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May 09 2013

15:05

Why Charles Ramsey’s interview is great (and it’s okay* to think so)

Everybody loved the Charles Ramsey interviews on freeing Amanda Berry, one of three young women abducted in Cleveland a decade ago and apparently held captive all this time. Then of course, people hated it. Or some did, anyway, raising questions about the meme of the “hilarious black neighbor.” Until details about the story had time to emerge—what went on in that house, and how such secrets went undetected for so long—all the attention was on Ramsey, and his unfiltered recounting of the excitement on Seymour Street. You’ve seen the video and heard the audio, but here it is in text form:

“Yeah, hey bro,” Ramsey told the dispatcher. “I’m at 2207 Seymour. West 25th. Check this out—I just came from McDonald’s, right? So I’m on my porch eating my little food, right? This broad is trying to break out the fucking house next door to me, so there’s a bunch of people on the street right now and shit. So we’re like, ‘What’s wrong? What’s the problem?’ She’s like, ‘This motherfucker done kidnapped me and my daughter…’ She say her name is Linda Berry or some shit. I don’t know who the fuck that is, I just moved over here, bro.”

“Sir, sir,” said the male dispatcher. “…You have to calm down and slow down. Is she still in the street?”

“Seymour Avenue,” Ramsey said.

“Is she still in the street or where did she go?”

“Yeah I’m looking at her right now. She’s calling y’all! She’s on the other phone.”

They went on for a bit, with Ramsey getting frustrated and the dramatic tension (hello, narrative) rising. A short while later the TV news crews arrived, and Ramsey’s story got longer and more detailed, with discrepancies:

I went to McDonald’s and I’m at home and I hear this, ‘Help, let me out!’ This girl screaming. Now we don’t have that on our street because everybody on this street knows each other, so when you hear something like that you come running to see what’s going on. I thought it was a kid got attacked by a pit bull. And I looked at that girl and I said, ‘You look familiar!’ And I’m prying the door open and she’s trying to get out, and she climbed through the bottom of it and soon as she got out she said, ‘My name is Amanda Berry, call the police.’

You heard screaming? the reporter asked.

I heard screaming. I’m eating my McDonald’s. I come outside and I see this girl going nuts, trying to get out of her house, so I go on the porch and she says, ‘Help me get out, I’ve been in here a long time,’ so I figured it was a domestic violence dispute so I opened the door and we can’t get in that way because…a body can’t fit through, only your hand. So we kicked the bottom and she comes out with a little girl and she says, ‘Call 911. My name is Amanda Berry.’ When she told me, it didn’t register until I got to calling 911… I thought this girl was dead, you know what I mean? And she got on the phone and she said, ‘Yes, this is me…’

And when did you see Gina?

About five minutes after the police got here. See, that girl Amanda told the police, ‘I ain’t just the only one, it’s some more girls up in that house.’ So they went up there 30, 40 deep, and when they came out it was just astonishing because I thought they were gonna come up with nothing.

How long you lived here?

I been here a year! I barbecue with this dude. We eat ribs and whatnot, and listen to salsa music.

And you had no indication?

Not a clue that that girl was in that house, or that anybody else was in there against their will. Because how he is, he just comes out to his back yard, plays with the dogs, tinkering with his cars and motorcycles, goes back in the house. He’s somebody that you look at and look away because he’s not doing nothing but the average stuff. There’s nothing exciting about him. Well, until today.

What was the reaction on the girls’ faces? I can’t imagine…

Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Either she’s homeless or she got problems. That’s the only reason she’s running to a black man.

[The interview over, Ramsey flashed the thumbs-up.]

Why this is great and people love it: First, true originals mesmerize. Unfiltered, unmanaged, Ramsey was authentically who he is. Second, he told a story. His account of the escape is straight up narrative. The elements are there: a compelling character with an original voice (“Yeah, hey, bro…check this out;” “so they went up there 30, 40 deep;” “We eat ribs and whatnot”); there’s a clear structure (chronological), dialogue (which is key), and the aforementioned dramatic tension; it’s got what Tom Wolfe calls status details—food from McDonald’s, assumptions about a pit bull attack and a domestic violence dispute. And then the underdog hero utters a Hemingway’s-iceberg line of dialogue:

“Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.”

So the story becomes transcendent.

If you’re writing the long-ball narrative you wouldn’t want to omit what happened next, which was that Ramsey, inevitably, went viral. Why? Did the public love him for his storytelling skills? His authenticity? His gutsy instincts? Yep. And was that okay? Absolutely. There was nothing, on Day 1, not to love. This was “a wonderfully vibrant interview with a man who helped kick down a door and rescue three women and a child,” said Neely Tucker, a veteran Washington Post reporter and author of Love in the Driest Season, when we informally polled a few journalists on the topic. “It was precise, exciting, emotional, visually telling, and told with great pacing and narrative detail. All in two minutes, live, on camera. Anybody who’s bothered that the narrator is black and probably not rich is saying more about themselves than him.”

*Things got tricky when the inevitable autotune opportunists and meme-weavers bundled Ramsey with the viral videos of other crime-scene witnesses, all of whom happened to be black. The personal you-go-dude! feelings for Ramsey, conflated with images of expressive stylists like Antoine Dodson, morphed into something else. Not ugly, exactly, but ugly adjacent, if you took the view that the meme-drivers were laughing at, not with. Ramsey moved “from bystander and guy on the scene into ‘Internet object of affection,’” as Justin Ellis, an assistant editor of Nieman Journalism Lab, one of Storyboard’s sister publications, puts it. “I don’t know if that’s just the Internet chugging along or if there’s something else to blame. People want to celebrate him, which is great, but it’s hard to ignore the familiar trappings/scenario of ‘black person achieves Internet fame through local TV,’ which can feel exploitive at times and condescending or even casually racist at others.”

A narrative that already contained those trace elements of race/class (“pretty white girl;” “black man’s arms”) now had an overlay of social media influence, triggering confusion (was it not okay to like this guy’s interview?) and raising coverage questions: How will—or should—this aspect of the story be presented in the long view, or even in the short one? We asked other colleagues and here’s what they said:

Unknown

Greg Moore

I have not watched a lot of the Internet stuff having fun with Charles Ramsey’s manner and I don’t plan to. I am from Cleveland and I know lots of people like Ramsey. On the street, he is likely being lauded for “keeping it real.” And part of the fascination with him is his originality and lack of self-consciousness. That’s partly why he could do what he did in saving those three women. He was on ABC’s Good Morning America this morning talking about the case, grappling for the right word here and there and sometimes clearly not understanding the question. But there was no mistaking his meaning and his grit when he did. Lamenting that he had shared ribs with the alleged perpetrator and even tried to salsa dance to some of his music, he ruefully noted something like this: If I had known what was going on in that house, don’t you think we’d be having a different interview right now? With Ramsey, you darn tootin’. Sometime people have to laugh to keep from crying. That’s a little bit of what is going on. This stuff is so bad and we are so relieved. But we all need to be listening to what this brave man is saying and not how he says it. I don’t think the reaction is so much racist as it reflects the lack of real familiarity with the strata of America. There are lots of people who talk like Ramsey and are damn funny, too. And there are many I grew up with who don’t play; who do the right thing and are fearless. Simple applause for Ramsey should be enough. He is a genuine hero, quirks and all. McDonald’s needs to put him in a commercial and one of those public-minded dental clinics should give him some new choppers for free. That’s the best way to show gratitude for such courage and community mindedness. And it is okay to chuckle at the unvarnished way he puts things? (Because it is really nervous laughter about how little we know about real people living real lives in communities across America). If we really understood his world, we’d know he is just keeping it real. And we are damn lucky he is. — Greg Moore, editor of the Denver Post, and Pulitzer Prize board member

CC

Callie Crossley

First, of course, so glad he did what he did. Having said that, I wondered why a lot of the response to him has been all about the “funny” delivery. Have to say I’ve seen it before in portrayals of black men who happen into the middle of a breaking story—Antoine Dodson a prime example. For a while he was all the rage in pop culture, even garnering a record contract. But in his case and in Charles’ the serious substance of what they were saying got subsumed by their mannerisms and affect. I’m fascinated—not in a good way—by the fact that Charles’ commentary about race in Cleveland has stopped being reported as part of the story. “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty ran into a black man’s arms”—that’s pretty deep, and I think should have inspired journalists to ask him to explain what he meant. I’ve only heard one report focusing on this piece of the story, and I can’t remember if it was a TV or radio story. The piece picked up on his statement and went on to talk about the deep racial divide in Cleveland. But, that is the ONLY report I’ve seen dealing with it. As I see it, this is another example of journalists who are reluctant to pursue a legitimate racial angle to a story, even if it is a part of the main character’s story. And of course there is a class angle here. Reporters are also not so comfortable dealing with that issue. By the way, in the black blogosphere, a lot of folks are referencing In Living Color‘s satirical sketch: Reporters arrive on the scene of a breaking story and there are two witnesses, one a black professional in a suit and tie and another a black woman in what we used to call a housecoat, with curlers in her hair, and not in great command of the King’s English. Of course all of the reporters rushed past the guy and went to her for a “colorful” recitation of the events that had transpired. This is not exactly the same scenario in Charles Ramsey’s case—he was the only witness—but you get my drift. — Callie Crossley, host of the WGBH Radio show “Under the Radar.” Friday night at 7:30, Crossley will lead a Basic Black discussion called “What Can We Learn from Charles Ramsey?” It airs on WGBH-TV, Channel 2 in the Boston area.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland narrative unfolded. When Anderson Cooper spoke to Ramsey about all this, Ramsey said, “It’s about cojones. It’s about cojones, on this planet.” Cooper then asked whether he hoped to receive the FBI reward for helping free the women. “I tell you what you do,” Ramsey said instantly. “Give it to them.”

August 03 2011

17:00

California Watch expands south with a new partnership

The nonprofit California Watch, just shy of its second birthday, opens its new Southern California bureau today — and the location says something about the evolution of the news business.

A reporter and community engagement manager will be leaving the outfit’s Berkeley headquarters and taking up residence in the newsroom of the Orange County Register. And the rent is unbeatable: free.

“As traditional newsrooms have cut back, they have been left with vast stretches of open space inside their newsrooms or buildings,” said Mark Katches, editorial director for California Watch and its parent organization, the making the announcement last month. “We are able to capitalize in a way that benefits our organization and our hosts.”

A couple of years ago, when California Watch was new and unknown, the outlook for this kind of team-up might not have been so sunny. The O.C. (don’t call it that) Register, for one thing, might have viewed California Watch simply as a competitor encroaching on its turf. Other reporters setting up shop here, digging for the same dirt?

No longer, though: Now, they’re teammates. (The Register already pays annual licensing fees to run California Watch stories in its own pages.) “There’s just so much news in California that, two years in, there really has not been a case where we have overlapped,” says Robert Salladay, California Watch’s senior editor. “I think that alleviated a lot of fear on the part of reporters and our partners.”

Not everyone they talked to was as receptive to a team-up as the Register, Salladay said, but at the same time, California Watch was actually getting partnership invitations from some papers. “The situation with newspapers is so critical. I think everyone’s happy for the copy, happy that stories are getting done. It is a much more collaborative industry now,” Salladay told me. “I can imagine that, 10 years ago, this model just wouldn’t have flown at all.”

The Center for Investigative Reporting launched California Watch in fall 2009 to do the kind of time-consuming, data-driven reporting that many newspapers can’t afford anymore. Since then, the site has launched its own initiatives: a statewide distribution network, a radio partnership with public broadcasting giant KQED, and a television unit that works in collaboration with WGBH’s Frontline and ABC News. In addition to more than 1,200 news posts last year, the site pumps out, on average, three investigative pieces a month, Salladay told me — and a half-dozen major series a year.

Financially, California Watch continues to subsist on grants from foundations, but the organization is raising some revenue, as well. In January, the outfit changed the way it charges for its content. Members of the California Watch Media Network — among them the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, and, yes, the Orange County Register — now choose from a menu of stories each year and pay membership fees that vary according to their circulation and audience reach. (Previously, California Watch negotiated the price of each story, a la carte.) Salladay would not disclose the membership rates, but he said it can’t be so much that a newspaper can’t afford it. Newspapers’ financial struggles, after all, are the reason California Watch exists in the first place.

California Watch’s move into Southern California is overdue, Salladay said — especially because it’s where most Californians live. “One of the reasons we want to be in Southern California is that here are a lot of neglected communities that don’t get a lot of coverage, so we’re hoping to get out to some of the smaller communities to do a lot of work on low-income people, disadvantaged communities, work on the border, work on migrant farmworkers. You’d be surprised how many small towns there are down there that aren’t being watched. I think with what the L.A. Times found with the city of Bell, there’s a lot of fruitful work that can be done.”

Looking beyond Orange County, Salladay would also like to get a reporter in Los Angeles, add a border bureau in San Diego or Imperial County, and maybe hire a staff photographer. In just two years, now with 25 employees, California Watch has become the largest investigative reporting team in the state. The organization’s biggest challenge now, Salladay said, is staying on mission.

“We have to constantly remind ourselves that the mission is investigative reporting — looking at waste, fraud, and abuse,” he noted. “There’s a great temptation to pull ourselves away for some great mini-scandal somewhere or some great enterprise story about a social issue. We want to do those, but I think it’s important for us to stay focused.”

April 10 2011

17:36

Collective, Non-Profit Investigative Journalism Takes Spotlight at Logan

BERKELEY, CALIF. -- I am back at Day 2 at the 5th Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium, a gathering of the top investigative journalists and thinkers at University of California at Berkeley. Day 1 coverage is here, including an appearance by Skype by Julian Assange. Day 2 is shorter, but more focused on new models of journalism, including "collective work" and non-profit journalism.

Collective Work

Carrie Lovano, UC Berkeley: We are in a huge period of transition. The Guardian wants to do stories that will engage readers and make them take action. We wanted to get a technologist in here to talk about these things. Matt McAlister is an early adopter of social media, and will talk about what the Guardian is doing with open technology

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Matt McAlister, head of technology at Guardian, former Yahoo and Industry Standard: It's about the network and the platform. I'm going to talk about business stuff, which is unusual for this event. I have trouble separating content from business and they all have to move toward a common purpose. Everyone understands that an open, collaborative approach is how we all should go.

What we've failed to do is make the open, connected model of journalism work. In that space, there's new thinking like Google Android, Twitter, Facebook and even Wikipedia. The Daily will feel even further behind.

We've been doing live blogs for awhile, and they've been hugely successful for us. The sports guys really worked this out, telling stories minute-by-minute -- we call them "Minute-By-Minutes" not live blogs. They do it in a Twitter-like way but Twitter has limits to it, and our website doesn't have limits. The protests in the Middle East were perfect for this. We realized it had to be in Arabic too, so we took people away from their jobs to translate for us, and we got some translation services. Collaboration was necessary for us to do our job.

If all of this was behind the pay wall, how could we have the same effect?

Slide shows comparison of Rupert Murdoch and The Daily as being closed, with Ev Williams of Twitter being open:

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For the Times UK, they had very British experts on their site, and for the Times, that's OK, because those are the people who are paying for their site.

Q: Your correspondent mentioned that the advantage you had was being open and in Arabic, but how did you verify things?

McAlister: I wish I knew, I didn't have insight into the editorial process for that.

Q: Were you translating Arabic into English too, so both audiences could understand? Not just text, but video too?

McAlister: Yes, we translated both ways, and we did translate Twitter feeds, or we would post on our live-blog a Twitter feed in Arabic and translate it into English. They would do a screen capture of a tweet and put it in the live blog and the translator would translate that in a caption.

Q: How do you manage your Twitter feeds?

McAlister: We use Twitter much much more than Facebook, but our structure is very loose. Our reporters might use Twitter in very imaginative ways. We have guidelines for using Twitter but we don't have a commitment to using it one way or the other. The downside is that people don't always do the same thing, but it lets people invent new ways of using them.

During the G-20 protests in London, a newsstand worker was pushed down to the ground by the police and had a heart attack. The police report seemed unsatisfactory, and Paul Lewis our reporter put out a call asking if anyone was there. Someone had taken a video of it, and found out we were looking for it via Twitter, and sent it to us in a secure way. It's a fantastic story about how you can pull in sources with social media.

Another case, there was a man who died on a plane and he asked for photos or images, and he got a plane list of passengers and started tweeting them, and found people who were on the plane. He started a network of people, and someone was killed on the plane, and the police covered it up.

More Examples at Guardian

McAlister: The MP expense reports from UK Parliament - There are different ways to tell that story. The Telegraph did their analysis of this big pile of data. We took PDFs and put them on the website, we're talking hundreds of thousands of documents. We made a game of it, asking people to find things and let us know. There were buttons to say something was interesting or not. It happened again for a second year.

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Some lessons from it: The problem with the first one was our progress bar showing all the documents people had looked at. People wondered what happened to all the other documents, plus it was just too much, overwhelming. So we broke down the data, so people could find expenses relevant to your own MP.

Your user name was ranked, among all the other readers. You could compare and contrast. Another case was when the Dept. of Treasury spending was put online. We had our engineers work on it, and asked other software/journalist types to come to our office to work it out. We used open source tools to build something dead simple to find things. We spent 3 or 4 days with eight developers total to build this database. Anyone could put it into Excel, and it took about 5 minutes before people found things. It was fascinating.

One person asked why we spend 100,000 pounds on flag waving? We immediately put that out and asked the question -- we got an unsatisfying answer, but at least we got an answer.

We publish things on Google Docs without licensing it at all. We set up a group on Flickr and sent out a tweet about it and have all these people doing storytelling around our data projects.

Another big initiative is our Open Platform at the Guardian. There are a million or so articles that you can post in full using this toolset. It's been great for building mobile apps, but the intent was for partners to use our stuff. One example is that we got this Wordpress plug-in, a Guardian plug-in that looks like a news feed right in your Wordpress blog. And you see an ad in the article as it's syndicated.

We also created a timeline of social media reactions during a World Cup game, so you could relive the game in a different way.

Q: What about the trust at the Guardian?

McAlister: It's hugely helpful for letting us experiment, and it's there in perpetuity. Collaboration with other partners who have these tools is step one. There are hack days out there. If you have a developer, you might get more out of them from hack days than having them finish whatever they're working on it.

The State of Non-Profit Investigative Journalism

Moderator: Charles Lewis, Investigative Reporting Workshop

Panel: Robert Rosenthal, Raney Aronson-Rath, Calvin Sims, Richard Tofel, Mc Nelly Torres, Gary Bostwick, Margaret Drain.

Charles Lewis: About a third of newspaper newsrooms have disappeared and the number of PR people doubled. This is not good. In a social revolution, many journalists started non-profit outfits, by rank and file reporters. Many were frustrated with the owners of their news organizations. This group, who never ran anything, became entrepreneurs, which is astonishing.

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We looked at 60 groups, some new some not so new. OpenSecrets, TRACK, sites that were never considered investigative reporting sites, but should be. We created a database with all these sites. Of these sites, 40 started in the past few years. And there are many outside the U.S. and we'll be looking at them as well. Total operating budget was $85 million, and half of them won awards.

One thing we must bear in mind is that non-profit journalism is not new. The Associated Press did work more than a century ago, and NPR has been around since 1970 and it's the only news organization to double its audience in the past 10 years. We all know about the Guardian, which has done more innovative work than any other newspaper in the world. The non-profits have more time to do more serious work, and that's why ProPublica has won awards recently, and the Center for Public Integrity won IRE awards, too.

My Investigative Reporting Workshop is the biggest one at a university. We did Bank Tracker, putting all the data online with MSNBC, and there have been millions of page views, a lot of traffic. Using technology, multimedia, and Kat Aaron is the project editor for a 40-year look at what's happened with employment and workers in America, with a special website. It's a multi-million-dollar project.

It's getting blurry out there. For-profits are asking for memberships and donations, and ProPublica has ads. The non-profit space is changing basically every hour.

Q: Is there hope for PBS?

Margaret Drain of WGBH: We don't have a trust, but should have a trust. When I first came to PBS, I came to WGBH, which is the largest producer of content for PBS. I have quite a large portfolio of projects and shows. Early on, I found out we had to do fundraising, to raise several million dollars, because PBS didn't give us enough money. We had to produce content and do fundraising.

We get between 20% to 100% funding from PBS for our shows. It's generally about 40% for each show.

I was not very optimistic about the future of PBS, and then I got an email from someone at Capitol Hill and heard we weren't going to get cut for fiscal 2011, but there's still 2012. The problem that PBS faces is the blurring between commercial and non-commercial broadcasting. I think we need to protect the non-commercial part of broadcasting. And it's all in the perception. We do take ads on our websites because monetization is an issue, but we don't want commercialization to foul our nest.

Why have PBS? Everyone's got out of investigative journalism. It's very difficult to get my head around this. We need help from big donors, but where we're going to forming trusts based around genres. We've started the Frontline Investigative Journalism Trust. The other is a documentary film fund and another is for science and "Nova." And we'd like to recruit donors who have interest.

We also have the digital side to fund, and curation to do. We are dependent on the kindness of Congress but can't depend on that.

Robert Rosenthal, Center for Investigative Reporting: We are charging for our content. We put out a series this week, On Shaky Ground, and I estimate the audience we will reach in California will be 8 million to 10 million people. Distribution with ethnic media, broadcast, radio, newspapers and even 100+ Patch.com websites, as well as PBS Newshour and KQED. It's a tremendous audience and the feedback we've had from the audience is remarkable.

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That cost us, as a 19-month investigation that cost $750,000, and our revenue is about $40,000 to $50,000. Some of our funders have great rapport with us others don't talk much to us. We have advertising on our site but our goal isn't to be a destination website. It's incredibly complicated to measure distribution. We put out a children's coloring book. It wasn't my idea but it's been very successful. We're not charging for it. We are at the center of innovation and collaboration but I can't sit here and say it's sustainable.

Sharon Tiller came back to do video for us at CIR. There's also a mobile app to find fault lines in California.

Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline: We don't see corporate funding as being a big part of our funding. We are in a huge period of reinvention, just went to a full-year of programming. We got a big grant from the Logans, so we want to thank them. We're a legacy series, we have a look and feel and do investigative reporting. We're increasingly looking at going to more multimedia and doing more on the iPad -- and not just to put video there. What we want to do is have a more vibrant offering in the digital space.

We hired Andrew Golis from Yahoo and before that TPM. We want to add more materials on our website, more addendum material. We want to do things in that space that are as strong editorially as on broadcast. It's a big transition for us. We're focused less on our website and more on our tablet and digital spaces. So people can hold the iPad in their hands and have more of a multimedia experience.

So what does collaboration look like right now? It's getting hard-hitting investigative work in all our reports. So we have to rely on more people, because we only have a handful of producers. So we work with ProPublica and CIR and others. It's an exciting era now for us. We hired a new managing editor who comes from a big-time newspaper and believes in narrative journalism.

Calvin Sims, Ford Foundation: We have historically been big funders of investigative reporting, and we'll continue in that space. We are a social justice organization, and things that affect minorities and poor all over the world. We don't fund advocacy journalism because we think the public that supports strong journalism will take action. How do we decide what to fund?

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We just announced a $50 million initiative for documentary funds, and we'll continue to fund the sector of public media and journalism, but we want to think more like a venture capital fund. We're looking for big influence and impact. More importantly we want to know if your content advances the public discussion on a topic, are you reaching an influential audience and how do you quantify that impact?

We want to bet on people who are going to still be around.

Richard Tofel, ProPublica: We're making enormous progress in sustainability. Ads and sponsorships are part of it, money from partners is part of it. We've had some interesting experiences with Kindle Singles, but philanthropy is how these non-profits are sustained. Smaller donors can be a very important part too. But do people see the need? That's why I'm optimistic. There's been a market failure in producing high value journalism that's crucial to democratic governments. They need to be funded as public good.

I'm very optimistic and think we've made enormous progress in 4 years since we launched at ProPulica.

Mc Nelly Torres, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting: We are doing OK. We decided to focus on Florida for fundraising. There are a lot of groups, but we don't want to have to reinvent the wheel. There are so many groups competing for funds from national groups like the Ford Foundation. We don't have a person dedicated to raise money. I'm raising money, and I also write stories. We just won our first national award. [applause]

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Our website is growing, we are getting 60% more traffic on our site each month. All the mainstream newspapers are all my clients, you have to think that way. You need to have many sources of revenue, and think about ways to experiment with it. But the sky is the limit. The passion here is investigative journalism an we are providing something that has virtually disappeared from mainstream outlets. I'd rather spend my time in Florida and raise money there than waste my time and energy elsewhere where I'm competing with ProPublicas and others.

Gary Bostwick, Bostwick & Jassy LLP, part of legal support network for non-profit outlets: I was here a few years ago talking about this, it's amazing to see Chuck Lewis detail all the people doing it now. I am thrilled to hear everything from people on the panel, including CIR and everyone else. You're not going to be different in who will attack you as if you were a mainstream news organization. We are trained as lawyers to look out for issues. We want you to get your content on the air, but we won't always say yes, and we don't always say no. We usually say, "yes, but..." You are not in a risk-free environment.

I give constant education to clients who don't have a strong journalism background.

So why not get a group policy to cover CIR, ProPublica and all these groups for libel lawsuits? I just started thinking about that. I planted a small land mine out in the courtyard, but the chances of you stepping on it are small. I am trying to avoid the small risk of a cataclysmic disaster. We all do it because we believe in you and we want this to succeed.

**Q: Is there an issue with undercutting the price of doing commercial journalism?

Rosenthal: I think it's something we think about, many people in commercial journalism are now working in non-profit journalism. But we're talking about investigative journalism, and there's so much less of that now, and I think we have to keep it going. I wish it wasn't that way, but I've seen downsizing in commercial journalism. Our sustainability is whether we are having an effect on society, that's what fuels us.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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March 15 2011

14:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 31 2011

15:00

Audio/visual: Adding captions to NPR to reach a text-based audience

Things to take into consideration when trying to caption a radio newscast: how to convey sarcasm, irony, or seriousness; how to represent sound or ambient noise that’s important to a story; how to differentiate the voices of multiple hosts and guests.

Oh, and how to enable captioning on a medium that typically comes with no visuals.

All of these are things NPR Labs has been working on for several years as they try to bring captioned radio into mainstream use. This fall, they’ll begin a pilot program to test out captioned radio at stations around the country through display-capable digital radios and other devices like the Insignia Infocast. The hope is that, one day, captioned radio could also be viewed on mobile apps and tablets.

“We’re trying to build this to work for all public radio and create a large enough model that it can be emulated by others,” Mike Starling, executive director of NPR Labs, told me.

The idea of captioning is much more obvious for television, where the visual medium provides a ready display for text. (Closed captioning dates back to the early 1970s at Boston’s WGBH.) But radio is just as critical a source of news reports and emergency information, Starling said. NPR has come a long way in offering transcripts of their programs online, but they still come with a delay. NPR Labs, which works on software and transmission technology, has been experimenting with captioned radio as digital broadcasting has expanded and radio has burst out of its audio-only bounds. As more radio signals became digital, it allowed for transmission of something like a speech-to-text algorithm that creates a captioning feed. A description from NPR Labs:

Audio recorded in any of NPR’s studios is sent to Master Control, which then routes this audio to both PRSS and to a captioner. The captioner can be either a stenographer or a re-speaker, like the BBC uses. Re-speakers listen to audio and re-speak what they hear into a voice recognition program that has been trained to their voice. This increases the accuracy greatly over speech-to-text programs that are untrained, and removes any background sounds from field reports that might confuse the program.

From there, captions would be sent to stations over the Internet or by satellite and available to read on display-enabled radios, on the web, or on Internet-enabled devices.

Starling said a big reason captioned radio is advancing now is because technology is making it easier to put screens in front of the estimated 25-30 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing. That may be part of the reason NPR was looking to make friends with Apple and Android developers at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show. Tablets like the iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab are the right size for viewing live text, Starling said. But the price of those gadgets means they’re not widely available, which is why Starling considers something like the Infocast or Sony Dash good options that run less than $200. (NPR also developed a prototype car radio display with Delphi, that could act as a screen for turn-by-turn navigation or captions. See the video above for more.)

“It’s perfect timing for us to do the initial work on how to do captioning cost effectively,” he said.

More important than the technology is translating newscasts and other programs in a way that is faithful to content but also understandable for deaf audiences, Starling said. NPR worked with researchers at Gallaudet University to find the best ways to relay non-spoken information in stories, and what factors can interfere with reading captions. In one test, they found that people liked seeing avatars of NPR personalities like Robert Siegel or Michele Norris in captions, but that the extra visuals cut down on the retention of information from stories, Starling said.

“It’s like interpreting for a different language,” he said. “You have to figure out how to best translate this into something else so the full semantic impact is made in articulating a concept.”

The largest trial run of captioned radio was on election night in 2008 when 150 people at five member stations tested captions on a large display, an online stream, and a slide show. Starling said they now want to get a sense whether captioned radio can fit into everyday life and what problems may arise for listeners or stations. Though they’re just scratching the surface of what could be done with captioned radio, Starling said he can see a future where broadcasts could be visualized in different ways, possibly to incorporate images, graphic or video, made available anywhere on any device.

“We’ve got enough to bite off in doing faithful transcripts before we explore how this new artform could be more fully exploited for the intended audience,” he said.

November 17 2010

19:30

The neverending broadcast: Frontline looks to expand its docs into a continual conversation

Frontline, PBS’s public affairs documentary series, has one of the best reputations in the business for the things that journalism values most highly: courageous reporting, artful storytelling, the kind of context-heavy narrative that treats stories not simply as stories, but as vehicles of wisdom. It’s a “news magazine” in the most meaningful sense of the term.

But even an institution like Frontline isn’t immune to the disruptions of the web. Which is to say, even an institution like Frontline stands to benefit from smart leveraging of the web. The program’s leadership team is rethinking its identity to marry what it’s always done well — produce fantastic broadcasts — with something that represents new territory: joining the continuous conversation of the web. To that end, Frontline will supplement its long-form documentaries with shorter, magazine-style pieces — which require a shorter turnaround time to produce — and with online-only investigations. (The site’s motto: “Thought-provoking journalism on air and online.”)

But it’s also expanding its editorial efforts beyond packaged investigations, hoping to shift its content in a more discursive direction. Which leads to a familiar question, but one that each organization has to tackle in its own way: How do you preserve your brand and your value while expanding your presence in the online world?

One tool Frontline is hoping can help answer that question: Twitter. And not just Twitter, the conversational medium — though “we really want to be part of the journalism conversation,” Frontline’s senior producer, Raney Aronson-Rath, told me — but also Twitter, the aggregator. This afternoon, Frontline rolled out four topic-focused Twitter accounts — “micro-feeds,” it’s calling them:

Conflict Zones & Critical Threats (@FrontlineCZCT), which covers national security and shares the series’ conflict-zone reporting;

Media Watchers (@FrontlineMW), which tracks news innovation and the changing landscape of journalism;

Investigations (@FrontlineINVSTG), which covers true crime, corruption, and justice — spotlighting the best investigative reporting by Frontline and other outlets; and

World (@FrontlineWRLD), which covers international affairs.

The topic-focused feeds are basically a beat system, applied to Twitter. They’re a way of leveraging one of the core strengths of Frontline’s journalism: its depth. Which is something that would be almost impossible for Frontline, Aronson-Rath notes, to achieve with a single feed. So “we decided that the best thing for us was to be really intentional about who we were going to reach out to and what kind of topics we were going to tweet about — and not just have it be a promotional tool.”

Each feed will be run by two-person teams, one from the editorial side and the other from the promotional — under the broad logic, Aronson-Rath notes, that those two broad fields are increasingly collapsing into each other. And, even more importantly, that “all the work that we do in the social media landscape is, by its very essence, editorial.” Even something as simple as a retweet is the result of an editorial decision — and one that requires the kind of contextual judgment that comes from deep knowledge of a given topic.

So Frontline’s feed runners, Aronson-Rath notes, “are also the people who have, historically, been working in those beats in Frontline’s broadcast work.” (Frontline communications manager Jessica Smith, for example, who’ll be helping to run the “Conflict Zones” feed, covered that area previously, in cultivating the conversation between Frontline and the national security blogosphere as a component of the program’s earlier web efforts.) In other words: “These guys know what they’re doing on these beats.”

To that end, the teams’ members will be charged with leveraging their knowledge to curate content from the collective resources of all of Frontline’s contributors — from reporters to producers, public media partners to internal staff — and, of course, from the contributors across the web. The teams will work collaboratively to produce their tweets (they’ll even sit next to each other to maximize the teamwork). And some feeds will contain not just curated content, but original reporting, as well. Frontline reporters Stephen Grey and Murray Smith are about to dispatch to Afghanistan; while they’re there, they’ll tweet from @FrontlineCZCT. (They’ll tweet from personal feeds, as well, which @FrontlineCZCT curators will pull into the Frontline-branded feed.)

The broad idea behind the new approach is that audiences identify with topics as much as they do with brands. And there’s also, of course, the recognition of the sea of material out there which is of interest to consumers, but which ends up, documentary filmmaking being what it is, on the cutting-room floor. The new approach, it’s hoped, will give Frontline fans a behind-the-scenes look into the film production process. “You wouldn’t actually know where Frontline’s reporting teams are right now,” Aronson-Rath points out. “You only know when we show up.” Now, though, “when a team goes into Afghanistan, we’re going to let you know where they are. We’re going to give you some intelligence about what they’re doing. And it’ll be a completely different level of a conversation, we’re hoping.”

It’ll also be a different level of engagement — for Frontline’s producers and its consumers. It’s a small way of expanding the idea of what a public affairs documentary is, and can be, in the digital world: a process, indeed, as much as a product. “We think,” Aronson-Rath says, “that this is going to help keep our stories alive.”

September 09 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of public radio’s Argonauts

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 25 2010

16:45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 26 2010

17:00

Collaboration in action: Frontline, Planet Money, NewsHour team up for multimedia project on Haiti

Today marks the launch of a new public media series on Haiti — an experimental collaboration among public media partners Frontline (WGBH), Planet Money (NPR), and the NewsHour (PBS) to document life in the country after January’s devastating earthquake.

Though the project will culminate in Tuesday’s hour-long Frontline documentary, “The Quake” — an in-depth examination of the current state of Haiti and the world’s response to the disaster — it represents a group effort, not only among several different outlets, but also across several different platforms. The project is another attempt to achieve an increasingly common goal: to maximize reportorial resources during a time when they’re dwindling — and to find ways to collaborate during a time when competition can be an impediment to good journalism as much as a boon to it.

I spoke with David Fanning, Frontline’s producer (and recent Goldsmith career award winner) to learn more about the project.

It came from “one of those impetuous moments,” Fanning explains. “We’d had conversations well over a year ago with Planet Money and Adam Davidson about ways to collaborate on financial reporting, but we weren’t able to put anything together at the time. We were all doing our own programs.” Then, this spring, they continued that conversation, discussing the possibility of a big collaboration this summer. “And then Adam said, ‘Well, actually, I’m going to Haiti next week,’” Fanning says. “And we said, ‘Well, we have a team there filming, as well. So why don’t we see if we can get someone to go with you?’”

They did. They recruited Travis Fox, who had worked for ten years at The Washington Post — most recently, as a reporter/producer/videographer for washingtonpost.com — to shoot video that would be available not only for Frontline productions, but also to the NewsHour and NPR. “The theory is open-ended — this is an experiment — to see if you can collaborate with a reporter working in the field, without getting him off-course from what he’s doing,” Fanning says.

Another experiment: the terms of the collaboration itself. “We talk about collaborations in high-flung terms,” Fanning points out, but on the molecular level, teamwork can be a series of negotiations: who takes the lead on what, who makes editorial decisions, and so on. “My instinct on this — and it was Adam’s, as well — was: ‘Let’s just try something. Let’s just do it. If we don’t like it at the end of the day, we don’t have to do it again.’”

Ultimately, the success of the project — this one, and others like it — depends on the interactions between the individuals who are producing it. “Co-productions are never between institutions,” Fanning points out; “they’re only really between the people who work together and trust each other.” Still, those people work for institutions; and institutions — even those of public media — tend to care about things like return-on-investment, and eyeballs, and traffic. When it comes to the project’s web products, who hosts the stories? Who gets the pageviews?

“In the case of Planet Money and Frontline, we’re essentially driving traffic back to the Frontline website,” Fannings says. “We’re also carrying the NPR logo. And NPR, in turn, is going to credit Frontline — and vice versa. The important thing for Planet Money and NPR is that they’ll have the video stories for themselves, and they’ll have them produced at a level that’s not as easy for them to do.”

And, more broadly, everyone will benefit from the impact of the network. “If you marry that to really good reporting in the other platforms, which could be radio and print on the web, if you bring those together and present them in a common matrix” — though it’s an open question whether that reporting is best housed on a single, shared website, or on separate ones, Fanning acknowledges — “then you’re creating something of value in a society where so much of the information is really disposable. And if it’s made in such a way that it’s very transportable, and it’s an embeddable, widgetized commodity, then it can go out and you can put it on your Facebook page and you can send it to your favorite 500 people. If you can share it in that way — and if it carries with it its connections back to those upper partnerships — then that’s just a very valuable object.”

But while the journalism should be portable and embeddable, so should the core values that underscore it: intelligence, context, quality. Fanning mentions the reporting Davidson produces for Planet Money. “If it’s done to that high degree of intelligence, then it really has currency,” he says. “Then people say, ‘You should really hear this one.’” Productions like, for example, “The Giant Pool of Money,” the much-praised and uber-trafficked collaboration with This American Life: “Those are the pieces that become memorable,” Fanning notes. “The thing you want to do is the memorable telling. Then it becomes valuable for always, in a way. And that’s the amazing promise of this new medium.”

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