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August 29 2012

18:14

PBS NewsHour’s viewers are translating its videos into 52 languages (and counting)

Ever try watching Sesame Street in Turkish, or Hindi? Big Bird has made his way to 150 countries, and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

Now, PBS NewsHour is working to follow the bird and push some of its newsier content to global audiences. Partnering with the translation platform Amara, the show is crowdsourcing an effort to add subtitles to politics-themed videos, including moments from the U.S. presidential campaigns and short man-on-the-street interviews with American voters.

So, for example, now you can watch a video of President Barack Obama talking about a new immigration policy with subtitles in Vietnamese; or the Ukrainian version of Mitt Romney announcing Paul Ryan as his running mate. (Amara, formerly known as Universal Subtitles, is also involved in projects to crowdsource captioning for Netflix films and TED talks.) Since January, PBS NewsHour has built up a community of hundreds of dedicated volunteer translators across the world, and videos have been translated into 52 languages.

Because translations are done at the whim of volunteers, the outcome is unpredictable for any given video. As of this writing, for example, Ann Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention was available in English, French, and…Georgian, a language that has millions of speakers but isn’t usually the first that comes up among translation projects in the United States.

Generally, Obama gets more attention from translators than Romney. (It’s understandable that a sitting president would draw more attention than his as-yet-unelected rival.) Some languages are more popular than others. One volunteer in Indonesia is particularly active, which means that many videos have Indonesian subtitles.

“The most frequent languages besides English are Spanish, French, Indonesian, Chinese, and Korean,” Joshua Barajas, a production assistant at PBS NewsHour who handles communications with the volunteer translators, told me. Arabic and Turkish aren’t too far behind.

And what about quality control, a question that comes up in just about any crowdsourced project? It can be particularly difficult — if not downright impossible — to keep tabs on volunteers who are submitting work in a language you don’t understand.

“There has been one incident,” involving a captioner who inserted some foul language, Barajas said. “One troll. We quickly got rid of it. For the most part, it’s been pretty polite.”

And that’s because the volunteers who are involved are really, really involved. If they see something that’s not right — more often a technological bug or minor translation error than inappropriate conduct — they’re quick to notify the team at PBS, Barajas said.

Running parallel to these videos is a translation effort for a series called Listen to Me. PBS NewsHour has been collecting short interviews with people from around the country based on three questions: What’s the most important issue to you during this election? Are you hopeful about the future? Do you think the political system is broken? (For now, PBS affiliates have been shooting and submitting footage, but NewsHour plans to let people submit their own videos, too.)

There have been a few kinks to work out on the production side. A syncing issue with subtitles has since been resolved. Quite a few translations get started but not finished. (The video of Romney introducing Ryan lists 17 languages, but only six are complete; Bengali, Korean, Portuguese, Swahili, and Turkish are all less than 10 percent done.) And PBS NewsHour wants to build a more reliable language mix; they hope to partner with language classes at universities to achieve this.

But the biggest challenge is impact: how to measure it, yes, but mostly how to make a difference in the first place.

The core idea behind the translation project is that “everyone should have access to the political conversation regardless of the language they speak or their ability to hear,” Barajas said. But how do you let people know that these translations are available to them?

This is an issue that all newsrooms confront: What good is a great story — in any language — if you don’t have an audience ready to consume it? But most newsrooms aren’t trying to reach a divided global audience in dozens of languages.

“As of right now, we’re limited in gauging the translations’ reach,” Barajas said in a follow-up email. “We look at YouTube views and the growth of the Amara community for some insight, but these are limiting benchmarks of course.”

Still, NewsHour deserves credit for taking on a translation project of this scope. (Even a newspaper that simply directs its readers to Google Translate is going farther than most English language news outlets in the United States.) Ultimately, it appears what PBS NewsHour is really doing is community building.

“People are just excited because they feel like they want to be a part of something, and they feel like they’re contributing,” Barajas said. “They’re able to catch the nuances that otherwise would have been, well, lost in translation.”

March 15 2011

14:00

News portal, super aggregator, and mega-curator: PBS builds a new site from scratch with PBSNews.org

PBS finds itself with what could be the definition of a “good” problem. (Well, not that defunding problem, but another one.) Here’s the scenario: Under the PBS umbrella you’ll find news shows like PBS Newshour, Frontline, and Nightly Business Report, among others, all producing content that lives primarily on air and on individual websites. While video clips and stories are pulled into PBS.org, that site’s primary function is not to be a news source like, say, its cousin NPR.org.

With all that news and information swirling around PBS, though, it makes sense to have a sort of super aggregator, something to pull together the threads from various shows around news or topics. Think about it: What if on a broad story like the economic crisis, you could pull together a NewsHour interview with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on changes to borrowing policies for US banks along with a Frontline clip from “Breaking the Bank” on the merger of Bank of America and Merill Lynch? Of course what we’re talking about is not simply aggregation, but also curation — and actually, considering the hours of shows PBS has at its disposal, mega-curation.

Consider all of this and you’ll know where the team behind the PBS News Blog is coming from. It’s PBS’ effort to launch a new site that is both a news portal for readers and a new channel for PBS programming. The new site, which should launch soon, will be called PBSNews.org: The News Navigator.

When I spoke with Tom Davidson, PBS.org’s senior director and publisher for news and public affairs, he told me the new project will essentially start from scratch, partly because a central news division has never been part of PBS, but also because PBS wants to take advantage of the opportunity to build a smarter news site. “Historically PBS has tended to not create content itself — it was founded as a programming service” that would pool member stations’ financial resources “to allow other independent producers to make that content,” Davidson said.

Over the years, PBS has built out a universe of news and current events programming — and in recent years, that’s been matched by further investment in digital tools and websites starting with PBS.org, Davidson said. Again, they’ve created a good problem.

Instead of offering another site for breaking news, the News Navigator team wants to build a site that moves past daily headlines and offers more comprehensive coverage on news or topics — the kind that can come to bear when you have a satellite staff of journalists, producers, and documentarians working on pieces. That staff will rotate around a central hub, the News Navigator staff (which is growing as we speak), which will include producers, data specialists, writers, and editors.

So what could the News Navigator look like? Davidson said the mission will be to present “the knowledge that defines what’s going on on a story behind the headline.”

More specifically they want to meet the balance of context and timeliness in news by having something similar to topic pages that would provide news, raw data sets, timelines, video and other background from across PBS programs. These deep dives, as they call them, will include areas like Afghanistan, same sex marriage, health care, and Congress.

The point in all this context-focused curation isn’t to out-NYT the NYT, but rather to add value by finding new angles on big stories. “I will try lots of crazy things,” Davidson said. “But I’m not going to try and take on CNN.com, CBS.com or NYTimes.com. We lost that battle 15 years ago. Let’s not fight that battle now.”

PBS is also creating issue clashes — an adaptation of a familiar feature of many PBS news shows, the two-analyst, head-to-head debate, adapted for online. Think Shields and Brooks, only on the web — and with the audience empowered not only to vote on the winner, but also to add their own arguments.

Of course, there are hurdles in building out a new news site, particularly one that will need to pull news and videos from across a multitude of other sites, each of those operating off of different frameworks and content management systems. It’s not as easy as connecting tube A to slot B. Instead of trying to put all its programs under one system, PBS instead decided to build the equivalent of a massive card catalog, naming it Merlin. Merlin is essentially a database of PBS content tagged with metadata to allow sites, either from programs or member stations, to pull up material they would like to use. (Merlin was a contributing factor in PBS.org’s recent redesign and iPad offering.)

Jason Seiken, senior vice president of Interactive, Product Development and Innovation for PBS, told me that Merlin came from the need for something that could act as a publisher and distributor of content that would benefit both programs and stations. Once stories or videos are tagged, they can be pulled up on PBS.org, the News Navigator, or WGBH, as an example. “Merlin is in essence a distribution channel,” Seiken said. “It turns PBS.org into a distribution network for local stations.”

Along with Merlin, PBS rolled out a standalone video player and management system called COVE. (While it may seem like online video is ubiquitous, in the past there was no quick, easy, or unified way for stations and programs to share video on their sites, Seiken said.) COVE allows sites to pull together video from across PBS in the same player, meaning a piece from KQED could be coupled with a feature from Need to Know or Sesame Street.

After PBSNews.org makes its debut, Davidson said it will still be in something of a rolling beta. He sees the site as a startup whose features PBS will constantly adjust. The challenge for PBSNews.org, Davidson said, will be growing an audience for it while also finding its place within the PBS family. Its job won’t be to recreate what others have done, but instead to complement and synthesize it. “We don’t see ourselves competing with NewsHour on reporting the news of the day,” Davidson said. Instead, “we see ourselves first and foremost as translators for the consumers.”

December 09 2010

17:03

Altering Docs? Now There's a Tool for That in DocumentCloud

When we embarked on the DocumnetCloud project, tools for altering documents were the furthest thing from our minds. After all, a responsible journalist doesn't tweak source documents!

But one of the first papers to embed material using DocumentCloud needed to do just that. The Chicago Tribune accompanied their coverage of a troubled foster home with a collection of letters and court orders. Though the documents offered an excellent illustration of the state child services agency's lax oversight and slipped follow-ups, they were predictably full of personal information about children in the foster care system, individual agency staff names and other personal and identifying details about private individuals that the Tribune opted to omit from their reporting. That decision, however, left the news apps team replacing the whole stack of letters multiple times before the package was finally ready to post.

A tool, right inside of DocumentCloud, for replacing, removing and re-ordering the pages of a document would have helped them a lot.

When the "PBS NewsHour" shared a century old hand-written Mark Twain essay, our OCR tools were not nearly up to the task of reading his handwriting. NewsHour transcribed the 10-page essay by hand and we worked with them to replace the text stored in DocumentCloud and displayed on the embedded letters.

By the time that Memphis' Commercial Appeal wanted to run a lengthy series of handwritten letters from Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a young Memphis-born man who opened fire on a military recruiting center in Little Rock last summer, we at DocumentCloud were busy supporting nearly 200 newsrooms -- offering to hide the text tab was the best we could do.

What NewsHour and Commercial Appeal really needed was a tool, right inside of DocumentCloud, with which to edit the text of each document.

And so, we've assembled what we think is a sweet suite of tools to let you re-order pages, insert new ones, delete old ones and edit the text that will appear in your embedded document. Check out our user guide to see how it all works. We welcome your bugs, feedback, rants, raves and, as ever, your documents.

December 07 2010

20:20

How NewsHour Used Crowdsourcing to Refute TSA Meltdown

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

During Thanksgiving week, the debate over stricter TSA security measures was turning into the big story. A handful of airport security anecdotes were making the rounds via news organizations and social media, but no one knew before the biggest travel day, the Wednesday before Thansgiving, whether National Opt Out Day protests would create air travel gridlock.

Not knowing how the story would play out, the PBS NewsHour team decided to craft a way for the public to help report the facts of their airport security experience so we could better report the story. Thus, the #TSATime hashtag was born on Twitter.

Here's how we pulled off the project, and why collaboration and planning were key.

Planning and Testing

At a weekly planning meeting, we decided crowdsourcing was the best way to get a handle on the airline security story. We knew many travelers were going to be talking about their security experience on Twitter. We figured we could find a way to aggregate those reports into something useful.

Unlike other Twitter hashtag trends that crop up organically, we knew it could be tough to create one from the ground up. We settled on asking travelers to use the #TSATime hashtag and tell us the three-letter airport code where their travel began. Here's a sample of how we asked:

How long did it take you to get through security? Tweet w/ #TSATime and 3 letter airport code http://to.pbs.org/TSATime

It was a straightforward question that would create data that we could easily track without getting overwhelmed. Knowing that this issue had created passionate debate, we took pains to keep all of our language neutral. We asked people to report facts and observations, not what they thought about the new security measures.

Screen shot 2010-12-06 at 9.28.17 PM.pngAfter the idea was cemented, our wonderful graphics and design team built an embeddable widget in less than 36 hours that could also be viewed on smartphones. (Interactives editor Chris Amico summed up that process in his own blog post.)

To keep the project manageable, we decided to focus on the 52 busiest U.S. airports, because security lines might be a bigger issue there. But we also included the option to see all #TSATime tweets in real-time to get a glimpse of how the story was playing out across the country.

Promotion

Of course, this project wouldn't work unless people actually used it. We used several mediums to promote the trend. Luckily at NewsHour we can use social media, our website and our broadcast. The key was using them all effectively to help it catch on.

On Monday night of the busy travel week we published the first blog post announcing what we were doing and how to participate.

On Tuesday, we added a promo video, complete with Hari Sreenivasan's luggage, that also aired that night on the NewsHour:

Using the NewsHour's Social Media Google Group email blast, we reached out to other public media stations with this information and provided pre-written tweets, Facebook posting language, five easy ways to use #TSATime and the widget.

Of course, we also reached out on social media. We knew it was a useful and timely idea that would easily spread once people caught on. I couldn't find any organization that had a similar project or hashtag, so we happily offered it to anyone and everyone.

Collaboration

wapotweet_goodtravel.jpg#TSATime really took off when other news organizations began to pick it up and tweeters began to help spread the word. I received a call from the Washington Post's Melissa Bell, who runs their BlogPost blog. She asked if they could share the hashtag, and we jumped at the offer, CC'ing @WashingtonPost in some promotional tweets as the long weekend approached.

Bell said in an email that she thought partnering up was key for this particular trend since we were asking for a little more than a straight answer from followers.

"That was the key thing: it was kind of a tough trend to get a lot of responses to, but since we partnered up, we were able to both push it," she said.

Others news organizations adopted the project as well, including the Houston Chronicle,
the Miami Herald and Fox News

I encouraged public media stations to promote the project using their local airport codes and ask for particular things they wanted to know. For example, KQED asked Bay Area travelers to include #KQED in their tweets.

The Payoff

Dave Gustafson, NewsHour's online news and planning editor, put it well when he said "we helped the public participate in public broadcasting."

By Tuesday evening, a few travelers were starting to use #TSATime and more people were pledging on Twitter to use the hashtag for their travel later in the week.

By late Wednesday morning, it became obvious that travel was going smoothly for most fliers across the country. #TSATime provided a way for the public to share that news directly, and allowed us to get a handle on the story more quickly than we would have been able to without crowdsourcing.

We curated tweets using Storify, and used our @NewsHourLIVE Twitter account to retweet a large number of responses.

Not forgetting our broadcast, a few tweets were included in a Wednesday night travel segment:

There were detractors of airport security coverage in general. David Carr of the New York Times mentioned the NewsHour's widget in a piece decrying the massive coverage. However, the Post's Melissa Bell shared this with me about the project.

"Our readers gave us the knowledge early on that we should not flog the story," she said. "Rather than it being a symptom of an overreacting media, it was a cure that quickly sussed out the truth."

I couldn't agree more.

What We Learned

We came away with two key lessons:

Cement Your Idea Early
The success of #TSATime hinged on it being a useful idea that could easily be conveyed to travelers and other news organizations. We decided early on to keep things simple, especially because we had just a few days from idea to implementation. Luckily, the design team was able to shift priorities to jump on this project, but we may not be so lucky next time.

Collaboration is Key
We knew from the outset that we'd have to "let go" of some aspects of #TSATime, as other tweeters and news organizations adopted it. We wanted lots of people to use it, but that meant the risk of profanity and abuse. Thankfully, people responded with enthusiasm for the project and plenty of useful responses.

Using this project as an example, I think we made a strong case for creating shared Twitter hashtags. This especially applies to public media, where the question of how to better collaborate across station boundaries always comes up. The key is to make sure that you make it as easy as possible for other public media to participate, and tell them why it helps them. I wrote tweets, suggested changes that could be made for individual communities and copied embed codes into emails to save everyone a step.

The #TSATime widget is still live, and a few tweets show up here and there. We'll continue to use it and promote it as a resource, especially as holiday travel ramps back up again. We know that the framework we built could be used for other crowdsourcing projects, too.

*****

What did you think of the #TSATime social media experiment? What could we have done better? I'd love to hear what else we can do with it, and other ways public media could use it to their advantage.

Teresa Gorman is the social media and online engagement desk assistant at "PBS NewsHour." A Boston University graduate, Teresa spent time as a community journalist in upstate New York before reaching NewsHour. She first caught the public media bug as an intern at NPR as the executive producer of their Spring 2010 Intern Edition. You can find her on Twitter @gteresa.

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

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November 09 2010

22:02

Inside the NewsHour's Multi-Platform Election Night Bedlam

Elections test how much information a news organization can process and then quickly and accurately share it with an audience. They're also a good time for news organizations to take stock of how far they've come since the last one, and to try the latest journalistic tools (or gimmicks).

Four years ago, YouTube was nascent and Facebook had finally opened up to everyone. By 2008, Twitter was taking off and web video was becoming more commonplace. This year, as Poynter noted, the iPad and live-streaming proved to be the 2010 election's focal points for journalism innovation, but the technology and implementation obviously have a ways to go.

At the PBS NewsHour, we'd already had plenty of time to experiment with the tools we implemented this Election Day, and things went rather well as a result. Below is a look at the different strategies and technologies we used in our election coverage last week, along with some observations about what did and didn't work.

Live-Stream at Center of Vote 2010 Plans

As was the case two years ago when the NewsHour's web and broadcast staffs were mostly separate operations, planning for 2010 Election Day coverage began months ago at the unified and rebranded PBS NewsHour.

Over the past year, the Haitian earthquake, the Foot Hood massacre and the Gulf oil spill taught staffers to operate in a more platform-neutral manner: Information is gathered and triaged to see what works best for web and broadcast audiences, and sometimes both. Vote 2010, however, was the first planned news event to truly test how our staff could concurrently serve our audiences on TV, mobile devices and on the web, as this video outlined:

We had a monumental TV task ahead this year because we were taping broadcasts at our regular time (6 p.m. ET) and adding 7 and 9 p.m. "turnarounds" for other time zones. As in past years, we opted to host a late-night election special to be fed to PBS stations. This year, the NewsHour started taping at 10 p.m., feeding the first hour exclusively to a livestream, then continuing at 11 p.m. both as a livestream and feed to stations.

We also put more effort than ever before into spreading the word about our free live-stream. As part of pre-election social media and PR outreach, we spent a few hundred bucks to sponsor an ONA DC Meetup to kick off the sold-out Online News Assocation conference. We publicized there and to our PBS colleagues that we were giving away our high-quality election night livestream.

Thanks to a combination of outreach to established partners and cold-calling other media and bloggers that might want an election video presence, we increased the reach of the NewsHour's live-stream by having it hosted elsewhere including local PBS stations, the Sunlight Foundation, AARP, Breitbart and Huffington Post.

We also hosted a map with live AP election data on our site and combined it with our map-centric Patchwork Nation collaboration. We used CoveritLive to power a live-blog of results, analysis and reports from the field. Extra, the NewsHour's site for students and teachers, solicited opinion pieces from students in Colorado, Wisconsin and Florida on topics ranging from why they back specific candidates, why young people should care about voting and whether young voters are informed enough to cast a ballot.

Collaboration via Google Docs

Thankfully, many of the tools we experimented with to cover the 2008 election -- Google Docs, Twitter, Facebook -- have since matured as newsroom resources. Except for a few momentary hiccups, Twitter was as stable as we could have hoped on Election Day.

newshour at desk.jpg

Two years ago, Google Docs had a clunkier feel. If two people were in the same document, both would have to click save repeatedly to quickly see updates added by the other. But upgrades have since fulfilled some of the instantaneous collaborative promise (and hype) of the now-crested Google Wave.

On election night, more than a dozen NewsHour staffers worked in the same text document in real-time -- filing reports from the field and transcribing quotes from NewsHour analysts and notable guests on other networks. In a different spreadsheet, staff kept track of which races were called by other news organizations and when. We also used the embedded chat feature in Google Docs to communicate while editing and adding information.

Unlike two years ago, I could copyedit a report still being typed by my colleague, Mike Melia, several miles away at the Democrats' election HQ in Washington. We worked out ways of communicating within the document in order to speed up the process. For example, when he typed a pound sign (#), that signaled the paragraph was ready and I immediately pasted it into CoveritLive.

The instant that major races were called by one of our senior producers, reporter-producer Terence Burlij alerted our control room via headset then added a Congressional balance of power update to our liveblog.

In-House Innovations

Our graphics department and development team cranked out numerous innovations to serve the election demands of the website and and our five hours of breaking news broadcasts. As Creative Director Travis Daub put it:

Katie Kleinman and Vanessa Dennis crunched the AP data and built a truly innovative system that dynamically generates a graphic for every race on the ticket. Thanks to their efforts, we were able to call up any race with accurate data in a matter of seconds. I venture to bet that we were the only network last night with an election graphics system running in Google Chrome.

Those same graphics of more than 450 candidates and races were available in a matter of seconds for use on the web, but we opted not to use them since the vote tallies changed so quickly.

Traffic Numbers

Creating a valuable-yet-free live-stream and quickly posting concession and victory speeches onto our YouTube channel, live-blog and Facebook appears to have paid off in terms of traffic.

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Thanks to our partners at Ustream, who helped us stream 516 years' worth of oil spill footage earlier this year, we were able to attract a sizable audience for our special election live-stream, in large part due to them posting a giant promotion on their home page for a full day. Our election live-stream garnered more than 250,000 views, more than 141,000 of which were unique.

We also notified our 73,000 iPhone app users of our special coverage plans, and more than 8,300 used the app to view our election coverage and/or live-stream. Our app download traffic tripled on Election Day, and pushed us to the brink of 100,000 app users.

As for Facebook, we were blown away by the breaking news engagement we got. It has us reconsidering that strategy to post more breaking news content for our Facebook audience. A separate two-day effort targeting NewsHour ads on Facebook pages of specific political campaigns grew our fans about 7.3 percent in that short period.

What We Learned

So what were the major takeaways from this latest election season?

  • Earlier, Wider Promotions -- Our social media and promotions teams landed our elections coverage some great placements and media mentions this year. In 2012, we'll start our outreach to potential partners and local stations even earlier, and do more promotion on-air, online and on mobile devices and with whatever new tools or services crop up between now and then.
  • Be All Things to All Visitors -- Every person who visits our site seeks a different mixture of information. Some want the latest election returns, some want smart analysis of what's transpiring and some want to watch the NewsHour broadcast or victory and concession speeches. We'll continue to feature all of that, but we'll improve how quickly they can find the specific information they want.
  • Practice Makes Perfect -- Just when you think the staff's last pre-election live-blog rehearsal has perfected your workflow, one tiny detail proves you ever-so-wrong on the big night. The last two things I did on election night before heading home was click "end event" on CoveritLive then check the home page. Turns out, by ending the event -- instead of leaving it on hiatus as we'd done in practice runs -- transformed what had been a reverse-chronological live-blog into a chronological one. At 3 a.m., we suddenly had news from 5:45 p.m. at the top of our homepage. I got Art Director Vanessa Dennis out of bed, but neither of us could find a quick-fix solution. We disabled the live-blog home page feed and I reworked some live-blog content into a short blog post summing up the night's biggest developments that could hold until our politics team posted the Morning Line dispatch a few hour later. Lesson learned.

The tone was mostly upbeat at our election coverage post-mortem meeting. We then realized the Iowa caucuses are just 14 months away -- so election planning will be front and center once again very soon.

Dave Gustafson is the PBS NewsHour's online news and planning editor. He mostly edits copy and multimedia content for The Rundown news blog and homepage, but his jack-of-all-trades duties also involve partnerships, SEO, social media, widgets, livestreaming, freebies and event planning.

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September 14 2010

20:29

Social Media Helps Drive Traffic, Engagement at NewsHour

When the PBS NewsHour relaunched both on-air and
online in December, a new homepage was unveiled, a news blog was born and a new
correspondent joined the team. But another big change unfolded behind the
scenes as well: The addition of a social media desk assistant (myself) dedicated to
fostering an online community and better distributing PBS NewsHour content
digitally. In just a few months, the PBS NewsHour has pushed social media sites
into the top 10 referrers to our website, and they will eventually leave organic search results on Bing and Yahoo in the dust.


Beyond the numbers is a shift in newsroom attitudes toward social media. When I first arrived, Twitter was only tolerated as an online trend. It has since expanded into something that most of our on-air correspondents -- Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff, Margaret Warner, Hari Sreenivasan, David Chalian, among others -- and many behind-the-scenes staff use on a regular basis. They gather information, track breaking news, crowdsource questions and share details that couldn't quite make it into the broadcast's in-depth analysis of the day's happenings. 

   

Twitter

Breaking News

By focusing on breaking news that suits our audience, we've covered subjects that have become a "Trending Topics" on Twitter several times. While the short-term value is a spike in traffic for our content on the subject, the longer-term value is exposure to new audiences. We retain on
average 150-200 new followers during each event (in addition to our usual addition of about 250 to 300 followers on weekdays). While the return on investment remains lower than that of Facebook, the exposure -- and the immediate clickthroughs -- do bring in new unique visitors. We are working to determine precisely how many visitors we are retaining.

Last week, another oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Given that one of our major traffic drivers for the past four months has been BP's Horizon oil
disaster
, we immediately tweeted the news, credited to @ap. That tweet was retweeted at least 155 times over the course of the day, including more than 100 within the first hour. The followup article, which was posted within 45 minutes of the news and updated throughout the day, received 541 clickthroughs on its aggregate bit.ly link and, per that site, was retweeted more than 100 times. It also generated at least 39 comments on Facebook. According to our Google Analytics, the page was viewed 1504 times with 233 referrals from Twitter compared to only seven hits from Google News. The
biggest referrer? Facebook, with 270 hits.

facebook_referrals_versus_yahoo!,_bing (2).png 



Why it matters: In addition to exposure to new audiences, it gives us a demonstrable way of measuring the return on investment for our web content that, in turn can shape the way we structure our emerging, web-conscious newsroom, and the bridge between our traditional broadcast practices and the "early adopter" status online that some of our team members maintain. 



Features Designed for Social Media


By comparison, consider a piece that was designed for the web and meant to spread rapidly online. Our arts team, @NewsHourArtBeat, interviewed musician Andrew Bird, whose fan base is largely online-oriented. Bird himself retweeted the link, as did 97 other Twitter entities. The story (published Sept. 2) has seen more than 8,000 individual page views on an otherwise slow weekend
for web traffic. A throw from the broadcast on Monday night, plus a well-timed tweet during the show added another 55 clicks to the main bit.ly link. 


Why it matters: We're pushing content before an audience that is aware of -- but not involved with -- our brand, while maintaining the editorial standards that have supported the show over the past 34 years. While web traffic is never the whole reason we do a
piece -- we've come to recognize that content needs an impetus to spread, and to matter to our viewers, new and old.
 

Social Media Use for Reporting

In addition to the shift toward pushing content into the social media space, we're also drawing on social media as a source by pulling content into our pieces and using Twitter especially to gain insight into events and places that we can't physically cover. As Sreenivasan has said, Twitter has become an "immersive sonar" of sorts, enabling us to monitor multiple sources and streams of information simultaneously.

While it is more work to verify sources, it's easier to see trends, directions and questions around a topic that readers and consumers are likely going to want answers to. This enables us to reach and expand our audience more effectively over the long-term. 



#Blagojevich


Across the newsroom, PBS NewsHour reporters and correspondents -- including Sreenivasan -- had Tweetdeck and HootSuite running in the background awaiting news of a verdict in the former Illinois governor's corruption trial.

As news broke of Blagojevich's conviction on one count, it was precariously near air time. Twitter beat out the AP for reporting facts from the scene, which we could then cross-check against primary sources. It also helped us uncover live-streams from Chicago media that the newsroom watched until our own broadcast went live.



#Prop8



As news of the Proposition 8 verdict broke in California, the newsroom turned to Twitter, sourcing a copy of the judge's verdict before the court's official document was posted on PACER. We supplied it to our on-air team before the broadcast, informing their discussion of the subject as much as possible, in addition to republishing it via DocumentCloud on our own website.



Engagement on Facebook



We've come to depend on -- and ask questions of -- our ever-faithful Facebook audience. When I started engaging the community on our page, we had about 5,000 fans and an RSS feed was used to add content to the page. Today, we have more than 15,000 fans and, according to Facebook's Insights toolset, we have in excess of 5,000 active users on the page every day, and an average of about 50 new "likes" per day.

According to those same statistics, about 13,000 of our fans were active on our page in the past month. On Sept. 3, for example, 15 minutes before our regular political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks were due into the studio, I posted to our Facebook page a request for topics for the online-only segment they tape every week. Within 10 minutes, I had several substantive questions. The video of Brooks, Shields and Sreenivasan answering those questions (and two more from Twitter) was posted later that evening, and we have since thanked each of the contributors personally for sharing.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Now that social media has an established presence at the PBS NewsHour, we're examining how we can further embrace it both as a way to push our content -- via targeted advertising and search engine optimization, etc. -- and to pull people in by encouraging correspondents and staff members to use social media as a resource for stories, ideas and audience development.

So far, we've started to run Facebook advertising campaigns with incredibly small budgets ($10 to 15 per day) and very high returns (between .05-.078 percent conversion). Combined with a recent PBS
Facebook push, we've seen a jump from 14,900 fans (on a Friday) to 15,448 (on the following Wednesday). We spent, on average, $.63 per new fan. This represents a turning point. We will continue our organic efforts -- consistent posting, integrating other fan pages' into our content shares, targeted distribution, etc. -- in addition to our new paid endeavor.


Our ultimate goal is to maintain our incredibly high (87 percent) interaction rate as we grow our fan page to 30,000 fans and beyond. Ultimately, we expect Facebook's utility to keep up with market trends -- and rival the ROI of Google search in our quest for relevant, engaged users. 

Outside of the numbers that prove our success, our users' appreciation of our efforts has become something that we look for and appreciate as a team.

Our brand, one of the oldest and most respected in television, has morphed from a group that had an erratic and undefined presence on the Internet to one that has become a place to test new ideas and reach into new parts of the media space, in addition to being a hub of the traditional in-depth reporting and analysis.

What do you think of our efforts at NewsHour? How do you think they could be improved? Share your thoughts in the comments.

@KateGardiner (kategardiner.com)
is the PBS NewsHour's first-ever social media desk assistant and a
recent graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of
Journalism. She frequently consults on social media development for
media companies.


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September 13 2010

17:28

Patchwork Nation Relaunches in Drupal with District Layer

This year's primary election upsets in Alaska, Florida and Utah and the volatile Congressional campaigns currently underway -- all of which take place amid widespread voter discontent and the rise of the Tea Party movement -- illustrate the growing need for easily-accessible and easily-updated portals for political data and analysis.

Election-season data visualization is traditionally cast in the form of public opinion polling data delivered through the red/blue/purple national maps of state and district races. Although that is a useful shortcut to inform the classic horse-race electoral narrative, it leaves us hungry for context. Dividing the U.S. into blue and red states masks important trends and relationships, and the patterns within the binary electoral results remain opaque.

Patchwork Nation

Recognizing the need to look at elections a different way, Patchwork Nation was born four years ago. Created from the inspiration of Dante Chinni and built into a living project in partnership with the PBS NewsHour and the Christian Science Monitor, it focuses on delivering more context while remaining visually intuitive for the reader. The Jefferson Institute is proud to have partnered with Patchwork Nation in their 2010 relaunch, which involved porting them to Drupal, adding a district layer to their already compelling map of U.S. counties, and deepening the delivery of data visualizations for individual counties and districts with the Knight News Challenge sponsored VIDI data visualization toolkit.

patchwork grab.jpg

The site's new back end is even more exciting. We've moved all the data series that Patchwork Nation uses to Drupal tables and designed an interface for administrators to build, post and embed maps, charts and graphs on the fly. All that visualization work was done in the past by the brilliant and overburdened IT staff of the NewsHour. Now, Chinni or any of his data-savvy colleagues can do it themselves, and the NewsHour's IT staff can focus on more strategic challenges.

Patchwork Nation delivers a rare blend of data and analysis, simultaneously providing local, regional and national specificity. Geographically, it helps viewers understand how their community is similar to and different from their neighbors' and others across the country. It places an emphasis on trend lines over snapshots, providing profiles of the electorate and voting history over time, complimented by analysis and anecdotal stories, and enriched with demographic and economic history to help readers understand the changing shape of the electorate itself.

In these days of shrinking newsroom IT budgets and increasing demand for journalistic data visualization, the project clearly demonstrates the advantages of directly empowering journalists with the tools to visualize the narratives within data.

September 10 2010

16:30

Jon Sawyer on what the Pulitzer Center has learned about angel investing in international journalism

[Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its latest issue, which focuses on the current state of international reporting. There are lots of interesting articles — check out the whole issue — but we're highlighting a few that line up with our subject matter here at the Lab. Here's Jon Sawyer, director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, on the lessons his organization has learned about nonprofit journalism. —Josh]

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting began with a simple idea — that we could leverage small travel grants to journalists to assure multiple voices on big global issues and at the same time help talented individuals sustain careers as foreign correspondents. Five years and some 150 projects later those remain key goals but our mission has expanded — and with it our sense of what is required of nonprofit journalism initiatives like the Pulitzer Center.

Some lessons we’ve learned:

Collaboration: Our best projects have entailed partnerships with multiple organizations and outlets. We developed our expertise on video by producing several dozen short pieces for the now defunct public television program Foreign Exchange With Fareed Zakaria, for example, and we extended our audience by partnering with YouTube on its first video reporting contest. In our project on Sudan we are collaborating with The Washington Post to support the work of journalist/attorney Rebecca Hamilton and funding complementary coverage on PBS NewsHour. We have worked in tandem with NewsHour and National Geographic to promote our common work on the global water crisis. In these and other reporting initiatives we have recruited donors with an interest in raising the visibility of systemic issues — and an appreciation that the journalism cannot succeed unless there is an assurance of absolute independence in our work.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

July 06 2010

17:39

6 Key Lessons From NewsHour's Coverage of the Gulf Oil Spill

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has lasted more than two months now. It is the worst spill in U.S. history, and it is likely to continue until at least August. And in covering it, PBS NewsHour has broken every traffic record it ever had thanks to great reporting, our live video feed of the spill and the ticker showing the number of gallons released.

So what have we learned? Below are some of the insights we've gathered so far. (Quick note: A lot of the thinking behind this post comes from a debriefing at work with my colleagues Vanessa Dennis, Travis Daub and Katie Kleinman, and from conversations about the spill and our coverage with other people in and out of the newsroom. Just so no one thinks this is all coming out of my head. Now then...)

1. Embrace the Uncertainty

New York University professor Jay Rosen recently wrote:

It's incumbent upon journalists to level with people. If that means backing up to say, "Actually, it's hard to tell what happened here," or, "I'll share with you what I know, but I don't know who's right." This may be unsatisfying to some, but it may also be the best an honest reporter can do.


Portraying conflicting accounts or clashing interpretations is an exacting skill, which does require a certain detachment. But there is no necessary connection between that skill, or that kind of detachment, and the ritualized avoidance of all conclusions, such as we find in He Said, She Said and the View from Nowhere.

Rosen is talking about political journalism, but I think it applies very well here (and there are plenty of political facets to this story). As I said in my earlier post on the spill on my personal blog, part of what made me hesitant to make that now-famous ticker that tracks the spill was having to choose a flow rate when there were so many conflicting reports.

Uncertainty is part of the story here. Sometimes it's a huge part. There are probably a lot of journalists uncomfortable saying so explicitly, "We don't know, and neither does anyone else," but it's what the story is here.

2. Commit to the Story

For big, complicated events where lots of people are watching -- where knowing what happened is easy but knowing what it means is hard -- the NewsHour has learned how to tell the ongoing story and, critically, to stick to it.

We don't do this for most stories. There are lots of one-off blog posts and features, and plenty that can be told with one segment on the show. The stories where we can dive in and hang on, though, is where the good stuff happens.

Also, putting it all in one place is helpful.

3. Give Users Tools to Answer their Own Questions

Here's what I told Poynter's Al Tompkins about creating tools for users:

The NewsHour is a public media company, and I think part of our mission is to give the public tools to understand the news better. People see this and have different reactions, and by letting them embed it on their own sites, we allow the conversation to spread beyond areas we can think up ourselves.

There are questions we'll never think of. That's true of the NewsHour, and it's true of the New York Times. And even if we could think of every possible angle to a story, there is no guarantee that we'll answer your particular question. Building tools our users (and reporters) can use gives us a way to catch more of those questions and find more of those answers.

4. Build Things That Make your Reporting Better

Here's what I'm most proud of about the widget/ticker that I didn't want to build: It made our reporting better.

If we were going to estimate how much oil had flowed into the Gulf, it was vital that we knew what the estimates were, how they were made and what numbers were defensible. I've rewritten the JavaScript a handful of times as the situation has changed, and tracked those changes. My colleague Lea Winerman has gone back to scientists repeatedly to get their read on the latest data. We can stand by our math.

Most of this is just good beat reporting -- but having a constant, visual reminder that we need to be right is a nice prod.

5. Do Something New

Probably obvious, but it bears repeating.

6. Be Clear

I've written a lot of blog posts about math lately. I try to make these as readable as possible -- but it's still math. And I think it's important to explain where we're coming from and how we reach the numbers and conclusions we reach.

This comes back to embracing uncertainty. Here's what we said a week ago, as we struggled to find out whether more oil was coming out of the ruptured well after BP cut the riser pipe:

Did the flow rate increase significantly after June 3, when BP cut the riser pipe in order to put the current containment dome in place? And if the flow rate did increase, by how much?


We haven't found a clear answer to that question. An Interior Department official said that preliminary analysis suggested a modest increase, but that they didn't have definitive information to measure the change.


And Ira Leifer, a researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara and a member of the flow estimate panel, told us in an e-mail that the scientists can't be sure of whether there was an increase because BP didn't provide enough data from before the riser cut to get a good estimate of the flow then.


Given that uncertainty, we initially left the minimum flow rate in our Gulf Leak Meter at 20,000 barrels per day, reflecting what the government's Flow Rate Technical Team reported on June 10 -- an estimate they based on data from before the riser was cut.


But today, BP says it captured 16,020 barrels of oil and flared another 9,270, for a total of 25,290 barrels (1,062,180 gallons) diverted from the Gulf.

(I say "we" in this case because parts of that post were written by me, and parts by Lea Winerman.)

This is getting awfully long, so in keeping with the above principles, I'm going to open it up from here. What other lessons should we learn from covering the spill? What lessons have you learned? Share them in the comments below.

Chris Amico is a journalist and web developer based in Washington, DC. As the interactives editor for the PBS NewsHour, he tells stories with data and documents. He built the database application behind the award-winning Patchwork Nation, along with other tools used by NewsHour reporters and producers. He blogs about news, code, China and travel at chrisamico.com.

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May 25 2010

20:39

PBS NewsHour Collaborations Require Buy-In from the Top

Collaboration is one of the public broadcasting buzzwords of the moment. The new PBS NewsHour is a national news organization that is trying to figure out how collaboration works.

Collaboration was one of the bullet points when we announced the changes to the program. As with the staff reorganization, which I wrote about in my previous post on MediaShift, our collaboration efforts are moving along but still have a ways to go.

There are barriers between organizations within the public broadcasting system that we need to continue to break down before real editorial collaboration becomes a part of our natural process.

For us, it will take time and it's harder to do when HD video feeds are involved, since that requires a high level of quality. But it's not impossible. It requires creating open communication channels between partners and connecting them with the right people internally who can listen and follow through.

Driving Collaboration From the Top

The plans and intentions for each broadcast are more visible now that I sit in the middle of the newsroom. I'm happy to report that after years of thinking I was one of the only people around who cared about local stations, the new PBS NewsHour is shifting how our producers think about working with our friends in the public broadcasting system.

photo_bio_winslow.jpg

It's much easier to move mountains when you have buy-in from the top. And that is what I think we have now, starting with Jim Lehrer who is a big fan of the stations. This is reinforced with support from Linda Winslow, our executive director, and Simon Marks, our associate executive producer.

"The NewsHour recognizes that collaborations with like-minded journalists are a good way to both enrich our content and extend our reach across many different platforms," Winslow told me. "Most successful collaborations require constant attention and hard work, but the rewards are potentially immense. As news organizations strive to find new ways to engage an audience, partnering with people and organizations who are dedicated to reporting stories fairly, accurately and in some detail is, we believe, one way to ensure the survival of serious news coverage of both domestic and international developments."

Sample Initiatives

Here are some examples of how the PBS NewsHour is looking to other public broadcasters for collaboration:

I'm sure you'd get mixed responses if you asked the different parties how well these collaborations worked. That's part of the learning process. Expectations need to be set from the start, relationships need to be built slowly, and the conversation should continue after the report is posted.

Changing Roles

My job has changed, too. Since our redesign, one of my main jobs is keeping stations informed of our editorial plans, and making sure the best reporting by other producers or stations makes it onto our home page.

People who tried to partner with us in the past may find a different organization this time around, whether it's working together on a widget or co-producing a series of reports. In terms of collaborations, we're still not all the way there, much like the way PBS NewsHour's complete reorganization still has some kinks to work out.

Fellow public broadcasting collaboration veteran Amanda Hirsch, the project manager for the recently ended EconomyStory project, summed up some of the collaboration projects from the past in her own MediaShift post.

She's right on many points. I also think it takes a significant amount of internal pressure within an organization to make working with other organizations a priority. And unlike in her post, our online department is no longer in the ghetto. (My first post talked about the creek we had to cross to talk face to face with a broadcast colleague.) I now have a sunny newsroom office, and we're working hard to bring collaboration to our now-merged PBS NewsHour.

Anna Shoup is the local/national editor for PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. She coordinates with local stations to develop collaborative editorial projects, such as Patchwork Nation, a partnership to cover the economy in different types of places. She also helps out with daily news updates, multimedia stories, and social media projects.

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December 17 2009

18:44

Lessons on Collaboration from EconomyStory, Election Projects

"Online: Content is king. I don't disagree. But collaboration is queen. In chess the king is the most important, but the queen is the most powerful." 
- David Cohn

We in public media produce a lot of content, but historically we haven't had a lot of collaboration. That's been changing recently, and I'm fortunate enough to have a front row seat.

I'm the project manager for public media's collaboration about the economy, EconomyStory, a project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that brings together 12 public media organizations to cover the current economic crisis, online and on-air. The idea was straightforward: By coordinating efforts across newsrooms, we can deliver to the American public news coverage and resources that are greater than the sum of their parts, and that leverage each organization's strengths. (For a list of partners and their contributions, see EconomyStory.org).

I previously managed a similar effort, also funded by CPB, around the 2008 election. Eight organizations were involved in that project. Over the course of these two projects, I've witnessed a series of triumphs and frustrations that are deeply relevant to the current conversation among journalists, and those interested in journalism, regarding the future of news. Below are my top three lessons learned. I hope other organizations can benefit from our experience, and build on what we've learned. I'd also love to hear what you've learned from similar projects.

Lesson #1: Collaboration Isn't Efficient, But Still Worth It



At the outset of the election project, I expected collaboration to create efficiencies. After all, instead of eight organizations having eight conversations about how to cover the same story, we were having one conversation. Certainly, the thinking went, this would reduce, if not eliminate, redundancies. But reducing redundancies, it turns out, doesn't necessarily mean reducing effort; coordinating with people at other organizations that have different ways of doing things takes time -- lots of it.

For example, during the 2008 election, NPR and PBS NewsHour jointly developed an interactive map that was featured on each of their websites, as well as on over 150 local station sites. With a curator assigned at both NPR and NewsHour, the map fused local and national coverage -- in text, audio and video -- from across public media. Having a collaborative map was convenient for stations, and, in my opinion, yielded a superior end product, which better served the public.

Both NPR and NewsHour could have launched the map earlier in the election cycle if they'd pursued individual products. Instead, they took the time to jointly develop the feature's specifications and select a vendor, among other tasks -- all of which lengthened the production process.

nprnewshourmap.jpg

Was this strategic? Absolutely. Efficient? Not really. Yes, the public media system as a whole was focusing its resources more effectively; but individuals were not producing results as quickly as they would have if they'd worked alone.

Of course, collaboration doesn't always increase effort. It depends on the nature and timing of the project, and whether the partners have worked together before. My point is simply this: Don't assume that working together means saving time -- that's not the value proposition of collaboration. The value proposition is about quality, to the extent that you're equipped to turn quality into revenue.

In other words: Working together yields a superior and more distinctive end product; more distinctive end products, when promoted effectively, build audiences; bigger audiences are the raw material from which revenue may be extracted.

Lesson #2: You Need the Muckety-Mucks

The web department still operates as something of a ghetto at many media organizations. Despite pockets of leadership and innovation, public media organizations are, for the most part, no exception.

Sure, everyone knows the future's in digital, but, more often than not, the people with power and influence work in the organization's legacy media area, such as print or broadcast. I witnessed this directly during the election collaboration, which primarily involved web managers and producers at partner organizations. This hampered the project's impact, either by limiting promotion or preventing more meaningful editorial collaboration. (Much of our "collaboration" during election 2008, aside from the NPR/NewsHour map, took the form of cross-promotion -- a type of collaboration, to be sure, but not the deepest type.)

Having learned our lesson, the kickoff meeting for EconomyStory included multi-disciplinary teams from each partner organization. We then broke off into strands for in-depth brainstorming sessions. At one point, producers of several blue-chip public media programs locked eyes and admitted they didn't trust each other. Then they laughed about it. Then they started talking.

The immediate result? At least one co-production, which aired on both radio and TV, with related web content. The longer-term impact is that the channels of communication are open between these organizations, including at the executive level. This sets the tone and empowers people at every level to explore creative ways of working together. Now it seems I hear each week about a new collaborative effort between some subset of our project's partners.

Lest you think the lesson here is that change only comes from the top down, I'll underscore that the idea to collaborate for the election and the economic crisis was largely hatched within public media's web community. This community just needed to engage the right executives in order to begin realizing the full power of its vision.

Lesson #3: Autopilot? I Don't Think So.

People were enthusiastic when they left the kick-off meeting, but then they returned to busy offices, overflowing inboxes, and lengthy to-do lists. In other words, it was going to take more than goodwill to drive the project forward. Specifically, success was going to require:

> Formal Communication Channels: For the election project, partners relied on the phone and email to stay in touch with each other, and with me. This time around, I introduced Basecamp, a project management tool from 37 Signals. I made it clear at the outset (and in partner contracts) that participation on Basecamp was a requirement. Sound harsh? Yes, but I knew I was dealing with busy people who needed extra prodding to remember to share information outside of their own shops.

It's been a huge success because it's far more effective for partners to share information with each other, than for information to flow only from them to me. Why rely on a switchboard operator in the digital age? 


One success story: near the beginning of the economy project, a producer at PBS posted a programming pipeline, including information about an upcoming Frontline special called "The Warning." It was about a lone regulator who warned of the potential for economic meltdown in the late 1990s. A producer at Marketplace saw this information and ended up commissioning a series of original radio reports, including an interview with the regulator, Brooksley Born.

This may not sound like rocket science (and it isn't), but without this project, and without a central information-sharing hub, it wouldn't have happened.

frontlinemktplc.jpg

> Strong Central Staff: After the election project, it was clear that there were central project functions beyond project management that needed attention. For one thing, we needed to actually promote the partners' work, both to the general public and to public media stations. After all, it's hard to provide a public service when the public doesn't know what you're doing.

Also, in order to maximize editorial collaboration between partners, we needed someone with a bird's eye view of the project, as well as a journalist's sensibility, who could look for specific opportunities for partners to team up. We added these roles to the mix, bringing on freelancer and public media vet Katie Kemple to head up marketing; Public Radio International managed station outreach; and Lee Banville from NewsHour served as "editorial facilitator."

The combination of Basecamp and additional project staff has spurred more informal collaboration on EconomyStory compared to what we saw during the election project. The Frontline/Marketplace example above is just the tip of the iceberg. It's critical to have a central team that works to keep partners focused and engaged. In addition, those of us at the center of the project are then able to identify strategic successes and areas for improvement.

Conclusion

Learning to collaborate is a lot like learning to manage. A junior manager often thinks it's easier to do things herself, rather than take time to train someone on her team. While this approach may allow her to deliver results more quickly in the short term, it's not sustainable over time. Similarly, collaboration between news organizations is often time consuming at first -- but it's essential to their long-term success.

As more and more news organizations shut their doors, or reduce operations, lean organizations and newly freelance journalists need to learn to work together in new ways if they're going to survive. They need to be scrappy -- and public media organizations are nothing if not scrappy. There may be hope for us yet.

Amanda Hirsch is a consultant to independent media companies and non-profits, and the former editorial director of PBS Interactive (as well as MediaShift's former editor). She is also a writer and performer. You can follow Amanda online on her website and on Twitter at @publicmediagirl.

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November 30 2009

16:55

Merging Online and Broadcast Cultures to Reinvent 'NewsHour'

This is the first of a series of posts by Anna Shoup, the local/national editor for the program that will soon be renamed "PBS NewsHour." She will provide an insider's look at how the broadcast is changing, including the recent merging of its broadcast and online teams.

The "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" is re-incarnating itself as the "PBS NewsHour" on December 7. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes details involved in creating the new program, and chief among them is a complete reorganization of our editorial teams to create a merged newsroom for online and broadcast.

I've worked here for more than four years as part of a smart, and often experimental, online news team. Since 1995, the NewsHour's website has tread a path familiar to other legacy news organizations in that it was growing, yet often separate from the central news operation. The online team would write, edit, produce, blog and post our own reports. Not many of us knew the details of how the broadcast team put the program together every night. And, as I have since learned, the broadcast folks were just as confused by what web staffers did to make the site work.

I've had people ask me where I learned HTML (I know very little), if I can scan something and make a PDF (yes, but so can most people), and why we can't get their video up faster (it's not magic, it takes time). In the end, we were all committed to the core mission of serious journalism that is the hallmark of the "NewsHour." This reorganization is trying to bring these teams together.

Bridging Divides

We've worked to bridge physical and psychological divides. The "NewsHour" teams are in two buildings, and the online newsroom was tucked in a corner where people tended to stash chairs that didn't match and archive beta tapes. We literally had to cross a creek to get to the building where they tape the program. We called the rest of the staff "non-liners," and we had a slogan for our somewhat hidden newsroom: "Big Room, Big Ideas."


Soon after we received our company reorganization charts, it became clear that the old online team was going to have to break up. I was convinced that this meant the end of our scrappy, "make it up, but make it good" creative team. In a way, it was. Our reorganizers successfully ripped up a hub of multimedia reporters, designers and editors and planted many of us in the center of the broadcast newsroom. Most of the reporter-producers that were formerly online staffers are now in a reporter's bullpen. Our online art director now sits next to the broadcast's graphics team. We're now part of one team.

Different Tools, Different Languages

So Step One is complete in that we're sitting next to each other. But our cultures are still different. This is true in the way we communicate, and the way we approach the day's stories. Broadcast uses a newsroom communication tool called iNews to instant message and share scripts; onliners use Gchat and share story ideas via Google Docs. They ask: "talk or tape?" We ask: "audio, text, video, photos, slideshows, an interactive, or all of the above?"

In my case, I've been traveling the country with a broadcast team for our Patchwork Nation reporting project, and shooting footage that I'll use for online-only videos. On my first day in the new newsroom, I tried to book a guest. Tried, but failed. The second week, I tried to get footage I shot in the field onto the program and again I failed. It's going to take time. Luckily, some of my colleagues have had more success, and this is a result of everyone working together.

simon marks.jpg

Our associate executive producer, Simon Marks, promised there would be "cross-pollination" between digital reporter-producers and broadcast reporter-producers. There's already evidence of that becoming reality, with ideas now being shared over cubicle walls instead of across a creek.

This reorganization is enabling us to better serve our viewers and readers. We can now live encode an interview and get excerpts online within a couple of hours. Improving our speed is a big priority. To give you an idea of how far we've come, during the primaries the online team was once sent a cassette tape of an audio interview with then-candidate Barack Obama. We had to find a way to turn that into online content.

My co-worker and Global Health Watch reporter-producer Talea Miller has been traveling the world with an integrated reporting team. She reports to a senior producer while other people, including website editors, are also asking her to produce content.

"Because our unit already worked together closely, the reorganization has not changed that dynamic much, but we are now integrated into the foreign affairs beat so we can better coordinate all our international efforts," she said. "As with any transition, that has meant trying to feel out what our new roles are, and [learning] how to balance new and existing responsibilities, which can be a struggle at times."

(Re)Training the Teams

Now that we've cross-pollinated teams, we're all getting trained on the relevant technology. For example, the broadcast team uses Avid for video editing, while the online group favors Final Cut Pro. We now have four Final Cut suites in our newsroom and we've launched intensive training for onliners and broadcasters. I recently received an email inviting me to a breakfast session to learn how to produce a broadcast segment for the program. We plan to have people learn the different skills, figure out who's the best at what, and work from there.

This process is all to set up for the real work, which comes when we launch the new website on December 3 and the new program on Dec. 7. In my next post, I hope to share more about the broadcast, and offer reactions from my new friends in broadcast.

Anna Shoup is the local/national editor for PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. She coordinates with local stations to develop collaborative editorial projects, such as Patchwork Nation, a partnership to cover the economy in different types of places. She also helps out with daily news updates, multimedia stories, and social media projects.

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