-time reporter Doug Smith figured out how to present the information in a way that was usable for reporters and understandable to readers.

As might be expected, the interactive database has been a big traffic draw. Smith said that since the database went live, more than 150,000 unique visitors have checked it out. Some 50,000 went right away and now the Times is seeing about 4,000 users per day. And those users are engaged. So far the project has generated about 1.4 million page views — which means a typical user is clicking on more than 9 pages. That’s sticky content: Parents want to compare their child’s teacher to the others in that grade, their school against the neighbor’s. (I checked out my elementary school alma mater, which boasts a score of, well, average.)

To try to be fair to teachers, the Times gave their subjects a chance to review the data on their page and respond before publication. But that’s not easy when you’re dealing with thousands of subjects, in a school district where email addresses aren’t standardized. An early story in the series directed interested teachers to a web page where they were asked to prove their identity with a birth date and a district email address to get their data early. About 2,000 teachers did before the data went public. Another 300 submitted responses or comments on their pages.

“We moderate comments,” Smith said. “We didn’t have any problems. Most of them were immediately posteable. The level of discourse remained pretty high.”

All in all, it’s one of those great journalism moments at the intersection of important news and reader interest. But that doesn’t make it profitable. Even with the impressive pageviews, the story was costly from the start and required serious resource investment on the part of the Times.

To help cushion the blow, the newspaper accepted a grant from the Hechinger Report, the education nonprofit news organization based at Columbia’s Teachers College. [Disclosure: Lab director Joshua Benton sits on Hechinger's advisory board.] But aside from doing its own independent reporting, Hechinger also works with established news organizations to produce education stories for their own outlets. In the case of the Times, it was a $15,000 grant to help get the difficult data analysis work done.

I spoke with Richard Lee Colvin, editor of the Hechinger Report, about his decision to make the grant. Before Hechinger, Colvin covered education at the Times for seven years, and he was interested in helping the newspaper work with a professional statistician to score the 6,000 teachers using the “value-added” metric that was the basis for the series.

“[The L.A. Times] understood that was not something they had the capacity to do internally,” Colvin said. “They had already had conversations with this researcher, but they needed financial support to finish the project.” (Colvin wanted to be clear that he was not involved in the decision to run individual names of teachers on the Times’ site, just in analzying the testing data.) In exchange for the grant, the L.A. Times allowed Hechinger to use some of its content and gave them access to the data analysis, which Colvin says could have future uses.

At The Hechinger Report, Colvin is experimenting with how it can best carry out their mission of supporting in-depth education coverage — producing content for the Hechinger website, placing its articles with partner news organizations, or direct subsidies as in the L.A. Times series. They’re currently sponsoring a portion of the salary of a blogger at the nonprofit MinnPost whose beat includes education. “We’re very flexible in the ways we’re working with different organizations,” Colvin said. But, to clarify, he said, “we’re not a grant-making organization.”

As for the L.A. Times’ database, will the Times continue to update it every year? Smith says the district has not yet handed over the 2009-10 school year data, which isn’t a good sign for the Times. The district is battling with the union over whether to use value-added measurements in teacher evaluations, which could make it more difficult for the paper to get its hands on the data. “If we get it, we’ll release it,” Smith said.

August 18 2010

10:22

Mexican drug cartels silencing country’s reporters

Reporting on press freedom issues in China, Russia, South Africa, Sudan or elsewhere, we are accustomed to thinking of censorship as the work of the government and the judiciary. But according to a Los Angeles Times report, newspapers in Mexico are subject to an altogether different kind of restriction – “narco-censorship”.

It’s when reporters and editors, out of fear or caution, are forced to write what the traffickers want them to write, or to simply refrain from publishing the whole truth in a country where members of the press have been intimidated, kidnapped and killed.

Drug traffickers are reportedly co-opting the country’s journalists, who fear for their life following the murder or disappearance of more than 30 reporters since a drug-war was declared on the cartels by President Felipe Calderon in December 2006.

From the border states of Tamaulipas and Chihuahua and into the central and southern states of Durango and Guerrero, reporters say they are acutely aware that traffickers do not want the local news to “heat the plaza” — to draw attention to their drug production and smuggling and efforts to subjugate the population. Such attention would invite the government to send troops and curtail their business.

And so the journalists pull their punches.

Full report at this link…Similar Posts:



July 02 2010

05:45

SAM ZELL, THE TERMINATOR

sam-zell-billionaire-real-estate-mogul122

Sam, Zell, Tribune Group’s owner, that include big guns like Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, leads a newspaper company with great vision…

He recently voiced his opinion about the future of newspapers on CNBC.

Reflecting on the future, said “going forward, it’s going to require all kinds of different approaches, including probably most significant, the elimination of home delivery and the replacement of it by PDFs.”

Oh, boy, what a shame to have owners like him!

If I were working for this company I will start to look for another job.

April 09 2010

14:13

March 30 2010

16:10

FishbowlNY: Atlantic Media announces 2010 Michael Kelly Award finalists

Atlantic Media today announced the finalists for the 2010 Michael Kelly Award. The award recognises fearless journalism in the pursuit of truth.

The finalists are:

Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

For their coverage of malfunctioning cars produced and recalled by Toyota.

Sheri Fink, ProPublica

For her coverage of medical treatment in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

Jeffrey Gettleman, the New York Times

For his coverage of pirates in Somalia, the of spread of Islamic radicalism, and mass rape in eastern Congo.

David Rohde, the New York Times

For his coverage of his own kidnap and seven-month imprisonment by the Taliban, and his eventual escape.

Michael Kelly, a former editor of the Atlantic and the National Journal was killed while reporting from Iraq in 2003.

Full story at this link…

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March 19 2010

15:42

Internship Opening: Year-long internship at Los Angeles Times

Great opportunity for aspiring photojournalists seeking large publication experience: the Los Angeles Times is looking for an intern. It sounds like start/end dates are flexible, so get those applications in!

Job Posting:

The Los Angeles Times is seeking applicants for a year long paid internship. We will consider recent college graduates who have appropriate photojournalism experience.

The photographer can expect to work on a variety of both daily and longer term assignments throughout California. Additionally, the photographer can expect to work with editors to include audio and video components with their stories.

Please send a letter, a resume and a link to an online presentation of your work to photointern@latimes.com.

March 08 2010

17:12

US Digest: media echo-chambers; one-man bands; LA (Times) real estate agents

Talking about making sausages

Dispatches from inside the “echo-chamber of mediated Manhattan” today, courtesy of the NYT’s David Carr. Carr has an interesting piece up on what he sees an increasing amount of news on the news: ‘Breaking the story that isn’t

As a media reporter, I’m obviously not one to suggest that the activities of journalists are not a legitimate source of inquiry. But I worry that the incremental needs of an always-on Web — everyone wants to know what the state of play is at any given moment — will imperil the practice of longer-form journalism, the kind that demands time, an open mind, a lot of questions and sometimes results in dead ends.

As a media reporter reporting on a media reporter reporting on over-zealous media reporting, I’m really obviously not one to suggest that the activities of journalists are not a legitimate source of inquiry. As Carr puts it, “the manufacture of sausage is sometimes as much the point as the sausage itself”. These blog posts are little more than an aggregation, a round-up of published material, but Carr has the close online scrutiny of ongoing stories in his sights.

Twitter and blogs may have become part of advancing the story, but it’s more likely that incremental updates on what the reporters are up to — or misleading rumors about same — may harden the opposition, button up sources and sometimes derail investigations.

So at what point does the navel-gazing jeopardise good stories? How much talking about making sausages spoils the taste of them?

Carr’s piece may have been prompted by the attention paid to his paper’s coverage of the Governor Patterson scandal, which he refers to as “wild and wildly off-base rumours”. Paying the most attention was the ever-vigilant NYTPicker.

“The deeper sounds of a small journalistic orchestra

Journalists complaining about cost-cutting moves toward ‘one-man band’ journalism isn’t anything new. Journalists extolling the virtues and opportunities of ‘one-man band’ journalism isn’t anything new either.

But using a handful of good examples Howard Kurtz has produced a decent, objective edition of Media Notes today looking at both sides of the coin. Lazy journalists living in the past be warned, it also includes some intimidating tales of multi-tasking.

The highlight of the piece is the story of one journalist’s remarkable transformation, graduating from suits and ties to baseball caps and a dirty hatchback:

A coat-and-tie journalist who has worked in television news for 27 years, Broom had to reinvent himself – with the aid of a three-day boot camp on shooting video – when he joined the Gannett station in 2007. Now he wears a black jacket and black Channel 9 cap and rarely goes to the newsroom. Instead he cruises the area in an unwashed white Honda hatchback, its front seat filled with a Dell laptop, police radio, tripod and Sony HVR-V1U video camera.

Kurtz’s article is balanced, and doesn’t jump to defend the profession against the suggestion that journalists should be able to do it all, but there is a simple reminder that standards may be at risk:

A one-man band is cheaper, quicker and more nimble — but cannot produce the deeper sounds of a small journalistic orchestra.

No press pass, no get out of jail free card

Student journalist Cameron Burns finds himself on the other side of the story today in The Daily Californian, after finding himself charged at by riot police on a California freeway at the end of last week.

Covering a demonstration over public education funding for student paper The Daily Californian, Burns had left his press pass in the office and was tackled to the ground and arrested alongside the protesters, despite repeated assertions that he was a journalist.

The result? A twenty hour stint in jail and a court appearance scheduled for April 6.

L.A. Times disappears behind paywall Johnny Depp

From Reuters, news of dismay among the L.A. Times’ readership after the front page – “our most valuable real estate” according to Times’ spokesperson John Conroy – was replaced by a mock front page adorned with a huge advert for Tim Burton’s new Disney-backed Alice in Wonderland adaptation.

It seems some readers have been particularly offended by the decision to use a mock-up front page in the background of the ad, which includes the paper’s masthead, although the word ‘advertisement’ is written underneath in small letters.

“We made it clear that this was a depiction of the front page, rather than a real front page of the newspaper,” said Conroy. “We had an unusual opportunity here to stretch the traditional boundaries and deliver an innovative ad unit that was designed to create buzz.”

Perhaps the style of the L.A. Times advert is particularly galling, but as the Reuters article points out, it is not the first quality newspaper to exploit the value of the technique, called a ‘cover-wrap’.

The nationally circulated USA Today drew criticism for a pseudo edition of its newspaper distributed at an AIDS conference in Geneva as a promotion for a pharmaceutical company. The Wall Street Journal and other dailies have run partial wrap sleeves around the outsides of their papers.

I’m not sure how the film reviews page rates in real estate terms, but the film producers are in luck significantly less people will have gone for a viewing there, where the film didn’t make quite the same splash.

Fading to Black have an image of the cover here.

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February 01 2010

16:00

Denise Searle: Blogging or flogging? Why NGOs face challenges in embracing the Internet’s potential

[The Internet opens up new means of communications for major NGOs. But does it also make their position vulnerable to a new breed of web-native upstarts, who understand the power of technology more fully? Denise Searle, who has worked with some of the world's best known NGOs, explores that in this, the final part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

At the offices of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in London during December 2008, the customary Christmas and New Year parties were supplemented by a round of often tearful farewell drinks as staff at the respected broadsheet newspapers reeled from the third round of redundancies in two years. The Telegraph Media Group’s desire to invest in its online activities was a key reason for the cuts in print journalist jobs, with the global economic downturn adding to the pressures.

The Telegraph is far from alone. Most UK and U.S. newspapers and news broadcasters have been building up their online presence, which has usually involved spreading editorial resources more thinly to create round-the-clock multimedia online outputs from existing or even reduced staff complements. In January 2009, the Los Angeles Times announced that it was axing 300 jobs, 70 of them in the editorial department, which had already been virtually halved in size over the past five years. The timing was surprising. According to Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor at the City University of New York and writing in The Guardian newspaper, the LA Times editor, Russ Stanton, had claimed earlier that month that the paper’s online advertising revenue was sufficient to cover the entire print and online editorial payroll.

There is growing concern about the combined effect on news coverage of financial pressures and the needs of the internet. In January 2008, the UK and Ireland’s National Union of Journalists sent out an e-alert to members asking them to blow the whistle on where cutbacks are undermining journalism standards.1 The same month the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University published “What’s Happening to Our News: An Investigation into the Likely Impact of the Digital Revolution on the Economics of News Publishing in the UK.” International news is particularly vulnerable because it’s costly. According to the Reuters Institute report, there has been a large-scale cull of foreign news staff in newspapers and broadcasters in the UK and abroad. Independent Television News (ITN), a major broadcast news provider in the UK, has more than halved the number of permanent overseas bureaux and staff since 2000. ITN now allocates just five per cent of its overall news budget to a network of six foreign bureaux.

“To feed the appetite of 24/7 media platforms, news publishers increasingly rely on a range of external suppliers for the raw material of journalism,” says the report, “not only trusted wire agencies, but also the public relations industry and, more recently, citizen journalism.” It’s safe to assume that NGOs and charities could be included in the list.

While few NGOs would celebrate the loss of jobs and the squeeze on foreign news coverage, many of those involved in international humanitarian and development work are certainly eyeing up the opportunities these changes present for increasing coverage of their concerns and activities by the media, particularly on their digital/internet platforms. International NGOs have access to human interest stories, so the logic goes, so surely the content-hungry news websites can’t afford to be as choosy as their parent publishers and broadcasters have been in the past and will snap up news and features to fill the gaps left by shrinking foreign reporting teams.

Be there or be square

The reach of the internet and associated digital platforms, such as mobile phones and online social networking sites, continues to grow. According to the Internet World Stats website, which aggregates data from the International Telecommunications Union and Nielsen/NetRatings among others, more than 1.5 billion people around the world use the internet, which is 23.4 per cent of the total global population. This has grown by 305.5 percent since 2000. The fastest expansion has been in the global south and east in recent years but even mature markets such as the United States and UK continue to grow. Almost 47 million or 76 percent of people in the UK use the internet, a growth of 203.1 percent since 2000. In the United States, 228 million people use the internet, representing 74.1 percent of the population and 138.8 percent growth since 2000.

NGOs need to engage these internet users for funds and general support, and because the people they need to influence for policy change and major donations are increasingly influenced by the internet. The internet is no longer simply an alternative or accompaniment to traditional print-based communications. Internet experts point out that many “digital natives” (usually defined as people aged 18-28, largely in industrialized countries) are uncomfortable with more traditional forms of communication. In other words, they probably won’t read the lovingly produced mail shots. Even “digital immigrants” (those over 30-ish) expect their NGO of choice to have a substantial online presence.

Plus, the internet theoretically enables NGOs to communicate directly with existing and potential supporters, without having their messages filtered by the media or the commercial prospecting agencies that many use to recruit new members or supporters via the telephone or on the street. This must be a benefit, given that the 2009 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer (an annual international survey commissioned by Edelman Public Relations, based on 30-minute interviews with 4,475 individuals aged 25-64) showed that trust in nearly every type of news outlet and spokesperson is down from last year — apart from NGOs. In fact, NGOs are the most trusted institutions globally: 54 percent of the older part of the age group surveyed (35 to 64 year olds) trust them to do what’s right. If only NGOs could reach their publics, they’re bound to be won over by their case. Simple. Or is it?

The problem is that today’s fast-moving internet isn’t an easy fit for all NGOs. In the early days, in what we now realize was merely “web 1.0,” businesses and non-profits alike used their websites as shop windows for electronic versions of the sorts of materials they published anyway. There were probably some pictures and maybe a bit of video and audio and even a “contact us” facility, but on the whole the relationship with audiences was on a “read (or watch) only” basis. Through a gradual process of increasing interactivity, “web 1.0″ has morphed into “web 2.0,” which is based on participation, and where many users expect to share their own content and ideas and be listened to. The underlying technology is largely the same, but more people are using it in many different ways. Organizations that are known and respected in the real world often face competition for attention from a range of other sources and perspectives in the virtual world.

What’s more, this dynamic online environment continues to change. In July 2008, the U.S. business website Forbes.com tapped the internet analysts Nielsen Online to get a sense of where and how U.S. residents are migrating on the web. They drew up a list of the 20 most trafficked websites, compared with three years earlier, and found that the top slot went to Google, with 123 million unique visitors a month, seven million more than Yahoo, the second most popular site, and 62 per cent more than the 76 million unique visitors Google attracted three years previously, when it ranked fourth.

The survey indicates that the Internet is still about searching for information. Out of the top five sites most visited in the United States — Google, Yahoo, MSN, Microsoft’s home page, and AOL Media Network — four are portals to other websites. This means that: “web surfers are ‘leaning forward,’ looking for something in particular, versus ‘leaning back’ as browsers of traditional print publications do,” concludes Forbes.com. “In theory, that dynamic should spell opportunity for online enterprises peddling products and information that truly meet specific needs, be it t-shirts or health advice (if only it weren’t for the myriad competitors, now on similar footing, trying to do the same thing).”

The United States’s sixth most popular web destination is YouTube, the user-generated-video site, with 75 million unique visitors a month, each of whom spent an average of one hour per visit. In fact user-generated content of all sorts has redrawn the digital map. Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia, jumped to 9 on the list from 57 three years ago. Online social networks are also popular, with Facebook ranking 16 on Nielsen’s list with more than 34 million unique visitors, compared with 4 million in July 2005, when it ranked 236, according to the Forbes.com article. The picture is similar in the UK, which has the highest level of online social networking in Europe.

I’m speaking but are you listening?

“We’ve only just begun the journey of involving readers,” said Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of Guardian News Media, in an interview in the February 2009 edition of UK Press Gazette, in which he described the group’s move to new premises accompanied by a switch to 24/7 multimedia publishing across The Guardian, The Observer and guardian.co.uk (with no compulsory redundancies).2 The Guardian has the UK’s most popular newspaper website, with 26 million unique users a month.

“I think journalists are going to get much more at ease with the idea that we don’t know it all, and that we’ve got incredibly intelligent readers who live and breathe The Guardian and who love the opportunity to get involved with it,” Rusbridger said. “What that means in terms of the systems and how you edit and aggregate all that, I don’t know — but that’s what makes it so interesting.”

All this indicates that if humanitarian and development NGOs want to attract and retain visitors in the increasingly crowded and competitive online world, and turn them into supporters, they need to provide timely, easy-to-find information, genuinely involve their audiences, and keep up with the latest trends. This is a tall order, particularly when many of the web destinations competing for their audiences’ attention have commercial muscle behind them.

Feeding the voracious internet beast takes extensive human and technical resources. While most NGOs have established substantial web teams, they are not geared up for 24/7 content provision and updating — and probably should not be, given that their core business is in a different field, such as tackling poverty or defending human rights. Plus, the fast turnaround and response demanded by the internet (which is putting a strain on the quality of output from traditional print and broadcast newsrooms) conflicts with the longer-term, planned activities of most humanitarian and development NGOs, and simply could not be met by the lengthy approval processes most NGOs operate for any kind of external communication. The contradictions are illustrated in “Virtual Promise,” a survey published in 2008 by the UK think tank and research consultancy nfpSynergy into charities’ use of the internet. Of 376 organizations surveyed, 80 percent said they used their website for “news and regular updates” yet only 25 percent said they updated their website on a daily basis.

There’s also a difference in perspective and culture, particularly when it comes to involving supporters and giving them a voice. The big humanitarian and development NGOs work on the basis that supporters give them money and trust them to spend it wisely in working to achieve their mission. It’s genuinely difficult to decide how much information and transparency to provide around an NGO’s work and objectives, and the strategic decisions that have shaped the particular activities and approach being undertaken. How should these processes be translated for the digital sphere to make them accessible in a sound-bite culture while not being misleading over the challenges of building rural livelihoods, protecting biodiversity, ending the arms trade and so on? How much detail can internet visitors be expected to absorb?

It’s all very well having snappy, web-friendly outreach or media and commercial advertising activities that drive audiences to the website. But when people get there, very often they find that the optimistic, passionate promotional materials have dissolved into stark content about suffering, hardship, injustice, and the other myriad issues NGOs are dealing with. Or conversely, they are presented with slight web features that imply that the problems are all being dealt with.

NGOs have made real efforts over recent years to engage with the internet beyond simply building an attractive website. A visit to Facebook brings up more than 500 results for Oxfam, including pages from various Oxfam national chapters, pages on specific campaigns and links from supporters. Some are current, while others are old and/or out of date. There are similar Facebook presences for Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Save the Children, Medecins sans Frontieres and other major international NGOs. On Youtube there are 3,860 videos about Amnesty International, both official videos and those posted by supporters. [Please note that the number of videos cited was current as of the time this essay was written in 2009; the numbers today may be substantially different.] The situation is similar for Oxfam (2,460 videos), Greenpeace (12,700 videos), Save the Children (13,900 videos), and Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (286 videos). NGO content on MySpace includes videos, weblinks and dedicated pages by the organizations themselves and supporters, and again the big players are there, including Greenpeace (101,000 entries); Oxfam (30,000 entries); Amnesty International (38,100 entries); Save the Children (207,000 entries); and Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (around 15,000 entries).

But go to most large NGOs’ websites and it’s near impossible to find information about the volume of visitors to the website or numbers of supporters. For example, Amnesty International USA quotes 2.2 million global supporters for the total Amnesty movement but doesn’t give its own national membership (although Amnesty International UK does give its 230,000 “financial supporters”). Others don’t even do that, including Medecins sans Frontieres UK and Liberty. Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK, and Amnesty International USA give financial figures (Amnesty International USA and Save the Children UK publish their audited report and accounts). Greenpeace US provides Greenpeace International accounts. But all take some finding.

This is not very web 2.0. Digital natives and frequent internet users tend to expect more information about what an organization is doing and who else is involved to decide whether they are in good company. Peer feedback and activities are key drivers of web activity, hence the popularity of blogging and the “swarm of bees” effect that can drive huge numbers of users to view a video on YouTube or to sign up to a particular petition.

Promoting impact

The Kiva website, which enables users to give loans to businesses in the developing world via local microfinance partners, has an “Impact This Week” box on its home page that tells you how many people have made a loan in any one week, and how many new lenders there are. There’s also easy-to-find information on different lending teams, now many are in them and how much they’ve loaned. Kiva enables lenders to see the actual project they will be supporting and to monitor progress. Avaaz.org, the international civic organization that promotes activism on issues such as climate change, human rights, and religious conflicts, states at the top of its homepage how many actions have been taken since it was set up in January 2007 (15,277,937 as of January 2010). Prominently, on its “about us” page, it says: “In less than three years, we’ve grown to over 3.5 million members, and have begun to make a real impact on global politics.” The front page of the U.S. liberal public policy advocacy and political action group Moveon.org says: “Join more than 5,000,000 members online, get instant action updates and make a difference.” It also gives clear facts about actions and money in the website’s “” section.

It is obviously easier for small, single (or limited) issue groups to provide this kind of apparently transparent data than larger, more complex, long-established NGOs whose claims are likely to be more closely scrutinized by their own members as well as outside audiences and regulatory bodies. Who is going to count whether Avaaz actually has more than 3.5 million members in every nation of the world? Whereas Amnesty International spent a couple of years painstakingly compiling the returns from its 80 offices round the world before releasing the figure of 2.2 million members, supporters, and subscribers. Even so, big NGOs do have a way to go before they are truly embracing the spirit of the internet.

nfpSynergy’s 2007 fundraising benchmark survey of 109 charities showed that online fundraising raises on average just 2 percent of total voluntary income. This compares with supporter development and retention raising 27 percent of voluntary income and major donors raising 7 percent. Ironically, online fundraising is highly cost-effective, raising an average of around £10 for every £1 spent on direct costs, including salaries. “Most charities have not started to implement best practice and maximize their income. Most are missing the opportunities from both web and email communications and from the various ways of collecting online income,” wrote independent charity ICT and internet consultant, Sue Fidler, in Third Sector Magazine.

She reckoned the reasons are often simple: charities do not have the time, the resources or the knowledge to get the various tools and mechanisms in place, or the management buy-in to get more resources. But for many there is a more frustrating reason: they have the tools but are not using them to sell the charity’s proposition. If the route to donate and the ask are wrong, the tools won’t help.

“We have learnt that having a donate button isn’t enough. The concept of ‘build it and they will come’ hasn’t worked,” Fidler wrote. “Until we learn to sell ourselves online, using our stories to engage our supporters while offering them every opportunity to help, we will not see an increase in online income.”

Nick Aldridge, Chief Executive Officer of MissionFish, is slightly more optimistic. In the forward to MissionFish’s June 2008 report, “Passion, Persistence, and Partnership: the Secrets of Earning More Online,” he states that “Charities of all sizes are becoming more confident and sophisticated in using the web to attract, engage, and develop potential supporters. They are learning that success depends on the passion and persistence they show, and the strength of the partnerships they’re able to form.” User-generated content, online auctions, affinity schemes, and e-commerce are all growing in popularity.

“Those representing and speaking for charities online are finding that they need to engage the public in less formal and more personal dialogue. They must be prepared to take part in lively real-time discussions about the value of their work, rather than posting out their annual reports,” he emphasized. “It’s clear that an online strategy now involves far more than ‘click here to donate.’ Charities must recognize the difference that online interaction can make in helping them to achieve their goals, and incorporate online work in all their major initiatives.”

However, Aldridge concluded that there’s still a long way to go. “Staff who specialize in internet communications or fundraising often feel sidelined, and have a hard time explaining the potential of their work to managers. Meanwhile, many small charities still struggle to develop the tools and content they need for a basic online presence.”

Only a few years ago a senior member of the governance board of a major international NGO demanded to know who had approved the NGO’s entry in Wikipedia and why they hadn’t had it changed because the tone wasn’t as flattering as she would have liked. At that time it was pretty remarkable that she was actually aware of Wikipedia. It’s hard to envision such a conversation happening now. Yet awareness of the internet doesn’t equate to understanding or benefit. Most NGOs accept that they must exploit the potential of the digital sphere if they are to stand a chance of achieving their mission but many still believe that their core business can function as usual, which is where media organizations used to be. Websites were seen as an add-on to the main activities of publishing or broadcasting, which is now not the case, as illustrated by the current job cuts and concerns about quality of journalism.

How long will it be before international development and humanitarian NGOs see their supporter base eroded by digital native organizations such as Kiva and Avaaz, plus numerous national and local advocacy and development groups that can apparently provide digital native audiences with direct, tangible ways of making a difference? And will it stop there if governments and major institutional donors start fully embracing the internet as a way of doing business? They are already listening to online constituencies. Will these digital-savvy communities start mobilizing online to ask hard questions about why, despite years of effort, international development and humanitarian NGOs have not made poverty history or achieved social justice? And how will they be answered?

Denise Searle is an independent communications consultant. Her current projects include helping to develop a digital strategy for Oxfam and serving as part of the coordinating group for the communications strand of aids2031. She previously served as senior director of communications with Amnesty International and chief of UNICEF’s Internet, Broadcast and Image Section.

Notes
  1. Interview with Miles Barter, campaigns officer, National Union of Journalists, January 2009.
  2. UK Press Gazette. “Inside the Guardian’s New Home.” February 2009, p. 34.

December 22 2009

20:30

KNC 2010: The Journalism Shop offers vetted editorial talent for hire

[EDITOR'S NOTE: We're highlighting a few of the entries in this year's Knight News Challenge, which just closed Tuesday night. Did you know of an entry worth looking at? Email Mac or leave a brief comment on this post. —Josh]

You may have already heard of The Journalism Shop, the assemblage of ex-Los Angeles Times staffers that has evolved into an editorial matchmaking service. (Its survey of ex-LATers detailing their predictions for the paper’s failure got some notice from Romenesko a couple weeks ago.)

It’s an online co-op where former Times reporters, editors, and designers can hang a freelance shingle and land jobs. The site, which evolved out of an email list for laid-off staffers, currently has around 30 members. And it’s throwing its hat into the ring for a Knight News Challenge grant. According to their application, they hope to build:

— a national network of regional reporters/editors/researchers/graphic artists who will create original work on spec, to be placed by The Journalism Shop editors.

— acting as an assigning conduit for editors looking for freelancers (a modern version of the old photo agency structure, but for writers and editors).

— a “pitching engine” to solicit assignments for our members.

— pursuing grants for topic specific journalism.

— building out the existing website to publish those stories (we’re working on some ideas for that now.

Scott Martelle, one of the co-founders and a former Times reporter himself, said The Journalism Shop helps assignment editors quickly find and tap experienced journalists for coverage. And since all of The Journalism Shop’s members are former LAT staffers, they have a built-in credibility with editors that not all freelancers can boast.

“There’s very little going on out there that tries to keep experienced journalists in the profession,” Martelle said. “We’re trying to keep people alive until the Big Bang ends and the solar systems begin to coalesce again.”

As you can see from the Shop’s Facebook page, work doesn’t always originate from traditional news organizations. The boundaries have expanded to include things like alumni magazines, annual reports, consulting, book work, and the like.

A News Challenge grant would allow Martelle and co-founder Brett Levy to dedicate more time to the project. Specifically, they want to build out the infrastructure and create additional opportunities for their stable of writers through outreach and advertising. Martelle said the model could also be extended to other locales.

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