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August 16 2012

16:00

Plaza Pública aims to challenge and improve Guatemala’s journalistic culture

It’s not uncommon for news sites in the United States to evolve into a series of verticals: technology, politics, celebrity news, sports, and the like.

In Guatemala, Plaza Pública is also built around a series of verticals. But here, they’re equity, environment, social cohesion, cultural diversity, and corruption.

“We audit the private sector as part of our mandate,” site director Martín Rodríguez-Pellecer told me. “Traditional media does not cover these issues because they’re afraid companies would remove ads.”

Plaza Pública stands out for a few other reasons. It’s a digital native, but reluctant to set its pace against the 24-hour news cycle. It’s mainly funded by a private university, but it’s seeking a national audience.

The site’s name and concept were inspired by Jürgen Habermas’ idea of the public sphere, where private citizens come together to discuss matters of public relevance. Plaza Pública, which translates to “Public Square” in English, wants to be the place where such conversations not only take place (it has 80 blogs) but where they’re provoked by news stories.

In January, for example, it published an investigation that revealed minors were working on sugar plantations owned by the Guatemalan president’s Chamber of Agriculture. “In Guatemala, as in many other countries in Latin America, media orgs restrain the ‘public interest’ to public officials and public institutions, when it really goes beyond them,” Rodríguez-Pellecer said. “It also includes the links between businessmen and policy-makers, the media-politicians relations and controversial social issues.”

Rodríguez-Pellecer says traditional media have ignored those dynamics. So when it comes to political coverage, Plaza Pública doesn’t just report how an elected official votes. The site also features data visualizations meant to help identify voting patterns between leaders, parties, and around certain topics.

Investigative data journalism is a big part of what Plaza Pública does, though its editors prefer to call it in-depth precision journalism. There’s a reason for that distinction: “During the past 20 years, any sensationalism is considered ‘investigative reporting.’ We try to do a less incendiary journalism,” Rodríguez-Pellecer said.

His team is a group of 15 reporters, coders, designers, and photojournalists. “We all have been in traditional media, but we got tired of not being able to do the journalism that we wanted,” said Rodríguez-Pellecer, who worked seven years as a reporter for Prensa Libre, Guatemala’s most influential newspaper. The newsroom also gets help from 10 students from different universities and in disciplines ranging from archeology to political science and journalism.

Two-thirds of Plaza Pública’s $300,000 annual budget comes from Universidad Rafael Landívar, a private university administered by the Society of Jesus, the Christian religious order. The funding model raises questions about editorial independence: How can a news organization promise autonomy when its main funder is an institution with very clear stances about so many controversial topics?

“Since we started, we [have made it] clear that we were not going to report on the university, the Pope, or the Society of Jesus,” Rodríguez-Pellecer said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re not critics of some of the bishops’ points of views on topics like sexuality and gay rights, for example.” In turn, the university does not get involved in the editorial process: “We pick the topics we cover,” he said. But the institution does have the editorial board’s ear. “Always, those differences are discussed after the publication, not before. We appreciate very much the independence they gave us.”

Plaza Pública, which has 65,000 monthly visitors, in part borrows its model from projects like News21 at Arizona State University, and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University London, on-campus newsrooms with access to university resources.

Like News21 and TBIJ, Plaza Pública is a nonprofit. It cannot sell ads because of universities’ tax-exempt status in Guatemala, but the goal is to eventually — at least three years from now — operate within a legal framework that would allow the sale of ads and maybe even data. “We also want to sell services related with the databases we’re building,” he said. Rodríguez-Pellecer says it’s almost impossible for a digital news outlet in Latin America to rely solely on ad revenue. Even successful ventures like El Faro in El Salvador and La Silla Vacía in Colombia have had to diversify their revenue streams. Plaza Pública has ruled out a paywall, but it’s actively thinking about ways to add more revenue channels. (It also receives grant money from groups like Open Society Foundations and Friederich Ebert Stiftung.)

“We think citizens should contribute voluntarily, too, if they want to get journalism that is on the people’s interests side,” Rodríguez-Pellecer said.

Photo of the Palace of the Captains-General in Antigua, Guatemala, by Ray Metzen used under a Creative Commons license.

March 29 2012

14:00

Merger means the new Bay Citizen will be more investigative and experimental

Breaking: The Bay Citizen won’t be covering as much breaking news any more.

The merger of Bay Citizen with the Center for Investigative Reporting announced yesterday — with CIR forces coming out in charge — will mean structural changes for the nonprofit outlets. But it’ll also mean editorial changes, one of them being a reduction in covering the same big daily stories and subjects the competition is — at least not in the same way.

“There’s so much information, there’s so much newsgathering, there’s so much out there, and there’s so much clutter out there,” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal told me. “Someone may have it first, but there’s almost no such thing as first anymore. News is a commodity. Information is a commodity.”

(The Bay Citizen’s own story on the merger puts it this way: “The Bay Citizen will likely no longer cover breaking news or culture, as CIR leaders have said they see those as commodities that don’t fit the expanded organization’s core mission.”)

Today, a Bay Citizen reporter “might post several times a day on a breaking story or a story on the Bay Area that they were covering maybe in a unique way,” Rosenthal said. “We’re not going to do that. If we get into a major developing story, it will be in an investigative or explanatory way…For a beat reporter, to suddenly not have the obligation of potentially filing I-don’t-know-how-many stories a day or week — it liberates you.

“You know as well as I do that one of the key elements of this kind of reporting is time: time to develop sources, time to do that extra step, having the time not to be chasing deadlines, quickly running out to events that are covered by multiple other people.”

Developing a focus

From its launch in January 2010, Bay Citizen took a broader approach to its coverage than many of its nonprofit peers, which tended to focus on narrow, specific areas like investigative reporting or a particular beat. Founded at a time when many were concerned the San Francisco Chronicle could close, Bay Citizen mixed in daily breaking news coverage, cultural coverage, and even sports with more investigative and enterprise work.

When the San Francisco Giants were in the 2010 World Series, Bay Citizen had author Dave Eggers attend games and do notebook drawings of players and fans. Indeed, Bay Citizen has done game stories, fan slideshows, and even fifth-inning updates from Giants games and other area sporting events — something not many other nonprofit outlets would do.

In particular, it’s probably not something you’d see from the CIR-founded California Watch, the statewide investigative news service. The Bay Citizen will adopt an approach that parallels the guiding principles at California Watch, only on a more local level, Rosenthal said. The combination of Bay Citizen, California Watch, and CIR can give the organization wide reach.

“Here’s an example: We’ve been looking very hard at issues on homeland security, and we have lots of data sets on a national scale,” Rosenthal says. “A reporter looking at that is thinking, ‘What’s the story for California?’ We may [also] be looking at a national story around surveillance. It’s a very flexible model.”

Bay Citizen is one of three regional nonprofit news outlets to have partnered with The New York Times to provide content for the Times’ regional editions; the others were the Chicago News Cooperative and the Texas Tribune. The Times, in addition to a small amount of money, gave status and prestige to the new local brands, plus the promise of some local print readers. But the deals also committed the outlets to producing a certain amount of newspaper-ready content — stories of a certain length and covering a newspapery mix of beats — that helped define its approach. Stories were due to the Times late Tuesday for Friday publication, so stories had to be able to hold a few days.

The Chicago News Cooperative has faced challenges even greater than Bay Citizen’s, suspending operations last month. Of the three Times partners, only the Texas Tribune — which keeps a tight focus on matters of state government and public policy — has thrived. And the Trib is known for ignoring even big breaking news that falls outside its editorial mission. (The New York Times’ Texas report does include culture coverage, but it’s provided by Texas Monthly instead of the Tribune.)

Rosenthal said CIR is currently re-evaluating The Bay Citizen’s relationship with the Times, noting that the deal carries an agreement of “exclusivity” that raises “concerns.”

Multiple platforms, multiple revenue streams

The flexibility of the model may be the key to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s success, and it’s about more than a newsroom-culture shift away from the kind of crime coverage you’re already going to get on the six o’clock news. Freeing up reporters to spend more time digging deeply into stories is the foundation. But the real opportunity for innovation comes in experimenting with a variety of distribution methods and multiple sources of revenue. That’s at least in part because the fundamental instability of the industry is directly tied to questions about how people get information today.

“It’s very difficult to be ambitious and build something in a newsroom where you’re getting smaller and the business model is broken — and it is broken,” Rosenthal said. “It has been broken. It’s not the journalism that’s broken, it’s the business model. We’re in a completely different world.”

“The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas.”

Adapting — and ultimate survival — in this new world requires deftly crossing platforms to tell stories that matter. Rosenthal bristles at the idea of having “readers” because CIR doesn’t just produce news websites, it produces news across platforms.

CIR’s revenue strategy mirrors the spirit of the diversification with which it approaches content production. Rosenthal says that the funding that flows into The Bay Citizen will, like California Watch, have multiple channels: philanthropic support from “major donor efforts,” content fees, fees from membership, fees from events, corporate underwriting. More opportunities for revenue translate into more journalism, which further fuels a newsroom’s ability to try different kinds of storytelling.

“You’re working simultaneously with the video people, you’re working with a radio reporter, you’re working with people who are doing interactive data, you’re working with people who might be doing animation,” Rosenthal says. “The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas…There’s a tremendous amount of involvement from everybody. It’s a very lively, creative, ambitious culture.”

It’s also a culture that encourages ideas that might not even be discussed in a traditional newsroom. Remember California Watch’s “Ready to Rumble”coloring book? That came out of an investigative series on earthquake safety in schools. Next up: Puppets.

“We’re going to be very experimental,” Rosenthal says. “We’re really thinking of how people of all ages get, use and want information at this revolutionary moment we’re all in. This is a good opportunity— a terrific, unique opportunity to be entrepreneurs.”

Photo of Golden Gate Bridge by Marco Klapper used under a Creative Commons license.

November 30 2011

23:57

How to Manage Human Capital: Tips and Resources for Nonprofits

Continuing our series on how nonprofit organizations can tap into the human capital potential, I thought it might be helpful to pull together some resources that will help nonprofits avoid common pitfalls and follow best practices when working with volunteers.

Whether you are a nonprofit just starting to use human capital or have already established internal structures to manage your volunteers, engaging them in meaningful and productive ways can be both rewarding and challenging. 

Volunteers can bring a wide range of skills and experiences to build your capacity and boost your mission-driven work.  We hope these resources will help make the work of managing volunteers a little easier and keep your volunteers happy to boot!

To get you started, we have a lot of tips and resources to share from members of the TechSoup and Net2 community.

How and where to get volunteers:

  • On the Net2 Blog - We asked the Net2 community to share best practices for finding passionate volunteers and how nonprofits can use the Internet to make finding volunteers more efficient and effective. We got a lot more. Check out this amazing list of Net2 community contributed tools, tactics, and best practices. 

Webinars - Resources to help manage and retain volunteers:

The HandsOn Network

An arm of the Points of Light Institute, The HandsOn Network is the largest volunteer network in the nation and includes more than 250 HandsOn Action Centers in 16 countries and a powerful network of more than 70,000 corporate, faith, and nonprofit organizations. 

We did a quick search in their Tools and Resources Library and found some great resources:

  • Starting A Volunteering Program in an Organization (PDF) - This document reviews some important steps in the creation of a volunteer program.
  • Take Root: Volunteer Management Guide (PDF) -  A comprehensive guide for that includes volunteer management, recruitment, retention, recognition strategies and much more.
  • Volunteers as Leaders (PDF) - A step-by-step guide for non-profits to develop volunteer leaders. From developing a volunteer leader framework to recruiting, equipping and supporting leaders.
  • eVOLve: technical assistance for mobilizing volunteers - Sign up for this monthly electronic technical assistance brief, where you will find tips and tools to help you inspire, equip, and mobilize volunteers in your community. Check out the eVOLve archives.
  • Economic Impact Of Volunteers Calculator - Ever try putting a value on the time volunteers give to an organization? This tool can help you. It estimates the appropriate wage rate for volunteer time based on what the person does, the value of specific tasks according to market conditions as reported by the US Department of Labor.

Here are the full search results of HandsOn resources for non-profits.

Risk Management and Legal Issues

As nonprofits consider using volunteers they are often concerned about risk management and legal issues. I am no legal expert, but the Nonprofit Risk Management Center says a little prevention can go a long way. 

Here is a select list of useful (free) articles:

Visit the center’s Volunteer Risk Management page or a full list of their paid resources and services.

We realize there are lot of resources on volunteer management out there. It’s almost overwhelming! We have to tried to round up the ones we thought would be most useful for nonprofits as they consider how to best manage human capital. 

If we missed anything or you’d like to share something else with the Net2 community, we encourage you to leave us a comment. 

July 18 2011

13:00

Pew: Nonprofit journalism doesn’t mean ideology-free

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with a new study this morning that looks at the new universe of nonprofit journalism — and tries to get beyond the ProPublicas of the world to see who else is producing journalism under the legal structure of a 501(c)3 exemption. After all, remember, “nonprofit” signals a tax status, not a belief system or a commitment to any particular ideals, journalistic or otherwise.

The study found more than a little ideology lurking under that IRS umbrella. Of the 46 sites examined — 39 nonprofit and 7 commercial as a control — around half “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature,” the researchers report.

Pew had the expected nice things to say about the usual nonprofit rock stars, like ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and California Watch. They’re transparent about their funding sources, which are numerous; their doesn’t skew too far in one political direction; they produce a lot of journalism, compared to their nonprofit peers. But the major national networks of state politics sites — the conservative Watchdog.org sites and the liberal American Independent News Network — don’t reveal much about who’s paying their bills, and their work skews clearly in one direction, both in the topics they cover and the content of individual stories.

(Because it attempted to cover an entire universe of nonprofit outlets, researchers had to limit their targets to a reasonable number. As a result, older news orgs like the Center for Public Integrity and metro-scale outlets like Voice of San Diego were both excluded.)

PEJ does a great job, with this and other studies, of moving past barroom debates and gathering real-world data on the new worlds of journalism. And while this research doesn’t draw explicit moral conclusions, it won’t be hard for others to: These nonprofits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They’re not objective; they’re hidden tools of politicos; they’re no replacement for newspapers. Beyond the flagships like ProPublica and Texas Tribune, it’s a mucky world.

And there’s some truth in that! But two points: First, few of even the most ambitious nonprofit outlets consider themselves true replacements for newspapers. The scale just isn’t there; as Pew’s study notes, the median editorial-staff size at the nonprofits they studied was three. (Although those three people are usually more topic-focused than their print peers — a nonprofit site covering a statehouse might be the biggest player in town with three reporters.) Replacement is a straw man; the vast majority of nonprofits, ideological or not, view themselves more as supplements.

Second, a little ideology isn’t such a bad thing. Take the right-of-center Watchdog.org sites, which we wrote about last year. They say their mission is to “promote social welfare and civil betterment by undertaking programs that promote journalism and the education of the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.” They investigate Democrats a lot more than Republicans, and they’re no great fans of what they see as wasteful big government.

The left-of-center American Independent News Network sites works the other side, saying its reporting “emphasizes the positive role of democratically elected government in securing the common good and social welfare, and the continuing benefits of our founding culture of egalitarian government by the people, for the people.” They take on the GOP more than Democrats, and they write a lot about the environment and labor issues.

Viewed as replacements, they fall short of what we’d expect from a good newspaper. But as supplements, I’m happy that both exist — that in a state with both a Watchdog site and an Independent site, both sides of the aisle will be poked and prodded, and that stories will surface that otherwise wouldn’t. I’d draw a distinction between ideological outlets as drivers of political culture — Fox News being a prime example — and as drivers of new information. The biggest risk posed by the loss of reporting manpower in places like our nation’s statehouses is that real stories will go unreported. Adding ideological outlets to the mix reduces that chance; at least someone will be paying attention to environmental issues or fraud at the DMV. And, unlike with Fox News, the readers of many of these sites tend to be high-information consumers of political news; a statehouse-news-only site isn’t ever going to reach the broader general audience of a newspaper or TV station.

Anyway, that’s just one take on what is a data-rich analysis, a snapshot of an important group of new players in the news world. Go read the full paper.

May 27 2011

06:58

ProPublica's Richard Tofel on the future of news, crucial role for nonprofits

ProPublica :: ProPublica General Manager Richard Tofel joins the podcast this week to discuss the future of the news industry and where ProPublica's work fits in as a leading nonprofit outlet. Although Tofel emphasizes that ProPublica alone cannot save the news business, he does foresee nonprofits playing a crucial role in advancing journalism as print newspapers continue to decline in the face of current and future recessions.

Continue to read the podcast Minhee Cho, www.propublica.org

May 24 2011

18:10

Follow, Follow, Tweet Tweet (realities of microblogging)

Microblogs like Twitter are a great vehicle to help organize political demonstrations in countries run by corrupt governments (and an effective way to spread misinformation), but how can nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), libraries, government programs, and other mission-based organizations really use microblogs to promote their work, increase attendance at an event, get donations or mobilize or support volunteers?

I've updated my resource on Microblogs and Nonprofits yet again, this time adding much more information about live microblog/live tweet events. This is a primer based in reality - you won't find a panting endorsement about how you will raise millions of dollars via Twitter or Facebook or any other technology-tool. Rather, this resource is, I hope, a no-nonsense, anti-fluff, anti-hype, practical list to help nonprofits, NGOs and other community-focused initiatives explore microblogging and use it effectively with volunteers, event attendees and others they are trying to reach and engage.

Being able to work online is now an essential and much-sought-after skill in the work place, no matter what your job at a nonprofit, NGO, government agency, etc. This isn't the domain of just your marketing department anymore: program staff, those that work with volunteers, and anyone that works with the public or with clients at a mission-based organization has a role in using online tools on behalf of mission-based organizations. This updated resource is just one of many pages on my site meant to help those at mission-based organizations who want to enhance their online skills quickly.

Remember: content is still king. Be thoughtful and be strategic about whatever communication tool you use, even the flavor of the month.

April 21 2011

21:00

AP expands its content-distribution experiment with nonprofit news

Earlier today, the Associated Press announced that it will be expanding its project to distribute content from nonprofit news outfits to newspapers. The expansion builds on the partnerships the cooperative — itself a nonprofit — had developed with the public-interest news providers ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity,the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. The partnerships were built in hopes of a win-win scenario: wider content distribution for the nonprofits, and more high-quality content for papers. Today’s announcement doubles down on the project’s implied institutionalization of an ecosystem that promotes collaboration between nonprofit and for-profit news sources. (With it, the AP is also announcing a fifth partner: the Maynard Institute.)

Expansion-of-an-existing-project isn’t always big news, of course, but it’s worth noting in this case because the AP’s nonprofit-distribution effort has been an undertaking that, as our Laura McGann noted in February, was less pathbreaking than participants had hoped it would be when it was first announced — largely because the nonprofits’ content (most of it, anyway) simply wasn’t picked up by newspapers.

“We wish it had gone better,” Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, told the Lab after the project’s six-month beta period. John Raess, AP’s San Francisco bureau chief (and one of the project’s leads), acknowledged the same thing his partners did: that the project had been, at that point, “not as hugely successful as we’d like.” And Sue Cross, the AP’s senior vice president for global new media and US media markets (and the executive who launched the project), noted that there’d been no talk of expanding it.

So today’s announcement of an expansion is not just news, but also, potentially, good news — both for nonprofit outlets and the consumers who stand to benefit from the public-interest reporting they do.

“It’s been very low-key because we’ve been taking it slowly,” says Kate Butler, the AP’s vice president for U.S. newspaper markets — a rollout that’s been both experimental and intentional. “We wanted to start small, see what the issues were — and see what worked,” she told me. And a big part of that came down to solving — or, at least, improving — a logistical problem Laura noted in February: the delivery platform AP uses to share the stories themselves. The AP has been engaged in an org-wide effort to transition its members from its satellite wire to its web-based AP Exchange — a process that, save for a few stragglers, was pretty much completed as of this March, John Raess told me.

During the project’s beta, Butler notes, the AP had been using AP Exchange as its web portal. To find content — including the content from nonprofits — editors would log into the Exchange system and actively search for stories. But the expanded partnership with nonprofits will make use of the AP WebFeeds technology, which includes metadata for stories and allows for easier searching and sorting of those stories — and, crucially, allows content to flow directly into papers’ content management systems.

Essentially, the cooperative has traded push notifications for pull in distributing nonprofit-produced news content to papers. The new system, Butler says, “removes a step and makes it easier for the content to be seen.”

The nonprofit stories are opt-in for news publishers — sent to your CMS only if you want them to be — but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a paper would turn down exposure to stories that are, ostensibly, both in the public interest and, you know, good. (No money changes hands in the exchange.) Though he declines to specify the particular outfits at this point, Raess has so far talked to around 15 publications, he told me — and “every editor I’ve talked to has said yes.”

April 02 2011

14:54

February 15 2011

07:25

Introduction-- Wendy Hanamura, Link TV

Hi,


I'm the VP & General Manager, of Link TV, a non-profit, independent media network.  We run a 24/7 television network on satellite TV in North America that reaches about 33 million US homes, an online media portal at www.linktv.org, and most recently we've launched a semantically driven platform for video:  www.ViewChange.org


My priorities are using media--primarily video--to advance social change.  Link TV's mission is to connect Americans to the world.


In www.ViewChange.org we are making high quality videos about global development available to people/NGO's around the world to use and share in their work. 


My main needs are:  help in getting these great video assets disseminated to groups who can use them around the world!


We bring these assets to our collaborations:  advanced semantic tools for video discovery and sharing; the ability to curate and distribute global stories on video; a 24/7 television network that reaches 1 in every 3 US homes; a website with 5000 high quality streamed videos; in other words:  a pipeline to a socially active, globally aware audience.


contact me at whanamura@linktv.org  or at TSG2011 call me via cell:  415-335-0895.


 

February 11 2011

17:00

Why an expansion of low-power radio stations could mean good things for community news

The future of local radio news may involve more than just the letters N, P, and R.

Last month, President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, a new law allowing the expansion of noncommercial stations around the country though new low-power radio licenses. Running on 100 watts (about the same as an exceptionally bright lightbulb), these stations are intended for nonprofits, schools, and churches to create community programming. While this may inspire visions of contemporary Christian music and school board meetings popping up alongside the best hits of the ’80s, ’90s, and today, it could also mean more locally produced journalism.

Consider the commonalities low-power radio stations have with local news startups: A defined coverage area and audience; a model that requires engagement with the community; a need for financial support from businesses and a mission to serve the public interest.

“Low power radio really fits well into the model of covering local issues,” Ian Smith of the Prometheus Radio Project told me. “It’s a hyperlocal medium.”

Very hyperlocal, considering that a 100-watt signal won’t carry very far, but it could be just enough to cover a small town or a neighborhood in larger cities. Smith, a development and communications associate with Prometheus, said low-power stations directly reflect the communities they are in, whether its keeping zydeco music alive or voicing the concerns of Latino farm workers.

Smith said a number of low-power stations have set out to not just provide cultural programming but respond to gaps in local news coverage and offer alternatives to traditional media. In that sense, community radio stations join the growing network of nonprofit journalism startups as well as locally oriented initiatives from NPR like Project Argo and Impact of Government.

But what separates community radio from its larger public and corporate cousins is the same thing that could make it work as a vehicle for citizen journalism. “One of the things that makes low power radio so unique is its so participatory,” Smith said. “You can participate in the production, not just the consumption.”

Though low-power radio offers a ready conduit for people concerned about issues within a community, it also can impose certain disciplines helpful to journalism. In order to put a program on the air, you need to know how to run a soundboard (or some basic audio recording tools) and have the ability to put together a cohesive program. Dean Graber, who works at the University of Texas’ Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and has researched low-power radio, points out that some stations are already attempting to guide citizen journalists. KPOV in Bend, Ore., for instance, created a journalism handbook for volunteers. As Graber wrote on his blog: “For people worried about the state of U.S. journalism, now is the perfect opportunity to consider and experiment with new forms of non-profit, community-based journalism, on the time-tested medium of radio.”

While some community radio stations may wish to take on the mantle of news provider, it would be wrong to expect their programming to be similar to that of traditional news outlets, Graber told me over email. “Some news and information programs will follow existing formats for delivering news and information over the radio, including Pacifica and Free Speech News. Other programs will thoroughly innovate their news and information programs,” he wrote.

As malleable as the programming is, it’s likely the ubiquitous nature of radio will also help low-power stations grow and find an audience. As Smith points out, radio is largely free (okay, yes, once you buy the radio) and accessible everywhere, at home, at work, or in the car. Although streaming radio complements that and increases the potential to reach broader audiences, the focus, as always, remains local.

“We think it’s important to maintain the localism of this medium in any way that is relevant to their community,” Smith said. “It’s part of the public commons and should be serving the public good,” he said.

Image by William Li used under a Creative Commons license

January 21 2011

05:54

“There’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term”: The Bay Citizen’s editor on its $15 million future


Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen has hired a staff of 26, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. Yesterday, the San Francisco-based nonprofit announced that it’s so far raised a total of $15 million in philanthropic gifts.

I interviewed editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber in The Bay Citizen’s downtown San Francisco office, and later by e-mail and over the phone, to find out what he’s learned from the site’s first half-year of operation — editorially and financially. This is the second post in a two-part series.

The double-edged sword of a New York Times partnership

One question I brought to the interview was why, given a blank slate, generous funding, and the resources of a tech capital, The Bay Citizen had created a largely conventional news website. The Bay Citizen produces two pages of content twice a week for the local edition of The New York Times — and it turns out that partnering with a leading print paper can be a double-edged sword for an online news startup.

“The partnership, I think, has tended to push us in a little bit more traditional direction than we might have gone otherwise,” Weber told me. “There’s definitely an issue of orientation. If you’re thinking about something as a New York Times story, you think about it differently than if it’s just going to run on baycitizen.org. I think it’s made the coverage feel a little bit more traditional in its approach.” Were it not for the partnership, quite possibly, “we would be further along in developing the kind of voice and style of our own kind of journalism.”

The pull of producing New York Times journalism has also meant, to an extent, less focus on innovation. While the site has a great tech team, Weber noted, they have yet to take advantage of potential tech and design collaborations in the Bay Area — including nearby companies like Twitter, Fwix, and Stamen Design, which won a Knight News Challenge grant to create an open-source data visualization tool.

Not that Weber’s complaining. “The flip side of it: The Times relationship has given us tremendous credibility and clout out of the gate, which we never would have had otherwise, and it also gives us a lot of distribution: 65,000 papers twice as week, plus the traffic from www.nytimes.com. That’s a non-trivial thing, and it’s very clearly a worthwhile trade-off for us, even though it does make life more complicated.”

That NYT credibility was also, Weber noted, a factor in The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise money — again, that extra $10 million — in philanthropic gifts. (The business experience of CEO Lisa Frazier, a former management consultant at McKinsey, clearly didn’t hurt, either.)

Doubling down on data journalism

The Bay Citizen has a 26-person-staff, 18 of them (including Weber) editorial employees. It also has a four-person tech team, including CTO Brian Kelly. One of his major areas of focus moving forward, Weber said, is data journalism, with data apps both large and small — including those that build off San Francisco’s DataSF.org. The Bay Citizen currently has two job postings related to data journalism: Software Engineer for News Applications and Data Researcher for Interactive News. The outlet has an iPhone app in the works and an iPad app on the way later this year.

Another big push will be to build community on multiple fronts, Weber noted. Right now, when readers send a tip/suggest a story, they get a generic message notifying them that their tip has been passed on. Ideally, he said, these tips will be the start of a back-and-forth conversation.

Weber also wants to follow the lead of TBD in building a strong dialogue with readers over Twitter and crowdsourcing breaking news. The Bay Citizen’s community efforts will, true to its name, include recruiting more citizen bloggers — and providing better prompts to help them frame their contributions. The outlet also has plans for a dozen events in which community editor Queena Kim will bring volunteers together to do multimedia explorations of particular topics. (One of the first experiments in this collaborative citizen journalism was A Night at the Opera, in which Kim convened a group of volunteer reporters and a photographer to do minute-by-minute backstage coverage of a performance of Aida.)

What not to do: “engage” before you have a community

When I asked Weber to look back over the first months of The Bay Citizen’s operation and say what he would do differently, he had an immediate answer: It had been a waste, he said, to put too much initial energy into community engagement. “You have to build audience first before you can really understand how to engage that community,” he noted. The Bay Citizen’s staff, right out of the gate, offered a discussion forum — but “it wasn’t very robust.”

And that was largely because the site hadn’t yet convened a community of people to do the discussing. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about comments, and how to manage comments and encourage comments and whether to feed Facebook comments into the site,” he said. But “those are things that are really related to the scale and reach of the product, and you can’t really do much until you’ve really got that community.”

A new rhythm for news

Unlike most large online news sites, The Bay Citizen is only partially tethered to a print publication, which gives it more potential flexibility in how it approaches public-interest reporting. Had Weber considered ditching the daily news cycle and charting a different kind of journalistic course?

In a word: no. “You basically have to be daily,” he said. “Other rhythms just don’t really work very well online,” largely because “people are looking for news from a news site.” In terms of using The Bay Citizen’s site to provide backgrounders on certain topics — an idea that comes from the discussion about future-of-context journalism — Weber was skeptical about how much context users would want on a news site.

“We do have topic pages,” he said. “We haven’t done a very good job of highlighting and calling out those pages, and depending on the circumstances, we can put more or less effort into customizing those pages.”

Then again: “We’re not Wikipedia. You don’t really go [to a topic page] for a backgrounder, you go there for a story.”

Wide-angle thinking

“Our goal is not to replace the Chronicle,” Weber noted. “I think it’s healthy for communities of all sizes to have multiple, large-scale journalistic enterprises (which actually was the norm until fairly recently).” The CEO of REI once told him that their biggest competitor wasn’t another sporting goods company, but the video game companies, and Weber thinks about local journalism the same way. “The question is not whether we’re going to compete well or not well with the Chronicle, the challenge is: are we going to be able to engage people in news as opposed to all the other things — playing FarmVille or reading TMZ or making stupid videos for YouTube.”

“Despite what people might assume, a lot of people do not have an intrinsic interest in local news,” he said. “It takes time. Media is a very habit-driven thing. People do today what they did yesterday. People have been predicting the death of newspapers for 20 years — and while, certainly, newspapers have a lot of problems, they’re not dead yet, and they’re not going to be dead in the near future. And the reason for that is people have been reading newspapers every day for 20 years — and they like that, and they don’t want to read the news on the Internet just because it’s more efficient.”

As far as news outlets go, “there’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term,” Weber noted. Just as there’s a lot of pressure to experiment — which can be hugely beneficial, but detrimental if it’s done chaotically. “‘Let’s try it and see if it works’ — anything you try on the first day is not really going to work,” he said. You have to get to know your community just as they have to get to know you. And, most importantly, “you need to have a long-term view.”

January 19 2011

18:30

“Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money”: The Bay Citizen editor on funding quality news

Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen, the San Francisco-based nonprofit news site, has so far raised a total of $14.5 million in philanthropic gifts, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage with a 26-person-staff, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. It’s on track to spend $4 million during its first year.

I interviewed editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber in The Bay Citizen’s downtown San Francisco office, and later by e-mail and over the phone, to find out what he’s learned from the site’s first half-year of operation — editorially and financially. This is the first in a two-part series.

“There is nothing especially virtuous about being broke”

In a world where many local nonprofit startups are shoestring operations run by refugees from downsized or shuttered metro papers, The Bay Citizen’s relatively large budget continues to attract scrutiny — and some hostility. (As a quick comparison, the national investigative nonprofit ProPublica spent approximately $9.3 million last year, and the local civic news outlet Voice of San Diego spent approximately $1 million.)

“I’m honestly mystified as to why so many journalist-commentators seem to think that spending real money on journalism is a bad thing,” Weber told me. “I’ve been there, and there is nothing especially virtuous about being broke.” Moreover, he said, “I would challenge anyone to take a hard look at what we do — and I mean really dive in in a serious way over a period of time — and tell me that we are wasting money.”

F. Warren Hellman, the San Francisco investor who provided $5 million in seed money for The Bay Citizen, initially described it as a journalistic mainstay during the “inevitable” demise of local newspapers, and said it “might put journalism, broadly defined, on a much more stable foundation.”

Since then, the outlet has emerged as a general interest site for the entire Bay Area: It provides lists of weekend events, covers breaking news, and has even commissioned local author and artist Dave Eggers to produce a series of whimsical sketches of a World Series game. Instead of focusing, as most sites do, on a smaller geographical area, or a content vertical (like the Gawker Media blogs, or NPR’s local, topic-based Argo blogs, which launched this fall), The Bay Citizen is assuming the entire portfolio of a print paper.

“Others might disagree, but I have never seen any critique related to what we actually do journalistically,” Weber said. “It’s sort of this abstract, ‘Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money’ — and that kind of criticism makes no sense to me.”

The latest debate over The Bay Citizen’s finances came late last month, after an item in the Chronicle detailing (and mocking) The Bay Citizen’s solicitation of $50 memberships implied that the outlet had spent all its $5 million in seed money — rather than the $4 million it had actually spent. (The Chron item also didn’t mention the additional $9.5 million the organization had raised.) Other journalists involved in smaller nonprofit and local news ventures tweeted their skepticism, including Howard Owens, publisher of the online-only Batavian in western New York, who wrote, “My question is, why do they need more than $1mill operational cost per year in SF?”

Weber responded that for a staff of 26, a $4 million budget was reasonable. (Steve Katz, publisher of the San Francisco-based nonprofit magazine Mother Jones, backed up that math.) But The Bay Citizen is also finding ways to amplify the work of its staff. Perhaps its most innovative step so far has been to position itself as a partner and umbrella site for the Bay Area’s many hyperlocal blogs.

“A different philosophical view about partnership”

The content on The Bay Citizen’s website is the product of a “range of different relationships,” Weber notes. On the front page, for instance, there are articles by staff reporters and paid freelancers. There is also content from the outlet’s community blog partners, who typically get paid $25 for every article The Bay Citizen re-posts from their sites. (The re-postings also appear on pages that are branded with the blog partners’ names and three additional links to articles on their homepages.) Weber has said repeatedly that he wants The Bay Citizen to be “a connector and a hub for an emerging ecosystem” of local blogs.

The site also features a Citizen Blog, which is open to pretty much anyone who wants to blog on local topics. (The Chron features a similar mix of content on its homepage, including citizen blog posts and stories from local partner sites, together with national wire stories, a “Daily Dish” of entertainment news, sports coverage, photo slideshows, and, of course, lots of advertising.) The Bay Citizen’s homepage features a single ad, as well as a jar of change with the slogan “$1 a week helps. Save Independent Reporting.”

The Bay Citizen’s local blog partnerships also include joint reporting projects between staffers and outside bloggers. The finished articles run both on the Bay Citizen and the local blog. They’re partnerships, Weber said, that can bring together the inside-baseball knowledge of local bloggers with the bigger-picture political perspective of staff reporters. “We have a different philosophical view about partnership and the role of non-staff people of various descriptions, and what role they play in the bigger project,” he notes. “I think traditionally mainstream media organizations have always had a religious view that ‘all news comes from here’ and ‘we don’t really publish other people’s news,’ and we definitely don’t.”

The Bay Citizen has also found “a sweet spot in mid-range enterprise news,” Weber said, as in its story about a payment scandal in the San Francisco Unified School District. These aren’t three-month, “capital I-investigative reporting” projects, as Weber put it, but quicker stories that might need only a single records request to pull together. (The Center for Investigative Reporting and its offshoot California Watch, which specialize in long-term investigative reporting projects, are right across the Bay in Berkeley.)

The value of business experience

While the idea for The Bay Citizen was conceived at a time when the San Francisco Chronicle was hemorrhaging millions and seemed close to shutting down, the outlet is now competing with a more stable Chronicle (whose print circulation, at last reporting, was 223,549 on weekdays) as well as a slew of other Bay Area news outlets, large and small. It’s doing so with the ambitious plan of leveraging its first few years of philanthropic funding into the kind of popular support that makes public broadcasting-style membership drives viable.

For all that, Weber said, employing a large staff — with business-side as well as journalistic expertise — makes sense. “The rationale on staff size is pretty simple,” he notes. “If you’re going to bite off something big and ambitious like doing daily and enterprise news and multimedia on a wide range of subjects for a large region, and producing 2 pages twice a week for The New York Times, you need the people to do it. ‘Big’ is a relative term. We have a big staff compared with New West or many other local start-ups, but we’re very small compared with any metro newspaper, and also smaller than ProPublica and CIR, as comparisons.”

While the $400,000 salary of Lisa Frazier, The Bay Citizen’s CEO, has generated particular criticism ever since it was announced last year, Weber has repeatedly said that “journalists tend to undervalue business experience.” And he told me that The Bay Citizen’s four-part revenue plan — which starts with large gifts and grants, and then aims to ramp up membership revenue over several years, bringing in additional money through syndication and underwriting — is complicated enough to need a sophisticated business manager. He also noted that The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise so much money in large gifts is indicative of the fact that major donors feel more comfortable giving to organizations with experienced businesspeople at the helm.

How does Weber expect it all to pay off? “By creating a great news operation that produces and supports important and interesting journalism and attracts a wide audience, which in turn will create financial support.”

January 13 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of 2011 news metrics to watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 10 2011

19:00

How Peter Maass’ groudbreaking story on Saddam’s statue found a lifeboat in nonprofit funding

Magazine awards season approaches, and one of the stories likely to be gracing nominee lists is one that ran in last week’s New Yorker: an epic analysis — equal parts war report, personal narrative, historical correctionism, literary journalism, and media criticism — detailing how, ultimately, the press distorted the iconic toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, in the spring of 2003.

It’s a fascinating piece of backstory journalism. And one, it turns out, with its own rather fascinating backstory: “The Toppling” was financed largely by nonprofit sources. Without them, in fact, it might not have been written in the first place.

If you’re a freelancer, or a magazine writer, or both, you may find it either reassuring or horrifying to learn that even a story as exceptional as “The Toppling” went through several rounds of rejection before it found a home. “Not every magazine piece is right for every publication,” Maass, himself a freelancer, notes, and when the story was only an idea — albeit one based on the fact that Maass had actually been present to witness the real-life events that framed the iconic images — “it was hard to get somebody to sign on the dotted line to commission it.”

So Maass turned to a place that tends to be relatively comfortable with uncertainty: academia. He applied for — and received — a Shorenstein fellowship to work on the piece, spending Harvard’s 2010 spring semester researching the events that informed the images of Firdos Square and finding, as it were, the “there” there. (We got to know Peter then, since his wife Alissa Quart was a Nieman Fellow at the time.)

And yet, even after the research was completed — gird yourselves, mag writers — the pitch was rejected again. “It’s a big story — it’s a long, complicated story,” Maass told me. “And so it’s a big investment of space and time for a publication.”

So Maass turned to ProPublica, an outlet known for its willingness to invest, financially and otherwise, in time-consuming, resource-intensive investigations. The nonprofit provided additional funding money (though both the outlet and the author are mum on the specific amount, it was “significantly less” than the $30,000 Shorenstein stipend, Maass told me, but “not insignificant”). ProPublica also provided editorial guidance as Maass completed the piece’s complex narrative.

From there, ProPublica, which aims to maximize its stories’ impact by collaborating on them with other outlets, reached out to The New Yorker about a partnership…and the magazine got an excellent story, and that excellent story got another home.

“The Toppling” came about through a funding model that in some ways mimics the funding goals of journalism outfits more broadly: diversifying — which is to say, hedging — by way of multiple financial streams. The article’s initial reporting — Maass’s 2003 Baghdad trip, during which he witnessed the statue-felling that would provide the kernel of the story — was paid for by a for-profit magazine (Time); its research and editing were funded by nonprofits (Shorenstein and ProPublica); and its publication was paid for by The New Yorker. (Though Mike Webb, ProPublica’s director of communications, declined to get into details, he told me of the arrangement: “We paid Peter to do the story. Then when it was finished, The New Yorker paid a portion of Peter’s fee back to us.”)

It’s a model of financial cross-pollination that not only throws a potential lifeline to the (in)famously endangered species that is the long-form investigation, but one that also, Maass notes, offers a certain kind of freedom to authors themselves. One of the more liberatory aspects of working with several institutions to produce “The Toppling,” he says, is that the collaboration gave him even more freedom than usual to re-publish — and append and expand and otherwise contextualize — his own work with photos, maps, and other pieces of background information. “I’ve got the usual, inevitable author’s website,” he notes, and “what’s been nice is that I’m able to use material from The New Yorker and material from ProPublica and then throw my own material in there. And I don’t have to ask anybody.”

Financial freedom, though, is a different matter. Magazines, Maass says, are “kind of venture capitalists of the word”: In journalism, constrained as it is by the various inconveniences of reality, stories are always uncertain undertakings. And the risk involved in that uncertainty is only amplified for magazines, which tend to deal with journalism at the highest levels of scale and cost. In the past, Maass notes, publications underwrote that risk — the time wasted, the kill fees paid — as a necessary inefficiency: If you’re going to pan for gold, you have to be willing to sift through sand.

Now, though, magazines’ financial woes often manifest themselves in their generally reduced appetite for risk — the precise kind that willingly traded inefficiency for serendipity. In today’s context, Maass notes, “it’s much more difficult for almost all of them to take chances.” Which means that it’s much more difficult for writers to take chances, as well. “The Toppling” represents, in all, “probably a year’s worth of work,” Maass says; given the Shorenstein stipend, that works out to about a $30,000 yearly salary (plus the “significantly less” but “not insignificant” ProPublica money). “If you’re 25 or 30 years old, then it’s okay to get that kind of money for a year’s work,” Maass says. “But I’m not.”

It’s to the good, then, that freelancer investigative reporters have, in nonprofits, an alternative means of funding work: little lifeboats to help them stay afloat in the choppy seas of financial adversity and risk aversion. “The Toppling,” though, represents an exception rather than a rule. Ideally, Maass says, “it would be nice if one could assemble enough financing for a story like this and be able to support a family. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But at least we’re somewhere.”

November 19 2010

16:00

The Washington Independent is folding, the CEO goes over the books and outlines the lessons he’s learned

On Wednesday, the nonprofit news and politics site The Washington Independent announced that, after just under three years of publishing, it’s closing shop. Its state-based sister site The New Mexico Independent said it would reduce its staff to just one part-time blogger.

News organizations open and close all the time, but this one hit home for me. I joined The Washington Independent in late 2007 as its managing editor and went on to be its top editor before joining the Lab. Several of my former colleagues have already lamented the loss of a valuable news organization; I could do the same, but in the spirit of the Lab, I’d like instead to look at what went wrong financially and what lessons could be learned by other nonprofit publishers from its experiences.

To get a sense of what happened, I spoke with my old boss, David Bennahum, the CEO of the American Independent News Network, which publishes the Washington and New Mexico sites plus a network of six other sites. Back in January, Bennahum told me that in the first five years the organization existed, he’d raised $11.5 million. With that kind of impressive fundraising, what went wrong? And what kind of outlook do other nonprofit news sites have? Here are three contributing factors to the closing:

The economic crisis

Nonprofit organizations are no less susceptible to the pain of an economic downturn. In the past two years, foundations and other donors regularly cited shirnking endowments as a reason for not renewing gifts or initiating new giving. That forced the network to spend less and still dip into reserves to cover costs. “It’s actually quite difficult to get these [nonprofit news sites] funded and get them to run,” he said, no matter the editorial success of the site. “It just never gets easier.”

In an email Bennahum sent to his staff, which he forwarded to me and is published in full at the end of this post, he broke down the numbers like this:

  • In 2006, 2007, and 2008 we raised $8.3 million and spent $6.5 million.
  • We ended 2008 with a surplus of $1.6 million.
  • In 2009 we raised $2.7 million and spent $3.1 million, eating into our reserves by $400,000.
  • In 2010 we will raise $1.9 million and spend $2.7 million; we expect this to leave us around $400,000 in reserves.

Going forward, each site in the network will need to generate enough fundraising to support its operations — successful fundraising for one site will no longer support other nodes in the network. The Washington and New Mexico sites were the two not pulling in enough to cover their costs independently. They also both launched in 2008 with a similar structural problem. In Washington’s case, a single $600,000 donation largely got the project off the ground. New Mexico launched with the backing of a small pool of donors. Those early donors didn’t renew another year.

Not enough multi-year commitments

Bennahum says in hindsight, he should not have launched without multi-year commitments from big donors, even if it meant starting off smaller. For example, had he negotiated the $600,000 donation as three $200,000 grants over three years, The Washington Independent would have been smaller, but more stable. “We would have been half the size — which means today, instead of this position, I might have had several hundred thousand more dollars left,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t be closing The Washington Independent.”

The Washington Independent launched with two full-time editors, about ten reporters (a mix of full and part time) and a substantial freelance budget. By the closing announcement, the staff was down to one editor and four reporters. “You have to have your own diet. If someone puts out a big buffet in front of you, you have to think twice,” he said. “That’s a lesson I’ve learned that we’ll just never repeat again.”

Not growing gradually

Bennahum says the next year will focus on what he described as “a more diversified mix of journalism projects that work in recessionary times.” Earlier this year he launched a site called The American Independent that aggregates stories from around the network and runs original content from states without standalone sites. The idea is to produce new content without the commitment of launching a new state-based site. Currently, reporters file stories from North Carolina and Texas. The funding for those reporters ends in January 2011, which they understood when hired on contract. The site, though, will continue to operate.

“The incremental cost to adding reporters [to The American Independent] is potentially a much lower price than you could operate a newsroom,” he said. “It creates a much more organic and gentle growth path.”

The network will continue operating sites with small staffs of one to three reporters in Iowa, Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota. The Florida Independent received a grant from the Knight Foundation this year for $175,000 (the network’s largest donation) and will continue to operate with a staff of five.

Bennahum says he wants to experiment more with syndicating content across his sites to see if even a site with one reporter can serve a community. “It’s just a great thought experiment,” he said.

So what does The Washington Independent’s demise say about the growing nonprofit sector of journalism? Bennahum said that, for now at least, journalism still isn’t in the same category as the sort of nonprofit entities that get long-term foundation support, like hospitals or schools. Philanthropists are still watching where the news industry is headed.

“‘Let the market sort it out,’ is a lucid response, and not necessarily wrong,” he said. “For the foreseeable future, success [in nonprofit journalism] is going to be the exception to the rule.”

David Bennahum’s staff email:

Dear Team Members:

In four years, we have built an extraordinary news organization. We can proudly track 600,000 monthly readers, and cite dozens of stories that have had a demonstrable impact in the communities we serve. Along the way, we’ve also received over 40 awards for excellence in journalism. We have pioneered a model that melds the benefits of the Internet (speed, voice, dialogue) with the discipline of serious investigative journalism.

I am proud of all we have accomplished together.

It is all the more remarkable for how we’ve done this in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.

So I want to be transparent with you in regards to our financial position, as it will have consequences for 2011. Here’s the arithmetic:

  • In 2006, 2007, and 2008 we raised $8.3 million and spent $6.5 million.
  • We ended 2008 with a surplus of $1.6 million.
  • In 2009 we raised $2.7 million and spent $3.1 million, eating into our reserves by $400,000.
  • In 2010 we will raise $1.9 million and spend $2.7 million; we expect this to leave us around $400,000 in reserves.

Thus we have, for two years, been self-financing from reserves accrued during better economic times. I am grateful for these reserves, and that we could use them judiciously over 24 months. However, it is no longer possible to self-finance the gap between income and expenditures, for the simple reason that our cash reserves are too limited to do so.

Much of the shortfall in our income has to do with the larger economic climate. But not all. Here are some other factors that I, frankly, underestimated: We agreed, in the past, to open programs without multi-year commitments from supporters. In some cases, these supporters have not renewed their commitments, yet we have kept operating the programs at close to scale. In particular, this is the case both for The New Mexico Independent and The Washington Independent.

We are approaching our fifth year of operations; some of our founding supporters have, understandably, felt that the time has arrived to shift their support elsewhere. This is a relatively predictable pattern in philanthropy: 3-5 years of support from any given source is a safe assumption. Replacing this support with new support requires a 9-18 month development cycle. In this economic climate, it is closer to 18 months. The net result is that we see, in addition to a shortfall, our most conservative estimates actually coming true. For instance, in the summer of 2009 we did a worst case scenario for 2010, with regards to income, and projected $1.9 million in revenues. This is precisely what happened.

So going forward, we must adopt a new set of rules, to ensure our overall viability through an economic crisis that persists, and may persist for several more years:

Institute “pay go” budgets: programs must be supported. When they are not, they have to be either closed or operated at the level being supported. In the case of new programs, require multi-year commitments as a precondition for operations. This is what we have successfully done in Florida, where the program has two year commitments.

Be more innovative in terms of leveraging the “network effect” to help smaller programs operate with limited budgets. We pioneered this in Minnesota, where we’ve learned to operate a robust site with one full time reporter. The site is successful thanks, in part, to the way we can syndicate content throughout the network from our sister sites.

Using this framework, there are two programs that, unfortunately, are no longer sustainable at their current levels: The New Mexico Independent and The Washington Independent.

In the case of New Mexico, we are going to institute the Minnesota model, with the aim of working to rebuild support over time. In the case of The Washington Independent, we are going to merge the site with The American Independent, and now have one national place (instead of two) for all our reporting. Over time, we aim to build up our reporting capacity in Washington as support develops.

And going forward, we will be looking to a different architecture with regards to how we create new sites: more of our programs will live as “state pages” on AmericanIndependent.com rather than as stand alone websites. This will provide us with more flexibility and leave us less vulnerable to sudden changes in support levels.

More details in terms of how these changes will affect you will be forthcoming shortly from the editorial team.

I know that this news is hard, and the decisions that led to this did not come easily. We have learned to work with less, and done so admirably, but I am taking the prudent course that will ensure our network and its mission can thrive. And if things improve faster than anticipated, I look forward to having that good problem on our hands.

Please know that you can come to me with any questions about this situation.

Thank you.

Best,
David

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.

October 26 2010

17:00

Google donates $5 million for news innovation to Knight Foundation and new international efforts

Google and news organizations have had a rocky time of it. To overdramatize the situation only slightly: Google insists that it cares about journalism as a necessity of our shared democracy; news organizations resent it as a (perceived) key cause of the financial strife that keeps them from fully defending that democracy. Today, though, brings an olive branch — a multi-million-dollar olive branch: Google is announcing that it will donate $5 million to encourage innovation in digital journalism. The grant will come in two parts: $2 million of it will go to the Knight Foundation, the journalism mega-funder — and $3 million will go to fund international news-innovation efforts, via a partnership with an as-yet-unannounced organization.

A peace offering for innovation

“Google has been pretty clear about the fact that we want to do our part to help fulfill the promise of journalism in the digital age,” says Chris Gaither, Google’s senior manager for news industry relations. And while, on the one hand, today’s grant is part of Google’s larger work in philanthropy — as policy, the company commits one percent of its profits and equity toward charitable efforts — it’s also a way for the organization to put some money where its mouth is when it comes to its relations with journalism. “In addition to all the business partnerships and business relationships that we have with news companies,” Gaither told me, “we also wanted to try to encourage innovation at a more grassroots level.”

The $2 million to Knight will be loosely divided: $1 million or so will go toward augmenting the Knight News Challenge, the foundation’s innovation contest, which will divvy up $6 million in grants this cycle instead of the usual $5 million. In its five years of operation, Gaither notes, the News Challenge has supported projects like DocumentCloud and Spot.us — projects that innovate not just the products of journalism, but the process of it — “and we thought it was a really interesting initiative to try to support.” The other $1 million or so will go toward Knight’s broad fund for grant-making, to encourage general innovation in digital journalism. And while Google and Knight, in the conversations leading up to today’s announcement, have discussed their shared goals and interests in the news-innovation space — business models to aid sustainability, new platforms for news, and digital skills training, in particular — ultimately, it’s Knight that will be making the decisions as to who gets funding.

“It’s really quite a wonderful — not just a wonderful endorsement, but a wonderful encouragement,” says Alberto Ibargüen, Knight’s president. “Because they’re not saying, ‘We want you to do X, Y, and Z projects.’ They’re saying, ‘We want you to continue the kind of work you’ve been doing — except do more of it.’”

While the $2 million for Knight will expand the funding of its existing efforts, the details of how the $3 million for international journalism innovation will be spent are still being worked out. Google expects to announce the details of that collaboration early next year. “We’re really eager to do even more internationally than what the Knight News Challenge provides for, so we’re going to be investing the remaining $3 million in journalism projects in other countries,” Gaither says.

The value of collaboration

So, for Google, why go the funding-partnership route, rather than simply funding nonprofits directly — or, for that matter, starting its own News Challenge-y contest? “We really see ourselves as a platform for discovery,” Gaither says, “and it’s important to us that we remain independent. [Google CEO] Eric Schmidt and other executives have made pretty clear over the years that we are not content creators.” Instead, “we have a symbiotic relationship with content creators, where we really help with discovery and monetization and other things,” he notes. Ultimately, “we do our thing, they do their thing.”

And, for that end, Knight was a good match — which is why Google made the overture to the foundation in the first place. “In this particular space, Knight is an expert,” Gaither said. “Knight has already been funding and trying to promote innovation in digital journalism for a while now — so they seemed like a perfect partner to pair up with for this one.” There’s also the fact that the newly articulated focus areas of the News Challenge — mobile, sustainability, authenticity (trust and reputation), and community — match nicely with Google’s broad goals when it comes to information. “We think that organizations of all shapes and sizes can really benefit from the grants that we’ll be providing,” Gaither says. And then there’s the organizations’ shared emphasis on scalability, impact, and open-sourcing. (Knight requires that its News Challenge winners open-source their code and generally make their platforms open and available to the public.) “We really try to encourage people to release things as widely as possible when it’s appropriate for their business,” Gaither notes. “And in this case, we think that’s a cool requirement that Knight has — and it’s something that we wanted to support, as well.”

For Ibargüen, the grant — in addition to providing extra funding, of course — is a validation of one of Knight’s core approaches to grant-making and to, even more broadly, the future of news itself: teamwork. “One of the reasons I’m so pleased by this is that so much of what we’re doing really requires collaboration,” Ibargüen notes. “To have a company like Google volunteer collaboration is not merely gratifying; it also really confirms the way to work.” The news space, he says, “is an area where collaboration really pays dividends. And I’m glad that the folks at Google agree.”

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

October 25 2010

09:35

Net2 Think Tank Round-up: Creating Awesome Video

For this month's Net2 Think Tank we asked you to share your tools and tactics for creating effective video messages - regardless of budget and organization size. Affordable video capability and basic editing software are now widely available and easy to use. But, how can organizations and enterprises best use video to inspire change? Below is a list of tips and suggestions on making decisions to do with hardware and software, message and editing, video quality, and promotion ideas. 

read more

October 19 2010

16:00

Can we make journalism a tax-exempt purpose? Expanding the meaning of nonprofit journalism

[Nikki Usher has been looking into the options for news organizations under current nonprofit laws. With coauthor Michelle D. Layser, she’ll have a paper on the subject appearing in an upcoming number of the Utah Law Review. Here at the Lab, Nikki will be exploring their findings in a series of posts detailing the alternative models newspapers might consider. —Josh]

Around the country, nonprofit journalism outlets are proliferating in both citizen journalism forms and more professional renditions, like ProPublica and MinnPost. But is there room within the legal code to make journalism itself a tax-exempt purpose, rather than making them shoehorn into being an “educational” institution or some other approved category for nonprofits? The answer is maybe — and the possibilities would leave new room for journalism to actually legally define itself as a field that constitutes both legacy media and more non-traditional forms of journalism.

By adding journalism into Section 501(c) — as a tax-exempt category exempt under nonprofit law, we could protect all nonprofit organizations organized and operated to advance journalism from federal taxes. Senator Ben Cardin’s bill to establish nonprofit newspapers was dead on arrival in the Senate and House. With the struggling Baltimore Sun in mind, his goal was to make newspapers 501(c)3s and have them operate under the section’s clause of “educational” institutions.

But why limit journalism to just the category of “educational” institutions? To be clear, the 501c(3) statute from the IRS code reads:

Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition…or for the prevention of cruelty to animals or children.

The clause that bothers so many journalists is this one:

…no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation…and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.

This would mean that journalists would not be able to endorse political candidates — although there is considerable debate in the legal community about whether the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United might provide more room for nonprofit newsrooms to endorse.

So why include journalism as a separate clause under the nonprofit 501(c)3 category? First, it establishes a special place for journalism within our tax code. It doesn’t limit journalism to traditional newspapers, and it establishes journalism apart from just being about educational purposes. Not all of what journalism purports to do is strictly educational. What about the non-serious news, or sports columns, or comics and crosswords — or even the comments sections, opinion blogs, and social media efforts of newsrooms. These activities might be stretching the term of educational.

But if we gave journalism a special place we would be protecting all journalism in its myriad forms organized as nonprofits from federal taxes. Though many newspapers aren’t paying a lot of taxes these days because they are losing so much money, nonprofit status could help. Consider the implications for profitable news enterprises — for CNN, or dare say we Fox. These organizations could become nonprofits and take advantage of federal tax breaks to reinvest in journalism. Idealistic, but it could happen. Okay — maybe not.

Further, we would also be making it easier for journalists who are not big media to avoid federal taxes. The lives of small startups and innovative forms of journalism organizations would be free from going through any kind of onerous process of proving themselves as tax-exempt through other categories. This might provide a further boost to experimentation with new forms of journalism.

The tax code could also be amended to start fresh — to make journalism its own specific form of tax-exempt nonprofit: in this case 501(c)29. This would start the idea of a journalism nonprofit fresh, free from the restrictions of past 501(c)3 rulings about endorsements, awaiting new IRS rulings and case law.

However, the rules currently governing foundations mean that a 501(c)29 that endorses candidates would be unable to receive foundation money. An exception could, technically, be carved out of these foundation rules, but that would be pretty messy and likely rejected politically. So this doesn’t get us out of the endorsement problem that so frustrates journalists.

So what are the problems? Like anything with the IRS, we’d be giving the IRS the power to define what counts as journalism. That’s a pretty scary thought, particularly in a time of evolving journalism forms. But it might be better than the alternative: continuing to force journalism into a pre-existing model of an “educational” category that may not be right to accompany the myriad forms of journalism.

Bringing journalism into the tax code would require journalists to do something they aren’t good at: lobbying for their own position. But that, of course, strikes at the heart of our changing profession. But forcing ourselves to have the discipline to define what journalism is and might be is one way to protect journalism for the future.

Photo by Jacob Kearns used under a Creative Commons license. For the record, this post represents only Nikki Usher’s views, not those of her coauthor.

13:30

The scalability of collaboration: ProPublica partners with five (five!) other outlets for its latest story

Today brings the launch of a blockbuster story: A group of investigative journalists, looking into the financial practices of pharmaceutical companies, found that many doctors — some of whom earn six-figure returns for promoting particular drug brands to their patients — often have no research experience related to the medications they promote. And, often, they push “off-label” uses of the drugs, uses those not approved by U.S. regulators, in exchange for the compensation.

It’s a big, important piece — the kind of anger-inducing, broadly affective narrative that is the bread and butter of investigative journalism. The story told in “Dollars for Docs” — the trusted medical professional, shilling for Big Pharma — is, quite literally, outrageous.

For the project, ProPublica collaborated with other news organizations for purposes of reporting, data collection, and application-building. Which is standard practice for the open-minded news outfit. What isn’t standard, though, is the sheer scale of the collaboration itself: “Dollars for Docs” represents the collective work of six — yes, six — different news organizations: NPR, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, Consumer Reports, PBS’s Nightly Business Report, and ProPublica itself. (So if the whole “exposing affronts to the public interest” thing doesn’t work out for them, the project’s participants can always just form a volleyball team.) Each partner is running its own version of the story based on common data the group has gathered from pharmaceutical companies and elsewhere; some are using ProPublica’s lead piece (written by ProPublica reporters — and 2010 Pulitzer finalists — Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber) in their distribution strategy, while others are focusing on their customized treatments of the data. And all have access — as the rest of us do — to a widget that allows users to search the database the news collective has amassed to determine whether particular doctors have taken pharma funding.

“We haven’t done one like this before,” Tom Detzel, the ProPublica editor who oversaw the endeavor, says of the undertaking. “We haven’t had more partners than this in any collaboration.”

Which raises the question: How? How do you coordinate among all those partners — who are, after all, not only individual reporters, but also representatives of different mediums and outlets, each with its own way of doing things — to create a collaboration that’s productive and immune to the familiar vagaries of design-by-committee? One approach, Detzel says — and perhaps it’s really the approach — is to give everyone involved plenty of freedom to do their own work and adopt their own approaches. “We just decided we were going to loosen the reins and let everyone run free,” he says. In terms of organizational oversight itself, the model “was a hub-and-spoke kind of thing,” he notes; Detzel’s role at the hub, as he saw it, was a to be a facilitator and fosterer of communication. And “it wasn’t as difficult as it sounds,” he notes. “The partners all took initiative to do their own stories. We didn’t try to draw any lines in the sand: ‘Here’s what you can do, and can’t do.’ We just said, ‘Here’s the topic we want to work with, and here’s the data we have. Take it and run with it.’”

That freedom, though, has to be tempered with strategic communication — which, in this case, occurred naturally among the partners, Detzel says. “Once we got started, and the reporters started talking to each other, they were all sharing information tips, sources, ideas — and we all learned from each other during the process.” In fact, “it’s actually quite fun to see how everybody has a slightly different take on this.”

The partnerships themselves came about fairly organically; they started with Dan Nguyen, the ProPublica reporter tasked with developing the data side of the “Dollars and Docs” story, and some offline conversations he was having with fellow hackers. Nightly Business Reports, which had independently embarked on a similar line of investigation, contacted Nguyen about a possible collaboration; that opened the door to the pairing with the Tribune and the Globe: “We’d done some work with Tribune before,” Detzel says, “and we knew Boston would be interested because Charlie [Ornstein] had some contacts up there on the health team — and because it’s such a big medical center.” Then came NPR (“we’d been looking for a good opportunity to work with the health and science team — and they jumped on this one”), and, finally, Consumer Reports, which contacted ProPublica about sharing data for its health provider ratings site.

This could be the moment in the movie when word of the party that was supposed to be an intimate affair has spread to the point of absurdity; ProPublica could easily have become the hapless kid trying to save his mother’s antique vases from the frat guys and their kegs. And, indeed, the mega-teamup begs the question: How scalable is collaboration itself? When it comes to journalistic partnerships, of course, there are logical limits; though there are certainly gains — in exposure and impact, in particular — to be made from collaboration, partnership is a finite resource. And, for Detzel, making it work — throwing the party, making the friends, all while keeping Mom’s china intact — is a matter of good communication. “It takes a little more time to do things,” he notes, “and you’ve got to overcome some of those old habits that are ingrained in all of us” — the impulse, in particular, to beat the competition. Three more ways to scale: (1) Agree to an end goal for a project, but don’t be too hung up on how you’re going to get there; (2) Allow extra time into the process — “because it does take extra time to do the communication and coordination that’s required to pull something like this off”; and (3) “Trust the reporters to find the story, and they will.”

And that may be the biggest, if simplest, takeaway from the mega-teamup: In the end, collaborations are about individuals. (As David Fanning, executive producer of the documentary program Frontline, put it of his own collaboration efforts with Planet Money and the NewsHour: “Co-productions are never between institutions; they’re only really between the people who work together and trust each other.”) Strategic scaling is possible; it just requires that the individuals involved be coordinated in ways that maximize individuality for, yes, the good of the group. “It’s a new world out there,” Detzel says. “And when you’re sharing, you can actually end up with something that’s got a lot more texture and nuance — really, a much better product than you can make on your own.”

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