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August 03 2010

17:30

Demotix to distribute photos via Publish2’s news wire

Summer’s brought a growth spurt for Publish 2’s News Exchange. Last week, the cooperative distribution platform announced some big-gun content partners: ProPublica, GlobalPost, Texas Tribune, and Texas Watchdog. And today, it announced another content partner: Demotix, the citizen-and-freelance-journalism driven photography site.

We’re excited to announce that Demotix, the award-winning open photo agency for independent journalists, will begin offering content via Publish2 News Exchange when we launch photo support later this summer. Newspapers and other news organizations will not only benefit from the huge efficiency of sharing photos directly through Publish2 News Exchange, but they will now also benefit from the efficiency of Demotix’s open photo sourcing platform and their presence in the U.S. news market.

The upshot: “With the addition of Demotix to News Exchange, newspapers will also be able to buy photos a la carte for coverage of major news events around the U.S. and around the world.” And “for us at Demotix, CEO Turi Munthe put it, “this opens a potentially very large segment of the US local market, and the thrill of partnering with a new news organisation that truly shares our beliefs and vision of the future.”

It’s a telling collaboration. Demotix (tagline: “The Street Wire”) lives at the intersection of professional and citizen journalism, offering a wire of user-generated images to mainstream outlets. Revenues are split by Demotix and its journalists: every time an image gets picked up from the Demotix wire, its creator gets a 50-percent share of the revenue. (Hence, another tagline: “News by You.”) And, so far, images captured by the community’s 3,200-plus active reporters (hailing from 190 countries) have appeared on some big-time front pages — The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Time magazine among them.

(For more background on Demotix, by the way, check out this fantastic overview of the platform and its impact on the freelance image marketplace from the spring issue of our sister publication, Nieman Reports.)

The team-up has been in the works for several months, Publish2’s director of news innovation, Ryan Sholin, told me. It’s not only that “we’re totally open to and interested in partnering with anybody and everybody who wants to distribute content across our pipes”; it’s also that Demotix, with its freelanced-content-distribution approach, makes particular sense as a P2 partner. (That’s one reason why, as Sholin pointed out, the Demotix logo was featured on a slide at the News Exchange’s beta launch at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference back in May.)

“I personally think it’s really cool because they focus so heavily on freelancers and almost, really, citizen journalists,” Sholin says of Demotix. “The premise is: ‘You are an independent journalist walking around town, and you see something cool, and take a picture of it — and we will help you sell it to news organizations.’ That flows so cleanly into the vision of what News Exchange can be for freelancers and independent journalists that it was a very natural fit.”

And what Demotix gets from the deal is essentially amplification of its current distribution mechanism: “the opportunity,” Sholin says, “to take the work that’s running through their system and have a much better distribution channel — to go straight into newspapers’ print publishing systems, straight into their FTP folders — without having to do a whole browse-and-download sort of interface.”

The partnership will roll out later this summer, as part of Publish2’s broader expansion into image distribution. The upcoming photo-support platform will make it easier, Sholin says, “for anybody to share photos — for newspapers to share photos, for other content providers to sell photos in the system.” And “Demotix will be one of the content providers in the system at launch.”

July 27 2010

16:30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 26 2010

17:00

Data, diffusion, impact: Five big questions the Wikileaks story raises about the future of journalism

Whenever big news breaks that’s both (a) exciting and (b) relevant to the stuff I research, I put myself through a little mental exercise. I pretend I have an army of invisible Ph.D. students at my beck-and-call and ask them to research the three most important “future of news” items that I think emerge out of the breaking news. That way, I figure out for myself what’s really important amidst all the chaos.

The Wikileaks-Afghanistan story is big. It’s big for the country, it’s big for NATO soldiers and Afghan civilians, and (probably least importantly) it’s big for journalism. And a ton of really smart commentary has been written about it already. So all I want to do here is chime in on what I’d be focusing on if I wanted to understand the Wikileaks story in a way that will still be relevant one year, five years, even twenty years from now. I want to briefly mention three quick assignments I’d give my hypothetical Ph.D. students, and two assignments I’d keep for myself.

Watch the news diffuse: The release of the Wikileaks stories yesterday was a classic case study of the new ecosystem of news diffusion. More complex than the usual stereotype of “journalists report, bloggers opine,” in the case the Wikileaks story we got to see a far more nuanced (and, I would say, far more real) series of news decisions unfold: from new fact-gatherers, to news organizations in a different position in the informational chain, all the way to the Twittersphere in which conversation about the story was occurring in real-time, back to the bloggers, the opinion makers, the partisans, the politicians, and the hacks. This is how news works in 2010; let’s try to map it.

What’s the frame?: This one’s simple, but interesting because of that simplicity. With the simultaneous release of the same news story by three different media organization, all in different countries (The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel), all coming out the the same set of 92,000 documents, we’ve got almost a lab-quality case study here of how different national news organizations talk about the news differently. Why did The Guardian headline civilian casualties while the Times chose to talk about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan? And what do these differences in framing say about how the rest of the world sees the U.S. military adventure in Afghanistan?

What’s the impact?: Will the “War Logs” release have the same impact that the Pentagon Papers did, either in the short of long term? And why will the stories have the impact they do? Like Jay Rosen, I’m sadly skeptical that this huge story will change the course of the war in the way the Ellsberg leaks did. And like Rosen, I think a lot of the reasons lie beyond journalism — they lie in the nature of politics and the way society and the political elite process huge challenges to our assumed, stable world views.

I might make one addition to Jay’s list about the impact of this story though — one that has to do with the speed of the news cycle. Like I noted already, there’s nothing more exciting than watching these sorts of stories unfold in real time. But I wonder if the “meme-like” nature of their distribution — and the fact that there will always be another meme, another bombshell — blunts there impact. You don’t have to be Nicholas Carr to get the feeling that we’re living in a short-attention span, media-saturated society; I wonder what it would take for a story like the “War Logs” bombshell to stick around in the public mind long enough for it to mean something.

So those are stories I’d give my grad students. Here are the topics I’d be keeping for myself:

Why Wikileaks?: I talked about this a bit over in my column today at NPR, so I’ll just summarize my main points from there. Looking rationally at the architecture of the news ecosystem, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that Wikileaks would have been tapped to serve as the intermediary for this story. After all, they just turned around and fed it to three big, traditional, national newspapers. There is, of course, Wikileaks’ technical expertise; what Josh Young called their “focus lower in the journalism stack…on the logistics of anonymity.” But I think there’s more to it than that. I think to understand “why Wikileaks,” you have to think in terms of organizational culture as well as network architecture and technical skills. In short, I think Wikileaks has an organizational affinity with folks who are most likely to be on the leaking end of the news in today’s increasingly wired societies. To understand the world of Wikileaks, and what it means for journalism, you have to understand the world of geeks, of hackers, and of techno-dissidents. Understanding reporting and reporters isn’t enough.

Journalism in the era of big data: Finally, it’s here where I’d start to draw the links between the “War Logs,” the Washington Post “Top Secret America” series, and even the New York Times front page story on the increasing conservatism of the Roberts Supreme Court. What do they all have in common? Databases, big data, an attempt to get at “the whole picture” — and maybe even a slight sense of letdown. The Washington Post story took years to write and came with a giant database. The Afghanistan story was based on 92,000 documents, many of which might have been largely inaccurate. And the Roberts story unapologetically quoted “an analysis of four sets of political science data.”

We’re seeing here the full-throated emergence of what a lot of smart people have been talking about for years now: data-driven journalism, but data in the service of somehow getting to the “big picture” about what’s really going on in the world. And this attempt to get at the big picture carries with it the risk of a slight letdown, not because of journalism, but because of us. As Ryan Sholin noted on Twitter, “Much like the massive WaPo story on secrecy, I don’t see much new [in the Wikileaks story], other than the sheer weight of failure.”

Part of what we’ve been trained, as a society, to expect out of the Big Deal Journalistic Story is something “new,” something we didn’t know before. Nixon was a crook! Osama Bin Laden was found by the CIA and then allowed to escape! But in these recent stories, its not the presence of something new, but the ability to tease a pattern out of a lot of little things we already know that’s the big deal. It’s not the newsness of failure; as Sholin might put it, it’s the weight of failure. It remains to be seen how this new focus on “the pattern” will change our political culture, our news culture, and the expectations we have of journalism. And it will be interesting to see what the focus on data leaves out. This week, however, big-data journalism proved its mettle.

May 28 2010

20:00

Publish2’s Ryan Sholin: “We did not set out to kill the Associated Press”

This week, with much fanfare, Publish2 announced its new News Exchange service. Using the new platform, CEO Scott Karp wrote, “newspapers can replace the AP’s obsolete cooperative with direct content sharing and replace the AP’s commodity content with both free, high-quality content from the Web and content from any paid source.” With the result being “a new efficient supply and distribution chain for high quality content brands.”

The “obsolete cooperative.” (Also: “The Associated Press monopoly over content distribution to newspapers.” And also: “The New AP.”) Fighting words, to be sure — and, all in all, a remarkably effective approach for a new initiative coming from a nearly-three-year-old, ten-staffer startup that needs to fight above its weight class: The announcement drew tons of attention from media new and traditional, much of it framed in journo-irresistible terms of “Scrappy Startup Takes on the Associated Press.” And some of it framed in terms even more irresistable than that: “Scrappy Startup Wants to Kill the Associated Press.” Hooboy: David v. Goliath goes digital!

But now that we’re moving beyond the initial flurry of announcements and analysis of the News Exchange, it’s worth noting the nuances beyond Karp’s publicitytastic “New Associated Press for the 21st Century.” “Disrupt” doesn’t mean “destroy”; it simply means to “throw into disorder.” And, for all its fight-focused framing, Publish2 (at the moment, at least) seems much more intent on shaking things up than on shaking things down. As Karp himself noted as he introduced P2X, it’s “a platform aimed at disrupting the Associated Press monopoly over content distribution to newspapers.”

And there’s another word worth noting: distribution. The Associated Press, after all, has two core functions: There’s the AP, content producer; and then there’s the AP, content distributor. The “blazing guns” Publish2 has aimed at the cooperative, to borrow Mark Coddington’s phrase, seem to be directed much more toward the latter. To my mind, that’s a crucial distinction: I’m all about shaking up the structures of distribution, of broadening the marketplace when it comes to wire content available to news organizations; I’m much less enthused about the idea of killing off a valuable — and even, I’d say, valuably institutionalized — source of reporting and information.

And — whew! — as Publish 2’s Ryan Sholin explained to me today, “We did not set out to kill the Associated Press. That’s not the goal. I don’t think that’s a logical thing to even want to do.” What the News Exchange and its creators do want, Sholin said, is to broaden the ecosystem of access when it comes to the wire content available to newspapers.

And that content includes…the AP’s. “If the AP wants to sell content through our system and distribute it to their subscribers,” Sholin said, “that seems like a win for everybody. So we’d welcome that.”

Chutzpah! So, though the battle-of-the-news-co-ops won’t (necessarily) be a death match: game on.

During our conversation, Sholin also provided some background info on the structure and goals of the — indeed, quite fascinating — News Exchange. Here’s what he told me, in a lightly edited transcript:

The general mechanics:

There’s two big pieces to the News Exchange. The first piece is that it allows news organizations to share content with each other. And that’s something that they’re already doing — but they’re not doing it in a way that’s efficient or scalable. Most of those content-sharing networks that you see popping up are emailing stories and budgets back and forth. And that’s far from the most efficient way to do the job. And it’s also not scalable.

So what we’ve done is build an efficient, scalable system that ties directly into print publishing systems. So instead of sending copy editors off on email and copy/paste errands on deadline, they’re just going to be able to open a folder in their print publishing system, the place where they’re already getting all of their stories to flow into the papers, it’s going to be right there for them in the format they need it.

[Megan: How do the News Exchanges relationships with newspapers work right now? is there an existing network?]

Right now, we’ve got about two dozen newspapers that are beta-testing. For the most part right now they’re kind of jumping in and putting up their newswire. I don’t know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes. But if I were a newspaper and I were checking this out, and I liked it, I’d be turning around and going to the people that I share content with, and telling them, “Jump in.”

The financial mechanics:

Today, everything is free. If you want to come and share your free content, or your content for free, with your partners, you’re more than welcome to. If you want to take your online-only content and put it out there for print publication, you’re more than welcome to. At the same time, if you want to sell your content — for example, if you’re a nonprofit that wants to sell your content to newspapers — you can use our system to manage subscription, distribution, and promotion of those newswires, and be off on your own selling it and dealing with your own contracts and purchase orders off in your own systems right now.

We are going to add on a marketplace layer. And what that’s going to do is allow, number one, the newspapers to set a price for their newswires. I’ve talked to editors who say, “Hey, we want to sell our college football coverage. The team in our town is a popular team across the state and across the region, we want to sell this newswire to other newspapers.” And then we also have paid content providers. Even people who are looking to put photos and other content in the system who are interested in selling it. And we’re going to make it easy either to pay for either a subscription to a newswire — or, if the content provider allows it, à la carte pricing, as well. The pricing structure is definitely going to be up to the individual content providers.

[Megan: So, essentially, you provide a space for the market interactions, and charge organizations for the convenience cost of the facilitation.]

Yes. When we build on the marketplace layer, we’ll charge a transaction fee, but it’s going to be based on the volume of use. So if you’re a nonprofit organization trying to sell your stories to six papers, we’re not terribly interested in taking your money. But if you’re a major, international news provider who is using our system to sell and deliver subscriptions on a large scale to American newspapers, that’s a case where I’m sure we’ll be taking a transaction fee — based on volume of use, circulation of the papers you’re selling to. Forty-five minutes into every call with each editor, when they ask me, “What’s the business model?” that’s one half of it — that’s one side of it.

[Megan: So the fee will be determined on a case-by-case basis?]

I don’t know if I’d say case-by-case, exactly. But it’s definitely going to be based on volume of use and circulation. It’s not just going to be a blanket fee. We’re exploring all our options and it’s something that we’re going to talk in great depth with newspaper editors and content providers about. The goal here, in the long term, is to save newspapers money. So we’re not looking to add on anything to what they’re already paying for newswire content.

So the other side of the question of how are we going to make money is definitely that we’re looking to help newspapers reduce their dependence on other newswire sources like the AP. So if we make it possible for a newspaper to drop from an “AP complete” to “AP limited” — or to cancel the AP altogether (and obviously there’s a longer timeline involved with that) — we’ll be looking to assess something like a license fee for the software. And it’ll be a fraction of the difference.

The goal here is that if we can cut newspapers’ newswire bill in half, that would be a big win for them. For the major metros, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars. We talk to editors about this all the time, and they do the math in their head, and say, “Oh, that’s four FTEs.” So I personally like the sound of that: newspaper editors saying, “Oh, if you saved me that much money, I could hire this many reporters.” That seems like a good thing.

Providing content vs. facilitating its exchange:

[Megan: What about the criticisms that the News Exchange won't provide original content, as the AP does?]

The original content is out there. There are freelancers on the streets of Bangkok right now who are tweeting and filing photos and providing reports to people like The Economist and the BBC and the Financial Times. Over the past three years, Publish2’s been building up a user base of about 10,000 journalists, and we’ve done that by approving them all by hand, in large part. If someone has an @newspaper.com email address, they’re automatically shepherded into the system. But for all of our other users, we’ve spent a lot of time and resources and energy in making sure that we’ve got a user base that is journalists-only. And the end result is that there’s a ton of top-shelf freelancers already in the system.

So connecting the kind of top-shelf freelancers — content providers that we don’t normally think of as somebody that we can easily connect with to write a story — that are out there with editors in the U.S. is one big step. That’s a big piece of this. And the other big thing is just to say, “Let’s take all the international news providers that are out there and put them in one bucket.” The newspapers that are out there, picking their stories for the day: Let them decide who’s got the highest-quality content. Let them vote by slotting the stories on the pages.

One thing that we’re going to try and do in the coming days is try and get the word out a little bit and probably put up some blog posts about what the system — how the system can help a freelancer, a newspaper, a blogger, a media company — just to give an idea of the different value propositions that we’re offering to everybody in the ecosystem. Because there’s a lot of moving parts, and only so much that Scott could say onstage for six minutes. It was very much about getting the big idea out.

And I can tell you, as the guy who’s been here all week fielding calls and emails and tweets and registrations, that we got the word out. The big idea is out there. So it’s been a very exciting week here.

February 01 2010

17:00

What is journalism school for? A call for input

[I've asked Seth Lewis, a former Miami Herald editor and smart journalism professor-in-training at the University of Texas, to join our cast of occasional commentators here at the Lab. One of his primary focuses will be looking at the changing world of journalism schools. Here's an introduction. —Josh]

Last year saw no shortage of future-of-journalism conferences. But if 2009 was dominated with talk about business models for news, perhaps 2010 will be the year we hear more about education models for news.

The ongoing discussion of pay models has led us to think more critically about forms of press subsidy — to recognize that all journalism is subsidized to some extent, that each type of subsidy comes with its own kind of strings attached, and that journalists of the future will have to be more proactive in understanding sources of funding or finding ways to innovate their own. All of that talk is healthy for journalism.

Likewise, a wider debate about journalism education might lead us to ask some soul-searching questions, beginning with the existential one: What is journalism school for, anyway? If j-schools historically looked to the industry for leadership and jobs for their graduates, how should they orient themselves now? What happens when much of our journalism education has been built up around the “newsroom paradigm” of training 20-somethings to operate in a traditional organizational setting — at a time when media work (of all kinds, not just journalism) is increasingly individualized, temporary, and precarious? Even more, at a time when the future of higher education itself is in major flux, what becomes of journalism education’s place in the university and society at large?

These questions have been on my mind lately since I was invited to join the Lab as a contributor covering the evolution of the j-school. I won’t profess any more expertise than my own experience in j-schools (as an undergrad, and now as a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas), as well as the perspective I’ve gained recently after touring several major j-schools as a candidate on the academic job market. I had intensive two-day interviews at three schools, all major programs in different parts of the United States, and also engaged in half-hour phone interviews with another four programs, most of them of the Big J-School variety.

In each case, my interviewers posed a question that went like this: “What should we be teaching today?” This wasn’t a loaded question, a guess-what-the-teacher-is-thinking sort of test. They sincerely wanted some fresh ideas, as it was clear that just about every school is grappling with curriculum reform.

So, what do we teach?

After fielding that question at least a dozen times, I finally settled on this talking point: It’s about adaptability. We’re never going to find the silver bullet, so instead let’s teach students to be flexible — to work in unpredictable settings, to generate their own funding as needed, and otherwise learn as they go. We can do that by using a curriculum that is similarly flexible, adaptive to technological and cultural trends in society even while it retains bedrock values of truth-seeking and fairness.

That plan is imperfect, of course, but it’s a start. Looking ahead, I hope to draw on the wisdom of others in blogging about what j-schools large and small are doing for 2010 and the uncertain future beyond. For starters, I’m reaching out to the deans and directors at the 12 schools funded by a multimillion-dollar Carnegie-Knight initiative on journalism education to see how these schools — arguably the biggest players in the field — are responding both to the contractions among legacy media and the opportunities for growth elsewhere.

But, in the meantime, I would also like to hear from all of you, readers of the Lab: What should the 21st century journalism school look like? Would it have a more DIY focus to prep students for freelance careers? Take a more project orientation, as in Jay Rosen’s Studio 20? Focus on teaching the right mix of analog and digital skills, as Ryan Sholin suggests? Or try to become part of the wider academic curriculum — a sort of “journalism school for all” general-education requirement, as Dave Winer recommends?

What are your ideas? Drop them in the comments, or if you think there’s something I should cover in a future post, e-mail me directly at sethclewis@gmail.com.

Photo by Fabrice Florin used under a Creative Commons license.

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