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June 24 2013

15:44

Opening up government: A new round of Knight News Challenge winners aims to get citizens and governments better information

Moments ago, the Knight Foundation announced its latest round of winners in the Knight News Challenge, its currently semiannual competition to identify fundable ideas that advance the interests of journalism and the information needs of communities. This round focused on the open government movement, and its eight winners all fit squarely into that box. More about them below.

But the big news is what Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen just said here in Cambridge at the opening morning of the 2013 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. He asked openly for ideas on what the future of the News Challenge should be, because, as he put it, “It may be finished. It may be that, as a device for doing something, it may be that we’ve gone as far as we can take it.”

#civicmedia @ibarguen @knightfdn asks for ideas on how to take #newschallenge to the next level. He asks is #newschallenge dead? Send ideas

— Damian Thorman (@dthorman) June 24, 2013

The six-year-old News Challenge is probably the highest-profile effort to fund innovation in journalism and media. It has funded many dozens of projects over the years, and beyond that, its application process has forced thousands of people to turn fuzzy ideas into concrete proposals. Knight devotes $5 million a year to the News Challenge, which has evolved from a single annual open call to a series of smaller, faster, more focused contests, which a significant reboot leading into 2012.

With more than a half decade in the rearview, Ibargüen asked what had been accomplished: “What have we actually achieved? How have we changed the way people receive their information? How have we affected the existing news community?….They take, I think, comparatively little notice of the things people in this room do.”

To be clear, he gave no sign of stepping away from funding journalism innovation, which remains a core Knight mission. But he noted that the foundation had maximum flexibility in how to accomplish that goal: “We have a huge luxury: We can do whatever we want to do. We can use whatever process we want to use.”

Which was behind his question to the assembled crowd: “What would you do if you had decided to invest $5 million a year in figuring out how to best get news and information to communities? What would you do?”

There will be at least one more round of the News Challenge later this year (topic TBA), but beyond that, Knight’s thinking about where to take the broader idea. Ibargüen said he expected the foundation would make these decisions over the next four to five months. If you’ve got an idea, get in touch with Knight.

But that’s the future. How about the brand new round of winners? Civic Insight promises to create better databases of vacant properties so activists can better connect land to opportunities. OpenCounter wants to make it easier for small businesses to navigate local regulation. Outline.com aims to build public policy simulators, estimating the impact of legislative decisions on people’s circumstances. The Oyez Project will offer clear case summaries of the suits before American appellate courts. GitMachines wants to make it easier for governments to add servers quickly.

As I wrote in January for the last round of announcements, the “News” in Knight News Challenge seems to be moving out of the spotlight in favor of a broader concept of connecting civic information to people who can use it. In the classical American 20th century news model, that was a role that typically involved journalists as intermediaries. Today, though, those communities of self-interest can organize in ways more efficient than a newspaper’s subscriber list. While a few of the projects funded could be of use to journalists — making data available to the general public also makes it available to reporters, who can then approach it with a different set of interests — they’re not the primary target. (That growing disconnect, I imagine, is something that will be addressed in whatever new form the News Challenge takes.)

Civic Insight

Award: $220,000
Organization: Civic Industries
Project leads: Alex Pandel, Eddie Tejeda and Amir Reavis-Bey
Twitter: @CivicInsight, @alexpandel, @maromba, @eddietejeda

Neighbors, cities, nonprofits and businesses all have an interest in seeing vacant properties become productive again. However, a lack of public access to information about these properties makes it difficult for groups to work together on solutions. By plugging directly into government databases, Civic Insight provides real-time information on vacant and underutilized properties, enabling more collaborative, data-driven community development. With Civic Insight, journalists and residents can search for a property on a map and learn about its ownership, inspection and permitting history, and subscribe to receive real-time notifications about changes. Civic Insight grew out of a successful pilot in New Orleans called BlightStatus, which was created during the team’s 2012 Code for America fellowship. It is now available for licensed use by cities nationwide. Knight Foundation’s support will help the team expand the software and test new use cases in more communities.

Team: Eddie Tejeda is a web developer and former Code for America fellow who brings 10 years of experience working on open-source civic projects such as Digress.it and Littlesis.org. Tejeda is engaged in the Open Gov movement in his home city of Oakland, where he co-founded OpenOakland and serves as a mayoral appointee to the city’s Public Ethics Commission, which oversees government transparency.

Alex Pandel is a designer, communicator and community organizer. Before her 2012 Code for America fellowship with the City of New Orleans, Pandel was engaged in public-interest advocacy work with CalPIRG, as well as designing print and web solutions for organizations like New York Magazine and The Future Project.

Amir Reavis-Bey is a software engineer with experience building client-server applications for investment bank equities trading. He also has web development experience helping non-profits to collaborate and share resources online to promote human rights activism. He spent 2012 partnering with the City of New Orleans as a Code for America fellow.

GitMachines

Award: $500,000
Organization: GitMachines
Project leads: Greg Elin, Rodney Cobb, Ikjae Park, Terence Rose, Blaine Whited and John Lancaster
Twitter: @gregelin

Governments are often reluctant to adopt new software and technology because of security and compliance concerns. GitMachines allows developers doing civic innovation to easily build new technology governments can use faster, by offering a grab-and-go depot of accreditation-ready servers that support their projects. Unlike traditional servers that can take hours or days to set-up, GitMachines can be up and running in minutes and are pre-configured to meet government guidelines. This makes it easier for governments to adopt open source software, and will help government agencies adopt new technology more quickly in the future.

Team: Rodney Cobb is a mobile developer and data analyst working in Washington D.C. Through his previous work with Campus Compact, Cobb has worked on several projects combing civic engagement/service learning and virtual interaction. Cobb received a bachelor’s in political science from Clark-Atlanta University and his master’s in politics from New York University.

Greg Elin has spent 20 years developing easy-to-use information tools and helping organizations embrace disruptive technologies. In 2006, Elin created the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Labs. Previously, he was chief technology officer at United Cerebral Palsy before entering the civil service in 2010 as one of the first chief data officers in federal government. Elin has been leading the Federal Communications Commissions’ efforts to lower data collection burden and improve data sharing with modern web service APIs. He was a member of the White House Task Force on Smart Disclosure exploring machine-readable data as a policy tool and citizen aid. Elin has a master’s in interactive telecommunications from New York University’s Tisch School of Art.

John Lancaster has bachelor’s degree in computer science, a minor in studio art and is studying for his master’s of information systems technology. He has worked as a technology consultant the past four years at the Department of State where he builds mission critical websites that reach a global audience in over 60 languages, and manages the server infrastructure that supports the entire operation.

Ikjae Park is an expert in software development and system administration working for a government contractor and has developed enterprise JAVA applications at Salesforce.com, among others. He is passionate about development and making a simple workflow process for the community.

Terence Rose is a senor business Analyst with MIL Corp., currently leading the content development and user experience for high profile Department of Commerce projects. He previously worked as a technologist on contract for the Office of Head Start.

Blaine Whited is a programmer and systems administrator with a bachelor’s in computer science.

OpenCounter

Award: $450,000
Organization: OpenCounter
Project leads: Peter Koht, Joel Mahoney
Twitter: @opencounter, @yurialeks, @joelmahoney

While entrepreneurs may have market-moving ideas, very few can expertly navigate the local government permitting process that allows them to open and operate. Whether it’s a startup, boutique or restaurant, OpenCounter helps to simplify this interaction with city government. It collects and sorts data on existing regulations while providing running totals of the costs and time involved in setting up shop. A team of Code for America fellows developed and piloted OpenCounter in Santa Cruz, Calif. during 2012. Knight Foundation funds will support OpenCounter’s expansion to new communities, including several 2013 Code for America cities.

Team: Peter Koht, a self-described civics nerd, is an experienced economic development professional who most recently worked for the City of Santa Cruz. Koht worked on a number of issues at the city, including leading a regional broadband policy group, opening up city data and spearheading policy initiatives that lowered administrative barriers to job creation. Previous to his public sector role, he worked in technology and media.

Joel Mahoney is a civic technologist and serial entrepreneur. He was an inaugural fellow at Code for America, and served as a technical advisor to the organization. Before Code for America, Mahoney founded several startups, including an online travel site, a genetics visualization tool and an m-health platform for diabetics. His work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

Open Gov for the Rest of Us

Award: $350,000
Organization: LISC Chicago
Project leads: Susana Vasquez, Dionne Baux, Demond Drummer, Elizabeth Rosas-Landa
Twitter: @liscchicago

Open Gov for the Rest of Us is seeking to engage neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side in the Open Government movement. The three-stage campaign will connect more residents to the Internet, promote the use of open government tools and develop neighborhood-driven requests for new data that address residents’ needs. Building on the success of LISC Chicago’s Smart Communities program and Data Friday series, the project aims to spread a culture of data and improved use of digital tools in low-income neighborhoods by directly involving their residents.

Team: Susana Vasquez is LISC Chicago’s executive director. Vasquez joined LISC in 2003 as a program officer and soon became director of the office’s most ambitious effort – the New Communities Program, a 10-year initiative to support comprehensive community development in 16 neighborhoods. She has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Illinois and a master’s from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Dionne Baux, a LISC Chicago program officer who works on economic development and technology programs, has worked in city government and for nonprofits for more than seven years. Baux leads LISC’s Smart Communities program, which is designed to increase digital access and use by youth, families, businesses and other institutions. She has a master’s degree in public administration, with a focus in government, from Roosevelt University.

Demond Drummer is tech organizer for Teamwork Englewood, an organization formed in 2003 as part of LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program. Its goal is to strengthen the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Drummer joined Webitects, a web design firm, in summer 2009. Previously, he coordinated a youth leadership and civic engagement initiative in Chicago. A graduate of Morehouse College, he is completing a master’s degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Elizabeth Rosas-Landa is the Smart Communities program manager at The Resurrection Project in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. A Mexico City native, she received a bachelor’s degree in information technology from Insurgentes University and later joined the Marketing and Promotion Company in Mexico. In 2008, she moved to the United States to work with community organizations on technology issues. At The Resurrection Project, Rosas-Landa has implemented computer literacy programs for residents and businesses.

Outline.com

Award: unspecified, through Knight Enterprise Fund
Organization: Outline.com
Project leads: Nikita Bier, Jeremy Blalock, Erik Hazzard, Ray Kluender
Twitter: @OutlineUSA

Outline.com is developing an online public policy simulator that allows citizens and journalists to visualize the impact that particular policies might have on people and their communities. For instance, with Outline.com, a household can measure how a tax cut or an increase in education spending will affect their income. The project builds on the team’s award-winning app Politify, which simulated the impacts of the Obama and Romney economic plans during the 2012 campaign. The Outline.com simulator uses models developed by a team of economists, backed by open data on American households from the IRS, the Census Bureau and other sources. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has hired Outline.com to develop an official pilot. The team is a part of the accelerator TechStars Boston.

Team: Nikita Bier, CEO, recently graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with honors and degrees in business administration and political economy. During his college years, he researched higher education finance, receiving recognition for his insights from the president of the university. While a student, he founded Politify.us, an award-winning election application that received national coverage. Before that, he worked in business development at 1000memories, a Greylock and YCombinator-backed startup.

Jeremy Blalock, CPO, led design and development for Politify.us. He is currently on leave from UC Berkeley, where he studied electrical engineering and computer science.

Erik Hazzard, CTO, is an active member of the data visualization and mapping communities. He was formerly lead developer at Visual.ly. He is the author of OpenLayers 2.10 Beginner’s Guide. He graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in information science.

Ray Kluender graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin with majors in economics, mathematics and political science. His extensive research experience includes involvement in developing value-added models of teacher effectiveness for Atlanta, New York City and Los Angeles public schools, election forecasting for Pollster.com and studying optimal health insurance design and government intervention in health care at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He will be starting his Ph.D. in economics at MIT this August.

Note: Outline.com is receiving funds through the Knight Enterprise Fund, an early stage venture fund that invests in for-profit ventures aligned with Knight’s mission of fostering informed and engaged communities. In line with standard venture-capital practices, the funding amounts are not being disclosed.

Oyez Project

Award: $600,000
Organization: University of Chicago, Kent School of Law
Project lead: Jerry Goldman
Twitter: @oyez

The activities of courts across the country are often hard to access and understand. For the past 20 years, the Oyez Project has worked to open the U.S. Supreme Court by offering clear case summaries, opinions and free access to audio recordings and transcripts. With Knight Foundation funding, Oyez will expand to state supreme and federal appellate courts, offering information to the public about the work of these vital but largely anonymous institutions. Beginning in the five largest states that serve over one-third of the American public, Oyez will work with courts to catalog materials and reformat them following open standards practices. In conjunction with local partners, Oyez will annotate the materials, adding data and concise summaries that make the content more accessible for a non-legal audience. Oyez will release this information under a Creative Commons license and make it available online and through a mobile application.

Team: Professor Jerry Goldman of the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law has brought the U.S. Supreme Court closer to everyone through the Oyez Project. He has collaborated with experts in linguistics, psychology, computer science and political science with major financial support from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Google and a select group of national law firms to create an archive of 58 years of Supreme Court audio. In recent years, Oyez has put the Supreme Court in your pocket with mobile apps, iSCOTUSnow and PocketJustice.

Plan in a Box

Award: $620,000
Organization: OpenPlans
Project lead: Frank Hebbert, Ellen McDermott, Aaron Ogle, Andy Cochran, Mjumbe Poe
Twitter: @OpenPlans

Local planning decisions can shape everything about a community — from how residents get around, to how they interact with their neighbors and experience daily life. Yet information on projects — from new plans for downtown centers to bridge replacements — is often difficult to obtain. This project will be an open-source web-publishing tool that makes it easy to engage people in the planning process. With minimal effort, city employees will be able to create and maintain a useful website that provides information that citizens and journalists need while integrating with social media and allowing for public input.

Team: Aaron Ogle is an OpenPlans software developer. Prior to OpenPlans, he was a fellow at Code for America where he partnered with the City of Philadelphia to build solutions to help foster civic engagement. He specializes in JavaScript and GIS development and has contributed to such applications as reroute.it, septa.mobi, changeby.us, walkshed.org and phillystormwater.org.

Andy Cochran, creative director, provides design vision for OpenPlans’ projects, building user interfaces for tools that enable people to be better informed and stay engaged in local issues. Cochran has a bachelor’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and he has over a decade of experience in print and web design.

Ellen McDermott leads OpenPlans’ outreach to community organizations and cities, to help them be effective in using digital and in-person engagement tools. She also manages operations for OpenPlans. Previously, McDermott was the director of finance and administration for Honeybee Robotics, a technology supplier to the NASA Mars programs. She is a graduate of Amherst College and King’s College London.

Frank Hebbert leads the software team at OpenPlans. Outside of work, he volunteers with Planning Corps, a network of planners providing assistance to non-profit and community groups. Hebbert holds a master’s degree in city planning from MIT.

Mjumbe Poe is a software developer for OpenPlans. Previously, Poe was a fellow at Code for America, and before that a research programmer at the University of Pennsylvania working on modeling and simulation tools for the social sciences.

Procure.io

Award: $460,000
Organization: Department of Better Technology
Project leads: Clay Johnson and Adam Becker
Twitter: @cjoh @AdamJacobBecker

The government procurement process can be both highly complicated and time-consuming — making it difficult for small businesses to discover and bid on contracts and for journalists and transparency advocates to see where public money is going. As White House Presidential Innovation Fellows, Clay Johnson and Adam Becker built a simple tool for governments to easily post requests for proposals, or RFPs. Based on its early success at the federal level, the team is planning to expand the software to help states and cities. In addition, they will build a library of statements of work that any agency can adapt to their needs. The goal is to bring more competition into government bidding, as a way to both reduce costs and ensure that the most qualified team gets the job.

Team: Clay Johnson may be best known as the author of The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. Johnson was also one of the founders of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama’s online campaign for the presidency in 2008. Since 2008, Johnson has worked on opening government, as the director of Sunlight Labs until 2010, and as a director of Expert Labs until 2012. He was named the Google/O’Reilly Open Source Organizer of the Year in 2009, was one of Federal Computing Week’s Fed 100 in 2010, and won the CampaignTech Innovator award in 2011. In 2012, he was appointed as an inaugural Presidential Innovation Fellow and led the RFP-EZ project, a federal experiment in procurement innovation.

Adam Becker is a software developer and entrepreneur. He co-founded and served as chief technology officer of GovHub, a civic-oriented startup that was the first to provide users a comprehensive, geographically calculated list of their government officials. In 2012, he was appointed alongside Johnson as an inaugural Presidential Innovation Fellow and led the development of RFP-EZ.

September 05 2012

17:30

Bill Grueskin: News orgs want journalists who are great at a few things, rather than good at many

Editor’s Note: It’s the start of the school year, which means students are returning to journalism programs around the country. As the media industry continues to evolve, how well is new talent being trained, and how well are schools preparing them for the real world?

We asked an array of people — hiring editors, recent graduates, professors, technologists, deans — to evaluate the job j-schools are doing and to offer ideas for how they might improve. Over the coming days, we’ll be sharing their thoughts with you. Here’s Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, talking about the need for specialization.

For many years, striving journalists seeking their first jobs would consult the back pages of Editor & Publisher magazine. The Help Wanted ads went on for pages, filled with pleas from small-town newspaper editors who would often say they were seeking reporters “would could do everything.”

In those days, “everything” meant a day comprised of covering a town commission meeting, typing school lunch menus and, before leaving, emptying the tray of D-76 developer solution in the darkroom.

This one-size-fits-all approach demonstrates a lack of nuance about the tremendous transformations in our business.

Editor & Publisher is a much smaller publication now, alas, and the stench of D-76 no longer permeates newsrooms. But this idea of the “do everything” journalist has persisted into the digital age.

The phrase we hear now is the “Swiss Army knife” journalist. Meg Heckman, web editor of New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor, referred to this when quoted in an AJR article earlier this year, adding that reporters “need to know a little bit of everything.” LinkedIn features a number of journalists who tout their multiple skills. One describes himself this way: “Photographer, videographer, web designer, graphic designer….I was a Swiss Army knife in the office.”

Where the industry leads, journalism schools usually follow, and as a result, many of us have launched programs designed to imbue our students with a buffet of digital skills. Those have included photo, video, radio, web design, search engine optimization, social media, and data visualization. Thus armed with this wheelbarrow of talents, journalism graduates could tell employers that they were as adept at Final Cut Pro as writing nut grafs, as versed in long-form video as in short-form breaking news.

It’s true that some newsrooms do want one-size-fits-all journalists. And the reasons are clear and understandable. Many publishers face shrinking personnel budgets, as well as escalating needs to boost traffic to websites and apps. Given that advertisers are usually willing to pay higher rates for video pre-rolls than display ads, or that photo slideshows drive far more pageviews than articles, it follows that editors want young reporters who can cover meetings with a camera as well as a laptop.

But this one-size-fits-all approach demonstrates a lack of nuance about the tremendous transformations in our business. Yes, journalism is going digital. But that means many different things.

Crafting web video, deploying Twitter as a reporting tool, and presenting data-driven graphics all fall within the umbrella of “digital journalism,” but they have little in common with each other. Indeed, the skills barely overlap.

Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism has a robust Career Services office with a career expo that regularly attracts more than 100 employers a year. Those news organizations don’t often ask for “do-it-all” journalists these days, says Ernest Sotomayor, dean of students.

Instead, they are chiefly focused on students who understand the value of reporting, news judgment, and writing. They often say they want students who can demonstrate proficiency in a specific digital skill or two. Having additional skills is a plus, but without strong fundamentals, they don’t land top jobs.

And universal digital training belies pedagogical reality as well. Students usually come with, or develop over time, an intense interest in one or two formats. Asking them to become proficient at more than a few of them sets unreasonable expectations and, more importantly, deprives them of the need to excel at something rather than everything.

The Swiss Army knife is a useful tool on camping trips, but you’d be unlikely to use one in your kitchen if you have a great paring knife or corkscrew nearby. Journalism schools that send out graduates with rudimentary training in a large number of platforms are providing little value to their students, and are disserving the business that is fighting a battle for survival.

15:39

Miranda Mulligan: Want to produce hirable grads, journalism schools? Teach them to code

Editor’s Note: It’s the start of the school year, which means students are returning to journalism programs around the country. As the media industry continues to evolve, how well is new talent being trained, and how well are schools preparing them for the real world?

We asked an array of people — hiring editors, recent graduates, professors, technologists, deans — to evaluate the job j-schools are doing and to offer ideas for how they might improve. Over the coming days, we’ll be sharing their thoughts with you. Here’s Miranda Mulligan — new executive director of the Knight News Innovation Lab at Northwestern, formerly digital design director for The Boston Globe — arguing that journalists need to learn how to code if they want to become better (and employable) storytellers.

Learning how to make software for storytelling and how to realize news presentations into code are currently the hottest, most pressing skillsets journalists can study. There has never before been more urgency for our industry to understand enough code to have meaningful conversations with technologists.

And yet if you attend any event with a collection of jouro-nerd types, inevitably the same question will come up. Someone will ask — philosophically, of course — “How can we tell better stories on the web?” and proceed to bemoan the tedium of reading a daily newspaper and a newspaper website, likening it to Groundhog Day, the same stories presented the same way, day after day. Sooner or later others add their frustrations that “we” — in 2012 — are still writing for the front page instead of the homepage.

It is our job as educators to remove fear of learning, a fear notoriously prevalent in journalists.

We’ve all had this discussion a thousand times. But now, it’s not just the visual journalists complaining about the stagnation of online storytelling and presentation.

For me, there’s only one response to this: Journalists should learn more about code. Understanding our medium makes us better storytellers. For an industry that prides itself on being smart, tolerating ignorance of the Internet is just stupid.

The time is now for our future journalists to learn about code. We need to innovate our curricula, really looking at what we are teaching our students. Learning, or mastering, specific software is not properly preparing our future journalists for successful, life-long careers. No one can learn digital storytelling in a semester. Mastering Dreamweaver and Flash isn’t very future-friendly, and having a single mid-level “Online Journalism” course offered as an elective does more harm than good. We should be teaching code in all of our journalism courses — each semester, each year, until graduation.

The list of jobs for designers and journalists who can write code is growing — seemingly exponentially. So, let’s all grab our copies of The Art of War and attack this problem from every angle: We need to teach our students to be more technologically literate. We need to teach them how to learn and how to fail. That, my friends, is making the Internet.

I am not arguing that every single writer/editor/publisher who learns some programming should end up becoming a software engineer or a refined web designer. The end goal here is not programming fluency. However, there’s a lot of value in understanding how browsers read and render our stories. Reporting and writing a story, writing some code (HTML, CSS, Javascript), and programming complex applications and services are all collections of skills. A fundamental knowledge of code allows for:

  • More significant conversations about digital presentation, ultimately leading to better, more meaningful, online storytelling. Understanding your medium makes you better at your craft.
  • Deeper thought and understanding of data. Learning more about what goes into writing and programming software teaches you to think in terms of abstractions, functions, parameters, components, frameworks, object classes, templates, and more.

Journalism needs hirable graduates that can create sophisticated visual presentations and can realize them in code. But many students are intimidated, not excited, by the tools now fundamental to visual storytelling. In fact, the prevailing sentiment throughout journalism and communications specialties is that “we” are still intimidated. Maybe this attitude is trickling down to the universities — or maybe up from them. But “we” have all got to get over our fear of the Internet.

Last September, I participated in a half-day student seminar at the Society of News Design’s annual workshop in St. Louis. To be brazen and speak for my panel-mates, we were all shocked by how apprehensive the students were toward HTML, CSS, and Javascript. In fact, after three hours of nudging them to make the time to learn some code, a female student boldly asserted that she really didn’t care about digital design and wanted advice for students hoping to break into print design.

It’s our job as educators to remove fear of learning, a fear notoriously prevalent in journalists. HTML is not magic. Writing code is not wizardry; it’s just hard work. Learning to program will not save journalism and probably won’t change the way we write our stories. It is, however, a heck of a lot more fun being a journalist on the web once “how computers read and understand our content” is understood.

Learning to program not only provides a practical skill — it also teaches problem solving. Students are learning more precise and nuanced thought processes, and the depth of their understanding of information and data will only grow. Also, for visual journalists, teaching code is teaching information design. Both news designers and web designers are burdened with the same responsibilities: organizing and rationally arranging content, illustrating ideas to deepen the understanding of a story, and working within the constraints of the medium.

I believe the most important thing an instructor can ever do is inspire students to be open-minded about their skills. No one knows what the storytelling landscape will look like in two years, let alone a decade from now. As educators, we can make becoming a digital journalist feel accessible and attainable. Graduates should leave armed with a skillset that includes the ability to learn quickly and adapt, to be open to new ideas and solutions, and to take initiative like the self-starters they were born to become. They will never get bored, and they will always be employable.

Our journalism pedagogy should inspire future digital journalists to be Internauts, to continually grow, constantly teaching themselves the newest storytelling tools and techniques, instilling processes for life-long learning.

Image by Steve Rhode used under a Creative Commons license.

December 31 2011

21:00

Filter bubbles burst, blind spots shrunk, curation over SEO: Rachel Sklar’s predictions for 2012

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

Bringing us home is Rachel Sklar, a media and cultural critic who is the co-founder of Change The Ratio, an adviser to early-stage startups, and a heavy-to-compulsive-tweeter.

More tattoo parlors

Earlier this week, I was blown away by this: Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt singing a charming version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”. It wasn’t just that it was an adorable clip of two adorable people singing an adorable duet, nor that it was in sly homage to their adorable movie, nor that it was guaranteed to go viral. I sent it to a dude I know who is very smart in the realm of online video, and the future thereof.

“This,” I wrote, “is the future.” He wrote back: “Every time Zooey Deschanel picks up a ukelele, a hipster angel gets his wings tattoo.” True, but that wasn’t even it. “That’s not even it,” I said. “Her genius is that she knows that, and figured out that she should own a piece of the tattoo parlor.”

Hello Giggles is that tattoo parlor.

Do you know Hello Giggles? It’s pretty brilliant, and simple, as many brilliant things are. It’s Deschanel’s website that she founded with Hollywood-and-Internet It girls Sophia Rossi and Molly McAlleer. It’s adorable and slick, like nail polish in hipster colors. Super-fun content, unabashedly girlish, the cool BFF that you love to hang out with. That was where the video broke.

Sure, it was on YouTube — capable of being picked up by HuffPo, BuzzFeed, and all the other usual suspects — but still, it was on Hello Giggles first. Their Twitter feed pointed to it excitedly earlier in the day and then — bingo, link. (And then — site, crash.) Deschanel and her friends looked around and smartly realized that if they could be the content, they could be the platform, too. Tavi Gevinson — more niche but one who could fairly be called the Zooey of the fashion world — did the same thing with Rookie Mag. Louis CK did it last month. If you know your stuff is going to be picked up, why not pick it up yourself? Owning the tattoo parlor. We’re going to see more of that in 2012.

Up with people!

It’s happened: People matter more than brands. Not all brands — people will always love to obsess over The New York Times — but for the most part, it’s individual people who earn and wield the trust of the consumer. (However that Twitter lawsuit pans out, the world will never be Team Phonedog.) So brands will align themselves more closely, and blurrily, with people. (Watch Tina Fey: She’ll probably do something interesting in this vein, that no one else could get away with, but for which she will open the door.)

Speaking of brands vs. people, it will be interesting to watch what happens to TechCrunch over the next year.

And speaking of Tina Fey, a quick coda about Amy Poehler: On “Parks & Recreation,” Leslie Knope is running for office. Outside in the real world, the 2012 election contest will be under way. There’s no way that show will not be a hotbed of trenchant political commentary this season. (BTW, Poehler was a Hillary supporter back in the day. So hopefully that will mean more goddesses in Pawnee.) Point being, people.

News is the killer app

David Carr loves to say this. And it’s true. News moves the needle, every day. Of course, what counts as “news” can be wildly expansive (latest Iowa poll vs. Iran’s latest in the Straits of Hormuz vs. something crazy Glenn Beck said vs. the new Zooey Deschanel vid) (News You Can Hormuz! Sorry). But technology has made everyone a potential real-time newsbreaker, distributor, and TV station, and that is pretty incredible. What we saw from Egypt this year — incredible. The #Occupy livestream during the Zucotti raid — riveting at 2am as the viewer numbers climbed (and the cablers blithely let their canned programming play on).

This is different from a serendipitous civilian twitpic. This is technology letting people change the game, gatekeepers be damned.

Curation is also the killer app

…that said, though, it’s gotten pretty damn noisy out there. And if 2010 and 2011 were years of opening our hearts to a blossoming Internet, 2012 is going to be the year of letting smart people do it for us. Audiences are done with SEO-baiting and bait-and-switch headlines; we’re going to get more choosy with our clicks. And with our eyeball-access. So you’d better be trustworthy, because I don’t let just anyone curate for me. Because while news will always be the killer app, who it’s delivered by will matter just as much.

This is different from “reported by The New York Times.” This is “do I trust Anthony De Rosa to be my filter?” That’s why for those of us who live on the Internet, Ben Smith going to BuzzFeed made perfect, brilliant, forward-looking sense.

Or, to quote media maven Jason Hirschhorn: “Welcome to the age of the “CJ”. The Content Jockey. Payola-free and programmed with care.” He tweeted that, quoting from his email newsletter. #PlatformAgnostic

Unbubbling and unblinding

One of the arguments for old-school newspapers is discovery — next to the article you’re reading might be a completely different article that you never would have seen, on a subject you didn’t know you were interested in. Online, we’re starting to see the opposite: While we’re opting to follow curators who deliver to us the news we wish to receive, our most trusted sites are automatically giving us what they think we want to see — or, taken dystopically, what they want us to see. Eli Pariser dubbed this “the Filter Bubble.” Things are only getting more customized, tailored, targeted, and algorithm-ized, but in 2012 we will see clear pushback on that.

As for curators, an example: The AP’s top Oscar tweets of 2011 — all men. Compiled by Jake Coyle, who follows 191 people on Twitter. Whose tweets did he choose to see? Whose tweets did he ignore? Who was completely in his blind spot? This is just one example, but lemme tell you, I got lots and lots and lots and lots and lots. And lots.

When we began 2011, that blind spot was a frustrating ongoing reality. As we end it, something has shifted — the pushback isn’t only frustrated, it’s mocking. Because the rise of social has surfaced incredible demographic activity and information. Turns out, lots of under-repped constituencies are moving lots of needles. And honestly, those who leave out women, minorities, and other under-noted groups really no longer have a excuse for it — and in so doing, look like tools. (See how the Daily Dot owned that, and moved to make immediate amends.) I watch this stuff closely, and I really do see that trend pushing forward in 2012. (Even if just to keep me from sending you angry emails. WHICH I WILL.)

There isn’t just a single story. In 2012, the audience will expect — nay, demand — to see more of them.

#NoFilter

No relation, but — #NoFilter has become a tag of note this year, thanks to Instagram. What is real? What is fake? What is Kardashian? I think 2012 will demand that we say so up front.

“‘Modern Family’ is the funniest show TV”

I said that the other day. Then I realized I’d never watched Modern Family on TV. I downloaded the first season to my iPad and I have watched it on the elliptical, on planes, in bed, waiting in the security line at the airport, on the subway and walking home from work. This goes double for most other things that I expect to be able to get, see, upload, download, send, save, share or otherwise interact with using the various pieces of technology at my disposal. Our smartphones are now our universal remotes. If you’re not offering your product on-demand in 2012, you’re losing customers in 2012.

Michelle. Sheryl. Mindy. Kristen. Kirsten. Hillary. Zooey.

Mmm-hmmm, I’m not saying anything. I’m just gonna sit back and watch.

20:00

Keli Goff: 2012 will be a golden age of minority-focused media

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

Next up is Keli Goff, author, political commentator, and contributing editor at Loop21.com.

Though the last few years in media have been described in doomsday terms, we will likely look back on this time, and particularly the coming year, as the golden age of minority-focused media.

While mainstream media institutions have struggled to stay relevant and stay afloat, in their demise many of the walls that kept the less connected and less privileged out of media have begun to fall. There are many who would argue that those walls were essential to keeping media credible and honest. I would argue that those walls kept many diverse voices, in terms of both race and class, from being heard by wider audiences.

But thanks to the end of the reign of mainstream print media as the defining journalistic institution, the rise of the Internet as the predominant source of news and information, and the proliferation of blogs, more voices that would not have been widely read or heard just years ago are helping to define mainstream conversations.

The election of President Obama only increased the role that online minority media vehicles such as The Root, The Grio, NewsOne, Loop21.com, BET Online, Huffington Post Black Voices, and others have played in reaching audiences that for a long time felt ignored by mainstream outlets. With another presidential election looming, these outlets will continue to grow in both audience and relevance, and we will see more of them, as well as more focus on them, in 2012.

December 30 2011

18:30

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

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

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

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

There is no spoon

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

Data viz

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

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

Blur the lines between writer/producer/coder

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

Collaboration 2.0

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

Where am I?

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

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

User generated content 2.0

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

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

Mobile, mobile, mobile

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

Investigative reporting renaissance

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

17:30

Joshua Young: 2012 will be the year we focus, again, on the writer

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

Here’s Josh Young, who currently handles the contributor network at the real-time media company Sulia, and who formerly headed social news at The Huffington Post.

The first of Google’s ten core principles has framed the way we think about the content on the Internet:

Focus on the user and all else will follow.

Of course, that user is really what technologists and economists both call the “end user.” When it comes to content, that means the reader. This principle presumes that users have information needs and that the information to satisfy those needs already exists. The task is culling, discovering, finding.

This is essentially the idea that content just happens. Search is the easy example, but you can see it in curation, too. The answers are all there — disguised by the blooming, buzzing confusion of even more information — and we just need a better filter.

Almost all content platforms are informed by this principle, as well — at least as a matter of positioning. WordPress has no agenda. Tumblr doesn’t care what you write. Pinterest doesn’t have a say in what boards you pin together. Quora doesn’t care what you ask or answer. Nor does YouTube care what you upload. Soundcloud doesn’t care what you create. Read It Later doesn’t care what you read later any more than Twitter cares what you Tweet. The list goes on and on.

The formula for today’s most successful content platforms is to give a bunch of writers each a soapbox and then to give vastly more readers some tools to find the soapbox best for them. In any two-sided market, after all, an economist might tell you to subsidize the side that’s more price-sensitive and to charge the side that has more to gain from network effects. Blah blah blah.

Of course, audiences will never just happen. Likewise, “Focus on the writer and all else will follow” doesn’t seem like a promising economic model.

But I am not an economist, and I think 2012 will be the year in which we realize that Google’s first core principle misses something important. We will recognize all over again the value in catering to the writer — or, rather, the best writers. We will thus also invest in giving them tools to reach the right readers. Maybe readers aren’t so price-sensitive, and maybe they stand very much to gain from network effects. 2012 will show us.

Image by Steven Depolo used under a Creative Commons license.

16:00

Alfred Hermida: 2012 will be the year social media gets boring

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

Here’s Canadian news pioneer Alfred Hermida, a founder of BBCnews.com and currently an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism.

I am always hesitant to make predictions, but 2012 may just the year that social media starts to get boring. And this is a good thing.

Bear with me while I explain. Social media is largely still seen as a new, shiny entrant into the world of media.

As with all new communication technologies, there are those who argue social media is changing everything, creating a more open and democratic media space. Others take a diametrically opposed viewpoint. For them, social media just offers new ways to do old things.

Both are right and wrong at the same time. There is no doubt that social media technologies do offer new affordances, creating an open, networked, and distributed media ecosystem at odds with the one-way, broadcast model of mass media that dominated the 20th century.

At the same time, history shows us how dominant institutions, be they governments or media conglomerates, appropriate new technologies and cancel out some of their innovative potential.

The problem is how we frame new technologies. There is always a degree of hype that greets a new technology; we’ve seen it in talk of Twitter revolutions and Facebook uprisings.

Initially we are enchanted by the novelty of what these tools and services enable us to do: upload funny videos, post updates of our lunch, and share links to worthy articles.

Technologies reach their full potential when we forgot about the novelty. Instead they become boring and blend into the background. How often do we think about the technology behind the telephone, or the television set in our living room?

With any luck, this is what will happen with social media. Social media tools and services will be so ingrained within our everyday experiences that we forget that they are such recent developments.

Essentially, the technology will become invisible as we shape it to meet our political, social, and cultural needs.

Mediated sociability will be with us at all times, no matter what we are doing. Arguably, for younger adults, this is already happening. Facebook is part of their lives, just like the telephone is simply there.

For journalists, what this means is that social media will become part of everyday routines. Facebook or Twitter won’t be simply add-ons, but an inherent component of the media environment for journalists.

December 21 2011

19:00

Vadim Lavrusik: Curation and amplification will become much more sophisticated in 2012

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

Next up is Vadim Lavrusik, Journalist Program Manager at Facebook.

Ladies and gentlemen, we can rebuild it. We have the technology. We have the capability to build a sustainable journalism model. Better than it was before. Better, stronger, faster.

Okay, putting “Six Million Dollar Man” theme aside, I do believe every word of that. And here’s a small sliver of the way I think the process can be improved: curating information in a way that both puts it in proper context for consumers and amplifies the reporting of the citizenry.

For the last year, much of the focus has been on curating content from the social web and effectively contextualizing disparate pieces of information to form singular stories. This has been especially notable during breaking news events, with citizens who are participating in or observing those events contributing content about them through social media. In 2012, there will be even more emphasis not only on curating that content, but also on amplifying it through increasingly effective distribution mechanisms.

Because anyone can publish content today and report information from a breaking news event, the role journalists can play in amplifying — and verifying — that content becomes ever more important. Contributed reporting from the citizenry hasn’t replaced the work of journalists. In fact, it has made the work of journalists even more important, as there is much more verification and “making sense” of that content that needs to be done. And journalists’ role as amplifiers of information is becoming more crucial.

What does that mean? It means journalists using their skills to verify the accuracy of claims being made on social media and elsewhere, and then effectively distributing that verified information to a larger audience through their publications’ community of readers and fact-checkers on the social web.

Curation itself will continue to evolve and become more sophisticated. As the year has gone on, breaking news itself has taken on new forms beyond the typical chronological curation of a live event. In the new year, we’ll also see new curated story formats. And we’ll see new tools that allow those formats to take life.

But the mentality of content curation needs to evolve, as well. It’s still very much focused on how to find and curate the content around a news event or story, but much like the old model of content production, there is still little emphasis on making sure that the content is effectively distributed, across platforms and communities. The cycle no longer stops after a piece is written or a story is curated from the social web. The story is ever evolving, and the post-production is just as important.

Though there are plenty of journalists doing a great job at recognizing that — and though news organizations themselves are increasingly putting emphasis on content amplification — the creation of content, rather than the distribution of it, remains the primary focus of news outlets.

The coming year will see a more balanced approach. Whether it’s a written story or one curated from the citizenry using social media tools, we will see a growing emphasis placed on content amplification through distribution, and an increasing effort to ensure that the most accurate and verified information is reaching the audience that needs it. Information will, in this environment, inevitably reach the citizenry; at stake is the quality of the information that does the reaching. If content is king, distribution is queen.

Image by Hans Poldoja used under a Creative Commons license.

18:00

Steve Buttry: From a dropped paywall to a social media Pulitzer, expect a year of transformation

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

Next up is longtime digital journalist Steve Buttry, the director of community engagement and social media at the Journal Register Co. & Digital First Media.

We will see more newspaper-company transactions in 2012. After a few years where no one wanted to sell at the price the market had dropped to, we’ve had Journal Register Co., the Oklahoman, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Omaha World-Herald (am I forgetting one?) sell in the second half of 2011. I believe those sales have helped set the market value, and some people who were refusing to sell will swallow their losses and get out of the newspaper business.

In the transactions mentioned above, people with sufficient wealth appear to have bought the companies outright, taking on little or no debt. (Take the World-Herald, which was bought by the ultimate rich person, Warren Buffett, at the helm of the ultimate public company, Berkshire Hathaway.) I believe we’ll see more transactions involving publicly held companies in 2012. We may also see more creative transactions that fall short of a sale, such as the Journal Register Co./Digital First Media deal to manage MediaNews Group.

I think Google+ will add a new feature (probably more than one, but one will get all the attention) that will make more of a splash than the initial launch of G+ did.

At least one Pulitzer Prize winner (most likely Breaking News Reporting) will have used Twitter and/or Facebook significantly in its coverage and its entry, and the social media use will be cited by the judges (or their refusal to cite it will be glaring).

The winner of the 2012 presidential election will work harder on reaching voters through social media than through the professional media.

Gene Weingarten will write a disapproving column about the changing news business that is funny but dead wrong. (After last year, I had to throw in one sure thing.)

Those are third-person predictions about what other people/companies will do. This last new prediction should carry the disclaimer of obvious self-interest, since I am leading community engagement and social media efforts for the company — but I am confident that Digital First Media will continue to lead the way in transforming the digital news business.

Beyond that, I will re-offer last year’s predictions, since they largely didn’t happen in 2011 (I suppose I can claim #newnewtwitter as being partial fulfillment, though it doesn’t include the features I mentioned):

  • Twitter will make some notable upgrades, including targeting and editing of tweets, historical searching, and some innovative commercial uses.
  • A leader will emerge in location-based news, social media, and commerce.
  • We will see some major realignment of journalism and news-industry organizations. Most likely: the merger of ASNE and APME, mergers of some state press associations, mergers of at least two national press organizations, and mergers of some reporter-beat associations. One or more journalism organizations will close.
  • At least one high-profile news organization will drop its paywall.
15:00

Paul Bradshaw: Collaboration! Data! 2012 will see news outlets turning talk into action

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

Next up is Paul Bradshaw, the author of the Online Journalism Handbook and a visiting professor at City University London.

The problem with making predictions is that a year is too short a timescale; and five is too long. The secret, I’ve realized, is to actually talk about things you already know are going to happen, and then accept all the glory when they actually do.

Having broken the Magicians’ Circle of journalistic punditry, then, here are the developments I see shaping 2012.

1. 2012 will be the year we finally move away from the traditional homepage

Liveblogging has been taken up by the news industry more enthusiastically than perhaps any other web-native form of journalism. It’s sticky, great for SEO, and provides a simple way to turn a newsroom used to daily news cycles into a rolling news operation.

Indeed, its influence has been so great that some news organizations are seriously considering the very way they present their news — and in 2012 I think that influence will generate significant changes in how certain media organizations make that presentation.

The “stream” as an interface will move from being the preserve of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to being a serious consideration for news website homepages. We’re all 24-hour news channels now.

2. In 2012, “Collaboration Is King”

If you’re not already tired of conference speakers staging their own coronations where some aspect of journalism is crowned “king” — from content to curation and context to conversation — expect there to be another one in 2012.

I’m betting on “collaboration”: partly with users who have valuable expertise to share; but also between media organizations, strapped for cash and looking for new economies and new opportunities.

3. News organizations turn talk into action on data

In 2009 and 2010, the MPs’ expenses and Wikileaks stories helped news organizations see the potential of data journalism. In 2011, they spent plenty of time talking about it. In 2012, more of them will be ready to start doing it.

At the BBC, the College of Journalism has embarked upon a significant training program to build data journalism literacy among the corporation’s journalists, with other broadcasters making plans in the same area. The Guardian and The FT continue to set the pace for the UK newspaper industry, and the magazine industry is starting to look at the possibilities of data, too.

This slow skilling up of journalists can expect to get a fresh injection of pace with further open data developments in 2012, from the UK government’s attempt to stimulate the economy with further data releases, to the “carrot and stick” of pushing releases of data at an EU level. Any news organization that is serious about its fourth estate role is building the skills to interrogate those datasets.

15:00

Dan Kennedy: 2012 will bring “the great retrenchment” among newspaper publishers

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

Next up is Boston-based media commenter Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, a regular panelist on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” and the author of the Media Nation blog.

Following years of retreat in the face of shrinking readership, mounting financial losses, and a rising chorus of digital visionaries telling them they’re doing it all wrong, 2012 will be a year of retrenchment for newspaper publishers.

Still standing some three years after the near-implosion of the newspaper industry in 2008 and 2009, executives will point to their continued existence as proof that their situation was never as bad as it seemed, and that a few tweaks here and there will restore them to pink-cheeked, if downsized, health.

Their rallying cry will be Dean Starkman’s essay in the November/December 2011 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, “Confidence Game.” In the course of nearly 8,000 words, Starkman dismisses those he calls the “news gurus” (principally Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis), arguing they are more interested in promoting their own the-sky-is-falling agenda than in the fate of public-interest journalism. Starkman calls for the preservation of traditional journalistic institutions, which brought a memorable retort from Shirky:

Saying newspapers will provide a stable home for reporters, just as soon as we figure out how to make newspapers stable, is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread.

Starkman’s essay is actually a nuanced, deeply intelligent meditation on the future of journalism, but it’s the caricature — newspapers good, news gurus bad — that traditionalists will embrace. That is especially true with respect to the notion that online readers have been getting a free ride, and that it’s time to insist that they start paying.

At the Boston Globe, for instance, several staff members have taken to tweeting “This is why we pay for journalism” whenever their paper has published something particularly noteworthy — a reference to the Globe’s newly instituted paywall. Never mind that we have always paid for journalism — until recently, primarily through advertising. Never mind that NPR, some commercial broadcast outlets and a rising tide of non-profit news organizations are producing excellent journalism every day that is paid for by someone other than the end user. The unspoken message is, We hard-working journalists have been giving away our work for 15 years, and we’re finally putting a stop to it.

In fact, there are reasons to hope the traditional newspaper industry might have a bit more life left in it than we thought a few years ago. The Globe and The New York Times, both owned by The New York Times Company, are pioneering the use of flexible paywalls that keep much of their content open to social networks and blogs while imposing a fee on regular readers. The Times, at least, has had some success; the Globe has not yet released any numbers. Publishers everywhere are hoping to emulate them.

The forces that have been undermining newspapers since the rise of the commercial web in the mid-1990s will come back to the fore.

Since advertising comprises an ever-shrinking share of revenues, publishers have to persuade readers to pay in the form of higher prices for print and something — anything — for online access. The alternative is to continue sliding toward oblivion. And despite some promising experiments here and there, it’s still not at all clear what would replace newspapers, especially at the local level. For every community that has a high-quality non-profit news site like Voice of San Diego (currently experiencing its own problems) and the New Haven Independent, or a for-profit like The Batavian or Baristanet, there are hundreds without anything but their shrinking, debt-ridden, chain-owned local newspaper.

The great newspaper retrenchment may prove to be more than a dead-cat bounce. As the economy slowly improves, the newspaper business may well enjoy a semi-revival. But before long, the forces that have been undermining newspapers since the rise of the commercial web in the mid-1990s will come back to the fore. Some progressive newspaper executives, like John Paton of Digital First Media, are trying to figure out how to combine the best of the new and the old before it’s too late. For the most part, though, you can be reasonably sure that newspaper companies will continue to cut costs, maximize profits (or minimize losses), and do their best ostrich imitations until they find themselves under siege once again.

After all, they’re standing up for traditional values — and what could be more traditional than failing to plan for the future?

Wall image via Mark Heard used under a Creative Commons license.

14:00

Emily Bell: 2012 will be the year of the network

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

Next up is Emily Bell, formerly the director of digital content for Guardian News and Media and currently the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Making predictions about journalism is a hopeless business: Jay Rosen, who is much wiser than I am said he never does it, and I salute him for that. But like Karaoke, some of the things you end up doing during the holiday period are regrettable but fun.

What we saw in 2011 was a sudden consciousness among news organizations and individual journalists that the network, and the tools which create it, are not social media wrappers for reporting but part of the reporting process itself. The poster child for this is the inimitable Andy Carvin, with his amazingly valuable journalism conducted throughout the Arab Spring. The network sensibility will grow in newsrooms which currently don’t tend to have it as part of their process — it is still seen in the vast majority of places as more of a “nice to have” rather than a “must have.” The strongest news organizations we know are those which can leverage both the real time social web and provide relevant timely context and analysis.

While this use of distributed tools and new platforms continues at speed, I think we will also see some much-needed closer scrutiny on what this new reality means for journalism and its constant redefinition of products and services. Or at least I hope so. While a fan of a networked approach, there are important caveats. It is remarkable how much journalism is now conducted on third party commercial websites which do not have journalism as a core purpose — Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. — and the attendant ignorance of what this means in the long term will begin to be addressed. Issues about privacy and user information, about the protection of sources, about ownership of IP , about archiving, and about how we can have a “fourth estate” in a digital world will all become vital for individual journalists and institutions to understand.

Journalists have always been very skilled at stories and projects and fairly awful at thinking about platforms. We need more engineers who want to be journalists, and we need to teach students more about the implications of publishing in a digital environment — whatever the format their journalism originally takes.

December 20 2011

16:00

Robert Hernandez: For journalism’s future, the killer app is credibility

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

Next up is multimedia journalist Robert Hernandez, aka WebJournalist, currently an assistant professor at USC Annenberg.

Granted, this will make for a weak lede, but allow me to start this piece with a disclosure: I, like many of you, am not a fan of prediction posts.

Typically, they aren’t based on anything real and are often used to make grand statements we all roll our eyes at… and don’t get me started on how often they’re wrong.

That aside, here’s another piece to roll your eyes at.

But here’s a tweak, this is not really a prediction… this is, to be honest, more of a hopeful wish.

Okay, ready? Here goes.

We know that Content is King. There is no doubting this concept. If you don’t have ‘it,’ no one is going to engage with you.

We know that Distribution is Queen. In this modern age, what’s the point of having ‘it’ if no one will find it?

My prediction is that this ruling monarchy will be augmented by… a prince. Perhaps a duke? Whatever. And it’s called Credibility.

In the age that we live in, content is relatively cheap. Anyone can create it. If not through their computer, everyone’s phone can basically do live shots, record newsworthy sound clips and file stories. Some can do interactive 360 videos or augmented reality presentations. Really cool stuff.

And everyone can distribute their content in 140 characters, their own livestream network or their blog (how traditional).

With technology empowering everyone with the ability to create and to distribute, I predict — and wish — that in 2012 the new dominating factor will be Credibility. Actually, earned Credibility.

What will stand out from the sea of content will be the voices we turn to time and time again. Trusted sources of news and information will transcend their mastheads and company brands…and become their own brand. Brands that are solely based on being known for the quality and reliability of their work.

Just to make Gene Weingarten angry, brands brands brands brands brands. Look, that’s all marketing speak for the most important quality journalists have to offer: Credibility.

And, sure, some of us get a head start by being associated with the Washington Post, NPR, CNN, etc. But I predict — hope — that in the coming year, individual journalists will be valued more than their distribution companies. More than the media format of their story.

Judged by the content of their character. (Wait, that’s a different dream.)

Many news consumers are tired of the political left and the political right fighting, and making journalism — or I should actually say “journalism” — the fight’s platform. Hell, I’m tired of it, too.

We want people who will cut through the spin and tell us what’s going on, how it will affect us and what can we do about it. We want transparent news. We want news that, while it may not always achieve that goal, honestly strives to be objective.

We want to trust journalism. And to do so, we need to trust journalists.

And bypassing the blogger-vs-tweeter-vs-media company-vs-journalist debate, it is going to come down to one thing: Credibility.

Can I reliably trust you to tell me what is going on? If the answer is yes, then I don’t care if you work out of a newsroom or out of your garage.

Let’s see what the new year brings, but that is my predication…that is my wish.

Okay, roll your eyes. Or post a comment. Share your thoughts.

Correction: We initially listed Richard, rather than Robert, Hernandez as the author of this post. We deeply regret the error, and want to stress that it’s the R. Hernandez of USC, rather than the R. Hernandez of Berkeley, who wrote this prediction. Apologies to both.

Image by vagawi used under a Creative Commons license.

December 19 2011

17:00

Dave Winer: We need to improve tech criticism. Here’s how.

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

Today, it’s web pioneer Dave Winer, a man key to the evolution of many of the publishing technologies we use online today, and currently a visiting scholar in journalism at NYU.

Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard has asked me to contribute a piece for their end-of-year roundup. I did one last year. I guess we were thinking about paywalls then. It’s not such a hot topic now.

At the end of this year I’m thinking about the need for proper criticism of software, alongside other arts like theater, movies, music, books, travel, food and architecture. It’s finally time to stop being all gee whiz about this stuff. Tech is woven into the fabric of our culture, as much as or more so than the other arts. And it’s headed toward being even more interwoven.

We all need this, on all sides of the art. As users and creators. There’s very little understanding of how we work. That’s illustrated perfectly by the Isaacson bio of Steve Jobs. We now see what a disaster this is going to be, from the future-historian point of view.

I’ve thought that perhaps a panel of product creators could give awards to journalism that really captures the spirit of technology. The goal would be to move away from the lone inventor myth and see tech projects as more like film production or a even more apt, a TV series. Software is a process. It’s not like Starry Night, as Joni Mitchell said, but it’s not like a song either. It’s like Breaking Bad or Dexter or Boardwalk Empire.1

If I could nudge the editorial people in a new direction, this would be it.

Let’s advance the art of technology criticism.

PS: I’d also like to see J-school students learn how to manage infrastructure.

Notes
  1. And when a developer sells out and the acquirer shuts the service down, it’s like Deadwood, leaving the users in a lurch, wishing to know how it turned out! :-(

    Ian MacShane: “You’ll never know what the fuck really happened.”

    Joni Mitchell: “That’s one thing that’s always, like, been a difference between, like, the performing arts, and being a painter, you know. A painter does a painting, and he paints it, and that’s it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he never, you know, nobody ever, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it and that was it.”

14:00

Nicholas Carr: 2012 will bring the appification of media

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

To kick things off, it’s Nicholas Carr, the veteran technology writer, whose most recent book — The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains — was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.

For years now, the line between the software business and the media business has been blurring. Software applications used to take the form of packaged goods, sold through retail outlets at set prices. Today, as a result of cloud computing and other advances, applications look more and more like media products. They’re ad-supported, subscribed to, continually updated, and the content they incorporate is often as important as the functions they provide. As traditional media companies have moved to distribute their wares in digital form — as code, in other words — they’ve come to resemble software companies. They provide not only original content, but an array of online tools and functions that allow customers to view, manipulate, and add to the content in myriad ways.

During 2011, the blending of software and media accelerated greatly, thanks to what might be termed the dis-integration of the internet. The old general-purpose web, where everyone visited the same sites and saw the same stuff, is rapidly being supplanted by specialized packages of digital content geared to particular devices—iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Kindle, Nook, Xbox — or to particular members-only sites like Facebook and Google+. Not only has the net left its Wild West days; it’s entered the era of the gated suburban subdivision. As part of this trend, the open, html-based website is being replaced, or at least supplemented, by the proprietary app. In app stores, the already blurry line between software and media disappears altogether. Apps are as much content-delivery services as they are conventional software programs. Newspapers, magazines, books, games, music albums, TV shows: All are being reimagined as apps. Appified, if you will.

Appification promises to be the major force reshaping media in general and news media in particular during 2012. The influence will be exerted directly, through a proliferation of specialized media apps, as well as indirectly, through changes in consumer attitudes, expectations, and purchasing habits. There are all sorts of implications for newspapers, but perhaps the most important is that the app explosion makes it much easier to charge for online news and other content. That’s true not only when the content is delivered through formal apps but also when it is delivered through traditional websites, which may themselves come to be viewed by customers as a form of app. In the old world of the open web, paying for online content seemed at best weird and at worst repugnant. In the new world of the app, paying for online content suddenly seems normal. What’s an app store but a series of paywalls?

Appification opens to newspapers the powerful marketing and pricing strategy that the Berkeley economist (and now Google executive) Hal Varian dubs “versioning.” Long a cornerstone of the software business, versioning is the practice of creating many versions of the same underlying informational product, packaging them in different ways, and selling them at different prices to different sets of customers. A software maker, for example, may give away a bare-bones version of an application, sell a version with more features to mainstream consumers at a modest price, and offer a high-end version, perhaps combined with added services, to professional users at a premium price. As Varian explains, “the point of versioning is to get the consumers to sort themselves into different groups according to their willingness to pay. Consumers with high willingness to pay choose one version, while consumers with lower willingnesses [sic] to pay choose a different version. The producer chooses the versions so as to induce the consumers to ‘self select’ into appropriate categories.”

We already see versioning strategies at work in the “metered” programs operated by a growing number of papers, including the Financial Times, The New York Times, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Readers lacking a willingness to pay get limited access to the papers’ sites for free. Readers who value the content more highly, and hence are willing to pay for it, subscribe for a fee to gain unlimited access. And readers with the greatest willingness to pay shell out even more money to receive both the print edition and unfettered online access. Appification provides an opportunity to create many more versions of the same basic content and deliver them to different customer segments. In 2012, we’ll see versioning strategies become not only more common in the newspaper business but more intricate, sophisticated, and lucrative.

The orthodox view among online pundits has been that paywalls and subscription fees won’t work for general-interest newspapers, that people simply won’t pay for a bundle of news online. Last year, media blogger Jeff Jarvis dismissed The New York Times’s metered plan as “cockeyed economics.” Earlier this year, Nieman Lab blogger Martin Langeveld opined that “newspapers are slowly digging their graves by building paywalls.” It seems likely that 2012 will be the year when we stop hearing such gloomy proclamations. Well-designed versioning strategies, spanning various devices, formats, functions, content bundles, and access plans, will provide smart newspapers with new ways to charge for their products, in both digital and print form, without sacrificing the unique opportunities presented by online distribution. That won’t mean the end of the industry’s struggles, but it does portend a brighter future. And that’s good news.

July 05 2011

18:30

With its newest round of Knight funding, DocCloud will figure out how to scale reader annotations

Two years ago, DocumentCloud received $719,500 from the Knight News Challenge to build a tool that news organizations could use to upload, share, and then collaboratively read and analyze documents. Since then, the project has not only made good on its promise to “turn documents into data,” introducing its tool into the workflows of investigative reporters in newsrooms across the country, but it’s also found a way to ensure the tool’s sustainment, at least into the near future: In early June, DocCloud’s staff announced that the project would merge operations with, appropriately enough, Investigative Reporters and Editors. And more good news for DocCloud came later in June, when Knight made it a rare double-winner in its News Challenge, granting the project $320,000 to develop an additional feature: reader annotations.

The idea for an annotation mechanism actually originated, indirectly, with the Online News Association, says Amanda Hickman, DocCloud’s program director. She and the team had been thinking about how to include readers more broadly in the process of collaborative document-parsing; at last year’s ONA conference, Hickman began talking with the Public Insight Network‘s Andrew Haeg about how DocCloud might integrate what it already had — an interface that allows a small group of registered users to upload documents and make annotations — with what Public Insight has been up to: finding, and then tracking, a large group of potential story sources. Their conversations, Hickman told me in an email, resulted in “a very whittled down tool for identifying specific experts and asking them to review specific documents, pre-publication.”

That tool is currently in place in the DocCloud system — with the important caveat that, to use it, you have to be invited by a newsroom to do so. From the news organization’s perspective, “there’s a practical limit to who you can invite,” Hickman points out, and “there’s a certain degree of trust involved,” since a public document means, also, public annotations. “It’s a tool that makes sense,” she notes, “if you’re dealing with a few people who aren’t part of your newsroom who need to look over a document.”

It’s a tool that makes less sense, though, if you want broader public input in a given document — which, increasingly, news orgs do. So the reader annotations project faces a tricky task: taking the interplay between expertise and trust that has worked so well in the invite-only annotations system…and building it, somehow, to scale.

And that’s where the Knight funding comes in. With it, DocCloud will figure out how, exactly, to build out the tool’s existing efficiencies to facilitate, and encourage, broader public participation. The goal is pretty much the same as it was when Hickman and Haeg first chatted: to marry DocCloud’s existing annotations infrastructure with the Public Insight approach that helps newsrooms to connect with more sources, more diverse sources, and untapped sources of expertise.

An added twist, though: Whatever system the DocCloud team builds will likely need to interface with outlets’ existing comments infrastructures. Which is both practical and problematic. “We’re not here to reinvent anyone’s moderation system,” Hickman noted in a phone call, “so we’ll have to sort out how to let newsrooms moderate reader annotations,” she says — in basically the same way they already moderate comments. They’ll have to build flexibility, in other words, into a single system to accommodate different outlets’ different approaches to reader commentary.

And they’ll also have to figure out a UI that leverages both the (hoped for) abundance of contributions and the (definite) need for operational efficiency. Visual and otherwise. “If one or two reporters annotate a document, they can make their own decision about how cluttered or uncluttered a page should be,” Hickman points out; with reader annotations, on the other hand, “there’s going to have to be some way to access an uncluttered page if you just want to read the document.”

And that necessity will only expand as the tool’s document set does — especially since a document whose content is meaningful in one way, at one point in time, might take on an entirely different relevance later on, in a different context. So DocCloud will be tasked in part with “figuring out how you present a document that’s annotated in a different context,” Hickman notes. “It’s a really interesting puzzle.”

July 01 2011

17:00

Solving data overload with design: News Challenge winner iWitness aggregates media by time and place

Jesse James Garrett

If consumers struggle to keep up with breaking news and current events, it’s certainly not for lack of data. Jesse James Garrett thinks the problem with news is one of design.

“As the data sources become more and more massive, the role of user experience in shaping technology that helps people make sense of those data sources is a vital part of delivering on the mission of journalism,” Garrett said.

Though he went to journalism school, Garrett is a professional web designer. He is president of Adaptive Path, a San Francisco-based design firm he co-founded almost 10 years ago, and best known for coining the term AJAX to describe a new way of building websites.

Garrett’s first attempt to rescue journalism from bad design is iWitness, an aggregation tool that will mine Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube for user-generated material unique to a particular time and place — the kind of tool that might prove particularly useful during political protests or natural disasters. iWitness is only an idea at this point, but now it’s funded by a two-year, $360,000 grant from the Knight News Challenge.

“Give us a time and a place and we’ll find everything, from the services that we’re able to support, that was posted by somebody who was there — in that place, at that time,” Garrett said. Centrality is one of iWitness’ key selling points. Nothing out there at the moment automatically pulls content from across social-service sites at the same time.

“The sites themselves don’t really provide easy mechanisms for sifting their data by location. They’re collecting all this data, but they don’t really present it to users in a way that makes it easy for them to work,” Garrett said. For all the petabytes of data out there, there’s even more metadata — data about the data — just waiting to be put in context.

So if you were able to follow the streams of photos and video and tweets coming out of Tahrir Square right now, for example, that would give you an immediate, and intimate, insight into the political upheaval in Egypt. It takes a lot of manual labor,” Garrett said. Even Andy Carvin sleeps.

Andy Carvin, of course, adds another layer — human-powered curation — to the mix, and that’s not what iWitness is for. It’s not Storify, Garrett said.

“I feel like Storify’s core strength is as a curation tool, to allow people to pull together and create a narrative from social media. What we’re doing is really raw aggregation,” he said. You could use iWitness to gather source material for a story, the way you might use Kayak as a starting point for planning a trip.

Garrett will distribute the code as open-source, not because the Knight Foundation requires it but because he thinks it’s the most effective way to win widespread adoption. He plans to build a working demo but leave it up to others to build public-facing websites. News organizations also could adopt and expand the software for internal use.

The project will borrow some of the programmers and designers at Adaptive Path and should get underway this fall. The involvement of a respected design firm, not a news organization, is interesting — and not a traditional choice for the News Challenge. iWitness will probably be beautiful. And that could be what gets people to use it.

June 30 2011

16:00

With News Challenge funding, The Tiziano Project will expand training and tools for community journalism

We’ve reached a point where debates over citizen journalism have been washed over by a torrent of online video, blogs, and other media created by people who, while they may not identify themselves as journalists, are nevertheless documenting what’s happening in their communities. Sometimes that’s a political uprising, other times it’s a devastating tornado. Often, the documentations get picked up by mainstream sources — or, based on the power of the stories they tell, go viral all on their own.

What that’s done is give equal weight to the impact of video and multimedia produced by individuals to that of the content created by professional journalists. The key difference now is quality, not in the sense of refined storytelling, but in the sense of the equipment and tools used to produce multimedia narratives.

In its pilot effort documenting the lives of residents in Kurdistan, The Tiziano Project — named for an Italian journalist “who liked to go where he shouldn’t” — attempted to close that gap through offering better tools and training to regular folks. Now, with the help of a $200,000 Knight News Challenge grant, the project will try to refine its technology and expand its scope.

Jon Vidar, executive director of The Tiziano Project, said the project will develop a suite of tools that will help community journalists produce and showcase their work — effectively a content management system designed specifically for multimedia storytelling. Vidar and his team will be building that system off the template of their 360 Kurdistan project, which featured personal accounts of Iraqis coupled with work from professional photojournalists. Vidar expects they’ll move quickly, using the one-year grant to build a beta in 6 months, then test and tweak the project for the rest of the year.

“The grant itself is a technology-only development grant for us to take the 360 platform we built in Iraq and use the funding to make it scalable and usable by other organizations,” Vidar told me. Part of that also includes designing a new interface that will include an interactive map to display an array of 360 projects from various communities. (To get an idea of what those projects look like, check out the interface The Tiziano Project created for the Kurdistan project, which combines still photography with audio as well as video segments.)

In many ways, Vidar said, the original 360 project was a proof-of-concept, showing that with sufficient tools and support, people can tell compelling, visually arresting stories about their community, the kind that may otherwise go unnoticed. Taken together, those stories have a great impact and can change perceptions about a group of people and where they live, Vidar said.

But those stories don’t happen automatically. “Back in 2006, 2007, when we were starting up, “community journalism” was a buzzword, like hyperlocal is today,” Vidar said. “A lot of those programs failed. They went into communities and handed out Flip video cameras and thought they were going to get amazing, high-quality video content.”

One of the big hurdles in the Kurdistan project was funding, which was provided through a $25,000 grant from the JP Morgan Chase Community Giving program. That helped to provide the basics, Vidar said: a team of photographers to offer guidance and a Flash developer to build out the site.

Part of their focus now will be developing a front end for the project, something that works across multiple platforms, from desktop to mobile and tablets. The original project was built in Flash, but Vidar said they’re now looking at using HTML5 to build a flexible site. That too can provide complications, though, and Vidar and his team want to make sure they’re using the right technology for the job. If you’re dealing with photography and video, the design and usability experience is key to getting people to engage with your work, Vidar said. “We don’t want to take the quality of the experience down just to make it cross compatible.”

What the 360s could provide is a new avenue for local journalism, something that is a hybrid between pure amateur cellphone video and packages developed by professionals.

“There’s three types of content producers now,” Vidar said. “The professional journalist; the citizen producer — the everyday guy uploading to YouTube; and then there’s the intermediate. They’re not professional journalists, but active commentators, people who use [video] in an in-depth way. We want to elevate the people who are taking cellphone video and posting it to YouTube — elevate them to the next level.”

14:00

FrontlineSMS, a News Challenge winner, connects people in places where the web is out of reach

Sean Martin McDonald, FrontlineSMS

There are more than 5 billion mobile phone connections on earth, by some estimates, far more than the number of people who have access to clean water. In much of the developing world, however, Internet access is either scarce or prohibitively expensive.

Knight News Challenge winner FrontlineSMS is open-source software that tries to plug the resulting information gap. The platform, which has until now focused on the communications needs of NGOs, has already found success in medicine, agriculture, and election monitoring. Now, with help from KNC’s three-year, $250,000 grant, FrontlineSMS plans to expand its focus to include journalists.

FrontlineSMS is a free download for Windows, Mac OS, or Linux. It requires a computer and a cell phone — a cheap one will do — but, importantly, no Internet connection. “It enables people to have complex digital communications with people who may live beyond the reach of the Internet,” said Sean Martin McDonald, the director of operations, Americas, for FrontlineSMS.

The software allows for mass communication over SMS, akin to an email blast, and it supports complex, two-way communication. So a health care worker in India, for example, coud text an appointment reminder to a patient and request a response to find out whether the doctor showed up. The software can capture and store these responses programmatically, which is essential in situations that find you seeking input from dozens or hundreds or thousands of people.

A real-world example is Rien que la Vérité, a fictionalized, documentary-style television series about current events in Kinshasa. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger, McDonald said, and viewers are polled via SMS about where to take the conversation next. Community radio stations, too, use the FrontlineSMS software to interact with listeners and solicit public opinion. Sure, American Idol does the same thing, but SMS is connecting people who might not otherwise have a chance to talk.

The Knight grant will enable the organization to build upon its FrontlineSMS:Radio spinoff and develop tools specifically tailored for journalists. The idea is still hazy at this stage: Before solidifying any plans, McDonald wants to survey the needs of people who work in countries where journalism is hard to carry out. A significant chunk of the grant project, he said, will be devoted to research.

“The amount of interest and demand that we get from journalism organizations is pretty intense. There’s a lot of need out there. We’re hoping definitely to work with Knight and their network and be able to get useful software into the hands of some people,” McDonald said.

FrontlineSMS developers are also improving support for MMS, which allows citizens people to share audio, video, and photos over standard cellular connections. The lingering problem: While there are plenty of reporting apps out there, there are none that work without an Internet connection.

Another challenge: The mission of FrontlineSMS can be tricky to carry out in countries with regimes that feel threatened by informed citizens and inquisitive reporters. “We’re not necessarily bringing an anti-censorship angle to this — although I think everybody’s anti-censorship,” McDonald said. “Our focus is really on helping bridge information gaps. There are lots and lots of things with SMS that can expose people to danger if they’re taking up positions that are contrary to government, so that’s not really the operational focus of what we’re doing.”

McDonald said the FrontlineSMS software has already been downloaded 15,000 times in more than 60 countries. It’s in the midst of a total redesign that should be be finished in the “not-too-distant future,” he said. Because the software is available on GitHub, anyone can download the code and improve it right now.

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