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March 29 2012

14:00

Merger means the new Bay Citizen will be more investigative and experimental

Breaking: The Bay Citizen won’t be covering as much breaking news any more.

The merger of Bay Citizen with the Center for Investigative Reporting announced yesterday — with CIR forces coming out in charge — will mean structural changes for the nonprofit outlets. But it’ll also mean editorial changes, one of them being a reduction in covering the same big daily stories and subjects the competition is — at least not in the same way.

“There’s so much information, there’s so much newsgathering, there’s so much out there, and there’s so much clutter out there,” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal told me. “Someone may have it first, but there’s almost no such thing as first anymore. News is a commodity. Information is a commodity.”

(The Bay Citizen’s own story on the merger puts it this way: “The Bay Citizen will likely no longer cover breaking news or culture, as CIR leaders have said they see those as commodities that don’t fit the expanded organization’s core mission.”)

Today, a Bay Citizen reporter “might post several times a day on a breaking story or a story on the Bay Area that they were covering maybe in a unique way,” Rosenthal said. “We’re not going to do that. If we get into a major developing story, it will be in an investigative or explanatory way…For a beat reporter, to suddenly not have the obligation of potentially filing I-don’t-know-how-many stories a day or week — it liberates you.

“You know as well as I do that one of the key elements of this kind of reporting is time: time to develop sources, time to do that extra step, having the time not to be chasing deadlines, quickly running out to events that are covered by multiple other people.”

Developing a focus

From its launch in January 2010, Bay Citizen took a broader approach to its coverage than many of its nonprofit peers, which tended to focus on narrow, specific areas like investigative reporting or a particular beat. Founded at a time when many were concerned the San Francisco Chronicle could close, Bay Citizen mixed in daily breaking news coverage, cultural coverage, and even sports with more investigative and enterprise work.

When the San Francisco Giants were in the 2010 World Series, Bay Citizen had author Dave Eggers attend games and do notebook drawings of players and fans. Indeed, Bay Citizen has done game stories, fan slideshows, and even fifth-inning updates from Giants games and other area sporting events — something not many other nonprofit outlets would do.

In particular, it’s probably not something you’d see from the CIR-founded California Watch, the statewide investigative news service. The Bay Citizen will adopt an approach that parallels the guiding principles at California Watch, only on a more local level, Rosenthal said. The combination of Bay Citizen, California Watch, and CIR can give the organization wide reach.

“Here’s an example: We’ve been looking very hard at issues on homeland security, and we have lots of data sets on a national scale,” Rosenthal says. “A reporter looking at that is thinking, ‘What’s the story for California?’ We may [also] be looking at a national story around surveillance. It’s a very flexible model.”

Bay Citizen is one of three regional nonprofit news outlets to have partnered with The New York Times to provide content for the Times’ regional editions; the others were the Chicago News Cooperative and the Texas Tribune. The Times, in addition to a small amount of money, gave status and prestige to the new local brands, plus the promise of some local print readers. But the deals also committed the outlets to producing a certain amount of newspaper-ready content — stories of a certain length and covering a newspapery mix of beats — that helped define its approach. Stories were due to the Times late Tuesday for Friday publication, so stories had to be able to hold a few days.

The Chicago News Cooperative has faced challenges even greater than Bay Citizen’s, suspending operations last month. Of the three Times partners, only the Texas Tribune — which keeps a tight focus on matters of state government and public policy — has thrived. And the Trib is known for ignoring even big breaking news that falls outside its editorial mission. (The New York Times’ Texas report does include culture coverage, but it’s provided by Texas Monthly instead of the Tribune.)

Rosenthal said CIR is currently re-evaluating The Bay Citizen’s relationship with the Times, noting that the deal carries an agreement of “exclusivity” that raises “concerns.”

Multiple platforms, multiple revenue streams

The flexibility of the model may be the key to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s success, and it’s about more than a newsroom-culture shift away from the kind of crime coverage you’re already going to get on the six o’clock news. Freeing up reporters to spend more time digging deeply into stories is the foundation. But the real opportunity for innovation comes in experimenting with a variety of distribution methods and multiple sources of revenue. That’s at least in part because the fundamental instability of the industry is directly tied to questions about how people get information today.

“It’s very difficult to be ambitious and build something in a newsroom where you’re getting smaller and the business model is broken — and it is broken,” Rosenthal said. “It has been broken. It’s not the journalism that’s broken, it’s the business model. We’re in a completely different world.”

“The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas.”

Adapting — and ultimate survival — in this new world requires deftly crossing platforms to tell stories that matter. Rosenthal bristles at the idea of having “readers” because CIR doesn’t just produce news websites, it produces news across platforms.

CIR’s revenue strategy mirrors the spirit of the diversification with which it approaches content production. Rosenthal says that the funding that flows into The Bay Citizen will, like California Watch, have multiple channels: philanthropic support from “major donor efforts,” content fees, fees from membership, fees from events, corporate underwriting. More opportunities for revenue translate into more journalism, which further fuels a newsroom’s ability to try different kinds of storytelling.

“You’re working simultaneously with the video people, you’re working with a radio reporter, you’re working with people who are doing interactive data, you’re working with people who might be doing animation,” Rosenthal says. “The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas…There’s a tremendous amount of involvement from everybody. It’s a very lively, creative, ambitious culture.”

It’s also a culture that encourages ideas that might not even be discussed in a traditional newsroom. Remember California Watch’s “Ready to Rumble”coloring book? That came out of an investigative series on earthquake safety in schools. Next up: Puppets.

“We’re going to be very experimental,” Rosenthal says. “We’re really thinking of how people of all ages get, use and want information at this revolutionary moment we’re all in. This is a good opportunity— a terrific, unique opportunity to be entrepreneurs.”

Photo of Golden Gate Bridge by Marco Klapper used under a Creative Commons license.

May 13 2011

16:30

Kara Swisher, Michael Arrington, and me: New conflicts, and new opportunities, for the tech press

Changing technology is changing journalism in more ways than we can probably even understand. One of those changes concerns the definitions of “journalist” and “journalism” themselves, the question of who’s permitted to make or contest those definitions, and the other question of whether those lines are fair to draw in the first place.

This is one story about an instance of this argument that’s unusual for at least four reasons:

  • It involves some of the biggest bloggers in tech and in journalism
  • It happened on Mother’s Day;
  • It happened on Twitter;
  • I started it. And it was an accident.

Arrington and his investments

The focus of this particular argument was Michael Arrington. Arrington was an angel investor in technology startups before he founded TechCrunch, one of the biggest and most influential technology and tech business news sites on the web. For a few years, he was an investor and a publisher too.

In March 2009, in a post titled “The Rules Apply To Everyone,” he announced that he was going to discontinue investments to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. Then on April 27 of this year — some time after TechCrunch and then the Huffington Post had been acquired by AOL — he wrote “An Update to My Investment Policy,” announcing that he was investing in companies again, including companies and industries covered by TechCrunch.

Arrington acknowledged that from time to time, this would create conflicts of interest in his coverage, but promised he would disclose those whenever possible. He also wrote: “Other tech press will make hay out of this because they don’t like the fact that we are, simply, a lot better than them.”

The next day, AllThingsD‘s Kara Swisher wrote “Godspeed on That Investing Thing, Yertle–But I Still Have Some Questions for Your Boss, Arianna.”

Swisher wasn’t exactly polite to Arrington — the Yertle the Turtle comparison, and all — and said his post and policy were “vaguely icky.” But the thrust was directed not at Arrington or TechCrunch, but at Ariana Huffington, who is newly ranked above Arrington on AOL’s organizational chart:

Would it surprise you to know that BoomTown doesn’t really care anymore if TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington sidelines as a blogger while he makes investments in tech companies his tech news site covers? ….

[W]hile I kind of understand where Arrington is coming from, what I don’t understand is how this kind of convenient and on-the-fly rule-making can govern a much larger company whose strongly and repeatedly stated goal by Huffington herself is to create quality journalism….

Simply put, does AOL, which is touting itself as a 21st-century media company, need to have 21st-century rules of the road? Or perhaps not so much?

Who’s a journalist? What’s journalism?

These questions are contentious and much-contended. They also often obscure what might be a more meaningful inquiry into what makes for best journalism practices in this new world. How much do writers need to tell readers about themselves? Is a tweet a story? Now that journalists have more means to address each other and each other’s work directly, what’s the most appropriate way to do it?

When professional journalism organizations had a near-monopoly on publishing and broadcasting tools, they were largely able to dictate the codes of the trade among themselves. It’s easy to overstate how homogeneous those were, especially at different points in history. But it’s definitely true that as new publishing tools and new media companies are disrupting established businesses, they’re disrupting those codes, too.

The technology press is arguably at the head of this disruption. Tech blogs and media companies were (and are) among the first and most successful competitors to print and broadcast journalism. Because tech outlets also usually cover media-producing and media-consuming technology, they’re among the most reflective on their own tools.

They have also been the most entrepreneurial, partly mirroring the industries they cover. That’s how TechCrunch works, and also how AllThingsD works. Those outlets both put together big technology conferences. They both work very hard for the bottom line. They’re both 21st-century media companies.

“Screw Them All”

On May 7, Arrington responded to Swisher and other writers who’d questioned his new policy, in a blistering (even for Arrington) post titled “The Tech Press: Screw Them All.” In particular, he called out Swisher, her parent company AllThingsD, and her employee Liz Gannes, accusing them of being equally conflicted and much more evasive about their conflicts:

AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher, the chief whiner about our policy, is married to a Google executive. This is disclosed by her, but I certainly don’t see it as any less of a conflict than when I invest in a startup. And yet she whines. One of her writers, Liz Gannes, is married to a Facebook consultant. She covers the company and its competitors regularly. She discloses it as well, but it isn’t clear whether or not her husband has stock in Facebook. That’s something as a reader I’d like to know. And regardless, it’s a huge conflict of interest. I think someone will think twice before slamming a company and then going to sleep next to an employee of that company. Certain adjectives, for example, might be softened in the hopes of marital harmony….

Why do the people who complain the most about TechCrunch have these vague conflicts of interest themselves? Why aren’t they more forthcoming in their disclosures? How do they justify their hypocrisy, even to themselves? Seriously, how?

Aaaannnd this is where we jump to Twitter.

[View the story "Kara Swisher, Michael Arrington, and Me" on Storify]

Meanwhile, Columbia’s Emily Bell hit on one of the few really good ideas to come out of this whole mess:

[View the story "A new beat: accountability in tech press" on Storify]

Dave Winer — who would go on to discuss the idea in more detail with Jay Rosen — may have put the best coda on the whole affair with his post, “Journalist or not? Wrong question“:

[F]ights over who’s a journalist or not are pointless.

However, there is a line that is not pointless: Are you an insider or a user?

Insiders get access to execs for interviews and background info. Leaks and gossip. Vendor sports. Early versions of products. Embargoed news. Extra oomph on social networks. Favors that will be curtailed or withdrawn if you get too close to telling truths they don’t want told.

All the people participating in the “journalist or not” debate are insiders. They are all compromised. Whether or not they disclose some of these conflicts, none of them disclose the ones that are central to what they will and will not say.

That’s where we’re left. Are you in or are you out?

Image by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

December 01 2010

15:30

Keeping track of political candidates online: Web archiver Perpetually follows the digital campaign trail

There is one huge, almost infinitely wide memory gap in our culture that can be summed up with this question: Where does the Internet go when it dies? Not the whole Internet, but the individual websites and pages that every day are modified and deleted, discarded and cached. Who can a journalist turn to when needing to look up the older version of a website, a retired blog, or a deleted Facebook post?

It turns out, not many people. The hole that Nexis plugs for academic papers and the newspapers of the world has few equivalents online. The once excellent Wayback Machine: Internet Archive — an attempt at a complete, Library of Congress-worthy web archive — is now fairly useless in today’s social-media driven web world, storing a slipshod record of photos, multimedia, and basically anything that’s not Web 1.0, and on top of that, taking up to a year for updates to appear in its index after its spider has crawled a site.

This election season, as candidates propped up their digital campaign booths online with Twitter feeds and new, snazzy websites, Darrell Silver, founder of the Perpetually Public Data Project, realized this was actually kind of terrifying. For all the thousands of reporters following candidates’ buses and rallies, there was no mechanism to follow the campaign trail online. Anything pledged on a candidate’s website could be wiped out with the click of a mouse — and without so much as a peep.

To fill this collective memory hole, for the 2010 midterms, Perpetually archived the websites — and the Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter accounts — of every politician it could find: all the major candidates for all 435 House and 37 Senate races. And it archived every change at every second of every minute: Flash, blog posts, photos, whatever — with the exception of YouTube videos, which have a copyright conflict, and he decided to discard.

The result has been a great experiment that’s made at least one news splash and brought the technology onto the Huffington Post. After the election, Silver added every congressperson — newly elected or not — and every governor to Perpetually’s database. Imagine the difference at some point in the future: Anyone will to be able to zoom into any point in the past, load up a politician’s website, and see how things stood on any given day in any given year. And then, a few clicks more, to be able to scroll through the politician’s history and to create a larger story about the politician over a wide, career-length timespan. “We’re trying to be the undebatable reference point for the source material and the proof of what happened when,” Silver said.

The site, thus far, has given that goal its best shot, although it has got a way to go. In terms of the breadth of his archive and the depth of its storage, Silver’s peerless. ProPublica’s Versionista is perhaps his closest competitor, but for now it doesn’t track candidate sites, only the Whitehouse.gov site. Moreover, the Versionista platform shows only specific html-coded changes, so it monitors mostly text and lacks a screenshot archive, a complete record of images, and interactive elements. Silver had many of the same critiques — lack of interactive elements, a generally superficial archiving — for the Wayback Machine (not to mention its dinosaur lag-time in updating its archive).

If his database is the gold standard for Internet archiving, on Perpetually’s front-end — the site visitors use to navigate the database — the story was less nice. In the rush to get things up, a shaky vision for the project created the odd mess of creaky widgets, bridge-to-nowhere links, and brilliant data-archiving that were the site for the few weeks it was live.

The site as it existed is a good case study in how a great concept with poor execution can crash and burn — and then potentially redeem itself. In Silver’s defense, he had little time to get things together. Perpetually began archiving candidates’ sites in June — not knowing exactly what he would do with the data — and managed with only a team of five to have a website up for the general public by early October.

But it was painful to use. You could see that some idea, some vision, was at work, but it was hard to see how whoever was behind the thing actually thought they could pull it off. Links broke, videos gave errors, and community was non-existent. The annotations page — an absurd Tumblr-style page with no entries limit — with a larger user base would have sent an average laptop crashing to its knees, and text-diff mode gave an html page read-out, a fairly frightening chunk of words and symbols specializing in alienation and confusion.

The good news, though, is that as far as Perpetually’s future is concerned, its history doesn’t matter: Perpetually has gone into hibernation for a complete overhaul and redesign. “One of the things I learned is that there’s a huge amount of interest of tracking politicians who are nationally or locally interesting,” said Silver. “But you have to provide a lot better and more immediate goals and feedback.”

Silver’s looked at the Guardian’s expense-scandal tracker for ideas on how to use better crowdsourcing mechanisms, like promoting what’s interesting and highlighting top users. And he likes Versionista’s feed-subscription service that gives users instant notification of changes made by a specific candidate. Silver — who is far more of a tech geek than politico — just did not understand a political junkie’s motivations, but he’s clearly getting there, and it is likely that his redesign will showcase a savvy pastiche of social media tools he culls from around the Internet.

If these changes make the site user-friendly, journalists should rejoice. As it stands, the tools available to journalists to retrieve information about a candidate’s online campaign trail are unreliable and incomplete, jeopardizing online accountability. We’ve already seen how easily that can happen. Perpetually provides a common resource to circumvent this problem. “That ability to see, to go beyond the Wikipedia summary is vital to…the history to what this person is saying,” Silver put it.

Non-journalists — whoever these people might be — have reason to celebrate, too. It’s easy to imagine a day when early website incarnations have Americana value, like The Museum of Moving Image has archived online has rediscovered in presidential TV ads. The White House itself seems to be getting in on the idea. It’s created “frozen in time” portraits of previous administrationswebsites, anointing them with the exclusive “.gov” extension along with the program.

These are big ideas — an institutional memory hole, the making of a blog into classic memorabilia — and the opportunity is there for Silver to make them a reality. But before any of that happens, he still has to get the details right. He says has set forth three things he believes his audience wants and that a remade Perpetually must do for them:

“People want to know about significant changes and want to research the candidates they don’t know about. [They] want to be kept up to date and want a way to do that really easily. The third thing they want is to participate. They all want to improve the election process and want to discuss and do it in an efficient way.”

News organizations, take note: Leading up to 2012, Perpetually’s a site to watch.

August 16 2010

14:30

The Guardian launches governmental pledge-tracking tool

Since it came to office nearly 100 days ago, Britain’s coalition government — a team-up between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that had the potential to be awkward and ineffective, but has instead (if The Economist’s current cover story is to be believed) emerged as “a radical force” on the world stage — has made 435 pledges, big and small, to its constituents.

In the past, those pledges might have gone the way of so many campaign promises: broken. But no matter — because also largely forgotten.

The Guardian, though, in keeping with its status as a data journalism pioneer, has released a tool that tries to solve the former problem by way of the latter. Its pledge-tracker, a sortable database of the coalition’s various promises, monitors the myriad pledges made according to their individual status of fulfillment: “In Progress,” “In Trouble,” “Kept,” “Not Kept,” etc. The pledges tracked are sortable by topic (civil liberties, education, transport, security, etc.) as well as by the party that initially proposed them. They’re also sortable — intriguingly, from a future-of-context perspective — according to “difficulty level,” with pledges categorized as “difficult,” “straightforward,” or “vague.”

Status is the key metric, though, and assessments of completion are marked visually as well as in text. The “In Progress” note shows up in green, for example; the “Not Kept” shows up in red. Political accountability, meet traffic-light universality.

The tool “needs to be slightly playful,” notes Simon Jeffery, The Guardian’s story producer, who oversaw the tool’s design and implementation. “You need to let the person sitting at the computer actually explore it and look at what they’re interested in — because there are over 400 things in there.”

The idea was inspired, Jeffery wrote in a blog post explaining the tool, by PolitiFact’s Obameter, which uses a similar framework for keeping the American president accountable for individual promises made. Jeffery came up with the idea of a British-government version after May’s general election, which not only gave the U.S.’s election a run for its money in terms of political drama, but also occasioned several interactive projects from the paper’s editorial staff. They wanted to keep that multimedia trajectory going. And when the cobbled-together new government’s manifesto for action — a list of promises agreed to and offered by the coalition — was released as a single document, the journalists had, essentially, an instant data set.

“And the idea just came from there,” Jeffery told me. “It seemed almost like a purpose-made opportunity.”

Jeffery began collecting the data for the pledge-tracker at the beginning of June, cutting and pasting from the joint manifesto’s PDF documents. Yes, manually. (“That was…not much fun.”) In a tool like this — which, like PolitiFact’s work, merges subjective and objective approaches to accountability — context is crucial. Which is why the pledge-tracking tool includes with each pledge a “Context” section: “some room to explain what this all means,” Jeffery says. That allows for a bit of gray (or, since we’re talking about The Guardian, grey) to seep, productively, into the normally black-and-white constraints that define so much data journalism. One health care-related pledge, for example — “a 24/7 urgent care service with a single number for every kind of care” — offers this helpful context: “The Department of Health draft structural reform plan says preparations began in July 2010 and a new 111 number for 24/7 care will be operational in April 2012.” It also offers, for more background, a link to the reform plan.

To aggregate that contextual information, Jeffery consulted with colleagues who, by virtue of daily reporting, are experts on immigration, the economy, and the other topics covered by the manifesto’s pledges. “So I was able to work with them and just say, ‘Do you know about this?’ ‘Do you know about that?’ and follow things up.”

The tool isn’t perfect, Jeffery notes; it’s intended to be “an ongoing thing.” The idea is to provide accountability that is, in particular, dynamic: a mechanism that allows journalists and everyone else to “go back to it on a weekly or fortnightly basis and look at what has been done — and what hasn’t been done.” Metrics may change, he says, as the political situation does. In October, for example, the coalition government will conclude an external spending review that will help crystallize its upcoming budget, and thus political, priorities — a perfect occasion for tracker-based follow-up stories. But the goal for the moment is to gather feedback and work out bugs, “rather than having a perfectly finished product,” Jeffery says. “So it’s a living thing.”

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