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August 25 2010

16:45

NPR’s Argo Project becomes the Argo Network, mixing the local and the national on reported blogs

NPR’s Argo Project (or Project Argo — it seems to vary) is starting to take shape — launch is set for one week from today, September 1. Argo is the network’s $3 million effort (with Knight and CPB money) to ramp up the online presence and reporting capacity of member stations by building a network of reported blogs grounded in topics of both national and local interest. As project director Joel Sucherman puts it, describing the now-christened Argo Network:

Each Argo site is run by a different member station, but all of them cover news that resonates nationally. While KPLU’s ‘Humanosphere’ covers the development of a burgeoning global health industry in Seattle, for example, it will also be a worthy bookmark for anyone interested in the worldwide mission to end poverty and improve health.

The sites promote each other, as in this box of “Network Highlights” that appears on article pages. It’s that network functionality that’s one of the most interesting things about Argo; NPR is made up of its member stations, and there’s long been tension between the growth of the national organization and the health of the individual stations who comprise its membership and rely on the network for much of their programming. For the mothership to be supporting local programming — even if just on the web — could smooth over what has at times been a contentious relationship. But it also raises challenges of how to make sure the content is useful to both a local and a national audience.

We’ve got the full list of Argo sites below — go check them out. Some have already softlaunched and look to be in full flower, while others are still on the Argo staging server. NPR officials declined to talk for this post, saying they’re not quite ready.

Name: On Campus, based at Minnesota Public Radio
Blogger: Alex Friedrich
Tagline: Everything higher education in Minnesota.

Name: Ecotrope, based at Oregon Public Broadcasting
Blogger: Cassandra Profita
Tagline: Covering the Northwest’s environment.

Name: Multi-American, based at Southern California Public Radio
Blogger: Leslie Berestein Rojas
Tagline: Immigration and cultural fusion in the new Southern California.

Name: Humanosphere, based at KPLU (Seattle)
Blogger: Tom Paulson
Tagline: Covering the fight to reduce poverty and improve global health.

Name: The Informant, based at KALW (San Francisco)
Blogger: Rina Palta and Ali Winston
Tagline: Cops, courts and communities in the Bay Area.

Name: The Empire, based at WNYC (New York)
Blogger: Azi Paybarah
Tagline: Everything you need to know about New York state politics and governance.

Name: The Key, based at WXPN (Philadelphia)
Blogger: Bruce Warren and Matthew Borlik
Tagline: Discover Philly’s best local music.

Name: MindShift, based at KQED (San Francisco)
Blogger: Tina Barseghian
Tagline: How we will learn.

Name: Home Post, based at KPBS (San Diego)
Blogger: Jamie Reno
Tagline: The military in San Diego.

Name: DCentric, based at WAMU (Washington)
Blogger: Anna John
Tagline: Gentrification w/o representation.

Name: CommonHealth, based at WBUR (Boston)
Blogger: Carey Goldberg and Rachel Zimmerman
Tagline: Where reform meets reality [in health care].
[Note: Still hosted on beta server.]

Name: Climatide, based at WGBH (Boston)
Blogger: Heather Goldstone
Tagline: Oceans, coasts, and climate change on Cape Cod.
[Note: Still hosted on beta server.]

June 11 2010

14:00

Bill Buzenberg on Center for Public Integrity’s aim to “catalyze impact,” fundraise in a competitive field

Nonprofit news organizations may be all the rage, but they’re not a new animal. Last week, 20-year-old Center for Public Integrity announced a round of recent hires. Since January, CPI has brought on nine new journalists, including reporters, editors and a database expert. For a team of about 50, it’s a significant expansion.

New hires include John Solomon, long-time investigative reporter and the former executive editor of The Washington Times, as “reporter in residence,” Julie Vorman, former Reuters Washington editor as deputy managing editor, and Peter Stone of National Journal.

CPI is known for its investigative projects that appear in major print and broadcast outlets. A recent year-long project on campus sexual assault was picked up by outlets around the country, reaching what CPI said was an audience of 40 million. Last week CPI partnered with The New York Times in publishing Coast Guard logs suggesting authorities knew about the severity of the BP oil spill much sooner than announced. The logs were also published on the Center’s website and were widely used by newspapers across the country.

I spoke with Bill Buzenberg, CPI’s executive director about his expansion and the organization more broadly. Buzenberg says CPI does not fall on one side of the “impact v. audience” question, but acknowledged that their latest strategic plan emphasizes the organization’s desire to “catalyze impact.” He thinks it’s an exciting time for nonprofit journalism, but sees challenges in an increasingly crowded fundraising field. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Is this a new team you’re hiring for a specific project or a general expansion of your editorial capacity?

It’s a general expansion of our editorial capacity. We have a very strong push on: The top major newspapers are all using our content, even online at The Huffington Post. The work is being used more than ever. Lots of places want to partner with us. There is so much watchdog work to be done.

Some nonprofits, like MinnPost, are focused on drawing a regular audience to their website. Others are looking for other outlets to pick up their work and reach an audience that way. Could you talk about where Center for Public Integrity fits?

I think from the beginning the Center has had the same trajectory. In the beginning, actually, it did reports, held news conferences and handed out those reports, and they were reported on by other publications. That is still part of our operation. We very much do reporting work — sometimes it’s a year, sometimes it’s months, sometimes its a few days — and we make it available to other organizations very broadly. And it gets used very, very broadly.

One example: We did a project on campus assault, just recently. We worked on it for a year. We collected the data from 160 universities, we did an investigation, we did a lot of FOIAs, which we increasingly do here, we get the documents and the data. Then we did a number of reports. And we look for a specific partner on each platform: online, print, radio, and television. That’s what we’ve done. ABC did a story on it. NPR did a number of reports on it. Huffington Post carried a number of reports. And we made a specific plan to provide a toolkit for campus newspapers: 65 campus newspapers have used that report. We made it available in an ebook. The sum total of that we can now say that 40 million people have heard, watched, seen, or read some part of our campus assault project. It is on our website. And there’s a community interested in this work, that’s concerned about what’s going on with campus assault. So we have a resource on our website. And it’s in the other publications.

So we’re both. We want people to come read it and get our work here, and we love it when it’s published elsewhere and linked back to us. There is always going to be more on our site — more data, more documents, more photographs. We want traffic to our site, as well as have it used elsewhere.

We also run the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The consortium is 100 journalists in 50 countries. We are working on, right now, three major cross-border investigations. We’ve been working on global tobacco for quite a while and issuing reports. Those reports are running in publications all over the world where those reporters work or have connections. For example, in July we have a project coming out with the BBC. The BBC has planned two documentaries and several programs. They’re using all of the work that we’ve started. We’re all doing it at the same time. It’ll come out the third week in July and it’ll run all over the world. Not just the BBC World Service, but in countries where we’ve been working. So we work internationally. We work in Washington, increasingly covering federal agencies. And we work at the state level, where we’re able to do 50-state projects. So that’s our model. It’s unique in how it operates. We’ve spent 20 years building this up. We’re very much pushing to do more, do it better, and do it widely.

You mention audience — is that how you measure success? There’s this debate happening right now: Is it audience, or is it impact? How do you define success at CPI?

Increasingly, the real way we measure success is impact. That is a huge part of our strategic plan: We want to catalyze impact. That means we want hearings to follow. We want laws to change. We want actions to happen. We are not an advocacy organization. We don’t go out and say “here is what you should do” in any way shape or form. We’re an investigative journalism organization. We do the reporting, but we love to see actions happen because of our reporting. A few years ago, when we reported on all the lobbyist-paid travel, where the records were kept in the basement of Capitol that no one had ever looked at — that took a year to do, with students. [Disclosure: I was one of those students.] But we listed every single trip taken by every single member of Congress for five years, and every staff member of every member of Congress. We showed every trip, every expense. The minute that was published, the travel started down. Then the new Congress came in and said, “oh, we have to close this loophole.” It was a loophole because it was public and transparent. We love that that’s an action that comes out of it.

But of course we like audience and we like engagement. So audience is a part of it. Engagement is increasingly a part of it. Are people writing comments, giving us ideas? How is the audience engaged? I was just up in Minnesota — the university there had just done a day-long session on campus assault, which came out of a public-radio interview they did with our reporter there. That’s an engagement in an issue at a local level that is very important.

[Buzenberg said that CPI's site attracts more than 1 million unique visitors per year, but declined to release exact traffic statistics.]

Nonprofit journalism is a hot topic right now, but there have been outlets like yours for a long time. I’m wondering, in terms of fundraising, does that give you a leg up right now, given that you’re established, or is it becoming difficult in a more crowded field?

I was in public radio for 27 years, both at National Public Radio and local. I was the head of news at national for seven years and then went to Minnesota Public Radio, now called American Public Media nationally. We raised a lot of money in both places. That’s nonprofit journalism with an important audience and it does great work.

Right now, I think, many funders have understood that the watchdog work, the investigative work, it’s expensive, it’s difficult, it’s risky. It’s the first thing often that gets cut when newspapers are declining, or magazines, or television, when they don’t have as many people out doing it. I think it’s been a period in which foundations and individuals have seen the importance of the kind of work that we do and we’ve gotten some strong support to continue to do this work. Yes, it’s competitive. It’s difficult.

We’re raising money in three ways. We do have foundation support. We’re talking with something like 86 foundations, many of whom do support us. We also are raising money from individuals — small donations with membership, much like public radio. Larger donations from people with resources. We do have a strong base of individual donors. And the third way is earned revenue, and we’re working on various scenarios of how we can earn that. We just did research for BBC. We sold our map on the global climate lobby to National Geographic. We’re selling ebooks. We do have various small revenue streams we want to grow. Those are three ways we raise the money to do this work. It’s important work and it’s not free. Public radio’s not free either. They get government resources — a small amount really. But at the Center we don’t take government money, direct corporate money, and we don’t take anonymous money. We make transparent, which is a very important thing, who is supporting us. It’s difficult. It’s not easy. With all the new centers popping up, there’s competition. There’s a lot going on, but I think many foundations, locally and nationally — and increasingly internationally, because we’ve gotten some good international support — have understood that this kind of work needs to be supported.

One thing I wanted to circle back to is your expansion. It seems like your recent expansion is into financial coverage. How did you come to that decision to expand in such a focussed way?

It came when the financial crisis hit the fall of 2008. We felt like no one was really saying who had caused the subprime problems — who was behind that? So we did a project. We started with 350 million mortgages. The mortgages are public information. From that, we named the 7.5 million subprime mortgages and we picked the 25 top lenders. Who they were, who supported them, where they did their lending, at what interest rates. We put it into a report. It took us six months. It’s “Who is behind the financial meltdown?” It still gets traffic. We put it out as an ebook. It’s being used by attorneys general. It’s being used by all sorts of people. No one had done the definitive work. That’s a project I’m really proud of. From that we grew a business and finance area. We thought there was so much more.

We’re tracking financial regulation and financial regulation issues in a way other people aren’t doing. That’s what our three-person team is doing. Financial is one area — money and politics is obviously one area we work in at the state and the national level. I might add when we did the global climate lobby before Coppenhagen, we were working globally. The other area is environment. The stories we’re working on with the BBC are environment. We’re doing a big project on the 10 most toxic workplaces and the 10 most toxic communities in America. It’ll take us six months.

How big are you? How many people work at the Center?

Right now, with the additions, we’re about 40. With fellows, we have 5 fellows and 6 interns, so we’re close to 50 people, if you add in fellowships and interns. It’s a major investment, there’s no question about it. That’s how we’re able to focus on these new projects.

This is a little touchy, but it jumped out at me. When I looked at the press release for the expansion I noticed that the eight new editorial hires are all men, I’m just curious about your struggles with diversity and bringing on women?

Well, first of all, the corrected version of the press release we sent out has Julie Vorman. We hired a deputy managing editor whose name should have been on there and it’s not on there. It’s not all the hires at the center — the six interns we hired, for example, are all women. We had 350 applicants for our internship program and we picked six, the best six. There are women at the Center. If I looked at the overall Center numbers, it is diverse, and it does have women. My COO and the head of development are in there, and on and on. There are many women here. It looked more male than it should have in the latest hires. It’s a fair question, but I think if you look at the overall numbers of the Center both with diversity and women reporters.

[After our conversation, Buzenberg looked up a breakdown of all staff at the Center, finding 43 percent are women and 23 percent are minority. Their staff page, showing individual positions, is here.]

March 23 2010

14:30

The freedom to fail and the need to experiment: What gives a citizen-journalism project a chance to work

Minnesota Public Radio’s Linda Fantin and the Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller were the stars at an MIT panel a few days ago; I wrote up their discussion. But after the panel, I sat the two of them down to talk a little more about the challenges of running experiments with community-generated journalism. A few highlights:

— Miller: “I think the ability to fail is absolutely part of the culture in which we live. And so, someone will try lots of things, which you know sometimes just don’t work…there’s not much cost to the experimentation.”

— Fantin: “[I]t’s tough to let go of things that haven’t quite reached their potential, but you have to, because there’s so much more coming down the line.”

— Miller: “I think there are all kinds of questions about a community: How do we nurture a community? How do we let them do their own work? Is there top-down control about what they do? What degree? How much can we let go and still have it operating in a single campaign framework? And we all figure these things out as we go along, and no doubt we’ll make mistakes out of it.”

— Fantin: “Talk to anyone who started a citizen journalism site or community. They’ll say, ‘Okay, it took over my life, then it took over my wife’s life, and now we actually have to make money and put food on the table, so we sort of tried to get interns, but we can’t sustain it.’”

Above’s a video of their discussion, with a transcript below. (The video’s soundtrack, if you’re wondering, is an apparently epic game of ping-pong taking place in a nearby rec room.)

Ellen Miller: I think the ability to fail is absolutely part of the culture in which we live. And so, someone will try lots of things, which you know sometimes just don’t work — but because we don’t know how people want to engage with, you know, either fairly wonky information about legislation or critical information, if we don’t build it, we never give people the opportunity to test it. And some of the things have worked far beyond — much better than — what we expected. And some of the websites just weren’t popular, and we couldn’t quite figure out why, and we said, “Oh, they weren’t popular, let’s just take it down.” So there’s not much cost to the experimentation. But partly I think it’s because you have sort of a new and largely successful of the project because Sunlight, you know, is an institution without any legacies. It’s just — it’s really built into the DNA. But it’s something major other institutions, you know, have to work on. Now you can’t really build it into the DNA of reporting a story: Failing, getting the facts wrong, telling the story that’s wrong. But there are certainly elements in terms of engaging citizens, in getting them to tell the stories that work. So, I mean, if it doesn’t work this time, you know, you might try it again or — or not. But we’re beginning to learn.

So one of our examples was — it was successful, but it was a failure in the end. We did a series of distributed research projects in the early days. We do one investigating members of Congress’ spouses, and whether they were employed by their campaigns. And then we did another one on getting people to contribute to a database on earmark requests when they started posting them. And then we realized that if people who worked on Project A, we had no idea if they’ve been secretly working on project B, or who worked on Project C. We said, “Wow, let’s stop that.” We created one platform, Transparency Corps, so that anybody who worked on A or B or C had the opportunity to see what was D, E, and F coming down the road, to begin to build more of a community. Because if you’re interested in these kinds of distributive projects, you’ll be interested in, you know, any number of them, and you get deeper engagement in them. So it worked in the individual pieces, but we knew we were losing these people because we didn’t know quite how to reach out to them again. So I think it’s that experimentation or constantly, constantly iterating on something that worked or that didn’t work until you find things that work.

Linda Fantin: And being able to let go of things that aren’t working as well as they could be and not consider it as a failure.

Miller: Oh yeah, that’s hard. What do you mean? That project is really important. How do we let it go?

Fantin: Right. Right.

Miller: One of the things we discovered partly because Sunlight was so innovative in the early days, we would describe — we would try something and say, “Wow, that’s a cool idea. Let’s do it.” We’d throw it up on the wall and we’d develop it and it would be successful. And then we got another cool idea and then we would do that. And then all of a sudden we realized that we had all these projects. We’d be, “how do we sustain them?” So if you have the image of things sliding down the wall, you know, we’d pick up one and then we became — we realized we had to not just constantly develop new things, that we had to iterate on the things that were successful.

Fantin: Well, absolutely. I mean, I know that I mentioned before we created Budget Hero and launched that in May of 2008, we had no idea that the economy would fall apart and that there would be a $787 billion bailout, and then a stimulus packet, and then suddenly the federal deficit would just bloom, and that there would be new Congressional Budget Office baselines every three months that were significantly different than the months before. And I think probably seven, maybe eight times, we’ve had to do major updates to the game. And that wasn’t something we’d planned on in the financial planning that probably created Budget Hero. And even now, part of it is that in some ways it was a game before its time, because now it’s more important than it ever was before. But, you know, having the funds and the ability to say, “Oh, well, we’re going through all the significant — invest in it yet again” is a big decision. I mean, carrying some of these projects forward, you know — it’s tough to let go of things that haven’t quite reached their potential, but you have to, because there’s so much more coming down the line.

Miller: Yeah, and I think we certainly underestimated, you know — we would always figure out what was the cost to build something, but then to —

Fantin: To maintain it?

Miller: So that’s something we’ve certainly learned. So that’s now all built in to, you know —

Fantin: It’s one of the first questions you asked, which is great: Who’s gonna own this, and who’s gonna do it, and when are we gonna shut it down?

Miller: And that’s why I asked you the question, like: How many people does it take — you built this community. How many people does it take to maintain it and to really use it, in a popular way?

Fantin: It’s a good question because —

Miller: Because most groups don’t think about that thing — about community, and you know, it’s a little like magic, which is: “The community will just thrive.” No, you have to nurture this community. You have to add to it. You have to engage with them.

Fantin: Absolutely.

Miller: There has to be a person or a team of people who work with them, and I don’t think people realize that. There was this idealistic vision of community journalists, right?

Fantin: Talk to anyone who started a citizen journalism site or community. They’ll say, “Okay, it took over my life, then it took over my wife’s life, and now we actually have to make money and put food on the table, so we sort of tried to get interns, but we can’t sustain it.” And in terms of the Public Insight Network, we made this commitment at the offset that we could contact everyone at least once a month. Well, so, two things either have to happen in it if — right now the network grows at 2,000 sources a month without any real effort on our part. That’s just simply with outreach and the spread of information.

Miller: And neighbors sharing with friends.

Fantin: Right. And so the idea is that you either have to increase the number of callouts, or you have to increase the size of the cohort that you make the callout out to. Neither of those is really great. But what’s it allowed us to do is realize: “Hey, what we really ought to do is give more control to the source and let them pick and choose and not actually have them sitting passively, waiting for us to ask them questions.” So sometimes, the problems you bump up against help you see where you need to go and you might’ve not known that was the path you were on.

Miller: As we have launched the Public Equals Online campaign, I mean, I think there are all kinds of questions about a community: How do we nurture a community? How do we let them do their own work? Is there top-down control about what they do? What degree? How much can we let go and still have it operating in a single campaign framework? And we all figure these things out as we go along, and no doubt we’ll make mistakes out of it.

Fantin: Well, Amanda Michel at ProPublica, I think, she’s very open about what she learned from her work on OffTheBus with Huffington Post, and now what’s she doing now with ProPublica, which is sort of use citizens to help do investigative journalism, and what you find is that it’s very, very hard. It’s hard because there is a certain amount of information that you can teach people, but on the back end the fact-checking and other things that have to go on in order to make sure that there’s integrity in what you’re reporting. And I’m not here to say that there’s integrity behind what every paid reporter does now. It’s just that this idea we’re gonna have a citizen corps of journalists — or an army of journalists, who for free, are gonna go out there and do the work that people are doing now is—

Miller: It’s just not quite that easy.

14:00

“Fun with data”: Oxymoron no longer! And other lessons from Linda Fantin and Ellen Miller

Say the word “data” in the presence of the majority of Americans, and you’ll most likely be greeted with a blank stare/a glare/an eye roll/an audible sigh. For most people — though we here at the Lab respectfully disagree — data sets just aren’t that awesome.

What data sets are, though, of course, is incredibly valuable. And now that we have more access to more information than ever before, it’s incumbent on journalists and other civic educators to change people’s minds about data: to make raw information relevant for them. And engaging. And — no, seriously! — fun.

The fun factor was one of the many ideas raised in a recent discussion on “Government Transparency and Collaborative Journalism” at MIT. The talk, sponsored by the university’s Communications Forum and its Center for Future Civic Media, featured a conversation between two people who don’t need to be convinced of data’s value (or, for that matter, its fun factor): Linda Fantin, director of Public Insight Journalism at Minnesota Public Radio, and Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation.

“When I framed the event,” said Chris Csikszentmihályi, director of the Center for Future Civic Media and the conversation’s moderator, “I had originally thought that I would frame it as something like this: Sunlight as something that essentially takes information from the top down, at the federal government level, and makes it accessible to the public…and Public Insight Journalism, on the other hand, as something that takes information from the public, puts it together through journalists, and brings it back out. But I think what both of you are doing defies that kind of reduction.”

Indeed, both organizations’ approaches rely on breaking down information’s traditional top-down/bottom-up divide, merging micro- and macro- approaches in gathering, recording, and packaging data. They simply take different paths in the search for the same solution: Sunlight focuses, in general, on information that’s already recorded, but inaccessible — “We’re starting to say that information is only public if it’s online,” Miller noted — and the Public Insight Network focuses, in general, on gathering and analyzing information that is atomized. For both, the core question is public investment in the paths they’ve adopted; and last night’s talk — as so many things journalism-related tend to these days — returned, again and again, to the problem of engagement: how to earn it, how to build it, how to keep it. And also: how to balance journalism’s core mandate — providing narratives and takeaways that people can act on — with its tantalizing new ability to work collaboratively and iteratively with its public. It’s a question Fantin and Miller tackle head-on in their work: What’s the most effective way to marry journalism as a process with journalism as a product?

Sunlight, for its part, “has always been in the engagement business,” Miller noted. She gave a brief run-through of the multitude of sites the foundation has fostered — Fedspending.org, Party Time, the just-launched Public Equals Online, and many, many more — noting that “all of these sites are driven toward communities, to get them more engaged.” The idea is in some ways to take the “data” out of “data set”: to take a jumble of raw information and convert it into a coherent narrative that will be understandable and, yes, engaging to users. “There’s really one test in our office about whether something works,” Miller said: “If Ellen doesn’t get it within ten minutes, you have to go back.” As the audience laughed, she added: “It’s actually known as the ‘Ellen test.’”

That approach — get-ability, user-friendliness and, more broadly, the fostering of emotional connection with information — is central to both Sunlight and Public Insight Journalism. “Part of the thrill of journalism is the aphrodisiac of discovery,” Fantin pointed out: opening new doors, following new paths, learning new truths, etc. And one of PIJ’s goals is to leverage that excitement — to allow non-journalists to experience it, and to write it into journalists’ work. “Sometimes, just talking to people and listening to them can teach you which questions to ask.”

As for the question of collaboration — “Do you still need journalists to do refining and storytelling,” Csikszentmihályi asked, “or is it more a collaborative process?” — Fantin, a longtime print journalist before joining MPR, noted the core value of the declarative voice. “I hear people say all the time that journalism needs to be a conversation,” she said. “Well, I don’t think journalism is a conversation. I don’t think it’s a lecture, either.” It’s both at once. And we need journalists, she said — paid, professional journalists — who have the knowledge and expertise and “journalistic curiosity” to inject conversation into lecture, and lecture into conversation, in a way that clarifies narrative rather than muddling it. “There’s always a need for sense-makers,” she said.

Besides, “people we talk to in our network don’t want to do our jobs for us,” Fantin noted. Their desires, she said, are simpler than that: “They want to be invited into the process, and they want to share what they know.” They want to put their knowledge and expertise and experience and wisdom to work. “As Clay Shirky says, we’re in the middle of a revolution,” Fantin noted — and that revolution is predicated on the we’re-in-this-together approach that both PIJ and Sunlight embody.

“We are all moving into this era step by step,” Miller noted. “It’s okay to try something that doesn’t work.” The point is to try something. And to try something, more to the point, together. “This,” she said, “is a remarkable conversation to be having.”

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