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August 02 2012

14:41

Hate transcribing audio? Crowdsource it instead

For journalists who don't mind getting their hands dirty, Amazon's Mechanical Turk service can be a cost-effective way to avoid one of the least thrilling parts of the reporting process: transcribing. Read More »

December 08 2011

13:30

Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012

Last August, Jay Rosen published a blog post arguing for “a citizens agenda in campaign coverage.” The idea, he wrote, “is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision.” And the method of doing that, he suggested, is simply to ask them: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

Today, that idea gets one step closer to reality. Rosen and Amanda Michel — currently The Guardian US‘s open editor and formerly Rosen’s colleague at HuffPo’s 2008 OffTheBus project — are launching “the Citizens Agenda,” a collaboration between The Guardian and NYU’s Studio 20 program. Though the project will make use of some of the citizen-driven lessons of OffTheBus (and of The Guardian’s multiple experiments in mutualized journalism), the citizens agenda will be above all an experimental space dedicated to determining how to get people’s voices heard in campaigns that, though they purport to be concerned with the people’s interests, all too often ignore them.

The citizens agenda, the pair point out, is not a blanket attempt to end horserace coverage — campaigns are, fundamentally, races, and who’s winning them, you know, matters. Instead, they stress, it’s an attempt to disrupt the horserace as the “master narrative” of political reporting, to inject more perspective (and, for that matter, more data about the demand side of political journalism) into the conversation.

“When people complain about what’s wrong with the coverage, there’s an opportunity to find out…. well, what should the candidates be discussing?”

On the one hand, the citizens agenda is the digital — digitized — heir of civic journalism, the movement that (with Rosen at the helm) came to prominence in the 1990s and attempted to give individual members of communities more agency in the journalism that served them. On the other, though, while the citizen’s agenda is a kind of culmination of that movement — with, today, buy-in from one of the largest news organizations in the world — it’s also something entirely new. It will be, first and foremost, an experiment, Michel told me. They’re starting with an idea; they’re not sure exactly what will come of it. “It’s going to be an iterative process,” she says.

There are two basic goals for the effort, Michel notes: first, the need to understand what people want to learn from and about political candidates — to gain an appreciation, as Michel puts it, of “how the public wants to contextualize the debates and discussion.” Campaigns are notorious for, and in a large sense defined by, their attempts to control narratives; a citizens agenda is in large part an effort to provide a community-driven counter-narrative.

Studio 20′s role in the project, Rosen told me, will be in part to act as an interactive team that will help with the inflow and engagement of users; students in the program will also conduct research and analysis and think through — perhaps even invent — features and tools that can foster that engagement in new ways, testing them out on The Guardian’s U.S. site. (Michel calls the students a kind of “independent brain trust.”)

“We don’t think that the direct way of posing the question, What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012?, is always going to work,” Rosen notes. “Some answers to that question might have to come about indirectly: for example, in dissatisfaction with media coverage as it stands.” So “when people complain about what’s wrong with the coverage and campaign dialogue, there’s an opportunity to find out…. well, what should the candidates be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012?”

“I think there is a kind of authority to be won here,” Rosen points out — a kind of permission for reporters to deviate from the expectations of rankings-based, rather than idea-based, coverage. “Of course, you have to be right, you have to be accurate, you have be listening creatively and well,” he says, and “with some subtlety and an awareness that each method has weaknesses and missing data.” Sampling science will certainly come into play. “This isn’t just reading numbers off a chart,” Rosen notes. “There’s a lot of judgment involved, obviously.”

The second goal of the project is to figure out how to translate those findings into political coverage itself. Which is a challenge that could have fascinating implications — and not just for political reporting. Once you know what people want from political journalism, how do you go about creating that journalism? What’s the right balance between competition-based, and issue-based, coverage? What’s the right balance, for that matter, between journalists determining coverage and the public determining it?

Helping to answer those questions will be Jim Brady and the collection of community papers at Digital First Media, which is partnering with the project to tailor the national findings to the local. “The concepts that they’re applying at a national level certainly don’t become less relevant at a local level,” Brady notes. Figuring out what the public wants out of coverage — and then figuring out how to implement it — can be, in fact, particularly powerful in community news. (That’s part of the reason the project is hoping to bring more local collaborators on board.)

“There has to be a way to turn this into a full-circle feedback loop.”

Though much of the Guardian’s experiments will likely involve online conversation tools like hashtags and surveys and the like, “it’s not an online-only feature,” Brady notes. At the local level, in fact, papers may well experiment with a citizens agenda approach in their print products — and with the kind of in-person debates and forums that were a hallmark of the early days of civic journalism. “We’ll use all platforms,” Brady says — “as in everything we do.”

Still, though, there will be strategy involved, Brady points out. You have to be smart about both how you ask questions and how you make use of the answers. “It doesn’t work if it becomes citizens pouring out their hearts about the issues they want to hear about,” he notes, if “we can’t, as journalists, tie that to actual action by the candidates. Otherwise, it’s just like message boards that nobody responds to. There has to be a way to turn this into a full-circle feedback loop.”

Finding that way will be crucial — and it will require, above all, an openness to both the wisdom of crowds and the political agency of average citizens. Which hasn’t always been journalism’s strong suit. The project will be, Rosen puts it, “a creative act of listening.” And it will be, in that, Michel points out, “a fairly dramatic acceptance of the knowledge and expertise that the public has” — not to mention a fairly dramatic act of humility on the part of the journalistic establishment. “The approach,” Michel says, “is to ask the American public: ‘What is it that you need? What can we do to help?’”

Image by SpeakerBoehner used under a Creative Commons license.

August 28 2011

21:58

Niemanlab: How ProPublica blends news that wins Pulitzers with news that wins followers

Niemanlab :: Go to the ProPublica homepage right now, and you’ll see a mix of timely content whose headlines involve words like “guide.” And “FAQ.” And “Why X.” And “What is Y?” And “Z: we separate fact from fiction.” You’ll see reported blog posts and detailed explainers and thorough reading guides and news navigation maps. You’ll see a mix of content, in other words, that isn’t the kind of painstaking, time-taking Works of Public Interest Journalism that you might expect to emanate from the newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer winner; on the contrary, it’s often quick-turn, occasionally lighthearted, and almost always unapologetically derivative.

We’re taking all the little bits and pieces and making them useful to people in a much more immediate way,” says Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s director of distributed reporting and the developer of the outfit’s overall social strategy. They’re deconstructing the news, and reconstructing it into forms designed to help their readers and serve their mission.

Continue to read Megan Garber, www.niemanlab.org

July 19 2011

09:50

New York Magazine: New(s) business - 21 New Media Innovators

New York Magazine :: While the dark days of journalism have receded a bit — it was only three years ago that layoffs were a weekly occurrence, and serious people discussed the closure of the New York Times — the business is still very much in a state of chaotic flux. The so-called war between new and old media rages on among the pundits, with Facebook supplanting Google News as the new bogeyman.

But if you look past the hype, a bumper crop of new jobs and new ways of reporting have taken root, created by people who are willing to throw themselves into the breach and experiment. What follows is a list of 21 journalists and like-minded inventors who have created something exciting, interesting, and just plain cool.

Do you think there are people missing? Tweet me your thoughts!

Continue to read Chris Rovzar | Noreen Malone | Dan Amira | Adam Pasick | and Nitasha Tiku, nymag.com

July 01 2011

15:00

ProPublica’s newest news app uses education data to get more social

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a data set — the most comprehensive to date — documenting student access to advanced classes and special programs in U.S. public high schools. Shorthanded as the Civil Rights survey, the information tracks the access schools provide to their students for offerings, like Advanced Placement courses, gifted-and-talented programs, and higher-level math and science classes, that studies suggest are important factors for educational attainment — and for success later in life.

ProPublica reporters used the Ed data to produce a story package, “The Opportunity Gap,” that analyzes the OCR info and other federal education data; their analysis found that, overall and unsurprisingly, high-poverty schools are less likely than their wealthier counterparts to have students enrolled in those beneficial programs. The achievement gap, the data suggest, isn’t just about students’ educational attainment; it’s also about the educational opportunities provided to them in the first place. And it’s individual states that are making the policy decisions that affect the quality of those opportunities. ProPublica’s analysis, says senior editor Eric Umansky, is aimed at answering one key question: “Are states giving their kids a fair shake?”

The fact that the OCR data set is relatively comprehensive — reporting on districts with more than 3,000 students, it covers 85,000 schools, and around 75 percent of all public high schoolers in the U.S. — means that the OCR data set is also enormous. And while ProPublica’s text-based takes on the info have done precisely the thing you’d want them to do — find surprises, find trends, make it meaningful, make it human — the outfit’s reporters wanted to go beyond the database-to-narrative formula with the OCR trove. Their solution: a news app that encourages, even more than your typical app, public participation. And that looks to Facebook for social integration.

The app focuses on measuring equal access on a broad scale: It tracks not only the educational opportunities provided by each school, but also the percentage of teachers with two years’ experience or less — who, as a group, tend to effect smaller attainment gains than their more experienced counterparts — and the percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of poverty. (More on the developers’ methodology here.)

ProPublica leads the field in developing news apps; each one requires careful thought about how users will actually navigate — and benefit from — the app. With this one, though, “we were focusing a lot more on what behaviors we wanted to encourage,” says Scott Klein, ProPublica’s editor of news applications. ProPublica thinks about how organize reporters, both within and outside of its newsroom, around its stories, notes Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s director of distributed reporting. “Here, we wanted to take it one step further.”

With that in mind, the app invites both macro and micro analysis, with an implicit focus on personal relevance: You can parse the data by state, or you can drill down to individual schools and districts — the high school you went to, or the one that’s in your neighborhood. And then, even more intriguingly, you can compare schools according to geographical proximity and/or the relative wealth and poverty of their student bodies. (Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, just down the street from the Lab, has 1,585 students, 38 percent of whom receive a free or reduced-price lunch; Medfield Senior High, a few miles southwest of Cambridge, has 920 students and a 1-percent free/reduced lunch rate. Four percent of Rindge and Latin’s students are enrolled in advanced math courses; for Medfield High, the rate is 42 percent.) “It really is an auto-story generator,” Umansky says.

And sharing — the Facebook aspect of the app — is a big part of the behavior ProPublica’s news apps team wanted to encourage. They considered social integration from a structural perspective, notes Al Shaw, the developer who authored the app, and worked with Vadim Lavrusik, Facebook’s Journalist Program Manager, to optimize the app-to-Facebook interface. One small-but-key feature: With that integration, users who are signed into Facebook can generate an individual URL for each cluster of data they dig up — the Rindge and Latin-versus-Medfield comparison, say — to make sharing and referencing the data almost seamless. The resulting page has a “share on Facebook” button along with a note: “Use this hashtag to share your insights on Twitter: #myschoolyourschool.”

The ed-data app isn’t social for its own sake; instead, it serves the broad and sometimes nebulous goal of having impact — on both a personal and a policy level. “We invest so much time into acquiring data and cleaning data and making sense of data,” Michel notes; ultimately, though, data doesn’t mean much unless people can understand how it immediately affects them, their communities, their kids. Its newest app, Michel says, is part of ProPublica’s broader strategy: to make data, overall, more social. (They’d like to do a similar integration with Twitter, too, she says.) The point is to find ways to marry social and story, to turn online interactions into their own kind of data sets so, she says, “people can layer their stories on top of them.”

March 31 2010

20:46

Hey, journos: ProPublica wants to find you a find, catch you a catch

ProPublica: investigative news outlet, public-interest advocate, matchmaker.

No, seriously. If you’re a journalist, and you cover the economy — in particular, the federal mortgage modification program intended to assist struggling homeowners — then the nonprofit outfit wants to connect you to potential sources.

“Allow us to make an introduction: homeowners, local journalists,” Paul Kiel and Amanda Michel write in a post just launched on ProPublica’s website. “Local journalists, homeowners. We’d like to set you up.”

Since last May, nearly 800 struggling homeowners from all over the country have shared their stories with ProPublica about their efforts to get a loan modification through the federal program. Their stories have driven our coverage – dozens of stories. With their help, we showed the incredible delays and frustrations applicants typically face: mortgage servicers have repeatedly lost documents, misinformed homeowners, and denied modifications for reasons that run contrary to the program’s guidelines. Among the 1.1 million homeowners who’ve begun the program’s trial stage, which is supposed to last three months, hundreds of thousands have waited in limbo for six months or more.

We have no doubt that there are many more important stories to be told. By any account, millions of homeowners are facing possible foreclosure. Although we read every homeowner’s story, we can only use a fraction in our coverage. That’s why we’re offering to set up our readers with local journalists (with the homeowner’s permission, of course). Often, the media can be the most effective recourse for homeowners who have nowhere else to turn.

We talk about disintermediation; this is, in its way, reintermediation. Reporting Matchmaker, part of ProPublica’s “Eye on Loan Modifications” coverage, brings together struggling homeowners — it asks them to share their stories, and (confidentially) their contact information — and local reporters who might want to tell their stories. (“Struggling homeowners, share your stories with us,” the service asks; “journalists, sign up here and we’ll put you in contact with struggling homeowners in your area who want to talk with local journalists.”) And then it maps everyone, homeowners and journalists together, to determine local matchups.

The service is of a piece with the outlet’s other efforts in collaboration: its Reporting Recipe, its Stimulus Spot Check, and so on. It’s another twist on what we tend to think of when we imagine the ways journalism can effect change: Essentially, ProPublica is amplifying its impact through helping other outlets to have impact.

“Collaboration is very much a part of our DNA,” Michel told me. “We’re always looking for ways to effect change by sharing resources.” And with Reporting Matchmaker, they’re doing that by sharing not only resources, but also, simply, sources.

The idea for the project came from Scott Klein, ProPublica’s editor of news applications. Klein remembers listening to a Planet Money episode on loan modifications last fall: “They were trying to do stories about people with loan mod problems,” he told me, “and they would call — and the loans would be approved, suddenly.” Kiel was finding the same thing in his ProPublica work: Curiosity, when it comes from a reporter, can be a powerful weapon. So they figured: If all it takes to get reticent loan officers moving is a call from a curious reporter — “if that’s all it takes for this to get a fair hearing,” Klein says — then why not amplify reporters’ ability to make those calls?

“I’ve used the network to do a lot of stories,” Kiel says: “looking for patterns, being able to drum up half a dozen cases when I identify a problem — that’s what it’s been useful for.” Now, though, it’s “a resource that can be leveraged beyond our use of it.”

One of the powers of the web, Jay Rosen argues, is that it allows people who were formerly separate — geographically, and thus experientially — to find each other and converse with each other. He calls this “audience atomization overcome”; essentially, it’s community that transcends geography. Reporting Matchmaker is one more way — a highly systematized, efficient way — to bring people together.

Whether they’ll want to be brought together is an open question; collaboration can sometimes be more appealing in theory than in practice. Still, what reporter would decline an offer of assistance in finding story sources? Kiel points to a recent Good Morning America segment that profiled a couple trying to modify their loan — and getting rebuffed, repeatedly, by Chase bank. It was Kiel, using the ProPublica database, who put the show in touch with the couple — at the show’s request. And only thirty minutes after the Reporting Recipe post went live this afternoon, Michel points out, she and Kiel had already received twenty-five match-up requests from journalists. Middlemen aren’t always redundant; and Reporting Matchmaker may well prove that sometimes even the media can benefit from some mediating.

March 23 2010

14:30

The freedom to fail and the need to experiment: What gives a citizen-journalism project a chance to work

Minnesota Public Radio’s Linda Fantin and the Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller were the stars at an MIT panel a few days ago; I wrote up their discussion. But after the panel, I sat the two of them down to talk a little more about the challenges of running experiments with community-generated journalism. A few highlights:

— Miller: “I think the ability to fail is absolutely part of the culture in which we live. And so, someone will try lots of things, which you know sometimes just don’t work…there’s not much cost to the experimentation.”

— Fantin: “[I]t’s tough to let go of things that haven’t quite reached their potential, but you have to, because there’s so much more coming down the line.”

— Miller: “I think there are all kinds of questions about a community: How do we nurture a community? How do we let them do their own work? Is there top-down control about what they do? What degree? How much can we let go and still have it operating in a single campaign framework? And we all figure these things out as we go along, and no doubt we’ll make mistakes out of it.”

— Fantin: “Talk to anyone who started a citizen journalism site or community. They’ll say, ‘Okay, it took over my life, then it took over my wife’s life, and now we actually have to make money and put food on the table, so we sort of tried to get interns, but we can’t sustain it.’”

Above’s a video of their discussion, with a transcript below. (The video’s soundtrack, if you’re wondering, is an apparently epic game of ping-pong taking place in a nearby rec room.)

Ellen Miller: I think the ability to fail is absolutely part of the culture in which we live. And so, someone will try lots of things, which you know sometimes just don’t work — but because we don’t know how people want to engage with, you know, either fairly wonky information about legislation or critical information, if we don’t build it, we never give people the opportunity to test it. And some of the things have worked far beyond — much better than — what we expected. And some of the websites just weren’t popular, and we couldn’t quite figure out why, and we said, “Oh, they weren’t popular, let’s just take it down.” So there’s not much cost to the experimentation. But partly I think it’s because you have sort of a new and largely successful of the project because Sunlight, you know, is an institution without any legacies. It’s just — it’s really built into the DNA. But it’s something major other institutions, you know, have to work on. Now you can’t really build it into the DNA of reporting a story: Failing, getting the facts wrong, telling the story that’s wrong. But there are certainly elements in terms of engaging citizens, in getting them to tell the stories that work. So, I mean, if it doesn’t work this time, you know, you might try it again or — or not. But we’re beginning to learn.

So one of our examples was — it was successful, but it was a failure in the end. We did a series of distributed research projects in the early days. We do one investigating members of Congress’ spouses, and whether they were employed by their campaigns. And then we did another one on getting people to contribute to a database on earmark requests when they started posting them. And then we realized that if people who worked on Project A, we had no idea if they’ve been secretly working on project B, or who worked on Project C. We said, “Wow, let’s stop that.” We created one platform, Transparency Corps, so that anybody who worked on A or B or C had the opportunity to see what was D, E, and F coming down the road, to begin to build more of a community. Because if you’re interested in these kinds of distributive projects, you’ll be interested in, you know, any number of them, and you get deeper engagement in them. So it worked in the individual pieces, but we knew we were losing these people because we didn’t know quite how to reach out to them again. So I think it’s that experimentation or constantly, constantly iterating on something that worked or that didn’t work until you find things that work.

Linda Fantin: And being able to let go of things that aren’t working as well as they could be and not consider it as a failure.

Miller: Oh yeah, that’s hard. What do you mean? That project is really important. How do we let it go?

Fantin: Right. Right.

Miller: One of the things we discovered partly because Sunlight was so innovative in the early days, we would describe — we would try something and say, “Wow, that’s a cool idea. Let’s do it.” We’d throw it up on the wall and we’d develop it and it would be successful. And then we got another cool idea and then we would do that. And then all of a sudden we realized that we had all these projects. We’d be, “how do we sustain them?” So if you have the image of things sliding down the wall, you know, we’d pick up one and then we became — we realized we had to not just constantly develop new things, that we had to iterate on the things that were successful.

Fantin: Well, absolutely. I mean, I know that I mentioned before we created Budget Hero and launched that in May of 2008, we had no idea that the economy would fall apart and that there would be a $787 billion bailout, and then a stimulus packet, and then suddenly the federal deficit would just bloom, and that there would be new Congressional Budget Office baselines every three months that were significantly different than the months before. And I think probably seven, maybe eight times, we’ve had to do major updates to the game. And that wasn’t something we’d planned on in the financial planning that probably created Budget Hero. And even now, part of it is that in some ways it was a game before its time, because now it’s more important than it ever was before. But, you know, having the funds and the ability to say, “Oh, well, we’re going through all the significant — invest in it yet again” is a big decision. I mean, carrying some of these projects forward, you know — it’s tough to let go of things that haven’t quite reached their potential, but you have to, because there’s so much more coming down the line.

Miller: Yeah, and I think we certainly underestimated, you know — we would always figure out what was the cost to build something, but then to —

Fantin: To maintain it?

Miller: So that’s something we’ve certainly learned. So that’s now all built in to, you know —

Fantin: It’s one of the first questions you asked, which is great: Who’s gonna own this, and who’s gonna do it, and when are we gonna shut it down?

Miller: And that’s why I asked you the question, like: How many people does it take — you built this community. How many people does it take to maintain it and to really use it, in a popular way?

Fantin: It’s a good question because —

Miller: Because most groups don’t think about that thing — about community, and you know, it’s a little like magic, which is: “The community will just thrive.” No, you have to nurture this community. You have to add to it. You have to engage with them.

Fantin: Absolutely.

Miller: There has to be a person or a team of people who work with them, and I don’t think people realize that. There was this idealistic vision of community journalists, right?

Fantin: Talk to anyone who started a citizen journalism site or community. They’ll say, “Okay, it took over my life, then it took over my wife’s life, and now we actually have to make money and put food on the table, so we sort of tried to get interns, but we can’t sustain it.” And in terms of the Public Insight Network, we made this commitment at the offset that we could contact everyone at least once a month. Well, so, two things either have to happen in it if — right now the network grows at 2,000 sources a month without any real effort on our part. That’s just simply with outreach and the spread of information.

Miller: And neighbors sharing with friends.

Fantin: Right. And so the idea is that you either have to increase the number of callouts, or you have to increase the size of the cohort that you make the callout out to. Neither of those is really great. But what’s it allowed us to do is realize: “Hey, what we really ought to do is give more control to the source and let them pick and choose and not actually have them sitting passively, waiting for us to ask them questions.” So sometimes, the problems you bump up against help you see where you need to go and you might’ve not known that was the path you were on.

Miller: As we have launched the Public Equals Online campaign, I mean, I think there are all kinds of questions about a community: How do we nurture a community? How do we let them do their own work? Is there top-down control about what they do? What degree? How much can we let go and still have it operating in a single campaign framework? And we all figure these things out as we go along, and no doubt we’ll make mistakes out of it.

Fantin: Well, Amanda Michel at ProPublica, I think, she’s very open about what she learned from her work on OffTheBus with Huffington Post, and now what’s she doing now with ProPublica, which is sort of use citizens to help do investigative journalism, and what you find is that it’s very, very hard. It’s hard because there is a certain amount of information that you can teach people, but on the back end the fact-checking and other things that have to go on in order to make sure that there’s integrity in what you’re reporting. And I’m not here to say that there’s integrity behind what every paid reporter does now. It’s just that this idea we’re gonna have a citizen corps of journalists — or an army of journalists, who for free, are gonna go out there and do the work that people are doing now is—

Miller: It’s just not quite that easy.

February 05 2010

16:24

Live webcast from NYC: crowdsourcing and journalism

Via paidContent, we see that a live conference from the New York Times building is being webcast right now (not sure for how much longer), with a stellar line-up: Brian Stelter, media reporter & Media Decoder blogger, the New York Times (moderator) with Aron Pilhofer, editor, interactive news technology, the New York Times; Andy Carvin, senior social media strategist, National Public Radio; Amanda Michel, editor, distributed reporting, ProPublica; Jay Rosen, professor, New York University; and Joaquin Alvarado, senior VP, digital innovation, American Public Media.

Live Webcast Happening Now: Crowdsourcing For Journalists, at NYT Building | paidContent.

Watch live streaming video from smw_newyork at livestream.com

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