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May 03 2012

14:55

The newsonomics of Pricing 101

When the price of your digital product is zero, that’s about how much you learn about customer pricing. Now, both the pricing and the learning is on the upswing.

The pay-for-digital content revolution is now fully upon us. Five years ago, only the music business had seen much rationalization, with Apple’s iTunes having bulled ahead with its new 99-cent order. Now, movies, TV shows, newspapers, and magazines are all embracing paid digital models, charging for single copies, pay-per-views, and subscriptions. From Hulu Plus to Netflix to Next Issue Media to Ongo to Press+ to The New York Times to Google Play to Amazon to Apple to Microsoft (buying into Nook this week), the move to paid media content is profound. The imperative to charge is clear, especially as legacy news and magazines see their share of the rapidly growing digital advertising pie (with that industry growing another 20 percent this year) actually decline.

Yes, it’s in part a 99-cent new world order as I wrote about last week (“The newsonomics of 99-cent media”), but there are wider lessons — some curiously counterintuitive — to be learned in the publishing world. Let’s call it the newsonomics of Pricing 101. The lessons here, gleaned from many conversations, are not definitive ones. In fact, they’re just pointers — with rich “how to” lessons found deeper in each.

Let’s not make any mistake this week, as the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s new numbers rolled out and confounded most everyone. Those ABC numbers wowed some with their high percentage growth rates. Let’s keep in mind that those growth numbers come on the heels of some of the worst newspaper quarterly reports issued in awhile. Not only is print advertising in a deepening tailspin, but digital advertising growth is stalled. Take all the ABC numbers you want and tell the world “We have astounding reach” — but if the audience can’t be monetized both with advertising and significant new circulation revenues, the numbers will be meaningless.

When it comes to dollars and sense, pricing matters a lot.

Let’s start with this basic principle: People won’t pay you for content if you don’t ask them to. That’s an inside-the-industry joke, but one with too much reality to sustain much laughter. It took the industry a long time to start testing offers and price points, as The Wall Street Journal and Walter Hussman’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette provided lone wolf examples.

The corollary to that principle? If you don’t start to charge consumers — Warren Buffett on newspaper pricing: “You shouldn’t be giving away a product that you’re trying to sell.” — then you can’t learn how consumers respond to pricing. Once you start pricing, you can start learning, and adjust.

We can pick out at least nine emerging data points:

  • 33-45 percent of consumers who pay for digital subscriptions click to buy before they ever run into a paywall. That’s right — a third to a half of buyers just need to be told they will have to pay for continuing access, and they’re sold. As economists note that price is a signal of value, consumers understand the linkage. Assign what seems to be a fair price, and some readers pay up, especially if they are exposed to a “warning” screen, letting them know they’ve used up of critical number of “free” views. Maybe they want to avoid the bumping inconvenience — or maybe they just acknowledge the jig’s up.
  • If print readers are charged something extra for digital access, then non-print subscribers are more likely to buy a digital-only sub. Why pay for digital access is the other guys (the print subscribers) are getting it thrown in for “free”? Typically, Press+ sees a 20-percent-plus increase in signups on sites that charge print subscribers something extra. That extra may be just a third or so of the price digital-only subscribers pay (say, $2.95 instead of $6.95), but it makes a difference. Consequently, Press+ says 80-90 percent of its sites charge print subscribers for digital access. The company now powers 323 sites and thus has more access to collective data than any other news-selling source.
  • You can reverse the river, or at least channel it. The New York Times took a year, but figured it out righter than anyone expected. It bundled its Sunday print paper (still an ad behemoth) with digital, making that package $60 or so a year cheaper than digital alone. The result, of course, is that Sunday Times home delivery is up for first time since 2006. It’s not just NYT or the L.A. Times which have embraced Sunday/digital combos. In Minneapolis, the Star Tribune began a similar push in November. Now, of its 18,000 digital-only subscribers, 28 percent have agreed to an add on the Sunday paper, for just 30 cents a week, says CEO Mike Klingensmith (“A Twin Cities turnaround?”). So we see that consumers may well be more agnostic about platform than we thought. Given them an easy one-click way of buying even musty old print, and they will. Irony: If you hadn’t charged them for digital access, you probably wouldn’t have sold them on print.
  • New products create new markets. 70 percent of The Economist‘s digital subscribers are not former print subscribers, says Paul Rossi, managing director and executive vice president for the Americas. That’s surprising in one sense, but not in another. Newspaper company digital VPs will tell you that they’re surprised to see how little overlap there is between their print audience customer bases and their digital ones. The downside here: Many print customers seem not to value digital access that much. The Star Tribune is finding a low take rate of 3 percent of its Sunday-only print subscribers willing to take its digital-access upsell. One lesson: The building of a new digital-mainly audience won’t be easy and will require new product thinking; it’s not that easy just to port over established customers.
  • The all-access bundle must contain multiple consumer hooks. Sure, readers like to get mobile access as well as desktop and print, and maybe some video. Yet some may especially prize the special events or membership perks they are offered, as the L.A. Times is banking on (and start-ups Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and Global Post have applied outside the paywall model). Some will like the extras, like The Boston Globe telling its new 18,000 digital subscribers, as well as its print ones, that they now get “free” Sunday Supper ebooks (“The newsonomics of 100 products a year”). Sports fanatics or business data lovers will find other niches to value — and ones that make the whole bundle worthwhile. Archives — and the research riches they offer — will prove irresistible to some. In 2012, a bundle may offer a half dozen reasons to buy, casting a wide net, with the hope that at least one shiny lure will reel in the customers. By 2013, expect “dynamic, customized offers,” targeting would-be buyers by their specific interests to be more widely in use.
  • While pageviews may drop 10-15 percent with a paywall, unique visitors remain fairly constant. We see the phenomenon of those who do hit a paywall one month coming back in subsequent months, rather than fleeing forever. “It may be the second, third, or fourth month before someone says, ‘I guess I am a frequent visitor here, and I’ll play,’” says Press+’s Gordon Crovitz.
  • Archives find new life. Archives have lived in a corner of news and magazine websites for a long time. They’ve been used, but not highly used or highly monetized. Now, courtesy of the tablet, and a new way to charge, The Economist is finding that 20 percent of its single copy sales are of past issues. Readers will pay for the old in new wrappers, whether back e-issues, or niched ebooks. The all-access offer can be much wider than cross-platform, or multi-device. It can extend across time, from a century of yesterdays to alerts for tomorrow.
  • News media is probably underpriced. Take the high-end Economist. CEO Andrew Rashbass — speaking to MediaGuardian’s Changing Media Summit 2012, in a recommended video — said that a survey of its subscribers showed that a majority didn’t know how much they were paying for the Economist. When pressed to guess, most over-estimated the price. At the Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, an early paywall leader in the middle of America, a recent price increase to $8.99 from $7.99 has so far resulted in no material loss of subscribers. At Europe’s Piano Media, early experience in Slovakia and Slovenia is that price isn’t a big factor, says Piano’s David Brauchli. “Payment for news on the web is really more a philosophical mindset rather than economic. People who are opposed to paying will always opposed to paying and those who see the value of paying don’t mind paying no matter what the price is.” That suggests pricing power. It makes sense that publishers, new to the pricing trade, have approached it gingerly. Yet the circulation revenue upside may well be substantial.
  • Bundle or unbundle — what’s the right way? Mainly, we don’t know yet, and the answer may be different for differing audience segments. The Economist started with print being a higher price than a separate digital sub. Then it raised the digital price to match that of print — to assert digital value. It now offers all-access: one price gets you both. Next up: You can buy either print or digital for the same price, but if you want both, you’ll pay more. It’s an evolution of testing, and so far, it’s been an upward one.

Overall, this is a revolution in more than pricing. It’s a revolution in thinking and, really, publisher identity.

The Boston Globe’s Jeff Moriarty sums it up well, as his company aims (as has the Financial Times before it: “The newsonomics of the FT as an internet retailer”) to emulate a little digital-first company called Amazon:

I think overall publishers have to start thinking more like e-commerce companies. More like Amazon. You can’t just throw up a wall or an app and expect it to just sell itself. We’re still building that muscle here at the Globe, and some of our colleagues in the industry are even farther along. We have extensive real-time and daily analytics and are employing multivariate testing to try offers and designs to refine the experience that works best for each type of user.

Photo by Jessica Wilson used under a Creative Commons license.

April 19 2012

13:17

The newsonomics of risking it all

Alfredo Corchado was used to getting mortal threats.

He received three in Mexico, but now he was in a Laredo bar, north of the border.

You better stop what you’re doing, or you’ll end with a bullet in your head and your body in a vat of acid, he was told. And then we’ll deliver the bones to your family in El Paso.

It was a chilling warning, or at least we’d expect it to put a chill into Corchado. An investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News (and a former Nieman Fellow), he’s been covering the ravages of drug trafficking for years, much to the concern of his parents living, as the traffickers plainly know, in El Paso. Yet Corchado goes on with his work — as do Adela Navarro Bello of Tijuana’s Zeta news magazine, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Ramita Navai of the U.K.’s Channel 4. As Navarro Bello explained of her paper’s coverage of the drug trafficking that has consumed at 50,000 Mexican lives, “If we don’t publish this information, we are part of the problem.” (Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz has captured Zeta’s struggle — including the murder of two of its journalists — with a new movie.)

Each is an investigative reporter who put their lives on the line to reveal stories they think readers must know about. They spoke on the “When the Story Bites Back” panel this weekend, at UC Berkeley, part of the sixth annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium (live blogging of the conference, here, with a #Logan12 Twitter feed).

That panel and the entire spirited weekend, organized and led by esteemed investigative producer Lowell Bergman, tells us a fair amount about the business of journalism. Though it is not — like most of my work — concerned with the dollars and cents of the business, in its very essence, it describes why the current crazy-quilt economics of the business matters. Funding the journalism business isn’t like funding Sears and Kodak (“The newsonomics of the long good-bye”) or other fading institutions. It’s not even about saving a perhaps-vital American industry, like the auto industry.

It’s about keeping a lifeline of funding open so that our best reporters can do their jobs.

I’ll call it the newsonomics of risking it all because that’s what these reporters do. Many of the other Logan participants and attendees, thankfully, do less life-threatening work. Yet those represented at the conference — from ProPublica, the Washington Post, and New York Times to ABC, NBC, and NPR — are among the cream of the crop of investigative work and produce work with real public interest impact.

As we endlessly debate pay models, whether or not to work with Facebook, how to deal with Apple and Amazon and multi-platform journalism, the Logan Symposium is good tonic — certainly for those of us who attended, but really for all of us who know why this business matters to democracy. Whether and how the economics of the new news business work out isn’t an arcane question; it’s central to our collective future. The value of good, deep reporting is truly priceless.

So what about the state of investigative reporting? Look at the glass as half full and half cloudy.

What emerged from the conference, surprising to some, is that national investigative reporting is keeping its head above water. Both NBC and ABC talked about their expansions in the investigative area, while companies like NPR and Bloomberg have put new resources in as well. Units at the Post, L.A. Times, and New York Times may not be growing much, but seem to be sustaining themselves, for now.

“For now” is an important qualifier, and New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet’s opening interview at Logan, in its over-the-top self-assurance, bothered many of the conference participants with whom I talked.

Washington Post investigative editor Jeff Leen suggested that there were 200 investigative reporters paid by news media in the U.S., which I calculate as one for every 1.5 million Americans. That’s not a ratio that’s going to hold many big institutions — government, business, labor — to account. Maybe that’s why as Logan participant and new-media vet Neil Budde tweeted, “How many times will ‘existential’ be used this weekend? I think count is six so far.”

Importantly, it is largely the largest news media — mainly national and global ones — that continue to put money into investigative work; these are the Digital Dozen companies I identified in my Newsonomics book. For them, as NBC senior executive producer David Corvo put it, investigative work is a “differentiator,” important to distinguishing big news brands from one another in the digital age.

What’s going on regionally is more of a patchwork.

Dozens of people like the Logan family are using their wealth to fund investigative enterprises from coast to coast, most with little fanfare. The Knight Foundation, represented at the conference by its senior advisor and grant-giver extraordinaire Eric Newton, has put $20 million into investigative journalism. With the decline in newspaper budgets, and thus in funding of investigative teams at many regional papers, such private funding has been a lifeline, though there’s a profound sense that significantly less in-depth work is being done at former powerhouse regional papers.

This Logan conference lacked the always-odd spontaneity of a Julian Assange appearance, but it offered intriguing emphases:

  • Front and center, though not appearing in person was Rupert Murdoch. After screening “Murdoch’s Scandal,” Bergman’s Frontline documentary that aired March 27, “The Murdoch Effect: News At Any Price,” made for a raucous panel. Milly Dowler attorney Mark Lewis told how the phone hacking scandal had consumed his life and spoke of the “commercial despotism of Murdochracy” in the U.K., given the News Corp. CEO’s multi-party, decades-long influence. Big questions: What next, and if and how this tale plays out in the U.S.
  • “If it’s not on TV, the American public doesn’t know it,” observed Diana Henriques, the New York Times financial investigative reporter. Yes, we may be on the brink of this multi-platform age, where old newspapers like the Times and the Journal do video alongside print, but still — in terms of notice and public action — there’s nothing like the impact of TV documentary.
  • This is a generational challenge. Journalism has always had its challenges, but never has there been more uncertainty about how one generation can pass along its best practices to the next. Through that foundation funding, a couple of dozen younger journalists and students had their way paid into the conference. Surveying the group on the last day, Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, summed his baby-boomer generation’s role: “I’m a bridge — we’re all bridges to the future.”

Bridging is, in part, what Lowell Bergman’s program does. UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program is a partner in the new Collaboration Central project, along with PBS MediaShift. With new funding, IRP will soon move into a new permanent office. It provides lots of training and fellowships, bringing along new generations to work alongside people like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bergman, whose career has spanned from early Ramparts through CBS, The New York Times, and Frontline, and who was played by Al Pacino in the tobacco industry exposé The Insider.

Bergman paid tribute to his one-time CBS colleague Mike Wallace, underscoring Wallace’s storied tenacity. That tenacity, based on Wallace’s fierce journalistic power (highlighted at CBS, in story and video), is what it took a non-journalist to highlight in Berkeley.

Jules Kroll, who led the invention of the modern intelligence and security industry, gave the trade good, pointed advice. Saying he had heard a lot of journalists talking about how beleaguered they are, he noted, “You have a big impact.” His shared his inside view of the power of a good investigation. Colloquial translation: Stop whining and get on with it.

And that’s always good advice. As ProPublica managing editor Steve Engelberg aptly said, “They were whining in 1989, when times were good.” That’s true. There may be more to whine about these days than in 1989, but the power of great public service work, sometimes when lives are on the line, is one of the things that must propel the trade forward.

Photo of Alfredo Corchado by the U.S. embassy in Paraguay used under a Creative Commons license.

April 10 2012

16:45

January 19 2012

15:20

How Social Media, Collaboration Fueled Reports on Australia's Refugees

An innovative Australian public journalism project has partnered student reporters and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with a refugee support agency and a social media startup.

The aim of the project, #ReportingRefugees, was to tackle problematic media coverage of asylum seekers and refugees in a volatile political climate in parallel with educating students to connect with a "citizens' agenda." The result was a student takeover of the airwaves in Australia's national capital and a fundamental shift in attitudes.

MediaShift correspondent Julie Posetti anchored the project at the University of Canberra where she teaches journalism. This is the first in her two-part series on #ReportingRefugees.

Problem: Divisive & Xenophobic National Debate

For the past 15 years, racist and xenophobic political memes have dominated public discussion of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, with asylum seekers who arrive by boat demonized as threatening aliens by politicians whose divisive messages are fanned and fed by inflammatory headlines and tabloid TV.

Reporting Refugees Husseinis.jpg

In this climate, and on the back of involvement in a substantial national research project on the reporting of multiculturalism (which led to me theorizing about the potential transformative impact of minority encounters on journalists), I decided to embark on a public journalism project with my final-year University of Canberra broadcast journalism students.

The end result was two hours of radio journalism, fueled by collaboration and social media, that gave a much-needed voice to refugees, a better understanding for the public of the complicated issues surrounding them, and important lessons for those of us working on the project.

Journalism Partnerships For Change

#ReportingRefugees was built on partnerships that I forged with 666 ABC Canberra, the ABC's radio station in the Australian capital; Canberra Refugee Support, the city's best-known organization for refugees and asylum seekers; OurSay, an innovative crowdsourcing startup; and the School of Music at the Australian National University, also based in Canberra.

Reporting Refugees CRS.jpg

I made my first approach to CRS, and their initial response reflected the impact of xenophobic political campaigns and media stereotyping: They were reluctant to get involved. CRS President Geoff McPherson said concerns about resourcing the project were also paramount. But I persisted, pursuing meetings and arguing the merits of interventions in journalism education and public journalism approaches in tackling problematic reporting of marginalized communities. The proposal was for CRS to facilitate contact between student journalists and asylum seeker-refugee clients and provide advice on relevant policy and community programs, with the aim of minimizing any potential harm to vulnerable interviews and assisting in the development of culturally intelligent reporting on a complex and often poorly reported issue.

Ultimately, just a fortnight before the project kicked off, CRS agreed to participate. "The judgment of the CRS board was that the potential return on this project far outweighed the risks and (we) decided to proceed," McPherson said, reflecting on the project at its conclusion.

Collaborating with Australia's Public Broadcaster

By contrast, the ABC was keen to be involved from the outset. They were even prepared to hand over two hours of airtime on their main Canberra radio station to the students. They agreed to allow the students -- under the joint editorial supervision of the ABC, me and my tutors -- to report, produce and present a radio special devoted to #ReportingRefugees which was scheduled for broadcast on November 27 last year -- three months from the start of the project.

Reporting Refugees ABC.jpg

Jordie Kilby, ABC 666 Canberra content director, explained the network's motivation for involvement: "We hoped for an insightful look at the local community of refugees living in the Canberra region; we wanted to build on our relationships with local refugees and asylum seekers and the community groups that help and support them. We also hoped the project would give us an opportunity to look at some future journalists and their ideas and work."

Original Student Compositions Score #ReportingRefugees

By this stage, my ANU School of Music collaborator, Jonathan Powles, had agreed to offer his students the opportunity to produce original scores to accompany my journalism students' stories. Apart from being an interesting cross-disciplinary education collaboration and a potentially rewarding creative merger for broadcaster, teachers and students alike, the provision of original music for the planned radio program meant that the ABC would also be able to podcast the show. (Copyright laws in Australia prevent the podcasting of commercial music broadcast on radio.)

Giving Citizens a Say

Finally, I decided to approach OurSay -- a Melbourne startup which partners with media organizations, universities and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to crowdsource questions designed to address the "citizens' agenda." They jumped at the chance to be involved, and we launched the project's OurSay page which asked the public to identify the questions they most wanted answered by a panel of experts on asylum seeker-refugee policy during the ABC broadcast.

OurSay's CEO, Eyal Halamish, explained the role of the platform in the project: "Especially on such a contentious issue as that of refugees and asylum seekers, where the mainstream media latch onto sensationalist, short-termist news instead of taking a broader view, a social tool such as OurSay can help set the agenda more effectively and help express what the public feels about an issue, as sourced from their own questions and comments." It worked like this: Over the course of a month, OurSay users were asked to submit the questions they most wanted put to the panel, and the top five questions were selected by popular vote on the site.

The #ReportingRefugees Curriculum

With these #ReportingRefugees building blocks in place, I was able to finalize the structure of the project within the syllabus. This was no easy task! Trying to balance learning outcomes and university assessment policies against real-world media deadlines is always tricky. But doing so on a project seeking to break new ground through multiple public journalism partnerships, on a complex and sensitive reporting assignment, proved to be the most challenging teaching project I've ever been involved with. Fortunately, it also emerged as the most rewarding experience of my journalism education career.

Zoe Daniel.jpg

#ReportingRefugees became the foundation of the Advanced Broadcast Journalism unit (a class of 50 students) I convene at UC. I gave lectures on public journalism (featuring the work of professor Jay Rosen and others) and reporting trauma in the social media age. I also devoted a lecture to a live Skype interview with the ABC's South East Asia correspondent, Zoe Daniel, whose beat includes the massive refugee camps and asylum seeker communities of that region.

The major assessment required students to work in reporting duos networked via loosely themed production units, on original, long-form audio or audio/video stories about refugees-asylum seekers (or policies and programs pertaining to them) which would compete for selection in the final radio program. Additionally, they had to produce images and text to accompany their stories for online publication. They were encouraged to speak with, not just about, refugees-asylum seekers and to explore personal stories and angles that the media had largely overlooked. Some reporting duos were assigned to refugee-asylum seeker families and community services facilitated by CRS, while others independently identified stories and sources.

Assessing Audience Engagement and Reflective Practice

Additionally, the students were required to maintain Twitter feeds (with a focus on community building around content, crowdsourcing and content distribution) as part of an "audience engagement" assessment. They also needed to participate in Facebook groups dedicated to editorial management. The final assessment involved publication of an academically grounded reflective practice blog which required the students to critically analyze the project, their involvement in it and their experiences of it, with reference to scholarly readings.

Students' Perspective

So, what did the students think of the project at the start? Many have admitted they were daunted by the theme and the workload when they first heard about it. One, Ewan Gilbert, conceded he was initially a tad perplexed: "I went into the assignment thinking it was all a bit over the top." But Gilbert, now a cadet journalist with the ABC, clearly understood the project's purpose in retrospect: "I think one of the biggest barriers people face when it comes to understanding refugee issues, is that most Australians have probably never met one," he blogged. "Putting a face to an issue was so important to helping my understanding of the problems. You learn to treat the issue with humanity. You learn to see refugees as people and quite often extremely vulnerable people at that. If the whole refugee debate didn't have any relevancy to me before, it certainly does now."

Another student, Grace Keyworth, who was already working in the Canberra Press Gallery as a videographer when the project began, wrote that #ReportingRefugees was an important and timely intervention.

"I have been present at countless press conferences this year where the discussion of asylum seekers and refugees was completely dehumanized. There was a lot of talk of numbers, figures and 'processing' them like they're a piece of meat, but hardly any of names, occupations or their reasons for leaving their countries," she lamented. "It shows that as a society, we haven't progressed beyond the racial discrimination towards immigrants that has plagued our country since federation."

Opening Up Journalism -- Critical Reflection via Social Media

The students were encouraged to openly reflect, through their social media activity, on their pre-conceived ideas about the refugee-asylum seeker issue and broadcast reporting conventions as they worked on their stories. They had to navigate very complex issues -- such as balancing the need to avoid re-traumatizing refugee interviewees who'd survived torture against the need for editorial transparency and independence. Many encountered significant journalistic obstacles -- from paternalism within some organizations which led (inappropriately) to one service provider refusing its refugee clients permission to speak, to nervous interviewees backing out of stories close to deadline. But in every case, these experiences delivered important learning outcomes -- about the need for sensitivity and informed consent in reporting on refugees-asylum seekers, and about the need for journalistic perseverance and resilience when confronted with problems that threaten to derail stories in which many hours work have been invested.

There were logistical hurdles to mount, too. The collaborative editorial management of the project with the ABC meant that assessment deadlines had to be interwoven with ABC production deadlines. And multiple classroom visits by the busy ABC content director needed to be scheduled across four tutorials, which were timetabled for only three hours each per week.

Once the students had filed their rough-cut stories for assessment, the difficult process of selecting the content for broadcast and web upload commenced. I shortlisted stories from each tutorial with my tutors (Phil Cullen and Ginger Gorman, both of whom are experienced ABC broadcasters) but the ABC's Jordie Kilby was responsible for selecting the final line-up of 10 stories. Meanwhile, we auditioned potential student presenters, and student executive producers attached to each tutorial began wrangling students to deliver final cut radio and web stories.

Putting #ReportingRefugees on Air

Ultimately, the students broadcast two hours of moving, human radio with a focus on personalized stories, situational reports on community programs such as a psychological service which treats traumatized child refugees, explanatory journalism that unpacked highly complex and sensitive themes, and an intelligent panel discussion, featuring the former Commonwealth Ombudsman and the UNHCR's representative in Australia, that addressed the questions crowdsourced via OurSay in a way that allowed misconceptions to be powerfully countered.

As the program aired, students, listeners and ABC staff participated in a lively Twitter discussion triggered by the stories, aggregated by the #ReportingRefugees hashtag.

Additionally, the ABC website continues to host a bundle of additional student reports produced for the project, along with a podcast of the radio special (Hour 1 & Hour 2).

I'll focus in more detail on the impact of the project on those involved, its reception by audiences, and the implications for journalism education in part two of this #ReportingRefugees series, but this quote from international student Linn Loken, sums up the value of the project and makes my own very substantial investment in time, energy and effort in its execution seem worthwhile:

"Knowing a few refugees now, this is not just a word to me anymore. When I hear the word REFUGEE mentioned, I think about the people I talked to during this project and I can see their faces."

Julie Posetti is an award-winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She's been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on journalism and social media, on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She's currently writing her PhD dissertion on 'The Twitterisation of Journalism' at the University of Wollongong. She blogs at Twitter.

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October 07 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: Remembering Steve Jobs, and a new-old media partnership

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

A man who thought different: The tech, media, and business worlds lost one of their brightest minds this week: Steve Jobs, the visionary who co-founded Apple and helped transform virtually every industry this site touches on, died Wednesday at age 56. Thousands of people have been pouring out their thanks and remembrances online over the past couple of days; I’ll try to highlight some of the most insightful reflections here.

First, the obituaries: The New York Times and Wall Street Journal memorialized Jobs in their formal, definitive style, while Wired’s Steven Levy took a more interpretive angle on Jobs’ life and work. The Times offered a fantastic interactive guide to Jobs’ 317 patents, and All Things Digital remembered Jobs with a collection of his own words. One of his most well-known public statements is a 2005 commencement speech that included some profound thoughts about death, including the statement, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

The New York Times and the Lab’s Megan Garber have good summaries of the ways people remembered and honored Jobs on Wednesday. Several pieces on Jobs’ legacy, by the LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, and Reuters’ Kevin Kelleher, centered on a similar point: Jobs’ expertise wasn’t in technical advancements so much as it was in his uncanny ability to recognize what made technologies frustrating for people to use and then to develop brilliant solution after brilliant solution. As the AP’s Ted Anthony put it, “He realized what we wanted before we understood it ourselves.”

Others remembered Jobs for what tech blogger Dave Winer called “the integrity of his vision.” For the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, that vision meant a distinctive devotion to work for pure self-fulfillment, and that devotion led to, as Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb pointed out, a corporate culture uniquely predicated on accountability and direct responsibility. Berkman Center fellow Doc Searls brought up some old insights about Jobs’ dedication to innovation, and at the Guardian, Dan Gillmor wrote on the juxtaposition between his awe of Jobs’ genius and his concern about Apple’s growing control. Horace Dediu gave the contrarian’s remembrance, challenging the idea of Jobs as an otherworldly visionary and coming up with some poetic insight in the process.

A few people looked specifically at Steve Jobs’ impact on the media industry — GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram looked at the ways Apple has continued to disrupt media, especially with the iPhone, which definitively turned the phone into a media consumption device. Jeff Sonderman of Poynter republished a piece on Jobs’ relationship with the news industry, and the New York Times’ David Carr said Jobs made business journalism cool for the first time.

Then there were the personal stories: Fast Company collected bunches of accounts of tech execs, writers, and students’ first meetings with Jobs, and the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg shared several Jobs stories of his own. Tech blogger John Gruber wrote on the grass-stained sneakers Jobs wore to his keynote address at a conference in June — “the product of limited time, well spent.” And former Gizmodo writer Brian Lam, who had a notorious run-in with Apple last year over a lost iPhone prototype, reflected on Jobs’ kindness and forgiveness amid that incident.

My favorite takeaway came from journalism professor Jeremy Littau’s summary of his lecture on Jobs to his students: “Go create stuff. Lots of stuff. Don’t wait for me to tell you to do it and —  for the love of God — don’t wait for it to be assigned in a class or be for credit on the student newspaper. The great ones are never off the clock. They create stuff because it matters, not because they’re told to.”

Two media giants jump in together: ABC News and Yahoo announced a major partnership for online news, agreeing to share web content, count traffic together, and produce web video series. It’s not a full-fledged merger: The two organizations will remain independent, but they’ll share news bureaus and sell ads together as ABC produces web series for Yahoo and Yahoo maintains the web operations of shows like Good Morning America.

These two companies have done something like this before — as Poynter noted, their announcement this week was strikingly similar to an announcement between the two orgs back in 2000. Still, The New York Times said it’s the deepest partnership of its kind since NBC and Microsoft in the mid-’90s. The basic reasons for the move seem to make sense: As the Times and TV Newser pointed out, ABC News has plenty of corporate muscle behind it via Disney, but has lagged behind its competitors in web traffic. Yahoo, on the other hand, is swimming in traffic but has had some serious difficulty figuring where to go from there.

Still, the deal got a lukewarm reception from many online media analysts. One of them told Ad Age that for ABC News, Yahoo was “the last life vest on the Titanic.” Wired’s Tim Carmody said ABC and Yahoo could have some quite interesting opportunities for cooperation, but instead, they’re “both left chasing The Huffington Post — a fast-growing, web-native and increasingly multimedia-savvy and professional-journalism-driven site.” Mathew Ingram of GigaOM described the move as a doomed, retrograde portal strategy: What these organizations need, he said, is not more eyeballs, but more targeted audiences and well-produced niche content.

But here at the Lab, media professor Josh Braun said that while the partnership is far from a slam dunk, it’s still an ambitious move with the potential to give ABC News a foothold into round-the-clock content and some demographic niches highly coveted by advertisers. On Yahoo’s side, Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici wondered whether they’re moving away from producing original content.

Apple drops the next iPhone: The news of Steve Jobs’ death dwarfed what had been a significant development for Apple-philes: the unveiling, earlier this week, of the next iteration of the iPhone, the iPhone 4S. As the New York Times explained, the new iPhone doesn’t look much different from the current one, but most of its improvements are below the surface, most notably the addition of a voice-activated personal assistant named Siri.

This was not what everyone was expecting; for weeks, the tech press had wrongly predicted an iPhone 5, only to see upgrades that were smaller and more incremental than they expected. The result was disappointment for many, summed up well by Henry Blodget of Business Insider and Farhad Manjoo of Slate. Others, like tech writer Dan Frommer and The New York Times’ Nick Bilton, said there was plenty to like about the iPhone 4S, including faster download speeds and a more powerful camera.

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman looked at several aspects of the new iPhone of interest to journalists, focusing specifically on Apple’s new Newsstand section for newspaper and magazine apps. He expressed some concern that the Newsstand locks publishers into Apple’s 30-percent-cut pay system while duplicating the old print news-buying experience, rather than creating something new.

Reading roundup: This week was a busy one outside of the big stories, too. Here’s what else people were talking about:

— Some conversation that continues to trickle out about Facebook’s overhaul: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” is where the web is headed next, the Lab’s Ken Doctor and Gina Chen looked at what’s in this for news orgs, and at The Atlantic, Ben Zimmer looked at what Facebook has done to the way we use language.

— Commentary about last week’s Kindle announcement also continued this week, with Frederic Filloux explaining why he’s excited about the Kindle Fire’s potential for news media and magazine publishers, saying the Fire could help spark some big revenue in tablets. Meanwhile, Nate Hoffelder noted that there’s a lot that you can’t do with the Kindle and its apps, and Mathew Ingram wondered what will happen to the book industry when Kindle prices drop to zero.

— Jonathan Stray’s thoughtful post a couple of weeks ago about journalism for makers has led to a slow-burning discussion: Grad student Blair Hickman proposed a model for solution-based journalism, while journalism professor C.W. Anderson questioned whether journalists have the authority for such an approach. Meanwhile, Josh Stearns of Free Press mused on applying “systems thinking” to journalism.

— This month’s Carnival of Journalism produced a solid set of posts that examined a variety of aspects of online video, from technique to philosophy to business. Here’s the roundup.

— Two useful pieces of advice from Poynter: a guide for news sites to partnering with local blogs, and for journalists to get started with data journalism.

— Former New York Times editor Bill Keller offered a (surprisingly) bullish take on the potential for a sustainable business model in online news, and the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal gave a thorough, up-close look at what that means for a single news org in his four-part report on making CIR and California Watch sustainable. Here’s part one and the bullet-point version.

May 05 2011

14:30

The newsonomics of the new ABCs of journalism

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

This week brought us the long-worked-on new counting metrics for American daily newspaper journalism.

ABC, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, has long provided The Number.

The Number — really The Numbers, a daily number and a Sunday number — have been the reader numbers dailies measured themselves by, twice a year, spring and fall. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s number one — it’s really a horse-race number, simple to report by the publishers and simple to report by those covering the industry. Of course, The Number has been in horrific decline. Take a look at the State of the News Media circulation chart (a third of the way down a long page) and you can see 15 straight reporting periods in single-digit decline, tracked since 2003. Clearly, circulation is still dropping, though it will take the next six-month comparisons, using these new metrics, to establish new benchmarking.

That’s one of the reasons The Number is gone — optics do count — but more importantly the nature of ad buying has changed dramatically in that same period. Newspaper ad revenues have been halved while online ad revenues will approximate newspaper ad revenues this year or next. While halved to $25 billion annually or so, newspapers, with the new ABCs, have made a directional shift to satisfying those advertisers; recall that even the New York Times, the digital leader with 25 percent of its ad revenues being digital, still depends on the print for three-quarters of its dollars.

So The Number is all but gone. Sure, there’s still “Total Circulation,” and that’s led some to do apples-to-apples comparison to the last set of numbers from last fall. It’s not a fruitful exercise, given the magnitude of the changes.

“ABC and the industry never intended that ‘total circulation’ to be a metric of success,” John Murray, the Newspaper Association of America’s vice president of audience development told me this week.

That’s because there is a now a whole raft of numbers, a new set collected by publishers, verified by ABC and used, over time, quite differently by advertisers. Trying to understand the difference between the old report and the new report is best done either dead sober or after a six-pack; anywhere in between may leave you wanting. I appreciate Poynter’s Rick Edmonds thorough picking through the changes, the new lexicon and taxonomy, and I won’t repeat his observations.

What’s significant to me about the changes are two big things, one theoretical and one practical, and therein, I think, lie the newsonomics of the new ABC report.

The big picture recognition here, as publishers and major advertisers have wrestled the new system to the ground, is that the age of simple mass is gone. Counting is increasingly about niche. How many of the readers are paid readers of print? How many read e-editions, and, of those, how many read replicas and how many read dynamic products? How many readers get free, but requested, packets of news and ads, and how many readers get the packets because they’ve been targeted (affluent households) just because of where they live? And there’s more nuance than that.

Just as the digital marketing world has increasingly provided agencies and advertisers with a trove of audience data, the print world is slowly responding. While advertisers can only track these differing print niches with differing coupon codes, or a spectrum of differing 1-800 call-in numbers, print at least can be niched in some ways, even though it doesn’t offer the intensive harvesting of data that digital does. Of course, the various e-alternatives, from “online” to tablet to smartphone, are offering advertisers the ability to say “I’ll take this, but not that” and to mix and match print and digital buying as never before. While advertisers could do some picking and choosing before, they were often flying blind and these new categories of circulation counting — verified circulation and branded editions to “requested” or “targeted” delivery — give them better data on which to make those choices. Consider the data advertisers get with this first report just the beginning of new sets of metrics to come.

On a practical level, we can see a couple of fundamental ways the new ABCs will impact the marketplace:

  • Sunday and preprints: Sunday Select is the flavor of the age, as companies from Gannett to McClatchy to Belo eagerly make up for declining paid Sunday circulation with packets of news and ads delivered to non-payers. “Paid is no longer the determinant of value,” says Murray — and that’s a huge change for an industry that long differentiated its ad appeal on the basis of paying customers. If readers opt in (“requested”), that’s a big plus for advertisers. Why? That shows “engagement,” that magic word all online publishers seek. Opt-out (or “targeted”) denotes a little lesser value, but since those being targeted are higher-demographic households, advertisers still like to reach them. In the new stats, though, they’ll be able to see how many paid, how many requested and how many targeted editions got distributed on Sunday. Some will try to differentiate results among the three. I asked John Murray where advertisers are at in tracking the differing results among paid, requested, and targeted, on a scale from one to ten. “I’d put them at 2s and 9s,” he told me, explaining with a couple of numbers how much in transition we are. Some — think Best Buy, for instance — are 9s, trying to track and compare everything, including differing print deliveries. Others are 2s, still essentially buying mass, but planning on doing more tracking over time.

Sunday is huge for newspapers, as a third or more of their revenue is driven by that one day. And preprints, or the Sunday circulars — all those glossy colorful ad inserts from the big box stores — are now make or break for that Sunday take. “Media [reading] habits are changing faster than ad habits,” says Randy Novak, a Gatehouse veteran and now vice president of industry research and relations for Geomentum, a local focused ad agency. “People like to touch those preprints.”

Let’s complete the value circle here. Who loves those preprints? Twenty-five to 44-year-old women, says Murray, and they are coveted consumers. Consider Sunday and its preprints to be the biggest raison d’etre of the new ABCs.

Further, add in a Wednesday or a Thursday midweek market day, says Novak, and you’ve got a newer, winning formula. We begin to see further definition of a strategy that is emerging at daily newspaper companies. That strategy: Sunday print/daily digital, especially tablet, as a coming subscription/ad satisfying program coming to a city near you by 2013-14 (“The newsonomics of Sunday paper/daily tablet subscriptions“). Or Sunday/Wednesday print, and the rest digital. We’re headed there, I believe, as the economics of advertising and the emerging reading habits of news readers merge to forge new revenue and cost-saving plans. (One thing to watch closely in the next sets of ABC reports: How well Sunday print paid is doing.)

  • Proving — and disproving — e-edition value: E-replica editions have been used by some papers to artificially pump up those sagging circulation numbers (“How much can we trust e-edition numbers?“). Publishers have told me privately that while they packaged — and counted — those replica products, only a small percentage of readers actively used them. Starting with the ABC fall report, there will be some effort to count usage — a nod to advertisers who figured out the scheme. In addition, we’re already seeing “replica” and “non-replica” parsed out, which should help separate out the e-chaff. More interestingly, as we see increasingly nuanced reporting of specific tablet and smartphone usage, we’ll be getting an emerging picture both of how news is really being read and how marketers can effectively read readers via these new platforms.

Just as we’re moving away from the One Number for print, we’re emerging from a time of counting those rudimentary uniques and pageviews online, with time spent digitally the big issue of the day for all publishers, but especially for those trying to sell those digital subscriptions. Where we may be headed: Time on Brand, as the biggest — and/or best — news brands try to satisfy readers, and bring along marketers to serve them — on a changing-through-day array of devices.

January 10 2011

12:07

DIGITAL ROBOTIC JOURNALISM: ETA SPEAKS AND TOO MANY SPANISH NEWS WEBSITES DO CUT AND PASTE JOURNALISM

A terrorist group speak and too many Spanish news websites react just reproducing their words.

With no instant analysis.

El Pais, El Mundo, ABC, Publico and El Correo do robotic digital journalism: cut and paste journalism.

But La Vanguardia in Barcelona and 20 Minutos in Madrid add to the headline the most important fact hidden by the terrororist: ETA declares a permanent ceasefire but doesn’t renounce to the guns.

This is Journalism 101.

November 11 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of journalist headcounts

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

We try to make sense of how much we’ve lost and how much we’ve gained through journalism’s massive upheaval. It’s a dizzying picture; our almost universal access to news and the ability of any writer to be her own publisher gives the appearance of lots more journalism being available. Simultaneously, the numbers of paid professional people practicing the craft has certainly lowered the output through traditional media.

It’s a paradox that we’re in the midst of wrestling with. We’re in the experimental phase of figuring out how much journalists, inside and out of branded media, are producing — and where the biggest gaps are. We know that numbers matter, but we don’t yet know how they play with that odd measure that no metrics can yet definitively tell us: quality.

I’ve used the number of 1,000,000 as a rough approximation of how many newspaper stories would go unwritten in 2010, as compared to 2005, based on staffing reduction. When I brought that up on panel in New York City in January, fellow panelist Jeff Jarvis asked: “But how many of those million stories do we need? How many are duplicated?” Good questions, and ones that of course there are no definitive answers for. We know that local communities are getting less branded news; unevenly, more blog-based news; and much more commentary, some of it produced by experienced journalists. There’s no equivalency between old and new, but we can get some comparative numbers to give us some guidelines.

For now, let’s look mainly at text-based media, though we’ll include public radio here, as it makes profound moves to digital-first and text. (Broadcast and cable news, of course, are a significant part of the news diet. U.S. Labor Department numbers show more than 30,000 people employed in the production of broadcast news, but it’s tough to divine how much of that effort so far has had an impact on text-based news. National broadcast numbers aren’t easily found, though we know there are more than 3,500 people (only a percentage of them in editorial) working in news divisions of the Big Four, NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS — a total that’s dropped more than 25 percent in recent years.)

Let’s start our look at text-based media with the big dog: daily newspapers. ASNE’s annual count put the national daily newsroom number at 41,500 in 2010, down from 56,400 in 2001 (and 56,900 in 1990). Those numbers are approximations, bases on partial survey, and they are the best we have for the daily industry. So, let’s use 14,000 as the number of daily newsroom jobs gone in a decade. We don’t have numbers for community weekly newspapers, with no census done by either the National Newspaper Association or most state press associations. A good estimate looks to be in the 8,000-10,000 range for the 2,000 or so weeklies in the NNA membership, plus lots of stringers.

Importantly, wire services aren’t included in the ASNE numbers. Put together the Associated Press, Reuters, and Bloomberg (though some of those workforces are worldwide, not U.S.-based) and you’ve got about 7,500 editorial staffers.

Let’s look at some areas that are growing, starting with public radio. Public radio, on the road to becoming public media, has produced a steady drumbeat of news about its expansion lately (“The Newsonomics of public radio argonauts,” “Public Radio $100 Million Plan: 100 Journalist Per City,”), as Impact of Government, Project Argo, Local Journalism Centers add more several hundred journalists across the country. But how many journalists work in public broadcasting? Try 3,224, a number recently counted in a census conducted for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That’s “professional journalists”, about 80% of them full-time. About 2,500 of them are in public radio, the rest in public TV. Should all the announced funding programs come to fruition, the number could rise to more than 4,000 by the end of 2011.

Let’s look at another kind of emerging, non-profit-based journalism numbers, categorized as the most interesting and credible nonprofit online publishers by Investigative Reporting Workshop’s iLab site. That recent census includes 60 sites, with the largest including Mother Jones magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and and the Center for Public Integrity. Also included are such newsworthy sites as Texas Tribune, Bay Citizen, Voice of San Diego, the New Haven Independent and the St. Louis Beacon. Their total full-time employment: 658. Additionally, there are high dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists operating their own hyperlocal blog sites around the country. Add in other for-profit start-ups, from Politico to Huffington Post to GlobalPost to TBD to Patch to a revived National Journal, and the journalists hired by Yahoo, MSN and AOL (beyond Patch), and you’ve got a number around another thousand.

How about the alternative press — though not often cited in online news, they’re improving their digital game, though unevenly. Though AAN — the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies — hasn’t done a formal census, we can get an educated guess from Mark Zusman, former president of AAN and long-time editor of Portland’s Willamette Week, winner of 2005 Pulitzer for investigative reporting. “The 132 papers together employ something in the range of 800 edit employees, and that’s probably down 20 or 25 percent from five years ago”.

Add in the business press, outside of daily newspapers. American City Business Journals itself employs about 600 journalists, spread over the USA. Figure that from the now-veteran Marketwatch to the upstart Business Insider and numerous other business news websites, we again approach 1,000 journalists here.

What about sports journalists working outside of dailies? ESPN alone probably can count somewhere between 500 and 1000, of its total 5,000-plus workforce. Comcast is hiring by the dozens and publications like Sporting News are ramping up as well (“The Newsonomics of sports avidity“). So, we’re on the way to a thousand.

How about newsmagazine journalists? Figure about 500, though that number seems to slip by the day, as U.S. News finally puts its print to bed.

So let’s look broadly at those numbers. Count them all up — and undoubtedly, numerous ones are missing — and you’ve got something more than 65,000 journalists, working for brands of one kind or another. What interim conclusions can we draw?

  • Daily newspaper employment is still the big dog, responsible for a little less than two-thirds of the journalistic output, though down from levels of 80 percent or more. When someone tells you that the loss of newspaper reporting isn’t a big deal, don’t believe it. While lots of new jobs are being created — that 14,000 loss in a decade is still a big number. We’re still not close to replacing that number of jobs, even if some of the journalism being created outside of dailies is better than what some of what used to be created within them.
  • If we look at areas growing fastest (public radio’s push, online-only growth, niche growth in business and sports), we see a number approaching 7,500. That’s a little less than 20 percent of daily newspaper totals, but a number far higher than most people would believe.
  • When we define journalism, we have to define it — and count it — far more widely than we have. The ASNE number has long been the annual, depressing marker of what’s lost — a necrology for the business as we knew it — not suggesting what’s being gained. An index of journalism employment overall gives us a truer and more nuanced picture.
  • Full-time equivalent counts only go so far in a pro-am world, where the machines of Demand, Seed, Associated Content, Helium and the like harness all kinds of content, some of it from well-pedigreed reporters. While all these operations raise lots of questions on pay, value and quality, they are part of the mix going forward.

In a sense, technologies and growing audiences have built out a huge capacity for news, and that new capacity is only now being filled in. It’s a Sim City of journalism, with population trends in upheaval and the urban map sure to look much different by 2015.

Photo by Steve Crane used under a Creative Commons license.

September 01 2010

20:01

Revamping J-Schools in Australia to Bring in 'Citizens Agenda'

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

As Australian democracy hangs in the balance, and with the outcome of the August 21 national election unlikely to be resolved for weeks, I'm considering the implications for journalism education -- and how we can invent new models for political reporting.

I am a former Australian Broadcasting Corporation political journalist who now teaches journalism in at the University of Canberra, which is situated just down the road from Australia's national parliament. Parliament House is home to the Canberra Press Gallery, the Holy Grail of Australian political journalism.

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I made a successful attempt at innovating through the employment of Twitter as a student-reporting platform in a Canberra regional election in 2008. But it's time my school, which bills itself as Australia's "Capital University," embarked on a political journalism project that marries journalism students and media-active citizenry with industry partners, new media players and civic agencies.

Such an approach could enable the implementation of a citizen-informed editorial agenda; the engagement of a now essential social media strategy; and the enhancement of industry partner's political coverage, with the social objective of enabling participatory democracy. It should also provide an opportunity for academic research, so that the outcomes can be appropriately measured and academically published, as well as being reported for mass consumption through a variety of media.

Superficial Coverage

Problematic Australian political reporting, which became a theme of its own during the heavily stage-managed campaign, has been cited as one of the causes of this historic result: The first hung Parliament since World War II, and the upending of Australia's entrenched, highly combative, two-party democracy.

Journalists have been accused of producing superficial stories that were heavily influenced by polls and the major parties' political agendas, but light on critique and context. Citizen journalists bit back on blogs and Twitter, telling journalists to lift their game.

They complained about Press Gallery obsessions with predictions, personalities and political processes at the expense of policies. They also cited the impact of spin and campaign stage management on editorial agendas at the expense of independent, inquiring journalism as evidence of the need for changing practice. They asked why Australia's increasingly costly involvement in the war in Afghanistan wasn't probed during the campaign, and they wanted to know why both major parties virtually ignored climate change. This public critique of professional political journalism provoked defensive reactions from some reporters and triggered a vigorous Twitter debate on political journalism between the Fourth Estate and the New Estate. Witness the below exchange between a journalist and one of my colleagues at the university:

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Four independent Members of Parliament, bent on upending the Oz political landscape, are likely to hold the Balance of Power in the new government -- and they've already taken aim at the Fourth Estate for its failures and apparent determination to maintain the status quo. In a National Press Club (NPC) address last week, one MP, Tony Windsor, challenged the journalists present, saying, "if you people are sick of the nonsense, then promote some of [our] concepts." Another, Rob Oakeshott, pointed to what he sees as the essence of the problem. "In focusing so heavily on the [Prime Minister], the cabinet and the polls ... we have lost the focus on the local member," he told the NPC. And with it, the local community.

A challenge

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen visited Australia in the middle of the election campaign to speak at a national conference of journalists. He was intrigued to find what he calls horse race journalism being practiced on the Australian election campaign trail. He revived his alternative model for political reporting driven by the "citizens agenda" during his highly publicized visit. He also proposed a new role of media outlet as "explainer" for the national public broadcaster, ABC.

U.S. political journalist John Nichols was another keynote speaker at the conference. His rousing speech invoked Finley Peter Dunne ("afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted") and pointed to the risk that spin increasingly amplifies the voices of the powerful and threatens journalists' capacity to speak truth to power. It made me feel like I'd attended a revival meeting at the Church of Journalism.

Rosen's practical challenge and Nichols' call to faith focused my mind on the role that journalism education might play in reforming political reporting in Australia. Key targets for an overhaul of political journalism in the Australian setting are:

  • The missing "citizens agenda" and active engagement with citizen journalists.
  • The absence of explanatory reporting and a preference for inflammatory tabloid-style political reporting.
  • The resort to the defense of objectivity in the face of political deceit.
  • The concentration of political reporting on the national capital and the parliament, and the insistence on focusing campaign coverage on the traveling shows staged by the leaders of the two main political parties, Labor and the Liberal National Coalition.

Barrukka Project

There has been only limited innovation in the sphere of community and industry-partnered journalism school projects around political journalism in Australia. The best of these was YouDecide2007 project, which sought to explore the role of social media and citizen journalism in partnership with the secondary Australian public broadcaster, the multilingual SBS. This early and very successful research-driven project did not, however, systematically involve journalism students, nor did it directly feed back into journalism training. In fact, most Australian journalism schools don't teach political journalism as a genre, and the training that does occur tends to simply model entrenched industry patterns.

Here's what I propose: A multi-partnered, citizen-activated journalism project based at the University of Canberra in the lead up to the next national election (which could happen swiftly unless a stable government can be established in the current cliff-hanger of a ballot!). The objective would be to take the focus off the agendas of the major parties and the Canberra Press Gallery and look beyond the walls of Parliament House to the experiences and views of the broader Canberra public.

Let's call this proposed project Barrukka, which means "talk" in an Aboriginal dialect. This name is in deference to the historically disenfranchised Indigenous Australians and it is a way of reflecting an underlying objective of connecting disempowered voices with the mainstream media and broader public.

Its four-fold purpose would be to:

  1. Produce citizen agenda-enhanced journalism in multiple forms, across multiple platforms (including social media like Twitter and Facebook) and aggregated on a UC-managed website.
  2. Produce political reporters equipped to challenge dominant media/political paradigms and produce creative content.
  3. Provide opportunities for citizen journalism and community engagement.
  4. Enhance mainstream media coverage of the election.

Senior student journalists, with the appropriate training and experience, would be embedded within the wider region's individual electorates (which range from inner city through farmland) for one week, researching and reporting the main issues identified by community organizations, local media and candidates. Thereafter, those electorates would become their election beats and their new contacts their main sources for coverage.

The student journalists would also be tasked to recruit local leaders for community-based discussion groups. These groups would identify and explore key issues of concern and then feed those ideas into editorial processes, while group leaders would also upload content (audio, video, images, etc.) directly to the main website and via interconnected social media platforms.

Partnerships With Industry, New Media & Government

Partnerships would provide funding and support for the project. For example, UC's journalism program could partner with the country's respected and community-engaged, multiple-platform public broadcaster, the ABC.

A second potential partnership could be formed between UC and one of the emerging activist media groups invested in social change like Get-Up, which successfully extended voting enrollment rights during the 2010 poll through legal challenges.

A third partnership could be pursued between UC's journalism program and the Australian Electoral Commission, the statutory body which oversees the election process and the registration of voters. One of the roles of the project would be to educate Australians about electoral processes, promote democratic engagement and stimulate voter registration.

Embedded Hyper-Local Reporting

Embedding student journalists within individual electorates and requiring them to build relationships with both the candidates and the communities, through a combination of online and traditional reporting strategies, would encourage coverage of issues which may challenge both the major parties' strategic objectives and the Press Gallery's narrow editorial agenda.

The student reporters would be forbidden from covering press-release generated "news" in the interests of countering spin, and they would be required to include two face-to-face interviews from non-official sources in every story filed. Their brief would be to report in an explanatory, rather than inflammatory, manner.

They would be required to file content across a range of platforms including the project website, UC journalism school radio and TV programs, Twitter, blogs and Facebook pages associated with the project. In addition, they would be expected to tweet and blog about the processes of reporting in the interests of reflexive practice. And they would be tasked to produce one podcast during the campaign about the key issues and policies concerning the assigned electorate for showcasing on the ABC's website.

Community Forums

The embedded student journalists would identify leaders for citizen-based deliberative forums to be held in each electorate, every week of the campaign. These forum leaders would be trained in basic technical and professional skills by the project. They would be tasked to collect and file content to the project website with group members commenting on key themes emerging from each forum. They would operate like self-reporting focus groups.

They would also be asked to identify one question they would like to put to each candidate in their electorate during community Q&A forums to be staged in the final week of the campaign.

These Q&A forums would be moderated and reported on by the student journalists involved in the project, with the possibility of content also being fed to ABC.

Research Processes/Outcomes

UC journalism academics, working with student research assistants from media studies and communication theory courses, would analyze the processes, outputs and impacts of the exercise and compare the coverage to the mainstream media's reporting of each electorate assigned. The results of this multi-faceted academic research (incorporating quantitative and qualitative methodologies) would then be published academically and in a range of popular, accessible media with a view to feeding outcomes back into the curriculum and future projects.

At this stage, Barrukka is just a simple on-paper-only attempt at enlivening and improving political journalism education in Australia. But I am about to return to the classroom after a long stint of maternity leave, with fresh eyes and renewed purpose -- and I will do my best to turn this idea into a reality. Meantime, watch on as Australian democracy undergoes renovation. You may be inspired too.

If you are interested in being involved as a partner or a sponsor in this proposed project, please email me.

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She's been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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August 23 2010

19:05

IN MEMORIAN OF CARLOS MENDO, A GREAT JOURNALIST

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A few years ago I wrote a very short post after reading a brilliant analysis of Carlos Mendo about the US elections.

Today I saw that my blog-meter started to get hundreds of visits linking to this post from Google.

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I went to Google and I put just his name in…

And the explanation of so much traffic was there: Carlos Mendo died today and many people were looking for more information about this master of journalists.

Mendo was UPI director in Spain and director of EFE, working also for ABC and El Pais.

Carlos Soria and Esteban Morán were old friends of him.

I am sure that they are very sad.

Like many readers fans of such a great journalists.

He was a gentleman, a happy person with many friends and a terrific expert on US politics.

He was 77.

Rest in pace.

February 24 2010

17:14

US Digest: ABC announce cuts; Washington Post announce profits; Yahoo! mess about on Twitter

ABC president soft-peddles what look like substantial cuts

Do you want the bad news or just the news first? Bad? OK.

The bad news today comes from the Los Angeles Times in the form of an announcement by ABC that it is to make a “fundamental transformation” to its news division. “Fundamental transformation” being bad-newsspeak, of course, for ’streamlining’, or ‘workforce optimisation’, or ‘force shaping’, or, even, ‘mass redundancies’.

Reports suggest the company may be ’smart-sizing’ its ‘force’ to the tune of a 20 per cent reduction. The news arm currently employs 1,400 staff. The maths, or ‘math’ in this case, produces bad news whichever way you phrase it.

David Westin, president of ABC News, went with a memo that all sounded like this:

The time has come to anticipate change, rather than respond to it. We have a rare opportunity to get in front of what’s coming, to ensure that ABC News has a sound journalistic and financial footing for many years to come, and to serve our audiences even better. But we must move boldly and promptly.

Redundancies have been offered, but it seems likely that if staff don’t move as ‘boldly and promptly’ and Westin intends to, they’ll be pushed.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not all about contraction though:

In newsgathering, we intend to dramatically expand our use of digital journalists [...] In production, we will take the example set by Nightline of editorial staff who shoot and edit their own material and follow it throughout all of our programs…

So, listen up: if you can write copy, sub-edit, shoot and edit video, write code, produce an outside broadcast by yourself, mend a broken server, and all the while keep time on the big drum strapped to your back, now is the time to show your face at ABC.

Westin’s memo reprinted at the Los Angeles Times.

Washington Post Co. and A.H. Belo Corp announce Q4 profits against backdrop of newspaper arm losses

Just in from Editor & Publisher, news that the Washington Post Co. and A.H. Belo Corp (parent company to the Dallas Morning News) both had a profitable fourth quarter 2009. The Washington Post Co. reported a Q4 profit $82.2 million, or $8.71 a share, in comparison with $18.8 million, or $2.01 a share in Q4 2008. A.H. Belo recorded a much more moderate $5.6 million, or $0.27 per share, its first quarterly profit since it was spun off from Belo Corp. two years ago.

The figures behind the figures at the Washington Post Co. make for fairly grim reading on the newspaper side of things though, with advertising revenue still in decline. From E&P:

Newspaper revenue declined four per cent in the fourth quarter to $193.3 million. Print ad revenue was down 9 per cent to $92.6 million, with declines in classified, zones and retail advertising offset by an increase in general advertising.

And whilst the overall figures seem to be going in the right direction, they are nonetheless sobering:

For the full year 2009, the newspaper division reported an operating loss of $163.5 million, compared to an operating loss of $192.7 million in 2008.

Similarly, at A.H. Belo:

Advertising revenue continued to fall substantially in the quarter, with the retail down 30.9 per cent, and print classified down 31.1 per cent. Internet revenue fell 8.5 per cent, to $10.1, which accounted for 7.5 per cent, of total revenue for the quarter.

Washington City Paper editor’s second attempt to leave proves successful

From E&P again, news that Erik Wemple is leaving the Washington City Paper, where he has been editor for eight years. He will join Allbritton Communications’ new local start-up in Washington D.C.

Wemple accepted a position as editor of Village Voice in New York during his editorship of the Washington City Paper, but changed his mind before his first day, deciding instead to stay put.

Yahoo late to the Twitter party, but may have come best dressed

Today’s big social media news is a Yahoo/Twitter partnership.

TechCrunch takes an irreverent look at the embargo politics surrounding the announcement, and a sideswipe at Yahoo for being late to the party:

Yahoo and Twitter have reached an agreement to share data between their properties. That’s great. Yahoo is only a few months behind Google and Microsoft (Bing) doing the same thing.

It seems Yahoo! got so over excited at the news themselves that they toyed with their Twitter followers over the course of the day, hyping the announcement by tweeting clues, and possibly confusing its importance with your Moon landings and presidential race winners.

  • Clue #1/5: Who has approx 29,000 followers as of this morning? #ybignews
  • Clue #2/5: What kind of “moon” had teen moviegoers swooning last fall? #ybignews
  • Clue #3/5: Who might you greet with a friendly “howdy”? #ybignews (use hashtag for previous clues)
  • Clue #4/5:What’s both a sugar substitute & a mathematical symbol? #ybignews (use hashtag for previous clues-forms a phrase)
  • Final clue: A little birdie told us to find them @twitter #ybignews Thanks for following us (winners notified soon)

What fun.

Mashable goes into more detail about the partnership, claiming that despite its tardyness it is more comprehensive, and a better all round deal than Twitter’s search partnerships with Google and Bing.

“This is a local blog, for local people…” Erm, I think you mean hyperlocal there love

Following on from yesterday’s US Digest coverage of the NYT’s new East Village hyperlocal venture, a small, but useful post from Lost Remote today outlines its take on some key new terms:

There is a difference between the terms “local”, “hyperlocal” and “niche” and I want to outline our editorial policy regarding the three. We see the three used interchangeably some times, and I think it’s important we all recognise the differences. ‘Hyperlocal’ covers neighborhoods, while ‘local’ covers towns and cities. We get some press releases here about how stations or newspapers are starting new ‘hyperlocal’ websites that cover their city or a given topic in their city (say, ‘moms’). A mum blog is a niche site. A neighbourhood blog is hyperlocal. A city blog is local. Disagree? Let us know.

Similar Posts:



February 05 2010

12:42

THE SPANISH CRASH: ZAPATERO AND THE STOCK MARKET

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Yesterday the Spanish Prime Minister was with Obama in a Wahington “prayer breakfast” at the Hilton hotel.

Dammit!

More jobless people.

More deficit.

Less credibility.

Less money.

Less investments.

And Zapatero “praying” in Washington DC.

Well, neither, Good or the stock market listened.

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El Periodico says God seems not to listen Zapatero, and ABC moves his editorial leader to the front page.

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When newspapers have front pages and headlines likes these ones, the political crash is imminent.

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Less prayers, and more political wisdom.

Less prayers, and more political competence.

Less prayers, and more common sense.

So, let’s pray… for Zapatero.

Spain deserves a better government.

Not an aficionado!

UPDATE: Paul Krugman on The Spanish Tragedy.

November 09 2009

15:30

Kimberly Abbott: Working together, NGOs and journalists can create stronger international reporting

[This is the first essay in our series examining the evolving relationship between NGOs and journalism, produced with Penn's Center for Global Communication Studies. Kimberly Abbott of the International Crisis Group leads off by exploring the pros and cons of established news organizations relying on NGOs for help in their reporting. We're collecting the entire series here. —Josh]

In 2005, before Ted Koppel left ABC’s Nightline, a highly respected American news program with a long commitment to international stories, he opened one of his signature broadcasts with a simple disclaimer: the story the audience was about to see was produced in partnership with a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO), the International Crisis Group. Said Koppel:

This is not how we normally cover the news. But consider it a case of coordinating interests…Nightline has had a long-standing interest in Africa over the years. But there are hundreds of stories like this across the continent. Where do you start? Also, the expense of sending a crew, producer and correspondent can be prohibitive. But [actor Don] Cheadle and a video crew were already in Kampala [Uganda]. And Nightline producer Rick Wilkinson had worked with Cheadle in Sudan. Cheadle wanted his wife and daughters to get a sense of the kind of suffering that is so widespread in Africa. The International Crisis Group wanted publicity for what is happening in Uganda. And we, to put it bluntly, get to bring you a riveting story at a greatly reduced expense. [August 23, 2005]

The following year, Nightline and Crisis Group teamed up on another project, this time in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Correspondent Jim Wooten and Crisis Group analyst Jason Stearns revisited the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, attempting to track down some of the perpetrators of killings. While Nightline had covered the genocide a decade earlier, like most American networks, it had not closely followed the developments in the region since, and did not have the contacts or the background to update the story with the nuance and depth it required. International Crisis Group, on the other hand, had analysts living in the region who spoke the local language, knew the terrain, and were well-connected. While Nightline maintained full editorial control over the story, Crisis Group helped shape it with analysis, depth and context, and the two shared the cost of the production.

At a time when mainstream media face financial constraints, the quality of foreign news coverage is suffering. This essay contends that Nightline’s collaboration with Crisis Group could serve as a model for the future. These projects were ahead of the curve for both the media and NGO worlds. Both stories were reminiscent of days when foreign news bureaus were widespread and staffed with reporters who based themselves in the field, knew the local environment, and could devote energies to investigating stories. And the pieces were win-win for everyone involved: Nightline got stories nobody else had; Crisis Group got a platform on which to discuss ongoing regional conflicts. The partnership worked well for two reasons: first, because Crisis Group enjoys a reputation as a credible, independent organization, and second, but equally important, because Nightline was clear with the audience about what was happening. As news organizations continue to cut budgets for foreign reporting, partnerships like this can ensure that the mainstream media deliver solid, comprehensive, and richly detailed foreign news stories to an under-served American audience.

The truth is, versions of such partnerships are happening now in print and broadcast newsrooms across the country, though many are reluctant to discuss them too openly. NGO-media partnerships raise significant and wide-ranging issues — from editorial integrity to security — that this paper addresses by examining the personal experiences of journalists and NGO staff. Their perspectives, gathered through interviews with the author between July 2008 and January 2009, shed new light on the growing trend, and on the potential it has to enhance the work of all those involved.

The state of the news

It’s no secret that with news-gathering budgets shrinking fast, it is becoming more difficult for major news outlets to independently cover international stories. The result is a homogenization of foreign news that often lacks depth and context, and is increasingly limited to coverage of the major wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — where American blood and dollars are heavily invested. Yet while producers and editors blame an American public allegedly disinterested in foreign coverage, recent polling suggests that this isn’t the case. In a 2006-2007 poll conducted by the BBC, two-thirds of Americans believed it is extremely or very important to have access to international news. Half of those polled rated American coverage of international stories as poor or fair, lamenting that stories are “sensationalist,” “superficial,” and “narrow.” Indeed, rather than a lack of interest from the American public, the real issue is that the news media haven’t made foreign news relevant enough to their American audience.

Editors have a responsibility to encourage interest in foreign news and to write stories that explain and contextualize global challenges. Rating wars and budgets do not exonerate journalists from the responsibility — and privilege — to inform. If the fourth estate is to maintain its relevance as a watchdog, it must fulfill its obligation to cover foreign news. Creative use of available resources, coupled with bold new thinking about how to apply them, could lead to better reporting that answers the call for both journalists and the public.

An emerging trend: NGO–media partnerships

If NGO-media partnerships are not yet happening formally and openly, they certainly are happening — to varying degrees — on the ground. Both field-based NGOs and journalists observe the media’s increasing reliance on NGOs, including humanitarian, human rights, and advocacy groups. As Steve Roberts, media ethics professor at George Washington University and former New York Times reporter, notes, “the spheres are overlapping more and more.”

Mainstream media and NGOs have long had a symbiotic relationship, with the media using NGO experts for news tips, quotes, and access. Now, with many foreign bureaus of major news outlets shuttered, and the simultaneous growth of more media savvy NGOs, the agencies are doing even more: researching and pitching stories, sharing contacts, developing content and providing logistics, guidance, analysis, opinion and, in some cases, funding. Put simply, without the help of these groups, many foreign news stories would not be told at all. It is a natural evolution of an already strong relationship. However, a slight, but fundamental, shift is underway in which NGOs are taking on more and more functions of news media in their capacity to gather and manage foreign news. While they certainly don’t have the mission or means to provide daily news coverage or replace that function for the media, they can and are helping to address the foreign news gap. This cross-pollination seems more logical in the field, as the number of people bearing witness to foreign stories shrinks.

CBS producer Max McClellan has traveled the globe with international correspondent Lara Logan. He thinks NGO-media partnerships are “hugely valuable relationships that can work well for both sides.” Said McClellan, NGOs provide “a way in that you can’t find elsewhere. You have fixers in some of these places, but they are more logistical. NGOs are editorial. Their people are smart on the issue and know the stories in terms of that ground truth.” McClellan describes a trip to Darfur he produced with the help of the International Rescue Committee: “We got a sense of what was happening through them and we were brought to the crux of the story. They knew their way around. We couldn’t have done it without them.” McClellan’s experience is not unique. Indeed, in many cases help from NGOs has become the determining factor in whether a story is assigned.

Former ABC News producer Dan Green agrees that in past years NGOs were always helpful, but today they are essential because stretched journalists simply don’t have time to do groundwork — finding experts, lining up interviews, researching characters — before parachuting into a foreign country. “Today the question is: will I do the story if I don’t have someone or some group on the ground who will help me get it done?”

Humanitarian staff feel the impact as well. Kate Conradt, a roving communications officer for the humanitarian group Save the Children, has seen firsthand that journalists are relying more heavily on aid organizations, especially in emergency situations. “We saw it in Bangladesh, where nobody is based…we had the boats, we had the trucks.” And they are filling in editorial as well as logistical gaps, she says. “In Burma…they couldn’t get visas, so we were their eyes and ears on the ground.” Margaret Aguirre, a former journalist who is now a global communications advisor for International Medical Corps, has had similar experiences. “Myanmar was an example where all the aid groups had their doors pounded on. We turned down a dozen requests by journalists to go in with us,” she said.

Refugees International, an advocacy organization, has helped journalists navigate refugee situations in Somalia, Burma, Sudan and other conflict areas. Press officer Vanessa Parra has orchestrated some of the trips, and says she has seen an increased willingness — and need — for reporters to access international stories on the shoulders of organizations like hers. “In the past there was an implied understanding that [news organizations] were having economic troubles, but [today] it has been made very clear to me that things are shifting,” she says. The group has been approached by journalists not only to help them with story ideas, but to help subsidize their trips, or simply author stories for them. She points out that while such stories do note the author’s affiliation, they are appearing more often throughout the publication, rather than just on opinion pages.

Freelance reporter Michael Kavanagh, whose work from Congo has been featured on NPR and BBC, has also witnessed the trend of NGOs filling in for journalists. For instance, when the elections in Eastern Congo were carried out relatively peacefully, his editors pulled him off of the story, instead instructing him to “just leave the [phone] numbers for key NGO [staff], and if we needed something we would get it from them.”

In addition to the long-standing practices of using relief groups to hitch rides to a crisis spot, to access refugee camps, or to provide details about an emergency, enterprising journalists are increasingly tapping into opportunities provided by foundations, fellowships and grants to support research travel. While not all news organizations support the practice, and many today won’t guarantee employment for returning reporters, those that do have benefited from no-strings-attached international coverage on another organization’s dime. Former Boston Globe reporter Charles Sennott, who spent a decade reporting from Jerusalem and London, returned home to find that the paper was investing more in local stories. Sennott looked for other funding sources to get him out of the newsroom and was awarded a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to travel to Afghanistan. The arrangement required him to report for the Foundation’s Carnegie Reporter, but also allowed him to file stories for The Boston Globe. “My editor [justified] it by looking the other way. He didn’t embrace it and didn’t reject it,” Sennott says. Indeed, in recent months foundations have seen spikes in applications from both staff reporters and freelancers, many of whom are causalities of the industry’s growing pains looking to keep their bylines current. In April the International Reporting Project — an organization that provides opportunities for journalists to travel overseas and report on critical issues not covered in mainstream media — saw an 80 percent increase in its applications.

Tom Peter, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor who has covered Iraq, Somalia, and the West Bank, is one journalist who has benefitted from such programs. Peter is dismayed by the number of international journalists forced to practice “telephone journalism” in lieu of getting out to the field. He has applied for reporting grants through the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, a nonprofit organization launched in 2006 that supports independent international journalism.

Pulitzer Center Director Jon Sawyer says in the beginning, news organizations were skeptical about using the work of the journalists he was funding, but that attitude has changed. To date, Pulitzer Center projects have been featured in most major U.S. print publications, including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times, as well as broadcast outlets such as NPR and PBS. “They realize they are not in a position to do everything and are looking for partnerships with credible groups,” Sawyer says. In this case, the Pulitzer name lends that credibility.

Christian Science Monitor’s Peter believes groups like the Pulitzer Center will be crucial to the survival of foreign reporting. “This is what is going to enable interesting, independent reporting…You just have to be careful who you become bedfellows with,” Peter says. “It is a matter of people opening their minds a little in the changed media climate…I think that really for journalism to be what it is meant to be, it is going to have to be looked at as a public service and groups like a Pulitzer Center will have to step up and fund worthwhile projects, and newspapers are going to have to partner with these groups.”

Sawyer has answered this call. “As we’ve grown, one of the roles we play is a bridge for NGOs, UN agencies, humanitarian groups out in the field looking for coverage but who can’t get resources committed from traditional media…[We can] work in effect as an agency for the journalist. We put them together with these NGOs or the UN that can help them get access to places that need covering, and then we help in marketing the piece and getting it placed. We think we answer the needs at both ends.”

Another new business, HUM: Human Unlimited Media, Worldwide (HUM), was founded by a longtime broadcast executive to create a brain trust of all those working on the frontlines. Joy Dibenedetto discovered that mainstream media, when it covered foreign news at all, was focusing on just 121 of the world’s 237 countries — basically only half of the world. The result is that 116 countries, what the company has termed the “Geographic Gap”™ in media, goes uncovered. The irony is that these countries are host to the world’s emerging markets and home to the fastest growing populations.

With the goal of becoming the world’s wire service, HUM uses low-cost technologies and a network of journalists, NGOs and academics on the ground in the developing world to provide stories from the Geographic Gap that most of the media have missed. It gathers these stories in a centralized hub which journalists, corporations or individuals can access for news feeds, raw video, or packaged and produced stories.

Former network news journalists Kira Kay and Jason Maloney, similarly frustrated by the lack of international coverage in TV news, founded a non-profit organization, the Bureau for International Reporting (BIR). The globetrotters are on a mission to make under-reported international news stories easily accessible to American news outlets, and they fund their travel with the help of foundations, grants, and individual donors. They trim costs by using new technology and streamlined production, and they can often write and produce several stories on one trip, which they then sell to multiple outlets. “It is almost like a dating service, making matches,” Kay says.

Both Kay and Maloney have backgrounds in international affairs and extensive relationships with humanitarian, development, and advocacy organizations, which they turn to for story ideas, expert analysis, and help in the field. Their collaboration with International Crisis Group in 2004, when the Darfur crisis erupted, resulted in some of the first network coverage of the conflict. The NGOs they work with often feature prominently in their stories, which have aired on PBS’s Newshour, HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports, and elsewhere.

The Bureau for International Reporting’s web of worldwide contacts allows them to sniff out a good story before it breaks, which paid off last year in Georgia. BIR’s producers were monitoring the increasingly frequent shootouts, mortar attacks and car bombings between Georgia and its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and realized the American public had precious little information about the possibility of full scale war. They flew to the border between Georgia and Russia and were the only American crew reporting from within the breakaway regions just as the war broke out on 8 August 2008. Their contacts with NGOs and other sources on the ground meant the producers were able to provide context about the war, rather than just coverage of the fighting. The story aired on Newshour, World Report and PBS Foreign Exchange.

Like Kay and Maloney, an increasing number of respected journalists are taking buy-outs or otherwise leaving the business, and becoming facilitators between news organizations and foundations or NGOs. “There are more opportunities for them in this gray area…and there are a lot of trusted journalists out there who are willing to do these stories,” says former ABC News producer Green. Indeed, it was a trusted journalist who brokered the deals between Crisis Group and Nightline, and ensured their success.

Journalists’ concerns

Despite their potential, NGO partnerships remain a tricky business for journalists and there is no single model that works for every news organization. Key among the many questions is whether partnering with an NGO compromises editorial integrity. Can journalists really maintain independence when there is a stakeholder involved? And will the arrangement undermine the audience’s trust in the media, no matter how altruistic the cause? Critics might argue these partnerships go too far in blurring editorial lines, and put the journalist at risk of losing objectivity, and potentially, credibility. But is it better to use the resources — staff, expertise or even funding — of a non-profit organization than to not do the story at all? Is the journalist serving the public better by ignoring the story altogether or by using available channels? As news organizations look for new ways to access original, international stories, they are “increasingly willing to bend some of these rules, as long as you don’t bend them too far,” media ethicist Roberts says.

The journalism community is also uneasy about the presumption that they have an obligation to include an NGO in the story if it donates time, staff resources or expertise. Kavanagh admits he has received some angry phone calls from NGOs who aren’t mentioned in his work. “The question is, are they part of the story anyway? But what happens when you talk to ten groups to report a story? You can’t mention them all,” he says. CBS’s McClellan says it seems like simple logic. “If someone is pulled in enough to take us to someplace like DRC or Darfur, it would just make sense. There is no quid pro quo…but on the other hand, anyone with such access and insight on an issue would inevitably also be a very smart person that we should strongly consider including in the story.” Green, the former ABC News producer, explains, “I’m going to put that person on, but I’m also going to check all the other viewpoints out there.”

In fact, most journalists agree that the more an organization pushes to be included in the story, the less likely it is that they will be. “It’s the idea of managing the message that makes journalists nuts…we don’t want to feel manipulated,” Green says.

Critics who suggest that partnerships cross editorial lines fail to acknowledge — or admit — that these professional barriers have long since begun to erode. Military embed programs have become commonplace and are considered acceptable as long as they are openly presented as such and supplemented with balancing material. Field-based freelancers increasingly have a foot in multiple worlds, producing content for an NGO or writing policy papers for a think tank, or maintaining an opinionated personal blog while simultaneously reporting for a news organization. New York Times Magazine foreign editor Scott Malcomson says that each case requires a judgment call. “I know it is happening and it is a serious issue and I don’t know what the answer is. I take each case as it comes.”

Consider as well that these new models are being played out against the backdrop of a debate about what journalism is and who is qualified to do it. Citizen journalists without any traditional journalism training have become major players in the public discourse. Networks routinely ask for eyewitness reports from viewers, whose pictures, video and commentary might be less than objective but still become part of the larger story. When CNN launched its website for citizen journalists, Susan Grant, Executive Vice President of CNN News Services, explained, “The community will decide what the news is. We are not going to discourage or encourage anything…iReport will be completely unvetted,” although CNN monitors for objectionable content. CNN, BBC and others also solicit eyewitness reports in breaking news situations that add color and detail to the story. However, even if images or opinions are advertised as unvetted material, they are quickly absorbed into the discourse and those distinctions can become muted for the audience. Writes Reuters Global Television Editor John Clarke about the surge of social media during the controversial Iranian election: “Verification is a major issue. Video or photos might not be what they purport to be, either because of sloppy information from the person posting it, or deliberate deceit either to create mischief or for political or other reasons.”

The issue of influence is even more opaque when it comes to money. NGOs are not in the business of subsidizing media, but often help offset costs for journalists just by virtue of where they work. Kavanagh explains, “In some ways they are always covering part of my costs, when [a humanitarian organization] flies me out and puts me up in their private home, there is no cash transaction but they are covering costs for me…It is a gray area, and it is in some ways getting murkier,” he says. It doesn’t serve either party to look like it is trying to curry influence, and no reputable NGO would want to try. NGO-media partnerships don’t have to include cost-sharing. However, producing international stories is an expensive venture, and sometimes finding a creative funding arrangement is the only way to do it.

If the media have adapted to new players, new technologies, and new market demands, why can’t the same flexibility be applied to new partnerships with groups — even those with a stated viewpoint — that can help serve the audience? Just tell the audience. A heightened awareness about the potential of impropriety might even force some journalists to become more forthcoming about practices that are increasingly becoming accepted by the industry. And that frankness with the audience encourages honest debate that could then continue on discussion boards and blog sites.

Trust, transparency, and credibility are critical to producing successful relationships. With these key elements, answers to the questions about whether and how to best serve the audience should be obvious. International Crisis Group’s own experience shows that Ted Koppel is no less respected for producing important stories with Crisis Group’s help, and the audience probably appreciated his forthcoming explanations about how the stories came about. And when 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley traveled with Crisis Group staff to Darfur in search of a young boy named Jacob, viewers were given a compelling story that helped put a personal, human face on the ongoing crisis. Crisis Group conceptualized the story, and with its contacts on the ground located the boy in a refugee camp, translated his school diaries and helped navigate dangerous rebel-held terrain. Far from raising issues of trust or credibility, the show was so popular with audiences that it re-aired three times, and it won the newscast an Emmy. The experience stands as another example of managing collaboration to everyone’s benefit — the media, the NGO, and especially the public.

NGO concerns

While the journalism profession remains concerned with maintaining editorial integrity, operational NGOs in any prospective media partnership are concerned about matters ranging from personnel security to preserving humanitarian access. Long after any collaboration produces a story, NGOs must continue to work on the ground. If there is a perception that a group is helping one side of the conflict or the other, the lives of staffers, especially nationals, can be endangered, along with their beneficiaries. Likewise, the wrong message in a story can have dire consequences for the good-will NGOs work to build — and rely on — in a community and among the local authorities.

Save the Children’s Conradt says she is willing to help journalists, but only to a point. “We will tell them exactly what we have and what our folks can talk about. We aren’t going to get political. We aren’t going to do anything that endangers our staff or the kids in our programs, and they know that upfront and if that works, they are welcome to come along.”

Linda Poteat, a senior program manager at InterAction, spent five years working in central Africa. She says field workers tread a fine line between generating outside interest in a humanitarian situation and endangering their ability to work. “We feel like we are supposed to be a voice for the voiceless, but how do you do that in a way that doesn’t come back to bite you? We are so close to the conflict, we are institutionally neutral but on a personal level we know who is to blame. It is sometimes hard to self-censor when you are in the thick of things.” But that’s what they often end up doing. Compromising neutrality can also mean compromising access to vulnerable populations, or risking the ability to work at all. Governments in many countries are often looking for reasons to shut down or silence NGOs, and affiliation with the wrong news report can give those governments the excuse they need. One only needs to look to the high profile cases in Sudan to see the dangers. President Omar al-Bashir started revoking the licenses of operational aid agencies for allegedly talking to investigators just moments after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him. And in September 2009, UNICEF spokesperson James Elder was expelled from Sri Lanka after telling the media about the “unimaginable hell” suffered by children caught in the final stages of the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government forces. In another instance, a media NGO was forced out of its office in Baku, Azerbaijan, in an “act of political persecution aimed to increase pressure on civil society representatives and keep them in fear,” said officials with the organization.

There’s another kind of danger for NGOs that allow journalists into close quarters. What if they don’t like what they see within the operation? “There is a certain ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ arc to it,” the New York Times’ Malcomson says. Refugees International’s Parra says that it is frustrating when the journalists they help produce coverage that isn’t flattering, or that oversimplifies sophisticated policy points. However, she says while it would be nice to get positive publicity for the organization, it’s enough to just get an accurate reflection of the situation on the ground. It works both ways, says Conradt. “It is not just us getting what we want. And we don’t control the story at all. They know we can be honest brokers, and it’s up to the news organization to know who they are playing with.”

Indeed, the player does matter to many journalists, who say they will partner with an aid organization, but draw the line at an advocacy group. However, while many of these groups carry out different functions — some providing food and shelter, some prescribing policy, some documenting human rights — in many cases their end goal is the same: saving lives. And inside the humanitarian business, these groups consult with one another. Many operational NGOs have memorandums of understanding with advocacy organizations, who can articulate their messages without assuming the same risks.

When staff and beneficiary lives are at stake, it is clear that media partnerships won’t always work. But when they do, the advantage for NGOs can be significant. For aid organizations such as Save the Children or International Medical Corps, media visibility can translate to fundraising dollars, which in turn translates to more services for the vulnerable. For advocacy organizations such as International Crisis Group, Refugees International or Human Rights Watch, attention to an issue can affect policy, which in turn can impact lives.

A future for international news?

The Murrow days of foreign news reporting are long gone, but there is still a need and responsibility — and a hunger — for important international stories in American society. The only remaining question is how to produce those stories in the current media climate.

The picture emerging is one of journalists who are trying to find new ways to tell important international stories and NGOs that are adapting to meet that need. An editorial red line the media would have considered completely taboo to cross just a few years ago might be more palatable today as the financial pressures on news organizations continue to mount. Similarly, an NGO offering time, staff or funding to help a news organization might have once seemed far outside of its mission, but today it is an important part of maintaining a voice in a competitive field and ensuring that stories that affect so many lives still reach U.S. audiences. The tide is moving in this direction regardless: NGOs are becoming their own news entities, producing content in-house and reaching around mainstream media to distribute their brand and messages directly to audiences; foundations are bridging the gap; new businesses are emerging to feed the supply.

With new space opening for this kind of collaboration, NGO-media partnerships are offering a new future to international news. Those bearing witness on the frontlines of conflict zones — whether issuing humanitarian aid, documenting human rights abuses or advising policymakers — have a significant role to play in relating stories to American audiences. Although many organizations lack official policies, and while it might not be the perfect match for everyone, the fact is, NGO-media partnerships are happening. And they have the potential to lead to stronger foreign news reporting and better serve audiences interested in an increasingly interconnected world.

Kimberly Abbott is North America Communications Director for the International Crisis Group. In this role, she is responsible for developing and leading the U.S. media strategy to advance Crisis Group’s policy prescriptions and to raise awareness of conflict situations in the U.S. media. She has previously worked as communications and media manager for InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international development and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations, and, for more than ten years, as a reporter and producer for local, national and international television and radio.

Photo of Ted Koppel by Tim Brauhn used under a Creative Commons license.

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