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April 04 2013

14:20

August 23 2012

14:17

December 30 2011

18:30

Clara Jeffery: What nonprofit news orgs are betting on for 2012

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Clara Jeffery, co-editor of Mother Jones.

Predictions are a chump’s game. So this is more like a window into what the editors of a small nonprofit news organization are betting on.

There is no spoon

Forget distinctions between blog posts and stories because readers don’t care. What they care about is a source — be it news org or author — that they trust and enjoy.

Data viz

We at Mother Jones had a breakout hit with our income inequality charts. 5 million readers, 240K Facebook likes, 14K tweets, and counting. Charts were pasted up on the walls of Wisconsin state capitol during the union fight; #OWS protestors blew them up and put them on signs, and distributed them in leaflets. Partly, it was the right message at the right time. But it was also that a very complicated story was boiled down into 11 charts and that the sources for the charts’ information were provided.

More broadly, in 2011, chart fever swept media orgs — hey, USA Today, you were right all along! In 2012, I am sure we’re not the only ones who are investing in ways to make data more frequent, and more interactive.

Blur the lines between writer/producer/coder

If you want to do visual storytelling, you need people who can marry words with images, animation, video. We’re not only hiring people who have advanced data app and video skills, but we’re also training our entire editorial staff to experiment with video, make charts, and use tools like Document Cloud and Storify to enrich the reader experience. To that end, anything that makes it easier to integrate disparate forms of media — whether it’s HTML5 or Storify — is a friend to journalists.

Collaboration 2.0

There are a number of cool content collaborations out there — MoJo is in the Climate Desk collaboration with The Atlantic, Grist, Slate, Wired, CIR, and Need to Know, for example. But in retooling that project for 2012 (coming soon!), we really started thinking about collaborating with tech or content tool companies like Prezi and Storify. And why shouldn’t news orgs on the same CMS potentially collaborate on new features, sharing development time? So, for example, we, TNR, Texas Monthly, the New York Observer, and Fast Company (I think) are all on Drupal. Is there something we all want? Could we pool dev time and build a better mousetrap? We actually built a “create-your-own-cover” tool that, in keeping with the open-source ethos of Drupal (and because I’m friends with editor Jake Silverstein) we handed over to Texas Monthly; they improved on it. The biggest barrier to collaboration is bandwidth within each constituent group. But ultimately it makes sense to try learn collectively.

Where am I?

As people increasingly get news from their social stream, the implications for news brands are profound. If nobody comes through the homepage, then every page is a homepage. Figuring out when (and if) you can convert flybys into repeat customers is a huge priority — especially for companies that have subscription or donation as part of their revenue stream. If everyone is clamoring for this, then somebody is going to invent the things we need — better traffic analysis tools, but also A/B testers like Optimizely.

It also means that being a part of curation communities — be they Reddit or Longform/Longreads — is as important as having a vibrant social media presence yourself. As is the eye candy of charts, data viz, etc. Lure them in with that, and often they’ll stay for the long feature that accompanies it.

User generated content 2.0

Social media and Storify are making users into content producers in ways that earlier attempts at distributed reporting couldn’t. Especially on fast-breaking stories, they are invaluable partners in the creation process, incorporated into and filtered through verified reporting. For MoJo, for example, the social media implications surrounding our Occupy coverage were profound. We were reporting ourselves, as well as getting reports from hundreds of people on the ground. Some became trusted sources, sort of deputized reporters to augment our own. And we found ourselves serving an invaluable role as fact-checkers on the rumors that swirled around any one incident.

It was heady and often exhausting. But it won us a lot of loyal readers. We could do all that in real time on Twitter and use Storify to curate the best of what we and others were reporting on our site, beaming that back to Twitter. (And Al Jazeera’s The Stream, for example, is taking that kind of social media integration to a whole new level. Of course, it helps to be bankrolled by the Al Thanis.)

Mobile, mobile, mobile

To me, especially within the magazine world, there’s been an overemphasis on “apps,” most of which thus far aren’t so great and are often walled off from social media. But anything that improves — and monetizes — the mobile experience is a win. And any major element of what you’re offering that doesn’t work across the major devices is a sunk cost. Sorry, Flash.

Investigative reporting renaissance

Despite all the hand-wringing of a few years ago, it turns out that people do read longform on the web, on tablets and readers, and even on their phone. They love charts and graphs and animation and explainers. They want to know your sources and even look at primary documents. And they want it all tied up with voice and style. There’s no better time to be an investigative journalist.

July 01 2011

14:08

A new way into an old story: Adam Hochschild on “To End All Wars”

Adam Hochschild, a longtime supporter of the Nieman Foundation’s narrative program, published a new book last month, “To End All Wars.” A former editor of Mother Jones magazine, Hochschild lives in San Francisco and teaches writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has also written several narrative books about history, ranging from the abolition of slavery in England to King Leopold II’s devastation of the Congo more than a century ago. We talked with Hochschild by phone about his latest book and some of the narrative strategies he used to tell the story. The following excerpts from our discussion have been lightly edited for clarity.

You have a history of writing about historical issues related to human rights and dissent. When did you decide to write about the pacifist movement in World War I?

I had always been interested by these people. The first time I began learning about them was when I was a teenager. Bertrand Russell was a big hero of mine, and I read a biography of him that described how he went to jail for his opposition to the war. Somehow that moved me and stuck with me and remained there in my memory as I learned a little more history and realized how terrible this war was, and how brave someone had to be to defy the patriotic hysteria in the air.

The more I learned about how the First World War really did shape the 20th century and remake our world for the worse in every conceivable way, the more I got fascinated by the people who refused to fight or who spoke out against the war – like Russell and E. D. Morel, the crusading journalist who was a hero of King Leopold’s Ghost, who were beyond draft age but who nonetheless spoke out very clearly and went to prison for doing so. Of course they existed in all of the warring countries. But for various reasons there were a lot more of them in England than anywhere else. So that’s where I decided to focus.

Could you discuss a little how you identified Charlotte Despard and John French as two of your main characters for this book?

I knew that there were two types of people I wanted to have in the book. One was the pacifists and war resisters, people who refused to fight, or people who spoke out against the war and of course almost all of them suffered in one way or another for it. I wanted to have them in the book, but I also wanted to have the generals, the cabinet ministers, the people who actually fought the war, and the propagandists who were part of the crusade, who helped shape public opinion and felt the war was noble and necessary and had to be fought. For the longest time I knew that these were the two character types that interested me, but I could not figure out how to get them into the same book.

I didn’t want to do a series of portraits, first one type, then the other, because that’s kind of boring. I think what makes people read history – or at least one thing that makes them read history – is if you can talk about a period of time or a movement or a phenomenon through a group of people who are connected to each other in one way or another.

Then one day I was reading about Charlotte Despard, ardent pacifist, a radical who joined every progressive cause of the day, a big backer of independence for Ireland and independence for India, went to jail four times in the battle for women’s suffrage, spoke out very loudly against the war, wrote a pamphlet that sold 100,000 copies. In this very dull scholarly article I was reading, the writer in one sentence, in passing, said something like, “Of course these activities were deeply upsetting to her brother.” And the writer mentioned his name, Sir John French, which of course I recognized – he was British commander in chief on the Western Front! I thought, “This is a relationship that I can really have some fun exploring.”

The moment I saw this, I thought, “Divided families – that’s the way to do this book.” I knew that I could find divided families because in Britain, because there were more than 20,000 men of military age who refused to go into the army. Many of them as a matter of principle also refused the alternative service that was offered to conscientious objectors, driving an ambulance at the front or working in a war industry. More than 6,000 went to prison. I knew those people had to have friends, brothers, family members who felt differently than they did. My job was to find divided families and to tell the book through them.

Your sympathy for the pacifists’ cause becomes apparent in the course of the book. Did you have to work to maintain sympathy for those who fought, in terms of keeping them human?

It’s funny. On a personal level, there are at least one or two of the warmongers whom I would much more enjoy spending time with than some of the pacifists. Among the pacifists, Charlotte Despard was totally indiscriminate in the causes she embraced, including, unfortunately, the Russian Revolution, which she was totally star-struck by. She thought that paradise had appeared in Soviet Russia. I’m not sure how interesting a person she would have been to hang out with.

On the other hand, her brother, the field marshal, seems to have had a great deal of charm, a real common touch, an ebullience and enthusiasm that would have made him a much more enjoyable dinner companion than his sister.

I think you do have to have a certain human sympathy with your characters even when their politics are not your own. In this story, the two young men whose deaths I talk most about are George Cecil – grandson of a former prime minister and the son of one of my major characters – and young John Kipling. Both sets of parents were totally in favor of the war but were absolutely devastated by their sons’ deaths. How can you not empathize with that? Poor Rudyard Kipling was so distraught that he got British fighter pilots to fly over the German lines and drop leaflets asking people to get in touch if they knew anything about where his son’s body might be found. A poignant, poignant story. You can’t help but sympathize with someone who’s bereft or grieving.

You have these large characters – Kipling, Bertrand Russell and Arthur Conan Doyle – who make appearances in your book, sometimes more than once. How do you balance the celebrity cameos to energize rather than upset the applecart of your narrative?

Generally, I tried in the book to focus on people whose lives were not familiar to most readers, especially most American readers. So that’s why in focusing on people like Despard, French, the Hobhouse family, and Alfred Milner, I hope I was bringing something fresh to American readers, even those who are familiar with the First World War. But I wanted to have a few well-known figures in there as well. Like Winston Churchill, for instance, who invariably pops up in the middle of any great historical event that happened during his lifetime, and who always has something marvelously quotable to say.

There have been a lot of good books written about the First World War. I think some of the best in recent years have been done in fiction. Pat Barker has done some extraordinary writing.

She’s amazing.

Yes, wonderful. But I stayed away from the people she talked about, because she’s written about them so beautifully that there’s nothing more to add. Those people are familiar to readers now. I’d rather introduce people to characters they don’t know about, like my wonderful lion tamer John S. Clarke, for example. You couldn’t invent somebody like this. He’d been the youngest lion tamer in Great Britain when he was a teenager, then went into radical politics, opposed the war, went underground, and published this clandestine newspaper. And then in his old age, whenever he got bored with politics, he went back into the ring and was the oldest lion tamer in Great Britain. I take great pleasure in introducing somebody like that to readers.

You have a war of several years, with activities on at least three continents. And so much of the war was this static thing in which people were continuously dying, but not much larger change was going on. How did you work to keep the narrative pacing so that those long static years on the battlefield didn’t slow the book down?

Even though it was indeed static, and the front line on the Western Front really didn’t really move in a big way in more than three years, when these great battles started, like the Battle of Loos, where John Kipling was killed, and the Battle of the Somme in 1916, everybody expected and hoped that this was going to be the big breakthrough. You can use that to build a certain tension and suspense. You can quote peoples’ letters, saying, “This is going to be the smashing blow that will win the war.” You can build the suspense and not reveal right away that it isn’t how things turned out.

But there were so many other things going on that I felt I could use to generate some suspense and narrative tension. For example, just in the weeks before the terrible Battle of the Somme began, there was the group of some 50 British conscientious objectors who were forcibly taken to France and threatened with death. Their friends and family and supporters in England had no idea whether they had already been shot, whether they would be shot, whether they would be saved.

Anytime in real life where there’s a period of days or weeks when people don’t know something desperately important like that, a writer can very easily use it to generate suspense in the narrative. There were so many things like that that I felt allowed me to build narrative tension. Similarly, when the Russian Revolution, or revolutions, the February Revolution and the October Revolution, happened, in each case it was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by the pacifists and war resisters, because they hoped it would finally be the thing that would end the war. So I show that enthusiasm without of course immediately revealing that it didn’t end the war, although the reader probably knows that to begin with.

Did you always approach writing nonfiction using narrative devices from fiction, or did you have a conversion on the road to Damascus?

I have always liked the idea of trying to write as interestingly as I could, in a way that would hold people’s attention. And I think that anybody who does that very quickly sees that he or she needs to steal techniques from the novelists, because they know how to do this better than anybody. Someone writing a news story for a newspaper or a piece of reportage for a magazine will always get some people to read what they write because even the most poorly written story, if it’s got information you want, you might read it. But novelists have a higher standard, I think, because they have to make readers care about people that they don’t know and aren’t interested in to start with. So there’s much more to be learned from studying them.

I can think of one episode on that road to Damascus. My third book, “The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin,” was about how people in Russia were dealing with the Stalinist period. It had become possible in the late 1980s to dig up the buried bodies, to read the forbidden books, to think about what had happened. The book contains a long series of interviews with people across the country and was structured as a journey to the far northeast corner of Siberia, where the worst of the Gulag concentration camps were. It was a reasonable structure for a book; a narrative based around a journey is certainly an ancient way of telling a story.

But you think another approach might have worked better?

Near the end of that journey, I suddenly realized that I should have done it differently. That realization came when I went to a place in Siberia where a river had overflowed its banks and disclosed a mass grave. The mass grave was under the site of a secret police prison from the 1930s. And the village was still full of people who knew men and women who had been arrested then, and now their bodies had been disclosed by this overflow of the river.

I interviewed two people from the village whose fathers had been shot in this prison and were in the mass grave and another woman whose father had been the secret police commander of the prison. These people knew each other. And I realized, “Wait a minute. I should have done this whole book based on this town.” In one small town, I could have told the entire story of Russia experiencing this horrible self-inflicted genocide in the 1930s and then dealing with it today, could have told it all through a network of people who knew each other in this particular place.

Unfortunately, this discovery came at the end of six months of research, and I knew I was not going to be able to persuade my tolerant and forgiving family to continue to live in Russia for another six months. And I didn’t want to throw away six months of research. So I told the story the way I had first designed it. But the idea of talking about a piece of history through an interconnected network of people in one place stuck with me, and that’s what I ended up doing in my three subsequent books.

For more on craft from Adam Hochschild, see our four-part series taken from a talk he gave at Vanderbilt University earlier this year.

March 04 2011

19:00

Mother Jones web traffic up 400+ percent, partly thanks to explainers

February was a record-breaking traffic month for Mother Jones. Three million unique users visited the site — a 420 percent increase from February 2010’s numbers. And MotherJones.com posted 6.6 million pageviews overall — a 275 percent increase.

The investigative magazine credits the traffic burst partly to a month of exceptional work in investigations, essays, and exposes, its editorial bread and butter: real-time coverage of the Wisconsin protests, a Kevin Drum essay on the consequences of wealth inequality in America, the first national media coverage of that infamous prank call to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. The also mag credits the traffic, though, to its extended presence on social media: Mother Jones’ Twitter followers increased 28 percent in February, to more than 43,000; its Facebook fan base grew 20 percent, to nearly 40,000; and its Tumblr fan base grew 200 percent, to nearly 3,000 followers.

In all, the mag estimates, a cumulative 29 percent of traffic to MotherJones.com came from social media sites.

But Mother Jones also attributes the traffic explosion to a new kind of news content: its series of explainers detailing and unpacking the complexities of the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Wisconsin. We wrote about MoJo’s Egypt explainer in January, pointing out the feature’s particular ability to accommodate disparate levels of reader background knowledge; that format, Adam Weinstein, a MoJo copy editor and blogger, told me, has become the standard one for the mag’s explainers. “It was a great resource for the reader, but it also helped us to focus our coverage,” Weinstein notes. “When something momentous happens, it can be hard for a small staff to focus their energies, I think. And this was an ideal way to do that.”

The magazine started its explainer series with a debrief on Tunisia; with the Egypt explainer, written by MoJo reporter Nick Baumann, the form became a format. The explainers were “a collaborative effort,” Weinstein says — “everybody pitched in.” And the explainer layout, with the implicit permission it gives to the reader to pick and choose among the content it contains, “just became this thing where we could stockpile the information as it was coming in, and also be responsive to be people responding via social media with questions, with interests, with inquiries that they didn’t see answers to in other media outlets.”

It was a format that proved particularly useful, Weinstein notes, during the weekend after Mubarak had resigned in Egypt and when protests gained power in Libya and, stateside, Wisconsin. “All of this was happening at the same time,” he says — “none of us were getting a lot of sleep that weekend” — and “our social media just exploded.” But because MoJo’s Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook pages became, collectively, such an important interface for conversation, “we needed a really efficient way of organizing our content,” and in one convenient place. So the explainer format became, essentially, “a great landing page.”

The success of that format could offer an insight for any outlet trying to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of content and context. Explainers represent something of a tension for news organizations; on the one hand, they can be hugely valuable, both to readers and to orgs’ ability to create community around particular topics and news events; on the other, they can be redundant and, worse, off-mission. (“We’re not Wikipedia,”  one editor puts it.)

It’s worth noting, though, that MoJo explainers aren’t, strictly, topic pages; rather, they’re topical pages. Their content isn’t reference material catered to readers’ general interests; it’s news material catered to readers’ immediate need for context and understanding when it comes to complex, and current, situations. The pages’ currency, in other words, is currency itself.

That’s likely why the explainers have been so successful for MoJo’s traffic (and, given the outlet’s employment of digital advertising, its bottom line); it’s also why, though, the format requires strategic thinking when it comes to the resources demanded by reporting and aggregation — particularly for outlets of a small staff size, like MoJo. Explainers, as valuable as they can be, aren’t always the best way for a news outlet to add value. “We still do the long-form stories,” Weinstein notes, “and this has just given us a place to have a clearinghouse for that.” For MoJo, he says, the explainer “is a way of stitching together all the work that everyone’s been doing. And we’re thrilled that readers have responded.”

March 03 2011

20:28

Mac McClelland on scenes, narrative and sexual assault in post-quake Haiti

Earlier today, we posted our second Editors’ Roundtable, in which our group of veterans examined a piece of narrative nonfiction. The story for the second outing is Welcome to Haiti’s Reconstruction Hell,” written by Mac McClelland of Mother Jones. Despite being warned that having a group of editors look at her work is a little like getting an ice cream sundae while being beaten with a stick, McClelland was still willing to talk with us. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, in which McClelland discusses the toll her reporting took on her, the editing process for the piece, and the decision to make her own experiences part of the finished story.

You’ve reported on the humanitarian crisis in Burma. You’ve done the Gulf Oil spill. You went to Haiti to look at reconstruction there. What is it that you’re hoping to do by covering humanitarian and environmental crises?

I think awareness is one of the big reasons for doing stories like that. In the case of Burma, especially, because I was with this minority that no one’s ever heard of who is on the business end of this genocide that no one’s ever heard of. In that particular case, it was just a matter of getting a story out that nobody had any idea was going on.

That could be true in a way for the Gulf stuff as well. Obviously, there were a lot of reporters in the Gulf, but certainly the government wasn’t covering the story. Any of the reliable information, any of the important questions that were being asked, all of that stuff was coming from the reporters. Awareness of what was unfolding down there as well was totally reliant – any accurate information about it – was totally reliant on the reporters who were there, which is why my editors left me there for four f—— months.

When they sent me to Haiti, that was a straight-up assignment. I cannot take credit for it at all. They were just like, “You are going to Haiti. See what you come up with.” When I got there, I was only there for one day before I was in the car with this girl who had very recently been raped and seriously maimed. Everywhere I went and everyone I talked to were like, “Oh, yeah, this is the thing. This happens all the time. We get all these calls about this. We see it happening all the time.”

There were some very sensational headlines about it right after the quake – two weeks after the quake people were reporting that. And then that story died. When I got there, I realized the rape crisis has gotten worse than it was after the quake. So it’s even more of a story now, even though it’s not a story anyone is hearing.

How long after the car ride with the maimed girl did you know which direction your reporting would head?

That’s a good question. I mean certainly I knew that was going to be a big part of the story when that was happening. Then two days later, I had a driver that –

I can’t drive around Haiti. It takes a very long time to get used to the layout, because there’s no road signs, and there’s rubble everywhere. So I had to have a driver and a translator. Two days after my first day, I had a driver who threatened to assault me.

Then I ended up talking to some of the groups that work with the rape victims. And then even when I was talking with groups who don’t work with rape victims, they were still all saying the same thing. Then the MINUSTAH soldiers, the UN peacekeepers, totally unprompted all bring it up. It was everywhere. The more time that I spent there, the more material I had about it. It was always happening, and people were always talking about it.

I remember when I got back, and I was sitting here with my editors, and they were like, “What have you got? You were gone for two weeks.” That was what was the most compelling thing and what came together out of it. It was the common thread in a lot of that information. As it turns out, in my opinion, also an incredibly important story for itself. But also it speaks to the level of disorder and chaos and unpreparedness that still exists so strongly in that country, even eight months after the quake.

When you saw this common thread, how did you go about putting the piece together? How did you approach structure?

I had been in the Gulf for four months, and I was back in San Francisco for a day before I left for Haiti. I was very tired when I got there. And in addition to having watched – for reasons of the victim, I won’t go into exactly what I saw when I was with her. But in watching her go through that, and in my own being threatened with assault, I was only back in San Francisco for a couple days before I was diagnosed with PTSD. It was incredibly extreme – I was completely nonfunctional for a while. But the story was due. So I had 10 days, something like that, to write it.

I didn’t go through my normal process, because honestly, I was not well. It’s not like I sat down and made the perfect outline. I just pulled all the pieces together and looked at it afterward to see how it went and then started shaping it with my editors. As Clara was saying, the way she described it, was that it feels sort of like “postcards from.”

The narrative is chronological. It follows my time, basically. Partly the reason I put it together like that – in addition to it just happening to work out that those scenes flowed pretty well together – was that I was a complete wreck when I was putting it together. And that was the easiest way for me to deal with the material on paper while I was still trying to deal with it mentally, going through all this trauma counseling and things like that.

Did you cut much from the piece? It sounds like you left out the experience of some of what you saw.

We did leave out one very emotionally violent scene for reasons that I won’t go into, but that was pretty much it. I don’t know if this is always her philosophy, but Clara’s philosophy with me is “write long, and we’ll take what we want.” So it’s sort of my practice with her – and on big stories like this, she’s generally my editor – that I write everything. I don’t have a standard word count, where it’s going to be 3,000 words long, and so do that. They’re like, “If you turn in 9,000 words, that’s fine, and we’ll decide what we want to do with it and what we like best.”

So I put in pretty much everything. I struggled a little bit with whether or not I should add in my personally being threatened, because I didn’t want to be like, “I went to Haiti, but this is about me now. We’re going to talk about what happened to me and my experience.”

But I decided, and we decided also, that it’s important to show how pervasive the rape culture is in that country. Which it is, and it has been for a very, very long time. It gets you away from that sense that, “Oh, yeah, of course, very poor uneducated black girls are threatened.”

You might have this sense that there was some sort of safety for rich white people walking around. But that’s not the case. It’s one of the great equalizers, for sure. Nothing can protect you from that, in a lot of societies and certainly in that culture. So we decided to keep that stuff in, and make a little bit of a thread of that as well, because not only did it happen with one of my drivers, but it also happened at my hotel and on multiple occasions, so we decided to keep that theme.

Do you see yourself as somebody who is not just doing reporting and getting information, but thinking of the piece as a story? Do you think of what you do as narratives?

Yeah, absolutely, I do. I do think of things as narratives. I think my brain works in a very narrative way. I’m a big baby. I have a lot of feelings. So people become very real and intense and close, even in short periods of time. When you have feelings like that, it’s hard to envision those people as part of just “a piece.” Because it’s their story, and that story is part of a larger story, it all does feel very narrative to me.

We talked a little about how you put this piece together. But normally, when you’re approaching these kinds of pieces – not just this Haiti piece – do you outline a lot? Do you think in scenes? How do you approach the writing?

I do think in scenes. You mean while it’s happening?

While it’s happening, or after the fact.

I do often think in scenes, even sometimes when I’m not on assignment, just when I’m walking around and things are happening, I think of them in scenes. I break them down in scene prose in my head.

I’m out, and I’m talking to people and then I’m walking away – or while I’m trying to fall asleep. I do break things down into scenes, which I think is why the stories that I write end up having so many scenes – maybe too many scenes. That is definitely the way that I construct things.

When I was putting this story together, I was telling someone, “I have to figure out how to string all these scenes together.” I knew I had a bunch of scenes, so I knew that the issue was working out the transitions between them so they could tell one whole story.

20:25

March Editors’ Roundtable: Mother Jones looks at rape in Haiti

The narrative for discussion in the second installment of our Editors’  Roundtable is “Welcome to Haiti’s Reconstruction Hell” by Mac McClelland. Appearing in Mother Jones earlier this year, the story was written after a visit in 2010 to survey the island’s post-quake recovery efforts. Clara Jeffery, one of two editors-in-chief at Mother Jones, edited the piece.

The narrative for the prior Roundtable was one in which several reporters fed material to the writer, who had to synthesize it at a distance. This time, we thought it would be interesting to give our editors a piece in which the writer doing her own reporting was an intergral part of the story.

We’ve also done a Q-and-A with McClelland about how the article came together, but here, we offer our editors’ responses to the story. Comments appear in the order in which they were made. We asked judges to note what they thought did and didn’t work in the piece, and to explain why. At the end are some of their suggestions for additional reading. (For full bios on the editors, see our January post announcing the Roundtable.)

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

What works for me:

The descriptions – of rapes, of tent cities, of snatches of conversation. The details inspire a visceral reaction. At times, it’s hard to keep reading, and yet, it should be, given the subject matter. I can conjure up sights and sounds and smells. It feels foreign, like much of the Third World, but also familiar, like the Gulf Coast after Katrina. What a horrible combination.

The writer’s voice – I’m not always a fan of a writer becoming a character in her own story, but here, it’s quite effective. I can relate better to her personal experiences than to what’s happening in Port-au-Prince. She is the outsider looking in, feeling fear and revulsion, as most Americans would. As a woman, too, she is particularly vulnerable, and that draws you closer to what life is like for Haitian girls.

What I would have approached differently:

Story needs a stronger narrative thread. Essentially, the author is the central character, and we follow her from place to place. She introduces us to individuals along the way who are surviving in hell. But the story feels patched together, not woven. A scene here, an anecdote there, some personal moments. It should have felt more like a journey, obviously to underscore the despair in Haiti, but also to build toward a call to action. The story should compel the reader to want to keep that 10-year-old from being raped.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

What worked for me:

The power of McClelland’s piece lies in the detailed, ground-level interactions she has with people in Haiti. We come face to face with the hell of reconstruction not through abstract policy arguments, but through action and dialogue. McClelland describes this scene: One woman “gets frustrated at some point while I’m asking questions and says, ‘We meet white people, and white people, and white people.’ She starts raising her voice, and two of the other four put their hands out to calm her, literally holding her back, but smiling knowingly. White people make promises but nothing ever ever happens, she says.”

As I read this piece, I couldn’t help but think of the sexual assault of CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, and the ensuing media coverage. It takes courage to venture into dangerous territory and write from first-hand experience. So I admire McClelland for that. And I admire her instinct to put herself in the story – to show not only her vulnerability and fear, but her realization that while she can escape the chaos, many of the women she writes about cannot.

What I would have approached differently:

I agree with Maria that the story needs a stronger narrative thread. I think what would help in this area is a stronger set-up – a stronger first section. I’m led to believe that the story is going to be focused on rape in the Haiti camps – and I want to learn more about that. But the story begins to lose its focus, moving away from the rapes, toward other reconstruction problems.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

Three strengths to learn from:

Effective use of first-person. McClelland didn’t make the story about her but used herself to force me – the safe American who can’t really grasp the enormity of horror in Haiti – to experience a sliver of it by sharing her own: puking in her mouth, spitting out the taste and smell of shit, getting blind drunk at night, being too afraid to open her hotel window despite the heat. First-person can be incredibly powerful when it doesn’t turn the light on the reporter, but uses the reporter as a brighter light with which to see.

End-of-section gut-punch lines after long, dense passages. How people sleep standing up so they won’t “wake up drowning.” That “there are no trees” in Cesselesse and “when it rains, the gravel floods.” That the 10-year-old would not be the youngest rape victim – by eight years.

Authority that allows compression and depth. McClelland’s knowledge is obvious and lets her dense-pack backstory and context so readers get an immersion into the issue rather than just into description and emotion.

Editor’s tweak:

Even stronger and more varied pacing. The overall style of long, dense, multi-clause sentences made for a harder-than-necessary read. More important, it allowed some essential information to get lost in the thicket.

A less-abrupt ending. It was powerful as hell as a metaphor, but came on too suddenly.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

The best thing about this piece: the raw, shocking, powerful honesty of this phrase in the opening: “they kept her on the ground and forced themselves inside her until she felt something tear, as they saw that she was bleeding and decided to go on, and on, and on.” Note that it is made up of 32 words, 26 of which are one syllable, five of two syllables and just one of three syllables. That such horror can come from such simplicity just about says it all.

(The lead isn’t perfect. The gang rape is prompted because she “tried to intervene” in another attack, but the writer fails to give any detail about what had to be a very dramatic moment that revealed an enormous amount – the nature of the attempted intervention itself.)

Unfortunately, the spare power and drive of the narrative begins to waver, and then the writer falls into a trap that has snared many a young foreign correspondent: getting caught up in the drama of her own reportage. There are multiple instances of this, but the most egregious is when she says of a man she meets, “he’s not the kind of rich Haitian man who … tells me at the bar I should have sex with him because he’s the nice sort of guy who loses an erection when a woman starts to fight him off.”

She means it as a reference to general attitudes about rape, but I doubt the writer’s encounters in hotel bars have much to do with the barbarism of rape in the refugee camps.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

Yes:

1. McClelland reveals a problem I didn’t even know existed on such a horrific scale.

2. Reporting the reality of desensitization adds an important contextual layer: “…I really can’t imagine someone not getting raped under those circumstances, no.”

3. Lovely nuggets (“The tarps are being torn from their tethers by the gusts” and the entire graf that begins “But ‘tent’ isn’t accurate either.”) plus smart authorial restraint. “At 10, she wouldn’t be the youngest reported rape victim from the camps. Not by eight years.” is powerful for the way she backed into the information, for the inclusion of the word “reported,” and for punctuation after “camps.” The “Not by eight years” made me shut my eyes in sickness.

Hmm:

1. Technically, this piece isn’t a narrative; it’s a news feature. I’d be interested to know whether the writer envisioned a narrative. Because to write narrative one must report for narrative. A bit of planning, even mid-reporting, could have generated the focus the piece needed.

2. Closer line editing could’ve moved the language closer to precision. “It only rains for 10 minutes” should be “It rains for only 10 minutes.” Cliché radar could’ve helped too. I flinch at a “sea of” anything (in this case tarps) but also “reduced to rubble,” etc. Small edits can charge even the simplest sentence, such as the one ending the amputees section:

As written: “Yeah, that’s a problem,” he says.

Arguably more powerful, for the beat it contains: “Yeah,” he says, “that’s a problem.”

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

I agree with the comments about the story’s many powerful scenes – the gang rape, the squalor of the camps, the skinny guy frantically searching for a cop to help him fend off thugs – and about the courage of the author in going to Haiti to report under such trying and dangerous circumstances. Much of the piece is vivid and shocking and will stay with me for a long time.

I also agree that the story needs a stronger narrative structure. I was never quite sure where the author was leading me; the article has an unfocused, anecdotal quality. Beyond that, I felt that the author’s intrusions in the narrative sometimes undercut its strength. Speculating about Alina’s motives for trying to stop the rape (“Maybe it was because she has three daughters of her own; maybe it was some altruistic instinct”) interrupts a scene of harrowing power; the comment “easy as pie” is jarring after “gangs of rapists slice through the sides of tents all over the city to steal a woman”; and the joke about “My Heart Will Go On” undermines the paragraph on water-related health problems.

In general, I think the first person should be used sparingly in journalism. There are compelling reasons to use it in this story, but some of the author’s experiences are digressive – the opening to the cocktails scene with Mike (“He likes me because … I like him because …”) serves no discernible purpose – and occasionally they give the impression that the article is less about conditions in Haiti than about the author’s reactions to them and about her adventures in the country. I think a stronger hand in editing could have helped her avoid that.

The ending is very effective: the mud oozing between the tiles, the distressing “not by eight years,” people shaking like the earth during the earthquake. Strong stuff.

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

I like:  The way she writes with great confidence and authority. Her almost novelistic approach to the lede, especially the way she gets inside Alina’s head. (“Too many to count.” “Until she felt something tear.”) Her lovely way of tucking facts into sentences, deftly, and explaining acronyms without bogging things down. First person and present tense, which make the story unfold for me in real time; I feel like I’m learning things at the same time the writer is. I love some of her tidy, wise sentences. (“Tension is the only thing being built.”)

I’m going to disagree with those who say the story needs a stronger narrative thread. I thought it worked well, leading me, confused, increasingly more and more horrified, from place to place, seeing Haiti through McClelland’s eyes, smelling it and tasting it. The story was about what is going on in Haiti, but it also has the secondary theme of the cluelessness of America, even the do-gooders (like Sean Penn) who send money and think they’re helping. And so McClelland’s reactions stood, for me, as the reaction of America.

I also love the tight passion that fills this story. (“And if you, white girl, think you’re going to be useful…”)

Tweaks: I admit to getting a little lost in the Mike section, not clearly understanding who he was, exactly, and I think the ending could have been stitched in more deftly. It has a great closing quote, and I was glad to bring the story back to Alina and the rapes, but it felt tacked on in haste. With massaging, she would have gotten there.

Kelley Benham
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times

The strength of this piece lies in the scenes. In its strongest moments, there is a precision to the placement of elements, a logic to the order of things. The opening draws power as it follows one character along a clear simple line, chronologically, never crossing into hyperbole.

As a whole, the story loses that precision. There is a narrative thread – the writer’s journey – but that thread feels circumstantial. In a narrative, keeping the reader focused takes planning. The reporting here led to multiple cities, multiple characters, and multiple issues. The writer has to think hard about how to introduce those elements, how to move smoothly from one to the next, and which to leave out.

In a grueling grad school narrative class, Jon Franklin drilled us on the 5 orienting threads that keep readers from getting lost. I failed the class, but I remember the threads, sometimes in the panic of a flashback. Time. Place. Character. Subject. Mood. The more frequently you shift these elements, and the more of them you shift at one time, the more confusion you create. This story loses its way when it jumps from character to character, place to place, acronym to acronym too abruptly or without reason. It becomes particularly jarring when it loops through time, instead of sticking to the simple chronology that tells us where we came from and where we are going.

Like many long narratives, this one does it right in the tight spaces, but loses control as the frame expands.

Additional reading suggestions from the group:

Tom Huang recommends Tracy Kidder’s book on Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” as well as Kelly McBride’s Poynter column about the Logan story and the media’s coverage of sexual assault.

Tom Shroder recommends David Finkel’s “Exodus: One Woman’s Choice.”

Stay tuned for the next installment in early April. In the meantime, if you have a piece you’d like to see our editors dissect, please send it along to contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org. The story has to be already published, available online and strong enough to stand up to tough love.

February 15 2011

16:46

What we’re reading: the long arc of reporting on Scientology, a different kind of drug war, and a new narrative collaboration

The long-form buzz this last week has been all about Lawrence Wright’s piece on Scientology for the New Yorker, “The Apostate.” It’s ostensibly a profile, but it’s also investigative journalism and a compelling narrative. Wright’s deft storytelling was recently addressed on this site by Roy Peter Clark, who looked at a passage from “The Looming Tower,” Wright’s account of the run-up to the 9/11 attacks.

Wright once again delivers the narrative goods with a 25,000-word story that takes a long time to read, making you miss a meeting or two and maybe skip lunch. The kicker alone is worth the time investment, but there are lots of other elegant moments along the way.

Like many big pieces, the story didn’t happen overnight. Listen to Wright’s podcast about the story and see a sample of disputed documentation from the piece for more clues about the back-and-forth with Scientologists.

Wright himself mentions some of the prior reporting that helped pave the way. The St. Petersburg Times’ three decades of investigating Scientology began in 1979 with coverage that won the paper a Pulitzer the following year. Those efforts continue today, most recently in an ongoing project from reporters Joe Childs and Thomas Tobin. This tireless stretch of reporting laid a paper trail and provided an opportunity to use the church’s earlier responses to dig deeper.

Just how much synthesis and narrative work Wright and the St. Pete staff have done becomes apparent upon reading this impressive but jargon-heavy account from a woman named Bea, who says she spent decades serving Scientology before leaving the church. It clocks in at almost exactly the same length as Wright’s New Yorker piece, and must be invaluable for those investigating the church. At the same time, it shows just how much translation and anthropological work anyone trying to write a general audience piece about Scientology has to do.

For those looking for non-Scientology material to read, we were impressed with the clean, insightful writing of Jennifer Senior in her recent New York magazine piece, “The Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, Haldol, Risperdal, Seroquel, Ambien, Lunesta, Elavil, Trazodone War.”

We discovered Senior’s story because of a new collaboration between Longreads and Mother Jones magazine. Each week, Mother Jones will feature a top 5 Longreads list for narrative nonfiction junkies everywhere. The partnership has just begun, but we’re already impressed with many of the choices. Check out the lists for Week 1 and Week 2.

Photo of Scientology leader David Miscavige by Robin Donina Serne of the St. Petersburg Times.

January 28 2011

17:00

MoJo’s Egypt explainer: future-of-context ideas in action

This week’s unrest in Egypt brings new relevance to an old question: How do you cover an event about which most of your readers have little or no background knowledge?

Mother Jones has found one good way to do that. Its national reporter, Nick Baumann, has produced a kind of on-the-fly topic page about this week’s uprising, featuring a running description of events fleshed out with background explanation, historical context, multimedia features, and analysis. The page breaks itself down into several core categories:

The Basics
What’s Happening?
Why are Egyptians unhappy?
How did this all start?
Why is this more complicated for the US than Tunisia was?
How do I follow what’s happening in real-time?
What’s the latest?

The page also contains, as of this posting, 14 updates informing readers of new developments since the page was first started (at 1 p.m. on Tuesday) and pointing them to particularly helpful and read-worthy pieces of reporting and analysis on other sites.

In all, the MoJo page pretty much takes the Demand Media approach to the production of market-driven content — right down to its content-farm-tastic title: “What’s Happening in Egypt Explained.” The crucial difference, though, is that its content is curated by an expert journalist. In that, the page has a lot in common with the kind of curation done, by Andrew Sullivan and the HuffPost’s Nico Pitney and many others, during 2009’s uprising in Iran. That coverage, though, had an improvised, organic sense to it: We’re figuring this out as we go along. It felt frenzied. The MoJo page, on the other hand, conveys the opposite sensibility: It exudes calmness and control. Here’s what you need to know.

And that’s a significant distinction, because it’s one that can be attributed to something incredibly simple: the page’s layout. The basic design decision MoJo made in creating its Egypt explainer — breaking it down into categories, encyclopedia-style — imposes an order that more traditional attempts at dynamic coverage (liveblogs, Twitter lists, etc.) often lack.

At the same time, the page also extends the scope of traditional coverage. With their space constraints, traditional news narratives have generally had to find artful ways to cater, and appeal, to the widest possible swath of readers. (To wit: that nearly parenthetical explanation of a story’s context, usually tacked onto a text story’s lede or a nut graf.) The web’s limitless space, though, changes the whole narrative proposition of the explainer: The MoJo page rethinks explanation as “information” rather than “narrative.” It’s not trying to be a story so much as a summary. And what’s resulted is a fascinating fusion between a liveblog and a Wikipedia entry.

The MoJo page, of course, isn’t alone in producing creative, context-focused journalism: From topic pages to backgrounders, videos to video games, news organizations are experimenting with lost of exciting approaches to explanation. And it’s certainly not the only admirable explainer detailing the events in Egypt. What’s most noteworthy about MoJo’s Egypt coverage isn’t its novelty so much as its adaptability: It acknowledges, implicitly, that audience members might come into it armed with highly discrepant levels of background information. It’s casually broken down the explainer’s content according to tiers of expertise, as it explains at the top of the page:

This was originally posted at 1:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday. It is being updated and is being kept near the top of the blog. Some of the information near the top of the post may be outdated, and if you’ve been following the story closely, the information at the top will definitely seem very basic. So please scroll to the bottom of the post for the latest.

In a June episode of their “Rebooting the News” podcast, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer discussed the challenge of serving users who come into a story with varying levels of contextual knowledge. One solution they tossed around: a tiered system of news narrative, with Level 1, for example, being aimed at users who come into a story with little to no background knowledge, Level 4 for experts who simply want to learn of new developments in a story.

The MoJo page is a great example of that kind of thinking put to work. The sections Baumann’s used to organize the explainer’s content allow users to have a kind of choose-your-own adventure interaction with the information offered. They convey, overall, a sense of permissiveness. Know only a little about Egyptian politics? Hey, that’s cool. Know nothing at all? That’s cool, too.

And that’s another noteworthy element of MoJo’s Egypt explainer: It’s welcoming. And it doesn’t, you know, judge.

That’s not a minor thing, for the major reason that stories, when you lack the context to understand them, can be incredibly intimidating. If you don’t know much about Egypt’s current political landscape — or, for that matter, about the world financial system or the recent history of Afghanistan or the workings of Congress — you have very little incentive to read, let alone follow, a story about it. In news, one of the biggest barriers to entry can be simple intimidation. We talk a lot about “engagement” in journalism; one of the most fundamental ways to engage an audience, though, is by doing something incredibly simple: producing work that accommodates ignorance.

November 11 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of journalist headcounts

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

We try to make sense of how much we’ve lost and how much we’ve gained through journalism’s massive upheaval. It’s a dizzying picture; our almost universal access to news and the ability of any writer to be her own publisher gives the appearance of lots more journalism being available. Simultaneously, the numbers of paid professional people practicing the craft has certainly lowered the output through traditional media.

It’s a paradox that we’re in the midst of wrestling with. We’re in the experimental phase of figuring out how much journalists, inside and out of branded media, are producing — and where the biggest gaps are. We know that numbers matter, but we don’t yet know how they play with that odd measure that no metrics can yet definitively tell us: quality.

I’ve used the number of 1,000,000 as a rough approximation of how many newspaper stories would go unwritten in 2010, as compared to 2005, based on staffing reduction. When I brought that up on panel in New York City in January, fellow panelist Jeff Jarvis asked: “But how many of those million stories do we need? How many are duplicated?” Good questions, and ones that of course there are no definitive answers for. We know that local communities are getting less branded news; unevenly, more blog-based news; and much more commentary, some of it produced by experienced journalists. There’s no equivalency between old and new, but we can get some comparative numbers to give us some guidelines.

For now, let’s look mainly at text-based media, though we’ll include public radio here, as it makes profound moves to digital-first and text. (Broadcast and cable news, of course, are a significant part of the news diet. U.S. Labor Department numbers show more than 30,000 people employed in the production of broadcast news, but it’s tough to divine how much of that effort so far has had an impact on text-based news. National broadcast numbers aren’t easily found, though we know there are more than 3,500 people (only a percentage of them in editorial) working in news divisions of the Big Four, NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS — a total that’s dropped more than 25 percent in recent years.)

Let’s start our look at text-based media with the big dog: daily newspapers. ASNE’s annual count put the national daily newsroom number at 41,500 in 2010, down from 56,400 in 2001 (and 56,900 in 1990). Those numbers are approximations, bases on partial survey, and they are the best we have for the daily industry. So, let’s use 14,000 as the number of daily newsroom jobs gone in a decade. We don’t have numbers for community weekly newspapers, with no census done by either the National Newspaper Association or most state press associations. A good estimate looks to be in the 8,000-10,000 range for the 2,000 or so weeklies in the NNA membership, plus lots of stringers.

Importantly, wire services aren’t included in the ASNE numbers. Put together the Associated Press, Reuters, and Bloomberg (though some of those workforces are worldwide, not U.S.-based) and you’ve got about 7,500 editorial staffers.

Let’s look at some areas that are growing, starting with public radio. Public radio, on the road to becoming public media, has produced a steady drumbeat of news about its expansion lately (“The Newsonomics of public radio argonauts,” “Public Radio $100 Million Plan: 100 Journalist Per City,”), as Impact of Government, Project Argo, Local Journalism Centers add more several hundred journalists across the country. But how many journalists work in public broadcasting? Try 3,224, a number recently counted in a census conducted for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That’s “professional journalists”, about 80% of them full-time. About 2,500 of them are in public radio, the rest in public TV. Should all the announced funding programs come to fruition, the number could rise to more than 4,000 by the end of 2011.

Let’s look at another kind of emerging, non-profit-based journalism numbers, categorized as the most interesting and credible nonprofit online publishers by Investigative Reporting Workshop’s iLab site. That recent census includes 60 sites, with the largest including Mother Jones magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and and the Center for Public Integrity. Also included are such newsworthy sites as Texas Tribune, Bay Citizen, Voice of San Diego, the New Haven Independent and the St. Louis Beacon. Their total full-time employment: 658. Additionally, there are high dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists operating their own hyperlocal blog sites around the country. Add in other for-profit start-ups, from Politico to Huffington Post to GlobalPost to TBD to Patch to a revived National Journal, and the journalists hired by Yahoo, MSN and AOL (beyond Patch), and you’ve got a number around another thousand.

How about the alternative press — though not often cited in online news, they’re improving their digital game, though unevenly. Though AAN — the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies — hasn’t done a formal census, we can get an educated guess from Mark Zusman, former president of AAN and long-time editor of Portland’s Willamette Week, winner of 2005 Pulitzer for investigative reporting. “The 132 papers together employ something in the range of 800 edit employees, and that’s probably down 20 or 25 percent from five years ago”.

Add in the business press, outside of daily newspapers. American City Business Journals itself employs about 600 journalists, spread over the USA. Figure that from the now-veteran Marketwatch to the upstart Business Insider and numerous other business news websites, we again approach 1,000 journalists here.

What about sports journalists working outside of dailies? ESPN alone probably can count somewhere between 500 and 1000, of its total 5,000-plus workforce. Comcast is hiring by the dozens and publications like Sporting News are ramping up as well (“The Newsonomics of sports avidity“). So, we’re on the way to a thousand.

How about newsmagazine journalists? Figure about 500, though that number seems to slip by the day, as U.S. News finally puts its print to bed.

So let’s look broadly at those numbers. Count them all up — and undoubtedly, numerous ones are missing — and you’ve got something more than 65,000 journalists, working for brands of one kind or another. What interim conclusions can we draw?

  • Daily newspaper employment is still the big dog, responsible for a little less than two-thirds of the journalistic output, though down from levels of 80 percent or more. When someone tells you that the loss of newspaper reporting isn’t a big deal, don’t believe it. While lots of new jobs are being created — that 14,000 loss in a decade is still a big number. We’re still not close to replacing that number of jobs, even if some of the journalism being created outside of dailies is better than what some of what used to be created within them.
  • If we look at areas growing fastest (public radio’s push, online-only growth, niche growth in business and sports), we see a number approaching 7,500. That’s a little less than 20 percent of daily newspaper totals, but a number far higher than most people would believe.
  • When we define journalism, we have to define it — and count it — far more widely than we have. The ASNE number has long been the annual, depressing marker of what’s lost — a necrology for the business as we knew it — not suggesting what’s being gained. An index of journalism employment overall gives us a truer and more nuanced picture.
  • Full-time equivalent counts only go so far in a pro-am world, where the machines of Demand, Seed, Associated Content, Helium and the like harness all kinds of content, some of it from well-pedigreed reporters. While all these operations raise lots of questions on pay, value and quality, they are part of the mix going forward.

In a sense, technologies and growing audiences have built out a huge capacity for news, and that new capacity is only now being filled in. It’s a Sim City of journalism, with population trends in upheaval and the urban map sure to look much different by 2015.

Photo by Steve Crane used under a Creative Commons license.

September 07 2010

19:16

Spending the Summer in 'Journalist Law School'

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

What do you get when you cross a lawyer and a journalist? Most of the time, of course, you get a lawyer. You know: The kids who worked so hard on the college paper but jetted off to Boalt when the prospect of years of unpaid internships scared them off. Most journalists remember a few people like that. (I know a dozen or so.)

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Sometimes, of course, you end up with a journalist: Take Adam Liptak, the New York Times lawyer who started writing book reviews and ended up covering the Supreme Court for the Grey Lady. The Fox News crowd has their own Liptak in Brooklyn Law School grad Geraldo Rivera. Michael Kinsley started working at the New Republic during his third year at George Washington Law School. But not every journalist who covers legal issues has the time (or the money) to get a law degree. That's where John Nockleby comes in.

Journalist Law School

For the past five years, Nockleby has been trying to construct a third breed of reporter/attorney hybrid: the journalist with a crash course in the law. To bring this new beast into the world, this avuncular, bespectacled, aggressively friendly law professor is prepared to push the limits of what you can teach someone about the American legal system in three and a half days.

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Every summer, Nockleby's Journalist Law School (JLS) brings several dozen reporters to Loyola Law School in Los Angeles for 84 hours of lectures, seminars, and discussion panels on the law. This June, my colleague at Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer, who attended JLS in 2009, suggested I apply. That Stephanie found the program useful was a shock: She literally wrote the book on tort reform -- it's called "Blocking the Courthouse Door" -- and I never imagined that she had much more to learn about the legal system. On the other hand, it would be very useful to me to have a bit more of a background in the law. Covering civil liberties issues for Mother Jones, I run into a lot of legal documents -- habeas petitions, Office of Legal Counsel memos, and so on. So I applied and got accepted. Next thing I knew, I was in L.A.

Learning and Schmoozing

The JLS program is centered around what are essentially miniature versions of standard first-year law classes: Constitutional law, criminal law, civil procedure, criminal procedure, torts, and so on. I had heard a lot of the basic concepts because my girlfriend (not a former journalist) is a law student. You might think a basic familiarity with the concepts would make the classes boring. But Nockleby, knowing that journalists are an "especially critical" audience, did an excellent job of assembling an engaging group of professors to teach the core classes. Even the most jaded of my fellow students seemed engaged.

The core JLS classes are supplemented by a series of small-group sessions focusing on more specific topics. I attended two on terrorism-related issues, and got a number of story ideas (and contacts) that made the entire program worthwhile in and of themselves. In addition, JLS offers a series of talks and schmoozing sessions featuring practicing judges and attorneys. The schmoozing includes one's fellow journalists, too, of course.


The "fellows" (that's what they called us) were a diverse crowd -- television, radio, Internet, and print journalists, with everything from a few years to a few decades of experience in the media. Our beats ran the gamut from local crime reporter to the NY Times' Mexico City bureau chief.

Why does Nockleby even bother to do this? At first, he just got tired of the complaining. Nockleby kept hearing complaints that people didn't understand the legal system -- and that the media did a bad job of explaining it.

"You guys keep going on about how the media doesn't get it," he told potential funders. "Put your money where your mouth is."

They did. The American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA), which represents top plaintiffs' and civil defense attorneys, wrote a big check. It has kept on writing them.

Program Goals

Ideally, the goal of the program is to provide an overview so that the particular legal issues journalists cover "can be placed in broader perspective," Nockleby said.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a New York Superior Court beat reporter who doesn't understand how that court works. But she might not know how that court's procedures differ from others, or how to find out.

"It's not that we can provide a legal education in three and a half days," Nockleby said. "We can't show journalists how to go about investigating a particular problem. But we can give a systemic overview so that problems get placed in a context where they make a lot more sense."

Is Nockleby's experiment succeeding? The reviews of the program are certainly positive. Then again, most journalists I know appreciate any opportunity to meet new sources and gobble up some background information -- especially if there are open bars involved. My fellow "fellows" appreciated the experience. If our reporting gets even a little bit better or more informed, that's what counts, right?

Nockleby's ambitions aren't limited to half-week fellowships, however. Longtime New York Times Supreme Court reporter "Linda Greenhouse had a year of legal education and that helped her tremendously," he said. "If everybody reporting on law had a law degree, that would be great."

But not every journalist can be Adam Liptak, or Geraldo. And while the Pentagon may sometimes wish that more military embeds had prior military experience, and scientists may wish more reporters had lab experience, that won't always be the case, either. Even Nockleby acknowledges that there's more to journalism that subject-matter expertise.

"All that is great, but more important is the ability to explain things in simple terms," he said. "A lot of lawyers don't have that."

Nick Baumann is an assistant editor at Mother Jones. He covers national politics out of the Washington, D.C. bureau. Nick's writing has also appeared in the Economist, the Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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August 03 2010

17:51

The Climate Desk: Time-Intensive Collaboration Pays Off

When I first heard about The Climate Desk back in April, I was impressed by its ambitious mission:

The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact -- human, environmental, economic, political -- of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS's new public affairs show "Need To Know."

As someone who's managed several large-scale journalistic partnerships, I was curious to peek under the proverbial hood and see how the project was going several months in. Were the partners achieving their goals? What could other journalists interested in cross-organization collaboration learn from their experiences? I checked in with one of Climate Desk's de facto managers, Monika Bauerlein, co-editor at Mother Jones; a transcript of our email conversation follows.

Q&A

Please describe how Climate Desk is structured and staffed.

Monika Bauerlein: The Climate Desk is designed to produce a few major projects per year, with ad-hoc collaborations, content exchange, and link love continuing in between. Our first major project was a series exploring how business is adapting to climate change. We have several projects planned for the coming year. At the moment, we are focusing on collaboratively covering and exchanging content on the BP oil disaster.

It's a very flat structure, basically a consortium of peers -- there are one or two editors who serve as the main contacts at each of the partner organizations. We have met in person twice and talk via conference call regularly.

Among the group of editors involved, Clara (Jeffery, co-editor, Mother Jones) and I have thus far taken on most of the coordination and cat-herding (which can be quite time-consuming -- at key moments it's probably taken more than 50 percent of our time, but most of the time it's quite a bit less). All decisions are made collaboratively.

There was not really another project similar enough for us to model this collaboration on -- most of the ones we're aware of have been one-shot reporting projects (e.g. The Arizona Project and the Chauncey Bailey Project, both focused on the killing of reporters), whereas this is more of a soup-to-nuts, brainstorm-to-publication-to-"tweetstream":http://twitter.com/theclimatedesk collaboration.

But we certainly got ideas from a range of other projects and hope to in turn make our experience available to others.

How are project participants defining "collaboration" for the purposes of this project? How did you arrive at that definition?

bauerlein.jpg

Bauerlein: We started out with a very simple thought: How cool would it be if some of the smartest editors we know got in a room together? A cross between imaginary dinner party and dream-team edit meeting, if you will. We wanted to share three things: ideas, content, and audiences. We hoped that the resulting cross-pollination would produce a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. That's proven true -- we've all really enjoyed the exchange of ideas, we've all gotten great content out of it, and we've been able to introduce some of our users to each other's work.

In practice, here's what we did: We brainstormed how the collaboration should work and, for our first big project, settled on doing a distributed package of stories as a pilot project. As our topic, we chose an exploration of how business is adapting to climate change. Several of the main feature stories were conceived and assigned by the group; in addition, each partner organization produced stories that were made available to the group as part of the package. Some partners also produced stories that were not shared, but were linked to from other partner sites.

During the publication phase of this series (the two weeks surrounding Earth Day 2010), the stories ran on all the partner sites, and we used a collaborative widget from Publish2 to give users a running feed of the entire package. We also built theclimatedesk.org as a repository for our FAQ and story feed; it continues to be updated with reporting from the partner organizations.

What has been the project's biggest success so far, and why? What success metrics are you using?

Bauerlein: Honestly, for this many journalists from fairly different organizations to play well together and enjoy themselves felt like a big success. Demonstrating to ourselves that it could be done, and be fun, was great.

Beyond that, we produced a lot of really good content that got widely seen and commented on, as well as buzz in the trade press and great feedback from the rest of the journalism community. And, perhaps most importantly, through the pilot project we created both a framework for working together and a great deal of trust among the group, which has already helped us seize opportunities for further collaboration.

For example, we were in the planning stages for our next project when news of the BP oil spill hit; at that point, we shifted gears to focus on this major story, with an ongoing content exchange and ad-hoc collaborations among individual members of the group. In the past few weeks, "Need to Know" has teamed up with the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and Grist to produce segments for its show. All the partners have exchanged content about the spill. In the meantime, we have started a podcast and are continuing to work on our next big project.

What has been harder than you expected? What would it take to ease this difficulty?

Bauerlein: It¹s really all about time and bandwidth, but we've managed to find both because the rewards are great. What we'd love to do is raise enough money to have a dedicated project manager as well as technology/interactive design and user participation talent. This would allow us to really pull in the best ideas from each of the partners and develop the collaboration to its full potential.

If a genie appeared and could grant you three wishes to make Climate Desk succeed beyond your wildest dreams -- what would your three wishes be?

Bauerlein: 1. Major celebrity and massive funder falls in love with this project.

2. We create cutting-edge projects that engage a broad audience -- even beyond our existing 27 million users -- and fundamentally change the conversation about climate. It's a very abstract concept for many people; what we want to do is make it tangible and intellectually engaging.

3. Is this where we ask the genie for three more wishes?

The former editorial director of PBS.org, Amanda Hirsch is a digital media consultant who recently managed the EconomyStory collaboration, a journalistic partnership between 12 public media organizations. Learn more about Amanda's background at amandahirsch.com and follow her on Twitter at @publicmediagirl.

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July 27 2010

16:30

When do 92,000 documents trump an off-the-record dinner? A few more thoughts about Wikileaks

Sometimes you can spend an entire morning racing the clock to put together the perfect blog post, and once you’re done, find a quote or two that would have let you sum up the entire thing in a lot less time. Such is the case with this great exchange between veteran reporter Tom Ricks (now blogging at Foreign Policy magazine) and David Corn at Mother Jones. Ricks pretty much trashed the “War Logs“/Wikileaks story that has been the buzz of the journalism world for the past few days, and dropped this gem:

A huge leak of U.S. reports and this is all they get? I know of more stuff leaked at one good dinner on background.

David Corn responded with a thoughtful post that is worth reading in full. The essence of it, however, is this:

These documents — snapshots from a far-away war — show the ground truth of Afghanistan. This is not what Americans receive from US officials. And with much establishment media unable (or unwilling) to apply resources to comprehensive coverage of the war, the public doesn’t see many snapshots like these. Any information that illuminates the realities of Afghanistan is valuable.

This captures the essence of the question I was trying to get at in the fifth point of yesterday’s post (“journalism in the era of big data”). I noted the similarities between “War Logs” and last week’s big bombshell, “Top Secret America.” The essence of the similarity, I said, was that they were based on reams of data, which, in sum, might not tell us anything shockingly new but that brought home, in Ryan Sholin’s excellent phrase, “the weight of failure.” And this gets me excited because I think it represents something new in journalism, or something old-enough-to-new: a focus on the aggregation of a million “on the ground reports” that might sometimes get us closer to the truth than three well placed sources over a nice off-the-record dinner. And I’m fascinated by this because this is the way that I, as a qualitative social scientist, have always seen as a particularly valid way to learn about the world.

Ricks’ quote, on the other hand, captures a certain strain of more traditional thinking: the point of journalism is to learn something shockingly new, hopefully from those elites in a position to really know what’s going on. Your job, as a journalist, is to get close enough to those elites so that they’ll tell you what’s really going on (a “nice” dinner, now, not just any old dinner!), and your skill as a journalist lies in your ability to hone your bullshit detector so that you can separate the self-serving goals of your sources from “the truth.” Occasionally, those elites will drop a big stack of documents on your desk, but that’s a rare occurrence.

I want to be clear: I don’t think one “new” type of journalism is going to displace the traditional way. Obviously, both journalistic forms will work together in tandem; indeed, it seems like most of what The New York Times did with “War Logs” was to run the data dump by its network of more elite sources for verification and context. But we are looking at something different here, and I think the Ricks-Corn exchange captures an important tension at the heart of this transition.

To conclude, two more reading links for you. In the first, “A Speculative Post on the Idea of Algorithmic Authority,” Clay Shirky wrote late last year that the authority system he sees emerging in a Google-dominated world values crap as much as it does quality.

Algorithmic authority is the decision to regard as authoritative an unmanaged process of extracting value from diverse, untrustworthy sources, without any human standing beside the result saying “Trust this because you trust me.”

This notion gets at the fact that a lot of the documents contained in the “War Logs” trove might have been biased, or partial, or flat-out wrong. But it doesn’t matter, Shirky might argue, in the same way that it might in the world that Ricks describes — a world where, in Shirky’s terms, an elite source is “standing beside the result saying ‘Trust this because you trust me.’”

The second link is a little more obscure. In her book How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles argues that one of the major consequences of digitization is that we, as an informational culture, no longer focus as much on the distinction between presence and absence (“being there,” or not “being there”) as we do on the difference between pattern and randomness. In other words, “finding something new” (being there, being at dinner, getting the source to say something we didn’t know before) may not always be as important as finding the pattern in what is there already.

This is a deep point, and I can’t go into it much more in this post. But I’m thinking a lot about it these days as I ponder new forms of online journalism, and I’ll probably write about it more in the months and years ahead.

July 16 2010

16:00

“What the audience wants” isn’t always junk journalism

Should news organizations give the audience what it wants?

Swap out “news organization” for “company” and “audience” for “customers” and the question seems absurd. But journalists have traditionally considered it a core principle that the audience’s taste should not be the sole guiding force behind news judgment. Coverage based on clicks is a race to the bottom, a path to slideshows of Michelle Obama’s arms and celebrity perp walks, right?

Item: Last week, when The New York Times wrote about the new Yahoo blog The Upshot, the reporter focused on the angle that it will use search data to guide editorial decisions:

Yahoo software continuously tracks common words, phrases and topics that are popular among users across its vast online network. To help create content for the blog, called The Upshot, a team of people will analyze those patterns and pass along their findings to Yahoo’s news staff of two editors and six bloggers…The news staff will then use that search data to create articles that — if the process works as intended — will allow them to focus more precisely on readers.

Yahoo staffers were dismayed, saying the search tool is just one piece of their editorial process. Michael Calderone: “NYT obsesses over use of a search tool; ignores boring, traditional stuff (breaking news, analysis, edit meetings,etc).” Andrew Golis: “Seriously, NYT misses a forest of brilliant old school original reporting & analysis for an acorn of search insights.”

Item: Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander writes that the Post is steeped in a divide, with web journalists pushing to use user data. Print reporters, meanwhile, fear that “if traffic ends up guiding coverage, they wonder, will The Post choose not to pursue some important stories because they’re ‘dull’?” Then Alexander noted that the Post’s top trafficked staff-written story of the past year was about…Crocs. “The Crocs story illustrates a sobering reality about The Post’s site. Often (not always), readers are coming for the offbeat or the unusual. They’re drawn by endearing animal videos or photo galleries of celebrities.” Or rubber shoes.

But what if sometimes “what the audience wants” is more serious than what the news organization is giving them?

Item: A Pew study released Wednesday noted that, while public interest in the Gulf oil spill has dropped a bit — from 57 percent surveyed saying they are following the story closely to 43 percent — coverage of the oil spill has fallen off a cliff, dropping from 44 percent of all news coverage to 15 percent. And the drop in public interest followed the drop in coverage, not the other way around. Meanwhile, news consumers were getting a heavy dose of Lebron James and Lindsay Lohan coverage. (Note: The data is from June 10 to July 10, so before news that BP has tentatively stopped the spew.)

Item: Meanwhile, Mother Jones released its second-quarter traffic stats this week. For unique visitors, they’re up 125 percent year-over-year. Their revenue has increased 61 percent. The timing roughly coincides with the site’s decision to double down on oil spill coverage, though it cites other coverage for the uptick as well. The magazine’s Kate Sheppard follows the spill almost exclusively, filing a lively Twitter feed with links to her own work and others. That could help account for a chunk of the 676 percent jump in traffic from social media year-over-year. (Pew also found recently that the oil spill had slowly entered the social media world, picked up speed and hit a point last month where it was accounting for nearly a quarter of all links on Twitter.)

Could giving readers more of what they want mean both good journalism and a stronger bottom line? The two won’t line up every time, but it’s useful to remember that “what the audience wants” doesn’t always match the stereotype.

December 14 2009

16:30

Are news nonprofits doomed to reliance on big gifts? A study in fundraising — and sustainability

I’ve been studying journalism nonprofits one way or another for about five years now, and I confess that in all that time, I’ve looked at their business models really as being slightly different iterations of the same species. But now, I’m not so sure.

As part of my graduate studies in nonprofit management at George Washington University, this fall I took a closer look at the finances of a dozen journalism nonprofits, keeping in mind the most pressing question for many: How can they diversify revenues and achieve some level of sustainability?

I acknowledge up front that my method was not perfect — I’ll explain at the end — but I think I’ve discovered what may be two critical distinctions within the group I studied.

First, the six nonprofits that served geographically defined communities — whether they be cities, states or regions — generally did a better job of diversifying their revenue sources than did those that attempted to speak to a national audience.

Second, among these “regionals,” there appeared to be some correlation between bigger budgets and greater diversity in revenues sources. This pattern suggested to me that there is a happy dynamic at work here — a virtuous cycle in which diversity of revenue helps create institutional heft that in turn attracts additional philanthropy in the form of major individual gifts and foundation grants.

What are the diverse sources that these nonprofits are tapping? For lack of a better descriptor, I lumped them together under the heading of “transactional” revenues — advertising, subscriptions, memberships, royalties, event ticket sales, contract research, and anything else that didn’t go under the “direct public support” line on Form 990. Some of these sources are taxable, some are not, and the difference was not always clear. Different nonprofits treated similar revenues in different ways. But I digress.

Regional news nonprofits: With size comes funding diversity

Here’s the graph that shows the correlation between average annual budget and a declining dependence on direct public support:

If this trend holds true, I think it would portend a relatively bright future for the nonprofit model as a major contributor in places like city halls and state capitals where newspaper bureaus have been emptied out. These are the places where the disintegration of the newspaper business model is most obvious to readers — and where for-profit alternatives have a hard time realizing returns on investment. Here, the case for philanthropy is clear — and so is a nonprofit’s potential to supplement its revenues with advertising and other market-driven revenues streams as it scales up its operations.

The trend also suggests a cruel and ironic corollary: The journalism nonprofits that can demonstrate the least dependence on foundations and large gifts may be the most likely to succeed in winning them.

National news nonprofits: Greater dependence on large gifts

At the same time, studying the finances of six “nationals” caused me to look at those organizations in a wholly different light.

Like the regionals, journalism nonprofits with national aspirations are feeling pressure to diversify their revenue base beyond foundations and founding donors. And at least some are looking to the regionals’ success for tactics they can replicate — witness ProPublica’s hiring of Watershed Co., a consultancy with expertise in online and grassroots fundraising. But from what I’ve seen, most depend on major gifts and foundation grants regardless of size. Here’s a graph showing average annual budget and dependence on direct public support:

As I reported here in September, Madeline Stanionis, Watershed’s CEO, pronounced herself “skeptical” of prospects for building a national network of small donors. As Stanionis said at the time, donors to political and other “citizen-powered” campaigns have been conditioned to believe that the candidate or institution that receives their donations will respond directly to their demands. But journalism does not — and should not — operate that way, she said. “I just think trying to force a journalistic endeavor into a hole created by these campaigns is not correct,” she said.

My suspicion is that the “nationals” also suffer from being one too many levels of abstraction from readers’ lives. Their reports, however compelling in their conclusions, don’t explain to the reader why city sewer rates are so high or why the state legislature just slashed school spending. As Mike Worth, my graduate advisor and GW’s former vice president for development, remarked: “The problem with the case (for philanthropy) is that it’s intellectual. Nobody ever died from lack of public journalism.” The latter might be debatable, but I think he’s got it right.

What’s the lesson here? I think there are two, either (or both) of which may be a blinding glimpse of the obvious.

First, the nationals have a solid track record of tapping foundation support and keeping it flowing over a long period. Here, I’m thinking of the Center for Public Integrity, which has relied almost exclusively on foundations and major gifts since Chuck Lewis founded it 20 years ago. Why tamper with success? The only real benefit from the time and effort required to build a grassroots network may be the added credibility of having to answer to an audience. This is doubly true for those such as CPI and ProPublica that specialize in investigative work and also claim to be nonpartisan and/or non-ideological.

The second lesson is that any effort to build a grassroots network at the national level is going to require a lot of refinement. There are simply too many competing news sources and too many requests for support. Breaking through all that background noise is an enormous challenge. Best of luck to those that try.

Except for Mother Jones

Now here’s the big exception to the rule: Mother Jones. Among the nationals, MoJo stood out in its time-tested ability to pull revenue from all kinds of sources — advertising, memberships, events and investment income. Steve Katz, the magazine’s chief fundraiser, tells me that the model is an outgrowth of a deliberate effort to define and serve a particular constituency.

In an email, Steve told me that MoJo has “worked mightily to make the case that you won’t find our kind of point of view anywhere else, and that our journalism is also rooted in a ‘value proposition’ a.k.a. a point of view a.k.a. a politics, and hence our journalism — which must stand on its own as professional grade work — is also about changing the world.”

I’ll buy that. But I also think that if you take Steve’s view to its ultimate conclusion in our current economic and technological environment, it points to a tough road ahead for news organizations trying to replicate the newspaper model of objectivity in the online world. The new national news organizations most likely to prosper are those that already have a built-in constituency — or a primary purpose other than producing journalism.

Here, I am thinking of David Westphal’s reporting on Human Rights Watch and its transformation from journalism source to journalism producer. As David noted in his recent testimony at the Federal Trade Commission: “A key point here is that not all of the new players are news organizations.” This trend raises important questions about governance and process within nonprofits — how they try (if they try at all) to insulate their news-gathering operations from their advocacy, much as newsrooms were separated from advertising departments at newspapers.

Where does it all go from here? In my view, the nonprofit model will shake out into two, three or maybe four discrete models, depending on reach and mission. Like cousins, at first glance, they’ll look somewhat alike and may get together once a year for reunions. But each will have its own distinct direction, habits, inclinations — and contributions to the public debate.

A note on the methodology: How’d I select the 12 nonprofits for my study? Frankly, it wasn’t very scientific; it was more an exercise in putting together a fact pattern. I began by listing the nonprofits I knew that (a) existed primarily to produce journalism and (b) had revenues of $100,000 or more a year, and 3) had filed their Form 990 tax returns someplace where I could find them online.

The list worked out to an even dozen, with six that I considered to be national in reach (ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity, Center for Investigative Reporting, Mother Jones, The Nation, Grist) and six that were primarily regional (Texas Observer, High Country News, MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, Chi-Town Daily News, New Haven Independent).

From there, I assembled all available revenue data from 2002 onward a developed an annual average for each nonprofit’s revenues and the percentage of revenues derived from “direct public support.” Then I plotted them on two graphs, one for regionals and the other for nationals.

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