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July 30 2012

14:00

One year since she was hired, Vivian Schiller’s “wild ride” at NBC is just beginning

If you ever find yourself awake past the witching hour, sleeplessly scrolling Twitter, take comfort in knowing that NBC News chief digital strategist Vivian Schiller is right there with you.

“I’m up for two or three hours in the middle of the night,” Schiller told me. “But my saving grace is Twitter.”

Schiller has been with the network for just over a year now. If it’s her job that keeps her up at night, she says it’s not for lack of satisfaction with it. After a difficult resignation as CEO of NPR, she’s happy at NBC — “incredibly happy,” actually — and excited about the changes that are taking place there.

The big one happened earlier this month when NBC bought back control of the MSNBC.com website and rebranded it NBCNews.com. (MSNBC — the cable television channel — will launch its own site in 2013.) Of course on a larger scale, it’s the industry itself that’s changing.

In Schiller’s words: “If you don’t disrupt yourself, someone’s going to disrupt you.”

And disruption is built into her job, which focuses on change, experimentation, and recalibration. That means embracing a try-anything-but-fail-fast mentality, taking the best of what works and hopefully turning it into something even better.

With #NBCFail trending in recent days, the Internet has been busy complaining about the network’s coverage of the Olympics thus far. Schiller said that she has nothing to do with the Olympics, but she’s also taken to Twitter to defend the coverage.

+1 @jonathanwald the medal for most Olympic whining goes to everyone complaining about what happens every 4 yrs, tape delay @brianstelter

— Vivian Schiller (@VivianSchiller) July 29, 2012

I spoke with Schiller last week before the games got under way. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and compressed.

Adrienne LaFrance: A little over one year in, how’s it going? What’s your prevailing mood? Update me.
Vivian Schiller: My prevailing mood is incredibly happy — I feel like I’m suddenly talking to a psychiatrist — but I’m generally a very happy person anyway. I went through some unhappy times, as you know. But I just love it here. I know that makes me sound like I’m being sort of a corporate goody two-shoes but I seriously love it here. I’ve now worked at five big media companies, and I can tell you that this has been spectacularly great.
LaFrance: What’s something you expected — or didn’t expect — coming in that you’ve since learned about NBC?
Schiller: Well it’s funny because — and I certainly didn’t plan it this way — but as it’s turned out in my career, I’ve worked for a company that is in every platform, and the one hole was broadcast television. I was in cable television, I was in newspapers, digital, radio. So coming into a broadcast news organization, I knew that the culture would be different than cable television, no question. And I knew that NBC News has this very storied legacy.

I maybe had just the slightest concern — before I actually started to meet with people — because NBC News is so successful, and because of the unusual relationship we had with our website, how would digital be embraced? How would I be embraced? But I will tell you that vanished instantly, as soon as I started working here. I’ve seen just about every corporate culture there is. One of the things I love about it here is it’s very collaborative. People are rewarded for sharing and being nice to each other, as opposed to in some places that’s not the case.

LaFrance: I always like to ask people about their news consumption habits, when you wake up, where you look first, that kind of thing.
Schiller: It’s a sore subject. The last few months, I’m up for two or three hours in the middle of the night. But my saving grace is Twitter. It’s quite sick. I wake up in the middle of the night. I don’t know why. You could say, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of stress at work,’ but there’s always stress at work. Maybe it’s age. I don’t know what it is. So what’s the first thing I look at in the morning? Really what I look at in the middle of the night and first thing in the morning is Twitter. It is my news feed. It’s a quick take on whatever’s going, including frankly NBC’s own news. So, Twitter. And I have a Breaking News app on my iPhone, and I look at that.

“The answer to everything is not always technology. It’s about technology married with trusted journalism…”

In my apartment in New York, I must admit I do not have like seven monitors set up in my apartment. I toggle back and forth between The Today Show and Morning Joe. I know this sounds rather old-fashioned but I get a bunch of email newsletters still. You know, paidContent, Mediabistro. Mind you, I was general manager of NYTimes.com, but I am still incredibly stuck to my habit of reading The New York Times in print. It doesn’t mean that I don’t also follow NYTimes.com on Twitter and look at the website, but I do read it in print. I just really like to read it in print.

LaFrance: If someone were trying to get a sense of the scope of NBC’s digital efforts, where would you first direct them?
Schiller: I mean I guess the one place would be NBCNews.com but I don’t want to create a false hierarchy by saying that. This is the way the digital world works, and it would be foolish of us not to serve various audiences. All of them adhere to the same journalistic standards. That’s the one immutable constant across everything we do: our journalistic standards. Whatever we do — hard news, soft news, breaking news — anything that we do, it all meets those same standards, regardless of what the coverage is. That’s the one constant.

From there, I want each property to have their own voice. The Grio has a voice. NBC Latino has a voice. Today has a voice. What was MSNBC.com and is now NBCNews.com, we’re going to evolve that site to have more of NBC News’s voice. NBC News on television has a voice. We’re looking to evolve the site — and when I say ‘the site’ I mean everything that we do: mobile, our social extensions — to have a little bit more of that voice. Of course when the new site for cable launches, certainly MSNBC cable has a voice, and you will see that reflected in the site.

LaFrance: In a conference call last week, you and [NBC News President] Steve Capus talked about how amid this transition to NBCNews.com, the thing that will continue will be a commitment to journalism. What recent hard news stories — or reporting packages, series, whatever it may be — come to mind for you as really exceptional demonstrations or that commitment?
Schiller: One of the more recent ones, we did a digital-only series called What the World Thinks of Us. It’s a series of videos from around the world, what people there think about the U.S., which is an incredibly timely issue, especially with a presidential campaign going on.

The web staff, the web journalists, do a tremendous amount. I think frankly we don’t do a good enough job, or haven’t done a good enough job, promoting or surfacing a lot of the extraordinary journalism that’s done that doesn’t appear on television. It’s certainly not just a companion to TV, and it’s not a commodity news site. It’s a place for exclusive, original, personal, in-depth content that — because time is a limited resource — can’t necessarily go on television.

We have reporters who are digital reporters — I mean, they are reporters, period, full stop — who are covering beats that heretofore NBC News hasn’t had desks for. Travel, for example. Consumer business. NBC News has not until now had dedicated reporters on some of these issues. We have now [through acquiring what was previously MSNBC.com] just gained desks and beats who are doing original reporting. There not just doing aggregating, not that there’s anything wrong with aggregating. We just expanded overnight our reporting ranks.

LaFrance: You said the digital side of things isn’t just a companion to television. But as we’ve been tracking tablet use and smartphone use, and as I’m sure you’re aware, people are watching TV while they engage with these devices. How do you factor that in?
Schiller: I’m really glad you asked that. ‘Second screen’ is the new buzzword. The whole concept of a more formalized approach to second screen is going to really explode over the next two years. You’ve seen the same statistics I have. While people are watching television, they’re engaging with a second and even a third screen. It’s astounding how many people have two screens. They might have their desktop or laptop and their mobile device or whatever it might be.

Audiences have created their own ad-hoc experiences, and created their own second-screen experiences through Twitter and Facebook while they’re watching television. We’ve seen that happen.

Nobody ever went broke following audience behavior and audience desire. So that hasn’t been lost on us either. What is the opportunity? If we know that people are watching our programs and engaging with them on Twitter, well, that says to me, couldn’t we create a better experience for them that’s customized to simultaneously watching television and, say, engaging with a tablet? We’ve launched a couple of efforts, one of them an experiment with Dateline — that’s sort of a quasi second-screen experience. We do a lot on Twitter of course.

We are not ready to talk about the details, but we are actively looking at the opportunities to tie more closely what you see on television to what you’re experiencing on your second screen so that we can close the circle of being able to tap into your community, to your social network. Frankly, look — we’re in an advertising-supported business. What are the opportunities for advertisers in terms of going back and forth between the second screen or the third screen? That’s a huge area of focus. Watch that space.

LaFrance: The Dateline experiment — was that the Chatline feature?
Schiller: Yes. I’m a big believer in test-and-learn model of innovation. We’re trying stuff. We’re trying lots and lots of stuff and you know going in some of it’s going to work, some of it isn’t going to work. Hey, if things don’t work, as long as you figure out quickly and stop doing them. The whole fail-fast philosophy. We want to try a lot of things.
LaFrance: So with Chatline, are you trying to appeal to people who maybe aren’t active on Twitter, so they want a narrower, pre-set experience? Or is it people who are so comfortable with Twitter that they’re willing to go all over the place? I’m not quite sure who would be the target audience.
Schiller: The ideal is you want to satisfy both. Anything that we do will involve people’s social networks: Twitter and Facebook. Nobody will tolerate being forced to choose between a dedicated experience that doesn’t include Twitter, and then having to go back and forth to Twitter. That’s not serving the audience very well. Everything we do will have an integrated experience.

People already have communities. I do not believe there is room for another player to come and say, ‘Create a new proprietary network of your friends on our site.’ I think that would be a complete waste of time, and a dead end, and a losing proposition. So we need to engage the social networks that people already have into our experiences.

LaFrance: You said something to the effect of ‘nobody goes broke following what the audience wants’ but people are still trying to figure out how to balance audience wants and advertising needs. Another way to ask this: Will I ever be able to livestream Meet the Press?
Schiller: It is challenging. We want to make sure that we don’t inadvertently hurt our affiliate partners but you raise a good question, and we’re all feeling our way through that. We’re experimenting a lot. I think the key to everything is to experiment.

A lot of times, I think sort of the history of digital media over the last decade and a half or two decades is unwarranted fear of cannibalization. People who think, ‘Oh, if we put something online, people will stop consuming X, whatever it is.” In some cases, yes, that’s true. But you can’t stop the tide. If you don’t disrupt yourself, someone’s going to disrupt you.

It’s not a zero-sum game in the sense that just because you put something online, I don’t think people look at it as a binary decision between ‘Do I consume it online or do I consume it on pick-your-legacy-business?’ What we’ve seen is more content is being consumed and both of those experiences can be equally valid to people.

LaFrance: I’m curious to hear how all of this will carry over to election coverage, and what you’re most excited about NBC trying in that spirit of experimentation that will distinguish 2012 coverage from 2008.
Schiller: We’re trying a lot of stuff. We had relationships with Facebook on the debates. We had relationships with foursquare, with Twitter. We still have some more things we’ll be rolling out. We launched our NBC Politics site and our NBC politics iPad app. We’ve created interactive experiences around delegate maps.

Look, I don’t want to say that other news organizations are not doing a lot of those same things. But we have so many trusted voices within NBC News on politics. What we’re doing is we’re saying, these are your guides that you’ve always trusted on television, so we’re going to make them available on every platform. That is really what is going to differentiate us. The answer to everything is not always technology. It’s about technology married with trusted journalism and the trusted voices who have been leading us through umpteen political races over many decades.

LaFrance: With some distance from NPR now, how are you looking some of the challenges that public radio faces as distinct from the challenges TV faces?
Schiller: Well, the obvious one is government funding, and I was chagrined to see recently that the calls to cut funding for public broadcasting are back in full force. I see my former colleagues going up to the Hill again to testify again. I feel for them. That’s a really tough position to be in. Frankly, I’m glad not to have to ask the government for money. It’s challenging on many fronts. It becomes very politically fraught. It is politically fraught. Nobody knows that better than I do, personally. It’s challenging — I want to phrase this carefully — I think it is complicated when an independent news organization takes money from federal, state, and local government. I think that’s challenging for an independent news organization which covers those entities.
LaFrance: From the TV side, what’s a challenge that’s more pronounced now?
Schiller: Well actually, the same challenge we had at NPR and cable TV, which was writing for the web — it’s not the same as writing for television and radio. We didn’t have that problem at The New York Times. But in all seriousness, that’s a surmountable challenge.
LaFrance: And since you mentioned The New York Times, I have to ask about your sense of how things are working there, specifically with the paywall.
Schiller: I will tell you as now an outsider but still a loyal reader of The New York Times. The newspaper has never been better. I don’t work there. They don’t pay me to say that. Even if they did pay me to say it, I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it was true. I think the news report has never been better. I find it really indispensable. I think the latest paywall — the porous, metered model — is really working well. I worry for them though. I’m not saying anything they don’t know, but all of the key indicators are going in a different direction. It’s a national treasure, so I’m sure they will find away.
LaFrance: Last question for you: What’s the most recent example of something you saw another news organization do that made you think, ‘Oh, I wish we did that,’ or that otherwise wowed you?
Schiller: Gosh, do I have to pick one?
LaFrance: Pick as many as you’d like.
Schiller: I love some of the news parodies that Slate is doing. I think those are really cool. The New York Times does spectacularly well with their interactive data-driven graphics. Some of the incredibly in-depth data-driven investigative reporting coming out of ProPublica is amazing. There’s a lot that I admire. I wish that we could do all of it, and I hope that we get to a point where we can. You’ll see a lot of change as well roll out some changes, as we launch the cable site. It will be a wild ride. It will be great.

April 21 2011

14:30

Schiller to public radio: Don’t just sit there, take risks

Vivian Schiller

Vivian Schiller has a warning to her former colleagues at NPR: “Your continued existence is not guaranteed.”

But that warning — delivered yesterday in a talk at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center — wasn’t just about the congressional fight over public funding. It was about what she sees as the imminent threat of Internet radio in cars. “The monopoly advantage of the radio tower will begin to fade,” she said, delivering her remarks in the form of an open letter to public broadcasters.

“New digital-only startups will enter the marketplace in audio, and you will find yourselves longing for the days when the competition was that public radio station that overlapped with your broadcast signal,” she said.

The Shorenstein Center has posted audio of Schiller’s hour-long talk and Q&A; you can download the MP3 or listen to it below:

[See post to listen to audio]

Schiller suggested member stations adjust to the threat by starting to offer additional, online-only streams. If the local NPR station is serving news when a listener wants music, Pandora is just a click away. And, as Schiller warned in our predictions-for-2011 package in December, that kind of audio flexibility is coming to cars, terrestrial radio’s strongest bastion.

She said public radio could learn a few things about competition and innovation from its commercial counterparts, having worked in for-profit media herself (CNN, Discovery, The New York Times). She urged public radio to take more risks.

“You are now competing in the big leagues and are no longer the scrappy underdog,” she said. ”You must become your own disruptors. If you don’t aggressively reach out to new audiences on new platforms, someone else will. There is no such thing as lasting media loyalty, especially in this age of media promiscuity.” She said public radio needs to “let go of the nostalgia” of the craft.

In questions afterward, Schiller said little about what’s next for her post-NPR (other than “a week on the beach”) and had little to add about the controversies that led to her departure. Schiller brushed off suggestions that NPR cut ties to member stations, which receive a vast majority of the famously fraught federal funding, saying the national-local partnership model is the network’s “special sauce.” She said the surest way for stations to survive is to deliver locally focused content, alongside NPR’s national and international reporting, on every platform possible.

April 01 2011

15:29

Lessons on newspaper paywalls from Mexico

In the session on paywalls at the ISOJ, Jorge Meléndez, vice president for new media, Grupo Reforma (Mexico), explained how the newspapers have had paywalls since 2002.

The newspaper sites were free for the first two years. But they realised there was a very small online advertising market so the group just did it. Part of this involved an active strategy to convert newspaper subscribers online.

The impact of the paywall was a 35% drop in traffic. But Meléndez said they stopped minor circulation declines.

Access to all of the the news sites is free for newspaper subscribers. The prince for an online subscription is 80% of a newspaper subscription, as a way of encouraging readers to take the newspaper.

Meléndez explained there is some free content, such as the main page and emailed links.

The group provides apps for free, at least for now, said Meléndez. It has an “aggressive” app strategy, with dozens of apps for different topics.

Meléndez said broadsheet circulation is holding steady and tabloids have grown by 5% over last 8 years. Advertising and classifieds have also grown.

The group has 300,000 newspaper subscribers for all papers. 50,000 are only online subscribers. In terms of traffic, the sites have six million unique visitors, with an average of eight pages per user.

Meléndez said they learnt that people do not read instructions. Online, people just expect to click. So use action verbs and clear instructions, with as few words as possible, he urged.

The reasons behind the success of paywalls is local content, argued Meléndez. And the sites have more local content than in the newspaper. “Local is very important for us,” he said.

But when it came to today, he said the situation with paywalls was more difficult than in 2002. People are used to free, there is more competition and newspaper metrics are “so bad.”

14:23

Vivian Schiller’s seven reasons to be cheerful about journalism

A timely start to the International Symposium on Online Journalism at UT Austin with Vivian Schiller, ex-president/CEO of NPR.

While quoting some of the bad news in the annual State of the Media report for 2011, Schiller outlined seven reasons to be cheerful:

  1. Conditions finally right to give paywalls a fair shake. What has changed, she said is that while scale still matters, brand is back. The other thing is that you can train people to pay for content, arguing iTunes has shown this is possible. She also points to the growing popularity of tablets.
  2. Local is still up for grabs. Schiller said legacy media can win the battle for local audiences as they have the people and brands. But she questioned whether legacy media would make the investment.
  3. Twitter as a newsgathering vehicle. She cited Andy Carvin’s curated feed of Twitter, saying it was an extraordinary and powerful complement to what a news organisation regularly does.
  4. Apps are the “holy grail of engagement”. The duplication of those who download NPR’s app and listen to NPR on the radio is massive, she said. 80% of Android app users are NPR listeners.  People who listen to audio consume 10 times as much content as those who just read, Schiller said.
  5. Audience acquisition. The web is not dead, said Schiller, stressing the the browser is the best way to acquire news users. Only 20% of NPR.org users listen to NPR radio. “Do not give up on the web.”
  6. Legacy news organisations are ready to be their own disruptors. So rather than being platform agnostic, news organisations have realised they have to serve every audience in different ways depending on platform.. Schiller cites examples of news organisations creating new brands such as Washington Post’s Trove and The Daily.
  7. Digital natives have come of age and care about journalism. Schiller said journalism school enrolment is soaring, saying these are the people who would reinvent the business model. She argued that people of her generation won’t be able to do this.

Schiller ended by quoting Clay Shirky on the opportunities before us and urged attendees to imagine and seize the future. We must be in a constant state of experimentation, she said.

March 11 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: NPR at a crossroads, hyperlocal’s personal issue, and keeping comments real

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

A bad week for NPR execs named Schiller: For the second time in five months, NPR has found itself in the middle of a controversy that’s forced it to wrestle with issues of objectivity, bias, and its own federal funding. This one started when the conservative prankster James O’Keefe orchestrated a hidden-camera video of a NPR fundraising exec bashing Tea Partiers and generally straying from the NPR party line while meeting with people pretending to represent a Muslim charity. (The “donors” also met with PBS, but their people didn’t take the bait.)

Reaction was mixed: The right, of course, was outraged, though others like Slate’s Jack Shafer and Gawker’s John Cook downplayed the significance of the video. NPR was outraged, too — “appalled,” actually, with 21 journalists condemning the remarks. CEO Vivian Schiller said she was upset and that the two execs had put on administrative leave, but within about 12 hours, however, Schiller herself had been forced out by NPR’s board. The New York Times has good background on the shocking turn of events, and Poynter summarized the six months of controversy that led up to this, stretching back to Juan Williams’ firing (the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder called Schiller’s ouster “Williams’ revenge”).

Reaction to NPR’s handling of the situation was decidedly less mixed — and a lot more scathing. In a chat and column, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard ripped just about all parties involved, and the online response from media-watchers was just as harsh. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen called it “profoundly unjust,” and several others blasted NPR’s leadership.

The Awl’s Choire Sicha called NPR’s management “wusses,” CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis called the NPR board “ballless” and said the episode exposes the difference between NPR and the stations who run it, ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg lamented NPR’s allowing the O’Keefes of the world to take over public discourse, and Rosen and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy told NPR to start fighting back. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares put it best, saying the fiasco “exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak — too concerned about its image to realize that ‘surrender’ is not always the best option.”

The episode also stoked the fires of the perpetual debate over whether public radio should keep its federal funding. The Atlantic’s Chris Good looked at the political aspects of the issue, and The Christian Science Monitor examined whether public radio stations would survive without federal money. A few calls to defund public radio came from outside the traditional (i.e. conservative) places, with Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan and media analyst Alan Mutter arguing that NPR will be in an untenable situation as a political football as long as they’re getting federal funds. Meanwhile, here at the Lab, USC’s Nikki Usher did give some encouraging information from the whole situation, looking at Schiller’s legacy of digital and local innovation during her NPR tenure.

Making hyperlocal news personal: AOL continued its move into local news late last week, as it bought the hyperlocal news aggregator Outside.in. In an excellent analysis at the Lab, Ken Doctor argued that the purchase is a way for AOL to get bigger quickly, particularly by bulking up Patch’s pageviews through cheap local aggregation tools. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick took the opportunity to ask why hyperlocal news technology services like Outside.in, Everyblock, and Fwix haven’t been as useful as we had hoped.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM posited an answer: Hyperlocal journalism only works if it’s deeply connected with the community it serves, and those technologies aren’t. Without that level of community, “AOL is pouring money into a bottomless pit,” he wrote. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran said that might be where local news organizations can step in, focusing less on creating news articles and more on using their community trust to make local information useful, relevant and findable.

Elsewhere on the cheap-content front: All Things Digital reported that AOL is laying off hundreds of employees (including the widely expected gutting of several of its news sites), and Business Insider snagged the memo. Wired talked to two Google engineers about its anti-content farm changes, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said good content is created either by passionate fans or by proper journalists being paid a fair amount. But, he said, “paying people a very low amount of money to write about stuff they don’t care about — that doesn’t work.” And Dan Conover at Xark warned against turning content — especially hyperlocal — into a franchise formula.

Accountability and authenticity in online comments: TechCrunch was one of the first companies to try out Facebook’s new commenting system, and after about a week, MG Siegler noted that the number of the site’s comments had decreased, and they’d also gone from nasty to warm and fuzzy. Entrepreneur Steve Cheney proposed a reason why the comments were so “sterile and neutered”: Facebook kills online authenticity, because everyone is self-censoring their statements to make sure their grandmas, ex-girlfriends, and entire social network won’t be offended.

Tech guru Robert Scoble disagreed, arguing that TechCrunch’s comments have improved, and people know real change and credibility only comes from using their real identities. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo made a somewhat similar argument, eloquently making the case for the elimination of anonymous commenting. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram weighed in by saying that Facebook can’t make or break comments — it all depends on being involved in an actual conversation with users. He pointed to a brilliant post by NPR’s Matt Thompson, who gave numerous tips on cultivating community in comments; much it went back to the idea that “The very best filter is an empowered, engaged adult.”

Meanwhile, Joy Mayer of the Reynolds Journalism Institute got some advice on cultivating online reader engagement from the Wall Street Journal’s (and formerly the Lab’s) Zach Seward, and the Lab’s Megan Garber reported on the results of some research into which stories are the most liked and shared on Facebook.

More paywall test cases: Newspapers continue to pound the paywall drumbeat, with the CEO of newspaper chain Gannett saying the company is experimenting with various pay models in anticipation of a potential one-time company-wide rollout and the Dallas Morning News rolling out its own paywall this week. Ken Doctor crunched the numbers to try to gauge the initiative’s chances, and media consultant Mike Orren disagreed with the News’ idea of how much a metro newspaper’s operation should cost.

Elsewhere, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case that Britain’s Financial Times’ paywall strategy has contributed to its decline, writing, “the FT strategy is exactly the strategy I would choose if I was faced with an industry in terminal decline, and wanted to extract as much money as possible from it before it died.” Meanwhile, The New York Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, chided the Times for not aggressively covering news of its own paywall, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM called paywalls a futile attempt to hold back the tide of free online content.

Reading roundup: Some things to read in between SXSW Interactive panels:

— New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote a rather odd little column taking shots at news and opinion aggregators, especially Arianna Huffington. Everyone then took shots at his column, including Huffington, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan.

— Newsweek published its first redesigned issue under The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown this week. The Society of Publication Designers had a look at the issue, which Slate’s Jack Shafer panned. The New York Times noted the issue’s familiar bylines.

— A few Apple-related notes: At MediaShift, Susan Currie Sivek looked at the impact of Apple’s 30-percent app subscription cut on small magazines, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow urged Apple-fighting publishers to move to the open web, not Android-powered tablets. GigaOM’s Om Malik joined the chorus of people calling for iPad apps to be reimagined.

— Two great posts at the Lab on search engine optimization: Richard J. Tofel on why the web will be better off with the decline of SEO, and Martin Langeveld on the SEO consequences of including paid links on sites.

— Former Guardian digital chief Emily Bell gave a fantastic interview to CBC Radio about various future-of-news issues, and Mathew Ingram summarized a talk she gave on newspapers and the web.

— Finally, two must-reads: The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a thoughtful essay arguing that we should take the contemporary journalism environment on its own terms, rather than unfairly comparing it to earlier eras. And at the Lab, former St. Pete Times journalist and current Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite called news developers to let the old systems go and “hack at the very core of the whole product.”

March 09 2011

20:30

From Argo to R&D: Vivian Schiller’s legacy of innovation at NPR

With the departure of NPR CEO Vivian Schiller today, and the January resignation of Senior VP for News Ellen Weiss — not to mention threats of the loss of government funding that have been escalating in the past couple of months — things look like they could be pretty scary for NPR at the moment.

In the wake of all of this turmoil, though, it’s worth taking a look at Schiller’s and Weiss’s legacy. Under their leadership, NPR has been doing things that have been helping to set the standard for innovation across the industry — in broadcast and beyond.

I say this after being involved with NPR on the research end since 2008, after the Knight Foundation gave NPR $1.5 million to retrain 400 digital journalists, and gave USC $2.4 million and UC Berkeley $2.8 million to help the transformation happen. I worked with Knight Digital Media Center head Vikki Porter and USC professor Patricia Riley in studies of NPR that included field research, interviewing, and leadership workshops at USC.

Here are some of our findings about NPR under Schiller and Weiss:

• Continued audience growth, not just on traditional airwaves, but in on demand forms, such as through podcasting and streaming radio
• Exposure of large numbers of staff to multimedia training and digital news concepts
• The incorporation of digital news staff into the traditional radio newsroom
• The relaunch of the NPR website
• The opening of the NPR API for programmers and anyone else to experiment with — making it possible for a volunteer firefighter, who happens also to be an NPR fan, to create a streaming mobile app called NPR Addict
• The development of an active social media team, which can both create social media content from NPR and also harness everything from audience Flickr efforts to user comments
• The willingness to experiment with an in-house social media platform on NPR’s community page
• More followers on Facebook — 1.5 million at the moment — than any other media organization, Schiller has said
• The expansion of the NPR brand beyond radio to include visuals (such as flash graphics), video, photography, and — a challenge for any radio or broadcast organization — text
• The active presence of NPR Labs, an R&D team inside NPR that can bake new ideas into initiatives throughout the news organization and at other public radio stations
• The launch of project ARGO, a network of public radio digital sites, which represents a commitment by NPR not to leave member stations in the lurch as it moves forward

Now let’s take a look at the outlook for NPR, something I heard articulated by Schiller when she spoke at USC in November:

• NPR understands that its mission is to increase “interactivity,” as Schiller put it, and to be “more respectful of citizens” in its work — to continue, as she put it, to “put the audience first”
• NPR will continue to give people context and avoid tabloidization
• NPR wants to compete in new ways with other news outlets through new technology
• NPR wants to address the fact that “not all listeners are invited to the party” and to focus on making it more inclusive
• NPR wants to give people on-demand content
• NPR has a goal of “transparency through new technology” — an openness to giving people everything from access to its API to the ability to share and comment and provide feedback

In all of this, there has been something of a revolving door that never stopped in the plans for making NPR an innovator in digital news. In 2008, Ken Stern, NPR’s CEO, left the organization, in part because, some say, his vision for NPR digital news didn’t do enough to include member stations. Maria Thomas, Senior VP for Digital Media also left. Jay Kernis, the Senior VP for Program (and one of the creators of Morning Edition) departed, as well.

But in came fresh blood, such as Kinsey Wilson, who moved from USA Today to become the general manager of digital media, and NPR executive editor Dick Meyer, who helped Schiller and Weiss build their vision.

You can look to NPR’s work just over the past week to see that vision brought to life. And anyone who has been paying any attention to the uprisings in the Middle East knows that NPR is not just a radio station; it has become a curator for information around the world, thanks to Andy Carvin (@acarvin) and his efforts to curate for the rest of us the on-the-ground efforts.

NPR has been hailed by many media activists, scholars, and generally anyone concerned with the future of news as a model for both innovation and for quality reporting. The Downie and Schudson report from late 2009, for instance, praised NPR’s new website as well as its growing audience and its capacity to do journalism on a local, national, and international level — in a comprehensive way that few news organizations still can.

The question is whether all of this progress can continue, given today’s shakeup. But if all the revolving doors haven’t stopped NPR so far, it’s possible to continue to think that it will keep moving forward.

December 15 2010

17:00

In-car app stores, success for Xinhua, and more social media: Predictions for journalism in 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Below are predictions from Paul Bass, John Paton, Philip Balboni, Martin Moore, Mark Luckie, Adrian Monck, Ken Doctor, Keith Hopper, and Vivian Schiller.

We also want to hear your predictions: take our Lab reader poll and tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results later this week.

Every city of 100,000 or more in America will have its own online-only daily local news site.

Local governments will create their own “news” sources online to try to control the message and compete with new media and compensate for the decline of old media channels.

Newspapers, TV and radio stations, and online news outlets will collaborate on a bigger scale on local coverage and events

Vivian Schiller, president and CEO, NPR

“Local” takes center stage in online news, as newspaper sites, Patch, Yahoo, NPR member stations and new start ups (not for profit and for profit) form alliances, grow, and compete for audience and revenue online.

Twitter and Facebook become established as journalism platforms for newsgathering, distribution and engagement.

In-car Internet radio becomes a hot media topic, though penetration of enabled cars will lag by a few years.

Keith Hopper, director of product strategy and development, NPR

One of bigger things to move in 2011 will be triggered by emerging, seamless connectivity in the car. The historical limitations of satellite radio have obscured the real potential here. We will see a revolution in how news is presented on the go if auto manufacturers get past their inevitable awkward attempts and are able to streamline the user experience. I fully expect in-dash app stores and additional inspiration for distracted driver legislation that goes well beyond basic audio news. On the positive side, engaged news consumers will never fall asleep at the wheel again.

Philip Balboni, president and CEO, GlobalPost

2011 will be a seminal year for the reinvention of the business of American journalism — especially notable for the continued maturation of the new generation of online only news sites: the Huffington Post, Politico, GlobalPost, Daily Beast, and others. With The New York Times paving the way for monetizing one of America’s most visited and highly regarded general news sites, 2011 should be the year we can point to as a game-changer for online revenue generation by charging consumers for high quality news content and the beginning of the movement away from sole reliance on selling page views and ad impressions.

In 2011 we will see the return of legacy news media. Chastened by the mistakes of the past, the legacy companies will be more nimble and eager to pursue Digital First solutions. And armed with their billions in revenue and new outsourcing solutions to drive down legacy media costs they will be much better resourced financially to compete with online news start-ups. The New Year will prove difficult for online start-ups like Huffington Post, et al to drive towards sustainability and profitability. Look for consolidation between the old and new worlds.

We have been stupid and slow to change but we are changing. We still count our revenue in the billions and that gives us so much more in the way of resources compared to the startups. Smart plus money is an advantage. We are getting smarter.

The power of news organisations to dictate the news agenda will decline further as peer-to-peer and algorithm driven editorial recommendations grow in influence.

Those news organisations that develop sophisticated skills to clean, structure and filter data quickly will gain significant competitive advantage over those who don’t.

Mark Luckie, founder, 10,000 Words , national innovations editor, The Washington Post

With the recent upswing in the availability of media jobs, I predict those journalists who developed a substantial online presence, created unique digital journalism projects, or who were at the forefront of the digital journalism conversation during the course of their unemployment, will return to newsrooms with zeal and newfound perspective, if they so choose. They will re-invigorate those news operations who are actively seeking employees who will help move journalism forward (and hopefully they will get a relatively larger paycheck in the process).

Adrian Monck, managing director and head of communications and media, World Economic Forum

Julian Assange will be mired in a court case.

The infrastructure of the Internet which made free speech briefly freer will increasingly marginalize and muzzle it.

A handful of diplomats will get HuffPo columns on the back of their cable writing prowess.

Drone strikes will continue to dully but effectively kill more men, women and children by accident, recklessness or negligence than document dumps. The public will remain indifferent.

Xinhua will have its “CNN moment” and emerge as a global reporting force on a key international story.

Western media will increase reporting partnerships with Chinese media.

Business news networks will look to hire mainland Chinese talent.

Piers Morgan will be a critical success on CNN, but not a popular one.

Jeff Jarvis will put BuzzMachine behind a paywall.

2011 is the year of The New Trifecta. The convergence of mobile, social and video on the tablet defines the new platform as a unique consumer experience yielding, consequently, new business models. No longer are mobile, social and video “categories” of content or revenue lines, but powerful forces that when brought together redefine the news reading and viewing experience. That’s one big reason we’re seeing significantly higher-than-online time-on-session tablet data.

Social media optimization will grow in 2011. Almost organically, social referrals (mainly Facebook and Twitter) have become the fastest growing source of news traffic. News publishers can now count 5-15 percent of their traffic sent from social, making search/Google referrals less important. In addition, social referrals convert better (“qualified” social leads) in obtaining new, continuing customers. The next big question: If this is happening without much publisher work, what kind of work would further harness the social juice?

Growth in the company year will be mainly digital. There are few signs the old print business is coming back, and this year’s single-digit decreases in print advertising looks like it will continue into next. That means digital revenue — online advertising generally, new tablet ad revenue and digital reader revenue — is the only hope for building a future for legacy companies.

December 14 2010

17:00

Smartphone growth, Murdoch’s Daily, and journalism for the poor: Predictions for mobile news in 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

One of the common threads through many of their predictions was mobile — the impact smartphones and tablets and apps will have on how news is reported, produced, distributed, and consumed. (Not to mention how it’s paid for.) Here are Vivian Schiller, Keith Hopper, Jakob Nielsen, Alexis Madrigal, Michael Andersen, Richard Lee Colvin, Megan McCarthy, David Cohn, and David Fanning on what 2011 will bring for the mobile space.

Vivian Schiller, president and CEO, NPR

After two decades of saying that “this is the year of mobile,” 2011 really will be the year of mobile.

My wild prediction: 2011 will be the year of media initiatives that serve poor and middle-income people.

For 20 years, almost all native Internet content has been made for the niche interests — often the professional interests — of people who make more than the median household income of $50,000 or so. But one of the best things about the mobile Internet is that it’s finally killing (or even reversing) the digital divide.

Poor folks may not have broadband, but they’ve got cell phones. African Americans and Latinos are more likely than white people to use phones for the web, pictures, texts, emails, games, videos, and social networking. As hardware prices keep falling, we’ll see more and more demand for information that is useful to the lower-income half of the population — and thanks to low marginal costs, people will be creating products that fill that need. It’s about damn time, wouldn’t you say?

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic and co-founder, Longshot Magazine

Murdoch’s iPad Daily will be surprisingly successful. I say it gets mid-six figure subscribers by the end of the year.

The iPad newspaper will launch and, while it won’t fall flat on its face, it will be exactly what is described at the end of EPIC 2015 — a newsletter for the elite. Odd that it will be digital but suffer the end fate of newspapers as described in that video.

Keith Hopper, director of product strategy and development, NPR

I predict smartphone penetration will break 50 percent in the U.S., creating a tipping point in mobile web traffic. The web folks will then finally wake up and smell the mobile. Ubiquitous support for HTML5 and geolocation will sweeten the deal, and we’ll see some exciting new news experiences delivering proximally-relevant immediacy to your mobile devices in 2011.

The cost of creating dedicated apps for mobile phones and iPads will continue to fall and some news executives may conclude that the apps are an end in themselves, and that they can continue to provide their audiences with the same content they’ve always given them. But it will become clear over the next 12 months that delivering old, worn content in a new package will not be enough to keep traditional news organizations profitable over the long term.

Jakob Nielsen, veteran web usability expert

1. Growth in for-pay content.

2. Strong growth in mobile content.

3. Mobile often means short, so need to find ways to be interesting and brief beyond simply being snarky.

iPad magazines/newspapers will figure out a way to display across platforms or else they be considered an elite novelty.

David Fanning, executive producer, Frontline

The tablet reader — the iPad et al — is the big game-changer. Not only is it going to revitalize print and launch an exciting new era of editorial design and execution, it is the real promise of convergence we’ve been talking about for so long. It’s going to be a wonderful challenge to create the new publications. It’s also a device that seems to offer a subscription or pay model that is quite natural and acceptable to readers and viewers.

For Frontline it is the bright hope. As broadcast appointment viewing declines, we’ve seen more and more viewers go to our website (we’ve been streaming our films since 2000), but also worried that with shorter and shorter attention spans, we were sowing the seeds of our own destruction. Now I can see a future for this idea we’ve defended for so long — intelligent narrative documentary journalism — and it’s on my lap. I can comfortably watch at length without a twitchy finger on a mouse threatening to pull me away. I can pause and see the film wrapped together with the best of literary journalism. I can experience the resurgence of great documentary photography, and of course I can connect to the living, pulsing web (if I have to). I can decide to throw my film up onto my widescreen TV, and sit back and watch, but most of all, I will have it all on my virtual bookshelf. That means I will have to be making journalism that lasts, that is not disposable, that is so well made it’s worth keeping. It’ll sit next to my ebooks; in fact it will be a form of ebook.

As magazine publishers rush onto this new platform, photographers and filmmakers are already embedding their video in the pages. Books like Sebastian Junger’s War are scattering short pieces of video actuality in the narrative, and there is at least one chapter that is a longer mini-documentary, on Sal Giunta, the Medal of Honor winner. But these are more illustrations than longer narrative works. Our challenge at Frontline will be to publish our longer films and embed within them other terrific journalism that both echoes and complements our stories. That’s going to be fun to design and edit.

So this new technology, the tablet, will expand our editorial horizons, force us to make new partnerships, collaborate with more writers and photographers, and find ways to invent a new kind of publication, while holding onto some old ideas about the appeal and strength of good journalism.

October 29 2010

15:30

This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ latest doc drop, the NPR backlash, and disappointing iPad magazines

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

WikiLeaks coverage gets personal: There were two big stories everyone spent the whole week talking about, and both actually happened late last week. We’ll start with what’s easily the bigger one in the long term: WikiLeaks’ release last Friday of 400,000 documents regarding the Iraq War. The Iraq War Logs were released in partnership with several news organizations around the world, including Al-Jazeera, The New York Times, Der Spiegel and Le Monde. (The Columbia Journalism Review wrote a good roundup of the initial coverage.)

The Guardian and The Times in particular used the documents to put together some fascinating pieces of data journalism, and The Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Kirchner looked at how they did it. The folks at Journalism.co.uk wrote a couple of posts detailing WikiLeaks’ collaborative efforts on the release, particularly their work with the new British nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism. A French nonprofit that also worked with WikiLeaks, OWNI, told its own story of the project.

Despite all that collaborative work, the news coverage of the documents fizzled over the weekend and into this week, leading two reporting vets to write to the media blog Romenesko to posit reasons why the traditional media helped throw cold water on the story. John Parker pointed to the military press — “Too many military reporters in the online/broadcast field have simply given up their watchdog role for the illusion of being a part of power” — and David Cay Johnston urged journalists to check out the documents, rather than trusting official sources.

There was another WikiLeaks-related story that got almost as much press as the documents themselves: The internal tension at the organization and the ongoing mystery surrounding its frontman, Julian Assange. The Times and the British paper The Independent both dug into those issues, and Assange walked out of a CNN interview after repeated questions about sexual abuse allegations he’s faced in Sweden. That coverage was met with plenty of criticism — Assange and The Columbia Journalism Review ripped CNN, and Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald joined Assange in tearing into The Times.

After being chastised by the U.S. Defense Department this summer for not redacting names of informants in its Afghanistan leak this summer, WikiLeaks faced some criticism this time around from Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici and Gawker’s John Cook for going too far with the redaction. A few other WikiLeaks-related strains of thought: Mark Feldstein at the American Journalism Review compared WikiLeaks with old-school investigative journalism, Barry Schuler wondered whether the governmental animosity toward WikiLeaks will lead to regulations of the Internet, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis wrote about the way WikiLeaks is bringing us toward the dawn of the age of transparency. “Only when and if government realizes that its best defense is openness will we see transparency as a good in itself and not just a weapon to expose the bad,” he said.

NPR, Fox News and objectivity: The other story that dominated the future-of-news discussion (and the news discussion in general) was NPR’s firing last week of news analyst Juan Williams for comments about Muslims he made on Fox News. Conversation about the firing took off late last week and didn’t slow down until about Wednesday this week. NPR kept finding it tougher to defend the firing as the criticism piled up, and by the weekend, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller had apologized for how she handled the firing (but not for the firing itself). NPR got a bomb threat over the incident, and even PBS, which has had nothing whatsoever to do with Williams, was deluged with angry emailers.

Conversation centered on two issues: First, and more immediately, why Williams was fired and whether he should have been. Longtime reporter James Naughton and The Awl’s Abe Sauer thought Williams should have been fired years ago because he appeared on Fox, where he’s only used as a prop in Fox’s efforts to incite faux-news propaganda. NYU professor Jay Rosen put it more carefully, saying that given NPR’s ironclad commitment to the objective view from nowhere, “there was no way he could abide by NPR’s rules — which insist on viewlessness as a guarantor of trust — and appear on Fox, where the clash of views is basic to what the network does to generate audience” — not to mention that that viewlessness renders the entire position of “news analyst” problematic.

Along with Rosen, Time media critic James Poniewozik and Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau advocated for greater transparency as a way to prevent needless scandals like these. Former NPR host Farai Chideya emphasized a different angle, asserting that Williams was kept on for years as his relationship with NPR eroded because he’s a black man. Said Chideya, who’s African-American herself: “Williams’ presence on air was a fig-leaf for much broader and deeper diversity problems at the network.”

The other issue was both broader and more politically driven: Should NPR lose its public funding? Republican Sen. Jim DeMint said he would introduce a bill to that effect, and conservatives echoed his call for defunding (though NPR gets only 1 to 2 percent of its budget from direct public funding — and even that’s from competitive federal grants). Politico noted how difficult it would be to actually take NPR’s public funding, and a poll indicated that Americans are split on the issue straight down party lines.

Those calling for the cut got some support, however indirect, from a couple of people in the media world: Slate’s Jack Shafer said NPR and public radio stations should wean themselves from public funding so they can stop being tossed around as a political pawn, and New York Sun founding editor Seth Lipsky argued that NPR’s subsidies make it harder for private entrepreneurs to raise money for highbrow journalism. There were counter-arguments, too: The Atlantic’s James Fallows gave a passionate defense of NPR’s value as a news organization, and LSU grad student Matt Schafer made the case for public media in general.

Magazines disappoint on the iPad: Advertising Age collected circulation figures for the first six months of magazines’ availability on the iPad and compared it to print circulation, getting decided mixed results. (Science/tech mags did really well; general interest titles, not so much.) The site’s Nat Ives concluded that iPad ad rates might drop as result, and that “Magazines’ iPad editions won’t really get in gear until big publishers and Apple agree on some kind of system for subscription offers.”

Former New York Times design director Khoi Vinh gave a stinging critique of those magazines’ iPad apps, saying they’re at odds with how people actually use the device. “They’re bloated, user-unfriendly and map to a tired pattern of mass media brands trying vainly to establish beachheads on new platforms without really understanding the platforms at all,” he said. In a follow-up, he talked a bit about why their current designs are a “stand-in for true experimentation.”

Meanwhile, news organizations continue to rush to the iPad: The New York Post came out with an iPad app that The Village Voice’s Foster Kamer really, really liked, The Oklahoman became another one of the first few newspapers to offer its own iPad subscription outside of Apple’s iTunes payment system, PBS launched its own iPad app, and News Corp. is moving forward with plans for a new tabloid created just for tablets.

Two opposite paid-content moves: It was somewhat lost in the WikiLeaks-Williams hoopla, but we got news of three new online paid-content plans for news this week. The biggest change is at the National Journal, a political magazine that’s long charged very high prices and catered to Washington policy wonks but relaunched this week as a newsstand-friendly print product and a largely free website that will shoot for 80 updates a day. The Lab’s Laura McGann looked at the National Journal’s new free-pay hybrid web plan, in contrast to its largely paid, niche website previously.

Meanwhile, Politico said it plans to move into exactly the same web territory the Journal has been in, launching a high-price subscription news service on health care, energy and technology for Washington insiders in addition to its free site and print edition. And the Associated Press gave more details on its proposed rights clearinghouse for publishers, which will allow them to tag online content and monitor and regulate how it’s being used and how they’re being paid for it. We also have some more data on an ongoing paid-content experiment — Rupert Murdoch’s paywall at The Times of London. Yup, the audience is way down, just like everyone suspected.

Reading roundup: Outside of those two huge stories, it was a relatively quiet week. Here are a few interesting bits and pieces that emerged:

— The awful last few weeks for the Tribune Co. came to a head last Friday when CEO Randy Michaels resigned, leaving a four-member council to guide the company through bankruptcy. The same day, the company filed a reorganization plan that turns it over to its leading creditors. The Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner gave a good postmortem for the Michaels era, pointing a finger primarily at the man who hired him, Sam Zell.

— Wired’s Fred Vogelstein declared Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon our new (media) overlords. (No indication of whether he, for one, welcomes them.) MediaPost’s Joe Marchese mused a bit about where each of those four companies fits in the new media landscape.

— The Atlantic’s Michael Hirschorn wrote a thought-provoking expression of a popular recent argument: If the Internet gives all of us our own facts, how are we supposed to find any common ground for discussion?

— And since I know you’re in the mood for scientific-looking formulas, check out Lois Beckett’s examination here at the Lab of Philly.com’s calculation of online engagement, then take a look at her follow-up post on where revenue fits in.

February 26 2010

16:00

The news Good Housekeeping seal: What makes a nonprofit outlet legit?

With many new news organizations launching as nonprofits and many nonprofits moving into the news business, one has to wonder: Exactly where does journalism end and something else — call it spin, opinion, or advocacy — begin? Or to phrase the question as Chuck Lewis recently did for me: If a nonprofit says it’s doing journalism, what makes it legit?

The line — if you believe there ever was one — is becoming increasingly blurred. As the traditional advertising-and-subscription model of newspapers continues to erode, other institutions — including advocacy, membership and charitable nonprofits — are leaping to fill the void. But it’s not clear that some new entrants are playing by the rules of journalism and nonprofit accountability. Or more accurately, it’s not clear that they want to.

In this uncertain environment, the question of legitimacy looms large, particularly for nonprofits. As beneficiaries of taxpayer support, nonprofits have a special duty to be absolutely transparent. If they want to call their work journalism, the material they publish must be good enough meet any test of professional standards that might reasonably be applied, from both the realms of journalism and of nonprofit management.

Trouble is, no widely accepted set of best practices or due diligence exists for journalism nonprofits. To separate journalism from what Dan Gillmor has dubbed “almost journalism,” many in the business have borrowed from Justice Potter Stewart’s standard: “I know it when I see it.” Or at least they think they do.

When you can’t know it when you see it

This standard has worked most of the time. But it failed notoriously in December, when The Washington Post published a story by The Fiscal Times, a new, online news organization owned by The Fiscal Times Media Group LLC and backed by investment banker and former Commerce secretary Pete Peterson. Peterson is a long-time deficit hawk, and has helped fund the Concord Coalition, a nonprofit that is “dedicated to educating the public about the causes and consequences of federal budget deficitseradicating the federal deficit.”

As recounted by Post ombudsman Andy Alexander, the article drew criticism from progressive critics of Peterson because it quoted the president of the Concord Coalition, but failed to mention that the group receives funding from Peterson’s foundation. The article — reporting that momentum was building for a plan to name a special bipartisan commission to address the nation’s debt — also fell short of the Post’s standards because it cited data from a study supported by the foundation but again failed to note the foundation’s backing, according to Alexander.

Compounding transparency issues, The Fiscal Times gives mixed signals about its corporate status.

In fact, The Fiscal Times is not a nonprofit. It has a “.org” landing page and invites readers to “join now” to create a “Member ID.” It also says on its about page that it “is part of a new era of independently supported non-partisan journalism.” But it is incorporated in Delaware as a limited liability company, or LLC, a for-profit structure most often used by sole proprietorships, partnerships or small businesses.

Jackie Leo, editor in chief of The Fiscal Times, told me in an email that the organization changed strategies shortly after launching. “When we started this project, we thought we would model it after ProPublica or some of the other non-profit news sites,” she wrote. “But our lawyers pointed out that if we post opinion pieces (from our bloggers and columnists) about candidates running for office or bills pending in Congress, and if that opinion can be deemed as influencing the outcome of a vote, the IRS would consider it ‘lobbying’ and we would lose our 501c3 status. With that in mind, we decided to create the LLC.”

Did the Post know all this before it agreed to publish The Fiscal Times’ work? Judging from Alexander’s column, the Post had no formal means of screening its reporting partners. Rather, it appears to have relied almost exclusively on institutional familiarity with the Fiscal Times’ staff, which includes former Post reporter and editor Eric Pianin.

Setting up guidelines

The controversy has subsided. But it has left a lasting impression in journalism circles, particularly in Washington, and nobody wants to repeat the Post’s mistake. As Vivian Schiller, CEO of National Public Radio, told me in an interview, “my alarm bells go off” when she looks at the Fiscal Times’ corporate structure, financial backing and reporting focus.

At NPR, Schiller added, editors employ a set of criteria to evaluate potential partners. Among them: nonprofit status, a well-regarded board of directors and top-notch journalists. But the process remains an informal one.

So what to do?

As I’ve talked over this problem with Lewis, Schiller, David Westphal and others who think about it a lot, I keep coming back to the idea that some standards are in order — a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, if you will, for nonprofit journalism.

This task may be easier said than done.

To begin, there are some deceivingly simple threshold questions. For one, should the nonprofit sector take it upon itself to set standards for its journalism and business practices? If yes, then who should be on the drafting committee?

If not, then are journalism nonprofits willing to live with the current mishmash of definitions of journalism put forth by entities as diverse as the Senate Press Gallery, the Pulitzer Committee, and perhaps the IRS? And how about other stakeholders such as the Post, NPR and others that have come to rely on investigative and explanatory reporting from nonprofits? Following The Fiscal Times episode, will they overreact and overlook work by ambitious, high-quality news organizations?

It seems to me that the answers should come from the nonprofit sector of journalism, if for no other reason, than to minimize damage potential damage from bad actors that might yet emerge from within its ranks.

Starting points

No list of criteria or standards can guarantee quality or take the place of professional responsibilty. But it is a place to start — much like the new IRS Form 990, which was re-designed based on input from the nonprofit sector. So here are some suggested criteria that might help.

Nonprofit Governance:
— 501(c)3 or 501(c)4 status
— All-volunteer publisher board
— 990s clearly posted online
— Major donors named
— Case for philanthropy linked to editorial indpendence
— Clear accountability measures
— Clean accounting opinion

Journalistic Professionalism:
— Functionally independent newsroom
— Journalism advisory board or ombudsman
— Adherence to SPJ Code of Ethics
— Supportive institutional culture
— Submitted entry for professional prize (SPJ, IRE, etc.)
— Holder of federal or state press credential

Comments? I plan to spend the next few months researching this question in greater depth, and I welcome thoughtful input.

Also, for those planning to attend the We Media conference next month in Miami, this is one of the issues we plan to address during our panel on nonprofits in journalism, so please come ready to discuss.

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