Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

December 27 2011

15:20

If We Were Starting NPR's Project Argo in 2012

For the past two years, I've been working on Project Argo -- a collaboration among NPR and 12 member stations in which the stations launched 12 niche websites on a platform we developed (built on WordPress), each putting their own spin on a common editorial model. As the pilot phase of Argo comes to a close, and we turn our attention to spreading and operationalizing what we've learned more broadly throughout the public media system, the question I get more than any other is, "If you were to start back at the beginning, what would you do differently?"
argo_promo_sites_sm.jpg

I'd reframe the question slightly. If you work in digital media, you know how much this world is still in flux. The pace of change means that trends, tenets and ideas can spring up, calcify into conventional wisdom, and fade away all in the span of two years or less. So instead, I'll lay out a few things we might change if we were starting the pilot in January 2012, and some of the ideas that we hope to push on in our work with stations over the next year.

1. PLAY MORE WITH LENGTH AND FREQUENCY

Although we emphasized the importance of a considered take from the get-go with Argo, we also stressed that the bread-and-butter of blogging is writing short and often. But as many have remarked, the quickest of quick takes have migrated into status updates on Facebook and Twitter, or blips on Tumblr. And alongside that migration, we've seen blogs become less about the instant and more about the Instapaper. A steady rise in popularity for Argo's highest-trafficked site, MindShift, accompanied its move to less-frequent, longer-form blogging. CommonHealth, another of the network's most popular sites, has scored some of its biggest audience hits with 4,000-word opuses like this one.

2. FIND PARTNERS AND BUILD TEAMS

Part of the Argo team's aim was to replicate a pattern we'd seen again and again in our combined decades of working in independent and commercial news organizations: A single person with a singular vision builds a sizable community around a topic from the ground up. And we saw plenty of that this year. But several of our stations also tweaked the model of the single, full-time blogger that we began with, splitting the position between two part-time bloggers, or augmenting the site with contributions from freelancers. And by and large, this has worked quite well for the stations that have taken this approach. In the meantime, we've seen several popular veteran bloggers expand their operations into teams. Ezra Klein's eponymous one-man operation at the Washington Post became the four-person micro-site Wonkblog. Politico's legendary Ben Smith added Dylan Byers to his roster (very shortly before announcing a move to Buzzfeed). And, of course, "Andrew Sullivan" has been the euphemism for a multi-headed team of collaborators for some years now.

That single person with a singular vision can still make a hell of a splash, of course. (Obligatory year-end reflection shoutout to my colleague @acarvin and my daily inspiration, Maria Popova.) And it's easy to convince yourself you're actually collaborating when all you're doing is sharing one another's widgets. But among the things we'll be looking for in 2012 are opportunities to foment genuine, effective partnerships.

3. LOOK FOR EDITORS

When we were hiring our set of reporter-bloggers for Argo, we stressed that it was vital to hire rock stars to helm these sites. In their quest to find rock stars, hiring managers asked variants on one question over and over -- "Is it more important to hire someone with strong, proven reporting chops, or native bloggers who live and breathe the medium?" (Understanding, of course, that it's not a dichotomy. Plenty of folks have both traits.) Today, though, the advice I'd give is, "Find folks who could be awesome editors." As I told Andrew Phelps at the Nieman Journalism Lab, I shifted from calling our site hosts "reporter-bloggers" at the outset of the project to calling them "reporter-editors."* They do have to be strong, speedy writers. And they must be able to report. But the qualities that lift the best blogs to a higher plane are news judgment, pattern recognition, and an instinct for planning and programming -- the hallmarks, in short, of terrific editors.

When I look at the amazing strides the Atlantic has accomplished online over the last few years, I suspect that much of it comes from having a masthead of double-threats who edit as well as they write -- folks like Alexis Madrigal (and very soon -- permit me a squeal -- Megan Garber).**

4. TREAT CONTEXT AS CONTENT

The three people who paid attention to what I was writing and thinking about just before I started working on Argo probably got some severe whiplash as I took on this role. One of my passions in journalism as far back as I can remember -- the thing I spent a year at the Reynolds Journalism Institute studying -- has been context. For years, I'd been writing about the need to invent a timeless journalism, deeply embedded in context, that eschewed the hyperactive, short-term-obsessed imperatives of news and took advantage of the web's capacity to unite episodic and systemic information. Suddenly, these lofty thoughts gave way to paeans to the listicle and headline-writing tips. I'm happy to trace for you how this effort relates to that larger quest, but I can't deny that the future-of-context mantra has been on the back burner during this effort to build successful niche communities.

This is why it makes me so thrilled to see Argo's sister project, StateImpact, double down on context in their approach to blogging. They are proving that marrying well-tended topic page overviews with regular blog posts can be a formula for success. While Argo's prominent "skybox" promotion modules highlight blog posts, a similar convention in the StateImpact design is engineered to highlight topic pages instead. StateImpact reporters take care in producing these pages, writing authoritative, attention-grabbing headlines for them, promoting them with strong thumbnail images, and treating them, generally, as content (not merely as archives, sidebars, or after-matter for users who want to know more). Partly as a result, the topic pages have become some of the most popular material on the StateImpact sites. And instead of fading away once the initial rush of interest in a story is over, these pages grow more valuable over time.

StateImpact joins sites like Salon and SBNation in starting to blur the line between stories and topic pages. And I like it. I don't think we have a silver-bullet successor to "the article" yet, but I'm eager to move this vein of experimentation forward.

5. THINK BEYOND THE RIGHT RAIL

The "right rail" or "sidebar" has been a mainstay of the news story page for years. Often-automated, haphazardly programmed, it tends to be the dumping ground for material that organizational politics and wishful thinking deem to be essential. Over the years, that space has gotten freighted with more and more stuff -- random widgets, text ads, house promos -- further subdividing the thin trickle of attention that usually accrues to it.

When we started the Argo sites, we tried to keep the right rail on our pages fairly tight. But as time went on, that space began to sprawl (as it's wont to do on every website). We stuck widgets there; stations added their own widgets; partnerships yielded new widgets; all despite scant evidence that the space was capturing much user interest.

Now, with mobile devices on the uptick, we can no longer take for granted that the right rail gets even a token eye fixation from users. And designers have been quietly snuffing it out. When NPR redesigned its Shots blog earlier in 2011, the right rail became a much more minimalist enterprise, both on the front page and on story pages. (The redesign has correlated with a healthy uptick in all our favorite metrics for the blog.) Adweek's gorgeous story page design integrates sidebar material much more organically throughout the page. Recently launched tech site The Verge is doing something altogether different with the concept of the story page, and the right rail is not a part of it.

CONCLUSION

Again, not all of these thoughts would have led us down a different path in 2010, when we launched Argo. But they point towards some differences in the type of project we'd launch today. I ran this list by my confreres Joel Sucherman and Wes Lindamood, and they liked it, but I'm sure they'd each pick a different set of points.

A consistently astonishing aspect of working in digital journalism is that you always feel like you're at the beginning of something. And in a way, you always are. May our world shift even more in the year to come.

* Yes. I know. And I agree. "Reporter-bloggers" pains me as a term; it risks reinforcing the false dichotomy between "bloggers" and "journalists" that drives all sensible people crazy. But many folks still need reassurances that even we Micro-Aggregated Cyberpeople place great value on reporting, and if a little hyphenation can spare me from having to engage with a 12-year-old stereotype involving pajamas, so be it.

** Alexis himself reminds us all once a week on Twitter that the secret sauce behind the Atlantic's steady march of awesomeness online is actually J.J. Gould and Bob Cohn.

May 25 2011

14:50

Can Seattle Save the World? Project Argo Event Takes on Global Health

Last month, about 700 people packed an auditorium in Seattle, not for a Microsoft developer's conference, but to discuss whether the city's burgeoning global health movement can eradicate disease and poverty across the globe. It was a live forum sponsored by public radio station KPLU and its Project Argo blog, Humanosphere. The event was provocatively named, "Can Seattle Save the World? (Poverty, Health and Chocolate)."

Town-Hall-full-panel-sized.jpg

It's exactly the kind of event we had in mind when we began working with NPR member stations last year on Argo. We'd been hoping that the offline and online worlds could collide in a way that would lead to serious discussion around weighty topics.

"The idea of community engagement is always something we'd hoped for in a variety of ways," said Jennifer Strachan, assistant general manager and director of public media at KPLU. "Our struggle was, what kind of a topic could draw a crowd around global health?"

For those of us who are evangelists of digital storytelling or espouse certain philosophies at conferences that usually start with, "The future of" in it, this is another way to measure that elusive "engagement" metric we all talk about. Certainly, we can't ignore critical web analytics -- uniques, pageviews, comments. But when you fill a large venue at $10 a head, you've tapped into something important.

Humanosphere blog

KPLU's Humanosphere is one of 12 NPR Project Argo blogs, whose mission is to develop deep content in a niche vertical that's critical to a local community but resonates nationally.

The Seattle-based site draws modest traffic numbers, punctuated with spikes when writing of global health/poverty issues more broadly in the news (see Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea" scandal).

But on this night, those who turned out to listen and ask questions acted as if they were going to see rock stars, Strachan said.

Tom Paulson, Humanosphere blogger and the evening's host, is most definitely an unlikely rock star. But he's been covering the growing movement in Seattle -- that goes far beyond the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- for years as a newspaper reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Paulson brought in experts from the Gates Foundation, the University of Washington, PATH and Theo Chocolates (hence the "and chocolate" in the title).

The event was live-blogged on Humanosphere, videotaped for Seattle's municipal cable TV channel, and tweeted via its own hashtag, #SEAsaves.

Engaging Young People

While Paulson said he's aware that influentials in the global health space like Humanosphere, he noted, "One thing that was confirmed for me is how big a deal this is for young people. A huge number of people in the crowd were college age or in their 20s. I was surprised at the sophistication of the questions, diversity of opinion, and the excitement for the subject matter."

So the question for Humanosphere is what practical effect the event will have on the blog itself going forward. The answer so far is that it has done little to increase traffic on the blog. Paulson admits the evening was long on policy and short on pitching the blog to this crowd, perhaps something he might do a bit more of next time. And yes, Paulson does expect there to be another live event in the fall.

But for KPLU, and its potential funders, the message on this night was there is an engaged community in Seattle willing to engage in a serious discussion about disease and poverty, and that public radio can be the impetus for that conversation.

As to whether Seattle can actually save the world, Paulson provided the answer to the gathering in the first five minutes. "We were kind of kidding around with the title. Obviously Seattle can't save the world. Bill Gates can't even probably save Zune."

March 29 2011

18:00

How Project Argo Members Communicate Across Time Zones

Project Argo is an ambitious undertaking. It involves networking NPR with 12 member stations spanning three time zones with a different mix of bloggers and editors at each station. The stations cover a variety of regionally focused, nationally resonant topics that range from climate change to local music.

Communicating effectively within these parameters has required creativity and experimentation. And we're still learning.

I'll break down our various approaches -- what we've tried, what's working, and what we're still working on -- using the three tiers of communication: One-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many.

One-to-one communication

These exchanges with the stations have offered some of the most intensive and valuable interactions of the project. When we started, much of our communication happened through the typical channels -- lengthy, one-on-one phone calls and emails to brainstorm, strategize, give feedback, and train.

Email has a tendency to be high friction. Messages can take a long time to compose and a long time to digest, and much is often lost on both ends of the process.

But of course email still has its advantages. It's asynchronous -- in other words, you can carry on a thread without needing to be on the same schedule. It's great for laying information out in precise detail, whether you're talking about metrics or line-editing posts. And it's invaluable for documenting your communication and finding it later.

For working remotely, there's nothing like a phone call or Skype session to have a good back-and-forth conversation. There are drawbacks here too, of course: Calls longer than 10 minutes need to be scheduled, and lots of good information can escape without being documented.

Lately, I've taken to augmenting phone conversations with a PiratePad to help with that last problem. Like Google Docs, PiratePad allows two or more people to see what one another are writing in real-time. The difference is that PiratePad shows your document-mate's typing character by character, rather than refreshing at regular intervals, so it's a little more immediate. This combo has been excellent.

As the project has evolved, most of our one-on-one contact has become pretty quick and spontaneous. Twitter has proven to be one of the best tools for communicating one-on-one. Since all the bloggers are on Twitter, a quick DM conversation often suffices to get across what we need to convey or inquire about.

Heather Goldstone, who blogs for WGBH at Climatide, said Twitter was her favorite tool for staying in touch. "Just in general, I've gotten really hooked on Twitter," she said. "It's more like texting instead of email. If the other person's around, it's got a faster turnaround time and more of a conversational feel than email."

Despite the surfeit of tools to choose from, however, the most valuable one-on-one interactions we can have are in person. For as much as we can do by email, over the phone, through Twitter and other means, nothing replaces being able to sit down face-to-face with our station colleagues, or being able to peer over their shoulders as they're working on their Argo sites. Of course, this is the most time- and resource-intensive way to communicate. But there's still nothing like it.

One-to-Many Communication

We occasionally need to broadcast messages to all the stations involved in the project. For that, we mainly use Basecamp, which gives us a good common archive of files and messages, and integrates pretty well with everyone's email. The biggest problem with Basecamp is that all replies to a message are sent to everyone who received the original message. This can create quite a cascade of emails when a lot of folks weigh in on a thread.

We regularly lead webinars for the Argo bloggers, and we've tried a variety of approaches to doing this. We started out setting these up through a common, organization-wide GoToMeeting account, but this required quite a bit of advance set-up and coordination, and one of the participants invariably had technical troubles. Plus, we've had difficulty recording the webinars. (GoToMeeting's recording technology only works on PCs; my teammates and I use Macs. Plus, the GoToMeeting software tends to conflict with screencasting tools we might use to record the desktop and audio.)

We've since moved to a lower-fidelity approach, using free tools. Join.Me to share desktops, and FreeConference.com for voice communication.

The voice controls in FreeConference.com's system are reasonably robust. Call organizers can mute everyone but the presenter, allowing call attendees to un-mute themselves selectively. For a small fee, FreeConference.com allows us to record the audio when we need to. Pair that audio up with video of the related slides, and you've got a webinar recording.

When our goal is capturing best practices all the stations can replicate, or documenting instructions on using various aspects of the Argo platform, we turn to our two public-facing communication channels: the Argo blog and the Argo documentation site.

Like everything else, these communication platforms pose their own disadvantages. It can be time-consuming to write up or record material for these sites. Also, the more material that's there, the harder it can be for the stations to find what they need when they have questions.

We created an FAQ on the documentation site to help the stations find answers to the most common questions. And the time invested in producing the documentation and material up-front often saves us time down the road when we can send a link to a post we've made in response to a question from one of the Argo-bloggers.

Many-to-Many Communication

We've consistently found that some of the most valuable communication around the project happens when folks at each station can talk with one another. Yet because of the geographical and topical dispersion of the stations, these can be the hardest interactions to foster. So we continue to seek ways to encourage this, using all of the tools mentioned in this piece.

Webinars offer a regular opportunity for folks at the stations to share lessons about a focused aspect of developing a niche site. Increasingly, we've sought to foster more open-ended conversations among the stations as well -- including regular story calls where a subset of the bloggers share what they're working on, spontaneous brainstorming calls, and check-in conference calls where we discuss how the project is going.

Right now, requests for technical help from bloggers at the stations tend to fall into one of three categories: bug reports (this should work, but doesn't), feature requests (I'd like to be able to do this on the site), and requests for advice (how can I accomplish this in a post?). It's impossible for the bloggers, who don't know the details of how the software works, to determine which is which.

So it would be helpful for us to route all these reports to a common channel, accessible by all, where users can chime in if they're having similar problems or have advice to share on how to accomplish something. To that end, we're working on creating a Stack-Overflow-esque board that would allow the bloggers to discuss issues and solicit advice as a group without the reply-all problems Basecamp poses.

On a few occasions, we've been able to bring the stations together for some of that invaluable person-to-person contact. As Tom Paulson, who blogs for KPLU at Humanosphere, pointed out, in-person communication builds on all the other methods of sharing ideas.

Generally Speaking

For a project as variegated as Argo, there's no one-size-fits-all solution to keeping in touch. The project has unfolded in phases -- hiring reporters, training reporters, building audience, and sustaining growth -- at various rates for each station, and each of those phases has required a different approach to communication.

What's served us best are flexibility and adaptation. Setting up a phone call over Twitter while we trade notes in a PiratePad. Using Basecamp to agree on a time for a webinar that mashes up FreeConference.com with Join.Me.

Although I've mentioned specific tools in this post, I don't think the hodgepodge of software and services we use is the most important takeaway. Instead, my strongest recommendation is this: Be attentive to your communication needs and how well your approaches are serving them, then adjust continuously.

Matt Thompson is an editorial product manager at Project Argo.

December 20 2010

17:24

NPR's Project Argo Creates National Content at the Local Level

argo_promo_sites_sm.jpg Jason and the Argonauts were the mythological Greek heroes who set off on a quest for the Golden Fleece. Like its namesake, NPR's Project Argo is off on another noble quest -- to strengthen local journalism, particularly on digital platforms. Project Argo is a partnership between NPR and member stations, funded by the Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Its focus is building and launching niche, topic-focused websites for NPR member stations that can be models for the rest of the system.

We're proving the notion that a news organization can quickly build authority, engagement and traffic without large-scale increases in newsroom staff. Argo sites are piloted by one reporter-blogger (in a couple of cases, two reporters share one full-time job).

The topics we cover vary from Global Health to Higher Education and from Climate Change to Crime and the Courts. Argo stations include Oregon Public Broadcasting, KQED and KALW in San Francisco, KPCC in Pasadena, KPBS in San Diego, KPLU in Seattle, Minnesota Public Radio, WBUR and WGBH in Boston, WNYC in New York, WXPN in Philadelphia and WAMU in Washington, D.C.

Although each of the Argo sites is producing very different types of content, they're linked to one another in a network dedicated to quality journalism. We think you'll find the same serendipity that carries you from a climate change story to a health care story on NPR programs such as "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" will also inform and entertain you online in the Argo network. The organizing principle is that you will find the same high level of quality throughout the network.

Reporting, Aggregation, Community

Make no mistake; the Project Argo sites are local. But we are covering news that resonates nationally. WBUR's blog, CommonHealth, may become your new favorite site devoted to reporting on health care costs if you live in Boston. But it might also be required reading if you live anywhere, from Chicago to Corpus Christie, from Miami to Missoula, and anywhere else in between.

The Argo sites are based upon the principle that in order to bring the world to our readers, our reporters must report and write outstanding enterprise blog posts. But they must pay equal attention to curating the conversation by aggregating the best content from across the web that is relevant to his or her beat, and by fostering and participating in a robust community.

As a key deliverable for Project Argo, we were expected to build a new free-standing, web-based content management system using open source code and free software commonly available. By the end of the project's pilot phase (December 2011), we will open source that platform.

Platform

In building the platform, the questions we needed to answer were:

  • Will it allow journalists to publish quickly with minimal training?
  • Will it allow journalists to perform the role of content curator and community manager? In other words, can we empower a single person to run an entire site?
  • How can we ensure we use entirely, or as much as possible, open source software for easy and low-cost reuse throughout public media?

To achieve the goals, we needed to build a foundation for the Argo Network that could provide the structural underpinnings for any Argo site, and at the same time be flexible enough to accommodate the unique needs of individual sites.

WordPress provided the most advanced starting point of the options we evaluated in terms of basic blog publishing. We have added a good deal of customization and also integration of other open source or free technologies like Django, Delicious and TwitterTim.es to create efficiencies, promote content and create a new way of displaying aggregated headlines.

All 12 websites were live by the end of August 2010. We will check in back here at Idea Lab from time to time to talk about various features that we roll out, and overall progress. We'll also be completely transparent about our process and training for Argo bloggers at our Argo Project blog. Let us know how we're doing and what you might like to see.

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 13 2010

18:00

Behind-the-scenes innovation: How NPR’s Project Argo is making life more efficient for its bloggers

Remember the days before the roundup post existed? Neither do I. [Laura's making me feel old. —Ed.] The roundup is a longstanding staple of the blogosphere, an expected post for loyal readers who want a rundown of the best new stuff around the web on a given topic. But can a staple still have room for innovation? Over at Argo Network, the new blog network at NPR, the leadership team is giving it a shot on the back end. They’ve designed a workflow that makes it easier for their bloggers to cull through links and produce a roundup post. The result: a simpler process for the blogger, and added benefit for the reader. It’s no technological revolution, but an example of the kind of small improvement that can make it easier to share work with the audience.

“We realized the workflow inefficiency of how a blogger would create a link roundup — copying and pasting URLs from places,” Matt Thompson, Argo editorial project manager, told me. “We were thinking about workflow and how can we make this as easy as possible. How do we take an action the blogger is making regularly and make it more efficient?”

Thompson puts workflow innovation in the broader context of the Argo Project, which NPR see as an experiment in form. The Argo team sees blogging — or online serial storytelling, as Thompson put it — as a medium still in its infancy. There’s still time, they say, to think about how it can be improved, including how to do it more efficiently. And they plan to release the new tools that come out of their experimentation to the general public. The team’s developer, Marc Lavallee, said they’re trying to create tools that fit the workflow of the lone blogger. “Most of what we build will be the type of thing a person running a solo site would find useful,” Lavallee said. “When you’re thinking about a product, it’s so much easier to say: ‘One person is behind this blog. Would I do that every day? No? Then let’s not build that.’”

The roundup tool is a good example of the Argo team’s thinking. As bloggers go through their links each day, scrolling through stories and posts looking for the most interesting stuff on their beat, they tag the links using Delicious. Their Delicious accounts are synced up with the Argo’s backend (WordPress modified using Django) to match up the tags. The backend pulls in the links, letting bloggers quickly put together a nice-looking post without all the copy/pasting and formatting. Thompson made a screen-capture video of the whole process, which you can check out below. Here’s a sample of what the roundup would look like published.

Using Delicious as a link-post builder isn’t new, of course, but Argo’s version integrates specifically into their sidebar, a special WordPress post type, and Lavallee’s code.

The tagging tool also feeds into the sites’ topic pages. Those of us who spend all day on the Internet encounter great links all the time that aren’t right for a full post, or maybe even for a spot in a roundup post — but for people interested in a particular topic, it could still be valuable. The Argo process lets bloggers make use of those links with the same tagging function, making the site’s content pages a bit better than a purely automated feed. Check out the ocean acidification page over at the Argo blog Climatide (covering issues related to climate change and the ocean on Cape Cod) — in the sidebar, “Latest Ocean Acidification Links” contains (at this writing, at least) links pulled in through the Delicious tagging process. Others are drawn from Daylife or handmade Twitter lists around certain topics.

Thompson is passionate about contextual news, so I asked him if his topic pages might serve, perhaps, a more noble function than driving search traffic, which is arguably why most news organizations have topic pages at all. Thompson was quick to point out that the Argo topic pages are still new; he’s working with bloggers on their “tagging hygiene,” he says. And he admits that others at Argo is a bit “skeptical of topics pages,” which “is probably a good thing.” But the pages have potential, when built out, to let readers drill down into narrow-but-important topics in line with the goal of the blog. “These pages aren’t just sort of random machine driven pages,” Thompson said. The humanized topic pages help Argo bloggers get their sites, as Thompson puts it, to be “an extension of their mind and their thinking.”

Photo by Benny Mazur used under a Creative Commons license.

September 09 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of public radio’s Argonauts

[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.]

Overnight, it seems, journalism has been transformed from a daily grind to an heroic quest. Rupert Murdoch has dubbed his adventure to get readers to pay for tablet (and other) content Alesia (after a Roman/Gauls battle) and now public radio formally launches Project Argo. Ah, journalists pursuing the golden fleece. Forget Woodstein — the pursuit of journalism itself is now an against-all-odds mythic trip against budget monsters and business model slayers.

If last year was the year of massive cutting, this is the year of new news creation popping up from unusual quarters. AOL’s Patch is probably the biggest hiring agent, with more than 400 new full-time jobs covering local communities. Sites like TBD.com and Bay Citizen are crafting new products and strategies and hiring dozens of journalists. Now Argo pushes forward, in a quest to stick a new flag of public media in terra incognita, and is hiring journalists in the process.

Argo is intended to bring a high level of attention to hot button topics, covered from a regional perspective. “We want to be the best means of authoritative coverage,” NPR Digital Media G.M. Kinsey Wilson told me recently. [We want] to be the top-of-mind choice for issues like immigration [now covered out of L.A. by KPCC with the Argo site Multi-American].”

Coverage is handled by the increasingly familiar reporter/blogger/curator, finding the most relevant coverage for readers. Largely providing a single new full-time position for each new site, “hosts” come from some impressive reporting backgrounds, like WBUR’s Carey Goldberg, former Boston bureau chief of The New York Times, and Rachel Zimmerman, former health and medicine reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Much of the content — and there’s an impressive amount at launch — is text, not audio.

At first, Argo seems hard to put in context. It’s public radio becoming public media becoming locally topical, but in ways that can inform more than local audiences — which we used to think of as public radio listeners, but who are now public media listeners and readers. Got that?

I’ve talked to a number of people in the emerging public media landscape — a fairly merry lot of Argonauts and other dragon slayers who see lots of upside — so let’s take a look at the emerging newsonomics of projects like Argo.

By the raw numbers, Argo is a $3 million investment. That’s not much by traditional journalism standards, but in this day and age, it wins headlines, like the minor economic development miracle of a new big-box store being covered on the Metro front. The money comes both from a foundation — the omnipresent Knight Foundation at $1 million — and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at $2 million.

That Knight funding reminds us of the good that’s still being done by the once dependable profits of newspaper companies, as Knight Ridder funding built one of the 25 foundations in the country, one that has been instrumental in seeding sprouts of the new new journalism.

That CPB funding reminds us that our tax dollars have been supporting news for more than four decades now, even as the debate rages abstractly on whether it’s a good idea to have “government” in the news business. NPR’s news effort — supported by members, philanthropists like Joan Kroc and yes, our tax dollars — makes a pretty good case that some government funding is a good idea, especially if we compare NPR radio news to what is elsewhere generally available in the growing desert of commercial radio news coverage.

Argo itself is 12 sites, produced by 14 public radio stations (two sites are jointly produced), each specializing in major topics like education, health, immigration, and ocean health, and exploring that topic regionally. Journalists are hired by individual public radio stations, each of which applied for the funding. The initial funding is intended to sustain the sites through the end of next year — and to provide “prototype products,” according to Wilson.

So that funding is one of the first things that tells us about the business of this effort. Like Silicon Valley startups, the effort is about building a product that seems to meet a clear audience need, building that audience — and then finding a sustainable business model. That’s what has built companies for decades in the valley, and it’s in contrast to how much of the journalism business has long gotten funded.

Looking under the covers, though, here are three more things to watch about the emerging economic model underneath Argo:

  • It’s local and vertical. In the conundrum that the web has been for newsies, publishers often felt compelled to choose “local” or “vertical,” the fancy term for topical. Of course, readers’ concerns encompass both, and an education site that focuses on local education (such as Minnesota Public Radio’s Argo site On Campus) creates double value and may multiply audience. Even though, it’s “local,” just as WBUR’s CommonHealth, it will find national audiences as well.
  • It’s built for networking. Public radio used to a fairly one-way street, with national NPR and then Public Radio International and American Public Radio essentially licensing or syndicating shows to local stations, of which there are more than 250. Now built on increasingly flexible technologies like NPR’s emerging API and PRX’s exchange, local stations can increasingly both syndicate their own work, Argo-funded and other, to each other — and pick up other stations’ work more easily. In a sense, we see an alternative wire in creation, especially as the Public Media Platform goes forward.
  • It builds on public radio stations’ local news push. A number of stations represented in Argo have also begun building out their local/regional/statewide news presences. KQED, in the Bay Area, which is launching MindShift through Argo, just hired eight new news staffers as it launched KQEDNews.org (Good piece by MediaShift’s Katie Donnelly on the initiative and its context.) So in KQED’s case, as in WBUR’s, KPCC in L.A.’s, and Oregon Public Broadcasting’s, the topical initiative receives more play due to the expanded news reach — and the expanded news reach gets more public notice because of the new topical coverage.

Each of those factors are multipliers, multipliers of public radio’s emerging digital news business. They multiply audience. They multiple the ability to get members and membership income. They multiply sponsorship opportunities, the “advertising” of public radio. That’s on the business level. On the journalism level, public radio’s news values — the closest to newspaper’s traditional ones — get to flex their muscles, another early test of just how far public media wants to go in filling the yawning local news vacuum.

August 26 2010

14:00

Project Argo blog is for participants, but an interesting read for outsiders

In the run-up to the launch of the D.C. local site TBD, the editors let future readers peek behind the curtain through a placeholder blog that teased new hires and plans for the project. The blog also did a great job of generating buzz; we tweeted quite a few links to the site.

So when Megan pointed me to a blog from another not-yet-launched project, NPR’s Argo Project, I assumed it would serve a similar marketing end. But this one’s different: The blog’s lead writer, editorial project manager Matt Thompson, is writing directly to the new Argo bloggers at 12 NPR member stations. Argo is a new cross-country network of reported blogs, and many of the journalists hired to run them need some tactical training in how to run a successful Argo site.

Think of it as an in-house blog that just happens to be open to the public; even though the blog is meant for NPR staff, it’s a useful read for anyone interested in the future of news or in best practices for launching a news blog. Here are a few of Thompson’s lessons:

1. You need a plan

One of the best posts on Thompson’s blog is a pre-launch checklist. (He’s since posted a revised version of the checklist on Argo’s impressive and useful docs site.) Thompson lays out a step-by-step guide for Argo participants, but it’s generally useful for anyone about to launch a new site could use (particularly if you’re using WordPress, which Argo is).

Some of the best: Do a “photowalk” for your beat (“try to capture images of things you’ll be posting about frequently”); build our your metadata beforehand (defining tags and categories before launch to straighten up your taxonomy); and reaching out to the best Creative Commons photographers on your beat (to ensure a happy group of free content providers).

2. Follow by example, steal from others

Blogging isn’t new, and Argo isn’t pretending it’s creating a new format. In fact, Thompson is urging bloggers to follow the examples of their best predecessors. He points readers to the work of trailblazers like Marc Ambinder, Nick Denton, and Andrew Sullivan. Ambinder gets a nod for his thoughts on journalism as an industry. A Nick Denton memo pushes for context (one of Thompson’s longstanding interests). And Andrew Sullivan gets praise for his pacing. The three writers certainly have different styles, different content focuses, and different missions, but Thompson has plucked out valuable advice for all of his bloggers.

3. Tactics are teachable

Thompson has a running series of posts called “dark secrets” that offer insight into how successful blogs engage an audience. Use photos. Watch your headlines. Where should you place that hyperlink? He’s got a good post on that. They’re the kinds of insights newspapers, magazines, and radio stations have compiled about their own media over time. But for this new-to-many platform, they make for helpful tips.

4. Blogging is a craft

The category Thompson posts to most frequently is “blogging technique.” His points are great: Find your morning routine, your rhythms, and your pace. Check out his post on “The blogger’s first month.” Blogging isn’t journalism for dummies — it’s a craft with its own set of practices and ways to excel.

August 25 2010

16:45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 06 2010

15:00

Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

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

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl